Friends With Kids: Blu-ray
With a cast that includes such likeable actors as Kristen Wiig, Maya Rudolph, Chris O’Dowd and Jon Hamm — all of whom appeared in “Bridesmaids” – potential viewers might assume that “Friends With Kids” is among the rare Hollywood rom-coms that are both romantic and funny. Add to that list Adam Scott, Edward Burns and Megan Fox, as well as writer/director/co-star Jennifer Westfeldt (“Kissing Jessica Stein”), one might also expect it to be smart and unpredictable. And, for about 60 of its 107-minutes length, “Friends With Kids” is just that. Sadly, at exactly the moment it needs to establish its indie cred by ignoring the road most traveled, “Friends With Kids” becomes dumb, predictable, exceedingly strident and, worst of all, completely irrelevant to the audience it intends to serve. Otherwise, Mrs. Lincoln …
Unmarried and unattached best friends Julie and Jason (Westfeldt, Scott) are booger buddies with two other yuppie couples, living the good life in New York. At first, anyway, the monogamous relationships are strong, the camaraderie between friends is palpable and the sex is good (except for the BFFs, who can’t imagine sleeping together). As years go by and children enter the picture, things change. Even so, Julie responds to her biological clock by asking Jason to father a child they can raise together, if separately. So far, so good. If Julie isn’t a virgin, she seems singularly unprepared to engage in sexual intercourse, which provides some solid laughs, as does her awkwardness when it comes to dating after the resultant spawn is old enough to be sat by Jason. Being a world-class womanizer, he has no such trouble splitting his time between the mother, baby and new prospects. Even so, J&J’s strategy remains sound. The problem is that the marriages of their friends are being tested in significant ways by the usual demands of parenthood. Their unhappiness, along with the corrosive effects of Julie’s lack of enthusiasm for dating, turn the second half of the movie into a test of endurance for viewers, who’ve had the rug pulled out of them by the sudden change in tone. We begin to pity the couples’ children more than we empathize with the adult characters.
As moviegoers in flyover country have been taught, raising children in Manhattan, and Beverly Hills, for that matter, is far more difficult than it is anywhere else on the planet. This has a lot to do with the fact that self-absorbed parents – as portrayed in the movies, anyway – have more important things to do than playing Nintendo with their kids or helping them with their homework. It explains the abundance of nannies, tutors and dog-walkers in comedies set there. In “Friends With Kids,” one of the litmus tests for perspective spouses involves how much tolerance each shows for parents who bring their kids with them to trendy restaurants. None of this makes “Friends With Kids” unwatchable or particularly foreign to outlanders. Fans of Burns’ movies, for example, should find plenty of things to like here. I only wish that Westfeldt had stayed on the same course she steered during the first half of the movie. The Blu-ray package includes commentary with Westfeldt, Hamm and DP William Rexer; deleted scenes, ad-libs and bloopers; a routine behind-the-scenes EPK and much better making-of piece, “Scene 42: Anatomy of a Gag”; and a funny bit in which Fox teaches Scott how to play the “Gears of War” video game. – Gary Dretzka
Singin’ in the Rain 60th Anniversary: Blu-ray
When a movie becomes as much a part of the fabric of American culture as “Singin’ in the Rain,” it opens itself up to overexposure, careless editing for television and shabby treatment in ancillary markets. The National Film Registry of the Library of Congress was established not only to honor America’s cinematic treasures, but also protect them from the ravages of time, neglect and greed. Blessedly, the MGM masterpiece was in the inaugural class of the registry. In several meaningful ways, distributors of classic films on DVD and Blu-ray are doing the same thing with the gems being re-released from their catalogues. In hi-def, “Singin’ in the Rain” looks and sounds as splendid as it has in the 60 years since its release in 1952. More to the point, co-directors Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly’s Technicolor musical remains every bit as entertaining as most people will remember it being when they first saw it on screen, on television, on Beta, VHS, Laserdisc, in an airplane or were introduced to the title song in “A Clockwork Orange” or “Glee.” What most fans probably don’t know, though, is how closely their opinion of “Singin’ in the Rain” squares with that of the august critics assembled by Sight & Sound every 10 years. It may have taken them 30 years to recognize the musical as such, but it’s since become a fixture of the magazine’s list of the best movies ever made. (The 2012 survey is expected any minute, now.)
