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

Wednesday, July 11th, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, July 4th, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

Joe + Belle
The Disappearance of Aeryn Gilleran

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SpokAnarchy!
Rockwell

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, June 26th, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, June 20th, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, June 13th, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, June 6th, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

The DVD Wrapup: Talk About Kevin, more

Thursday, May 31st, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Suddenly, the great Swedish cop Wallander is everywhere …

Wednesday, May 30th, 2012

 If one were to judge the crime rate in Sweden strictly by the number of mysteries, you’d think it was a haven for sociopaths, drug runners and gangbangers. Between Henning Mankell, Sieg Larsson, Maj Sjowall and the late Per Wahloo, alone, more fiendish murders have been solved by Swedish novelists than almost anywhere on Earth, outside the United States.

If American TV viewers are familiar with Ystad’s chief inspector, Kurt Wallander, it’s because an English-language adaptation starring Kenneth Branagh has aired on PBS’ “Masterpiece Mystery!,” with new episodes set to return in September. Both Krister Henriksson and Rolf Lassgard have played the melancholic cop, who lives in what ought to be a peaceful port city on the country’s southern tip. If memory serves, Branagh’s interpretation of the character makes him noticeably more brooding and troubled than the one we meet in Henriksson, in the new DVD collection, “Henning Mankell’s Wallander.” His protagonist still is far from being outgoing, but his recent move to a seaside home appears to have lightened his mood somewhat.

Besides having to sort through 13 episodes’ worth of exceedingly disturbing crimes, Wallander’s required here is to adjust his preconceptions about women in law enforcement. He also must come to grips with his imminent retirement and the responsibility that comes with grooming someone to replace him. On his daily constitutionals with his black Labrador, Jussi, he’s on doctor’s orders to count each step with a pedometer. That doesn’t mean, however, he can’t enjoy a smoke or stiff drink every so often.

“Henning Mankell’s Wallander” also reflects a Sweden whose crime rate has grown steadily since the author conceived of the mystery series in 1989. “Faceless Killers” was the first of a baker’s dozen of novels, but Mankell has since added several more stories and teleplays to his resume. Although many westerners have long considered Scandinavia to be something of a crime-free zone, it’s not. As everywhere else in Europe, the steep rise in violent crime has been blamed on an increasing numbers of immigrant workers, easier access to hard drugs, terrorism and vigilantism. Ystad, then, with a population of less than 20,000 people, is northern Europe in microcosm, and Wallander has evolved with the time, if, sometimes, reluctantly.

According to Mankell, “The only way to create a credible character in a novel or movie is to portray a human being who changes, as I do. No living creature is the same tomorrow as they are today (and) we also share the dark sides of life.

“You can see yourself in people that change. But, if they stay the same, although years go by and the stories multiply, it is no longer possible to do so.”

The new compilation from Music Box includes 13 episodes of 90 minutes length each. The acting is uniformly excellent throughout and the police work’s engrossing. This time around, Wallander’s patience and heartstrings often are tested by the presence of a new lead prosecutor, played by Lena Endre (“Faithless”). The scenery is pretty special, too.

As another sign of the times, the first chapter of the series starring Henriksson, “Revenge,” has already been made available a la carte on VOD, via iTunes, Amazon and Vudu. It opens theatrically in Los Angeles and New York on Friday. – Gary Dretzka

 

The DVD Wrapup: Newlyweds, Certified Copy, Arrietty, Route 66, Sherlock … More

Thursday, May 24th, 2012

Newlyweds
Love Etc.
The careers of few indie filmmakers have begun in as auspicious a fashion as Ed Burns. In 1995, “The Brothers McMullen” stunned audiences at Sundance with its fresh take on life, love and buddy-ship among young Irish-Catholics brothers on Long Island. “She’s the One” was accorded a substantially larger budget and more familiar co-stars (Jennifer Aniston, Cameron Diaz), but critics weren’t nearly as impressed. While they didn’t exactly hate it, most pundits expected proportionally more heft from the laid-back writer/actor/director. Even so, the quirky second entry in his “Long Island Trilogy” turned a respectable profit. I suspect that his 2006 “The Groomsmen” was the film he hoped would complete the trilogy and, despite weak box-office returns, it might have been Burns’ best work in 11 years. By this time, though, his acting career had picked up steam and he had become a family man. Any son of blue-collar parents who grows up to experience fame in the movie dodge and be blessed with a supermodel bride, Christy Turlington, would be forgiven if, instead of churning out arthouse fare, he spent his free time at home with the wife and kids. Positive, negative or indifferent, “Newlyweds” won’t change anyone’s opinion of Burns’ work or lift the 17-year-old curse of other people’s expectation that he finally assume the mantle of “the Irish-Catholic Woody Allen.” Better for everyone involved, if they had accepted Burns as the Irish-Catholic Henry Jaglom, with whom he shares more positive traits.

Shot in New York City in less than two weeks and reportedly on a budget of $9,000, “Newlyweds” brought Burns back to his earliest indie roots. Like “The Brothers McMullen,” it is the kind of slice-of-life story that defies such convenient categorizations as comedy, drama, romance or melodrama. As Confucius (or his simpleton brother, Confused) once said, “It is what it is.” Like almost all of the 44-year-old Queens native’s movies, “Newlyweds” focuses tightly on several contemporaneous New Yorkers who are approaching a crossroads in life. Although none is particularly noteworthy on his or her own, each fits a recognizable post-yuppie archetype. Employing the same faux-documentary style employed on practically every NBC sitcom or cable reality show, a pair of married couples tells the audience things on the sly they won’t admit to their partners over dinner or even alone at home. Burns and Caitlin Fitzgerald play the recently married Buzzy and Katie, whose blissful newlywed status is tested to the breaking point, first, by the arrival of his emotional shipwreck of a half-sister, Linda (Kerry Bishe), and, second, turmoil in the 18-year marriage of her passively aggressive sister, Marsha (Marsha Dietlein), and aggressively dimwitted husband, Max (Max Baker). After skipping her brother’s wedding, Linda seemingly has arrived in TriBeCa both to test the bonds of an ex-boyfriend’s marriage and the patience of Katie, who’s down to her last nerve with the intruder’s inconsiderate behavior. The freakishly even-tempered Buzz attempts to steer a middle course between them, but hits two very deep potholes when Linda seduces Katie’s intrusive ex-husband and Marsha borrows surplus venom from her marriage – she caught Max getting a blowjob from a much younger client — to poison her sister’s happiness.

Insecure, for no good reason, Katie takes out her paranoia on Buzzy, a second-time husband who’s completely lost control of the situation. Can this marriage be saved? Anyone who’s followed Burns’ career with anticipation for every new project will find an answer to that question by renting a copy of “Newlyweds,” as soon as possible. Others aren’t likely to find more than one of the characters to be anything besides insufferable. If Burns’ had been allotted another few days’ time and a few more dollars – the film was commissioned at the last moment by the folks at the TriBeCa festival – “Newlyweds” really could have benefitted from a cameo by a learned parental figure, such as the one played by John Mahoney in “She’s the One” (and edited out of “Groomsmen”). The DVD arrives with an interview and making-of featurette with the auteur.

The New York City of Jill Andresevic’s often poignant documentary, “Love Etc.,” is far more all-inclusive than the one we visit in the films of Ed Burns and Woody Allen. By lacing together five stories chronicling the pursuit of lasting love, viewers are introduced to a representative handful of Big Apple residents, some married and others not, some gay and others straight, some young and others old. Apparently, the idea for the film came from executive producer Jonathan Tisch, who’d been inspired by a day he spent waiting in line with his fiancée for their marriage license. He was impressed by the diversity of the couples around them and spirit of optimism they shared on that day. Knowing the odds against more than half of the unions lasting more than a few years, Tisch understood that “Love Etc.” couldn’t be all wine and roses, without also noting the presence of the vinegar and thorns that come with time. The subjects include a middle-age single gay playwright, awaiting the birth of twins via a surrogate; a single dad, who digs the mom of one of his son’s friends, but doesn’t want to give up drinking, smoking and other habits; a teenage Brazilian immigrant, who falls in first love with an overachieving classmate, Danielle; a young Indian couple who couldn’t even wait for their wedding day to end before they begin bickering over traditional spousal duties and accepted norms of behavior; and an elderly songwriter, whose love remains in bloom even as his longtime wife begins her slow waltz with Alzheimer’s. They’re all compelling, if not particularly unusual in 21st Century America. “Love Etc.” has been shown on the OWN network, as a selection in Oprah’s Documentary Club. – Gary Dretzka

Perfect Sense: Blu-ray
David Mackenzie’s dystopian romance, “Perfect Sense,” is a perfectly decent thriller, with recognizable stars in Eva Green and Ewan McGregor and a story that’s at least as exciting and credible as dozens of others in the impending-doom genre. And, yet, as far as I can tell, it played in exactly one New York City theater and a few dozen in the U.K. before being unceremoniously dumped into the DVD and Blu-ray market. It’s possible that the absence of zombies and vampires trumped even the likelihood of seeing the lead actors in various stages of undress (always a welcome diversion from catastrophy). Or, perhaps, it was derailed by a combination of the utter failure of “Blindness,” which it resembles, and recent exposure to “Contagion,” “Quarantine 2,” TV’s “The Walking Dead” and other viral-holocaust flicks. No matter, frequent renters of pre- and post-apocalyptical dramas could do a lot worse than “Perfect Sense,” in which an undiagnosed disease causes the loss of sensory functions. The attacks are preceded by intense, if temporary crying jags and violent acts of rage directed as much at loved ones as stationary objects and strangers. This is especially perplexing for McGregor’s character, who’s a master chef at a restaurant where more and more regular customers are losing their taste buds every day. Against this background, Mackenzie also has set a romance between the chef and epidemiologist played by Green, who, in a fit of rage, trashes her laboratory. Perhaps, if their love can survive the epidemic, so, too, can the hopes of mankind. The Blu-ray package adds interviews and a behind-the-scenes featurette. – Gary Dretzka

Certified Copy: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami, one of the world’s most esteemed filmmakers, choose Italy as the place to make his first feature away from home, and the ghosts of several European arthouse masters appear to have been looking over his shoulder at every step. Like the films of Antonioni, Bergman, Kieslowski and Godard, “Certified Copy” is an intellectual puzzle that ultimately begs more questions than it answers. It demands that we remain aware of everything that’s been said and done at every step along the way, because they almost certainly will have resonance later in the narrative, as a McGuffin or red herring. In short, “Certified Copy” is movie whose impact will be felt on the brain, not in the gut. This isn’t to say, of course, that the pleasures of watching Juliette Binoche perform at the top of her game are limited to the cerebellum or that the egocentric behavior of William Shimell’s art historian won’t make viewers’ skin crawl. We have come to expect such fine work from Binoche, who, at 48, still radiates intelligence, beauty and passion, and are delighted by opera singer Shimell’s ability to stay in the same ring with her. When things get confusing, though, it’s wise to recall the central question asked by Shimell’s intellectual character in the opening scene: all other things being equal, what’s the qualitative difference between a great work of art and a great copy? His answer is, none. Moreover, with the possible exception of Leonardo da Vinci’s interpretation of her enigmatic smile, isn’t the “Mona Lisa” nothing more than a mirror image of Lisa Gherardini, wife of Francesco del Giocondo Giaconda, and therefore a composite of all the women who influenced her look and demeanor? His answer is, yes. So, why get so worked up over forgeries or travel great distances to savor an original, when a good copy may be found next-door?

We meet Binoche’s Elle as she makes a stumbling entrance to room where the historian, James, is making his case before a Tuscan audience. Even though she doesn’t appear to be paying much attention, we soon learn there’s a bond between them that can’t simply be attributed to a chance meeting at her antique shop. After arrogantly dissing some of the shop’s pieces, he accepts Elle’s invitation to visit a church in the countryside. On the drive, Elle attempts to pick apart James’ theory, while also directing him how to autograph a book to her sister. Things get even pricklier when she directs him to the church’s most prized treasure, a painting long thought to be genuine, but actually an excellent copy of a lost Renaissance work. Even knowing this, the painting is draws tourists like a magnet. This would appear to work in favor of James’ argument, but he doesn’t want to listen to it being articulated by a docent. They repair to a café, where he takes a call — ostensibly from a lover – and a waitress, who assumes they’re a long-married couple, summarizes their life together in a series of cliché events. Up until this point, we assume they’re as advertised, an author and a fan. Now, however, all bets are off. The church also is renowned for bringing luck to newlyweds, whose bliss invigorates Elle and irritates James. The mystery thickens when she summons him to a room in an inn across the palazzo, where, she now believes, they spent the first night of their honeymoon. James claims not to be aware of any such thing. Again, their memory gap harkens back to the thesis of his book.

Blessedly, Kiarostami leavens the head trips with much spectacular Tuscan scenery and wonderful urban architecture, as if to challenge us to defend destination tourism if it’s merely been inspired by what we’ve seen in a movie or painting. It’s that kind of film and, despite James’ reservations, looks terrific enough on Blu-ray to prompt a visit to Travelocity. The Criterion Collection edition is supported by a new high-definition digital restoration, with a 5.1 surround DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack. It also features an interview with Kiarostami; a making-of documentary, with the director, Binoche and Shimell, who reminds us that the greatest stars of opera are required to act, as well as sing; a booklet featuring an essay by film critic Godfrey Cheshire; and Kiarostami’s rarely seen and badly damaged second feature, “The Report” (1977). – Gary Dretzka

The Secret World of Arrietty: Blu-ray
Walt Disney Video has done Blu-ray collectors here a great service by releasing three treasures from Japan’s Studio Ghibli and writer/director/producer Hayao Miyazaki, most familiar here for “Ponyo,” “Howl’s Moving Castle,” “Princess Mononoke” and “Spirited Away.” In addition to the studio’s latest animated import, “The Secret World of Arrietty,” there are such vintage titles as “Castle in the Sky” (1986) and “Whisper of the Heart” (1995). No doubt, there will be many more to come in hi-def. “Arrietty” is an adaptation of Mary Norton’s series of novels about the wee Clock family, “borrowers” who live under the homes of human “beans.” So small they’re dwarfed by most backyard animals and can stare into the eyes of less attractive household pests, the Clocks expropriate items from the house above them to stock their cupboards and provide clothing and furnishings for their own miniature abode. Little Arrietty is a precocious teenager (voiced by Bridgit Mendler) who can’t wait to escape the confines of the cellar. Her parents (Amy Poehler, Will Arnett) think she’s ready to contribute to the household, but fear she’s more interested in exploration. She proves their point by risking exposure while making friends with the young “bean,” Shawn (David Henrie), who’s resting up in preparation for heart surgery. Meanwhile, the grown-ups upstairs have begun to notice the increasing number of missing household items, assuming only that something four-legged and undesirable is responsible for the thefts. After a first wave of attacks by exterminators, the Clocks know that they must find more secure quarters. They are, however, running out of time. The Miyazaki touch is most evident in the sumptuous vegetation that conceals the borrowers and other creatures that live close to the soil – immersive backgrounds that really come alive in hi-def — and that the hero is a girl. The story is interesting enough to hold the attention of kids and their parents should enjoy the animation, which is specific to Studio Ghibli. Another trademark is the portrayal of characters who are sufficiently vague in ethnic identity as to look either western or Asian, depending on the audience. This also allows voice actors to sound correct in any language. Among the other actors in the U.S. cast are Carol Burnett and Moises Arias. The Blu-ray package adds Japanese dialogue, music videos by Cecile Corbel and Bridgit Mendler, original Japanese storyboards and a short making-of piece.

“Whisper of the Heart” involves a quiet schoolgirl, Shizuku, who is obsessed with reading and writing, but finds it curious that all of the books she wants to check out have already been read by a mysterious kindred spirit, Seiji. At first, Shizuku finds the boy irritating. Later, their fertile imaginations take them to places unimaginable before they met. He aspires to being a violin maker, like his grandfather, while Shizuku begins writing a story about Baron, a magical cat figurine belonging to Seiji. Miyazaki’s third film, “Castle in the Sky,” follows a young boy and girl, Sheeta, who are searching for a floating castle identified with a lost civilization. First, though, Sheeta must convince Pazu to help her evade sky pirates, soldiers and government secret agents. Their adventure requires the use of several flying machines inspired by Jules Verne. Disney’s new English dub features Anna Paquin, James Van Der Beek and Cloris Leachman. – Gary Dretzka

Mutant Girls Squad: Blu-ray
Plot of Fear (E Tanta Paura)
Gums
It’s safe to say that fewAmerican horror fans, unless they’re already hip to Japan’s Sushi Typhoon studio, will have seen anything quite as outrageous as “Mutant Girls Squad.” The closest American equivalent to Sushi Typhoon is Troma, except there’s much less of a do-it-yourself look to the products. In addition to being wildly inventive and overtly subversive, the movies are cartoons come to life. “Mutant Girls Squad” combines the riot-grrrl power of “Charlie’s Angels” and mutant conceit of “X-Men,” with the type of monsters seen in the “Men in Black” movies and grindhouse gore championed by Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez, all in the context of a J-Horror epic. I can’t even begin to explain what the film’s plot might be, except to suggest that it involves a war between the mutants and representatives of police agencies and anti-mutant forces. Unlike the characters in “X-Men,” these mutants aren’t at all reluctant to unleash extreme splatter, disembowelments, amputations and beheadings, most of which are hilariously rendered. The creative conceit here is combining the talents of three of Japan’s top cult filmmakers in one epic gorefest: Noboru Iguchi (“RoboGeisha,” “The Machine Girl”), Yoshihiro Nishimura (“Tokyo Gore Police,” “Vampire Girl vs. Frankenstein Girl”) and Tak Sakaguchi (“Death Trance,” “Samurai Zombies”). It was written by Jun Tsugita (“Zombie Ass: Toilet of the Dead,” “Horny House of Horror”), from a story and characters created by Noboru Iguchi (“The Ancient Dogoo Girl”). The heroines are played by Yumi Sugimoto, Yuko Takayama and Suzuka Morita, who couldn’t be any cuter if they were made of sugar, spice and everything nice. If “Mutant Girls Squad” is a mess thematically, it also is a lot of fun. The Blu-ray comes with plenty of interviews, opening-day festivities, a half-hour-long making-of featurette and the 16-minute spin-off short, “Yoshie Zero.”

Made in 1976, the unfortunately titled “Plot of Fear” (“E Tanta Paura”) is a truly wacky, if suitably violent and kinkily sexy hybrid of Italian giallo and poliziotteschi … horror and crime detection. Police are stymied by a rash of seemingly unrelated murders involving prominent citizens. Even when they determine that the deaths were staged to resemble drawings in a children’s book, “Shock-Headed Peter,” they still can’t recognize the connective tissue. A beautiful model (Corninne Clery) helps the lead cop, who conveniently lives in the same apartment building as she does, by describing what happened one night at a villa frequented by men belonging to the Fauna Lovers. It involves a Bengal tiger and blood diamonds, smuggled into the country simultaneously, and a too-observant party girl. Both figure into her completely unexpected demise. I’ve seen many better examples of both genres, but “Plot of Fear” has a several very decent things working in its favor. Besides Clery (“The Story of O”) and other soft-core honeys, the cast includes, for no good reason, Eli Wallach and Tom Skerritt, and the movie was directed and co-written by Paolo Cavara, who previously helmed “Mondo Cane” and “Black Belly of the Tarantula.” The DVD arrives in nice shape, with long interviews with co-writer Enrico Aldoini, Cavara’s son and actor Michele Placido. There’s also an appreciation by Chris Alexander, editor of Fangoria magazine.

The producers of the half-assed, if occasionally hilarious 1976 parody, “Gums,” hoped to profit from the lingering sensation that was Steven Spielberg’s epochal blockbuster, “Jaws.” As the title also suggests, “Gums” borrowed ideas from the nascent porn industry, especially “Deep Throat.” Here, an orally fixated mermaid (Terri Hall) gummed her victims to what must have been a temporarily pleasurable death, at least. If you recall the plot of “Jaws,” you’ll have a fighting chance of following what happens in “Gums.” The truly strange New York-based comedian Brother Theodore plays the crypto-Nazi seaman, Captain Carl Clitoris, who makes it his mission to capture Mermaid and use her for mineral and oil exploration. Sheriff Rooster Coxswain makes it his business to close the resort area’s beaches, while his wife stays busy servicing any man too afraid to risk sex with the mermaid. For good measure, there are horny lesbians and horny puppets. Apart from Zac Norman, who would go on to be a regular in Henry Jaglom’s films, the only person memorable in the cast and crew is composer Brad Fiedel, who would go on to score the music in dozens of big-budget action pictures. The version I saw was of the soft-core persuasion, with cartoon balloons covering the naughty bits of soon-to-be devoured sailors and fishermen. – Gary Dretzka

The First Beautiful Thing
When in doubt, a chronicler of family dysfunction can always pin the blame on Mom, be they Jewish, Irish, Italian or Inuit. Dads tend to get a break here, if only because they disappear after taking out their aggressions and frustrations through violence and/or infidelity. That leaves Mom to deal not only with the complexities of her own psyche, which can range from relief to despair, but also salve the wounds of her children. Some movie moms can carry the weight, while others fail miserably. Stepmoms also are burdened with the damage inflicted on them by warring parents and separation anxiety. Dads and stepdads, not so much. Given the uniquely close ties that bind Italian mothers to their male offspring, it should come as no surprise to learn that the son in “The First Beautiful Thing” is a complete mess and he has refused to visit her since a nasty argument while still in his teens. Viewers are allowed the freedom both to like the woman and understand her limitations as a mother. Paolo Virzi film clearly struck a loud chord in Italy, because it was chosen to represent the country at the 83rd Academy Awards ceremony and nominated for 18 awards at Italy’s David di Donatello Awards, winning Davids for Best Actor, Best Actress and Best Screenplay. At 122 minutes, “The First Beautiful Thing” – the title refers to a song shared by mom and the kids when times get desperate — probably is too long and contains too many severe mood swings to suit the tastes of most American audiences. Fans of European melodramas, however, should be left with a smile and, perhaps, a tear or two. When we first meet Anna Nigiotti (Micaela Ramazzotti), she is about to be crowned the winner in what can only be described as an annual competition to choose Livorno’s most beautiful MILF. She didn’t volunteer to compete in the contest, but the recognition thrills Anna and her young daughter, Valeria. Not so, her jealous husband, Sergio (Mario Michelucci), and chronically glum pre-teen son, Bruno (Francesco Rapalino), both of whom stew silently in advance of the volcanic eruption that’s sure to come when they get home. It won’t be long before Anna grabs the kids and checks into a low-rent apartment in another part of the coastal town to avoid further abuse. It will be the first of many moves the children will be required to endure as mom attempts to find a soft place to fall. Among the homes in which they later will find temporary refuge are a seaside villa owned by a fickle movie star, and the basement workspace of a local businessman Anna fancies. For a brief period of time, as well, they are “rescued” by their father and his stern new partner. If this isn’t a recipe for dysfunction, what is?

We know that the adult Bruno’s been permanently damaged by the experience, because we’ve already been introduced to a couple of his hang-ups in the opening sequence. Still chronically glum, he’s a published poet and professor at a less-than-prestigious university in Rome. This night, though, he’s chosen to while away a few hours, lying on his back in a park staring at the stars through a narcotic haze. Bruno, now played by Valerio Mastandra, is a lackadaisical teacher and a lousy boyfriend. Just as he’s in the process of being evicted from his lover’s apartment, Bruno receives a call from Valeria (Claudia Pandolfi), informing him of their mother’s imminent death in a hospice. He reluctantly agrees to return to Livorno, if only as a formal nod to the cycle of life. His unexpected appearance, as emotionally reserved as it is, lifts Anna (now, Stefania Sandrelli) out of her downward trajectory, allowing her to enjoy the short amount of time left to her. More to the point, though, it allows Virzi the opportunity to flash back continually to the family’s past and add a few fresh twists to the present. Viewers who’ve made it this far into the narrative will be rewarded with a series of revelations and events that make “The First Beautiful Thing” something very special, indeed. It’s unlikely anyone will see them coming. If nothing else, the David nominations and wins should attest to both the fine acting on display in the movie and its production values. Livorno has provided Virzi with more than a dozen wonderful locations, perfectly suited to the diverse collection of the characters we meet. – Gary Dretzka

Beyond
Twenty years ago, Josef Rusnak’s uneven supernatural thriller, “Beyond,” might have been accorded a weekend of two in the local megaplex to prove itself, before enjoying a productive afterlife on VHS, Today, unfortunately, intense competition for available screens and limited marketing dollars have convinced distributors that such risks outweigh the potential for discernible returns on their investment on marginal productions. A single TV ad and newspaper listing cost more than a movie can be expected to make. Finding gems among the dross at the local sometimes can be worth the effort, though. The best things about “Beyond” are that its recognizable stars – Jon Voight, Teri Polo, Dermot Mulroney, Julian Morris (“Pretty Little Liars,” 24,” “ER”) – haven’t phoned in their performances and Anchorage is a swell place to shoot a movie. Even if the script has more than a few holes built into it, there are enough genuinely scary moments to satisfy casual fans of the genre. Voight plays a veteran police detective who specializes in finding kidnaped children. Known and shown to be quick on the trigger, the cop has become a liability for the department and has been asked to retire. Before that can happen, however, someone decides to snatch the chief’s niece and, of course, that simply won’t be tolerated. He orders his detective to postpone his departure and bring the wee lass home, sooner than later, in the same shape she was before she was abducted. OK, no problem. The girls’ parents aren’t nearly as willing to trust the police with such a delicate assignment, however, and take their nanny up on her suggestion that they consult a popular local psychic. This doesn’t sit well with Voight’s by-the-book cop, who prefers to dig through several years’ worth of files to find likely suspects. As things turn out, however, the girl has psychic abilities of her own and her bedroom is full of clues only a medium might be able to identify. After passing a series of tests, the cop and the Internet psychic form an alliance that leads not only to the girl, but also clues to a mystery that’s been festering for years inside the older man. The paternal interest Voight finally takes in the psychic feels genuine and adds another level of interest to “Beyond.” – Gary Dretzka

Machine Gun Preacher
The release of “Machine Gun Preacher” on DVD dovetails with the recent furor caused by the release of a video on Youtube that documents both the plight of Ugandan and Sudanese children kidnaped to be soldiers and sex slaves for the Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army and the lack of material support given African leaders attempting to capture and/or kill the cruel and probably insane guerrilla leader. It also corresponds with news out of Africa that a high-ranking LRA leader has been arrested and currently is being interrogated as to Kony’s likely hideout. “Machine Gun Preacher” is the based-on-fact story of Sam Childers (Gerard Butler), a former outlaw biker, drug addict and ex-con, who, after finding Jesus, was called to perform relief work in south Sudan. Once there, Childers witnessed first-hand the horrors perpetrated by the LRA and made it his mission to build an orphanage where children could feel safe and get an education. It was no easy task, considering how badly Kony wanted to countermand the American’s influence and how little money he had. Undaunted, Childers also knew that he couldn’t depend on local forces to combat the LRA. In support of a loyal cadre of local soldiers, he picked up an automatic weapon and went on the offensive against the guerrillas, many of whom are as old as the children at the orphanage. After several setbacks, including the destruction of the first orphanage and school, Childers finally is able to complete what today is the Children’s Village Orphanage, in Nimule, South Sudan. It was constructed through the support of the Angels of East Africa, founded by Childers and his wife, Lynn (Michelle Monaghan), portrayed here as former stripper who also found her salvation in God. He’s written a book and produced a documentary, which he uses to solicit donations from churchgoers, relief organizations and governments around the world.

In the hands of director Marc Forster (“Quantum of Solace”) and writer Jason Keller, in his freshman feature, Childers’ story is roughly divided in half, with material from his former life sometimes getting in the way of the African footage. There’s no question that Childers was a bona-fide bad-ass before he saw the light, but it’s the wise and patient Lynn who wears the halo throughout “Machine Gun Preacher.” Whenever her husband’s faith in the project is pushed to the breaking point, Lynn is there to ask the musical question, “What would Jesus do?” Even if the religious subtext is presented accurately, the lack of spark on the part of the parishioners — as they react to Childers and other ministers — makes us wish we were somewhere else. These are some dull-ass believers. By contrast, the endangered African children greet Childers and his mission with the optimism and joy that comes with knowing the Lord has given them a new lease on life. As channeled through Butler, Childers appears to have been constructed from parts left over from the movies made about Rambo, Buford Pusser, Billy Jack, Dirty Harry and Audie Murphy. Whenever his African cohorts begin to sense that his blind dedication to the cause has turned the corner on recklessness, Forster inserts a LRA atrocity into the narrative to remind them that no one messes with American superheroes. (After a nurse suggests that Childers’ methodology is beginning to resemble that of Kony, who once was considered to be a hero in parts of Uganda, a rebel belts her in the mouth with the stock of his rifle.) Nevertheless, it’s the larger-than-life characters who capture the attention of American audiences, especially those who’ve shown no inclination to care about genocide in Africa or anywhere else, for that matter. There’s nothing wrong with Butler’s interpretation of Childers and another excellent job is done by Michael Shannon (“Revolutionary Road”), who his longtime buddy. Kathy Baker is largely wasted as Childers’ pious mom and Monaghan is only required to act in spurts. The end credits add photographs and footage collected by Childers in South Sudan. Lovers of action and righteous violence should have plenty to like in “Machine Gun Preacher.” – Gary Dretzka

Worried About the Boy
Carol Channing: Larger Than Life
Grateful Dead: Dawn of the Dead
95 Miles to Go
The title of director Julian Jarrold and writer Tony Basgallop’s surprisingly entertaining Boy George biopic harkens to “Mad About the Boy,” a biography about the wildly eccentric 1980s’ pop star, a.k.a. George O’Dowd, as well as a song written by Noel Coward, who might very well have approved of Culture Club’s singer. “Worried About the Boy” is the condition shared by his fans when his taste for drugs and demands for attention nearly kill O’Dowd. His father and mother began worrying about him long before the tabloid press predicted his death and stood vigil outside his home, waiting for it to happen. “WATB” flashes backwards and forwards in time, from the period before Culture Club hit the charts to the first of his many desperate cries for help. George always was out of step with the other kids in his Kent hometown. Even in high school, he sported unisex outfits, was impeccably made up and outrageously coiffed. He embraced England’s New Romanticism movement and, once in London, found kindred spirits galore in the notorious Warren Street Squat, where he occasionally lived, and Blitz nightclub, where he hung coats and made friends with people in the entertainment community. Although he didn’t immediately strike gold as a singer, he found in Culture Club musicians capable of blending reggae, New Wave, soul, disco and soft rock into songs all sorts of people wanted to hear in clubs, on car radios and at work, no matter how the singer looked. Obsessed with celebrity and fame, George had a difficult time dealing with them when he became one of the most visible entertainers in the world. He still makes the occasional headline with his indiscretions, but continues to attempt to return to the stage. “WATB” reminds me favorably of “Falco,” a German biopic of the similarly outré singer who couldn’t handle his fame, either. Neither movie found distribution here.

Inside the singular Broadway sensation that is the 91-year-old Carol Channing are a thousand platinum-haired drag queens waiting for her to retire, so they can climb out and steal her diamond-studded act. As is pointed out in “Carol Channing: Larger Than Life,” no up-and-coming actress would dare aspire to becoming the “next Carol Channing,” unless it was clear they’re honoring the star with their impersonations, not trying to fill her pumps, which would be impossible. Here, Dori Bereinstein (“Gotta Dance”) has crafted a glowing appreciation of the indefatigable diva, mostly through the testimony of fellow artists and friends, as well as admirers who sit in the expensive seats or dance alongside her in the chorus line. They include Barbara Walters, Marge Champion, Betty Garrett, Jerry Herman, Debbie Reynolds, Chita Rivera, Bruce Vilanch, Tommy Tune and Lily Tomlin. There’s also a generous number of performance clips. The only warts revealed are those belonging to her ex-husbands. She’s nearly inseparable here from her fourth mate, a childhood sweetheart Channing married in 2003. (He, too, has since died.) It’s a charming film and the DVD includes plenty of extended and deleted interviews.

