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The DVD Wrapup: Goats, Where Do We Go Now?, My Trip to Al Qaeda, Loved Ones, Titanic 3D, Nympho Divers, AbFab, Spartacus … More

Thursday, September 13th, 2012

Goats: Blu-ray
In the world of independent filmmaking, a very thin line separates dysfunctional families from those merely offbeat, quirky and unconventional. In “Goats,” director Christopher Neil and writer Mark Poirier straddle that razor-thin barrier for most of its 94 minutes, while also attempting to convince us that a child born into such a family could survive to manhood uncorrupted by his parents’ selfish behavior. The young man in question here, Ellis (Graham Phillips), has lived with a desperately New Age-y mother in the desert outside Tucson for most of his 14 years on Earth. Wendy (Vera Farmiga) has led him to believe that his estranged father, Frank (Ty Burrell), is a total prick, who made her life a living hell and abandoned them, emotionally, if not financially. In the absence of positive role models, Ellis’ well-being and education has been entrusted to a scruffy botanist, Goat Man (David Duchovny), who cares for Wendy’s desert garden, cleans the pool, tends to the family’s goats and stays high on home-grown pot. Ellis accompanies Goat Man on his vision-quest treks, during which the bearded wise man shares hippy-dippy philosophies and bong hits with the boy. We meet this atypical family, just as Ellis is about to travel east to attend the same prep school as his dad and learn to exist in an infinitely more traditional world of privilege and excess. At Thanksgiving break, he will reconnect with the father he’s learned to hate and his new, exceedingly sweet and pregnant wife (Kerrie Russell).

The only thing wrong with this scenario – and it’s something of an indie cliché, by now — is how well Ellis manages to adapt to his new environment. He’s remarkably self-sufficient, an A-student and generous to a dweeb roommate who demonstrates why early exposure to booze and parental neglect is far more harmful than early exposure to marijuana and parental neglect. To suggest that Ellis is more mature, at 14, than his parents ever were is only to point out the obvious. Neither is it too far-fetched to think Goat Man ultimately will emerge as the better father figure than Frank or Wendy’s new lover, a self-centered gigolo who panders to her Sedona-based theories on spiritual health. I don’t think Neil and Poirier mind comparisons to “The Royal Tenenbaums,” the Wes Anderson masterpiece that launched a couple dozen lesser dramas about familial dysfunction. By staying close to the Tenenbaum’s New York home, Anderson could focus more on the individual family members than the physical distance between them. The same applies with Campbell Scott’s vastly underappreciated “Off the Map,” in which Joan Allen plays a woman whose post-hippy isolation isn’t governed by fads and crystal-gazing philosophies. Her daughter was allowed to leave the nest, as well, but off-screen.

There’s simply too much to absorb in too short a time in “Goats.” Nevertheless, for those who enjoy such family dramedies – with the accent on drama, here – there are solid performances by the principle actors, beautiful scenery and, of course, goats. The Blu-ray arrives with a couple of deleted scenes and background featurettes, but’s nothing special. It’s probably worth noting, as well, that Neil is linked to Hollywood royalty by being Eleanor and Francis Ford Coppola’s nephew and the son of a special-effects cameraman on a pair of “Star Wars” movies. Although “Goats” marks his debut as a director, he’s worked on several Coppola-family projects and “Star Wars: Episode III.” – Gary Dretzka

Where Do We Go Now?
In this bittersweet fable about life in the boonies of war-torn Lebanon, director-actress Nadine Labaki’s suggests that sectarian violence can be as much a product of too much information as too little compassion. “Where Do We Go Now?” is set in a village so remote that the residents have yet to learn that Christians and Muslims are supposed to hate and fear each other, instead of co-exist in peace as they have for centuries. It isn’t until a television and big-city newspapers are introduced to the village that news of the troubles in Beirut and south Lebanon prompt young people with too much time on their hands to play pranks inspired by the faraway tensions. The adult males mistake these pranks for the bitter fruits on intolerance and begin to plot against each other. The women, who jointly mourn the deaths of loved ones now lying in segregated cemeteries, concoct a scheme to defuse the increasingly volatile situation. One involves the importation of a troupe of exotic dancers from the Ukraine to channel the men’s sexual energy. Another has the women dosing the men’s food with powerful hashish. If this sounds far-fetched, so, too, must the belief that a common God sanctions the violence that’s spoiled the peace that once exemplary nation.

Left to their own devices, the villagers could have lived in peace for another century, at least. As the war and news of it encroach even closer on the town square – where a church and mosque stand side by side — it seems as if only a miracle can prevent further strife. Although censored in some countries, “Where Do We Go Now?” played very well in the Mideast and was selected by Lebanon to be its entry for an Oscar in the Best Foreign Language Category. This, after winning the People’s Choice Award at last year’s Toronto International Film Festival. Labaki (“Caramel”) takes full advantage of the sheltered rural setting and coaxes excellent performances from the largely amateur cast. She balances the potentially tragic realities of war with comedic interludes and songs. Anyone who can’t get their head around the horrors of daily life in the Mideast war zones – and who can, really? – ought to check out some of the films being released by filmmakers attempting to make sense of them, as well. If only such dialogues were possible in real life, we all could sleep easier. – Gary Dretzka

My Trip to Al-Qaeda
I may not be 100 percent sure why it is that we’re still fighting a losing battle against rabid religious fundamentalists in Afghanistan – and with killer drones in Pakistan and Yemen – but, after watching “My Trip to Al-Qaeda“, I understand why our endgame could resemble what finally happened in Vietnam. There are few more celebrated documentary makers than Alex Gibney, who’s won an Oscar for “Taxi to the Dark Side” and was nominated for “Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room.” His other credits include “Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer,” “Casino Jack and the United States of Money” and “Freakonomics.” “My Trip to Al-Qaeda” is his interpretation of a 2006 one-man performance piece by journalist Lawrence Wright, which itself was based on more than 600 interviews and 4,100 pages of notes with a broad cross-section of interested parties. They include former CIA operatives, torturers, torturees, historians, clerics and, even, the late brother-in-law of Osama Bin Laden. The production is further informed by maps, photographs, news footage and charts, covering a period from the assassination of Egyptian leader Anwar Sadat, through 9/11 and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. In it, Wright uses Bin Laden’s own words to show how, simply by drawing the U.S. and its allies into a “crusade” against Islam, Al Qaeda had succeeded in its mission. In effect, then, the terrorist attacks on 9/11were calculated to draw the west into areas deemed “sacred” by Muslims, who, theoretically, would rise up against the Great Satan. That didn’t happen, of course, but President Bush’s determination to kill Saddam Hussein gave Al Qaeda the gift of time. The Taliban used it to regroup, expand and argue that the infidels were there to stay. Can the new democracies hold up against religious fundamentalists – and, as we’ve seen this week, the rabble-rousers — who teach that paradise awaits those who die in the service of Allah? Stay tuned. – Gary Dretzka

The Loved Ones
The Complete Hammer House of Horrors
Australia may be known best for its kangaroos, koalas, killer sharks and bushy blond surfers, but it’s also become a reliable exporter of highly imaginative and genuinely frightening horror and crime thrillers. Unlike the low-budget Ozploitation flicks described in Mark Hartley’s wonderfully twisted documentary, “Not Quite Hollywood,” recent genre pictures have benefitted from larger budgets, better acting and writing, and a decreasing reliance on T&A to sell the action. Sean Byrne’s “The Loved Ones” debuts on DVD after securing some excellent reviews from festival screenings. If it fails to meet your standards for twisted behavior and storytelling, I suggest having yourself committed … immediately.

Although not at all geeky or unpleasant to look at, mousy wallflower Lola (Robin McLeavy) has a history of being rejected and dissed by the cool crowd at school. Instead of throwing a pity party for herself or leaving herself open to humiliation, a la “Carrie,” Lola simulates dating situations with the boys her nutzo father rounds up and brings home for their mutual pleasure. Such is the case with Brent (Xavier Samuel), a troubled young man who accidentally killed his father while trying to avoid a naked teenage boy standing in the middle of the road, bleeding. When Lola approached Brent for a prom date, he had already committed to attending with the likely queen, Holly. There was nothing personal in his rejection of Lola’s offer, but it was sufficient cause for Daddy (John Brompton) to hunt down the boy and bring him home for a simulated prom. I don’t care how crappy your prom might have been, this one will be difficult to erase from your memory. Since the release of “The Loved Ones,” in 2009, McLeavy has been cast in “Hell on Wheels” and “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter,” while Samuel has appeared in “The Twilight Saga” and “Anonymous.”

With “The Complete Hammer House of Horror,” Synapse Films continues to mine the rich vein of horror gold found in the archives of the legendary British studio. In 1980, the Hammer team went on location to the old Hampden Manor House, where it produced an anthology series of 13 stories to air on ITC television. Not surprisingly, the tales of suspense and terror were populated with such Hammer stalwarts as Peter Cushing (in “The Silent Scream”), Anthony Valentine (“Carpathian Eagle”) and Denholm Elliott (“Rude Awakening”), as well as such familiar faces as Pierce Brosnan, Brian Cox, Simon MacCorkindale and Diana Dors in less prominent roles. The Synapse package presents the complete series in its original airdate order, with all-new introductions, featurettes and a stills gallery. – Gary Dretzka

Titanic 3D: Limited Edition: Blu-ray
When it comes to 3D and hi-def, consumers can always count on James Cameron to deliver the goods. His instincts may add a few shekles to a production budget, but ultimately it’s to the consumer’s benefit.  Just as he pushed the theatrical release of “Titanic” from July to December of 1997, he waited until everything was right before releasing the epic period romance on 3D and 2D Blu-ray. I doubt if many “Titanic” obsessives were unhappy that Cameron didn’t adjust his schedule to make the Blu-ray launch coincide with the centennial celebration, which already was overcrowded with shipwreck-themed films. If fans felt deprived, they simply could re-watch their VHS or DVD copies and anticipate how much better “Titanic” would look and sound in Blu-ray. They needn’t have worried. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that sales of 3D-ready televisions jumped after the first glowing reviews of the new release were published. It’s the kind of game-changing product that lifts all boats.

Only the most deep-pocketed of fans need consider the Amazon-exclusive “Titanic Collector’s Edition,” which, for around $240, offers a souvenir book, passenger dossiers and postcards, in addition to the exhaustive amount of bonus material in the standard Bu-ray editions. In addition to the three commentary tracks borrowed from the 2005 DVD edition, the new material includes documentaries, “Reflections on ‘Titanic’” and “‘Titanic’: The Final Word With James Cameron,” both in 1080p and at a combined length of more than 2½ hours; an hour’s worth of deleted and extended scenes, in 1080p; 60 behind-the-scenes featurettes in standard definition; a digital copy of the film; marketing material; stills galleries; and “Titanic” parodies. With it, stocking-stuffer season has officially arrived. – Gary Dretzka

Nympho Divers: G-String Festival
Female Teacher: Dirty Afternoon
Karate-Robo Zaborgar
Western fans of the movies in Impulse Pictures’ Nikkatsu Erotic Films Collection typically are drawn first to crazy titles and, then, to the promise of lurid, if abysmally censored sex. The new additions to the series are reliably gonzo, even though pubis-disguising techniques have improved. (That prohibition would be lifted, in part because of the importation of adult videos from abroad, in the 1990s.) “Nympho Divers: G-String Festival” not only is more humorous than most of the “pink” films I’ve seen, but it also extends the “girl diver” sub-genre of Japanese exploitation flicks (a.k.a., “ama”). Here, a once-thriving Japanese coastal village is experiencing a shortage in divers to go after oysters, abalone, octopi and clams. The local talent has moved to the larger cities for higher paying jobs, so the mayor’s son is assigned to go to Tokyo to hire pretty young women to lure tourists, as well as bivalves, to the town. Naturally, the girl divers are wildly promiscuous and seemingly insatiable. It doesn’t take long for them to wear out the elderly men in the village, who are as interested in muff-diving as they are in pearl diving. The ladies also are required to compete in a thong-bikini contest, during which the sumo-like G-strings cause excruciatingly painful wedgies. Curiously, the cash-short producers decided there was no need to waste money on underwater scenes when a good cat fight or perverse sexual coupling are all that’s needed to keep viewers’ attention.

Likewise, Nikkatsu produced a series of “Female Teacher” titles that satisfied viewers’ cravings for movies about “lusty schoolmistresses.” (Where were they when I was growing up?) In “Female Teacher: Nasty Afternoon,” a teacher, Sakiko Kurata (Yuki Kazamatsuri), is surprised by a call from jail by a vaguely remembered former student. The girl is accused of prostitution, even though she freely surrenders her physical gifts to strangers. As tendentious as the student-teacher connection is, it causes Sakiko to recall an event from her past – she was raped by a masked man who “smelled of paint thinner” – that may have resulted in the conviction of the wrong person. This revelation haunts the teacher to the point where she seeks redemption through illicit sexual encounters of her own. Both DVDs arrive with the theatrical trailers and liner notes.

American viewers unfamiliar with the Japanese sci-fi/fantasy genre tokusatsu – live-action, effects-heavy dramas in which humans interact with superheroes – probably would be completely baffled by “Karate-Robo Zaborgar,” especially if they picked it up for their Transformers-crazy kids. (Not a good idea.) Older geeks, however, might recognize it as a completely freaked-out parody of – or, perhaps, tribute to – the 1974 TV series, “Denjin Zaborger,” in which a bionic vigilante avenges the death of his creator by rebooting a transforming robot/motorcycle invention and targeting his rage at an evil organization led by the wheelchair-bound cyborg and his robotic army. After establishing the backstory, “Karate-Robo Zaborgar” abruptly flashes forward 25 years, to the recession plagued present and another threat to mankind.

This is truly crazy stuff, not at all appropriate for kiddies with a Transformers fixation. But, then, what else might one expect from Noboru Iguchi, creator of “The Machine Girl,” “Mutant Girls Squad,” “Robo Geisha” and “Zombie Ass: Toilet of the Dead”? Here, cyber-babes use their breasts as weapons and command such transformers as the Diarrhea Monster. I know just enough about Japanese fantasy to have found Iguchi’s new movie far more entertaining than I expected it to be and several degrees more insane. For connoisseurs of fart jokes, there’s a doozy near the movie’s climatic battle between Zarborgar and a giant transformed woman in a bikini.  The DVD adds the short film, “Go, Zaborgar Go!” and coming attractions from Sushi Typhoon, Japan’s answer to Troma. – Gary Dretzka

Cleanskin: Blu-ray
6 Bullets
After almost 30 years in the biz, Sean Bean has emerged as one of the most dependable action stars on the virtually-direct-to-DVD circuit. He also continues to do interesting work in non-genre projects, of course, but Bean’s fanbase has grown steadily since his work in the “Sharpe’s …” saga and “Red Riding” trilogy. In “Cleanskin,” he plays a ready-to-retire secret-service agent, Ewan, who’s agreed to accept one last mission for his old counter-terrorist boss (Charlotte Rampling). It requires him to take out a deeply entrenched terrorist cell, using the same license granted to James Bond and other 00- agents. At first, Ewan is perfectly willing to do his duty for Queen and country. After a while, though, he begins to sense that his mission is serving an entirely different purpose. Hadi Hajaig’s film gives ample time to the antagonists, whose motives for provoking violence go further back than last week’s rant by a bloodthirsty mullah. “Cleanskin” is best, however, when Hajaig lets the tick-tock action dominate the story. The DVD adds a making-of featurette.

After emerging briefly from the straight-to-DVD arena in “The Expendables 2,” Jean-Claude Van Damme has returned to the cheap-and-dirty world of action thrillers with “6 Bullets.” Once again, he’s joined here with his children, Kristopher Van Varenberg and Bianca Bree, as well as “Assassination Games” director Ernie Barbarash. He plays a veteran mercenary – duh – who specializes in child abductions. While in Eastern Europe, the teenage daughter of a MMA fighter is kidnaped by white slavers and JCVD is recruited to show him the finer points of tracking down hoodlums in Russia. Not surprisingly, the action is fast, furious and not remotely credible. Who really cares about credibility, though, when the Van Dammes are in the house? – Gary Dretzka

Play in the Gray
It would be far too easy to portray the Boston-based dance, music and performance troupe, All the Kings Men, as simply a highly evolved drag act. Comprised of a half-dozen multi-talented lesbian artists, ATKM has built on its drag-king foundation to probe the limits of gender identity and breaking down the barriers that limit sexual choice. It does so through the use of satire and crowd-pleasing comedy. In “Play in the Gray,” we meet the women, listen to their stories and watch as they transform themselves into a variety of different characters. Some of their observations are directly on-point, while others float in from left field. For performer Katie Allen, “Drag is putting on a skirt and high heels to give me long hair and being a girl.” Karin Webb allows, “When I put on the mask of a character, when I’m performing drag, the comment that I’m making can be any comment. There are comments that I care about, there are comments that I hope the audience gets out of it, but I’m also really not interested in dictating what those comments are or should be.” On stage, ATKM is a little bit of a lot of entertaining things. Off stage, we follow the women along on tour stops and visits to relatives, some of whom are still coming to grips with their sexuality. Kaitlin Meelia’s direction is unobtrusive, observant and not locked into any one letter in the initialism, LGBT(Q,U,I, P,TS,C,A). – Gary Dretzka

Absolutely Fabulous: 20th Anniversary Specials
It was entirely appropriate for Jennifer Saunders and Joanna Lumley to jointly carry the Olympic torch through the streets of London, a day before the lavish Opening Ceremony two months ago. It might have been even more appropriate if Lumley had lit a cigarette off the sacred flame while trotting along. After all, long before Stella McCartney, Alexander McQueen and the Middleton sisters set the standards for British fashion, Edina Monsoon and the chain-smoking Patsy (Saunders, Lumley) defined what it means to be a fashionista. After 20 years, the AbFab girls may have a few more well-camouflaged wrinkles, but they can still party-hardy and make complete fools of themselves, without realizing – or caring — how foolish they look. The three specials that comprise “Absolutely Fabulous: 20th Anniversary Specials” – “Identity,” “Job,” “Olympics” – were produced both to celebrate their anniversary and piggyback on the country’s Olympics Fever. Also back for the ride are long-suffering Saffron (Julia Sawalhe), Mother Monsoon (June Whitfield) and the wonderfully ditzy Bubble (Jane Horrocks). The DVD package also includes “AbFab Does Sports Relief” and a behind-the-scenes featurette. And, yes, of course, Patsy lights her cigarette off the flame for the “AbFab” audience. – Gary Dretzka

TV to DVD:
Spartacus: Vengeance: Blu-ray
Terra Nova: The Complete Series: Blu-ray
The Vampire Diaries: The Complete Third Season
The Big Bang Theory: The Complete Fifth Season
Roseanne: The Complete Fifth/Sixth Season
Grounded for Life: The Complete Series
Kojak: Season 5
Among the many unexpected things that can happen to a popular TV series between seasons is the loss of a key character due to the actor’s contract disputes, bloated ego, incarceration or health problems. “Two and a Half Men” survived the departure of Charlie Sheen, who many people, including Charlie, believed was the sole reason viewers tuned into the show. Between the first and second season of Starz’ decidedly adult gladiator series, “Spartacus,” the actor playing the title character succumbed to non-Hodgkin lymphoma. To fill the gap between seasons, Starz ordered the six-episode prequel, “Spartacus: Gods of the Arena.” It told the story of Gannicus, the original champion of the House of Batiatus. Another Aussie hunk, Liam McIntyre, replaced the late Andy Whitfield in “Spartacus: Vengeance,” without creating too many ripples in the water. It picks up after the gladiator rebellion and subsequent bloodbath that capped Season One, “Blood and Sand.” The rebels present a growing threat to the empire, so Gaius Claudius Glaber and his Roman troops are sent to Capua to crush the growing band of freed slaves under Spartacus’ leadership. Glaber, of course, betrayed the Thracian warrior at the beginning of “B&S,” separating Spartacus from his wife and condemning him to death in the arena. Among the returning veterans are Lucy Lawless, Peter Mensah, Manu Bennett, Nick Tarabay and Viva Blanca. There’s also plenty more of the trademark sex and gore. Indeed, the special makeup effects used in the battle scenes could very well set the standard for nightmares to come. It’s the writing, though, that truly sets “Spartacus” apart from lesser mini-series. The Blu-ray package contains a bounty of making-of and behind-the-scenes featurettes, historical pieces, interviews, previews of the upcoming “Spartacus: War of the Damned,” commentaries on extended episodes and bloopers.

In its abbreviated run on Fox, “Terra Nova” failed to receive the same kind of support from sci-fi geeks that buoyed similar fantasies holding steady in the cable arena, where ratings are interpreted differently that they are by the networks. Any description of the show, even in capsule form, might provide a reasonable explanation of why “Terra Nova” might not have succeeded. One, it involves time travel from the unforeseeable future, 2149, to the fog of the distant past, when dinosaurs roamed the Earth. Remarkably, the Shannon family is able to survive certain destruction – along with the rest of humankind – by escaping to the prehistoric refuge, Terra Nova. Unfortunately, the situation there is similarly tenuous, even 85 million years removed from environmental wasteland that men wrought through their ignorance. Even in the distant past, rival forces aren’t satisfied with watching dinosaurs mate from afar, preferring instead to further their own selfish interests. Sounds yummy, huh? Fox took its time cancelling the series, though, hoping Netflix or a cable network would bite on a second season. Even the loyalty of vocal fans couldn’t stop the network from pulling the trigger on its demise. The DVD package includes all of the 13 episodes, including the two-hour pilot and conclusion; a gag reel; deleted scenes; behind-the-scenes and background material; a hour’s worth of extended and original scenes, plus commentary, on the finale; and a featurette on the show’s dinosaurs.

Meanwhile, over on the more modestly ambitious CW, the soap-opera characters on “The Vampire Diaries” still refuse to die. The new Blu-ray package should get newcomers up to date on what happened during Season Three on the sexy teen melodrama. Not being 17 years old, “Vampire Diaries” has proven far too complicated by romantic entanglements and interchangeable characters to maintain my short attention span. Clearly, the intricacies are far more interesting and logical to the show’s many loyal fans. In Season Three, when a family of vampire hunters awake from their millennial sleep, none of the residents of Mystic Falls – be they hybrid, ghost, witch, vampire or werewolf – will be safe. The Blu-ray adds fan-favorite scenes, unaired scenes, a gag reel, a discussion on the show’s take on the supernatural and a detailed producer’s diary.

When politicians bemoan the status of American students in the sciences and math, it’s probably because they’ve never watched “The Big Bang Theory.” With minds like these at our disposal, we need not worry about the national grade-point average. If nerd physicists can avoid flunking out of Caltech, while also playing video games, reading comic books, collecting “Star Trek” gear and making out with a normally untouchable blond waitress, imagine what they could do if they did their homework. There isn’t much about “TBBT” that viewers don’t already know, but that shouldn’t stop anyone from reliving the highlights of Season Five. They include visits from Dr. Stephen Hawking and “Star Trek” actors Wil Wheaton and Brent Spiner. Meanwhile, Howard is forced to balance NASA’s needs with those of bride-to-be Bernadette. The DVD includes all 24 episodes, a featurette on the show’s 100th episode, interviews and a gag reel. It’s interesting to note how many “Roseanne” alumni have appeared on “TBBT.” Fans of both shows can find Johnny Galecki, Sara Gilbert and Laurie Metcalf in the Mill Creek collection of episodes from the fifth and sixth seasons. The show’s creator, Chuck Lorre, wrote a dozen episodes of “Roseanne” in 1990 and 1991.

Also from Mill Creek comes all 91 episodes of “Grounded for Life,” which starred Donal Logue, Megyn Price, Kevin Corrigan and Richard Riehle. The show is based on the premise that teenagers shouldn’t become parents, unless they’re ready to give up their hard-partying ways. “Grounded for Life” has the rare distinction of being picked up by the WB after being cancelled by Fox, then being adapted for British television under a different title.

By the time “Kojak” reached its fifth and final season, the show had run out of steam in the ratings race. Blessedly, it will live forever on DVD, a format far more favorable than reruns. Joining Telly Savalas here are such guest stars as Armande Assante, Andrea Marcovicci, Stephen McHattie, David Ladd, Tige Andrews, Danny Thomas, Charles Cioffi, Paula Kelly, Lew Wallace, William Windom, Jennifer Warren, Sam Jaffe, Diane Baker, Liberace, Ken Kercheval, Meeno Peluce, Michael Lerner, Lincoln Kilpatrick, Gail Landry and did I mention, Liberace? – Gary Dretzka

PBS: Mariachi High
PBS: John Leguizamo: Tales From a Ghetto Klown
PBS: Orangutan Diaries
Outside of Mexico, the American Southwest and Mexican-American communities elsewhere, mariachi is treated more like a cliché or novelty than a living, breathing musical idiom, as much a part of life here as it is in Mexico City’s Plaza Garibaldi. Don’t take my word for it, though. Watch the PBS documentary “Mariachi High” and study the faces of the Texas teens learning, practicing and performing wonderfully meaningful songs you can’t hear at the local Mexican restaurant. Their joy makes the kids on “Glee” look like grinches. It’s the same rush of excitement, pride and accomplishment that paints the cheeks of champion athletes and winners of the Publisher’s Clearing House drawings. What distinguishes the kids who comprise Mariachi Halcon of Zapata High School in the small border town of Zapata is that their success isn’t expected, widely celebrated or determined by the luck of the draw. If it weren’t for the mariachi program, most of the students we meet here would have remained in the high-risk category and struggled for respect and opportunity. “Mariachi High” follows the ensemble from auditions, through statewide competition and on to graduation day. At a time when meathead politicians willingly build walls along our southern border, these young Americans – and possibly a few immigrants who snuck in years earlier – chose to embrace their heritage and interpret it with a Texas accent. The DVD includes follow-up material on the musicians.

The first half of “John Leguizamo: Tales From a Ghetto Klown” feels very much like a conventional making-of featurette for an in-concert performance film. We follow the gestation of Leguizamo’s fifth one-man show from its Chicago tryout, which was greeted by a record-breaking snowstorm, to its star-studded opening on Broadway, which was greeted with disappointing reviews. For 30 minutes, I waited for the talking to end and “Ghetto Klown” to begin. Instead, and here’s the good part, we’re allowed to eavesdrop on Leguizamo as he prepares to take the show to his native Colombia. This requires the 48-year-old comic actor to re-learn Spanish, so that he can present the show in the language of the people paying good money to see it. He prepares for it as if he were a boxer getting ready for the fight of his life. The bonus package adds interviews and several bits recorded in Chicago, some of which I’d swear I’d heard before in other Leguizamo productions. But, that’s OK, because he’s hasn’t lost much in his hyperactive delivery.

Originally produced for the BBC, “Orangutan Diaries” is a five-part documentary describing the Borneo Orangutan Survival Foundation’s heroic efforts to prevent the apes’ extinction. Hosts Michaela_Strachan and Steve Leonard tag along with animal rescuers hoping to return graduates of the “forest school” rehabilitation program to the bush. In what has become a far too familiar story, corporate interests – here, in the form of palm-oil and rubber plantations — have greatly depleted the orangutans’ natural jungle habitats. At any one time, some 600 displaced orangutans reside at the foundation’s headquarters, where they are given a new lease on life. Once healthy in mind and body, the strongest orphans are moved to a protected reserve in the interior of Borneo. The new PBS set contains the first and second series, which aired in England in 2007 and 2009. Although the accent here is on survival of the species, anyone who enjoyed what they saw in Disney’s “Chimpanzee” will find something just as fascinating in the longer “Orangutan Diaries.” In several ways, the apes here resemble their human cousins even more than chimps. This is especially true when they’re ill and their hair gets patchy. Don’t be surprised if you find yourself reaching for your wallet after watching the series and “adopting” an orangutan at the foundation’s website. – Gary Dretzka

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s: The Lost World: Double Feature
Sherlock Holmes: 2 Complete Mini-Series
While best known for introducing Sherlock Holmes, Doctor Watson and Moriarty to readers, Arthur Conan Doyle also contributed one other unforgettable character, the irascible Professor George Edward Challenger, to the literary world. Described as a “caveman in a lounge suit,” the scientist and adventurer was known for his ill temper and sometimes bizarre theories. In “The Lost World,” Challenger leads an expedition to a South American plateau so remote that dinosaurs still can be found there. Naturally, his findings are greeted with skepticism by London’s scientific elite. “The Lost World” has been adapted many times since Wallace Beery first portrayed Challenger in 1925. In “The Lost World: Double Feature,” he is played by John Rhys-Davies, who very much looks the part. In it and “Return to the Lost World,” the location of the plateau has shifted to Africa and oil prospectors are threatening its dinosaur population. Challenger feels obligated to go to Africa to fulfill his promise to a local tribal chief, but first must get over himself and settle a nasty feud with a rival. David Warner plays Professor Summerlee and Eric McCormack is a Canadian reporter looking for a juicy assignment. I don’t know how much theatrical exposure, if any, these films received here upon their release in 1992. Michael Crichton’s novel, “Jurassic Park,” had already been published and Steven Spielberg’s adaptation of it was already in production. Conan Doyle wasn’t given credit for inspiring that blockbuster, even though Crichton referenced him in his book.

How does one fairly distinguish one adaptation of Holmes material from the more than 250 others that have preceded or succeeded it since 1900? Typically, we’ve categorized them according to the actors who’ve played the legendary private investigator, from Eille Norwood and Basil Rathbone to Peter Cushing, Jeremy Brett and Robert Downey Jr. And they keep right on coming. Jonny Lee Miller plays a contemporary New York sleuth on CBS’ “Elementary,” alongside Lucy Liu. Presumably, it was inspired by the success of the Brit mini-series “Sherlock,” with Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman. In the mini-series “Double Feature” from Mill Creek Entertainment, the venerable Christopher Lee plays Holmes and Patrick Macnee is Watson. More interesting is the casting of Morgan Fairchild as the formidable Irene Francis Adler and Engelbert Humperdinck as Eberhardt Bohm in “Sherlock Holmes and the Leading Lady.” In “Incident at Victoria Falls,” Lee and Macnee are joined by Jenny Seagrave as Lilly Langtry and Claude Akins as Teddy Roosevelt. Holmes completists, more than casual readers, will want to check it out. – Gary Dretzka

The DVD Wrapup: Quick, My Sucky Teen Romance, High School, Touchback … More

Wednesday, September 5th, 2012

My Sucky Teen Romance: Blu-ray
There are no larger targets for parody than the conventions that attract obsessive fans of sci-fi, horror and comic-books. Trekkies were the first to find comfort the numbers of like-minded people drawn to such events, but other fanatic fans soon followed suit. Planners of the first official “Star Trek” convention, in 1972, expected about 500 fanatics to find their way to New York’s Hotel Pennsylvania. Instead, more than 3,000 Trekkies showed up to hear Gene Roddenberry and Isaac Asimov and survey two tons of NASA artifacts. After that, of course, came “le deluge.” As juicy a target as Trekkies and other cultists have become, however, the parodies have been relatively gentle and supportive. I’m guessing this has something to do with the fact that so many filmmakers easily qualified as geeks in high school and college and have been laughing all the way to the bank since then.

The career of 19-year-old genre wunderkind Emily Hagins provides ample evidence to support just such a theory. By the time Emily was 11, she already had produced several horror shorts and written a script for her feature debut, “Pathogen.” Her third feature, “My Sucky Teen Romance,” is set during a local SpaceCON convention, where several of the attendees actually are teen vampires. Far less a parody of the convention scene than a smart and funny exploration of teen angst, “My Sucky Teen Romance” uses the media’s current fixation on vampires to dramatize one 17-year-old girl’s struggle with forbidden love. In fact, being a vampire is almost incidental to the Austin resident’s story about growing up geeky and digging it. Her many references to vampire tropes, trivia and genre history only make “MSTR” that much more appealing. It has some gory moments, but nothing that would frighten a 10-year-old.

Hagins seems dedicated to portraying teenagers, in all their awkwardness, as just that … kids. They don’t look at all like the twentysomethings who play teenagers in “Glee” and “Gossip Girl.” The closest touchstone movie to it is Terry Zwigoff’s “Ghost World,” to which “MSTR” compares favorably. The Blu-ray includes a nice making-up featurette, a deleted scene, bloopers and a short film, “Cupcake.” Hagins’ decision to cast professional Austin-ite and notorious fanboy Harry Knowles as a SpaceCON panelist only adds to the movie geek quotient. – Gary Dretzka

High School: Blu-ray
The guiding principle behind most stoner comedies – especially those destined for a straight-to-DVD launch — is to spend money on an actor or singer notorious for public consumption of dope and put the expository material in the script in the first 30 minutes. After that point, viewers probably will be too high to appreciate any of what passes for witty repartee and clever gags. Why waste good material when all it takes to get viewers laughing uproariously is a monkey with a bong or a talking squirrel? When in doubt, cast Snoop Dogg in a prominent role, add a shower scene or have the characters answer all questions with, “Blow me, dickwad.” We’re not talking about Shakespeare here, folks, even if fans of the genre often behave like groundlings. The artwork on the cover of “High School” makes it abundantly clear that lots of teenagers will spend the next 90 minutes putting the “high” in high school. Also prominent are the names of Oscar-winning actor Adrien Brody, Emmy-winning actor Michael Chiklis, rising star Colin Hanks and some young actors I heard are pretty good. How bad could it be? I still don’t know, because I wasn’t wasted.

The entry-point gag in “High School” involves likely class valedictorian Henry Burke (Matt Bush), who chooses the wrong day to acquaint himself with chronic. Tomorrow, he learns, the school’s principal (Chiklis) has scheduled mandatory drug tests for all students. If he flunks the test, Henry could be demoted to class shmuck and lose his ride to MIT. Instead of calling in a bomb scare as kids in his parents’ generation might have done, Henry and an oft-stoned buddy, Breaux (Sean Marquette), elect to steal enough high-powered dope from a local dealer (Brody) to dose the whole school. The surest delivery system, they reckon, would be the hundreds of delicious brownies they’ll donate to the school bake sale. If everyone’s drug test comes up positive, it’s likely that all of the results will be thrown out and by the time new ones can scheduled, his urine will be free of drugs. Genius, right?

In fact, the flakey plan works like a charm, stoning everyone from the cheerleading squad to the vice principal. The stuff the boys stole is so potent that it’s practically psychedelic. And, here’s where the 30-minute rule kicks in. The students and teachers get so high, they’re practically catatonic. It takes an inordinate amount of time for them to come up with the non sequiturs, ass-backward logic and goofy revelations that distinguish conversations between people who are completely whacked out on drugs. Much of it I found to be quite funny, if not easily translatable for the consumption of straight audiences. It was almost as if the filmmakers threw away the script, got everyone stoned and told the actors to improvise from experience. Brody’s confrontation with the principal is funny, if only because his drug dealer is in full rasta regalia and Chiklis resembles Chris Farley after one of his more strenuous “SNL” sketches. Anyone who sees the award-winning actors’ names on the box and anticipates another “The Pianist” or “The Shield” would be well-advised to consider another title. The Blu-ray adds a few deleted scenes. – Gary Dretzka

Quick: Blu-ray
Although the nearly always hysterical characters in the Korean motorcycle thriller, “Quick,” make Jerry Lewis seem withdrawn, they can be forgiven because someone has planted a bomb in their helmet and is threatening to blow them up. I’ll go out on a limb here and suggest that the producers intended for “Quick” to be the Asian response to “Speed,” the 1994 runaway-bus thriller starring Keanu Reeves and Sandra Bullock. The unseen force controlling the action here is working with more firepower than the monster in “Speed” and the humor is significantly broader, but the idea is the same. The chase begins when motorbike messenger is assigned to do something for a cute singer in a poppy girl group. When she makes the mistake of trying his helmet on for size, a countdown mechanism is automatically triggered and the time left for detonation becomes visible in the wind shield. Removing the helmet would instantaneously trigger the bomb and the anonymous caller also warns against the pair separating by more than 10 feet. In fact, it’s only one of several such devices that pepper the messenger’s route. The setup is pretty simple, but director Cho Beom-gu loves to see things blow up real good, especially in crowded urban streets, shopping malls and trains. I can’t imagine American action junkies not enjoying “Quick,” especially since the subtitles are practically superfluous. There’s plenty of making-of and special-effects information included in the supplementary material. – Gary Dretzka

White Vengeance: Blu-ray
In such epic historical entertainments from China as “White Vengeance,” it would be next to impossible for most western viewers to separate the facts from the invention. We still debate what happened at the OK Corral and Little Big Horn. Action specialist Daniel Lee’s military and political drama, “White Vengeance,” is set at the fall of the Qin Dynasty, which only was in power from 221 to 207 BC. Though the emperor’s reign was short, the changes and reforms he implanted would impact Chinese life for many years. A cursory perusal of the Internet tells me that “White Vengeance” is close enough to accurate for us not to sweat the details and such elaborately staged events as the sword dance at the Hongmen Banquet actually did occur. Still, most of what westerners know about Chinese history – from books, lore and movies – could be cut from whole cloth and we’d want it to be true, at least. We know that Sun Tzu’s “The Art of War” was compiled during the same period, so it makes sense that the great warriors we meet in “White Vengeance” would engage in long discussions about strategy and philosophy, instead of rushing into war for the sake of creating exciting cinema. In fact, the greatest glory is reserved for those leaders who convince their enemy to surrender without a fight. Some disputes are settled over the board game, weiqi (a.k.a., Go), as well.

Lee forgoes much of the usual expository narrative we get in such epics, so it would pay to bone up on the period before jumping into “White Vengeance” with both feet. Basically, though, the story is about a time of great change in China, when sworn brothers in arms, Liu Bang and Xiang Yu, are pitted against each other in pursuit of the title of Lord Qin and leadership of the emerging Han Dynasty. The fighting scenes are as exciting as they usually are in such movies, while the costume and set design work also are splendid. The Blu-ray extras add a long behind-the-scenes featurette and interviews with cast and crew. – Gary Dretzka

Jersey Shore Shark Attack: Blu-ray
Jersey Shore: Season Five: Uncensored
Piranha 3DD: Blu-ray
The English poet who first observed that “all things come to those who wait” couldn’t possibly have imagined it would someday apply to a niche cable-television network specializing in science fiction and horror. That phrase came immediately to mind when watching the surprisingly funny Syfy original movie, “Jersey Shore Shark Attack.” Normally, the only funny things about these cut-rate rip-offs of Roger Corman’s greatest hits are the titles and mutated monsters. “JSSA” not only is a surprisingly accurate parody of MTV’s “Jersey Shore” — a long-running reality show that’s become a parody of itself — but it also does justice to “Jaws” and 25 years of Shark Week programming on Discovery. The significant differences between the setup here and the plot of “Jaws” is in its blue-collar Jersey setting and the reason behind the attacks by albino bull sharks, which is right out of the Corman playbook.

Greedy developers are turning the ocean-side city and amusement park into a ritzy resort for seasonal traffic and the vibrations from the heavy equipment have awoken the creatures from an almost century-long dormancy. After exhausting all other alternatives, the police chief agrees to let the faux Guidos and Guidettes make an attempt to save the July 4 holiday for local businesses. The actors appear to be so familiar with the characters they’re lampooning that they could do it in their sleep. The cast of mostly fresh-faced young actors is supplemented by such familiar old-timers as Paul Sorvino, William Atherton, Jack Scalia, Tony “Paulie Walnuts” Sirico and Joey Fatone, who has the singular honor of being snatched from the stage by a giant leaping shark. Syfy regulars know that monster antagonists often perform such impressive acrobatic feats. “JSSA” may not be in the same league as such world-class parodies as “Airplane!” and “Blazing Saddles,” but it’s the closest Syfy has come to a crowd-pleasing original movie. The Blu-ray edition comes with a making-of featurette.

What is it about the word, “uncensored,” that is so difficult for the folks at MTV to grasp? Even though the censors have given a pass to the vulgar language in “Jersey Shore: Season Five: Uncensored,” it only takes five minutes to spot the first digitized blur of an up-skirt shot at a disco. It may seem like a small thing to less-perverted fans, but those of us who care about the English language find it difficult to get past such miscarriages of grammatical justice. Otherwise, it’s mostly the same old stuff that’s made the show such a strange pop phenomenon. It takes the stars about three minutes to get past their jet lag from the trip home from Italy to head for their favorite barbers, tanning facilities and exfoliators to get back in shape for whatever it is they do. That is, besides eating with their fingers and sleeping in their clothes. And, that’s just the guys. MTV has just announced that the current season will be the last for “Jersey Shore.” In six months, the void probably will be filled with a show starring Snooki’s newly born son, Lorenzo. The bonus features add episodes of “After Hour,” confessionals, deleted scenes, interviews and the reunion special.

If you’re planning on making a parody of an exploitation picture that didn’t take itself all that seriously to begin with, it would be wise to hand the reins over to someone who knows the difference between funny and stupid. I know that we’re discussing a straight-to-DVD product here, but any picture in which David Hasselhoff is given the best lines and asked to carry the final half-hour by playing himself is one that is asking for trouble. At one point in “Piranha 3DD,” a boy approaches the lifeguard stand, where Hasselhoff grills him about “Knight Rider,” “Baywatch” and other of his credits. The tyke admits to not having a clue as to who he is or what he’s done. I think that’s movie’s biggest problem, right there. No one outside of L.A., Las Vegas and certain quarters of Germany give a good crap about the Hoff. The same goes for Gary Busey’s cameo in the opening sequence.

In “3DD,” the prehistoric piranhas make their way from one part of Lake Victoria to the other, where the owner of a water park has decided to divide it in half, one only for adults. The 3D boobies are interesting to watch for a while, but they’re too quickly overshadowed by the orifice-seeking fish. When this happens, the line between parody and splatter completely disappears. Ving Rhames is wheeled in for a few quick laughs, before director John Gulager (“Feast”) hands the baton off to the Hoff. It’s possible that the Blu-ray 3D effects helped make “3DD” a more entertaining movie, but, not having a compatible set, I couldn’t vouch for that. The Blu-ray bonus material includes a few things fans of the franchise might enjoy, but they’re mostly dumb and self-serving. An unrelated short featuring John McEnroe is the best thing in the three-disc package. – Gary Dretzka

Mother’s Day: Blu-ray
Sometimes it is fun to go back and read the reviews of movies that stirred controversy and outrage movies when they were released. When “Mother’s Day” slithered into theaters, 32 years ago, Roger Ebert demonstrated his disgust with mindless splatter and slasher films by refusing to give it a single whole or half star. While he certainly wasn’t alone in his opinion, it wasn’t universally shared, either. In one of the new Blu-ray’s bonus features, no less a force in the horror genre than Eli Roth practically credits “Mother’s Day” with the genesis of his entire career, which includes such pivotal titles as “Hostel” and “Cabin Fever.” Splatter flicks haven’t gone away and neither have critics willing to denounce them. The difference between then and now is the emergence of niche websites and blogs dedicated to such genre fare. Their criteria are far different than those of mainstream critics, whose opinions are read by a cross-section of readers. One writer’s atrocity is another one’s slice of cherry pie. “Mother’s Day” remains a tough film to watch, especially to those of us who don’t see much to enjoy in simulated scenes of rape and dismemberment. It’s also easy to see how Charles Kaufman and Warren Leight’s movie might have influenced the next generation of genre specialists, including those responsible for Troma’s less-demented remake starring Rebecca De Mornay. The original only set its producers back to the tune of $150,000, while the remake cost $11 million. The premise to both movies is that several hideous crimes are committed by criminally insane young men to impress their mother, who is a dyed-in-the-wool sadist. In the 1980 version, everything is done with an eye toward being as offensive as possible, while also telling something of a story. In it, three longtime friends hope to revisit the good old days by spending a weekend communing with nature in the woods. Even before they’re able to take off their clothes to go skinny-dipping, the mamma’s boys cut off the head of their male companion. Things get worse, of course, before the women figure out a way to fight back. Inadvertently, perhaps, Kaufman and Leight were creating a template that would shape Troma products for years to come. For my taste, or lack thereof, the best thing about “Mother’s Day” is the performance of Broadway, radio and early-television veteran Beatrice Pons, who’s best-remembered for her recurring roles on “The Phil Silvers Show” and “Car 54, Where Are You?” She lent “Mother’s Day” an air of dignity – well disguised as it may have been – it didn’t deserve and viewers probably didn’t notice. – Gary Dretzka

Harry Potter Wizard’s Collection: Blu-ray
Friday, fans of the “Harry Potter” franchise will have their loyalty put to the ultimate test, along with the limits of their bank accounts, with the release of “Harry Potter Wizard’s Collection.” The 31-disc limited-edition package arrives with an MSRP of $499. (Heavily discounted collections are already available.) In addition to Blu-ray, DVD and UltraViolet Digital Copy editions of all eight films – Blu-ray 3D editions of both “Deathly Hallows” installments and extended versions of “Sorcerer’s Stone” and “Chamber of Secrets” — the collector’s set adds more than 37 hours of special features. They include all previously released materials and more than 10 hours of new-to-disc bonus content, as well as five hours of never-before-seen material.

No need to rehash what made the movies so wonderful. Anyone willing to shell out the dough for the “Wizard’s Collection” already has them memorized. So, what about the new stuff and other bonus material? The 48-page “Harry Potter Catalogue of Artefacts,” by former HP graphic designers Eduardo Lima, Miraphora Mina and Lauren Wakefield reminds us of the many props designed in “shadow boxes”; nearly four hours long, “The Harry Potters You Never Met” demonstrates how stunts from the films were performed and reveals the “tricks” that contributed to the creation of the major set pieces; and, also from MinaLima Design, a 32-page book “Label Collection,” filled with images of imaginatively designed labels from prop potions, memory vials, Honeydukes and Wheasley’s Wheezes. The “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1” bonus disc adds the all-new “Creating the World of Harry Potter, Part 7: Story,” whole “HPATDH: 2” contains “Creating the World of Harry Potter, Part. 8: Growing Up” and the extended “A Conversation with JK Rowling and Daniel Radcliffe.” – Gary Dretzka

8:46: Never Forget
As we approach the 11th anniversary of the terrorist attacks on 9/11, at least one new film is being released to remind us of the human side of tragedy, not that it’s began forgotten by anyone. It does this by introducing us to victims and survivors in the hours before the planes hit the WTC and, again, in the minutes before the towers collapsed. “8:46: Never Forget” doesn’t relate any stories we haven’t already heard – indeed, the characters are fictional – so it’s important to remember that it was produced to benefit the actual families of people who died that day. Writer/director/actor Jennifer Gargano’s heart clearly is in the right place. Because she focuses so tightly on the average, everyday people impacted by the terrorist attack, she forgoes stories of heroism. The idea here is to push the not-at-all-subliminal message, “We Will Never Forget” … as if we possibly could. Proceeds from “8:46” will be directed to the non-profit organization, Tuesday’s Children. – Gary Dretzka

David E. Talbert Presents: Suddenly Single
One of the things I like about the movies written, directed and produced by David E. Talbert is that he takes the time to welcome his audience to his movies and give them backstage tours when they’re over, sometimes with his wife and collaborator, Lyn. Even if the none-to-subtle melodramas aren’t brewed to be my cup of tea, I admire his generosity. Shot before a live audience, “Suddenly Single” is another fable involving black families in crisis and marriages torn apart by conditions beyond the wife’s control. Even if Talbert’s productions tackle adult themes with humor and compassion, he respects the fact that his fans are both traditionally religious and smart enough to see how things happen in the real world. Here, we meet Samantha Stone (Garcelle Beauvais) as she prepares to move to her dream home with her husband, Sylvester (Isaiah Washington), the man she’s loved since high school. Just as Samantha’s about to tape up the last box, however, Sylvester announces that he’s fallen in love with another woman, Brittany (code for “white woman”), and he’s leaving her high and dry … well, almost. It’s clear that the audience approves of the way the cad gets his comeuppance. And, yes, it involves a totally buff black man – their son’s basketball coach – to whom Samantha is introduced to when her husband splits. Even though the humor and pathos are as broad as a barn, “Suddenly Single” is the most entertaining Talbert release I’ve seen. – Gary Dretzka

Ballplayer: Pelotero
Baseball’s Greatest Games: San Francisco Giants’ First Perfect Game
Anyone who was impressed by the 2008 sports drama “Sugar” should make a beeline to the local video emporium to find the similarly themed documentary, “Ballplayer: Pelotero.” Both take us to the same baseball schools that serve as feeders for Major League teams hoping to sign prospects from the Dominican Republic. In “Sugar,” after the signees were shown stumbling over some rudimentary English phrases, we followed the fictional Miguel Sanchez to Iowa, where things get crazy. In “Ballplayer,” the camera stays in the Dominican, following two prospects whose ages are in dispute by MLB officials … a.k.a., the plantation owners. The ordeal these teenagers endure would never have been permitted if the kids grew up in the U.S. and attended schools here. Sadly, potential stars in the Dominican attend baseball schools as they approach 16, knowing they can provide the only escape route from poverty. Someday, maybe sooner than later, you may hear the names, Jean Carlos Batista and Miguel Angel Sano, on baseball broadcasts or called out as they step up to the plate … maybe not. If they do make “the show,” “Ballplayer” will serve as a reminder to a time when the MLB conspired with demonstrably corrupt team agents to impede their success and rob them of money. Directed by Ross Finkel, Trevor Martin and Jonathan Paley, the film opens on a deceptively positive high, then, unexpectedly, turns the corner on the depressing chicanery, before ending on the uptick. Comparisons to Kartemquin’s “Hoop Dreams” are inevitable and warranted.

Just as we’ve had the season of the juiced home run and the asterisk-home-run record, the season of stolen bases and various strike seasons, 2012 already has become the season of the perfect game. For those not keeping score at home, to achieve a perfecto a pitcher must shut down all of the opposition’s 27 batters, in order, and without the benefit of a double-play or picking off a runner who’s reached base on an error or walk. Until the beginning of the current season, pitching a no-no was as rare a feat as catching a foul ball with a full cup of beer. Already this year there have been three. On June 13, against the Houston Astros, Matt Cain became the first pitcher in the Giants’ storied history to throw a perfect game. His 14-strikeout gem matched that of the Dodger’s Sandy Koufax, on September 9, 1965. In addition to the game, the Major League Baseball presentation, “Baseball’s Greatest Games,” allows fans to watch the television broadcast and listen to the Giants Radio Network announcers. – Gary Dretzka

Touchback: Blu-ray
Despite the many sports clichés that inform Don Handfield’s football drama, “Touchback,” it never feels handcuffed by stereotypes or guided by the rules that govern such inspirational fare. Just when you think it’s going down one overly familiar road, it takes a detour. The destination is the same, but the path to get there is refreshingly different. “Touchback” opens by introducing us to a young farmer about to lose his soybean farm to the banks. People remember him most as the hard-nosed quarterback who led a team of farm boys to an unlikely championship against an Ohio prep powerhouse. After being injured in that game, Scott Murphy (Brian Presley) lost his opportunity to star at Ohio State and make a fortune as a pro. Just as he’s about to end it all, however, Scott is given a chance to go back in time and change his fortunes. To tell that story, Handfield has borrowed bits and pieces from such kindred movies as “It’s a Wonderful Life,” “Peggy Sue Gets Married,” “Back to the Future” and, in an obvious visual reference, “Field of Dreams.” Instead of strolling through the pearly gates, Scott is dumbfounded to find himself walking into his former high school the week before the championship game. Instead of being the macho prick his roughneck buddies recognize, Scott is a mature and chastened young gentleman. His girlfriend (Sarah Wright) is the prototypical blond cheerleader, whose odds of getting pregnant before Scott enters the NFL draft are prohibitively high. Instead of giving himself wholeheartedly to the cheerleader, he recognizes the band-geek girl (Melanie Lynskey) he would marry in real life and raise a family. She can’t believe her good luck and, thinking she’s being set up for a joke, resists his advances for as long as possible. Kurt Russell plays the team’s coach, who, contrary to stereotype, is not a fire-breathing fascist or someone who wants to ride the boy’s coattails to a job with OSU. No need to spoil the ending, except to say that it’s fresh, heart-warming and beautifully shot. Anyone who loves sports movies should give “Touchback” a shot. – Gary Dretzka

David Bowie: The Calm Before the Storm
In this “In Review” selection from Britain’s Sexy Intellectual catalog, David Bowie’s first steps toward superstardom are chronicled and evaluated by critics, musicians and producers who’ve witnessed his many career choices. “The Calm Before the Storm” opens with a look at his early, formative years as a rocker clearly influenced by folk, R&B and Music Hall, but with no real identity of his own. It winds up in 1971, after “Space Oddity,” “Man Who Sold the World” and “Hunky Dory” hit the charts. These albums elevated Bowie’s career from being an interesting newcomer to as influential and imitated a performer as there’s been in rock history. If it weren’t for Bowie and the risks he took – continuing into the Ziggy Stardust era and beyond — it’s entirely possible that Boy George, Madonna and Lady Gaga might not have had the courage to be as provocative and outrageous as they became. Conversely, if it weren’t for Liberace, Little Richard, Elvis and Mick Jagger, Bowie would have been required to cut himself out of whole cloth. Neither would androgyny win acceptance as a powerful fashion and lifestyle statement. Today, teenagers are still discovering the many Bowie incarnations and buying his CDs as if he were something very new and different. In fact, he’s been new and different for most of the last 45 years. The discussions and assessments in “Calm Before the Storm” are knowledgeable and not the least bit pompous or condescending. – Gary Dretzka

The Guest House
If there’s a point to this anemic lesbian drama, I’m not at all sure what it is. “The Guest House” isn’t steamy enough to qualify as erotica, but the chemistry between Ruth Reynolds and Madeline Merritt is the only thing keeps us interested for most of the movie’s 83 minutes. Reynolds plays an 18-year-old Goth gal who’s in the process of breaking up with her dickhead Goth boyfriend when she meets the recent college grad played by Merritt. She’s been hired by the younger woman’s father – also a dickhead – who “grounds” her for no apparent reason. This gives her plenty of time to make friends with Amy, who was invited to stay in the guest house so the old man can have easy access to her when he comes back from a business trip. Instead, all too conveniently, Rachel convinces Amy to sample Sapphic pleasures and they’re off to the races. When daddy comes home he finds them in bed and pitches a fit. Seemingly, the thought of having to share his mistress with his daughter — and vice versa – only works in hard-core porn. Her bliss abruptly disturbed, Amy is left wondering what hit her.

That’s pretty much it, except for some nice musical interludes from Rachel. There’s a tricky ending, but why spoil it? In “The Guest House,” everything happens far too quickly and for reasons that haven’t been valid since 1959. Nonetheless, if you’re a fan of the actors, you’ll appreciate the rather tame sex scenes, at least. – Gary Dretzka

Game of Life
After “Crash” stunned Hollywood movers and shakers by winning the Best Picture Oscar at the 2006 Academy Award ceremony – prompting comparisons to “Magnolia” and several of Robert Altman’s best movies – the floodgates opened to other ensemble dramas with interwoven storylines. Few of them received exposure outside the festival and straight-to-DVD marketplace – “American Gun” and “Powder Blue” come to mind – despite some interesting casting and nearly identical posters. In 2007, prolific B-movie writer/director/producer Joseph Merli contributed “Game of Life” (a.k.a., “Oranges”) to the glut and it’s only now being made available on DVD. Although it tugs the viewer’s heart in all of the right places and some of the acting is pretty good, “Game of Life” wants us to accept coincidences and relationships that wouldn’t be credible, even in Los Angeles. I believe this because, in the first five minutes, we’re told that a character played by Tom Arnold is married, if shakily to a lingerie designer played by Heather Locklear, in all her MILF glory. Give me a break. The other members of the racially and economically diverse cast are experiencing one crisis or another, and not all of them are going to survive their ordeals. This time, the common denominator is a soccer team comprised, in large part, of the sons of the primary characters. Needless to say, the kids have serious problems of their own with which to deal. Besides Arnold and Locklear, the cast includes Tom Sizemore, Jill Hennessy, Richard T. Jones, Beverly D’Angelo, Orson Bean, Marina Sirtis and Ruth Livier (“Revenge of the Bimbot Zombie Killers”). – Gary Dretzka

The Hand That Rocks the Cradle: Blu-ray
Hocus Pocus: Blu-ray
Cold Creek Manner: Blu-ray
The titles in this month’s package of new Blu-ray releases from the Disney library share one thing in common, at least. Their directors were selected from the top shelf of their profession. Five years before “L.A. Confidential” would become a cross-generational hit and be accorded huge critical success, Curtis Hanson directed the taut psychological thriller, “The Hand That Rocks the Cradle.” In it, Rebecca De Mornay plays a nanny who devotes herself to destroying the life and serenity of Clair, the woman (Annabella Sciorra) she blames for her husband’s suicide and the miscarriage of their child. The nanny does this by ingratiating herself with the husband and 5-year-old daughter, even going so far as to breast feed the baby, so he’s never hungry when Claire returns from work and is ready to feed him. By the time Claire figures out what’s been happening behind her back, everyone around her is convinced she’s going nuts.

Before directing the spooky Halloween-theme comedy, “Hocus Pocus,” in 1993, Kenny Ortega was primarily known for overseeing Cher’s Heart of Stone Tour and Michael Jackson’s Dangerous World Tour. (He also was a founding member of the Tubes.) Among the movies and television shows he choreographed were “Dirty Dancing,” “Newsies,” “Pretty in Pink” and “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.” He would go on to choreograph and direct the “High School Musical” trilogy, “The Cheetah Girls 2,” the XIX Winter Olympics’ Opening Ceremony and the Hannah Montana/Miley Cyrus tour. In “Hocus Pocus,” a Salem teenager named Max accidentally resurrects three sister witches whose spirits survived the witch trials. Three hundred years later, they pick up where they left off in the mischief department. Bette Midler, Sarah Jessica Parker and Kathy Najimy star as the Sanderson Sisters, alongside Omri Katz, Thora Birch and Vinessa Shaw.

Before directing “Cold Creek Manor,” Mike Figgis had garnered two Academy Award nominations for “Leaving Las Vegas” and a Palme d’Or for “The Browning Version.” His willingness to take huge risks thematically and structurally hasn’t always paid off at the box office, but he remains a formidable artist. The Touchstone Pictures thriller re-tells the familiar story of city folks who try to make the transition to country living, but don’t anticipate having to share their new digs with reminders of its past owners and their secrets. The stellar cast includes Dennis Quaid, Sharon Stone, Stephen Dorff, Juliette Lewis, 13-year-old Kristen Stewart and Christopher Plummer.

The scheduled release of the creature-feature “Arachnophobia,” directed by the prolific and much-honored producer Frank Marshall, has been pushed back to September 25. – Gary Dretzka

R.L. Stine’s The Haunting Hour: The Series: Volume One/Two
For the last 20 years or so, R.L. Stine’s name has been as synonymous with the children’s-horror and supernatural-thriller genres as Alfred Hitchcock and Stephen King were for fans of the horror and psycho-terror in their parents’ and grandparents’ generations. Although his profile isn’t nearly as recognizable as Hitchcock’s was and he doesn’t share his musings in Entertainment Weekly, like King, Stine’s literary brand is every bit as recognizable. Few writers sold more books in the 1990s in any genre. He created “Eureeka’s Castle” for the Nick Jr. cable channel and “Goosebumps” for Fox Kids, in addition to adding video gaming, amusement-park attractions and new and spinoff series to his repertoire. “R.L. Stine’s The Haunting Hour” is a Canadian/American co-production that airs here on the Hub network (formerly Discovery Kids.) The half-hour anthology series features performances by some of the brightest young actors working in TV and themes that demand they reflect a contemporary teenager’s point of view. The shows do raise goosebumps, while proving that today’s kid actors can scream with the best of the scream queens. Newly available on DVD are episodes from the first two seasons. A third is in production. – Gary Dretzka

TV-to-DVD Wrapup: Revenge, Homeland, 2 Girls, Walking Dead, Sons of Anarchy … More

Monday, September 3rd, 2012

Now that the flow of TV-to-DVD compilations has grown from a trickle to a flood, it’s time for those titles to escape ghetto-status in DVD Wrapup, if only occasionally, and find their own place in the MCN world. Normally, there aren’t enough to fill a standalone column, but, rather than wait for the shows to enter the syndication market, the networks hope to boost interest in returning series and keep newcomers and fans, alike, up to date. Collections of episodes from vintage series, including next week’s “Kojak: Season Five,” make wonderful gifts for those convinced that everything has gotten worse since they turned 30. There’s even a market for shows that were canceled before completing a full season. Most DVD and Blu-ray packages arrive with a generous list of bonus features not available on TV or a show’s Internet sites.

Revenge: The Complete First Season: Blu-ray
Once Upon a Time: The Complete First Season: Blu-ray
Homeland: The Complete First Season: Blu-ray
2 Broke Girls: The Complete First Season
When gorgeous Canadian blond Emily VanCamp joined the cast of the ABC’s psycho-soap, “Brothers & Sisters,” as the late William Walker’s secret love child – or, so it seemed at the time — it quickly became clear that she was a star in the making. If nothing else VanCamp gave the audience something pleasant to look at while the rest of Walkers yelled at each other and swapped gossip they had sworn not to repeat. Her good looks and independent bearing also work well in “Revenge,” a prime-time melodrama that’s set in Hamptons and populated with some of the most despicable characters on television. Her Emily Thorne arrives as an accommodating stranger in a strange land, but quickly evolves into a femme fatale dedicated to avenging the death of her father. In each episode, Emily constructs intricate plots to discredit and humiliate the people, all of whom summer in the Hamptons, responsible for framing her dad. The acts of revenge are often quite intricate and highly entertaining. The spoiled young adults, ruthless middle-age men and women (Madeleine Stowe, among them) all seemingly were put on Earth to host charity luncheons, commit adultery and stab each other in the back, so what’s the harm? On the flip side, the dialogue and much of the acting are laughable. By comparison, “Gossip Girl” and “Royal Pains” look like “Downton Abbey.” The complete-season package adds several crowd-pleasing extras, including backgrounders, making-of pieces, music videos, deleted scenes, a gag reel and a look at the fashion design.

The setting for ABC’s fantasy drama, “Once Upon a Time,” is a quaint Maine town both enchanted and cursed. As conceived by Edward Kitsis and Adam Horowitz (“Lost,” “Felicity”), Storybrooke is situated at the junction of present-day reality and a fairy-tale past. The people who live there are familiar storybook characters, cursed by the Evil Queen (Lana Parrilla) to live within the town’s boundaries in human form and absent any memory of their true identities. Because he was adopted after the curse was imposed, a boy named Henry is the only resident able to leave Storybrooke and co-exist in both realms. He uses the free pass to track down his birth mother, Emma (Jennifer), who, he believes to be the daughter of Snow White (Ginnifer Goodwin) and Prince Charming (Josh Dallas), and the only person capable of lifting the spell. First, though, Henry must convince Emma that this entire scenario isn’t constructed from baloney. It isn’t easy. The series’ creators employ sophisticated CGI effects and time warps to keep everyone guessing as to how the characters’ unique traits will serve the residents of Storybrooke. “Once Upon a Time” sounds far-fetched, but so did the premise of the beloved Broadway musical, “Brigadoon.” Fantasy fanatics are encouraged to hit the pause button as often as necessary to study the references, puns and homages buried in the stories and set designs. Considering who owns ABC, the writers probably had few concerns about borrowing liberally from the Disney library. The Blu-ray package offers several entertaining features, including commentaries; fairy-tale history lessons in Maximum Movie Mode; a tour of Storybrooke; interviews with cast members about their favorite stories; deleted scenes and bloopers; and making-of material. Season Two is scheduled to premiere September 30.

Showtime scored a direct hit with its taut post-9/11 drama, “Homeland,” about a U.S. Marine who was captured by Al Qaeda and may or may not have been brainwashed into becoming a “sleeper” terrorist. CIA officer Carrie Mathison (Claire Danes) certainly believes that Nicolas Brody (Damian Lewis) has changed teams during his incarceration and cautions against giving him too much latitude. Reports of Brody’s brutal treatment at the hands of his captors feel far too real to be contradicted and too juicy not to be exploited by image-conscious politicians and bureaucrats. Before long, it’s Mathison’s patriotism that’s put to the test. “Homeland” was nominated for Emmys in the Best Drama, Best Actors, Best Writing and Best Directing categories, as well as for four more in the Creative Arts section. The series was developed for American television by Howard Gordon and Alex Gansa, after the Israeli series “Hatufim” (“Prisoners of War”). The Blu-ray package contains commentaries, deleted scenes, a Season Two preview and behind-the-scenes featurette.

The heat surrounding the CBS sitcom, “2 Broke Girls,” was generated primarily by its association with comic Whitney Cummings, whose other 2011-12 sitcom, “Whitney,” struggled on NBC. Apart from fans of the raunchy Comedy Central roasts, Cummings was a mostly unknown quantity. Insiders appreciated her racy, often self-deprecating approach to standup comedy and willingness to mix it up with the guys. Very little of that spunkiness came through in “Whitney,” if only because viewers could see her character’s wisecracks coming from a mile away and she usually stood flat-footed while delivering the punches. “2 Broke Girls” had a much smoother flow and the lead characters were drawn as equals from opposite sides of the tracks. The odd-couple roommates were played by physical opposites Max (Kat Dennings) and Caroline (Beth Behrs), both of whom wait tables in a Brooklyn diner. Their goal is to save $250,000 and invest it in a cupcake shop. The restaurant’s multi-ethnic staff wasn’t created to promote diversity as much as it provides context for the racially charged barbs hurled liberally throughout the shows. If nothing else, they made an easy target for easily offended critics. – Gary Dretzka

The Walking Dead: The Complete Second Season: Blu-ray
Haven: The Complete Second Season
Sons of Anarchy: Season Four
Fringe: The Complete Fourth Season
Two and a Half Men: The Complete Ninth Season
Adapted from a comic-book series set against the background of a zombie apocalypse, “The Walking Dead” became the unlikeliest of hits two years ago for AMC, a cable network that took a big risk on “Mad Men” and saw it pay huge dividends. Although the big screen and DVD market had already become saturated with tales of the undead — ranging from good to awful – someone saw room on television for even more zombies, and it became an instant hit. Who knew, right? With that challenge overcome, the producers could focus on turning Season Two into something deeper than a survival thriller. Instead of letting the walkers steal the show this team around, it’s the humans who take charge of the drama. The Blu-ray adds commentary on several key episodes; a dozen short making-of featurettes covering all aspects of the production; a half-dozen Internet webisodes; and a half-hour’s worth of deleted scenes.

Everything’s a bit off-kilter in Haven, Maine. Even the FBI agent assigned to track down a prison escapee there decided to remain as a cop, if only out of curiosity about her own secret past. As the city’s name suggests, the residents aren’t particularly welcome in other American. That’s because they possess myriad supernatural qualities that would freak out and possibly endanger their neighbors. In Syfy’s “Haven,” such disturbances are almost taken for granted. The Season Two episodes followed a similar pattern to those in the inaugural go-round, with Audrey and Nathan (Lucas Bryan) solving bizarre crimes and investigating her own secrets. The series is based on a novel by Stephen King.

When two of the best and most devotedly followed shows on television are based on the premise that outlaw motorcycle gangsters and meth cookers are people, too, you know that something has changed fundamentally in the American psyche. Characters most people would be afraid to sit next to in bar now are welcomed into our houses every week on television. Of course, the same can be said about zombies. More than anything else, I suppose, “Sons of Anarchy” is a show about how one atypical family takes care of itself and its own. If the bikers too often put their loved ones in harm’s way, their struggle to pull them back to safety is that much more thrilling. Season Four opens with the release of gang members imprisoned for crimes committed in Season Three, which almost jumped the shark with a wild storyline involving the “True IRA” and screw-ups back home. The boys are challenged immediately by a new sheriff and U.S. attorney. News that a developer is intent on building an upscale subdivision in Charming also pisses off the Sons. On the plus side – for viewers, anyway – is the introduction of Danny Trejo in a storyline that reads as if it were written just for him. The DVD comes with commentaries, deleted scenes, a gag and an app that provides access to the gang’s clubhouse.

Fox’s “Fringe” combines elements of the police procedural with sci-fi fantasy, much in the same way as “Haven.” The difference is that FBI agents in “Fringe” must contend with criminals and investigations involving enemy universes, alternate timelines, shape-shifters and other bizarro stuff. In Season Four, the characters learn that human love may be as strong a force in the universes as anything else. Apparently, the upcoming season will be its last.

Despite the absence of Charlie Sheen, the ninth season of “Two and a Half Men” went on as planned. The show easily survived the loss and will live to see yet another season. Given Jake’s physical development, it could re-titled “Three Men and a Cranky Maid.” As billionaire slacker Walden Schmidt, Ashton Kutcher helped make the transition smoother than could have been expected, considering all the media hoopla. In Season Nine, Jake had a transition of his own to make and the passage was a tad rocky. One of the season’s highlights came when Walden decided to cut his hair and shave his beard. And, so it goes. BTW: now that FX has given Sheen’s “Anger Management” sitcom a 90-episode extension, you can cancel the tag day plans. – Gary Dretzka

Jim Gaffigan: Mr. Universe
I didn’t know that Jim Gaffigan spent his formative years in Indiana, but, now that I do, it’s easy to trace his straight-from-the-heartland approach to comedy and big personality. Even after all these years toiling on the standup plantation, he can still get away with material about fast-food restaurants, resisting the temptation to get in shape and being a lazy husband. In his new comedy special, “Mr. Universe,” Gaffigan still looks like the guy next-door, who’s on his way to or just returned from Home Depot. He opens the door to that world for us and we’re happy to join him, even for 77 minutes and absent bonus features. – Gary Dretzka

PBS: The Barnes Collection
PBS: Guilty Pleasures
PBS: e2: Intervention Architecture
PBS: The Musical Brain
PBS: Golf’s Grand Design
PBS: The First Ladies
PBS: American Experience: The Presidents
PBS: America & the Civil War
In 2009, Don Argott’s documentary, “The Art of the Steal,” exhaustively chronicled the intricate legal maneuvering that led to the transplantation of the Barnes Foundation art museum from Lower Merion, Pa., to a spanking-new facility a short stroll away from the Philadelphia Museum of Art. The movie made a very good case for the argument that chemist and art collector Albert C. Barnes would have never permitted the move, if, in fact, he hadn’t died in a car accident in 1951. Because his will stipulated that the museum and school should stay where they are, it appeared as if clout-heavy foundations and politicians had bullied administrators and judges into ignoring Barnes’ wishes. The other side of that coin revealed that the original site couldn’t be sustained financially and repairs to the buildings would have cost a fortune. The museum’s well-heeled neighbors were getting pissy about traffic and parking hassles, while the 12-mile relocation would allow more exposure to the magnificent collection, which was next to impossible for tourists to see. PBS’ 55-minute overview, “The Barnes Collection,” mostly skirts the legal maneuvering, showcasing, instead, the history of the collection, Barnes’ great prescience, construction of the new facility and the philosophy behind the interior design and placement of the artwork. While it’s sad whenever the wishes of an individual are overridden by commercial ambition, it’s wonderful to know that the Impressionist-heavy collection now is so readily accessible. “The Barnes Collection” should serve as a useful primer for art lovers who will be in the neighborhood and don’t mind doing a little homework. For them, I’d also recommend renting “The Art of the Steal,” if only to fully understand how the business and politics of art often detract from the beauty and sensitivity of what’s on exhibit.

Guilty Pleasures” takes an almost frivolous topic and turns it into a compelling examination of how we live today. The only thing most people know about romance novels is that their primary contribution to culture is the beatification of Fabio and other models who personify passionate love and hidden desire. Not at all condescending, the PBS documentary profiles five people whose lives have been changed by novels published by Harlequin and Mills & Boon. A prolific author describes the formulaic structure of the novels and how he meets the specific demands of his readers. A fastidious male model explains the physical requirements of the job, including proper grooming and acting as if you’ve got the world by the tail. A woman in Japan has been inspired by her favorite characters to master ballroom dancing; an Indian woman hopes that by dressing more like a siren she can lure her estranged husband back home; and an English woman travels fantasy worlds while her husband smokes cigarettes and watches the telly. The film argues persuasively that frivolity is only the eyes of the beholder.

For all of his achievements as an actor, Brad Pitt may finally be best known for his contributions toward the rebuilding of New Orleans’ Lower 9th Ward, which was devastated by Hurricane Katrina and ignored by politicians. His Make It Right Foundation commissioned several internationally prominent architects to design homes that were affordable, green, flood resistant, attractive and functional, while also maintaining a neighborhood feel. It’s no accident, then, that he was called upon to narrate “e2: Intervention Architecture,” which documents the efforts of the Aga Khan Development Network to encourage new thinking about how architecture can meet the needs of communities in the Muslim world, by awarding prestigious prizes and financial considerations. The criteria for nomination stipulate that “projects set new standards of excellence in architecture, planning practices, historic preservation and landscape architecture,” in societies with a significant Muslim presence. Inherent in those guidelines is an understanding of Islam’s traditional influence on architecture, which has been huge and not limited to mosques and castles. To put it crudely, when it comes to supporting reconstruction projects in the Islamic world – and promoting the religion’s positive core beliefs — the Aga Khan walks the walk and talks the talk, just as Pitt did in New Orleans. The projects spotlighted here include the Wadi Hanifa Wetlands, in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia; revitalisation of the Hypercentre of Tunis, Tunisia; Madinat Al-Zahra Museum, Cordoba, Spain; Ipekyol Textile Factory, Edirne, Turkey; and Bridge School, Xiashi, Fujian, China. Even people whose knowledge of architecture is limited to how the word is spelled will find something in “e2” worth pondering.

One of the guiding principles of music appreciation, at least for laymen, is not to overthink the joy it brings. If a song or rhythm makes you want to dance, snap your fingers or bang your head … do it. In the PBS documentary, “The Musical Brain,” however, scientists and musicians put their heads together to understand how the brain retains musical memories and, essentially, makes us feel better. Inspired by Dr. Daniel Levitin’s book, “This Is Your Brain on Music,” the show examines how infants benefit from listening to music, adults from allowing themselves to dance when the groove hits and Alzheimer’s patients from listening to songs that meant something special to them when they were young. In fact, researchers have determined that the last part of the brain to deteriorate is the one to appreciate music. Among the musicians interviewed are Sting, Wyclef Jean and Michael Buble.

Like music lovers, golfers don’t spend a lot of time analyzing a course’s architecture, composition and logic while also trying to get the little white ball in a hole. Television analysts often touch on a tournament course’s peculiar challenges and how they relate to an architect’s thinking. It’s rare that anyone will show us what a course looked like before breaking ground and at various stages of its construction, as well as the final layout as seen from above and at eye level. “Golf’s Grand Design” looks back at century’s worth of development in the U.S. and introduces us to the people responsible for the traditional designs and evolutionary changes made to improve the game.

As we approach the final stretch of another interminably long and increasingly dispiriting presidential campaign, “American Experience: The Presidents” reminds us of a time when mudslinging, obfuscation and dishonesty weren’t the only things we got from candidates. This isn’t to suggest that previous campaigns were fair and aboveboard, just that the White House represented something more important than being a source of jokes on late-night talk shows and a B&B for wealthy campaign contributors. The documentary profiles 11 20th Century presidents, with an eye toward demonstrating how they shaped the office and left their mark on the country. Likewise, “The First Ladies” puts a tight focus on the wives of five presidents from different eras: Dolley Madison, Eleanor Roosevelt; Lady Bird Johnson; Betty Ford and Nancy Reagan.

For those buffs who simply can’t get enough Civil War history, the latest compilation of PBS shows adds to the accumulated understanding of a war that continues to shape the national dialogue. “America & the Civil War” is comprised of Robert Child’s “Gettysburg: The Boys in Blue & Gray,” “American Experience: John Brown’s Holy War,” “Nova: Lincoln’s Secret Weapon,” “American Experience: The Massachusetts 54th Colored Infantry” and “American Experience: Reconstruction: The Second Civil War.” – Gary Dretzka

History: 10 Things You Don’t Know About: Season One
BBC: Planet Dinosaur
It’s too bad that the shows on History, Discovery and PBS don’t come with footnotes, on screen or at their Internet websites. In academia, footnotes are what separate fact from speculation and outright fantasy. On television, viewers are at the mercy of research assistants and producers, who, we assume, read the footnotes for us. History’s fascinating, if frequently hyperbolic “10 Things You Don’t Know About” assumes we have a basic knowledge of the well-known figures profiled in it. In the case of such well-known subjects as JFK, Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, J. Edgar Hoover, Adolf Hitler and the Rat Pack, the producers assume, as well, we’ve heard much of the gossip. Columbia PhD David Eisenbach assumes a casual approach while revealing the trivia behind the headlines and gossip and conducting dopey man-and-on-the-street interviews with people who, not surprisingly, are ignorant of such minutiae. Hint: cocaine and homosexuality figure prominently in several segments. Other historical figures probed are Albert Einstein, Benjamin Franklin / Abraham Lincoln, the Earps and Clantons, the Mormon hierarchy, Pablo Escobar, George Patton and Caligula, The DVD adds bonus footage.