Not surprisingly, Warner Bros. has treated “Singin’ in the Rain” with the same respect and attention to detail as the recent Blu-ray release of “Casablanca” and other gems. A special bells-and-whistles edition adds a 48-page commemorative booklet and a second disc with bonus material in standard definition, but the single-disc edition delivers the same swell movie. It also contains an informative commentary track, an audio-visual “jukebox,” vintage trailer and, best of all, a new 51-minute featurette, “Singin’ in the Rain: Raining on a New Generation.” It provides the recollections and testimony of several contemporary dancers, directors and choreographers as to what the movie means to them. They represent such popular entertainments as “Glee,” “High School Musical,” “Chicago,” “Rock of Ages” and “Hairspray.” As they point out, “Singin’ in the Rain” resembles their projects in that they are “jukebox’ or “backstage” musicals, in which the dancing drives the story.
Most of the songs in “Singin’ in the Rain,” written by Arthur Freed and Nacio Herb Brown, had already been performed in other movies, and, as producer, Freed initially envisioned “Singin’ in the Rain” as a quick and easy way to recycle them. Broadway stalwarts Adolph Green and Betty Comden were hired to weave a story around them. After much thought, they set the movie at one of the industry’s greatest turning points. It was a decision that not only allowed for much comedy, singing and dancing, but also gave older audiences a recognizable hook. Now, at a time when there are more dancing shows on television than Westerns, the re-release could have the added benefit of exposing the art’s roots to new audiences. Moreover, given that the story is set at precisely the same time as this year’s Best Picture-winner, “The Artist,” it allows for a wonderful double-feature for home-theater enthusiasts. Among the principles who lent their voices to the commentary track are Debbie Reynolds, Donald O’Connor, Cyd Charisse, Kathleen Freeman, co-director Donen, Comden and Green, Luhrmann and author Rudy Behlmer. – Gary Dretzka
Salmon Fishing in the Yemen
When a work of fiction sparks the fancy of readers and moviegoers around the world, its success often is tempered soon thereafter with a cold splash of reality. Such is the case with the novel “Salmon Fishing in the Yemen,” a crowd-pleaser fish story adapted into film by director Lasse Hallstrom (“Chocolat,” “Cider House Rules”) and screenwriter Simon Beaufoy (“Slumdog Millionaire,” “127 Hours”). In May, after the movie attained sleeper-hit status, the tourist board of Yemen felt it necessary to warn “would-be British holidaymakers that it does not have a salmon fishing industry.” More off-putting, perhaps, were news reports of Al-Qaeda activity in the region, anti-government protests and occasional attacks on insurgents by the CIA’s missile-carrying drones. For these and other reasons, mostly of the scientific variety, an unusually drastic suspension of disbelief is required by viewers. As fishy fantasies go, however, it’s probably more realistic and accessible than, say, the Richard Brautigan best-seller, “Trout Fishing in America.”