If any American rock band ever needed no introduction – or, for that matter, further analysis – it would be the Grateful Dead. Along with the whole San Francisco scene of the 1960s, the band has been accorded icon status. It came as a pleasant surprise, then, to discover how enjoyable a history lesson is delivered in “Grateful Dead: Dawn of the Dead,” which opens several years before the disparate roots of the band formed a trunk from which other musical branches could spring. Unlike unauthorized biodocs from the same company — Sexy Intellectual, via MVD Visual – “Dawn of the Dead” is enhanced by many pieces of music, not the usual mélange of music videos, TV variety shows and film clips in the public domain. The Dead has always made its live music accessible to the masses, without fear that pirates could render their records redundant or their fans might skip a performance due to overfamiliarity with the product. Interviews with critics old enough to remember when the Dead was the Warlocks set the political and cultural context of the period, without genuflecting before the altar of Ken Kesey and Neal Cassady, going overboard on the influence of Flower Power on future generations, or musing on the historical significance of LSD. Neither are they reluctant to offer their true, sometime negative opinions on the early albums. The biography doesn’t follow the band’s path until the death of Jerry Garcia or even that of Pigpen. That surely will arrive in the due time, as well.

Back in 2004, when “95 Miles to Go” was new, “Everybody Loves Raymond” was still a full season away from signing off and Ray Romano’s popularity was such that an unsuspecting collection of conventioneers would go wild upon learning that he would be entertaining them. After eight years, Romano can still fill any room in Las Vegas and knock ’em dead on the road. Apart from his Sisyphean struggle with golf, as witnessed annually at the pro-am tournament in Pebble Beach, and his frequent contributions to the “Ice Age” saga, he has invested most of time into writing, producing and starring in the excellent TNT series, “Men of a Certain Age.” For my money, it was one of the best dramedies on television. As directed by fellow comic and longtime pal Tom Caltabiano, “95 Miles to Go” is a weak attempt to find the “real” Ray Romano, as he exists on the road. Theoretically, it’s where the men comics are separated from the boy comics, but, besides some harmless and completely valid grumblings, the journey is a walk in the park compared to the ones documented in such films as “I Am Comic,” “The Comedians of Comedy,” “Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work” and “Vince Vaughn’s Wild West Comedy Show.” This isn’t to say that “95 Miles to Go” isn’t funny, because it frequently is. The performance material in the film and bonus features – a complete show in Kansas City – is far better than anything else on display in the feature documentary, however. – Gary Dretzka

Lethal Weapon: The Complete Collection: Blu-ray
Whenever a new tech platform enters the home-entertainment marketplace, the industry’s hype machine grinds out promises that it will be the last piece of playback or recording hardware anyone will every need. Such was the praise that was heaped on Blu-ray at the beginning of its short, if expensive war with purveyors of HD-DVD. And, yes, the movies clearly looked and sounded superior to the same titles on DVD. What wouldn’t come to the fore until early adopters were able to watch Blu-ray discs on advanced HDTV sets and hi-def monitors was the reality that perfection had yet to be attained, primarily because the entertainment software was only as good as the effort put into it by the labels and studios anxious to make back their investment. It would take a while for consumers to get over the fear of having yet another new format shoved down their throats and, even now, only one in four homes has a Blu-ray player or similar electronic device. If that doesn’t sound particularly impressive, know that sales in the fourth quarter of 2011 were up 47 percent from the similar period in 2010. DVD penetration, by comparison, continues its slow steady climb to unanimity, reaching 91 percent of available households.

I only mention these statistics because they help explain why such hit movies as those in the “Lethal Weapon” series are re-released every couple of years in supposedly new and improved editions. What, they weren’t perfect the first time? In fact, tech-savvy fans of the ground-breaking buddy-cop action/comedies – which, of course, all starred Mel Gibson and Danny Glover and were directed by Richard Donner – soon realized that the Blu-ray and HD-DVD editions weren’t as good as they could be, given the available technology and when compared to more patiently produced discs. While, in 2006, it was nice to finally have a director’s-cut edition of “Lethal Weapon,” with seven previously unavailable scenes, buffs wondered why they couldn’t enjoy the deleted scenes and a fully realized digital upgrade without having to wait years, sometimes, and an additional financial contribution to studio coffers. In effect, Hollywood continues to ask the same question, “Do you want to own the latest Blu-ray blockbuster now or can you wait until it’s as close to technically perfect as it can be?” As was the case with VHS, Beta, Laserdisc and DVD, consumers seem willing to pay for the luxury of having both options open to them. Until that situation changes, consumers might as well keep their wallets open.

Last January, tech-savvy fans were relieved to hear that the UK edition of the “Lethal Weapon: The Complete Collection” did, in fact, measure up to their expectations. This boded well for the U.S. edition to be released in five months, but there are no guarantees in life or the consumer-electronics industry. And, yes, the good news from people who study such things is that the U.S. edition of the “Lethal Weapon Collection” is now worth paying the price to own it. Besides the noticeably better audio-video presentation, which won’t make a bit of difference if your playback equipment isn’t up to the task, there’s a fifth disc that contains a cornucopia of newly created featurettes. They are: “Psycho Pension: The Genesis of Lethal Weapon,” in which Donner, Gibson, Glover, writer Shane Black and significant others describe the genesis of the series; “A Family Affair: Bringing Lethal Weapon to Life,” another creation-of documentary, this time from the other side of the camera; “Pulling the Trigger: Expanding the World of Lethal Weapon,” which recalls the decisions made in anticipation of building a franchise in the home-video age; and “Maximum Impact: The Legacy of Lethal Weapon,” producer Joel Silver, Donner, Gibson, Glover, co-star Rene Russo and other members of all four films’ production teams discuss the lasting impact of the series and why it still matters. This represents nearly two hours of fresh meat for fans to chew, while pondering what kind of a miracle it would take to resurrect Gibson’s career in time to attempt a fourth sequel. (Or, if “MiB3” succeeds, there could be a prequel/sequel in which the stars introduce their successors.) Otherwise, there’s the usual array of deleted scenes (not all in HD), uninspired making-of EPKs, music videos (“It’s Probably Me,” with Sting and Eric Clapton), trailers, Donner-centric commentaries and “Pure Lethal! New Angles, New Scenes and Explosive Outtakes,” a half-hour’s worth of condensed action and comedy, hosted by Glover. – Gary Dretzka

POV: Racing Dreams: Coming of Age in a Fast World: Blu-ray
Nova: Cracking Your Genetic Code
Nova: Deadliest Tornadoes
I don’t know what was more frightening in “Racing Dreams: Coming of Age” in a Fast World”: the sight of children not yet old enough to apply for a learner’s permit navigating a road course in glorified go-karts travelling at speeds illegal in all 50 states; or, eating the hideously fattening meals prepared for them by their not-quite-obese moms. Both activities court almost certain death at every turn, yet are completely legal and sanctioned by parents living vicariously through their offspring. Documentarian Marshall Curry (“Street Fight,” “If a Tree Falls”) follows 11-year-old Annabeth, 12-year-old Josh and 13-year-old Brandon as they compete for the championship in the World Karting Association’s National Series. All harbor ambitions of someday joining the NASCAR circuit, just as several previous champions have made the leap. Meanwhile, Curry also describes the coming-of-age process that kicks in when any child, teenager or young adult suddenly is faced with the reality of not ever being able to reach their lofty goals. Implied, but largely left unasked is the question of whether kids who’ve only been exposed to one or two career options can make decisions that will affect them throughout the rest of their lives. The same, of course, holds true for any pre-teen who excels at sports, acting or math. The Blu-ray edition of “Racing Dreams” is resplendent in colors and pageantry that accompany all racing events in certain regions of the country and, of course, the excitement of wheel-to-wheel competition. The kids themselves are as poised and articulate as Curry could have hoped.

While on a visit to Chicago recently, my sister asked if I would agree to fill a small plastic vial with my saliva. She would then forward it to a lab, where it would be analyzed to determine its genetic code. Ostensibly, she said, such data could reveal whether we’d inherited a genetic abnormality that could be intercepted before it has time to strike or we might discover a link to royalty, for whatever good that would do us. I’m pretty sure that my sister’s interest in our shared DNA was sparked by “Cracking Your Genetic Code,” not the network series where celebrities feign shock at being related to some lofty personage or pretend not to be disappointed that their lines are completely modest. In Spain, where Inquisition-era priests routinely kidnaped Jewish children and gave them to child-deprived Catholics, the tests are proving to be far more than fodder for dinner-time conversation.

The release on DVD of “Deadliest Tornadoes,” also from “Nova,” coincides with the first anniversary of catastrophic EF5 multi-vortex tornado that struck Joplin, Mo, leaving at least 160 people dead and 25 percent of the city destroyed. Last spring was a particularly dangerous time for people living in Tornado Alley. In April, alone, more than 360 people in the Midwest and South were murdered by Mother Nature at her temperamental worst. The crack team of researchers at “Nova” explains how a perfect confluence of meteorological events could have formed at this particular time and place. Of course, they also kept a weather eye on the possibility that global warming and other climatological phenomena might be at play. If so, what might scientists do to prevent such occurrences or warn residents in the path with even greater precision? – Gary Dretzka

Route 66: The Complete Series
Sherlock: Season 2
The River: The Complete First Season
My Babysitter’s a Vampire: The First Season
Teen Wolf: The Complete Season One
S.W.A.T.: The Final Season
There’s great news for anyone looking for a welcome present for their dads or granddads on Father’s Day. Shout! Factory has collected all 116 episodes of the semi-anthology series, which ran from 1960-64, in an extremely giftable 24-disc package. “Route 66,” which never was designed to take place exclusively on America’s Mother Road, began its life at the most opportune time possible. Americans born during or immediately after World War II had begun to awaken from the deep sleep imposed on them by Eisenhower-era media and other power brokers who demanded of them conformity to mainstream ideals and adherence to pre-war values. Construction of the Interstate Highway System had begun, but crossing the country by car still required much stop-and-go driving and stops at restaurants, stores, gas stations and landmarks unique to their region and people. The American voice had yet to be corrupted by disc jockeys and news readers who had forsaken their natural accents and mocked those who had yet to do the same. Jack Kerouac had convinced tens of thousands of young people that heading out on the road for the sole purpose of meeting new people and seeing new things was a perfectly acceptable way to kill a view years of their life. (He considered suing the show’s producer, Sterling Silliphant, for plagiarism, but was talked out of it.) Moreover, owning a Corvette was — and still may be — the ultimate dream of all red-bloodied American men and boys … and not a few women, who wanted to sit in the driver’s seat, instead of riding shotgun while on a date. In the adventures of Martin Milner’s Todd, George Maharis’ Buz and, later, Glenn Corbett’s Lincoln, more vicarious thrills could be experienced than at a season’s worth of ballgames and the vast majority of Hollywood movies. It greatly helped CBS and its sponsors that the boys were clean cut, chivalrous and cute. Each succeeding episode found the characters in a new town, surrounded by people who needed their help addressing issues that ranged from topical and socially relevant, to comedic and romantic. All were smartly written and featured guest stars already familiar from the movies or soon to be stars in their own right. Among them were Burt Reynolds, Robert Redford, Martin Sheen, David Janssen, William Shatner, DeForest Kelley, Jack Lord, Rod Steiger, Robert Duvall, Lee Marvin, James Caan, Julie Newmar, Anne Francis, Tuesday Weld, Ethel Waters, Suzanne Plechette, Joey Heatherton and Rin Tin Tin. Boris Karloff, Lon Chaney Jr. and Peter Lorre appeared together in a themed show, as did Buster Keaton, Joe E. Brown, Edgar Buchanan and John Astin. Lest we forget, after discovering that Bobby Troupe’s classic (“Get Your Kicks on) Route 66” would cost too dear a price, Nelson Riddle was commissioned to write what would become one of the most unforgettable theme songs in TV history and a top-30 hit. Fans who’ve already purchased full-season packages are cautioned that the episodes collected here are virtually the same as those they already possess. It remains to be seen when and if a separate fourth-season package will be released.

While there’s no shortage of psychics and mentalists helping police to solve crimes on American television, the BBC trumps all them with its updating of the “Sherlock Holmes” mysteries. It’s also substantially more interesting – if less bombastic and dependent on CGI – than the movies in which Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law impersonate Holmes and Watson. Not only is the mini-series starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman faithful to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s original vision, but it demonstrates how easily the author could have fit in among the best of today’s writers for television and the movies. Shown here as part of PBS’ “Masterpiece Mystery!” series, “Sherlock: Season 2” offered fans a little bit of everything: drama, comedy, horror, monsters, hi-tech sleuthing, low-tech deduction and a cliff-hanger season finale. The more-complete BBC episodes include adaptations of “A Scandal in Belgravia,” “The Hounds of Baskerville” and “The Reichenbach Fall,” in which Holmes, Watson and Moriarty (Andrew Scott) engage in a battle of wits that demands of Emmy voters that they pay attention to it when ballots are distributed. It’s that good.

Nothing pisses off mainstream critics more than having their expectations raised by the imprimatur of an A-list filmmaker as executive producer – Steven Spielberg, being the prime example – and learning, after a few hours of screening time, his influence probably was limited to co-owning the production company or showing up on the set every so often. I mention this because Spielberg has lent his exec-producer title to such TV shows as “United States of Tara,” “The Pacific,” “Falling Skies,” “Terra Nova,” “Smash” and “The River.” In the same period, he executive produced a theme-park ride; a made-for-TV movie and documentary; nearly a dozen high-profile movies; and, most notably, directed “The Adventures of Tin Tin,” “War Horse” and the yet-to-be released “Lincoln.” If Spielberg is able to get away with having his name exploited as a marketing tool, it’s only fair to require the names of the dozens of other exec-producers be mentioned almost as prominently. As the critics were quick to point out, rightly so, “The River” owes infinitely more to the participation of such “Paranormal Activity” veterans as co-creators Oren Peli and Michael R. Perry, and some of the people who brought us “Lost.” Indeed, those are the series “The River” most closely resembles visually and thematically. In it, Bruce Greenwood plays a TV host and wildlife expert who, early on, disappears into the Amazonian rain forest. A rescue effort is launched by wife (Leslie Hope), estranged son (Joe Anderson) and friends. Beyond the banks of the great river await mystery, magic and monsters. Watch it and you’ll have no trouble identifying the “Paranormal Activity” influence. The set adds previously unreleased material. Spoiler alert: the show’s been canceled.

My Babysitter Is a Vampire” arrived at the Disney Channel by way of Canada’s French-language Teletoon network. The series’ title pretty much sums up its conceit, which won’t be unfamiliar to youthful American TV viewers. Ethan Morgan (Matthew Knight) is a geeky freshman – is there any other kind? – whose crush object is an exotic-looking vampire, Sarah (Vanessa Morgan), chosen to babysit his little sister. Conveniently, Ethan and his best friend harbor mystical powers of their own. Two other teen vampires often join them in their adventures. The show’s second season arrives this summer.

Over on MTV, the teen protagonist is a werewolf. Based on a 1985 movie of the same title, “Teen Wolf” follows the adventures of a geeky high school boy, who, once bitten by wolf in the woods, becomes far more interesting a person than anyone thought he would be. Much of his time is spent searching for the source of his mania and separating the Alpha from the rest of the pack. The full-season DVD adds an extended version of the Season Finale episode, “Code Breakers”; deleted, alternate and extended Scenes; a gag reel; and
the featurette, “Season 1: Shirtless Montage.”

The second and final season of ABC’s mid-1970s series, “S.W.A.T.,” is now available on DVD. Like most shows produced by Aaron Spelling (“Charlie’s Angels,” “Starsky and Hutch”), it bears as much resemblance to reality as a Hostess Twinkie does to food. This one was a bit more violent than his other cop shows, however. The series was spun off of “The Rookies” and would inspire other such shows in which ridiculously handsome and pretty law-enforcers battle ugly felons. Not only did it spawn a hit theme song, but “S.W.A.T.” also lent its title to a 2003 theatrical film and a straight-to-DVD spinoff of its own. – Gary Dretzka

Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon Alpha: Blu-ray
In what is basically a long infomercial for the tactical-shooter video game “Ghost Recon Future Soldier,” “Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon Alpha” alerts fans of the likelihood that Russian “ultranationalist” Boris Chevtchenko is still alive and in possession of a dirty bomb capable of devastating Moscow and setting back post-Soviet reforms forever. In the United States’ new role as policeman of the world, it’s left to the Ghosts of the army’s Company D, 1st Battalion, 5th Special Forces Group, stationed at Fort Bragg, to come to the aid of Russia and the capitalist gangsters who’ve made it safe for the proliferation of McDonald’s restaurants and oil barons. In the short time we’re allowed to observe the Ghosts, we’re introduced to several weapons designed to change the course of warfare. Because Clancy probably is more deeply wired into the bowels of the Pentagon than President Obama, it’s likely that everything we see on display in “Alpha” pretty much already exists in one form or another in our arsenal. This includes “stealth” soldiers and aerial drones that look like Frisbees. The making-of featurette is every bit as interesting as the sneak preview. – Gary Dretzka

In Victorian England, good vibrations trump ‘Hysteria’ every time

Friday, May 18th, 2012

Tanya Wexler’s Victorian-era comedy, “Hysteria,” describes the development of the world’s first electromechanical vibrator in a manner so light-hearted it could have been used to warm up the audience before the Republican presidential debates. It’s rated R, for “references to female sexual stimulation,” but there’s nothing in the movie that a 13-year-old couldn’t see or hear on a network sitcom, with or without parental guidance.

“It’s the vibrator movie you can bring your mother to,” the director quips.

It would be interesting, though, to learn how “Hysteria” might be greeted in Alabama, where residents are prohibited from buying sex toys without a note from their doctor. How quaint.

One hundred years ago, any woman seeking “hysterical paroxysms” could purchase a vibrator through an ad in Woman’s Home Companion or the Sear, Roebuck catalog. God forbid, an undocumented worker might to attempt to purchase a pocket rocket, Rabbit or vibrating egg in the “Heart of Dixie” state. The unfortunate foreign-born felon could be sentenced to a lifetime in prison, watching videos of the half-time shows from the last 50 years of Alabama-Auburn football.

All kidding aside, the prohibition on vibrators in Alabama — and, until recently, other several states – harkens to the 1920s, when a sharp-eyed publisher noticed that the same therapeutic gizmos being advertised in their periodicals were being used in stag films to accomplish paroxysms of a less clinical nature. It wasn’t until the mid-1960s, when laws against pornography began to be relaxed, that sex toys could legally be purveyed and purchased in more enlightened territories. Today, of course, they’re the centerpiece product at parties organized by some of the same women who once hawked Tupperware and Mary Kay cosmetics the same way.

In fact, the medical benefits of digital and mechanical stimulation have been recognized nearly as long as there have been doctors. Hippocrates is credited with originating the term, hysteria, and dildos were used as sex toys in Pompeii. The first electric vibrator was patented by Dr. Joseph Mortimer Granville, around whom “Hysteria” revolves, in the early 1880s. It took another 70 years for “female hysteria,” as a recognized psychiatric term, to be tossed in the dustbin of meaningless medical euphemisms along with “caught the vapors,” “wandering uterus” and “pelvic massage.”

In Wexler’s film, Granville’s rich, eccentric and entrepreneurial roommate introduces Granville to an electric feather duster he’s just invented. Powered by a rumbling generator in their living room, the vibrations soothe the muscles in the doctor’s hands, which ache after days spent manually stimulating women with ailments related to hysteria. No dummy, Granville immediately senses both the therapeutic and commercial potential value in such an instrument,

The number of Victorian-era women reporting symptoms associated with hysteria had reached levels described as epidemic. By eliminating the middle finger, as it were, doctors who specialized in such complaints could double or triple their work load, without risking 19th Century equivalent of carpel-tunnel syndrome. Once the problem of the 40-pound battery was overcome, consumers took matters into their own hands.

“The big joke,” Wexler is quick to point out, “is that the vibrator was invented by a man – not a woman – and employed by male doctors as a way to save time and relieve their own pain. The quicker the orgasm … the more patients to bill.”

T’was ever thus.

In case you’re wondering, the sexual healing that takes place in “Hysteria” is performed by a doctor required to rely solely on his sense of touch. A completely dressed patient’s legs and pelvic region are protected from view by a tent-like contraption, through whose curtains the therapist extends his arms. Some doctors preferred to have the patient standing up, so he could reach under her long skirt and petticoats and hit the target without the sacrifice of any modesty.

Wexler chuckled at the notion that some very gifted Victorian-era therapists could bring their patients to ecstasy, even without enjoying a clear view of the target, while too many of today’s men couldn’t find a clitoris with a GPS system.

Granville probably would have been flattered by the casting of the boyishly handsome Hugh Dancy, who was so good as a fatalistic cancer patient during the second season of “The Big C.” The Oxford graduate was allowed the luxury of not having to grow a beard or affect the receded hairline seen in photographs of the doctor. Wexler was impressed by his “smart, crackerjack wit” and seeing him on Broadway in the starring role as Captain Dennis Stanhope in “Journey’s End.”  He began his movie career with a key role in “Blackhawk Down” and has since appeared in such films as “Ella Enchanted,” King Arthur,” “Basic Instinct 2,” “The Jane Austen Book Club,” “Confessions of a Shopaholic” and “Martha Marcy May Marlene.”

If his portrayal of Granville is grounded in reality, almost everything else is “Hysteria” is fiction. Here, he gets into the business of digital manipulation only after being disappointed that he wasn’t allowed to serve the greater good in his first appointment. Moreover, his progressive ideas about sanitation and the spread of germs clashed with the beliefs of his stuffy superiors, who prefer leeches and amputation to preventative medicine and changing bandages.

Unemployed and disenchanted with the medical profession, Granville finally applies for work at the office of Dr. Robert Dalrymple (Jonathan  Pryce), a “specialist in women’s issues.” While there, he’s challenged by the doctor to relieve the hysteria of a particularly difficult patient, which he does. Desperate for another pair of hands, Dalrymple offers him a job in his booming practice on the spot.

Granville’s pride hadn’t allowed him to pocket a gift of 10,000 pounds from his aristocratic roommate (Rupert Everett), who, besides inventing the electric feather duster, installed the first telephones in Buckingham Palace. He does, however, accept his invitation to be the first to test his electric feather duster. The rest, as they say, is history.

Soon enough, Granville develops feelings for both of the doctor’s daughters, Emily (Felicity Jones) is “the epitome of English virtue and womanliness,” while Charlotte (Maggie Gyllenhall) is an outspoken social reformer and early champion of women’s rights. He falls in love with Emily, but upsets her father by maintaining contact with the rebellious Charlotte. Among other things, he admires her devotion to the poor women and children who frequent the settlement house she can barely afford to maintain.

After treating a woman’s broken leg in his office, Dalrymple demands he confine his attentions to the nether-regions of the anatomy. By now, though, Charlotte and Granville have recognized in each other mutual attitudes about social issues and the inevitability of post-Victorian reforms. When, in a neat twist, they find themselves in the same courtroom defending their principles against prehistoric traditions, another sort of bond is assured.

Charlotte’s fiery personality freed Wexler and writers Stephen and Jonah Lisa Dyer to make the all-roads-lead-to-same-place connection between Granville’s invention and the incipient stirrings of the feminist/suffragette movement.

“I’m not a scholar, but I know that women don’t have to abandon their sexuality to embrace their strengths,” says Wexler, who may live in New York but can’t disguise the Chicago roots in her voice. “I’m not saying the invention of the vibrator somehow inspired the feminist movement, just that women don’t need a doctor to have fun. Vibrators won’t replace the replace the real thing, but they can put us in charge of our own happiness, at least.”

Not surprisingly, “Hysteria” wasn’t an easy sell to investors. It wasn’t until the 1998 “Rabbit episode” of “Sex and the City” that vibrators were added to the sitcom vernacular, so “we had to educate them as to the difference between vibrators and dildos.” The star power on display no doubt had some effect on the folks who control the purse strings, as well.

Wexler, 41 and a mother of four, was born into a prominent Chicago family, whose members include actors Page, Daryl and Don Hannah and Rita Taggart; filmmaker Haskell Wexler; and professional Laker fan, Lou Adler (through his wife, Page). She has previously directed two features – “A Ball in the House” (a.k.a., “Relative Evil”) and “Finding North” – and was a member of the ensemble cast of “Life Happens.” She earned a BA in psychology at Yale and an MFA in film direction at the Columbia University School of Arts.

Being the youngest sibling in a house full of aspiring actors, filmmakers and patrons of the arts, Wexler recalls, required of her that she always was the one who “always had makeup applied to her and was put on stage. It was all wackiness all the time.

“Growing up, I just assumed everyone appreciated the arts as much as we did.”

Yet to be seen is if she’ll be persona non grata in Alabama for transporting movies about vibrators across state lines, without a note from her doctor.

The DVD Wrapup: The Grey, Golf in Kingdom, Norwegian Wood, We Were Here, My Perestroika, 42nd St. Pete’s 8mm Madness … More

Thursday, May 17th, 2012

The Grey: Blu-ray
In the frequently frightening man-vs.-nature thriller, “The Grey,” director Joe Carnahan and co-writer Ian Mackenzie Jeffers resurrect old demons and reignite ancient fears of mankind’s impotence against the pack mentality of less-evolved species … as if wolves didn’t already have enough problems in the Darwinian universe. There are some places humans simply aren’t meant to inhabit and, as the movie suggests, the sub-Arctic wilderness is one of them. So, when a small group of oil workers miraculously survive a fiery plane crash on the way home to Anchorage, they’re pitted against elements no man is prepared to endure without weapons, thick layers of fur and a good reason to be there. Ottway (Liam Neeson) knows this better than most of the other guys who avoided death in the crash. As a hunter who collects a bounty for every wolf he keeps from trespassing in the oil camp, Ottway understands his prey better than those working the rigs and haunting the bars. He also knows how to avoid freezing while stalking a wolf and being ambushed by its allies. Robbed of his rifle and down-filled clothing, Ottway must convince the motley crew of reprobates of the necessity of allowing him to become the alpha-male in a pack dedicated to one thing: survival. These are not men who welcome each other’s company in the best of times, let alone be required to take orders from a stranger. Indeed, one of the reasons they’ve come to Alaska is to escape the demands and restraints of polite society. Some agree to cooperate, while others must be introduced to the sole alternative. It doesn’t take long for wolves to find them and make their displeasure known. To escape white-out conditions on the frozen lake where the plane crashed, they decide to make a beeline to the treeline, where they might find shelter and wood for a fire. As is their nature, the wolves lay back in anticipation of a wounded straggler separating himself from the herd, where he’ll be vulnerable to attack and defenseless against the pack. After managing to kill a few of their attackers and reach the forest, Ottway senses that they’ve stumbled into a situation where aggressive young males would like nothing better than to unseat the reigning leader of the pack. For this to happen, though, the winner would be forced to prove his strength, cunning and ferocious desire to dominate the others. During the next 100 minutes, or so, the humans and the wolves engage in something resembling a war of attrition, with Mother Nature and natural terrain favoring the local team. No one need be shocked to learn that the final battle will be waged between Ottway and the most determined candidate for the position of alpha male. In life, as in Hollywood, such things are pre-ordained. Between the spectacular natural settings (Alberta and British Columbia for Alaska) and CGI-enhanced predators, however, there’s no shortage of thrills and chills leading up to the exciting climax.

Credit Carnahan for navigating past the shoals of a screenplay that demands a suspension of disbelief so great “The Grey,” it sometimes makes “True Blood” look like a documentary about the prevalence of shape-shifting in domesticated werewolves. It’s difficult, for example, to ignore the absence of rescue teams attempting to locate survivors of the crash or the presence of a pack of wolves that might normally be expected to be trailing migrating caribou. The robustness of the animals doesn’t square with the lack of sustenance to found in the frozen surrounding. The hours of sunshine available to the survivors would suggest, as well, that the writers skipped a chapter or two in their high school geography textbook. An attempt to escape being trapped on the edge of a cliff is so poorly rendered that its execution and partial success inadvertently reveal its green-screen origins. Neither does Ottway turn into a Popsicle after jumping into an ice-encrusted river to save a buddy from drowning. The movie’s worst sin, though, is in ignoring everything we learned about sub-Arctic wolves in Carroll Ballard’s wonderful outdoors adventure “Never Cry Wolf” – among other fine documentaries and books — and ascribing behavior to them that isn’t found in nature. While the final scene neatly contextualizes the writers’ overriding hunter-becomes-the-prey conceit, it does so only after turning the long-demonized beasts into something out of a 1930s Universal horror classic. Neeson, though, is extremely credible as the existential bounty hunter, who, like the other survivors, is haunted by memories of his lost family and a life that got sidetracked along the way to Alaska. Dallas Roberts (“The L Word”), Dermot Mulroney (“Lovely & Amazing”) and Frank Grillo (“Warrior”) are among the cast members who shine in the time allotted them on screen. Carnahan and editors Roger Barton and Jason Hellmann provide commentary on the Blu-ray and there are 22 minutes of deleted scenes. – Gary Dretzka

Golf in the Kingdom
Writer/director Susan Streitfeld has made two feature films in the last 16 years: the aptly titled sexual psychodrama “Female Perversions” and this overly talky and somewhat convoluted adaptation of Michael Murphy’s contemplative 1972 novel, “Golf in the Kingdom.” If the two movies have anything in common, it might be that Murphy set his book at Scotland’s mythical Links of Burningbush and the star of “Female Perversions,” Tilda Swinton,” is a product of the same nation. Considering that “Golf in the Kingdom” was shot on location at Oregon’s exclusive Bandon Dunes Golf Resort … well, even that highly tenuous connection doesn’t exist. Like the novel, Streitfeld’s barely released film describes what happens when a young American philosophy student turns left at London, on his way to India in search of enlightenment. Instead, he finds it at an enchanted seaside links course upon which the residents of Brigadoon might have played. Mason Gamble (“Dennis the Menace,” Rushmore”) plays the cocky young golfer, who arrives at the celebrated course full of spit and vinegar and leaves a day later humbled by the experience. Conveniently, Murphy is paired with the course’s loopy golf pro, Shivas Irons (David O’Hara, of “The Tudors”), and a caddie toting a bag full of mystical tricks. When he isn’t playing the Shakespearian fool, Irons dispenses wisdom about the game that makes it sound as if it were invented by a Zen monk, instead of a bunch of bored soldiers and farmers at Saint Andrews. He also invites Murphy to join him on a midnight snipe hunt, during which they share a bottle of single-malt and search for a hermit living among the course’s craggy cliffs, dense thickets and winding ravines. Off the course, Irons and some of his other friends wax philosophic about how the game’s lessons apply to everything from soup to nuts to sex. “Golf in the Kingdom” is for golfers who find meaning in the game deeper than the rush that comes from making a birdie or kicking their ball to a more advantageous lie without getting caught. Many of the same musings apply to the game of baseball, especially when viewed from the grandstands at Wrigley Field or Fenway Park. Knowing, going in, that it’s impossible to achieve perfection in golf – unlike, say, bowling and baseball – writers must content themselves with explaining  how grown men and women can justify wasting four or five hours of their lives on a pursuit that demands so much devotion, yet is so damned frustrating, even for those who make a living from the game? The poetry in their words often belies the banality of the sport’s most prominent practitioners. The Shivas Irons of the world are few and very far between. There’s nothing wrong, however, with the magnificent scenery and a spirited cast that also includes Malcolm McDowell, Frances Fisher, Julian Sands, Joanne Whalley, Tony Curran, Catherine Kellner and Jim Turner. – Gary Dretzka

Norwegian Wood
Normally, it wouldn’t be unusual for a filmmaker of any ethnic or cultural background to choose a Beatles song for the title of his or her movie. “Norwegian Wood,” however, is a particularly significant track in the band’s repertoire, both for its enigmatic Lennon-McCartney lyrics and George Harrison’s choice of the sitar as a lead instrument. That it was based on an affair between Lennon and a friend’s wife also set it apart from the “yeah, yeah, yeah … I wanna hold your hand” bunch. Set in Japan, amid the tumult and promise of the 1960s, Anh Dung Tran’s adaptation of Haruki Murakami’s best-selling novel captures the mystery and exoticism of the Beatles’ “Norwegian Wood,” while also remaining true to the book’s bittersweet romanticism. As rendered by cinematographer  Mark Lee Ping-bin (“In the Mood for Love,” “Millennium Mambo”), it may be one of the most sumptuously beautiful movies you’ll see this year on DVD – sadly, not released here on Blu-ray – or in theaters, as well.