It must be frustrating to be a publisher of textbooks on paleontology. Every time the discovery of a new bone or fossil has been announced lately, it introduces us to a previously unknown dinosaur that’s larger, stranger looking and more vicious than the previous title holder. I stopped keeping track after my son lost interest in pursuing a career in the science, when he was 6 or 7. Some people never waver in their love of dinosaurs and experience orgasms with the discovery of each new species. Narrated by John Hurt, last year’s six-part BBC series, “Planet Dinosaur,” makes extensive use of CGI technology and the latest research based on field work and laboratory science. Among the fresh reptilian faces introduced here are the gigantic Spinosaurus; marine creature, Predator X; and the cannibalistic Majunasaurus. The immersive experience combines 3D graphics and CGI to create photo-realistic fight scenes unlike previous efforts. – Gary Dretzka

Ninja Turtles: The Next Mutation: Volume One
The Amazing World of Gumball
Nickelodeon: Big Time Movie/Rags
Nickelodeon: SpongeBob Squarepants’ Ghouls Fools
It’s rare that a multiplatform media phenomenon is spawned by action figures, instead of the other way around. “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” accomplished this feat in the mid-1980s, when a one-off, tongue-in-cheek comic book by Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird attracted the attention of licensing agent Mark Freedman, who suggested also creating an action figure. The toy prompted interest from television executives, who experimented with an animated mini-series. It took a while, but when the toys started selling and the mini-series went into repeats, “TMNT” found a more permanent home with Group W and CBS. Before long, images of Leonardo, Raphael, Donatello and Michelangelo could be found everywhere. The cleverly named crimefighters — genetically mutated turtles that lived in the sewers of New York City – served at the behest of a mutant ninja rat, Master Splinter, whose nemesis, Shredder, controlled the evil Foot Clan.

After the animated series ran its course, “Ninja Turtles: The Next Mutation” was handed the baton carried by the live-action turtles in New Line Cinema’s theatrical franchise. It didn’t fare nearly as well as the previous iterations, despite the addition of female turtle, Venus De Milo. Another product of genetic experimentation, Venus was swept down the sewer system at the same time as the other turtles, but ended up in China. While there, she studied with a martial-arts discipline called Shinobi, which would come in handy when forced to deal with new villains Dragon Lord, Bonesteel and Vam Mi. The series lasted only one season and 26 episodes. “Volume Two” will arrive sometime early next year.

Hipsters of the pre-teen variety have found a lot to like in Cartoon Network’s “The Amazing World of Gumball,” a show that combines 2D, 3D, stop-motion, CGI, live-action and puppetry in a sometimes dizzying visual mash-up. Series creator Ben Bocquelet specialized in producing commercials in Britain before committing to “Gumball.” Apparently, he recycled rejected characters from his commercials and threw them together into a typically wacky – for Cartoon Network, anyway – domestic setting. Among them are trouble-making cat, Gumball Watterson; Darwin Watterson, a goldfish with legs; short-tempered sister, Anais; mother Nichole, a workaholic cat; and father Richard, a large stay-at-home rabbit. The DVD adds the featurette, “Meet the Wattersons.”

In Nickelodeon’s “Big Time Movie,” the BTR ensemble stumbles into trouble on their first world tour, when their bags are switched at the London airport. Instead of their instruments, they discover a possibly devastating weapon. It makes them a target for someone other than their teeny-bopper fans. The second half of the double-feature, “Rags,” offers a reverse-take on “Cinderella,” with Max Schneider and Keke Palmer. They are, of course, filled with music and action designed to remind us of the Beatles’ “A Hard Day’s Night.”

The arrival of the new compilation, “SpongeBob Squarepants’ Ghouls Fools,” officially marks the beginning of Halloween-hype season. Besides several boats’ worth of ghosts and other ghastly characters, the DVD takes fans on a treasure hunt and teaches them nautical knots. The episodes include the double-length “Ghoul Fools,” “The Curse of Bikini Bottom,” “Ghost Host,” “Born Again Krabs,” “Arrgh!,” “Your Shoe’s Untied” and “Money Talks.” – Gary Dretzka

A colonial dandy gets more than he bargained for in ‘Ambassador’

Friday, August 31st, 2012

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.

“It’s the ultimate dog-eat-dog world,” says Brugger, in New York for the debut of “The Ambassador,” his alternately disturbing and darkly humorous documentary. “Corruption defines all social interaction. It’s like chasing the white rabbit down the hole in ‘Alice in Wonderland’ … you don’t find it as much as it finds you.

“I didn’t encounter much honesty. Everyone was a crook … even me.”

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. They 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 – was too tempting to ignore. 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?

Located at the geographical center of the continent, the onetime French colony is just a tad smaller than Texas. Since gaining its independence in 1960, there have been several successful coups and a few that have failed. They are, perhaps, less expensive than holding elections.

Despite such abundant resources as timber, gold, diamonds, uranium and oil, the CAR is one of the least developed countries in the world and its citizens are among the poorest. If the country wasn’t largely self-sufficient in the production of food, its people probably would have starved to death 20 years ago and no one would have noticed.

Perversely, not long after gaining its independence, the CAR succeeded in leading the world in bad publicity, mostly resulting from the egomaniacal behavior of its onetime “president for life” Jean-Bedel Bokassa. Not satisfied with that title, the dictator would later declare himself emperor of the freshly re-named Central African Empire and spent $30 million of someone else’s money for the coronation ceremony. Before being deposed three years later, Bokassa is believed to have stashed away $125 million in Swiss banks.

The CAR was the first destination suggested to Brugger after he illegally obtained a Liberian diplomatic passport from a shady character in Portugal. Because the smaller, frequently embattled coastal nation didn’t have normal relations with the CAR, he was able to pretend that he – a very white northern European man poseur – was conducting business in its name. And, boy, did he take to the part.

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.” With his dark sunglasses, light-colored suits, riding boots, cigarette holder and elitist attitudes, it looked as if he was to the manner born.

“Journalistically, the look I was going for was ‘Borat meets the Economist,’” Brugger quips. “I was every black African’s fantasy of what every white businessman looked like. I learned that if I were a black, people there would be more suspicious of me.

“But, then, I had my own fantasies of black Africa. Ever since I was a teenager, I’ve entertained the notion of living with pygmies and practicing voodoo.”

Indeed, as a cover for his interest in the country’s lucrative blood-diamond trade, Brugger announced his plan to build a matcfactory in collaboration with members of the pygmy community. His government contact was so warmed by this that he assigned two pygmies to accompany the faux businessmen wherever he went. They weren’t, however, fluent in any of the languages Brugger spoke, so “communicating was difficult.”

Although, historically, pygmies have lived primarily in the bush and rain forest, “The Ambassador” takes us to a small village, only a short drive from the capital of Bangui. Brugger suspects that all dignitaries are exposed to the same dog-and-pony show, as it appears to demonstrate the nation’s concern for their welfare. Not surprisingly, the festivities involve lots of homemade hooch.

“Racism is the order of the day … black on black, white on black, black on the French and Chinese, tribe on tribe,” Brugger argues. “Part of who I am in the film would be out of character if I didn’t play along, at least.”

Institutional corruption is fueled not by racism or political beliefs, though. It takes “envelopes of happiness,” filled with millions of CFA francs, to grease the exchange of rough diamonds. This, of course, was on top of the $135,000 tab for the passport, a MBA from a Liberian college and driver’s license. The money was supplied by the Danish Film Institute, which, along with Lars Von Trier’s Zentropa production company, supported the documentary.

“It’s a highly inflated currency, so it’s not as impressive a figure as it sounds,” he points out. “Still, within the boundaries of the CAR, it was a lot of money. Because of the strict restrictions imposed on the trade of uncut blood diamonds, they’re not that valuable, either.”

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.

“She understood the finer details of what he was saying,” he adds. “The people we were dealing with are very misogynistic, so she was very brave. They display no higher thoughts on the role of women … who are simply considered to be of lesser importance.”

It was at this point in the proceedings that things began to unravel very quickly, and the chaos is reflected in the abruptness of the documentary’s ending. We wonder if Brugger suddenly had figured out what we already knew – that he was being played like a violin– and was pushing the envelope on the ruse.

Brugger decided to end the charade when he learned that the head of state security – a veteran of the French Foreign Legion – had been murdered. The self-assured, cigar-chomping white man had been one of the filmmaker’s primary resources and frequently is seen and heard in “The Ambassador.” It isn’t likely that the assassination had anything to do with Brugger, but it speaks volumes as to the instability of the political situation.

“If I could foresee that happening, I wouldn’t have proceeded,” he says.

The CAR may look small and insignificant on a map, but its natural resources are extremely valuable to countries in need of uranium and oil. The competition between the French and Chinese is especially ferocious. It seemed as if the Africans embraced Brugger simply because he wasn’t from those countries.

We assume that the fixers and government officials shared the money contained in the “envelopes of happiness” and now are cultivating some other suckers. Left unanswered, though, is the question of what happened to the small fortune in rough diamonds in the faux diplomat’s possession. Turns out, Brugger sold the diamonds in-country and donated the money to the pygmies.

Ironically, when he was passing through Customs on his way out of the country, the special police unit assigned to monitor such traffic welcomed him by name and waved him through the inspection point. Naturally, it briefly occurred to Brugger that the bribes paid off and he could have gotten away with murder. He had stipulated beforehand, though, that he wouldn’t profit from any of his character’s shenanigans.

Let’s hope that more juicy details of his adventure have been reserved for the DVD release, slated for late October.

Even though Brugger doesn’t mind the comparisons to Sascha Baron Cohen’s early work, especially the outrageous interviews with gullible politicians and celebrities in “Da Ali G Show,” he defers to a guerrilla journalist from an earlier era.

“Emily Hahn was an American journalist and author who traveled by herself in the 1930s, living with pygmies for two years, crossing central Africa by foot, alone, and partying with Shanghai’s elite before the war,” Brugger relates, forgetting to mention that Hahn often brought her pet gibbon along as her plus-one, wearing a diaper and tailored dinner jacket. “Most journalism today is conducted via telephone. Reporters never leave their desk.”

No matter how much heat he takes from journalism purists for his methodology, Brugger can’t be accused of staying too close to home or avoiding risks. If sometimes he feels as if a target has been painted on his back, it’s not because he’s paranoid.

Embarrassed by the revelation of how easy it was to get phony documents in its name, the government of Liberia threatened him with a lawsuit. Other individuals, whose incomes might have suffered from the revelations, could be inspired to skip the courtroom.

“The Liberian courts and prison service are not the best in the world,” Brugger told the Danish publication, Politiken. “We are speaking of a country in which the president’s son is chairman of the national oil company, despite the fact that he knows next to nothing about oil. They have previously promised that they have stopped the sale of diplomatic titles, so it’s embarrassing that my film shows that is not the case.”

The DVD Wrapup: Battleship, Lonesome, Monsieur Lazhar, Penumbra … More

Wednesday, August 29th, 2012

Battleship: Blu-ray
Those fans of the movie “Battleship” born after Nintendo and Sega were introduced to American consumers might find it difficult to believe that one of Hollywood’s most expensive movies was inspired by one of the least costly pastimes of all. Back in the day, all it took to play the Battleship guessing game was a pencil; illegally mimeographed sheets of papers replicating the grids on the Milton Bradley board; and a folded-over checker board to prevent cheating. Players used their pencil to indicate where various sized warships are located and guess the location of their opponent’s fleet, using a bingo-like alphanumeric system. It provided simple, time-consuming and free fun on a rainy day. Today, of course, the game is a staple of computer gaming and anything but free. Even without a certifiably marketable star at the helm of Universal’s “Battleship” – unless Liam Neeson now qualifies as one –the sci-fi military epic cost at least $209 million to make and probably another $50 million to market. Despite the fact that it brought in $303 million worldwide, it barely topped $65 million domestically. That didn’t cut it for exhibitors who were anticipating the summer’s first big popcorn movie. “Blockbuster” should do just fine in DVD and Blu-ray, but the damage done to Universal’s summer flagship might not be repairable. Considering that star-to-be Taylor Kitsch also headlined Disney’s “John Carter” — one of the biggest financial bombs of all time – the harm inflicted on the young man’s career may prove to be even worse.

Adding seemingly invincible alien warships to what essentially was a WWII-era activity doesn’t fundamentally alter the way the game is played: sunken vessels are exchanged until one of the competitors takes a strategic advantage and slaughters the opponent. In Hollywood, the good guys always win, but not without a struggle. Here, screenwriters Jon and Erich Hoeber were required to invent a fatal chink in the alien opponent’s armor – a lack of resistance to bacteria, sensitivity to light, cooties, whatever – that allowed director Peter Berg to pull our fat out of the fire in the final reel. Indeed, the most surprising and satisfying scene in “Battleship” comes precisely in the nick of time and by comparison to all of the CGI firepower, it’s practically analog. There’s also a mandatory romantic subplot that mostly serves to draw attention to Brooklyn Decker’s curves and the predictable showdown between a rebellious young officer (Kitsch) and the hard-nosed admiral (Neeson), who, conveniently, is Decker’s father. It works, if only fitfully. The closer you are to 15, the better “Battleship” will look.

There’s certainly nothing wrong with the Blu-ray presentation, which sparkles and bellows at all the right times and takes full advantage of CGI technology. (Is it a coincidence that the inner workings of the alien battleship so closely resemble the start-up screen on an Android phone?) The bonus package adds Berg’s picture-in-picture video commentary; a Second Screen interactive experience; a pre-visualized version of an alternate ending; a “VIP tour” of the USS Missouri memorial; a short piece on adapting the board game for the screen; several making-of featurettes; and My Scenes Bookmarking. I can’t help but wonder, though, which genius selected CCR’s angry antiwar anthem, “Fortunate Son,” to play over the final credits? The only way it could have been less appropriate is if co-star Rhianna had been asked to sing it, instead of using the original John Fogerty version. – Gary Dretzka

Lonesome: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
It’s been a long time since silent movies made as big a splash as they already have in 2012. First, “The Artist” surprised everyone by becoming a true crowd-pleaser, winning Academy Awards for Best Picture, Best Director and Best Actor. Then, two weeks ago, Dziga Vertov’s brilliantly inventive “Man With a Movie Camera,” from 1929, joined the list of movies honored by critics in Sight & Sound’s decennial poll of the top-10 films ever made. The critics have always favored silent classics, but this one came straight out of left field. Why stop there, though? Just as “Man With a Movie Camera” chronicled a typical day in the life of Muscovites, Walter Ruttmann’s 1927 “Berlin: Symphony of Great City” surveyed 24 hours of activity in the German capital between the wars. Both provide a captivating cinematic experience and are now readily available in DVD. Likewise, the Criterion Collection’s newly released Blu-ray edition of Paul Fejos’ 1928 “Lonesome” is full of fascinating images from New York City over the course of a single day of work in Manhattan and a night of play at Coney Island.

Mann Page and Edward T. Lowe Jr.’s story describes what it’s like for a young man and woman to feel alone in a metropolis overflowing with people just like them and bustling with all sorts of activity. That they live next-door to each other in a residence hotel, but have never met, has become one of the enduring ironies in romances set in Manhattan. Fejos’ fingerprints may not be the screenplay, but few filmmakers have captured the hustle-bustle of the city nearly as well as the Austrian-born filmmaker. From dawn to midnight, Fejos’ New York is a veritable beehive of activity and a cauldron for endless possibilities. That two characters so desperate for companionship would finally meet on a beach teeming with overheated people, on the 4th of July, borders on the miraculous. They go on to sample nearly every attraction Coney Island has to offer, dance up a storm and fall hopelessly in love. Fate steps in when an accident and human stampede separates them before they’re able to exchange last names and addresses. He attempts to rescue her, but a boneheaded NYPD officer intercedes. Another unexpected coincidence allows them to reunite as the picture nears the 69-minute mark. Curiously, the weakest parts of “Lonesome” come in the short segments that contain spoken dialogue, instead of explanatory panels. “The Jazz Singer” had been released only a few months earlier, so, as was observed in “The Artist,” studio executives were anxious to hop on the “talkie” bandwagon.

Also entertaining are two rarely seen films included in the Blu-ray package, “The Last Performance” (1927) and “Broadway” (1929). The former tells a Mamet-esque story about a famous entertainer, Erik the Great, who must resort to magic when an act of kindness toward a stranger threatens to deny him the love of his assistant and freedom. “Broadway” is a wonderfully melodramatic jazz-age gangster musical, partially staged on one of the most elaborate nightclub sets ever created. The music and dancing are a joy to watch, even when the story lags. The nearly lost movie has been cobbled together from pieces of found film and reconstructions of still-missing audio tracks. The history of the production numbers, as recalled by cinematographer Hal Mohr, also is fascinating. Fejos’ own life story borders on the epic. Not satisfied with mastering one demanding discipline, Fejos excelled as a theater and opera designer, medical researcher, explorer, anthropologist and documentary maker. The booklet, which contains essays by critic Phil Lopatae and historian Graham Petrie, as well as material from interviews with the artist, should be considered must-reading. – Gary Dretzka

The Lucky One: Blu-ray
Darling Companion: Blu-ray
I Heart Shakey
Even if the dog days of summer — as defined by the Farmer’s Almanac, anyway — no longer are with us, movies of interest to canine lovers continue to be released as if they’ve never ended.

Like Harlequin Romance novels and Lifetime Original movies, the films adapted from books written by Nicolas Sparks are constructed from a time-tested template. Achingly romantic, emotionally draining, archetypally cast and beautifully shot, such movies as “The Notebook,” “Dear John” and “The Lucky One” are shot with the greatest possible economy, usually in and around the Carolinas, and return a healthy profit for investors. The young-adult characters are almost freakishly attractive, while the older ones carry the wisdom of the ages in their back pockets and purses. The romantic interludes can be sexy, but only in a wholesome kind of way. Too often, the song selections tell us how to feel, even when no additional prompting is necessary. “The Lucky One” fits that mold with almost no room to spare for spontaneity. The only curve thrown at Sparks’ fans here, and it’s barely noticeable, is that the story’s location has been moved from North Carolina to Louisiana, probably to take advantage of a tax incentive.

Zac Efron plays a veteran of intense action in Iraq who credits the discovery of a photograph of a pretty blond for saving his life. He knows that it once belonged to an American soldier or Marine, but little beyond that. Once home, Logan manages to track down the likely whereabouts of the woman, who remains nameless. Curiously, he decides to hike from Colorado to Louisiana with his German shepherd. Once in the woman’s company, however, he freezes. Unable to articulate the reason for his crusade, Logan allows Beth (Taylor Schilling) to believe he’s simply answering a help-wanted ad for work at her kennel. If Beth is reluctant to hire a drifter, her mother (Blythe Danner) takes a shine to him and puts him on the payroll. Things would be fine, if it weren’t for the presence of Beth’s pinhead ex-husband, a cop whose neck is so red he treats the soft-spoken Logan as if he were a member of an Al Qaeda cell and attempts to provoke a fight with him. Jealous and afraid of losing the ability to control his son’s destiny – the boy plays the violin, instead of football, like his dad — the cop makes Beth and Logan’s life miserable. If the ending feels a bit too pat, it won’t bother Sparks’ many admirers. Director Scott Hick’s direction benefits mightily from Alar Kivilo’s splendid cinematography, which looks terrific on Blu-ray. The bonus package adds featurettes on the transformation of Efron from teen heartthrob to gung-ho Marine, capturing the sparks in Sparksian romances and “gauging the chemistry” between Efron and Schilling.

It would be easy to dismiss “Darling Companion” as just another movie in which the canine actor upstages the humans at every turn. Alas, the mixed-collie in Lawrence Kasdan’s first film in almost a decade isn’t on-screen long enough to do anything heroic or, even, particularly clever here. Freeway’s primary role here is to warm our hearts – as well as those of the key players – and take a powder for almost an hour while the adults work out their problems. His absence creates a void even such fine actors as Diana Keaton, Kevin Kline, Elisabeth Moss, Dianne Wiest, Richard Jenkins, Mark Duplass, Sam Shepard and Ayelet Zurer can’t fill. Co-written with Kasdan’s wife, Meg, “Darling Companion” not only fails to take full advantage of its all-star cast, but the Utah mountain setting too often looks like a photographic backdrop. If the name, Freeway, doesn’t sound as if it belongs on the collar of a dog, it’s explained by an incident that happens early in the film. One day, after bidding a tearful farewell to one of her daughters and her grandchild at the airport, Keaton’s character, Beth, spots a wounded dog along the side of the highway. Beth and her other daughter, Grace (Moss), take it to a handsome young veterinarian, who, when he isn’t patching Freeway up, makes googly eyes at Grace. At first, Beth’s husband, Joseph (Kline), demands that Beth find a new owner for Freeway, which, of course, doesn’t happen. She’s already lost one daughter to marriage and, in another year, Grace will marry the veterinarian in a ceremony to be held at a lovely mountain lodge, leaving her an empty-nester.

Devastated by Freeway’s disappearance, Beth chastises Joseph for ignoring her demand that he always carry a dog whistle with him on their walks. It doesn’t take a crystal ball to see that the Kasdans are about to use the loss of Freeway as a metaphor for the sorry state of Beth and Joseph’s marriage. Far less understandable is their decision to turn the next hour of the movie into a dull-as-dishwater search for the dog, with a half-dozen award-winning actors running through the mountains, fruitlessly shouting, “Freeway, Freeway” and blowing whistles. When they aren’t doing that, they’re falling down hillsides, battling kidney stones and blindly following the instructions of a Gypsy wedding planner (Zurer), whose tips are dubious, at best. It gets worse, but why spoil the disappointment? I would have preferred knowing, if only sporadically, what Freeway is doing while the family of the bride searches for him in vain. In an interview included in the bonus package, Kasdan said that he wanted to make a movie with cross-generational appeal, using actors recognizable to older and younger audiences, alike. Sadly, “Darling Companion” isn’t likely to leave anyone except dog obsessives and unconditional fans of the actors with any degree of satisfaction.

The Dove Family-Approved comedy, “I Heart Shakey,” addresses one of the most traumatic situations any family can face when relocating from one city to another. After single father J.T. decides to move from Toledo to Chicago, he makes the mistake of not reading the fine print in a rental agreement that prohibits tenants from owning pets. For his daughter, Chandler, and their mutt, Shakey, this blunder is tantamount to boarding a plane for a European vacation without first applying for a passport. Because their new home is a snooty Gold Coast hi-rise, the lease is iron-clad. What to do? What to do? Because dad (Steve Lemme) is kind of a middle-age doofus, Chandler (Rylie Behr) takes it upon herself to devise a plan that keeps the family intact, but doesn’t compromise J.T.’s job prospects. Old hands Steve Guttenberg and Beverly D’Angelo add a bit of sparkle to the proceedings, playing two of several oddball characters in the film. The easiest way to tell “I Heart Shakey” is fiction is the fact most renters would sign away the rights to their children before being separated from their cat or dog. No fine print would be small enough for a dog owner to miss the humans-only clause in a lease. Apart from that, “I Heart Shakey” should keep family audiences amused for most of its 90-minute length. Although originally released in 3D, it’s only available in DVD. — Gary Dretzka

The Heineken Kidnapping: Blu-ray
Considering that neither the Heineken brand nor Rutger Hauer is an unknown quantity in the English-speaking world, it’s odd that Maarten Treurniet’s genuinely exciting film depicting the 1983 abduction of the world’s wealthiest brewer couldn’t find any traction here. Certainly, all of the elements of a hit movie can be found somewhere in “The Heineken Kidnapping.” In exchange for Alfred Heineken’s safety a huge amount of ransom money was paid – some of which is still missing – to a gang of amateur kidnapers. What the perpetrators lacked in experience, though, they made up for with chutzpah and beginners’ luck. Although it isn’t clear if they would hold up their end of the bargain, Heineken and his chauffeur narrowly avoided freezing to death and most of the kidnapers managed to avoid justice, one way or another, for years. As usual, Hauer is excellent as the dour industrialist, for whom the ordeal inspired a dramatic change in his lifestyle, personality and relationship with a long-suffering wife. “The Heineken Kidnapping” is split into four equal parts: the planning of the crime, the victims’ 21-day ordeal, the police investigation and rescue, and extradition standoffs between France and Holland, and Paraguay and Holland, which went on for years. The re-creation of Heineken’s imprisonment – chained to the wall of a cramped cell in an abandoned warehouse – is extremely well done, as is the shocking near-miscarriage of justice in the courts.

In similarly plotted crime stories made in the U.S., filmmakers typically will reserve at least some small measure of sympathy for the criminals, whose misguided decisions can be attributed to societal, cultural or parental malfunctions. Treurniet doesn’t ignore Heineken’s cold personality and philandering – neither of which had anything to do with the crime – and, with one exception, the kidnapers are portrayed as young punks willing to test Holland’s lenient judicial system. The only wild card here is the gang’s ringleader, who had an ax to grind with Heineken. His father had earlier lost a suit against the brewery, his former employer, whose encouragement of excessive drinking not only made him an alcoholic, but also led to his emphysema from too much smoking while socializing. Even though Treurniet freely admits to taking certain liberties with the facts surrounding the case, it didn’t prevent three of the convicted kidnapers from suing him for misrepresenting them and opening them up to public disdain. Not surprisingly, they didn’t prevail. The Blu-ray adds a making-of featurette with interviews and a visit to a warehouse that virtually serves as a museum to the kidnapping. – Gary Dretzka

Monsieur Lazhar
Looking back at our experiences in grade school, we can still see the faces of most our friends and teachers and recall certain key milestones in our educational development. Victims of bullying by fellow students or ridicule at the hands of a teacher or principal may recall horrors others don’t, but, by and large, things happened at too great a velocity to stay in the mind of a child for a very long time. With rare exceptions, it also would be impossible to know how our teachers interacted with each other behind the doors of their lounges and, after school, with their friends. I suspect that the sixth-graders we meet in “Monsieur Lazhar” never will forget Martine, the teacher who committed suicide one morning before class, and Bachir Lazhar, the teacher who replaced her. In addition to having to stand in for a popular teacher, Lazhar is struggling to deal with a tragedy of his own. He had found refuge in Quebec after Algerian extremists threatened to murder his wife as a result of a book she had written. Lazhar was in the process of preparing for her arrival in Montreal when he learned that she and their children had died in a suspicious fire back home. Although this was mostly kept hidden to fellow teachers and the students, his fragility is clearly visible to viewers.

As the school year progresses, it also becomes obvious that Martine’s suicide has had a deeper impact on the children than first observed by the psychologist brought in by the district. Because Lazhar is the adult who spends more time with the students than even some of their parents, he feels obliged to address their concerns when tensions in the classroom mount. He doesn’t want to intercede, but is left little choice when it becomes obvious that the parents have abdicated their duty in addressing the suicide and Martine’s sudden departure from the kids’ lives. For his troubles, this gentle and caring 55-year-old immigrant has his background probed by the self-absorbed parents of the bossiest student. They take their findings to the school board and, well, why spoil the story? Mohamed Fellaq is splendid as Lazhar, as are the child actors who represent a cross-section of middle-class Montreal. Aside from anything that happens in the story, “Monsieur Lazhar” should serve as a reminder to tax-weary Americans that education budgets should preserved, even as changes in pensions and benefits are negotiated. If parents don’t fight back against pound-foolish tax reformers, the negative impact on our society could prove irreversible. Phillippe Falardeau’s heart-breaking film was deservedly nominated for an Oscar in the Best Foreign Language Film category. – Gary Dretzka

Screaming in High Heels
Trucker’s Woman
In the entertaining new documentary, “Screaming in High Heels,” scream queen extraordinaire Linnea Quigley describes her appeal thusly, “I guess I stood out because I was pretty and people liked to see me get chopped up.” That Quigley and her fellow scream queens were naked or topless when they were being attacked by grotesque sociopaths or mutants from outer space was the icing on the cake. The rise, fall and resurrection of horror movies once relegated to drive-in theaters are chronicled here by several veteran filmmakers and participants. The doc really belongs to Quigley, Brinke Stevens and Michelle Bauer, whose presence in any such movie assured fans there would be enough boobs, blood and mayhem to make their investment in a ticket worthwhile. Most such documentaries, and there have been plenty, have focused on the careers and films of the acting talent. I probably knew as much about Quigley going into “Screaming in High Heels” as I did when it ended. Still it would be tough not to be enchanted by these veteran stars, who, while well into their 50s, still make the rounds of fanboy conventions and frequently are cast in genre flicks.

The arc of the industry begins in the 1950s, with the boom in drive-in movies. It got a boost with the introduction of the MPAA ratings code, which, ironically, opened the door for nudity and simulated sex in movies with large and minute budgets, alike. Just as drive-in movies began to disappear from the American landscape, mom-and-pop video stores emerged as the place to find outrageously titled genre fare. All three women could be seen in “Sorority Babes in the Slimeball Bowl-O-Rama” and “Nightmare Sisters.” Premium cable channels also helped pick up the slack in sales. Just as the direct-to-VHS movie trend was reaching warp speed, however, the mom-and-pop stores were forced to make way for Blockbuster and Hollywood Video outlets in every strip mall from Seattle to Key West. Instead of three reigning scream queens, there were now 300 women who divided their time between porn and slasher films claiming the title. The distribution channel narrowed significantly – the major chains weren’t keen on the whole sex-and-violence thing – and the expense of making movies on film became prohibitive. Today, of course, any 13-year-old with a cellphone can make and distribute a movie of their own and, if they can afford it, hire Stevens, Quigley or Bauer to make a cameo. When it comes to screaming, the ladies can still bring it.

No matter what anyone thinks about the movies they distribute, no one can accuse the folks at Cheezy Flicks of misrepresenting their products. On the DVD package of “Trucker’s Woman,” for example, it clearly states, “One of America’s hilariously cheesy low-budget drive-in wonders.” The only way “Trucker’s Woman” (a.k.a., “Truckin’ Man”) could be any cheesier – cheezier? – is if it came with nachos and jalapenos attached to the box. But, seriously, folks … I wonder if the May1975 release of this would-be expose of mob ties to corrupt shipping companies somehow might have had anything to do with the disappearance, two months later, of former Teamsters boss Jimmy Hoffa. Christian Slater’s dad, Michael Hawkins, plays a young man who becomes an over-the-road trucker after his father is killed in a suspicious accident. He was attempting to organize independent drivers unhappy about having to transport stolen merchandise for the syndicate. In a scene that would be ripped off eight years later for “National Lampoon’s Vacation,” driver Mike is distracted by a hot blond (Mary Cannon) in a convertible who, he’s convinced, wants him to stalk her from roadhouse to roadhouse for the entire length of South Carolina. When he finally shows up at the door of her fleabag motel room, unannounced, we notice that her blond tresses were donated to the production by Wigs ‘R’ Us and she favors granny panties. Turns out, as well, the blond is the daughter of one of the mobsters Mike blames for the death of his father.

Contrary to the DVD’s cover art, “Trucker’s Woman” isn’t remotely sexy and the action is far less than riveting. The acting is laughable, as well. “Trucker’s Woman” is exactly the kind of bargain-basement flick that filled the bill at drive-in theaters throughout the South and rarely could be found north of the Mason-Dixon Line, like the infinitely better “Thunder Road.” The peek-a-boo nudity likely pushed the limits of what Bible Belt audiences were allowed to experience in the mid-1970s. The only other interesting things in the movie are the presence of future Emmy winner, Larry Drake and Doodles Weaver, uncle of Sigourney Weaver and former member of Spike Jones’ band. Puffing on a pipe and wearing a tweed suit, Weaver looks as if he wandered over from a completely different movie shoot and no one told him to leave. The DVD arrives with vintage intermission shorts and Cheezy trailers. – Gary Dretzka

A Day of Violence
The Scar Crow
Zombie A-Hole
If there’s anything we’ve learned from Guy Ritchie and Bob Hoskins it’s that British gangsters are the equal of any organized-crime entity – or the CIA, KGB and Al Qaeda, for that matter – when it comes to inflicting pain on informers, cheats and turncoats. The Cockney slang and Savile Row suits only add to the fun. Darren Ward’s stylishly made, if extremely gory “A Day of Violence” adds large dollops of giallo, splatter and torture-porn to what already was an extremely violent offshoot of the gangster genre. It wouldn’t be too far-fetched to suggest it represents a subgenre of its own, gangster-horror. Mitchell Parker is a freelance debt collector for several crime families in the port city of Southampton. On one particularly shabby assignment, he stupidly elects to steal the 100,000-pounds he discovers, instead of turning it in to his boss. Unbeknownst to boneheaded behemoth, his victim managed to record the act on his cellphone, before succumbing to a slashed throat. Sadly, for the men and women the boss wrongly believes stole the money, Mitchell refuses to cop to the truth, even while he’s watching them being tortured. And, really, who can blame him? Once the cellphone is discovered and the true culprit is reveal, Mitchell finds himself on the receiving end of the abuse. Just when it looks to be curtains for the low-life criminal, he manages to escape the warehouse torture chamber, leading the gangsters on a merry chase through the city, killing anyone who crosses his path. Because Mitchell’s fate is revealed in the first few minutes of a “A Day of Violence,” we already know the proper degree of sympathy and pity to expend on the protagonist. In fact, Mitchell has one redeeming quality, at least, and it surfaces very near the movie’s final credit roll, which, otherwise, would have been anti-climactic. Needless to say, “A Day of Violence” isn’t for the faint of heart or viewers looking for a jolly good time. For adventurous fans of gangster movies, though, it should prove sufficiently off-the-beaten-path to justify the investment in a rental. The bonus material includes an entertaining dissection of a key scene, with special attention paid to the special makeup effects and interviews with cult-favorite actor, Giovanni Lombardo Radice.

Despite a sound mix so unbalanced it requires almost constant adjustment via remote-control, “The Scar Crow” is the kind of excessively violent indie that grows on you. It begins in 1709, somewhere in the English countryside, where a woman is being executed for practicing the dark arts. Historians have convinced us that the self-righteous zealots who believed they were defending God-fearing Christians from eternal damnation often mistook epilepsy for possession and even mildly overt sexual behavior as a recruitment strategy for Satan’s legions. The woman’s absence opens the door for her husband to molest her three daughters, whenever he feels like it. After they overpower the lecher and turn him into a human scarecrow, the movie flashes forward 300 years. Apparently, a curse has condemned the Tanner women to eternal life on the same homestead, where they torture and kill men who cross their path. If “The Scar Crow” is often difficult to follow, the ferocious bloodlust of the sisters adequately fills the gaps in logic.

Made on a budget estimated to be $3,000, “Zombie A-Hole” is a movie that’s so unrelievedly outrageous that it simply defies description. An abnormally mobile and determined zombie by the name of Pollux is on a mission to kill twin girls – preferably those who are a bit out of shape and naked – for reasons too complicated to mention … trust me on that. As Pollux’s legend grows, he becomes the subject of a manhunt (zombiehunt?) led by a cowboy-inspired gunman, the ghoul’s surviving twin and the one-eyed sister of one of the victims. Adding to insanity is a shrunken puppet-man who lives in a box. Apart from some slow-motion effects, the pace is relentless and the gore flows like water. Horror fans, I think, will be impressed with how much action, however ridiculous, Dustin Mills (“The Puppet Monster Massacre”) was able to wring from his micro-budget. He gives aspiring DIY filmmakers everywhere a reason to get out of bed each morning and go back to work. The DVD adds his commentary, a trailer and a deleted scene and character. – Gary Dretzka

Breathless
Murderer
The Viral Factor: Blu-ray
Another week, another movie titled “Breathless,” this one from the mean streets of Seoul, South Korea. Disguised as a disturbingly violent and unabashedly profane action picture, Yang Ik-june’s debut as writer/director delivers the kind of punch that made “City of God” and mid-century domestic dramas from England so powerful. Yang also plays the protagonist, Sang-hoon, who, as a child, was abused physically by his brutal father and carried his sister to the hospital after the old man stuck her with a knife for interceding in a fight with his wife, who also was killed. Not surprisingly, Sang-hoon has grown into a much-feared enforcer for a gang bankrolled by a loan-shark relative. When he isn’t kicking the crap out of deadbeats, he’s picking fights with strangers and bullying his young nephew. If Sang-hoon is harboring a conscience under his cast-iron shell, it’s impossible to discern. That is, until he confronts a hard-bitten teenage girl, Yeon-Hue (Kim Kkobbi), who gives as well as she takes. At first, he’s disturbed by the girl’s behavior. Soon, however, Sang-hoon sees a kindred spirit in her – she’s been abused by her father and brother, as well – and becomes her friend and confidante. “Breathless” is staged in what appears to be Seoul’s shantytown district, where violence, debt and alcoholism are as common as fleas. Naturally, it’s the gangsters and loudmouths who stand out from the mass of working-class and unemployed residents. Yang describes in telling detail the cycle of violence that holds succeeding generations of poor people hostage, leaving room only for the slimmest rays of hope for the future. “Breathless” is an exceedingly difficult movie to watch, but not because it’s been carelessly orchestrated or is exploitative. It’s just plain rough. Anyone allergic to the c-word probably would be wise to avoid “Breathless,” as it is used to punctuate nearly every other sentence of dialogue.

Set in contemporary Hong Kong, “Murderer” stars Aaron Kwok as the ambitious 40-year-old Chief Inspector Ling, whose promotion to Superintendent of Police already has been scheduled. If his competency has never been questioned, it’s possible that his rise to the top has ruffled some older feathers. The movie opens with a real bang, when his partner lands on the concrete floor of a high-rise apartment building. Ling was the only other person in the vicinity, but can’t remember a thing after being ambushed. The attacks are linked to a series of grisly unsolved murders that, upon further examination, all are tentatively linked to Ling. So far, so Hitchcockian. It isn’t until nearly three-quarters of the 120-minute movie have passed that something so strange occurs that it takes the suspenseful procedural into David Lynch territory. I won’t spoil your fun, but it isn’t likely you’d be able to guess what it is, even with 100 chances. The denouement may not be to everyone’s taste, but it’s certainly different. “Breathless” is co-writer/director Roy Chow Hin Yeung’s first feature film after assisting Ang Lee on “Lust, Caution.” (He shares writing credit with Christine To.) I suspect that he has a bright future ahead of him.

There’s so much action in Dante Lam’s two-hour-long “The Viral Infection” you’ll likely want to take a nap after watching it. (I took one in the middle, but rallied for the slam-bang ending.) I suspect you’ll also lose track of who’s fighting whom and which side of the ideological fence they’re on. It opens with a firefight in the streets of Jordan, between terrorists and International Security Affairs agents attempting to transport a scientist who specializes in viral diseases out of the country. Because a member of the ISA has conspired with the terrorists to kidnap the man and use his knowledge for profits and power – and everyone seems to be wearing the same color uniform — the confusion over who’s who begins early in the picture. When the smoke clears, it becomes clear that a cop, Jon (Jay Chou), has survived the ambush, but with a bullet lodged precariously in his brain. During a visit to his Beijing home to see his mother, quite possibly for the last time, she tells Jon that not only is his father not dead, but he has an older brother. They live in Malaysia, where his father made a living gambling. No sooner does he collect his baggage at the airport than the van in which he’s travelling is attacked by a gang of criminals, also looking for the evil scientist, led by his estranged brother. Coincidence? I think not. The young men somehow recognize each other and immediately bond. When the terrorists discover that Yeong (Nicolas Tse) has changed sides, they decide to kidnap his daughter and infect her with the time-release virus. If he wants to save her, Yeong must take sides against his Jon, once again, which he only pretends to do. The chases and gun battles in the final third of the movie involve helicopters – slicing through the skyscrapers of Kuala Lampur – and a shootout on a container freighter. The sentimental ending, while predictable, fits perfectly within the context of Lam’s family-first subplot, and doesn’t require more than one miraculous medical cure. If the action scenes and melodramatic throughline feel as western as anything on Cinemax or Starz, the scenes shot in Jordan and Malaysia add interesting backgrounds for Lam’s breakneck action. The making-of featurette and interviews are almost as exhausting as the movie, itself, but verbosity and hyperbole are traits all Chinese filmmakers and actors appear to share. In their eyes, it seems, every movie they do is as meaningful as “Battleship Potemkin.” — Gary Dretzka

Madness
Of all the self-ordained celebrities and superstars to emerge from Andy Warhol’s Factory, Joe Dallesandro was the only one with the star quality it would take to move from the underground to mainstream and indie films. Undeniably handsome, some would even describe him as “beautiful” – think Denis Leary crossed with Jean-Paul Belmondo — “Little Joe” appealed as much to gay men as straight women, and didn’t care who knew it. Because of his various bad habits, however, any fame from such movies as “Flesh” and “Trash” would be squandered. Like Mary Woronov, another Factory graduate, he would have to settle for elevated cult status. After shooting “Andy Warhol’s Frankenstein” and “Andy Warhol’s Dracula” – both directed by Paul Morrissey – he decided to stay in Europe and attempt the same career makeover as Clint Eastwood. Among the 18 films he made there is the Fernando Di Leo giallo “Madness” (a.k.a., “Vacanze per un massacre”), in which everyone, except Dallesandro, was required to disrobe. Here, he plays Joe Brezzi, a thief who breaks out of prison all too easily and murders two farmers while attempting to steal their car. It soon becomes clear that the villa, in which he plans to lay low for a while, also was used by Brezzi to hide the loot he stole before going to prison. Just as he’s about to begin breaking bricks, the owner of the villa unexpectedly arrives with his wife and her sister, who’s also his lover. Being an Italian movie, the women are drop-dead gorgeous.

Unlike the owner’s wife, Brezzi has no trouble figuring out what’s going on behind her back and he uses the knowledge to torture his hostages, if only in a way most people wouldn’t particularly mind. No matter how good looking the actors are, the sex isn’t all that exciting. Neither is the criminality as interesting as it is in Di Leo’s Italo-crime trilogy, “Caliber 9,” “Manhunt” and “The Boss.” “Madness” serves mostly as a mildly tasty pop-cultural hors d’oeuvre. A few years later, Francis Ford Coppola cast Dallesandro as Lucky Luciano in “Cotton Club” and he also made a memorable appearance in an episode of “Miami Vice.” He still can be seen occasionally in movies and documentaries about the Factory and the Eurocrime genre. Unlike most other RaroVideo releases, there are no bonus features worth mentioning. – Gary Dretzka

Death Watch: Blu-ray
A Beginner’s Guide to Endings
When it was released, in 1980, Bertrand Tavernier’s “Death Watch” easily fell under the generic umbrella of science fiction. Three decades later, though, the intense spy-in-the-eye drama looks far more prescient than speculative. The reality-television concept, as we know it today, had already been advanced in PBS’ “An American Family” when David Compton’s source novel, “The Continuous Katherine Mortenhoe” (a.k.a., “The Unsleeping Eye”) was published in 1974. Albert Brook’s parody, “Real Life,” would be released five years later. I have no way of knowing if the great French director, working in English for the first time, was influenced by “The American Family,” or had ever seen the widely watched and highly controversial series. In “Death Watch,” Harvey Keitel plays a risk-taking reporter, Roddy, who volunteers to have a camera lens implanted in his eye and a transmitter embedded in his brain. The producers, including Harry Dean Stanton, assign him to make friends with a terminally ill woman, Katherine (Romy Schneider), and record the last months of her life for the titillation of English viewers. Adding to the drama is the fact that Katherine is unaware that Roddy is filming her or of the existence of the show. Today, of course, cameras smaller than the human eye are being used to record the behavior of people, most of whom have volunteered to share their lives with complete strangers. Moreover, several recent movies I’ve reviewed anticipate the day when terminally ill people will agree to be executed in front of a camera in exchange for money. For better or worse, we live in a world and at a time, where there is an audience for everything.

Like Stanley Kubrick, Andrei Tarkovsky and other brilliant interpreters of science-fiction, Tavernier isn’t as interested in robots, space ships and extraterrestrials as he is in understanding how our descendants might co-exist with the advanced technology and retain their humanity. In “Death Wish,” the future looks very much like the present and an insane drive for profits continues to push the boundaries of medicine and technology. Once Roddy fully comes to grips with his mission, it literally tears him apart. It’s interesting how Tavernier’s color scheme changes as Roddy begins to comprehend the impact of the show on his audience, which, as we’ve learned, eventually will accept as entertainment even the most atrocious conceit. What begins bleakly in the industrial wastelands of Glasgow ends in the verdant Scottish countryside, with a modern work by Antoine Duhamel providing the musical backdrop for a soliloquy by Max von Sydow about the medieval French composer, Robert De Bauleac. The speech was so realistic sounding, classical-music buffs subsequently confounded sales people at record stores by asking to purchase works by the non-existent artist. Sadly, the only bonus feature is a photo gallery. The movie, itself, has been nicely polished for its Blu-ray debut.

Of all the fine actors who came to prominence from their work in Martin Scorsese’s still-electrifying breakthrough film, “Mean Streets,” I think it can be fairly argued that Harvey Keitel’s career has followed the more challenging path and remained relevant longer than Robert De Niro. From “Bang the Drum Slowly” through “Casino” and “Heat,” De Niro was a force of nature who made few mistakes in the projects he chose to take on and mostly avoided the limelight. Keitel excelled in key supporting roles in big-budget movies and the occasional male lead in such interesting indies as “Smoke,” “Bad Lieutenant,” “Fingers,” “The Piano,” “Ulysses’ Gaze,” “Holy Smoke” and the aforementioned “Death Watch.” No less unforgettable were his lower-profile performances in “Reservoir Dogs,” “Pulp Fiction,” “Last Temptation of Christ,” “Blue Collar,” “Welcome to L.A.” and “Bugsy,” for which he received his only Oscar nomination. De Niro’s had a few noteworthy assignments since “Heat” – surprisingly, in comedic roles — but he mostly seems preoccupied with other activities, such as his restaurants and the Tribeca Film Festival. It’s far more difficult to predict where Keitel will pop up next. Even his performances in ABC’s short-loved cop series, “Life on Mars,” were fun to watch.

In Jonathan Sobol’s mostly inconsequential dark comedy, “A Beginner’s Guide to Endings,” Keitel plays a Niagara Falls gambler and con artist whose relationship with his five sons has ranged from neglectful to toxic. Although he clearly loves the boys, who range in age from about 7 to 40, Duke White probably should have been sterilized when he took out his first wedding license. His greatest ethical lapse, perhaps, was enrolling the three older sons in a risky drug test, for which they would have received $2,000 each, if Duke hadn’t pocketed half of it for himself. Years later, when the pills were determined to be nothing more than slow-acting poison, he stole the $300,000 in blood money they received and blew it at the race track. Too embarrassed to reveal the bad news to them himself, he commits suicide – the body wasn’t found, of course – and gives it to them in his last will and testament, along with their paltry inheritance. Apparently, they have only a few days to live. In the brief period of time allotted to them, they’ll attempt to tie up all of their loose ends and salvage what they can of their father’s dubious legacy. Their uncle, well-played by veteran character actor J.K. Simmons, is on hand to provide guidance, but he gives up trying to keep the ever-contentious young men from killing themselves before the pills take their toll. As usual, there’s more to the story than needs to be revealed here. Suffice it to say that Sobol neatly ties up some very loose ends of his own. If “Beginner’s Guide” often feels less than hefty, it isn’t because the cast, which also includes Scott Caan, Paulo Costanzo, Jared Keeso, young Siam Yu and Tricia Helfer, doesn’t give it their all. Maybe having Keitel in their presence helped them dial things up a notch or two. – Gary Dretzka

Lovely Molly: Blu-ray
The Moth Diaries
There is a point in every movie involving ghosts and haunted houses at which viewers will demand to know why, in God’s name, one or more of the characters doesn’t simply leave the premises and split to somewhere safer. But, God rarely has anything to do with it. Budding genre specialists probably were taught in film school that demons rarely travel far from the gates of hell – unless, of course, the portal is a car, boat or airplane – and human DNA doesn’t allow for rational behavior when ghosts are involved. Selling those theories in a market saturated with horror stories of all varieties and points of origination is another trial altogether. Most stories fail simply because we begin to hate the protagonists for their unwillingness to do what’s good for them. In “Lovely Molly,” we stop asking those questions when we buy into the conceit that the lovely blond newlywed has no choice but to remain in the house, whose sordid history began in the 1700s, and she belongs there as much as the evil force itself. It is to the great credit of co-writer/director Eduard Sanchez (“The Blair Witch Project”) and rookie star Gretchen Lodge that we’re willing to suspend our disbelief long enough for “Lovely Molly” to work as intended. In fact, the demon doesn’t make an appearance until nearly the very end of the picture.

I don’t intend on spoiling anything else about the story, except to point out that Sanchez remains fixated on the storytelling powers of hand-held cameras. Here, though, Molly’s is only used sporadically and to good effect. He also retains his eye for appropriately spooky lighting, creepy music and efficient storytelling. Indeed, the budget for “Lovely Molly” is estimated to be a mere $1 million. I’m not at all sure that another million dollars or so would have made the picture any more profitable in its limited theatrical release, because too many festival goers might have considered it to be a one-trick pony and distributers were too scared off by it to invest in an effective marketing campaign. DVD and Blu-ray viewers benefit from a four-part background featurette, presented as if it were an episode of a show like “Ghost Hunters,” during which Sanchez fills in many of the holes and Satanic mythology. Is that cheating? I suppose, but adding the explanations and history certainly would have overburdened the spare narrative and broken some of the tension. Already 99 minutes, “Lovely Molly” didn’t need to be another minute longer. I also suspect that Ms. Lodge is on her way to a bright career.

By all rights, Mary Harron should have become a household name in Hollywood after the positive critical response and moderate commercial success of “I Shot Andy Warhol” and “American Psycho,” movies that play as well today on DVD as they did in 1996 and 2000. Instead, Harron’s name would appear only sporadically as director on such very good TV series as “The L Word,” “Six Feet Under,” “Oz” and “Big Love” before scoring another artistic success with “The Notorious Bettie Page.” I can’t explain why this is so and won’t bother to speculate. What I do know is that Harron has coaxed terrific performances from such actors as Christian Bale, Lili Taylor, Gretchen Mol and Jared Harris at key points in their careers. Only her fourth feature, “The Moth Diaries” was accorded a shamefully limited release here, especially considering that it was adapted from Rachel Klein’s best-seller. Not being a post-pubescent girl, I can’t say how well Harron captured the angst, neuroses, anxieties and rivalries associated with being trapped in a boarding school while blossoming into womanhood. It seems to be me, however, that it would be embraced by the same audience drawn to the “Twilight” and “Hunger Game” sagas.

So few of us have attended boarding schools that they seem from afar, at least, to be breeding grounds for all manner of bad behavior among sons and daughters of the ruling class, here and in England. In “Moth Diaries,” three friends not only are required to experience all of the growing pangs associated with being a teenager in western society, but also a domineering newcomer (think, a slightly older Wednesday Addams) who could very well be a vampire. In any case, her arrival coincides with a series of tragic accidents and the central diarist losing her place of power in the social hierarchy. Because of the school’s formal architecture, the film’s many night shoots and the pervasive aroma of forbidden romance, “Moth Diaries” easily slips into the category of gothic horror. The nocturnal creatures referenced in the movie’s title account for the occasional flashes of magical realism, which really benefit from the Blu-ray presentation. Typically, Harron has elicited excellent, often haunting performances from Lily Cole, Sarah Gadon, Sarah Bolger, Laurence Hamelin and Scott Speedman as the requisite hunky poetry teacher who assigns them the sexy vampire novel, “Carilla.” The Blu-ray features don’t add much you couldn’t already glean from the movie itself. I can’t imagine any teenage girl being able to resist it. – Gary Dretzka

Home Run Showdown
Although he’s remained busy in the world of episodic television over the past 31 years, Oz Scott has directed only one feature film (the virtually unseen, “Spanish Judges”) since his debut effort, “Bustin’ Loose.” Talk about bad luck, it was the movie Richard Pryor was working on when he accidentally set himself on fire, smoking free-base cocaine and drinking 151 rum. I’m reluctant to blame Scott for concocting the dopey competition that informs the title, “Home Run Showdown,” but he apparently wasn’t forceful enough to talk first-time screenwriters John Bella and Tim Cavanaugh out of insisting on it. The sheer implausibility of a high-stakes contest without rules ruins what might have been a perfectly acceptable family entertainment. Clearly influenced by “The Bad News Bears” and other such David-vs.-Goliath fables, “Home Run Showdown” describes the efforts of a motley crew of wannabe Little Leaguers to convince the powers-that-be that they should be allowed to compete with the established teams. To accomplish this, the kids convince a local bartender and onetime minor-leaguer, Joey (Matthew Lillard), to coach them. He prefers chasing around the Little League moms, but is talked into accepting the job when the brother he hates dares him to place a wager on the game. Dean Cain plays the brother, a former Major League player, BMOC and lifelong irritant to Joey. He, of course, coaches the long-established league powerhouse. Instead of a championship game, the fate of the wager comes down to a contest staged during a professional high-profile Home Run Derby, during which the Little Leaguers are entrusted with shagging balls. The team with the most balls caught on a fly is the champion. Is this actually a sport in Detroit, where the movie was filmed, or anywhere else? Like I said, if it weren’t for this nonsense, the other problems with “Home Run Showdown” could easily be excused. The kids certainly aren’t lacking in enthusiasm and chutzpah, while the veteran adult actors – Annabelle Gish, Barry Bostwick, Wayne Duvall — do their best not to embarrass themselves. – Gary Dretzka

Penumbra
In a story that could have been written by Rod Serling for a special Halloween edition of “Twilight Zone,” an arrogant Spanish businesswoman, Marga, is experiencing a day from hell. While in Buenos Aires, she takes time off from her duties to the branch office to show and lease a rundown apartment. Compounding her discomfort is her belief that South Americans are nothing more than low-caste Spaniards living in exile from the motherland. Although fashionable, attractive and privileged, Marga is about to discover just how weird things can get when instant karma hits you right between the eyes. After waiting 40 minutes outside the apartment building, she discovers to her relief a man cooling his heels outside the door of the unit. Guessing that Jorge’s there representing the client, she begins asking him the kinds of questions that have the answers built into them. He says that his client will arrive momentarily with the proper papers and is willing to pay far more than she’s asking for the monthly rent. That should have provided Marga with a clue as to what to expect in the hours to come.

The real craziness in “Penumbra” begins when she steps outside to buy some coffee from a market across the street and is confronted by a belligerent street person, who, when he isn’t calling her a whore, is demanding her opinion of an eclipse set to occur later that day. When he gets too close to her, she zaps him with a Taser. Pedestrians, shopkeepers and a security guard defend the panhandler as being someone who wouldn’t hurt a fly. We know better, but are in no position to defend her. When she finally is able to return to the apartment, she’s a bit surprised to see that Jorge has been joined by a woman, claiming to be his partner. They assure her that their boss is about to arrive, but Marga is starting to get nervous. Her anxiety intensifies when she begins hearing noises from behind locked doors and loses the keys she knows she had with her earlier in the morning. Apparently, Jorge has also exhausted all the minutes she had left on her cellphone. Margo seeks the assistance of a downstairs neighbor, whose offer of strawberry tea ultimately results in the death of her beloved goldfish. Once she gets back to the flat, even more people have joined Jorge and his presumptive assistant.

It’s at this point that “Penumbra” spirals rapidly in the direction of the Twilight Zone and a minefield of potential spoilers. Suffice it to say that things continue to get stranger and stranger as the hour of the eclipse approaches and Marga begins to fear for her safety. It’s a pretty sure bet from the get-go that she will be emotionally scarred from her ordeal, but the path to madness doesn’t reveal itself until it’s too late for her. At 90 minutes, Adrian and Ramiro Garcia Bogliano’s film feels more like a creepy chamber piece than a claustrophobic thriller. Christina Brondo does a nice job measuring Marga’s psychological ordeal and keeping her at arm’s length from viewers with her elitist attitude toward every other character. It isn’t that we don’t care what could happen to her when the sun’s fully blocked out. Our only concern is that the climax won’t live up to the promise of the events that precede it. It does. – Gary Dretzka

Citizen Gangster
Battleground
For his feature debut, “Citizen Gangster,” writer/director Nathan Morlando was dealt an almost unbeatable poker hand in the person of notorious 1940s bank robber Edwin Boyd and his former wife, who he befriended and allowed him to tell their story. Unfortunately for everyone involved, however, while Boyd’s story resonates across the length and breadth of Canada, the exploits of his gang pale in comparison to what we’ve seen in 80 years of Hollywood genre exploitation. Gangster buffs also have been introduced recently to similarly interesting bank robbers who plied their trade in France, Italy, England and Australia. Like a goodly number of veterans who’ve gone to war and returned home in no shape to conform to the norms of American and Canadian society, Boyd took a job that had no meaning to him – except as a way to support his family – and was shut out of his true love, acting. Something in his brain said, “Rob a bank,” which he did. The flush of success compared favorably to the adrenaline rushes he experienced in combat, thus sealing his fate as a gangster. Meanwhile, the media exploited his bravado – and that of fellow gang members after his first escape from prison – and that only served to get him higher. By adding some rockabilly tunes to the soundtrack, Morlando sets Boyd up to be Canada’s first rock-’n’-roll criminal, which may be wishful thinking on his part.

The so-called existential angst Boyd was experiencing – combined with survivor’s guilt – was a common malady among WWII veterans and maybe always has been. It’s been attributed to the genesis of the Hell’s Angels and similarly rowdy gangs in the UK. In Jean-Francois Richet’s “Mesrine” couplet, the protagonist had returned from the Algerian war for independence damaged from what he saw. The robber we met in Michele Placido’s “Angel of Evil” had no such excuse, but likely was motivated by boredom and his status as the bastard child of a Milanese businessman. His first known job was freeing a tiger from a circus at age 8. By comparison to these guys and John Dillinger, Boyd’s a saint. This fact doesn’t diminish the quality of “Citizen Gangster,” which is a perfectly acceptable freshman effort. Scott Speedman is good as the bank robber, as are Jessica Chastain look-alike Kelly Reilly as his beleaguered wife; Brian Cox, as his self-righteous policeman father; and Kevin Durand and Brendan Fletcher as his mates. Lorne Greene (a.k.a., Ben Cartwright) makes a posthumous cameo as narrator on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s first newscast. The DVD adds interviews and background material.

Bank robbers and PTSS also figure in Neil Mackay’s first psycho-horror feature, “Battleground” (a.k.a., “Skeleton Lake”). Here, a half-dozen gang members are forced to lay low for 24 hours after stealing $3.2 million from a bank in northern Michigan. If successful, a plane will arrive to whisk them to Canada. Their first mistake is to pick as their hideout a forest that a deranged Vietnam vet, the Hunter (Hugh Lambe), has staked out for his own purposes. Having learned a thing or two from the VC, the Hunter uses guerrilla tactics to pick off the crooks one by one. Apparently, he also is a fan of Buffalo Bill, in “Silence of the Lambs,” because he also enjoys skinning his victims. Rather than sit back and wait to be exterminated, the heavily armed robbers decide to play the Hunter’s game as long as possible. Considering its indie budget, “Battleground” succeeds pretty well as a then-there-were-none thriller. The weakest link is a buxom blond, whose boyfriend was killed a day earlier and expends a lot of energy screaming. – Gary Dretzka

Let Go
This light-as-feathers dramedy from freshman writer/director/producer Brian Jett tells the stories of three recent parolees, struggling to make it in a world that has no room for them. They share the same parole officer, Walter Dishman (David Denman), whose melancholy mood fits the job to a tee. “Let Go” is weighted down by all of the faults associated with one-man-band filmmakers, including an only sporadically humorous or meaningful script and wildly uneven pacing. Ed Asner plays a grumpy geezer, who’s trying to get the old, really old gang together for some heists; blond beauty Gillian Jacobs (Britta, on “Community”) uses her wiles to get her things she hasn’t earned; and comedian Kevin Hart, who’s required to take part-time jobs that would drive lesser men to suicide. They do their best to keep “Let Go” afloat, but Walter is too maudlin a character to hold things together. – Gary Dretzka

Free Havana
Nate & Margaret
On paper, at least, people in Cuba’s LGBT community have enjoyed greater personal liberties and acceptance since laws restricting homosexual activity began to be relaxed in the 1970s. The changes, which have taken hold gradually, seemingly can be overridden on whim, however, especially those pertaining to transsexuals and effeminate men. Like their Republican counterparts in the United States, Cuban officials have historically and adamantly been opposed to legalizing marriage between same-sex couples. In Eliezar Perez Angueira’s poignant documentary, “Free Havana,” six Havana residents describe what it’s been like to be gay and Cuban during the bad and not-so-bad days. Before laws were liberalized in 1979, males recognized as being homosexual could be sent to work camps, hospitalized, imprisoned and barred from certain jobs. Many were forcibly deported in the Mariel boatlift. It wasn’t until recently that straight Cubans began to change their basically hostile attitude towards gays and lesbians. It’s also worth noting that sexual-reassignment surgery is covered under universal health care and transsexuals can marry.

In 2010, Fidel Castro apologized for the mistreatment and injustices directed at LGBT Cubans during his regime, blaming it on negative attitudes cultivated during the previous government. Still, the stories are undeniably sad and some of the people interviewed insisted on having their faces shaded, because they weren’t certain things wouldn’t change again, overnight. Apart from the work camps, though, Angueira could have found thousands of American gays, lesbians and transsexuals from the pre-Stonewall era who could relate stories as bad or worse than these six subjects. And, in many places here, attitudes towards homosexuals have gotten progressively more hostile in the face of a Supreme Court ruling that could legalize same-sex marriage. The DVD adds an interview with the director.

The title characters in Nathan Adloff’s observant indie dramedy “Nate & Margaret” are best pals, despite the fact they’re three decades in age removed from each other. When we’re introduced to them, they’re at very different places in their cycle of life, although one of them won’t admit it. Nate (Tyler Ross) is a 19-year-film student, who, for the first time in his life, is experiencing something resembling love. That it’s with another young man is almost incidental to the movie’s plot. Margaret (Natalie West) is a waitress at a Chicago restaurant and, at 52, an aspiring standup comedian. She isn’t very funny, but she’s real … almost too real. Just when James (Conor McCahill) has turned on Nate’s love light, Margaret begins to wonder if she can muster amorous feelings for any man, especially the one who’s begun to take an interest in her career. When Nate begins behaving inconsiderately toward his best pal, as anyone might in the first blush of love, their friendship unravels and she begins to grow older before our eyes. Former child star Gaby Hoffman (“Uncle Buck,” “Field of Dreams”) also has a prominent role in the story, but her character is poorly defined. “Nate & Margaret” clearly is a first effort, with all that implies, but Adloff’s got a good eye for people and isn’t afraid to put them in awkward situations. If only he’d given Margaret better material and a makeover, her transformation would be a lot easier to buy. – Gary Dretzka

Mitch Ryder: Live at Rockpalast
Graham Parker: Live at Rockpalast
I think it’s safe to say Mitch Ryder & the Detroit Wheels influenced more garage-band musicians in the 1960s than any other act. Here was a white singer who could hold his own with the black R&B artists who were first responsible for the songs in his playlist and a band that compared favorably to those backing the soul superstars in Memphis, Philadelphia and the Motor City. Unlike other rock ensembles of the period, the music they made was intended to be danced to, not merely admired from afar while screaming your lungs out or tripping on acid. A staple of AM rock stations, even during the British invasion, Ryder sold a lot of 45s and albums, but made too many enemies in the industry to be allotted his rightful place in the Hall of Fame. After taking some time off to nurse an aching throat and sit out various trends, Ryder hit the road again in the ’90, when everything old began to sound good again. The concerts included in the “Rockpalast” two-disc DVD find Ryder in near-top form, both in 1979 and 2004. In addition to his greatest hits, Ryder covers songs by Bob Dylan, the Rolling Stones, Velvet Underground, Doors, Jimi Hendrix and Edwin Starr.

Graham Parker and the Rumour had the great misfortune to launch his career at a time when several different trends began to converge on each other, none of them being blue-eyed soul. In hindsight, though, the band’s first two albums hold up as well as any music from the late-1970s. Like the Detroit Wheels, the Rumour was powered by a dynamic horn section and some of England’s top session musicians. The concerts, from 1978 and 1980, represent the band at its prime. Among the songs included in the two-disc DVD are “White Honey,” “Back to Schooldays,” “Don’t Ask Me Questions,” “Soul Shoes” and “Howlin’ Wind.” Look for an appearance on piano by the legendary sideman Nicky Hopkins at the 1980 gig. There’s no need to point out that Ryder and Parker gave the “Rockpalast” audiences what they paid to see and hear. – Gary Dretzka

Starship Troopers: Invasion
Newcomers to the “Starship Troopers” franchise probably aren’t aware of its literary roots and influence on at least two generations of American military officers. Based on a still controversial 1959 novel by Robert A. Heinlein, the first film adaptation of the military sci-fi adventure didn’t surface until 1997. Paul Voerhoeven’s live-action extravaganza starred Casper Van Dien, as protagonist Johnny Rico, and a bunch of attractive up-and-coming actors whose characters were recruited to fight giant alien bugs in space. Fifteen years later, Rico and other veterans of that campaign are back to inspire new recruits to the armored thrill-kill cult. This time, however, the characters have been generated in a computer, with that semi-creepy hyper-realistic sheen that distinguishes sophisticated video games from the bargain-basement stuff. Some viewers might find the female nudity more disturbing than titillating, but only if they’re parents and their kids are holding the remote-control as if it were a Fleshlight. The fearless troopers have been assigned to look for survivors in an intelligence-gathering vessel attacked by bugs. “Invasion” recalls the early live-action installments in the series more than any of the direct-to-video and animated entries. There’s nothing really new or special in “Invasion,” so my advice is for young fans to tackle Heinlein’s novel first. They can thank me, later. The Blu-ray adds commentary by director ShinjiAramaki; a conceptual art gallery; deleted scenes and a voice-over gag reel; and a feature-length making of featurette. – Gary Dretzka

The Pirates: Band of Misfits: 3D Blu-ray
Mia and the Migoo
The Jungle Bunch: The Movie
Everyone loves pirates these days and the ones created by the folks at Britain’s Aardman Animations are lovable in the extreme. Known foremost for such stop-action delights as “Wallace & Gromit” and “Chicken Run,” Aardman ventures into the worlds of Darwinian science, Victorian history and salty adventure in “The Pirates! Band of Misfits,” based on a series of books by Gideon Defoe. Young viewers might not be able to grasp the historical references, but most of the comedy is of the slapstick variety and the characters are largely archetypal. That description would not, however, cover Queen Victoria and Charles Darwin, who might require a tiny bit of explanation. The idea here is that a borderline inept Pirate Captain (voiced by Hugh Grant) wants desperately to fit in with such recognized buccaneers as Black Bellamy (Jeremy Piven), Cutlass Liz (Salma Hayek), Peg Leg Hastings (Lenny Henry) and the Pirate Who Loves Sunsets and Kittens (Al Roker), so he enters the annual Pirate of the Year competition to prove his mettle. Working in his favor is the ship’s mascot, Polly, which Charles Darwin (David Tennant) recognizes as the world’s only surviving dodo, not the parrot Captain assumes the bird to be. Because the discovery could make him front-runner as Scientist of the Year, he convinces Captain to make a beeline from the tropics to London forthwith. Once they arrive, Captain learns that Queen Victoria (Imelda Staunton) hates pirates. Everything’s played for maximum fun, of course, and co-director Peter Lord has taken off his producer’s hat to assure “A Band of Misfits” looks great and appeals to the broadest audience. A soundtrack that includes songs by the Pogues, Jimmy Cliff and the Clash goes a long to assuring parents their interests aren’t being ignored. The Blu-ray 3D package also adds 2D Blu-ray and DVD discs. All look great. There’s also commentary by Lord, co-director Jeff Newitt and editor Justin Krish; the entertaining 18-minute animated short, “So You Want To Be a Pirate!”; an interactive “Pirate Disguise Dress-Up Game”; the informative, “From Stop to Motion” and “Creating the Bath Chase Sequence”; Lord’s short films, “Wat’s Pig” and “War Story.”

Jacques-Rémy Girerd’s colorfully drawn “Mia and the Migoo” didn’t get a lot of exposure here, in 2011, when it played the festival circuit and maybe one other theater in New York. With its hand-drawn art and environmental message, it should remind animation buffs of Hayao Miyazaki’s work, even if the story can’t sustain close scrutiny. In it, a frizzy-haired young girl, Mia, has a premonition that her father’s life is in danger at the construction of a resort being built near a remote tropical lake. Not only are the construction workers lives in danger, but the desecration of the site is pissing off the forest spirits protecting the Tree of Life, which is situated in the middle of the lake. The extras add a making-of featurette and “Jacques-Remy Girerd: Maker of Dreams.”

The Jungle Bunch” is an extremely fanciful animated movie about a penguin chick, Maurice (John Lithgow), who fell off an ice floe and was raised in the jungle by a tiger. By the time Maurice is old enough to think about such things, he’s convinced himself that, in fact, he is a tiger and in need of stripes. Naturally, he’s also learned to take care of himself in the hostile environment and make the right kinds of friends. Somehow, his reputation grows to the point where it reaches his fellow penguins in Antarctica. They need protection from an aggressive pack of walruses and Maurice and posse are up to the task of protecting them. – Gary Dretzka

The DVD Wrapup: Porno Gang, A Separation, Dictator, Chimpanzee, Bernie … More

Wednesday, August 22nd, 2012

A Separation
Perhaps the most widely celebrated film made in any language last year, “A Separation” is best known here as the winner of the 2012 Oscar in Best Foreign Language Film category. If the emotionally draining Iranian drama had been nominated in the Best Picture, Best Director and Best Actors categories – as it rightly should have been — “A Separation” also might have split the vote for such crowd-pleasers as “The Artist,” “The Descendants” and “The Help.” As it is, writer/director Asghar Farhadi was a runner-up to Woody Allen for the Best Original Screenplay. The brilliantly constructed story about a divorce that goes tragically haywire deserved every accolade it got. Anyone who has yet to discover the amazing cinematic achievements of contemporary Iranian filmmakers, especially considering the limitations imposed on them in their homeland, would do well to begin with “A Separation” and work their way backwards from there.

Men and women who have gone through the divorce process, even vicariously, know that nothing about it is as simple as it looks, legally or emotionally. In Iran, such overlapping considerations as civil law, Islamic law and male privilege combine to make it even more complicated and traumatic. “A Separation” opens in Family Court as a woman not only petitions the court to be allowed to divorce her husband, but also to take their 11-year-old daughter with her to a western country, for which she’s already gotten a visa. For this to happen, Nader (Peyman Moaadi) must agree to such an arrangement and he’s already decided that he must stay in Iran to care for his father, who has Alzheimer’s. He’s committed to maintaining custodial rights to Termeh (Sarina Farhadi). Not only must Simin (Leila Hatami) deal with the vagaries of the legal system, but also Termeh’s unwillingness to choose sides, believing her parents would reconcile before agreeing to live without her. Though exceedingly stubborn, Nader is portrayed as a loving father and dedicated son, who believes Termeh can get a good education in Tehran. We’re predisposed to side with Simin, if only because of all the negative things we’ve absorbed about Iran since the Islamic revolution and its treatment of women. (Today, it was announced they no longer will be allowed to attend certain colleges and take courses in which they’ve excelled over male students.) Again, the situation here is more complex than it first appears to be.

After Simin moves back in with her mother, Nader hires housekeeper Razieh (Sareh Bayat) to care for his father while he’s working and Termeh is at school. Deeply religious, Razieh balks when she’s confronted with the reality of having to assist the old man in the bathroom and help keep him clean. Her imam clears her to do this, but only until a replacement can be found. Her husband agrees to take her place, but Razieh is required to fill in for him while he can square his debts. It’s at this point in the narrative that “A Separation” becomes less a movie about divorce than what can happen when secrets turn into lies and small deceptions lead to much greater calamities. Without spoiling anything, Nader becomes so frustrated after coming home early and finding his father on the floor, tied to the bed, that he pushes Razieh out the door of his apartment and down a flight of stairs. What he doesn’t know – or, perhaps, fails to take into consideration – is that Razieh is pregnant and she soon will be taken to a hospital, where the fetus is declared dead. Under Iranian law, Nader can be charged with murder and, unless a financial agreement is reached, he likely would be found guilty and go to prison. His refusal to accept such an agreement sets the stage for a second legal entanglement. A third one unfolds when Nader accuses Razieh of stealing money from him and neglecting his father.

It would be fair to think Farhadi might have had English writer Walter Scott in mind all along. In the epic poem, “Marmion,” Scott observed, “Oh what a tangled web we weave when first we practice to device.” Everyone, it seems, is either harboring portentous secrets or offering advice based on facts not in evidence. Complicating matters even further is the court’s tendency to believe the word of a middle-class professional over the accusations of a working-class couple that’s deeply in debt. It explains why a legally binding settlement, with or without an apology, would appear to be the most viable solution to everyone. By the time Farhadi finally is able to revisit the divorce proceeding, we’re far less sure about whose side to take. All of this mishegas is wonderfully choreographed by Farhadi (“Fireworks Wednesday”) and splendidly performed by an ensemble cast, which, collectively, captured the top acting awards at the Berlin International Film Festival. (The director’s daughter plays Termeh.) The DVD arrives with Farhadi’s commentary (in Farsi, with English subtitles), a post-screening Q&A with the director’s comments translated into English and the background featurette, “Birth of a Director.” – Gary Dretzka

The Dictator: Banned & Unrated: Blu-ray
If the Eddie Murphy comedy “Coming to America” comes to mind while watching Sasha Baron Cohen’s latest assault on politically correct storytelling, the resemblance is probably more coincidental than intentional. Why risk another court case, like the one Art Buchwald brought against Paramount, even if the popular columnist couldn’t have dreamed of as outrageous a character as Cohen’s Admiral General Aladeen, Supreme Leader for Life of the Democratic Republic of Wadiya? (Despite a landmark court ruling against the studio, director John Landis still insists that Buchwald’s early script ideas had no bearing on the final version of the 1988 hit.) Like Murphy, Cohen plays an African potentate, who, while visiting Manhattan, inadvertently experiences life from the point-of-view of an everyday New Yorker. Unlike Murphy’s good-natured prince, Cohen’s dictator is so mean-spirited he makes Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad look like Bernard Baruch. Aladeen is in New York to condemn the UN for imposing sanctions on his country over the likelihood he’s stockpiling WMDs. While in Manhattan, his top aides conspire to substitute Aladeen with a look-alike sheep herder, who will deliver a speech promising reforms and democracy. Shorn of his trademark beard, Aladeen is just one of many ex-patriots claiming to have been robbed of their rightful titles and power. When he isn’t attempting to persuade police and diplomats of his true identity, he’s freaking out New Yorkers and tourists with his mindless bigotry, outrageous behavior and allusions to 9/11 and Osama bin Laden, who, he claims, is still hiding out in his presidential mansion back home. (The Navy SEALS killed a body-double.)

