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The DVD Wrap

Friday, January 25th, 2013

Ivan’s Childhood: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
Pina: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
One of the cinema’s greatest artists, poets and dreamers, Andrei Tarkovsky made “Ivan’s Childhood” in the early 1960s, during the 13-year “thaw” that followed the death of Stalin. During that fleeting period, Soviet filmmakers enjoyed considerably more freedom from censorship and ideological restrictions than had been allowed for several decades. It wouldn’t last, but from the window emerged several important works and filmmakers. Tarkovsky’s debut was unlike any war movie anyone outside the Eastern bloc nations was likely to make or could be made before the thaw. It focused on the youngest victims of the war. Instead of heralding individual heroism or the triumphs of great armies, “Ivan’s Childhood” told a far more personal story, one that didn’t conform to traditional form or rules passed down from one generation of filmmakers to the next. It did, however, reflect an awareness of the movies that were being made in western European states. It opens pre-war, in an idyllic pastoral setting, with a young towheaded boy and his mother drawing water from a well. That scene shifts abruptly to wintertime, during the war, as Red Army troops are preparing to advance on a German position across a wide river. The boy we met is preparing to cross the river from the German side, on his way to a Soviet bunker. Once there, the nearly delirious Ivan demands that the officer in charge contact one of his superiors. The headstrong boy has been acting as a spy from behind enemy lines, but, his direct supervisor believes it’s now time for him to come in from the cold and attend officer’s training school. That is something he won’t do, however. Having already lost his parents, Ivan won’t be deterred from continuing the task at hand, however dangerous. In the kind of the movie favored by proponents of the Socialist-realism school, Ivan’s story would have been told not with ellipses, flashbacks and memory shards, but as matter-of-factly as possible, with all of the boy’s courageous actions explained by dedication to the Soviet people and Communist Party. In fact, the movie ends in a way similar to how it began. The death of his mother and sister at the hands of an unseen gunman is all the motivation Ivan would need to hate the Germans and live or die depriving them of victory.

The Great Patriotic War on the eastern front was unique to anything else that was happening in World War II and its impact on civilians was unprecedented. Ask the Poles and they’ll tell you that both sides were guilty of horrendous crimes in the names of political ideology, military expediency, expansionist policies and ethnic divisions. In Tarkovsky’s story, the capitals of the opposing forces feel much further removed from the fronts than in similar movies. Until the very end of it, in fact, the Germans are largely invisible, while the Red Army soldiers and officers could have been drawn by Samuel Fuller. Although “Ivan’s Childhood” was adapted from a 1957 short story by Vladimir Bogomolov, Tarkovsky invested in Ivan many of his own personal qualities and memories from his own upbringing, including imagery inspired by his father’s poetry. “Ivan’s Childhood” would be awarded the top prize at the Venice Film Festival and become a commercial hit in the USSR. His next feature would be “Andrei Rublev.” Now considered to be one of the greatest movies of all time, it would be tortured by Soviet censors and the demands of distributors, near and far away, until the full 205-minute version was released by Criterion Collection in the mid-1990s. Not surprisingly, perhaps, Criterion’s Blu-ray edition of “Ivan’s Childhood” looks and sounds amazing. It adds, as well, the featurette “Life as a Dream,” with historian Vida T. Johnson; interviews with actor Nikolai Burlyaev and cinematographer Vadim Yusov; and an illustrated booklet with an essay by film scholar Dina Iordanova and “Between Two Films,” Tarkovsky’s essay on “Ivan’s Childhood.” There, too, can be found “Ivan’s Willow,” the poem by his father, Arseny Tarkovsky.

Also from Criterion, the 3D documentary “Pina” began as a collaboration between German filmmaker Wim Wenders and choreographer Pina Bausch, in part to test how stereoscopic technology and modern dance could bring out the best in each other. Sadly, Bausch died of cancer only five days after diagnosis, and two days before shooting was to begin. When completed two years later, “Pina” stood as a loving homage to Bausch’s memory and a brilliantly realized review of her influential works. Wenders said he was inclined not to continue with preparations for the movie, but the dancers in her company asked him to go ahead with it. They had, after all, performed the pieces already and knew precisely what Bausch intended them to be. One needn’t be conversant with her work and the current state of modern dance to be deeply moved by the performances. Fortunately, one needn’t invest in a 3D television and Blu-ray 3D player in order to enjoy “Pina.” Even in hi-def 2D, it stands out as one of the most remarkably beautiful releases in the format and, thanks to Wenders’ command of the technology, as fine a dance movie as has ever been made. His strategically placed cameras nimbly capture Bausch’s trademark moves, gestures and contrasts. Dancers perform elegantly, against a background of buses, elevated trains and construction sites. A hippopotamus sidles up to a dancer on a rock in a river. Artistic tension derives from the convergence of such variables as gender archetypes, love and pain, beauty and beasts, blandness and sensuality. The colors in the stage backdrops often stand in stark contrast to costumes of the men and women in the foreground. Bausch was known, as well, for including such elemental influences as earth, water, stone and gravity in her “dance theater.” Indeed, “Vollmond” seems to combine elements of Cirque du Soleil’s “O” and Gene Kelly’s “Singing in the Rain.” The Blu-ray package adds deleted scenes, Wenders’ commentary, an interview with the director, behind-the-scenes footage and a booklet with novelist Siri Hustvedt, reprinted pieces by Wenders and choreographer Pina Bausch, information on the dances featured in the film and portraits of the dancers. – Gary Dretzka

Searching for Sugar Man: Blu-ray
Once upon a time in Detroit, the early-1970s to be exact, a singer-songwriter recorded two Dylanesque albums, then disappeared from the face of the Earth. Swedish director Malik Bendjelloul’s Oscar-nominated documentary “Searching for Sugar Man” tells us the rest of the story. Apparently, the only two places on the planet that Rodriguez – son of Mexican immigrant and Native American parents — was popular were South Africa and Australia, where his bootlegged music was received as if it were the voice of God. Legend had it that Rodriguez was so despondent over lack of recognition that he committed on stage, either by setting himself on fire, purposely overdosing or blowing his brains out. For the better part of three decades, that’s all anyone knew or thought they knew about the musician, who favored shoulder-length black hair and ever-present shades. Thirty years later, the ever-expanding Internet allowed fans and journalists to pursue the truth. Cape Town devotees Stephen Segerman and Craig Strydom began their search by attempting to trace royalties paid to Sussex Records, which, at the time, was owned by a former Motown executive. He also found producers who worked with Rodriguez, but had no idea where he was or that his music was popular, anywhere. Bendjelloul’s became interested in their quest while scouting stories for Swedish television in Africa. What, then, was the truth?

Don’t look for an answer in this capsule review, because the seeds of good mysteries only reveal themselves gradually. To me, anyway, the wonderful thing about “Searching for Sugar Man” is that, like “Hard Core Logo” and “”Last Days Here” – only one of which is factual – it works fine as non-fiction and faux documentary. It’s an amazing story either way and Bendjelloul maintains the mystery for a surprisingly long time. Blessedly, Rodriguez’ folk-inflected music is actually very good. “Searching for Sugar Man” also adds another chapter to the growing inventory of amazing stories about post-war Detroit, which also plays a supporting role in the documentary. I won’t go into too much detail about the Blu-ray extras, either, as they easily could be construed as spoilers. They include commentary, a making-of piece and festival Q&A with the principles. – Gary Dretzka

About Cherry: Blu-ray
Despite the fact that the pornography industry is experiencing a bit of a recession, it remains one of the few businesses today in which a young man or woman can find work and make money according to their ability to get the pwerform. More than any other enterprise, there are niches to be filled that run the gamut from “pixie” to obese, barely legal to very old, straight to transgender, lap dancing to prostitution. It’s the dirty little secret of the American economy and has been for nearly 40 years. That it also can be one of the cruelest and most personally degrading ways to make money has also been well documented. The way Hollywood has characterized the sex industry and its practitioners has changed, as well. Writer/director Paul Schrader’s esteemed body of work began, in part, with such moralistic dramas as “Hard Core,” “Taxi Driver” and “American Gigolo.” His latest picture, the erotic neo-noir thriller “Canyons,” written by Bret Easton Ellis, stars Lindsey Lohan and the hugely successful porn star, James Deen. The gossip emerging from the shoot, including a frequently quoted New York Times piece, is reminiscent of the reports that emerged about Marilyn Monroe in her final productions. In another example of the mainstreaming of adult industry, one of the Lifetime network’s biggest hits, “The Client List,” concerns a financially troubled Texas mom who provides for her two children by giving “happy endings” – in a decidedly PG-13 sort of way — for clients of a local spa.

About Cherry” is a movie about a pretty small-town blond, 18-year-old Angelica (Ashley Hinshaw), who gets introduced to the adult industry after her boyfriend convinces her to have naughty pictures taken for a premium website. The money’s better than what she makes at a laundry and she’s justifiably proud of her body, so the promise of a few hundred dollars a session is hard to reject. Neither does the opportunity to escape to San Francisco, far from her alcoholic mother and brutal stepfather, require much soul-searching. Once there, she works her way up from waitress at a “gentleman’s club” to a model for a streaming-video site. At first, she limits herself to masturbating for the pay-by-the-minute punters. Soon, though, she graduates to girl-girl, boy-girl and girl-girl-boy. While delivering cocktails, she began dating a handsome, if cocaine-addicted young lawyer, Francis (James Franco). He introduces her to the city’s high-end cultural scene, but freaks out when she goes for the big money that comes with hard-core porn. Soured by that relationship, Angelica (a.k.a., Cherry) allows herself to be seduced by a sweet, slightly older lesbian photographer (Heather Graham), who also has a taste for pretty young things. As written by fetish actor Lorelei Lee, the porn industry almost looks as safe as milk. It’s the predators and parasites who make it ugly. Angelica isn’t the sharpest tool in the shed, but she has a world-class body and a bright personality. We like her and accept that the photographer is a decent sort, as well.

“About Cherry” might have been easier to recommend if only novelist-turned-filmmaker Steven Elliott (“The Adderall Diaries”) had a knack for the things that make movies different than books. Given the need to include enough sex to maintain the interest of young viewers already conditioned to the 24/7 availability of soft- and hard-core porn, Elliott was required to cut back on the development of the supporting characters. Dev Patel plays Andrew, the sexually ambiguous friend who escorts Angelica to San Francisco. They agree to share a two-bedroom apartment with an out-gay man and, out of necessity, sleep in the same bed. While she’s out waitressing, Andrew begins to hit the nightclub scene with their roommate. Although we’re led to believe that he’s taken to being gay like a duck takes to water, he’s actually carrying a torch for Angelica. Like her, viewers fully comprehend the impossibility of any kind of sexual relationship between the two friends and resent the idea he would risk a perfectly good friendship for a few seconds of bliss. Francis also hates having to share his girlfriend with anonymous porn partners. As long as the sex was girl-girl, things were fine for the lawyer. Instead of wasting time in the courtroom, he lets the cocaine tell him what to do, which is treat Angelica as if she were a football at the Super Bowl. The men in “About Cherry” would make any women consider going girl-girl in real life. Other key characters are similarly inconsistent in their treatment of Angelica. Technically, “About Cherry” looks pretty good in Blu-ray and the sex scenes in the studio seem credible. As it is, though, the movie comes off more as a recruitment poster for the adult industry than a straight drama. If it weren’t for the occasional nudity and crude language, “About Cherry” could follow “The Client List” on the Lifetime schedule. – Gary Dretzka

Dead Sushi: Blu-ray
Not having seen “Zombie Ass: Toilet of the Dead,” “The Machine Girl” and “RoboGeisha,” I couldn’t say with any credibility where “Dead Sushi” fits in writer/director Noboru Iguchi’s oeuvre, or, even, if such word applies to the delightfully trashy horror/gore/action movies he’s made. Iguchi compares “Dead Sushi” to “Piranha 3D” and “Attack of the Killer Tomatoes,” in that it marries the when-animals-attack subgenre to the when-food-attack sub-subgenre. In several wonderfully insane ways, it even out-Tromas Troma. Black-belt actress Rina Takeda plays the daughter of a legendary sushi chef and karate master, who insults her by saying she’ll never make it as a chef. His admonishment causes her to run away from home and seek work as a waitress/maid at a rural inn. Although Keiko isn’t cut out for hustling trays of food from the kitchen to the private chambers of VIP patrons, either, she desperately wants to fit in with everyone there. One day, the pompous boss and ass-kissing employees of a major Japanese pharmaceutical firm gather at the inn for a retreat. A disgruntled former researcher has followed them with the intention of ruining their party. As part of an evening’s entertainment, the hosts have invited another well-known sushi chef to prepare dinner and explain preparation techniques. Chaos ensues after the boss and nearly all of his employees berate the chef for including an egg sushi creation with the seafood dishes. A single dissenting employee risks his livelihood by defending the chef, as does Keiko. For a servant, of course, disobedience is strictly forbidden. Her knowledge of sushi does raise eyebrows, though.

Unbeknownst to the diners, the fired researcher has applied a chemical toxin to the fish that’s been served. It reanimates the sashimi, causing the bite-sized morsels to grow teeth of their own and attack the guests when they bite into it. Apparently, the sushi is offended by such insults as being served on the bodies of two women wearing only bras and panties, and, yes, including the egg sushi on the menu. The attacks, especially one by a full-size squid, are as hilarious as they are ridiculous. Not only does the sashimi bite back, but it also is capable of regenerating itself, reproducing at warp speed and flying around the restaurant seeking new targets. It’s up to Keiko to combine her food-preparation training with her martial arts skills to rescue everyone worth saving at the inn. Her only ally among the killers is, of course, the maligned egg sushi. It’s pretty nuts. Yoshihiro Nishimura’s special makeup effects are consistently entertaining, even when the dialogue and acting begin to fade and the story stops making any sense at all. Cognizant of this, as well, Igochi throws in a completely gratuitous, if welcome nude shower scene and an extended karate catfight between Keiko and the boss’ arrogant secretary. The Blu-ray extras include interviews, a making-of featurette, an introduction at the Montreal Fantasia Festival and scenes from an “extreme” sushi-eating contest. – Gary Dretzka

Hard Romantiker
Jackie Chan: Crime Story/The Protector: Blu-ray
Admirers of gritty and often very violent Japanese genre films from the 1960-70s should find a lot to like in Gu Su-yeon’s autobiographical crime story, “Hard Romanticker.” It combines elements of both the “youth violence” and yakuza subgenres in a tightly wrapped package that doesn’t take shortcuts, simply because expectations aren’t necessarily that high for action films. Indeed, “Hard Romanticker” looks as different from the grainy Japanese genre flicks of yore as “Rebel Without a Cause” did from the micro-budget juvenile-delinquent and teens-ploitation movies being churned out by Roger Corman, AIP and Allied Artists. Here, the popular TV actor Shota Matsuda plays the bleach-blond Korean-Japanese hoodlum, Gu, who goes through life with a cool, detached demeanor that immediately recalls James Dean. He lives in the dead-end slums of the western port city of Shimonoseki, headquarters of the Goda-ikka yakuza syndicate. Gu inadvertently becomes the target of a rival Korean gang, after his associates accidently kill the grandmother of one of its leaders. A loner by nature, Gu further causes problems for himself when he comes between a gang member and the glue-sniffing girl he’s groping. He’s less interested in stopping the rape than beating the tar out of the punks for their arrogance. If the rival gangs weren’t enough trouble, Gu also is being harassed for information by a local police detective.

Just as Gu begins to feel the heat, he’s recruited to manage a yakuza-owned hostess nightclub in a different city. It offers him a steady income and the usual respect accorded gangsters in the high-crime areas. As if he’s acting on a death wish, however, Gu returns to Shimonoseki when he’s apprised of attacks on friends of his. His unexpected presence causes local thugs to go into a feeding frenzy. It also allows Su-yeon to stage a wild chase across the rooftops of a densely populated slum and a pair of wild fights between Gu and his enemies. The clashes aren’t of the martial-arts variety, in which viewers could expect the protagonist to escape unscathed after being surrounded by several dozen punks. The violence here is conducted the old-fashioned way, with knives, iron bars, fists and whatever else is lying around. As exciting as “Romanticker” frequently is, however, potential viewers should know that the violence against women is even worse than that between gang members. I’m not inclined to label it gratuitous, because such behavior might be common in Japanese thug culture, as Su-yeon experienced it. The brutality is extremely troubling, however. The DVD comes with a 12-page booklet that includes an essay on the movie, a study of Toei Studios’ yakuza films and a gallery of original Toei posters.

Shout! Factory’s double-feature package of “Crime Story” and “The Protector” shows off Jackie Chan’s skills at what some observers sensed was the beginning of the end of his acting career. He had only recently come to the attention of American audiences, but it wouldn’t take long from them to expect the same self-deprecating humor, amazing stunts and wild kung-fu action his Hong Kong fans admired. Chan was 38 when he made “Crime Story,” a thriller based on the real story of millionaire Teddy Wang, who was kidnapped twice, surviving only once. Chan campaigned for the assignment to establish that he could act in serious roles when his action career began to wane. Under the direction of Kirk Wong, the story was told in a straight-forward fashion with a dark edge and an indictment against police corruption. Very late in the production process, Chan became concerned that “Crime Story” might damage his image more than help it, especially in his character’s reliance on guns to solve crime instead of fists and feet. Against Wong’s wishes, Chan took control of the editing to lighten things up a tad. He added scenes showing off his ability to escape death, using trademark acrobatics and nimble footwork. Still, it’s a lot of fun to watch.

Released eight years earlier, after Chan had been introduced to American audiences in the “Cannonball” comedies, “The Protector” also involves a kidnapping. This time, the victim is the daughter of a New York gangster who’s been kidnapped by a former associate, a Chinese druglord. Chan plays a NYPD cop who travels to Hong Kong with Danny Aiello to get to the bottom of things. This time, though, there’s plenty of action and mayhem in the style for which Chan was famous. It also features martial-arts stars Moon Lee and Roy Chiao. The optional Chan-approved cut adds even more action. The Blu-ray package adds deleted scenes, original trailers, an interview writer/director James Glickenhaus and featurettes on the New York locations used in “The Protector,” and other making-of material. There’s also an interview with Wong on the changes made to “Crime Story.” – Gary Dretzka

Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai: Blu-ray
If Japanese auteur Takashi Miike is known at all in the United States, it’s for his 1999 torture-porn epics “Audition” and “Ichi the Killer.” To describe his movies as merely being transgressive hardly does them justice. They are nightmares waiting to be dreamt. In addition to his revenge and torture flicks, his cinematic provocations also have included titles that are simply ultraviolent and sexually perverse. One of the most prolific filmmakers in the world, he doesn’t limit himself to horror, though. For example, after completing the more-or-less traditional samurai remakes, “13 Assassins” and “Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai,” he immediately embarked on something called “Ninja Kids!!!” Nearly the entire last hour of “13 Assassins” is reserved for a savage battle between forces loyal to a feudal lord and samurai dedicated to taking him out. Apart from being made for viewing in 3D, “Hara-Kiri” takes a more formal approach to storytelling. Its primary set is elegant and the fighters, for the most part, are restrained. The disconnect that comes from watching this classically constructed motion picture, knowing it isn’t representative of Miike’s non-period work is palpable.

Miike’s remake of Masaki Kobayashi’s 1962 “Harakiri” looks very much like the original, except for the color cinematography and 3D format (not yet available on Blu-ray). Once again, a mysterious samurai arrives at the gates of the estate of a feudal lord, requesting he be allowed an honorable death in his courtyard. Because of the brutal economy and consolidation of power, in the absence of war, ronin have been left with nothing to do and no way to make money. Before the warrior is allowed to impale himself on his sword, however, he must listen to what happened to the last such visitor. That man asked the same favor of the lord, but probably would have settled for a job or handout. Instead, the resident samurai called his bluff, forcing him to take his life in an extremely cruel way. The new visitor asks the lord if he could tell him a story, as well, before dying. It turns out to be the backstory of the man who died such a miserable death in the same courtyard. In its telling, he calls into question the honor of the lord and the absurdity of honoring the Bushido code, over the life of a honorable man seeking help. Ebizo Ichikawa gives a remarkable performance as the second ronin, and his story could hardly be more tragic. There is some swordplay and fighting in Miike’s version, but nothing comparable to his previous works. It is an exceedingly satisfying experience, though. The Blu-ray adds a short discussion with Geoffrey Gilmore from Tribeca Film. – Gary Dretzka

Tai Chi Zero: Blu-ray
Every week’s mail seems to bring another marvelously conceived historical epic from China on Blu-ray. Most are as historically accurate as possible, given the distance between the events being portrayed and conditions in the post-Mao People’s Republic. Others are based on myths or legend, requiring some sort of special-effects magic to enhance the experience. A very few, such as “Kung Fu Hustle” and “The Butcher, the Chef and the Swordsman” tweak an historical period, trend or person to the point where the movie is a hybrid of fantasy, parody and fact. “Tai Chi Zero” is one of those movies. At its most basic level, it tells a martial-arts story from the early 20th Century, when foreign investors were competing to exploit the Qing Dynasty’s greed before the republic was formed. After a terrible battle, a gifted young man, the Freak – modeled after the real-life tai-chai innovator, Yang Lu Chan — is advised by his dying master to travel immediately to Chen, where he might be allowed to study a form of tai chi used to defend the village. The residents, though, are protective of their gift and turn Freak away. It’s at this point that the movie shifts into an even more fantastical gear, with contraptions right out Jules Verne and other conceits that refer to then-inconceivable video games, clever animation, American westerns and other off-the-wall stuff. Freak’s arrival roughly coincides with the appearance outside the village’s gates of a steam-powered, armadillo-shaped tank with explosive weaponry and claw-like appendages. It was driven here on rails by a former resident, who went to school in Europe and returned with the wardrobe of a dandy and a western girlfriend. (When he left, he was betrothed to the village’s leader.) Because the machine moves on rails, we know that it represents the inevitable approach of the railroad, operated by British interests and protected by the imperial army. The confrontation between the army and villagers, as well as the destruction of the machine, is lots of fun to watch. (Sammo Hung choreographed the action scenes.) By now, Freak has been adopted by the villagers and enjoys a testy relationship with the shunned bride-not-to-be, also a tai chi specialist. Director Stephen Fung sprinkles the narrative with cameos and quirky asides that break the fourth wall. The closing credits serve as a teaser to the sequel, “Tai Chi Hero,” as does the extensive Blu-ray featurette, which blends making-of material from both movies into one. “Tai Chi Zero” wasn’t well received by the critics who study martial-arts flicks for a living, but newcomers and fans of outrageous comedy shouldn’t hold it against Fung. One interesting tidbit to come from the bonus interviews is the news – to me, anyway – that tai chi not only is used as an exercise to relieve stress and release impediments to meditation, but also as a form of self-defense in combat. – Gary Dretzka

Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning: Blu-ray
I don’t know if there’s any significance to data that shows the latest iteration of the “Universal Soldier” franchise opened last fall in 420 screens in Russia, 90 in Turkey, 48 in the Ukraine, 34 in the UAE, but only 3 in the United States. I mean, why bother? It’s difficult to imagine anyone in the full-bore action genre actually coveting reviews from the non-fanboy critics in the New York press. “Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning,” after all, is targeted at action/revenge junkies who wish President Obama had named Jean-Claude Van Damme Secretary of Defense and Dolph Lundgren director of the CIA, instead of a couple of namby-bamby Washington bureaucrats. Not being conversant in the “Universal Soldier” mythos – six titles, including two made-for-TV efforts – I was completely lost for the first hour or so of the new movie. I can see the appeal, even if non-stop fantasy violence isn’t exactly my cup of tea. Within minutes, director John Hyams introduces us to the protagonist, John (Scott Adkins), who has to watch helplessly as someone resembling Van Damme brutally murders his wife and daughter. After spending two months in a coma, John awakens to the sight of a federal agent and nightmarish visions of the killings. After leaving the hospital, he’s constantly threatened by a UniSol (Andrei Arlovski) who was born to play a villain in an old-school James Bond flick. The UniSols, I would learn, are genetically designed mercenaries who once fought terrorists but now do the bidding of reanimated super-soldiers played by Van Damme and Lundgren. The really nutso stuff here is figuring out who and what John really is and why the monsters want to kill him.

There are too many surprises to be found on the way to answering those questions and potential spoilers abound. For all the artsy-fartsy visual effects Hyams employs to describe how wigged out John has become, the real fun comes in the vicious fight scenes, which are out of this world. OK, allow me one spoiler: towards the end of the movie, Van Damme is transformed into a bargain-basement version of Marlon Brando playing Colonel Kurtz in “Apocalypse Now.” It’s a cool conceit even loyal fans of the series might find difficult to believe they’re seeing.  The Blu-ray adds a lengthy and informative making-of featurette. – Gary Dretzka

Officer Down: Blu-ray
It’s nice to see that Stephen Dorff still has acting to fall back on if those e-cigarette commercials don’t work for him. “Officer Down” is the kind of diverting straight-to-DVD crime thriller that gets better the less one tries to make sense of it. Even as intentionally inside-out dramas go, Brian A. Miller’s follow-up to “House of the Rising Sun” – another DVD original – pushes its audience’s indulgence to the breaking point. Miller’s trump card, though, is a supporting cast that includes David Boreanaz, Stephen Lang, AnnaLynne McCord, Walter Goggins, James Woods, Soulja Boy, Elisabeth Rohm, Dominic Purcell and 2008 Mrs. World, Kamaliya. As usual, Dorff looks as if he were rode hard and put up wet as a police detective attempting to atone for years of bad behavior with strippers and Russian gangsters, fueled by too much booze and cocaine. One way of doing so, he thinks, is to capture and/or kill a serial sex offender terrorizing the women of Bridgeport, Connecticut. Early on, he’s somehow in the right place at the right time to disrupt a suspect in mid-attack. After a chase and a fist fight, he discovers that the guy is a cop who, for years, has been attacking brunettes who look like his ex-wife. The bust leads to a new assignment, this time involving the apparent suicide of a woman who danced at a club he used to frequent, before he was shot in the act of trying to extort cocaine from a pair of dealers. Fortunately for screenwriter John Chase’s scenario, Callahan remembers precious little of what happened that night and who was the Good Samaritan that prevented worse harm from coming to him. That confusion and a notebook left behind by the dead stripper are the keys to everything that transpires during the next hour or so in “Officer Down.” Most of it is far too convenient and coincidental to maintain credibility among viewers, but, even so, the actors are able to keep logic from getting in the way of some stylish filmmaking. The Blu-ray arrives devoid of extras. – Gary Dretzka

Deadly Blessing: Collector’s Edition: Blu-ray
True Nature
There are several good reasons to pick up Shout!Factory’s upgraded edition of Wes Craven’s 1981 quasi-religious thriller, “Deadly Blessing.” The movie, was released after Craven’s attention-getting “The Hills Have Eyes” and “The Last House on the Left,” and immediately before “Swamp Thing.” (In 1975, he made the X-rated ditty “The Fireworks Woman,” as Abe Snake.) By today’s standards, it might as well be “Psycho.” The most interesting thing about it, perhaps, is the cast. Ernest Borgnine plays the head of a Hittite clan – Hutterites, by another name — that makes the Amish look hi-tech, while the wonderful Michael Berryman (Pluto, in “Hills”) runs around the Pennsylvania countryside accusing women of being incubi, even though such creatures are traditionally male. “Deadly Blessing” also represents Sharon Stone and Lisa Hartman’s first meaningful film roles. Among the other beauties on display are Lois Nettleton (“Centennial”), Maren Jensen (“Battlestar Galactica”), Susan Buckner (“Grease”) and Colleen Riley (“Hills Have Eyes II”). In fact, most of the mayhem in “Deadly Blessing” involves women. The men are so twisted by their religious beliefs that they’re barely functional.

The Hittites are pissed off at Jensen’s character, Martha, because they believe she seduced one of their men, causing him to leave the church and begin to use the devil’s tools to work the land next to the hand-tilled property of his family. Strange things begin to happen when the Hittites learn that Martha is pregnant. Among them, her husband is killed by a tractor in his barn and Berryman’s giant simpleton is killed while looking for his lost shoe in the same structure. This causes Borgnine’s character to declare war on his daughter-in-law and her blond guests from Los Angeles. The question that begs to be asked is why the women remain in the line of fire, while the town’s useless police department twiddles its collective fingers. But, why bother asking it? If logic were to be applied to the horror genre – or, at least, most movies made in the wake of “Psycho” – there wouldn’t be a horror genre. Otherwise, “Deadly Blessing” offers enough skin, gore and scares to satisfy viewers, even 30 years past its original release. It looks pretty decent in Blu-ray, as well. The bonus material includes commentary with Craven and Horrorhound magazine’s Sean Clark; interviews with Berryman, Buckner and creature designer John Naulin; and a post-mortem on the script by writers Glenn Benest and Matthew Barr.

Patrick Steele’s extremely polished first feature, “True Nature,” demands that viewers maintain their attention to what’s happening on the screen, even with the usual distractions that come with DVD viewing. I let my attention waver for a few minutes and had to go back soon thereafter to make sense of what I was seeing. If it were a lesser production, I wouldn’t have bothered. Equal parts psycho-thriller, supernatural teaser and whodunit, “True Nature” fits in the horror category mostly for what isn’t shown than what is slowly revealed. Steele leaves hints as to his intentions, but it takes most of the movie’s running time see where they fit in the puzzle. Newcomer Marianne Porter plays a college student, who, during a break from school, disappears during a run around the neighborhood. One night, a year later, she awakens her father at their posh suburban home by suddenly reappearing covered in mud. Doctors can’t find anything wrong with her, physically, but her dreams and flashes of memories are frightening her nearly to death. They don’t make a lot of sense to us, either, but the more we learn about her father’s troubles at work and her mom’s insistence on maintaining face in her social circle, the closer we get to some answers. Any more information than that would spoil the surprises in this fragile narrative. Carolyn McCormick (“Law & Order”) and Reg Land are very good as the parents. – Gary Dretzka

Birders: The Central Park Effect
Beauty Is Embarrassing: The Wayne White Story
At first glance, “Birders: The Central Park Effect” would appear to be yet another documentary about eccentrics drawn to the nation’s largest city, if only because the concrete canyons provide food and shelter not available in less tolerant habitats. For the most part, though, the transients seeking food and shelter in “Birders: The Central Park Effect” are birds drawn to the resources provided them in one of the world’s largest urban parks. And, just as Manhattan has become a mecca for a hugely diverse array of human beings, Central Park annually attracts a myriad temporary population of birds that might not be available to nature lovers anywhere else in the United States. If for only a few days at a time, birds that some might consider already extinct in the wild – or, at least, rarely seen – hunt here for the food to fuel the remainder of their migratory journeys. They’re bright, colorful, full of song and as different from one another as the passengers on a subway train leaving the 42nd Street/Grand Central Terminal at rush hour. For his debut documentary, Jeffrey Kimball spent a year watching a select group of New Yorkers as they were watching the birds living in and visiting Central Park. The “birders” among them kept exacting records as to the names and numbers of the birds – valuable to scientists and environmentalists – while “bird watchers” basically went along for the ride for their own reasons. Among them are authors Jonathan Franzen and Jonathan Rosen; Starr Saphir, the grande dame of New York birding and a cancer patient; Anya Auerbach, who insists that a teenage girl can be a birder without also being a nerd, geek or un-cool; musician and sculptor Chuck McAlexander, who creates squirrel-proof feeders to attract hungry birds; and various academics.

Last year, on an autumn “Ramble” through the park, Saphir recorded such exotic finds as the hairy woodpecker, black-capped chickadee, tufted titmouse, red-tailed hawk, peregrine falcon, ruby-throated hummingbird and several varieties of thrushes, warblers, wrens and sparrows. People not living in New York have learned to fear Central Park, as if it were flea market for felons. Maybe, maybe not.  During the day, however, it can serve, as it did for Rosen, as a “portal to the natural world.” “Birders” is an absolutely delightful film, beautiful to look at and a treat for the ears. Kimball saves the scholarly stuff for the bonus features, along with extended interviews and visual catalogue of the birds on display. This truly is a movie the whole family can enjoy.

Anyone who’s spent any amount of time watching “Pee-wee’s Playhouse,” “Shining Time Station,” “The Weird Al Show” and “Beakman’s World,” or watched the videos for Peter Gabriel’s “Big  Time” and Smashing Pumpkins “Tonight, Tonight,” already has seen some of the art on display in “Beauty Is Embarrassing.” The name of the artist, Wayne White, may not be familiar, but that goes with the territory in show business. The designers, painters, sculptors, musicians and most puppeteers who work behind the scenes on TV shows and movies exist only in the credit rolls, if then. “Pee-wee’s Playhouse” was one of the first programs to attract large numbers of hipsters, stoners, slackers and ironists to what essentially was a kiddie show. The surrealistic touches in the background and incidental characters were as much fun to look at and study as any of Pee-wee’s nutty observations, asides and skits. White contributed his art design, voice-overs and puppets to that Emmy-winning series.

Before that, the Chattanooga native worked as a cartoonist and illustrator for several underground publications in New York, as well as the Times and Village Voice. He picks the banjo and creates “word paintings” on the bones of cheap landscape lithographs he buys already framed in thrift shops. The incongruity of seeing bold glossily rendered words and phrases – ranging from mysteriously random to aggressively profane — pop out from such a pastoral setting can produce laughs or gasps, depending on the viewer.  BEAUTY IS EMBARRASSING is just such a phrase. In his one-man show of the same title, White explains how difficult it is to explain to people he meets that his job is to “create beauty,” and their discomfort with the description can be embarrassing to both parties. The documentary also follows White home to rural Tennessee, where other incongruities reveal themselves. He’s a supremely talented guy, who sometimes looks as if he’s only one freeway exit from a sanitarium. Apart from the sometimes raw language, “Beauty Is Embarrassing” could be used as incentive for kids who display artistic talent, but are too withdrawn, bullied or embarrassed to use it to their advantage. It comes with extended interviews and stage material. – Gary Dretzka

Keep the Lights On: Blu-ray
Sometimes, a filmmaker gets so close to his work that he can’t see how it might look to viewers who revolve in a different orbit than his. Although the jacket avoids the label “autobiographical,” deferring to the less precise, “fearlessly personal,” Ira Sach’s romantic drama “Keep the Lights On” chronicles his turbulent 10-year relationship with literary agent Bill Clegg, author of “Portrait of an Addict as a Young Man.” Only the details are tweaked to keep the film from being a documentary with dramatizations. Outsiders either buy into the relationship or they don’t. As exquisitely made as “Keep the Lights On” is – mainstream critics gave it high marks – the dramatic and romantic elements aren’t sufficiently compelling to distinguish it from several other “fearlessly personal” movies in which gay men, especially, deal with issues that don’t come up in heterosexual couplings. Here, a Danish documentarian living in New York hooks up with a lawyer in the publishing industry, who habitually abuses drugs. Erik (Thure Lindhardt) is gay and doesn’t care who knows it. Paul (Zachary Booth) is straight at work and gay at night, when he drops his sexual pretenses. Their decade-long relationship has most of the peaks and valleys encountered by other couples – straight, gay, neutral – but the drug thing finally wears down Erik. After a stretch in rehab doesn’t quite work, they separate and kinda, sorta reunite. That’s about it.

The movie works as well it does because of the fine acting by Lindhardt and Booth, who are both talented and attractive. Sachs’ honest approach to the material precludes any cheering from the peanut gallery for the characters to beat the odds by finding a way to stay together for ever and ever, amen. They had their time and it passed. Next.  Also very good is the supporting cast: David Anzuelo, Maria Dizzia, Julianne Nicholson, Souleymane Sy Savane, Miguel Del Toro and Paprika Steen. The Blu-ray adds a making-of featurette, Sachs’ commentary, audition tapes and deleted scenes. If you dig “Keep the Lights On,” you should take a chance on Sachs’ equally challenging “The Delta,” “40 Shades of Blue” and “Married Life.”

For my money, the real gem hidden between the covers of the DVD is the supplementary documentary, “In Search of Avery Willard.” Willard is the subject of the film researched, completed and honored during the course of Erik and Paul’s relationship. In real life, Willard was a New York photographer active from the late 1940s through the 1960s. In addition to the movie stills, celebrity shots and commercial work he took early in his career, Willard specialized in “physique art,” male nudes, leather fetishists and drag history. In the period immediately after the Stonewall riots, he published and personally distributed the activist magazine, Gay Scene, under the pseudonym Bruce King. Much of what’s seen in Cary Kehayan’s film was discovered in his cluttered Bronx apartment after his death in 1999. It’s a genuinely fascinating portrait of a largely unsung artist, whose contributions have hardly been accorded a footnote in the history of the gay-rights movement. – Gary Dretzka

The Age of Czeslaw Milosz
The lives of some men and women are so fascinating that it’s possible to watch a 180-minute bio-doc, in Polish, about his or her life and not once nod off into oblivion. I know, because I did it. The Facets Video documentary, “The Age of Czeslaw Milosz,” commemorates the 100th birthday of the Nobel Prize-winning poet, who, in 2004, died at the age of 93. Recent films about writers Gregory Corso, Norman Mailer, Allen Ginsberg, Hart Crane, Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes, Walt Whitman and Edgar Allen Poe are shorter by at least an hour. Americans tend to have less patience and shorter memories than Eastern Europeans, for whom the 20th Century could hardly be described as a walk in the park. In the case of Milosz, however, that’s pretty much the whole point. Born in a cross-border region of Lithuania, in 1911, he grew up fluent in Polish, Lithuanian, Russian, English and French. He received a degree in law, but preferred to communicate via radio broadcasts and the written word. Immediately before and during World War II, he and his wife, Janina, would be caught in the vice applied to Poland and Lithuania by the Germans and Soviet Union. He was required to reserve his words for the resistance, via underground presses. After the war, Milosz served as a cultural attaché in Washington – where he was taunted as a Soviet dupe by exiles and treated like a spy by our government – and in Paris, far away from his wife. The Polish communists were as suspect of intellectuals as J. Edgar Hoover, so he finally defected to France, where he wrote his most famous prose work, the anti-Stalinist “The Captive Mind.” In the early 1960s, Milosz was invited to teach at the University of California, Berkeley, where he taught Slavic languages and literature. He would return to Europe after the deaths of both of his wives and the fall of the Iron Curtain. While being received as a literary hero in Poland, where his writing had been banned for decades, he was criticized in his former Lithuanian home for dredging up memories of anti-Semitism there. He died at his Krakow home in 2004, at 93. Director Juozas Javaitis said that wasn’t intention to “show Milosz as icon. … Our main aim was to reflect the personality and biography of the poet. We wanted this film to raise public interest in the figure of Miłosz and encourage people to read some part of the work of this fascinating and talented man.” It’s ironic, then, that just before he died, this great intellectual — who was born nine years before the first radio news broadcast — anticipated a day when his poetry might be licensed for use in advertising and commercials, like any rock band or jingle writer, and no reading will be required. “Age of Czelaw Milosz” intertwines snatches of verse with interviews with such people as his secretary, Agnieszka Kosińska; journalist Mark Danner; translators Robert Hass, Natalia Gorbaniewska and Tomas Venclova; and his son, Antoni.  – Gary Dretzka

Nobody Walks: Blu-ray
Sometimes, it simply doesn’t pay to stick with a DVD long enough to sample the interviews with the directors, writers and stars. I’m not referring to the making-of and behind-the-scenes featurettes in which everyone’s pretending that the movie they’re working on is the second coming of “The Godfather” or “Annie Hall.” Rather, it’s the in-depth, face-to-face conversations, during which the artists’ hopes, dreams and intentions are explored. In the interviews that accompany “Nobody Walks,” co-writer/director Ry Russo-Young and star Olivia Thirlby don’t seem to have watched the movie they’re describing. It’s more like they’re discussing the movie that was playing in the heads of Russo-Young and co-writer Lena Dunham as they were writing the screenplay. Dunham’s fingerprints can be seen throughout “Nobody Walks.” It’s as if one of the characters in “Girls” was given an opportunity to move to L.A.’s hipster-invested Silver Lake neighborhood to finish a project meaningful to them, if no one else. Here that woman has been invited to finish her experimental film with the assistance of an accomplished sound engineer, Peter (John Krasinski), and move into the family’s pool house for the duration. Thirlby plays the 23-year-old New Yorker, Martine, whose veneer of self-confidence masks a desperate need to be admired, coddled and fulfilled sexually. What Martine and Peter have yet to learn in all their years on Earth is something most animals are taught as soon as they’re able to walk or fly: don’t shit where you eat. Working at close proximity in Peter’s home studio, it’s only a matter of time before something sufficiently unnerving happens to Martine that he feels the need to comfort her. One thing leads to another and they’re in each other’s pants. It takes Peter’s psychiatrist wife, Julie (Rosemarie DeWitt), about 30 seconds to sense that something fishy is happening between her husband and their guest. Even so, she decides to cut them some slack.

For her part, Julie allows herself to be verbally seduced by a smarmy male patient (Justin Kirk), an actor who describes/invents a dream in which she comes onto him in an outfit right out of the Victoria’s Secret catalog. After confirming her fears about Peter and Martine, Julie allows her patient to paw her at a party. Their precocious teenage daughter, Yma (India Ennenga), is inspired by Martine after mistaking her unbridled libido for sexual liberation. Martine also comes to the girl’s rescue when her smarmy Italian tutor has a fit over a poem that she’s written. Peter also will blow a gasket, but for an entirely different reason. In the interviews, Russo-Young and Thirlby treat Martine’s ill-considered behavior as some kind of rite of passage experienced by young New Yorkers when blasted by the bright California sun for the first time. The men in the movie have all the sense given pieces on a checkerboard and Julie gets a pass, even though, 1) she naively allowed a pretty 23-year-old daughter of an old friend to move into their pool house, and 2) put her career on the line for the momentary thrill of being told she looks sexy in her britches. I don’t buy it. Even though “Nobody Walks” could boast of performances by three of America’s hottest actors, it played in only a small handful of theaters. Anyone wondering what all the fuss over Dunham is about probably should start with “Girls,” “Tiny Furniture” and the Web-based “Delusional Downtown Divas.” The Blu-ray adds a deleted scene, the completed short film on which Peter and Martine were working and a short making-of piece. The short film, “Scorpio,” shows off Russo-Young’s keen photographic eye, but, alas, is exceedingly pretentious. -– Gary Dretzka

Nature Calls: Blu-ray
Writer/director Todd Rohal really dodged a bullet when the Christian Slater vehicle, “Playback,” was accorded the dubious distinction of being the lowest-grossing feature film of 2012. All things being equal, however, the producers of that turkey could argue that it only played on one screen, for a week, while “Nature Calls” required two screens to collect $382. Based solely on the names of the actors on the cover of “Nature Calls” Blu-ray/DVD – Patton Oswald, Johnny Knoxville, Rob Riggle – I would be willing to bet that the boys-will-be-boys comedy will make more than $382 in its first hour in video stores. Not much more, but enough to stem the bleeding, at least. Oswald plays the scoutmaster of a troop of boys whose ability to survive in the woods overnight is highly questionable. Nevertheless, he’s determined to take his ancient, wheelchair-bound father on one more camping trip before he’s shipped off to a retirement home. The problem is, Scoutmaster Randy’s far more successful stick-in-the-mud brother has already scheduled a slumber party for his newly adopted 10-year-old son the same weekend.

Randy somehow convinces the boys to abandon the party and join him on the expedition, which, naturally, becomes disastrous almost before it starts. It’s gets even more complicated when his brother and his cronies come looking for them, along with park rangers and the moms of the boys. What starts as a disaster ends in a farce, and a waste of time for everyone involved. Parents of scouting-age kids attracted by the cover art should know that “Nature Calls” contains much rough language and a couple of boobies. It comes with outtakes and a making-of featurette. – Gary Dretzka

BBC America: Twenty Twelve: Complete Series
Starz: Method to the Madness of Jerry Lewis
PBS: American Experience: The Abolitionists
Those fans of “Downton Abbey” who simply can’t get enough of Hugh Bonneville should consider picking up the BBC mini-series, “Twenty Twelve” on DVD. It isn’t a period soap opera, but it is unmistakably British. All 13 episodes from both seasons, leading up to 2012 Summer Olympics, are packaged alongside cast and crew interviews. Exec-produced by Jon Plowman (“Absolutely Fabulous,” “Little Britain”), “Twenty Twelve” uses the same comic approach as “The Office” to chronicle the efforts of a team of bureaucrats assigned to make sure London doesn’t grind to a complete stop as the Games are being staged. If these guys had actually been in charge of logistics, the Olympics might have experienced gridlock, or worse. Even in hindsight, it’s a lot of fun. Also prominent in the cast are Amelia Bullmore (“Suburban Shootout”), Jessica Hynes (“The Royale Family”), Karl Theobald (“Primeval”) and David Tennant (“Doctor Who”).

As he approaches the ripe old age of 87, Jerry Lewis continues to make headlines in the trade magazines. The type face may not be quite as large as the ones that chronicled his every move between 1946 and the early 1970s, but they draw our attention, anyway. He’s currently in production on a drama in which he plays the title character, Max Rose, and apparently in limbo on a picture “still in development,” “Big Finish.” It’s been about 20 years since he’s starred in a feature that wasn’t animated. That was considered to be a comeback picture, just like “Max Rose” and “Big Finish.” The fascinating bio-doc “Method to the Madness of Jerry Lewis” argues that “comeback” overstates the case. How far can a performer in his 80s come back, after all? In his interviews with director Gregg Barson, Lewis essentially argues that, contrary to rumor, he’s never gone away. Hollywood executives disappeared on him 40 years ago, or so, but audiences always seem to have found him in his performances on stage, on television and during the telethons. Barson, who previously directed the wonderful Phyllis Diller documentary, ”Goodnight, We Love You,” has gathered a wide variety of actors, directors and comedians to testify in Lewis’ defense, as well. Among them are Alec Baldwin, Chevy Chase, Eddie Murphy, Carl Reiner, Quentin Tarantino, Jerry Seinfeld, Billy Crystal, Carol Burnett, Richard Lewis, Steven Spielberg, John Landis and Deana Martin (Dean’s daughter). As usual, though, Lewis gets all of the laughs. Proud of his accomplishments, he isn’t at all shy about pointing out his contributions to the cinematic art, standup comedy and improvisation. Again, the witnesses confirm his testimony. Even 115 minutes, “Method to the Madness” occasionally feels short. Even so, it’s better to admire Lewis’ genius – yes, genius – now, while he’s alive and kicking, than read the words of obituary writers and tweeted testimonials sometime in the future.

The timing for PBS’ “American Experience” documentary series, “The Abolitionists” could hardly be more appropriate. In Steven Spielberg’s much-honored film, “Lincoln,” it would be easy for short-sighted viewers to believe that abolitionism was synonymous with obstructionism, and the debate over the total abolishment of slavery had begun only recently. While it may be true that Lincoln’s ability to convince Republican abolitionists to compromise their principles assured passage of the 13th Amendment, it’s not accurate to paint him as the only politician who didn’t have to wrestle with his conscience on the issue of slavery. Plenty of Americans had committed to abolitionism without having to consult their conscience. “Abolitionists forced the issue of slavery on to the national agenda,” says Sharon Grimberg, executive producer for the three-part documentary. “They made it unavoidable.” By the time John Brown, Frederick Douglass, William Lloyd Garrison, Angelina Grimke and Harriet Beecher Stowe – key figures in the documentary — brought the anti-slavery movement to the forefront of debate in the United States the cause had already been debated abroad and in churches here for many decades. Indeed, it had been abolished among several prominent slave-trading nations and reaffirmed after it was repealed in some countries. Lincoln was a gradualist throughout most of his political career and pragmatic about pushing too hard on the Southern bloc and its Northern supporters, until he picked up the banner with the Emancipation Proclamation.

What Lincoln did understand was that Congress was populated in large part by pompous, self-serving and openly corrupt career politicians, who, if they had consciences at all, never wrestled with them. That much hasn’t changed in 150 years, anyway. If the abolitionists weren’t so adamant about the immediacy of the issue and convincing in their arguments, Lincoln might have acted differently altogether. I don’t know how far into the future that the crystal balls belonging to Lincoln and the abolitionists were able to see. The reality, of course, is that, in some quarters, racist sentiments have never gone out of fashion. It would take the combined force of the 13th, 14th, 15th and the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to make a dent in legal segregation in the South and some western states. Even then, in the 2012 presidential campaign, Republicans pushed to deny some Americans their right to vote, freely and without encumbrance. So, in a very real sense, the Civil War is still being fought. The documentary focuses on the intertwined stories of the leading abolitionists, while also addressing important myths and realities weighing on the struggle. Director Rob Rapley’s cast includes Richard Brooks, Neal Huff, Jeanine Serralles, Wendy Carter, Ingrid Alli and T. Ryder Smith and Kate Lyn Sheil and narrator Oliver Platt. – Gary Dretzka

The DVD Wrapup

Wednesday, January 16th, 2013

To Rome With Love: Blu-ray
Sleeper/Hannah and Her Sisters: Blu-ray
For various reasons, mostly financial, Manhattan’s ambassador to the world, Woody Allen, spent most of the last 10 years in Europe making movies that ranged from so-so to wonderful. Because Allen is incapable of turning out a truly inferior product, none was less than watchable. While “Match Point,” “Vicky Cristina Barcelona” and “Midnight in Paris” won the admiration of fans and critics, “You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger,” “Scoop” and “Cassandra’s Dream” proved to be a better deal on DVD. Reviews were mixed on “To Rome With Love,” which neatly intertwined a quartet of unrelated stories involving tourists and residents in the Eternal City. I enjoyed “To Rome With Love” both of the times I’ve watched it and, it made a recognizable dent in domestic and worldwide box-off results. That certainly came as good news to its Roman investors, who literally paid for the privilege of having Allen shoot in their city. The ensemble cast includes Alec Baldwin, Roberto Benigni, Penelope Cruz, Judy Davis, Jesse Eisenberg, Greta Gerwig, Ellen Page, Alison Pill, David Pasquesi and several actors who will be more familiar in Italy than anywhere else. Describing two of the stories would require a bit more space than is available here, but, not surprisingly, perhaps, involve relationships put to the test by mistaken identities and hubris.

In the third vignette, Robert Benigni plays a non-descript office drone, who, for no apparent reason, becomes an instant celebrity. His interplay with his family, newfound fans, paparazzi and entertainment reporters is fun, both as a showcase for Benigni’s elastic personality and as a putdown of today’s celebrity-obsessed culture. In the fourth thread, Allen and Davis travel to Rome to meet the parents of their future son-in-law. After hearing his Italian counterpart sing opera songs in the shower, the former talent scout and producer convinces him to consider a second career on stage. The problem is that the man, a funeral director, has no stage presence to match his golden voice. Allen arranges for an audition, during which a portable shower is brought into the studio and the amateur tenor becomes sufficiently relaxed to give a bravura performance. His voice is so remarkable that audiences forgive the singing mortician his bizarre conceit. His family is far less forgiving. Needless to say, Allen and cinematographer Darius Khondji take full advantage of Rome’s grandeur, light and romantic aura. The Blu-ray contains a making-of featurette in which lots of people discuss the joys of working with Allen, but the maestro, as usual, is absent.

Also new to Blu-ray this week are films representing different creative periods in Allen’s long career. Released in 1973, between the anarchic “Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex * But Were Afraid to Ask” and his heady roast of Russian literature, “Love and Death,” “Sleeper” was the last film in Allen’s populist period. For the next dozen years, he would shift gears several times, almost as if he was testing the loyalty of his fanbase. In addition to such easy-to-love pictures as “Annie Hall,” “Manhattan” and “Broadway Danny Rose,” Allen turned out such brain-teasers as “Interiors,” “Stardust Memories” and “Zelig.” Then, almost out of the blue, “Hannah and Her Sisters” would mark another dramatic turn.

I haven’t seen “Sleeper” in a very long time, but a fresh look at Roger Ebert’s review serves as a reminder of what made it so special. “(Allen) gives us moments in ‘Sleeper’ that are as good as anything since the silent films of Buster Keaton.” Cryogenically frozen after a botched medical procedure, a New York nobody named Miles Monroe wakes up 200 years later in an America that’s ruled by the disembodied nose of an evil dictator. All women are frigid and all men are impotent. Miles is viewed both as a potential enemy by the regime and potential savior by the rebels. After being captured by the government, he pretends to be a robot, but is reprogrammed to believe he’s a beauty-contest competitor. Diane Keaton, in her second cinema pairing with her former lover, plays the beautiful, if decidedly untalented poet, Luna, who comes to his rescue. “Sleeper” is informed as much by the slapstick humor of the silent comedies of the 1920s as the progressive science-fiction novels of the 1960s. The movie’s futuristic look benefitted from location shoots at space-age homes and buildings in California and Colorado and clever use of ordinary household items by costume designers. A sequence in which Allen attempts to elude capture by hiding in a garden of huge fruits and vegetables – as well as a slippery banana peel and giant chicken – was hilarious in 1973 and remains so today.

“Hannah and Her Sisters” became his bittersweet take on the protocols of love and marriage among Manhattan’s intellectual and professional elite. Woody’s character provided the humor, while everyone else supplied the pathos and tortured romance. If viewers outside the 212 area code found it difficult to identify with the problems of people they’d never meet, let alone socialize, the comic relief of Mighty Aphrodite” wouldn’t arrive for another 10 years. “Hannah and Her Sisters” resembles a game of musical chairs, played by close friends and relatives within the orbiting of sisters Mia Farrow, Barbara Hershey and Dianne Wiest. Their myriad husbands and suitors include Allen, Michael Caine, Max von Sydow and Sam Waterston. The sisters have been cursed and blessed with show-biz parents (Lloyd Nolan, Maureen O’Sullivan), whose deep-seated hostility towards each other tends to surface at family events, like the Thanksgiving dinners that bookend the movie. In fact, their daughters look as if they might have been adopted, for all the resemblance they have to each other. “Hannah” is widely considered to be one of Allen’s unquestioned masterpieces, in a career full of them. Neither of the re-issues come with anything more than a trailer. – Gary Dretzka

Taken 2: Blu-ray
If ever a movie wrote its own sequel, it’s “Taken.” Writer/producer Luc Besson’s 2008 thriller scored big by giving audiences exactly what they expected and desired from a hyperviolent action film, while also throwing in some dramatic car chases, a beautiful setting and a newly minted superhero in Liam Neeson. The story was simplicity itself. Neeson played a retired and divorced CIA black-ops agent who had been trained to kill in almost every conceivable way. No sooner had Neeson’s Bryon Mills waved goodbye to his college-age daughter, as she left for a semester abroad in Paris, than she is captured by the Albanian mafia, which specializes in white-slaving. Once in their possession, kidnapped girls are hooked on heroin, turned out in sleazy brothel or put up for auction. With the help of a former spook buddy, it took Mills about 10 minutes to figure out who had kidnaped Kim (Maggie Grace) and another 20 minutes to locate the crooks’ den. Her rescue fills the rest of the movie. After locating the apartment of the stereotypically thuggish Albanians, “Taken” becomes one long, exceedingly well-choreographed chase through Paris and its outskirts. The body count was extremely high, but few viewers here or abroad mourned the loss of several more shady immigrants from southern Europe.  Clearly, the kidnapers received the kind of justice they deserved and a wholesome American teenager was saved from a life of sexual abuse in a faraway desert oasis or some oligarch’s playpen.

If Albanians are famous for anything these days, besides surviving two generations of draconian communist rule, it’s the adherence by many of rural citizens to the ancient practice of vendetta justice. And that, in a nutshell, is what “Taken 2” is all about. This time, the setting is Istanbul and the villains are the revenge-crazed relatives of the men Mills dispensed with so cruelly in Paris. Rade Serbedzija plays the father of one of the corpses shipped back to Albania in a chrome box and head of what’s left of his clan. It has now become his mission in life to avenge his son’s death-by-electrocution. Along with three Land Rovers full of heavily armed relatives, he somehow learns that Mills is in Istanbul with his daughter and ex-wife (Famke Janssen), who conveniently has ditched her wealthy second husband. This time, it takes the bad guys about 10 minutes to find Mills in the sprawling Turkish metropolis, another 15 or so for Mills and his former wife to be captured and less than an hour for Mills to escape and team up with his daughter to exact their own vengeance on the stubborn Albanians. There’s a bit more exposition in “Taken 2” than “Taken,” but it doesn’t get in the way of even more high-octane chases, brutal hand-to-hand combat and wildly inaccurate marksmanship on the part of the villains. (It’s become axiomatic that villains can’t hit the broad side of a barn with automatic weapons, while the guys in white hats are sharpshooters.) As such, it’s a safe bet that anyone who enjoyed the original will find a lot to like in the sequel. It did very well at the domestic box-office and even better worldwide.

Through no fault of its own, Istanbul is in danger of becoming an overly familiar city for foreign intrigue. If nothing else, location scouts should consider discouraging filmmakers from using the rooftop of the Grand Bazaar for foot and motorcycle chases for a while, anyway. Among the other movies that have used the exact same site recently are “The International” and “Skyfall.”  “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” and “Five Minarets Over New York” made full use of the city, as well. The Blu-ray includes both the unrated extended and theatrical cut; featurettes, “Black Ops Field Manual,” “Kill Counter” and “Tools of the Trade”; deleted and extended scenes; an alternative ending; a special-effects piece; digital copy; and UltraViolet. – Gary Dretzka

Won’t Back Down: Blu-ray
That our nation’s public schools are a mess is hardly a secret. Things are so bad, in fact, that, last November, California voters actually voted to raise taxes to help fix them. That, in itself, is a very big deal. It’s that kind of spirit that pervades “Won’t Back Down,” a movie that argues against the common perception that our democracy is hopelessly broken and common folks are too polarized to make a difference. In Daniel Barnz’ inspirational drama, Maggie Gyllenhaal and Viola Davis demonstrate how two motivated women can change the way things have always been done at a dysfunctional Pittsburgh elementary school. (It was inspired by the enactment of parent-trigger laws, first passed in California three years ago, which allow parents and teachers to petition for underperforming programs to be turned into charter schools.) Teachers at Adams Elementary are dispirited, students are bored and parents can’t figure out how some kids can pass one from one grade to another, even without being able to read or write. Davis plays Nona, a teacher and mother of a young boy at the school where Gyllenhaal’s dyslexic daughter is being bullied by her fellow students and ignored by an impatient teacher. The women meet at a lottery drawing for the few spots open at an award-winning magnet school in the district. Although neither child’s name is announced. Nona and Jamie are inspired by the words of the principal of the magnet school to act. Until parents and faculty got involved there, it was just other institution in which students are warehoused until it is time to graduate. “Won’t Back Down” chronicles the women’s struggle to turn a non-starter into a winner for everyone involved. One guess as to how the movie ends.

Although Barnz’ heart is in the right place, “Won’t Back Down” suffers from some formidable stumbling blocks. More than anything else, Adams School doesn’t look as if it’s being neglected by the district or is a hellhole for students and faculty. The kids are well dressed, ethnically diverse and well behaved – for the most part, anyway – and none of the teachers appear to have been assaulted lately. The real bogeymen here are the teachers’ union, which protects lousy teachers, and school board members too set in their ways to expend energy on fixing broken schools. Union leaders have convinced the majority of Adams’ teachers that their job security will be jeopardized if they join the revolt, while the board has forced the principal to crack down on its organizers. In both cases, the script devices used to demonize the union and school board are far too broad to be convincing. Still, Davis and Gyllenhaal invest their performances with enthusiasm and sincerity, and Holly Hunter, Oscar Isaac, Rosie Perez, Lance Reddick and Marianne Jean-Baptiste add sparkle in supporting roles. The Blu-ray adds deleted scenes and a couple of short pieces on the importance of teachers and supporting our schools. I’d be very surprised to learn, however, that anyone involved in the movie has enrolled their kids in a public school outside Beverly Hills. – Gary Dretzka

17 Girls
Pregnancy has become so politicized in this country that one hardly knows what to say when a friend or relative tells you she’s with child. At the risk of hearing, “But, I don’t know if I’m going to keep it,” the only safe response is something excruciatingly neutral like, “That’s interesting. How do you feel about it?” That’s the response I had to Delphine and Muriel Coulin’s “17 Girls,” which transfers the Gloucester, Massachusetts, “pregnancy pact” scandal to the Brittany coast of France. In Gloucester, the 18 pregnant girls denied such a pact existed and the baby boom was coincidental. In “17 Girls,” however, 16 of them definitely were on the same wavelength. After one of the school’s “popular” kids gets knocked up, by accident, the others followed, if not like lemmings, exactly, then cows heading to the barn to get milked. The driving force apparently was that it might be fun — diverting, at least — to go through the experience together and raise their kids in the same working-class environment. As was the case in Gloucester, the first girl to get pregnant and her boyfriend had simply neglected to use a condom properly. The girls in her clique acted in solidarity with her, while others followed suit because they wanted to hang with the popular girls. And, yes, it did help raise their esteem. Two girls fake their pregnancy. Strangely, we only witness one set of parents act out their anger and frustration. Very few of the boys involved are shown behaving one way or the other to the news that they were on the way to becoming fathers.

The news from Gloucester raised eyebrows around the world; inspired numerous magazine articles, talk-show chatter and an episode of “Law & Order”; and, of course, it was dramatized in a made-for-Lifetime movie. In the less-media-crazy French town, however, the girls don’t seem to have been given an opportunity to experience even 14 minutes of fame, let alone a bidding war for interviews. Most returned to school before settling into full- or part-time motherhood. The depiction is all so matter-of-fact, it’s practically maddening. Instead of judgment or an invitation to pass judgment, the Coulins have delivered an interesting and occasionally quite moving essay on friendship. Now, if the same thing had happened in an inner-city American high school or, perhaps, a Parisian school full of the children of immigrants from Africa, some loudmouth talk-show host might have demanded mass sterilization, or a pro-choice activist would have lobbied for more sex-education courses and greater access to birth control. The thing to remember here, though, is that 17 of the 18 American girls and 16 of 17 French girls knew exactly what could happen by having unprotected sex. At a time when tens of millions of young men and women prey that the urine test will register negative, that’s probably the most difficult thing to grasp in “17 Girls.” – Gary Dretzka

Farewell, My Queen
Although the events described in “Farewell, My Queen” and “Les Miserables” take place almost 25 years from each other, I think that fans of Victor Hugo’s novel and its many stage, television and movie adaptations will enjoy Benoit Jacqout’s story of life at Versailles as the Bastille was being ravaged. Unlike Sophia Coppola’s “Marie Antoinette,” which ends where “Farewell” begins, Jacqout’s story focuses on the servants who were closest to her and had concerns of their own about their fates. Based on the best-selling novel by Chantal Thomas, it stars Léa Seydoux as the queen’s reader and confidante. Her timing couldn’t be less fortuitous. Just as she is attaining a position of comfort among the ladies-in-waiting, the bottom falls out from under her. Diane Kruger portrays Marie Antoinette as being less flighty and full of herself than the same character played by Kirsten Dunst. The “Upstairs Dowstairs” aspect of “Farewell, My Queen” is more pronounced, especially as gossip about the rebellion spreads through Versailles. Like Coppola, Jacqout takes full advantage of the access he received to the royal chateau. The attention to period detail in the set and costume design is exquisite, especially in hi-def, and well worth the price of a rental. The Blu-ray adds interviews with the director and several stars. – Gary Dretzka

Compliance: Blu-ray
More than any other movie I’ve seen in a long time, “Compliance” demands that viewers put themselves in the place of the characters on screen and experience some of the same pain they do. You might remember the incidents that inspired Craig Zobel to make the intentionally controversial film, which divided critics and angered festival audiences. A prank caller, masquerading as a cop, convinced a manager at a fast-restaurant that one of her employees may have stolen some money from a customer and she must work with police to discover the truth. The last thing the caller is interested in is the facts, however. Of greater importance to him is seeing, even vicariously, how far an average person might go to comply with the patently illegal demands of someone who merely pretends to be in law-enforcement. Here, Ann Dowd turns in a terrific performance as Sandy, the manager of a suburban Ohio chicken joint too harried to give more than a moment’s pause over what she’s being asked to do. The caller, who almost certainly had visited the establishment earlier that day, perfectly describes the pretty blond server, Becky (Dreama Walker), as the culprit. Instead of agreeing to take Becky directly to the police station, where she could be read her rights and appraised of the accusation, Sandy agrees to take her employee into a storage room and conduct an agonizingly slow strip search. When she declares that this is taking too much time away from her duties, the caller suggests several options, including having a male employee stand guard over the half-naked teenager. The sexual thrill the caller is getting from this exercise in power is palpable through the line.

The first obvious question Zobel wants us to ask ourselves is how we’d act in the same situation. Sandy may not be an ogre, but she’s criminally unaware of the rights afforded American citizens under the Constitution and workers by the NLRB. Before you assume she’s too stupid to hold a management position, even in the fast-food business, you should know that the same ruse was attempted 70 times in 30 states and those managers who refused to participate were in the distinct minority. Indeed, before things got too nasty, Becky and the co-conspirators reluctantly agreed to participate in the investigation, for fear of losing their job. If stupidity were a legitimate defense, we’d all be guilty of something. Zobel, whose “Great World of Sound” chronicled the gullibility of aspiring musicians, elicits thrilling performances from his cast. (Dowd deserved a Supporting Actress nod as much as any of this year’s finalists.) He also holds his audiences in his grip throughout “Compliance,” asking questions that demand answers. Are the characters being unfairly manipulated by the director? Are we? Is the manager as gullible as she seems to be or are extenuating circumstances left out of the narrative? Can we, the viewers, be accused of voyeurism, simply for staying in our seats during Becky’s ordeal? The critics who gave the movie low grades felt tarnished and manipulated. I wouldn’t put too much stock in their concerns, though. Occasionally, movies should leave emotional scars. The Blu-ray contains a couple of backgrounders, as well as an interview with Zobel. – Gary Dretzka

Now Is Good
Movies in which attractive young people die before their time have been a cinema staple for as long as there have been movies. The first adaptation of Alexandre Dumas’ “Camilla” was made in 1907, with another half-dozen to come in the next decade. The first adaptations of “Anna Karenina” were shown in 1910 and 1911, with the latest take on the Tolstoy classic arriving in time for 2013 awards consideration, last November. In 1969, author/screenwriter Erich Segal’s “Love Story” cut the template from which all modern tear-jerkers would be built. If it weren’t for “Love Story” the disease-of-the-week genre may never emerged and, with it, the Lifetime Movie sub-genre. Released last fall in the international market, there probably weren’t enough screens available for Ol Parker’s tear-jerking teen tragedy, “Now Is Good.” If not, someone here might have given it a shot. The always-wonderful Dakota Fanning plays Tessa Scott, a pretty blond teenager who knows that she’ll probably die before experiencing the same rites of passage as most of her friends. Moreover, she’s been battling leukemia long enough to demand that she no longer participate in chemotherapy. If she’s going to die, she’ll do it on her own terms. Paddy Considine plays the obsessively protective father who means well but often gets in the way of her enjoying what left of her life. Her mother (Olivia Williams) can’t take the pressure – or doesn’t want to be bothered, one – and stays in the background for half of the movie, at least.

Tessa is fiercely independent, even to the point of hurling sarcastic retorts at her father when he questions her choices. She has a bucket list of things to do that mostly fall under the heading of misdemeanors, but it’s topped by a desire to experience sex, if not make love, exactly. She comes close to it a couple times, but pulls back when the boy admits to knowing of her condition through her more randy girlfriend (Kaya Scodelario). She definitely isn’t into mercy sex. Almost on cue, a young man (Jeremy Irvine) who fits her needs precisely moves in next door. A gentleman through and through, his reserved responses to her sexual advances confound Tessa. Their courting ritual gets a bit tiresome after a while, but the urgency returns when her illness kicks into a higher gear. The movie’s final half-hour plays out with as much dignity and as little tear-coaxing as could possibly be hoped for in a teen tragedy. Fanning’s performance should please younger viewers also awaiting the first stirrings of genuine love, especially with a dreamboat like Irvine (“The War Horse”). Conversely, I can’t imagine any teenage boy staying with the movie for more than hour. “Now Is Good” is adapted from Jenny Downham’s best-seller, “Before I Die.” Parker previously wrote and directed “Imagine You & Me,” and penned the screenplay for “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel.” The DVD adds deleted scenes and a bankgrounder. – Gary Dretzka

Jack and Diane: Blu-ray
John Mellencamp fans who go back to his “John Cougar” iteration shouldn’t confuse the new DVD, “Jack and Diane,” with his 1982 chart-topper, “Jack & Diane.” I only mention this because that song was the first thing that came to mind when I saw the movie’s title. Instead, it’s a gritty, punky, urban coming-of-age story about two teenage girls experimenting with their emerging sexuality. Oh, yeah, there’s also a Freudian werewolf involved. Set in a funky New York City neighborhood, “J&D” describes the intense, if frequently transgressive relationship between the skateboarding street urchin, Jack (Riley Keough), and an aspiring fashion designer, Diane (Juno Temple), who comes off as a 21st Century Stevie Nicks. Both are outcasts, with more baggage between them than the average bus station. The same could be said of Bradley Rust Gray’s overly ambitious movie. Jack is the take-charge character who dominates the ultra-femme Diane for most of the movie. When she learns that her sovereignty will disappear when Diane splits for fashion school in Paris, Gray dials up the intensity level by adding disturbing images of a werewolf’s transformation, from below the epidermis. The Quay Brothers really outdid themselves in the creation of these icky sequences. As you might have already guessed, “J&D” can be an unholy mess, as the girls wrestle with their personal identity issues and master-slave relationship (for lack of a better term).

Easily the best things about the movie, which should play far better among teens living on the fringes of their own claustrophobic worlds, are the lead performers. Only 23, Juno Temple has already proven herself to be one of the bravest and most convincing actors of her generation. She’s given amazing performances in the edgy indies “Killer Joe,” “Dirty Girl” and “Kaboom,” while holding her own among the big kids in “The Dark Knight Rises,” “Atonement” and “The Three Musketeers.” She’ll probably be competing for roles with Elizabeth Olsen, Kristen Stewart, Alicia Vikander, Saoriise Ronan, Dakota Fanning and the various Gemmas and Emmas out there for years to come. Keogh, Elvis’ granddaughter, may have fewer credits, but she’s made her presence known in such films as “The Good Doctor,” “Magic Mike” and “The Runaways.” The Blu-ray adds new music by Mum and Kylie Minogue, who plays Diane’s cantankerous aunt. – Gary Dretzka

Lightning Bug: Blu-ray
Ghoul: Blu-ray
The artwork on the cover of “Lightning Bug” suggests that the movie contained therein is of the slasher persuasion. Although there are no knives or pools of blood in evidence, I’ve seen the same layout on the jackets of a dozen earlier horror movies. Throughout most of the first half of Robert Hall’s 2004 directorial debut, I wondered when the special-effects wizardry would wane and the real horror begin. Instead, “Lightning Bug” stayed true to Hall’s original vision – if not the marketing material – by slowly, but surely evolving into a highly compelling coming-of-age drama. The horror exists in the protagonist’s fertile imagination, which late will provide a ticket out of his backwater hometown and color the black hearts of his antagonists. Once that concept took hold in my mind, it was easy to sit back and enjoy the heartfelt semi-autobiographical story being told in “Lightning Bug.”

At 39, Hall is one of Hollywood’s most prolific creators of special makeup effects. Like the film’s central character, Green Graves (Bret Harrison), Hall spent his high school years in Alabama creating monsters and freaking out his friends, especially at Halloween. How much of the rest of the movie is autobiographical is irrelevant to any enjoyment of “Lightning Bug.” Green, his brother and mother have recently moved to the rural South after the death of his father in Detroit. Any teenage male who doesn’t participate in sports or covet his neighbor’s pickup truck is a freak of nature in Alabama. Having acquired only a couple of goofball buddies, Green is the proverbial square peg in a round hole. His mother’s new boyfriend is a brute cut from the same cloth as Dwight Yoakum’s character in “Slingblade.”  He demands that Green seek employment at the town’s chicken-processing plant, where most of locals are condemned to live out their lives. After hooking up with the pretty clerk at the video store (Lauren Prepon), he’s encouraged to scale the mountain standing between him and Hollywood. First, though, he must deal with his mother’s boyfriend and local holy rollers, who consider the boy to be a tool of Satan.

Hall does a nice job keeping the redneck stereotypes from distracting viewers from Green’s journey. His mom’s boyfriend is a gargoyle, but no more so than any of the fright masks and monsters he creates for the town’s annual haunted house. Again, unlike most slasher movies, most of the violence takes place off-screen and in the recesses of the viewers’ imagination. Sadly, “Lightning Bug” didn’t find distribution off of the festival circuit in 2004, with the subsequent DVD release attaining something resembling cult status. It richly deserves to be discovered anew in its Blu-ray incarnation. Besides Harrison and Prepon, the cast includes Kevin Gage, Ashley Laurence, Hal Sparks, Shannon Eubanks, Lucas Till and Josh Todd. It arrives with both the theatrical and director’s-cut versions; deleted scenes, most featuring a nutso character played by Donald Gibb; a couple of decent making-of featurettes; and a music video.

The cover art for “Ghoul” may be more forthcoming, but the message is pretty much the same: even in horror movies, it isn’t always easy to spot the real monsters. The movie was adapted from a novel by Brian Keene that became a best-seller among teens. It takes several liberties with the material, but is close enough for a made-for-cable movie. It’s the summer of 1984 and a trio of pre-teen boys plans to spend much of it in a clubhouse carved into a series of tunnels on the outskirts of Golgotha Cemetery. Local legend has it that a ghoul haunts the area around the cemetery, where, between the newly dead and canoodlers, it never has to order out for food. That’s news to the boys, who, upon closer inspection, find heirloom trinkets and jewelry scattered throughout the tunnels. Coincidentally, several other young people are found dead or feared kidnaped at about the same time. It’s at this point that “Ghoul” director Gregory Wilson slows things down a bit by focusing on family dynamics among the boys. By the end, everything makes perfect sense. “Ghoul” isn’t a terribly frightening experience, but fans of the book should find it entertaining. There’s also a making-of featurette. – Gary Dretzka

China Heavyweight: Blu-ray
I Am Bruce Lee: Blu-ray
Westerners can learn a lot about China from the spate of new documentaries from the People’s Republic. Yung Chang’s “China Heavyweight” joins such fascinating studies as “High Tech, Low Life,” “Last Train Home,” “Beijing Punk,” “Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry” and Chang’s earlier “Up the Yangtze.” This doesn’t take into account the many docs about the situation in Tibet and foreign-made documentaries about working conditions in Chinese factories, toxic products and the predatory economy. I’ve seen hundreds of movies and documentaries about boxing, many of which use the ancient sport as a metaphor for something or other. “China Heavyweight” is familiar in the sense that boxing has traditionally been used by poor people as an escape route to respectability and prosperity that otherwise would be denied them. The situation in China is different, if only because Chairman Mao banned the sport for being overly violent and too influenced by capitalism. Some 30 years later, boxing and other competitive activities were revived as was the pursuit of Olympics glory. To that end, former star boxers and coaches have been entrusted with the responsibility of discovering promising boys and girls, who will be moved from their farms and villages to state supported schools dedicated to sports. “China Heavyweight” follows Qi Moxiang around Sichuan province as he scouts the territory and visits the students. In his late-30s, he also harbors the hope of rekindling his own boxing career. Those amateurs who do make it to the top rung of the sport face a dilemma not unlike the one faced by the great Cuban Olympians of the 1960-70s. They can continue to fight for the collective good as amateurs or decide to go pro and risk the economic punishments that come with failure. American professionals have confronted many of the same roadblocks, without the security of state-supported facilities. In addition to the scenes shot at the school and competitive events, Chang emphasizes the natural beauty of the province, where the men, women and children not similarly gifted labor in the fields cutting tobacco. The DVD includes 30 minutes of deleted scenes.

I didn’t see any photos of Bruce Lee alongside those of the many champion boxers in Qi’s bedroom, but the fighters had one thing in common, at least, besides being Chinese. Although Lee remains one of the most admired practitioners of martial arts, he studied boxing techniques and combined them with his expertise at wing chun karate. That’s one of the things I learned while watching the new bio-doc, “I Am Bruce Lee.” In it, former lightweight boxing champion Ray “Boom Boom” Mancini testifies as to Lee’s influence on him and, when asked, how he might have gone about a face-to-face challenge. UFC president Dana White suggests that Lee was the “father of mixed martial arts.” There have been several documentaries and profiles of Lee in the nearly 40 years since his death, at 32, but none that’s as well made, wide ranging and disparately sourced. Besides White and Mancini, those interviewed are Kobe Bryant, boxer Manny Pacquiao, actors Mickey Rourke and Ed O’Neill, musician Taboo, veteran martial artists Dan Inosanto, Richard Bustillo, Bob Wall, Gina Carano and Gene LeBell; and Lee’s daughter, Shannon Lee, wife, Linda Lee Cadwell, and honorary niece, Diana Lee Inosanto. Pete McCormack’s film also contains dozens of clips from martial arts action films and rare archival footage, and a discussion about the myths and circumstances surrounding his death. All bio-docs should be as solid as “I Am Bruce Lee.” The Blu-ray adds several more clips, including Lee’s Hollywood screen test. – Gary Dretzka

Detropia
Battle for Brooklyn
For most of the last 40 years, Detroit has been the civic personification of dystopia-American style. Instead of maintaining its status as a 143-square-mile symbol of this country’s industrial might, the grand city became the capital of the Rust Belt. Detroit might have disappeared altogether if the government didn’t bail out its automakers when the recent depression hit. I wonder if Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady’s “Detropia” didn’t begin its life as a eulogy, but, as the bail-out worked its magic, change direction by offering a sliver of optimism to viewers. Unlike the congressmen and conservatives who argued against the rescue effort, the people we meet in “Detropia” have lived and worked in the city for decades. Some came here to escape racism in the Jim Crow South, while others moved to Detroit to build the tank, trucks and planes that would be needed to win World War II. The unions helped these people move into the middle class and give their children the choice of going to college, serving their country in uniform or making more cars and trucks. Their stories play out against a background of the urban decay, local watering holes and an opera representing traditional Motor City culture, which was largely backed by GM, Chrysler and Ford. Some of the witnesses are flat broke and hopeless, while others continue to fight the good fight. It’s an interesting document, if incomplete. Two questions remain: what would Detroit look like today if Mitt Romney and his cronies had convinced Congress not to bail out the automakers? The other, “What will Detroit look like in two or three years, given the current upswing in the auto industry.”

Likewise, Michael Galinsky and Suki Hawley’s “Battle of Brooklyn” describes what can happen when politics and capitalism merge for only some of the right reasons. The documentary describes one small community’s lonely, Sisyphean battle to block a land grab by some of the wealthiest and powerful people in New York. As is so often the case, a developer went behind the backs of residents and their representatives to push through a project of dubious need and value to Brooklyn. In this case, it was Forest City Ratner’s Atlantic Yards sports complex in a largely industrial, partially residential area of the borough. A similar thing happened to the working-class residents of Chavez Ravine, when the Dodgers moved to L.A., and when Chicago’s United Center chewed up more of the blighted West Side than the Stadium already had. The lure of bringing one of the NBA’s worst teams to the borough and, with it, food courts, mini-malls, discount stores and movie theaters was too great a temptation for city and state authorities to resist. Instead of low-rise housing, the company wanted to create the densest upscale real-estate development in U.S. history. In doing so, Ratner dangled the promise of jobs to the largely African-American Brooklynites – as if New York unions could be told who to hire — and the benefits of the so-called halo-effect before small businesses.

In this way, it split the community and painted the residents of the target neighborhood as the bad guys. Meanwhile, Ratner was paying off pro-development activists and clergy from outside the neighborhood. All along, though, the fix was in. Government agencies were already in bed with the company and no pissant neighborhood group was going to prevent them for getting access to luxury boxes, campaign contributions and outright bribes. The David in this confrontation is represented by Daniel Goldstein, a resident who, for seven years, refused to buckle to the misuse of “eminent domain” abuses. Goldstein and his supporters refused to take “no” for an answer and fought the case against eminent domain as far as it would go. Finally, the smugness that oozes from the faces of the developers tells everything that needs to be said about the results of the campaign. In the film’s postscript, it’s duly noted that almost none of the promises made by Forest City Ratner came to pass, except the sports arena, and New York taxpayers are paying for those shortfalls in company profits that didn’t include executive compensation. – Gary Dretzka

The Last Fall
Writer/director Matthew A. Cherry played wide receiver in the NFL before turning to the music-video game and, with “The Last Fall,” his first feature film. Its protagonist, not surprisingly, is a wide receiver who’s just been relieved of his duties on a team’s practice squad. Kyle Bishop is one of many players who aspire to making a solid living, if not to achieve stardom, as a professional player. When that dream appears to end, he returns to his boyhood home with a pile of IOU’s on his plate and a chip on his shoulder. I’m not sure I buy how quickly things turn sour for Kyle, but they surely do. Although he can’t find a job, he’s able to re-establish his ties to his first girlfriend, who’s now a single mother of a nice little boy. No sooner does he give up his dreams of returning to the big show and getting married, he gets a call from his agent with news about a tryout in Jacksonville, where Cherry once played. Things get even more complicated when his girlfriend appears to be getting together again with her baby’s daddy. It humbles Kyle, a self-centered man who could use some help in that department. “The Last Fall” may be quite a bit too melodramatic for its own good, but underserved “urban” audiences might enjoy watching such actors as Lance Gross, Nicole Beharie, Vanessa Bell Calloway, Obba Babatunde, Keith David and Darrin Dwight Hanson. – Gary Dretzka

30 Nights of Paranormal Activity With the Devil Inside the Girl With the Dragon Tattoo: Blu-ray
The Golden Age of Movie Parodies is long past, so fans of the genre are forced to take what they get these days. Sadly, most of these straight-to-video spoofs have been no funnier than the movies, TV shows and commercials they purport to lampoon. Somehow, Craig Moss’ “30 Nights of Paranormal Activity With the Devil Inside the Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” has managed to elevate itself above the usual junk. This isn’t to imply it’s in the same league as “Blazing Saddles,” “Airplane!” or “I’m Gonna Git You Sucka,” just that it’s a step or two more entertaining than the stuff churned out by Jason Friedberg and Aaron Seltzer, including “Meet the Spartans,” “Disaster Movie,” “Vampires Suck” and “Epic Movie.” In fact, it’s noticeably better than Moss’ own “Breaking Wind” and “41-Year-Old Virgin Who Knocked Up Sarah Marshall.” Perhaps, that’s because Kathryn Fiore, Flip Schultz, Olivia Alexandra, French Stewart and Danny Woodson are more polished comedians than the stars of his other movies, or it could simply mean the found-footage subgenre is so much richer. “30 Nights” begins with the opening of a storage locker by women who won a bidding war on “Storage Wars.” Besides Adele, who’s performing at a piano when she isn’t eating, the only treasure to be found inside the locker in a VHS cassette labeled “found footage.”

Fiore and Schultz move into a house that shows signs of being haunted, so they immediately hire a security firm to install cameras in every conceivable corner, as the families in the “Paranormal Activity” did. They also hire a cut-rate Ghostbusters operation, Ghost Brothers. In this way, too, they can monitor the activities of their year-old baby and a teenage daughter who takes her fashion cues from Lisbeth Salander. The teenager attracts the attention of their next-door neighbor, Abraham Lincoln, and a pair of lesbian vampires. Eventually, the parents get used to being haunted and are able to sleep through whatever tricks the ghosts play on them. This, of course, only serves to piss off the resident poltergeists. The riffs on “Paranormal Activity” are pretty effective, as is a parody of “Black Swan” performed by the couple’s gay nanny. If any of that sounds funny to you, a rental wouldn’t be the worst investment in time and money. If not, don’t bother. The Blu-ray adds a short making-of featurette. – Gary Dretzka

Joan Rivers: Don’t Start With Me
Harland Williams: A Force of Nature
Don Rickles has spent most of the last 50 years hurling insults at fans and celebrities, alike. Legend has it that he made his bones in the 1950s by poking fun at Frank Sinatra, who was catching his act in a Miami Beach nightclub. Instead of telling his bodyguards to beat the crap out of him, Sinatra told all of his friends to catch his act. And, late at night in the lounge of Las Vegas’ Sahara Hotel, they did. Besides a few mild racial and ethnic jabs, the worst thing he called anyone was a “hockey puck.” I mention this after watching Joan Rivers’ latest in-performance DVD, “Don’t Start With Me.” Now, that’s some mean-ass shtick. While still plenty funny, her material tests the invisible borders drawn between insult comedy and character assassination. And her targets aren’t limited to such newsmakers as Chaz Bono, Oprah and Gayle, Angelina Jolie and the Kardashians. It’s when she wrings laughs out of the “gift shop” at Auschwitz, Anne Frank’s one-book career, Jacqueline Kennedy’s wild side and other personalities too dead to fire back bon mots. I think I can recall many of the same sexually oriented gags from 20 years ago, but, for those whose ears are younger than mine, it still brings the house down. In this case, the “house” is the grand old Chicago Theater, only a couple miles from the venerable Second City troupe’s Old Town headquarters, where Rivers got her start. “Don’t Start With Me” originally was shown on Showtime and, unfortunately, doesn’t include bonus features.

In “A Force of Nature,” Harland Williams attempts to answer the question, “If a comedian performs atop a hill in the desert and no one is there to hear him, does he get laughs?” The deafening silence that greets Williams after each of his frequently scatological observations suggests that the answer is emphatically “no.” Neither does he elicit much of a response when he turns his back to the camera and pisses off the edge of his “stage” deep in the Mojave. This isn’t to imply that the Toronto native isn’t funny or that, all things considered, the tortoise and crow he uses as second-bananas upstage him. Mostly, it proves that in-performance DVDs tend to fare better with a live audience there to validate the comic’s humor. Originally staged for Showtime, “Force of Nature” benefits most from the lively cinematography, which probably was accomplished with cameras positioned on tall cranes. Usually in televised comedy performances, the last thing viewers are supposed to notice is the camerawork. Here, the desert background often is more interesting than the material. You do have to give Williams some credit, though, for attempting such an experiment. Although “Force of Nature” falls short of being surreal, it’s never short of weird. – Gary Dretzka

BBC: The Hour 2: Blu-ray
BBC: The Adventures of Merlin: The Complete Fourth Season: Blu-ray
Doctor Who: Shada
BBC: Being Human: Season Four: Blu-ray
BBC: Waking the Dead: Complete Season Seven
BBC: Red Dwarf X: Blu-ray
BBC: Last of the Summer Wine: Vintage 1997
SCI: An Idiot Abroad 2
TNT: Men of a Certain Age: The Complete Second Season
Comparing a yet-to-air television mini-series to bona-fide hit, such as “Mad Men,” can be a blessing and a curse for a show. Such marketing boasts, even when culled from positive reviews by influential critics, may guarantee a big opening for a seemingly derivative show like the BBC’s “The Hour,” but, after a couple of weeks, it either has to justify the hype or die a very public death. While NBC’s “Playboy Club” and ABC’s “Pan Am” failed to live to the publicity material, “The Hour” was able to overcome negative reviews in the British press and become a modest hit for BBC America. (Starz’ sexy period soap “Magic City” succeeded by playing down the “Mad Man” comparisons and focusing on the Rat Pack angle and frequent nudity.) “The Hour” is set during a particularly interesting period in recent British history. Sex scandals, political corruption and revelations about espionage at the top levels of government kept the tabloid press buzzing in the 1950s, even as the country’s post-war recovery inched slowly forward. The BBC’s “The Hour” was a general-interest newsmagazine, not unlike “60 Minutes,” which kept news executives, censors and spin-doctors busy in the Cold War period. In its first season, the show’s editors and reporters bristled when they were told to spin the Suez crisis in favor of the British intervention. Sources ended up dead and spies turned up in the unlikeliest of places. Season Two finds the country in better financial straits, but with “The Hour” having to start from Square One after being forcibly put on hiatus. This time, the target of the show’s investigative team is organized crime in London’s entertainment district, as well as its reach into the pockets of police, business and government circles. The fine cast includes several actors familiar from other BBC imports. They include Ben Whishaw, Dominic West, Romola Garai, Tim Pigott-Smith, Juliet Stevenson, Burn Gorman, Anton Lessa, Anna Chancellor, Julian Rhind-Tutt and Oona Chaplin. It’s as good an hour of television that can be found this side of “Mad Men.” It comes with a making-of featurette.

The Adventures of Merlin” is to British fantasy-adventure series what “Smallville” is to comic-book heroes on big and small screens in America. The wizard Merlin has yet to grow whiskers and Arthur is still a prince. That’s not a bad angle for a series, anywhere. In the fourth go-round, Merlin is still taking bullets for Arthur and keeping the various dragons and demons at bay. Morgana shows her gratitude by doing everything in her to power to get rid of her half-brother and use Merlin as a weapon in her court. By now, it’s getting difficult to tell all of the real and fantasy players without a scorecard. By the end of the season, we’re back in familiar territory with Merlin leading Arthur to his inevitable date with the sword in the stone and remounting his campaign to return to Camelot. The set adds commentaries, deleted scenes and outtakes. After a brief fling with NBC, “Merlin” continues on Syfy.

Most of what the late Douglas Adams contributed to “Doctor Who” was done under the pseudonym David Agnew or as a script editor. “Shada” was written in the late 1970s as the final serial of the 17th season. A writers strike prevented Adams from completing it, but two short clips from the unfinished episode were used in the 1983 special episode, “The Five Doctors.” The new DVD contains the “Fourth Doctor” story, newly restored from original film negatives and studio recordings. It linked material from the Tom Baker years, 1974-81, and the 1993 anniversary special, “More Than 30 Years in the Tardis.” As usual, the BBC release adds a bunch background material on the episode, the writers’ strike, interviews, PDF material and, from 2003, an audio book/Flash animation for BBC Interactive. The remade version starred Paul McGann, as the Doctor, with Lalla Ward reprising her role as Romana and John Leeson as K-9.

It’s getting tough to keep the new DVD compilations of “Being Human” straight. Two weeks ago, the second season of the American/Canadian remake, shown on Syfy, was shipped and this week’s release is from the BBC and BBC America version, which, later in 2013, will enter its fifth season. Things are getting tough in Honolulu Heights, where Annie gets two new supernatural roommates, Tom and Hal, and the late Nina’s human baby, dubbed the Chosen One.  Drastic measures need to be taken to avoid mutual-assured destruction of ghosts, vampires and werewolves. They come in the form of extreme sacrifices, emotionally and physically. It’s pretty exciting, really. The Blu-ray adds deleted scenes, interviews and a behind-the-scenes featurette.

The terrific BBC and BBC America police-procedural series, “Waking the Dead,” has already bit the dust in England, but three DVD compilations remain extant in the U.S. Season Seven is comprised of six two-part investigations for the Cold Case Squad to solve. They deal with international terrorism, private military contractors, the penal system, sex offenders, Navajo rituals, human trafficking and neo-Nazi politics to close more previously unsolved cases. Boyd’s son, who’s been missing for seven years, also makes a surprise reappearance this season.

The British sci-fi comedy franchise, “Red Dwarf,” has been making Brits laugh since 1988, with several hiatus periods between then and now. If Mel Brooks, the co-writer/director of “Space Balls,” had agreed to do produce one of the “Star Trek” spinoffs, it might have looked a lot like “Red Dwarf.” Although not a monster hit, the series spun off books, music, magazine, role-playing game and other merchandise. A pilot for an American version was shot, but never shown, and a feature film apparently has been in early stages of development since 1999. “Red Dwarf X,” the tenth iteration of the series, reunites the original cast of Chris Barrie, Craig Charles, Danny John-Jules and Robert Llewellyn as passengers on the Red Dwarf mining ship (Kryten). One is the last known human alive, while the crew members are a hologram of the captain’s long-dead bunkmate and humanoid versions of a computer and a cat. In one of the adventures included in the new six-hour compilation, they are transported back in time several million years, to Roman-held Palestine in 23 A.D. It’s here that they meet Jesus and Judas, in a storyline no American sitcom would touch in a million light years. The Blu-ray adds the feature-length documentary, “We’re Smegged,” outtakes and deleted scenes.