 

How significant is it that the Japanese-backed production was entrusted to a Vietnamese director (“Scent of the Green Papaya”), now living in Paris, and a Taiwanese cinematographer? As significant, I think, as any fusion of tastes experienced at a pan-Asian restaurant in that city of uncommonly gifted chefs from outside France. Why bother parsing the flavors, though, when it’s the whole of the meal that matters?

In “Norwegian Wood,” we’re introduced first to longtime friends Toru (Kenichi Matsuyama), Naoko (Rinko Kikuchi) and Kisuki (Kengo Kora), whose platonic bond recalls Francois Truffaut’s “Jules and Jim” and Paul Mazursky’s “Willie & Phil.” Too soon, however, Kisuki commits suicide, leaving the other two to mourn deeply and separately ponder the origins of such despair. Several years later, Toru and Naoko enjoy a joyous, if unexpected reunion. After a failed attempt at a sexual liaison, initiated by the shy and brittle Naoko, she abruptly disappears from Toru’s life again, leaving him to his studies amid the chaos of almost daily clashes between students and police. Toru finds relief in the company of fellow student Midori (Dallas-born newcomer, Kiko Mizuhara), who’s as self-confident and outgoing as Naoko is withdrawn and fragile. The possibility of a longterm relationship between them, however promising, is thwarted by Midori’s emotional commitment to another man. In due time, Toru receives a letter from Naoko, asking him to visit her in at a secluded sanitarium in Japan’s lush and bountiful highlands. She’s suffered a nervous breakdown after her brief liaison with Toru and may or may not be ready to reclaim her sanity. Slowly, the facts of her relationship with Kisuki are revealed, as are several other facets of her psychological makeup. There’s no reason to go into any greater depth here. Suffice to say that the new triangle tests the strength of Toru’s loyalty and heart as greatly as the previous one. Curious viewers are advised to remember the lyrics, “I once had a girl, or should I say, she once had me” and the song’s original title, “This Bird Has Flown.” The DVD adds a very decent making-of featurette, filmed on location and in the studio. – Gary Dretzka

We Were Here: The AIDS Years in San Francisco
My Perestroika
The War: Ken Burns
Something Ventured
Although many fine documentaries and feature films have been made about the AIDS epidemic, “We Were Here: The AIDS Years in San Francisco” marks something of a turning point, in that the eyes of its creators are set as much on the future as in the past. Twenty years ago, many gay men feared there might not be a future from which to reflect upon the struggles of the past. As the tide has turned on the possibility of a cure or preventative medicine, members of the LGBT community have been allowed the luxury of turning their attention to such issues as same-sex marriage and protection from discrimination and bullying. That’s an especially useful and welcome change, given the need to combat the Hitlerian rhetoric being employed by Republican candidates and religious bigots to attract the lowest common denominator of voters. Like Claude Lanzmann’s highly influential 1985 Holocaust documentary “Shoah,” “We Were Here” is informed by interviews with a half-dozen men who survived the 20-plus-years scourge and women who worked to comfort the afflicted in San Francisco’s Castro district. Directed by David Weissman and Bill Weber (“The Cockettes”), it chronicles the epidemic’s shocking impact on one neighborhood, whose plight was ignored by politicians, used as rhetorical fodder by clergy and for which there still exists no cure. In addition to describing the fear and uncertainty that comes from knowing something mysterious is causing neighbors, friends and lovers to wither and die before their eyes, those interviewed explain how the community put aside its differences and rallied not only to support the victims but also demand action from politicians and pharmaceutical interests. Many, if not most residents of the Castro had been disowned by their relatives, after all, and it became necessary for new support networks to be formed. Fortunately, the political activity that followed in the wake of Harvey Milk’s assassination caused networks to be formed ahead of the plague years and revelation that unprotected sexual activity exacerbated the spread of the disease. Because the witnesses all have lost dozens of friends, lovers, relatives, patients and co-workers, their stories necessarily are heartbreaking. If there are tears shed in “We Were Here,” though, they finally are overshadowed by the pride and optimism that comes from surviving a war, even one that’s not yet been completed. The people we meet speak eloquently for the “lost generation” of gay men, everywhere, whose dreams and promise were extinguished so quickly and cruelly. Finally, what’s left is promise for the future and an insistence that the dead not be forgotten or ignored by those who weren’t even born when the horror was replaced by hope.

A similar methodology is employed in Robin Hessman’s highly illuminating “My Perestroika,” during which a half-dozen Soviet-era baby boomers attempt to convey what it was like to have everything they’ve known in life change overnight, with the reforms instituted by Mikhail Gorbachev and other forward-thinking members of the Communist Party. These now-middle-age men and women remember growing up in a state quite different than the one portrayed by American politicians, industrialists and militarists, who couldn’t tolerate a world in which more than one economic ideology prevailed. Soviet leaders were no less inflexible in their beliefs about capitalism and the limitations of western-style democracies. They were, however, able to make a convincing case to Soviet citizens that their ethnically and culturally diverse country, where the state ensured full employment and something resembling equal opportunity, was superior to one in which segregation was legal, joblessness was acceptable and poverty was ignored. In “My Perestroika,” these well-educated and gainfully employed Russians — raised at a time when the last of the hardened veterans of World War II were losing their grip on the Politburo – admit to being downright nostalgic for a time when school, sports, rallies, vacations and camp were the only thing that mattered. Yes, Soviet schoolchildren were mindful of the potential for nuclear war. Instead of being advised merely to “duck and cover,” however, they’re shown donning gas masks, digging trenches and visiting shelters infinitely more intricate and safe than the ones permitted Americans not working for the government. No matter, they probably would have fried with the rest of us. Clearly, too, perestroika and glasnost didn’t cure all of the country’s ills or prevent some of the horrors of capitalism from visiting citizens. Just as in every country that’s come to embrace free-market economics, the skyline of Moscow is littered with billboards and neon-lit logo. Fast-food restaurants have corrupted the native palette and chain stores have pushed traditional shops and merchants to the fringes of town. As a pair of middle-class teachers reminisces, their son is glued to the TV set watching “South Park,” while also playing video games on his hand-held computer. A close friend recalls forming a punk-rock band dedicated to condemning both imperialism and Soviet intransigence on promoting individual freedoms and cultural diversity. He quit after other founding members found higher-paying gigs in banks and other new businesses, yet continued to rail against conformity and capitalism in their music. A former classmate lives in the same apartment her parents once occupied and where she was raised, alongside a dozen relatives. She resides there now, with her sister and their two children, and it still looks small. Nevertheless, she seems happy to be in the same neighborhood of high-rise residences where she grew up. Another man has opened a chic shirts-and-ties boutique, but has trouble convincing his employees that they should adhere to a dress code that requires them to wear the company’s apparel. Above all, the people we meet fear that lessons learned in the past are being lost on their kids and older Russians who have begun to yearn for Soviet-style security, as manifest by possible President-for-life Vladimir Putin. Instead of blaming the system, they’ve become as intolerant of immigrants as any politician in Arizona. “My Perestroika” is just under 90 minutes, but the bonus package adds more than an hour of extended interviews, archival material and discussions of issues brought up in the film. It’s remarkable how similar these Russians are to their American counterparts, who were raised at the same time.

Shown on PBS in 2007 and released previously on DVD, Ken Burns’ epic documentary eschews the case-by-case, day-by-day, mile-by-mile approach to chronicling the history of World War II, in favor of describing how it impacted the lives of everyday Americans and average towns across the country. Burns doesn’t attempt to convince anyone that the men and women who served the Allies’ cause represented our “Greatest Generation,” as some would like us to accept as Gospel. The people we meet here, along with most of those who served, have continually refused to present themselves as anything other than citizens who answered Uncle Sam’s call to duty. Even as these men and women were changed by war, so too were their hometowns: Waterbury, Connecticut; Mobile, Alabama; Luverne, Minnesota; and Sacramento, California. Burns and co-director Lynn Novick build on a template created for other of the team’s popular documentaries. Stories are told through individual testimony, letters, public records, cultural artifacts and, of course, archival film and newsreel footage and photographs. Celebrities contribute their voices to the narrative, without stealing any of the thunder of the people they represent. No matter how many movies and documentaries we’ve seen about the war and the people who participated in it, Burns’ seven-part, 15-hour “The War” adds something fresh and compelling to our understanding of the time and ourselves. Not surprisingly, the Blu-ray presentation is excellent, adding audio and video clarity to what already was a handsome package. The set includes a 36-minute making-of featurette, 45 minutes of deleted scenes, Burns and commentaries on two episodes and nearly an hour’s worth of bonus interviews.

There are at two different forms of capitalism practiced in the United States. One of them demands that the institutions that control the money supply be nourished and protected by the federal government, even when they make horrendously bad decisions, lose billions of investor dollars and ignore laws instituted to protect us all. The other allows investors to assume all of the risks of entrepreneurial invention and, if things work in their favor, reap the rewards. If not, tough bananas. Sometimes, a sharp fellow like the media-beatified Steve Jobs — a central figure in “Something Ventured” – is able to work the system in such a way that he not only benefits mightily from the risks taken by venture capitalists, but also enjoys the protection of government when he decides he doesn’t want to pay taxes and insists on subcontracting work to companies that enslave workers in China. Instead of lionizing the idiosyncratic inventors and visionaries, most of whom ended up being fired after their companies went public, Dan Geller and Dayna Goldfine’s documentary focuses on the men – almost exclusively – who backed the ideas of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs either with their own money or that of other risk-takers. Typically, the banking and investment establishment has been loath to fund anything that doesn’t come with a sound and proven business plan, a conservative board of directors and a guarantee of profits according to an established timeline. Anyone without an Ivy League education and solid track record need not apply. With the 1970s came a new breed of inventors, whose idea of a good time was nerding out in a laboratory and creating cool new toys for the enjoyment of their friends and fellow geeks. If any of them owned a Brooks Brothers suit, it would have been handed down to them by a grandfather and left in the closet awaiting his funeral. Only a handful of investors saw promise in their inventions or could explain them to their buddies over lunch. By rolling the dice on such aspiring interests as Intel, Apple, Cisco, Atari, Genentech and Tandem, the more visionary among them reaped immense rewards. Not all of the start-ups would pan out, of course, but the ones that did would turn the heads of the eastern establishment toward Silicon Valley and change the course of Wall Street history. Inevitably, perhaps, so much money was being poured into projects doomed to failure that it precipitated an economic disaster in the Bay Area that presaged the current national malaise. The venture capitalists we meet in “Something Ventured” clearly have survived those catastrophes and with their wallets and senses of humor intact. As always, what’s most fascinating is learning how little was invested in companies that today seem to have been no-brainers.  “Something Ventured” is especially relevant in light of Facebook – a company built on chatter and pictures of pet dogs and cats – going public at what promises to be a record haul. – Gary Dretzka

Road Trip: UNR8D
Nine years before “The Hangover” sent Todd Phillips’ stock soaring into the stratosphere, he caught the attention of Hollywood studio executives with the gross-out, campus-slacker comedy “Road Trip.” That’s what happens when a $15-million first movie returns $68.5 million at the domestic box office. Three years later, he would return to college with the similarly themed and equally successful “Old School.” Then, in short order, came “Starsky & Hutch,” “School for Scoundrels,” “The Hangover,” “Due Date” and “Hangover II,” with a third entry in the franchise scheduled for 2013. Along the way, Phillips even had time to collaborate on “Borat.” Not all of the comedies became blockbusters, but the ones that did were the cinematic equivalent of grand-slam home runs. “Road Trip: UNR8D” arrives on Blu-ray as a Best Buy exclusive, with an alternative “R8D” version (60 more seconds of topless-coed hilarity, I’m guessing); the featurette, ‘Ever Been on a Road Trip?”; deleted scenes; and an Eels music video, “Mr. E’s Beautiful Blues.”

The story involves a group of college guys who are required to make a road trip from New York to Texas after a roommate of Breckin Meyer’s character sends his girlfriend a video cassette in which he allows himself to be seduced by a blond hottie (Amy Smart). Naturally, the only vehicle available to them is owned by the class geek (D.J. Qualls, in his breakthrough role), who insists he be allowed to join them on the trek. Along the way, the students encounter crazy hillbillies, swinging senior citizens, a frat house full of doubtful black brothers and a gleefully sadistic nurse at a sperm bank. Tom Green, front and center on the cover of the DVD, is left behind to entertain a group of high school seniors and their parents with his recollections of the epic road trip, seemingly as it’s happening. There are many undeniably funny moments in “UNR8D,” even if the laughs-per-scene ratio will vary according to the viewer’s age, maturity and sobriety. Nothing new there, however. – Gary Dretzka

Walking Tall Trilogy: Blu-ray
While not technically a vigilante movie, “Walking Tall” differs from such nearly contemporaneous crime/revenge/vigilante dramas as “Dirty Harry,” “Magnum Force,” “Straw Dogs,” “Billy Jack,” “Death Wish” and “Taxi Driver” in that it was based on an actual, larger-than-life Tennessee lawman. Knowing this going into the theater, 1973 audiences reportedly erupted into applause and standing ovations whenever Sheriff Buford Pusser went medieval on local gangsters and corrupt public officials with a fence post. Even 40 years later, the events detailed in “Walking Tall” are disputed and debated by locals who remember both Pusser and the production. At 6-foot-3, Joe Don Baker was extremely credible as the 6-foot-6 star athlete and ex-marine. Not only did he look as if he might have been carved from an oak tree, Baker was large enough to wield such a weapon without it looking as if it were made of rubber. In the sequels also included in “Walking Tall Trilogy” and subsequent TV series, Pusser was played by the 6-foot-4 ex-Marine, Bo Svenson. (The lawman was asked to play himself in the first sequel, but he died in a car accident on the day he signed with Bing Crosby Productions. Considering the modest $500,000 budget, veteran director Phil Karlson’s version of the legend of Buford Pusser holds up pretty well as an action picture and biopic of a genuine American hero. There are times when it resembles an episode of “The Dukes of Hazzard,” but audiences lapped it up to the tune of $23 million in domestic box-office revenues. “Walking Tall Part II” picks up the story after the murder of Pusser’s wife (Elizabeth Hartman) at the hands of members of the notorious State Line Mob. “Final Chapter: Walking Tall” covers the period between Pusser being voted out of office and losing his life in the accident, the cause of which is left ambiguous. The 2004 “Walking Tall,” starring Dwayne Johnson, borrowed the facts of the original but changed the name and characteristics of the protagonist. The DVD set comes with a vintage featurette and trailers. – Gary Dretzka

Father of the Bride: 20th Anniversary Edition/Father of the Bride, Part II: Blu-ray
Bringing Down the House: 10th Anniversary Edition: Blu-ray
If “Father of the Bride” and “Father of the Bride, Part II” show Steve Martin working at or near the top of his game, “Bringing Down the House” locates the onetime A-lister at the point in his career when he became known for recycling time-worn shtick and easily predictable physical humor. (His spotlight dance with Queen Latifah in “BDTH” is only a slight variation on the ones he performed decades earlier in his numerous “SNL” appearances.)  All three movies did well at the box office, but Martin clearly wasn’t being offered – or he wasn’t accepting – roles that deviated from those he played in a dozen previous comedies. In any case, by 2003, Martin seemed far more interested in writing essays, plays and novels, playing banjo and raising his profile in the art world than seeking out better material in the movies. He’d already paid for the privilege many times over, so good for him. “Father of the Bride” and “Father of the Bride Part II” are updated versions of “Father of the Bride” and “Father’s Little Dividend,” which were written by Albert Hackett and Francis Goodrich, directed by Vincente Minnelli and starred Spencer Tracy, Joan Bennett and Elizabeth Taylor. The 1950 “Father of the Bride” was nominated for Oscars in the Best Picture, Best Writer and Best Actor categories. Likewise, the 1991 and 1995 remakes were directed by Charles Shyer, written by Shyer and Nancy Meyers, and starred Martin, Diane Keaton and Kimberly Williams, although Martin Short stole the show in both pictures. Comparing the DVD versions of both the originals and updates is an exercise I recommend to fans of the actors.

Adam Shankman’s “Bringing Down the House” benefits from being able to appeal to crossover audiences not fussy about the gags in which Martin and Eugene Levy (also in both “FOTB” releases) are required to perform as if their characters know how actual African-American gangstas might act. The stereotypical portrayals of the black characters, including co-star Queen Latifah, weren’t terribly funny in 2003 and, nine years later, appear to have been created by someone whose only contact with people of color is through 1970s sitcoms. No matter how lame Jason Filardi’s script still feels, “BDTH” is Queen Latifah’s baby and she runs with it. A consummate professional, Martin keeps up with her as well as he can, but her youth and ambition allow her to dominate most of the scenes they share. Martin plays a lawyer whose devotion to duty has caused his wife and children to consider him a lost cause. He and Latifah connect in an Internet chatroom devoted to discussions of legal issues. She allows him to confuse her with a blond in a photograph attached to her contributions and, of course, he looking for someone to match up to his wife’s new boyfriend. He’s shocked to realize Latifah’s not only black but also a suspect in a bank robbery. Latifah works the homegirl angle to perfection, coercing Martin into letting her crash at his expensive home and accepting her legal case. Naturally, his nearest and seemingly only neighbor (Betty White) is appalled by the presence of Negroes in their neighborhood. Things get even more testy when Latifah invites half of the ’hood to a pool party.  The lawyer’s kids take an immediate liking to her, though, and this proves to be the turning point in their relationship. Joan Plowright has a few enjoyable moments as an onerous bigot, as does Levy, whose character falls in love with Latifah’s booty. Both Blu-ray editions come with commentary, deleted scene and funny bits featuring Levy, Short and Martin. – Gary Dretzka

Hell on Wheels: The Complete First Season: Blu-ray
PBS: Titanic & Me
PBS: Seven Wonders of the Buddhist World
History: The Universe: The Complete Season Six: Blu-ray
History: Top Shot: The Gauntlet
Any fans of HBO’s “Deadwood” who haven’t already checked out AMC’s “Hell on Wheels” are doing themselves a huge disservice. The same goes for folks who love traditional and/or revisionist Westerns. Until last week, I hadn’t watched more than a few minutes of “Hell on Wheels,” either. Once hooked, though, I spent the next 450 minutes of my life catching up with the series.  It’s that good. Although it doesn’t contain any of the artistically rendered cursing, flesh-eating pigs and topless hookers that made “Deadwood” such a unique experience, “Hell on Wheels” is every bit as gritty, violent and angry. In the series’ first stanza, the writers focused as much on the intrigue that surrounded the early days of the construction of the Transcontinental Railroad as the emotional tomult of a former Confederate soldier (Anson Mount) determined to avenge the murder of his wife by Union soldiers. Colm Meaney plays the unethical tycoon willing to break any law in pursuit of his dream to connect his line’s tracks to those of the Union Pacific, thus making him richer and more powerful than only a handful of other American. Mount’s Johnny Reb soldier, farmer and onetime slave owner forms an unlikely and decidedly uneasy alliance with a freed slave (the Chicago rapper, Common) while working in close proximity to each other on the tracks. Wes Studi stands tall as a Cheyenne chief, with one son raising hell as a dog soldier and another in the camp of the workers preaching the gospel. Among the other key characters are a slightly mad, if inarguably devout preacher (Tom Noonan), who gave up his family to ride with abolitionist John Brown; the pretty blond wife (Dominique McElligott) of a surveyor killed in an attack by dog soldiers, in possession of his precious maps; a prostitute (Robin McLeavy) whose facial tattoos mark her as a former Indian captive and target for ridicule; and a Scandinavian road boss (Christopher Heyerdahl), whose high forehead and cold eyes recall Doctor Frankenstein’s monster. Myriad other characters pass through the work camp when needed, but these are the ones whose stories are laced through the series. The cast is uniformly good – if mostly unwashed — and the Alberta setting provides a reasonable facsimile of Kansas and Missouri in the post-Civil War era. The Blu-ray adds a half-dozen excellent making-of featurettes.

I’m already on record, saying, “Enough, already, with the Titanic.” If I see one more ship sink on screen in the next 10 years, it could inspire me to spray-paint something blasphemous on the side of the Queen Mary, berthed in Long Beach. Naturally, along comes the PBS documentary, “Titanic & Me,” to test my resolve. Blessedly, the producers of this fine documentary assumed, as well, that everything we need to know about that the dreadful night on the North Atlantic has already been revealed, ad nausea, and they would have to come up with something new to justify its existence. It does so by remaining mostly on dry land, exploring the impact of the disaster on folks who didn’t make the ill-fated trip. Among other things, “Titanic & Me” reminds us of the ship’s first casualties, among the labor force that built the great ship. Remarkably, the ledger includes a man who was killed as the Titanic was lowered into the sea from dry dock. Records show just how much – or, more specifically, how little – these men were worth to the company. It’s also shocking to learn how the disaster impacted on one city, Portsmouth, where so many crew members lived and raised their families. Virtually, the entire adult male population went missing. When he was hired to run the most-exclusive restaurant on the ship, a much-celebrated Italian-born restaurateur brought his entire kitchen and wait staff from London to join him in the enterprise. They all died, too.

In PBS’ compelling religious travelogue, “Seven Wonders of the Buddhist World,” we join British historian Bettany Hughes as she crisscrosses the globe, visiting the most important shrines, statues and landmarks of Buddhism. She accomplishes this feat, wearing the same clothes and shoes she had on in Episode One. I’m not kidding. The series begins at India’s Mahabodhi Temple, where Siddhartha Gautama achieved enlightenment under the world’s most famous fig tree. It was from this spot that the philosophy/religion spread to cities throughout the subcontinent and Asia, and, hundreds of years later, across the ocean to the Americas. Hughes spends much time here introducing western viewers to Buddhism’s roots and belief system. At Nepal’s Boudhanath Stupa, she examines the concept of dharma, then, at the Temple of the Tooth in Sri Lanka, she turns to the concept of karma. (Yes, a precious tooth is enshrined therein.) Reincarnation and meditation are explored at Thailand’s Wat Pho Temple and Cambodia’s Angkor Wat, respectively. A stop at Hong Kong’s Giant Buddha inspires a discussion of Zen. Nirvana is reserved for Los Angeles’ Hsi Lai Temple in Los Angeles. The shrines are magnificently designed and maintained, even the complex at Angkor Wat, which was nearly destroyed by Khmer Rouge fighters.

When God created the heavens and Earth, I suspect he already had digital technology and hi-def imagery in mind. As evidence, I present the pictures of deep-space phenomena rendered by computers linked to the Hubble Space Telescope. Words aren’t adequate to describe the majesty of the images we’ve already been shown, and, one suspects, many surprises lie ahead. As such, it’s always good news when History releases another complete-season package of “The Universe” on Blu-ray. Not only do pictures from space sparkle when viewed in hi-def, but the CGI representations also look terrific. The 14 episode titles for “Universe: The Complete Season Six” read like notes from a development meeting at Michael Bay’s office. Among them are Catastrophes That Changed the Planets,” “Nemesis: The Sun’s Evil Twin,” “Crash Landing on Mars,” “Worst Days on Planet Earth,” “UFOs: The Real Deal” and “Ride the Comet.” Physicists and theologians also have been recruited to discuss where God fits into the universe, as described in the series’ six years.

If Annie Oakley were alive today, besides being 152 years old, she’d probably be a contestant on History’s “Top Shot.” America’s most famous sharpshooter was still knocking down clay pigeons in her 60s, before and after she and her marksman husband Francis E. Butler were involved in a serious automobile accident. Although she was known primarily for her skills with firearms, she probably wouldn’t have any problem mastering the vast array of weapons and projectiles featured on “Top Shot.” In the latest DVD release, “The Gauntlet,” a national revolver champion, two homeland security agents, a former Navy SEAL, firearms instructors, a restaurant owner and a camp director competed for a $100,000 prize. In addition to their weapons of choice, they were assigned state-of-the-art firearms, rocks, Gatling and Hotchkiss Mountain Guns and other unusual devices. The DVD set includes all 12 episodes from Season Three on four discs, plus contestant bios, bonus footage, “Anatomy of a Shot,” a weapons rundown and “Behind the Bullet.”– Gary Dretzka

42nd Street Pete’s 8mm Madness
Sex on the Sunset Strip: Grindhouse Triple Feature
Euro-Grindhouse Double Feature: I, A Woman Part 2 / The Daughter: I, A Woman Part 3
While I can’t begin to imagine how the story of the late porn star Linda Lovelace will translate into a mainstream movie, starring Amanda Seyfried and several other top stars, I believe that it’s in the right hands and won’t exploit her tragic life. If directors Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman (“Howl,” “The Celluloid Closet”), working off a script by Andy Bellin (“Trust”), do manage to pull it off, it will be fun to watch entertainment reporters attempting to explain what made Lovelace more worthy of a biopic than, say, such contemporaries as Seka, Veronica Hart, Vanessa del Rio, Annette Haven and Gloria Leonard. These women not only were prettier than Lovelace and demonstrably better actors, but they also possessed the same skill that she made famous in “Deep Throat.” So did tens of thousands of other actresses and amateurs of both genders. What distinguished “Deep Throat” was that it was the first feature to base its narrative – and, unlike today’s porn, it did tell an actual story – on a particular sexual skill. It also differed from the “loops” collected in “42nd Street Pete’s 8mm Madness” and other early grindhouse fare by having a distinct comic voice and actors who were in on the gag. (Sorry, pun intended.) It wasn’t an immediate sensation, however. By attempting to censor “Deep Throat,” government bluenoses turned it into a cause celebre for open-minded couples and celebrities, willing to wait in line to see it without fear of embarrassing themselves or having a social stigma attached to them. Some ambitious reporters may also attempt to contextualize “Deep Throat,” by looking back at the sexual revolution of the 1960-70s and why it still has resonance today. Let’s beat them to it by checking out some historically significant titles from After Hours Cinema.

Many soon-to-be porn stars entered the business by performing in short films that left no time or budget for such things as plot, character development, exposition, drama, moralizing or comedy. Sex was the only thing that interested customers who frequented the booths in the back of 42nd Street bookstores and arcades, as well as those outlanders who ordered 8mm loops from the ads in the back of skin mags. As “42nd Street Pete” explains in his introduction, they would arrive in small white boxes and customers couldn’t be absolutely sure what they bought until they watched it. Depending on length, technical proficiency and whether they were in black-and-white or color, a loop could cost anywhere from $25 to $100, or much more, if certain kinky stuff was specifically requested by collectors. It’s how Lovelace got her start, as dictated by her physically and emotionally abusive husband, Chuck Traynor. Here, at least, Pete doesn’t go into detail about the actors’ motivations, but a taste for exhibitionism played less a role in their decision than avoiding poverty, copping their next fix and keeping their lover/pimp in business. The guiding principle was to convince the rubes they were having a good time and encourage them to keep dropping quarters into the slot to see where it led.  The movies included in “Sex on the Sunset Strip: Grindhouse Triple Feature” represent the next stop on the porn food chain, “one-day wonders.” Four or five times longer than the average loop and shot on 16mm, these films allowed for some plot and character development, as well as some comedy, moralizing and variety in the sexual encounters. Many were populated by actors who looked as if they might have been recruited that morning in the Haight-Ashbury or from the Charles Manson Talent Agency. The young women rarely were shown wearing bras and the guys had crossed “Go to Barber” off their to-do lists. “Trapped in the House” and “Love Freestyle” avoided prevailing anti-pornography laws by not showing penetration or engorged genitals in the group gropes. “See Me, Feel Me, Take Me,” which looks as if it might have taken more than a day to produce, offers plenty of hard-core action and outdoor locations.  The two-DVD sets include informative booklets and liner notes.

Well before crowds thronged to see “I Am Curious (Yellow)” and “Deep Throat,” Americans lined up to see the ground-breaking Swedish sensation, “I, a Woman,” which would quickly spawn two sequels. Viewed from a distance of almost 50 years, “I, a Woman” doesn’t look hot enough to have caused a sensation in Manhattan, Kansas, let alone Times Square. Of course, things were much different in 1965 America than they are in 2012 … except, perhaps, inside the homes of the many Republican presidential candidates and their rabid supporters. (Even Barry Goldwater would have been tarred as liberal by these mopes.)  European erotica retained an arty sheen throughout the 1970s, thanks primarily to Radley Metzger, who introduced “I, a Woman” to American audiences and would go on to make groundbreaking soft-core films set in exotic locations, with sophisticated characters and discernible narratives. Released here in 1968 and 1970, the still-tame “I, a Woman, Part II” and “The Daughter: I, a Woman, Part III” extend the story of Siv Holm, an increasingly sexually liberated literary invention who ditches her perverted husband when his behavior and demands become oppressive. She’s played by different women in the trilogy, all three physically striking and extremely classy brunettes. In “III,” Siv’s daughter is confronted with Swedish racism, when the pretty blond falls both for an African-American ex-pat and his sister, a go-go dancing lesbian. The gallery of vintage trailers is infinitely more sexually explicit than any of the “I, a Woman” series. – Gary Dretzka

Chained: Code 207
Movies as amateurishly produced, directed and acted as “Chained: Code 207” don’t come along every week. Indeed, most can’t find distributors willing to invest good money in a title destined to find a home in remainder bins. Shot on Super 16, Tino Struckmann’s vanity project makes most DIY horror flicks look like “Alien.” I certainly don’t begrudge any aspiring filmmaker for accomplishing the near-miracle of having his dream realized, if only on DVD. Still, it begs the question as to how “Chained” made the cut, while hundreds of other indies couldn’t. Writer/director Struckmann is reputed to be a former Army Ranger and security expert who served as a bodyguard for many prominent celebrities and billionaires. How, then, could the fight scenes in “Chained” look so anemic? It’s as if the actors playing soldiers, cops and thugs had clauses in their contracts requiring financial remuneration for every bruise, cut and broken finger nail suffered. The violence experienced at the line of scrimmage in most high school football games is more plausible than anything here. Neither is it made completely clear whether the bad guys are involved in weapons smuggling, stealing organs from their young victims or white slavery. When the protagonist’s wife is snatched from in front of their motel, it takes about a minute and a half for the guy to trick the local sheriff into leading him to where she and other women are being stashed. By contrast, the rescue proceeds at a snail’s pace. While picking off the guards one by one, the former soldier is joined by one of the first women he’s able to rescue. She turns out to be every bit as ditzy as Johnny Carson’s “Matinee Lady,” Carol Wayne, and as helpless as Snooki at Friars’ Club roast. If Struckmann wanted to add some comic relief to the drama, he would have been better advised not only to hire actors capable of delivering their lines with some semblance of professionalism, but also to dial down the violence inflicted on the caged women around them. Even the blood looks as if it were applied by 1st Graders, using poster paint and tongue depressors, instead of Caro syrup, red food coloring and cosmetic tools. Otherwise, Mrs. Lincoln, “Chained” is a hell of a movie. – Gary Dretzka

The DVD Wrapup: Underworld, Dark Tide, Kreutzer Sonata, 42nd Street Forever…More

Thursday, May 10th, 2012

Underworld: Awakening 3D/2D
Shock Labyrinth 3D/2D
The first time I can remember seeing Kate Beckinsale on screen was her appearance in John Schlesinger’s charming period barnyard comedy, “Cold Comfort Farm.” In addition to her delightfully spunky approach to the material, it was her delicate features – most noticeably, a long, swanlike neck — that made her character’s presence on a disheveled Sussex farm seem so incongruous. It was impossible to think, then, that Beckinsale would someday become a bankable action star. And, yet, in “Van Helsing,” the “Underworld” franchise and upcoming “Total Recall” remake, she’s done just that. In “Underworld: Awakening,” the fourth installment in the fantasy/horror series, her super-sexy vampire-warrior Selene is required not only to deal with the dreaded Lycans, but also the threat posed by humans who hitherto have been blissfully unaware of their presence. Beyond that, the story’s plot is far too difficult for casual fans to grasp with any certainty … not that it matters all that much.  (Blessedly, previous installments are in summarized in two-minute preface.) Early on, Selena is knocked unconscious by a rocket grenade, leaving her comatose in cryogenic sleep for at least the next dozen years. In the meantime, as the war aboveground has exacted a huge toll on both the vampires and werewolves, the mad scientist Dr. Jacob Lane (Stephen Rea) has been performing experiments on her. Upon awakening, Selene discovers that she’s the mother of a laboratory-raised daughter, Eve (India Easley), whose powers have begun to attract the attention of the Lycans. It becomes the duty of Selene and the vampire, Thomas (Charles Dance), to protect her from mom’s various enemies … or, something like that. All an action junkie needs to know is that “Underworld: Awakening” is 1 percent exposition and 99 percent action of the screen-popping variety. Swedes Måns Mårlind and Björn Stein (“Shelter”) were enlisted to direct this exceedingly dark battle for survival, with an eye toward maximizing the effects of the 3D presentation. I don’t own a 3D-capable Blu-ray system, but can see how every hurled object, drawn weapon and bloody gush of gore might look terrific in it. It helps greatly that the darkly clad human, undead and CGI characters are allowed to get lost in the murky interiors and exteriors — foreground, mid-ground and background — thanks to the employment of Red Epic 3D cameras. The dramatic audio and video presentation doesn’t lose much in 2D Blu-ray, either. As hot as Beckinsale remains in her black Spandex outfits, it’s pretty clear that “Underworld” producers have set the stage for next-generation appeal with the introduction of Eisley, Michael Ealy and Theo James. Even if they’re interchangeable with dozens of other up-and-coming ingénues, they’ll fit the bill until the next Beckinsale comes along. The Blu-ray package adds commentary by producers Richard Wright and Gary Lucchesi, directors Mårlind and Stein, and visual-effects supervisor James McQuaide; hi-def making-of featurettes “Selena Rises,” “Casting the Future of ‘Underworld,’” “Resuming the Action,” “Building a Better Lycan” and “Awakening a Franchise, Building a Better World”; several pre-visualization sequences; a blooper reel; the music video, “Heavy Prey,” by Lacey Sturm; and a UV digital copy.