In a reasonably fruitful subplot, Aladeen convinces the manager of a vegan grocery co-op that he’s a political refugee and, in solidarity with the people of Wadiya, she should give him a job. It puts him in a position to insult and antagonize everyone who gets within 10 feet of him. Against all odds, Zoey (Anna Faris) sees something good in Aladeen that no one else has been able to identify. Once that happens, “The Dictator” runs pretty true to form. Needless to say, “The Dictator” will engage the same audiences that loved “Borat,” “Bruno” and “Da Ali G Show,” and deeply disturb most other viewers. (One of the things he discovers in America is masturbation, to which he becomes addicted.) Women, especially, are unlikely to find anything humorous in the rape gags and Aladeen’s other misogynistic beliefs. In Cohen’s defense, however, the offensive material is on a par with the comedy in his previous work and, within that context, often is hilarious. (His characterization of the dogged station inspector, in “Hugo,” proves Cohen isn’t limited to broadly comedic roles.) If only Ahmadinejad and other truly evil dictators were as harmless as Aladeen, the world would be a much more pleasant place to be. Cohen’s fans will be happy to learn that the Blu-ray “Banned & Unrated” edition is about 20 minutes longer than the original 83-minute version of “The Dictator.” It also contains some deleted and extended scenes, a music video of “Your Money Is on the Dresser,” a longer take of the Larry King interview and a DVD of the theatrical version. – Gary Dretzka

Bernie
The idea for “Bernie” began percolating in Richard Linklater’s head after reading an article on the real-life Bernie Tiede in a Texas Monthly article in 1998. He couldn’t resist a story that was so quintessentially Texan – east Texan, to be precise – it truly was stranger than fiction. Here, in a state with more than 300 prisoners living on Death Row, the murder trial of a mild-mannered mortician had to be moved to another venue, because the residents seemed likely to forgive him in the death of a widely disliked woman. Having worked with Jack Black previously in “School of Rock,” Linklater knew he was a perfect fit for the role of such an extroverted character as Tiede. Ditto, Matthew McConaughey as the good-ol’-boy prosecutor, who defied the community by seeking the change of venue. When he convinced Shirley MacLaine to play wealthy widow Marjorie Nugent, Linklater knew he could finally get to work on “Bernie.” To add another layer of credibility to the mix, he scheduled an open casting call in the Carthage area to ensure the additional speaking parts would be filled by people who looked and sounded as if they were raised in the Piney Woods. Indeed, several of the locals who auditioned had known both Tiede and Nugent.

Mostly though, “Bernie” is Black’s show to dominate. Always impeccably dressed in sport coats and slacks that might have come from the Johnny Carson collection at Sears, and sporting a mustache only a carnival pitchman could admire, Tiede was the kind of civic leader who volunteered for any gig lacking a host. He also led the church choir, sang and acted in musicals, and kept the women in town occupied while their husbands played dominoes and drank beer. Nugent considered herself to be above everyone else in Carthage, if only because was the richest and most traveled woman in town. It took a while for the grand dame to warm to Tiede, but, when she did, they became inseparable. He managed her money, while she managed his time. After blowing a gasket when Bernie was late to report for a date – their relationship doesn’t appear to have been sexual – he picked up the rifle she bought to control armadillos in her backyard and shot her dead. He compounded the crime by stashing her away in a freezer and pretending she was still alive.

It took quite a while before the truth was revealed and, by then, he’d contributed a sizable portion of her assets to local charities. So, you can see the prosecutor’s dilemma when it came time to finding an impartial jury. In theaters, “Bernie” suffered from its small-screen scale and proximity to such other based-on-a-true-story movies as “I Love You Phillip Morris,” “Charlie Wilson’s War,” “The Social Network” and “Casino Jack.” It has more in common with HBO’s “The Positively True Adventures of the Alleged Texas Cheerleader-Murdering Mom” than any of those movies. This isn’t meant to slight Black, McConaughey and Linklater, just to keep “Bernie” in its proper perspective. You don’t have to be a diehard Black fan to love “Bernie,” but his performance is reason enough to put the darkish comedy on your must-rent list. The DVD comes with making-of material, including interviews with the actors, filmmakers and residents of Carthage. – Gary Dretzka

Virginia
Hide Away: Blu-ray
God’s Ears
These new titles argue against two once-prevalent assumptions about straight-to-video movies: 1) great actors can overcome a multitude of sins on the part of a director or screenwriter, and 2) movies that bypass the theatrical circuit are never as good as the ones that find wide distribution. The movie business has become such a guessing game lately that it pays to download a movie-review app before venturing forth to the local video store. (I prefer Metacritic.)

Given the presence of such top-shelf actors as Jennifer Connelly, Ed Harris, Amy Madigan, Toby Jones and Carrie Preston – all under the direction of Oscar-winning writer, Dustin Lance Black (“Milk”) – what possibly could have gone wrong with the modestly budgeted indie, “Virginia” (a.k.a., “What’s Wrong With Virginia”)? As it turns out, almost everything besides the performances. There are more storylines intersecting here than rails in a switching yard outside of Chicago. Keeping track of them all in a two-hour psychodrama requires a degree of patience – and tolerance for damaged characters — most viewers simply don’t possess. Connelly plays the somewhat unstable mother of a personable teenager, who may or may not be the son of the local sheriff and contender for a State Senate seat. She claims not to remember with whom she slept nearly two decades ago, but it’s clear she’s been involved for years in an S&M affair with the conservative Mormon sheriff (Harris). His even more devout wife, played by Madigan, is a stern old prune without a clue about her husband’s fetishes. Complicating things mightily for everyone is the emerging romance between their kids, Emmet (Harrison Gilbertson) and Jessie (Emma Roberts).  Because the sheriff is convinced Emmet is his illegitimate son – the boy doubts it – he forbids Jessie from seeing him. On another tangent, Jones plays the cross-dressing owner of an amusement park, through which several other story threads run. Oh, yeah, despite the likelihood she has cystic fibrosis, Virginia smokes like a chimney.

Black is too good a writer to reduce his characters into generic weirdoes or plastic figurines. He has, however, given them way too much baggage to carry in what appears to be a commentary about intolerance and hypocrisy in small-town America. When Virginia isn’t coughing up blood and piloting a tram in the amusement park, she’s fighting off social workers and hatching plots to keep the sheriff from ignoring her. He’s torn between the passion he found in Virginia and the commitment he made to his wife as a dedicated Mormon. Moreover, a scandal could destroy his political agenda. Apart from HBO’s “Big Love,” for which Black wrote several episodes, I’ve rarely encountered as much Mormon iconography and ideology as I did in “Virginia.” It helps explains why the sheriff is so messed up and why his daughter is in a quandary about falling in love with the non-Mormon, Emmet.

Finally, though, the fate of the characters in “Virginia” hinges on a pair of failed robberies in which the perpetrators wore a gorilla mask and the off-chance Virginia could benefit from expensive experimental treatment in San Francisco. It’s a very unreliable hook upon which to hang such a heavy plot, even if the bittersweet ending ties up most of the loose ends. The movie’s been sitting in a can, somewhere, since debuting at the Toronto film festival two years ago. At some point, there probably was some talk about Oscar nominations for Connelly and Harris. For that to have been realized, though, a distributor would have had to see something more encouraging in “Virginia” than a list of acting credits and Gus Van Sant’s participation as executive director. The DVD adds a making-off documentary.

Anyone who’s ever felt like turning his back on the world and sailing away to points unknown should be able to find something to like in “Hide Away” (“A Year in Mooring”), another grown-up drama that was accorded only the most minimal of releases. In its DVD iteration, however, Chris Eyre’s film deserves a longer look. Josh Lucas plays Young Mariner, a middle-age man inspired by a personal tragedy to find something more meaningful in life than laboring for a company that probably would have laid him off in a couple of years, anyway. To help take his mind off his loss, for which he blames himself, YM chooses to buy a sailboat that will require months of hard work to rescue. As further penance, YM elects to spend the harsh Michigan winter inside the vessel, which would be condemned if it weren’t floating alongside a pier. Moreover, it’s painfully lonely after tourist season in Traverse City, where the average high temperature in January and February is below freezing. Nevertheless, after suffering a near breakdown, YM comes out of his self-imposed shell to make friends with the pretty seen-it-all Waitress (Ayelet Zurer); a fellow urban refugee, Divorced Man (Jon Tenney); a pretty young blond (Casey LaBow) whose problems are worse than his; and a philosophical old salt, the Ancient Mariner (James Cromwell), who plays bagpipes and builds model ships. If Peter Vanderwall’s overwrought script barely holds water – winters in northern Michigan are far more hostile than he imagines them to be here – Eyre and cinematographer Elliot Davis nicely capture the look of the region over the course of a year and one man’s determination to jump-start his life after tragedy. Lucas wisely doesn’t attempt to oversell YM’s breakdown and the script doesn’t require he find relief in all-too-convenient affairs. The DVD adds a making-of piece and interviews. It’s been more than a decade since Eyre, one of several then-promising Native American directors, made “Skins” and “Smoke Signals.” It’s nice to see him back.

Having sat on the shelf two years longer than “Virginia,” the romantic drama “God’s Ears” also has made a belated debut on DVD this week. In it, a gorgeous blond stripper, Alexia (Margot Farley), falls head over platform heels for a handsome young man, Noah (Michael Worth), with autism. Yes, you read that right. There are no limits to what a determined lap-dancer can do in the movies. Alexia and Noah meet cute in a diner, where he unexpectedly begins a conversation about chickens and eggs, about which he knows more than most farmers. Fascinated by his willingness to break his usual silence in her company, the dancer begins to stalk him to see what’s what. In addition to being a chicken savant, Noah works as a go-fer in a boxing gym and, more importantly, looks pretty buff with his shirt off. No dummy, Noah picks up on Alexis’ offer to accompany her and another stripper north to a farm, where his grandmother lives and guards his mother’s ashes. Just as everything begins to click for the two lovebirds, Alexis inexplicably flakes out on him. Noah takes out his surprise and disappointment on a punching bag held by the gym’s owner (John Saxon). Is this relationship doomed to failure or will Alexis and Noah find common ground for the most unlikely of love affairs. Duh. Farley is appealing as a stripper who isn’t required to remove all of her clothes in our presence, while Worth does a fairly good job juggling acting, writing and directing duties. As straight-to-DVD movies go, I’ve seen worse. – Gary Dretzka

Disneynature: Chimpanzee: Blu-ray
In the grand Disney tradition, the makers of “Chimpanzee” follow a playful young ape, Oscar, as he learns from his mother, Isha, how to survive in the wild. The filmmakers, who spent three years in the dense Tai rainforest of the Ivory Coast, had originally planned to make a mother-son story, but had to shift gears Isha was killed in a raid by rival chimps. Instead of having to kill the project, directors Alastair Fothergill and Mark Linfield caught a huge break when the pack’s alpha male, Freddy, uncharacteristically adopted the toddler and began to pass along his survival skills. They were extremely fortunate, as well, in being accepted by chimpanzees that had mastered the use of rocks and small logs to separate nuts from their shells and sticks to collect honey and ants without being stung or bitten. At a time when chimps are making headlines for cannibalizing their young in zoos, chewing the faces off their owners in captivity and escaping into the wilds of Las Vegas to do God-knows-what, “Chimpanzee” paints a portrait that is more in keeping with what adults expect from Disney and its Disneynature offshoot.

After the familiarization process takes hold, Freddy allows the filmmakers to follow the gang as it treks into enemy territory for food. It’s here that I would caution parents about letting young children watch “Chimpanzee” without supervision. Although the MPAA raters don’t seem to think kids might need guidance when it comes to chimps attacking and killing rival chimps, babies being orphaned and hungry apes trapping and feasting on colobus monkeys, I’d beg to differ. Even if no carcass is revealed, the ferocity of the attack in which Oscar’s mom presumably is killed could chill an animal lover of any age. That said, however, the Blu-ray presentation is terrific, especially in the bonus featurettes that examine other territories and aspects of the team’s research. In one, the filmmakers are besieged by bees to the point where they’re unable to shoot for days. Kids won’t mind Tim Allen’s often quite silly narrative, but adults will tempted to turn down the sound. – Gary Dretzka

Freelancers
One in the Chamber
I’m old enough to remember the heyday of Blaxploitation movies, when any void in plot or logic could be filled with gratuitously violent attacks on “the man,” gratuitous sex with a blond hooker, the assassination of a heroin pusher by cops or mobsters, or a romantic interlude accompanied by a song from the Motown catalog. Those were the days. Although the name has changed, I sense that the Blaxploitatation era is being revisited in straight-to-DVDs that are a tad more racially inclusive and back the action with hip-hop music. Instead of pitting the Brothers against the world, the protagonists and antagonists, alike, come in all shapes and colors. “Freelancers” is typical of the urban-action pictures now finding a home in video stores. In addition to a star from the world of hip-hop – here, 50 Cent – there are actors who will be recognizable to audiences of all persuasions. Here, they include Robert De Niro, Forest Whitaker, Vinnie Jones and Dana Delaney, the latter two actors appearing in what essentially are cameo roles. I’d rent any movie with De Niro and Whitaker’s names on the cover, even knowing that their recent track record hasn’t been all that terrific. Generally speaking, the mostly anonymous women need only look good in Victoria’s Secret lingerie or stripper’s gear.

50 Cent/Curtis Jackson plays Malo, the son of an on-the-take NYPD officer who goes from mean streets to the police force at lightning speed. I think he might have spent some time in the slammer, as well, but I could have been hallucinating. No sooner does he graduate from the police academy than Malo is assigned to the same team of rogue cops that ran with his dad. The dirtiest cop in the bunch, Sarcone (De Niro), takes the rookie under his wing and gives him the keys to the corrupt kingdom mere moments after their first meeting (in a strip joint, naturally). Two of Malo’s buddies from their days in the ’hood somehow manage to be assigned to the same precinct, as well, allowing them to form a cell within the team that threatens to be as evil as the one run by Sarcone and Whitaker’s LaRue. Even though the NYPD may be one of most frequently monitored forces in the country, the money and drugs flow like wine and everyone gets a cut. Conveniently, the two most hideously depicted characters are a virulently racist white cop and the Italian mob boss, who everyone fears. Director Jessy Terrero and writer L. Philippe Casseus take their time getting to the point of the story, which is to explain the role Malo’s father played on the team and help him exact his revenge. If it’s mindless violence you’re looking for, there’s plenty of it in “Freelancers.” Look elsewhere, though, if its vintage performances by De Niro, Whitaker and Delaney.

The same basic theory applies to films in the international-crime genre, but only in the titles designed to go straight-to-DVD. One of things that Hollywood still does well is make political, espionage and crime thrillers — “Mission:Impossible,” the Bourne flicks, “Eastern Promises” – and audience continue to flock to the best of them. “One in the Chamber” is pretty representative of the non-theatrical products in that it has recognizable international stars – Cuba Gooding Jr., Dolph Lundgren, Billy Murray, Louis Mandylor – several generically beautiful female stars and lots of violence, although it isn’t always graphic. There’s usually some T&A, but not as much as in American hip-hop movies. Here, B-list action faves Gooding and Lundgren play rival assassins, whose loyalty is in question throughout “One in the Chamber.” So many Russian mob bosses get eliminated, it’s impossible to determine where the director is taking us and what makes them so despicable. A safe bet is the importation of drugs and Euros, and export of sex slaves and enriched uranium. – Gary Dretzka

Bonsai
It isn’t easy to find a movie that isn’t reluctant to remind us that literature was the first social medium and served much the same purpose as Facebook did when Mark Zuckerberg co-founded the social networking site. How better than a chat over coffee about a good book to break the ice between like-minded strangers? The same thing probably happens today in literary-minded websites on the Internet, even if the surroundings aren’t quite so romantic as a bistro or cafe. In Cristian Jimenez’ introspective romantic drama, “Bonsai” – adapted from a novella by Alejandro Zambra — Julio is an archetypal struggling writer who’s developed a writer’s block that seems insurmountable. He begins to chip away at it after a meeting with a successful novelist in need of a transcriber. His disappointment over losing the position becomes the inspiration for seeking renewed momentum on his own work. Instead of revealing the truth to his girlfriend, though, he steals an idea from the author’s manuscript for his own use. It involves a love affair he may or may not have had eight years earlier with a fellow student and lover who needed help with Proust. Before long, of course, the past begins to appeal to Julio more than the present and the border between reality and illusion fades completely. The title refers to the solace Julio gets from the maintenance of the miniature trees. – Gary Dretzka

The Life and Death of a Porno Gang: Blu-ray
Even before the collapse of the former Yugoslavia and subsequent wars for self-determination, the country’s filmmakers could be counted on to deliver closely observed tales of a society driven insane by Cold War politics and the realization that any freedoms they’ve enjoyed could disappear overnight. Now that an uneasy truce appears to have taken hold in Bosnia, Kosovo and once-disputed parts of Croatia, the savagery that marked those struggles continues to haunt the cinemas of the newly independent states. The ongoing war-crimes tribunals are a constant reminder of the horrors committed on all sides as is the continued presence of UN peacekeepers. It explains much of what happens in Mladen Djordjevic’s inky black dramedy “The Life and Death of a Porno Gang,” a movie that, we’re told, will remind the cognoscenti of Srdjan Spasojevic’s “A Serbian Film.” Both titles exemplify what can happen when the border separating horror and pornography is breached and arthouse values collide with graphic representations of sex and violence. For me to point out that these movies aren’t for everyone is like suggesting fugu sushi may not be an appropriate appetizer to serve at a White House state dinner.

“Porno Gang” is set in Serbia during the final days of Slobodan Milosevic’s government, in 2000. Marko (Mihajlo Jovanovic) has recently graduated from film school in Belgrade, but isn’t having any luck finding investors for his horror screenplay. Desperate, he accepts an offer to direct porno flicks of the crudest possible variety. To satisfy an artistic itch, Marko creates a “porno cabaret” comprised of out-of-work actors and assorted exhibitionists. Any chance that it will become a hit is dashed when the mobsters to whom Marko owes money demand he clear up his debt before embarking on another dubious project. Instead, he decides to take his show on the road and present it to appreciative farmers, voyeurs and old-school nationalists with chips on their shoulders. It’s like commedia dell’arte for perverts. Still, it beats staying at home watching “Kojak” reruns in Serbo-Croatian. While on the road, Marko encounters a dapper older gentleman who identifies himself as a reporter who once covered the wars in Balkan states for major news outlets. He also moonlighted by providing footage of battlefield casualties and ghastly atrocities to rich freaks who get off on such dubious entertainment. Now that the wars have ended, however, the supply of this kind of material has dried up. If Marko agrees to produce snuff films for the reporter, everyone will profit.

The troupe members agree to stage the executions in ways meant to titillate the purchasers of such fare, but only because the victims are terminally ill and want to leave something behind for their family. They’re able to convince themselves the murders are Kevorkian-like mercy killings, only with more painful instruments of destruction. Naturally, the increasingly bizarre rationalizations they invent to justify the killings stop making sense after a while, just as the effect of watching people die in violent ways becomes ever more toxic. Meanwhile, their sloppy disposal of the corpses has put police, gangsters and vigilantes on their trail. It’s easy to see in Djordjevic’s story a connection between the war and the executions. When the killing stopped in Bosnia, a void was left in the battered souls of some of the combatants. Constant reports of atrocities, along with the endless finger-pointing that followed, left many civilians numb to extreme violence, as well. What else to think when images of soldiers playing soccer with the head of an enemy prisoner are mimicked by actors doing the same thing with the head of one of their volunteers?

In addition to several deleted and extended scenes and an almost whimsical making-of featurette, the Blu-ray offers Djordjevic’s feature-length documentary “Made in Serbia.” The often hilarious, always outrageous film profiles four domestic porn actors, as they go about their business in front of and behind the cameras. They include a male star, forced to commute to Hungary to find willing and attractive female co-stars; a bisexual actor on his visit home; an elderly actress whose husband can’t get it up when asked to share a scene; and a portly middle-age man introduced as a peasant version of John Holmes and Rocco Siffredi. The doc is framed around a filmmaker’s search for an ex-girlfriend who’s disappeared into the porn underground. The movies are being distributed by Synapse Films, which has cornered the market on titles that mix horror, sex and violence. – Gary Dretzka

The Aristocats: Blu-ray
It’s the rare Tuesday in August when the folks at Disney release as many new Blu-ray editions of its animated features as it did this week. The “Special Edition” combo packs aren’t being accorded the same marketing push that normally accompanies the release of it classic titles in “Diamond Edition” volumes — look for “Cinderella,” in October, for that — but it’s the audio-visual content that counts and it’s up to snuff here. “The Aristocats” is notable primarily for being the last animated feature to be green-lit by Uncle Walt, his own self. The rest of the bounty is comprised of “The Rescuers: 35th Anniversary Edition” (1977) and “The Rescuers Down Under” (1990); “Pocahontas” (1995) and “Pocahontas II: Journey to a New World” (1998); “The Tigger Movie: Bounce-A-Rrrific Special Edition” (2000); and “Lady and the Tramp II: Scamp’s Adventure” (2001). “Aristocats” describes what happens when an opera star and wealthy Parisian socialite (voiced by Hermione Baddeley) leaves her fortune to her pampered cats, one of whom is voiced by Eva Gabor. The butler attempts to thwart the socialite’s intentions by eliminating the competition and reaping the fortune himself. The cats avoid a watery grave, but must adapt to life in the countryside. As befits the location, the soundtrack is filled with jazzy French music. The extras include a discussion of a storyboarded song and character that didn’t make the cut; a profile of pet Disney composers, the Sherman Brothers; another deleted song; a quintet of sing-alongs; a music video; the 1956 short, “The Great Cat Family,” hosted by Walt Disney; and the cartoon, “Bath Day,” with Minnie Mouse and Figaro.

A similar assortment of standard-definition and hi-def bonus features accompanies the direct-to-video “Lady and the Tramp II: Scamp’s Adventure” and “Pocahontas II: Journey to a New World.”  “The Rescuers” combo adds the 31-minute documentary, “Water Birds: A True Life Adventure,” from 1952,” while “The Tigger Movie” adds 10 Winnie the Pooh mini-movies, narrated by John Cleese, to the mix of music and making-of pieces. One need not be a Disney completist to enjoy these vintage titles and share them with your kids. – Gary Dretzka

Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers: Blu-ray
Halloween 5: The Revenge of Michael Myers: Blu-ray
Devote fans of the “Halloween” franchise probably already are aware of this quirk in distribution patterns, but it’s worth repeating: this week’s release of “Halloween 4” and “Halloween 5,” from Starz/Anchor Bay, precedes by a month the release of “Collector’s Editions” of “Halloween II” and “Halloween III: Season of the Witch” from the newly formed Shout Factory offshoot, Scream Factory. I’m not sure what, if any, significance should be attached to the change from Roman to Arabic numerals or how the original “Halloween” managed to be included in the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry. The important thing to remember is that Michael Myers continues to maintain a hold on the collective psyche of horror fans everywhere, and his name still sells tickets. Even the sequels have spawned sequels and remakes.

In “Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers,” we learn that the fiend wasn’t actually killed in the fire at the end of “Halloween II,” but has been in a coma. After coming out of his deep sleep and escaping from custody, Myers heads straights for the daughter of Laurie Strode. In “Halloween 5: The Revenge of Michael Myers,” he has recovered from gunshot wounds and a mineshaft explosion, but must bide his time before pursuing Laurie, who is being dangled as bait by Dr. Loomis. The sequels each cost about $5 million to make, so diminishing box-office revenues ($17.8 million, $11.6 million) had to be recouped in the video, DVD and Blu-ray marketplace. “H4” arrives with commentary, deleted scenes and a panel discussion, while “H5” adds commentary, an original promo and raw production footage. – Gary Dretzka

Sedona
In 1980, “Serial” lampooned the post-hippy lifestyles of the wealthy residents of northern California’s beyond-trendy Marin County. It was adapted from Cyra McFadden’s novel, “The Serial: A Year in the Life of Marin Country,” which, among other things, helped boost sales of hot tubs around the country. What Marin County was in the 1970s, Sedona is today … or, maybe, yesterday. The gorgeous Arizona town is both a destination for high-end tourists drawn to the spectacular Red Rock vistas and refuge for middle-age dropouts in search of spiritual healing. Sedona is one of the few places on Earth where New Age philosophy and healing are accorded the same respect as traditional medicine and science. Its leading exports are therapeutic crystals and the kind of music usually reserved for the massage rooms in expensive spas. Tommy Stovall’s dramedy, “Sedona,” takes a gentle stab at satirizing the folks drawn to the Arizona mecca by some sort of mystical concordance of spirit waves and electromagnetic vortexes. Mostly, though, Stovall wants us to know that, for all its eccentricities, Sedona remain a groovy place to live and visit. He also suggests there might be something completely legitimate about all of this New Age stuff. It helps mightily, of course, if newcomers arrive with lots of money to spend and a tolerance for the occasional nutcase and charlatan.

Frances Fisher plays a harried marketing professional traveling by car from Portland to Phoenix for a series of client meetings. As she approaches Sedona, her car is pushed off the road by a lightplane making an emergency landing on the highway behind her. While waiting for her car to be fixed, Tammy encounters the kind of blissed-out folks most people outside certain precincts of California, Arizona and New Mexico still consider to be wackos and unrepentant hippies. The closer Tammy comes to missing her first meeting, the more hysterical she gets. This is in marked contrast to the Sedona residents, who don’t let anything get them rattled. Meanwhile, in the Red Rocks wilderness, a big-city attorney and his partner fear that one of their sons has gotten lost. With the help of a Native American hiker, the attorney is able to track down the boy, who’s been having the time of his life and doesn’t think he’s lost.

In Stovall’s Sedona, nothing happens without a purpose, including the plane’s emergency landing, an interrupted reflexology session, the car’s broken axle and time spent searching for the boy. It takes Tammy nearly the entirety of “Sedona” to accept that her professional life sucks and her stars are directing her to the Arizona desert. If the movie is a lost opportunity for satire, the natural beauty on display itself is worth the price of a rental. – Gary Dretzka

Payback: Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth
Ecstasy of Order: The Tetris Masters
One of the great fallacies of our democratic system is that an extraordinarily large percentage of the citizenry will vote against its own best interests, even when all available evidence argues against it. For example, any American worker who’s been laid off and stills elects to vote for the current Republican candidate, either is a masochist or hasn’t been paying attention for the last 30 years. Likewise, any barely unemployed Democrat who blindly follows the party line and doesn’t question the President’s economic policy, whatever it is, is guilty of the same thing. It’s become exceedingly clear that neither party has the best interests of its less affluent constituents in mind, but we continue to treat third- and fourth-party candidates as if they were Martians or insane. I’ve seen nearly two dozen documentaries in the past year that have spelled out exactly why this country is in trouble and what needs to be done to take the first baby steps toward a solution. I’d be surprised to learn that more than one or two of them have been seen by even half of our congressional leaders. I know they aren’t as popular among the citizenry as the latest hit action movie or best-selling romance, if only because the truth hurts and we, the people, feel powerless against the institutions in charge.

In Jennifer Baichwal’s achingly humanistic “Payback: Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth,” the writings of author, critic and activist Margaret Atwood provide the foundation for a wide-ranging discussion of debt and what it means to “wipe the slate clean.” It isn’t limited to the national debt, credit-card debt or other anchors on our economy. Instead, Baichwal focuses the discussion on the debts we owe each other as human beings, in ways that range from a simple apology to corporate responsibility and reparations for harm done. All of these forms of debt – financial, societal, personal, environmental, spiritual or criminal — combine to deaden the psyche and kill our will to fight back. Along the way, we’re asked to consider a years-long Albanian blood feud; the BP oil spill’s impact on the environment and Louisiana residents; the mistreatment of Florida farm workers and willingness of one grower to do the right thing; media mogul Conrad Black’s prison experience; and a convicted felon whose crimes hurt people profoundly in ways not related to violence. If our attitudes don’t change, Atwood argues, how will we ever lose our chains? Not surprisingly, “Payback” asks more questions than it answers and is weighted toward pie-in-the-sky solutions. The only person representing the rich and greedy here is Black and he appears to have discovered his conscience while incarcerated. The DVD adds a post-screening Q&A with Atwood and Baichwal; deleted scenes; and other short docs.

The primary problem with documentaries in which gaming nerds attempt to explain their obsession with setting meaningless records is that the only people who can address to the question at hand are the ones who speak in a language not shared by most other human beings. No matter how appealing the game, and Tetris is one of the most popular of all time, watching people play it and listening to them discuss their motivations makes cricket seem endlessly fascinating, by comparison. One championship-level chess match is infinitely more revealing than all of the games made for Nintendo ever played. And, yes, I once was a compulsive player of Tetris and other such games, even as an adult. Tetris, as they say, is a cool game. The story of its creation is rather interesting, as well. The people we meet in “Ecstasy of Order: The Tetris Masters” are neither. Its focus is on a reunion of past champs who probably aren’t any more observant or eloquent than there were in their prime, 20 years ago. Neither does it seem as if anyone we meet has gotten a life in the interim. In a bonus feature, we get to watch over the shoulder of a man in his 30s as he attempts to set a record on Asteroids. Blessedly, we only are asked to share 15 minutes of this 52-hour marathon. The truth is that making time fly faster is reward enough for playing these games and sharing the experience seems rather silly. – Gary Dretzka

Mighty Morphin Power Rangers: Season 1, Vol.1
I’d almost put the existence of “Mighty Morphin Power Rangers” out of my mind, entirely, until the arrival of this collection of episodes from the first season. It’s taken me nearly 30 years to get used to the idea that 90 percent of all children’s programming would henceforth be animated, so I was taken aback by this return engagement of these live-action teenagers with superpowers. Once the anchor of Fox’s Saturday-morning kids’ block, the show – really, only 20 years old – looks as if it preceded “Captain Video” on the Dumont network. The characters look as if they’d stepped out of a “Buck Rogers” serial and wield weapons that seem as medieval as they are futuristic. The uniforms were startling bright and the mythology behind the show was as confusing and nonsensical has it could be. Still, the series was incredibly successful with American kids, who had no idea it was based on the 16th installment of the Japanese “Super Sentai” franchise, “Kyoryu Sentai.” How Japanese toy makers and programming executives come up with this stuff is beyond me.

As the mythology goes, explorers from another galaxy land in a suburb of Los Angeles, where they discover an extraterrestrial vehicle – known for its shape and smell as the Dumpster – in which the evil empress Rita Repulsa has been imprisoned for 10,000 years. The wise sage Zordon orders his robotic aide Alpha 5 to recruit a team of “teenagers with attitude” to be known as the Power Rangers. Their assignment was to save the world from Rita and her monstrous thugs … or, something like that. If that sounds as incomprehensible to you as it did to me, it’s worth recalling the impact the show had with American kids and likely could have again. Every day was Halloween for “Power Rangers” fans. Neither is it surprising to learn that parent’s groups attempted to curb the violence on the show, which was about as realistic as the costumes, thus adding to its appeal with kids. The three-disc DVD set contains 600 minutes of whacked-out programming. – Gary Dretzka

The Complete History of the New York Giants
Recent Super Bowl history suggests that New York Giants won’t repeat as NFL champions, not matter how good they may be during the regular season. The Green Bay Packers were one game away from a perfect season last year, yet lost in the second round to the wild-card Giants. It’s with this likelihood in mind that NFL Productions has decided to pull out all the stops to exploit the Giants’ championship and serve fans in the country’s largest media marketplace. “The Complete History of the New York Giants” follows by six months “New York Giants: Super Bowl XLVI Champions,” and by two months the release of “New York Giants: Road to XLVI.” In 2009, we saw “New York Giants: 10 Greatest Games” and, in 2008, recaps of that year’s Super Bowl victory. What could possibly be left? Football fans are insatiable, though, and any reminder of past glory or current championships will sell DVDs. Nice to know that they all look pretty good. – Gary Dretzka

‘Compliance’ stirs emotions by putting viewers in hot seat

Friday, August 17th, 2012


At a time when most mega-budget movies are forgotten 10 minutes after the final credits have rolled, it’s interesting that a no-frills indie has kept serious movie buffs talking since it was screened last January at Sundance. Based on a series of actual events, “Compliance” describes just how hideously wrong things can go when otherwise level-headed Americans think they’re doing the right thing.

As near as I can determine, the currently raging controversy derives from Craig Zobel’s determination to lay out the facts of a headline-making invasion of privacy, leaving viewers to decide for themselves if they would have done the same thing under the same circumstances. Zobel raises the emotional ante, as well, by graphically portraying the humiliation suffered by the victim of what was, essentially, prank phone call. Instead of asking the harried manager if she “has Prince Albert in the can?” or “Is your refrigerator running?,” as previous generations of juvenile pranksters have done, the disembodied voice demanded something far more terrifying.

“It’s a rough subject and ‘Compliance’ is an intentionally challenging movie,” Zobel concedes. “It goes to the question of what we expect movies to do. The response we’ve gotten since Sundance, where some people booed and walked out, has been more positive.”

By invoking the authority of the local police department, the caller asks the manager, Sandra (Ann Dowd), to conduct a strip search of an employee he accuses of theft. The faux cop says he is too busy to conduct the examination himself, so, in effect, he would be willing to deputize Sandra to get to the truth. Instead, he toys with her willingness to serve the public by demanding she dehumanize the girl and recruit accomplices to add to her misery.

To varying degrees of gullibility, they all follow suit. None bothers to recall what they’d observed from watching hundreds of episodes of “Law & Order,” “The People’s Court” or even “Dragnet.” In the post-9/11 era, they may have assumed, as well, that the Patriot Act applies as much to purse snatchers as terrorists. If Zobel’s conceit sounds far-fetched, you should know that the prank was successfully pulled off at least 70 times in the previous 12 years.

Anyone who thinks they’re too hip or sophisticated to fall for such a ruse may want to ask themselves if they bought the Bush-Cheney theory about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, President Obama’s pledge to punish the perpetrators of the ongoing financial disaster or the findings of the Warren Report. Compared to these whoppers, falling for a guy impersonating a police officer – in person at a traffic stop or via a phone call – is small potatoes.

“We all have a moral compass, but it isn’t always clear to us how delicate it is,” Zobel says. “In our society, there’s an implicit social contract between citizens and the police that they’re going to do the right thing. But, it’s true that people of different racial and ethnic backgrounds will see things differently when it comes to police.”

Make no mistake about it, “Compliance” packs the same punch as the horror genre’s most effective examples of “torture porn.” Watching an inarguably innocent teenager being forced to strip by her supervisor and probed by the woman’s boyfriend, however reluctant, isn’t for the squeamish. Not only do we cringe for the victim, but we also sympathize with the manager, who probably was raised to respect the local police force without question. After all, in many parts of the United States, racial profiling and the use of torture to extract confessions represent either legitimate police work or a myth perpetrated by the ACLU.

“I think we were able to capture the feeling that Becky was defenseless throughout her ordeal and Sandra was just trying to get through the day,” Zobel adds. “Naturally, most viewers will respond, ‘I wouldn’t do that.’ But, deep down, everyone wants to be a hero.”

Indeed, it’s entirely possible that the lunatic who went on a shooting spree at a Sikh temple two weeks ago, in Wisconsin, mistakenly assumed the victims’ turbans represented an affiliation with Al Qaeda. In his delusional mind, he must as felt as if he was doing the right thing and should be regarded as an American hero. He wasn’t the first self-styled patriot to mistake a Sikh with a Muslim, with the same deadly result.

Zobel is no stranger to the world of long and short cons. In 2007′s “Great World of Sound,” he dramatized an elaborate scheme in which a pair of sharp operators convinced dozens of mostly tone-deaf singers that, in exchange for a considerable sum of money, they would record the rubes and find a market for the songs. By the time the con artists split town, the victims would be left with a poorly recorded song and dashed hopes. In that movie, Zobel placed ads in local papers to lure “American Idol” wannabes to faux auditions and mixed their sessions with those using actors and reasonably good singers. The effect was similarly creepy, if not nearly as horrifying as the actions portrayed in his new film.

“Compliance” is based on the April 2004 incident a fast-food restaurant in Mount Washington, Kentucky, with an Ohio “ChickWich” standing in for McDonald’s. Although the caller (Patrick Healy) probably wasn’t aware of the fact that the ChickWich was understaffed and short of certain staples that night, he logically guessed (or learned from surveillance) that a pretty blond, Becky (Dreama Walker), would be manning the counter and make an ideal suspect. Sandra inadvertently fills in the blanks for the caller.

Zobel is able to establish credibility by dramatizing the logistics of operating a fast-food franchise during a busy part of the day. Sandra’s already freaked out by the likelihood that a company inspector may be paying a visit on this of all nights. When she fields the prank call, it becomes one of several balls she’s juggling.

Despite the fact that Becky continually denies the accusation, Sandra agrees to take her to a storage room, where the strip search would be captured on a surveillance camera. The alternative would be having Becky arrested, driven to the police station and booked, regardless of the absence of evidence. It would have been the correct procedure, but Sandra felt as if she were protecting both her employee and the franchise’s reputation.

She compounds the injustice by asking other employees to watch Becky when duty called her to the kitchen. Worse, she enlists her fiancé to stand guard. The caller convinces him of the necessity of demanding a sexual act from Becky. In real life, a guilty conscience led the man to confess his compliance to a friend, who alerted police to what was happening just down the road from them.

“Only one caller was brought to justice in all of the cases,” Zobel says. “He wasn’t convicted, but the calls stopped. There were civil and class-action suits brought against the manager and restaurant chains.

“It was difficult to determine the degree of responsibility each party should shoulder. There was one large settlement, at least, and a clarification of company guidelines.”

After Becky is thoroughly humiliated and, likely, traumatized for life, it’s clear that Zobel is referencing the experiments conducted in the early 1960s by Yale psychologist Stanley Milgram and Stanford prison experiment of 1971. In both cases, participants representing law-enforcement interests went to extreme lengths to get volunteer subjects and prisoners to conform to an established norm.

Detractors have argued that Zobel’s decision to linger on Becky’s humiliation degrades the character and provokes the prurient interests of some male viewers. How else, though, to characterize exactly what was at stake in the actual crimes? If we aren’t made to squirm by the willingness of the manager to act as a surrogate for the pervert on the other end of the call, would we be as disturbed to learn that the man arrested for the prank was acquitted due to lack of evidence and, in a postscript, Sandra continues to excuse her own behavior?

In any case, Zobel didn’t intend for “Compliance” to be mistaken for an entertaining night at the local arthouse. Anyone expecting something a bit more uplifting might want to follow their moral compass in the direction of Spike Lee’s “Do the Right Thing” before confronting the ethical morass that is “Compliance.”

The DVD Wrapup: Jaws, Hunger Games, Dardennes, Kill List, more…

Tuesday, August 14th, 2012

Jaws: Blu-ray
News reports of shark sightings and bitings pick up every time a new addition to the “Jaws” franchise is about to be released and, like clockwork, the critters didn’t disappoint the media last week. They’ve occurred with such frequency over the course of the last 37 years as to be attributed to the marketing stealth of Universal’s publicity team. As if. Steven Spielberg’s summer blockbuster has inspired several other gigantic fish stories – as well as trivia and factoids that sound too good to be true, but are — most of which are examined in the sparkling new Blu-ray from Universal’s centennial collection. The marketing campaign, alone, could fill a chapter in a history of the American cinema. In addition to being a movie that bridged all demographic quadrants, “Jaws” changed forever the way studios would sell potential summer blockbusters to the public. Besides introducing the “tent pole” strategy, the campaign was largely supported by television advertising and simultaneous release on 409 screens. It would have been twice that number if Universal boss Lew Wasserman hadn’t decided to cut back on original plans, so has to ensure lines outside each theater. Was it the marketing that sold “Jaws” or the buzz generated from early screenings, reviews and trailers and the anticipation that came with seeing Peter Benchley’s best-seller brought to life? No matter, because the movie gods had already decreed that Spielberg would direct the first movie to cross the $100-million barrier, thus granting him carte-blanche status for life.

Just as important in some circles, the movie’s amazing success allowed distributors to alter the time-honored formula that determined how much of the box-office bounty was returned to studio coffers. Instead of a 50/50 split, distributors could demand 90/10 for the first one or two weeks, with the percentage changing only after most of the money was sucked from the rubes. Distributors would assume most of the advertising and marketing expenses, but the shift forced theater owners to jack up concessions prices to survive. (Popcorn and pop revenues couldn’t rescue exhibitors from a 90/10 bomb, however.) By the time “Star Wars” rolled into town, distributors also had begun to demand money in advance from chains to ensure exclusivity rights, in effect pushing indies to the brink of financial disaster. The late-May release of new record-holder “Star Wars” ultimately led to the current practice of pushing up the start of summer season to mid-spring and avoiding the simultaneous release of potential blockbusters. On the downside, the success of “Jaws” would usher in the era of the unnecessary sequel and even more unnecessary prequel and parody. Judging from the recent premiere of “Jersey Shore Shark Attack” on Syfy, we’re still there.

Despite the many spinoffs, ripoffs, sequels and 25 years of “Shark Week” programming on Discovery, “Jaws” remains a welcome addition to the summer Blu-ray bounty. An exacting audio-visual makeover and digital remastering make the movie look and sound as fresh as it was in 1975 and far better than previous video iterations. As any certified classic should, the Blu-ray edition retains the qualities that made it special from Day One. Even though I knew it was coming, I was startled by the mangled head of the fisherman when it presented itself to Richard Dreyfuss’ Hooper, who’s examining a shipwreck for evidence of a shark attack. The story Robert Shaw tells about surviving the Japanese attack on the USS Indianapolis in shark-infested waters had only recently been de-classified and qualified as news to most viewers. (These included a victim’s mother, who never was told how her son died.) Dreyfuss’ early concern for the well-being of the shark population reminds us that these ancient creatures continue to be slaughtered, simply for the commercial value of their fins. The offshore presence of a single Great White or swarm of lesser predators still prompts the media to pull out stock footage of “Jaws.” It demonstrates just how deeply the larger-than-life Spielbergian tale – it began as an undisguised homage to “Moby Dick” – is etched into the American psyche. The Blu-ray package includes a digital UltraViolet copy of “Jaws”; deleted scenes and outtakes; all-new documentaries, “The Shark Is Still Working” and “Jaws: The Restoration”; the vintage “The Making of ‘Jaws’”; original marketing material and a discussion of the release strategy; and an insider’s look at life on the set of “Jaws.” All are interesting, at least, even if key participants – including author Peter Benchley – pull their punches in describing the near-chaos that surrounded the production. Another interesting addition is material gathered during a recent return to Martha’s Vineyard for Jaws Fest. Amity Island hasn’t changed a bit, while some of the actors, extras and locations still retain their value as tourist attractions. – Gary Dretzka

The Hunger Games: Blu-ray
I waited for “The Hunger Games” to arrive in DVD and Blu-ray to discover for myself what all the fuss was about, without standing in line or selling my car to afford popcorn and pop. No longer having a teenager living at home, I was singularly unaware of the existence of Suzanne Collins and the huge popularity of her novels. If I had attended a pre-release screening, I probably would have come away from it thinking the movie was another one-off tale of survival in a dystopian, post-apocalyptic culture, with feminist overtones. And, yes, it is all of that and a box of Raisinettes. Given the time to pay closer attention to the details, though, I could see that “Hunger Games” also is informed by Greek mythology, the bread-and-circuses politics of ancient Rome, Shakespeare’s “Coriolanus,” the Great Depression, the novels of George Orwell, our misadventures in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan, and such reality-based shows as “Survivor.” I think it unlikely that Collins was directly influenced by Kinji Fukasaku’s “Battle Royale” and “Battle Royale II” – as they weren’t shown widely here until the DVD release – but I’ll bet the filmmakers studied it. Clearly, too, it was shot to accommodate as many as three sequels, one of which would be cut in two pieces, a la “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.” Nothing in “Hunger Games” seemed cynically rendered, though, and I mostly enjoyed it. If I were a teenager or much younger adult, blissfully unaware of the several dozen survivalist thrillers that preceded it, “Hunger Games” probably would have grabbed me even more than it did. I credit that to the attractive young cast and the wild makeup and set designs.

In brief, the participants in “Hunger Games” – one boy, one girl – are chosen from each of 12 districts that comprise, Panem, the nation-state built on the ruins of what once was North America. Characters played by Jennifer Lawrence and Josh Hutcherson represent the poorest district and, although they don’t look it, are supposed to be weakened by malnutrition and hard labor. They will compete in the blood sport known as Hunger Games, which only allows for one survivor out of 24 contestants. It’s nationally televised from the Capitol, a metropolis that’s both ancient and futuristic in design, and, like “Survivor,” the producers manipulate the game for maximum “entertainment” value. The more prosperous the district, the more likely it is that its representatives have undergone formal training. By contrast, Katniss Everdeen (Lawrence) is a master archer who dines on the squirrels she can’t sell to merchants in District 12. Peeta (Hutcherson) is the son of a baker, who’s become muscular from toting bags of flour around the family store. He’s admired Katniss from afar and dreads the thought of anyone causing her harm. She isn’t that keen about killing other contestants, either, but put herself in harm’s way when the name of her younger, far more fragile sister was picked in the lottery. Fortunately, Katniss has already absorbed many of the survival skills necessary to avoid being killed in the first day of the hunt. A good listener and quick study, she also benefits from the tips she receives from her mentors (Woody Harrelson, Lenny Kravitz). Unlike a stand-alone survival story such as “Lord of the Flies,” all of the action here inevitably leads to an ending that will serve as the beginning of the first sequel, “Catching Fire,” when Katniss’ chutzpah will be put to the test by the same Capitol politicians she managed to outsmart in Chapter One. The movie was written to accommodate an on-screen romance, which will be continued down the road, as well.

Fans of the novels seem to have embraced the first installment of “Hunger Games.” It’s possible that newcomers to the fantasy could feel manipulated by the obvious setups for the sequels. There’s no questioning the quality of the Blu-ray presentation, however, as it captures nicely both the outdoors scenes – filmed on location in North Carolina — and those shot in front of a green screen. A second disc contains the special features, of which I’m of a mixed mind. The featurettes, “Game Maker: Suzanne Collins and the ‘Hunger Games’ Phenomenon” and “The World Is Watching: Making ‘The Hunger Games,’” while interesting, are dominated by the oversize egos of Ross and the producers. They laud the absent Collins, of course, but constantly remind us of their many essential contributions and revisions to the source material. In “Letters From the Rose Garden,” Donald Sutherland – who plays the president of Panem — reads the beyond-gushy letter he sent to Ross after reading the script and considering his character. He compares the script to “Paths of Glory,” which, by any stretch of the imagination, it’s not. “Controlling the Games” is a shorter look at the event’s futuristic headquarters; “A Conversation With Gary Ross and Elvis Mitchell” and “Preparing for The Games: A Director’s Process” give the writer/director more time to promote himself; “Propaganda Film” is a faux PSA narrated by Sutherland, which explains the genesis of the games; and there’s a marketing “archive.” Techies should appreciate the Metabeam Smart Remote, BD Touch and DTS-HD Master Audio Sound Check. Ironically, for all the time Ross spends offering self-aggrandizing observations, he will be conspicuously absent from the director’s chair in the sequels. – Gary Dretzka

La promesse: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
Rosetta: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
Few hometowns have provided as large a canvass for a filmmaker as that offered Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne by the industrial city of Seraing, Belgium. Then, again, few filmmakers have found as many different corners of a particular city to survey in such physical and emotional detail as the Dardennes have with the Walloon municipality. It served them extremely well, early on, as fodder for documentaries and continues to inform their theatrical titles, which resemble documentaries. Despite the prosperity and conspicuous consumption that characterized the 1980s and 1990s in Europe and the United States, the people we met in “La promesse” and “Rosetta” upon their release in 1996 and 1999 reminded us folks struggling in the American Rust Belt. The same market forces that caused the elimination of so many jobs here were simultaneously impacting Europe’s blue-collar workforce. They included the illegal immigration and recruitment of foreign workers and the loss of employment due to decreased consumer spending.

In “La promesse,” the Dardennes’ first theatrical film to draw wide notice outside Belgium, a father’s brutal treatment of the illegal immigrants housed in his disheveled apartment building finally builds to the point where his son turns against him. At first, 15-year-old Igor (Jérémie Rénier) is perfectly willing to participate in the scams and schemes perpetrated by the father, Roger (Olivier Gourmet). He loves the old man and, for all intents and purposes, they’re two peas in a pod. Igor begins to change his tune only after one of the men working for peanuts on a building owned by his father accidentally falls from a scaffold to his death. With his last breath, the man pleads with Igor to watch over his wife and child, recently arrived from Burkina Faso, in his absence. It is a pledge Igor takes very seriously and eventually leads to evidence of Roger’s complicity in crime and immoral behavior. Beating the boy for giving the widow money to pay off her “missing” husband’s gambling debt severely damages Roger’s ability to maintain his rapport with Igor. If the woman is able to convince police to investigate, Roger’s livelihood and freedom could disappear overnight. This creates a situation in which Igor is forced to make choices no son should be required to do. The Dardennes’ camera follows Igor, sometimes at breakneck speed, as he goes about his daily activities and co-exist as a teenage boy in an adult world.

The Dardennes also maintain a tight focus on the protagonist of “Rosetta,” a young woman who not only can’t seem to catch a break in life, but also is her own worst enemy. At her trailer-park home, Rosetta is fighting a losing battle against her self-destructive mother and the men hoping to trade booze for sex. At work, despite a good record, she is the first person to be laid off whenever business lags or the boss’ son needs a job. Rosetta’s willing to work for wages that match those given to less capable people and immigrants, but is turned away. Few business owners in town trust the motives of a young white woman willing to work for slave wages. As the Dardennes explain in an interview, Rosetta (Emelie Dequenne) lives to work and can’t contain her misery when she’s idle. Scrupulously honest, she’s even willing to rat out a fellow employee, who’s helped her in several ways, when she discovers that his moonlighting job conflicts with her boss’ interests. It’s her last resort for getting her job back and she doesn’t feel bad about doing it. This creates a dilemma for viewers, who sympathize with Rosetta’s plight but don’t particularly admire her methods. If Americans can’t relate to what Rosetta is experiencing, they aren’t paying attention to the news.

The Criterion Collection Blu-ray benefits from a restored high-definition digital transfer, supervised by the Dardennes’ regular cinematographer Alain Marcoen. It also includes a 2012 conversation between critic Scott Foundas and the filmmakers; new interviews with Dequenne and “La promesse” stars Jeremie Renier and Olivier Gourmet; a new English subtitle translation; and a booklet with an essay by critic Kent Jones. – Gary Dretzka

Jay & Silent Bob Get Old: Tea Bagging in the UK
Ever since their film debut in the 1994 indie sensation, “Clerks,” the comedy team of Jay & Silent Bob have been nearly inseparable. As such, the fictional characters (a.k.a., Jason Mewes and Kevin Smith) have served as role models for millions of underachievers, slackers and potheads around the world. And, why not? They’ve lasted eight years longer than Jerry Lewis and Dean Martin and regularly sell out auditoriums on their tours. Moreover, Mewes has managed to lift a rather large monkey off of his back and Smith looks as if he’s sufficiently slim and trim to be allowed on Southwest flights, without buying a second ticket. When they get together as Jay and Silent Bob, on tour, they sit at a table, exchanging views and anecdotes about getting high, getting laid and other weird scenes along their road to success. I suspected the British audiences that gathered for the three shows captured in “Jay & Silent Bob Get Old: Tea Bagging in the UK” would be a tad more discriminating than the ones that flock to their appearances here. I was wrong. Hard-core fans, those who haven’t already caught the lads’ podcasts and pay-per-view shows, anyway, should enjoy the new DVD very much. Others should acquaintant themselves with “Clerks,” “Mallrats,” “Chasing Amy,” “Dogma” and “Jay & Silent Bob Strike Back” before sinking their teeth into “Teabagging in the UK.” – Gary Dretzka

Kill List
Breathless: Blu-ray
British writer/director Ben Wheatley made a bit of a splash here, in 2010, with “Down Terrace,” a darkly comic story about a Brighton crime family struggling to stay afloat. He also directed more than a dozen episodes of the hilarious slacker sitcom, “Ideal,” for the BBC. “Kill List” is a graphically violent crime thriller, in which a pair of hitmen work their way down a list of people they’ve been assigned to murder. Apparently, the more depraved of the two, Jay (Neil Maskell), did some wet work for the Brit government, but his last trip to Kiev was something of a disaster. He’s spent the last year vegging out at his suburban home, driving his lovely wife with his sour disposition. Sensing that Jay is about to come apart at the seams, Gal (Michael Smiley) talks Jay into getting back in the game. A newborn enthusiasm for killing puts both men in the crosshairs of the evil men who call the shots. Lest viewers get too complacent, though, Wheatley steers “Kill List” in a completely different direction. That it takes the movie into territory previously mined in “The Wicker Man” is all I’m going to say about what happens in the final two reels. It’s pretty astonishing, though, and not for the squeamish.

What would possess an unsung writer/director to borrow the title of one of the cinema world’s most influential crime movies – and a pretty good American remake – and attach it to a movie that has direct-to-video written all over it? It isn’t that “Breathless” is a bad film, because it isn’t. It’s just that the title immediately conjures visions of Jean-Luc Godard’s 1960 classic –starring Jean-Paul Belmondo and Jean Seberg – as well as Jim McBride’s 1983 remake and the Jerry Lee Lewis song that inspires Richard Gere to take suicidal risks in it. Jesse Baget’s “Breathless” is a mildly entertaining black comedy, in which a gorgeous, if slightly over-the-hill Texas trailer dweller, Lorna (Gina Gershon), becomes a suspect in both a bank robbery and the murder of her good-for-nothing husband, Dale (Val Kilmer). Lorna suspects Dale of pulling off a $100,000 haul and stashing it in their remote trailer, with no intention of sharing it. To get him to admit to the crime, she enlists the help of her dimestore-sexpot friend, Tiny (Kelli Giddish). Before they can get him to talk, however, Lorna drills Dale with a seemingly errant bullet. Their attempt to dispose of the body is partially thwarted by a suspicious cop (Ray Liotta), who’s required to spend most of the movie cooling his heels at the entrance of the property, while waiting for a search warrant. There’s also an unkempt private eye (Richard Riehle), who crawls in through the bedroom window and already has much of the mystery figured out. It’s the location of the money that’s kept him guessing. The PI has been given most of the script’s best lines and benefits from a likeness to M. Emmet Walsh in “Blood Simple.” The special features add commentary with writer/director Baget and producer Christine Holder, as well as a behind-the-scenes featurette. — Gary Dretzka

Juan of the Dead
Girls Gone Dead: Unrated and Exposed Edition
Father’s Day: Limited Edition: Blu-ray
Every so often, a zombie movie will arrive out of nowhere and leave you with the feeling that the sub-genre might have some real life left in it, after all. Like Edgar Wright’s delightfully fresh “Shaun of the Dead,” Alejandro Brugues’ “Juan of the Dead” is more interested in entertaining audiences than showcasing new methods of killing the undead and adding to their arsenal of silly walks. First and foremost, “Juan of the Dead” was shot in Cuba, a country not known for its output of genre pictures and freedom of expression. With its decaying architecture and inescapable proclamations of political rhetoric, Havana already is one of the world’s capitals of undead culture. Indeed, it takes the protagonists several days to figure out that the bodies they see shuffling around the streets of their neighborhood aren’t actual human beings. (The same gag informed “Shaun of the Dead.”) Soon enough, the sheer number of zombies convinces them to take action.

As played by Alexis Diaz de Villegas, Juan is a fisherman too lazy to bother attempting to make the 90-mile passage to Florida and starting over on a new life. For Juan and his motley crew of pals, residing in the communist worker’s paradise is akin to attending daily AA meetings and relapsing after each one. When they aren’t fishing, drinking or screwing other men’s wives, they’re required to attend block meetings and watch news reports blaming Yankee imperialists for all of the island’s problems. Indeed, the newsreader isn’t at all reluctant to spread the official government opinion that the “flu” affecting residents is being spread by dissidents in league with the CIA. It causes one of the zombie hunters to refer to his prey only as “dissidents.” Their brainstorm business promises customers that any zombie-infestation problem can be eliminated with one phone call to Juan of the Dead. Even as the newsreader is assuring citizens that the plague is over, the zombie population is growing to the point where only the craziest of hunters will attempt clearing them out. Certain genre conventions apply in any zombie movie, but Havana is such a rich setting for horror that even the clichés feel new. A question not addressed in the making-of featurette is how Brugues and his team managed to stay out of jail for their effrontery.

Girls Gone Dead” is an almost shockingly lame parody of slasher films, in which overweight porn star Ron Jeremy, Iron Maiden’s Nicko McBrain and Howard Stern regulars Beetlejuice and Sal the Stockbroker are required to fill the vacuum left by the absence of a competent director and writer. A horror parody of Joe Francis and his “Girls Gone Wild” empire could be fun to watch, but “Girls Gone Dead” isn’t the one. No sooner does a group of college girls arrive at their Florida destination than a purple-clad stalker, wielding a medieval weapon begins killing them. The killer also targets the “Crazy Girls Unlimited” production team. Why? Clearly, it has something to do with the bible-bangers we meet early in the film and who then quickly disappear. When the fake blood isn’t flowing, fans of cheap and dirty T&A can get their kicks by starring at the ladies. Anyone who makes it through the feature may want to stay tuned for the bonus material, which includes five behind-the-scenes featurettes; the same number of music videos; fake commercials for Crazy Girls Unlimited; deleted scenes; and interviews.

As befits any movie that aspires to becoming a classic, Troma has made its latest slasher epic, “Father’s Day,” available in a super-duper four-disc limited and numbered Blu-ray edition. Years earlier, as the story goes, Ahab (Adam Brooks) convinced himself that he had avenged the brutal rape, murder, dismemberment and digestion of his father, by killing a vicious monster named Chris Fuchman. When new murders bearing the same M.O. begin to occur, Ahab is solicited by a street hustler, Twink, and a priest. Together, they hunt the killer, but not without killing some people on the way. Then, Satan makes a cameo appearance. If it doesn’t make a lot of sense, at least there’s plenty of Troma-tastic violence and gore to keep fans happy. The company’s impresario, Lloyd Kaufman, reportedly staked the Canadian filmmaking/acting troupe Astron-6 to a $10,000 bequest to make a movie based on a fake trailer they’d made. The set also includes deleted scenes, Astron-6 shorts, making-of and behind-the-scenes featurettes, a slide show, soundtrack EP CD and marketing material. – Gary Dretzka

Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory
In the rush to clear and prosecute notorious cases, representatives of the law-enforcement establishment have been known to take shortcuts they hope will lead to convictions, if not the truth. Defense lawyers play fast and loose with the facts, as well, but that’s what we expect of them. Given that human beings comprise American juries, not lie-detector machines, justice is an inexact science, at best. In the case of the so-called West Memphis Three, chronicled in the “Paradise Lost” documentary trilogy, what’s most dispiriting is the willingness of the judiciary to ignore newly uncovered facts and refuse to rehear cases likely to be reversed. In the case of accused child-killers and Satanists Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley, it took 18 years and the tireless efforts of filmmakers Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky – along with private citizens who doubted their guilt – for something approximating justice to prevail. The fact that the real killer(s) likely remain at large and breathing free air reveals an aspect of the system that qualifies as a legitimate flaw. In Arkansas and other states, it’s the responsibility of the judges who presided over the original case to determine if enough new scientific evidence has been uncovered – or reports of police and prosecutorial misconduct authenticated — to warrant a new trial. Unlike DNA evidence, a simple recantation of testimony usually isn’t enough to reverse a decision. The rub, of course, is that too many judges take it personally when the adjudication of the cases before them is tested and routinely side with the prosecutors and police. After all, the presumption of innocence no longer applies. That re-trials can be expensive, time-consuming, similarly inconclusive and emotionally jarring on everyone involved also must be taken into consideration.

Berlinger and Sinofsky were drawn to the case of “the child murders at Robin Hood Hills” was the likelihood that the West Memphis Three not only were guilty in the hideous crimes, but also were inspired by Satanic mischief and heavy-metal music. As time went by, however, they determined that the teenagers had been railroaded and set out to prove it in two subsequent films. They attracted the attention of such high-profile celebrities as Eddie Vedder, Johnny Depp and the Dixie Chicks, whose presence sparked the interest of media outlets that already had put the case to bed. The access accorded the filmmakers was remarkable, even from two men who were likely candidates themselves. “Paradise Lost 3” is a remarkable document, at once uplifting, frustrating and depressing. Indeed, even after it became clear that the men had been robbed of their freedom for nearly two decades, the state demanded that they plead guilty to one murder – while also being allowed to declare their innocence to all three – before they would be allowed to leave prison (and, in one case, Death Row) and get on with their lives. The only other option given them was the right to a retrial, which could take years and result in another conviction or retrial. In the meantime, they’d have to remain in prison. How could this be fair, when even an inadvertent parole violation or misdemeanor could result in a return to the slammer? Meanwhile, the admission of guilt absolves the state in any potential lawsuit. The DVD adds follow-up material, including from press conferences held to promote the documentary. – Gary Dretzka

Ali: The Man, the Moves, the Mouth
The Beatles: Their Golden Age
The Fresh Beat Band: The Wizard of Song
Now that the London edition of the Olympic Games is in our rear-view mirrors, two new non-fiction films might be of interest to young viewers. I was astounded by the lack of coverage of boxing, which can be explained by the fact that no American men were contenders and the successful women were relegated to CNBC. (Was the network too squeamish to show our gold-medal winner, Claressa Shields, and Irish phenom, Katie Taylor, duke it out with other women?) Narrated by the late Bert Sugar, “Ali: The Man, the Moves, the Mouth” not only reminds us of the heavyweight champ’s pride over winning a gold medal, but also that most of his greatest foes also had participated in the Olympics. Even if there isn’t much that’s new here, the 60-minute film serves well as primer for young people who know Ali as a celebrity, without having watched his evolution as a boxer. It’s always fun to watch Ali in his prime, in and out of the ring.

If it weren’t for the contributions of the Beatles to Brit culture, the Opening and Closing ceremonies wouldn’t have been nearly as entertaining or relevant to viewers in the increasingly less desirable Baby Boomer demographic. In “The Beatles: Their Golden Age” publisher, author and former veterinarian Les Krantz documents the Fab Four’s amazing career trajectory through archival, public-domain clips and newsreel material, some of which qualify as rarely seen. Naturally, though, licensing fees preclude the showing of concert material and only bits and pieces from the marketing material for their movies. Again, it’s fun to monitor the band’s changes and relive the hysteria that followed their every move. Otherwise, there isn’t much here that diehard fans haven’t already perused.

I might have saved myself some time if I’d known about Nickelodeon and Nick Jr.’s musical-adventure series, “The Fresh Beat Band: The Wizard of Song,” before I reviewed the live-action feature, “After the Wizard.” When band member Marina gets swept up into a windstorm, she lands in Oz. Like Dorothy, she befriends a Scarecrow, a Tin Woman and a Lion, who lead her to the Wizard of Song. Maybe, he can point her to the way home. The 46-minute episode aired last January. – Gary Dretzka

Glee: The Complete Third Season: Blu-ray
Community: The Complete Third Season
Hallmark: Lake Effects
It took a while, but, once everyone got over the fact that Kurt is gay, the producers and writers of “Glee” finally were able to steer Season 3 in the direction of the Nationals, Graduation Day, life after high school and relieving key characters, including Kurt and Rachel, of their virginity. Also percolating just below the surface was the necessity of finding new members of New Directions to fill the shoes of the world’s oldest teenagers. (Vanessa Lengies, the actor playing newcomer Sugar Motta, just turned 27.) “Glee: The Complete Third Season” provides the perfect remedy for those of us who wavered in our devotion to the Fox series in its third stanza. The fast-forward button allows for easy navigation through and around the increasingly more eccentric storylines, snit-fits and musical set pieces. There were so many strange and unlikely things going on at McKinley High last season that it boggled the mind. Among them are the return of Rachel’s mom (Idina Menzel), with Puck and Quinn’s toddler in tow; Sue’s destructive run for Congress; the near tragedy of Chang getting an A-, an “Asian F,” in math; the Gleek’s Michael Jackson salute; leprechauns and unicorns roaming the WMHS hallways; and the return of Sam Evans. The Blu-ray arrives with a newly replenished “Jukebox”; “Glee Under the Stars”; the deleted number, “Santa Baby”; “Meet the Newbies”; and “Ask Sue: World Domination Blog.”

There’s no more offbeat and unpredictable sitcom on broadcast television then NBC’s “Community,” which often crosses the border from hip to too cool for school. Its often snarky approach to satirizing nerd culture and life, in general, isn’t easy to digest for audiences inclined to react only after a laugh track tells them how to do so. I love it. To recoup, “Community” chronicles the on-campus life of a wildly diverse group of community-college students in Colorado. They met three years ago as members of a study group, but quickly evolved into a family of lovable misfits. The eccentricities that appeal to the sitcom’s core audience also limited its reach, however, and this caused the pinheads at NBC to prematurely declare it dead. After putting the show on a mid-season hiatus, loyal viewers and critics launched a save-“Community” campaign. It worked to the extent that all remaining episodes of the show eventually aired and it’s been accorded a fourth season. The downside came in the announcement that series creator Dan Harmon would be sacrificed to the network gods and other members of the creative team would be leaving with him. Season 3 was noteworthy for its many theme episodes and mini-arcs, as well as the introduction of John Goodman as Greendale’s new vice dean. The complete-season DVD adds commentary on several tracks and some deleted scenes.

Hallmark and Anchor Bay are giving a big push to the made-for-cable movie, “Lake Effects,” which, while family friendly, will appeal primarily to the Lifetime audience of young women and their moms. This isn’t to say that men will be bored to death while watching the family-in-crisis flick – the male characters aren’t total wimps – but it’s the women who drive the drama and make all of the key decisions. With the untimely death of her outdoorsman husband, Jane Seymour’s Vivian faces a financial crisis that involves the legal, if thoroughly unethical foreclosure of her gorgeous lake home. She’s brightened by the arrival of her lawyer daughter (Scottie Thomson) for the funeral, but is dismayed by her desire to get back to L.A. a.s.a.p. She can’t even be bothered with turning off her cellphone during her dad’s Viking rites. Her sister (Madeline Zima) is a local art student who never left home and doesn’t seem to have experienced much in the way of sexual passion. Before long, though, the lawyer reconnects with an old beau, who’s the polar opposite of her fiancé, and the teacher finds love in an unexpected place. While Mom is perfectly willing to accept the reality of losing her home and moving to Arizona, her daughter smells the same rat that’s been running around after the collapse of the housing market everywhere. The process serves to humanize the lawyer daughter and brighten the lives of everyone except her fiancé. That much could have been predicted 20 minutes into the movie. The writing and acting’s serviceable enough, but what really sells the movie is its gorgeous rural Virginia location. The making-of featurette describes how the residents of Moneta, Va., rallied behind the production. – Gary Dretzka

A&E: Dance Moms: Season One
History: American Pickers: Volume Four
History: Pawn Stars: Volume Five
History: Titanic: 100 Years in 3D
Biography: Barack Obama
One of the positive aspects of watching reality-based programming is coming to the realization — maybe for the first time — that there are crazier people out there than your nuttiest relative and some who are far more despicable than the neighbor who encourages his dog to poop on your lawn. They’re everywhere and they’re absolutely frightening. No more so than on A&E’s “Dance Moms,” which is to tweeners what “Toddlers & Tiaras” is to the kindergarten crowd and “Dallas Divas & Daughters” is to aspiring debutantes. Forget for a minute, if you can, that no girl who has yet to reach puberty ought to obsess over makeup and dance routines that wouldn’t be out of place at the Spearmint Rhino. The greater question is why any parent would volunteer to show their worst sides to viewers, week after week, even if they’re paid for the experience. The children are often mature than the moms, which wouldn’t be difficult, but they, too, have their moments. How they’ll act when they have children of their own may never be known. Lifetime’s “Dance Moms” is set in and around Pittsburgh’s Abby Lee Dance Company, which routinely turns out champion dancers. Instructor Abby Lee Miller is Vince Lombardi in stretch pants. In addition to barking and berating the students, she isn’t reluctant to go toe to toe with the moms, all of whom think their daughters are the second coming of Juliet Prowse and Ann Reinking. They could be someday, but they aren’t right now. As nuts as the moms are – one even demands of her seriously injured daughter that she suck it up and compete, like professional athletes — Abby trumps them all by putting the little angels in skimpy costumes they won’t be able to fill out for six or seven years. Even the moms are shocked by the outfits and gyrations. Still, if no one watched these shows, they wouldn’t be renewed season after season. Everyone loves a good horror show.

History’s “American Pickers” is substantially more relatable to those of us who can’t afford lessons at a prestige dance studio and transportation to weekly competitions in all corners of the country. Anyone who owns a car with a large trunk can do the same things as hosts Mike Wolfe and Frank Fritz, who mine for antique gold in the places most people store the stuff they can’t bear to throw away or put on Craig’s List. (We not talking about the mountains of garbage accumulated by the sickos in “Hoarders,” but normally messy Americans.) In the “Volume 4” edition, which, inexplicably, is comprised of shows from Season 2, the hosts begin their trek at the International Clown Hall of Fame, in Wisconsin, and take the circuitous scenic route to southern California.

Most pawn shops look dark and depressing. By comparison, the Harrison family’s shop, in Las Vegas, could be confused with Harrods or Nordstrom’s. Gold and Silver Pawn is bright, spotless and often bustling with activity. Nonetheless, who knew? I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that some of the primo items brought in for sale on “Pawn Stars” were found originally by Mike and Frank in “American Pickers” and given to ringers hired by the show. How else to explain the presence of a 31-ton car-crushing Robosaurus, a midget submarine and a 1936 Rolex watch once owned by Bernie Madoff. Haven’t the customers heard of eBay and Craig’s List? No matter, much of the show’s allure comes from the appraisals made by professionals brought in for their expert opinions. Even when the sellers go home disappointed, they seem happy to be taken seriously and appearing on TV. I’d love to know, however, what some of the items purchased by the Harrisons fetched when put up for sale.

Five months after the centennial of the sinking of the Titanic, the icebergs just keep on coming. The latest addition to the video library is “Titanic: 100 Years in 3D.” The title says it all. It chronicles a 2010 expedition sponsored by Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute and RMS Titanic Inc., during which the entire wreck site was mapped, using high-resolution optical video, sonar, acoustic imaging, 3D HD video and acoustic modeling. In addition to the ship itself, stories connecting the passenger to recovered artifacts are told. Enough already, though. (Also compatible on Blu-ray.)

Biography’s biodoc “Barack Obama” recalls for the one or two people who don’t already know it, how a self-described “skinny kid with a funny name” made the unlikely climb from star speaker at the 2004 Democratic National Convention to President of the United States in four short years. It wasn’t easy, by any stretch of the imagination, but he got a lot of help. In any case, the primary audience for “Barack Obama” is the people too young to have cast a ballot in 2008. It includes new interviews with friends and family members, as well as previously unreleased footage of Obama’s campaign and victory. – Gary Dretzka

Astonishing X-Men: Torn
The latest release in Shout! Factory’s series of material from the Marvel Knights franchise is “Astonishing X-Men,” yet another stylish collaboration between Joss Whedon and John Cassaday. “Torn” picks up where previous arcs, “Gifted” and “Dangerous,” left off. While the video translation of the graphic novel remains faithful to the “Astonishing X-Man” adventures on a frame-by-frame basis, it’s the brilliancy of the colors that sells the DVD. In “Torn,” Emma Frost’s erratic behavior is having an adverse effect on the X-Men, who now have the new Hellfire Club with which to cope. Newcomers to the series are encouraged to begin with “Gifted” and “Dangerous” and other X-Men material before jumping head-first into the deep end with “Torn” and the upcoming “Unstoppable.” – Gary Dretzka

100 Greatest Comedy Classics Box
100 Greatest Western Classics Box
Anyone who’s ever wanted to create his own personal cable channel could start by purchasing the compilations of comedies, Westerns, sci-fi, family, horror and mystery titles, as well as collections of vintage commercials and cartoons, distributed by Mill Creek. Not all of the public-domain titles are classics or even close to being the cream of a studio’s crop; they’re definitely not in pristine condition; and most of the actors, no matter how famous, weren’t close to their prime when the movies were shot. One the other hand, they come in sets ranging from 100 to 1,001 selections and the prices, from $10 to $45. You could pretend to be TMC host Robert Osborne, by introducing each selection, and bring in guest commentators from the neighborhood. If you haven’t bought a new TV in the last 15 years, the quality of the audio-visual presentation won’t matter.

The newest additions to the Mill Creek inventory are “100 Greatest Comedy Classics” and “100 Greatest Western Classics,” the latter combining Mill Creek’s previous “Western” and “Gunslinger” 50-packs. There’s no need to run down the names of the stars of the pictures, because all the great ones are represented, even those of the spaghetti persuasion. The 100-title comedy package combines the earlier “Comedy Kings” and “Comedy Classics” 50-packs. The actors here include many well-known dramatic actors cast in comedic roles. It’s difficult not to find some small gem buried deep inside even the most mediocre of these titles. – Gary Dretzka

The Magic School Bus: The Complete Series
In the mid-1990s, “The Magic School Bus” was one of the most popular series for school-age children on the PBS Kids block. It was adapted by Scholastic Studios from a series of books, by Bruce Degen and Joanna Cole, which were intended to blend educational material, kid-pleasing entertainment and a cohesive throughline. Even after the animated science-adventure was canceled, reruns of the 52-episode series continued on several different commercial networks, including Fox, TLC, Qubo, Discovery Kids and NBC. The new eight-disc compilation contains all 52 episodes of the Emmy-winning series. It also offers a parent’s guide, with a list of episodes, topics and guest stars, and a kids’ guide, with experiments, activities, facts and notes. It can be enjoyed in English and Spanish. – Gary Dretzka

‘Nuit #1′ explores love, sex and despair in Montreal’s lost generation

Thursday, August 9th, 2012

Montreal may seem a million miles from Nashville, but you don’t have to speak French to see how Anne Emond’s psychosexual drama “Nuit #1” resembles any number of country songs about temporary lovers and one-night stands. Take the Amazing Rhythm Ace’s “Third Rate Romance,” for example.

Instead of meeting over drinks “at a tiny table in a ritzy restaurant,” the lovers in “Nuit #1” find each other at an Ecstasy-fueled rave, while pogoing to electro-trance music. The effect is the same:

“Talk was small when they talked at all/They both knew what they wanted/There was no need to talk about it/They were old enough to scope it out/And keep it loose …

“She said, ‘You don’t look like my type, but I guess you’ll do’/And he said, ‘I’ll even tell you that I love you if you want me to’/Third rate romance/Low rent rendezvous.”

It all happens in a flash. No sooner do Emond’s lovers kick the door of his apartment shut than they’re groping each other and striping off their clothes. The cherry is added to the sundae when Nikolai apologizes for having to ask Clara what her name is. The same thing happened in Rod Steward’s “Stay With Me,” another song about sex without love, intimacy without passion.

“There’s a lot of me in ‘Nuit #1,’ of course,” the first-time writer/director allows. “I know how it feels to be 30 and lost.”

Mostly, Emond adds, it’s a composite portrait of people she knows in Montreal.

“The people dancing alongside Clara in the opening sequence aren’t actors … they’re friends,” she says. “They’re the people whose lives shaped the characters. Here we are, nearly 30 years old now, and we we’re still doing this stuff.”

If artfully rendered sex and pretty faces were the only thing “Nuit #1” had going for it, the movie probably wouldn’t have found traction off the festival circuit. Even with all the pre-release notoriety it garnered, Michael Winterbottom’s similarly plotted and far more explicitly sexual “9 Songs” didn’t set turnstiles twirling here. Neither do the erotically charged movies of Patrice Chereau and Catherine Breillat.

“I knew about those movies when I was writing ‘Nuit,’ but they weren’t an inspiration,” Emond insists. “To me, ‘9 Songs’ seemed more like hard-core porn. I wasn’t shocked by it, but I wanted something more natural and less explicit.

“I was more inspired by Jean Eustache’s ‘The Mother and the Whore,’ with Jean-Pierre Leaud.”

That 215-minute relationship epic, from 1973, involves a trio of bored young people – not unlike Clara and Nikolai – who share an open marriage and whose concept of the future is tomorrow. When they’re not in the sack, Leaud spends a lot of time sitting in cafes, sleeping around, getting high or drunk and talking endlessly about himself. The women are a bit more grounded.

In “Nuit #1,” the characters played by Catherine De Léan and Dimitri Storoge do a lot of talking about themselves, as well. To get to that point, however, Clara is required to alter her usual pattern of coming and, immediately thereafter, going away from her latest empty liaison. For his part, Nikolai is harboring rage over being an artist without much discernible talent and an intellectual who can’t seem to finish anything he starts, especially books.