Love is in the air during the 18th season of the venerable Brit comedy, “Last of the Summer Wine,” in which geezers Compo, Clegg and Foggy attempt to squeeze as much mischief out of their twilight years as possible. In what turns out to be Foggy’s last year among us, the trio joins the cast of a horror movie being shot in town, become fodder for a new dating service and “help” a hiker writing a guidebook. In an effort to cop a kiss from Nora Batty, Compo buys a motorbike from Auntie Wainwright to impress her. The set includes the 1996 New Year’s Eve special, “Extra! Extra!”

Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant’s hilariously masochistic travel show, “An Idiot Abroad,” is an unlikely hybrid of “Jackass,” “No Reservations” and “Malcolm in the Middle,” with their masochistic buddy Karl Pilkington serving as human guinea pig and village idiot. They previously collaborated on HBO’s animated talk show, “The Ricky Gervais Show,” in which Pilkington’s birdbrain theories also provided most of the laughs. In Season 2, the show’s co-creators asked Pilkington to come up with a Bucket List of things he’d like to do before he died. After the concept is explained to him in painfully obviously terms, the knucklehead is handed airline ticket to several exotic locations in the company of a sound and camera crew. Invariably, Gervais finds ways to turn these dream destinations into living nightmares. For instance, instead of being allowed to swim with dolphins, as requested, he’s required to jump into a shark cage off the Australian coast and act the fool to grab the attention of a Great Shark. Similarly, before he can get a glimpse of a whale in the seas off Alaska, he must spend a few days enduring some of the coldest weather on the planet, traipsing around on snowshoes and helping the driver of a “honey wagon” picking up near-frozen human excrement. Pilkington’s love of monkeys and primate lore provided lots of laughs on the talk show, but when confronted with hundreds of the thieving bastards in a reserve, he quickly changed his mind. Also in Thailand, he visited a cobra habitat and shared with the owner a lunch of ants, bugs and other unsavory treats. In addition to being very funny, “An Idiot Abroad” takes viewers to places that most tourists would never dream of going.

Of all the shows that didn’t get renewed for a third season last year, TNT’s “Men of a Certain Age” created the largest vacuum in my playlist of favorites. It told the story of three longtime friends, who, while on cusp of 50, were experiencing many of the same problems and a few of the joys of other guys in the same middle-class, suburban demographic. Sounds dreary, but the series pretty much told it like it is, without dramatic embellishments or convenient fixes for difficult situations. Even after filtering the realistically profane dialogue, I think “Men of a Certain Age” might have fared better on network television, if only because it would be easier for men to find without a GPS devise and the stars already had proven themselves in popular series. Co-creator Ray Romano plays Joe, the recently divorced owner of a party-supply store and father of two. He’s a recovering gambling addict and dreams of joining the senior golf tour. Owen (Andre Braugher) works at his father-in-law’s car dealership and, if he didn’t love his wife as much as he does, probably would have killed the old goat by now. Terry (Scott Bakula) is an actor whose age works against him when seeking parts and, in the meantime, manages an apartment complex. They get together on a regular basis for breakfast, hikes and fairly standard guy talk. It’s their interaction with women and co-workers that provides the most laughs. In the second and final season, the characters turn 50, an age that comes with more baggage than almost any other milestone. What’s nice is the easy rapport the men share and concern for each other’s well-being. That, and an insistence that live doesn’t have to end at 50. The DVD adds a gag reel, deleted scenes, audio commentary, a behind-the-scenes featurette, “The Bitter/Sweet 50” and music video. – Gary Dretzka

Cartoon Network: Amazing World of Gumball: The Mystery
Nickelodeon: SpongeBob SquarePants: Extreme Kah-Rah-Tay
Nick Jr.: Let’s Learn: ABCs/Let’s Learn: 1, 2, 3s
The new arrivals to the Peanut Gallery are noted duly: No one gets cheated the “Gumball” compilations, which both have logged in at 132 minutes … an eternity by the standards of too many DVDs targeted at kids. This time, the award-winning British/American co-production finds the 12-year-old cat still making trouble at a time when his peers have gotten fat and lazy. Here, he’s chased around school by a T-Rex; has a friend named Anton, who’s literally a piece of toast; develops a crush on Penny, a peanut with antlers. For the uninitiated, Gumball’s dad is a 6-foot-4 bunny; mom works at a Rainbow Factory; and his brother is a goldfish named Darwin.

In the new SpongeBob collection, “Extreme Kah-Rah-Tay,” the emphasis is on sports and competition. Of the eight episodes, only two focus on martial arts and Sandy’s sensei. The rest are funny, but in the extreme.

Your youngest viewers can get a head start on their A, B, C’s and 1, 2, 3’s with the help of their friends from various Nick Jr. shows. The “Let’s Learn” series provides lessons that are both useful and entertaining. – Gary Dretzka

The DVD Wrapup

Tuesday, January 8th, 2013

Frankenweenie: Blu-ray
There are all sorts of good reasons to recommend Tim Burton’s animated re-launch of his 1984 live-action short, “Frankenweenie.” Besides looking and sounding terrific in Blu-ray 2D and 3D, it could provide an excellent introduction to the classic-horror genre for pre-teens. It’s a short step from Disney’s “Frankenweenie,” to the recently released into Blu-ray, “Universal Classic Monsters: The Essential Collection,” which includes nicely rendered editions of “Frankenstein” and “The Bride of Frankenstein.” The story is essentially the same, except that it takes place in a typical American suburb and the re-animated creature is young Victor Frankenstein’s pit bull. Before being run over by an automobile while chasing a ball, Sparky played monsters in Victor’s homemade flicks. Inspired by Mary Shelley’s novel and his school’s new science teacher – Martin Landau’s voice, but Vincent Price’s face and body – he decides to dig up Sparky and get ready for the next life-generating lightning storm. The experiment is successful, of course, but the dog’s newfound friskiness freaks out the neighbors. Worse, Victor lets slip the specs to his science-fair partner Edgar “E” Gore, who promptly begins an even more ambitious reanimation project. Soon, the entire town is infested with undead pets. Unlike Sparky and Edgar’s goldfish, the newly arrived monsters are genuinely frightening mutations caused by inexact lightning strikes. The enduring lesson, “When men play God, no one wins,” proves as relevant today as when it was first introduced in Shelley’s novel. Even a 10-year-old can take that much away from “Frankenweenie.”

How much older viewers will appreciate the “Frankenweenie” revamp depends on several Burton-specific questions, all of which might have impacted the movie’s lackluster box-office performance. (I suspect that it will do just fine in DVD and Blu-ray.)  As has been his wont lately, Burton adds several layers of conceits on what began as an unpretentious and highly inventive 29-minute short. The list is topped by Burton’s risky decision to maintain the black-and-white presentation, which paid homage to the Universal originals in short-form, but gets old after the 45-minute mark here. Adding an hour’s worth of new material, however clever, also tests the patience of viewers. Although hipsters and Burton loyalists will dig the many references, nods and winks to his previous movies and vintage horror flicks, some viewers may be disappointed by the absence of footnotes in the DVD package or explanations in a commentary track. Burton’s a pioneer in stop-action animation and the characters are well rendered throughout the movie. It remains uncertain, however, if “Frankenweenie” suffered commercially from overfamiliarity with his previous efforts or it was too similar to “ParaNorman,” which it resembles thematically and was released near the end of summer. Who’s to say, though, how much of a bang Disney got for its cross-platform and ancillary-products bucks? Even with a budget nut of an estimated $39 million, stop-action movies built on the scale of “Frankenweenie” might still prove to be sound investments in the worldwide marketplace. Fortunately, that’s not a cross audiences are required to bear.

Apart from the lack of a commentary track, fans of the movie should enjoy a bonus package that includes the original live-action short, which starred Barret Oliver, Shelley Duvall, Daniel Stern, Sofia Coppola and Paul Bartel; the new stop-action short, “Captain Sparky vs. The Flying Saucers,” with Victor and Sparky; the informative making-of featurette, “Miniatures in Motion”; a music video; and a piece on the “Frankenweenie” traveling exhibit. Did I forget to mention that the voicing cast for “Frankenweenie” includes Catherine O’Hara, Martin Short, Atticus Shaffer, Charlie Tahan, Winona Ryder, Conchata Ferrell, James Hiroyuki Liao and Frank Welker. As usual, the music is supplied by Danny Elfman. – Gary Dretzka

House at the End of the Street: Unrated: Blu-ray
Anyone who doubts the marquee value of 2012’s Female Flavor of the Year, Jennifer Lawrence, ought to consider her ability to wring a substantial profit from the otherwise undistinguished slasher thriller, “House at the End of the Street.” Her star-turn in “The Hunger Games” and well-earned kudos for “Silver Linings Playbook” might even prompt someone to take a chance on the unreleased “The Devil You Know” or spark some renewed interest in “The Beaver.” That one, though, would likely require the help of a miracle worker. While “House at the End of the Street” could hardly be considered a blockbuster, it returned some $31.6 million on an estimated investment of $7 million. Even taking marketing costs into account that represents a tidy chunk of change for a movie that had straight-to-DVD written all over it. Here, Lawrence plays an independent-minded teenager, Elissa, who, along with her recently divorced mom, Sarah (Elisabeth Shue), moves into a house within spitting distance of a horrifying crime scene. Years earlier, a young girl slaughtered her mother and father for no apparent reason and she’s either still on the lam or dead. Her older brother, Ryan (Max Thieriot), has since moved back into the house and is maintaining a low profile around town. Upon learning of the house’s sordid history, Elissa naturally is anxious to learn everything there is to know about Ryan. Clearly, she hasn’t watched enough horror movies to know that no good can come from nosing around the house at the end of the street or someone who would live in such a place. Ryan’s a nice guy, but one who doesn’t give up his secrets lightly. It wouldn’t take a genius-level IQ or graduate degree in horror studies to guess what happens during the rest of “House.” Once Ryan’s secret is revealed, the movie pretty much unspools with the same bolts out of the blue and jarring musical cues as nearly every post- “Psycho” thriller. Its modest budget does allow for some extremely effective sound effects, which are milked for every decibel they can muster. In this way and others, director Mark Tonderai adds some drama to a story that was predictable and thread-worn from the get-go. Lawrence’s younger fans should find something here to enjoy, even if hardened horror and slasher buffs won’t. The Blu-ray adds a run-of-the-mill making-of featurette and trailers. – Gary Dretzka

Dredd: Blu-ray
I don’t pretend to know what makes one comic-book character a bankable protagonist in a big-budget, action-filled thriller and another superhero a bust. In hindsight, Batman, Superman and Spider-Man may look as if they were no-brainers, but it’s likely that one or two studio executives, at least, sweated out their opening weekends. On paper, “Howard the Duck” probably looked like a no-brainer to its investors, too. Without doing the math, I’d guess that only about half of the comic-book epics make enough money in their initial run to warrant immediate plans for a sequel. Despite its British roots and longevity, the Judge Dredd seemed to be a perfectly reasonable candidate for success among the teen- and fan-boy crowd. The “2000 AD” comic book series from which “Dredd” emerged is smart, witty and full of creatively rendered fantasy violence. Perhaps, the lack of commercial appeal for the 1995 and 2012 screen adaptations can be laid on the moral ambiguity of the protagonist, which plays better on paper than on the screen. As cop, judge and executioner, it must have been difficult for popcorn-chomping viewers to discern whether Dredd is an honorable character in a chaotic world or merely a tool in the maintenance of that chaos. For example, the iconic symbols on Dredd’s uniform and motorcycle betray both fascist and pro-democracy sentiments. It was the clear intention of the authors to portray him as a good guy and a bad ass simultaneously. The fact that we can’t see Dredd’s eyes through his helmet and face guard suggests he has something to hide that the Lone Ranger didn’t. Of course, moral ambiguity hasn’t hurt the ratings of “Sons of Anarchy.”

The vibes emanating from the set of “Judge Dredd” – Sylvester Stallone clashed continually with the director – were so negative as to put a curse on its box-office potential. It’s a good thing that “Dredd” is far less star-driven than the original. Kiwi pretty boy Karl Urban may be a household name in Auckland, but, on screen here, as in the comic book, it’s the character that matters most. It can be argued that the set designer deserves equal billing with Urban. The high-rise Mega City One setting is full of eye-catching elements and contours drawn to take full advantage of the 3D option. Mega City One is a sprawling metropolis, spanning Boston and Washington, with residential towers sprouting up like corn in Iowa (which no longer is fertile or habitable). Each building exists as a self-contained neighborhood, with shops, utilities, manufacturers and apartments stacked on top of one another. Therein reside people who want to live in harmony with their neighbors and gang-bangers who treat Mega City One as a target-rich environment. Apparently, American lawmakers are still committed to fighting the great unwinnable drug war, as Dredd’s primary target here is a prostitute-turned-pusher, Ma-Ma (Lena Headey), who sells a powerful new substance called Slo-Mo. On this particular day in the life of Dredd, the enforcer is paired with a pretty, young and un-helmeted rookie with psychic powers. Since there’s no real way to stop the drug trade, they must settle for taking a stab at quelling a gang war in the self-contained slum. That’s about it, except for the fun of watching Ma-Ma’s enemies falling to their deaths from the roof of the 200-story-high building and landing in a splash of 3D gore. The 2D and 3D Blu-ray packages come with a half-dozen making-of featurettes explaining the character, his comic roots and the production challenges. – Gary Dretzka

Lapland Odyssey
What does it say about western culture that movies about slackers and underachievers have translated so easily from English into languages ranging from Spanish to Sami, the native tongue of Laplanders? The characters who populate director Dome Karukoski and writer Pekko Personen’s often very funny “Lapland Odyssey” may not be as fundamentally inert as those in such American entertainments as “My Name Is Earl,” “Get a Life,” “Slacker,” “Mallrats” and “The Big Lebowski,” but they’re cut from the same mold. Enduring the seemingly eternal darkness of winter north of the Arctic Circle is a difficult enough task for ambitious and motivated Finns. For those not similarly inclined, life is complicated by a scarcity of jobs and the tendency of marriage-age women, especially, to head for larger cities directly after graduating high school. Without a wife, who will subsidize the slackers’ addiction to alcohol and cigarettes? (“Lapland Odyssey” is decidedly not a stoner flick, although similarities abound.) Here, the movie’s central dilemma concerns Janne, who’s been on the dole since losing his job five years earlier. Janne’s married to Inari, a stunning blond in a country that apparently is flush with such beauties. One day, Inari stirs her husband from his midday sleep, in order for him to pick up a “digibox” cable converter before the local electronics store closes and “Titanic” begins. Naturally, he stops first at a tavern, where he imbibes a few eye-openers with two of his closest buddies. Although the store is next door to the bar, he arrives too late to convince the owner to cut him a break. Because Janne’s already blown most of the money on beer, the merchant isn’t motivated to unlock the door.

It is at this point that Janne’s excellent adventure begins and the film’s trio of slackers kicks into action in support of their buddy. Before locating a store that stays open into the wee hours, the lads must come up with the money to afford the device. When Janne informs Inari that he won’t be able to make the “Titanic” deadline, she gives him an ultimatum: either return home with the digibox by morning or forever lose the best thing he’s ever likely to have … her. There’s no reason to ruin the fun, except to say that “Lapland Odyssey” takes advantage of the region’s unique natural beauty and the wintertime customs of its residents. Indeed, the characters spend more time in hot tubs than John Cusack, Rob Corddry and Craig Robinson did in the entirety of “Hot Tub Time Machine.” Beyond the nearly 24 hours of darkness, the film is informed by the same aura of gloom and doom that marked Ingmar Bergman’s films. The specter of suicide looms large over “Lapland Odyssey,” but not in a particularly humorous way. Somehow, Karukoski makes this element work, without putting a damper on the proceedings. We’re told that “Lapland Odyssey” was a huge success in Finland, breaking all sorts of box-records. American viewers probably wouldn’t find the humor to be as uproarious as the average Finn or Lap, if only because we’re more familiar with the sub-genre. Fans of offbeat international fare should find a lot to enjoy, however. The DVD comes with an eight-page booklet with an introduction by and interview with the director, as well as an interesting short film, “Burungo,” shot in Africa. – Gary Dretzka

SEAL Team Six: The Raid on Osama Bin Laden: Blu-ray
Mitt Romney’s campaign advisers were none too pleased to learn that the Weinstein Company’s made-for-cable depiction of the raid on Osama bin Laden’s headquarters would air two days before Election Day. Knowing that ardent Obama supporter Harvey Weinstein was the driving force behind the project, Republican propagandists acted as if the President would be portrayed as being a member of the assault force, not simply an interested observer. By complaining far too vehemently, they gave all sorts of free publicity to a movie that, after all, was debuting on the National Geographic Channel and not in theaters. Of course, TV critics felt it necessary to mention the controversy in their reviews and some probably shaded their responses with the usual cynicism that accompanies such tempests in a tea pot. Fact is, though, anyone whose mind wasn’t already made up by the time “SEAL Team Six: The Raid on Osama Bin Laden” was shown almost certainly wouldn’t be swayed by the President’s presence solely in news clips. It would have been ludicrous for a filmmaker to leave Obama out of the narrative. If anything, I think that Republicans caught something of a break when the screenwriter didn’t directly link the Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld team to the debacle at Tora-Bora. If Bin Laden and Mullah Omar had been killed or captured there, instead of being given the time and space to escape, the war might have ended in 2001. Quibbles over “SEAL Team Six” and “Zero Dark Thirty” would be moot.

Judged purely by the standards used to evaluate made-for-TV movies, “SEAL Team Six” stands up to criticism pretty well, I think. I’ve seen plenty of movies rushed into release after an important global event and most of them have looked forced and anemic, compared to the circumstances described. Director John Stockwell has directed several action features, including “Blue Crush,” “Into the Blue” and “Turistas,” and acted in a couple dozen others. He displays a good understanding of pace and tone and benefitted, as well, from Peter Holland’s above-average cinematography. Not surprisingly, very few risks are taken in the narrative, although it’s legitimate to wonder where first-time writer Kendall Lampkin got some of the stuff involving strained relations within the team. I have yet to see “Zero Dark Thirty,” but I would guess that the budget it was accorded was many times greater than the one allowed Stockwell. Much has been made of the torture sequence in “ZDT,” but, here, it’s the threat of torture that elicits the first solid lead. Cam Gigandet, Anson Mount, William Fichtner and Kathleen Robertson stand out in what essentially is an ensemble cast. The Blu-ray includes a making-of feature. – Gary Dretzka

Sleep Tight: Blu-ray
To the extent that Spanish filmmaker Jaume Balaguero is known in this country, it’s as the writer/director of the found-footage thrillers [Rec] and [Rec]2, which were remade here as “Quarantine” and “Quarantine 2: Terminal.” Fans of those movies should know that “Sleep Tight,” while supremely creepy, is a very different sort of horror film. I wouldn’t be surprised if someone in Hollywood decided to remake “Sleep Tight,” as well, but not limit the marketing to horror lovers. After all, Alberto Marini wrote the screenplay with the idea of staging the story in New York, using one or two Spanish actors in the lead roles. But, why wait? “Sleep Tight” is an exceedingly intelligent and genuinely surprising thriller, whose antagonist is as much a monster as Hannibal Lecter. The superb Spanish leading man, Luis Tosar, plays a concierge in a distinguished Barcelona apartment building. Although Cesar comes in contact with dozens of people every day, most of them couldn’t pick him out of a lineup. Those with whom he’s friendly have allowed him access to their apartments to fix various problems and he’s also been entrusted with the walking of their dogs. In return for their trust, this amiable sociopath resents everything about them, especially their happiness and complacency. In fact, Cesar has been unhappy and bitter since he was old enough to hold a grudge and his only satisfaction in life comes from making other people as miserable as he is. Tosar could hardly have been a better choice for the role. He reminds me very much of John Malkovich, whose characters frequently harbor dark and dangerous sentiments. The ability to conceal inner-most thoughts and secrets allows both actors to assume roles in genres not limited to horror and drama. Moreover, their mostly bald pates automatically distinguish them from 95 percent of leading men in the movies.

The first time we meet Cesar, he’s sleeping with a pretty resident, Clara (Marta Etura), who we’ll soon learn is his polar opposite in temperament and overall goodness. Within moments, Balaguero lets us in on the first deep secret in “Sleep Tight.” In fact, the reason Cesar is allowed on Clara’s mattress is that she’s had no choice in the matter. In his off hours, the concierge sneaks into her apartment and lays in wait for her underneath the bed. When he’s sure that Clara’s asleep, Cesar climbs out from his hidey-hole, doses her with chloroform and sets time-release traps that are designed to slowly, but surely drive her crazy. If there’s any time left over, Cesar will climb into her bed and spoon with his comatose victim. One early morning, a pre-teen neighbor girl catches the concierge sneaking out of Clara’s apartment and not for the first time. Apparently, she’s been blackmailing Cesar and tormenting him with strange demands. The odds against finding two sociopaths living under the same roof are pretty great, even in the horror genre, but it only adds to the, er, fun. If you think these revelations should have been prefaced with a spoiler alert, know that here are several more layers of intrigue protecting Balaguero’s narrative scheme from being ruined. In this way, “Sleep Tight” can legitimately be described as Hitchcockian. The Blu-ray arrives with a making-of featurette that’s almost as long as the feature, itself. – Gary Dretzka

Samsara: Blu-ray
About half-way through Rick Fricke’s New Age travelogue, “Samsara,” I was struck by the thought that this spectacularly beautiful movie could double as an advertisement targeted at intergalactic tourists thinking of visiting Earth for the very first time. Filmed over a four-year period in more than 25 countries, Fricke’s follow-up to his 1992 spiritual essay, “Baraka,” explores the birth, death and rebirth cycle experienced by people both in developed and undeveloped parts of the Earth. (“Samsara” is Sanskrit for “cyclic existence.”) That Fricke served as cinematographer on Godfrey Reggio’s “Koyaanisqatsi” is something lovers of that amazing documentary might already have guessed. The scenes of great natural beauty flow by in much the same brilliant fashion, as do tightly focused images of death and ritualistic ceremonies. (In one scene, a prominent outlaw is laid to rest in a coffin built to resemble a sawed-off shotgun.) Instead of Philip Glass, the riveting soundtrack was created by Marcello De Francisci, Lisa Gerrard and Michael Stearns. The effect is the same, however.

According to the press material, “Samsara” is the first feature-length film since Kenneth Branagh’s “Hamlet” (1996) to be shot entirely on 70mm film. The high-resolution camera work seems several steps ahead of that production, though. It precisely captures the breathtaking beauty and spiritual significance of such locations as Petra, Jordan; Giza, Egypt; the Himalayas of Nepal and Tibet; Epupa Falls, Angola; Yosemite and Zion national parks; Mecca and the Wailing Wall; Versailles; and Sossusvlei, Nambia. Shots of modern Dubai aren’t terribly beautiful, but they are breathtaking. The depictions of animals being led to the slaughter or too fat to do anything but eat and breed are nothing less than sobering. The images that likely will stay with viewers the longest, however, are the ones that bookend “Samara.” In them, we join a dozen young monks-in-training as they watch a Buddhist holy man painstakingly create an incredibly intricate sand mandala. When the students unexpectedly engage in the ritual destruction of the mandala, in advance of the closing credits, it hits us like a sucker punch. Needless to say, Blu-ray is the preferred format by which to savor “Samsara” from both a video and sonic perspective. It arrives with a 50-minute behind-the-scenes featurette. – Gary Dretzka

The Wise Kids
Stella Days
Stephen Cone’s warmly received coming-of-age drama, “The Wise Kids,” demands to be taken seriously by viewers who’ve almost written off the early fruits of the faith-based genre for being half-baked, off-target and completely dependent on easy answers to difficult questions. (“Let’s pray on it” and “It’s just part of God’s plan” are the all-purpose solutions to problems.) Unlike most other producers of so-called Christian entertainments, Cone assumes that the potential audience for his film is sufficiently mature to handle characters that are openly gay, losing their religion, unabashedly hypocritical, skeptical of fundamentalists and knowledgeable in subjects unrelated to scripture. Most of them desperately want to leave room for God in their daily activities and beliefs, even when they feel abandoned by him. Neither are they embarrassed to admit that they believe in the power of prayer and willingly participate in even the corniest of church activities. They’re probably just as appalled by the ravings of such right-wing tele-evangelists as Pat Robertson as any non-believer. Cone was raised in just such a community and his intention in making “The Wise Kids” was to remind viewers that Christianity and bigotry don’t necessarily go hand-in-hand.

“The Wise Kids” is set in and around a South Carolina Baptist church, where several of the teenage parishioners are preparing for their next great adventure, college. The three key teen characters are preacher’s daughter, Brea who has begun to question why religious branding is passed from parents to children, as if it were coded in our DNA; the intensely devout Laura, who is afraid of losing her best friends — physically and spiritually — to the temptations of big-city life; and Tim, whose homosexuality is the worst-kept secret in town. Among the adults, Cone is fine as director of the church’s Easter and Christmas pageants and someone who’s grappling with his own sexuality. His wife, meanwhile, hopes to fill the growing gap between them with the affections of a married youth counselor. The pastor, too, seems open to ideas that don’t begin and end with an affirmation of Creationist principles. Everyone’s tolerant of the others’ beliefs and practices, even if they don’t particularly agree with them. The church and its members remind me of those embraced by Hollywood for decades as representative of democratic ideals and liberties guaranteed by the Bill of Rights. That image has been shattered by scandals in the Catholic Church and the ravings of fundamentalists of all stripes who’ve declared war on same-sex marriage, reproductive rights and Darwinism, as taught in godless public schools. If “The Wise Kids” suffers from an anemic budget and production values, the young actors, especially, seem anxious to prove that they’re ready to take their careers to the next level, just like their characters. The bonus package includes a look at the bare-bones production, which took place in Charleston, and the featurette, “Religion and Sexuality in ‘The Wise Kids.’” It also demonstrates that a faith-based movie need not be branded “family friendly” to represent basic Christian values. There are issues discussed here about which younger children need not concern themselves.

Until the recent scandals involving pedophilia and coverage of the Church’s hardline stance against same-sex marriage, screenwriters found it much easier to sell stories in which Catholic priests are key players and evangelicals are fringe characters or antagonists. (Hollywood’s never been comfortable with atheism, Islam and Judaism, except in biblical epics.) I think that’s because the pageantry of the Mass and ornate vestments lends itself to interesting visuals, as do the many traditional rites, rituals and festivals. The confessional is a great place to stage dramatic readings and demonstrate how easy it is for even the most hardened criminals to cleanse themselves of sin, in return for a few Hail Marys and Our Fathers. If only it were that easy for non-Catholics. It can also be argued that most priests are hams and nuns are somewhat tragic figures. There are plenty of Jewish characters in the movies, but what happens in synagogues tends to stay in synagogues. Protestants aren’t interesting unless they’re killing Catholics in Ireland, snake-handling or stealing money from rubes. The liabilities that come with portraying Mohammad on screen aren’t worth the benefits.

Like Spencer Tracy, Pat O’Brien, Bing Crosby and Barry Fitzgerald, Martin Sheen was born to play the kind of priest no one would be afraid to invite to a wedding or First Holy Communion party. In life and on screen, he personifies what it means to be a Catholic who honors Christ in his words and deeds, not just for an hour on Sunday mornings. To find him playing a priest in the clumsily titled Irish import, “Stella Days,” then, isn’t surprising or off-putting. His character, Father Berry, has been assigned to guide parishioners in a wee Irish town in the mid-1950s, which he considers to be punishment for disputing a Vatican posting that went to another priest. (Much like Robert DeNiro at the end of “True Confessions.”) Even so, Berry tends his flock as lovingly and conscientiously as possible. Instead of receiving a one-way ticket back to Rome when his three-year tour-of-duty ends, the bishop demands he stay put to raise money for a new church. The parish isn’t wealthy enough to afford such a project, but when Berry suggests building a movie theater to support it, the idea is met with trepidation and scorn from his superiors and a local politician (Stephen Rea) who’s so conservative he could have made the short list of possible running mates for Mitt Romney. He despises the fact that Berry is an intellectual, worldly and prepared to lead parishioners out of the dark ages of de facto Catholic rule in Ireland. One way for this to happen would be to show movies that go beyond, if not that far, the Church-approved lives-of-the-saints catalog. A showdown ensues between the forces of lightness and darkness that wouldn’t be out of place in the period described, but seems overly quaint in 2012. Besides providing some harmless entertainment, the rural Irish scenery in Thaddeus O’Sullivan’s “Stella Days” is pretty swell. – Gary Dretzka

Brooklyn Brothers Beat the Best
Screenplays about the struggles facing aspiring musicians can be purchased on the open market for a dime a dozen these days. It’s far easier to sell a mockumentary about the clichés of life on the road and Sisyphean pursuit of a career doing what musicians love to do most. Occasionally, something very special slips through the cracks, giving everyone else hope for their own project. Writer/director/star Ryan O’Nan describes “Brooklyn Brothers Beat the Best” as a cross between “Once” and “Planes, Trains & Automobiles,” in that it chronicles the trials and tribulations of a pair of oddball musicians who hope to make a living on a jerry-rigged tour of dumpy taverns, frat houses and park benches. He could have just as well have described “Brooklyn Brothers” as a hipster version of “Blues Brothers.” O’Nan plays singer-songwriter, Alex, whose morose lyrics reflect his generally bleak outlook on life and love. To make ends meet, he tries to sell real estate and occasionally gets a job dressing up in a costume and singing at senior centers and schools for special-needs kids. After losing his partner and girlfriend in one fell swoop, Alex appears ready to hang up his guitar for good. Out of the blue, he’s confronted by a truly eccentric and quite possibly insane musician, Jim (Michael Weston), who’s seen his act and wants to hook up with him for a tour he’s already booked. Jim literally drags Alex kicking and screaming into his car, where he demonstrates what he has in mind. His idea is to accompany Alex on several different instruments originally intended for use by children. The happy sound of the battery-operated keyboards and horns complements Alex’s bummer-in-the-summer lyrics in a way that could hardly be anticipated. Audiences are receptive to Brooklyn Brothers’ unique sound, but, just when it appears as if they might find a niche, the young woman who’s travelling with them as a roadie screws everything up for them. O’Nan finds an interesting way to get everyone back on the right track and “Brooklyn Brothers” ends on an unexpectedly high note. It would have benefitted immensely from a budget larger than $50,000 and, maybe, another rewrite or two. The music isn’t as memorable as that in “Once,” but it begins to grow on you after a while. Also helpful are cameos delivered by Melissa Leo, Wilmer Valderrama and Jason Ritter, as well as a meatier performance by Andrew McCarthy. The package arrives with a making-of featurettes, deleted scenes, a festival Q&A and a pair of funny shorts. – Gary Dretzka

The Assassins: Blu-ray
For western audiences, the best reason to pick up a copy of “The Assassins” probably is the appearance of Chow Yun Fat, one of the greatest action stars of the Hong Kong cinema. Others might be drawn instead to his character, Cao Cao, a highly influential and greatly feared Han Dynasty warlord and power broker, who also dabbled in poetry and the martial arts. Freshman director Zhao Linshan catches up with Cao Cao in 198 BC, after he has defeated the primary military threat to the Han emperor and is anointed the vassal King of Wei. In 210 BC, he built the magnificent Bronze Sparrow Terrace in the ancient city of Ye as a show of power and his desire to steal the beauteous Qiao sisters from their husbands. At this point in his life, Cao has made so many enemies among the relatives of his victims, as well as rulers afraid of his ambition, that he’s become an almost constant target of assassins. Among them are war orphans and young lovers Mu Shun (Tamaki Hiroshi) and Ling Ju (Crystal Liu Yi Fei), who, as children, are recruited by one of Cao’s chief rivals to spend five arduous years training for a mission to kill a single unnamed man. Eventually, they find themselves in Cao’s well-guarded circle, one as a courtesan and the other a palace eunuch. (Ouch!) Compared to the elaborate depictions of Chinese political and military history we’ve seen lately, the events described in Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln” are child’s play. Viewers here would benefit mightily from a Playbill, explaining the background of what they’ll see in “The Assassins.” (A Google search would be just as helpful, though.) What doesn’t require much explanation are marvelous set designs, costumes and action scenes that are typical of the historical-epic genre, which plays so well in Blu-ray. Also included are a lengthy making-of featurette and an English dub track. – Gary Dretzka

Music From the Big House
Louisiana’s infamous Angola Prison is considered to be a unique place to do time for a lot of reasons, most of them pretty ugly. Occasionally something beautiful emerges from its walls, usually in the form of music. Huddy Ledbetter, known to the world simply as Lead Belly, was famously “discovered” at Angola by folklorists John and Alan Lomax. Other esteemed graduates included country crooner Freddy Fender and bluesmen Robert “Pete” Williams, Matthew “Hogman” Maxey and Robert “Guitar” Welch, who were discovered by musicologist Harry Oster. Many other inmates returned to their musical roots, especially gospel, so as to make their time on “the Farm” pass easier. (There have been several documentaries made about Angola’s prison rodeo and football program.) “Music From the Big House” follows Canadian blues singer Rita Chiarelli during her visit to Angola, where she accompanied inmate musicians in a concert for fellow prisoners and visitors. In addition to the music performed, which is excellent, Chiarelli introduces us to the prisoners, who are serving life sentences without the possibility of parole. (“In Louisiana, life means life,” we’re reminded several times.) Almost all of them have adjusted to prison life as well as they possibly could, largely through an acceptance of their guilt and Jesus as their Lord and savior. Their victims aren’t forgotten by director Bruce McDonald and writers Erin Faith Young and Tony Burgess, but “Music From the Big House” is about just that, music, not redemption. The DVD adds additional interviews and music. – Gary Dretzka

Grand Hotel: Blu-ray
Mrs. Miniver: Blu-ray
Driving Miss Daisy: Blu-ray
The Jazz Singer: Blu-ray
Warner Bros. is rolling out a quartet of its classics on Blu-ray this week, including three Best Picture winners. This news may not thrill a generation of viewers that can’t wait for the next comic-book extravaganza or Miley Cyrus vehicle, but lovers of Hollywood history should applaud the releases. Apart from being wonderfully entertaining, even 80 years after its debut, “Grand Hotel” remains one of the most copied movies of all time. Back in the days when sound was new, it wasn’t deemed practical for a studio to cast more than a couple of its biggest stars in the same picture. It was difficult enough to maximize profits by holding down production costs, without also taking into account the headaches related to unleashing the egos of stars not used to sharing to sharing the spotlight with actors of the same age and gender. Nonetheless, MGM production chief Irving Thalberg thought it might be fun to team Greta Garbo, John Barrymore, Joan Crawford, Wallace Beery and Lionel Barrymore and see what happens. Predictably, some of these divas acted like children asked to share their favorite toys. Despite all of the off-set pouting and unruly behavior, however, the electricity sparked some memorable performances and at least two unforgettable lines: Garbo’s lament, “I want to be alone. I think I have never been so tired in my life,” and Lewis Stone’s twice-offered observation, “Grand Hotel … always the same. People come, people go. Nothing ever happens.” Adapted from a German play by Vicki Baum, which also became a Broadway hit, “Grand Hotel” is set in a bustling Berlin hotel that is a home away from home for aristocrats, business executives, con artists, consorts and entertainers. Even if there were no scenes in which all of all of the five stars appeared together simultaneously – a decision that averted ego eruptions – director Edmund Goulding used their interlocking stories to make it seem as if they had. For younger viewers who’ve yet to watch Garbo, Crawford, Beery and the Barrymores in their prime, “Grand Hotel” might even prove revelatory.

Upon its release in 1942, it wasn’t known how far the impact of William Wyler’s “Mrs. Miniver” would be felt beyond the glass windows of box-office stalls in the U.S. and Britain. It describes what happens to a family of average “middle-class” Brits – by Beverly Hills standards, anyway – before and immediately after the Battle for Britain, in 1940. Overnight, the “care-free” nature of life in the country was turned into a living hell by the German Luftwaffe. The battle would be contested in the night skies over several key cities, ports and military and industrial facilities, but to go on to win the as-yet-undesignated world war, British citizens would be required to unite as a people and show their stiff-upper-lips to the world. Their reserve would be tested first at the evacuation of Dunkirk – for which Mr. Miniver (Walter Pigeon) volunteered — and every time the air-raid siren beckoned people to the shelters. As if this weren’t a sufficiently dramatic background for a movie, the screenwriters added a romance between the eldest Miniver boy (Richard Ney), an aspiring socialist, and the granddaughter (Teresa Wright) of the doyenne (Dame May Whitty) of the family after whom the town is named. Then, too, Lady Beldon’s title as the rose-growing queen is being threatened for the first time by the local station manager, who’s named his variety after Mrs. Miniver (Greer Garson). Finally, German bombers emphasize the unstated point that the ravages of war don’t honor class bounaries. The sermon delivered by the local vicar in the wake of the deaths of several residents has gone down as one of the most inspirational speeches in cinema history.

Because of the constantly changing news from Europe, in 1940-41, Wyler and his writing team were required to update the narrative several times before the release of “Mrs. Miniver.” Having being appraised of the storyline, President Roosevelt asked MGM executives to put the movie on the fast track and Wyler was only too happy to see this done. That’s because most of the production was executed before the Japanese raid on Pearl Harbor and many Americans were committed to avoiding another war between European nations. Wyler felt as if their resistance would diminish if they understood how much that British citizens had already sacrificed for their freedom. Indeed, FDR ordered the sermon be broadcast on Voice of America radio and copies dropped over occupied Europe. Winston Churchill said that the propaganda value of “Mrs. Miniver” was worth a flotilla of destroyers. Far from the front lines, the movie was honored with 6 Oscars out of 12 nominations – a record five cast members were finalists — and the distinction of being the year’s top box-office draw. For Garson and Pigeon, it represented the second of their eight collaborations. The Blu-ray contains background featurettes and an MGM cartoon in which Hitler is portrayed as a wolf.

In addition to being a huge box-office success, “Driving Miss Daisy” was nominated in nine Academy Award categories, winning four. Certainly, it came as no surprise when 81-year-old Jessica Tandy’s name was read. Curiously, though, the 1990 ceremony marked one of the very few times in Academy Award history that the director of the Best Picture prize wasn’t nominated as Best Director. (Oliver Stone would win for “Born on the Fourth of July” that year.) Winner Alfred Uhry adapted the movie from his own Pulitzer Prize-winning play, which described the uncommon 25-year working relationship and eventual friendship between an elderly Atlanta widow (Tandy) and her African-American chauffeur (Morgan Freeman Jr.). The proudly self-sufficient Daisy doesn’t appreciate her son’s determination to keep her out of the driver’s seat of her car and hires a man whose loyalty is stronger than her irascibility. Race wasn’t the central issue in “Driving Miss Daisy,” but, like the 800-pound gorilla, it could hardly be ignored. Set roughly between 1948 and 1973, the story spanned the entirety of the civil-right movement and the emergence of Atlanta as the capital of the New South. Not everything changed in the transition, however. Longtime Southerners cherished certain traditions, protocols and etiquette – segregation and anti-Semitism (Daisy is Jewish), among them – and were in no hurry to see them disappear with the general homogenization of America. Mostly, it’s the performances of Tandy, Freeman and Dan Aykroyd, as Daisy’s supportive son, that sold “Driving Miss Daisy.” If Uhry’s writing isn’t precisely timeless, it’s the closest thing to it. The Blu-ray contains a new supplement on race relations, “Things Are Changing: The Worlds of Hoke & Miss Daisy”; three vintage featurettes; and commentary.

The Jazz Singer” didn’t make the cut in either of the two Best Picture categories in the inaugural Academy Awards ceremony, but the brothers Warner took home an honorary award for “producing the pioneer outstanding talking picture, which has revolutionized the industry.” They also walked away with a boxcar full of money. Like “Grand Hotel,” the story has provided a template for countless other movies, this time about a son who chooses to leave home, rather than stagnate in the family business. Before the son can return home, he must succeed on his own merits and dreams. Based on Al Jolson’s personal story – the protagonist was played on stage by his buddy, George Jessel – “The Jazz Singer” profiles Jakie Rabinowitz (a.k.a., Jack Robin), a brilliant singer his devout father assumes will become the next in a long line of cantors in the family. If Cantor Rabinowitz (Warner Oland) hadn’t been such a hard-liner on the subject, Jakie might have found a way to perform popular songs in beer halls, while also honoring “the voice God gave him.” Instead of joining his father at Yom Kippur services, he takes a promised beating and runs away from home. Years later, he’s become a star on the vaudeville circuit performing in blackface, a conceit that seems to free him from his past and alienation from it. Almost as bad in his mother’s eyes, his girlfriend is a “shiksa.” Circumstances will allow him to “atone” for the sin of becoming a jazz singer and reunite with his family.

The scenario gave Warners the perfect opportunity to extend its Vitaphone sound-on-disc system into feature-length productions, with singing and dialogue synchronized to images on the screen. It wasn’t an ideal alternative to silent movies, but the success of “Jazz Singer” literally got the ball rolling. The Blu-ray package contains most of the same material previously made available on the DVD edition, including commentary by film historians Vince Giordano and Ron Hutchinson, founder of the Vitaphone Project; a collection of vintage cartoons and shorts (Jolson’s “A Plantation Act,”” An Intimate Dinner in Celebration of Warner Bros. Silver Jubilee,” “I Love to Singa,” “Hollywood Handicap” and “A Day at Santa Anita.”); the 1947 “Lux Radio Theater” broadcast, starring Jolson; the feature-length documentary, “The Dawn of Sound: How Movies Learned to Talk”; and an entire disc of rarely seen Vitaphone shorts, which, alone, are worth the price of admission. – Gary Dretzka

TNT: Dallas: The Complete First Season
American Masters: Inventing David Geffen
FX: Archer: The Complete Season Three
PBS: Mystery of Easter Island
PBS: Arts & the Mind
PBS: Animal Odd Couples
It remains to be seen how the recent death of Larry Hagman will impact the second season of TNT’s reformulation of “Dallas,” one of the most popular and oft-imitated shows in television history. J.R. Ewing is such an iconic character that his legacy might or might not be able to sustain his absence. Either way, it’s likely that J.R.’s funeral will be touted as one of the highlights of the spring television season, on or off cable. I don’t know how risky a project that network executives considered the series’ resurrection to be, after a 20-year hiatus. By combining several key members of the previous cast with some new hotties, though, it had a fighting chance, at least, of capturing demographics on opposite ends of the spectrum. Besides Hagman, the returnees included Linda Gray, Patrick Duffy and, in guest spots, Charlene Tilton, Steve Kanaly and Ken Kercheval. They must have welcomed the work. The feuding among the various branches of the family tree continues apace with sons John Ross (Josh Henderson) and Christopher (Jesse Metcalfe). John Ross wants to drill, drill, drill, while Christopher is more interested in investing the future of Southfork in alternative fuels. Naturally, there’s intrigue of the between-the-sheets variety, as well. Unlike the original series, which was shot almost exclusively in and around Los Angeles, the new show’s producers spent most of their time in Texas, with some location shoots taking place at the actual Southfork Ranch, north of Dallas. The DVD adds more than two hours of bonus material, including deleted scenes, commentary on the pilot episode and several making-of and background featurettes.

Two of the prerequisites for success in the non-creative end of show business are a lust for power and an insatiable appetite for money. It explains why the cost of attending movies, concerts and Broadway musicals has skyrocketed, along with the prices for albums, DVDs and souvenir T-shirts, without a corresponding increase in the value of most entertainment products. I’m not old enough to say if this was always the case, but it wasn’t until such visionary capitalists as Jann Wenner, Bill Graham and David Geffen discovered the gold to be mined in the 1960s counterculture that it became possible for rock musicians to become millionaires practically overnight. They were a pretty scruffy lot before the first British Invasion and Woodstock, and old-school managers, agents and concert promoters found it difficult to apply traditional practices to New Generation entertainers. That’s when the aforementioned Wenner, Graham and Geffen came into the picture. By making it comfortable for artists and labels to succeed beyond their wildest dreams, they profited in ways their forebears couldn’t have imagined. Once baby-boomers got over the whole poverty-is-cool/capitalism-sucks thing, the gold turned into platinum for everyone involved. PBS’ “Inventing David Geffen” chronicles the mogul’s rise to absolute power in the music industry, Hollywood and Broadway from humble beginnings in the mail room of the William Morris Agency – how cliché is that? – through the California-based folk-rock scene, label management, film production and Broadway. It ends with his success as a partner in DreamWorks SKG and as a major player in political king-making and philanthropy. It would be easy to dismiss his rise to being at the right place at the right time, while still at the right age, but that wouldn’t take into account his ability to spot and nurture talent; cut deals, by bullying lesser negotiators; and never being out of reach of a telephone, especially in the days before iPhones and Androids. If not a universally loved business executive, he is universally admired for reasons other than cutting deals. Geffen’s willingness to put his money where his mouth is, when it comes to medical research and liberal politics, also allows him to stand out in industries that only reward generosity with plaques and envy. And, yes, Geffen still has plenty of time left over to buy important art works and yachts. Writer/director Susan Lacy also spends time tracing his decision to out himself as a gay man, at a time when most celebrities felt it necessary to remain closeted. I might have suggested including something on Geffen’s stubbornness in forbidding average citizens to take advantage of their legal right to tread the sands in front of his Malibu home, as if he were a king and the rest of us peasants. Even if he were found guilty of such a crime by his Hollywood peers – and there aren’t many who would qualify — it would be considered more of a blemish than a scar, if that. Otherwise, Lacy’s story is alive with detail, personality and more stars than there are in the heavens, as they say. It includes deleted background and interview material.

FX’s tongue-firmly-in-cheek espionage sitcom, “Archer,” enters its fourth season in a couple of days and, after an absence of nearly nine months, its fans couldn’t be happier. That’s how it goes in the cable world, where a full season could last anywhere from 6 to 13 episodes and there’s no such thing as premiere month or a clearly defined September-to-May cycle. “Archer” reminds me of what “Get Smart” might have looked like if there was such a thing as FX, Showtime or HBO in the 1960s. For one thing, we might have seen a bit more of Agent 99 than was allowed in 1965 and the dialogue between Don Adams and Barbara Feldon almost certainly would have been less dependent on double-entendres. Because “Archer” doesn’t leave any room for guesswork, the hero of the animated series has been compared to agents 007 and 0SS 117, Inspector Clouseau, Agent 86 and Matt Helm. Unlike those spooks, Sterling Archer’s sex-crazed mother is also his sex-crazed boss. Jessica Walter voices the sassy founder and head of ISIS, while H. Jon Benjamin does the same for the protagonist. The third-season package adds commentaries on “El Contador,” “Drift Problem,” and “Lo Scandalo “; an extended version of “Heart of Archness”; answering-machine messages; and “Cooking With Archer.” Among the guest voices are Burt Reynolds, Patrick Warburton, David Cross, Robb Wells, John Paul Tremblay, Mike Smith, Jack McBrayer and Michael Rooker.

The PBS series “Arts & the Mind” presents all sorts of good reasons for not eliminating arts programs in our schools, as the results of standardized tests have increasingly become the way schools, teachers and students are measured. It’s the currently favored shortcut used by professional educators, politicians and parent groups to evaluate how tax dollars are being spent, regardless of value to the students’ education. While these tests might provide clues as to our students’ ability to match up to kids in other countries in math and the sciences, there’s no way to measure how our kids would fare in the areas of imagination and creativity. Nor would the tess be able to spot a potential successor to Steven Spielberg, Miley Cyrus or Frank Gehry, all of whom produce much revenue, taxes and work for Americans. Narrated by Lisa Kudrow, but informed by the findings of many arts educators, “Arts & the Mind” argues that test scores, alone, can’t be used to determine how a child might succeed at life. Among other things, like sports, the arts encourage team work and a coordination of skills. Such processes stimulate the brain in ways other disciplines don’t, from cradle to the grave. Creative thinking inspires scientists, engineers and mathematicians to experiment, develop, exploit and, yes, monetize their research in surprising new ways. The two-part documentary focuses on how the “arts can improve children’s school performance, and keep our brains agile and sharp into old age; how teenagers find meaning and hope through poetry at a renowned Los Angeles program supported by actor Tim Robbins; how the arts help heal children in hospitals and older veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder; why one of America’s leading Alzheimer’s researchers advises that dance is the single most effective way to ward off dementia.” At a time when conservative politicians are re-writing text books to reflect the prejudices and religious beliefs of their benefactors, it’s encouraging to watch teachers in real-life situations stimulate children’s imaginations and encourage them to think for themselves.

Along with the creation of the Egyptian, Aztec and Mayan pyramids, Stonehenge and temples in the Andes, the mystery surrounding the placement of great stone statues on Easter Island, or Rapa Nui, has kept researchers busy since Europeans landed there in 1722. Let’s put aside for a moment the possibility that ancient aliens simply used their flying saucers to lift the statues from one part of the island and carry them to another, without leaving footprints or wagon treads. It’s an interesting theory, but impossible to prove. The “Nova” episode, “Mystery of Easter Island,” employs state-of-the-art tools – CGI, modeling, MRIs, drone aircraft – to test one of the more feasible possibilities. Polynesian settlers passed along to their descendants the memory of seeing the 86-ton statues “walk” to their resting place. Logs, ropes and levers weren’t mentioned in islander lore, even though it seems logical that Easter Island was deforested by people transporting the statues over rollers. “Mystery of Easter Island” attempts to show how the walking-upright theory could have worked. It also suggests that the island’s deforestation was caused, instead, by slash-and-burn farming, decimation of the sea-bird population and an infestation of palm eating rats. Anyone who’s attempted to move a wheel-locked refrigerator from one corner of the kitchen to the other might be able to grasp the “walking” theory easier than other people. The researchers created a 15-ton replica, but initially had trouble getting it to stand upright, let alone walk with the assistance of teams of volunteers pulling and wiggling it with ropes. In the end, however, it remains a plausible theory and nothing more.

One staple of television news shows is coverage of oddities in the animal kingdom. Especially valued by news directors are clips of unlikely cross-species relationships. In the “Nature” episode “Animal Odd Couples,” we are treated to such pairings as a chimp bottle-feeding a tiger cub; a giant tortoise snuggling a baby hippo; a black crow parenting a meerkat; and a dog nuzzling a leopard. Is there something more to these relationships than mere friendship or a desire to have their photos spread throughout the Internet on Facebook? Here, we scientists who think there might be some deeper scientific meaning to the odd couplings. – Gary Dretzka

The DVD Wrapup

Monday, December 31st, 2012

Cosmopolis: Blu-ray
What if our current financial crisis owed its genesis less to greed than the boredom that comes when millionaires and billionaires tire of all their cool toys? Chronic ennui certainly is one of things motivating asset manager Eric Packer (Robert Pattinson) in “Cosmopolis.” Seemingly on a whim, the 28-year-old mogul bets his company’s assets on a swing, one way or the other, in the Chinese yuan. Writer/director David Cronenberg equates the potentially calamitous trade to the banality of Packer driving across town in a stretch limo, simply to get his hair cut by his dad’s barber. Along the way, Packer conducts business from a throne-like chair inside the vehicle, while a diverse array of business associates and hired hands pass through its doors. These include his proctologist, longtime systems geek (Jay Baruchel), art dealer/mistress (Juliette Binoche), theorist (Samantha Mathis) and other leaches. When he does exit the limo, it’s to dine with his newest blond accessory, Elise (Sarah Gadon), who he recently married and has made love to approximately once since the wedding. This hasn’t prevented him from seeking relief in other directions, however. Complicating his journey to the old-fashioned barbershop is a mob of anarchists, led by an almost unrecognizable Mathieu Amalric, protesting the arrival of the President for a financial summit. Packer takes their violent disruption in stride, not even blinking as they spray-paint his limousine and shake rats – the new symbol of currency – outside his window. Indeed, the only time he gets noticeably upset is when his appointment is disturbed, rushing out of the shop with only half of his scalp groomed. Finally, Packer confronts a grubby little creep (Paul Giamatti) who’s been stalking him since morning. They kill the wee hours of the morning exchanging poorly aimed bullets with each other and debating economics.

Cronenberg adapted “Cosmopolis” from a 2003 novel by Don DeLillo, who claims to have been inspired by both the collapse of the dot.com bubble in 2000 and a re-reading of James Joyce’s “Ulysses.” As timely as the morning newspaper, the book might as well have been published yesterday. DeLillo’s novels have defied easy adaptation for decades and Cronenberg was up to the challenge. After making three comparatively accessible dramas — “A History of Violence,” “Eastern Promises” and “A Dangerous Method” – he probably was itching to swim outside the mainstream. “Cosmopolis” is as abstract as the paintings Packer collects like so many baseball cards. Then, too, Pattison must have been anxious to take on something more substantial than the “Twilight” saga. He’s easily recognizable as the 28-year-old financial wunderkind who seemingly has the world on a string, but, this time, may have pushed his luck a bit too far. By once again pin-pointing and exploiting the horror in contemporary life, Cronenberg has painted an apocalyptic scenario devoid of nuclear weapons, toxic pollution and religious fanaticism, unless one considers the accumulation of capital to be blessed by the deity. Typically, he’s also populated Packer’s world with A-list actors willing to go the extra mile for him. As usual, Giamatti is splendid as the paranoid would-be assassin and Gadon defines the term, “icy blond,” for today’s generation of actors. Even so, it’s Binoche who stops time with her sizzling take on Packer’s mistress, as she slithers on the floor of his limo suggesting additions to his art collection. “Cosmopolis” isn’t for everyone, including those fans who’ve admired his previous work. Those able to make it through this very difficult movie will want to stick around for the making-of featurette and sample the commentary, at least. – Gary Dretzka

Looper
Time travel has been a staple of speculative-fiction for as long as the genre has existed in print and on the screen. Once Jules Verne and H.G. Welles proved there was a market for such scenarios and the Industrial Revolution introduced prototypes of the machinery to accomplish such feats, readers were encouraged to imagine themselves tripping through time and visiting faraway planets. Filmmakers were happy to oblige the conceit, as well. It wasn’t until Rod Serling created “The Twilight Zone” that viewers would be asked to ponder such ethical dilemmas as, “If you could travel back in time to kill Adolf Hitler at birth, would you?” — that things got really complicated. Maybe not, if there was a possibility that even worse monsters – someone with the wherewithal to destroy his enemies with nuclear bombs, perhaps — were waiting in the wings.

In Rian Johnson’s futuristic action thriller, “Looper,” a somewhat less ghastly, if no less fascinating conundrum presents itself. Sometime in the entirely recognizable mid- to late-21st Century, time-travel not only will be possible, but it also will be deemed dangerous enough to be outlawed by the government, along with many less sophisticated criminal activities, such as the illegal disposal of bodies. To solve both problems gangsters use stolen time-travel technology to dispose of their enemies and their bodies simultaneously. This is accomplished by sending a “rat” or turncoat back in time – 30 years, to be exact – and arranging to have that person murdered within seconds of his arrival in a pre-determined location, where no one will be watching and the body can be easily buried. The ell-paid assassin assigned the task by a more permanent visitor from the future. A trusted lieutenant of the mob boss, or his doppelganger, one, would already be in place to make the arrangements for these hits and ensure they occur as planned. Otherwise, nothing could prevent a criminal with 30 years’ worth of mob history stored in his memory bank to wreak havoc with the organization, while also amassing a perfectly legal fortune on Wall Street. Such a scenario plays out twice in close succession in “Looper.” Instead of immediately killing the time-traveler when he appears on the edge of a corn field, the assassin Seth, gives the intended victim just enough time to divert his attention and escape. Panic ensues in the criminal underworld, until the runaway can be gunned down and the bounty strapped to his back can be recovered. (If all goes as planned, the looper would use the bounty to enjoy the next 30 years of his life, when the process either would repeat itself or the killer simply would vaporize.) This is what plays out in the first half-hour of “Looper,” when Young Seth (Paul Dano) fails to shoot Old Seth (Frank Brennan) and Young Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is subsequently assigned to murder both Seths and his own self, Old Joe (Bruce Willis), who also managed to piss off a mob boss. And, yes, Old Joe escapes, as well.

The rest of the movie plays out largely in a wild series of chases in cities and their rural surroundings. Not only does Young Joe commit his resources to killing Old Joe, but the emissary of the mob (Jeff Daniels) sends out teams of hitmen to wipe out both Joes, as well. Got that? It’s not as complicated as it sounds. The action is well-choreographed and lots of fun to watch. In a bizarro sit-down between the Joes, Old Joe explains how things played out during the past 30 years of his life, so Young Joe can prepare for these events if he manages not to get caught by the gang or offed by his elder self. In either case, Young Joe is trapped in an existential pickle not of his making. As if that weren’t enough excitement for one movie, one of Old Joe’s prophesies comes true right before Young Joe’s eyes. While hiding out in the rural home of a self-sufficient woman (Emily Blunt), he begins to notice certain peculiarities in her son’s behavior. The closer they become, the more Young Joe begins to suspect the kid and Old Joe have some unfinished business with which to deal. Their business, of course, becomes his business when he finds himself in one of those would-you-kill-Hitler predicaments. After closing two “loops,” Young Joe is faced with another one, and it’s a doozy. No amount of spoiler alerts would give away the good parts of “Looper.” To borrow an explanation from Daniels’ crime lord: “This time-travel crap just fries your brain like an egg.” So, just sit back and enjoy the mayhem. The Blu-ray adds Johnson, Levitt and co-star Emily Blunt’s commentary; more than a half-hour of deleted scenes; three making-of and background featurettes; and animated trailer. – Gary Dretzka

A Man Vanishes
Surely one of the world’s great filmmakers during the latter half of the last century, two-time Palme d’Or-winning director Shohei Imamura remains largely unknown outside academic and critical circles in the United States. Such widely acclaimed pictures as “The Eel,” “Vengeance Is Mine,” “The Ballad of Narayama” and “Warm Water Under a Red Bridge” received some exposure here, but not nearly as much as the contemporaneous work of fellow countryman Akira Kurosawa. Blessedly, the slack has been picked up in recent years by distributors of prestige DVDs. It took 45 years for “A Man Vanishes” to receive a very limited run in the U.S., followed shortly by the release of this multi-disc package from Icarus Films. At a time when the lines separating reality-based television and fiction have been completely and, perhaps, irrevocably blurred, this brilliant hybrid suggests that, like beauty, truth is in the eye of the beholder. Imamura begins here by examining an actual cold case of a married businessman’s mysterious disappearance – one of 91,000, we’re told – and giving viewers a cinéma vérité box seat on his investigation.

Everything else in the movie can best be described as “faction” or “truthiness.” Already known in Japan as a master documentarian, Imamura and his crew did what detectives do every day in real life and in TV series. They re-interviewed everyone mentioned in the two-years-cold police files, including his business associates, neighbors and wife, while also finding witnesses overlooked by police. The film’s framing and dark texture replicate actual documentary footage, so we’re naturally inclined to believe what we’re seeing and hearing. Moreover, we’re as interested in finding out what happened to the missing person as everyone else we meet. If Imamura leaves various “tells” as to the veracity of the investigation, they don’t add up to something tangible until he pulls the carpet from under our feet, completely, near the end. Even then, however, the actors remain in character. Today, fans of reality-based television tend to dismiss all available evidence that their favorite shows are, if not rigged, scripted to favor participants favored by network executives and advertisers. The passage of time hasn’t dulled the impact of “A Man Vanishes” one bit, however.

Also included in the box set are five factual documentaries Imamura made for Japanese television. Please don’t assume that I’m resorting to hyperbole when I suggest they are every bit as impressive as “A Man Vanishes” or any of Werner Herzog’s films, which they resemble. Three of them address the question of Japanese soldiers left behind in Thailand and Malaysia after World War II, either through negligence or by individual choice. Much of the material discussed in the interviews will come as a surprise to American viewers, whose only awareness of rank-and-file soldiers is that they willingly mistreated POWs and civilians when ordered and a few were so loyal to the Emperor that they failed to accept surrender for many years after the war’s end. Clint Eastwood’s “Letters From Iwo Jima” is closest most of us have come to understanding their motivations of Japanese troops, beyond blind obedience. “In Search of the Unreturned Soldiers in Malaysia” describes conditions for Japanese nationals before, during and after the takeover there, while “In Search of the Unreturned Soldiers in Thailand” is far more disquieting. A conversation between three now-elderly and increasingly more intoxicated men includes graphic recollections of the systematic slaughter of innocent men, women and children under orders of their superiors. Even a quarter-century after the war, one of the men can’t bring himself to join the conversation, during which the horrid memories were disclosed spontaneously. The key figure in “Outlaw-Matsu Comes Home” is living a relatively normal life in rural Thailand when Imamura convinces him to return to his dramatically changed homeland. His bitterness over being left “unreturned” is palpable throughout, but what is truly heart-breaking is his learning what occurred in his absence. Based solely on the faulty memories of survivors in his platoon, Matsu had been officially declared dead, but for causes unrelated to the true circumstances of his wound. His brother used the declaration to steal property Matsu would have inherited and clear his conscience about ignoring his stated wishes that their sister would be supported financially if he died. Even after learning that Matsu was alive and living in Thailand, four years earlier, his brother failed to clear the record and make sure his pension was protected. Matsu also recounts how soldiers left behind on some islands actually believed that rescue ships would pick them up in 13 years and they should keep fighting.

Lest anyone think that human trafficking for the purposes of exploiting women sexually began with the collapse of the Iron Curtain and the flood of kidnappings that followed, Imamura presents “Karayuki-San, the Making of a Prostitute” as evidence that it didn’t. We’ve already learned that the Emperor of Japan approved the enslavement of Korean women living in Japan for work in “comfort stations.” Other women, from other occupied territories, were required to fill the same role. Decades before the war, however, peasants – including the elderly karayuki-sans we meet in “Making of the Prostitute” — were lured to larger Japanese cities by promises of good-paying jobs. Instead, they were shipped to locations throughout Southeast Asia, where Japanese laborers and businessmen were living, and forced to work as sex slaves. Worse, the women were required to work off a phony debts incurred from the cost of bringing the women to the foreign brothels. Even when the debts were paid off, though, local prejudice and poverty forced the women to return to the brothels or open their own homes to clients. By the time they were introduced to Imamura, in the early 1970s, these lovely ladies were able to look back on the experience with clear eyes and recall good things that occurred in the wake of their servitude. They, like Matsu, were denied pensions and tickets back home.

In “The Pirates of Buban,” Imamura visits a remote region of the Philippines, where rival gangs of pirates ruled the seas and the government tended to leave them alone. One of the gangs is led by a well-armed former soldier whose peasant navy is constantly on guard for attacks by other marauders. Substantially less frightening is the leader of the closest rival gang. They live with their families in huts built on stilts over a lagoon protected by reefs. They exist solely on the fish they catch and flour made from cassava roots. More valuable specimens are sold at the market on a larger island, several hours from home, for gasoline and other raw materials. Today, western tourists would pay up to $500 a night for the same accommodations, but only if someone else cooked the fish and beat the toughness out of the octopi. Anyone who’s run out of Herzog titles to watch should find a lot to like in the “A Man Vanishes” set. – Gary Dretzka

The Trouble With Bliss
As credible as he is in the role of a vigilante killer in “Dexter,” Michael C. Hall is just that unbelievable as 35-year-old slacker Morris Bliss in “The Trouble With Bliss.” Or, maybe, it’s the character who’s unbelievable and Hall squeezed as much from Morris as there is to him. Either way, it’s too cute by half and I didn’t buy it. Morris shares a Manhattan apartment with his “daddy,” Seymour Bliss (Peter Fonda), who spends most of the movie reclining in a comfy chair in the living room. If Seymour’s too lazy to get out of the chair to get keys made and buy groceries, the chronically broke Morris is so depressed by death of his mother that he’s unable to retain any memory of his dad’s daily requests. Moreover, as unlikely as it is for Fonda to play a character named “Seymour Bliss,” it’s just that unlikely that Morris – who sleeps in his clothes and has an unkempt beard — would have a sexually promiscuous 18-year-old girlfriend. Still in prep school, Stephanie Stephanie (Brie Larson) just happens to be the daughter of one of Morris’ least favorite former classmates, a big galoot named “Jetski” (Brad William Henke). Stephanie not only gets Morris to agree to meet the folks over dinner, but she also gets him to commit to escorting her to the prom. If that scenario weren’t sufficiently unlikely, co-writer/director Michael Knowles and author Douglas Light add parallel storylines involving a friend (Chris Messina) who imagines himself to be a secret agent; a downstairs neighbor (Lucy Liu) that gets him in trouble with her muscular boyfriend; and a wealthy upstairs neighbor and landlord (Sarah Shahi) who moonlights as a homeless squatter occupying a building managed by Jetski. When he isn’t forgetting to pick up the groceries, Morris dreams of traveling to faraway places with strange-sounding names. All that’s needed for that to happen is the introduction of another convenient coincidence and a map to escape from this rain forest of mishegas? Probably, but only Hall’s diehard fans are likely to stick around long enough to see what it is. The extras add deleted scenes and an interview with the star. – Gary Dretzka

War of the Dead: Blu-ray
The great idea behind this occasionally very interesting genre-bender is that very early in Hitler’s attempt to conquer Europe he directed a team of fiendish scientists to use re-animation techniques to create a platoon of zombie killers. They experimented on the corpses of Red Army soldiers after Finland asked Germany for its support in turning back Soviet invasion forces. Even though the experiments bore fruit in the form of zombies capable of climbing trees, firing weapons and running, instead of shuffling toward their target, the Nazis decided not to pursue it. Instead, they left behind a rogue undead unit hiding in the forest near the bunker laboratory. In “War of the Dead,” a combined American and Finnish special-forces team stumbles upon the commandoes on its way to the secret bunker and several soldiers are killed in the initial attack. It takes the survivors a while to figure out why they constantly feel outnumbered, considering how many of the enemy they’ve taken down. Turns out, they’re merely killing the same soldiers over and over, again. It isn’t until a not-yet-reanimated Red Army soldier joins the Allied squad that an effective offensive can be mounted against the zombies. Although far more ambulatory than run-of-the-mill undead, they’re susceptible to the same things as every other zombie.

Apart from the undead conceit, “War of the Dead” plays out like countless other war flicks, with traces of “Band of Brothers” and “Saving Private Ryan” thrown in for the bargain. People we don’t want to see die get killed before our eyes and our enemies are portrayed as faceless humanoids. Here, the special-forces unit is led by Captain Martin Stone (Andrew Tiernan), who’s cut from the same cloth as most other officers in war movies or, at least, those fighting for our team. For co-writer/director Marko Mäkilaakso, “War of the Dead” also is a “love letter” to such 1989s action franchises as “Rambo,” “American Ninja,” “Terminator” and “Indiana Jones.” His first feature film after spending most of his young career making documentaries, music videos and commercials, it demonstrates an ability to add fresh elements to tired genres, even on a miniscule budget. The project essentially ran out of money and steam in 2007, but Makilaakso was determined to see it completed. – Gary Dretzka

FX: Justified: The Complete Third Season: Blu-ray
Nicktoons: Monsuno: Destiny
Syfy: Being Human: The Complete Second Season: Blu-ra
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Anyone who claims to love action-packed crime series, but has yet to jump on board the “Justified” train, isn’t trying very hard to find out what all the fuss is about. As of January 1, all three seasons of the Harlan-set drama now are available on DVD and Blu-ray. The show can also be downloaded, streamed and seen on FX in rerun form, prior to its January 8 re-launch. If the fourth season is anything like the third, prepare to take notes. Not even Deputy U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens (Timothy Olyphant) could keep up with the many shady characters who took up residence in the hollers of Harlan last season. Neither could archenemies Boyd Crowder (Walton Goggins) and Dickie Bennett (Jeremy Davies). The dastardly duo stood to lose the most if their various interests – marijuana, Oxycodone and prostitution, among them – are disrupted by mafia henchmen from Frankfort and Detroit and a mining company that wants to turn the mountains to dust. Add to this motley crew of outlaws Raylan’s career-criminal dad and an African-American butcher, who plans to skin Dickie of his inheritance, and you have all the gasoline anyone would need to set the hills ablaze. Neither are the women of Harlan without sin. After Raylan dumped Ava (Joelie Carter) for his ex-wife, Winona (Natalie Zea), she took up with her no-count brother-in-law, Dickie. Meanwhile, a red-hot coal baroness (Rebecca Creskoff) demands Raylan’s personal attention as a bodyguard, after claiming that her life was in danger. With so many bad guys taking potshots at each other, Raylan isn’t required to justify his reputation as a lawman who shoots first and asks questions later. Guest villain Neal McDonough does that for him. Unlike too many other series adapted from popular books or movies, “Justified” continues to honor novelist and exec-producer Elmore Leonard’s original vision. The Blu-ray adds 9 separate commentary tracks on 13 episodes; outtakes and deleted scenes; a Noble’s Holler set tour; a conversation with Olyphant and Goggins; and featurettes “Go Back in There,” “Crossing the Line” and “Anatomy of a Stunt.”

I would love to learn the median IQ of audiences attracted to Nicktoon’s animated sci-fi series, “Monsuno.” After reading the press material on the American/Japanese co-production, I was completely lost on the subject of how “re-wakened monster DNA called Monsuno” could be captured and used to save the Earth, several millennia after “they burned through the planet’s atmosphere and crashed into four corners of the world, bringing chaos, destruction and the extinction of the dinosaurs.” Forget for a moment that while Earth has two poles, it is too rotund to have corners, where such magnificent fighting organisms could hide. Nonetheless, there they are. As is the norm for these animated series, it is incumbent on adventurous teenagers, Chase and his pals, to harness the power of the Monsuno and defeat the mysterious organization, S.T.O.R.M. Chase’s father discovered the DNA and the way to unleash the monsters, who seem loyal to whoever holds the “cylinder regeneration chamber capsules” in which they sleep … or something. The cast of cartoon monsters, teenagers and villains is only slightly smaller than that of list of depressed Southerners in “Gone With the Wind.” Fans of such fare won’t have any problem parsing the characters or enjoying the frequent battles in which the Monsuno participate. Naturally, “Monsuno” arrived earlier this year accompanied by a line of action toys and trading cards.

Also returning this month for another stanza, this time on Syfy, is the American version of the hit British supernatural series “Being Human,” which, oddly enough, can be seen here on BBC America. The premise remains the same on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean. Three undead twenty-somethings share a Boston brownstone, where they attempt to maintain a low profile and keep their true identities secret. Sam Witwer plays a vampire, who was turned during the Revolutionary War; Sam Huntington is a Jewish werewolf who works at the same hospital as his roommate; and Meaghan Rath, a ghost who was already residing in the brownstone. They have many human friends – some of whom are accidentally infected — as well as guests who share their backgrounds, but aren’t nearly as benign. The Blu-ray adds a making-of featurette, behind-the-scenes interviews and material from a publicity event at San Diego Comic-Con 2012. – Gary Dretzka

PBS: Climate of Doubt
Although far more numerous and politically focused than members of the Flat Earth Society, climate-change deniers occupy the same dubious intellectual space as those folks who contend that our planet’s round shape is an optical illusion. The greatest difference between these groups of like-minded thinkers, perhaps, is that Flat Earthers aren’t backed by dozens of mercenary scientists and lobbyists for companies that benefit from polluting the Earth. Neither have they waged an electronic war of terror on those scientists who do believe the Earth’s environment is being adversely affected by such variables as solar radiation, greenhouse gases, plate tectonics, changes in the Earth’s orbit and emissions from fossil-fuel combustion. As we learn in the PBS documentary “Climate of Doubt,” most of the people who sit in the audience at seminars and write letters to their representatives truly believe that almost everything the government spends their tax dollars on is part of a leftist plot against the American way of life. It’s their right and privilege to hold contrarian opinions on important subjects, of course. The right to be wrong is built into the Constitution. Sadly, though, their mistrust of government makes doubters especially susceptible to the bad intentions of leaders of the denial movement who are far more interested in maintaining the flow of dollars from corporate sponsors to their bank accounts. “Frontline” correspondent John Hockenberry allows deniers plenty of time to present their side of the issue, without also being combative or overtly cynical. What he’s more interested in documenting is how, over the course of four short years, previously unorganized groups of deniers and anti-government activists have been able to intimidate so many politicians and impede researchers at universities and government-backed laboratories.

Four years ago, conservatives Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich weren’t reluctant to acknowledge that something needed to be done to slow the pace of climate change. During the just-completed campaign, neither would take the same stand. It explains, as well, why global warming never came up in the presidential debates. President Obama didn’t feel as if the aggravation was worth the effort of bringing it up, either. By employing tactics used by the pro-tobacco lobby and tea-party activists, deniers not only have been able to influence politicians, but also convince the growing legions of disaffected American taxpayers to hop aboard the band wagon. Money from the Koch brothers, pro-industry groups and PACs allow deniers to score points in television ads, featuring so-called experts with little credence in the scientific community. Foremost, it’s become entirely too clear that a growing number of taxpayers now are unwilling to fund – or accept as necessary – programs that might improve the quality of life for their grandchildren better, whether it involves schools, the nation’s infrastructure or the environment. And, they’re perfectly willing to fight for their right to be wrong. – Gary Dretzka

The DVD Wrapup: Gandu, Killer Joe, Wimpy Kid, Liberal Arts, Red Hook … More

Monday, December 24th, 2012

Gandu
If the distance between Mumbai and Calcutta can easily be measured in kilometers – 1,663, to be exact — the gap between Bollywood and the traditional Bengali cinema is every bit as wide. One is obsessed with romantic fantasy, while the other is more invested in real-life scenarios and everyday people. As wildly inventive as it is deliberately transgressive, “Gandu” (“Asshole”) widens that fissure with a study of urban youth so intense and disturbing that it could have emerged fully blown from the bowels of infamous Black Hole of Calcutta prison. If forced to compare it to a single American movie, I’d say “Requiem of a Dream, but minus the laughs. Not surprisingly, perhaps, “Gandu” (aka, “Asshole”) was banned in India and largely denied theatrical distribution here. (Fledgling Artsploitation Films is distributing the DVD.) As directed by Q (a.k.a, Qaushiq Mukherjee), “Gandu” describes the struggles of an impoverished Calcutta youth, who barely stays afloat by stealing money from the wallet of the cool-daddy client of his prostitute mother. He yearns to make a living as a rapper and beat-boxer, but has no idea where to begin. His angry industrial approach to the music more closely resembles that of the Beastie Boys and Eminem than, say, Snoop Dogg, and he adopted the stage name, “Asshole,” from the taunts of neighborhood punks.  One day, quite by accident, Gandu connects with a rickshaw driver with the unlikely name, Ricksha, who literally worships before a shrine dedicated to Bruce Lee. He, too, is a musician, of sorts, and happily turns his new friend onto the joys of hard drugs and day trips outside the slums. The old man who sells Gandu his lottery tickets promises him daily that his ship is about to come and, when it does, he’ll be free to pursue his dreams. Amazingly, it does, and he’s ready to boogie from minute one

Q tells his story in black, white and shades of gray. It’s only when Gandu discovers sex, thanks to a pink-haired punk princess, that “Gandu” shifts from b&w into color. Q’s editing technique, itself, borders on the transgressive. Subtitles bounce around the screen to the hip-hop beat, frequently contained in color blocks and sometimes using symbols in the place of words. This is one DVD you can’t watch while also reading a book or waiting for the popcorn to stop popping. Yawn and you might miss something. The only constant, I suppose, is the oppressive and unrelenting poverty of life in Calcutta, where, for the masses, the lottery provides the only ticket to the future. After visiting his friend’s mostly bare apartment, Ricksha praises the porcelain toilet for being the dump’s sturdiest piece of furniture. Just when things couldn’t get much worse for the boys, Q injects a large dollop of magical realism to the proceedings by interjecting himself into “Gandu.” He does this by offering Gandu a part in the movie in which he already is the protagonist. As prophesized, he’s also allowed to win the lottery. Apparently, Lord Shiva had been listening to his prayers all along. “Gandu” isn’t for everybody, certainly not the kiddies and people whose brains spin after watching 15 minutes of MTV-style hyper-editing. The sex is graphic and the language is raw. If you couldn’t get through the last half-hour of “Requiem for a Dream,” don’t even bother sampling “Gandu.” On the other hand, if you can still recall the tingle brought on by watching “Mean Streets,” “Blue Velvet,” “A Clockwork Orange,” “The Harder They Come,” “Old Boy” and “Audition” for the first time, you should be similarly impressed with “Gandu.” The DVD includes a lengthy making-of featurette, music videos, short films, festival appearances and a booklet. – Gary Dretzka

Killer Joe: Unrated Director’s Cut: Blu-ray
If the Academy Awards had a category honoring the year’s Best Performance by a Stand-In, the odds-on favorite would be the merkin allegedly worn by Gina Gershon in the shocking opening scene of William Friedkin and Tracy Lett’s inky black, beyond-noir comedy, “Killer Joe.” As it is, a very good case could be made for honoring Gershon, Matthew McConaughey, Thomas Haden Church and Juno Temple for their amazing performances in lead and supporting roles. The problem is that almost no one was able to see the movie in theaters and the nature of the material might not go over well with conservative voters. The combination of sex, violence, dark humor and an NC-17 rating made it a non-starter in most markets and the excellent reviews, alone, wouldn’t be enough to make it a cause celebre. (In Q&A sessions, McConaughey and Gershon admitted to their initial reluctance to star in such raw material.) Marketing costs, alone, would have been difficult for a distributor to overcome in general release. In DVD, it’s a much safer investment, especially considering the sterling cast.

After several years’ worth of dull performances in mediocre movies, McConaughey’s stock has risen to historic highs with key roles in “The Lincoln Lawyer,” “Bernie,” “Eastbound & Down,” “The Paperboy” and “Magic Mike.” Here, he plays the title character: a Texas cop who moonlights as an assassin. Joe is as efficient as he is polite, but toxic when double-crossed. He’s hired by a white-trash family intent on collecting the universally disliked matriarch’s $50,000 life-insurance policy. The son (Emile Hirsch) owes a pile of money to local gangsters, but doesn’t have any to spare. Neither does his no-count father (Church), who married the slutty Sharla (Gershon) after divorcing the boy’s mother. His emotionally damaged 21-year-old sister, Dottie (Temple), spends most of her time in her room in the trailer, eavesdropping on conversations and floating around cloud cuckoo land. When Joe learns that the father and son haven’t raised the agreed-upon down payment, he demands Dottie’s companionship as a “retainer.” Instead of being frightened or indignant, Dottie is turned on by his manners and the gentle respect he shows to her. Joe may be twisted, but he knows how to treat a lady. When, however, he learns that the other woman in the trailer – in this case, Gershon – is attempting to swindle him, Joe drops the gentleman act and treats her with the contempt she deserves. What he does to Gershon in one climatic scene is almost too vile to believe … but in a funny way.

“Killer Joe” was written for the stage in 1991, when Letts was living in Chicago. It subsequently was performed in off-Loop and off-Broadway theaters. He and Friedkin adapted his 1996 play, “Bug,” for the screen in 2006, and decided it was a good fit. John Wells’ anxiously awaited adaptation of Letts’ Pulitzer Prize-winning “August: Osage County” is expected to hit theaters in time for awards consideration next year. As screenwriter of “Killer Joe,” he was required to open up the story and allow for some outdoors action, as well as the now-mandatory visit to a strip club. Even so, “Killer Joe” retains a palpable air of claustrophobia bit from the stage presentation. What happens in the double-wide is plenty exciting. Friedkin, who’s only directed four films since 2000, did a nice job with “Bug” and had no trouble sinking his teeth into “Killer Joe.” It’s been a long time since he scored with “The French Connection,” “The Exorcist” and “Sorcerer,” but he clearly still knows how to tear up a set and punish his characters. The Blu-ray comes with a lively discussion with Friedkin and Letts, interviews and a Q&A with the actors at SXSW. – Gary Dretzka

The Words: Blu-ray
Although not a thriller in the traditional sense, “The Words” should keep undemanding viewers guessing until the very end of Brian Klugman and Lee Sternthal’s story-within-a-story. Bradley Cooper plays an aspiring novelist who invests too much of himself in his first book, which is praised by one editor but ultimately deemed too brainy to be of any commercial value. In a twist borrowed from Hemingway lore, Rory magically stumbles upon a yellowed, typewritten manuscript that apparently was never submitted to a publisher and may, in fact, have simply been misplaced and forgotten. In a moment of weakness, Rory retypes the words onto a word processor and prints them out to look brand new. Everyone who reads it falls in love with the tear-jerking story and it becomes a best-seller. After receiving an important literary award, Rory is confronted by an older gentleman (Jeremy Irons) who almost certainly is the true author and model for the novel’s protagonist. The revelation confounds and disturbs Rory, less for the damage it might do to his reputation than for the injustice that followed the old since losing the manuscript. Rory practically begs to be allowed to do the right thing by him, but, in return for laying a massive guilt trip on him, the old man lets him off the hook by informing him of his imminent demise due to a terminal illness. The publishing of the novel provides him a sense of closure and, in any case, no one would benefit from his posthumous fame. Layered on top of that scenario is another story, one that begins with a middle-aged author (Dennis Quaid) being honored for writing a story very much like the one we’ve been watching for the past half-hour. Clearly, he’s a man carrying the kind of burden that’s only lightened by the intake of much fine booze and comfort of literary groupies. Normally, a flirtatious character played by Olivia Wilde would be impossible for a jaded novelist to resist. Frankly, though, he’s too polluted to exploit the gorgeous young woman for any other purpose than as a priest-surrogate for a confession. Without knowing the writer’s background, we’re left to wonder why he’s so miserable and speculate how it fits into the parallel storyline.

For their first turn as co-writer/directors, Klugman and Sternthal were able to call in a few favors from actors who probably agreed to work for scale or a free meal from craft services. “The Words” reportedly was brought in somewhere in the neighborhood of $6 million, which seems awfully low for the quality of the production. As the story goes, the first table-read of the screenplay was in 1999 and a then-unknown Cooper agreed to play one of the key characters as a favor for his close boyhood friends. It wasn’t until Cooper’s name meant something to producers that the movie finally was green-lit. Toss in co-stars Zoe Saldana, Nora Arnezeder and Ben Barnes, alongside supporting players Zeljko Ivanek, Ron Rivkin, Michael McKean, J.K. Simmons and John Hannah, and you’ve exhausted far more than $6 million in IOUs. Good for them. The Blu-ray adds several short making-of pieces. – Gary Dretzka

Total Recall: Extended Director’s Cut: Blu-ray
If ever a movie didn’t cry out to be extended into a director’s-cut edition, it’s Len Wiseman’s 2012 remake of “Total Recall.” That’s not a slam on its overall quality, rather a different way of saying that the 118-minute original doesn’t benefit from the additional 15 minutes of footage. By adding several more f-bombs, a previously trimmed cameo by Ethan Hawke and a few other things left on the cutting-room floor, “Total Recall” merely becomes that much more bloated. For those lacking total recall, the 1990 original was adapted from a story by the great Philip K. Dick. It starred Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sharon Stone. By comparison to Wiseman’s take on the material, Paul Verhoeven’s was more of a Dick-sonian sci-fi thriller than the dystopian action flick it’s become.  The 2012 “Total Recall” also bears a more distinct physical resemblance to “Blade Runner,” which likewise was adapted from a Dick story. Advanced digital and CGI technology wasn’t available in the early 1990s, but, two decades later, allowed for a more spectacular visual presentation. Wiseman was able to rely less on the graphic violence that earned Verhoeven a X-rating in the first go-round with the MPAA and a jumpstart for the buzz-marketing campaign.  Despite, or more likely because of the negative publicity, it landed in the No. 1 spot in the first weekend’s box-office tally. The remake made considerably less money.

Here, Earth is divided into two highly reduced civilizations – both English-speaking, somehow – one of which is governed by the autocratic Chancellor Cohaagen (Bryan Cranston). Colin Farrell plays an everyday factory worker, Douglas Quaid (Colin Farrell), whose dreams cause him to believe that something tangible is missing in his life. He suspects that a visit to the memory-enhancing combine, Rekall, could help him feel better and make life with his beautiful and supportive wife (Kate Beckinsale) as satisfying as it should be. Just as Quaid’s about to go through the procedure, a team of robotic cops break into Rekall and start shooting everyone in the place. Quaid is able to escape after taking out a dozen of the cops using only his hands. Stunned, he immediately wonders two things: when did I learn hand-to-hand combat and why are robots chasing me? It doesn’t take long before Quaid begins displaying other long-submerged talents and the one person he believes to be in his corner turns her back on him. While on the lam, Quaid conveniently encounters a resistance fighter played by Jessica Biel, arguably the hottest-looking woman on any continent not named Beckinsale. She leads him to the head of the underground movement (Bill Nighy) that is dedicated to toppling Cohaagen. Bear in mind that Quaid still has no memory of whom or what he might have been before becoming something completely different, so he’s playing everything by ear. It is a dilemma shared by several of Dick’s fictional protagonists, not all of whom enjoyed the company of someone as tantalizing as Beckinsale and Biel.

The non-stop action and well-conceived CGI backdrops should dilute any confusion you’re sure to have over what’s really the point of “Total Recall.” They did for me, anyway. Maybe it makes more sense in 3D. The less one thinks about it, the more fun there is to have. The Blu-ray adds commentary; the picture-in-picture Insight Mode; a “God of War” game demo; gag reel; featurettes “Science Fiction vs. Science Fact” and “Designing the Fall”; pre-visualization sequences of the Apartment Waterfront Chase, Fall Flight and Tripping Den, Elevator Chase and Car Chase scenes; and making-of interviews with Colin Farrell, Kate Beckinsale and Jessica Biel. The Blu-ray visual and sonic presentation is excellent, as well. – Gary Dretzka

Trouble With the Curve: Blu-ray
The natural tendency for fans considering any movie in which Clint Eastwood appears is to assume he’s doing double-duty as director and that’s only going to make the experience that much more enjoyable. The kneejerk reaction on the part of critics is to give any picture Eastwood directs at least a half-star’s worth of a break in reviews, whether it deserves it or not. At the ripe old age of 82, there isn’t much not to admire about Eastwood, his daffy performance at the Republican Convention notwithstanding. “Trouble With the Curve” is the first film in which Eastwood has starred, without directing, since 1993′s “In the Line of Fire.” Therein, methinks, lies the rub here. If he had chosen to star in and direct it, instead of doing what appears to be a big favor for longtime associate Robert Lorenz, “Curve” probably would have packed a greater punch than it does. Here, Eastwood plays the kind of cigar-chumping old-school baseball scout who bases all of his decisions on instinct and experience. Gus has been performing that function for the Atlanta Braves for a long time, but is feeling the heat from the kind of computer-savvy baseball executive (Matthew Lillard) we met last year in “Moneyball.” Here, though, the executive is the antagonist, instead of the hero. (It would have been interesting to see Brad Pitt play the same role in both movies.) Gus has been assigned to assess the potential of a high school slugger, who seems to hit a homerun whenever the opponent’s coach is too stupid to give him an intentional walk. We’re asked to forget for a minute that the usually front-running Braves are in the unlikely position here of being able to choose a kid destined to be the first, second or third pick in the entire draft. That’s a remarkably big deal for any team and Gus takes the responsibility seriously enough not to make his decision based solely on the phenom’s press clips or slugging percentage. Trouble is, Gus’ sight is declining with every new game.

Knowing this, an ally in the Braves’ front office (John Goodman) asks Gus’ daughter, Mickey (Amy Adams), to join her dad on the current trip through rural North Carolina and confirm his observations. Gus loves his daughter, but treats her as if she’s the black sheep in the family for being an unmarried professional, instead of a housewife with kids. Instead, she’s a high-powered lawyer gunning for a partnership in a prominent Atlanta firm. Mickey agrees to surprise her dad on the road, even knowing he’ll be the overly protective, male-chauvinist prick he’s always been. Mickey has inherited her father’s instinct for baseball, though, and she ends up agreeing with his assessment of the phenom. In this way, “Curve” becomes the story of two people against the baseball world. But, wait, there’s more. As if that weren’t sufficiently melodramatic, Lorenz and fellow rookie writer Randy Brown couldn’t resist the temptation to throw in the extremely likeable Justin Timberlake as Mickey’s potential love interest. Not so coincidentally, he plays a scout for the Red Sox, a team in nearly the same unlikely position as the Braves. Lorenz and Brown rally in the late innings of “Curve,” but, by then, too much damage has been done.

None of the blame for the movie’s shortcomings should fall on the shoulders of the actors, who are better than they have to be, or on DP Tom Stern, another veteran of the Eastwood wars. The Georgia-for-N.C. countryside is quite beautiful and it provides the perfect background for America’s pastime at the game’s most fundamental level. (The executive offices at Turner Field look impersonal and foreboding, by comparison.) Unmet expectations shouldn’t prevent diehard Eastwood loyalists from taking a shot at “Curve” on DVD or Blu-ray. If nothing else, the price is right. The Blu-ray adds a pair of short EPK-style featurettes on the director and stars. – Gary Dretzka

Red Hook Summer: Blu-ray
It’s been a long time since anyone’s gotten really excited about a new theatrical release from Spike Lee. Any momentum he had going for him from the wrenching memory play, “Summer of Sam,” dissipated completely with “Bamboozled,” a caustic satire that managed to alienate even his most reliable allies. He’s done much fine and important work in the last dozen years, mostly as a documentarian, but something was missing in Lee’s game. If “Red Hook Summer” doesn’t mark a return to form, exactly, at least it’s a welcome extension to his Chronicles of Brooklyn series, which includes “She’s Gotta Have It,” “Do the Right Thing,” “Crooklyn” and “He Got Game.” Even so, “Red Hook Summer” was virtually ignored by exhibitors. At its peak, “Bamboozled” could be found on 244 screens, compared to 41 for “Red Hook Summer.” Both numbers are way down from “Son of Sam,” which opened on more than 1,500 screens. Everything about the look, texture and characters in “Red Hook” screams, “Spike Lee made this movie,” right down to the spic-and-span streets, sidewalks and stoops and brightly painted buildings.

All of the action in “Red Hook” revolves around Flik Royale (Jules Brown, in his first role), a middle-class kid from the ATL whose father was killed in the current war and is being forced to spend the summer with his bible-banging grandfather in projects of Brooklyn’s Red Hook neighborhood. Flik wears a Mohawk and sees the world through the display screen of his ever-present iPad. His first great shock comes when he’s directed to his bedroom, which is minute compared to the one in his Atlanta home and not air-conditioned. The second comes when the Da Good Bishop Enoch Rouse (Clarke Peters) requires Flik to earn his keep by handing out religious flyers and working at the church. For his part, the minister is appalled to learn that Flik is a vegan and conditioned by circumstances not to believe in a benevolent God. They get along well enough, though, considering that their only common denominator is their DNA. Much of the pressure building inside the boy is dissipated by the arrival in his life of the irrepressible Chazz Morningstar (Toni Lysaith, also in her first role), with whom he enters into an uneasy alliance against the rest of the world. Somewhere past the halfway mark in “Red Hook,” I began to look for the conflict that would need to be resolved before the end credits could roll. Would it come in the form of a come-to-Jesus moment for Flik and his grandfather, or might he be tempted to join the block’s none-too-frightening gang? Flik and Chazz’s relationship works as long as they’re buddies, not lovers, so it would be cruel to inflict a sexual dilemma on them. Maybe the boy would decide not to return to Atlanta, choosing to remain with gramps in Red Hook. Nope.

What does happen in the closing scenes is so unexpected and jarring that any hint of what it is would set off a major spoiler alert. Suffice it to say that the surprise occurrence comes completely out of the blue and has the effect of making us rethink everything that’s come before it occurs. There’s an excellent chance you’ll hate it. What isn’t in dispute is Lee’s ability to elicit terrific performances from his cast members and have their characters inhabit a world that, in some ways, is as deceptively calm as sleepy Lumberton, in “Blue Velvet.” The Blu-ray edition adds plenty of sparkle to the proceedings, as well as a decent making-of documentary, commentary and a music video. – Gary Dretzka

Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Dog Days: Blu-ray
By successfully creating a franchise series targeted at ’tweens and early teens, 20th Century Fox has accomplished something that currently borders on the remarkable. “Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Dog Days” is the third successful adaptation of Jeff Kinney’s Internet sensation, which, since going analog, has translated into 8 books and 58 million in total sales. “Dog Days” combines elements of 2009’s “Dog Days” and “Last Straw,” both of which take place during the summer break. At 14, Zachary Gordon still looks sufficiently age appropriate to play Kinney’s “wimpy” middle-schooler, Greg, for at least one more installment. The rest of the family (Steve Zahn, Rachel Harris, Devon Bostick) is back as well, along with his socially inept best friend, Rowley (Robert Capron). This time around, Dad wants Greg to take the initiative of finding a job, while all that the boy wants to do is play video games with Rowley. By way of compromise, Greg pretends to take a job in the same place that Rowley’s dad works, while actually spending his days at a country club where the girl of his dreams, Holly, teaches tennis.