Shock Labyrinth” is set largely inside the world’s largest horror maze, the Haunted Hospital, at Fuji-Q Highland Park, which sits in the shadow of Japan’s Mount Fuji. Directed by J-Horror icon Takashi Shimizu (“Ju-on”/“The Grudge”), it is reputed to be the genre’s first live-action 3D feature. No one is willing to say if its genesis owes anything to the success of Disney’s “Pirates of the Caribbean,” also based on a theme-park attraction, or the haunted houses that pop up around Halloween at amusement parks. Either way, it’s a logical hook for a supernatural thriller. “Shock Labyrinth,” available in 3D and 2D Blu-ray, involves a group of childhood friends, now teens, who feel a bond with a girl who disappeared a decade ago after sneaking into the Haunted Hospital. Even though she’s long been declared dead, someone or something resembling Yuki suddenly reappears to them, inspiring another trip to the attraction. Shimizu plays with everyone’s heads in the return visit, using 3D effects to give audiences the best bang for their bucks. Apart from a neat time-travel angle and the usual array of ghosts and goblins, it’s the genuinely Surrealistic imagery that sets “Shock Labyrinth” apart from the pack. While creepy, the effects are also quite artistic. Again, I’m not sure how “Shock Labyrinth” comes off in 3D Blu-ray, but anyone who’s seen more than a few stereoscopic movies on the big screen will know intuitively where the effects might have been employed to their best effect. Despite Shimizu’s excellent track record, I’d be surprised if anyone outside the “Hello Kitty” crowd was jolted out of their seats by anything here. The set adds interviews with the familiar cast members, Misako Renbutsu, Yuya Yagira, Ryo Katsuji, Ai Maeda and Erina Mizuno, and making-of material. – Gary Dretzka

Dark Tide: Blu-ray
PBS: Inside Nature’s Giants: Great White Sharks/Big Cats
Halle Berry must have been in desperate need of a vacation when she agreed to lend her estimable name – along with the registered brand of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences – to such an un-thrilling thriller as “Dark Tide.” Cape Town and its environs are lovely most times of the year and any invitation to frolic with the native colony of sharks and sharks isn’t to be taken lightly. If only the script were up to the standards set by the tourist bureau. Shark completists and nature buffs may not be terribly disappointed in “Dark Tide,” but there’s nothing in it they haven’t seen before, including that insanely dramatic footage of a Great White leaping completely out of the water with a seal in its mouth. Contrary what’s implied by the cover art, Berry dons a bikini only in the film’s early scenes. Otherwise, her remarkably fine body is fully encased in a wet suit. She plays Kate Mathieson, an accomplished diver and fearless oceanologist whose skills have earned her the designation, “the shark whisperer.” Kate was communing with Great Whites outside the protection of a safety cage – accommodating the makers of yet another nature documentary – when a shark acted out its frustrations by devouring a friend and fellow diver. It’s taken several years for her to shake off the memory and agree to return to Shark Alley. In the meantime, her reluctance to once again test the patience of resident sharks has caused her business to tank, as it were. Relief arrives in the form of an obnoxiously rich and cocky outdoorsman who wants to swim with the sharks and force his wisely cautious son to do likewise. The jackass simply isn’t content to stay in the cage, thereby endangering everyone involved. This can’t possibly end well, can it? Turns out, the client was recruited by Kate’s smug and impossibly handsome estranged husband, played by Olivier Martinez. Sadly, he’s no more likeable than the European adventurer, leaving Kate to be the only character of substance with whom to empathize. There’s a few potentially exciting moments near the end of the film, when the European’s hubris is tested both by an unexpected storm and the shark’s bad humor, but it too clearly was staged in a tank at England’s Pinewood Studios. The scene pales by comparison to most IMAX nature docs.

More compelling are this week’s editions of “Inside Nature’s Giants: Great White Sharks” and “Inside Nature’s Giants: Big Cats,” which take viewers where most other wildlife documentaries fear to tread: inside the carcasses of dead predators. Whenever the word, “autopsy,” is attached to nature programming, it generally is limited to the examining of the contents of an extracted stomach. More often than not, the scientists in the PBS series “Inside Nature’s Giants” don’t get to the stomachs of their corpses until just before the final credits roll. They start on the surface of an animal’s body and slice their way through layers of skin, bone, cartilage, fat, muscle and sinew to find answers to questions that have perplexed scientists for centuries. Take that seal in the mouth of the Great White, for example. If, as assumed, a shark’s jaws were locked in place inside its mouth, they may not be sufficiently forward-placed to grab and hold an animal as nimble as a seal. In fact, a Great White’s jaws are detached from bone and a long, slender and strong muscle controls its ability to thrust forward and nab its victim, without the interference of its snout. Without the benefit of an autopsy and observations in the field – the same feeding grounds filmed in “Dark Tide” – it would be difficult for laymen to discern what really happens in such attacks. And, of course, it’s as fascinating as the scientists’ enthusiasm and excitement are palpable. Beyond such discoveries, the autopsies can be extremely grisly. (Viewers can thank their lucky stars that DVDs aren’t enhanced with Smell-O-Vision.) The results are worth the effort of enduring the procedures, though.

In the “Big Cat” episode researchers locate a dead lion’s hidden, razor-sharp claw, genetically engineered to snag prey when large and puffy paws can’t do the trick. A close examination of a lion and tiger’s mouth reveals how the alignment of their teeth could cause the molars to be destroyed with one violent snap of the jaws. Instead, the musculature prevents such dental disasters from happening. There’s more, of course, including the revelation of stomach contents. (The digestive tracks of animals too sick or damaged to eat, however, rarely contain anything worth noting.)  Here, too, the resident company of veterinarians, biologists and anatomists travel to Africa and India to study live predators in action. – Gary Dretzka

Madison County
Mother’s Day: Blu-ray
Ever since “Deliverance” was released in 1972 and, a decade later, “Southern Comfort,” the geniuses who do such things for reference websites have classified them as adventure/drama/thrillers. Ditto, “The Grey,” another killers-in-the-woods flick that arrives next week on video. All are horror movies. “Deliverance” has been elevated from genre status by its studio-sized budget, brilliant cast and literary roots, while “Southern Comfort” still is seen as a metaphor for Vietnam. Among other things, “The Grey” is distinguished by the presence of Liam Neeson. The line separating action/adventure/drama/thrillers from horror is that thin. Of course, any thriller that goes straight to video after testing the festival circuit is automatically accorded genre status. In Eric England’s debut feature, a group of college students travels to a small, mountain town in Arkansas to interview an author of book about grisly crimes that occur in the boonies. Naturally, upon their arrival in Madison County, they are un-welcomed by several barely literate rednecks, a creepy grandma and a lunatic in a pig costume. (This is, after all, Arkansas Razorback country.) While the author is nowhere to be found, the students quickly find themselves surrounded by people trying to kill them. So far, so typical. What makes “Madison County” worth the effort of trying to track down is the intensity of the pursuits and palpable sense of terror and mystery maintained throughout by England. Who are these yahoos and what are they hiding? The action sequences are so accomplished, in fact, that the writer/director allowed himself the luxury of withholding large chunks of information that would have shed light on the motivations of the townies, including a completely twisted grannie; the missing author; and the Pigman.  Any time a filmmaker can bank material for a possible sequel or prequel – the likelihood of which I wouldn’t bet against – it’s a bonus.

There are two very good reasons for genre enthusiasts to get excited about “Mother’s Day,” a titular follow-up to the campy 1980 Troma horror classic from Charles Kaufman. First, it was directed by “Splat Pack” member Darren Lynn Bousman, whose credits include “Saw II,” “III” and “IV”; second, the infrequently seen Rebecca de Mornay stars as the chillingly malevolent “Mother.” After a bank robbery gone wrong, three brothers seek shelter in the only home they’ve known, outside of prison. What these pinheads don’t know, however, is that their mother has been foreclosed upon and the house is now owned by a young couple, who has invited a few friends over for a party. The proximity of several pretty women tests the brothers’ ability to maintain discipline, at least until the arrival of the stern Mother and their sister. When she arrives at the house, she chastises the boys for their misbehavior, but has reasons of her own to torture the residents. A good deal of her money has gone missing and she believes it is being hidden in the house. Foolishly, the owners decide to play dumb. The subsequent bloodletting is substantial. – Gary Dretzka

The Genesis Code
At 140 minutes, “The Genesis Code” practically defines what it means to be a faith-based epic, unless one considers “The 10 Commandments” and “The Greatest Story Ever Told” to be representative of the largely contemporary genre. In addition to tackling issues common to such films – the power of prayer, applying New Testament tenets to modern life, the merits of abstention and chastity – the predominantly likeable characters here are challenged to find common ground between faith and science. In particular, the students of an idyllic Christian college debate the ages-old question of what God truly meant when he handed Genesis over to the first publishers of the Good Book.  Their findings are to be judged by a panel of classmates, instructors and clergy, who, considering the rancorous debate that usually accompanies such discussions, are unusually open-minded. The cast is unusually rich in acting talent. While no longer on the A-lists, Ernest Borgnine, Louise Fletcher, Fred Dalton Thompson, Lance Henriksen, Rance Howard (Ron and Clint’s dad), Catherine Hicks, Susan Blakely and Ben Murphy really need very little introduction. Left to carry most of the story’s weight, however, are unheralded youngsters Kelsey Sanders, Logan Bartholomew, Andrea Lui, C.R. Lewis, Danny Mooney and Adam Chambers. Sanders plays Kerry Wells, a reporter for the college newspaper who’s been assigned a piece on the new campus sports hero, Blake Truman (Bartholomew). They hit it off immediately, but have different spiritual ideas. Kerry takes the word of the bible to be true as written, while Blake looks for answers in science. He’s tested by the inability of doctors to keep his deathly ill mother’s condition from deteriorating, while her core beliefs are being tested in the classroom. The common ground is provided by a pair of students who hope to convince fellow students, teachers and local clergy that science allows for such things as God’s creation of the Earth and universe in a week’s time. Scientists, atheists and the majority of religious-mind people willingly subscribe to the theory of evolution, while fundamentalists insist the process took no more than 168 hours of the Creator’s valuable time. Those who prefer not to waste time exploring such unfathomable concepts as infinity and the force behind the forces that led to the Big Bang are content knowing that neither Darwinian scholars nor fundamentalists of all religious stripe haven’t the vaguest clue as to what constitutes biblical time. The students’ multimedia presentation uses physics, astronomy and other life sciences to support the likelihood that a day – biblical or otherwise — could last much longer than 24 hours and, theoretically, an eon or age could last a minute or a millennium. The details of their thesis would confound most lay observers, but it makes sense in a cinematic sort of way. Only the most ardent of creationists, televangelists and hidebound academics, whose livelihood depends on rubes buying into their interpretation of Genesis, would find anything but admiration for the hard work and enthusiasm of the students. No one’s saying that it’s the last word on the subject. Meanwhile, when Blake’s mother takes what appears to be a final turn for the worst, he dispenses with science altogether by asking team members to join him in prayer for her recovery. By the end of “Genesis Code,” everybody seems happy. If only such tolerance for other people’s beliefs were the norm, instead of a cinematic pipedream, we’d all find ourselves in a better world. – Gary Dretzka

Bobcat Goldthwait: You Don’t Look the Same Either
In his heyday, Bobcat Goldthwait was one of the most purposefully annoying standup comics on the circuit. His hyperactive stage presence, peculiar sense of humor and a voice that was alternately gravelly and screechy set him apart from every comedian other than Gilbert Gottfried, with whom he’s still mistaken. (His bit about friends commiserating with him over the loss of Gottfried’s Aflac-duck gig is very funny.) Even so, Goldwaith has always enjoyed steady employment as a voice actor and wacky guest star on TV sitcoms and talk shows. There was period in the early 1990s, though, when his destructive and outright rude outbursts on late-night talk shows probably did cost him some work. Since then, he’s spent a lot of time behind the camera as a director of TV shows (“Jimmy Kimmel Live!,” “Chappelle’s Show”) and a couple of the most offbeat indie films in memory. “Sleeping Dogs Lie” examines in a darkly hilarious fashion what can happen when a man or woman makes the mistake of being completely honest about their sexual experiences with a fiancé. In this case, a pretty young woman is coaxed into revealing she experimented in bestiality, while in college. Big mistake. He also directed frequent collaborator Robin Williams in his even darker “Shakes the Clown” and only slightly lighter, “World’s Greatest Dad.” Goldthwait addresses the passage of time between his standup appearances in the title of his special, “You Don’t Look the Same Either.” It has, after all, been 27 years since he immortalized the Cadet Zed character in the “Police Academy” series. The separation also allows the comedian three decades’ worth of autobiographical material from which to draw. Loyal fans will enjoy the experience immensely, I think, while younger viewers will find only a few things in common. – Gary Dretzka

The Kreutzer Sonata
Leo Tolstoy’s widely banned novella “The Kreutzer Sonata,” which, itself, was inspired by Beethoven’s emotionally charged Violin Sonata No. 9, has stirred the imagination of dozens of playwrights, filmmakers, artists and dancers since its aborted publication in 1889. The story describes how carnal urges and sexual passion in a marriage leads invariably to disappointment, estrangement, adultery and fits of dangerously jealous rage. Tolstoy was an advocate of abstinence and chastity in the service of God and he felt as if certain works of art were capable of enflaming lustful behavior. If Tolstoy’s theories on temperance haven’t stood the test of time, unbridled rage and blind jealousy continue to upend relationships between men and women, men and men, women and women. In director Bernard Rose and co-writer Lisa Enos’ latest retelling of the story, Danny Huston plays Edgar to Elizabeth Rohm’s Abigail. He’s a wealthy Beverly Hills philanthropist who falls in lust with a married pianist he meets at a dinner party. He tries mightily to blind her with his wit and cynicism, but she seems perfectly willing to be used by him sexually. At first, their relationship benefits from an excess of raw passion. After her divorce and the birth of their first child, however, Abigail begins to feel overwhelmed by the demands both of motherhood and her husband’s desires. (Philanthropy may be many things, but it isn’t physically taxing.) Edgar understands her growing depression and provides Abigail with help around the house and, a few years after a second child arrives, an opportunity to return to her piano. To this end, he encourages Abigail to perform the Kreutzer Sonata with a handsome and dynamic young violinist (Matthew Yang King). Instead of basking in their reflected glory, Edgar begins to fear that the emotions invested in their performance already have translated into a sexual affair. Once he’s convinced himself of that threat to his marriage and ego, anything becomes possible. “Kreutzer Sonata” is a smart adult entertainment in which recognizable characters respond to perceived slights much in the same way as any spouse might when consumed with jealousy and rage. If the ending is particularly ugly, it also is true to Tolstoy’s vision. It’s worth noting, as well, that the sex scenes are extremely hot, without also being gynecologically correct. It took me a while to recognize the woman writhing on the floor with her breasts on full display as the all-business ADA Serena Southerlyn in “Law & Order.” If “Kreutzer Sonata” had received anything beyond a courtesy release in the U.S., Rohm might have been accorded the nomination as Best Actress she deserved. – Gary Dretzka

The Front Line: Blu-ray
What most Americans know about South Korea’s contributions to the war effort against North Korea and China would fit onto the head of a pin. While we respect and admire the efforts and sacrifices of the U.S. soldiers who held the line against communist aggression in horrid conditions, too many of us hold South Korean fighting men in only slightly higher regard than South Vietnam’s much disparaged ARVN and the Italian army under Mussolini. By focusing on South Korea’s elite Alligator Company and the final battles for the Aerok Hills, on the eastern front, “The Front Line” paints a much more precise and sympathetic portrait of the Korean soldiers, hundreds of thousands of whom fought and died, even after the ceasefire was announced and armistice was hours from becoming a reality. It’s a familiar story, really. Soldiers who have grown tired of maintaining what essentially is a stalemated situation are ordered to fight and die, if necessary, to capture a position more important for its symbolic value than strategic importance. The hills have changed hands so often that soldiers on both sides leave gifts and messages in pre-arranged spots and share the love of a song sung on both sides of the front lines. Jang Hun’s drama overflows both with scenes of great ferocity and the interaction of humans who are nothing more than pawns in a game being played in Washington, Beijing and Moscow. Finally, it’s heartbreaking and life-affirming in the way all good war movies should be. It stars several of Korea’s most popular stars. – Gary Dretzka

42nd Street Forever: Blu-ray
Schoolgirl Report, Volume 8: What Parents Must Never Know
It’s often said that trailers not only give away too much of a movie’s plot, but they also run the risk of being more entertaining as the titles they’re supporting. Even so, the thought of investing almost four hours of valuable time absorbing the not-at-all-subliminal messages contained in grindhouse trailers is beyond daunting. Fortunately, the previews collected in Synapse Films’ Blu-ray edition of its popular “42nd Street Forever” series frequently are better than the classics, bombs and novelties they advance. That’s primarily because they’re far shorter, edited with an eye to accentuating gratuitous skin and explosive action, and hilariously narrated. In effect, Synapse’s six “42nd Street Forever” installments are to the grindhouse genre what Reader’s Digest is to magazine articles, readers’ jokes, self-help texts and cookbooks. They’re appetizers in lieu of a main course.

There’s only so much Blu-ray technology can do with a piece of film that’s passed through a projector’s gate tens of thousands of times and have been spliced together dozens of times. With the help of some digital TLC, they look as good here as they ever will. The trailers represent the many subgenres of exploitation pictures, including sexploitation, blaxploitation, action, horror, science-fiction, women-in-prison hybrids and “mondo” schlockfests. Some of the previews in the “mondo” section even were too sleazy and graphic for guest commentators Edwin Samuelson, of Avamaniac.com; Michael Gingold, of Fangoria magazine; and Temple of Schlock’s Chris Poggiali. That’s saying a lot. It’s especially interesting to see how successful the creators of some of these trailers were in trampling on the borders of political correctness. It wasn’t at all uncommon to see and hear the word, “nigger,” in the titles of blaxploitation flicks and names of the protagonists. If the predominantly urban audiences minded, they still bought tickets.

In the early 1970s, the censorship boards of some countries required purveyors of sexploitation films to include material that offered some intrinsic educational value. For a long time, the only sexually graphic material found in American movies was that contained in such “socially significant” and “educational” movies as “Mom and Dad” (1945), which, while only as explicit as most sex-ed courses in the 1970s, were deemed too explosive to be screened before mixed-gender and mixed-race audiences. Even so, “Mom and Dad” was a huge commercial success for years after its original release. One of West Germany’s socially conscious responses to the controversy surrounding the legalization of hard- and soft-core pornography was the pseudo-documentary series “Schoolgirl Report,” which purported to serve as a warning to parents that their teen daughters have something else on their minds, besides pop stars and homework. The eighth entry in the promiscuous-coed franchise is “What Parents Must Never Know.” Here, the girls wile away their time on a bus trip to a rural hostel by telling stories about their first sexual experiences. Almost nothing is revealed in these naughty little comedies, except breasts, buttocks and nostalgic clumps of unruly pubic hair. The anecdotes aren’t nearly as titillating as they must have seemed 40 years ago — or remotely educational, for that matter — but the characters’ genuinely good-natured approach to youthful sexuality feels downright refreshing when compared to today’s gonzo productions. There are lessons to be learned here, but mostly of the physiological variety. – Gary Dretzka

Kawa
This strangely old-fashioned coming-out movie was adapted from “Nights in the Gardens of Spain,” by Witi Ihimaera, the same man who wrote the book upon which “Whale Rider” was based. That should tell prospective viewers to expect “Kawa” to be a multi-generational portrait of contemporary Maori life, with a protagonist who challenges hidebound tradition and exploits the beauty of New Zealand to its full extent. The title character, Kawa, is the next in line to succeed his father as tribal leader and head of a successful Auckland business. Knowing that his coming-out as a gay man would almost certainly upset the apple cart at work and home, he attempts to remain on the down-low with everyone around him. By abruptly moving out of the home he shares with his unsuspecting wife, teenage son and young daughter, Kawa allows his parents, friends, children and business associates to believe falsely that his marriage is in trouble for reasons not associated with his sexual preference. It isn’t fair to his wife or his lover, but that’s the way it plays out sometimes. The ploy gives Kawa enough wiggle-room to fall back into her arms when things get hairy with his lover and he fears losing custody of their children, who, of course, blame mom for dad’s unhappiness. When, finally, Kawa admits to himself and those close to him that he’s gay, his father cuts him out of the line of succession with the tribe and his daughter takes their loud argument as a cue to run away, toward the beach, where crocodiles lurk in the darkness. The ending is truly affecting, even if it holds no real surprises. Director Katie Wolfe manages to dodge most of the clichés associated with such coming-out dramas and finds a way to make everyone except Grandma happy. The largely Kiwi cast does a nice job elevating the material and denying us an excuse for laying blame on any single character, except Kawa, for the bruised feelings and misdirected anger. Among the actors are Calvin Tuteao and George Henare (“Once Were Warriors”), Nathalie Bolt (“District 9”), Vicki Haughton (“Whale Rider”) and Dean O’Gorman (“McLeod’s Daughters”). – Gary Dretzka

The Big C: The Complete Second Season
Fantasy Island: The Complete Second Season
Chuck: The Complete Fifth Season: Blu-ray
Showtime’s “The Big C” is one of several series that puts viewers through a wringer each and every episode. All of the characters have been accorded storylines that require us to invest emotional equity in them, while simultaneously riding alongside Laura Linney on her roller-coaster ride in the shadow of imminent death. Why the “The Complete Second Season” DVD package is being released during Week 5 of the third season is a mystery to me. The decision would seem to discourage potential viewers from subscribing to Showtime and, instead, stick with watching this fine dramedy on DVD, months after the weekly water-cooler synopses have ended. Among the second-season highlights are Cathy Jamison’s experimental clinical trial under the supervision of Dr. Atticus Sherman, her close relationship with another cancer patient (Hugh Dancy), Paul’s own dance with death and the exceedingly bizarre relationship between Sean and Rebecca (Cynthia Nixon). It’s quite a reversal from Season 1, when Cathy was determined to hide her illnesses from friends and family, and her decision stopped making sense after the third or fourth episode.

In the 1970s, ABC employed more C-, D- and no-list guest stars than all of the other networks combined, mostly in the service of such lowbrow anthology shows as “Love, American Style,” “The Love Boat” and “Fantasy Island.” The weekly visitors also included some familiar movie stars, who once were on the A-list but not in anything anyone under 40 would remember buying tickets to see. Even if they may not have relished being considered over-the-hill, they probably felt fortunate to earn a week’s pay on shows that required relatively little actual acting and were widely seen. The hardest part of their day was sitting still while the makeup was ladled onto their faces. The characters most closely associated with “Fantasy Island” were Mr. Roarke (Ricardo Montalban) and his pint-sized sidekick, Tattoo (Herve Villechaize). In it, new guests would arrive on weekly basis on “de plane,” having paid a substantial fee to make their wishes come true in one way or another. If they couldn’t afford the freight, the mysterious Mr. Rourke often would devise ways to bring them to the island, where, generally, they figured into someone else’s fantasy. The bulk of Tattoo’s responsibilities involved providing comic relief – driving tiny cars, speaking with a high-pitched French accent – and prodding guests to make decisions that advanced the strategies of “de boss.” Looking back from a distance of 40 years, it’s not only difficult to believe how little acting was required of the guest stars, but also how frequently the small army of hula-hula girls were deployed.  It looked as if they had survived a jailbreak at the Playboy Mansion and they were hired to fulfill the fantasies of the producers, casting director and other behind-the-camera personnel. Sexual innuendo and implied consensual liaisons were staples of the anthology shows, where a well-filled bikini was worth a thousand words of dialogue. In today’s more liberated times, beach bunnies in bikinis have been replaced by women executives, lawyers and doctors in tight blouses, short skirts and fuck-me shoes. Male stars still seemingly wear whatever they want. Each episode of “Fantasy Island” included at least two life-affirming lessons and a firm balance of comedy and faux-drama. Among the second-season guests are Sonny Bono, Rory Calhoun, Dan Rowan, Lynda Day George (who appeared a half-dozen times in different roles), Cassandra “Elvira” Peterson, Celeste Holm, Maurice Evans, Shelley Fabares, Desi Arnaz Jr., Ray Milland, Red Buttons and Barbi Benton. As lame as the series might seem today, its nostalgia value for viewers of a certain age is undeniable.

Through all of its five years on NBC, “Chuck” was a series that required more than the usual amount of attention. Its many characters and plot twists didn’t allow for reading a newspaper or playing solitaire on the computer between commercials. Each new season, as if to hold the geeks’ attention, the stories got even more convoluted and the guest list grew nearly as long as that for “Fantasy Island.” In its abbreviated final stanza, CIA agent Chuck Bartkowski (Zachary Levy) and his new bride and former partner Sara Walker (Yvonne Strahovski) joined forces with John Casey (Adam Baldwin) and Morgan Grimes (Joshua Gomez) to launch their own spy shop, using money from last year’s villain, Alexei Volkov. Carrie-Anne Moss (Matrix) has a recurring role as the leader of a rival firm. Responsibilities change and a threat to the team’s freedom emerges, as well. “Chuck: The Complete Fifth Season” has the last 13 episodes of the show, as well as a blooper reel, deleted scenes and a few farewell features. – Gary Dretzka

American Experience: Grand Coulee Dam
Frontline: Inside Japan’s Nuclear Meltdown
StoryCorps’ Animated Shorts
Depending on whom one listens to here on the subject of Washington’s Grand Coulee Dam, it either was the greatest thing to happen to the Pacific Northwest or a massive boondoggle that wasn’t worth the expense of creating new jobs in the Depression or the long struggle to bring water to the state’s parched southeast. While there’s no questioning the magnitude and majesty of the project, it’s also undeniable that the dam adversely impacted Native American culture in large sections of the region, nearly wiped out the salmon population and devastated the ecology of the Columbia River. Very few public-works projects of similar size and impact escape criticism of one sort or another, but its venerable age and importance in winning World War II have put such questions on the back burner. “American Experience: Grand Coulee Dam” takes an exhaustive look at the political fight that preceded construction of the dam and continued with each new setback, as well as  its place in the history of the American west and the presidency of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. The documentary also devotes a section to the role played by Woody Guthrie in keeping the project on track and extolling the worth of the American labor force when almost no one in power cared to help them. “Grand Coulee Dam” demands that viewers consider the continuing debate that pits engineers and financiers against environmentalists and preservationists with every new call for that most elusive of qualities, progress.

It’s the same argument that’s perplexed proponents of nuclear energy ever since Three Mile Island and Chernobyl. Advocates promote the idea that nuclear sites are safer than they’ve ever been and work in the favor of clean air and against global warming. Detractors need only point to the facts presented in “Frontline: Inside Japan’s Nuclear Meltdown” as evidence that there’s no such thing as a disaster-proof facility and the threat of a meltdown is exponentially more serious than anyone in the industry wants to admit. The “Frontline” crew traveled to Japan’s

Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear complex, which was devastated by the earthquake and tsunami of March 11, 2011, and endured several aftershocks. Although company officials forbade employees from cooperating with the investigation, enough of them found ways to tell their stories to form a complete picture of what happened in the wake of the earthquake and tsunami. It’s as fascinating as it is frightening. Only hard work and sheer luck prevented an even greater disaster. The most jarring piece of information, perhaps, comes in the knowledge that the company was committed to sending “suicide squads” of workers into the plant to do what couldn’t be accomplished from a distance.

PBS’ “StoryCorps’ Animated Shorts” is the visual companion to NPR’s “StoryCorps,” a project that has given voice to the stories and memories of tens of thousands of average Americans. Begun by former documentary filmmaker Dave Isay in 2003, it began with a “recording booth” set up in New York’s Grand Central Station, where people would interview each other for 40 minutes in the company of a facilitator. “StoryCorps” then extended its reach through a mobile unit, its first stop being at Studs Turkel’s front door. In 2010, Isay teamed up with the Rauch Brothers to create three-minute animated shorts based on the stories. They would air on PBS’ “P.O.V.,” from which this DVD set arrives. It includes interviews with the creative team. – Gary Dretzka

Doctor Who: Nightmare of Eden/Dragonfire /The Happiness Patrol
The latest package of “Doctor Who” releases from the BBC fantasy factory contained a DVD from the Tom Baker era, 1974-81, and a pair from the Sylvester McCoy years, 1987-89.  In “Nightmare of Eden,” two spacecraft fuse in a hyperspace collision, leaving the Doctor, Time Lady Romana (Lalla Ward) and the robotic K-9 to cope with a large clawed creature that’s stalking the corridors and killing the odd voyager. After picking the brain of zoologist Professor Tryst – creator of the CET protection machine – they uncover the planet Eden, where the ferocious Mandrels dwell.

Skip ahead a few years and things get really crazy. It’s at the Iceworld Space Trading Colony on Svartos, that the Doctor and Mel (Bonnie Langford) unexpectedly encounter the penniless and desperate trickster, Sabalom Glitz. Along with Ace (Sophie Aldred), a teenage waitress with a penchant for blowing things up, the group ventures off to uncover the lost “Dragonfire” treasure. First, however, they must outsmart the planet’s evil overlord, Kane. The chase takes them into ice caverns, home to the monstrous dragon. “The Happiness Patrol” is set on the happy and colorful planet of Terra Alpha. In fact, unhappiness is punishable by death at the hands of colony leader Helen A’s stooges. After escaping from prison, the Doctor and Ace hunt down the bittersweet torturer, Kandy Man, who’s in charge of the Kandy Kitchen, where all the happy people are made to disappear. There’s also an itinerant musician who stirs trouble by wailing the blues on his harmonica. All of the sets contain bonus features designed to bring smiles to the faces of “Doctor Who” fans. – Gary Dretzka

The DVD Wrapup: W.E., Haywire, Theatre Bizarre, Circus Columbia… More

Friday, May 4th, 2012

W.E.: Blu-ray
One needn’t be an ardent opponent of all things royal to be sick of watching movies and media coverage of the British sovereigns. Intelligent coverage of the occasional wedding or funeral is to be expected, but, so soon after “The King’s Speech” and the excellent BBC mini-series “Any Human Heart,” Madonna’s almost-paranormal rethinking of Edward VIII’s abdication has all the relevance of another TV show starring a Kardashian. Only “The Life and Times of Pippa Middleton” would have been less welcome last winter than was “W.E.,” a parallel romance in which the ghost of Wallis Simpson provides a link between 1936 Europe and 1998 New York. Abbie Cornish plays Wally Winthrop to Andrea Riseborough’s Wallis Simpson. The lifelong burden of being named after one of the most notorious women in history has resulted in the young American becoming obsessed with an upcoming auction of the duchess’ personal property. Standing among the items on the display floors allows Wally to imagine what the socialite’s life must have been like in the periods before and immediately after the death of Edward’s father, King George V.