When Nikolai wakes up from a light sleep and notices Clara leaving, he tears into her with the kind of insights and insults generally reserved for unhappily married couples. It’s an ugly, if necessary chapter in the narrative. After one false start and more abuse from Nikolai, she finally does leave the dumpy apartment building. Uncharacteristically, he chases after her to say he’s sorry.
At first, we feel sorry for the waif-like Clara, who, when she’s not out cavorting, teaches third-graders. We also wonder how, out of all the men she could have chosen, she made the mistake of going home with this dickhead? OK, he’s handsome in an exotic sort of way, but how could Clara have allowed herself to sleep on sheets that probably have never been washed and bathe in a tub that isn’t much cleaner?

The answer, we learn in the long, deeply felt confessions that replace the sex in the 91-minute film, is that she isn’t particularly choosy when it comes to the men with whom she sleeps. If they have one redeeming quality, at least, they’re in. By contrast, Nikolai hasn’t had sex in six months and he had to be dragged to the club by friends. He was attracted to Clara for the same reasons we are: she struck him as being “free” and “pure,” if not much of a dancer.

In a pair of soliloquies that follow, Clara admits to even more unpleasant habits than being an indiscriminate lover. Indeed, there’s very little that’s free and pure about her. Referring to herself as an “empty shell,” living in a fog, Clara says she can’t remember the number of men with whom she’s slept, enjoys that they assume she’s a “slut” when she walks into a room and gets her nourishment from pills, pot and booze.

In his confessional, Nikolai lets down his guard long enough for us to think he may be worthy of our sympathy, after all. The ex-pat Ukrainian may be a prick, but, at least, he doesn’t have to hide his “secret life” from school administrators and the PTA. Somewhere, deep down, he might even harbor a soft spot.

Sad, honest and desperately revealing, the rambling monologues may remind older viewers of Marlon Brando’s speeches in “Last Tango in Paris.” All that’s missing is the butter.

The fact is, Clara tells Nikolai, “When the sun comes up, I begin to panic. I can’t let the euphoria end.”

“Sex is the only thing Clara knows how to do well,” Emond says. “She’s only been able to keep her job because the union has made it too difficult to fire teachers, and she keeps coming back to Nikolai’s apartment because she can’t bear to be alone. Neither can he.”

The emptiness both of them feels translates well off screen. Apart from the opening dance sequence and a couple of minutes spent in the rain-soaked street outside Nikolai’s apartment, “Nuit #1” unfolds in his cluttered living room and cramped bathroom.

“There are essentially five big scenes … the sex, he said, she said, he said, she said,” Emond explains. “There was no improvisation and we limited ourselves to three shots for every long sequence. It was easy to fail, because any mistakes couldn’t be saved in the editing room.

“There were times when I wondered what we were doing. The only choice we had was to trust the words and the actors.”

Apparently, she didn’t allot any time to worry how the sex scenes would play off the festival circuit. “Nuit #1,” which practically plays out in real time, is going out unrated and absent the kind of marketing effort that accompanies most mainstream titles.

“I never thought about how shocking the sensuality might be to audiences,” Emond says. “Quebec is not Canada … I’ve paid a lot more attention to films from France and other European countries, than Canada and Hollywood. I wasn’t concerned about it until I began to wonder how my mother might react.

“Besides being an exploration of sex, intimacy and love, ‘Nuit #1’ is a film about despair, individualism and the anxieties of belonging. It does, however, expose the potential in even the most fleeting encounters.”

Viewers will have to decide for themselves if Emond’s ending qualifies as happy, enigmatic or raw material for another sad country song.

The DVD Wrapup: Warriors of Rainbow, Full Metal Jacket, Bunny Game, Scalene, Ladda Land, High Fidelity, Zombies …

Tuesday, August 7th, 2012

Warriors of the Rainbow: Seediq Bale
The most important thing for American audiences to know about “Warriors of the Rainbow: Seediq Bale” is that it comes with the imprimatur of the great Hong Kong action director, John Woo. Although his presence can’t guarantee a positive reaction, it gives us more reason for optimism than the usual stuff found on a DVD cover. I found it to be immensely entertaining, but recommend potential viewers to take a minute beforehand to read the Wikipedia entry on the history of Taiwan. That’s because “Warriors of the Rainbow” is based on events most viewers – even those whose roots extend to the much disputed island – have no idea existed. For reasons that bear more on geophysical phenomenon than politics, Taiwan was home to a thriving, undiluted indigenous culture until as late as the early 1930s. The mountainous interior and rain forests were roughly divided into hunting grounds claimed by as many as 14 distinct clans, none of which liked each other much. Still, as long as the natives minded their own business and refrained from decapitating the immigrant Chinese who populated the villages on the shoreline, no one in authority bothered them much. It wasn’t until the Japanese took control of the island, after the first Sino-Japanese War, that things took a turn for the worst in the interior. Like any imperialist nation in the colonial era, Japan saw much to plunder in its new property. Taiwan’s rain forests represented a bounty in unexploited timber and mineral wealth. Instead of treating the indigenous people with respect, they officially dubbed them “savages” and forced captured tribesmen to work for wages sufficient only for buying enough rice wine to keep them docile. It is against this background that “Warriors of the Rainbow” takes place.

Like the Apache and the Sioux, the mountain aboriginals not only were great hunters, they also were ferocious guerrilla warriors who assumed that dying with honor in combat assured them a reunion in the afterlife with their ancestors. In fact, heaven was only a short rainbow’s glide away from their temporary quarters on Earth.  So, in effect, they had nothing to lose by taking on the Japanese, whose arsenal by this time included automatic weapons, artillery, airplanes, grenades, mortars and gas bombs. The natives preferred cutting off the heads of their enemies, with one swift slice and without making a sound. Against overwhelming force, however, they would condescend to use stolen rifles and machine guns. Japanese attempts to assimilate the clans were thwarted by the arrogance of police officials and disrespect shown laborers, as well as an insistence that even the ones who agree to blend in were savages. In 1930, Seediq leader Mouna Rudo (Lin Ching-Tai) forged a coalition with other clan leaders and plotted a rebellion against the Japanese that would take the police and army by surprise. The revolt was staged by some 300 clansmen against a virtually unlimited supply of Japanese soldiers, so any success would have to be regarded as a Pyrrhic. Not being a country known to hold back on reprisals for such effrontery, Japan made every effort to annihilate the clans that didn’t capitulate to them. (Being ancient enemies, some found it impossible to join forces for the common good or to meet their ancestors prematurely somewhere over the rainbow.)

“Warriors of the Rainbow” is reputed to be the most expensive Taiwanese film ever made, and every NT$ is visible on the screen. The scenery is spectacular and the action scenes are as exciting as any I’ve seen in any American movie that isn’t dominated by comic-book superheroes or CGI action. Indeed, apart from the special-makeup effects employed to assure that the head-hunting is limited to prosthetic necks, the fight scenes look extremely realistic. Close attention has been paid, as well, to the aboriginal culture and roles played by women and children at all strata of society. If Hollywood hadn’t insisted on pursing its juvenile Cowboys-vs.-Indians approach to the history of the American west, our government’s continued disrespect for the Native American population might not have been tolerated by God-fearing immigrants. Now that the some tribes own casinos, however, the conquerors have been allowed to ignore the poverty that still haunts the reservations. (Once Internet gambling is legalized, many Indian casinos will die on the vine, taking the funds needed for infrastructure, education and health with them.)  Anyone impressed by “Warriors of the Rainbow” is strongly advised to sample the bonus material, which adds interviews with Wei Te-Sheng and producer John Woo; background information on the story; and several making-of featurettes. – Gary Dretzka

Full Metal Jacket: 25th Anniversary Edition: Blu-ray
When Stanley Kubrick’s “Full Metal Jacket” was released in 1987, the long shadow of the Vietnam War still held the U.S. in its grip. Naturally, the perception that the movie was inspired by and about Vietnam was widespread and largely went unquestioned. Viewed from the distance of another couple of decades, 9/11 and several foreign wars, however, it’s clear that Kubrick was looking forward instead of backward. Based on what he gleaned from his research, he knew that the next generation of soldiers, especially those drawn to an all-volunteer army or Marine Corps, would be expected to fight and kill without questioning the legality or morality of the next war or be swayed by anti-war protests back home. In large part, that’s exactly what’s happened in Iraq and Afghanistan. Dissension and outright mutiny were very much a part of our Vietnam experience, primarily among draftees, who had every reason to believe that they’d gotten the shaft. With the exception of Joker’s peace button, resistance to the war among the troops in “Full Metal Jacket” is pretty much invisible. In fairness, though, the devastating effects of the Tet offensive had yet to be calculated and Americans in and out of uniform were still willing to believe the lies fed to them by the Pentagon and White House.

The message delivered in the first half of “Full Metal Jacket” is the more prescient one. Marine brass and seasoned drill instructors knew even then that, all gung-ho patriotism aside, Americans fresh out of high school or college couldn’t be turned into killers overnight. The de-humanization process begins with the ritual shedding of facial hair and continues under the tutelage of hardened combat veterans like Gunnery Sergeant Hartman – played with uncommon relish by former drill instructor R. Lee Ermey – who treats everyone the same way, like shit. By allotting nicknames to the recruits and delivering foul-mouthed soliloquies – shocking even members of Kubrick’s creative team – Hartman effectively turned the men into cogs in a killing machine. Their individual personalities and leadership qualities would emerge in due course, but, by the time they do, the nicknames will have held and they’d see themselves as Marines, above all. (Contrast these men to those we met in “Apocalypse Now.”) In effect, then, Private Gomer Pyle’s insurrection at the end of the first half was the exception that proved the rule. Once he “got with the program,” Pyle was an equal among equals. When his inner devil emerged, Pyle’s inability to distinguish between friend and foe became unacceptable.

In the second half of “Full Metal Jacket,” everything that happened in the first half begins to make sense. With the exception of Joker and Rafterman, who, as reporters and photographers have avoided most of “the shit,” the Marines have gotten down to the business at hand. Even after experiencing combat in the attack on the compound, the journalists are itching to put their training to the test on the front lines. The Marines attempting to recapture Hue all have the “thousand-mile stare” and react instinctually to threats to their well-being. In his interview with a TV crew covering the fight, Rafterman is the only person who believes the war is about bringing freedom and democracy to Vietnam. Joker has yet to lose his natural tendency to wise-crack his way through stressful situations. Everyone else accepts the reality of their being in Vietnam to kill or be killed. Perhaps, if Pyle hadn’t killed himself, he might have ended up like the machine-gunner in the helicopter, who shocked the reporters with his laissez-faire attitude toward killing anything that moved, laughing uncontrollably while doing it and keeping score. At least two previous Blu-ray editions of “Full Metal Jacket” have already been released, to varying degrees of acceptance by fans and techies. The “25th Anniversary Edition” retains the already sufficiently upgraded hi-def version and adds the fascinating documentary “Stanley Kubrick’s Boxes.” It chronicles director Jon Ronson’s attempt to peruse and catalog hundreds of cartons full of archival material Kubrick left behind when he died. Some of it is so minute as to call the master’s obsessive behavior into question. There’s also the featurette, “Between Good and Evil,” in which cast members discuss the experience of working for Kubrick. The commentary track contains material recorded separately and absent several key players. – Gary Dretzka

Girlfriend
Scalene
One of the highlights of last year’s Emmy Award ceremony was the bestowing of a Best Supporting Actress trophy to Margo Martindale for her unforgettable portrayal of the matriarch of a hillbilly crime family in “Justice.” As is observed whenever a veteran character actor is rewarded for her work in the role of a lifetime, “It was well-deserved and long overdue.” In “Scalene,” Martindale turns in another award-quality performance, this time as the mother of a young man, Jacob (Adam Scarimbolo), with the kind of brain damage that demands almost constant one-on-one attention. Moreover, he hasn’t spoken a word to anyone since being injured in a glue-sniffing experiment in high school and he might be deaf.  I don’t think the one-man-band filmmaker, Zack Parker (“Quench”), chose the title to demonstrate that he’s hipper than thou, although he very well may be. Anyone who paid attention during their geometry classes might recall that a scalene triangle is one formed by three unequal lines, as is Parker’s perceptual thriller. Unlike “Rashomon,” which is more equilateral, “Scalene” presents its different points of view in non-linear fashion, without offering equal time to each one.

In “Scalene,” we are given every reason to believe that Jacob’s caretaker has been raped and the traumatized 26-year-old is the perpetrator. His mother, Janice, doesn’t believe that he’s capable of such an attack, but we’ve also been shown that she’s capable of responding violently to bad news. Before the incident, Janice had become increasingly more frustrated by the fact that her son’s neurological disorder was causing potential boyfriends to disappear, just as the boy’s had years earlier. To remedy this, she hires a conscientious college student, Paige (Hannah Hall), to hang out with Jacob. Paige comes to believe that Janice is abusing Jacob physically, but, without proof, is reluctant to call police. For his part, Jacob can’t understand why people continue to do things to him that cause emotional and physical pain. Eventually, all of our assumptions are put to the test. Parker wears his debt to Alfred Hitchcock on his sleeve, with early references to “Vertigo” and trademark Bernard Herrmann compositions. He has a long way to go, however, before more valid comparison can be made. Still, considering that “Scalene” was made for $150,000, it certainly earned its Best Picture Award at the 2011 Dances With Films festival. The DVD adds background material, interviews and material shot at the festival.

Judging from the reception “Girlfriend” received at film festivals, it is a movie that appeals far more to audiences than to the pundits required to sift through a hill of rocks to find a couple of gems. Ten years ago, the critics might have been more in tune with viewers, but, today, stories about people with physical and learning disabilities no longer earn brownie points for good intentions and fine acting. Fragile dramas, such as Justin Lerner’s feature debut, “Girlfriend,” must offer something more than a star with Down syndrome to warm the hearts of cold-blooded critics. Set in a working-class town in the boonies, “Girlfriend” describes the coming of age of Evan (Evan Sneider), a young man who is given an opportunity to fulfill his dream of courting his high school crush object. He has Down syndrome, but it hasn’t stopped him from making friends or working alongside his mother (Amanda Plummer) at a local restaurant. Shannon Woodward (“Raising Hope”) plays Candy, a single mother who’s led two unworthy suitors to believe they’ve fathered her son. She’s about to be thrown out of the house she shares with the boy when Evan rides to her rescue. In the wake of his mother’s unexpected death, he has inherited a pile of money from her inheritance. Instead of putting it in a bank, as advised, he hands a large portion of it over to Candy. In return, she agrees to let him watch her take a bath. In Evan’s ever-optimistic mind, this makes him one of her boyfriends. It also turns him into a potential target for extortion by Candy’s actual boyfriend (Jackson Rathbone, “The Twilight Saga”), a handsome cad whose only attributes would appear to be his pickup truck and a swell cowboy hat.  He easily extracts information from Evan about the true paternity of her son and steals the money given to her to avoid eviction. Evan’s gullibility is easily forgiven, but, when her son disappears one afternoon, Candy automatically suspects Evan of committing a ghastly crime. The resolution of the incident leads to a sweet, if decidedly unusual happy ending for Evan and Candy, if you catch my drift. Both of the lead actors are very good, as is Plummer in the short-lived role of a woman with more problems than she can handle. – Gary Dretzka

The Bunny Game: Blu-ray
Imagine the most frighteningly realistic slasher or torture-porn movie you’ve ever seen and then try to recall the exact point at which the director lifted the pedal off the metal, finally relieving all of your anxiety and fear. No matter how much one knows, going in, about special makeup effects, it’s difficult not to empathize with the victim and imagine how it might feel to be attacked by a lunatic with a nail gun or have your teeth extracted with a pliers. While a really good horror movie can induce nightmares, it’s a sure bet that none of the actors suffered permanent physical or emotional scars or missed much sleep over what happened to their characters. “The Bunny Game” offers no such assurances. It’s the closest thing I’ve seen to a snuff film and it left me wondering about the motives of the filmmaker and the well-being of his star, Rodleen Getsic, who makes the pain inflicted on her character palpable. She plays a cocaine-addicted prostitute who services men on the low end of the food chain, mostly to satisfy her lust for the white powder. Bunny doesn’t appear to have any other expensive tastes and she isn’t on the stroll to finance her dream of graduating from college. In Getsic’s hands, Bunny is the most credible movie prostitute since Jennifer Jason Leigh played Tralala in “Last Exit to Brooklyn.” Perhaps, more so, because Leigh wasn’t required to give anyone a blowjob — once in a shitty room in L.A.’s warehouse district and, again, next to a dumpster in an alley – crawl on her knees through the desert at the end of a leash or be branded by a sociopathic truck driver. What you see in “The Bunny Game” is pretty much what Getsic got. As co-writer, she claims most of what we see was drawn from memory and, anyway, writer/director Adam Rehmeier probably couldn’t afford a makeup artist or prosthetics specialist. “The Bunny Game” is what torture-porn looks like when it isn’t intended to titillate or entertain audiences, simply horrify them. By comparison, everything else is kids’ stuff.

Like to many prostitutes whose bodies are found buried in shallow graves or discarded by the side of a country road, Bunny makes the mistake of trusting one trick too many. Because there isn’t much she wouldn’t do for a bindle of blow, she willing climbs into the cab of a semi with a driver who resembles half of the wrestlers on the WWE dance card. Contrary to genre tradition, the protagonist never is given an opportunity to escape the clutches of the fiend, let alone avenge his brutality, or rescue other poor souls being held captive in his dungeon. Instead, after getting high and going down on him, Hog (Jeff Renfro) puts her in a choke hold that knocks her unconscious. My initial thought was that he snapped her neck and was going to spend a few hours playing with her corpse before heading off into the desert and finding another victim. Instead, Hog parks his rig in automobile graveyard off the Interstate, sniffs some glue or ether, and chains her up in the empty trailer. He begins torturing her even before she’s awakened from her stupor and doesn’t let up for what seems like an eternity. As if that weren’t sufficient inducement for nausea, Rehmeier intersperses these scenes with those of another woman being tortured, this time in the basement of his home. Because “The Bunny Game” was shot in black-and-white, its impact is that of a tape put into evidence in the trial of a sexual deviant or serial rapist. Without any actual story to relieve our horror, we’re pretty much left to wonder how much of this stuff she/we can take.

If the movie weren’t frightening enough, the making-of featurette proved to be the icing on the cake for me. Apparently, “The Bunny Game” was largely inspired by things that happened to Getsic in real life, including being abducted. Likewise, Renfro is an actual over-the-road trucker, who very much looks the part of a guy who could go coast-to-coast nourished only by coffee, crystal meth and the occasional convenience-store hotdog. In his interview, Renfro says that he’s met a lot of pretty strange people on the road and nothing in the movie surprised him. For additional verisimilitude, Rehmeier shot in some of the grimmer streets and alleys of the City of Angels, including one that stunk of excrement and a hotel room with blood on the ceiling from a recent suicide. He dispensed with even the semblance of skeleton crew early on, so as to navigate in tight spaces with maximum flexibility. But it’s Getsic’s performance – scratch that, ordeal – that has to be seen to be believed. My advice for those new to torture-porn and modern horror, if you couldn’t make it through “Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer,” there’s no chance in hell you’ll sit through “The Bunny Game.” Caveat emptor, applies. – Gary Dretzka

Steve Niles’ Remains: Blu-ray
Zombie Undead
If there’s anything to be learned from these two movies, it’s that a zombie apocalypse can be triggered by nuclear bombs. I wasn’t aware that this was possible, but, apparently, it is. Otherwise, there’s very little difference between the undead, as portrayed in a hundred other zombie flicks, and the ones who shuffle their way through “Remains” and “Zombie Undead.” Based on the IDW Publishing graphic novel written by Steve Niles (“30 Days of Night”), “Remains” is by far the more entertaining movie. Although the thriller doesn’t break any new ground – what could? – it’s often quite funny and director Colin Theys’ team did a nice job turning a Connecticut hotel into a passable Reno casino. The idea here, of course, is that the radioactivity from a nearby nuclear accident has instantly transformed almost everyone in town into a zombie. The only exceptions are a handful of people who managed to be in an underground storage locker or similarly isolated location at the time of ignition. One old lady remains in front of the same slot machine she was at before the blast, and she’s only stopped from biting the same cocktail waitress who served her a drink earlier when someone impales her on the leg of her walker. It’s that kind of movie. “Remains” stars Grant Bowler (“True Blood”), Lance Reddick (“The Wire”), Tawny Cypress (“Heroes”) and Evalena Marie (“Exhumed”).

In the redundantly titled “Zombie Undead,” a terrorist detonates a dirty bomb in the heart of London, resulting in everyone turning into a flesh eater. It must have happened after the Opening Ceremony of the Olympics, because NBC has yet to show the results of the 10,000-meter shuffle or synchronized chewing competition. Most of the action takes place in a hospital that doubles as a fallout shelter, but quickly is being taken over by zombies. Again, it becomes incumbent on a handful of survivors to battle the horde of deformed freaks, while also looking for relatives that were stashed there before the blast. The facility is too large to induce claustrophobia in viewers and a shift to the rural countryside seems as unlikely as the change of scenery is welcome. The appeal here is largely to zombie completists. – Gary Dretzka

The Hunt
The only thing I know about “The Hunt” is what I saw on the small screen and read on the box. It begs the question, “If you can’t find a movie on IMDB.com, does it really exist?” At first, second and third glance, Thomas Szczepanski’s survival thriller appears to be a composite of several manhunt and bow-and-arrow movies, including “Hunger Games,” “Battle Royale,” “The Condemned” and “Robin Hood.” This means that the game that’s afoot in “The Hunt” is of the human variety. Perfect strangers are abducted from the streets of a French city (I think) and taken to a villa in the middle of the woods, not unlike the one in “Eyes Wide Shut.” Before being pursued by rich people in ninja outfits, the targets of the hunt have their tongues spliced, presumably so they can’t talk their way out of being murdered. While following a lead in a completely different investigation, a reporter for a salacious tabloid magazine steals an invitation to the hunt and buy-in money needed to participate. Completely ignorant of what’s expected of him, the reporter quickly figures out that he has to kill innocent human prey or become a target, himself. An S&M mistress figures in the narrative, but mostly to add some eye candy to the proceedings. Because the hunters remain anonymous, it’s difficult to focus on any character except the reporter, and he’s a dope. – Gary Dretzka

Ladda Land
Every so often, a movie from Thailand finds its way to the beaches of Cannes or shores of the U.S., garnering praise among arthouse and horror-genre buffs for its raw energy and sheer audacity, but not much in the way of box-office revenues. More often than not, a ghost is involved. Sopon Sukdapisit’s “Ladda Land” plays very close to western genre conventions, while also remaining demonstrably pan-Asian. Because the unobtrusive dubbing allows viewers to focus on the action, instead of the subtitles, no one can complain about the extra work. Thee is a salesman for an expanding Thai pharmaceutical firm and, as such, is hailed as a model employee and example for other employees. The boss seems especially impressed by the fact that Thee had decided to mortgage himself up the wazoo to afford a townhouse in an upscale suburban development. So, too, are his wife, Parn, and their young son. A daughter has reached the age where Thee would have to bring Justin Bieber home for dinner to impress her. Still, everything seems pretty idyllic in Ladda Land.

The first sign of trouble comes when word spreads through the community of the murder of Burmese maid in the home of an absentee owner. The second sign is when a neighbor’s black cat drops a welcome-home gift on Thee’s driveway and he steps in it on his way to work. The neighbor apologizes profusely, then orders his wife to scrap every bit of poop off the driveway and Thee’s shoe. Clearly, there’s trouble in paradise. Before long, the daughter makes friends with kids who enjoy staying up late and creeping through unoccupied houses. Naturally, the teens encounter evil spirits in the house where the murder occurred. At least one of them follows her home, where it does its best to unhinge the entire family. Further compounding Thee’s agony is a mother-in-law who despises him and receiving clear indications that the business was built on a foundation of playing cards. Part of the horror that informs “Ladda Land” is observing how much interplay there is between the business and spirit worlds. Watching Thee’s life collapse around him is as sad and frightening as anything the ghosts can dish out. In an American movie, we’d probably be informed somewhere down the road that the subdivision was built on an ancient graveyard or portal to hell. Here, though, other devils are at play.  The only problem I can see with “Ladda Land” is that, at 123 minutes, it feels a quarter-hour too long. Otherwise, genre enthusiasts should get a kick out of it. – Gary Dretzka

High Fidelity/Gross Pointe Blank: Blu-ray
Romy & Michele’s High School Reunion: 15th Anniversary Edition: Blu-ray
The Preacher’s Wife: Blu-ray
Adventures in Babysitting: 25th Anniversary Edition: Blu-ray
If there’s anything the movies in the latest bunch of Blu-ray titles released by Disney share, it’s the attention paid to their musical soundtracks, which are dominated by rock, gospel, soul, blues and pop hits. Instead of being chosen to complement a traditional soundtrack, the songs propelled the narrative and, in some case, kept things from coming to a grinding halt. Moreover, they provided the studios with alternative revenue streams and additional marketing tools. It wasn’t unusual for a soundtrack album to make more money than the movie itself, a fact that didn’t go unnoticed by record labels and copyright holders. Today, the cost of licensing some classics not only has soared into the stratosphere, but disagreements over post-release rights have also held up the release of many DVD and videos.

Directed by Stephen Frears and adopted from a book by Nick Hornby, “High Fidelity” is the most self-consciously hip rom-com in the bunch. It also features the most diverse range of songs. In it, a 33-year-old John Cusack plays a nearly insufferable music nerd, who creates lists of everything from his favorite songs to his most ill-advised romances. His Rob Gordon is the kind of purist who would break up with a woman if she preferred the version of a popular song he thought was inferior to someone else’s version. Likewise, his salesmen (Jack Black, Todd Louiso) would rather not sell an album to a customer if he wanted it for the wrong reason or enjoyed its schmaltziest cut. It’s through this prism that “High Fidelity” examines Gordon’s propensity to screw up relationships with women played by Catherine Zeta-Jones, Iben Hjejle, Lisa Bonet, Lily Taylor, Joelle Carter and Natasha Gregson-Wagner, all of whom are world-class babes. Cusack’s Chicago roots can be seen threading their way through all aspects of “High Fidelity,” from the T-shirts worn by the characters to the posters and leaflets in his store. It would easily make my top-five list of Chicago-centric movies.  And, yes, the soundtrack is a terrific blend of indie selections, current pop hits and classics.

Cusack and his wonderfully gifted sister, Joan, can also be seen in “Grosse Point Blank,” a neo-noir romantic thriller that also stars Minnie Driver, Dan Aykroyd, Alan Arkin, Hank Azaria and John’s booger-buddy, Jeremy Piven. In it, Cusack plays a hitman whose latest assignment coincides with the 10th anniversary of his high school graduation in the ritzy Detroit suburb. As reluctant as he is to attend the dance, the hitman is anxious to re-connect with the woman (Driver) he stood up on the night of their prom. The soundtrack benefits from the fact that she’s a deejay at the local FM rock station and their tastes still coincide. The closer Cusack gets to his intended prey, the more opportunity there is for his destruction by rival assassins and government spooks. George Armitage keeps “Grosse Point Blank” moving in a forwardly direction throughout, mixing tension, romance and comedy in equal measure.

Director David Mirkin came to “Romy & Michelle’s High School Reunion” after spending the previous decade helming TV comedies and sitcoms. It shows. You can almost tell where the commercials would go if the movie ended up on television, instead of the multiplex. That said, however, the chemistry between Lisa Kudrow and Mira Sorvino remains delightfully palpable. They play the blond ditzoids whose lives, 10 years later, still revolve around discos, shopping and hair appointments. Romy and Michelle have always shared an inflated opinion of themselves, even as they endured the cruel jokes played on them by girls in the cool clique. In the ensuing decade, the disco dollies would blossom into the kind of hotties whose sense of fashion continued to be dictated by “Charlie’s Angels” and who gravitated to guys who treated them with the same disdain as their high school nemeses. The reunion offers them an opportunity to redeem themselves in the eyes of their classmates, but they blow it by inventing a story so outlandish the dimwits in the clique see through it immediately. The soundtrack overflows with such hits from the disco era as “Footloose,” “Staying Alive,” “Y.M.C.A.,” “She Blinded Me With Science” and “We Got the Beat.” Alan Cumming and Janeane Garafalo are good as the dweebs who make it big in the adult world, while Camryn Mannheim plays the girl who’s still looked down upon by everyone, even Romy and Michelle.

Chris Columbus’ 25-year-old “Adventures in Babysitting” still retains much of its charm. It is one of several teen-oriented movies set in greater Chicago during the 1980s – the John Hughes films, “Risky Business,” “Class,” “Lucas” — and its soundtrack is distinguished by some terrific home-grown blues selections. In it, Elisabeth Shue is babysitting a disparate collection of North Shore kids, when she receives a call from a friend pleading to be rescued from a bus station downtown. Unable to refuse, she bundles up the gang, hops in the family car and embarks on an excellent misadventure, if you will. If that description reminds you of last year’s “The Sitter,” well, so be it.

In Penny Marshall’s “urban” remake of the classic Christmas movie, “The Bishop’s Wife,” Denzel Washington steps in for Cary Grant, an angel assigned by the deity to repair the marriage of a pre-occupied pastor (Courtney B. Vance) and his longtime love (Whitney Houston), characters originally played by David Niven and Loretta Young. Fifteen years ago, the presence of Washington and Houston in the same movie was sufficient reason for audiences to come to Jesus, if only for two hours. (She later confessed to Mother Oprah that she was stoned on pot and cocaine for most of the production.) If “The Preacher’s Wife” remains a bit squishy around the edges, it’s redeemed by more than a dozen songs performed by Houston, some with the backing the movie’s Nativity Choir and Shirley Cesar and the Georgia Mass Choir. When the preacher’s wife steps out with Washington, Marshall also finds room some decidedly non-gospel singing by Houston.

Not all of the Blu-ray editions come with bonus features. The hi-def upgrade definitely is noticeable, however. – Gary Dretzka

Clue: the Movie: Blu-ray
The murder-mystery board game, Clue, is premised on the likelihood that contestants won’t be able to pinpoint the culprit, victim, weapon and location of the crime on their first, second or third guess. Otherwise, what would be the point of playing? As with any board game, most of the fun derives from the interaction between players and disappointment of failing to outguess them. This interactivity would necessarily be missing from any movie based on the game, as would the possibility that a new game could be played immediately after the last one. “Clue: the Movie” attempted to get around the one-size-fits-all dilemma by offering three different endings to exhibitors, who could advertise which version – A, B or C – was playing where. Ideally, fans would pay to see all three of the alternative endings. Fat chance of that happening, however. Today, of course, it’s possible to play classic board games, including Clue, on tablets, phones and the Internet, even as an advanced form of Solitaire. The new Blu-ray edition of the movie offers the next best solution by allowing viewers to choose between all three endings and a longer, combined version. The actors playing the iconic characters spend way too much time screaming, scrambling and insulting each other for my taste, but it certainly isn’t the worst way one could choose to kill 94 minutes. The cast includes several familiar B-list actors who’ve spent the bulk of their career bouncing between film, TV and stage assignments. They include Tim Curry, Christopher Lloyd, Eileen Brennan, the late Madeline Kahn, Michael McKean, Martin Mull, Colleen Camp and Lesley Ann Warren. – Gary Dretzka

The Decade You Were Born
Before the Internet reduced the distance between nostalgia and overfamiliarity to almost nothing, a surefire hit birthday gift could be found in novelty shops that stocked seemingly endless supplies of pre-read Life magazines or frame-ready front pages from the New York Times collection. Mill Creek Entertainment offers another alternative with its collection of “The Decade You Were Born” DVDs, each of which contains more than four hours’ worth of archival material representing 10 years’ worth of history. For better or worse, these media artifacts are what shaped several generations of Americans, whether they were presented as news, propaganda, entertainment or advertising. In many ways, the commercials tell us more about how we lived – or Madison Avenue spinmeisters wanted us to live – than coverage of breaking stories. In the commercials of the 1950s, minorities simply didn’t exist and any husband who couldn’t afford to buy a station wagon or Osterizer for the stay-at-home missus probably was a closet pinko. The narrative may be dubious, at times, it’s the images that sell the product … just like cigarettes.The individual releases range from the 1940s to the 1980s and include such bonus material as an interactive timeline, a complete feature film and TV episode (nothing special), five commercials and five movie trailers. Fortunately, if the giftee was born on the cusp of decades, the $10 price tag makes a double purchase affordable. – Gary Dretzka

Jesse Stone: Benefit of a Doubt
The Rookies: The Complete Second Season
Squidbillies: Volume Five
POV: Up Heartbreak Hill
It’s no secret that Tom Selleck is one of most popular, if not most versatile actors in the history of the television medium. There’s something about him that you can’t help but like, even when the material isn’t up to what we consider to be his best work. The “Jesse Stone” series of made-for-CBS movies, inspired by a Robert B. Parker novel, is an example of what can happen when a franchise is being powered by the sheer charisma of an actor. “Jesse Stone: Benefit of a Doubt” is the latest and, perhaps, final chapter in the eight-title franchise. After the murder of the sheriff who replaced him when he was forced to retire by the powers that be in Paradise, Massachusetts, Stone agrees to re-assume the position and investigate the case.  It means that Stone spends an inordinate amount of time answering two questions: “Does that PPD cap mean you’re chief, again?” and “Didn’t you’d tell me you didn’t like him?,” in reference to one of the two dead men. The answers essentially boil down to, “I guess,” and “I don’t remember saying that.” The ex-LAPD detective continues to brood, drink, chase younger women and expend more emotional energy on Reggie, the dog, than anyone else in the movie. As the clues begin to lead in the direction of a conclusion that’s predictable, if not obvious, the door is left open for sequel. Whether Selleck will pass through it again is anyone’s guess.

It has taken five years and an entirely different distributor – Shout! Factory – for the second season of “The Rookies” to make its way from the shelves at Sony to the DVD marketplace. Apparently, there hadn’t been enough interest in another stanza to justify the expense of compiling the package. Being smaller and lighter on their feet, the folks at Shout ! Factory enjoy taking in such orphans and proving they’re worth something. The second season of episodes from producers Aaron Spelling and Leonard Goldberg stick pretty close to the template used in the pilot and freshman year. If anything, Nurse Jill is put in jeopardy more often and, therefore, Kate Jackson gets better exposure. Among the season’s guest stars are John Saxon, Don Johnson, Nick Nolte, Strother Martin, John Travolta, Brad Davis, Scott Jacoby, Joseph Campanella, Claude Akins, Joan Blondell, Pat Harrington, James Olson, Mark Slade, Jim Nabors, Richard Hatch, Leif Erickson, Sissy Spacek, Tyne Daly, Bridgette Hanley and Anthony Zerbe.

You never know who or what is going to turn up on “Adult Swim.” “Squidbillies: Volume 5” offers ample proof that just when you think things have gotten too weird on the cable channel, something even more bizarre probably is right around the corner. “Squidbillies” follows the antics of the anti-social Cuyler family of endangered Appalachian mud squids. Federally protected from being hunted or killed, they’re free to raise all the havoc they can. Not even George Jones and Billy Joe Shaver could resist lending their voices to the soundtrack of this trailer-trash revival meeting in Season 5. There’s nothing remotely correct about what happens in “Squidbillies,” politically or otherwise, and that’s its appeal. The DVD set adds plenty of behind-the-scenes material, including recording sessions, animation, character development and interviews.

The PBS documentary series “POV” routinely takes viewers to places they’ve never been and aren’t likely to go. In “Up Heartbreak Hill,” director Erica Scharf describes how difficult it is for ambitious and talented young Native Americans to succeed in the world outside the rez, yet maintain direct links to their cultural heritage and family. Navajo teens Thomas, Tamara and Gabby have been accorded opportunities available to few of their classmates in high school. Of course, they also open the door to failure and disappointment. Tribal elders would love for the best and the brightest to succeed in school, then return home to share what they learned with their friends, families and neighbors. It’s a pipe dream shared with the leaders of countries, such as India and Pakistan, who send their most promising students to the U.S., Canada and Europe, then lose them to the promise of better pay and conditions. – Gary Dretzka

After the Wizard
The Smurfs and the Magic Flute
Winx Club: Secret of the Lost Kingdom Movie
A rite of passage shared by all American children is to sit through “Wizard of Oz” without covering their eyes or running out of the room when the winged monkeys take flight from the castle of the Wicked Witch of the West. “After the Wizard” isn’t at all scary, but kids who’ve passed the first test should get a kick out of seeing what might have happened had the story continued after Dorothy’s return to Earth. In this Dove-approved movie, a tweener living in a Kansas orphanage is so infatuated with the “Wizard of Oz” that she imagines herself to be Dorothy. This brands her as a problem child. Things begin to get interesting, however, when the Tinman and Scarecrow decide they need Dorothy’s advice to solve a problem in Oz. Because of a spasm in the time-space continuum, their balloon lands in New York, years after L. Frank’s Baum’s novel was published and it’s assumed that Dorothy was a figment of his imagination. They succeed in reaching Kansas, by train and bus, after trading some giant emeralds for dollars. (They don’t seem to mind being ripped off by the exchange rate.) After connecting with the faux Dorothy, she asks them to locate a stray dog that looks very much like Toto. “After the Wizard” isn’t particularly well made or convincingly acted, but young viewers shouldn’t notice the difference.

I hadn’t thought about the Smurfs in such a long time that, when I received a DVD copy of “The Smurfs and the Magic Flute,” I actually recalled it as being a product of Japanimation and a conspiracy between producers and toy manufacturers. Apparently, I was confusing the Smurfs with Pokemon and the Mario Brothers, because the little blue beings were born in a Belgian comic strip in 1958 and the movie was first shown here in 1983. It was seven years after “The Smurfs and the Magic Flute” first was released in Europe and two years after the Hanna-Barbera cartoon adaptation was launched here. The rest, as they say, is history. The movie involves the theft of a flute Court Jester Peewit hopes will make everyone dance. When it’s stolen, Smurf Nation rallies to recover the flute, which McCreep intends to use to steal gold reserves. The DVD edition adds features on Smurf history, an image gallery, glossary, a character guide and making-of piece.

Like the Smurfs, Nickelodeon’s “Winx Club” began its media life several years ago in a country other than Japan. It’s taken five years for the feature-length “Secret of the Lost Kingdom” to make its way from Italy and the Cannes media market to the U.S. The plot behind the CGI-animated story is far too complicated to explain here, but, suffice it to say, it involves pixies, fairies and a threat to an enchanted kingdom, Fans will note that the movie picks up where the events of the first three TV seasons left off. The DVD set adds seven bonus episodes. — Gary Dretzka

The DVD Wrapup: Marilyn Monroe, Hatfields & McCoys, Le Havre, Waves of Lust … More

Thursday, August 2nd, 2012

Marilyn in Manhattan
Marilyn: The Passion and the Paradox
As we approach the 50th anniversary of Marilyn Monroe’s untimely death, at 36, expect the media to peel away from the Olympics and Aurora massacre long enough to celebrate the life and career of one of Hollywood’s brightest and most misunderstood stars. Sadly, one of the central mysteries of the 20th Century – did she jump or was she pushed – isn’t likely to be solved anytime soon. What we learn in the fascinating 1998 documentary, “Marilyn in Manhattan,” and Lois Banner’s new biography, “Marilyn: The Passion and the Paradox,” is just how complex a person Monroe was and why she still matters. Although the former Norma Jeane Mortenson was strategically billed as the quintessential “dumb blond” bombshell, we already know that she was no dummy. “Marilyn in Manhattan” chronicles her secret self-imposed exile to New York, in 1955, and subsequent efforts to escape the yoke put on her by greedy executives at 20th Century Fox. In addition to studying her craft at the Actors Studio, she underwent psychoanalysis, went from baseball to Broadway on the marital front and announced plans for her own production company. As usual, her strategy was complicated by the men in her life, chronic insecurity and other complications of her fragile state of mind. Being married to such difficult and domineering men – and sleeping with others, even more powerful – conflicted with her stated hopes for something resembling a normal life and projects that would emphasize her acting skills.

Banner’s book goes into much greater biographical detail, of course, revealing secrets and separating the truth from the fiction. She could be accused and convicted of flagrant name-dropping, if it weren’t for the astonishing number of famous people who found (or insinuated) themselves in her orbit. These include members of the Rat Pack, the Mafia, Camelot and the Motion Picture Academy. Both the documentary and Banner’s book should be of special interest to people introduced to Monroe only last year, in “My Week With Marilyn” In interviews with such friends and associates as Ellen Burstyn, Ben Gazzara, Amy Greene-Andrews, business partner Joshua Greene, Susan Strasberg, Donald Spoto and columnist James Bacon, it’s clear that Monroe’s legacy extends well beyond the sexual iconography of the famous Andy Warhol serigraph, exposed-panty shot from “The Seven-Year Itch” and the skin-tight gown she wore to sing “Happy Birthday” to JFK. If only subliminally, Monroe’s had an incalculable influence on future generations of post-feminist women. Despite her many breakdowns and dalliances with predatory horndogs, that influence has manifested itself in new attitudes towards female sexuality, freedom of choice in everything from fashion to public personas, countering stereotypes and standards of beauty. If, for most of the last 50 years, the media has succeeded in clouding Monroe’s legacy, her struggle for dignity and respect would be admired by women who’ve faced similar hurdles in their own lives. Off-screen and on, she truly was an amazing woman. – Gary Dretzka

Hatfields & McCoys: Original Uncut Version
However alarming, yesterday’s headlines have become fodder for the mini-series, movies, theme parks, video games and reality shows of today. No better example of this exists than the bloody 25-year-year feud between the Hatfields of West Virginia and McCoys of Kentucky, during which a dozen family members were murdered and many others injured and/or imprisoned. The first time it was referenced directly on film was in 1905, in the single-reeler, “A Kentucky Feud,” while, in 1939, Betty Boop found herself trapped between the bloodthirsty hillbillies. Presumably, the vendetta was put to bed peacefully in 1979, on the TV game show “Family Feud,” with a weeklong competition between teams of decedents. The clans would meet 20 years later at a well-publicized reunion of the clans and, again, three years later, when some genius came up with the idea that a truce-signing would help heal wounds left over from 9/11. But, wait, there’s more.  In 2002, after being turned away from the gates of the McCoy Cemetery, Bo and Ron McCoy were required to sue the current owner of the property for access. There now exists, as well, a “Hatfield–McCoy Feud Driving Tour” and 500-mile-long trail along the Tug River, suitable for all-terrain vehicles. It boggles the mind to realize that the feud didn’t begin in earnest until an acrimonious trial was held to decide if Randolph McCoy’s hog was stolen by Floyd Hatfield, or the Hatfields had a legal right to seize and eat the trespassing swine. (Predictably, Justice of the Peace Anderson “Preacher Anse” Hatfield ruled in favor of the Hatfields. The key witness was subsequently murdered by Sam and Paris McCoy, who avoided prosecution.) The History Channel is the latest to benefit from the contretemps, which unofficially ended in 1901 with the last of the trials sparked by the violence. The six-hour mini-series, “Hatfields & McCoys,” scored monster numbers for the cable network in its first foray into the form. The newly available DVD, “Hatfields & McCoys: Original Uncut Version,” adds either significantly more bloodshed or gratuitous tobacco spitting to what already was a pretty messy affair.

From what I know about the feud, the mini-series seems faithful to both the history and legend of the Hatfields and McCoys.  The actors cast to play the wildly unkempt men and their humorless womenfolk certainly look the part. As William Anderson “Devil Anse” Hatfield and Randolph “Ole Ran’l” McCoy, Kevin Costner and Bill Paxton could hardly be more representative of a period in American folklore, seemingly before bathtubs and soap reached the American frontier and killers could quote biblical scripture to justify any atrocity. Among the various imaginatively drawn characters are Tom Berenger (almost unrecognizable as the hairy sociopath Jim Vance), Powers Boothe, Andrew Howard, Ronan Vibert, Jena Malone, Sarah Parish, Lindsay Pulsipher and Mare Winningham. They’re excellent, as are the contributions of the various designers and technicians. Standing in for the hills and hollers of West “Almost Heaven” Virginia is Romania, a beautiful country that has seen its own share of vendetta killings and savagery in the name of the Lord. “Hatfields & McCoys” was directed by Kevin Reynolds, whose previous work with Costner includes “Waterworld,” “Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves” and “Fandango.” The DVD adds background historical and making-of material. – Gary Dretzka

Redemption: For Robbing the Dead
Any history of the American West wouldn’t be complete without some discussion, at least, of the role played by Mormon settlers in what would become the state of Utah. The only thing I can remember being taught is that the strait-laced pilgrims practiced polygamy and seagulls saved them from a plague of grasshoppers. The real story is significantly more complex and fascinating. The founding of a major city on a key route west was noteworthy for all sorts of practical reasons, but it’s in the Mormons’ relations with Native Americans and settlers of other faiths where things get complicated. Although I don’t recall hearing the word, “Mormon,” in the surprisingly compelling “Redemption: For Robbing the Dead,” the circumstances upon which it is based were strongly influenced by doctrine and faith. The overtly Christian message most viewers will take away from “Redemption” may not be exclusive to Mormon teachings, but it probably helped clear the way for the hands-on participation of student interns from the BYU Theater and Media Arts Department. Beyond that, however, “Redemption: For Robbing the Dead” is a terrific Western in the classic mold, wonderfully acted and shot.

Writer/director Thomas Russell couldn’t help but be drawn to the almost unbelievable story of Jean Baptiste, whose infamous crimes earned him the distinction of being “The Ghoul of Salt Lake City.” Mystery surrounds much of Baptiste’s background, but it is believed he moved there in the 1850s with his wife, Marlys (Margot Kidder), who he met in Australia. The death of their child pretty much scrambled Marlys’ brain and Baptiste probably had a few screws loosened in his head before taking a laborer’s job at the Salt Lake City Cemetery. The specifics about how it was discovered that Baptiste (David Stevens) had been digging up coffins and stealing the burial clothes of as many as 300 bodies is a tad on the complicated side. If it weren’t for a chilling series of coincidences, he might have gotten away with it for several more years. Suffice it to say that the revelation caused much revulsion and anger among the citizenry, who feared the fiend might have taken other ghastly liberties with the corpses. Being a frontier town, demands for Baptiste’s immediate trial and execution became the consensus response to the crime. The legal remedies were far vaguer, however. The question of how to respond to such horror even reached Brigham Young – not portrayed here – who observed, shooting him “would do no good to anybody but himself. … If it was left to me, I would make him a fugitive and a vagabond upon the earth,” which, much to the displeasure of the public, is essentially what happened. Before Baptiste could be lynched, a judge ordered that Baptiste be exiled to a large, desolate island in the Great Salt Lake and left to fend for himself. This, after having his ears “cropped” and the words, “For Robbing the Dead,” tattooed on his forehead.

Police officer Henry Heath, whose daughter was buried in the cemetery, was given the responsibility of making sure vigilantes didn’t follow Baptiste to Antelope Island – some did, anyway – and he wouldn’t be able to escape. Against his better judgment and the will of Salt Lake residents, Heath (John Freeman) also takes it upon himself to make sure Baptiste is provided with food staples, medicine and water on a regular basis. This act of Christian charity prompts members of an aggrieved family to import an assassin from Kansas to teach the lawman one final message before he dies. The more hatred directed at him by his neighbors and enemies, the more adamant Heath becomes on reminding them of what Jesus might have done under similar circumstances. (Instead of hitting us over the head with a bible of Book of Mormon, Russell lets the message slowly wash over those in his audience.) Russell invents an ending that doesn’t square with the facts of Baptiste’s exile, but it’s better than leaving viewers with the same question historians have been attempting to answer for 150 years. It isn’t likely Baptiste was able to escape the island – he couldn’t swim – and he wasn’t heard from again. In any case, the movie is less about the criminal than the man, Heath, who found redemption for his own sins according to the teachings of Christ. In addition to telling Heath and Baptiste’s story in a compelling manner, “Redemption” is often staggeringly beautiful. Russell takes full advantage of the magnificent vistas available to him from the barren shore and sunbaked hills and rangeland of Antelope Island State Park. Apart from the introduction of bighorn sheep and a thriving herd of buffalo very little has changed since Baptiste was put there. Wonderful performances are provided, as well, by Hollywood veterans Barry Corbin, Edward Herrmann, Rance Howard, Jon Gries and Robyn Adamson. The DVD adds interviews and a making-of featurette that partially explains how such a handsome Western could be made on a budget of only $200,000. Western buffs should find a lot to admire in “Redemption,” while teachers looking for a movie to stir lively debate about personal ethics could hardly find a better starting point. – Gary Dretzka

Going for Gold
This appropriately sappy movie debuted last week in England, just before the 2012 Summer Olympics got underway and another generation of athletes began their quest for honor and glory. It’s likely that many old-timers in the viewing audience remember the events described in the heart-warming BBC-TV drama as if they occurred yesterday, instead of 54 years ago. If the enthusiastic crowds that gather each day on the lake at Eton Dorney are any indication, however, young fans are well-versed in the history of British rowing, as well. In 1948, the UK was struggling to recover physically, emotionally and economically from the devastating effects of World War II and the citizenry really needed something to cheer. As is made clear in David Blair and William Ivory’s “Going for Gold” (a.k.a., “Bert & Dickie”), there was no guarantee the country could pull off such an event, let alone walk away with gold metals. The money simply wasn’t there to build training facilities and event venues, and there was no guarantee anyone from the world at large would show up to buy tickets, dine in restaurants and fill hotel rooms. Even if they did come, what would they eat? British athletes were expected to remain fit, even though food rationing limited them – and most everyone else – to a 2,500-calories-per-day diet. (A special waiver would allow them to add another 1,100 calories, just like the country’s miners.) Indeed, more money was spent on the fireworks display at the 2012 Opening Ceremony than the entirety of the 1948 Olympics. “Going for Gold” is set against this background of sacrifice, austerity and a class system that German rockets and bombers couldn’t shake.  (Richard “Dickie” Burnell’s partner in the double-scull, Bertram “Bertie” Bushnell, even was temporarily refused access to the “posh” private club at which the finals were held.)

The decision to team the 6-foot-4 Burnell and 5-foot-10 Bushnell, whose glasses made him look like Harold Lloyd, was made only a month before they would be expected to compete against the world’s best rowers. To a small but noticeable degree, Bushnell was resentful of Burnell’s privileged background and suspected they were partnered to enhance his chance of winning a medal, as his father had in 1908. For his part, Burnell was reluctant to listen to the technical advice proffered by his partner, believing it couldn’t be any more sound than that of the man hired to build the scull. In fact, Bushnell’s father had passed along his extensive knowledge of boat building to his son and had been forced to give up rowing at the amateur level to support his family. Their relationship would strengthen after the modifications were made and their times kept improving. Every so often, the filmmakers leave the Thames behind, so we can watch British politicians and Olympics organizers fret about the possibility that the Games might give the government a black eye by falling short of their already low expectations. They needn’t have bothered, as the world was anxious to put the war behind them and celebrate victories that didn’t require bloodshed. Other, more melodramatic touches were added to “Going for Gold,” probably to lighten the mood, but none compromises the excitement of the races or prevents us from admiring the technical achievements. Although the blurbs on the cover of the DVD would have us believe that “Going for Gold” is a virtual sequel to “Chariots of Fire,” Blair and Ivory allow their story to stand on the remarkable accomplishments of their characters. Both films deliver the goods, but, simply put, they’re not cut from the same swath of fabric. This, however, shouldn’t keep admirers of sports movies from seeking out “Going for Gold.” It sure beats watching skeet shooting and synchronized diving. – Gary Dretzka

Le Havre: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
If the 55-year-old Finnish filmmaker Aki Kaurismäki had only made the exceedingly offbeat “Leningrad Cowboys Go America” and “Total Balalaika Show,” he would still deserve the admiration of film buffs around the world. Blessedly, though, he’s decided not to rest on his laurels or join the migration to Hollywood to make movies about comic-book superheroes. It would be nice if American audiences returned the favor by supporting their local arthouse when his new movies find their way here and sampling earlier successes, such as “The Match Factory Girl,” “The Man Without a Past,” “Lights in the Dusk” and most recently, “Le Havre,” on DVD and Blu-ray. Just because he may be more recognizable in Cannes than in Helsinki doesn’t mean mainstream audiences in the United States can’t see in his movies what the judges and critics do. In his case, anyway, adjectives like “enigmatic,” “wry” and “quirky” aren’t necessarily synonymous with “dark,” “challenging” and “impenetrable.” No matter where one lives, there are few hot-button subjects more relatable across-the-board than illegal immigration. In “Le Havre,” Kaurismaki puts us in the center of the debate, without making us take sides or bemoan our inability to find a solution. He assumes we understand how illegal immigration and the smuggling of refugees from poverty can facilitate terrorism, drug trafficking, white slavery, organized crime and the promulgation of bigotry and can put our political beliefs aside long enough to be entertained. Here, he defangs the issue by telling a story about a young African refugee who simply wants to join his mother in London, but finds himself stuck in the French port city of Le Havre. Unlike the adults with whom he shared the misdirected container, Idrissa (Blondin Miguel) is able to dodge police and find refuge in the home of shoe-shiner Marcel Marx (André Wilms), a friendly fellow who appreciates the boy’s pressing need to go to England. Understandably, local immigration authorities have adopted a rigid stance on the subject of illegal immigration and one cop, in particular, immediately suspects that Marcel either is harboring the refugee or knows where he is. While both men are doing what they think is right, only one is willing to bend the rules to make the game more fun. What the cop doesn’t know is that the Marcel’s neighbors and friends are more likely to accept their friend’s word on the boy’s character than a lawman’s arguments about the boy’s potential harm to society.

The boy’s arrival coincides with Marcel’s wife, Arletti (Kati Outinen) being diagnosed with a life-threatening illness and her being admitted to a hospital for longterm care. Marcel needs someone to take care of his dog and keep people’s shoes shined while he spends time with her at the hospital, and having nothing better to do, Idrissa is happy to help him out. Between the cop’s persistence and pessimism of his wife doctors, Marcel needs a diversion, so he takes it upon himself to solve Idrissa’s problem. To give you an idea of how Kaurismaki’s mind works, he has the women who visit Arletti in the hospital read to her from a book by Franz Kafka. He also conceives of a concert, arranged by Marcel to raise money to pay a smuggler to get Idrissa to England, featuring an actual French rockabilly legend, Little Bob. The white-haired singer, who’s probably in his 70s, looks like a cotton swab in red leather. Like Wanda Jackson and Jerry Lee Lewis, he can still kick it. The ending may be purposefully fanciful – its alternate title is “Miracle in Le Havre,” after all — but it could hardly be more satisfying. The handsome Criterion Collection Blu-ray includes interview sessions from the Cannes Film Festival, where “Le Havre” won the FIPRESCI Prize and was nominated for a Palme d’Or. (The writer/director is a bit cantankerous in both.) Little Bob is given a spotlight on two songs and there are extended discussions with Kaurismaki regulars Outinen and Wilms. – Gary Dretzka

Waves of Lust
Except for about 15 minutes of expository material, the 1975 erotic thriller “Waves of Lust” takes place on or directly below a yacht, where two pairs of attractive swingers seem destined to bang each other’s brains out will cruising the seas off Sicily. Based solely from that description, fans of Italian giallo — of which erotic thrillers are an offshoot — already know that what happens next will have nothing to do with romance. Clothes will be shed before the yacht reaches open seas; one of the characters, at least, will emerge as a cruel puppet master; and at least one table will be turned before the movie ends. Ruggero Deodato, whose credits include “Cannibal Holocaust” and “Live Like a Cop, Die Like a Man,” does a nice job building suspense in a waterlogged plot most viewers have seen several times. When wealthy industrialist Giorgio (John Steiner, a dead-ringer for John Holmes) isn’t taunting and terrorizing his masochistic lover, Silvia (Elizabeth Turner), he’s drooling over the prospect of trading up to a liaison with Barbara (Silvia Dionisio). In return, he tempts Barbara’s lover, Irem (Al Cliver), with the implied promise of a night of bliss with Silvia. The women don’t seem to mind the arrangement, even though they seem to prefer each other’s company. A control freak and alcoholic, Giorgio makes it clear to his guests that he’ll be making all the sleeping arrangements on his schedule and they have no say in the matter. If not as claustrophobic as “Dead Calm,” “Open Water” and “Donkey Punch,” the sexual charge is palpable.

What Giorgio doesn’t know is that the Barbara and Irem aren’t the docile hippies he thinks they are and Silvia has taken all the abuse from him she can. The first sign that things might not be going as planned for the cocky millionaire is when his scuba tanks begin malfunctioning in mid-dive. He’s so full of himself that he can’t imagine anyone outsmarting him. The more he drinks, however, the stupider he gets. Dominating the story, though, are the sex scenes, especially those involving Silvia and Barbara and sumptuous meals. The ending leaves one big question unanswered, at least, but it doesn’t seem to matter much. A lengthy interview with Deodato and writer Lamberto Bava is included in the bonus features. In it, the director says that he agreed to the project only after learning that his bombshell wife, Dionisio, had accepted the role of Barbara and would be spending much of the production naked. Even then, he admits, it wasn’t easy being behind the camera while the missus was swapping spit with her co-stars. Like most other RaroVideo releases, “Waves of Lust” looks about as good as it’s ever going to, again. It also comes with commentary, biographies and filmographies. – Gary Dretzka

Hijacked: Blu-ray
The Liquidator
Former UFC champ Randy Couture has a head that looks as if it were sculpted from granite, a chin that could repel a RPG strike and a body that would challenge any costume designer’s ability to keep from splitting at the seams during fight scenes. If he isn’t likely to compete for a Best Actor trophy, his fans don’t demand much more from him than kick-ass action and threatening poses. In “Hijacked,” however, someone had the bright idea to add a love interest that distracts him from the tasks at hand and demands we pay attention, too. This would be fine if we were talking about a woman like Lucy Lawless or Gina Carano, but Tiffany Dupont is about as credible as Couture’s ex-fiance, Olivia, as Sophia Loren would be, albeit for different reasons. Having her on board a hijacked plane, while his security-specialist character, Paul Ross, is attempting to overpower a group of terrorists, makes Couture vulnerable and that isn’t what we pay to see.

Even so, the biggest problem with director Brandon Nutt and co-writers Declan O’Brien and Scoop Wasserstein’s script is that it looks as if it were pieced together from other straight-to-video movies starring former fighters and body builders, and such star vehicles as “Air Force One” and “Executive Decision.” This means, as well, that the same clichés and mistakes are repeated. Bullets don’t fly far enough to tear through the skin of the fuselage and, no matter how many pilots are knocked unconscious, the plane is able to maintain an even keel. Another curious decision involves veteran tough guy Vinnie Jones, who seems to have been given a substantial role in “Hijacked,” but is killed in a dumb shootout between security forces in the first 15 minutes of the movie. Likewise, Couture and Olivia become annoyed with each other’s presence on board the private 747 — owned by the billionaire target of the attack – even though they’ve been invited separately, coincidentally and for business purposes. (It is strange, however, that it only took Olivia 12 hours to go from jobless to a passenger on the plane of one of the world’s most powerful people, yet feels comfortable enough to bring a reporter friend along for the ride.) Neither is Couture’s required to break a sweat, even while dispatching foes who actually are capable of fighting back and defusing a bomb that is discovered way too early in the movie. This leaves plenty of time for a surprise ending that’s as preposterous as it is unsatisfying. By now, Couture should be able to demand more from the scripts he accepts. This one needed a complete re-write.

Jones’ fans will get even less satisfaction from “The Liquidator,” in which the former English Football League “hard man” plays an international assassin for about 10 minutes total time. Nonetheless, his glowering visage is prominent on the cover of the DVD. Otherwise, “The Liquidator” is interesting primarily for being shot exclusively in Kazakhstan, with a largely Kazak cast and crew. It was produced with local money and is in Russian. The revenge thriller involves the killing of an investigative reporter and the efforts of his brother, a former special-forces soldier, to eliminate those responsible. Powerful interests want to bury evidence of their corrupt behavior, so they hire an international hitman, Silent Killer (Jones), to neutralize their new enemy. Being silent allowed Jones to avoid learning his lines in Russian, a benefit that doesn’t extend to non-Kazak fans of the movie, who won’t be able to understand a word of the making-of featurette. For some reason, it isn’t subtitled. – Gary Dretzka

Fortress: Blu-ray
Cross the computer wizardry of the History Channel’s “Dogfights” with an old-fashioned war picture, in which male bonding is as important as destroying enemy positions, and you have “Fortress.” The story chronicles what happens to the crew of a B-17 Flying Fortress both in the skies above Italy and at their base in northern Africa. What differentiates “Fortress” from every other World War II movie we’ve seen are the CGI effects, which allow for the introduction of wave after wave of vintage planes and midair combat that looks and feels hyper-realistic. Although there’s plenty of room left for buffs to seek and find mistakes in the construction, operation and handling of the B-17s, there’s no denying that the re-creation of the bombers from inside-out is pretty darned impressive. If anything, the claustrophobic conditions experienced by actual B-17 crew members in combat are understated. If small allowances weren’t made for camera positions, the filmmakers would have been limited to using pinhole and hand-held devices. The hard work pays off. Too bad, the story itself is so generic.

Except to extend the aura of verisimilitude, I wonder why director Mike Phillips and writer Adam Klein gave themselves the freedom to go out with an R-rating. Sure, airmen cuss like sailors, but why lob f-bombs when it’s the ones that explode on Italian soil that count most in the narrative. I’m pretty sure that “Fortress” could have escaped with a PG-13, even allowing for some rough language and the stomach-churning wounds inflicted on airmen. It would have broadened the potential audience, certainly, and not harmed the picture. Fans of Joseph Heller’s “Catch-22” might find it amusing that the flight crews depicted in “Fortress” actually believe that Pentagon brass would send them home once they fly 25 successful missions. In reality, the promise was about as realistic as every other one made by officers, from time immemorial, to appease the troops. The extremely high attrition rate among B-17 crews made it highly unlikely most of these guys would make it home in one piece, no matter how many missions they completed. And, of course, while American factory workers could churn out planes at will, it wasn’t so easy to replace the crews and pilots. The DVD also offers some interesting demonstrations of the technology used to make the film. – Gary Dretzka

Dead Season
Mystery Science Theater 3000: XXIV
If Jimmy Buffet had executive-produced a horror movie, it might look a lot like “Dead Season” and be subtitled “Zombies in Paradise.” Director Adam Deyoe certainly would have benefited from the loose change Buffet carries around in his pocket for cheeseburger emergencies, but it probably wouldn’t have saved “Dead Season” from straight-to-DVD purgatory. If there isn’t anything particularly fresh or unusual here, however, at least the scenery in this zombie-apocalypse flick is different. A worldwide viral outbreak has devastated the population of the world and opened the floodgates for an infestation of undead “walkers” – “shufflers” would be more accurate — all of whom look as if they were recruited from Central Casting. A paramedic named Elvis (Scott Peat) and a computer-savvy emo girl, Tweeter (Marissa Merrill), manage to escape Florida by boat, destination unknown. They land on an island that looks as if it might have been home to a Club Med in happier times, but are quickly rounded up by a band of heavy armed survivalists. The leader sees the benefit of keeping Elvis around their makeshift fortress for his paramedic skills – Tweeter’s allowed to babysit and protect the guy’s teenage daughter — so they aren’t immediately thrown off the island or fed to the walkers. Although an island would appear to be the perfect refuge for survivors, a ship full of undead tourists capsized offshore and several were able to reach shore. (Even though technically they’re dead, zombies seem to reproduce like rabbits.) They threaten the compound by popping up whenever they sense an opportunity for mayhem, forcing the leader to assert himself a bit too aggressively for Elvis and Twitter’s comfort. “Dead Season” is as gory as modern makeup techniques allow and frequently quite entertaining, as these things go. The DVD adds commentary, a making-of featurette, interviews and outtakes.

No strangers to the undead, the crew of the Satellite of Love introduces us to fiends from Russia, Mexico and Japan in the new “Mystery Science Theater 3000: XXIV” compilation. The selections include “Fugitive Alien,” “Star Force: Fugitive Alien II,” “The Sword and the Dragon” and the long-awaited “Samson vs. the Vampire Women,” the final Comedy Central episode with Frank Conniff as TV’s Frank. (He ascends into Second Banana Heaven during intermission.) The movie, itself, could pass for a traditional low-budget vampire movie, if it weren’t for the presence of the masked luchador hero, Samson (a.k.a., Santo el Enmascarado de Plata), who’s called upon to save the ravishing daughter of a nutty professor from being kidnapped and forced to marry an ancient fanged deity. As one of the wise-guy robots notes, the fights between Samson and the vampires resemble a Keystone Kops fire drill. “The Sword and the Dragon” (“Ilya Muromets”) is a Soviet-era historical fantasy – in Sovscope, no less — which was re-purposed by Roger Corman for distribution here.

And, speaking of repurposing, the semi-infamous Sandy Franks is represented here with the 1978 Japanese TV series, “Fugitive Alien,” which he bought, combined to make two movies, dubbed and, nine years later, released in the U.S. One segment was worse than the other and neither was any good, anyway. The story is nearly incomprehensible in any language, although it appears to have been inspired (a.k.a., ripped off) by “Star Wars.” Naturally, “Fugitive Alien” and “Star Force: Fugitive Alien II” were immortalized on “MST3K.” The crew’s shabby treatment of such a classic resulted in a feud between Frank and the robots. As usual, the bonus material is worth the price of admission here. It includes an introduction by August Ragone, “You Asked for It: Sandy Franks Speaks,” MST “hour wraps,” Conniff’s “Life After MST3K,” shorts, “Lucha Gringo: K. Gordon Murray Meets Santo” and lobby cards. – Gary Dretzka

Last Days Here
By all rights, rockers Keith Richards and Bobby Liebling should be dead by now, victims of a rock lifestyle that’s brought less hardy musicians to their knees. The primary difference between Richards and Liebling – besides tens of millions of dollars stashed away in a vault somewhere — is that one already is enshrined in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, in Cleveland, and the other probably would have to buy a ticket to get into it. This isn’t to say Liebling didn’t, at one time, have as much of a chance of being immortalized there as, say Ozzie Osbourne, just that he blew any chance of that happening long ago. When Liebling began making music in the 1970s, his band Pentagram was one of the pioneers of “doom metal,” which, itself, was a darker offshoot of the brand of heavy metal popularized such groups as Black Sabbath, Uriah Heep,  Deep Purple, Judas Priest, UFO and Sir Lord Baltimore. Anyone considering suicide or starting a heroin habit before attending a concert by a doom- or death-metal band might very well be dead or addicted by the time the encore began … or, anyway, that was the myth. Eventually, the genre would be stretched to include death metal, thrash metal, speed metal, goth, industrial and a half-dozen other head-banging offshoots, but Pentagram still is credited with legitimizing heavy metal as a commercial entity.

Liebling was as charismatic a singer as there was in the 1970s. He had a great voice, knew how to stalk the stage and introduced hand gestures that separated metal-heads from Deadheads. Sadly, though, he became his own worst enemy. The Virginia native was the kind of over-demanding band leader who sought perfection, but wouldn’t recognize what it sounded like if Bob Dylan bit him in the ass. His refusal to accept the word of producers, colleagues, critics and record executives cost him the loyalty of fellow band members and put him on the road to hell. By the time Don Argott and Demian Fenton (“Rock School,” “The Art of the Steal”) began shooting their documentary, “Last Days Here,” he looked like a corpse waiting to die. He lived in the basement of his parents’ home and occupied his time smoking crack, shooting heroin, listening to music and attempting to convince himself that he could resurrect his career, as loyal fan and future manager Sean Pelletier believed. Against all odds, Pelletier’s persistence eventually was rewarded when Liebling cleaned up, married and appeared on stage. This didn’t mean there wouldn’t be potholes along the path to complete recovery, but, at the very least, Liebling didn’t die in the course of shooting the movie. That uncertainty is what makes “Last Days Here” such a compelling entertainment. The DVD adds deleted scenes. – Gary Dretzka

Isa: The People’s Diva
If the classically trained opera singer and much-celebrated interpreter of Yiddish songs, Isa Kremer, had lived long enough to be heard on modern radio stations, her career would be sliced, diced and processed to fit a very small niche on classical stations or the NPR segments reserved for ethnic music. Sadly, that’s the way things are today, and the gifted soprano wouldn’t be alone in fearing her legacy would disappear with the death of her last elderly fans. Blessedly, first-time documentarians Nina Feinberg and Ted Schillinger thought enough about Kremer to capture her music and tell her story on film, in “Isa: The People’s Diva.” Isabelle Yakovlevna Kremer was born in 1887 in the Bessarabian town of Belz, which then was part of the Czarist Empire. Her commitment to music, poetry and revolutionary ideals opened many doors that normally would have been closed to Russian-Jewish girls from the sticks. Her future husband, the much older newspaper editor Israel Heifitz, subsidized her musical training in Italy, where she would make her debut in 1911 and begin touring foreign capitals. Upon her triumphant return to Russia, she would join a circle of Jewish intellectuals, one of whom convinced her of the continued historical relevance of Yiddish folk songs. At the time, many influential Jews, not just in Russia, were running away from their humble beginnings and Yiddish simply wasn’t cool. Kremer, though, took her music directly to people who weren’t interested in hiding their roots and it made her an international star.

Kremer had the great misfortune to live at a time when Jews, especially those of the leftist persuasion, were forced to stay one step ahead of the fascist wave breaking over Europe and South America. She also was forced to confront the broken promises, bigotry and anti-intellectualism of the communist revolution in what would become the USSR. This pattern would continue for most of the rest of her life. Moreover, in addition to institutionalized anti-Semitism, she met resistance from Jews who feared reprisals from Nazi henchmen for listening to the forbidden music and embracing their backgrounds through music. This was as true in pre-war Berlin, where she broke the law by singing in Yiddish, as it was in post-war Israel, where she was encouraged not to sing the songs that weren’t in Hebrew. Upon her return to her final home, Argentina, she and her psychiatrist husband were blacklisted by the Peronist government. (Her fan and protector, Eva Peron had died, opening the door for right-wingers to bully Jews, populists and leftists.) “Isa: The People’s Diva” was made in 2000, for the niche Jewish Channel. It has been refurbished by the folks at Facets Video, who also added an interview with Schillinger and performances of Yiddish songs made popular by a Chicago klezmer band. – Gary Dretzka

ATM: Blu-ray
There’s a certain fear that comes naturally whenever you’re required to take money from an ATM machine, at night, and the only other person in sight is the guy standing six feet behind you. That’s pretty much the premise of “ATM.” Here, though, three young adults become afraid to leave an enclosed, brightly lit kiosk, in the middle of a deserted mall parking lot, after seeing a guy in cold-weather gear pummel a security guard and man walking his dog. Unlike them, the fiend is dressed appropriately for the weather, which is hovering around 0-degrees Fahrenheit. Even though they’re dressed for a baseball game in May, they’ve parked their car 100 feet from the ATM. For most the movie’s 90 minutes, the only thing standing between the guy in the parka and the people in the kiosk is a door that requires an ATM card to open. Somehow, it discourages the guy from invading their space. Anyone willing to buy into such an unlikely scenario might see enough potential in “ATM” to justify a rental. I would suggest, however, the “Seinfeld” episode, “The Secret Code,” in which George reluctantly gives his ATM card and password to a man whose arm in caught in the machine and could be caught in a fire. “ATM” stars Brian Geragthy, Alice Eve and Josh Peck, who all try mightily to look frightened but can’t really pull it off. It was directed by first-timer David Brooks and written by Chris Sparling, whose previous exercise in claustrophobia was “Buried,” with Ryan Reynolds. The Blu-ray arrives with a making-of featurette that’s more interesting than the movie. – Gary Dretzka

Misfits: Season One
Lifetime: Surviving High School
Lifetime: Jodi Picoult Collection
Marvel Anime: Blade/Wolverine: Animated Series
Transformers Prime: One Shall Stand
About halfway through the first episode of “Misfits,” I couldn’t help but wonder when MTV or some other youth-oriented cable network would remake the spunky British import and dilute it to the point where it’s unrecognizable. The same thing happened with MTV’s adaptation of “Skins,” the excellent British series that dared to portray teens and young adults as sexual beings. The howls of censorial watchdog groups are probably still ringing in the ears of programming executives. That disaster notwithstanding, MTV is planning to air an American version of “The InBetweeners,” as well. How it will deal with the show’s coarse language, sexual effrontery and “wanker” jabs is anyone’s guess. That hilarious Brit comedy features a group of typically horny freshmen boys, caught between the cool crowd and total dweebs. “Misfits” puts a different spin on kids from essentially the same age group. The teenagers here are working-class droogs who’ve gotten in trouble with the law for various reasons and are working off their punishment doing menial public-service assignments. After a freak storm passes over London, the kids discover they have acquired superpowers that correspond with their deepest insecurities. They may not be the only ones impacted by the electrical storm, but they’re ones in whose laps the fate of the city rests. Its entertaining blend of sci-fi, rude comedy and angsty drama went over well in England and could succeed here if the kids weren’t required to clean up their acts too much.

From Lifetime Television comes a starter kit of original movies designed to prepare teenage girls – their moms, too — for some of unseemly things they might encounter during their high school years. From 2005, “Odd Girl Out” examines the issue of female aggression and bullying, as seen through the eyes of a popular and well-adjusted middle-schooler (Alexa Vega), who gets a rude awakening in high school. In “Augusta, Gone” (2006), Sharon Lawrence plays a woman struggling with divorce, financial problems and a 15-year-old daughter who’s suddenly turned into a self-destructive monster. “The Perfect Teacher” (2010) stars Megan Park as 17-year-old who falls in love with a handsome math professor (David Charvet) and is willing to go to extremes to make sure he pays attention to her. Based on actual events, “For One Night” (2006) tells the story of a Southern teenager (Raven-Symone) who hopes to reverse decades of officially sanctioned racial prejudice by combining the traditionally segregated proms at her high school.

Another new compilation from Lifetime combines adaptations of best-sellers written by Jodi Picoult. In “Salem Falls” (2011), James Van Der Beek plays a teacher/coach who tries to outrun his past by taking a job at an all-girl’s prep school. Naturally, it catches up to him when a student (AJ Michalka) develops a crush on him and it causes a witch hunt. Salem … witch hunt … get it? First shown in 2004, “Plain Truth” stars Mariska Hargitay as a high-profile criminal attorney who goes slumming in Amish country, where a teenager (Alison Pill) is on trial for murdering her newborn baby. Megan Mullally is center stage in “The Pact” (2002), which describes what happens when one young participant in a “suicide pact” survives and the parents must come to grips with the root causes of the arrangement.

“Marvel Anime: Blade: Complete Series” and “Marvel: Wolverine: Animated Series” represent the second release of titles made primarily for consumption by Japanese fans of the Marvel characters. They were shown there on Animax outlets and, here, on G-4. “Blade,” which began as a comic and evolved into an action-movie franchise, takes the anime route, with half-man, half-vampire Eric Brooks/Blade voiced by Harold Perrineau. In “Wolverine,” Logan (Milo Ventimiglia) continues his quest to rescue his kidnapped lover, Mariko (Gwendoline Yeo), from Japanese crime lords. Transformers Prime: One Shall Stand” collects seven episodes from the “One Shall Fall,” “One Shall Rise” and “Orion Pax” story arcs. They have been re-edited as a stand-alone movie. Fans should know that about half of the material has been released in the Season One compilation, with Season Two soon to follow. – Gary Dretzka

Beautiful Planet: England & the Low Countries: Blu-ray
Beautiful Planet: Germany & Austria: Blu-ray
Anyone who would love to see more of England than is visible in NBC’s coverage of the Olympics should enjoy “Beautiful Planet: England & the Low Countries,” which takes us on a hi-def tour of some of the country’s most beautiful and historic palaces and gardens. With all the emphasis on London and other industrial cities, where the soccer matches are taking place, it’s easy to forget how lovely a country England still is. The Brits are obsessed with gardening and it shows here. The “Low Countries” half of the Blu-ray presentation focuses on the windmills of Holland and medieval city of Bruges, in Belgium.