Consumed mostly with thoughts of his own, Dad takes quite a while to figure out the truth. As punishment, he threatens Greg with a transfer to a school known for enforcing discipline in its delinquent students. To avoid such a dire turn in his life, Greg decides to impress Dad with his behavior on a Boy Scout camping trip. When things go embarrassingly wrong for Scoutmaster Dad, Greg conspires with the other boys to turn the tables on pop’s nemesis. At last, he’s found something he can do well and impress the folks, as well. Meanwhile, back home, his brother and his truly crappy punk band, Loded Diper, are preparing to perform at a Sweet Sixteen before the girl of his dreams. The predictably disastrous results help push the story down the final stretch. The Blu-ray adds commentary by director David Bowers; deleted scenes; Class Clown animated short; a gag reel; and a FX Movie Channel piece, “Wimpy Empire.” – Gary Dretzka

Liberal Arts: Blu-ray
The thirtysomething character Josh Radnor plays in “Liberal Arts” — his sophomore effort as writer/director/star — is at the point in his life where he feels queasy about having sex with a college student who digs him, but not at all freaked out by the thought of hooking up with his “second favorite” professor …  during the same night. The age difference between Jesse and both women is approximately the same, but one sexual encounter carries a negative connotation in his mind while the other is somehow OK. It’s an interesting predicament for a recently separated man to suddenly be required to handle. Because he’s merely an alumnus, Jesse isn’t breaking any established guidelines by encouraging the younger woman’s adoration, and neither is his former “second-favorite” professor for treating him like an after-dinner aperitif. That resolved, however, Radnor doesn’t hesitate to draw a line in the sand for viewers on the question of acceptable adult behavior and the point where a moral stance end and hypocrisy begins. By giving his protagonist an easy way out of his problem makes it easier for the audience to walk away with a smile, even if the women don’t.

Shortly after watching the last embers of his marriage burn out, Jesse is asked to return to his alma mater to speak at a retirement testimonial for his “favorite” English literature professor (Richard Jenkins). Within a few hours’ time, he is introduced to 19-year-old literature student, Zibby (Elizabeth Olson), and spots from a distance the still desirable Judith Fairfield (Allison Janney). Having a day or so to kill before returning to New York, where he’s an admissions counselor, Jesse is able to dazzle the Zibby with his knowledge of the classics and determine that they’re kindred spirits. An exchange of letters serves to intensify their budding relationship, even as it gives him time to fret about their age difference. There’s nothing terribly neurotic about Zibby’s attraction to Jesse, except for the fact that he’s probably the first guy to treat her as an adult and listen to her opinions on a subject about which she takes seriously. The boys and men she’s met in her young life have been less interested in her brain than her boobs and it’s a refreshing change for her. At precisely the same time as Jesse comes to grips with Zibby’s desire to take their romance to the next level, the news that she’s a “virgin” throws him into a panic. Is it the proper response or is he being hypocritical? After making his lame apologies, he heads for a bar, where he’s surprised to find Dr. Fairfield. The quintessential cougar, she practically drags him to her boudoir. After the tryst, Dr. Fairfield demands that he immediately take a powder, but not before she delivers a bitter diatribe about former students who romanticize literature and are disappointed to discover that a life of the mind is only possible on college campuses. Olson and Janney are absolutely terrific as women on opposite ends of Jesse’s learning curve. At the same time, Jesse befriends two male students: one a hippie out of time (Zac Efron), who encourages him to loosen up, and the other a very smart kid (John Magaro) obsessed with a book by an author who committed suicide.

As Jesse, Radnor wears the same hangdog expression as he does in most episodes of “How I Met Your Mother” and did in “Happythankyoumoreplease.” For all I know, it may be the face of a generation of men who are as afraid of commitment as they are reluctant to admit they’re too self-absorbed to entrust their egos to a woman who recognizes bullshit when she sees it. Clearly, Jesse’s wife had her fill of his hipper-than-thou attitude. By contrast, Zibby is attracted to everything that his wife had come to despise. The other woman in his life is an employee of a New York bookstore (Elizabeth Reaser), who only manages to get his attention in the final scenes. Her sporadic appearances throughout “Liberal Arts” far too easily signal the direction Jesse ought to be heading. The resolution may be on the predictable side, but it benefits from being logical and satisfying. The Blu-ray includes commentary, a brief interview session and deleted scenes that reveal a discarded story thread and a revealing scene with his ex-wife. – Gary Dretzka

Sleepwalk With Me: Blu-ray
Mike Birbiglia’s name should be recognizable to listeners of such radio programs as “This American Life” and “Fresh Air” and the syndicated “Bob & Tom Show,” as well as those who keep up with what’s happening on the comedy circuit. “Sleepwalk With Me” is the film adaptation of the monologist’s popular stage show and book. Autobiographical to the point of being a confessional, the movie describes his character’s struggle to become a standup comic, while maintaining a relationship with a longtime girlfriend he’s in no hurry to marry. Matt’s nearly perfect girlfriend, Abby, is played by the always wonderful Lauren Ambrose. She sticks with the terminally neurotic Matt (Birbiglia) for reasons that will escape 99 percent of all viewers. That’s because, as the movie begins to unfold, Matt has no noticeable talent beyond bussing tables and pouring drinks at a local Comedy Dungeon. When we meet his hugely unpleasant and completely unsupportive father, a physician, it’s easy to see why Matt is such an emotional car wreck. He lives for the moment when his boss will ask him to substitute for a missing comic, if only for a five-minute bit.

When he gets the call, Matt is forced to acknowledge that he only has about 20 seconds of usable material. Still, he’s able to convince an agent to find him bookings at colleges and at the bottom of bills on the circuit. Mostly, his performance serves to convince audience members that nothing that follows could be less funny. The money is lousy and the road trips are relentless. It isn’t until a club owner listens to his pathetic personal story and judges it funnier than any of his material that Matt begins to find his groove. Not so funny, at least to Mike, are his terrifying nightmares and his tendency to act them out during his sleep walks. Neither is Matt and Abby’s concurrent realization that getting married wouldn’t solve either of their problems, which include his desperate need for approval and her tendency to enable his bad behavior. This is the point, as well, that Matt becomes a character viewers can support. As proof, “Sleepwalk” won the 2012 Audience Award at Sundance. The Blu-ray adds outtakes, a making-of featurette, behind-the-scenes shorts and commentary and a Q&A with director Ira Glass and Birbiglia, moderated by Joss Whedon at the Writers Guild Foundation. – Gary Dretzka

10 Years: Blu-ray
I’m no semanticist and I don’t play one on TV. Still, I’m willing to go out on a limb by suggesting that the curiously precise, if silly-sounding term, “dramedy,” might have been added to the lexicon by critics looking for a single word to adequately describe movies about high school reunions. The nature of the beast requires that such films feature an ensemble cast of reasonably attractive characters – some more easy on the eyes than others – who look as if they might have attended the same school and were either traumatized or exhilarated by the experience. For the most part, none of them has changed significantly and they have unfinished business to which they must attend or forever hold their peace. Although “10 Years” naturally shares some things with “American Reunion,” “Romy & Michelle’s High School Reunion” and “Gross Pointe Blank,” it isn’t nearly as raucous, satiric and anti-nostalgic. Only one doofus character reverts completely to form, as the class bully and all-around jerk, and no one suffers much from humiliation or startling revelations that have festered for a decade. Most, at least, have found and kept decent jobs — some more lucrative than others – and none looks much worse for the wear. There are plenty of laughs in “10 Years,” but they’re hardly uproarious. The drama comes in the characters’ gradual recognition of the fact that, while they aren’t getting any younger, the harmful effects of high school go away in time. Freshman director and third-time screenwriter Jamie Linden’s low-key approach to the reunion pleased several mainstream critics, as did the acting of such recognizable actors as Channing Tatum, Jenna Dewan-Tatum, Justin Long, Oscar Isaac, Ari Graynor, Kate Mara, Rosario Dawson and Chris Pratt and Aubrey Plaza, who play an offbeat couple in “Parks and Recreation.” Based solely on the lack of much licensed period music, it’s like that Linden was working on an extremely tight budget. Its absence is noticeable in the party scenes, but is compensated for by the cast’s good work. The Blu-ray adds some deleted scenes. – Gary Dretzka

The Good Doctor: Blu-ray
I was surprised to learn that this creepy-doctor thriller was directed by Lance Daly, the same Irish filmmaker who previously gave us “Kisses,” the powerful story of two kids from dysfunctional suburban families who have a scary Christmas Eve adventure in downtown Dublin. Populated with compelling characters and a largely unfamiliar cast, it made us care desperately for the fate of the children as they tried to make sense of what it means to be an adult. Although Orlando Bloom delivers a credible portrayal of an unstable Brit doing his residency in an American hospital, “The Good Doctor” simply fails to deliver the thrills and chills promised on the DVD’s cover. Such creepy-doctor movies as “Malice,” “Dead Ringers,” “Coma” and “Pathology” should cause viewers to rethink the necessity of their next appointment, while, at its best, “The Good Doctor” offers one very good reason not to invite your internist to dinner. The basic premise of writer John Embry’s story isn’t bad and the execution doesn’t lack much. The script simply makes it far too easy for Bloom’s fiendish Dr. Martin Blake to evolve from mild-mannered resident to someone willing to put the life of a patient at risk, simply to win the respect of his peers by saving her at the last minute. Elvis Presley’s granddaughter, Riley Keough, plays the young woman, Diane, whose potentially lethal kidney infection is successfully treated by the doctor. During a very strange visit to her home for a thank-you dinner, Blake notices her life-saving medication and decides to switch out its contents on a return visit. After he does the deed, Diane returns to the hospital, where Blake once again has her under his control and can plot another miraculous recovery. This time, however, things don’t go as planned. Still, no one believes he’s bungled her treatment* and no autopsy is performed. Only one other person in the hospital, an orderly, knows the truth and his decision to blackmail the doctor seems fool-proof … until it isn’t. Viewers aren’t supposed to be allowed the time or inclination to ponder ways they would have constructed the crimes or profiled the protagonist differently, but the opportunity presents itself here far too easily. Besides the presence of Bloom, which his young admirers will enjoy, “The Good Doctor” benefits from supporting turns from by Taraji P. Henson, Michael Peña, Rob Morrow and J.K. Simmons. – Gary Dretzka

Forced to Fight: Blu-ray
Five months short of 50, onetime kick-boxing champion Gary Daniels remains in amazing physical shape and would probably be a top contender on the mixed-martial-arts seniors’ tour, if such a thing existed. He’s appeared in several dozen movies and TV series, but lacks the certain something – emotional range, perhaps — that has enhanced the acting careers of Randy Couture, Steve Austin, John Cena, Roddy Piper, Gina Carano, Dwayne Johnson and Jean Claude Van Damme.  He was cast in “The Expendables,” with a half-dozen other profession hard-asses, but in a subsidiary role. Daniels plays a retired MMA fighter, Shane, whose cocky younger brother breaks a promise to a promoter about throwing a match. Now, Danny G (Peter Weller) not only wants the fighter to reimburse him the money he lost betting on the bout, but also to exact his pound of flesh. To settle the debt, Shane reluctantly agrees to get back in shape and return to whatever passes for a ring in the illegal underground sport. Even though he’s up against some real monsters, Shane succeeds to the point where Danny G no longer is able to make any money betting on him, so he orders him to take a few dives. The insult to his integrity and his inability to refuse the demand pisses him off to the point where he’s uncharacteristically short and unreasonable with his wife, son and brother. The abrupt transition from cool dad to tyrant isn’t remotely believable, and neither is Shane’s ability to take on all comers in a single night.

“Forced to Fight” is set in a warehouse neighborhood of New York, but all of the interiors were staged in Romania. Curiously, all of the male extras and some of the fighters look and dress as they probably have since the fall of the Coucesceau regime. The card girls and other beautiful young women in the crowd – some of whom get fake blood splattered on their perfectly made-up faces – look as if they were cast on the dance floor of the hottest night club in Bucharest and wouldn’t be caught dead with their respective escorts. As capable as the 5-foot-10 Daniels was in the ring, battling fellow lightweights, he lacks the physical stature necessary to convince anyone that he could actually dominate the movie’s steroid-enhanced behemoths in a no-holds-barred fight. If he added a tattoo to his face, like Mike Tyson, perhaps he’d be taken seriously as an actor. On the other hand, Peter Weller has no excuses for accepting the role of the Danny G in Jonas Quastel’s thoroughly illogical and cliché-ridden “Forced to Fight.” The Blu-ray arrives with a pair of short behind-the-scenes pieces. – Gary Dretzka

Hermano
I usually don’t give much credence to blurbs on the covers of DVDs, primarily because a creative publicist needn’t be an alchemist to pull three or four positive words from an otherwise negative review and spin them into gold. One quote compares “Hermano” to “City of God” and “Goal! The Dream Begins,” which is accurate in that it’s set in a dangerous Caracas barrio and the protagonists’ escape route is through soccer. Although it would be extremely difficult for any filmmaker, especially one new to features, to match the level of expertise it took to make “City of God,” Marcel Rasquin’s freshman effort can lay claim to being a kindred spirit, at least. With “Goal!,” “Hermano” shares a faith in dreams coming true for young Hispanic athletes who might have only one shot at success. “Hermano” tells the story of two unrelated teenagers, who live together as brothers in a Caracas slum, the younger having been abandoned at birth and rescued from a trash heap by the older boy’s mother. They are the stars of a team funded by a local hoodlum, but have the talent to move into the pro ranks. In a tragic accident, the mother is killed while passing by the scene of a violent crime. The younger brother, Daniel (Fernando Moreno), witnesses the crime, but is afraid to tell Julio (Eliu Armas) the name of the boy responsible, because he’s his good friend, a teammate and trigger-happy. Not knowing the truth eats at Julio like a cancer, just as withholding the truth torments Daniel. Before this dilemma can be resolved, however, the brothers are given the rare opportunity to try out for Caracas’ professional team. Their fate rests on the outcome of a championship game with another formidable barrio team and Daniel’s unusual double-or-nothing bet with the pro coach. Even if the ending seems easy to predict, it’s what happens in advance of the final whistle that makes “Hermano” a superior entertainment. Rasquin captures the gritty texture of barrio life and desperation of many of its inhabitants, but what stands out is Daniel’s determination to save the hot-headed Julia, just as he was rescued by the woman they both recognized as their mother. The DVD adds an informative interview with Rasquin. – Gary Dretzka

Backwards
Every two years, depending on the season, NBC tries its best to involve us in sports about which, normally, we couldn’t possibly be less interested, whether it’s the modern pentathlon or competitive kayaking. This year, viewers were required to endure an inordinate number of rowing matches, mostly at the expense of boxing, weightlifting and other traditional events deemed to be of no special interest to Americans. I enjoy watching rowing more than the next guy – which isn’t saying much, really – but, this year, the coverage seemed excessive by half. The Brits love the sport and turned out in great numbers to support it. Consequently, we heard more than the usual number of up-close-and-personal stories about rowers. The inspirational sports dramedy, “Backwards,” is an 89-minutes extension of one of those segments. Besides acting, writer/producer/star Sarah Megan Thomas is a very capable amateur athlete and knows what it takes to get and stay in shape for competition. In “Backwards,” she plays a star rower, Abi, who’s proven herself sufficiently proficient to be an alternate on the U.S. team. For an athlete, this is the equivalent of attending Mass every Sunday of your life and going directly to purgatory, because heaven is fully booked. As much as we admire the 30-year-old’s tenacity, it’s easy to see in her a slightly past-her-prime athlete who never tires of reading her press clippings and dusting off the trophy case in her bedroom. She puts every other aspect of her life – including anything remotely romantic — on hold to make the Olympics and doesn’t seem to mind sharing a cramped dorm room with a rower who’s 10 years younger. The only person that thinks she’s being delusional is her mother (Margaret Colin), who has gotten tired of supporting her adult child in this endeavor. When Mom suggests she start supporting herself, Abi treats the request with the same disdain as a 30-year-old, unemployed stoner might when told to get a job. It isn’t as if we’re surprised by her addiction to training or obsession with the Olympics, because Americans have become conditioned to expect such sacrifices on the part of their amateur athletes. Still, we begin to suspect her sanity when she stands up an old flame, Geoff – played by the studly James Van Der Beek – in order to spend another half-hour on the rowing machine, because her coach insinuated she was a couple of pounds overweight.

When Abi’s named alternate for the second time, she freaks out and quits the team that’s come to depend on her. She returns to her former high school to beg Geoff’s forgiveness for the diss and, after accepting her apology, asks her to consider coaching the girls’ team in his place. Not only does she take the job, but she’s also able to convince two of the rowers to invest the same kind of energy as she did in becoming a champion. You might be able to guess what happens next, but, if not, it involves being given a choice between doing the right thing or choosing the selfish alternative.  By this time, though, “Backwards” has gone all melodramatic on us, creating unbelievable coincidences as solutions to make-believe problems and very nearly squandering any sympathy viewers had invested in Abi. That’s too bad, because the first half of the movie started nicely with director Ben Hickernell (“Lebanon, Pa.”) capturing beautiful shots of early-morning training sessions on a scenic Pennsylvania river and a credible narrative. The characters share a sharp edge and the protagonist aren’t nearly as picture-perfect as those we meet between matches on TV. The perceived need to squeeze in a romantic throughline only serves to diminish the drama. As it is, the picture wound up being a movie only a teenage girl might admire. The DVD includes an interview with Thomas. – Gary Dretzka

Big Tits Zombie 3D
Resident Evil: Retribution: Blu-ray
In the world of horror, it’s become axiomatic that the cheaper and more tawdry a straight-to-DVD is, the better the title. Good titles build word-of-mouth and sell product. “Big Tits Zombie,” in its original manga incarnation, was known as “The Big Tits Dragon: Hot Spring Zombies vs. Strippers 5,” a normally unbeatable title. By shortening it and adding “3D,” it becomes a candidate for cult-classic status. Japanese “pinku” specialist Takao Nakano is responsible for such Japorn and horror efforts as “ExorSister,” “Sexual Parasite: Killer Pussy,” “Playgirl 7: Most Extreme Bawdy Games,” “Queen Bee Honey,” “Aspiring Home Tutor: Soiled Pure Whiteness” and “Hop Step Jump!,” about a bullied school custodian who turns into a giant frog with superpowers. “Big Tits Zombie” is not a movie in which busty undead humanoids attack whatever it is such fiends normally would attack, but big-busted women in stripper outfits who are forced into working at a brothel, where they destroy zombies with chain saws and swords. There’s more, but why spoil the surprise for those attracted to the title. They should know, however, that while the strippers have larger than average busts for Asian women, they are not huge and they’re revealed only very briefly. Moreover, they don’t look any larger in 3D than in 2D. As these things go, “Big Tits Zombie” is as funny as it is cheesy, primarily because the English words put into the characters’ mouths are reminiscent of those given the actors in Woody Allen’s “What’s Up, Tiger Lily.” It comes with a making-of featurette and old-fashioned 3D glasses.

I hope that what I am about to say won’t sound like a cop out or holier-than-thou preaching, but so many people are slaughtered in automatic- weapons fire in the first 15 minutes of “Resident Evil Retribution” that I couldn’t help but flash on all the recent massacres at schools and shopping malls. Children are put in harm’s way, as well. That was enough death for me. Viewers already drawn to the “RE” franchise probably will find something to like in the latest sequel, even if I didn’t. To them, Merry Christmas and Happy New Year from the NRA. For what it is worth, the Blu-ray arrives with separate commentary tracks with writer/director Paul W.S. Anderson, Milla Jovovich and Boris Kodjoe, and Anderson and producer Jeremy Bolt; outtakes; the featurettes “Drop (Un) Dead: The Creatures of Retribution” and “Resident Evil: Retribution: Face of the Fan”; the film’s soundtrack; and several other backgrounders. For those with a high threshold for pain, “RE” also is available in 3D. – Gary Dretzka

PBS: Secrets of the Dead: The Man Who Saved the World
PBS: Cuban Missile Crisis: Three Men Go to War 
Nature: An Original DUCKumentary: Blu-ray 
Lest we forget, 2012 marked the 50th anniversary of the Cuban Missile Crisis. If you can’t recall passing this important milestone, it’s probably because the media was still obsessing over the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic. That makes some sense only when one considers that, even before James Cameron’s excellent submersible adventure, more information was available to the public on that disaster than anything dealing with our near-apocalyptic confrontation with the Soviet Union. Exactly how close our nations came to exchanging nuclear missiles in October, 1962, has only come to light recently and, in some cases, begrudgingly. None of the three countries involved in the situation was completely innocent of pushing the world to the brink of disaster and all of the prominent players were guilty of putting their own self-interests ahead of those of their citizens. It wasn’t until the last few hours of the passion play that they finally came to their senses. (In fact, Fidel Castro never forgave his allies for cutting a deal with JFK behind his back.) Among the documentaries released this year on the subject are “Secrets of the Dead: The Man Who Saved the World” and “Cuban Missile Crisis: Three Men Go to War,” both from PBS. “The Man Who Saved the World” chronicles the drama that unfolded inside a nuclear-armed Soviet submarine, when it appeared as if it was being attacked by a U.S. destroyer in what seemed to be the opening volley of a third world war. It merely was an attempt to scare off the sub, which was following American ships, but the crew didn’t know that at the time. It would have taken the approval of all three senior officers of the submarine to agree on the deployment of a nuclear-tipped torpedo on an American aircraft carrier, but Vasili Arkhipov vetoed it. The program is informed by eyewitness accounts and expert testimony about the critical event.

“Cuban Missile Crisis: Three Men Go to War” profiles the three leaders responsible for the fates of millions of people, most of whom lived in Europe and would have been targeted in the first wave of missiles. Cuba would have been decimated, but, it’s safe to say, Kennedy and Khrushchev worried more about what might have occurred in the second and third waves. JFK’s role made him a hero, while Khrushchev was lambasted for blinking. In fact, in a move kept secret until much later, the Soviet leader was able to get Kennedy to agree to remove our nuclear missiles from Turkey and Italy, an agreement conservatives would have used to roast Kennedy. Although he’s managed to outlive almost everyone involved, Castro considered Cuba to be the loser. The documentary contains interviews with such well-positioned observers as Sergei Khrushchev, son of the former Soviet premier; Ted Sorensen, formerly of the Executive Committee of the U.S. National Security Council; former KGB and CIA operatives; and Captain Jerry Coffee, the reconnaissance pilot who almost accidentally revealed a new type of nuclear weapon that could have annihilated invading American forces.

And, now for something completely different from PBS: “An Original DUCKumentary.” Apart from Donald and Daffy, ducks simply haven’t been accorded the respect due them. Even in Hollywood, heavily armed male characters are encouraged to bond during soggy mornings spent huddling in a “duck blind.” Wooden effigies are used to attract the potential victims, too naïve to suspect a trap. Here, we are invited to follow a male and female wood duck, as they create a bond, migrate together across thousands of miles, nurture and protect a brood of chicks, then come full circle. That is, if they can get past the heavily armed costumers of the ZZ Top look-alikes on “Duck Dynasty.” And, yes, the ducks’ colors sparkle in hi-def. – Gary Dretzka

Tosh.0: Deep V’s: Blu-ray
Gabriel Iglesias Presents: Stand-Up Revolution: Season Two
Backstage at Budz House
Daniel Tosh looks like too nice a guy to host one of television’s most wicked clip shows and, yet, he’s the primary reason “Tosh.0” is so nasty and fun to watch. Each week, Tosh and team pore through the craziest and most viral of videos on the Internet, pick out the most painful to watch and script funny comments for each one. Going way beyond what’s expected of other hosts of such clip shows, however, Tosh sometimes will invite the victims of the most spectacular fails to join him on the show and relive the experience in his “Web Redemption” segments. The titles of his new Blu-rays, “Tosh.0: Deep V’s” and “Cardigans Plus Casual Jackets” refer to his completely misleading Joe College look. (The latter is available only at Walmart.) The double set includes web redemptions with Tron Guy, the backyard wrestler, the N64 kid and David After the Dentist; Old Lee reads Miley Cyrus tweets; Daniel gets to the bottom of an epic Beard Man Fight; the grossest thing you’ve ever seen on television; and Tosh.0 enters the Winter Olympics. There also are plenty of extras.

In comedy, as in life, when you’re hot you’re hot. Few standup comedians are hotter right now than Gabriel Iglesias. In addition to touring and appearing in “Magic Mike” and Cartoon  Network’s “The High Fructose Adventures of Annoying Orange,” the man also known as Fluffy has spent the last year hosting and exec-producing the second season of Comedy Central’s hit show, “Stand-Up Revolution.” Both stanzas now are available on DVD, as are re-releases of his previous comedy specials. “Season Two” extends the mix of comedy sketches, funny guests, animated shorts, wild Hawaiian shirts and Ozomatli. The bonus package adds outtakes, a music-video backgrounder and more “Hey, It’s Fluffy” animated shorts.

As the number of states with legalized marijuana grows, I wonder if the number of comedians whose entire act is based in getting high will diminish. One of the leading purveyors of stoner humor is Faizon Love, whose 2011 “Budz House” I found to be reasonably amusing. An episode of “Backstage at Budz House” was included in that movie’s bonus feature and this is an extension. It stars comedians Kevin Hart, Luenell, Scruncho and Chris Spencer as they perform in front of a studio audience in a talk-show setting. Love is the host of the raucous affair. – Gary Dretzka

DVD Gift Guide Redux: The Story of Film, Qatsi, Ice Age, The Point … More

Tuesday, December 18th, 2012

The Story of Film: An Odyssey
If there is such a thing as a no-brainer gift this holiday season, it’s “The Story of Film: An Odyssey.” I can say this here, without fear of being contradicted, because anyone already drawn to a website dedicated to movies would certainly relish spending all 916 minutes in the company of Mark Cousins as he chronicles the history of the international cinema. First shown on the British digital television channel More4, “The Story of Film” is divided into 15 chapters loosely arranged by periods, but also taking into account technical innovations, personalities, national cinemas, studios and influences. Decidedly non-linear, the series frequently shifts direction in mid-chapter, crossing borders of time, place and genre to advance a particular theory or keep a train of thought rolling. The effect can be dizzying, especially when Cousins jumps from an objective stance to one overtly subjective and not always backed up by the facts. In addition to expounding on all of the usual touchstones of the medium, the Irish director and film historian demonstrates convincingly how the American movie industry has never existed in a cultural vacuum, but as the sum of many disparate parts. Hollywood has always served as a crucible into which ideas and dreams are thrown, some turning into gold and others into dross. While there is no question that studio products continue to dominate the international box office, no matter how vibrant the local cinema may be, Cousins goes to great lengths to show how one culture influences another and great stories transcend all borders. Foreign filmmakers have come to Hollywood to escape tyranny, economic deprivation and to afford the luxury of seeing their dreams come true. In addition to suitcases, they’ve carried with them memories of every film they’ve watched and scenarios impossible for their American peers to conjure.

To this end, Cousins visits such far-flung sites as Thomas Edison’s New Jersey laboratory, Cinecitta Studios, the Beijing Film Academy and Shaw Brothers Studio, Bollywood and Calcutta, Teheran, Senegal and Buenos Aires, conducting interviews, gathering clips and finding the original locations of significant films. It’s a humbling experience to be reminded of how many wonderful titles we’ve yet to see. One might expect, then, that “The Story of Film” would push an anti-Hollywood agenda, favoring arthouse treasures over movies that are determinedly commercial. That isn’t the case, however. The changes in Hollywood economics and its technological imperatives are duly noted, but Cousins’ opinions aren’t of the one-size-fits-all variety. The series’ greatest limitations mostly involve the directors’ strangely bland narrative, which is capable of lulling of viewers into sleep one minute and jolting them with wild leaps of hyperbolic faith the next. Factual errors and barely founded exaggerations creep in occasionally, but not often. Indeed, some will inspire lively debate among home viewers. In addition to the many clips from the movies he’s discussing, the documentary is informed by interviews with such artists as Stanley Donen, Kyoko Kagawa, Gus van Sant, Lars Von Trier, Wim Wenders, Abbas Kiarostami, Claire Denis, Bernardo Bertolucci, Robert Towne, Jane Campion and Claudia Cardinale. Cousins doesn’t demand that we accept his points of view or methodology. Rather, he seems to be inviting us to use them as starting points of our own. It’s an amazing document, as informative as it is entertaining. A perfect companion gift to “The Story of Film” would be a subscription to Netflix or Facets. – Gary Dretzka

The Qatsi Trilogy: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
Decasia: The State of Decay: Blu-ray

The release of Godfrey Reggio and Philip Glass’ truly amazing collaboration, “The Qatsi Trilogy,” would be an event worth celebrating even if its care and packaging weren’t entrusted to Criterion Collection. Knowing that it is, however, only makes the handsome box set that much more recommendable as a gift for your more culturally enlightened friends and relatives. The three thematically and musically linked films describe the evolution of man’s place on Earth from the period when nature wholly controlled our fate to its current devolution, brought on by technology, pollution, consumerism and greed. Yes, we’ve witnessed the negative effects of so-called progress in other documentaries, but rarely is the evidence presented in such an eloquent way. Absent all narration, we’re left to ourselves when it comes shaping opinions about what we’re being shown. Glass’ scores, while evocative, are free of editorializing, as well. Throughout the “Qatsi” series, Impressionistic images of everyday life – the good, bad, ugly and indifferent – come together as epic poems. The music seems to grow organically from what’s being shown, whether it’s an army of miners excavating a pit by hand or a fiesta with dancers in native dress. The expressions on the many anonymous faces we’re shown provide more information about their lives and times than a narrator could possibly supply. The first entry, “Koyaanisqatsi” (1983) is taken from the Hopi word meaning “life out of balance.” The basic translations of 1988’s “Powaqqatsi (“life in transformation”) and 2002’s “Naqoyqatsi” (“life as war”) pretty much sum up their essence, as well. People and things are born and, unless they are able to adjust to their environment and circumstances, they die and decay sooner than other people and things. In the end, what’s left behind for future generations is what matters most.

One of things that struck me while watching “Qatsi” is the immense difference that still exists between how work is done in first- and second-world countries and the almost ancient techniques still employed by those in undeveloped nations. Outside of the capitals, resorts and other populated areas, only the satellite dishes on adobe homes tell us that we’re in the 20th Century. The religious rituals and seasonal holidays look as if they’ve been celebrated the same way for centuries, but, then, who knows how many tourists were standing behind the cinematographer? No matter, it makes for a good show and the point remains the same. The “Qatsi” set contains, as well, a large bundle of special features, including “Essence of Life,” an interview program with Reggio and composer Philip Glass on “Koyaanisqatsi”; a new interview with cinematographer Ron Fricke about “Koyaanisqatsi”; an early 40-minute demo version of “Koyaanisqatsi,” with a scratch soundtrack by Allen Ginsberg; a new interview with Reggio about the first film’s original visual concept, with behind-the-scenes footage; “Inspiration and Ideas,” an interview with Reggio about his greatest influences and teachers; “Anima Mundi” (1992), Reggio’s 28-minute montage of images of over 70 animal species, scored by Glass; a video afterword by Reggio on the trilogy; “The Making of “Naqoyqatsi,” a brief documentary featuring interviews with the production crew; a panel discussion on “Naqoyqatsi” from 2003, with Reggio, Glass, editor Jon Kane and music critic John Rockwell; an interview with Glass and cellist Yo-Yo Ma; television spots and an interview with Reggio relating to his 1970s multimedia privacy campaign in New Mexico; and a booklet featuring essays on the trilogy by film scholar Scott MacDonald, Rockwell and author and environmentalist Bill McKibben.

The films of Bill Morrison are in the same vein as “Qatsi,” in that they blend images and music to make a point about modern life. “Decasia” arrives on the heels of Icarus’ release of “The Miners’ Hymn” and related short films, all of which reflect Morrison’s amazing ability to salvage extremely rare, nearly lost and thoroughly distressed film footage and turn it into a symphony. “Decasia” was created as a visual accompaniment to Michael Gordon’s powerfully discordant and relentlessly rhythmic orchestral piece of the same title. Here, Morrison uses found footage to address the tragedy of how much of our cinematic history has gone up in flames and deteriorated due to age, neglect and improper storage. Anyone who’s watched organic objects decay in time-lapse films knows how fascinating and strangely beautiful the process can be, when it isn’t flat-out horrifying, anyway. In “Decasia,” people who are passionate about the medium will find the effect to be profoundly depressing, as well as hypnotic. The 70-minute audio/visual “symphony” is accompanied by a short created, as well, by found footage. – Gary Dretzka

Ice Age: Continental Drift: Blu-ray
For my money, two of the most effective cautionary tales about global warming are as different from “An Inconvenient Truth” as “The Da Vinci Code” is to the Baltimore Catechism. “Beasts of the Southern Wild” and “A.I.: Artificial Intelligence” both involve children being forced to deal with the effects of dramatic climate change as fact, not scientific theory. Images of the prehistoric aurochs emerging from the melting glaciers haunt Hushpuppy in ways that the melting glaciers in the Al Gore documentary frightened adults. In “A.I.,” the final shots of the robot boy, David – drowned beneath the waters that claimed Coney Island, but never to die — are even more harrowing. Although “Ice Age: Continental Drift” isn’t at all disturbing, it does share with “A.I.” and “Beasts” dramatic images of the effects of rapid climate and tectonic change on the landscape and its inhabitants, in this case prehistoric animals. It may not be pretty, but, as disaster movies go, it’s a hoot. Once again, Scrat’s obsession for acorns inadvertently wreaks havoc with Earth’s geophysical timeline. From an innocent everyday act by a hyperactive squirrel literally comes the separation and drifting of the continents. Everything else involves the struggle to keep the clan united and facing in the direction of the future. In this way, too, the story resembles a typical Hollywood disaster epic. The same motley crew of characters that populated previous “Ice Age” installments is divided here by just such an acorn-induced tectonic shift. The sea level had already been rising noticeably before a land bridge was destroyed by fissures, compounded by giant waves. Left on one side of the rapidly crumbling land mass are Sid (John Leguizamo), Diego (Denis Leary) and Manny (Ray Romano), while, on the other, stands Manny’s wife Ellie (Queen Latifah) and teenage daughter Peaches (Keke Palmer). All other escape routes have been destroyed, so the males are required to mount their rescue effort at sea. Before that can happen, they are confronted by Captain Gutt (Peter Dinklage), an ape who rules the waves from his pirate-ship iceberg. In the end, the good guys require the help of a friendly whale – shades of “Pinocchio” – to facilitate the mandatory happy ending. Parents may or may not want to inform young viewers of the many factual errors in the story’s timeline, as the license taken by the filmmakers is far less than poetic. “Continental Drift” is entertaining and, on Blu-ray, a pleasure to watch. It arrives in 3D and 2D, with an array of featurettes, interactive games and shorts. – Gary Dretzka

Hans Christian Andersen: Blu-ray
Babes in Toyland: Blu-ray

Somewhere, back in the dark recesses of my brain, resides a memory of watching, or, at least, hearing the songs featured in the 1952 film musical “Hans Christian Andersen.” I can’t remember if I saw the movie in a theater, on TV or merely had been given a recording of the soundtrack. Something wonderful was retained, however. New to Blu-ray, director Charles Vidor and screenwriter Moss Hart’s Technicolor “biography” of the beloved Danish storyteller is enhanced by a delightful performance by Danny Kaye and songs by Frank Loesser. It’s worth noting, as is done in a prelude to the movie, almost nothing about writer’s background and history is accurate here. The movie was produced by Samuel Goldwyn as an effort to capture Andersens’ spirit, something it does very well. As the movie opens, Andersen is a small-town cobbler whose gift for spinning fairytales is keeping kids from attending school. Because of this, the village’s starch-collared elders demand that he either cease and desist such harmless behavior or leave town. Along with one of the older boys, he sets out for “wonderful, wonderful” Copenhagen, where adventure, heartbreak and fame await. Children and young adults today know almost nothing about Kaye and what made him such a huge star in Hollywood and on Broadway. The same may said about Andersen, as well, even if his stories are as fresh as ever. The songs include “No Two People,” “The King’s New Clothes,” “Wonderful Copenhagen,” “Inchworm,” “The Ugly Duckling” and “Thumbelina.” The only bonus features are a theatrical trailer and 40-page digi-book with informative text and behind-the-scenes photos and art. The film has been restored to its original 112-minute length.

Walt Disney based his fanciful Technicolor holiday musical, “Babes in Toyland,” on a popular 1903 operetta by Victor Herbert. It had already been adapted for film, in 1934, with Laurel & Hardy as the marquee attraction. As was the case with “Hans Christian Andersen,” great liberties were taken with the original story and music, but Disney’s wonderful creations have never been known for their adherence to text and lyrics. Here, Tom the Piper’s Son is about to marry Mary Quite Contrary, but on the eve of their wedding, evil miser Barnaby hires two thugs to drown Tom and steal Mary’s sheep, cared for by Little Bo Peep. In this way, the penniless Mary would be forced to marry Barnaby. Instead, his hired thugs, Gonzorgo and Roderigo, double-cross him by selling Tom to a band of gypsies. (Would the studio freely slander the race in 2012? I doubt it.) It leaves the door open for a reunion with Mary, Bo-Peep, and other Mother Goose characters in Toyland. Although “Babes in Toyland” could boast of having such prominent stars as Ray Bolger and Ed Wynn, the most promotable cast members were “Mickey Mouse Club” regulars Annette Funicello, Tommy Kirk and Kevin Corcoran; “Zorro” co-stars, Henry Calvin and Gene Sheldon; teen heartthrob, Tommy Sands; and an 11-year-old, Ann Jillian. As a feature film, “Babes in Toyland” was pretty much a bust, but its characters and sets would find a place in Disney theme parks for many years afterward. (The stop-action-animated toy soldiers also appear to have influenced certain key scenes in Blake Edwards’ “S.O.B.”) – Gary Dretzka

Dick Tracy: Blu-ray
As much as any comic-book superhero, ace crime fighter Dick Tracy has been a multimedia staple practically since its newspaper debut in 1931. Warren Beatty’s star-studded adaptation was released in 1990, a year after Tim Burton’s adaptation of “Batman” and more than a decade removed from Richard Donner’s “Superman.” It didn’t do the same kind of business as those blockbusters, but it made plenty of money for Disney. Beatty was prepared to produce a sequel, even if the studio wasn’t. Any immediate hopes that it would happen were dashed when the director/producer/star was blocked by Tribune Media Services, which owns the rights to the character. Amazingly, Beatty’s suit against the now-bankrupt company continues to this day. It’s a shame, because his version of “Dick Tracy” is nearly as much fun to watch as any of the other adaptations. And, unlike all of the great comic-book movies of the next 22 years, the only thing that was completely digital about it was the soundtrack. Besides its very decent story and nearly two dozen wonderfully re-created characters, what was so impressive about “Dick Tracy” was its brilliant color palette, which approximated the half-dozen hues, plus black and white, employed in the creation of the comic strip … that, and the makeup effects used to distinguish such immortal characters as Alphonse “Big Boy” Caprice (Al Pacino), Mumbles (Dustin Hoffman), Flattop (Wiliam Forsythe), Pruneface (R.G. Armstrong), Lips Manlis (Paul Sorvino) and Spuds Spaldoni (James Caan). The story, itself, is a distillation of Chicago gangland history and the legends passed along by the strip’s creator, Chester Gould. Glenne Headley played Tracy’s eternally patient girlfriend Tess Trueheart, while Madonna was bewitching as salon-singer Breathless Mahoney. (This was when she still was dating men twice her age, instead of robbing the cradle.) The Blu-ray presentation is terrific, as are the Oscar-winning songs by Stephen Sondheim. – Gary Dretzka

The Point: Definitive Collector’s Edition
Although such hit recordings as “Everybody’s Talkin’,” “Without You,” “Coconut,” “One,” “I Guess the Lord Must Be in New York City” and “Jump Into the Fire” are far more recognizable today than his name, Harry Nilsson’s musical legacy continues to grow. MVD Visual has re-released his perfectly gift-able animated feature, “The Point,” which, in 1971, reputedly became the first animated special to receive a prime-time broadcast in the U.S. It would go on to produce a popular soundtrack album and stage musical. The original ABC presentation featured the narration of Dustin Hoffman, as a father telling his son the story as a bedtime story, but a contract clause caused Nilsson’s buddy, Ringo Starr, to be hired to re-record the narrative. As the story goes, a little round-headed boy named Oblio, who is required a pointed hat to conform with the intolerant residents of his home town, where everyone else’s head comes to a point. As punishment for beating a count’s son in a game of Triangle Toss, Oblio and his dog Arrow are banished to the Pointless Forest. It is here that the boy discovers that everything has a point, including him, and he’s ready to return to the Land of Point to teach his former neighbors and friends the same thing. The story was accompanied by the animation of director Fred Wolf. Anyone aware of the singer-songwriter’s favorite recreational pastimes in the late-1960s and 1970s might assume that “The Point” is as psychedelic as “The Yellow Submarine” and as rebellious as “Hair.” Fact is, though, it’s perfectly acceptable as family entertainment. The biggest hit to derive from the musical was “Me and My Arrow,” but the rest of the soundtrack is fun, as well. The MVD release adds 25 minutes of bonus features, including “Who Is Harry Nilsson?,” “Pitching the Point,” “Making the Point” and “Legacy of the Point.” Curious parents may also want to check out the 2010 bio-doc, “Who Is Harry Nilsson (And Why Is Everybody Talkin’ About Him)?” – Gary Dretzka

Step Up Revolution: Dance Workout!
What would Christmas be without a new workout video to buy Mom or Sis when all else fails? The more they love you, the less they’ll consider bopping you over the head for insinuating they’re getting chubby. Indefensibly overweight movie critics haven’t exactly been forthcoming with praise for the four “Step Up” chapters in the movie franchise, but it’s tough to argue with total box-office grosses of $560-million-plus worldwide. The rock-your-socks-off approach to calisthenics is strictly for those who enjoy “So You Think You Can Dance” and other such shows. The 90-minute “Step Up Revolution: Dance Workout!” is hosted by Bryan Tanaka (“The XFactor”) and Micki Duran (“Burlesque”) and features hip-hop and Latin routines from the movie, “Step Up Revolution.” Be New Year’s Eve, your giftee should be ready to join a flash mob. – Gary Dretzka

History: Mankind: The Story of All of Us
History: Ancient Aliens: Collector’s Edition

In 2010, History Channel unleashed the 6-night, 12-hour miniseries, “America: The Story of Us” on those television viewers who prefer their history condensed, rather than spread out and authoritative. The hit-and-run approach and choice of commentators – Rudolph Giuliani, Donald Trump, Michael Strahan, Al Sharpton, among other celebrities – failed to impress critics, but it must have scored in the ratings. The result is the 13-part, 12-hour “Mankind: The Story of All of Us,” which attempts nothing less than to span the first stirrings of civilization in Mesopotamia and the discovery of America. By using the “big history” approach, the mini-series shows how mankind’s path is guided by events that stretch back hundreds, thousands, even millions of years. It also argues that our destinies weren’t shaped in neatly divided chapters, but in the almost inadvertent merging of such interconnected scientific disciplines as geology, astronomy, physics, biology, medicine and metallurgy. Plagues and other calamities led to important, life enhancing discoveries, just as some innovations eventually proved disastrous. With a whole lot of hard work and determination, we’ve managed to make it this far. We’ll see if the Mayan calendar allows us another Christmas.

The role played by outsiders not of this Earth has obsessed producers of “Ancient Aliens: Collector’s Edition” for, lo, the past four years. If you haven’t bought into the premise by now – or enjoyed pouring pails of water on the series’ theories — you probably never will. In effect, “Ancient Aliens” dares skeptics and scientists, alike, to come up for better explanations for the seemingly miraculous wonders discussed. I know that I can’t explain the creation of the pyramids, Stonehenge or Machu Picchu. I can barely understand how the Luxor resort in Las Vegas was constructed. The best thing about this collection and others sent out by History is that there’s no quiz at the end of each season. – Gary Dretzka

MLB All-Time Bloopers
The San Francisco Giants: 2012 World Series Collector’s Edition
Baseball fans are the easiest of all people for whom to find gifts. Each year, new books and DVDs arrive on every conceivable aspect of the game, from players and teams to stadiums and mascots. Material that would bore most people to tears is the bread and butter of diehard fans and participants in fantasy leagues. If you know their favorite team, the hard part already is over. Even the most casual of fans, though, love the blooper reels that are shown between innings on the Jumbotron scoreboards. “MLB All-Time Bloopers” is a can’t-miss DVD, as it features many more minutes of “classic and clever, historic and hysterical” individual feats and mishaps.

Of all the DVD products available today not to buy a fan of the Los Angeles Dodgers it would be “The San Francisco Giants: 2012 World Series Collector’s Edition.” Team loyalists really, really don’t like each other and it would be like pouring salt in a wound for dyed-in-blue Dodger fans to be handed a record of the triumphs of their bitter rivals. On the other hand, anyone who lives north of say, Carmel, south of Portland and west of Salt Lake City should enjoy finding it in their stocking. It includes all four complete games of the 2012 World Series; the fifth games of the National League divisional and championship series; and Matt Cain’s perfect game. A “bonus” disc adds scenes of walk-off wins; season highlights; postgame celebrations; and several more games from the divisional and championship series. – Gary Dretzka

The DVD Wrapup: 2 Days in New York, 360, Following, Black Like Me … More

Thursday, December 13th, 2012

Why Stop Now: Blu-ray
With an ensemble cast that includes Melissa Leo, Jesse Eisenberg and Tracy Morgan, you’d think that an eccentric screwball comedy would have a fighting chance of getting noticed. In the case of “Why Stop Now” (no question mark), however, you’d be wrong. After getting a look-see at Sundance, co-writer/directors’ Phil Dorling and Ron Nyswaner’s collaboration took a shot at the VOD market and a brief theatrical run, before launching in DVD and Blu-ray. In it, Eisenberg plays a piano prodigy, Eli, whose budding career has been put on hold so as to perform the kind of duties his mother would do, if she weren’t a drug addict. In an effort to get back on track and protect his younger sister from the same problems he faced growing up, Eli practically drags Penny to a rehab facility. Once there, however, Penny somehow passes her drug test. By definition, then, she’s not an addict and can’t be admitted. The guy who conducts the urine test knows she isn’t likely to stay clean for long and recommends she cop some weed or pills and come back later in the day. This unlikely contrivance sets the stage for all of the craziness to come. Penny directs Eli to her dealer, Sprinkles (Morgan), to whom she owes money. Sprinkles lives at home with his Chinese mother and is in the middle of negotiations with a Puerto Rican pusher when Eli arrives. Sprinkles and his partner can’t speak Spanish, so Eli volunteers to translate and assist him at the exchange, which inconveniently takes place during a quinceanera. He does this to hasten Penny’s return to the facility and allow him to make an audition on time. By now, though, Penny’s back in the picture and everything’s begun to spin out of control. The whole motley crew, which now includes Eli’s nutty sister, accompanies Eli to the audition, where, amazingly, a Revolutionary War re-enactment also is underway. Among the costumed participants is a pretty young woman (Sarah Ramos), who distracts Eli just when he needs to be focused on the task ahead of him.

I get tired just thinking about what happens in “Why Stop Now,” so it’s easy to imagine how freshman co-director (Dorling) might have gotten tangled up in his own devices. His partner, Nyswaner, may be a veteran screenwriter, but his last assignment behind the camera came a quarter-century ago with the long-forgotten “The Prince of Pennsylvania” (notable mostly for the presence of a pre-“Bill &Ted’s” Keanu Reeves). The good news is that Leo and Eisenberg are at the top of their game right now and couldn’t turn in a half-assed performance if they tried. Morgan, too, is coming into his own as a featured actor. Here, he’s both funny and a little bit scary. It’s easy to believe that Sprinkles would see a little bit of himself in Eli, who’s reached that fork in the road where one bad decision could spell disaster. If the directors had only been able to find the right balance between comedy and drama, the pace of “Why Stop Now” might have been less chaotic and viewers would be free to catch their breath every now and again. As Leo as demonstrated in her portrayals of several other troubled women, there’s nothing remotely funny about substance abuse and the toll it takes on everyone around them. Here, though, the script cuts Penny too much slack after she’s denied entry to the rehab facility. By allowing her to be portrayed as God’s own dope fiend and turning Sprinkles into a teddy bear, the filmmakers do no one any favors. Viewers who would consider renting “Why Stop Now,” based simply on the names of the actors on display, shouldn’t consider the mixed message to be a fatal flow. The Blu-ray contains an interview with Morgan and a making-of featurette. – Gary Dretzka

2 Days in New York: Blu-ray
It isn’t enough that Julie Delpy is as fine an actress in English as she is in French and, at 43, still one the world’s most beautiful women. In such films as “Before Sunset,” “The Countess” and “2 Days in Paris,” she’s also proven herself to be an exceptional writer, director and singer-songwriter. “2 Days in New York” is a direct sequel to “2 Days in Paris,” in which Adam Goldberg played Delpy’s American boyfriend and her real-life parents, Albert Delpy and Marie Pillet, essentially played themselves. (Pillet died in 2009, but her character’s spirit lingers throughout the sequel.) Chris Rock plays convincingly against type as Mingus, Marion’s new lover. They both have children from previous relationships and appear to live comfortably in a slightly rundown apartment. The surprise awaiting Mingus when Marion’s family arrives for an extended visit is of the kind that should only happen to snobs who prefer French over California wines. As Marion’s father, Albert Delpy remains totally incorrigible. Her sex-crazed sister, Rose (Alexia Landeau), writes about child psychology but doesn’t seem to know anything about flesh-and-blood kids, while her irresponsible husband and Marion’s former lover, Manu (Alexandre Nahon), spends most of his time in New York trying to score weed. Although Marion is accustomed to such madness and is eccentric in her own right, Mingus is a cool and cultivated public-radio host whose patience decreases with every new assault on his sense of decency and decorum. If that weren’t bad enough, Marion is in the final stages of preparing an exhibit of her photographs – she also plans to auction off her soul — and she begins to suspect that she may be pregnant with her second child.

Comparisons to Woody Allen naturally followed the release of the comedy and, for once, they’re valid. Her New York bears a closer resemblance to Allen’s than the one surveyed by Edward Burns and she seems to be as comfortable behind the camera as in front of it. As kooky as Marion is, it’s easy to believe that Delpy didn’t have to stretch too far to create her. New York and Paris share certain fascinating rhythms, after all, so it might be fun to see how Delpy’s keen eye for cultural quirks captured a return home with Mingus and the kids in tow. Being a dyed-in-the-wool New Yorker, he probably gets nervous whenever he’s required to travel beyond the outer boroughs and when the Knicks are on the road. Although Rock isn’t required here to carry the comedic load, it’s funny to watch Mingus conduct one-sided conversations with the cardboard cut-out of President Obama in his office. The Blu-ray adds interviews with Delpy and Rock. – Gary Dretzka

360: Blu-ray
Despite a terrific international cast, wonderful performances, interesting locations, the words of Peter Morgan (“The Last King of Scotland”) and direction of Fernando Meirelles (“City of God”), the sum of its parts couldn’t equal success for “360.” As an ensemble thriller with tangentially related characters and interlocking storylines, it demands of us that we buy into a universe in which the impact of chance meetings, missed opportunities, karmic consequences, coincidence, fate and divine intervention can be measured like ripples on the surface of a quiet pond. Morgan’s screenplay is based on Arthur Schnitzler’s play “La Ronde,” which, in 1897, caused a scandal by linking a series of sexual encounters between disparate characters in a daisy chain. Meirelles opens up the play by introducing us first to an aspiring model (Lucia Siposova) who commutes between Bratislava and Vienna, accompanied by her sister, first to be photographed for a website, but, soon thereafter, to turn tricks for her photographer/pimp. Her first assignment is to meet with a British businessman (Jude Law) in Austria for a convention. Their rendezvous coincides with a sexual assignation his wife (Rachel Weisz) is having back home sex with a younger man, whose South American girlfriend, Laura (Maria Flor) has been spying on them. The circular dance continues with intertwined scenarios in Paris, a snowed-in airport in Denver, a Miami morgue and back, again, in Vienna.

Even at 110 minutes, we don’t have much time to get fully acquainted with the characters. On stage, this wouldn’t present a problem, but movie audiences need a more complete picture if they’re being asked to buy into such a demanding scenario. Just being a Muslim dentist, Soviet gangster, the father of a teenage runaway, unfaithful spouse, a convicted sex offender, parasitic pimp, German extortionist and aspiring prostitute doesn’t necessarily make a character compelling. The best moments in “360” come when the individual players are required to look into themselves and confront their demons. No one does this better than Anthony Hopkins, as the tortured father of a runaway who connects with Laura after she inquires about the pictures and newspaper articles he’s studying on the plane from London to Denver. After John describes his almost certainly fruitless mission, they bond in a way that nearly crosses the narrow border between paternal and romantic. Before they go their separate ways, Laura says something to him that hits him like a bolt of lightning. He shares the experience at an AA meeting in a soliloquy that is nothing short of awe-inspiring. Laura also impacts the life of Ben Foster’s newly paroled sex offender, Tyler, another lost soul stuck at the Denver airport. It is a target-rich environment for a rapist and Tyler is desperately trying to avoid a relapse. Instead of meeting John for dinner, Laura demands that Tyler accompany her to her hotel room, where she can satiate her hunger for revenge sex. He attempts to reject the invitation, but the blissfully naïve Laura is adamant. Foster’s performance is scary good. The Blu-ray arrives with making-of featurettes and interviews. – Gary Dretzka

Hard Core Logo/Hard Core Logo 2
Just as difficult as it is to imagine anyone attempting to make a mockumentary about Frank Sinatra, Maria Callas or Miles Davis in their artistic prime, it’s that easy to argue that several of the best movies about rock ’n’ roll are satires. There’s so little difference between truth and fiction that such very real documentaries as “Dig!,” “Hype!” and “Last Days Here” seem too preposterous to be true. Bruce McDonald and Noel Baker’s “Hard Core Logo” — an adaptation of Michael Turner’s novel about aging punk rockers — is considered to be one of the best examples of faux non-fiction, albeit one in which “mock” doesn’t necessarily equate to “funny.” At its lightest, the self-described mockumentary is the color of ink and often no more amusing. The fake Canadian punk ensemble Hard Core Logo made a reputation for itself by combining a take-no-prisoners attitude with a playlist of kick-ass songs. After the group disbands, a fan asks the members to reunite for an anti-gun benefit to support a music “legend,” who, we’re told, had his legs blown off in an assault. Self-absorbed lead singer Joe Dick (Hugh Dillon) convinces guitarist Billy Tallent (Callum Keith Rennie) to return to the Great White North from California, where he’d gotten a gig with a more popular band. The benefit goes so well that the band members agree to embark on a tour of the hinterlands. The other members are content to get back on the road, where they can raise a little hell before admitting they’re too old to rock. Somewhere between Saskatoon and Vancouver, things begin to unravel. Truths are revealed and egos are bruised. Turner, Baker and McDonald all have enjoyed a bird’s-eye view of the Canadian punk scene and “HLC” benefits from their collective memory.

Fourteen years later, McDonald revisited the tale in “Hard Core Logo 2,” but without the assistance of Turner and Baker. It is far less successful. The story focus on a Courtney Love clone (rocker Care Failure, playing herself) who believes she’s possessed by the twisted spirit of Joe Dick and is on a highway to hell. A demented character from the first film agrees to produce her next album in a snowbound lodge in Saskatchewan and it becomes an exercise is sadomasochism. McDonald’s greatest lapse in judgment comes in turning his own character, Bruce the Filmmaker, into a central player in the faux drama. Hitchcock appeared in his pictures for only a few seconds at a time and McDonald’s no Hitchcock. Even so, fans of the original might find something in this punk nightmare to their liking. They certainly will be pleased by the handsome new package and restoration, which makes both films look and sound great. The set adds interviews and featurettes.  – Gary Dretzka

Following: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
Over the course of 12 years, Christopher Nolan has gone from making no-budget shorts that almost no one has seen (“Doodlebug”) to mega-budget features that fans wait in line overnight to savor (“The Dark Knight Trilogy”). Newly re-issued by Criterion Collection with a restored, hi-def digital transfer, “Following” is the movie Nolan made before his breakthrough feature, “Memento.” Like that critical and box-office success, “Following” is a gritty crime story that unfolds in a resolutely non-linear fashion. Instead of a mysterious stranger with a severe case of amnesia, the protagonist of “Following” is a blocked writer, Bill, who follows strangers in the street for reasons even he doesn’t seem to understand. He becomes fascinated with a slick operator named Cobb, who turns the tables by confronting his stalker in a restaurant. At first, Bill tries to deny that he’s following Cobb, but it’s fruitless. In fact, Cobb reveals to Bill that he’s something of a snoop himself. Instead of following people, he’s mastered the art of hands-on voyeurism by breaking into apartments and going through the owner’s property, if for no other reason than that he’s good at it. He talks Bill into joining him on a practice run, but has bigger things in mind for their partnership.

Things get complicated after they break into the apartment of a gangster’s moll and they take souvenirs – lingerie, a single pearl earring – that will figure prominently at various times in the narrative. It helps to pay close attention to the things that happen along the way to the movie’s unexpected conclusion, because the narrative frequently doubles back on itself. Among the things that make “Following” special is the grainy black-and-white cinematography, which heightens the noir feel and looks terrific in Blu-ray. The package adds a lengthy interview with Nolan; a fresh 5.1 surround sound mix; Nolan’s commentary; a chronological rendering of the story; a side-by-side comparison of three scenes in the film, with the shooting script; the three-minute short, “Doodlebug”; and a booklet featuring an essay by critic and programmer Scott Foundas.  – Gary Dretzka

Black Like Me
Now relegated mostly to the backwaters and footnotes of 20th Century history is “Black Like Me,” a book written by a white Texan, John Howard Griffin, for the purpose of enlightening fellow Caucasians about life in the Jim Crow South. It’s greatest success came in confirming the horror stories related by negroes – this was before “black” and “African-American” entered the vernacular – about such terrible realities as lynching; designated whites-only sections in restaurants and theaters; forbidden rest rooms and drinking fountains; “coon hunts”; and men being forbidden from looking into the eyes of a white woman. Agitators were routinely beaten for demanding their constitutional rights and voting was privilege limited to citizens who could pay a fee and/or pass a test. Northerners knew more about Apartheid in South Africa and Rhodesia than the effects of segregation in Dixie. Griffin had witnessed things that shocked him and knew nothing would change if the truth continued to be swept under the rug by the media. To this end, he worked with doctors to tint his skin to a shade that would allow him to “pass” and spent hours under a sunlamp. It worked so well that he was able to experience things he previously believed were passed along for shock value.

Griffin and his editor both understood he would be putting his career and possibly his life in jeopardy, simply for reporting the truth. Moreover, Griffin put himself in a position where he could be accused by black activists of exploiting the situation strictly for personal gain and self-aggrandizement. This was especially true when the serialization of “Black Like Me” ended in Sepia magazine and the subsequent book became a must-read in many parts of the country. In fact, it became required reading in some high schools. Three years later, “Black Like Me” was adapted for the screen by Carl Lerner — editor of “The Fugitive Kind” and “Requiem for a Heavyweight,” among other ’50s classics — as his first and only feature.

Without researching the film’s history, it’s difficult for me to say why the movie was entrusted to as many first-time filmmakers as it was. It’s entirely possible that distribution would have been limited to only a very few Northern cities and college towns and it wasn’t worth the effort or financial risk for the studios. At the time, movies were edited so as not to offend racist audiences in the South with visions of blacks and whites consorting and carrying on. Lerner’s adaptation isn’t the most elegant or technically proficient movie ever made, but it’s true to the book and has a decidedly noir texture that still is effective. The scenes shot on the nighttime streets of New Orleans and in the nightclubs where black patrons danced wildly to post-war swing and R&B are especially effective. The movie’s biggest problem comes in the inconsistent skin tones on the face James Whitmore, which went from light brown to minstrel-show black. The script also demanded of Whitmore that he chew far too much scenery when he wasn’t gracefully interpreting Griffin’s message. Among the cast members are such now-familiar faces as Roscoe Lee Brown, Al Freeman Jr., Will Geer, Heywood Hale Broun, David Huddleston, Raymond St. Jacques, Denver Pyle, Matt Clark and Sorrell Brooke (a.k.a., “Boss Hogg”). “Black Like Me” isn’t easy to watch, even now, but its value as a historical document can’t be dismissed. It is being released for the first time in DVD, fully restored from the original negative, the package includes the bonus disc, “Uncommon Vision: The Life and Times of John Howard Griffin,” an excerpt from “Reluctant Activist: The Authorized Biography of John Howard Griffin.” – Gary Dretzka

Osombie: Blu-ray
The Caretaker
The Mark of the Devil: Yack Pak
Stricken
Doomsday Book: Blu-ray
If it could be proven that Osama Bin Laden didn’t exactly die after being shot and killed in the raid on his compound in Pakistan, would film critics in New York and Boston feel compelled to give their best-picture award for “Zero Dark Thirty” to the runner-ups? That isn’t the burning question that comes to mind while watching “Osombie,” but it is right behind, “Who comes up with this stuff?” Apparently, when it pertains to zombie movies, the answer is, “Anyone with a typewriter.” If D.W. Griffith were alive today, it’s possible we’d be reviewing “Birth of a Zombie Nation” in this space. Contrary to what Americans have been told, Osama’s compound actually was built on a storage-locker facility in which he was assembling a zombie army. When attacked by Seal Team Six, the terrorist leader knew that the only way to escape being killed or kidnaped by emissaries of the Great Satan was to cheat death. He accomplished this by injecting himself with a chemical substance developed for use by NATO troops, but was re-formulated by a pharmacist at the Walgreen’s in Kabul … or something like that. Once deposited in Davy Jones’ Locker for the big sleep, Bin Laden woke up as a zombie capable of walking along the floor of the ocean (do zombies swim?) to an encampment of his fellow undead. By coincidence, a crack Special Forces team is in the same neighborhood and they’ve got their hands full slaughtering the Al Qaeda irregulars. They’re everywhere and nowhere, at once. Apart from the appearance of Osama, “Osombie” plays out in much the same way as a zillion other such genre specimens. The only differences are the head scarves worn by the zombies and the lovely desert scenery. As ludicrous as John Lyde and Kurt Hale’s movie may be, it exudes a goofy can-do charm capable of enchanting even the most sophisticated and critical slackers.

Decades before “torture porn” was given a name and sub-genre of its own, the German-made “The Mark of the Devil” tested the limits of how much simulated pain the typical drive-in and grindhouse customer could stand. Dubbed by its American distributors as being “positively the most horrifying film ever made” – they conveniently forgot “Santa Claus Conquers the Martians” — Michael Armstrong and Adrian Hoven’s gorefest was screened with an airplane barf bag for every ticket sold. (And, so does the DVD.) Reportedly banned in Germany, where it was titled “Witches Are Tortured to Death,” “Mark of the Devil” is still capable of raising a shudder or two. The many scenes of torture derive from the bloodlust of 18th Century priests and inquisitors who believe that any beautiful, large busted woman who wouldn’t sleep with them must be a sorcerer or blasphemer and, for that, deserves to die under unspeakable circumstances. Genre buffs will enjoy seeing a 26-year-old Udo Kier playing the understudy of the Grand Inquisitor (Herbert Lom) and his chief henchman (Reggie Nalder). He discovers the truth after enjoying a night of bliss with one of the women (Katarina Olivera) accused of heresy. (In 1970, at least, Kier could easily have been mistaken for David Cassidy.)

From Australia arrives “The Caretaker,” a vampire movie that will sound more familiar to genre buffs than it actually is. Like any flu epidemic, vampirism has crossed the oceans and taken hold in the continent’s largest cities. The plague appears to have taken officials by surprise, however, and news of it has yet to make its way to the provinces. Once it does, a small group of survivors congregates at the rural home of a strangely twisted wine merchant. He’d previously called a doctor to see what’s wrong with his mom, who’s stashed away in the basement. It doesn’t take the doctor long to figure out her problem or the owner to grasp why the doctor isn’t interested in the potatoes that accompany his juicy steak dinner. The doctor is an old-school vampire willing to protect the survivors from attack by the infected vampires at night, if they promise to keep bounty hunters away from him in daylight. As you can imagine, that leaves plenty of time for heartfelt discussions between the hot blond survivor and the buff vampire, as well as sinister plotting and back-stabbing by the others. Thanks to some beautifully photographed sunrises, sunsets and cloud formation, “Caretaker” sometimes even borders on the contemplative.

Kim Ji-Woon and Yim Pil-Sung’s Doomsday Book” is a three-part anthology from Korea that neatly combines horror and science-fiction. In the first, “A Brave New World,” a pandemic is caused when the metabolisms of cattle no longer are capable of filtering out the toxins from their feed, which literally comes from the garbage thrown away by humans. The poison beef, when consumed, doesn’t merely kill people, it turns them into zombies. In the brilliant sci-fi sendup, “Happy Birthday,” a girl uses the Internet to purchase a replacement 8-ball for her father’s pool table. Because of a malfunction in the computer, the order is misdirected and the delivery arrives in the form of a giant black meteor from space. It’s the second chapter, “The Heavenly Creature,” that struck me as being the most provocative. It imagines a time in the not too distant future when robots not only can react instinctively to our needs, but also learn from us in ways that don’t require the input of programmers. At a Buddhist monastery, a robot leased by the monks to perform various duties has begun showing signs that it has absorbed religious teaching. While meditating, it asks the million-dollar question, “From where I do I come and to where will I go?” For their part, the monks ask themselves, “If humans were created by a greater force, is it possible for their creations to attain enlightenment, as well?” The owner of the company that manufactures such advanced robots demands that the monks allow him to destroy their unit and replace it with something less willful. He argues that by accepting the robot’s free will, it could open a Pandora’s Box that might fundamentally change our ways of life. Where’s the HAL 9000, when you need it?

Matthew Sconce’s possession-thriller “Stricken” did well on the festival circuit before being released into DVD, where it also deserves a fair shot at success. Newcomer Stephanie French plays a young woman, Sarah, who’s been haunted by terrible dreams and bizarre visions ever since the funerals of her mother and father. His suicide arguably was caused by a frightening Celtic curse that somehow found its way to America. It goes back to the Scottish river deity Agrona, who’s known as the “goddess of carnage” and manifests herself in mirrors and reflections. A police detective played by veteran tough guy David Fine had dated the mother in high school and believes that Sarah’s curse might explain a 10-year string of murders that he’s been investigating. He’s the rare good-guy cop, who is willing to give air to Sarah’s fears instead of dismissing them out of hand. His only problem is that he falls into a deep sleep when she needs him the most. – Gary Dretzka

My Heart Beats
Sex Hunter: Wet Target/I Love It From Behind
Richard Kern: Hardcore Collection: Director’s Cut
Naked in the 21st Century: Collector’s Edition
In her feature debut, the erotic ugly-duckling story, “My Heart Beats,” Huh Eun-hee adds another dimension to the evolving Korean film renaissance. Decidedly soft-core, the film’s protagonist, Yoo Jo-Ri, is a 37-year-old professor of English and literature, with a special emphasis this semester in Victorian erotica. It’s an unlikely topic for a woman who can barely raise her eyes when talking to a man and develops a rash when confronted with a possible real-life sexual encounter. It isn’t that Yoo is a prude, exactly, because she’s well-versed in Internet porn and seems desperate to experience a life-changing orgasm. Her reticence has far more to do with a certain embarrassment over having to admit she’s a virgin. She’s also self-conscious about her weight and drab persona. Fortuitously, one of her closest friends is a producer of adult films.  Given that there’s a niche DVD to match every niche taste, her friend provides her one she thinks might quench the professor’s desire to perform in a porno. It has the opposite effect, however, and the producer decides to give her a shot. Because Yoo braces at the idea of even removing her clothes, things don’t go well. Still, she perseveres.  To protect her position at the college, she wears a Mardi Gras mask and this eases her tension a bit. It isn’t until she begins to see the relationship between sex and sensuality — here, in the shape and scent of luscious fruits and the erotic pull of an aroused heart – that Yoo begins to blossom as a woman. If that summary could describe several dozen Cinemax movies, it’s worth knowing that the cinematography, direction and acting all are terrific and clichés are kept to a minimum.

As batshit crazy as most of vintage Roman Porno titles in the “Nikkatsu Erotic Films Collection” are, it’s almost always possible to find at least a grain of social commentary contained in them. They’re unlike anything you’ve seen on cable TV or probably ever will. Roman Porno was grindhouse before grindhouse was cool. The biggest hurdle for American viewers to get past always has been the filmmakers’ liberal attitude toward portraying rape, not always as a violent crime, but sometimes as an act of foreplay. At the height of their popularity, Japanese censorship guidelines famously prohibited the display of pubic hair, requiring filmmakers to pixelate genitalia or avoid graphic nudity entirely. Everything else was fair game, including unleashed semen, “water sports,” women’s sanitary products and sex toys.

Yukihiro Sawada’s “Sex Hunter: Wet Target” combines elements of the “pink” and “rebel youth” formats in the service of a story that decries the reluctance of Japanese courts to punish American soldiers who commit sex crimes while on leave. Set during the Vietnam War, three drunk Yanks decide it might be fun to assault a couple of working girls outside the military base. When one woman protests the brutality of the attack, she is beaten and hung. After whiskey is poured on the other woman – the camera angle leads us to believe it’s something else — she is left behind in a nearly comatose state. A black man passing by on his bicycle stops to help her, but he, too, is beaten. Upon his release from prison, the dead prostitute’s brother – half black and half Japanese – pledges to avenge her death. He gets a bartending job in the nightclub in which his sister worked and the other victim is living and performing in a zombie-like state. When he isn’t performing live sex shows with her for VIP customers, he’s plotting revenge on the soldiers. Upon discovering that the Viet Cong have already taken care of that for him, he works out his frustration on customers taking advantage his sister’s friend. “Wet Target” ain’t pretty, but it did cause a bit of an uproar at the time.

Koyu Ohara’s “I Love It From Behind” is a mutation of the horny-housewife sub-genre, which speculated on what goes on at home when the wives of “salary men” are left to their own devices. In it, a young woman committed to an arranged marriage goes on a pre-nuptial sex spree, during which she hopes to sleep with 100 men and collect inked imprints of their penises. After exhausting the supply of eligible men in Sapporo, Mimei travels to Tokyo for the home stretch. Upon arriving at her closest friend’s apartment, she discovers Masumi in a sexual embrace with her mousy roommate, Rei. Being of the strictly-dickly persuasion, Mimei talks them into reacquainting themselves with the joys of hetero love. Although Rei seems more interested in her toy collection, Masumi takes on the challenge of seducing a handsome executive in her office. After enjoying several dinner dates with the prim fellow, they dial up the relationship by going home together. Finally, he reveals his pervy side, by tying her up, cutting off her clothes with a straight razor, shaving her pubes and sodomizing her with a dildo … in a soft-core sort of way, of course. Meanwhile, Mimei continues her pursuit of penises, failing only once in her quest. Severely damaged by her ordeal, Masumi decides to join her friend on one of her nightclub romps, during which she cuts a stray out of the herd and does unto him what was done unto her. Amazingly, her victims kind of dig being abused and buggered, hence the movie’s title. With only a couple of days left before her wedding, Mimei tracks down her elusive and thoroughly egomaniacal prey and challenges him to an orgasm contest, which actually is pretty sexy. What began with a rape evolves rather quickly into a bawdy comedy with a twist ending.

Richard Kern is best known today as a photographer of borderline-sleazy soft-core porn that can be found in magazines, coffeetable books, premium websites and album jackets. He seems fixated by young adult women who enjoy taking their clothes off for his camera, exchanging biographical chit-chat with the geezer and posing with everyday items in ways only fetishists would find provocative. (Others might consider the poses to be weird, boring or lame.) The short movies included in “Richard Kern: Hardcore Collection: Director’s Cut” represent work done in his salad days, 30 to 40 years ago, as a prominent East Village filmmaker, photographer and scenester. Rougher and far angrier in tone than Kern’s work today, the films were labeled Cinema of Trangression by fellow practitioner Nick Zedd. They were done in collaboration with such underground fixtures as Lydia Lunch, Henry Rollins, Lung Leg, David Wojnarowicz, Sonic Youth, Kembra Pfahler and various other strippers, drug addicts and starving artists. The generous Blu-ray collection of digitally restored, re-mastered and re-cut pieces isn’t at all easy to watch – the 1970-80s offered more opportunities for transgressive types – as they include scenes of extreme sexuality, violence and very loud punk music. Longtime admirers will consider the collection to be essential viewing. It adds outtakes, the unreleased “Destruction” and revealing interviews.

A couple of weeks ago, Doris Wishman’s nudie-cutie classic, “Hideout in the Sun,” was re-released into DVD through MVD Visual. Made in 1960, it involves a pair of bank robbers who find refuge in a Florida nudist resort. The setting allowed for plenty of nudity, while discussions extolling the naturalist lifestyle allowed it to pass for educational, under the restrictions imposed by the Production Code. In cinematic terms, at least, it was primitive. “Naked in the 21st Century: Collector’s Edition” tackles the same subject in a way that might have passed inspection in 1960, too. In fact, it’s a come-on for investors in T.L. Young’s theatrical project, “The Naked Place.” The most surprising thing about the documentary may be the news that nudist camps still exist, although suburban sprawl and skittish neighbors now threaten their existence in sunnier climes than tiny Roselawn, Indiana, where there are two. The film offers a look back at the history of the camps and the culture, as well as some contemporary scenes. It also goes behind the scenes of auditions for “The Naked Place” and adds interviews with members of the International Naturists Association conducted by Playboy model Christine Nguyen as a guest faux newscaster. – Gary Dretzka

Gayby
The Skinny: Director’s Cut
Jonathan Lisecki’s let’s-have-a-baby comedy, “Gayby,” takes a well-worn cultural cliché and twists it just enough to wring a reasonably funny and often very entertaining rom-com from its disparate parts. Adapted on an obviously meager budget from a similarly themed short, “Gayby” accomplishes something that Hollywood filmmakers have failed to do after numerous attempts: finding the fun in alternative birthing and keeping it real. While decidedly formulaic, it doesn’t attempt to turn gays into straights, and vice-versa, simply for the sake of a few laughs or ignore the way gays and lesbians make love. Matthew Wilkas plays Matt, the gay best friend of a straight woman, Jenn (Jenn Harris), whose bad luck with men has convinced her to have a baby before her biological clock stops ticking. Now in their mid-30s, Matt and Jenn have been friends since they were kids and agree that making a baby together would be the best remedy for her dilemma. At the same time as they’re trying to conceive, however, both are attempting to find new love interests. This is much easier for Matt to pull off than Jenn, because only a very few potential boyfriends welcome hearing that their date wants to become a parent in the immediate future.

Matt is hilariously uncomfortable with the prospect of making babies “the old-fashioned way.” Even the thought of seeing Jenn naked is the furthest thing to a turn-on in his mind. The big complication comes in the form of a handsome lug who approaches Jenn at the very moment when she can’t possibly say, “no,” to a quick roll in the hay. It isn’t until a few weeks later, when Jenn’s many attempts bear fruit, that she runs into the lug and he off-handedly mentions the five condoms that broke in the fury of their tryst. Apparently, condoms can dry out and crack when stored for five years in a bathroom drawer. Foolishly, perhaps, she alerts Matt to the possibility he isn’t the dad on the night of his birthday and he doesn’t take it well. There are several directions “Gayby” might have gone at this point, but, I think, Lisecki found the right path to a credible solution. The lead actors benefit from a strong supporting cast and a script that doesn’t play to the cheap seats.

Patrik-Ian Polk’s reunion dramedy, “The Skinny,” shares the usual touchstone points as every movie in which college friends get back together after a year apart from each other. The primary difference here comes in knowing that the good-looking characters attended the trendiest college on the planet, Brown University; are African-American; and are either gay or lesbian. No sooner do the friends reunite in a New York townhouse than the hook-ups and peripheral intrigue begin. As usual, the further they dig into a year’s worth of dirt, the more they find. The decision to hold the gathering in New York, instead of, say, Las Vegas, probably doomed the weekend from the get-go. It’s tough to get away from your demons when you don’t go very far from where they fester. Moreover, the specter of HIV/AIDS hangs over the proceedings like a blimp. “The Skinny” stars Jussie Smollett, Anthony Burrell, Blake Young-Fountain, Shanika Warren-Markland and Jeffrey Bowyer-Chapman. It adds deleted scenes, director’s commentary, web extras and a photo gallery. – Gary Dretzka

Dreams of a Life
Even to her closest friends, Joyce Vincent personified Winston Churchill’s observation, “Russia is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.” Judging from the testimony of friends and associates, the 38-year-old was vivacious, stunning, lovely and very well liked. A product of a conservative Afro-Caribbean family, living in a spare North London bed-sitting room, she loved music and found ways to mingle with celebrities, including Nelson Mandela and Stevie Wonder. And, yet, it took nearly three years for police to discover her decomposed body after presumably dying alone and forgotten in December 2003. Her skeleton was found surrounded by Christmas presents that she was in the process of wrapping and her television was still playing. According to the evidence presented in “Dreams of a Life,” it wasn’t a case of a troubled woman being abandoned by friends or committing suicide. By all indications, Vincent managed to fall off the face of the Earth all by herself, without leaving a forwarding address. She is portrayed here by the waifish British actress Zawe Ashton (“Blitz”), as someone whose presence was magnetic and always welcome. Director Carol Worley (“The Alcohol Years”) read an article about the discovery of Vincent’s body and decided to investigate the circumstances that led to the mystery. She took out ads in newspapers and placed signs on the sides of cabs. Slowly, but surely a biographical portrait emerged from the sensational headlines. Worley expands upon the mystery inside the enigma by employing ethereal music in the background during Ashton’s appearances. Because we’re left only with the official cause of death, natural causes, we leave the movie as perplexed as we are profoundly saddened by seemingly wasted life. The DVD comes with an interesting making-of discussion and further thoughts by the participants. – Gary Dretzka

Libby, Montana
After watching movies like “Erin Brockovich,” “Silkwood,” “A Civil Action” and “The Insider,” most viewers walk away from them believing that the heroic actions of a handful of Davids can topple the ambivalently murderous Goliaths of American industry. Many such documentaries end on a positive note, as well. It’s the movies and documentaries we don’t see that should scare us the most. “Libby, Montana” describes an environmental horror story that began decades ago, claimed hundreds of patriotic Americans and ended in 2009 with the monsters being cleared of all charges. In this case, the fiend is the huge and powerful conglomerate W.R. Grace, which knowingly put its workers in harm’s way and withheld its own warnings from them. It closed its Zonolite plant in the remote mountain town of Libby, Montana, in 1990, but, even today, residents of all ages and job background continue to die of asbestos-related ailments. Zonolite has been used as a source of insulation in millions of U.S. homes, so it’s impossible to fix a firm number on the harm it’s caused. Grace executives must have feared being found culpable, if not guilty of great crimes, because it began stashing billions of dollars of earnings in “daughter companies” before declaring bankruptcy in 2001. At the time, it was facing 270,000 asbestos-related lawsuits nationwide, of which 150,000 have been settled. This put the responsibility of footing the bill in Libby on the shoulders of taxpayers.

There is no happy ending to “Libby, Montana.” The only thing the red-state governor offered Libby residents was prayers. Health insurers could hardly wait to begin denying benefits and cutting co-pays for drugs. All that was left for the citizens was to pray, themselves, taxpayers would come to their rescue through Superfund designation. If the citizens felt less than hopeful during its decades-long ordeal, it might be traced to an announcement by then-President Reagan, naming the head of W.R. Grace to lead a panel dedicated to streamlining business affairs and eliminating the roadblocks in the way of conglomerates profiting from the misery of others. For his part, President George W. Bush worked mightily to diminish further to ability of the EPA to protect citizens by cutting jobs in the department. All of the politicians we meet in “Libby, Montana” are Republican. You do the math. The DVD adds interviews with director Dru Carr and deleted scenes. – Gary Dretzka

Out the Gate
Kill ’Em All: Blu-ray
It’s been a long time since I’ve seen a movie from Jamaica that didn’t involve Bob Marley or bobsleds. “Out the Gate” is a micro-budget crime thriller whose roots extend back to “The Harder They Come,” “Rockers” and “Countryman,” right down to the subtitled English. In a story as old as time, a young man is sent to L.A. by his uncle to prevent him from attempting to avenge the murder of a friend. Instead of immediately setting the music industry on fire, as he expects, Everton ends up on the street selling CDs and DVDs shipped to him from the island. Ideally suited to his social skills, the gig helps Everton (E-Dee) connect with several influential people, including the musician Father Times, the record mogul Qmillion, ganglord Badz and several women normally out of a country boy’s league. When Qmillion hooks Everton up with a terrific Trinidadian singer (Ms Triniti), he begins to think that he’s on his way to Zion. Naturally, the good times can’t last. Bad news arrives in the form of Badz, who’s pissed over an unpaid IOU that Father Times neglected to mention to his friend. If the story is overly familiar and, technically, “Out the Gate” is an unholy mess, the rest of the movie is redeemed by an excellent dancehall and reggae soundtrack and the enthusiastic acting of a young, virtually unknown cast.

Although it does feature some top-flight martial arts, “Kill ’Em All” ultimately is no more exciting than watching someone else play a video fighting game. After being a given a demonstration of the combatants’ deadly skills in the real world, they’re drugged, kidnaped and consigned to a concrete bunker in which all exits are controlled by the unseen puppet-master, Snakehead (Cia Hui Liu). Although we know that all of the fighters are professional assassins, we’re largely left in the dark as to why they’ve been brought here. We find out gradually as the series of deadly challenges given them by Snakehead plays out. The higher the level, the greater the amount of force is employed against the survivors. That’s the story. Everything else is action. Raimu Death Valley: Blu-ray Death Valley: Blu-ray nd Huber and Ken Miller’s movie stars Johnny Messner, Joe Lewis, Ammara Siripong, Tim Man, Rashid Phoenix, Brahim Achabbakhe and Erik Markus Schuetz. – Gary Dretzka

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Trade of Innocents
Like every other business in the world, the sex industry operates on the principle of supply and demand. In the United States, it’s still possible to fly to Reno or Las Vegas, hop in a complimentary limousine and be taken to a legal brothel. The establishments are licensed and taxed, as are the women. Health standards are carefully observed and the customers are plentiful. The same can’t be said about the freelance prostitutes and pimps in Reno, Las Vegas or any other city in the United States. Poverty and drug addiction have driven thousands of American women and men, girls and boys, into the “game.” Because the demand is so great, however, the business of supplying prostitutes through trafficking human flesh has become a global epidemic. There isn’t a police drama series on television that hasn’t incorporated the illegal trade of women from Eastern Europe, China and South America into its story lines. Interpol tells us that many, possibly most of these women were kidnaped or are being held against their wills to pay off debts accrued by their parents or the passage to the U.S. Their customers probably think the women’s accents are cute, but their money finances a United Nations of organized crime.

The quasi-legal sex industry in Thailand and other Southeast Asian nations is different in several important ways. On the demand side, tourists from developed nations around the world flock there to partake in cheap and easy sex and some varieties that are strictly forbidden back home. Tragically, among their number are countless pedophiles who can feed their sick addiction with little or no resistance. On the supply side, impoverished parents often resort to selling or leasing their children to the traffickers who supply the brothels and pimps in the destination cities. The insidious practice has been well documented and reported, but police and government corruption – in addition to the premium prices paid by pedophiles – has thwarted the efforts of relief agencies and international law-enforcement groups.

Trade of Innocents” is the latest movie to take on the illegal trafficking of underage children in Southeast Asia. Although critics have lambasted its almost amateurish “infomercial”/PSA approach to the subject, it delivers an important message and probably is better suited to small-screen viewing than theatrical exhibition. Dermot Mulroney and Mira Sorvino play an American couple who lost their young daughter to a sexual predator and have traveled to Cambodia or, perhaps, Thailand to help put a dent in the criminal enterprise there, as well as encourage rescued women and girls to keep fighting. They’re welcomed with various degrees of cooperation, suspicion and resistance by police and citizens, alike. We hear all of the various sides of the argument, but, because we already know which team is worthy of our support, dismiss most of them out of hand. Not surprisingly, the good guys win this battle, while having to admit that the war is far from over. Clearly, as long as supply and demand remain relatively balanced, it will fall on government and police officials to forgo the rewards of sex tourism and bribes and focus on solutions to the problem. We already know how that’s worked here with the drug trade, but, unlike the legalization of marijuana, legalizing underage prostitution on the supply side simply isn’t an option. – Gary Dretzka

The Joy Luck Club: Blu-ray
Released in 1993, Wayne Wang’s adaptation of the Amy Tan best-seller was significant both as a compelling multi-generational drama and a reminder of how poorly served the Asian-American community was by Hollywood. It still is, but the presence of Pacific Rim characters has increased significantly as the number of first- and second-generation Asian-Americans in the key demographics has grown. Two decades ago, they mostly were relegated to restaurants, war movies, triads, IT jobs and cutthroat business negotiations. Set primarily in and around San Francisco, “The Joy Luck Club” is informed by the memories of four Chinese women, who, since arriving in America just after World War II, have met once a week to play mah-jongg. In a sense, they exist in three different worlds: the one they left, the one in which they currently exist and the one in which their children are entering. Ming-Na Wen serves as our entry point into all three worlds after she joins the circle as the replacement for her recently deceased mother. Their individual stories range from uplifting to heart-breaking. – Gary Dretzka

The Island: Blu-ray
Ashanti: Blu-ray
Wild Geese: Blu-ray
Death Valley: Blu-ray
Anyone who watches as many old movies as DVD reviewers do is never surprised to find Michael Caine’s name on a dust jacket. Not only has he appeared in some of classiest movies of the last 60 years, but he’s also lent his talent to more than a few pot-boilers, bombs and turkeys. He can be found in “The Dark Knight Returns” and two new releases this week: Scream!Factory’s big-budget adventure “The Island” and Severin’s slave-trade thriller “Ashanti.”

Writer Peter Benchley and producers David Brown and Richard D. Zanuck had just hit the jackpot with “Jaws” and “Jaws 2” and they tried for a trifecta with the adaptation of Benchley’s “The Island.” Director Michael Ritchie had a nice run going with “Smile,” “The Bad News Bears” and “Semi-Tough.” Universal threw a whole bunch of money at the project and could barely wait for box-office revenues to come flooding back in the return mail. It’s still waiting, probably. Someone there must have thought that the Bermuda Triangle provided a sure-fire theme and expanded upon it by adding old-school pirates, a gimmick that wouldn’t float until Disney’s “Pirates of the Caribbean” took sail in 2003. Caine stars as a reporter fixated on reports of mysterious disappearances in the increasingly infamous triangle-shaped section of ocean. He sets out with his son to check out the area and, indeed, is disappeared in a trap set by an in-bred ancestor of the island’s original pirate cabal. David Warner, who leads the pack, sees in the son a way to get fresh DNA in the bloodstream. When modern marauders target the island, the volume of the violence is dialed up to full blast.

At about the same time, Michael Caine also starred in “Ashanti,” a movie far more interesting in Blu-ray as a travelogue than as an adventure. Everything about “Ashanti,” except the scenery can best be described as ludicrous. I don’t care if it is based on actual events, a declaration I’m not willing to buy. Nearly 60 years after “The Sheik,” it was still alright not only to portray Arabs as neck-deep in the slave trade, but also have them played by gringos. Here, Peter Ustinov has been assigned to lead luscious supermodel Beverly Johnson from the jungles of West Africa to the Mediterranean, where Omar Sharif awaits his delivery. She was abducted while skinny-dipping near a village where she and her husband (Caine) were part of a UN team vaccinating natives. Helping the doctor track down Anansa are Rex Harrison and William Holden. That’s amazing, right? Direct Richard Fleischer benefited from location shooting in Kenya, Israel and Sicily, and the fully restored “Ashanti” takes full advantage of the scenery. Johnson is interviewed about the experience in a bonus feature.

Caine may not appear in “The Wild Geese” alongside Richard Burton, Roger Moore and Richard Harris, but it’s not for lack of trying on the part of the producers. It was 1978 and the movie was being shot in South Africa, which was being boycotted for its apartheid policy. Caine wanted nothing to do with it. Good for him. The story resembles “Dogs of War,” in that it involves a mercenary assault on a central African country, where a despotic leader is in charge. The Brits are hired by a wealthy industrialist to recruit and train a squad of commandos. They will parachute into the African nation, snatch its deposed President from a maximum security prison and escape via the military-controlled airport. Not surprisingly, the mercenaries are double-crossed, causing even more mayhem. The film, which got little exposure in the U.S. and was protested in England, is said to have influenced Sylvester Stallone, director of “The Expendables.” The fully re-mastered Blu-ray adds new interviews with director Andrew V. McLaghlen and military advisor Mike Hoare; a documentary on producer Euan Lloyd, with Moore, Joan Armatrading and Ingrid Pitt; a vintage featurette; and newsreel footage of the Royal Charity Premiere.

Released in 1982, even before its child star, Peter Billingsley, broke through in “A Christmas Story,” “Death Valley” looks as if it could have been made far more recently. That’s because, just as the desert takes millennia to change, movies set in the desert can only be dated by the cars driven by the characters. Given that cars in California tend to last forever, however, a 30-year-old movie might as well have been made yesterday. Here, Catherine Hicks plays a recent divorcee whose city-slicker son (Billingsley) has reluctantly agreed to join her and her boyfriend (Paul Le Mat) on a tour of the Southwestern desert. At first, Billy isn’t ready to let a new man into his life. By the time they reach an Old West movie ranch, where Billy is given a star and a six-gun, the boy is has warmed up to him. His timing is good, because they’re about to run into an insane serial killer (Stephen McHattie) and Billy holds the key to his identity. The cat-and-mouse game that ensues is reasonably exciting, even by today’s standards, and the surprises aren’t easy to spot ahead of time. I wonder, though, how many people saw this movie in the 1980s and assumed that there’s a movie ranch within walking distance of the Furnace Creek Inn. Instead, it’s a few hundred miles south, in Wickenburg, Arizona. It’s still there, too. – Gary Dretzka

Chiller: The Complete Television Series
PBS: History Detectives: Season 10
Frontline: Dropout Nation
Nova Sciencenow: What Makes Us Human?
Nova Sciencenow: Can I Eat That?
Syfy: Collision Earth: Blu-ray
Fans of horror-anthology series should find something to enjoy in the long-delayed arrival of the British mini-series, “Chiller,” on DVD. Synapse Films, the same company responsible for importing “Hammer House of Horror,” has developed a reputation for finding and distributing obscure tales of the macabre and supernatural from around the world. Most have lurid covers and such titles as “Entrails of a Virgin,” “Horrors of Malformed Men” and “Battle Girl: The Living Dead in Tokyo Bay.” When it comes to genre marketing, great titles and provocative covers beat a thorough synapsis every time. All five 52-minute episodes of the 1995 series are included here, as freshly polished as 16mm films can be these days. Among the things one can count on finding in series like “Chiller” are haunted basements and estates, the spirits of dead babies, people who are punished for performing good deeds, children with knives and Druids. Among the stars are Nigel Havers (“Chariots of Fire”), Martin Clunes (“Men Behaving Badly”), Sophie Ward (“Young Sherlock Holmes”) and Kevin McNally (“Pirates of the Caribbean”).

The only difference between the stars of such reality-based shows as “Pawn Stars,” “Antique Roadshow,” “Storage Wars” and “America’s Pickers” and the sleuths of PBS’ “History Detectives” are the academic degrees attached to the latters’ resumes. All of the investigators on these shows use similar methodologies to determine the value of found objects, family heirlooms and collectibles. In the first episode of the show’s 10th season, detectives Elyse Luray and Wes Cowan investigate the provenance of a Fender Stratocaster purported to have been played by Bob Dylan at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival; Tukufu Zuberi studies autographs allegedly signed by the Beatles during their 1964 tour of the U.S.; and Gwendolyn Wright checks out a $5 thrift-store discovery that could shine some light on Frank Zappa’s musical legacy. If the same items were carried into Las Vegas’ Gold & Silver Pawn Shop, the same procedures likely would be employed to establish a value.

