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The DVD Wrapup

Wednesday, May 15th, 2013

Escape: Blu-ray
Don’t let the familiarity of the illustration on the cover of “Escape” discourage you from taking a chance on this surprisingly exciting period adventure from Norway. If it consciously echoes the marketing material for “The Hunger Games,” you should know that almost nothing else resembles that blockbuster, except the courage and spunk of the lead character, Signe, and the occasional bow and arrow. “Escape” is set in the 14th Century, shortly after the Black Death raged through Norway, killing half its population, and superstition ruled the land. Signe has been captured by outlaws determined to avenge the death of their leader’s young daughter and slaughter anyone who gets in their way. There’s no prize awaiting Signe if she survives her ordeal and no Norwegian equivalent for such silly names as Katniss, Primrose, Seneca, Effie and Peeta. What it does share with “Hunger Games,” however, is wall-to-wall action, primitive weaponry and a couple of alpha females. Signe is captured by the renegades after watching her father, mother and brother are viciously slain on their way to a new life in the big city. She’s spared temporarily by the exceedingly Nordic-looking warlord, Dagmar, who either wants Signe to serve as a friend to her pre-teen “daughter,” Frigg, or be offered up as sacrifice for the daughter killed by villagers who suspect they’re responsible for spreading the plague. The men in the gang aren’t nearly as complicated. They simply want to rape and kill Signe, and, if she doesn’t behave, Dagmar might grant them the opportunity. Frigg feels an immediate kinship to the captive, leading us to believe that Dagmar may have kidnaped her, as well. Sensing danger, Frigg helps her new friend escape, then joins her when her own safety is threatened. Their flight plays out against a backdrop of some spectacular Norwegian high-country scenery and there’s no certainty either one of them will succeed.

Director Roar Uthaug and writer Thomas Moldestad previously collaborated on “Cold Prey,” a neat little horror/thriller that reminded me favorably of “The Shining,” minus the ghosts and an ax-wielding Jack Nicholson. It was followed by “Cold Prey 2,” also written by Moldestad, which is set immediately after the events of the first movie in a nearly snowbound rural hospital. Anyone looking for the Next Big Thing from Scandinavia – post-Nicolas Winding Refn, of “Drive” and “Pusher” – need look no further than Uthaug and Moldestad. Their pictures honor genre conventions, while avoiding clichés and easy exploitation. “Escape” is being released unrated, but, if I had a vote, it would be a tossup between PG-13 and R. There’s plenty of violence throughout the picture – of the medieval persuasion — but very little real gore or bloodshed. The Blu-ray looks good and includes some deleted scenes that easily could have extended the movie’s length past 79 minutes and not damaged its pace; bloopers; and a making-of featurette that focuses on the visual effects. – Gary Dretzka

A Glimpse Inside the Mind of Charles Swan III: Blu-ray
If you can suspend your disbelief long enough to buy Charlie Sheen as a stand-in for Marcello Mastroianni in Roman Coppola’s re-imagining of “8½,” there’s a fighting chance you’ll enjoy “A Glimpse Inside the Mind of Charles Swan III.” Agreed, that’s a big “if,” but the son of Francis Ford Coppola, brother of Sofia, grandson of Carmine, nephew of Talia Shire and cousin of Jonathan Schwartzman and Nicolas Cage has already proven himself capable of pulling a rabbit out of a hat. As the writer of “Moonrise Kingdom,” “The Darjeeling Limited” and “CQ,” which he also directed, he’s revealed an imagination uniquely suited to offbeat storytelling. Even so, filtering Sheen through a prism borrowed from Federico Fellini is a conceit that would test the limits of his more famous relatives. Set in the commercial afterglow of the psychedelic ’60s, in a highly stylized Los Angeles, “Charles Swan” reminded me of the fantasy Las Vegas conjured by Francis Ford Coppola in “One From the Heart.” The protagonist is an accomplished graphic designer, inspired by airbrush artist Charles White III, who’s been blocked creatively since the departure of his girlfriend, Ivana (Katheryn Winnick). Her primary gripe is that Swan isn’t terribly interested in living in the present, refusing to surrender souvenirs from previous conquests and abandon habits likely to kill him.

Like Joe Gideon in “All That Jazz,” Swann is self-absorbed, self-destructive, extremely talented and incapable of moderation in his choice of toxins and women whose beauty flatters him. If we weren’t already overly familiar and thoroughly exhausted with this side of Sheen, Coppola might have been able to find a reason for us to empathize with Swan. Sheen gives it his all here, but it’s impossible to separate the actor and character from their press clippings. All that said, there are some wonderful things in “Charles Swan” and it’s always nice to see Jason Schwartzman, Bill Murray, Patricia Arquette and Aubrey Plaza in key supporting roles. The set and art design, cinematography, bright soundtrack, period art and tchotchkes all add tantalizing eye candy to the striking visual presentation and are vividly replicated in hi-def here. Coppola seems to have fallen in love with his ideas and couldn’t bear to part with any of them. If only he could have given us a better reason to care about Charles Swan III, other than that he’s an endangered artist worth protecting, the movie would be easier to endorse. The Blu-ray arrives with featurettes “A Glimpse Behind the Glimpse: Making the Mind of Charles Swan III” and “A Glimpse Into the Mind of Charles White III” and Coppola’s commentary. – Gary Dretzka

Back to 1942: Blu-ray
Throughout much of the 20th Century, and through no fault of its own, China’s Henan province was one of the worst places on Earth to live. In 1942, it was right up there with Stalingrad, which was being pounded without mercy by German troops commanded by Hitler to take the city. In that battle, at least, the defenders of Stalingrad knew precisely who they were fighting and why and felt confident that Mother Russia wasn’t going to abandon or betray them. As we learn in Feng Xiaogang’s epic “Back to 1942” — adapted by Liu Zhenyun from his 1990 novel — the 3 million people who died in great famine of 1942 were used as pawns by the Kuomintang government, even as the province was surrounded by Japanese troops. Refugees fleeing their barren homelands were bombed by Japanese planes targeting the soldiers among them and then machine-gunned by Chinese troops to keep them from advancing on other cities. Only the American journalist Theodore White and British photographer Harrison Forman cared enough about the peasants to alert the Allies of this terrible disaster through their dispatches. Chiang Kai-shek censored the reports in China and, until 1990, the events depicted in “Back to 1942,” including cannibalism, child and wife selling and murder, went largely forgotten or ignored. (Famine is nothing new in Chinese history and an even greater human tragedy would occur during Mao Zedong’s reign, less than two decades later.) As damning as the movie is, however, one of the root causes of the famine and subsequent locust invasion goes unmentioned: three years earlier, in an attempt to slow the Japanese advance, the nationalist government decided to breach a large dam and flood the region. A drought would ensure that the devastation continued through the war years, finally displacing 10 million people. The Japanese would take advantage of the situation by refusing to invade the ravaged province and pretending to show more humanitarian concern for the peasants than their own leaders.

“Back to 1942” is a tremendously sad and occasionally difficult movie to watch. It’s significant that the current Chinese government approved its production and studios made an estimated $34 million available to make it. The Communist government probably wouldn’t have been so willing to advance the project if the Japanese and Kuomintang weren’t so obviously to blame for the disaster. Certainly, it will be a long time before the Great Famine of Mao, which may have claimed as many as 30 million Chinese, is dramatized on film. Coincidentally, Feng’s last movie was “Aftershock,” a searing drama based on events that followed the devastating 1976 Tangshan earthquake. His ability to re-create the indescribable pain and epic scope of such disasters borders on the uncanny. He gets great support from an A-list cast of Chinese actors – including Zhang Guoli, Xu Fan, Zhang Hanyu, Le Xuejiang, Zhang Mo and Chen Daoming — in addition to fine work from Adrien Brody as White and Tim Robbins as an Irish priest modeled after Thomas Megan, bishop of the Loyang Catholic Mission. If “Back to 1942” had a hero of the stature of Oskar Schindler, it might have left a larger footprint in its limited theatrical run here, as well. Historically minded audiences should find much in the film to admire. (It’s worth noting that, back home, Time correspondent White would be rewarded for his principled stance by being blacklisted and partially blamed for the “loss of China” to the communists.) – Gary Dretzka

Frankie Go Boom: Blu-ray
Typically, in such anarchic ensemble comedies as “Frankie Go Boom,” a completely sane, if troubled character is surrounded by people whose quirks range from endearing to intolerable. The movies tend to play well before festival audiences, but sail above the heads of less adventuresome audiences in the real world. Not surprisingly, perhaps, the Metacritic reviews for “Frankie Go Boom” ranged from a perfect-100 – awarded by the New York Times’ Jeannette Catsoulis — to three in the 30s, from the New York Post, NPR and Hollywood Reporter. (Some critics, I think, routinely give lower grades to any movie in which a pot-belly pig plays a prominent role.) Let’s see if I can synopsize what happens here. Frank (Charlie Hunnam) is the more-or-less normal brother of Bruce (Chris O’Dowd), a ne’er-do-well, who, when we meet him, is participating in a final AA meeting before being released from prison. For years, Bruce has gone out of his way to make his younger brother miserable. He is an aspiring filmmaker and not at all reluctant to share embarrassing home movies with strangers. No sooner is Bruce set free than he decides it might be fun to surreptitiously film Frankie making love to a woman, Lassie (Lizzy Caplan), who nearly ran him over on her bicycle and sent it out on the Internet. Lassie wears a bra made of candy, red bloomers, a garter belt and black stockings. In spite of Bruce’s inability to sustain an erection, the movie goes viral, humiliating both parties.

The rest of “Frankie Goes Boom” is consumed with Frankie’s efforts to remove the movie from the Internet and convince Lassie he isn’t a total jerk. Attempting to eliminate anything from circulation is a fool’s errand, though, as it already has been linked to and copied tens of thousands of times. It does provide writer/director Jordan Roberts an opportunity to introduce us to Phyllis, a transsexual computer hacker, played hilariously by Ron Perelman, and nudge the narrative from farce to romance. Conspiring against that urge are other kooky supporting characters, including Chris Noth, as Lassie’s dad and Bruce’s wildly paranoid, gun-toting prison buddy; Whitney Cumming, as Bruce’s horny girlfriend; Nora Dunn as the boys’ overly permissive mother; and Sam Anderson as their passive-aggressive father. After establishing their relationship, Frankie and Lassie barely get a word in edgewise. If any of that mishigas sounds appealing, “Frankie Go Boom” could prove to be the right ticket for you. The Blu-ray adds deleted scenes, a behind-the-scenes piece and dissection of the pig’s big scene. – Gary Dretzka

By sheer coincidence, I watched Hisako Matsui and David Wiener’s elegantly mounted biopic of educator, editor, journalist and supermom Leonie Gilmour on Mother’s Day. “Leonie” not only lays out the particulars of her own remarkable life story, but it also describes her singular influence on her highly talented children, Japanese-American artist and architect Isamu Noguchi and dancer Ailes Gilmour. The native New Yorker would be an ideal subject for a movie, even if her children had enjoyed only moderately successful careers. As depicted by Emily Mortimer, Gilmour’s story is nothing short of inspirational. After leaving Bryn Mawr College without a degree, in 1896, Gilmour supported herself by teaching and editing. Five years later, she would answer a newspaper ad for an editor, placed by Japanese writer Yone Noguchi. He had been living in the U.S. for several years, publishing two books of poetry, but still needed help with his English prose. With Gilmour’s help, Nogushi was able to finish “The American Diary of a Japanese Girl” and publish it to some acclaim. A year later, they would enter into a short-lived romantic relationship and faux marriage, whose end-product would be their son, Isamu. In 1907, Gilmour joined Nogushi in Japan, unaware that he had married a Japanese woman in the interim.

Complicating matters further, Nogushi reverted to cultural traditions that would have required Gilmour to play a subservient, even invisible role as his companion. She stayed on in Japan, even after their relationship ended and she gave birth to Ailes, whose father remained anonymous. Isamu traveled to the United States to attend school and re-discover the American half of his identity. Gilmour would return home in 1920, as well. She steered Isamu away from his pursuit of a degree in medicine, to a career in sculpture and architecture. She died in 1933, at 60. Co-writer/director Matsui focuses here on Gilmour’s experiences in Japan, where, apart from Noguchi, she initially knew no one and spoke very little Japanese. She would adapt to the foreign culture relatively quickly, however, and find work teaching in Yokohama. Mortimer does a wonderful job portraying Gilmour, especially as someone who became as one with the beauty of the cherry blossoms and lush gardens, and prospered as a modern woman in an ancient, hidebound culture. Matsui does a nice job re-creating the period setting and finding interesting places to stage the story. The DVD comes with making-of and background material, as well as an interview with the director. – Gary Dretzka

Crimewave: Blu-ray
In 1981, after unexpectedly hitting the bulls-eye with “The Evil Dead,” longtime friends Sam Raimi, Bruce Campbell and Robert Tapert thought Hollywood executives would recognize their limitless potential and beat a path to their door in the wilds of suburban Detroit. Instead, they pushed their luck by making an extremely goofy and far-too-dark comedy that nearly ended their careers before they began. Campbell recalls the experience in a funny interview conducted for the Blu-ray and DVD release from Shout!Factory. If all three of the men hadn’t rebounded quickly with “Evil Dead II” and a long string of hits, his story wouldn’t be nearly amusing as it is, in hindsight. Long story short, after investors got their hands on the script and rushes for “Crimewave,” they flipped completely out and not in a good way. The film went virtually unseen in the U.S., until several years after its VHS release, when Raimi’s name also was associated with “Darkman” and “Army of Darkness.” Today, while not exactly a cult hit, “Crimewave” can be viewed without prejudice as the live-action cartoon it is. It gets points, as well, for being the second film co-written by Joel and Ethan Coen.

Being a big fan of the Three Stooges, Raimi invested years’ worth of nyuk-nyuk-nyuk humor into the portrayals of a pair of moronic pest exterminators, who drive around Detroit in a van with a rat attached to its roof and moonlight as hitmen. They’ve taken it upon themselves to kill the head of a security-systems company who stiffed them, and, while they’re at it, take out his annoying wife (Louise Lasser). In doing so, they successfully frame a nebbishy security guard, Vic (Reed Birney), who fancies himself a super-hero in the Peter Parker tradition. Vic fools himself into believing that a gorgeous blond moll (Sheree J. Wilson) might be within his romantic grasp, simply because he saved her from being run over by a car. He endeavors to rescue her from her cad boyfriend (Campbell) and the exterminators, one of whom apparently took his acting cues from Bluto. (The other resembles Ron Jeremy on a bad-hair day.) The wild chase that ensues could be seen as a parody of every Hollywood car chase since the days of the Keystone Kops. That’s a lot of weight for a very slight comedy to carry, and it stumbles more often than succeeds. Still, the scenes in which Raimi is able to show off his wild imagination and cinematic instincts – a segment set inside a 1940s nightclub is extremely well done – easily qualify “Crimewave” as a guilty pleasure. – Gary Dretzka

Face 2 Face
Katherine Brooks has lived the kind of life – most of it, anyway — that could inspire filmmakers from places other than L.A. and New York to buck the odds and pursue their dream. As her story goes, the Louisiana native ran away from home at 16, with $150 in her pocket, and headed for Hollywood. Once there, Brooks was reduced to sleeping in her car, until she discovered the ladder to fulfillment and began to climb it rung by rung, in front of and behind the camera. Her greatest success has come in the reality-TV arena, with credits that include “Newlyweds: Nick & Jessica,” “The Real World,” “The Osbournes” and “The Spin Crowd.” Her short films led to features, “Surrender,” “Loving Annabelle” and “Waking Madison.” The documentary, “Face 2 Face,” describes a personal journey Brooks took at a time in her life when depression was leading her down a dead-end road. After undergoing surgery and becoming dependent on drugs, she came to the realization that having 5,000 Facebook “friends” didn’t make her feel any less lonely, isolated and un-hugged than if she had never purchased a PC. As a way of reaching for help and companionship, the filmmaker asked her Facebook pals if they might consider welcoming her into their homes, in person. It took her nine minutes to score 50 legitimate invitations and begin planning her 11,000-mile cross-country journey, which would be funded by 846 backers on Kickstarter. Several of the people Brooks met were in even worse straits than she was and it allowed her to open up to them. Others were able to inspire the filmmaker and force her to reassess her priorities. Among them is the former lover, now much older, who inspired the short film, “Dear Emily,” and caused no small amount of heartbreak in her after being jilted. “Face 2 Face” is a powerful document, made even more dramatic by the very real possibility that Brooks could relapse at any moment and finally succumb to the demons encouraging her to commit suicide. I got the feeling that the film might originally have been intended as a reality series, but her producers lost patience along the way. Had it gotten the green light, the title “Real People” would have been every bit as appropriate as “Face 2 Face.” The DVD includes a slideshow and deleted scenes. – Gary Dretzka

The Last Stand: Blu-ray
Tomorrow You’re Gone
Directed by the estimable Jee-woon Kim, in his first foray outside of Korea, “The Land Stand” marks Arnold Schwarzenegger’s first starring role since “T3,” in 2003. Surprisingly, the years he spent in Sacramento, as the Governator, didn’t dull his edge as an action hero as much as some of us thought they would. Instead of giving him an opportunity to prove his continued value as a marquee talent, though, a large percentage of his former fan base simply decided to give his comeback picture a base. The disappointing box-office notwithstanding, “Last Stand” does a nice job reminding us of what made Arnold an A-list star in the first place. It helps, of course, that writer Arnold Knauer (“Ghost Team One”) knew all of the right action-genre buttons to push, while also throwing in enough off-the-cuff humor to keep things from getting too serious. Here, Arnold plays Ray Owens, a small-town sheriff who is content to do virtually nothing, as long as the natives are safe and quiet. He’s about to be tested by a gang of mercenary thugs attempting to smuggle a convicted Mexican drug kingpin back, across the border, on a bridge designed to transport military vehicles across canyons and rivers. The escapee (Eduardo Noriega) is driving a souped-up Corvette and he knows how to make it do tricks. FBI agents led by Forest Whitaker are trailing the guy, as well, but he’s burdened by the institutional arrogance of the agency and no natural feel for the ruthlessness of Mexican criminals. Having already made his reputation as a take-no-prisoners lawman in L.A., Owens relishes the opportunity to prove that frontier justice is still the best defense against tyranny and really bad hombres. His motley crew of deputies includes Luis Guzman, Johnny Knoxville, Harry Dean Stanton, Zach Gilford, Rodrigo Santoro and Jaime Alexander, and the bad guys are commanded by the comically sinister Peter Stormare. There’s lots of violence in “The Last Stand” and enough blood spray to satisfy Arnold’s old fans. Blessedly, his character isn’t given a love interest 40 years his junior, as well, which an American director might have been tempted to do. The Blu-ray adds several decent making-of featurettes, as well as extended and deleted scenes. Anyone who digs the movie really ought to check out Kim’s “The Good, the Bad, the Weird,” “I Saw the Devil,” “A Bittersweet Life” and “A Tale of Two Sisters.” You won’t be disappointed.

David Jacobson’s existential crime thriller, “Tomorrow You’re Gone,” follows by eight years the director’s creepy urban-cowboy psycho-drama, “Down in the Valley,” and the surprisingly well-received docu-drama, “Dahmer.” He has a penchant for movies that don’t follow the usual blueprints for the genre and, here, even ventures into David Lynch territory. If it doesn’t always work, at least he’s trying different things. Stephen Dorff plays the emotionally damaged ex-con Charlie Rankin, whose life was saved in prison by an older jailbird (Willem Dafoe) known as Buddha. As soon as Charlie is released on parole he knows that he’ll have to repay the debt owed Buddha by taking out a rival. For his trouble, he’s given a pile of money and a barely functional handgun. Before Charlie can pull the trigger, however, he is introduced to the closest thing to an angel any crook is likely to meet in his lifetime. While riding on a city bus, he’s taken under the wing of a warm and generous beauty, Florence (Michelle Monaghan), who invites him home to watch a porno in which she plays a naughty nun. After his four-year bit, Charles seems more than a little gun-shy around such an aggressive woman and he greets her persistence with a mixture of fear and disdain. We’re left to wonder if she might either be a supernatural trickster or spy for Buddha. When the hit doesn’t go down as planned, Charlie is forced to rethink his concept of honor and obligation to Buddha. Dorf’s trademark angst gets tiresome after a while and it’s difficult to buy Monaghan as an X-rated sister of mercy – in gold sandals, no less – even with her crazy wigs. “Tomorrow You’re Gone” plays far better on DVD than in theaters, so fans of moody crime stories might find something here to like. – Gary Dretzka

History of the Eagles
Mumford & Sons: The Story
Any 40-year-old rock band that thinks it’s OK to sell tickets to its concerts at prices topping out at $895 a piece – covering front-row seating, a parking pass and a pre-concert party – is either the Rolling Stones or comprised of musicians who have sold their souls to Satan’s accountants. As the History of the Eagles tour approaches Chicago, scalpers are hoping to get $2,249 for front-row seats. You can still find seats for between $85 and $200, but most are singles and you’ll be sitting closer to the top of the Sears (a.k.a., Willis) Tower than the stage. Tickets for the Stones’ “50 and Counting” tour are roughly in the same range, but, in some cities, the promoters have had to lower prices to avoid empty seats. I only mention this because the nearly four-hour-long “History of the Eagles: The Story of an American Band” spends as much time chronicling the band’s contract disputes, bitter internecine feuds and battles with record-label executives, including David Geffen, as the music. No matter the compromises made in the 1970s, it can’t be said that the most financially prosperous artists didn’t also produce much unforgettable music. When the classic-rock format began to dominate FM radio stations in the early 1980s, programmers naturally turned to the Eagles, Stones and other bands that could still fill stadiums during reunion tours. The good news here is that, besides giving far too much exposure to the band’s longtime manager, Irving Azoff, Alison Ellwood’s warts-and-all documentary contains much terrific music, a solid recounting of the history of the songs, a sounding board for former members Bernie Leadon, Randy Meisner and Don Felder and praise for the contributions of latecomers Joe Walsh and Timothy B. Schmit.

Along with Linda Ronstadt, Jackson Brown, John David Souther, Dan Fogelberg, Rick Nelson and Poco, the Eagles were among the founders of the so-called California sound, which combined elements of country, folk and guitar-heavy rock, with introspective lyrics and a cosmic-cowboy point-of-view on life. The Eagles would emerge from the pack, joining Fleetwood Mac at the top of the pop charts with songs that told stories and captured the quirkiness of love in three- to four-minute bursts. The Eagles, in turn, would influence an entire generation of country-music artists, beginning with Travis Tritt, Clint Black, John Anderson, Alan Jackson, Trisha Yearwood, Vince Gill, Diamond Rio and Suzy Bogguss, all of whom participated in the hugely popular 1993 tribute album, “Common Thread: The Songs of the Eagles.” Ellwood also chronicles the solo careers of Don Henley and Glenn Frey and various reunion tours and never-ending squabbles and ego trips. It’s as complete a document as any fan of the group could hope to find, informed by many fresh interviews and archival footage. A separate third disc captures the 1977 Capital Center concert, when the original band members were still talking to each other and the group had yet to hit its creative peak. A special limited-edition package adds a 40-page case-bound book, 10 photographs of the band at various stages of its existence, a lithograph of the band’s desert-bleached-skull logo, a Native American blanket-inspired liner and leather tie fastened with a bone button. Not surprisingly, perhaps, it lists for $299, while the three-disc DVD/Blu-ray can be had for $40, full retail.

By marked contrast, “Mumford & Sons: The Story” is an unauthorized biography that runs all of 42 minutes, contains about 20 seconds of music and is comprised of interviews that are widely available on the Internet. Fans who aren’t already aware of the information dispensed in the material here really have no right to consider themselves to be fans. This being the year that the folky London quartet broke through, some folks may leap at anything with the lads’ names on it. I can’t imagine anyone being satisfied with “The Story.” – Gary Dretzka

Of Two Minds
Frontline: Raising Adam Lanza
PBS: 10 Buildings That Changed America
When, in the 1990s, “bipolar disorder” became the widely accepted alternative to “manic-depression,” I assumed that the change was a function of scientifically correct linguistics. If anything, the difference essentially was a matter of degree, the highs being higher and the lows lower. After all, it wasn’t that long ago that the eccentricities of unruly students were blamed on “ants in their pants” and the frequent drifting off of other classmates was a function of daydreaming. Today, of course, those same inattentive kids have been diagnosed as having ADD – and, later, ADHD – and, for chronically spaced-out children, a form of dissociation. In some less-enlightened cultures, I suppose, extreme examples of these same maladies still are blamed on demonic possession and cures are sought in church-sanctioned exorcisms. Too often, though, people with bipolar disorder and other new-fangled psychiatric ailments see the ultimate cure in suicide. Indeed, social networks on the Internet now serve as early-warning systems for teenagers who have been bullied, tormented or marginalized to the point where they think going out in a blaze of infamy might give voice to their pain. “Of Two Minds” introduces us to a few of the estimated 5 million Americans living with bipolar disorder and the surviving relatives of those who decided that the condition was too great obstacle to overcome. Co-director Douglas Blush has edited many of the most decorated documentaries of the last decade, including “Wordplay,” “These Amazing Shadows,” “The Invisible War,” “Freakonomics” and “Outrage.” If, like ADHD, bipolarity seems to have evolved from little-known malady to epidemic, it’s because the media now pays greater attention to any illness that affects people in their key readership base or viewer demographic. And, of course, awareness breeds contagion. Moreover, people being treated for mental-health issues no longer accept second-class citizenry or stigmatization and have formed affinity groups to break down the walls of ignorance, indifference and silence. It’s only been within the lifetimes of most Baby Boomers that the idea of seeking psychiatric guidance — if only to attain such perceived curatives as Ritalin, Zoloft, Xanax, Prozac, Wellbutrin and lithium – has evolved from being a social stigma or sign of weakness, to something that’s as common as going to any other medical specialist. “Of Two Minds” takes a straight-forward approach to the subject, allowing the patients to speak for themselves about their own experiences and decisions concerning medication, and for therapists to offer their perspectives. The DVD adds the short film, “The Mad Parade”; more interviews with experts and advocates; and extended interviews with people we meet in the film.

In the wake of the mass killings at Sandy Hook Elementary School, I was prompted to consider how horrifying crimes and their perpetrators distinguish and sometimes define great cities for decades to come. Chicago is known far and wide as the site of the Saint Valentine’s Day Massacre, while Dallas and Memphis will forever be stigmatized by the assassinations of President John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. Until Hurricane Sandy, Tony Soprano was as representative of New Jersey as Bruce Springsteen and Jon Bon Jovi. Our urban centers have other worthwhile attractions and dignitaries, however. Recently, the names of certain American suburbs have become as notorious as the Texas School Book Depository, Los Angeles’ now-demolished Ambassador Hotel, where Bobby Kennedy was killed, and Oklahoma City’s Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building. Such previously anonymous locales as Littleton, Aurora, Newtown, Clackamas, Oak Creek, Brookfield, Binghampton, Virginia Tech, Lancaster and even Fort Hood have become synonymous with mass slayings that occurred there. In some cases, the names have become red-flag warnings for proponents of stronger gun-control statutes and, for others, proof that all teachers, students and janitors should be armed and considered deputized. While the “Frontline” documentary “Raising Adam Lanza” leaves more questions unanswered than most such films, it also offers a balanced portrait of a town whose citizens were forced to deal with issues no suburbanite anticipated confronting when escaping the clamor and crime of big cities. The give-and-take that followed the shootings at Sandy Hook wasn’t nearly as rancorous as some debates over gun control, but it revealed a chasm that isn’t likely to be bridged as long as politicians can be bought by lobbyists and the words, “well-regulated militia,” are twisted to fit opposing points of view. The documentary was produced in collaboration with the Hartford Courant newspaper, in whose circulation area the shootings occurred. That Adam Lanza was a walking time bomb is treated as a given. What made him so dangerous and how his gun-toting mother’s malfeasance may have contributed to the massacre remain questions that may remain unanswered forever.

That the entirety of America’s architectural history can be boiled down to 10 building seems laughable, at first glance, anyway. By eliminating the influence of gas stations, theme parks and fast-food restaurants, however, a case can be made that the evolution of office and government buildings, churches, factories and shopping centers all begin with certain seminal concepts. They can still be seen and experienced first-hand, although a couple of them have greatly outlived their usefulness, as intended. The PBS presentation,”10 Buildings That Changed America,” takes us on cross-country tour of America and introduces to such visionaries thinkers as Thomas Jefferson, Louis Sullivan, Frank Lloyd Wright, Frank Gehry and Robert Venturi. It also explains how the ideas developed from Old World traditions, shifting cultural currents and decisions based strictly on increasing profits. Among the places visited are the Virginia State Capitol, Boston’s Trinity Church, Chicago’s Loop and suburbs, Henry Ford’s first Model T assembly line and the Disney Concert Hall, in downtown Los Angeles. At an hour, such a program could only serve as a sampler, but it makes for a painless lesson on American architecture. – Gary Dretzka

PBS: The Bletchley Circle: Cracking a Killer’s Code: Blu-ray
TeenNick: Dance Academy: Season 1
Just as the key role played by Navajo code talkers in World War II remained classified until well into the Vietnam War, the details of the unlocking of Germany’s Enigma machines and their ciphers were kept secret by British authorities for several decades. It wasn’t until the 1979 release of the Polish film, “Sekret Enigmy,” that anyone was made aware of the Polish Cipher Bureau’s cracking of the Enigma code in 1933 and the transference of two machines to France and Britain before the country was invaded by the Nazis. The mansion at Bletchley Park became the nerve center of code-breaking activity during the war, providing intelligence that would prove useful in the North African campaign and other war zones. British filmmakers have since used Bletchley Park as a setting for intrigue, romance and melodrama. “The Bletchley Circle: Cracking a Killer’s Code” uses the wartime experiences of four women code breakers as a stepping-off point for their investigation, eight years later, into a series of murders involving young women in southern England. Like many other women who served their countries in WWII and gave up their jobs to returning soldiers, these four have found civilian life to be a tad dreary. By happenstance, information gleaned from newspaper reports on the killings makes one of the women believe that they could only have been perpetrated by someone from the intelligence community. She convinces her three friends to join her in an investigation that is dismissed by police and frowned upon by their spouses. Because amateur sleuths are nearly as common in the mystery genre as thick-skulled cops, there’s a distinct air of familiarity to the three-part mini-series. Even so, the clichés don’t interfere with the realistic period feel and patient unfolding of clues and evidence. The Blu-ray arrives with cast and crew interviews.

Imported to Nickelodeon from Australia, “Dance Academy” is an ensemble drama targeted at American teens who don’t necessary fit the mold of the glitzy socialites on “Gossip Girl” or football-crazy kids of “Friday Night Lights.” It’s been positioned alongside the network’s long-running “Degrassi: The Next Generation,” which is produced in Canada. The show is set at Sydney’s National Academy of Dance, where survival as an artist supersedes maintaining one’s social status. The diverse cast of characters frequently finds time for other teen pursuits, but the first-year students, especially, are required to condition themselves to being away from home for the first time and/or accepting the supervision of adults. Among the key players is Tara Webster (Xenia Goodwin), who was raised on a sheep farm and fears she may be hopelessly outclassed by the boys and girls from more pedigreed backgrounds. The first-season packages arrive in separate volumes, each representing 13 episodes. They also contain photo galleries. – Gary Dretzka

Bink & Gollie and More Stories About Friendship
The latest compilation of read-along stories from Scholastic Storybook Treasures is headlined by the Mutt & Jeff of kid-lit, “Bink and Gollie.” The precocious girls — one tiny, the other tall – find it difficult to agree on almost anything, but, unlike our elected representatives, understand the value of compromise. The Geisel-winning series is written by Kate DiCamillo and Alison McGhee, illustrated by Tony Fucile and narrated by Kate Micucci and Riki Lindhome. Other stories included here are “A Sick Day for Amos McGee,” by Philip C. Stead, illustrated by Erin E. Stead and narrated by David de Vries; “The Other Side,” by Jacqueline Woodson, illustrated by E.B. Lewis, narrated by Toshi Widoff-Woodson; and “Cat and Canary,” written and illustrated by Michael Foreman. The special features add interviews with illustrator Fucile, the Steads and Woodson. And, yes, the stories promote friendship, even in the most unlikely of circumstances. – Gary Dretzka

The DVD Wrapup

Wednesday, May 8th, 2013

Jack Reacher: Blu-ray
Not having read the novel upon which “Jack Reacher” was adapted, I couldn’t tell you with any certainty how the movie compares with the 2005 Lee Child thriller “One Shot.” I do know that Tom Cruise bears no physical resemblance to the literary creation and such discrepancies can alienate loyal fans of a popular series. On the other hand, Cruise’s ability to play action heroes can’t be questioned and his willingness to go the extra mile, by performing many of the stunts himself, only adds to more credibility to his performances. I suspect that newcomers to the Child canon might even be drawn to the source material, based solely on Cruise’s willingness to take part in the adaptation and, surely, that’s a good thing. If nothing else, his presence in “Jack Reacher” diverts attention to the fact that next to nothing in writer/director Christopher McQuarrie’s screenplay could actually happen in real life and it’s neither a fantasy nor science-fiction. When it comes to suspending disbelief, after all, the action fantasies of the “Mission:Impossible” franchise wouldn’t be half as much fun without Cruise. “Jack Reacher” didn’t bring home as much bacon as “M:I,” but, without its star, the movie wouldn’t have come close to surpassing its estimated budget, which it did. So, props to him.

As written, the 6-foot-5, sandy-haired Reacher grew up in a combat-hardened family, graduated from West Point and served his country as an officer/investigator in the Army Military Police Corps. Well decorated, he attained the rank of a major, before being demoted and re-promoted. In the movie, we’re told that Reacher mustered out under circumstances that could come back to haunt him and, for the past dozen years, has been flying under the radar. Amazingly, like Paladin, Superman and the Lone Ranger, he tends to show up in the nick of time to rescue some poor soul, and then disappears after his mission is accomplished. Reacher is free to travel light because his brain is the equivalent of a portable CSI lab and his martial-arts skills allow him to forgo the kind of weaponry that he could pick up from any NRA member, gang-banger or sociopath, without first having to undergo an evaluation of his psychological fitness.

Here, he arrives in Pittsburgh in the immediate wake of a multiple murder that could only have been accomplished by a military-trained long-distance sniper. The suspect was easily captured and beaten to within an inch of his death in a van transporting him to jail. Once he awakens from a coma, the first thing he asks for is an audience with Reacher. When Reacher does arrive to investigate the crime, however, he’s confident that the Iraq War veteran simply snapped and, in his mind, was killing terrorists, instead of random Americans out for a stroll along one of the city’s three rivers. It doesn’t take long Reacher to reach a different conclusion, that the marksman couldn’t have shot those people, at least not in the way demonstrated in the opening scene. Now, determined to clear the obvious suspect, he finds an ally in the suspect’s lawyer (Rosamund Pike), who, besides being beautiful (of course), is the daughter of the city’s possibly corrupt DA (Richard Jenkins). This doesn’t sit well with the guys who set him up. Conveniently, again, they make themselves all too visible to the brilliant investigator and the rest of the movie becomes one long chase, frequently interrupted by fists of fury.

The chase scenes are extremely well choreographed and the final shootout, while totally ridiculous, is exciting, anyway. The movie also benefits from the presence of Werner Herzog and Robert Duvall in supporting roles that have to be seen to be believed. The Paramount Blu-ray shouldn’t disappoint fans of the stars and genre, either, as the audio-visual presentation is excellent. There are two commentary tracks, one with Cruise and McQuarrie; and the other with composer Joe Kramer, accompanied by an isolated score presentation. The set adds the featurettes “When the Man Comes Around,” “You Do Not Mess With Jack Reacher: Combat & Weapons” and “The Reacher Phenomenon,” as well as a UV digital copy.

Upstream Color: Blu-ray
If Terence Malick ever attempted a bio-horror thriller, it might look something like “Upstream Color,” a brain-teaser that took home a Special Jury Prize at this year’s Sundance festival. Sonically and visually, Shane Carruth’s second feature delivers a hypnotic charge not unlike the vial substance consumed by the characters before they lose the ability to control their actions. As fascinating as it is, however, “Upstream Color” might as well have been dubbed into Sanskrit, for all the sense I could make of Carruth’s intentions. In this way, it resembles the writer/director’s previous non-linear head-scratcher, “Primer,” which involved time travel and mysterious machines manufactured in a garage. Nearly a decade later, the writer/director seems no more interested in making things easy for his audience. As the movie opens, we watch a couple of boys collect leaves for a young man who will scrape a powdery substance off them. The scrapings somehow lead to the creation of a maggot-borne hallucinogen that literally gets beneath the skin of its unsuspecting victims and causes them to engage in such irrational behavior as signing over the title to their homes and giving kidnapers access to ATM codes. Two of the people who have ingested the drug meet serendipitously on a bus, allowing them to compare notes and comfort each other after the trauma of having the maggots removed from their bodies. The creepy-crawly things are fed to the amateur surgeon’s pigs, which then form an emotional attachment to the donors. I’m not at all sure what the pigs have to do with anything, but we know that they aren’t reluctant to eat things, including humans, no other carnivore would touch. Once digested, the maggot and toxins would be passed along to anyone with a hankering for bacon or ribs. That possibility isn’t fully explained, either. The crazy, wonderful thing about “Upstream Color” is how the pulsating musical score, when combined with the inventive digital cinematography, serves to mesmerize viewers willing to turn their imaginations over to Carruth. Amy Seimetz (“The Killing”) is terrific as the woman who takes the brunt of the punishment here and, even without revealing much skin, seduces us into caring deeply about her fate.

Starlet: Blu-ray
The MPAA braintrust wants us to believe that movies that are rated NC-17 or go out unrated are playing on the same level playing field as movies branded R and PG-13. They also continue to insist, against much evidence to the contrary, that the ratings are intended specifically for use by parents as a tool for determining what movies they’ll allow their children to see. The board, we’re told, doesn’t censor films and it can’t force members to do things that would destroy their integrity or dilute the director’s vision. Maybe so, but that’s exactly what happens when a distributor is faced with the dilemma of requiring an artist to make cuts that would to fit the board’s notion of what a R or PG-13 ought to be, or face the economic consequences. (It explains those annoying CGI cock-blockers in the R-rated version in “Eyes Wide Shut.”) More often than not, making love in movies – however tastefully rendered – upsets the ratings board far more than making war or what passes for it in our urban jungles and trailer parks. Too often, NC-17 and unrated movies can’t find a welcoming screen outside of an arthouse and at festivals. What the MPAA refuses to acknowledge is that exhibitors can’t possibly weigh all films equally when clauses in their leases forbid the showing of NC-17 and unrated pictures and some newspaper won’t accept ads for them. As such, it’s the kiss of death for movies as brave and challenging as “Starlet,” which arrives in DVD and Blu-ray with a NR stamp. In fact, “Starlet” is an excellent movie, with more than the usual number of surprises and plenty of insight about life on the fringes of society. It’s graced by fine acting and sharp dialogue.

At its core, “Starlet” is an updating of the age-old story of a young woman, who, in the course of assuaging her conscience, forms a bond that seals a permanent, if unlikely friendship. Twenty-one-year-old Jane (Dree Hemingway) purchases a thermos at a yard sale from a cranky old dame who is quick to warn her of her no-return, no-exchange policy. After discovering several thousand dollars’ worth of rolled-up bills in the bottle, Jane attempts to return it to Sadie (Besedka Johnson), but she’s given the cold shoulder and a slammed door for her efforts. Still feeling a tad guilty, Jane conspires to befriend the older woman and do favors for her in lieu of the money she isn’t being allowed to return. If Jane and Sadie don’t have much in common, both are lonely as hell and in need of a friendship that doesn’t come with conditions. Co-writer/director Sean Baker’s challenge, then, was devising a way for these two women to discover each other and open their hearts to the possibility that they have more in common than an interest in yard sales. If some dreams are answered along the way, well, that’s OK, too.

Here’s comes the rub, though, and it isn’t revealed until about a half-hour into the movie: like hundreds of other young adults living and working in the San Fernando Valley, Jane and her ditzoid roommate, Melissa (Stella Maeve), are employed in the sex industry and to establish the credibility of the characters, there’s a scene containing graphic sexuality. The other nudity barely merits a “R.” Moreover, Jane and Melissa aren’t embarrassed by their work or were driven to it by an abusive relative. Their boss isn’t particularly sleazy and they make more money than most people living in the San Fernando Valley, even if they tend to blow it on recreational drugs and hot cars. If there were better jobs available for young women without college degrees, Jane, at least, probably would grab one. Until then, she’ll grin and bear it. It represents the kind of moral ambiguity that has offended industry watchdogs for most of the last 100 years and is punished with more severe ratings. As a result of the NR, “Starlet” never made it past a handful of bookings in select theaters and festival appearances. Baker could have saved himself some agony by editing the graphic scene to fit the borders of a “R” and send out a director’s-cut edition in Blu-ray, but it wouldn’t carry the same weight or tell us all we need to know about Jane. Baker doesn’t solicit pity or disgust in the time allotted him in the bonus package.

In fact, he’s far more anxious to laud the wee canine actor that bore the name, Starlet, and introduce us to 87-year-old Johnson, who died after realizing her own lifelong dream of becoming an actor. “Starlet” would be her first and only movie credit. If anyone had been able to see her performance, academy voters might have tossed a few votes her way as Best Supporting Actress. As it is, “Starlet” won the Robert Altman Award for ensemble acting at the 2013 Independent Spirit Awards and was nominated for the prize named for John Cassavetes. Dree Hemingway, daughter of Mariel, won the prize for Breakthrough Performer at the Hamptons International Film Festival and Baker was nominated for top prizes at the Locarno and Mar del Plata festivals and won the Fipresci Award at Reykjavik. If that isn’t validation for a micro-budget indie, I don’t know what is. The Blu-ray arrives with a bunch of interviews and background pieces, as well as a lengthy making-of featurette.

Last Summer Won’t Happen/Time of the Locust
Doctors of the Dark Side
The Exorcist in the 21st Century

For those who have seen, heard and read enough about the “turbulent 1960s” to last two lifetimes, please forgive me for suggesting two more documentaries, both short and directly related to the antiwar movement. Peter Gessner’s rarely seen “Last Summer Won’t Happen” was shot at a particularly auspicious period in modern American history, in 1968, a year after San Francisco’s Summer of Love and a few months between the “levitation of the Pentagon” protest and student takeover at Columbia University and the Democratic Convention in Chicago. The people we meet in the film had either watched or participated in the events and were trying to come up with a way to radicalize hippies and create a unified popular front against the Vietnam War. To mobilize the flower children of the Haight-Ashbury – Berkeley, across the Bay, having already been radicalized – it would take something more than the urging of a group of would-be urban guerrillas from New York’s Lower East Side. The idea was to fuse the disparate countercultures in Chicago, before the convention, by staging events that combined music, street theater, chanting, speechifying and lots of dope. Once the crowd was merged, the newly born Youth International Party (Yippie!) would add the thick dollop of New Left politics to the recipe. What happened instead, of course, would be a series of violent confrontations with Chicago police and four years of mostly destructive chaos.

What makes “Last Summer Won’t Happen” noteworthy is its proximity to several of the key players in the Movement at this crucial juncture. It also demonstrates how clueless everyone who would play a key role in the events to come still was, from the insipient Yippies and student radicals, to the Chicago cops and Democratic politicians. Their clearly was no endgame on the left side of the equation and pols happily allowed the police to take the heat for their divisive policies. Here, the angry young men, predominantly, based in crowded Lower East Side apartments sit around and debate the efficacy of violence and confronting police; the relevance of the hippie culture, if any; the role of anarchists in the emerging counterculture; and how to get by each day without any visible means of support. If Mayor Daley and the DNC had been able to watch early rushes of “Last Summer Won’t Happen,” they might have decided to welcome the protesters to Grant Park, sanction their concerts, authorize a few marches and stand by while the kids numbed themselves with pot and LSD. After dismissing the McCarthy challenge, the Dems could have nominated Hubert Humphrey and avoided sharing tear gas with the protesters. Instead, the world watched as cops beat the crap out of defenseless kids and refused them their right to free assembly. Humphrey’s campaign ran out of gas before it started and a radical SDS splinter group would return to Chicago to battle police, destroy property and steer media attention in its direction. Gessner’s film ends before any of that plays out, but you don’t need a Weatherman to know which way the wind would blow from there. The primary players shown in the documentary are professional rabble-rouser Abbie Hoffman; editor of the Realist, Paul Krassner; folksinger and activist Phil Ochs; anarchist Osha Tom Neumann; a young drug dealer and squatter; and a runaway hippie chick who seems distinctly out of place in Lower Manhattan.

If, in 1966, Gessner’s riveting 13-minute documentary, “Time of the Locust,” had been widely seen outside a few film festivals, Americans might have reassessed their support of our early involvement in Vietnam and forced their congressmen to get out while the getting was good. Legend has it that JFK had soured on the war before he was assassinated and would have avoided the quagmire it quickly became. The same evidence available to JFK was denied voters and the rest is history. “Time of the Locust” and other films uncolored by the major media’s get-along, go-along attitude might have provided a tipping point for withdrawal. It is a brutal film, full of images deemed too horrifying for consumption by American TV audiences. Instead of relying on footage compiled by cameramen allowed to tag along with the American troops, Gessner assembled material taken from other points of view. It came from non-network news agencies, Japanese journalists and Vietnamese National Liberation Front combat footage. At this point in the war, the Pentagon had convinced lawmakers that the South Vietnamese army would soon be able to stand its ground against the Vietcong, freeing the U.S. to shut down the North Vietnamese Army and split town. Nothing could be further from the truth. Here, we see Vietcong prisoners being beaten nearly to death and shot full of holes before any useful intelligence was gleaned. The South Vietnamese soldiers’ arrogance alienated and frightened the peasants, who were even more petrified by the American tanks that rambled through their rice paddies and demolished anything they saw as a potential VC hideout. “Locust” was free of narration, so the images spoke for themselves. The same Americans who, in 1965, had been shocked by images of our soldiers torching peasant huts with flamethrowers and Zippo lighters might have recoiled even further after watching a blindfolded prisoner being machine-gunned in front of their eyes.

Doctors of the Dark Side” asks other disturbing questions about the way Americans wage war. Whether or not one agrees with the use of torture to interrogate prisoners, this documentary demands that we ask ourselves where we draw the line between lawful techniques and inhuman behavior. If we treat the Geneva Conventions as if they don’t apply to us, how can we expect our enemies to do so when Americans are captured? It is possible to hold the moral high ground while also mucking around in the mud? Producer/director Martha Davis asks these questions and more, knowing that Americans already are aware of the excesses reported from Guantanamo Bay, Abu Ghraib and CIA black sites, as described in “Zero Dark Thirty.” The tight focus here is on the role of doctors and psychologists in the implementation and supervision of Enhanced Interrogation Techniques. After four years of research, Davis felt confident enough in her finding to make “Doctors of the Dark Side,” a film that makes a persuasive case for condemning ongoing practices. According to established guidelines, doctors must be present when EIT techniques are employed and psychologists must be immediately available to assess the ability of prisoners to mentally withstand torture. Instead, they are routinely required to participate in the interrogations and ignore evidence that guidelines have been surpassed. In essence, doctors sworn to honor the Hippocratic Oath (“to abstain from doing harm”), even above the Geneva Conventions, have willingly or forcibly engaged in practices that make mockery of it. In one worst-case scenario, doctors who couldn’t prevent the beating death of a prisoner were called upon to falsify certificates and make it look as if the man died in his cell, instead of a torture chamber. The evidence is verified by military, legal and medical experts, as well as witnesses and former detainees. At the same time as news of hunger strikers being force-fed in Guantanamo are being reported – minus descriptions of how it’s done – Davis recounts the same thing happening years earlier, using methods widely condemned when ducks and geese are fattened for tastier foie gras. However grotesque, “Doctors of the Dark Side” makes a persuasive argument without resorting to polemics or partisan politics. President Obama, after all, has as much to answer for on the subject as his predecessor.

The Exorcist in the 21st Century” straddles the thin lines that divide exploitation, entertainment and enlightenment, as they pertain to the most controversial and intriguing rite in the Roman Catholic Church. That it originated in Norway is only the first of several surprises. There aren’t all that many native-born Catholics in Scandinavia, so, when one recently underwent a church-authorized exorcism, it caught the attention of Norwegian filmmakers Fredrik Horn Akselsen and Christian Falch. They introduce us to Father José Antonio Fortea, whose job it is to visit parishes where possessions are reported and, if the facts justify such an extreme treatment, do battle with the devil. He patiently and articulately describes the process, which is deemed necessary more times than one would imagine. I found it interesting, as well, that Father Gabriele Amorth, the Vatican’s official exorcist, considers “The Exorcist” to be a fair representation of the practice and that he keeps a copy of the movie in his library. The filmmakers traveled to a remote corner of the Andes to meet a woman who was about to undergo an exorcism and interview people close to her. Her freak-outs aren’t nearly as extreme as those experienced by Linda Blair, but they’re hellishly noisy and more than a little bit disturbing. Fortea follows them to Colombia to conduct the rite, which is staged in a way that recalls a revival meeting in the American South. Fortuitously, because he’s conversant in the language of tongues, he’s on somewhat equal footing with the demon. The DVD adds more interview material and a longer version of the exorcism ritual.

The Oranges: Blu-ray
In less capable hands, the suburban family drama “The Oranges” might have become a prime candidate for a Golden Raspberry. Instead, Julian Farino (“Entourage”) finds the humanity in a so-so script by first-timers Ian Helfer and Jay Reiss and gets out of the way of actors capable of making an infomercial for flameless candles entertaining. “The Oranges” is a tale of two families that live across the street from each other in the tranquil New Jersey town of Orange. Carol, Terry and Nina Ostroff are played by Allison Janney, Oliver Platt and Leighton Meester, respectively, while Paige, David, Toby and Vanessa Walling are portrayed by Catherine Keener, Hugh Laurie, Adam Brody and Alia Shawkat. The men are best buddies; the women are borderline miserable; the daughters, once BFFs, are estranged; and Brody’s handsome, young economist undergoes torture by match-making. Because “The Oranges” is set during the holiday season, it’s fair to expect evidence of dysfunction to emerge any minute. Sure enough, a scandal involving both families is revealed early in the proceedings, catching everyone off-guard. Even as it tears apart the fabric of their friendship, the possibility always exists that a happy ending can be pulled out of Farino’s hat. He does just that, but not in a fashion one might expect. The story includes several humorous moments, but they’re mostly born of misery and, again, the cast works overtime to deliver the laughs. The resolution ties things up pretty smoothly, without resorting to melodrama or flakey logic. While “The Oranges” isn’t on the same block as “American Beauty,” fans of the actors probably won’t mind squeezing out some time to see it.

Safe Haven: Blu-ray
I know it isn’t fair to dismiss “Safe Haven” by concluding, “If you’ve seen one adaptation of a Nicholas Sparks novel, you’ve seen them all,” but there are far too many similarities in the seven movies not to come to that conclusion. Almost all of them have been set and shot in quaint, seaside communities in the South, where time comes to a standstill at irregular intervals. The young protagonists are always good-looking, a bit troubled, harboring dark secrets and are soon to be tested. There’s romance, but no couplings so steamy they would threaten its PG or PG-13 rating. They are modestly budgeted and make lots of money, even if boyfriends would rather eat worms than sit through one with their best girl. If there’s any such thing as a critic-proof movie, it would be one adapted from a Sparks’ novel. “Safe Haven” is set in the lovely town of Southport, North Carolina, where, one day, a young woman (Julianne Hough) decides to get off the Greyhound and put down roots. We already know that Katie is escaping from a bad scene back home, although we don’t know exactly what happened. Once in Southport, she plays really, really hard-to-get with a handsome widower and single father, Alex (Josh Duhamel), with whom she’s destined to come to some kind of romantic resolution. That’s not a spoiler, it’s a given.

Whatever it is Katie did in her former life, she’s turned into a model citizen of Southport, single-handedly rehabbing a dilapidated cabin and waiting tables at the best and, perhaps, only restaurant in town. When Katie and Alex inevitably hook up, one of the kids warms to her immediately, while the other takes some work. Katie can’t help but feel snake-bit when her past finally comes back to haunt her. Hough and Duhamel make a cute couple, just as Zac Efron and Taylor Schilling, Channing Tatum and Amanda Seyfried, Richard Gere and Diane Lane, Ryan Gosling and Rachel McAdams, Shane West and Mandy Moore and Kevin Costner and Robin Wright did before them. In his second visit to Sparks’ territory, Lasse Hallstrom (“Dear John”) lets the story speak for itself, while also milking the natural beauty of the scenic location and chemistry between the possibly star-crossed pair. The Blu-ray takes full advantage of both qualities, adding deleted and extended scenes, an alternate ending, a set tour and featurettes “Igniting the Romance in Safe Haven” and “Josh Duhamel’s Lessons in Crabbing.”

The Rabbi’s Cat: Blu-ray
Writer and director Joann Sfar (“Gainsbourg”) has grappled with issues pertaining to Jewish identity for at least as long as he’s known that one of his parents is Ashkenazi and the other Sephardic. For him, it’s like having bloodstreams that run in opposite directions in the same veins. The same tug-of-war is waged in his graphic novel and animated feature, “The Rabbi’s Cat,” in which a cat raised by the rabbi, Sfar, and his voluptuous daughter, Zlabya, develops the ability to communicate with people after it swallows a parrot. Not too timid to engage in serious conversation, the cat asks the rabbi if having a Jewish master and mistress makes him Jewish. If so, then, the cat would like to have a bar mitzvah. (Circumcision is whole other kettle of fish.) Confounding the identity issue even further is the fact that the rabbi has a cousin who’s Muslim.

The film opens in Algiers, where, between the wars, people of different faiths and ethnicities live next-door to each other in relative harmony. It isn’t until the rabbi, his daughter, the cat and a Russian Jew – he snuck into Algeria in a crate containing religious texts – embark on a journey to Ethiopia, in search of “the Jerusalem of Africa.” Here, they encounter people who are far less tolerant. Because “The Rabbi’s Cat” is adapted from different volumes of Sfar’s popular series of comic books – graphic novels, if you prefer – the narrative doesn’t always flow in a straight direction. The movie is beautifully rendered to take advantage of the Arabesque setting and artfully conceived Saharan skies, gardens, palms and sand dunes. The movie was released into 3D in its theatrical run. It’s not yet available here in that format, but anyone interested in the source material can find it at Amazon and other outlets. The Blu-ray adds the featurettes, “The Making of ‘The Rabbi’s Cat’” and “Joann Sfar Draws From Memory.” There’s nothing in the movie that parents would find objectionable for ’tweens and teens, but younger children probably would need a translator – or rabbi – for the theological discussions.

The Great Gatsby: Midnight in Manhattan
Barrymore: Blu-ray

When a movie has been adapted from a popular novel, it’s sometimes difficult for a reviewer to recommend in what order a potential viewer should experience both works, if at all. Too often, fans of the book are disappointed to the point of depression by a film’s take on the material, while there are times when the movie actually makes the book look better than it is. In the case of “The Great Gatsby,” it would difficult to do any real damage to the source material because the story is only as long as it needs to be and reads as if it were written for film. Anyone who’s a fan of classic cinema could cast it in a half-hour. I have yet to experience F. Scott Fitzgerald’s masterpiece in 3D — the format preferred by Baz Luhrman for his adaptation – but the trailers and teasers whet my appetite for the May 10 release. (It also will be shown in standard 2D.) The BBC documentary “The Great Gatsby: Midnight in Manhattan” makes me want to go back and read the novel, as well, for the third or fourth time. It was filmed in advance of the novel’s 75th anniversary, in 2000, but the only thing that’s really changed is the status of several of the people interviewed, including Hunter S. Thompson, George Plimpton, William Styron, Christopher Hitchens, Budd Schulberg and Norman Mailer, who are no longer with us. Among the other witnesses are granddaughter Eleanor Lanahan, Garrison Keiller, Jay McInerney, several notable scholars and critics, and the secretary who was with Fitzgerald when he died, Francis Kroll Ring. All of them agree on “The Great Gatsby” being the novel that most closely captures the elusive American Dream and qualifies as the Great American Novel. If Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald can be credited for defining the Jazz Age, they argue, it’s also true that they invented their roles in it. What’s truly remarkable, though, is how prophetic the assembled experts turned out to be. Seven years before the second Great Depression, they predicted how the then-booming U.S. economy would, of necessity, go bust in much the same way as it had in Fitzgerald’s era. It’s uncanny.

To add value to the 43-minute documentary, BBC Home Entertainment has paired “Midnight in Manhattan” with the 1975 made-for-TV drama, “A Dream of Living.” The “Omnibus” presentation describes a day and a night in the life of the Fitzgeralds, while they were living large in a Long Island mansion. In it, Ernest Hemingway drops by one afternoon to discuss his decision to turn from reporting to fiction and offer praise for “The Great Gatsby.” The men are still close friends and heavy drinkers. Zelda has yet to be diagnosed with bipolar disorder and is rehearsing for her debut as a ballerina. The evening portion of the teleplay is set during a party that is only slightly less grand and debauched than the ones described in the novel. David Hemmings and Annie Lambert are terrific as the star-crossed couple.

Fitzgerald and the great American thespian John Barrymore both were working at the top of the game during the Roaring ’20s, even as both men’s livers were taking a beating and the early symptoms of alcoholism were beginning to reveal themselves. “Barrymore” re-creates the 1997 production of William Luce’s two-person play, during which Christopher Plummer delivered a tour-de-force performance as the actor in his decline. It is set on a props-filled stage, in 1942, when Barrymore supposedly was making one last stab at a comeback as Richard III, a role he had performed triumphantly on Broadway in 1920. The two characters are a memory-challenged Barrymore and his increasingly frustrated “reader.” Although the actor needs to be prodded on lines he had long memorized, there also are stretches of lucidity when Barrymore is as brilliant as he ever was. In between, he recalls life in the celebrated theater family and anecdotes about the good old days, when he was the undisputed champion of Hollywood and Broadway. He even recites a few bawdy limericks. Clearly, though, the alcoholism has already taken its toll. Plummer, an actor of similar stature, is nothing short of mesmerizing in a Tony Award-winning performance that demands frequent shifts in demeanor and dramatic soliloquies. The Blu-ray adds a very good backgrounder on the play, Barrymore and Plummer’s career.

Mama: Blu-ray
It has become something of a Hollywood truism that movies released in January, even those with prominent stars, have been dumped there as placeholders between the holiday pictures with those with more commercial potential to come. Once Valentine’s Day rolls around, thoughts of summer already are consuming the minds of Hollywood distributors. It’s possible that the handlers of “Mama” knew that they had something marketable, at least, with Jessica Chastain’s career still in its ascendency. It also carried the imprimatur of executive producer and master of horror Guillermo del Toro. Word-of-mouth worked wonders for January’s child, as Andres and Barbara Musshietti’s film grossed several times more than its estimated budget. That should give fans of stories about ghosts and bogeymen an idea of its rent-ability in DVD and Blu-ray. The movie opens auspiciously, when a wildly distraught man murders his wife and drags his two very young daughters to a cabin deep in the woods, where he intends to kill them. Before he can pull the trigger, though, a hairy something-or-other leaps from a cabinet and, well, we don’t know exactly what it does. Five years later, a couple of hillbilly hunters discover a pair of feral children lurking suspiciously in the darkness of the same cabin, which looks uninhabitable. They’re taken to a children’s psychiatric center for rehabilitation, before being handed off to their punk-rock uncle and aunt, Lucas (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) and Annabelle (Chastain). It isn’t long before the girls display symptoms of not being ready for polite society. That’s the setup and any more information would spoil the suspense … and fun. Suffice it to say that whatever kept them alive for those five years still has a hold on them and its agenda has yet to be fully revealed. As the kids, Megan Charpentier and Isabelle Nelisse bounce smoothly and frequently between sweet and creepy. The twice-nominated Oscar candidate, Chastain, is barely recognizable here from her characters in “Zero Dark Thirty” and “The Help,” but she’s credible as a woman who evolves from aspiring musician to doting stepmom. Del Toro encouraged the Musshiettis to expand a three-minute short they had made into a feature film, with the help of British writer Neil Cross (“MI-5,” “Luther”), and have the characters speak English, instead of Spanish. Far from perfect, it’s exactly the kind of movie that makes movie lovers think differently about January. It arrives with the short, “Mamá,” and an introduction; commentary; deleted scenes; and a pair of background featurettes.

Danish director Christian E. Christiansen enjoyed 15 minutes in the Hollywood sun, when his 2007 short film, “At Night,” was nominated for an Oscar. His 2011 feature “ID:A” bypassed the U.S. entirely, but not because it wasn’t any good. My guess is that there simply wasn’t any place to put it. In the wake of the success of such book-to-film franchises as “The Girl With the Golden Tattoo” and “Wallander,” one of the places fans of character-based thrillers look first for entertainment is Scandinavia. “ID:A” may not compare to those titles in terms of originality or heart-pounding drama, but it is frequently quite exciting and, for those not allergic to subtitles, an easy way to kill a couple of hours. The sneaky-sexy Swede actress Tuva Novotny plays a woman who wakes up one morning with no idea who she is, how she found her way to the bottom of a rocky riverbed in France, why her head is bleeding and she has a long scar on her tummy, and where she picked up the 2 million euros in a backpack she’s clutching. The setup puts us in Jason Bourne territory and that’s exactly where Christiansen and the film’s producers want us to believe we’re heading. Not quite, because recollections of her back pages eventually come back to her. Still, her journey of discovery is quite compelling.

After finding refuge in a nearby country inn, the woman is told that her accent betrays her as being Danish. It doesn’t take long for a pair of thugs, more interested in the money than the woman who possesses it, to track her to the inn. We know from news coverage on the television that a Danish politician was recently assassinated and, perhaps, that’s where the loot might have derived. Nevertheless, the innkeeper’s son takes a shine to the stranger and he helps her find people who can help her buy time to discover her identity. Once she gets to Copenhagen, though, her new hair style and color can’t disguise the probability that she’s the wife of a famous Danish opera singer and he’s been distraught she disappeared, only a few weeks ago. From this point forward, each new clue leads to a conspiracy that not only threatens her life, but those of everyone in her orbit. So, you’ll have to watch the movie to unscramble the mystery, right alongside the protagonist.

Mistress of the Apes
She Cat/Female Teacher Hunting
The Exhibitionists

It isn’t often that a DVD arrives in the mail that can compete with “Troll 2,” “Kingdom of the Spiders,” “Birdemic” and “Plan 9 From Outer Space” for the honor of being one of best bad movies of all time. That’s exactly how I felt after watching “Mistress of the Apes,” a picture that kept my jaw locked in the dropped position throughout the entirety of its 84-minute length. Made in 1979, but apparently never distributed here, “Mistress of the Apes” was written and directed by self-proclaimed “schlockmeister” Larry Buchanan, who also gave us the original “Mars Needs Women,” “Hughes and Harlow: Angels in Hell” and “Free, White and 21,” among other quick-and-dirty gems. “Mistress of the Apes” opens in a hospital, where the wife of a world-famous anthropologist is about to deliver a baby. At the same time, a group of dope fiends invade the facility looking for the drugs locked in a cabinet in the same room. In the ensuing fracas, Susan literally slides off the operating table, causing the baby to be stillborn. As if that news weren’t sufficiently bad, and ultimately irrelevant, the blond bombshell (Jenny Neumann) is told that her husband has disappeared while on a dig in Africa and is believed to be dead. Knowing that he had discovered something that could change everything we know about the evolution of human beings, she immediately volunteers to make the grueling trek to the jungle with a gun-crazy hunter and his sexy wife and one of her husband’s associates. Apparently, the only reason she’s been summoned to Africa is to raise the spirits of her husband’s betrayers by flashing her world-class breasts every so often and giving them an opportunity to rape a white woman. It’s a distinction she shares with the hunter’s wife (Barbara Leigh).

It doesn’t take long before Susan discovers what made her husband so excited: missing-link humanoids, “near” men and women, who closely resemble body-builders with faces swollen by the stings of dozens of killer bees. Cutting to the chase, Susan invents a language by which she can communicate with the near-men, who seem more entranced by those magnificent breasts and blond hair than her linguistic skills. To get even closer to the near-people, Susan seduces at least one and, perhaps, all of them in a nearby cave. Meanwhile, she is being pursued by the hunter and others who want to cash in on the discovery. This description doesn’t come close to doing justice to the idiocy of the screenplay, cheesy production values and Buchanan’s conspicuously bad taste. “Mistress of the Apes” is also graced with a couple of the worst songs in the history of the cinema, suggesting that the whole thing is a joke on the audience. If that was Buchanan’s intention, it worked.

The soft-core porn on display in the movies that comprise the “Nikkatsu Erotic Films Collection” are so sexually perverse and tortuously plotted that they straddle the line between “so bad they’re good” and “so bad they’re really bad.” The latest installments in the continuing series of “roman porno” titles from Impulse Pictures are “She Cat” and “Female Teacher Hunting,” both from the early 1980s. The former is a female-revenge epic, in which an attractive hit-woman, who spends far too much time taking showers, blows an assassination and becomes a target of other killers. “Female Teacher Hunting” is a cautionary tale about how leveling a false accusation about rape can lead to real violence and heartbreak. In the “Female Teacher” sub-genre, the rapes are shown and exploited for their titillation value among teenage boys, who fantasize about doing the same thing to their teachers. Because of Japan’s curious restrictions on showing pubic hair and penetration, the brutality of an act that otherwise would be too graphic to stomach is diluted. The DVDs come with booklets that put the individual movies, stars and director into the context of the time.

The Exhibitionists” is low-budget indie in which a group of friends and a dominatrix ringer attend a New Year’s Eve party, during which they’re expected to reveal their deepest secrets and relationship hang-ups to the host, a documentary filmmaker. Being New York yuppies, the guests all have problems in the love department and the dominatrix is employed as a provocateur. The host seems most determined to tape the confession of his brother-in-law, a soft-spoken fellow who seems haunted by a deep, dark secret that he wants to exploit cinematically. Director Michael Melamedoff adds an appropriately dark and moody texture to the party scenes, but freshman scripter Michael Edison Hayden’s dialogue lacks the venom and surprises one would expect from this group of people. The shocker scene is easily predictable and there isn’t enough bare skin to be sexy.

The Assassin’s Blade: Blu-ray
Shanghai Noon/Shanghai Knights: Blu-ray

If you can imagine “Romeo and Juliet” crossed with “Mulan,” you’ll have a pretty good idea of what happens in “The Assassin’s Blade,” a martial-arts romance that began life with the far more accurate title of “Butterfly Lovers.” Released in 2008, Jingle Ma’s film paired attractive pop stars Charlene Choi and Wu Chun in a story that had been filmed previously by Tsui Hark and is based on the classic tale of Leung Shan-Pak and Cheuk Ying-Toi. Ma’s re-interpretation isn’t nearly as successful as Hark’s, but the target audience of Asian teenyboppers probably got a kick out of it. Here, Zhu (Choi) is the daughter of a wealthy merchant sent into the mountains to study martial arts under a master teacher. At the time, women were forbidden from joining such elite schools, so she’s required to assume a male disguise. Something of a loose cannon from the get-go, Zhu is ordered to accept the tutelage of a handsome trainer, Liang (Wu). It takes Liang an inordinately long time to realize Zhu is a woman, but, once he does, his heart begins to flutter like a butterfly. It is at this juncture that a childhood friend, Ma, informs Zhu that her parents are in danger and she needs to return to the village. Because Ma expects to be granted permission to marry Zhu, her rejection of the arrangement makes him dangerous to the family. And, this is where east meets west in a scenario that recalls the tragic ending of “Romeo and Juliet.” I can see where teens and young adults might be drawn to “The Assassin’s Blade,” but viewers not enamored with the stars wouldn’t be able to get around the fact that only a blind person could mistake Zhu for a man. Neither is Wu strong enough an actor to convince us that he could be fooled so easily. That said, however, the scenery is quite beautiful and the fighting scenes aren’t bad, either.

The packaging on Blu-ray of “Shanghai Noon” and “Shanghai Knights” reminds us once again how much fun it is to watch perfectly mismatched characters cut loose in an action comedy. Jackie Chan plays martial-arts expert Chon Wang (John Wayne, get it?), the imperial guardsman sent to America to rescue kidnapped Princess Pei Pei (Lucy Liu) from bad hombres. Owen Wilson not only is Wang’s polar opposite as a lawman, but his surfer-dude good looks also make seem as out of place in the Wild West as Wang. Most comedy lovers could easily predict what happens next, if not the many insider gags and easy rapport the actors share. “Shanghai Noon” did well enough to inspire a sequel, “Shanghai Knights,” which extends the conceit to England. Chon’s father has been assassinated and the investigation points to conspirators based in Europe. Hong Kong stars Donnie Yen and Fann Wong join the boys there, but on opposite sides of the mystery. Both movies received glowing reviews, while also exposing eastern and western audiences to unfamiliar actors. The Blu-ray adds deleted scenes, commentary and making-of featurettes from both movies.

Last Caress
Joint Body
Federal Agents vs. Underworld Inc.
Silver Case

Fans of classic Italian giallo probably will be the only constituency to embrace Francois Gaillard and Christophe Robin’s low-budget slasher flick, “Last Caress.” It involves an attractive group of friends who gather at a rural manor, where their first mistake is to pull out a Ouija board and summon the spirits that reside there. No good can come from playing that game in a movie. Besides having to deal with a family curse, however, the young men and women become the target of a psychopath looking for a painting that carries a curse of its own. Billed as an exercise in “glamour gore,” “Last Caress” jumps from one grisly, giallo-inspired murder to another, with brief interludes for sex. While the men are non-descript nobodies, the women are modern replicas of Italian bombshells from the 1960-70s. Timing in at 72 minutes, there isn’t much space left for a distinct storyline to make sense of the killings. Given the target audience, though, the bloody tableaux are the only things that matter. The DVD arrives with some making-of material and the similarly violent, but more coherent short, “Die Die My Darling.”

The most common complaint about crime dramas made by aspiring filmmakers is that violence too often is used to advance a story, instead of incorporating the violence into a balanced narrative. The opposite is true of Brian Jun’s “Joint Body,” in which the potential for violence percolates under the surface of the story, but is only allowed to cut loose once. Everything else is there, including an attractive cast, a decent foundation for explosive action and borderline sleazy locations. The missing ingredient is the one most crucial to the story. Veteran hard guy Mark Pellegrino is in prison, about to be released on parole, when his wife tells him she wants nothing to do with him. That stings, but what’s more hurtful is the condition of his release that requires him to refrain from contacting his teenage daughter. Nick’s parole officer sternly warns him against breaking the terms of his release, and he seems intent on staying free. He moves into a cut-rate apartment building, where the first people he meets are a red-headed stripper (Alicia Witt) and an elderly woman being wheeled out of the residence on a gurney. Upon making contact with his estranged brother, Nick is surprised to learn that he’s married and a newly minted cop. In a decision that begs credulity, the cop gives his brother an untraceable handgun “for protection” – a direct violation of his parole – and suggests they maintain some distance between each other. The gun will come into play soon thereafter, bringing Nick and the stripper together as desperadoes. If that scenario portends anything, it’s that the second half of “Joint Body” should be explosive. Instead, none of threads lead anywhere, except to a tepid resolution. Witt and Pellegrino are quite good, given the limitations of the script, so it would have been nice if they were given more to do.

The release of “Federal Agents vs. Underworld Inc.” and other movie serials from the Cheezy Flicks catalogue serves as a reminder of how much fun it was to go to the movies in the days before multiplexes and cost-cutting by studios, distributors and exhibitors. In addition to a double feature, audiences were treated to a cartoon, trailers, a newsreel and a multipart serial with cliffhanger endings. During the Depression, women were specifically targeted with special “Dish Night” giveaways and contests, while kids were lured to cartoon marathons. Today, we get commercials and placards from local merchants and a nearly endless stream of over-amped previews of coming attractions, most of which leave little to the imagination. As primitive as the serials look in hindsight, such studios as Republic did invest some money in them. The 12-part “Federal Agents” cost $155,000 to make and it was the least expensive serial of 1949. My estimate would have been much lower. Here, an international crime ring steals a gold hand from an ancient temple, thinking it has the power to control minds. It causes federal agents to search near and far for the tomb raiders and, of course, save mankind from totalitarian rule. The fistfights and rescues border on the ludicrous, but it’s unlikely that audiences were any more fooled by this setup than they were by the weekly trials of Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers. Cheezy has cleaned up the images to the point where it’s actually pleasant to watch the episodes.

It’s all too easy to criticize a movie for borrowing freely from Quentin Tarantino. Usually, it can be seen in a stylized approach to criminality, creative use of profanity and inventive casting. In “Silver Case,” co-writer/director Christian Filippella borrows the mystery of the glowing briefcase from “Pulp Fiction” and builds an entire movie around it. The missing element, of course, is Tarantino’s wild imagination. Eric Roberts plays a Hollywood mogul named Senator, who, in an effort to curry favor with another big shot, hires a courier to deliver a silver suitcase to the Master. The courier is warned not to tamper with the lock or lose track of it, which is the first thing he does. From there, the suitcase is passed from crook to crook, until it finally is retrieved by the Master’s thugs. By the time we learn what’s inside it, we’ve lost interest.

The Henry Fonda Collection
Viva Zapata: Blu-ray
The Great Escape: Blu-ray
Brubaker: Blu-ray
The Verdict: Blu-ray
Henry Jaglom Collection, Volume 2: The Comedies
One Hour Photo: Blu-ray

There are plenty of good reasons this week to check out the classics section of your local purveyor of DVDs and Blu-ray titles. Several of the medium’s most significant and popular titles have been collected in box sets, while others have been sent out in hi-def editions for the first time. The award in the Best Bang for Your Buck category goes to Fox for the “The Henry Fonda Film Collection,” which is comprised of “Jesse James,” “The Return of Frank James,” “Immortal Sergeant,” “Drums Along the Mohawk,” “The Grapes of Wrath,” “The Ox-Bow Incident,” “My Darling Clementine,” “Daisy Kenyon,” “The Boston Strangler” and “The Longest Day.” Priced at just south of $50, I can’t think of a better Father’s Day gift for film buffs who might have might caught one or more of the movies at the local Bijou during their initial go-round. It is by no means a definitive collection of Fonda’s greatest performances, as he also contributed fine work to the inventory of other major studios. It does, however, demonstrate Fonda’s depth, genre range and immeasurable contributions to Twentieth Century Fox, during the golden years. Three of the titles here were directed by John Ford, while also represented are Fritz Lang, William Wellman and Otto Preminger. (I’m surprised that Ford and Fonda’s “Young Mr. Lincoln” isn’t included, as it was in the “Ford at Fox” box.) Collectors might consider waiting for the inevitable Blu-ray assemblage, but those who haven’t already added these titles to their collection can pick them here at a bargain price.

Also from the Fox library, this one in Blu-ray, arrives Elia Kazan and John Steinbeck’s exhilarating, if historically dubious portrait of Mexican revolutionary Emiliano Zapata. Among other good reasons for picking it up, it’s fun to watch heavyweights Marlon Brando and Anthony Quinn go toe-to-toe, alongside Jean Peters and Joseph Wiseman. Both men had received glowing reviews for their interpretation of Stanley Kowalski and vied for the lead role in “Viva Zapata!” Kazan used their rivalry to add sizzle to an already scrumptious steak. Although I would caution students against using it as reference material, “Viva Zapata!” ranks high on the list of Hollywood biopics with tremendous performances and wonderful location cinematography. Scholars have argued that the Kazan’s “power corrupts” take on Zapata was colored by his own negative attitudes toward totalitarianism and he used the trajectory of the Mexican Revolution to comment on the failures of the Soviet system. The maestro’s use of Zapata as a stand-in for Stalin – however obliquely — disturbed many Mexican historians and left-wing scholars.

Released in 1963, “The Great Escape” not only is one of the greatest war movies of all time, but it is an entertainment that can be enjoyed as much today as it was 40 years ago. Based on an actual escape from the maximum-security POW camp Stalag Luft III, it remains one of the period’s few big-budget, high-profile projects that allowed the collaborative process to play out as intended, both on and off screen. Behind the camera sat director John Sturges (“The Magnificent Seven”), screenwriters James Clavell (“Shogun”) and W.R. Burnett (“Little Caesar”), and composer Elmer Bernstein. In front of it was an all-star cast that gelled as an ensemble, but left room for Steve McQueen to emerge as the hero among heroes. Also contributing wonderful performances were James Garner, Charles Bronson, James Coburn, Richard Attenborough, Donald Pleasence, David McCallum and James Donald. Among the recycled bonus features are commentary with cast and crew and eight worthwhile mini-docs.

In “Brubaker” (1980), Robert Redford plays a reform-minded prison warden who finds himself caught between a totally corrupt penal system and hundreds of potentially convicts who have no good reason to trust him. It, too, was based on the experiences of an actual person and a scandal that rocked the state of Arkansas. Providing solid work in supporting roles are Yaphet Kotto, Jane Alexander and Morgan Freeman, for whom “Brubaker” represented a stepping stone to a great career. (Earlier that year, he also played a prisoner in “Attica.”) Watch it back-to-back with “The Shawshank Redemption.”
Paul Newman gives a stirring performance as an over-the-hill Boston lawyer given one last opportunity to prove he can do something besides blowing cases and getting soused. The 1982 courtroom drama “The Verdict” was written by David Mamet and directed by Sidney Lumet, with James Mason, Charlotte Rampling, Jack Warden, Milo O’Shea and Lindsay Crouse in strong supporting roles. The Blu-ray bonuses include “Paul Newman: The Craft of Acting,” “Milestones in Cinema History: The Verdict,” “Sidney Lumet: The Craft of Directing” and commentary with Lumet and Newman.