In “Beautiful Planet: Germany & Austria,” we visit the historic and architecturally significant cities of Bamberg, famous for its beer and seven hills, and 2,000-year-old Speyer. In Austria, we’re introduced to the spectacular city of Hallstatt, which sits on a magnificent lake and in the shadow of Alpine peaks. Another stop on the tour is the amazing Schonbrunn Palace, which served as a home away from home for Habsburg monarchs. The Blu-ray presentation is excellent. – Gary Dretzka

10,000 More Ways to Die: Spaghetti Western Collection
Ultimate Rin Tin Tin: 8 Classic Movies Collection
Ultimate Civil War Series: 150th Anniversary Edition
WWII: Waking the Sleeping Giant
Now that the hype machine is fully engaged in the promotion of Quentin Tarantino’s “Django Unchained,” it’s probably a good time to revisit the Spaghetti Western genre and get reacquainted with what made it so much fun. Many of the movies released in DVD collections such as “10,000 Ways to Die” and “10,000 More Ways to Die” never found distribution here, despite frequent appearances by familiar Hollywood stars. For example, I wasn’t aware of the existence of “The Deserter,” a superlative Western of the Apaches-vs.-the-Cavalry variety that was directed by Burt Kennedy (“The Rounders”) and starred, among other actors, Richard Crenna, John Huston, Chuck Connors, Ricardo Montalban, Woody Strode, Brandon de Wilde, Slim Pickens, Albert Salmi, Ian Bannen,  Patrick Wayne and the immortal Yugoslav leading man, Bekim Fehmiu. Although the Indian characters are cut a pretty raw deal in the script, the “Dirty Dozen” approach to their slaughter works exceedingly well. Cut-rate production values diminish the full impact of the story of a U.S. Army captain (Fehmiu) who goes rogue after his wife is brutally murdered by Apache warriors. The captain believes that the cavalry is partially to blame, because its troops were ill-equipped to fight a guerrilla war. He is offered amnesty in exchange for training a select squad of soldiers in the Apache way. The men don’t like it one bit, but General Miles (Huston) doesn’t give them any options. Under Kennedy’s grip, this is one Spaghetti Western that looks as if it was catered by American chefs. The Django name lives on in “Django, Kill … If You Live, Shoot!,” if only in the movie’s title. Here, the wonderful Cuban-American actor Tomas Milian plays the “Stranger.” It is a very strange Western, even by Italian standards, in which outlaws are punished with crucifixion; gay gunslingers dress in Cisco Kid drag; a surgeon strikes gold inside the body of seriously wounded man; and a vampire bat is used as an implement of torture. This “Django” is best enjoyed stoned. Other movies in the Mill Creek compilation include “Seven Devils on Horseback,” “7 Hours of Gunfire,” “Ride and Kill,” “The Shadow of Zorro,” “The Federal Man,” “Dead Men Don’t Make Shadows,” “Fistful of Lead,” “White Comanche” (with William Shatner and Joseph Cotten), “Dead for a Dollar” and “3 Bullets for Ringo” (with Mickey Hargitay and the ubiquitous Gordon Mitchell).

Last year, the story of “wonder dog” Rin Tin Tin’s journey from the killing fields of Europe in World War I to Hollywood stardom was recounted in the New Yorker magazine and a new biography. It was terrific stuff. The new Mill Creek compilation, “Ultimate Rin Tin Tin,” is a collection of mostly hour-long films, in which Rin Tin Tin Jr. and RTT III took over the reins from Dad. Look for a 14-year-old Robert Blake in “The Return of Rin Tin Tin” (1947). The first thing to know about “Ultimate Civil War Series: 150th Anniversary Edition” is that it’s not the one that was produced by Ken Burns and usually is repeated during PBS pledge months. The two-disc mini-series covers much of the same territory, however, using first-hand accounts — through diaries, letters and memoirs – special visual effects and dramatic re-creations. As the title implies, “WWII: Waking the Sleeping Giant” makes a pretty good case for the theory that Axis powers’ greatest mistakes was pissing off the American people enough to convince them to drop all the isolationist rhetoric and take revenge on the Japanese for the raid on Pearl Harbor. Hitler’s decision to disrupt Allied supply lines by destroying U.S. ships and killing our citizens backfired, as well. The 11-part documentary series uses first-hand accounts and archival materials to explain Japanese pre-war strategy and continues on to the decision to drop atomic bombs on non-combatants in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It also tackles attempts to bring Nazi War criminals to justice. – Gary Dretzka

Twinkle Toes: The Movie
Dora the Explorer: Dora’s Fantastic Gymnastics Adventure
As far as I can tell, Grace “Twinkle Toes” Hastings is the first cartoon character inspired by a line of footwear for kids, Skechers’ Twinkle Toes. Boomers will recall, however, that, for most of the last century, Buster Brown shoes were synonymous with the Buster Brown comic strip and other media spinoffs, most notably the kiddie show, “Andy’s Gang.” (“Plug your magic twanger, Froggie.”)  In this all-new, feature-length movie, TT is forced to overcome her terrible stage fright and fulfill her destiny as an inspiration for aspiring dancers everywhere.

Just in time for the Olympics, Nickelodeon star Dora the Explorer is awarded a special Rainbow Ribbon, which she’ll wield in a series of gymnastics competitions. Naturally, prankster Swiper absconds with the ribbon, forcing Dora and Boots to call on viewers to help them recover it. Their adventure includes a walk over Crocodile Lake on a balance beam, a trampoline jump through the Flowery Garden and ring-swing to the sight of the Games. There’s even a horse show for Pinto the Pony. – Gary Dretzka

The Autism Enigma
According to this potentially groundbreaking documentary, shown on Canada’s “The Nature of Things,” autism is the fastest-rising developmental disorder in the industrialized world, registering a 600 percent rise over the last 20 years. The cause remains a mystery, but theories include the possibility that genetic vulnerability could be triggered by environmental factors. Moreover, the producers of “The Autism Enigma” argue, 70 percent of children with autism exhibit severe gastrointestinal symptoms. This has led an international group of scientists to take their search in an entirely direction. Parents are advised to reserve their excitement over the Bacterial Theory, but a flicker of hope is better than none at all. – Gary Dretzka

The DVD Wrapup: Three Stooges, Margaret, Metropolitan, Institute Benjamenta, Footnote… More

Tuesday, July 24th, 2012

The Three Stooges: The Movie: Blu-ray
Although the plot of the Farrelly brothers’ tribute to the Three Stooges appears to have been lifted directly from “The Blues Brothers,” the comparison pretty much ends there. Besides not being nearly as hilarious, musical or totemic as John Landis’ epic comedy, it strangely lacks the certain undefinable something that caused several generations of women and girls to turn away from the black-and-white shorts in disgust. There’s plenty of nostalgia-inducing slapstick in “The Three Stooges” – much of it very funny – but by putting Moe, Larry and Curly into a position where they might be perceived as heroic, the Farrellys gave them a personality makeover longtime fans never desired and will only make newcomers wonder what all the fuss is about. In fact, as befits the PG-rating, they’re downright cuddly. As disconcerting, by adding color and expanding the visual experience, it’s easy to see how the undeniably game actors (Chris Diamantopoulos, Sean Hayes, Will Sasso) are able to pull their punches and avoid permanent injury. “The Three Stooges” fits far more comfortably in the Farrelly canon – “Dumb, Dumber, Dumbest,” if you will – than the memory banks of Stooges fans who never tire of watching the ancient shorts. This isn’t the fault of the actors – who stepped in for the originally cast Sean Penn, Jim Carrey and Benicio Del Toro — as they make perfectly reasonable facsimiles of the Stooges and have no trouble repeating the hand gestures, wisecracks and “nyuck, nyuck, nyuck” shtick. I would have enjoyed seeing them tackle “Niagara Falls” and “Swinging the Alphabet,” skits that will live forever on the Internet.

After giving us the origin story of the Stooges, the Farrellys bring us up to date by devising a scenario in which the unadoptable boys – now, incorrigible young men – are required to raise the money necessary to save the orphanage from foreclosure. It not only allows for the usual chaos and confusion that arises from any encounter between the Stooges and normal folks, but also a send-up of reality TV shows and other pop-cultural touchstones. Their search for money reunites them with various people from their childhood, not all of whom have the best interests of the orphanage at heart. Viewers will recognize Jane Lynch, Jennifer Hudson, Kate Hudson and Larry David as nuns at the orphanage. (David’s Sister Mary-Mengele wears out her welcome rather quickly.) The cast members of “Jersey Shore” don’t embarrass themselves – if such a thing were even possible – and Sofia Vergara and Lin Shaye (Nurse Crotchet) add their own brand of special sauce to the proceedings. “Three Stooges” is rated PG, so parents need not fear much in the way of unusually gratuitous slapstick violence or the nuns-in-sexy-swimsuits shots promoted in the commercials and trailers. In another amusing touch, actors impersonating the Farrellys deliver a warning to the kiddies against attempting the violent gags and pratfalls at home. (When the shorts became a television staple in the late-1950s and early-1960s, Moe similarly was called upon to stem the epidemic of eye-gouges and hammer attacks.) The Blu-ray adds a making-of feature, explaining how the stunts are accomplished and the essential role played by sound-effects specialists. There’s also a history of the Stooges; deleted and extended scenes; a slapstick mash-up; and screen tests. Anyone who wants to see the real deal ought to check out Sony’s DVD compilations, which have been digitally upgraded and make great bonding gifts for all generations of males in your family. — Gary Dretzka

Margaret: Blu-ray
Typically, movies with a gestation period of more than five years bear the fingerprints of far too many studio meddlers and investors hoping to return a dime on the dollars they put into the project. Some have been edited and re-edited to the point where they’re unrecognizable from the concept originally green-lit and are disowned by their parents. By the time they’re accorded a limited release, more lawyers have seen the movie than critics. “Margaret” has just such a backstory. Without going into much tiresome detail, Kenneth Lonergan’s long-anticipated follow-up to “You Can Count on Me” was first scheduled for release in 2007. Lawyers became involved in the post-production process when the director couldn’t bring the drama in at the agreed-upon length or in the shape anyone wanted it to be. Finally, Martin Scorsese and Thelma Schoonmaker were reportedly enlisted to edit the theatrical version – it shows, I think – with Fox Searchlight agreeing to allow Lonergan to put his stamp on the final product. At 150 minutes, though, “Margaret” never really had a fighting chance at commercial viability. Shown only on a dozen or so arthouse screens, its most likely avenue for success ultimately would be determined by DVD and Blu-ray enthusiasts. On Blu-ray, both the theatrical cut and extended, three-hour version now are available.

“Margaret” is exactly the kind of nearly extinct movie that demands discussion after watching it with a date or friends… and not in Internet chatrooms or blogs. The characters are easily identifiable as upper-middle-class New Yorkers, whose neuroses frequently render them incapable of functioning outside their apartments and jobs. Only one person is truly likable here and he ends up getting trampled by the egos of the three key women characters. When the movie began production, in 2005, Anna Paquin still looked young enough to pass for a 17-year-old student at a private high school in Manhattan. Lisa is a fairly typical teenager, in that she’s constantly at odds with her mother, ignores her younger brother, is anxious to be deflowered (if not by her caring boyfriend) and is an uninspired student who doesn’t see any problem with cheating on assignments. Her mother, Joan (J. Smith-Cameron), is an emotionally fragile off-Broadway actress about to experience her first taste of success. Her father is a deeply unhappy writer, living in a beachfront home in L.A., with his new family. Distance has allowed him to come off as the good guy in all major clashes between mother and daughter. There’s nothing unusual in any of this.

One day, in anticipation of a New Mexico retreat with her dad, Lisa goes on a shopping excursion to find a cowboy hat on the Upper East Side. When she notices a bus driver, Maretti (Mark Ruffalo), sporting a 10-gallon chapeau, she attempts to get his attention by waving and pounding on the moving vehicle’s door. It’s distracting enough to cause him to miss a red light and run smack dab into a pedestrian (Allison Janney) crossing the street. In the few minutes it takes for the woman to die, Lisa comes to believe she’s bonded forever with the woman. Inexplicably, she decides not to tell police detectives about the red light and her role in the incident. As her deception begins to gnaw on her conscience, Lisa quickly evolves into someone unrecognizable to her friends, family and teachers. She’s confrontational, where she used to be passive, and anxious to abandon all trappings of youth (hence the rush to get laid, which coincides with experimentation with cocaine). Moreover, Lisa finally decides to seek “justice” for the victim of the accident by suing the transit authority and attempting to get the driver fired. She does this in collusion with the woman’s best friend in New York, Emily (Jeannie Berlin), and her only known relative, who lives in Arizona and didn’t care much for her cousin. She does, however, like the sound of collecting $350,000 in damages and insinuates herself in the negotiations with the MTA. Lisa begins to see in Emily a surrogate mother, especially since they tend to agree with each other and Joan has begun trying to recover what’s left of her love life by dating a generous and caring opera lover (Jean Reno).

That’s a lot of baggage for one movie to carry, even in its three-hour director’s cut version. And, it doesn’t even take into account the crush she has on a cautiously wary and decidedly Midwestern teacher-confidante (Matt Damon) and bizarre encounters with English teacher (Matthew Broderick), who introduces her to the Gerard Manley Hopkins poem, from whence the title derives. If I had a nutshell and cared to stuff the movie’s plot into it, I’d say that “Margaret” tells the story of a teenage girl who demands the right to grow up too soon, but is hugely disappointed when she discovers the compromises and accommodations required of adults. She savors the bitter taste of revenge served cold on Maretti, but is reviled by the other parties in the suit when, for the sake of expediency, they agree to spare the transit company and driver in the settlement. Neither is she at all pleased by the realization that her dad may be a selfish prick and her mom probably isn’t a monster.

The acting in “Margaret” is uniformly excellent and the characterizations appear spot-on. It’s a shame Academy voters ignored the fine performances. What distinguishes the drama most, however, is the depiction of a New York that goes about its business no matter how great the demands of a single teenage girl. That, too, amounts to a splash of cold water to an impressionable teen. Polish cinematographer Ryszard Lenczewski captures Manhattan with much the same clarity as Gordon Willis, in “Manhattan,” “Annie Hall,” “The Godfather” and “Bright Lights, Big City.” The movie’s length and controversial past don’t allow for much in the way of supplemental features. – Gary Dretzka

Metropolitan: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
One thing all good movies do is introduce us to places and people they never knew existed or, maybe, failed to notice when they were on the way to someplace else. Like Martin Scorsese, in “Mean Streets,” and Woody Allen, in “Manhattan,” Whit Stillman’s precisely observed and delightfully sly comedy of manners, “Metropolitan,” shines a light on a corner of New York rarely visited on film, at least in the previous half-century. Made in 1990, it chronicles how a small group of adolescent preppies spend their Christmas vacation, absent their filthy-rich absentee parents and left to their own devices in Park Avenue apartments. Like the aspiring socialites of “Gossip Girl,” they have easy access to booze and high-class parties, and tend to act like the insufferable adults their parents became after attending Ivy League colleges. The male characters we meet in “Metropolitan” routinely wear suits or tuxedoes, even the occasional top hat, white tie and tails. When the girls aren’t in ball gowns, they favor conservative sweaters, pearls and low-heeled shoes. They appear to care desperately about such things as debutante balls, their educations, social taboos and how they’re perceived in the world. They can quote from Jane Austen and Lionel Trilling, play bridge and know where to find affordable used tuxedos. They don’t seem at interested in popular tastes. In another time in American history, simply being the children and grandchildren of the “urban haute bourgeoisie” would have entitled them to expect invitations to Jay Gatsby’s parties and to dance alongside Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers.

Stillman, who’s the opposite of prolific, would revisit these and other upper-crust characters in “Last Days of Disco” and “Barcelona,” movies that also emphasize smart dialogue (“playing strip poker with an exhibitionist somehow takes the challenge out of it,” one dryly observes”) over glitz, action and cheap sex. The comedy comes in observing how little attention the kids pay to the world outside their dormitories, classrooms and penthouses and how desperately they want to maintain the status quo, as defined by their parents. If they would look freakish, today, alongside their social peers on “Gossip Girl,” it’s only because flaunting inherited wealth and entitlement once was considered gauche and unattractive, even in Manhattan, and preppy their fashions look hopelessly quaint. It also might have something to do with Stillman’s casting of unknown, untested actors, of whom only a small handful would go on to enjoy substantial careers in the movies or television. This lack of experience only adds to the movie’s credibility. The Criterion Collection edition features a restored high-definition digital transfer, supervised by the director; commentary with Stillman, editor Christopher Tellefsen and some of the actors; outtakes and alternate casting (Troma’s Lloyd Kaufman), with commentary by Stillman; optional English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing; and a booklet featuring an essay by critic Luc Sante. – Gary Dretzka

Black Butterflies
The Deep Blue Sea: Blu-ray
Before watching Paula van der Oest’s passionate biopic of the South African poet Ingrid Jonker, I had no idea who she was or why I should care about her work. Upon further review, I learned that Nelson Mandela specifically drew attention to her poem, “The Child (Who Was Shot Dead by Soldiers at Nyanga),” in Afrikaans, during his address at the opening of the first democratic parliament on May 24, 1994. Nearly 30 years after her death, by suicide, he read, “The time will come when our nation will honor the memory of those who gave us the right to assert with pride that we are South Africans, that we are Africans and citizens of the world. The certainties that come with age tell me that among these we shall find an Afrikaner woman. … Her name is Ingrid Jonker.” If her work is good enough for Nelson Mandela, who am I to resist a movie whose sad ending I already know and dread? More than anything else, “Black Butterflies” describes a woman whose soul was torn in pieces by the political and personal realities of Apartheid — her father served as chief censor of arts, publication and entertainment – and her free-spirited nature. As portrayed here by Carice van Houten (“Black Book”), Jonker could have served as the model for her country’s first flower child. Before moving in with her father as a teenager, she lived on a farm outside Cape Town, where, apparently to her father’s great dismay, she was taught not to hate blacks and resisted wearing shoes. She had been writing publishable poetry several years before getting married, in 1956, moving to Johannesburg and having a daughter. After their divorce, three years later, Jonker took to running with a literary crowd that, we’re shown, enjoyed beach parties, jazz and bed-hopping. If her life in one of the world’s most beautiful provinces is made to seem idyllic, it’s also possible to recognize the roots of madness in her behavior and choices. Not surprisingly, the first sign of trouble comes when she chooses to fall in love with married writers, Jack Cope and Andre Brink, both of whom lead her to believe they’ll seek divorces and marry her. Possessed of an explosive temper, Jonker spends much time moving back and forth from her father’s home, to cheap hotels and back to the beach, dragging her daughter with her as she goes.

The soap-opera aspect of Jonker’s life wears thin after a while, of course, as do the arguments she has with her cold and brutally outspoken father. When she witnesses the death of the child during a protest against Apartheid, she writes the poem that will raise her profile beyond the borders of South Africa and take her to the capitals of Europe. (When she convinced her father to read it, he ripped it into pieces.) By this time, however, she’d already endured a one painful and illegal abortion, experienced electroshock therapy at a mental hospital and was well past the border line of alcoholism. Finally, on a stormy night in July 1965, she walked into the sea and drowned. Even then, her father couldn’t find anything kind to say about her. Van Houten, a wonderful Dutch actor, delivers a powerful portrayal of the poet. Rutger Hauer, as her thoroughly contemptible father, is chilling. Likewise, Liam Cunningham is excellent as Cole, Jonker’s lover and, later, administrator of her literary estate. The DVD adds interviews and background material.

Rachel Weisz is exactly the right age to play Hester Collyer, the sexually enflamed protagonist of Terence Davies’ adaptation of Terence Rattigan’s achingly romantic drama, “The Deep Blue Sea.” So, was Vivien Leigh, who played Hester opposite Kenneth More in the 1955 movie. (On stage, the character was portrayed by the slightly older Peggy Ashcroft and Margaret Sullavan.) The difference between Weisz and the other women is that Weisz tends to play 10 years younger than her middle-age characters and she isn’t required to wear the period-appropriate hairdo a woman married to an older judge, Sir William Collyer (Simon Russell Beale, looking older than his 51 years), would in post-war England. More to the point, Weisz doesn’t look anything like a woman who, in her early 40s, had yet to experience an orgasm. Her sexually awakening was sparked by Freddie Page (Tom Hiddleston), a former Royal Air Force ace and devil-may-care playboy, who hasn’t been the same since the end of World War II. If Hester can’t get enough of Freddie, the much younger man has no trouble keeping himself amused in bars and at golf courses and racetracks. Sir William would be perfectly willing to take back his wife, but Hester’s come to like the taste of forbidden fruit and a peaceful upper-middle-class environment – supervised by her disagreeable mother-in-law – no longer fits her lifestyle. Sadly, her inability to satisfy Freddie’s every need – no woman could, really – causes her self-esteem to plummet. Naturally, then, the only thing for a woman to do is attempt suicide. Physical considerations aside, Weisz does a fine job as Hester, as do Hiddleston and Beale. The Blu-ray adds commentary, an interview with Davies and a backgrounder. – Gary Dretzka

Footnote
Nominated for an Oscar in the Best Foreign Language Film category, “Footnote,” effectively validates the acidic observation of educator William Stanley Sayre: “Academic politics is the most vicious and bitter form of politics, because the stakes are so low.” They do, however, add plenty of zest to a drama that might have turned out hopelessly cerebral and stifling. Everything that happens in the Israeli import is the result of a mistake made by a lowly peon at an august academic institution. Normally, the misunderstanding would be diffused with an apology and good laugh. Here, however, it cuts directly to a malignancy that already threatens to destroy an extremely accomplished family. Eliezer Shkolnik (Shlomo Bar Aba) is a no-nonsense professor of Talmudic studies at Jerusalem’s Hebrew University. He takes a strictly scientific approach to philology, a discipline that’s required him to keep his nose buried in microfiche and ancient documents for his entire career. His ornery demeanor can be attributed to having the fruit of his labors drained by an accidental discovery made by a detestable colleague months before the revelation of his own findings. In a relative heartbeat, 30 years of research began to circle the drain.

Instead of directing all of his resentment at the scholar who made him little more than a footnote in the history of Talmudic studies, Eliezer takes it out on his son, Uriel (Lior Ashkenazi), whose work is infinitely more accessible to students, journalists and history buffs. The toxicity of the old man’s attitude is palpable, even when he should be basking in the reflected glory of an award ceremony for his son. That’s nothing compared to what happens soon thereafter, when Eliezer is mistakenly notified by the assistant that he’s finally been accorded the most prestigious honor anyone in his field can receive. His mood brightens as they storm clouds that been hovering over his head for years begin to dissipate. Unfortunately for everyone involved, the actual recipient of the prize is his son. Uriel understands only too well that such a reversal of fortune would likely drive his father into a funk so deep, he’d never recover. As much as Uriel would love to accept the prize, he dedicates himself to convincing the committee to let sleeping dogs lie and give his dad the prize he probably deserves, anyway.

As the day of the ceremony nears, Eliezer allows himself the rare satisfaction of being interviewed for a major Israeli magazine. In his dedication to the “truth,” however, he disparages his son’s research by denigrating his methodology and the people who find it worthwhile. This is the kind of baloney Uriel has been putting up with for years, and, after working so hard to reverse the committee’s decision, it’s the last straw. He takes his unhappiness out on his own teenage son, who’s yet to make up his mind on a career path and, therefore, is deemed worthy of his contempt. Uriel also alienates his wife, by reducing her role in the household to simply “being the mother.” Things lighten up towards the very end of “Footnote,” but the damage has been done. Movies like this don’t come along very often, so, for those interested in academic catfights, it’s well worth catching. The DVD arrives with a Q&A with American-born writer-director Joseph Cedar, interviews, commentary and a piece on the film’s music, which is impressive, indeed. – Gary Dretzka

Brake: Blu-ray
As the movie opens, it becomes clear almost immediately that Stephen Dorff’s character is trapped in a box the size of coffin and isn’t getting out any time soon. It takes almost all of the next 90 minutes of “Brake,” however, to understand who Dorff is supposed to be, where he is and how he wound up in such straits. Director Gabe Torres and writer Timothy Mannion clearly are in no hurry to enlighten viewers, who’ll get the answers to their questions as the filmmakers see fit. Without giving away the store, though, it’s safe to reveal ahead of time that Dorff’s character is a Secret Service agent who’s been abducted by terrorists. They assume he’s privy to information that holds the key to the success of their mission and appreciate the fact that he won’t cough up information voluntarily or without great pain administered to him. Most of the nasty stuff comes in the form of head games involving a timing device that threatens disaster whenever the countdown closes in on zero. Inexplicably, he’s also given access to a cellphone and two-radio that connects him to another federal employee abducted and trapped in a box. Depending on one’s willingness to be thoroughly manipulated by the filmmakers, “Brake” is a reasonably clever and unpredictable thriller of the claustrophobic persuasion. It also features a nice double-barreled ending. The Blu-ray comes with an informative making-of featurette and interviews. – Gary Dretzka

Institute Benjamenta
For anyone unfamiliar with the Quay Brothers’ work – which, even for buffs, qualifies as an acquired taste — any description of “Institute Benjamenta” would be woefully inadequate. I’ll give it a shot, anyway. Based on a 1909 novel by the brilliant, if frequently institutionalized Swiss writer Robert Walser, the very strange “Institute Benjamenta” reminds me of what a remake of F.W. Murnau’s “Nosferatu” might look like if it were directed by David Lynch. Although it was made in 1995, the look and tone of the movie harkens back to the height of the German-Expressionist period, and the characters could hardly be any creepier. Walser’s inspiration for the source book, “Jakob von Gunten,” and others, can be traced to a course he was required to take in order to become a servant at the castle of Dambrau in Upper Selisia. Among other things Walser took away from the experience, apparently, was the mind-numbing repetition of exercises and procedures required of students destined to be mere cogs in a larger machine. In the Quays’ hands, the banality of the lessons is stretched to include synchronized swaying, chanting exercises and drawing circles on floors.

When he arrives at doors of the institute, Jakob (Mark Rylance) is challenged through a peephole by a monkey sitting on the shoulders of Johannes Benjamenta. Jakob (Gottfried John) runs the school, seemingly for his own amusement, with his similarly strange and wistful sister, Lisa (Alice Krige). The only lessons being learned here, it seems, are the attributes of monotonous repetition and other skills that might be useful to working-class drones. The monkey appears to be the only thing operating with some semblance of free will.

“Instituta Benjamenta” represents the Quays’ first foray into feature films. Born near Philadelphia and educated at London’s Royal Academy of the Arts, identical twins Stephen and Timothy began their careers working on commercials, music videos (Peter Gabriel’s “Sledgehammer”) and short films, most employing puppet animation. Their other feature is “The Piano Tuner of Earthquakes,” which also was co-written by Alan Passes and whose characters are little more than automatons. The handsome HD restoration was supervised by the directors and enhanced for widescreen viewing. It includes the hypnotic 2007 short, “Eurydice, She So Beloved,” behind-the-scenes footage and the original theatrical trailer. – Gary Dretzka

On the Inside: Blu-ray
The less one expects from the virtually straight-to-video “On the Inside,” a frequently entertaining prison movie, the more impressed they’ll be by its small surprises. Nick Stahl (“Carnivale”) plays Allen, a college professor who goes postal on a young man he believes to have raped his girlfriend. Unfortunately for everyone concerned, he kills the wrong guy. The savagery of the attack must have convinced the judge that he was criminally insane, because that’s the kind of facility to which he’s sent. Early in his stay there, he’s taunted by a fellow prisoner, who’s truly evil, and attempts to befriend a guy who seems to be auditioning for the role of Lennie in an amateur production of “Of Mice and Men.” Because of Allen’s generally positive outlook on his incarceration, he’s assigned to an experimental socialization program. It’s here that he befriends the bi-polar bombshell, Mia (Olivia Wilde). The guards aren’t particularly brutal, but this doesn’t stop Allen’s tormentor from staging a bloody attempt at a prison break. Curiously, Allen and Mia miss most of the action, because they’re swapping hooch and hugs in an area temporarily out of harm’s way. Naturally, as “On the Inside” nears its climax, there’s a showdown between relative good and absolute evil. Stahl, who’s experienced troubles of his own lately, is good as the brooding convict, while Wilde balances beauty and bi-polarity in convincing fashion. The Blu-ray adds commentary. – Gary Dretzka

My Way: Blu-ray
Sector 7”: 3D/2D Blu-ray
American critics weren’t kind to the Korean WWII movie, “My Way,” when it opened in a handful of theaters here in spring. I guess they felt a responsibility to compare it to every modern war picture, from “Paths of Glory” to “Finding Private Ryan,” no matter the financial or cinematic context into which this pan-Asian effort might fit. It isn’t easy to make even a reasonably exciting wartime action film on a budget of $24 million and I think “My Way” makes very good use of its limited resources. It deserved a critical break. Directed and co-written by Kang Je-gyu (“Brotherhood of War”), “My Way” effectively takes a footnote in history and builds enough of a story around it to support an epic movie. The inspiration came from a photograph taken in the aftermath of the D-Day landing, showing a Korean POW in the uniform of the German Wehrmacht. As far as I can tell, no one knows who the soldiers were or what happened to them after the war. What we do know is that, in a last-ditch effort to survive, POWs and conscripts from other Nazi-held territories agreed to don enemy uniforms and be moved to possible invasion sites to construct seawalls and other defenses. By June 6, 1944, Hitler was willing to gamble that these non-Arayans would fill the vacuum left by German forces needed on the eastern front. He knew that Allied soldiers weren’t likely cut them any more breaks than any other man aiming a machine gun at them. Given the choice between life and death, the Koreans and other conscripts would fight before being given the opportunity to surrender. In any case, the Korean POWs already had been forced to fight for the Japanese, Soviet Red Army and now the Germans. Each time, there was a man with a gun at their backs, demanding they march on for the greater glory of a country not their own.

Kang connects the dots by constructing a backstory in which a pair of marathon runners – one a poor Korean, the other the son of an officer in Japan’s Occupation forces – find their lives intertwined at nearly every turn. They compete against each other in Olympics qualifying races – fixed to favor the Japanese runner – fight the Soviets at the Battle of Nomonhan, share ramshackle barracks in a Siberian POW camp, face German machine-gun fire in a suicide assault near Moscow and finally are captured by the Germans and sent to Normandy. Even if these men ultimately would be forced by circumstances to find common ground, they weren’t friends by any stretch of the imagination. The Japanese were feared and hated by the Koreans, just as the Germans were reviled by the Russians and vice versa. For them to win each other’s respect, it would take tests of strength, endurance and humiliation few novelists would dare invent. The battle sequences are extremely well done, given the budget, and it’s easy to feel the pain of being insulted, tortured and forced to bear arms in battles not of their making. The Blu-ray adds making-of material, interviews and an English-dub version.

Unless you are one of fortunate few who can afford HD3D appliances, it won’t mean much to learn that “Sector 7” is purported to be South Korea’s first 3D live-action thriller. (I think “Shock Labyrinth” actually holds that distinction.) Although there’s nothing in “Sector 7” that would prompt me to run out and buy a new set, it can hold its own with movies in which humans and slimy creatures are required to occupy the same tight quarters. The title refers to a deep-water oil-drilling site in waters claimed at various time by both Korea and Japan. If it is, in fact, rich with black gold, no one working on the derrick has yet to tap into the mother lode. Instead, they’ve managed to incubate a monster that looks as if its mother was a sea lion and its father was a lamprey eel or prawn. What distinguishes “Sector 7” from other imported creature-features is its expensive look and quality of the actors, led by Ha Ji-won (“Closer to Heaven”), who plays the chief honcho on the derrick and heroine. And, yes, it is noteworthy that a woman was chosen to play the protagonist in such a genre film. Things get wilder as “Sector 7” reaches its climax, which is as it should be. The Blu-ray features include a making-of piece and interviews. – Gary Dretzka

Budz House
If all I knew about marijuana came from slacker/stoner movies, such as “Budz House,” I’d probably be against the legalization of marijuana, too. I guess the same could have been said about Cheech & Chong in their heyday, but, at least, they weren’t too stoned to confuse lazy filmmaking and relying on clichés with being funny. I suspect that director Cameron Casey and writer Marvin Watkins were too high on chronic, themselves, to know the difference or care much that they don’t. For what it’s worth, however, the pot ingested in vast quantities by C&C probably was a tenth as strong as the reefer (there’s a word that dates me) grown and smoked by the characters here. But, it isn’t the marijuana gags that killed “Budz House” for me. It was, first, the implied image of a 300-pound guy clogging the toilet after a leisurely dump, and, second, having to watch a plumber attempt to fix the mess with his bare hands.

Just for the record, mayhem ensues after Bud Howard (Wesley Jonathan) and his stoner pals discover a misplaced Hefty Bag full of grade-A “kush” and, instead of returning it to its rightful gangsta owner, smoke as much of it as they can. By the time they realize their mistake, the pot’s gone up in smoke and they owe a guy named “One Punch” a big chunk of money. Fortuitously, the plumber discovers that other thing clogging the pipes are the pot plants hidden in the cabinet under the sink. Unbeknownst to Bud, they’ve been fertilized by the raw sewage overflowing from the broken toilet bowl and acquired an unusually high potency. So, to avoid being killed by either of the two gang chieftains on their tails, the boys decide to sell enough of it to satisfy their debt and have some left over to smoke. That always works. Besides drawing comic books, Bud also is allowing himself to be seduced by one of the gangstas’ horny girlfriends. As if that weren’t enough, there are subplots involving one of Bud’s friends and a transvestite and his sister’s desire to win some kind of a booty-bouncing contest on the Internet. The funniest part of “Budz House” comes in a bonus feature, during which Faizon Love delivers a lengthy comic monologue. – Gary Dretzka

Meeting Evil
As near as I can tell, the dark psychological thriller “Meeting Evil” played in exactly one theater, perhaps, for only for one night. It’s reported box-office return was $181. Actually, the picture opened a month earlier on a VOD service, but, who’s counting? I’ve seen a lot of movies that would have had a difficult time bringing in even that much money in a theatrical run, but none starring Samuel L. Jackson and/or Luke Wilson. Maybe I missed something here, but I found “Meeting Evil” – adapted by Chris Fisher from a Thomas Berger novel – to be reasonably gripping and unpredictable. Even if Jackson and Wilson are playing characters we’ve met several times previously … $181? Wilson plays a poor schmo, John, who, on the day he loses his job, meets a mysterious stranger, Richie (Jackson), who needs help with his car and promises to fix all his problems. After Richie invites John to join him on a road trip to places unknown, all sorts of disturbing things begin to happen, including a string of grotesque murders. Because Richie disappears at inopportune times for John, it’s possible to wonder if the stranger might not be a figment of his imagination and facilitator of subliminal impulses. When the police catch up with John, who’s unilaterally decided to end their excursion, they begin to wonder the same thing. Suffice it to say, we haven’t seen or heard the last of Richie. The ending surprised me and I suspect it will satisfy other fans of the actors. Leslie Bibb also plays a key role as John’s increasingly impatient wife. – Gary Dretzka

The Tested
The adjective “gritty” is loosely attached to almost any movie in which life in the streets of major cities is portrayed as realistically as possible, given the limitations of indie budgets, hand-held cameras and tight shooting schedules. On television, it can mean that graffiti has been added to the sets or left on the sides of buildings, as is. Russell Costanzo’s anything-but-slick urban drama, “The Tested,” is one movie that actually deserves to have “gritty” attached to it. I may not be able to vouch for the validity of the tragedy at the heart of the story, but there’s no denying how authentic it looks and feels. “The Tested” is set in the aftermath of a police shooting that claimed the life of an unarmed teen and left the cop, the boy’s mother and his brother severely damaged emotionally. In the year it’s taken for the cop (Armando Riesco) to be cleared and sober up, the victim’s mother and brother (Aunjanue Ellis, Michael Morris Jr.) have existed in a netherworld of poverty, gang violence, false hopes and broken promises, and a desperate yearning for revenge. The cop holds steady, until he runs into the boy’s mother in a liquor store and falls off the wagon. His desire for redemption is palpable. If he can find it, perhaps the mom and brother can go on with their lives, as well. That, however, is a big “if.” As rough around the edges as it is, “The Tested” delivers a powerful punch for writer/director Costanzo in his first feature. In its rough-cut version, it was chosen to participate in the 2009 Narrative Independent Filmmaker Lab & Independent Film Week, in New York City, and probably benefitted greatly from that experience. Rounding out the excellent cast are Frank Vincent (“Goodfellas”), Annie Parisse (“Law & Order) and Nathan Corbett (“The Wire”).  – Gary Dretzka

Dreams From My Real Father: A Story of Reds and Deception
In his new faux documentary, disgruntled ex-hippie Joel Gilbert attempts to make the case for President Obama lying about the identity of his real father by literally offering an alternative reading of “Dreams From My Father.” As the filmmaker’s theory goes, instead of being born to onetime Kenyan goat-herder Barack Obama Sr. and Stanley Ann Dunham, the future POTUS’ birth father was American poet, journalist, poet, political and labor organizer and card-carrying commie, Frank Marshall Davis. The President has never denied the presence of Davis in his life as a mentor, of sorts, but Gilbert wants us to believe that the beliefs of the long-dead man still influence his each and every decision, as if he was a character in “The Manchurian Candidate.” Oddly enough, Gilbert’s creation myth contradicts the “birther” argument that was Obama was born in Kenya and, therefore, isn’t eligible to be President. Because Davis was an American citizen, it wouldn’t matter where Obama was born. That argument doesn’t sit well with die-hard birthers, like Donald Trump, Sheriff Joe Arpaio and thousands of other people with nothing better to do with their lives than to torture us with their hallucinations. Gilbert thinks it’s more important to focus on Obama’s Marxist DNA. Like everything else in this pitiful documentary, which already has found traction on the Internet, the grains of sands upon which he builds his case for America’s first commie commander-in-chief are easily washed away by the truth. If Obama is carrying out a Marxist agenda, he’s doing a piss-poor job of it. In fact, most of the decisions he’s made in his first four years in the White House have angered dyed-in-the-wool leftists – as opposed to liberal Democrats and TV pundits — as much as they have conservatives. His financial advisers helped rescue Wall Street from collapse and kept bankers out of prison; he hasn’t lifted the ridiculous economic blockade of Cuba; his attorney general continues to target legal marijuana dispensaries and growers; he and his wife are extremely wealthy; he hasn’t ended the war in Afghanistan or stood up to oil cartels; and the Pentagon still is in bed with Halliburton, Academi (formerly Blackwater) and other war-profiteers. That’s some Marxist agenda.

In fact, the person pretending to read from “Dreams From My Real Father” in the documentary reminds me more of Jeff Foxworthy than a 34-year-old Barack Obama. Instead of “You might be a redneck, if …” jokes, Gilbert’s narrator might as well be saying, “You might be a Marxist, if …” By using the laws of flaky logic and hysterical conjecture, he appears to be arguing, “You might be a Marxist if: one of your parents is African-American; one of your parents is poet/photographer/journalist/activist; one of your parents is white and is friends with an African-American poet/photographer/journalist/activist; you attended a school named after Abraham Lincoln (as did Davis); you’ve ever joined a union or participated in a strike; doubted that bankers and Republicans had your best interests in mind; know the difference between Karl Marx and Zeppo Marx; don’t believe that the medical and insurance industries always have your best interests at heart; are friends with Bill Ayres, Bernadine Dohrn, Bill Ayres’ capitalist-tool father, David Axelrod or anyone who went to college in the 1960s; you smoked pot or partied hardy in college; have personally benefitted from affirmative-action programs; are related to someone who may have posed nude for a photographer; don’t believe everything you hear on talk radio; have ever read or listened to the words of Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr. and Reverend Jeremiah Wright; didn’t refuse to read ‘The Communist Manifesto,’ when it was assigned by your high-school history teacher; or if you believe that the Bill of Rights should apply to anyone darker than white.” That’s the extent of the scholarship in “Dreams From My Real Father.”

The point is, though, even if everything Gilbert says were to be proven true and Davis is Obama’s real father, what difference would it make?  If, as POTUS, Obama continues to act more like a moderate Republican than anyone left of, say, Charlie Rose, it won’t bring about a rebellion by the proletariat or unemployed workers. He can’t get anything remotely progressive through Congress, anyway. Better that Gilbert focus on Mitt Romney, who, besides being someone willing to sell the assets of this country to multinational corporations and predatory capitalists, could move to Mexico tomorrow and be granted citizenship by the same government that provided refuge for his grandparents and other members of a well-known polygamous cult. If he wins, American men could be required to marry more than one woman, father dozens of children and voluntarily give up their jobs, so they can be outsourced to any country where workers are paid less than a dollar a day. American women would have to get used to those sister-wife hairdos; be required to share child-custody rights with the men who raped them; and crawl back under the glass ceiling. You see, liberals can make up crazy shit and put it on the Internet, too. – Gary Dretzka

Children’s Hospital: The Complete Third Season
Nature: Cracking the Koala Code: Blu-ray
BBC: Michael Wood’s Story of England
Between 9 p.m. and 6 a.m., on the cable space normally devoted to Cartoon Network programming, Adult Swim attracts a wide demographic of viewers attracted to grown-up animation and comedy shows. It’s here that you’ll find one of the most thoroughly irreverent – and funny – shows on any television platform. Populated with familiar-looking veterans of sitcoms, improv- and sketch-comedy troupes and commercials, “Children’s Hospital” skewers the conventions and clichés of medical dramas in bite-size segments. I wouldn’t be at all surprised to learn that the show was inspired by the similarly irreverent “Soapdish,” which, 25 years ago, sent up TV soap operas and doctor shows. On “Children’s Hospital,” the patients often are as twisted as the medical staff, which includes all manner of misfits, miscreants and fetishists. Show creator Rob Corddry stars with series regulars Malin Akerman, Lake Bell, Erinn Hayes, Rob Huebel, Ken Marino, Megan Mullally and Henry Winkler. There are plenty of drop-ins, as well, by recognizable stars. The DVD includes all 14 episodes from Season Three.

I was struck by how similar “Cracking the Koala Code” is to another recent “Nature” episode, “Raccoon Nation.” Just as raccoons have become as common a presence in America suburbia as ice-cream trucks and skate-boarders, super-cute koalas have become ubiquitous presences in some Australian communities. Encroaching urbanization is to blame for both phenomena. As the suburban housing intrudes on traditional habitats, these clever animals have adapted to traffic, pets, pedestrians and bicyclists, all in the pursuit of food. Just as in “Raccoon Nation,” the researchers here have tagged resident animals and following them via GPS as they go about their daily rounds, avoiding scraps with tougher animals and staking their own territory. We also learn how the koalas communicate with each other and perform their pro-creation rituals. The animals are protected from untoward contact with human beings, but must combat other more virulent ills, including venereal disease. It’s a fascinating show the whole family can enjoy.

By this time next week, we’ll all be knee-deep in up-close-and-personal stories about life in England, especially in places designated as venues for Olympics activities. BBC host Michael Wood, who never stays in one place for very long, has been exploring fascinating places around England and the rest of the world for a long time. In his “Story of England” mini-series, he examines the long history of the country through the perspective of one place – the village of Kibworth, Leicestershire – that’s located at the geographical and historical center of England. Kibworth and its many generations of residents have endured the Roman, Saxon and Viking invasions, Norman Conquest, Black Death, Civil War and bombings in World War II. It also played a key role in the Industrial Revolution, and was even bombed in World War II. Conveniently, much of the archaeology, landscape, language and DNA remain, near and above the surface of the rolling landscape. The two-disc set includes 353 minutes of educative entertainment. – Gary Dretzka

Los Angeles Kings: Stanley Cup 2012 Champions: Blu-ray
It took the Los Angeles Kings 45 years to be crowned NHL champions and be awarded one of the most prized trophies in professional sports, the Stanley Cup. Compared to the regular season, the playoffs practically were a cakewalk for the eighth-seeded team. This officially sanctioned Blu-ray serves a reminder of the roller-coaster ride that was the regular season, as well as the heady moments from the playoffs. It overflows with featurettes, interviews, marketing material and locker-room visits. It also adds material from the celebrations and victory parade. – Gary Dretzka

The DVD Wrapup: Friends With Kids, Singin’ in the Rain, Here, Salmon Fishing, 4:44, Johnny Carson, Julia Child, InBetweeners … More

Tuesday, July 17th, 2012

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

 

Here
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
Extraterrestrial
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

 

Midnight Son
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

 

 

The DVD Wrapup: Twins of Evil, Black Limousine, Kassim, Quill, Making Plans for Lena, Cherry Bomb, Chariots of Fire … More

Wednesday, July 11th, 2012

Twins of Evil: Blu-ray
It says a lot about this week’s slim pickings that the lead review is of a 40-year horror flick, “Twins of Evil,” from the Rank Organization and Hammer Film Productions. The 1970s were lean years for Hammer, but a few titles stand out from the pack. This is one of those. As the title suggests, the gimmick attraction was the casting of identical Maltese twins, Mary and Madeleine Collinson, as the vampire-bait siblings, Maria and Frieda. Having recently posed for the centerfold pictorial of Playboy magazine and being cast in a short stag film, Halfway Inn, they were pretty marketable. After 40 years, however, “Twins of Evil” can stand on its own merits… not that Collinsons don’t retain their allure. As the movie opens, we’re introduced to a fanatical Puritan leader (Peter Cushing) who spends his nights leading witch hunts against women whose primary sin appears to be that they have blond hair. This humorless old fart, Gustav, believes that the only way these women’s souls can be saved is through the purification that comes with being burned at the stake.

Into this hellish milieu arrive Gustav’s twin nieces, one of whom takes an instant shine to the mysterious count, who lives in the castle on the hill. The other is far more demure. Local gossips insist that the count is involved in such devilish delights as nude parties, witchcraft, conjuring and out-of-wedlock sex. Not satisfied merely to enjoy such forbidden fruit, the count actively courts Satan, as well. After a beautiful blond vampire, Countless Mircalla, returns from her 200-year sleep to turn him into a vampire, Count Karnstein takes dead aim on the friskier twin. This leads to the inevitable showdown between Gustav, the count and a liberal scholar who’s studied the whimsies of the undead and has his eyes set on the good twin. When the Puritan horde closes in on the count, he pulls the old switcheroo on them by substituting one twin for the other.

As goofy and clichéd as all this might sound to fans of “Twilight” and “True Blood,” it works remarkably well under the direction of John Hough (“Dirty Mary Crazy Larry”). “Twins of Evil” also holds up really well visually and audibly on Blu-ray. What distinguishes this package from others are the featurettes, which go to great lengths to place “Twins of Evil” in the context not only of Hammer films, but also vampire movies with lesbian subtexts. They also discuss the Hammer method of creating genre films and the people who made them. There’s a deleted scene, a motion still gallery and original movie trailer and TV ads. – Gary Dretzka

Black Limousine
The best reason to check out the direct-to-DVD psycho-drama, “Black Limousine” (a.k.a., “The Land of the Astronauts”) is David Arquette’s empathetic portrayal of struggling Hollywood composer undergoing a nervous breakdown. Jack MacKenzie is a mess. A recovering alcoholic and divorced father of a precocious tween, Jack is trying to get back in the game he left after being involved in a fatal accident. He insists that he wasn’t at fault in the tragedy that ultimately cost him his marriage, family and career, and we’re given no reason to doubt his word. The problem is that his ex-wife and her prick husband refuse to cut him any slack or credit him for being a loyal “friend of Bill W.” Broke, but actively working on a new score – a spacy sample of the Chieftains’ “Love Theme,” from “Barry Lyndon” – he takes a new job as a chauffeur, which puts him in direct contact with Hollywood movers and shakers. One of his passengers is a hotshot actor, who rats him out when Jack makes the mistake of believing the guy really wants to listen to his test disc and read a screenplay passed along to him by another client. Fact is, the only thing most passengers want to do in a stretch limo is cop some free drinks, sleep or screw their co-stars. This deception triggers Jack’s breakdown and leaves everything that happens thereafter suspect. “Black Limousine” has several other good things going for it, including a loopy performance by Bijou Phillips, as a fellow AA member who doesn’t believe in total abstinence between friends; a Hollywood apartment complex that takes diversity to its illogical conclusion; and a palpable sense of intergalactic dread throughout. Unfortunately, co-writer/director Carl Colpaert too often confuses incomprehensible for enigmatic, leaving viewers to wonder why in hell the characters act the way they do. – Gary Dretzka

Kassim: The Dream
Fightville: Blu-ray
At 33, Ugandan-born boxer Kassim “The Dream” Ouma already has lived the kind of life a novelist would have difficulty inventing. When he was 6, he was abducted from his boarding school and forced to join the rebel National Resistance Army, for whom he would be forced to kill and torture anyone not in agreement with its leader, Yoweri Museveni. When, in 1986, the NRA captured control of Uganda’s Kampala-based government, Ouma was made a member of the country’s official army. Rather than continue fighting an endless bush war against Museveni’s many tribal and political enemies, Ouma was able to represent his country as a member of the army’s boxing program. After becoming proficient in his sport, he would risk his life and that of his relatives by defecting to the United States. After more training, he eventually climbed the ladder to the Junior Middleweight championship. He hoped not only to provide a better life for his family back home, but also return to Uganda and be pardoned for his desertion. If Ouma’s life story seems tailor-made for the “up close and personal” treatment accorded exceptional athletes in the buildup to major events, you’d only be half right. As we learn in Kief Davidson’s “Kassim: The Dream,” the chronically cocky boxer’s tendency to become easily distracted worked against him in future bouts. Extremely personable, he often disappointed his adopted Irish-American family, fans and journalists by succumbing to the temptations too frequently laid in the path of young men whose sudden emergence from poverty comes without a book of instructions.

Even so, Ouma was able to bring his mother to the United States and be reunited with his oldest son. Impressed that he hadn’t criticized Museveni or encouraged revolt in the still war-torn country, he was invited back to Uganda and pardoned. (His father was murdered after his son’s defection.) What he saw when he visited his hometown, however, were conditions that hadn’t changed much since he left it 27 years earlier. Whether this neglect was mandated by a government still acting on traditional tribal rivalries isn’t made clear. It’s simply treated as a fact of life in Uganda. Finished in 2008, “Kassim” probably could have benefitted from an update featurette, amplifying on his career – he’s still fighting, although less successfully – and various personal issues brought up in the film. Anyone looking for inspirational sports stories in the lead-up to the Summer Olympics ought to consider “Kassim.”

No matter what one thinks of mixed martial arts and other full-contact fighting, the hybrid sport provides young men with yet another opportunity to dream of becoming a champion in something. Unlike boxing, the action is consistently ferocious and decisive blows can be dealt from several different directions, often with stunning speed. Unlike professional wrestling, too, these guys really take a beating. “Fightville” examines the sport from the point of view of participants on the lowest rung of the ladder. If they can’t make it in the arenas, rodeo rings and converted warehouses that comprise the Louisiana circuit, they probably won’t make it anywhere. From that perspective, alone, Petra Epperlein and Michael Tucker’s doc is compelling. Anyone allergic to scenes of bloodletting and bone-crushing fisticuffs could find “Fightville” a bit too much to stomach, however.  – Gary Dretzka

Quill: The Life of a Guide Dog
If you’re the kind of person who happily wades through the hundreds of photographs of cute dogs and cats sent to you each day by friends on Facebook, you’ll thank me later for recommending “Quill: The Life of a Guide Dog.” Presented in a fashion that easily could be confused for documentary, Yôichi Sai’s beautifully shot dramedy chronicles the life of a yellow Labrador retriever that’s destined from birth to be a guide dog for the blind. It follows Quill through his demanding training regimen, awkward apprenticeship and, finally, placement with a cranky middle-aged man, who isn’t all that interested in having such a companion. Not surprisingly, then, “Quill” is as much a story about a sightless man coming to grips with his own limitations as it is about a service dog’s remarkable journey through life. The Lab doesn’t possess any of the superpowers or anthropomorphic qualities generally ascribed to the stars of family-friendly dog movies in the U.S. He doesn’t graduate at the head of his class and isn’t required to perform impossibly heroic stunts, a la Lassie, Rin Tin Tin and Scooby Doo. Quill simply is very good at what he does and, when not serving his master, a bit of a ham … which isn’t to say that dog and owner don’t experience some tough times. Society can be just as neglectful of its faithful canine servants as those humans deemed too handicapped to be useful, anymore. By not pulling any punches, Sai has created a movie that is sometimes painfully honest, as well as inspirational and entertaining. It was adapted from Ryohei Akimoto and Kengo Ishiguro’s based-on-true-events novel, “The Life of Quill, the Seeing-Eye Dog.” (Parents should know that the movie’s ending recalls the emotionally draining demise of Disney’s “Old Yeller,” and, therefore, more impressionable youngster might require some guidance.) – Gary Dretzka

Cherry Bomb: Blu-ray
Forty years ago, the United Negro College Fund adopted the slogan, “A mind is a terrible thing to waste,” and it immediately helped the organization reap the financial benefits of clever marketing. In the world of indie films, a good title is a terrible thing to waste, as well. Frankly, I’m surprised that more movies haven’t been titled “Cherry Bomb.” The Runaways’ punk anthem was released in 1976 and it remains on the playlists of classic-rock radio stations worldwide. In this “Cherry Bomb,” the title character is, of course, a hot stripper who dresses almost exclusively in red and black. Unlike the other dancers in the movie, the Pussy Hut’s super-cute star attraction (played by the single-named scream queen, Julin) isn’t required to show her boobies. Yet, she still manages to haul in piles of dough on stage. One night, Cherry subs for a girl invited to perform in the Champagne Room by a group of ex-frat boys who probably majored in hazing freshmen. With the security guard already paid off, it quickly becomes obvious that their sole intent is brutally raping whichever dancer shows up, without fear of being punished.

From this point on, “Cherry Bomb” is a non-stop revenge thriller, unabashedly inspired by any number of similarly splattertastic vehicles from the 1970s-80s. Cherry’s brother reluctantly comes along for the ride, which also involves an aptly named assassin named, “Bull.” Director Kyle Day’s debut film — written with fellow freshman, Garrett Hargrove — moves briskly from one revenge murder to another without once stopping to embrace narrative logic. One generally allows genre filmmakers a fair amount of latitude in this regard, but Day and Hargrove don’t seem to care if the blunders in “Cherry Bomb” can be spotted from a mile away. For example, how convenient is it that the climatic fight scene happens to occur in the vacant Pussy Hut, at a time it normally would be crawling with drunken Texans – it was shot in Austin – and dancers. Neither have I ever witnessed a gun-toting bad guy being neutralized by confetti and glitter. I suppose this sort of thing is intended as parody, but, if anyone had his tongue implanted firmly in cheek here, I couldn’t find it. If it weren’t for Julin’s perky approach to vengeful payback, “Cherry Bomb” would be a total wash. As it is, it qualifies as a guilty pleasure, although male viewers will tire of waiting for the heroine to take her top off. It also stars porn veteran Nick Manning and John Gabriel Rodriguez. The Blu-ray adds commentary with Day, outtakes, deleted scenes and an alternate ending. – Gary Dretzka

Making Plans for Lena
When, in the early 1970s, Hollywood figured out that feminists had more important things to focus on than burning their bras and not shaving their legs, it naturally created a niche to exploit the women’s liberation movement. In such dramas as “Diary of a Mad Housewife,” “An Unmarried Woman,” “Lovers and Other Strangers,” “Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore,” “Shoot the Moon,” “Blume in Love,” “Loving” and “Quartet,” the female protagonists are required to come to grips with the fact that the men they married have become or always were total dicks. (“9 to 5” would address broader issues in comic form.) More often than not, the guy was caught cheating and the discovery meant she had to reciprocate in kind, dump him and/or book twice-weekly sessions with a psychotherapist. Almost always, children were caught in the middle and the women were portrayed as having far fewer options than their husband (even if the jerks tended to crawl back for forgiveness). Attractive, intelligent and financially vulnerable, the women had a Sisyphean task ahead of them in the two hours of screen time allotted to solve their problems and give viewers a satisfying ending. (The lesbian option wouldn’t be made available to mainstream screenwriters until well after the release of John Sayles’ “Lianna” and Donna Deitch’s “Desert Flower.”)

I was reminded of those movies by the French import, “Making Plans for Lena,” in which a 30ish woman becomes totally discombobulated when she discovers that her husband was unfaithful to her. As hard as she tries to distance herself from him, events and/or family members conspire to bring them together again. Unfortunately for Lena (Chiara Mastroianni), she’s incapable of taking care of their two children and this complicates her relations with everyone from her boss to her nasty sister. They hope she’ll forgive the big lug and write his transaction off as a lapse in judgment. By the end of the movie, I think many, if not most viewers will wish she had taken their advice before things got really crazy. Even when we are led to believe that Lena will find happiness in the arms of a younger man (Louis Garrel), who worships her, she manages to blow it.

Writer-director Christophe Honore and Genevieve Brisac don’t make it easy for us to side with Lena when the going gets tough. Her husband, Nigel (Jean-Marc Barr), doesn’t seem to be such a bad chap, despite the fact he cheated on her, and her parents (Marie-Christine Barrault, Fred Ulysse) aren’t portrayed as being stupid or mean-spirited, either. They want Lena to get on with her life, one way or another. The filmmakers’ decision to include an out-of-nowhere sequence, involving the Breton folk tale of a woman who tests suitors by dancing them to an early grave, doesn’t help much, either. This one is strictly for Fracophiles, I’m afraid. – Gary Dretzka

Butterfly Sword
At first glance, I was a bit taken aback by the almost primitive visual presentation of “Butterfly Sword” (a.k.a., “Butterfly and Sword”), which looked like something we’d left behind with VHS. After checking the film’s vital statistics, however, I’m pretty sure that the reach of Hong Kong genre pictures made in the early 1990s probably was limited to Asian theaters and low-def television screens. I wasn’t given much time to fret over the deficiencies, as the high-flying action kicked in almost immediately after I hit the “play” button. It was magical. “Butterfly Sword” is a prime example of the “fantastical flying swordsman” subgenre of martial-arts pictures popular at the time. It is to Hong Kong wire work what the Ringling Brothers’ circus is to the midway on the Santa Monica Pier. Anything that can be made to fly usually does.

Michael Mak’s imaginatively choreographed fantasy is set during the Ming Dynasty, when allies of the terminally ill Eunuch Tsao are required to drive back from the Happy Forest an invasion of troops controlled by Master Suen (Elvis Tsui), leader of Elite Villa. Among the protagonists are childhood friends (Michelle Yeoh, Tony Leung, Donnie Yen) who grew up to become expert fighters, fliers and sword handlers. There’s much behind-the-scenes intrigue and backstabbing, and some romance, none of which is rendered in an easily comprehensible fashion. Never mind, however, because the battles and fights are so entertaining, they transcend everything else. The historical value, alone, is worth the price of admission. – Gary Dretzka

Dark Nemesis: Blu-ray
Here we are, again, trapped in a post-apocalyptic world dominated by feuding warlords and their loyal assassins. “Dark Nemesis” (a.k.a., the already taken “Dark Knight”) is a minor entry in the arena of dystopian adventures. At first, I thought Drew Maxwell’s straight-to-video fantasy might simply be a visualization of a video game. There wasn’t enough bang-bang action, though, to qualify as a game anyone over 10 might be interested in play. The plot kicks in after a group of desperate soldiers hatch a plan to steal a warlord’s treasure and start a new life. The thieves are chased into a desolate patch known only as the Shadowlands by the warlord’s cut-throat soldiers. As if this weren’t sufficiently foreboding, they’re also attacked by six-eyed monsters with a terrifying teeth and bat wings. They find shelter in a most surprising place. – Gary Dretzka

I Kissed a Vampire: The Rock Musical
Freak Dance
Step Up: Blu-ray
With the “Glee” and “High School Musical” phenomenon now growing whiskers, composers of such entertainments clearly are struggling to keep fans of those shows from deserting television and defecting to Broadway. “I Kissed a Vampire” and “Freak Dance” are alternative musicals targeted specifically at young people who’ve caught the musical bug and are willing to give the producers of original material some room to breathe. From a geographic point of view, alone, these titles suggest far more of a west-coast sensibility than one associated with Broadway, where the stakes are so high and room for mistakes impossibly small. “I Kissed a Vampire” gives tweens something to enjoy while waiting for the next installment in the “Twilight” saga to arrive. “High School Musical” vets Lucas Grabeel and Drew Seeley play vampires, battling for the soul of blond beauty Sara Lane, who also starred in the Internet version of the three-act musical. The movie features 17 original songs and lots of spirited vamping and energized dancing.

As one might expect from a full-length musical parody from the folks at Upright Citizens Brigade, “Freak Dance” borrows liberally from the excesses of “Flashdance,” “Footloose,” “Dirty Dancing,” “West Side Story” and “Saturday Night Fever.” The only reason “Freak Dance” might not appeal to parents of tweens as much as “I Kissed a Vampire” is the barrage of profanity that emerges from the mouth of one of the more troubled characters and some bulges in the tights of the male dancers. The story focuses on a spoiled rich girl, Cocolonia (Megan Heyn), whose socialite mother (Amy Poehler) forbids her from getting down and dirty with the hip-hop dancers on the other side of the tracks. She does, anyway, but must be taught how to work her butt and “activate” other parts of her anatomy. The dancers have had their clubhouse closed by a city official who despises the group as much as Cocolonia’s mom does. To get it re-opened, the dancers are required to win a contest and use the money as a bribe. The competition, as one might suspect, is intense. The competitors are pretty strange, as well. It’s fun, if a bit old-fashioned and obvious as a target of satire. The UCB troupe pours a lot of energy into the project, though, and the music is surprisingly good. The disc comes with commentary by writer/co-director, Matt Besser and co-director, Neal Mahoney; deleted and extended scenes; and “The Dangers of Freak Dancing.”

Among the movies parodied in “Freak Dance” is choreographer Anne Fletcher’s hugely successful directorial debut, “Step Up.” In it, the then-up-and-coming Tatum Channing plays a bad boy who vandalizes an arts high school and is punished by being forced to perform community service there. Naturally, he meets the beautiful dancer (Jenna Dewan-Tatum) who tames his wild streak and brings out his latent artistic side. The dancing is exciting and the music – Yung Joc, Sean Paul, Chris Brown, Kells, Mario, Clara – is impossible to resist. The new Blu-ray edition adds several music videos, bloopers and deleted scenes; commentary with Fletcher, Tatum and Dewan; and a featurette on producing the dance scenes. – Gary Dretzka

Chariots of Fire: Blu-ray
The Horse Whisperer: Blu-ray
There could hardly be a more apropos time for the release of 1981 Best Picture-winner “Chariots of Fire” on Blu-ray. With the opening ceremony of the Summer Games only a shot-put’s toss from reality in London, we’re reminded of one of the UK’s finest Olympics moments. One can only hope that artistic director Danny Boyle manages to squeeze a performance of Vangelis’ unforgettable theme song into the opening ceremonies. The film celebrates the commitment of faith and devotion to their sport on the part of devout Protestant divinity student Eric Liddell (Ian Charleson) and student Harold Abrahams (Ben Cross), a Jewish student at Cambridge. Both were forced to clear formidable hurdles in their quest to represent their country at the 1924 Games, in Paris. Hugh Hudson’s debut feature struck a chord well beyond the heated competition on the track. Not the least of them were class prejudice and anti-Semitism.

The DigiBook Blu-ray edition arrives with several deleted scenes, in standard definition; the featurettes “Wings on Their Heels: The Making of ‘Chariots of Fire,’” “’Chariots of Fire’: A Reunion,”“Paris, 1924: Birth of the Modern Games,” “David Puttnam, A Cinematic Champion,” “Sprint Around the Quad,” “Famous Opening Shot” and “Hugh Hudson: Journey to the Gold”; screen tests; Hudson’s commentary; and a CD sampler featuring some of Vangelis’ Oscar-winning score.

Directed by and starring Robert Redford, “The Horse Whisperer” is a tear-jerking drama women and men, alike, found impossible to resist. Women were attracted to the compassion and dedication of Redford’s character, while men saw in him a contemporary cowboy caught in a vice between traditional values and the hassles of the outside world. It also introduced Scarlett Johansson to mainstream audiences that hadn’t seen her in the terrific coming-of-age story, “Manny & Lo.” She, of course, plays the city girl so damaged in a riding accident — physically and emotionally – that her mother decides to send her west, where she’ll have the time and space to heal her wounds and regain her confidence. Her horse is similarly in need of the gentle therapy offered by Redford’s “horse whisperer.” That mom also found in the cowboy a hero only adds to the intrigue when their time together was running out. The Montana scenery looks splendid in hi-def and even the high-lonesome sounds of silence benefit from the digital makeover. I get the feeling that a lot of self-processed Macho Men were scared off “Horse Whisperer” by reviewers who advised potential viewers to bring along a pocketful of hankies. It’s their loss. The package adds featurettes on the production, Redford and real-life “horse whisperer” Buck Brannaman, and a music video.

Besides “The Horse Whisperer” and “Step Up,” Disney’s July package of Blu-ray releases includes the post-Katzenberg-era, pre-Pixar animated features, “Home on the Range” and “Treasure Island”; “Phenomenon,” in which John Travolta experiences tremendous intellectual and emotional growth after being struck by lightning; and “Under the Tuscan Sun,” in which Diane Lane attempts to jump-start her life by buying a decaying villa in Tuscany. The animated features didn’t fare well critically or commercially, but the generous menu of bonus features won’t disappoint younger viewers. All of these selections benefit from digital makeovers. – Gary Dretzka

BBC: The Secret Diaries of Miss Anne Lister
BBC: Madame Bovary
BBC: Last of the Summer Wine, Vintage 1992
BBC: Doctor Who: Death to the Daeks/The Krotons
The diaries weren’t the only things kept secret in the fascinating 2010 BBC production, “The Secret Diaries of Miss Anne Lister.” Apart from screenings at a handful of LGBT film festivals, I don’t think the biopic was aired on TV or in theaters here. Somehow, I’m not surprised. The success of “The L Word” notwithstanding, few American media outlets seem willing to tell the stories of real lesbians in the real world, unless they’re comedies or full of steamy girl-girl action. There’s a bit of the latter in “Secret Diaries,” but the focus of the made-for-TV movie is on the wealthy Yorkshire landowner, who, during England’s Regency era, defied conventions by being an out-lesbian and competing directly with men in her mining business. Moreover, Lister kept intricately coded diaries, which weighed in at 4 million words and took more than a century to decipher (and another half-century to publish). More than 175 years before President Obama came out in support of same-sex marriage, Lister (Maxine Peake) and her lover, Ann Walker (Christine Bottomley), found an Anglican priest who would bless their nuptials. “Secret Diaries” covers the period in Lister’s life before she would use her fortune to travel throughout Europe, hiking and climbing mountains. Before settling down with Walker, Lister was involved in tempestuous, longterm relationships with the similarly wealthy Mariana Belcombe Lawton (Anna Madeley) and Isabella “Tib” Norcliffe (Susan Lynch). If the movie suffers a bit from an approach that is more reverential and somber than it probably needed to be, a corrective can be found in Sue Perkins’ “Revealing Anne Lister,” a feature-length bio-doc that is highly detailed and surprisingly entertaining. She has a bit of fun comparing Lister and her lovers to the Regency women introduced by Jane Austen. There’s also a short interview with Peake.

First shown in 2000 on the BBC and PBS stations, director Tim Fywell and writer Heidi Thomas’ 180-minute take on the Gustave Flaubert classic, “Madame Bovary,” is a draining affair. That isn’t to suggest that the adaptation, itself, is deficient in any way, only that the title character is such a difficult person to like and embrace, warts and all. She’s recognizable almost immediately as a tragedy waiting to happen, but not in a good-tragic way. Her wounds are self-administered and not at all pleasant to witness, even if the men in her life are easy on the eye. Then, too, “Madame Bovary” has been adapted so often, and in so many different ways, any new production will struggle with over-familiarity. Frances O’Conner (Mansfield Park) is a shade over 5-foot-8, but she seems much shorter on film and a bit too delicate for her character’s volcanic sexuality. There’s no arguing her ability to demonstrate Bovary’s conflicting desires in her married life, however. Hugh Bonneville (“Downton Abbey”) plays her almost impossibly gullible, if warm-hearted husband, Charles, a country doctor who never seems comfortable among the sharks and swells of the city. That he’s a dyed-in-the-wool momma’s boy doesn’t endear him much to Emma, either. As we’ve come to expect from BBC productions, the period details and scenic backgrounds are impeccably rendered, while, as romantic tragedies go, this version of “Madame Bovary” is tough to beat. I don’t, however, recommend attempting to swallow it whole, as I did. An informative profile of Flaubert is included in the package.

For more than 30 years, writer Roy Clarke and the senior delinquents of “Last of the Summer Wine” held sway on BBC One. The 1992 season on display here is brewed from the same recipe as the one used in the show’s previous 13 vintages. Typically, each week, Clegg, Compo and Foggy – Yorkshire’s own Three Stooges – come up with new pranks, disguises and inventions to keep themselves amused and warm the hearts of the Holmfirth ladies, who have no trouble playing hard to get. Just knowing that Queen Elizabeth once allowed that “LOTSW” is her favorite television series should be enough to explain the nature of the show’s humor. It’s so well done, however, that Boomers probably will find plenty to enjoy, now that they’re approaching the age of the characters. The DVD adds the 1992 special, “Stop That Castle.”

The latest entries in the “Doctor Who” DVD collection are “Death to the Daleks” and “The Krotons,” representing the John Pertwee Years, 1970-74, and Patrick Troughton years, 1966-69, respectively. In the former, a power failure in the TARDIS draws it off course, leaving the doctor and Sarah Jane Smith (Elisabeth Sladen) stranded on the planet Exxilon. They soon encounter teams of Daleks and the human Marine Space Corps, which are embroiled in a standoff over the mineral, Parrinium. The threat to humanity from the plague-carrying mineral is dire, as is the need to replenish the TARDIS’ energy cells.

When the TARDIS arrives on the planet of the Gonds, the Doctor, Jamie and Zoe discover a world ruled and enslaved by the Krotons. The brightest Gonds are always chosen to serve as “companions” of the less intelligent, highly mysterious and largely unseen Krotons. The system works fine for the Krotons, who’ve polluted the planet and have a seemingly endless supply of slaves, but the TARDIS team decides to upset the apple cart by leading a rebellion, which could easily backfire on everyone. As usual, the DVDs arrive with lots of fresh and warehoused bonus features. – Gary Dretzka

Frontline: Money, Power & Wall Street
PBS: Hidden India: The Kerala Spicelands
PBS: Mexico: The Royal Tour
The Glades: The Complete Second Season
Adventure Time: The Complete First Season
iCarly: The Complete 4th Season
The parade of films documenting and decrying the collapse of the U.S. economy continues apace. Even if each new title adds only one new piece to the puzzle, it’s probably a good thing that they keep coming. The problem, of course, is that the only people listening to what’s being said are the ones who’ve already been reamed by the system and tune in to see if anyone’s doing anything to prevent future debacles. If what’s happening in Europe is any indication, the answer to that question is, “duh, no.” The folks who labor in the executive suites and trenches of Wall Street have no intention of pulling in their bullish horns or bearish claws in order to save our economy, at the expense of their financial well-being. They’ve already survived presidents Bush and Obama and the Tea Party, and fully expect to call in their IOUs from Mitt Romney, when and if he’s elected. As persuasive as the four-hour “Money, Power & Wall Street” is, no one is going to benefit from the reporters’ hard work if the powers-that-be don’t come to their senses and start cracking down on Wall Street. In France, the new government capped the salaries of CEOs in charge of companies co-owned by the government. Here, the ousted CEO of Duke Energy stands to make $44 million in a severance package for the three or four hours he held the title. In other developments this week, banks that own credit card companies have raised interest rates to another record rate and restrictions governing pension contributions by corporations have been eased. So, while I encourage voters and investors to watch the “Frontline” special, I also suggest that they consider what might happen if another anti-regulation administration is allowed to take office.

Less dispiriting are PBS’ travel shows, which tend to accentuate the colorful and exotic, while also encouraging their reporters to take the roads less traveled to their destination. “Hidden India: The Kerala Spicelands” carries viewers to the far southwest corner of India, where people from several different faiths and cultures have co-existed for centuries and benefitted from the area’s fertile soil. Columbus may have “discovered” America, but it was Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gamma who tapped into the teeming spice marketplace he was seeking when he set out in a westerly direction from Spain. Host Bruce Kraig guides viewers to markets, spice plantations, rice paddies, elephant parades, traditional dances and boat races.

In “Mexico: The Royal Tour,” President Felipe Calderon and host Peter Greenberg visit the Mexico that, before the recent escalation of the drug wars there, annually attracted hundreds of thousands of gringo tourists. Calderon doesn’t ignore the horror being perpetrated by gangs of smugglers, but his mission here is to remind viewers that most of what makes Mexico a great destination remains safe and open for business. If that boast still is open to question, to some degree, it’s nice to be reminded of the treasures of the country’s Mayan and Aztec past; the amazing mountains and rain forest; and access to whales and other seasonal visitors to the Gulf of California.

Based in the hellish resort communities of southeast Florida, “The Glades” enjoys the status of being A&E’s highest-rated original series. It is a contemporary police-procedural series, with some forensics expertise on display, as well, so we know to expect freakishly attractive crimefighters and gory murders. In it, a former Chicago homicide detective (Matt Passmore) relocates to Palm Glade after being shot in the butt by one of his bosses, who believes he was having an affair with his wife. Naturally, he assumes that his new gig will be less stressful than what he faced every day in the streets of the Windy City. If he were a fan of “Miami Vice” or “CSI: Miami,” he would have known the truth about crime in SoFla. Of all the women in the state he might have hit on, he picks one (Kiele Sanchez) whose husband is doing time in prison and is raising a 13-year-old, while also attending medical and working as a nurse. The rest of the cast is filled with the usual array of oddball characters we see on TV these days. Season 2 requires the main characters to deal with the return of felonious husbands and old girlfriends, as well as homicides. The DVD set adds commentary; deleted scenes and a gag reel; an extended version of the “Family Matters” episode; and featurettes.

If Cartoon Network’s “Adventure Time” may not be new to the DVD arena, its presence has been limited to themed collections from its nearly four-year run and, of course, downloads. “The Complete First Season” package is a welcome arrival, both for longtime fans and newcomers. There’s definitely something positive to be said for continuity, after all. Pendleton Ward’s creation is the rare animated series that’s struck a chord with children and adults, alike. It’s a difficult balancing act, to be sure, if only because being too cool for school or insufficiently hip can fragment an audience within 15 minutes of the show’s pilot episode. The series stars a 12-year-old boy, Finn, and his size-shifting adopted brother, a dog named Jake. Their adventures take them throughout the land of Ooo, which is populated by all sorts of bizarre and occasionally evil characters, including the Ice King, snarky lumps, a heart chiropractor, frozen businessmen zombies, tiny yellow elephants, vampire rockers, weepy mountains, tadpole wizards and rainbow unicorns. The DVD adds commentaries, animatronics, a music video and featurettes.

I don’t suppose it’s any coincidence that Miranda Cosgrove’s decision to enter USC this fall coincides with the announcement that the current season of “iCarly” will be its last … or, maybe, just the last one set in high school. It’s always difficult to tell precisely when one season of a cable series ends and another begins, as they tend to be divided arbitrarily, and the episodes on DVDs often don’t appear in calendar order. Here, the last show of Season 4, “iLost My Mind,” is the second entry on the “Complete 4th Season” package, while the last episode is “iBloop 2: Electric Bloopaloo,” which aired toward the end of Season 5. Technically, then, the Season 6 opener came two months after the previous season closer, “iToe Fat Cakes,” which is the second to the last episode in the DVD collection. Got that? Never mind. The highlight of the set has to be “iMeet the First Lady,” in which Michelle Obama helps the gang get out of scrape. The set adds five bonus episodes of “How to Rock.” – Gary Dretzka

The DVD Wrapup: American Dream, Joe + Belle, Barbarella, Chesty Morgan, Kirk Douglas … More

Wednesday, July 4th, 2012

The American Dream
Micro-budget indie pictures are so commercially fragile that it hardly seems fair to question marketing and distribution decisions made on its behalf by people paid to know about such things. On the cover of the DVD version of “The American Dream” is a picture of a Marine in full-dress uniform, with an American flag waving in the background. The setup and timing made me suspect it might be a knockoff of “Act of Valor,” during which actual Navy SEALs demonstrated their skills at vaporizing terrorists and rescuing CIA-trained damsels in distress. Full of skull-exploding action and gung-ho devotion to duty, “Act of Valor” needed an instant sequel about as much as America needed another war to wage. Judging solely from the cover art, I had no reason to believe Jamil Walker Smith’s debut feature wouldn’t be as much a tool for recruitment as “Act of Valor.” It wasn’t until “American Dream” was more than halfway over that its true colors were revealed. I’m still not sure if they’re red, white and blue, however.