The PBS “Frontline” documentary “Dropout Nation” attempts to stick a pin in the misguided notion that it’s become just as easy for a high school dropout to succeed or fail in the workplace as anyone else, given our current economic doldrums. And, at a time when some unemployed Americans are denied the right to hold minimum-wage jobs because they’re “too qualified,” it’s tough to dispute. In the long run, though, the costs both to the dropouts and society are staggering. This documentary investigates the reasons behind our inner-city schools’ high dropout rates and what can be done to convince teenagers to stay the course.

Given how many things technology writer David Pogue has on his plate at any given moment, it’s a wonder he has any time left to sleep, let alone spend time with his family. Strike while the iron’s hot appears to be his operating strategy. Anyway, Pogue’s a smart guy with personality to burn. He’ll have plenty of time to sleep when he’s dead, as Warren Zevon observed while still alive. As host of PBS’ occasional series, “NOVA ScienceNow,” Pogue gets to answer such big questions as “What Makes Us Human? and Can I Eat That?,” which go to the core of who we are and what we do. Although most of us could provide several answers for the former question, Pogue takes a more scientific approach to explaining how our DNA separates us from our simian ancestors and other species. The answers aren’t necessarily earthshaking or of any practical use to us, but they’re interesting, at least. “Can I Eat That?” examines something a bit more practical, but equally fascinating. Why do we love certain foods and can’t stomach others? What could we add to foods we detest to make them palatable? If we could answer that question, we might be able to find new sources of nutrition for food-deprived populations. Pogue doesn’t dumb down the answers, but he does find common denominators to facilitate understanding.

I’ve pretty much said all I care to say about the limitations of made-for-Syfy movies and there’s no need to belabor the point any further. At best, they serve as a starter kit for adolescent boys interested in science fiction and anyone who thinks there’s no longer a market for bargain-basement special effects. “Collision Earth” is no different. After a comet scores a direct hit on the sun, a reversal of some kind of magnetic field pushes Mercury out of its orbit and in a straight path toward Earth, along with all sorts of space debris. The only hope for mankind lies in a toasted space shuttle, whose lone surviving crewmember (Diane Farr) can’t reach mission control by radio but is able to communicate with her husband (Kirk Acevedo) in the middle of the desert. He’s a disgraced scientist and persona non grata at NASA. He’s developed a strategy to counteract “magnetars,” but no one wants to believe him. I do. – Gary Dretzka

The Adventures of Mark Twain: Collector’s Edition: Blu-ray
I Wish
There are several positive things to say about “The Adventures of Mark Twain,” which, when released in 1985, was reputed to be the first feature employing characters animated by the stop-motion Claymation process. Even so, it stumbled out of the gate. The format was still in its infancy and it took audiences a while to make the leap from the delightful California Raisons commercials to a film that clocked in at 86 minutes. Will Vinton, who created the Raisons, used as his entry point the beloved works of Mark Twain and his belief that, having been born in the year of a visit by Halley’s Comet, he would go out with it, as well. Twain is so excited by its arrival in 1910 that he designs an airship to take him closer to its orbit. Tagging along for the ride are Tom Sawyer, Huck Finn and Becky Thatcher. Before reaching the comet, however, they encounter a variety of his storybook characters from “The Diary of Adam and Eve,” “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” “The Mysterious Stranger,” “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County” and “Captain Stormfield’s Visit to Heaven.” It may have laid an egg in 1985, but the new Blu-ray edition looks as if it were made last year, using modern technology. It easily qualifies as entertainment the entire family can enjoy. It adds backgrounders on Claymation and the music of Mark Twain, as well as commentary and interviews.

I don’t know how director Hirokazu Kore-eda and DP Yutaka Yamazaki are able to capture the everyday life of Japanese children as well as they do in their family-oriented movies. I’m guessing that one or both of them actually travel to the boonies to see how common folks live in multi-generational homes in average communities. These are not people whose lives are still informed by 1950s sitcoms and suburban entitlement. And, yet, the kids can rattle off the top-10 pop songs on the hit parade and play with the same electrical gadgets as their American peers. The air of un-romanticized normalcy is palpable. In “I Wish,” 12-year-old Koichi lives with his mother and retired grandparents in southern Japan, while his younger brother, Ryunosuke, lives with their father in the north. It is Koichi’s great wish that his family be reunited, but even he knows it would take a miracle. His only hope comes in the form of rumor about the new bullet-train route connecting the two cities. It leads Koichi to believe that a miracle will take place the moment these new trains first pass each other at top speed, somewhere in the middle of their journeys. For that to happen, Koichi must be there to witness the miracle and it requires the help of adults, most of whom are in no position to believe in miracles. Guess what happens, though. – Gary Dretzka

The DVD Wrapup: Beasts of Southern Wild, ParaNorman, Butter … More

Thursday, December 6th, 2012

Beasts of the Southern Wild: Blu-ray
Normally, come the first week of December, true aficionados of quality cinema – those who actually care about the Academy Awards, anyway — have entered into the annual ritual of predicting which deserving Best Picture candidates will be snubbed in favor of movies released after Thanksgiving. Last year, the Academy finally acknowledged the build-in frailty of its nominating procedure and doubled the number of finalists. Even though this cleared the way for at least one ringer (“Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close”), a difficult arthouse challenger (“The Tree of Life”) and a sentimental choice (“Midnight in Paris”), it would have been nice if a couple of spots had been reserved for “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows,” Foreign Language-winner “A Separation” or “Tinker Tinker Soldier Spy,” all superior entertainments. Several of the nominees wouldn’t be seen by anyone except critics, voters and a few people in New York and Los Angeles until February. Upon its limited July 1, Ben Zeitlin and Lucy Alibar’s near-miraculous debut feature, “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” was accorded front-runner status by everyone who’d seen it. Today, it’s being dismissed by pundits as a dark-house, behind “Les Miserables,” “Lincoln,” “Argo” and a few titles the public won’t be able to see until January. They’ve left it for Independent Spirit voters to decide what trophy its producers will be handed that weekend.

I don’t foresee “Beasts of the Southern Wild” being completely ignored by the academy, however, if only because the formidable marketing team at Fox Searchlight won’t let that happen. It will be prominent in the year-end roundups, top-10 lists and for-your-consideration campaigns, as well. More importantly, any nominations it gets will go a long way toward boosting revenues for this very deserving movie. Now that “Beasts” has been released in DVD and Blu-ray, renters will be able to overlook the arthouse gloss and sample what, at its core, is a wonderfully original and completely accessible story. Set in the tiny southern Louisiana community of Bathtub – outside the levees separating the “dry world” from the “wet world” of the marshes — this prime example of “magical realism” combines the tragedy of Hurricane Katrina with elements of Greek mythology, disasters of biblical proportions and fears over global warming. Before he unleashes Katrina on the fiercely independent, if dirt-poor residents of Bathtub, Zeitlin allows us to marvel at their ability to survive in the primordial Louisiana ooze and dwellings straight out of a dystopian novel by Philip K. Dick. If New Orleans is “the city that care forgot,” Bathtub is its nearest suburb. Our guide is a remarkably resourceful 6-year-old girl, Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis), whose tortuous relationship with her emotionally unstable and seriously ill father, Wink (Dwight Henry), continually tests viewers’ hearts and tear ducts. They are as dependent on the Mississippi River and bayous for their well-being as any alligator, catfish or nutria.

As the waters around them slowly but surely continue to rise, Hushpuppy fears they’ll also be forced to deal with prehistoric aurochs loosed as the glaciers melt. Hushpuppy’s teacher has two of the great horned beasts tattooed on her arm and they’ve stampeded into her fertile imagination. Also motivating the girl is her desperate desire to reconnect with her mother, who “swam away” years earlier, abandoning them. The few clues that might lead Hushpuppy to her mother’s current location point to a mysterious off-shore light, possibly from an oil derrick. After escaping from the sterile storm shelter to which they were forced to evacuate, Hushpuppy and some other Bathtub girls are escorted to the light’s source by the captain of a freelance barge pusher. Turns out, it’s “floating catfish shack” named Elysian Fields (“Girls, Girls, Girls”) that caters to the derrick workers, shrimpers and river rats. The women there are kind to the girls and Hushpuppy even imagines that one of them could be her mother. The reference to Elysian Fields invites viewers to associate her journey with the one taken in Greek mythology by dead souls being escorted to the afterlife by Hades’ ferryman, Charon. Only the most heroic passengers are allowed a round-trip ticket. One needn’t be a student of the classics to enjoy “Beasts,” however. It can be savored by anyone with a desire to meet new people and visit a place they never knew existed. Oh, yeah, the music and set design are terrific, as well. The Blu-ray arrives with Zeitlin’s commentary, an interesting making-of featurette, deleted scenes, auditions and the director’s previous short, “Glory at Sea,” which also deals with the storm and Hades. – Gary Dretzka

Hope Springs: Blu-ray
Meryl Streep and Tommy Lee Jones deliver marvelous performances in a “comedy from the director of ‘The Devil Wears Prada’” that, more often than not, is about as funny as a toothache. “Hope Springs” warms up significantly in the latter third of the proceedings, but, by then, many adults enduring endangered marriages will be watching it with their hands over their eyes. Jones plays an Omaha accountant, Arnold, so oblivious to his longtime wife’s needs that he might as well as be married to the pro on golf-instruction show he watches before bedtime each night. Almost unimaginatively passive, Kay would appear to be the ideal spouse for a guy who spends most of their time together with his head buried in a newspaper. No matter how grouchy Arnold is, Kay continues to feed him, wash his clothes and put up with his abrupt responses to her small talk and romantic advances. They sleep in separate bedrooms, mostly because he’s gotten used to it, and haven’t had sex in years. (Kay’s orgasms can be counted on one hand.)

Many older viewers will recognize something of themselves, at least, in Kay and Arnold, even as they deny their own shortcomings. Some younger viewers might even think the characters were based on their own parents. Working off a script by Vanessa Taylor (“Game of Thrones”), director David Frankel gives us plenty of reasons to sympathize with Kay, but almost none to think Arnold is worthy of anything but our contempt. No matter, because the Arnolds of the world would rather eat their 9-irons than watch a movie that, despite the presence of manly-man Jones, promises to be a “chick flick.”

After threatening to leave Arnold if he doesn’t agree to travel to Maine for a week of couple’s therapy with a prominent marital shrink (Steve Carell), the old goat begrudgingly accepts her pre-paid invitation. Dr. Feld’s office may be located in the kind of quaint town only a Grinch could hate, but Arnold is far too distracted by the high prices – by Omaha standards, anyway – to enjoy himself. Anyone expecting a laugh riot in Carell’s performance will be disappointed, because, while possessing a genial desk-side manner, he’s condition to remain neutral. Before focusing on Arnold’s hang-ups, he gets Kay to open up about her own sexual naiveté. Here’s one of the most telling exchanges: “What about oral sex?,” Feld asks; “I wasn’t … I wasn’t comfortable with that,” she responds; “Giving or receiving?,” he continues; her, “Huh?,” prompts the movie’s first genuine laugh. Streep’s fully animated performance tells us everything we need to know about Kay’s well-guarded opinions on intimacy. The mood lightens even more when Feld tells her to purchase “Sex Tips for Straight Women From a Gay Man” and she purchases a banana on which to practice her oral techniques.

Arnold is moved by Kay’s memories of the better times between them, but the positive inertia isn’t strong enough to reverse years of pigheaded negativity. There’s no need to expand what happens next, except to point out that the final half-hour of “Hope Springs” delivers on the promise of being a romantic comedy, instead of just another “very special episode” of “Dr. Phil.” And, unlike most other Hollywood hybrids of the last 10 years, it clearly was made for the consumption of grownups whose everyday lives more closely resemble those of Kay and Arnold than the characters played by former cast members of “Saturday Night Live.” That, in itself, is a blessed event. It’s to the great credit of Streep, Jones and Carell that their unforced performances are able to carry the story beyond its unpromising beginning. (Warning: the funniest stuff in the movie accompanies the end credits.) The Blu-ray adds commentary with Frankel; a gag reel; several making-of featurettes; interviews with the cast and crew; an admiring salute to Streep; “An Expert’s Guide to Everlasting Passion,” with the author of “Relationship Stalemate: From Roommates to Soulmates”; and some alternate takes. – Gary Dretzka

ParaNorman: Blu-ray
Finding Nemo: Collector’s Edition: Blu-ray

If I suggested to you that “ParaNorman” probably is going to go down as the best Halloween-themed movie to open in theaters in mid-August and be released in early December into DVD, Blu-ray 2D and Blu-ray 3D, would you assume I was paying it a left-handed compliment and didn’t much like it? I hope not. I’m more baffled by the timing of distributor’s strategy than anything else and am wondering out loud how it came to be. In fact, I think “ParaNorman” could someday become an evergreen Halloween attraction, if not to the same degree as “It’s the Great Pumpkin Charlie Brown,” then “The Nightmare Before Christmas,” which also confuses holiday shoppers. Enough people failed to catch “ParaNorman” in its initial theatrical release for me to think it could benefit from a powerful word-of-mouth campaign and strategic repositioning on store shelves. Even if there was nothing more to recommend it than the production company, Laika Entertainment, which also was responsible in part or in whole for Henry Sellick’s “Coraline” and Tim Burton’s “Corpse Bride,” that would be good enough reason to check it out. Fact is, the stop-action animation company has been struggling financially, so you could think of a rental or purchase as an investment in the future of American entertainment.

Like Cole Sear in “The Sixth Sense,” the protagonist of “ParaNorman” sees dead people. He also converses with them. Norman Babcock (voiced by Kodi Smit-McPhee) watches horror movies with his late grandmother in his living room and chats with ghosts of all ages on the way to school, where he’s an easy target for ridicule. For 11-year-old targets of bullies, school is what purgatory must be like for spirits waiting to pass over to the other side. One day, Norman’s strange Uncle Prenderghast (John Goodman) informs Norman of a 300-year-old curse placed on Blithe Hollow by a woman persecuted as a witch. So far, certain gifted individuals have been able to repel the curse, but zombies have already been spotted exiting their graves, so time is of the essence. Apparently, this year, Norman is the only person in town capable of maintaining the peace. Because of the role the town played in the infamous witch trials, Blithe Hollow has long been a destination for tourists anxious for a spook-tastic Halloween experience. Norman’s only ally in this cause is a fellow outcast, Neil (Tucker Albrizzi), but, when the deal goes down, even the bullies look to him for help. By now, too, any resemblance to “Sixth Sense” will have been long forgotten. It’s wickedly funny, full of heart and scary enough to satisfy a broad cross-section of viewers. That it works as well as it does visually can be traced to directors Chris Butler and Sam Fell ability to work on a larger-than-normal set, with puppets designed to take advantage of a far more flexible skeleton. The characters’ brightly colorful appearance takes full advantage of the 3D format, as well. Only a holiday purist might find it difficult to enjoy “ParaNormal” at Christmas. The Blu-ray adds commentary, an hour’s worth of making-of and background featurettes, U-Control and preliminary animatic sequences.

Of all the animated movies currently making the transition from DVD to Blu-ray, “Finding Nemo” may be the easiest to recommend to those seeking a sure-fire test of their new home-theater system. Nothing in Andrew Stanton and Lee Unkrich’s chronicle of a father’s adventure-filled search for his kidnaped son – both of whom happen to be clownfish — has changed from previous editions. Parallel stories play seamlessly, as Marlin is required to overcome sharks, jellies and trigger fish, while Nemo is stuck in an aquarium in a dentist’s office overlooking the sea. The difference here, in the Blu-ray “Collector’s Edition,” is its brilliant audio/visual upgrade. (One shot of the descending sun is so unexpectedly dazzling that it made me jump from my seat.) The Blu-ray 3D version might even be more spectacular, but, until prices drop on the hardware, I won’t be able to testify on the subject. I suspect that it is. For those with short memories, the voicing cast includes Albert Brooks, Ellen DeGeneres, Willem Dafoe, Geoffrey Rush, Allison Janney, Brad Garrett and Alexander Gould. All sound particularly robust on Disney’s Dolby TrueHD 7.1 surround track, as do the more subtle underwater sounds. The Blu-ray package includes a half-dozen new hi-def features, as well as an equal number of previously released bonus material. – Gary Dretzka

Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry: Blu-ray
It isn’t enough for Ai Weiwei to be one of the most celebrated and prolific visual artists in the world. He’s also a political dissident whose voice resonates throughout China and beyond it. During the 2008 Olympics, more people marveled at the design of the Beijing National Stadium (a.k.a., the “Bird’s Nest”) — a collaboration with the Swiss firm, Herzog & De Meuron — than could possibly be counted and, yet, he had nothing good to say about the Games themselves. A few months later, Chinese rulers would condemn and harass him for his role in bringing attention to the unnecessary deaths of thousands of children in the devastating Sichuan earthquake. For such heinous crimes against the regime, Weiwei has been arrested, beaten, spied upon, had his studio demolished and hard-drives stolen by police; lost his travel privileges; and was stuck with a phony tax debt of $1.85 million. Last and perhaps least, Ai’s parody of the “Gangnam Style” Internet sensation recently was blocked by authorities. Alison Klayman’s fascinating documentary, “Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry,” covers a lot of ground as it follows the artist around the world from one installation to another, and throughout China campaigning for various causes. He’s a larger-than-life character, who commands respect from everyone he meets and is influenced by his work.

Another thing that Klayman’s film explores, perhaps inadvertently, is how much Weiwei has become a prisoner of his own best intentions. He admits to spending as many as 18 hours a day blogging, studying and surfing the Internet. When he isn’t doing that, he’s on his cellphone talking to admirers, curators and fellow activists. If Weiwei feels trapped by the amount of time he spends away from the studio and on the Web, he doesn’t show it. He’s the center of attention wherever he goes and seems to enjoy the glare of the spotlight. The artist is constantly followed by videographers of his own choosing and those of various news outlets. Weiwei also enjoys photographing everything he sees and doesn’t seem to mind being photographed with his fans. As much as we’re left admiring the artist’s commitment to his many pursuits, it’s just as easy to feel sorry for him. In some ways, at least, he’s a bird in a gilded cage. Weiwei lives in luxury wherever he is – even at home, in “communist” China – but, perhaps because of the legacy left him by his reformist father, is driven to embrace challenges average citizens would be crazy to accept. After being released from jail, where he was held incommunicado until he admitted cheating on his taxes, Weiwei looked visibly shaken and reluctant to say anything that might give officials another chance to punish him. After all, his friend and fellow activist Liu Xiaobo — awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2010 — still has seven years left on an 11-year sentence for voicing reformist sentiments not unlike those advocated by Weiwei. No amount of international condemnation has prompted the regime to free him. The Blu-ray adds commentary, deleted scenes and interviews. – Gary Dretzka

Unforgivable
Tell No One: Blu-ray

In Andre Techine’s new romantic drama, “Unforgivable,” the French enchantress Carole Bouquet is no less ravishing than she was in 1977, playing one of two obscure objects of desire named Conchita for Luis Bunuel’s, or as Melina Havelock in the 1980 Bond adventure “For Your Eyes Only.” She’s older, yes, but no worse for the wear of 35 years making movies, modeling for Chanel and inspiring much delicious gossip. Here, Bouquet seems right at home playing a real-estate agent in Venice, where she’s lived and loved bisexually after giving up a career as a model. One rainy day, a famous French novelist stops in her office, asking to be shown an apartment with the same kind of appointments and views afforded by hotels along the Grand Canal for absurdly steep rates. Instead, Judith convinces Francis (Andre Dussollier) to share a boat with her to an island where a neat little cottage is available for an affordable price. Unimpressed, Francis tells Judith that he’ll sign a year’s lease, but only if she agrees to move in with him. After seeking the advice of a former lover, Anna Maria (Adriana Asti), they agree that Judith “isn’t getting any younger” and she accedes to this seemingly preposterous request. Flash forward a year later and they appear to be enjoying each other’s company on the isolated island of Sant’Erasmo very much, indeed. It isn’t until Francis’ daughter and granddaughter arrive for a visit that things take a turn for the strange. A chronic malcontent, the daughter soon thereafter disappears into the world of decadent Venetian aristocracy

Francis hires Anna Maria to track her down and report back to him. She suspects correctly that the young woman has fallen for the debauched son of a local countess and is perfectly content to be left unfound. This doesn’t completely satisfy Francis, who takes out his frustration by fretting over the one woman in his life he thinks can control. After spotting Judith giving a local grape grower a ride to the island on her motor boat – the water taxi operators are on strike — Francis falls into the same trap as every man who suspects his younger lover of cheating. If he can’t even see her in his binoculars, he thinks, she must be doing something wrong. In a very ugly turn, he hires Anna Maria’s troubled son, Jeremie, to spy on Francis. Helen Keller could have figured out she was being followed by someone as clumsy as Jeremie, but Judith turns on her cougar charm to form an alliance with him. Francis isn’t a bad guy, really, although his fits of jealousy are extremely disturbing. His basic problem is that, whenever he’s in love, he develops writer’s block and that gives him extra time to worry. In “Unforgivable,” Techine has delivered another stimulating essay on the way relationships are complicated by unchecked emotions and outside influences. The acting, not surprisingly, is impeccable and the many wonderful Venetian settings provide sufficient cause to immediately reserve a flight to Italy.

After being out of circulation for some time, the Blu-ray edition of Guillaume Cadet’s intricate adaptation of the Harlan Coben thriller, “Tell No One,” is being re-issued by Music Box Films. Lovers of mysteries who somehow missed the movie its first time around should do themselves a favor by picking it up and trying to figure out why a pediatrician, whose wife (Marie-Josee Croze) was killed in a vicious attack eight years earlier, suddenly is getting emails and video links from her or someone pretending to be her. The doctor (Francoise Cluzet) is especially intrigued because he was knocked unconscious during the beating and still is considered to be a prime suspect in her death. Despite the new information, he is advised by his sister (Marina Hands) and her wife (Kristin Scott Thomas) to accept the fact of his wife’s death and get on with his life. Then, they too become involved in the messy proceedings. When the bodies of two men are discovered at a construction site near the location of the attacks, police naturally seek to re-interrogate the doctor, causing him to flee. Even though he looks guilty as hell, he launches his own search for clues. Ultimately, it leads him to the exact point where the story began eight years earlier. Although the dialogue is in French, the integrity of Coben’s fiction comes through loud and clear. The Blu-ray adds deleted scenes and outtakes, and a 56-minute making-of featurette. – Gary Dretzka

Butter: Blu-ray
Growing up in Wisconsin, a.k.a., “America’s Dairyland,” we were taught from birth that butter is better. At the time, consumers looking for a less expensive alternative to butter were required to make a run for the Illinois border, where oleo margarine was freely available and fairly priced. By 1967, the dairy lobby no longer was able to prevent the spread of “colored” oleo and consumers were given the option of buying one or the other product. In some parts of the state, oleo may still be considered to be morally aberrant and down-right anti-farmer. I mention this because Jim Field Smith and Jason A. Micallef’s fanciful comedy, “Butter,” is about people obsessed with the ancient art of butter sculpting and margarine simply won’t cut it in competition. Unless one has attended a state fair in the last couple of decades and witnessed such a contest, the artistic discipline might as well not exist. It would be easy, then, for viewers unexposed to butter sculpting to completely dismiss the movie’s premise as preposterous. In fact, people have been doing it for several millennia and for very different reasons.

Although the story is as full of narrative holes as Swiss cheese from New Glarus, “Butter” has a good heart and often is quite funny. At its best, it reminds me of “Waiting for Guffman.” Jennifer Garner and Ty Burrell play the Sonny and Cher of butter sculpting in Iowa. Bob is so talented, if fact, that after 15 straight state championships, he’s been asked to retire the trophy and serve as an ambassador for the truly amazing activity. His status-conscious wife, Laura, fears that Bob’s retirement would diminish her position in Iowa society like a pat of butter left in the sun. Instead, she decides to enter the contest and use the skills she’s learned through osmosis to retain the crown. Instead of competing unopposed, as expected, Laura will face off against a wonderfully nutty friend (Kristen Schaal), Bob’s demanding stripper girlfriend (Olivia Wilde) and Destiny (Yara Shahidi), the delightful African-American foster child of characters played by Rob Corddry and Alicia Silverstone. It’s safe to assume from here that Laura will do everything in her power to win, including sabotaging the work of a little girl whose natural mother has just died … but in a funny way. The stripper, too, wants a pound of flesh from Laura, who’s forced Bob to the end the affair and stop giving money to her. The fine ensemble casts nimbly avoids the holes in the screenplay, turning “Butter” into an unexpected treat. – Gary Dretzka

The Odd Life of Timothy Green: Blu-ray
Ho-hum … another day, another terrific performance by a largely unknown child actor. This week, alone, we’ve been introduced to Quvenzhané Wallis, of “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” and Yara Shahidi, of “Butter.” Add to that number the young star of “The Odd Life of Timothy Green,” JC Adams. In it, he plays a child who mysteriously turns up inside the house of Cindy and Jim Green (Jennifer Garner, Joel Edgerton), a couple so desperate to have a baby they buried a box containing a wish list of attributes in their garden. There’d been a storm that night and Timothy is completely covered in mud. His legs have leaves growing from them … not many, but enough to make an impression. Timothy is a bright and courteous kid and the Greens quickly consider him to be a gift from God or Mother Nature, one. He may not be blessed with superpowers or unusual healing skills, but he’s a quick learner and appreciative of any help given him. Even so, he’s enough of a bumbler to become a natural target of bullies and intolerant coaches. The only person who treats him with kindness is a slightly older girl (Odeya Rush), who senses something extraordinary in Timothy and nurtures the talents he does possess. With her in his corner, the boy can’t help but influence the lives of adults in the Greens’ orbit with less admirable character traits. As “Odd Life” progresses, it also becomes abundantly clear that the leaves on Timothy’s legs have a special meaning all their own, just as the seasons impact people not born in a cabbage patch. Director Peter Hedges puts his audience on a bit of an emotional roller-coaster, but the Walt Disney brand tells parents the message delivered in this heartfelt movie is suitable for most children, and the leaves on Timothy’s legs are in no way freakish. A cast that also includes Dianne Wiest, David Morse, Joel Edgerton, Rosemarie DeWitt, M. Emmet Walsh and Lois Smith guarantees an ensemble performance the whole family will enjoy. Of special notice is the soundtrack, which includes the song “This Gift,” by Glen Hansard (“Once”) and the voices of Marketa Irglova and the Brooklyn Youth Chorus. If the Greens’ house looks familiar, it might be because it also was used in Rob Zombie’s “Halloween II.” Frank’s son, Ahmed Zappa, is credited with the story for “Odd Life” and as a producer. The Blu-ray presentation makes the lovely Georgia setting look inviting and there are several decent bonus features, as well. – Gary Dretzka

Thunderstruck: Blu-ray
Maybe I’m getting soft in my old age, but I wasn’t nearly as disappointed by the basketball comedy “Thunderstruck” as the reviewers who managed to see it in its very limited release in August. The story’s premise is extremely familiar, in that it involves the transference of physical powers from an adult to a child and vice-versa. In this case, it’s from NBA superstar Kevin Durant to a teenage klutz, Brian, whose hoops skills are limited to not embarrassing himself while warming the bench. Brian (Taylor Gray) becomes the laughing stock of his school when videos of his inept practice sessions are leaked on video monitors in the cafeteria. Worse, he makes a complete ass of himself during a half-time contest at an Oklahoma Thunder game. It’s after this debacle that Brian is handed an autographed ball from Durant and inadvertently acquires the talents of the All-Star. In exchange, Durant’s skills become that of, well, a teenage klutz. Guess which player becomes the surprise star of his team and an instant chick magnet. There’s nothing particularly fresh or inventive in John Whitesell’s “Thunderstruck,” which also stars Jim Belushi; his son, Robert Belushi; Tristin Mays, of “Private”; Brandon T. Jackson, of “Big Mommas: Like Father, Like Son”; and Larramie Doc Shaw, of “House of Payne.” It reminds me a bit of the Fred McMurray and Tommy Kirk vehicles, “The Shaggy Dog” and “The Absent-Minded Professor,” which probably wouldn’t hold up too well in 2012, but easily passed for family entertainment in 1959 and 1961. By the time things get straightened out in “Thunderstruck,” lessons will have been taught and bullies vanquished. ’Twas ever thus. A featurette in the bonus package describes how difficult it was to teach Durant how to look ridiculous on the court. – Gary Dretzka

Silent Night: Blu-ray
Silent Night, Deadly Night: Christmas Survivor Double Feature
V/H/S: Blu-ray
X-Game

One of the most enduring axioms of the film-distribution game is that even the most outrageously despicable genre flick not only can survive the venom spewed on it by mainstream critics, but it can flourish behind strategic marketing and anticipatory buzz from buffs and bored teenagers. This is especially true of the slasher, splatter and women-in-jeopardy films that followed in the wake of such quality genre fare as “Halloween” and “Friday the 13th,” which obviously were influenced by “Psycho” and “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.” A perfect case in point is provided by the 1984 gore-fest “Silent Night, Deadly Night.” Taking a nod, perhaps, Bob Clark’s 1974 “Black Christmas,” the thriller generally considered to be the first modern slasher film, it used exploited the holiday as if it were a brand-name quantity. Shocked by marketing material showing a man in a Santa Claus costume preparing to butcher holiday revelers, outraged parents’ organizations picketed theaters scheduled to show “SN/DN.” For their part, mainstream critics worked overtime to come up with new ways to condemn it. According to an interview included in the bonus package, director Charles E. Sellier Jr. admits to being surprised by the protests, but he also points out that the movie made back its nut and pocketed plenty more money before it was pulled from theaters by its distributor after two weeks. No sooner did the furor settle down than “SN/DN” was sent out on video, where it did extremely well, as would the four sequels. None was sufficiently well made to be considered a classic, but genre buffs still reserve some warmth for the first installment, at least.

In it, a young boy witnesses the murder of his parents – his mother is raped, as well — by a Santa-costumed fiend who we’d already seen kill a convenience-store clerk. Deeply traumatized, Billy is shipped to an orphanage, where he’s brutalized by the Mother Superior and taught that all sex is dirty. Adding insult to injury, the nun forces Billy to sit on the lap of a department-store Santa, an act that causes him great distress. Later, as a teen, his boss at a different store insists he play Santa for all the kiddies who show up. Quickly thereafter, Billy snaps like a twig and goes on his infamous killing spree. It ends at the same orphanage in which he was raised and his younger brother is being warehoused. The finale opens the door for the sequels to come. The new DVD edition of “SN/DN” has been completely restored, with some fresh material spliced in, as well. The package also includes the sequel, “Silent Night, Deadly Night: Part 2,” which came and went without much hubbub from detractors. Using lots of recycled material from the original, the story picks up with the brother, Ricky, being interviewed by a psychiatrist in the mental hospital in which he currently resides. By the time he gets done regurgitating everything that happened in the first movie – including some things he couldn’t possibly have recalled – we’re more than ready to discover what caused him to be institutionalized. The highlight here is the scene in which Ricky and his date decide to take in a movie and it turns out to be “Silent Night, Deadly Night.” The mind boggles.

The spanking-new “Silent Night” is a semi-sequel, in that it re-employs the Santa Claus schematic and is chock-full of murders of the most grisly sort. As it opens, a serial killer has claimed two new victims and, when police led by Malcolm McDowell and Jaime King investigate, it becomes obvious that the villain favors the same Santa outfit as a dozen other department-store wish-takers. In other words, there are more suspects than there are crimes. A lot of people die, including at least two other white-bearded monsters. The one slaying everyone will remember is the one that replicates Linnea Quigley’s now-classic impalement on the antlers of a stuffed deer’s head from “SN/DN.” Otherwise, there’s not much to recommend it to anyone except the folks who substitute a Christmas Eve horror marathon for midnight mass.

V/H/S” is an intermittently successful horror anthology, in which a couple of hoodlums are hired by an anonymous third party to burgle a house in the country, then find and return a specific cassette to him. When they get into the dark and nearly empty house, they find a corpse reclining on couch placed in front of a bank of video monitors. Rather than collect all of the video cassettes and carry them back to their client, they punks decide to have a film festival. The short films run the gamut from creepy to disturbing, strangely erotic to sexually cautionary. A couple of them, however, are extremely difficult to watch because of the directors’ intention to showcase stylized filming and editing techniques from the VHS era. The writers and directors, some of whom are graduates of the Mumblecore school, include Adam Wingard (“A Horrible Way to Die”), Glenn McQuaid (“I Sell the Dead”), David Bruckner (“The Signal”), Joe Swanberg (“Alexander the Last”), Ti West (“The Innkeepers”) and the collaborative group, Radio Silence.

At 119 nerve-jangling minutes, Yohei Fukuda’s “X-Game” (a.k.a., “Death Tube”) combines several different sub-genre themes in the service of a modern, Internet-savvy horror flick. Young people are kidnapped and put on trial in kangaroo courts for sins committed much earlier, sometimes on playgrounds and in classrooms. Confessions are coerced using torture tactics similar to those shown in the “Saw” series. The tormentors take orders from unseen puppet masters, while victims are culled from the pack through seemingly random Internet contest and pieces of paper pulled from the X-box. Although the eccentric editing doesn’t lend for easy comprehension and interpretation by viewers, the suffering looks very real. Anyone who’s seen “Tokyo Gore Police,” “Mutant Girls Squad,” the banned-in-Britain “Grotesque” and other titles pushed by Sushi Typhoon will have a headstart on trying to figure out what to expect from “X-Game.” All others should prepare for a bumpy ride. – Gary Dretzka

Wu Dang: Blu-ray
The stream of enchanting period fantasies from China has grown from a trickle to a flood. Many combine action with history, while others emphasize romance and mythology. Martial arts, whether as an art or weapon, is what originally sold tickets in the American marketplace, but the success of such epic entertainments as “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” “House of Flying Daggers” and “Curse of the Golden Flower” has encouraged distributors to take a chance on more elaborate hybrids, especially in Blu-ray and DVD. Beyond the story and action, I’m most impressed by the amazing natural beauty of the films’ settings. Fifteen years ago, if a movie was made outside Beijing, Shanghai or the Great Wall, it almost never was shown here. “Wu Dang” isn’t the easiest movie to follow or most thrilling, certainly, but it’s tough to beat the setting. Much of Patrick Leung’s movie takes place at a Taoist monastery in the Wudang mountain range, where, hundreds of years ago, the tai chi school of “internal” Chinese martial arts originated.

It is here that a Chinese-American professor is drawn on his first trip back to China since the end of the Qing Dynasty. An experienced adventurer, Tang Yunlong (Vincent Zhao) is traveling with his teenage daughter, Tang Ning (Josie Xu), to the monastery for a martial arts competition he is sponsoring. She will compete against top Chinese practitioners, while daddy spends time looking for a 2,000-year-old sword rumored to have magical powers. All of this takes place against a spectacular background of scenic mountains, deep canyons and magnificent temples. The fighting is entertaining, but hardly the most interesting part of the experience. – Gary Dretzka

Catch Me If You Can: Blu-ray
To say that some men’s lives are more interesting than others begs several questions. Are they interesting in the Chinese sense of the word or simply noticeably different from the status quo. By any measure, Frank Abagnale Jr.’s life is about as interesting as they come. In fact, if it weren’t so well documented, it would be impossible to invent a credible biography of a man who spent four years impersonating an airline pilot, a doctor, lawyer and a qualified teaching assistant at BYU before he was 21. He forged checks and conned people out of thousands of dollars, simply by looking and sounding honest. Abagnale became a wanted man in several countries and even had his own FBI agent. Not everything he said he did could be independently corroborated, but, in the hands of director Steven Spielberg and screenwriter Jeff Nathanson’s hands, it made for a good story, anyway. Leonardo DiCaprio had the just the right twinkle-in-the-eye attitude to make us believe he was a master con artist and enjoying every minute of it. Hanks’ FBI agent, Carl Hanratty (Tom Hanks), is equal parts fascinated and perplexed by the slippery criminal. In these actors’ hands, “Catch Me If You Can” is practically a buddy film. Throw in Christopher Walken and Nathalie Baye as Abagnale’s somewhat zany parents and you’ve got quite a yarn. The Blu-ray package includes several informative and entertaining background featurettes about Abagnale and the making of “Catch Me If You Can.” – Gary Dretzka

Reelz: Ken Follett’s World Without End: Blu-ray
Shaka Zulu

It’s amazing how well English history lends itself to mini-series and soap-opera intrigue. The same, I suppose, can be said about the Catholic Church and its historical disregard for Christian values when seeking political and military influence among the crowned heads of Europe. By combining both institutions in “The Tudors” and “The Borgias,” the Showtime network finally achieved parity with HBO in terms of audience reach and adventurous programming. Recently, the premium-cable services Starz and Reelz got into the act by picking up “Ken Follett’s The Pillars of the Earth” and “Ken Follett’s World Without End” and “The Kennedys,” all of which blend cutthroat politics and religion. (The former two titles also added nudity to the formula.) Newly released into Blu-ray, Reelz’ “World Without End” is a sequel to “The Pillars of the Earth,” in which the melodramatic aspects are secondary to the completion of a magnificent Gothic cathedral in the fictional 12th Century town of Kingsbridge. “World Without End” is set in the same town, only a 150 years later, in advance of the Hundred Years’ War and Black Death. The architectural achievement here is the construction of a bridge important to commerce, but the real action comes inside the royal bedrooms, on the gallows and in priories. Once again, the priests are as venal and predatory as the corrupt royals and their lords and ladies. Scrub the dirt off the faces of the peasants and farmers and they’re as attractive as anyone at court alongside Edward III and his mother, Isabella, the “she-wolf of France.” It’s great fun to watch and the history isn’t bad, either.

Made in 1986 for the South African Broadcasting Corporation and distribution around the world, “Shaka Zulu” has the reputation of being the most repeatedly screened syndicated mini-series in American television history. This despite the fact its production was condemned by the United Nation and the actors risked being boycotted by anti-apartheid states. That’s because it was filmed entirely on location in South Africa, which, at the time, had yet to free Nelson Mandela and its native population couldn’t even dream of free elections. Indeed, before Mandella ascended to power, there were frequent clashes between ANC members and Zulus demanding either statehood or autonomy. Zulus comprise the largest ethnic group and the reigning king is a direct descendant of Shaka, who, for lack of a better comparison, was the George Washington of the tribe. I have no way of knowing how accurate the 10-part mini-series may be – historians still debate Shaka’s feats and legacy – but it seems respectful of his memory and accomplishments, as well as tribal culture and rituals. For most of the 19th Century, Zulus fought to reverse of the effects of colonialism on the African continent and the brutal treatment of blacks. The restored mini-series is easy on the eyes, capturing the natural beauty of northeast Africa. Among the recognizable British actors representing George IV in the cast are Edward Fox, Trevor Howard, Christopher Lee, Robert Powell and Gordon Jackson. South African soccer player Henry Cele played the title character twice, once in his first movie appearance, and, 15 years later, in his last. The DVD adds an interview with director William C. Faure and several stars. – Gary Dretzka

Comedy Central: The Legend of Neil: The Complete Series
The Hub: Kaijudo: Rise Of The Duel Masters: Creatures Unleashed
Fox: Futurama: Volume 7
Fox: The Simpsons: The Fifteenth Season
GMC: Sugar Mommas

Nintendo’s fantasy adventure-action game the Legend of Zelda is one of the most beloved, easily accessible and widely referenced video time-wasters in history. Since its launch, in 1986, an estimated 68 million units have been sold, not counting 15 sequel games and several spinoffs. The franchise has also spawned comics, an animated TV series and manga adaptations. Considering Zelda’s special place in the industry, I find it a bit odd that it’s taken 20 years for someone to come up with a parallel Internet parody series, such as “The Legend of Neil,” which feels like an artifact from another lifetime. Or, maybe I simply missed them. The series, created by Sandeep Parikh (“The Guild,” “Community”), began its three-season run as a four-minute YouTube video posted in 2007. As so often happens these days, it caught the eye of a major media company after going viral. Comedy Central found a home for it on Atom.com, before sharing it with MTV2. “The Legend of Neil” The show chronicles the journey of an alcoholic slacker, Neil Grimsley, who passes out in front of his TV while masturbating to one of the game’s fairies. Upon his gaining consciousness, Grimsley (Tony Janning) finds himself trapped inside the world of Zelda, forced to overcome the same obstacles as the intrepid forest elf, Link, in the first version of the game. The various oddballs he encounters while trying to escape Hyrule assume he’s there to rescue Princess Zelda from the clutches of the evil Lord Gannon. He’s none too happy about this development, but finds inspiration in the form of a horny fairy and the lure of Zelda’s virginity. With much vulgarity, ribald humor and lascivious behavior, “The Legend of Neil” is definitely not intended for the enjoyment of the kiddies. The DVD adds fresh bonus footage and a featurette with tips on how to make your own web series.

Parents may be happy to learn that the kid-friendly “Kaijudo: Rise of the Duel Masters: Creatures Unleashed” has far more in common with “Zelda” than “Neil.” On the other hand, if their children fall in love with the Hub series, it’s likely they’ll have to fork out money for such ancillary products as the Duel Masters card game, from the Hasbro subsidiary Wizards of the Coast, on which it’s based. God knows, there are more than enough individual characters to populate a full deck of playing cards. The action-fantasy involves a 14-year-old boy, Ray, who’s been recruited by the wise Duel Masters to battle mystical creatures. They see in Ray a natural talent as a creature tamer and duelist in the kaijudo tradition. Each confrontation leads Ray to new adventures, as well as allies and enemies in both worlds. The voicing cast includes Scott Wolf (“Party of Five”), Phil LaMarr (“Justice League Unlimited”) and Oded Fehr. The set contains a playing card as a starter-kit.

As Mel Brooks and Tom Petty have both observed at different times, “It’s good to be king.” It must be pretty good to be Matt Gruening, too, especially considering that TV viewers around the world are never far from a rerun of “The Simpsons,” and he was able to resurrect “Futurama” from the dead, as well. Why bother changing the channel, though, when so much stuff already is available on DVD and what isn’t can be purchased a la carte through VOD. The newest installment represents only the 15th of 25 seasons, a fact that truly pisses off those fans who would prefer to see more frequent additions to the canon. The four-disc set provides commentary on all 22 episodes, deleted scenes with commentary, “All Aboard With Matt” and other featurettes, commercials and sketches.

In DVD marketing lingo, any TV compilation that arrives in “volumes,” instead of “seasons,” generally represents a partial season or one that overlaps with another. Truth be told, “Futurama: Volume 7” represents the half of Season 7 that already aired in 2012, not the 13 episodes to come next June 13. It’s tricky, but fans should know that the DVD is completely up to date. The two-disc set includes commentary on all episodes, an alternate ending for “Zapp Dingbat,” “Futurama Karaoke,” screen loops, a “smorgasbord” of deleted scenes and a jam session with composer Christopher Tyng.

The latest parable from the Gospel Music Channel involves sisters Sheila (Terri J. Vaughn) and Lynn (Vanessa Williams), who, despite different lifestyles, have come together at a crucial stage in their lives to go into business with each other and their friend, Tommi (Rachel True). That it is a bakery explains the title, “Sugar Mommas.”
Naturally, most of the trouble the women are having involves men. One sister is a cougar, while the other feels as if life and motherhood have passed her by. Their friend is being stalked by her ex-, who, of course, is a dog. The men are experiencing personal problems, as well, but it’s always the women in these things who pay the heaviest price. Typically, the production values aren’t nearly up to snuff, but the actors know their audience and work hard to accommodate it. – Gary Dretzka

The Falls
Inspired: Voices Against Prop 8

The tissue connecting these too otherwise different queer films is the Mormon Church. In “The Falls,” we observe the transformation of two dedicated church missionaries from mere servants of God to servants of God who also happen to be gay and enjoy physical love. “Inspired: Voices Against Prop 8” describes what happens in the direct aftermath of the passage of California’s marriage-restricting ballot measure. The pro-Prop 8 campaign was heavily funded by contributions made by Mormons, as encouraged by church elders. The protagonists of “The Falls” – RJ and Chris – are roommates in a Portland, Oregon, residence hotel provided by the church. They take their jobs seriously and give almost no indication that they have sexual and romantic feelings for each other. Their first sexual experience takes place in a secluded place off a bike path on their way home from a day saving souls. It could hardly be more natural a setting or spontaneous a tryst. Immediately afterwards, they kneel to pray … not out of shame or guilt, but because it’s what they do. Neither is their much sturm und drang after they’re caught in bed by their supervisor. It is what it looks like and RJ, at least, is willing to defend his love to anyone who asks, including his father and church leadership. (Chris lives elsewhere and we don’t see how his family handles the possible excommunication.) There’s no grandstanding on anyone’s part, but also no questioning the courage shown by RJ. One thing that is clear is that church’s rigid position leaves almost no room for forgiveness or compassion, except when it applies to those who choose to accept deprogramming. Nick Ferrucci and Brian Allard are very good as the protagonists, as is Brian Allard in the role of an Iraq veteran who enjoys engaging the missionaries in debate as much as does smoking pot and drinking beer in front of them. Watch it alongside “Latter Days,” which deals with similar issues in a somewhat louder way.

Inspired” arrives at a propitious time. Later this week, the Supreme Week is expected to decide if it will consider the legality of the Prop 8 marriage ban or leave standing the Federal Court decision reversing it. Charles Gage’s documentary chronicles the spontaneous protests that followed the stunning defeat, which, most admit, was due in large part to a half-assed campaign strategy against the sophisticated and well-financed pro-Prop 8 drive. Taking absolutely nothing for granted, the gay community staged a series of protests in and around Los Angeles that would continue until the California Supreme Court’s “Day of Decision.” Quite a few movers and shakers behind the protests and marches are interviewed here and the responses are not at all uniform. – Gary Dretzka

The Whale
Money and Medicine

Thanks to marine documentarians Suzanne Chisholm and Michael Parfit, the orphaned killer whale Luna is probably the most famous orca since Willy (a.k.a., Keiko) and Shamu (the stage name for several SeaWold aquatic performers). “The Whale” is their second feature-length documentary about Luna. A fact-based theatrical movie, starring Adam Beach, Graham Greene and Jason Priestley, also was made, but only shown here on the Trinity network. The movies can be watched for their pure entertainment and educational value or as a cautionary drama. (Spoiler alert) Luna is no longer with us, for reasons made tragically clear in “The Whale,” so parents may want to watch it with their kids. When Luna was a mere toddler, he somehow was separated from his pod, which was based in Puget Sound. After being declared an MIA by scientists, Luna popped up hundreds of miles north in Nootka Sound. At first, we’re told, the orca spent most of his time trying to figure out where he was and where his family went. Desperately lonely, Luna began following boats and allowing himself to be petted and treated like a buddy by locals and tourists, alike. Perhaps, you can already see where this is heading. Luna didn’t know he was becoming a pest or endangering the lives of gawkers, kayakers and boaters, but that’s what happened. Worse, he showed no fear around propellers, work boats and skittish tourists.

This drew the attention of government regulators, of course, who feared the socialization process would soon turn dangerous to humans and Luna. Anyone caught interacting with the killer whale was threatened with jail or a fine. A native tribe saw in Luna a kindred spirit and, perhaps, the reincarnation of a leader. The Indians thwarted one attempt to cage the orca and take him to Puget Sound. One local actually attempted to bring a charge of attempted murder against him when he got too close to his boat. The media descended on Nootka to capture the drama but only added to it. Chisholm and Parfit began treating Luna like a playmate. None of it could save the orca from its own worst instincts. Finally, the movie demands we question our relationship with nature and what’s the right thing to do when one threatens the other. “The Whale” was exec-produced by Ryan Reynolds and Scarlett Johansson, with Reynolds providing the narration. It’s a beautiful documentary that would have been even more impressive in Blu-ray.

What hath Michael Moore wrought? In the long wake of “Sicko” have followed more documentaries about America’s health-care dilemma than any reviewer should be required to watch or 99 percent of potential patients ever will see. Roger Weisberg’s otherwise instructive “Money & Medicine” demands we once again consider the question of whether, when it comes to health care, more may be less. The medical-industrial complex pushes doctors to order unnecessary tests and procedures – C-sections, for example – and charges absurdly inflated prices for everything from Q-tips to brain scans. Everybody agrees that the system is broken, but no one wants to face the threat of cancer without knowing every single thing will be done to stem it. Everybody knows that Congress is in the back pocket of AMA lobbyists and other special interests, but Americans keep voting for the thieves, anyway. The media understands that the system needs to be fixed, but it was responsible for spreading Republican/Tea Party propaganda about “socialized medicine” and “death panels.” Because medical corporations require of its hospitals that beds be filled and hospital administrators demand of their doctors that they supply the patients to be warehoused there. “Money & Medicine” offers sound alternatives to status-quo medicine and good advice to adults who foresee a potential plug-pulling dilemma of their own down the road. As long as greedy business executives are allowed a forum to publically threaten the jobs of employees when ObamaCare kicks in, everyone who doesn’t have the same free health-care options as our elected officials is screwed. It’s that simple. – Gary Dretzka

The DVD Gift Guide

Thursday, November 29th, 2012

Now that we’ve put Black Friday and Cyber Monday in our rear-view mirrors, it’s time to consider the gift that keeps on giving: entertainment. The DVD/Blu-ray economy is such that the period between Thanksgiving and Christmas no longer is reserved for the release of special and collector’s editions, boxed sets and videos with toys attached to them. Neither did one need to wait until Black Friday for the best deals. Here are few titles that have arrived recently or didn’t arrive for the normal consideration. If the recipient of your generosity doesn’t yet own a Blu-ray player, however, I recommend starting there.

The Incredible Mel Brooks: An Irresistible Collection of Unhinged Comedy
Steve Martin: The Television Stuff

Get a Life: The Complete Series
Today, when it comes to comedy, gifters need look any further than the Shout!Factory website for ideas. Just as radio introduced listeners to the top comedians of the first half of the 20th Century, comedy and other spoken-word albums served the same purpose in the latter half. An entire generation of Baby Boomer comics honed its collective sense of humor on albums by Bill Cosby, Bob Newhart, Redd Foxx, George Carlin, Dick Gregory, Lenny Bruce, Mort Sahl, Tom Leher, Lord Buckley, Shelly Berman, Nichols & May and Firesign Theater. This was especially true for those of us too young to enter nightclubs, travel to Las Vegas and the Catskills, or stay up long enough watch Johnny Carson. HBO and Showtime’s comedy showcases would fuel the 1980s’ comedy-club boom, just as YouTube, dedicated apps and genre-specific satellite-radio stations would hasten the evolution.

More than any other label, Shout!Factory is releasing the kind of DVDs and CDs that allow today’s generation of performers to examine their roots and gain an understanding of what’s made people laugh for the last 100 years. In its essential Ernie Kovacs collections and the revelatory “Lenny Bruce: Let the Buyer Beware,” alone, Shout!Factory as effectively bridged three generations of comedy aficionados.

The multitalented Mel Brooks has been making people laugh for more than 60 years. Unlike such Methuselan comics as George Burns, Milton Berle and Bob Hope, Brooks hasn’t had to rely on audiences nurtured on vaudeville for his fan base. After serving in the U.S. Army during World War II, he made a modest living playing piano and drums at various Borscht Belt resorts. When one of the featured comedians called in sick the Brooklyn-born entertainer volunteered his services. His first offstage gig came writing for Sid Caesar, whose “Your Show of Shows” and “Caesar’s Hour” would benefit as well from the contributions of Carl Reiner, Neil and Danny Simon, Mel Tolkin and Larry Gelbart. Before getting into the movie racket, he and Reiner originated their wonderful “2,000 Year Old Man” routine and Brooks would collaborate with Buck Henry on the 007 parody, “Get Smart.” Sending up Hollywood film genres came naturally to Brooks. “The Producers,” “Blazing Saddles,” “Young Frankenstein,” “High Anxiety,” “History of the World, Part 1” and Spaceballs” continue to be discovered and enjoyed by comedy lovers. Thirty-three years after “The Producers” was awarded an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay, his theatrical adaptation of it won three Tonys. The honor made him one of the few performers to claim an Oscar, Tony, Grammy and Emmy.

The six-disc, 660-minute DVD set, “The Incredible Mel Brooks: An Irresistible Collection of Unhinged Comedy,” examines his career through interviews, talk-show appearances, short films, documentaries, tributes, songs and clips from his television, film and theater work. The discs also contain countless anecdotes recalled by friends, collaborators, actors and other admirers. It’s very funny stuff. The boxed set includes the featurettes, “Mel Brooks and Dick Cavett Together Again,” “I Thought I Was Taller: A Short History of Mel Brooks,” “In the Beginning: The Caesar Years,” “Excavating the 2,000-Year-Old Man” and “Mel and His Movies”; appearances on “The Tonight Show, Starring Johnny Carson” and “The Dick Cavett Show”; episodes of “Get Smart,” “When Things Were Rotten” and “Mad About You”; award-winning short films and commercial; a CD with long-lost comedy bits and songs from his movies; and a 60-page book with photos, program notes and essays by Leonard Maltin, Gene Wilder, Bruce Jay Friedman and Robert Brustein.

Steve Martin would follow a similar route to stardom. The three-disc, 390-minute “Steve Martin: The Television Stuff” sidesteps most discussion about Martin’s nearly 35-year film career in order to focus on his rise to fame as a standup comedian and his many memorable appearances on television variety shows. Like Brooks, Martin has excelled as a TV writer, actor, comedian, musician, essayist, novelist, playwright and producer. Lately, he’s even become something of a professional tweeter. The Borscht Belt may not have been available to the Garden Grove teenager, but Disneyland and Knott’s Berry Farm offered him stages to hone his skills as a magician, juggler and creator of balloon animals. These skills would serve him well when he turned from writing – for the Smother Brothers, John Denver, Sonny & Cher, among others — to performing before stadium-sized audiences. His comedy routines were described as “absurdist” and “ironic,” but, watching them now, it’s easy to see how they were zany extensions of what he did at Disneyland. Audience members related to the silliness of it all because they’d enjoyed, feared or ridiculed the same shtick at countless birthday parties, amusement parks and bar mitzvahs. Television proved to be the perfect medium for such self-effacing material. It played well on “Johnny Carson” and even better on “Saturday Night Live,” where he was surrounded by kindred spirits. Alongside Richard Pryor and George Carlin, Martin was responsible for reinvigorating the nearly lost art of standup comedy. The Shout!Factory compilation includes more than six hours of standup routines and shows, television specials, guest appearances and interviews. The most welcome additions here are his four NBC sketch-comedy specials, one of which was totally devoted to commercials. There’s also “On Location With Steve Martin (Live at the Troubadour, 1976)”; “Homage to Steve,” including “The Absent-Minded Waiter” short and “Steve Live at the Universal Amphitheatre, 1979”; interviews; introductions; and music videos.

Although the Fox sitcom “Get a Life” only lasted a total of two years and 35 episodes, its lineage can be traced backward, as far back as 1951, and forward to comedy shows on all of today’s cable networks today. In 1991, when the show launched, its star and co-creator, Chris Elliott, was best known as “the guy under the seats” or “the fugitive guy,” “the conspiracy guy” and “Marlon Brando,” among other recurring characters on “Late Night With David Letterman.” On “Get a Life,” Elliott played a 30-year-old paperboy who lives with his parents, interjects himself into the lives of friends and relatives, and refuses to accept any of the responsibilities of adulthood. He’s a slacker’s slacker and, as co-creator David Mirkin has said, was somewhat modeled after the comic-book character Dennis the Menace.

On the show, Chris Peterson’s father, Fred, is played by Elliott’s real-life father, Bob Elliott, one half of the brilliant comedy team, Bob & Ray. Their TV show, which co-starred Cloris Leachman and Audrey Meadows, aired concurrently with “Your Show of Shows.” In 1994-95, Elliott appeared in various roles on 20 episodes of “Saturday Night Live,” where his daughter, Abby, was a cast member from 2008 to May, 2012, and Bob appeared in 1978. Writers on “Get a Life” included the ubiquitous writer/actor Bob Odenkirk; Charlie Kaufman, writer of “Adaptation” and “Being John Malkovich; Jace Richdale, writer and co-executive producer of “Dexter”; and Mirkin, a producer of “The Simpsons.” The set adds a conversation with Mirkin, Richdale and writer/producers Steve Pepoon; a new featurette with James L. Brooks, Judd Apatow and Peter Chernin; a special commentary with psychologist Dr. Wendy Walsh, analyzing Chris Peterson’s mental issues; an alternate audio version without laugh track on select episodes; additional commentaries on every episode; and a discussion with cast and crew at Paleyfest 2000.

The Dark Knight Trilogy: Blu-ray
Only time will tell if the movie version of Batman (a.k.a., the Bat-Man, Caped Crusader, Dark Knight) returns to the megaplex. If it were up to Time Warner shareholders, there would be a new installment every three or four years, like “James Bond” and “Spider-Man.” The final scene in “The Dark Knight Rises” leaves room for conjecture – as does the introduction of a young crime-fighter played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt – even if director Christopher Nolan has already said that his participation in the franchise in complete. Certainly, no one is anxious to return to the days when the media paid more attention to the casting of the Joker and the Riddler than to whom played Batman or what the addition of nipples and codpieces to the Bat-costumes was meant to imply. The question before us today, however, is what to buy the rabid Caped Crusader fan on your list: the new Blu-ray edition of “The Dark Knight Rises,” alone, or “The Black Knight Trilogy,” with all three of Nolan’s installments. I suspect that a super-duper edition lurks somewhere down the road with all of the theatrical releases and a collectible mask and model of the Batmobile. One thing at a time, though.

“The Dark Knight Rises” was greeted with critical raves and a $1-billion return at box offices worldwide. It is set eight years after the devastating climax of “The Dark Knight,” after the Joker sicced the dogs of hell on Batman and he was scapegoated in the death of duplicitous District Attorney Harvey Dent. Meanwhile, Bruce Wayne has lost the ability to focus on his personal fortune and the leadership of Wayne Enterprises. He has withdrawn into a psychological Batcave of his own making and lost his super-strength. It is until Wayne becomes convinced that the only thing standing between the secure future of Gotham City and a takeover by the devious terrorist, Bane (Tom Hardy), is the return of Batman from self-imposed exile. It’s to Nolan’s credit that he’s created a Batman we could simultaneously trust with our lives and fear might succumb to his deepest, darkest demons, unable to distinguish between good, evil and shades of gray. On one side of him stand Commissioner Gordon, Lucius Fox and Alfred, who know what really happened to Two-Face (Dent), while the other side is populated with question marks disguised as business associates and potential lovers. Nothing complicates the life of a great man as much as the addition of a beautiful woman to his universe. Here, there are two such beings. Board member Miranda (Marion Cotillard) convinces Wayne to invest in a clean-energy device that may be more dangerous to society than beneficial and the cat burglar Selina (Anne Hathaway), who’s playing on both sides of Wayne’s fence. Beaten, bowed and sent to an infamous underground prison by Bane, Wayne must finally decide if he wants to put his life on the line once again for an ungrateful Gotham City or crawl back into the shadows.

When viewed as a unified whole, Nolan’s trilogy becomes the “War and Peace” of superhero movies. Almost nothing that happens in “Batman Begins,” “The Dark Knight” and “The Dark Knight Rises” is insignificant to the collected opus. One either buys into Nolan’s grand design or looks for something in the movies that is less cosmic, such as Heath Ledger’s Joker, Liam Neeson’s Ra’s al Ghul, Cillian Murphy’s Scarecrow or Maggie Gyllenhaal’s Rachel. The “Trilogy” collection contains all three feature films, two discs of bonus material and a 64-page excerpt from “The Art and Making of the Dark Knight Trilogy.” The supplementary features on “Dark Knight Rise,” alone, include a documentary on the Batmobile; the multipart making-of doc, “Ending the Knight”; character studies; “The End of a Legend”; an art gallery; and UltraViolet.

Watchmen Collector’s Edition: Ultimate Cut + Graphic Novel: Blu-ray

Just as “The Godfather” trilogy has been sent out in radically different version’s – theatrical, chronological cut, director’s cut, director’s restoration – Zach Snyder’s adaptation of writer Alan Moore and illustrator Dave Gibbons’ near-mythic graphic novel continues has grown like Topsy. This isn’t to imply that “Watchmen” is comparable artistically or commercially to Mario Puzo and Francis Ford Coppola’s gangster epic, because they exist virtually on two different planets. It is accurate to say, however, that devotees of both books live and die with each new film adaptation and re-interpretation of the original. Fortunately for everyone involved in “The Godfather,” its appeal wasn’t limited to a cult following or genre loyalists. Not having read the graphic novel or watched any version of the movie, I can only base my opinion on the back-and-forth on blogs, movie-review sites and my own screening of the so-called “Ultimate Cut.” Between the 128-minute theatrical edition, 168-minute “special edition,” the 186-minute director’s cut (“The End Is Nigh Complete Experience” and “Night Owl Ship” packages), 215-minute “Ultimate Cut,” the 26-minute stand-alone “Tales of the Black Freighter & Under the Hood” and 325-minute “The Complete Motion Comic,” there’s plenty of room for debate. “Watchmen Collector’s Edition: Ultimate Cut + Graphic Novel” weaves “Tales of the Black Freighter” through the “Ultimate Cut,” while also adding a handsome hardcover edition of the novel, a DVD version, a separate disc with special features, “The Complete Motion Graphic,” UltraViolet capability and a snazzy 3D cover photo. All in all, that’s a pretty good starter kit for anyone interested in getting into the superhero game on its darkest side.

Adults unfamiliar with either the novel or the movie might have a difficult time coming to grips with the “alternative history” offered by Moore. In it, superheroes who actively supported the United States in World War II and Vietnam — helping us win both conflicts – have been put out to pasture. By the time Richard Nixon was about to enter his fifth administration they’d practically become answers to trivia questions. Fearing their power and ethical stance, the government banned new ones from exercising their given talents. This, even as the nuclear Doomsday Clock clicked steadily toward midnight. Even so, the only thing standing between a war between the U.S. and Soviet Union has been the supercharged superhero, Doctor Manhattan, who could wipe both entities out before their red buttons could be triggered. It seems as if world leaders itching for another major conflagration, however, and the vacuum created by the lack of superheroes has opened the door to supervillains. It’s the new, clandestine generation of superheroes who are left to deal with the threat from within their own ranks. “Watchmen” was published in response to such world leaders as Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, who, in Moore’s estimation, represented the watchmen who needed watching more than anyone else. Snyder’s adaptation is considered to be true to Moore’s vision and there’s no questioning the Blu-ray’s visual and sonic force. The special features included in the boxed set are abundant, as well. I suppose that someone somewhere is already planning a 3D version of “Watchmen.” It should arrive at about the same time as “The Godfather 3D.”

Lawrence of Arabia: 50th Anniversary Collector’s Edition: Blu-ray
If I were put in charge of the home-theater department of a large electronics store, the first thing I’d do would be to show the new Blu-ray edition of “Lawrence of Arabia” on every HDTV unit that wasn’t already showing a Disney “Diamond Edition” title or “Titanic 3D.” If these movies can’t move products, nothing will. Obviously, “Lawrence of Arabia” and “Titanic” are best served on the largest available screen in a digitally equipped theater. Given that the odds against that happening again anytime soon are prohibitive, even a modestly priced home-theater unit provides a decent option. Everything about the “50th Anniversary Collector’s Edition” is stunning; the deep blue of the sky against the bright gold of the sand; Sherif Ali ibn el Kharish emerging from the shimmering heat of the desert on his way to “his” well; the magnificent vistas; and, far from least, the brilliant whiteness of Lawrence’s tunic and kufiyya. I was reminded of the rumors that swirled in 1963 that subliminal plugs for Coca-Cola were strategically inserted into the desert scenes to encourage runs to the concessions stand. Sonically, the presentation is similarly impeccable: the charging hoofs of the horses and camels as they approach Aqaba; the echoes that accompany Lawrence’s singing; the motorcycles’ throaty roar; and even haunting silence of the desert night. At 227 minutes, the story is never less than compelling.

Here, buyers can choose between the two-disc Blu-ray package, with the same technical specs and enough bonus features to keep a buff busy for hours, and the super-duper four-disc “Limited Collector’s Edition.” In addition to a second disc of bonus features, it contains a soundtrack CD, commemorative 70mm film frame and a coffeetable book. The tendency is for American audiences to see in T.E. Lawrence a larger-than-life costumed superhero, whose accomplishments were limited to a specific time and place. One thing I was surprised to learn while watching a bio-doc of American spy boss William Colby is that Lawrence’s “Seven Pillars of Wisdom” is still considered essential reading by members of our spook community.

Cinderella Trilogy Limited Edition Blu-ray and Collectible Jewelry Box
While I was duly impressed by Disney’s “Cinderella Diamond Edition,” upon its release early last month, I suspect that the little princesses on your list will be more impressed with the bounty of treasures to be found in the “Limited Edition Collectible Jewelry Box.” Technically, it would be difficult to find a more spectacular rendition of any classic fairy tale. In addition to the 1950 original feature, the package includes “Cinderella II: Dreams Come True” and “Cinderella III: Twist in Time” on Blu-ray and DVD, and a digital copy of “Cinderella.” The discs are contained in a storybook that fits inside a beautifully crafted jewelry box. Other bonus features include the “Tangled Ever After,” animated short; “Behind the Magic: A New Disney Princess Fantasyland”; an introduction by Diane Disney Miller; the “Bibbidi-Bobbidi-You” Disney Second Screen experience; “The Magic of the Glass Slipper: A Cinderella Story”; and DisneyView.

Desperate Housewives: The Complete Collection Deluxe Edition
Sassy, sexy and completely unexpected, ABC scored a direct hit when it added Marc Cherry’s “Desperate Housewives” to its Sunday night lineup in October, 2004. Equal parts dark comedy and soapy drama, the show immediately became the season’s water-cooler sensation, inspiring the reality series “The Real Housewives of Orange County” and a half-dozen other city-specific shows starring horrifying American gold-diggers. It’s worth recalling that the “Desperate Housewives” characters were decidedly middle class, if only in the way Hollywood producers see that sector of society. (Incredibly, many profess being middle class themselves.) Blessedly, too, stars Teri Hatcher, Felicity Huffman, Marcia Cross, Eva Longoria, Nicollette Sheridan often provided fans with off-set gossip to savor. “Desperate Housewives: The Complete Collection Deluxe Edition” arrives in a sturdy travel case, containing all eight seasons’ worth of episodes, representing an astounding 7,700 minutes of entertainment on 45 discs (sorry, purists, they’re inserted into dreaded slip cases). Inside an apple-shaped sleeve is a bonus disc with the featurettes “The End of the Lane: Last Days on Set,” “Curtain Call: The Desperate Housewives Family,” “Cherry Cam(eo),” “Desperately Dead” and some new supplementary material from Seasons 3 and 5. Cherry adds a fancy-looking letter to fans.

Marvel Knights: Astonishing X-Men: Blu-ray Set
Here’s the perfect gift for anyone who gets antsy whenever there isn’t a superhero movie playing at the local megaplex and their favorite video store has nothing new to offer. Shout!Factory has packaged four motion-comic arcs from the “Marvel Knights: Astonishing X-Men” series and made them available in Blu-ray for the first time. A creation of the hugely prolific Joss Whedon (“The Avengers”) and Eisner Award-winning artist John Cassaday, the motion comics were released on Hulu, iTunes and the PlayStation Store before sent out on DVD. Blu-ray adds yet another level of fun. The two-disc Blu-ray collection contains 280 minutes of Mutant-specific entertainment, including interviews with producer Joe Quesada and veteran artist Neal Adams; a behind-the-scenes look at Marvel Knights Animation; and an original music video. The story arcs include: “Gifted,” in which Dr. Kavita Rao develops a controversial mutant “cure” and the X-Men once again find themselves battling science, prejudice and a new alien foe; “Dangerous,” which requires the Mutants to find a mole with access to secret records; “Torn,” in which Emma Frost’s erratic behavior has the X-Men spinning in a nonstop downward spiral; and “Unstoppable,” during which the X-Men are required to protect the Earth from its destruction at the hands of the Breakworld.

Harold & Kumar: Ultimate Collector’s Edition: Blu-ray
The ideal recipient for “Harold & Kumar: Ultimate Collector’s Edition” is someone who’s pulled himself away from his Xbox long enough to gather signatures for a petition to legalize marijuana. Harold (John Cho) and Kumar (Kal Penn) are the Cheech & Chong of the Millennial Generation, the only difference being that they’re college educated and the THC level of the pot smoked is exponentially higher. The new collection arrives in a tin container, which probably relates to something in one of the duo’s movies, but I have no idea what it might be. Contained therein are “Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle” (2004), “Harold & Kumar Escape From Guantanamo Bay” (2008) and the 2D Blu-ray version of “A Very Harold & Kumar Christmas” (2011). They are accompanied by extended cuts of the “H&K” epic adventurers, as well as a sled load of supplementary materials. This ‘highly flammable” set also offers White Castle-scented car fresheners and White Castle-scented drink coasters.” I get hungry just thinking about it.

Oklahoma!: Blu-ray
Anyone who’s considering gifting a friend or relative with the excellent PBS documentary series, “Broadway: The American Musical,” may also think about tossing in “Oklahoma!,” which releases on December 4. The warhorse musical has been trotted out more times in its 70-year lifetime than there are trailer parks in danger of being blown away by tornadoes in the southern Plains. The new Blu-ray adapts the 1999 production of “Oklahoma!,” which was directed by Trevor Nunn for London’s Royal National Theater. Of more general interest is the appearance of the multitalented Aussie Hugh Jackman, as Curly, a year before he broke through to the masses as Wolverine, in “X-Men.” Nunn restored Oscar Hammerstein’s more dramatic full text, which isn’t always the case when performed in the hinterlands. Also crucial to the production’s success were choreographer Susan Stroman (“The Producers”) and cast members Maureen Lipman, Peter Polycarpou, Shuler Hensley, Josefina Gabrielle and Vicki Simon.

History: Ancient Egypt Anthology
History: Ancient Rome Anthology
History: UFO Archives
It’s said that youth is wasted on the young. The same can be said of a college education. I don’t know how history is currently taught to rooms full of bored, overindulged and hung over students, but I hope it’s every bit as interesting as the many non-fiction shows on cable TV that make learning fun. DVDs released under the History banner are especially easy on the eye and light on the brain, as they’re informed by CGI re-creations of important sites, re-enactments of landmark events and the testimony of professors and archeologists whose mere presence puts students to sleep. Even better, you’re not required to take notes.

Ancient Egypt Anthology” and “Ancient Rome Anthology” extend the various History franchises by culling material from episodes of several of the network’s series. The six discs in “Ancient Egypt” cover the period between the nation’s unification in approximately 3100 B.C. to its conquest by Alexander the Great in 332 B.C. It explores the technology, religion, culture, wars, peace and significant individuals that contributed to the dynasties’ cultural, scientific and architectural greatness. And, yes, this does include virtual tours of the pyramids and other monuments. I’d be willing to bet that most of what we think we know about the Roman Empire comes from Shakespeare, high school Latin, Hollywood epics and, more recently, such sex-and-sandals mini-series as “Spartacus.” The 11-hour “Ancient Rome” adds much needed context and historical background to the roles played by Crassus, Pompey, Julius Caesar, Caligula, Hannibal, Alexander the Great and the real Spartacus. Among other things, CGI graphics allow us to visit the catacombs and survey the 50,000 miles of stone-paved roads that crossed three continents.

I’d be very surprised to learn that UFO-logy is being taught in our universities, but, then, if a course on the films of Keanu Reeves can be justified, why not extraterrestrials? History has long been in the vanguard of quasi-educational entities dedicated to promoting the likelihood that we’re not alone in the universe. “UFO Archives” revisits Roswell, Area 51, alien abductions, Shag Harbour, numerous government conspiracy theories, the Majestic 12, SETI program and inter-galactic transport. The discussions may be channeled through the theories of believers, but the arguments of skeptics and non-believers also are given full weight. Ironically, perhaps, the six-disc set weighs in at 15-plus hours, four more than the time devoted to the separate histories of Rome and Egypt. Make of that what you may. The sets add bonus material, as well.

The DVD Wrapup: MiB3, Lawless, Beijing Punk… More

Tuesday, November 27th, 2012


Men in Black 3: Blu-ray

Tommy Lee Jones and Will Smith may be the credited stars of the “Men in Black” movies, but there’s no question what keeps audiences around the world coming back for more fun: Rick Baker’s aliens. Without these fantastical creatures, Barry Sonnenfeld would be just another has-been hack and Jones and Smith would long ago have found other meal tickets. In “Men in Black 3,” the aliens keep the narrative afloat as it inches its way to an unexpectedly sentimental conclusion. This time around, Jones’ presence is required only at the beginning and end of the movie. That’s because Etan Cohen’s story takes place largely in the past — 1969, to be exact – at a crucial juncture in Agent K’s life and career. Agent J is required to travel back in time to prevent his partner’s premature death, which is clumsily foretold in the opening scene. He’s not the only character getting a free ride on the space/time continuum, though. Boris the Animal (Jemaine Clement), a predatory Boglodite that K arrested on the day of the first manned lunar mission, has escaped from the LunarMax prison on the Moon and intends to reverse history by killing the agent and scuttling the flight. Although certain events in the first two “MiB” installments would seem to preclude such a thing from happening, it nonetheless provides J with an opportunity to meet the young Agent K (Josh Brolin). First, of course, J must convince K-the-Younger that time travel is possible and the next alien he attempts to arrest could be his last. To this end, the agents are introduced to a less malevolent alien, Griffin, who exists in five dimensions and has the entirety of the ArcNet at his disposal.

The relocation to 1969 New York and Florida allows for the introduction of several historical touchstones, including Andy Warhol’s Factory, a then-new Shea Stadium, Coney Island and Cape Kennedy, as it was known then. The best fight scene takes place early on, in contemporary Chinatown, where J and K stumble into a nest of very strange creatures and an authentic blobfish (Psychrolutes marcidus), which looks as freaky as any alien. I haven’t seen the 3D version of “MiB3,” but can attest to the fine audio-visual quality of the 2D Blu-ray. All editions arrive with a making-of featurette, gag reel and music video by Pitbull. The Blu-ray adds a spot-the-alien game; “The Evolution of Cool: ‘MiB’ 1960s vs. Today”; “Keeping It Surreal: The Visual FX of ‘MiB3’; scene investigations; progression reels; and UltraViolet. – Gary Dretzka

Lawless: Blu-ray
Seven years ago, director John Hillcoat collaborated with writer-composer Nick Cave and actor Guy Pearce on the excellent Outback Western, “The Proposition.” They combined their talents again on “Lawless,” a slick hillbilly gangster flick set during America’s Prohibition experiment. Like “The Proposition,” “Lawless” is a smart and exciting genre that isn’t afraid to ratchet up the violence when things get too contemplative and self-consciously hip. Even more so than Hillcoat’s revisionist Western, though, his moonshine drama probably would be a better fit at a drive-in theater than an arthouse. It is, in fact, a direct descendent of the 1958 Robert Mitchum cult classic, “Thunder Road,” which was to Southern drive-in denizens what “Rocky Horror Picture Show” has been to midnight-movie freaks since 1976. Handsomely shot in the hills of rural Georgia, “Lawless” is based on events chronicled in “The Wettest County in the World,” a book written by the grandson of moonshiner Jack Bondurant (played here by Shia LaBeouf). Along with Jack’s two older, more rough-hewn brothers, Forrest and Howard (Tom Hardy, Jason Clark), the Bondurants made a very decent living transporting moonshine through the hills and hollers of Virginia’s Blue Ridge country. They got around the law by contributing the occasional case of prime booze to the local police benevolent fund.

Things tended to balance out, until outsiders discovered the operation and demanded the local yokels split the take with them, too. Here, the ultimatum is delivered by a cruel and corrupt dandy, special agent Charlie Rakes (Pearce), who wears more grease in his hair than most cars have on their ball joints. A true sadist, Charlie provides the muscle for his boss in the state’s attorney office. Having to split the take with another greedy party not only would run counter to the Bondurant’s code of honor, but it also could screw up a deal Jack has entered into with fugitive Chicago gangster Floyd Banner (Gary Oldman). For the brothers, maintaining their independence in the moonshine trade is a sacred Southern trust, even if it comes at a stiff price. Hillcoat leavens the hard-core violence, backstabbing and corruption by adding two romantic through-lines. One involves a moll-in-exile from Chicago (Jessica Chastain) and the other a Mennonite preacher’s daughter (Mia Wasikowska), who digs Jack’s fancy car and the bright-colored clothes he gives her. The filmmakers treat both of the characters with respect, only once giving in to the temptation to show off Chastain’s magnificent breasts. But, then, all of the actors perform their duties admirably, elevating the action scenes above what’s generally expected in genre fare. It also helps that special attention was paid to establishing a credible period feel. For the atmospheric soundtrack, Cave formed a country band of his own, while also enlisting the services of Willie Nelson, Ralph Stanley and Emmylou Harris. Before hearing it for myself, I wouldn’t have guessed that Stanley could turn the Velvet Underground’s electrifying “White Light/White Heat” into something resembling a bluegrass standard. As hipster conceits go, it succeeds pretty darn well. Featurettes included in the bonus package provide lots of interesting background on the actual activities of the Bondurants and what’s become of the family. – Gary Dretzka

Slaughter Tales
The Day: Blu-ray
The Apparition: Blu-ray
6 Degrees of Hell
Considering that “Slaughter Tales” is the creation of a 14-year-old first-time filmmaker, I wavered between reviewing it and sending him a report card. If I were the faculty adviser of his middle school’s A-V club, I would be inclined to give Johnnie Dickie an “A,” both for execution and chutzpah. How many teenagers, after all, would have the brass even to attempt a feature-length horror anthology as their debut production? Moreover, how many of his peers could pull it off on a budget of something north of $65? The only other person in the same category that I’m aware of is Austin native Emily Hagins, who, at 12, made the horror movie “Pathogen” and, seven years later, sent out the funny horror/comedy “My Sucky Teen Romance.” I’m sure that Hagins had a healthier budget than Dickie with which to play. As a critic, however, all I’m willing to say about “Slaughter Tales” is that I’ve seen a lot worse horror flicks from far more accomplished directors. Visually, it’s possible to see every penny of that $65 on the screen, which admittedly is something of a left-handed compliment. Even so, I think teenage viewers would get a bigger kick out of the movie than adults, many of whom would be distracted by the off-color language and over-the-top violence. Anyone wondering if Johnnie’s parents knew what was going on in their kitchen when they were away and he was supposed to be doing homework might be interested to know that his mom makes a cameo, in which she’s killed.

As the story goes, a teenager shoplifts a cheesy VHS cassette and, even before he can insert it into his machine, is cautioned about its contents by a ghostly apparition. Needless to say, the kid can’t resist the movie’s magnetic pull and potential for evil kicks. It inspires him to go on a killing spree, from which the five short films in this anthology derive. The tales, which reflect a geeky affection for 1980s-vintage horror and slasher pictures, benefit from Dickie’s complete disregard for mainstream taste and decorum. The props consisted of items found lying around the house, dollar stores or at garage sales, while lights seem to have been limited to flashlights. The special makeup effects were created from things found in a pantry. For a 14-year-old, Johnnie also seems to have assimilated 40 years’ worth of camera, lighting and acting techniques unique to the genre. For all I know, kids around the world are creating similar movie to “Slaughter Tales” using little more than a cellphone and Halloween makeup kits. If not, though, Dickie and Hagins have a big leg up on everyone else to come. (There’s a parody of “Slaughter Tales” called “Pizza Tales” already on YouTube.) And, yes, I’m pretty sure Steven Spielberg started exactly this way. It comes with behind-the-scenes featurettes and commentary.

The Day” is a movie made by adults and starring such established young actors as Shawn Ashmore, Ashley Bell, Michael Eklund, Dominic Monaghan and Shannyn Sossamon. It’s a post-apocalyptic drama in which five attractive survivors are required to stave off an assault by hungry cannibals (zombies with a pulse) while hiding in an abandoned house in the country. The cannibals see in the new arrivals a chance to sustain themselves for a few more days, even though no one seems to have considered foraging or gardening as an option. The healthy survivors are looking for food, as well, but are required to use their guns to kill the cannibals, instead of deer or rabbits. The way things are going, they have about 24 more hours to escape. The best thing about “The Day” is its washed-out look, which is consistent with the tone of the story. This will appeal mostly to the women-with-guns crowd.

The Apparition” is one of those haunted-house thrillers that beg the question early on as to the wisdom of anyone spending more than five minutes in a building populated with evil spirits. It doesn’t take very long before characters played by Ashley Greene and Sebastian Stan discover that they’re not alone in their new home, even if they can’t see what it is. First a neighbor’s dog dies while staring into the corner of their laundry room and, then, they find themselves unable to keep a door locked for more than five minutes. Turns out, the boyfriend neglected to mention to his sweetie pie that he had recently participated in a college parapsychology experiment, in which a spirit was conjured and released into the corporeal world. By the time this bit of news is revealed, their house is in danger of being engulfed in black mold and his girlfriend is extremely pissed. The scariest thing about the apparition is what’s going to happen to the house’s resale value after the mold turns up in an inspection report.

Although Corey Feldman gets top billing on the cover of “6 Degrees of Hell,” his paranormal-investigator role is limited to listening to a cop relate gruesome details in the murder of a teenage girl. My problem with Joe Raffa and Harrison Smith’s movie is that the many flashbacks ruin all sense of a narrative flow and it’s sometimes difficult to distinguish the dead from the dying. That said, however, the setting for this low-budget indie is damn near perfect. Much of it takes place in a very old building in rural Pennsylvania, where one of the characters stages annual haunted houses at Halloween. In the past, it served as a hotel, a hospital and mental institution, a fact that is known to the locals and adds to the fun. In real life, the same Lake House Hotel is believed to be haunted by the spirits of people who committed suicide there in the 1920-30s. It, too, is used at Halloween for haunted-house tours. The place is littered with leftover artifacts from previous incarnations. A woman is scared to death by an apparition early in the movie and this leads to the murder investigation that attracts Feldman. Her death is somehow related to an earlier killing, which yet another investigator hopes to share with his local-access TV audience. Ultimately, there are too many people doing the same thing and it’s likely that half of them, at least, are vampires or zombies. The DVD adds a making-of featurette and a behind-the-scenes piece with Feldman; a walk-through of the real Hotel of Horror with Raffa; and something shot at the world premiere. – Gary Dretzka

Beijing Punk
The more one learns about China – four decades after Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger stopped there for take-out — the more fascinating it becomes. It seems as if a documentary maker need only poke the lens of his camera into a shaded corner to find something new and, often, in direct contradiction to what we’ve assumed since Tiananmen Square. Should we be surprised that there’s a flourishing punk scene in a country that’s portrayed as being so rigidly controlled? Probably, no more so than what we discovered about the rock-music scene in Tehran in “No One Knows About Persian Cats.” What makes “Beijing Punk” so interesting is how the people we meet deal with everything from getting high on codeine to advocating personal freedom in their music, while avoiding overtly political lyrics. Shaun Jefford’s film was made coincidental to the lead-up to the 2008 Olympics, which dominated all media and government activities. If there’s an overly familiar vibe running through “Beijing Punk,” it’s only because every emerging pop-cultural trend shares common scene. It’s likewise important to remember how isolated these musicians and their fans must feel in such a regimented environment, especially now that they have access to music and fashions from around the world. The music is pretty good, even by comparison to that produced in countries with a strong musical heritage. If the lyrics, often song in English, sound clichéd and dated, the sentiments behind them are universal and, in some ways, thrilling, — Gary Dretzka

Ike & Tina Turner: On the Road: 1971-72
Color Me Obsessed: A Film About the Replacements
Pato Banton: Live and Seen
Before the publication of her autobiography, “I Tina,” and the film adaptation, “What’s Love Got to Do With It,” Ike & Tina Turner were as inseparable in the minds of R&B fans as Sam & Dave and Smokey Robinson and the Miracles. While there was no question over which of them audiences came to see during the 15-year existence of the Ike & Tina Turner Revue, Ike was a terrific musician and arranger in his own right and, without him, Anna Mae Bullock may never have struck gold as Tina Turner. By 1976, though, Ike’s drug habit and abusive behavior convinced his wife to take a powder from the Revue and attempt to put together a solo career. It would take another seven years before Tina found her way back to the top of the heap, but, when she did, no act in the world was a hotter ticket. To their credit, the distributors of Bob and Nadya Gruen’s bare-bones documentary “Ike & Tina Turner: On the Road: 1971-72” don’t pretend to have scratched the surface of the Turners’ tumultuous relationship. What makes it entertaining, though, is the coverage of the Revue at a time when it was cultivating crossover success. The off-stage moments reveal nothing of the domestic strife that finally would tear the band apart. Tina prepares food and minds the children, while Ike works on arrangements for group. Time also is allotted for limousine rides, airport waits and backstage preparations. Among the 19 songs performed are “River Deep, Mountain High,” “Shake a Tail Feather,” “Respect,” “Proud Mary,” “”I’ve Been Loving You Too Long,” “I Want to Take You Higher” and “Try a Little Tenderness.”

In the alchemy of rock-’n’-roll, there’s nothing more cherished than purity of purpose. Look at any year-end top-ten list by a respected critic and, more often than not, at least half of the selections will be completely unknown to the majority of readers. Listen to the albums and it’s just as likely that you’ll wonder what all the fuss is about, after all. The critical search for integrity and clarity, along with the need to explain it in words, often runs counter to what’s being expressed in the music. Why write, when you can dance? Why intellectualize, when you could be stage diving? “Color Me Obsessed: A Film About the Replacements” reminded me of this disconnect between head and gut when it comes to criticism. The Minneapolis punk band, a.k.a., Mats, disbanded in 1991, without a great deal of commercial success, but its legacy extends to this day. The rise and collapse of the Replacements are recalled in this 2011 documentary by Gorman Bechard. He found dozens of people, ranging from critics to hecklers, anxious to comment on the band and what it meant to them. Indeed, more than half of the quotes and anecdotes they provide would provide sufficient cause not to delve more deeply into the subject. Their favorite memories of the Replacements seem nightmarish by the usual industry standards, which demand semi-sobriety, at least, and a certain regard for themselves, their music and the audience.

What makes “Color Me Obsessed” stand out among the growing crowd of musical documentaries is the complete absence of music. Bechard has said that he fully intended his history of the band to be absorbed without the distraction of recordings or music videos. This decision doesn’t seem to have worked in his favor. (I recommend watching the doc alongside a computer with easy access to YouTube.) It could just as easily have been explained by a reluctance to pay licensing fees, however. Boiled to their essence, the recollections and war stories – attempting career suicide on “SNL,” for example — are what rock is all about, not the many complaints we hear about being underappreciated, unpublished and underpaid. Among the many witnesses here are members of Husker Du, Babes in Toyland, the Decemberists, Hold Steady, Archers of Loaf, Titus Andronicus and Goo Goo Dolls; celebrity admirers Tom Arnold, Dave Foley, George Wendt, David Carr; and critics Greg Kot, Jim Derogatis, Robert Christgau and Matt Pinfield. A second disc adds 19 deleted scenes, extended interviews, commentaries and trailers.

I pretty much lost track of the reggae scene when NFL players began wearing dreadlocks and it became impossible to distinguish one Marley offspring from another on the radio. The bio-doc and performance film, “Pato Banton: Live and Seen,” reminds me that the wonderfully infectious musical genre is alive, well and in very good hands. British singer and “toaster” Pato Banton (a.k.a., Patrick Murray) is profiled in the two-part ReggaeTV package, which aired on some PBS stations. It adds a nicely shot live performance, in San Diego, which includes such songs as “Legalize It,” “Gwarn,” “Now Generation,” “Light & Life” and “My Opinion.” The show reflects his outgoing personality, as well as his social, political and religious beliefs. – Gary Dretzka

Call the Midwife: Season One: Blu-ray
Hot in Cleveland: Season Three
If the ancient practice of midwifery isn’t as familiar in North America as it remains in other parts of the world, the lack of knowledge can be traced to a time in the early 20th Century when doctors and medical associations successfully lobbied for a virtual monopoly on obstetrical care. They convinced government officials and expectant parents that midwives were poorly trained practitioners of folk medicine and wouldn’t know what to do in case of an emergency. This argument, of course, was largely based on the physicians’ desires to keep fees and, later, insurance money flowing directly into their pockets. One of the successes of the women’s movement was to convince a growing number of women to trust their instincts, by assigning pre- and post-natal care, and deliveries, to trained and accredited midwives and nurses. The hit British TV series, “Call the Midwife,” describes the lives and cases of a group of young women attached to an order of nursing nuns at London’s Nonnatus House. They provide care to families in a working-class section of city in the early 1950s. Through them, we meet a wide variety of women, including a non-English-speaking woman on her 25th pregnancy, a 15-year-old pregnant prostitute and several with dangerous pre-conditions. As in any good soap, time is devoted to the personal lives of the midwives, as well. The imported series, based on the memoires of Jennifer Worth, is currently playing on PBS stations here and has already been renewed for a second season on the BBC.

TV Land made its bones as a cable network dedicated to once-popular sitcoms, dramas and variety shows. Now 16, it has expanded its coverage to include shows that don’t cater specifically to the Baby Boomer audience, adding more recent fare, movies and original programming. Not content merely to dine off the hand feeding it, TV Land now occasionally bites it, as well. Beginning with “Hot in Cleveland,” the network has launched a slate of original sitcoms. Now entering its fourth season, the show has courted and won a dependable audience of viewers who grew up on shows starring younger versions of Valerie Bertinelli, Jane Leeves and Wendie Malick. Far fewer would acknowledge remembering the first sitcoms in which Betty White appeared, but her appeal defies demographic boundaries. For the uninitiated, the younger women ended up in the Midwest after their plane from L.A. to Paris required service in Cleveland. I can’t remember how they ended up at the rooming house run by the still-frisky White, but they were so impressed by the reception they received from local manly-men that they decided to stay. In some parts of Cleveland, even White is treated like a spring chicken. In Season 3, the ladies were joined by such guest stars as Sean Hayes, Kathie Lee Gifford, Sandra Bernhard, Don Rickles, John Mahoney, Laura San Giacomo, Joan Rivers, David Spade, Cybill Shepherd and Regis Philbin. Returning guests include Jennifer Love Hewitt, Susan Lucci, Huey Lewis, Joe Jonas and Jon Lovitz. – Gary Dretzka

The DVD Wrapup: Nicholas Ray, Rolling Stones, Dust Bowl, Speechless… More

Monday, November 19th, 2012

Nicholas Ray’s We Can’t Go Home Again/Don’t Expect Too Much: Blu-ray
Whenever the roll of movie mavericks is read up yonder, no one has to wait very long before Nicholas Ray’s name is called. Like Sam Fuller, he stuck out like a sore thumb in Hollywood, if only because he’d already lived a hugely eventful life before committing to film and understood the power of the medium to separate the truth from fantasy. In what some of his peers probably considered a fatal flaw, Ray had very little interest in compromising his artistic vision for the sake of commercial and personal gain. Even so, he made movies for mass consumption, not strictly for the arthouse crowd familiar with his past connections to architect Frank Lloyd Wright, folk-music archivist Alan Lomax, Dust Bowl balladeer Woody Guthrie, producer John Houseman, director Elia Kazan and other key players in the progressive New York theater scene in the 1930s. If he somehow managed to avoid being rounded up in Red Scare dragnet, his sentiments remained clearly on the side of outcasts, the downtrodden and rebellious youth. Ray’s influence on the French New Wave has been duly noted, as have the many bad habits and artistic ticks that contributed to his inability to find much work in the 1960-70s. If Ray had been a teenager in 1955, some other director might have modeled James Dean’s character in “Rebel Without a Cause” after him. Thanks to the miracle of DVD and Blu-ray, we’re now able to reassess what might have been his most personal and sadly illuminating film, “We Can’t Go Home Again,” alongside Susan Ray’s documentary, “Don’t Expect Too Much,” which chronicled the often tortuous process of getting the radically experimental student project made †naand seen. The restoration of the former title borders on the miraculous.