Even though he practically defines the term, “acquired taste,” Henry Jaglom ought to be given far more credit than he receives as a pioneer in independent filmmaking. He’s been making movies his way for more than 40 years, no matter how the public and critics react to them. Aspiring filmmakers could learn a great from watching his pictures and emulating his ability to stretch a dollar as far as it will go. If nothing else, watch them to see how his actors respond to the specificity of his hyper-personal conceits. In this way, he could very well be considered the godfather of the mumblecore movement. Jaglom’s disturbingly neurotic ensemble artists deliver largely unrehearsed dialogue – lots of it – that causes viewers to feel as if they’re eavesdropping on conversations they have no right to be hearing. He encourages a style of acting that’s so naturalistic it can be mistaken for complete improvisation, which it’s not. Actors have been encouraged to re-interpret his words, but the frameworks remain true to his vision.

The new “Henry Jaglom Collection, Volume 2: The Comedies” contains “Sitting Ducks” (1980), a kooky heist/caper movie that actually made money; “Can She Bake a Cherry Pie?” (1983), in which an abandoned wife (Karen Black) enters into an unlikely romance with a man (Michael Emil, Jaglom’s brother) she meets at a New York City café; and “New Year’s Day: Time to Move On,” in which Jaglom arrives at a New York apartment he’s leased, 24 hours before three young women are prepared to move out of it. (Look for Maggie Wheeler, David Duchovny and Milos Forman.) The only bonus features appear with “Sitting Ducks,” and one of them borders on legendary. In an interview with an Israeli reporter, Emil spends almost a half-hour discussing his personal sex life, from obsessive masturbation to becoming a self-described and, perhaps, self-inflated orgasm donor to his lovers. His perceived prowess and analytic approach to sexual intercourse was incorporated into his character in “Cherry Pie.”

After 20 years of making people laugh, Robin Williams hit the kind of wall that allowed critics and detractors to reconsider his entire body of work and call for a priest to deliver last rites to his movie career. While it’s accurate to say that Williams became too enamored of his shtick, or, perhaps, too willing to play to the wet-tissue crowd, it wasn’t true that he didn’t have the chops to resuscitate his career. After bottoming out critically with “Patch Adams,” “Jakob the Liar” and “Bicentennial Man,” Williams reversed direction with terrific dramatic turns in “One Hour Photo,” “Insomnia” and the inky black comedy, “Death to Smoochy.” In “One Hour Photo,” he plays the creepy clerk of a photo booth in a large discount store. Things go sideways when he insinuates himself into the personal life of one of his most frequent customers, a woman who isn’t aware that her husband is cheating on her. In fact, the longtime employee is probably the only person, apart from the participants, who can prove what’s been happening behind her back. After piecing the parts of the puzzle together, he takes it upon himself to right the wrong. Fox has re-released “One Hour Photo” in Blu-ray, with several making-of featurettes and a backgrounder hosted by director Mark Romanek.

Superman Unbound: Blu-ray
A month ahead of the long-anticipated release of Zach Snyder’s “Man of Steel,” Superman geeks are encouraged to whet their appetite with the all-new made-for-video movie, “Superman Unbound.” In the animated feature, Superman and Supergirl take on Brainiac, the evil android supervillain who collects the intellectual DNA and miniaturizes the significant landmarks of intergalactic civilizations he plans to destroy. Brainiac’s mad goal is to collect the wisdom and invest it in his own devastated homeland. When our superheroes learn that Brainiac has gleaned everything worth knowing from the miniature Kandor and is ready to wipe out all memory of Krypton, they commit themselves to preventing the tragedy. The movie has been adapted from Geoff Johns’ 2008 comic book story arc, “Superman: Brainiac.” Among the voicing-cast members are Matt Bomer, John Noble, Stana Katic, Molly Quinn and Francis Conroy. The Blu-ray includes a month’s worth of bonus material, including commentary, background featurettes, four bonus cartoons, previews and a digital-comic excerpt from the graphic novel on which it’s based. One thing that struck me as being a tad twisted is the amount time the camera spends lingering on Lois and Supergirl’s gams and cleavage. I’m sure the teenage boys appreciate the extra effort.

Lifetime: Steel Magnolias
Nature: What Plants Talk About
Rookie Blue: The Complete Third Season
Fringe: The Complete Fifth and Final Season
Sesame Street: Elmo the Musical

The restaging of popular shows and movies, using actors and characters markedly different in ethnic or racial background than those featured in the original, often can be fairly described as a gimmick. The recent Lifetime Network updating of “Steel Magnolias” looks and sounds like Robert Harling’s 1987 play and Herbert Ross’ 1989 movie, except for the obvious fact that the primary cast members are African-American. The remake not only is true to the spirit of the all-white versions, but in some ways improves on previous presentations. And, it does so without resorting to the addition of cultural clichés or stereotypes. Six Louisiana women gather regularly at Truvy’s Beauty Spot to gossip, swap lies, cry, commiserate with each other’s problems, herald their personal triumphs and occasionally get their hair done. When the daughter of one of the regulars decides to have a baby, despite a potentially dangerous kidney condition, the ladies worry as one and exhale simultaneously when she survives the delivery. Ditto, when she undergoes a transplant to save her life. Those kinds of emotions aren’t limited to one ethnic or demographic group, but the scope of the small screen appears to intensify the experience. Director Kenny Leon and exec-producer/star Queen Latifah were able to round up a stellar group of women actors that includes Phylicia Rashad, Adepero Oduye, Condola Rashad, Jill Scott and Alfre Woodard. Their male counterparts, including Lance Gross, Tory Kittles, Michael Beasley and Afermo Omilami, get a fair shake, if not equal screen time.

Plants may not converse with each other, per se, but, as we learn in the “Nature” presentation, “What Plants Talk About,” they are able to share valuable information in ways that scientists of only recently begun to assess. It helps them survive in conditions not normally conducive to growth, as well as in rainforests where the weak could easily get overwhelmed by taller and heartier vegetation. Apparently, they also are able to summon the enemies of their enemies to prevent being eaten. Plant ecologist J.C. Cahill takes us from the Great Basin Desert to the western coast of Canada, where there never seems to be a shortage of water and nutrition, but other dangers exist. To reinforce their theories, the scientists also go underground to demonstrate how root systems work and how information is passed through them.

ABC’s police drama “Rookie Blue” is one of the rarest of all television flowers, a summer series that remains where it took root and is about to enter its fourth season. Normally, summer is the dumping ground for the broadcast networks as the fresh material tends to be limited to reality, game shows and episodes of already canceled series that have yet to air. Every so often, a network will attempt to create an avenue for summer entertainment, but the interest shown by sponsors, especially, is minimal. The same doesn’t hold true for cable, which eats the networks’ picnic lunches each summer by adding fresh series and bringing back series that have already proven themselves. Just as the teenagers on “Glee” and “Gossip Girl” can’t be seniors forever – or, can they? – the rookies of 15 Division quickly became seasoned, occasionally jaded cops. Their assignments and interpersonal relationships intensified, accordingly. The DVD set adds seven making-of featurettes, plus behind-the-scenes and on-set interviews.

There was no guarantee that the Fox sci-fi series “Fringe” would be granted a fifth-season run, if only to tie up loose ends from Season 4 and create a scenario for closure. In this case, the 13-episode renewal was justified by bringing “Fringe” to the magic No. 100, at which point syndication becomes a near certainty. Why anyone would wait for reruns and sit through commercials when full-season and full-run DVD compilations are available remains a mystery to me, though. Season 5 picks up from events depicted in last season’s flash-forward episodes, when the seemingly peaceful Observers seized control of our universe in 2015. Now, in 2036, they have become ruthless rulers who stand unopposed. Can the Fringe Team save humanity and turn back time? Stay tuned. The series finale is a real fan-pleaser.

Generally, the axiom that cautions against fixing things that aren’t broken applies as much to television as any other pursuit. Only bad things can happen when tinkerers are allowed to mess with success. The “Elmo’s World” segment of “Sesame Street” was by no means broken, but it was felt that the whole show could stand a bit of tweaking to appeal to a slightly older demographic. “Elmo the Musical” finds the beloved character stepping out in white tails and high hat, in search of educational adventures and entertaining musical interludes. The show’s mission of promoting math, science, engineering and technology didn’t change, but Elmo does. Turns out, he has feet and knows what to do with them, as “full-body Elmo.” The new five-episode set adds the full-length video, “Let’s Make Music!”

The DVD Wrapup

Wednesday, May 1st, 2013

China Beach: The Complete Series
The news divisions of three major television networks may have come of age covering the Vietnam War, civil-rights movement and campus turmoil of the 1960s, but it took nearly 20 years for broadcast executives to come to grips with what happened in dramatic form. Unlike the inky black movie comedy that inspired it, TV’s “M*A*S*H” allowed its audience the freedom to draw its own conclusion about which war the sitcom actually was satirizing and why it was worthy of such treatment. Its huge popularity suggests that most viewers considered show’s comically anti-establishment message to be more universal than specific and, in the early 1970s, “M*A*S*H” fit well alongside “All in the Family,” “Maude” and “Laugh-In.” That Vietnam had become an absurdist nightmare, practically defining the term, “SNAFU,” had been established as early as 1968, when, after the 1968 bombing of Ben Tre, AP correspondent Peter Arnett quoted a ranking officer’s observation, “It became necessary to destroy the town to save it.” Even “M*A*S*H” co-creator Larry Gelbart would have had a tough time topping that whopper. Otherwise, allusions to the Vietnam War on television were pretty much limited to the occasional wild-eyed veteran as a suspect in a violent crime on police dramas. In 1980, “Magnum, P.I.” offered an alternative in the form of three male characters, who served in Vietnam, but weren’t traumatized beyond all recognition. Magnum, T.C. and Rick occasionally employed skills they learned in the service – extreme helicopter maneuvers and weaponry, for example – and seemed as normal as anyone attempting to jump-start their lives in Hawaii.

Finally, seven years later, CBS used the success of “Platoon” as a springboard for the series “Tour of Duty,” which was set in 1967 Vietnam and dealt with issues especially pertinent to infantrymen fighting a highly motivated, mostly invisible enemy. ABC would launch “China Beach” a season later, shifting the primary focus to nurses and medics stationed at the evacuation hospital at My Khe beach and the wounded servicemen who found refuge and relief there. The restful setting, in addition to presence of women and civilians, increased the number of avenues open to the show’s writers to explore dramatic, comedic and romantic themes. It allowed “China Beach” to tap into a demographic not likely to be attracted to “Tour of Duty” and war movies of the time. For once, women characters weren’t limited to supporting roles or playing second fiddle to male authority figures. As in the war, itself, the non-combatant nurses, volunteers, officers, privates and angels of mercy were portrayed as being a crucial cog in military machine, as well as healers of the body, mind and spirit. They were no less impervious to pain, fatigue, heartbreak or errant bullets than the men at China Beach and their stories had yet to be told in the media. As portrayed by Dana Delaney, First Lieutenant Colleen McMurphy was a composite of nurses who actually served in Vietnam and shared their stories with series creators William Broyles Jr. and John Sacret Young. (“ER” creator John Wells would take the helm in the second season.) Marg Helgenberger, Nan Woods, Concetta Tomei, Chloe Webb, Megan Gallagher, Nancy Giles and Ricki Lake filled roles ranging from prostitutes and singers, to motor-pool mechanics and reporters. They did this alongside such male actors as Michael Boatman, Robert Picardo, Tim Ryan, Jeff Kober and Brian Wimmer. As “China Beach” evolved during its four-season run, it occasionally would introduce stateside storylines and experiment with plot devices.

It’s hard to believe that “China Beach” is only now making its debut in any home-entertainment format. Instead of releasing it in dribs and drabs, StarVista Entertainment and Time Life have chosen to do it right the first time, with “China Beach: The Complete Series” and “China Beach: 25th Anniversary Collectors’ Edition,” both containing a pile of bonus features. The packages don’t come cheap ($199 and $275, respectively), however, and they’re only available at The same thing that precluded any previous release of “China Beach” is responsible for the eye-popping price tag, I suspect. “China Beach” is one of the few television shows that used contemporary music, performed by the original artists, to inform what was happening on screen. Because of this, anyone who wanted to send the series out in VHS or DVD had to consider substituting the original songs with generic music or the same songs performed by other artists, neither of which would have had the same effect. The package includes 268 familiar songs, as they were played in the original broadcasts, and this required StarVista to re-license all of them for DVD. (Rights don’t automatically extend from one medium to the next, anymore.) Included in the 10 hours of new bonus material are interviews with cast members and creators, five audio commentaries, footage and featurettes from the 2012 reunion, three roundtable discussions with cast and crew, a gag reel, deleted scenes and behind-the-scenes footage. The “25th Anniversary Collectors’ Edition” adds three signed scripts and photographs from the reunion.

Broken City: Blu-ray
At this point in the history of our republic, it’s become nearly impossible for writers of movies about political corruption to top the antics of the venal swine who misuse their offices for personal gain. Not only are mere citizens unable to compete for access to their elected representatives, constantly being pushed aside by campaign contributors and lobbyists, but constant exposure to corruption also appears to have soured voters on the process as dramatized in movies. Showtime’s “Boss” and Netflix’s “House of Cards” succeeded, in large part, because mini-series are allotted the time necessary to explore the root causes of corruption and amplify the drama with frequent outbursts of gratuitous violence and sex. “Broken City” benefits primarily from the familiarity of the lead characters – Russell Crowe, Mark Wahlberg, Catherine Zeta-Jones – and the portentous direction of Allen Hughes. As the movie opens, troubled New York cop Billy Taggart (Wahlberg) is fighting for his career and freedom against charges that he used excessive force against a street punk with whom he had something of a history. Taggart dodges the big bullet, but, as a concession to the rabble protesting the verdict, the mayor (Crowe) talks him into taking a smaller bullet for the sake of political stability. Seven years later, it’s clear that things have gone easier for the mayor than Taggart, whose private detective business isn’t doing at all well. Almost out of nowhere, Taggart’s presence is required at City Hall, where Mayor Hostetler offers him the face-saving assignment he’d been promised years earlier.

Ostensibly, the task involves investigating the mayor’s beautiful, strong-willed wife (Zeta-Jones) and an affair she may or may not be having with person- or persons-unknown. That, of course, would be far too easy. Soon, Taggart finds himself in the middle of a potential scandal that could bring down Hostetler and anyone else hoping to fill his seat. Meanwhile, in a diversion at least as old as Frank Sinatra in “The Detective,” Taggart must compete for his wife’s attention with a gaggle of her artsy-fartsy friends. “Broken City” was written by a first-timer, Brian Tucker, so it’s possible that he fell in love with the complexity of his screenplay and convinced Hughes – directing apart from his brother, Albert, for the first time – to keep the kitchen sink in the picture. The Blu-ray, which holds the camera’s noir texture pretty well, adds deleted scenes, a making-of documentary, alternative ending and UltraViolet capacity.

Not Fade Away: Blu-ray
If there’s one thing upon which people in 49 of our 50 mostly united states can agree, it’s that the deadline on New Jersey’s 15 minutes in the spotlight has been pushed way too far. Even if it leads the nation in reality-based television shows and locations for HBO series, New Jersey is Nebraska with an accent and a lot more Italians. David Chase can be forgiven almost anything, if only because he gave us “The Sopranos,” but his highly personal feature debut, “Not Fade Away,” pushes the envelope to the breaking point. It is a coming-of-age drama that wants us to believe that the same bolt of lightning that struck Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, in 1960, would, five years later, strike three Jersey boys about to embark on a rock-’n’-roll odyssey. It did so at approximately the same moment as the Rolling Stones were performing on “The Hollywood Palace” and enduring the cheap shots dished out by host Dean Martin.  Seemingly overnight, Chase’s alter-ego here, Douglas (John Magaro), began growing his hair, effecting Cuban-heeled boots and giving up the drums for being lead singer in his band, mostly because it’s the first place the cool girls look when the music begins.

Naturally, his blue-collar old man (James Gandolfini) strongly disapproves, assuming that his son has been subverted by communists and is in need of a good beating. Normally, one could expect Mom to come to her boy’s defense, if only in private, but Chase has decided to paint her in the most unflattering light possible. In Molly Price’s hands, she becomes a shrill suburban gargoyle, rarely seen without her hair in curlers and wearing something other than a thread-worn housecoat. She constantly guilt-trips Douglas by saying that his long, curly hair and anti-war views are an insult to his father’s hard work and all the sacrifices they’ve made for him. Despite all this weeping and wailing, the band manages to attract the attention of big-time producer Jerry Ragovoy (Brad Garrett) and Douglas hooks up with the hottest babe in the tri-state area (Bella Heathcote). So, where’s the rub?

Watching “Not Fade Away,” whose killer soundtrack balances the parent’s nasty treatment of Douglas, I could only think of how outdated and cliché the story seemed from a distance of nearly 50 years. The same arguments and threats that accompanied Douglas’ metamorphosis were taking place in hundreds of thousands of American homes and still are, perhaps, when kids show off their spanking-new tattoos and piercings. Thousands of garage bands still struggle to be heard and marijuana continues to bring the silly out in teenagers. The most shocking thing about “Not Fade Away,” perhaps, is realizing how little has changed since the period described in the movie. Each succeeding generation must endure some degree of torture from its elders, if only to prepare teenagers for the cold facts of adulthood.

To be fair, however, it should be mentioned that “Not Fade Away” received mostly positive reviews and it’s not at all difficult to watch, even if one has seen variations of it already in such movies as “That Things You Do!,” “The Commitments,” “Almost Famous,” “I Wanna Hold Your Hand,” “The Runaways” and “Backbeat.” The young actors are all quite good and Chase takes full advantage of their enthusiasm. Even if Gandolfini will only seem to be reprising Tony Soprano, some viewers will find that sufficient cause to recommend “Not Fade Away.” (In that case, also rent “Down the Shore.) Steven Van Zandt, Silvio in “The Sopranos,” does a great job as music supervisor, mixing vintage songs with more obscure tunes and making sure the actors look good on stage. For my money, though, the best scene in the movie comes at the very end, when Douglas’ sister, I think, appears out of nowhere to perform a dance to the future on a deserted Hollywood street. It punctuates everything that’s gone before and anticipates everything that lies ahead for her generation. The Blu-ray nicely captures the rich sound and unpolished mono texture of the music – classic and original – adds a lengthy backgrounder with Chase, deleted scenes and a look at how the musician/actors were chosen.

Wasted on the Young
Revenge dramas set in high schools are nothing new and thanks, in part, to amoral NRA lobbyists, the massacres that inspire them aren’t going to disappear any time soon. So far, the only meaningful thing to emerge from the killings at Columbine was Gus Van Sant’s “Elephant” and pro-gun legislators are trying to convince us that taking automatic weapons out of the hands of a sociopath couldn’t have prevented Sandy Hook. Even if bullies usually aren’t given the last word in movies and television shows, they still seek spotlight of the Internet whenever they perpetrate their crimes. Psychologically battered teens will continue to commit suicide after leaving heart-breaking messages on Facebook and perpetrators will be given a pass by prosecutors, parents and school administrators. Internet vigilantes, including Anonymous, have begun to fight back by putting the heat on law-enforcement officials, but victims of bullying know the deck is stacked against them. It’s against the backdrop of the recent Steubenville and Nova Scotia rape scandals that the Aussie teen drama “Wasted on the Young” arrives here on DVD. The night after I screened the movie, an eerily similar case was dramatized on “Law & Order: SVU,” and not for the first time, either.

In something of a Cain and Able scenario, cool-dude Zack (Alex Russell) and his computer-obsessed stepbrother Darren (Oliver Ackland) attend the same tony Perth prep school, which is divided socially by the “popular” crowd and everyone else. With their parents away on one of their many vacations, Zack and Darren are allowed free reign of their expensive home. Darren is so preoccupied with his computer projects and surveillance system that he might not even notice his parents’ absence. Zack uses the occasion to host a party that threatens to evolve into an orgy as the drugs and booze begin to flow. At one point, the ruling clique decides it might be fun to dose the blond newcomer, Xandrie (Adelaide Clemens), gang-rape her and dump her on a sand dune to die of exposure. Turns out, Xandrie is the only girl in school who’s paid much attention to Darren and shown any interest in his off-campus pursuits. Days later, when Xandrie returns to school and the perpetrators have been cleared by the administrators, Darren decides that it’s time for his stepbrother to get his comeuppance. Freshman writer/director Ben C. Lucas lays out this incendiary scenario with great patience and an eye for avoiding the clichés of revenge dramas. If the ending doesn’t quite deliver a knockout punch, it doesn’t seek the easy path, either. Dan Freene’s frequently ominous cinematography fits the story like a glove. Not surprisingly, the star attached to the career of Adelaide Clemens already is on the rise in Hollywood. Look for her in “The Great Gatsby.”

Happy People: A Year in the Taiga
After watching four hours of Dmitry Vasyukov’s multipart documentary about fur traders living and working in one of the most isolated outposts on the planet, Werner Herzog contacted the director via Skype and made him an offer he probably could have refused, but wisely didn’t. Herzog volunteered to trim approximately 2½ hours from the film, put a more commercially viable spin on the remaining 90 minutes and add his mellifluous narrative to it. He also requested creative control over the process. Herzog had been fascinated by what he saw in Vasyukov’s source material, so it wasn’t likely that he would approach the task as an exercise in fat-cutting or a mercy-edit for a kindred documentarian. Instead, he proposed cutting and re-editing “Happy People: A Year in the Taiga” to fit the attention spans and interests of western audiences, something the re-interpreter of “Grizzly Man” and author of “Encounters at the End of the World,” “Cave of Forgotten Dreams,” “Little Dieter Needs to Fly” and “Into the Abyss” would know how to do better than anyone. Like “Grizzly Man,” “Happy People” would be comprised of another team’s footage, but informed by the humanistic sensibility of the veteran filmmaker. It works, wonderfully. Vasyukov chronicled a year’s worth of seasonal change in a region of the Siberian Taiga so distant from the so-called civilization that its nearest medical clinic and police department are 150 kilometers distant. There are no cell towers or high-tension wires to be seen in the village of Bakhtia — population 300, not counting work dogs, moose and the occasional bear – which straddles the Yenisei River. You can get there by helicopter or boat, but snowmobiles aren’t practical modes of transportation until the river freezes. Moreover, the Taiga is a place where spring and summer can be measured in minutes and hours, rather than days and months.

The men we meet in “Happy People” sustain themselves and their families by fur trapping, a profession that isn’t nearly as lucrative as it used to be. One of the most cogent points made by Herzog is that residents of Bakhtia are constantly working, from the minute they get up to the moment their heads hit a pillow, very nearly 365 days a year. (We celebrated celebrate Christmas with a family here.) That’s because there’s always something that requires attention and no one else to do it. As soon as the snow melts, for example, there’s wood that needs to be gathered and chopped in anticipation of the next winter and countless repairs to be made on property damaged by ice and cold. Soon, fathers and sons will venture into the woods once again to prepare traps, blaze trails, restock provisions in their huts and train the puppies in the art of survival. While it’s impossible not to be impressed with the grit and fortitude of the men and women who live in Bakhtia – and, perhaps, envy their happiness in life – Herzog doesn’t seem interested in romanticizing them or finding heroism in necessity. What’s more compelling to him is documenting the constant pursuit of balance between the needs of man and demands of nature. The luxuries of modernity, available to hunters almost everywhere else in the world, can’t be afforded by families that rely, instead, on centuries-old traditions and practices. Everything from dugout canoes to mosquito repellant are created by hand, using tools passed down through the generations. Convenience and distance demand that some motorized vehicles be deployed, but there are times when motors and belts are no match for the obstacles presented by a raging river or giant snow drift.

“Happy People” is a documentary everyone in a family truly can enjoy and profit from viewing. Out of necessity, not choice, the folks we meet here are required to live the life Chris McCandless sought so desperately in Sean Penn’s “Into the Wild.” They value the freedom provided by nearly complete isolation from society and are constantly on the lookout for outsiders who attempt to redraw boundaries and threaten their well-being by over-aggressive hunting and fishing. I would have loved to see “Happy People” in Blu-ray, but the DVD looks pretty terrific as it is. The package contains footage trimmed from Vasyukov’s documentary, a beautiful film that shows how nature awakes from a long Taiga winter and an interview with Herzog.

In Danger and Deep Distress, the Middleway Spells Certain Death
To get the most out of the films of Alexander Kluge, non-German viewers should possess at least a rudimentary understanding of the country’s post-war, pre-unification history. The West Germany to which he exposes us eway Spells Certain Deathis vaguely familiar, even if the characters aren’t. It’s the glimpses into life in East Germany – mostly through characters who managed to get past the wall – that add something new to our understanding of the Cold War and how people got through it. West Germany may have turned the corner on prosperity, but it largely was a country without an identity. In the east, clocks had stopped in 1946 and that’s the way the Communist Party wanted it. For a generation of filmmakers and artists who grew up after the war and wanted to distance themselves from the horrors perpetrated in the name of the Third Reich, change couldn’t come too soon. Kluge was one of the key players in the New German Cinema movement, which, in the early 1960s, argued for an open discussion of the war and its legacy, as well as the expanding capitalist juggernaut and disappearing social safety net. It took a while, but, by the mid-’70s, German directors were making waves around the world.

For the last several years, Facets Video has done lovers of quality cinema the favor of releasing refurbished editions of Kluge’s films on DVD. “In Danger and Deep Distress, the Middleway Spells Certain Death (1974) is set in Frankfurt during a period of great physical and social upheaval. Buildings are being torn down as soon as police can evict the squatters who inhabited them. This resulted in pitched battles between cops and protestors in the streets, which, here, also were cluttered with Carnival revelers. Kluge used the occasion to tell the stories of two women from different backgrounds, who are attempting to understand and exploit the unsettled situation. One is a prostitute who can’t resist the temptation to steal from her clients, while the other is a newly minted East German spy. The latter is constantly criticized by her handler for writing long-winded reports he considers to be overly poetic and irrelevant to working-class people behind the wall. The same handler defends his viewing of pornographic films as a means to explain the decadence of the west to his superiors. It’s a miracle the wall stood as long as it did, before crumbling from embarrassment.

The Vampire Lovers: Blur-ray
Newly released into Blu-ray, “The Vampire Lovers” is typical of the horror films turned out by Hammer before the studio went south in the mid-1970s. Equal parts campy, schlocky and thrilling, the movies borrowed characters and themes popularized by Universal years earlier, and freshened genre conventions by adding garish color, over-the-top acting and Victorian settings to the mix. “The Vampire Lovers” was noteworthy for two things mostly: the presence of Ingrid Pitt, one of the leading cult goddesses of her time; and for being the first entry in Hammer’s Karnstein trilogy –“Vampire Lovers,” “Lust for a Vampire,” “Twins of Evil” – all adapted from J. Sheridan Le Fanu’s novella “Carmilla.” Published in 1872, 25 years before the Bram Stoker classic, the erotic Gothic novella traced the link between vampires and lesbians for the first time. Universal avoided that particular angle in its adaptations of the legend, but Hammer suspected the time was ripe for a sexy take on horror. Pitt plays three different characters: Marcilla, Carmilla and Mircalla Karnstein. The lesbian vampiress Marcilla is invited to stay at the castle of General Von Spielsdorf (Peter Cushing), whose pretty daughter (Pippa Steele) is far too tempting to ignore. There are other women on the menu, of course, and each is left with bite marks on a breast. After murdering a couple of people who suspect the truth, Marcilla (now Carmilla) takes refuge in the family’s ancestral mansion, where she’s pretty much a sleeping duck. The Blu-ray edition of “Vampire Lovers” looks pretty good, especially considering its age and low-budget origins, and the bonus is excellent. It includes “Feminine Fantastique: Resurrecting “The Vampire Lovers”; Ingrid Pitt’s reading of “Carmilla”; an interview with Madeline Smith; and commentary with director Roy Ward Baker, screenwriter Tudor Gates and Pitt. 

The Heroin King of Baltimore: The Rise & Fall of Melvin Williams
No matter how awful the crime and brutal the punishment, it’s impossible for filmmakers to de-glamourize the rewards associated with organized crime and big-money drug dealing. After watching “American Gangster,” for example, how many viewers would have traded the relatively brief amount of time Frank Lucas spent in prison for two weeks living the life of a drug kingpin? Ditto, Tony Montana. Much the same can be said about “The Heroin King of Baltimore: The Rise & Fall of Melvin Williams,” a rudimentary documentary in which a man who amassed a fortune selling poison on street corners to kids is allowed the luxury to shape his life story the way he wants it to look. And, yes, it’s pretty fascinating stuff. Williams began his life in crime as a gambler and pool hustler in the streets of Baltimore. His uncanny skills attracted the attention of adults only too willing to take the young wizard of odds under their wing and teach him the ways of the world. According to Williams, his career as a heroin dealer began in earnest when a cop planted narcotics on him during a bust and he figured he would reap the benefits of being a dealer if everyone assumed he was a criminal, anyway. Full of moxie, Williams arranged for a steady supply of junk and cocaine and he was off to the races. At one point, Williams was such a force in Baltimore’s African-American community that city officials solicited his help in quelling the riots that followed the assassination of Martin Luther King. It gave him a sense of power no amount of money could buy. When he finally was caught and convicted, Williams took his medicine like an OG and got out in time to be immortalized on HBO’s “The Wire.” Indeed, series creator David Simon appears several times here to offer his insight into the man and his legacy. In addition to Williams’ near-soliloquies and the recollections of reporters and cops, there are some cheesy dramatizations of street life in Baltimore. 

Any Day Now
It’s been 40 years since the events described in “Any Day Now” are supposed to have occurred. At the time, any possibility of legalizing same-sex marriage was so far out of the question it was tantamount to believing we’d have a gay or lesbian president by now. Perhaps the most divisive issue — and it hasn’t gone away — was the legality of LGBT adoptions. “Any Day Now” is based on an actual case, in which two gay men sought to adopt a boy with Down syndrome. The boy’s mother is an alcoholic who often leaves Marco alone in their rundown apartment or kicks him out of it when she brings home a boyfriend or trick. On one of these occasions, a drag entertainer, Rudy (Alan Cumming), rescues Marco (Isaac Leyva) from possible danger by allowing him to stay in his apartment while mom is AWOL. They develop a strong personal bond, even as Rudy is attempting to shove his gay lover, Paul (Garret Dillahunt), out of the closet in which he’s been hiding for years. It isn’t until Marco’s mother finally shows up and demands custody of the boy that Paul, a lawyer, decides to emerge and acknowledge his feelings for both of them. Although they’re something of an odd couple, Rudy and Paul make a formidable team in court. In the 1970s, though, the rights of a parent – however unsuited to the task – easily trumped a gay couple’s willingness to save a child from further harm. Watching the legal case proceed is as frustrating for viewers as it might have been for Rudy and Garret. The acting is good and the story remains relevant. The only problem I had with “Any Day Now” is that the period setting makes it seem too much like ancient history, instead of a something that could play out the same way even today.

Stuck to Your Pillow
In yet another twist on the “Heaven Can Wait” theme, Spanish export “Stuck to Your Pillow” imagines a romantic affair between the spirits of a comatose man and unhappily married woman, who can only experience love and happiness in her dreams. Lovely newcomer Paola Verdu plays the woman who’s torn between her cheap, if materialistic husband, Miguel (Jesus Marin), and the outgoing and athletic Miguel of her dreams (Susu Marin). One can’t tear himself away from his job long enough to make sure his wife is happy, while the other Miguel is free to wine and dine Patricia, if only when she’s asleep. When she isn’t, he tags along unseen and unheard, like any other ghost in the paranormal world. The first indication of where Mari Navarro’s rom-com is heading comes when Miguel shows up in Patricia’s dreams, clothed only in scuba gear and flippers. They were the last thing he was wearing before he died in a diving accident and their presence doesn’t seem to bother the dreaming damsel in emotional distress. Miguel, the husband, begins to suspect something is awry when Patricia no longer is anxious to awaken and get on with her day, meanwhile wearing the kind of smile that generally signals romantic bliss. This Miguel’s too busy to follow his wife around all day and, of course, refuses to buy her explanation of having a dream lover, so he hires a pair of inept security guards to do the job for him. Beyond that, “Stuck to Your Pillow” doesn’t offer many surprises. It is, though, harmlessly silly and relatively diverting. Audiences already attuned to frothy European rom-coms could find something here to like.

The Wicked
Urban myths and legends couldn’t maintain their hold on us if there weren’t some factually basis to them. Big cities would be far less interesting places to live if residents couldn’t imagine that albino alligators thrived in ancient sewer systems, devouring rats and half-dead goldfish flushed down toilets by evil little boys. Growing up, kids in our neighborhood were cautioned about sneaking into at least two different abandoned houses, believed to be haunted by the ghosts of people murdered inside them. Every city and generation has or had such places to fear. “The Wicked” takes the haunted-house scenario and adds a bit of a twist to one local legend. In the small Michigan town of Summerset, children are warned never to throw rocks at a deserted house in the forest. As the story goes, severe punishment is exacted on anyone who breaks a window, on purpose or otherwise. Not surprisingly, throwing rocks at the windows of the house has become a rite of passage for teenagers hoping to prove their courage to their cronies or dates. As “The Wicked” opens 7-year-old Amanda Drake is swept from her bedroom window by an evil wind. The girl had been petrified of just such an occurrence after returning from a rock-heaving competition with older kids in the neighborhood. Her mom assured her that the persistent rumors were bogus, but Amanda disappeared anyway. Undaunted, two groups of teens decide to test the legend further. They’re frightened by the appearance of movements inside the house, but, after finding Amanda’s teddy bear in the woods, they decide to investigate … bad idea. In his feature debut, Peter Winther effectively uses the thick woods, darkness and overall creepiness of the old house to conjure an aura of dread. The teenage girls appear to be trying out for the title of Miss Michigan Scream Queen, while the boys are required to wipe cobwebs and witch drool off of their shoulders. Even when one of the girls decides to call the local police into action, they’re too full of themselves to take the kids seriously. “The Wicked” probably wouldn’t be of much interest to older horror buffs. Teenagers, though, should recognize something of themselves in the actions of the alternately dumb/courageous/horny kids who dare to tackle the legend head-on.

Nova: Earth From Space: Blu-ray
PBS: Dangerous Edge: A Life of Graham Greene
Independent Lens: The Power Broker: Whitney Young’s Fight for Civil Right
Frontline: Cliffhanger
PBS: Shelter Me
Now that NASA’s Buck Rogers era has come to an end and planet-roving robots have cornered the spotlight, it’s probably a good time for everyone to assess what’s been accomplished in more the a half-century of space exploration. The highlights of headline-grabbing missions, from Mercury to the Curiosity rover, are well known and fondly remembered. The tragedies continue to haunt us, as well. The money needed to fund the Space Shuttle has largely dried up and blown away. Before watching the “Nova” presentation, “Earth From Space,” I was ambivalent about spending more money on a program that seemed more interested in maintaining its public image than practicing pure science. Neither was I sure how I felt about financing gridlock in space and raising the odds in favor of someday getting hit by obsolete space debris.

This two-hour special not only reveals what Earth looks like from space – something that hardly qualifies as news – but it also demonstrates the validity of the “butterfly effect,” which posits that a butterfly flapping its wings in one part of the world might ultimately cause a hurricane in another part of the world. Physicists may have a less poetic definition of the phenomenon, but the effect is the same. The “Nova” team collaborated with NASA scientists to produce an episode that condenses more than 50 years’ worth of satellite data into a package that can be appreciated by anyone who knows how to read the Farmer’s Almanac. Among other things, it explains how dust blown west from the Sahara fertilizes the Amazon region; how a vast underwater “waterfall” off Antarctica helps drive ocean currents around the world; and how the sun’s heating up of the southern Atlantic gives birth to a colossally powerful hurricane. Moreover, with every new Hurricane Katrina and Sandy, we learn more about early detection of killer storms and how to sidestep mass destruction. Without satellites, that would be impossible.

When British novelist William Golding observed of Graham Greene that he was “the ultimate chronicler of 20th Century man’s consciousness and anxiety,” he effectively summarized what, years later, would be revealed in the PBS presentation, “Dangerous Edge: A Life of Graham Greene.” Few men experienced the turmoil, chaos and triumphs of that period so intimately and could write about it with such compassion and foresight. His insight into the inner-workings of governments and the human condition, along with a keen awareness of his own demons, contributed greatly to the popularity of his novels and clarity of his non-fiction. For nearly 80 years, his novels and stories have also provided fodder for the movies. Among the titles and screenplays that were adapted more faithfully than others: “Ministry of Fear,” the second “Quiet American,” “Brighton Rock,” “Travels With My Aunt,” “The Power and the Glory,” “The Third Man,” “The End of the Affair,” “Our Man in Havana,” “The Comedians” and “The Human Factor.” Among those testifying on behalf of Greene are novelists John Mortimer, John Le Carré and David Lodge; writer Paul Theroux; former CIA operative and author Frederick Hitz; and his daughter, Caroline Bourget.

The Powerbroker: Whitney Young’s Fight for Civil Rights” argues that the civil-rights movement wouldn’t have accomplished nearly as much as it did, in as relatively short a time, if it weren’t for the aggressive behind-the-scenes maneuvering of such quiet leaders as Whitney Young. At a time when Martin Luther King Jr. was the public face of the movement, rallying the foot soldiers and pushing a progressive agenda, the head of the National Urban League lobbied the movers, shakers and big-money boys of corporate America for the funds and jobs necessary to move forward before and after King’s death. He also was a confidante ofpresidents Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon. “The Powerbroker” examines the pivotal events of the civil rights era – Brown v Board of Education, the March on Washington, the Vietnam War — through the eyes of a man whose accomplishments remain largely unacknowledged, even today. This is as fitting a eulogy as any.

Judging from the comments found on the PBS website forCliffhanger,” it is the rare “Frontline” episode that inspires the wrath of Democrats as much as Republicans … well, almost. “Cliffhanger” attempts to make sense out of the hideous debate in Washington over the nation’s deficit and debt crises. It was broadcast on the same night as President Obama’s State of the Union message and almost nothing has changed in the stalemate since then. The American public continues to feel the pinch of austerity budgets and sequestering, while politicians refuse to make any reasonable compromises, except when the trims inconvenience them. If Shakespeare had written the script for “Cliffhanger,” it could be found under “tragedy” and “comedy.” The episode was informed by interviews with House Speaker John Boehner, White House economic adviser Gene Sperling and Obama’s former Chief of Staff William Daley. It also details the dissension within the Republican Party over how deep the cuts should go and why they should act like adults.

Shelter Metakes the position that people who want to add a pet to their family should consider adopting one of the many cats and dogs relegated to shelters, before succumbing to the temptation of purchasing an animal whose pedigree can be traced back to Noah’s Ark. Besides acquiring a pet that will be eternally grateful for your kindness and generosity, you will reap Brownie points for saving it from imminent extinction. That was the fate of more than 3 million perfectly good cats and dogs last year. Hosted by actress Katherine Heigl, “Shelter Me” promotes the many positive stories of rescue and redemption for the animals. It describes how shelter pets are helping returning war veterans cope with PTSD; how women prison inmates are training shelter dogs to become service animals for people with disabilities; and the journeys of two stray dogs, from the day they are picked up on the streets and brought to the shelter, until the day they’re adopted.

Friends: The Complete First/Second Season: Blu-ray
GMC: If You Really Love Me
Nickelodeon Favorites: Once Upon a Rhyme
Last fall, when Warner Home Video released its complete-series package of “Friends” in Blu-ray, it was priced anywhere between $192 and $274. The producers went back to the original 35mm negatives for the hi-def upgrade, adding a 1.78:1 video presentation and Dolby Digital 5.1 surround track, while they were at it. While the restoration and bonus material didn’t please techier critics, it was better than previous efforts. The 21-disc set was timed for holiday giving, so those who only received coal in their stocking, instead, will be happy that the seasons are being dealt out a la carte, with most extras included. As logic dictates, the first two seasons are the first to arrive separately, which will come as good news to anyone who missed the pilot episode or came to the program later in its run. Executive producers Kevin S. Bright, Marta Kauffman and David Crane provide the commentary on the pilot, offering insight into how the show was developed and tweaked by the creators and network, alike. There’s also a quick-reference guide to cameos and guest stars.Several of the episodes are presented uncut and extended, with previously unseen dialogue and scenes (not as many as the DVD package, though). The second-season discs add the “smelly cat” video.

I have no idea how such things work, but I find it odd that the women in Gospel Music Channel movies get away with wearing the tightest and most provocative clothing on basic cable. Considering the faith-based messages typically delivered in the final scenes, there must be some correlation between temptation, redemption and forgiveness. “If You Really Love Me” is based on an original stage play written by Cas Sigers (“A Cross To Bear”) and is directed by Roger Melvin (“She’s Still Not Our Sister”). It helps explain the laugh track attached to the film. The story revolves around three sisters, all of whom are required to overcome obstacles in their personal, family and religious lives. “If You Really Love Me” stars Eva Marcille, Keith Robinson, Reagan Gomez-Preston, Mel Jackson and Caryn Ward.

Nickelodeon Favorites: Once Upon a Rhymecontains more the two hours of material from some of your pre-school child’s favorite shows. The newest collection from Nickelodeon is comprised ofWho’s Gonna Play the Big Bad Wolf” (“Bubble Guppies”), “Umi City Treasure Hunt” (“Team Umizoomi”), “Royal Wedding” (“The Fresh Beat Band”), “Dora Saves the Three Little Piggies” (“Dora the Explorer”), “Save the Cow Who Jumped Over the Moon” and “Save the Unicorn” (“The Wonder Pets!”) and “Little Red Riding Blue” (“Blue’s Clues”). They’re not Mother Goose, but most kids won’t know the difference.

Hub: Kaijudo: Rise of the Duel Masters: Dragonstrike
Bruce Lee Double Feature: The Big Boss/Fist of Fury
Anyone who’s seen that nasty little piece of slasher business called “Father’s Day” might be interested in the follow-up from the Canadian film collective Astron-6. “Manborg” is yet another takedown of 1980s culture, such as it was under President Reagan’s watch, starring a warrior who’s half-man, half-machine and 100 percent cheeseball. Manborg is a soldier who was killed in the first war against the forces of hell, then resurrected as humanity’s last hope against the villainous Count Draculon. While Manborg resembles a cross between Robocop and Snake Plissken, his sidekicks take after demented Ninja Turtles. It’s the primitive special sci-fi effects that really take the cake, though. “Manborg” is the kind of movie that can be enjoyed by genre buffs and those who think they could have created better monsters in high school shop courses. It’s nice to have filmmakers like Astron-6 around to remind us that the difference between a DIY gem and $100-million turkey is the amount of imagination invested in the project.

Kaijudo: Rise of the Duel Masters: Dragonstrike” extends the “Kaijudu” franchise further into the DVD marketplace, after debuting on the Hub network. It’s yet another animated action series in which Earth kids interact with monsters from outer space and other dimensions. Here, 14-year-old Raiden ”Ray” Pierce-Okamoto is battling racist bullies in own backyard, when he accidentally summons a creature from the dark side. After that happens, it’s a royal rumble to decide who’s in charge of the planet. The DVD adds a pair of commentaries, deleted and alternate scenes, bloopers, backgrounders, interviews and a Q&A from the premiere.

There’s never been a shortage of Bruce Lee movies in circulation in any video format and now Shout!Factory has begun to roll them out in double-feature packages. In DVD, they look as good as they ever have, perhaps better, considering how beat up they were on the screen. Some have even made the leap to Blu-ray. In “The Big Boss” (1971), Lee moves in with cousins to work at an ice factory, but only after promising not to be involved with fighting. When members of his family begin disappearing after meeting with the management, he breaks his vow and takes on the Big Boss. In “Fist of Fury” (1972), Lee is a martial arts student who returns to his former school to find that his teacher has been murdered. Set in Shanghai in the 1930s, the Japanese are in control and students of one of their Bushido schools are responsible.

The Way of the Dragon” (1972) finds Lee in Rome, where family members own a restaurant that mobsters are attempting to control. In the thrilling climax, set in Colosseum, Lee is required to fight Chuck Norris. “Game of Death” (1973) Lee plays a martial-arts movie star who takes on a syndicate of drug dealers. This is the movie in which Lee battles Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.

The DVD Wrapup

Wednesday, April 24th, 2013

Gangster Squad: Blu-ray
More “Mulholland Falls” than “L.A. Confidential” or “Bugsy,” Ruben Fleischer’s machine-gun opera “Gangster Squad” is stylish enough to appeal to fans of the all-star cast members, but takes far too many liberties with the facts to satisfy genre purists. Adding to the familiarity of the story is the presence of Nick Nolte as the LAPD’s unorthodox Chief William H. Parker, who began his tenure as a reformist, but died, 16 years later, defending his department against institutionalized racism and brutality. In “Mulholland Falls,” Nolte played a member of the police department’s notorious Hat Squad, a select unit of hard-ass detectives not unlike Fleischer’s Gangster Squad. Although gangster Mickey Cohen (Sean Penn) doesn’t appear in “Mulholland Falls” by name, his greasy fingerprints are all over both movies. Chief Parker and Cohen became mortal enemies in the same post-war period, with the ruthless crime boss not taking kindly to the notion that cops could throw out the rule book in their dogged pursuit of his own illegal activities. That’s exactly how Parker went after Cohen’s rackets and allies in various Los Angeles County courthouses, newsrooms and cop shops, however.

In reality and the movies, the elite squads were populated by battle-tested World War II veterans, whose patriotism extended to the honesty and diligence required of the job. In Cohen, the cops saw an enemy only slightly less sinister than Hitler or Tojo, or so the story goes. The coppers here are likeably portrayed by Josh Brolin, Ryan Gosling, Anthony Mackie, Michael Peña, Giovanni Ribisi and Robert Patrick, while Emma Stone plays the dame who shares Cohen and Gosling’s attentions. For all of its noir touches, tough talk and witty banter, “Gangster Squad” frequently looks more like a series of outtakes from “The Untouchables” than a story about how the LAPD neutered Cohen and kept the East Coast and Midwest gangs from gaining a foothold in Southern California. To get a more factual take on Cohen, viewers will want to check out the various background featurettes included in the Blu-ray package. Not surprisingly, perhaps, the most recommendable qualities of “Gangster Squad” lie with the cinematography (Dion Beebe), production design (Maher Ahmad) and costume design (Mary Zophres), all of which contribute mightily to period authenticity. If “Gangster Squad” didn’t make quite the splash the combined talents of its cast might have warranted, it’s because the Aurora multiplex massacre occurred while a trailer for the film showed gangsters shooting tommy guns through a projection screen. It was immediately pulled and a scene had to be reshot, necessitating a new release date.

Django Unchained: Blu-ray
One needn’t have been familiar with the 1966 Spaghetti Western classic “Django” to have thoroughly enjoyed – or, at least, admired – Quentin Tarantino’s violent crowd-pleaser, “Django Unchained,” in its theatrical release. Franco Nero’s portrayal of a coffin-dragging gunman caught between rival gangs on the U.S.-Mexican border would be unforgettable, even if Sergio Corbucci’s film wasn’t also so terrifically entertaining. In Italy, the Django character was deemed so iconic – yes, that overused, if entirely appropriate adjective, again – that similarly named desperadoes appeared in a couple dozen other Westerns, with and without the coffin. It’s entirely appropriate, then, that one of the sub-genre’s most ardent proponents would borrow the character’s name when he got around to making his own Spaghetti Western. Given 165 minutes of screen time, a 130-day shooting schedule and $100 million of someone else’s money, Tarantino was able to create the movie he’s been dreaming of making for a quarter-century. It would have taken him almost the same amount of time to come up with the many references, homages, sight and audio gags that appear throughout the movie. By setting most of “Django” in the pre-war American South – he calls it a “Southern” – Tarantino was able to tackle two much-cherished sub-genres with one monumental leap of faith. In Jamie Foxx, he not only had a protagonist who wouldn’t have been out of place alongside Woody Strode in Spaghetti Land, but in any of the Blaxploitation revenge epics of the 1970s. (If Fred Williamson’s “Nigger Charley” trilogy bears the closest resemblance to “Django” in tone, it’s worth recalling that such prominent African-American actor/athletes as Fred Williamson, Jim Brown, Rafer Johnson, Yaphet Kotto, D’Urville Martin, Don Pedro Colley, Max Julien, Robert DoQui, Lincoln Kilpatrick, Richard Pryor, Bill Cosby, Sidney Poitier, Harry Belafonte, Denise Nicholas and Lola Falana found paydays as black cowboys and cowgirls.)

Here, of course, escaped slave Django is joined in his mission to be reunited with his wife, Broomhilda von Schaft (Kerry Washington), by the cold-blooded German bounty hunter, Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz). Always a threat to run away from whoever owns her, Broomhilda has most recently been purchased by the diabolical plantation owner, Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio). Schultz drives around the Wild West on a wagon with a giant bobbling tooth attached to its top. He isn’t a dentist, but the ruse tends to confuse the local yokels, who may or may not be aware that men with bounties on their heads live among them. Under the doctor’s tutelage, Django becomes a crack shot and impressive figure on a horse. It’s a sight that unsettles racist whites almost as much as the six-shooters on his belt. With the money they make shooting desperadoes – if they’re wanted “dead or alive, why sweat the travelling expenses? – Django and Schultz intend to make Candie a deal he can’t refuse on Broomhilda. They pretend to be interested primarily in buying “Mandingo fighters” for exhibition in Europe, a pursuit that appeals to Candie’s perverse world view. (He considers himself to be a Francophile, but is too lazy to learn French.) There’s no point in revealing much else beyond that setup, except to remind those who haven’t seen “Unchained” that it’s extremely violent and almost unbelievably profane, while also being wildly funny in the darkest sort of way possible.

Naturally, quite a fuss has been made over Tarantino’s frequent use of the n-word here – 120, at last count – and, after a while, it becomes more tiresome than shocking. For my money, though, I found it a bit more disturbing that Candie’s trusted black servant, Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson), is as loathsome as any of the grotesquely drawn rednecks. If a poll were taken among viewers as to the characters they’d most like to see suffer a violent death, it would be a tossup between the Uncle Ben look-alike and Candie. “Django Unchained” is a superbly crafted movie that looks and sounds smashing in Blu-ray. The landscapes and sunsets are uniformly lovely, whether they were captured in Wyoming, Lone Pine or Louisiana. Among the extras are backgrounders on the late production designer, J. Michael Riva; the horses and stunts; and costume designer Sharen Davis. (I suspect a more expansive edition will arrive by Christmas.) Fans of “Unchained” are encouraged to seek out the recently released Blu-ray edition of “Django” and “Skin Game,” a 1971 comedy starring James Garner and Lou Gossett, in roles not dissimilar to Django and Dr. Schultz.

Pawn: Blu-ray
The story arc on “The Shield,” featuring Michael Chiklis and Forest Whitaker, provided some of the FX series’ most tempestuous moments. Both actors can be scary good when the right material is presented them and they went toe-to-toe throughout Season 5. While nothing in “Pawn” compares with what happened weekly in “The Shield,” their presence, alone, gives viewers a reason to pop for a rental of the ensemble thriller. The movie opens with a cop (Whitaker) strolling into an all-night diner in Hartford, Connecticut, for his nightly fix of coffee and a game of chess with the man behind the counter. It takes a few minutes for him to notice that no one in the joint is acting normally and it’s likely that he’s interrupted a robbery. One thing leads to another and a Cockney creep (Chiklis) steps out from the shadows brandishing a gun, precipitating another series of events, not all of which are recalled in the same way. The remaining 80-some minutes of “Pawn” are taken up with 1) explaining what the crooks are after in the diner’s secret safe and 2) understanding why one witness’ point-of-view is so different than another’s version of the story. So far, so “Rashomon.” Before turning completely Japanese, however, director David Armstrong (DP on the “Saw” franchise) and writer Jay Anthony White (“Project 313”) toss several more ingredients into the mix, advancing the narrative beyond mere remake status. In fact, once the camera finds its way outside the confines of the diner, all bets are off as to what’s really happening.

If “Pawn” lacks the narrative heft it would have taken to find theatrical distribution, it can stand on its own in the straight-to-video and VOD marketplaces. In addition to Chiklis and Whitaker, the cast includes Stephen Lang, Common, Nikki Reed, Jessica Szohr and Ray Liotta, all of whom are game for what certainly was a dubious commercial proposition. The generic urban diner provides a solid stage for the suspense that surrounds the whys and wherefores of the crime in progress and, at 88 minutes, “Pawn” doesn’t outstay its welcome. The Blu-ray arrives with a making-of featurette.

It’s in the Blood
Nearly 73, Lance Henriksen still commands the attention of fans of horror, sci-fi and supernatural thrillers. Too often, lately, all this one-off actor has been required to do is show up on the set and reprise one of his many characters. “It’s in the Blood” is a movie that plays to his strong points as a character actor, while also giving him an opportunity to show off a bit in a lead role. As bloggers on the horror circuit have pointed out, “It’s in the Blood” doesn’t easily fit most genre boundaries and that probably is OK with Henriksen. For lack of a better adjective, though, Scooter Downey’s debut easily qualifies as “creepy.” Henriksen plays Russell, a hard-scrabble outdoorsman whose relationship with his teenage son, October (co-writer Sean Elliot), has been strained ever since a traumatic event somewhere in the near past. Before Russell and October have an opportunity to work out their differences, though, they head out for the sticks on a hunting trip. The mere presence of guns and knives in such an already foreboding environment ratchets-up the psychological tension without adding any fat to the mix. As their trek continues, though, it becomes clear there’s something frightening lurking in the forest and ground fog enveloping them. October’s ultimate test of manhood comes when Russell seriously fractures his leg and he’s required not only to save his father’s life, but also protect him from the boogeymen in the mist. Fans of horror and suspense should enjoy “It’s in the Blood,” as much for its willingness to both blur genre boundaries as for its performances and scenery.

Cold Prey II
The Norwegian horror franchise, “Cold Prey,” combines slasher conceits of the “Halloween” variety with the frigid mountain setting of “The Shining.” In the original, snowboarders take shelter inside an abandoned mountain lodge, which is cold but protective. One of them is nursing a broken leg and without proper communications equipment, the young people become an easy target for the ax-wielding lunatic already in residence. “Cold Prey II” picks up where “Cold Prey” left off, with a dazed survivor wandering along an icy highway, toting a bloody pick in her grasp. Once the young woman is able to come to grips with her situation, she points police in the direction of the lodge and the board-stiff corpses she left behind her. They’re taken to the morgue in a rural hospital, which is operating with a skeleton crew before it is to be closed for lack of revenues. It takes a while for the bodies to defrost and, in that time, it becomes clear there’s an extra body on the slabs, in addition to the snowboarders. The surviving victim tries to inform her doctors and police of the blunder – she believes, after all, she had eliminated the undead fiend in the first movie – but they simply assume she’s insane. Surely, you can guess the rest of the story. If “Cold Prey II” sounds overly familiar, it benefits greatly from the taut, claustrophobic direction of Mats Stenberg, who took the helm from Roar Uthaug. Then, there’s the magnificent natural beauty of Jotunheimen National Park and frigid temperatures capable of making viewers shiver in absentia. “Cold Prey 3,” which follows the same formula, has already been released in Europe.

Electric Button: Moon & Cherry
When the brightest practitioners of emerging cinemas begin to rest on their laurels and resist courting controversy, you can count on upstart Japanese filmmakers to ratchet up the craziness and set new standards for gratuitous sex and violence. I say that with all due respect for artists whose only concession to good taste – and the peculiarities of Japanese censors — is avoiding pubic hair and genitalia. Released in 2004, but ignored in markets where sex is treated with the same sanctity as brain surgery and prayer vigils, Yuki Tanada’s debut feature “Electric Button: Moon & Cherry” is an extension of two time-honored Japanese sub-genres, pinku eiga and roman porno. That Tanada is a filmmaker of the female persuasion only added to the potential for a fresh take on conventions dictated by the male-dominated profession. In “Electric Button,” the protagonist and first-person narrator is a timid university freshman, Tadokoro, who’s been encouraged to join a literary club dedicated to erotic writing. With the exception of one brash and hyperactive young woman, the members of Electric Button are an odd lot of pervs and misfits, some of whom already are on to Mayama’s game. The fun begins when Mayama discovers the new kid in class and calls his bluff on some mild sexual braggadocio. Their sexual encounters, which are dictated on her terms, help her overcome a persistent writer’s block. Mayama is the rare woman in Japanese genre flicks allowed to have more fun in the sack than a man, and, at first, Takokoro doesn’t mind being manipulated and exploited by his classmate. It’s when she starts hiring hookers and S&M specialists for him, as research, that the poor sap begins to feel exploited. “Electric Button” is a lot of fun, but no one should confuse it for a Rock Hudson/Doris Day rom-com.

God’s Country
In contemporary faith-based movies, it’s safe to assume that a religious miracle will happen when all other means to a solution have been exhausted. Otherwise, why bother? Like the U.S. Cavalry and Lone Ranger, God arrives in the nick of time to save poor wretches like us with his amazing grace. If Satan doesn’t always make an appearance in such “family friendly” fare, it’s only because his very presence defines what it means to be a buzz kill. In less-observant fare, the devil is given his due for being a hail-and-hearty party animal, if nothing else. “God’s Country” is interesting because it equates predatory capitalism with being on the wrong side of the deity, a notion that flies in the face of everything we know about televangelists and mega-congregations with budgets that exceed the GNP of most developing nations. As portrayed by Jenn Gotzon, Meghan Doherty is an ambitious and hyper-aggressive young business executive at an amoral Los Angeles land-development firm. We know she’s in need of divine intervention because she drives a red Ferrari and favors revealing clothing. Meghan’s firm is trying to bulldoze a deal that would turn a Christian youth mission in the Mojave Desert, God’s Country, into a multi-use resort financed by Japanese interests. God’s Country doesn’t have the money to continue its mission and she drives her sports car over miles of rocks and potholes to make the pastor a deal he can’t refuse. Instead, pastor Eden Graham (Michael Toland) makes her a proposition: spend a week at God’s Country, absorbing the mission’s Gospel, and he’ll sign on the dotted line. What Eden understands and Meghan doesn’t is that God knows what’s best for her and it isn’t another Ferrari. It allows Eden the time to get her right with Jesus, without also resorting to the hard sell. “God’s Country” is well made, considering its budget, and the scenery is pretty swell. It comes with a teaching guide.

K-11: Blu-ray
It’s important to know going into Jules Stewart and Jared Kurt’s prison nightmare, “K-11,” that the title derives from an actual segregated unit at the Los Angeles County Jail, where gay, bisexual or transgender inmates can choose to live outside of the general population. Many of them already have been diagnosed with HIV, while others only became aware of their condition upon arrival and testing at the jail. It should not, however, be seen as an AIDS ghetto, as residence there is voluntary. If the K-11 facility at the Twin Towers Correctional Facility is anything like the one depicted in the movie, it would be as infamous as Attica, Alcatraz and the Black Hole of Calcutta in their heydays. Not only are the inmates in control of the institution, but also, when they’re not sodomizing the weaker prisoners or ignoring beatings and rapes, the guards are dealing and doing as much dope as those awaiting trial. Moreover, the prisoners run the gamut from cross-dressers, sissy boys and transsexuals, to violent child molesters and killers. I doubt that such a mélange of characters would be allowed the freedom to intermingle without guards assuring the safety of the meek and unprotected inmates.

Inexplicably, straight music producer Raymond Saxx Jr. (Goran Visnjic) is shipped directly to K-11 after being picked up in the murder of a rival. On the outside, he gets his kicks by mixing cocaine, heroin and vodka, then blacking out on street corners. Inside, he’s woefully overmatched by the vicious tranny that runs the unit (Kate Del Castillo, who’s every inch a woman). Saxx must find a way to survive in this jungle or become part of the prison food chain. “K-11” is ridiculous, of course, even if it’s doubtful Stewart (mother of Kristen) would see it that way. At best, there’s some cult value in the presence of Tommy “Tiny” Lister, Jason Mewes, Portia Doubleday and D.B. Sweeney, as the vile guard. Del Castillo is fine as the bossy tramp, Mousey, but, by all rights, the role probably should have gone to a male actor (think, William Hurt in “Kiss of the Spider Woman”). The Blu-ray package includes cast interviews, behind-the-scenes featurettes, commentary with Stewart and producer Tom Wright, and a music video.

The Central Park Five: Blu-ray
Who Killed Lindbergh’s Baby?: Blu-ray

What both of these fine documentaries share with last week’s coverage of the manhunt for the Boston Marathon bombers is undeniable evidence of how politicians and the media exploit tragedy for their own interests and profits, while also arguing that they’re serving the public. In the rush to be the first outlet to announce the names of the terrorists to the world and report their capture, much demonstrably untrue information was spread and later recanted. In their own rush to condemn the bombers, politicians made statements designed to enflame the public and push their own bigoted agendas. Although it appears likely that the Chechen brothers were the perpetrators of the horror, probably acting alone, it’s also likely that the rabble-rousing will continue until a verdict is reached and the maximum penalty is administered. “The Central Park Five” and “Who Killed Lindbergh’s Baby?” describe similarly hysteric reactions to crimes that outraged America and brought out the worst in the media and politicians.

When, in 1989, a white woman jogger was brutally raped and beaten in Central Park, there was so much pressure on the police to put someone behind bars that they felt it necessary to cut corners simply to save face, not that they needed any further incentive. Conveniently, on the same night as the attack, a large pack of black and Hispanic teens had swept through the northern section of the park, terrorizing pedestrians and vandalizing property. Among those arrested were five teenagers, who, as black and Latino, would have fit the description of any criminal in upper Manhattan. As the interviews included in “The Central Park Five” attest, the boys were denied basic rights and lied to about their status as suspects. Exhausted and frightened, they signed false confessions and immediately were trotted out before the media as the worst people on earth. They believed that the city’s case would be sunk by lack of evidence – of which there wasn’t any – and the ability of a jury to see through the sham. Those men and women, however, believed the confessions and ignored everything else, including unmatched DNA. The fact of their innocence wouldn’t be acknowledged until all five had served their full terms and the true perpetrator, who should have been on top of the NYPD’s list of suspects on Day One, admitted the atrocity. Even 10 years after the five men were fully exonerated, police and city officials continue to drag their heels on making reparations to the Central Park Five. They’ve even tried to subpoena every single piece of footage taken by documentarians Ken Burns, Susan Burns and David McMahon, hoping to find a loophole through which they can jump. The filmmakers recount the entire process, from the “wilding” that preceded the attack on the jogger, who’s successfully weathered her own storm, to the release of the men from prison. Interviews with those men and others with distinct memories of the prosecution inform the film, as do the police tapes taken of the shell-shocked youths. The Blu-ray adds several making-of and background featurettes.

Who Killed Lindbergh’s Baby?” chronicles the investigation into the 1932 kidnaping and death of Charles Lindbergh’s toddler son from his bedroom in the family estate in New Jersey. It was the Crime of the Century that led ineffably to the Trial of the Century, a title it held until the Manson Family and O.J. Simpson came along to make claims of their own to the titles. Negotiations with the kidnappers stretched out for weeks, but, when the baby’s dead body was found in the woods near the estate, the pressure to find the killer became even more intense. Solid circumstantial evidence would lead investigators to the German immigrant, Bruno Richard Hauptmann, but not explain other key elements of the crime, including how a single person would have dared pull off such a complicated piece of business. Four years later, without an apology or confession, Hauptmann would be executed for the crime. The problem was, of course, that Hauptmann almost certainly couldn’t have acted alone and, by killing him, the truth never was revealed. It did, however, spark a cottage industry in books and films about the case. The researchers interviewed here argue several possibilities, ranging from feasible to the unthinkable.

Space Shuttle Columbia: Mission of Hope

Given that most documentaries involving Catholic priests necessarily focus on abuses of their power and efforts by Church hierarchy to keep the lid on the scandals, it’s refreshing to find a film about one who understands what Jesus might have done in the same circumstances as his. Father Greg Boyle, a white Jesuit, has spent the last quarter-century providing hope and opening doors for former gang-bangers who truly want to straighten out their lives. Through Boyle’s tireless efforts, Homeboy Industries has become a visible thread in the fabric of Los Angeles, first providing baked goods, salsa and tortilla chips to stores and, then, opening stores and restaurants in high-volume locations. Behind the scenes, however, Homeboy Industries offers training in anger management, domestic violence, yoga, spiritual development, parenting, substance abuse, budgeting, art and other areas of self-development for vulnerable youths. Also offered are mental health counseling, tattoo removal, legal services, job development and case management. While the most attention grabbing of these resources, the tattoo-removal program may be the most practical, as well. It’s tough to make a positive first impression on employers who can’t get past highly visible prison and gang tattoos that mark a young man or woman as undesirable. “G-Dog” was directed by Freida Lee Mock, whose documentary “Maya Lin: A Strong Clear Vision” took home an Oscar as the Best Documentary of 1993. Boyle is a wonderfully charismatic subject, but it’s the enthusiasm and dedication he instills in others that sells the picture. Anyone who believes that gang members are beyond rehabilitation really out to pick up a copy of “G-Dog” and see the difference one good man can make to the lives of people much of society has forsaken.

It’s been 27 years since the Space Shuttle Challenger disintegrated above the Atlantic Ocean, 73 seconds after lifting off from Cape Canaveral, leaving all seven of the crew members dead. Images of the explosion are as haunting today as they were on the day they were shown live on national TV. Seventeen years later, seven more astronauts perished after the Space Shuttle Columbia came apart over Texas on its final descent home. No similarly indelible images of the tragedy were broadcast because it happened over a sparsely populated part of the country, during the radio-silence period. An exhaustive search was conducted to collect pieces of the vehicle for re-assembly and find bodies of the astronauts for burial. While many Americans had already begun to question the efficacy of the space program, countries that were contributing to the joint missions remained enthusiastic about it. I’m sure that most Americans remain unaware that one of the victims in the Columbia disaster was Israeli fighter pilot Ilan Ramon, the son of Holocaust survivors and someone whose mission included reminding people of the resilience of the Jewish people. “Space Shuttle Columbia: Mission of Hope” tells his story. Ramon is portrayed as a well-liked ambassador of Israel and a believer in the ability of people to cross cultural borders in the pursuit of scientific discovery. His personal “mission within the mission” was to carry into space a miniature Torah scroll that survived the Holocaust and once belonged to Israel’s lead aerospace scientist, Joachim Joseph. Quite a bit of time in the film is devoted, as well, to chronicling the scroll’s path from the Nazi concentration camp Bergen-Belsen to the flight deck of Columbia.

Last Shop Standing: The Rise, Fall and Rebirth of the Independent Record Shop
Brick and Mortar and Love

I wonder if the promoters of last Saturday’s Record Store Day were cognizant of the fact that April 20 also is the day designated by stoners worldwide to honor all things related to marijuana consumption. If any two things went together like a horse and carriage, it’s music and pot smoking. I’m sure that the distributers of “Last Shop Standing: The Rise, Fall and Rebirth of the Independent Record Shop” and “Brick and Mortar and Love” consciously timed their video releases to Record Store Day. The national smoke-out, probably not so much. Both chronicle the history of indie stores, which, along with FM radio, brought unprogramed rock ’n’ roll to masses in the 1960-70s, only to overlooked and dismissed in the digital era. The so-called “vinyl revolution” has regenerated one segment of the music business, even as technology conspires to crush everything else. Indeed, that’s exactly what happened to the Louisville store profiled in “Brick and Mortar and Love,” which was an integral part of the city’s scene … until it’s wasn’t. “Last Shop Standing” takes a more anglophilic approach to the subject, adding testimony by Billy Bragg, Paul Weller and Johnny Marr. Anyone who frequents indie stores, or is a fan of “High Fidelity,” already knows that the success of such businesses depends on knowledgeable personnel, vast selection, listening stations, in-store concerts and an invitation to linger for hours. The deserve our support and attention.

PBS: Mr. Selfridge
Maverick: The Complete Second Season
A Haunting: The 2012 Season

The current attraction on PBS’ “Masterpiece Classic” is a mini-series set roughly in the same time period as “Downton Abbey” and “Upstairs/Downstairs,” but with a decidedly more middle-class inclination. It tells the story of American retailer Harry Selfridge’s dream of building a department store on the wrong end of London’s Oxford Street and modeling it after similar establishments in Chicago and Paris. Instead of hiding the merchandise in shelves and dictating what m’lord and m’lady should wear, it was Selfridge’s idea – not at all original, perhaps – to showcase the goods and let fashion dictate what will be worn. Around such a straightforward notion, Andrew Davies has imagined an extended mini-series that is less about business than shenanigans, which is OK with me. As such, “Mr. Selfridge” is the sherbet between the courses at “Masterpiece Classic.” Jeremy Piven wouldn’t have been most people’s first choice to play the cocky Yank, who sensed that women everywhere were chomping at the bit to be taken seriously as consumers. While there’s something a bit too contemporary about Piven’s approach to the role, it’s possible that British fans of “Entourage” consider him to be the quintessential American businessman. A second season has already be ordered. When Piven’s performance falters, the slack is picked up by such estimable actors as Frances O’Connor (“Madame Bovary”), Aisling Loftus (“Page Eight”), Zoe Tapper (“Zen”), Amanda Abbington (“Case Histories”) and Samuel West (“Any Human Heart”). As a background for melodrama, ambition and scandal, Selfridge’s provides as appropriate a setting as any Grand Hotel, ocean liner, resort or airport. It was based on the book “Shopping, Seduction and Mr. Selfridge,” by Lindy Woodhead. The Blu-ray contains the original British version of the mini-series.

It’s been 11 months since Warner Home Video made the first season of “Maverick” available on DVD, so, by now, even the most distracted of viewers should have gotten through the 1,350-minute package. Bingers surely would have inhaled the episodes over the long Memorial Day weekend. I can’t think of many better alternatives to going on a picnic or climbing a mountain than “Maverick.” Although the show does occasionally show its age, there aren’t many characters today who can match Bret and Bart for their roguish humor, natural charisma and ability to talk their way out of serious trouble. Neither did it matter much to the writers that the Mavericks could be found in a desert West saloon one episode and a Mississippi riverboat the next, always in the company of a great-looking woman. Being the sharpest-dressed guy within three states certainly didn’t hurt Bret’s chances with the ladies, either. The DVDs look pretty good, too.

The Discovery Channel’s supernatural anthology series, “A Haunting,” desperately wants us to believe that the stories being re-enacted each week have a basis in fact and eyewitness accounts aren’t simply the product of some loon’s twisted imagination. By now, fans of reality-based entertainment know when to go along with something that smells kind of funny and when nothing less than a complete suspension of disbelief is required to enjoy a show. What’s crazy about the people we meet in “A Haunting” is their willingness to remain in a basement or bedroom, when all evidence to the contrary is telling them to split immediately and set their house on fire behind them. In one episode, it becomes obvious to family members that they’ve moved into the wrong house when ghosts, demons and angels visit them at night, sometimes making a racket or breaking things. When they approach a priest to inquire about an exorcism, he advices them to go home and not listen to the noises, because, after a hundred years, the floorboards and foundation probably are still settling. It’s the religious equivalent of a doctor saying, “Take a couple aspirin and call me after you’ve turned blue.” The alternative, of course, would be to not have any more series about paranormal activity and how much fun would that be?

Marvel Knights: InHumans
It’s gotten to the point where you can’t tell the difference between the myriad Marvel mutants without a scorecard. There simply are too many to keep track of by simple memorization. Just when I had become familiar with the mutants in the “X-Men” franchise, “Marvel Knights: InHumans” arrives with a whole new collection of genetic freaks with powers that are even more earth-shattering and uncontrollable. The InHumans of the Terrigan Mists aren’t new to the Marvel universe, but they’re finally getting their time in the video sun. Here, they’re called upon to protect the kingdom of Attilan and its royal family from foreign invaders and turncoats within their own ranks. The motion comic has a dark and foreboding look that’s consistent with the BDSM tone of the stories.

A Car’s Life 3: The Royal Heist
I don’t know how the makers of the animated straight-to-video series, “A Car’s Life,” have avoided a full-scale assault by the notoriously litigious legal department at Disney/Pixar, but I’m guessing that no one at the Mouse House wants to call attention to a franchise that offers so little competition for their superior products. The four-tired characters bear more than a passing resemblance to those who star in the “Cars” franchise, but the similarities end there. As any viewer older than 5 could see without prompting or prodding, the “Car’s Life” cars are to the “Cars” cars what the Aflac duck is to Donald Duck. Still, Disney’s sicced its lawyers on copy cats far less threatening than these guys. Fact is, it’s almost impossible to find anyone on the Internet who’s paid much attention to the three “Car’s Life” installments, except to lambast them for being inferior to “Cars.” Clearly, too, it’s a safe bet that no kid is going to be so impressed by “A Car’s Life 3: The Royal Heist” that he or she would pass up the opportunity to see a third big-screen installment of “Cars,” purchase a branded toy or video game, or visit the new Cars Land attraction at Disney’s California Adventure. For the record, “The Royal Heist” describes what occurs when a limousine belonging to a queen arrives in Greasy Springs to attend a charity drag race. Sure enough, the protagonist of the series, the red sports car Sparky, manages to take his eyes off the limo long enough for the crown jewels to be stolen. The Dove-approved film doesn’t have a voicing cast that would be recognizable to anyone outside Spark Plug Entertainment.

In “Oconomowoc,” living in the shadow of the ‘Wizard’ isn’t such a bad place to be

Thursday, April 18th, 2013

Seventy-four years ago, come this August 12, MGM executives beat a path to the Strand Theater in the tranquil lakeside town of Oconomowoc, Wisconsin, to stage the first publicized showing of the final, edited version of “The Wizard of Oz.” Although no one is quite sure why it was chosen for the honor – perhaps, because composer Herbert Stothart and Munchkin coroner Meinhardt Raabe were local lads — it’s still recognized as one of the most exciting events in Oconomowoc history.

Next week, when the movie “Oconomowoc” debuts in Wisconsin, it will be at Milwaukee’s venerable Downer Theater. The Strand was torn down a while back and the city no longer has any commercial screens on which to exhibit Hollywood movies. To mark the 70th anniversary of its Oconomowoc debut, back in 1939, an outdoor presentation of “The Wizard of Oz,” had to be accommodated on giant inflatable screen. The closest “Oconomowoc” will come to Oconomowoc will be theaters in nearby Delafield and Brookfield, which, while nice towns, aren’t Oconomowoc.

If you grew up in Wisconsin, as I did, repeating the word “Oconomowoc” several times in the same sentence inspires as much delight as reading the names Gitchee Gumee, Nokomis, Hiawatha and Minnehaha, in the epic poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Cool names for their cities are yet one more thing white settlers stole from native tribes.

Not knowing what to expect from a movie named “Oconomowoc,” I mistakenly guessed it might be an attempt to capture the same lightning in a bottle as the Coen Brothers had in “Fargo,” especially the characters’ wonderful accents.  Anyone who’s ever spent any time in the Upper Midwest could watch “Fargo” and enjoy it simply for Marge, Norm, Wade and Jerry’s “Minnesota nice” mannerisms and singsong dialect, a blend of Nordic, Swedish, Germanic and other northern European speech patterns.

Ironically, in “Oconomowoc,” the characters – the vast majority of whom are played by actors native Midwesterners — sound as if they just stepped off a train from southern California. Longtime residents of the state might find the proper use of English somewhat disconcerting.

“We didn’t ask anyone to lose their accents or add one,” reports Andy Gillies, whose name appears alongside that of co-producer/editor/cinematographer Joe Haas on nearly all of the film’s credit lists. “I grew up in Florida, but moved to Appleton to attend Lawrence University. Almost all of the people involved in the movie attended Lawrence or grew up in Wisconsin or Upper Peninsula.

“After college, I decided to stay in the state. The people are truly nice and so much more community-oriented than other places I’ve been. Everyone says hello to you or offers to buy you a beer.”

Gillies wrote the much-longer first draft of “Oconomowoc” in Oconomowoc and shot the film in and around the city, which once served as a summer destination for swells from Milwaukee, Chicago and St. Louis. In winter, of course, ice-fishing and cross-country skiing compete with the downing aber gut (a shot of brandy with schnapps, often set ablaze, on top) as the local pastime. There’s nothing more fun than sitting in a bar and betting tipsy visitors that they can’t spell “O-C-O-N-O-M-O-W-O-C,” even if they’re spotted three of the O’s.

For the record, the city’s name derives from the Potawatomi word, “coo-no-mo-wauk,” which means “waterfall” or “where the waters meet,” depending on whom one asks.

Anyone who goes to see “Oconomowoc,” expecting to hear jokes about guys who wear cheese-head hats to church, tip cows when bored or use deer-hunting season as an excuse to spend more time with their drinking buddies, is going to be disappointed. The movie barely registers on the Richter scale that measures such things as condescension and irony. Like the accents, it speaks to the universality of life in small-town America.

In his first feature role, Brendan Marshall-Rashid plays a young man who moves back to Wisconsin after rejecting every job that would require him to show up for it. The home in which Lonnie grew up is now populated by his voluntarily bed-ridden father, who’s “on sabbatical” from life; his bitter, alcoholic mom; and a friend his age, Todd, who is his mother’s “in-home boyfriend.”

Ostensibly, Todd designs lingerie for a living, but he mostly hangs out at home in his underwear and a polka-dotted robe, occasionally sporting green-felt antlers. Despite the similarity in their ages, Todd desperately wants Lonnie to accept him as a father figure who occasionally dispenses the kind of advice a dad normally would be expected to provide his son.