The first thing to know about the movie is that its original title was “Make a Movie Like Spike.” The second is that the poster art for the festival release clearly made “American Dream” look substantially more complex thematically than the face of the Marine on the DVD cover. Smith and Malcom Goodwin play Ronald and Luis, longtime friends, who, after graduating from high school, enlist in the corps. Luis had applied to film school, but the short movie he submitted wasn’t deemed of high enough quality to qualify him for enrollment. For his part, Ronald simply wanted to see what the world looked like beyond the confines of their L.A. neighborhood. Barak Obama is about to sworn in as President and it seems as if all things are possible for highly motivated young men and women of color. Moreover, Obama’s campaign promise to end the war in Iraq indicated to these teens that they wouldn’t be placed in harm’s way for very long. So, for most of the first half of “American Dream,” we watch Luis record all of the events leading up to their departure for the war, from the good-bye parties and hugs, to last-minute hookups and hangovers. Because they’re volunteers, no one feels it necessary to curse President Bush or volunteer to take them to Canada, as might have been the case during the Vietnam era.

Luis continues to film everything he sees in Iraq, from the messing around that serves to kill time and build camaraderie between missions, to the frequent mortar attacks and raids of nests of suspected insurgents. Luis even films himself and Ronald after they’ve been separated from their unit and taken refuge in an abandoned building, awaiting rescue or death. These scenes are interspersed with home-movie footage likely taken by someone else, back home in Los Angeles. In Luis’ mind, his honest portrayal of blacks and Hispanics in organic settings and wildly divergent situations is exactly the kind of movie Spike Lee might have made in similar circumstances. He also hoped it would be his ticket to film school. The effect is chilling. Even if “American Dream” asks a few more questions than it answers, it’s a movie that deserves to be seen by more than the handful likely to be drawn to the recruitment-poster cover. – Gary Dretzka

Some Guy Who Kills People
If the independent-film industry had its own Walk of Fame, Kevin Corrigan’s star would be embedded in the sidewalk alongside such actors as Steve Buscemi, John Turturro, William H. Macy, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Paul Giamatti, Parker Posey, Sarah Polley, Chloe Sevigny, Julianna Moore, Patricia Clarkson and Catherine Keener. He’s appeared in more than 100 films in his career — now in its third decade — and I’d be surprised if the combined budget for all those movies equaled that of “Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End” or “John Carter.” The Bronx native has played far more than his fair share of slackers and misfits, who, like Ken Boyd in “Some Guy Who Kills People,” have inner lives that are far more interesting and complicated than the ones visible to other characters and audiences. After spending a stretch of time in a mental hospital, suffering from the traumatic effects of a beating he took at the hands of high school bullies, Boyd is back at home drawing violently graphic comic books and working at an ice-cream parlor for minimum wage. Slowly, but surely he’s putting his life back together. Does it include exacting revenge on his attackers? Maybe or maybe not, because he’s just learned that he’s the father of a delightful young girl and a pretty British woman his age has taken a shine to him. In any case, being told that the bullies finally are being served their just desserts doesn’t seem to disturb him. (Splatter-horror enthusiasts surely will enjoy the grotesque nature of the murders.) Coincidentally, too, Boyd’s mother (Karen Black) is dating the police detective (Barry Bostwick) investigating the case. Even when all the evidence points directly at Boyd, however, the cop isn’t so sure. “Some Guy Who Kills People” works pretty well as a horror/comedy – as opposed to a black comedy – with a genuinely tender side, involving the daughter and girlfriend. These days, that’s a pretty unusual combination. – Gary Dretzka

Wind Blast: Blu-ray
In the not too distant future, fans of Chinese action pictures could become as familiar with the amazingly rugged locations of China’s arid Gansu province as Monument Valley became to lovers of John Ford’s Westerns. Located at the geographical center of the PRC, with borders on Mongolia and the Yellow River, Gansu can claim among its attractions the Gobi Desert, the Jiayugan Pass of the Great Wall, remnants of the Silk Road, the Mogao Grottoes and many magnificent temples and monasteries. More to the point of “Wind Blast,” it has badlands the equal of any in South Dakota and vistas surprisingly similar to those of our own Great Basin. It was writer/director Gao Qunshu’s intention to create in this wonderful landscape a contemporary Chinese Western, also informed by police- and bandit-movie conventions and elaborately choreographed action scenes. Toss in some terrific wire-work and the result is a wildly engrossing cross-genre entertainment. The characters pursue each other on horses, construction vehicles and SUVs, and fight with guns, knives, explosives and martial-arts techniques more common to mainland Chinese than Hong Kong. In the two-hour long chase, a notorious contract killer and his moll are chased by a team of bounty hunters and posse of cops. A powerful mob boss hires the bounty hunters to collect potentially damaging evidence being carried by the killer and would be of great value to the police. All of the participants are capable of using the territory to their advantage. It’s a lot of fun to watch, as much for the scenic beauty and action, as the over-the-top acting of Duan Yihong (“Hot Summer Days”), Francis Ng (“Turning Point”), Xia Yu (“Electric Shadows”), Ni Dahong (“A Woman, a Gun and a Noodle Shop”), Charlie Yeung (“After This Our Exile”), Zhang Li, Yu Nan, and martial arts star Wu Jing (“Shaolin”). The Blu-ray looks great and adds a pretty interesting making-of featurette. – Gary Dretzka

Mac & Devin Go the High School: Blu-ray
Snoop Dogg may not display the range of fellow hip-hoppers working in movies these days, but no one can touch him when it comes to playing stoners whose only ambition in life is to stay high and have fun. Certainly, it isn’t much of stretch from the Snoop Dogg we see on stage, talk shows and on the sidelines of sports events. Sean Penn, James Franco and Brad Pitt have turned in remarkably credible performances as stoners in “Fast Times at Ridgemont High,” “Pineapple Express” and “True Romance,” respectively, but it isn’t likely we’ll see those characters any time again, soon. It’s difficult to imagine Snoop portraying anyone other than a stoner, whose Buddha-like observations are imbued with logic only longtime pot-heads can fully appreciate. For the purposes of “Mac & Devin Go to High School,” a casting director would have been nuts to look any further than Snoop to play the world’s oldest high school senior and least threatening dope dealer on the planet. The gag here is that the only thing possibly keeping nerdy Devin (Wiz Khalifa) from becoming valedictorian and being accepted into MIT is being partnered with Mac (Snoop) in an all-important chemistry project. Naturally, Devin considers Mac’s participation to be a disaster waiting to happen and a complete waste of time. Instead, being totally cool, Mac not only supervises Devin’s evolution as playa’, but he also saves the day in the chemistry lab. Everything else is what you probably could expect from a movie about the joys of smoking pot at an institution named N. Hale High School. The music’s pretty good, though. – Gary Dretzka

Joe + Belle
The Disappearance of Aeryn Gilleran

Normally, when a publicity blurb compares a previously unknown movie to a classic, it’s best to reserve judgment or ignore it completely. This is especially true when the quote is taken from a review by a critic who’s even less well-known than the DVD, itself. So, when I saw “Joe + Belle” and “a lesbian ‘Thelma & Louise,’ in the same sentence, I pretended to be from Missouri and said, “Show me.” From Israel, “Joe + Belle” not only talks the talk, but it also walks the walk … right to the edge of the abyss. The better news is that Veronica Kedar’s debut feature can stand firmly on the four feet of its protagonists, without the benefit of comparisons to Ridley Scott and Callie Khouri’s immensely popular and influential female buddy adventure from 1991. Set largely in cosmopolitan Tel Aviv, “J+B” stars Kedar and Sivan Levy as the title characters. Joe is drug trafficker, who’s just returned from a run to Thailand and plans to hand over the stash to a friend, Abigail (Romi Aboulafia), whose clientele frequent the resorts of Eilat. Belle is a quirky, if unbalanced young woman, who, after a stint in a mental hospital, decides to break into Joe’s apartment and commit suicide in her tub. Joe doesn’t quite know what to do with Belle, but she allows her to tag along as she makes the rounds of local bars. Joe’s ex-boyfriend has become a pest, by leaving messages at all hours and coming over uninvited after he hears she’s back in town. He makes the mistake of coming over when Belle is in the apartment by herself and she uses Joe’s pistol – poorly hidden in the microwave oven – to shoot him. Not visibly upset by the sight of her former boyfriend bleeding out on her kitchen floor, Joe grabs the gun and puts another hole in his body. Unaware that Abigail has been having an affair with the deceased, Joe asks to borrow her van and help her dispose of the body, which she does. It then takes Abigail a few hours to call her friend, a crooked cop, to ask him what she should have done, instead.

In the meantime, Belle has introduced Joe to the pleasures of girl-girl sex. When they learn of Abigail’s betrayal, the pair high-tail it by bus to a truly remote hamlet, currently under siege by rockets lobbed at settlements by Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip. While there, the desperadoes befriend an ethically lax cop of their own and fall further in love at a depressing little café on open-mike night. Sensing the hot breath of the law on their necks, Joe and Belle head out on their own to places unknown, while rockets land around them. So, not quite “Thelma & Louise,” but the characters grow on us, even knowing that the boyfriend didn’t deserve to be murdered and heroin trafficking is several times more anti-social than robbing a small-town market at gunpoint. “J+B” feels very much like an American indie, right down to the terrific performances by unknown actors and its many loose ends. Based on what’s revealed in the making-of featurette, its micro-budget also demanded that it become something of a guerrilla production.

In their dealings with the LGBT community, I think it’s safe to say that U.S. law-enforcement agencies have come a long way in the last 30 years. Sloppy police work and overt bigotry no longer are tolerated, if only because the penalties for such malfeasance are steep. Clearly, the protection of the law doesn’t apply in countries where politicians and police officials aren’t nearly as concerned about being punished for their own crimes. Vienna would seem to be as sophisticated and lawful a city as there is in Europe, so the case described in “The Disappearance of Aeryn Gilleran” is all the more shocking because it takes place there. Gretchen and John Morning’s devastating documentary chronicles the efforts of veteran New York police officer Kathy Gilleran to discover what happened to her son, a United Nations researcher and former Mr. Gay Austria, who disappeared in 2007 and almost certainly died within hours of his last sighting. As a cop, Gilleran expected to be accorded the same professional courtesy by Vienna police that she would offer any police officer whose child had died in her Upstate jurisdiction. In fact, Gilleran was treated as if she should be ashamed of her son’s sexuality and take them at their word that they did everything in their power to discover the fate of her son. They didn’t, of course. Instead of tracing the obvious leads and some Gilleran uncovered on her own, the Vienna police spent their time inventing unlikely scenarios and falsifying evidence. (They said he was depressed over being diagnosed with AIDS, for example, knowing he was HIV-negative.) Eventually, the cops wrote his death off as “spontaneous suicide.” Everywhere she turned, including the gay social club at which her son was last seen, she hit a brick wall. As near as anyone can figure, something happened at the club that caused him to run, naked, from there to the Danube Canal, into which he plunged and likely drowned. It took his mother two years to collect even that much evidence, along with a long-submerged theory about a cover-up involving highly placed members of the club. Like the truth, the body was never recovered. According to Gilleran’s website, “The Disappearance of Aeryn Gilleran” (a.k.a., “Gone”) will air on Austrian television for the first time next week. I, for one, am anxious to see what happens next. – Gary Dretzka

The Casserole Club
As undernourished as it is, Steve Balderson’s period comedy, “The Casserole Club,” is a cross between “Mad Men,” the failed CBS drama “Swingtown” and John Waters’ “Serial Mom.” Set in typically middle-class suburb in the early 1960s, it describes the weekly gatherings of a neighborhood recipe club and how it became an easy excuse for drinking too much and trading partners. If they lived on Long Island, instead of southern California, the men and women in “Casserole Club” might have attended PTA meeting with some of the characters in “Mad Men.” In “Swingtown,” male commuters brought the Playboy Philosophy with them on the train home from their jobs in Chicago’s Loop, hoping their wives would serve their meatloaf in Bunny outfits. Thirty years later, any one of the women might have served as the model for Kathleen Turner’s murderous character in “Serial Mom.” Almost nothing could be easier than satirizing the actual behavior of mid-century suburbanites, who, in the wake of Eisenhower-era conformity and its institutionalized complacency, spent their money to claim neighborhood bragging rights on everything from the cutest kids and most-spacious station wagon, to the fanciest lawn ornaments and most desirable spouse. When such one-upmanship became tiresome, legend has it that the FDA approval of oral contraceptives, in 1960, made it significantly safer to cheat and/or swing, just like on TV’s “Peyton Place.” Like “Mad Men,” “Casserole Club” reminds us of the copious amount of alcohol that were consumed by these upwardly mobile, middle-class Americans, simply to get through their days without taking out their anxiety and aggression on the people they married and spawned. In some cases, swinging allowed couples to save their marriages – temporarily, at least — while also working out their frustrations and fantasies on someone else’s wife or husband. I’m not sure that’s what Balderson had in mind with “Casserole Club,” which straddles the line separating kinky comedy and melodrama, but it has one thing going for it that “Peyton Place” didn’t: nudity. Yes, even in the ’60s many people removed their clothes before having sex … ask your grandparents, if you don’t believe me. It’s a rather obvious point, but “Casserole Club” wouldn’t have been nearly as entertaining without it. It also helps that several of the actors are recognizable from their work in higher-profile projects, including Daniela Sea, decidedly more femme here than as Max/Moira on “The L Word”; former Backstreet Boy, Kevin Scott Richardson; former Go-Go, Jane Wiedlin; and veteran character actor, Susan Traylor. The DVD adds a making-of piece. – Gary Dretzka

Barbarella: Queen of the Universe: Blu-ray
Chesty Morgan’s Bosom Buddies: Blu-ray
Ilsa: Harem Keeper of the Oil Sheiks
Zoom In: Sex Apartments
True Story of a Woman in Jail: Continues

Watching the Blu-ray edition of “Barbarella” after all these years, I was struck by several things: the first and most obvious is how wonderfully retro the special effects and sci-fi set designs remain today, even in the piercing glare of hi-def; how much Lindsay Lohan resembles the French comic-book super-diva and, accordingly, the 30-year-old Jane Fonda, who portrayed her; and that the PG rating still allows for a mid-air, zero-gravity striptease, during which Fonda’s boobs and nipples are clearly visible. (Clearly, the MPAA can’t be bothered to upgrade ratings and protect modern families from things deemed less than shocking 40-some years ago. Today, it would be rated “R” or trimmed to meet “PG-13” specifications.) At the time of its production, Fonda was married to director Roger Vadim, who, like John Derek, habitually married the female leads in his movies. It prompted the many comparisons of Fonda to Vadim’s former wife, to fellow “sex kitten” Brigitte Bardot. It took back-to-back Best Actress nominations – “They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?” and “Klute” – and misguided propaganda tour in North Vietnam for the media to drop that label and substitute it with “Hanoi Jane.” As conceived by comic-book author Jean-Claude Forest, Barbarella was a thoroughly modern 41st-century woman, not at all reluctant to use her sexual wiles to further her investigations of intergalactic intrigue. Here, she’s been asked by the President of Earth to track down the evil genius Durand Durand, inventor of a machine capable of killing people softly, by according them too much sexual pleasure. Along the way, Barbarella encounters outlandish characters played by John Phillip Law, Anita Pallenberg, Milo O’Shea, Marcel Marceau and David Hemming, as the revolutionary leader Dildano. If it weren’t for the sexuality and star power, “Barbarella” could have passed for an episode of the hit British series, “Doctor Who,” which began in 1963. What’s neat about the new Paramount release is how good the 44-year-old movie looks in Blu-ray. The psychedelic color scheme holds up very well, as does the audio. Sadly, the only bonus feature is a vintage trailer. I would have loved to have seen the deleted scenes and the recollections of Fonda or someone who knew screenwriter Terry Southern. If you’re so inclined, pick up Roman Coppola’s “CQ,” which, in 2001, imagined what might have been happening behind the scenes of a movie very much like “Barbarella.”

If there’s anything that brings out the high-school sophomore in adult men, it’s a bust that measures 73 FF. That vital statistic, alone, made Chesty Morgan (a.k.a., Lillian Wilczkowsky) a name recognized in frat, fire and grind houses throughout North America from 1972 to 1991. And, yes, her breasts were – and continue to be, at 75 – 100 percent real. The two grindhouse epics she made in 1974 for legendary soft-core auteur Doris Wishman – “Deadly Weapons” and “Double Agent 73” — comprise Image Entertainment’s Blu-ray package, “Chesty Morgan’s Bosom Buddies.” Also included is “The Immoral Three,” a 1975 knockoff in which a considerably less buxom stand-in is killed off in the first reel, leaving her horny daughters to take over where Chesty left off. Like “Austin Powers,” “Deadly Weapons” and “Double Agent 73” are parodies of James Bond and other spy flicks from the 1960s. In the latter, a camera is implanted in her left breast, as a way of confirming the death by asphyxiation of members of a notorious drug gang. If you’ve already guessed that Chesty smothers her victims with her boobs, go to the head of the class. Apart from this cheap thrill, the movies are nothing more than excuses to display Morgan’s assets on the big screen. In a cheap blond wig, she looks more like Dolly Parton’s grandmother than Ursula Andress or Joey Heatherton. As is made clear in the trailer reel included in the package, along with production stills, Wishman’s reputation was built on noir-inspired sexploitation flicks (“Bad Girls Go to Hell,” “Another Day, Another Man”) and nudie-cuties (“Blaze Starr Goes Nudist,” “Nude on the Moon”), thus drawing frequent comparisons to Russ Meyer. Morgan’s greatest cinematic moment came would come a couple of years later, when she was hired to play Barberina in “Fellini’s Casanova.” Although her scene can be easily accessed on the Internet, it ended up on the floor of the maestro’s cutting room.

Like the personal story of the actress known as Bettie Page, Morgan’s intriguing history would make a terrific movie. Born in Poland, Lillian Wilczkowsky was sent to Palestine after her mother was grabbed off a Warsaw street and presumably sent to a concentration camp. Her father died in the uprising of the Warsaw Ghetto. After growing up in a Israeli kibbutz, Lillian married an American and moved with him to New York, where he owned butcher shops and they had two daughters. In 1965, her husband and two employees were murdered in what the tabloids described as the “Icebox Murders.” In 1972, a man she dated suggested that she consider going into burlesque. Lillian feels insulted, but comes to realize that her physical attributes outweigh anything else she might be able to offer a potential employer. It doesn’t take long for her to become a show-business sensation. Because of Lillian’s thick Polish accent, Wishman was required to dub all of her dialogue in their two movies together, but her voice wasn’t much of a problem on the stage, where she was merely required to reveal her 73s, tell a couple of jokes and, sometimes, allow customers to cop a feel. The latter would result in several well-publicized busts – pun intended – and an even greater income. Her second husband was National League umpire Dick Stella. Like her oldest daughter, who was killed in 1984, Stella would die three years later in a freak automobile accident. At last report, Lillian was living a comfortable life in Tampa, where she owns a home on the bay and an apartment building. A member of the Burlesque Hall of Fame, the former Chesty Morgan experiences back pain from carrying around the weight of her breasts for more than 50 years – she refers to herself as a “late bloomer” – but it doesn’t stop her from doing odd jobs around the house and walking to the store as often as possible. Her glory days will live for eternity on the Internet. That sounds like a pretty good movie to me.

Other recent sexploitation releases include the second entry in the “Ilsa” trilogy and two more installments in the Nikkatsu Erotic Films Collection. “Ilsa: Harem Keeper of the Oil Sheiks” finds Dyanne Thorne in the Middle East, years after her stint as “She Wolf of the SS” and before her transformation as “Tigress of Siberia.” Ilsa labors as the sadistic headmistress of a charm school for a power-mad sheik’s harem of imported sex slaves, including a millionaire’s daughter, a movie star and a champion equestrian. She pleases her boss by devising a scheme in which some of the women under her command are literally turned into sex bombs, tricked out to explode when they experience an orgasm. Besides Thorne, “Harem Keeper of the Oil Sheiks” is enhanced by the presence of Russ Meyer regulars Haji and Uschi Digard and “Nubian bodyguards” Tanya Boyd and Marilyn Joi. Some scenes of torture and violence aren’t for the faint of heart or easily offended, but anyone able to read the title should know that already.

There’s nothing funny about rape, even in the movies, and the creators of “Zoom In: Sex Apartments” probably weren’t begging for laughs in the brutal attacks on Japanese women by an insane piano tuner in a ninja outfit. The stylized rapes unquestionably were designed to be outrageously absurd, however. There’s no disguising the horror that comes in watching his victims’ loins being torched, certainly, even if censors forbade the exposure of public hair and genitalia. All of the rapes occur near a nearly empty apartment complex in the kind of desolate wasteland not often seen in movies from Japan. The jarring blend of colors, music and violence appear to pay homage to Dario Argento, in whose giallo women don’t fare much better. “True Story of a Woman in Jail: Continues” is just that, a sequel to the story of hardened convict Mayumi, who gave as well as she got in the first installment. This time, she’s emerged from solitary confinement to find an all-new gang of felonious fiends turning a meek, young female prisoner into Yakuza bait. As women-in-prison flicks go, the “True Story” series can’t be beat for sheer over-the-top carnage and perversions that wouldn’t fly in genre pictures made in the U.S. Bonus features include trailers and liner notes by Jasper Sharp. – Gary Dretzka

Jesus Henry Christ
No one plays moms on the verge of a nervous breakdown quite as well as Toni Collette. Indeed, in Showtime’s “United States of Tara,” she portrays a half-dozen of them, sometimes simultaneously. In Dennis Lee’s offbeat comedy, “Jesus Henry Christ,” Collette plays the single mother of a freakishly brilliant son, Henry, who was artificially conceived in a Petri-dish. For reasons that become clear in the early stages of the movie, Patricia is no fan of human beings of the male persuasion. Through artificial insemination, she can have her sperm and impregnate herself, too. The craziness begins even before Henry is able to walk, as he begins to form complete sentences and mimic his elders. By the time he’s 10, Henry (Jason Spevack) has dragged the truth about his birth from his nutty, ex-cop grandfather, causing him to embark on a search for his biological father, using Post-It notes to collect clues. Turns out, Henry shares things in common with an outcast girl in his school, Samantha. Her brilliance, however, is tempered by the constant taunting she receives at the hands of bullies who accuse her of being a lesbian. She insists that she isn’t, but it’s tough to argue after her likeness was inconveniently used on the cover of her dad’s book, “Born Gay or Made That Way?” Her father, Dr. Slavkin O’Hara (Michael Sheen), accommodates his daughter by attempting to recover all extant copies of the book and burning him in their empty pool. He meets Henry in one of the local book stores, where he’s just finished reading the book in a single sitting. O’Hara senses that only a 10-year-old carrying his genes would be capable of doing such a thing. Moreover, he also uses Post-Its as a way to collect his thoughts.

“Jesus Henry Christ” is largely an exercise in applying glue to two disparate movie families and seeing what sticks. The characters bear a passing resemblance to those in “The Royal Tennebaums,” even if their individual stories lack similar gravitas. I’m not quite sure that the families here qualify as dysfunctional, but they’re close enough for the festival circuit. The actors give it their all, however, and this should be enough for fans of Collette and Sheen. The kids will be seen in better pictures, as well. – Gary Dretzka

SpokAnarchy!
Rockwell

One needn’t hail from the great state of Washington to find something interesting in the site-specific rock-umentary “SpokAnarchy!,” but it definitely helps. More than the punk-rock music on display, the film describes what life was like in the 1980s for outcast kids and young adults in cities as far off the beaten path as Spokane. In the days before MTV, CDs and the Internet, countercultural change in the Pacific Northwest could best be described as glacial. Or, so it seemed to kids who preferred the Ramones and Sex Pistols to the Seattle Seahawks, hunting and top-40 radio. If a Mohawk, dog collar and green hair could still attract attention in New York and L.A., imagine the reaction to punk fashion and uncloseted gays in flyover country. “SpokAnarchy!” couldn’t have been made if a critical mass of like-minded young people hadn’t been reached in Spokane, the largest city between Minneapolis and Seattle, and some prescient filmmakers weren’t there to record it. Although classified as punk, the music produced by the growing number of bands also showed the influence of such acts as Devo, Talking Heads, B-52’s, Led Zeppelin and, of course, Black Sabbath. Police tried in vain to shut down the movement, but it took hard drugs, booze and a desire to make it in L.A. to put a dent in the scene. “SpokAnarchy!” locates the survivors and interviews them about the experience of growing up weird and unwanted in Spokane. Much time is devoted, as well, to an anniversary reunion of the bands and scenesters, held a couple of years ago. Like every other town its size, Spokane has grown more culturally diverse and the mainstream has expanded to include all sorts of things once considered freaky. There’s lots of music in the documentary and a visit to a museum dedicated to the art, publicity material and music of the period covered.

Rockwell” is a straight-forward recording of a 2009 concert marked by the diversity of the musical groups and collaborations between artists. Among the acts performing at London’s O2 arena were Robert Plant, Tom Jones, Joss Stone, Lulu, Razorlight, Beverley Knight, Escala, David Gray and Dan Gillespie Sells. The highlights for geezers like me include Plant re-interpreting hits from his Zeppelin years and a May-November duet with Joss Stone and the ageless Tom Jones. The show culminates with a joint performance of the Beatles’ classic “”Let It Be.” The Rockwell concerts, which began in 1990, benefit Nordoff-Robbins Music Therapy. The charity, a favorite with Brit musicians, provides over 35,000 therapy sessions a year and runs post-graduate training programs in music therapy for children and adults. – Gary Dretzka

TCM: Greatest Classic Legends: Kirk Douglas
Newsies: 20th Anniversary Edition: Blu-ray
Evita: 15th Anniversary Edition: Blu-ray
The Color of Money: 25 Anniversary Edition: Blu-ray
Cocktail/Blu-ray
Ransom: 15th Anniversary Edition: Blu-ray
Sister Act: 20th Anniversary Edition/Sister Act II: Blu-ray

At 95, Kirk Douglas is the perfect embodiment of the term, “still kicking.” The stroke he suffered in 1966 slowed him down, but only until he could figure out how to use it to his advantage. If it seems as if he’s been around forever, it’s because his face is as familiar as any carved from Mount Rushmore. The dimple on his chin is more recognizable than most of the actors nominated for Academy Awards these days. Picking three classic movies from his vast resume is a fool’s errand, but “Young Man With a Horn,” “Lust for Life” and “The Bad and the Beautiful” are as representative as any title. The most interesting film here, though, is a recording of Douglas’ one-man show, “Before I Forget,” made at the theater that bears his name, and first shown in 2010. Even when Douglas is patting himself on the back for his many good deeds, it never comes across as self-serving or gratuitous. He reverses time for self-criticism, as well. “Young Man With a Horn” and “Lust for Life” bear little relationship to the facts of life known to itinerant jazz musicians or long-suffering artists, but Douglas’ performances compensate for the Hollywood baloney. Also swell in the biography of a headstrong trumpet player are Hoagy Charmichael, Doris Day and Loren Bacall. (Harry James provides the music coming out of Douglas’ trumpet.) Vincente Minnelli’s color palette and set design in the Van Gogh biopic are worth the price of admission, as well.

Douglas’ other collaboration with Minnelli, “The Bold and the Beautiful,” is the real deal. I’m kicking myself for not having seen it until now. Douglas stars as a ruthless movie producer, whose instincts and observations about what sells tickets are much more astute than his ability to keep friends and stay under budget. Besides being a fireball of creative activity, his Jonathan Shields is a world-class prick. It is a quality not always deemed negative in the Hollywood of yesteryear or today. Finally, after he’s burned more bridges than span the Mississippi, another producer begs the people he’s hurt to help make Shields’ comeback project. The story is told from the perspective of characters played by Lana Turner, Walter Pidgeon, Barry Sullivan and Dick Powell, with Gloria Grahame, Gilbert Roland, Leo G. Carroll and Elaine Stewart also adding mightily to the drama. That several of the key characters are based on identifiable Hollywood players is a big plus, as well. It comes with a fascinating profile of Turner and much background material.

Most folks watching last month’s Tony Awards ceremony probably were unaware that the production number from “Newsies! The Musical” was inspired by the turkey Disney movie musical of the same title. It isn’t rare for movie to be adapted into play or musical, but flops tend to remain flops wherever they’re found. Inspired by its cult popularity built after the release of the VHS and DVD, producers of “Newsies!: The Musical” were able to attract writer Harvey Fierstein to do the stage adaptation and original composers Alan Menken and Jack Feldman to freshen up the score. The peppy musical is still running on Broadway. It remains an open question as to whether Disney would have sent out the movie version on Blu-ray in a 20th Anniversary Edition if it weren’t for the success of the stage musical, but it’s nice that it’s here, if only for fans to compare to the Broadway edition. Originally written as a drama, it became a musical for reasons no one cares to remember two decades later. “Newsies” is based on the 1899 strike by paperboys in New York, a group not generally known to break into song at any given moment. It starred Christian Bale, Robert Duvall, Bill Pullman and Ann-Margret, was directed by Kenny Ortega and the songs were provided by Menken and Feldman. The Blu-ray comes with several nice bonus features, including commentary, making-of pieces, a history of the strike, storyboard-to-screen comparisons and a sing-along.

A scene from the current Broadway production of “Evita” also was featured on the Tony broadcast. The 15th-anniversary edition of the Disney movie musical famously stars Madonna, Antonio Banderas and Jonathan Pryce. The long-awaited adaptation of the Andrew Lloyd Webber-Tim Rice production was directed by Alan Parker, who’d scored a big hit with “The Commitments.” The Blu-ray comes with a 42-minute backgrounder and a musical video, but not any of the material added to the 1997 Criterion Collection edition.

Sister Act,” too, was represented on the Tony ceremony. Disney has re-released the original movie and its sequel, “Back in the Habit,” in Blu-ray to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the Whoopi Goldberg vehicle. She stars as a lounge singer forced to hide from the mob in a convent, where she turns up the volume on the sisters’ choir. Harvey Keitel and Kathy Najimy co-star. The Blu-ray comes with the featurette, “Inside Sister Act” and a Lady Soul music video.

Disney couldn’t possibly have known Tom Cruise would be back in the news when they scheduled the release of “The Color of Money” and “Cocktail” in Blu-ray. “The Color of Money” is Martin Scorsese’s sequel to the classic pool-hustler flick, “The Hustler.” Paul Newman returns as Fast Eddie Felson, while Cruise plays the hot-shot, almost terminally cocky newcomer. It’s terrifically entertaining and makes excellent use of its Chicago and Atlantic City locations. The makers of “Cocktail” didn’t invent the art of flair bartending, but, by introducing it in a romantic drama with Cruise and Bryan Brown, they turned it into a spectator sport still popular today. A soundtrack filled with ’80s pop hits drives most of the action, while the presence of Elisabeth Shue, Gina Gershon and Kelly Lynch doesn’t hurt, either. – Gary Dretzka

Planeat
It’s sometimes difficult to tell where the documentary, “Planeat,” ends and an infomercial for unseen forces promoting a militantly vegan agenda begins. I’m not a scientist or physician, but the case made in “Planeat” for the elimination of meat, dairy, sugar and other supposedly bad stuff from our diets sounds reasonable and doable. Credible proof also is offered of the power of organically grown vegetables, nuts, seeds and other borderline food groups to reverse certain symptoms of heart disease, cancer, global warming and the poisoning of our waterways. The experts reinforce the much-ridiculed theory that bovine burps and farts are as dangerous to the environment as the chemicals in fertilizer that find their way into rivers and seas, creating dead zones identifiable in satellite-delivered photographs. That’s the scary news. The good news comes in the form of the food prepared by chefs who specialize in vegan options to popular entrees, appetizers and desserts. The only problem I have with “Planeat” is the requisite guilt trip laid on consumers who have yet to completely abandon foods deemed harmful by the producers of this film, some of whom also serve as its expert witnesses and board of directors of a sponsoring institution. Only briefly mentioned, too, is the willingness of politicians and bureaucrats to accept the word – and money – of lobbyists only interested in keeping the gears of the death machine greased. They’re the ones who pictures and names should have been included in a bonus feature, alongside the damning images of unsuspecting gas-filled cows.The DVD comes with recipes. – Gary Dretzka

G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero: Series 2, Season 2
In toys, comics, movies, video games and TV series, “G.I. Joe” has proven his commercial mettle for nearly 50 years. The animated series, alone, has been resurrected three times. Each time, it’s been used as part of a general strategy to reinvigorate the “G.I. Joe” and “Cobra” products. The second series, launched in 1990, lasted two years in syndication. General Hawk returns, along with Duke, Storm Shadow, Snake Eyes, Cobra Commander, Destro and several new voice actors. The new set includes all 20 episodes in a three-disc set. – Gary Dretzka

The DVD Wrapup: Oranges & Sunshine, Bullhead, Spalding Gray, Deliverance … More

Tuesday, June 26th, 2012

Oranges and Sunshine: Blu-ray
Compassion fatigue is a condition generally ascribed to relief workers and other people who work with victims of disasters and trauma victims. It’s also been applied to the many kind and generous people solicited for donations every time there’s a devastating earthquake, tsunami, flood, hurricane, tornado, oil spill, fire or genocidal war. If it’s gotten harder to wring contributions from these chronically empathetic folks, sometimes it has less to do with the repeated calls for donations than the feeling of hopelessness that comes from knowing that no amount of money will be able to cure the ills of humanity. As they begrudgingly pick up their checkbooks for the umpteenth time, you can almost hear them asking, “Next time, why don’t you call someone in Russia or Dubai?” Judging from the diminishing number of theatrical films produced to dramatize the horror and acts of heroism that frequently accompany such tragedies, moviegoers also have begun to suffer from “secondary traumatic stress disorder.” And, when they are, these pictures rarely make it to the local megaplex. “Oranges and Sunshine” is just such a movie.
Despite a highly compelling story and knockout performance by Emily Watson, Jim Loach’s film played long enough in a handful of American cities to collect some nice quotes for the DVD release, eight months later. Distributors are exceedingly gun-shy these days, so, I guess, it counts as a small blessing that “O&S” was seen here at all. The good news is that the events dramatized have already been exposed, apologizes have been made and compensation for past misdeeds are somewhere in the pipeline. As such, “O&S” is less a call to action than a cautionary tale, long untold. Watson plays Margaret Humphreys, the Nottingham social walker who blew the whistle on one of the most chilling examples of government-sanctioned child abuse in memory. Humphreys was tipped to the forced deportation of thousands of British children, post-World War II, in a letter from a woman in Australia, seeking help tracing her parents in England. She claimed to have been shipped from England, where she had been entrusted to the care of child-welfare agencies, to a children’s home Down Under. Humphrey not only was able to locate the woman’s mother, who never was informed of her daughter’s fate, but she also uncovered a child-migration scheme in which thousands of other children were deported to Commonwealth nations. Many of the children were told that their parents were dead. Most parents were led to believe their kids had been adopted and were out of reach. Instead, many of the 10,000 children who were deported to Australia – especially the boys – were handed over to religious organizations. Among these were the Roman Catholic priests of the Congregation of Christian Brothers, who felt entitled to treat the kids under their supervision as free labor and candidates for random physical and emotional abuse. (The Brits benefitted, in return, by not having to pay for the children’s care in government-run orphanages.)

Publicity accorded Humphrey’s trans-continental mission to expose the policy and reunite families resulted in the establishment of the Child Migrants Trust and elicited apologies from government leaders in England and Australia. What’s left unstated in the movie was the motivation of the Australian government, which, historically, has kept its doors open for “good white stock” to bolster its official Aboriginal assimilation policy. Since 1869, at least, Aboriginal and half-caste children were taken from their parents and placed in institutions and church missions, so the precedent had already been set. The plight of “stolen generations” children was addressed in Phillip Noyce’s drama “Rabbit-Proof Fence” and musically, in “Bran Nue Dae.” Audiences unfamiliar with the resettlement policy were stunned by its callous disregard for the rights and feelings of indigenous parents and the efforts of politicians to dilute the bloodlines of the Aboriginal population.

By the time “O&S” was released, every new revelation about the use of forced labor and abuse of children by Catholic priests and nuns in America, the UK and Ireland had the same impact as another chuck of coal being carried to Newcastle. Among other things, it was revealed in “The Magdalene Sisters” and “Sex in a Cold Climate” how hundreds of Irish girls, considered by the Church to be of poor moral character, were forced to slave in laundries run by nuns of the Magdalene order and beaten for little provocation. The American documentaries “Deliver Us From Evil” and “Twist of Faith” described the lengths the Church would go to protect priest from prosecution and cover-up allegations of abuse. Meanwhile, other documentaries and theatrical films chronicled the horrors of wars in the Sudan, Congo, Uganda and Rwanda. Before of the end of the 2012 presidential campaign, it’s also likely we’ll be inundated by reports about the Mormon Church’s poor treatment of Native Americans and policy of baptizing deceased non-Mormons, often against the wishes and knowledge of their relatives. It’s no wonder audiences flock to such escapist fare as “The Avengers” and “Keeping Up With the Kardashians.”

Even so, Watson’s compassionate performance in “O&S” is sufficient reason to recommend the DVD. The individual stories of the deported children may be heartbreaking, but we know going in that Humphrey’s arduous search for the truth has already borne fruit. Loach’s film demands nothing more of its audience than eyes, ears and hearts. It arrives with additional background and making-of material, including interviews with cast, crew, Loach and writer Rona Munro. – Gary Dretzka

A Thousand Words: Blu-ray
Although kids might not be able to grasp the importance of the Bodhi tree to Buddhists, there’s nothing in the Eddie Murphy vehicle “A Thousand Words” that they shouldn’t enjoy. It might also satisfy adults who were attracted to Jim Carrey’s “Liar, Liar,” Adam Sandler’s “Click” and earlier minor-key Murphy comedies, such as “Boomerang,” “Norbit,” “Meet Dave” and “Imagine That.” In the wacky world of big-budget Hollywood comedy, Murphy vs. Tree probably sounded like a no-brainer. In it, he plays high-powered literary agent Jack McCall, who, after stretching the truth while negotiating with a New Age guru, is cursed to experience the same traumas as the Bodhi tree that miraculously appears in his backyard. (It was under a sacred fig tree in Bodh Gaya, India, that Siddartha Gautama achieved enlightenment, a.k.a., bodhi, in the 4th Century BC.) Like the tree, McCall feels the effects of watering, the spraying of a pesticide, an ax chop and the loss of a single leaf out of a thousand. In fact, he’s informed, a lead will fall every time he utters a word. When the tree runs out of leaves, he’ll die.

This comes as very bad news to McCall, who’s known for his bombastic pitches and the verbal abuse he heaps on his assistants. Now forced to remain silent, he’s limited to pantomime, facial gestures and slapstick to make his points to clients, associates and family members already frustrated by his devotion to his job. To maintain his clientele and woo new business, McCall must learn to trust his assistants’ ability to convey his messages and help him keep his own job. The less easy it is for McCall to remain silent, the more opportunity there is for Murphy to exhibit his gift for physical comedy. If only former “SNL” writer Steve Koren had given him something more substantial with which to work, “A Thousand Words” might have been a picture worth just that. Murphy rarely looks as if he’s simply phoning in his performance, even when he must suspect the material is weak, so his fans might find things here to like. It arrives with 11 deleted scenes and an alternate ending. – Gary Dretzka

Bullhead: Blu-ray
Americans have learned a lot about steroids and other performance-enhancing substances over the last dozen or so years. Some of our most visible athletes, we’ve been told, have benefited mightily from their use and given them an unfair advantage. Consumers have also been alerted to the possibility that the food they buy has been genetically altered or “juiced” with growth hormones, steroids and other artificial substances. Documentaries and news reports have addressed the effects of steroids on body-builders, pro wrestlers and football players who go from 185 to 250 over the course of a summer vacation. Even so, Americans love winners, not losers, and they’ll happily postpone judgment on a freak of nature if he helps their favorite team win a pennant. The ferocious Belgian export, “Bullhead,” has a lot to say about steroid abuse and the illegal trafficking of PEDs, but it has nothing to do with sports.

In his impressive debut feature, Michaël R. Roskam not only uses steroid smuggling as a device to advance the plot, but his protagonist is addicted to them physically and psychologically, as well. After cattle farmer Jacky Vanmarsenille (Mattias Schoenaerts) injects his animals with banned substances, so as to muscle them up for sale, he siphons a bit off for his personal use. We know the government takes such cheating seriously, because its regulators test cattle at auctions for signs of it. Early in the story, a drug agent is murdered by suspected traffickers and everyone up and down the food chain is made uptight by the increased scrutiny. Jacky’s experience with steroids and hormones goes much deeper than everyone else. Years before, he and a friend witnessed an older boy and his cronies perform something resembling a circle-jerk, after passing around some skin mags. After they’re caught peeking through some bushes, Jacky is punished in the worst possible way a male can be, short of death. If you get my drift, you may already know that one way a victim of such a beating can preserve a semblance of his maleness is to ingest steroids and testosterone supplements. In addition to causing him to bulk up like Hulk Hogan, Jacky is subject to frightening episodes of ’roid rage.

Roskam’s narrative follows parallel investigations, both involving Jacky, and they each require the viewer’s strict attention. Contrary to the specific instructions of the killers – spoken in Flemish, but misinterpreted in Walloon — a pair of car thieves decides not to destroy the agent’s BMW, as ordered. They merely change the car’s fancy tires and rims, which they sell to Jacky’s brother for a pittance. One seemingly minor piece of evidence leads to several more important ones and an unsuspecting Jacky becomes the primary suspect. In the other throughline, Jacky runs into a girl from his distant past who knows exactly what happened to him and where the perpetrator of the beating can be found.  At first, she doesn’t recognize the connection between them, but, when she snaps to it, her reaction only serves to infuriate Jacky. It’s at this point that the parallel searches come together, and it isn’t pretty. “Bullhead” reminds me of other recent imports, in which we’re introduced to really violent men, but aren’t expected to fully buy into their criminal charisma: “A Prophet,” “Gomorrah,” “Animal Kingdom,” “Mesrine,” “Bronson” and the “Pusher” trilogy. The only person I could imagine replicating Schoenaerts’ performance in any American re-make is Mike Tyson, who looks the part and probably could understand Jacky’s rage.  – Gary Dretzka

And Everything Is Going Fine: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
Gray’s Anatomy: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
Watching monologist Spalding Gray in performance was an experience unlike any other in the theater. Tall, thin and movie-star handsome, Gray would sit behind a non-descript wooden table in his trademark flannel shirt and command our attention with stories that were as self-revelatory as they were entertaining. It was as if he was allowing us to tap into his photographic memory and experience the extraordinary events in his life through his eyes. Details some of us might dismiss as minutiae merged eventually with recollections so intimate they caused us to simultaneously laugh and blush with shared recognition. His self-effacing approach reduced the distance between the artist and audience to width of his desk. Gray was so unabashedly candid about the events that shaped him that it was possible to imagine ourselves eavesdropping on a discussion in his psychotherapist’s office. Finally, though, we were left wondering how anyone as neurotic and self-aware as he is could endure waking up anywhere in the world, where people didn’t take life quite as personally as he did. His death, by suicide, appeared to confirm our suspicion that humor rarely can shield anyone from their demons.

Among the things Gray shared with other great American monologists — from to Will Rogers and Jean Shepherd, to Calvin Trillin and David Sedaris – is a command of the language that, when combined with an actor’s sense of timing, can be awe-inspiring. Born in 1941, into a well-to-do WASP family in Rhode Island, Gray had many things in common with the Baby Boomers who came of age in the 1960s. They included a fear of being drafted into Vietnam War; a willingness to experiment with psychedelics and abuse marijuana and alcohol; a mistrust of traditional medicine, partially based on his Christian Science background and the kooky logic of New Age therapists; and willing participation in the various sexual and political liberation movements of the time. Like his mother before him, Gray wrestled with clinical depression – compounded by serious injuries suffered in an automobile accident while in Ireland — and committed suicide, apparently by jumping off the Staten Island Ferry, in 2004.

The Criterion Collection has released Steven Soderbergh’s biographical “And Everything Is Going Fine,” along with his impressionistic take on the performance piece, “Gray’s Anatomy,” in splendid hi-def packages. In the increasingly frenetic “Gray’s Anatomy,” the author describes how he reacted to the possibility he could lose the use of his left eye, due to a “macular pucker,” and the lengths he went to avoid traditional treatment. Rather than accept the reality that he likely would require microscopic surgery to repair the damage, Gray sought the advice of a Christian Scientist practitioner, Native American shaman, eye nutritionist and Filipino psychic surgeon. Eventually, he underwent the surgery, which created even opportunities for fear, reflection and hilarity. To dramatize Gray’s wild journey in a cinematic way, Soderbergh tweaked the author’s studied pacing and innate theatricality – however stagebound — by adding sets and backgrounds that located his subject in something approximating the real world. His inventive deployment of lighting and camera angles occasionally reminded me of Terry Gilliam’s hallucinogenic adaptation of “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.” The Blu-ray adds revealing new interviews with Soderbergh and co-writer/ex-wife Renee Shafransky; “A Personal History of the American Theater,” another hilariously off-point monologue; and a booklet, with an essay by critic Amy Taubin.

Released in 2010, “And Everything Is Going Fine” is comprised of bits of material from Gray’s one-man shows, interviews, home movies and other biographical material. Less bio-doc than what Soderbergh hoped would be seen as a “final monologue,” it is at once hilarious and heart-breaking. Most affecting is a backyard interview conducted with Gray, in which the impact of the car accident literally can be read on his face. While he’s talking, somewhere in the neighborhood, a dog begins howling in regular intervals. Gray’s reaction suggests these “lamentations” are messages from the afterworld, anticipating his imminent arrival. The Blu-ray adds a making-of featurette; a revival performance of “Sex and Death to the Age 14,” his first monologue; and a booklet,with an essay by Nell Casey. The high-definition digital transfers were supervised Soderbergh. – Gary Dretzka

The Decoy Bride: Blu-ray
Sheree Folkson’s first widely distributed film arrives after she spent two decades laboring in the fields of the BBC and other UK television-production companies. It benefits from an excellent cast and the beautiful scenery of the Isle of Man and the Caerlaverock Castle, in southwestern Scotland. Otherwise, it’s the standard-issue Brit and American rom-com in which plans for a marriage go awry, but, ultimately, the right gal ends up with the right guy. The characters are kooky in a recognizably British sort of way, without also being obnoxious, and no one gets hurt in the dissembling of the weddin. In “The Decoy Bride,” a beautiful and famous film star, Laura (Alice Eve), is getting married to a popular author, James (David Tennant), and they’re determined not to have it spoiled by the paparazzi, one of whom is a master of disguises. After their wedding planners discover an abandoned castle on a distant Scottish island, it, too, becomes a magnet for the horde of photographers. (No, I don’t know why the couple doesn’t sell the rights to their wedding pictures to the highest bidder and donate the money to charity or jeweler of their choice, as is done in the U.S.) The planners hurriedly conceive a plan in which a local girl, the unlucky-in-love Katie (Kelly MacDonald), pretends to marry James in the village church. Theoretically, then, after the photographers leave to file their photos, Laura would arrive at the church in all her glory for the actual nuptials.

Naturally, things don’t go as planned. Not only do the paparazzi spoil the scheme by refusing to buy into the ruse, but enough of the faux ceremony is performed to qualify as an actual marriage. In the course of escaping the rabble, it dawns on James and Katie that they truly were meant for each other. They go pretty far out of their way to deny such a possibility, but their hesitancy only serves to add to the intrigue. Typically, the highly photogenic and much-in-demand Laura would have been given some character flaw to make us predisposed to encourage James and Katie’s liaison, but she isn’t really such a bad lassie. This departure from stereotype allows for something of a highly welcome surprise ending. The Blu-ray edition of “Decoy Bride” takes full advantage of the lush green settings and alternately blue and rainy skies. It adds several interviews. – Gary Dretzka

Wrath of the Titans: Blu-ray
Thirty years after special-effects wizard Ray Harryhausen made “Clash of the Titans” his swan song, a new generation of filmgoers has been introduced to Greek mythology through a CGI-enhanced remake of the 1981 fantasy/adventure and a sequel, “Wrath of the Titans.” Having grown up on analog effects and stop-action photography, I’m inclined to favor Harryhausen’s magic over that conjured by anonymous computer jockeys. I can see, however, where kids born in the digital age would find his creations to be irredeemably quaint and not worth the effort it would take to walk to the nearest Blockbuster to sample. (I wasn’t that overwhelmed by the ape in the original “King Kong,” myself, on first viewing.) If the new iterations of the “Titans” epics inspire anyone to look back at the originals, then so much the better. There isn’t much to say about “Wrath” that hasn’t already been ascribed to “Clash.” Both movies respect the mythology that inspired the scripts and Sam Worthington, Liam Neeson, Danny Huston and Ralph Fiennes remain appropriately godlike in appearance and demeanor. Newcomers include Edgar Rodriguez, as Ares; Rosamund Pike, as Andromeda; Bill Nighy, as Hephaestus; Freddy Drabble, as Apollo; and Kathryn Carpenter, as Athena. Reportedly, “Wrath” looks better much better stereoscopically than “Clash,” which was hastily converted to 3D to exploit the fad and drew some criticism from purists.

In “Wrath,” Zeus (Neeson) demands of the demigod Perseus (Worthington) that he interrupt the time he’s spending with his son at a fishing village, after taking out the gorgon Medusa and Kraken. Zeus fears that his immortality is being threatened by his own father, Chronos, a first-generation Titan who’s imprisoned in Tartarus, and the decline in the number of humans praying to him. It leaves an opening for Hades (Fiennes) to conspire with Ares to capture Zeus and unleash the Titans on Earth. Perseus recruits the warrior queen Andromeda, Poseidon’s demigod son, Argenor and fallen god Hephaestus in the battle to rescue Zeus and keep the Titans in Tartarus. There are, of course, flying horses, volcanic monsters, multi-headed beasts and staggeringly majestic combat zones. Apart from some deleted scenes, most of the Blu-ray features can only be found in Maximum Movie Mode, where the mythology is explained and other making-of material is presented. The MMM’s Focus Point segments include “Battling the Chimera,” “Agenor: The Other Demi-God,” “The Cyclops Fight,” “Prison of the Titans,” “Minotaur: The Human Nightmare,” “The Heavens Raise Hell on Earth,” “Who Are the Titans?,” “Hephaestus: God of Fire,” “Lost in Tartarus’ Labyrinth” and “Creatures of the Titans.” – Gary Dretzka

Deliverance: 40th Anniversary: Blu-ray
Even at the ripe old age of 40, John Boorman’s Darwinian adventure, “Deliverance,” is as thrilling and entertaining as it was when it became a blockbuster hit in 1972. It’s the rare movie that can be enjoyed as much by mainstream audiences and violence freaks, as those who demand some intellectual seasoning in their popcorn. At its most basic level, “Deliverance” is a story about four city slickers who bite off more than they can chew while paddling their canoes down one of the last free-flowing rivers in the South. In addition to the white-water rapids and giant boulders of the fictional Cahulawassee River, in northern Georgia, the characters are required to fend off predatory hillbillies and split the difference between what they owe the American justice system and their consciences. On a more elevated level, however, “Deliverance” demands that we re-assess man’s place on the evolutionary ladder and determine for ourselves how wise it is to put our needs ahead of those of Mother Nature. Likewise, we’re asked, are the urban professionals represented by Burt Reynolds, Ronny Cox, Jon Voight and Ned Beatty more evolved than the mountain folks they encounter at various stages of their journey? Under certain extreme circumstances, does the law of the jungle supersede the law of man? As the waters of the wild river begin backing up at the newly constructed hydroelectric dam — flooding entire towns and scenic wonders behind it — we can’t help but wonder, as well, how long the sins and secrets of the past can remain hidden.

“Deliverance” contains several unforgettable set pieces. The guitar-banjo duet, played for all its worth by Cox and the supposedly inbred picker, Lonnie (Billy Redden), is as enchanting today as it was 40 years ago. The “squeal like a pig” rape scene remains creepy in the extreme, as does Voight’s nightmarish vision. What I’d forgotten was the reversal of roles experienced by the characters after Reynold’s alpha-male archer is put out of commission by a broken bone. If the far less assertive Voight and Beatty hadn’t stepped up to the plate, none of the men might have reached their destination. The 40th anniversary Blu-ray presentation is in pretty much the same fine shape as it was in its previous hi-def iteration, while the audio is truly enhanced by the new DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround track. Also new, is a good-ol’-boy roundtable discussion between the now-old pros for whom “Deliverance” represented a significant boost to their movie careers, as well as a significant test of endurance. It is great fun to watch and informative, as well. A previous interview with the principles and Boorman, as well as a making-of featurette and commentary, also are included. – Gary Dretzka

Best Laid Plans: Blu-ray
As the title suggests, David Blair’s “Best Laid Plans” is a contemporary reworking of John Steinbeck’s “Of Mice and Men,” only, this time, set in the criminal underworld of Nottingham, England. The similarity between the two works is pretty much limited to the lead characters, Danny (Stephen Graham) and Joseph (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje), one of whom is a low-level gangster and the other a giant of a man with the mental age of 7. Joseph is gentle soul, largely dependent on Danny for his food and lodging. He also is capable of taking out a man his size with a single punch, a skill Danny abuses when he’s required to pay back a debt owed his boss, Curtis (David O’Hara). Although Joseph barely knows what to do with his fists, Danny cons him into participating in a series of underground cage fights. It is only after Joseph is beat nearly to a pulp that Danny will give him the cue to fight back, which he does with brutal ferocity. At the same time as Curtis decides to exploit the fighter for his own financial gain, Joseph falls for a young woman who’s only slightly more capable of taking care of herself than he is.

The stiffer the competition he faces, the more difficult it is for Joseph to recover fully from the beatings he takes. Danny senses as much, but is powerless against Curtis’ demands. Meanwhile, after witnessing Danny and his call-girl lover (Emma Stansfield) in flagrante delicto, Joseph tries the same thing with his girlfriend (Maxine Peake), but with far less positive results because neither of them knows what they’re doing or why they’re doing it. Although what happens next is reasonably predictable, the ending comes as a bit of a surprise. Blair’s direction nicely captures the gritty gangster milieu, especially the dimly lit basements and lofts where much of the story unfolds. Graham and O’Hara are entirely credible as criminals at opposite ends of their profession, as is Akinnuoye-Agbaje in a role that could turn maudlin in a heartbeat. As is usually the case with British crime dramas, most American viewers would benefit from optional subtitles. – Gary Dretzka

Father’s Day
All Dark Places
Movies in which the protagonist is named Ahab usually demand more from the audience than they give back in return. Anyone can tell a story about a madman’s quest for revenge against an elusive nemesis, however gigantic and white it might be, but that necessarily doesn’t mean we’ll buy into the conceit. In the mythical land of Troma, however, the leviathan Moby-Dick can take many forms, including that of the legendary serial rapist and murderer Chris Fuchman, a.k.a. the Father’s Day Killer. Once believed to have been killed by Ahab, the son of one of Fuchman’s victims, he seemingly has escaped the cages of hell to rape, dismember, cannibalize and set on fire men whose only crime seemingly is their fathering of children. Could it be that the one-eyed Ahab killed the wrong man and was sent to prison for no good reason? Sure, why not? Once released, Ahab is determined to discover the truth, even if it means finding Fuchman and killing him again. To this end, Ahab is joined by the rent-boy, Twink; a priest blinded by the same fiend; and his sister, who, of course, is a stripper. It would be difficult to explain with any degree of accuracy what happens after the first couple of murders in “Father’s Day,” except to point out that Ahab’s path is littered with much gore and depravity, even by Troma standards. Some of it, though, is quite funny, as well. Guys may be relieved to learn that the many anal rapes are balanced by several sets of bare breasts. Lloyd Kaufman makes a cameo appearance as God and Satan. Apparently, “Father’s Day” became a reality after Winnipeg’s Alpha 6 performance troupe was granted $10,000 to expand on a teaser trailer. Clearly, every penny of that vast sum can be seen on screen. The Blu-ray package adds deleted scene, special-effects featurettes, Astron-6 shorts, behind-the-scenes; Kaufman and Tromatic intros; and a soundtrack EP CD.

In “All Dark Places,” the antagonist is that scariest of all scary characters, a depraved clown. The fiend lives in the closet of a home soon to experience the reunion of a rock-guitarist/investment-councilor, Christian, and his estranged wife and son. It isn’t made crystal clear as to what caused the split, but seemingly the man has agreed to spend more time at home and quit stuffing powder up his nose. Christian means well, but can’t quite pull it off. When everyone else in the house is asleep, a friend comes over to jam, plan investment scams and get torched. As therapy, Mom and Dad also go on an acid trip together. When was the last time you saw that? The higher Christian gets, the more often the clown comes out to scare the crap out of him. “All Dark Places” should please fans of evil-clown thrillers, but, otherwise, it’s something first-time director Nicholas Reiner probably had to get out of his system. – Gary Dretzka

Damages: The Complete Fourth Season
Law & Order: The Seventh Year
Dora the Explorer: Dora’s Rescue in Mermaid Kingdom
It says a lot about the American entertainment industry that it requires a divining rod each week to locate one of the best dramatic series on television, starring one of the world’s finest actors. After three years on FX, “Damages” was rescued from ratings oblivion by DirecTV and its Audience network. This meant that admirers of the killer-queen lawyer, Patty Hewes (Glenn Close), only could find her by subscribing to the satellite-delivery service. Blessedly, Sony Pictures Television has made all four seasons available on DVD. In Season 4, her former assistant and occasional nemesis, Ellen Parsons (Rose Byrne), takes an office at Hewes & Associates to pursue her own lawsuit against military-contractor High Star Security and its CEO, Howard Erickson (John Goodwin). Typically, the 10-episode story is told in flashbacks, flash-forwards and present-day sequences, and it’s impossible to tell when Patty is being helpful or setting a cruel trap for Ellen. The case is handed to Ellen by an old high school flame and ex-marine, Chris Sanchez (Chris Messina), who participated in a terribly traumatic hostage extraction, in which four of his men were killed. Because no one will take credit for ordering the top-secret mission, High Star decided against reimbursing the widows of the mercenaries. Now, they want justice. After Erickson learns of Sanchez’ meeting with Ellen, he and a rogue CIA agent conspire to shut him up. It’s exciting stuff and well worth the effort of picking up the DVD package, which comes with deleted scenes, interviews, a Patty Hewes profile and bloopers. I watched the whole season in two sittings.

A similar thing happened to one of TV’s best police-procedurals, “Law & Order: Criminal Intent,” which, for its final four seasons, had fans scratching their heads as to where and when they might find on any given week. Network executives continually pretend to be perplexed by the dwindling of its natural audiences and lack of loyalty shown to series it spends lots of money to produce, but, really, it’s their own damn fault. They assume, “If we show it, they will come,” then go out of their way to time-shift it to death. “L&O: CI” began its 10-year run Sunday nights on NBC, where it frequently ranked among the top-20 shows. In the 2006-07 season, it was moved to Tuesday nights, where it sank to the 59th position. The next year, the show moved to the network’s USA subsidiary, with reruns to be shared on the parent. It bounced between Tuesday and Sunday debuts for the rest of its time on USA, without the benefit of much marketing support. To describe the show’s demise merely as a shame is to ignore the insulting way NBC executives treated the show and its fans. The seventh-year package is comprised of all 22 episodes.  The cast lineup included Kathryn Erbe, Vincent D’Onofrio, Eric Bogosian, Chris Noth and Julianne Nicholson. The highlight of the season might have come when Goran went undercover at mental hospital, where he blended in extremely well.

The next collection of episodes from Nickelodeon’s wildly successful “Dora the Explorer” multimedia franchise includes the special video presentation, “Dora’s Rescue in Mermaid Kingdom,” and bonus episodes “Benny the Castaway” and “Dora’s Moonlight Adventure.” In the title piece, Dora and Boots turn into sea creatures to help a lost mermaid return to her mother. – Gary Dretzka

Nixon/Billy Bathgate/Blaze
Life With Mickey/Swing Vote/Father Hood
Green Card/Hope Springs/Mumford
The Miracle Match/White Squall/Prefontaine
A Simple Twist of Fate/… First Do No Harm/Unstrung Heroes
Stella/Doctor/Roommates
Kazaam/Holy Man/Spaced Invaders
Mr. Destiny/Hello Again/Taking Care of Business
The Crew/Oscar/Big Trouble
Deceived/SOS: Summer of Sam/The Rich Man’s Wife
Mr. Wrong/Born Yesterday/Two Much
D.O.A./Playing God/Color of Night
Mill Creek Entertainment describes itself as being “the industry’s leading provider of value DVD compilations with millions of units sold through major retailers across North America, online resellers, national catalogs, direct response marketers and premium marketers.” In the past, I’ve written about genre collections from Mill Creek that squeeze as many as 100 titles in a bargain-priced box. They movies aren’t always in pristine condition, but they’re rarely less of watchable. Ditto, the selections: some are borderline classics, while others are of marginal interest, except to completists and fans of the stars. This week, however, the company has released triple-feature packages of movies released in the not-so-distant past by Walt Disney Video and other family companies. As listed above, the movies feature the work of A-list actors and prominent directors and writers. And, the sub-$10 price is right for folks who prefer to own their movies, instead of renting them. Among the standouts are Ridley Scott’s “White Squall,” with Jeff Bridges; Steve James’ “Prefontaine,” with Jared Leto as the maverick track star; the director’s cut of Oliver Stone’s “Nixon”; Dustin Hoffman’s gangster turn in “Billy Bathgate”; Paul Newman’s take on Hughie Long and his stripper girlfriend, “Blaze”; Lawrence Kasdan’s offbeat comedy, “Mumford”; and “Unstrung Heroes,” the Diane Keaton comedy with Andie MacDowell, John Turturro and Michael Richards.

Also new from Mill Creek this week are Blu-ray editions of the underwater documentary series, “Shark Divers” and the aerial environmental series, “Earth From Above: Food and Wildlife Conservation.” Adults who were kids in the early 1980s might want to turn their children on to “He-Man and the Masters of the Universe: The Best of Season 1 and Season 2,” which mines the top 20 episodes, out of 130, from the show’s first two seasons. – Gary Dretzka

The DVD Wrapup: Jeff at Home Project X, The FP, Nine Muses … More

Wednesday, June 20th, 2012

Jeff Who Lives at Home: Blu-ray
A decade ago, Mark and Jay Duplass helped create a niche in the indie world commonly referred to as “mumblecore.” Generally speaking, these are low-budget, largely improvised productions, populated by characters that would be considered unexceptional and treated as invisible, unless, perhaps, they lived in the apartment next door, occupied a cubicle beside you at work or dated one of your kids. This isn’t to imply these people lead meaningless lives; only that almost everything they do falls under the loose heading of “normal.” If there’s been a hipster cachet attached to mumblecore titles, it’s because what’s considered commonplace by most mainstream standards can be revelatory when observed by viewers in similar circumstances and when photographed in credibly natural fashion. In the movies, as in life, one needn’t be rich or famous to be of significance to someone. In the 10 years since the guerrilla movement was identified and pigeonholed, several of its early disciples – on both sides of the camera – have been recognized by mainstream producers and assigned to pictures with much larger budgets. Among these them are Greta Gerwig, Katie Aselton, Joshua Leonard and the Duplass’ fellow multi-hyphenates Joe Swanberg, Lynn Shelton and Andrew Bujalski.

No strangers to independently made films featuring quirky characters, Jason Segel and Ed Helms play an unmatched set of brothers in “Jeff, Who Lives at Home.” In the title role, Segal is completely recognizable as a chronically unemployed slacker, who discovers the interconnectivity of life in the Internet, his bong, his dick and chance occurrences. Jeff isn’t simple-minded, but neither is he broadcasting on the same wavelength as most other folks. The marriage of his brother, Pat, and sister-in-law, Linda (the always welcome Judy Greer), has entered crisis mode and, instead of fixing the problem, Pat is more interested in catching his wife cheating and placing blame. Meanwhile, their frustrated mother (Susan Sarandon) has been given reason to believe she’ll soon be swept off her feet by a secret e-mail admirer in her cubicle-filled office and taken to a paradise of waterfalls and rainbows.

It’s through blind luck and random happenstance that the largely oblivious Jeff provides the catalyst for positive change in this defective family unit. The roller-coaster ride begins when he is mistaken for “Jason” by a person who’s dialed a wrong number. Jeff takes this as an omen that someone named Jason will have a significant impact on his life and it will pay dividends to find him, whoever and wherever he might be. While on an errand requiring a bus ride, Jeff spots an African-American teenager with “Jason” stitched on his shirt, follows him to a playground, where they play some hoops and ends up getting mugged by the kid’s older friends. This leads him to believe that this Jason probably wasn’t the one who placed the call. Yet, he perseveres. Before the end of the movie, Jason’s imaginary trail intersects with the paths taken that day, as well, by Pat, Linda, his mother and her secret admirer, and a family in far more desperate straits than anyone else in “Jeff, Who Still Lives at Home.” Some critics decided that the movie ended on too pat a note, but it worked perfectly well for me. Anyone who believes that order can be found in even the most random of circumstances should find a lot to like here. The picture looks excellent in Blu-ray, but the only bonus feature is a UV digital copy. – Gary Dretzka

My Afternoons With Margueritte
In this surprisingly tender story about life in small French town, residents still make time to enjoy the small things in life, such as gardening, reading and feeding pigeons in the park. It’s the kind of place where everyone knows each other’s business and no one forgets the slights and injuries they experienced in grade school. On the other hand, ancient grievances rarely prevent anyone from helping a neighbor out of a jam. It is against this placid background that Jean Becker’s “My Afternoons With Margueritte” plays out in a very short 82 minutes. An enormous Gerard Depardieu plays Germain Chazes, a nearly illiterate man who’s been the butt of other people’s jokes for almost as long as he’s been on Earth. One day, he shares a park bench with an elderly woman named Margueritte (Gisele Casadesus), who’s reading excerpts from a novel out loud. Germain enjoys listening to the stories and discussing the pigeons with her. Their daily sessions inspire him to visit the library and give reading another try. Her approval serves to build his confidence to the point where he can match wits with his nemesis at the bar and stand up to his nasty, crazy mom. Becker’s generous enough, as well, to provide Germain with a younger girlfriend who’s perfectly normal and attracted to his gentle personality and sincerity. (Some critics have confused illiteracy and clumsiness for being simple-minded, which he isn’t.) When Margueritte’s nephew decides he can’t afford to keep paying for an apartment in an upscale retirement home in the town, the relationship between the polar opposites takes what could be a turn for the worst. If the ending is predictable, it’s far from clichéd. “My Afternoons With Margueritte” is exactly the kind of movie that adults say Hollywood should be making. It deserves a better shot in DVD than it got in its theatrical run. – Gary Dretzka

Keyhole
Guy Maddin, the bard of Winnipeg, is as challenging a filmmaker as there is in the business. If he makes movies that are so deeply personal they sometimes require a map to follow, it’s because his creative eye remains unclouded by the rituals and remedies imposed by a film-school education. I don’t think Maddin assumes viewers will necessarily be interested in what he has to say about growing up in Winnipeg, where the distances between places and people can be great and modernity is a state of mind. If they are, fine; if not, also fine. Maddin’s latest, “Keyhole,” reminds me of his similarly haunting documentary, “My Winnipeg,” in that it is informed by ghosts, distant memories and gauzy images. Here, though, the apparitions are trapped within four walls, instead of borders determined by men, history and rivers. The vastly underutilized (probably by choice) Jason Patric plays Ulysses Pick, a gangster who’s just returned home from a botched bank job with drowned teenage girl and bound-and-gagged young man in tow. The ghosts of relatives and former cronies come alive upon Pick’s arrival, performing chores and obsessing over things that have occupied them since their passing. At first, it’s not clear the residents are spirits, but, gradually, their howls, anxiety and sudden disappearances indicate as much. The more time passes, the more we learn about Pick, including the unhappiness towards him felt inside the dwelling. I’m not an expert in cinematography, but the monochromatic look of “Keyhole” accentuates both the supernatural activity and conceits of gangster noir. Also prominent in the cast are Isabella Rosselli and Udo Kier, whose foreboding presence in a film usually is significant in one way or another. “Keyhole” was commissioned by the Wexner Center for the Arts at Ohio State University. Such financial backing allows challenging artists to work without fear of having notes sent to them every morning by nervous producers and studio functionaries. Even so, the support of adventurous distributors – here, Monterey Video — movies like “Keyhole” would be shown at a few film festivals and disappear from view very quickly. – Gary Dretzka

Almost Kings
Kill Speed
It’s never easy for a younger, smaller brother to measure up to the accomplishments of an older, more athletically accomplished sibling. This is especially true when a parent is removed from the picture and the older boy requires space of his own. In Philip G. Flores’ coming-of-age drama, “Almost Kings” (a.k.a., the Wheeler Boys”), Ted is a struggling high school freshman, living in a small California town alongside the football-star, Truck, and their father, whose partial paralysis has turned him into a bitter alcoholic. Dad is the kind of miserable prick who would force his son (Lorenzo James Henrie) to stay home from an event, for the sole purpose of helping him place bets on the weekend’s football games. In desperate need of a positive father figure, Ted hopes to be accepted into Truck’s gang, the Kings, where he can absorb the facts of teenage life and gain the confidence he needs to overcome his diminutive size. Truck (Alex Frost) may be uncomfortable with this role, especially considering that their dad’s health isn’t likely to hold out much longer and he’ll be required to do double-duty as father and brother, but he is sympathetic, at least. As devoted Kings, however, Truck and his mates also see in Ted a way to improve their lot in the gang. That’s because one of their objectives is to seduce as many freshman girls as is possible and take proof of their virginity back to the clubhouse as a scalp. The results of this competition are then posted in a yearbook, of sorts. Because Ted is becoming increasingly more popular – for his scholastic ability, as much as his status in the Kings – the other members count on him to serve as their pimp. Because it is a role the far more sensitive Ted doesn’t feel particularly comfortable playing, ultimately it causes a rift between the brothers. Henrie and Frost are extremely credible as the siblings and Flores’ depiction of the dynamics among bored teens feels legitimate, as well.

For the first half-hour, or so, “Kill Speed” resembles a low-budget combination of “Top Gun” and “Revenge,” Tony Scott products that benefited from several exciting aerial dogfights and the casting of ridiculously charismatic actors in key roles. To include Kim Bass’ straight-to-video thriller in such lofty company may qualify as an extreme reach, but it’s somewhat justified by the entertaining chases involving hi-tech prop planes. Here, though the planes are piloted by drug runners and egotistic DEA agents. As in “Revenge,” the antagonist here is a corrupt Mexican businessman who feels untouchable in his secluded villa, while the protagonist is a hot-shot pilot. If the civilian fliers in “Kill Speed” had opted to work for Uncle Sam, instead of trafficking in meth and money for anonymous druglords, they’d easily qualify for Top Gun school. Unfortunately, once the chases stop, the baloney piles up like so many crushed cars in a junkyard. Among other things, the lead pilot of the team (Andrew Keegan) falls for an undercover federal agent (Natalia Cigliuti), who, between b.j.’s, has the time to scour his computer for information that could lead to the capture of the stud-muffin Mexican crime czar. Naturally, the feds blow the opportunity by underestimating the criminal, leaving an agent behind as a prisoner. After the amateur pilots are busted, the feds enlist them in a scheme not only to bust the gangster, but rescue the tortured agent, as well. Most of Bass’ background is writing for television and it shows. Instead of logic and credible story development, she relies almost exclusively on coincidence, shortcuts and charisma to advance the story. No matter how well “Kill Speed” opened, it couldn’t have ended in more ludicrous fashion. – Gary Dretzka

Project X: Extended Cut: Blu-ray
Some movies write themselves. If “Project X” is any indication, they now are able to shoot themselves, as well. Ten hours of footage were captured – organically, if you will — by cast members and extras using smartphones. (I wonder how that little trick passed muster at the ASC.) Anyone who’s been to a pop-music concert lately knows how many amateur cinematographers there are out there, today. Any crowd scene involving teenagers, then, should necessarily contain p.o.v. shots captured by phones. In “Project X,” there may be more shots of kids taking pictures of other kids, themselves taking pictures of kids, than at any other time in cinematographic history.

The concept behind the movie is simplicity itself: to raise their profile at school, a trio of nerds throws a house party that goes completely out of control. That’s hardly an original idea, as such parties were the centerpiece of “American Pie,” “House Party,” “Weird Science,” “Sixteen Candles,” “Can’t Hardly Wait,” “Superbad” “Teen Wolf” and at least one Blake Edwards comedy. Those parties served their stories in ways the soiree in “Project X” isn’t required to do, because the party is the movie. Admittedly, the knuckleheads don’t anticipate their party turning “epic,” but that’s exactly what happens. In “Risky Business,” the pussy party and furniture-napping could have proved disastrous for Tom Cruise, but everything magically was restored by the time his parents came home from their vacation. Here, it would take a home-makeover team a month to get even half of everything back to normal. The teens know it even before the audience does. With nothing more to lose, then, the party just grows more epic.

According to legend, “Project X” was inspired by a similar incident, in Australia, which made headlines around the world before the smoke even cleared. Apparently, a young chap named Corey posted the address of his house party on MySpace, thereby attracting the attention of hundreds of revelers, who caused $20,000 in property damage. I’ve heard the same story told about parties in the U.S. and England. In “Project X,” the nerds were so unsure of their ability to draw a crowd that they advertised it at school and on the radio. Word spread to the point where an estimated 2,000 kids – 200 extras made to look like 2,000, anyway – showed up. Police were overwhelmed and the media sent helicopters to capture it live.

Individual narrative threads can be recognized throughout the movie, not that they supersede any of the pyrotechnics or topless coeds. One involves a stolen troll figurine, containing hundreds of hits of Ecstasy; another chronicles the host’s efforts to break his cherry. Beyond that, however, the only question left to answer is how far director Nima Nourizadeh and writers Matt Drake and Michael Bacall can stretch the mayhem, before someone loses an eye and the parents scurry home. Considering the fact that “Project X” was produced by Todd Phillips, who pulled off the same trick in “The Hangover” – OK, there, a tooth was lost early on — it’s safe to guess that most of the movie qualifies as genuinely funny, in an anarchic sort of way. One needn’t be a teenage boy to enjoy “Project X,” but it helps if adults recall a time in their lives when the destruction of someone else’s property was a viable option to boredom. The Blu-ray extras are of the making-of variety, with special attention paid to how the party was pulled off cinematically and how much it would have cost to repair the house, if an insurance company so desired to pay for it. – Gary Dretzka

The FP: Blu-ray
Movies set in the dystopian future have become so commonplace that they’ve spawned sub-genres of their own within the horror/sci-fi sub-genre. Besides mass destruction and pestilence, the post-apocalyptic future promises everything from zombie domination and cannibalism to interplanetary warfare and robot cops (we already have robotic politicians). Independently made on a microscopic budget, “The FP” is a refreshing departure from the norm. Brandon and Jason Trost have set their dystopian fantasy in the actual town of Frazier Park, California, which is situated among the mountain communities of the Tejon Pass. If its name is familiar, it’s because nearly everyone who has driven between northern California and L.A., on a near-empty gas tank, has considered stopping there for a couple of gallons of overpriced gasoline. Bizarrely dressed youths from Frazier Park clash with members of rival gangs for domination of the area, but not in ways one might expect.