Paul Torday, an avid angler and oil-industry engineer, was inspired to write his novel after spending much of his adult life in the Middle East. Between assignments, he would look for opportunities to fish. His book focuses less on oil and war than how fishing transcends all political borders and religious backgrounds. After all, even confirmed atheists have been known to pray, when it comes to catching fish. Egyptian star Amr Waked plays a filthy rich Yemeni sheik, who believes that by building a dam he can bring agriculture to the desert and introduce his beloved pastime to his country. To make the sheik’s pipedream a reality, the British government enlists a disbelieving scientist (Ewan McGregor) and can-do public-relations consultant (Emily Blunt), whose boyfriend is believed KIA in Afghanistan. Looking to score points in the media and draw attention away from negative headlines, the prime minister’s press aide (Kristin Scott Thomas) aggressively promotes the joint project. Naturally, the scientist and sheik bond over fishing; the scientist and the consultant fall in love; the press aide repeatedly puts her feet in her mouth; and religious fundamentalists plot against the sheik and his ungodly project. If that summary makes “Salmon Fishing” sound overly obvious, know that Hallstrom and Beaufoy have been here before and know how to make romantic fantasies surprisingly plausible. The story also benefits from some beautiful Scotch and Moroccan scenery and chemistry between actors that’s palpable. The DVD adds an interview with the author and a behind-the-scenes featurette that feels as if it were lifted from the EPK. – Gary Dretzka
Shot almost exclusively in rural Armenia, “Here” is the kind of movie whose scenery almost overpowers the story, whose existential conceits are extremely fragile. Ben Foster (“The Messenger”) plays a cartographer who uses satellite and computer technology to create maps of remote territory not accurately charted. At a village restaurant, he befriends an English-speaking Armenian photographer (Lubna Azabal), who helps him order breakfast. After another chance meeting, Gadarine asks Will if she can tag along with him in his travels through the mountainous country. One gets the impression that Will would prefer to work on his own, but, clearly, having a pretty translator in tow, couldn’t hurt. Gadarine’s photography is accomplished enough to have been exhibited in a Paris gallery, while Will’s able to bring amazing things to life on his computer. After paying a visit to her elderly parents in a sleepy village, Will and Gadarine begin to enjoy each other’s company and embark on a tentative love affair.
The problem is that Will is a loner, who digs the idea of getting lost in the wilderness and trying “to find the edge of the world.” Gadarine’s photographs capture an Armenian landscape that’s being polluted by electrical towers and rusted cars, and a way of life being destroyed by lack of opportunity and an exodus of its young men and women. Will’s an engineer; Gadarine’s an artist. He’s removed himself from his own past, while she doesn’t know if she wants to distance herself from her past any more than she already has. He’s withdrawn to the point of being uptight; she’s warm, outgoing and impulsive. Eventually, Will throws a tantrum, causing Gadarine to doubt everything they’ve already shared and putting our hopes for a lasting relationship between them on hold. Foster and Azabal could hardly be more effective as the movie’s protagonists. Already a known quantity in Europe and Mideast, Azabal is on track to make a mark in Hollywood, too. I’d be very surprised if she isn’t nominated for an acting Oscar in the near future. The DVD adds galleries of Gadarine’s photos, taken during the course of the movie.
It’s worth pointing out at this point that co-writer/director Braden King felt it necessary to add some cosmic depth to the proceedings, by inserting short “interlude” pieces into the narrative. They were made in collaboration with eight contemporary avante-garde filmmakers and given a narrative overlay by Peter Coyote. They don’t add much to the story, but must have seemed important to King at the time. Extended versions also are included in the package. – Gary Dretzka
4:44: Last Day on Earth: Blu-ray
Doomsday Prophesy: Blu-ray
Abel Ferrara’s latest indie drama shares several things with previous films in which the end of the world as we know it is made imminent, and not at the hands of extraterrestrials or other sci-fi conceits. As in “The Tree of Life,” “Melancholia,” “On the Beach,” “The Last Wave,” “The Rapture,” “Take Shelter” and “Another Earth,” the soon-to-die in “4:44: Last Day on Earth” are given time to contemplate their fate and, even, see it coming. Leave it to Ferrara, though, to imagine a scenario in which impending doom looks a lot like any other night in New York City. Even as news anchors are bailing out on their viewers, Cisco and Skye (Willem Dafoe, Shanyn Leigh) are able to order food from the local Chinese take-out restaurant, snort coke with friends, communicate via Skype with relatives, practice their art, make love and argue. A resident of the high-rise building next-door commits suicide by jumping from the roof of his building, but he might have done it anyway, apocalypse or not. As 4:44 a.m. approaches and the sky above the city looks as if it’s fighting a losing battle with the aurora borealis. The lovers attempt to make sense of it all by listening to tapes of the Dalai Lama and other religious and philosophical leaders, and watching people in other parts of the world confront impending doom. “4:44” is a challenging movie, if only because Ferrara probably is at a loss, himself, as to what people ought to do in a similar situation. Like his characters, he leaves us to our own thoughts and devices. It’s nice, though, that he’s given his protagonists someone with whom to hold hands as they enter the next stage of existence.