As a transplanted American, world-class partier and unabashed material girl, Mrs. Simpson couldn’t have provided a juicier target for Madonna, the filmmaker, and, in fact, she does a pretty good job capturing the woman’s essence. The portrayal of Wally, though, is far more problematic. Beyond her understandable fascination with all-things-Simpson, Wally is married to an abusive jackass, who responds to her sexual advances as if her vagina was the one thing preventing him from prosperity and stardom. After several visits to the gallery, she succumbs to the charms of a Russian security guard (Oscar Isaac), who, without being asked, rescues her from more brutality at the hands and feet of her closet-case husband. By the time this occurs, however, the ugliness of the hyper-violent and barely explained attacks derails any forward momentum in the increasingly murky storyline. Madonna and co-writer Alex Keshisian’s desire to tell the story from Simpson’s p.o.v. remains interesting throughout the movie.

Even through her first two marriages, Simpson was known to have taken lovers, as did Edward (James D’Arcy). No harm, no foul. Indeed, had Edward agreed to certain titular compromises, he could have been king and she would have remained “the woman I love.” The media added a romantically heroic sheen to the decision, without allowing for the possibility that Simpson dreaded the thought of being surrounded by royal twits and blood-sucking photographers for the rest of her life. Madonna doesn’t explore the couple’s reputed sympathy for fascism, both in Germany and England, but it, too, would have become a moot point once Winston Churchill committed troops to the Allied struggle. (Edward wouldn’t have been the first British monarch Hitler would have approved.) In “W.E.,” we can see how Simpson was the true victim in the story, unable to shed the spotlight and rejoin the social whirl, or ever divorce her husband, who was no genius. By contrast, Wally’s story is essentially that of a smart, pretty and modern New Yorker, who married the wrong guy and inexplicably couldn’t leave the cad, even after his true nature revealed itself. Did Simpson put up with such mistreatment, as well, or was Wally merely holding out for a hero? Madonna’s most audacious decision, perhaps, was adding the Sex Pistols’ “Pretty Vacant” to Abel Korzeniowski’s otherwise lovely soundtrack during a party attended by Simpson, Edward and their aristocrat friends. After several hours of heavy partying, Edward discovers to his chagrin that he’s the last man standing. To reignite the guests, he passes around glasses of champagne laced with Benzedrine. Dramatic license or parody? It’s hard to say. I, for one, would have welcomed more such unexpected detours from the narrative. The excellently produced Blu-ray adds “The Making of ‘W.E.,’ Featuring Madonna,” which is too self-conscious to be of any use to anyone except her diehard fans. – Gary Dretzka

Haywire
If “Haywire” hadn’t been entrusted to director Steven Soderbergh and writer Lem Dobbs – also responsible for “The Limey” – it might have lacked the class, polish and velocity to prevent it from going straight to DVD. Essentially an action-thriller based on familiar spy-vs.-spy and kung-fu conceits, “Haywire” follows black-ops agent Mallory Kane (Gina Carano) through Europe and the U.S. as attempts to complete a mission that’s doomed to failure. It’s been determined that Kane will be made the scapegoat in a botched assignment and no expense will be spared to take her out. We, of course, learn of this deceit long before she does, but are never completely clear as to why such a skilled and loyal agent would be sacrificed for someone else’s mistake. It’s enough to know that she’s no longer able to trust her handlers or the leaders of her country. Soderbergh took a calculated risk by hiring MMA fighter Carano to play the protagonist alongside several far more recognizable actors. She’d acted previously in movies and television shows, but only in such fight-genre fodder as “Ring Girls,” “Fight Girls,” “Blood and Bone,” “American Gladiators” and as a key character in a video game. Tall, darkly pretty and muscular, Carano may not be a threat to steal any jobs from Scarlett Johansson, but she seems to know her boundaries and plays within them. Besides, she’d probably dismantle any director who suggested replacing her with a stunt double. Carano is a specialist in the Muay Thai discipline and it, too, adds something different to the almost non-stop ass-kicking.  It’s exciting to watch and the punishment she endures looks pretty realistic.

Soderbergh took some of the weight off Carano’s shoulders by surrounding her with such marquee talents as Michael Fassbender, Ewan McGregor, Bill Paxton and Channing Tatum. Antonio Banderas and Michael Douglas also were invited along for the ride, but it doesn’t look as if they were required to spend more than a couple of hours on the set. No matter, because Carano looks as hot in an evening dress as any Bond Girl and women in the audience likely will appreciate the presence of Fassbender and Tatum, who probably did require the help of stunt doubles. The extras include a featurette on Carano’s transformation as an actor and interviews with the male actors. – Gary Dretzka

Joyful Noise: Blu-ray
Todd Graff’s comedy-musical “Joyful Noise” is the kind of movie that continues to be made even though audiences intuitively know exactly what’s going to happen, when, and with what frequency. Nothing that takes place on screen could possibly occur the same way in real life, nor do people interact in ways the characters do. In movies like “Joyful Noise,” amateur choirs and high school orchestras deliver performances that wouldn’t be out of place at Rockefeller Center or the Colosseum at Caesars Palace. The impossibly-accomplished-musical sub-genre isn’t anything new, certainly. It’s at least as old as the Andy Hardy movies, with Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland staging productions worthy of Busby Berkeley and as fresh as every new episode of “Glee.” By casting Dolly Parton and Queen Latifah in lead roles, the producers of “Joyful Noise” not only knew that fans of Gospel, R&B and country music would find the movie, but they’d also have an inside track attracting faith-based audiences of all colors. After the choir director (Kris Kristofferson) at a small-town church dies unexpectedly, the pastor (Courtney B. Vance) chooses Latifah’s traditionally minded Vi Rose Hill to lead the ensemble over Dolly Parton’s more spirited G.G. Sparrow. The decision is fine with Sparrow, but it doesn’t bode well for future competitions, where the other groups – including one led by superstar Kirk Franklin – could pass for the bands that backed up James Brown and Tina Turner. Further complicating Vi’s life is the arrival of G.G.’s cocky grandson. The teenager (Jeremy Jordan) takes an instant shine to her daughter (Keke Palmer), who returns his attention in kind. While both of them are good kids and wonderful singers, their talents are limited by Vi’s conservative direction. She also attempts to nip their blossoming romance in the bud, fearing her daughter will succumb to the charms of a man like her estranged husband, now a soldier conveniently stationed nearby. These actions serve to drive a wedge between Vi and G.G., as well. In a twist of fate so swift and unlikely that it wouldn’t pass muster in a cartoon, Vi finally comes to realize that her choir wouldn’t stand a chance against flashier, “Glee”-influenced competitors and she hands the reins over to G.G. Naturally, even without practice, the choir performs as if the music and dance moves were built into their genetic code. Like the other show-stopping numbers in “Joyful Noise,” their number terrific. If only there were more of them. The Blu-ray package adds interviews, extended musical numbers, a deleted scene and a live clip of the cast and singers at the Staples Center. –Gary Dretzka

New Year’s Eve: Blu-ray
Considering that the critically thrashed “Valentine’s Day” made more than $100 million at the domestic box office, it was inevitable that director Garry Marshall and writer Katherine Fugate would be asked to do another crowd-pleasing holiday-themed comedy. Once again, it would feature appearances by a couple dozen bankable stars, in roles of varying degrees of length and importance, and play to the broadest possible audience. Because neither picture is particularly memorable or laugh-out-loud funny, they practically define what it means to be an “airplane movie.” While stylishly made, there’s nothing that could possibly offend anyone or require a parent to shield their child’s eyes from the screen. Just as in “Valentine’s Day,” the camera follows a couple of dozen attractive characters as their paths intersect over the course of a day. Everyone is in need of sexual or emotional healing and the coincidental occurrences designed to accommodate them are nothing short of miraculous. Because “New Year’s Day” is set in New York, all roads lead to Times Square, which, for a few hours, at least, becomes the center of the universe for homebound TV viewers and tens of thousands of tourists, pickpockets and revelers looking to score an easy midnight kiss. Prominent among the cast members are Hilary Swank, Lea Michele, Abigail Breslin, Sarah Jessica Parker, Michelle Pfeiffer, Zac Efron, Katherine Heigl, Jon Bon Jovi, Sofia Vergara and Josh Duhamel. Given less to do are Ashton Kutcher, Hector Elizondo, Halle Berry, Robert De Niro, Jessica Biel, Cary Elwes, Seth Meyers and another dozen familiar names. As sad as it was inevitable was the hiring of Ryan Seacrest to play himself, as host of “New Year’s Rockin’ Eve.” His lack of charisma is another reason to mourn the loss of Dick Clark. I’m not sure how Marshall’s been able to lure so many fine actors to join the cast of these movies, but it probably involves embarrassing photographs. The Blu-ray package adds Marshall’s often-amusing commentary, 17 minutes of deleted scenes, a gag reel and short featurettes on making a movie in Times Square, the cast members’ favorite New Year’s memories and the construction of the musical climax with Bon Jovi and Michele. Marshall may be a really nice guy and he’s made some wonderful movies, but let’s hope he decides not to extend the series with an “April Fool’s Day,” “Arbor Day” and a comedy version of “Halloween.” – Gary Dretzka

The Theatre Bizarre
The Shrine
Mimic: 3-Film Set: Blu-ray
Arriving hot on the heels of the truly strange Italian “Museum of Wonders,” “The Theatre Bizarre” extends the concept of Grand Guignol entertainment into the straight-to-video and festival-track arena here.  A Pigalle landmark for most of the 20th Century, Paris’ macabre Grand Guignol Theater – the probable inspiration for the vampire playhouse in “Interview With the Vampire” — attracted fans of graphic and decidedly twisted horror fare, delivered in a naturalistic setting and short-story form. The productions pushed the limits of good taste in the same way as the movies lumped together in the wake of such slasher, splatter, gore and torture-porn epics as “Black Christmas,” “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre,” “Night of the Living Dead” and “Halloween.” Made up to resemble a life-size marionette, cult icon Udo Kier introduces the segments in “The Theatre Bizarre” to an audience comprised of a signal increasingly wary spectator. Each one is directed by a different horror specialist and contains varying degrees of torture, witchcraft, revenge, seduction, instrumentation, slimy creatures and/or fantasy. Among the directors are Douglas Buck (“Sisters,” “Family Portraits”), Buddy Giovinazzo (“Combat Shock,” “Life is Hot in Cracktown”), David Gregory (“Plague Town”), Karim Hussain (“The Beautiful Beast,” “Subconscious Cruelty”), Jeremy Kasten (“The Wizard of Gore”), Tom Savini (“Tales from the Darkside”), Richard Stanley (“Hardware”) and Jeremy Kasten (“The Wizard of Gore”), who handled the framing sequences. They were allotted an equal, if limited budget and the freedom to interpret the subgenre as they saw fit. Believe me when I caution that the material is not for beginners. While cruel and largely gratuitous, the violence (and a bit of sex) also is replete with kinky humor and nightmare visions. True horror buffs, though, will eat up “The Theater Bizarre.”

In the reasonably scary Canadian import, “The Shrine.” director Jon Knautz (“Jack Brooks: Monster Slayer”) avoided stretching his limited budget past the breaking point by borrowing freely from several established genre tropes. Even if the movie bears a passing resemblance to several other horror pictures, though, it avoids easy compartmentalization by shuffling the cards every 20 minutes. After a curiosity-driven American backpacker disappears in Europe, his mother convinces a television news team to investigate. In an entirely implausible setup, the lead reporter decides to ignore her editor’s orders and travel to Poland with a cameraman and assistant in tow. Their research leads them to a secluded rural village, where everyone looks as if they’ve just seen a ghost. The journalists quickly stumble upon a shack with men in Druid outfits standing outside its door. Before they can approach them, however, thugs from the village chase them off the premises. This, of course, only serves to whet the team’s appetite for discovering what lies therein. After pretending to drive away, they double-back to investigate a stream of smoke rising from a nearby grove of trees. Instead of smoke, the team encounters a thick wall of fog, in which they discover statuary and other strange creatures and objects. Even this doesn’t dissuade the intrepid reporters from further investigation. It leads them to a dungeon, where they discover coffins containing bodies of tortured souls, including that of the backpacker, with masks nailed to the heads. The tortures scenes are pretty effective, if only because no one enjoys watching sharp objects being shoved into the eyes humans or animals.  The priests may seem out of place in Poland, but their presence is explained in a satisfying, if unexpected way. The cast includes fresh faces Aaron Ashmore (“Smallville”), Meghan Heffern (“The Fog”) and Cindy Sampson (“Supernatural”). The DVD adds an informative making-of featurette.

When Hollywood producers come calling at the door of a filmmaker whose first movie was as beautifully constructed, genuinely suspenseful and critically favored as “Chronos,” you’d think they’d have the common sense and decency to allow the director some space to work in peace. That the opposite experience generally is the one most recalled by such international sensations as Guillermo del Toro begs the question as to why anyone would think they could change the system. Even though the Mexican filmmaker’s fingerprints are all over “Mimic,” he almost immediately disowned it because of the meddling of producer Bob Weinstein and other geniuses at Miramax/Dimension. It’s interesting that del Toro subsequently agreed to be interviewed, at length, for the director’s-cut Blu-ray says a lot about the artist and the power of the format to redress past grievances. Still unhappy with the finished product – it’s as good as it’s ever likely to get, he says – del Toro seems mildly appreciative of being given an opportunity to revisit the bugs-vs.-man thriller. Genre loyalists will deliver the final verdict on how well the director’s-cut captures del Toro’s original vision and compares to his future successes. As muddled as it still seems at times, in my opinion it’s clearly an improvement over the dozens of horror titles released each month into DVD and Blu-ray. In any case, New Yorkers now fear bed bugs more than cockroaches content to live in the subway. Mira Sorvino plays Dr. Susan Tyler, the entomologist who developed a genetically engineered cockroach to combat the plague-carrying cockroaches threatening children. The Judas Breed bugs were supposed to have expired naturally in three years, but no such luck. Indeed, they’ve become more dangerous than the critters they helped eliminate. As is his wont, del Toro wastes little time taking the action underground, where the bugs have had plenty of time to breed and grow. They’ve also developed the ability to mimic human form. The battle for survival, which will be fought on the home turf of the enemy, ultimately will require the services of Charles S. Dutton, Josh Brolin, Jeremy Northam, Giancarlo Giannini and F. Murray Abraham. Blu-ray keeps the characters and cockroaches from getting lost in the darkness of the subway tunnels and accentuates the sources of light del Toro does provide. The heightened audio presentation also adds to the shock value. The bonus features include the director’s prologue and commentary, deleted scenes and a gag reel, interviews, storyboard animatics and a featurette on the restoration.

Even if there was no great clamor for sequels to “Mimic,” which just about broke even at the box office, there are only so many good titles from which to choose. Within the horror genre, short titles tend to have the most impact. In the straight-to-video world, as well, memorable titles provide hooks upon which franchise can be hung. This is true even when a sequel has almost nothing in common with the original. “Mimic 2” and “Mimic 3: Sentinel” are paint-by-numbers affairs, with the killer bugs being the constant element. Just as in real life, the Judas Breed cockroaches simply defy eradication. In “2,” the bugs begin to venture forth from the subway, while, in “3: Sentinel,” they appear to be targeting an entire neighborhood for re-location. In an unmistakable nod to “Rear Window,” a man stricken in the original plague documents the advance of cockroaches with a camera mounted in his bedroom. It should be said that some genre buffs consider “3: Sentinel” to be as good, if not better than the mutilated original. I say: you see one movie cockroach, you’ve seem ’em all. Each disc contains several additional bonus features. – Gary Dretzka

Circus Columbia
Kinyarwanda
After the lifting of the Iron Curtain, the American media described an Eastern Europe that was crying out for democracy, MTV and Kentucky Fried Chicken, and desired little more than to be molded into virtual Americans. It wasn’t true then and it certainly isn’t true now. It didn’t take long for the citizens of those beleaguered nations to realize that democracies could be corrupted and exploited from within and without, just as the previous authoritarian regimes had been, and an embracement of capitalism wouldn’t automatically ensure full employment or prosperity. Moveover, in the absence of a balance of power between superpowers, wounds suffered in conflicts long thought settled would be allowed to split wide open, spilling fresh blood over the borders of arbitrarily drawn maps. “Circus Columbia” is set in Bosnia-Herzegovina, circa 1991, a decade after the death of Josip Broz Tito and in the direct wake of the collapse of Yugoslavia’s communist government. Already, western nations were positioning themselves to exploit the inevitable division of the country into smaller democracies. With no one to stop them in their destructive paths, nationalists of Serb, Croatian and Bosnian ancestry were left free to devise strategies to eliminate ethnic minorities from the new nations. If the Serbs garnered most of the headlines – and international censure – it’s only because they were largely in control of the armed forces and struck first. The Croats and Bosnians would commit atrocities of their own, while the spotlight was elsewhere. “Circus Columbia” revisits the brief period of time between the declarations of independence and outbreak of war when some expatriates returned to the homes they left decades earlier and there existed at least a small glimmer of hope for continued peaceful co-existence. Divko Buntic (Miki Manojlovi) is just such a person. After 20 years in Germany, avoiding punishment for a political crime, he returns to his former home in a Mercedes-Benz, with a pretty young woman on his arm and roll of bills in his pocket. While welcomed by some of his former neighbors and friends, others are old enough to recall the reasons for Divko’s flight and his caddish behavior toward the woman and son he deserted. After 20 years, the disagreeable cuss doesn’t appear to have softened much. Divko gets the mayor to evict his wife and son from the home they’ve shared since he split for Germany. In the hands of director Danis Tanovic (“No Man’s Land”), Divko is the prototypical Yugoslavian male chauvinist, incapable of lifting himself off the living-room couch to get cigarettes, pick up his socks or pour himself a drink. While his girlfriend, Azra (Jelena Stupljanin) is at home, cleaning the house and cooking dinner, Divko holds court at a local cafe. He’s convinced Azra that he’ll soon have his estranged wife’s signature on divorce papers, but the disappearance of his beloved pet cat has lift him incapable of any following up on the promise. Lonely and disappointed, Azra attempts to develop a familial bond with her husband’s handsome and genuinely friendly son, Martin (Boris Ler).

Although the war for independence in Croatia has begun to make headlines throughout the former Yugoslavia, Divko and most other Bosnians not wearing a uniform can’t imagine their multicultural society being torn apart by violence, nationalism and religious intolerance. Of course, the calm before the storm wouldn’t last much longer. Already, teenage boys are being recruited to serve militias of their own ethnic backgrounds and the army is coming apart at its seams. Just as the conflagration is about to erupt a friendly army officer convinces Martin and his mother, Lucija (Mira Furlan), that it’s time to get out of Dodge and head for Germany. Up until this point, viewers were free to take away from “Circus Columbia” as much dark humor and satire as they could mine. Nothing that happened after the first shells were lobbed could be considered remotely amusing. It would stay that way for another three years. As in “No Man’s Land,” Tanovic is reluctant to fix blame on any one Bosnian tribe. The backgrounds of the characters aren’t made clear, perhaps, because everyone within reach of a gun had an itchy trigger finger and there soon will be plenty of blame to share. The decision works to the advantage of the story’s narrative. Knowledge of the intricacies of the Bosnian conflict isn’t necessary for any enjoyment of “Circus Columbia,” but the film’s full flavor won’t cut through the surface of the dark comedy without it. The acting throughout is exemplary and the Bosnian locations – I’m guessing, closer to Croatia than Serbia – add a distinct air of authenticity.

At about the same time as the Bosnian War was consuming the attention of the international media, an even greater transgression against humanity was percolating in the central African nation of Rwanda. It would boil over during a 100-day period of unfathomable violence, later determined to be genocide. If the slaughter of Tutsi men, women and children by Hutu militias was slow to make the front pages of western newspapers, the horror would subsequently be well documented in such films as “Hotel Rwanda,” “Shake Hands With the Devil,” “Beyond the Gates” and “Munyurangabo.” Most striking, perhaps, was the barbaric nature of the slaughter, which largely was accomplished through the use of machetes, spiked clubs, gasoline and cheap handguns. “Kinyarwanda” assumes the point of view of characters we might have seen in earlier films huddling in churches and crawl spaces or standing alongside a military transport or checkpoint. Freshman director Alrick Brown uses the budding romance of a Tutsi girl and a Hutu boy as connecting tissue to separate through-lines involving a woman army officer, hoping to eradicate the militias preying on innocent people; a mullah risking his own life to shelter refugees; a priest who’s lost his religion in the wake of the atrocities; a man and woman of mixed religious background whose marriage is being pulled apart by other people’s prejudices; and several militia members required to acknowledge their crimes in the reconsolidation process that followed the genocide. “Kinyarwanda” is based on accounts from survivors – Tutsi and Hutu, alike — who took refuge at the Grand Mosque of Kigali and the madrassa of Nyanza. The cast includes professional actors and amateurs who experienced the tragedy first-hand. If, at times, it feels as if what’s happening on screen is tearing holes in your heart, there also are scenes in which characters display great courage and generosity and other values attributed to a kind and just God … wherever He might have been vacationing in 1994. – Gary Dretzka

She’s Not Our Sister
Since it rebranded in 2010, the cable service GMC (a.k.a., Gospel Music Channel) has broadened its entertainment menu to include more than a half-dozen original movies it promotes as being “uplifting” and “family oriented.” All deal one way or another with moral issues affecting young and attractive middle-class African-Americans. Members of the clergy help the characters make decisions about love and romance, but, just as often, they provide comic relief. While comparisons can be made to similarly targeted productions from Tyler Perry’s entertainment factory, the GMC movies tend to have a sharper edge and sexier looking stars. “She’s Not Our Sister” is typical in that it leavens its sermonizing with much broad humor, flirtatious behavior and songs. In it, three sisters have different reactions to the death of their estranged father. Their mother has already died, but it isn’t likely she’ll make any great effort to reunite with the man when and if he passes through the pearly gates. It isn’t long after the funeral that the sisters sense something isn’t kosher. It isn’t until they’re told to gather for the reading of the old man’s will that they learn of his multimillion-dollar estate and the presence of a half-sister who must have been born within days of one of the sisters. When their step-sister is introduced to them, two of the sisters open their arms to her, while the oldest treats her like damaged goods. The will stipulates that the women share the money, but only after living under the same roof for a few months. You can probably guess the rest of the story. The attractive cast includes Azur-De, Tony Grant, Christian Keyes, Jazmin Lewis, Drew Sidora and Clifton Powell. – Gary Dretzka

Ralphie May: Too Big to Ignore
I’d love to see NBC dedicate a season of “The Biggest Loser” to such fat-bordering-on-obese comedians as Ralphie May, Gabriel Iglesias, Lavelle Crawford, John Pinette, Brian E. Kiley and Mo’Nique. Even if none of them lost a pound, it could be the funniest show on TV. The winner would be awarded trainer Jillian Michaels to eat for dinner, deep-fried or pan-seared. Ralphie May, whose fourth Comedy Central special, “Too Big to Ignore,” has just been released on DVD, would have a distinct advantage over the other contestants in that he’s already shed 400 pounds. Given that he lists Sam Kinison as one of his comedy heroes, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that his material, while often hilarious, is undeniably raunchy. As difficult as it might be to imagine anyone who weighs 400-plus pounds and stands 5-foot-9 making love – the father of two is married to comedian Lahna Turner – the bits involving oral sex are particularly outrageous. This isn’t to say May uses his weight as his primary vehicle for comedy, because his stuff is all over the board. His quirky hip-hop delivery opens the door for much homeboy humor, which he ladles out in surprisingly nimble fashion. A caution to viewers allergic to the N-word: he’s uses it unsparingly in a funny bit about his idea for eliminating the stigma surrounding such slurs, by replacing them with the flavors of popular cookies. (It works better on stage than in print.) – Gary Dretzka

Men in Black/Men in Black II: Blu-ray
Clueless: Blu-ray
With the arrival of “Men in Black III” right around the corner, the folks at Sony thought it would be a good time to re-release the 1997 original in Blu-ray and send out the 2002 sequel in hi-def, as well. Sure, why not? Based on a fairly obscure comic book, “Men in Black” took the world by storm with its delightful array of aliens and hilarious parody of government spooks and conspiracy theorists. Frank the Pug might have had something to do with its popularity, as well. Although it didn’t exactly embarrass itself at the box office, almost no one will admit to enjoying “Men in Black II” nearly as much as “MiB.” It was widely condemned for being uninspired and absent the same spark that lit Barry Sonnenfeld and Ed Solomon’s original collaboration. Waiting 10 years for a third installment almost certainly was a good idea, no matter the critical response to the new movie. The real question is whether Sonnenfeld can return to the same form he displayed in “MiB” and “Get Shorty,” some 15 years ago. He takes a back-to-the-future approach in “MiB III,” but with four writer’s names attached to the screenplay, it’s anyone’s guess how it will turn out. Nevertheless, newcomers to the franchise are advised to do some homework ahead of time. “MiB” looked and sounded very good in its original Blu-ray incarnation and the bonus features remain pretty much the same, as well: alternative and extended scenes, visual and audio commentaries, galleries, a trivia game and “Ask Frank the Pug”. Technically, the “MiB II” presentation represents an upgrade from the DVD. The bonus package adds several leftovers from the special widescreen edition, including director’s commentary, an alternate ending and blooper reel, behind-the-scenes and creature featurettes, scene deconstructions and a music video. Both offer UltraViolet capability, discount coupons for “MiB III” and previews of the video game.

Clueless” stands proudly alongside such pitch-perfect movies about the peaks and valleys of the American high school experience as “Breakfast Club,” “Blackboard Jungle,” “Mean Girls,” “Fast Times at Ridgemont High,” “Rock ’n’ Roll High School,” “Rushmore,” “Cooley High,” “Election,” “Stand and Deliver” and “Heathers.” A delicate balance between classroom scenes and outside action was maintained throughout and each addressed issues specific to their time and cultural milieu. In “Clueless,” Alicia bowled everyone over with dead-on impression of a Beverly Hills teenager able to turn being spoiled into a team sport, with friends who mimicked the ostentatious mannerisms of their mothers, whose only goals in life are to maintain their girlish figures and shop until they drop. Her Cher Horowitz could easily have grown up to Carrie Bradshaw,” in “Sex and the City,” and her circle of friends might have served as an inspiration for the cliquey rich kids in “The O.C.” and “Gossip Girl.” Thirteen years earlier, Amy Heckerling had turned “Fast Times at Ridgemont Times” into a modern classic. Two and three decades later, it’s still fascinating to see how much their characters would evolve into actual teenage archetypes, on and off the screen. The fine cast includes Stacey Dash, Brittany Murphy, Elisa Donovan, Breckin Meyer (channeling Jeff Spicoli), Dan Hedaya, Wallace Shawn and Paul Rudd. The only new bonus features here are the “Clue or False Trivia Game” and hi-def trailer/teasers. Otherwise, they package is the same one included in the “Whatever! Edition.” – Gary Dretzka

Flicka 3: Country Pride
Novelist Mary O’Hara introduced the Wyoming wonder-horse Flicka in a Western trilogy, custom-made to be adapted by several generations of filmmakers, spanning the 1943 “My Friend Flicka” and the new DVD original, “Flicka 3: Country Strong.” It’s been more than half-century since the original protagonist, Ken McLaughlin, made his last appearance on the back of the tempestuous mustang mare. Roddy McDowell originated the character and was succeeded in the saddle by fellow child star Johnny Washbrook. Between TV and the movies, O’Hara’s source material seemingly was exhausted long ago. Fox revived the series in 2006, electing to put girls in Flicka’s stirrups for the first time. Alison Lohman would be followed by Tammin Sursok and Kacey Rohl, with singer Clint Black acting as the horse’s trainer. In “Flicka 3,” Black’s character is hired by the owner of a stable that caters to the jumping and dressage crowd. (She’s played by his real-life wife, Lisa Hartman.) The ruling clique at the stable treats Rohl as nothing more than the girl who mucks out the stalls. In fact, she’s a talented rider and Flicka is a natural jumper. In a subplot right out of “Mean Girls,” Rohl is bullied by riders jealous both of her skills and her rising status in horsy society, and angry that one of the cute guys has taken a liking to her. Naturally, there’s a showdown between Rohl and her snobby nemesis, with the future of her mom’s stable at stake. In a return to the director’s chair, Michael Damian manages to overcome the many inherent clichés built into such family dramas. The actors are a game lot and the British Columbia locations are close enough to the non-mountainous stretches of Wyoming to pass. – Gary Dretzka

Masterpiece Classic: The Mystery of Edwin Drood: Blu-ray
American Experience: Jesse Owens
Nova: Secrets of the Sun
Charles Dickens left countless readers in the lurch when, after completing just 6 of 12 chapters in the serialized novel, “The Mystery of Edwin Drood,” he suffered a stroke and died. In the ensuing 142 years, several playwrights and screenwriters have attempted to conjure an ending that would honor Dickens’ memory and satisfy amateur sleuths. The first two film adaptations appeared in 1909 and 1914, before the movies talked, with others showing up in 1935 and 1993. The new “Masterpiece Classic” version, with a new ending by Gwyneth Hughes, was broadcast on England’s BBC 2 earlier this year in two parts. Matthew Rhys plays John Jasper, the opium-addled choir master who may or may not have killed the title character (Freddie Fox) in a fit of jealous rage. Jasper has developed a crush on his much younger student, Rosa Bud, who is engaged to be married to his nephew, Drood, Conveniently, his descent into madness coincides with the arrival in Cloisterham of twins, Helena and Neville Landless, from Ceylon. All are potential heirs to the Drood fortune, and stepbrothers Edwin and Neville take an instant dislike to each other. This provides a convenient alibi for Jasper if and when he takes action to eliminate his perceived competitor for Rosa’s hand. Meanwhile, the lovely flower has begun to fear Jasper, and for good reason. Hughes’ ending not only allows for a solution to Drood’s disappearance, but also a spooky visit to crypts below Cloisterham Cathedral overseen by the drunken stonemason, Durdles, who only thinks he knows where all of the bodies are buried. The BBC production is as suspenseful as it is intellectually satisfying.

It is a chapter of American history thoroughly engrained in the collective memory of every student who’s passed through the public-school system over the past 70 years. In an early, pre-war victory in the Allied effort to destroy the Nazi menace, Jesse Owens personally burst Adolph Hitler’s bubble on the issue of Aryan supremacy in sports. Hitler had intended to use the 1936 Berlin Olympiad as a showcase for Germany’s athletic prowess, but he hadn’t reckoned on the ability of Owens and teammate Ralph Metcalfe to dominate every race in which they were entered. The “American Experience” biodoc chronicles every step in Owens’ march to Berlin, as well as the more revelatory events that followed on his home turf. We’ve been taught as Americans to hold sacred Owens’ triumphs in Berlin. What Owens knew then and most Americans have forgotten – or never learned – is that one of his and Metcalfe’s gold medals might have gone to Jewish teammates if USOC president Avery Brundage hadn’t acquiesced to Hitler’s demands that Jews be forbidden from competing against Germans. Owens would be greeted as a hero when he returned home from Europe but none of the rewards he was promised ever materialized. To avoid bankruptcy, he agreed to race against horses at fairs and tracks. Neither could he avoid other humiliations associated with being a person of color in America at the time. Racists in America accomplished what Hitler couldn’t by denying Owens the fruits of his hard work and courage. The documentary is informed by interviews with historians, relatives and people who watched Owens perform at the Games.