When a simple fistfight won’t solve a problem, the bad-asses compete against each in Dance Dance Revolution video games, which are to dance what karaoke is to singing, only much faster. Early on, local heroes BTRO and JTRO are pitted against the savage outsider L Dubba E, who not only is a world-class gamer but also beats up his girlfriends, who he routinely hooks on drugs. After brother BTRO is killed in competition, brother JTRO retires from competition, leaving L Dubba E in charge of the FP while he licks his wounds. In time, of course, JTRO will find it necessary to defend the honor of the FP and the girlfriend he shares with the bully. Not satisfied to accept the verdict dispensed by the Dance Dance Revolution machine, the loser takes his hostility out in a neatly conceived street fight that threatens to rip apart the FP. While the movie is every bit as crazy as it sounds, it works surprisingly well as a feature film. The Blu-ray adds an interesting making-of featurette. – Gary Dretzka

Documentaries:
The Nine Muses
My Reincarnation
65 Red Roses
Tent City USA
Born in Ghana and raised in London, John Akomfrah makes documentaries that are demanding both as commentaries on timely social and cultural issues and as essays on music. That quality is what distinguishes the films in Icarus’ “The Nine Muses,” which also includes “Seven Songs for Malcolm X” and “The Last Angel of History.” Although all three films address different aspects of the Pan-African experience, they’re all informed by music, poetry and rhetorical brilliance. At 90 minutes, “The Nine Muses” is the longest and most demanding experience. It plays out against two very different visual backgrounds: the frozen Alaskan wilderness and ghettos shared by immigrants in the Pan-African diaspora. Laid over these contrasting images are short readings from the works of Homer, Dante Alighieri, Samuel Beckett, Emily Dickinson, James Joyce, John Milton, Friedrich Nietzsche, William Shakespeare, Sophocles, Dylan Thomas, Matsuo Basho, T.S. Elliot, Li Po, and the Bengali polymath, Rabindranth Tagore. Immigration may be an issue as current as today’s newspaper headlines, but, as we hear in Homer’s “Odyssey,” the history of displacement and migration is as old as time, as is prejudice and resistance to change. Frankly, I’m not sure how Alaska figures into the equation, except as a representation of the open spaces sought so urgently by explorers and pioneers, as well as the formidable challenges met by those who do settle there. The poetry cycle requires patience and a love of literature, along with an open mind to see the correlation between the beautiful parts of world and the cold, hard facts on the ground in are teeming cities.

Released in 1993, less than a year after Spike Lee’s “X,” Akomfrah’s “Seven Songs for Malcolm X” tells a remarkably similar story, but through the recollections of people who knew him, his writings and FBI files. Rather than trod the well-worn path towards accepting Malcolm X’s legitimacy as an African-American spokesman and teacher, the film documents the personal journey he took from the streets of Detroit, to prison, the Nation of Islam, Africa, Europe and, finally, the Organization of Afro-American Unity. It also chronicles the events that led directly to his assassination, which came as a shock to everyone, except, perhaps, Elijah Muhammad, the gunmen and law-enforcement agencies, who must have known it was going to happen, but did nothing to stop it. Malcolm X’s involvement with the fire-breathing Elijah Muhammad and Nation of Islam was well known and used against him by the media, white politicians and moderate black leaders, including Martin Luther King, who didn’t invite him to speak at the March on Washington. Less well known, of course, was his embracing of a more expansive world view, which lots of people saw as a threat to American (capitalist) interests abroad. (MLK faced the same hostility when, later, criticized the war in Vietnam.) Even after he was killed, the media bought the FBI line that Malcolm X was incapable of change and not a person who deserved an outpouring of grief. The witnesses assembled by Akomfrah remember things quite differently, of course, and the songs reflect the sense of loss felt by the black community.

In “The Last Angel of History,” several writers and avant-garde musicians – George Clinton, Sun Ra, Kodwo Eshun and Goldie, among them – describe how jazz, R&B and the blues have been directly influenced by visitors from outer space. The emergence of such an idea was precipitated by such funk pioneers as Clinton and jazz visionary Sun Ra. It’s also argued that such otherworldly magic contributed to brilliance of Robert Johnson and other artists who were attuned to its language. As silly as all this may sound to the uninitiated, the musicians and critics interviewed never are made to sound like crackpots and the music is allowed to speak for itself.

My Reincarnation” would be an amazing documentary, if only because Jennifer Fox (“Flying: Confessions of a Free Woman”) had the patience and foresight to spend more than 20 years on a project that she hoped would justify the expenditure of time and effort. Her film began as a bio-doc of Chogyal Namkhai Norbu, who, after escaping the war between Tibet and China, moved to Italy, where he recognized his calling as a Buddhist Master. The title doesn’t refer to his evolution as a teacher of the Dharma. In spite of the fact that he married an Italian Catholic and their son wasn’t routinely shipped to a monastery in India, Norbu developed a large and loyal following of European-born converts to Buddhism. His story would have been interesting, even if Fox limited it to his teachings and flock. What’s truly remarkable about “My Reincarnation,” though, is watching the evolution of the son, Yeshi, from average Italian boy, addicted to rock music and soccer, to an adult willing to accept his own calling as a teacher. During our first encounters with Yeshi, he admits to being jealous of the time his father spent with worshippers and his willingness to address their problems, but not his. Faced with the likelihood of his father’s death to cancer as a young adult, Yeshi was required to spend a great deal of time transporting him around Italy and caring for his other needs. By the time the old man’s cancer went into remission, Yeshi had already realized that the ministry, along with Norbu’s legacy, would quickly collapse under its own weight.

One of the reasons his father gives for not paying as much attention to Yeshi’s questions is his belief that the boy is the reincarnation of his master, who was killed after being tortured by the Chinese. As such, Norbu felt any advice he gave would be the equivalent of the student teaching the teacher and, therefore, an insult. Yeshi had been recognized as the reincarnation of the dead master after passing certain tests as a boy. His dreams also took him places that could only be found in Tibet. Even as Yeshi took a job in the corporate world, Norbu assumed his master would lead Yeshi to his intended path as soon as he was ready, which, seemingly, is exactly what happened. Fox captured all of this and his visit to Tibet, where he was received with great fanfare and reverence. (Just being allowed to shoot openly in Tibet qualifies as a blessing.) Today, he tends to his own flock, answering questions with the same ambiguous aplomb as his father. The DVD adds deleted scenes, an extended interview and highlights from New York premiere.

The two new entries in the OWN Documentary Club may be more traditional than the titles already covered here, but no less effort went into them. Philip Lyall and Nimisha Mukerji’s sad, if ultimately life-affirming “65_RedRoses” chronicles the life-and-death struggle of Vancouver native Eva Markvoort, who has cystic fibrosis and requires a double lung transplant to survive. It isn’t pleasant to watch Eva endure the wait for organs that fit her requirements. What’s far worse, though, is witnessing what happens when the lungs of someone with WF fill with mucous and require a painful cleansing. What distinguishes Eva’s story from others we’ve seen on the same topic is her nurturing of an on-line family of women with CF that supports her in ways her parents can’t. At a time when the social media are being turned into bulletin boards for pet owners, proud parents and companies in desperate need of being “liked,” Eva and her friends found ways to use them to bolster their spirits and keep hope alive in the darkest of times. Anyone weighing the question of checking the organ-donor box on their application for a driver’s license ought to watch “65_RedRoses” before rejecting it off-hand.

Steven Cantor’s “Tent City, U.S.A.” also goes the distance in its patient documentation of one group of homeless people’s struggle to maintain a community of their own and restore their dignity while they’re at it. The setting is Nashville, where about 100 men and women built makeshift homes on an unclaimed patch of land under a viaduct. Some of the residents lived there for several years before a raging river flushed out the encampment – erected on a flood plain — and put them on the streets again. Instead of giving up, however, the residents combined their disparate resources to form a council and petition the city to add a homeless person to the board administrating relief funds and lobbying the mayor. Even in a city where the Grand Ol’ Opry has a home, it isn’t easy for poor people to be heard when they sing the blues at the top of their lungs. Their perseverance, and that of the filmmakers, pays big dividends for viewers. – Gary Dretzka

Attenberg
Even if the title of Athina Rachel Tsangari’s very strange coming-of-age drama, “Attenberg,” doesn’t sound particularly Hellenic, it was chosen to represent Greece at this year’s Academy Awards. In this regard, and others, it can fairly be compared to Yorgos Lanthimos’ similarly challenging “Dogtooth,” which was nominated for an Oscar last year, as well. Indeed, Lanthimos plays a key role in “Attenberg,” possibly in return for Tsangari’s help in producing “Dogtooth.” (Greece is a very small country, except when the fate of the European economy is at stake.) Anyway, back to the title. “Attenberg” confuses the spelling of Sir David Attenborough, whose nature documentaries play on a constant loop inside 23-year-old Marina’s head. She watches them with her fatally ill father and expertly mimics the sounds and actions of the birds and animals on the shows. (It’s also possible that she’s a fan of “Monty Python,” because the silly walks she performs with her best friend, Bella, would make John Cleese smile.) What she’s less sure about is her place in the cycle of life of her own species. Almost pathologically naïve when it comes to sex and indifferent to most men, Marina barely keeps her lunch down while practicing kissing with Bella. Just as Attenborough’s camera focuses tightly on the rituals of animal life, Tsangari analyzes Marina’s evolution as a sexual being and woman able to survive on her own in the wild. All of this takes place in a tiny seaside village dominated by the aluminum mining operation, for which her atheist father has labored most of his life, and an apartment building for its workers. Knowing he’s about to die, the father imparts enough of his wisdom on Marina as any parent in the animal kingdom anticipating the departure of an offspring. “Attenberg” benefits from some terrific acting and beautiful views of the Corinthian Gulf and the surrounding mountains. That said, “Attenberg” is very much an arthouse film and the usual warnings apply. – Gary Dretzka

The Hidden Blade: Blu-ray
Released in 2004, “The Hidden Blade” was nominated in 12 different categories in the Japanese equivalent of our Academy Awards, including Best Actor, Best Actress Best Cinematography, Best Screenplay, Best Director and Best Film. It took home the award for Best Art Decoration. Although the title suggests that “The Hidden Blade” might contain non-stop action and brilliant swordplay, in fact, the opposite is true. There’s exactly one excellent swordfight, near the very end of the film, so Yoji Yamada (“The Twilight Samurai”) clearly had other things on his mind. Like Edward Zwick’s “The Last Samurai,” Yamada’s romantic drama is set on the cusp of Japan’s embracement of western technology and the diminishment of the role of the samurai. Masatoshi Nagase, who some viewers might recognize from his turn in “Mystery Train,” plays a loyal Samurai who’s been promised a key position in a distant shogungate, where being a samurai still carries some weight. While there, he’s also trained to use modern artillery and guns. The transition is quite amusing to watch. When Munezo returns home, things have changed considerably in his family and among his former clan members. For one thing, the young woman, Kie (Takako Matsu), who took care of his family’s home – and for whom he harbors a secret flame — has married a brutal business man whose family treats her as if she were a prisoner. Additionally, his mother has died, a sister has married one of his best pals and another close samurai friend, Yaichiro (Yukyoshi Ozawa), has been hired by a clan about to come out on the wrong end of a political power play.

Munezo rides to Kie’s rescue, even knowing that his low caste would prevent him from marrying her. When he gets back, he learns that Yaichiro has been arrested and sent home in a cage. After he escapes solitary confinement, Munezo is suspected of complicity. To clear his name, Munezo must track down his old friend and kill him. Knowing he isn’t as skilled with the sword as Yaichiro, Munezo consults their former teacher, who offers advice and a long -hidden sword. He’d prefer not to fight his friend, but has no option short of hara-kiri, a privilege refused Yaichiro. Also left to fate is the resolution of Kie and Munezo’s forbidden romance. In some ways, “Hidden Blade” feels very much like an American Western, in which traditional notions about virtue, honor and loyalty are tested by seismic shifts in cultural norms. Besides all that, though, “Hidden Blade” is gorgeously shot, with attention to period detail and the lush natural environment. If the 81-year-old Yamada, better known for his long-running “Tora-san” series of comedies, made a misstep in “Hidden Blade,” I didn’t see it. – Gary Dretzka

A Bag Of Hammers: Blu-ray
The title for this offbeat indie dramedy derives from Michael J. Fox’s advice to children who’ve been dealt the same bad hand he was, when he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease: “If life gives you a bag of hammers — build something.” Conmen Ben and Alan (Jason Ritter, Jake Sandvig) offer this bit of wisdom to 12-year-old Kelsey, who, because his mother committed suicide, now faces eight years of life in foster homes. Even before that happened, though, he was treated with barely disguised contempt by his mother (Carrie Preston) and never learned the identity of his father, who refused the woman’s pleas for help. Up until the time of her death, Ben and Alan treat Kelsey like a sidekick. For money, they pose as valet parking attendants and steal the most expensive car made available to them. They disagree over the notion of bringing Kelsey into their household and raising him together. Ben, who retains emotional scars from being raised under similar conditions as Kelsey, decides not to tell child-welfare authorities that he’s taking responsibility for the orphan. When they do find out, Kelsey once again will have his fade decided by people who have no vested interest in his well-being. Writer/director Brian Crano’s screenplay won’t stand up to close scrutiny, but Ritter and co-writer Sandvig are likable enough to convince us of their sincerity, if not their ability to make a career out of fooling mourners inclined to believe that valet parkers are hired to work the cemetery circuit, even in California. They get strong support from Chandler Canterbury, as Kelsey, and Rebecca Hall, as a waitress who works at the kind of waffle house where waitresses are expected to perform a stupid dance for their customers before taking their order. – Gary Dretzka

The Disco Excorcist
Headspace: Director’s Cut
Kids Go to the Woods … Kids Get Dead
Ilsa: The Wicked Warden
There’s almost no way to synopsize “The Disco Exorcist” without making it sound far less entertaining than it actually is. After all, when was the last time anyone cared enough about the 1970s’ disco scene to make an exploitation movie about it, let alone invest the energy it would take to watch it? There’s also the matter of the film stock, which looks as if it expired at about the same time as Studio 54 was closed. Somehow, though, writer/director Richard Griffin (“Nun of That”) managed to keep his tongue positioned firmly in cheek, while balancing the conventions of parody, horror and sexploitation. His protagonist, Rex Romanski, is a bargain-basement Tony Manero, blessed with all the right moves on and off the dance floor. He makes a love connection with the lovely dance-aholic Rita Marie (Ruth Sullivan), but makes the mistake of getting his boogie on with another babe at their favorite disco. This causes Rita to put a curse on Rex and everyone else associated with him. The parody doesn’t end on the dance floor, though. It continues at an outrageous porn shoot and on various mirrors, from which mountains of cocaine are ingested. The set adds a deleted scene and interviews.

And, while we’re on the subject of retro-horror, what in the name of all things unholy are Olivia Hussey, Dee Wallace, Sean Young, Udo Kier and William Atherton doing in a 2005 supernatural thriller re-released on DVD in 2012. “Headspace” is a movie that stretches the borders of credulity, but still offers enough cheap thrills to recommend it … with or without the hired guns. As a boy, Alex (Christopher Denham) witnessed the death of his mother at the hands of his father. Mom is possessed by some kind of demon, so the homicide was justifiable. Nevertheless, it’s never good to see such things, at any age. Totally freaked out, Dad put Alex and his brother up for adoption. Flash forward a couple of decades and Alex is still deeply troubled. Moreover, he’s smart as hell and getting brighter by the day. There’s got to be a reason for such a miracle, but the price he pays for such knowledge is powerful seizures, during which he visualizes horrible things. On the flip side of the good news that he’s become an overnight chess sensation, he begins to fear that he’s responsible for a series of vicious murders in the neighborhood. There’s an explanation for all this, but I’m not sure I picked up on it. Neither could I pinpoint exactly what was added to the “Director’s Cut” edition. There’s a pretty good making-of featurette included in the DVD.

With a title like, “Kids Go to the Woods … Kids Get Dead,” what’s left to explain, except how well it holds up against all the other movies that could have been titled, “Kids Go to the Woods … Kids Get Dead.” The only fresh trick here is having everything that happens to the teenagers be prophesized in the novel being read by the younger brother of one of the campers. This includes the arrival of the crazed killer, whose disguise combines the scarier elements of scuba gear and a Hazmat uniform. If anyone survived the slaughter, which isn’t limited to the outsiders, I can’t remember who it was. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter. Freshman writer/director Michael Hall adds a nice twist to the cliché device of having soiled virgins and their lovers die first. Here, all of the men believe they’re going to get laid, primarily because the ladies lead them to believe they’re hot to trot. Instead, the only campers to get lucky are the lesbian couple, much to the delight of the voyeuristic brother.

Ilsa, the Wicked Warden” would be a worthy addition to anyone’s collection of cult classics, if it weren’t for the fact that all of the scenes in which pubic hair once was visible have been excised, as if this was the version intended for Cinemax. That isn’t to say there isn’t much boobilicious fun to be had here, though, because there is. So much footage has been snipped from the shower and torture scenes that watching “Ilsa” on DVD is like listening to a phonograph with one long scratch etched into the vinyl. Purists also will argue that “Wicked Warden” isn’t truly a chapter in the “Isla” saga, because writer/director Jesus Franco intended it as a spinoff, with a hospital administrator named Greta playing the sadistic warden. With Dyanne Thorne on board as Greta, however, it must have seemed fair to rename the movie after her trademark character. Otherwise, “Wicked Warden” follows a familiar blueprint. A sexy young woman, Abbie (Tanya Busselier), checks herself into the mental hospital lorded over by Greta/Ilsa, so she can investigate the disappearance of her sister. Apparently, Abbie’s sister was about to blow the whistle on Ilsa’s scheme to film prisoners having sex with male prisoners and selling the movies to porn enthusiasts. (“Wicked Warden” was completed before VHS cassettes would make such rackets obsolete and redundant. It’s worth noting that Franco cast his lover, cult-queen Lina Romay, in the key role of a lesbian prisoner. Her presence is worth the price of admission, alone. – Gary Dretzka

Profane
In some parts of the world, you probably could be beheaded for possessing a copy of “Profane,” let alone watching it in mixed company. That’s because writer/director Usama Alshaibi uses the Koran as a tipping point in his drama about a Jordanian-born dominatrix, Muna, who’s struggling to find a way to bridge the sacred and profane elements of her life. When she isn’t whipping the backsides of hooded johns in the high-rise apartment buildings lining Chicago’s Lake Shore Drive, Muna studies the Koran and prays according to Muslim law. Even though she believes that she’s being targeted by Djinns hoping to steal her soul, Muna (Manal Kara) isn’t about to quit a job she enjoys or stop ingesting drugs and alcohol. What she wants more than anything is to find someone to help her read the Koran and understand where it should be taking her. To this end, Muna befriends a devout Chicago cabbie, Ali (Dejan Mircea), who believes he can save her, even knowing how she makes her living. Ali is far from a fundamentalist, so it’s easy to understand his embarrassment and anger when Muna and her lover, Mary (Molly Plunk), insult an imam with their nakedness. Muna’s is one story among millions of others about Muslims attempting to find a niche in communities where they’re distinctly in the minority. She knows all too well how her decidedly liberal approach to sexuality would be received if she were to return home. If the Koran offers guidance on how a woman most people would consider to be promiscuous could square her sex drive with her religion, she hasn’t found it. “Profane” doesn’t offer any answers, either. It only makes sense to think the Djinns will find a way to use her appetite for drugs and dangerous sex to knock her off the tightrope she’s been straddling since arriving in the U.S. The DVD adds deleted scenes and brief interviews. – Gary Dretzka

Four Lovers
The sexy French export, “Four Lovers,” tells the story of a pair of swinging couples, living in an upscale suburb of Paris, who agree, seemingly without giving it much thought, to swap partners and see where the chips fall. Unlike the knuckleheads on TV’s “Wife Swap,” who exchanged partners for a couple of weeks and then returned home, the attractive men and women in Antony Cordier’s relationship drama come and go as they please, domestically and sexually. They take vacations together, with their kids in tow, and often enjoy dinners for four and nights on the town. It takes a while for the inevitable fissures to show, but, even then, nothing much seems to be at stake. And, that’s the problem with “Four Lovers.” What’s to be learned from people like this? Included in the Oscilloscope package are two American educational films from the early 1950s, in which actors act out common relationship issues. Divorce carried a much greater stigma, then, and it was believed that a little knowledge could go a long way toward saving a marriage. Although they lack the nudity of “Four Lovers,” there’s quite a bit more drama in these films than the feature attraction. – Gary Dretzka

Red Scorpion: Blu-ray
Watching this relic from the Cold War today is an exercise in nostalgia. It was released in 1989, just in time for the Berlin Wall to be demolished and the Iron Curtain to be lowered for the final time. Thus, its portrayal of Red Army hard-asses and joint Soviet-Cuban operations in Third World countries now look as if they were created specifically for the benefit of purveyors of action comics. Even the so-called controversy surrounding its production feels prehistoric. In the late 1980s, American companies were expected to honor the boycott of South Africa, whose black and colored citizens were still under the yoke of Apartheid. Among the people listed on the credits is writer and producer Jack Abramoff, who, 15 years later, would be convicted of influence peddling and other corrupt lobbying practices in Washington, D.C. He arranged for the South African government to finance “Red Scorpion” via the International Freedom Foundation, chaired by Abramoff, an organization that actively sought to discredit the African National Congress and future president Nelson Mandela in countries outside Africa.

The movie stars Dolph Lundgren a tall, muscular Swede who became familiar to American audiences two years earlier in “Rocky IV.” As a member of the Soviet army’s elite Special Forces, his Lt. Nikolai Rachenko is considered to be a human “killing machine.” He’s assigned to infiltrate a team of African guerrillas and take out its anti-communist leader. When that mission fails, Rachenko is given a second opportunity to serve the Motherland. This time, after being left to die in the Namibian desert, he is rescued by an African bushman, who also teaches the Russian how to survive in extreme conditions. Coincidentally, a Soviet gunship wipes out small villages, populated by people who present no threat to anyone. Disillusioned and enlightened simultaneously, Rachenko turns the tables on his former comrades, by waging a one-man war against them.

“Red Scorpion” didn’t break any new ground in 1989 and, today, it probably would have been released straight-to-video. Even so, Lundgren fans should appreciate Synapse Films’ 2K high-definition transfer of the “uncensored” version, containing footage never before seen in the U.S. It also includes fresh interviews with Lundgren, Abramoff and makeup-effects artist Tom Savini, behind-the-scenes footage, an animated stills gallery and liner notes by French filmmaker Jérémie Damoiseau. – Gary Dretzka

Hopelessly in June
As director, co-writer, star, producer and executive producer of “Hopelessly in June,” Vincent Brantley appears to be sending out flares to Tyler Perry and David E. Talbert, warning them of his presence on their turf. If he wants to compete for the so-called urban audience, however, he’d better be ready to churn out movies every few months and dial down the number of f-bombs and other blue material. The only R-rated films that score big are those aimed directly at the young-adult and gangsta market. “Hopelessly in June” is a very odd movie in that it borrows freely from “Las Cage Aux Folles,” while also relying heavily on the presence of devout Christians and lots of white folks. (The cast is huge.) It also begs credulity to think that Brantley’s protagonist would give up on finding the girl of his dreams one minute, then, almost overnight, wind up with up someone as smart, foxy and successful as Carolyn Neff. (Imagine Al Roker stealing Halle Berry from Terrence Howard.) Apart from several other rom-com conventions, “Hopelessly in June” imagines a scenario in which the African-American parents of the groom are conservative and homophobic, while the bride’s adoptive parents are white and unabashedly gay. These things come out of nowhere, without any apparent rhyme or reason. – Gary Dretzka

TV to DVD:
Franklin & Bash: The Complete First Season
Web Therapy: The Complete First Season
Dan Vs.: The Complete First Season
Hey Dude, Season 3
If the broadcast networks really wanted to do America a favor – not to mention justify their broadcast licenses – they’d simply cut a deal with their cable subsidiaries and let them program their summer prime-time schedules. I wouldn’t even mind if they ran such shows as “Franklin & Bash,” “Royal Pains,” “Rizzoli & Isles,” “The Killing,” “Fairly Legal,” “Necessary Roughness,” “Closer,” “Leverage” and other such basic-plus cable shows that have driven TiVo sales over the past decade. (This was done not long ago with “Monk” and “Law & Order: Criminal Intent.”) Generally speaking, their seasons run 10 weeks and none includes the kind of nudity and profanity that would offend broadcast audiences. Instead, so-called “free TV” is flooded with reality shows, talent and cooking contests, and reruns of the networks’ most popular shows. They are to television what mosquitos are to picnics. This isn’t to imply the shows we watch on A&E, TNT, AMC, FX and USA don’t employ formulas of their own, but, at least, they give their characters room to breathe and fresh twists on old clichés. As hybrids, they blur the lines separating “buddy” and “workplace” shows and dramas and comedies. Producers of workplace shows encourage their characters to get out of the office and take advantage of their locations. As is the case on “White Collar” and “Burn Notice,” subplots introduced in the pilot episode aren’t wrapped up after 60 minutes. The intrigue can extend through entire seasons, with recurring characters popping in and out as necessary, and room left over for weekly stand-alone adventures. It the protagonists wouldn’t last 10 minutes in the real world, so what? Most of our co-workers are boring twits, not buddies we’d want to be seen with outside the office. Almost everyone in the casts is funny, attractive and capable of getting the job done.

TNT’s “Franklin & Bash” stars Breckin Meyer and Mark-Paul Gosselaar as an unconventional pair of lawyers, who spend far more time inventing new ways to enjoy themselves than they do clearing cases, which they manage to do, anyway. The always excellent Malcolm McDowell plays a senior partner at a far more traditional law firm, who’s willing to turn a blind eye to the stunts F&B perform to win their cases. Perhaps, they’ll attract a different class of paying clients to his firm. They must be doing a good job, because the show was renewed for a second season, which began this week. Among the guest stars to be found in the Season One package are Jason Alexander, Beau Bridges, Harry Hamlin, Tom Arnold and Tricia Helfer. The DVD package adds behind-the-scenes and making-of material, character profiles, office and “man cave” tours and a glossary of legal terms.

Meanwhile, over on Showtime, the beyond-offbeat comedy “Web Therapy” is about to open its second season, as well. The sadly underrated Lisa Kudrow plays a snooty psychotherapist who communes with her patients over the Internet, but limits their interaction to three-minute sessions. This is because Dr. Fiona Wallice has no patience with their problems, which only seem to complicate those of her own. Among them is her desire to sell the web-therapy concept to investors. Before “Web Therapy” was green-lit by Showtime, it was a hit on the Internet. The television iteration has added new sessions and material from Wallice’s private life to meet the standard half-hour sitcom format. She is abrupt, acerbic and often hits the nail right on the head. In another interesting twist, Kudrow has invited several of her celebrity friends to guest star. Among them are Bob Balaban, Courtney Cox, Alan Cumming, Minnie Driver, Rashida Jones, Jane Lynch, Rosie O’Donnell, Meryl Streep, Lily Tomlin and Steven Weber, who seems to be everywhere these days.

Reportedly, the creators of the animated series “Dan Vs.” – Dan Mandel and Chris Pearson — based the personalities of their show’s lead characters on their own worst qualities. As such, Dan (voiced by Curtis Armstrong) is a revenge-minded s.o.b. with a massive chip on his shoulder against such perceived enemies as his dentist, ninjas, Canada, baseball, Ye Olde Shakespeare Dinner Theatre and the entire state of New Mexico. His accomplice in these schemes is Chris (Dave Foley) is a gawky oaf with an enormous appetite and a tendency to fall asleep while on duty. Chris’ wife, Elise (Paget Brewster), is alternately the voice of reason and co-conspirator. Elise’s parents make occasional visits, along with a host of other guest stars. Her father (Michael Gross) owns a cupcake business and Mom (Meredith Baxter) is secretly part of the Mafia. It’s that kind of show. It airs (cables?) on the Hub channel.

Hey, Dude” is a Western comedy series that ran on Nickelodeon between 1989 and 1993, long enough ago to have been the network’s second original series. Things have changed greatly at Nickelodeon, even if the episodes collected in the third-season package haven’t. Last year, it was revived on TeenNick. Set on the fictional Bar None Dude Ranch near Tucson, it follows the escapades of the ranch’s owner (David Brisbin), his son (Josh Tygiel), a ranch hand, Lucy (Debra Kalman) and diverse collection of teenage summer employees. – Gary Dretzka

Nova: Hunting the Elements
Nature: The White Lions
Frontline: The Real ‘CSI’
I’ve come to the conclusion that 90 percent of what I learned in high school, way back when, could today be boiled down to a couple of week’s worth of constant viewing on PBS and cable television. My continuing education conveniently coincides with the weekly delivery of non-fiction titles on DVD. The hour I spent absorbing the “Nova” documentary “Hunting the Elements,” alone, could have raised my grades in chemistry and physics from marginal to “not bad.” Viewers benefit from graphic aids and animation long unavailable to slackers of my generation. Maybe if I’d paid attention I would recall more about these building blocks of nature … where they came from, what distinguishes one from the other and why their mating is sometimes so explosive. I recommend it wholeheartedly to parents who don’t feel qualified to help their kids with their science homework. Think of it as family entertainment and the medicine won’t taste quite so bitter.

From “Nature” comes “The White Lions,” which, amazingly, wasn’t shot in the wilds of Las Vegas, but on the vast savanna of South Africa’s Kruger Park. The first thing to know about these extremely rare cats is that they aren’t considered to be albino, rather their white coat is caused by a recessive color-inhibiting gene. The second is that being white is no blessing in the wild, where any their coats stand out against the natural background. That’s what makes “The White Lions” such an extraordinary documentary. If either of the sisters we watch grow up before our eyes had been killed, the show would be over prematurely. Instead, we’re allowed to eavesdrop on their development within the pride and admire their evolution as individual lions in a frequently hostile environment. It’s also fascinating to watch the pride’s interaction with the park’s other species.

It’s always disconcerting to learn that some things we take for granted – as well as others we accept as the gospel truth – aren’t what they appear to be. One is the infallibility of fingerprints, of which no two are said to be alike. The same is said, based on similar conjecture, about snowflakes. The “Frontline” production, “The Real ‘CSI,’” not only questions the validity of fingerprint identification, but also shows us instances of men being wrongly convicted of murder and rape based solely on the so-called science. Indeed, sometimes as many as three acknowledged experts came to the same conclusion as the first. The other point made in the show is that many of the men and women called to testify as experts in trials lack the qualifications it would take to stand up before a judge in traffic court. There is an organization that claims to test and qualify expert witness, but, apparently, the only way one can fail the test is if their check doesn’t clear. DNA evidence is considered to be unassailable here, if only because it truly is based on science, not legend. – Gary Dretzka

Radio Rebel
Teen Spirit
Reel Love
The Disney Channel movie “Radio Rebel” reminds me of the Christian Slater hit, “Pump Up the Volume,” in that an anonymous disc jockey causes a huge stir at high school, where the administration has nothing better to do than listen to the radio. Tara (Debby Ryan) is a painfully shy junior, who uses the medium to regain her confidence and voice. Like Slater, Tara begins her career narrowcasting to her fellow students, picking on the cliques and cool kids. Where Slater used “pirate radio” to spread his subversive message, Tara begins by podcasting. When her radio executive stepdad discovers what she’s doing and calculates her popularity, he offers Tara a regular radio gig. The school’s principal threatens to cancel prom if her identity isn’t revealed, thus putting Tara in a position where she could be blamed for killing everyone’s fun.

The producers of ABC Family’s “Teen Spirit” borrowed a page from the scripts written for “Drop Dead Diva” and “Heaven Can Wait,” when they made their protagonist a newly dead teenager who’s given a chance to save her soul by returning to Earth. Amber (Cassie Scerbo) is the quintessential high school princess, whose sole goal in her short life has been to elected prom queen. To secure the crown, Amber has given new definition to the word, “bitch.” It works against her chances of staying in heaven, after she’s killed in a car crash. Her eternal happiness depends on her ability to make over one of the school’s girl geeks, so she can be voted most-popular and win the heart of Amber’s old flame. Lisa (Lindsey Shaw) is reluctant to mount a campaign she considers unwinnable, but warms to the thought of getting Nick (Chris Zylka) to crush on her.

CMT gets into the act this week with “Reel Love,” another original movie that feels suspiciously familiar to previous rom-com fare. Like Reese Witherspoon before her, LeAnn Rimes plays a successful big-city professional who returns to her sweet home, Alabama, where she rediscovers her roots. This time, however, the lawyer is there to minister to her father (Burt Reynolds), who’s had a heart attack. The title of the movie refers to Dad’s obsession with bass fishing, something, I assume, everyone in the key CMT demographics does in their spare time. – Gary Dretzka

The DVD Wrapup: In Darkness, Sherlock Holmes, Accident, Ghost Rider … More

Wednesday, June 13th, 2012

In Darkness: Blu-ray
Nearly 67 years after the end of World War II, filmmakers continue to discover accounts of heroism in unexpected places. Lately, though, American audiences have been required to overcome their mistrust of subtitles to appreciate them. Such is the case with Agnieszka Holland’s harrowing “In Darkness,” a Polish-language film that demands comparisons with Steven Spielberg’s “Schindler’s List.” If the story of Oskar Schindler’s great act of courage came as a surprise to you, the humanity on display in “In Darkness” might be confused with extreme literary license. Leopold Socha was a laborer for the municipal sanitation department in Lvov, Poland – now Lviv, Ukraine — during the occupation by Nazi and supportive Ukrainian forces. He’s also been described as a petty thief, but, I suspect, many Poles were forced to live by their wits and wiles while under the thumbs of Soviet and German thugs. As the Nazis liquidated Lvov’s Jewish ghetto, transferring residents spared from summary execution to the Janowska forced-labor camp, Socha encountered a group of about 20 attempting to escape through the sewer system. Instead of reporting them and collecting a bounty imposed by the Nazis, the devout Catholic warned them against using the tunnels to escape to the river, where Gestapo soldiers were waiting. Socha advised them to remain underground until the Nazis retreated and, in return for money and jewelry to hock, he would provide them with food and other provisions.

Clearly, Socha’s motives weren’t entirely pure. He took a certain amount of money from each payment to improve conditions for his family. Except for that, he was as good as his word, even providing special foods and scavenged prayer books for religious observances. To this end, he recruited his friend Stefan Wroblewski – another Pole enshrined by Yad Vashem as a Righteous Among the Nations – to ensure that life in the rat-infested sewers wasn’t entirely horrific. Not all of the Jews hiding there would survive the 13-month ordeal, but, as described by Holland, it’s a miracle any of them did. Socha, too, was constantly at risk. Buying enough food to feed a group of more than a dozen people easily could have brought his mission to the attention of Lvov’s many Nazi sympathizers, anti-Semites and opportunists looking to collect the $500 bounty. Judging from the fact that a Jewish population of some 200,000 in 1941 was reduced to fewer than 300, three years later, many people did take the Gestapo up on its demonic offer. (Native Poles subsequently would be deported when new borders were drawn to make Lvuv part of the Ukraine, USSR.) Socha might have been remembered as being something less than a hero, as well, if it weren’t for the fact that he refused to turn his back on the families when they ran out of money and other items of value. Likewise, he could have abandoned them after one fugitive’s intemperate act resulted in the death of a Nazi soldier and the Germans took their revenge by executing dozens of civilians. Instead, the undiminished faith demonstrated by the Jewish families restored Socha’s own commitment to Christian principles.

For “In Darkness,” Holland, who’s half-Jewish, but raised Catholic, was nominated for her second Oscar in the Best Foreign Picture category. (Her first of three nominations came in 1986, for “Angry Harvest.” In 1992, she was honored as the writer of “Europe, Europa.”) She and writer David F. Shamoon adapted the screenplay from Robert Marshall’s “In the Sewers of Lvov: A Heroic Story of Survival From the Holocaust,” published in 1991. At the time of production, Holland wasn’t yet aware of “The Girl in the Green Sweater: A Life in Holocaust’s Shadow,” the 2008 memoir written by Krystyna Chiger, one of the survivors portrayed in the film. I don’t think you’ll find many better performances than those turned in by Robert Wieckiewicz, as Socha; Krzysztof Skonieczny, as his cohort; Benno Fürmann, as the impetuous Mundek; and supporting-cast members Agnieszka Grochowska, Maria Schrader, Kinga Preis and Weronika Rosati. Holland and Chiger appear together at the Toronto Film Festive and in interviews included in the Blu-ray package. Anyone who admired “Schindler’s List” should run out to rent “In Darkness.” – Gary Dretzka

Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows: Blu-ray
The less one knows about Sherlock Holmes, his colleague Dr. Watson and archenemy Moriarty, the easier it is to enjoy “Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows” and its 2009 predecessor, “Sherlock Holmes.” I say that not as a fan of the classic mysteries of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and previous film adaptations, but as someone willing to concede that literary purists carry far less weight in Hollywood than customers willing to reward broad comedy, gratuitous mayhem and special effects. Both of the Guy Ritchie-directed adventures made a ton of money for Warner Bros., despite mostly lousy reviews and a resemblance to the anemic Will Smith remake of “Wild Wild West.” Almost all of the credit for their success belongs to the charismatic portrayals turned in by Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law, who, as the brainy Victorian-era crimefighters, make an extremely winning team. If anything, their chemistry is more convincing in “A Game of Shadows,” which, contrary to its title, is a much lighter affair than the original, both visually and narrative tone. The presence of the evil genius, Professor James Moriarty (Jared Harris, of “Mad Men”), also is a plus. Beyond that, to quote Margo Channing, home-theater enthusiasts are cautioned, “Fasten your seat belt. It’s going to be a bumpy night.”

“A Game of Shadows” is a mash-up of several stories in the Holmes canon, including “The Sign of the Four,” “The Adventure of the Greek Interpreter,” “The Valley of Fear,” “The Adventure of the Speckled Band,” “The Dying Detective,” “The Adventure of Bruce-Partington Plans” and “The Second Stain.” More than these titles, though, Michele and Kieran Mulroney (“Paper Man”) based their screenplay on “The Adventure of the Final Problem,” which Doyle intended to be the detective’s swan song. (It wasn’t.) By also incorporating “The Adventure of the Empty House,” the writers practically ensured a third entry to the series. After a series of auspicious events begins to make headlines in the London papers, Holmes correctly deduces that Moriarty is orchestrating a possibly catastrophic threat to peace in Europe. If he succeeds, the “Napoleon of crime” stands to profit from the chaos and carnage. Holmes and Watson’s pursuit of Moriarty leads them to a castle overlooking Reichenbach Falls, a visual reference that might be wasted on viewers whose appreciation of Holmes is limited to Ritchie’s adaptations.

Fans of the first “Sherlock Holmes” might be distressed to learn that the formidable Irene Adler (Rachel McAdams) is pretty much a non-factor in in “A Game of Shadows.” So, too, is Watson’s new wife (Kelly Reilly), who is given an unceremonious heave-ho on their honeymoon. In their place is the Gypsy fortune-teller, Madam Simza Heron, a character so poorly drawn that it’s sometimes difficult to discern why she’s there in the first place. Simza is portrayed to no great effect by Noomi Rapace, best known for her unforgettable turn as Lisbeth Salander in the “Dragon Tattoo” trilogy. Stephen Fry adds a bit of levity with his impersonation of Holmes’ older brother, Mycroft, while Geraldine James and Eddie Marsan return as Mrs. Hudson and Inspector Lestrade. As for Blu-ray bonus features, only those viewers with advanced machinery will be able to access the background and picture-in-picture material. Behind-the-scenes video also is available by downloading a movie app to your mobile device or tablet, then syncing it with the film. – Gary Dretzka

Accident: Blu-ray
Try to imagine a Hitchcockian thriller, as choreographed by Rube Goldberg, and you might have an idea what to expect from Pou-Soi Cheang’s perversely clever “Accident.” Set largely in the bustling streets of Hong Kong, the award-winning import describes how a tightly-knit gang plots elaborate hits on people targeted by a mastermind known as the Brain (Louis Koo). The trick is to make the murders look as if they’re accidents, so the client is able to collect insurance money and the assassins can avoid arrest. In the “accident” that opens the film, a commuter is outraged by a woman’s refusal to pull her car to the curb when she experiences a flat tire. As soon as he’s able to sprint past her, a truck sloshes dirty water over his windshield, blinding him to oncoming traffic. He’s further infuriated by a banner that falls from a cable spanning the street and, again, obscures his vision. While loudly demanding to know who’s responsible for the banner, a window above him shatters, scattering shards of glass on everything and everyone below it. As the seriously wounded target lies on the sidewalk, the ambulance sent to rescue him is tied up in the same jam caused by the woman with the flat tire. This intricately designed scene ends when a co-conspirator calls his boss and reports that it’s OK to collect the fee from his client.

If all “Accident” had going for it was a parade of similarly amazing hits, it could be enjoyed as a black comedy in the Hong Kong tradition. Instead, Cheang reminds us that the best schemes of mice and men often go awry and, when they do, it’s sometimes impossible to tell the difference between an act of God, a botched assignment and a double-cross. Just such a dilemma confronts the Brain, when, one rainy night, a bus slides out of control, taking out a gang member instead of the intended target. Already paranoid, the Brain recalls the death of his wife under similar circumstances and becomes convinced that the “accident” is too perfectly choreographed to be accidental, but clearly not of his design. If so, he begins to wonder, should he have identified his wife’s death as a warning from enemies unknown? For his own protection, the Brain embarks on an investigation of his own, this time of the man from whom he takes his orders. When reality and delusion collide in the movies – as they do here and in Cheang’s possible inspiration, Francis Ford Coppola’s “The Conversation” — the audience almost always comes out on top. If “Accident” is any indication, Cheang (“Dog Bite Dog,” “Shamo” and “Love Battlefield”) is another Asian filmmaker ready to make his name known on the international scene. The Blu-ray edition takes full advantage of the nighttime cinematography – especially when it rains — and atmospheric lightening design. It arrives with a pretty good making-of featurette. – Gary Dretzka

Seeking Justice: Blu-ray
Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance: Blu-ray
Sometimes, it’s difficult to tell when Nicolas Cage is following instructions or acting in the only way he knows how: like a car rolling out-of-control down a steep hill. After taking home a richly deserved Oscar for his harrowing performance in “Leaving Las Vegas,” Cage has accepted more roles as cartoonish action heroes — or outright head cases — than as a character requiring a bit more subtle interpretation. This worked in “The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call,” if only because Werner Herzog’s vision was crazier than anything Cage could have re-invented for himself. Usually, though, his embellishments clash with the notions of the CGI techs. Here are two pictures that are representative of his body of work in the last decade, or so. Shot in New Orleans, one of Cage’s adopted hometowns, “Seeking Justice” concerns a high school teacher, Will Gerard, who agrees to a deal that promises revenge for the beating and rape of his wife, Laura (January Jones), but leaves him indebted to the leader (Guy Pearce) of a gang of vigilantes. When it comes time to collect on the IOU, Will is forced to choose between acting on his basic principles and killing a man he’s been told is a child molester and making it look like an accident. In fact, though, the victim is a journalist about to expose the mysterious gang and his resistance is caught on a camera that was supposed to have been broken. Will’s deal with the devil also stipulated that police wouldn’t be able to identify him and press charges. No sooner does the interrogation begin, however, than a police lieutenant allows him to escape. In Will’s mind, the reason for such generosity isn’t because he’s innocent — he knows he isn’t – but because a target has been painted on his back and it’s easier to stage an accident when he’s in the wind. By this time, too, Laura is being used by the gang and police, alike, to force him to surface. That’s because the closer he comes to discovering what the journalist knew, the more dangerous he is to the underground plotters. Cage probably could play the teacher in his sleep, but, typically, he pours a lot of unbridled energy into the portrayal. Although director Roger Donaldson nicely captures the different tastes and textures of New Orleans – from Mardi Gras to the whims of what arguably is the nation’s most corrupt police force — he can’t keep all the story’s loose ends from coming together in a recognizable pattern. Even as the final credits begin to roll, it’s clear the only person Will can completely trust is his wife, and I doubt “Seeking Justice” was intended to have a sequel.

Any movie that cost upwards of $75 million to produce can’t rightly qualify for grindhouse status, but the “Ghost Rider” flicks have all the right ingredients down pat. Cage returns here as the cursed stunt motorcyclist Johnny Blaze (a.k.a., Ghost Rider), who, in selling his soul to Satan, becomes Hell’s most effective bounty hunter. In the sequel, “Spirit of Vengeance,” Blaze desires nothing so much as to have this curse lifted from him and never again breathe hellfire at 80 miles per hour. Apparently, since the release of the first “Ghost Rider,” the doomed biker has been laying low in Romania and Turkey, avoiding the devil (Ciaran Hinds) and his commands. No matter how reluctant he is to transforming himself into the flame-consumed Ghost Rider, Blaze hopes to have the curse lifted after snatching a boy being recruited by a mysterious order of monks. In an appropriately freaky touch, the holy men have scripture tattooed on their faces and store some of the world’s rarest wines live in a remote monastery carved out of strange rock formations. Suffice it to say, “Spirit of Vengeance” leaves sufficient room for a second sequel. Co-directors Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor (“Crank”) keep things moving at a breakneck, 3D-friendly pace, adding a few humorous touches along the way. The scenes shot outdoors are quite spectacular to look at, but only viewers versed in the mythology of the Marvel comic book are likely to understand what the heck is going on from one scene to the next. The Blu-ray adds extended commentary, and behind-the-scenes featurettes. The 3D also offers “Riding Into Another Dimension.” – Gary Dretzka

Ranchero
Any straight-to-video title that uses Danny Trejo’s scarred visage as a marketing tool likely is attempting to sell a movie that is loaded with grindhouse action and homeboy cachet. And, in “Ranchero,” the self-described “ex-con turned icon” does play yet another L.A. gang-banger. What’s different here, however, is that Trejo’s role is incidental to almost everything else that happens in director Richard Kaponas and writer Brian Eric Johnson’s freshman feature. Trejo plays Capone, a wheelchair-bound OG who shows up late in the story – his gravelly voice precedes the rest of him by two reels – as a pimp and loan shark in a vice-infested neighborhood. Where “Ranchero” differs from several dozen other movies in which Trejo has appeared is in the duties assigned to the protagonist, Jesse (Roger Gutierrez), a former ranch hand who’s the polar opposite of Capone. Jesse was raised on a sprawling ranch in northern California and spent his adulthood there, as well. After his father dies, he decides to move south to join his boyhood pal, Tom (Johnson), in the big city. Jesse practically defines the term, “fish out of water.” He doesn’t seem to have watched many Los Angeles-based police dramas on TV, let alone any of Trejo’s trademark action flicks. Although strong enough to load hay and muck stalls until the cows come home, Jesse is one cowpoke who’s more conversant with his camera than a gun. He sports Elvis Presley sideburns and listens to country music on the radio of his pickup truck.  It isn’t until the movie is almost over that he picks up on the fact that the girl he digs, Lil’ Bit (Christina Woods), is a prostitute and his pal, Tom, is a worthless junkie.

Jesse is such an unassuming character that viewers can’t help but hope he doesn’t end up being just another victim of seemingly random urban violence. While his photography shows great promise, Jesse’s natural propensity to champion the underdog sets him on a collision course with Capone. It’s a pity, then, that “Ranchero” displays most of the problems that accompany debut features by indie filmmakers. It too often zigs, when it should zag, and forces the characters to do things they might have delayed in the course of normal development. These flaws are far from fatal, however. Patient and forgiving audiences should find something so unexpected in “Ranchero” that it justifies their investment in time. The DVD comes with a making-of featurette. – Gary Dretzka

Something’s Gonna Live
Whenever a movie favored by younger viewers gets dissed by the Academy Award voters, fans and the media are quick to blame the organization’s senior citizenry, some of whom, we’re led to believe, may not have seen a film they’ve liked since “Lawrence of Arabia.” Nostalgia goes a long way in Hollywood, no matter if it extends back to “Gone With the Wind,” “Star Wars” or pre-CGI special effects. Although Director Daniel Raim doesn’t wallow in nostalgia in “Something’s Gonna Live,” it’s tough to avoid. That’s because the movies being discussed by some of the medium’s finest practitioners are among the very best ever made. The longtime friends gathered here by Raim are art directors Robert Boyle (“North by Northwest,” “The Birds”), Henry Bumstead (“To Kill a Mockingbird,” “The Sting”) and Albert Nozaki (“The War of the Worlds,” “The Ten Commandments”), storyboard artist Harold Michelson (“The Graduate,” “Star Trek: The Motion Picture”) and master cinematographers Haskell Wexler (“Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?,” “Medium Cool”) and Conrad Hall (“In Cold Blood,” “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid”). Raim isn’t satisfied with merely assigning these men seats at a round table and asking them to swap yarns about the famous directors and stars with whom they’ve collaborated. Instead, the conversations are informed by archival clips, sketches and other visual aids. He asked Boyle and Michelson to return with him to Bodega Bay, where they worked so closely with “Hitch” on “The Birds,” a movie that redefined horror forever.

The way the marketing system is built today, audiences are encouraged to forget just how collaborative a medium movie-making really is. The one exception is Oscar night and, even then, the nominees and winners in the so-called “technical” categories are virtually ignored by the journalists and photographers backstage. At publicity junkets, reporters willingly buy into the lie that movies spring fully blown from the brows of the directors and stars they’re about to interview. Nothing could be further from the truth, of course. The men and women who worked behind the camera in the so-called Golden Age probably weren’t accorded much attention outside the studio, but, in an analog world, they never were required to play second-fiddle to a computer or green screen, either. Sadly, in the 10-year period it took to complete “Something’s Gonna Live,” five of the six men we meet here were called to the big soundstage in the sky. At a time when freelancing and contract work is the norm, it’s fair to wonder if today’s generation of designers, artists and cinematographers will be able to share similar memories. Among the special features are Raim’s Oscar-nominated short film about Robert Boyle, “The Man on Lincoln’s Nose”; deleted scenes; an excerpt from Boyle’s “AFI Master Class: Production Design Checklist” and “Working With Hitchcock”; a conversation between Hall and Boyle, “Life After Film School”; Wexler discusses the doc on KPFK; artist biographies; and a PDF of Boyle’s original “Production Design Checklist.” – Gary Dretzka

Give Me the Banjo
Joffrey: Mavericks of American Dance
The banjo is to Steve Martin what the clarinet is to Woody Allen, and it’s his presence as narrator that the producers of “Give Me the Banjo” hope will drive interest in their entertaining and informative documentary. The multifaceted comedian is shown performing with his band, the Stone Canyon Rangers, but not at the expense of director Marc Fields’ scholarship or the many archival clips of the instrument’s masters. Anyone who’s seen Sascha Paladino and Bela Fleck’s wonderful exploration of the banjo’s roots already knows how deep they grow in African soil. Fleck sat in with musicians there, jamming and observing how songs played on crude stringed instruments might have influenced American slaves allowed the small freedom of artistic expression on hand-crafted banjos. (Drums were forbidden by plantation owners who feared they would be used to send messages to other slaves.) He also appears on “Give Me the Banjo,” which picks up at the point in U.S. history where the banjo was associated almost exclusively with slaves and freed slaves. It wouldn’t take long for southern whites to pick up the instrument and apply it to pre-bluegrass mountain music. The broad popularity of minstrel shows, however repulsive they seem now, not only would introduce the banjo to mass audiences, but also showcase the talents of African-American entertainers. (As was the case in the Blaxploitation era, stereotypical roles were better than none at all.) This would lead directly to instrument’s incorporation into Southern blues, gospel and country music. It also would become a staple of groups performing at the Grand Ol’ Opry.

Hollywood took notice of the banjo’s populist appeal, as did music publishers in New York and radio programmers in Chicago and Nashville. A bit further down the line, Fleck and other top practitioners would test the limits of the banjo against the boundaries of jazz, pop, rock and country. Besides Martin and the clips of such early pioneers as Uncle Dave Macon, Charlie Poole, Gus Cannon, Dock Boggs and Etta Baker, “Give Me the Banjo” is informed by interviews with and performances by Pete Seeger, Earl Scruggs, Tony Trischka, Taj Mahal, Mike Seeger, Alison Brown, Sonny Osborn, Don Vappie, Cynthia Sayer and Abby Washburn. The documentary is a byproduct of the Banjo Project, described as a “cross-media cultural odyssey.” The DVD adds extended interviews and performances.

If there was any justice in the world of entertainment, profits from such shows as “So You Think You Can Dance” and “Dancing With the Stars” would be diverted from network coffers to struggling modern dance and ballet companies throughout the U.S. Moreover, whenever Madonna or Lady Gaga decide to court media attention by flashing their naughty bits on stage, they’d be forced to contribute money, as well. This isn’t to say one form of dance is better or more noteworthy than another discipline, only, in a perfect world, the fruits of commercial success would be used to sustain the artistic goals of struggling troupes. I say this immediately after watching “Joffrey: Mavericks of American Dance,” which chronicles the history of one of America’s most prominent ballet companies, from its founding in 1956 by Robert Joffrey and Gerald Arpino, to the present. At a time when American Ballet Theater and New York City Ballet kept their eyes focused on Europe and the classic repertoire, the Joffrey dared to give dance an American face, with male dancers assigned to do more than lift and support the prima ballerinas. It also was the first to comment on contemporary culture and politics in newly created dances. Bob Hercules’ film doesn’t ignore the uphill battles the company has been required to fight, simply to stay alive. “Mavericks of American Dance” contains many interviews with past dancers, critics and benefactors, as well as excerpts from such singular Joffrey works as “Astarte,” “Trinity” and “Billboards” and collaborations with choreographers Kurt Jooss (“The Green Table”) and Leonide Massine (“Parade”). The DVD adds a 12-page booklet, full dress rehearsal of “The Green Table Ballet,” a making-of featurette and deleted scenes (including one on the making of Robert Altman’s “The Company”). – Gary Dretzka

Demoted: Blu-ray
So many members of the “Demoted” cast have done better work in similarly themed comedies that it’s legitimate to wonder when they figured out how self-defeating an exercise this movie would become. Sean Astin and Michael Vartan play chronically bored salesmen at a company manufacturing automobile tires. Despite the fact they’re world-class pranksters, Mike and Rodney enjoy the support of their boss (Robert Klein). When he suffers a fatal heart attack after a night of carousing at a local strip club (where else, right?), the lads are punished for their years of playing tricks on his replacement by being “promoted” to the secretarial pool. This sets up an altogether different set of obstacles for Mike and Rodney, who now must endear themselves to the secretaries they’ve punked over the years. Mike and Rodney’s pranks were mild, though, compared to abuse being dished out by the new boss, Ken (David Cross), so the secretaries rally behind them. Rodney’s greatest problem, though, is keeping on the good side of his fiancée (Sara Foster) and her perverted father (Patrick St. Esprit) and this means keeping them in the dark about his diminished status. Blue-collar comic Ron White is on hand to add some redneck humor as company’s CEO, but the legitimately funny bits in “Demoted” are few and far between. I blame director J.B. Rogers (“The Pool Boys”) and screenwriter Dan Callahan (“College”) for wasting my time, not the actors. – Gary Dretzka

Don’t Go in the Woods
If you can imagine how a hybrid of “Glee” and “Friday the 13th” might look, give “Don’t Go in the Woods” a shot. If that proposition doesn’t sound very appetizing, though, you probably will be as appalled by Vincent D’Onofrio’s directorial debut as the critics who panned it. In a musical twist to the old killer-in-the-woods conceit, members of rock band head for the hills to find the time and space necessary to create new songs. Naturally, in the rush to get to the campground, the young men and women ignore the large sign warning them against entering the woods. Everything beyond that sign is entirely predictable, except for the ferocity of the killings and the frequency with which the musicians break into song. The juxtaposition of extreme bloodletting and Sam Bisbee’s tunes is almost always disconcerting, regardless of the fact that some of the ditties actually are quite good. There’s no reason to expect that an actor new to the slasher sub-genre, even one as accomplished as D’Onofrio, would understand its conventions and conceits on his first directorial go-round. Unfortunately, the target demographic for “Don’t Go in the Woods” isn’t as clueless or undiscerning as some people assume them to be. Because the masked killers who stalk the musicians act with no rhyme or reason, the violence feels unnecessarily arbitrary and gratuitous. Normally, when a stalker attacks teenagers necking in a car or a naked girl in a shower, there’s at least a method – however sick or perverse – to their madness. Not so, here. From the interviews included in the DVD, I get the sense that “Don’t Go in the Woods” was made while D’Onofrio was waiting for something else to come through and, as such, it was something of an impromptu affair. – Gary Dretzka

Zoom Up: The Beaver Book Girl
Eros School: Feels So Good
One needn’t be a card-carrying pervert to enjoy the newest releases from the Nikkatsu Erotic Films Collection. Flexibility on fantasies involving rape, cotton panties, water sports and other scatological activities is essential, though. “Zoom Up: The Beaver Book Girl” contains all of that nasty stuff, but its validation derives from the source material: the dark manga stories of Takashi Ishii. In them, women troubled by the psychological effects of sexual violence often take out their frustrations and hostility in overtly transgressive ways. While it’s fair to ask where vengeance ends and exploitation begins, why bother? Many of the movies in the studio’s Roman Porno line bear comparison to the comix art of R. Crumb and S. Clay Wilson, whose outrageous depictions of women of all shapes, colors and political leanings – and men acting out their fetishes and fixations in grotesque ways — have been applauded and condemned in almost equal measure. Here, a mysterious model comes to the rescue of a photographer who specializes in bondage. If the woman is supposed to look familiar to him, it’s because she once was the “queen of the skin magazines.” What the photographer doesn’t quite grasp, however, is that the model has an ax to grind against the head of the man who raped her three years earlier.

The same caveats apply to “Eros School: Feels So Good,” whose redeeming value may be more difficult to discern. It describes the efforts of nearly every male at Eros High to rob the school’s champion athlete and class president, Misa, of her virginity. Gender-identity issues surround the girl’s achievements, but some of the movie’s best moments come during confrontations between students and teachers. That and the enigmatic presence of a pet pig make “Eros High” a singular experience. – Gary Dretzka

Shallow Grave: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
With the critical and commercial success of “Slumdog Millionaire” and “127 Hours,” Danny Boyle must feel as if he’s sitting on top of the world. T’wasn’t always the case, of course. After the Manchester native made his indie bones with “Trainspotting,” he took the bait laid before him by Hollywood. Unfortunately, he hit rock bottom with the high-profile turkeys “A Life Less Ordinary” and “The Beach.” The zombie thriller “28 Days Later …” made a lot of money in 2002, but nothing hit real paydirt until “Slumdog Millionaire,” which almost was released straight into video. Now, Boyle’s first feature, “Shallow Grave” has been accorded a Criterion Collection facelift and Blu-ray polish. It’s a terrific little picture that starts off as a black comedy, but, half-way through, turns very suspenseful, indeed. Ewan McGregor, Kerry Fox, Christopher Eccleston and Peter Mullan were among the largely unknown actors cast in the story about yuppie roommates who have fun mocking applicants looking for a place to rent, but don’t seem to have much to recommend themselves. No sooner does the fellow they select move into the flat than he dies of an overdose, which isn’t detected for several days. The roomies inherit a suitcase full of money, but are required to stash the body in a place that won’t link them to the corpse or the money. It isn’t easy, of course, but the more torture that’s inflicted on the corpse, they more changes the roommates experience in their own personalities. Their dilemma multiplies when the deceased roommate’s cronies come looking for him. The Criterion package includes the digitally restored transfer, supervised by director of photography Brian Tufano; audio commentaries by Boyle and writer John Hodge. (Boyle’s unusual color scheme is greatly enhanced in hi-def.) There also are new interviews with Eccleston, Fox and McGregor; producer Andrew and Kevin Macdonald’s video diary; “Digging Your Own Grave,” a 1993 documentary by Kevin Macdonald; teaser trailers for “Shallow Grave” and “Trainspotting”; and a booklet featuring an essay by critic Philip Kemp. – Gary Dretzka

Fastest: Blu-ray
I have no idea how popular MotoGP racing is in the United States. Certainly, it doesn’t enjoy the same appeal here as it does in Europe and Asia, where serpentine Gran Prix courses accommodate both disciplines equally, and bicycle races still draw a crowd. Watch “Fastest,” especially in Blu-ray, and you’ll see the reason for its popularity. Unlike NASCAR, Indy, Formula 1 and truck racing, the only thing protecting a racer from broken bones and brain damage is a leather outfit and helmet. The breakneck speed and tire-to-tire action demand the same skills and courage from MotoGP contestants as those possessed by pilots of four-wheelers, as well as an ability to use knee pads to maintain equilibrium and balance. In many corners of the world, such champions as Valentino Rossi and Jorge Rossi are accorded the same reverence as Dario Franchitti, Jeff Gordon and Sebastian Vettel. The racers tend to be younger, if only because the wear and tear adds up quicker. (MotoGP motorcycles are built specifically for the racing circuit, while Superbike entries are specially tuned versions of vehicles available for sale to the public.) Narrated by motorcyclist enthusiast Ewan McGregor, “Fastest” was shot at venues around the world during the 2010 and 2011 seasons. The racing action is punctuated with interviews, pit visits and profiles. Sadists will enjoy watching the many amazing high-speed crashes, in which riders fly off their bikes like ragdolls in a tornado. Survival rates would be much lower if riders weren’t required to wear crash-activated air bags under their leathers. – Gary Dretzka

Miss Minoes
Normally, I’m allergic to live-action movies in which dogs and cats act and speak as if they were human. In the almost terminally cute Dutch export, “Miss Minoes,” a perfectly average kitty cat turns into a human being, after lapping up a chemical compound from the spout of steel drum that’s fallen off a truck. In fact, Minoes has retained almost all of her feline attributes, including the ability to land on her feet when she falls. I don’t think the 2001 family favorite, dubbed into English here, would be half so appealing if it weren’t for the casting of Carice van Houten, who soon would win international acclaim for her work in “Black Book” and “Valkyrie.” Through her, Minoes’ adaptation to life as a fresh and foxy human is extremely natural, as is her interaction with her still-feline friends. She also helps a geeky human friend recover his groove as a reporter. “Miss Minoes” won’t turn dog people into cat people overnight, but its charms won’t be lost on kids anticipating their first pets. – Gary Dretzka

House of Boys
Gay-centric movies set in the late 1970s-80s necessarily share a common trajectory. Because the period was as much about coming-out as being-out, many of the key characters cross the threshold after discovering they no longer can live at home and remain happy as an out-homosexual. Once they hit the big city, they revel in their new-found freedom, haunting the clubs and experiencing the roller-coaster ride that comes with easy access to drugs, clubs, fashionable shops and sexual partners, as well as sudden jolts of disillusionment and rejection. Then, like night to day, comes the mysterious “gay cancer,” which effectively puts an end to the party. After that, the movies become battles for survival.

John-Claude Schlim’s coming-of-age drama “House of Boys” opens thusly, in 1984, when a handsome blond runaway from Luxembourg arrives in Amsterdam, quickly moving from bartender to featured attraction at the cabaret owned by Madame (Udo Kier). The club promises attractive go-go boys, accomplished drag acts and dark corners where hit-and-run liaisons can take place. Early on, the dark spots (a.k.a., bruises) that blossom on some of the boys are easily covered up by stage makeup. The more debilitating symptoms of AIDS can’t be camouflaged as easily. What begins in fun and fulfillment ends in tragedy, splitting the movie in half. Even documentaries from the period – most recently, “Ultrasuede: In Search of Halston” – end up that way. “House of Boys” is sexually explicit, without also being particularly graphic or remotely exploitative. The club scenes and music are particularly well rendered. — Gary Dretzka

You’ll Know My Name
The producers of the micro-budget indie, “You’ll Know My Name,” would love for us to see in their film the makings of an east-coast Western. That’s because everything that happens during the first two-thirds of the movie anticipates a showdown between a notorious brawler and an upstart with a chip on his shoulder. Standing in between them is a pretty blond, whose flirty behavior aggravates the rift. It’s “Shane,” as interpreted by the cast of “Jersey Shore.” Like Snooki & Company, the antagonists are semi-literate denizens of the so-called Garden State, who have little more to do with their free time than working out at a gym and perfecting their macho posturing in front of a mirror. Joe Raffa, who wouldn’t look out of place on the MTV reality show, wrote, directed and stars in “You’ll Know My Name.” He plays Nick, the young gunslinger who realistically doesn’t stand a chance against the larger, stronger and more seasoned fighter, Mike (Alexander Mandell). If he weren’t so seriously pissed off over Mike’s braggadocio about Christina’s more skanky qualities, Nick would have trouble mounting a defense against the older man, let alone a credible offense. The film’s greatest flaw is that it’s difficult to side with either opponent. Both of the young men exude uselessness and boredom, and there isn’t a discernible ounce of chivalry in them, either. ‘You’ll Know My Name” isn’t awful, but it is kind of pointless. – Gary Dretzka

Monster Brawl: Blu-ray
Wrestling fans have never needed a passport to pass between the worlds of horror and professional grappling. Hand an ax or butcher knife to any WrestleMania contestant and you’ll find a slasher waiting for his call to duty. “Monster Brawl” combines both disciplines in an even less prosaic setting than the usual direct-to-video horror flick or SmackDown. Indeed, compared to the WrestleMania XXVIII mega-production, “Undertaker vs. Triple H: Hell in a Cell,” Jesse T. Cook’s “Monster Brawl” is a walk in the park. That’s not to say that kids won’t enjoy the faux rumble, just that I can’t imagine anyone who’s seen an actual WWE event – or Universal’s “Frankenstein Meets the Wolfman,” for that matter –finding anything fresh in “Monster Brawl.” Designed to resemble a pay-per-view event, the death match is contested by Lady Vampire (Kelly Couture), Frankenstein (Robert Maillet), Witch Bitch (Holly Letkeman), Zombie Man (Rico Montana), Mummy and Wolfman (both R.J. Skinner), Swamp Gut and Cyclops (both Jason David Brown). Canadian superstars Dave Foley and Art Hindle narrate the festivities, with appropriate tongue-in-cheek earnestness, while Jimmy Hart adds commentary via his trademark megaphone. In between bouts, we get up-close-and-personal with the re-animated monsters. – Gary Dretzka

Missing/Scandal/GCB: The Complete First Season
It’s difficult enough for a TV series that debuts in September to make the cut in May, when renewals and cancelations are announced. Shows picked up for September launch benefit from a summer’s worth of hype and teaser commercials, not to mention kissy-kissy interviews with the stars on talk shows. Series that launch at midseason receive much less nurturing. People conversant with the fast-forward function on their TiVo may not even know the new shows exist, as they can skip through commercials and promos. “Missing,” “Scandal” and “GCB” all made their entrance after the February sweeps period, when less is at stake for the networks. ABC must have thought it was playing with a pat hand with “Missing,” if only because it starred Ashley Judd as a former CIA agent required to find her son, after he disappears while studying abroad. Like Liam Neeson, in “Taken,” Judd’s Becca Winstone calls in favors from former colleagues, foes and ex-lovers. Given the European locations, “Missing” couldn’t have been cheap to produce. Viewers didn’t seem to care, however, as its ratings didn’t qualify it for renewal.

Kristin Chenoweth is cute as a drawer full of buttons, but it would have taken a hybrid clone of Mary Tyler Moore and Candice Bergen to overcome the negative press that followed the disclosure of the first title announced for “GCB.” Who would admit to watching “Good Christian Bitches,” while standing around the water cooler at work? Besides Chenoweth, the series’ greatest claim to fame was being birthed by Darren Star Productions (“Sex and the City”). The show was set in an upscale Dallas community, where none of the residents, no matter their age, displays any redeeming qualities. No matter how hard it tried, however, “GCB” couldn’t out-skank the reality shows in which actual Lone Star bimbos shop ’til they drop, inject gallons of Botox into their foreheads and compete with the their teenage daughters for the attention of the golf and tennis pros at their country clubs. It also stars Leslie Bibb, Annie Potts, Marisol Nichols and Miriam Shor. Nope, it didn’t make the cut, either.

More fortunate were the producers and fans of “Scandal,” which will return next season. Created by the same folks who gave us “Grey’s Anatomy” and “Private Practice,” “Scandal” follows a Washington, D.C., crisis manager as she struggles to make scandals disappear as quickly as our tax dollars on a congressional fact-finding mission to Tahiti. It stars Kerry Washington (“A Thousand Words”) as former White House communications director Olivia Pope. The more problems Olivia fixes, the more powerful she becomes. And, yes, all of the women in her firm are as hot as she is. That’s so you can tell that “Scandal” is fiction. All three of these packages from ABC include making-of featurettes, interviews and other background material. – Gary Dretzka

The Tribe: Season One
History: Brad Meltzer’s Decoded, Season Two
A&E: Dog the Bounty Hunter: Taking It to the Streets
One of the rites of literary passage in American high schools is a close reading of William Golding’s survivalist drama, “Lord of the Flies,” which also was adapted into a very exciting movie by Peter Brook. It imagines what could happen if a planeload of English schoolboys crash-landed on an uninhabited island and were left to their own devices for an extended period of time. Golding, along with several generations of English teachers, demands we consider such issues as individual welfare vs. the common good, pack behavior vs. democratic initiative and the limits of human evolution. If Anthony Burgess’ “A Clockwork Orange” is a bit more suited to college-level interpretation, the introduction of imaginatively plumed and thoroughly anarchic “droogs” extended the metaphors introduced in “Lord of the Flies,” while adding an inventive new language and other countercultural conceits to the debate. A double-feature of Brooks’ “Lord of the Flies” and Stanley Kubrick’s re-imagining of “A Clockwork Orange” might have left the theater in ruins, several dozen viewers dead or crippled, and everyone else speaking in “Nadsat” or chanting “Kill the pig, cut his throat, bash him in.”

Shot in New Zealand, “The Tribe” resembles those movies is several obvious ways, with bits of “Mad Max,” “Mallrats” and “Degrassi High” thrown into the stew for good measure.  It was introduced in 1999 as an entertainment for adolescents and teens, but the enthusiastic international audience grew to include adults, as well. (It was shown here on Encore’s WAM! channel.) The long-running series was set in a dystopian society completely absent of adults, who, in advance of a toxic cloud, were required to send their children to the Kiwi countryside. As the survivors grow older and the cloud lifts, the kids form gangs distinguished by tribal costumes, hairstyles, makeup, colors and political philosophies. They drift toward the deserted cities, where the malls, homes and stores can be scavenged for provisions. Like every other contemporary soap opera, the storylines deal with such familiar issues as pregnancy, date rape, suicide, divorce, racism, sexism, alcoholism and anti-intellectualism. If much of what transpires is predictable – the show was written by adults, after all – its messages remain applicable to teens everywhere. Shout! Factory has released the first season in two multidisc packages.  The second one includes a making-of featurettes.

It’s possible that conspiracy theories have existed for as long as mankind has been around to question why one person has more food or possessions than he does. The oldest one probably involves the disappearance of dinosaurs from the face of the Earth, with new ones emerging every day. If you look at conspiracy theories as commodities, it’s also possible to see how maintaining a sense of mystery in our lives can be rewarding to purveyors of them. Has anyone gone broke questioning the evidence revealed in – or withheld from – the Warren Report or Air Force reports on the Roswell UFO incident? Fox turned “The X-Files” into an industry simply by adding such phrases as “The Truth Is Out There,” “Trust No One” and “I Want to Believe” to the show’s mythology. Since then, cable television has turned conspiracy theorizing into a spectator sport, with shows questioning everything from the events that led to the attack on Pearl Harbor to the cost of coffee beans in the international marketplace. History’s “Brad Meltzer Decoded” is hosted by the author of popular thrillers that profit from every new theory and boneheaded decision made in Washington and Wall Street. The show follows a team of chronically curious investigators – disguised as average, inquisitive Americans – as they probe the great mysteries of our day. (In their Fort Knox episode, everyone from the mayor of the nearest city to a waitress is quizzed about the possibility no gold is being stored at the army base … like they’d know.) Other Season 2 episodes are devoted to mysteries surrounding the Declaration of Independence, Mount Rushmore and the deaths of General George S. Patton, Billy the Kid, Harry Houdini and Pope John Paul I. All suspicions aside, conspiracy theories are endlessly fascinating – perpetrated, as they are, by our government’s obsession with secrecy — and even half-assed interrogations can produce interesting answers, such as they are.

Dog the Bounty Hunter: Taking It to the Streets” offers only four news episodes/cases for the enjoyment of the show’s fans. They include a midnight raid in a Hawaiian rain forest, pursuits of a Colorado meth deal and longtime fugitive, and the creation of a hoax to nab a felon protected by family members. The package doesn’t address many of the issues that apparently have caused fissures within the Dog pound and ultimately led to the recent cancelling of the show. Fans probably will already be familiar with the cases covered in this digest.

Other new releases from A&E include, “Titanic at 100: Mystery Solved,” in which the entire ship and 15-square-mile debris field are explored for first time, revealing stunning new images; “Gene Simmons Family Jewels: Season 6, Parts 1&2,” during which Gene and Shannon weigh their options for the future, ahead of committing to marriage; and “Pawn Stars: Volume 4,” a show whose mission and longevity speaks for themselves. – Gary Dretzka

BBC: Top Gear 18
BBC: The Sarah Jane Adventures: The Fifth Season
BBC: Doctor Who: The Seeds of Death/Resurrection of the Daleks
There are few more entertaining and informative reality shows on television than the BBC’s long running “Top Gear.” Simply listening to the names of the automobiles on display each week can make enthusiasts salivate in anticipation of seeing the vehicles put through their paces. They include production vehicles, ranging from pedestrian to ultra-luxurious; cars intended to be raced at high speeds or over rough terrain; prototypes, some of which will never see the light of day; and curiosity pieces. Season 18 kicks off with Jeremy Clarkson, Richard Hammond and James May visiting India under the guise of promoting British trade and attempting to navigate some of the most crowded streets and highly elevated in the world. Together and separately, the lads also drive supercars across Italy; direct a car chase for a movie; investigate the emerging Chinese car industry; design their own off-road mobility scooters; re-evaluate the relevance of NASCAR; and attempt Rallycross motor racing on a pauper’s budget. Among the celebrities who lined up to compete in time trials staged in “reasonably priced cars” are will.i.am, Ryan Reynolds, Slash, Matt LeBlanc, Michael Fassbender and Matt Smith.

One of Doctor Who’s most beloved companions is the journalist, Sarah Jane Smith, played by the estimable Elisabeth Sladen. Created in 2007 by “Doctor Who” showrunner, Russell T Davies, “The Sarah Jane Adventures” began its life on Children’s BBC, as a spinoff series that may or may not have included the robotic wonderdog, K-9 Mark 1. Naturally, it attracted the attention of longtime fans of the series, as well as uninitiated kiddies, and spawned a marketing powerhouse of its own. In Season Five, Sarah and the starchild Sky settle into Bannerman Road, where they discover she has telekinetic powers. The problem is, she has no idea how to use them.

The latest “Special Edition” releases from the “Doctor Who” catalogue are “The Seeds of Death,” from the Patrick Troughton years, 1966-69, and “Resurrection of the Daleks,” from the Peter Davison years, 1982-84. The former is set in the late 21st century, when Ice Warriors capture the T-Mat and threaten the future of an Earth wholly dependent on goods delivered by the system. In the latter, the TARDIS is dragged down a time corridor linking Earth with a battle cruiser containing the Doctor’s oldest enemy, the Daleks. The special-edition discs have been digitally re-mastered from previous DVD iterations and contain bonus features that are new to these packages. – Gary Dretzka

Chicago in Chicago: Blu-ray
More than 40 years ago, a band unknown outside of its hometown released a double album as its debut on the international music scene. Its brassy profile allowed Chicago Transit Authority to stand out against a background of the guitar-heavy psychedelic groups, without also being locked to an R&B sound already owned by James Brown and performers in the Stax/Volt revues. It was an immediate hit, if primarily with white suburbanites. Someone at City Hall decided that this band of long-haired youths wasn’t an appropriate representative of the grimy El-train system and temperamental buses that carried the city’s disgruntled commuters to work each day. The city’s loss proved to be Chicago’s gain. The band didn’t maintain its headquarters in Chicago, so it never was as associated with the Windy City scene as electric blues and folk. Even so, they always manage to draw huge, enthusiastic crowds for every homecoming. “Chicago in Chicago” was recorded for airing last fall on the HDNet service, which prides itself in delivering technically brilliant concert material to subscribers. Recorded lakeside at the Charter-One Pavilion – a.k.a., Northerly Island and Meigs Field – the band played its biggest hits and were joined by the Doobie Brothers on “25 or 6 to 4,” “Free” and “Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is?” The band’s lineup includes Robert Lamm, Jimmy Pankow, Lee Loughnane, Jason Scheff and Ray Herrman. The Blu-ray adds interviews. – Gary Dretzka

Normandy
When last we saw bodyguard-turned-auteur Tino Struckman, he was leading a one-man assault on a gang of heavily armed white-slavers in the otherwise unremarkable, “Chained: Code 207.” In the similarly bewildering World War II rom-drama, “Normandy” (a.k.a., “Red Rose of Normandy”), Struckman once again is front and center as co-writer/director/producer/star. He plays a battle-hardened German infantry officer, Klaus, who somehow manages to escape certain death at the hands of the revitalized Red Army. Wounded, but still gung-ho, Klaus is transferred to France, where he’s asked to test the defenses against the imminent invasion. In addition to finding the weaponry, bunker system and soldiers sadly lacking – a contention Allied D-Day survivors might dispute – he’s reacquainted with the love of his life and her recently drafted father, who hates him. Klaudia is stationed nearby as a field nurse, so, instead of working 24/7 to tighten security, Klaus takes her on picnics above the beach. Meanwhile, a Gestapo officer spends the days before June 6, 1944, making life miserable for Klaus, Klaudia and her dad. Even as the Allied soldiers are storming the beach, Brahams is more interested in raping Klaus’ future bride than defending the Fatherland. Amazingly, Steven Spielberg left that particular incident out of “Saving Private Ryan.”