One of the points made in the area reserved for interviews in Oscilloscope’s two-disc package is that Ray never treated his students at Harper College in the early 1970s with the kind of condescension that so often comes with age and experience. Nor did he cynically dismiss their post-hippie customs, naivete and pretenses, or remind them that none of them would ever be as cool as he is. With his wild shocks of white hair, eye patch, ever-present cigarette and addictions to drugs and booze, he could have written the book on the joys and pitfalls of being terminally hip. If he remained a pariah in Hollywood, his notebook full of A-list phone numbers told a more interesting story. He joined the staff of the Upstate New York school after spending much of the previous decade in Europe, where he was worshipped as an icon of the cinema. He had recently become reinvigorated by the emerging counterculture, many of whose participants might have been weaned on “Rebel Without a Cause” and the significantly more nihilistic “The Wild One.” He was in Paris during the tumultuous 1968 uprising and protests surrounding the firing of Cinematheque  Français founder Henri Langlois, and then returned to the U.S. to document the trial of the Chicago 8. For him, “it was like putting James Dean on trial,” observed his daughter, “Nicca, in a Vogue interview. Instead of coming out of the experience with a movie, he suffered an aneurism in his eye. Dennis Hopper, with whom he was crashing in Taos, was able to arrange for the teaching position. Ray demanded of the students that they rotate jobs on the set and accept his theories on acting, which had germinated in the mid-1930s, during his tenure with the Theater of Action and Group Theater. To their frequent dismay, he expected the same kind of commitment from the students as he did from Hollywood actors and crews, who, at least, were rewarded for the long hours with money. Ray also asked them to reveal parts of themselves they didn’t know they had.

“We Can’t Go Home Again” is interesting mostly for Ray’s anticipation of the kind of elliptical, non-linear, split-screen storytelling that would become a hundred times easier to pull off in the digital age. In addition to the performances by students, the film contained images from political and countercultural events on and off campus – manipulated by Nam Jun Paik’s video synthesizer — and close ups of the actors working out their personal angst in soliloquies and spontaneous freak-outs. If its plot didn’t really go anywhere specific and the actors’ lives weren’t terribly interesting, “We Can’t Go Home” aptly demonstrates the students’ growth as filmmakers and individuals. At the same time, it’s easy to see how Ray’s rebellious personality and willingness to swap everything from stories to bong hits with the students might have contributed to the ill-fated product. The companion documentary, “Don’t Expect Too Much,” uses much rarely seen footage to describe the directors’ life with the students and futile attempts to find a buyer for the movie in New York and in Cannes. The best part, though, is the addition of recently conducted interviews with the now-graying students and anecdotes told by filmmakers such as Jim Jarmusch, Victor Erice and Walter Murch. The Blu-ray package adds extended interviews and short films that demonstrate just how daring Ray could be. – Gary Dretzka

The Dead Inside
Watching Travis Betz’ ambitious musical comedy, “The Dead Inside,” I was reminded of how many things — story, music, characters, actors, timing — had to come together at exactly the right moment for “The Rocky Horror Show” and “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” to become international pop sensations. Even after Richard O’Brien’s genre-straddling production became a hit in London, moving from a 73-seat venue to the 500-seat King’s Road Theater in six months, “Rocky Horror Show” was the furthest thing from a no-brainer. Lou Adler brought the musical to the Los Angeles’ Roxy nightclub, where it played to adoring crowds for 10 months, before shuffling off to the big leagues. Broadway audiences weren’t impressed and “Rocky Horror Show” closed after 45 performances. By this time, however, Fox already was committed to turning the stage musical to “Rocky Horror Picture Show.” It laid a huge egg in standard engagements, everywhere except Los Angeles, and even flopped in college towns. It wasn’t until Fox agreed to give the movie a shot on the burgeoning midnight-movie circuit that it exploded at the box office. Still in a few venues after 37 years, it’s become the longest-running theatrical release in movie history. It’s returned nearly $140 million – not counting soundtrack-album and licensing revenues – on budget estimated to be $1.2 million.

“The Dead Inside” may not be the second coming of “Rocky Horror Picture Show,” but Betz deserves a “B” for effort, at least. People have been attempting to capture the same flash of lightning in a bottle ever since the first midnight showing on April 1, 1976. With the popularity of “The Walking Dead” and new zombie movies opening every weekend, you’d think audiences would be clamoring for a live undead experience. Made on the cheap, “The Dead Inside” has several positive things going for it: appealing actors, a decent score and book, and a malleable premise. The primary characters are Wes and Fi, a wedding photographer and author of zombie novellas who’ve become disenchanted with waiting for their ships to come into port. We don’t have to wait very long for the first zombies to make their appearance. In a funny twist, the husband and wife become frustrated by their inability to get past the locked bathroom door, either because the woman inside has outfoxed them or they’re in a hurry to use the facilities. (No, I haven’t seen a zombie take a dump, either.) Soon, however, it becomes clear to Fi that the creatures are manifestations of her tortured imagination. Wes is sympathetic with her bad case of writer’s block, but has his own problems. Compounding Fi’s dilemma is the growing likelihood that she’s become possessed with the spirit of a sexy ghost dying to come back to life. Original music by Michael Brake and Joel Van Vliet reflects the couple’s emotional roller-coaster ride and they’re nicely interpreted by Sarah Lassez and Dustin Fasching. I may be cutting “The Dead Inside” a bit too much slack here, but it isn’t often that something this original and eager to please comes my way. With a little time, effort and imagination, it could go on to something bigger. The DVD includes an extensive making-of featurette. – Gary Dretzka

Bringing Up Bobby
Dutch-born actor-model Famke Janssen makes her debut as a writer-director in “Bringing Up Bobby, an unpretentious dramedy about a gorgeous short-con artist, Olive, and the 10-year-old boy who’s following in his mom’s crooked footsteps. If that description makes “Bringing Up Bobby” sound dangerously close to being a cross-gender version of “Paper Moon,” well, there are a lot worse movies to emulate. Standing in for Ryan and Tatum O’Neal here as itinerant grifters are Milla Jovovich (“Resident Evil”) and Spencer List (“Bereavement”). Like Jovovich, Olive left the Ukraine to pursue her dreams in America, where there’s a sucker born every few minutes. Instead, Olive became indentured to a scumbag crook, who retains an emotional hold on her, and the single mother of a son who’s devoted to her for all the wrong reasons. Bobby’s enthusiasm for the criminal life finally convinces Olive to put down stakes for a while in Oklahoma City. Bobby has already experienced more adventures than most of his classmates will ever have, so he has trouble adjusting to domesticity. Although he’s a straight-F student, he is a nice kid and far from ignorant. When Olive’s past catches up to her in Oklahoma, she leaves him in the care of a wealthy couple, Mary and Kent (Marcia Cross, Bill Pullman), who she had tried to scam after Bobby was involved in a minor accident.

By the time Olive gets out of jail, Mary’s managed to convince Bobby that the straight-and-narrow path isn’t so square, after all. Even so, mom’s return threatens to undo all the positive changes made to his attitude and behavior. Olive acknowledges the problem and allows Mary and Kent to remain as guardians. She tries hard to adjust to the straight life, but is limited to crappy minimum-wage jobs. Finally, Olive must decide if her love for her son is best served by taking him out of school and hitting the road again, or leaving him with Mary and Kent while she tries to get back on her feet. It’s a harrowing decision for a mother to make, but, in this case, mitigating circumstances allow Jannsen to craft an ending that’s both clever and credible. “Bringing Up Bobby” feels right at home on the small screen, where actors and models with an urge to work behind the camera can make a mistake and not be chastised for it. It’s as good as anything on the Lifetime Movie Network – no slight intended there, either way – and the audience would be exponentially larger than the ones attracted to its miniscule theatrical run and festival appearances. – Gary Dretzka

Zorro: Blu-ray
Contrary to what most baby boomers believed in the 1950s, Zorro was not a creation of Walt Disney and Guy Williams was just one of many actors to play the swashbuckling swordsman. The character was introduced 40 years earlier in Johnston McCulley’s story, “The Curse of Capistrano,” which was serialized in the pulp magazine All-Story Weekly. It inspired Douglas Fairbanks to produce and star in “The Mark of Zorro,” which, in 1920, became the first feature distributed through United Artists. The hit Disney television series was the version most of us remembered, until, possibly, the 1998 Antonio Banderas, Catherine Zeta-Jones and Anthony Hopkins collaboration. Very few Americans have seen Duccio Tessari’s 1975 comedy-adventure, “Zorro,” starring Alain Delon. Considering the number of American-made adaptations, it’s not surprising that it didn’t find a home here. The only real change made to the Zorro legend by Tessari is relocating the setting to a Spanish colony in northern South America, possibly Venezuela. The effect is the same. Shot in Spain, “Zorro” has the look of a spaghetti western, right down to over-the-top action and a musical score that has one of the most ludicrous theme songs in the history of the cinema. (“Here’s to you and me/Here’s to being free/La la la laaa la la/Zorro’s back.”)

Delon’s is quite acceptable as Zorro and the swordplay is excellent, as well. His climatic fight with Colonel Huerta remains exciting throughout its 5-minute-plus length. Even as a novelty, “Zorro” is a lot of fun to watch. The DVD adds an original trailer, radio spots, Alain Delon and Dario Tessari biographies, a photo gallery and restoration clip comparisons. – Gary Dretzka

The Rolling Stones — Under Review: 1975-1983
As astonishing as it sounds, the Rolling Stones will begin celebrating their 50th anniversary next week with concerts in London and, two weeks later, in New York. The band has been together, in one form or another, longer than some countries have been in existence. The Stones are probably better off financially than half of the countries in the UN and their history is more interesting, to boot. Add to that the fact that they’ve basically had two leaders in all that time – Mick Jagger and Keith Richards – and you’ve got a story that is equal parts fairy tale, survival epic and corporate report. Chrome Dreams and MVD Visual’s “The Rolling Stones – Under Review: 1975-1983” is the third in an ongoing series of critical documentaries of the band and one of nearly three dozen “Under Review” titles in the distributor’s catalogue. Although limited by lack of access to the musicians and copyrighted material, I can’t think of a better way for a music buff to understand the musicians behind the hits and their motivations. The second volume ended with the death of guitarist Brian Jones, the catastrophic Altamont concert and the release of “Let It Bleed.” The new documentary picks up in 1975, with the band in disarray and fans moving on to other, more relevant artists.

While acknowledging the great albums and hit songs released during the so-called Mick Taylor years, “Under Review” also describes how hard drugs and jet-setting were causing serious creative problems and personality clashes. It’s at the point where Taylor announces that he’d prefer to play his guitar elsewhere that the film begins to take shape. With Taylor gone and a recording studio booked in Germany, the Stones surreptitiously used the sessions as an audition for candidates to join the band. Ronnie Wood, who’d already recorded with Richards not only had the inside track, but also had dreamed of ending up with the Stones. He wasn’t ready to leave the Faces and lead singer Rod Stewart at the time of Jones’ death, but knew in 1975 that another chance might not come his way. In fact, he was a natural for the gig. His style already matched that of the Stones, he could have passed for Richards’ twin brother and he definitely knew how to party. The whole show might have closed in 1977, however, if Richards had been convicted of bringing heroin into Canada, as charged.

Given his addiction, the arrest surprised hardly anyone familiar with the band’s offstage life. Instead of being found guilty of importing the smack into the country, though, Richards was given a suspended sentence when it was determined he’d purchased it getting through customs. In the year between arrest and the dropped charges, lots of people had lost interest in the Stones, switching their allegiances to David Bowie or the growing punk movement. From here on in, the group would make most of its money in lavish international tours – reprising old songs — not the occasional hit single or album. The DVD is informed with the usual array of critical opinion, clips and recollections of people close to the band. – Gary Dretzka

Speechless
Go Go Crazy
China is a country not known for its tolerance of gays and lesbians and flexibility on issues related to homosexuality. It’s this unforgiving attitude that makes “Speechless” such an intriguing production. Hong Kong-based writer/director Simon Chung (“End of Love,” “Innocent”) knew that Chinese authorities wouldn’t give him permission to shoot his picture there, let alone exhibit it in theaters, but he decided to do it anyway. By moving the production to the port city of Shantau, in Guangdong province of southeastern China, Chung was able to shoot in anonymity without a permit. He got permission from university and church officials to use their facilities, but neglected to mention its subject matter. As the movie opens, police arrest a young Western man who is found passed out and naked on a riverbank and, upon questioning, stays mute. Luke is taken to a hospital, where he remains unresponsive to the point where hospital officials decide it makes more financial sense to send him to a mental institution. The nurse’s aide who’s been assisting Luke knows what happens to people in such facilities and decides to risk everything by taking the patient to his uncle’s country home. It’s here that the cause of the man’s trauma reveals itself and Chung decides to describe it from different perspectives. In the flashback scenes, Luke is given his speech back.

We learn that Luke, a college student, had gotten between a fellow student and his girlfriend romantically and the two men’s relationship ended very badly. Chung based the story on an actual case of traumatic amnesia which involved an unidentified man who washed ashore in England. While in a mental institution, the man began playing the facility’s piano with uncanny talent, providing investigators a key to discovering his identity as a gay German musician who’d suffered a nervous breakdown. Chung said he transplanted the story to China “because I wanted to see what would happen to such a character there. The film goes both ways: it is about homosexuality in China from a Western perspective, and also about Chinese perception of Westerners.” “Speechless” is a very well made drama that should have made the jump from the gay-and-lesbian-festival circuit to art houses. It deserves a better afterlife on DVD.

From genre specialist Fred C. Caruso (“The Big Gay Musical”) comes the moderately entertaining send-up of TV talent shows, “Go Go Crazy.” The comedy’s biggest problems are its familiarity with other such spoofs and “Chorus Line” wannabes, and the inability of the characters to add anything new to the subgenre. The setting is a modest drag nightclub in Philadelphia, if I’m not mistaken, where five not-all-talented guys compete for go-go glory and a meager $1,000 prize. The judges’ panel is comprised of people who are only slightly more freakish than the ones on “American Idol,” “So You Think You Can Dance” and “America’s Got Talent.” The best thing in the movie, by far, is real-life drag star Hedda Lettuce, who plays the show’s ribald mistress of ceremonies. If the DVD makes a dime from the production, Hedda Lettuce deserves at least two cents of it. It adds several additional songs, deleted scenes, auditions and a “Celine Di-Off.” – Gary Dretzka

PBS: The Dust Bowl: Blu-ray
Transformers Prime: Season Two: Blu-ray
Ancient Aliens: Season Four: Blu-ray
In the 1930s, it was very easy for deeply religious people to feel as if the plagues described in the Book of Exodus were being visited on Americans living in the southern Plains states and elsewhere. Not only had the Great Depression devastated the economy, but a decade-long ecological calamity had begun to lay a carpet of dust on land once ripe with wheat. Those disasters were compounded by severe drought, intense winds, a massive die-off of livestock and crops, thousands of cases of “dust pneumonia” and hordes of rabbits, locusts and greedy bankers. Unlike the events detailed in the bible, God gave the American pharaohs little choice in the matter. The Depression was caused by greed and a lack of foresight. The Dust Bowl’s blame could be laid at the feet of farmers who failed to listen to sound scientific advice and turned native grasslands into fields tilled by machines to accommodate short-rooted wheat. This would have been OK if the declining price of wheat made the effort worthwhile in the first place – it wasn’t – and if the skies had produced anything close to a normal amount of rainfall, which, sadly, didn’t happen either. When the wheat failed, nothing kept the distressed soil from being lifted by the winds and carried from New Mexico to all points east, including New York and Washington. Ken Burns’ latest documentary series for PBS, “The Dust Bowl,” exists both as a highly compelling recollection of one of the world’s greatest manmade disasters and a cautionary tale, told to discourage thirsty corporations from depleting our precious water supply. Burns’ methodology hasn’t changed much since making “The Civil War.” Interviews with survivors, historians and scholars complement the archival photographs, period music, newsreel footage and the no-nonsense narration of Peter Coyote. Like any Disney cartoon or Hallmark holiday special, “The Dust Bowl” should be considered essential family viewing. The Blu-ray adds six deleted segments and making-of featurettes.

If, like me, you have no idea where to find the Hub channel on your cable grid, the existence of “Transformers Prime” in any configuration might come as a surprise. The release on DVD (this week) and Blu-ray (next week) of a second-season compilation might come as even greater news. The CG-animated series is far more character-driven than Michael Bay’s story- and effects-driven features. Many longtime fans prefer the TV series to the movies, which play to the largest possible audience and aren’t as extricably linked to the toys and comic books. Season Two picks up after Unicron has been defeated and the misery continues for the Autobots. Optimus Prime has lost all memory of his previous life and reverts back to when he was the data clerk Orion Pax. When Megatron tricks “Orion” into joining the Decepticons, the Autobots turn to the Vector Sigma computer to restore the Matrix of Leadership as well as Optimus’ memories. New characters introduced include the Autobot Smokescreen, Decepticons Shockwave, Dreadwing and a swarm of Insecticons. The Blu-ray adds “Optimus Prime: Up Close and Personal,” during which Larry King interviews Optimus Prime voice actor Peter Cullen in front of a Comic-Con panel; and a discussion about Season Two with the creative team.

Peruse the comments of fans of History Channel’s “Ancient Aliens” juggernaut and you’ll discover another great conspiracy theory. It’s based on the absence of Blu-ray editions of the second and third volumes of the four-season series. Why the first, fourth and a best-of collection, but not two and three? Could contemporary aliens have invaded the A&E Home Video warehouse and stolen the entire hi-def inventory? And if so, why were they trying to prevent viewers from discerning a secret code in the binary 0s and 1s? Probably, not. In Season Four, the weekly topics included the Mayan and other Doomsday conspiracies, Leonardo Da Vinci, Bigfoot, the pyramids, dinosaurs, Puma Punku, NASA and the Greys. There were times during the presidential race that I thought ancient aliens had kidnapped the candidates and replaced them with robots. – Gary Dretzka

Prep & Landing: Totally Tinsel Collection: Blu-ray
Unlike Christmas trees, holiday movies and TV specials are expected to enjoy a good, long life after December 25. Today, thanks to the evergreen complexion of digital recordings, even the scrawniest of the lot are hauled out in mid-November and crammed onto the shelves of video outlets everywhere. Baby Jesus gets one day each year, while Santa, Rudolph and the elves can count on at least a month on the charts. Somehow, it doesn’t seem fair. Nonetheless, some evergreens are greener than others. The folks at Disney Animation struck gold in 2009 with the CG-animated “Prep & Landing,” which tweaked the legend of Santa and his elves by hipping up the relationship. What began as an idea for a theatrical short would go on to win four Emmys and three Annies for ABC. Moreover, it would set the stage for the sequel, “Prep & Landing: Naughty vs. Nice,” which arrived two years later and would win its own share of awards. They’re both delightful, no matter how often they’re shown and what time of the year. In addition to the release of the new Disney Blu-ray package, “Prep & Landing: Totally Tinsel Collection,” the original short will be sent out again on December 19 with “Monsters, Inc. 3D.” “Totally Tinsel” adds several entertaining bonus features, including the seven-minute “Operation: Secret Santa,” in which Wayne and Lanny are assigned a secret mission assigned by Mrs. Claus (voiced by Betty White); 10 animated North Pole commercials; a very short short, “Tiny’s Big Adventure,” in which the pint-sized elf tries to make coffee; “Behind the Jingle,” with voice actor and singer/songwriter Grace Potter; “Kringle Academy,” a series of training videos for aspiring elves in training; and newsreels from “North Pole News.” – Gary Dretzka

The DVD Wrapup: Brave, Dark Horse, Weekend, Pasolini … More

Wednesday, November 14th, 2012

Brave: Blu-ray 2D/3D
Watching the delightful Blu-ray edition of the latest Pixar/Disney animated feature, “Brave,” I couldn’t help but wonder if the fateful argument between Princess Merida and her mother, Queen Elinor, had been drawn from memory by someone who had the misfortune to observe what happens when a headstrong teenage daughter declares war on her well-meaning, if clueless mother. I have and it isn’t a pretty sight. Fortunately for everyone in the family, the storm tends to pass in advance of a girl leaving home for college, marriage, work or the military. In “Brave,” the brilliantly red-haired Merida (voiced by Kelly McDonald) takes umbrage at Elinor (Emma Thompson) for demanding that she put away her trusty bow and arrow to prepare for the day when the first-born sons of the leaders of Scottish Highland clans would gather to compete for the honor of her hand, which she isn’t ready to give. Her father, King Fergus of Dunbroch (Billy Connolly), needs this tradition to be maintained to ensure peace and the current line of succession. Instead, Merida disappears into the forest, where will-o’-the-wisps lead her to the cabin of a clever witch (Julie Walters), posing as a wood carver. The old woman agrees to help the girl convince the queen to cut her some slack, but not in a way anyone could have expected. In one of those careful-what-you-wish-for scenarios, the witch’s spell turns Elinor into a large bear. By the time Merida returns to the cabin, the witch has split the scene and, moreover, her triplet brothers have been turned into cubs. In the time remaining for Merida to reverse the spell and save the kingdom, she and Momma Bear must defeat a far more savage ursine changeling. Younger children might find the confrontations too darkly realistic for comfort, so it’s wise for parents to consider the PG rating before plopping them in front of the video babysitter.

It’s probably worth mentioning here that “Brave” is very much a hybrid of Disney and Pixar styles. The story-telling flows from the Disney tradition of demonstrating how humor, music, magic and friendship can be combined to confront adversity and inspire unlikely acts of heroism from human and anthropomorphic characters. Pixar’s mastery of CG animation is evident throughout, but no more so than in the person of Merida, whose blazing red hair and palpable riot-grrrl attitude dominate every scene in which the princess appears. It’s significant, as well, that Merida is Pixar’s first female protagonist and she’s the company’s first character to be included in the Disney Princess line of consumer products. Technically, “Brave” is every bit as spectacular as Merida’s hair. It reputedly is the first film to use the new Dolby Atmos sound system, which expands from the 5/7.1 channel sound mixes to 64 discrete speaker feeds and 128 simultaneous and lossless audio channels. (I’ll take their word for this.) The Ultimate Collector’s Edition includes separate Blu-ray 2D and 3D discs, a DVD and digital copy, as well as a disc dedicated to bonus material. Among the supplementary features are an informative commentary track; the short films, “La Luna” and “The Legend of Mor’Du,” which explains the legend of the witch’s evil-bear creation; eight behind-the-scenes vignettes; extended scenes; an alternate ending; and pieces on Scottish slang, Angus the horse, the family tapestry and the unkempt look of the Scottish warriors. – Gary Dretzka

The Watch: Blu-ray
Given the talent involved, “The Watch” should be about a dozen times funnier than it is. Akiva Schaffer’s extended bromance comedy should satisfy its core demographic target, but others likely will find the laughs to be too few and far between to save the movie when inevitably jumps the shark. The only thing I knew about “The Watch” before watching it on DVD was that four funny guys would be playing members of a Neighborhood Watch committee and that such a situation is ripe for screwball antics. To me, that was enough reason to expect “The Watch” to be an adequate time-killer. That it was rated “R” practically guaranteed that the humor would be rude, crude and obscene. For me, that’s a plus. Having grown up in a suburb, I know that four self-righteous adult knuckleheads who believe that they’re on a mission from God are no match for juvenile delinquents armed with paintball guns, not to mention the occasional free-range alcoholic and marauding meth head. Why, then, toss extraterrestrials into the mix? Logic argues against the likelihood that an invasion force of space creeps would choose a small town in Ohio to set up shop, let alone a Costco. Wouldn’t it have made more sense for them to find a big-box store in Miami, Washington, Kabul, Cleveland or Las Vegas? Certainly, it worked for Tim Burton in “Mars Attacks!”

Vince Vaughn, Jonah Hill, Richard Ayoade and Ben Stiller play the hapless make-believe cops, who, in addition to saving the planet from invaders and egg-throwing kids, are required to deal with such domestic issues as infertility, an oversexed daughter, post-divorce depression and short-guy syndrome. That’s a lot of stuff to pack into a single 102-minute movie, but, I’m sure, writers Jared Stern (“Mr. Popper’s Penguins”), Seth Rogan (“Pineapple Express,” “Superbad”) and Evan Goldberg (“Pineapple Express,” “Da Ali G Show”) felt themselves capable of creating something hilarious around several half-baked ideas. (What could be more mind blowing, after all, than green alien jizz?) Almost anything is funny when you’re stoned and, I’m even surer, that’s the condition they were in while writing “The Watch.” Sadly, too, director Schaffer appears to have been afflicted with the same virus as other “Saturday Night Live” veterans when they made the leap from sketch to feature-length comedy. His first feature, “Hot Rod,” felt like an extension of a bit by his frequent collaborator, Andy Samberg, than a fully realized idea, while the aliens in “The Watch” might have been related to the Coneheads. Not surprisingly, then, both movies were disappointments at the box office. In fairness to distributor 20th Century Fox, though, the timing couldn’t have been less fortuitous. Originally titled “Neighborhood Watch,” the final product was renamed to avoid any connection with the slaying of Trayvon Martin by a Florida man associated with his suburb’s program, and there was nothing funny in that sad footnote in American history. The Blu-ray package includes deleted scenes, a gag reel, a compilation of Jonah Hill’s alternate takes and the featurettes “Casting the Alien,” “Alien Invasions & You” and “Watchmakers.” – Gary Dretzka

Dark Horse
No one makes movies quite like Todd Solondz and that’s probably a good thing. It takes a special talent to find the humanity in characters most of us would consider to be despicable, while also exploring how they’ve managed to fit into mainstream society as long as they have. This ability has been amply demonstrated in “Happiness” and “Life During Wartime,” inky black dramedies that, among other things, demand we look beyond our revulsion for a pedophiliac (ostensibly the same character, played by different actors) and other acts many consider to be deviant. Most of the characters we meet in Solondz’ films lead lives of quiet desperation and fly below society’s radar until things begin to go sideways in their life. By then, it’s too late to prevent a disaster. “Dark Horse” follows a man and woman in their mid-30s, whose development was arrested at about the same time as they graduated from high school. A classic underachiever, Abe (Jordan Gelber) can’t think of a single good reason not to continue sponging off his parents (Christopher Walken, Mia Farrow) at home and at work. Things would be different if he was nice about it, but he’s both useless and petulant. Against all odds, he convinces the pretty, if extremely fragile Miranda (Selma Blair) to go out with him. She, too, lives with her mom and dad in their suburban home. Although they have little in common, she’s too overmedicated to do anything except agree to date, marry and move in with Abe when his parents take off for Florida. He assumes they will go along with this scenario.

Just when things start to go right for Abe – in his feeble mind, anyway — his father pulls the rug out from under him. He’s finally had his fill of Abe’s act at work and takes him up on his ill-timed threat to quit. Worse, he learns that his parents intend to sell the house, not bequeath it to him, leaving Abe without a paycheck or a roof over his head. Naturally, he blames his parents for everything that’s gone wrong in his life and for favoring his brother, a doctor, over him. It’s at this point that Solondz allows his creation’s paranoia to take hold and steer him in the direction of madness. If “Dark Horse” isn’t nearly as disturbing as some of his previous works, there are several images that will linger in the mind long after you return the DVD to the rental outlet. Foremost among them is the physical appearance of Walken and Farrow, who look as if they might have stepped off the cover of R. Crumb’s Despair Comix. Walken is required to wear one of the rattiest looking toupees in cinema history, while Farrow occasionally resembles an older version of her floozy character in “Broadway Danny Rose.” Solondz has already cautioned, “My movies aren’t for everyone, especially people who like them.” That shouldn’t scare any of his fans off “Dark Horse,” however, as it’s of a piece with everything else he’s done. – Gary Dretzka

Vamps: Blu-ray
As near as I can tell, “Vamps” opened in exactly one New York venue, where the video games in the lobby probably out-grossed the movie. The distribution company probably wanted to cut its losses, before sending the vampires-just-wanna-have-fun comedy into ancillary markets. The last-ditch strategy worked – sort of, at least – because about half of the small handful of critics who saw the movie liked it enough to contribute pull-able quotes for the DVD jacket. I kind of, sort of, liked “Vamps,” too. It’s exactly the kind of picture I’d imagine that Amy Heckerling and Alicia Silverston might make as a virtual follow-up to “Clueless.” If its potential audience is limited to teenage girls and adult women who were teenagers when they saw “Clueless,” well, so be it. The perpetually perky Silverstone plays a club-hopping vampire, Goody, alongside the leggy and exceedingly charming Krysten Ritter, who portrays Stacy. Their midtown Manhattan apartment, right down to the colorfully patterned coffins in which they sleep, looks as if it might have been designed by the same person responsible for the teenagers’ rooms in “Clueless.” Because the vamps only go out after dark, they favor barely-there fashions and sky-high pumps, appropriate mostly for nightclubs and brothels. I don’t know how old Stacy is supposed to be, but Goody’s old enough to be getting tired of the vampire game. She realizes this when she reconnects with an old boyfriend, Danny (Richard Lewis), who hasn’t aged nearly as gracefully as Goody since they first fell in love during the turbulent 1960s. Because she’s the spitting image of his old girlfriend, Danny assumes that the women are related and she’ll lead him to his lost love.

Stacy, meanwhile, has fallen for the hunky son of Dr. Van Helsing and Mrs. Van Helsing (Wallace Shawn, Kristen Johnson), who still are in the family vampire-hunting business. The son, Joey, has inherited none of his ancestor’s prejudices against the undead and hopes to find a way to spend a lifetime, if not eternity, with Stacy. Where there’s a will, there’s a way. In this case, though, it takes something of a miracle for their dreams to be realized. There’s always a flurry of activity accompanying the ladies on their nightly sojourns and for every interesting character they meet, there are couple more who just get in the way of the story. The craziest ones, by far, are a chronically horny cougar played by Sigourney Weaver and the Vampire Anonymous chairman (Malcolm McDowell). (While not vegans, the girls do draw the line at consuming the blood of their boyfriends.) “Vamps” has plenty of flaws, but not enough to discourage anyone in the target demographic from sampling it. – Gary Dretzka

Weekend: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
Pier Paulo Passolini’s Trilogy of Life: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
Among the things that distinguish the Occupy Wall Street movement from the political activism of the 1960s are the absence of leaders and the decided lack of easily identifiable political, social and economic philosophies. The Howard Beale approach to expressing outrage at the inequities of American capitalism worked as long as the media had nothing better on which to focus than the makeshift camps. Unlike the Tea Party movement, most ideological dialogue ended with the clearing of sites by over-armored cops. It was a non-factor in the presidential race, if only because division among the left would have assured a Republican victory. Perhaps, the decision not to place rhetorical power in the hands of only a few people was based on the failure of their parents’ inability to fundamentally change society in the waning days of the antiwar and civil-rights movements. The changes that were made came in such non-combative areas as promoting environmental issues, creating healthier food options, redefining fashion and reversing the demonization of marijuana. If anything, there were too many leaders for too many causes. What couldn’t be avoided, however, was a discussion, at least, of philosophies ranging from Communism and Maoism, to pacifism and flower power. By 1970, the groups identified by the media as leaders of the mass movement — the Black Panthers, Yippies and Weatherman – had managed to alienate intellectuals, the non-violent left and disenchanted Democrats with their clownish behavior, ego trips and turn to violence. The release on Blu-ray of “Weekend” reminds us, as well, that filmmakers, artists, musicians, writers, critics and educators all found ways to address the issues of the day.

Released a year before France would be rocked by protests, strikes, riots and police vengeance, Jean-Luc Godard’s darkly comic “Weekend” mirrored the anxiety and anger that was percolating just below the calm, bourgeois surface of Gaullist France. It anticipated the dissatisfaction of workers in essential industries to being taken for granted by bureaucrats and an upper-middle-class obsessed with expensive cars, exotic holiday destinations and designer fashions. When the unions took to the streets to demand satisfaction, leftist students joined the protests, adding issues of their own to the fray. By playing one group of protesters against the other, the government was able to avert something resembling revolution. Godard would go on to fight losing battles of his own, but, if anything, “Weekend” is more compelling today than it’s been since those heady days of the late-’60s. The signature image in “Weekend” remains a long parallel pan of a traffic jam on a country road. The film’s greedy upper-class protagonists are in a hurry to get to a relative’s home to beg for a larger share of their ailing mother’s inheritance and feel entitled to bypass the line of cars by driving in the lane reserved for traffic coming from the opposite direction. Not only do they not care who they piss off when they attempt to cut into the row of cars, but they’re completely oblivious to the burning cars and injured passengers lying on the side of the road. The characters are fully aware they’re in a film and occasionally remind themselves they’re being manipulated by a veritable puppet master. Godard never lets us get comfortable, either. That’s because the tonal palette continually changes and he adds chapter cards that update the couple’s progress, while also providing snarky commentary. Godard only offers hope in the form of terrorists – he later described them as Yippie precursors – who live in the forest, attack the cars of tourists and prepare for the revolution to come. They aren’t kind to the bourgeois couple when they dare trespass on their land.

The newly restored digital transfer for the Criterion Blu-ray perfectly captures the wild color scheme the director demanded of cinematographer Raoul Coutard. It includes a new video essay by critic Kent Jones; archival interviews with stars Mireille Darc and Jean Yanne and AD Claude Miller; an excerpt from a French television program on Godard and the location shoot; trailers; and a booklet with an essay by Gary Indiana. Some of the reminiscences of working with Godard are hilarious and delightfully insightful.

Godard’s Italian peer, Pier Paolo Pasolini, was every bit the activist, provocateur and artist. Their approach to storytelling could hardly be more different, however. At approximately the same time as “Weekend” was addressing rampant consumerism and the emptiness of life in bourgeois society, Pasolini was preparing his “Trilogy of Life” triptych, which traveled back in time to find common ground on the same contemporary issues, as well as regressive attitudes toward sexual freedom. To this end, he adapted three historic story cycles, Giovanni Boccaccio’s “The Decameron,” Geoffrey Chaucer’s “The Canterbury Tales” and “The Thousand and One Nights” (a.k.a., “Arabian Nights”), interpreting them in ways not often taught in college English courses. Loosely segmented by individual stories, as intended, the three features films remain raw, bawdy, sensational and confrontational. Some are, at once, shocking and hilarious. Students of Renaissance art will recognize many of the faces, poses and tableaux seen in “The Decameron,” including Bruegel’s “The Fight Between Carnival and Lent.” Pasolini, himself, plays a favored student of Giotto di Bondone in one of the arcs. He believed that the characters lived “uncompromised” lives, if only because the accumulation of possessions was less important than the threat of plagues, wars, thieves and capricious behavior by their patrons. As important as sexual activity is to the narrative, it’s introduced organically and very little distinction is made between homosexual and heterosexual love.

Pasolini went on to portray Chaucer in “The Canterbury Tales,” a collection of eight lusty and often scatological stories originally told to entertain and stimulate people for whom being blind drunk wasn’t enough. The movie was shot in England, where the ghosts of history still haunt the ruined castles and uncorrupted countryside. The production returned to Sicily’s Mount Etna for a vision of hell you won’t soon forget. “Arabian Nights” took Pasolini to Africa, India and the Middle East, where the stories take on a more exotic and mystical texture. It follows one young man’s quest to reconnect with his beloved slave girl. Pasolini not only found poetry in the words of these stories, but also in the amazingly sensuous costumes, setting and landscapes. In the final installment of the trilogy, it’s possible to watch it once for the stories and, again, for the magnificent locations, costume and set design. There’s even a happy ending.

The movies have all been digitally restored, with uncompressed monaural soundtracks. The Blu-rays are accompanied by new visual essays by film scholars Patrick Rumble, Tony Rayns and Sam Rohdie; new interviews with art director Dante Ferretti and composer Ennio Morricone about their work with Pasolini; documentaries “The Lost Body of Alibech,” “The Secret Humiliation of Chaucer,” “Via Pasolini” and “Pier Paolo Pasolini and the Form of the City”; deleted scenes from “Arabian Nights”; an English-dubbed track for “Canterbury Tales”; and a booklet featuring essays by critic Colin MacCabe; Pasolini’s 1975 article “Trilogy of Life Rejected”; excerpts from Pasolini’s Berlin Film Festival press conference for “The Canterbury Tales”; and a report from the set of “Arabian Nights” by critic Gideon Bachmann. Pasolini definitely is not for everyone. The sexual material is often very raw and graphic, in addition to being highly entertaining. The blasphemous moments won’t sit well with some viewers, either. But, if you’ve come this far already, why not sample the work of one of the great artists of the 20th Century? – Gary Dretzka

Empire of the Sun: Blu-ray
In 1987, Steven Spielberg was riding pretty high in the wake of creating such hugely popular movies as “E.T,” “The Color Purple” and “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom,” and after directing a segment in “Twilight Zone: The Movie.” Several years removed from what might go down as his greatest critical embarrassment, as well as a financial dud – the raucous post-Pearl Harbor farce, “1941” — he decided to dip his toes back into the waters of one of his most frequent subjects, World War II. The source novel for “Empire of the Sun” was written by British author J.G. Ballard, who was a boy during the Japanese occupation of Shanghai. In the book, if not in real life, Jim “Jamie” Graham (12-year-old Christian Bale) survived for a short time on his own after losing his mother and father in a crowd attempting to escape the city. He would be saved from starvation by a pair of American rogues, Basie and Frank (John Malkovich, Joe Pantoliano), before being sent to a civilian-assembly center and internment camp. Absent his well-to-do parents, Jamie relied on the kindness of strangers for the duration of the war and he would reward them by passing along is joie-de-vivre. (Ballard was more fortunate, in that he wasn’t separated from his parents in the camps.) The biggest break Jamie caught was being assigned to a camp near a Japanese airfield, where he could indulge his passion for planes, at least. As the war progressed and the likelihood of American airstrikes became higher, Jamie would once again be buoyed by his hobby.

“Empire of the Sun” is informed by several recurrent Spielbergian themes. Jamie’s fortitude in the face of great adversity and loss mirrored the strengths of other young characters in his movies (“A.I. Artificial Intelligence,” “E.T.”). His exuberance, cunning and precocious personality, which put him on equal footing with adults twice his age, also is a trademark quality. Typically, too, Spielberg somehow manages to reserve a few ounces of humanity for the Japanese – notably, a boy Jamie’s age, who’s destined to become a kamikaze pilot – who typically have been characterized as war-mongers, brutes and fanatics. I’m not sure they deserve any breaks, but, maybe, that’s right out of Ballard’s book. Conversely, the American prisoners don’t look so gallant when they’re placing odds on Jamie’s ability to survive a dangerous trek beyond the barbed-wire fence or when their cowboy behavior kills a sympathetic character. I’m not sure if Spielberg or screenwriter Tom Stoppard is more responsible for the schmaltzy touches ladled on the story before and after American pilots bomb the airstrip. (Look for the “Bridge on the River Kwai” reference.) The Blu-ray presentation benefits from a new hi-def digital transfer and a strong audio component. It arrives with a making-of documentary and “Warner at War.” “Empire of the Sun” didn’t fare well at the American box office – it did better overseas – but some of the indifference can be blamed on our general apathy toward the war stories of other countries and the fact that Bernardo Bertolucci’s epic drama about pre-war Chinese history, “The Last Emperor,” was released at approximately the same time. – Gary Dretzka

Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure: Blu-ray
Looking back more than two decades to the release of “Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure,” one thing stands out in my mind more than all others. The comedy, which frequently has been labeled a classic, was almost universally dismissed by critics as being goofy, at best, but, more often than not, moronic. While falling far short of being a classic, “B&T” has had an impact on pop culture that far outweighs its artistic merits, such as they are. If the government levied a fine on any writer who used the phrase “excellent adventure” to describe a road trip without any real destination, the national debt could be reduced by one zero, at least. Just as Amy Heckerling and Cameron Crowe’s surfer-dude creation, Jeff Spicoli, came to represent a specific male archetype, Bill and Ted would become the poster children for teen ADD. The trippy rhythm of their modifier-happy vernacular would be repeated endlessly, not only in the U.S., but by kids just like them around the globe. Even if Alex Winter’s career never came close to matching that of his co-star and friend Keanu Reeves – whose body of work and screen persona formed the basis of a class at Pasadena’s Art Center College of Design – he probably hasn’t spent the last 23 years trying to convince people that Ted is creation of someone else’s imagination. Sean Penn hasn’t been required to carry Spicoli on his shoulders for the past 30 years, either. Fans still make the pilgrimage to the San Gabriel Valley city of San Dimas to see if Keanu and Alex are in residence at the world’s most famous Circle K store, though, only to learn that the movie was shot in Tempe, Arizona.

The Circle K is important because that’s where George Carlin’s time-traveling phone booth – shades of “Doctor Who” – nearly lands on Bill and Ted, who are in desperate need of a presentation for their history class. They’ve been so intent on organizing their garage band, Wyld Stallyns, they’ve entirely spaced the final project, which they need to pass the course. Rufus (Carlin) offers to help by introducing the boys to such famous historical figures as Napoleon, Socrates, Genghis Khan, Joan of Arc, Billy the Kid, Abraham Lincoln and Ludwig van Beethoven. That way, they can pick their brain and observe world-shaping events first-hand. If they’re very lucky, Bill and Ted might even be able to convince the VIPs to return with them to San Dimas. Among the supplements are “The Original Bill & Ted: In Conversation With Chris & Ed,” an air-guitar tutorial with Bjorn Turoque & the Rockness Monster and “One Sweet and Sour Chinese Adventure to Go” and original marketing material. – Gary Dretzka

Painted Skin: The Resurrection: Blu-ray
It’s a shame that American kids aren’t being encouraged to sample the adventures, romances and fantasies of countries where English isn’t the mother tongue. While it’s true that animated features from Hollywood studios are second to none, live-action pictures based on ancient legends must be tricked out with CGI gimmicks, action and cute actors to appeal to young adults. “Painted Skin” and “Painted Skin: The Resurrection” are perfect examples of epic entertainments that, given a fair chance, could cross several demographic lines, while also stoking the imaginations of younger viewers. Just as Disney’s “Mulan” is based on a legend that goes back to the Northern Wei Dynasty, “Painted Skin” and its 2012 sequel were inspired by Po Songling’s “Strange Stories From a Chinese Studio,” written during the early Qing Dynasty. Hundreds of his tales, handed down through generations in the oral tradition, were collected by his grandson and published in the mid-1740s. They’re populated with ghosts, demons, immortals and animistic spirits that interact with humans of all castes and economic strata. The fantastical elements often masked social commentary and outrage against the corruption that permeated Chinese society. The parables also glorified heroism, self-sacrifice and romance, in addition to promoting moral standards and Taoist principles.

In both “Painted Skin” episodes, Zhou Xon plays a beautiful fox spirit who sustains her powers and youth by stealing and devouring the beating hearts of mortals. If the demon can convince a human to freely sacrifice his or her heart to her, she, too, will become mortal and capable of experiencing passion, pain and other non-predatory feelings. The fox spirit has been encased in an ice floe for the last 1,000 years as punishment for one misdeed or another. After being freed from her prison by a bird spirit (Yang Mini) that’s determined to chip a hole in the ice, the fox spirit makes up for lost time by seducing random men and stealing their hearts. Before long, the replenished fox crosses paths with Princess Jing (Zhao Wei), who’s been forced into exile from her kingdom by mysterious threats. Despite the half-mask of gold she wears to cover a deformity, Jing is every bit as gorgeous as the wandering spirit. Together, they pursue the only man the princess has ever loved: a guard who long ago failed at his mission to protect her. He has carried the shame on his shoulders ever since then. Although alliances shift and enemies are vanquished along the way, it’s inevitable that someone’s heart eventually is going to end up in someone else’s body.

Like most Chinese historical epics, the fight scenes in “Painted Skin: The Resurrection” are wonderfully choreographed and genuinely exciting. The brilliant colors of the period costumes add even more visual flair. The movie was directed by Wuershan, a Mongolian-born filmmaker and an award-winning commercial director, animator, fine artist, avant-garde composer and musician. His sophomore effort, “The Butcher, the Chef and the Swordsman,” owes far more to kick-ass martial-arts action than “Painted Skin,” which is less graphically violent and designed to skew more to women and girls. It was a huge hit in China, even topping the foreign imports on its opening weekend. The Blu-ray adds a 23-minute making-of featurette. – Gary Dretzka

Dust Up
The Night of the Devils
It takes more than a blurb on the cover of a DVD for a movie that aspires to “grindhouse” status to actually attain it. Neither does comparing a filmmaker to Quentin Tarantino make it so. The publicity material I read ahead of watching Ward Roberts’ “grindhouse Western,” “Dust Up,” set the bar for it just that high. As an example of contemporary grindhouse, “Dust Up” succeeds pretty well, I think, but comparing a filmmaker or his work to Tarantino is merely a fool’s errand. It’s like comparing Wolfgang Puck or Emeril Lagasse to his line chefs and there’s no mileage in that. There’s almost no point in parsing the plot of “Dust Up,” because it basically doesn’t have one. Instead, there’s lots of unbalanced characters and mindless violence in search of a plot. The protagonist is Jack (Aaron Gaffey), a war veteran who lost an eye on a recon mission – the ladies dig his eye patch — and now practices yoga in the Mojave. For money, Jack does odd jobs for the desert rats that live on the fringes of Joshua Tree and 29 Palms. One of them, Ella (Amber Benson), lives out in the boonies with her newborn child and an abusive husband who’s addicted to meth. Her water pipes have started spitting out mud and the last person she trusts with her pipes is him. He owes money to Buzz (Jeremiah Birkett), the leader of a mob of criminals, drug dealers and crank addicts, whose idea of a good time is getting stoned and eating human flesh. As collateral for what is owed him, the crazed mob leader kidnaps Ella’s baby and threatens to turn her into an appetizer. Jack and his beatnik Indian buddy, Mo (Devin Barry), take it upon themselves to rescue the baby, but are outmatched by the mob’s craziness. In the end, Ella’s maternal fury proves to be insurmountable and the resulting bloodbath is so far over the top that genre fans should find it inspiring. The DVD package includes a behind-the-scenes featurette; interviews and extra footage; a mock public service announcement; audio commentary with Amber Benson and Ward Roberts; and the sneak preview at San Diego ComicCon.

In Italy, the equivalent genre to grindhouse is “giallo.” Looking back at the genre from the distance of 40 years, it’s easy to see the common elements shared by American, Italian and British horror films, as well as the singular touches that distinguished one country’s cinema from the other. The same thing applies in other areas. In the 1960-70s, anyone who couldn’t immediately tell the difference between an Italian sports car and those produced in Germany, the UK and the U.S. simply wasn’t paying attention. From RaroVideo, “The Night of the Devils” (“La notte dei diavoli”) is an example of how bright colors, vulnerable female beauties, nudity, male psychosis, strange music and extreme violence combined to tell stories that didn’t have to make a lot of sense to be fun to watch. Directed by Giorgio Ferroni (“Mill of the Stone Women”), “The Night of the Devils” is the second of three movies that have been adapted from the 1839 Tolstoy novella “The Family of the Vourdalak.” The first came as part of Mario Bava’s horror trilogy, “Black Sabbath,” while the third was made in Russia as “The Vampire Family.” Here, Gianni Garko plays an anonymous man, who’s admitted to a psychiatric institution after experiencing something so traumatic that it rendered him mute, with fractured memories and wandering aimlessly through a forest. It isn’t until a mysterious woman passes through security and enters his room that he begins to speak and, then, only with the ravings of a lunatic. Everything traces to a backwoods family, whose patriarch had volunteered to participate in a manhunt, only to return 10 days later as a vampire. It isn’t the easiest movie to follow, but few giallos are … especially those whose dream sequences and flashbacks appear to have been created by someone who’s experienced a bad acid trip. The DVD comes with an interview with composer Giorgio Gaslini and introduction by Chris Alexander, of Fangoria magazine. – Gary Dretzka

Hideout in the Sun 2-DVD Collector’s Edition
Escape From Women’s Prison
Slice
Women Ordered to Love
Rudyard Kipling’s Mark of the Beast
Five Senses of Eros
And while we’re on the subject of exploitation and sexploitation, here’s a sampling of the monthly bounty of outrageous titles from MVD Visuals.

In the late 1950s and early 1960s, some adventurous filmmakers got around the ban on nudity in movies by setting them in nudist and “naturist” communities and resorts. It allowed them to be promoted as educational material, under the same guidelines that permitted National Geographic to be displayed in high school libraries, regardless of the Third World breasts on display. Nudist camps were sufficiently mysterious and uncommon to be considered worthy of investigation. Of course, once the MPAA introduced the ratings system and allowed the studios and distributors to add nudity to their mix, the nudism and nudie-cutie subgenres were toast. Doris Wishman, whose career spanned 42 years, first made her mark with the 1959 camp classic, “Hideout in the Sun.” To stay within existing laws, it combined a documentary narrative with a goofy crime story. Two brothers rob a Florida bank and, while attempting to elude police, carjack the convertible of a pretty redhead. The goons demand she offer them shelter in the resort at which she’s employed. Turns out, it’s a nudist colony, a fact that delights one brother and repels the other. To avoid questions, the woman must make an appearance, at least, on the grounds. The younger brother agrees to strip down and accompany her, so she can’t spill the beans. It allows Wishman the opportunity to “document” the naturist experience and meet some of the participants, not all of whom are in it for the health benefits. Cooling his heels inside the woman’s room is the older brother, who, after blowing their escape by sea, decides to risk a police chase. It leads him to a serpentarium, where he breaks his ankle while hopping into an enclosure and is bitten by a cobra. Meanwhile, back at the resort, the sun lovers and their families – no kidding – are letting the sun’s rays make them healthy and the younger crook has fallen in love with his hostage and the naturist way of life. Among the many curiosities in “Hideout in the Sun” is the nimble way the actors and models are able to hide their pubis areas whenever the camera is pointed their way. The DVD benefits from a colorful, hi-definition transfer from its original 1.33:1 aspect ratio and in a 16×9 anamorphic version. The bonus features include commentary by Wishman biographer Michael J. Bowen; vintage interviews with Wishman and exploitation filmmaker David Friedman; the newsreel, “The Year Was 1960”; the short, “Postcards From a Nudist Camp”; a full-color booklet with notes and an interview with Wishman; and some wonderfully raunchy trailers from the period.

Women-in-prison fetishists might be disappointed to learn that “Escape From Women’s Prison” (a.k.a., “Jailbirds”) doesn’t actually take place in a prison, but, as the title suggests, outside of one. Otherwise, all the elements of a classic sexploitation flick are in place. Released in 1978, and looking every minute of its age, Giovanni Brusadori’s film describes what happens when four convicted female errorists escape from prison and hijack a bus carrying a team of women tennis players. (Maybe you can see where this is going.) They direct the driver to the posh home of the judge who sentenced them. Once there, the escapees attempt to convince the hostages of the joy of lesbian sex, whether they want to learn or not. The male bus driver, too, will be made to perform. Their humiliation of the judge causes him to piss his paints, as well. Even as the police are surrounding the house, the escapees and tennis players continue the romp. There isn’t much more to the movie than that, but, for some viewers, the forcible seductions and ample displays of nudity will suffice.

There are times when the slasher-thriller “Slice” reminded me of what a grindhouse adaptation of a Thomas Harris novel, featuring Hannibal Lecter, might look like if it were made in Thailand. A killer who was emotionally and physically abused as a child avenges the crimes as an adult by butchering sex tourists who prey on underage boys in Bangkok. It’s very nasty stuff, but, in addition to being repellent, the victims are wealthy enough to avoid prosecution. Nevertheless, a corrupt cop who looks as if he’s channeling Jim Jarmusch is intent on catching the serial killer, whose ability to evade arrest offends his bosses. The only person he trusts to help in the search is a convicted assassin, who, while behind bars, does favors for him. Conveniently, the hitman has been haunted by blurred memories of a red-cloaked specter, which fits the m.o. of the serial killer. The investigation inevitably leads backs to the village where the two killers were raised and traumatized. “Slice” is a bit on the messy side, but fans of outrageous crime stories should quite a bit to like here.

The story behind the movie now known as “Women Ordered to Love” is more interesting than anything in the film itself, despite its undeserved reputation as being the godfather of the Nazisploitation sub-genre. Any similarities between “Women Ordered to Love” (previously titled “Lebensborn E.V.”) and “Ilsa: She Wolf of the SS” are coincidental, at best. Regardless of the cover art, which carries the tagline “Frauleins Forced Into Nazi Breeding” and shows a semi-naked blonde, partially covered by a Nazi flag, cowering before a soldier in high leather boots. The truth is quite a bit less scandalous. Yes, Heinrich Himmler instituted the program in 1935 to promote the growth of the Aryan population by providing women who met certain racial and genetic criteria — as well as the wives of SS members — with excellent health care and financial assistance. As an alternative to having abortions, women who agreed to turn their infant over to an SS-sanctioned orphanage were provided with anonymity and health care. It was alleged but not proven in post-war courts that Lebensborn also promoted the kidnapping of children in occupied countries and their adoption by SS families. The facilities were not fronts for brothels or forced couplings between proper Aryan soldiers and caged women. (This certainly occurred, but not under the auspices of Lebensborn.) The title “Woman Ordered to Love” was substituted for “Lebensborn” a dozen years after its debut, when it was re-released to piggyback off the success of “Ilsa” and other Naziploitation flicks. Its less-than-titillating approach to the subject must have come as a great disappointment to fetishists expecting whips, leather, jackboots and garter belts. Instead, they got a weird romantic drama set at a Lebensborn facility during the latter part of the war. As such, it’s far more interesting as a curiosity piece than an example of vintage sexploitation.

Rudyard Kipling may not be known as a writer of horror stories, but Jonathan Gorman and Thomas Edward Seymour’s adaptation of his short story, “The Mark of the Beast,” suggests he would have been very good at it. Even though the setting had to be changed from the jungles of colonial India to the forests of modern Connecticut, the filmmakers were able to remain reasonably faithful to the source material. Instead of desecrating a shrine where lepers pray to the Monkey God, an inconsiderate tourist violates a shrine guarded by a New England Yankee version of the Silver Leper Priest. The pathetic creature bites the doofus and curses him. It turns him into a monster that, then, preys on his fellow campers. To ward off his evil intentions, they turn to torture and religion. Even though it was made in a hurry and on a meager budget, “Mark of the Beast” works pretty well as a horror thriller. The special makeup effects are credible and the cast, led by the estimable Debbie Rochon, gives it their all. It arrives with a making-of featurette.

Sometimes, anthology movies signal a coming of age on the part of national cinemas, genre directors or themes. At their best, the individual episodes compare favorably to short stories or novellas by master novelists. Too frequently, though, the participants treat the assignment as if it were a group project in summer school, an opportunity to recycle half-baked ideas and kill time between features. Audiences have never particularly warmed to the concept, except, perhaps, in anthology series on cable TV that have specific guidelines – time, nudity, violence – and a week between each episode. “Five Senses of Eros” is interesting not so much for its eroticism, but because it’s of a part with the flowering of Korean cinema. Fifteen years ago, there wouldn’t have been sufficient reason for such an endeavor. Sense then, however, the Koran cinema has become one of the most exciting in the world, not only for its many fine horror pictures, but also dramas, rom-coms and police procedurals. The chapters the comprise “Five Senses of Eros” were directed by Hyuk Byun (“Scarlett Letter”), Yu Yong-sik (“The Anarchists”), Min Kyu-dong (“Memento Mori”), Oh Ki-hwan (“Voices”) and Hur Jin-ho (“Happiness”). Each of their stories has some kind of twist to it, naturally, but the idea here is to surround it with a distinct erotic aura. The thing for exploitation fans to know before going into the movie, however, is that the sexuality is relatively tame, and the little violence there is serves the story. Each is extremely well made and the feelings between the key characters are palpable. Not all of the stories work, but that’s par for the course in the anthology game. – Gary Dretzka

Asylum (AKA — I Want to be A Gangster)
The Definitive Document of the Dead
Schoolgirl Report, Volume 9: Mature Before Graduation
No slouch in the area of grindhouse and sexploitation is Synapse Films, which routinely finds and distributes DVDs of interest to the most curious of viewers.

For his debut as a writer/director, Olivier Chateau has taken on a segmented crime story that begins in Tarantino country and demonstrates the limits of hubris among thieves before evolving into solitary battle for survival in the woods. If that description makes “Asylum (AKA – I Want to Be a Gangster)” sound as if it’s too large a challenge for a newcomer, I’m here to assure you that Chateau found clever new ways to keep the story simple, swift and entertaining. Jack (Julien Courbey) is a small-time French crook who’s determined to be taken seriously by local Mafia leaders. As the movie opens, Jack and a buddy are running a scam involving a non-lethal game of Russian roulette, during which the participants risk only their kneecaps in return for a monetary reward. Unfortunately for the two conmen, the rube is a drug courier for the mob and the stake he put up wasn’t his to risk. They feel pretty good about themselves until the courier’s boss shows up, demanding they turn over the drugs he insists they now possess. In denying the accusation, Jack’s partner tells the thug a story whose outline clearly was borrowed from “True Romance,” Tony Scott’s underappreciated collaboration with Quentin Tarantino. It’s funny, but not to the guy holding the gun. Jack wisely points the mobsters in the direction of the drug cache and it buys him time to ingratiate himself with the supreme boss. His ability to escape death once again, in what amounts to a turkey shoot, convinces Le Grand Patron to give him another reprieve. Operating under the distinct misapprehension that he’s immortal, Jack attempts to play one boss off against another in botched hit. Still alive to tell the tale, he disobeys orders of his new patron by agreeing to teach the guy’s hapless nephew how to rob a bank.

This time, however, things don’t work out so well for Jack. Although he isn’t summarily executed, he’s taken deep into a forest and chained like a dog to a tree. Seemingly out of reach of anything that could make his ordeal any less terrifying and uncomfortable, Jack not only must contend with the elements, but also human and canine intruders. Chateau paces Jack’s ordeal patiently enough to make us believe that almost two weeks pass without any real chance of escape. In the meantime, he’s also managed to convince us that deep within the prisoner’s black heart lies something worth our sympathy. The final confrontations offer several narrative options, but why spoil the fun by revealing them? Julien Courbey is extremely convincing as the delusional wannabe, Jack. Chateau’s decision to shoot “Asylum” in standard definition, with a de-saturated sepia palette and intentionally degraded grainy picture quality, also adds to its austere tone and populist appeal. Reportedly made for $4,000, “Asylum” was released in France in 2008, before disappearing from radar screens. In DVD, however, it’s easily recommendable to fans of offbeat crime dramas and DIY genre fare. The feature is accompanied by a making-of featurette and the very different short film, “Homer,” which stars a pet rabbit and a hamster.

For better or worse, George A. Romero is the filmmaker who deserves most of the credit for resurrecting the zombie movie as a staple of the horror genre. Even though his 1968 masterpiece, “Night of the Living Dead,” flew in the face of everything mainstream distributors believed about audience habits, it became a drive-in and cult sensation. Among other things, it demonstrated that audiences could still be drawn to black-and-white movies and the undead could be awakened by means other than voodoo chants. It also gave aspiring filmmakers hope that their ideas could be shot on a miniscule budget and in off-the-beaten-path locations as Pittsburgh. Ten years later, Romero reprised the predatory-undead theme – the original didn’t mention zombies by name – in “Dawn of the Dead,” which, set in a shopping mall, added commentary about consumerism run amok. It, too, was a huge hit. Roy Frumkes, writer/director of the behind-the-scenes documentary “Document of the Dead,” perhaps is best known for playing the first zombie hit in the face with a pie in that movie. Released originally in 1985, “Document of the Dead” was both informative and entertaining. Twenty-five years later, the public’s undying love of zombie-themed entertainment prompted Frumkes to revisit and update Romero’s story in “The Definitive Document of the Dead,” adding much fresh material and on-set footage from subsequent Romero productions, “Two Evil Eyes,” “Land of the Dead,” “Diary of the Dead” and “Survival of the Dead,” as well as example of parodies and other movies that owe their existence to “Night of the Living Dead.” The 1985 documentary has been re-mixed and re-edited to accommodate the new material, which includes Frumkes’ commentary. It should be considered essential viewing for serious fans of the horror genre.

Just as mid-century producers of nudist and naturist films were given a bit of a pass by American censors, if they included material deemed “educational” or instructional, the first European imports that crossed the border into pornography played fast and loose with the facts. Sweden’s “I Am Curious: Yellow” made headlines upon its release here for some graphic sexuality, but, in fact, the inclusion of so much socio-political commentary turned off most of the audience members. By 1970, it wasn’t unusual to find nudity in Hollywood dramas and the artistically erotic films/travelogues of Radley Metzger. What the German series, “Schoolgirl Report,” brought to the table combined the faux documentary with simulated sex and full-frontal nudity … lots of it. Moreover, viewers were encouraged to suspend their disbelief long enough to accept the female characters as being 18, or so. Each new chapter in the series purported to inform parents of their daughters’ behavior at boarding schools – or that of their peers — according to a best-selling book by German psychologist Günther Hunold. If anything, though, “Schoolgirl Report” was to Hunold’s research what Woody Allen’s “Everything You Wanted to Know About Sex ** But Were Afraid to Ask” was to David Reuben’s best-seller. In the ninth chapter, “Mature Before Graduation,” the students are discovering the pitfalls of committing themselves to marriage at an early age, even when encouraged by their parents to substitute it for living together. As is the case in most of the movies, the teenagers pay a price for their unbridled sexuality. – Gary Dretzka

Pixar Short Films Collection 2: Blu-ray
Among the Academy Award categories that have emerged from the shadows in the digital age are the ones representing the best short animated, live action and documentary films. The desire to see the nominated titles has grown to the point where fans of short titles have successfully lobbied for mini-festivals to be held before the night of the Oscar ceremony, in addition to those designed to be shown weeks later and made available on DVD. For proprietary reasons of their own, executives at Pixar/Disney have held their nominees back from the ancillary marketplace. They show up later in the bonus packages of DVD and Blu-ray releases and stand-alone compilations, such as “Pixar Short Films Collection 2.” The 12 shorts included in it were released, in one platform or another, between 2007 and 2012. “La Luna,” “Presto” and “Day & Night” were among the award nominees, while the others were inspired by such animated features as “WALL*E,” “Up,” “Ratatouille,” “Toy Story” and “Cars.” Also interesting are the seven films by directors John Lasseter, Andrew Stanton and Pete Docter while they were students. Most of the shorts are accompanied by commentaries, as well. – Gary Dretzka

They Call It Myanmar: Lifting the Curtain
Last Call at the Oasis
Half the Sky: Turning Oppression Into Opportunity for Women Worldwide
Booker’s Place: A Mississippi Story
Objectified
The timing of President Obama’s trip to Myanmar — more commonly known as Burma – neatly coincides with the release of Robert H. Lieberman’s remarkable documentary, “They Call It Myanmar: Lifting the Curtain.” The clandestinely shot film describes conditions in a country that until very recently was almost as isolated as North Korea and has been ruled with an iron fist by a corrupt military dictatorship. Even a year ago, such a diplomatic mission would have been unthinkable. After activist Aung San Suu Kyi was released from house arrest and elected to the lower house of the parliament, leaders of the outside world cautiously began to make overtures to the leaders, who, only a few years ago, brutally quashed pro-democracy protests by monks and students, while also ignoring the needs of victims of a devastating hurricane. Lieberman, a respected American educator and filmmaker, was invited to Burma to upgrade media-studies programs in Burma, but took the opportunity to surreptitiously record the thoughts of citizens on a number of issues, many unrelated to politics. In addition to shooting street scenes, pagodas and gold-covered Buddhist statuary, Lieberman documented examples of government neglect and decaying infrastructure. What shines through most vividly, however, is the genuine warmth of the Burmese people and their understated desire to rejoin the world community. Before the military dictatorship took hold in 1962, the newly independent Burma was one of the most prosperous and highly educated in the region. That ended when the junta decided to enforce a ban on foreign influences and line their own pockets with the money made from the nation’s widely sought resources. “They Call It Myanmar” is alternately enchanting and horrifying. If he hasn’t already seen the documentary, I hope President Obama takes the opportunity of a long plane trip to watch it. If nothing else, it should serve as a reminder to count his fingers after shaking hands with the military leaders he meets.

As vital as such red-flag documentaries are, there’s no escaping the fact that most of them leave viewers with a palpable sense of hopelessness and depression. “Last Call at the Oasis” is just such a movie. No matter how gloomy its message about the coming crisis in access to potable water may be, however, it’s important that people see Jessica Yu’s film. It’s probably more crucial for politicians and world leaders to screen it, but, considering how little attention was paid to global warming in the presidential campaign, it isn’t likely they will. The same companies responsible for polluting, diverting and wasting the world’s supply pay lobbyists handsomely to convince lawmakers to give them a pass. When Dick Cheney was vice president, he took time away from promoting the war in oil-rich Iraq to find a way to exempt his former employer, Halliburton, from enforcement of clean-water laws. It’s far easier, too, to talk the talk about protecting the environment than to finance EPA efforts to do just that. “Last Call at the Oasis” casts a wide net in describing the state of clean water. In addition to the obvious industrial abuses, Yu points to the damage done by poor supervision of feed lots and the potential for droughts in areas now rich in precipitation. We visit Las Vegas, of course, where magnificent fountains thrill the tourists, while also depleting Lake Mead. People who think they’re buying their way to good health by drinking bottled water might be shocked to learn that they’re actually consuming another city’s tap water and the multi-billion-dollar industry is largely unregulated. It also drains the ground water of communities willing to sell out their own interests. It’s a deliberately alarming documentary and some of the research seems weighted to promote the cause being forwarded, but, even if a tenth of what’s prophesized comes true, we’re basically screwed. Among the familiar faces here are attorney Erin Brockovich, who’s still fighting the good fight, and Jack Black, who agreed to promote water bottled after being recycled. The DVD adds “Jack Black: Save the World from Thirst,” “Meet Mr. Toilet,” an extended interview with Brockovich; an animated video on the loss of ground water; and the featurette, “Arid Lands.”

Half the Sky: Turning Oppression Into Opportunity for Women” was inspired by the book written by New York Times reporters Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn. It deals with such important issues as the epidemic of rape in Africa and the sale and abduction of young girls into prostitution in Southeast Asia. There are laws against such offensives, of course, but they’re enforced with far less intensity than in western nations. It’s easier for an offender to buy his way out of jail and subsequent prosecution than to be punished. Along the way, Kristof and WuDunn do come across agencies and social workers who’ve organized programs to educate the public, work with victims and change attitudes among offenders. The efforts are miniscule in comparison to public apathy, the poverty that drives a father to sell his daughter and a prejudice against raising girls in such countries as China and India. “Half the Sky” was the central element in an international transmedia project that also involved a Facebook-hosted social-action game, mobile activities, two websites, educational video modules with companion text, a social-media campaign, more than 30 partner organizations and an impact assessment plan. Prominently acknowledged on the DVD cover are the names of celebrity contributors America Ferrera, Diane Lane, Eva Mendes, Meg Ryan, Gabrielle Union and Olivia Wilde. The marketing move is explained by George Clooney ahead of the film presentation. As is obvious to anyone who’s tried to raise awareness of a problem or sought donations to support research, unless a celebrity is attached it’s almost impossible to get media coverage. The three-hour-plus media experience adds extended and deleted scenes and interviews; public-service announcements; campaign videos; bonus content for Facebook game; and action-oriented activities.

Way back in the 1960s, when network news divisions occasionally broadcast documentaries and special reports, audiences in northern and western states were made aware of Apartheid American-style in prime-time hours. At the time, all of the broadcast networks competed for viewers drawn to social and political issues, here and around the world. Today, if a message can’t be delivered in three minutes, it’s left for the documentarians at PBS. In 1965, Frank De Felitta traveled through the Mississippi Delta updating the progress of the civil-rights movement and giving people on both sides of the racial divide an opportunity to tell their stories. Being an outsider, De Felitta was seen as an agitator and largely ignored by white residents. Blacks were only a bit more open with their thoughts, displaying their contempt mostly through facial gestures and telling posture. When a landowner escorted De Felitta through sharecropper homes on his property the inhabitants could barely contain their disdain for the man and his lies, mostly responding, “Yes, sir … that’s right sir,” whenever asked if he was a good provider. His attempts to meet with KKK members were met with implied threats. Of all the people interviewed, store owner and part-time waiter in a whites-only supper club Booker Wright was, by fair, that most charismatic and candid. He volunteered in a completely matter-of-fact way how he was treated by diners and how he smiled through the abuse simply for the opportunity to support his family. When the documentary ran, Wright not only was fired from his job but also beaten to within an inch of his life. In a seemingly unrelated incident, he was shot to death by a belligerent black costumer he’d thrown out of his place hours earlier. One theory suggests that the notorious bully was put up for the attack by whites who still were peeved at Wright and was guaranteed a not-guilty decision or brief prison stay, neither of which he got. Years later, De Felitta’s son, Raymond, embarked on a journey to find the descendants of the people interviewed in the show and see if things had changed markedly in the ensuing half-century. Well, yes and no. The reflections in “Booker’s Place: A Mississippi Story” range from funny to revelatory to heart-breaking, especially on the part of Wright’s kinfolk and contemporaries. Frank De Felitta continues to indict himself for not editing out the material that offended Wright’s employer and his customers, and might have got him killed. As his son and Wright’s granddaughter reminds, however, he said those things knowing the consequences, but refusing to remain silent.

Although probably a bit too inside-baseball to suit general audiences, “Objectified” explores how designers of mostly everyday stuff relate to their creations and what it says about them, recognizing and exploiting trends and free-market capitalism. It also unravels some of the mystery behind the various shapes, colors and sizes of the things we buy and what it says about us. We’re introduced to people who design staplers and carrot scrapers, alongside those who create chairs and computer shells. Director Gary Hustwit (“Helvetica”) knows that most of us will buy something that simply looks nicer than the object next to it and gives us a reason to pay more attention to our choices in the future. His search took him to design studios around the world and artists who tackle assignments ranging from minute to very, very large. The gorilla in the room is there to remind viewers that the shelf life of any cleverly designed product could be five years or five minutes, depending on what magazine pictorials are pimping this week. When its time has come and gone, all of these wonderful products eventually end up in landfills or remainder bins. It’s a humbling experience. – Gary Dretzka

Stephen Sondheim’s ‘Company’: Blu-ray
Last month saw the release on DVD and Blu-ray of the PBS documentary series, “Broadway: The American Musical.” “Stephen Sondheim’s ‘Company’” was showcased as one of the very few musicals that dealt with adult themes and relationships, instead of, say, dancing cowboys and cute orphans. Sondheim has said that he intended for “Company” to reverse the usual pattern, by which upper-middle-class New Yorkers escaped their upper-middle-class problems through Broadway musicals: “Here we are, with ‘Company,’ talking about how we’re going to bring it right back in their faces.” What was daring in 1970, though, serves more as a vehicle for laughs and only slighted dated insight in 2012. The story focuses on Bobby, a 35-year-old bachelor whose inability to sustain a long-term relationship is of great concern to five different couples in his orbit. Their relationships are no great shakes, so Bobby (Neil Patrick Harris) takes much of their advice with a grain of sand. Individually, the characters have feelings for Bobby that are different from those voiced when coupled. The vignettes all come with songs attached to them, but, as was usually the case on Broadway, the music didn’t drive the narrative. The songs are used more as commentary. “Company” was nominated for an astonishing 14 Tony awards, winning six. Besides Harris, this highly entertaining and visually intimate revival stars Stephen Colbert, Craig Bierko, Jon Cryer, Katie Finneran, Christina Hendricks, Martha Plimpton, Patti Lapone, Aaron Lazar, Jill Paice, Anika Noni Rose, Jennifer Laura Thompson, Jim Walton, and Chryssie Whitehead. They are backed by a 35-piece orchestra. – Gary Dretzka

Syfy: Snowmageddon
A&E: Duck Dynasty: Season One
A&E: Shipping Wars: Season One
A&E: Storage Wars: Texas: Season One
Sometimes it’s fun to watch Syfy original movies simply to see how far some filmmakers stretch the money allotted for special visual effects. There can’t be very much left here after the cost of the earthquake simulator and lava machine –staples of the natural-disaster category — are factored into what must have been an extremely tight budget. Once “Snowmageddon” was chosen as the title, of course, most of the guess work was eliminated. Just for the record, though, Sheldon Wilson’s thriller is set on Christmas Eve in an Alaskan town called Normal. It’s so quaint that Heidi and her grandfather may have passed through it on their way to Switzerland. Soon after a snow globe arrives at the home of the local sheriff (David Cubitt) and his helicopter-jockey wife (Laura Harris), mysterious things beginning happening in the town square and mountains surrounding the village. First, an earthquake causes a giant fissure on Main Street. Then, a long-dormant clock, on a tower overlooking the shops, suddenly comes back to life. The only person who notices that these events are replicated in the miniature town encased in the snow globe is the sheriff’s young son, but no one takes kids seriously until the last reel of these movies. Instead, the men act as if Bigfoot is leading a flotilla of alien spacecraft to Sarah Palin’s house and Normal is the final line of defense. The best thing about “Snowmageddon” is the appearance of killer clouds, which lob cluster bombs containing razor-sharp particles at Normal. This plague is followed by volcanic explosions on the mountain and pointed logs jutting through the earth’s surface. None of it looks particularly convincing, but you have to give the effects wizards credit for thinking outside the box.

Of the three new compilations of A&E series – “Duck Dynasty,” “Shipping Wars,” “Storage Wars: Texas” – I am hard-pressed to determine which one is of the least social value. The least stupid show, if only because of its setting, is “Duck Dynasty.” It follows the day-to-day activities of the Robertson family, whose menfolk look as if they just won a ZZ Top look-alike contest, from the floor of their duck call and decoy warehouse, to the swamps and forests of Louisiana, where they hunt for their meals. They may be millionaires, but, really, who cares? Anyone who dons cammo gear and paints their face to sneak up on squirrels should see a psychiatrist. The women and kids look as if they’re just along for the ride. “Duck Dynasty” is only for those reality buffs who thought the Osbournes got a bad rap.

Not to be outdone in the area of lowbrow pursuits, “Shipping Wars” chronicles the professional lives of a group of men and women who make their livings hauling objects that other truckers consider to be too fragile, weird or unwieldy to be profitable. Before they can fire up their rigs, however, the motley crew of competitors must bid on each job. The process is comparable to playing poker, in that they identify “tells” in each other’s strategy and use bluffs to put an opponent in untenable position. The veterans especially enjoy tricking the rookies into low-balling a bid, just to watch them lose money. The drama of securing the loads and racing the clock to a destination is almost unbearable … not. After two episodes, I gave up on the show.

By comparison to the regular participants in “Storage Wars: Texas,” though, the “Shipping Wars” crew is a breath of fresh air. The mopes who bid on abandoned goods in storage have all the charisma of an aquarium full of plastic fish. The Lone Star spinoff from A&E’s hit reality show, “Storage Wars,” begs the question as to what part of Arts & Entertainment the channel’s shows represent. Picking through someone else’s discarded property can be fun, but only if you’re the one doing the picking. Otherwise, the novelty wears off pretty quickly. – Gary Dretzka

Lukewarm
Any filmmaker who lacks the imagination to come up with a better title than “Lukewarm” pretty much deserves what he’s going to get from the critics. Even though it refers to a point made by an Evangelical preacher during a sermon – which, itself, was pretty tepid, as these things go – titles generally are created with box-office in mind. A distributor, exhibitor or video-store owner shouldn’t have to rely on a patron’s knowledge of Revelation 3:16 to make money off a movie. As it turns out, however, I probably couldn’t think of a better word to describe my response to “Lukewarm” than lukewarm. I understand, of course, that the people who make such Christian-based, family-friendly fare aren’t particularly interested in what reviewers have to say about their products. They pander, er, cater to a certain audience demographic and, well, why bother? I would suggest, however, that movies intended to deliver a Christian message should try, at least, to preach to someone other than members of the choir. Early in “Lukewarm,” a happy and devout little boy, Luke (Jeremy Jones), is shaken to his core by the sudden disappearance of his father (John Schneider) in his life. Fast forward to adulthood and Luke is still confused about what hit him and why. He works as a bartender, where he’s surrounded by temptations and reasons not to get enough sleep to pay attention at Sunday services. Even so, his girlfriend Jessie (Nicole Gale Anderson) remains devoted to him and believes there’s still time for him to get right with Jesus. First, however, she must convince him to sanctify their relationship by agreeing to be married. Every time Luke gets close to a commitment, though, his boss at work talks him into backsliding. We’ll later learn that his boss still has the hots for Jessie and would love for her to wash Luke out of her hair. It isn’t that Luke blames God for his situation or rejects his pastor’s teaching, nor does he drown himself in self-pity. His lukewarm nature simply won’t allow him to keep from messing up by sinning.

Unwisely, I think, director Thomas Makowski and writers Christopher James Miller and Sean Stearley decided not to let this storyline reach its inevitable destination on its own steam. Instead, they invent a scenario in which the movie’s only black actor (Bill Cobbs) is driven to martyrdom by archetypal redneck thugs who don’t appreciate his character’s efforts to read the bible to them. Thomas is a harmless old coot whose only crime was knocking on the wrong door too many times and trying to save the debauched souls from damnation. It’s annoying, perhaps, but hardly a capital offense. Luke enjoyed discussing scripture with Thomas, but was helpless against the racist heathens. It is at this point that he turns to the pastor to give prayer a chance of saving his friends. There’s more, but it’s easy to guess how the story unfolds in the final scenes. There’s never a moment in “Lukewarm” when we’re in doubt about Luke’s destiny or not in the presence of characters constructed out of cardboard. The audience for movies like this deserves a bit more respect than is shown to them here. – Gary Dretzka

The DVD Wrapup: Sister’s Sister, Even the Rain, Kerouac, [REC]3, Arthur Christmas … More

Wednesday, November 7th, 2012

 
Your Sister’s Sister: Blu-ray
Just when it seemed as if Lynn Shelton’s “Your Sister’s Sister” was going to turn into a really long version of a dopey Gen Y sitcom, it switched into a higher gear and became something far more unexpected, sophisticated and interesting. Mark Duplass’ emotionally tortured slacker, Jack, dominates the first half-hour of the movie, even though he’s the least compelling character in the story. The rest of it belongs to the sisters, Iris and Hannah (Emily Blunt, Rosemarie DeWitt), in whose Puget Sound vacation home Jack takes refuge after an embarrassing night with friends. By acting out his frustrations over the death of his brother, who’s being memorialized a year after his death, he comes off as a total dick. When Iris, Tom’s ex-girlfriend, invites Jack to enjoy the scenery and savor the solitude of the “cabin,” it isn’t clear how close they are as friends or potential lovers. As survivors, neither of them is handling the loss very well. Moreover, both are too numbed by their pain to commit to anything beyond being best buddies … not yet, anyway.

Once Jack arrives at the cabin after a long bike ride, however, things lighten up quite a bit. Assuming that he would be left alone with his thoughts, he’s surprised to spy Iris’ sister Hannah through a window, standing in the kitchen in a T-shirt, panties and slippers. After a meet-cute encounter, Hannah explains that she’s just broken up with her longtime lover and was at loose ends, herself. Jack already knows that Hannah is a lesbian, so the inevitable sexual tension doesn’t kick in until hours later, when both are shit-faced on whisky. If the sitcom ended in Hannah’s bed – to be continued next week, as they say – “Your Sister’s Sister” could have been written off as a mere reflection of the stereotypical male fantasy of seducing a lesbian and rescuing her from a life without his penis. (Although five minutes would be triumph enough for most guys.) Iris makes an unexpected appearance the next morning, adding confusion and shame to the pain of Hannah and Jack’s hangover. There’s no way to delve any deeper into the story without revealing what makes the movie finally so special. It’s enough to say that Jack’s role is temporarily marginalized, in order to explore the new dynamic affecting the sisters. Duplass has played Gen Y and slacker characters so often that he could have phoned in his performance and it would still be more than satisfactory. Ditto, Blunt, who’s entirely credible and appealing. What’s truly terrific, though, is DeWitt’s remarkably nuanced performance in a role that easily could have become as clichéd as any, well, sitcom character. Even after the liaison with Jack, we know that Hannah isn’t going to suddenly go all hetero or bi on us. Shelton’s narrative will just have to proceed on its own steam, without that crutch supporting it. “Your Sister’s Sister” was shot in hi-def, so the Blu-ray – thanks to some especially scenic detours — is quite pleasant to watch. It adds commentary with Shelton and Duplass. – Gary Dretzka

Sunset Boulevard: Blu-ray
It’s interesting that Blu-ray editions of “Sunset Boulevard” and “What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?” have been released within weeks of each other. Both, of course, describe once-famous women who, long ago, bought into the Hollywood dream and have been sustained by its lingering glow ever since. Indeed, I wonder if the highly entertaining Bette Davis and Joan Crawford psycho-drama could have been made if it weren’t for Gloria Swanson’s heroic performance in the Billy Wilder classic, a dozen years earlier. If the two films had only been about the sad fates of three delusional actresses, they probably wouldn’t have made as big an impression on audiences upon their release and, again, 50 and 60 years later, on DVD. “Sunset Boulevard” is as much a noir romance and dissection of the Hollywood dream factory as it is about a sad old actress, Norma Desmond, still waiting for her final curtain call. There’s a murder at the heart of the story, but we’re made aware of that fact in its first scene. Desmond, who chronologically is only a couple of decades past her prime, lives elegantly in a Sunset Boulevard mansion with her onetime director/husband (Erich von Stroheim)  – now her devoted chauffeur and a butler– and a recently deceased monkey. Financially, she lacks for nothing except the spotlight. When down-on-his-luck screenwriter Joe Gillis (William Holden) arrives at her doorstep, she mistakes him for the undertaker, who, by now, is used to catering to the bizarre whims of Hollywood’s elite. At first, Gillis wants nothing to do with this Titanic-sized iceberg, of which he’s only seen the tip. Desperate for money, though, he allows himself to be cast as a stand-in for Desmond’s monkey. Besides serving as her boytoy, Gillis agrees to look at a screenplay she’s written and offer advice on how movies have changed since the silent era, not that she’d listen.

There’s no reason to rehash the story here or offer commentary on a film long considered to be among the very best ever made. Anyone who professes to love movies and hasn’t already seen “Sunset Boulevard,” really must rush out to get the Blu-ray edition. Those who’ve only watched it once or twice owe it to themselves to take advantage of the digital platform, which allows for freeze-frame and slow-forward analysis, is complemented by learned commentary and offers copious background material. That the new hi-def disc arrives in its original 1.78:1 aspect ratio and the audio presentation is Dolby TrueHD Mono will greatly please buffs, who expect nothing less than a pristine presentation, and surprise those who last watched a corrupted version of “Sunset Boulevard” on an ancient analog television.

Most of the supplementary material has been borrowed from earlier “Centennial Collection” and “Collectors’ Edition” DVD iterations and, of necessity, sent out again in 480p. It hardly matters. Commentary is provided by Ed Sikov, author of “On ‘Sunset Boulevard’: The Life and Times of Billy Wilder,” who covers every aspect of the production. Sikov returns in the featurettes “Sunset Boulevard: The Beginning,” “‘Sunset Boulevard’ Becomes a Classic,” “Stories of ‘Sunset Boulevard’” and “Sunset Boulevard: A Look Back,” alongside critics and actors. The other featurettes include “The Noir Side of ‘Sunset Boulevard,” in which author and former LAPD Sergeant Joseph Wambaugh discusses the movie and his reactions to its noir-inspired elements; “Two Sides of Ms. Swanson,” with granddaughter Brooke Anderson and actress Linda Harrison”; “Mad About the Boy: A Portrait of William Holden,” which producer A.C. Lyles, actresses Stefanie Powers and Nancy Olson, and Wambaugh; “Recording ‘Sunset Boulevard,” in which critic Andrew Sarris and soundtrack album producer Robert Townson discuss Franz Waxman’s score and his re-recording of it in 2002 for a commercial album release; “Morgue Prologue Script Pages,” reproductions of the “original” and “revised” scripted pages for the cut opening sequence; a deleted scene, “The Paramount Don’t Want Me Blues”; a Hollywood location map; a profile of costume designer Edith Head; a peek behind the gates of Paramount Studios and a look at its classic films of the 1950s; production and publicity galleries; and the theatrical trailer. – Gary Dretzka

Guys and Dolls: Blu-ray
When audiences poured out of Broadway’s 46th Street Theater, where “Guys and Dolls” logged 1,200 performances from 1950 to 1953, they stepped directly into the criminal demi-monde they had just seen mimicked on stage . The number of people whose pockets were picked by someone approximating Harry the Horse or Benny Southstreet remains unrecorded, but ticketholders almost certainly kept a tighter grip on their wallets, purses and watches. In 1955, audiences leaving theaters showing the Hollywood version of “Guys and Dolls” were far less likely to mistake the Cinemascope representation of the milieu with the real thing, even if the closest thing to a criminal element in their towns was the occasional shoplifter and Bingo cheat. Joseph Mankiewicz’s adaptation of Frank Loesser’s Tony Award-winning musical — based on the stories of Damon Runyon — imagined a midtown Manhattan whose color palette more closely resembled a box of crayons than the one in which grime and smoke competed with brightly lit marquees and neon signs for tonal dominance. Samuel Goldwyn’s version of “Guys and Dolls” was further distanced from the Broadway musical by the presence in lead roles of genuine movie stars Marlon Brando, Frank Sinatra and Jean Simmons. It’s been speculated that Marilyn Monroe would have stepped in for Vivian Blaine, as Adelaide, if Mankiewicz hadn’t already worked with the troublesome actress and vetoed the request. (Blaine and Stubby Kaye had both created their roles on Broadway and there was no good reason for them not to reprise them in the movie.) Michael Kidd’s exuberant choreography also made the transition. Loesser wrote three new songs for the movie — “Pet Me Poppa,” “A Woman in Love” and “Adelaide” – at the expense of “My Time of Day,” “I’ve Never Been in Love Before,” “More I Cannot Wish You,” “Marry the Man Today” and the wonderful “A Bushel and a Peck.” In addition to directing, Mankiewicz adapted Jo Swerling and Abe Burrows’ book with the intention of heightening the profiles of the characters, Sky Masterson (Brando) and Nathan Detroit (Sinatra).

When Brando was cast, questions naturally were raised about his ability to sing and act in way that supported Loesser’s music, not the studio’s bottom line. Simmons hadn’t sung on screen, either, but both of them did just fine. Brando’s rendition of “Luck Be a Lady,” a song that would become associated with Sinatra, is especially fun to watch today. Sinatra and Blaine are terrific, of course, but the real show-stopper is Kaye’s re-creation of Nicely Nicely’s big number, “Sit Down, You’re Rocking the Boat.” It comes near the end, after Masterson and Detroit successfully managed to wrangle the craps players into Sergeant Sarah Brown’s rescue mission for a midnight revival meeting. Their grand scam depended on getting the gang of Runyon-esque characters to put down their Racing Forms long enough to help Sergeant Sarah convince the Salvation Army general not to close the mission. If successful, Masterson might be able to win her affections for real and Adelaide could finally get Detroit to commit to marriage. The Blu-ray edition captures all of the colors brilliantly and the soundtrack is enhanced by the DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 upgrade. The Blu-ray edition arrives in digi-book format, with a 72-page scrapbook and photo gallery; a pair of making-of documentaries; a profile of independent producer Samuel Goldwyn; interviews with Kidd and members of the Goldwyn, Mankiewicz and Loesser families; and access to individual musical performances. – Gary Dretzka

Even the Rain
If all one read all day were the Hollywood trade papers and industry-obsessed bloggers, it would be easy to imagine that movie making is of greater importance to humanity than ready access to shelter, food and water. Even the debuts of demonstrably crappy movies, with B- and C-list stars, are greeted with klieg lights, red carpets, paparazzi and bleachers full of screaming fans. (Investors have to be given one reason, at least, to keep the river of money flowing.) Variations of the same ritual exist in most other countries, I suspect. “Even the Rain” describes a situation in which a team of Spanish filmmakers working in Bolivia is required to weigh the importance of completing a significant film project against the basic needs of indigenous peasants, some of whom have been cast as characters and extras in the movie. Gael Garcia Bernal and Luis Tosar play the idealistic director and pragmatic producer of a movie that casts Christopher Columbus’ accidental “discovery” of the Americas in a much different light than it has historically been accorded in textbooks. Instead of being a fortuitous accident, Columbus is shown to be a cog in a much larger machine, operated by imperialistic aristocrats, cold-blooded missionary priests and vicious soldiers. No matter the nobility of their intentions, though, the filmmakers still can’t resist the capitalistic imperative that demands they exploit the Native Americans on their payroll with absurdly low wages and dangerous working conditions. At the same time as the movie is being shot in Cochabamba and the forests around Villa Tunari, poor natives are rallying against a plan set forth by Spanish interests to require them to pay exponentially more for potable water than they’ve previously been able to afford. In Bolivia and most other countries in the Americas, Indians are treated with little more respect by those of European heritage than they were in the first waves of colonization. Finally, the reality of the explosive political situation demands that the filmmakers take stands that weren’t taught at film school.

Paul Laverty’s screenplay was inspired by the so-called Cochabamba Water War of 2000, during which the government’s decision to allow the privatization of the city’s water supply, including rain water, was reversed in the face of widespread riots. Director Iciar Bollain nimbly juxtaposes what’s happening in Bolivia’s third-largest city, with the production of the movie being shot in the forested highlands outside Cochabamba. The setting, which is extremely lush and beautiful, probably hasn’t changed much since Garci Ruiz de Orellana bought the land on which the city now sits from tribal chiefs for the 130 pesos. The indigenous actors are so adept at switching time periods that it’s sometime difficult to tell when exactly when the shooting stops and present-day reality kicks in. As the political situation intensifies, Bollain approximates how it actually might feel when unarmed peasants are surrounded by soldiers with itchy trigger fingers and no sympathy for their cause. It would have been interesting to learn more about “Even the Rain” but the DVD arrives without bonus features. – Gary Dretzka

What Happened to Kerouac?
In three years, Jack Kerouac will have been dead and gone as long as he was alive. And, yet, his books continue to sell and the myths surrounding his lifestyle and influence grow like weeds around an untended gravestone. After being shown at Cannes and opening in several other countries, Walter Salles and Jose Rivera’s long-awaited adaptation of “On the Road” finally will open in the United States on December 21, just in time for awards consideration, of course. In a very real sense, it’s been gestating ever since the book’s publication in 1957. So many writers, directors and producers have tried to synthesize Kerouac’s “spontaneous prose” on film, but failed, that “On the Road” was deemed unfilmable. Also in the works is Michael Polish’s adaptation of Kerouac’s 1962 “Big Sur,” a roman a clef many critics and admirers consider to be his most revealing and honest book. Through alter ego Jack Duluoz, the now famous author chronicles his in ability to deal with unexpected fame and the breakdown he experienced while laying low and attempting to dry out in a Bixby Canyon cabin owned by Lorenzo Monsanto (Lawrence Ferlinghetti). Duluoz hoped to escape the media attention and fan adoration engendered by the publication of his best-seller, which came seven years after he had written it and in a far different America than existed under John F. Kennedy. With more readers attracted to Sal and Dean’s long-extinguished bromance than any of his later, more preferred works, Kerouac was free to drink himself to death in near anonymity. Directed by Richard Lerner and Lewis MacAdams and released 1985, “What Happened to Kerouac?” fills many of the gaps in what most people know about the writer’s life in the dozen years between “On the Road” and his death.