Watch “Nova: Secrets of the Sun” in Blu-ray and you may never leave your house in daylight hours again. The Sun is one scary star. Thanks to new spacecraft and Earth-based telescopes, scientists are getting more adept at predicting the effects of solar storms and other phenomenon on our electrical grids and communications systems. The images sent back from probes as they approach the gaseous surface are nothing short of awe-inspiring, as frightening as they are beautiful. I suggest watching “Secrets of the Sun” before or after reading Ray Bradbury’s “The Rocket Man.” – Gary Dretzka

The Dick Van Dyke Show: Carl Reiner’s Favorites
Kojak: Season Four
Sesame Street: Singing With the Stars
Bubble Guppies
If hope ever did spring eternal, it would be in the dark hearts of network programming executives who keep throwing defective spaghetti against a wall believing it will stick. Even the shows that make the cut look anemic compared the hits of yesteryear and, of course, premium cable. The ratio of hits to misses probably hasn’t changed much over the last 50 years, but, given the continuing deflation of ratings and share points, it’s safe to argue that creativity has been devalued, as well. While it would be difficult to argue that “Kojak” is a better show than “CSI” or “Law & Order,” there’s no question that no one creates TV cops in the same mold as Telly Savalas, anymore. With all due regard for the producers of “Modern Family,” “Community,” “30 Rock” and “The Office,” it’s become almost impossible to build an ensemble show around a star like Dick Van Dyke and sell it to audiences of all ages. When network executives began parsing audiences into distinct demographic segments and targeting content at the viewers that advertisers valued most, it was an invitation for less-valued viewers to join the niche world of cable and satellite. Not only did “The Dick Van Dyke Show” and other classic sitcoms appeal to audiences of all ages, but, on DVD and retro networks, they still do. The measure for success once was 100 episodes, the number that assured syndication. Now, even shows that didn’t last an entire season find an afterlife on DVD and niche cable. While it’s true that “The Dick Van Dyke Show” is no stranger to the DVD marketplace, it continues to profit those anxious to sell its individual parts. Out of 158 episodes, series creator/writer/producer was asked to pick 20 of his favorites for this Image Entertainment compilation. Collectors already will have most of them on tape and disc, and it’s likely they’ve been memorized by diehard fans, but newcomers will find in “Carl Reiner’s Favorites” a convenient entry point to the show, which also starred Mary Tyler Moore, Morey Amsterdam and Rose Marie. The 500-minute collection would be worth the price of admission to aspiring actors if only to study the elasticity of Van Dyke’s physical comedy. Among Reiner’s favorites are “Never Name a Duck,” “The Attempted Marriage,” “Hustling the Hustler,” “Gesundheit,” “Pink Pills for Purple Patients” and “No Rice at My Wedding.”

Among the guest stars on the first episode of “Kojak: Season Four” is Richard Gere. It isn’t a huge role, but it’s fun to watch him at this stage in his career.  You can almost see the gears moving in the future superstar’s head as he honed his craft and screen persona simultaneously. Such dramatic series, especially those from the 1970s, became a crossroads where stars of the past and future often met. Savalas’ giant Greek personality dominated the show, of course, but there was also something else of interest to enjoy. When Kojak wasn’t bouncing insults off the heads of his motley crew of detectives, he would suck on lollipops and invent new catchphrases, like “Meow, baby.” Crimes and chases that wouldn’t have worked nearly as well if shot in L.A. worked wonderfully in the streets, alleys, rooftops and business of New York. Watching it after all these years, it makes me wonder how a cop show starring Larry David would look.

For parents, one of the trademark attractions of “Sesame Street” was the likelihood that a celebrity or popular entertainment might show up unexpectedly and join Elmo and the other Muppets in song and dance. In the latest compilation, “Sesame Dance: Singing With the Stars,” the gang is joined by such luminaries as Alicia Keys, the Dixie Chicks, Andrea Bocelli, Adam Sandler and other performers on such songs as R.E.M.’s “Furry Happy Monsters” and “What I Am.” The DVD adds a karaoke sing-along feature, activity tips for parents, a downloadable book and CD.

Nickelodeon’s “Bubble Guppies” is designed to help pre-schoolers prepare for an immersion in social skills, science, math and literacy. A diverse collection of animated characters – who look more like mermaids and goldfish than guppies — dedicates itself to finding snacks and providing adventures for Bubble Puppy. The set includes the TV movie, “Bubble Puppy’s Fin-tastic Fairy Tale,” karaoke videos, an interactive game and song selection. – Gary Dretzka

The DVD Wrapup: Contraband, Camelot, Return, Young Goethe, Innkeepers, Hollis Frampton … More

Saturday, April 28th, 2012

Contraband: Blu-ray
Like so many other crime dramas involving reluctant protagonists, “Contraband” can be summed up in the words of Michael Corleone, “Just when I thought I was out… they pull me back in.” Hang a few cool characters on that hook, add some inspired gunplay and set it in an interesting locale and, sometimes, even, a producer can save money by cribbing a script from any one of a hundred similar movies. Set in New Orleans and Panama City, “Contraband” stars such dependable actors as Mark Wahlberg, Giovanni Ribisi, Ben Foster, Lukas Haas, Kate Beckinsale, Diego Luna and J.K Simmons. The gun fights and chases are impressively choreographed by Baltasar Kormákur, the fine Icelandic filmmaker who produced and starred in the 2008 “Reykjavik-Rotterdam,” from which “Contraband” was faithfully re-interpreted. This time around, Wahlberg plays retired seaman and smuggler Chris Farraday, who’s forced back into action after a deal arranged by his moronic brother-in-law goes south. Chris tries to reason with the gangster who sucked the kid into the scam, but, when that fails, he does the honorable thing by agreeing to recover the debt. In short order, Chris reconnects with a counterfeiter he knows in Panama City and ships out on a freighter with some old pals and a captain who has good reason to mistrust him. Things get even stickier when the fake money turns out to be less than perfect and Chris is forced to deal with a different Panamanian gangster. His bad luck is far from over, though. Not only is the clock running out on his ability to return to the ship before it pulls away from the dock, but he’s also required to join the second gangster in an armored car heist and deal with another betrayal by his brother-in-law. This kind of bad craziness continues to occur back home in New Orleans, where Chris’ wife is being held as a hostage by Ribisi’s dastardly hoodlum character and someone we’ve been led to believe is a friend. A lot of harm can be done by adding 21 minutes to what originally was brisk 88-minute thriller and, in his first Hollywood outing, Kormákur was required to do just that. Still, despite the added bulk, “Contraband” moves along in orderly fashion. Much of the credit for that belongs to Wahlberg, who’s as likeable an actor as we have right now. The brutality that begins building as soon as the ship leaves New Orleans also keeps our attention from wavering. Even so, it would be a greater crime if Kormákur were forced to focus on action pictures on future big-studio projects. He built a reputation as one the world’s most interesting new writer-directors with such offbeat films as “Reykjavik 101,” “The Sea,” “Jar City” and “White Night Wedding,” and it would be shame to lose that singular vision. The Blu-ray adds a pair of making-of featurettes, deleted scenes, commentary and U-Control picture-in-picture capability. – Gary Dretzka

Camelot: Blu-ray
I wonder how many potential viewers of Joshua Logan’s 1967 adaptation of the blockbuster Broadway musical, “Camelot,” are aware of the production’s links to the tragically abbreviated administration of John F. Kenndy and the mythology that still surrounds it. After the assassination of her husband, Jacqueline Kennedy compared the resurgence of hope, optimism and prosperity during his reign to that of King Arthur in “Camelot.” That’s how, the First Lady said, she wanted the public to remember President Kennedy. The media ate it up, allowing her vision of an American Camelot to obscure the compromises and mistakes that would lead to the Vietnam War; the Bay of Pigs and still problematic blockade of Cuba; the bottlenecking of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 by segregationist Democrats; and conspiracy theories about JFK’s links to the mafia and his sharing of lovers with Chicago mobster Sam Giancana. No matter, though, because as much as the media bought into the Kennedy mystique, that’s exactly how much Kennedy loyalists despised his less charismatic successor, Lyndon Baines Johnson, who took the fall for almost all of the dead President’s shortcomings. LBJ would become Mordred to JFK’s King Arthur, even though he subsequently led the charge for the Civil Rights legislation and followed Kennedy’s lead in Vietnam. So much, then, for mythology.

Like JFK’s legacy, the movie version of “Camelot” hasn’t aged well in the succeeding nearly 50 years. In fact, after knocking ’em dead on Broadway in the early 1960s, the movie version failed to overwhelm Oscar voters or attract nearly the same number of fans as “My Fair Lady.” While the Lerner and Lowe score remains as wonderful as ever, everything else in “Camelot” seems old-fashioned and stagey. Even though some of the action and ceremony would be staged inside and around historic Spanish castles, the soundstage sets failed to capture the compressed majesty of the Broadway production. Today, however, the choice of Franco Nero, Richard Harris and a post-“Blow-Up” Vanessa Redgrave to replace Julie Andrews, Robert Goulet and Richard Burton doesn’t seem nearly as fatal as it did in 1996, when Jack Warner found himself in the same situation as the one surrounding “My Fair Lady” a couple of years earlier. For her part, Redgrave
There’s certainly nothing much wrong with the “45th Anniversary Edition” of “Camelot.” It looks great in Blu-ray and the songs sound as if they were recorded yesterday. The many tight focuses on the principle actors also hold up very well, capturing all the twinkles and enhancements applied by makeup artists and the cinematographer. The package also includes commentary by Stephen Farber, who discusses both the film and original Broadway production; a new high-def featurette, “Camelot: Falling Kingdoms,” which discusses the fortunes of Warner and the studio in the mid-1960s, as well as the connection to JFK; two previously shown pieces, “The Story of Camelot,” about both the Arthurian legend and movie, and “The World Premiere of ‘Camelot’”; several vintage trailers; and a CD containing four songs. It does not, however, include the previously released alternate music-only track. – Gary Dretzka


Return
Linda Cardellini (“ER”) was an inspired choice to play a wife, mother and member of the Ohio National Guard, returning home from an unconscionable 18-month tour of duty in Liza Johnson’s heart-wrenching drama, “Return.” Kelli joined the Guard right out of high school, in the mid-1990s, in the interest of helping disaster victims and to afford a college degree. What she and tens of thousands of other young men and women in the same situation hadn’t counted on, however, was that the war in Iraq would require the longtime support of so many National Guard troops. Neither could they have predicted that they would be treated so very differently from their counterparts in the regular army after supporting the same cause. As we meet Kelli, she’s being welcomed home in much the same way as other wives and mothers, husbands and fathers who served. Lacking a cushion of time and purpose, though, it doesn’t take long before Kelli begins to unravel and people stop cutting her slack. One day she was over there and the next she was here, with a husband and child who might as well have been strangers to her. Her job was held open, but, by comparison to what she had been doing in Iraq, she deemed it to be meaningless and insignificant. Never mind that 90 percent of all employment is indefensible as an intellectual exercise or beneficial to humanity, Kelli simply saw the absurdity in it. Neither does she allow herself to believe her husband – Michael Shannon, in another great performance – when he says he didn’t cheat on her with an attractive redhead who seems to be too familiar with him and their daughter. (We aren’t given enough evidence to know for sure, one way or the other, either.) When Kelli does finally snap and ends up before a judge for drunken driving, she’s routinely assigned to complete a 12-step program whose leader isn’t equipped to handle the specific problems of returning vets. Like so many other soldiers, Kelli begins to feel as if her real home is back in the shit.

In her debut feature, Johnson doesn’t pull many punches or allow her protagonist any easy answers. Kelli may think that the world as she knew it has changed, but it’s she who has been changed by the war and, while sympathetic, most people would rather not be reminded of what’s happening to Americans half a world away. (They care even less about what’s happening to the Iraqis and Afghans.) Cardellini does a really nice job interpreting Kelli’s spectrum of emotions and her difficulty re-adjusting to things she once took for granted. “Return” is as topical as it is compelling. The simple truth is that members of the Guard, especially, are paying the price for the bi-partisan political decision to avoid an unpopular and unsupportable draft at all costs. It’s manifested itself in tours of duty that were unheard of in the Vietnam era and assignments the Guard was never intended to perform. “Return” may not be an easy movie to watch, but it’s an important one to experience, especially by those in a hurry to commit American resources to another war based on lies, rumors and revenge. – Gary Dretzka


Young Goethe in Love
If the name, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, means nothing to you, it’s very unlikely you’ll want to spend much time with the German polymath in Philipp Stolzl’s scrupulously conceived period biopic, “Young Goethe in Love.” This isn’t to say there isn’t much to enjoy here, only that 21st Century audiences are too concerned with the plight of comic-book superheroes and their fear of a zombie holocaust to be impressed by the achievements of an 18th Century poet, dramatist, author, artist, biologist, theoretical physicist and stud muffin. Fans of European literature, though, should appreciate the exacting attention to detail paid by Stolzl’s team and the lush settings of historic Saxony. When we first meet the young and handsome Goethe (Alexander Fehling), in 1777, he’s in the process of failing his law exams. His refusal to pay attention to his teachers infuriates Goethe’s wealthy and prominent father (Henry Huebchen), who exiles his son to a provincial court as punishment and a tactic to get his priorities straight. The plan works to the extent that Goethe is able to impress his boss, Albert Kestner (Moritz Bleibtreu), and establish himself as a local character. The rub comes when he discovers that the woman of his dreams, Lotte (Miriam Stein), has been promised to Kestner by her father and he’s the last to know it. It results not only in a duel and incarceration, but also the impetus to write the semi-autobiographical “The Sorrows of Young Werther.” The novel became such a huge European literary sensation that it made him something of a pop star and inspired a rash of sympathetic suicides. The DVD bonus package is worth sampling, if only to see how well existing locations lent themselves to the film’s period look. – Gary Dretzka


The Innkeepers: Blu-ray
The Wicker Tree: Blu-ray
Enter Nowhere
Night Wolf
The Fields

Upon its release in February, “The Innkeepers” was accorded the kind of limited release usually reserved for movies about to go straight-to-video, without passing “Go,” or making $200 at the box office. Despite receiving some excellent notices by influential critics, Ti West’s chiller never played on more than 25 screens simultaneously, before disappearing into the limbo that separates theatrical exposure and ascendance to DVD and Blu-ray afterlife, where it deserves a far better fate. There’s nothing terribly unusual in the setup. Clerks working at an inn about to close its doors for good decide that they’ll have a little fun by playing their own game of “Ghost Hunters,” using strategically placed video equipment and hypersensitive microphones. The male clerk (Pat Healy) gets things rolling right off the bat by devising a time-honored visual gimmick guaranteed to shock his partner (Sara Paxton) and unprepared viewers. She’s a bundle of raw nerves, anyway, so the more absorbed she gets in the investigation and issues surrounding the inn’s last guests, the more the suspense builds for everyone. West is very good at not showing his hand too early and tipping us off as to what he has in mind for his characters. He doles out the thrills sparingly, until we can’t wait any longer and the hotel gives up its secrets in a qfinal exhilarating rush. If nothing is particularly new in “The Innkeepers,” West makes the most of the archetypical and paranormal tropes. Rated R, for no good reason, the film could serve as great starting point for any teenager who is pursuing a serious interest in the horror genre.

Knowing that Robin Hardy’s 1973 “Wicker Man” is still revered as one of the horror genre’s most influential imports from the U.K. – or, for that matter, anywhere else – bought for its far-less-riveting sequel nearly an hour’s worth of my patience and willingness to suspend disbelief. My confusion had almost nothing to do with Hardy’s inability to produce any thrills – cheap or otherwise — or the possibility that pagan rituals stopped being scary when an episode of “Malcolm in the Middle” was staged at the Burning Man Festival. In “The Wicker Tree” a pair of young American bible-bangers travels to the wilds of Scotland to spread the good news about Jesus Christ to the creepy residents of Tressock. Brittania Nicol and Henry Garrett play the missionaries – one a born-again pop singer and the other a naturally born cowboy – who, for some unknown reason, have decided that this community of Scots requires salvation more than any other. It’s as if the fates drove them here. Even if it’s safe for us to assume that the townsfolk haven’t changed their religious stripes over the course of the last 40 years, the residents enjoy singing along with Beth and testing the vow of chastity of her cowpoke companion. What locals really see in Beth is the perfect candidate to be this year’s May Queen and, seemingly ignorant of the meaning behind the lyrics to “Stairway to Heaven,” she agrees to join in the fun. The cowboy’s role in the pageant is less obvious, but no less essential to addressing the near-total absence of children in Tressock. If any of this sounds promising as a fodder for horror, it’s best to know ahead of time that there’s far more humor here than chills. Blessedly, the traditional pagan impulse to shed clothes while on long walks to worship remains as strong as ever here. Otherwise, there might be less reason to sample “Wicker Man” than rent Neil Labute’s 2006 remake of the original, which starred Nicolas Cage. In a making-of featurette, Hardy allows that the “Wicker” flicks are intended to be seen as a hybrid of horror, humor and music. The missing ingredient here is the horror. It stars Graham McTavish, Jacqueline Leonard, Honeysuckle Weeks, Clive Russell and with Christopher Lee, star of the original.

Enter Nowhere” finds three strangers drawn to the same sort of decrepit cabin in the woods that’s served as a final home to young adults in dozens of other such horror movies. For all intends and purposes, the strangely vacant abode could have been constructed of boards and roofing material left behind from the last incarnation of “The Twilight Zone.” It’s that kind of movie. Before discovering that none of them can agree on the same state of the union they’re in, or even the country, the strangers literally stumble over the entrance to a bomb shelter that contains maps, supplies and other material that dates back to World War II-era Germany. Could the Nazis have made a beachhead here decades earlier and left abruptly? It isn’t until someone in uniform begins shooting at them that the characters begin piecing together the puzzle that’s drawn them all here at this particular time and place. Although “Enter Nowhere” isn’t particularly horrific, a sense of suspense is maintained throughout by freshman director Jack Heller and the ending isn’t entirely predictable, as is so often the case in such mysterioso psycho-dramas.

The American DVD edition of “13Hrs” suffers from two rather unfortunate choices, 1) its title has been changed to the more generic “Night Wolf” and, 2) the cover gives away too much of the monster’s appearance, which the director carefully guards for most of the movie’s running time. “Night Wolf” describes what happens in the 13-hour period between the arrival home of the wayfaring Sarah Tyler (Isabella Calthorpe) and the horrible discovery of a beast that possibly is out to destroy the whole family and mansion in which they all once lived. After some coolish greetings are exchanged, Sarah and her siblings and friends (Gemma Atkinson, Tom Felton, Joshua Bowman, among them) are inspired by some frightening occurrences to spend much of the rest of the night in the mansion’s attic, where something or someone is conspiring to freak the shit out of them. It doesn’t get interesting for the audience, though, until closer to the dawn, when the monster must reveal itself or forever hold its peace. It’s at this point that “Night Wolf” pays its debt to viewers who’ve waiting patiently for something exciting to happen. Naturally, there’s more to the beast than meets the eye.

The Fields” takes me back to the time when the full extent of the atrocities committed by the Manson Family was being revealed in the media and in a Los Angeles courtroom, outside which young women with swastikas etched onto their foreheads held a daily vigil. The Tate-LaBianca case had officially closed the curtain on the Flower Power era and similarly shabby-looking radicals had begun blowing up symbols of U.S. imperialism wherever they found them. Regular folks had stopped picking up hitchhikers and what FBI informants couldn’t prove about Black Panthers, Yippies and the Weather Underground, it simply invented or provoked. In “The Fields,” an 8-year-old boy already traumatized by his parents’ (Tara Reid, Faust Checho) marital problems is shipped off to the Pennsylvania countryside to live with his slightly unbalanced grandparents (Cloris Leachman, Bev Appleton). As if the kid weren’t sufficiently unnerved by the chaos in his life, they expose him to news reports of the Manson killings and issue a stern warning about entering the cornfields next to their house. This is like telling a fledgling surfer not to worry about the sharks. Because Nintendo has yet to be invented, Steven is required to kill time watching late-night horror films with grandma and the loony stories of gramps. It’s no wonder, then, that the boy starts hearing things go bump in the night and sees shadows on his window shades. Not surprisingly, “The Fields” is enhanced by the fine acting of its veteran stars. Then, too, there are the corn fields, which we’ve learned to fear as much as deranged hippies and the SLA. Apparently, directors Tom Mattera and David Mazzoni, and writer Harrison Smith, were inspired by real people and childhood memories, some of which are recalled in bonus features. – Gary Dretzka

Chasing Happiness
Planet of the Vampire Women

Male fantasies don’t get much flimsier than the one at the core of “Chasing Happiness,” which, if its female leads had been required to give up a bit more skin – or any at all – could have easily found a home on Cinemax. Even though the ladies are plenty sexy and reasonably accomplished as actors, freshman writer/director Beni Tadd Atoori treats their characters as if they were being played by his daughters and he was concerned about preserving their cinematic chastity. The women share a large Los Angeles house with a money-grubbing madam with a male prostitute masquerading as a sex therapist. In other rooms of the house, there’s an ongoing poker game, a phony ashram and enema clinic. Before turning her female clients over to the stud for treatment, the madam interviews them. Mostly, this is to ensure that they aren’t undercover cops, but also to give young man a headstart on curing their ills. One day, after listening to a client’s sad tale, the madam discovers that she has a conscience, after all. Somehow, this revelation also inspires her employees to seek happiness and satisfaction in different ways. The most noteworthy attraction in “Chasing Happiness” is Indian star Kashmira Shah, who not only is strikingly beautiful, but also a terrific dancer in the Bollywood tradition.

What’s missing from “Chasing Happiness” is on abundant display in Darin Wood’s “Planet of the Vampire Women,” a new release that would have been at home in any drive-in or grindhouse theater in the last 60 years. Made cheaply and featuring a brigade of bimbos whose tops fly off with even the faintest hit of a breeze, it could hardly be more exploitative and, therefore, curiously hilarious. The weapons look as if they were power tools modified after being shoplifted from Home Depot and the monsters are less credible than a 12-year-old’s excuse for not doing his homework. The plot, such as it is, involves space pirate Trix Richards and her gang of interplanetary outlaws, who steal a top-secret doohickey and are required to seek shelter on a remote planet. Meanwhile, an Amazonian vampire is hot on their trail, sinking her fangs into men and women with equal relish. “Planet of Vampire Women” is for those genre buffs who insist they don’t make exploitation flicks like they used to. – Gary Dretzka


The Scarlet Worm
Reportedly made on a budget of $25,000, “The Scarlet Worm” is a remarkably authentic-looking Western, with production values that belie its bargain-basement roots. With the possible exception of “Deadwood,” I can’t recall an oater that addresses the question of unwanted pregnancies in Old West prostitutes. Here, a veteran gunslinger is hired to kill a brothel owner who forbids his ladies from carrying babies to term and uses tools that might have been invented in the Dark Ages to perform abortions. If these scenes aren’t nearly as graphic as they might have been, it’s still made abundantly clear that the brothel owner doesn’t have the best interests of his employees at heart. It’s all about money. Somewhere along the way, the bounty hunter picks up a trainee, who falls in love with one of the prostitutes – none of whom looks as if she’s taken a bath in weeks – and must be trained in the sniper’s art. Aaron Stielstra, who bears a passing resemblance to Sacha Baron Cohen, is surprisingly credible as the gunman, while the other mostly unknown actors perform way above their salary grade here. Of all the do-it-yourself movies I’ve seen lately, “Scarlet Worm” would rank among the best in getting the best bang for its bucks. In the featurette “Of Worms and Dogs,” we learn how a diverse group of genre buffs, critics and dreamers came together to accomplish something everyone else in the world merely talks about doing: making a movie that someone other than family and very close friends would pay to see. – Gary Dretzka


Of Dolls and Murder
Crime After Crime

Any documentary about cops and killers that’s endorsed by John Waters is one that demands our attention. “Of Dolls and Murder” describes how an heiress, denied a college education by her overprotective father, changed forever the way police detectives and forensics experts would do their jobs. By re-creating crime scenes in intricately detailed “nutshell” tableaux, Frances Glessner Lee allowed police to formulate opinions based not solely on first impressions or notes, but from visualizations exact to the brands of miniature products in the victims’ cupboards. More than a half-century before the first airing of “CSI,” Lee founded Harvard’s Department of Legal Medicine, the first program in the nation dedicated to forensic pathology. The original recreations still are used as training tools for police in Baltimore and Washington, some of whom are interviewed extensively in Susan Marks’ film. She also interviews one of the creators of “CSI” and takes us on a graphic tour of the FBI’s “bone farm” facility. Waters introduces the cases described in the “nutshells’ in his usual way of making murder sound like fun. “Of Dolls and Murder” delivers on the documentarian’s commitment to introducing audiences to something of which they weren’t aware and making as enlightening as it is informative.

The title of the latest OWN Documentary Club presentation, “Crime After Crime,” refers to the refusal of a California parole board to do the right thing by releasing a woman from prison after serving 27 years of a life sentence in connection with the murder of the drug dealer who pimped her out in high school, beat her continually, threatened her family members and sexually abused their child. Debbie Peagler had been convicted solely on the evidence of an anonymous informer, “Deadman,” who lied about her desire to collect her husband’s life insurance and hiring local gang members to kill him. Peagler was convicted of first-degree murder after she copped a plea to avoid the death penalty the DA promised she would receive if she continued to fight the charge. Two decades later, a pair of young attorneys re-examined her case and fought for seven years to have it reopened. After jumping through several hoops, the new Los Angeles County district attorney broke his promise to reduce the charge to involuntary manslaughter and release Peagler, based on the fact that the maximum term for such a crime would have been six years. The DA’s reversal was based on the advice of government lawyers whose own motivations are suspect and wanted to avoid a stain – as well as a potential lawsuit – on their professional records. The lawyers refused to quit and Peagler continued to be a model prisoner.

Hundreds, if not thousands of women remain incarcerated – rightfully and wrongfully — after killing the men who abused them. California is the only state that allows the reopening of such cases with “habeas” petitions. It’s easy to watch such documentaries as “Crime After Crime” and wonder, if the evidence of injustice is so clear, why can’t government officials see it, too. Could it be possible that the documentary makers manipulated the evidence as much as the original prosecutors did on Peagler’s case? In this case, the only response from the DA’s office was silence and wall-to-wall ass-covering. If the lawyers hadn’t pleaded their case in the only court open to them – the media – she would have died in prison of lung cancer, instead at home with her friends, children and grandchildren. After more than a quarter-century of failed justice, the biggest crime of all is that incompetent attorneys and other public officials remain free to do harm, and it’s only through the good offices of determined pro-bono attorneys, private investigators and filmmakers that the truth finally is revealed. “Crime After Crime” is the scariest kind of horror story. – Gary Dretzka


Let the Bullets Fly: Collector’s Edition: Blu-ray
Films of Fury: The Kung Fu Movie Movie

Set in China in the chaotic period that followed the overthrow of centuries-long dynastic rule, “Let the Bullets Fly” opens with a train robbery that could have been directly lifted from a thousand earlier American Westerns. A bandit puts his ear to the iron rail connecting the provincial capitals to such backwater towns as Goose Town. The reason he can’t identify the vibrations is that the train isn’t being powered by coal and steam, but is being pulled by a team of majestic white horses. Inside sit the state’s governor and his wife, his counselor and a platoon of heavily armed soldiers whose guns are pointed everywhere except where the bandits are hiding. Shots ring out from the surrounding cliffs, the team is separated from the engine and the rails are split in a way one has to see to believe. Everything that happens in the rest of the movie can be traced to the moment when the war lord decides to switch places with the now-dead governor, retain his self-serving adviser and accept the wife’s offer to become his lover (Loosely translated: “I didn’t marry the man, I married his money and power.”). After arriving in Goose Town, the warlord endeavors to become the white knight who slays the governor that’s taxed the people into poverty and drained the town’s coffers. In the ensuing battle of wits and kung-fu, the citizens see their fortunes reversed several times as the governor’s men adopt the disguises of the mayor’s police, in order to steal the money given them by the warlord. If this sounds confusing, know ahead of time that it is. I got the feeling that some of the references and gags went over my head because of my inability to understand the language. Still, the best new Western on your video store’s shelves this week could be from China.

The cover art for “Films of Fury” is a composite of photographs from classic martial-arts flicks positioned to resemble a kung-fu fighter in mid-kick. Like a poster that looks as if it might have in a sun-facing display window for too long, the cover isn’t the most welcoming invitation to a documentary that’s as up-to-date as possible and as entertaining as it is informative. That’s because instead of employing the talking-heads of critics, the filmmakers let the many film clips present the evidence for them. Although the ancient art of kung fu didn’t find an audience in the west until the early 1970s, its roots in the popular culture of China are traced to the Peking Opera, in which it represented an especially expressive form of dance. It emerged on film in the silent era, but exploded with the international stardom of Bruce Lee. As audiences grew weary of the same-old/same-old, filmmakers invented new ways to maintain their attention, including adding gunplay, urban settings, Hong Kong-style wire work, epic period pieces, special-effects, fantasy elements and female protagonists. Recently, in such films as “Kung Fu Hustle” and “Shaolin Soccer,” legitimate action was coupled with outrageous comedy. It’s ironic that Chinese authorities chastised its film community for not beating Hollywood to the pot of gold that came with the “Kung Fu Panda” franchise. “Films of Fury” probably could have used some interviews with the genre’s greatest stars and directors, instead of explanatory sequences featuring an animated narrator. – Gary Dretzka


The Beatles: Strange Fruit: The Beatles’ Apple Records
Unauthorized: The Story of Rock N Roll Comics
Michael Tilson Thomas: The Tomashefskys

Beatles completists should be thrilled with the arrival of “Strange Fruit: The Beatles’ Apple Records,” which documents the Fab Four’s failed attempt to reshape the music-publishing business by nurturing new talent, recording their material and sending it out with the Apple imprimatur. It was a great idea and completely in step with the mood of the revolutionary times. In 1968, the major labels had yet to figure out how to exploit the emergence of album-oriented rock ’n’ roll and bands that didn’t rely on songwriters with offices in the Brill Building and Tin Pan Alley, as was the common in the early days of rock and R&B. Unfortunately for everyone involved, the success of Apple wasn’t the Beatles’ top priority. They had recently stopped touring and were going through the changes that ultimately would lead to their breakup and pursuit of such pastimes as Transcendental Meditation, radical politics and trading in old wives for new ones. This would have been OK if the persons left minding the store back home in London could make decisions without the OK of one Beatle, at least, and the artists were given the attention they deserved. Paul tended to mold the artists he recruited in his own image, while John obsessed over Yoko’s career and his collaboration with Elephant’s Memory. George dropped everything he was working on to focus on the Concert for Bangladesh and Ringo had other things on his mind. Even the artists who scored early hits – Mary Hopkin, Badfinger, Billy Preston, James Taylor – eventually came to think of themselves as afterthoughts. The ones whose work suffered from being overshadowed by the release of the Beatles last album – deejays could only squeeze one or two Apple products into rotation, and the company was releasing as many as four new singles simultaneously – missed the train to success entirely. Some soon-to-be huge bands voiced a desire to be added to the label, but couldn’t find a receptive ear to listen to their songs. While fascinating, the Apple story isn’t terribly relevant in the era of Internet publishing and declining record sales. If anything, the exhaustively researched “Strange Fruit” best serves as a cautionary tale for artists aspiring to control their music and swim with the sharks of the industry. Fans, though, tend to eat up anything new about the Beatles.

Unauthorized: The Story of Rock N Roll Comics” examines another interesting sidebar to the history of the musical genre. Long before the phrase, “The Internet wants to be free,” was introduced to studio and label executives hoping to capitalize on the popularity of the Web, rock fans fought efforts to monetize an art form spawned in the garages of suburban America and nurtured in musty nightclubs from Hamburg and Liverpool, to the Sunset Strip and Lower Manhattan. Such anti-establishment thinking reached its apex when tens of thousands of fans stormed the fences at Woodstock, turning it into a “free festival” (apart from the album and movie revenues). Bill Graham would find ways to keep the barricades intact, but some folks still found it unseemly to bow to the gods of rock ’n’ roll capitalism. Such was the thinking of comic-book publisher Todd Loren, who refused to pay for the right to depict the stories and myths surrounding some of the 1980-90s’ most popular entertainers, including Kiss, Alice Cooper, Bon Jovi, Led Zeppelin, Guns N Roses, Motorhead and Skid Row. Loren stood up to the artists’ lawyers, citing the same First Amendment rights that allow for parodies and satire. Any sympathy we may develop for Loren, though, is diluted by the knowledge that he was as likely to rip off his stable of talented artists as he was to publish an unauthorized biography of the latest pop sensation or assign salacious stories on Tipper Gore and other perceived enemies of free speech. By all accounts, Loren was an egomaniacal asshole, who couldn’t comprehend the concept of keeping employees and contract workers happy for the sake of the product. He was murdered in 1992, possibly by the same sociopath who stalked and killed Giorgio Armani. The documentary benefits from the inclusion of the comics themselves and plenty of interviews with artists, industry reps and such rockers as Alice Cooper and Mojo Nixon.