While you have to give Struckman props for attempting to find a new approach to D-Day, even if it risks alienating viewers who won’t find a rooting interest in the quest for love and struggle for survival of a German soldier. Perhaps, too, if Klaudia (the filmmaker’s muse, Claudia Crawford) wasn’t tarted up to resemble Courtney Love, their romance may seem a tad more realistic. She tends to wounded soldiers in a uniform that stops midway between her knees and her crotch. Struckman would be more believable, as well, if Klaus or any of the German and Russian characters didn’t sound as if they were from Tennessee and L.A., where “Normandy” was shot, or looked as if they might have been too old to be drafted. Moreover, there’s simply no way Struckman could have hired enough extras and leased enough vintage equipment to cover a two-front war on film, as well as the greatest amphibious invasion in history, and not make it look too easy a task. – Gary Dretzka

The DVD Wrapup: John Carter, Journey 2, Safe House, Hit So Hard, Hondo, Act of Valor, Desire, Falling Skies … More

Wednesday, June 6th, 2012

John Carter: 2D/3D Blu-ray
Journey 2: The Mysterious Island: 2D/3D Blu-ray
This epic sci-fi adventure would have been much better served if it had been marketed as “Edger Rice Burroughs’ John Carter,” instead of simply, “Disney: John Carter.” It takes an ego the size of the Matterhorn to think audiences would feel better about seeing a movie as generically titled as “John Carter,” simply because of the Disney brand, instead of as the brainchild of one of the genre’s godfathers. Also responsible for “Tarzan,” Burroughs was similarly dissed in the campaigns for adaptations of those works, and not just by Disney. In the case of “Tarzan,” the character was the brand and would remain so through more than 80 pictures over the span of 92 years. (A new animated addition to the “Ape Man” saga, with Kellan Lutz and Spencer Locke, is expected in 2013.) For me, anyway, John Carter simply didn’t ring a bell, one way or the other. It wasn’t until the novelist’s name was dropped early in the movie that I began to see a connection between the master’s “Princess of Mars” and what was happening on the screen. Even so, it took a quick detour to the Internet to learn exactly who Carter was and why this movie should matter to me. Given the context, then, I recalled seeing illustrations from the original series, written under the pseudonym Norman Bean. Thus enlightened, I began to see “John Carter” less as a country cousin to “Star Wars” than a fully realized adventure that could stand on its own. If nothing else, it gave me a reason to care about the character and what was happening to him.

Andrew Stanton’s fantasy, also released in 3D, didn’t fare well in its domestic release. Suddenly, its $250-million price tag became more significant than anything that was happening on the screen and its failure cost one top Disney executive, at least, his job. That’s how the game is played in Hollywood. I trust that executive’s fall was cushioned by a mattress filled with money. The fact is people have been attempting to adapt the John Carter stories for more than 80 years, beginning in 1931 when Robert Clampett approached Burroughs about an animated-feature version. (Sketches from that failed venture appear in the making-of featurettes.) A video version of “Princess of Mars,” starring Antonio Sabato Jr. and Tracy Lords, was released in 2009 to know fanfare. A year later, Stanton (“Wall-E,” “Finding Nemo”) was handed the reins to “John Carter,” whose own mega-budget roots extend back to the early 1980s. The CGI technology had finally caught up to the requirements of the story, which was adapted by Stanton, Mark Andrews (“Star Wars: Clone Wars”) and novelist Michael Chabon (“The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay”).

So, what does $250 million buy these days? In addition to creating a reasonable facsimile of the Martian landscape in the deserts of Utah, set designers used what might have been miles of green felt to transform Shepperton and Longcross studios into Martian cities and huge flying battlewagons. Carter had arrived on Mars (a.k.a., Barsoom) after being astrally projected from a gold-veined cave in the American Southwest. After the Civil War, the Virginian had gotten into the fortune-hunting business and eventually did very well for himself. He found himself in the cave after being pursued both by Apaches and the cavalry. Once inside, he was confronted by an alien visitor, whose medallion somehow linked the cave to Barsoom and other celestial destinations. Once there, Carter (Taylor Kitsch, “Friday Night Lights”) discovered that he could leap great heights and distances, and hurl objects out of sight. These powers would attract the attention of the grasshopper-like Tharks, who were engaged in a three-way civil war with city-bound humanoids and the devious shape-shifting Therns. Caught in the tug-of-war is the spectacularly beautiful Princess Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins, “X-Men Origins: Wolverine”), who’s been forcibly engaged to a Thern, but is secretly holding out for Carter. By this time, I pretty much lost track of who was doing what to whom, preferring to focus on the ingenious architecture and pageantry, which recalls Camelot as much as anything in the sci-fi repertoire. In this way, too, it fits within the context of the futuristic visions of H.G. Wells and Jules Verne. The featurettes included in the Blu-ray package add needed context, as well as much interesting making-of background, deleted scenes, commentary, Disney’s Second Screen Interactive Experience and “Barsoom Bloopers.” Not having seen the 3D edition, I can’t comment on it, except to say it’s available and probably looks as good as the 2D Blu-ray, which is to say very good.

Neither does Verne get his props in the marketing material for “Journey 2: The Mysterious Island,” a sequel, of sorts, to the 2008 3D hit, “Journey to the Center of the Earth.” Instead of being drawn to an Icelandic volcano, now-17-year-old Sean Anderson (Josh Hutcherson) is lured to a theoretically non-existent Pacific island by his Verne-obsessed grandfather (Michael Caine). Also on board for the adventure are his stepdad (Dwayne Johnson), a rag-tag helicopter operator (Luis Guzman) and his pretty teen daughter (Vanessa Hudgens). Once on the island, the team is confronted with miniature elephants, giant lizards and other wonders of science. Grandpa has discovered a jungle outpost that’s equal parts Angkor Wat, Jurassic Park and Atlantis. Grandpa believes that the island is, in fact, Atlantis and it rises and sinks, according to some ancient calendar. The problem is that the island is on the sink side of the cycle and the team needs to get off the island, pronto. And, this is where Captain Nemo’s Nautilus submarine comes into play.

“Journey 2” clearly is a family film, a fact that shouldn’t cause adults to dismiss it out of hand. Brad Peyton’s fantasy-adventure is well-conceived and not at all corny or cheap, even though it was made for a third the money spent on “John Carter.” In 2D, it’s easy to see where the 3D effects were meant to kick into gear and, I’ll bet, they looked pretty swell, too, especially the passenger-ready honey bees. The actors are likeable and drawn at the correct scale for such an outlandish tale. The Blu-ray arrives with an interactive island adventure, guided by Josh Hutcherson; deleted scenes and a gag reel. — Gary Dretzka

 

Safe House: Blu-ray
In a cast that includes Brendan Gleeson, Vera Farmiga, Sam Shepard, Rubén Blades and Ryan Reynolds, only one actor stands out as being indispensable and that’s Denzel Washington. “Safe House” isn’t the first movie in which the two-time Academy Award winner has played a character whose values are twisted in ways ill-befitting a protagonist. Washington seems to relish playing such tarnished souls: Frank Lucas in “American Gangster,” Detective Alonzo Harris in “Training Day” and Creasy in “Man on Fire.” Moreover, he’s collaborated with Tony Scott so often that viewers might even think the action-obsessed director had been at the helm of “Safe House.” It’s a misconception that should flatter Daniel Espinosa, for whom “Safe House” represents his first English-language feature. In the thrillers Scott churns out with regularity, breakneck action and non-stop violence override any concerns about illogical story points and Teflon-coated characters. Washington plays rogue CIA legend, Tobin Frost, who’s been in the wind for almost a decade. He recently was handed a microchip containing information that is coveted as much by officials back in Langley as a mysterious gang of mercenaries in the employ of, well, it’s hard to say.

After the first deadly sniper shots are fired at Frost’s acquaintances in Cape Town, South Africa, he high-tails it to the American embassy for protection. The spooks there move him to a CIA safe house, manned by Reynolds’ desperate-for-action agent Matt Weston. He gets all of it he can stand when the mercenaries invade the safe house – how could they possibly know he would end up there? – killing everyone except Frost and Weston. The rest of the movie is one long and exciting chase or, perhaps, three simultaneous chases rolled into one untidy package. Weston makes it his mission to bring Frost in from the cold, even as a strong professional bond develops between them. When the older operative slips Weston’s custody, the junior agent and mercenaries use similar methods to track him to the home of a master forger in a distant township. Meanwhile, the CIA official who leaked the location of the safe house that was destroyed in the first reel is on his (or her) way to the same place and for the same reason. A bloody fire fight ensues there, as well. Without giving anything away, the final scenes play out at Langley and in Paris, where we finally learn what all the fuss is about in the first place.

The Blu-ray edition benefits from the choice of Cape Town as the setting for action. It’s full of fresh locations and doesn’t look at all like Vancouver or Toronto, where too many American pictures are shot. The only problem I had was with the audio, which frequently shifted from being too loud or too soft, and required an inordinate amount of fiddling with the remote-control. Also included in the package are the interactive U-Control picture-in-picture feature and Universal Second-Screen Experience, as well as mini-docs on the making of the movie and several key action and chase sequences. – Gary Dretzka

 

It’s About You: Blu-ray
Hit So Hard: The Life & Near Death of Patty Schemel: Blu-ray
For all his talent as an entertainer, John Mellencamp is someone I’d like to see run for office before he gets too old. As a co-founder of Farm Aid, the Indiana native has proven his populist chops 26 times there, at least. His humanistic concerns also have informed his music. There’s still a lot of it left in his Hoosier soul, but his keen observations of contemporary life and sincere concern for the problems faced by common folks are what we need in Congress. I think that Al Franken, Minnesota’s junior senator and an “SNL” veteran, would welcome the company. In “It’s About You,” the father-son team of Ian and Kurt Markus document Mellencamp’s 2009 concert tour with Bob Dylan and Willie Nelson – neither of whom appear in the film – and subsequent recording sessions in such musical landmarks as Memphis’ Sun Studio, Savannah’s First African Baptist Church and the hotel room in San Antonio where Robert Johnson recorded his most important songs. Along the way, the Marcuses document the disintegration of once-vibrant commercial centers of cities around the South, including that of Waylon Jennings’ hometown. “It’s About You” is an extremely gritty and grainy affair, primarily because it was shot on Super 8 film and, occasionally, at an arm’s length from the sometimes stand-offish singer. It takes a while to get adjusted to the primitive technology, but, ultimately, the raw look of the film and rootsie texture of the music, as produced by T-Bone Burnett, begin to complement each other nicely. Folks expecting a concert movie might be disappointed by the doc’s many introspective moments and digressions. Fans will find in “It’s About You” an unvarnished portrayal of the artist away from the comfort and security of his Bloomington, Indiana, home. It has been shown as an appetizer before concerts on Mellencamp’s most recent tour.

As easy as it would be to pigeonhole “Hit So Hard: The Life & Near Death of Patty Schemel” as yet another cautionary tale about life in rock ’n’ roll’s fast lane, it wouldn’t be entirely accurate. At the top of her game, drummer Patty Schemel controlled the pulse of Hole, a take-no-prisoners Seattle band fronted by Courtney Love. At its conclusion, the redhead musician was just another homeless junkie haunting the crack dens of L.A. Why bother making a cautionary tale if no one in the intended audience is going to listen? Unlike Amy Winehouse and several dozen other rockers, Schemel lived to tell her tale. It probably would have been impossible for anyone not to become addicted to one substance or another while living and playing alongside Love and Kurt Cobain for as long as Schemel did. The whole Grunge scene was awash in hard drugs in the early 1990s, so any attempt find shelter from the storm was doomed to failure. More than the drugs, however, Schemel’s descent into rock-’n’-roll hell was fueled by the erratic behavior of Love and a record producer who thought nothing of replacing the heart-and-soul of the group with a session drummer. In Love’s opinion, Schemel shouldn’t have taken it personally. In fact, she took the diss very personally.

It didn’t take long before Schemel would split for L.A. and burn through whatever money she had saved. Once homeless, she could only rely on the mercy of strangers, of which there was precious little. Finally, a much younger musician recognized her and opened an avenue toward recovery. P. David Ebersole and Todd Hughes’ very compelling bio-doc chronicles Schemel’s rise, fall and every step in between them. Necessarily, then, it also describes Seattle’s Grunge scene, which began as an anti-everything movement, but finally succumbed to the music industry’s siren song. “Hit So Hard” is enhanced by much video footage and other archival material recovered from the wreckage of Nirvana, Hole, Cobain’s suicide, Love’s self-destructive personality and the implosion of Grunge. Home movies of Cobain, Love and their baby, Frances Bean, are especially heart-wrenching. The aptly titled film also describes how Schemel found the support she needed to get clean in Los Angeles’ gay-and-lesbian community. It’s a harrowing story, but, blessedly, one that doesn’t end in a rocker’s death or lifelong struggle with schizophrenia. That makes it a rare commodity in the genre. – Gary Dretzka

 

Hondo: Blu-ray
Although not one of John Wayne’s most-recognized Westerns, “Hondo” features one of his best performances in any genre. It also represents one of the best-written of all of Duke’s movies. The action, of which there’s plenty, never overpowers the flow of the story and the characters are drawn with rare precision and complexity. Wayne plays Hondo Lane, a government dispatch agent who, one day, out of the blue, walks onto the homestead of a pretty settler, Angie Lowe (Geraldine Page), who’s been awaiting the return of her husband for several months. Hondo needs a horse, a meal and place to stay for the night, in exchange for which he promises to break her horses and do odd jobs around the house. He also makes fast friends with her son, Johnny. Hondo, who’s “part Indian,” finds it difficult to understand how Angie has managed to avoid being kidnapped or killed by Apache marauders. The Indians are in an especially pissy mood because the American government has once again broken one of its promises. Nevertheless, Angie’s willingness to allow the Apaches to water their horses on her land has paid dividends. Impressed by her son’s fearlessness, the chief of a Chiricahua band has made him a “blood brother” and vowed to protect him. This simple act of paternal kindness ultimately results in Hondo’s life being saved. In this way, at least, “Hondo” is a far cry from the depiction of Indians in “The Searchers” and the many other Westerns in which they’re portrayed as being “cold-blooded savages.”

Because the cavalry is determined to confront the Apache nation and drive them into Mexico, a violent confrontation is inevitable. Before that happens, however, viewers not only are made fully aware of the racism that threatens the Indians’ ancient lifestyle, but also the humanity they’re capable of showing to friends and their senses of humor. Hondo’s relationship with Angie is tested by the realization that he killed her despicable husband, after the varmint ambushed him and his faithful dog. Other things happen, of course, but not in ways one necessarily would expect.

“Hondo” was shot and initially released in 3D. It didn’t last long in theaters in that format, however, as the fad had already played itself out. In this regard director John Farrow’s inclination not to go overboard on the effects proved prescient. In 2D, it’s sometimes difficult to tell where the 3D action kicked in: a knife fight, a spear thrust, a fired bullet and kicked clumps of dirt, among them. What truly holds the movie together, though, is the screenplay by Wayne’s friend and frequent collaborator, James Edward Grant, working from a short story by Louis L’Amour. It’s worth taking the time to enjoy the making-of featurettes, which examine everything from the Chihuahua location, to Wayne’s relationship with perennial co-star Ward Bond, Grant and John Ford, who was called in to direct the final battle scenes. – Gary Dretzka

 

How to Live Forever
Mark Wexler’s fascinating documentary, “How to Live Forever,” asks several important questions at the same time. Ostensibly, the documentary discusses both the science and reality of longevity, while also speculating on the reasons some people live past 100 and others don’t make it to 60. (It rarely requires adhering to a healthy or green lifestyle.) To this end, Wexler interviews really old people in nursing homes around the country and travels to Okinawa and Iceland to collect data on diets, environmental conditions and other variables. While it’s easy enough to envy these old-timers and hope to duplicate their feat, the director also asks us to consider the downside of living to 200 or more, or being reawakened from a cryogenic sleep when it becomes feasible scientifically. Certainly, there isn’t much to be said for living to a biblical age if you’re in feeble condition or have outlived all of your friends and family. To that end, Wexler has also interviewed several experts – and so-called experts – in the emerging science of reversing aging. Among them are futurist Ray Kurzweil, comedian Phyllis Diller, a 101-year-old chain-smoking marathon runner, actor and hormone promoter Suzanne Somers, the late Jack LaLanne, author Ray Bradbury, new-ager Marianne Williamson and food writer Jonathan Gold. – Gary Dretzka

 

David E. Talbert’s A Fool and His Money
The latest release from David E. Talbert’s entertainment factory is quite a bit more dependent on scripture than previous parables, which sweetened their message with the sugar of romantic comedy and slightly bawdy humor. In “A Fool and His Money,” the message is delivered with all the subtlety of a velvet sledgehammer. Here, a blue-collar family is about to lose everything it has to recessionary forces beyond its control. Their problems, otherwise, aren’t all that much different than those faced by other families with teenage kids, unpaid bills and unsavory relations. A miracle occurs in the form of a million-dollar call from a local radio station. Suddenly, these no-longer-poor folks experience the kind of problems money can’t solve. Grandma predicted as much while quoting from the bible, but no one believed things could devolve to the point they do. The typically nimble cast includes Michael Beach, Cindy Herron-Brags, Chyna Layne, Mishon Ratliff, Ann Nesby, Willy Taylor and comedian Eddie Griffin, who steals the show as the black-sheep brother. Dressed in vintage-Superfly, he arrives within seconds of the good news becoming public, but leaves a hero. Once again, the story plays out on a single stage set and in front of a poorly miked audience. There’s a bit more singing in “A Fool and His Money,” as well. The DVD adds an interview with Talbert, for whom the play is semi-autobiographical, and a set visit. – Gary Dretzka

 

Act of Vengeance: Blu-ray
Act of Valor
Apart from being well-acted and technically proficient, “Act of Vengeance” (a.k.a., “Five Minarets in New York”) is as confounding a movie as I’ve seen in a long time. Clearly reflecting a post-9/11 world, Mahsun Kirmizigul’s international thriller takes a decidedly Turkish point-of-view on such weighty topics as terrorism and counterterrorism, the separation of mosque and state, jihadists vs. moderate Islamists, vengeance and justice, and the complexities of balancing national security and civil liberties in the United States. In doing so, the director/writer/composer/co-star also does something rarely seen in Hollywood movies: gives a fair shake to America’s Nation of Islam as a force for peace, reason and security. (They don’t all adhere to Louis Farrakhan’s stormy rhetoric, apparently.) If any of this sounds anti-American, know that our country is mostly portrayed as an island of tolerance in a world full of haters, as well as a giant, juicy target for those who aren’t keen on such a concept. An FBI agent played by veteran hard-guy Robert Patrick gives voice to anti-Islamic prejudices that are prevalent in military and law-enforcement sectors, but, eventually, he also sees the light. “Act of Vengeance” is the cinematic equivalent of a tight-rope walker attempting to bridge the American and Canadian sides of Niagara Falls, without the benefit of a net.

Although the movie opens with a prayer, the peace is quickly broken by a loud and violent police raid on a highly fortified staging area for Turkish terrorists. The target of the failed raid is a notorious terrorist known only as ”Dejjal.” When it’s somehow determined that Dejjal is, instead, hiding in New York, a pair of crack government agents is sent there to arrest and return him to Istanbul, with our government’s blessing. The distinguished Turkish actor, Haluk Bilginer, plays the suspected terrorist leader, known here as the religious teacher, Haci. Anxious only to get rid of a Muslim trouble-maker and the unwelcome detectives, the FBI doesn’t spend much time questioning the evidence or preparing for the suspect’s safe transference to authorities at the airport. In a remarkably quick and easy ambush, Haci is grabbed from the van carrying him to JFK and rushed to a safe house by parties unknown. In fact, Hasi has been rescued by men who likely are soldiers in the Nation of Islam’s Fruit of Islam wing. (While the connection isn’t directly made in the film, the suits, bow-ties and sparkling-white shirts give them away.) In a neat twist, the dogged Turk cops also find themselves in the hands of the FOI. As directed by Danny Glover’s religious leader, Marcus, and Haci, the Turkish agents will be treated as “guests” and lectured to about the unlikelihood that Haci could be anything but a man of peace and tolerance. Indeed, he’s even married to a Christian woman (Gina Gershon) and his daughter’s wedding is to be celebrated in both a Catholic church and mosque.

Haci agrees to return to Istanbul with the agents, but not before he convinces one of them of his innocence and raises doubts in the other, whose hatred for the man will later be traced to a family vendetta. There’s no need to spoil what happens upon their return to Turkey, except to say that it requires a huge suspension of disbelief, which some viewers will find worth the effort. Kirmizgul is best when he juxtaposes the many faces of Islam against government intolerance in the U.S. and Turkey, as well as a rush to judgment on the part of everyone, except Haci and Marcus. Depictions of such religious ceremonies as the Sufi Mevlevi Sama Ceremony (a.k.a., whirling dervishes) are marvelously rendered and beautifully set. “Act of Vengeance” is an interesting, if not particularly coherent movie that says a lot more about Turkey and other secular states in the Middle East than the United States and its war against Al Qaeda.

At the risk of sounding heartless and unpatriotic, “Act of Valor” strikes me as being less a movie than a combination video game and infomercial for the Navy SEALs. I don’t mean to denigrate the heroics of actual SEALS – several of whom star in the film – because we already know how important they are to the security of our country. Conceived in the direct wake of the raid on Osama Bin Laden’s compound, the Pentagon agreed to cooperate with the filmmakers thinking it would attract recruits worthy of carrying the torch. By dramatizing missions the public may never know even took place, “Act of Valor” potentially could appeal to more young men and women than another “Be all you can be …” commercial on ESPN. Hollywood, though, has a way of cheapening all acts of heroism and selflessness, largely by portraying the enemy as cartoonish fanatics and the good guys’ missions as being harmless to civilians, children and their pets. Such was the case with “The Green Berets,” which turned the Vietnam War into a John Wayne Western and portrayed the North Vietnamese government as an obstacle to the progress of man. “Act of Valor” goes down much easier than “The Green Berets,” if only because Al Qaeda makes the Vietcong look like candidates for sainthood. Moreover, the jihadist who’s made the SEALs primary target is in league not only with the Chechnyan resistance, but also Central American drug dealers and weapons smugglers, Somali crooks, Filipino suicide bombers and Mexican drug cartels, without whose help a dastardly plot against American civilians couldn’t be successful.

As if to solidify our appreciation of the SEALs, they are continually portrayed as family men, who attend beach parties with their buddies and their loved ones, never utter profanities or smoke cigarettes, carry folded flags into combat and almost never miss a kill shot. (Directors Scott Waugh and Mike McCoy especially love to show heads exploding into a thick mist of red particles.) The enemy fighters are in it either for the money or to join their relatives in paradise. There’s no question that the action sequences are exciting, but, again, they appear to be choreographed to resemble a point-and-shoot video game. Made on a budget of $12 million, “Act of Valor” grossed nearly $70 million at the domestic box office. I suspect it will do well in video, as well. Hollywood producers also rushed to dramatize the story of Pat Tillman, the former NFL player who the government wanted us to believe was killed in a firefight with Taliban loyalists. They had to slam on the brakes, however, when it became clear that he was the victim of so-called friendly fire and miscommunication between units. The documentary, “The Tillman Story,” related the truth about the incident and cover-up and played on no more than 28 screens simultaneously. You do the math. – Gary Dretzka

 

Desire
Like the films of Catherine Breillat, “Desire” explores sexuality in young men and women as if it’s something a bit more complex – and, therefore, infinitely more interesting – than the tingle that comes with a hit-and-run assignation after too many cocktails or during a night of bliss when the parents aren’t at home. Laurent Bouhnik’s intimate dramedy isn’t resistant to such rushed and often meaningless couplings, but, here, they aren’t merely included to add spice to rom-com or titillate teenage boys. This isn’t to say “Desire” (a.k.a., “Q”) is remotely clinical or an exercise in psycho-sexual melodrama, either. If Breillat hadn’t already used the title, “Sex Is Comedy,” it might have served the same purpose here. Just when it seems as if the sexual provocateur, Cecile (Deborah Revy), is about to become a victim of her untamed desires, Bouhnik turns the tables on us by demonstrating how sex, for its own sake, can be therapeutic, liberating and, yes, funny.

Spunky and aggressively sexual, Cecile has been compared to the Terence Stamp’s character in Pier Paolo Pasolini’s enigmatic “Teorema.” Her arrival in a historic coastal city — Cherbourg, perhaps – coincides with a crippling labor stoppage and an outbreak of hormonal overload among the idle youth. Cecile isn’t a raving beauty, but, in addition to having a body that won’t quit, she’s absolutely fearless when it comes to actualizing her passions. She also possesses an uncanny ability to determine how to help other people break out of their shells. Cecile isn’t without hang-ups of her own, but, once identified, they’re relatively easy to fix. One of Bouhnik’s running gags involves a Greek chorus of naked women, shot at waist level in a shower room. The ladies openly discuss their carnal desires, as well as those of their partners. Viewers should try mightily to get beyond the shock of having this many mons pubis shoved in their face at one time, so they can focus on what the anonymous women are saying. Their commentary will help explain what to expect next in “Desire.” Somehow, I doubt such candid conversations actually do take place in such settings. When the punch line is revealed, however, the nudity won’t seem nearly as gratuitous. – Gary Dretzka

 

Where Evil Lives
To suggest that films from the Troma catalog might not be to everyone’s taste is like saying it might not be a good idea for a Parisian ched to serve escargot and foie gras to a roomful of American tourists. No shit, Sherlock. In some eyes, a Troma title might be considered a delicacy, but, assuredly, not many. Today, “Where Evil Lives” is known primarily — if at all — as the final feature film made by the great character actor, Claude Akins. A veteran of more than 100 films and nearly 200 TV episodes, the big and burly Georgia native was blessed with the kind of booming voice that could be interpreted as intimidating or jolly, depending on the role. He wasn’t given much to do in “Where Evil Lives,” besides acting as an on-screen narrator for the trilogy of short horror films, but he’s easily the most memorable person in it. Made in 1991 and rarely shown since then, “Where Evil Lives” is also notable for the fact that two of its writer/directors made only one film and called it a day, while the other, Richard L. Fox, has continued to labor as an AD. Otherwise, it’s the same old Troma slaughter-fest, with a demented serial killer, sexy vampire and cop-friendly witch. – Gary Dretzka

 

Tomboy
Private Romeo
In “Tomboy,” 10-year-old Laure allows herself to be mistaken by other kids her age for a boy named Mikael. She’s a newcomer to the town and school doesn’t begin again for a couple of months, freeing her to be anyone she chooses to be. With her still-flat chest, enthusiasm for sports and Jean Seburg haircut, circa 1960, Laure/Mikael fits the classic definition of a tomboy. Mostly, she maintains the ruse to remain close to the neighborhood’s Alpha-female, Lisa, who begins to suspect that something is amiss when the list of classmates is posted and Mikael’s name isn’t on it. Laure’s mother isn’t pleased with her daughter’s game, if only because she knows a reckoning will come and it won’t be pleasant. Otherwise, the father and younger sister are solely interested in Laure’s happiness. It’s entirely possible that she someday will choose to live the rest of her life as Mikael, but it’s difficult to predict how puberty will affect the child, one way or the other. In any case, Laure’s already cleared the first hurdle. In the capable hands of writer/director Celine Sciamma (“Water Lilies”), gender-identity issues affect boys and girls, alike, and they needn’t be traumatizing. As the tomboy, French newcomer Zoe Heran could hardly be better. She naturally passes for boy, without also suggesting androgyny or being required to affect a voice or mannerisms to sell the character. The other kids are very good and everyone fits comfortably in the leafy suburban setting.

“Romeo and Juliet” has been bent, folded and, yes, mutilated so many times and in so many different ways, it’s possible that Shakespeare might not even recognize it. “Private Romeo” could never be confused with Franco Zeffirelli or Baz Luhrmann’s adaptations – let alone, with “West Side Story,” “Tromeo and Juliet” or “Gnomeo & Juliet” – but it’s unmistakably Shakespeare. In Alan Brown’s iteration of the tragedy, eight male cadets at an otherwise empty military academy are left behind to study and perform their normal duties, while the other students are away on a four-day field exercise. Even unsupervised, they take seriously the responsibility of memorizing “Romeo and Juliet,” and continue to recite their lines outside the classroom. Being young, inquisitive and sexually unformed, the cadets can’t help but see how the story of star-crossed lovers might apply to their budding concepts of romance and heartbreak. Brown demands they play the exercise straight (no pun intended) and show all due respect to the bard’s words, even the ones that so easily pass for double-entendres. A few songs also are lip-synched along the way, to good effect. Seth Numrich, who starred in the Lincoln Center production of “The War Horse,” is the most prominent actor in a cast of up-and-coming New York stage performers. Purists might not approve of “Private Romeo,” but others should find something to like here. – Gary Dretzka

 

TV to DVD Wrap:
Falling Skies: The Complete First Season: Blu-ray
Workaholics: Seasons 1&2
Pretty Little Liars: The Complete Second Season
Rags to Riches: The Complete Series
White Collar/Burn Notice
Babar: The Classic Series: The Complete First Season
Team Umizoomi: Umigames
G.I. Joe: Renegades
The second season of Robert Rodat and Steven Spielberg’s sci-fi series, “Falling Skies,” begins next week on TNT. Already up to my ears in extraterrestrials and near-apocalyptic thrillers, I took a pass on the show in its first go-round. Now that I’ve caught up with it on Blu-ray, I’m still not sure I’ll reserve a spot for it on my Tivo to-do list, but I won’t rule out the possibility, either. Set in Massachusetts, six months after an army of multi-legged “skitters” and “mech” drones touched down on Earth, “Falling Skies” is informed equally by the history of the American Revolution, William Castle’s “The Tingler” and 60 years of alien-invasion archetypes. Although viewers aren’t told everything they’ll need to know about the cockroach-like killers, it’s clear that a resistance movement has been mounted and the aliens are most interested in controlling young Bostonians. They’ve accomplished this by attaching a parasitic harness to the kids’ spines – a la “The Tingler” — and making their demands known through them. The 10-episode series stars Noah Wyle (“E.R.”) as a former Boston University history professor, who’s made second-in-command of the 2nd Massachusetts Militia Regiment. His son is among the children attached to a harness. The aliens aren’t invincible, thank goodness, and the militia even is able to capture one or two of them. Sci-fi fans and other Comic-Con veterans are the target audience for “Falling Skies” and, my guess is, they’re anxiously awaiting the start of Season 2. It also stars Moon Bloodgood, Jessy Schram, Seychelle Gabriel, Maxim Knight and Will Patton. The Blu-ray adds commentaries on five episodes, footage from a Comic-Con panel, a look at the Dark Horse comic-book adaptation, a sneak peek at the second season and look at the creation of a skitter.

Comedy Central’s ironically titled “Workaholics” may not be playing in the same league as “The Office” and “Office Space,” but it holds its own against most other cable sitcoms. Contrary to what’s implied in the title, the show’s “heroes” practically define what it means to be a slacker in the workplace. Anders (Anders Holm), Adam (Adam DeVine) and Blake (Blake Anderson) live together in a giant man-cave, share a broken-down car and are employed by a telemarketing firm. Typically, telemarketers are quick to hire and quicker to fire when an employee isn’t producing, so survival is part of the on-going storyline. Naturally, too, the boys are stoners and horn-dogs. Decidedly crude and lewd, “Workaholics” is a perfect fit for Comedy Central’s male demographic. The two-season, 20-episode Blu-ray package adds deleted scenes and alternate takes; cast interviews; original digital shorts and skits; bloopers; and a behind-the-scenes featurette.

The ABC Family series “Pretty Little Liars” is based on Sara Shepard’s series of best-selling mystery novels for young adults. Like the books, the TV series involves four high school girls who once formed a clique, but drifted apart after a fifth member disappeared. They re-unite when the missing friend is found dead and the girls begin receiving menacing letters from someone calling him- or herself, “A.” The messages threaten to reveal the teens’ darkest secrets and they don’t take this dire possibility lightly. Undaunted, they commit themselves to solving the murder. Although the DVD compilations are broken into seasons, “Pretty Little Liars” has enjoyed an almost steady run since debuting in June, 2010. Its third season debuted this week, two months after the second one ended. Like most other shows targeted at teen girls, the characters here are fashionable and uncommonly hot. There’s plenty of music and other tie-ins to products on display.

Time flies: when “Rags to Riches” was launched on NBC in 1987, publicist and critics compared it, favorably and unfavorably, with “Annie.” Now that it has finally become available on DVD, the blurbs on the jacket compare the music-filled series to “Glee.” All shows in which someone breaks into song are automatically likened to “Glee” or “High School Musical.” The “Annie” comparison holds more water, here. Joseph Bologna portrays a playboy bachelor and business mogul in desperate need of an image makeover to close a big deal. To this end, he adopts five girls, ranging in age from 8 to 17. As evidence that he hasn’t thought this thing through thoroughly, Nick has forgotten the part about being a father to the orphans, as well as a benefactor. It doesn’t take long before he senses the value in having such a talented family. The series is set in the early 1960s, so the songs the girls sing to advance the plot are very poppy. The set includes all 20 episodes, including the pilot movie.

At a time when the broadcast networks are struggling to maintain network share and save money by only programming six nights of entertainment, their rivals on the cable side continue to create series that are unpredictable, easy on the eyes and lots of fun. “Burn Notice” and “White Collar” share several common traits, including a central conceit that has remained unresolved from the first to the most-recent episode. Rather than dwell on that aspect of the narrative, though, new stand-alone mysteries are introduced each week. The key protagonists may be of the male persuasion, but women are as crucial to the series evolution as they are. The sidekicks are both funny and integral to the crime-solving. Coming into the fifth season of “Burn Notice,” CIA operative Michael Weston continues his search for the person or persons who “burned” him and caused him to be drummed out of the agency. Meanwhile, on “White Collar,” the FBI’s conman-for-hire, Neal Caffrey, is still trying to figure out how to profit from the U-boat load of stolen art he stole with Mozzie. Both DVD sets include bonus material.

Babar: The Classic Series: The Complete First Season” is a long way of saying that the partial-season DVDs released last year are now redundant. The animated series, based on Jean de Brunhoff’s illustrated books for children, first were shown on HBO in the early 1990s. The ever-optimistic king of elephants is the feature attraction in this set of 13 digitally restored and re-mastered episodes.

Nickelodeon and Nick Jr.’s “Team Umizoomi: Umigames” is comprised of four episodes, filled with math missions, music and interactive games. The show is targeted at pre-schoolers still mastering such skills as counting, sequencing, shapes, patterns, measurements and comparisons.

Any resemblance between the G.I. Joe of my youth and the ones in “G.I. Joe: Renegades” is purely coincidental. The Hub and Netflix series, currently on hiatus, is based on a mythology so complex and exhausting that I pretty much gave up trying to figure it out. From what I can tell, however, the animated series combines conceits from “The A-Team” movie and “Transformers: Prime.” – Gary Dretzka

 

BBC: Civilization: The West and the Rest
If Rudyard Kipling were alive today, I wonder if he would attempt to retract the observation, “East is east, and west is west, and never the twain shall meet.” In effect, the BBC documentary, “Civilization: The West and the Rest,” does it for him, in absentia. Professor Niall Ferguson examines how, over the course of five centuries, western countries came to dominate the global economy, mostly by exploiting the resources of undeveloped countries and requiring they buy into western ideas of food, religion, politics and culture. Ferguson suggests that this was accomplished using six “killer apps”: competition, science, property, medicine, consumerism and the work ethic. He also argues that such domination came with a price and whatever was accomplished then is now being reversed by developing states. Has the twain already been met? Stay tuned.

Among the many other tele-docs available this week are: “PBS: The Polar Explorer,” which takes us along on a trip through the Northwest Passage; “PBS: Violin Masters: Two Gentlemen of Cremona,” about the competition between neighbors Antonio Stradivari and Giuseppe Guarneri del Gesu to create the world’s greatest and most valuable musical instruments; “PBS: Craft in America: Threads,” which documents how the needle arts continue to evolve and involve contemporary culture; and “Frontline: Murdoch’s Scandal,” a primer on the growing scandal in the U.K. over illegal eavesdropping and influence peddling. From A&E comes “American Pickers: Volume Three,” during which Mike and Fritz scour the nation’s attics, basements and dustbins for discarded treasures. This time around they visit a long-abandoned amusement park and geodesic dome. – Gary Dretzka

 

New York Giants: Road to XLVI
For a football team that was about to be put on life support going into the final month of the regular season, the New York Giants did pretty well for itself on the road to its second Super Bowl upset victory in five years. Like the Green Bay Packers in 2011, the Giants had just enough steam to make the playoffs as a wildcard team, then went on to beat the Falcons, Packers, 49ers and Patriots, who they also faced in SB XLII. It was another in a long line of exciting championship games. The new NFL Productions collection includes network broadcasts of the Giants’ entire 2011 playoff run, as well as and 2012 Super Bowl. “New York Giants: Road to XLVI” is also available in Blu-ray. – Gary Dretzka

The DVD Wrapup: Talk About Kevin, more

Thursday, May 31st, 2012

We Need to Talk About Kevin: Blu-ray
The Aggression Scale: Blu-ray
At a time when the mass murder of students, office workers and family members has become an almost weekly occurrence in the United States, we no longer can dismiss each new slaughter as the act of someone “going postal” or aping what they’ve seen on a video game. In Lynne Ramsay’s chilling “We Need to Talk About Kevin,” we’re introduced to parents, Eva (Tilda Swinton) and Franklin (John C. Reilly), whose first child is completely unmanageable, almost from the day he was born. His first assault on his mother’s nerves is in his incessant crying, which tends to stop when dad gets home. Soon enough, Kevin begins glowering at her from his crib and, it seems, consciously daring her to nurture him. Later, Kevin’s obstinacy manifests itself in bypassing the toilet and defecating in his pants when Eva is least able to cope with it. Other, more demonic acts include putting his sister’s pet hamster in the garbage disposal and shooting out her eye with an arrow. Mom tries her best to deal with the little monster, but she’s well past the breaking point and completely outwitted by the boy. In the infrequent instances when Franklin observes the horrors, he simply considers them to be perfectly normal behavior for a growing boy. He suspects, however, that Eva may be too fragile to cope with him. (Because the younger daughter is perfectly normal, this seems an unlikely possibility.) The only thing that lights a spark in Kevin’s eyes is the archery lessons and equipment provided him by his dad. Here, too, the father misses all of the signs that Kevin has less noble intentions than someday being invited to join the U.S. Olympics team. When the inevitable catastrophe occurs – imagine Columbine with bows and arrows — viewers will appreciate Ramsey’s restraint in not dramatizing it. Her point already has been made.

“We Need to Talk About Kevin” is a hugely disturbing film, if only because all parents conjure worst-case scenarios for their children. Most also worry, at times, that they might not be up to the task of dealing with a problem child. In their separate portrayals of Kevin’s psychological devolution, Rock Duer, Jasper Newell and Ezra Miller are nothing less than frightening. For his 10th birthday, I probably would have petitioned the Church for an exorcism, not bought him a more advanced archery set, as does Franklin. I strongly disagree with the observations made in the commentary and other bonus material, suggesting Eva’s depression might have manifest itself in hatred toward the boy and her actions might somehow have fed his malevolence. Again, I doubt it. Not having read the source novel, I don’t know how Eva was intended to react to the provocations. We’re led to believe that she feels as if she’s being held captive in the suburban “castle.” Franklin thought it would be a perfect place to raise kids, but ignored his wife’s love of the stimuli provided by city life. She also could have benefited from a nanny or assistance from a family member. In the one instance Eva surely could be accused of child abuse, the correct diagnosis would temporary insanity caused by a conscious act of cruelty by Kevin.

Ramsey is a terrific director and writer (“Ratcatcher,” “Morvern Callar”), who’s criminally underemployed in an industry chronically short of fresh ideas and risk-takers. She knows exactly how she wants her pictures to look and gets it from cinematographer Seamus McGarvey (“Atonement”). Here, she’s elected to tell Eva’s story largely in flashback form, through dream-like reflections on better times, and Kevin’s in a more straight-forward manner. Later, the reaction of her neighbors to her tragedy and the town’s ordeal couldn’t have been more venomous if she were the lead defendant in the Salem witch trials. Critics lauded the movie, but audiences weren’t in the mood for such heavy lifting, Using 20/20 hindsight, it seems clear that it was a mistake to open “Kevin” two weeks before Christmas, in one theater, to qualify for awards consideration. By the time it was launched on more than a dozen screens simultaneously, Valentine’s Day was on the horizon and the glowing reviews were long since forgotten. Perhaps, if Swinton had been nominated for an Oscar, in addition to her Golden Globe and BAFTA nods, it might have made a bit more money. Without one, “Kevin” was dead in the water.

This brings me to a much less demanding picture, “The Aggression Scale,” which also features a deeply troubled youth, who’s been accorded as much treatment and sympathy as he’s ever likely to get. It’s closer to Jaume Collet-Serra’s “Orphan,” a slick thriller in which Vera Farmiga plays the mother whose greatest fears about an adopted Russian girl are ignored, until it’s too late. It made decent money in wide release, but also could have qualified for arthouse-horror status.

Don’t let the fact that “Aggression Scale” went straight-to-DVD, because it’s a surprisingly effective thriller. After doing something nasty that demanded he be locked up in a psychiatric institution – where his propensity for aggressive behavior was off the charts – Owen (Ryan Hartwig) is allowed to move into the estate-like home of his reconstituted family. While he isn’t exactly thrilled by the prospect of sharing space with a stepmom and stepsister, he’s relishes the opportunity to test some new ideas on them. No sooner does he get there than he begins creating makeshift weapons and bobby traps. Before long, however, a gang of thugs invades the home, where they suspect the father has stashed a cache of money belonging to their boss.  They don’t care who they kill and in what order, as long as someone is left alive to lead them to the money. For Owen, though, their appearance is like Christmas and Halloween combined. These are people he can torture, without fear of any consequences. Without options of her own, stepsister Lauren (Fabianne Therese) decides that collaboration is the better part of valor and joins forces with her demented stepbrother. Together, they make a formidable team. “The Aggression Scale” has already been likened to a horror version of “Home Alone” in genre blogs and I think it’s a fair comparison. The weaponry differs only in its ability to inflict real damage on the home invaders, instead of the kind seen in Roadrunner and Wile E. Coyote cartoons. There even are funny sight gags involving the monstrous size of the intruders and wee dimensions of the kids. If Owen and Lauren had met Kevin in treatment, before he was able to take out his aggression on his classmates, no one could have stopped them. – Gary Dretzka

Memorial Day: Blu-ray
Released on Blu-ray and VOD outlets in time for the holiday, “Memorial Day” is both a salute to the men and women who’ve put their lives on the line when their country called and a reminder of what can happen to a soldier called upon to make decisions that impact everyone from their buddies, to the outcome of an assignment and the enemy combatant who’s lying at their feet slowly bleeding to death. There’s plenty of action in director Samuel Fischer and writer Marc Conklin’s debut feature, but it’s also informed by the bond between a grandfather, who’s seen the worst of what the world has to offer, and a grandson who will experience such things on his own. Like so many other members of the so-called Greatest Generation, Grandpa Bud (James Cromwell) has elected not to share his memories of World War II with anyone, except, perhaps, the guys at the VFW post. It isn’t until 13-year-old Kyle discovers a locker containing “souvenirs” from the war gathering dust in the garage that the old man agrees to share that part of his life with anyone in the family. Bud reluctantly allows Kyle to open the case, from which he can pick three items for review. After setting certain parameters, Grandpa describes how they came to be in his possession. As dramatized, the souvenirs are far more than mere mementos. In the man’s mind, they instantly recall the horror of the war. Flash forward to another Memorial Day, several years later, and we watch as Kyle is required to make some of the same decisions made by Bud and in similar circumstances. The primary difference being, of course, that Grandpa spent his war years in Holland and Belgium fighting “krauts” and Kyle is in the Middle East facing “hajis.” Like Grandpa, Kyle collects souvenirs of clashes, large and small, and makes a couple of decisions based on what he learned on that Memorial Day long ago and far away. Unlike Grandpa’s war, which had a genuine purpose and foreseeable endgame, no such attempt is made here to make sense of the war in Iraq. It’s enough to know that our fighting men and women are brave, occasionally heroic, and someone in Washington decided they’ve earned the right to die for someone else’s concept of freedom. The acting is good and the war scenes look realistic, despite what must have been a tight budget. The Blu-ray adds commentary and a very brief making-of piece. – Gary Dretzka

Take Me Home
Valley of the Sun
Sometimes, the less we expect from a movie, the more appreciative we are of its small pleasures. These days, such surprises tend to come from movies released straight-to-DVD, or virtually so, by independent distributors willing to roll the dice. From Monterey Media and Monarch Home Entertainment, respectively, comes a pair of exceedingly modest entertainments with several nice things to recommend them. “Take Me Home” stars Sam Jaeger (“Parenthood”) as a struggling New York photographer, Thom, who buys a decommissioned taxi cab for his personal use, but is required by poverty to add the accessories that would make it look street-legal. On the night the driver is kicked out of his apartment, Thom picks up a pretty woman distraught after catching her husband at home, practically in the arms of his pretty young assistant. To make matters worse, Clair’s about to learn that her father is in critical condition, after suffering a heart attack, in San Diego. Before falling asleep in the cab’s back seat, the thoroughly wrung-out business executive throws a wad of cash at Thom, demanding that he “just drive.” When she wakes up the next morning, Claire (Amber Jaeger) is stunned to learn the cab is on the outskirts of Pittsburgh. “You said, ‘Just drive …,” Thom reminds, after she accuses him of running up the fare. As you might be able to guess, Claire hates flying enough to pay Thom to drive her to California, with a stop in Las Vegas to pick up her mom, who’s also estranged from her father. I doubt anyone would accuse me of spoiling anything by revealing that Claire manages to lose her bag — containing everything from her cellphone and wallet, to her bra and panties – and Thom doesn’t have a pot to piss in, either. It shouldn’t be difficult to imagine the kinds of things that happen on their trip west – sans money — with some degree of accuracy. In his first shot at writing and directing a feature, Jaeger (Amber’s husband) anticipates the clichés and spins them into something fresh and amusing … for the most part, anyway. Jaeger and Jaeger aren’t likely to be confused with Tracy and Hepburn any time soon, but they look comfortable together and credible when their characters are fussing, feuding and making up. The DVD adds a making-of featurette.

In “Valley of the Sun,” a superstar in the Los Angeles porn industry suffers a nervous breakdown after being asked to perform yet another twin-spin with a matched set of blond bimbos. After running around the Valley naked for an afternoon, Andy Taggert (a.k.a., Vick Velour) is rescued from a psychiatric facility by his parents (Barry Corbin, Beth Grant) and taken back to their home in an Arizona retirement community. Andy’s dad is a gruff old coot who gave up on his son, even before learning he was doing was porn, while the missus still thinks he’s acting in commercials and soaps. The old man needs some help in his plumbing business, which makes him visible in the self-contained city, and Andy is happy to lend a hand. It isn’t long before the neighbors realize why he looks familiar to them and what his presence could mine to them. For an unctuous, bible-banging community leader, it gives him a whipping boy and opportunity to intimidate everyone else. Other residents see in “Vick Velour” their last opportunity, perhaps, to regain their sexual edge and add some joy to their golden years. The first person he helps is an old-timer (Garrett Morris) who can’t keep it up anymore, but whose heart is too fragile for the little blue pill. He tests Andy’s organic prescription on the randy wife of the sanctimonious community leader and word of the miracle cure spreads quickly through the neighbors. Seems, there are as many sexual dysfunctions as there are elderly couples on the premises and Andy reluctantly agrees to help them. He also meets a sweet young woman (Heather Burns) who works at the local drug store and pretends she’s never seen Vick Velour in action. It isn’t until a meeting is called to determine if Andy’s parents should be forced to sell their home, for harboring an agent of the devil, that he learns what his advice has meant to the residents and his parents. Given an opportunity to backslide into the world of Vick Velour, Andy finds support in another unlikely place. Just as is the case with “Take Me Home,” co-writer/director Stokes McIntyre finds enough room to navigate around the clichés and make our investment in time worthwhile. Watching the elderly residents jump start their sexual batteries – in a completely non-graphic sort of way – is a lot fun. – Gary Dretzka

Coriolanus: Blu-ray
Despite the potential for extreme battlefield action, Ralph Fiennes’ interpretation of “Coriolanus” is the only version of the tragedy that has found its way into theaters. Not being a Shakespearian scholar, I would be hard-pressed to say why that’s the case, except to theorize that it demands too much work on the part of the audience. The motivations of the protagonist are far from obvious and the allegiances of everyone else change with wind. Then, there’s the dialogue, which requires intense attention to every line. Americans, especially, no longer are patient enough wade through prose, however glorious. In fact, though, “Coriolanus” tells a story that should be familiar to anyone with a textbook knowledge of modern history. We live at a time when traditional rules of warfare no longer apply and an tinhorn despot with enough assault rifle and RPGs can hold an entire nation hostage. It’s not even clear what they’re attempting to gain. In his modern-dress version of the play, Fiennes also portrays Caius Martius Coriolanus, a Roman general who returns from battle a hero, but, when handed the reins of power, treats his constituents as if they were a new enemy. After his former allies in the Senate decide that the rioters in the street are making legitimate demands, they conspire to oust Coriolanus most unceremoniously. The temporarily humbled Coriolanus forms an alliance with his greatest foe, the Volscian leader Aufidius (Gerald Butler), to retake Rome. Once a megalomaniac, always a megalomaniac. It’s interesting that Fiennes chose to shoot the movie in Serbia and Montenegro and adopt uniforms and weaponry familiar from the Bosnian War. The food riots that preceded the toppling of the Allende government in Chile — orchestrated by that country’s fascist opposition, with the support of American agencies – seem to have influenced Fiennes interpretation, as well. Also contributing mightily to the production: screenwriter John Logan (“Gladiator,” “Hugo”), cinematographer Barry Ackroyd (“The Hurt Locker”) and an all-star cast that includes Jessica Chastain (“The Help”), Vanessa Redgrave (“Isadora,” “The Bostonians”), Brian Cox (“L.I.E.”) and James Nesbitt (“Bloody Sunday”). At 123 minutes, it doesn’t require the same stamina as a night of Shakespeare on stage. The Blu-ray adds Fiennes’ commentary and a making-of featurette. – Gary Dretzka

Life Without Principle
Johnny To’s latest crime thriller is set in Hong Kong as the collapse in the world’s stock markets and global economy threatened to turn millionaires and small-time players, alike, into paupers. Just as in the United States and other western countries, Chinese investors had continued to blow air into the stock-market bubble, right up to moment it exploded. And, when it did, Triad bosses, pensioners and adults who’d just invested their life savings in a condominium all woke up with more pessimistic outlook on their future. Everyone was made aware of the risks, but few appreciated the danger ahead. Simply put, investing in the stock market had become a game and no few people could resist the possibility of getting rich quick. As we now know, bankers were only too happy to create financial vehicles that would carry their best customers to riches or ruin at equal velocity. In “Life Without Principle,” brokers and bankers not only were adept at finding new ways to please their clients, but they also hit them with fees I’m not sure would be legal here. As long as everyone was making money, they advised the punters, there was plenty enough to go around.

To’s characters represent the diversity of the Hong Kong residents who played the game in the days leading up to news of the Greek economic collapse. It would be an event that rocked the markets and added another layer of fear to investors, already shaken by events of 2008. Unlike the martial arts movies we expect to see from Hong Kong, the action and violence result from financial transactions gone sour. “Life Without Principle” isn’t the most coherent of To’s pictures, but that, too, is a function of the subject matter, which almost no one completely understands. What it lacks in narrative logic, however, it makes up for in off-the-wall characters and tick-tock decision-making. One gangster’s race to stake $5 million of his boss’ money on the ebb and flow of the Hang Seng Index is only slighted impeded by the long ornamental needle driven into his chest as a warning of what failure could mean. It’s funny, in a horrifying sort of way. There’s other violence in the movie, but nothing compared to the Hong Kong bloodbaths to which genre fans have become accustomed. The pursuit of greed translates into every language and these characters would give Gordon Gekko a good run for his money. – Gary Dretzka

Silver Tongues
A Necessary Death
Here are first features by foreign-born filmmakers who came to America to live the dream of making a movie. Once upon a time, before every city large enough to have a post office also wanted a film festival to call its own, audiences for movie like “Silver Tongues” and “A Necessary Death” were limited to university screening rooms and family gatherings. Now, anyone with a cellphone not only can make a movie, but also stage screenings whenever and wherever they may be. If they’re very lucky, someone who knows somebody at a distribution company will see the film and agree to press a few thousand discs. Competition among the nation’s many film students for the comparatively few real opportunities open to them is so great as to be Sisyphean. In a perfect world, these dramas would find a larger audience.

Simon Arthur’s “Silver Tongues” began its life in Scotland, as a short film, and was expanded to feature length here. Neither a thriller nor a mystery, it’s a chronicle of a man and woman’s attempt to escape the boredom of everyday life in truly bizarre ways. That’s OK … caper films are fun, too. Just as we get used to that idea, though, Arthur pulls another section of rug out, from under our feet. Lee Tergesen (“Army Wives,” “The Big C”) and Enid Graham (“Boardwalk Empire”) play Gerry and Joan, who travel around New England assuming false identities, seemingly to mess with the minds of strangers. Although they don’t steal money from the people they meet or torture them psychologically, Gerry and Joan are adept at locating the chinks in their armor and exploiting them. They do what they do and split, raising the stakes at every new stop. Not every viewer will be fooled by their act, but, I think, most ultimately will be surprised.

If Daniel Stamm’s “A Necessary Death” is more problematic a film, it also is quite a bit more demanding. Even describing what happens in a few of its 101 minutes could spoil the dramatic impact on viewers. So, I’ll try to work around the edges of the movie. Let’s just say, a group of L.A. film students have chosen for their final project a documentary in which a terminally ill person agrees to commit suicide before their camera. They begin their quest by taking out an ad on Craig’s List seeking volunteers. Before the service pulls the ad, several people do take them up on the offer. A likely candidate is chosen – there’s no hope his brain cancer can be reversed and a painful death is assured – and filming begins. Turns out, no one at the college wants to have anything to do with the project and an offer from a company in Texas dissolves, as well. Naturally, too, a crew member gets cold feet as she begins to fall for the candidate and it splits the team. No need to spill the rest. Viewers are left to decide for themselves whether or not what they’re seeing is true or faux. It isn’t as easy as you might think. Either way, the movie is creepy as hell. It asks many of the same questions as “The Blair Witch Project” and “Paranormal Activity,” but the stakes are much higher here. – Gary Dretzka

New York Stories: Blu-ray
D.O.A.: Blu-ray
Spaghetti Western Double Feature: Grand Duel/Keoma: Blu-ray
Even if it seems like a millennium has passed since the release in 1989 of the anthology, “New York Stories,” it’s worth remembering that directors Martin Scorsese, Woody Allen and Francis Ford Coppola were only approaching the middle of their careers and, of course, they’re still productive. As the title argues, each of the half-hour-plus episodes is set in Manhattan and speaks to a New York state of mind. Coppola’s career was stuck between disappointments “Tucker” and “The Godfather III,” while Scorsese was exiting the furor over the vastly misunderstood “The Last Temptation of Christ” and preparing for his revisualization of gangland New York in “Goodfellas.” Allen was in the midst of one of his non-funny periods, with “Another Woman” and the brilliant “Crimes and Misdemeanors” Nevertheless, fans of the directors anticipated “New York Stories” with the same optimism as usual. The anthology format had been popular in Europe in the 1960s, with “Boccaccio ’70,” “Spirits of the Dead” and “Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow” (one director, different writers for each segment) and would be again, years later, with “Three Extremes,” “Eros” and “Paris, je t’aime.” In “New York Stories,” Allen contributed “Oedipus Wrecks,” which addresses several of his most memorable characters’ neuroses and mother issues. “Life Without Zoe,” co-written by 18-year-old Sophia Coppola, borrows from Kay Thompson’s “Eloise” stories, which are about a rich girl who lives in the Plaza Hotel (here portrayed by the Sherry-Netherland), while giving her a broader world view. Most critics agreed that Scorsese’s “Life Lessons,” was the pick of the litter. It stars Nick Nolte as a Soho artist, whose hipster cachet attracts pretty young acolytes to his loft, even as his volcanic jealousy eventually drives them away. Rosanna Arquette is the primary object of the painter’s attention here and, if he’s fixated with the ornaments of her beauty, he can’t bring himself to make her feel anything but small in his presence. Look for Steve Buscemi, Peter Gabriel, Illeana Douglas, Deborah Harry, Richard Price and Brigitte Bako in small roles. Although the movie wasn’t well-received 23 years ago, the current dearth of movies for grown-ups makes it look a whole lot better.

Annabelle Jankel and Rocky Morton’s 1988 romantic thriller, “D.O.A.,” borrows its plot, if not the west-coast setting from Rudolph Mate’s 1950 noir classic, which, itself, was inspired by a 1931 movie. All three involve a man who discovers after it is too late that he’s been exposed to a lethal, if slow-acting dose of radioactive toxin. The delay literally allows him the time he requires to find his own murderer and, perhaps, discover why such a thing happened to him. Dennis Quaid plays a burned-out writer who turned to teaching at UT-Austin after his books stopped selling. One of his students commits suicide after the instructor breaks his promise to read his manuscript for a novel. If only out of spite, his rich benefactor (Charlotte Rampling) becomes a likely suspect in the poisoning, but it seems as if new ones pop up every five minutes. None of their grudges appear to be serious enough to warrant such a dire punishment. It’s isn’t until other people around town are killed that the professor begins to think he may only be a sidebar in a much larger story. Even as he’s counting the hours toward his final breath, the professor finds time to enter into an affair with a lovely freshman (Meg Ryan), who’s been trying to get him in bed all semester. Where he gets the stamina is a miracle of Hollywood science. “D.O.A.” works pretty well, even when the professor’s actions begin to defy logic. Anyone who enjoys this “D.O.A.” ought to check out the Edmund O’Brien version. Also in the cast: Rob Knepper, Jane Kaczmarek and Daniel Stern.

In advance of Quentin Tarantino’s revival of the Django legend, slated for Christmas 2012, Mill Creek Entertainment has dusted off a prime pair of Spaghetti Westerns in its catalogue and sent them out on Blu-ray. “Keoma” and “The Grand Duel” were released into foreign territories very late in the sub-genre’s heyday, 1977 and 1974 respectively, and both have more alternate titles than some franchises have sequels. At various times, Enzo G. Castellari’s entertaining “Keoma” has been known as “Django Rides Again” and “The Violent Breed.” That’s because the famously blue-eyed Franco Nero played the original coffin-dragging gunslinger and, ever since then, promoters of his Westerns have attempted to make associations that weren’t always there. (He’ll appear in Tarantino’s “Django Unchained” in some capacity, as well.)  “Keoma” stars Nero as a “half-breed” veteran of the Confederate Army who returns to his hometown to discover that his stepbrothers have joined forces with a local despot, who treats former slaves like dirt and exiles plague victims to caves. Lots of people get killed in the battle to save the populace and Nero is accorded the privilege of playing the movie’s Christ figure.

Another Spaghetti legend, Lee Van Cleef, stars in the Giancarlo Santi’s “The Grand Duel,” which also has been marketed as “The Big Showdown,” “Hell’s Fighters” and “Storm Rider.” (I can imagine it playing at the same drive-in, on the same night, under three or four of those titles. After 10 p.m., who would know the difference?) ) In it, Van Cleef plays a tough frontier sheriff, who helps a known fugitive elude bounty hunters. Their trail leads to the same town, where the cowboy’s crime allegedly was committed. The score was provided by composer Luis Enrique Bacalov, who’s contributed music to movies ranging from “Django” and “The Gospel According to Saint Matthew,” to “Kill Bill” and “Assassination Tango.” Although the package doesn’t offer much in the way of extras, the Blu-ray presentation adds a lot to the experience and both movies are crazy in a very good way. – Gary Dretzka

Harry Belafonte: Sing Your Song
Ultrasuede: In Search of Halston
The venerable singer/actor/activist/humanitarian Harry Belafonte has been a part of the cultural fabric of America for most of the last 60 years. Now 85, Belafonte has spent the last decade or so, focusing on political and humanitarian causes. He’s appeared in only one film in the last 16 years and “retired” from singing almost 10 years ago. Few men and women, though, have lived as full and productive a life as Belafonte, who, well before the American folk revival, became famous singing calypso, blues and work songs. If you pick up “Harry Belafonte: Sing Your Song,” he’ll tell you all about it. The film, written and directed by Susanne Rostock, may best be classified as an “auto-bio-doc.” It unspools like an as-told-to autobiography, but is informed by much archival footage and interviews with family members, including former wives; activists from the civil rights and peace movements; and such entertainers as Sidney Poitier, Tony Bennett, the Smothers Brothers and Diahann Carroll. Far from being self-serving, “Sing Your Song” demonstrates how it felt to confront racism at every rung of the ladder to success and even be spied on for the FBI by his own accountant, who was the husband of his psychiatrist. He reminds of how crucial it was for celebrities to stand up and be counted, with their personal and financial support, during the marches and sit-ins of the 1960s. This was at a time, of course, when even President John F. Kennedy and Attorney General Robert Kennedy treaded softly before the Southern voting bloc in Congress. Much of the archival footage has rarely, if ever been this widely disseminated and the performance material simply wonderful. If Belafonte doesn’t reveal many of his own warts – and there are some – what’s here remains as historically relevant and inspirational as ever. It’s also possible that Belafonte, while still vibrant, sees in “Sing Your Song” an opportunity to write his own obituary, instead of relying on some wet-behind-his-ears reporter to remember his greatest contribution to humanity wasn’t making “Day-O” a top-10 hit.

There was a time, in the late 1970s and 1980s, when the American-born fashion designer, Halston, was almost as famous for his ubiquity in the New York disco scene as for his groundbreaking designs and broad influence on the industry. Sadly, it was the cocaine-fueled nights he spent at Studio 54 with Liza, Bianca, Andy, Truman and an entourage of models that he’s most known in 2012. “Ultrasuede: In Search of Halston” reminds us of what made Halston deservedly rich and famous, without ignoring the debauchery and excess. Besides demanding that designers in France, especially, pay attention to their American peers, he also made clothes that were affordable and appealing to average American women. Even today, they stand out in a crowd for their simple elegance. “In Search of Halston” is relevant as cultural history, both for its description of the designer’s impact on a valuable American industry, but also for reminding us of the toll paid for “divine decadence” by lots of people who engaged in risky behavior. The witnesses include Liza Minnelli, Diane Von Furstenberg, Andre Leon Talley, Anjelica Huston, Bob Colacello and Billy Joel.—Gary Dretzka

River of No Return: Blu-ray
National Parks Exploration Series: Yosemite/Grand Canyon
Before high-definition television was an affordable household option, exhibitors at the annual Consumer Electronics Show would whet the appetite of retailers by putting nature footage on their screens. In fact, it was produced specifically for such purposes and not yet available to the public, so a certain amount of cheating was required. The images were purposefully dazzling and rich in detail. As consumers would soon learn, however, not all shows shot in HD are created equal. I’m always reminded of this harmless ruse while watching shows like PBS’ “Nature,” the BBC’s “Planet Earth” and travelogues in the “National Parks Exploration Series.” For various technical reasons, nature programming and live sports still look better on HDTV than sitcoms, dramas and pre-Blu-ray movies.

No such problem exists in the titles represented here. The locations surveyed in “Yosemite: The High Sierras” and “The Grand Canyon: A Wonder of the Natural World” couldn’t present a greater challenge for new home-theater systems. There’s more to look at and study in an hour spent here than in a month’s worth of shows on the Travel Channel. Besides the lovely scenery, each “virtual tour” offers a comprehensive look at the parks’ magnificent geological and ecosystems. Although rangers and various other experts are on hand to explain how the parks evolved, the science never gets in the way of the cinematography, which is marvelous throughout Mill Creeks’ “National Parks Exploration Series.” In “Yosemite,” the cameras travel beyond borders of the park to explore several other reserves in the High Sierra, including Sequoia and Kings Canyon. It also revisits the Gold Rush and watches climbers take on the cliffs where “modern technical rock climbing” was invented. “Grand Canyon” necessarily spends a great deal of time at the nation’s foremost tourists. It also relates the geological conditions that created the vast Colorado Plateau and how water and wind combined their strengths to carve cathedrals in stone, shape giant arches and provide homes for the Anasazi. Viewers are advised to keep a knapsack handy for quick escapes.
River of No Return” focuses on one couple’s personal story and how it played out in the nation’s least-known wilderness reserve. When wolf expert Isaac Babcock and his new bride, Bjornen, considered places to share their honeymoon, one location stood out among the other choices. They agreed to spend a year roaming Idaho’s Frank Church: River of No Return Wilderness, part of the largest roadless area left in the lower 48 states. While photographing the seasonal activities of the native wildlife – especially the thriving population of wolves – they literally were following the footsteps left by members of the Lewis & Clark Expedition. The pioneers and natives knew better than to attempt fording the rugged Salmon River and the Babcocks, who were toting a hi-def camera, tent and provisions weren’t about to risk defeat, either. Blessed with a great bounty of wildlife and 2.5 million acres of unspoiled wilderness on both sides of the river –and a long-distance lens – nature came to them. As beautiful as the meadows, cliffs and river might be in any season, it was the thick clouds of mosquitoes that caused the Babcocks to briefly regret their choice of honeymoon destinations. – Gary Dretzka

Rose Tattoo: Live in 1993
Divinyls: Live
The dynamic Aussie hard-rock ensemble, Rose Tattoo, is one of those bands its fans won’t allow to die, even though five of its former members have moved on to rock-’n’-roll heaven.  Formed in 1976, the Tats instantly recall the Rolling Stones – minus the more introspective tunes – and such American acts as the Black Crows and Guns N’ Roses. The concert recorded on “Rose Tattoo: Live in 1993” took place at the notorious 110-year-old Boggo Road Jail, which had recently been de-commissioned. The original line-up of Angry Anderson, Peter Wells, Geordie Leech and Mick Cocks reunited for the occasion, along with replacement drummer Paul di Marco. Among the songs performed here “Assault & Battery,” “Tramp,” “Out of This Place” and a raucous cover of the Stones’ “Street Fighting Man.

Also on the Boggo Road menu that night was the Divynyls, an Aussie band that enjoyed a few moments of controversy here with “I Touch Myself.” Formed in 1980, the band’s most prominent member is singer Chrissie Amphlett, a saucy wench who’s raised the temperatures of a generation of Australian head-bangers with her naughty outfits and take-no-prisoners stage persona. Watching her must have been worth the price of admission, alone, to teenage boys in Oz. The set her includes hits from the Divynyl’ five albums, including “Boys in Town,” “I Touch Myself,” “I’ll Make You Happy,” “”Only Lonely” and “”Pleasure and Pain.” – Gary Dretzka

Ernie Kovacs: The ABC Specials
Floating amid the cream of last year’s cream of the DVD crop was Shout! Factory’s “The Ernie Kovacs Collection,” a six-disc set that neatly summarized the all-too-brief career of one of television’s true creative geniuses. “The ABC Specials” has been cut from that collection as a self-contained introduction to what might be considered his crowning achievement. They represent five of the eight specials Kovacs produced in the months leading up to his death in a car accident on January 13, 1962. The final show aired a week after he died, with an introduction that noted he would have wanted it to be shown in his absence. And, why not? The skits and blackouts that filled each show were brilliantly innovative and remain hilarious both as comedy and the art of illusion. Even so, Kovacs sometimes was a hard sell to audiences. As his friend, Jack Lemmon, noted, “He was always 15 years ahead of everyone else.” Among those who recognized his gift were comics and talk-show hosts, who freely admit to borrowing from the best. It isn’t difficult to see the influence on Johnny Carson, the producers of “Laugh-In,” David Letterman and Craig Ferguson. Unlike previous shows, the specials were recorded on video tape. They allowed Kovacs and his team greater creative freedom and less time in the editing bays. Among the things that make the ABC specials so entertaining is the music – the original “Mack the Knife,” in German, and a Hungarian take on “Mona Lisa,” among others – that plays over the anarchic skits. The DVD adds a compilation of commercials produced for Dutch Masters cigars, all of which are of a piece with the material in the show and very funny. – Gary Dretzka<

Maverick: The Complete First Season
Rookie Blue: The Complete Second Season: Blu-ray
Drop Dead Diva: The Complete Third Season
Art 21: Art in the Twenty-First Century: Season 6
That “Maverick” is one of the most cleverly conceived and thoroughly entertaining series in television history is an indisputable fact. That it also helped shape ABC into a viable broadcast network is also true. In the mid-1950s, the fledgling network had money and affiliates but little to offer audiences hungry for fresh genre fare. Soon, Warner Bros. studio would position itself as a valuable resource, providing as much as 10 hours of character-driven programming each week. Besides “Maverick,” they included “Cheyenne,” “77 Sunset Strip,” “Surfside 6,” “Bronco,” “Colt .45” and “Hawaiian Eye.” Typically, the shows’ handsome protagonists attracted viewers who wanted to move on from sitcoms and variety shows dominated by older actors, who’d made the transition from radio to television. (Kids and parents also flocked to “Disneyland” and “Walt Disney Presents.”) James Garner perfectly fit the mold of an actor who could carry a show based on his charismatic personality, alone. Fortunately, he didn’t have to do that, as the adventures of gentleman-gambler Bret Maverick were supported by wonderfully intelligent writing, attractive co-stars, ever-changing settings and a balance of humor and drama. If there was never a question that Maverick was most interested in making money, it was also clear that he would go out of way to rescue a damsel in distress or turn the table on a corrupt politician or crooked gambler. His code of honor included never cheating in a card game – he rarely needed to – and always sharing the profits from his cons with those who needed the money most. “Maverick: The Complete First Season” marks the first time the show has made the leap to DVD and not much has been lost in the passage of time. It isn’t until Episode 8 that brother Bart is introduced. Although Jack Kelly’s character only was to make a single appearance, the chemistry between Bart and Bret prompted series creator Roy Huggins to make him a fixture. Kelly’s presence afforded Garner some relief from the demands of a grueling production schedule and gave the writers another long hook upon which they could hang plot twists and through-lines. The first season also saw the first appearances by repeat characters Big Mike McComb (Leo Gordon), Dandy Jim Buckley (Efrem Zimbalist Jr.), Doc Holliday (Gerald Mohr) and Samantha Crawford (Diane Brewster), who made the move from “Cheyenne.”

Rookie Blue” is the rare television drama that already has survived two seasons as a summer-replacement series and is now in its third. There’s nothing particularly remarkable about a cop show that uses young and sexy actors to attract prime-time viewers. While it would be unfair to characterize the average police recruit as being less than movie-star handsome or glamorous, today’s breed of TV cops seems to have chosen law-enforcement as a career only after failing to impress the producers of “Girls Gone Wild” or “The Bachelor.” This isn’t to say that the majority of cops under 30 lack a certain pulchritudinous quality, only that they don’t look like people who’ve spent their off-hours at L.A. Fitness or the cosmetics bar at Macy’s. That said, the rookie cops here aren’t any less credible than the doctors on “Grey’s Anatomy” and “Private Practice.,” which also air regularly on Thursday nights during the fall season. The Blu-ray adds several short featurettes of little consequence: “Shots Fired: Inside the Season Premiere,” “Horsing Around,” “Cops on Coffee,” “Travis Talk,” “Disorderly Conduct” and “Split-Screen, Behind-the-Scenes Footage.”

One way to gauge how hip a show is considered to be is the number of guest stars it attracts to play small, but juicy parts. In Season 3 of Lifetime’s “Drop Dead Diva,” this included Paula Abdul, LeAnn Rimes, Wendy Williams, Lance Bass, Kathy Griffin, Brandy, Wanda Sykes, Clay Aiken, Patti Stanger, Jamie-Lynn Sigler and Australia’s Thunder From Down Under. For those as yet unacquainted with it, “DDD” tweaks the basic “Heaven Can Wait” concept by having the spirit of pretty blond airhead re-introduced into the body of a homely, overweight lawyer who no longer needs it. Given that this likely is the only opportunity Jane (Brooke Elliott) will have for re-mortality, she must adjust not only to being considered the opposite of beautiful by mainstream standards, but also deal with being a professional in a job that doesn’t require modeling. In Season 3, as well, she’s asked to play wedding planner for her former fiancé’s nuptials while also working on cases involving botched breast-implant surgery gone wrong and a Death Row inmate, attempting to redeem himself. Unlike “Rookie Blue,” “DDD” is less a handy summer-replacement series – of which there should be more – than a reason to stay in and watch TV on a hot, humid night.

In Season 6 of PBS’ “Art 21: Art in the Twenty-First Century,” a series that introduces viewers to important emerging artists, the focus is on change, boundaries, history and balance. The international collection of artists represented includes Marina Abramovic, Ai Weiwei, David Altmejd, El Anatsui, assume vivid astro focus, Lynda Benglis, Rackstraw Downes, Glenn Ligon, Robert Mangold, Catherine Opie, Mary Reid Kelley, Sarah Sze, and Tabaimo. – Gary Dretzka

As the story goes, 2012 Masters champion Gerry Lester Watson Jr. was given the nickname, Bubba, by his father, who admired the great collegiate and NFL player, Bubba Smith. In the South, it is a term of endearment that suggests its bearer is large, athletic and someone who might someday also be accorded the title “good ol’ boy.” It’s been said many times, incorrectly, that the membership of Augusta National Golf Club is an organization comprised strictly of good ol’ boys, all of whom are rich and well-connected. It wasn’t until 1990 that club members allowed an African-American to join the fun, and, then, only under intense media scrutiny. Women, even those who’ve broken through the glass ceiling of companies that sponsor the classic tournament, still aren’t allowed to join. It’s only appropriate that a Bubba has finally been accorded elite status among the good ol’ boys, even if the rich and famous man for whom he was (nick)named could never have become a member.

Before being fitted for the ceremonial green jacket that goes to the winner, Watson came out on top of one of the most entertaining and exciting Masters in its 76-year history. The leader board may not have included Tiger Woods and other likely candidates, but the match was hotly contested between a senior (Fred Couples), a three-time winner player (Phil Mickelson), a foreigner (Peter Oosthuizen) and the Floridian, Watson. All weekend long, keeping up with the dramatic pace required exceptional shooting, quick recovery from mistakes and nerves of graphite. Late Sunday afternoon, it would take another two holes to determine the winner. Suffice it to say, Bubba is a popular champion, as much for his skill as for the kind of personal and professional backstory the saps at CBS love to report. My only problem with the hot-off-the-presses “Highlights of the 2012 Masters Tournament” is that it’s only available in standard-definition, when golf is a game best appreciated in hi-def. With its wonderful architecture and splendid vegetation, the Masters has become a yearly treat on HDTV. Every ripple of the greens and roll of the fairways bears witness to the players’ task. The DVD, which was produced by Augusta National Inc., includes coverage of the outdoor green-jacket ceremony, champion’s press conference, honorary starters and press conference with past champions Arnold Palmer, Gary Player and Jack Nicklaus. – Gary Dretzka