“Extraterrestrial” imagines a similar scenario, only with a giant UFO hovering over a densely populated city in Spain. Here, however, the massive vehicle does little more than hover, as if Earth was merely a rest stop on the path to someplace else. It is entirely possible that aliens have taken human form and are controlling things in cognito, but writer/director Nacho Vigalondo is in no hurry to provide proof of that possibility, either. Instead, “Extraterrestrial” is far less an exercise in sci-fi or speculative fiction than an absurdist comedy in which the characters spend a great deal of time speculating as to which of them is impersonating a human being. On the morning of the first day of the presumed invasion, Julio (Julian Villagran) wakes up in the bed of the spectacularly beautiful Julia (Michelle Jenner), not knowing how he got there or what they did. Blacking out doesn’t seem to be unusual for either of them, so they don’t obsess over what brought them together. The first indication that something’s wrong comes when Julio looks out the window of her apartment and finds that the streets are deserted and a section of the UFO is visible in the distance. Although there aren’t many sparks between them, Julio finds it nearly impossible to leave Julia’s apartment, even after the appearance of an intrusive neighbor and her urban-guerrilla boyfriend. His bizarre behavior only serves to bring Julio and Julia closer together, but in a most tentative fashion. When the neighbor threatens to blow the whistle on them, the comedy takes a deeper detour into Bunuel country. The interview included with the DVD goes a long way to explaining Vigalondo’s intentions.
Syfy movies take a lot of hits, mostly for their cheesy special effects, absurd monsters and hackneyed dialogue. “Doomsday Prophesy” suffers from some barely rudimentary CGI effects, but the story itself is better than most I’ve seen. Like other sci-fi flicks that have based their apocalyptic vision on the Mayan calendar, characters here anticipate the end of the world sometime in 2012. The first indication that something catastrophic is happening is a series of earthquakes that cause the Black Sea to disappear into fissures in the earth. Before long, similarly devastating natural disasters begin to occur in New York and British Columbia, where, conveniently, most Syfy movies are shot. It’s in the forests of the Canadian Southwest that a modern-day Nostradamus has set up shop and outlined the science behind his predictions. Apparently, the Earth’s equator has aligned with the equator of the universe and it’s causing a helluva ruckus. Moreover, the prophet is being chased by devotees, a representative of his publisher and government agents. Alas, he’s already dead, so the fate of the Earth rests in the hands of these investigators and an old Native Canadian, with a partially finished totem pole in his front yard. “Doomsday Prophesy” easily qualifies as a guilty pleasure. Jason Borque’s movie stars Jewel Staite, A.J. Buckley, Alan Dale and Gordon Tootoosis. The Blu-ray comes with a featurette on the prophesy game. – Gary Dretzka
Scott Leberecht’s debut feature is that rarest of creatures, a straight-to-video horror film that is every bit as good as any vampire flick being shown on TV or at the multiplex these days. That’s because it isn’t necessary for “Midnight Son” to fall back on gratuitous blood and gore when things stop making sense. The story remains fresh and interesting throughout. Zak Kilburg (“Zombie Strippers”) has the kind of woebegone face that makes him believable as a young man confined to a life of isolation, due to a rare skin disorder that prevents him from being exposed to sunlight. Jason’s baffled by the disease and perplexed by his growing appetite for blood, which he has no reason to attribute to vampirism. Instead of becoming a killing machine, he attempts to satisfy his hunger by buying blood from an orderly that’s been left over from transfusions. Jason’s OK with this until he discovers that his new friend is draining blood from some guy he has tied to a rocking chair. Meanwhile, Jason has fallen in love with a young woman, Mary (Maya Parish), whose dependency on cocaine has become as worrisome as his demand for fresh supplies of blood. She volunteers to take care of him – and help him find a gallery for his paintings – but becomes increasingly distressed by the hostility he displays whenever he begins thirsting for her blood. A final confrontation between opposing undead forces opens the door for a particularly heart-wrenching solution to their problem. It’s as romantic and poignant as anything in the last three or four installments of the “Twilight” saga, without pulling punches to satisfy fans of the novel or teen-girl wet dreams. “Midnight Son” won’t make anyone forget Bela Lugosi or the sexy vampires on “True Blood,” but it’s as fresh as anything since “Let the Right One In.” – Gary Dretzka