In “The Thomashefskys,” composer, conductor and musical director of the San Francisco Symphony Michael Tilson Thomas pays homage to his grandparents, Boris and Bessie, “two kids from the little shtetls in the middle of the Ukrainian nowhere, who came to America and became the founders and pioneers of the American Yiddish Theater.” The DVD was recorded during a performance last year at the New World Center, in Miami. His grandparents also owned theatres, published their own magazine, wrote columns in popular Yiddish newspapers, sponsored and encouraged generations of young artists, brought countless Yiddish artists to America, and tirelessly raised funds for progressive social causes. It features music reconstructed from the original repertoire, as well as projected images and dramatized stories from the Thomashefskys memoirs. The music combines Eastern European klezmer and cantorial modes with American tones and rhythms. The result is a lively evening of music and memories — Gary Dretzka


Car 54, Where Are You?: The Complete Second Season
Billy the Exterminator: Season 4
Marvel Anime: Iron Man/X-Men: Complete Series

Last year, I had a lot to say about the release on DVD of the complete first season of “Car 54, Where Are You?” For my money, that set and the new four-disc, second-season package from Shanachie offer as much bang for the nearly $40 price tag as any recent TV-to-DVD release. It arrives on the 50th anniversary of sitcom’s debut. Joe E. Ross and Fred Gwynne star as a pair of truly dim-witted NYPD cops who’ve been partners so long that they share each other’s thoughts, mannerisms and ailments. Unlike the precinct house in “Barney Miller,” which would come along a decade later, the unit was delightfully dysfunctional from top down. Fortunately, the officers rarely were required to investigate real crimes. One of the funniest episodes here involves then-President John F. Kennedy, who, after arriving at Idlewild Airport, requires a police escort into the city. Because Toody and Muldoon have been partners for 10 years and have the best driving record, they’re picked by the commissioner for the prestigious assignment. No one at the precinct level thinks this is a particularly good idea – Muldoon faints at the mere thought of being in the same vicinity of JFK – and the Secret Service wisely chooses to know what they’re getting into ahead of time. Naturally, behavior that seems to be completely abnormal to an outsider is standard operating procedure for the guys in the precinct. The humor may not be terribly sophisticated, but, in the hands of actors trained in the New York Theater, it feels inspired. In the second season, the list of guest stars includes Sugar Ray Robinson, Molly Picon, Larry Storch, Mitch Miller and Shari Lewis. This time, all 30 episodes are being presented in broadcast order and, as a bonus extra, there’s a 10-minute standup comedy routine by Ross.

A&E’s “Billy the Exterminator” is far from the most bizarre reality series on television, but it’s a lead-pipe cinch that Billy probably would be the last to be invited to compete on “Dancing With the Stars.” He looks as if he might have inspired a Zap Comix character and makes no concessions to contemporary fashion. In Season 4, Billy and his brother Ricky travel from Arizona to Miami to Chicago to humanely trap varmints ranging from javelina and pack rats in Arizona, to a bed bug infestation in Miami, vicious squirrels and raccoons in Chicago and some truly nasty geese in North Carolina. There are, as well, the usual array of monster alligators and dangerous snakes. If non-Southerners can’t relate to alligators and snakes, most suburbanites have horror stories to tell about squirrels and raccoons attempting to nest in their chimneys and attics. If another raccoon attempts to tear up my roof to find a warm corner of my attic for a temporary home, I know who I’ll call and it ain’t Ghostbusters. That, I think, is the appeal of this crazy show. Billy has answers to questions all of us have had at one time or another.

New story arcs involving superheroes Iron Man and X-Men were created as part of an anime project between Marvel and Tokyo’s Madhouse studios. The re-imaginings were designed to introduce the American characters to young television viewers in Japan. In “Iron Man,” Tony Stark travels to Japan to introduce his replacement, the Iron Man Dio. When the armor proves not to be ready for prime time, he requires the help of Zodiac and other Japanese organizations, not all of whom are anxious to cooperate. In the “X-Men” series, Professor X reassembles the gang to combat the U-Men’s plot to abduct young mutants and harvest their organs. – Gary Dretzka


Titanic: Blu-ray
Masterpiece Classic: Birdsong: Blu-ray
Lifetime: The Bling Ring
Lifetime: Girl Fight
Lidia Celebrates America: Weddings

Anyone attempting to make a new movie or mini-series about a historic event of the magnitude of the sinking of the Titanic probably ought to consider doing it differently than what’s come before it. In addition to the almost countless number of documentaries that have beenq made, it would be difficult to make anything as compelling as James Cameron’s “Titanic” and Roy Ward Baker’s “A Night to Remember.” Last week, the Internet was abuzz over recently shot photographs of what appear the legs, pants and shoes of one of the male victims. Without much other reshuffling of the chairs on the deck of the “Titanic,” the esteemed British writer/director has added a “Downton Abbey,” “Upstairs, Downstairs” twist to the proceedings, by focusing as much on the poor souls in steerage as the swells. Cameron did much the same thing, of course, but the primary focus was on Leonardo Di Caprio, Kate Winslet and Billy Zane’s characters. In any case, while the “Titanic” mini-series doesn’t embarrass anyone involved in it, even Fellowes wasn’t able to keep it afloat in the ratings. It arrived after most of us were up to our ears in Titanic nostalgia and couldn’t stomach any more of it. Completists, though, should enjoy it more than casual viewers and fans of “Downton Abbey,” which opened Season 1 with bad news from the disaster.

Currently airing on PBS stations, as part of the “Masterpiece Classic” series, “Birdsong” tackles the same cinematic period as “Titanic” and “Warhorse.” Eddie Redmayne (“My Week With Marilyn”) and Clemence Poesy (“Harry Potter”) are the star-crossed lovers whose timing could hardly have been any less unfortunate. Stephen is a young Englishman who arrives in Amiens, France, in 1910. While living with a family there, he enters into a passionate, if secretive affair with the daughter, Isabelle. The romance is so demanding of the couple that it can’t be sustained in the normal ways and is allowed to falter. Years later, Stephen returns to the same area, only this time as a soldier in the trenches. As horrible as the conditions are there, he can’t help but be haunted by memories of their time together in these same now-destroyed fields. “Birdsong” is another exemplary production from the BBC and the Blu-ray contains featurettes on its stories of love and war, as well as a behind-the-scenes piece.

Lifetime didn’t have to dig too deeply into its archives for its two latest TV-to-DVD releases. With all of the fallout from the controversy surrounding the movie “Bully” and its original R-rating, “Girl Fight” strikes a chord with another story of bullying and the role the social media play in the terrible process of destroy a teenage girl’s life. It is, of course, “inspired by a true story.” Anne Heche and James Tupper star in the movie, but it’s Jodelle Ferland, who, as Haley, is beaten and humiliated by leaders of her school’s ruling clique. It begins after careless comments made by Haley on the Internet come back to haunt her in real life. “Girl Fight” is yet another movie that describes how a child’s high school years can be the best of times and the worst of times.

Bling Ring,” you might recall, was the name bestowed on a gang of young crooks in the San Fernando Valley who broke into the homes of celebrities and stole their expensive and oh-so-trendy clothes and accessories. In a sign of the times, the girls and boy hoped that their daring acts would make them popular at school. The local media ate it up. As luck would have it, one of the girls was a member of a family – low-rent Kardashians – already being followed around by camera crews and much of the drama was used to create a soap-opera atmosphere for the show. Austin Butler, Yin Chang and Jennifer Grey lead the cast.

On her travels through America, chef and cookbook author Lidia Bastianich recognizes recipes and traditions that have survived the journeys of millions of immigrants and generations of cultural cross-breeding. More than anything else, I think, the maintenance of such honored dishes and ceremonies is what gives the U.S. the illusion of being a melting-pot nation. Bastianich follows the roots of several of the rituals – “from jumping the broom to tying the knot” – before they’re allowed to disappear forever in “Lidia Celebrates America: Weddings.” – Gary Dretzka


A Hollis Frampton Odyssey: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
Eclipse Series 32: Pearls of the Czech New Wave: Criterion Collection

Although the many short films included in Criterion’s “A Hollis Frampton Odyssey” were made in a two-decade rush of creativity in the 1960-70s, many look as primitive as those made at the dawn of the age of cinema, when Thomas Edison tested the limits of his camera by capturing movement and studying it. It was left for others to see if audiences would buy into the concept of telling stories on film, rather than simply enjoying the sensation caused by watching trains and bullets rush by them. They did, of course. When surrealists Salvador Dali and Luis Bunuel collaborated on “Un Chien Andalou,” the relationship between (A)rt and commerce would be examined. The cultural volatility of the 1960s and general acceptance of so-called arthouse films laid the foundation for avant-garde artists to combine mediums and produce films that served more as much Rorschach tests than entertainments. To some degree, these experiments would trigger the subsequent rise of the American independent movement. In the 15 years given to Frampton to map the boundaries of his art, he merged complex intellectualism with basic visual and aural techniques. If the results remain baffling even to sophisticated viewers, it’s only because, well, no one said art has to be easy. Frampton came to film after committing to poetry and photography. In Ed Halter’s essay, included in the bonus package, we learn that he was influenced by Ezra Pound, James Joyce, Marcel Duchamp and Jorge Luis Borges. His interest wasn’t in telling stories, per se, but seeing how well film could incorporate mathematics, literature, sculpture, philosophy and the natural elements into the vernacular. Not all of the films made it past the experimentation stage, but those that did became increasingly more accessible and provocative as he neared his untimely death, at 48, of cancer. What struck me while watching the films in this extensive collection is how difficult – and costly – it must have been for artists to make the transition to film in the 1950s and 1960s. It was a time when everyone seemed to be pushing the limits on something and advance technology was being made affordable to consumers. Analog techniques, however, didn’t always lend themselves to quick and easy answers, and distribution was limited to institutions in a few big cities and college towns. Today, of course, anyone with access to a “smart phone” can make a movie and distribute it via the social media to a ready-made audience of millions of geeks dedicated to “cool” stuff. This isn’t to say that it cheapens thought or is less challenging, just that there are few, if any barriers to creativity today. And, that’s a very good thing. The Blu-ray “A Hollis Frampton Odyssey” collection is comprised of 24 films, representing 266 minutes of time. Several films are narrated by the artist and the set also includes excerpts of a 1978 interview, footage from a 1968 performance piece, a gallery of works from his xerographic series, “By Any Other Name,” and an informative booklet filled with essays.

While Frampton was experimenting in New York, Czech artists were using film to tell stories, some of which could be read as commentary on life under the yoke of communism. Czechoslovakia was a burr under the saddle of Soviet rulers in Moscow and efforts to quash artistic freedom by local party officials were greeted with anger and derision. Even so, the so-called Czechoslovak New Wave continued to crank out movies that were slyly critical of the repressive state and challenged the boundaries laid by censors. Among those that made a splash in the west were Milos Forman’s “Loves of a Blonde,” “The Firemen’s Ball” and “Closely Watched Trains”; Jan Kadar’s “The Shop on Main Street”; and Jiri Menzel’s “Closely Watched Trains.” Not so well known here are are “Pearls of the Deep,” “Daisies,” “A Report on the Party and Guests,” “Return of the Prodigal Son,” “Capricious Summer” and “The Joke,” which are included in Criterion’s “Eclipse Series 32: Pearls of the Czech New Wave.” The 1966 omnibus film “Pearls of the Deep” introduced five top filmmakers, Vra Chytilov, Jaromil Jire, Ji¡ Menzel, Jan Nmec and Evald Schorm. All of the installments are based on stories by writer Bohumil Hrabal, All of the movies remain entertaining and representative of period in time when ideologues were as interested in shackling minds as bodies. – Gary Dretzka


Paradise Recovered
“Paradise Recovered” is a cautionary tale about extremists in the Evangelical Christian community who prey on people so desperate to be “saved” that they willingly turn off their brains and hand them over to fire-breathing preachers and silky-haired televangelists. If it had been made in Hollywood, “Paradise Recovered” might have been lambasted as yet another attack on the beliefs of outsiders. Instead, the movie appears to have been produced by moderate Evangelicals, dedicated to keeping the minds of young people open to fresh ideas and philosophies that aren’t shaped by pastors whose beliefs haven’t changed much since the Dark Ages. Cheryl is a member of Prophetic Watchman Ministries, as Christian sect so radical that it doesn’t even believe in heaven, hell, birthdays and doctors. Damaged by the split-up of her parents, she has been accepted into the family of a minister, primarily as an unpaid babysitter and future wife of the sex-crazed son. Home-schooled and denied access to any media outlet not sanctioned by the sect’s leader, Cheryl (Heather Del Rio) is a sweet girl, but ignorant about the ways of the world. She assumes that God gave women to men to do with as they see fit. The teenage son in the family, who’s following in his dad’s footsteps, convinces her that God would like nothing more than for her to take off her clothes and submit to her future husband. After the old man interrupts the interlude, he naturally blames Cheryl for corrupting the boy, denouncing her as a Jezebel and demanding she leave her home. Fortunately, she works with a couple of nice guys at a health-food store, who offer to take her in and promise not to entice her any further into straying from Jesus’ flock.

The store’s manager, Gabriel (Dane Seth Hurlburt), is the son of pastor but a dedicated skeptic. He’s at once fascinated and horrified by Cheryl’s story. Moreover, Gabriel convinces her that free will and Christianity can co-exist and it isn’t a sin to wear makeup, watch TV or eat the occasional hot dog. (Because “unclean food” is the devil’s work, she’s never even been allowed to eat a marshmallow.) Still too weak to say no to her adopted family, she allows herself to be talked into returning home and getting back with the program. Gabriel, though, refuses to give up on Cheryl. “Paradise Recovered” isn’t a particularly polished drama, but it’s easy to empathize with Cheryl and hope she listens to Gabriel. In the meantime, we’re encouraged to watch the boy’s own attitude toward religion evolve, based on his dialogues with Cheryl. The DVD comes with commentary and interviews with Christian sociologists and de-programmers. – Gary Dretzka

The DVD Wrapup: Ghost Protocol, Shame, Last Rites of Joe May… More

Wednesday, April 18th, 2012

Mission: Impossible: Ghost Protocol: Blu-ray
Say what you will about Tom Cruise, his religion, marriage, recent bombs and publicity stunts, but there’s no questioning his willingness to go to extreme lengths to give audiences their money’s worth of entertainment. Despite a story that defies credulity as much as any James Bond flick, “Mission: Impossible: Ghost Protocol” is both an exceedingly entertaining addition to the series and one of the most hair-raising thrillers in memory. Cruise has always taken pride in his ability to perform many of the same stunts as the pros who have been hired by the producers to stand in for him. No one would expect Cruise, one of Hollywood’s most valuable commodities, to risk his own life, especially when CGI technology could put his head on the body of any stuntman and motion-capture gear can simulate any dangerous gag. But, there he was anyway, swinging from floor to floor atop Dubai’s Burj Khalifa Tower – the tallest building in the world – in both the movie and chilling making-of featurette included in the Blu-ray package. It’s as scary as anything in “Ghost Protocol” and an ironic salute to the stunt-actor’s art. It’s not the only gag Cruise performs in the fourth installment of the “M:I” series, but it’s by far the most spectacular and essential set piece in Brad Bird’s debut live-action feature.

As usual, what’s at stake in “Ghost Protocol” is merely the fate of mankind itself. The first time we see Cruise’s Ethan Hunt, he’s cooling his heels in a decrepit prison somewhere in Eastern Europe. Naturally, members of the IMF team (Jeremy Renner, Paula Patton, Simon Pegg) are outside its walls, orchestrating a riot intended to distract guards from his intricately planned escape. Because Ethan elects to bring another prisoner along for the ride, things don’t play out precisely as planned. It isn’t clear exactly why the guy deserves the get-out-of-jail-free card, but he does show up later in the movie for a few minutes. The next thing you know, Ethan and computer whiz, Benji Dunn (Pegg), are wandering around the Kremlin in Russian military uniforms barking out orders and in pursuit of a computer doo-dad that contains nuclear codes. Whatever it is they grab from the computer bank apparently was booby-trapped to trigger a series of explosions inside the Kremlin and in the plaza outside of it. Once again, Ethan and Benji manage to escape by the hair on their chinny chin chins. This time, though, the Russkies know exactly who is to blame and it isn’t Chechen rebels. Fearing nuclear war and not inclined to believe that IMF wasn’t involved, our President imposes “ghost protocol,” thereby freezing any and all activities of the team. Also, naturally, the IMF team decides to go after the bad guys, anyway, on the off chance someone might be nuts enough to blow up the world and everyone on it. The search for clues leads them to Dubai, where the high-wire act is followed by a cool chase through a sandstorm, and on to Mumbai and San Francisco. If the first half of “Ghost Protocol” is all “Mission: Impossible,” the rest of it is ripped from the 007 playbook. Because of all the great stunts and Bird’s direction of them, there’s no need to call the Movie Police for borrowing from the best.

Among other noteworthy things, “Ghost Protocol” has the distinction of being the first “M:I” movie shot in IMAX, which, won’t affect home-video viewers one way or the other. The Blu-ray/DVD/Ultra Violet package presents the film in its 2.39:1 original aspect ratio with 7.1 Dolby TrueHD sound and it’s superlative. Buyers should be aware that not all of the bonus features are available in sets not purchased at Best Buy, the chain that recently announced it was closing 50 stores, so read the cover notes carefully. All will contain deleted scenes and featurettes “Heating Up in Dubai,” “Vancouver Fisticuffs,” “The Sandstorm” and “Props.” The Best Buy edition adds “Suiting Up in Prague” and several more informative behind-the-scenes pieces that really should be made available to consumers everywhere. – Gary Dretzka

Shame: Blu-ray
Although the protagonist of “Shame,” Brandon Sullivan (Michael Fassbender), masturbates as often as any three characters in “American Pie,” there’s no truth to the rumor viewers could go blind, grow hair on their palms or diminish their ability to perform sports at maximum efficiency by watching it in the privacy of their own homes. It is possible, however, that some viewers may want to take a shower after watching it. It’s that raw an experience. Steve McQueen’s audacious character study profiles a New York yuppie so consumed with sex that nothing else matters as much to him. If he were an actor or politician, Brandon would be the perfect candidate for a month-long stay in a rehabilitation center for men caught cheating on their wives and blaming it on being addicted to sex (who isn’t?). As it is, though, concerns over his obsessive behavior have led to his office computer being confiscated a cleansed of downloaded porn. His choice of his playmates also is getting increasingly risker.  Fact is, though, he doesn’t seem all that unusual a fellow before his sister, Sissy (Carey Mulligan), drifts into town to stay with him for a few days, while singing at a cocktail lounge. She’s every bit as needy a person as her brother, but he resists all of her attempts to clear the air between them. Memories of something that happened in their past or, perhaps, some sin committed by their parents, appears to have twisted them in different ways. Brendan is incapable of connecting emotionally with anyone, especially his temporary lovers, and Sissy wants to share her angst with anyone who’ll listen to her. Even if “Shame” doesn’t offer many answers and fewer resolutions, it can’t be said that we don’t know these people after 101 minutes in their presence. In this way, it feels like a fully realized short story or novella. The acting is terrific and McQueen’s direction delivers a real punch. It’s not an easy movie to watch, though, so viewers not looking for a challenge may want to think twice before renting it. The Blu-ray adds several short bonus featurettes, but nothing terribly illuminating. – Gary Dretzka

Last Rites of Joe May
It’s been said that the only thing separating the cops and crooks in Chicago is a badge. After spending 18 years on the CPD, Dennis Farina has made a very decent living portraying both. and Farina and former partner Chuck Adamson first caught the movie bug, teaming on Michael Mann’s “Thief,” “Crime Story” and a few “Miami Vice” episodes. Now 68, the Chicago native has gone on to play dozens of hard-ass characters, working both sides of the law, on television and on the big screen. In Joe Maggio’s compelling crime drama, “Last Rites of Joe May,” Farina plays a veteran “short-money” con artist who’s trying to beat the odds simply by staying alive in a young man’s hustle. When we meet Joe May, he’s being released from a Chicago hospital, where he’s spent the last six months recovering from something or other. Not only have all of his cronies given him up for dead, but his landlord has re-leased his apartment and thrown his property into the trash. The woman now inhabiting the flat feels sorry for May and offers him a spare bed, in return for some rent money and babysitting chores. Things get complicated when the woman’s police-detective boyfriend shows up, pushing her around and threatening May. As time goes by, the cop adds a couple of black eyes to her bruises. You can probably already guess how that scenario plays out. What’s less predictable is what happens to May when he tries to get back into the only job he’s ever known. To accomplish this, he is required to kiss the ring of his former patron’s son, played with icy indifference by Gary Cole. Considering how well Farina plays the role of a criminal in the twilight of his career, it’s as if Maggio wrote the role of May with Farina specifically in mind. Besides bringing out the humanity in the character, the filmmaker effectively demonstrates how difficult it is to grow old and useless as a conman. Jamie Anne Allman and young Meredith Droeger are excellent as May’s roommates and Chicago looks every bit as cold and unwelcoming as it usually does when temperatures dip into minus territory, as they did during production. The DVD adds interviews and making-of material. – Gary Dretzka

Man on the Train
In Mary McGuckian’s faithful English-language remake of Patrice Leconte and Claude Klotz’ 2002 crime drama, “Man on the Train,” Donald Sutherland and Larry Mullen Jr. capably fill the shoes of Jean Rochefort (“The Hairdresser’s Husband”) and Johnny Hallyday. They play a semi-retired poetry teacher and a dispassionate crook, respectively, who cross paths in a small town about to have its only bank robbed. If the names Mullen and Hallyday ring a bell in the ears of music fans, it’s because Mullen drums for U2 and Hallyday once was known as the French Elvis Presley. The Professor, who could talk the ears off a deaf person, runs into the Thief in a drug store, which appears to be the only business open after 10 p.m. Without a place to sleep, the Thief accepts an offer to crash at the Professor’s books- and art-filled mansion for a couple of nights. Although the Professor spends most of the first night talking, with the Thief doing most of the listening, that changes radically over the next two or three days. Moreover, as time passes, the Thief reveals a distinctly intellectual bent, while the Professor shares his regret over not sowing some wild oats before committing to a life of the mind. Things get murkier as the deadline for the bank job approaches and both men anticipate the next step in their personal evolution. I don’t recall Sutherland being allowed to savor a dramatic role as meaty as the Professor in several years and was unaware that Mullen had previously not acting in anything except music videos. McGuckian’s iteration of “Man on the Train” may not add anything to the original French version, but it doesn’t embarrass itself, either. – Gary Dretzka

From the Other Side/South
A quote typically attributed to Mexican strongman Porfirio Diaz, observes, “Poor Mexico, so far from God and so close to the United States.” I don’t know if the much-revered Belgian documentarian Chantal Akerman was familiar with the dictator’s lament before embarking on her film, “From the Other Side,” but it fits the problems addressed in it like a glove. Employing long, lingering and often silent takes and pans to assay the territory along the porous Arizona/Sonora border and, then, punctuating them with interviews, Akerman can’t help but capture the not-so-porous divide between cultures and economies. She then visits nearby Douglas, Arizona, to address the other side of the illegal-immigration coin. Separating the two cities are several miles of punishing desert terrain, a fence along the border and a small army of border police. Still, they come. Given how long Americans have been debating the issue and how heated the arguments have become, there isn’t much Akerman could add about the issue that hasn’t already been beaten into the ground. So, she lets the images stand on their merits and allows the full-time and temporary residents of the region to tell their own stories. What is made abundantly clear in the interviews is the inability of the governments of two neighboring countries to deal with the problem, absent calls for vigilante justice and armed self-defense. American politicians promise the moon to citizens of border communities, while knowing full well that undocumented laborers are an essential link in the food chain and service industries. Meanwhile, Mexican officials refuse to interfere with a process that ultimately results in tens of millions of gringo dollars being sent home to families south of the line. Instead of reforming drug laws and putting a dent in gang warfare in Mexico, American politicians insist on extending a fence that only forces coyotes to lead their caravans into ever-more-dangerous desert wilderness, where the price of failure is death. At the same time, widespread corruption ensures that officials in Mexico City will remain unwilling to finance the reforms needed to ensure gainful employment to Mexican citizens. It’s in the faces of the desperate illegals and beleaguered residents of Douglas that the real truths can be read.

Ackerman was in Mississippi, working on a project involving William Faulkner and the American South, when she learned of the horrifying murder of James Byrd Jr. in rural Jasper, Texas. Byrd had been walking through town, as usual, when he was grabbed by a trio of white-supremacist pinheads in a pickup truck. Within hours, Byrd’s severely mutilated body would be found lying dead outside the town’s African-American graveyard. He had been chained to the rear bumper of the truck and dragged four miles along a country road. Last year, one of the perpetrators was executed; another remains on death row; and the third man was given a life sentence. Finished in 1999, “Sud” includes interviews with black and white citizens involved in the healing process and other residents. By far the most powerful statement Ackerman makes is the seemingly endless drive she makes – her camera pointing backwards – along the same stretch of highway where Byrd was lynched, simply for being African-American. It’s impossible to separate the memory of what happened to Byrd on that early summer night, in 1998, from the haunting rear-window point-of-view she provides. Also included in the DVD set is a portion of “East,” about the changing Eastern European landscape after the collapse of the Iron Curtain. – Gary Dretzka

Roadracers: Blu-ray
Roger Corman’s Cult Classics: The Nurses Collection
In 1994, several years before Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez made it safe for audiences to return to the grindhouse, the Showtime network and producer Lou Arkoff — son of exploitation pioneer Samuel Z. Arkoff – paired for a 10-week series of 1950s “drive-in classics” remade “with a ’90s edge.” The series was called “Rebel Highway,” not “Raging Hormones,” as originally planned, and it featured the work of up-and-coming directors, writers and actors. Each movie would share the title of a classic AIP movie and the filmmakers would be allowed a budget of $1.3 million, final-cut privileges and 12 days to shoot their movie. The series debuted with Rodriguez’ “Roadracers.” Considering the talent involved in the other movies in the collection, it would be great to see all of them re-released into DVD and Blu-ray. Here, David Arquette plays the bad-boy street racer to Salma Hayek’s good-girl who’s razed unmercifully for being of Mexican background. Arquette gets in trouble with a rival set of hot-rodders after he flicks a cigarette and it lands in the heavily sprayed hair of one of the gangs’ skanks, immediately catching fire. Clearly, a showdown between the two Alpha-male greasers is inevitable, but not before Arquette is given an opportunity to tour with a rockabilly ensemble imported from Austin by the director. Fresh off the indie hit, “El Mariachi,” Rodriguez was gung-ho to make another positive impression on Hollywood with “Roadracers” and he took the assignment to heart. Even on Blu-ray, “Roadracers” has the distinct texture of something allowed to escape into the drive-ins of America in the 1950s, when being a juvenile delinquent meant alienating one’s self from polite suburban society and thumbing your nose at Eisenhower-era complacency.  In this regard, Rodriguez gets plenty of help from his design team, wardrobe and hair specialists, as well as actors who easily capture the gritty vibe. John Hawkes does a nice job as Arquette’s sidekick, while William Sadler turns in a seemingly effortless portrayal of a bully cop. It’s a lot of fun to watch, although some viewers might find that a little bit of 1950s camp goes a long way. The set includes the short doc, “The Robert Rodriguez 10-Minute Film School” and interviews.

In the annals of sexploitation and other drive-in fare, no one has come as close to perfection as Roger and Julie Corman in their series of films about horny and rebellious teachers, horny and rebellious women in prison, horny and rebellious female gangsters, horny and rebellious flight attendants and horny and rebellious nurses. The latest compilation of “Roger Corman’s Cult Classics” includes “Candy Stripe Nurses,” “Private Duty Nurses,” “Night Call Nurses” and “Young Nurses,” all of which correspond to a set of guidelines laid out by Roger Corman when freshman director Jonathan Kaplan was experiencing a lack of faith in the production of “Night Call Nurses.” Among other things, the commandments dictated how characters with different colors of hair had to fit specific personality traits, how messages were to be delivered in each of the movies and the amount of nudity that was required. (Breasts and backsides are OK, but no pubic hair … although that prohibition would be eased, as well, in a couple of years.) Although the female characters’ physical assets clearly were being exploited, the guidelines required they be the masters of their own fates and heroic. It was the Cormans’ bow both to the feminist movement and the fact women made up a substantial percentage of the drive-in audience. As usual in early Corman pictures, now-familiar faces also could be found in the cast of characters. Here, they included Chuck Norris, Sally Kirkland, Alana Collins (now Stewart), Jean Manson (Playboy’s Miss August 1974), Dennis Dugan, Dick Miller, Bill Erwin, Paul Gleason, Alan Arbus, Dixie Peabody and Mantan Moreland. The set adds a pair of featurettes on what it was like working for Corman and “Calling Dr. Corman.” – Gary Dretzka

Paul Goodman Changed My Life
The Flaw
I don’t know if the works of Paul Goodman, especially the landmark book, “Growing Up Absurd,” are still being assigned as part of the liberal-arts curriculum in American colleges. Once judged unfashionable by violence- and rhetoric-prone radicals, they should be considered required reading in these days of Occupy Everywhere politics and the economic collapse of the middle class, which includes many of the same Baby Boomers who made “Growing Up Absurd” a best-seller in the 1960s. A brilliant radical thinker, self-proclaimed anarchist and reviled anti-capitalist, and outspoken critic of military-backed American imperialism, Goodman turned a book ostensibly about juvenile delinquency into an indictment of the “disgrace of the Organized System of semi-monopolies, government, advertisers, etc., and the disaffection of the growing generation.” Widely read on campuses across the country, it convinced a generation of young, mostly white, suburban students that there were more important ways to kill time than attending toga parties and preparing for a life of enforced consumerism, conformity and corporate servitude. The acceptance of that belief would manifest itself in a joining of forces in the civil-rights and anti-war movements and such countercultural touchstones as the folk-music revival, the alternative press and formulation of the Port Huron Statement of the SDS. Like too many other pacifists and academics of the post-war generation, Goodman ultimately would find himself shouted down by the increasingly petulant firebrands of the New Left and Black Power movements, and completely marginalized by the hippies, flower children and LSD voyagers.

And, yet, given the effects of predatory capitalism and endless war, Goodman’s teachings are only slightly less relevant today than they were in 1960. Director/producer Jonathan Lee and producer/editor Kimberly Reed have crafted a bio-doc that while largely worshipful, as the title “Paul Goodman Changed My Life” would suggest, is thought-provoking throughout. Goodman, who died in 1972, at 60, was a complex, enormously driven man, who excelled not only in political rhetoric, but also as poet, novelist, playwright, critic, lecturer and Gestalt psychotherapist. It’s also true that when he wasn’t sitting at his typewriter, he often could be found cruising the parks and bars of Manhattan for male companions. Although most of the people interviewed here clearly didn’t have any problem with his bisexuality, it’s clear that the pursuit of much younger men was a distraction they didn’t find terribly appealing. Neither did Goodman, a loving husband and doting father for most of his adult life, pay much attention to the women’s movement, even though it addressed many of the same issues as those raised in his books and essays. Even if this oversight may have been dictated by personal issues left over from his childhood, it solidified a belief that Goodman was out of touch with the time and, perhaps, an outright male chauvinist. The DVD contains interviews with many friends and contemporaries, as well as appearances on William F. Buckley’s interview show. (I’d love to see episodes of “Firing Line” show up on DVD.) It adds several worthwhile bonus features, including an interview with Lee, deleted scenes, additional poetry readings and entries from the diary of Living Theater founder and collaborator Judith Malina.