“He’s the elephant in the room wherever he goes,” Gillies quips.

Lonnie hopes to help his other buddy, Travis (Gillies), resuscitate his struggling t-shirt business. Travis’ primary competition comes from a middle-school student who steals his designs and undercuts him on prices. The possibility for love is on Lonnie’s horizon, as well, but it’s even money that he’ll blow that opportunity, too.

“These kinds of characters could and probably do exist in small towns around America, not exclusively in Oconomowoc,” Gillies suggests. “There always are some goofballs – goofballs with potential – who always manage to shoot themselves in the foot while pursuing their dreams. I thought that the unpronounceability of the title would convey the ambiguity of the characters’ absurd ideas. ”

The first draft was significantly longer than the finished product, Gillies says, but the usual impediments to creating an indie film whittled down the original vision to 78 minutes. As it is, the eight-day location shoot was financed using personal credit cards and the kindness of the residents of Oconomowoc. Its success, of course, will depend on positive reviews, social networking and word-of-mouth.

Fortuitously, too, Gillies was able to conduct staged readings in his acting class in Los Angeles. From there, he decided to cast promising newcomer Cindy Pinzon, the only non-Midwesterner on the team. In a movie largely populated by slackers and oddballs, her gainfully employed receptionist, Mallory, truly is a ray of sunshine.

The early consensus opinion, as recorded on the movie’s tongue-in-cheek website, is that “Oconomowoc” is “it’s pretty good.” By Wisconsin standards, “pretty good” is high praise, indeed.

Besides finding the money to make the movie, one of the largest roadblocks faced Gillies and Haas was getting the movie seen … anywhere. These days, too many indie pictures go straight from the festival circuit to DVD, where the demands of marketing are so much less harsh.

Gillies admits to being ecstatic when he heard that “Oconomowoc” was be picked up by more than 20 On Demand cable outlets, beginning on May 1. It opens in theaters New York and Los Angeles on Friday and will roll out throughout America’s Dairyland a week later and, possibly, from there, into bigger cities and college towns through the summer.

If it does really well, maybe someone will rent the inflatable screen and show “Oconomowoc” in the park as half of a double-feature with “Wizard of Oz.”

The DVD Wrapup

Tuesday, April 16th, 2013

Future Weather
In Jenny Deller’s impressive debut feature, “Future Weather,” bright newcomer Perla Haney-Jardine plays a 13-year-old loner so obsessed with global warming, pesticides and pollution that everything else in her life is secondary. She’s as petrified of what the future may hold for her generation as her grandmother (Amy Madigan) must have been by the possibility of nuclear war, a half-century ago. As passionate an environmentalist as she is, however, Lauderee has personal problems that are far more immediate. For one thing, Lauderee’s white-trash mother – for lack of a more precise term – has taken a powder from the remote double-wide trailer they share, along with the occasional drunken boyfriend. All Mom left behind was $50 and a note promising she’d be back for the girl as soon as she strikes gold as a makeup artist to the stars, in Hollywood. Lauderee decides to tough it out on her own for a while, but her hard-boiled grandma puts an end to that experiment in self-sufficiency after she gets caught shoplifting. It’s just as well, because the girl is so pre-occupied with a science project, she might be starving and not even known it. Lauderee gets more bad news when her grandma agrees to move to Florida with her boyfriend, Ed (William Sadler), who offers her a dozen good reasons why an aspiring scientist might enjoy living in the Sunshine State. That only serves to complicate things further, because it would mean giving up on the project, her mom’s empty promise and the attention of her extremely concerned teacher (Lilly Taylor).

While Deller’s story and direction keep us guessing throughout the indie’s 100-minute length, it’s Haney-Jardine’s gritty performance that’s unforgettable in “Future Weather.” There are times when Lauduree’s treatment of her grandmother, her boyfriend and teacher is so single-minded and stubborn that she risks alienating viewers who sense she isn’t nearly as smart as she thinks she is. That’s what separates “Future Weather” from 95 percent of the other films with teenage protagonists. And, yes, I do think it’s fair to compare Haney-Jardine’s performance her to Jennifer Lawrence’s in the decidedly more ferocious “Winter’s Bone.” I’ve seen “Future Weather” described as a coming-of-age drama, but I don’t think Deller intended for Lauderee to skip puberty entirely on the way to adulthood. I’d be very surprised if teens and ’tweens couldn’t find a little bit of themselves in her. – Gary Dretzka

Save the Date
Not Suitable for Children: Blu-ray

If it’s politically incorrect to dismiss films targeted specifically at girls and women in the 16-to-34 demographic as “chick flicks,” why isn’t the decidedly anti-intellectual approach to selling “popcorn,” comic-book and gross-out movies to teenage boys not considered degrading, as well? Perhaps, it’s because you can’t slander the guilty. By finding common ground, however accidentally, some filmmakers have redefined what it means to be a “date movie.” Among the recent titles that qualify are “Bridesmaids” and “The Hangover” — but not “Bachelorette” and “The Hangover Part II” — “Silver Linings Playbook,” “Crazy Stupid Love,” “The Hunger Games” and one or two of the “Twilight” episodes, at least. Any woman who wants to test the loyalty and patience of her male friend couldn’t find a better challenge than to ask him to sit through “Save the Date,” without dozing off or cracking wise every three or four minutes. This isn’t to say that many women won’t be similarly turned off by “Save the Date,” but the mere presence of Lizzy Caplan (“Party Down”) and Alison Brie (“Community”) might present sufficient cause for a rental on 2-for-1 day. They play sisters, one of whom is getting married and the other moving in with her musician boyfriend. Since there’s nothing noticeably wrong with either relationship, on or below the surface, director Michael Mohan and his two male co-writers (Jeffrey Brown, Egan Reich) were required to find stupid ways to test the strength of their bonds. Sarah’s a fiercely neurotic sketch artist, while Beth is driving her fiancé nuts with plans for the wedding. After Sarah scares away her seemingly perfect boyfriend, Mohan gives her another to torment. It takes Beth’s seemingly perfect guy a while to figure out how painful his nuptials are likely to be, but, when he does, Beth can’t find much sympathy for him. The filmmakers throw in a couple of surprises toward the end of “Save the Date,” but they’re very poorly choreographed and not at all funny.

How many movies have we seen in which a woman realizes that the time on her biological clock is ticking down and she hasn’t bothered to find the right man to father her child? Plenty, and now we’re seeing movies in which gay men and lesbians go to outlandish lengths to choose the right person to supply a womb or sperm to accommodate their desire for children. The male equivalent of this dilemma surfaces in the Aussie export, “Not Suitable for Children.” Its hook, alone, would be enough to make some men swear off going to the multiplex for years. When we meet Jonah (Ryan Kwanten), he’s in the business of throwing parties for Sydney’s yuppie crowd in a residence that wouldn’t be out of place in New Orleans’ Garden District. He’s making lots of money and enjoying not being attached to any one woman. That contentment changes dramatically when a young lady, in the course of pleasuring Jonah, discovers a lump on a testicle. Wisely, he rushes to see a specialist, who lays out for him a good-news/bad-news scenario that most men would seize on and act accordingly. While testicular cancer has a high survival rate, if detected early, the radiation treatment almost certainly would make him sterile. The doctor also advises that surgery be scheduled as soon as possible. After checking out a bank to deposit his sperm, Jonah’s led to believe that his swimmers aren’t good candidates for freezing. Unwisely, Jonah asks the doctor for a month’s reprise to impregnate any one of several old lovers, friends or strangers. It’s a risk he’s willing to take. The rest of “Not Suitable for Children” is comprised of a series of heightened expectations, dashed optimism and dopey melodrama. Fans of “True Blood” will recognize Kwanten as Jason Stackhouse and, while cute, he is too much of a cipher here to ensure he’d be any child’s idea of a good father. Sarah Snook and Ryan Corr do well in supporting roles. The Blu-ray adds interviews and a making-of featurettes. – Gary Dretzka

Eclipse Series 38: Masaki Kobayashi Against the System: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
Among the many great things about living in the age of DVD/Blu-ray expansion is discovering artists from other countries whose work failed to make it to the U.S. upon its original release or was shown only at a niche festival or in New York. Before the Criterion Collection release of “The Human Condition,” in 2009, I was unaware of Masaki Kobayashi’s place in the Pantheon of Japanese cinema or how his personal history as a conscripted pacifist and P.O.W. in World War II informed his epic three-part adaptation of Junpei Gomikawa’s novel. He’s also recognized as a master of samurai (“Hara-Kiri”) and supernatural (“Kwaidan”) movies. Newly arrived in Blu-ray are four lesser-known titles, as part of Criterion’s essential “Eclipse Series” (“a selection of lost, forgotten, or overshadowed classics in simple, affordable multi-disc editions”). Where “Human Condition” was overtly anti-war and anti-totalitarian – without also being polemical – the movies included in “Eclipse Series 38: Masaki Kobayashi Against the System” raged against the machines that controlled Japanese life in the post-war, pre-boom era. In several key ways, they echo the neo-realism of Italian movies made slightly earlier. At a time when the country’s ruling establishment would have preferred its filmmakers forget that World War II ever happened, Kobayashi’s movies reflected its many identity crises, moral corruption and the impact of the U.S. military occupation.

Made in 1953, “The Thick-Walled Room” picked the scab that had formed over the issue of Japanese soldiers executed, convicted or being held for trial for crimes against humanity in the war. It was one of the first Japanese films to deal directly with such wartime issues, but, more to the point, it asked why some of the prisoners were being punished for obeying the orders of officers whose social status allowed them to walk free. “Thick-Walled Room” was adapted from the diaries of actual prisoners and they only make the narrative that much more dramatic. Some even reference the start of the Korean War and the United States’ role in it. Rather than make cuts requested by Japanese censors to appease American interests, Kobayashi held the film from release for four years.

Baseball has been a longtime passion in Japan and even before American teams began scouting players there, the stakes in the recruitment game were extremely high. Made in 1956, “I Will Buy You” describes the corrupt practices of agents, scouts and team executives in the wooing of a star collegiate player. It tells a story about the sad state of amateur athletics that could have been made in the U.S. at any time in the past 50-60 years, but wasn’t. In addition to the obvious implications of such quasi-legal practices, “I Will Buy You” demonstrates how corruption spreads like cancer from the agents to the players and, beyond them, to family, friends and community boosters.

Black River” (1957) describes another virulent strain of cancer spreading through postwar Japan, especially in the slums and entertainment districts surrounding American bases. Poverty was so prevalent, especially among women whose fathers, husbands and sons were killed in the war, many turned to prostitution to provide for themselves, their children and aged relatives. Sensing an opportunity to exploit both American troops and impoverished women, men who came of age after the war turned to pimping and the black market. Without focusing directly on the Yanks’ role in this vicious cycle, Kobayashi describes how financial necessity damaged even the most innocent of Japanese flowers.

After finishing the “Human Condition” trilogy and “Hara-Kiri,” Kobayashi returned to a more contemporary setting, but one gripped in the same time-honored tradition of unfettered greed. Adapted from a Norio Nanjo novel, “The Inheritance” describes what happens when a wealthy business executive not only informs his immediate family and business associates that he has terminal cancer, but that he also wants them to find his three illegitimate children, so as to divide his fortune among them. In the blink of eye, the people he entrusts with the mission already are figuring out ways to take advantage of the situation for personal or corporate gain. Only one of the associates proceeds with integrity, but which one? “The Inheritance” feels very much like a movie Hitchcock might have made, with the exception that the executive’s entourage represents an entire stratum of middle-class scavengers growing up in the wake of the country’s startling economic recovery. – Gary Dretzka

At the Gate of the Ghost: Blu-ray
From 16th Century Thailand arrives this imaginative adaptation of the Japanese classic, “Rashomon,” in which the facts of serious crime are recounted from the differing points of view of several witnesses. Among the overriding themes of M.L. Pundhevanop Dhewakul’s “At the Gate of the Ghost” are certain precepts of Buddhist philosophy. Here, a young monk becomes deeply disturbed by conflicting testimony he hears at the trial of an infamous bandit accused of killing a prominent warlord. Clearly, the witnesses are afraid of saying anything that might get them in trouble, as well, so the truth must lie somewhere in between the recollections. Among those testifying are the bandit; the warlord’s concubine, who also may have been raped; a shaman, who attempts to visualize the crime; and an elderly man. The monk, who’s so shaken he begins to re-consider his vocation, decides to seek his father’s counsel. Along the way, he finds himself in the company of one of the witnesses and a rather strange fellow who minds a labyrinthine cave where people drop off dead bodies and unwanted children. It’s here that the stories of the crime are retold, again, from the different points of view, but more honestly. It’s a fascinating way to showcase the universality of “Rashomon,” beautifully staged in a distinctly Thai tradition and Buddhist sensibility. – Gary Dretzka

Dragon: Blu-ray
I don’t know what, if any western movies might have influenced Peter Chan and frequent collaborator Oi Wah Lam in the creation of their fascinating martial-arts mystery, “Dragon” (a.k.a., “Wu Xia”). One uncharacteristic presence here is police detective Xu Bai-jiu (Takeshi Kaneshiro), whose methodology is taken straight from Sherlock Holmes’ playbook. The other surely would be David Cronenberg’s “A History of Violence,” in which a heroic act by a mild-mannered citizen attracts attention from past compatriots in organized crime. In fact, that’s exactly what happens in “Dragon,” too. In 1917, Liu Jin-xi (Donnie Yen) is a village craftsman whose quiet life is undone after he single-handedly prevents two notorious gangsters from robbing the local general store. What draws attention to him from the detective is the martial-arts punch he used to kill the nearly indestructible villain. It is only taught by a single master, whose 72 Demons clan is feared throughout Yunnan province. Although Jin-xi is much admired for his courage and good works in the village, the detective hopes to link him to a grisly murder that occurred years earlier. If he can do that, the news would be welcomed by the vicious warlord of 72 Demons. His son has been missing since the murder and the warlord wants him to return to the clan. Married and a father, Jin-xi knows he will have to fight, once again, to maintain his freedom.

Chan combines all of the disparate elements into an entirely satisfying story, easily accessible to martial-arts enthusiasts and newcomers, alike. The re-creation of the village is expertly done, as are the costumes and fighting scenes. The detective, who believes he’s doing the right thing by dredging up an old crime, finally is given moral quandaries of his own with which to deal. Chan, a student of John Woo, is one of the top directors working in Hong Kong and China and he has the box-office receipts to prove it. Anyone who enjoys “Dragon” can find plenty of other Chan titles to peruse. – Gary Dretzka

Fans of horror/slasher/teens-in-jeopardy flicks might find something to like in “Escapee,” an otherwise familiar story about a psycho-killer who escapes from a high-security prison for the criminally insane and picks up where he left off before being captured. In the case of Jose Canseco look-alike Jaxon (Dominick Purcell), this means stringing up pretty young women and skinning them like squirrels. Earlier in the day that he escapes from the hospital, Jaxon encountered a class of high school students as he was being led to his cell. One of the girls looks like his murdered wife and this causes him to briefly flip out. It also inspires him to escape, eliminating as many guards and innocent bystanders as necessary to find the girl, Abby (Christine Evangelista), whose parents are home and is killing time doing homework with friends sitting around in their underwear. Meanwhile, a storm is raging outside the Louisiana town and a manhunt is being conducted by Faith Ford, wife of writer/director Campion Murphy. The most effective things about “Escapee” are the special sound effects and the lighting that creates shadows that look like fiends peeking through windows. The DVD adds interviews and making-of material. – Gary Dretzka

State of Emergency
Turner Clay’s minimalist approach to the much-dreaded zombie apocalypse benefits greatly by limiting the number of flesh-eating demons chasing the protagonists and focusing on the psychological emptiness of wide-open spaces. After an explosion unleashes the products of a military bio-weapons plant in a rural countryside, undead victims of the poison begin popping up like deer in a field of tall grass. A small handful of unaffected humans gather in a huge unused warehouse, from which they can pick off the odd zombie and plot their survival. They know that the entire area hasn’t been wiped out, because they can see military planes and helicopters, flying over the warehouse, occasionally dropping boxes of emergency supplies. It is during one of the sojourns to recover the supplies that a survivor exposes himself to attack and possible contamination. Things get nastier, but “State of Emergency” avoids the overkill and splatter that usually accompanies such movies. It’s a welcome change. – Gary Dretzka

Ringo at the Ryman
If memory serves, Ringo Starr was the first of the Beatles to embrace country-western music and invest his interest in Nashville in his songs, including a cover of Buck Owens’ “Act Naturally.” It’s fitting, then, that he spends one of his birthdays, at least, on the hallowed stage of the Ryman Auditorium, making music and pleasing fans. Ringo has continued to work since the breakup of the band, not because he needs the money, but because he’s having a blast doing it. Lately, his tours have included the All-Star Band, with a slightly different makeup of musicians each time.
Ringo at the Ryman” was filmed on July 7, 2012, in Nashville. The ensemble was comprised of such fine players as Steve Lukather (Toto), Richard Page (Mr. Mister), Mark Rivera (Billy Joel), Gregg Rollie (Journey, Santana), Todd Rundgren and Gregg Bissonette. Making cameos were daughter Lucy, Joe Walsh, Brendan Benson, Kix Brooks, Gary Burr, Vince Gil, Brad Paisley, Felix Cavaliere and Richard Marx. The set list was comprised largely of Ringo’s hits, with and without the Beatles, and songs made popular by band members, such as “Roseanna,” “Black Magic Woman,” “Kyrie Elaison” and “Bang the Drum All Day.” It’s a lot of fun. – Gary Dretzka

One Day on Earth
Disneynature: Wings of Life
Pedal-Driven: A Bikeumentary

I don’t know if the 26-year-old coffee-table book, “A Day in the Life of America,” inspired “One Day on Earth” more than, say, Edward Steichen and Carl Sandburg’s 1955 best-seller, “The Family of Man,” or Kyle Ruddick came up with the idea independently. As the title suggests, Ruddick’s conceit involves charting the cycle of life over the 24 period of October 10, 2010, from the vantage point of people living in every single country on Earth and the Space Station. I will admit to not knowing that two of the countries mentioned, at least, even existed. Because the myriad things that happen every day on our planet are constantly changing and endlessly fascinating, “One Day on Earth” can’t help but be interesting. What it lacks, however, are many surprises. Compiled from over 3,000 hours of footage, it shows people doing chores, going to work, playing, singing, having babies, dying, collecting trash and attempting to find and afford potable water. For me, the most remarkable sequence involves a young bride, in Kosovo, who’s having her face decorated in advance of being married, in the rite of “beautifying brides on their wedding day.” The elaborate face decorations and frilly gown make kabuki makeup and dress seem primitive, by comparison. While including so many images from American locations is only to be expected. What I don’t get is why there are so many from a military parade in North Korea. Maybe Ruddick is on to something, there.

The latest addition to the “Disneynature” series is “Wings of Life,” a spectacularly photographed documentary about our fragile dependency on bees, butterflies, birds and bats, and their dependency on blossoming vegetation. Louis Schwartzberg’s film originally was called “Pollen,” which shifts the emphasis of the story a tad, from the magic dust to the carriers of the magic dust. Perhaps, that’s because of the ongoing mystery surrounding the disappearance of bees not only from their natural habitat, but also from the commercial hives that are trucked from orchard to orchard. It’s a cause of real concern for all of us. Most of the message delivered in “Wings of Life” has been disseminated already, but what’s terrific here is the cinematography which captures the gathering of pollen and flight at speeds unseen in previous documentaries. In Blu-ray, it’s practically miraculous.

Pedal-Driven: A Bikeumentary” may look like a documentary and sound like a documentary, but it quacks like propaganda. Without laying all of its cards out on the table up front, it argues that “mountain bikers” have an inalienable right to cut paths through federal land, so they can get their rocks off speeding around some the Pacific Northwest’s most pristine slopes and countryside. And, maybe they do. “Pedal-Driven” also stipulates that mountain bikers are natural-born environmentalists, whose interests square with those who prefer to maintain wilderness as wilderness. The kind of trails the “freeriders” say they advocate are largely unobtrusive and absent major threats to the mountain ecology. And, maybe, they are. Writer/documentary Jamie Howell lets the bikers do most of the talking here, while also adding commentary by Park Service rangers and non-profits that already have built trails in parks. I’m all for letting thrill-seekers enjoy their sports on federal land, under certain restrictions. What’s missing from the documentary, though, is any discussion of recovering money from permits and fees; insurance considerations in such a risky activity; limiting the trails to those at certain age or proficiency levels; proper supervision and maintenance; and the potential for an overpopulation of such public sites. While it’s easy to draw a line between bikers of the motorized and foot-driven variety, who’s to say if bikers or horse riders have more right to the public? True, a scenario is presented in which speeding bikers are on the same thin trail as a horse and rider. The likely solution is so unlikely as to be laughable: bikers would be so interested in meeting a fellow outdoors enthusiast that they would stop their ride and engage the rider in conversation. Sure, and skiers and boarders amicably share the same slopes in winter. All sarcasm aside, “Pedal-Driven” offers a sound foundation for further discussion and debate and the scenery is gorgeous. It’s no wonder that mountain bikers want to play there, instead of freeway underpasses. – Gary Dretzka

Ben 10: Destroy All Aliens
Cartoon Network is taking full advantage of the newest big gun in its arsenal, by extending the franchise into feature-length movies and creating toys to coincide with their launch. In Asia, the Middle East and South Africa fans were invited to compete for special voice-over parts in the series, VIP treatment at the premiere, branded clothing and toys. “Ben 10: Destroy All Aliens” debuted here in March 2012 and already has been released through iTunes and PlayStation stores. To make the release of the DVD sufficiently special to attract newcomers and repeat viewers, alike, the producers have added two hours of special features to the movie, with behind-the-scenes featurettes, original artwork and commentaries. In it, 10-year-old Ben Tennyson is back from summer vacation and chomping at the bit to join the Total Alien Immersion Training Program. In doing so, he risks never returning to human form and becoming a target for unseen evil. – Gary Dretzka

The DVD Wrapup

Tuesday, April 9th, 2013

Down the Shore
The mysteries of movie distribution continue to baffle me. “Down the Shore,” a compelling and thoroughly unpretentious indie drama, apparently has been sitting on someone’s shelf since it began its life on the festival circuit in January 2011. In it, James Gandolfini plays a character not terribly unlike Tony Soprano, if he had been born something other than Italian in mob-run New Jersey. Bailey operates a kiddie amusement park that he inherited from his father. It sits on land leased from his longtime best friend, Wiley (Joseph Pope), who’s married to another close childhood friend, Mary (Famke Janssen). Together, they’ve struggled to raise a son, Martin (John Magaro), with serious learning disabilities. The park is open for business, but with summer still months away, Bailey and Wiley waste entirely too much time at the local gin mills, inventing conspiracy theories and reliving the distant past. Life for the three friends might have gone on like this for years, if it weren’t for the unexpected arrival of a stranger, Jacques (Edoardo Costa), who claims to have married Bailey’s sister, recently deceased, while she was touring Europe. Not only was Bailey unaware of his sister’s death and marriage, but that she left Jacques her share of the family abode in her will. Imagine how Tony Soprano might have reacted to such news and you’ll know exactly how Bailey greeted Jacques. If it weren’t for Mary’s kindness and the newcomer’s instant rapport with Martin, they’d still be finding pieces of him under the pier. Instead, director Harold Guskin and writer Sandra Jennings found more satisfying ways to advance the drama and unravel the trio’s deep, dark secrets. The actors all contribute compelling performances to the mix.

Normally, movies like “Down the Shore” are left to sink or swim on the festival circuit, before being accorded a limited arthouse run or a one-way ticket to the DVD and cable marketplace. It finally opened last Friday in a couple of theaters, receiving some good-to-decent reviews, but nothing strong enough to prompt adults to co-mingle with fans of “Evil Dead” and “G.I. Joe.” “Down the Shore” couldn’t have cost much to make – the actors probably cut the producers a break – so it’s possible that it might make some money down the road. So, what happened? New Jersey’s beach communities have become so identified with Snooki and Jwoww, by now, that all movies shot within view of a boardwalk have been tarred with the inconsequentiality of “Jersey Shore.” (No matter that Keansburg and Seaside Heights, New Jersey, are quite different places.) It’s also possible that Hurricane Sandy somehow impacted negatively on distribution and marketing plans. Have Gandolfini’s 15-minutes of fame expired? Such vagaries have become part and parcel of the indie distribution game. In any case, Gandolfini’s intense performance here should please fans of “The Sopranos,” as well as viewers simply looking for good drama. First-time director Guskin has distinguished himself as an acting and dialogue coach, and it appears as if he’s also picked up something about direction along the way. Even if “Down the Shore” was never destined to hit the megaplex circuit, it fits the small screen pretty well and warrants the attention of viewers looking for a good story well told. – Gary Dretzka

Into the Cold: A Journey of the Soul
By now, movies that chronicle extraordinary feats of physical strength, endurance, perseverance and courage are practically a dime a dozen. Hollywood once feasted on them, but audiences have begun to show their weariness with superhuman accomplishments, unless they’re performed by comic-book characters. Danny Boyle’s “127 Hours,” a terrifically exciting movie about one adventuresome outdoorsman’s brush with death, barely made back its $18-million nut at the box office. This, despite it receiving six Academy Award nominations, including those for Best Actor, Best Picture and Best Writing. Anticipating this sort of collective ennui, perhaps, many explorers, daredevils and extreme athletes have begun to document their own accomplishments and writing books that might support them. The introduction of featherweight, hand- or helmet-held cameras and other digital recording equipment has begun a revolution in the world of action-oriented documentaries. Conveniently, general audiences have begun to warm to non-fiction films, especially in their DVD and Blu-ray iterations. (Heck, there’s even a small-screen market for docs originally made for IMAX.) In “Into the Cold,” we not only watch Sebastian Copeland and Keith Heger cross 400 miles of ice on their way to the magnetic North Pole, but also learn how difficult such a task might be if attempted on skis and snowshoes. For 35 frigid days, they dragged 200-lb. sleds laden with gear and provisions behind them, without the benefit of dogs or Skidoos. The problem is that so much time has already been spent watching the duo prepare and rehearse for the centennial of the first successful mission, reaching their destination borders on the anti-climactic.

The total experience might have been more satisfying if exhibitors had been able to lower temperatures in their theaters to anywhere from minus-30 to minus-50 degrees Faherenheit, in order to replicate the conditions that confronted Copeland and Heger. In this way, the 85-minute film would have been a test of endurance for the audience, too. As it is, the most compelling reason to pick up a copy of “Into the Cold” can be found on the periphery of the expedition. In addition to observing the centennial, writer/director Copeland argues that the effects of global warming could prohibit other any other such missions from being attempted, unless the trekkers bring along flippers and a kayak. That’s how quickly the ice pack is melting, he says. At places where we normally would expect to see solid ice, there instead were wide fissures between floes and unstable surfaces. We aren’t asked to take Copeland’s word for it, however, because we’re also introduced to Inuit hunters who’ve been required to expand their range and search harder for fewer polar bears, seals and walruses. In fact, “Into the Cold” would have benefitted from more threats to Copeland and Heger, including those from starving bears. They make it look too easy. When one of them falls into the water, we empathize with his ordeal but aren’t allowed to witness how he was able to avoid hyperthermia.

Considering that the promotional material for “Into the Cold” is quick to point out that Copeland used a HD camera to capture the adventure, it’s surprising that the documentary isn’t being released in Blu-ray. Vast empty icescapes look brilliant in hi-def, with or without bears. This isn’t said to dissuade anyone from watching “Into the Cold,” only to discourage heightened expectations. It says important things about the risks facing our environment and the grit of two determined young men who demand perfection from themselves and, in this case, achieve it. – Gary Dretzka

The Phantom Father
We’ve seen plenty of movies about first- and second-generation Americans going back to the Old Country – a term not frequently used these days – to uncover familial roots buried by war, poverty, forced relocation, tyranny and ambition. At one time, the Old Country was pretty much limited to Europe, from whose ports most immigrants departed before and immediately after the world wars. That generalization no longer applies, of course. “The Phantom Father” describes one Jewish-American man’s quest to learn more about his father and grandfather, who left a much-disputed corner of Romania long before it was taken over first by the Soviet Union, then Germany, the U.S.S.R., again, and finally split between the Ukraine and Romania. After arriving in Chicago’s West Side, Professor Robert Traum’s relatives became involved in organized crime, which was one way the city’s Jewish immigrants got by between the wars. Traum (Marcelle Iures) is nearing retirement age and only carries a few letters, photographs and a single name that might connect his family to anyone left in Bucovina. The name belongs to an elderly traveling projectionist, Sami, who once ran the local cinema but had his business taken away from him by the city’s corrupt mayor. In league with Ukrainian gangsters, he wants to turn the property into a multipurpose mall.

Traum is an affable fellow, who doesn’t speak Romanian and isn’t familiar with the locals’ susceptibility to rumors, ancient prejudices, superstitions and gossip, especially in the rural villages. On one of his stops, Sami’s name rings a bell with an expert in Jewish history in eastern Romania. She’s heard of the roving projectionist and volunteers to join the professor in his quest, if only to get away from her nagging boyfriend, Alex (Mimi Branescu). It takes her a while to connect with Traum on a personal level and, when she does, it’s because of a common affection for Supertramp’s “Breakfast in America.” Even before they reach Bucovina, Traum senses that he’s entered an entirely different world than the one he left in Bucharest. Tanya and, later, Sami convince him that it’s better to go with the flow, rather than wait for the locals to adjust to him. Viewers, too, are advised to adjust their expectations about recent Romanian cinema and simply take Lucian Georgescu’s disparate conceits as they come. “The Phantom Father” evolves from black dramedy to buddy film and, finally, romantic fantasy. Filmed largely in and around Sibiu and Braila, the mountainous terrain offers much to enjoy, besides the story. “Phantom Father” was adapted from a story by Barry Gifford, who makes a short appearance in the film, while Sami is based on an actual travelling projectionist and keeper to the keys of the local synagogue he met while travelling through Bucovina with Georgescu. – Gary Dretzka

Gate of Hell: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
No less an expert than Martin Scorsese has called Teinosuke Kinugasa’s 1953 drama “Gate of Hell” one of the 10 most beautiful color films ever made. It won Grand Prize at Cannes; Oscars for Best Foreign Language Film and Best Costume Design; and several top critics’ awards. Although it features less action than most other feudal-period movies from Japan, “Gate of Hell” tells a story that could be traced back to the ancient Greek theater. After being released in VHS in 1999, it’s only now being given a proper re-launch in completely restored DVD and Blu-ray editions. And, yes, it’s an inarguably beautiful movie. “Gate of Hell” tells the story of a 12th Century samurai, who, with the help of a lady-in-waiting, caused a diversion that allowed the royal family time to escape from a rebellion. The coup fails and the lord grants the samurai a single request, which is to marry the woman who joined him in the ruse. Unfortunately, the woman already is married to one of the lord’s most-trusted guards, and neither of them is eager to end the marriage. When the samurai insists on her hand, as promised, the seeds of tragedy are sewn. It’s simple and well told. The most impressive thing about “Gate of Hell” on Blu-ray, though, is color cinematography, which is so brilliant that it looks as if the images might have just exited the vats of chemicals at Technicolor. The costumes, especially, benefit from the upgrade. They’re worth the price of a rental, alone. The Blu-ray adds only a booklet with an essay by film historian Stephen Prince. – Gary Dretzka

Hong Kong Confidential
Anyone expecting to find in “Hong Kong Confidential” the slam-bang action of a Jackie Chan or Jet Li martial-arts epic will be sorely disappointed. Neither is the movie populated with corrupt cops and gangsters. Instead, it is the kind of enigmatic, bi-cultural romance one might have expected from Jim Jarmusch, and not because the protagonist’s hair is bleached white. Paul is an Englishman with no set roots or apparent lack of money. He’s just arrived in Hong Kong to study massage therapy, something he’s done in several other Asian cities. He doesn’t, however, reveal everything to his instructors, who treat him as if he were just another gringo goofball. Neither are they aware that he understands enough Chinese to know what they’re saying about him. A curious young woman arrives at the school within days of Paul, but, unlike him, she is pushy and headstrong. Jasmin is from the mainland and has some tangential connection with the middle-age co-owner, Amaya (Kaori Momoi). “Hong Kong Confidential” originally went by the more apt title of “Amaya,” because it’s her character that affects the most change during the course of the movie and is most influenced by the new arrivals. Their outlooks on life, love and identity inspire her to look beyond her cramped middle-class world and passionless marriage. Three other primary characters cross paths in “Hong Kong Confidential,” and their stories also are compelling. Latvian writer/director Maris Martinson might be the busiest filmmaker in the Baltic States, as, since the split from the U.S.S.R., he has kept busy writing, directing and producing movies, television series, music videos and commercials. The DVD includes a video with a song from the movie. – Gary Dretzka

The Sorcerer and the White Snake: Blu-ray
Woochi the Demon Slayer
Deadball: Blu-ray
I’d love to see the reactions on the faces of American kids corralled into watching “The Sorcerer and the White Snake” in a cozy screening room. A vast departure from the Japanese anime that children here began to embrace in the 1980s, Tony Ching Siu-tung’s CGI-heavy fantasy tickles the imagination by combining an ancient Chinese folk tale, Buddhist teachings, supernatural creatures and over-the-top action. Jet Li stars as a sorcerer monk, Fahai, who, upon entering the gates of a magical new city, warns his enchanted-dog companion, “Don’t believe everything you see.” Fahai is an expert in seeing through the disguises of demons and engaging them in combat. Here, he has his work cut for him. Early on, we’re introduced to a sibling pair of 1,000-year-old snake demons — one white, one green, both quite long — who have quite different feelings about the humans in their midst. After the white snake, Susu (Eva Huang), rescues the gentle herbalist Xu Xian (Raymond Lam) from drowning, she takes human form and they fall in love. She even is able to use her mystical knowledge to help Xu Xian prepare potions. Unable to leave well enough alone, Fahai causes a revolt by identifying the demons and attempting to banish them. It provides the film’s primary action sequences, but they are less interesting than the backgrounds and CGI work. “Sorcerer and the White Snake” goes in some other bizarre directions, as well, introducing animal characters from the Disney catalogue and songs in unexpected places. Adults likely would find the wild mix of styles and characters too far-fetched, but kids, I think, will see something wondrous in the fantasy. For once, the English dubbing is pretty good, too. (I think I heard the ubiquitous voice of Patrick Warburton in there somewhere.)

Conversely, “Woochi the Demon Slayer” is a wildly inventive time-travel fantasy from Korea, also based on a folk tale, that should appeal most to those viewers who can’t get their fill of wuxia action. Woochi is a brash Tao wizard from the Chosun Dynasty whose lack of discipline seriously impinges on his master’s ability to protect a magical pipe from evil goblins. Without it, the goblins could take back their kingdom and spread mayhem. Woochi is blamed for the death of his master at the hands of a sinister magician and punished by three inept deities to being sealed in scrolls forever. The trio reappears 500 years later, at another time when demons threaten civilization. They recognize the scroll in an art gallery and conspire to conjure his spirit to reappear. Wham, bam, alakazam and Woochi is summoned to present-day Seoul, along with several other demons from the past. Besides battling the evil time-tourists, Woochi uses the occasion to track down the most current incarnation of his former lover. At 136 minutes, “Woochi” overstays its welcome by about a half-hour, but it definitely keeps moving right along with crazy plot twists and wild action. The humor translates pretty well, too.

Sushi Typhoon is to Japanese action and horror films what Troma is to blood-drenched American genre flicks. The latest hallowed institution to fall to the studio’s ax is baseball. “Deadball” takes the most violent elements of “Rollerball” and combines them with the sadism of “Ilsa: She Wolf of the SS,” the rabid loyalty of Japanese fans and various characters from “Major League.” If you can imagine baseball as a blood sport, it would look a lot like “Deadball.” Co-writer/director Yudai Yamaguchi tackled the same subject a decade ago in “Battlefield Baseball,” in which the game is played to the death, even if one of the teams is comprised of zombies. Here, Yamaguchi opens with a scene that could have been borrowed from “Field of Dreams.” A boy is playing catch with his father in an open field, but when the old man demands a little more pepper on the ball, the boy responds with a fastball that could punch a hole in a concrete wall. After this, young Jubeh would swear off baseball and focus on becoming the best juvenile delinquent he could be. He ends up in the Pterodactyl Juvenile Reformatory, which is supervised by Headmistress Ishihara, the granddaughter of a Nazi collaborator. She demands of Jubeh that he join the national tournament or be responsible for the death of his cellmate. The game pits the Pterodactyl Gauntlet against the Psycho Butcher Girls of St. Black Dahlia High School and it could hardly be more insane. Anyone whose idea of a good time is listening to the dulcet tones of Vin Scully announcing a double-header on a sunny afternoon in spring probably ought to avoid “Deadball.” The Blu-ray arrives with a spinoff short, making-of featurettes and cast interviews. – Gary Dretzka

Fold Crumple Crush: The Art of El Anatsui
Currently on display at the Brooklyn Museum, the work of Ghanaian artist El Anatsui demands to be viewed from several different angles and at distances ranging from across-the-room to inches-away. From afar, the monumental installations look as if they’re giant tapestries or rugs, informed by many of the same colors and patterns commonly found on the clothing worn by West Africans. In the mid-distance, the shimmering platelets of found material create a look that mimics the paintings of Austrian painter Gustav Klimt. It’s when viewed up-close, however, that viewers can appreciate both the precision of Anatsui’s hand-made sculptures and the complexity of his vision. I’m not an expert on art, but it seems to me that his creations locate the crossroads where African folk art intersects with Modernism and other 20th Century movements. In layman’s terms, they are nothing short of a feast for the eyes. “Fold Crumble Crush: The Art of El Anatsui” describes the process of creation, from the discovery of bottle caps and other objects on the side of a road; through the weaving of intricately manufactured squares and rectangles; and on to the installation of pieces, some of which rival the size of a Jumbotron. This is what should appeal most to general audiences. Not only does Anatsui work with commonly found objects, but he does so in collaboration with young men and women whose only exposure to contemporary art may be the piece on which they’re presently working. The documentary doesn’t suggest that anyone with a trace of imagination could achieve what Anatsui’s been able to accomplish, because there’s no questioning the degree-of-difficulty involved. It does demonstrate, however, that great art can be made with materials other than paint, canvas and brushes, and in places other than Paris and New York. – Gary Dretzka

A Whisper to a Roar
We Are Egypt
Love Free or Die
At a time when only 57.5 percent of all eligible voters bothered to submit a ballot in one of the most contentious presidential races in American history, people around the world were putting their lives on the line for the privilege of standing in long lines to vote. Typically, when given the opportunity to participate in elections that aren’t rigged from the start, people recently freed from tyranny wouldn’t think of not exercising their right to make their preferences known. Even so, several prominent democracies have instituted compulsory voting as a way to trump apathy and lethargy. (In Chicago, it’s widely believed that dead people vote early and often in some precincts.) Ben Moses’ occasionally disturbing, if ultimately inspirational documentary, “A Whisper to a Roar,” doesn’t soft-peddle the dangers of challenging the status quo in countries where sham elections and corruption are standard operating procedure. In the Ukraine, we listen to former president Viktor Yushchenko describe the experience of being poisoned with dioxin for daring to challenge the entrenched incumbent. Oliver Stone and Sean Penn may have thought Hugo Chavez was the bee’s knees, but Moses was able to document the abuses that followed his evolution from reformer to despot. The documentary also takes us to Zimbabwe, Malaysia and pre-Arab Spring Egypt. The segments are interwoven to demonstrate how pro-democracy movements around the world are similar to each other, while taking into account the cultural and political peculiarities that make them unique. What the film doesn’t do is suggest that, once established, democracies will endure against the many threats to freedom.

We Are Egypt” tightens the focus specifically to the popular uprising that toppled President Hosni Mubarak, a career military officer who embraced democracy once in office, but abused his leadership position to remain in charge. In a very real sense, the protestors knew that by going after Mubarak, they were forcing the U.S. to turn against a longtime ally and take a stand against totalitarianism. Pro-democracy crusaders also were acutely aware of the deep divisions in the April 6 Youth Movement that potentially could result in chaos or merely trading a secular dictatorship for one based on dubious religious tenets. Director Lillie Paquette was able to tap into the ferment among students and other young people in the year leading up to protests that toppled Mubarak. If the demonstrations appeared on television to have sprung up like mushrooms after a rain, “We Are Egypt” corrects us of this misconception. Leaders of the movement had been organizing below the radar since 2008. Three years later, Mubarak and his minions provided all the ammunition the reformers would need to incite popular support and avoid a national bloodbath.

Love Free or Die” chronicles a far different, if similarly contentious revolt, this time within a hidebound Anglican/Episcopalian hierarchy wary of change. More to the point, Gene Robinson’s battle against the entrenched establishment was based on theological belief and doctrine, not corruption and torture. In 2003, the New Hampshire cleric became the first openly gay bishop in the American church. It caused quite a disturbance among the 80 million people who belong to the denomination. The Anglican Church isn’t unique among the world’s religions to take a stand against the ordination of gays and lesbians and blessing same-sex marriages. Robinson came to international prominence after the Archbishop of Canterbury felt it necessary to condemn his ordination and when he replaced Pastor Rick Warren at Barack Obama’s inauguration. Macky Alston’s documentary chronicles Robinson’s mission from displays of domestic bliss at his New Hampshire church and residence; through battles fought among his fellow bishops in England and southern California; and, finally, to his own marriage to his longtime live-in partner. In 2008, even though he wasn’t allowed to participate in the Anglican Communion’s decennial conclave in Lambeth, England, he made the journey and lobbied for his causes to no avail. His voice was heard by plenty of folks who love their church, but reject some of its policies. At the subsequent American convention, Robinson was able to have his opinions aired before the entire conclave. Aware, perhaps, that the legalization of same-sex couplings is inevitable, on a state-by-state basis, American clerics were far more willing to listen to arguments for sanctifying them. Still, a close vote was expected. The fence-sitters knew that, worst case, what happened there might lead to civil war among the Anglican community. “Love Free or Die” shows what one man can do against huge odds and hundreds of years of rigid adherence to principles everyone swears were dictated by God. For now, though, the ball’s in the court of the Supremes. – Gary Dretzka

Crush: Blu-ray
When all signs point to a single oddball character being the perpetrator of mayhem in a genre thriller or a show as dependent on red herrings as “Law & Order,” it’s a safe bet that the truth lies elsewhere … or, maybe not, depending on the ingenuity of the creative team. Although the backers of “Crush” are pushing the “Fatal Attraction”-for-teens angle, I think it can stand on its own merits as a hottie whodunit. In Malik Bader’s second feature, a studly soccer star, Scott (Lucas Till), is having a heck of a time balancing school, sports and his suddenly active libido. When Scott starts getting mash notes from a secret admirer, there’s any number of suspects among his school’s female population and a few guys, too. He’s confused, as well, by sexual advances made by his longtime platonic girlfriend, Jules (Sarah Bolger), who seemingly can’t wait another minute to upgrade their relationship status. The new girl in school, Bess (Crystal Reed), is a mousy Goth who barely registers on the Richter scale. A semi-creepy teammate is always lurking in the background during workouts and his super-sexy English teacher, Mrs. Brown (Camille Guaty), appears to be giving Scott more attention than is usually accorded the jocks in her classes. In addition to those crushes, Scott’s father appears to have one on a young women working at his restaurant, where Bess also works and Jules and Mrs. Brown frequent. Cracks in Scott’s idyllic life begin to show when he breaks a leg and it threatens his scholarship. Anxious to get back in shape, he hits the weight room and the running paths, only to be caught in harm’s way when his invisible nemesis decides to strike again. Harmful “accidents” also begin to strike people in his orbit. Only one candidate stands out from the crowd as “Crush” draws closer to its end, and naturally it’s the obsessive, Bess. There’s no good reason to spoil the suspense, here, except to advise viewers to reserve judgment. There are holes in the narrative large enough to accommodate a parade of elephants, but teens are likely to forgive them, if only because of the attractiveness of the actors. – Gary Dretzka

The Kitchen
Sexy Evil Genius

Is there anything worse than listening to drunken yuppies whine about their problems at a birthday party? In real life, yes; in the movies, probably not. In the ensemble dramedy “The Kitchen,” Laura Prepon plays the birthday girl on her 30th go-round on Earth. Jennifer isn’t exactly in the right mood for a hoedown, however, as she’s just discovered that her live-in boyfriend is schtupping everyone in town, including several of her closest friends. She’s also embarking on a commercial enterprise that’s almost certain to fail. Her sister, Penny (Dreama Walker), has broadcast her plans to have an abortion in the next week, a fact that doesn’t seem to dampen the festivities one bit. Nearly a dozen other characters pop in and out of their home’s kitchen – the main stage, here – offering their opinions on one thing or another and generally making Jennifer’s party even more of a downer for the hostess. Now, it’s entirely possible that guests in other rooms of the house are having a blast, but director Ishai Setton has wisely decided to limit the dramedy to a single location. And, of course, the kitchen at any party tends to be at the crossroads of all activity. The more drunken the guests are, however, the less valuable are their contributions to the overlying drama. I suspect, though, that most people under 18 and over 30 won’t find much in “The Kitchen” to hold their attention for long. Some of the gags work OK, and the cast is full of attractive people, but being attractive doesn’t make them interesting.

Most of what happens in “Sexy Evil Genius” takes place in a single room, as well, and likewise is populated with yuppies who think they’re more fascinating than they actually are. In his first feature, director Shawn Piller borrows a trope that’s at least as old as Agatha Christie’s “And Then There Were None.” Here, an ex-con named Nikki (Katee Sackhoff) invites several ex-lovers to a bar in downtown L.A. for a reason none of them can guess. Nikki had been convicted of murdering her last boyfriend, so it seems odd that these seemingly intelligent young people would agree to accept her invitation. (Michelle Trachtenberg, Seth Green, Anthony Michael Hall, Harold Perrineau, Nora Kirkpatrick and William Baldwin fill out the cast.) The first part of the movie is taken up with the invited guests discussing their relationship with Nikki and guessing why they’ve been called together. In the second half, Nikki arrives with her new, older boyfriend and she’s able to plant all sorts of wicked seeds in their minds. Finally, “Sexy Evil Genius” feels more like an exercise at acting school than a plot-driven movie. – Gary Dretzka

Craig Shoemaker: Daditude
I find it interesting that Craig Shoemaker’s comedy special, “Daditude,” would follow by 11 years the comic’s one-man show, “Who’s Your Daddy?,” which was about growing up without a father. Shoemaker’s a funny guy and has no problem finding things about parenthood that resonate with his audience, most of whom stopped sowing their wild oats when the first baby arrived. He clearly loves being a dad and participating in his kids activities, but they also have provided him with a wealth of material. In fact, it probably would fill a season’s worth of episodes on a network sitcom, if anyone gave him another opportunity. My sense of the evening’s performance tells me that most people in the audience weren’t nearly as interested in hearing about the comic’s kids as they were to learn what Shoemaker’s trademark character, the Lovemaster, has been up to since the last tour. And, he doesn’t disappoint. Stopping on a dime, he becomes the Lovemaster in all of his raunchy glory and ballsy braggadocio. The audience couldn’t be happier. – Gary Dretzka

Hallmark: Goodnight for Justice: Queen of Hearts
Despite all evidence to the contrary, new Westerns are still being made and shown, primarily on channels most people have yet to discover. Hallmark, a network with a large and loyal following, has built a franchise around Circuit Judge John Goodnight. In the hands of Luke Perry, Goodnight is the unlikeliest of legal arbiters. Usually, he’s more unkempt than the crooks who stand before him and the banging of his gavel often proves too overwhelming for his chronic hangover to bear. His personality combines the more rakish elements of Judge Roy Bean and Brett Maverick. In “Goodnight for Justice: Queen of Hearts,” he falls prey to the attentions of a beautiful con-woman, Lucy (Katherine Isabelle), who’s wanted in three states for cleaning out perspective lovers and other saps. Her skills at poker are second-to-none, as well. Goodnight comes across Lucy as her stagecoach is being attacked by a gang led by a jilted suitor (Rick Schroder) and his trusted Indian companion. The judge has no way of knowing that there’s a price on her head and chases away the desperadoes he doesn’t shoot. Lucy convinces him that she’s a good girl, just passing through the Wild West on her way to her daddy’s mine. It takes a while for the judge to figure out why Lucy is being pursued so vigorously, but, when he does, it’s too late because he’s already smitten. Unless one is expecting a signature Clint Eastwood or John Ford Western, “Queen of Hearts” is a perfectly acceptable alternative. The Canadian locations are gorgeous and Perry keeps things light. – Gary Dretzka

JJ Grey: Brighter Days
Before watching the concert DVD, “JJ Grey: Brighter Days,” I was unaware of the popularity of singer/songwriter JJ Grey or the existence of his band, Mofro. It’s not that I don’t get around much, anymore, just that the band probably has been hovering just below the level of stardom for a long time, waiting to become a household name. Grey is raspy-voiced singer, who once upon a time might have been labeled a blue-eyed soul singer. Like Joe Cocker, in his Mad Dogs & Englishmen phase, Grey positions his microphone several feet in front of Mofro, as if to say, “I’m the star of the show and, although I love these musicians dearly, it’s my songs you’ve come to hear.” As a unit, though, the ensemble delivers a powerful punch. When he isn’t delivering sultry love songs or stretched-to-the-breaking-point R&B jams, Grey sings a lot about his Southern roots and good-ol’-boy attitude toward life. It’s nothing we haven’t heard before from Lynyrd Skynyrd or Hank Jr., but the addition of a band that includes drums, saxophones, an organ, trumpet, bass and guitar adds another dimension to the swamp-rock foundation. Grey’s music also borrows from gospel, old-school R&B, Dave Matthews Band, Memphis funk and country-rock. The concert material on the DVD is supplemented with interviews and a tour of the north Florida swamps around which Grey was raised. – Gary Dretzka

Buried in a crypt for some 40 years, somewhere in the wilds of British Columbia, the rarely, if ever projected Canadian sexploitation flick, “Sexcula,” has been resurrected by the grave diggers at Impulse Pictures. Apparently, the movie was intended to be a sexy parody of the classic Universal horror titles, but “Deep Throat” had just opened the door to harder stuff. By comparison to “Sexcula,” though, Gerard Damiano’s landmark movie looks like “Romeo and Juliet.” In it, a modern couple moves into a rundown family estate, which, according to a diary found on the property, once served as a laboratory for Grandma Fallatingstein, a mad scientist interested in creating a sex-monster to service her needs … down there. Sadly, Frank the Monster can’t perform as intended, so Doctor Fallatingstein creates a female sex-monster to help him find the proper orifice to fill. When that fails, as well, the scientist enlists a local working girl, Countess Sexcula, to do everything in her power to wind Frank’s clock. There’s more, but why spoil the fun? While “Sexcula” bears a resemblance to Italian giallo and Hammer horror – far more than any Universal title – what it reminded me of most was the “SCTV” parody, “Monster Chiller Horror Theater,” starring Count Floyd (Joe Flaherty), Bruno (Eugene Levy) and Doctor Tongue (John Candy). One of the movies shown was “Dr. Tongue’s 3D House of Stewardesses,” which also holds up well next to “Sexcula.” In her only appearance on film, Marilyn Chambers look-alike Debbie Collins played both Countess Sexcula and the female half of the modern couple. It’s difficult to find talent like that, anymore. – Gary Dretzka

The DVD Wrapup

Thursday, April 4th, 2013

Hello, Dolly!: Blu-ray
Yes, it’s nice to see Dolly back where she belongs … this time in Blu-ray. The transfer from Todd-AO’s original 65mm print looks great – the Fourteenth Street Associate Parade and Harmonia Gardens scenes really stand out – while the audio presentation is crisp and dynamic. But, of course, what you really want to know is how the 27-year-old Barbra Streisand looks in hi-def as matchmaker Dolly Levi. The answer: marvelous, especially with Irene Sharaff’s wonderfully colorful wardrobe at her disposal. As Dolly’s prime target for marriage, Walter Matthau, looks elegantly rumpled throughout, even in tails. Despite some controversy at the time, I don’t think Streisand’s performance made anyone forget that Carol Channing originated the role on Broadway. Her name will forever be synonymous with the title of Jerry Herman and Michael Stewart’s adaptation of Thornton Wilder’s “The Merchant of Yonkers.” Beyond that, Twentieth Century Fox’s 1969 re-imagining of “Hello, Dolly!” is anything but a carbon copy of the Broadway show. It didn’t set the world on fire at the box-office, as expected by the studio, but its afterlife on video has been pretty sound. The biggest problem it had, I think, is a cast that included too many actors/dancers/singers that movie audiences simply didn’t recognize – young Michael Crawford and Tommy Tune, among them – and the idyllic turn-of-the-century setting didn’t square with countercultural beliefs in the rebellious 1960s. That’s all in the past, however. The movie holds up as an entertaining way to spend a night at home, with microwave popcorn and surround speakers. The Blu-ray reprises the 1969 making-of featurette and adds a piece on director Gene Kelly. Along with Michael Kidd’s acrobatic choreography, Louis Armstrong’s presence in the title number remains a wonderful reminder of that great musician’s radiant smile and charisma.

Lincoln: Blu-ray
I wonder how many people walked away from the megaplex showing “Lincoln” last November, thinking less about our 16th president’s great achievement than the damage done to our democracy in the 150 years since then. If Abraham Lincoln could wring a compromise of the magnitude of the 13th Amendment out of a deeply divided Congress, why can’t today’s crop of congressional bozos agree to compromise on anything besides raising their salaries? Sadly, then and now, the answer probably lies in knowing the price it takes to buy or rent a vote from an elected official. Today, even the hint of compromise, will be used by talk-show hosts and Fox News producers to destroy a politician’s career. The script’s close attention to the shenanigans used by proponents of the 13th Amendment, as well as those employed by the opposition, provides quite a lesson in how democracy isn’t supposed to work.

Steven Spielberg’s decision to focus on the last four months of Lincoln’s presidency, instead of his amazing rise to prominence in Illinois and beyond, allowed him to pack a lot of drama into a surprisingly tight 150-minute package. Tony Kushner’s screenplay not only was informed by the rhetoric and strategizing surrounding the amendment, but it also found room to highlight the contributions of precisely drawn supporting players in the drama. Normally, such multi-dimensional depictions can only be achieved in the mini-series format. Daniel Day-Lewis’ stunning portrayal of Lincoln showed us a man who acted on principle, but wasn’t afraid to change his positions on important issues when they stopped making sense to him. The performance also captured Lincoln’s sense of humor, humanity and weariness of carrying such a heavy load. Day-Lewis was rewarded with a well-deserved Oscar, while Sally Field and Tommy Lee Jones received nominations for their fine work. Those performances, alongside those by David Strathairn, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, James Spader, Hal Holbrook, John Hawkes, Jackie Earle Haley, John Hawkes, Bruce McGill, Tim Blake Nelson and others, exemplified what ensemble acting should be, given time and talent. The “Lincoln” team also competed in the categories designated for best picture, cinematography, costume design, directing, editing, music, sound mixing and writing based on material previously produced or published.

Spielberg and Kushner, working from a blueprint drawn by historian Doris Kearns Godwin, left plenty of room, as well, for spirited post-theater debate among those who just watched the movie. That almost never happens anymore, except in post-mortems limited to such adjectives as “awesome,” “cool” and “sucked.” Anyone looking to purchase “Lincoln” ought to be aware that the DVD/Blu-ray combo contains only the short making-of featurettes, “The Journey to ‘Lincoln’” and “A Historic Tapestry: Richmond, Virginia.” The four-disc BD/DVD/digital package adds 80 more minutes of making-of and background material. Depending on where one looks on the Internet, the difference in price ranges from $5 to $0. They vary even more when it comes to the DVD-only package.

The Bible: The Epic Miniseries: Blu-ray
It didn’t take long for the surprise hit mini-series, “The Bible: The Epic Mini-Series,” to make its way from the History Channel to DVD/Blu-ray: two days. That practically defines what it means to strike while the iron is hot. Having just received the Blu-ray edition, I’ve only managed to get through the first half of the 10-part mini-series. Based on what I’ve seen so far, another round of binge viewing is in order. And, yes, I’m surprised that it’s managed to captivate me as much as it has millions of other American viewers. I doubt if I was alone in assuming beforehand that “The Bible” would pander to the Republican wing of the born-again Christian demographic. I envisioned watered-down dramatizations of traditional bible stories and toothless portrayals of the men of the Old Testament who didn’t seem to mind slaughtering countless men, women and children for a chunk of arid land God willed to them, instead of parcels in, say, Boca Raton or Aspen. Credit goes to executive producers Roma Downey and Mark Burnett for constructing a mini-series that captures the essence of the Book, adding plenty of action to satisfy those looking for some biblical bloodshed, a smattering of romance and characterizations that avoid most Hollywood and Sunday school clichés. Genesis also includes some decent special-effects work, considering that the budget must have been fairly tight. The Moroccan locations were well chosen and the designs of the costumes and armaments seem historically credible. I suggest that parents not attempt to use “The Bible” as a substitute for a babysitter, as the rougher material falls somewhere between PG and PG-13. Kids will have plenty of questions that will require parental guidance, including why the leaders of Egypt, Persia and Babylon wore so much makeup. The new DVD/Blu-ray package adds material that was edited out of the History Channel version, as well as a half-dozen backgrounders and making-of featurettes.

John Dies in the End: Blu-ray
Stitches: Blu-ray
Tormented: 2D/3D

If any horror movie aspired to cult status, it’s “John Dies in the End.” Far too freaky, even for most genre aficionados, Don Coscarelli’s psycho-thriller was adapted from a comic-book novel of the same title by David Wong (a.k.a., Jason Pargin). It was first published online in 2001 as a webserial, then a few years later as an edited manuscript and paperback book. Before the online version was pulled from circulation in 2008, more than 70,000 people had already read it. Coscarelli optioned the book after it was pointed out to it by an Amazon “robot,” based on his interest in zombie books. Coscarelli, of course, had already established his cult-horror credentials with the “Phantasm” series and “Bubba Ho-Tep.” “John Dies in the End” defies easy encapsulation, except to suggest that the authors have been inspired by William Burroughs and David Cronenberg’s “Naked Lunch,” Franz Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis,” Bram Stoker and Ken Russell’s “The Lair of the White Worm” and Frank Herbert and David Lynch’s “Dune.” The trigger for all the bad craziness that occurs here is the street drug Soy Sauce, which causes shape-shifting, hallucinations, delusional behavior and astral projection. The protagonists are slackers John and Don, who are infected with “the phenomenon” early in the picture and rarely have a solid fix on what’s happening to them, except that it involves ingested insects and inter-plane communications. As producer and co-star, Paul Giamatti’s mere presence legitimizes everything about “John Dies in the End.” It’s the special-effects team that really rules, though. It’s very trippy stuff, indeed. The Blu-ray package adds commentary with Coscarelli, co-stars Chase Williamson and Rob Mayes and producer Brad Baruh; deleted scenes; casting sessions; a pair of making-of featurettes; and a Fangoria interview with Giamatti.

You’ve got to hand it to any filmmaker who can add something new to a horror subgenre as familiar as the killer-clown flick. In “Stitches,” the kudos are reserved for director/co-writer Conor McMahon (“Dead Meat”) and British comedian Ross Nobel. Stitches is a self-loathing clown, who especially hates performing before children (the “little bastards”) so jaded about birthday-party entertainers that they know what trick he’s going to perform even before he does, After one of the kids sabotage a trick, Stitches accidentally stumbles headfirst into the knife compartment of an open dish washer, dying a horrible death. Ten years later, the same birthday boy is hosting the kind of party teenagers flock to when mom and dad are out of town for a long weekend. After an invitation magically lands on Stitches’ grave, he comes to life to avenge his death. In Nobel’s hands, Stitches is much funnier dead than he ever was when he was alive. Somehow, he remembers the faces of all the kids who taunted him at the birthday party and seeks them out for special, clown-specific punishment with imaginative disembowelments and creative torture. Despite the carnage, McMahon manages to keep “Stitches” from becoming morbid or dependent on sound effects. The Blu-ray comes with bloopers, a making-of featurette and commentary.

There are few things as scary as the nightmares of a child. Japanese horror specialists have been playing Freud since the 1990s, not only by interpreting the dreams of their young characters, but also inducing nightmares in audience members. Few directors are more convincing than Takashi Shimizu, who’s also given us the “Grudge” series and “Shock Labyrinth,” the first Japanese feature film to be made in 3D. Without admitting as much on its cover, “Tormented” is a sequel to “Shock Labyrinth.” Imagine if Salvador Dali had illustrated an edition of “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” and you’ll have a pretty good idea of what Shimizu was going for in both pictures. “Tormented” opens at an elementary school that has a rabbit pen in its play area. Daigo, a mute little boy, spots a seriously injured bunny in the enclosure and kills it with a rock to put it out of its misery. His older step-sister, Kiriko, works at the school as a librarian and witnesses both the killing of the rabbit and the bullying Daigo endures afterwards. In an effort to lift her brother’s spirits, Kiriko takes him to a movie matinee. Unfortunately, the theater is showing “Shock Labyrinth 3D.” At the point in the movie where a stuffed rabbit appears to float off-screen, Daigo is able to grab the 3D image and stash it away. Before long, he has hallucinations of a giant white rabbit, which takes his hand and leads him to the same amusement park that inspired Shimizu to create “Shock Labyrinth” in the first place. When they return to the theater to return the blush doll to the 3D gods, Daigo literally disappears into the screen. Things get even creepier after their father, a fantasy artist, figures out what’s happening and stumbles down the rabbit hole, as well. Despite the giant rabbit, “Tormentor” definitely isn’t suited for the kiddies.

The knuckleball is the court jester of baseball. When a knuckleball hurler is “on” and the wind is right, it can be the most effective of pitches and a delight to watch. When he’s off, it can result in disaster. Either way, the knuckleball can humble even the most dominant of hitters and make All-Star catchers look like Little Leaguers. Some players can’t even imagine being struck out by a ball that’s only traveling 55 or 60 mph and has no specific trajectory. As one player observes in this entertaining baseball documentary, a knuckleball specialist must possess “the fingernails of a safe-cracker and the mind of a Zen master.” Cy Young-winner R.A. Dickey suggests, “For a knuckleball pitcher to make the majors, it almost takes a miracle.” For “Knuckleball,” filmmakers Ricki Stern and Annie Sundberg (“The Devil Came on Horseback,” “Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work”) followed 44-year-old Tim Wakefield’s pursuit of his 200th victory and the 37-year-old Dickey’s quest to prove that his successful 2010 campaign – the first in 18 years — wasn’t a fluke. At the time, the Mets’ Dickey and Boston’s Wakefield were the only knuckleballers in the majors. In 2013, he’s the only one and he’s been traded to Toronto. Baseball fanatics can probably rattle off the names and stats of the noteworthy knuckleballers who’ve played in the last 40 or 50 years. The mediocre ones never last and there’s only been a handful of good ones: Dickey, Wakefield, Charlie Hough, Wilbur Wood, Jim Bouton, Tom Candiotti and the brothers, Joe and Phil Niekro. It’s a pitch can that elongate a career or end it very quickly. The idea is to minimize the ball’s movement as it slowly dances its way to the plate and let physics do the rest. Sounds easy, but it isn’t. The documentary adds nearly two hours of featurettes and extended interviews.

The Sweeney: Blu-ray
I think that a strong case could be made for the theory that crooks are accorded most of the good lines, cool cars, sexy dames and swell clothes in crime movies, while the opposite is true on television. The cop protagonists of “Dirty Harry” and “French Connection” acted with disdain for the law, but reverence for getting bad guys off the street (or planet). On TV, cops aren’t allowed to ignore the law for very long, because the conceit tends to wear thin after a season or two. Andy Sipowicz, of “NYPD Blue,” is the prime example of a borderline cop whose career was lengthened by the producers’ decision to give him an unlikely girlfriend and a son who needed TLC. Otherwise, we expect our police officers to be white knights. The Brits have never minded tinkering with the balance, though. Launched in 1975, “The Sweeney” made heroes out of members of a special department at Scotland Yard responsible for dealing with armed criminals and major heists involving outlaw gangs. They were given broad leeway in their efforts to anticipate robberies and keep the worst scum off the streets. For reasons known mostly to experts in Cockney slang, the unit was known as the Flying Squad (Sweeney Todd = Flying Squad). Even after an absence of 35 years, “The Sweeney” was deemed sufficiently popular to warrant a one-off movie, with the estimable Ray Winstone playing lead detective Jack Regan and newcomer Ben Drew (a.k.a., rapper Plan B) as his loyal protégé, George Carter. Despite the squad’s impressive success rate, its methodology has become something of an embarrassment to the big shots in the London Police Department.

“The Sweeney” opens with an exciting raid with lots of shooting, but hardly any way to distinguish between the cops and robbers. A newly installed chief inspector reveals the chip on his shoulder early on, by grilling Regan on missing gold bars. If the DCI had been aware of the affair Regan was carrying on with his wife, also on the Flying Squad, he might have had a larger beef with the detective. Before that can happen, though, masked bandits blow a safe at a jewelry store, stealing a fortune in gems and killing a woman customer on their way out. Regan recognizes the m.o. of a long dormant criminal, but his alibi holds up even after much unorthodox interrogation. The torture didn’t go completely to waste, however, because, while it ruled out one bad guy, the investigators were able to find the needle in a haystack that leads to a gang of former Eastern European paramilitaries using their skills to rob banks. Once that is established, all that’s left is a long, exquisitely choreographed chase through the streets of London and, even, a shootout inside the library of the Royal College of Surgeons. It’s pretty entertaining, especially, I suspect, for those familiar with the original series. The Blu-ray supplements include commentary and several making-of featurettes, including one explaining how the shootout in Trafalgar Square was accomplished and another describing the contributions of the “Top Gear” gang to the car-chase scenes.

Any movie that stars Dennis Haysbert, Common, Danny Glover, Charles S. Dutton, Lonette McKee and Meagan Good demands attention and not just among “urban” viewers. Instead, “LUV” was shown at a handful of festivals, including Sundance, before being accorded a very limited release in January. Most indies don’t even get that much respect. “LUV” is the story of 11-year-old Woody (Michael Rainey Jr.), whose coming-of-age moment unexpectedly arrives during a tour of Baltimore with his OG uncle, Vincent (Common), fresh off an eight-year bit in stir. Woody reveres Vincent, if only because he represents the only father figure in his young life. Things start out on an optimistic note, with Vincent buying a grown-man’s suit for his nephew. Together, they visit a bank to apply for a loan to open a restaurant business in an abandoned warehouse. When his application is unceremoniously rejected, Vincent turns to a former associate for the loan, but it would come with strings attached. Thoroughly perplexed, he decides this would be a good time to introduce Woody to life in the streets. With the boy’s mother off smoking crack in North Carolina and his grandmother about to take a powder on him, Woody isn’t likely to be able to afford his parochial-school education or to grow up in a stable environment. Vincent understands this and takes it upon himself to give the boy an education in thug life. Things go downhill, of course, after one or more of his former buddies decide that Vincent got released too early to be trusted. The biggest shame, however, is that Woody’s a good student, in and out of school, and learns the game too quickly.

Despite a story that begs credulity towards its end, “LUV” has a lot of good things going for it. The acting is excellent and it moves at a steady pace to an always uncertain finish. It’s Baltimore, though, that radiates through all of the crime and despair here. As we saw in David Simon’s Baltimore trilogy, “Homicide: Life in the Street,” “The Corner” and “The Wire,” while the city is a Petrie dish for felonious acts, its unique flavor and traditions make it a terrific setting for serious drama. Co-writer/director Sheldon Candis is a talented filmmaker, who deserves another shot at the big time.

Vietnam: The Ten Thousand Day War
Nova: Rise of the Drones

So much has changed in the way we conduct war since 1975, when the North Vietnamese Army marched into Saigon, anyone born since that momentous occasion can be excused if they lump it together with World War I, World War II and Korea as ancient history. No one who lived through that tumultuous period, however, will ever forget what happened in Southwest Asia between 1963 and 1975 and how it changed our country. Made in 1980, “Vietnam: The Ten Thousand Day War” is an exhaustive documentary that reminds us that America’s involvement in the country began during WWII, when we worked together with the Viet Minh against Japan, but turned against them in their war for independence with France. Neither did we force South Vietnam to honor the 1954 Geneva Accord, which set a deadline for elections two years later for the unification of Vietnam. Leaders of South Vietnam assumed that Ho Chi Minh would have been elected premier and put the kibosh on the vote. Instead, Ike sent advisers to South Vietnam to work with its army. Twenty years and 58,220 American lives later, the inevitable reunification of the country was fait accompli. This past January, the first Starbucks opened in Ho Chi Minh City, with the first McDonald’s expected within two years. Because of the proliferation of western and Japanese interests in the cities, it’s possible that some Vietnamese children now assume the United States won the war. That’s why the latest update of “Vietnam: The Ten Thousand Day War,” on DVD, is a valuable document. The 13-episode documentary was written by veteran war correspondent Peter Arnett and narrated by actor Richard Basehart. It covers every aspect of the war imaginable, including the political front in Washington and escalation of antiwar sentiment in the U.S., among our troops and around the world. The polish put on the new edition was very effective.

While there’s no way to know what kind of impact unmanned aircraft might have had on the disposition of the Vietnam War, it’s clear that our much-vaunted heat- and motion-sensing technology was incapable of shutting down the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Drones wouldn’t have been able to drop countless tons of bombs over a target, either. Drones give new meaning to “search and destroy,” a strategy devised specifically for the Vietnam conflict. Instead of using squads of men to identify Viet Cong and destroy their supply routes, our ability to track down Al Qaeda leaders was enhanced through the use of unmanned aircraft over Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Yemen. The fascinating “Nova” episode, “Rise of the Drones,” reveals many amazing things about our program, which historically has been pushed by the discoveries of hobbyists. U.S. Senator Rand Paul is on hand to warn about the proliferation of drones in the hands of private citizens and law-enforcement agencies whose definition of privacy rights don’t often jibe with that of the Constitution. “Rise of the Drones” looks backwards and forward in time, leaving several key questions unanswered, including those labeled “top secret.” As usual, though, human pilots on the ground tend to sound far too giddy when blowing targets sky high. What we don’t hear are actual voices of the pilots and intelligence officers when they realize that the caravan they just vaporized carried mostly women and children and no terrorists. That part remains classified.

Frontline: The Untouchables
American Masters: Phillip Roth: Unmasked
Route 66: The Complete Fourth Season
Nature: Cold Warriors: Wolves and Buffalo
Nova: Ancient Computer
If tens of thousands of American leftists, progressives and liberals – real liberals, not Republican boogeymen – held their noses before voting for Barack Obama last November, it’s because of his administration’s failure to bring charges against any Wall Street banker for his role in the market crash. While his attorney general focused on legal marijuana operations, hundreds of executives continued to skate. Fortunately for the President, Mitt Romney probably would have been even more lenient on capitalist criminals. In any case, journalists pretty much ignored the question in the debates. Reporters for “Frontline: The Untouchables” interviewed dozens of low- to mid-level “due-diligence investigators” and mortgage executives who described what they saw in advance of the collapse and what happened when they tried to warn their superiors. The answers: plenty and nothing, in that order. Four months after Obama took office, he pledged human and financial resources to a widespread investigation into fraud. Perhaps, he should have substituted “being naughty” for “fraud,” because that very specific crime was deemed too complicated to prosecute by law-enforcement officials. “These are hard cases to win,” argue several people interviewed here, explaining the reluctance on the part of administration officials to pull the trigger. No one wanted to risk losing a case. You can almost see the noses of bankers and government flunkies grow as they testify before congressional panels, though. “The Untouchables” is as depressing a document as we’re likely to see on the subject, but, hey, you knew that already.

Still best known for his unintentionally scandalous, if still hilarious “Portnoy’s Complaint,” Phillip Roth remains one of America’s most influential and challenging novelists. In the “American Masters” episode “Phillip Roth: Unmasked,” the author looks back candidly at his life and work, reads from his novels and describes what’s made him tick for the last 50-plus years. Loyal readers have already gleaned such things from his books, as they have reflected his thoughts, deeds, fears and hopes as he experienced throughout his time on Earth. And, yes, Roth is open to questions about the sexuality in his novels, thoughts of suicide and literary impotence, and being pigeon-holed as a Jewish writer. “Unmasked” is a quiet documentary, bordering on the contemplative, as befits the life he lives at his rural estate. It could be shown at workshops or college writing classes and everyone, including the instructor, would benefit.

During the fourth and final season of “Route 66,” George Maharis was long gone and Glenn Colbert was getting comfortable in the bucket seats of the Corvette he shared with Tod Stiles (Martin Milner). Lincoln Case is an army veteran with a much darker personality than his predecessor, Buz Murdock. The episodes in which he’s featured also have a sharper edge. The lads spend a bit more time than usual in Maine, where Joan Crawford plugs Poland Springs water and Linc lands a job with a cranky lobsterman and his bitter son (William Shatner). Among the other guest stars are Jack Warden, Diane Baker, Tammy Grimes, Stefanie Powers, Jessica Walter, James Coburn, Soapy Sales and Lois Smith. The series concluded in Tampa with the two-part episode “Where There’s a Will, There’s a Way,” with Barbara Eden. In 1964, it was rare for a series to wrap itself up with a special two-part episode, writing by co-creator Stirling Silliphant.

There could hardly be a more scenic location than Canada’s Wood Buffalo National Park for a story of survival that’s been going on since before there was a Canada or even a Native Canadian, for that matter. No two animal warriors have been more suitably matched than the gray wolves and American bison that have been fighting extinction as well as hunger in recent centuries. Here, we’re given a bird’s-eye view of the hoof-to-paw warfare that goes on whether there’s someone there to film it or not. There are times when the filmmakers approach the drama and intensity of a heavyweight title fight, in which the opponents bring far different strengths and reserves to the ring. “Cold Warriors: Wolves and Buffalo” is, at once, exciting, beautiful and horrifying.

The Mediterranean continues to yield the secrets of the men who once sailed its waters, but didn’t quite make it home to profit from their quests. Sculptures, coins, jugs that carried wine and oil, pottery and mysterious objects are still being found in places likely and unlikely. The “Nova” episode “Ancient Computer” tells the story of a 2,000-year-old metallic device, found by sponge divers among other treasures on what remains of the Antikythera after sinking in a storm. After much conjecture and investigation, mathematicians and astronomers discovered that the Antikythera mechanism’s many fused wheels and gears once predicted eclipses, movements of the planets and other heavenly events important to navigators … a mini-planetarium, if you will. Historians would trace the geared instrument to the workshop of Archimedes, in Syracuse, then, a few centuries later, the science behind it would move east, to the Byzantine and Arab empires. The Moors brought it back west, to Spain, but in the form of a clock. Some of the science explored here is tough going for non-academics, but the basic information and history come together pretty well.

Earth’s Final Hours: Blu-ray
The less one questions the science in a Syfy movie, the more likely it is that they’ll find something there to kill some time. “Earth’s Final Hours” may not be any more believable than previous efforts, but, at least, it alerted me to the presence of “white holes” in the universe. Apparently, they are the opposite of black holes, in that they can emit dense matter, instead of sucking it into the void. Or, something like that. Here, a mad scientist is killed when struck by space debris that is so dense and heavy it can impact Earth in the Pacific Northwest and exit somewhere in Australia. Cool-looking radiation storms signal the arrival of these outbursts from the white hole, which could alter the Earth’s rotation to something resembling that of the moon. Two disgraced researchers predicted that such a thing was possible 20 years earlier, but die premature deaths in “Earth’s Final Hours.” Government toadies can’t seem to decide whether or not to admit their mistake, by accepting the disputed theory, or simply killing everyone – a teenager, his dad, two hot babes, some Men in Black – who’s trying to prevent disaster. Either way, it’s a lose-lose situation for the planet. If the action and dialogue are about par for made-for-cable sci-fi movies, the special effects are above average. Thank God, for sexy astrophysicists.

Charlie: A Toy Story
Established in 2009, Engine 15 Media Group specializes in so-called family films that appeal to boys and girls in ’tween and pre-’tween demographic. Considering that every 10-year-old in the United States expects to be treated as if he or she is 16, it’s a market that resists easy exploitation by Hollywood. Engine 15’s films tend to feature kids and their pets – dogs, especially – who work in tandem to solve problems large and small. The latest, “Charlie: A Toy Story,” requires 10-year-old Caden and his best friend Charlie, a golden retriever, not only to save the family business from sabotage, but also to preserve his parents’ marriage. Mom has gotten tired of Dad’s flakey whims and irresponsible behavior and decides to give him some room to work out his issues. In the course of bullying Caden, a pair of neighborhood ne’er-do-wells gets wind of the latest invention by his father. The bullies hope to steal the blueprints and give them to the owner of a chain of big-box stores. Charlie and Caden make a pretty cute team and “Charlie: A Toy Story” – how did they get that title past Disney? – is competently produced on what must have been a limited budget.

The DVD Wrapup

Wednesday, March 27th, 2013

Killing Them Softly
A decade before anyone besides crime-fiction aficionados embraced Elmore Leonard as the greatest writer of street-level dialogue within the genre, the crown belonged to George V. Higgins. Twenty years before Quentin Tarantino enchanted audiences with the explosive repartee soliloquies in “Reservoir Dogs,” “Pulp Fiction” and “True Romance,” there was “The Friends of Eddie Coyle,” Peter Yates and Paul Monash’s remarkably faithful adaptation of Higgins’ masterpiece. Anyone who loves Leonard and Tarantino and hasn’t experienced either version of “The Friends of Eddie Coyle” – it’s easily read in a day and available on a Criterion DVD – hasn’t really lived. “Killing Them Softly” won’t make fans forget “Eddie Coyle,” but in the assured hands of Kiwi writer/director Andrew Dominik, the new adaptation of “Cogan’s Trade” is a fitting testimonial to Higgins’ early work. The author died just a week short of his 60th birthday, in 1999. The advertising that preceded the delayed release of “Killing Them Softly” last November justly promoted the presence of Brad Pitt in the lead role of the wry mob assassin, Jackie Cogan, but suggested incorrectly that it was an action picture. While there’s enough bloodshed on display to satisfy any fan of, say, Bruce Willis, the real fun here comes in listening a crack cast of actors deliver lines that Higgins might have written with them in mind.