American Masters: Johnny Carson: King of Late Night
French Chef: Julia Child’s French Classics
PBS: Finding Your Roots
The late-night arena has deteriorated so much since the retirement of Johnny Carson, it’s difficult to remember when any host had much to say over who’s going to be on their show and what’s to be discussed. David, Jay and Conan retain control of their monologues and the right to ad-lib occasionally, of course, but everything else is about as spontaneous as a presidential candidate’s stump speech. You can almost read the boredom on the faces of the hosts as they interview the wet-behind-the-ears stars of the big action movie opening that weekend or they’re introducing a rock band whose CDs they wouldn’t buy in a million years. T’wasn’t always the case. For most of Carson’s 30-year run on “The Tonight Show,” audiences could depend on being surprised by something said or done on the show. The appearances of guests weren’t dictated by publicists and producers expecting a quid pro quo in the form of a paid ad sometime during the show. Besides the many comedians whose careers Carson helped launch, he wasn’t afraid to book a William F. Buckley Jr., Gore Vidal, Carl Sagan or someone as controversial as atheist Madalyn Murray O’Hair. Nor did he live in fear of taking a week off and allowing a guest host to take over the show’s reins.
And, yet, as we learn in “American Masters: Johnny Carson: King of Late Night,”Carson probably was more enigmatic and private than any celebrity of his time. The reasons for this likely will remain buried in the host’s boyhood past and that of his toughest audience, Mom and Dad. Directors Mark A. Catalena and Peter Jones come as close as anyone has toward solving the puzzle that was Johnny Carson, given that those closest to him probably will go to their own graves, honoring his fetish-like passion for privacy. The documentary traces his Nebraska roots and those of the show that made his famous. We see footage of Carson’s earliest gigs in television and are treated to original interviews with many former guests and would-be competitors in the talk-show dodge. What we don’t see, however, is very much footage from “Tonight,” when it was still based in New York. That’s because some bean-counter at NBC felt it smarter to tape over the shows than sustain an archive. What’s here, though, threatens to overflow the doc’s two-hour format. The Blu-ray adds extended interviews with entertainers, staff members and friends who explain what Carson meant to them.
Nearly 50 years after Julia Child’s “The French Chef” first appeared on Boston’s WGBH, the cable universe is overrun by shows exploring every aspect of the culinary experience, from the extravagant to the absurdly banal. Quite often, though, the shows are light years more entertaining and enlightening than anything else put up against them. The chapters included in “Julia Child’s French Classics” take us back to a time when most Americans considered French cuisine to be far too intimidating to attempt on their own. In her own much-satirized way, Child patiently explains how to make such traditional fare as French onion soup, coq au vin, quiche Lorraine, chocolate mousse, crepes and tarts. She does so without talking down to her audience or assuming they know the basic terms and techniques of cooking. As sinfully rich French cuisine would go out of style in the health-conscious 1970s-80s, Child shifted her attention to dishes more in tune with the time and emerging appliances. This DVD edition is from a period when cooking shows were anchored in studio kitchens and location shoots were unthinkable. She made the process enjoyable through the force of her personality, alone.