It does so through reflective interviews with Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso, William S. Burroughs, Carolyn Cassady, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Michael McClure, Gary Snyder, Herbert Huncke, Fran Landesman, Edie Kerouac Parker, John Clellon Holmes, Diane Di Prima, Joyce Johnson, Father Armond “Spike” Morissette, biographer Ann Charters and his late daughter, Jan Kerouac. Such influential people as Neal Cassady, Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie appear in archived material. Also valuable are excerpts from a panel discussion in which Kerouac participated on William F. Buckley’s “Firing Line” and a reading on Steve Allen’s variety show. Kerouac’s voice is heard throughout, reading from his own novels and poetry, usually over boppish jazz solos. The point most of these people make is that Kerouac was a great writer, a wonderful friend and someone who sold lots of books but was never accepted by the New York literary establishment. He was a keen observer of life, land and nature, but hardly a visionary or prophet. He disavowed any connection to the hippies and radicals, even though they clearly were influenced by the challenges to the status quo he presented in “On the Road” and “Dharma Bums.” He died a devout Catholic, but lived much of his adult life as a Buddhist. He predicted that he would drink himself into an early grave, but only because the Church forbade suicide. The new Shout! Factory edition of “What Happened to Kerouac” is enhanced by a full disc of extended interview material. (Ironically, it is biographer Charters, who, in the last entry on the bonus CD, pretty much answers the question proffered in the film’s title and in less than five minutes.) No matter how the upcoming movie adaptations turn out, a screening of this fine documentary is recommended to anyone who wants to know more about Kerouac or attempt to separate the man from the myth. – Gary Dretzka

Maximum Conviction: Blu-ray
Steven Seagal and Steve Austin have become such brand-name institutions in the world of straight-to-DVD action flicks that one hesitates even to describe their new “Maximum Conviction,” let alone judge it using the same criteria applied to review pictures intended for theatrical release. It is what it is … nothing more and nothing less. I’m pretty sure that this is the first time that the two warriors have appeared together in the same movie and on the same side of Uncle Sam. Their martial talents complement each other in combat and neither seems interested in one-upping the other. If you’ve liked them in previous movies, separately, it’s likely you’ll enjoy “Maximum Conviction,” even if it adds nothing new to the genre. Here, at least, one and one equal one. Both play former black ops types who get paid handsomely to sweep up the trash employees of the CIA and FBI prefer not to touch. They’ve been assigned to decommission a top-secret “dark” prison, holding the worst of the worst prisoners. Everything’s going along fine, until they’re asked to oversee the arrival of two mysterious women prisoners who don’t seem to be on anyone’s radar. No sooner are they bunked together – why? – than a team of mercenaries arrives to capture or kill them. Austen smells a rat when a large truck arrives at the prison and conveniently breaks down in the docks area. Seagal, who’s headed for dinner with his laddies, brings with him a piece of paper with a code he hopes one of them can translate. Whatever it says convinces Seagal to interrupt dinner and head back to the prison with his own bad boys. Because the mercenaries hadn’t built into their plan any room for error, they’re still chasing their targets around the prison when the posse arrives. This leaves about any hour of screen time for gunplay, karate chops and knife work. I’m still a bit confused as to what the women had done to deserve such treatment, but it does involve a foreign object strategically implanted near her boobs. So, there you have it. “Maximum Conviction” offers several passable action sequences and some imaginative kills, if not much else. The Blu-ray package includes interviews, making-of material and other hero worship. – Gary Dretzka

With Great Power: The Stan Lee Story
Watching this overly reverent profile of living comic-book legend Stan Lee – and, yes, I understand what differentiates merely great men from legends and myths – I was struck by how blessed we are that the 89-year-old writer, editor, actor, producer, publisher, television personality and co-creator of hundreds of wonderful characters is still alive and kicking. Although too many people are under the misconception that Marvel Comics sprang from Lee’s brow unassisted, Lee was an integral part of a team that included Jack Kirby, Bill Everett and Steve Ditko. The creation of great comic books is as collaborative an undertaking as making movies and Lee has always been among the first to acknowledge it. Lee’s most lasting contribution to the art has been inventing multidimensional characters and balancing their awesome powers with the same flaws, emotions, alienation and doubts as mere mortals. He challenged the idiocy of the Comics Code Authority, which, like the Hollywood Production Code, set ludicrous content guidelines designed mostly to keep conservative legislators from creating laws governing the industry. Lee also was instrumental in moving Marvel into the world of multimedia, high-tech publishing and officiating over the marriage between Hollywood and comic books. Lee is a wonderful storyteller and extremely influential spokesman for the medium. If some of his tales have grown shaggy over the years, they’re no less interesting to hear one more time, at least. “With Great Power: The Stan Lee Story” effectively captures his effervescent personality and sense of humor, both of which are shared with his wife, Joan. Not all of the controversies are addressed, but, in hindsight, they haven’t tarnished his image or held him down. I could have done without most of the celebrity blurbs, but they do add a touch of Hollywood glitz to the proceedings and context for the emergence of superhero movies – Richard Donner’s “Superman” is widely credited as the icebreaker – from the Saturday matinee and television ghettos to the arena of movie franchises. Lee didn’t have anything to do with DC Comics success with Superman, but his association with “The Avengers,”  “Spider-Man,” “Iron Man,” “The Incredible Hulk,” “X-Men,” “Fantastic Four” and a dozen other movies has long been duly noted.  – Gary Dretzka

[Rec]3: Genesis: Blu-ray
The Pact: Blu-ray
John Carpenter’s They Live: Collector’s Edition: Blu-ray
With the arrival of “[REC]3: Genesis” on DVD and Blu-ray, one would assume that a third “Quarantine” – the Spanish franchise’s English-speaking twin brother — is on the drawing boards, at least. Writer/director Paco Plaza and co-writer Luiso Berdejo must have sensed that the found-footage gag was getting stale, because barely half of the third installment is told through the eye of a camera lens. Much of story takes place, as well, in the light of day and inside a well-lit church and party facility, where the wedding of Koldo and Clara abruptly erupts into a reception of the living dead. One minute, the guests are toasting the newlyweds, and, the next, the guests themselves are toast. For all viewers know, the zombie virus was introduced in a bad batch of shrimp cocktails and it took all of about 10 minutes for it to infect most of the attendees. Among those not affected are the bride and groom, a priest, a guy in a taco costume and a couple of horny toads who slipped out of the reception to knock boots. In her determination to reunite with Koldo, the pregnant Clara turns herself into a stone-cold killer. Too much of the humor here is of the slapstick variety and the shocks aren’t all that shocking really. But, at 80 minutes, things go by rather swiftly. There’s even a surprise ending that explains how “Genesis” fits in the trilogy. By far the best thing in the movie is the twig-thin, doe-eyed bride, Clara (Leticia Dolera), who goes from demure to dangerous when she’s separated from Koldo. The Blu-ray adds a bunch of deleted scenes.

After a short version of “The Pact” received a positive reception at the 2011 Sundance festival, writer/director Nicholas McCarthy decided he didn’t need to look any further for inspiration for his first feature. Although the mixed-genre thriller didn’t impress many mainstream critics in its limited New York release, “The Pact” fared much better among bloggers and reviewers for niche websites, based on its return to Sundance and a run on VOD outlets. Essentially a ghost story, it gradually extends its reach across the genre borders separating restless spirits, murder mysteries and family psychodramas. The central character is Annie (Caity Lotz), a pretty young blond who reluctantly returns to her childhood home after her mother dies and her estranged sister disappears after a Skype conversation with her daughter, who sees things not visible to her mom. Perhaps because she rides a motorcycle, Annie considers herself strong enough to spend the night, alone, in the clearly haunted house. In the morning, she contacts a police detective (Casper Van Dien) and a clairvoyant to determine how to proceed. (I would have suggested spending the next few nights in a hotel, but that would have been too obvious.) Slowly the truth about what happened in the house during Annie’s absence begins to reveal itself, literally and figuratively. Working on a micro-budget, “The Pact” makes good use of the haunted setting, which has all sorts of hidden rooms, tunnels and trap doors.  The DVD comes with a decent making-of featurette.

When John Carpenter made the pre-apocalyptic sci-fi thriller, “They Live,” Ronald Reagan had already kick-started the American economy by instituting policies that would come back to haunt us in the second George W. Bush administration and first four years of the Obama presidency. As long as everyone was making money and there was enough cocaine being imported to keep stock traders motivated, nobody seemed particularly concerned about the future. Adapted from a graphic novel by Ray Nelson, “They Live” theorizes that humanoid aliens have infiltrated the country and are responsible for delivering subliminal messages to Americans, encouraging them to embrace laissez-faire capitalism, conservative principles and authoritarian government. In other ways, the movie also resembles “Invasion of the Body Snatchers.” Roddy Piper plays an unemployed drifter, Nada, who finds works in Los Angeles on a construction site. He spends his nights at a park colonized by homeless people, who are among the first to suspect something weird is going wrong. After cops demolish the camp, Nada escapes to a church, where he finds a box containing cool-looking sunglasses. The glasses allow him to see the aliens for who they are and what they’re doing to the country. Not only can he identify the aliens among us, but he also can study the subliminal messages — OBEY, CONSUME, NO INDEPENDENT THOUGHT — hidden in magazines, on billboards, street signs and currency (THIS IS YOUR GOD). Like Roger Corman, Carpenter is able to stretch a dollar until the eagle grins. On a $4 million budget, he produced a movie that entertained audiences in a grindhouse sort of way, while also delivering a message. It would take another 20 years for Americans to get that message, but better late than never. Naturally, there’s some pretty crazy stuff in “They Live,” including a nearly endless fistfight between Piper and Keith David, over his refusal to check out the glasses handed him by Nada. The Blu-ray revamp makes the movie a more pleasant visual and audio experience than it’s been since it was released in 1988. It adds fresh interviews, making-of featurettes and a profile of Meg Foster, whose piercing blue eyes are more powerful than any laser. – Gary Dretzka

The Miners’ Hymns
Imagine if, someday, the shores of Lake Michigan in northwest Indiana are cluttered with homes, resorts and casinos, instead of steel mills and toxic wetlands. That’s the way things were headed in the 1970s and 1980s, after all, when such companies as Wisconsin Steel, South Works, American Bridge, Republic Steel, the Falstaff Brewery were shuttered and low employment turned one once-thriving city, Gary, into an urban wasteland. The steel industry has been revived somewhat and EPA regulations helped turn the skies over Lake Michigan from black to blue. If the economy continues to tank, however, the land upon which the mills sit – especially U.S. Steel, which, among other things, was allowed to dredge marshes and bulldoze magnificent sand dunes – would be more valuable than anything produced by the plants. Lost, though, would be a way of life that provided hope for countless immigrant and working-class families that their children could afford college and make a living in places that didn’t resemble the fires of hell. That’s the easiest way for me to describe Bill Morrison’s multi-media documentary, “The Miners’ Hymns,” which lays out a similar scenario, except this one isn’t based on speculation. It describes how things have changed in northeast England since the area’s many coalmines were closed forever during the Margaret Thatcher regime, if for no other reason than to spite the labor unions. From above, you’d be hard pressed to believe that the same lovely countryside being surveyed once was dominated by giant chimneys, slag heaps, conveyor belts, railroad tracks and handling and preparation plants. Neither would you be able to discern from that distance the absence of hope on the faces of the residents now consigned to low-paying jobs in the service and tourism industries.

Instead of relying on descriptions and narratives to explain what he’s trying to accomplish in his films, Morrison lets the images from found and archival footage speak for themselves. They’re frequently accompanied, however, by the complementary music of important avant-garde composers, including Steve Reich, Bill Frisell, Gavin Bryars, Julia Wolfe and, in “The Miners’ Hymns,” the Icelandic minimalist Jóhann Jóhannsson. Here, Johannsson describes his score as a “kind of requiem for a disappearing industry, but also a celebration of the culture, life and struggle of coal miners,” as well as the strong regional tradition of colliery brass bands. The footage mostly focuses on the aboveground life of Durham residents, all of whom were dependent on the mines in one way or another. This included a century’s worth of material shot at union rallies, parades, picnics and riots and in the streets lined with identical row houses. Even more striking is the material shot underground, as the men labored in the longwall mines so shallow and narrow that most of the work is done while laying on one’s back. I was struck by the cinematography and lighting, which, at times, makes the archival British Film Institute and BBC footage look as if it were shot by a German Expressionist. “The Miners’ Hymns” is less than an hour long, but it packs a powerful punch. The faces in the crowds might have belonged to any of our grandparents and the scenes could have been staged in thousands of American towns that relied on the promises – almost all of which were broken – of bosses and politicians who cared more about a pothole on their street than their workers. The DVD adds three of Morrison’s short films: “Release,” for which Morrison re-purposed footage of a Philadelphia crowd anticipating the release of Al Capone from jail; another split-screen short, “Outborough,” this time from film shot in 1899 from the vantage point of a trolley crossing the Brooklyn Bridge; and “The Film of Her,” a far more linear piece about a Library of Congress clerk, who was able to save from destruction the institution’s amazing Paper Print Collection. – Gary Dretzka

Kiss Me
Hollywood to Dollywood
Although this extremely well made and almost achingly romantic Swedish export was introduced at gay and lesbian film festivals and is being released on DVD here on the niche Wolfe Video label, “Kiss Me” is drama that desperately wants to escape the queer-cinema ghetto and be judged completely on its own narrative merits. Plenty of other movies that deal with issues relating to homosexuality and closets of the characters’ own making demand to be taken just as seriously, but rarely do they allow their characters to exist in a world free of clichés and compromises. Even if the ending feels ripped from the Hollywood rom-com playbook, writer/director Alexandra-Therese Keining has put her protagonists through such an emotional wringer that we’re willing to forgive her a bit of schmaltz, if it means the characters will enjoy a chance at happiness, at least. What also told me that “Kiss Me” was a horse of a different color was the presence of such estimable Swedish actors as Lena Endre (“Wallander,” “Millennium”), Krister Hennriksson (“Wallander,” “Superintendent Winter”) and Joakim Natterqvist (“Arn: The Templar Knight”), whose casting as auxiliary characters in any other genre melodrama would make no sense. Their through-lines are every bit as compelling as those of the very nearly star-crossed lovers played by the less known Ruth Vega Fernandez and Liv Mjönes.

Mia and Frida, both in their thirties, meet for the first time at their parents’ engagement party. Mia’s somewhat estranged father, Lasse, is about to marry Frida’s mother, Elizabeth, which would make them stepsisters. At first, Mia suspects that Frida is flirting with her fiancé, Tim, but, in fact, the cute blonde’s googly eyes are directed strictly at her. We already suspect that Mia and Tim might not be so simpatico while watching her eyes glaze over during a love-making session earlier in the movie. He’s too full of himself to realize that the only person enjoying the grunt-and-grind session is him. Still, it takes us by surprise when, after a birthday party for Lasse, Mia initiates the first kiss between them. In the morning, though, Mia looks as if she had thrilled the guests by chugging the contents of her future mother-in-law’s aquarium, fish and all, and doing a jig on the piano. When Lasse and Tim make an unexpected exit from the villa on a beautiful island off Ystad, it gives Mia and Frida time to test their fragile bond and Elizabeth an opportunity to study the mysterious appearance of dark clouds on the horizon. Even so, Mia seems intent on marrying Tim, leaving Frida to return reluctantly to a one-time lover. What happens next isn’t totally unexpected, but the interaction between all of the characters is handled in a way that’s credible and ultimately satisfying. Everyone grows up in different ways, whether they want to or not. Ragna Jorming’s cinematography takes full advantage of the lovely outdoor settings and Marc Collins’ original music nicely captures the intensity of the romance and drama playing out on the screen. Anyone looking for a different sort of love story ought to consider “Kiss Me,” no matter who’s kissing whom at any particular moment. The DVD adds a music video.

The compelling personal documentary, “Hollywood to Dollywood,” seems to have played every gay-and-lesbian in the U.S., without striking a theatrical distribution deal. I wouldn’t read too much into that regrettable piece of business, though. I don’t what strikes more fear into the hearts of exhibitors: “gay” or “documentary.” My guess would be the latter. In DVD, “H2D” deserves to find a larger, if initially segmented audience. As the title suggests, there’s a bit of gimmick at the heart of the documentary. Twin brothers Larry and Gary Lane have written a screenplay they think would be a perfect vehicle for Dolly Parton. Instead of sending it to her agent or flying to the airport nearest to her theme park, the twins and a friend drive a RV named Jolene cross-country to east Tennessee. Because the young men are from the South, gay and huge fans, it probably made more sense to contact Dolly directly than play games with a Hollywood agent. One of the reasons the multitalented entertainer has attained iconic status in the gay community is her loudly professed non-judgmental stance on homosexuality, drag queens and transsexuals. Along the way to Nashville, the Lanes find and interview several people – gay, straight and in between — whose lives have been saved by Dolly and her songs. Complicating their journey is a once-in-a-lifetime flood that devastated parts of Tennessee ahead of the Dollywood 25th anniversary celebration. In a very real sense, as well, “H2D” could be described as a journey into America’s heart of evangelical darkness. Many of the people we meet in the film are native Southerners, whose relatives and boyhood friends are strict Baptists and openly disparaging of gays and lesbians, no matter whose kids they might be. Almost the same amount attention is paid to confronting inner demons and religious intolerance as delivering the screenplay to Dolly, which isn’t as easy as it might sound. The “H2D” DVD adds deleted scenes, new music by Parton (15 of her hits already are on the soundtrack), extended interviews and outtakes. – Gary Dretzka

House of Dark Shadows: Blu-ray  
Night of Dark Shadows: Blu-ray
Wolf Lake: The Complete Series
As we’ve had the distinct misfortune to observe over the past two decades, television shows don’t translate easily to the demands of big-screen entertainment. Sitcoms are written specifically to fill about 22 minutes of small-screen time, with breaks allotted for canned laughter, lead-ins and lead-outs to commercials and gag setups. Even in these days of TiVo and PPV, audiences are conditioned to the breaks and either go to the kitchen for a cookie or fast-forward through them. One of the worst things that can happen in the cinematic experience is to leave subliminal breaks in the narrative flow that take audiences out of the movie, even for a second or two. Soap operas are even more difficult to adapt than sitcoms and dramas because of the constant repetition of plot points and daily cliffhangers. Not only are the movie versions of “Dark Shadows” better than most other adaptations, but it’s one of the few, if not the only soap drama that’s made the transition. Now, this isn’t to say that the stand-alone “House of Dark Shadows” and “Night of Dark Shadows” – both were directed by Dan Curtis — are among the best vampire movies of all time, just that they’re true to their source material and conform to long-form rules. Moreover, these films aren’t parodies of the Gothic soaps or overt homages to the groundbreaking daytime series. (I think that Tim Burton’s recent adaptation owes as much to the Addams Family cartoons and TV show as it does to “Dark Shadows.”)  True fans of a popular show aren’t all that keen on outsiders toying with their favorites or telling them what makes it special, if only because they’re usually wrong.

By focusing on the characters Barnabas Collins (Jonathan Frid), Dr. Julia Hoffman (Grayson Hall), and Maggie Evans (Kathryn Leigh Scott), “House of Dark Shadows” (1970) more consciously recalls the TV series than its feature-length sequel, “Night of Dark Shadows.” Barnabas has just been released from his coffin prison by a local drunk and he immediately sets out to ingratiate himself with family members and Collinsport residents, some of whom resemble acquaintances from a long-ago life. He also takes it upon himself to restore Collinwood and make up for lost time in the blood-sucking department. By contrast, “Night” expands on the Quentin Collins story arc. The tone is younger, less overtly scary and genuinely romantic, with David Selby, Kate Kackson and Lara Parker re-emerging from the cast of the TV series. (This time, Grayson Hall plays Carlotta Drake.) Quentin married Jackson’s Tracy Collins before returning to Collinwood to paint, a decision for which the resident ghosts and spirits will make him – or, at least, her – pay. The Blu-ray re-mastering pays dividends by restoring the saturated colors of the originals and lightening some of the darker shadows, allowing once-cloudy details to emerge. The effect also makes “House” and “Night” look very much like horror flicks from the Hammer Studios. Don’t look for many extras, though, as they only include theatrical trailers.

In its initial five-year run on ABC, “Dark Shadows” logged 1,225-episodes. Ten years ago, another vampire series, CBS’ “Wolf Lake,” managed to air 5 of its 10 shot episodes before being canceled. Reruns would bounce around the dial for a while, but, really, how long can 10 episodes stay fresh? The show’s fans, as well as undead completists, should find it interesting that CBS DVD is releasing the whole thing in a set that includes the unaired pilot episode, with commentary, and a making-of featurette. The story centers on a Seattle sheriff’s search for his girlfriend who disappears after she accepts his proposal for marriage. His investigation leads to a town called Wolf Lake, where a pack of werewolves co-exist with the human population. (It’s probably near Forks, Washington, so the unemployed werewolves probably found work on the “Twilight” set.) If nothing else, the series didn’t lack for familiar faces and soon-to-be popular stars. The cast included Lou Diamond Phillips, Tim Matheson, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Mia Kirshner, Graham Greene, Paul Wesley, Sharon Lawrence, Bruce McGill and Carmen Moore. – Gary Dretzka

Comes a Bright Day
This neat little Brit export combines traditional elements of a botched-heist-and-hostage drama with some very stylish dialogue, romance and fine acting, all in the service of a claustrophobic chamber piece. That’s probably a few too many adjectives, but it helps to know what you’re getting into when movies with such strong bloodlines fizzle after their festival debuts. Because writer/director Simon Aboud married into the McCartney clan – husband of Mary, brother-in-law of Stella and James, son-in-law of Paul and the late Linda McCartney – his first feature, “Comes a Bright Day,” was destined to capture the attention of the media in ways most freshman efforts can’t. Also of interest to the UK media, at least, was a sterling cast that includes Timothy Spall, Imogen Poots, Craig Roberts, Kevin McKidd, Josef Altin, Geoff Bell and Anthony Welsh. The exteriors were filmed in the heart of London’s posh Mayfair district, while the interiors replicated a classy jewelry store there that specializes in expensive antique jewelry. (“Some of the actual pieces we photographed were worth more than our entire budget,” quips Aboud, in one of the making-of featurettes.

In the short expository portion before the heist, we follow a bellboy (Roberts) as he heads for the jewelry store on an errand for an important guest, but is sidetracked to a restaurant where a friend makes the best risotto in town. They discuss imprecise plans for a restaurant of their own, but are distracted by the super-cute blond (Poots) waiting to be served. She works in the jewelry store and, of course, the bellboy follows her like a moth to flame. He neglected to disavow her notion that the suit he borrowed from another guest might indicate he is independently wealthy and tries to extend the charade with the job owner (Spall). It isn’t likely he could have fooled him for long, though, because he was headed to the jewelry store anyway and he’s pals with the young man’s boss. No sooner are the pleasantries exchanged than a pair of robbers stomp into the shop, shoot a customer to prove they’re bad and begin to fill their shopping list. By the time things get really nasty, the owner’s already triggered the silent alarm and the cops are on their way. When the robbers aren’t bullying them, the hostages pass the time by telling stories about the jewelry on display, their personal ambitions and the things that could get them killed. There’s no escape route for the robbers, so all communication with the outside world is conducted by phone. The movie progresses from there with a distinct aura of menace enveloping the store. The claustrophobic setting and dialogue probably would have lent itself better to the stage, but John Lynch is able to open things up a bit with his expressive cinematography. As far as I can see, Paul McCartney has nothing to do with the movie besides his DNA. – Gary Dretzka

Planes, Trains & Automobiles: Blu-ray
If all one knows about the John Hughes comedy “Planes, Trains & Automobile” is that critics used it as a point of reference for Todd Phillips’ “Due Date,” I highly recommend a rental of the Blu-ray edition of the 1987 classic for comparison and enjoyment. Both movies are built on the same foundation: two guys need to get from one city to another in a specific number of hours, but the buffoonish behavior of one of the men threatens the odds of this happening. In “Due Date,” the Everyman character (Robert Downey Jr.) needs to get from Atlanta to Los Angeles in five days to witness the birth of his first child. To accomplish this feat, the man must accept a ride and all of its silly consequences from a well-meaning doofus (Zach Galifianakis). In “PT&A,” a snobby traveler (Steve Martin) and affable goofball (John Candy) are attempting to get from New York City to Chicago in time for Christmas, but their plane is diverted to Kansas by a widespread snow storm. In both cases, requiring the polar-opposite characters to find common ground in support of a singular goal proves to be an exercise in hilarity. If most viewers were expected to empathize with Everyman’s dilemma, it’s impossible not to find something to love and respect in the clowns. The same is true with the characters themselves. The Blu-ray supplements include “John Hughes for Adults,” “A Tribute to John Candy,” “Getting There Is Half the Fun: The Story of ‘Planes, Trains and Automobiles,’” “John Hughes: Life Moves Pretty Fast” and a deleted scene. – Gary Dretzka

Cartoon Network: Regular Show: Best DVD in the World (At This Moment in Time)
PBS: Sesame Street: Old School 3
CMT: Louie Anderson: Big Baby Boomer
PBS: Cook’s Country: Season Five
GMC: The Love You Save
Cartoon Network’s hit animated comedy series, “Regular Show,” started out as a student exercise – based on J.G. Quintel’s experiences performing minimum-wage jobs — and evolved into an Emmy-winning and Annie-nominated series. One of the assignments students at California Institute of the Arts are routinely asked to do involves picking scenarios and characters out of a hat and turning them into animated films within a 48-hour period. He pitched “Regular Show,” which is anything but regular, to Cartoon Network as part of its Cartoonstitute development project and it was picked up. Amazing how some dreams come true, right? “Regular Show: The Best DVD in the World” is comprised of 16 episodes from the show’s second and third seasons. Everything revolves around the misadventures of a pair of 23-year-old slackers – a blue jay, Mordecai, and a raccoon, Rigby – who escape the boredom at their groundskeeper jobs by engaging in surrealistic adventures and irresponsible actions. Their girlfriends, co-workers and boss are as strangely adorable as they are. As one might guess about a project initiated by CalArts graduates, “Regular Show” appeals more to adult hipsters than kids typically attracted to other Cartoon Network series (as opposed to Adult Swim titles).

I don’t care what Mitt Romney believes, I’d much prefer for my tax dollars to go for production of “Sesame Street” than for the development of natural-gas pipelines and any more wars in Middle East. It’s done more good for the children of the world than a million Mormon missionaries and Republican political initiatives. Anyone who doubts the lasting value of the PBS shows and its wonderful creations need look any further than the DVDs in the “Sesame Street: Old School” series. The third installment in the series covers 1979 through 1984, including the premieres from seasons 11 to 15. Among the events covered are the gangs’ excursion to Puerto Rico for Maria’s birthday and Snuffy and Gordon’s New York City marathon run? In addition, a bonus DVD adds never-before-seen behind-the-scenes footage, clips from special episodes, an excerpt from “Goodbye, Mr. Hooper”; an interview with puppeteer Carroll Spinney; the on-screen storybook, “How to Be a Grouch”; a booklet; and commentary by Sonia Manzano.

One of the last places I’d expect to find a Louie Anderson comedy special would be CMT: Country Music Television, alongside such series as “Bayou Billionaires,” “My Big Redneck Vacation” and “Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders: Making the Team.” The Food Network or Gourmet Channel, maybe; the Comedy Channel, sure; CMT, not very likely. Thank God, Louie doesn’t push the envelope by wearing cowboy boots, a Stetson hat and Nudie suit, as if he were the Grand Ol’ Opry’s comedian-in-residence. In “Louie Anderson: Big Baby Boomer,” the plus-size comic does what he does best: self-effacing jokes about eating, dieting and other bad habits; going to the doctor; traveling between shows; irritating family members; and growing older.

Among the many fine shows that combine the joys of eating and cooking is PBS’ venerable “Cook’s Country.” The hook here is the tight focus on regional “comfort food,” especially that associated with the American South and Southwest. The show is headquartered in a renovated 1806 farmhouse with a full working test kitchen, a live audience and the odd neighbor who stops by with cooking problems that need immediate attention. In Season Five, host Christopher Kimball and the chefs from “America’s Test Kitchen” tackle such topics as “Hearty Autumn Dinner,” “Dixie Chicken,” “Breakfast Breads,” “Italian Favorites Revisited,” “Great American Cookout” and “Dinner at the Diner.” The DVD adds tips and techniques, equipment tests and printable versions of all recipes.

I might have enjoyed “The Love You Save” more if it weren’t accompanied by the worst laugh and applause track I’ve ever heard … repeat, ever. I would bet money that the controller was on a three-second delay, because that’s how long it took for the gags to be acknowledged by the laughter. The track also made it sound as if the audience was in a theater next door to the one in which the play was being filmed, the responses are that distant. No matter, because of all the stage-to-screen urban dramedies I’ve seen lately, “The Love You Save” is easily the weakest and most predictable. It was shown on cable’s GMC, as part of its “World Premiere Gospel Play” series. Robin Givens plays a real-estate mogul and the single parent of three grown children. She’s spoiled, opinionated and unprincipled. Two of her children have taken after Mom, while the youngest son volunteers his time at a homeless shelter. While there one day, he meets an older guy who taunts him about his motivations for helping the poor. Before long, they take a shine to each other and believe that by working together they can save the building from development. Unbeknownst to the young man, Mom has just gotten into bed – figuratively – with the developers and plans to make a killing on it. When her scheme is revealed, it provokes a revelation that shakes the family to its core and inspires some old-fashioned gospel belting. Maybe, you can guess what the deep, dark secret turns out to be. The cast also includes Kareem J. Grimes, Denyce Lawton, Jill-Michele Melean and Sean Riggs. – Gary Dretzka

Arthur Christmas
It’s a Spongebob Christmas!
Adventures of Bailey: Christmas Hero
Aardman Animation’s delightful seasonal comedy, “Arthur Christmas,” successfully addresses two mysteries, at least, that have perplexed children ever since Saint Nicholas morphed into the consumer face of Christmas, Santa Claus: 1) it offers a semi-plausible explanation for how he might be able to deliver gifts to all children of the world in a 24-hour period, taking into account time zones and pit stops, 2) Santa’s ability to get down all sorts of chimneys and enter homes without fireplaces, 3) the U.S. Postal Service’s willingness to deliver mail to such a distant zipcode, and 4) the question of Santa’s mortality. Showing “Arthur Christmas” to the kiddies will save you countless hours trying to explain how such miracles can happen and, perhaps, postpone the day when they will call, “Bullshit!,” on the whole thing. In the meantime, I probably wouldn’t push the making-of demonstrations, included in the Blu-ray supplements, on them. Why test your luck? The story begins when a little girl in a quaint English town drops her letter to Santa in the mailbox. Its arrival at the North Pole triggers a multifaceted response that requires split-second timing and the expertise of a million highly trained and fully computerized elves. Once the solicitation is filed and the fulfillment center locates the parcel, it’s loaded onto Santa’s sleigh – which more closely resembles the USS Enterprise than a reindeer-drawn carriage – and delivered by teams of three commando elves, who have 18 seconds to enter the recipients home by any means necessary, avoid pets and other obstacles, place the gift alongside the tree and be collected by the mother ship, which is hovering over the city. The title of Santa Claus is passed from one generation of white-bearded, red-suited geezers to another, much in the same way as any royal family or dynasty. Grandsanta, the reigning Santa and First Lady, the heir apparent, Steve, and his klutzy brother, Arthur, all live under the same roof, occasionally debating the merits of old-school practices and digital technology.

For various reasons, Arthur has been assigned a low-level job in the North Pole’s mailroom. Instead of being a mere cog in the machine, however, the chronically optimistic Arthur considers himself to be an essential piece of the annual Christmas puzzle. After Steve pulls out of the warehouse on his high-tech S-1 sleigh – Santa monitors the entire operation, his 70th, from his easy chair – Arthur and the wrapper elf Bryony find a gift that’s been inadvertently left behind. Arthur recognizes the wrapped bike and the name of the girl who requested it. Committed to making every child happy, Arthur talks Grandsanta into pulling his ancient sleigh and reindeer out of mothballs and making the trip to Trelew, Cornwall. The problem is that Grandsanta’s navigation skills have rusted since his retirement, decades earlier, and he directs the sleigh everywhere but England. If it were up to Steve and Santa, the bicycle would be written off as a glitch in the system and it would be delivered after Christmas. Mrs. Santa sides with Steve and Bryony, however, and demands that every effort be made to race the dawn and make sure the girl isn’t disappointed. Three generations of Santas arrive almost simultaneously, causing a logjam of sleighs on the Trelew cul-de-sac, minutes before sunrise and the girl’s awakening. Their efforts could be thwarted, though, if Steve and Santa don’t quit bickering about the best way to get into the girl’s house at such a late hour. Aardman is known for its stop-action Claymation techniques, as popularized in “Wallace & Gromit,” but for its first collaboration with Sony Pictures Animation, the company turned to computer-graphics technology. Even if I haven’t seen the Blu-ray 3D edition, I can tell by the 2D disc that it probably looks excellent. Among the voice actors are James McAvoy, Hugh Laurie, Bill Nighy, Jim Broadbent, Joan Cusack, Imelda Staunton, Eva Longoria, Michael Palin and Laura Linney. The lively soundtrack is highlighted by Justin Bieber’s “Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town,” which channels the Jackson 5.

It took a few minutes to adjust to the sight of SpongeBob and the Bikini Bottom gang cavorting in stop-animation, but the novelty is worth the momentary visual disconnect. The Nickelodeon holiday special, “It’s a SpongeBob Christmas!,” pre-supposes that the GPS device on Santa’s sleigh also is equipped with sonar, so he can find Bikini Bottom and deliver the goods. John Goodman guest stars as the jolly fat man, who, it’s feared, will fall for a scheme arranged by Plankton to get gain possession of the Krabby Patty secret formula. To do so, he plans to dose everyone with his special jerktonium-laced fruitcake. The bonus package adds a behind-the-scenes featurette, an animatic, a SpongeBob Yule Log and two downloadable songs from the episode.

There’s always room for another mischievous dog at Christmas and the live-action anthropomorphic Bailey, from Hungry Bear Productions, will fill the bill for very audiences. “Adventures of Bailey: Christmas Hero” is the second of three films in the series (“Bailey’s Billion$,” from 2005, has different roots.) Like every other naughty kid at Christmas, Baily fears that Santa will overlook him on Christmas morning. The panic extends to his human family, as well. Taking matters into his own paws, Bailey a mysterious Native American shaman, who appears to have a direct line to Hollywood. To get Santa to reserve a tennis ball, stuffed animal and bone, Bailey enlists the help of his brother, Duke. Apparently, in doing so, Bailey discovers the “true” meaning of Christmas. – Gary Dretzka

Dinotasia: Blu-ray
There are things things about “Dinotasia” – think dinosaurs and “Fantasia” – that differentiate from most other series, mini-series, documentaries and movies about Jurassic history and paleontology. The first is the disembodied Bavarian voice of Werner Herzog, as narrator of this often interesting CG re-creation of prehistoric life. Second, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a dinosaur – or anything else, for that matter – take a dump on screen, during the course of a normal day’s events. Three, I don’t recall ever watching a dinosaur or pterosaur freezing to death in the weeks after a giant meteorite hit Earth some 65 million years ago. I doubt that Herzog’s voice would sound much different it had been created in a synthesizer, but everything else in “Dinotasia” has been created by 2D CGI animation. Originally intended by co-directors/co-writers David Krentz and Erik Nelson has a 12-part series for History Channel, “Dinosaur Revolution,” the 83-minute final product spans millions of years and three geological periods, when these wonderful, terrifying creatures roamed the planet. Their stories are told in vignette form much in the same way as Walt Disney shaped his “True-Life Adventures” series. Most are violent and unforgiving in a strictly Darwinian way. Even so, because the series originally was intended to include comedy, some of the action reportedly was inspired by specific “Looney Tune” cartoons. Critics may not have been impressed by “Dinotasia” in its brief, limited release, but I dug the visualizations of the dinosaurs, which were informed by the latest fossil discoveries and research. About halfway through the movie, the fatal meteorite begins to loom ominously in views shared from deep space, giving us a reason to empathize with these otherwise disagreeable critters. Dino-crazy kids should get a big kick out of “Dinotasia” and their parents shouldn’t mind sharing time with them, attempting to answer questions and share the delight of watching dinosaurs poop. The Blu-ray adds a deleted scene and making-of material. – Gary Dretzka

RVBX: Ten Years of Red vs. Blue Box Set: Blu-ray
Red vs. Blue: Season 10: Blu-ray
Digimon Adventure: The Official First Season, Volume 1
It’s no coincidence that two new “Red vs. Blue” compilations are being released simultaneously with the release of the “Halo 4” first-person shooter video game for the Xbox 360 console and beginning of a new trilogy of Halo series games, “The Reclaimer Trilogy.” The game begins four years after the ending of “Halo 3” and marks the return of the Master Chief as the main protagonist, and the artificially intelligent Cortana. Early reviews of “Halo 4” have been extremely positive, so there’s no reason to believe it won’t be as explosively popular as the previous iterations had been. “RvB” is to the “Halo” franchise what remora fish are to sharks. A year or so after the first trilogy was introduced, “Red vs. Blue: The Blood Gulch Chronicles” became a fixture on the Internet. The episodes would be collected on DVD and, later, Blu-ray, as well. The story centers on two opposing teams of soldiers fighting a civil war in the middle of a desolate box canyon. It was intended as a parody of FPS, military and sci-fi conventions. As “Halo” moved from one trilogy to another, so, too, did the “RvB” franchise. Full-length installments would be added, as well. All were created with a new form of animation called “machinima,” also popularized by “Halo.” Flatiron Films and Rooster Teeth have combined resources for the release of the 14-disc Blu-ray edition of “RVBX: Ten Years of Red vs. Blue Box Set,” which collects the first 10 seasons with newly re-mastered surround-sound audio. The extremely giftable set is further enhanced with eight hours’ worth of additional videos and miniseries, special features, interviews and behind-the-scenes footage.

Fans who’ve laughed their way through the series in seasonal DVD releases need not buy the entire box set to get the final season of “Project Freelancer.” “Red vs. Blue Season 10” chronicles the top-secret military operation from its inception to its conclusion, as well as the many detours along the way. Both sets include new videos based on “Halo 4,” featuring Elijah Wood, commentary and outtakes.  

Frankly, there are now so many different “Digimon” variations in the marketplace that I’ve lost track of what’s new and special and what’s a retread or spinoff. “Digimon Adventure: The Official First Season, Volume 1” is comprised of the first 21 episodes, which carry us through the first two natural story arcs of Saban Entertainment’s 1999 series. In the first arc, seven kids are transported to a strange digital world where they make friends with the digital monsters and defend the world from common enemies. In the second, the kids travel to continent Server and learn they have the ability to help their Digimon “digivolve” with the power of Crests, which are guarded by Etemon and his Dark Network. By my count, there are 33 more episodes left in the season. I seem to recall that a full first-season “Digimon Adventure” box was released last month. I’m confident that devoted fans will be able to figure out the best deal for their digi-dollar. – Gary Dretzka

Aim High: The Complete First Season
“Killing is easy … high school is hard”: this appears to be the working principle behind “Aim High,” an entertaining Internet action series in which teenagers moonlight as government assassins. Balancing the two is every bit as difficult as it sounds for the students, who also are preoccupied with sex and becoming a target for revenge killings. Unlike most webisodes, whose cheesy production values add to their charm, “Aim High” looks polished and professionally directed. This probably can be credited to executive producer McG (“Chuck,” “Nikita”) and professionals in every level of production. In addition to veteran guest stars, such as Greg Germann, Nick Swardson, Rebecca Mader and Clancy Brown, the high school students are played by actors with substantial resumes. Among them are Nick Green (“Twilight”), Aimee Teegarden (“Friday Night Lights”), Johnny Pemberton (“21 Jump Street”) and Natalie Lander (“The Middle”).  On the negative side, the DVD is comprised of a mere six bite-sized episodes, a pair of background featurettes and a music video by Teegarden. As much fun as “Aim High” is to watch, it feels more like a pilot for an MTV sitcom than an Internet series. – Gary Dretzka

The DVD Wrapup: Campaign, Americano, This Waltz, Ruby Sparks, Upstairs Downstairs … More

Tuesday, October 30th, 2012

The Campaign: Extended Cut: Blu-ray
Fans of Will Ferrell and Zach Galifianakis don’t attend their movies to savor the subtle or ironic moments that come between the broadsides hurled by and at their buffoonish characters. They want to be doubled over in laughter by material some people would consider to be inappropriate, if not downright rude, and surprised by how far they’ll be allowed to take the gags. Because upbeat endings are required of the most movies made today, the closer they inch toward their final scenes, the less anarchic they become. Such is the case with “The Campaign,” a comedy that could have left viewers in a funk about the electoral process, but, instead, is content to provide comic relief for voters already beaten down by lies, distortions and the reality that nothing is likely to change, no matter who wins. Jay Roach has delivered the laughs in the “Austin Powers” and “Meet the Parents” franchises, while also finding the hearts of gold buried inside his frequently unpleasant antagonists. In “The Campaign,” the dialogue is provided by Chris Henchy and Shawn Harwell, who previously collaborated on the nasty HBO mini-series, “Eastbound & Down.”

Here, Will Ferrell delivers a dead-on impression of good-ol’-boy congressman Cam Brady, a slick North Carolina politician who’s never met a lobbyist he hasn’t exploited or a cause he’s championed on its merits. Farrell invests in the incumbent some of the vacuous charm, at least, that made his hilarious take on George W. Bush so memorable. By comparison to Brady, however, Bush was Abraham Lincoln. For some inexplicable reason, a disreputable pair of billionaire brothers — not unlike the real-life Koch siblings, who finance right-wing PACs – has come to believe that the unopposed Brady isn’t doing enough for them in Congress and want to put up their own candidate. Incredibly, they settle on Marty Huggins (Galifianakis), an effeminate family man, whose father is a local wheeler-dealer and crypto-fascist. When it becomes obvious that Huggins is too soft to compete with Brady on his own, the brothers hire a political strategist with Dylan McDermott’s good looks and Karl Rove’s Satanic cunning. Once that happens, “The Camapaign” more closely resembles a “Road Runner” cartoon than a sendup of the American political process, which has reached a nadir where it’s beyond parody. For every dirty trick that Brady plays, Huggins is able to come up with one of his own. He even manages to lure the congressman into a situation where, by nimbly ducking a punch, he causes Brady to slug a baby. In retaliation, Brady seduces Huggins’ wife and tapes it for use in a commercial. Huh? Don’t ask. “The Campaign” is full of such illogical, if funny moments.

Despite the slapstick, it’s easy to enjoy the give-and-take between Farrell and Galifianakis as they skewer the pitiful state of politics today and the voters’ willingness to believe anything they’re told by pre-packaged candidates. When Brady senses that his campaign is losing steam, he merely picks a larger American flag from his jewelry box and pins it to his lapel. As we’ve seen, the absence of a flag trinket can spell disaster for a candidate among voters conditioned to despise liberals by talk-radio hosts. It’s only natural, then, for Brady to assume that a larger-than-average flag could tip the election in his favor. That’s about as subtle as things get in “The Campaign,” though. The lead actors get ample support from Jason Sudeikis and McDermott, as the political strategists; John Lithgow and Dan Aykroyd as the Motch brothers, whose scam is too preposterous to explain; Brian Cox, as Huggins’ loathsome father; and Katherine LaNasa and Sarah Baker, as the candidates’ wives. The Blu-ray adds several entertaining deleted scenes; a funny gag reel; an improv montage; and 11 minutes of material not included in the theatrical release. – Gary Dretzka

The Lovers’ Guide: The Essential Set
Infidelity: Sex Stories 2
Question: What’s the difference between a remote control and a woman’s clitoris? Answer: A guy will keep looking for the remote control until he finds it. If a woman repeats that joke to her partner, what she’s really doing is delivering a message that defines what it means to “kid on the square.” Even if the gag elicits laughter, there’s nothing remotely funny about a heterosexual relationship in which the man is the sole beneficiary of an orgasm. Explained in the most basic terms possible and dramatized by the participation of live actors, “The Lover’s Guide: The Essential Set” provides viewers with all the tools necessary not only to experience heightened sexuality and orgasmic bliss, but also tighter and more meaningful relationships. While explicit, “The Lover’s Guide” is neither pornographic not clinical. The couples who demonstrate the techniques were chosen because they represent a demographic cross-section of adults, not the cast of a late-night movie on Cinemax (where orgasms occur with amazing regularity and the clitoris is never seen). The producers don’t assume anything about their audience, preferring to start at the beginning, with kissing, and slowly advance to sexual positions and acrobatics, some of which aren’t even mentioned in the Kama Sutra. Couples are encouraged to watch the instructional films in bed, where they can use their remote controls for their intended purpose … skipping ahead to the good parts.

After surviving a long legal struggle with censors, the first edition of “The Lovers’ Guide” was cleared for launch in England in 1991. Presented by sexologist Dr. Andrew Stanway, it became the only non-fiction film to top the UK video charts, by selling 1.3 million copies. It would go on to be released into 13 languages and 22 countries around the world. The empire has grown to include 10 subsequent DVDs, including one in 3D; a book, an encyclopedia, two CD-ROMs; and cassettes and CDs of the soundtracks. Only the North American market has been underserved by the publishers. New York-based True Mind is betting that we are in need of help as anyone else on the planet and is introducing “The Lovers’ Guide” here in three editions, on all digital platforms: “The Original Collection,” a 306-minute, 5-disc box set; “The Essential Collection,” a 351-minute, 5-disc box, with advanced coaching; and “Sexual Positions,” a 52-minute single DVD from the “Essential Collection.” That set is also comprised of “Secrets of Sensational Sex,” “What Women Really Want,” “Sex Play” and “Satisfaction Guaranteed.” At the chapters do tend to overlap, even using identical narration, but that’s why God added fast-forward buttons to remote controls.

Graduates of “The Lovers’ Guide” lessons seeking to spice up their love-making with some pornography playing in the background would do well to check out the “Sex Stories” series by the French adult-movie star, Ovidie. Nowhere near as graphic and unrelentingly gonzo as American hard-core movies, the two “Sex Stories” volumes are targeted at couples who need something more explicit than the make-believe intercourse and oral sex on cable TV. Men who simply want to cut to the chase aren’t likely to appreciate the conversations that precede the action, but women, I think, will welcome the chatty respites from the wall-to-wall sex as much as the absence of grotesquely sculpted blond bimbos. The characters all seem to be experiencing problems that are causing them anxiety and threatening their relationships. By sharing advice and techniques with each other, the characters provide logical solutions to solvable problems. The most obvious difference between the characters in “Sex Stories” and 90 percent of all other hard-core titles – including those in the phony MILF and “mature” genres – is that the characters range in age from the mid-20s to 50-something. The men are handsome in a conventional sort of way, while the women are naturally attractive. Neither does Ovidie require her women to wear platform shoes and other stripper regalia to bed. – Gary Dretzka

Americano: Blu-ray
Although too many of the interviews included in the bonus packages of DVDs are self-congratulatory and largely irrelevant to the movies to which they’re attached, occasionally something really interesting rises to the surface. Sometimes, even, a revelation will inspire a second look. “Americano” benefits from such candid discussions. The feature debut for Mathieu Demy as actor/writer/director follows a Parisian businessman, Martin, on his trip to Los Angeles to settle the affairs of his late mother, from whom he’s been forcibly estranged since he was a little boy. Martin claims not to remember much of his childhood after his father returned with him to France and his mother stayed on in Venice Beach to paint and lead an entirely different sort of life. Almost immediately it’s made clear to us that Martin has been suppressing memories that begin to return when he’s surrounded by his mother’s things. Among them are her longtime best friend (Geraldine Chaplin), who guilt-trips Martin into acknowledging her sacrifices in her dying days, and a neighbor who’s working on the same book he was when Martin was a boy. A photograph reminds Martin of Lola (Salma Hayek), a playmate with whom his mother maintained a relationship after he was shipped back to Paris.

As the memories come flooding back, Martin becomes perplexed by his lack of knowledge about his mother’s life and dreams. Although Lola’s been deported to Tijuana, Martin is determined to find her and pick her brain. If he so choses, he’ll also inform her of his mother’s generous bequest to her. In Tijuana, Martin learns that she’s been working in a seedy strip joint and she’s not at all excited to reconnect with him. His obsession with Lola borders on the pathetic, especially after the club owner (Carlos Bardem) beats the crap out of him and she refuses to indulge his fantasies. The ending ties most of the loose ends together, but, perhaps, not in a way that will satisfy impatient viewers.

What we learn in the interview is that “Americano” is far more personal a movie than is evident on first viewing. Demy is the son of the celebrated French filmmakers Agnes Varda and the late Jacques Demy, and the footage used in the flashback scenes are borrowed from his mother’s 1981 semi-autobiographical film, “Documenteur.” It is about a French woman — separated from her lover, as was Varda from Demy — attempting to find a home in L.A. for her and her son, who’s played by the 8-year-old Mathieu Demy. The name, Lola, was appropriated from his father’s first feature film, “Lola,” which was made in 1961 and starred Anouk Aimee as a cabaret dancer. Aimee also played a Los Angeles pin-up model in Demy’s first American-made picture, “Model Shop.” Demy points out, as well, that he cast Chaplin, for her connection to L.A and Europe, and Chiara Mastroianni, in part, because she’s the daughter of Catherine Deneuve and Marcello Mastroianni, two of his father’s favorite actors. He liked Hayek for the role of Lola because she is of Mexican descent and married to a French man. (She bears a passing resemblance to Aimee, too). Bardem is Javier’s older brother. It’s easy, then, to think of Demy’s Martin in “Americano” as the grown-up reiteration of Mathieu in “Documenteur.” (He’s played four Martins in his career.) That doesn’t make his character’s flaws any more palatable, but it helps explain why he appears to be carrying the weight of someone else’s world on his shoulders through most of the movie. – Gary Dretzka

Ruby Sparks: Blu-ray
Trust me on this: Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris’ modern-day fairy tale, “Ruby Sparks,” is the best movie almost no one has bothered to see in 2012 … so far, at least. Fixing blame, however, would require too lengthy a post-mortem than there’s space for here. The characters could hardly be any more appealing and the directors were able to prove that their first feature, “Little Miss Sunshine” wasn’t a fluke. Writer-star Zoe Kazan’s screenplay is smart, funny and frequently irresistible. That’s why it’s so difficult for me to see how young-adult viewers, especially those who embraced “(500) Days of Summer” and other similarly quirky rom-coms, missed “Ruby Sparks” in its limited release. Paul Dano plays a socially inept novelist, Calvin, who’s been blocked since his late teens, when he penned a best-seller. He’s encouraged by his brother (Chris Messina) and psychiatrist (Elliot Gould) to write about something he knows, which, in his case, isn’t easy because he’s withdrawn into a world in which his only friend is his brother. When this doesn’t work, his shrink suggests he adopt a dog, take it on long walks and simply write about what happens. Unfortunately, the scruffy terrier mix, Scottie – after F. Scott Fitzgerald – is as hapless as Calvin. At about the same time as Scottie arrives on the scene, however, Calvin begins to experience dreams in which a spectral figure gradually assumes the shape of a gorgeous young woman. She appears to take an instant liking to both man and dog. The dreams inspire Calvin to invent a fictional character, Ruby Sparks (Kazan), who one day appears fully blown in his living room, acting very much like his girlfriend.

Naturally, Calvin doesn’t believe his good luck. He waits to commit until her presence is confirmed by people who couldn’t possibly be in on such an elaborate practical joke. His brother can clearly see Ruby, but it takes a bit more to convince him that she’s a flesh-and-blood manifestation of Calvin’s imagination. As proof, he changes Ruby’s nationality in his manuscript to French, a language she suddenly begins speaking as if it were her native tongue. Once Calvin realizes the power of his pen and accepts it as real, he decides not to exploit it in nefarious ways. Ruby already digs him, so why mess with a good thing? When Calvin isn’t writing, however, Ruby isn’t evolving as an adult. This causes a dilemma for the novelist, who knows full well that he holds his lover’s fate in his hands and interesting books rarely are inspired by happy relationships. Kazan’s screenplay doesn’t rely on gimmicks or illogical behavior to maintain our interest in Ruby and Calvin’s dilemma. If, at first, her self-drawn character seems altogether too perfect, we know that it can’t last forever. Dano and Kazan, who are together in real life, display a natural chemistry on screen. There are times, however, when Ruby’s bright and upbeat personality makes Zooey Deschanel look like Oscar the Grouch. Also good are Annette Bening and Antonio Banderas as Calvin’s hippy-dippy mother and step-father. The Blu-ray adds several interviews and making-of featurettes, including one on how the filmmakers were able to avoid the clichés of shooting in Los Angeles. – Gary Dretzka

Take This Waltz: Blu-ray
It’s difficult to imagine any relationship drama in which Michelle Williams, Seth Rogan and Sarah Silverman could co-exist without it seeming as if they stepped out of the wrong screenplay. Throw in the annoyingly handsome Luke Kirby and a title borrowed from an achingly romantic song that Leonard Cohen adapted from a poem by Federico Garcia Lorca, and you have a movie that’s easy to market but difficult to explain. Once primarily known for her ability to steal the spotlight from better known actors in such indie flicks as “The Sweet Hereafter,” “Last Night,” “Guinevere,” “eXistenZ” and “The Weight of Water,” Sarah Polley has since proven herself as a formidable writer/director in “Away From Her,” which was as good a movie as was released in 2006. Take This Waltz” is a story about a woman, Margot, in her 30s, who seemingly has outgrown her marriage to a genuinely nice, if single-minded cookbook author, Lou (Rogan), when fate steps in to deliver the man of her recent dreams, nearly to her Toronto doorstep. Margot had coincidentally encountered Daniel (Kirby) – personable, but almost the polar opposite of Lou — on a writing assignment in Nova Scotia and, again, on the plane ride home. It isn’t until they agree to share a cab home that they realize they live across the street from each other. If the gods aren’t in cahoots, she thinks, what else could possibly be going on here? Williams tries to make Margot as unglamorous as possible, but she can’t contain the appeal that’s buried just below the surface of her makeup.

Despite the fact that Lou and Margot seem perfectly suited to each other – borderline nerds, but happy – he can’t match Daniel in the wish-fulfillment category. That Lou’s become obsessed with chicken dinners reflects how boring he must seem in Margot’s eyes. For his part, Daniel could hardly care less if Lou’s heart is broken. Ostensibly an artist, he makes a modest living steering a rickshaw, of all things, through the streets of Toronto and this allows him opportunities to interrupt Lou and Margot on their dates. Lou digs the rickshaw and is blissfully unaware of his wife’s discomfort when the three of them are in such close proximity. Margot may be embarrassed by her feelings for Daniel, but she clearly doesn’t want to share him with Lou. Playing in heavy rotation somewhere in the back of Margot’s head is the song, “Take This Waltz,” which demands that listeners throw caution to the wind and accept love for the miracle it is. Polley stages a pair of steamy pas de deux – one in an empty ballroom and the other as an underwater ballet – to convince us of Daniel’s magnetism and her need to once again be overwhelmed by love. Rubbing spices onto the skin of a broiler is no match for Daniel’s ability to waltz. Lou discovers her affair at approximately the same time as his cookbook becomes a best-seller. Still, Margot wants it all.

Her sister-in-law and confidante, Geraldine (Silverman), is a recovering alcoholic who can recognize an addict when she sees one and Margot has willing succumbed to the intoxicating fragrance of romance. If viewers maintain a slim hope that things will work out without anyone getting hurt, Geraldine knows that de-toxing from love is as difficult as kicking heroin or whiskey. It’s nice to see Silverman play a serious character in a drama for once, instead of being assigned the role of the snarky friend. As with Rogan, though, it takes a while to separate the actor from the role. Despite the incongruities, Polley walks the tightrope with ease, following a recipe of her own making that provides for a nourishing blend of drama and comedy, heartbreak and arousal. We care about all of the characters and what will happen to them by the end of the movie and beyond. If “Take This Waltz” isn’t nearly as accomplished as “Away From Her,” it’s still easy to recommend in DVD. Sadly, the movie’s release pattern bordered on incomprehensible. A shower scene, in which Williams and Silverman’s bodies are on full display, was leaked to adult sites within days of the movie’s debut at last year’s Toronto Film Festival.  By the time it resurfaced at the Tribeca and Seattle events, and soon thereafter on VOD platforms, it had already played in festivals around the globe. It would have been easy for American audiences to assume that “Take This Waltz” had already come and gone, with its DVD run imminent. Instead, at the end of June, it aired on another premium-cable channel, before a limited run in New York. The most screens “Take This Waltz” has played on simultaneously since then were 69, in mid-July. I get the whole multi-platform strategy, but there has to be a more logical way to promote indie movies than this. The Blu-ray arrives with a pair of making-of featurettes. – Gary Dretzka

Stealing Summers
If there is one great fantasy that has survived the passage of time, it’s the one in which American students believe it’s still possible to live like Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald on foreign soil  for more than a summer after graduation and partake in the movable feast spread before their eyes. If it’s always been more of a pipedream than a realistic alternative to the sameness of American life, well, even in the 1920s, home has never been more than a phone call away. In “Stealing Summers,” the feature debut of director David Martin Porras and writer Matt Lester, three American ex-patriots living in Buenos Aires plot a no-brainer heist that, of course, proves disastrous in execution. They do this is instead of writing novels, painting, hosting literary salons or exploring the provinces. Trevor and Sam roomed together at Duke, where they probably majored in attending basketball games in silly costumes and wearing war paint. The beautiful Alexandra attended Brown, alongside the spoiled children of rock stars and other celebrities. She has an Argentine boyfriend, who keeps hundreds of thousands of dollars in an unlocked drawer of his home office – cash is king in South America, we’re told — and guns to protect it. For recreation, Alexandra toots lines of her boyfriend’s cocaine off coffeetables and dances her way around town in the company of friends spending their junior years abroad. Trevor and Sam drink … a lot. We aren’t made privy to how these three co-conspirators fell into each other’s arms, but it’s enough to know that they did and that she’s managed to seduce both of them. Not particularly beholding to her boyfriend for anything besides drugs and a place to hang her Victoria’s Secret lingerie, Alexandra matter-of-factly alerts her new friends to the hidden treasure.

And, yes, the heist should have gone off without a hitch, but nothing like this ever does in Buenos Aires. This is especially true on the weekend of the “Superclasico” soccer match between the city’s greatest rivals, when the air is filled with unharnessed team spirit and the possibility of sectarian violence. If “Stealing Summers” feels more like a short story or character study, I’m not sure it would have gained anything by being made longer and more complex. Clocking in at a brisk 75 minutes, it’s as complete as it ought to be. For my money, the best thing about “Stealing Summers” is its depiction of streets teeming with sports fanatics, political opportunists, tourists and restaurant barkers. Even at night, the city looks beautiful. Alexandra and her boyfriend live in a high-rise apartment that provides a view of Buenos Aires money actually can buy. Despite their Duke education, the young men share a crummy apartment whose only view is provided by the mirror in the bathroom, and it isn’t pretty. All four of the primary characters seem credible as types you might encounter in a bistro or café in one foreign destination or another. They are played by smoking-hot Sophie Auster, Wilson Bethel (son of writer Joyce Maynard and artist Steve Bethel), James Jagger (son of Mick Jagger and Jerry Hall) and telenovela star Mariano Martinez. I can think of a lot worse ways to kill 75 minutes. – Gary Dretzka

Elvis & Madonna
After making the circuit of several dozen gay-and-lesbian film festivals – and a few mainstream events, as well – Breaking Glass Pictures has given this kooky 2010 Brazilian export an opportunity to find an audience of its own on DVD. “Elvis & Madonna” shares certain things with “La Cage Aux Folles” and “The Adventures of Priscilla: Queen of the Desert,” but is a far more modest enterprise. Set in Rio’s Copacabana district, Marcello Laffitte and Jose Carvalho’s rom-com describes a love affair between a transvestite hairdresser, Madonna, who moonlights as a showgirl, and a lesbian photographer, Elvis, who delivers pizzas on her motorbike, but aspires to being recognized as a photojournalist. They meet after Madonna’s brutish boyfriend – a Brazilian cross between Wes Studi, Oddjob and Danny Trejo – steals the money she’s been saving to open a nightclub and bounces her head off a table for good measure. Madonna had already ordered a pizza and, after Elvis arrives, she comforts the well-known and well-liked starlet-to-be. She also volunteers to take better photographs of her new friend than the ones she sees hanging on her walls. It takes almost no time for this unlikely pair to fall in love and consummate their relationship. In the course of photographing Madonna, Elvis takes a picture of her former boyfriend, Tripod Joe, selling drugs from his car. When it ends up on the front page of a local newspaper, Joe is arrested and temporarily rinsed from Madonna’s hair. Elvis’ subsequent pregnancy only complicates things a little more than they already are. Laffitte treats his many diverse characters and E&M’s romance with the same respect others reserve for straight characters in a more mainstream movie. While he leaves plenty of room for humor, the only person who could complain about getting a bum rap is Tripod Joe. – Gary Dretzka

Love & Valor: The Intimate Civil War Letters
One of the ways Ken Burns draws us into his documentaries is by humanizing the stories with photographs and letters found in family albums and boxes of memorabilia. There’s nothing more hauntingly personal than hearing the words of a husband and wife, separated by war, read by from a distance of 150 years. The release into DVD of “Love & Valor: The Intimate Civil War Letters” follows the publication of Charles F. Larimer’s book of the same title, in 2000, by specialty label Sigourney Press. Through the letters exchanged by his great-great-grandparents, Jacob and Emeline Ritner, Larimer has fashioned a chapter in the history of the Civil War that had eluded most researchers. Although it took a great deal of patience and not a small amount of luck, Larimer was able to collect the letters of Jacob and Emeline from separate sources, find some of the descendants and graves of people mentioned in them and add context to what we’ve already learned about various Civil War battles and campaigns. Before enlisting in 1st Iowa Infantry and re-enlisting in the 25th Iowa Infantry, which saw heavy action from Vicksburg to Charleston, Jacob was a teacher, farmer and father of four children in Mount Pleasant. From abolitionist stock, Jacob and Emeline believed strongly in the Union cause, freedom for slaves and President Lincoln. From what we learn in his letters, he had little patience with officers who, themselves, were racist and smoked, drank heavily, cussed and played cards around the campfires. (Out of religious principles, I believe.) From Emeline’s writings, we are able to understand how it felt to be left behind to fend for herself and their family, and how people in the community coped with their own struggles and tragedies.

“Love & Valor” appears to have been a labor of love and something of a one-man show. Although it isn’t likely that Larimer made much money off of the book, he staged re-enactments, traveled to locations mentioned in the letters and even was able to convince Brian Dennehy to share narration duties. In addition to the soldiers with whom Jacob served, we’re introduced to a young runaway slave who led Union soldiers two miles into a swamp, where a plantation owner had chained his slaves to trees in anticipation of the departure of the soldiers from his land after the siege of Vicksburg, and a Savannah merchant known as the Ice Merchant of Savannah, who hosted Jacob and other enemy troops for Christmas dinner in 1864. (During his research, Larimer would meet the great-great-grandson of the same man mentioned in the letters.) In the bonus features, he also describes things he’s learned about his ancestors – including Jacob’s aunt, who provided shelter to John Brown in her rooming house – in the years since the publication of the book and completion of the documentary. – Gary Dretzka

Steve Jobs: The Lost Interview
In the rush to beatify Steve Jobs, the media focused on the empire he helped build and products introduced in the last 10 years. His hyper-aggressive management style was duly noted, but, generally speaking, the term most frequently attributed to him was “visionary.” Obituary writers were too polite to dwell on the many despotic decisions he made after he corrected the course of Apple in his second tenure at the company. They included restricting how consumers used the popular mini-computers and hand-held entertainment devices they bought and arbitrarily censoring some of the content that they could download or stream. Neither was the extent of Apple’s reliance on poorly paid and virtually captive laborers at Chinese sub-contractors. Hey, no one wants to speak ill of the dead, but the deference shown Jobs bordered on the shameful. A more human, if geeky side of Jobs is revealed in the lengthy 1995 interview recently discovered gathering dust on a shelf in a Silicon Valley cupboard. The interview was conducted by Robert Cringely for his 1996 documentary, “Triumph of the Nerds: The Rise of Accidental Empires,” which chronicled the creation and evolution of personal computers. Jobs had been fired from Apple 10 years earlier, but would be re-hired a year later. In the meantime, he was focusing on his NeXT Computer startup and Pixar, which, in 1995, was putting the finishing touches on “Toy Story.”

The entrepreneur we meet in “Steve Jobs: The Lost Interview” is friendly, relaxed, talkative, generous with his praise of former “teammates” and dismissive of the suits who ousted him and nearly ran Apple into the ground. It helped, of course, that Cringely was a techie with a working knowledge of the development of the company and Jobs’ role in it. If anything, Jobs seems humbled by the experience of being fired and working hard to re-gain the respect of movers and shakers in the computing community. Upon his return to Apple, one of Jobs’ greatest tasks would be to relieve the stranglehold Microsoft was able to impose on the industry through its association with IBM-based PCs. While acknowledging Windows’ commercial and technological success, he dissed the company and Bill Gates, personally, for lacking any sense of “taste.” There’s no hint of such innovative products as iPhone, iPad, iTunes and the iTunes Store, all of which would be introduced much later. The DVD also includes commentary and an interview with the filmmaker and an enlightening extended interview with Andy Hertzfeld, the original Macintosh programmer at Apple. I don’t know when it was conducted but it seems to pre-date the widespread acceptance of handheld computers and hand-held devices, as well. – Gary Dretzka

BBCA: Copper: Season One
PBS: Upstairs Downstairs: Season Two
A&E: Coma
Adult Swim: Metalocalypse: Season 4
PBS: Gourmet’s Diary of a Foodies: Season 2
Apparently, the programming executives at BBC America aren’t content with providing Yank audiences with top-notch series from England – maybe because that once-fertile stream has been polluted with too many cooking shows and retread movies – because the network has begun creating original programming of its own and setting it in the U.S. Not surprisingly, perhaps, the first mini-series arrives in the form of a period drama involving immigrants from the British Isles. Exec-produced by Tom Fontana and Barry Levinson (“Oz,” “Borgia,” “Life on the Street”), among several other producers, “Copper” is a 10-part dramatic mini-series, which centers on Kevin Corcoran, an Irish-American cop whose beat includes New York’s Five Points neighborhood. It is the same god-forsaken place and time surveyed by Martin Scorsese in his hyper-violent “Gangs of New York,” which ended with the fierce Draft Riots 1863. In Tom Weston-Jones (“MI-5”), the hard-boiled cop has more on his mind than keeping the melting pot of malignant malcontents from self-destructing. He also is obsessed with the disappearance of his wife and the death of their daughter. To both ends, Corcoran welcomes the assistance of wartime compatriots, the son of a wealthy Fifth Avenue industrialist and an African-American physician from the emerging community of former slaves in rural northern Manhattan. The Blu-ray adds a making-of documentary, character profiles, deleted scenes and commentary.

Compared to what happened in Season One of the second edition of the posh British soap opera, “Upstairs Downstairs,” Season Two might as well be set in Peyton Place, U.S.A., instead of 165 Eaton Place, London, England. Indeed, it seems as if most of the first season was prelude to the steamy and hot-button material introduced almost immediately in the opening episode. Lady Agnes and Sir Hallam Holland (Keeley Hawes, Ed Stoppard) no longer can claim newlywed status and Hallam’s nosy mum, Maud, is history, as will be her pet monkey in due time. In her chair sits Aunt Blanche (Alex Kingston), whose secrets will soon be revealed, as well. Among the staff’s new duties are tending to a new baby Holland and trying to make sense of Agnes’ increasingly strange whims, which include forcing her charges to join her health and beauty regimen, adopting fashion trends and flirting with guests. Meanwhile, essential housekeeper Mrs. Rose Buck (Jean Marsh) is killing time in a rest home in the country and the Nazis have pulled the wool over Lord Chamberlain’s eyes. (Sir Hallam is far more skeptical of Hitler’s intentions and orders the staff to prepare for war.) Re-enter fascist groupie Lady Persphone (Claire Foy) and “Upstairs Downstairs” becomes a real hum-dinger of a domestic drama. The DVD set is comprised of six hourlong episodes and interviews with cast and crew.

When it comes to ideas for new mini-series to be shown on lower tier cable channels than HBO and Showtime, there are a few different ways to go: pay the freight necessary to purchase such quality entertainment as “Rescue Me,” “Mad Men” and “The Walking Dead”; tap into the Roger Corman horror pipeline for such hybrid creatures as “Dinoshark,” “Piranhaconda” and “Sharktopus”; or re-adapting movies produced, written or directed by such brand-name talents as Michael Crichton, Robin Cook, Robert Wise or Stephen King. Before retrofitting “Coma” for A&E, brothers Ridley and the late Tony Scott did the same for Crichton’s “The Andromeda Strain,” which was turned into a 175-minute mini-series with a more ethnically diverse cast and familiar, if not A-list actors. In the case of “Coma,” Crichton adapted the screenplay from Cook’s best-seller and directed it. Although it wasn’t a blockbuster, the 1978 medical thriller is remembered best for being Michael Douglas’ first major credit after leaving “The Streets of San Francisco.”  Once again, a young doctor becomes suspicious of the large number of healthy patients who fall into a coma after routine procedures. Lauren Ambrose replaces Genevieve Bujold as Susan Wheeler, the medical student who discovers that the patients are being warehoused in a facility away from the hospital and are hanging suspended in anticipation of some kind scientific breakthrough. Meanwhile, people in Wheeler’s orbit are being murdered or set up for crimes. How she manages to survive into Episode Two, during which the contents of the warehouse are revealed, remains a greater mystery than who’s behind the conspiracy. “Coma” picks up steam from there. In addition to Ambrose, the cast includes Richard Dreyfuss, Geena Davis, Ellen Burstyn, James Woods, Joe Morton and Steven Pasquale (“Rescue Me”).

One of the things that make heavy-metal musicians different than all others is that it’s almost impossible to discern when they’re playing a trick on their audiences and when they’re being deadly series. The same can be said of the animated Adult Swim series, “Metalocalypse.” It follows the exploits of Dethklok, which is said to be so commercially successful that it represents the seventh largest economy in the world. The band members are none too bright, even by rock-music standards, but they wreak havoc wherever they go and some detractors believe they could be harbingers of the Apocalypse. Among the guest stars in Season Four are Amber Tamblyn, Werner Herzog, Dweezil Zappa, John Hamm, Chris Elliot, Patton Oswalt and members of Corpsegrinder, 3 Inches Of Blood, Soundgarden and ZZ Top. The Blu-ray includes a Facebones DethGame, FanArt tribute, BlackKlok montage sequence, Nathan reads “A Comedy of Errors, band member stare-downs, “MurderThoughts,” a “Pickles Flyby” and featurette on the Tribunal.

Having been shoved out of the print marketplace by the Internet and dozens of niche dining and cooking shows, Gourmet magazine’s brand was used by Conde Nast to spearhead its efforts to exploit the Internet, books and television. Although it lasted only three seasons, “Gourmet’s Diary of a Foodie” was a classy addition to the genre. It benefitted both from the Gourmet braintrust and distribution through the PBS network of stations. Typically, the episodes were divided among regional cuisines, the insight of celebrity chefs, specific tastes and ingredients, various foodie crusades and trends. Watching a recipe being tested in Gourmet’s test kitchen also was a popular segment. Among the places visited in Season Two were New Zealand, Southern India, North Carolina, Baja and Vietnam. Other topics included bread, aromas, drinks, the art of culinary deception, blogs and sweets. – Gary Dretzka

Hallmark: Love’s Christmas Journey
The latest in a series of made-for-Hallmark movies based on the books of Janette Oke, “Love’s Christmas Journey” opens with recently widowed Ellie King (Natalie Hall) visiting her brother, Aaron (Greg Vaughan), and his children for Christmas. Even with the loss of her husband and daughter in a tornado, she tries her best to enjoy the holidays in a western town anticipating the possible arrival of the railroad. Even without a formal announcement, the town’s residents, greedy business interests and con artists are positioning themselves to profit from it. Bad luck appears to have followed Ellie when Aaron, the town’s sheriff, goes missing on a trip to check out some contested land. The Dove-approved “Love” series carries a family-friendly Christian message and has been compared to “Little House on the Prairie.” Among the guest stars are JoBeth Williams, Sean Astin and Ernest Borgnine. The DVD includes a souvenir greeting card. – Gary Dretzka

The DVD Wrapup: Magic Mike, Blade Runner, Invisible War, Abraham Lincoln, Sunday, Kovacs, Tinker Bell, Peter Gunn … More

Wednesday, October 24th, 2012

Magic Mike: Blu-ray
With the exception of the “Ocean’s” trilogy, Steven Soderbergh doesn’t seem to have made the same movie twice. He refuses to be confined by genre boundaries and never tires of surprising anyone who tries to pigeonhole his work. Neither does he limit his output to potential commercial successes. Box office returns for the entire theatrical runs of “Bubble,” “Che” and “The Girlfriend Experience,” together, didn’t come close to matching the opening weekend total of “Magic Mike,” which reportedly cost $7 million to make and returned nearly $114 million in North America, alone. Throw “Solaris” and “The Good German” into the mix and the numbers would still come up short. This isn’t to imply that the underperforming movies haven’t made back some of the money in ancillary markets or that the good will he’s earned as a producer doesn’t count for something in Hollywood, because it does. Moreover, the three “Ocean’s” romps have grossed nearly a billion dollars worldwide. In addition to making plenty of money for its investors – always a good thing – “Magic Mike” received excellent reviews in the mainstream media. I wasn’t all that impressed with the story, which reminded me of a more circumspect “Coyote Ugly” and a less daring “Dancing at the Blue Iguana” than something fresh and original, but Soderbergh’s contributions as editor and cinematographer are enchanting. The Blu-ray images are nothing short of spectacular, while his choice of camera angles and locations is inspired. Clearly, the actors were having the time of their lives, as well.

As you probably already know, “Magic Mike” is set in and around the world of male strip clubs that cater to straight women, many of whom are celebrating a birthday or participating in a bachelorette party. Unlike some of the party footage you can find on the Internet, nothing remotely hard core goes on at the Tampa nightclub owned by Matthew McConaughey’s Dallas. The elaborately choreographed dances and expensively costumed hunks are naughty, at worst, and the women in the crowds seem relatively composed … by Las Vegas standards, anyway. Reid Carolin’s script is informed by Channing Tatum’s own experiences as a 19-year-old dancer. He plays the title character, Mike, who, of course, has higher ambitions than stripping, but needs the bread to pursue them. Until that happens, he’s enjoying the fast life that comes with being a freakishly handsome man in a sea of horny women. Mike befriends a guy, Adam (Alex Pettyfer), he meets at one of his other odd jobs and convinces Dallas to give him a shot on the Club Xquisite stage. Although Adam lacks most of the usual social graces, he, too, is abnormally handsome, exceedingly fit and a natural dancer. Adam has a rather stern, if pretty sister, Brooke (Cody Horn), who completely disapproves of her brother’s career track, but gradually comes around to seeing something worthwhile in Mike. The screenplay borrows a subplot from “Boogie Nights,” by having Adam succumb to the temptation of selling drugs and taking advantage of some of the young women he entertains outside the club. Although Mike is arrow-straight, Brooke and Dallas both blame him for not keeping Adam from nearly self-destructing. If the ending ties everything up in too neat a bow, anything more realistic would have spoiled the movie’s natural trajectory.

I found it interesting that the only character who exposes anything more than butt cheeks in “Magic Mike” is his occasional girlfriend, Joanna. She’s played by Olivia Munn, who seems to have a bit of a kinky streak running through her, but more closely resembles the Sweetheart of Sigma Chi than a super-freak. There’s no questioning her physical bona fides, though. Straight guys required to watch “Magic Mike” with their significant others will definitely appreciate her sacrifice. Aspiring filmmakers, too, will find much to enjoy in the movie. Soderbergh is nothing if not inventive and, strictly as eye and ear candy, “Magic Mike” rivals the movie adaptations of “Chicago” and “Chorus Line.” The Blu-ray extras include a sizzle reel of dance scenes, extended routines and an undernorished making-of featurette. – Gary Dretzka

Blade Runner: 30th Anniversary Collector’s Edition: Blu-ray
At some point, Ridley Scott is going to have to stop monkeying with “Blade Runner” and let it rest on its already impressive laurels. We’ll give a pass to the “30th Anniversary Collector’s Edition,” if for no other reason than it looks and sounds so fantastic. It’s as if Scott made “Blade Runner” in anticipation of every not-yet-practical technological advance from Laserdisc to Blu-ray and was confident that he’d eventually be able to get it right … in his mind, anyway. Despite a shabby reception by audiences upon its release in 1982, “Blade Runner” has since been recognized – thanks in large part to home-video enthusiasts – for what it’s been all along: a masterpiece. If nothing else, it added the word “dystopian” to the vernacular and a portrait of a dying metropolis (Los Angeles, but it could have been Tokyo, Manhattan or Peking just as easily), circa 2019, that with a bit more acid rain could end up being spot-on. The fact is, there was so much bad mojo associated with the project from Day One that it’s nearly a miracle Scott didn’t give up in the development stage. He reportedly told author Philip K. Dick that he wasn’t interested in making an “esoteric” movie, but it boggled minds from the opening credits. Even before shooting was completed, grousing could be heard from participants, ranging from cast and crew to producers and studio heads, if for altogether different reasons. Because test audiences didn’t dig the movie’s deliberate pacing, imprecisely defined characters and non-traditional ending, a voice-over track was added in post-production, along with a happier ending that satisfied no one. Neither did it impress at the box office.

Sci-fi buffs would find it in video, but that spark wouldn’t ignite a flame until seven years later when a 70mm print of Scott’s original cut was discovered and shown at a film festival in Hollywood. In 1992, Warner Bros. sent this version out in what was purported to be the “director’s cut” edition, one of the first titles to make such a distinction. In 2001, Scott and producer Charles de Lauzinka committed themselves to an actual director’s-cut version, employing state-of-the-art technology and adding various re-conceptualizations. For legal reasons, the planned 2002 DVD release wasn’t cleared for a theatrical run until 2007, as “Blade Runner: The Final Cut.” Anyone who already owns the “Ultimate Collector’s Edition” gift set should know that the equivalent “30th Anniversary Collector’s Edition” adds an all-new concept Spinner Car; action Lenticular; a 72-page art-production book with Scott’s sketches, poster art and photos from the set; and an UltraViolet copy. The “Final Cut” Blu-ray remains the same version that was restored and re-mastered from original elements and scanned at 4K resolution, with a the 5.1 Dolby Digital audio track. In addition to the “Final Cut,” with three separate commentary tracks, the sets contain the original 1982 theatrical and slightly more violent International versions; the 1992 “Director’s Cut”; and a “Workprint” version, with commentary and a making-of featurette. Anyone with the time and inclination will find something worthwhile in all of the versions. – Gary Dretzka

Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter
If advocates of the Birther movement have been allowed to spread their insane message by exploiting the willingness of the media to repeat partisan nonsense, even if they eventually knock it back down, I reserve the right to believe Abraham Lincoln could have been President by day and a slayer of undead Confederate plotters by night. Both theories are equally stupid, but only one qualifies as entertainment. In addition to Seth Grahame-Smith and Timur Bekmambetov’s highly entertaining “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter,” we recently saw the release into DVD of the Asylum “mockbuster” “Abraham Lincoln vs. Zombies.” I’ve yet to see the latter, but assume that its basic premise is the same as the movie it mocks: armies of vampires and zombies used the Civil War as an opportunity to take control of the split republic, first by lending their support to rebel forces and, then, invading Washington, D.C. In Birther mythology, of course, if President Obama were to win a second term, hordes of Kenyans of the Muslim persuasion would descend on the capital on Inauguration Day, after which their leaders would be appointed to leadership positions in his Cabinet. I’m guessing that Obama’s detractors would prefer vampires and zombies to more liberals and illegal aliens.

Bekmambetov’s period thriller benefits mightily from his decision to refrain from snarky asides and wink-wink humor and play the material straight down the middle. By assuming that grown-up audiences would be willing to suspend their disbelief long enough to be entertained, he was allowed the luxury of not having to make his protagonist a caricature of his historic image. After a young Abe Lincoln (Benjamin Walker) witnesses the death of his mother to a vampire, he vows to exact justice on the fiends. A few years later, he encounters a mysterious young man, Henry Sturgess (Dominic Cooper), willing to teach him the ins and outs of vampire hunting. Because of his rail-splitting expertise, it’s only natural for Lincoln to choose a silver-bladed ax as his weapon of choice. Rufus Sewell and Erin Wasson play Lincoln’s most aggressive foes, going so far as to sneaking into the White House and attacking one of their sons. It wouldn’t be fair to reveal the killer app that turns the tables at Gettysburg, except to say that it’s a logical alternative to crosses, garlic and wooden stakes. There’s also a terrific scene aboard a moving train, during which Lincoln and Sturgess battle vampires who are intent on capturing the secret weapon. Who knew Abe could move like that?

Bekmambetov’s team was able to take advantage of the period authenticity still provided by New Orleans’ French Quarter, the Oak Alley Plantation in Vacherie, Louisiana, and outlying areas used to stage combat scenes. The look is further enhanced by the cinematography of Caleb Deschanel and the attention to detail paid by set and costume designers. It’s probably also worth mentioning that Tim Burton is listed among the producers and, as the First Lady, Mary Elizabeth Winstead couldn’t look less like the unflattering photographs we’ve seen of Mary Todd Lincoln. A 3D version of “Vampire Hunter” also was released and is available on Blu-ray. Among the supplementary features are commentary by the author; a graphic novel, “The Great Calamity”; an extensive making-of piece; and music video by Linkin Park. – Gary Dretzka

Sunday Bloody Sunday: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
It would be difficult to exaggerate the controversy associated with the release of John Schlesinger’s brilliant 1971 relationship drama, “Sunday Bloody Sunday,” both here and the director’s native England. The buzz leading up to its debut was generated by a single scene, early in the story, in which a gay doctor, Daniel (Peter Finch), and his much younger lover, Bob (Murray Head), exchange a brief kiss. In context, it was a perfectly natural and spontaneous gesture. Both men are clothed, vertical and not at all ashamed by the private display of affection. Contrary to the gossip generated in the media, the kiss was significant to the story only as a way to demonstrate the men’s fondness for each other and it wasn’t intended to deliver a message, one way or another. (In the days of the Production Code, one or both of the men would have been required to commit suicide, go insane or marry the girl next-door.) While critics embraced the movie for all the right reasons, reporters from other newspaper departments were assigned to survey audience members to get the impressions, not about the movie in its entirety, but the then-scandalous embrace. Almost all of them came back with a quote to the effect, “It almost made me vomit,” which, of course, was the response their editors desired. Even though “Sunday Bloody Sunday” wasn’t a box-office hit, it was nominated for an Academy Award in the top four categories. Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Director and Best Writing. It’s certainly possible that some fans of Schlesinger’s previous triumph, “Midnight Cowboy,” had somehow missed that film’s homosexual subtext and were expecting something completely different from “Sunday.” Or, perhaps, lovers of “Far From the Madding Crowd,” “Darling” and “Billy Liar” anticipated a lecture on gay rights and took a pass on it. The Stonewall riots were fresh in the minds of most arthouse habitués, after all, and the movement was gathering steam. The upshot was that its box-office failure freed Hollywood from treating homosexuality or gay characters with any degree of honesty for years thereafter.

The kiss notwithstanding, Bob is every bit as romantically involved with a thirty-something woman — employment counselor, Alex, played by Glenda Jackson – who knows the physician and is aware of their relationship. She also knows that there isn’t anything – short of murder, and “Sunday Bloody Sunday” isn’t that kind of movie – that would keep Bob from Daniel. In fact, it’s difficult to gauge Bob’s appeal to either of his lovers, except to note that he’s an artist and remarkably handsome. Otherwise, he’s kind of a drip. The central issue here is how Alex and Daniel react to the news that Bob is about to travel to America, where he hopes to sell his kinetic sculptures, and probably stay there for a while, effectively breaking up with both of them. That neither of them freaks out, commits suicide or asks the other to get married is what differentiated “Sunday Bloody Sunday” from the usual portrayal of scorned lovers. Forty years later, it’s difficult to believe any controversy was attached to “Sunday Bloody Sunday,” especially considering its intended audience of sophisticated adults. Far more fascinating is the continuing debate, as described in the Blu-ray featurettes, over who’s more responsible for the screenplay, Schlesinger or the Oscar-nominated Penelope Gilliatt. The novelist and critic died in 1993, so no longer is around to defend herself against his assertions that he was more responsible for the screenplay, as shot, than she was. He sounds extremely bitter over the inability of critics to have intuited how his changes made “Sunday Bloody Sunday” a better picture than it would have been. He cites the fact that he experienced just such a relationship and it informed his interpretation of the story, even if she received single credit. Criterion Collection has added new interviews with biographer William J. Mann; photographer Michael Childers, the director’s longtime partner; actor Murray Head, cinematographer Billy William and set designer Luciana Arrighi; illustrated audio excerpts from a seminar given by Schlesinger at the American Film Institute in 1975; and a booklet with essays by critic Terrence Rafferty and cultural historian Ian Buruma, as well as Gilliatt’s 1971 introduction to the film’s screenplay. – Gary Dretzka

The Invisible War
Kirby Dick is a documentarian of uncommon perseverance and an uncanny ability to ferret his way through barriers put up by hypocritical organizations that most Americans trust implicitly and defend against perceived slander. These have included the Roman Catholic Church (“Twist of Faith”), U.S. Congress (“Outrage”) and the Motion Picture Association of America (“This Film Is Not Yet Rated”). Already making headlines and raising eyebrows is “The Invisible War,” which in its documentation of widespread rape, discrimination, bullying and cover-ups makes the U.S. military look like a barbarian horde. It is as shocking as any of the documentaries about sexual misconduct among priests and many viewers will take the accusations as personally as coverage of the My Lai massacre, which also was perpetrated by average soldiers and career officers. The Pentagon and politicians traditionally have been given a pass, as well, in cases of rape committed in combat zones and outside our bases around the world. Boys will boys, after all, and drunken rampages are as much a part of the military experience as the deprivations imposed during boot camp. This attitude prevailed as women began playing important roles in the armed services. It wasn’t until the revelation of sexual assaults on 83 women and 7 men, committed by more than 100 Navy and Marine Corps aviators at the 1991 Tailhook Association convention, however, that media coverage forced the Pentagon and Congress to act. Even though several officers were disciplined or lost their jobs, we’re told, the good ol’ boys and girls in command continue not only to overlook rape, but they also punish the victims by denying them benefits and prosecuting them for breaking ranks. The vast majority of American military personnel is innocent of any wrongdoing and, themselves, would be shocked by the information forwarded in this film. The “wall of silence,” however, remains a very real problem, just as it does among cops, crooks, corporate executives and honor-code-bound students caught in cheating scandals.

In “The Invisible War,” possibly for the first time, dozens of victims of sexual assaults come forward to describe their experiences. This includes both women and men, whose attackers likely would be insulted if they were referred to as gay. Indeed, they’re no more homosexual than the imprisoned sexual sadists who prey on weaker convicts. The statistics are horrifying: a female soldier in a combat zone is more likely to be raped by a fellow soldier than killed by enemy fire; 20 percent of all active-duty servicewomen have been sexually assaulted; in 2010, alone, the Department of Defense processed reports of 3,198 new assaults, but estimated the actual number of assaults to be closer to 19,000; and these reports resulted in convictions against only 244 perpetrators. The charges in many cases were reduced to facilitate judgments that prevented the guilty servicemen from being included on the national sexual-offenders list, where at least some of them belonged. After the Sundance debut of the film and a private screening, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta ended the practice of commanders prosecuting sexual assault cases from within their own units. As is pointed out in the movie, working through the chain of command often meant that officers would refuse to punish buddies or, in some cases, reveal their own complicity. If the war in Afghanistan ever ends, perhaps, the military can take a year off from killing and fix itself. The special features include extended interviews, deleted scenes, a post-screening speak-out session and introductions to VetWOW and National Veterans Wellness & Healing Center, organizations and retreats for veterans of both genders experiencing PTSD. – Gary Dretzka

The Ambassador: Blu-ray
At first glance, you’d think that making a film documenting crime and corruption in central Africa, and exposing the underground trade in passports and other official documents, would be as difficult as fishing with hand grenades. It pretty much is, but no one told Mads Brügger that the hard part would be staying alive long enough to see it finished. In “The Ambassador,” Brugger tells one of those stranger-than-fiction stories that are alternately frightening and hilarious. A journalist, TV host and amateur comedian, Brugger’s original target was the easy availability of fraudulent diplomatic credentials, if one knows where to look and can afford them. Once obtained, the documents open the door to powerful and influential people willing to trade their nation’s most valuable commodities for foreign currency and sometimes allow for diplomatic immunity. The Dane’s last “ironic” documentary, “The Red Chapel,” took him to North Korea, so, by comparison, how much worse could things be in the Central Africa Republic? Pretty bad, it turns out.

Looking like a cross between Hunter S. Thompson, Sascha Baron Cohen and the late comedian, Michael O’Donoghue, Brugger often affected the look of a mid-20th Century “colonial dandy.” Brugger’s triumph in “The Ambassador” is to show, using tiny surveillance cameras, what transpires in the inner chambers of corrupt states and recording the musings of fellow diplomats, local wiseguys and swindlers. To put it mildly, it’s appalling. When one confidante suggests that the diamonds can be smuggled out of the country by secreting them in various orifices of the body, it pushes Brugger’s co-conspirator – production manager Eva Jakobsen – almost over the brink of sanity. The commentary track allows him the opportunity to expand on his experiences in ways that wouldn’t have fit the context of the theatrical version. A booklet with photos and credits also is included. – Gary Dretzka

Secret of the Wings: Blu-ray 3D/2D
DreamWorks Spooky Stories: Blu-ray

If one were ignorant of the importance of Mickey Mouse to the birth and development of the Walt Disney Company and its global empire, it would be easy to mistake Jenny-come-lately Tinker Bell for the corporation’s flag bearer. Tink’s been around for as long as Peter Pan and Wendy, although in a subordinate role for most of those 108 years. Even in Disney’s 1953 animated feature, the pixie was rendered without a voice or wand. Those would come much later. In 1954, when Disney expanded its reach into television and other electronic media, Tinker Bell became the company’s unofficial hostess and a cross-platform star in her own right. Although the character has since been played by such actors as Julia Roberts, Jane Horrocks and Ludivine Sagnier, it wasn’t until Disney’s straight-to-DVD “Tinker Bell” was released in 2008 that the animated Tink was allowed a voice. It belonged to Mae Whitman (“Parenthood”) and has been heard on “Tinker Bell and the Lost Treasure,” “Tinker Belle and the Great Fairy Rescue,” “Pixie Hollow Games” and, now, “Secret of the Wings,” all of which are set not in Neverland, but Pixie Hollow. She has a teeny-tiny waxwork sculpture in Madam Tussauds, a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and her own Disney franchise, “Disney Fairies.” For all the money Tinker Bell’s earned for Disney, she might as well be Oprah Winfrey.

In “Secret of the Wings,” Tinker Bell can’t understand why summer fairies are prohibited from visiting the Winter Woods or why messages from the winter fairies must be delivered by magnificent snowy owls. Although she isn’t dressed for cold-weather conditions Tink decides to hitch a ride to the forbidden land. Once there, she meets her long-lost sister, Periwinkel (Lucy Hale), who introduces her to the joys of ice skating, tobogganing and throwing snowballs. Lord Milori of the Winter Woods (Timothy Dalton) and Queen Clarion of the Summer Woods (Anjelica Huston) have their reasons for maintaining a distance between their kingdoms, some of which involve topical environmental issues, but Tinker Bell’s a formidable opponent. Anyway, the computer-generated animation is wonderful – it also is available in Blu-ray 3D – and the story should be of interest to boy kiddies as well as girl kiddies. The supplementary material includes music videos by the McClain Sisters and Zendaya; a preview of “Fright Light”; and “Pixie Hollow Games,” an animated short in which the fairies stage their own Olympics-style competition.