Ray Liotta plays a low-level Boston wiseguy, Markie Trattman, who runs a backroom poker game that’s frequented by guys who look as if they might have worked for Whitey Bulger, before he moved to Santa Monica. Foolishly, Markie decides that it might be fun to hire a couple of guys to break into the room and steal the goons’ money. Even more foolishly, Markie subsequently brags about the ripoff as if it were a prank on the hidden-camera show, “Punk’d.” Curiously, the top guns don’t take the heist seriously enough to condemn its planner to death. As so often happens, though, the robbery inspires a rival wiseguy, Johnny “Squirrel” Amato (Vincent Curatola), to have two of his guys to hit the game a second time. He assumes that Markie would be blamed, but no longer be unable to escape the gallows. It doesn’t quite play out that way, because, really, who could be that stupid? Instead, a mob accountant and fixer named Driver (Richard Jenkins) hires Cogan to kill the ones actually responsible for the robbery. The culprits practically leave a trail of crumbs leading back to them. Cogan is known to one of the low-lives, so Driver allows him to import another hitman, the nearly over-the-hill Mickey (James Gandolfini), for backup. The coldly efficient Cogan knows that Mickey is something of a loose cannon, but his presence allows for some terrific old-school/new-school dialogue between them.

Mickey and Driver both believe that they’re smarter and more experienced than Cogan, who doesn’t seem to mind that they’ve mistaken his low-key demeanor for a chink in his armor. (Although they don’t share a scene, Gandolfini and Curatola remind us of their characters’ bitter rivalry on “The Sopranos,” as mob bosses Tony Soprano and Johnny “Sack” Sacramoni.) Scoot McNairy and Ben Mendelsohn, as the hapless hoodlums who pulled the second job, are given some juicy material, as well. Dominik’s the real deal. Besides his previous collaboration with Pitt, “The Assassination of Jessie James by the Coward Robert Ford,” he played in the criminal muck in “Chopper,” a hard-core portrait of out-of-control Aussie thug Mark Brandon Read (Eric Bana). His only misstep in “Killing Them Softly,” perhaps, is setting the movie in 2008 and insisting on a subtext that puts the perpetrators of the Wall Street collapse on an equal footing with the Boston mobsters we meet. The difference being that while Mafiosi tend to kill each other, bankers don’t care who they harm. Of course, it’s only the guys that carry guns who end up in jail. I have no problem with that position, except to argue that the frequent interjection of news footage from the presidential campaign and reports from Wall Street distract from the business at hand. The DVD adds a decent making-of featurette.

A Royal Affair: Blu-ray
America’s love affair with the British royals extends far beyond watching the occasional wedding on television and following every new birth, divorce, scandal or golden jamboree in the tabloid media. There seems to be some residual jealousy over the fact that, with the exception of the occasional Kennedy or Bush, we don’t have blue bloods of our own to worship and condemn with equal fervor. I, for one, would have preferred to see Prince Charles in the White House than George W. Bush and Barak Obama. Democracy doesn’t lend itself to Shakespearian dramatics, certainly. Marie Antoinette has gotten her fair of attention here, as well, but how many of us could say with any certainty whether her Louis had a XIV, XV or XVI after his name. Until recently, though, Hollywood has played it pretty safe when it comes to portrayals of the crowned heads of Europe, treating the queens as if they were porcelain dolls and kings like paintings on a wall that have magically come to life. Things started changing with the release of Nicholas Hytner and Alan Bennett’s “The Madness of King George,” a brilliant movie that mapped the mental deterioration of King George III, and continued to evolve with Showtime’s “The Tutors.” Critics and pundits were divided on Sofia Coppola’s portrayal of Marie Antoinette as a frivolous party girl and fashionista, instead of sinner or saint, but that lavish movie, too, has gone to influence others, including last year’s excellent “Farewell, My Queen.” With larger budgets available to fashion and set designers, as well as greater access to such historical locations as Versailles, filmmakers have been freed from the mock formality of palaces built on soundstages.

A Royal Affair” takes fans of historical dramas a bit further afield, to Denmark in the late 1700s. Danish writer/director Nikolaj Arcel appears to have been influenced as much by “The Madness of King George” and “Marie Antoinette,” as the history books he read growing up in Copenhagen. Like George III, King Christian VII of Denmark was, for long periods of time, as mad as a hatter and, the subject of much political maneuvering. Things were changing throughout Europe during the Age of Enlightenment. Christian’s British wife, Caroline Mathilde (Alicia Vikander), like the Austrian Marie Antoinette, left everything she held dear in her youth to marry a stranger. She struggled with the languages of Court and the eccentricities of her husband (Mikkel Folsgaard), including those dealing with sex, and was looked upon with suspicion by Danish aristocrats. When CVII returned from a long tour of European capitals, he was carrying things he’d witnessed of the Enlightenment and, as his personal physician, the handsome and learned German doctor, Count Johann Friedrich Struensee (Mads Mikkelsen). In time, Caroline Mathilde found in Struensee a kindred spirit and intellectual peer. She approved of his attitudes toward reform, religion and the abolishment of policies dictated by the ruling class against peasants. Before losing his capacities altogether, CVII gave Struensee the power of his office and permission to implement reforms. He also would engage in an ill-advised affair with the Queen, who, perhaps, bore him a daughter he couldn’t claim as his own. The scandal would give the opponents of reform all of the ammunition they needed to eliminate him.

Although not shot in Denmark, the lush outdoor locations and splendid interiors add a great deal of authenticity and romance to “A Royal Affair.” The acting is exemplary throughout, with Mikkelsen and Vikander standing out from the rest of the cast. Arcel, who is better known in Europe for his writing (“The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo,” “King’s Game”), adds a sharp political edge to the drama. It would be a while before reforms stuck for good, but Struensee represents something that couldn’t be silenced by a blade. The Blu-ray adds interviews with Arcel, Mikkelsen and Vikander, profiles of the primary characters and a royal timeline.

A Man Escaped: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
Monsieur Verdoux: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
Based on the memoir by Andre Devigny, a member of the French Resistance imprisoned and sentenced to death by the Gestapo, Robert Bresson’s austere thiller “A Man Escaped” proves the less-is-more axiom can apply to cinema as much as minimalist design. Basically, all we know about Fontaine is that he’s a possibly dangerous political prisoner and abhors spending time locked behind prison walls, and not just those belonging to the Nazis. Eventually, we will learn why he’s been condemned to death, but it’s just as likely that the frail-looking Fontaine (Francois Leterrier) would attempt to escape any confinement. Employing documentary-like precision, Bresson puts a tight focus on every detail of the escape strategy, from his initial survey of his cell to the creation of ropes, hooks and other tools. It really begins when the most senior convict secures for him a pencil and safety pin. The tension comes in knowing that any misstep could lead not to a few weeks in the hole, but immediate execution. There’s precious little dialogue and conversation among inmates or, for that matter, verbal abuse from the guards. Even if volleys of machine-gun fire can be heard in the near-distance, the Nazis stay mostly out of sight.

Until nearly the very end of the planning process, the escape is Fontaine’s show, alone, and not a jailbreak. It seems impossible that such a jerry-rigged operation would succeed, but we know going into the movie that the protagonist lived to tell his tale. (Bresson spent time in a Nazi prison, as well.) By then, though, we’re clinging to the edge of our collective seats. It’s worth noting, perhaps, that “A Man Escaped” was part of a trilogy of prison pictures that includes “Pickpocket” and “Joan of Arc,” and it was filmed in the same facility in which Devigny was held. The Criterion Collection edition benefits from a new high-definition digital restoration, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack; “Bresson: Without a Trace,” a 1965 episode of the television interview program “Cinéastes de notre temps,” in which the director gives his first on-camera interview; “The Essence of Forms,” a 2010 documentary featuring Bresson’s collaborators and admirers; a new visual essay with text by film scholars David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson; and a booklet featuring an essay by film scholar Tony Pipolo.

Monsieur Verdoux” was released nine years earlier than “A Man Escaped,” in 1947, the same year Charlie Chaplin was summoned to appear before the HUAC panel. The publicity surrounding Chaplin’s politics, along with the memory of past indiscretions, combined to make his first film in seven years a huge dud at the box office. At press conferences during the publicity tour, the last thing any reporter wanted to know about was the movie. They were being paid only to hound him about his opinions on communism. If they had only watched the movie, the reporters could have found plenty else to discuss with him about his opinions on morality, personal ethics and capitalism. “Monsieur Verdoux” has only gotten more respect with age.

Orson Welles tipped Charles Chaplin to the real-life activities of French “Bluebeard” murderer Henri Désiré Landru, who was guillotined in 1922. “Monsieur Verdoux” (a.k.a., “A Comedy of Murder”) is not without humor, but what there is of it is inky black or found in the balletic physical gags Chaplin perfected as the Little Tramp. The title character is a faux French dandy who only turned to murder-for-profit after he was laid off from his job at a bank and realized there was no social safety net to protect his wheelchair-bound wife and son. Verdoux would go on to marry several wealthy women and murder some of them to collect their fortunes. Only one of the “wives” broke the mold of the snooty society doyenne, and that cackling middle-age shrew was played by Martha Raye. The MPAA didn’t appreciate Verdoux’s attitudes toward religion, state-sponsored murder and capitalism’s indifference toward the poor and infirm. Chaplin was given to speechifying about injustice and Verdoux’s unabashed criminality made such proclamations sound as if he was using the witness box as a stage for an ironic commentary on American hypocrisy. Given the circumstances, though, Verdoux seems to be, at worst, an anti-hero.

The woman with whom we and Verdoux sympathize most in the movie – a lost soul who credits him with giving her self-confidence and luck – betrays Verdoux by doing much the same thing he does to stay afloat. In her case, however, all she has to do is outlast a munitions magnate and war-profiteer to maintain her lush lifestyle. He didn’t spare her life just so she could become part of the problem. There are a lot of different things going on in “Monsieur Verdoux” and, absent the hysteria of the blacklist period, they can be fully appreciated in the Criterion Collection upgrade. It has been given a new 2K digital restoration, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack on the Blu-ray edition; “Chaplin Today: ‘Monsieur Verdoux,’” a 2003 program on the film’s production and release, featuring filmmaker Claude Chabrol and actor Norman Lloyd; “Charlie Chaplin and the American Press,” a new documentary featuring Chaplin specialist Kate Guyonvarch and author Charles Maland; a new video essay featuring an audio interview with actress Marilyn Nash;  radio advertisements and trailers; and a booklet featuring an essay by critic Ignatiy Vishnevetsky and reprinted pieces by Chaplin and critic André Bazin.

Day of the Falcon: Blu-ray
Set some 15-20 years after the events described in “Lawrence of Arabia,” “Day of the Falcon” naturally invites comparisons to David Lean’s epic investigation of war, identity and survival. Ninety-nine percent of all of the movies ever made, about any subject, couldn’t stand on an equal footing with “Lawrence of Arabia,” so it’s no disgrace that “Day of the Falcon” falls short. The most interesting things about it can’t be found on screen, anyway. For one thing, the movie was co-produced by Tarak Ben Ammar, chairman of Quinta Communications, and the Doha Film Institute of Qatar. In a bonus interview, Ben Ammar says that it was his intention to tell a story about the region’s history from an Arab’s point of view. Moreover, with a $50-million budget and French director Jean-Jacques Annaud, “Day of the Falcon” (a.k.a., “Black Gold”) looks just as classy as movies produced by western studios. Given the international cast, it clearly was intended for international distribution.

It’s the 1930s, somewhere on the vast Arabian Peninsula, and only two leaders of the many tribes understand what the discovery of oil portends. The one played by Antonio Banderas is enchanted by the idea that he not only could become personally wealthy, but it also would finally be possible to build schools and hospitals with money from Texas. The chieftain portrayed by Mark Strong is far more of a traditionalist. He understands that sudden wealth doesn’t necessarily bring happiness or positive change and its lasting effects could destroy an ancient lifestyle that’s governed by principles espoused in the Koran. The oil is found in a large swath of desert, the Yellow Belt, which was declared neutral territory in an earlier conflict. Because the children of the two kings have been raised together – and two recently married — the prospect of war carries added weight. When Prince Auda returns to his father’s village, he realizes that his interpretation of the holy book doesn’t square with either of the elders’ contradictory readings. If anyone fits the description of an infidel, it’s the Texas oilmen whose only god is the American dollar and would kill anyone who gets in their way. Ali knows that his father’s army can’t stand up to that of his father-in-law, but rides out, anyway, in the hope a compromise can be reached. When that doesn’t happen, the prince’s courage attracts other tribesmen to his cause, which gets less precise with every new battle.

In the same way that Chinese filmmakers are able to muster large numbers of extras and animals, the producers of “Day of the Falcon” were able to gather a veritable army of background actors, horses, camels and vehicles. A walled city was built in Tunisia, even as the revolution was taking place in the streets of Tunis, and there were more than enough magnificent sand dunes there to enhance the look of the battle scenes. Arnaud wanted to limit the use of CGI, so the cheap labor was welcome. Not surprisingly, the desert scenes look quite striking in Blu-ray. The bonus package includes a substantial making-of piece and a pair of shorts on visual effects and working off storyboards.

Dose of Reality
Set in a trendy bar after last call for alcohol, “Dose of Reality” got me thinking about how “Rashomon” might have played out if the witnesses to the murder of a samurai had been blackout drunks and Akira Kurosawa had handed off the project to a fan. Christopher Glatis’ third largely unseen film in 18 years is a classic he-said, she-said deal, with another he-said thrown in for good measure. Fairuza Balk plays Rose, a young woman found passed out on the floor of the bar’s bathroom after closing time. At first, bar manager Tony (Rick Ravanello) and bartender Matt (Ryan Merriman) fear the disheveled and bloody Rose is dead, but upon being revived, she spins several conflicting scenarios for how she got there. Tony and Matt believe their alibis to be air-tight, but they fall apart when their memories start failing. It’s quite a predicament. Finally, though, manipulation takes over for intrigue and only a surprise ending pulls “Dose of Reality” back from the brink. One consolation is that Jake is a dead ringer for Jon Bon Jovi.

Parental Guidance: Blu-ray
The Sandlot: 20th Anniversary Edition: Blu-ray
The first thing to know about “Parental Guidance,” besides the fact that most critics hated it, is that it made three times more money at the box office than its estimated budget. That either means that fans of Billy Crystal and Bette Midler don’t read reviews or they’re so happy to see them that they’re willing to endure 105 minutes of comedy designed to appeal to the 10-year-old in all of us. Crystal and Midler play the parents of a new-age mom attempting to raise her kids in a way that prohibits grass stains, tooth decay or politically incorrect behavior. Desperately in need of babysitters, the kids’ parents (Marissa Tomei, Tom Everett Scott) reluctantly agree to ask the grandparents to watch them for a week. This sets up a culture clash of epic proportions and moralistic climax you can see coming from the local Blockbuster. Even so, the stars and child actors deliver the goods in terms of gratuitous slapstick, potty humor and schmaltzy resolutions. The Blu-ray supplements included deleted scenes, with optional commentary by director Andy Fickman; commentary with Fickman and Crystal; a gag reel; and “In Character With Billy Crystal, Bette Midler and Marisa Tomei.”

The connecting tissue between “Parental Guidance” and “The Sandlot” is baseball. In the former, Crystal plays a recently laid-off play-by-play announcer who’s as obsessed with the history of the game as he is about his own threadbare gags. “The 20th Anniversary Edition” reminds us that not all baseball movies are strictly about the sport, itself. Rather, they tend to serve as metaphors for life, itself, or a nostalgic link to a better time or place in our youths. “Sandlot” has a lot in common with the modern holiday classic, “A Christmas Story,” which recalls humorist Jean Shepherd’s memories of growing up in the shadows of the steel mills in Northwest Indiana. Here, 5th-grader Scotty Smalls moves to a new town with his parents, but is at a disadvantage because he doesn’t know how to play baseball. He’s determined to make the local team, however, and gets lessons from one of the neighborhood kids. It opens the door to one of those magical summers that linger in our memories forever. In effect, “Sandlot” is a pre-coming-of-age story, complete with a “monster” that lives beyond the left-field fence and devours errant baseballs. The movie co-stars Karen Allen, Denis Leary and James Earl Jones. The anniversary Blu-ray re-purposes previous bonus features, while adding trading cards.

13 Eerie
Bad Mea
The Frankenstein Theory
Sexquatch: The Legend of Blood Stool Creek
The idea that corpses lying around a “body farm” might someday come to life and attack men and women aspiring to be forensic scientists is reasonably innovative and potentially exciting. Unfortunately, the makers of “13 Eerie” took this promising idea and, instead of pursuing a Toxic Avengers-vs.-CSI angle, sought the easy path to horror by giving us yet another zombie story. The address in the title refers to 13 Eerie Strait, a desolate island that also is home to an abandoned penitentiary. It’s a fine setting for this sort of thing and the decomposing bodies – not all of which were transported there for study — are reasonably disgusting. There’s nothing terribly wrong with the execution of “13 Eerie,” but its originality ends when the zombies reveal themselves. These days, you have to have something more than a good idea to stand out from the horror pack. The DVD comes with several making-of featurettes and commentary.

In the found-footage thriller, “The Frankenstein Theory,” director Andrew Weiner and co-writer Vlady Pildysh appear to have merged the ending of Mary Shelley’s great novel to the beginning of Robert W. Service’s “The Cremation of Sam McGee: “There are strange things done in the midnight sun/By the men who moil for gold/The Arctic trails have their secret tales/That would make your blood run cold …” So, then, what if Dr. Victor Frankenstein’s monster managed to survive in the wilds of northern Canada all these many years and, inspired by global warming, decides to travel south, and a savvy professor puts 2 and 2 together? That’s the movie’s premise and it’s not bad. The disgraced educator, needing to restore his reputation, puts together a film team to find evidence of the monster’s existence. They travel to the Yukon, where a very serious outdoorsman agrees to take them where they want to go. He knows that something out of the ordinary is going on in the wilderness, but doesn’t think it’s wise to disturb it. As is the case with these found-footage films, it takes a long time to get to a point where something is scary and sometimes it never arrives. Here, the payoff is pretty good.

In “Bad Meat,” the parents of a half-dozen juvenile delinquents decide that they can’t handle their children and send them off to a remote camp for some tough love. Trouble is, the administrators and guards are sadists on the job and perverts in their free time. One evening, though, the staff members are poisoned with meat that carries a virus that turns them, first, into projectile-vomiting invalids and, second, zombies. The kids take advantage of their incapacitation, mostly by goofing off and creating a ruckus. Instead of escaping, they give the zombies a chance to regroup. The result is a repulsively bloody mess and little else. The only real selling point for “Bad Meat” is the presence of James Franco’s younger brother, Dave, and Elisabeth Harnois, of “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation,” who, at 33, can still play teenagers.

Except for its impossible-to-ignore title, “Sexquatch: The Legend of Blood Stool Creek” is an imbecilic do-it-yourself movie about a group of teenagers who hope to spend a wild weekend getting laid, but, instead, are sexually abused by Sexquatch. If the filmmakers had more than $10 between them, they should have invested it in something more persuasive than an orangutan suit. Indeed, Sexquatch isn’t even the least attractive actor in the movie, in or out of costume. If I recall, a similar concept was exploited for one of the late-night spots on Cinemax. This one is much worse.

From Beyond: Unrated Director’s Cut: Blu-ray
Phantasm II: Collector’s Edition: Blu-ray
Futureworld: Blu-ray
It hardly seems possible that the same man responsible for such grotesque entertainments as “Re-Animator” and “From Beyond” could get a meeting on the Disney lot, let alone sell the story that launched the “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids” franchise. That, however, is what makes Hollywood such a wild and wacky place to work. The good folks at Shout Factory have just released “From Beyond: Unrated Director’s Cut” in an excellent Blu-ray collector’s edition. Collaborators Stuart Gordon, Brian Yunza and Dennis Paoli – Gordon and Yunza had the idea had the idea for “Honey …” – frequently turned to H.P. Lovecraft for source material, much in the same way as Roger Corman was inspired by Edgar Allan Poe. “From Beyond” is based on a short story first published in 1934. In it, a scientist uses a Resonator to open the door to a translucent alien environment and once-human creatures who communicate sensually through the brain’s pineal gland, when they aren’t trying to eat people’s brains. Released in 1986, Gordon’s special-effects and animatronic teams outdid themselves in the creation of horrifying monsters and human transitions. He also added a twisted sexual element with his muse, Barbara Crampton, playing an uptight psychiatrist whose libido is awakened via the male’s extended pineal gland. All of this caused a scandal among easily disturbed MPAA panelists who repeatedly refused to award it even a “R” rating. By the time it did, several key moments were eliminated. They’re restored in the new Blu-ray edition, which has been nicely restored and adds several fascinating commentaries, interviews and making-of featurettes.

Fans of micro-budget horror movies know what they like and are loyal to people who give it to them. Ten years before the Internet would become a force in buzz campaigns surrounding indie flicks, word somehow got out that “Phantasm II” had been sliced and diced by the franchise’s new studio parent, Universal. In attempting to attract a broader audience, executives decided that a sequel needed a more visible star, a love interest for him, a more linear narrative and a less dreamy tone to the story. James Le Gros is fine as the newly released mental patient, but, because the fans saw no good reason to replace him, the decision caused them to smell a rat. Otherwise, writer/director Don Coscarelli’s meditation on what happens immediately after death retained the Tall Man as the yellow blooded antagonist and armed him with flying killer balls. “Phantasm II” has its moments, but I don’t recommend it for newcomers to the franchise. The Blu-ray adds commentary, several lengthy backgrounders and making-of material, and a short film in which Rory Guy plays Abraham Lincoln.

Because “Futureworld” is a sequel to the far more adventurous “Westworld,” I highly recommend seeing the original before sampling the follow-up, made three years later. Not only is “Westworld” a superior entertainment, but it also represents Michael Crichton’s first double-credit on a feature film. It introduced the very cool possibility that visitors to a futuristic theme park – the near future then being 1985 – would be allowed to engage in Old West activities with humanoid gunslingers and Miss Kitty wannabes. The party’s over, though, when a glitch in the circuitry causes of one of the outlaws (Yul Brynner) to stalk and kill guests with real bullets. It’s vintage Crichton, of course, and a precursor to his “Jurassic Park.” “Futureworld” extends the concept by replacing the glitch with a conscious effort on the part of the Delos Park scientists to replicate VIPs with programmable androids. The fiends have had plenty of time to execute their scheme, but they forgot not to invite investigative reporters to the opening. This time, influential journalists played by Peter Fonda and Blythe Danner (always a delight) are summoned to check out the reopened park and be targeted for replication. The idea remains sound, but the direction and writing are better suited for movie-of-the-week status. It’s worth noting, however, that much of “Futureworld” was shot on location at the Johnson Space Center.

Bangkok Revenge: Blu-ray

I’ve seen so many good martial-arts movies lately that I forgot how bad they can be when they’re put together with used duct tape. If it weren’t for the models of the cars on the streets of Bangkok, it wouldn’t have surprised me to learn that “Bangkok Revenge” was made in 1975 and put on a shelf for the last 35 years. And, it doesn’t look any better on Blu-ray, either. Jon Foo plays a young man, who, at 10, witnessed the murder of his parents. He would have been dead, as well, if it weren’t for the quick thinking of a nurse at the hospital where he was being treated for a gunshot wound. After thwarting one attempt on the boy’s life, she takes him to a remote village, where he’s watched over by a relative. After a rocky start, Manit becomes an expert in Muy Thai boxing. He’ll need all the help he can get when he returns to Bangkok to avenge the death of his father, a crusading cop killed because he learned too much about his boss. It doesn’t take him long to come in contact with the killers, whose legion of martial-arts deputies are no match for his fighting skills. Foo has some mad skills, but the violence in “Bangkok Revenge” is made to look so phony that it could easily have passed as a Muy Thai primer for 12-year-olds. The problem there, however, would be a lovemaking scene and a couple of references to blow jobs that come out of left field.

To the Arctic: Blu-ray 2D/3D
Glacier National Park: Crown of the Continent: Blu-ray
Voyageurs National Park: Spirit of the Boundary Waters: Blu-ray
You’d think that snow and frigid water wouldn’t benefit much from being viewed in high-definition, but, as we see in such movies as “To the Arctic,” the opposite is true. In Blu-ray, snow drifts resemble large lumps of granulated sugar, with a few diamonds thrown in for their sparkle. The crystalline seas allow for spectacular underwater photography. “To the Arctic” is the kind of IMAX 3D title that puts fannies in the seats of museum theaters, where a certain percentage of every movie must be of educational value. It’s no longer enough simply to photograph polar bear, walruses and seals in their natural habitat. The message conveyed here involves the effect of global warming on these habitats, the native populations (including Inuit) and people living in oceanfront communities thousands of miles to the south. Viewers aren’t pounded over the head with green rants, but the message is clear: if we don’t clean up our acts, these precious polar bear cubs are going to die, and you wouldn’t want that on your conscience, would you? Director Greg MacGillivray, producer Shaun MacGillivray and writer-editor Stephen Judson have been doing this sort of thing for a long time and know how to balance beauty, action and education in 40-minute packages. Meryl Streep lends her pleasant and softly authoritative voice to the proceedings, while songs by Paul McCartney play in the background. The Blu-ray 3D package arrives with 2D and DVD copies and a few short making-of featurette.

There aren’t many tourist destinations in the continental United States that can be considered inaccessible, but a few require more of an effort to get to than others. Glacier and Voyageurs National Parks aren’t places one easily can visit while on the way to somewhere else, as is the case with the Grand Canyon. Both are tucked just south of our border with Canada, about 800 miles apart, not accounting for the lack of a direct route by car. That’s a good thing, considering the kind of commercial slums found outside the gates of most national playgrounds. While Glacier is famous for its towering snow-capped peaks, rampaging rivers, steep waterfalls, glacier-fed lakes, bears and mountain goats, Voyageurs is a water wonderland whose splendors are more horizontal than vertical. This makes it ideal for canoe and kayak enthusiasts, as well as hikers. A veritable highway of a thousand interconnected lakes, streams, bogs and ponds feed Lake Superior, while supporting boreal forests and an animal and bird population undistracted by motor boats and hunters. “Spirit of the Boundary Waters” follows the loosely drawn borderline from Voyageurs to Isle Royale, a wilderness area accessible only by boat and sea plane. If the bears and mountain goats are the primary prey of tourist cameras in Glacier, it’s the wolves and moose that captivate visitors to Isle Royale, Boundary Waters and Voyageurs. “Crown of the Continent” takes us along on a few of the 700 miles of trails in Glacier and perilous cloud-scraping roads that sometimes are overwhelmed by snow melts. Both films are wonderfully photographed and informative about the forces that shaped the landscapes.

The Comedy
The words “hipster” and “humor” aren’t mutually exclusive or contradictory, even if there’s an unwritten law that demands that hipsters act as if they’re too cool for any room into which they enter. Neither must deadpan humor border on deadly to be effective. Rick Alverson’s tres deadpan “The Comedy” is hip to the point of being exclusionary to anyone who doesn’t live in such communities as Williamsburg, Silver Lake or Wicker Park. How hip is it? LCD Soundsystem frontman James Murphy and comedian Gregg Turkington (a.k.a., “Neil Hamburger”) play key supporting roles in it. The title, itself, can be read as a challenge to audiences to find the funny in the largely improvised script or hand in their hipster credentials on their way out of the theater. Tim Heidecker, who’s half of the team responsible for “Tim & Eric Awesome Show,” is the tentative protagonist in a movie during which nothing really happens. He plays a 30-something slacker, Swanson, who soon will inherit a fortune from his brain-dead father, but, in the meantime, is content to wash dishes. For kicks, he and his pals enjoy getting drunk and high and provoking arguments with people they hardly know, including gang-bangers who aren’t in on the joke. If Swanson is inspired, he might even invite a girl to spend a night on his sailboat. For someone as bored and disconnected as Swanson, watching a date endure an epileptic seizure qualifies as a good time. If that makes “A Comedy” sounds perfectly awful, you should know that Alverson’s transgressive character sketch is crafted with razor-sharp accuracy and Swanson could serve as an archetype for an entire slacker sub-species. There are several deleted scenes, commentary and a short set of interviews.

One Last Game
Death comes in many forms and being hopelessly addicted to potentially lethal things qualifies as one of them. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross told us that people facing imminent death experience five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. A theory is a difficult thing upon which to hang a narrative, unless the filmmaker is attempting to simply dramatize the process or offer an exception that proves the rule. “All That Jazz” is a movie in which the protagonist is too busy to give anything but passing notice to the stages and not at all anxious to kick his addiction. Kubler-Ross is referenced during Bob Fosse’s cinematic suicide note. “One Last Game” goes so far as to credit her with the movie’s concept. Set during a game of Texas Hold’Em on a darkened stage, Ayassi’s claustrophobic psycho-drama centers around Gellert (Ken Duken), a handsome young gambler who appears to be addicted to losing, as much as anything else. Sitting at the poker table with him are three other top German actors and chanteuse Regina Lund, who looks as if she’s channeling Marilyn Monroe. Gellert thought he might win enough money to pay back his debts, but the other players know what he’s really there to do: lose and be berated for it. Near the end of the movie, a frustrated Gellert asks the sexy blond what the point of this particular game really is. “The objective of the game is to know when it is over,” she answers, “to know when to stop.” The same thing pertains life, itself.

GLOW: The Story of the Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling
It’s been said that the only creatures likely to survive a nuclear apocalypse will be cockroaches. I’ve heard the same thing said about lawyers and IRS auditors. Professional wrestling has been declared dead several times over the last 100 years, but continues to pack stadiums and get solid ratings on television. When Vince McMahon took over his father’s wrestling business in the early 1980s, he knew that it had to appeal to Baby Boomers and their children to survive until the new millennium. The first thing he did was admit that professional was less a sport than a vehicle for entertainment and, by implication, its practitioners were actors. To help audiences adjust to this “startling” confession, McMahon borrowed the superhero concept from comic books, while also adding a rock-’n’-roll soundtrack to the proceedings. The WWF was a huge hit. Not to be outdone, some savvy promoters thought women could handle a circuit of their own and called it Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling (GLOW). These women weren’t there to add novelty to the show, but to be the show. GLOW was a prime-time wrestling series, complete with elaborate characters, costumes, skits, personalized raps and, of course, wrestling. It found wide exposure through syndicated television and attracted male viewers by adding attractive young women who weren’t trained to be anything but pretty and, maybe, act a bit. The more “masculine” of the women professionals were given makeovers, costumes and flamboyant personae. Within five years, GLOW mysteriously ceased production. Brett Whitcomb’s “GLOW: The Story of the Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling” uses the anecdotes and recollections of many of the men and women who made GLOW a big hit, alongside archival video tapes of matches and promotional material. The documentary adds audio commentary with Billy Corgan of the Smashing Pumpkins and a couple of the wrestlers; extended interviews; deleted scenes; a collection of GLOW skits; opening raps; and a festival Q&A.

Adventures in Zambezia: Blu-ray
Pull back the curtain of mist that rises from Victoria Falls and you’ll find the mythical city of Zambezia, where birds of a feather stick together to protect each other from giant lizards and foraging Marabou storks. In Blu-ray 2D/3D, it’s a wondrously colorful place that’s well worth protecting from raids. Although the brash young falcon, Kai, was born in Zambezia, he was raised by his overly protective father in a desolate outpost in the desert after his mother was killed defending the city. Kai desperately wants to join Zambezia’s crack airborne fighter unit, the Hurricanes, but lacks the ability to take orders and be a team player. Naturally, there comes a time when Kai’s skills are needed to save the more experienced fliers and his father from disaster. Sure, “Adventures in Zambezia” tells a familiar story. What else is new, though? The nice thing about this South African production is the quality of the animation, which rivals much of what’s created in Hollywood. The color palette is brilliant, as well. The bonus package adds the featurettes “Birds of a Feature,” “An African Story,” “The Tree City” and “Technical Challenges.” Be aware that “Adventures in Zambezia” is available for purchase exclusively at Walmart.

Alois Nebel
The Official Digimon Adventure Set: The Complete Second Season
Digimon Adventure: Volume 2
Johnny Sokko and His Flying Robot: The Complete Series
It’s fitting that the post-World War II history of Eastern Europe be drawn in noir shades of black, white and gray. We remember the movies of the Czech New Wave, particularly, in black-and-white. Newsreel footage of the cities, mines and factories could hardly be more bleak and dispiriting. Even after the collapse of the Iron Collapse, it took years before we could find the brighter colors and humor, however cynical. Using rotoscope animation, “Alois Nebel” spans the beginning and end of Soviet domination in Czechoslovakia, telling the haunting story of a train dispatcher – and son of a train dispatcher – stationed near the borders with Germany and Poland. Even as news from East Berlin began spreading through Eastern Europe, few believed that freedom could come so quickly and without a fight. Indeed, Nebel remembers when the area’s ethnic German population was forced to pick up stakes and move north. Out of the blue, a mute stranger arrives out of the fog from Poland, carrying information of particular interest to the dispatcher. “Alois Nebel” doesn’t require a vast knowledge of modern Czech history to enjoy the film, but it helps. The atmospheric animation is what really stands out here.

Japanese animation began to take hold here in the mid-1980s, with TV shows that catered to the youngest of viewers and consumers of toys. The flood of video games also helped introduce Americans to the distinctive look and sounds of anime. By the mid-1990s, such narrative anime as “Ghost in the Shell” and “Princess Monoke” gained a foothold among older American audiences and renters. The evolution of manga played out in similar stages throughout the 20th Century. Artist/storyteller Yoshihiro Tatsumi came of age in post-war Japan, well before the country became a well-oiled machine and corporate superpower. As chronicled in Eric Khoo’s “Tatsumi,” based on the artist’s illustrated autobiography “A Drifting Life,” the demand for illustrated serials, even in the rental market, was booming. Tatsumi lived in an apartment with three other artists churning out manga for newspapers and magazines. The comics were growing up, as well. When parent groups began lobbying for more G-rated material, Tatsumi literally created the adult-oriented gekiga style of alternative comics. It was targeted specifically at the adult reader, with storylines that included sexy material, violence and other themes some took to be subversive. A decade later, the American “comix” movement would mimic the birth of gekiga. Between the impact of American forces on the culture and rise of criminal organization, Tatsumi rarely lacked for material. “Tatsumi” is a simply wonderful movie, perfect for anyone who loves animation, comics and graphic novels.

Children remain the largest market for anime, if only because they have an insatiable appetite for the toys, dolls, accessories and trading cards that are spun off the cartoon characters. I tried to explain what happens in “Digimon,” but got too confused to nail it on the head. Suffice it to say that teenagers journey to the Digital World to fight the enemies of the Digital Monsters being held by the enemy. Season 2 introduced a new cast of teenagers and a new enemy, the Digimon Emperor. The eight-disc “Official Digimon Adventure Set: The Complete Second Season” includes all 50 episodes of the show; a 32-page “Character Guide Booklet”; and a gallery featuring more than 40 Villain Digimon sketches. A more compact three-disc “Digimon Adventure: Volume 2” holds 18 episodes of the original “Digimon Adventure” series and follows the group as they learn the identity of the eighth DigiDestined child.

Johnny Sokko and His Flying Robot: The Complete Series” is so thoroughly cheesy that it should have come with a grater and nose plugs. Many of the characters are played by human beings, at least. Although Johnny Sokko has yet to shave his first whisker, he is the brains behind a large flying metal behemoth with fiery breath, laser eyes, finger-launched missiles and strength uncommon even among robots. If anything, the enemy creatures are more bogus than the flying robot. The fantasy series from Toei Studios ran from 1967 through 1968 in Japan, before crossing the Pacific a year later in slightly altered form. It found an audience here in syndication, which kept it alive reruns for the next 10 years. Collected for the first time on DVD are all 26 episodes of kaiju battles, alien takeover plots and the heroics of jet-packed Johnny.

Dead in France
Maybe it’s the sunny Cote d’Azur weather, but “Dead in France” reminds me a lot more of “Sexy Beast” than the Guy Ritchie films that critics continue to compare it to. Like Spain’s Costa del Sol, Cannes is wonderful place for a criminal to retire, especially if they’ve lived most of their life in the U.K. At 40, Charles (co-writer Brian Levine) is a successful hitman who wants to retire while he still can. He also wants to conquer a lifelong germ phobia by finally committing to a woman. Just when Charles thinks that he might succeed, everyone within his rapidly expanding orbit decides to go crazy at once. It begins when he entrusts his villa to a sexy young cleaning woman (Celia Muir), who has all the grace of a classic “Essex girl.” When her moronic punk boyfriend shows up, all hell begins to break loose at the villa and surrounding areas. There’s a lot of bloodshed in the movie, but, the longer it goes on, the more cartoonish it is.

Bob’s New Suit
First-time filmmaker Alan R. Howard touches so many different bases in “Bob’s New Suit,” you’d think he was playing croquet, instead of that other game. Besides covering all of the letters in LGBT at least once, Howard gives one of the characters the kind of a secret past that allows for a traditionally happy ending. Oh, yeah, the movie’s narrated by an article of clothing. Apart from that, “Bob’s New Suit” is a perfectly agreeable rom-com that tries too hard to be all things to all viewers. Bob is a landscape gardener and handyman, who proposes to his longtime girlfriend, Jenny, in the opening minutes of the movie. She’s estranged from her mother over alcohol abuse, while Bob’s dad is starting to lose track of reality and has heart problems. It’s for that reason that Bob’s mother, who sells antique dolls on the Internet, is afraid to tell her husband that their daughter has begun gender-reassignment procedures. Bob’s cousin is an aspiring felon and amateur homophobe and there’s an aunt who’s a Jesus freak. There’s more, but the characters are made far too level-headed for any real drama to overwhelm the melodrama.

PBS: Shakespeare Uncovered
TBS: Men at Work: The Complete First Season
The Carol Burnett Show: This Time Together
Showtime: Tom Green Live
One of the six episodes in the PBS mini-series “Shakespeare Uncovered” finds Joely Richardson discussing the comedies “Twelfth Night” and “As You Like It.” These are plays that demonstrate the assurance with which Shakespeare dealt with women characters and she explores might have been the case. She also takes us backstage to meet contemporary actors preparing for a performance of one of the plays and interviews several veteran performers – Helen Mirren and her mother, Vanessa Redgrave, among them – about their experiences on stage. Even better, Richardson takes us on a stroll through the theater where her grandfather, Sir Michael Redgrave, and Sir Laurence Olivier performed “Hamlet,” before an audience that included her grandmother-to-be. Derek Jacobi watches himself on film, as a young actor, in “Richard II” for the first time, alongside Sir John Gielgud. That’s what happens when you entrust a television series about Shakespeare to Brits, some of whom, like Redgrave, cut their teeth on his works. Among the other hosts in this informative and entertaining series are Ethan Hawke, Jeremy Irons, Trevor Nunn and David Tennant.

TBS’ “Men at Work,” is yet another sitcom about yuppies with the social skills of horny baboons. This time, they’re four guys who work at a lad magazine targeted at horny yuppies, just like them. Each one of them represents a different aspect of early manhood: Milo (Danny Masterson) has just been dumped by a woman who’s far too cute, tall and self-assured to live with such a nebbish; Tyler (Michael Cassidy) is the “charming pretty boy”; Gibbs (James Lesure) is the cast’s resident chick magnet; and Neal (Adam Busch), is the dork who’s living with the boss’ daughter. Created by Breckin Meyer (“Road Trip,” “Franklin & Bash”), “Men at Work” is only slightly more risqué than the average network sitcom, but light years away from the truly smart and sexy comedies on HBO and Showcase. Like every other TV bromance, its writers feel it necessary to remind us that the guys aren’t gay and the hideous laugh track rewards the jokes with fake guffaws. Among the first-season guest stars are Amy Smart, Stacy Keibler, Kathy Najimy, Laura Prepon, William Baldwin, Kevin Pollack and Wilmer Valderrama. The first-season DVD adds deleted scenes and outtakes. The second stanza begins next week.

Last summer, Time Life released “The Carol Burnett Show”: The Ultimate Collection” in a 22-disc collection that was sold exclusively on the Internet for just south of $200. In a nod to less affluent fans of the show, Time Life broke out six-disc and single-disc collections. They provided fair representations of what made the variety show so popular. “The Carol Burnett Show: This Time Together” is the second six-disc release and, not surprisingly, it’s just as much fun as “Carol’s Favorites.” It includes 17 non-linear episodes and two hours of bonus material. Among the guest stars are Steve Lawrence, Lily Tomlin, the Pointer Sisters, Dick Van Dyke, Roddy McDowall, Bernadette Peters, Sammy Davis Jr., Edward Villella, Lucette Aldous, Hal Linden, Madeline Kahan, Ken Berry, Dick Van Dyke, Eydie Gorme, Paul Sand, Petulia Clark, Peggy Lee and Stiller & Meara. Those names might not mean much to anyone under 35, but, back in the day, they were big shots.

Although cancer impacts entertainers with the same frequency as it does regular folks, not many make it part of their act … for the next 12 years. Mad-man comedian Tom Green addresses the surgery and treatment with a solemnity that’s counter to everything else in his performance. He’s still able to milk some laughs from it, but I think he does it to reassure fans who might be experiencing similar traumas in their lives. Green was among the first flight of comedians who did things – ranging from merely rude to seriously outrageous – just to see what kind of response they’d elicit. He refers to that period as “You Tube, without the Internet.” His new performance DVD, “Tom Green Live,” is comprised of material from a 2011 engagement in Boston and the bonus, “The History of ‘The Tom Green Show.’” Of the two, the latter is the more entertaining because it reminds us of just how far out there that Green was in the mid-1990s, on his MTV and Internet shows. Today, he’s still using some of the same trademark shtick, reminiscing about the perfectly awful “Freddy Got Fingered,” his stint on “Celebrity Apprentice,” performing at both “A Gathering of the Juggalos” and a USO tour and, of course, his cancer. Pranking has gone on to become a team sport in some quarters, but he needs to develop new stuff.

Ship of Fools/Lilith: Blu-ray
The Squid and the Whale/Running with Scissors: Blu-ray
Hollywood Homicide/Hudson Hawk: Blu-ray
Mill Creek Entertainment specializes in repackaging the classics made by other companies in numbers ranging from 2 to 100 per box. It recently entered into distribution deals with Sony and Disney for Blu-ray “double features.” The most interesting coupling is “Ship of Fools” (1965) and “Lilith” (1964), which have almost nothing in common besides all-star casts and a swell-looking black-and-white facelift in hi-def. “Ship of Fools” was billed as a floating “Grand Hotel,” with Lee Marvin, Vivien Leigh, Simone Signoret, Jose Ferrer, Oskar Werner, Elizabeth Ashley, George Segal and Michael Dunn. Unbeknownst to the characters, there next port-of-call is it the Twilight Zone that became Nazi Germany. In “Lilith,” Warren Beatty plays an aspiring shrink to a manipulative patient played by Jean Seberg. Peter Fonda also is a resident of the same expensive rest home.

The Squid and the Whale” (2005) and “Running with Scissors” (2006) were released at the height of the dysfunctional-family craze among arthouse patrons. Both were based on actual families of overeducated and hyper-neurotic individuals with more problems than any 10 Americans will have in their collective lifetimes. “Hollywood Homicide” (1989) and “Hudson Hawk” (1991) are action films, starring Harrison Ford and Bruce Willis, respectively. Two decades later, both actors are still attempting to get away with playing the same characters.

The DVD Wrapup

Tuesday, March 19th, 2013

Zero Dark Thirty: Blu-ray
So much hot air has been expended on “Zero Dark Thirty” since various marketing geniuses began ramping up their awards campaign that I’m reluctant to add any wasted breath to the conversation. Beyond the acrimonious controversy over depictions of inarguably brutal interrogation techniques, we’ve heard from two members of the Navy SEAL team that participated in the mission to kill Osama Bin Laden, been deluged with op-ed pieces and blogged diatribes, been exposed to dozens of for-your-consideration ads and talk-show interviews. Some of us thought it necessary, as well, to watch the made-for-cable movie, “SEAL Team Six: The Raid on Osama Bin Laden,” and extensive reportage on “60 Minutes.” If director Kathryn Bigelow and writer Mark Boal did one thing better than anyone else, however, it was to remind Americans just how messy the business of protecting democracy can be. This is especially true when everyone in Washington wants to claim responsibility for victory and avoid humiliation in case of failure. Then, too, way back on May 2, 2011, the biggest possible spoiler of all was revealed by no less a personage than President Obama.

“Zero Dark Thirty” is roughly divided into three parts, all driven by tick-tock pacing and journalistic editing decisions. The first is taken up by the interrogation of prisoners and sifting through the haystack of bogus information to find the single needle that pointed to Bin Laden. No matter how much evidence is presented on either side of the argument, it’s unlikely that we’ll ever learn what, if anything, was gleaned from torture or if a president’s decrees could keep illegal techniques from recurring. Americans can’t even agree on a single effective way to stop bullying in elementary schools, after all. I don’t think torture is glorified here or given any greater significance than it deserves. What happened in the interrogation chambers was ugly, of spurious legality and value, and quite possibly performed by sadists in and out of uniform. Jessica Chastain steals the second part of the film, simply by the force of her character’s will. In turning the agency’s single clue into something that could lead to success, her CIA operative, Maya, not only was required to avoid being killed by Al Qaeda, but also cut through all of the old-boys’-club bullshit government functionaries could muster. The final third is taken up by the raid, itself. I was surprised by the absence of any footage describing preparations for the raid, but it only would have added another 20 minutes to what already was an epic 157-minute length. The attack on Bin Laden’s compound is dramatized in what amounts to real time and in nearly complete darkness. In Blu-ray, very little is lost in the shadows and the audio delivery is downright scary.

Considering the brevity of the four bonus featurettes, I suspect that a much more elaborate edition of “Zero Dark Thirty” (“12:30 a.m.,” in military parlance) will arrive before year’s end, possibly with deleted scenes, non-EPK mini-docs, expert analysis, interviews with the people upon whom the characters are based and, perhaps, the “60 Minutes” interview with SEAL “Mark Owen.” If anything glorifies war and America’s love affair with things that go “boom,” it’s the short featurette on the weaponry and hi-tech equipment the actors had to master before going into faux battle. It’s guaranteed to make the 17-year-old sociopaths in our midst wet themselves with excitement. It would be a shame if the success of “Zero Dark Thirty” overshadows the hellish reality of “Black Hawk Down”; the failed 1980 American military mission to rescue the hostages in Iran; the entirety of the Vietnam War; mini-wars we conducted in Panama City and Grenada, simply because we could; and the “accidental” bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade, under President Clinton’s watch. Just as Hollywood glorifies our successes in combat, it should never be allowed to forget the debacles. – Gary Dretzka
Les Misérables: Blu-ray
Among those of us who take the arts more seriously than, say, monster-truck racing or tractor pulls, it would be difficult to find anyone who hasn’t seen one of the many productions of “Les Misérables,” read the source novel by Victor Hugo or passed a literature class with the help of a Classic Illustrated or Cliff’s Notes abridgement of the book. The book was so popular, we’re told in the bonus interviews, many of the combatants in our own Civil War carried copies of it to read when they weren’t shooting at each other. Ever since the latest movie version opened wide on Christmas Day, fans of the stage musical have debated how well – or how poorly – Tom Hooper’s adaptation compares to the Cameron Mackintosh’s blockbuster production. Months before the movie opened, several pundits made it a mortal lock for a Best Picture Oscar. Eventually, it became just one of a half-dozen other titles picked to finish first. Anne Hathaway would walk home that night with the Best Supporting Actress prize – no surprise, there – but her acceptance speech was picked apart as if it were a sequel to the Gettysburg Address.

The thing that most differentiates the movie from the stage production is Hooper’s handling of the musical numbers. In order to “open up” the narrative, the decision was made to present the songs in as organic a style as possible. By forgoing the usual soundtrack-dubbing process, the performers were required to sing and act simultaneously, frequently beyond the normal confines of a soundstage. What occasionally was lost in the singing – according to some fans, anyway – was regained in the emotionally charged acting performances. It definitely takes some getting used to, though. The same can be said about the increased intimacy between the characters and viewers, which was achieved through the use of hand-held cameras. Even if there were times when the movement of the lens imitated the swaying of a boat on water, it was thrilling to be so close to the action. This “Les Misérables” may be the least stage-bound adaptation of a Broadway musical we’ll ever see. At a reported budget of only $61 million, it’s nothing short of a miracle that the sets, costumes, makeup effects and other creative aspects come as close to perfection as they do. The opening scene, in which prisoners are forced to drag a damaged ship into dry dock, tells us everything that needs to be said about the life led by Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman) during his 20 years in prison. As his nemesis, Javert, Russell Crowe doesn’t personify the character’s psychotic determination to destroy a man’s life quite as fiercely as other actors I’ve seen in the part, but neither is he a pussycat.

Hathaway, Amanda Seyfried, Eddie Redmayne and Samantha Barks are excellent fine in key supporting roles. As entertaining as Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter are as the thieving Thenardiers, the characters are almost interchangeable with the ones they played in “Sweeny Todd.” It’s only a small distraction, though. Among the movie’s eight Oscar nominations is one for Valjean’s song “Suddenly,” written specifically for the movie by Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg. (It lost to Adele’s “Skyfall.”) In the transfer from stage to screen, only “I Saw Him Once” and “Dog Eats Dog” didn’t make the cut, but the composers also were asked to update some of the orchestral pieces, shorten a few songs and, in some cases, move them around. As for the Blu-ray, the overall effect of the audio/visual presentation is impressive, throughout, even though it’s sometimes easy to see where Hooper and cinematographer Danny Cohen put the technology to the test. The bonus package adds an hourlong making-of featurette, which covers a lot of territory; an 11-minute profile on Hugo and his best-seller; and BD Live Functionality, which wasn’t all that functional on my unit – Gary Dretzka

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey: Blu-ray
For fans of Peter Jackson’s “Lord of the Ring” trilogy and J.R.R. Tolkien’s novel, “The Hobbit,” the only reviews that matter are the ones exchanged with people, who, like them, would trade a year in Hawaii for a weekend in Middle Earth. It’s probably relevant, then, to admit that being chased around the Misty Mountains by dwarves, wood-elves, goblins, trolls, wargs, dragons, man-bears, giant spiders and orcs isn’t exactly my idea of a good time. Nevertheless, I enjoyed watching “LOTR” on DVD and looked forward to seeing “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” on Blu-ray. (It was a big hit theatrically in 3D and IMAX, neither of which I can afford to add to my home theater.) Like “LOTR: The Fellowship of the Ring,” a great deal of time in the 169-minute “Hobbit” is spent in the expository mode. On his 111th birthday, Bilbo Baggins writes a letter to his nephew, Frodo, explaining an adventure he had 60 years before the events described in the “LOTR” series. It serves to introduce Frodo and viewers to dwarf mythology, some of the characters we’ll meet in the next couple of hours and how Lonely Mountain’s golden treasure was lost to Smaug the Dragon. The adventure upon which Bilbo embarks in “An Unexpected Journey” involves joining forces with Gandolf and a motley crew of 13 dwarves, who are intent on confronting the dragon and regaining the lost cache of gold.

Jackson and writers Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens and onetime directorial candidate Guillermo del Toro did a nice job incorporating the background material with the challenges the group will face on the trek to Lonely Mountain and a veritable travelogue of magnificent New Zealand and CGI scenery. It’s an eventful trip, mostly because the dwarves’ traditional nemeses have been driven from the Misty Mountains to lower elevations to survive a disease killing trees and vegetation. I won’t spoil anyone’s fun by revealing much else that happens in the “Hobbit,” but it would be difficult not to be impressed with a great battle between mountains during a thunder storm. It’s a pip. Naturally, the stage is also set for whatever’s to happen in the second and third parts of the trilogy, during which the presence of the flying, fire-breathing dragon will be far more prominent. It’s worth mentioning, I suppose, that the movie’s PG-13 rating is fairly earned and the cuteness of some of the characters notwithstanding, there are scenes of extreme violence that could disturb fragile pre-teens. An entire disc is dedicated to bonus featurettes, video blogs, game trailers and other marketing material. It also comes with an access code for an online sneak peek of “Desolation of Smaug,” hosted live by Peter Jackson on March 24. — Gary Dretzka

The Other Son: Blu-ray
Every so often, there will be a story on the evening news about siblings who were switched at birth and are reunited on “Oprah” or after an off-chance meeting on Facebook. The newscaster might compare such a mistake as a “parent’s worst nightmare” or the discovery a miraculous coincidence. Miracles happen all the time on “Oprah,” don’t they? Depending on circumstances, a nightmare scenario could play out in such situations, as well. Typically, though, worse things can happen than having the truth behind a non-tragic blunder revealed. The conceit behind Lorraine Levy’s “The Other Son” is quite a bit more complicated and fraught with potential anguish. In 1991, when Scud missiles from Iraq were raining down on Haifa, two male infants were born in a hospital temporarily being shared by Israelis and Palestinians. In the chaos of the attack, the boys were put into the same incubator, but somehow misdirected when passed back to the mothers. Stranger things have happened in less stressful situations. Eighteen years later, the parents of the Israeli boy are told that the results of a blood test taken during a military physical show conclusively he couldn’t be their child. A few hours later, the Palestinian parents were told the same thing. A blunder of this magnitude would constitute a shocking development anywhere in the world, but, in the Mideast, it borders on the unthinkable.

Levy could have taken this scenario and milked it for every last drop of pathos available to her. The reunion could have been staged while Israelis and Palestinians were exchanging rockets attacks in Gaza or the meeting could have been interrupted by the sound of a suicide bombing in the distance. Instead, Levy decided to level the playing field as much as possible by creating parallel worlds divided by a wall that looks as hideous on one side as it does on the other. The families in which the boys are raised are loving and conscientious, share a linguistic French connection and their lifestyle differences seem entirely realistic, given the conditions of occupation. The boys, of course, are stunned by the revelation, but they take a liking to each other right away and behave as if the mistake truly was God’s will. Their fathers take the news badly, while the mothers simply want to make the best of a bad situation. In their minds, the worst thing that could happen is for the young men – both on the brink of adulthood – to abandon the families that raised them. The real problems derive from the cold realities on the ground. As similar as the tribes may be genetically and biblically, living in a war zone for more than 60 years has convinced too many Israelis and Palestinians that the differences between them can only be reconciled through bloodshed. Joseph (Jules Sitruk) and Yacine (Medhi Dehbi) are able to stroll through Tel Aviv together without raising an eyebrow and pass for cousins on the beach, where Joseph’s friends gather on hot days. When it comes to religion, however, Joseph finds himself in a huge predicament. Because his birth mother is Arab, he’s told by the family’s rabbi that he can’t be a Jew, unless he resubmits his credentials and converts. Yacine, who’s been raised in the Islamic faith but was born to a Jewish mother, doesn’t have to do anything to be a Jew. That’s pretty powerful stuff.

Levy is in no hurry to reveal her hand as to how “The Other Son” will end. There are several more surprises to look for during its last half-hour and a few moments that less-tolerant viewers might consider to be too liberal, considering that Joseph’s father is a high-ranking military officer. Politics, though, are subordinate to the human story. An acrimonious legal battle, a la Elian Gonzales, is avoided, as well, by the fact that both boys are 18 and free to choose their own paths to the future. (Yacine has already been accepted to medical school in Paris, while Joseph was planning to pursue a career as a musician after serving his time in the military.) Emmanuelle Devos and Pascal Elbe are terrific as the Israeli parents, as are Areen Omari and Khalifa Natour, whose characters live on the opposite side of the wall. The Blu-ray adds deleted scenes, bloopers, interviews and making-of material. – Gary Dretzka

Rust and Bone: Blu-ray
In any other awards season, “Rust and Bone” would have been the foreign-language film to beat in every contest and poll in which its cast and creators were considered for honors. The year would belong to Michael Haneke’s “Amour,” however, and everything else vied for second place. Jacques Audiard’s heart-churning drama is distinguished by superb performances by Marion Cotillard (“La vie en rose”) and Matthias Schoenaerts (“Bullhead”) and a story that drags viewers from one emotional or physical crisis to another, sometimes without allowing us time to catch our breaths. We meet Schoenaert’s Ali first, hitchhiking with his 5-year-old son from Belgium to Antibes. All we know is that Ali’s broke and his ex-wife was involved in drug dealing, perhaps using the boy as a mule or decoy. Ali hopes to start a new life in the seaside town, where his sister and her husband have agreed to give them a bed in the garage and all the stolen expired food they can eat. Cotillard’s Stephanie is an orca trainer by day and something of a party girl at night. Ali and Stephanie meet outside a nightclub that’s hired the onetime MMA fighter as a bouncer. She’s being pummeled for some reason and Ali comes to her rescue. Because she’s too fragile to drive, Ali agrees to escort her home, where he’s also required to stand up to her prick boyfriend. The next time we see Stephanie, she’s on a platform at the theme park leading the killer whales through their paces. In the time it takes a heart to beat, a terrible accident causes the platform to collapse and Stephanie’s legs to snap off at the knees.

After several months spent stewing in her own juices and exhausting all of her fair-weather friends, Stephanie locates the phone number given her by Ali and decides to cash in his offer to help with her boyfriend troubles. Instead, Ali finds her in sitting alone, in a wheelchair, in a mostly empty apartment that could seriously use a blast of fresh air. He finally convinces her to leave the apartment for a short trip to the beach, where he asks her permission to go for a swim. With a little bit of coaxing, Stephanie decides to join him. The joy that comes with returning to the water goes a long way toward convincing her that life might be worth living, after all. With Sam away at school, Ali has free time available to him in the middle of the day and seems to enjoy the company. Meanwhile, a guy Ali meets at the nightclub asks him if he wants to knock off some rust and train for competition at an impromptu “fight club” outside the projects. It’s a shady operation, but with lots of money exchanging hands between bouts in bets. As Ali’s stock rises among the fighters, Stephanie is improving through physical therapy. Her new lightweight prostheses are a godsend, as well. When she also lets slip that she might be in need of some sexual healing, Ali volunteers to accept booty texts from her. Even so, Ali’s relationship with Stephanie remains curiously casual. It takes a while for the trajectories of their separate recoveries to cross and, once they do, Ali inadvertently causes a crisis in his sister’s life that prompts him to take a powder, again.

In an interview included in the bonus package, Audiard describes how one of his assistants labeled some of the later developments, “melo-trash,” a term he’s comfortable using himself. The difference between melodrama, melo-trash and gut-wrenching drama may be open to interpretation, but Audiard never compromises the integrity of his characters to take the pressure off viewers. These are working-class people, living on the razor’s edge of economic and emotional stability. Schoenaerts is one tough son of a gun and Cotillard is as unglamorous here as you’ll ever see her. For them, the stakes are very real. The Blu-ray adds deleted scenes, an hour-long making-of featurette, commentary and a short piece of the special visual effects. The presentation is enhanced by Audiard’s decision to use an advanced Red Epic camera. “Rust and Bone” was adapted from stories by Canadian writer Craig Davidson. – Gary Dretzka

The Sessions: Blu-ray
The Life of Pi: Blu-ray
I wasn’t able to watch these two high-profile pictures under optimum conditions – a tiny screen for “The Sessions,” in 2D for “Life of Pi” – but that’s no reason to pass them over without comment. So much attention has been paid to Helen Hunt’s performance in “The Sessions,” primarily for her willingness to appear nude for much of the movie, that it stole the media spotlight from John Hawkes’ amazing portrayal of the protagonist. Ben Affleck wasn’t the only person who got robbed at this year’s Oscar circus. Hawkes plays a character very much like Mathieu Amalric’s Jean-Do in “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly,” except that quadriplegic Mark O’Brien was incapacitated by polio and is still able to experience sensory impulses and use writing implements. A poet and journalist, he has been assigned a piece by a Bay Area publisher on how people with serious physical limitations deal with sex. Thus inspired, 40-year-old Mark decides to erase “virgin” from his curriculum vitae. Through people he’s interviewed, Mark is introduced to a sexual surrogate, Cheryl (Hunt), who is surprised by his sensitivity, propensity to flirt and clinical approach to sexuality. She also finds it interesting that he’s gotten dispensation from his priest/confessor (William H. Macy) to attempt sex out of wedlock.

Nothing in Ben Lewin’s film feels forced or gratuitous, including Hunt’s nudity. Mark is as multifaceted, mobile and emotionally animated as he could possibly be, while also being lying on a gurney, bed or in a breathing chamber. As professional as Cheryl is while on the job, she is distracted by fissures of her own off the job. Unlike most Hollywood endings for this sort of thing, Lewin’s doesn’t require hankies. In fact, it kind of reminded me of Francoise Truffaut’s “The Man Who Loved Women.”

Ang Lee’s amazing adventure yarn, “Life of Pi,” definitely wasn’t intended to be seen on any screen smaller than a barn or in fewer than three dimensions, although standard projection 2D and Blu-ray 3D will do in a pinch. Everything about “Life of Pi” begs superlatives, from the crystalline cinematography to the story that recalls “Robinson Crusoe,” “Swiss Family Robinson,” “Cast Away,” “The Old Man and the Sea,” “The Chronicles of Narnia” and, by reversing the setting, “Lawrence of Arabia.” One thing for sure is that, after seeing it, you’ll never again take a glass of water for granted or potential safe haven ignored. The deceptively simple story was adapted from Yann Martel’s 2001 novel of the same title, which, itself, was heavily influenced by Moacyr Sciliar’s “Max and the Cats.” In it, a 16-year old Indian boy is traveling to Canada, by ship, with his family and some of the animals from their zoo, when disaster strikes. The freighter is capsized in a ferocious storm, but not before Piscine Molitor “Pi” Patel (Suraj Sharma) is tossed into a lifeboat and dropped into the roiling waters of the Pacific. When he awakes, Pi discovers that the boat is being shared by a zebra, hyena, orangutan and Bengal tiger named Richard Parker. Soon, only the boy and the tiger – who have something of a history together – are left to choose between dying separately, as enemies, or surviving against all odds as allies. During the several weeks Pi and Richard Parker spend drifting on the ocean, several miraculous things happen to and around them. All of them benefit from the skill and imagination of Lee’s Oscar-winning cinematographer Claudio Miranda and similarly honored visual-effects team. For the first time since “Avatar,” 3D isn’t merely used as a special-effects tool. The filmmakers’ deploy it as an artist might a differently sized brush or thickness of paint. “Life of Pi” is informed by the boy’s curiosity about different religious philosophies, from Hindu to the Kabbalah, and his conclusion that “faith is a house with many rooms.” Repeat viewers might enjoy counting the “hidden Vishnus” that are scattered throughout the narrative, like “hidden Mickeys” at Disneyland. The Blu-ray comes with several featurettes and deleted scenes. – Gary Dretzka

The Big Picture: Blu-ray
The path taken by “The Big Picture” from book to screen immediately recalls that of “Tell No One.” Both were adapted for French audiences from novels by American writers – Douglas Kennedy and Harlen Corben, respectively – and, in each, the protagonists are men on the run, one from an accident that resulted in murder and, the other, from police who mistakenly are convinced he murdered his wife. Even though “Tell No One” enjoyed some box-office success here after its delayed release, “The Big Picture” was only accorded a perfunctory arthouse push. Fans of Guillaume Canet’s thriller are encouraged to rush out and find Eric Lartigau’s “The Big Picture.” (In another coincidence, Canet and Lartigau split their time between acting, writing and directing.)

Paul Exben (Romain Duris) seemingly is living the fairytale life of a successful Parisian lawyer with a beautiful wife, two children, and only a short time to wait before his partner (Catherine Deneuve) hands him her share of the business. His wife, however, has begun to feel trapped by her inability to find work as a freelance writer, Paul’s busy schedule and her two screaming children. Sarah (Marina Fois) finds a friend, confidante and, more recently, a lover in the handsome freelance photographer who lives next door in a bourgeois neighborhood. Paul senses that Sarah is unhappy, but his contributions to family stability come too little, too late. After confirming their affair, Paul confronts his neighbor, who, instead of being contrite, taunts him with his supposed shortcomings, which likely were exaggerated by Sarah. In a brief, but deadly dustup, Paul causes the photographer’s head to hit a rock. (Can “manslaughter” be used as a verb?) When he decides to disguise the crime and obliterate any clues leading to him or his wife, Lartigau is able to shift gears by taking the story into territory previously reserved for Alfred Hitchcock, Patricia Highsmith and Claude Chabrol.

Paul decides that the accident might give him the perfect opportunity to rediscover his own life, which once included plans to pursue a photography career. With pinpoint planning and plenty of viable alibis Paul disappears into a beautiful corner of Eastern Europe, where, ironically, his dreams are inadvertently realized. There’s more, of course, but let’s not spoil the fun. There’s no harm in mentioning, though, that Paul’s quest takes him – and us –to several beautiful ports of call and intrigue you’ll never see coming. Some critics have complained about the film’s ambiguous ending, but, it would have been just as easy to find fault in an ending that tied everything up in a neat little bow. Life doesn’t come packaged like that and there’s no law that says movies can’t leave audiences without something to think about besides the price of popcorn. Other movies adapted from Kennedy’s books are “Welcome to Woop Woop” and “The Woman in the Fifth.” – Gary Dretzka

Straight A’s: Blu-ray
More an acting exercise or character study than a fully realized feature film, “Straight A’s” introduces us to several potentially compelling characters, but neglects, until the final 10-15 minutes, to tell us why we should care about them. At the center of “Straight A’s” is a square-peg drifter, Scott, who’s spent most of the last 10 years in and out of rehab or psych wards. We immediately know that he’s some kind of bad boy, because he arrives at the luxurious lake house owned by his estranged brother and sister-in-law on horseback. Traveling by horse prevents Scott (Ryan Phillippe) from getting tickets for DUI, we’re told, and has the added benefit of being a real ice-breaker around the couple’s two adorable, if precocious kids. We aren’t given much of a chance to fall in love with Scott, because he doesn’t seem conversant with any of the social graces most people learn by the time they’re 7. He curses like a sailor around his niece and nephew, ignores the house’s smoking ban, blows off all of the dinners prepared by his socialite sister-in-law, Katherine (Anna Paquin), and makes several unkept promises to the kids. We do sympathize with Scott, however, when he attempts to make contact with his possibly demented father but has a shotgun pulled on him, instead. Otherwise, he’s as nice to have around as any other non-functioning alcohol or junkie.

The one concrete thing we learn about Scott’s life before he drifted off the deep end is that he was in love with Katherine when she still liked to rock ’n’ roll and had yet to fall in love with his brother. As near as I can tell, William (Luke Wilson) is some kind of casino executive or supplier, who’s been out of town for a few days on business and is avoiding Katherine’s calls. William is planning on telling his wife that he wants a divorce, but, in the meantime, is acting as if he’s already single. When he does get home, William is about as happy to see Scott as their father was. Viewers are left to assume that William is pissed off about his brother’s bad behavior or lingering feelings Katherine, who has no idea about the divorce threat, might have for him. Neither are we told why or when Katherine evolved from free-spirit to stick-in-the-mud. Their son retains hope that Scott will honor a commitment to attend an event at his school, but odds are he won’t.

Things come to a head at a final family dinner, at which the old man is sufficiently lucid to read passages out loud from his late wife’s diaries. They trigger emotions that nearly paralyze everyone at the table. At 88 minutes, “Straight A’s” feels more like a short film than a feature and might have been greeted more warmly by distributors if 15 more minutes of background, dialogue or another surprise or two had been added. Phillippe and Paquin do the heavy lifting in James Cox’s drama, although the kids steal most of the scenes in which they’re in. Wilson is as dependable as ever, but isn’t required to stretch. The Blu-ray adds far more bonus material than a movie as incomplete as “Straight A’s” warrants. – Gary Dretzka

The Great Magician: Blu-ray
The overthrow of the Qing Dynasty and establishment of a republic was such an epochal event in China that it’s become a staple of the revitalized national cinema. The turnover of power and turmoil that follows such volcanic eruptions lends themselves to seemingly endless exploitation and interpretation. That the strength of the republic would be tested so soon by feuding warlords, European and Japanese imperialists and political opportunists has only added to the variety of films now available to international audiences. They range from patriotic historical dramas to fantasies, with stops along the way for romance, martial-arts action and comedy. The last time Hollywood threw big money at the subject of the American Revolution – Roland Emmerich and Mel Gibson’s “The Patriot,” in 2000 – it only barely covered its $110-million nut and probably dissuaded everyone else from trying again anytime soon. The Chinese film industry not only has benefitted from an influx of cash and homegrown talent, but also the growing number of American-style multiplexes.

At 128 minutes, “The Great Magician” overflows with entertaining visual effects, spectacular period costumes and elaborate sets. While Chinese audiences would recognize most of its stars and have some knowledge, at least, of post-Qing history, western audiences are at a distinct disadvantage. Neither does it help that director Yee Tung-Shing can’t seem to decide under which genre heading he wants his film to be listed. The playfulness on display is genuine, though. Tony Leong plays Hsien Chang, an illusionist who’s just returned from Europe and has several more great tricks up his sleeves. One of them involves helping dissidents topple a northern warlord (Ching Wan Lau) who’s also facing threats from rebels espousing republican ideals, Qing loyalists and businessmen who would favor Japanese intervention. Chang’s top priority is to free his former girlfriend and her father, the magician’s mentor, from the warlord’s harem and prison, respectively. There are a couple of WTF? changes of direction near the movie’s climax, but, I think, they help director Yee Tung-Shing tie all of the loose ends together in a neat bow. The Blu-ray adds a making-of featurette that’s almost as long as the movie. – Gary Dretzka

Shadow People: Blu-ray
Ghost Hunters: Season Eight, Part 1
In the last dozen years, there have been 10 movies whose titles approximate “Shadow People” or employ this unique form of bogeyman as an antagonist. Before 2002, according to, there weren’t any. Reports of unexpected deaths following sightings of human-like shadows began to multiply here with the arrival of refugees from Southeast Asia, displaced after the Vietnam War. In the Philippines, the syndrome is known as bangungot and is associated with a vengeful female demon, batibat, that sits on the chest of its victims. American medical researchers call the phenomenon Sudden Unexplained Nocturnal Death Syndrome, but are more interested in finding physiological causes than those associated with the paranormal. Matthew Arnold’s “Shadow People” opens in Thailand, with an older man giving us the folkloric background and a child listening to the discussion dying in his sleep soon thereafter. Closer to home, a skeptical late-night radio host (Dallas Roberts) becomes a believer after being handed a video tape and sketches from a victim.

Soon, other listeners start to witness shadowy images on their walls and die mysteriously in their sleep. A CDC investigator (Alison Eastwood) arrives in the community hoping to recover the evidence from the radio host, so as to debunk it. Before long, she gets the heebie-jeebies, too. The reality is, of course, that it’s the rare human being who hasn’t been scared by the odd shadow or sound. If even half of those folks died, the world would be an empty place. “Shadow People” has several scary moments, but the impact is dulled somewhat by interwoven shots of medical researchers and field trials. Frankly, I don’t think Arnold knew if he wanted to make a thriller or documentary, and settled with something in between. It may be the only theatrical film I’ve seen that comes with a bibliography in the end credits. The Blu-ray adds a bit more background material on SUNDS.

There’s probably more evidence of the existence of ghosts in the first half-hour of “Shadow People” than in eight seasons of the Syfy series, “Ghost Hunters.” This hasn’t stopped the TAPS team from exposing viewers to possibly haunted houses and spooky amusement parks. In the latest volume, the hunters visit a “dead and breakfast,” where a family is being tormented by spirits of the previous owners; a 1700s mansion where the owner was murdered by his slaves, who were then hanged for their crime; and an old brewery where two sisters are “still running the business … from their graves.” Other titles include, “Roller Ghoster,” “Buyer Beware,” “Flooded Souls,” “Moonshine and Madness,” “City Hell,” “Frighternity,” “Ghost of a Marine,” “Family of Spirits,” “Haunted by Heroes,” “Princess and the EVP” and “Please Sign the Ghost Book.” The DVD adds bonus footage. – Gary Dretzka

24-Hour Love
If writer Don B. Welch and director Fred Thomas Jr.’s omnibus rom-dram-com, “24-Hour Love,” were a TV series, an apt title could have been “Love, African-American Style.” Segmented into chapters, it describes a brief period in the lives of seven people that the press material laughingly describes as being “everyday.” Instead, each of the characters is extremely attractive and well-dressed, aggressively middle class and on the brink of one kind of romantic crisis or another. The stories alternate between being funny, sad and melodramatic. If the settings feel a tad cramped, it’s probably because Welch originally intended “24-Hour Love” to be a theatrical piece, but decided, instead, to go the movie route. With a cast that includes Malinda Williams, Tatyana Ali, Keith Robinson, Lynn Whitfield, Flex Alexander, Eva Marcille, Angel Conwell, Chico Benymon and Darius McCrary, it probably wasn’t a difficult choice. Although it might easily have gotten lost on the movie circuit, “24-Hour Love” fits the small screen pretty well. It was the closing-night attraction at the Hollywood Black Film Festival. – Gary Dretzka

Your American Teen
Charles Tayor Gould’s documentary about the sexual exploitation of teenage girls would have been much more effective if it weren’t so determined to make points that aren’t in dispute. “Your American Teen” describes the lives of three girls who got into trouble early and were further enslaved by drugs, pimps and prostitution, pregnancy and having to deal, as well, with the problems of family members. Unfortunately, the girls’ stories are overwhelmed by statistics we’ve all read before and the testimony of sociologists, psychologists, activists, a politician and, briefly, actress Daryl Hannah, whose name adds marquee value to the DVD. While I agree that the entertainment and pop-culture media deserve a lot of the blame for promoting sexual activity in teens and pre-teens, other key factors are explored only anecdotally. Interviews appear to have been conducted separately, but in the same office or backyard, and the passage of time is noted only in the closing interviews, which merely update the girls’ situations. The information transmitted in “Your American Teen,” but Gould’s scope feels far too limited. – Gary Dretzka

Iron Doors
Typicially, individual conceptions of hell square with those passed along through the centuries by theologians, fabulists and artists. Nuns of the Roman Catholic persuasion may not have been as poetic as Dante Alighieri, but, for generations of parochial and Sunday school students, they’ve conjured visions of eternal damnation unmatched by any Hollywood screenwriter. No torture was too painful and no amount of heat of Earth could match that of the average sidewalk in Mister Beelzebub’s Neighborhood. Compared to what happens in “Iron Doors,” Dante’s Inferno is a walk in the park. In it, a yuppie wakes up after a night of boozing on the floor of a large concrete vault, whose only point of egress is a formidable iron door, locked from the outside. At first, the poor slob is belligerent to his captors, naturally assuming they are pranksters with visual and audio accessibility to the room. The vault is completely empty, except for a pair of lockers with a padlock protecting what’s inside them; a dead rat, about to become animated by the motion of maggots; and a fluorescent light fixture. Instead of revealing themselves, whoever imprisoned the man (Axel Wedekind) either were too drunk, themselves, to remember where they left him or had no interest in tormenting him or watching him die. It is in this way that “Iron Doors” differs from “Saw,” “Cube” or other exemplars of torture porn. One might wonder, here, how the prisoner was able to survive without food or water. Suffice it to say, director Stephen Manuel offers a solution to that dilemma, but it’s none too appetizing.

Facilitating Manuel’s conceit is his decision to give the unnamed man hope of escaping, even after denying him communication with outside forces. For example, in a fit of anger, the man punches the light fixture and it reveals the presence of a key that fits the padlock. Instead of having a clown jump out of the locker and slamming a pie in his face, Manuel and writer Peter Arneson provide him with an acetylene-torch kit and tanks of gas. Even if he knew how to use them properly, which he doesn’t, the iron door proves too thick to crack. After one door to hope is closed, however, another opens. There’s no reason to spoil anyone’s surprise as to what happens in the second half of the film, except to suggest that a little bit of hope can be worse than none at all. Working in an extremely tight space, Manuel does a pretty good creating a palpable aura of extreme claustrophobia. If psycho-thrillers are primarily measured by their ability to put viewers in the shoes of the protagonist, “Iron Doors” succeeds pretty well. The movie had been repurposed for 3D, but, given the setting, I can’t imagine that it added much. – Gary Dretzka

Strange Frame
How many animated fantasies can there be that are set in a dystopian universe, where it’s still possible for two beautiful women to meet, fall in love, fight for freedom and, in their spare time, make beautiful music in a jazz and funk band? The answer is, one. “Strange Frame” is a delightfully different sci-fi adventure set 700 years in the future, after survivors of the Great Earth Exodus have find new homes throughout the solar system, including Jupiter’s largest moon, Ganymede. By the 28th Century, human beings have been genetically re-engineered to survive in environments with once-toxic atmospheres. Naia is an enslaved miner, who, after rioting allows her to escape, finds a gig as a singer-songwriter. When she falls in love with a saxophonist, Parker, their talents merge and they perform as one. Trouble awaits in the form of space pirates and fame whores. Much of what happens in “Strange Frame” can be explained by the filmmakers’ belief that by the time the 28th Century rolls around, our descendants will be living in a completely multiracial society that also has reconciled prejudices based on sexuality and physical appearance. That story, though, is subordinate to the trippy animation, eroticism and music conceptualized by writer/director G.B. Hajim and co-writers Shelly Doty, Julia Ransom and Peter Watts. The hand-drawn and hand-cut animation is a throwback to the brightly colorful days of Peter Max and psychedelic light shows at the Fillmore. The bonus features include a deleted scene and a pair of making-of pieces. The voicing cast includes Claudia Black, Tara Strong, Ron Glass, Cree Summer, Juliet Landau, Michael Dorn and George Takei. – Gary Dretzka

Timerider: Blu-ray
Action Packed Movie Marathon
In show biz, there are concepts that are timeless, others that are timely and still more that require more time in the slow cooker. If movies were made of pasta, it might be possible to throw a few frames against a wall to see if they’ll stick. The trick wouldn’t work even if the movie was a spaghetti Western. Made in 1982, “Timerider: The Adventure of Lyle Swann” was greeted in much the same way as dozens of other low-budget sci-fi flicks. It came, it went and few, if any people could imagine it would enjoy much of an afterlife outside the drive-ins or television. In hindsight, though, “Timerider” had a couple of things going for it, besides being an easy way to kill 94 minutes. For one thing, it was co-written by Michael Nesmith, the best musician among the Monkees and someone who’s been ahead of the video curb for most of the last 40 years. Inadvertently, too, Nesmith and co-writer/director William Dear came up with an idea that would approximate the central conceit of the “Back to the Future” franchise and, in an odd sort of way, “Cowboys & Aliens.