In “Finding Your Roots,” popular PBS host and Harvard scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr. joined the celebrity parade by expanding his ongoing genealogy and genetics project to include A-list names. His stated intention is to “get into the DNA of American culture.” Instead of attempting to find the Italo-American links between Snooki and JWoww to Da Vinci, Michelangelo and Sophia Loren, he sticks with more mainstream types. They include husband-wife Kevin Bacon and Kyra Sedgwick; New Orleans heroes Harry Connick Jr. and Branford Marsalis; Robert Downey Jr. and Maggie Gyllenhaal; Samuel L. Jackson and Condoleezza Rice; and Sanjay Gupta, Margaret Cho and Martha Stewart. – Gary Dretzka
The InBetweeners: The Complete Series
Leverage: The 4th Season
Designing Women: The Final Season
Sanctuary: The Complete Fourth Season
A&E: Storage Wars: Volume 3
IRT Deadliest Roads: Season 2
By way of comparison to other teen sitcoms, the ribald British sitcom, “The InBetweeners,” combines much of what we liked in “Freaks and Geeks” and “Skins” (the imported version) with the gross-out comedy of “American Pie” and, yes, even, “Beavis & Butthead.” It tells the story of four school mates, whose social status, while not completely hopeless, is continually degraded by their raging hormones and sheer stupidity. The guys aren’t incapable of finding girls willing to go on dates with them, for example, but they blow it by getting too drunk in anticipation of sex or listening to the ridiculous advice of a friend whose only experience comes from watching porn. When “InBetweeners” was shown on BBC America, I don’t remember it being quite as raunchy as it is on the “Complete Series” package. In addition to lots of profanity, the boys are addicted to masturbation and are prone to projectile vomiting. Neither do their female classmates display any evidence of being shrinking violets. They’re as horny as the guys, but are quite a bit more selective in their dating choices. The DVD package adds deleted scenes.
Now into its fifth season on TNT, “Leverage” is best described as a private-sector “Mission:Impossible.” A team of tech-savvy, physically gifted con artists helps victims of corporate crooks recover their money and reputations, while also enriching themselves with whatever’s left over from each job. Timothy Hutton is the leader of the gang, which includes the devious and sexy Gina Bellman (“Coupling”), strongman Christian Kane, computer-wiz Aldis Hodge and acrobatic safe-cracker Beth Riesgraf. Just as in “M:I,” the cons and takedowns often border on the preposterous, but there’s plenty of humor here to help us suspend disbelief. It’s to the credit of the writers and personalities of the stars that the show always seems fresh and involving. It does so without relying on familiar guest stars or breaking any new ground thematically.
By the time “Designing Women” reached its seventh and final season, the sitcom clearly was running out of gas. The departures a year earlier of Delta Burke and Jean Smart didn’t cripple the show, but the anticipated absence of Annie Potts after the seventh stanza might have made the show unrecognizable. The attention of creator Linda Bloodworth-Thomason also was divided by the presidential campaign of her friend, Bill Clinton. In the 1992-93 season, Judith Ivey was brought in as Bonnie Jean Poteet (“B.J.”), a rich Texas widow who invested some of her fortune in the business. The series received no formal finale, concluding with an hour-long episode in which the principal characters, while redecorating a plantation house, envision what their lives would have been like if they had been characters in “Gone With the Wind.”
Syfy’s “Sanctuary” also signed off without much fanfare. After its humble beginnings on the Internet, the characters on the Canadian-based fantasy spent the next four years providing sanctuary to extraordinary creatures and human Abnormals, while also studying what they have to offer hybrid humanity. Amanda Topping plays Dr. Helen Magnus, a 157-year-old teratologist who runs Sanctuary. The trick, of course, becomes telling the benign freaks from the true monsters.
Hope springs eternal in the hearts of the fortune hunters who gather each week on A&E to assess – within the span of about five minutes – the contents of darkened storage lockers, left abandoned by poor souls unable to pay the monthly rent. After three years, we’ve come to know the bidding teams better than members of our own extended family. The producers have done a good job putting together a cast of characters whose personalities complement each other in ways both positive and negative. Frankly, I don’t get it. Still, “Storage Wars” is a hugely popular show, which already has spun off regional sequels. Volume Three, not to be confused with the third season that has just begun, includes episodes ranging from “I’m the New Mogul” and “Driving Miss Barry,” to“Hook, Line and Sucker” and “Operation Hobo.”
Anyone who enjoys the challenge of driving California’s Highway 1, through Big Sur, or navigating the streets of San Francisco, will certainly get a kick out of watching the second season of “IRT: Deadliest Roads.” Last year, the daredevil truckers tackled the Himalayas in the spinoff show. The next season, they took on the Andes. That’s a considerable departure from the flat, frozen lakes of Canada and Alaska. The harrowing views from the roads carved from the cliffs in Peru and Bolivia aren’t for the faint-hearted. – Gary Dretzka