If, however, your boy kiddies balk at feigning interest in fairies and pixies – however foxy – I’m certain they’ll find something in “Shrek’s Spooky Stories” to enjoy, especially in the lead-up to Halloween. Very little has been lost in the transition between the big and small screens. The characters retain their individual personalities and characteristics, while the animation is typically first-rate. Much of the humor derives from the homages paid to classic Hollywood horror movies, with familiar DreamWorks characters standing in the immortal monsters. (A reformed ogre playing a monster, indeed!) The titles include “Thriller,” “The Ghost of Lord Farquaad,” “Scarred Shrekless,” “The Pig Who Cried Werewolf,” “Monsters vs. Aliens: Mutant Pumpkins From Outer Space” and “Night of the Living Carrots.” Besides Shrek and his family, the characters have been enlisted from “Monsters vs. Aliens,” “Puss in Boots” and various fairytales represented in the kingdom. The extras include a pop-up trivia track for “Night of the Living Carrots,” music videos and previews. – Gary Dretzka

The Ernie Kovacs Collection, Volume 2
Ernie Kovacs Presents Percy Dovetonsils … Thpeaks

One of the most highly anticipated and glowingly reviewed DVD sets of 2011 was Shout!Factory’s “The Ernie Kovacs Collection.” The 6-disc, 780-minute package introduced countless viewers to the genius who pioneered the talk- and variety-show genre, while also creating illusions and special effects still copied by hosts of late-night chat shows and comedians. For those old enough to remember watching Kovacs live or via kinescope, the collections brought back indelible images of a medium in its infancy. Kovacs often worked without a net, testing limits and borders that had yet to be established. “The Ernie Kovacs Collection, Volume 2” extends the legacy of an entertainer who died too young, but left the bar set at an extremely high level. It weighs in at a slightly more compact 3 discs, 540 minutes, if only because it literally takes us to the point of his fatal car crash in January, 1962. The material here benefits from being less primitively recorded and surprisingly diverse. The compilation includes 8 more episodes From Kovacs’ national morning show; 18 bonus sketches, featuring many of his beloved characters; 3 complete episodes of “Take a Good Look,” his anarchic answer to “What’s My Line?”; the pilot for the sitcom, “A Pony for Chris,” co-starring Buster Keaton; the only existing filmed solo interview; and a 2011 post-screening panel at the American Cinematheque, with entertainers who worked alongside Kovacs or were heavily influenced by him. There would been plenty more material available if it weren’t for the fact that short-sighted executives at ABC and Dumont hadn’t taped over the stored shows or dumped them in the ocean. A similarly fate awaited kinescopes of Johnny Carson’s “Tonight Show” while it was still shot in New York.

In June, Omnivore Recordings did all fans of Kovacs a great favor by releasing – for the first time – the album upon which the comedian was working at the time of his death, “Ernie Kovacs Presents Percy Dovetonsils … Thpeaks.” His shows’ outrageous “poet laureate” would register very low on the Meter of Political Correctness today, I’m afraid. He was to poetry what Liberace was to the piano, an unabashed and unapologetic caricature of his own outrageous persona. Sadly, Percy possessed none of Liberace’s estimable talent. Routinely introduced with a flourish of harp music, Dovetonsils was distinguished by heavily slicked hair, with two spit-curls plastered to his forehead; extraordinarily thick glasses, whose lenses are dominated by large eyeballs; a zebra-patterned smoking jacket; an ever-present martini glass and cigarette holder; and a decided lisp. He delivered his poems in a self-satisfied style that emphasized how goofy they were. Among the titles are “Thoughts While Falling Off the Empire State Building,” “Ode to a Housefly (Philosophical Ruminations on a Beastie in the Booze),” “Ode to Sam, the Taller of the Two Monkeys” and “The Night Before Christmas on New York’s Fashionable East Side.” You might want to hit pause on the DVD, so you can see Percy while listening to him read. It’s easily half the fun. – Gary Dretzka

Wrong Turn 5: Bloodlines: Blu-ray
Dropping Evil
Bloody Christmas

Like most every other states in the union, West Virginia has a state motto, slogan, color, bird, animal, fish, flower, tree and song. For some reason, legislators also saw fit to choose an official state insect, reptile, rock, butterfly, fossil, gemstone, soil, fruit and tartan. What it doesn’t have is an official state movie franchise. May I suggest the five installments of the “Wrong Turn” series? What, besides a John Denver song, says West Virginia quite as well as mountains, forests, rivers, automatic weapons in the hands of crazed mass murderers and in-bred cannibal hillbillies, all of which figure prominently in all five episodes? “Wrong Turn 5: Bloodlines” differs from the other four episodes very little. Once again, a group of clueless tourists (this time, college kids) encounters a family of grotesquely disfigured hillbillies while on their way to the annual Halloween Mountain Man Festival. The town is so small it has one only cellphone tower and no replacement generators, both of which are put out of commission by the killers. The twist here is that the hillbillies’ self-proclaimed father – a relatively normal looking fugitive serial killer – has been arrested and he’s thrown in the hoosegow with one of the students. His “sons” will do anything in their considerable powers to spring the old man from jail. In fact, it’s only matter of time. Before that can happen, though, the pinheads find it necessary to slaughter more than a dozen people who get in their way. The result is a bloodbath that, while gory, isn’t at all frightening. What’s scary are threats hurled at the town’s only surviving sheriff, a woman, by the “father,” who’s played with great menace by Doug Bradley, a.k.a., Pinhead in the “Hellraiser” series. The Blu-ray comes with the behind-the-scenes pieces, “A Day in the Death,” “Hillbilly Kills” and “Director’s Die-aries”; and commentary by director Declan O’Brien

By all appearances, the micro-budget “Dropping Evil” was intended as a franchise product. Three years and very little demand later, director Adam Protexter and writer Louis Doerge are fortunate to see “Dropping Evil” being released on video, with three mini-sequels included in the bonus package, along with deleted scenes and other material. This is one very strange movie, by anyone’s standards. It begins with an aborted camping trip, during which a religious fanatic is slipped a dose of LSD by his three companions, if only to shut him up. Instead, he demands to be let out of the moving vehicle, so that he can pick up a stick and beat the crap out of his “friends.” Meanwhile, somehow, the evil ValYouCorp is monitoring the incident via a camera embedded in one of the young people’s eye. The company believes that God’s “disappearance” can be solved by teenagers, but only if they’re involved in the procedure. It’s goofy, if not to the point where it could reach cult status. Any movie in which Tiffany Shepis is the brightest star and best actor – no offence, intended — is one with which no one needs to reckon.

Sometimes, it’s easy to give micro-budget indies of the DIY persuasion the benefit of a doubt. There’s usually a grain of something interesting lurking therein or worth staying awake for 90 minutes to find. Unless an aspiring filmmaker has robbed a convenience store to get the money to pay the actors, it’s better to encourage talent than condemn ineptitude. Michael Shershenovich’s “Bloody Christmas” uses horror to deliver a message about rampant consumerism and the people who have “taken Christ out of Christmas.” His avengers include a sad-sack Santa and killer priest, while the victims come in various shapes, sizes and colors. Unlike Chanukah, Kwanza and Ramadan, Christmas has provided a solid launching pad for slasher specialists ever since the 1974 release of “Silent Night, Evil Night” and “Black Christmas.” Shershenovich’s only previous experience in feature films was as production coordinator and set designer on “Bad Biology.” Here, he’s cited as director, writer, cinematographer, producer, editor and actor. That’s five too many responsibilities for any first-time filmmaker to take on and it shows. – Gary Dretzka

The Slut
Tokyo Playboy Club
Climb It, Tarzan!
Cherry.

Of all the loaded words in the English language, “slut” carries one of the most explosive charges. Sexual semantics allow for as many different interpretations as there are people who use such four-letter words – longer ones, too – as nouns, verbs, adverbs, adjectives, expletives, slurs and terms of endearment. The elasticity of the English language can be a wonderful thing. In a review I read of the recent Israeli export, “The Slut,” the author argues that the title has been mistranslated or purposefully changed to something more provocative than “The Giver.” Not being adept at the Google translator app, I’ll take his word for it. Having watched “The Slut,” I would suggest that the latter title is the more accurate one. Freshman writer/director/star Hagar Ben-Asher plays the single mother of two young daughters, living in a cooperative agricultural settlement that seemingly is bereft of any women, let alone attractive ones in their mid-thirties. Some people might consider Tamar to be a woman who defines the term, slut, because she willingly has four men on her sexual string and demands nothing from them in turn. I think that Tamara more closely resembles a “giver,” for the simple reason that she doesn’t appear to derive any sensual pleasure from her encounters and appears merely to be servicing several of the men in the settlement. They come to her when they need to get off and she willingly complies. If anything, it’s charity. The movie’s drama, such as it is, derives from the position in which she finds herself when an old acquaintance returns to the area and they enter into a romantic relationship. This would be swell, except for the fact that Tamar eventually comes to the conclusion that she’s more interested in personal freedom than monogamy and she truly does enjoy making men happy. I wish I could report there was something more to “The Slut” than that, but I couldn’t find it. The only truly disturbing thing about it is watching her pre-teen daughters watching mom in flagrante delicto and aping some of her gestures. The rural setting was interesting, at least, if only because it’s so different from the usual views we get of Israel.

Anyone looking for Bunnies at the Tokyo Playboy Club will be sorely disappointed. The closest this movie comes to Playmate of the Year material are three giggly hookers who dress up in costumes and don’t seem to have many customers. Anyone looking for a terrific yakuza flick from out of left field, though, will find one in writer/director Yosuke Okuda’s “Tokyo Playboy Club.” Any resemblance between the cheesy brothel of the title and the nightclub atop the Palms resort in Las Vegas wouldn’t merely be coincidental, it would be impossible. Action star Nao Omori (“Ichi the Killer,” “The Vulture”) plays an out-of-work businessman, Katsutoshi, who kills a wiseass student with a monkey wrench, because he was making too much noise and the tool was handy. The assailant decides to make a quick trip to Tokyo, where his cousin, Sekichi (Ken Mitsuishi), runs the aforementioned nightclub for the yakuza. It doesn’t take long for Katsutoshi to take advantage of his cousin’s generosity by beating a mob associate to a pulp in the men’s room of a restaurant. The ante is raised when the two men find themselves in possession of the body of a yakuza boss who died of electro-shock while attempting to rape a young woman whose boyfriend betrayed him. When the boss’ evil brother comes around demanding answers, Katsutoshi freely admits his role in making the body disappear and he doesn’t care who knows it. With its extreme displays of violence and twisted sense of humor, “Tokyo Playboy Club” should remind genre buffs of the early work of Takashi Miike. That’s high praise for the newcomer, Okuda.

And, speaking of titles, it would be difficult to beat the one writer/director Jared Masters gave his most recent sleaze epic, “8 Reels of Sewage.” Talk about tempting fate, this one takes the cake. New to DVD is Masters’ 2011 homage to the pre-“Deep Throat” sexploitation era, “Climb It, Tarzan!,” and, even after watching it, no, I can’t recall seeing anyone who looks even remotely like the King of the Apes. Fact is, there aren’t any men in the cast of several dozen largely unknown actors. Neither is there a semblance of a plot. There is, however, a lesbian pinup photographer who holds one of the many aspiring actresses who come to her for work hostage and uses her as a sexual plaything. Otherwise, the women spend an inordinate amount of time gabbing on vintage dial telephones and walking around half-dressed. This one’s strictly for fanciers of do-it-yourself cinema and other oddities.

I don’t know why “Cherry.” has a period tacked to the end of it, except to distinguish it from the many other unpunctuated movies titled, in part or whole, “Cherry.” It refers specifically to Brian Cherry, an overly sensitive young man whose discomfort around women is palpable. Naturally, his best guy pal, Sam (Rey Valentin), is the complete opposite of Brian (co-writer David Crane). One night, at a Los Angeles tavern, Sam spots a brunette, Jules (Lili Bordan) who looks as if she had been hired by Satan to tempt men into selling their souls for a hand job. Sam talks Brian into buying a drink for Jules and following it up with a bit of conversation. He even goes so far as to approach Jules and offering her cash merely to be nice to his timid friend. Even though she pretends to be offended by the offer, Jules surprises everyone – viewers included – by entering into a relationship with Brian. Sam senses trouble in the offing and warns Brian about what happens when opposites stop attracting. As much as Sam tries to keep his prophecy from coming true, by resisting Jules’ unexpected advance, he succumbs to her wiles. It leads to a broken heart for Brian, but not because he knows what happened that night. She merely decides that the affair has run out of gas and splits. What doesn’t make any sense at all is Jules’ insistence on revealing the truth about his best friend’s betrayal when they run into each other six months later and she and Sam have entered into a relationship of their own. What happens next is so clumsily handled by director Quinn Saunders that it makes everything that happened earlier in the movie suspect. The only thing I retained from “Cherry.” is a lingering image of Bordan, who’s real deal, in a Linda Fiorentino sort of way. – Gary Dretzka

Circle Jerks: My Career as a Jerk
The production of films documenting the rise and fall of rock bands has grown into something of a cottage industry. It doesn’t matter if the subject is a group with the impact of the Rolling Stones and Beatles or, in the case of “SpokAnarchy,” a nearly forgotten punk scene in an isolated corner of the American Northwest. The value of each of these rock-docs is determined largely by the passion of the groups’ fans. “Circle Jerks: My Career as a Jerk” is interesting because it not only describes what made a popular band important, but also how it fit into musical milieu. Here, it’s the SoCal hard rock and punk scene, which, in the late-1970s, had blossomed into a viable force everywhere except mainstream radio. Formed in late 1979, the Circle Jerks was comprised of former members of Black Flag and Redd Kross, but would see a revolving door of personnel representing several other Los Angeles bands. It was a hyper-dynamic unit then and has continued that way through its many incarnations and reunions. Filmmaker David Markey (“1991: The Year Punk Broke”) has created a blend of in-depth interviews, live footage and historical perspective to illustrate the band’s story. It isn’t radically different from dozens of other rock-docs, but fans of hardcore punk should enjoy it. – Gary Dretzka

Peter Gunn: The Complete Series
Wallander3
Fantasy Island: The Complete Third Season
Ghost Hunters: Season 7: Part 2

The release on DVD of all 114 episodes of the classic TV series, “Peter Gunn,” is good news for all sorts of reasons, the least of which may be the shows themselves. From 1958-61, Craig Stevens played the hipster private detective, who dug cool jazz, “dated” a sultry cabaret singer (Lola Albright), got referrals from a friendly police detective (Herschel Bernardi) and used a wharf-side gin mill for his office. The show was created, written and occasionally directed by Blake Edwards, who had previously written for “Richard Diamond, Private Detective” and would go on to make such movies as “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” “Days of Wine and Roses,” the “Pink Panthers” series and “10,” among other comedies. Even more memorable is the show’s theme song and background music contributed by Henry Mancini. The “Peter Gunn Theme” and two soundtrack albums became huge hits and guitar wizards, ranging from Duane Eddy to Jeff Beck, have covered the trademark song. From a distance of 50 years, the crime-detecting aspect of the show’s borders on the ridiculous. Packaged to fit 30 minutes of interrupted air time, the teleplays gave Gunn just enough time to solve complex crimes, hang out with his girlfriend and share wisecracks over corpses with Lieutenant Jacoby. Edwards seems to have enjoyed taking Gunn out of his natural habitat – an unnamed coastal city – and sticking him into situations where he might be required to wear a Howdy Doody cowboy outfit and traipse around in fins and scuba gear. If it lacked all credibility, “Peter Gunn” succeeded at being undeniably entertaining. The Timeless Media Group set also includes a disc of Mancini’s soundtrack music.

By now, no introduction should be needed to Henning Mankell’s brooding Swedish police detective, Kurt Wallander, whether he’s being played by Krister Henriksson or, in the English-language “Wallander3,” by Kenneth Branagh. Both editions of the series are readily available on DVD, if not all PBS outlets, and both qualify as a must-see television. It does, however, still feel a bit odd to listen to Branagh’s unaccented English coming out of the mouth of the same crime-obsessed Swedish cop in the same location, Ystad, where the novels and series are set. Frankly, though, after a half-hour it barely matters and subtitle-phobic Americans can rest assured their brains won’t be overly taxed by the experience. The three 90-minute episodes included in this boxed set are “An Event in Autumn,” based on “The Grave,” a short story published only in the Netherlands; “The Dogs of Riga,” which takes Our Hero to the capital of Latvia to assist in a drug case; and “Before the Frost,” in which Wallander’s semi-estranged daughter plays a key role. Most mystery buffs already appreciate the quality of the works from which these stories have been adapted. These mini-series are just as compelling.

Not much has changed on “Fantasy Island” in Season Three. Mr. Roarke (Ricardo Montalban) and Tatoo (Herve Villechaize), are still greeting the planes and resolving problems – romantic and otherwise — that can’t be fixed anywhere else in the world. Among the guest stars this time around are Peter Graves, Abe Vigoda, Doris Roberts, Roddy McDowall, Don Adams, Sonny Bono, Dick Sargent, Fred Williamson, John Larroquette, David Cassidy, Leslie Nielsen, Bob Denver, Annette Funicello and Robert Goulet. I wonder what “Fantasy Island” would look like with an A-list cast.

You’d think all of the ghosts worth finding have already been cornered by the TAPS team, by now. Apparently, there are still a few of the boogers left. Hauntings are getting a bit harder to detect, though. The second half of Season Seven found “Ghost Hunters” in such places as the Carnegie Library, in Homestead, Pa.; Hawaii’s Plantation Village; the Friars’ Club, in New York; Missouri State Penitentiary; Buffalo Trace Distillery, in Frankfort, Kentucky; and Hartford’s Elk Lodge No. 19. Wouldn’t you love to see TAPS take on the ghosts of the White House and Disneyland? – Gary Dretzka

Kartemquin: The Last Pullman Car
History: Disasters Deconstructed: A History of Architectural Disasters
Nova: Secrets of the Viking Sword

Long before anyone had heard of Bain Capital, outsourcing, NAFTA and the auto-industry bailout, the closing of a century-old interest in Chicago and Indiana presaged the collapse of America’s Rust Belt economy. Kartemquin Films (“Hoop Dreams”), which then focused almost exclusively on labor and other progressive causes, committed its cameras to documenting the impending closure of the plants where Pullman Company’s railroad sleeping cars were built. In 1981, Pullman workers dedicated themselves to the effort to convince state and national legislators to stall the closure and/or enact laws protecting the 8,000 Pullman workers from the immediate loss of their jobs and benefits. As is demonstrated in “The Last Pullman Car,” the unions were greeted with false promises, outright disdain and legislative inaction. Today, such treatment is commonplace. That their union was duped by the company, as well, added insult to injury. The documentary also chronicles the history of labor unrest and occasional progress at Pullman and the boom-bust cycle of American industry. One of the things in “Last Pullman Car” that struck me was the solidarity of the union members and their awareness of the issues directly impacting their future. Everything foretold in the film, including the fate of Pullman Company, now is history. Sadly, blue-collar workers now are more likely to accept the lies told them on talk radio than entrust their futures to progressive political candidates. The new Facets release adds an update on the people we met in the film, a look at protests against anti-labor laws in Wisconsin, filmmaker interviews, archival Pullman photos and a study guide.

American’s falling apart. That’s part of the message delivered loudly and clearly in History’s “Disasters Deconstructed: A History of Architectural Disasters.” The other thing the producers want us to know is that the next great manmade disaster likely will be deemed preventable, but only if politicians and taxpayers agree to pay the freight it will take to repair this country’s aging infrastructure. In hindsight, too, it’s possible to see how the Titanic and Hindenburg disasters might have been averted. The multidisc package is broken into three sections: “Inspector America,” in which a structural engineer visits several cities to demonstrate how the infrastructure is being ravaged and what’s being done about it; “Modern Marvels: Engineering Disasters,” which uses on-the-scene footage, re-enactments, re-constructions and detailed analysis to examine some of the greatest disasters of the past 40 years; and in-depth post-mortems on the Titanic and Hindenburg.

In the “Nova” presentation, “Secrets of the Viking Sword,” one of the most intriguing mysteries in the evolution of combat armaments is investigated and partially solved. The Vikings, of course, have gone down in history as one of the most potent fighting forces in history. What, however, gave them an edge over the warriors of the tribes they confronted on their home turf? It’s argued here that some of Vikings, at least, carried swords that were comparatively light, razor sharp and virtually indestructible. A few of these weapons, recovered hundreds of years later in archeological digs and from river beds, carried the maker’s name, ULFBERHT, inlaid along the blade. Otherwise, there remains no trace of who or what Ulfberht was, where the sword was made and what made the steel so strong. While attempting to answer those basic questions, the producers asked a metallurgist and a master blacksmith to attempt to “reverse engineer” an exact replica. This footnote in history makes for a fascinating hour-long documentary. – Gary Dretzka

Hopper’s Silence
PBS: Great Museums
PBS: The Art:21 Collection: Art in the Twenty-First Century: Seasons 1-6

Edward Hopper is one of the most referenced artists in the world of cinema, as well as one of the most popular among museum browsers. “Nighthawks,” alone, has influenced countless cinematographers and directors seeking just the right combination of shadows and light to represent a big-city diner and the people who inhabit them in the wee hours. Their faces and decors give almost nothing away, but the loneliness of the subjects and impersonal nature of urban life is palpable. The noir shadings of his many urban canvases hide mysteries, yet suggest countless possibilities. As much as Hopper has influenced several generations of filmmakers, he, too, was inspired by the German Expressionists and creators of pulpy crime dramas in the 1930s and ’40s. His voyeuristic eye captured, as well, the lonely and, perhaps, troubled souls who smoked their cigarettes while gazing out the windows at everything and nothing. Hopper’s vision and influence wasn’t limited to cityscapes, however. Any filmmaker attempting to re-create life away from the urban centers would necessarily have borrowed – and, in some cases, reverently copy – from such paintings as “Gas,” “Road in Maine” and “The Lighthouse at Two Lights.” His houses could seem as isolated as the people in his city paintings. “Mansard Roof” and “House by the Railside,” for example, directly inspired Alfred Hitchcock (“Psycho”), George Stevens (“Giant”) and Terence Malick (“Days of Heaven”). Brian O’Doherty’s 1981 documentary, “Hopper’s Silence,” which was funded by the National Foundation for the Arts, may be on the short side, but it allows us to sense the austerity and integrity Hopper invested in his work. The film includes previously recorded interviews with Edward and Jo Hopper, curators of a major exhibit at the Whitney Museum, friends and other acquaintances.

PBS’ “Great Museums” is a documentary series celebrating the myriad world of museums, off and on the beaten path. In addition to the great institutions in major cities, there are another 15,000 museums in the United States serving general, corporate and niche interests. Many of them provide hands-on experiences, while others showcase the benefits of cutting-edge digital technology. Among the museums visited are the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, National D-Day Museum, George Eastman House, Institute of Texan Cultures, Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum, Ellis Island Immigration Museum, DuSable Museum, California Surf Museum, Hollywood Entertainment Museum, Autry Museum of Western Heritage, Delta Blues Museum, Morris Museum of Art and Molly Brown House Museum. Each is worth a visit, if only vicariously.

Art museums tend not to make news unless they’re about to open a blockbuster exhibit of Impressionist art or showcase anything by Pablo Picasso (signed napkins, anyone?). The Los Angeles County Museum of Art received more media coverage by importing a giant rock from a San Bernardino quarry than for any exhibit since the last King Tut show, if then. The gallery scene outside of a handful of cities has been impacted negatively as much as any small business in the U.S. And, yet, art continues to be made and art schools continue to flourish. The producers of the essential PBS series “Art:21” seemingly haven’t had much trouble finding visual artists to profile, as the new six-season compilation, “Art:21 Collection: Art in the Twenty-First Century,” so richly demonstrates. They were accorded unparalleled access to today’s most important artists, as well as their studios, homes and communities. In doing so, viewers can get a better understanding of how their lives outside the studio impact creative processes and serve as sources of inspiration. The 24 hour-long episodes reveal the art world beyond the walls of museums and galleries, where only the end products are revealed. – Gary Dretzka

Rogue Saints
I’ve attended comedy shows in which the performers intentionally limited their humor to jokes that wouldn’t make anyone older than a freshman at a Christian college blush. Afterward, one of the performers told me that the hardest part of his gig is convincing hardcore born-again types it’s OK to laugh about the same things that make people in the secular world chuckle and that Jesus probably enjoyed a good knock-knock joke when he heard one. Before George Carlin opened the floodgates on words you can’t say on the radio, the vast majority of all comedians worked “clean” and, if they’d didn’t, they knew that material that killed ’em in Vegas might not be appropriate at Grossinger’s or the Sullivan show. When comedy clubs began to blossom in the 1980s, though, too many standups substituted profanity for gags, knowing it would get an immediate reaction. Not all comedians are able to spin obscenity-laden material as if it were wool from a blue-ribbon sheep. Generally speaking, though, trying to find a genuinely funny DVD on the shelves reserved for family-friendly Christian movies is a fool’s errant.

I give “Rogue Saints” credit for attempting something different. In addition to pushing the usual touchy-feely, Jesus-is-awesome shtick, Adam Lubanski and David C. Brunk have made a credible hybrid of the buddy and heist subgenre. Neither do they seem reluctant to poke a little fun at overly pious proselytizers; people who praise God before doing anything, including working on a car engine; shiny-happy blond bliss missiles who wear their virginity like a target; and other hug-it-out archetypes of the New Age Evangelical movement. (Blessedly absent are old-school, fire-and-brimstone bible bangers.) Here, two old friends re-connect via the Internet after a long separation. They agree to join forces on a mission to solve a mystery that’s intrigued them since childhood. It involves the location of a possibly mythical mega-diamond that once belonged to a prosperous businesswoman and has been missing for decades. Their theory is that it’s buried somewhere in the crawlspace beneath the altar of a church, but most likely underneath the immersion tank used for baptisms. Their plan calls for them pretend to be nighttime janitors, so they can dig without being noticed and snatch the gem before the font is filled for the annual baptismal ritual. Well, as they say in church, “poop happens,” and it takes a miracle to get things back on the right track after things go sideways and the church members who have embraced them are hurt. “Rogue Saints” lays it on pretty thick as things get hairy and the baptismal orgy that follows the inevitable, if tricky recovery is way over the top. For the first half of the movie, at least, it was going in an interesting new direction.

I wonder if somewhere among the new breed of Evangelical filmmakers there might be someone who wants to advance the genre to the point where it’s OK to make the occasional movie that doesn’t restrict itself to family-friendly norms and flirts with issues common to adults of all faiths and outright comedies. These don’t have to include anything of an overtly sexual nature or require coarse language and displays of skin. As it is, too many of the films I’ve watched seek the broadest common denominator and pander to the Stepford Christian crowd. Indeed, if you watch the deleted scenes, you can find a more representative movie. – Gary Dretzka

The DVD Wrapup: Forgiveness of Blood, Neil Young, Legendary Amazons, Excision, Last Ride, Broadway, Check It Out! … More

Wednesday, October 17th, 2012

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

Excision: Blu-ray
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
40 West
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

Last Ride
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

The DVD Wrapup: Rock of Ages, Little Shop, Prometheus, Cat in Paris, People Like Us … More

Wednesday, October 10th, 2012

Rock of Ages: Extended Cut:  Blu-ray
The Little Shop of Horrors: The Director’s Cut: Blu-ray
When “Rock of Ages” was released in June, I wasn’t paying much attention to the commercials. Based solely on passing glances, I incorrectly assumed it was a spoof of the music industry in the big-hair era, with Tom Cruise auditioning for a role in “This Is Spinal Tap: The Prequel.” It seemed as if Paul Giamatti, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Bryan Cranston and Alec Baldwin were in on the gag, as well. Now that I’ve watched Adam Shankman’s very decent musical dramedy on the small screen, I wonder if the decision to top load “Rock of Ages” with such heavyweight talent didn’t backfire at the box office. What I didn’t know upon its release was that the movie was adapted from a Broadway hit of the same title, which began small in a Hollywood Boulevard nightclub, in 2005, and grew incrementally from there. It arrived on the same set of waves that brought such “jukebox musicals” as “Hairspray,” “American Idiot,” “Jersey Boys,” “We Will Rock You,” “Footloose,” “Momma Mia!” and, soon, “Flashdance” to the boards in Manhattan, London and Las Vegas. While trick-casting didn’t hurt “Hairspray” and “Momma Mia!” – “Tommy,” “Grease” and “The Little Shop of Horrors” either, for that matter — it did no favors for “Rock of Ages.” I don’t blame the actors, musicians and hoofers, though. The producers probably didn’t understand that metal-heads would rather attend a demolition derby, watch “Beavis & Butthead” or go to an AA meeting than suffer through watered-down versions of their anthems.

“Rock of Ages,” the movie, reveals its theater roots in a story – Chris D’Arienzo’s “book” – that uses the hits of 1980s’ hair-metal bands as a musical backdrop for a boy-meets-girl/boy-loses-girl/girl-forgives-boy/boy-and-girl-live-happily-ever-after setup that’s as old as Broadway, itself. Unlike the generally wasted and disheveled musicians whose success informs the story, the cast of “Rock of Ages” is comprised of shiny, happy people who don’t look as if they’ve ever caught a STD from a groupie, was nearly was killed in a mosh bit or had a beer bottle thrown at them by a deranged fan. The “whiskey” swigged by Cruise’s Stacee Jaxx might as well be Coca-Cola and, if memory serves, no lines of cocaine are in evidence. Dyed-in-the-wool head-bangers likely anticipated such outrages and stayed away from the movie in droves. Neither would they have been able to relate to narrative threads that give prominence to a hypocritical mayor’s wife, based on Tipper Gore; moon-June-croon poetics; and the willingness of the protagonist to sell out for a job in a boy band. Theater audiences eat that stuff up like popcorn.

What I liked about “Rock of Ages,” though, was the positive energy expended by a corps of singers, dancers and actors that includes Julianne Hough, Russell Brand, Mary J. Blige, Malin Ackerman and Diego Boneta. Neither have the lyrics of songs by such legendary performers as Journey, Pat Benatar, Foreigner, Guns N’ Roses, Night Ranger, Skid Row, Joan Jett & the Blackhearts, Poison, Def Leopard, Bon Jovi, REO Speedwagon, Twisted Sister and Quiet Riot sounded any more deeply felt, meaningful or comprehensible. The audio-visual presentation of the Blu-ray is very good, as well. If “Rock of Ages” is more Broadway than Sunset Strip, viewers can get a more realistic description of the era from the still-active musicians interviewed in such featurettes as “‘Rock of Ages’: Legends of the Sunset Strip,”  “The Stories We Sing: Defining A Decade,” “It’s All About The Moves,” “The Tease,” “So It Started in a Bar” and “Any Way You Want It.”

The story behind the movie musical, “The Little Shop of Horrors,” is as interesting as any of the productions that have bloomed from the seeds laid by Roger Corman in 1960. That’s when the legendary producer’s inky black comedy-thriller – reputedly shot for $27,000 in two days – found a dedicated audience of drive-in aficionados. It would be given a jump-start several years later when one of its stars, Jack Nicholson, broke out of the indie-exploitation genre in “Easy Rider” and “Five Easy Pieces.” In 1982, and with tongues tucked firmly in cheek, composer Alan Menken and writer Howard Ashman added doo-wop and early-Motown music to the story and shoved it onto an off-off-Broadway stage, where it prospered. That route to Broadway and Hollywood had been paved a decade earlier by “Grease,” a nostalgic rock musical first staged in a trolley barn on Chicago’s North Side. While “Grease” was homogenized to please the arbiters of Broadway taste, “Little Shop” was allowed to maintain its hipness quotient. For the 1986 film adaptation, producer David Geffen knew exactly where to find actors who would appeal directly to the 18-34 demographic. Director Frank Oz had already proven himself capable of working with oversized puppets as a key member of the Muppets troupe. The sadistic dentist was played by Steve Martin. One of his masochistic patients was Bill Murray. Rick Moranis and John Candy had just graduated from SCTV and Four Tops vocalist Levi Stubbs would supply the voice of the voracious killer plant, Audrey II. Sexy Ellen Greene had created the role of ditzy blond Audrey and crusty Vincent Gardenia was one of top character actors of his time. In a few years, Menken and Ashman would help Jeffrey Katzenberg resurrect Disney’s animation division with “The Little Mermaid” and “Beauty and the Beast.”

As so often happens when Broadway goes Hollywood, the musical was edited to please studio executives who probably hadn’t attended a live musical since high school. Geffen told the director to expect heat on the apocalyptic ending, but let him shoot it anyway. To his credit, Oz doesn’t waste any time on the commentary track complaining about something that happened 25 years earlier. He agrees that the changes helped at the box office and is happy viewers finally will be able to see the original ending, which he still defends. Even the opinions of a test audience and studio suits couldn’t screw up this bullet-proof gem, however. Neither was “Little Shop” damaged by expanding its scale. The skid-row sets, which were built in several soundstages at Britain’s Pinewood Studios, look terrific and the production numbers take up as much space as they need. The songs remain wonderful, as well, even with the fresh level of gloss and polish applied to them. The new Blu-ray edition of “Little Shop” captures it all, without breaking a sweat. The hi-def picture is alternately bright and shady – as the mood demands – and the audio remains bright and lively. For Oz, “Little Shop” was his first directing assignment outside the Muppet universe and, in discussing the alternate ending, he acknowledges that there was no way movie audiences were going to buy an ending in which the lovers die and “the plant wins.” In a play, he stresses, actors who die on stage come back to life for the curtain calls and the antagonists rarely succeed. Deprived of intimate close-up shots, theater audiences tend not to get as emotionally involved with the individual characters, either. Oz seems genuinely pleased that viewers now can witness the contributions of FX supervisor Richard Conway – nothing digital here, folks – and he can claim his share of the creative spotlight. Both men discuss its creation in a newly made featurette. The discs come wrapped in a collectible 40-page digibook with production photos, notes and text. — Gary Dretzka

Prometheus: Blu-ray
Nova: Space, Time and the Universe
As long as human beings reign supreme on Earth, the debate between Creationists and Darwinists is likely to continue unabated, growing increasingly more hostile as self-serving clergy, politicians, atheists and scientists seek new platforms for debate. Even if we could all agree that there is a God – as most people do in Middle East — we’d probably still go to war over whether the deity is a benevolent and forgiving entity or one who demands fealty and constant worship. Most science-fiction is an exercise in attempting to discover – or to contemplate, at least – how we got here and why. In “Prometheus,” the female protagonist (Noomi Rapace) is a scientist who hedges her bets by wearing a cross around her neck. The male protagonist, a robot named David (Michael Fassbender), is a product of the corporation that’s sponsoring the mission. David could very well have been modeled after Mr. Spock. He’s inquisitive, empathetic and desirous of securing his freedom. The mission described in “Prometheus” is prompted by the discovery of cave drawings that indicate an ancient astronaut – not unlike the ones discussed by Erich von Daniken – may have visited the Earth and left clues as to the location of a mother ship or an alternate civilization. These astronauts (a.k.a., Engineers), we’re led to believe, abandoned their Earthly experiments before whatever it is they wanted to accomplish was revealed. They literally spilt their seed on the Earth and split town. Rapace’s Elizabeth Shaw has dedicated herself to getting answers to those questions, while the man sponsoring the mission believes the Engineers can help him live forever.

Director Ridley Scott doesn’t mind that viewers have taken “Prometheus” as a virtual prequel to the “Alien” quartet and its spinoffs.  He assumes they will quickly identify the clues and will be able to focus their attention on the new story. Neither does he linger on the metaphysical and quasi-religious aspects of the story. You couldn’t miss them if you tried, anyway. Scott knows that fans of the “Alien” quartet are less interested in questions without answers than action, suspense, terror, special effects and creatures. And, to be sure, there’s no scarcity of such crowd-pleasing material. If hard-core sci-fi buffs didn’t fully embrace “Prometheus,” it’s likely that they anticipated being scared completely shitless. They’d already seen enough mammoth spaceships to last a lifetime and were tired of quarrels between crew members pushing different agendas. “Prometheus” did OK business at the domestic box office, without blowing anyone away. I find it noteworthy, though, how dependent the franchise’s life has become on worldwide revenues, especially considering the steady uptick in production budgets. The combined estimated budgets of the “Alien” quartet are put at $165 million; the price tag for “Prometheus” alone is estimated to be $130 million, without marketing costs. Of the movie’s $303-million return, only about $130.5 million can be traced back to North America.

Viewers looking for answers to some of the questions raised in “Prometheus” – intentional and otherwise – would do well to check out the bonus features in the Blu-ray edition, especially if they expect to re-watch certain scenes. There are two commentary tracks, one with Scott and the other with writer John Spaihts and co-writer/producer Damon Lindelof; nearly 37-minutes of deleted/extended/alternate scenes, with optional commentary by editor Pietro Scalia and visual-effects supervisor Richard Stammers; and “The Peter Weyland Files,” in which the mission’s sponsor (Guy Pearce) introduces himself and his motivations. (It’s comprised of buzz-worthy Internet promo videos, repackaged in dossier form.) The special four-disc Blu-ray 3D edition adds a 3½-hour making-of documentary.

In the “Nova” presentation, “Space, Time and the Universe,” physicist and best-selling author Brian Greene explains how science-fiction writers might only be scratching the surface when it comes to imagining what’s possible in the universe. Truth not only is stranger than fiction in the scientific world, but it’s endlessly fascinating, as well. It helps if you have a postgraduate degree in astrophysics and quantum mechanics, however. We’re told that there are entire universes, dimensions and parallel worlds out there to be discovered and explored. The one we know exists apparently is gliding along on solar waves that approximate the surface of a trampoline and teeny, tiny stringy things may hold the key to everything we’ll eventually learn about space, time and matter. Simply put, one scientific law could very well govern everything … or not. It’s almost impossible to test theories about things exponentially smaller than atoms, after all.

Greene doesn’t dumb his lectures down for those of us who couldn’t tell you the difference between string theory and a string quartet, unification and diversification, or quantum mechanics and a NASCAR pit crew. It’s still pretty thick, though. That said, anyone who wasn’t completely bewildered by the science in “The Matrix” and “Inception” should be able to follow the author and his collection of learned scientists through the case studies here. Understanding them, however, may require a different level of understanding. After all, even the greatest of physicists – Isaac Newton, Albert Einstein – went to their graves seeking answers for questions that had eluded them in life. The “Nova” presentation combines previous PBS series, “The Elegant Universe” and “The Fabric of the Cosmos,” both of which demand we re-examine everything we think we know about physics. I suggest making a double-feature of “Prometheus” and “Space, Time and the Universe.” If nothing else, your dreams should be pretty wild. – Gary Dretzka

People Like Us: Blu-ray
Riddle me this Batman: when is a Hollywood rom-com or rom-dram, not a rom-com or rom-dram. Answer: when, as in “People Like Us,” the man and woman who are perfectly suited for each other are brother and sister, but only one of them knows it. Otherwise, the characters played here by Chris Pine and Elizabeth Banks act every bit as unnaturally as any pair of would-be lovers in a rom-com-dram, where lives are manipulated by unlikely coincidences, blind luck and contrived dialogue. Pine plays Sam, a hotshot New York businessman who screws up horribly at work on the same day he discovers that his father, from whom he’s estranged, has died in Los Angeles. His relationship with his family is so disastrous that he fakes losing his ID, so that he and his girlfriend (Olivia Wilde) can miss the funeral. Even though he’s dead, Dad continues to disappoint his son by leaving Sam stacks of records and a shaving bag full of hundred-dollar bills to be delivered to the half-sister, Frankie, he never knew existed. Instead of performing the task and handing over the cash intended for Dad’s grandson, Sam decides to play fast and loose with the truth and investigate his stepsister before deciding whether or not to reveal himself or abscond with the $150,000. He follows her to an AA meeting, where he fakes an addiction and can eavesdrop on her confessionals. (Twelve-step programs have become the go-to contrivance for screenwriters looking for plausible shortcuts to advance comedy, drama and tragedy. Stop it!) Worse, Sam does an end-around by making friends with the pubescent nephew he didn’t know he had, either. In this way, he hopes to insinuate himself into Frankie’s life and become someone the single mom might love as a sibling, if not a lover. Just as it seems as if we might be forced to watch one of Hollywood’s still-taboo activities unfold, Sam pulls back. We feel sorry for Frankie, because she doesn’t need any more pain and confusion and misdirected affection in her life. Just as naturally, then, when Sam finally does reveal the truth to Frankie, she freaks out, believing that it’s simply another act of deceit, this time by the son of the man who abandoned her. Meanwhile, Sam’s mother (Michelle Pfeiffer) is dragged into the situation, by being forced to admit her own complicity in her deceased husband’s bad behavior. Finally, co-writer/director Alex Kurtzman gives us reason to believe everyone will live happily ever after and this, perhaps, is Hollywood’s most unforgiveable lie.

None of this is to imply that the core story is outlandish, because such revelations happen all the time. Brothers and sisters learn of each other’s existence in the wake of funerals, as do some women (mostly) discover their husband’s infidelity and bigamy in awkward ways. We’re told early on that “People Like Us” was inspired by a true events, leaving out the part about there not being a little boy involved and there’s more than a dozen years between Kurtzman’s half-siblings and himself. (He was at a party when a woman introduced herself as his sister.)  No matter, the ending is satisfying and there’s no quibbling about the performances of the actors. That’s especially true of Banks, who’s often confused with a half-dozen other blond actresses, but is the real deal. Philip Baker Hall, Mark Duplass, Jon Favreau and Michael Hall D’Addario fill out the cast. The Blu-ray adds three commentary tracks, a background featurette, deleted and extended scenes, bloopers and bit more footage from a mostly improvised scene at a taco stand. – Gary Dretzka

A Cat in Paris: Blu-ray
I wonder if the story behind the Oscar-, Annie- and Cesar-nominated “A Cat in Paris” (“Une vie de chat”) might have been influenced, even in some small way, by Alfred Hitchcock’s “To Catch a Thief.” That’s where my mind went while watching the acrobatic cat burglar Nico scamper over the rooftops of Paris with the feline felon, Dino, following closely behind him. Jean-Loup Felicioli and Alain Gagnol’s wonderfully imaginative movie unfolds like an animated police procedural with noir shadings. By day, Dino lounges lazily around the apartment of a young girl, Zoe, whose mother, Jeanne, is a lead detective in the Paris police department. At night, the cat sneaks out of the apartment to join the cat burglar on his nightly quests. Zoe’s father, also a cop, was killed in the line of duty while chasing a vicious gangster, Costa, who’s obsessed with stealing larger pieces of art. Zoe’s rendered mute by the loss of her dad, while Jeanne has become obsessed with capturing Costa.

The police pursuit of the two very different criminals merges when Dino brings home a valuable necklace previously reported stolen – nicer than the dead lizard he brought home to Zoe a few days earlier — and the detectives suspect that it might be linked with a heist being planned by Costa. One night, Zoe decides to follow Dino on his nightly escapade, risking her life on the rooftops and ledges high above the darkened streets of Paris. When she’s caught eavesdropping on a strategy session being held by Costa and his gang, they chase her to the home of the cat burglar, where they discover his loot and steal it. Before long, Costa’s kidnaped Zoe, with the help of her nanny, whose perfume becomes a trail Dino easily can follow. Dino leads Nico to Costa’s hideout, which leads to a chase that takes all four of them to the Notre Dame Cathedral, where’s Jeanne’s waiting. Nico and Costa engage in a fight to the finish, grasping onto the gargoyles to avoid plunging the plaza below them. An even happier ending awaits the survivors.

Paris could hardly provide a better backdrop for this sort of thing. Each hand-drawn frame looks as if it were a page torn from an award-winning children’s book with characters right out of a Modigliani sketchbook and backgrounds inspired by Matisse. The soundtrack is informed both by American jazz and Hitchcock’s composer, Edward Herrmann. In short, “A Cat in Paris” is a delight. The English voicing cast includes Angelica Huston, Matthew Modine and Marcia Gay Harden. And, yes, the movie looks great in Blu-ray. The extras include a video flipbook with three alternate versions of the story; an alternate French audio track; and the hilarious animated short, “Extinction of the Sabre-Toothed Housecat.” – Gary Dretzka

Werewolf: The Beast Among Us: Blu-ray
The Barrens: Blu-ray
The Cottage
Basket Case 3: The Progeny
It looks as if Universal is going to attempt to extent its lycanthrope legacy whether the public buys into it or not. In 2010, the studio spent a fortune on “The Wolfman,” which starred Benicio del Toro and Anthony Hopkins, only to see it fail both at the domestic and international box office. After a decent opening weekend, the effects-heavy thriller failed to ignite any buzz among horror fans. Two years later, the studio is back with the far more modestly ambitious “Werewolf: The Beast Among Us,” this time released under the studio’s Universal 1440 Entertainment banner, which specializes in moderately budgeted genre fare shot in countries other than the U.S. Even without marquee stars and CGI effects, I think the studio got it right this time. “The Beast Among Us” reminds me of the horror movies Hammer Films made in 1950-60s to steal some of the thunder from Hollywood genre mills. Shooting entirely in Romania, director Louis Morneau was able to take full advantage of the rustic locations, ruins and actors who probably would have paid him to fill supporting roles. Neither was Morneau required to jazz up the production with esoteric re-interpretations of the legend or extraneous subplots.

It’s all pretty straightforward, really. A werewolf has ravaged a local village and the terror is spreading from one end of the forest to the other. A team of mercenary werewolf hunters is brought in to kill the elusive beast, but it becomes increasingly unclear as to who’s the more dangerous entity. Things get even murkier when a young medical student (Guy Wilson) volunteers to join the posse and he’s infected with wolfen DNA. When the truth is finally revealed, a battle royal between undead factions ensues. Genre buffs will appreciate the generous investment made by the producers in fake blood, gore, period costumes and dentures. “The Beast Among Us” never takes itself over seriously, even referencing such previous Universal fare as “An American Werewolf in London.” Among the few other recognizable cast members are Steven Rea, Steven Bauer, Nia Peeples, Ed Quinn and Ana Ularu. The very decent Blu-ray presentation arrives in both an unrated and R-rated version, although PG-13 seems just as appropriate; deleted scenes; a pair of making-of featurettes; commentary with Morneau and producer Mike Elliott; a piece on Universal’s horror history; UltraViolet; a digital copy; BD-Live; and a pocket Blu App.

The best thing about horror-specialist Darren Lynn Bousman’s latest foray into the macabre, “The Barrens,” is watching Stephen Moyer – the Civil War-veteran vampire in “True Blood” – go bat-shit crazy and collapse with fright over a local legend known as the Jersey Devil (no relation to the hockey team.) The next best thing is the eerily lit cinematography, which accentuates Moyer’s character’s descent into madness and the parallel monster-in-the-woods storyline. Richard Vineyard is convinced that a weekend spent camping in the New Jersey Pine Barrens would be just the thing to bring his family together after some internal conflicts. He also wants to disperse his father’s ashes over a fishing hole they frequented when he was a kid. No sooner do the Vineyards enter the forest than they begin to find disemboweled deer, dogs and the occasional human. The specter of the Jersey Devil is first raised by a young man telling ghost stories around a campfire. Richard, who’s strangely upset by the story, decides to move the family’s tent even further into the Barrens, where worse secrets lie. (And, no, it isn’t the body of Adriana La Cerva, Drea de Matteo’s character in “The Sopranos.”)  Bousman’s ambiguous ending leaves plenty of room for conjecture – or a sequel – but whatever’s in the woods doesn’t suffer strangers gladly. The rest of the cast includes Mia Kirshner, (”The L Word”), Erik Knudsen (“SAW II”) and Allie MacDonald (“House at the End of the Street”). “The Barrens” didn’t get a theatrical release, but it plays just fine on Blu-ray.” It adds an alternate ending.

In “The Cottage,” the oft-creepy David Arquette plays a romance novelist with a deep, dark secret: he’s the evil spawn of Charles Manson. Not literally, perhaps, but as a personable middle-age guy with a harem of women half his age to do his bidding. If he encouraged them to carve an X in their foreheads, as Manson did, they would have done that, too. That’s the gist of Chris Jaymes and Nick Antosca’s surprisingly chaste killer-next-door thriller, whose worst crime is not giving us a clue as to what motivates the story’s antagonist. Arquette simply shows up at the door of a nice suburban couple, hoping to lease the “cottage” in their backyard, and, shortly after doing so, begins toying with the family as if they were mice and he was a sadistic cat. He keeps his harem in another house, a few miles away in the country.  The only thing missing is a reason, why. There’s enough blood to satisfy most casual fans of slasher flicks, but nothing truly scary, except the occasional sound effect.

In a genre overflowing with guilty pleasures, the horror flicks of Frank Henenlotter are practically in a league by themselves. There aren’t all that many, really, but it would be difficult to top “Brain Damage,” “Frankenhooker,” “Bad Biology” and the “Basket Case” trilogy for their ability to simultaneously frighten, repulse and tickle the ribs of viewers. New to DVD is “Basket Case 3: The Progeny,” which, in 1992, demonstrated that being a horribly deformed parasitic twin was no obstacle to parenthood. Redneck cops spoil the blessed event by kidnapping Belial and Eve’s brood and holding the freakazoid infants for ransom. It results in a rumble between the police and a busload of Granny’s beloved defectives. As punishing as it is to watch the great jazz and cabaret singer Annie Ross participate in all this hokum, it’s comforting to know that she would be handed the role of a lifetime a year later in Robert Altman’s ensemble drama, “Short Cuts.” – Gary Dretzka

The Giant Mechanical Man
The kooky indie rom-com “The Giant Mechanical Man” really ought to come with a mime warning on its cover. Not only is the title character a performance artist thoroughly committed to posing on stilts in a metallic-looking suit inspired by Charlie Chaplin’s Little Tramp, but he also enjoys making spectators uncomfortable with his silence. Chris Messina plays the thoroughly self-absorbed mime, Tim, who, when he steps out of character, goes out of his way to insult those he considers to be lower forms of life. When we first meet Tim, he’s living with a very decent and pretty blond artist, who finally decides she’s had enough of his act and splits. Meanwhile, in another part of town, Janice (Jenna Fischer), is about to lose her job at a museum, which causes her to be evicted from her apartment and forced to move into the home owned by her sister and brother-in-law. Their well-meaning attempt to fix her up with a creepy self-help guru makes viewers as uncomfortable as it does Janice. Still, they’re determined to save Janice from herself. Given only that much information, you can probably guess most of what will transpire in the next hour or so.

After watching a painfully awkward television interview with Tim, Janice goes out of her way to find him and engage the mime in conversation. Duh. They will meet again, but at a local zoo, where both are forced to accept menial work to make ends meet. They hit it off, but not right away. Meanwhile, her sister (Malin Ackerman) continues to bug Janice about hooking up with the author (Topher Grace). Fans of “The Office” and “New Girl” are likely to enjoy “The Giant Mechanical Man” more than viewers in any other demographic sector. Most guys, I suspect, won’t make it past the second segment with Tim in costume. Fischer’s Janice is almost indistinguishable from Pam, her character in “The Office.” It appears as if the role was specifically written with Fischer in mind by Lee Kirk, who also is her husband and the movie’s director. The DVD includes adds a short interview with the writer/director and his leading lady. – Gary Dretzka

The Courier: Blu-ray
Although Jeffrey Dean Morgan’s been kicking around show business since 1991, it wasn’t until his character on “Grey’s Anatomy” went to that big waiting room in the sky that his career grew wings and took off. Blessed with leading-man good lucks and a quietly brooding demeanor, Morgan also has become a favored actor for action roles. In “The Courier,” Morgan plays a character very much like the one Jason Statham embodied in the “Transporter” trilogy. Known only as Courier, Morgan delivers things for people who can easily afford UPS, but would feel terrible if the shipment was lost or stolen. He’s blackmailed by a foreign-sounding gentleman (Til Schweiger) into accepting an assignment involving a million-dollar delivery, for which he’ll be paid $100,000.  In no time at all, Courier is besieged from all sides by people who either want the briefcase he’s carrying or the person to whom it’s being delivered. Suddenly, $100,000 doesn’t sound like a great deal, anymore. The search takes him from New Orleans, to St. Louis, back to New Orleans and, finally, Las Vegas. With so little information to go on, it’s impossible to pick sides in the storyline. Morgan becomes the favorite if for no other reason than his family has been kidnaped and he’s been given only 48 hours to make the deal. I have no idea why a cast that includes Mickey Rourke (channeling Elvis), Mark Margolis, Miguel Ferrer, Lily Taylor and Josie Ho would sign on for a project that has direct-to-video written all over it. I’m guessing that the actors wanted to work with the excellent Dutch-Palestinian filmmaker, Hany Abu-Assad (“Paradise Now,” “Rana’s Wedding”), in his first English-language project. Sadly, while well made, it’s a far from promising debut. The Blu-ray comes with a behind-the-scenes featurette and deleted scenes. – Gary Dretzka

The Raven: Blu-ray
Even without Edgar Allan Poe’s wrinkles and dissipated countenance, John Cusack bears more than a passing resemblance to the man he plays in “The Raven.” Someone is running around Baltimore, killing people in ways depicted by Poe in his short stories, and a well-read police detective (Luke Evans) has enlisted the author in the investigation. As the story opens, Poe is only a few short days away from his mysterious death. Cusack, however, doesn’t look much like a doomed alcoholic or someone suffering from ailments rumored to range from cholera to syphilis. Poe does sense that he’s met his match in a killer who knows his stories as well as he does and is egomaniacal enough to assume that he can get away with the crimes, even while leaving clues behind that only the writer might recognize. When the killer stages a premature burial for the woman (Alice Eve) Poe loves, he realizes that more than her life is hanging the balance. In true Hollywood fashion, Poe’s allowed to die with dignity and not in a drunken stupor. Viewers, too, are accorded the courtesy of an explanation for how the writer came to be in that particular Baltimore park on October 7, 1849, babbling about someone named, “Reynolds,” before uttering his famous last words, “Lord, help my poor soul.” Historians weren’t even that fortunate. “The Raven” was directed with great attention to period and literary detail by James McTeigue (“V for Vendetta”). Writers Ben Livingston and Hannah Shakespeare (that’s right, Shakespeare) had a bit more difficulty devising a mythic end to a greater author’s life, without making it seem like an American version of a Sherlock Holmes fantasy. With so much attention given Arthur Conan Doyle’s creation these days, comparisons were inevitable. Nevertheless, the DVD and Blu-ray edition of “The Raven” should please older viewers who fondly remember reading Poe in their youth and won’t confuse the title with a dozen earlier films, including those starring Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff (1935) or Vincent Price and Peter Lorre (1963).  In an interview included in the Blu-ray, the screenwriters allow that they intended their Poe to be a “profiler” and Detective Fields to be an expert in criminal forensics. The package also includes deleted scenes. – Gary Dretzka

Crazy Eyes
It’s difficult to feel anything, one way or the other, about the characters we meet in “Crazy Eyes.” Rich and/or beautiful, the young Angelenos spend every waking hour getting drunk, high or laid. When they feel good about themselves, the characters assume it’s because they’re just cool dudes and dudettes. When the hangovers kick in, however, these users and abusers blame Los Angeles. Lukas Hass plays Zach, an aimless single parent with a home in the hills and another one in Malibu, where his former wife lives and occasionally calls him for money. She’s only one of us several women who continuously call Zach, for no apparent reason other than that he’s rich enough to afford weekend trips to New York and someone to keep his Jacuzzi clean. The title character, Rebecca a.k.a., Crazy Eyes (Madeline Zima), is a gorgeous drunk, who slaps him around instead of actually engaging in intercourse with him. (The actress performed a version of the same trick in “Californication.”) Rebecca pretends to be asleep while Zach’s masturbating to another woman’s sex talk and maintains a boyfriend on the side, just in case she needs one. They have a common interest in seeing the Bosch exhibit at LACMA, but are put off by the lines, so head for their favorite bar, instead.

I don’t doubt for a moment that such people exist in Hollywood and New York, maybe even Des Moines. All one needs to be is rich and/or beautiful, after all. We’ve met them before, in such movies as “Less Than Zero” and “Bright Lights, Big City,” and, more recently, on “Gossip Girl.” The ones that don’t overdose or drown in their swimming pools eventually will find work somewhere in the entertainment industry or invest in a bar. Many will sober up long enough to get married, have a child or two, and have the best divorce lawyer in town on retainer. This doesn’t make them interesting or charming, of course, and, as drunks go, none of these people will ever be a worth a tenth of the concern we invested in Charles Bukowski’s liver. For those viewers who enjoy such things, however, it’s worth knowing that director Adam Sherman has a pretty good eye for the trappings of such depravity and “Crazy Eyes” isn’t without a modicum of humor, at least. Others might consider staying home and reading “Barfly,” “Under the Volcano” or “The Man With the Golden Arm.” Also, for what it’s worth, Hass turns in an excellent performance of a complete dick.  – Gary Dretzka

Shut Up and Play the Hits: Blu-ray
According to what I’m able to gather from “Shut Up and Play the Hits,” LCD Soundsystem is probably the greatest and contextually most important rock band – technically dance/electronic – of which I’d never heard. The hugely popular ensemble came and went before I’d consciously listened to a single note of its music, let alone jumped up and down in a trance in a crowd of Ecstasy-fueled youth. The only song I recognize from the documentary is “Jump Into the Fire” and that’s only because it was a hit for Harry Nilsson in the 1970s. Until today, I wouldn’t have been able to recognize the band’s frontman, James Murphy, from the guy who tunes the Rolling Stones’ guitars between songs. I’m still not convinced that I’ve missed anything of great cultural importance, but I’ll admit, at least, that I was moved to check out the lyrics to several of LCD’s songs to see what all the fuss is about. I get it.

Musically, Will Lovelace and Dylan Southern’s “Shut Up and Play the Hits” reminds me of the Talking Heads 1984 concert film, “Stop Making Sense.” Director Jonathan Demme’s greatest accomplishment in that film, I think, was to showcase the art-rock band’s ability to kick out the jams as well as anyone, while accentuating lyrics that not only are smart and hip, but can be danced to, as well. Here, the filmmakers do a nice job of capturing the appeal of LCD’s words and music, along with some of the idiosyncrasies of their leader, who bears a passing resemblance to Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys. They also follow Murphy around New York during the two-day period leading to the band’s final farewell concert. He spends a lot of time chillin’ with his pet French bulldog, Petunia; is interviewed over lunch by writer Chuck Klosterman on a wide variety of topics; pays a visit to “The Colbert Report,” chats with manager Keith Wood in his office and Upstate New York farm; and walks around the streets of the city unrecognized and uncelebrated. Murphy took a chance on rock ’n’ roll far later than most professional musicians and his unique perspective on fame led him to get out while the gettin’s good. Two full discs of the extremely well produced Blu-ray are devoted to the Madison Square Garden concerts. – Gary Dretzka

What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?: 50th Anniversary Edition
Dead Ringer: Blu-ray
Fifty years ago, all eyes in Hollywood were on “What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?,” a low-budget horror movie that literally threatened to explode on the big screen. That’s because the combined temperaments of its legendary stars, Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, could best be described as incendiary. Longtime rivals on and off the set, the veteran leading ladies didn’t just talk the talk – think, Nicki Minaj and Mariah Carey –they walked the walk.  They genuinely disliked each other and it was entirely possible that the production would implode. Anticipated with nearly as much excitement as the movie itself was the marketing campaign, during which Davis and Crawford would be required to maintain their uneasy truce or trash each other mercilessly. Today, such a pairing would be dismissed as “trick casting” and the movie would turn out to be a sad postscript to the stars’ brilliant careers. Instead, director Robert Aldrich and screenwriter Lukas Heller crafted one of the gems of the psycho-drama subgenre and the stars would enjoy resurgences in their careers. “Baby Jane” would be nominated for five Academy Awards — winning one for costume design, black and white — and Crawford reportedly would actively campaign against Davis winning for Best Actress. Possibly inspired as much by Gloria Swanson’s amazing performance in “Sunset Boulevard” and the gothic menace of Hitchcock’s “Psycho” as Henry Farrell’s Grand Guignol novel, “Baby Jane” chronicled the horrific relationship between a child star in the vaudeville era and her wheelchair-bound sister, a movie star forced to retire after a crippling accident. They live in a decaying mansion, where Jane (Davis) has confined Blanche (Crawford) to her room and delights in torturing her. In its day, the movie was a huge hit, even without gratuitous displays of blood and gore. The new AVC-encoded 1080p transfer in 1.78: 1 and lossless DTS-HD Master Audio Mono mix restore its original luster. Supplements borrowed from the DVD special addition include the campy commentary of Charles Busch and John “Lypsinka” Epperson; the featurette, “Behind the Scenes With Baby Jane”; Davis’ appearance on “The Andy Williams Show,” during which she sings the title song; three bio-docs; and a “Dan-O-Rama” movie mix.

Davis’ success in “Baby Jane” spawned such unrelated follow-ups as “Hush … Hush, Sweet Charlotte,” “The Nanny” and the new-to-Blu-ray “Dead Ringer.” In Paul Henreid and Albert Beich’s psycho-thriller, Davis gets to play opposite herself as estranged twin sisters, one rich and the other poor. Edie is a struggling nightclub owner when she encounters her wealthy twin, Margaret, at the funeral of her husband. Edie still holds a grudge against Margaret for stealing the man she loved from her 20 years earlier. Rather than accept charity, Edie fakes her suicide, kills Margaret and steps into her lavish lifestyle. She doesn’t, however, consider the possibility that a cop (Karl Malden) and lover (Peter Lawford) would see through the scheme. The Blu-ray borrows earlier commentary with Busch and biographer Boze Hadleigh; a discussion with Hadleigh about the movie’s 20-year gestation and Davis’ relationship with Warner Bros.; and a tour of Los Angeles’ Doheny Mansion, where many of the scenes were set and other well-known movies were made. – Gary Dretzka

Strangers on a Train: Blu-ray
Dial M for Murder: Blu-ray 3D/2D
October’s turning out to be a heck of month for lovers of Alfred Hitchcock and it has nothing to do with Halloween, I suspect. In addition to this week’s release on Blu-ray of “Strangers on a Train” and “Dial M for Murder,” in 3D and 2D, from Warner Bros., Universal is sending out the 15-title “Alfred Hitchcock: The Masterpiece Collection” on October 30. The Blu-ray collection will contain a 50-page commemorative book and 15 hours’ worth of new and vintage supplements. Between 1948 (“Rope”) and 1954 (“Rear Window”), Hitch made five films for WB: “Strangers,” “Dial M,” “Stage Fright,” “I Confess” and “Under Capricorn,” which was made for Transatlantic Pictures, but distributed here by WB.

Made in 1951, “Strangers on a Train” is one of the most emulated motion pictures of all time. The quid-pro-quo thriller describes what transpires after tennis pro Guy (Farley Granger) and an obsessive fan, Bruno (Robert Walker), meet on a train, where they agree to perform a murderous act for each other’s benefit. And, of course, they were strangers when they met. Bruno agrees to kill Guy’s unfaithful wife, in return for which Guy says he’ll murder Bruno’s spiteful father. The camera jumps between characters so often, viewers will feel as if they’re watching one of Guy’s matches. “Strangers” bears re-watching with every new technological platform and updated bonus feature. Lest we forget, the film was co-adapted from a Patricia Highsmith novel by Raymond Chandler, Czenzi Ormonde, Whitfield Cook and an uncredited Ben Hecht. It’s one of the most cold-blooded movies in the thriller genre. The Blu-ray bonus package adds a commentary track with nearly as many all-star voices as there are actors in the cast; the slightly longer “Preview Version,” also considered the “British” version of the movie; and a five-part “Behind the Story” making-of documentary.

Hitchcock wasn’t thrilled with the idea of shooting “Dial M for Murder” in 3D, a format, which by 1954, already was losing commercial steam. That’s the way the studio wanted this adaptation of a popular stage play produced, however, and Hitch almost made it work. It wasn’t widely shown in 3D on its original release. Like the director, exhibitors preferred the “flat” version.  The 3D “Dial M” would be re-introduced here in 1980, 2004 and in the new Blu-ray 3D edition, which benefits only marginally from the digital upgrade. It works just as well in Blu-ray 2D, however. Once again, one of the protagonists is a tennis player (Ray Milland) who wants his wealthy, philandering wife (Grace Kelly) dead. She’s just re-connected with a former lover (Robert Cummings) and both are concerned that her husband has found an incriminating mash note. As we’ve learned in other Hitchcock movies, however, intended victims don’t always accommodate the intentions of their antagonists. The set adds a background featurette, informed by Peter Bogdanovich, Robert Osborne, M. Night Shyamalan, Richard Franklin, Pat Hitchcock O’Connell, Richard Schickel and Nat Benchley. – Gary Dretzka

Kingdom: Season One
Digimon Adventure: The Official First Season
The League: The Complete Season Three
It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia: Blu-ray
Bones: The Complete Seventh Season: Blu-ray
Stephen Fry’s name on the cover of a DVD is good enough reason to give whatever’s inside something more than passing notice. Whether he’s acting, writing, hosting or narrating, Fry is one of those rare performers whose presence elevates everything he attempts. The British legal dramedy, “Kingdom,” is a very good case in point. Without him, the ITV mini-series might have run a season and been forgotten. With Fry, it ran three seasons and is a worthwhile rental in DVD. Fry plays a family lawyer in the gorgeous, if fictitious town of Market Shipborough, Norfolk, where you can’t walk more than two blocks without encountering a resident eccentric and/or potentially troublesome client. There’s also the spectacular beach at Holkham Bay, where the 6-foot-4 Peter Kingdom makes his evening constitutional with his Jack Russell terrier. In each hour-long episode of “Kingdom,” there’s at least one legal issue to be settled, in addition to the continuing storylines involving his nutty sister (Hermione Norris), dutiful secretary (Celia Imrie), gung-ho trainee (Karl Davies), wise ol’ mum (Phyllida Law) and brother and business partner (Dominic Mafham), who’s declared dead in Episode One, but continues to make his presence known throughout the season. If “Kingdom” had been based on a series of mystery novels, they would be from the subgenre referred to as “cozies.” This means the show is blessedly free of gunplay and the abnormally sexy women cops who overpopulate American crime series, and there’s nothing at all wrong with that. It comes with nice making-of featurette.

Baby Boomers may not want to hear this, but most of the young voters who could decide the presidential campaign this year are as nostalgic for Japanese animation and Transformers as their parents are for Howdy Dowdy and Rocky & Bullwinkle. When Mitt Romney threatened to eliminate funding for Big Bird, the biggest fuss was raised by parents who remember when the character was hatched, in 1969. It should come as good news to young Americans, then, that all 54 episodes of the first season of “Digimon Adventure” now are available in an eight-disc collector’s set from Flatiron Film. The multiplatform Japanese franchise made the transition to the U.S. in 1999. It follows the exploits of seven kids, who, while at summer camp, are transported to a strange Digital World, inhabited by Digimon (a.k.a., Digital Monsters). The campers were transported to the kingdom to help the Digimons merge their strengths to defend it from various evil forces. The DVD set arrives with a 36-page character guide, featuring the original characters and early newcomers, and a gallery with behind-the-scenes sketches.

About to enter its fourth season on FX, “The League” describes the pitiful lives of a half-dozen suburban men and one of their wives, who devote far too much of their lives to Rotisserie Football and pretending they’re teenagers again. The men are involved in a six-way bromance, which entitles them to act like high school sophomores whenever the subject of sex is brought up. The married guys envy the bachelors, while the single guys are desperate to see their friends’ wives naked. It’s hilarious in a juvenile sort of way, so it’s easy to feel sorry for the wives, girlfriends and nannies required to put up with their antics. The dialogue is at least partially improvisational, adding to the show’s loosey-goosey charm. The Season Three set includes extended episodes, deleted scenes, a gag reel, “Alt Nation” and “Taco Tones.” Among the guest stars are Seth Rogan, Brie Larson, Ray Liotta, Jeff Goldblum, Sarah Silverman, Will Forte, Eliza Dushku and Bears’ running back Matt Forte.

Going into its eighth season, “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” remains one of the funniest sitcoms on TV, even if it doesn’t have a laugh track to tell viewers when and how loudly to laugh. The FX series follows the exploits of five adult slackers who work in the same South Philadelphia bar and give new meaning to the term, “With friends like this, who needs enemies?” Among other things that happen in and around Paddy’s Pub in Season Seven are a “real life version of ‘Pretty Woman’”; a children’s beauty contest, for which Frank must prove that he isn’t a pedophile; a visit to the Jersey shore; Dee fakes a pregnancy to get out of an IRS audit; Frank’s long-lost brother pays a visit to Paddy’s; and the Gang endures a traumatic high school reunion. The set adds four commentaries, “Artemis Tours Philadelphia and a blooper reel.

The first thing to know about “Bones: The Complete Seventh Season” is that it contains only 13 episodes. Fox decided not to put production on hiatus to accommodate Emily Deschanel’s maternity leave and extend the season into the summer. (Why bother with summer when you have three other perfectly good seasons to mess up?) The first half of the season uses her pregnancy as a throughline, while the delayed second half adds material about Dr. Temperance Brennan’s adjustment to motherhood and relationship with FBI Special Agent Seeley Booth (David Boreanaz). Look for a new “21st Century, tech-savvy” antagonist, as well. The DVD includes an audio commentary, deleted scenes, a gag reel and two featurettes. – Gary Dretzka

The World Series: History of the Fall Classic
It’s that time of year, again, when pumpkins are treated with the respect they deserve – fruit, not vegetables, damn it! — and the best teams in the American and National Leagues compete in the World Series. Most male Baby Boomers can remember a time when the Fall Classic was contested in the daytime and teachers looked the other way as we listened to the games on transistor radios we snuck into school. Although the games became more accessible when they were moved under the lights, something was lost in the translation. Before long, corporate sponsors would be allotted blocks of seats typically reserved for fans and the season was extended to the point where parkas and earmuffs had to be worn to keep from freezing. After so many exciting playoff games, it’s even become possible to see the finals as anticlimactic, somehow. Still, when everything comes together just right, as they did last year, there’s nothing more exciting than the World Series … not even the one-and-out Super Bowl and World Cup. But, don’t take my word for it. Check out “The World Series: History of the Fall Classic” and relive the memories of several generations of American sports fans. If baseball had an official voice, it would be that of Bob Costas. He narrates this four-disc, seven-hour collection of material gathered from the Major League Baseball Film & Video Archives. It looks back at more than a century’s worth of highlights through blended footage, select action and more than 100 interviews with players, managers, writers, broadcasters and historians. The bonus features include historic official game programs and scorecards; ceremonial first pitches; the “ultimate World Series lineup”; World Series clinchers; MVP award winners; clubhouse celebrations; and
interviews with World Series participants. – Gary Dretzka

Jeff Dunham: Minding the Monsters: Blu-ray
Among the many things I hadn’t known about Jeff Dunham before digging into “Minding the Monsters,” his fifth Comedy Central special, is that many observers consider him to be the most successful standup comedian – not to mention ventriloquist – of the last few years. In 2009, Forbes ranked him behind only Jerry Seinfeld and Chris Rock as the most highly paid comedian. In the pre-Halloween special, Dunham gives equal time to such crowd favorites as Walter, Bubba J, Jose Jalapeno, Achmed the Dead, Peanut and his alter ego, the Purple Avenger of the Night. All are very funny, as well as rude, lewd, obscene, politically incorrect and impressively designed. Generally speaking, the audience for ventriloquism is decidedly mainstream, conservative and family oriented. I once covered a ventriloquist convention, where, during a 12-hour period, an adults-only show and a gospel session both were mounted. If Dunham is able to satisfy both audiences on a nightly basis, more power to him. The special arrives in two versions, “bleeped” and “unbleeped.” It also includes features on the characters and how they’re constructed. – Gary Dretzka

Lifetime: The Fantasia Barrino Story: Life Is Not a Fairytale
Lifetime: What Color Is Love?
Lifetime continues to dig into its archives for fresh DVD releases and this month’s delivery includes “The Fantasia Barrino Story: Life Is Not a Fairytale” (2006) and “What Color Is Love?(2009). Both of the titles conform to the cable network’s dedication to stories about women who overcome hardships or about issues important to its core audience. Directed by Debbie Allen from a teleplay based on the subject’s memoirs, “Life Is Not a Fairytale” tells the story of Fantasia Barrino, a North Carolina native who overcame great adversity to become the third winner of “American Idol.” The next year, she became the first female artist to place three songs in the top five of Billboard’s Adult R&B Chart, with “Truth Is” and “Free Yourself.” Her fame came despite having grown up in poverty, being illiterate and enduring sexual abuse in high school. Barrino plays herself in “Life Is Not a Fairytale,” alongside Loretta Devine, Kadeem Hardison and Viola Davis. In the six years since the movie was first shown on cable TV, Barrino has experienced roller-coaster highs and lows in her personal life and career. Maybe, it’s time for a sequel.

From 2009, “What Color Is Love?” describes a situation all too prevalent in the world of professional sports: overpopulation. According to reports in leading newspapers and newsmagazines, pro athletes pro-create at a rate far greater than your average traveling salesman or truck driver, who remain on the road for long stretches and often seek the company of unattached women. Professional athletes are in as high demand as rock stars and rarely have trouble finding post-game dates at nightclubs known for attracting highly paid jocks and their female (and male) groupies. Apparently, it isn’t uncommon for women looking for love or child-support payments to conveniently forgo contraception, thinking the athletes will do right by them. Failing that, however, a DNA test also could do the trick. Conversely, any woman who entrusts her reproductive system to a man – especially one whose ego might be invested in the number of children he fathers – is fooling herself.

Based on a true series of events, “What Color Is Love?” describes the case of a white Canadian sports groupie who becomes pregnant after an affair with a married NBA player. After suing for custody and child support, the athlete countersued for joint custody and liberal access to their son. The court would side with the woman – here, Nicole (Jennifer Finnigan) – but the athlete and his wife would petition for custody based on their belief that black children should be raised among black family members, who, in this case, were wealthier than the birth mother and in a more stable environment, despite the athlete’s infidelity. This time, the athlete and his wife prevailed. Undeterred, however, Nicole would take her case to the Supreme Court of Canada, which sided with the first judge. In the real case, the verdict led to the athlete suspending child-support payments and ceasing to make visits. The drama leans in the direction of Nicole’s side of the case, as she’s the mom and probably learned her lesson. In real life, the father moved back to North Carolina to be with his family and find a post-NBA career. Because Canadian law doesn’t extend that far and visitations became a hardship for the Vancouver-based mother, the father stopped making child-support payments and expending the effort to fly to Canada for court-approved visits. Even on TV, that sounds like a Pyrrhic victory to me. — Gary Dretzka

The Adventures of Scooter the Penguin
My First Collection, Volume 4: Robot Zot
Seven years after “The March of the Penguins” took the world by storm, the parade of penguin-centric movies continues to grow longer. The latest entry, the Dove-approved “The Adventures of Scooter the Penguin,” is a CG-animated feature targeted at very young viewers. Abandoned at birth, Scooter has the DNA of a line of blue penguins known for their amazing speed and strength. Even though he’s taken in by a family of silver penguins who encourage his talents, Scooter feels alone in the world. He needs to prove himself in a race against similarly talented swimmers before he can return home and make a case for his worthiness among other birds.

Scholastic’s “My First Collection” series is designed to foster creativity and learning in toddlers through storytelling and wordplay. You never know, after all, when a spark will light a fire in a child’s mind. The new collection is comprised of 12 read-along stories on three DVDs. Each promotes a different positive step in the educative process. “Robot Zot,” for example, introduces kids to rhyming, “Too Many Toys” encourages problem solving and “The Curious Garden” opens up the natural world to them. The special features include interviews with authors and illustrators. Zach Braff is part of the narration team. – Gary Dretzka

The DVD Wrapup: Dark Shadows, Cinderella, Iron Sky, Flying Swords … More

Wednesday, October 3rd, 2012

Dark Shadows: Blu-ray
Everything about Tim Burton’s feature-length remake of the ancient TV soap opera, “Dark Shadows,” must have seemed perfect on paper, at least. Frequent collaborator Johnny Depp was on board to play the aristocratic vampire Barnabas Collins, alongside such fine talents as Michelle Pfeiffer, Helena Bonham Carter, Eva Green, Jackie Earle Haley, Chloe Grace Moretz and Christopher Lee. Their characters are well known to the original’s silver-haired fans — if not their children and grandchildren — and Burton acknowledged them by including Jonathan Frid, Kathryn Leigh Scott, Lara Parker and David Selby on the guest list to the movie’s ball. Having re-watched several episodes from the soap opera recently, I think it’s only realistic to point out that “Dark Shadows” is hardly the stuff of which sacred texts are made. It toyed with soap-opera conventions by exploiting the sexual subtext of all vampire stories, but didn’t stray very far off the beaten path from there. It didn’t have to, really. Still, if there were few solid reasons to remake it, there weren’t any good ones prohibiting it, either, at least from the audience’s point of view. It was only logical that the wildly creative Burton would get the assignment. To re-create stately Collinwood Mansion, he probably was allotted more money than it cost to produce the entire television series.

As the movie opens, we’re reminded of the circumstances that led to Barnabas being turned into a vampire and locked in a coffin for the next 200 years. It’s tragically romantic, but the mood quickly changes to terror when he slaughters the construction workers who rescue him from eternal sleep. It lightens considerably when Barnabas discovers the changes that have taken place in Collinsport in the meantime. Depp reacts wonderfully to each new revelation of cultural upheaval, even if his mannerisms and reactions are familiar from other Burton productions. Some of the other characters look as if they might have been borrowed from a rejected script for “The Addams Family,” however. Green’s wickedly beautiful witch is supposed to be as formidable a force in the narrative as Depp, but, alas, she doesn’t possess the comic chops he does. She’s voluptuous and not much else. Far more seasoned, Pfeiffer does a better job as Elizabeth Collins Stoddard, the eldest child in the Collins family … in non-vampire terms, anyway. Considering the talent involved and marketing assault, “Dark Shadows” greatly underperformed at the domestic box office. Of the reported $234 million in worldwide revenues, only a third was contributed by U.S. audiences. It ought to do just fine in DVD and Blu-ray, though. The moody cinematography is captured nicely in hi-def, while the rock-oriented soundtrack livens the pace when the narrative lags. (Alice Cooper, who Barnabas mistakes for a woman, performs at the ball.) DVD and Blu-ray owners with older hardware won’t be able to take advantage of the PiP embellishments in Maximum Movie Mode and Focus Points. They’ll have to settle for six minutes of deleted scenes. – Gary Dretzka

Cinderella: Diamond Edition: Blu-ray
It’s difficult to imagine how one 74-minute cartoon could inspire as many romantic dreams and joyous memories as Disney’s 62-year-old “Cinderella.” It’s a story that demands of us that we buy into the studio mythos that evil is no match for virtue, nothing is impossible for those whose hearts are true and, in times of desperation, every planet in the animated universe will line up to ensure a gloriously happy ending. In “Cinderella,” not even a cat named Lucifer could prevent the household’s mice, horses, dog and songbirds from helping a lowly scullery maid from finding her charming prince. If anyone in the audience had a reason to feel left out in the cold, it’s the many generous stepmothers and outgoing stepsisters who were tarred with the same brush as Lady Tremaine, Anastasia and Drizella. Fairy godmothers, easily duped monarchs and handsome princes always fared better in Disney features than domineering female characters. Obsessives will continue to debate where “Cinderella” fits in the studio’s canon, but there’s no mistaking the place it holds in the hearts of women around the world, even those whose fantasies never quite come true. That the commercial success of “Cinderella” also would ensure that Walt Disney’s dreams came true is a less known chapter in the story.

In addition to being the first feature-length film the studio – then, $4 million in debt — produced and released after wartime cutbacks, “Cinderella” would introduce the concept of vertical integration to Hollywood. The movie made a bundle at the box office, of course, but, for the first time, additional profits flowed in from record sales, music publishing, publications and other merchandise. Even today, it remains a cash cow that’s never gone dry. It provided Walt Disney with the money he needed to finance a slate of productions, establish his own distribution company, enter television production and begin building Disneyland. In 1957, and in regular intervals thereafter, “Cinderella” would be re-released for a new generation of children and parents to savor. Down the road, the same strategy would allow Disney engineers to take advantage of every new technology and keep the product looking fresh.

This time around, it’s Blu-ray’s turn to shine. First and foremost, the “Diamond Edition” boasts an impressive restoration and video transfer; two fine DTS-HD Master Audio tracks (a 7.1 remix and a lossless presentation of the original audio); and a full slate of bonus features, many of which are borrowed from the 2005 “Special Edition” DVD. The new ones include an introduction by Diane Disney Miller and an alternate opening sequence; a 30-minute addition to the previous “Backstage Disney” tour; the animated short, “Tangled Ever After,” which allows a comparison between Rapunzel and Cinderella; the personalized digital storybook, “Bibbidi-Bobbidi-You,” in the interactive Disney Second Screen format; DisneyView, which adds artwork to the normally black borders of the traditional visual format; and featurettes, “Behind the Magic: A New Disney Princess Fantasyland,” “The Magic of a Glass Slipper: A Cinderella Story” and “The Real Fairy Godmother.” – Gary Dretzka

Lawrence of Arabia: 50th Anniversary Event: Digitally Restored
The anxiously awaited Blu-ray edition of “Lawrence of Arabia” arrives on November 13, but Sony is offering buffs and scholars an opportunity to watch it the way David Lean intended, on the really big screen. The digitally restored version will be shown on Thursday, October 4, at 7:00 p.m. local time, with special matinees in select theaters. It was restored by Sony Pictures Entertainment in 4K at Sony Pictures’ Colorworks, from the original 65mm negative. This special event features an introduction from Omar Sharif, newsreel coverage of the gala New York premiere and footage of King Hussein visiting the film set in Aqaba, where he met David Lean, Sam Spiegel and Peter O’Toole. Director Martin Scorsese will also discuss the overarching themes of “Lawrence of Arabia” and its influence on other iconic films.

Tickets are available at participating theater box offices and online at www.FathomEvents.com. The two-disc Blu-ray will add even more supplementary material.

The Lady: Blu-ray
The timing of the release of “The Lady” could hardly be better. Longtime Burmese democracy advocate and Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi is wrapping up her tour of the United States, during which she was presented with the Congressional Gold Medal. Moreover, though, it appears that a stable form of self-determination may finally be taking hold in Myanmar – Burma, before the military government changed the country’s name – after almost 50 years of draconian rule. During this period, the resource-rich Southeast Asian nation became an international eyesore, with a disintegrating economy and health-care system and a human-right record only the North Korean government might applaud. Meanwhile, the military officers in charge of the nation became fabulously wealthy men. Rather than assassinate Suu Kyi and risk a backlash in Myanmar and beyond, the generals decided, instead, to put her under house arrest and strictly limit access to her. For most of the next 20 years, that was Suu Kyi’s fate.

Of all the directors who might have been asked to stage a biopic of this very brave and inspirational woman, you’d hardly think action-specialist Luc Besson would be high on the list of candidates. Working from a script by Rebecca Frayn, Besson uses the recent history of the country as a frame for a depiction of the romance between Suu Kyi (Michelle Yeow) and her British husband, Dr. Michael Aris (David Thewlis). As compelling as that story might be, it presented a challenge for audiences. After all, between 1989, when his wife was first placed under house arrest, and his death to cancer in 1999, Aris had seen Suu Kyi only five times. The government forced them to live in two extremely different worlds. No matter the temptation, both were cognizant of the fact that Suu Kyi would never be allowed to return to Myanmar if she went to England to visit Aris and their two sons. Besson gets around this dilemma by inserting far too many cumbersome phone calls, mysterious disconnections and attempts to monitor world affairs via forbidden radios. Things were happening in the streets of Rangoon (a.k.a., Yangun), but, like Suu Yi, we feel trapped behind the gates of her lakeside estate.

Most of the rest of the tumultuous story is told in postscript form (riots organized by monks and students) or overlooked (the devastating effects of a hurricane). In fact, in October, 2010, while they were shooting in Thailand, the cast and crew were pleasantly surprised to learn that Suu Kyi had been released from house arrest. Less than two years later, as the movie was opening around the world, MP-elect Suu Kyi was preparing to take her place in Parliament. Because of conditions imposed on the dissidents by the military hierarchy, it wasn’t until they actually took oath that anyone close to situation stopped holding their collective breath. The making-of feature describes how difficult it was to make “The Lady,” given Besson’s desire to stick to English and Burmese dialogue and shoot footage surreptitiously inside Myanmar, itself. Many of the crowd scenes were shot in Thailand, where there’s a large community of Burmese exiles. – Gary Dretzka

Peace, Love & Misunderstanding: Blu-ray
In Bruce Beresford’s multigenerational rom-com, “Peace, Love & Misunderstanding,” the estimable Jane Fonda plays a hippy-dippy GILF – you figure it out – whose daughter and grandchildren are as square as she is groovy. Catherine Keener portrays her daughter, Diane, a soon-to-be-divorced Manhattan lawyer with a stick up her ass, and her overly sheltered kids are played by Elizabeth Olson and Nate Wolff. To get as far away from her husband as possible, Diane grabs the teenagers and heads back to the family farm for the first time in 20 years. There, she finds Granny Grace still fighting the good fight: protesting the war in the town square during the morning; attending a music festival in the afternoon; and, later, hosting a gathering of women to celebrate the full moon. In any other context, the proselytizing and morally questionable lifestyle of the pot-growing, chicken-liberating, still sexually adventurous Grace might be seen as something less than charming. After hearing several years’ worth of horror stories told by their mother about Grace, however, Zoe and Jake quickly bridge the generation gap separating the two stubborn women and find common ground between them. Clearly, it’s more fun to be a hippy on an idyllic Adirondacks farm than afterthoughts in a divorce battle in steamy summertime Manhattan.

As unconventional as “Peace, Love & Misunderstanding” feels, at times, it really doesn’t stray very far from the tropes of the rom-com genre. Once again, perfectly matched men and women aren’t allowed to fall in love unless they first clear all of the hurdles placed in their way by the director and screenwriters. Even then, the characters are required to overcome feelings of guilt for betraying their normal tendencies toward avoiding intimacy. To suggest that real human beings don’t act and say things the way that the characters do in “Peace, Love & Misunderstanding” is only to state the obvious. When was the last time you saw a rom-com in which they did, however.

What “PL&M” does have going for it is an acknowledgement that love isn’t limited to teenagers and the kind of bright and peppy yuppies who populate Michelob Light commercials. Contrary to what normally happens in Hollywood movies, middle-age men and women and senior citizens are perfectly capable of enjoying sex and finding fulfillment in relationships, too. In Christina Mengert and Joseph Muszynski’s story the geezers are given as much time as the kids – Olson, Wolff, Chace Crawford and Marissa O’Donnell – to find love, lose it and re-capture it. It may sound like a small point to audiences under 30, but the older one gets, the more we need to be reminded that romance can be re-kindled after the kids leave home. Other familiar cast members are Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Kyle MacLachlan, Rosanna Arquette and Katharine McPhee. Shot in and around Woodstock, New York, the scenery looks pretty nice in Blu-ray, as well. It adds a standard-issue making-of featurette. – Gary Dretzka

Iron Sky: Blu-ray
For almost 70 years, Nazi hunters have been searching the globe for war criminals who’ve escaped justice for their unconscionable actions in WWII. As we learn in the sci-fi parody, “Iron Sky,” they’ve been looking in the wrong place. Apparently, in 1945, participants in a secret Nazi space program fled to the dark side of the moon, where they’ve been plotting revenge on the Allies who put an end to the Third Reich. Using available lunar resources, Nazi fugitives and their offspring constructed a gargantuan fortress and aeronautics facility invisible even to the many satellites and space capsules that once surveyed the orb. Skip ahead to 2018, when a Nazi armada is on the brink of attacking Earth. All that’s missing is a trigger mechanism for the central computer and it’s inadvertently provided by an African-American astronaut who stumbles upon the factory during a normal lunar mission. During his interrogation, the head scientist discovers the astronaut’s iPhone, which is capable of performing more calculations in a minute than the Germans have in 70 years. Alas, the iPhone’s batteries are nearly depleted and an advance team of astronauts is sent to Earth to pick some up.

That’s a fairly straightforward description of what happens in Timo Vuorensola’s “Iron Sky,” which appears to have found theatrical distribution everywhere on the planet except here. It was made by the same team of Finns responsible for the “Star Wrecks” series of sci-fi parodies, which have grown far more elaborate since the first animated entry in 1992. The latest, “Star Wreck: In the Pirkinning” was downloaded more 700,000 times in its first week on the Internet. “Iron Sky” is an extension of that clever series.

Among the many gags that bring the story to life are the appearances of Udo Kier as the Fuhrer in exile; Sarah Palin look-alike Stephanie Paul as the President of the United States (there’s a stuffed polar bear, wolf and moose head in the Oval Office); members of an advance team of Gestapo officers, who are mistaken for fashion models; and a pretty blond Nazi (Julia Dietz), who sees a gang of Skinheads spray-painting swastikas on a wall and assumes they’re kindred spirits. “Iron Sky” probably could have benefitted from a rewrite by Mel Brooks or the “Kentucky Fried Movie” team, because too much of the material arrives only half-baked. What’s sensational about “Iron Sky,” though, is its overall look, which benefits from some 1,000 visual effects. With a price tag of about $9 million – much of it donated by fans of the filmmakers’ previous work – it could easily be confused with an American genre flick brought in at three times the budget. The Blu-ray supplements include a pair of making-of featurettes. – Gary Dretzka

Flying Swords of Dragon Gate: Blu-ray 3D/2D
Imagine a movie set primarily at an inn located in the middle of the desert, where old grudges are settled, outlaws clash with government troops and fabulous treasures are rumored to be hidden. Then try to imagine what the film might look like if it were directed by Sam Peckinpah and starred Steve McQueen, Charles Bronson and Jim Brown. Sounds fun, doesn’t it? Substitute the Gobi for the Sonoran Desert, Tsui Hark for Peckinpah, and Jet Li, Xun Zhou and Kun Chen for the American actors, and you have “Flying Swords of Dragon Gate.” Prepare to be dazzled. Instead of being armed with six-guns and Winchesters, the Ming Dynasty characters fight with their hands, feet, spears, whips, arrows and other exotic wuxia weaponry. Special effects, wire work and swordplay add a level of excitement not available to American filmmakers, whose myth-making normally doesn’t include kung-fu acrobatics and shape-shifting. The common denominators are horses and a high body count.

“Flying Swords” is the second re-working of Hu King’s 1967 martial-arts adventure, “Dragon Inn.” It is set three years after the destruction of the outpost in Hark and Raymond Lee’s 1992 reworking of that hit zatoichi film. Here, the inn has been rebuilt and it has become a mecca for warriors, fugitives and assassins. If a sheriff can’t find a criminal at Dragon Inn, he’s off-duty and not looking for trouble. The primary combatants, though, are troops loyal to General Chow Wai-On (Li) and the dangerous royal eunuch Yu Hua-Tian (Chen), who’s intent on killing the emperor’s pregnant maid and her formidable bodyguard, Lin Yan-Qiu (Zhou). Everyone else at the inn is focused on the gold believed hidden under the inn. “Flying Swords” may be a tad talky and thickly plotted for the tastes of action freaks, but what there is of it is amazing. The IMAX 3D version of the movie was a big hit in China, where the format has yet to reach critical mass. The Blu-ray includes making-of and behind-the-scenes material, as well as interviews. – Gary Dretzka

Chained: Blu-ray
It’s difficult to say how being the daughter of filmmaker/artist David Lynch has impacted the career of Jennifer Lynch. While there’s no question the media was predisposed to embrace her first movie – the erotic horror tale, “Boxing Helena” – critics nullified the puff pieces by treating it as they would any of her father’s new films. Instead of merely voicing their unhappiness with the work of a 25-year-old rookie and moving on to the next assignment, they sharpened their knives and went out of their way to disembowel it. In hindsight, the story of extreme obsession fits alongside other modern horror movies, before and since, that have attempted to elevate the genre intellectually. Lynch was unable to convince her detractors of the necessity of putting themselves in the box alongside the quadruple-amputee Helena and accepting that the character was a stand-in for all women stuck in abusive relationships. The bombastic reception stung Lynch, who wouldn’t write and direct another film for 15 years. The dark thriller didn’t do much better with critics.