In it, Fred Ward plays a present-day motocross rider, who, while racing in Mexico, is zapped by a scientist experimenting on a time-travel machine. It transports him and his motorbike back to approximately the same location a century earlier. At first, the locals are completely freaked out by the orange-suited and helmeted alien in their midst, not to mention his machine. Once the shock dissipates, though, a band of outlaws sees an opportunity to steal the motorbike and use it for their nefarious ways. The next question that arises naturally is how this time-rider might get back to the present, with or without the vehicle. It’s pretty simple, really, and the humor holds up pretty well. The Blu-ray takes full advantage of the rugged Southwestern landscape, while adding Dear’s commentary, storyboards and an interview with Dear and Nesmith. The movie also stars Peter Coyote, Belinda Bauer, Ed Lauter, Richard Masur and L.Q. Jones.

It’s entirely possible that the movies included in “Action Packed Movie Marathon,” Shout Factory’s new package of B-movie non-classics, could have appeared together on the same night in the ’80s at a quadruple-feature at the local drive-in. Although one or two of them probably ended up making money for someone, they aren’t in the same league as Roger Corman’s genre fare. The best thing about them is watching familiar actors sleeping through their performances, dreaming about better movies they’ve made and fatter paychecks.

Like “Timerider,” a high-tech motorcycle is the focus of “Cyclone.” Here, though, everything takes place in the near future, when an inventive mechanic has created a souped-up bike capable of shooting missiles and lasers and deflecting enemy fire with a lightweight armor shield. When her boyfriend (Jeffrey Combs) is murdered, a busty blond biker (Heather Thomas) takes it upon herself to deliver the vehicle to the good guys. The problem is that there don’t appear to be any good guys. Among the cast members are the pre-Oscar Martin Landau, Troy Donahue, Huntz Hall, Bond Girl Martine Beswick and Ronald Reagan’s son, Michael.

Like “Cyclone,” “Alienator” was directed by the insanely prolific Fred Olen Ray. The movie begins in a remote corner of outer space, on a prison ship piloted by Jan-Michael Vincent and P.J. Soles. Somehow, a doomed prisoner escapes in a shuttle that takes him to Earth, where he’s almost immediately run over by a bunch of kids in a camper. John Phillip Law plays the backwoods sheriff who must hold off the intergalactic bounty hunter played by bodybuilder Teagan Clive. “Alienator” makes “Plan 9 From Outer Space” look like “2001: A Space Odyssey.”

In “Eye of the Tiger,” Gary Busey plays an ex-Vietnam vet and ex-con Buck Matthews, whose return home is ruined by the antics of a truly sadistic motorcycle gang. Sooner than you can say, “Rambo,” the bikers kill Busey’s wife and desecrate her grave. The gang is led by veteran bad guy William Smith and Yaphet Kotto plays an out-of-town sheriff who has his own Air Force.

Robert Ginty reprises his role as vigilante ex-vet John Eastland in “Exterminator 2.” In the similarly violent sequel, the torch-wielding avenger is stalking Mario Van Peebles, who’s playing a drug lord simply named X. Eastland uses a tricked-out garbage truck to take on X’s gang. A commentary track with the director and Van Peebles comes with the DVD. – Gary Dretzka

Red Skelton: The Farewell Specials
PBS: Soul Food Junkies
Nova: Decoding Neanderthals
Jersey Shore: Season Six: The Uncensored Final Season
The son of a circus clown who died two months before he was born, Red Skelton undoubtedly was one of the greatest comedians of the 20th Century. A star of the vaudeville stage, screen, television, radio and fancy showrooms, Skelton was the kind of ubiquitous entertainer who truly didn’t require an introduction. The fact that he’s one of the least known of all the show-business giants today – by people under 40, anyway – owes as much to financial decisions made near the height of his career than any lack of respect on the part of the last two generations of audiences. In the mid-1950s, the Indiana-born entertainer worked simultaneously in films, TV, radio and in Las Vegas. Opting out of his studio contract in the mid-1950s wouldn’t have been enough to make him any less visible than he was at the time. What kept him nearly invisible for the last 30 or 40 years was his decision to withhold any syndication rights to his variety series until after his death. (At one time, his will contained a provision that would have mandated the destruction of all tapes. After his team of writers threatened suit, Skelton eliminated the order.) The circus-inspired portraits that he started painting in 1943 could have easily made up for any lost income, if necessary.

Red Skelton: The Farewell Specials” is comprised of performances from the December of his career. In the mid-1980s, Skelton was seen on HBO in a command performance before Queen Elizabeth, a pair of “Funny Face” specials and a wonderful holiday special, “Freddie the Freeloader’s Christmas Dinner.” In each of the specials, Skelton demonstrates his brilliance as a mime and creator of unforgettable characters. Among the guest stars are Vincent Price, Imogene Coca and Marcel Marceau. You can see in such characters as Freddie the Freeloader, Clem Kaddidlehopper, San Fernando Red, the Mean Widdle Kid and Cauliflower McPugg how much is owed to Skelton by the next generation of comedians and actors. The DVD presentation is quite good and the humor holds up exceptionally well.

Before the Food Network, Cooking Channel, the Iron Chef, Emeril Lagasse, Gordon Ramsey, Anthony Bourdain, and, even, the Galloping and Frugal gourmets, there was Julia Child and she could only be found on public-broadcast stations. Although dwarfed by the budgets, marquee chefs and marketing tools, PBS continues to offer some tasty shows about cooking and eating. Rick and Lanie Bayless’ “Mexico: One Plate at a Time” is a perfect example of a show that combines travel, cooking and history and leaves viewers hungry for more. The “Independent Lens” presentation, “Soul Food Junkies,” is a recent PBS show that whetted viewers’ appetites for a hearty helping of foods that are prepared in the African-American tradition. Minutes after doing that, however, filmmaker Byron Hurt pulls the rug out from under them by demonstrating how a meal prepared the old-fashioned way could be killing them. First, though, Hurt traces the history of soul food to Africa and the plantations to which slaves were sold. We already know that slaves were forced to take whatever was left from a chicken or pig after the white family had its pick, and make something new and different from the leftovers. In interviews with scientists, educators and chefs, Hurt is able to show how slaves from one part of Africa created meals and introduced plants – ochre, for instance – that were different than what slaves in other regions were able to prepare. Their specific tastes translated into food that also served in the plantation homes, because “there was a black hand in every pot.” A hungry slave was of no value to anyone and, by working as hard as they did, calories were easy to lose. That isn’t the case for wage-slaves today, however, and the addition of processed ingredients has increased the potential for heart disease and cancer. Hurt also argues that stores in African-American communities should share the blame, by overstocking unhealthy products and produce inferior to that found in suburban neighborhood. “Soul Food Junkies” leaves viewers on a positive note, but, not surprisingly, kicking the habit requires work.

By employing cutting-edge DNA science, “Decoding Neanderthals” is able to speculate on the ramifications of cross-breeding between our Neanderthal and human ancestors and why one outlasted the other. Anyone who can recall the classroom charts that trace man’s evolution, step-by-step, from primates to human, will be surprised by the revelations in the “Nova” presentation. In fact, ongoing genome projects have already determined that mankind continues to benefit from immunities to certain serious diseases passed to humans by Neanderthals through cross-breeding. Although scientists interviewed for the program caution that genome reconstruction is in its infancy, their enthusiasm for the early results is palpable. Blessedly, they keep the science-speak to a minimum, allowing viewers without doctorates to understand what they’re doing.

If Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson weren’t struck by lightning for blaming 9/11 on gays, lesbians, pro-choice advocates, the ACLU and the secularization of America, I feel confident that I won’t be punished for suggesting that Hurricane Sandy was God’s revenge for six seasons of “Jersey Shore.” Actually, while most of Seaside Heights was destroyed in the storm, the “Jersey Shore” house was left mostly unscathed. Take that, “700 Club.” To their credit, cast members and MTV brass combined efforts for a telethon benefitting Architecture for Humanity. The final “uncensored” (not) DVD compilation contains episodes filmed months before Sandy, although I can’t imagine that we’ve seen the last of the Guidos/Guidettes on the yet-to-be rehabilitated boardwalk. Most of Season 6 was spent tying up loose ends and getting ready for spinoff shows and babies. The package adds deleted scenes, after-hour show; the reunion; a “Most Outrageous Moments” piece; and “Gym, Tan, Lookback” and “Breakdowns, Boobs & Bronzer” specials. – Gary Dretzka

DVD Wrapup

Monday, March 11th, 2013

This Must Be the Place: Blu-ray
Resembling a cross between Phil Specter, Ozzy Osbourne and everyone’s dizzy Aunt Lizzy, Sean Penn completely dominates Paolo Sorrentino’s decidedly offbeat drama, “This Must Be the Place.” After many years of self-imposed exile in Ireland, Penn’s over-the-hill Goth-rocker, Cheyenne, somehow manages to get himself sufficiently together either to reunite with his estranged father on his death bed or sit Shiva for him. After learning more about the man’s history from his friends, including a Nazi hunter played by Judd Hirsch, Cheyenne decides to avenge the torture suffered by his late father in one of Hitler’s death camps. A heroin addict even before he became a rock star, he doesn’t know much about the Holocaust beyond what customarily is taught in high school. In fact, his memory doesn’t extend much further back than when he learned that two young fans committed suicide to the theatrically dark music of his band. (David Byrne makes a guest appearance as a former mate.) As comatose as Cheyenne occasionally seems to be here, he has moments of lucidity during which he demonstrates empathy for the problems of people in the town nearest his estate. One day, he even surprises a young musician acquaintance by agreeing to produce his group’s first album. It would take a GPS to find his sense of humor, but it’s there.

Sorrentino demonstrates a keen sense of humor, himself, by putting Cheyenne on a journey through the United States on much the same two-lane highways that journalist Charles Kurwalt traveled for his “On the Road” segments. With his European eye for weird juxtapositions and abstract concepts, Sorrentino paints rural America in colors and textures few domestic travelers would ascribe to it, especially in the desert Southwest. The people who take refuge on the fringes of Red State America may barely register on the Richter scale of life, but, like everyone else here, they have stories to tell. One of them belongs to the Nazi fugitive, who Cheyenne finds living in a trailer on a snow-covered mountain top. Hannah Arendt could have had SS Officer Aloise Muller in mind in her writings about what makes ordinary men into tools of totalitarianism and the banality of evil. Finally, Cheyenne has to decide what’s more important, revenge or making himself whole. Despite winning a flock of awards in Europe, “This Must Be the Place” died a sadly premature death in America. If anyone in Hollywood had seen it, Penn might have been nominated for the sixth time as Best Actor, as would Byrne’s original music. Also appearing are Frances McDormand, Eve Hewson, Harry Dean Stanton, Kerry Condon and Olwen Fouere. – Gary Dretzka

Smashed: Blu-ray
No matter how well-intentioned, it’s tough to love movies in which the ravages of alcoholism are put on full display early on and repeated throughout most of the next 90 minutes. After a certain point, the testimonies at AA meetings all begin to sound alike and their emotional tug weakens with every new anecdote. Director James Ponsoldt, who co-wrote “Smashed” with Susan Burke, seems to be wedded to the subject. In his excellent first feature, “Off the Black,” Nick Nolte played a baseball umpire and notorious local drunk, who bonds with an athlete after the kid gets in trouble for vandalizing the older man’s home. In “The Spectacular Now,” which is currently on display at SXSW, a teenager with a serious drinking problem finds salvation with the help of a girl who’s his polar opposite. “Smashed” is about a married couple, likely in their late 20s, who have come to a crossroads because of the importance of inebriants in their lives. If he follows form, Ponsoldt’s fourth feature could focus on fetal-alcohol syndrome. The good news is that the 35-year-old filmmaker has yet to wear out his welcome with film critics who have seen no reason to dismiss him as a one-trick pony.

The best thing about “Smashed” is how seriously the actors take their assignments, even knowing that they’re exploring well-trod territory here. Mary Elizabeth Winstead plays Kate, an elementary-school teacher whose nightly binges – a.k.a., partying – have begun to cause problems on the job. After getting sick in front of her stunned students, Kate explains to them that she’s pregnant and vomiting comes with the territory. It’s a lie that will come back to haunt her. As is so often the case, Kate and her husband, Charlie (Aaron Paul), are never so in love as when they are bombed. Neither is willing to admit to having a problem, but Kate agrees to accompany a fellow teacher (Nick Offerman) to an AA meeting. Her testimony isn’t all that different from others we’ve heard during meetings staged for the camera. When we meet her mother (Mary Kay Place), though, it becomes clear that casual drinking was as much a part of their household as the photos on the fireplace mantel.

By the time the third act rolls in, of course, there will be a serious test of the characters’ dedication to sobriety and matrimony. That’s what third acts are for, right? This one plays out honestly, I think. Not surprisingly, “Smashed” didn’t set anyone’s turnstiles on fire in limited release. It would be a shame, however, if Winstead’s performance went unnoticed by the top casting directors in Hollywood. The Blu-ray adds commentary with Ponsoldt and Winstead; deleted scenes; a making-of featurette; and interviews and a Q&A from the Toronto Film Festival. – Gary Dretzka

If there’s anyone more insufferable than a non-smoker lecturing a smoker about the evils of tobacco, it’s a deeply unhappy libertine trying to convince a pair of committed virgins that abstaining from sex is neither healthy nor logical. Normally, virgins are the butt of derisive jokes in movies. In “Hemel,” though, the title character has been corroded by sex to the point that her point of view on the subject comes off as ludicrous, not sensible. Hemel (Hannah Hoekstra) is a 23-year-old Dutch woman who drifts through a series of anonymous one-night stands – none of which are completely satisfying to her – looking for something desperately missing in her life. She lost her mother early and quickly developed an unhealthy dependence on her father, who’s only slightly less promiscuous than Hemel (a.k.a., Heaven). When her father falls in love with a woman closer to his age, Hemel can’t contain her jealousy and cynicism.

This is Sacha Polak’s first feature film and she captures her protagonist’s pain so precisely that it can be felt pulsing through the screen. As much as we want to sympathize with this damaged young woman, though, it’s difficult to have positive feelings about an adult daughter who isn’t embarrassed about being in the same shower room as her father, naked as the day they both were born. It’s a moment that a mother and daughter might occasionally share, or a father and son, but never a father and his grown daughter. Even if we’ve already written off the old man as a pervert, the casual exchange on Hemel’s part, especially, is terribly discomforting. Such intimacy may have added another important piece to the puzzle, but it gave me the creeps.

Working off of an eight-chapter script by Helena van der Muelen, Polak offers few concessions, even to a decidedly arthouse audience. She portrays Hemel as written and expects us to believe that such women exist. The camera’s eye records what it sees without sympathy or prejudice. Polak doesn’t seem to care if we feel Hemel’s pain — if such a thing were possible – but she demands that we look into her eyes before passing judgment. More than anything else, we’re looking for a cure to the protagonist’s deep-seated unhappiness that doesn’t include surviving a fall from a tall building or a razor slash. I’ll leave it to you to discover if such an unsettling thing happens in “Hemel.” The DVD adds short, but informative interviews with Polak and Hoekstra. – Gary Dretzka

Tristana: Blu-ray
Ministry of Fear: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
Made in 1970, when Luis Buñuel was entering his eighth decade on Earth, “Tristana” excited buffs, critics and scholars who already were feasting on the Spanish surrealist’s last great burst of creativity. Bunuel seemed equally happy to finally have budgets large enough to sustain his visions and reach. Sadly, “Tristana” also is the film from that period that has suffered the most from neglect. The Cohen Film Collection’s 2K restoration, for theatrical release and Blu-ray, goes a long way toward rectifying that situation. Because he lived several decades in self-imposed exile, mostly in Hollywood, New York and Mexico City, “Tristana” was only the second film Bunuel made in his native country in 34 years. He had been encouraged by Franco’s government to make “Viridiana” there 10 years earlier, but it would be banned by Spain and the Vatican immediately after winning the Palme d’Or at Cannes. If “Tristana” seems to be less overtly political and blasphemous – or surrealistic, for that matter – it’s only because the filmmaker made it more difficult to discern the anti-establishment seams. Tristana’s dream sequence contains one of the most memorably surrealistic moments in cinema history.

Three years removed from her stunning performance in “Belle du Jour,” Catherine Deneuve plays the title character, whose evolution from innocent orphan to manipulative monster is masterfully executed. After Tristana’s mother dies, she is encouraged to stay in the Toledo home of the aristocratic Don Lupe (Fernando Rey), who employed them. Don Lupe may be a man of Republican beliefs in pre-Civil War Spain, but his treatment of attractive young women borders on prehistoric. As her guardian, he refuses to let her spend any time in the city streets, unless she’s accompanied by him or the maid. While he insists that this is for her protection, we know that he wants to make her dependent on his care and freely give up her virginity to him, which she does. It doesn’t take long for Tristana to bristle under Don Lupe’s yoke and a local artist, Horacio (Franco Nero), is ripe for the picking. They marry, but, several years later, after she loses a leg to cancer, Tristana convinces Horacio to deliver her back to Don Lupe’s abode. In doing so, she has consciously broken the painter’s heart and set up her older and noticeably weaker “guardian” for his comeuppance.

Although all of Bunuel’s grand obsessions and themes are on full display in “Tristana,” viewers new to his work may enjoy returning to Chapter 1 and watch it again, this time overlaid with commentary provided by Deneuve and critic Kent Jones. Also recommended is a 30-minute visual essay with Bunuel scholar Peter William Evans. The set is enhanced with a slightly different alternate ending, a chapter excerpt from scholar Raymond Durgnat’s out-of-print book on Bunuel; and English and Spanish dub tracks.

Bunuel openly credited such Fritz Lang films as “Destiny” and “M” for convincing him to pursue filmmaking as a career. It would be difficult, though, to find any serious director over the course of the last 90 years who hasn’t been influenced by the Austrian master of suspense. Adapted from a novel by Graham Greene, “Ministry of Fear” was informed by Lang’s experiences in the early days of the Third Reich, which he left immediately after Josef Goebbels offered him the job of head of the German Cinema Institute. Once in power, the Nazis maintained their hold on the country through fear and intimidation. Across the English Channel, Hitler’s nightly bombing runs and dogfights with crack British pilots – combined with blackouts and rumors of Nazi spy networks – kept the country on edge. Although the impact of intelligence gathered by German spies has since been discounted, cracking spy rings became a staple of wartime thrillers for years to come.

Such is the case with “Ministry of Fear,” in which an innocent man (Ray Milland) literally stumbles upon on a spy network operating near a munitions factory in the countryside not far from London. Stephen Neale has just been released from a sanitarium and is enjoying a night out at a local carnival when something very strange occurs. He mistakenly is awarded a cake that was intended for a Nazi courier, played by Dan Duryea, because it contains top-secret microfilm with invasion plans. The blunder makes him a target both for the embedded spies seeking the data and by police, as a suspect in a murder during a séance. Before long, it becomes impossible for Neale to trust anyone in his pursuit of the truth. The atmosphere of fear and paranoia is enhanced by Lang’s strategic use of noir lighting techniques, which he practically invented 20 years earlier in Berlin. The Criterion Collection release is enhanced by a new 2K digital restoration, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack on the Blu-ray edition; a new interview with Lang scholar Joe McElhaney; and an essay by critic Glenn Kenny – Gary Dretzka

Cirque du Soleil: Worlds Away: Blu-ray
The title of the Montreal-based troupe’s latest feature film is a tad misleading.  “Cirque du Soleil: Worlds Away” may be infinitely different from any circus or acrobatic movie you’ve ever seen, but the source material can be found in Las Vegas, where Cirque shows are as uncommon as neon signs. In fact, “Worlds Away” more closely resembles a hearty buffet than, say, the entrée course at Picasso or Joel Robuchon. For 90 minutes, viewers are invited to sample tasty, interwoven bits of the company’s seven shows on the Strip, circa 2011: “O,” “Mystère,” “Kà,” “Love,” “Zumanity,” “Viva Elvis” and “Criss Angel Believe.” With the exception of “Viva Elvis,” all are still up and running. (“Zarkana” has been added to the lineup, with the traveling Michael Jackson salute coming soon.) Anyone whose only familiarity with Cirque du Soleil has been through the big-top shows should know that all of the shows in Las Vegas take place on a permanent stage, under a hard roof. Most are staged in venues that are three or four times the size of the landmark blue-and-yellow tent.

Unlike what happens in the Strip venues, “Worlds Away” adds a throughline that connects the seven shows. It isn’t much, but it’s more narrative than fans usually get. Erica Linz plays a young woman who falls in loves with an aerialist she’s only seen perform in one of the tent shows. Obsessed, she travels to the World of Cirque to reconnect, only to become a flier herself. Although it can be argued that “Worlds Away” is merely a sampler from the Vegas menu, the Blu-ray 2D/3D presentation is truly spectacular and enjoyable on its own merits. The already-brilliant colors, costumes and sets really pop in hi-def and the cameras, under the guidance of producer James Cameron (yes, that James Cameron), take us to places inaccessible to everyday audience members. That means going under water with the performers in “O,” to the rafters with the trapeze acts and alongside the dancers, clowns and acrobats on the various stages. The Blu-ray arrives with a short Cirque du Soleil visual primer and a nice piece in which Linz describes the creation of an acrobatic dance routine. Oh, yeah, there’s a commercial for the Vegas productions. – Gary Dretzka

The Taint
One sure way of telling if you’re addicted to cigarettes is if you light one up while trying to escape from a scythe-wielding lunatic in an orange jump suit. Troma out-Tromas itself in “The Taint,” a movie that practically dares viewers to make it through the first 10 minutes without puking. Apparently, someone or something has tainted the drinking water of East Jeezus, Nowhere, and the poison has turned the male population into slobbering misogynistic killers. Not to put too fine a point on what happens next, but it involves crushed skulls and a toxic substance propelled from the diseased penises of the infected men. If society, such as it is, is to survive the plague it will be up to white-wigged Phil O’Ginny and his shotgun-toting companion, Misandra, to eliminate all of the serial castrators, gang-rapists and stone killers. Freud probably would have had a field day with the Virginia-based first-time filmmakers Drew Bolduc and Dan Nelson, whose every notion of bad taste involves the male organ in one perverse way or another. All of that said, “Taint” looks surprisingly good technically and the special-effects, while crude, do the trick in the gore department. Not surprisingly, perhaps, the acting and dialogue are amateurish, even by Troma’s normally low standards. The DVD adds commentaries by the directors and cast; deleted scenes; a behind-the-scenes slideshow; and an introduction by Lloyd Kaufman. Don’t say you weren’t warned. – Gary Dretzka

Storage 24: Blu-ray
In Their Skin
Grave Encounters 2
Wouldn’t it be great if, when the contents of a locker are revealed on “Storage Wars,” an extraterrestrial being jumped out of a crate like a jack-in-the-box? Only the withered corpse Jimmy Hoffa or Judge Crater could compare to such a shocking discovery. That essentially is what happens in “Storage 24,” a London-based sci-fi thriller that unspools after a military cargo plane crashes, leaving its highly classified contents strewn across the city. At the same time, several attractive young people, of course, are trapped within the maze of a very large storage facility. While they’re attempting to work out their respective interpersonal issues, a grotesque creature is stalking them. It makes lots of unpleasant noises that resonate throughout the multi-floor structure. Maybe, it’s just me, but I think I’d be more concerned with the monster than who was cheating on whom in the world above. If things weren’t complicated enough, an air-conditioning duct leads would-be heroes to a locker filled with lifelike mannequins, any one of which could be a creature in disguise, and one with weapons-grade dildos. Beyond that, “Storage 24” is pretty standard stuff. It adds a making-of featurette, interviews and deleted scenes.

As difficult as it is to paint a portrait of the typical American family, it’s just that hard to agree on what constitutes the quintessential American neighborhood. As we observed in “Desperate Housewives,” among other popular entertainments, neighborhoods can be every bit as dysfunctional and potentially dangerous as the families that populate them. Nonetheless, a Welcome Wagon visit remains as ritualistic as bringing a casserole to the home of a neighbor whose spouse has just died. “In Their Skin” demonstrates what can happen when someone moves into the wrong neighborhood and opens their home to the wrong family. After suffering the tragic loss of their daughter, the Hughes family decides to spend some time in their well-appointed vacation home. Early the first morning, Mark (Joshua Close) and Mary (Selma Blair) are awakened by the sound of someone piling firewood outside their home. The Sakowskis (James D’Arcy, Rachel Miner) are something of a parallel family to the Hughes, only a million times creepier. Even though Mark can barely contain his hostility toward the sleep-defeating Sakowskis, Mary invites them to dinner. It is, of course, not a very smart move. If such recent home-invasion movies as “The Strangers,” “The Perfect Host” and two “Funny Games” have doubt us anything, it’s to be wary of anyone who unexpectedly shows up at our doorstep and isn’t wearing a UPS or Fedex uniform. “In Their Skin” resembles all of them in one way or another. By adding sexual and psycho-dramatic elements to the usual motivational forces of envy and sadism, freshmen director Jeremy Power Regimbal and co-writer Close have kept their drama from being a copy-cat thriller tailored for the festival and DVD-original market. The actors are all quite good, especially Alex Ferris as the bad-seed Sakowski.

In 2011, the Vicious Brothers’ “Grave Encounters” had some fun with the found-footage subgenre, by having the cast of a “Ghost Hunters”-type reality show pay a visit to an abandoned mental hospital and discover to their dismay that it actually is haunted. Enough people liked it that the creators wrote a sequel and handed it off to a new director, John Poliquin. Although “Grave Encounters 2” sometimes borders on being too cute by half, it should satisfy fans of the original and other, lesser found-film efforts. Its primary conceit involves acknowledging the existence of the film, “Grave Encounters,” and having fanboys offer video reviews of it as the sequel opens. One of them decides that he’d like to find out what happened to original fictional team of paranormal investigators and return to the asylum with a film crew of his own. He even receives an e-mail with an irresistible clue to their fates. As you might already have guessed, many of the same demons who populated the first “GE” return in “GE2,” plus some new tormented souls. The nice thing about both movies is that they don’t waste a lot of time building tension or teasing viewers. The nasty stuff arrives early and keeps coming throughout the 95-minute flick, when another set of mysteries presents itself. There’s an interview with filmmakers included in the DVD. – Gary Dretzka

Death A New Beginning
Nikattsu: Fairy in a Cage
Nikattsu: Female Teacher: In Front of the Students
Absent an interview or making-of featurette, I have no way of knowing if Danger After Dark’s “Death” and “Death A New Beginning” were directly inspired by Alfred Hitchcock’s “Strangers on a Train.” If not, director Ryota Sakamaki probably snoozed through an airing of the classic thriller on TV and woke up thinking that the dream he just had about two guys conspiring on train was less Freudian than Hollywoodian. Instead of having two complete strangers with foolproof alibis agree to dispose of each other’s nemesis, a young brothel employee with a similar problem simply goes to the website. Here, he’s introduced to a rogues’ gallery of desperate characters who’ve agreed to a quid-pro-quo arrangement like the one in the Hitchcock movie. All new petitioners are required to present their case before the panel. If they agree to accept the assignment, all will be involved in the murder to one degree or another. The person who ostensibly stands to gain from the arrangement then is required to participate in future hits. If that person reneges, he or she becomes the next victim. Although there are real consequences to every request, could easily pass for an elaborate Internet prank. Fans of J-horror and bloody video games are more likely to dig the premise than those viewers who never miss a Hitchcock movie on TMC. The gore and punk sensibilities on display trend two generations younger.

World War II sexploitation movies reached their peak in the mid-1970s, with the release of such titles as “The Night Porter,” “Salo,” “Salon Kitty,” “Ilsa: She-Wolf of the SS” and “Nazi Love Camp 27.” Blessedly, it wasn’t a genre that flourished at drive-ins or, in the case of “The Night Porter” and “Salo,” before arthouse audiences. Nazi fashions and other fascist iconography had been absorbed into the S&M and leather-fetishist subcultures by this time and swastikas were becoming a fixture in rape and torture fantasies. Mimicking the atrocities committed by Japanese forces during the war had much less resonance with moviegoers along the Pacific Rim. When it came to sexual enslavement, torture and random carnage, however, the Japanese were second to none. “Fairy in a Cage” is the rare movie that depicted the terrible activities of the much-feared kompeitsai, the military police force that had been in place for several decades before the war and served the same purpose as Hitler’s SS. (Koji Wakamatsu’s 1975 pinku film, “100 Years of Torture: The History,” took a longer view of kompeitsai atrocities.) As is generally the case with Porno Roman entries, “Fairy in a Cage” delivers far less commentary than sexual titillation. If such movies were restricted from showing genitalia and public hair, there were no limits to how crazy they could be. In “Fairy in a Cage,” a tyrannical judge uses his military power to imprison and torture people suspected of helping an anti-government movement. An unabashed pervert, war or no war, the judge hits the jackpot when the wife of a successful businessman is linked to a local kabuki actor, who might be supporting the protesters. It gave him a legal pretense for abusing a beautiful and sophisticated woman who’s closer to his age than the young actresses generally seen in torture porn. The victim was played by Naomi Tani, who was already well known as the Rope Queen for her dexterity at playing parts requiring bondage and S&M. When the kompeitsai officials in “Fairy in a Cage” are told they’re being shipped off to other occupied countries, their shock allows time for a sympathetic policeman to help the prisoners escape. The controversial and infrequently screened movie benefits from a high-definition transfer, taken from the original 35mm camera negative.

In American movies, rape is no longer a subject for easy exploitation or cheap thrills, as it was in the latter days of the drive-in era. The furor raised by graphically violent attacks on women in such disparate movies as “Jackson County Jail,” “Straw Dogs,” “A Clockwork Orange” and “Death Wish” rightly forced studios and filmmakers to reconsider how and when to use rape as a story element. Rape subplots and fantasies even fell out of favor in porn movies that were intended for viewing on VCRs. Seemingly, the debate didn’t have much impact in Japan, where makers of “pink” and Roman Porno weren’t at all reluctant to use rape as a recurring theme in dramas and occasionally even humor. Such is the case with “Female Teacher: In Front of the Students” (1982), which is combines the “Female Teacher” series with the “roughie” subgenre. At a time when the home-video invasion was taking its toll on the production of studio movies and television, genre producers decided they needed to raise the ante on sex and violence to maintain their viewers’ interest. Here, shortly after a demure English teacher from another district takes a job in a crumbling high school, she is raped while taking a shower after tennis practice. It’s nasty business, even if not particularly graphic from a gynecological point of view. Reiko (Rushia Santo) suspects that her attacker is one of the cool kids in class, angry for her role in getting him booted off the tennis team for bullying another student.

The only clue left behind is a piece from a jigsaw puzzle. Rather than entrusting police with the investigation, Reiko decides she’ll track down the rapist herself and use humiliation as a form of punishment. (Remember that we’re in Japan and honor still counts for something.) Instead, no matter where she turns, she rewarded for her folly by being raped by someone new. It isn’t that difficult to guess the culprit, but the unmasking leads to a conclusion that would be comical, if it weren’t so wrong-headed. That said, though, “Female Teacher” is competently made and not without some wacky surprises. In another couple of years, protests by Japanese parents and school groups would be heard and the subgenre would pretty much disappear. Rape hasn’t entirely disappeared, but it’s primarily used now as a catalyst for revenge. The DVDs from the Nikkatsu Erotic Films Collection come with a brief essay and trailers. – Gary Dretzka

The First Time
Dylan O’Brien and Britt Robertson make a very cute couple in the talky teen rom-com, “The First Time.” Dave and Aubrey meet outside a party and, for all intents and purposes, fall in love before even getting past the front door. Because nothing comes easy in teen rom-coms, they both admit to having significant others before talking the night away and realizing that they’re perfect for each other. A few obstacles pop up in between their first meeting and the first time they, well, you know.  The nice thing here is that no one is in any great hurry to do … you know. In their very early 20s, O’Brien and Robertson still look young enough to break out in zits at inappropriate times and listen, really listen to each other’s end of conversations. In his second feature, Jon Kasdan seems to have a grasp on the crazy rhythms and awkward moments that make a kid’s first true love so stupid, scary and wonderful. I haven’t been a teenager for a long time, but somehow what happens in “The First Time” feels real. – Gary Dretzka

Zulu Dawn: Blu-ray
Released during the centennial year of the Battle of Isandhlwana – the Zulu answer to the Sioux’s triumph at the Little Big Horn, three years earlier – Douglas Hickox’s 1979 war epic, “Zulu Dawn,” could just as easily have been intended as a critique of our disastrous adventure in Vietnam. The same arrogance shown by our military brass and political leaders in Southeast Asia is engrained in every frame of “Zulu Dawn.” For no good reason, besides vanity and imperialistic greed, British troops stationed in the colony of Nadal decided that 1879 would be a good year to invent a provocation with King Cetshwayo, nephew to the great Zulu warrior Shaka. The Zulu kingdom was preparing for the fall harvest when Cetshwayo was given the ultimatum to disband his army or face annihilation. The king admitted to no wrong doing, but reiterated his pledge not to cross the established Buffalo River border. Expecting a turkey shoot, the Brits assumed incorrectly that modern weaponry would prove superior to the Zulus’ cowhide shields, swords, spears, clubs and warrior mentality.

What the British failed to take into account was the Zulus’ ability to mass individual militias so quickly, finally outnumbering them 16-to-1. The Brits’ arrogance caused them to take risks that they wouldn’t have attempted if facing a European army using similar weapons. As the redcoats ran out of bullets, the Zulus kept coming. “Zulu Dawn” is as good a war picture as one is likely to find, if only because Hickox could call on 11,000 native extras and background artists to re-create the horror staring the Brits in the face. The battle sequences were staged, as well, in the shadow of the same mountain, Isandhlwana. Because it was made in the almost immediate aftermath of Vietnam, writer Cy Endfield wasn’t required to summon pity and sympathy for the aggressors, as early American westerns had for General George Armstrong Custer. In fact, “Zulu Dawn” served as a prequel to the events dramatized in Endfield’s “Zulu,” which described the ensuing Battle of Rorke’s Drift. That movie ended far differently than “Zulu Dawn,” in that a smaller group of British troops held off a larger formation of Zulus. The cast includes Peter O’Toole, Burt Lancaster, Bob Hoskins, John Mills, Simon Ward, Denholm Elliott and Nigel Davenport. The restored Blu-ray edition looks and sounds quite good and includes an excellent historical recounting of the entire Anglo-Zulu War. – Gary Dretzka

The Devil’s in the Details: Blu-ray
In his first feature film, former Splender frontman Waymon Boone has created a hostage thriller whose dependence on coincidences and last-second reprieves nearly proves fatal to the narrative. “The Devil’s in the Details” describes how one troubled veteran of the Middle East wars is set up by a Mexican cartel to facilitate a scheme so complicated that it appears as if they’re smuggling drugs across the border in the wrong direction. Thomas Conrad (Joel Mathews) is recovering from an addiction to prescription pills, but still has a way to go with PTSD. One afternoon, while driving around Nogales, Arizona, he’s involved in an accident with a dapper fellow, who, instead of exchanging insurance data, invites Thomas for a drink at his favorite watering hole. After passing out from too much tequila, he awakens from his stupor tied to a metal operating table. His drinking companion (Emilio Rivera) is also in the dark concrete banner, but stone sober and holding a pistol. After some preliminary torture, Thomas is told that his estranged wife and daughter are being held hostage, as well, and will be killed if he doesn’t cooperate. Here’s where the coincidences begin to pile up: Thomas must convince his father, a judge, to draw up a search warrant for a home in the border city; convince his sister, a much-admired cop, to serve the warrant and steal the stash hidden there; and convince his brother, a tough Border Patrol officer, to let a blue van pass loaded with the drugs and money through his checkpoint. Thomas is given only a few minutes to assure them that he hasn’t pulled this scam out of his ass to get money to buy more pills. When they hesitate, Thomas is given a jolt of electricity or knife prick to make his demeanor seem more authentic. Finally, after they agree to help, the whole operation begins to go sideways. Fortunately, his military psychiatrist (Ray Liotta) is a former Navy SEAL and someone who believes that his patient deserves the benefit of a doubt. Like I said, that’s a lot of coincidences. For a debut film, “The Devil’s in the Details” is reasonably exciting and the characters are well drawn. The Blu-ray includes a making-of featurette. – Gary Dretzka

Rise of the Guardians: Limited Edition: Blu-ray
In a curious example of cross-market appeal, the timing of the theatrical and Blu-ray release of the seasonal adventure, “Rise of the Guardians,” dovetails nicely with both Christmas and Easter. That’s because two of the key characters in DreamWorks’ adaptation of William Joyce’s “The Guardians of Childhood” happen to be Santa Claus (a.k.a., North) and E. Aster Bunnymund. They are two of the four Guardians, who’ve been charged with protecting the children of the world from darkness and fear, in the form of the evil Pitch (a.k.a., Bogeyman). The Man in the Moon wants to make Jack Frost a Guardian, but, first, he’s required to stop Pitch from capturing the fairies who deliver missing baby teeth from under kids’ pillows and turning them into Easter eggs. Jack, who’s used to bringing the gift of ice to knuckleheaded hockey fanatics, has his work cut out for him. Children have begun to despair of ever again enjoying their holidays and are giving in to the scary things that lurk in closets and under beds. Suddenly it’s as if the Guardians have abandoned them. If only Jack can summon the courage to stand up to the Bogeyman, the forces of evil might be forced to retreat or surrender. Peter Ramsey’s only other directorial credit is the short TV movie, “Monsters vs. Aliens: Mutant Pumpkins from Outer Space,” but he’s worked in the animation, special effects and art departments of a couple dozen larger projects. In any case, he seems to have had firm grip on the wheel in the quickly paced and alternately dark and colorful “Rise of the Guardians.” The Blu-ray bonus features include interactive games, commentary and behind-the-scenes pieces. The limited-edition set adds two full-size “hopping eggs.”  – Gary Dretzka

Sholem Aleichem: Laughing in the Darkness
If Sholem Aleichem is known at all outside the greater Jewish community, it’s as the writer of the stories from which the Broadway musical “A Fiddler on the Roof” was adapted. Joseph Dorman’s revelatory bio-doc, “Laughing in the Darkness,” is much more than a primer on the works of an important writer. It also describes how Aleichem’s stories grew organically from the folk traditions, Yiddish language and dramatic events that would change the way Russian Jews had lived for the past 1,000 years. If a hundred fans of “Fiddler on the Roof” were asked to sketch a portrait of the author, most of the drawings would resemble the actor, Topol, who played Teyve the Milkman on stage and in the movie. Some would bear traces of Mark Twain, the writer most frequently compared to the author and playwright formerly known as Solomon Naumovich Rabinovich. In fact, he was a strikingly handsome man, with a bushy mustache, soul patch, long hair and the kind of eyeglasses favored by leftist intellectuals in the 1960s. As a young man, he dressed with a dandyish flair that belied his shtetl roots.

Dorman is quick to point out that Aleichem’s stories were written at a time when, whether they knew it or not, international Jewry was about to undergo an epochal change. Pogroms and the Russia Revolution would combine to destroy the shtetl way of life and send millions of Jews packing to Palestine and urban centers in western Europe and the United States. Aleichem’s work not only was drawn from memories of the places in which Jews lived and would soon leave, but it also asked how they could adapt to modernity and yet not lose the continuity of their culture. For example, in the book “Teyve and His Daughters,” the milkman’s dilemma over Chava’s falling in love with a Gentile foreshadowed a century-long debate over the impact of assimilation, intermarriage and religious liberality. The documentary also follows Aleichem’s own search for a new home, in Kiev, Switzerland and New York, where his plays bombed and he found very little to like about American Jews. (Ironically, his funeral would attract 200,000 New Yorkers and be credited as the first event to demonstrate how powerful Jews could be as a unified political and cultural force.) Among the scholars, critics and historians interviewed here are granddaughter Bel Kaufman, who wrote the book “Up the Down Staircase,” which also was adapted into a Hollywood film. The DVDs adds a couple of interviews with the filmmaker. – Gary Dretzka

You’ve Been Trumped
Jay and Silent Bob Get Irish: The Swearing O’ the Green
The maddening documentary “You’ve Been Trumped” provides yet another exquisite example of life imitating art, with completely different results. Twenty-four years after a filthy-rich oil tycoon played by Burt Lancaster reversed his decision to purchase a pristine chunk of Scottish coastline in “Local Hero,” that notorious American dickhead Donald Trump committed his resources to doing the same thing. In Bill Forsythe’s wonderfully quirky comedy, the tiny town of Aberdeenshire serves as a backdrop for a David-vs.-Goliath story, in which the Houston-based based industrialist faces a challenge by an old-school beachcomber who lives in a driftwood shack. Instead of bullying the locals, lying to the press, bribing Scottish politicians, corrupting the police force and insulting landowners, as was the case with Trump, Lancaster spent several quiet hours drinking whiskey, swapping stories and picking the brain of the last man standing between him and an expected oil bonanza. (The other locals are tired of their hard-working lives and would welcome being bought out.) What finally dissuades Lancaster’s amateur astronomer are the unspoiled nighttime skies, whose clarity allows him to study the heavens unabated. A compromise is reached and everyone lives happily ever after … amen.

Trump wasn’t interested in oil when he bought the windswept dunes and unspoiled wildlife habitat. He simply wanted to build the “world’s greatest golf course” and put up some multistory buildings on his property … that and tear up the fragile landscape so that rich duffers could pay exorbitant fees to hit tiny white balls into the sea. In an effort to crush dissent, Trump demonized local residents in the media and made every effort to crush a neighboring farmer because he considered the man’s property to be an eyesore. Trump knows that the media can’t resist quoting him and insisted to their cameras that the local residents were “pigs” and “living in squalor.” It’s as clear a case of corporate bullying as has risen in the last several decades. “You’ve Been Trumped” lays out the case of the locals and environmentalists succinctly and as balanced as it could be, considering that virtually everyone supporting his position declined to be interviewed. Two years later, Trump threatened the Scottish government with abandonment of the project if plans for an offshore wind farm weren’t approved. Meanwhile, NBC was doing its part for mankind by lionizing Trump on the insipid reality show, “The Apprentice.” The DVD package includes footage of the opening of course, Trump in Scottish Parliament, Occupy Wall Street projects and filmmaker Anthony Baxter on “Moyers & Company.”

Talk about triumphs of American diplomacy: Scotland gets Donald Trump and the Irish get Jay and Silent Bob. Somewhere, the Chinese are laughing their asses off. You really have to hand it to the stars of “Clerks” and “Mallrats.” No comedy team has gotten away with doing less with less than Kevin Smith and Jason Mewes. “Jay and Silent Bob Get Irish: The Swearing O’ the Green” is the eighth title in a series of performance movies, during which two dudes sit behind a desk on stage and discuss things that must be interesting to someone, because they tend to sell out the venues they play. Mostly they discuss blow jobs, screwing in tiny cars, taking dumps, getting high and/or getting straight, pederast priests, chocolate milk and buying stuff in local stores. They punctuate each and every sentence with “fuck” or “shit” and occasionally perform skits with audience members, approximating fornication. “Jay and Silent Bob Get Irish” follows by only a few months “Jay and Silent Bob Get Old: Tea Bagging in the UK.” Many of the gags are the same or close enough for government work. The DVD adds deleted scenes and a bonus disc with material from a Las Vegas engagement. – Gary Dretzka

Connected: An Autoblogography about Love, Death and Technology
Shaman Healer Sage
Harley’s 5-Factor Workout
Typically, the biographies found on the website are written by publicists or semi-anonymous fans. The best ones are short and to the point, with plenty of room left over for trivia and quotations. Most are infrequently updated and littered with grammatical mistakes and misspellings. Perhaps the longest bio I’ve ever encountered there was written by Tiffany Shlain, the director and co-writer of “Connected: An Autoblogography about Love, Death and Technology,” about herself. It is almost twice as long as the one written about Charlie Chaplin and contains several more superlatives. On other sites, Shlain’s bio has been condensed to “Filmmaker, artist and Webby Award founder.” Her first feature-length documentary is a flashy rehashing of facts and theories almost everyone with a mouse pad already assumes to be true or has considered and discarded. It isn’t inaccurate, just redundant. An 11-year-old with a Facebook and Twitter account already has a pretty good idea about how cool and amazing it is that she can trade gossip about Justin Bieber with hundreds of other 11-year-olds around the world, as soon as it breaks on TMZ. There surely are better examples of the Internet’s importance, but, let’s face it, 90 percent of what’s communicated is garbage. As such, “Connected” is about as fascinating as a taped lecture from 1998 about the information superhighway by Al Gore.

Another obvious point she makes is the crucial role played by bees in the well-being of our planet’s ecosystem. Indeed, Einstein made the same point about bees and interconnectivity decades ago: if the bees disappear, so do we. The most poignant moments in the film come when Shlain pays homage to her late father, a prominent surgeon, and his many courageous battles with serious illnesses throughout his life. Her work has clearly been influenced by his theories on interconnectedness and the miracles that occur routinely in our brains. That part is fine, but Shlain also felt it necessary to include home movies that span her childhood and appearance at her dad’s funeral. The film arrives with two of her short films, “Yelp” and a “cloud”-created Independence Day salute.

In “Shaman Healer Sage,” we’re introduced once again to Alberto Villoldo Ph.D., a Cuban-born psychologist, medical scientist, anthropologist and author who believes that traditional folk medicine could do wonders for people who don’t live in Amazonian jungles and on Andean peaks. He calls it “ancient energy medicine.” For the last quarter-century, Villoldo has worked alongside shamans and South American medical practitioners to explore the mysteries of the natural and supernatural worlds. The documentary has been adapted from Villoldo’s book of the same title.

If “Harley’s 5-Factor Workout” is to be believed, others look to Hollywood stars for their physical well-being. Apparently, Harley Pasternak is a big deal among “Hollywood’s A-list.” It’s a boast, “plumber to the stars,” that always begs the question about what constitutes celebrity in Tinseltown. In any case, Pasternak’s regimen involves a “scientifically proven 5-Factor approach (which) balances fitness and diet in one easy-to-manage program.” The claim here is that it takes only 25 minutes of work for 5 weeks, or so, to show positive results. – Gary Dretzka

The Mob Doctor: The Complete Series
PBS: Saving the Ocean: Season 1
American Experience: Silicon Valley: Where the Future Was Born
PBS: Pioneers of Television: Season 3
Nova: Doomsday Volcanoes
PBS: The Mind of a Chef
In the annals of bad programming decisions, Fox’s “The Mob Doctor” takes the cake for unappetizing concepts. You can almost hear the high-concept pitch over lunch at Spago, “Two words … ‘mob doctor.’ You pay for the meal.” If any pitch cried out for reality-show status, it’s “The Mob Doctor.” Any writer who is able to squeeze a season’s worth of stories from that questionable concept should also be able to find a real doctor who specializes in treating gangsters or was convicted of same. I, for one, find it difficult to imagine a high-ranking member of the Chicago Outfit waiting more than 30 seconds for treatment, even for an ingrown toenail. Then, too, almost every gangster movie worth its salt has introduced a doctor, nurse or veterinarian who could be counted on to extract bullets and resist the temptation to inform the proper authorities of an accident involving gunplay, as is required in real life. Instead, “The Mob Doctor” borrows bits and pieces from every network medical series since “ER” and mixes in the gangland elements as if they were ingredients in a tossed salad.

Pretty blond Jordana Spiro plays Grace Devlin, a surgeon in a prominent Chicago hospital. To save her brother from a massive debt owed to a gangster Devlin agrees to do odd medical jobs off the books. In Chapter 1, she’s required to extract a screwdriver from some mook’s head and kill an informer who is wheeled into the hospital after eating too much pasta or something equally lethal. She’s constantly getting calls from the mob boss to race to the suburbs during her lunch break to treat one ailment or another. Then, she has to fight midday traffic on the Eisenhower Freeway to return in time for a crucial surgery on a non-Mafia patient. By television standards, “The Mob Doctor” features a top-shelf cast of recognizable actors. Besides Spiro, there’s William Forsythe, Michael Rapaport, David Pasquesi, Zeljko Ivanek, Kevin Corrigan, Shohreh Aghdashloo, Terry Kinney, Timothy Busfield and Michael Madsen. I hope they all got pay-or-play contracts for a full-season run, even though Fox pulled the show after 13 episodes.

In “Saving the Ocean With Carl Safina,” the founder of the Blue Ocean Institute identifies such well-known threats to aquatic habitats as overfishing, pollution and the destruction of reefs, then finds scientists, conservationists and local communities that are doing positive things to cure the ills. The subjects covered in the first season include swordfish, shark sanctuaries, sea turtles, endangered cod, Chinook salmon and lionfish, with stops in Baja, Trinidad, Washington state, Belize and Zanzibar.

The “American Experience” episode “Silicon Valley: Where the Future Was Born” goes all the way back to 1957, when 29-year-old physicist Robert Noyce co-founded Fairchild Semiconductor and put rural Santa Clara County on the scientific map. Among other things, advances in transistor and semiconductor technology opened the door for space exploration and the personal computer. Eleven years later, Noyce co-founded Intel, where he supervised the invention of the microprocessor. It’s through his eyes that “Silicon Valley” charts the growth of the region as the world’s foremost catalyst for the marriage of computer science and venture capitalism.

Now into its third season on PBS, “Pioneers of Television” offers an entertaining survey of the history of the medium through the testimony of creators, stars, historians and vintage clips from most important shows. It’s done so by focusing on specific genres and time-honored character types. This collection is broken up into the genres, “Funny Ladies,” “Primetime Soaps,” “Superheroes” and “Miniseries.” Each of the shows features new interviews with the great stars and rarely seen footage. Not surprisingly, perhaps, what’s on display here is often more entertaining than the competition on competing networks.

Nothing makes television news producers pee in their pants with delight as much as the eruption of a volcano. It doesn’t matter where the top of a mountain is exploding or spitting lava, it will be used to kill at least a minute’s worth of attention on the 11 p.m. newscast. The popularity of high-definition television has only increased the desire for all things volcanic. Nothing looks better on HDTV and Blu-ray than exposed magma and lava flows. Sadly, the only place volcano junkies will find “Nova: Doomsday Volcanoes” in HD is through PPV outlets. The episode uses the eruption of Iceland’s Eyjafjallajokull volcano, which, in 2010, crippled trans-Atlantic travel for weeks, as an example of what could happen if something more catastrophic occurs. As CGI takes viewers inside these geological wonders, scientists offer opinions as to how a super-eruption could affect the global food supply and the Earth’s climate.

If you can get past the cheesy cover art for “The Mind of the Chef,” the names David Chang and Anthony Bourdain should draw your attention. Only 35, Chang is a much-celebrated New York chef, restaurateur and cookbook writer, whose reputation and skills force fickle diners to bow to his whims and demands. As executive producer and narrator, Bourdain basically is only along for the ride here. Still, the show reflects his occasionally iconoclastic attitudes and willingness to travel long distances for a great and often ridiculously inexpensive meal. The 16 episodes of “Mind of a Chef” included in the Season 1 DVD combine travel, cooking, history, science and humor into delicious entertainments. – Gary Dretzka

NFL Super Bowl XLVII Champions: 2012 Baltimore Ravens: Blu-ray
With another exciting Super Bowl in the books, it’s time for Ravens fans to relive the thrills and 49ers loyalists pretend it never happened. “NFL Super Bowl XLVII Champions” may not contain the game in its entirety, but it is built around a full season’s worth of highlights that include those in the championship game. Naturally, it’s divided roughly in half by the electrical blackout, during which the 49ers must have eaten a ton of Wheaties and remembered how they got to the Super Bowl in the first place. Instead of being a blowout, the game turned into an extremely competitive and wildly exciting affair, decided finally on a controversial non-call. No one dwells on that blunder here, so 49ers fans have almost no reason to get excited about this souvenir Blu-ray. As usual, NFL Films puts viewers on the sidelines, within eavesdropping distance of the players and coaches. The Blu-ray looks and sounds exceptionally good, as well. Not surprisingly, the bonus material is heavy on features about the brothers Harbaugh coaching on opposite sides of the field and how their parents split their allegiances. Other pieces include film from Super Bowl Media Day, post-game ceremonies, Courtney Upshaw’s “journey” and exclusive BD-Live Internet-connected features. – Gary Dretzka

The DVD Wrapup

Wednesday, March 6th, 2013

The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn: Part 1: Extended Edition
The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn: Part 2
Looking down the road, it will be interesting to see if the number of little girls who are stuck with the name Renesmee is greater than the number of strippers who use it as a stage name. According to public records, a couple hundred babies around the world have already been named after Bella and Edwards’ bouncing baby daughter. Clearly, Bella isn’t thrilled with the nickname, “Nessie,” given Renesmee by her “imprinted” guardian/lover/friend, Jacob, while Mom was recovering from being dead. (“Nessie? You nicknamed my daughter after the Loch Ness Monster?”) Most exotic dancers, on the other hand, don’t care if anyone, even a paying customer, remembers what she’s calling herself on any given day. The frightfully cute, half-immortal Renesmee is at the heart of everything that happens in series-capper, “The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn: Part 2.” Apparently, the girl’s half-mortal status presents a grave threat to the well-being of the vampire race and the head of the powerful Rome-based coven, Volturi (Michael Sheen), wants to curtail any further dilution of the species. The battle royal that’s been brewing between the Volturi and Cullens for centuries finally takes place on a frozen lake in British Columbia. It’s a real hum-dinger and easily worth the expenditure in time it takes to slog through everything else that comes before it.

Apart from some dazzling special effects and Hong Kong-style acrobatics, however, “Part 2” is as half-baked as everything in the incredibly profitable franchise. By emphasizing the romantic aspects of Stephenie Meyer’s best-selling series, all that’s been required of the directors and writers is to coordinate the shirt-shrugging of the shape-shifters and ensure that the actresses could never be mistaken for Elsa Lanchester in “The Bride of Frankenstein.” If all vampires looked as eternally young as the Cullens and Volturi, half the residents of Beverly Hills would vacation in Transylvania, instead of Aspen and Maui. It seems as if more weight is put on the compilation of treacly pop songs for the soundtrack than anything in the scripts. But, then, the makers of “The Twilight Saga” never intended to convince critics of the franchise’s value. It’s been targeted at teenagers who think “Gossip Girl” and “Glee” are documentaries. Anyone who’s seen the iconic album, “50,000,000 Elvis Fan Can’t Be Wrong,” with 14 Elvi in identical gold-lamé suits on the cover, already knows not to bet against popular taste.

On the plus side, “Part 1” and “Part 2” demonstrate how good a physical actor Kristen Stewart has become. Her posture has gotten noticeably better and it’s made Bella’s transformations that much more credible. That may sound insignificant, but the Bella Swann of 2008 couldn’t stand up to a mouse, let alone a vampire or wolf. Robert Pattison’s evolution hasn’t been quite so noticeable, but, again, who cares? In fact, though, 12-year-old actor Mackenzie Foy and 44-year-old Michael Sheen steal the show here from both of the stars. (In “Part 2,” CGI wizardry allows Renesmee to age gracefully from infancy to near-adulthood, employing Foy’s facial features as their model.) The Blu-ray presentation also enhances our appreciation of the gorgeous locations, including British Columbia, Brazil, Virgin Islands and Louisiana.

Also new to Blu-ray is the extended version of “The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn: Part 1,” which seamlessly adds about seven minutes of previously deleted material to the theatrical release. Casual fans of the saga probably won’t be impressed by the additions, but completists and Twihards almost certainly will want to see them. In what seems to be a purely financial decision, the inclusion of seven minutes of film pushed out the bonus features from the original Blu-ray. Director Bill Condon does provide peppy commentary over the new and old scenes. Condon’s commentary is available in Part 2,” as well. The Blu-ray adds an interesting making-of featurette that can be viewed PiP. The deluxe set adds a digital copy and UltraViolet compatibility. – Gary Dretzka

Wreck-It Ralph: Blu-ray 2D/3D
Normally, whenever a movie or DVD is described as being “family friendly,” the phrase merely is a code used by distributors to convince parents of the innocuous content contained therein. Apart from the fact that all families are different, it’s the rare G- and PG-rated title whose appeal truly spans post-toddlers, pre-teens, teens, young adults, parents and grandparents. There are exceptions, of course, but their success tends to prove the rule. In fact, G-rated movies outside the Disney universe are almost as poisonous at the box office as those rated R. The most recent exception, “Wreck-It Ralph,” shares something with “Cars,” “Toy Story” and “Who Framed Roger Rabbit” that’s allowed it to cross previously established borders separating age-neutral and family-friendly pictures. All four of these blockbuster titles offer pop-cultural points of reference that are almost guaranteed to please viewers of all ages. In the unlikely event that a parent or teen hates everything else in the movies, they can enjoy the homages paid to classic automobiles, toys and cartoon characters. Among other things, the references allow old-timers to bond with the child, relative or friend in the next seat. They can boast, “I had one of those when I was your age,” “Grandpa had a car like that when I was growing up” or offer historical trivia on the origins of the movie’s characters. “Wreck-It Ralph” recalls video- and arcade-game iconography from the infancy of the industry, its Golden Age and transitions from 8-bit, to 16-bit, to 64-bit and beyond. The Oscar-nominated Disney Animation product also tells the quintessentially human story of how it feels to be put out to pasture by every new concession to progress and the lengths a person will go to demonstrate their continued usefulness to society. In this regard, video games are no different than cars, toys, cartoons and human beings. That video games are so wonderfully colorful and hyperkinetic only serves to amplify the drama in Blu-ray 2D and 3D.

After 30 years of being vilified as a bully and bull-in-the-china-shop ogre, Wreck-It Ralph (voiced by John C. Reilly) desperately wants to become a valued member of the video-game community. He’s grown weary of playing the foil to Fix-It Felix Jr. (Jack McBrayer, of “30 Rock”), after whom their popular video game was named, and, like him, would like to be invited to birthday parties and other after-hours celebrations at Litwak’s Arcade. Compared to today’s multi-dimensional first-person-shooter games, though, “Fix-It Felix” is prehistoric. To prove he’s not such a chronically destructive bad guy, after all, Ralph decides to compete in a contest for survival against the cream of today’s crop in “Heroes Duty.” (After These include Sergeant Calhoun (Jane Lynch), General Hologram (Dennis Haysbert) and computer viruses and glitches unknown to the Sega and Nintendo loyalists of the 1980s. Between the rapidly advancing targets, IEDs and trigger-happy gamer controlling the speed of the contest, Ralph can barely keep up with the other characters. If he is going to collect the medals he needs to prove his worth back home, he’ll have to do it surreptitiously. Ralph’s greatest ally along the way is Vanellope von Schweetz (Sarah Silverman), a pretty little glitch from the kart-racer game “Sugar Rush,” which shares space in the arcade with “Fix-It Felix.”

It’s obvious that writer/director Rich Moore and his team of writers have done their homework on the history of video gaming, as “Wreck-It Ralph” is informed by 40 years’ worth of iconography, audio-visual cues, character quirks and insider gags. Appearing in cameos, at least, are Sonic the Hedgehog and Dr. Eggman; Pac-Man and the orange ghost; Q*Bert; Bowser, from “Super Mario”; Neff from “Altered Beast”; a half-dozen characters from “Street Fighter”; and the bartender from “Tapper.” The co-mingle using electrical circuits that meet at the whimsical Grand Central Arcade. Most viewers will recognize the musical talent, including contributors Skrillex, Rihanna, Owl City, AKB48, Buckner & Garcia, Jamie Houston and Kool & the Gang, and composer Henry Jackman (“Puss in Boots”). The Blu-ray bonus package adds the 2013 Academy Award-winning short, “Paperman”; alternate and deleted scenes; the worthwhile making-of “Bit by Bit”; four video-game “commercials”; and “Disney Intermission,” which points out references and insider-jokes present in the movie. – Gary Dretzka

Schindler’s List 20th Anniversary Limited Edition: Blu-ray
If ever a movie needed no re-introduction to collectors of Blu-ray and DVD re-issues, it’s “Schindler’s List.” Besides being the only one of Steven Spielberg’s many excellent titles to win an Oscar as Best Picture, it forever changed the way Hollywood would make movies about war. Just as German citizens and Nazi sympathizers in France, Poland, Croatia and other Eastern European countries no longer could plead ignorance when it came to the existence of death camps in their midst, film makers would never again be able to paint portraits of our enemies using the same brush. It would be difficult to continue to ignore the fact that not all German soldiers and officers were Nazis and not all Nazi Party members wore the uniforms of the Gestapo or Waffen SS. Finding shades of gray in the darkness that was World War II required more work than previous writers and directors cared to do or thought was necessary. Documentaries revealed the horrors of the Holocaust to most Americans and that is the look Spielberg was seeking when he decided to shoot his film in black-and-white. After it would come such complex and nuanced dramas as “Black Book,” “Valkyrie,” “The Boy in the Striped Pajamas,” “Life Is Beautiful,” “A Secret,” “In Darkness” and “The Counterfeiters,” as well as the genre-defying adventure, “Inglourious Basterds.”

In addition to demonstrating how one brave soul could stare Satan in the eye and prevent the otherwise inevitable deaths of 1,200 human beings, “Schindler’s List” also encouraged viewers to look beyond the horror and recognize non-Jews honored by Israel as “righteous among the nations.” As portrayed by Liam Neesen, Schindler was a Nazi Party member, who, at first, saw the Jewish workers at his factory as cheap labor, but would find in the 1943 raid on the Krakow Ghetto a line in the sand, separating humanity and evil. (In 2011, Agnieszka Holland’s “In Darkness” would relate a similarly heroic true story, this time in the then-Polish city of Lviv.)

For the 20th-anniversary edition, Spielberg personally supervised the transfer of “Schindler’s List” into hi-def from the original 35mm film negative. Janusz Kaminski’s superb black-and-white visual presentation remains as powerfully evocative in Blu-ray as it did on screen. Spielberg also supervised the restoration of the film’s audio elements and implementation of Universal’s subsequent DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround track. The Blu-ray improves dramatically on all previous iterations. Collectors should know, however, that Spielberg hasn’t felt it necessary to add new supplemental material, preferring to recycle standard-definition versions of “Voices From the List,” a 77-minute documentary featuring testimonials and recollections from men and women whose lives were saved by Schindler; Spielberg’s short introduction to the USC Shoah Foundation, which he founded to collect oral histories of survivors; and a promo for IWitness, an online application that gives educators and students access to more than 1,000 video testimonies. – Gary Dretzka

The Intouchables: Blu-ray
Odd-couple movies, like “The Intouchables,” walk a razor-thin line separating schmaltz from substance, with schmaltz nearly always prevailing. This crowd-pleaser from France succeeds by disposing with the frothy stuff early on and leaving plenty of room for an entirely convincing “bromance” to emerge. Omar Sy plays Driss, a Senegalese slacker living in a Paris slum, who applies for a job as caretaker simply to qualify for welfare benefits. Even though he makes himself seem as unqualified as possible, his bad attitude is exactly what appeals to wealthy quadriplegic Philippe (François Cluzet, a dead ringer for Dustin Hoffman). That’s because Philippe wants a caretaker who will look at him without pity and treat him as something other than a patient. At first, Driss isn’t at all anxious to perform the less-glamorous tasks associated with being a full-service caretaker. Philippe can afford to employ two other assistants, though, and their presence and advice take a load off Driss’ shoulders. In fact, it doesn’t take long before the two men begin to enjoy other’s company. Philippe laughs at Driss’ jokes, which usually come at the expense of his pompous associates or the silly operas his boss enjoys.

Coming from a large family, living in a small apartment, Driss can’t quite believe his good luck … or the waste and ostentatious lifestyle that comes with wealth. As a thoroughly committed womanizer, he doesn’t hesitate to hit on one of Philippe’s smoking-hot assistants or impress prostitutes with his fancy bedroom. He even convinces his boss to act on his impulses by answering mail from a mysterious female correspondent. Philippe may not have feeling from his neck down, but that doesn’t mean he can’t enjoy a good earlobe massage while stoned on Driss’ killer weed. This may sound far-fetched, but Cluzet’s performance never threatens to go over the top and Driss’ willingness to test Philippe’s limit also is made to feel credible. Ironically, it isn’t until Philippe insists that Driss join him at the scene of the hang-gliding accident that left him immobile – and, at the same time, overcome his own fear of flying — that he begins to expand his horizons. “The Intouchables” may not appeal to diehard curmudgeons, but it left me with a smile and that isn’t the easiest thing in the world to do. The Blu-ray adds deleted scenes. – Gary Dretzka

There are very few better supporting actors working today than David Morse and, in “Collaborator,” he proves once again that no one can top him at playing damaged and tormented characters. He first proved it as a cast member of the ground-breaking TV series “St. Elsewhere” and has since shone in such dramas as “The Indian Runner,” “The Crossing Guard,” “The Green Mile,” “The Hurt Locker” and “Treme.” Martin Donovan’s career has nearly paralleled that of Morse. You might remember him from “The Opposite of Sex,” “Weeds,” “Stephen King’s Dead Zone,” “Boss” and any one of several Hal Hartley titles. “Collaborator” represents Donovan’s first shot at writing and directing, as well as co-starring. In a movie that could have fit the confines of the stage just as easily, the two friends play aging Baby Boomers who lived across the street from each other as children, but embarked on wildly divergent paths in their late teens. After Morse was denied entry into the Marine Corps for being mentally unstable – something I didn’t think was possible during the Vietnam War – he continued to live at home with his mom, drink beer, smoke pot and commit crimes. Donovan’s Robert Longfellow went east and became a playwright of some distinction, before falling on hard times and negative reviews. Robert and Gus meet again in L.A., when the married writer is in town to discuss a film project and, perhaps, rekindle an old flame.

One night, Gus confronts Robert at the door of his mother’s house and demands that he share some beers and, maybe, a doobie or two. Robert agrees, but only reluctantly. Things remain tentative until a cop knocks on the door and asks if police can use the house for a stakeout on Gus’ home. A hostage situation ensues when the fugitive makes his presence known by holding a gun to his neighbor’s head. While waiting out the police SWAT team, the two men begin to reminisce and share life stories. It isn’t until the subject of Robert’s late brother comes up that things begin to get tense, again. Gus and the brother were friends, before he was killed in the war, and, well, let’s just say that he’s been waiting all these years to confront Robert with his anger about the unfairness of it all. There’s a throughline involving Robert’s wife and old girlfriend, but it isn’t nearly as profound as what happens between the two men. “Collaborator” has a trick ending that may or may not please viewers, but clearly shows that Donovan was thinking beyond the obvious. The DVD adds interviews with the writer/director and co-star Olivia Williams, who is typically good in a smallish role. – Gary Dretzka

Interview With a Hitman: Blu-ray
It isn’t often that I’m able to give an unqualified rave to a thriller that goes straight-to-DVD, was made by a first-timer and whose cover promises little more than gunplay and death. “Interview With a Hitman,” written and directed by Perry Bhandal, chronicles the evolution of a professional assassin from his twisted boyhood to the pinnacle of his chosen career. Raised in the slums of Bucharest, Viktor appears to have been born with a chip on his shoulder. As soon as he’s able to hold a pistol in his wee hand, he volunteers to do errands for the local crime boss. They include killing a much larger man who owes money to the mob and wastes his last breath laughing at the boy’s effrontery. Assassins are taught not to leave witnesses, so he also kills the man’s wife. His first mistake in life is not to take out the kiddies, as well.

The life expectancy of even the most accomplished hitmen in Europe is relatively short, if only because trust is in short supply among the thuggish gangsters, all of whom seem to know each other. Viktor has lasted longer than most of his peers, thanks to his marksmanship and fists of fury. He keeps a low profile, but there are only so many mercenary killers listed in the Yellow Pages and his targets tend to be related by blood to a criminal who’s still alive. When he goes against his best instincts and develops feelings for a lethal lady, you sense that his time will come soon.

If none of that sounds remotely different from dozens of other crime thrillers you’ve seen in the last several years, “Interview With a Hitman” has other things going for it than action. In square-jawed Luke Goss (“Death Race 2,” “HellboyII,” “Blade II”), Bhandal has found an actor who has a firm handle on the character’s existential persona and feels comfortable within the film’s impressionistic landscape. Because Viktor isn’t required to waste words explaining his motives and chatting with his targets before killing them, Bhandal can play all the sonic, visual and narrative tricks on viewers that he feels necessary to convey his dark vision. The Blu-ray adds a making-of featurette with interviews. – Gary Dretzka

Lay the Favorite: Blu-ray
British director Stephen Frears has made so many terrific movies – “The Queen,” “The Grifters,” “High Fidelity,” “My Beautiful Launderette,” among them – that it’s easy to forgive him a late-career misstep or two. Not having read the memoirs from which “Lay the Favorite” was adapted, I have no way of knowing if the book was a barrel of laughs or an edgy look at one young woman’s adventures in the high-pressure world of professional sports gambling. I sense it was a little of both. With a cast that includes Bruce Willis, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Vince Vaughn, Corbin Bernsen, Laura Pepron and Rebecca Hall, however, “Lay the Favorite” could hardly have turned out to be anything but madcap or a romp … “Two for the Money” with laughs, if you will. Hall does a nice job as Beth Raymer, a woman who’s led the kind of life that defies belief. Like Diablo Cody, Raymer was a stripper before turning to writing. Her resume also bears similarities to that of Elizabeth Wurtzel, author of “Prozac Nation.” Before she used a Fulbright fellowship to study offshore gambling operations, Raymer was an outcall dancer, sex worker, adult-website model, cocktail waitress, failed social worker, gambler’s apprentice, amateur boxer.

“Lay the Favorite” follows Raymer’s blueprint pretty faithfully. After leaving Florida and her personal-dancer job, Beth moves to Las Vegas to pursue a high-paying job that involves as little actual work as possible. Beth is a lousy cocktail waitress, so that pretty much leaves employment in the sex trade. In a fortunate twist of fate, though, Beth is given an opportunity to study at the feet of a wizard of odds, Dink (Willis), who considers her to be a lucky charm. She quickly grasps the intricacies of legal sports wagering, so she’s ready to go pro when Dink’s blowsy wife, Tulip (Zeta-Jones), cuts shorts her internship. Cocky as hell, Beth moves to New York, where she finds clients for a bookie acquaintance, Rosie (Vaughn). When things get too hot in the Apple, he moves his operation to an island nation, where Internet gambling has become a cottage industry, and she’s quick to follow him there. When Beth runs afoul of Rosie over an uncollected gambling debt, she begs Dink and Tulip for help in setting up the gambler who’s threatened to blow her cover. Again, the actual scam probably wasn’t nearly as amusing is it’s portrayed in “Lay the Favorite.”

Frears is incapable of making a technically inferior movie, but these sorts of star-studded capers can test any director’s ability to keep his cast from devouring the scenery. Several crummy adaptations of Elmore Leonard and Carl Hiaasen novels attest to that. Hall is a serious actress and very likeable here, as is Laura Pepron (“That ’70s Show”) as Beth’s slutty, Vegas-savvy pal, Holly. In fact, if it weren’t for Pepron’s topless-sunbathing scene, which was leaked to adult Internet sites, “Lay the Favorite” might have gone straight to video, instead of opening quietly on 61 screens. Some of the deleted scenes included on the Blu-ray indicate that Frears might have had other ideas for the movie. – Gary Dretzka

Muay Thai Warrior: Blu-ray
This historically based martial-arts adventure began life as “Yamada: The Samurai of Ayothaya,” which far more accurately describes what kind of action viewers can expect here. Nopporn Watin’s freshman outing recounts the 17th Century story of Yamada, a Japanese fighter who is abandoned by an elite samurai expeditionary force operating in Siam. He finds sanctuary in Ayothaya, a rural Thai colony populated by mostly peaceful folks, who, when necessary, go all Muay Thai on their enemies. Yamada (Seigi Ozeki) takes to the new martial-arts discipline like a duck to water, combining what he learns from his master with the Japanese samurai skill set, which includes swordplay. Once he masters Thai boxing, his teacher recommends him for the honor of becoming a royal bodyguard. The Japanese are persistent, though, so there’s plenty of fighting action on display. “Muay Thai Warrior” is pretty easy on the eyes and the fight scenes are well choreographed. The combination of styles is what sells the movie, though. – Gary Dretzka

Gun Hill Road
Sometimes, when men come home from years spent at war or in prison, they expect things to be exactly the way they were before they left. If they aren’t, the guys can either roll with the changes and modify their expectations or take them as an affront to their manhood. That’s what happens in “Gun Hill Road,” a powerful family drama that compounds the agony for the returning male by forcing him to deal with a teenage son who has entered the initial stages of gender reappointment. At first, the muy macho Enrique (Esai Morales) can’t understand his son’s reluctance to join him at a Yankees game and participate in a pickup game in a Bronx park. His priorities simply have changed in the three years that Enrique has been gone. We already know that Michael (Harmony Santana) has come to grips with his sexuality and prefers to spend his non-school hours as a young woman. His mother, Angela (Judy Reyes), accepts her son’s decision – begrudgingly, perhaps – and has a secret of her own to withhold from Enrique. His first instinct is to blame his wife, her mother and sister for allowing Michael/Vanessa to take this path and, more to the point, emasculate him. Enrique’s anger pushes him to make decisions that could threaten the terms of his parole.

“Gun Hill Road” is the first feature by promising NYU graduate Rashaad Ernesto Green, who acknowledges that some of it, at least, is based on his own experiences. From Frame One, Enrique is a train wreck waiting to happen and we suspect that he would have been better served if his P.O. had done some research and considered how the changes at home would affect his behavior on parole. Placing him in a halfway house, until he could adjust to his new reality, probably would have been the better decision. If Green isn’t demonizing Enrique, exactly, he is indicting an engrained cultural prejudice that demands of men and boys that they never expose the less-than-masculine side of their personality. Indeed, Enrique even believes that he can “cure” his son by paying a visit to a prostitute – while sympathetic, she’s less attractive than most of the transgender men he knows – and introduce him to the joys of vaginal sex, such as they are. Writer/director Green isn’t saying that such an attitude is unique to urban Puerto Ricans, only that these are things he observed growing up in such a neighborhood. (On the Showtime series, “Shameless,” another act of forced heterosexuality occurs in a working-class family that’s white.) Green’s ending offers a glimpse of hope for the future, while also recognizing that change rarely occurs without hard lessons and pain. Morales and Reyes are terrific as Michael’s parents. The mother cuts the father as much slack as she possibly can, but won’t put his prejudices ahead of the rest of the family’s happiness. In fact, Michael is a good student and foresees a bright future as a writer. In his first feature role, Santana displays great self-confidence and an impressive emotional range. That Santana was cast before embarking on her own gender transition certainly informed the performance. “Gun Hill Road” takes its subject matter seriously and, even without graphic displays of sexuality, packs a strong punch. Based simply from the cover photograph, fans of Morales’ work could be in for a real shock if they go into the DVD blind. Parents of children undergoing the same treatments as Michael, though, could learn a lot from Green’s assured approach in the movie. It includes an informative interview with the filmmaker. – Gary Dretzka

The Marine 3: Homefront: Blu-ray
In the third installment of WWE/Fox’s “Marine” franchise, “The Marine 3: Homefront,” Mike “The Miz” Mizanin steps in for previous leads John Cena and Ted DiBiase Jr. They’re all graduates of the Vince McMahon Acting Academy. Cena has found some success beyond his “Marine” performance, but, as far as I know, none has given up his day job, yet. Here, Mizanin plays one-man assault team Sgt. Jake Carter, who’s home on leave in Washington state. No sooner does he arrive, however, than he starts to tell everyone what they’re doing wrong in their lives and beating up those who cross him. He’s especially rough on his sister (Ashley Bell), who is dating the wrong guy and had the temerity to quit a job that was arranged for her. Moments before we really are given an opportunity to hate the marine, Sis and her boyfriend are kidnaped by a bunch of guys pissed off by bankers and other corporate types sucking the life out of the American dream. Yeah, I know, join the club. The FBI has dibs on the investigation, but, of course, are no match for a One Man Marine Corps. The terrorists’ evil leader (Neal McDonough) is up to the challenge, however, and he isn’t about to allow one man to spoil his plan to blow up a symbol of all that’s evil in corporate America. If you’re still asking, “So, what’s the problem?,” understand that, like Timothy McVeigh, he doesn’t consider anyone who works in the building to be innocent. “The Marine: Homefront” is full of gung-ho action, most of which takes place in and around an abandoned commuter ship, and Mizanin certainly doesn’t embarrass himself in the lead role. The staged violence, though, is only a step or two above that demonstrated by kids playing Cowboys & Indians in the backyard … or training to be WWE Superstars. As such, it’s about par for the course for straight-to-video actioners. The extras include “Shipwrecked: Breaking Down the Boat”; “The Miz Rocks the Boat,” “The Miz Declassified,” “Casting Call: Ready to Enlist” and “Miz Journal.” – Gary Dretzka

Ghett’a Life
One of the nice things about movies shot on location in Jamaica is that, even 40 years after the release of “The Harder They Come,” we’ve yet to reach a critical mass of films exported from the island. As such, the urban locations and faces of the actors are still fresh. Only a really inept cinematographer could make the lush countryside look unappealing. “Ghett’a Life” tells a story that’s as old as the movies themselves, but the circumstances surrounding it provide a sense of urgency to what otherwise would be considered just another boxing drama. In the days before a hotly contested election, Kingston is divided by gang violence and party politics. Sadly, it coincides with the emergence of 16-year-old aspiring boxer, Derrick (Kevoy Burton), on the national boxing scene. The only training facility is on the other side of the wall dividing the warring communities and by attending classes there, Derrick is deemed a traitor. Just before he’s about to become another victim of mindless revenge, writer/director Chris Browne comes up with a twist that could save the boy’s life and career. “Ghett’a Life” benefits from the nicely captured look of life in the “garrison” communities, through which drive truckloads of soldiers and SUVs occupied by thugs, who look particularly evil. Anyone afraid of not being able to understand the patois should know ahead of time that the movie comes with easy to read subtitles. – Gary Dretzka

Satan’s Angel: Queen of Fire Tassels
Apparently, reports of the death of burlesque were premature. At a time when pornography has gone mainstream and nudity is harder to avoid than it is to find, it’s ironic that the “tease” in the art of striptease is enjoying a resurgence of popularity not only with performers who remember the golden age, but women young enough to be their granddaughters. In her late 60s, Angel Walker is a still-vibrant dancer, touring the world under her longtime stage name, Satan’s Angel. As the title of Josh Dragotta’s revealing and wonderfully entertaining documentary, “Satan’s Angel: Queen of Fire Tassels,” suggests, she’s still twirling her tassels and teaching her successors the same fiery trick. Documentaries about men and women in the skin trade are hardly uncommon these days. What makes this documentary special is Angel’s willingness to be completely candid about the roller-coaster ride she’s been on since she began running away from home, even as a 5th Grader in San Francisco. She’s dated many famous names – Clint Eastwood, Bobby Darin, members of the Rat Pack and the Doors – and doesn’t mind letting us know about them. The lows include a near fatal addiction to cocaine, death threats from the Hell’s Angels and being blackballed from mob nightclubs for being a lesbian. Adding to the film’s charm is that her mother’s still alive and by her side to corroborate her testimony. Nearly two dozen of her peers and younger admirers are here, as well, to discuss their art and what Angel has meant to them. To top it off, there’s lots of archival film footage, photos and publicity material. – Gary Dretzka

If the Syfy channel ever were to merge with Cinemax, movies like “Repligator” would be a staple of programming. The only thing keeping such a thing from happening today is the limitation on nudity – in this case, topless mutants — imposed on networks offered on basic-plus cable. Otherwise, “Repligator” follows the rules in Roger Corman’s playbook covering movies intended for exhibition on TV and in the international market. Like “Piranhaconda” and “Dinocroc vs. Supergator,” the title of Bret McCormick’s 1996 exploitation flick tells potential viewers everything they need to know about the movie ahead of time. “Babegators” probably would have been an even more useful title, but it might not have been specific enough for what essentially would qualify as an R-rated hybrid of sci-fi and horror. The nipples are simply the icing on the cake. Produced on a miniscule DIY budget, apart from the salaries, if any, of Gunnar Hansen (“Texas Chainsaw Massacre”) and scream queen Brinke Stevens, the effects are even cheesier than the screenplay. “Repligator” describes what happens when a top-secret military experiment backfires in the strangest possible way. A transporter gizmo designed to neutralize enemy troops turns male soldiers into horny women who can’t keep their shirts on. When they are aroused to the point of orgasm, the replicants morph into alligators. The same thing happens when the women scientists working in the lab are zapped. Like the x-ray glasses used by their male counterparts to sneak peeks at their boobs, the ray gun only serves to prove to the women that “men are such pigs.” “Repligator” easily qualifies as a guilty pleasure. The DVD adds an interview with the director and making-of featurette.

Any horror movie that opens with a TV anchorwoman reporting, “The Pope committed suicide this morning at 9 o’clock, shooting himself in the head. He left a note saying ‘I do not want to come back,’” can’t be all bad. And despite the glut of zombie movies in the marketplace, “Eaters” is sufficiently different to warrant a recommendation. Made in Italy and dubbed into English, benefits from a washed-out color palette and zombies who are able to do things that undead Americans have yet to master. For one thing, they can talk. Female zombies give birth to dead babies and some display early signs of cognitive powers. They also decompose at different speeds. This allows Dr. Gyno to dissect the less advanced cases and search their bodies for clues that could lead to a cure. Among the few humans unaffected by the plague are bounty hunters Alen (Guglielmo Favilla) and Igor (Alex Lucchesi). The zombies they don’t kill are brought to Gyno’s laboratory, so he can play God. Along the way, they encounter an insane artist, a group of neo-Nazi s led by a pint-sized Hitler, promoters of death matches between captured undead and a mysterious teenage girl, who could be the daughter of the feared Plague Spreader. Things get pretty gruesome sometimes, but genre buffs looking for something different should find something to like in “Easters.” A making-of featurette is included in the DVD package. – Gary Dretzka

The Nativity Story: Blu-ray
Samson and Delilah
Of the 17 Christmas-themed movies listed last December by the Huffington Post as being the best entertainments, none had anything to do with the birth of Jesus Christ. Even such lists on Christian-specific websites tend to be short on movies about the Nativity. It’s almost as if audiences and filmmakers, alike, are ashamed to have anything to do with the story of Christmas, except for an hour or two on the holiday, itself. Or, perhaps, Easter has been deemed the more theatrical of the two occasions and, anyway, how does one explain virgin birth to the kiddies? It would be easier to suggest that Santa Claus delivered the baby Jesus to Mary and Joseph and that’s what is being celebrated on December 25. That scenario might have inspired the distributors to release the Blu-ray ahead of the holiday, instead of in time for March Madness.

Written by Mike Rich and directed by Catherine Hardwicke, “The Nativity Story” stands as the movie that bears the closest relationship to the period and treats the biblical characters as if they’re flesh-and-blood human beings and not painted statues in a crèche in someone’s town square. A few critics found the 2006 film to be “inert,” “dull” and “plodding,” but you have to wonder what they might have been expecting, instead. A cameo by the Easter Bunny, perhaps? Hardwicke benefits from some fine cinematography by Elliot Davis, with whom she collaborated on “Twilight,” “Lords of Dogtown” and “Thirteen,” and nice performances by Ciarán Hinds, Stanley Townsend, Shohreh Aghdashloo, Keisha Castle-Hughes and Oscar Isaac, who, as Joseph, faced the movie’s biggest quandary. Now, if only someone can figure out what Jesus did during the ensuing 30 years, you’d really have something. The Blu-ray adds a making-of featurette.

So much money and effort has been put into the restoration of Cecil B. Demille’s 1949 biblical epic, “Samson and Delilah,” that it’s legitimate to wonder why a Blu-ray edition isn’t being released simultaneously with the DVD. Among other things, the original nitrate three-strip Technicolor negatives were scanned in 4K, and the three strip image was registered, cleaned and color corrected in 4K; the nitrate print was used, as well, to complete the original music overture and mono audio track; and special effect work was done to clean up original optical images. The presentation is bright and extremely lush, with Edith Head’s costumes benefitting the most from the Technicolor. The production may owe far more to Hollywood than the bible, but it’s wonderful to watch Victor Mature in all of his muscular glory. (Was that the MGM lion he slayed with his hands?) Angela Lansbury and Hedy Lamarr are also great fun to watch. “Samson and Delilah,” which ushered in a decade’s worth of similarly lavish biblical epics, was a huge hit for Paramount. If it sometimes feels soundstage-bound and terribly unfashionable, imagine what “Star Wars” will look like in 60 years. – Gary Dretzka

In Search of Memory
PBS: The Distracted Mind
PBS: Boundless Potential
Nova: Hurricane Sandy: Inside the Megastorm
PBS: The Mayo Clinic Diet
It isn’t often that we’re allowed to eavesdrop on a conversation with a Nobel Prize-winning neurobiologist, even on DVD or audio tape. “In Search of Memory” explores the life and work of Eric Kandel, a scientist who’s spent most of the last 60 years looking for the keys to unlock the secrets of learning and memory. Petra Seeger’s documentary is divided into two parts, 1) Kandel’s research and discoveries, and 2) his own memories of growing up in Vienna, prior to and directly after the Anschluss. Although his parents had the foresight to send him to America as soon after the annexation as possible, Kandel’s memories of his early life seem as fresh as anything that happened 10 or 20 years ago. Discovering how such a thing is possible goes to the crux of his research. As a neurobiologist, Kandel used simple animal models – slugs, mollusks, mice among them – that would facilitate electrophysiological analysis of the synaptic changes involved in learning and memory storage. It would take me a million years to understand what’s discussed here, but Kandel makes it easy to follow his methodology, if nothing else. Also important to the discussion is Kandel’s relationship to Judaism. To this end, Kandel travels back to Vienna, where he attempts to locate landmarks from his youth, most of which no longer exist.

If that film doesn’t completely whet your appetite for neuro-stuff, you may want to check out the PBS documentary “The Distracted Mind,” with neuroscientist Adam Gazzaley. It delves into attention, distraction and “the myth of multi-tasking.” It’s become fashionable in the corporate community to encourage multitasking and pushing one’s brain to its limits in the name of production and profits. A generation of young people for whom unions are anathema seems to have welcomed the opportunity not only to push themselves to exhaustion, but also be made redundant when they’ve become too expensive to keep on the payroll. Gazzaley’s research has shown that our brains aren’t as flexible as they might seem and there are limits to its functionality. Like any computer, it’s susceptible to overloading and decreased processing speed. The PBS documentary offers suggestions and solutions to questions relating to how we can improve our attention skills and maintain focus as we age and some of us confront the reality of Alzheimer’s disease.

In the same vein, journalist and educator Mark Walton addresses the very timely question of what happens when people in their 40s, 50s and 60s are forcibly put to pasture by their employers and economic upheaval. The effects of such pain and humiliation can be devastating, as can the boredom that comes with too little stimulation. In “Boundless Potential,” Walton differentiates between the men and women who once worked with their hands and those who, today, rely on their brains. Our grandparents looked at retirement differently than we do. While men and women exhausted by hard labor welcomed the opportunity to no longer wear themselves out for someone else’s benefit, too many people today seek identity and fulfillment in their work, alone, and can’t handle an idle mind. Walton has interviewed hundreds of people for his books and lectures. Some have “flunked retirement,” while others have found new ways to realize their potential.

The producers, reporters and videographers of “Nova” always seem to be stationed at the right place when terrible and wonderful things happen around the world. If not, they arrive shortly thereafter. Such was the case with the mega-storm named Sandy. Beyond the devastation and human suffering loomed questions relating to science and meteorology, some of which are explored in “Hurricane Sandy: Inside the Megastorm.” Given the political climate, many minds turned to the possibility that global warming might have contributed to the perfect storm’s genesis. Others argued that the same combination of weather systems might have come together naturally, regardless of melting icecaps and pollution. The question remains: are storms getting more powerful and, if so, why?

Also from PBS, “The Mayo Clinic Diet” describes the development and execution of the first and only dietary program developed by the Mayo Clinic, based on clinical experience at its facilities in Minnesota, Arizona and Florida. The DVD includes interviews with a multidisciplinary team of physicians, dietitians, clinical psychologists and other medical experts. It is designed to be an effective, practical and enjoyable way to help people lose weight and maintain weight loss. – Gary Dretzka

Someday This Pain Will Be Useful to You
The preppy protagonist of “Someday This Pain Will Be Useful to You” is the latest in a long — and getting longer with every new film festival — line of male characters based consciously or unconsciously on Holden Caulfield. This time, newcomer Toby Regbo has been assigned the task of making his hopelessly messed up high school senior, James Sveck, sympathetic and likeable, even as he stands on a ledge contemplating suicide, probably for the hundredth time since turning 16. We’re led to believe that James can’t deal with the pressure of possibly being gay, even though sexual experimentation is as much a part of the prep-school experience as hazing and playing lacrosse. He’s unhappy for all the usual reasons that kids his age are miserable: existential angst, gender issues, being embarrassed by people in his peer group, his beloved nana’s being on her last legs, a mother who marries anyone with an underused penis, a sister dating her married Polish professor and a dad who just underwent a facelift, so he can attract women James’ age.

More than any unfounded concerns over being gay, James worries about how the adults in his life might take his ambivalence about attending Brown in the fall. His father (Peter Gallagher) expected him to attend Harvard, but James screwed that up by having an emotional breakdown on trip to Washington with other gifted students. (He wasn’t impressed by them and that, too, really depressed him.) For her part, James’ oft-married mother (Marcia Gay Harden) would rather foist her “life coach” (Lucy Liu) on James than sit down with him for a conversation. The biggest problem with the last 20 years’ worth of “Catcher in the Rye” movies is that the protagonists’ problems don’t amount to a hill of beans to most people in the audience. The biggest problem faced by most kids in the movies today is not being invited to a house party or having their Internet privileges revoked by their parents for more than 10 minutes. James’ life coach gets it, even if takes the boy a couple dozen billable hours to figure things out for himself. She knows that students at elite high schools, who can’t find 10 students more unbalanced than they are, probably ought to have the lenses of their glasses adjusted. “Someday This Pain Will Be Useful to You,” which was adapted from the novel by Peter Cameron, benefits from fine supporting performances by Ellen Burstyn, Gilbert Owuor, Deborah Ann Woll, Stephen Lang and Aubrey Plaza. Gallagher and Harden play unlikeable characters in a very likeable way. – Gary Dretzka

Ultramarines: A Warhammer 40,000 Movie: Blu-ray
Lego Ninjago: Masters of Spinjitzu Season Two
Back to the Sea
Everything in the post-apocalyptic world of “Ultramarines” is big, really big, and noisy, really noisy. Set in the 41st Millennium, when there’s no respite from war and carnage, the 2010 CGI-animated film can trace its roots to 1987, when it began life as a tabletop miniature war game played with collectible figures and dice. It has since been adapted into several different video games and “Ultramarines: A Warhammer 40,000 Movie.” The semper fi heroes are genetically enhanced super-soldiers known as Ultramarines and they’re all that stands between good and evil. Fanboys and other longtime game players will have a better handle on the intricacies of the plot than I ever would, but the sci-fi action is fun to watch for a while. Among the voicing cast are Terence Stamp, John Hurt and and Sean Pertwee. It arrives on Blu-ray with a 30-minute making-of documentary, a much shorter backgrounder, a piece on the creation of the Daemon and “Prequel,” a filmed based on the graphic novel by Dan Abnett and David A. Roach.

It’s been a while since Congress has been sufficiently bored to investigate whether television networks are complying with the Children’s Television Act of 1990, which mandates specific amounts of time reserved for educational and informational programming. The last time our legislators looked into the question, they were shocked – shocked! – to discover how little attention was being paid to the legislation. The act is so vague as to be unenforceable and the FCC has other things on its mind, like determining how much pandering to corporate interests is too much. Frankly, I don’t even know if the provisions apply to cable and subscription TV, where one way to get around complaints has been to create infomercials thinly disguised as entertainment. At one time, the biggest concern involved commercials for candy, sugar-larded cereal and toys. I was surprised to learn of the animated Comedy Central series co-produced with LEGO, “Ninjago: Masters of Spinjitzu,” in which all of the characters, monsters, buildings and backdrops look as if they were created by LEGO blocks. It was inspired by a toy series of the same name, of course, and a video game. The storyline is far too complicated to encapsulate here, but there’s nothing at all wrong with the animation or ration of dialogue to ninja action. Neither had I noticed previous collaborations between LEGO, Warners Bros. Interactive Entertainment, DC Comics and several popular movie franchises. The “Ninjago: Masters of Spinjitzu” collection is comprised of episodes from the second and possibly final season. It looks fine in Blu-ray and weighs in at a generous 286 minutes.

Back to the Sea” may be devoid of robots, ninjas and other powerful beings – unless one considers a sea creature’s ability to talk to be a superpower – but it’s impossible to miss its resemblance to the 2003 Pixar blockbuster, “Finding Nemo.” The primary narrative difference between the two pictures is the setting. “Finding Nemo” takes place in and around Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, while “Back to the Sea” plays out in the waters of the northern and western hemispheres. Instead of an aquarium in a dentist’s office, the unfortunate Kevin is destined for a relatively spacious tank in the window of a restaurant in New York’s Chinatown. He dreams of reuniting with his father in crystal clear waters of Barbados, but finds himself entrapped in the intricacies of a pearl heist. The animation may not meet the standards established by Pixar, even those in place 10 years ago, but the youngest viewers aren’t likely to complain. The voice cast includes Tim Curry, Christian Slater, Tara Strong and Mark Hamill. – Gary Dretzka

My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding: Seasons 1&2 + Specials
H2O: Just Add Water: The Complete Season 1
Regular Show: Party Pack
If we can’t be appalled by the cultural and religious traditions of other human beings, what’s the point exactly of reality television? Whether the shows focus on the care and feeding of the Kardashians, the professions favored by Cajun swamp dwellers or purveyors of garbage disguised as treasure, what they’re really attempting to do is convince viewers of their own sanity in a world gone mad. “My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding” is so wrong, in so many different ways, that some people will find it easy to forget the estimated 250,000 Romani killed in Hitler’s death camps and continuing harassment throughout Eastern Europe. Keeping that in mind, it’s easy to forgive British Gypsies and Irish Travelers their more flamboyant customs. Still, that’s what makes the British documentary series, “My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding,” the voyeuristic spectacle that it is. No one, with the exception of wealthy Indians, goes further out for their daughters on the occasions of their First Holy Communion and marriage than Gypsy parents. The pre-teen girls we meet here treat the communion ritual as a dress rehearsal for their weddings, which invariably will come within the next 10 years. The girls dress in gowns that wouldn’t be out of place in a remake of “Gone With the Wind,” complete with frilly umbrellas, high heels and décolletage. Their older sisters take a more hoochie-momma approach to wedding fashions, some dresses even incorporating electric lights. From what I’ve seen, the American versions of the series try even harder to make Romani customs like ridiculous. The DVD includes all 12 episodes of Seasons 1 and 2, plus three one-hour specials, “My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding: The Original Film,” “My Bigger Fatter Gypsy Wedding” and “My Big Fat Gypsy Christmas.” Interspersed with the ceremonies are reports on evictions, harassment and their complex relationship with the non-Gypsy community, which would just as soon prevent them from travelling.

The Australian export, “H20: Just Add Water,” describes what happens when three teenage girls discover an enchanted cavern on an island off the Gold Coast. While there, they’re imbued with magical powers of their own. As if being a teenager weren’t difficult enough, the girls now must cope with the fact contact with water – ocean, bathtub, swimming pool – will cause them to grow the tail fins of a mermaid and a scaly bronze bra to match. The transformation tends to complicate things for the girls when in the company of their “normal” friends. On the plus side, the girls are now in a better position to protect endangered sea turtles and, if they so choose, really impress the boys in their circle. You could think of it as a live-action “SpongeBob SquarePants” for post-pubescent teens. The show aired on Nickelodeon here for three seasons. Besides all of the first-season episodes, the DVD contains a 90-minute movie and behind-the-scenes featurette.

Cartoon Network’s “Regular Show” may not air as part of sister-network Comedy Central’s hipster-magnet programming block, Adult Swim, but that hasn’t limited its appeal to kids of all ages. J.G. Quintel’s art-school sensibility informs every minute of the series, including slacker protagonists Mordecai the Blue Jay and Rigby the Raccoon. Other members of the pair’s inner circle are Benson, the living gumball machine; Skips, the Yeti groundskeeper; Pops, the lollipop-shaped park manager; Muscle Man, who’s anything but in shape; High Five Ghost, named for his peculiar shape. The primary villains are floating heads from outer space. None is even close to being “regular.” The “Regular Show: Party Pack” is comprised of 16 episodes from three seasons. – Gary Dretzka

The DVD Wrapup

Wednesday, February 27th, 2013

The Master: Blu-ray
Nothing harms a movie more than advance speculation in the media – wired, print, Internet – about what was going on in the heads of the director or screenwriter when they were developing it. Typically, the scuttlebutt is much ado about very little, but any publicity is good publicity when the total product is fragile. The early buzz on Paul Thomas Anderson’s “The Master” was that it would depict the founding of Scientology and Philip Seymour Hoffman was modeled directly after L. Ron Hubbard. Gossip about Scientology’s links to some of Hollywood’s brightest stars, while interesting as it pertains to Tom Cruise and his wives, primarily tickles the fancy of bloggers, investigative reporters and conspiracy theorists. I’d venture to say that more potential viewers of “The Master” were turned off by the thought of investing more than two hours of time in a small, if powerful cult religion than were willing to read early reviews arguing that it is, in fact, a very good movie. “The Master” didn’t quite bomb at the box office, but it didn’t immediately cover its nut, either. In fact, “The Master” doesn’t mention Scientology by name and the organization led by Hoffman’s charismatic Lancaster Dodd is far more of a composite of the many cults, pseudo-religions and self-help movements that bloomed in the wake of World War II and the Korean War. Dianetics had the most staying power. “The Master” was informed, as well, by leftover material from Anderson’s “There Will Be Blood,” Jason Robards’ stories about drinking in the Navy during wartime, the life of John Steinbeck and, more than anything else, John Huston’s post-war medical documentary, “Let There Be Light.” Huston was given free access to military hospitals dedicated to helping soldiers, sailors and marines with psycho-neurotic ailments that manifested themselves in the war. The government’s assembly-line approach to psychotherapy was required before the men could be released into a peacetime America largely oblivious to the rigors of combat. Indeed, some of the scenes in “The Master” were lifted directly from the documentary. “Let There Be Light” is included in its entirety in the Blu-ray package.

Joaquin Phoenix is remarkable as Freddie Quell, a sailor who killed non-combat hours drinking anything remotely intoxicating, including fuel from torpedoes. Although it’s never made clear if Quell’s rage issues and breakdown were caused by combat or merely exacerbated by the mind-numbing hooch, he’s required to pass through the treatment mill. Although he’s hardly a model patient, Quell is deemed sufficiently sane to take a job as a portrait photographer at a large department store. It doesn’t take long, however, for his hair-trigger temper and drinking problems – he’s graduated to paint thinner and darkroom developing fluids — cause him trouble among civilians. One drunken evening, Quell hops a yacht in a west-coast port and wakes up on the open ocean with no clue as to how he got there. “Cause” leader Dodd (Hoffman) has appropriated the vessel from one of his wealthy patrons for a group-therapy marathon and welcomes the severely hung-over drifter to join the seminars being conducted en route to Philadelphia. At first glance, the men seem to be an odd match and they are. Dodd claims that he remembers meeting Quell somewhere, perhaps in one of his many previous lives, and takes him on as a personal project. They bond over poisonous liquids and a common intolerance for dissent. Dodd intends to erase painful memories of traumatic episodes in Quell’s past lives, while the newcomer sees in the Master a friend worthy of his protection. He’s been adopted by Dodd’s family (Amy Adams, Jesse Plemons, Ambyr Childers) and travels with them to Cause events around the country. Finally, though, he’s given an ultimatum by the pragmatic Mrs. Dodd to quit drinking or leave the safety of the nest.

There’s nothing to gain by revealing anything more of the narrative here, but, in his restless quest for truth, Quell reminded me of Dean Moriarty and Sal Paradise, the Beat heroes of “On the Road.” Kerouac’s book was written during the same post-war period in which veterans not cut out for the suburbs and 9-to-5 jobs sought refuge in all sorts of movements, including off-brand religions, motorcycle gangs and thrill sports. What’s distinguishes “The Master” from almost every other movie released in 2012 is the intensity of the dramatic interplay between Phoenix and Hoffman. The success of “Argo” notwithstanding, you won’t find better performances in any of the Best Picture nominees, now arriving in DVD and Blu-ray. In addition to Huston’s hugely disturbing documentary, the bonus package includes “Back Beyond,” a 20-minute montage of deleted footage edited by Anderson and set to Jonny Greenwood’s original score, and a very unusual 8-minute making-of featurette. “The Master” is, as they say, not for everyone. It practically defines what it means to be an arthouse movie and, even then, requires tight focus. Those who approach it with an open mind and a surplus of patience will be greatly rewarded. – Gary Dretzka

Holy Motors: Blu-ray
I won’t pretend to understand most of what transpires during the course of Leos Carax’s widely admired “Holy Motors.” I take comfort in knowing, however, that the raves on the summation page at fail to reflect a consensus of critical opinion, either. It would take an abacus to add up all of the multisyllabic adjectives used on just that one page to describe what pundits admire about the movie. Getting inside Carax’s head is another story, altogether. If I had to choose only one adjective to describe “Holy Motors,” it would be “phantasmagoric,” as in “a shifting medley of real or imagined figures, as in a dream” or “characterized by fantastic imagery and incongruous juxtapositions.” “Holy Motors” is all of that and a box of popcorn. Denis Lavant plays Monsieur Oscar, a master in the art of special-effects makeup whose role in life appears to be transforming into disparate characters while being chauffeured around Paris in a white stretch limousine. The various characters play roles defined by Oscar’s boss, Celine, a stiffly coiffed blond with a seemingly limitless imagination. In the nearly 24-hour period covered here, she assigns him to portray an ancient female beggar, hustling tourists with a tin cup; a ninja warrior in a costume typically used in motion-capture animation; a concerned father of a teenage girl; an assassin; a business executive; the leader of a marching band of accordionists; a grotesque sewer snoid; and a half-dozen other personae. Kylie Minogue and Eva Mendes also participate in Celine’s sometimes lethal game.

I use the word, “phantasmagoria” because of Carax’s brilliantly inconsistent and thoroughly absorbing deployment of colors, textures and light. If you can imagine driving the entire length of the Las Vegas Strip in a clown car, wearing holographic sunglasses, you’ll get only half of the picture. Paris is portrayed as being both the City of Lights and an overgrown warehouse district through which no one drives after dark. We’re taken from the depths of Monsieur Merde’s subterranean hideout to the roof of the landmark Samaritaine department store, with a brief stop at a fashion shoot in the Pere Lachaise cemetery. Carax makes all sorts of cinematic references, so, maybe, all that he’s saying is that all life imitates the movies, and I wouldn’t argue that point. Anyone looking for explanations beyond that will have to trust their instincts or stay tuned for the extended making-of featurette and interviews. And, yes, “Holy Motors” does look splendid in Blu-ray. – Gary Dretzka

The Loneliest Planet
Silent Souls
No one knows how strong a marriage or relationship is until it’s tested. More often than not, the test comes in the most obvious and traditional ways possible – cheating and being caught lying about it – while, in other cases, the trigger event is so imperceptible as to be invisible. In Julia Loktev’s completely unexpected drama “The Loneliest Planet,” Gael Garcia Bernal and Hani Furstenberg play a soon-to-be-married couple, Alex and Nica, who are backpacking through the rugged mountains of Georgia (the country). It would be difficult to imagination a more compatible man and woman. They thoroughly enjoy one another’s company and even play word games in foreign languages. To coin an otherwise useless cliché, they complete each other. The only things viewers are required to do during the entire first half of “The Loneliest Planet” is marvel at the magnificent Caucasus Mountains scenery. They’re accompanied by an experienced local guide, Dato, played by Bidzina Gujabidze, a seasoned rock climber in his debut role. He understands enough English to be useful and join in the linguistics games over the nightly campfire. If Dato doesn’t seem particularly happy, it’s because he’s recently been abandoned by his wife and now lives too far away to maintain contact with his son.

There’s no faking the majesty of the mountains and how much they dwarf the trio when the camera pulls back to the middle distance. About halfway through, they come across a group of locals returning to Dato’s village. He knows the men, but it isn’t made clear if they’re hunters, smugglers or guerrillas. Something completely unexpected happens that changes the complexion of the story and demands that we reconsider the strength of the ties that bind. There will be another telling incident later in “The Loneliest Planet,” but it’s more difficult to see how it fits into the picture. We expect terrific performances from Bernal, who plays happy as well as any other player in the game. Furstenberg is the discovery here. Wildly expressive and blessed with flaming red hair, the Israeli-American actor looks enough like Laura Ambrose to be her kid sister and could be mistaken for Jessica Chastain, as well. Gujabidze may have been typecast as a rough-hewn outdoorsman, but he delivers the goods by demonstrating how even the strongest of men can have their hearts broken. “The Loneliest Planet” was adapted from Thomas Bissell’s story “Expensive Trips Nowhere” Even in DVD, the Caucasus range couldn’t be more beautiful. It’s accompanied by a making-of featurette that suggests just how difficult the location shoot must have been.

Also from Eastern Europe comes another movie that explores the inner landscape of a soul and the borders of love. Aleksey Fedorchenko’s “Silent Souls” takes only 75 minutes to tell a story that carries the weight and directness of a novella. It is a road movie of sorts, with elements of the buddy film informing it, as well. Its flavor, though, is distinctly Russian. Immediately after the death of his wife, a burly middle-age man from the west-central Kostroma Oblast, on the banks of the Neya River, asks a writer friend to accompany him to the region in which they were born. It once was dominated by the Merya, an ancient culture that was assimilated by the East Slavs in the 11th Century and has all but disappeared. What keep it alive today are a language and certain unique traditions. One requires the widower, Miron, to prepare his wife’s corpse and transport it to a fondly remembered place, where her body will be cremated. Along the way, Miron describes intimate details of his marriage to Aist as part of a mourning process called “smoking.” Aist listens quietly to the reflections, while adding background asides for viewers. After the ceremony, which recalls the funeral pyres along the Ganges in India, the men take the tradition even further. The ending is a stunner, but no less poetic than anything that’s preceded it. – Gary Dretzka

The Kid With a Bike: Criterion Edition: Blu-ray
Chronicle of a Summer: Criterion Edition: Blu-ray
Belgium’s filmmaking brothers, Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, make movies about people who normally don’t register on the radar screen of life. They are decidedly working-class folks, struggling to hold on to what they already have or looking for angles to make their stays on Earth slightly more comfortable. To accomplish this, the more unscrupulous among them take advantage of orphans, illegal immigrants and vulnerable young women with plenty to lose. They get away with such abuses because their lives and crimes typically are too mundane to involve anyone besides members of their immediate family. This makes them perfect candidates for closer examination through the Dardennes’ exquisitely precise microscope. They’ve come to life in such naturalistic profiles as “La promesse,” “Rosetta,” “Le fils,” “L’Enfants” and “Le silence de Lorna.” Titles like these are what make festivals such alluring destinations for cineastes, critics and buffs afraid that films of such high quality won’t make it to the boonies. “The Kid With a Bike” differs from previous Dardennes efforts in the relatively bright color scheme used and inclusion of music. What begins as a tragedy waiting to happen evolves none too swiftly into something resembling a fairy tale about “a woman who helps a boy emerge from the violence that holds him prisoner.”

In “The Kid With a Bike,” the Dardennes cut almost immediately to the chase, leaving no room for an expository opening or convenient narrative device. They test the viewers’ ability to get a quick handle, but reward them as the details of the protagonist’s backstory emerge organically throughout the story. (Imagine picking up a novel and skipping the preface and first chapter before digging into it.) We’re introduced to 12-year-old Cyril (Thomas Doret) in mid-rant. He’s demanding that a caretaker at a foster home – or, perhaps, reform school — attempt, perhaps for the hundredth time, to call a number that only a month ago belonged to his father. Once again, of course, the boy is told that the phone has been disconnected and there’s no forwarding information. Cyril’s positive that the operator is lying to him, for perhaps the hundredth time, and his father simply isn’t picking up the phone at their apartment. More than anything else, the boy is interested in finding out what happened to the bicycle his father gave him before he was sent to what we now know is a placement center for orphans and abandoned children. After acting out his frustration on the supervisor, he takes advantage of a quiet moment to once again jump the facility’s fence and high-tail it to the apartment. Knowing he’s being trailed, Cyril attempts to find sanctuary in a doctor’s office, citing an obviously phony injury. The receptionist tips the caretakers of his presence, but, instead of immediately dragging the boy back to the foster home, they agree to take him to the apartment. What he finds is an empty dwelling, but no bicycle. Cyril still refuses to believe that his father would abandon him or sell his bike, which is exactly happened.

Fortuitously, a woman who was in the doctor’s waiting room takes pity on Cyril and volunteers to track down the bike. After buying it back from the new owner, Samantha (Cécile de France) delivers it to the foster home, where it’s almost immediately stolen by older boys. They don’t get very far before Cyril runs them down, however. As Samantha’s about leave the facility, the boy catches up to her and pleads for her to let him spend weekends with her. She may ultimately become the story’s fairy princess, but, for now, the single, childless businesswoman doesn’t comprehend the task ahead of her. Cyril quickly convinces her to help him find his father, which she does, but the boy appears to blame her when the man refuses to embrace him. Worse, he uses his time away from the foster home to indenture himself to a local hoodlum. There’s no reason to spoil the ending, except to say that things get much worse for Cyril before they get a whole lot better for both of them. “The Kid With a Bike” is a terrifically heart-warming story with universal appeal and characters we must learn to love. The Criterion Collection version looks excellent in Blu-ray and features such enhancements as a conversation between film critic Kent Jones and both of the Dardennes; interviews with actors Doret and De France; a half-hour documentary, in which the Dardennes revisit five locations from the film; and booklet featuring an essay by critic Geoff Andrew.

Also new from Criterion Collection is “Chronicle of a Summer,” a documentary collaboration between anthropologist Jean Rouch, sociologist Edgar Morin and Michel Brault, the French-Canadian cinematographer who is credited with introducing to Europe. It begins with a discussion among the filmmakers about whether the presence of a camera during the production of a documentary necessarily turns non-actors into actors, thereby corrupting the information captured by the filmmakers. Volunteers then take to the streets of Paris, asking passersby if they’re happy and why. It is the summer of 1960, a time in French history when the wars for independence in African were being widely debated, the gap between the working class and bourgeoisie was widening, more women and immigrants were entering the work force and the French New Wave cinema was in full bloom. The discussions would continue in workshop settings, individually and even on a vacation outing. To cap off the documentary, the participants were assembled once again to watch the footage gathered and discuss its veracity.

Cinéma verité would soon become an important tool in the documentary-making process, but, in “Chronicle,” it’s in its infancy. The filmmakers didn’t even know yet what kinks they’d have to work out for their films to be taken seriously. Because of its focus on French issues and lifestyles – which still felt quite foreign to non-Francophiles — not all of the material will be relevant to American viewers. At the time, we were emerging from our Eisenhower-era hibernation, Vietnam wasn’t on anyone’s mind, agriculture was losing ground to industry, the suburban idyll was being realized and Communists and Socialists had no footing in politics, as they had in Europe. Later, fly-on-the-wall documentaries by Lionel Rogosin, Maysles brothers, Frederick Wiseman and D.A. Pennebaker would disabuse us of the notion that Americans were without sin, but, in 1960, “Ozzie and Harriet” and “Leave It to Beaver” were as close to reality as most people wanted to get. The most surprising and revelatory conversation in “Chronicle,” perhaps, comes when two Africans are asked if they know what the numbers tattooed onto the arm of one of the women in their group meant. In fact, they had no idea how the numbers related to the Nazi concentration camps, the existence which had been revealed 15 years earlier. The men appear stunned by the woman’s explanation of the Holocaust and her description of Auschwitz. With memories of Dien Bien Pho fresh in their minds, some of the participants also demonstrated frustrations with the ongoing Algerian crisis and collapse of the colonial way of life. Less than a decade later, average Americans would echo those same concerns.

The Blu-ray benefits from a new high-definition digital transfer of the Cineteca di Bologna restoration of the film; a separate 73-minute documentary, with outtakes and new interviews with Morin and some of the film’s subjects; archival interviews with Rouch and Marceline Loridan, the Holocaust survivor; a new interview with anthropology professor Faye Ginsburg, organizer of several Rouch retrospectives; and a booklet with an essay by Sam Di Iorio. – Gary Dretzka

A Simple Life: Blu-ray
One of the most enduring clichés about Asian families is the great reverence reserved for elders by younger generations. I don’t know if the tradition has changed as China, Japan, Korea and other countries have adapted western habits and wealthy families have begun to split their time between the Old Country and the United States. Ann Hui’s deeply affecting “A Simple Life” suggests that while some families maintain generational ties to their elders, the pace of life and business in urban centers has eroded the tradition, at least. “A Simple Life” describes life on the cusp of past and present. Roger (Andy Lau) is a successful movie producer, living in Hong Kong. Ah Tao (Deanie Ip) has worked for Roger’s family as a nanny and maid over the course of four generations and she’s treated like a respected aunt. With most of Roger’s immediate family living in San Francisco, Roger is the beneficiary of Ah Tao’s good cooking and close attention. One day, she suffers a stroke and needs someone to care for her. She insists that Roger place her in a western-style nursing home, where she’ll get therapy but be surrounded by residents far more miserable and alone than she is. Roger never stays away for long and her humor returns with her dexterity. Still, she’s far too modest to let any kindness pass without putting up some sort of a fuss.

“A Simple Life” is about a woman whose sacrifices to a family not her own are rewarded as if she shared their DNA. It couldn’t be described any more simply than that. At nearly two hours, the film may be a tad long for western audiences, especially those who may be queasy about making similar decisions about nursing homes for loved ones or themselves. As bleak as some of the scenes in the facility may be, Ann Hui’s film is, more often than not, uplifting. All of the attention being paid to Michael Haneke’s Oscar-winner, “Amour,” should help “A Simple Life” find its natural audience here on DVD and Blu-ray here. It was interesting to learn that Ip is Lau’s godmother in real life. Both are terrific in the lead roles. Look for cameos by Sammo Hung, Tsui Hark and other fixtures of the Hong Kong cinema. – Gary Dretzka

Madrid 1987
Anyone who was thoroughly creeped out by Woody Allen’s courting of Mariel Hemingway in “Manhattan,” or Juliette Lewis in “Husbands and Wives,” can stop reading now. “Madrid 1987” won’t be your cup of tea. In Spanish writer/director David Trueba’s claustrophobic anti-romance, a pretty young college student (Maria Valverde) spends most of a day and night in the company of a political columnist, who looks as if he might remember when Franco’s fascist legions took Madrid. Journalism student Angela needs to do a paper on an important Spaniard and gets a friend to pass along Miguel’s phone number. (“I don’t go into the office, because they won’t let me drink anymore.”) Finally, they connect in a restaurant, which, like everything else in the city, is mostly vacant over a holiday weekend. Miguel may have been a handsome man at one time, but now looks a bit like Charles Bukowski crossed with Ron Jeremy. He completely overwhelms Angela with self-serving blather designed to make her think she’d be a fool not to give him a roll in the hay. She follows the geezer back to his buddy’s apartment, where he slowly but surely wears down her resistance. Instead of a roll in the hay, however, they consummate their interview on the tub of a cramped bathroom, whose door automatically locked them in when it closed. Their session may not be pretty, but it’s blessedly short.

Unfortunately, mostly for Angela, their only means of communication with the outside world is a small vent window. No one in the neighborhood is around to hear them, anyway, so she has to listen to his jaded observations and ancient war stories until the neighbors get back from their vacations. Fortunately, primarily for Miguel, the only thing in the bathroom that could be confused with clothing is the towel she’s clinging to her chest. He had, you see, snuck into the bathroom while she was taking a shower and kicked their clothes outside the door. Naked and wet, Angela could easily pass for a 16-year-old, which doesn’t bother Miguel in the least. (He’s so distracted that he neglects to snuff out his cigarette before inviting himself into the shower.) Now, it’s entirely possible that Angela was fully aware of the possibility that they might end their interview with sex. Miguel doesn’t have to resort to coercion or violence to grease the skids and his seduction routine doesn’t seem to faze her. Trueba picked 1987 for his story because it was a period of political and social upheaval in post-Franco Spain. A younger generation, tired of listening to the old-timers rehash the Civil War, was coming to the fore and demanded change. It’s been suggested that viewers conversant in Spanish will find more humor in the dialogue than subtitles allow. There are no bonus features. – Gary Dretzka

Chicken With Plums
When it comes to Iran, most Americans find it difficult look beyond the day in 1979 when radical Islamist students stormed our embassy in Tehran and held 52 workers there hostage for 444 days. In a very real sense, the country’s leaders – some of whom participated in the takeover – have held us captive ever since then. The media feel compelled to address every ludicrous threat to Israel and update on the country’s nuclear program, even knowing they’re being played like a fiddle. It helps explain why “Argo” caught the nation’s fancy, finally winning an Oscar for Best Picture. No matter how compelling Tony Mendez’ actual story is, the writers felt it necessary to suggest that Iranian police were so incompetent they couldn’t prevent a jetliner from taking off a hundred yards away from them. In fact, while the security guards may have been fooled by the false Canadian passports and visas, there was no Keystone Kops-like attempt to get through closed doors and gates, let alone a car chase with a 747. Even if “Argo” served as the feel-good movie of the year for American viewers – and it is undeniably entertaining – but, fact is, we’re no closer to peace now than we were in 1979.

That mainstream audiences in the U.S. have ignored the many fine movies made by Iran filmmakers in and out of exile is no mystery. We avoid anything that arrives on our shores with subtitles and actors whose names and faces don’t ring a bell. Last February, Asghar Farhadi’s “A Separation” was denied a nomination for Best Picture, even though it was inarguably one of the three or four most honored films in the world in 2011. It was accorded Best Foreign Language Film honors, instead. No film in recent years has said as much about the human condition as “A Separation” and, even though it was made in Tehran, Farhadi was able to reveal several sad truths about life in the Islamic Republic. By contrast, the powerful French drama “Amour” was nominated for the 2013 Best Picture, while also winning in the foreign-language category.

In 2008, Marjane Satrapi and Vincent Paronnaud were nominated in the same race for their animated adaptation of the graphic novel “Persepolis.” It describes how a teenage girl who cheered the demise of the Shah’s regime found herself equally disappointed by the restrictions imposed by Islamic fundamentalists. After being sent to Austria to study and wait out the fanatics, the character effectively becomes a woman without a country. Their follow-up effort, “Chicken With Plums,” also is set in Tehran, but only five years after an American-led, British-backed coup toppled Mohammed Mossadegh’s democratically elected government. The Shah had been installed as dictator and Tehran was becoming a cosmopolitan and still multicultural metropolis. There’s an undercurrent of political change in “Chicken With Plums,” but it’s almost imperceptible. It’s very easy to identify the magical realism and human tragedy that informs a story that reminded me of both “Hugo” and “A Thousand and One Arabian Nights.”

As played with great elasticity and compassion by Mathieu Amalric, Nasser-Ali Khan is a violinist of considerable talent, but little luck in life. After his prized instrument is broken, he desperately searches for a violin at least as special as the last one. After being disappointed twice, Nasser-Ali decides that his life no longer is worth living. Nothing, including his family, holds meaning for him. In the week or so that follows this decision, Nasser-Ali can only reflect on what’s gone before in his life. He has no future, after all. (We’re told that he dies early in the narrative, so no need for a spoiler alert here.) Satrapi and Paronnaud take us back with him as he reminisces about a hurtful sibling rivalry he was forced to endure as a child and the refusal of a clockmaker to approve his marriage to the man’s daughter, simply because he believes that musicians will always be poor. Instead, her hand is given to a soldier.

The Angel of Death visits his bedroom, allowing him a peek into the surrealistic future of his children. Nasser-Ali’s wife (Maria de Medeiros) hopes to coax him out of his malaise with his favorite dish, chicken with plums, and by letting down her hair, but to no avail. Satrapi and Paronnaud intersperse live-action with animation, stylized sets and hand-drawn backdrops that wouldn’t have been out of place on “Pee-wee’s Playhouse.” Finally, if we aren’t encouraged to shed any tears for Nasser-Ali, we sympathize with him for the many missed opportunities and disappointments in his life. The Blu-ray presentation greatly enhances the experience, as it plays directly to the filmmakers’ visual strengths. It adds commentary and a festival Q&A. – Gary Dretzka

How to Survive a Plague
Today, it would be difficult to be more than one or two degrees of separation from someone who’s HIV-positive, but living an otherwise healthy, happy and productive life. It was a different story 30 years ago, when hemophiliacs comprised the primary at-risk group and concern over blood used in transfusions reached new heights. In 1987, gay and lesbian activists in New York formed ACT-UP to demand progress in the diagnosis, care and treatment of those with HIV/AIDS. The deaths of Rock Hudson and Liberace showed that wealth, celebrity and access to the best medical treatment couldn’t prevent AIDS-related deaths, but it wasn’t until 1991, when basketball superstar Ervin “Magic” Johnson announced that he was HIV-positive that the plague hit home to mainstream Americans. Not only did Johnson insist that the virus was transmitted through heterosexual contact, but he also vowed to fight the disease with the same intensity as any opponent on the court. Besides coming out of retirement twice to play basketball, he would live to found the Magic Johnson Foundation, become a full-fledged business tycoon and purchase a share of the Los Angeles Dodgers. Fortuitously, the odds of Johnson and thousands of others in his condition surviving for more than a few more months and years would greatly improve from accelerated research into treatments. Finally, clinical trials would test combinations of multiple drugs and FDA approval of experimental drugs was accelerated. It is believed that use of “AIDS cocktails” resulted in a 60-80 percent decline in rates of AIDS, death, and hospitalization in the United States. Outside of North America and Western Europe, however, the pandemic continued claim lives at an alarming pace.

How to Survive a Plague” chronicles ACT-UP’s crucial role in the process. While the organization was born out of frustration, grief and anger, its surviving members, at least, could take comfort in knowing that their efforts gave millions of people real hope for survival. A cure may still elude scientists, but almost all of the roadblocks to finding one have been removed … except money, of course. The thing that concerned the activists most was the lack of speed and determination displayed by the FDA and other government-funded research agencies to push testing of antiretroviral treatments and combinations of drugs. Meanwhile, pharmaceutical firms were being allowed to gouge patients in the name of research and development, and insurance interests could refuse compensating hospitals for treatment. Underground networks created to supply drugs still not approved by the FDA flourished, even without guarantees the medicine would work. ACT-UP made sure no one forgot what was at stake, by staging rallies and disruptive office takeovers, challenging the official Roman Catholic stance on condoms, standing up to such conservative bullies as Jesse Helms and prodding the media with guerrilla actions. It also committed itself to learning everything there was to know about the disease, treatment options, promising drugs and finding money to fund research. The two-pronged strategy put ACT-UP in the unique position of knowing more about the disease than most researchers and public-health officials. David France’s documentary is comprised of much archival video footage from meetings and protests, home movies that recall people who succumbed to disease and interviews that span 1987 and today. It can be argued that “How to Survive a Plague” errs by virtually ignoring what was happening outside New York and focusing too little on the scientists who were as desperate to find solutions as anyone else. It is, however, a fine addition to the growing catalogue of documentary titles on the subject. – Gary Dretzka

Kiss the Abyss
Border Run: Blu-ray
Joshua Tree: Blu-ray
There’s no law that prohibits critics from cutting a break or two for movies that try really hard to be please horror fans, but end up in straight-to-DVD purgatory, anyway. Absent substantial budgets and recognizable stars, though, these overachievers are totally dependent on cover art and positive reviews in genre-specific websites. “Kiss the Abyss” has enough good things going for it to have attracted some positive attention there, but it could easily get lost in the crowd. Ken Winkler’s debut feature tweaks a theme that’s as old as “Frankenstein” – the book, that is – and, if he doesn’t actually breathe new life into it, at least there’s some gratuitous nudity and enough fake blood to deplete the supply of corn syrup and red dye in most small towns. Soft-core princess Nicole Moore (“Femme Fatales,” “The Babymakers”) plays Lesley, an artist whose husband (Scott Wilson) makes the mistake of getting between feuding meth-head neighbors, one of whom kills her with a baseball bat. Lesley’s wealthy father convinces the husband to take her lifeless body to a garbage-strewn outpost in the desert, where a guy (Douglas Bennett) who looks like Harvey Keitel’s younger brother has developed a re-animation serum. Maybe, you can guess what happens next. When Lesley gets back home, alive, she begins to display several ugly anti-social tendencies, one of which is a decided taste for other people’s blood. The real fun comes when the husband and his brother-in-law return to the desert to get their deposit back. Unfortunately for everyone involved, except viewers, the mad scientist has a strict no-refunds policy.

In “Border Run,” Sharon Stone plays a decidedly non-glamorous TV reporter, whose conservative views on immigration make her a hero among the “kill ’em all, let God sort ’em out” crowd in southern Arizona. Her Sofie Talbert lives to unmask politicians who pretend to be hard-liners on the subject, but vote otherwise in Congress. When she discovers that her relief-worker brother (Billy Zane) has disappeared while working in Mexico, she decides to cross the border herself to bring him or his corpse home. In doing so, Talbert discovers an upside-down world of desperate migrants, corrupt and trigger-happy cops, vicious coyotes, heroin smugglers, bad guys disguised as good guys and good guys disguised as bad guys. She also is unhappy to learn that all of the American-flag pins in her jewelry case can’t protect her against slimeballs working both sides of the border. It’s safe to predict that whatever right-wing beliefs that she was harboring before going south would begin to melt as soon as she met flesh-and-blood migrants and was fired upon by American vigilantes, toting high-powered rifles and an urge to kill Mexicans. Handed this much baggage to carry, director Gabriela Tagliavini did well by making “Border Run” as exciting and unpredictable as it is. The vast desert landscapes look impressively desolate on Blu-ray and an aura of unharnessed violence permeates the narrative. Given how divisive the immigration question is in the U.S., it’s not surprising that the distributors decided to release it first on DVD and Blu-ray.

I don’t mean to sound insensitive here, but the release on Blu-ray of “Joshua Tree” (a.k.a., “Army of One”) seems as if it were timed to exploit the tragic events surrounding the manhunt for cop-killer Christopher Dorner. Of course, Shout Factory scheduled it months before the news about the first deaths and release of Dorner’s manifesto began to unfold, so the company’s innocent of pandering.  Nevertheless, it’s impossible to watch the less preposterous parts of “Joshua Tree” without flashing on that terrible week in SoCal history. For one thing, the distance between Joshua Tree and Big Bear is about the same as that between Big Bear and Los Angeles. More to the point, however, Dolph Lundgren’s character can’t get anyone to believe his story about being framed by corrupt cops in the murder of a Highway Patrol officer. His escape from custody sparks a manhunt involving law-enforcement agencies throughout the region. In the course of evading the pursuit, Lundgren’s Wellman Santee also destroys a car that would lead police to his location. In fact, though, director Vic Armstrong and writer Steven Pressfield staged “Joshua Tree” as homage to Raoul Walsh’s “High Sierra,” which is referenced during the movie. All coincidences aside, “Joshua Tree” remains a competently made action flick, staged amid some of the desert Southwest’s most spectacular scenery – Lone Pine, Mount Whitney, Palm Springs, Death Valley — and with enough recognizable stars to distract viewers from the story’s shortcuts and lapses in logic. Armstrong’s vast experience as a stuntman didn’t hurt, either. Joining Lundgren here are George Segal, Kristian Alfonso, Geoffrey Lewis, Michelle Phillips, Michael Paul Chan and Khandi Alexander. The Blu-ray transfer looks pretty good and it adds fresh interviews and an alternate ending. – Gary Dretzka

Freaky Deaky
Writer/director Charles Matthau probably could have made a worse adaptation of Elmore Leonard’s sendup of 1960s radicals living in Reagan-era America, but I seriously doubt that he could have made a better version of “Freaky Deaky” than he already has. That’s not intended to be taken as a compliment. While he sticks pretty close to the 1988 book’s basic structure, Matthau’s decision to turn back the clock to the early 1970s essentially makes it a cross between a freak show and a sight gag. That’s because a cast that once reportedly included Brendan Fraser, Matt Dillon, William H. Macy, Craig Robinson and Sienna Miller ended up being headed by Christian Slater, Crispin Glover, Andy Dick, Michael Jai White, Billy Burke and two pretty young women, neither of whom are up to the task of impersonating a Leonard-drawn femme fatale. Burke plays Chris Mankowski, a member of the Detroit Police Department’s bomb squad mustered out for investigating the wrong people. Glover and Dick play millionaire brothers Woody and Mark Ricks as if they were channeling their own worst behavior, as reported in People magazine. Slater plays a Weather Underground wannabe, who, along with his ex-con girlfriend (Breanne Racano), are blackmailing the Ricks brothers for money and revenge. They use sticks of dynamite to get their point across. The way Mankowski fits into this mess is his expertise with explosives and interest in a rape charge against one of the Ricks, brought by an exotic dancer (Sabina Gadecki). Glover, Dick and Slater hold up their end of the bargain in “Freaky Deaky,” but everyone around them is decidedly subpar. The less one knows about Leonard’s books, the more likely they’ll be to find something here to enjoy. – Gary Dretzka

Noel Gallagher: International Magic Live at the O2: Blu-ray 
Not all high-definition productions are created equal. Sports look great on HDTV, while dramas and sitcoms benefit only marginally from the technical upgrade. Movies shot on film and transferred to Blu-ray look fine, but they don’t necessarily sparkle and pop like those shot, edited and transferred digitally. It explains why animation, concerts and nature films stand out from the crowd. I was reminded of this tendency while watching “Noel Gallagher: International Magic Live at the O2” in Blu-ray. I often find it difficult to distinguish more than two or three of Oasis’ hits from dozens of other songs the feuding Gallagher boys recorded. What held my attention throughout the Blu-ray, though, was the clarity of the cinematography, especially when intensified by the laser show and other lighting effects. The audio presentation, as well, delivers the muscle of the brass and choral elements backing Gallagher’s High Flying Birds unit. The two-disc set follows the guitarist and songwriter as he performs live in London and plays an acoustic set at Toronto’s Mod Club. It also includes a 20-minute film created using his “Ride the Tiger” music videos, plus footage of live performances from the 2012 NME Awards. As an added bonus, the Blu-ray edition comes with a bonus audio CD with thirteen exclusive demo tracks. – Gary Dretzka

Company of Heroes
Set during the Battle of the Bulge, the first half of Don Michael Paul’s World War II thriller, “Company of Heroes,” unspools like an episode of the old TV series, “Combat.” Every effort was made to produce an authentic look and enough action to satisfy video gamers in love with WWII strategy, simulator and shooter titles, as well as the dwindling number of veterans wondering why they don’t make actors like John Wayne, Audie Murphy and Vic Morrow anymore. It isn’t bad, considering that it probably was always designed to go straight-to-video. In the second half, a unit that manages to survive the Battle of the Bulge is assigned to make contact with an OSS officer, who will direct the soldiers to a target where a nuclear bomb could be in the developmental stages. When we were told that the movie was “inspired by true events,” I now assume the producers had Operation Alsos in mind. An Allied mission to deny German scientists the “heavy water” necessary for the production of nuclear energy had already taken place in Norway. Alsos was more focused on the scientists and progress of Germany’s program.

Although the Alsos teams determined that the Germans were lagging in their development of a nuclear bomb, intelligence officers on both fronts simultaneously were scrambling to beat each other to the targets. While the Americans and Brits were anxious to keep the most valuable information from a similarly composed Soviet unit, the Yanks weren’t particularly forthcoming with their partners, either. Knowing what the Soviets might have in store for them, if captured, Nazis involved in the rocketry and atomic programs chose to surrender to the Americans. Some of them would be forgiven their sins and assigned to luxury postings in NASA. If “Company of Heroes” provides something of a primer on Alsos, the primary focus is on action and melodrama. (There’s even a bit of skin thrown in for good measure.) The cast includes Tom Sizemore, Chad Michael Collins, Neal McDonough, Vinnie Jones, Jurgen Prochnow and Melia Kreiling, whose Grecian beauty could have inspired another installment in the “Why We Fight” series. The DVD adds some decent making-of featurettes. (Those interested in the Norwegian mission should check out “The Heroes of Telemark” and non-fiction “The Real Heroes of Telemark.”) – Gary Dretzka

Nobody Gets Out Alive
It’s difficult to find much of anything to say, one way or the other, about a slasher flick that pays homage to the classics of the genre, but forgets to add anything new to the mix. At a mere 78 minutes, “Nobody Gets Out Alive” contains enough bloody murders to fill a longer movie. If anyone had something fresh to contribute, there was plenty of time left for it. Either the producers ran out of money or the director ran out of ideas. I’d hate to think it simply was a matter of the local Halloween supply store running out of fake blood. Writer/director Jason Christopher opens his sophomore feature with the blessedly off-screen death of a little girl who’s hit by a car driven by out-of-control teenagers. Her father, Hunter Isth (Brian Gallagher), only took his eyes off her for a second before the sound of tiny bones being crushed fills the air. Not surprisingly, perhaps, it causes him to go mad. Instead of tracking down the driver and passengers in the speeding car and dishing out his revenge, Isth goes the Sasquatch route, by hiding out in the woods and killing everyone who attempts to enter his lair. Before long, a generic group of teenage campers makes the mistake of doing just that. Only the pretty blond teen, Jenn (Jen Dance), a recent graduate of a mental hospital, lives to tell the tale to the best known member of the cast, Clint Howard. The surprise ending isn’t all that surprising, but, at least, it ties things up. The making-of featurette shows more initiative than the screenplay. – Gary Dretzka

Fast Girls
Released in the U.K. ahead of the Summer Olympics, “Fast Girls” goes the inspirational route to promote teamwork, selflessness and sportsmanship among viewers in the teenage-girl demographic. Although we’re encouraged to anticipate a “Bend It Like Beckham”-like dramedy, precious little original thought went into the cliché-ridden story. British viewers would have been much better served if freshman director Regan Hall and his quartet of writers had watched and studied Robert Towne’s similarly themed “Personal Best.” As it is, though, I think “Fast Girls” was more interested in getting casual fans of track and field interested in the Games than showing the blood, sweat and tears that are an integral part of training. Neither did it hurt box-office prospects that the women runners we meet are uniformly gorgeous and disco-ready at all times.

As played by Lenora Crichlow (“Being Human”), Shania is a parentless child and brilliant runner from the wrong side of the tracks. Her problem is that she has an insecurity complex that’s equal parts self-destructive and unattractive. Of Jamaican heritage, Shania naturally is pitted against the privileged blond sprinter Lisa, played by Lily James (“Downton Abbey”), whose father is a total jerk. Can the girls get their personal acts together before the Olympics? If they do, will they be rewarded with cosmetics endorsements? “Fast Girls” is enhanced by a bouncy ska-influenced soundtrack and an atypically diverse cast. The bonus material includes pieces on cast training, the relay race, costume design, shooting at night, the “Fast Girls Championship” and “Fun With the Fast Girls.” – Gary Dretzka

Discovery: Africa: Blu-ray
The Client List: The Complete First Season
Nickelodeon: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Rise of the Turtles
Disney Channel: Phineas & Ferb: The Perry Files: Animal Agents

PBS: The Reagan Presidency
No matter how much we’ve come to expect excellence in the nature and wildlife series co-produced by the BBC and Discovery, there’s always plenty of room left for surprise. “Africa,” the latest installment in the BBC Earth franchise, is just such a production. It takes everything we know and have seen previously about the continent and adds stunning visual evidence for every new revelation. It took four years to record what we witness in the three-disc, six-part series, which takes us from South Africa’s Cape Agulhas and Cape Point, which are teeming with aquatic life, to the great Sahara Desert, where the animals are few and the sand dunes “sing.” As usual, Sir David Attenborough is there to explain how the natural phenomena came to exist, their relationship to mankind and what can be expected in the future. Naturally, we also visit the Congo rainforest, vast East African savannah, surprisingly well-populated deserts of the Kalahari and outposts where every effort is being made to preserve what’s left of endangered species. I’ve seen dozens of documentaries about gorillas and the fragility of their environment, but it’s never been documented so poignantly as in the footage showing an alpha male looking out from his cloud-swept habitat at the plantations and estates encroaching on all sides of the forest preserve. He’s trapped and probably knows it. Neither have I ever seen the gathering of rhinos that takes place nightly at a convenient watering hole on the savannah. It might as well be a disco in Nairobi. Other rituals are captured as they’ve been performed out of sight of man for centuries. The Blu-ray adds a bonus episode, “The Future”; outtakes and deleted scenes; and interviews with the host, producers and cinematographers.

The sexy prime-time soap, “The Client List,” easily qualifies as a guilty pleasure for women who fantasize about beating the recession by working in a high-end massage parlor or brothel. Hey, it’s Lifetime, the network where women rule. The many Victoria’s Secret moments have attracted an unusually large number of male viewers, as well. The show’s primary drawing card, of course, is lovely and voluptuous Jennifer Love Hewitt. The presence of the notoriously modest JLH probably wouldn’t nearly be as alluring if she had given in to the financial temptations of posing in the buff for Playboy or some less prestigious rag. The most revealing thing Mr. Skin could find on her resume was a momentary underwater “nip slip” from “The Tuxedo.” On “The Client List,” JLH plays a former Texas homecoming queen, who married her high school jock boyfriend but has fallen on hard economic times. To make ends meet, and then some, Samantha reluctantly accepts a job in a massage parlor. After being shocked by her customers’ advances, she learns to enjoy the work. The series also features appearances by Cybill Shepherd, as mom; Loretta Devine, as the owner of the massage parlor; and Colin Egglesfield, as the estranged husband. The DVD includes 10 episodes, deleted scenes and outtakes.

Of all the superhero franchises that bloomed in the 1980s, few have had the same impact or enjoyed the longevity of “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.” The new DVD from Nickelodeon, “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Rise of the Turtles,” is comprised of episodes from the third animated series based on the adventures of brothers Leonardo, Donatello, Raphael and Michelangelo who live in the sewers of New York but take care of business on the streets above their lair. The series benefits from a mutation of its own, this one to a snappy CGI-animated format that looks terrific. In doing battle with Kraang-droids, a mad scientist and a robot turtle, among other enemies, Donatello has been re-armed with naginata, as well as a bow, and Michelangelo gets to use a kusarigama, along with his nunchaku. Leonardo is also given an opportunity to prove his mettle with a katana. The voicing cast includes Jason Biggs, Rob Paulsen, Sean Astin, Greg Cipes, Hoon Lee and Meg Whitman. The DVD arrives with the double-length “Rise of the Turtles,” four other episodes, six making-of animatics, a karaoke music video and poster.

In “Phineas and Ferb: Animal Agents,” supporting-cast member Perry the Platypus (a.k.a., Agent P) and the animal agents of O.W.C.A (Organization Without a Cool Acronym) team up to thwart Dr. Doofenshmirtz and his dastardly “Inators.” In the two-part cliffhanger, “Where’s Perry,” the gang is transported to the savannahs of Africa, where they are monitored by O.W.C.A. surveillance devices. The series is extremely colorful, cleverly scripted and fast-paced. The villain is also a pretty decent singer. The DVD package contains 12 episodes dealing with Perry and the Animal Agents of O.W.C.A.; an activity-based spy kit, with a set of paper binoculars; trading cards; and O.W.C.A. I.D. badge.

It has often been said that Richard Nixon, if he were still alive, would be run out of the Republican Party for being a liberal. As the Tea Baggers strengthen their hold on the party, the same thing has begun to apply to Ronald Reagan. Despite his hard-line conservative views and electoral mandate, Reagan was known to make the occasional compromise with Democrats and moderate his views when they were successfully challenged by people he respected. The new Republican right doesn’t respect anyone, besides each other, and their refusal to compromise is threatening to sink the country they say they love. Presented by Iowa Public Television, “The Reagan Presidency” examines the late president’s legacy, with an eye toward the policies that led to the end of the Cold War, stalled inflation and fueled the economy. History has demonstrated how initiatives launched a quarter-century ago led to the 2007 Depression and destruction of the economy. It wouldn’t be fair to heap all of the blame on Reagan, but he certainly opened the door for the greed-is-good generation and Americans of all political persuasions could hardly wait to pass through it. The three-hour documentary is informed by interviews with Sandra Day O’Connor, Condoleezza Rice, Walter Mondale, Douglas Brinkley, Reza Aslan, Oscar Arias, Robert Reich and Paul Volcker. It also contains interviews with writer/director Chip Duncan and composer Peter Batchelder. – Gary Dretzka

The DVD Wrapup

Thursday, February 21st, 2013

Bullet Collector
In his stunning directorial debut, “Bullet Collector,” Russian filmmaker Alexander Vartanov has done something quite remarkable. While openly conceding his debt to Francois Truffaut’s “The 400 Blows” and Jean Vigo’s “Zero de conduit,” he has created a distinctly Russian drama about growing up alone and defenseless in a society that has other things on its mind than the well-being of distressed youth. “Bullet Collector” seems to have been influenced, as well, by Andrei Tarkovsky’s harrowing wartime drama, “Ivan’s Childhood.” Unlike “The 400 Blows” and “Zero du conduit,” however, Vartanov’s film is unrelieved by any mischievous behavior and humor. Neither is the protagonist particularly heroic. The central figure here is a 14-year-old towheaded boy (Ruslan Nazarenko), who isn’t given a name but, strangely enough, very much resembles Dennis the Menace. Before being sent away to reform school, the boy was bullied by his stepfather and ignored by his mother. As a defense mechanism, he often drifts into a dream state that allows him to experience what life might be like with a caring family, pals who looked up to him and a girlfriend. The dreams that come at night, though, often take the shape of brutal revenge fantasies, during which he’s able to stand up to the boys who are making his stay at the school a living nightmare. Sometimes, the only way to tell fantasy from reality is to pay attention to the changes in the lush black-and-white cinematography. The boy’s less-horrific dreams take on an ethereal quality with wisps of ground fog and soft lighting, his revenge fantasies are captured by the in-your-face lens of a handheld camera. Normal life at the reform school is treated in documentary style. There are other times when the cold, gray skies above the boy’s head, bleed into the cold, gray Russian earth. When that happens, “Bullet Collector” could easily be mistaken for a war movie from the post-Stalin cultural thaw, as was “Ivan’s Childhood.” Then and now, children have paid a stiff price for the mistakes made by their elders and the democracy promised by glasnost and perestroika has yet to pan out. Even so, Vartanov’s collabortation with playwright Yuri Klavdiev doesn’t appear to be making any overreaching points about the necessity for reform, parental accountability or easier access to Levi’s and MTV since the lifting of the Iron Curtain. If anything, there’s something far more personal going on here. As far as I can tell, the Artsploitation Films edition of “Bullet Collector” represents the first opportunity for American audiences to sample Vartanov’s work. The DVD contains a deleted scene, making-of footage and audition tapes. – Gary Dretzka

Argo: Blu-ray
With the Academy Awards ceremony only a few days away, only two of the nine Best Picture candidates – “Argo” and “Beasts of the Southern Wild” – have been made available on DVD or Blu-ray. A couple have already disappeared from theaters and one or two have yet to open in smaller cities and towns. The bounce in revenues studios once enjoyed after the show now is felt, if anywhere, in the DVD, Blu-ray and POV markets. Within five years, I suspect, they will have figured out a way to stream or download all of the nominees to the public a week or two before the show, without fear of piracy. The only people not to benefit from such a setup would be exhibitors and, by now, they’re used to being screwed by Hollywood interests. Going into the weekend, “Argo” appears to be the movie with the most momentum. It’s gotten the bulk of the post-season awards, is being supported by an extensive marketing campaign, has already made a bunch of money, is a crowd-pleaser and most importantly of all, perhaps, has the sympathy vote wrapped up. That’s because, despite accruing seven nominations, Ben Affleck somehow failed to make the cut in the Best Director and Best Actor categories. It may be a mystery, but I can’t imagine academy members coordinating anything more sinister than the swapping of for-your-consideration DVDs.

“Argo” is, of course, based on real events surrounding the storming of the American Embassy in Tehran, in 1979, and virtual imprisonment of 52 Americans there. The six Americans who slipped away from the embassy that day found refuge in the home of the Canadian ambassador. Because of their vulnerability there, the CIA was asked to come up with a way to get them safely out of Iran without also putting the lives of the Canadian diplomats in jeopardy. The assignment fell to veteran agent and self-described “master of disguise” Tony Mendez. The full details of the escape weren’t revealed publicly until 2007, when records were declassified. Great liberties were taken by Affleck and writer Chris Terrio in the depiction of certain key events, including the thrilling climax, but the heroism of the protagonist, courage of the Canadian ambassador (and his wife) and ordeal of the embassy workers has yet to be challenged.

In his two previous directorial efforts, “The Town” and “Gone Baby Gone,” Affleck has proven to be a generous director, who isn’t reluctant to share the spotlight or give credit where it’s due when he’s being lauded in the media. John Goodman and Alan Arkin are terrific together as the CIA’s Hollywood connection, and Affleck also gets wonderful support from Bryan Cranston, Victor Garber, Page Leong, Chris Messina, Zeljko Ivanek, Richard Kind, Kyle Chandler and the actors playing the captives. In addition to commentary by Affleck and Terrio, the Blu-ray package contains a follow-along picture-in-picture “Eyewitness Account,” with the reflections of Mendez, then-President Jimmy Carter and onetime hostages; four background featurettes; and the 2005 documentary “Escape From Iran: The Hollywood Option.” – Gary Dretzka

Deadfall: Blu-ray
Sushi Girl: Blu-ray
In 2008, “The Counterfeiters” became the first submission by Austria to win an Academy Award in the Best Foreign Language Film category. Stefan Rusowitsky’s taut World War II drama was set in the Sachsenhausen concentration camp, where a team of skilled Jewish engravers, calligraphers and one forger, at least, was being forced to produce enough counterfeit currency to cause an economic crisis in Allied countries. The story was inspired by the Nazis’ actual Operation Bernhard and, at its core, was a career criminal, who wasn’t looking for the personal glory or gain. He merely wanted to survive the war, without also advancing Adolph Hitler’s destabilization strategy. The snowbound crime thriller, “Deadfall,” written by first-timer Zach Dean, represents the first movie Rusowitsky has made on this side of the Atlantic Ocean … Quebec, to be precise. Besides the Oscar-winning director, the script attracted a stellar cast, led by Eric Bana, Olivia Wilde, Charlie Hunnam, Sissy Spacek, Kate Mara, Treat Williams and Kris Kristofferson. With all that going for it, you’d think the distributors of “Deadfall” would prompt something more than a limited run in, at most, 17 theaters, after debuting on VOD. It’s entirely possible the movie would have forgone theaters entirely, if it weren’t for a couple of leaked or pirated clips showing Wilde making love in a darkly lit motel room and standing in a snow drift in a garter belt and torn stockings. Sexually, though, that’s as hot as things get in “Deadfall.” If it’s not a perfect movie, though, “Deadfall” is far from being the kind of picture that’s usually tossed into the straight-to-video mix.

Bana and Wilde play Addison and Liza, a brother-sister team of thieves, who, just as they begin counting their money, are nearly killed in an accident. The driver of the getaway car, since deceased, hits a deer and goes spinning off the highway. The siblings are left to fend for themselves in a dense forest during a blizzard. Addison survives by killing a deputy investigating the crash and stealing a snowmobile from a hunter. Nearly frozen in her skimpy dress, torn stockings and heels, Liza is picked up by a recently released jailbird on a lonely snow-covered road. The former boxer, Jay, is fleeing what he believes to be the accidental death of his corrupt former manager. Using cellphones, Addison and Liza agree to meet up at the remote family home of her rescuer. Even though Jay’s estranged from his parents (Spacek, Kristofferson), he decides to stop at the house for what may be his last Thanksgiving dinner as a free man. In between the time that Jay and Liza meet and reach the house, they enjoy a roll in the hay and seemingly fall in love. After another series of unlikely, if dramatically-licensed circumstances, everyone winds up at the house in time for dinner. Soon enough, the diners also will include a hard-charging female deputy (Rooney) and her crudely sexist boss and father (Williams). It’s here that the final showdown will take place and we’ll learn if blood is thicker than water. (The sheriff’s unsettling treatment of his daughter is the only thing that rings false in the movie.) Backers of the NRA-approved theory that heavily armed citizens can stand up to gun-wielding bad guys probably won’t be happy with some of the things that happen to the contrary in “Deadfall.” Even though everyone in this neck of the woods totes a rifle, side arm or shotgun, they finally are at the mercy of sociopaths with nothing to lose. And, yes, for a while there, I did somehow manage to confuse “Deadfall” with “Skyfall.” It wasn’t until half-way through the Bond movie that I stopped waiting for Wilde to show up in her non-thermal britches from Victoria’s Secret. Duh. The Blu-ray arrives with a making-of featurette, bonus footage and interviews.

Sushi Girl” followed exactly the same release pattern as “Deadfall,” opening on VOD, before a very limited theatrical run and Blu-ray release soon thereafter. Unlike “Deadfall,” though, the only widely recognizable names on the credit list are those of an unrecognizable Mark Hamill and martial-arts legend Sonny Chiba. (As is his wont lately, Danny Trejo only makes a cameo.) For co-writer/director Kern Saxton and co-writer Destin Pfaff, “Sushi Girl” represents their first feature film. Anyone who goes into the movie thinking it has something to do with a groupie obsessed with Japanese chefs will be in for a surprise. Chiba plays a master chef, alright, but “Sushi Girl” is to cuisine what Mr. Blonde’s dance of death in “Reservoir Dogs” is to shaving. Playing the title character is the truly spectacular looking Cortney Palm, who spends almost all of the movie’s 98 minutes on her back, naked, covered with a variety of sashimi. Also on the menu is the potentially dish, fugu. (If she’s able to escape the scream-queen ghetto, Palm could compete for the roles Emily Blunt is too busy to accept.) Sushi Girl has been ordered by her boss (Tony Todd) to lie lifeless on the table no matter what happens around her. The clamor eventually will include several gunfights, loud arguments and the torture of an ex-con the men sitting around the table believe is in possession of a sack of diamonds. The gems were stolen six years earlier, but they disappeared after the getaway van was struck by a car. We suspect early on that “Fish” (Noah Hathaway) isn’t holding out on his former cohorts, but the identity of the person actually in possession of the stash remains a mystery throughout 95 percent of the film. I think the ending will come as a surprise to most viewers. People easily disturbed by violence and torture are advised to avoid “Sushi Girl.” Those with stronger stomachs and a taste for Tarantino-style dialogue, however, should find a lot to like. – Gary Dretzka

28 Hotel Rooms
I can’t speak for women, but one of the more endearing sexual fantasies is the one that inspired the play and movie, “Same Time, Next Year.” In it, a man and a woman who are married, but not to each other, meet annually at the same inn where they had their first tryst. For lack of a better description, call it adultery-lite. In Matt Ross’ variation on the “STNY” conceit, “28 Hotel Rooms,” Chris Messina and Marin Ireland play a writer and accountant who meet in the bar of a boutique hotel and take an instant fancy to each other. It leads to a night of sexual revelry, but without the hangover of guilt that usually comes with it. Although Woman and Man, as they’re known here, don’t expect to ever see each other again, they do. Instead of once a year, they meet more often and for more than a night at a time. Her job, at least, requires frequent travel to the same city, so she as a built-in alibi. As a writer, Man is required to use his imagination to come up with excuses. Neither of them seems interested in leaving their room to eat, stroll or see a movie, so most of “28 Hotel Rooms” is staged within the cozy confines of a mini-suite. Besides enjoying making love, Man and Woman share a genuine fondness for each other. As the trysts continue, their dialogue evolves from grunts and groans to conversations about their lives away from the hotel. They sometimes bicker, but only out of frustration over not being able to have their cake and eat it, too. Woman is adamant that the affair remain secret, while Man appears ready to take a stand for a more substantial commitment. Besides that, almost nothing of substance happens. “28 Hotel Rooms” is more of a character study than a statement on marriage or monogamy, and Messina and Ireland are definitely up to the task. Writer/director Ross has one of the most familiar faces on television (“Big Love,” “American Horror Story”) and, presumably, he informed the story with elements he found missing in some of the roles he’s been assigned. “28 Hotel Rooms” doesn’t ask much of its audience, so it can be enjoyed or dismissed without much deep thought. It’s possible to suggest, however, that its appeal will be limited to adults whose pipedreams include similar rendezvous. For anyone who suspects that his or her spouse is stepping out during out-of-town business trips, “28 Hotel Rooms” could lead to a call to the private investigators on “Cheaters.” The DVD adds deleted scenes with commentary and an interview with Ross. – Gary Dretzka

Atlas Shrugged II: The Strike: Blu-ray
It’s legitimate to wonder who in their right mind thought that pouring more money into the “Atlas Shrugged” trilogy was a good idea. The first installment laid a large egg commercially and critically, and the market for such a diatribe appears to be limited to the English-speaking world. If a production budget of $30 million for two movies doesn’t sound too extreme, consider that the first two chapters have yet to return $10 million at the box office. As such, a planned third chapter could amount to financial suicide. Ayn Rand’s works have influenced untold millions of readers, some positively and others not so much. Based solely on the fact that “Atlas Shrugged” was published 55 years ago, I’d be surprised if many people in the primary movie-going demographic even know how to pronounce her name. Except for her Teabag following, the vast majority of potential viewers of the trilogy aren’t sufficiently engaged politically to even consider a movie that might attack them for caring about people less fortunate than themselves. No matter what one thinks of Rand’s writing and philosophy, though, the first two chapters have been almost comically non-involving and no more evolved technically than the Irwin Allen disaster epics of the ’70s. Even in jail, Gordon Gecko made a better case for greed.