In “Chained,” Lynch returns to the serial-killer subgenre with a vengeance. Vincent D’Onofrio, who does crazy as well as any actor, plays a deranged cab driver, Bob, who frequently kidnaps his female fares and takes them to his rural home, where he rapes and kills them. Early in the movie, Bob does exactly this to Julia Ormond. The difference this time is that Bob forces her young son to listen to the screams, before he decides to hold the boy captive and mold him into a miniature copy of himself. He even beats the boy with the same crazed fervor as his father beat him. Flashing ahead a few years, it’s clear that “Rabbit” (Eamon Farren) has been brutalized and psychologically manipulated to the point where he’s an automaton. Even so, Bob demands that Rabbit take his home schooling seriously, especially the anatomical lessons that could prove useful when swiftly killing and dismembering his victims. The time eventually comes when Bob thinks Rabbit is ready to participate in the hunts and break through the final barrier, by killing a prostitute brought back to the house. Lynch keeps us guessing as to whether Rabbit has a smidgen of humanity left in him or he’s a lost cause. “Chained” is the kind of uncompromising film that horror buffs will embrace far more than casual fans and critics. Graphically violent and undeniably disturbing, it originally was rated NC-17, but cut to a “R,” ostensibly for DVD distribution. The Blu-ray includes commentary by Lynch and D’Onofrio, as well as a slightly longer version of one of the murders. – Gary Dretzka

We Are the Hartmans
A couple of weeks ago, I reviewed a low-budget indie comedy, “Gone Hollywood,” whose story could have come from the same Screenplays ‘R’ Us store as “We Are the Hartmans.” In both, a local watering hole catering to a rural town’s eccentrics and misfits is threatened with closure by an avaricious corporation bent on building yet another big-box store or something equally atrocious. At first, estranged relatives of the owners – one dead, the other laid low by a stroke – seem bent on taking the money and running home. When they become aware of how much the tavern means to the community, however, they have a change of heart. In “We Are the Hartmans,” Richard Chamberlain, looking a lot like Howard Hesseman at his most stoned, plays the owner of Hartman’s Rock Club. Although he isn’t at all happy about being stuck in the hospital after the stroke, the old hippie is thrilled to learn that he qualifies for medicinal pot and has been given some kick-ass pain-killers. Marijuana also figures in the transition of his up-tight, big-city daughter (Jennifer Restivo) from money-grubber to one of the gang of offbeat locals attempting to raise the money needed to buy the facility. “We Are the Hartmans” was made for an estimated $200,000 and it looks it. If too much of the comedy looks like a film-school project, it deserves credit for its upbeat spirit and unpretentious attitude. – Gary Dretzka

The Samaritan: Blu-ray
$hifty
Although Samuel L. Jackson tends to dominate every scene of every movie that he’s in, he isn’t often assigned lead roles. Casting directors could probably provide a dozen reasons why that’s the case, but, fact is, Hollywood doesn’t make all that many movies that call for black-male protagonists. Jackson exudes a different sort of charisma than Denzel Washington and Denzel is Hollywood’s go-to African-American for lead roles in high-budget action films. Still, I don’t suppose Jackson minded playing Nick Fury and Mace Windu in several of Hollywood’s biggest blockbusters. Jackson also is in great demand as a voice actor in major animated features. In the noir-ish Canadian crime thriller, “The Samaritan,” he not only plays the lead character – a recent parolee determined to stay on the straight, if razor-thin path – but his presence also provides the only good reason to check it out.

No sooner is Jackson’s Foley released from prison than he’s confronted by the son of his former partner, who he murdered at the behest of a gangster who was pointing a gun at his head. The guy probably had it coming, but that’s not what the mid-level hoodlum, Ethan (Luke Kirby), wants to hear. He demands that Foley participate in a three-person grift known as “the Samaritan” or he will reveal a long-harbored piece of intelligence that would devastate the ex-con and the woman closest to him. The secret has been so deeply guarded, in fact, only one person besides Ethan knows it. It’s a doozy, though. Unfortunately, co-writer/director David Weaver couldn’t decide if wanted to make a movie about a tricky scam or a smart action picture. By attempting to have it both ways, Weaver met neither goal. Even so, Jackson is great fun to watch and the atmospherics are pretty good. He’s joined by Tom Wilkinson, Deborah Kara Unger (too briefly) and the exotic beauty Ruth Negga, who is equal parts Irish and Ethiopian.

The popular image of a drug dealer is a gang member working a corner for a more senior thug or a young white guy who dreams of hitting Vegas with supermodel on each arm. The truth is far more banal. Open any high school yearbook, close your eyes and point a finger at a random student. That person is more likely to be a purveyor of recreational drugs than the archetypal street dealer. The gritty British crime story, “$hifty,” introduces viewers to bottom-rung dealers who risk their freedom everyday by selling nickel and dime bags of powder, rocks or grass to customers who would be the mostly likely to rat them out if arrested. As long as supply and demand remains on even keel, however, business runs smoothly and risks are low. Freshman writer/director Eran Creevy follows one such dealer, Shifty (Riz Ahmed), as he goes about his duties over the course of one unusually eventful 24-hour period. The day begins when a friend from Manchester surprises Shifty by showing up at the door of his home on the outskirts of London after a four-year absence. Chris (Daniel Mays) abruptly split the scene for reasons that remain a mystery throughout most of the movie. Chris accompanies Shifty on his rounds, remaining mute but absorbing how much the business has changed in his absence. This also is the day that Shifty’s otherwise smooth operation hits potholes dug by his supplier, a desperate customer and his brother Paul, a devout Muslim who discovers his hidey-hole and flushes the stash down the toilet. By doing so he effectively puts a price on Shifty’s head. The quietly powerful “$hifty” owes far more to the British cinema’s “kitchen sink” era than anything made by Guy Ritchie and his imitators. Buffs may find that to be more of a compliment than a curse. – Gary Dretzka

Sound of My Voice: Blu-ray
I’ve never pitched a movie idea to anyone except, maybe, a friend sitting on the stool next to me in a tavern. In the psycho-thriller, “Sound of My Voice,” however, there’s a snippet of dialogue that would seem to be an ideal pitch: “Somewhere in the Valley, there is a woman living in a basement who claims to be from the future. She’s actually amassing followers. These people believe that she will lead them to salvation, or whatever. And, yes, she’s dangerous, but we have to see this thing through … all the way.” The only things missing are a description of the woman – drop-dead-gorgeous blond, Brit Marling – and the identities of the persons who “have to see this thing through.” They are a strikingly attractive journalist (Nicole Vicius) and her skeptical partner — and part-time teacher (Christopher Denham) — who go undercover to expose someone they believe to be a fraud. As full of promise as this premise is, I suspect that “Sound of My Voice” wouldn’t stand a snowball’s chance in hell of getting made if the key female characters weren’t beautiful and there weren’t a couple of shower scenes, however chaste.

Freshman director Zal Batmanglij in his first of two collaborations with Marling, is basically asking us to question what leads some people to follow charismatic religious leaders – be they L. Ron Hubbard or Jesus H. Christ – after listening to appeals that sound preposterous on the face of them. Here, Marling plays a woman who claims to be a time-traveler from the future – 2054, to be exact – and a prophet of much trouble to come in the 21st Century. Maggie wears the customary white shawl and diaphanous gown, while sermonizing in a tone that resonates with self-confidence and integrity. The screenplay leaves lots of room for conjecture as to Maggie’s motivations and credibility, but that’s OK because we already know that such cults can grow and prosper or end up making headlines when they drink the Kool-Aid. Part of the mystery in “Sound of My Voice” derives from trying to figure out how Maggie and one of the teacher’s young students know things about each other that normally would seem impossible. Batmanglij’s deliberate pace and willingness to leave so many questions unanswered help sell “Sound of My Voice” as a quietly creepy feature. The DVD adds interviews and a making-of featurette. – Gary Dretzka

Splinters
Whittle: The Jet Pioneer
Hungry for Change
As the legend is told in “Splinters,” Papua New Guinea became a surfing nation in the 1980s, after an Australian pilot left behind a board in the remote seaside village of Vanimo. The outlander had taught a local man the sport and he taught everyone else. Today, there are enough surfing clubs to support a national competition and dreams of competing in Tahiti, Australia and everywhere else waves break, curl and crash. Because of the lack of economic opportunity in the developing nation, surfing has also provided residents of the beach communities with a source of pride and purpose. Adam Pesce’s documentary doesn’t dwell on how much the surfing culture in Papua New Guinea resembles cargo-cult religions, but it’s difficult to ignore. Once mastered, the men and women we meet put surfing above nearly everything else in their lives, including marriage, paying alimony and finding work outside the village. Their passion isn’t unique, of course, or something that can absorbed from magazines. Surfing does that to people, especially if the homegrown waves are among the best in the world.

If Pesce’s intention was simply to record a curiosity in the wide world of sports, however, the facts of life in an impoverished nation caught up with the first-time, do-it-yourself filmmaker and forced him to widen the documentary’s scope. What “Splinters” reveals is a society in such a state of flux that the surfing competitions naturally rekindled ancient rivalries, family feuds and traditional prejudices. At stake, after all, besides bragging rights, was the opportunity for winners to visit countries that might has well have been designed for them by Walt Disney. There are several times in the movie when fights almost break out among the competitors and dirty tricks are played on the favorites. What’s also revealed are attitudes toward women that border on the prehistoric: one club leader refuses to comply with guidelines forbidding the exclusion of women surfers; donated boards are grabbed by the men, although they’re intended to be shared; it’s OK for men who’ve “purchased” wives to beat them whenever the mood strikes; and family members are free to beat sisters and daughters who bring shame to them. Things are changing, but too slowly to help the victims. That said, “Splinters” is mostly uplifting and positive. The smiles on the faces of the competitors and audience members during the contest speak volumes about how it feels to be part of a global community that demands nothing more than a love of surfing.

Aeronautics buffs certainly are aware of Air Commodore Frank Whittle, the British engineer credited with inventing the turbojet engine and advancing jet propulsion in the 20th Century. In Nicholas Jones’ fascinating, if dry as a Saltine cracker documentary, “Whittle: The Jet Pioneer,” we learn just how much more prominent his name would be if the British government hadn’t put the brakes on the development of the jet fighter that could have taken out Hitler’s Luftwaffe well before the battle of Britain. By extension, at least, it’s possible to assume that the Allies had in their possession a weapon that could have changed the course of history, but repeatedly dropped the ball. This happened, even though we were fully aware of Germany’s intentions to use propeller-less planes at its earliest convenience. Hell, no one even bothered to label the project “top secret.” News of Whittle’s invention was splashed on the front page of newspapers around America and Briton. How could such a debacle be allowed to happen? Unfortunately, the documentary merely points fingers at the likely culprits, without providing the hard evidence that would be needed for a blanket indictment. Whittle was so disturbed by the course of events that he spend much of the war and post-war period in the United States, where he would be compromised by nervous breakdowns. In due course, Whittle’s achievements would be recognized by the British government, if not the ramifications of past decisions. Also interviewed at length is Whittle’s Germany counterpart, Dr. Hans von Ohain.

The same chronically healthy folks who produced the 2008 documentary/infomercial, “Food Matters,” have returned to spread the vegan gospel in “Hungry for Change.” The gist of their argument is that by drinking vegetable juice and eating more produce that’s raw and full of anti-oxidants, you not only can lose weight and prevent certain illnesses, but it’s also possible to reverse cancer and other serious diseases. The other thing stressed here is that the diet industry doesn’t necessarily have the best interests of its customers in mind. The movie provides plenty of testimonials, as well, to back up the assertions of the experts, who coincidentally also are the filmmakers. – Gary Dretzka

Hypothermia
James Felix McKenney’s throwback creature-feature, “Hypothermia,” combines the cheesy special effects of “The Creature From the Black Lagoon” and sub-zero shivers of the original 1951 “The Thing From Another World.” The result, however, is a story that is more silly than scary. Ever-credible Michael Rooker plays Ray, the father in a family hoping to enjoy a pleasant weekend of ice fishing, somewhere in Minnesota, Wisconsin or the Adirondacks. Joining him are his outdoorsy wife, Helen (Blanche Baker), son David and his fiancé Gina (Benjamin Forster, Amy Chang). Ray’s an old-school angler, whose idea of comfort is an upturned fruit crate and makeshift plywood windbreak. While sampling the ice on their first night at the cabin, Ray manages to slip through a thin patch that we are led to believe is an entry point for the “Lake Man” monster. After spending enough time semi-submerged to believe he should have experienced hyperthermia, his family senses something is wrong and rescues him. Still, after a night spent defrosting and being blasted with some heebie-jeebies effects, the family is good to go in the morning.

After a few hours on the ice, they’re joined by a father-son team of yahoos whose fishing shack resembles the model kitchen in a late-night ad for a mobile-home dealership. They’re noisy, obnoxious and ready to party. Ray’s family reluctantly joins the newcomers after nearly being killed by a monstrous aquatic creature drawn to mechanical vibrations. After that, of course, “Hypothermia” turns into a tale of survival, in which the two families battle a creature so obviously phony it could have been created by a high school AV club with access to scuba gear and a VHS copy of “Creature From the Black Lagoon.” Not surprising, then, “Hypothermia” is just now making its delayed debut on DVD. The best part of the experience is the making-of material, which explains how one might go about making a horror movie in sub-zero conditions, as well as the motivations of filmmakers, who admit to being scared out of their minds by the horror films they saw on TV when they were kids. It’s also kind of painful to watch veteran actor Blanche Baker pretend she isn’t feeling absolutely miserable, staring into a small hole in the ice with the frigid wind blowing in her face. – Gary Dretzka

Funkytown
By all outward appearances, “Funkytown” would appear to be a Canadian clone of “54” and “The Last Days of Disco,” which, of course, the world needs about as much as a paisley hockey puck. Fact is, though, folks in the Great White North have a very good reason to crow about their disco heritage. In the mid-1970s, Montreal had a nightclub scene that was the equal of New York and Los Angeles, and celebrities routinely made pit stops there on the way to other destinations. The fictional Starlight nightclub in “Funkytown” is modeled after such hotspots as the Lime Light and 1234, and several of the characters were inspired by actual players in the scene. Hanging like a black cloud of doom over the proceedings, however, is the political dynamic that would result in a vote among Quebecois as to the question of secession from the rest of Canada. This led directly to the flight of major corporations from Montreal to Toronto, where businesses were free to hang signs in any language they desired, not just French. (Overnight, the Starlight was required to advertise itself as Le Starlight.) In a couple of more years, Montreal had lost its luster as one of the most culturally hip and fastest-growing cities in North America. “Funkytown” isn’t in the same league with Whit Stillman’s “The Last Days of Disco,” but the ensemble cast is game and characters have other things on their minds than partying and cocaine (although there is some of that, too). The most recognizable actor for U.S. audiences probably is Justin Chatwin, who’s played key roles recently in “Weeds,” “Shameless” and “War of the Worlds.” He plays a featured dancer with a struggling Italian restaurant and sexual-identity issues. – Gary Dretzka

Brian Wilson: Songwriter, 1969-1982
Tight
No rock band has experienced more tumult and caused more anxiety among its fan base than the Beach Boys. Unless you were there, between 1969 and 1982, it’s difficult to imagine that this most American of ensembles rode a roller-coaster that carried them from the highs of immense popular and critical acceptance to the lows caused by Brian Wilson’s breakdowns, public rejection of the band’s most artistically ambitious material and their label’s demand for Top 40 hits. It played out on the pages of Rolling Stone and via the rumor mill, which made Brian sound as if he was either completely out of his mind or was under the control of an evil puppet master. Brian had more than his fair share of mental problems, certainly, and his personal psychologist did as much harm as good. The fact that he didn’t finally join Jimi, Janis, Jim and a dozen other dead musicians in Rock ’n’ Roll Heaven suggests he might have carried an angel on his shoulder. After many years spent walking the razor’s edge, Wilson returned to his piano, the stage and recording studio. Alone among the Wilson brothers, he’s still alive to tell the tale.

Songwriter 1969-1982” extends Sexy Intellectual’s previous critical biography, “Songwriter 1962-1969,” which chronicled the band’s spectacular rise to the top of the charts and wildly innovative studio work that led to “Good Vibrations” and other psychedelic-surf music. “1969-1982” is a far more downbeat documentary. In addition to the headline-making turmoil, the Beach Boys were coming apart at the seams. Towards the end of the ’70s, Brian’s music was emanating from places the others couldn’t understand or appreciate, especially when a resurgence of interest in the early material promised a continuous stream of revenues from concerts and greatest-hits albums. Brian would be wheeled out on stage and treated as if he was a “trained bear.” As is typical in documentaries from Sexy Intellectual, the interviews with critics, historians, producers and collaborators are smart, interesting and based on intimate knowledge of the subject. If Brian’s life story reads like a novel, it’s nice to know that the final chapter has yet to be written. The DVD adds extended interviews and the insightful featurettes, “Behind the Music,” “Out of Bed/The Man Behind the Myth” and “Brian Goes Country.”

If “Spinal Tap” taught us anything, it’s that the line between rock ’n’ roll and parody is very thin, indeed. (Actually, Frank Zappa showed us the same thing, only 20 years earlier.) “Tight” chronicles the transition of four porn stars into a touring rock ensemble of the same name. Originally intended as a raunchy reality mini-series — Showtime’s “Family Business,” comes to mind — “Tight” looks about as vérité offstage as “Honey Boo Boo.” As far as I can tell, it can only be seen here on DVD and a couple of adult websites. Tight, the band, is comprised of Monica Mayhem, Layla Labelle, Tuesday Cross and Alicia Andrews. It’s managed by Bree Olson, whose 15 minutes of fame came when Charlie Sheen introduced her to the world as his “goddess.” Conveniently, most of the band’s dates are booked in strip clubs, where they can take off their tops and there’s a good chance someone in the audience will recognize them. Each night, too, one of the ladies throws a “golden condom” into the audience, giving whichever guy or gal who catches it an opportunity for extracurricular activity. If the women play to type and appear to enjoy making music together, Olson’s inability to manage becomes apparent when she hires her hayseed Hoosier “cousin” to be the band’s road manager. The dork spends most of his time ogling the ladies and eating sardines from the can with his hands. At its best, “Tight” provides some goofy fun for porn fans – the band took first place in Howard Stern’s “XXX Factor” – and, at worst, it’s unwatchable. The same can be said about most reality series, though. The DVD adds deleted scenes, music videos, concert footage, a photo gallery and liner notes. – Gary Dretzka

Pet Sematary: Blu-ray
There was a time, maybe a quarter-century ago, when movies adapted from Stephen King’s novels and stories weren’t as predictable as rain in the jungle. In 1983, alone, five titles were turned into films. “Pet Sematary” was released in 1989, three years after “Stand By Me” showed us another, more introspective side of King. In that movie, King explored how a boy’s coming of age could be hastened by experiencing a tragic event. Here, almost perversely, a toddler’s shocking death becomes the catalyst for horror, and many parents of young children found “Pet Sematary” to be excruciating. As the story goes, a city-slicker doctor (Dale Midkiff) and his family move to a small town in Maine, where the greatest threat to happiness appears to be the giant trucks that pass by their property at breakneck speed. After a neighbor (Fred Gwynne) rescues the toddler from disaster, he mentions that the road “uses up” a lot of small animals. The more beloved of the roadkill end up in a pleasant pet cemetery nearby, a fact that creeps out the boy’s older sister. He also mentions to the doctor that there’s another cemetery, a bit further removed, where, it’s said, the dead don’t stay dead for very long. That’s because it’s built on an ancient Indian burial ground and the corpses aren’t fond of sharing the space with critters. Sure enough, this is the place that Dad decides to bury his daughter’s precious kitty cat after it’s killed by a truck. A few hours later, it returns a very different creature. No use spoiling anyone’s fun by going too deeply into the plot. Suffice it to say that the doctor can’t resist playing God, no matter how dangerous.

The supernatural aspects of “Pet Sematary” are pretty chilling, but what kicks the story up several notches higher are the special makeup and sound effects. The deaths are horrifying and the people who return from the dead look very much like considerably more ambulatory zombies. What happens when the little boy returns from the dead is almost unconscionably monstrous. That’s why they call it horror, though. The Blu-ray upgrade makes the 23-year-old movie look as fresh as a daisy, while the sound design is as unnerving as it could be. The Blu-ray package adds commentary by director Mary Lambert and three background featurettes. The 3D cover image is pretty scary, too. – Gary Dretzka

Note to Self
The upbeat urban rom-com, “Note to Self,” uses one trick too many to tell the story of Curtis King (Christian Keyes), a popular and soft-spoken student athlete, and the many trials he faces upon entering his senior year in college. After being caught pulling a prank, his no-nonsense coach tells him to see a psychologist to help get his priorities straight. In most other movies targeted directly at the African-American audience, the troubled protagonist would seek the advice of a preacher. Here, while asking the same kinds of questions, the counselor encourages Curtis to keep a journal detailing his circumstances and thoughts. Their conversations don’t feel at all organic, serving mostly to provide a bridge from one problem to the next. Among the things contributing to the young man’s malaise are a seriously ill mother; a father who disappeared 16 years earlier; an upcoming conference tournament; and an impatient libido. His life is further complicated by a brief affair with a sexy femme fatale and his determination to keep on the right side of things with his new girl, a genuinely nice single mother and nursing student. It’s a lot of weight for a graduating senior to carry, but Curtis benefits from good advice and direction from the psychologist. In addition to starring in “Note to Self,” Keyes wrote the screenplay for director Trey Haley, who also is a partner in the company that produced the picture. The cast includes former Destiny’s Child member, Letoya Luckett; singers Brian McKnight and Jason Weaver; and lots of faces that will be familiar to BET viewers and fans of Tyler Perry’s projects. The DVD supplements include deleted scenes, bloopers, a making-of piece and an “I’m Alright” music video. – Gary Dretzka


General Education: Blu-ray
Tom Morris’ first feature as writer, director and producer is a teen rom-com so devoid of humor and lacking in romance, it defies categorization. Given the genre, you’d think there would be one or two scenes in which kids drank too much and were stricken with projectile vomiting or fainted while sneaking peeks into the girls’ shower room at school. But, noooooo! “General Education” is a story about a teen tennis phenom, Levi Collins, who’s spent all his time practicing, instead of studying for the science final he needs to pass to graduate and qualify for a scholarship. Not only does Levi (Chris Sheffield) fail the course, but he also stands to flunk summer school. For some reason, he withholds this information from his wealthy parents (Larry Miller, Janeane Garofalo), freaking out his tennis-obsessed father when it’s revealed. At the same time as Levi breaks the news to his dad, he comes to the realization that, as good as he is, he doesn’t enjoy playing tennis and would prefer hanging out with his geek buddies and the pretty daughter of the teacher who’s failing him. That everything eventually works out for Levi should be evident from the moment the opening credits begin to roll.

What isn’t predictable is how darn nice everyone is or becomes. If it weren’t for Levi’s jerk father and his main competition for the tennis scholarship, there wouldn’t any conflict whatsoever. Given what I saw and heard, even the PG-14 seems extreme. With some gentle editing, it could easily qualify as an after-school movie on ABC Family or Disney Channel. I don’t think that was what the filmmakers were going for, though. The bonus material includes outtakes, a making-of featurette and commentary with director, producers and sound editor. – Gary Dretzka

Downton Abbey: Limited Edition: Seasons One & Two: Blu-ray
With 9 wins among 27 nominations, “Downton Abbey” has become the most celebrated British television production in Emmys competition. Like its kindred predecessor, “Upstairs Downstairs,” it has been embraced wholeheartedly by American audiences, as well. (FYI: The third season of “Downton Abbey” had already begun in England and will show up here in January, while the next go-round of “Upstairs Downstairs” begins October 7 on PBS.) The uninitiated would do well to catch up with the doings at “Downton Abbey” by picking up “Limited Edition: Season One & Two” on DVD or Blu-ray. There’s no better reason than to admire the Emmy-winning performances of Dame Maggie Smith, who stars as the imperious Dowager Countess of Grantham, matriarch of Downton. As her dutiful son and progressive American daughter-in-law, Hugh Bonneville and Elizabeth McGovern also are great fun to watch.

Season Two takes place as World War I rages across Europe and the impact is felt, as well, by everyone at the estate — rich and poor – especially after its been retrofitted as a hospital. Amid the chaos, there’s plenty of soap-opera melodrama to keeps fans happy, including a wedding and the scourge of the Spanish flu. The package adds “Downton Abbey Christmas Special” and the bonus features from Season One: “Making of ‘Downton Abbey’: A House in History” and “Great British Heritage Pass,” a promotional spot for British tourism.” The Season Two supplements include “Fashion and Uniforms,” “Romance in a Time of War” and “House to Hospital.” – Gary Dretzka

David Blaine: Decade of Magic
Throughout much of the 1990s, magic experienced the kind of commercial renaissance that standup comedy had a decade earlier. Las Vegas may have been the world capital of magic, but exposure on network television encouraged club owners to switch from comedy to magic. The same thing that burst the comedy clubs’ balloon eventually impacted on magicians. Once an entertainer had performed his act on HBO or the Comedy Channel, it was dead. Not even the most devout fan would put down hard-earned money to see the same jokes and “ad-libs.” Magicians faced the same dilemma. After viewers watched one made an elephant disappear before millions of viewers, how many people would pay for the same privilege on stage? Among the survivors was David Copperfield, who made a very good living by dispensing with the tuxedo and top hat and creating illusions that might have made Houdini gasp. If he wasn’t the hippest guy on the planet, at least he was young, handsome and exceedingly charismatic. How would the next generation of magicians top his act?

Along with Chris Angel, David Blaine found another way – guerrilla magic, if you will — to build a customer base. Instead of forcing their fans to buy tickets to a club or showroom, they took their act to the streets and made new friends along the way. Cable networks would exploit the popularity, using unobtrusive cameras to capture the excitement and wonder on the faces of the spectators. In most cases, these rock-’n’-roll magicians were performing card tricks and small illusions that were as old as George Burns, but spectators still reacted with “cool” and “awesome.” The more popular the magicians became, the more risks they took. The bigger the risks, the larger the audience became. After a rocky opening, Angel’s mind-freaky collaboration with Cirque du Soleil has found a home in Las Vegas’ Luxor. As is on full display in “Decade of Magic,” Blaine’s reputation has grown even more dependent on spectacle. His illusions and tests of endurance go on for days at a time and in places in full view of thousands of non-paying customers. The two-disc DVD compilation balances the big, headline-making stunts with televised accounts of “street magic.” In “Vertigo,” Blaine stands atop a 100-foot-high pillar in a New York City park, unharnessed, for 35 hours; in “Drowned Alive,” he spends a week submerged in a sphere containing 10,000 gallons of water, then attempts to break the record for holding one’s breath; and in “What Is Magic?,” Blaine catches a .22-caliber bullet, traveling at a speed of over 1,000 feet per second, in a cup clutched in his teeth. It’s a great stunt, but I swear I saw the same thing accomplished in Penn & Teller’s show. Perhaps, I missed something. – Gary Dretzka

Magic City: The Complete First Season: Blu-ray
New Girl: The Complete First Season
Hart of Dixie: The Complete First Season
How I Met Your Mother: The Complete Season 7
From Dust to Dreams: Opening Night at the Smith
Frontline: Alaska Gold
The Starz network has been around for 18 years, but, in all that time, it hasn’t attracted the kind of positive heat as it has in the last two or three seasons. Credit belongs to the bold decision to begin showcasing high-quality original mini-series, produced on budgets nearly the equivalent of those afforded shows on premium-cable competitor HBO and Showtime. Starz’ resurgence can be traced to the British historical epics “Pillars of the Earth” and “Camelot,” as well as the sci-fi fantasy, “Torchwood: Miracle Day,” and contemporary series “Crash” and “Gravity.” It scored a direct hit with the sword-and-sandal mini-series “Spartacus: Blood and Sand,” which combined graphic sex and violence and a highly stylistic visual style, reminiscent of Zach Snyder’s “300.” Even after losing its star to cancer, the mini-series would spin off a prequel and sequel. Next on tap were the classy political drama, “Boss,” and sexy gangster period piece, “Magic City.” Coming up next year is another historical drama, “Da Vinci’s Dreams.” Nine other shows are in the development stage. The common denominators are T&A – gladiator penises in “Spartacus” — and lots of spilt blood.

“Magic City” is set in Miami Beach, 1959, when the giant oceanside resort/hotels were the hottest places to stay in winter – imagine Las Vegas without the gambling — and, 90 miles away, Fidel Castro’s rebels were preparing to storm Havana. The white-hot center for action in Miami, we’re told, is the Miramar Playa resort, which serves as a home away from home for the Rat Pack, the Kennedys and mobsters about to lose their Cuban playground. The place is managed by Ike Evans (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), an ethical, if thoroughly compromised second-generation hotelier who is in constant danger of losing his property to the resident gangster, Ben “the Butcher” Diamond (Danny Huston). Otherwise, the story borrows liberally from “Casino,” “Godfather II” and “The Sopranos,” which is OK, I suppose. (When in doubt, steal from the best.) I don’t think any show can touch “Spartacus” for graphic displays of sweaty flesh, but “Magic City” comes close. If most of the men look as if they just stepped out of a police lineup, the women – Olga Kurylenko, Jessica Marais and Elena Satine, among them — may as well have been recruited from the Playboy mansion. (Although the introduction of silicone and saline breast implants would come several years after the period in which the show is set.) For the sake of cheap thrills, alone, “Magic City” is difficult to beat. The Blu-ray adds several background and making-of featurettes, none of which is long enough to add much perspective.

There are two very good reasons to watch the hit Fox sitcom, “New Girl”: 1) Zooey Deschanel and 2) it isn’t nearly as stupid as it sounds. The kooky flavor-of-last-year star, Deschanel, plays a slightly ditzy young woman, who, after losing her cheating boyfriend and job, moves into a bachelor pad with three single guys. This is the kind of thing that happens every day outside TV Land, right? Deschanel’s character, Jess, is pretty enough to set any young guy’s heart aflutter, but her purpose here is to play den mother and confidante for the trio of doofuses and her more worldly girlfriend, Cece. Tentatively titled “Chicks and Dicks,” which probably wouldn’t fly past network censors, anyway, the series was created by executive producer Elizabeth Meriwether. Her previous credits include the screenplay for “No Strings Attached” and an episode of “Children’s Hospital.”

Season One of the CW’s fish-out-of-water dramedy “Hart of Dixie” was targeted directly at the hearts of those young women who made hits out of “The O.C.” and “Gossip Girl.” The connective tissue between all three shows is the presence of writer/producer Leila Gerstein. Rachel Bilson plays Dr. Zoe Hart a New Yorker bred in the bone hoping to become a heart surgeon, just like Daddy. After a major setback, Zoe agrees to accept a job at a practice in someplace called Bluebell, Alabama. Before she can even open a box of tongue depressors, though, the doctor who owns the practice dies. Unexpectedly, he bequeaths half of it to Zoe. The other half belongs to a doctor played by Tim Matheson, who had the audacity to name his pretty blond daughter Lemon (Jaime King). Like father, like daughter, Lemon takes it upon herself to make the newcomer’s life in Bluebell a nightmare. Naturally, too, the rest of the Gulf Coast town is populated by colorful rustics, one of whom keeps an alligator as a pet. The second season begins on October 2.

Meanwhile, the hit CBS sitcom, “How I Met Your Mother,” has already entered its eighth season. The DVD package is subtitled “The Ducky Tie Edition,” in reference to the bad-penny tie that’s already made out-of-sequence appearances in previous episodes “The Naked Truth” and “The Best Man.” Here, in typical “HIMYM” fashion, Barney is so desperate to see and/or feel Lily’s pregnant breasts that he makes a wager with Marshall he’s sure to win. If, perchance he loses, Barney must agree to wear the duckling-patterned tie that he finds hideous. In the episode’s clever ending, Barney comes out on top, as usual, even after losing the bet. If that weren’t enough excitement for Barney, he’s also getting married. Look out, as well, for the return of the Slutty Pumpkin.

For those “HIMYM” viewers who simply can’t get enough of the multitalented Neil Patrick Harris (a.k.a., Barney), there’s “From Dust to Dreams: Opening Night at the Smith.” He hosts the opening-night concert at the sparkling new Smith Center for the Performing Arts, in Las Vegas. Not surprisingly, perhaps, there was no real impetus for such a facility as long as the Strip resorts brought in the world’s top entertainers. That’s not necessarily the case anymore and the city has grown to the point where it requires a permanent home for the Las Vegas Philharmonic, Nevada Ballet Theater and touring cultural attractions. Back in the day, the casino bosses would have put the kibosh on any such complex, but the city is large enough now to provide separate entertainment magnets for tourists and locals. The entertainers include Jennifer Hudson, Willie Nelson, Martina McBride, Joshua Bell, Mavis Staples, Merle Haggard, Pat Monahan, John Fogerty, Carole King and a company of Broadway All-Stars.

The “Frontline” presentation, “Alaska Gold,” tells another familiar story of life in our times. As if the state’s natural resources haven’t already been exploited enough, this documentary describes yet another confrontation between environmentalists and commercial interests hoping to squeeze every penny of profit out of mineral deposits discovered in the Bristol Bay region of southwest Alaska. Inconveniently, the bay also is home to the last great wild Sockeye salmon fishery in the world. The battle already is being waged in the statehouse and courts. – Gary Dretzka

Cartoon Network: Adventure Time: Jake vs. Me-Mow
Nickelodeon: Dora’s Royal Rescue
Everyone enjoys getting extra value for their money, no matter if they’re shopping for tires or DVDs. The new compilation of 16 episodes from the offbeat Cartoon Network series, “Adventure Time,” not only arrives with the special trivia feature, “Little Did You Know,” but also a cloth replica of Finn’s iconic bear cap, valued at $20. (Take that, Criterion Collection!) In the title episode, “Jake vs. Me Mow,” 14-year-old Finn’s shape-shifting dog does battle with a feline assassin, Me Mow, who is the size of a tick. The character’s look was inspired by a drawing sent to series creator Penn Ward by a young fan, whereas Jake is based on Tripper Morgan, Bill Murray’s character in “Meatballs.” Finn and Jake live in the post-apocalyptic Land of Ooo.

Dora’s Royal Rescue” arrives with coloring and activity book. The new double-length episode follows Lady Knight Dora as she joins the effort to rescue Don Quixote from Malambruno (voiced by Andy Garcia and Placido Domingo respectively). The Knight of the Woeful Countenance is being held captive in the Story Castle. The DVD also adds the new-to-DVD episode “Dora’s Knighthood Andventure.” – Gary Dretzka

VR Troopers: Season One, Volume One
Red vs. Blue: The Best
Saban Entertainment’s live-action companion to “Mighty Morphin Power Rangers,” “VR Troopers” was cobbled together from three different shows in the Japanese “Metal Hero” series: “Superhuman Machine Metalder,” “Dimensional Warrior Spielban” and “Space Sheriff Schaider.” The “action fighting kids show” introduced viewers to the world of virtual reality, which was hot at the time, but enjoyed a short shelf life. It tells the story of Ryan Steele, Kaitlin Star and J.B. Reese, three teens with the ability to turn themselves into virtual superheroes. Ryan’s father created a technology that allows the Troopers to defend our reality from an evil mutant, Grimlord, who threatens to take over the world. It debuted in 1994 and ran for two years. The DVD contains 26 episodes.

The gimmick behind “Red vs. Blue” is adding voiceovers to the blockbuster videogame Halo, just as Woody Allen did with the dopey Japanese actioner, “International Secret Police: Key of Keys,” which became “What’s Up, Tiger Lily?” The effect was hilarious, as it is here. “Red vs. Blue” is a parody of first-person shooter games, military life and science fiction films. It begins with two opposing teams of soldiers fighting a civil war in the middle of the desolate box canyon. None of this makes much logical sense, but that’s pretty much the point. The episodes included here were voted by fans to be the best. – Gary Dretzka

The DVD Wrapup: Klown, Avengers, American Horror Story … More

Wednesday, September 26th, 2012

Klown: Blu-ray
No sooner has Frank mentioned to an acquaintance over drinks, “If I had wanted kids around, I’d have worked in a kindergarten,” than he’s accidentally informed by the family doctor that his longtime girlfriend, Mia, is pregnant. She has been hiding the news from him because she isn’t at all sure that he’s sufficiently mature to be a parent. Nonplussed, Frank decides to prove to Mia that he not only is capable of being a good father, but also that his discomfort with being around children can be cured. Still, Mia isn’t convinced. So, one day, instead of driving her nephew to his grandparents’ home for a weekend visit, Frank decides to take the boy, Bo, on a long-planned canoe excursion with his friend, Casper. This comes as bad news for Casper, who waits all year long for the annual “tour de pussy” and has planned to visit a legendary brothel in the countryside. He fears that a pre-pubescent 12-year-old would spoil the fun. He’s only half right. Bo’s at that delicate stage in a boy’s life when he’s open to ridicule if the transition to manhood is delayed and his pubic area is as bald as a billiards ball. Neither does it help Bo’s confidence any that he’s never mastered the art of peeing standing up, like other boys. Easing his nephew’s anxiety is just one of many tests Frank will fail on the canoe trip.

Because “Klown” is the product of a country, Denmark, that isn’t afraid of portraying the sexual maturation process in an honest and occasionally comedic way, director Mikkel Norgaard can have his cake and reserve a large slice of it for viewers, too. The fact is, while Bo’s condition is temporary, Frank and Casper’s immaturity is chronic. After making fools of themselves with a gaggle of pretty teenage girls and a roly-poly Good Samaritan, the men invest in some blackmail insurance to ensure Bo’s silence. This plan fails even more miserably. It simply wouldn’t be right to describe how that happens, precisely, or how the men’s asses are saved in the end. “Klown” overflows with delightful surprises – including some hilariously filthy dialogue from mischievous senior-citizens – too clever to spoil.

Apparently, the characters played by Frank Hvam and Casper Christensen are quite familiar to Danish TV viewers. “Klown” is an theatrical extension of a popular sitcom that could only run here on HBO or Showtme. One of the episodes, written by Lars Von Trier, is included in the Blu-ray bonus package, along with commentary with the director and stars; three making-of featurettes; outtakes; deleted scenes; and a photo booklet. Don’t miss this one. – Gary Dretzka

Marvel’s The Avengers: Blu-ray
Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, Part 1: Blu-ray
Resident Evil: Damnation
For comic books and the movies inspired by them to serve a greater service to mankind than keeping idle minds occupied, they must trigger the imaginations of young people who live in a society where individualism is encouraged but conformity is rewarded. If mere mortals felt sufficiently empowered to prevent evil from sprouting in our soil, there would be no need for superheroes. At the moment, though, even a cameo appearance by a Captain America or Iron Man at the White House would go a long way toward easing fears of imminent global apocalypse. I have no way of knowing how many kids’ imaginations may have been sparked while watching “The Avengers,” but in the 70-some years Marvel Comics have been published – under one banner or another – countless readers have been taught to recognize the difference between good and evil and encouraged to serve the greater good. As we’ve learned, however, not all comic-book heroes and comic-book movies are created equal. There’s a huge difference in quality between “Marvel’s The Avengers” and “The Dark Knight Rises/Returns” and everything else.

For those of you who may have been vacationing in Afghanistan last spring, “The Avengers” was released in May to excellent reviews and went on to gross nearly $1.5 billion worldwide. The title refers to the crime-fighting collective comprised of Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Captain America (Chris Evans), Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner). They operate at the behest of S.H.I.E.L.D. world-government commander Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) and trusted aide, Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg). The Avengers are re-assembled here when Loki, the disgraced villain and brother of Thor, comes to Earth to retrieve the Tesseract, a blue-glowing energy cube that could set him apart from every other supervillain in the universe. In doing so, writer/director/fanboy Joss Whedon has created a movie that is greater than the sum of all previously released movies featuring the individual Avengers. The characters retain their superpowers and character traits – Iron Man is the same wise-cracking billionaire he always was – but aren’t required to fill two hours of screen time with CGI acrobatics and muscle-flexing. Loki’s forces are drawn to same scale, with wonderfully rendered flying fortresses and formidable skills. The final battle, on and above the streets of Manhattan, adds the personality missing in last year’s destruction of Chicago in “Transformers: Dark of the Moon.”

For once, a $250-million budget seems reasonable. I can only assume it looks pretty amazing in 3D, too. The Blu-ray package adds Whedon’s entertaining commentary; “The Avengers Initiative: A Marvel Second Screen Experience,” which allows viewers to remotely access a S.H.I.E.L.D. database; “Marvel One-Shot: Item 47,” a direct-to-video short in Jesse Bradford and Lizzy Caplan play thieves who stumble upon a piece of extraterrestrial gadgetry; a gag reel; deleted and extended scenes, including an alternate opening and ending; background featurettes “A Visual Journey” and “Assembling the Ultimate Team”; and a Soundgarden music video, “Live to Rise.”

In the darkly animated feature, “Batman: The Dark Knight Returns,” Bruce Wayne (voiced by Peter Weller) is forced to come out of retirement by the anarchic antics of teenage Mutants ravaging Gotham City. He’s 55, which is old even for superheroes, and has recruited a young female Robin (Ariel Winter) to help him understand the new generation of villains. Compared to them, Joker and Two-Face are pussycats. “The Dark Knight” is closely based on the futuristic 1986 graphic novel by Frank Miller and, of course, characters invented by Bob Kane. In “Part 2,” due next year, Batman will be pitted against former ally Superman.

If Capcom’s “Resident Evil”/“Biohazard” franchise were a publically traded corporation, someone in the Justice Department’s Antitrust Department might be investigating if the multiplatform brand has violated the law. This thought sprang from my confusion over the nearly simultaneous release this month of “Resident Evil: Retribution,” currently in theaters, and the DVD “Resident Evil: Damnation,” as well as next week’s release of video-games “Resident Evil 6,” “RE6/Anthology” and “RE6/Archives.” Fans already know that Paul W.S. Anderson’s wildly popular live-action series – which isn’t necessarily tethered to the hit video game – is in its fifth iteration, with geek-bait Milla Jovovich reprising her role as bad-ass Alice each time. In the CGI-generated “Damnation,” Courtenay Taylor voices the equally sensuous Ada Wong, a free-agent spy who prefers Manolo Blahnik pumps to combat boots. Here, Wong’s pet project – U.S. agent Matthew Mercer (Leon S. Kennedy) — goes off the reservation in Eastern Europe to verify rumors that Bio-Organic Weapons are being used in a civil war. They are. Followers of “R.E.” movies, video games, novelizations, comics and merchandise should enjoy “Damnation,” as well, if only for the wonderfully lethal catfight between Wong and nationalist leader Svetlana Belikova. Oh, yeah, don’t forget to visit the Biohazard Cafe & Grill S.T.A.R.S. the next time you’re in Tokyo. It sounds yummy. – Gary Dretzka

Delicacy
I don’t know how many actors, besides Audrey Tautou, could pull off the role of Natalie in the touching, if dangerously fragile French rom-com, “Delicacy.” Although Natalie is a successful business executive, with several employees reporting to her, she has been rendered nearly comatose by the unexpected death of her husband in a traffic accident. In the three years since his death, Natalie has done nothing but keep her nose to the grindstone at work and inert at home. More impishly cute than classically beautiful, Natalie has spent some of her time, at least, brushing off the advances of her boorish boss. One night, after a promotion, he convinces her to join him for a celebratory cocktail. When he makes his move on the walk home, she averts it with a ferociousness we hadn’t seen in her. Even so, Natalie is too valuable an asset to be fired for giving the married man his just dessert. The next morning, Natalie does something else that’s completely unexpected. When a tall, shy and gawky employee comes into her office to update her on the progress of project, she gets up from behind her desk and gives him a passionate kiss.

While it’s clear to viewers that it’s some kind of delayed reaction from the night before, the gawky Swede, Markus (François Damiens), is overwhelmed with feelings of joy and hope. The next day, though, Natalie deflates Markus’ balloon by showing no memory of the kiss. She doesn’t outright reject Markus, but it’s clear to her that the kiss was a one-off. When her jealous boss threatens to transfer Markus to his native Sweden, with a raise, it triggers something in her subconscious that says it’s time to get her life together and rejoin the rest of the world. It takes a while for the inevitable to happen, but, when it does, co-directors David and Stephane Foenkinos find a way to make it magical, and it’s probably the closest thing to a return to “Amelie” as Tautou’s fans are likely to get. There are times in “Delicacy” – adapted from a best-selling novel by David Foenkinos –when Natalie seems to belong in the catbird seat at a major company, but, more often, the gorgeous 5-foot-3 (almost always in flats) actor looks plain and mousy, as unaware of the world outside her emotional cocoon as a recent escapee from a convent. It’s quite a trick for Tautou, a highly recognizable international star who rarely plays vulnerable women, anymore. The Blu-ray adds a long and casually delivered making-of featurette. – Gary Dretzka

FDR: American Badass
Strippers vs. Werewolves: Blu-ray
Strip Mahjong: Battle Royale
Vampire Dog
Even though “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter” laid an egg the size of Transylvania in theaters this summer, it would be nice to think that all movies about presidential superheroes wouldn’t be tarred with its lack of success. “FDR: American Badass,” for example, is one terrific comedy and deserves to be seen by anyone who loved “Airplane!,” “I’m Gonna Git You Sucka” and any of the parodies that followed in their long wake. For one thing, the cast is extremely talented and fully engaged in the conceit: Barry Bostwick is terrific as F.D.R.; Lin Shaye was an inspired choice for Eleanor Roosevelt; Bruce McGill plays the president’s trusted aide, Louis; Ray Wise is Douglas MacArthur; Kevin Sorbo, as Abraham Lincoln; Paul Willson, as Winston Churchill; and Paul Ben-Victor, as Mussolini.

As the movie opens, then-Governor Roosevelt is attacked by a werewolf on a hunting trip – someone forgot to put silver bullets in his rifle – and he contactx polio from the spattered blood. Eleanor is repulsed by his shriveled legs, but FDR is inspired by a boy in a wheelchair to persevere. Meanwhile, Louis learns that the werewolf lying in the morgue has a swastika tattooed on its hairy chest. Years later, as POTUS, Roosevelt will be tested by full-blown werewolves: Hitler, Mussolini and Hirohito. I wasn’t a huge fan of Garrett Brawith and Ross Patterson’s previous collaboration, “Poolboy: Drowning Out the Fury,” but “American Bad Ass” is a direct hit. It’s worth knowing beforehand, however, that much of the R-rated humor derives from dialogue that is unabashedly politically incorrect. Here, that’s a very good thing.

The easiest and best way to describe the Brit import, “Strippers vs. Werewolves,” is that it’s the best Roger Corman movie anyone not named Corman has produced in the last 20 years. Back in the day, it would have appeared on the bill at every drive-in theater from San Diego to Bangor, Maine, and might even have been held over for a weekend or two. Besides the title characters, “Strippers vs. Werewolves” has everything anyone could want in an exploitation flick: blood, guts, nudity, Robert Englund, Cockney thugs, a stripper engaged to be married to a werewolf, direct references to past genre classics and a lively sense of humor. As the movie opens, a stripper is giving a gangster a lap dance. He gets so worked up by her moves that he can’t contain his identity as a werewolf. Frightened to her core, the stripper grabs a silver pen from her faux uniform – a nurse’s outfit, if I recall correctly – and jabs him in the eye, killing him. The werewolves in genre-specialist Jonathan Glendening’s movie hold a place in society similarly to those in “True Blood.” They co-exist uneasily with humans, until a full moon gets their juices flowing. When they finally notice that the leader of the gang is missing and presumably has been made to disappear by the dancers in his favorite club, the battle is on. How much simpler can genre filmmaking be? The Blu-ray adds the producer’s commentary and a behind-the-scenes featurette.

If there’s a drive-in theater in hell, “Strip Mahjong: Battle Royal” is on the eternal triple-bill. Even as an extension of the Japanese “pink” sub-genre, it will be incomprehensible to anyone to anyone in the west who isn’t conversant in the ancient tiles game. Those who do know how to play mahjong probably wouldn’t dignify the movie’s premise by watching it. As the title suggests, however, there’s plenty of topless gaming. The jist of the non-story is that there is a show on Japanese cable-TV in which four Japanese women are grabbed off the street – some have vague connections to degenerate mahjong gamblers – and forced to play the game as if their lives depended on it, which they do. Before they go broke, however, the losers in each round are required to remove articles of clothing. While this is OK in a voyeuristic sort of way — in true Japanese tradition, glimpses of pubic hair are avoided — the scenes in which rape is simulated to extract confessions are no fun at all to watch. As is typical in these sorts of “Battle Royale” movies, there’s an annoying announcer with whom to contend and his lovely, if clichéd female assistant. In fact, all of the women here are shrill characterizations of the kind of Japanese teenagers who incessantly giggle or squeal, instead of converse in any known language. It’s possible that the mahjong action is genuinely exciting, but I wouldn’t know. This one’s only for Japanese genre completists.

Now that vampires have insinuated themselves into the bloodstream of American pop culture, it shouldn’t surprise anyone that the Dove Foundation has given its seal of approval to a ’tweener comedy titled, “Vampire Dog.” There was a time, not so long ago, that positive images of supernatural demons were discouraged by bible-bangers and fundamentalists of all stripes. Here, the undead superdog is a wisecracking cutie-pie. A boy living in a stereotypical suburban community inherits a 600-year-old dog, Fang, from his Carpathian grandfather. It doesn’t take long for Ace (Collin MacKechnie) to figure out that Fang not only can talk (in Norm MacDonald’s voice) but is as uncomfortable in his new digs as he is in his new school … Lugosi Public School. Neither does Fang escape the attention of an anti-aging researcher, Dr. Warhol (Amy Matysio), who wants to extract a sample of the dog’s DNA and create a miracle drug for profit. First-time director Geoff Anderson’s background is in special effects, which allows him to invest some vampire cred into Fang, whose addiction is to cherry-flavored Jello and jam, not blood. Kids too young to be addicted to “Vampire Diaries” and “True Blood” should enjoy the cute story. – Gary Dretzka

Drunkboat
It’s difficult to imagine how John Malkovich, John Goodman and Dana Delaney found themselves in Bob Meyer’s adaptation of his own coming-of-age stage drama, “Drunkboat.” Meyer and Malkovich are longtime friends, but a star’s commitment to a pal’s predictably doomed feature film doesn’t explain the presence of the other two headliners. It’s entirely possible, of course, that what made sense in the script simply was lost in the translation to the screen. In any case, if it weren’t for the game performances of Malkovich and Goodman – Delaney’s role is little more than a cameo – there would be no reason to adapt it, let alone for anyone to rent the DVD. Those performances, however, are reason enough for fans to give “Drunkboat” a shot.

Although the timeline is murky, Malkovich plays the alcoholic Uncle Mort, who’s witnessed something sufficiently harrowing to scare him sober. He can barely remember the circumstances, though, when he shows up one day in front of his sister’s suburban Chicago home. Delaney is reluctant to invite him into the house, but her 16-year-old sees in the coot an opportunity to escape forever, as did his older brother. To do so, he wants to buy a boat from a shady dealer, Mr. Fletcher (John Goodman), who uses plaster of Paris to fix leaks. Not surprisingly, Mom refuses to sign the papers. Hoping to connect with a blind date in another town, she entrusts the Abe (Jacob Zachar) to the care of Mort. Abe doesn’t quite buy Mort’s reformation and expects he will serve as a surrogate signatory for Mom. When Mr. Fletcher shows up with the boat, which wouldn’t last five minutes on Lake Michigan, Mort surprises everyone by doing the responsible thing. Abe and Mr. Fletcher then silently conspire to rob Mort of his sobriety. The final act is too far-fetched to be believed, but, considering the autobiographical nature of the story, it may have some basis in fact.

Almost every male playwright who came of age in the last 30 years in Chicago has been influenced in some way by David Mamet and such rough-and-ready theater companies as Steppenwolf, Remains and the Organic Theater. Meyer’s play was written in 1985 – the heyday of off-Loop theater – which explains the movie’s rough edges and period trimmings. Malkovich and Goodman fit theirs character like well-worn leather gloves and deliver compelling performances. Even so, Meyers probably wasn’t right guy to interpret his own material. “Drunkboat” has been sitting on a shelf for two years, in search of a distributer willing to take a chance on it. Fans of the lead actors, at least, might be willing to forgive Meyer his lost opportunity. – Gary Dretzka

388 Arletta Avenue
While it’s perfectly OK to withhold key pieces of information from viewers when establishing a narrative, it’s difficult to get anyone to care about characters about whom we know next to nothing. That’s especially true in cyber-stalking movies, such as “388 Arletta Avenue,” in which the audience’s only access to the characters is from the point of view of cameras hidden throughout the protagonist’s home, inside his car and carried by the antagonist. Nick Stahl plays James, a graphic designer who’s being tortured systematically by the cyber-stalker, who has somehow gained remarkable access to the large suburban house he shares with his wife, Amy (Mia Kirshner). We feel sorry for the couple when Amy disappears, but it isn’t as if we actually know much about them. It’s to the credit of writer/director Randall Cole that we stick with “388 Arletta Avenue” until the bitter end. Credit also belongs to sound editors David McCallum and David Rose for the many audio tricks that will keep DVD renters on the edge of their seats throughout the movie. They’re scarier than the stalker, who remains a cypher for the movie’s 87-minute length. The bonus interviews explain how the hidden cameras that were used to shot the movie were deployed. – Gary Dretzka

Sleepness Night
Snowman’s Land
From France, of all places, comes a nonstop action picture that should have no problem pleasing American fans of “Drive,” “Taken” and any number of Bruce Willis and Mel Gibson thrillers. In fact, I wouldn’t be at all surprised to learn that “Sleepness Night” is being remade, in English, even as I’m writing this review. As the movie opens, a pair of guys in balaclavas is preparing to stop a Corsican mobster’s car and steal a gym bag full of either heroin or cocaine destined for a Turkish gang. The robbery doesn’t go quite as planned, but they get the drugs, anyway. As it turns out, however, the two guys are cops and the head of the Corsican syndicate somehow knows it. He orders his underlings to kidnap the teenage son of one of the cops and hold him for ransom, in return for the bag. In Europe, Corsicans enjoy their reputation for bad-ass criminality and the Turks aren’t far behind them on the pecking order, so Vincent (Tomer Sisley) knows the boy is in real danger. When Vincent agrees to trade the drugs for the teen, he isn’t aware that other cops in the department are desperate to keep the bag and make a fortune for themselves. That much information is delivered to viewers in the first 10 minutes of “Sleepless Night.” The rest of the action takes place in a trendy nightclub owned by the Corsicans. It’s triggered by a double-cross in which a female cop following Vincent guesses correctly that he wouldn’t be dumb enough to turn over the cache before his son is within his grasp, and he’s likely to take only one bag with him to the meeting. She finds the bag in the false ceiling of the men’s room and, naturally, stashes her discovery above the toilets in the ladies room. Unbeknownst to her, another cop – one even dirtier than she believes Vincent to be – steals the bag and stashes it somewhere else. From this point on, “Sleepness Night” becomes a wild chase throughout the length, breadth and depth of the nightclub, which has multiple bars, salons, restaurants, a billiards room, offices, a large kitchen and hidden tunnels. All come into play when Vincent learns of the triple-cross and must come up with the real stuff he assumes is still hidden in the nightclub, as is his son. Within minutes, the cop is being chased through the club not only by the Corsicans but the Turks and fellow cops.

Sisley, who began his career as a standup comic, has already proven that he can play action parts. Although the two unfortunately titled “Largo Winch” films — he played the comic books’ hero — bombed miserably in the U.S., the blame couldn’t be pinned on him. He’s good in “Sleepness Night” as both a pissed-off cop and desperate father. Co-writer/director Frederic Jardin even allows room for some comedy, especially in the scenes set in the kitchen, which is staffed largely by illegal immigrants. The DVD adds an interview with the movie’s cast.

In the character-driven German crime story, “Snowman’s Land,” the crooks are as colorfully eccentric as any we’ve met in the post-Tarantino age. The most interesting element, though, is the violence itself. As far as I can tell, there is no story to Tomasz Thomson’s film. There’s plenty of innovative bloodshed in it, though, and lots of swell atmosphere. I don’t know where it was shot, but it looks a lot like the Carpathians in winter. The primary human character is a disheveled professional hitman, who botched an assignment and is ordered to leave town to avoid the heat. Until things cool down, Walter (Jurgen Ribmann) is sent to the mountains, where he and an old friend, Mickey, will guard the chalet of another crime boss, Berger (Reiner Schone). Together, Walter and Mickey make a real Mutt & Jeff team. Walter is old-school goon, who prefers not to draw attention to himself, while Mickey is a party-hardy hustler. They’re greeted at the chalet by Berger’s lover, a pill peddler and unabashed sybarite, appropriately named Sibyll (Eva-Katrin Hermann). After her nightly run, Sibyll returns home in a frisky mood. Although Walter knows she’s up to no good, Mickey takes the bait and Sibyll ends up dead.

When Berger finally returns to the chalet, with his Russian henchman, Kazik (Walera Kanischtscheff) carrying a dead wild boar over his shoulders, the first person he wants to see is Sibyll. After a while, he begins to believe that she was kidnapped and Walter and Mickey are to blame. To get them to confess, he and Kazik take turns beating the crap out of the newcomers, who know that the consequences of telling the truth could be even worse than a thrashing. The only funny thing that happens in this otherwise grisly sequence is watching Kazik’s face when he slams his fist into the side of Mickey’s head. What we know and he doesn’t is that Mickey’s skull contains a large metal plate. The gag is reprised later – when the truth about Sibyll emerges — with decidedly different results. As far as the plot goes, though, the only question that remains is who’s going to leave the chalet on his own two feet and how. At a brisk 95 minutes, the absence of a narrative is hardly noticed. “Snowman’s Land” adds a making-of featurette. – Gary Dretzka

In the Eyes of the Killer
Anyone who’s spent the last 22 years of their lives waiting for Louis and Costas Mandylor to appear together in a feature film now can die easy. The Greek-Australian brothers appear in “In the Eyes of the Killer,” a relatively predictable thriller about a blind criminology professor, who, in an experimental procedure, is given the eyes of an executed murderer. It almost goes without saying that, before long, the newly sighted professor, Jack (Louis Mandylor), begins to see things only the killer would recognize. They come to him in the form of lightning-quick flashbacks of gory crime scenes and murders. An alcoholic congressman played by Costas shows up about halfway through the movie — with a bad attitude and a buxom babe — at the same island resort as Jack and his newlywed wife, Gwen (Gwendolyn Edwards). By this time, Jack has begun to exhibit anti-social habits that are especially vexing to Gwen. They do, however, play right into the somewhat soiled hands of their new friends. “In the Eyes of the Killer” wasn’t original enough to demand a theatrical release and there’s too much nudity for non-premium cable outlets. That leaves the straight-to-DVD marketplace, where, after the clichés fade away and a veritable bloodbath begins, the movie fits just fine. – Gary Dretzka

The Man From Beijng
To Whom It May Concern: Ka Shen’s Journey
Over on PBS, the third series of English-language adaptations of Henning Mankell’s “Wallander,” starring Kenneth Branagh, is wrapping up its run on “Masterpiece Mystery!” If you haven’t already watched or recorded it, there’s probably still time to catch at least one of the stories. The first two series are available on DVD, as are the complete Swedish-language compilations. It’s worth the effort to find them. Newly available on DVD is the original two-part mini-series based on Mankell’s “The Man From Beijing.” It is a very different kettle of lutfisk thematically, but similarly engrossing. As the title might suggest, the international thriller sometimes suffers from narrative dissociation and the curious decision to have all characters – Scandinavian, Chinese, American – converse in Swedish. Again, your patience will be rewarded. The story opens with the discovery of a ghastly mass-murder on a farm complex in rural Hudiksvall. Eighteen members of the Andren family have been chopped apart by someone wielding a sharp blade. There are two survivors, but they mostly provide the baffled police with convenient suspects to serve the voracious appetite of the media.

Suddenly, though, the scene shifts abruptly to Beijing, where a man is about to be executed for corruption perpetrated in the name of his boss, who’s too powerful to convict. Afterward, the smug businessman is berated by his sister for putting their family’s honor at stake and choosing laissez-faire capitalism over the Communist Party’s core beliefs. Then, just as abruptly, we’re back in Sweden and the offices of a judge, Brigitta (Suzanne von Borsody), who, along with her estranged husband (Michael Nyqvist), represent the last of the Andren line. As the local police rush to frame the wrong suspects, Brigitta discovers family letters and photos that indicate someone’s been waiting 150 years to avenge the deaths of Chinese ancestors working in the United States on the transcontinental railroad. The suspicion is confirmed when police in Reno inform her of the killings of several more Andrens at the hands of a sword-wielding assassin. Sensing that the only thing likely to satisfy the killer is the murder of the final two Andrens, Brigitta begins her own investigation. After barely surviving an attack, the judge not only learns the identity of the killer, but that he’s already split for Beijing, which is where she heads next. Being a stranger in a strange land, her appearance draws the attention of state authorities and, yes, the brother and sister we met earlier. Unlike the investigations in “Wallander,” the pieces of Brigitta’s puzzle fall together all too conveniently. Even so, the film’s pace continues to accelerate throughout its three-hour length and we willingly suspend our disbelief.

It wasn’t so long ago that Asian actors were as visible on American screens and stages as pandas in zoos outside China. The very few exceptions were required to play subservient roles to Caucasian actors, occasionally in Asian drag. “To Whom It May Concern: Ka Shen’s Journey” describes how a freckly Eurasian teenager from Hong Kong helped break the ice of institutional racism in Hollywood and on Broadway. Classically trained at the Royal Ballet School, in London, Nancy Kwan was discovered by producer Ray Stark and became an international star playing non-cliché roles in “The World of Suzie Wong” and “Flower Drum Song.” For a little while, anyway, she was as hot a commodity as there was on the planet. When screenwriters and playwrights ran out of ideas for material requiring Asian actors – even those who could pass for Natalie Wood – Kwan’s career hit a doldrums. In 1970, she moved back to Hong Kong to care for her ill father. Kwan would play action parts in Southeast Asia until 1980, when she moved to Los Angeles, where she accepted a relative handful of roles over the next 30 years and promoted the hiring of actors with Asian roots.

Brian Jamieson’s insightful biopic frames Kwan’s career within the context of her appearance at the Hong Kong Ballet’s adaptation of “The World of Suzie Wong.” We learn more about her in on-location interviews at Angkor Wat, vintage film clips, screen tests and home movies. “To Whom It May Concern” also spends a great deal of time recalling the deaths to AIDS of Kwan’s actor son and his wife, and her determination to commemorate their lives as an activist. Maybe change was inevitable, but Kwan’s efforts to convince casting directors to hire Asian-American and Pacific Rim actors have found traction. Movies from China, Korea, Japan and Thailand have found a home in arthouses and video stores, as well. The DVD adds a photo gallery and original watercolor art gallery of images from the documentary. – Gary Dretzka

Bob Dylan and the Band: Down in the Flood
Just Around the Corner: The Bob Benjamin Story
When Bob Dylan was injured in a 1966 motorcycle accident, between tours, near his Woodstock home, it precipitated a storm of rumors even more intense than the “Paul McCartney is dead” insanity. If the accident had happened today, several hundred paparazzi would have descended on the town immediately after hearing the first rumor and “TMZ” would have moved its entire operation to Upstate New York. In 1966, though, the first issue of Rolling Stone had yet to be published and the mainstream media were still struggling to figure out why all the folkies were upset that he’d “gone electric.” Fans fretted as concert tours were canceled and new records stopped coming. Others believed he was dead, comatose or tragically disfigured. When finally, in December 1967, his “John Wilson Harding” was released, its Nashville roots and biblical references would cause listeners to panic even more. Like the still-incensed folkies and radicals, fans of “electric Dylan” didn’t know quite what to make of the new change in direction, which included a return to acoustics.

Among the rumors that managed to slip through the cone of silence were reports of private sessions Dylan was conducting in Woodstock with his backup band, the Hawks, soon to be known as the Band. This rumor, along with speculation about “basement tapes,” turned out to be true. Rock mavens assumed incorrectly that any new album would, in fact, be comprised of session tapes. Instead, the sessions provided the foundation for the Band’s debut album, “Music From Big Pink,” which featured several songs written by Dylan, whose head, at least, was already in Nashville with the city’s best session musicians. (Eight years later, after bootleg copies of “Basement Tapes” began popping up, Dylan and his slippery manager, Albert Grossman, agreed to release an arguably bogus album that satisfied no one.) Their collaborations wouldn’t continue, primarily because the Band wanted to forge its own path to the charts.

Bob Dylan and the Band: Down in the Flood” goes on to chronicle what happened to both parties between the release of “Music From Big Pink” and the “The Last Waltz” concerts, which effectively put an end to the Band’s long run. It features new interviews with Garth Hudson; producer John Simon; the Hawks’ 1966 tour drummer, Mickey Jones; the Hawk’s founder, Ronnie Hawkins; Dylan guitarist, Charlie McCoy; Band biographer Barney Hoskyns; “Basement Tapes” archivist, Sid Griffin, Isis magazine’s Derek Barker; and Rolling Stone’s Anthony De Curtis. Dylan obsessives will want this DVD in their collection.

I can’t imagine many people outside New Jersey being familiar with Bob Benjamin or the Jersey-based Light of Day Foundation, which he helped found after being diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease at 38. As a fan, journalist and rock promoter, Benjamin’s passion was the music that emanated from the Jersey Shore, before and after the explosive rise of Bruce Springsteen. Benjamin, musician Joe D’Urso and former Asbury Juke Tony Pallagrosi have since worked tirelessly for the foundation, whose funds come primarily from benefit concerts staged around the world in the interest of finding a cure for Parkinson’s. Likewise, proceeds from “Just Around the Corner” will go to the foundation. The DVD contains much fine music and the imprimatur of Michael J. Fox. – Gary Dretzka

Del Shores’ Sordid Confessions
Twisted Romance
Del Shores is a successful television writer (“Sordid Lives,” “Queer as Folk,” “Dharma and Greg”) who specializes in shows that have decidedly offbeat characters and a kinky streak you can cut with a butter knife. Being gay and a native Texan, Shores doesn’t have to reach very far for material. In his follow-up to last year’s “My Sordid Life,” Shores expands on how his life as a gay man is going, so far. Well, for one thing, he has the rare distinction of being divorced from a woman and a man. “Sordid Confessions” is full of funny stories about how things have changed since he got re-married, re-divorced and re-entered the singles scene. One involves dating a man with a “perpendicular dick” and, yes, he does describe how fellatio might be difficult in such a situation. Another large section of the film is dedicated to people and things he hates or freak him out, including midgets, fat homeless men, “QAF” co-star Randy Harrison, former “SNL” cast member Victoria Jackson and self-righteous letter writers. Suddenly, Shores has turned into the gay Andrew “Dice” Clay, even using the C-word for emphasis. You can imagine how this might sound coming from a comedian, who, from a distance, could pass for John Denver. The DVD adds a behind-the-scenes featurette, audience interviews and footage of the cover photo shoot.

Also from Breaking Glass Pictures’ QC collection comes Jose Campusano’s dark drama, “Twisted Romance.” Set in a shabby neighborhood on the outskirts of Buenos Aires, it describes the coming-of-sexual-age of a bored young man, Roberto. One day, after spying his mother and sister service a couple of bozos at home, he decides to find a less compromised place to live. He allows himself to be picked up by a 50-something man, whose “look” appears to have been inspired by the “hair bands” of the 1970s. Before meeting Raul, most of what Roberto knew about being gay seemingly was what could be gleaned in TV sitcoms and other 21st Century clichés. Raul would introduce to him an earlier, less enlightened period in history, when self-loathing homosexuals took out their shame and hostility on young prey, in short and violent encounters. He hurts Roberto in their first coupling, but not so much as to convince the boy to leave. All he asks is for Raul to be more considerate of his feelings and for him to agree occasionally to be the “bottom.” Before long, they do reach common ground and Roberto’s mother and sister take to Raul, as well. The older man’s dark side reveals itself again when Roberto meets a Spaniard his age and he’s spied leaving their home. Raul’s anger is amplified by being refused meetings with his young daughter and money problems that lead him to burn a teenage who entrusts him with cash to buy drugs. Things get even more complicated, but in ways that make sense within the context of the story. “Twisted Romance,” then, is both a throwback to an earlier period in gay history and a story in which the characters run headlong into the walls built around them. It’s interesting, but primarily for niche audiences. – Gary Dretzka

Paul Rodriguez: Just for the Record
Although Paul Rodriguez looks younger than 57 in “Just for the Record,” the cane in his hand serves as a reminder that he’s one of the grand old men of the comedy circuit. The same men and women who helped launch the comedy-club revolution of the 1980s are getting to the point in their career where Buddy Hackett, Milton Berle, George Burns and Bob Hope were when Johnny Carson moved “The Tonight Show” to Los Angeles, 40 years ago, and the guest list always seemed to include one comic who started out in vaudeville. Had they lived, Richard Pryor would be turning 72 in December and Freddie Prinze would be 58. Steve Martin is 67. Standup comedy was nearly dead around the time Rodriguez and his peers made their mark on fledgling HBO and L.A.’s Comedy Store. He became one of very few Hispanic comedians getting work at a time when comedy clubs were blooming in every major city. “Just for the Record” is Rodriguez’s first one-man theatrical show. Far less a standup routine than a memoir, it recalls his early years as the son of migrant workers from Mexico and, soon, a Hispanic in mostly black Compton. From there, it was the military, college on the G.I. bill and a detour from the road to law school into a job parking cars at the Comedy Store. He also reminisces about some of the stars he met on his way to the top. His timing couldn’t have been better. “Just for the Record” is a heartfelt and often very funny presentation by a comedian who’s long been taken for granted and criticized for being too soft. – Gary Dretzka

Arachnophobia: Blu-ray
A joint venture between Steven Spielberg’s Amblin Entertainment and Disney’s fledgling Hollywood Pictures, “Arachnophobia” may not have been the first thriller in which the antagonists were spiders or tarantulas, but it almost certainly was the most expensive to date. Amblin wasn’t making small pictures anymore and Disney needed a banner under which it could produce pictures aimed for the PG-13 crowd. “Arachnophobia” filled the bill nicely, even if its storyline was straight out of the genre playbook. The movie opens in the Venezuelan rain forest, where a previously unknown type of spider is killing villagers. After hitching a ride to the United States in a casket, one of the spiders escapes detection and is able to cross-breed with critters here. The offspring are real killers and, of course, they find their way into the house recently purchased by an arachnophobic doctor looking for some peace and quiet in the country. What separated “Arachnophobia” from previous spider chillers – “Tarantula,” “Kingdom of the Spiders” (William Shatner!) – was its $31-million budget, such versatile actors as Jeff Daniels, John Goodman and Julian Sands, and uber-producer Frank Marshall, who was taking his first shot at directing features. Horror buffs weren’t terribly impressed by the results, but it made plenty of money and proved that the world wouldn’t end if PG-13 and Disney were used in the same sentence. The Blu-ray adds featurettes on the production and Marshall, as well as more material from Venezuela. – Gary Dretzka

The Carol Burnett Show: Carol’s Favorites
Among the many things missing on prime-time television these days are the old-fashioned variety shows, which, each week, mixed comedy, music, dance, popular stars and a stock company of sidekicks, around which the hosts could work their magic. For many years, Ed Sullivan hosted the most popular variety show on the air. In addition to presenting Elvis Presley and the Beatles to mainstream America, Sullivan featured a steady stream of entertainers representing the best of their respective discipline. One a single show, it wouldn’t be uncommon for a the world’s greatest tenor to be followed by the world’s most talented plate-spinner, a puppet theater, an animal act and a world-class comedian passing through New York on his way to Miami, Las Vegas or the Catskills. When Sullivan left television, dozens of entertainment specialists, Broadway shows and touring companies lost their primary publicity source. Some ended up in Vegas, Branson and on the cruise ship circuit, while others simply disappeared. Then came the era of the flash-in-the-pan host, including such passing fancies as the Captain & Tennille, John Davidson, Mac Davis, Bobby Goldsboro, Rod Hull & Emo, Barbara Mandrell, Tony Orlando & Dawn and Lynda Carter. There were many more, but none of them could hold a candle to Sullivan, Jackie Gleason, Dinah Shore, Perry Como, Dean Martin, Sonny and Cher or even the Muppets. Now, there’s only “Sabado Gigante. The afternoon and late-night talk shows have picked up the slack somewhat, but guests are mostly limited to bands, actors and comics that appeal to the 18-to-34 demographic or are pitching a new movie.

Watch even a half-hour of the episodes included in Time Life’s six-disc “The Carol Burnett Show: Carol’s Favorites” and you’ll know what made her different from any host before or after her 11-year tenure on CBS. As complete an entertainer as she was, the Hollywood High School graduate maintained a repertory company of gifted comic actors, not unlike those who surrounded Sid Caesar in his heyday. In Harvey Korman, Vicki Lawrence, Lyle Waggoner and Tim Conway, Burnett had a troupe capable of turning an idea into a sketch overnight and contributing songs and dance routines whenever necessary. The skits ranged from recurring character pieces (“Mrs. Wiggins,” “The Charwoman”), slapstick with Conway and Korman and parodies of popular movies and TV shows (“As the Stomach Turns,” “Went With the Wind”). These were interspersed with formally choreographed dance and musical interludes, chats with guests and a weekly Q&A with the audience. Today, these elements would be considered square as hell, but the personal touch is exactly what’s missing on prime-time television. (Watch Ellen DeGeneres’ afternoon show and you’ll see how much she owes to Burnett and how well the audience responds.) “Carol’s Favorites” is part of a larger Burnett initiative by Time Life, but there’s already enough here to keep fans laughing for weeks. The material on the discs looks and sounds as good as it ever will and probably of better quality than color TV permitted in 1960s. The full set contains 18 complete, unedited episodes, some introduced by Burnett and other regulars. Also available are “The Best of the Carol Burnett Show” in one- and two-disc packages; and the 20-DVD boxed set, The Carol Burnett Show Ultimate Collection,” with 50 episodes and more than 10 hours of never-before-seen bonus features. “Carol’s Favorites” adds three hours of extras, including a history of the show, cast reunion, interviews, the “Dentist” skit and Carol performing her famous Tarzan yell for the first time, on “The Garry Moore Show.” – Gary Dretzka

American Horror Story: Blu-ray
Key & Peele: Season 1
Portlandia: Season Two
Gossip Girl: The Complete Fifth Season
Family Guy: Volume Ten
Imagine buying a house in which both the Manson and Addams families once lived, then having to deal with their spirits on a daily basis. That, in a nutshell, is a synopsis of FX’s “American Horror Story.” It is into just such a house that the Harmons move after leaving Boston to escape memories of a miscarriage and infidelity. If it weren’t haunted, the home (the 1908 Rosenheim Mansion) would have been an exceptional bargain. As it is, however, it’s a nightmare of ever crazier visions, graphic violence, psycho-sexual perversion and time-shifting ghosts. The mansion is so notorious it’s even referred to by ghoulish crime-tour guides as the Murder House. Adding to the bad vibes are the psychiatric patients drawn to Dr. Ben Harmon’s (Dylan McDermott) office in the house. The candles on the cupcake, though, are the busybody neighbors played by Jessica Lange and Jamie Brewer, who pop up at the most inconvenient times for the fragile Vivien Harmon (Connie Britton). Each episode of the 12-episode series, which was created by Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk (“Nip/Tuck,” “Glee”) opens with depictions of killings that occurred years earlier in the Murder House and continue to resonate within the walls. The Blu-ray set adds commentary on the pilot episode, a visit to the mansion by Eternal Darkness Tours of Hollywood and four behind-the-scenes featurettes.

Anyone who misses the irreverent sketch comedy popularized on “In Living Color,” “Chappelle’s Show” and “MADtv” ought to check out “Key & Peele,” which begins its second season on Comedy Channel this week. It stars Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele, whose collective resume include stints with “MADtv,” “Reno 911,” “Childrens Hospital” and the Second City troupe. If that doesn’t say, “funny,” nothing does. Among the characters to look for in the new Blu-ray collection and on Comedy Central are Barack Obama (Peele) and his anger translator, Luther (Key), who says the things the President would say if the black half of his personality was the dominant side. Reportedly, Peele was in line to portray Obama on “Saturday Night Life,” before the writer’s strike put those plans on hold and he joined the gang at “MADtv.” The Blu-ray adds more from Luther, outtakes, interviews, commentaries and “Live at South Beach Comedy Festival.”

When Dish dropped channels owned by AMC earlier the summer, the most immediate victims were fans of IFC’s original comedy series, “Portlandia,” whose season was cut short by the action. It was a cruel blow, indeed. Unlike “Key & Peele,” “Portlandia” is mostly shot on location in and around Oregon’s largest and most politically correct city. Written by and starring Fred Armisen (“SNL”) and Carrie Brownstein (the Sleater-Kinney band), it parodies the hipper-than-thou post-hippie residents of Portland who are notoriously obsessed with being green, vegan, mellow and in tune with their spiritual side. They mistrust people they consider to be square, mainstream, opponents of non-motorized transportation and intolerant of New Age theories. If there ever was a show Republicans could enjoy unreservedly – while completely missing the point – it would be “Portlandia.” I’m not a big fan of Armisen on “Saturday Night Live,” but here, in league with Brownstein, he nails practically every offbeat character they create. Like all Oscilloscope products, the Blu-ray package is environmentally safe and the features include elongated and deleted scenes, and some funny making-of material.

Season Five of “Gossip Girl” opens with Serena in L.A., working temporarily as a production assistant on a movie that probably could have done just as well without her help. Chuck and Nate take a break in Tinseltown from their cross-country tour, as well. At a swank party, Nate encounters a glamorous cougar (Elizabeth Hurley) and Chuck bonds with stunt woman Zoe Bell. Meanwhile, back in Gotham, a pregnant Blair is preparing for her marriage to Prince Louis, scheduled for Episode 100. Unlike every other up-and-coming novelist, Dan is trying to prevent his roman-a-clef from being published. Things only get more complicated from there. Thank goodness, Season Six will put the show out of our misery. The DVD set adds “Gossip Girl Turns 100!,” “5 Years of Iconic Style,” a gag reel and unaired scenes.

The thing for collectors of “Family Guy” DVDs to know is that “Volume 10” opens with “Halloween on Spooner Street,” from Season Nine, and ends with “Foreign Affairs,” the same season’s penultimate episode. And, no, I can’t explain why that’s the case. The three-disc set adds deleted and extended scenes, several scene animatics and commentaries, and “Adam West Star Ceremony.” The dialogue is uncensored. – Gary Dretzka

American Masters: The Day Carl Sandburg Died
PBS: I’m Carolyn Parker: The Good, the Bad and the Beautiful
The Inner Game: Golf/Tennis
PBS’ “The Day Carl Sandburg Died” recalls the incomparable American poet/journalist/historian/musician whose radical beliefs and personal activism were ignored by generations of English teachers trying to sell poetry to students who’d rather be napping. This “American Masters” presentation reminds us of the man behind words and the events he witnessed that shook him to the core. The students who paid attention to Sandburg’s words in class could visualize an America very different than the one promoted by politicians and chambers of commerce. He wrote the poetry at a time when everything seemed possible for people who worked for a living, but, in fact, the road to success and happiness required paying a stiff toll. “The Day Carl Sandburg Died” should be shown in high school English classes before a single word of poetry is taught. That it’s enjoying a resurgence in popularity among the poetry-jam crowd is very good news, indeed.

With another season of “Treme” having just begun on HBO, it’s a good time to recall the real, on-going horror that is post-Katrina New Orleans, especially the Lower 9th Ward. “I’m Carolyn Parker: The Good, the Bad and the Beautiful” is told through the point of view of the last resident to leave and first to return to the devastated community. In doing so, Parker became one of the only residents left to represent the 9th Ward at public hearings held to discuss reclamation efforts. She tells city, state and federal officials that she doesn’t want to live in a trailer or another city. Parker demanded she be allowed to live in the house in which she’s resided ever since a time when “all my neighbors were white” and worship in the same Roman Catholic Church she attended before the flood. It also was important to her that her former neighbors be encouraged to the return to the ward to live something resembling normal life. “Normal,” of course, is a relative term in New Orleans. When it came to rebuilding the wards, “normal” meant being approached by contractors who would lie about being licensed and were given a pass because they had paid off someone for the privilege of doing so. It also means that only the squeakiest wheel gets the grease, and that’s what Parker became. Her commitment attracted no less a filmmaker than Jonathan Demme to tell her story and that of her community. He made 21 visits to the Lower 9th in five years to keep track of the progress of this “ordinary” woman.

For those amateur athletes who believe that the cure for a weak backhand or shaky putter can be found in the mind, there’s newly updated editions of PBS’ “The Inner Game: Tennis” and “The Inner Game: Golf.” In them, author Tim Gallwey coaches a celebrity in the techniques of the so-called Inner Game as applied to their sport. Among the questions Gallwey attempts to answer: how does one maintain concentration under pressure?; how to avoid the mental and physical tensions that can sabotage any shot, from the simplest putt to a demanding drive; and how to quiet the negativity that often bubbles up at the most crucial times. For the time being, anyway, the easiest place to find these DVDs during Pledge Month is on the websites of your local PBS station. – Gary Dretzka

London 2012: Games of the XXX Olympiad: Blu-ray
Ever since the tragic terrorist attack that marred the 1972 Summer Olympics, too much of the early speculation surrounding each new Games involves security measures, not sports. This was certainly true in the advance of the XXX Olympiad in London, long a target for extremists. Blessedly, apart from some early concern over traffic congestion, the event went on as planned. It was full of great performances by world-class athletes and there were plenty of surprises, as well. Less than two months after the gala Closing Ceremony comes NBC’s “London 2012: Games of the XXX Olympiad,” in Blu-ray and SD editions. Just as the network’s coverage rankled almost everyone committed to watching as many hours of competition as possible, “London 2012” isn’t likely to satisfy anyone, either. For one thing, it doesn’t include the Closing Ceremony, which was truncated to accommodate a preview of a new NBC sitcom. The disgraceful decision eliminated several important musical presentations plugged in advance. The Blu-ray package is comprised of two discs – sold individually in the SD versions – one of which is a compilation of highlights and the other, coverage of the swimming and gymnastics events, as well as select moments from the track-and-field and, of course, the women’s beach volleyball contests. – Gary Dretzka

Yoga Is: A Transformational Journey
Occupy Unmasked
If any industry is likely to survive unscathed during the continuing economic doldrums, it’s the physical- and spiritual-wellness racket. There now seem to be as many yoga facilities sprouting up in strip malls and dance-rehearsal spaces as there were karate dojos in the 1990s. Suzanne Bryant is a former harried journalist (“60 Minutes”) who discovered the ancient practice just as her job was robbing her of her free time and sanity. Desperately in need of a transformation, the New Yorker split to California to get a master’s degree in spiritual psychology and nutrition. To become a teacher, she enrolled in a 500-hour training regimen with Alan Finger, who practices Ishta Yoga. Two years later, she was ready to commit herself to changing the world through yoga. For “Yoga Is,” Bryant traveled to India and throughout the U.S. to interview teachers and other facilitators of true happiness. No self-help DVD is complete without a celebrity or two and, here, they include producer Russell Simmons, musician Michael Franti and super-duper model Christy Turlington-Burns. And, yes, she looks kind of hot in a leotard.

Just as ’60s-era leftists imagined seeing FBI agents behind every tree and mailbox – we’ve subsequently learned their paranoia might have been justified – the late right-wing fantasist Andrew Breitbart was haunted by visions of liberal slogans spelled out in his alphabet soup. “Occupy Unmasked” arrives in the wake of the first anniversary of the Occupy Wall Street movement. Before his untimely death last March 1, Breitbart and fellow paranoids Brandon Darby, David Horowitz, Pam Keys, Anita Moncrief, Mandy Nagy and Lee Stranahan felt it necessary to alert the world to the fact that Occupy outposts weren’t the latter-day Woodstocks the media made them out to be. Instead, according to the message of this DVD, the camps also harbored homeless people, petty criminals, bongo players and anarchists, as well as well-meaning, if misinformed liberals. Yikes … someone call a cop. Actually, civic leaders did just that, eliminating any threat to domestic peace and free-market economics, once and for all. As was adequately demonstrated on September 17, the Occupy movement either no longer exists or it has transformed itself into organization more interested in education than killing time in sleeping bags and sharing Port-o-Potties with conspiracy theorists. The documentary was written and directed by Stephen K. Bannon (“Generation Zero”). – Gary Dretzka

The DVD Wrapup: Chico & Rita, Detachment, Cabin in Woods, End of Road … More

Wednesday, September 19th, 2012

Chico & Rita: Blu-ray
In Tono Errando, Fernando Trueba and Javier Mariscal’s beautifully illustrated celebration of Afro-Cuban music and those who make it, we’re invited to recall a time when the musicians of “Buena Vista Social Club” were young and bebop was redefining American jazz. “Chico & Rita” was a finalist for an Oscar this year as Best Animated Feature, but, in what must have been a tight vote, lost to “Rango.” It opens in 1948 Havana, when music filled the streets, but only a fortunate few could make a living in the resorts and casinos that catered to Yankee tourists, gangsters and home-grown thugs. As the reputations of the musicians grow, they’re shuttled back and forth from Havana, to Manhattan, Paris and Las Vegas, where the Fates have their way with the characters. While its story reads like an epic romance between star-crossed lovers, in spirit “Chico & Rita” recalls Ralph Bakshi’s underappreciated animated features “Heavy Traffic,” “Coonskin” and “American Pop.”

Chico is a young piano player with great ambition. In Rita, he sees not only a beautiful singer, but also a muse and potential lifelong partner. She has dreams and ambitions of her own, some of which coincide with Chico’s and others that require the assistance of sugar daddies and fixers. Just when it seems as if Chico and Rita finally will be allowed to dictate their own fortunes, destiny denies them an opportunity to overcome the forces that enslaved too many cabaret, lounge and nightclub performers in the 1950s and 1960s. Upon Chico’s forced return to Havana, he discovers that his brand of Afro-Cuban music has been declared counter-revolutionary and employment is conditioned on one’s status within the Communist Party. In a nod to Ry Cooder and the “Buena Vista Social Club,” perhaps, Chico finally is rediscovered years later by a pretty young songbird who can’t get one of his ancient love songs out of her mind. She opens the doors for him to freely travel abroad and dare a long-delayed reunion with Rita, whose career was also forcibly put on hold, this time in Las Vegas. Their story is backed by an original musical score by Cuban pianist and Grammy-winning composer Bebo Valdes. It is framed within animated cameos by Thelonious Monk, Charlie Parker, Cole Porter, Dizzy Gillespie, Woody Herman, Tito Puente and Chano Pozo, whose untimely death is witnessed by Chico. The limited-edition collector’s-set Blu-ray includes the full-length soundtrack and a 16-page excerpt from the graphic novel based on the film. There’s also an excellent making-of featurette. – Gary Dretzka

Detachment
In the powerful ensemble drama, “Detachment,” director Tony Kaye and writer Carl Lund imagine what it might be like not only to teach in a school that, in and of itself, could constitute a level in Dante’s “Inferno,” but also how that experience might impact the teachers in their off-hours. As somber and dirge-like as “Detachment” often is, it demands that we not give up on our public schools and children who were born behind an 8-ball. It is appropriate that the movie is being released on DVD just as the Chicago teachers’ strike is winding down. Many of the same important issues that have been emphasized in the talks between the CTU and Chicago school authorities – including the current obsession with testing and making principals the arbiters of performance standards – are dramatized in “Detachment.” So, too, is the abandonment of responsibility by the parents of students in our nation’s most troubled schools.

Given the controversies that erupted in advance of Kaye’s “American History X” and the misrepresented abortion documentary “Lake of Fire,” it isn’t surprising that Kaye pushes the envelope of artistic license in “Detachment.” In longterm substitute teacher, Henry Barthes (Adrien Brody), he’s invested all of the saint-like qualities we’d like to see in our educators, while also saddling the character with a tortured past of his own and several administrative and personal obstacles. Most of what we know about Barthes we discover through flashbacks and short monologues. Other teachers are drawn as being permanently damaged by combative students and criminally out-of-touch parents, who simply don’t give a good crap about themselves or their kids’ futures. In one tenuous subplot, Brody practically adopts a teenage prostitute (Sami Gayle, of “Blue Bloods”) whose life is on the brink of careening out of control. It might not be entirely credible, but it serves to further humanize Barthes.

The photograph that accompanies Kaye’s resume on IMDB.com makes him look as if he’s just escaped from a 19th Century loony bin. The juxtaposition of that image with the amazing cast he managed to assemble for “Detachment” – undoubtedly at scale or gratis – couldn’t be more jarring. In addition to Brody and Gayle’s fine work, excellent performances are turned in by Marcia Gay Harden, James Caan, Christina Hendricks, Lucy Liu, Blythe Danner, Tim Blake Nelson, William Petersen, Louis Zorich, Betty Kaye and some terrific teen actors. Anyone interested in the preservation of our public-schools system ought to check out “Detachment,” if only to be reminded as to what’s at stake. While it doesn’t nullify or contradict such crowd-pleasers as “Mr. Holland’s Opus” and “The Dead Poet’s Society,” Kaye’s drama spins those movies on their flipside for us to hear, as well. The DVD adds interviews with Kaye and Brody. – Gary Dretzka

The Babymakers: Blu-ray
Conception
As portrayed by Olivia Munn and Paul Schneider in “The Babymakers,” Audrey and Tommy are at a point in their marriage where they’re anxious to become parents and fully aware of the sacrifices they’ll be forced to make in their social lives. Unfortunately, after nine months of trying, they must admit to each other that something physiological is keeping them from conceiving. Such troublesome things happen frequently in life and movies. When a specialist informs Tommy that he’s shooting blanks, his reaction is one of bewilderment. He had, after all, previously sold his sperm to a clinic without any problems being noticed. He can’t believe that his swimmers have weakened over the course of three years. Naturally, he goes back to the clinic, hoping to retrieve a vial of his sperm. Sadly, only one remains frozen and it’s been sold to a married gay couple. That’s not a bad premise for a decidedly adult comedy. After laying out the story and convincing us that Audrey and Tommy are worth our sympathy, however, director Jay Chandrasekhar puts a banana under their every step, expecting us to laugh uproariously at the missteps and tumbles.

The result is a “sperm-bank heist movie” with the frat-boy sensibility of a Broken Lizard gross-out comedy. Tommy, especially, is sufficiently adult to understand the responsibilities of parenthood, but too dimwitted to figure out how to get there without making a fools of himself. By deferring to the stupid suggestion of his moronic buddies, he demonstrates how ill-prepared he is for such duty. They steer him to an Indian thug, played by Chandrasekhar, who’s required to remind the guys that he’s neither an American Indian nor an Indian in the mold of Gandhi.

Munn is to the geeks who followed her various hosting duties on G4 and Spike TV what Marilyn Monroe was to Playboy subscribers in the 1950s … ubiquitous, but completely unattainable. She possesses a terrific sense of humor, a great body, exotic good looks and a seemingly unlimited future in the movies. What she lacks, so far, anyway, is the ability to convince viewers that she’s not just another model or TV host blessed by privilege and glamour. Munn was extremely likeable hosting “Attack of the Show!” and in appearances on “The Daily Show.” As much as I’ve wanted to buy her character on HBO’s “The Newsroom,” she serves more as an Aaron Sorkin wet dream than the Greta van Susteren of international economics and finance. As an actor, Munn can only get better. Her management, though, must find her roles that will amplify her talents, not neutralize them before audiences anxious mostly to see her boobs exposed. The Blu-ray comes with a silly behind-the-scenes featurettes and interviews.

 
Normally, any romantic comedy that stars as many 19 actors known mostly for their work on television will bear a passing resemblance, at least, to “The Love Boat” or “Fantasy Island.” Against all odds, Josh Stolberg’s “Conception” breaks the mold by successfully telling several stories simultaneously, in support of a central theme. As the movie opens, a teacher played by David Arquette is nonplused by one of his kindergarten students, who asks, out of the blue, how babies are made. Stolberg spends the next 90 minutes introducing us to nine disparate couples in the process of conceiving a child, avoiding conception, breaking their virginity, turning away their spouse’s sexual advances or attempting to steal a few minutes of sleep between feedings, diaper changes and desperate cries for attention. The balancing act maintained by Stolberg requires him to bounce repeatedly from one storyline to another, without diminishing any one couple’s experience. On their own, the vignettes aren’t terribly complex or enlightening. When combined, however, they’re surprisingly compelling, easily identifiable and not a little bit sexy. Among the most recognizable cast members are Julie Bowen and Sarah Hyland (“Modern Family”), Connie Britton (“Friday Night Lights”), Jason Mantzoukas (“The League”), Moon Bloodgood (“Falling Skies”), Pamela Adlon (“Californication”), Jonathan Silverman (“The Single Guy”), Jennifer Finnigan (“Better With You”) and Alan Tudyk (“Suburgatory”). The DVD includes interviews with Stolberg and producer Leila Charles Leigh, as well as quite a few deleted scenes and outtakes. – Gary Dretzka

The Cabin in the Woods: Blu-ray