In “Atlas Shrugged 2: The Strike,” artists, scientists and self-made industrials have begun to disappear into thin air, and the question, “Who is John Galt?,” is being repeated across the land. With energy prices through the roof and the working class in high dudgeon, rumors of the existence of a self-sufficient energy generator have tantalized investors, industrialists and consumers, alike. When Dagny Taggart and her powerful lover Henry Reardon stumble upon the motor, while on a cross-country trip, they have no clue how it might actually work. They hire someone to deconstruct it, but she suspects that the only person who can turn static electricity into energy is the mysterious and possibly non-existent John Galt. The closer Dagny comes to the truth, the more she becomes a target for those who don’t want it revealed. The larger question is why the producers decided not to spend the money necessary to make “Atlas Shrugged” a movie event of compelling interest to Rand loyalists and detractors, alike.

A solid script and one or two A-list actors, at least, might have given “Atlas Shrugged” a fighting chance in theaters. King Vidor’s 1949 adaptation of “The Fountainhead” didn’t make much money for Warner Brothers, but, at least, the studio had the conviction to hire Gary Cooper, Patricia Neal, Raymond Massey and Kent Smith. As it is, a more sensible strategy might have been to go the mini-series route and debut it on Fox News and Fox Business, networks dedicated to advancing Rand’s agenda, while ignoring her pro-choice, anti-religion, value-based views on sex and other libertarian positions. Everything about the trilogy — from the C- and D-list cast, to the bargain-basement special effects — screams cable TV or PPV. The grotesquely negative portrayals of opponents of laissez-faire capitalism seem to have been ripped from Mitt Romney’s discredited playbook and unions are always portrayed as being evil. (I wonder how many of the actors would have denounced the Screen Actors Guild if it were the only way to secure a job on the movie … probably none.) On the plus side, though, “Atlas Shrugged 2” contains one of the rarest of all show-business moments when magician and illusionist Teller, playing a security guard at Taggart Transcontinental, briefly breaks his silence. Some folks might find the shocking development, alone, worth the price of a rental. The Blu-ray offers a behind-the-scenes look at the production; deleted scenes; and an extended publicity segment with Sean Hannity. – Gary Dretzka

The Thief of Bagdad: Blu-ray
Although Georges Melies’ 13-minute-long “A Trip to the Moon” was first exhibited in 1902, the unforgettable image of a rocket ship stuck in the eye of a decidedly unhappy Man in the Moon still has the power to enchant cinema lovers around the world. Two decades later, Douglas Fairbanks and Raoul Walsh’s fantasy adventure “The Thief of Bagdad” would weigh in at 150 minutes and contain as many marvelous special visual effects as had been rendered in all of the years since Melies began pushing the envelope combined. The newly released Blu-ray edition of “The Thief of Bagdad” should put to rest the notion that effects-driven movies made in the silent era are naturally less entertaining than the CGI extravaganzas of today. If your child displays any interest at all in the history of cinema and evolution of special effects, put a copy of “Thief of Bagdad” under his or her pillow and say it was left there by the movie fairy. You might even suggest that it was the “Avatar” of its day and no less stunning to its audience than James Cameron’s sci-fi fantasy was to his. There’s no need to be concerned about all of the scratches, tears, blips and burps that make viewing early classics such a chore on television and VHS. The pristine Cohen Media/Entertainment One release has been digitally restored in 2k from two 35mm negatives, incorporating color tints and tones of the original release prints. The audio upgrade also enhances Carl Davis’ thrilling score, which incorporated the Orientalia of Rimsky-Korsakov.

The epic story derives from various elements in “One Thousand and One Arabian Nights.” In the hands of Fairbanks, the lay-about thief and pickpocket, Ahmed, is energized by the surreptitious discovery – he uses the Indian rope trick to get over the walls of the palace — of the caliph’s sleeping daughter. She is about to be handed over for marriage to one of three princes from faraway lands who’ve come to the city in all their pompous glory. Not to be undone, Ahmed disguises himself as a man of princely bearing and wealth. By comparison to the princess’ other suitors, Ahmed is far and away the most attractive and amusing candidate. When the caliph is informed of his true character, he orders that Ahmed be whipped to within an inch of his life and torn apart by an ape. After the princess intercedes on his behalf, she buys time for Ahmed by staging a competition between the three princes to see who, after seven moons, can bring her the best gift. The plot thickens when the princess develops a serious illness and the princes conspire against the caliph. In his quest for the greatest gift, Ahmed benefits from a chest of magic powder that will be useful in defeating the demons in his path, making rugs fly and quashing the caliph’s enemies. Fairbanks was 40 when he made “Thief of Bagdad,” but he looks extremely buff and in full command of the stunts that require agility and athleticism. It’s a real tour de force, especially considering that he co-wrote, produced and practically co-directed the movie with Walsh.

Not having seen “Thief of Bagdad,” except in bits and pieces, I wondered how the movie would portray the Arabian, Persian, Indian and Mongol characters. The discovery of oil in the region had yet to be fully charted and exploited in 1924, so Hollywood had been able to play fast and loose with storybook legends and cultural stereotypes. The popularity of “The Sheik” and “Sheik of Araby” forever linked the white-slave trade to insatiable Bedouin princes. By comparison, “Thief of Bagdad” is respectful of Islamic teachings and demonstrates how an infidel like Ahmed can be redeemed by hard work and worshipping God. The writing in the nighttime sky, “Happiness must be earned,” is the movie’s core teaching. The Blu-ray package adds audio commentary by Douglas Fairbanks biographer Jeffrey Vance and Vance’s introductions to 17 minutes worth of stills from the production. – Gary Dretzka

For Ellen
When it comes to parenting, rock stars and NBA players share a certain lack of empathy for the children they’ve fathered out of wedlock. For all they know, there could be one in every city with a stage or basketball court. It’s tough to be Peter Pan when you’ve got kids of your own to nurture. That’s a rather grand generalization, to be sure, but I’ve seen several movies in which musicians are required to come to grips with children they didn’t know existed or have ignored for years. Only 12 months separated So Yong Kim’s “For Ellen” and David M. Rosenthal’s “Janie Jones” on the festival circuit, before being accorded minimal theatrical exposure and quick trip to DVD. Both were distinguished by excellent acting, ethical dilemmas and scene-stealing by child actors. In “Janie Jones,” a strung-out former groupie (Elisabeth Shue) drops a charming girl in her early teens (Abigail Breslin) on a road-weary musician (Alessandro Nivola), with whom she had a brief fling. In “For Ellen,” Paul Dano plays a rock star who has spent most of his adult life in Los Angeles trying to make an impression on stoned head-bangers. When he’s informed that his ex-wife (Margarita Levieva) is divorcing him and wants full custody of their 6-year-old daughter, Ellen (Shaylena Mandigo) — who hasn’t a clue as to who he is — Joby drives to a snowy corner of Upstate New York to contest it. Apparently, the child represents the only thing that he’s created that’s worth more than two cents and he feels entitled to partial ownership.

The only reason we kinda, sorta sympathize with Joby is that his wife is something of an ogre and we’re pre-disposed to like Dano, despite his thoroughly unlikeable character. It isn’t until fairly late in “For Ellen” that we’re given any solid reason to like Joby and it comes from the easy rapport he exhibits with Ellen, during the two-hour visit allotted him. Although he’s completely lost when it comes to entertaining a 6-year-old, Ellen is wise beyond her years. Mandigo is as self-assured and charismatic as Quvenzhane Wallis and Breslin, at the same age, and the conversations literally kick the movie into another gear. She’s precocious, of course, but without being creepy or obnoxious about it. Now that they’ve met each other, though, the South Korean-born writer/director wisely leaves it up to our imagination as to how the rest of their lives will play out. At 28, Dano’s developed into one of Hollywood’s most interesting and dependently flexible actors, so they make an intriguing pair. In what may be his first appearance as someone other than a geek, Jon Heder does a nice job as Joby’s overmatched lawyer. Jenna Malone also makes a cameo. The DVD arrives with a too-short interview with Kim. – Gary Dretzka

I didn’t hear NFL star Michael Oher’s name mentioned during the course of “Undefeated” — Daniel Lindsay and T.J. Martin’s Oscar-winning documentary — but its resemblance to the “The Blind Side” extends beyond the gridiron. Oher was the athlete around which John Lee Hancock and Sandra Bullock’s hit drama was constructed. If Oher’s name rings a bell, it’s because he’s a key member of the Baltimore Ravens, the winning team in the Super Bowl. His real mom and screen mom both were in attendance at that game and CBS wasn’t reluctant about mentioning the connection. “Undefeated” is about a team comprised nearly entirely of players like Michael Oher, before he finally caught a break and was allowed to focus on football, instead of survival. Like some of the kids we meet in the documentary he was a homeless, parentless teenager in Memphis. Only one of the two dozen kids we meet in this undeniably inspirational film possesses the talent it would take to legitimately anticipate a pro career, let alone a starring role in the Super Bowl. All of his teammates, however, have experienced the ravages of poverty, rampant crime, urban blight, underfinanced schools and an epidemic of hopelessness. North Memphis has yet to recover from the 1983 closing of a giant Firestone plant, which, when active, provided thousands of jobs for local residents. Into the vacuum flowed hard drugs and despair. Early in the film, a visiting pro athlete asks the Manassas High School players for a show of hands if, first, one parent graduated from college and, secondly, if both had done so. Although a smattering of hands went up for the first question, none was raised for the second. Everyone’s hand went up when the speaker asked if they had any close relations who had served time in prison, were victims of violent crimes or junkies. For years, Manassas’ football program has been as devastated as the neighborhood. In a good year, the team might have won one or two or three games. Fortuitously, in 2009, the filmmakers caught up with the Tigers before they embarked on a season that can best be described as miraculous.

The documentary originally was going to focus on lineman O.C. Brown, the star player whose experiences bear an uncanny resemblance to Oher. Once in Memphis, though, Lindsay and Martin found something even more heart-warming. The Tigers were coached that year by a white businessman, who volunteered his time and money to teach the students how to play the game and understand the value of teamwork and positive thinking. For six years, Bill Courtney experienced frustrations and setbacks unknown to most coaches. Just when the 2009 season was shaping up as a carbon copy of the previous five, however, the team started winning. If it didn’t go undefeated, as the title suggests, several key plays managed to overcome the odds and succeed on and off the field. The climactic game is important, but more as a way to sum up what we’ve already seen. As such, “Undefeated” resembles previous documentaries, “Go Tigers!” and “Hoop Dreams.” The DVD includes commentary, a making-of piece and deleted scenes, including a discarded throughline.

At a mere 72 minutes, Denis Cote’s anti-documentary “Bestiaire” describes how an average day might pass at a giant safari park, without or without crowds and absent the seduction of dead fish, peanuts or applause to perform tricks or amuse customers. It asks us to train our eyes on things we might not necessarily notice when visiting with kids in tow or in peak seasons. The animals observe us, too, not anticipating danger or a handout, but because we’re there. If they had televisions, they’d probably watch them, instead, as would zoo personnel. Moreover, Cote refuses to tell us why he’s picked these animals and personnel to film. There’s no narrative in “Bestiaire” to tell us what to think about what we’re being shown and only a few words are spoken into a phone. By eliminating the narrative, we’re free just to look at things, as would an inquisitive wildebeest or emu. If some of the images of animals going about their business fail to raise your pulse, wait for the shots of hyenas being fed in the tight quarters of a holding pen, a lion attempting break through the chain on a cage and the horrible sound of zebras banging their heads and hooves against the walls of their steel pens — and each other — for no apparent reason. Immediately after these troubling images Cote takes us to the workshop of the park’s taxidermist, where the coats of dead animals are stretched over molds. They are subsequently utilized as unpaid models in a studio where art students will sketch them as if they were alive and staring at them. “Bestiaire” is every bit as difficult, challenging and, perhaps, to some viewers, pointless as it seems. An interview with the filmmaker doesn’t quite explain Cote’s intentions or shine light on his overriding philosophy, but, as in any trip to the zoo, we’re free to stretch our imaginations as far as they will go. – Gary Dretzka

The Cyclist
If I were a more cynical person, I’d suggest that “The Cyclist” was made in a rushed attempt to get the non-cycling world’s attention off Lance Armstrong and back on the sport, itself. There must be one or two competitors out there who aren’t juicing … right? Writer/director John Lawrence seems intent on convincing us that amateur cycling remains as pure as the driven snow in Moab, Utah, where most of the movie was filmed. Indeed, the best thing about ‘The Cyclist” is the scenery. Otherwise, it tells the overly familiar story of an athlete who loses his way on the path to glory and tries to bury his future in a bottle. K.C. Clyde, who resembles Mel Gibson from odd angles, plays the over-amped cyclist. In a sport that often requires intricate teamwork, Nash is a hard-charging individualist. This will change after his best friend is killed while riding to the finish of a race in the Wasatch Range. A year later, Nash is called upon to redeem himself and prove that his buddy didn’t die in vain. As lovely as the scenery is, “The Cyclist” is no threat to the supremacy of “Breaking Away” as the best movie about cycling, with “American Flyers” and the German “Phantom Pain” also worth a look. The DVD includes director commentary and deleted scenes. – Gary Dretzka

Laura: Blu-ray
Top Gun: Blu-ray 2D/3D
Best in Show: Blu-ray
The Insider: Blu-ray
Released in 1944, “Laura” has so many wonderful things going for it that it’s easy to overlook the all too obvious fact that the criminal investigation conducted by Dana Andrews’ police detective, Mark McPherson, makes the LAPD’s case against O.J. Simpson look flawless. Police got away with a lot of monkey business before the Supreme Court clamped down in the 1960s and Hollywood cops have also been given leeway when it comes to solving a case in less than two hours. No more so than in the investigation of rags-to-riches socialite Laura Hunt’s “murder.” Out of the blue, McPherson’s been assigned to re-interview all of the likely suspects who’ve already been grilled. They include a prominent columnist (Clifton Webb) and gold-digging playboy (Vincent Price), a rich dame in love with the playboy (Judith Anderson), a promiscuous model and Laura’s maid. Passive-aggressive to the point of permitting the columnist to sit in on his interviews and make wiseass remarks when it suits him, McPherson also allowed himself to fall in love with Laura, in absentia, solely from what he admired in the painting of her hanging over the fireplace in her apartment. All that said, director Otto Preminger seduces us into staying with the whodunit until the loose ends begin coming together. Tierney couldn’t have been more magnetic in the role of the title character and Webb’s dialogue is wonderfully bitchy. More than anything else, however, it was the hypnotic attraction of the signature melody that pulled the audience into the noir drama. The Fox Blu-ray edition enhances Preminger’s strategic mix of shadows, light and David Raksin’s score. The movie’s fascinating backstory and Tierney’s heart-breaking biography — as laid out in the bonus package, along with other previously released commentaries and featurettes — are essential viewing for lovers of Hollywood lore. The disc can be viewed in its original theatrical cut or slightly extended version that contains a montage of Laura’s rise through the social ranks, which was deemed by Fox to bet too “off-putting in its decadence” for wartime audiences. As romantic mysteries go, “Laura” can’t be beat.

A couple of years ago, a multi-reel “Top Gun” slot machine was introduced into casinos around the country. Anyone fortunate enough to reach the bonus round was put behind the stick of a fighter jet and given opportunities to score points by taking out targets and dodging rockets from enemy fliers. The machine was designed to match the look of a cockpit and a subwoofer underneath the seat caused it to vibrate whenever certain obstacles were overcome. The game was fun to play, while it lasted, but, like too many other licensed titles, it didn’t pay out as often as punters desired. At the time, the slot machine was the closest fans of the blockbuster could come to a 3D experience. Now, though, those with 3D TVs can save their quarters and take the cinematic experience to an exciting new level. Early reports on the quality of “Top Gun” in the Blu-ray 3D format have been extremely positive, even compared to the most recent 2D Blu-ray version, which is included in the double-dip from Paramount. (The set also offers a digital copy and UltraViolet capability.) The digital conversion of Tony Scott’s 27-year-old thriller, which combined exciting aerial acrobatics, with elements of romance, comedy and melodrama, represented a challenge to techies who hadn’t before worked on a movie quite that old. If it comes close to succeeding commercially – even lacking a critical mass of consumers with 3D-ready TVs — more action-adventures will be added to the 3D pipeline. Newcomers to “Top Gun,” if there are any, might be surprised by the movie’s Cold War context. The first Mideast war was still years away and our fliers were virtually untested in combat situations. Instead of engaging in dogfights with Soviet pilots, as in the movie, our top gunners were limited to dodging anti-aircraft fire from Iraqi positions on the ground and picking off sitting-duck tanks, trucks and Mercedes fleeing Kuwait. (In fact, the once-vaunted Iraqi Air Force decided to high-tail it out of the country and hand over the keys to their fighters to their Iranian enemies.) All of the bonus features from the previous Blu-ray iteration have been restored here. They include commentary with Scott, producer Jerry Bruckheimer, co-writer Jack Epps Jr., Captain Mike Galpin and technical advisor Pete Pettigrew and Vice Admiral Mike McCabe, a Tom Cruise interview and several featurettes.

Now that another Westminster Kennel Club competition is in the books, there’s no better time to revisit Christopher Guest’s hilarious sendup of show dogs and the people who obsess over them, “Best in Show.” Anyone who’s been closer than the first balcony to such an event knows how close to the mark Guest gets in the portrayals of owners, trainers, judges, groomers, walkers and announcers. As he had already demonstrated in “Spinal Tap” and “Waiting for Guffman,” Guest has a keen eye for the peculiarities of people whose involvement in singular pastimes tells only part of the story of their lives. The term “mockumentary” typically is attached to his work, but it’s difficult to detect much that qualifies as mocking or ridicule. Buried under the characters’ idiosyncrasies and wacky dreams is something resembling admiration. If we enjoy such things as dog shows and amateur theaters, it’s because people like the ones we meet in “Best in Show” make them happen. If anyone is getting ridiculed here it’s Fred Willard’s clueless color commentator, who knows nothing about dogs or their owners and proves it every time he opens his mouth. No one has ever done that sort of thing better than Willard. Otherwise, the impeccable ensemble cast includes Parker Posey, Michael Hitchcock, Eugene Levy, Catherine O’Hara, John Michael Higgins, Michael McKean, Jennifer Coolidge, Jane Lynch, Larry Miller, Ed Begley Jr. and Guest himself, playing the owner of a lovely bloodhound, with whom he practices ventriloquism. The Blu-ray contains commentary by Levy and Guest and deleted scenes.

Today, most people who pay attention to what’s happening in the world assume that while the titans of industry, government and media sleep in the same beds, it’s the consumers and taxpayers who are getting screwed. To some degree, this always has been the case. It wasn’t until the events described “The Insider” were revealed – along with other slimy deals involving the country’s most influential interests — that the average Joe learned how deep the corruption went. Michael Mann’s gripping corporate thriller told the story of one former tobacco researcher’s attempts to blow the whistle on his bosses, who knowingly lied to Congress about the addictive ingredients used in the production of cigarettes and the secret memos that showed industry executives’ culpability in the deaths of millions of smokers. Russell Crowe was nominated for an Oscar for his portrayal of Jeffrey Wigand, a research-and-development executive who put his career, financial security and personal welfare on the line to expose reprehensible practices at Brown & Williamson. By overriding an agreement he signed with the company forbidding him from reporting on the manipulation of tobacco levels, Wigand left himself open to expensive lawsuits and physical threats from company goons. Once he committed to exposing the practices to “60 Minutes” producer Lowell Bergman (Al Pacino), Wigand thought the hard part might be over for him. Instead, the nightmare was just beginning. What they couldn’t have predicted was how easy it was for tobacco interests to intimate CBS by threatening to sue over the network’s complicity in Wigand’s decision to break the non-disclosure agreement. The “60 Minutes” piece was heavily edited, causing Bergman to quit the show, and leaving Wigand hanging. Even veteran correspondent Mike Wallace (Christopher Plummer) blinked when his bosses aired their reservations about the report. It was widely believed that then-CEO Laurence A. Tisch had put the kibosh on the segment because of his financial involvement with the tobacco industry and fears a lawsuit would complicate takeover talks with Westinghouse. (Likewise, ABC sold its correspondents down the river after their report on the tobacco industry aired on “Dateline.” Shortly after news that a multibillion-dollar lawsuit had been settled out of court, the network was sold to Disney.) Mann was able to turn what essentially was a disgraceful episode in corporate and media history into an entertaining and enlightening thriller on the order of “All the President’s Men.” It still holds up in Blu-ray. It comes with commentary by Crowe and Pacino and a backgrounder. – Gary Dretzka

Our Paradise
The Factory
Kill For Me
Throughout his 15-year directorial career, French writer/director Gael Morel has successfully integrated gay themes and characters into movies that don’t fit the straitjacket that’s typically applied to them by distributors, exhibitors and critics. In “Apres lui,” for example, Catherine Deneuve delivers a powerful portrayal of a woman, who, while mourning the death of her 20-year-old son in an automobile accident, becomes obsessed with sharing her grief with the young man, his closest friend, who inadvertently caused it. Their intimate, if forced bond disturbs everyone in her orbit. The latest release from Breaking Glass’ Queer Cinema catalogue, Morel’s “Our Paradise,” demands that viewers consider the frequently conflicting forces of sex and violence, love and hate, youth and decay, perception and reality, narcissism and selflessness. Most, but not all of the people we meet in “Our Paradise” are gay. Some are victims of violence, while others are perpetrators. Here, a thirty-something Parisian thief and rentboy, Vassili (Stephane Rideau), graduates to attempted murder when confronted by an even older customer about his age. One night, while cruising through the Forest of Boulogne, he discovers a much younger hustler, lying unconscious after a beating. Perhaps recognizing a younger version of himself, Vassili takes him home to recover and make sure he sees a doctor. Not long thereafter, they form a relationship that switches from symbiotic to paternal, depending on the circumstances of a date or threesome. Inevitably, their customers begin choosing the younger Angelo (Dimitri Durdaine), who doesn’t mind providing cover for his lover’s more nefarious activities. After a near disastrous attack by bouncers alerted to Vassili and Angelo’s game, they decide to split the city. Their first stop is the home of a lover (Beatrice Dalle) from the older man’s bisexual days. While she’s working as a magician’s assistant at night, the men babysit her precocious young son. From there, the three males visit the luxurious mountain home of another former lover of Vassili. The age difference between them is approximately the same as that between Vassili and Angelo. The older man’s Moroccan lover, who’s older than Angelo but younger than Vassili, immediately recognizes in the visitors the potential for danger. After all, he had been in the same business as they were before settling down. The climax, while not unexpected, is made even more wrenching by the boy’s realization that everything he’s come to like about his new role models may be wrong. In a very real way, we’ve also been sucked into Vassili desperate search for the fountain of youth.

If there’s any genre that television handles better than the movies these days, it’s the police procedural. The proliferation of such intricately plotted and realistically cast shows as “CSI” and “Law & Order” have convinced viewers that there are very few crimes that can’t be solved in 60 minutes. Storylines that require more creative latitude — “Dexter,” “Justified,” “Southland” — can be found on premium and basic-plus cable services. Where the movies reign, however dubiously, is in the production of torture porn and women-in-extreme-jeopardy titles. Although not very good, “The Factory” combines both subgenres, while also taking a stab at the police procedural. In it, John Cusack plays a Buffalo cop who gets increasingly more agitated with every new disappearance of one of the city’s stable of working girls. He can barely maintain his temper as he bulldozes his way through town in search of clues. His partner, Jennifer Carpenter (“Dexter”), is far more in control of her emotions and, therefore, less a help than a hindrance to the cop. The depraved kidnaper, played by Dallas Roberts (“The Walking Dead”), is made out to be a criminal mastermind, but hardly a match for Cusack, whose daughter (Meg Whitman) ever so conveniently is also kidnaped by the fiend. Even so, almost nothing about the investigation rings true. What’s differentiates “The Factory” from other run-of-the-mill genre flicks, besides a relatively unique torture chamber, is an ending that comes from so far out in left field it might as well be from another movie entirely. It helps explain why a Cusack vehicle, reportedly made in 2008, is going straight-to-DVD in 2013.

Kill for Me” combines elements of the crazy-roommate and revenge-is-sweet subgenres into a reasonably entertaining, if familiar thriller targeted at young adults willing to take a chance on a direct-to-DVD flick. The only actor I recognized here is the antagonist, played by Donal Logue, a scruffy-looking actor who plays characters of dubious moral character exceedingly well. Youthful fans of such prime-time soaps as “Arrow,” “Gossip Girl” and “Melrose Place” should, however, be familiar with Katie Cassidy (David’s daughter) and Tracy Spiridakos, whose credits include stints on “Revolution” and “Being Human.” Cassidy plays Amanda, a college student whose boyfriend gets his kicks beating her up. Spiridakos is her new roommate, Hailey, who clearly has experienced her own fair share of abuse growing up in the boonies. One day, Hailey arrives at home in time to save Amanda from what could be a fatal attack. At the same time as the rescue cements their friendship, it effectively binds the two women together as accomplices in a major crime. (Has no one heard of justifiable homicide?) This gives Hailey an opportunity to avenge what she describes as a lifetime of abuse and the death of her mother at the hands of Logue’s backwoods Lothario. The closer Amanda aligns herself with Hailey, the more she fears that she isn’t telling her the whole story. It takes a while to get to the truth, but some viewers might not mind the wait. Even if no one trusted “Kill for Me” to perform in theaters, the stars’ performances shouldn’t impede their careers. – Gary Dretzka

The Package: Blu-ray
Special Forces: Blu-ray
Considering how many people die in “The Package,” there’s surprisingly little blood and gore shed during the movie’s 96-minute length. It’s just as well, though, because it would only make the floors too slippery to trade kicks, chops and punches. Nothing about “The Package” is terribly realistic, let along logical. I suspect that action junkies won’t complain, given the amount of hand-to-hand combat and automatic-weapons fire on display. Stuntman/director Jesse V. Johnson keeps his foot on the accelerator throughout “The Package,” rarely giving viewers enough time to wonder about such things as why the bad guys are so inaccurate and their guns never run out of bullets, or how the good guys became so impervious to pain. Here, Steve Austin uses everything from his feet to his forehead, and then some, to kill his enemies. They’re after a mysterious package he’s been assigned to deliver to a super-stud criminal, known simply as “The German” (Dolph Lundgren). He’s not to look at what’s inside it or tarry. If he lives to hand over the package, the boss will forgive a large debt owed by his brother, who’s cooling his heels in prison. How the assassins he confronts on the road from Seattle to Vancouver know about the package is another mystery. In the end, nothing matters except the action, of which there’s plenty.

Remember when Francophobe yokels in the United States attempted to ban all things French from sacred American soil, even going so far as to rename French fries and boycott the Paris resort in Las Vegas? The boneheaded movement was in response to France’s refusal to join American, British, Polish and Australian forces in the quagmire that became the 2003 invasion of Iraq. With 20/20 foresight and hindsight, it was the smart decision. Still, somewhere in the U.S., it’s likely that one or two restaurants still insist on selling 10-year-old Freedom fries to their customers. “Special Forces” serves as a reminder that French forces not only participated in the first war in the Mideast, but also fought bravely in Afghanistan for 11 years. They’re currently in Mali, battling Islamist militants who attempted to take over the country and presumably aren’t great fans of the U.S., either. “Special Forces” describes a mission to rescue a French journalist (Diane Kruger) from Taliban troops holed up in a desert stronghold. The mission is led by a special-forces commander played by Djimon Hounsou. The journalist was in Afghanistan working on story about the role of women in the country, especially now that the Taliban are experiencing a resurgence in influence. – Gary Dretzka

Bath Salt Zombies
Prison: Collector’s Edition: Blu-ray
The Nest: Blu-ray
TerrorVision/The Video Dead: Bluray
I must be getting old. Last spring, when it was widely reported that a homeless man in Miami had his face chewed off by a bath-salt abuser, my first impression was that Epsom salts and other bathtub additives somehow could turn a mild-mannered dope fiend into a flesh-eating ghoul. It was a new one on me, but, having lived through the electric-banana craze of the 1960s, I reserved judgment. According to the coroner assigned to the case, the “cannibal” who was shot and killed by police that day had nothing resembling bath salts in his system … some residue marijuana, yes, but not the designer drug known on the street as “bath salts.” That substance, which contains synthetic cathinones, looks enough like Epsom salts to have been accorded the name by enterprising dope dealers. No one is precisely sure how it works, but, worse case, it has been known to induce behavior similar to that attributed to cocaine, speed and PCP. It’s just as possible that car-wash employee Rudy Eugene was having a really, really bad day at the office when he attacked 65-year-old Ronald Poppo. Possibly to deflect questions about whether or not the cop used his sidearm when other options might have been available, a Miami police spokesman presented the bath-salts story to the media, which couldn’t wait to run with it. They’d done the same thing in the 1930s, when marijuana and hemp were outlawed based primarily on the premise that Satan grows the stuff in the Back 40 of hell and sells it to kids.

Sometime very soon after the news of the Miami Cannibal broke, production began on a crazy DIY movie, “Bath Salt Zombies.” It could very well be the first such film to capitalize on both the “epidemic” and zombie-movie craze. Although made on budget that topped out at an estimated $5,000, it bears a resemblance to “Reefer Madness,” in that it combines what’s known about the drug with a wildly over-the-top cautionary tale. Although crude by most cinematic standards, “Bath Salt Zombies” is strangely entertaining and surprisingly coherent. I say, “surprisingly,” because do-it-yourself auteur Dustin Mills’ previous films – “Night of the Tentacles,” “Zombie A-Hole” and “The Puppet Monster Massacre” – went out of their way to defy good taste, logic and most other cinematic conventions. As conceived by co-writer Clint Weiler, a preppy-looking street dealer convinces a customer to try some bath-salt cigarettes and, of course, they have the least-desired effect on the young man. After being turned on by his voluptuous girlfriend, who reacts to the drug by climbing on a bed and doing a striptease, he chews off her face. In a concurrent throughline, a SWAT team is preparing to raid the underground pharmacist responsible for bringing bath salts to the USA. That things don’t turn out exactly as planned for anyone involved is a good thing here. Like the vast majority of DIY efforts, the lower your expectations, the more fun you’ll have watching “Bath Salt Zombies.” The DVD includes Mills’ commentary, which should be of interest to aspiring horror directors, who will never have enough money to afford film school.

Based on found-footage discovered after a terrible event in the English countryside, “Hollow” is sufficiently different from other titles in the subgenre, which now relies too much on hidden surveillance cameras, to recommend it to suspense junkies. Here, four young people drive to Sussex to spend the weekend in the lovely home of a vicar’s daughter. It’s been a year since the vicar died and the building has remained unoccupied and without electricity even since then. Once they arrive, all of their eyes are drawn to a large, leafy tree that’s been the source of rumors and speculation for centuries. Also located on the property are the ruins of an ancient cathedral, which supposedly harbors a dark spirit that wills couples to hang themselves from the branches of the tree. Naturally, the wiseass kids scoff at the legend and don’t hesitate to tour the ruins. Soon enough, though, their revelry is disturbed by mysterious noises and visions. They also find books left behind by the vicar that reference the tree and hangings, but go back hundreds of years. The difference between “Hollow” and most other found-footage movies is that it doesn’t limit activity to the interiors of homes or airplanes. The beautiful scenery provides a temporary respite from the tension that begins to build immediately after dusk. It’s the feeling of abject helplessness on the part of the characters when it’s their turn to die that will give you the willies. The DVD adds a short interview with director Michael Axelgaard.

Finnish filmmaker Renny Harlin made his American debut in 1988, with the low-budget genre flick, “Prison.” He has since enjoyed huge box-office success (“Die Hard 2,” “Cliffhanger,” “A Nightmare on Elm Street IV”), while also enduring the pain of having his name attached to some of the most notorious flops of our time (“Cutthroat Island,” “The Long Kiss Goodnight,” “Driven,” “Exorcist: The Beginning”). He’s spent the last couple of years directing some of cable-television’s best series, but a reputation for demanding costly additions to already-expensive productions haunts him. If “Prison” was produced strictly to milk money from the horror crowd, it nonetheless was greeted with solid reviews from the critics who take genre pictures seriously. In it, the vengeful spirit of an executed convict haunts the recently reopened prison in which he was put to death. Clearly, the convict’s ghost doesn’t want any company. Harlin benefited from being able to stage the picture in the former Wyoming State Prison, a facility that looks as if it might have been built during the Crusades. Except for Lane Smith, the cast was comprised mostly of actors whose faces and names – Viggo Mortensen, “Tiny” Lister, Chelsea Field, Tom Everett — would become familiar much later. The Shout! Factory Blu-ray, which looks very good, adds Harlin’s commentary and a decent making-of featurette.

I watched almost the entirety of “The Nest” without realizing that it originally was released in 1988 by one of Roger Corman’s offshoot companies. To my eyes, it looked very much like one of those made-for-Syfy flicks that employ half-assed special effects and homicidal creatures born of flawed scientific experiments. One of Corman’s companies also supplies these movies for the cable and DVD market. All one needs to know about “The Nest” is that the flawed experiment here involves cockroaches and the hybrids have now infested an entire island. If the few remaining residents, who haven’t been skinned alive by the meat-eating cockroaches, aren’t able to stop them they could spread to the mainland. Knowing its background, I’m far more disposed to approve of “The Nest,” whose nasty special-effects and disembowelments were done without the aid of CGI technology. The cockroaches speak for themselves. In Blu-ray, though some of the effects look sillier and more fake than they would in VHS. The set adds commentary by director Terence H. Winkless.

Also from Shock! Factory comes a double-feature of TV-inspired horror from the late 1980s. It was at about this time in cinema history when anyone able to afford a camcorder could realize his or her dream of making a movie or music video and having it seen by bleary-eyed viewers over emerging cable, cable-access, large-dish satellite and VHS platforms. The editing process wasn’t nearly as affordable as it would become in the digital era, but neither was it prohibitively expensive. Doors also opened for dabblers in special video and makeup effects. Horror and sci-fi fanatics benefitted the most from the convergence of production and delivery systems. No longer was cost an impediment to creativity. If any film epitomized what was happening in the video underground, it was David Cronenberg’s “Videodrome.” It was so unique for its time, 1983, that only a few mainstream critics bothered to look beyond the horror to see the prophesy at its core. Although “Videodrome” underperformed at the theatrical box office, it would become a cult hit in video. It’s even been deemed worthy of a Criterion Collection makeover.

Released in 1986, writer/director Ted Nicolaou extended Cronenberg’s monster-in-the-box premise into the realm of dark comedy with “TerrorVision.” Among the stars of the sci-fi parody was Mary Woronov, who also played a prominent role in Paul Bartel’s campy “Eating Raoul,” which it resembles. In “TerrorVision,” a C-band satellite disc installed in the backyard of a wealthy couple conjures images from cable stations near and far. Between the porn and genre flicks, the dish also captures transmissions from a distant planet inhabited by lizard-like beings. A representative of the alien culture interrupts the broadcast to inform viewers that the dish’s signals are having an adverse effect on communications there and a sinister force has transmigrated itself to Earth. The monster is an insatiable killing machine, with a taste for swingers. It’s as nutso as these things get. The second half of the double-feature is taken up by Robert Scott’s “The Video Dead,” in which a television delivered to a rural household provides a gateway through which killer zombies enter the world. The ghouls look and act the same as every zombie in the post-Romero era, but differ in their ability to move swiftly when motivated, survive severe mutilation, wield chain saws and, when their appetites are sated, socialize with their prey. “VideoDead” isn’t nearly as campy as “TerrorVision,” but gore freaks should enjoy it. The Shout! Factory releases are better than most straight-to-DVD movies released in their wake. Both movies contain interesting bonus material. – Gary Dretzka

Naked City: 20 Star-Filled Episodes
American Experience: Henry Ford
Nova: Ultimate Mars Challenge
Nova ScienceNow: What Will the Future Be Like?
Cartoon Network: Adventure Time: Fionna & Cake 4
Compilations of classic television series can present problems for collectors. For one thing, it’s difficult to know ahead of time the condition of the individual episodes, especially those recorded via Kinescope. In VHS, very little attention was paid to scratches, breaks, chronology and artifacts. This often applies to the first DVD iterations, as well, and the many releases arranged by season and “best-of” series. If fans are patient and fortunate, however, a distributor will go to the trouble of digitally polishing the episodes, making them look as close to brand new as possible. In the case of the unforgettable police-procedural “Naked City” – “There are 8 million stories in the naked city and this has been one of them” – “20 Star-Filled Episodes” represents a fourth- or fifth-generation release. The good news is that the show looks swell and the stories remain as entertaining as they’ve been all along. Much of the credit for this belongs to writers, actors and directors who lived and worked in New York in the so-called Golden Age and split their time between the theater, television and motion pictures. The stories reflected the city’s grit and its immigrant and artist community, although African-Americans were typically underrepresented. When the production of most network series moved to Los Angeles for good, it signaled the beginning of the dumbing-down of police and P.I. shows. It wasn’t until such adaptations of Joseph Wambaugh books as “Police Story” and “The Blue Knight” began airing in the mid-1970s that the door was opened for “Hill Street Blues” and other intelligent series. Among the classic New York-based series, “Naked City” was noteworthy for its emphasis on the extenuating circumstances of crime, especially mental illness and conflicting impressions of the same evidence. Several of the entries included in “20 Star-Filled Episodes” have appeared in previous collections, but quite a few of them are fresh. The emphasis here is on the young actors who soon would begin to make their mark in the movies. They include Dustin Hoffman, Robert Morse, Robert Redford, Gene Hackman, Robert Duvall, Dennis Hopper, William Shatner, Leslie Nielsen, Carroll O’Connor, Telly Savalas, Martin Sheen, Peter Fonda, Jean Stapleton, Ed Asner, Suzanne Pleshette, Jon Voight, James Caan, Doris Roberts and Diane Ladd. Dustin Hoffman, for example, made his debut in the 1961 episode, “Sweet Prince of Delancey Street,” alongside emerging Broadway stalwart Robert Morse. Then, less than an hour later, there’s the pairing of Martin Sheen and Peter Fonda in their second and first TV appearances.

That Henry Ford was an industrialist of Shakespearian proportions – a man who changed the way Americans would live and work in the 20th Century and beyond — is an inarguable fact. Like many of the great men introduced to us by the Bard, Ford also was a megalomaniac. A man of great contradictions, he bullied and belittled his heir, Edsel, but happily took credit for his successes; showed great generosity to his workers one minute and sicced thugs on them the next; believed he could create a better world for the masses, but bought a weekly newspaper to circulate anti-Semitic tracts; was a great innovator, but nearly lost his business for refusing to adapt to change. Ford infuriated his wealthy peers by raising the salaries of his workers, cheating them on stock dividends, and using the assembly line to maintain low prices for his automobiles. In other times and different countries, he might have been handed a crown to wear and throne upon which to sit. If elected to office in America, Ford would have been hard-pressed to compromise on anything that clashed with his personal beliefs. Democracy wasn’t his strong suit. All of the man’s pluses and minuses are weighed in the fascinating PBS bio-doc, “American Experience: Henry Ford.” It’s left to viewers as to whether the man’s genius outweighed his flaws.

Depending upon how one feels about the significance of possibly finding alternate life forms on a faraway planets, the successful landing of the roving scientific laboratory, Curiosity, could prove to be the most significant first step taken in the last 50 years or a huge disappoint. Imagine, for example, how unhappy all of us would be if Curiosity found evidence of ancient societies, but, instead of caves and pyramids, the inhabitants emerged fully blown from long-abandoned shopping malls and buried their dead in landfills. We’ve always assumed that any aliens that revealed themselves to us would be smarter and more evolved than we are. What if the people of Mars were no more intelligent than characters who inhabit the cartoon shows on Fox every Sunday night and, in fact, were too lazy to construct spacecraft of their own? Such a discovery might require us to spend the rest of eternity avoiding further contact with them. So far, however, the Curiosity’s mission continues to hold our interest, even providing the occasional hint of the presence of ice, once-flowing water and potentially interesting gases and minerals PBS’ “Nova” series has been chronicling the mission since its launch and asking the same question of scientists that we would. The result is “Ultimate Mars Challenge.”

In the latest installment of the “Nova” spinoff series, “ScienceNow: What Will the Future Be Like?,” David Pogue continues his exploration of technologies still in their infancy that someday might be as common as iPhones and Androids. Among the subjects are the development of a robotic exoskeleton that gives humans the strength of supervillains in such movies as “Ironman” and “Spider-Man.” He also shows how someday our cellphones might be able to read our minds and detect warning signs of illness much earlier than is possible today.

When did cartoons get so far out? A steady diet of Looney Tunes and “Rocky & His Friends” made it possible for me to accept a universe in which animals and humans could converse and co-exist, if primarily in an adversarial way. With every new DVD compilation of cartoon shows on Nickelodeon and Cartoon Network that I receive in the mail these ways, I’m inclined to wonder what’s really going on inside the heads of their creators. Learning how popular the shows are on niche services also tells me that kids today not only are obsessed with fart jokes, but they also are able to accept concepts that teens and adults might automatically filter from their consciousness. The widely disputed theory that the children of hippies might inherit LSD-altered chromosomes from their parents might not be so far-fetched, after all. “Adventure Time” is one of several series I’ve watched lately that have convinced me such a thing might be possible. For one thing, I find it highly unlikely that kids under the age of 7 or 8 are able to get their tiny heads around the concept of a “post-apocalyptic” anything, let alone a dystopic land of Ooo, or one in which a size-shifting human boy with a funny hat, Finn, and a magic and mischievous dog, Cake,” encounter all manner of creatures, living and dead. Apparently, creator Pendleton Ward is an art-school graduate heavily influenced by the work of Hayao Miyazaki, Dungeons & Dragons and other role-playing games. In my day, detractors would warn of hidden communist propaganda embedded in cartoons, but, knowing what we do now about the red menace, it’s inconceivable that a Marxist could invent the stuff that’s kept American kids laughing for the last 30 years or so. The new “Adventure Time: Fionna & Cake 4” compilation features 16 episodes from all four seasons of the show, which, by the way, is one of the most popular and most honored on Cartoon Network. Fans already know that these DVD packages shouldn’t be mistaken for full-season compilations. Sadly, consecutively available episodes are being dealt out on a PPV basis. – Gary Dretzka

Mick Vs. Keith: The Strange Case of Jagger and Richards
The Rolling Stones may have actively celebrated the 50th anniversary of their founding last year, but Mick Jagger and Keith Richards’ friendship extends even further back than 1962. They were schoolmates while growing up in Dartford, Kent, and found each other again, years later, on a railway platform. The records that Jagger was carrying — Chuck Berry and Muddy Waters – demonstrated a kinship that transcended all other possible mutual interests. American blues and rock ’n’ roll would be the bond that soon would unite Jagger and Richards with Brian Jones, Bill Wyman and Charlie Watt. Once the Stones began performing their own songs, the Jagger/Richards brand would become as recognizable as that of Lennon/McCartney. Stop me, if you’ve heard this tune already. No matter how many times it’s been, there will always be another book, record, website or DVD devoted to the band’s music, biographies, iterations and influence. Logging in at 224 minutes, the two-disc “Mick Vs. Keith: The Strange Case of Jagger and Richards” may provide more ephemera about the band than anyone, except the most loyal fans, could absorb in one or two sittings. Still, it takes almost that long to make a “strange case” for or against any two people who have been together for more than a half-century. – Gary Dretzka

The DVD Wrapup

Wednesday, February 13th, 2013

Skyfall: Blu-ray
Having watched all of the James Bond movies and read all 14 of Ian Fleming’s 007 novels, I can say with no small degree of conviction that “Skyfall” is the smartest entry in the series to date. That it’s also the most entertaining chapter in the series—since the 1960s, at least—is doubly remarkable, considering that production was delayed for more than a year until MGM could exit bankruptcy proceedings and a distribution deal with Sony could be finalized. Newly-imposed budget constraints, such as they were, forced “Skyfall” producers to cancel location shoots in India and South Africa and stage them in Turkey. Bond movies have never been absolutely free of product placement (a.k.a., brand integration), but “Skyfall” raised the bar to a daunting new level. Of the $150-200-million budget allotted “Skyfall,” it’s estimated that a third was recouped from Heineken plugs, alone, and it was only one of a dozen companies on the list. By comparison, the inclusion of a trademark 007Aston-Martin DB5 practically feels organic. The 50-year-old movie franchise may never have needed to pander to the corporate world, but, by now, the total savings are inestimably huge. On its own merits, “Skyfall” would go on to become an instant international sensation, grossing nearly $1.1 billion before entering the ancillary markets.

Seemingly, though, no expense was spared on the creative team. It includes Oscar-winning director Sam Mendes; writers Robert Wade, John Logan and Neal Purvis; cinematographer Roger Deakins; title-sequence designer Daniel Kleinman; composer Thomas Newman; and singer Adele, one of the hottest properties on the market. In his third appearance as Her Majesty’s favorite secret agent, Daniel Craig seems as confident of his interpretation of the character as if he had personally been handed the baton from Sean Connery, with the instructions, “Don’t cock it up.” What’s great about “Skyfall,” especially in lieu of the anniversary, is that it pays as much attention to the character’s past and future, as it does the fictional present. As the movie opens, a mercenary employed by an unknown enemy of Britain manages not only to steal a flash drive containing the names and locations of MI6 personnel around the world, but also elude capture in a thrilling chase in cars and on motorbikes and a train. It ends when M (Judi Dench) orders Field Agent Eve (Naomie Harris) to take an ill-considered sniper shot at the two men as they wrestled on the top of a passenger train going 50 mph and about to enter a tunnel. Bond is hit by the bullet, which knocks him off the train and into a swiftly flowing river, at which point he disappears and is believed dead. The new chairman of Intelligence and Security Committee, Mallory (Ralph Fiennes), holds M directly responsible for the loss of the flash drive and, only incidentally, Bond. When the secret agent does re-surface at a bar in the company of beautiful woman, natch, Mallory uses the occasion to test his ability to still play in the big leagues.

Mallory favors computer-savvy agents over the old pros in the 00-series of spies. The techies may able to find a needle in a cyber-haystack, but they’re hardly a psychological match for such supervillains as the grudge-carrying Silva (Javier Bardem). Like most of Bond’s targets through the last half-century, Silva lives in the shadows and is several times more sinister and intelligent than anyone without field experience could possibly understand. Bond does, but the fitness tests ordered by Mallory tell us that the bullet wound has taken its toll on him and he’s playing the spook game at 80 percent of his potential strength. Giving a criminal mastermind a 20 percent advantage normally would be more than enough of an edge for Bond to succeed, but Silva’s really, really smart and his motivations have nothing to do with money or power. Ultimately, Bond levels the playing field by luring Silva to his boyhood home in Scotland, where even more exciting surprises await everyone.

What’s superlative about the Blu-ray edition of “Skyfall” is Deakins’ cinematography, which is never short of brilliant and adds yet another layer of excitement to the proceedings. Because he used digital equipment to shoot and edit the movie, the high-def transfer was accomplished without once resorting to film. The images are as pure as they could possibly be and it shows. The nighttime neon on display in the Shanghai exterior shots literally sparkles. Even though the interiors of the city’s hi-rises were re-created at Pinewood Studios, the strategically lit sets allowed even more magic. The lantern-lit entrance to Macau’s floating Golden Dragon Casino, its fiery gates and scarlet gaming floor practically constitute a work of art. By contrast, the gloomy cloud-covered skies over the moors surrounding Bond’s Skyfall estate have been manipulated to foreshadow the carnage to come there. I have a feeling that a deluxe edition of “Skyfall” will find its way into the marketplace soon enough, adding a ton more deleted scenes and featurettes. The nearly hourlong making-of featurette contained here is more of a promotional vehicle, but it adds some interesting making-of background, along with the fluff. There also are separate commentary tracks, one with Mendes and the other with producers Barbara Broccoli and Michael G. Wilson and production designer Dennis Gassner. – Gary Dretzka

Bully: Blu-ray
The Perks of Being a Wallflower: Blu-ray
Most people would agree that the inability and/or unwillingness of teachers, school boards and parents to come to grips with the epidemic of bullying, peer pressure and harassment in our nation’s schools and on computer networks is reprehensible. In many schools, such behavior makes learning and teaching next to impossible, and smart kids are forced to act dumb to avoid being separated from the pack and devoured. Most of the teachers we meet in Lee Hirsch’s truly heart-breaking documentary, “Bully,” keep their heads in the sand, hoping the plague simply will go away; administrators fear lawsuits and reprisals so much that they refuse to acknowledge problems even exist; parents of bullies dismiss their child’s behavior as a kids-will-be-kids rite of passage; and the worst of the kids are written off before they can find a true purpose in life. Too often, they’re simply miniature version of their parents. There are no hard-and-fast explanations for what motivates manly-men athletes to push around kids half their size, simply because they’re gay, smart or unfashionable. Teachers and administrators have historically given the “popular” crowd a break when it comes to elevating the status of one group of students over another when it comes to social events and status. It’s easier than fighting the ever-rising tide of conformity or encouraging lower caste kids to find other ways than violence to fight back. By now it’s a cliché to suggest that the so-called nerds and geeks will have the last laugh, by making piles more money than their antagonists and buying all the toys they want. Maybe so, but they still have to survive the hellish rituals of middle and high school first. Not even the Columbine massacre, during which heavily armed misfits targeted the jocks who abused them, provided sufficient cause for a national debate on the ramifications of bullying. It took the recent rash of suicides committed by kids harassed in Internet chat rooms and on Facebook to bring higher-than-usual attention to the issue.

The Weinstein Company is to be applauded for vigorously promoting “Bully,” even when the bean brains at the MPAA branded it with an “R” rating – based solely on strong, if not uncommon language — that would have prevented it from being shown in classrooms and to kids in their ’tweens and early teens. Its public campaign to reverse the decision raised awareness of the documentary, but only after a middle ground was reached on some of the language. The debate needn’t have gotten that far. The director, Hirsch, wasn’t attempting to shock anyone with anything except the cold reality of what happens every day in the hallways, classrooms, lunch rooms and buses of the schools he surveyed. He did this by spending an entire school year following five families that have been impacted by bullying and/or homophobia. The interwoven stories include those of two families that have lost children to suicide and a mother whose 14-year-old daughter was incarcerated after she felt it necessary to carry a gun on her school bus to dissuade further attacks. For the most part, the parents don’t have the wherewithal to find schools where the kids are more tolerant or there’s a zero-tolerance approach to discipline. That option wouldn’t be necessary at all if some of the adults we meet weren’t so obtuse and, yes, downright stupid. (One teacher chastised a long-tormented boy for not shaking hands with his nemesis, as if the blame for the abuse was shared 50/50 and the promise of a bully had true value.) In one town, administrators effectively admitted their culpability by boycotting a meeting called by parents to discuss a tormented student’s suicide. “Bully” is a documentary that demands of viewers that they never forget the faces of the children to whom they’re introduced. It freely elicits our anger, empathy and tears, while also providing avenues to address our concerns. The Blu-ray comes with several worthwhile bonus features, including a version edited especially for younger audiences; deleted scenes; a piece on how an entire school reacted to a screening; another in which Meryl Streep describes her reaction; a look at how one of the subjects has fared since the film was made; and other featurettes with teachable moments.

The Perks of Being a Wallflower” shares several things with “Bully,” including receiving a rating that would have prevented it from being seen by its target audience. Despite its sensitivity to the issues teenagers deal with on a daily basis, the MPAA gave it an “R” for “teen drug and alcohol use, and some sexual references.” Fortuitously, the board came to its senses after an appeal by the distributor. It received a PG-13, but with a proviso that cautioned of “mature thematic material, drug and alcohol use, sexual content including references, and a fight — all involving teens.” I’d be willing to bet that the original rating had more to do with the positive portrayal of a gay character than anything else in the movie. Writer/director Stephen Chbosky does a nice job adapting his 1999 coming-of-age novel, which found a cult following among teens. Set in the early 1990s, hence the hit-driven soundtrack, “Perks” tells the story of a high school freshman, Charlie (Logan Lerman), who feels desperately alienated from his classmates, both for his withdrawn personality and the negative reaction of his peers to his superior intelligence. The only way we know what’s turned Charlie into such an emotional basket case is the through letters he writes to possibly non-existent friends. It isn’t until Charlie endears himself to a clique of seniors, who also live outside the orbit of the popular crowd, that he feels comfortable with fellow students. Chbosky makes it easy for us to believe that facsimiles of these kids exist in real high schools and share the same experiences as Charlie and his friends. (I’m not sure how many high schools would approve of a student production of “Rocky Horror Show,” however) The stellar cast includes Emma Watson, Ezra Miller, Nina Dobrey, Julia Garner, Mae Whitman and, as adult characters, Dylan McDermott, Kate Walsh, Paul Rudd, Melanie Lynskey and Joan Cusack. The Blu-ray adds a pair of featurettes and deleted scenes. – Gary Dretzka

The Thieves: Blu-ray
When it comes to staging elaborate stunts and action sequences in hi-rises and other urban settings, Hollywood and Hong Kong traditionally have set the standard for others to follow. Not only are such scenes dangerous, but they’re also labor-intensive and frequently prohibitively expensive. Only God and a bean-counter at Paramount know exactly how much money it took for Tom Cruise to hang precipitously from the summit of Dubai’s Burj Khalifa tower in “Mission:Impossible: Ghost Protocol.” The cost of the insurance premium that allowed Cruise to forgo the stunt-double ruse would scare most filmmakers off. Jackie Chan has also proven that elaborate stunts can be performed on limited budgets and in tight spaces most filmmakers would avoid. Borrowing a page or two from the “Oceans’ 11”  and “M:I” playbooks, director Choi Dong-hoon and co-writer Lee Gi-cheol have crafted an elaborate heist thriller that western audiences should find almost as entertaining as those in Asia, where “The Thieves”  was a huge hit. It did so by assembling an all-star cast of actors from Korea and China and using locations in Seoul, Macau and Hong Kong. The scenario is relatively simple. Rival crews from China and Korea meet in Hong Kong at the invitation of criminal mastermind Macau Park (Kim Yun-seok), who lays out a scheme involving the “Tear of the Sun” diamond, previously owned by the mistress of a Chinese racketeer. The gem is stashed behind several layers of state-of-the-art security inside one of Macau’s plush new casinos. (It looks nothing at all like the helter-skelter gambling den in “The Man With the Golden Gun.”) We’ve already been shown how adept the thieves have proven to be in previous capers, so the one in Macau doesn’t seem out of the realm of possibility. Choi also lays the foundation for the many double-crosses and romantic subplots that will come into play during the movie’s 135-minute length. That’s about all one needs to know – in terms of plot, anyway — before deciding to rent “The Thieves.” The other positive thing here is that, in addition to being beautiful and sexy, the women characters exist on the same criminal and physical plane as the men. They aren’t merely deployed as decoys, diversions or femme fatales. Everyone has skills specifically suited to the caper and screen time is shared more or less equally. The ensemble approach is what allows “The Thieves” to be mentioned in the same breath as “Ocean’s 11.” The action and stunts are what distinguish it from those franchises. The Blu-ray adds a making-of featurette and backgrounder. – Gary Dretzka

Dangerous Liaisons: Blu-ray
Once again, Pierre Choderlos de Laclos’s epistolary novel “Les Liaisons Dangereuses” proves to be as elastic today as it’s been since first being published in 1782, even in non-epistolary form. The wicked machinations of the idle rich, when sufficiently bored, provide one-size-fits-all entertainment. It doesn’t matter much whether an adaptation is set in France, at any point during the last 230 years of the country’s history (“Valmont”); among jaded Manhattan teens in the 1990s (“Cruel Intentions”); in 18th Century Korea (“Untold Scandal”); or, here, the early 1930s in Shanghai. It’s also served artists who labor in print, on stage, radio, opera, ballet and television. It would take a pretty miserable writer or director to screw up “Dangerous Liaisons” and Hur Jin-ho certainly holds up his end of the bargain on film. While half a world and 150 years away from pre-revolution France, the Chinese setting couldn’t be more apropos. In 1931, Shanghai was as important a commercial center as there was in the world. The winds of war were carrying wealthy exiles from the north of China, visa-less Jews and formerly wealthy Russian aristocrats to “The Paris of the East,” where the Jazz Age had yet to come to an end and the good times continued to roll. The Japanese would put an end to the fun soon enough, but, in 1931, there was still time for the bored socialite, Mo (Cecilia Cheung), to conspire with her playboy friend, Xie (Jang Dong-kun), over the virginity of a chaste young woman already promised to a wealthy and powerful man, who Mo despises. Mo and Xie still harbor a jones for each other, but refuse to act on their secret desires. If Xie wins the bet by corrupting the precious flower, Beibei (Candy Wang), though, she’ll finally be his. Naturally, things don’t work out as planned. That “Dangerous Liaisons” ends in tragedy hardly qualifies as a spoiler. What’s wonderful about the movie is Hur’s lavish re-creation of the lifestyles of Shanghai’s upper-crust and their haunts. The attention to detail and period accuracy will resonate with admirers of Ang Lee’s “Lust, Caution,” James Ivory’s “The White Countess,” Zhang Yimou’s “Shanghai Triad” and John Curran’s “The Painted Veil.”  Among the cast of popular Chinese and Korean actors are Zhang Ziyi, Lisa Lu and Shawn Dou. The movie looks excellent in Blu-ray and includes making-of and behind-the-scenes featurettes. – Gary Dretzka

Mimesis: Night of the Living Dead: Blu-ray
Given that most zombie movies now are released straight-to-DVD/Blu-ray, it’s nice to see that “Warm Bodies” — a nifty revisionist take on the subgenre – has been able to make a pile of money in theatrical release. Knee-jerk comparisons to the “Twilight” saga probably didn’t hurt its ability to attract opening-weekend audiences. A look was all it took to spark word-of-mouth. Through no fault of its own, “Mimesis” wasn’t quite so fortunate. Any title that demands a perusal of a good dictionary – “imitation in the form of art” — already has one strike against it. The newly added subtitle, “Night of the Living Dead,” is a bit more inviting. Fact is, it’s a pretty entertaining movie, which pays homage to the George Romero classic without ripping it off in the process. After the zombie attack that opens “Mimesis,” director Douglas Schulze and writer Joshua Wagner take viewers to a horror convention in the Midwest. Naturally, many of the participants are dressed in zombie drag, while others are drawn to the seminars, including one conducted by a belligerent expert played by the great Sid Haig.  To cap the confab, several fans have been invited to a party at a lonely rural location. At some point during the proceedings, they’re slipped a drug that causes them to pass out. When they awaken, the fans are dressed in different clothing and situated in places that are unfamiliar to them. Unlike devotees of “NOTLD” in the audience, the partiers are slow to grasp the fact that they’ve been dressed to resemble characters in the movie. Moreover, when the flesh-eaters emerge from the shadows, they appear to be following Romero’s script, as well. Is it a case of deja-vu all over again or has some fiend transported them to the site that inspired the 1968 ground-breaker? I’ll never tell. Suffice it to say that a $500,000 budget couldn’t prevent Schulze from pulling out all of the the stops on his creation. Horror devotees looking for a change of pace could do a lot worse than investing a brisk 95 minutes on “Mimesis.” – Gary Dretzka

Same Time Every Year
Serena: An Adult Fairy Tale
When Ron Jeremy checked himself into a hospital last month, suffering from what turned out to be a potentially lethal heart aneurysm, the celebrity media treated the news as if the man known as Hedgehog were a star of “Downton Abbey” or a member of the Dodgers or Angels. The announcers didn’t go into much detail on what made Jeremy a star in the first place, but those in the know already were aware of his status as, perhaps, the world’s most prolific porn actor. I bring this up because he is one of a small handful of actors, most of them male, whose careers have spanned the Golden Age and the expanding universe of cybersex. A jovial fellow, as well as a living legend, Jeremy has also appeared in several mainstream movies and celebrity-based reality shows. He’s been the subject of at least one serious documentary and hawks penis-enhancing pills on late-night cable shows. A far younger and noticeably more handsome version of Ron Jeremy appears in “Same Time Every Year,” one of a pair of vintage XXX movies being re-released this week by Impulse Pictures. The other is “Serena: An Adult Fairy Tale,” sent out in 1980. The movies where made back-to-back by Fred J. Lincoln, whose career spanned even longer than Jeremy. Known as well for portraying “Weasel” in “The Last House on the Left,” Lincoln died last month at the age of 75. Lincoln’s trajectory resembled that of Burt Reynolds’ character in “Boogie Nights.”

In the early 1980s, adult films were shot on film, often followed recognizable storylines and the sex scenes typically were far less formulaic than those being released in the post-gonzo era. Today, distributers rely on parodies and fetish sex to sell product. There are fetish scenes in “Serena” and “Same Time Every Year,” but they’re tailored to attract couples and crossover audiences. The latter borrows the title and conceit of Bernard Slade’s Broadway play, “Same Time, Next Year,” which, in 1978, was adapted for a movie starring Ellen Burstyn and Alan Alda. Instead heading off for an annual convention, a group of male friends are chauffeured by Jeremy to a sex resort, where they spend the weekend committing adultery and being nagged by their lovers. Meanwhile, at home, their wives play the old what’s-good-for-the-goose game, by having their way with partners of both genders and job descriptions. Their husbands, of course, are none the wiser. Then and now, that’s about as ironic as porn movies got.

Also shot on film, “Serena” is less a parody or spoof than a remake of “Cinderella,” with hard-core sex and seriously horny characters. Poor Cinderella, as portrayed by blond hall-of-famer Serena, was sold into sexual slavery by her stepfather. In the brothel, she not only is required to perform chores, but also help her three “sisters” service their clients. Her fairy godmother gives Cinderella an opportunity to attend a party at which Prince Charles will be looking for a concubine. At midnight, in mid-tryst, Serena is required to beat a swift retreat to her quarters, minus one glass slipper. The rest is fairy-tale history. Among the male performers in these movies are Paul Thomas and Herschel Savage, whose careers preceded Jeremy’s by a few years and are still active in the industry, seemingly no worse for the wear. Jamie Gillis began in the early 1970s, but pretty much left the business by the turn of the new century. The careers of female leads Serena, Loni Sanders, Dorothy LeMay, Tiffany Clark and China Leigh, as well as those of the other Golden Age women, were effectively over by the mid- to late-1980s, when video forever changed the game. While hardly fresh looking, the DVDs are a noticeable step up from VHS and crusty Internet lifts. There are no bonus features. – Gary Dretzka

Jedi Junkies
Now that it’s been officially announced there will, indeed, be a “Star Wars: Episode VII” and it will be piloted by “Star Trek” and “Star Trek Into Darkness” director J.J. Abrams, it’s fair to wonder when some of the fans we meet in “Jedi Junkies” will begin their ritual campout on Hollywood Boulevard. Unlike Trekkies, some of whom have proven to be both self-destructive and insufferably nerdy, the “Star Wars” devotees in Mark Edlitz’ documentary are no more creepy than people obsessed with counting “Hidden Mickeys” at Disneyland. At conventions, like the one seen in the doc, they dress in the costumes worn by their favorite characters, stage lightsaber competitions, ogle “slave Leia” belly dancers, check out the new model kits and incessantly rap about all things “Stars Wars.” More than anything else, though, these New Yorkers spend an enormous amount of money each year contributing to George Lucas’ retirement fund and coffers of dozens of his “Star Wars” partners. They include Hasbro, LEGO, eFX Collectibles, Hallmark Cards, Pottery Barn, ThinkGeek and, yes, even Williams-Sonoma (pancake molds, cookie cutters, cupcake decorating kits and a Stormtrooper flexible spatula). If there’s one thing pitiable about the collectors interviewed here it’s their inability to fight the urge to buy every new toy, game, model or DVD released into the marketplace, frequently in volume. Their devotion explains why toy and memorabilia companies send out products identical in every way, except for packaging or, perhaps, a single new weapon attached to a previously released action figure. The same rationale applies to desperate publishers of magazines – including Entertainment Weekly – who sell the same “collectible” edition with cover photos that vary by market, subscription status and demographic. They do this knowing that collectors will feel compelled to purchase multiple copies at inflated newsstand or mail-order prices. (Any time the word “collectible,” “limited edition” or “collector’s edition” is stamped on a package, it’s safe to assume what’s inside will never be worth anything more than it already costs.)

Some of the collectors to whom we’re introduced in “Jedi Junkies” freely admit to being beyond help and the toll they pay for their addiction can be estimated by the amount of memorabilia on their walls and shelves, often in duplicate and triplicate packaging. For some reason, Edlitz neglects to mention how much Lucas and his partners have exploited the franchise’s insatiable fans. Indeed, even as one prominent collector describes how much fans hated a licensed collection of grotesquely bulked-up action figures — the characters, including Princess Leia, look as if they’d been injecting themselves with steroids since “Episode I” – he holds up a package, proving that he also got sucked into the scheme. He simply can’t help himself. “Jedi Junkies” was completed before Disney purchased Lucasfilm for $4 billion, demonstrating just how valuable the overall “Star Wars” brand actually is. Other than that, the documentary is harmless enough, occasionally even enlightening. Among the people interviewed are Olivia Munn, who would be a popular choice among fanboys for the next iteration of Princess Leia; a choreographer of amateur lightsaber fights; a filmmaker who built the world’s only life-size Millennium Falcon; actors Ray Park (Darth Maul) and Peter Meyhew (Chewbacca); and “Blair Witch Project” director Ed Sanchez. The bonus material includes commentary and several extended interviews. – Gary Dretzka

The Coalition
Instead of allowing a bunch of clueless ex-jocks to speculate on what was causing the electrical blackout at the Super Bowl, CBS could have done us all a favor by pulling over Ravens linebacker Terrell Suggs and giving him an opportunity to save the day. As one of the driving forces behind the production company Team Sizzle, Suggs could have gone to his locker, picked up a DVD copy of “The Coalition”and handed it to network boss Les Moonves. Problem solved. As a first feature for almost everyone involved in the production, “The Coalition” describes what happens when the girlfriends of a star athlete and his posse discover that they have been cheated on, duped, lied to and abandoned by them. Instead of continuing to cry their mascara off in nightclub bathrooms, the ladies join forces to humiliate the cads at work, play and in the eyes of their new girlfriends, fiancés and wives. It’s not the freshest concept on Earth, but it still works. The movie was born at party when the wife of a friend overheard the ribald stories exchanged by a group of Suggs’ fellow athletes. She didn’t believe them until another playa came in, telling the same sorts of tales. Suggs knew there was a dramedy buried in the braggadocio. Along with director/producer/writer Monica Mingo, Suggs carved out a script and collaborated on almost everything that needed to be accomplished on the project. (He even got a credit as costume designer.) Because much of “The Coalition” is set in a swank nightclub or swank restaurants, there’s plenty of sizzle to go around. The actors are attractive, the wardrobe is club-ready and everybody has spending cash. This compensates for dialogue that often is far less than sizzling and acting that isn’t quite ready for prime time. Nevertheless, I’m anxious to see if Suggs and Mingo can improve on their first feature. The DVD adds plenty of interviews and bonus features. – Gary Dretzka

BBC: Attenborough’s Life Stories: Blu-ray
PBS: John Portman: A Life of Building
Nova: What Are Animals Thinking?
For British Baby Boomers and their parenst, Sir David Attenborough served the same purpose as Marlin Perkins had for American TV viewers. Attenborough’s “Zoo Quest” followed Perkins’ “Zoo Parade” to the air by only a couple of years on opposite sides of the big pond. Both described how and where zoos found the animals and birds that filled their cages and displays (“habitats” would come later). From 1963-85, while Sir David was promoted to higher offices at the BBC, Perkins’ “Wild Kingdom” adopted a less acquisitive approach to zoology. After tiring of life in the executive suites, he returned to the natural world to produce such groundbreaking series as “Life on Earth,” “The Living Planet,” “The Trials of Life” and, more recently, such triumphs as “The Blue Planet,” “Planet Earth,” “The Natural World,” “Life” and “Frozen Planet.” For their American runs, some xenophobic executives thought it wise to substitute Attenborough’s authoritative voice for that of Oprah Winfrey, Sigourney Weaver and Alec Baldwin. He speaks proper English, not Cockney, but programmers somehow assumed that Americans give a crap who’s reading from a script. There’s nothing like the real thing on Blu-ray, though. “Attenborough’s Life Stories” is the equivalent of a greatest hits album, with black-and-white footage from memorable first journeys and discoveries, in addition to parallel material from the color and hi-def era. The stories, which span his 60 years with the BBC, are well-told and endlessly fascinating. His enthusiasm and dedication to preserving the Earth’s resources is infectious. The only bonus feature is “The Ark,” during which the 86-year-old Attenborough chooses 10 of the most important, and lesser known, animals he would most like to save from extinction.

Although most Americans wouldn’t be able to describe the achievements of John Calvin Portman Jr., there aren’t many who haven’t marveled at his architectural creations or strayed into a hotel he has designed, if only to check out the lobby. At a time when many Americans were abandoning the country’s great urban centers, the Georgia Tech-trained architect almost single-handedly re-vitalized Atlanta by developing the multi-block Peachtree Center, whose then-unique atriums attracted as many sight-seers as guests. His striking designs for Detroit’s Renaissance Center, the New York Marriott Marqui, Los Angeles’ Westin Bonaventure Hotel and San Francisco’s Embarcadero Center served a similar purpose. In “John Portman: A Life of Building,” his life and career are chronicled in great detail, as are the many innovations he brought to the fore. The tours of his homes, alone, are worth the investment in time. Portman’s journey hasn’t been a single smooth sail from start to finish. He and his firm were caught in one major economic downturn, at least, nearly losing all the fruits of their labors. Fortuitously, just as Portman’s prospects neared rock bottom, an invitation to design the multi-use Shanghai Center arrived from China. Its success opened doors for Portman that had been closed to western architects for decades. During the next 20 years, commissions would roll in from then-booming China and other Asian countries. Largely unknown here, he’s regarded as something of a hero there.

The new “Nova ScienceNow” presentation, “What Are Animals Thinking?,” addresses an issue nearly every pet owner has attempted to fathom since the first cow or dog was domesticated. Although it isn’t likely that anyone will figure out what really makes a cat tick, there are plenty of animals whose secrets lie closer to the surface. The package is broken into four segments: “Do Animals Know Right From Wrong?,”  in which scientists studying animal cognition are “revealing the machinery of animals’ moral compasses”; “Pigeon GPS,” which attempts explain how homing pigeons make it home on time for dinner, sometimes after traveling hundreds of miles over unfamiliar terrain; “Hive Genius,” an investigation into the intricate communication patterns within a giant bee colony; and “Profile: Laurie Santos,” which introduces us to Yale scientist Laurie Santos, who’s studying a community of more than 900 monkeys to possibly reveal the evolutionary roots of human foibles. – Gary Dretzka

Gossip Girl: The Complete Sixth and Final Season
In September, 2007, tens of thousands of middle-class Americans were awakening to the reality that many of their retirement plans, homes and careers might be gone by the time a new president would take office in January. Meanwhile, a new prime-time soap opera debuted on the CW network that basically spit in the eye of the financial crisis by introducing us to teenagers who spent more on clothes and cocktails (no ID was ever required of them) in one weekend than the average American taxpayer made in a year. Its primary conceit involved a gossip monger whose observations spread through the teens’ social network faster than shoes at a Manolo Blahnik trunk show. And, throughout the next six seasons, there never was a scarcity of dirt to dish. “Gossip Girl” ended its run last December with a Prado bag full of surprises and a finale that predicted what would happen five years down the road. It’s difficult enough to wrap up the intrigue contained in a single episode of “Gossip Girl,” let alone an entire season, but the show’s many surprises, unlikely coincidences and narrative contrivances made “The O.C.” and “90210” look simplistic by comparison. Season Six wraps up all of the loose ends, resuscitates abandoned characters and, most importantly, reveals the identity of Gossip Girl. Even those fair-weather fans who drifted off when things got weird should find something of interest in “Gossip Girl: The Complete Sixth and Final Season.” The set includes “A Big Farewell to Our Upper East Siders,” in which cast and crew members bid adieu to the show; a series retrospective; a gag reel; unaired scenes; and “Gossip Girl Prequel: It Had to Be You” audio download. – Gary Dretzka

Slugterra: Return of the Shane Gang
Babar: The Movie
The Red Hen … and Other Cooking Stories
Dora the Explorer: Dora’s Butterfly Ball
When I read the promo material on the cover of “Slugterra: Return of the Shane Gang,” I found it difficult to imagine anyone producing an animated series in which “powerful magical slugs” are used as weapons in an “epic sci-fi comedy adventure.” Now that I’ve watched it, I still don’t believe it. Have animators finally run out of cartoon animals to immortalize in kiddie show? Slugs, a.k.a. terrestrial gastropod mollusks, are the critters that slither along the surface of plants and sidewalks, usually after a rain, leaving trails of mucous behind them. As far as I know, they can’t talk, fly and fit inside most bullet casings, as is the case here. Nevertheless, any show that might discourage little boys from stomping or, worse, eating the slimy boogers is OK in my book. Apparently, 100 miles below the surface of the earth, there’s a land called Slugterra, which very much resembles the Wild West of yesteryear. Gunslingers armed with slug-shooting pistols compete for bragging rights and an evil Dr. Blakk runs the criminal underworld. After his father disappears from view in Slugterra, 15-year-old humanoid Eli Shane makes it his duty to cleanse Slugterra of this mastermind of mayhem. The Shane Gang includes the golden-bullet slug Burpy and fellow “slug-slingers” Trixie, Kord and Pronto. As ludicrous as this scenario might sound, the hyperkinetic “Slugterra” is well-drawn and imaginative. The same can’t be said of many other cartoon series aimed at kids today. The Canadian-American co-production was shown here on Disney XD. The DVD adds an interview with the series’ creator and story editor, along with bonus “slugisodes.”

Released into theaters in 1989, after its first year on HBO, “Babar: The Movie” recalls in musical form the Elephant King’s first great triumph over Lord Rataxes and his rhino army. It came despite the efforts of Elephantland bureaucrats to thwart the boy king. Unlike the series, the movie is informed less by comedy as it is an allegory for the crimes against poachers and other abusers of endangered animals. As such, younger viewers might need a bit of parental guidance, a task that adults shouldn’t find too painful. Or, they could be prepped ahead of time with readings from the delightful books by Jean de Brunhoff. The DVD includes the “Babar” episode, “Monkey Business.”

The latest compilation of episodes from Nickelodeon’s “Dora the Explorer” is typical of previous DVD releases from the network. It contains only three selections – “The Butterfly Ball,” “Vamos a Pintar!” and “Feliz Dia de los Padres!” – that, while charming, may be overly familiar to loyal fans. There aren’t any true bonus features, either. But, it’s also possible that “The Butterfly Ball” contains your child’s favorite episode, so there’s no such thing as “overly familiar.”

Because they haven’t been overexposed on television, Scholastic’s “Storybook Treasures” are the kinds of made-for-DVD collections that actually have some shelf life. The read-along feature also allows kids to get an early grip on connecting words with images. “The Red Hen … and Other Cooking Stories” helps young viewers understand how cooking and baking can sometimes be as much fun as eating. Besides “The Red Hen,” the selections are “Bread Comes to Life,” narrated by Lily Tomlin; the mischievous “How Do Dinosaurs Eat Their Food?” provides funny examples of how not to eat; and “Arnie the Doughnut,” narrated by Michael McKean, about an overachieving treat. The set adds an easy-to-follow recipe for “Simply Splendid Cake.” – Gary Dretzka

The DVD Wrapup

Wednesday, February 6th, 2013

BBC: House of Cards: Trilogy: Blu-ray
Netflix: House of Cards

I’ve only had time to watch two episodes of Netflix’s first original mini-series, “House of Cards,” an Americanization of the novels by the Michael Dobbs and subsequent BBC mini-series. It’s newly available to subscribers via its website and other streaming systems. As such, the series is accessible to nearly everyone with a sophisticated DVR, laptop, tablet or telephone, and, unlike broadcast and premium-cable networks, the technology encourages binge viewing. The audio/video quality seems excellent and the price is right. If Netflix deems its costly “HofC” experiment successful, the streaming of original programming could be the next big thing in television. If not, it will remain an honorable misstep on the road to the inevitable future. That’s because its inaugural series is a class act all the way. Not only were the first two episodes directed by executive producer David Fincher — James Foley, Joel Schumacher, Charles McDougall and Carl Franklin pick up the baton from there – but the cast includes Kevin Spacey, Robin Wright, Kate Mara, Corey Stoll, Michael Kelly, Sakina Jaffrey and Constance Zimmer. And, yes, changes have been made to reflect the differences in political culture between London and Washington, as well as 23 years of change in the world. From what I’ve seen, though, the story remains essentially the same.

Because segments of the BBC trilogy aired in 1990, 1993 and 1995, Dobbs and co-writer Andrew Davies were able to take advantage of the political doldrums between the prime ministries of Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair. These stories of cold-blooded political chicanery — compiled in Blu-ray as “House of Cards: Trilogy” – appear to have been inspired as much by Shakespeare as any headline writer at a Fleet Street tabloid. At the trilogy’s center is the intriguingly wicked Francis Urquhart (Ian Richardson), chief whip of the Conservative Party in Parliament and PM in waiting. (Spacey plays his American counterpart.) After being passed over for a promised position in the incumbent prime minister’s Cabinet, Urquhart immediately sets out to topple the pompous twit. We know exactly what he’s thinking because he confides in us via the camera following his every move. In doing so, viewers can see how the house of cards is going to fall before the kings, queens and aces hit the table. As usual, the media is shown to be incredibly easy to manipulate, even before the advent of the 24-hour news cycle and blogosphere.

The second installment in the trilogy, “To Play the King,” finds Urquhart occupying the office of prime minister and doing quite well at it. The thorn in his side here is a new King of England (Michael Kitchen) – it’s not a documentary series, remember – who has ideas of his own about the country’s future. “The Final Cut” completes the series. In it, Urquhart is still in office, but the same storm clouds that drenched his predecessor have begun to appear on the horizon of his administration. How will he possibly worm himself out of this predicament? Stay tuned. “HofC” is a consistently compelling entertainment and full of surprises. Another nice thing about the trilogy is the prominent role played by women, some of whom could have given Lady Macbeth a run for her money. (The same appears to be the case in the Netflix series.) The Blu-ray adds commentaries, an interesting give-and-take between Davies and an audience angry about his portrayal of royalty and the informative doc, “Westminster: Behind Closed Doors.” – Gary Dretzka

Flight: Blu-ray
I don’t know what inspired John Gatin’s screenplay for “Flight.” It’s possible that it was the heroics of Chesley Burnett “Sully” Sullenberger, who piloted the jetliner that made a successful landing on the Hudson River after it was disabled by a flock of Canada geese on takeoff. For this, Sullenberger not only was awarded the keys to every city in the country, but he also became a talk-show staple and instant expert on all things aeronautic. “Flight” takes Sully’s excellent adventure a step further by considering what might have happened if the media had learned that “Sully” was something of a party monster and had gotten bombed the night before the doomed flight. What if they also learned that he had quelled his hangover with a couple lines of cocaine and a wee bit of the hair of the dog? Basically, that’s the premise of “Flight.” In it, Denzel Washington does something every bit as amazing as landing a plane on a river and, if he had been driving a car, he would have been cited for DUI. In order to prevent his jetliner from crashing nose-first into the dirt outside Atlanta, Captain “Whip” Whitaker flips the plane on its back. The maneuver somehow allows him the time to find a meadow flat enough to attempt a non-catastrophic landing. Apart from a wing connecting with a church steeple upon landing, that’s pretty much what happened. A half-dozen people died, but the toll could easily have been a great deal higher.

Director Robert Zemeckis masterfully orchestrates the events leading to the crash landing. It leaves us on the edge of our seat, at the same time as it forces us to question the pilot’s decision not call in sick. Still, if the same thing had happened to another pilot, it’s likely there would have been no survivors that day. Whitaker’s unprecedented actions were heroic, even if he shouldn’t have been in the pilot’s seat in the first place. To his credit, Zemeckis allows viewers to serve as jurors, not advocates, throughout most of the film. As usual, Washington delivers an impeccable performance as the troubled pilot. He makes us believe that Whip is capable of landing the plane, straight or stoned, while also being an arrogant fool. The ending is satisfying, without also being predictable and overly melodramatic. Some viewers won’t relish the idea of watching another movie in which an AA meeting is staged. There’s nothing cliché about Whitaker’s efforts to take control of his own life, though. A supporting cast consisting of Nadine Velazquez, Tamara Tunie, John Goodman, Brian Geraghty, Kelly Reilly, Bruce Greenwood and Don Cheadle adds sizzle to “Flight,” but it’s definitely Washington’s show. The Blu-ray edition adds three making-of featurettes that cry out for more information and a Q&A with cast and crew members. – Gary Dretzka

Peter Pan: Diamond Edition: Blu-ray
As is often the case with Walt Disney’s animated features, the backstory for “Peter Pan” is almost as interesting as what happens on screen … for grown-ups, anyway. Ever since watching a roadshow production of J.M. Barrie’s play as a kid and playing a part in it for a school production, Disney’s reserved a special place in his heart for the story. He intended it to be the studio’s second animated feature, after “Bambi,” but those plans were delayed by rights issues, the war and having to wait for the technology to catch up with his vision. No doubt, the postponement enhanced the entertainment value of his “Peter Pan.” (Disney rarely had a problem acquiring rights, as most of the fairy tales already were in the public domain.) Even so, Disney decided that Barrie’s version might prove a tad dark for younger viewers and softened the narrative. It’s too bad he didn’t reconsider the lame-brained characterizations of the Indians on Neverland Island, as well. As it is, however, 60 years’ worth of children can attest to the chills they felt upon the arrival of the crocodile and sadistic presence of Captain Hook.

Disney fanatics already know that Disney deployed all nine of his Old Men, assigning a different character to each one. There’s plenty more trivia to ponder. Kids new to the Disney canon, though, might be interested to follow the evolution of Tinker Bell from just another delightful character to mascot of the Disney brand and, eventually, possessor of an animated franchise to call her own.

There are several new hi-def features included in the three-disc “Diamond Edition” package, as well as some previously seen. Diane Disney-Miller has recorded a new introduction to the package; Roy Disney’s commentary has been picked up, along with five behind-the-scenes featurettes; two new deleted scenes and songs, presented with original art; the interactive “Disney Intermission” option; a separate sing-along track; and DisneyView sidebar art to fill up the screen space left by the television-aspect presentation. Disney loyalists should enjoy “Growing Up With Nine Old Men,” a 41-minute documentary describing what it was like to be raised in a household headed by one of the true stars of the Disney universe. – Gary Dretzka

Cabaret: Blu-ray
There isn’t much, besides Nazis, that Mel Brooks’ “The Producers” shares in common with Bob Fosse’s “Cabaret.” Both found success on Broadway and on the big screen, but that’s about it. At one point, though, the backers of both projects must have heard, “A Nazi musical? I don’t think so.” Brooks, of course, found hilarity in the possibility that the only thing that could prevent an outrageously bad musical from bombing was the positive word-of-mouth of undiscerning audiences. “Cabaret” was inspired by Christopher Isherwood’s “Berlin Stories,” as well as the play and movie “I Am a Camera.” It’s 1931 and the singers, dancers and habitués of Berlin’s Kit Kat Klub are wallowing in the “divine decadence” that prevailed during the latter days of the Weimar Republic. Meanwhile, Adolph Hitler’s minions are slowly, but surely making inroads with Germans who have yet to prosper from the country’s economic rebound. They’re convinced that decadence – divine or otherwise – is something promulgated by communists and Jews, a notion Adolph Hitler exploited on his way to power. Other Germans were having far too much fun to notice the rising tide of fascism.

Forty years after “Cabaret” was released on film, the Blu-ray edition demonstrates just how timeless its message continues to be. Moreover, the bonus material offers a complete discussion about what made the movie different than the 1966 Broadway musical and where Fosse’s genius came into play. Those of us who haven’t seen the stage production or listened to the original Broadway cast album, for example, wouldn’t know that seven songs were replaced and entire characters eliminated. All of the songs, except one, now emerge organically from Kit Kat Klub environment. Fosse decided to move the group singing of “Tomorrow Belongs to Me,” by the Nazi Youth group, to the beer garden of a rural inn, so that Sally, Brian and Maximilian couldn’t deny what was happening outside Berlin. It’s also worth remembering that Hollywood wasn’t sold on Fosse taking the reins of the production. After all, his adaptation of “Sweet Charity” was so catastrophic it nearly took Universal Pictures down with it. The rest, including eight Academy Awards, is history. The Blu-ray arrives in a DigiBook package, adding a new half-hour background featurette and previously shown making-of material, interviews and commentary. – Gary Dretzka

Hello I Must Be Going
Melanie Lynskey and Kate Winslet began their careers in feature films starring in the same widely acclaimed drama, “Beautiful Creatures,” which, in 1994, described how the fantasies of two New Zealand teenagers led to murder. It would also mark Peter Jackson’s first giant step away from the horror genre and onto the radar screens of Hollywood studios. In the next three years, Winslet would play key roles in “Sense and Sensibility,” “Jude,” Kenneth Branagh’s “Hamlet” and something called “Titanic.” Choosing not to strike while her iron was hot, 16-year-old Lynskey decided to take a three-year break from movies, in order to complete high school and pursue an arts education at university. In 1998, she scored a role in the likable Drew Barrymore romance, “Ever After: A Cinderella Story,” and continued to find work in supporting roles that weren’t designed to showcase her considerable talent. It would be Lynskey’s recurring portrayal of Rose, Charlie’s stalker in “Three and a Half Men,” that endeared her to American audiences. In Todd Louiso and Sarah Koskoff’s quirky romantic drama, “Hello I Must Be Going,” she was given another opportunity to show what she could do in a lead role. The verdict: very well, indeed.

In it, Lynskey plays a recently divorced woman in her mid-30s, who moves back into the home of her wealthy parents in Connecticut. No sooner does she get there, though, than she reverts to behaving like a recalcitrant 16-year-old. Depressed to the point of being comatose, Amy Minsky only comes alive when she meets the 17-year-old son of one of her dad’s business associates. For his part, Jeremy (Christopher Abbott) already is a moderately successful TV actor, who hates acting and pretends to be gay to keep his doting mother from bugging him about girls his age. Jeremy and Amy recognize something in each other that makes them kindred spirits. While seriously conflicted over the possibility of having sex with a boy half her age, Amy allows him to seduce her. If this scenario sounds familiar, then the folksy songs that accompany the narrative certainly will ring a bell with fans of “The Graduate,” maybe even “Harold and Maude.” Amy Minsky only resembles Mrs. Robinson circumstantially and Maude not at all. She’s no cougar and Jeremy is more self-assured than Benjamin Braddock. For Amy to come to grips with her demons, she’ll have to confront her ex-husband and find out why he ditched her for a young tootsie. It’s what is happening concurrently with her parents – well played by Blythe Danner and John Rubinstein – that differentiates “Hello I Must Be Going” from other indie rom-com-drams. Just as their retirement ship is about to pull into port, it’s sideswiped by unmapped shoals. Lynskey’s performance is sufficient reason to recommend “Hello I Must Be Going” – Amy uses Marx Brothers’ movies as therapy – but it has plenty else going for it. The DVD includes interviews and making-of material. – Gary Dretzka

The Ballad of Narayama: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
Shichiro Fukazawa’s novel “The Ballad of Narayama” has been adapted into film twice, both differently and to wonderful effect. Shohei Imamura’s 1983 remake was awarded the Palme d’Or at the Cannes festival and the 1958 version nominated for a Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival and submitted by Japan as its official entry for Best Foreign Language category at the Academy Awards. Imamura’s version opened up the story, which, in 1958, was shot entirely on a soundstage in the style of kabuki and other traditional Japanese theater. A single stringed instrument provides the only musical background. Set in a small northern village in in the 19th century, “Narayama” describes the rite of ubasute, which dictates that anyone who reaches the ripe old age of 70 is required to make the trek to the heights of Narayama and never look back to the village. If they don’t immediately die of hypothermia, they’ll soon starve to death. The ubasute ritual was imposed to relieve the shortage of food available for other family members, especially in the lean years when every seed of rice was measured. Orin is the next woman in the village to turn 70 and she’s accepted the fact that her son soon will be required to carry her to the place where the bones of friends and relatives lie bleaching in the sun. She has prepared by finding her widowed son a good wife and teaching her how to make do in her absence. Even if Orin accepts her fate, it does seem unfair that a woman of sound mind and body could be forced to die, when less deserving villagers – including her useless grandchildren – are free to commit crimes and drain precious resources. “Ballad of Narayama” reportedly was the first movie shot on Fuji color negative and it looks as if Kinoshita wanted to test its limits right out of the gate. The set design and painted backdrops are nothing short of haunting, as befits the kabuki conceit. The Blu-ray benefits from a new 4K digital master, struck from the 2011 restoration, with an uncompressed monaural soundtrack. The only bonus feature is a booklet featuring an essay by critic Philip Kemp. – Gary Dretzka

In Our Nature
Brian Savelson’s drama about the dysfunctional relationship between a middle-age father and his adult son looks terrific and features much excellent acting. The men are so immediately unlikable, however, that it sometimes appears as if the writer/director, in his feature debut, is daring us to stay with “In Our Nature” until the pre-ordained ending. If it weren’t for their girlfriends, we probably wouldn’t care about their estrangement. Brooklyn yuppies Seth and Andie (Zach Gilford, Jena Malone) decide they’ll take a long-postponed weekend off at his family’s cabin on a beautiful parcel of land in Upstate New York. No sooner have they stripped off their clothes than they’re interrupted by the tires-on-gravel sound of Daddy Dearest’s SUV. Surprise, surprise. Neither of the men is remotely happy to learn of the other’s presence in the cabin that has provided both of them with so many memories, pleasant and otherwise. As played by the wonderful character actor John Slattery (“Mad Men”), father Gil is an anal retentive who isn’t in the cabin two minutes before he’s kvetching about Seth’s careless habits. Seth doesn’t seem to need a reason for resenting his father’s presence and Savelson complies by not giving us one.

Before the two men are allowed to drown each other in toxic testosterone, Gil’s girlfriend, Vicky (Gabrielle Union), suggests they let bygones be bygones long enough to have dinner together and spend one night under the same roof. After Seth and Andie compliment Vicky on her cooking – veggie, as requested — she makes the mistake of mentioning in passing that lots of butter makes everything taste better. By the shocked reactions of the children, you’d think Vicky had consciously spiced their dishes with arsenic. Whatever good will had developed up until this point dissipates faster than a vegan can accuse a hamburger lover of first-degree murder. For every step forward, the men slide two more back, until their bad behavior spreads to their partners. Once all of the scabs are picked, of course, the healing can begin anew. Some viewers, at least, will find their patience rewarded. – Gary Dretzka

Paranormal Activity 4: Unrated Director’s Cut Edition: Blu-ray
Night of the Tentacles

To argue that “Paranormal Activity 4” is more of the same old, same old shouldn’t detract any of the series’ many fans from rushing out and picking up a copy, if only to survey the 28 minutes of material added to the director’s-cut edition. Followers already know what they’re going to get, even as they pray that every next sequel would be as rewarding as the original. The only thing “PA4” adds is a slam-bang ending, guaranteed to keep fans begging for more, even if it is the same old, same old. At the end of the third installment, Katie and her infant nephew Hunter disappeared from their Carlsbad home, leaving behind a scene of carnage and a whopping mystery. It’s now five years later and Katie has just moved into a suburban neighborhood outside Las Vegas with a creepy little boy, Robby. It doesn’t take long before strange things begin to happen to the next-door neighbors, who take in Robby when his mother is hospitalized for a few of days. He’s already become friendly with their 6-year-old son, Wyatt, and the kids pretty much keep to themselves.

Teenage Alex is the first one to notice peculiar noises and other disturbances around the house, and she convinces her boyfriend to mount surveillance cameras and activate video monitors on her computer. Among other things, the Skype connection captures Robby walking into Alex’s room while she’s asleep and climbing in bed with her. The parents are too pre-occupied to pay much attention to their daughter’s ravings or Wyatt’s growing dependency on Robby. After a while, that will change, as well. None of it is particularly scary, unless one is easily frightened by loud sounds. The visual effects have been jazzed up a bit, as well, to account for the passage of time. I wish that directors Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman had given us a bit more for our bucks, before they unloaded the cliffhanger ending. To paraphrase Shakespeare, it is what it is. Apart from the deleted scenes added to the director’s cut, there aren’t any bonus features.

Some viewers might be disappointed to learn that “Night of the Tentacles” has almost nothing to do with the 200-year-old tradition of artistically depicting the rape of humans by octopi, squid and other tentacled creatures. Although the fetish is of Japanese origin, the Internet has allowed pornographers to share the practice with the world. (Even when the display of sexual intercourse among consenting adults was censored, penetration by foreign objects remained legal.) Considering that Dustin Mills spent only about $1,500 to make “NOTT,” I suppose one could cut him some slack. He’s already proven his do-it-yourself chops with such off-putting material as “Zombie A-Hole” and “The Puppet Monster Massacre,” after all, and how bad could his third feature be? In a word: awful. Here, Mills’ protagonist is a desperately ill young artist who sells his soul to the devil for a new heart. The catch is that the organ, when in need of fresh blood, causes pointed tentacles to be launched in the direction of his visitors, including women there merely to take a pee. Is nothing sacred? – Gary Dretzka

Every so often, a featherweight boxer manages to capture the imaginations of fans, journalists and historians, alike. The most recent boxer to have achieved such recognition is Manny Pacquiao, a likable fighter who literally carries the hopes and dreams of Filipino people around the world on his shoulders whenever he enters the ring. Bob Dylan and Phil Ochs wrote songs condemning the people they believed responsible for the 1963 death of Davey Moore. Willie Pep, widely acknowledged as the greatest featherweight boxer of them all, has only appeared in other people’s movies about boxing. Welsh fighter Howard Winstone, a champion rarely listed among the top 25, is the subject of the biopic, “Risen.” In it, Neil Jones introduces us to a man whose story is as compelling as any in the sport. That’s because, as a young man, Winstone lost three of fingers on one hand in an industrial accidental. Known for his punching ability, Winstone immediately lost the use of 50 percent of his arsenal. Unable to make a fist, he had to find a way to compensate. With the help of his father and trainer, Winstone made the transition from slugger to boxer. After wearing out his British opponents, 29-year-old Winstone captured the featherweight crown in 1968. He wouldn’t hold it for long, but he’d achieved something very few boxers ever do. At nearly two hours in length, “Rison” feels long by at least 15 minutes. The material dedicated to Winstone’s family life borders on the cliché, as does some of the behind-the-scenes stuff. The boxing scenes aren’t bad, even if they owe too much to “Raging Bull.” The most inspirational moments come before the bouts, when fans of the boxers sing in unison the songs identified with their city’s sports team. It is a practice unique to British sporting events and never fails to move me. – Gary Dretzka

Diana Vreeland: The Eye Has to Travel
If there’s one thing the world doesn’t need, it’s another documentary about the fashion industry. For one thing, they’re too easy to make: pick an editor/designer/model/photographer, any editor/designer/model/photographer to profile; round up all the usual suspects to provide anecdotes, if not criticism; cull the archives for visual input; insert some pop songs; and roll camera. They’re also littered with clichés, unfounded opinions and hyperbole. The opulent lifestyles of the editors/designers/models/photographers are indefensible by most moral standards. The casualties are rarely mentioned, except in cautionary tales (“Gia,” “Girl Model,” “Chasing Beauty”) and parodies (“The Devil Wears Prada,” “Zoolander”). Since the release of “Unzipped,” in 1995, we’ve seen “The September Issue,” “Valentino: The Last Emperor,” “Bill Cunningham New York,” “Lagerfeld Confidential,” “Marc Jacobs and Louis Vuitton,” “Yohji Yamamoto: This Is My Dream,” “Ozwald Boateng: A Man’s Story,” “Ultrasuede,” “L’amour fou,” “In Vogue: The Editors Eye,” “Fashion Victim: The Killing of Gianni Versace,” “Girl Model,” several docs on such photographers as David Bailey, Helmut Newton, Annie Leibovitz, Richard Avedon and Francesco Scavullo; and least two biopics about Coco Chanel and one about the House of Chanel. I’ve forgotten some and not mentioned several titles in production.

So, is “Diane Vreeland: The Eye Has to Travel” sufficiently different to recommend watching it? Yes, primarily because Vreeland was a one-off, nonpareil and ever-fascinating columnist, editor and curator. For most of her 83 years on Earth, she was one of the world’s most theatrical, opinionated and influential women. Although Vreeland was raised as a member of European aristocracy, she was one of the first editors to recognize how a woman’s lifestyle could influence fashion as much as any designer or socialite. She was one of the first in her position to take seriously the Hollywood mystique, the eccentrics who populated Warhol’s Factory and the flighty whims of the Haight-Ashbury crowd. The photographs that accompanied the magazine’s fashion spreads one day would be hung on the walls of museums and galleries. The anecdotes told here also reveal a woman who could be dictatorial and pompous one moment and, the next, prescient and dead-on correct. After her time with Vogue, she turned around the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum, making it one of the most must-see attractions and must-be-seen-at charity events in New York. Lisa Immordina Vreeland, Bent-Jorgen Perlmutt and Frederic Tcheng’s documentary is as informative as it entertaining and a worthwhile addition to the DVD library of any fashionista. Its bonus package includes even more fascinating interviews. – Gary Dretzka

Yelling to the Sky: Blu-ray
Frontline: Poor Kids

Seventeen-year-old Sweetness O’Hara goes through so many changes in “Yelling to the Sky” that you practically need a scorecard to keep track of her moods. As played by Zoe Kravitz, the Sweetness we meet first is a slightly preppy teenager whose place in her largely African-American neighborhood is defined by her mixed-race looks and a meek persona waiting to be victimized. This is exactly what happens when she’s confronted by a group of teenagers and forced to jump through hoops to prevent them from stealing her bike. Not content merely to humiliate Sweetness, they also brutalize her. It’s at this point, however, that her tough-as-nails sister jumps into the fray, kicking the living shit out of the boy who’s causing her most the trouble. Where did she come from? As we soon will come to learn, Sweetness is only as a preppy as her cardigan sweaters allow her to look. Her father is an alcoholic who bullies all of the women in the household and her mom is powerless to stop him. Her sister is old enough to disappear for long periods of time, but Sweetness is trapped.

Now that she’s made an enemy of the school’s bully (Gabourey Sidibe) and her gang, Sweetness also lives in constant fear of retribution at school. To make money to escape Brooklyn, she convinces the local drug dealer to let her peddle his goodies on and around campus, a decision that immediately endears her to the stoner crowd. One bad decision leads to another, however, and Sweetness finally is overwhelmed by the quicksand sucking her into the earth. Too suddenly and without warning, Dad begins to mellow out and Sweetness is forced to decide whether it’s an omen of blue skies ahead or an apparition. As compelling as Sweetness’ story is, “Yelling to the Sky” is sabotaged by several narrative decisions that I think were intended to be funny, but come off as non-sequiturs. Freshman writer/director Victoria Mahoney might have re-considered some of these inventions – masked tots wielding squirt guns, ambushes by rock-slinging teens, a vice principal who parties with his students – and focused on explaining Sweetness’ various transitions. Money and time were short, however, and teenage viewers might very well find “Yelling to the Sky” more meaningful or coherent than I did. The contributions of Jason Clarke, Tim Blake Nelson, Antonique Smith and Yolanda Ross in difficult parts are well appreciated. The DVD adds an interview with Mahoney.

The kids we meet in the “Frontline” presentation, “Poor Kids,” live 900 miles west of Brooklyn and are of the non-fiction persuasion. Most are white, some are black. All are the victims of trickle-down poverty. The Quad Cities along the border of Iowa and Illinois once had enough jobs to employ everyone who wanted to work. When the current crisis hit, the jobs that weren’t already lost to Mexico and China largely fell victim to crimes of Wall Street power brokers and bankers who will never spend a night in jail. We know that these families have seen better days, because their homes are filled with the kinds of appliances and toys people buy when they’re flush. Even if they were able to sell the stuff, it wouldn’t cover a week’s grocery bill. “Poor Kids” doesn’t tell us anything we don’t already know or introduce us to people we haven’t already met. Their stories are as familiar as yesterday’s news and anguished conversations we’ve had with friends and relatives who’ve lost their jobs, run out of unemployment benefits and maxed out their credit cards. There’s no question, they want to work and provide for themselves. The kids still try their best at school, bragging when they get an “A” and praying for the money it will take to go to college or a good trade school. I don’t know how many “Frontline” documentaries it would take to melt the hearts of the porcine politicians who line up at the trough every day in Washington to collect their bribes, unearned salaries and free lunches. Preaching to the choir certainly isn’t going to do the trick. – Gary Dretzka

Little White Lies: Blu-ray
My Worst Nightmare

I was such a fan of Guillaume Canet’s “Tell No One” that I could hardly wait to see what he’d do as a follow-up. A prolific French actor, as well as a director, Canet would perform in several movies between that thrilling crime story and “Little White Lies,” a movie that’s best described as a haute bourgeois version of “The Big Chill.” Instead reuniting for a funeral, as was the case in Lawrence Kasdan’s hit film, the longtime friends represented in “Little White Lies” would have come together anyway. Each August, they gather at the lovely and spacious beach home of Paris restaurateur Max (Francois Cluzet). This year, things are different because one member of their group, Ludo (Jean Dujardin), has been critically injured in traffic back in Paris. If he wasn’t in a coma, one or two of them might have stayed behind and tended to him. Augusts are reserved for vacations, though, and it would take more than a coma to keep them from boating, sipping wine and listening to American pop tunes on the radio. It does, however, serve as a catalyst for the friends to address issues, secrets and lies that have been percolating just below the surface for several years. The most compelling reason to seek out “Little White Lies” is the ensemble cast, which includes Marion Cotillard, Gilles Lellouche, Benoit Magime, Laurent Lafitte, Anne Marivin, Pascale Arbillot and Valérie Boneton. The characters may not be entirely recognizable to American audiences, but they’re close enough to strike more than a single chord. At 154 minutes, though, most viewers wouldn’t sit still for the problems of their own family members, let alone those of rich Frenchies. The Cap Ferrat scenery looks lovely in Blu-ray, though, and it adds a making-of featurette.

My Worst Nightmare” may not be the best romantic comedy you’ll see all year, or even the best one from France. The big-shot critics in New York all seemed to agree on that much during its limited run last fall. What does make it recommendable, though, is that it can be enjoyed by a wide cross-section of Francophiles. The characters range in age from about 16 to 60 and they all have been given something substantial to do. The comedy is broad and the scenario unlikely, but, at least, it doesn’t insult the intelligence of most viewers, as do most Hollywood rom-coms. Isabelle Huppert plays the sophisticated, if uptight head of a foundation that promotes the work of contemporary artists. Agathe’s married to an easy-going gent, Francois (Andre Dussollier), who’s quite content to let her sweat the small stuff in their lives. The trouble starts when Francois hires the father of one of their son’s best friends to complete the renovation. As played by Benoit Poelvoorde, Patrick is a functioning alcoholic, whose buffoonery knows few limits. Essentially homeless, Patrick is about to lose custody of his son, unless he can find semi-permanent lodging soon. Agathe and Francois agree to allow the boy to crash in their son’s bedroom until such demands can be met. To his wife’s chagrin, however, Francois has encouraged the boorish handyman to stay in the maid’s quarters until the job is done.

When Patrick introduces Francois to his kooky blond caseworker, and they hit it off, the affair provides the older man with an opportunity to ditch the cranky Agathe. Naturally, it also opens a door for Patrick to walk through. After convincing her to get drunk with him at a gallery opening, they hook up for a night of sex neither can remember. One thing leads to several other things and everyone’s dilemmas require resolution simultaneously. There’s certainly no need to go into detail here, but it’s fair to say the ending will come as a surprise to most viewers. “My Worst Nightmare” was directed by Anne Fontaine whose previous titles include “Nathalie,” “The Girl From Monaco” and “Coco Before Chanel.” “My Worst Nightmare” won’t make anyone forget any of those three movies, but I’d be hard-pressed to ignore any picture in which Huppert stars. – Gary Dretzka

So Undercover: Blu-ray
I don’t know who’s currently handling Miley Cyrus’ career – I hope it’s not still her grandstanding father – but whoever it is ought to consider handing off the duties to someone who knows what they’re doing. As long as she was identified with the Disney empire, Cyrus could hardly do any wrong. Kids loved her, parents considered her to be a role model and she didn’t seem to mind playing her age. When she turned 18, however, she let her freak flag fly. Still, “Hannah Montana: The Movie” and “The Last Song” turned tidy profits for the company and you’d think she would be smart enough to transition into adulthood with her dignity and fan base intact. Instead, her behavior and hooker-chic clothes – normal for any other teen – turned paparazzi into salivating dogs. Then, upon turning 20, something weird happened. Someone hoping to make a quick buck convinced her to accept roles in two movies – “LOL” and “So Undercover” – that were too weak even to find theatrical release in the U.S. Instead, they went straight to VOD, DVD and Blu-ray. That doesn’t bode well for her future in Hollywood. As long as Cyrus continues to tease the press with glimpses of her boobs and underwear, while changing her hair style every few months, she’ll remain in the public eye. Otherwise, maybe someone at Disney could help her find an adult role that doesn’t suck. After all, before Lindsay Lohan’s train jumped the tracks, she was given an opportunity to be directed by Robert Altman, Garry Marshall and Richard Rodriguez. If memory serves, she wasn’t bad. The jury’s still out on Paul Schrader’s “The Canyons.”

In “So Undercover,” Cyrus plays a former cop’s crime-crazy kid, who’s enlisted by a FBI agent (Jeremy Piven) to infiltrate a college sorority. Molly accepts the top-secret mission — protect the daughter of a key witness in a mob case — to bail her father out of a large debt. Although she’s the same age as her “sisters,” Molly must become fluent in Valley-speak and lose the tomboy persona. If that makes “So Undercover” sound like a ripoff of Miss Congeniality, at least Cyrus is age-appropriate for the role, unlike Sandra Bullock. (At 28, Kelly Osbourne looks even more out of place here than Bullock did there.) Otherwise, everything about the movie is a shortcut bordering on cliché, especially the sorority and its airhead members. Can’t the women who choose to go Greek in college ever catch a break? I can’t think of a movie that’s been released in the wake of “Animal House” that reflects anything but the binge-drinking aspect of college life. I suspect that the people who write these things were too nerdy to be accepted and finally are getting their revenge. I’m no fan of the Greek system, but c’mon. Cliches are fine for television, where they’re expected, but feature films are a whole different ballgame. By now, Cyrus should be thinking seriously about playing against type or focusing on her musical career. There’s nothing to be gained by continuing to do make pictures destined to go straight-to-video. – Gary Dretzka

Side by Side: Blu-ray
I suspect that most moviegoers understand the basic differences between digital and analog technology, by now, even if they couldn’t tell you which theaters are projecting images using light-through-film techniques or are bouncing images off a chip. I’ve been watching side-by-side demonstrations of film vs. video, tape vs. DVD and DVD vs. Blu-ray for most of the last 15 years and I’m hard-pressed to see the difference. That’s not true when it comes to 3D, animation and most large-format movies, which conceived digitally and fare best when exhibited that way. Of course, the most important thing remains telling a compelling story in a format that is as close to state-of-the-art as possible. If the story told in “Avatar” had been boring, no amount of digital technology could have saved it. As many 3D films have disappointed at the box office as have succeeded, no matter how good they are. Christopher Kenneally’s “Side by Side,” as produced and reported by Keanu Reeves, is a documentary that breaks down the benefits, liabilities and potential of the different technologies, through the eyes of the people who make the movies. The overriding question, “Can film survive our digital future?,” is asked and answered by such directors, cinematographers, editors, studio executives and technicians as James Cameron, David Fincher, David Lynch, Christopher Nolan, Martin Scorsese, Vittorio Storaro, Lars von Trier, the Wachowskis, Vilmos Zsigmond, George Lucas, Steven Soderbergh, Lena Dunham, Greta Gerwig, Anne V. Coates and Danny Boyle. I don’t that many casual moviegoers would get much of a kick out “Side by Side,” but anyone who’s ever dreamed about making a movie or is headed for film school should consider it essential viewing. – Gary Dretzka

Somewhere Between
All of the Chinese-born adoptees we meet in Linda Goldstein Knowlton’s heartwarming documentary are exceptional. Although born into poverty and a culture that values the birth of boys over girls, they have excelled here as students, citizens and role models. Their stories aren’t significantly different than the most of the other 80,000 girls who have been adopted from Chinese orphanages since 1989, 10 years after China implemented its One Child Policy. Many of the children we meet were abandoned on the streets of a city, in the hope that someone in authority would find them and place them in a safe facility. Others were placed there because of a perceived physical or mental deficiency and proper care at home would be impossible to guarantee. It sounds cruel and, for the most part, is indefensible. Still, none of the orphanages shown in “Somewhere Between” are nearly as horrifying as the ones we’ve seen in Romania or Russia, since the lifting of the Iron Curtain. That families around the world desire these girls and willingly wait a year or more to be united with them also says a lot about the process. Knowlton entered into the production of “Somewhere Between” as someone already in the process of legal adoption. She wanted to know beforehand, however, what both she and the child could expect in the next several years, anyway. To do so, she was put in touch with Haley, Jenna, Ann and Fang, all of whom have assimilated comfortably into American life and would be asked questions they hadn’t fully considered since moving here.

Knowlton found the four girls in communities that were predominantly white, Christian, middle class and distinctly American. They were nurtured and raised as if they were born that way. Even so, they couldn’t help but ask such questions as “Who am I?” and “Where do I fit?” Lurking beneath the surface are other unanswered questions, most involving abandonment issue, China’s institutionalized sexism, the lack of a discernible genetic history and being torn between two cultures. Nothing is revealed in “Somewhere Between” that would make potential adoptive parents re-consider their plans. The adoptees and their classmates might learn a great deal about each other, though. Fang and Haley’s journeys are the most remarkable of them all. One traveled to the orphanage from which she was plucked and, eyeing a cutie with early signs of cerebral palsy, organized an international campaign to fund her care and possible placement in the west. Using only the barest of clues, the other was able to find her birth parents that lived in an impoverished corner of China. Moreover, she met her siblings, all of which were accomplished in their own ways. It’s wonderful.

What Knowlton avoids is anything in depth about China’s human-rights record and the possibility that other facilities aren’t nearly as nurturing. Nor does she address the horrors that accompanied the adoption of some orphans in Eastern Europe, the financial aspects of adoption or the difficulties faced by disadvantaged orphans and foster children here. That’s OK, though, because Knowlton had a different agenda. Neither is her film necessarily an infomercial for Chinese adoption. She doesn’t mention any bureaucratic snags or censorship issues, but isn’t likely Chinese authorities gave her free rein, either. Its appeal probably is limited to parents and potential parents of Chinese orphans, and, when they’re older, the kids themselves. The two-disc set adds deleted scenes and interviews with adoption professionals. – Gary Dretzka

Paul Williams: Still Alive
Pink: Still on Fire
Them: Mystic Eyes/Live 1965

The diminutive singer/songwriter Paul Williams was such a ubiquitous presence in the 1970-80s, his absence over the past 20 years or so has caused many people to believe he’s dead and they simply missed his obituary in the newspapers. Most people under 35, even those who know “Rainbow Connection,” “Rainy Days and Mondays” and “Evergreen” by heart, couldn’t tell Williams from Frodo Baggins. In addition to writing hit songs for artists as disparate as the Carpenters, Helen Reddy, Barbra Streisand, David Bowie, Three Dog Night and Kermit the Frog, the 72-year-old musician also has written stage musicals and movie soundtracks, appeared in dozens of movies and TV series, been a frequent guest on talk shows and winner of several Grammys and an Oscar. He’s a member of the Songwriters Hall of Fame and president of the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers. Most telling, perhaps, Williams was funny enough to be invited back 50 times to perform and sit alongside Johnny Carson on “The Tonight Show.” Then, about 20 years ago, he simply disappeared from view. It explains why diehard fan Stephen Kessler titled his bio-doc, “Paul Williams: Still Alive.” It took an Internet search for the writer/director (“Vegas Vacation”) to learn that the man was, indeed, very much alive and kicking. The truth is that Williams has been clean and sober for 20 years and has spent much of that period helping other people recover. For those of us who enjoy his music and wit, “Still Alive” will come as a welcome reminder of those qualities. It does take some patience to watch, however. Kessler and Williams never seem to have agreed completely on what the documentary would accomplish and their bickering is frequently off-putting. Williams is adamant that he doesn’t come off as a has-been or pathetic survivor of the show-biz wars. Kessler wants to know how it felt when the star’s phone stopped ringing and the invitations to appear on talk shows stopped coming. Neither is he able to get Williams to open up on pivotal moments in his private life. To my mind, the best stuff is the concert footage. No matter if his last hit came 30 years ago, we are introduced to people around the country and the world who still identify with his songs about confronting loneliness and the sadness that comes from feeling that the odds are stacked against them. His popularity in the Philippines seems to equal that of Elvis. So, even if Kessler’s film doesn’t answer all of our questions, or his, “Still Alive” reveals an artist who gave something tangible to the world and isn’t looking for our pity. The DVD adds a half-dozen outtakes from concert footage.

The double-DVD set, “Pink: Still on Fire,” tells us everything we’ve ever wanted to know about the pop phenom named after the color of her hair … perhaps, TMI. It does so by regurgitating interviews conducted by disc jockeys, TV hosts, entertainment reporters and assorted other hacks. Most are painfully inane, but that’s how records, concert tickets and T-shirts are sold these days. On the plus side, Pink is friendlier than most other celebrities would be in similar circumstances. The second disc adds more biographical material about Her Pinkness, only this time in documentary format with testimonials from friends and associates. There’s also some performance footage, although not enough.

The 1970s “art rock” ensemble 10cc had a nice run of radio-friendly hits with “Rubber Bullets,” “The Wall Street Shuffle,” “I’m Not in Love,” “Life Is a Minestrone,” “Art for Art’s Sake” and “Dreadlock Holiday.” Members have also written songs for such groups as the Yardbirds, the Hollies and Herman’s Hermits. Naturally, when it came time to savor the fruits of their labors, the band split in two, with pop-oriented Graham Gouldman and Eric Stewart going in one direction under the 10cc banner and the more experimental Kevin Godley and Lol Crème taking off on their own. Separately, the two factions would continue to produce fine music, but nothing to compare to the still highly listenable “I’m Not in Love.” The material included in the new 10cc in-concert DVD, “10cc,” covers the gamut of their career, with Godley sitting in alongside Gouldman, Rick Fenn, Paul Burgess, Mike Stevens and Mick Wilson. In addition to 17 songs attributed to 10cc, they perform “For Your Love,” “Bus Stop” and “No Milk Today.” The sound and video quality is very good,

By contrast, “Them: Mystic Eyes/Live 1965” is little more than a repackaging of a half-dozen video clips taken from television and concert appearances by Van Morrison’s band in 1965. With such hits as “Gloria,” “Baby Please Don’t Go,” “Mystic Eyes” and “Here Comes the Night,” the Northern Irish blues/rock group enjoyed success on both sides of the Atlantic before dissolving the same year. What’s truly amazing is the distance Morrison would travel in the next three years, during which time he would contribute “Brown Eyed Girl” and “Astral Weeks,” one the greatest albums in any genre in the last 50 years. The quality of the videos in “Them” is very sketchy. – Gary Dretzka

SouthLAnd: The Complete Second, Third and Fourth Seasons
Using logic to assess a television network’s decisions is a fool’s game. Too many deals are cut for reasons other than the promotion of quality programming to make much sense out of any of it. If there’s anything TV executives count on, it’s the short memory of its viewers. Take TNT’s terrific cops-and-crime series, “SouthLAnd,” for example. How many people recall how NBC decided to cancel the series, even before its pre-ordained second stanza was scheduled to begin … thus facilitating its move to TNT? For that matter, how many people remember NBC’s willingness to kowtow to the recently retired Jay Leno by giving him a prime-time talk show and, when that failed, handing him the reins to “The Tonight Show,” then held by Conan O’Brien? To make room for Jay’s prime-time experiment, it cleared the 10 p.m. timeslot, forcing adult-oriented series into timeslots generally reserved for comedies. For the network, it was catastrophic. As produced by John Wells, “SouthLAnd” was as raw and gritty a cop show as has ever existed in prime-time and deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as “NYPD Blue,” “The Shield” and “Homicide: Life on the Street.” The crimes are brutal and the uniformed police are shown to be as flawed as they are heroic. The intention of the series wasn’t to show how crimes are solved, but what happens before the detectives show up at a crime scene on their white steeds. Renewed for a fifth season, “SouthLAnd” can boast of one the best ensemble casts and writing staffs on television. It succeeds in the shadow of higher-profile networks, star-driven series and media hype. The new multidisc set contains all 26 episodes of Seasons Two, Three and Four. It also contains unaired scenes, commentaries and a “crime map” of locations used in the show. – Gary Dretzka

The Solomon Bunch
Cartoon Network: Ben 10 Omniverse: A New Beginning
Animaniacs, Volume 4
Sesame Street: Elmo’s World: All Day With Elmo
Nickelodeon: Bubble Guppies: On the Job!

Once again, the story behind the movie is more interesting than the movie, itself … at least, for parents of kids in the target demographic. “The Solomon Bunch” is a tale of adventure and intrigue for ’tweeners who don’t mind being fed a moral lesson with the popcorn and pop. The movie was produced by the Creekside Christian Academy, in association with Pinecrest Baptist Church, both in Georgia’s Henry County. The name, Solomon, may ring a bell to viewers conversant with the bible. After overhearing the parents of one member discuss mistakes they’ve made, the kids form a club dedicated to the pursuit of wisdom. At about the same time, a mysterious stranger appears in the rural town causing consternation among club members. Learning not to jump to conclusions and spread gossip are lessons all kids could find valuable. The movie didn’t find a theatrical distributor, but the $100,000 invested in the project by church members could pay dividends in DVD. It includes outtakes and a family activity guide.

Launched in 2006, “Ben 10” has become the biggest franchise in Cartoon Network’s history. It chronicles the adventures of 10-year-old Ben Tennyson, who uses a watch-like Omnitrix device he finds in an alien pod to transform into various alien life forms. He’ll need all the help he can muster, vending off supervillains from outer space. “Ben 10: Omniverse: A New Beginning” is the fourth sequel series spun off from the original. The setup allows us to follow Ben at ages 11 and 16, when he loses old partners and gains a Plumber named Rook. Together, they discover an underground world populated by evil aliens. The DVD includes 10 episodes from 2012 and alien “reveals” and a database.

Watching these compilations of “Steven Spielberg Presents Animanics” cartoons is like taking a crash course in animation history. The episodes contain so many witty asides, references to kindred cartoons, parodies and insider gags that adding footnotes in the bonus features might have been a very valuable tool for simultaneous reference. For example, the cartoons pay direct homage to work of Chuck Jones and Tex Avery, who labored on the same lot that serves as home for the Warner siblings, Yakko, Wakko and Dot. Apparently, the trio had been locked away in the lot’s landmark water tower from the 1930s, when they were stars, to the mid-1990s, when they escaped. Not only do the Animaniacs run roughshod over the lot, but they’re also able to travel through time and leap over genre boundaries. It’s likely that kids are attracted to the sheer anarchic pace of the stories, but adults are more drawn to the intelligence and wit on display. The series began its run in 1993 on the Fox Kids schedule, moving to the Kids’ WB block from 1995-99. “Volume 4” includes contains episodes from Season Three and all of Seasons Four and Five.

If any fantasy character could benefit from an image makeover, it’s Elmo. It’s not the fault of the “little red menace,” as he’s sometimes been known on the “Sesame Street” set, that puppeteer Kevin Clash found himself in a spot of bother last fall and had to leave the show. Still, controversy tends to stick like glue to everyone attached to such a widely reported scandal and puppets aren’t immune to bad press. “Elmo’s World: All Day with Elmo” should help convince doubting parents that he’s not part of a subversive plot and deserves to be cut some slack. The segments focus on such serious duties as waking up, learning about going to school and how healthy monsters and kids can get the best exercise. Then, too, before Elmo goes to bed, he must perform such bath-time obligations as brushing his teeth. These exercises are intended to promote counting skills, self-confidence and healthy habits. Long live Elmo!

I wonder if Bubbletucky is far from Bikini Bottom. The Bubble Guppies and SpongeBob SquarePants swim in the same salty water of Nickelodeon’s ocean, but their target audiences probably are one or two steps removed from each other. It isn’t likely stoners get off much on the Guppies, either. In their second DVD iteration, “Bubble Guppies: On the Job!,” the characters go on field trips to learn about different things open to them when they mature. Among other things, they learn about construction, explore different ball games and visit a restaurant, hospital, dentist’s office and fire station. – Gary Dretzka

The DVD Wrapup

Tuesday, January 29th, 2013

Seven Psychopaths: Blu-ray
Before turning to film in 2005, the then-35-year-old Irish/British writer Martin McDonagh had established a solid reputation as one of the most promising playwrights of his generation. He didn’t seem to have much problem making the transition, winning an Academy Award his first time out of the gate for Best Live Action Short Film (“Six Shooter”) and, a couple of years later, by being nominated for Best Original Screenplay for “In Bruges,” which he also directed. Although “Seven Psychopaths” didn’t make the cut in any of the Oscar category, it’s a finalist for a BAFTA in the Outstanding British Film category and Independent Spirit Awards for Best Screenplay and Best Supporting Actor (Sam Rockwell). “In Bruges” is a darkly comic crime story set in the charming Flemish city, whose history goes back to its conquest by Julius Caesar. Although his writing can stand on its own merits, “In Bruges” naturally drew comparisons to the early films of Guy Ritchie, while “Seven Psychopaths” reminded critics of Quentin Tarantino’s hyper-violent hybrids. The two movies may share many qualities, but their settings could hardly be more different. “In Bruges” takes place principally in its historic city center, where tourists are drawn to scenic canals and medieval architecture. Half of “Seven Psychopaths” is set in and around the less-touristy neighborhoods of Los Angeles and the rest takes place deep in the Mojave Desert. To go into any depth about what happens in the multi-layered black comedy would require a spoiler alert ahead of every sentence. It’s that complex … or convoluted, depending one’s tastes.

The title derives from a screenplay being written, haltingly, by a borderline Irish alcoholic, Marty (Colin Farrell). After creating the first fictional psychopath, Marty develops a nearly insurmountable block. His dog-napper pals Billy (Rockwell) and Hans (Christopher Walken) ride to his rescue with tales of outrageous crimes carried out by serial killers and avenging angels, all of whom easily qualify as psychopaths. The pair of hooligans recently made the potentially fatal mistake of grabbing a Shih Tzu belonging to a seriously unhinged gangster, Charlie (Woody Harrelson), from his dog-walker (Gabourey Sidibe). Once apprised of the pup’s pedigree, Billy and Hans could have avoided a lot of trouble simply by returning it and apologizing, but how much fun would that be? Instead, one crime leads to another and so many lies are told in the service of Marty’s novel that, by the time the guys reach the desert, the fabrications start to double back on each other. Such madness would have been difficult to sustain if it weren’t for the presence of Harry Dean Stanton, as a razor-toting Amish looney, stalking the killer of his daughter; a rabbit-fondling nutcase, played by Tom Waits; Hans’ terminally ill African-American wife; a female serial killer who preys on serial killers; a onetime Viet Cong monk, who lost his family at My Lai; a blond Vietnamese-speaking prostitute and Ivy League graduate; and other candidates for inclusion in Marty’s manuscript. As usual, Walken’s performance alone is worth the price of a rental and Farrell proves to be a master of dark comedy. The Blu-ray adds the usual array of making-of pieces and interviews, but the real treat is the short parody, “Seven Psychocats.” – Gary Dretzka

The Tin Drum: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
In an interview included in the Criterion Collection’s Blu-ray edition of “The Tin Drum, ” Volker Schlöndorff says that the Cannes- and Academy Award-winning film was never intended merely to be an adaptation of Gunter Grass’ literary masterpiece and a home-grown vehicle for selling tickets in the Rhineland. Rather, like the novel, it would be a provocation. “Germany, to this day, is the poisoned heart of Europe,” the director wrote in his journal. “It is a country unable to mourn.” Germans born during and after the WWII were required to carry the burden of their parents’ sins and weren’t at all pleased by having to wear the stain of genocide. Ironically, in its rush to stem the red tide, the United States was partially responsible for creating an atmosphere of non-repentance. The western powers were so anxious to pre-empt the Soviet Union’s ability to encourage the spread of communism in war-torn Europe and the colonies, they went to great lengths to convince impoverished survivors that turning to Russia for help would be a mistake. The Marshall Plan not only was used to provide food and other forms of economic relief to Europeans, but its provisions demanded a general American-ization of the culture. If western Germany could rise from the ashes, it was believed, the halo effect of prosperity would be felt throughout Europe and the “free world.” As unbelievable as it sounds today, provisions of the Marshall Plan also linked levels of aid directly to the recipients’ willingness to accept imports of U.S. motion pictures, among other products. Any promotion of middle-class American values and lifestyle conceivably could stimulate American exports at large and advance ideological agendas. Before long, Germans were too busy reconstructing to waste time examining their consciences, even if they were so inclined to do so … which most weren’t.

By the early 1960s, the German cinema was barely a shadow of its former self. The loss of its greatest pre-war artists, along with the lingering effects of Joseph Goebbels’ propaganda machine, left the next generation of filmmakers scratching for ways to address issues pertinent to themselves and the newly industrialized Germany. The young directors and writers who signed the Oberhausen Manifesto of 1962 declared that “Papa’s movies are dead,” even as audiences continued to be drawn to Hollywood fare and resources remained scarce. Almost a decade later, the German New Wave would officially arrive in the form of Schlöndorff, Wim Wenders, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Werner Herzog, Alexander Kluge, Margarethe von Trotta and Hans-Jurgen Syberberg. The movement was influenced by the Italian and French new waves, which found success doing more with less. They also looked to such American mavericks as Francis Ford Coppola, Hal Ashby, Martin Scorsese and Peter Bogdanovich, who proved that personal films could be entertaining and commercially successful. Schlöndorff’s adaptation of “The Tin Drum” would demonstrate how far things had changed on all fronts. It would go on to be the first German film to won both the Palme d’Or (shared with “Apocalypse Now”) and the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film.

The story of three generations of the Matzerath family, of the Free City of Danzig, is told through the eyes and sometimes questionable memory of Oskar, a boy born with an adult’s capacity for thoughts and perception. At 3, after falling down a flight of stairs in pursuit of a toy drum, he willed himself not to mature physically. It was his way of protesting the conformity, complacency, hypocrisy and overall mediocrity he’d witnessed from birth. His cognitive skills would continue to grow, however, and they would serve him as a weapon against those who simply judged him by his stature. He carried the tin drum wherever he went, occasionally beating it to the accompaniment of a piercing, glass-shattering shriek when deeply disturbed by the behavior of his fellow human beings. In addition to chronicling Oskar’s life, “The Tin Drum” describes how the proprietorship of Danzig and its rural environs would be disputed from the late 19th Century to war’s end. (The book continues beyond that point.) His grandmother sold turnips and potatoes in Kushubian markets, where the local tongue blended into Polish and German. Danzig (later Gdansk) would be declared a “free city” by the terms of the Versailles Treaty. In Oskar’s lifetime, its status would be contested by Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union and Poland. Oskar’s ability to cope was further tested by an early understanding of his mother’s promiscuity; the blind acceptance of Nazism by his relatives (who would soon live to regret it); the persecution of a close Jewish friend of his mother; his own sexual maturation; and the realization that his actions had serious repercussions. Still, he found ways to survive not available to 20-year-olds of normal size. The liberties taken with Grass’ novel were overseen by the author, director and writers Jean-Claude Carriere and Franz Seitz. There’s no question, though, that David Bennett’s amazing portrayal of the man-child, Oskar, made “The Tin Drum” the unforgettable experience it became.

The Criterion Collection Blu-ray edition is enhanced by a newly restored high-definition digital transfer of the complete 162-minute director’s-cut version, and a re-mastered 5.1 surround soundtrack presented in DTS-HD Master Audio. It also includes a new interview with Schlöndorff about the making of “The Tin Drum” and creation of the 2010 restored version; the musings of film scholar Timothy Corrigan; a recording of author Günter Grass reading an excerpt from his novel, with musical accompaniment and corresponding footage from the film; television interview excerpts featuring Schlöndorff, Grass, actors Bennent and Mario Adorf, and cowriter Carrière; a new English subtitle translation; and a booklet featuring an essay by critic Michael Atkinson and 1978 statements by Grass about the adaptation of his novel. Some viewers will recall the clamor over scenes in which Oskar has non-graphically rendered sex with female characters his age, if not his height. One Oklahoma judge, after being shown a single out-of-context scene, demanded the removal of VHS copies from rental stores and the tracking down of renters who had one in their possession. The decision would be overturned, but the damage to the movie’s reputation among non-discerning viewers had already been done. – Gary Dretzka

The Imposter
Nominated for a BAFTA as one of the top documentaries of 2012, “The Imposter” may also be one of the year’s most chillingly effective crime thrillers. Here’s what happens: 3½ years after a 13-year-old boy disappears from a basketball court near his San Antonio home, his family receives a call from southern Spain saying that he has been found and is living in a group home there. Naturally, the working-class family is ecstatic, insisting on immediately being given access to him. What viewers already know is that the boy in question doesn’t look a bit like Nicholas Barclay and speaks in a dialect bridging Spanish and French. How do we know that? The real-life imposter, Frederic Bourdin, tells us so, upfront, from prison. He also tells us that he feared being discovered from the moment he devised the ruse – using reports on missing children he purloined from the local police station – to the moment he sat down for coffee with an old-fashioned private investigator, who could have been modeled after Wilford Brimley. The P.I. kept searching for the truth long after the family and FBI closed the book on the case. Once the family bought into the young Frenchman’s story of being kidnaped, beaten and used as a sex slave, there wasn’t much the FBI could do. After five months, Bourdin had already studied family photo albums with Nicholas’ sister and learned family history from their mother. Unless he slipped up, Bourdin was in the clear.

By now, surely, you’re wondering how the entire family of a missing person could be so delusional and/or desperate for closure. In fact, though, it’s Bourdin who provides us with the most obvious clue, which somehow eluded police, if not the P.I. Even if it’s the truth, though, the sad fact remains that the only person who served time in prison is the imposter and his crime was passport fraud and forgery. He’s since been released, convicted in other ruses and freed again. Anyone who marveled at the story behind Steven Spielberg’s “Catch Me If You Can” should run out and find a copy of Bart Layton’s documentary. Apparently, Bourdin had been getting away with impersonating other people – perhaps, as many as 500 — for years. To his credit, only a handful of them were teenagers previously reported missing. The thing that will haunt viewers most, beyond Bourdin’s affectless testimony before Layton’s camera, is the enduring question of what happened to Nicholas. Apparently, the only person still looking for him is investigator Charlie Parker. – Gary Dretzka

All Superheroes Must Die: Blu-ray
Misfits: Season Two
Citadel: Blu-ray
There are essentially two kinds of superhero movies: the ones that are backed by the piles of money needed to create amazing special effects and action sequences and those whose only collateral is the imagination of the filmmakers. The same applies to horror movies, although the cost-per-scare ratio has dropped markedly since special-effects software became so affordable. Absent a decent budget, the trick is to get the audience to buy into the quirkiness of the conceit almost as soon as the opening credits stop rolling, and then pray that they invest their own imaginations into the narrative, filling the larger holes themselves. While it’s impossible to guarantee the success of any movie, let alone one not backed by a multimillion-dollar marketing budget, it’s nice to know that near-misses now can find a respectable home in the straight-to-DVD market. Jason Trost, co-writer/director of “All Superheroes Must Die” (a.k.a., “Vs”), went down this same road with his crazy post-apocalyptic action flick, “FP.” In it, rival gangs fight for control of the I-5 pit-stop town of Frazier Park, settling scores with the ancient arcade game, Dance, Dance, Revolution. It’s amazing how much the Frazier Park of today resembles his dystopian Frazier Park. The sets in “All Superheroes Must Die” look as if they were built from items discarded from “Storage Wars,” while the costumes were designed by Sarah Trost, immediately before she became a contestant on “Project Runway.” As the story goes, superheroes Charge, Cutthroat, Sledgesaw and Shadow awaken one day in an abandoned town, minus their superpowers and recollections about how they got there. Archrival supervillain Rickshaw (James Remar) has brought them together to engage them in a cruel game, in which they must choose between saving themselves, their buddies or civilians strapped with bombs. Rickshaw can monitor their every move via security cameras and taunt them with threats and insults. If the fiend isn’t stopped, he’ll destroy everyone he’s captured. The idea that superheroes, relieved of their superpowers, must rely on common sense, trust, ethical resolve and cunning is sound. If the movie occasionally seems rushed and lacking in logic, it’s probably because budget restraints – it cost an estimated $20,000 to make – forced Trost to take several shortcuts.

Likewise, the bargain-basement British television series “Misfits” examines the phenomenon from the viewpoint of cut-rate superheroes. In its first episode, five young juvenile delinquents are struck by lightning while performing menial tasks in a rundown section of London in the name of community service. Its title, at least, may have been inspired from the short-lived 1985 American fantasy show, “Misfits of Science,” to which it bears a resemblance. Naturally, it takes a while for the misfits to identify their powers and, by that time, the electrical storm has impacted the lives of several other Londoners, not all of whom are heroic. In Season Two, the gang finishes its obligation to the juvenile justice system, but that doesn’t mean they’re in the clear. Even when they attempt to sell their powers, it backfires on them. That “Misfits” is a bare-bones production, with no fancy sets or CGI magic, barely matters. Its appeal largely derives from the differences between how these punky characters handle their gift, as opposed to the way most other fictional heroes do. It’s nice to find a group that isn’t obsessed with their public image and cool costumes. It should be noted that the new Season Two package represents shows that aired in 2010.

It couldn’t have cost Irish newcomer Ciaran Foy much money to make “Citadel,” either, as almost all of the sets look abandoned and about to be demolished. By comparison, Chernobyl looks hospitable. Likewise, the idea for the movie came from Foy’s own personal experiences. In the time it takes a young father-to-be to take a couple of suitcases to a cab waiting outside their high-rise apartment building, his pregnant wife is attacked by hooded thugs and left for dead in a hallway, a hypodermic needle stuck in her belly. Tommy (Aneurin Barnard) witnesses the assault through a window in the elevator, but is powerless to exit before it descends mysteriously to the first floor. The comatose woman dies after the baby is delivered safely, but Tommy is left a basket case. Although he insists on taking care of his infant daughter, he’s crippled with chronic agoraphobia and lives in mortal fear of once again encountering the feral youths. A vigilante priest tells Tommy that he’ll never be free of the gang, which now is intent on kidnaping the baby, until he overcomes his fears and confronts the hoodlums on their own turf. Like Trost, Foy was able to make the most out of the dark, dank surroundings, which would be fearsome even without the criminal element. He also was successful in using his own agoraphobia — triggered by a severe beating – to inform Barnard’s behavior. The Blu-ray adds a making-of featurette. – Gary Dretzka

The Perfect Ending
Out in the Open 
In the tear-jerking romance, “The Perfect Ending,” an attractive middle-age woman learns almost too late what it means to fall in love with someone who isn’t interested in her solely for how she looks on his arm at social events and as the woman who’s always there when it’s time for breakfast and dinner. After going through marriage and motherhood without experiencing an orgasm, Rebecca (Barbara Niven) finally admits her shame to lesbian girlfriends who suggest an alternative. Widely believed to have been born with a stick up her ass, Rebecca reluctantly agrees to try what she’s told is a sure-fire orgasm remedy, in the form of a therapeutic session with a compassionate female prostitute. After a frustrating number of deliberate misfires, Rebecca hooks up with the much younger and genuinely stunning Paris (Jessica Clark). Voila, instant ecstasy. Back home, her prick of a husband (John Heard) continues to make Rebecca’s life miserable in ways that would have a real-life woman consulting a divorce lawyer or reaching for a butcher knife. Not surprisingly, once Paris finally lights Rebecca’s rockets, the women fall for each other in a way highly discouraged by her boss (Morgan Fairchild) and atypical in the world of hookers and tricks. Nonetheless, once the audience warms to Rebecca, most such qualms don’t matter much, if only because the sex scenes are so hot. One month removed from 60, Niven delivers the performance of her career, opening herself up emotionally and physically, and convincing us of the integrity of her character. Clark may be a bit too perfect as the prostitute … but, what the hell. Writer/director Nicole Conn is a pioneer of the new Queer Cinema, but, even so, it’s rare to see as many mainstream actors in a decidedly lesbian romance. She’s also able here to maintain a hell-no secret throughout the course of the movie’s length. The DVD’s bonus material includes deleted scenes, a photo gallery, interviews and making-of featurettes.

Documentaries and movies about real people coming out as homosexual have been a dime a dozen for at least the last two decades. Onetime child star Matthew Smith (“Real Stream”) probably was aware of this glut of titles when he set out to make “Out in the Open,” a film that updates what it means to be a member of the LGBT community in 2013. The timing is pretty good. In his second inaugural address, President Obama made a strong, if belated statement on assuring equal rights for gays, lesbians and transsexuals (etc.), and the legalization of same-sex marriages has been approved by voters in several states. Smith interweaves the testimonies of actors, celebrities, politicians, clergy and average Americans with snippets of a mock PSA decrying homosexuality and telling viewers how to identify gay and lesbian traits in themselves. The film is targeted at teenagers, as well as their parents and teachers, who may be wrestling with the same identity issues as those people we meet in the film. It also addresses problems associated with bullying, name-calling and stereotyping. Among the people interviewed are Eric and Eliza Roberts, Eliza’s son Keaton Simons, Carson Kressley, Josh Strickland, Greg Louganis, Cassandra Church and poker pro Vanessa Selbst. If many of the coming-out stories are sad, the overall tone of “Out in the Open” is uplifting, revelatory and frequently humorous. – Gary Dretzka

Tales of the Night: Blu-ray
The best way to describe “Tales of the Night” to someone who isn’t remotely familiar with the work of French animator Michel Ocelot (“Kirikou and the Sorceress,” “Azur & Asmar”) is to compare Julie Taymor’s stage version of “The Lion King” to the original Disney feature. One of the amazing things about the Broadway musical is the deployment of puppets, masks and silhouettes against a brilliantly sunlit background, in addition to the actors and dancers. In the six fables that comprise Ocelot’s “Tales of the Night” silhouetted characters – human, animal and mythical – perform before brilliantly colored backgrounds with intriguing patterns. Ocelot used a computer to tell the stories here, but he prefers to work in paper and that’s the effect he got. He also employs a computer as a narrative device. An illustrator uses it to demonstrate to a pair of actors how they might inform the look of the characters they play in a separate project. The locales include a medieval European realm in which humans interact with werewolves and humans turn into deer; a Caribbean island; Africa; Tibet; and an Aztec capital. It’s marvelously entertaining and, in Blu-ray, a supreme test of your home-theater system. It also adds an interview with Ocelot and making-of material. – Gary Dretzka

The Love Section
There aren’t many options open for people of color to see movies in which characters date and marry people who look like them, laugh at the same things they do, listen to the same music and hold meaningful jobs. Broadcast television networks aren’t built to accommodate such niche programming any longer, no matter how successful Tyler Perry may be, and diverse casting has become so formulaic as to be laughable. It isn’t as if such movies as “Why Did I Get Married Too?,” “Jump the Broom” and “Think Like a Man” don’t make money in theaters, because they do. Ronnie Warner and Lawrence B. Adisa’s romantic comedy “The Love Section” isn’t quite in the same league as those titles, let alone “Waiting to Exhale” or “Stella Got Her Groove Back,” but it has a lot of nice things going for it. Among other things, the cast is full of attractive men and women, who look good in business suits and lingerie, and they have good jobs that don’t require wearing Nikes and jockstraps to work. The old-school R&B soundtrack is a real pleasure to hear, as well. The stereotypes are kept to a minimum and, unlike the adaptations of stage plays adapted for TV, there’s no laugh track to tell us when to laugh or spiritual time outs. Lawrence Adisa plays Ali, a struggling real estate agent and ladies’ man who has resisted commitment of any kind. No sooner has this much been established than Ali falls for Sandrine (Davetta Sherwood), a hard-working single mother who wouldn’t mind a bit of commitment in her life. Typically, Ali begins to listen to friends, who cause him to doubt his own best instincts. It isn’t until a real-estate mogul (Mekhi Phifer) enters the picture that Ali begins to take over his own life that real decisions have to be made. Among the supporting cast are Brian Hooks, Kellita Smith, Omar Benson Miller, Teyana Taylor and Elijah Long. – Gary Dretzka

How Green Was My Valley: Blu-ray
Gentleman’s Agreement: Blu-ray
Wild River: Blu-ray
Although John Ford’s “How Green Was My Valley” is an inarguably great movie and was among the first 50 titles inducted into the National Film Registry, its place in history still stumps people foolish enough to bet on trivial Hollywood pursuits. Among other things, it is the answer to the question, “Which 1941 movie defeated ‘Citizen Kane,’ ‘The Maltese Falcon,’ ‘Sergeant York,’ ‘The Little Foxes,’ ‘Here Comes Mr. Jordan,’ ‘Suspicion’ and three other films in the race for Best Picture?,” while Ford’s name answers the question, “Which director took home the Oscar that year, beating Orson Welles, William Wyler, Howard Hawks and Alexander Hall?” You can learn a lot more about Ford and fellow nominee Philip Dunne’s adaptation of Richard Llewellyn’s novel by listening to the commentary track and “Hollywood Backstory” featurette on the new Blu-ray edition of “How Green Was My Valley.” Told from the perspective of 10-year-old Huw Morgan (“Master Roddy McDowall”), it’s the still-topical story of a family torn apart by the prospect of a potentially crippling strike at a Welsh coal mine. Huw’s father (Donald Crisp) refuses to join any such action, believing that the mine owner wouldn’t do anything to hurt the livelihoods of his employees. His older sons, however, have personally been affected by the influx of laborers, including children, willing to work at much lower wages. Huw also describes the failed romance between his sister (Maureen O’Hara) and the local preacher (Walter Pidgeon); the scattering of his older brothers into the Welsh diaspora; the trials he faced as a coal-miner’s son in a school populated by elitist bullies; unexpected deaths in the family; and his inner struggle over the benefits of continuing his education or following his elders into the mines. The Fox Blu-ray edition sounds great and looks spectacular, even in black and white. (Arthur C. Miller took Oscar honors over “Citizen Kane” cinematographer Gregg Toland.) There’s a fascinating story behind the decision to shoot B&W, as well as Daryl Zanuck’s efforts to keep “How Green Was My Valley” from being overtly pro-union.

Also new to Blu-ray from Fox are Elia Kazan’s “Gentleman’s Agreement” (1947) and “Wild River” (1960), both of which were highly topical at the time of their release, but feel like cultural artifacts today. I wonder how many potential viewers, drawn to Kazan’s name on the jacket, know that the deeply entrenched, almost institutional anti-Semitism described in “Gentleman’s Agreement” actually was a problem in America, especially considering what we knew about Hitler’s death camps. In it, a single magazine reporter, Philip Green (Gregory Peck), moves to New York from California, in the company of his young son (Dean Stockwell), and is asked to come up with a story angle on the subject.  Knowing that anti-Semitism is practiced among New York’s elite is different from proving it, however. Green’s idea is to impersonate a Jewish writer who is attempting to accomplish the same things as he is upon landing in the city. This includes pursuing permanent employment, finding a place to live, reserving a room in a hotel or planning a honeymoon. So-called gentleman’s agreements and exclusionary covenants accomplished in the North what decades of segregation had in the South, only in far less obvious way. Because it’s set among the moneyed and professional classes of New York, the anti-Semitism often is cloaked in codes and protocol. Indeed, the reporter’s wealthy fiancée (Dorothy McGuire) is an avowed liberal who doesn’t even know when she’s being offensive or accommodating the bigotry of relatives and neighbors. The more the reporter grills her and challenges her assumptions, the further a divide grows between them. The movie, which was adapted from a novel by Laura Z. Hobson by Moss Hart, became a big hit before being awarded Best Picture and Best Director Oscars. It arrives with commentary, an “AMC Backstory” and newsreel footage from the premiere.

Elia Kazan’s “Wild River” may not have been accorded the same accolades as previous titles in his canon, but it’s stood up to close critical scrutiny over the years and now is considered one of his classics. (It joined the National Film Registry in 2002.) The story, adapted from the writings of William Bradford Huie, describes a standoff between an elderly woman (Jo Van Fleet) and a TVA field administrator (Montgomery Clift) over the disposition of her island home, even as the dammed waters of the Tennessee River begin to rise. The New Deal initiative is designed to bring much-needed flood relief, electricity and jobs to the region, but the woman cares more about individual liberty and family tradition than bringing light bulbs to the blind. As long as her dead husband is resting there, she’s staying. The question of racial inequality in the rural South also rears its ugly head when the TVA interloper hires black workers at the same wages as those provided whites. In the early 1930s, this wasn’t something the local rednecks – some of whom appear in the movie — would accept. Lee Remick plays the obstinate landowner’s widowed daughter, with two children and an urge to leave the island. Naturally, Remick and Clift’s characters fall for each other, further complicating his mission. Kazan shot “Wild River” in color to take advantage of the natural Tennessee setting and it looks great in Blu-ray. – Gary Dretzka

PBS: More Than a Month
March On!: The Day My Brother Martin Changed the World
Stone Soup … and Other Stories From the Asian Tradition
In “More Than a Month,” Shukree Hassan Tilghman asks a couple of timely questions: if America actually has become a “post-racial” society, as some learned folks argue, has Black History Month outlived its usefulness, and, if so, should it be abolished? In soliciting the opinions of his fellow New Yorkers, he wore a sandwich board with “End Black History Month” printed on the front of the sign and “Black History Is American History” on the back. The responses he received were inconclusive, so he began asking African-American scholars, activists, historians and, even, a group of Civil War enactors how they felt about the relevancy of Black History Month. Not surprisingly, perhaps, the blacks with whom he spoke argued persuasively that ending it could backfire on those who swallowed the “post-racial” bait hook, line and sinker. Indeed, the weekend warriors he met in Virginia suggested replacing it with a Confederate History Month. Tilghman’s questions are legitimate, certainly. In the best of all possible Americas, the histories and contributions of all citizens already would be incorporated into the curriculum of all our schools and children would grow up knowing that no race, nationality or gender held a monopoly on intelligence, talent or courage. In the worst of all possible Americas, however, a February without purpose would pass in the same way as it always had before Black History Month was instituted, except that the text books would have been re-written to reflect the viewpoints of pinhead politicians and televangelists. This already happens in Texas, a state that demands rewrites of more textbooks than any other. Given the economy, once school boards stopped giving lip service to African-American history, at least, they could stop pretending they gave a crap about Native Americans, Hispanics, Asian-Americans and women, too. By the time Tilghman returned home to the liberal bubble that is New York, it seems as if he had rethought his previous position and was left without a clear answer to his questions. The difference is that Tilghman was having more fun debating the issue when he thought he was right.

One good way to expose children to the benefits of diversity and contributions of people of different backgrounds is to provide them with entertainment and “edutainment” options that are inclusive when it comes to race, gender and ethnicity. From Scholastic Storybook Treasures comes a compilation of DVD read-alongs, including “March On!: The Day My Brother Martin Changed the World” In the title track,

Dr. Christine King Farris recalls the early influences that caused Martin Luther King Jr. to evolve into the great orator and activist he became. It also goes behind the scenes as her brother prepared for the March on Washington and one of the most important speeches in American history. It is illustrated by London Ladd and narrated by Lynn Whitfield. Also included in the package are “Martin’s Big Words,” which uses quotes from Dr. King to paint a picture of the man and his dreams (written by Doreen Rappaport, illustrated by Bryan Collier, narrated by Michael Clarke Duncan). “Rosa” describes how the uncommon bravery of a single Montgomery bus rider, Rosa Parks, led to one of most significant victories in the early days of the civil-rights movement (written and narrated by Nikki Giovanni, illustrated by Bryan Collier). “Henry’s Freedom Box: A True Story From the Underground Railroad” tells the story of a young slave who literally mails himself to freedom (written by Ellen Levine, illustrated by Kadir Nelson, narrated by Jerry Dixon). The DVD adds interviews with Christine King Farris and Ellen Levine.

Another timely offering from Scholastic Storybook Treasures is “Stone Soup … and Other Stories From the Asian Tradition,” which should be of interest to kids curious about Chinese culture, especially as we enter the Year of the Snake. The read-along stories include “Stone Soup,” “The Five Chinese Brothers,” “Lon Po Po” and “Stonecutter.” Also included is an interview with author/illustrator Jon J. Muth. – Gary Dretzka

Masterpiece Classic: Downton Abbey Season 3
Cinemax: Femme Fatales: The Complete First Season
PBS: The Mighty Mississippi
Thank goodness for Shirley MacLaine. Just when the Earl of Grantham, Dowager Countess of Grantham and crabby Mr. Carson were beginning to wear on me, even in early hours of Season Three of “Downton Abbey,” relief arrived in the form of MacLaine’s filthy-rich American intruder, Martha Levinson, to burst their balloons. Levinson is the mother of Cora Crawley (Elizabeth McGovern), the countess of Grantham and soon to be the mother of the bride at the stately marriage of Lady Mary Crawley (Michelle Dockery) and distant cousin, Matthew Crawley (Dan Stevens). Before that can happen, however, the Earl (Hugh Bonneville) is required to tell his wife that he’s squandered her fortune on a risky business transaction and Downton Abbey may be lost to them. Worse, perhaps, runaway daughter Lady Sybil Crawley has unexpectedly arrived from Ireland with her commoner husband, Tom Branson, the family’s former chauffer, whose mere presence is treated as an affront to the Earl, his mother (Maggie Smith) and Mr. Carson (Jim Carter). Meanwhile, Bates is cooling his heels in jail, waiting for his bride, Anna, to solve the mystery of his former wife’s death. Wait, there’s more. By now, fans of the “Masterpiece Classic” soap opera relish the constant upheavals at Downton Abbey, which include the introduction of new characters and greater intrigues. The fate of the estate will consume most of the next seven hours of Season 3, as well as that of Bates and the family’s link to the Irish Revolution. Tragedy strikes and controversy ensues. The DVD and Blu-ray package adds the season-ending Christmas Special, “A Journey to the Highlands” and featurettes “Downton Abbey: Behind the Drama,” “Shirley MacLaine at Downton,” “The Men of Downton” and “Downton in 1920.”

Among the things that haven’t evolved in the sexy anthology shows that have followed in the wake of “Red Shoes Diaries” on premium cable networks: women characters still haven’t embraced pantyhose, preferring stockings and garter belts; most of the actresses’ breasts were surgically enhanced at puberty; like Barbie and Ken, pubic hair and genitalia are conspicuously missing; all strippers resemble moonlighting supermodels; and prostitutes who could command $1,000 an hour in Las Vegas pound the streets of Los Angeles, instead. The same absurd clichés apply to Cinemax’s “Femme Fatales,” in which top-shelf women outfox, outsmart, out-screw and generally out-everything every male in their nefarious orbits, and they do so in their britches. As created by Steven Kriozere and Mark Altman (“Necessary Roughness,” “Castle”), “Femme Fatales” differentiates itself from other soft-core anthology series by incorporating the sex into the plots of half-hour stories, which are inspired by pulp fiction, film noir and graphic novels. Each episode offers some humor, at least, to go with the obviously staged violence and ironic twists at the end of each week’s offering. The series may not be in the same league as “Twilight Zone” and other anthologies, but, for fans of such things, it’s rarely less than watchable and the sex tends to support the stories, instead of the other way around. It arrives with commentary tracks for every episode, deleted and alternate scenes, background and making-of material, an “anatomy of a sex scene,” isolated music tracks, a blooper reel and panel discussion from San Diego Comic-Con.

British news reader and wandering reporter Sir Trevor McDonald isn’t the first journalist to survey the Mississippi River in search of the ever-beating and occasionally dark heart of America and he certainly won’t be the last. Such ambitious treks have become a staple of travel-obsessed shows on cable television outlets, but the Mississippi seems to hold a special fascination for foreigners. Americans tend to take the Big Muddy for granted, at least until its waters rise to flood tide and the media race to cover the destruction. McDonald traverses the Mississippi’s 2,500-mile length from south to north, making the usual stops along the way. While in Memphis, for example, he spends time at Sun Studios, Beale Street, the Lorraine Hotel, the auditorium where Martin Luther King gave his last speech, a penthouse apartment overlooking the river and the B&B now run by one of Elvis’ earliest and most photographed girlfriends. McDonald is especially drawn to the river’s connection to popular culture and the aspirations of everyday Americans. If “The Mighty Mississippi” is a tad more eloquent than previous mini-series, the credit belongs to the Trinidadian-British journalist, who became the first black news reader in England and enjoyed a career that lasted from the early 1960s to 2008. My only quibble is that the splendid cinematography that graces the 140-minute mini-series hasn’t been translated into Blu-ray. – Gary Dretzka

Madly Madagascar
Nickelodeon: Rootin’ Tootin’ Wild West
Young followers of DreamWorks’ “Madagascar” franchise should get a big Valentine’s Day kick out of the appetizer-portion cartoon, “Madly Madagascar.” Some of them might notice that it arrives out of sequence, before the penguins left for Monte Carlo. This doesn’t make the movie less charming, but it could be confusing to hardcore fans. Here, Alex (Ben Stiller) recalls how much he enjoyed the holiday back at the zoo, where kids showered him with cards and other heart-shaped goodies. The zebra, Marty (Chris Rock), discovers that the only way he can get the attention of a hot okapi lassie is to apply a love potion that miraculously fell from the sky one day. Melman, Gloria, Julien, Skipper and his bobble-head wife also find love in all the weird places. The 28-minute cartoon comes with two other animated shorts, featuring DreamWorks characters.

I don’t know if there’s a national holiday dedicated to cowboys, but, if there were, the latest compilation of cartoons from Nickelodeon would be the appropriate gift for pre-schoolers. “Nickelodeon Favorites: Rootin’ Tootin’ Wild West” is comprised of western-themed stories from the series “Bubble Guppies,” “Team Umizoomi,” “Dora the Explorer,” “The Fresh Beat Band,” “Go, Diego, Go!”  and “The Wonder Pets!” It’s a Walmart exclusive from Paramount. – Gary Dretzka

The DVD Wrap

Friday, January 25th, 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The DVD Wrapup

Wednesday, January 16th, 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The DVD Wrapup

Tuesday, January 8th, 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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