David Sington’s illuminating documentary, “The Flaw,” opens with free-market advocate Alan Greenspan’s pathetic admission — before a congressional committee investigating the economic collapse of 2008 – that there was a flaw in the banking system he didn’t see coming and might never reveal itself. In far simpler terms than those expressed in this otherwise worthwhile film, however, the flaw was easy to predict and, in fact, revealed itself in several ways. First, measures to deregulate commerce allowed for American jobs to fly overseas, like so many migrating birds; then, measures to deregulate the banking industry allowed for corrupt and predatory lending practices; the same measures allowed banks to push credit cards and sub-prime mortgages on people who normally would have found it difficult to pay off any loans; and, finally, until the Enron scandal broke, almost no corporate outlaws were made to pay for their crimes. To some extent, “The Flaw” is an indictment of the brainwashing of American consumers that began decades ago and resulted in a false sense of security, based on an abundance of jobs and general feeling that Americans are all in this thing together. Bankers made sound loans and consumers knew better than to buy things on credit they couldn’t afford. Once brainwashed into thinking our economy’s bubbles were too strong to burst, marketing specialists found it easy to feed the addiction of consumers for more stuff. Other, more arcane details factored into the creation of the current ongoing catastrophe, but mostly it was caused by the refusal of free-market disciples to recognize when their lust for obscene profits, salaries and bonuses had finally triumphed over the ignorance and greed of their customers and it was time to cut them some slack.

Sington addresses the marketing of American capitalism by juxtaposing the expert testimony of his stable of experts – not a commie or anarchist among them – with the thinly disguised rhetoric found in cartoons, movies and TV clips funded by various chambers of commerce and industry groups, then dispensed to classrooms and civic organizations as mildly entertaining propaganda. The not-so-subliminal messages delivered in the films fit the world view of Greenspan and other followers of Ayn Rand and Milton Friedman. Anyone who’s already absorbed “Capitalism: A Love Story” and “Inside Job” likely will find much in “The Flaw” to be redundant. Newcomers, though, will come away from it far more informed and frightened about the likelihood of the same thing happening again in their lifetimes. As the movie points out, salaries and bonuses along Wall Street have recovered to the point that they’re as glutinous as they were before 2008; the stock market has recovered, largely based on the elimination of millions of American jobs and benefit programs; and no one in the banking industry has been indicted, let alone arrested for their role in stealing the hopes and dreams of so many Americans. – Gary Dretzka

The Divide: Blu-ray
Xavier Gens’ entry into the crowded field of post-apocalyptic thrillers is noteworthy primarily for its willingness to inflict great reserves of savagery on characters trapped in a makeshift fallout shelter in the basement of a Manhattan apartment building. The sense of imminent doom that pervades among the six men and four women and a girl in “The Divide” is not dissimilar to the pressure-cooker atmosphere that might have permeated the rooms in “Ten Little Indians” and “12 Angry Men,” if the characters in those films had been sociopaths. No sooner does the iron door clamp shut on the shelter than the inhabitants begin to be bullied by the maintenance supervisor, Michael Biehn (“Tombstone”), who laid in the provisions and divided the space into places where people could sleep, east and relieve themselves. Knowing that supplies won’t last nearly as long as the nuclear rain, the inmates jockey for positions of strength, finally deposing the ax-wielding potentate. Power shifts continually throughout the movie as weapons are found or fashioned and new alliances are shaped. The only time when the characters are united, to some degree, is when men in Hazmat suits invade the sanctuary, apparently in search of children to kidnap and participate in hideous experiments and adults to eliminate entirely. Not expecting to meet such fierce resistance, the invaders are overcome and forced to give up their weapons. One of the trapped men volunteers to search for the lost child, but what he finds in the newly built network of plastic tunnels and laboratories is just as horrifying as anything above ground. After he returns to the basement, soldiers weld its door shut, ensuring no one else will leave the concrete coffin. It is at this point that the real slaughter begins. One survivor does discover an escape route, but it’s too gruesome to recall here. Fans of such gorefests will find plenty to like in “The Divide.” Others probably won’t make it past the welding of the door. The actors trapped in the shelter include Lauren German (“Hostel: Part II”), Milo Ventimiglia (”Heroes”), Courtney B. Vance (”Law & Order: Criminal Intent”), Ivan Gonzalez, Michael Eklund (“Hunt to Kill”), Ashton Holmes (”Revenge”) and Rosanna Arquette (“Pulp Fiction”). – Gary Dretzka

Domain
The only way Patric Chiha’s psycho-sexual drama, “Domain,” could be more French is if the DVD package came with berets and coupons for baguettes. That isn’t a bad thing, per se, only a warning to Americans averse to the idea of spending 110 minutes in the company of smug, bourgeois Parisians who prefer preening, smoking and gossiping in nightclubs – at times, to the accompaniment of a gay chanteuse named Joan Crawford — to working or paying attention to the concerns of normal people. Oddly enough, most of the key adult characters we meet in “Domain” are mathematicians, not of the tweedy academic variety but fashionable sophisticates able to translate the performance of daily chores into numbers based on complex numerical theorems. Fortunately, Chiha’s story isn’t nearly as shackled to the pursuits of stereotypical twits as the characters are committed to their unrelenting pursuit of being French. Above anything else in “Domain” stands the iconic presence of Béatrice Dalle (“Betty Blue,” “Trouble Every Day”), who plays the sexy and seriously dissipated Aunt Nadia to 17-year-old Pierre, an attractive young man unable to balance his passion for her with his sexual attraction to his gay friends. Pierre clearly is transfixed with his beautiful and bodaciously built relative, mostly, though, for her intellectual brilliance, sharp wit and circle of accomplished friends. His mother warns him not to get too close to her sister, but to no avail. She’s provides a gateway to manhood no mother could hope to close. As time passes, though, Pierre realizes that Nadia is an alcoholic whose charm and self-esteem is dictated by the percentage of alcohol in her blood. After dragging his aunt’s drunken ass home one too many times, Pierre decides to commit himself to gay romance and boys his own age. This really sends Nadia over the edge. Besides being concerned about her sanity, we learn that she is suffering from an extremely serious disease, even before she does. Her doctor finally tells Nadia that her recovery is conditioned on her not taking another sip of a cocktail or glass of wine. In her mind, this is like asking her to agree to a lobotomy. Nonetheless, she agrees to attempt rehabilitation in a facility with a billion-dollar view of the Austrian Alps. When Pierre comes to visit, all bets are off as to the likelihood of success. After steering dangerously close to disaster early on, Chiha does a nice job steadying the ship and putting “Domain” on course to a satisfying conclusion. As for Dalle … ooh-la-la. – Gary Dretzka

Reuniting the Rubins
The term “faith-based” typically is reserved for movies with Christian themes favored within the evangelical movement. In “The Passion of the Christ,” Mel Gibson identified what the Hollywood studios felt to be an untapped market for movies in which prayer and faith in the Lord trump all manner of evil-doing and negative influences. Yoav Factor’s debut movie, “Reuniting the Rubins,” is recognizably faith-based, but the message being delivered can be found in the Torah and other rabbinical teachings. Frequently loud and rancorous, “RtR” isn’t all that dissimilar to other family-reunion flicks set during a holiday weekend, wedding or funeral. Here, though, the matriarch (Honor Blackman) of the Rubins’ clan fakes several serious medical maladies to inspire her only son (Timothy Spall) and disparate grandchildren to join her in what turns out to be a final Passover Seder. In doing so, she confounds her son’s plans for a long-awaited cruise vacation by demanding he assemble the mean-spirited businessman grandson (James Callis); the rabbi grandson (Hugh O’Connor), who’s lately devoted his every waking moment to ensuring that everything in his life is kosher; her Buddhist-monk grandson (Acier Newman), who has become a much gentler and well-reasoned man since switching teams; and her sole granddaughter (Rhona Mitra) a militant eco-freak. The capitalist and environmentalist are at odds over a project in Africa so important to him that he’s willing to finance a mercenary army to kill her friends and comrades. For his part, the rabbi refuses to compromise on his ultra-Orthodox demands for the Seder, causing everyone a major headache. If you’ve already guessed that the great-grandchildren are far more adult than their parents and prayers for a medical miracle are answered, reuniting the Rubins, give yourself a cigar. Timothy Spall is typically fine as the beleaguered son/dad/grandpa and it’s always nice to learn Honor Blackman is still alive and kicking, even if she could pass more easily for a WASP doyenne here. There’s a making-of featurette and alternate ending. – Gary Dretzka

Crew 2 Crew
Just when you think that the break-dance phenomenon has spun on its head for the last time, along comes another inspirational tale of hoofers against the world. In Mark Bacci’s “Crew 2 Crew” (a.k.a., “Five Hours South”), handsome Luca (Andres Londono) hopes to parley his love of hip-hop dance into a world tour in the company of like-minded male and female hotties. Because movies targeted at young audiences can’t exist without a moralistic conclusion, Luca is confronted with the possibility that dance is no substitute for the love of his family and girlfriend. (Try telling Madonna that.) The cast also includes Jordan Bridges (“Rizzoli & Isles”), Brooklyn Sudano (“Alone in the Dark II”) and Kate Nauta (“Transporter 2”). The DVD offers an alternate ending and making-of material. – Gary Dretzka

Baseball’s Greatest Games: 2011 World Series Game 6: Blu-ray
Anyone who stuck with the entire Game 6 of last year’s World Series isn’t likely to forget the St. Louis Cardinals’ tenacity and refusal to accept an early exit from one of baseball’s most exciting fall classics. Victory required five comebacks in 11 innings and a walk-off home run by post-season MVP David Freese. Even knowing the outcome of the game and series, the game is nearly as exciting as it was the night. (I gave up on the Cardinals far too early and missed all the fireworks.) The game is shown in high-definition and 5.1 surround sound. A special audio feature in the “Baseball’s Greatest Games” series allows fans to watch the television broadcast and listen to the radio play-by-play in English or Spanish. – Gary Dretzka

BBC Earth: Frozen Planet: The Complete Series
IMAX: Born to Be Wild
PBS: America Revealed
Given all the debate about global warming (a.k.a., climate change), it’s interesting that the BBC Earth documentary mini-series, “Frozen Planet,” feels so alive and upbeat throughout most of its 350-minute length. Really, though, if our polar icecaps are going to disappear in the foreseeable future, why not celebrate them while they’re here? Who knows, green technology might someday reverse the warming, rescuing all of the endangered polar bears and penguins and giving them a new lease on life. In the meantime, “Frozen Planet” must suffice for those of us not likely to visit the north or south poles in our lifetimes. Hosted, of course, by naturalist David Attenborough, the mini-series is nothing short of enthralling. It follows the seasonal cycle on both ends of the Earth, paying attention not only to the native species and vegetation, but also the effects of going from extreme cold to relative warmth – permanent midnight to 24 hours of sun for months at a time — on full-time and temporary residents, including whales, birds, fish, seals and krill. Fast-motion hi-def cameras capture both the annual buildup of ice and inevitable thaw, as well as the genetically dictated habits of the animals, plants and other carbon-based life forms. Fans of such BBC presentations as “Planet Earth,” “Galapagos,” “Wild China,” “Ganges,” “Life” and “Blue Planet” already know to expect scenarios so patiently recorded – and fortuitously captured – that they could be mistaken for simulations. How, for example, was it possible to get inside the snow-covered den/incubator of a snoozing polar bear and her pair of nursing cubs? Or, be positioned below the surface of the ice at the precise moment when female emperor penguins return from their long hunt for food? More than wee bit of good fortune allowed a team to join an isolated clan of Siberian Inuit as one brave man scaled the sheer cliffs of a remote island, collecting eggs, just as his ancestors had for centuries. Among the longer featurettes are “On Thin Ice,” an exploration of the effects of global warming; “Science at the Ends of the Earth,” in which we visit teams of researchers living and working under the most extreme meteorological conditions on the planet; “Freeze Frame,’ a series of six 10-minute making-of vignettes, one for each episode; a set of 47 video shorts, compiled by the production team; and “Frozen Planet: The Epic Journey,” an hour-long greatest-hits package.

Born to Be Wild,” originally shot for presentation on large-format screens, describes the efforts of two women to re-introduce orphaned animals – African elephants and orangutans in Borneo – into their native habitats. It is a family film in the same way as most other IMAX productions intended for viewing at museums and other such institutions. Really, though, it’s the younger demographic that will enjoy it most. Poachers have orphaned many baby elephants in Kenya’s Tsavo National Park. If other adults in the herd shun the baby, it will starve to death. Daphne Sheldrick has committed her life to rescuing the helpless creatures and restoring their strength and will to live. In the South Pacific, Biruté Galdikas runs a similarly effective facility for baby orangutans, whose parents might have been victims of encroaching civilization, in the form of loggers and planters. The IMAX digital HD cameras neatly capture the dignity and mannerisms of the animals and the beauty of the terrain. Parents of kids enchanted by the new Disneynature feature, “Chimpanzee,” ought to consider a purchase or rental of “Born to Be Wild,” to elongate the experience. The supplemental package adds six short webisodes, in HD: “Borneo,” “Kenya,” “Camp Leakey,” “Coming Home to Tsavo,” “Wild Filmmaking” and “Caregivers.”

Currently running on some PBS stations, “America Revealed” offers an aerial view of the systems and networks that connect Americans and the facilities that sustain us. The series is hosted by “Survivor: Cook Islands” winner Yul Kwon, who’s never shy about sharing the camera with his subjects or attempting to offer humorous observations. He also helps interpret the satellite- and GPS-delivered data that reflects the movement of people, traffic, food, manufactured goods and energy through ribbons of light. If I have a complaint about “America Revealed” it’s that Kwon doesn’t challenge the pronouncements of industry spokesmen and farmers who think it’s great that genetically altered corn has become the pre-eminent source of nutrition in corporate ranching and other food production, while the benefits of chemical fertilizers aren’t balanced against the potential hazards. We’re told about the Oglala Aquifer, but not much information is provided about quickly it’s being drained by corporate farmers. While Kwon doesn’t ignore environmental issues and advocates of organic farming, methinks too much credit is given the robotization of American life. – Gary Dretzka

Bob’s Burgers: The Complete 1st Season
American Dad: Volume 7: Uncensored
Meet the Browns: Season 5
Yo Gabba Gabba: Super Spies
Succeeding in prime-time is never a certainty for new shows these days. A-list talent no longer even guarantees a ready audience for a series’ debut episode, let alone a pick-up for an additional 13 episodes or second season. Last winter, “Bob’s Burgers” was launched as part of Fox’s Sunday night “Animation Domination” block. It received the same hefty marketing push as the ill-fated “Allen Gregory,” “Sit Down, Shut Up” and “Napoleon Dynamite,” but still somehow managed to live to see a second season, which began on March 11. Never a lock to make it that far, the show has recently enjoyed a nice bump in the ratings numbers. For those who missed all or some of the first season, Fox has made it available in a “Complete 1st Season” package. Like almost every other prime-time animated show, “BB” is irreverent to the point of being rude and crude. Bob’s Burgers is a family-run restaurant that struggles to succeed against stiff competition from Jimmy Pesto’s Italian restaurant – across the street and next-door to a funeral parlor – and the perpetual animosity of a health inspector who was jilted by Bob’s wife, Linda. They are supported at the diner by two daughters and a son who sometimes is required to don a hamburger costume to attract customers. The show was created by Loren Bouchard, also responsible for “Lucy, Daughter of the Devil,” “Home Movies” and “Doctor Katz, Professional Therapist.” The voicing cast includes H. Jon Benjamin and Dan Mintz (“Jon Benjamin Has a Van”), Kristin Schaal (“Flight of the Conchords”), Andy Kindler (“Everybody Loves Raymond”) and, every so often, Kevin Kline, Sarah and Laura Silverman, and Megan Mullally. The compilation adds commentary tracks, audio outtakes, the demo episode, a music video and a bit on the behind-the-characters art gags.

The big news in Season 7 of “American Dad” came in its reaching the 100th-episode plateau, with, I think, “The Best Little Horror House in Langley Falls.” In it, Stan’s plan to out-do the neighbor’s fancy Halloween attraction backfires when Roger the Alien releases the serial killers he was borrowing from the CIA. Meanwhile, Steve faces Toshi’s revenge when he takes a liking to his sister, Akiko. By another accounting, the centennial mark was reached earlier in the season in the episode where Hayley elopes with Jeff. Fans will grasp the implications better than I ever could and, as usual, newcomers are advised to start at the beginning. In short, though, Stan Smith is a CIA agent in Langley Falls, Virginia, obsessed with national security. His family members, including a talking goldfish and a space alien who likes to play dress-up, keep Stan busy while he tries to prevent terrorist activity in the United States. It’s the product of Mike Barker, Matt Weitzman, and “Family Guy” creator Seth MacFarlane. Guest voices for this season include Lisa Edelstein, Jason Alexander, Hayden Panettiere, Sandra Oh, Grace Park, Burt Reynolds, Anjelica Huston and Lou Diamond Phillips.

Like time, itself, Tyler Perry and his creations keep marching along. It seems like only yesterday when the last collection of “Meet the Browns” episodes was released. In fact, it was three months ago. For those keeping score at home, the compilation spans episodes 81-100, or roughly “Meet the Postponement” to “Meet the Phobia.”

In “Super Spies,” the latest collection of “Yo Gaba Gaba” episodes. The emphasis is on mysteries, espionage and kiddie-friendly intrigue. As usual, there’s plenty of music to go along with the fun and a new interactive game, to boot. – Gary Dretzka

History: Planet Egypt
History: The Presidents
History: Only in America with Larry the Cable Guy: Volume Two
History: Ice Road Truckers: Season 5
The latest collection of DVDs from the folks at History Channel is representative of its eclectic mix of programming. “Planet Egypt” and “The Presidents” deliver the goods in the form of lessons from the dawn of recorded history and in an eight-part survey of the American presidents. No civilization is more fascinating than that of ancient Egypt and the pharaohs we know primarily through the discovery of their mummified remains. Because the early Egyptians were so intellectually and technologically evolved, we’re able to trace the country’s history back more than 3,000 years. The four-part presentation examines the confluence of technology, culture, religion, architecture, military might and statesmanship that’s unified the country through wars, plagues, natural disaster, colonization and religious fanaticism. Moreover, it is a country that still matters greatly in the pursuit of world peace. The timeline begins with King Narmer, who united more than 40 regional tribes into the first Egyptian civilization, and answers mysteries raised by the pyramids and temples.

In the eight-part “The Presidents,” the men who’ve held sway in the Oval Office are profiled, with close attention paid to their accomplishments, failures, idiosyncrasies and personal lives. Originally shown in 2005, the collection now includes a “Biography” chapter on Barack Obama, as well as the 42 commanders-in-chief who preceded him. The series is based on “To the Best of My Ability,” edited by Pulitzer Prize-winner James McPherson. It includes much rarely seen photographs and footage, as well as observations of such luminaries as Walter Cronkite, David Brinkley, Wesley Clark, Bob Dole and former President Jimmy Carter. It is narrated by Edward Herrmann and adds the feature-length “All the Presidents’ Wives” and a timeline of U.S. presidents.

Less traditional lessons are delivered in Only in America with Larry the Cable Guy: Volume Two” and “Ice Road Truckers: Season 5.” Comedian Larry the Cable Guy may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but fans will enjoy his hands-on approach to re-creating such historical events as the Continental Army’s crossing of the Delaware River and the California Gold Rush, as well as experiencing the pains and pleasures of logging, eating and preparing deep-friend food, training to be a Marine, maintaining San Francisco’s fleet of cable cars and hunting with a musket. There’s plenty more and Larry isn’t reluctant to get downright raunchy when the occasion calls for it.

I still don’t know what hazardous driving has to do with history, but “Ice Road Truckers” has become a staple of programming on the cable network. Season 5 is the first season to focus on two different roads simultaneously, Alaska’s Dalton Highway and one in Manitoba upon which freight is hauled to isolated communities that have no other way to bring in materials. Hugh, Rick and Alex return to Canada for the Manitoba run, while Lisa and veteran Tony Molesky transport loads on the Dalton Highway, along with newcomers Dave Redmon and Maya Sieber. I’d enjoy seeing a series based on how the truckers spend their hard-earned money when they aren’t confined to their trucks and if it involves driving the kids to Disneyworld every couple of years. – Gary Dretzka

Dark Crimes: 50 Movie Set
The Nifty Fifties: 50 Movie Set
Timeless Family Classics: 50 Movie Set
I can’t think of many better deals than the ones offered by Mill Creek Entertainment in their collections of 50 feature films, representing several different genres and time frames. Here, for less than $30 each, fans can own 150 films representing 10,000 minutes of entertainment. The catch comes in the fact that many of the public-domain titles have previously been included in other collections and some aren’t up to par with those given facelifts by other leading distributors. Collectors who don’t own high-end home-theater systems benefit the most because definition isn’t an issue and, in most cases, the DVDs are clean enough to look good on the cheapest of prehistoric black-and-white TVs. Since everything looks like film noir on such appliances, the films in the “Dark Crimes” collection are the least hurt by imperfections and visual artifacts. No matter the price, how bad could performances by such stars as Basil Rathbone, Yul Brynner, Boris Karloff, Ava Gardner, Angela Lansbury, Raymond Burr, Edward G. Robinson, Constance Towers, Hedy Lamarr, George Raft and Melvyn Douglas be? “The Nifty Fifties” compilation features movies with Sidney Poitier, Frank Sinatra, Elizabeth Taylor, Charlton Heston, Debbie Reynolds, Robert Wagner, Kim Novak, Marilyn Monroe, Bing Crosby and Warren Beatty.

I’ve yet to be convinced that kids actually can tell the difference between the quality of a DVD and VHS presentation. (If they can, you might suggest a visit to the local public library.) This works in favor of the Westerns and silent comedies in “Timeless Family Classics.” There’s also such memorable fare as the 1933 “Oliver Twist,” 1932 “A Farewell to Arms,” 1937 “A Star Is Born,” Buster Keaton’s “The General,”  Charlie Chaplin’s “The Kid” and 1934 “Jane Eyre.” Look for performances, as well, by Ginger Rogers, Kirk Douglas, Jack Benny, Douglas Fairbanks, Eddie Albert and James Cagney. – Gary Dretzka

The DVD Wrapup: Iron Lady, Conquest, Sleeping Beauty, Streetcar, Dark Shadows … More

Wednesday, April 11th, 2012

The Iron Lady: Blu-ray
The Conquest

What does it say about our democracy that elections in England — and, now, France — make for more compelling drama than those in the U.S.? Probably nothing voters don’t already know from watching the nightly news and such documentaries and dramatizations as “The War Room” and HBO’s “Recount” and “Game Change.” On film anyway, elections in other western democracies appear far more civil than the ones we’ve experienced lately and the candidates don’t seem to pander to the lowest common denominator. By contrast to Newt Gingrich, Vladimir Putin is a statesman in the John Kennedy mold. It’s our fault, though, because we allow these bottom feeders to leave their toxic ponds every four years and wander freely among normal folks. “The Iron Lady” tells the story of Margaret Thatcher’s rise to power in an England as politically divided and close to economic collapse as any non-Third War country. The only thing missing is a guest appearance by Michael Sheen as David Frost or Tony Blair.

Love her or hate her, Thatcher stood her ground and made a difference. Her legacy, though, still is a long way from being etched in concrete. After all, it took more than 20 years for the seeds of an economic disaster, planted by Thatcher’s friend and conservative ally Ronald Reagan, to bear their poison fruit here. And, as for the tired business of this dynamic duo singlehandedly ending the Cold War, I would give equal credit, at least, to Pope John Paul II and MTV Europe. Even before the movie was released in England and the U.S., “The Iron Lady” was drawing fire from supporters on the right and detractors on the left. Not surprisingly, Laborites and Liberal Democrats criticized it for not showing how Thatcher’s hardline decisions negatively impacted working and poor people. Complaints from the right targeted the decision by director Phyllida Lloyd (“Mamma Mia!”) and screenwriter Abi Morgan (“Shame”) to tell her story from the point of view of a woman who regularly engaged in conversations with the ghost of her late husband, Denis, and recalled events throughout her life through the haze of Alzheimer’s disease. Brits of all political persuasions felt as if the filmmakers had broken the unwritten rule against portraying a living person’s struggle with dementia. Considering how few Americans, myself included, were aware that the baroness has Alzheimer’s, “Iron Lady” occasionally does seem to be an unnecessary invasion of privacy.

What is indisputable, however, is Meryl Streep’s dead-on lifting of Thatcher’s looks, mannerisms and speech patterns. Even if relative newcomers Rooney Mara, Michelle Williams or Viola Davis might have deserved this year’s Best Actress Oscar more that Streep or fellow finalist Glenn Close, the degrees of difference were infinitesimal. As First Husband Denis Thatcher, whose sense of humor kept his wife on an even keel, Jim Broadbent is his usual enchanting self, as well. The Blu-ray package adds a half-dozen featurettes, none of them too short to be particularly noteworthy. They include a 12-minute behind-the-scenes piece, with cast and crew discussing Thatcher, her marriage and the times; “Recreating the Young Margaret Thatcher,” with 25-year-old co-star Alexandra Roach; “Denis: The Man Behind the Woman,” with Broadbent commenting on his role; “Battle in the House of Commons,” which dissects the chaotic scenes of debate in Parliament; “Costume Design: Pearls and Power Suits,” with costume designer Consolata Boyle describing how the film’s wardrobe evolved as Thatcher grow older and more powerful; and “History Goes to the Cinema,” which looks at the history behind “My Week With Marilyn,” “W.E.”, “Coriolanus,” “The Iron Lady” and “The Artist.”

Any similarity between elections in the UK and France begins and ends with the actual casting of a vote, at least as described in Xavier Durringer’s “The Conquest.” More than “Iron Lady,” it is a dramatization of events in the long, difficult and often bitter political process that led to Nicolas Sarkozy’s 2007 election as President of France. The depiction of his marriage during the same five-year period is every bit as interesting as the clash of ideologies, personalities and political strategies. As interpreted by Denis Podalyedes, Sarkozy is as pugnacious as a pit bull forced to share his bones with the laziest dogs in the kennel and as impatient as a spoiled child on Christmas morning. No sooner does the conservative politician find a niche in the government of Jacques Chirac (Bernard Le Coq) than he’s quoted as saying that he foresees being president every morning when he looks in the mirror. At first, Chirac and Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin dismiss Sarkozy as a political midget – a reference to his short size – and a thoroughly unlikeable candidate. What they hadn’t considered, though, was the discontent of French workers and other moderates with both his Socialist and incumbent opponents. Because French presidential elections are contested in several rounds of voting, it’s easy to get lost in the details. What’s far more compelling is watching Sarkozy’s marriage to his second wife, Cecilia, crumble before our eyes. Although he considered Cecilia to be his closest political aide, he’s shown being disrespectful to her in strategy sessions and openly hostile behind closed doors. Knowing that it would be difficult to win the election without his wife at his side, Sarkozy continually begs her forgiveness and plays touchy-feely with her in public. Unlike American political wives, who stand by their men no matter how shabbily they’re treated, Cecilia not only left the campaign, but she also split to Switzerland for a tryst with her lover. Even after her husband convinced her to re-join the race in the stretch run, she refused to be photographed entering her polling station. The movie ends days before he got his revenge by marrying model/singer-songwriter/actress/babe Carla Bruni, who stands several inches taller than Sarkovy, but is 10 years younger than Cecilia. (She has since remarried and stays busy as a champion of women’s rights and other humanitarian causes.) I loved that the political scenes were accompanied by a light and bouncy Nicola Piovani score, unmistakably inspired by Federico Fellini’s circus movies. – Gary Dretzka

Sleeping Beauty
Much is left unsaid in freshman writer/director Julia Leigh’s erotic anti-romance, “Sleeping Beauty.” That’s partially because the movie’s protagonist and title character, Lucy (Aussie Emily Browning), spends much of her time in drug-induced deep-REM sleep, while pervy old men share her bed. When she isn’t at college or doing minimum-wage jobs, Lucy is an employee of a high-end service that employs beautiful young women to serve as servers and companions at private parties in various stages of undress. Her boss/madam assures them that “penetration” is not part of any deal, because “your vagina is a temple.” Lucy, who isn’t averse to casual sex or last-minute hookups, doesn’t share that opinion, but the money is too good for a cash-strapped student to resist. I know next to nothing about Leigh or how her “Sleeping Beauty” is supposed to relate to the original fairy-tale, which has undergone much critical analysis by psychiatrists and other deep thinkers. Today, our dysfunctional economy has forced many women to consider positions – not all of them prone – in the adult-entertainment industry, where they can make more money in a night than at Walmart in several months. For a student who’s already comfortable with her body to agree simply to sleep her way through an evening shift isn’t nearly as outlandish a proposition as it would have sounded even five years ago. Still, Lucy can’t help but wonder what the rich geezers are doing to her, if not having intercourse with her. She begs the madam to let her watch one of the girls or be allowed to feign sleep, but is told it would break the spell. And, that’s pretty much where “Sleeping Beauty” ends. What’s nice about it is the pacing of the narrative, which approximates a dream state of its own. Nothing is rushed, padded or contrived. Browning is a mere wisp of a lass, not voluptuous by any stretch of the imagination, but far less innocent that the average fairy-tale heroine. If I were to guess, I’d say Leigh’s style here was inspired by David Cronenberg or Louis Bunuel, whose fantasies have advanced similarly surreal notions. – Gary Dretzka

Into the Abyss: Blu-ray
Surviving Hitler: A Love Story
Missrepresentation

Is it possible that, at the ripe old age of 69, Werner Herzog is only now hitting his stride? As a documentarian, his films are the equal of anyone else in the non-fiction game. Such recent theatrical features as “The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call – New Orleans,” “Rescue Dawn,” “The Wild Blue Yonder” and “My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done” reflect the work of a man unafraid to follow his imagination into the dark corners of the American psyche. If their excellence isn’t always rewarded with substantial support at the box office – or recognition by AMPAS’ nominating committees – it doesn’t appear to have fazed him. Last year, his remarkably beautiful meditation on the ancient sketches found in France’s Chauvet Cave, “Cave of Forgotten Dreams,” preceded the release of “Into the Abyss,” a haunting study of crime and punishment in Texas. Such is the current state of human affairs in the Lone Star State that the triple homicide assayed in the documentary could almost be described as a routine crime … as was the execution of one of its perpetrators. Such horrors are so commonplace that neither the murders nor the men convicted in them – Michael Perry and Jason Burkett – have been accorded Wikipedia pages of their own. Even though Herzog is an opponent of the death penalty, “Into the Abyss” is careful not to steer viewers in the same direction. The film was being edited at approximately the same time as then-presidential candidate Rick Perry was using his state’s record of executing criminals, as well as men who would posthumously be found innocent, to elicit cheers from his rabid supporters. “This is not an issue film; it’s not an activist film against capital punishment,” Herzog told the Los Angeles Times. “Yes, it has an issue, but it’s not the main purpose of the film.” To this end, he not only interviews the condemned Perry (eight days before his execution) and his partner, who drew a life sentence, but he also spends time in Conroe, Texas, speaking with family members and friends of the men and their victims. Herzog also revisits the murders and subsequent shootout with police with detectives and prosecutors. A sequence each is devoted to a jailhouse interview with Burkett’s father, serving a 40-year bit across the road from his son, and the woman who met and married Burkett after the trial. She doesn’t deny the probability that she might be pregnant with his child, even though they’ve never been allowed a conjugal visit or anything more sexual than a held hand. This is amazing stuff. Americans don’t appear to be in any mood these days to launch a national forum on capital punishment, let alone ban it outright. Herzog deserves praise, though, for attempting to lay a foundation for such a debate.

Surviving Hitler: A Love Story” is remarkable as a story of uncanny good luck and remarkable fortitude, told by a woman, Jutta Cords, who only learned as a teenager that she was legally half-Jewish and therefore was prohibited from getting married or going to university in Nazi Germany. Neither could she know that another teenager, Helmuth, whom she met and shared dances with while on vacation, would play a major role in her life when they found each other again before he was deployed to the eastern front. Because Jutta and Helmuth’s family recorded so much of their early lives on film, “Surviving Hitler” benefits from firsthand source material and views of life before World War II. Jutta, now 92, vividly recalls how her parents were prescient enough to send her to school in Switzerland, where she could be safe no matter what happened back home in Berlin. Knowing that her parents were beginning to fear for their lives, Jutta returned to the city for the duration of the war. Even though it’s clear that all three were on the Nazis’ radar screen for a long time, they managed to avoid incarceration until nearly the end of the war. After the siege of Stalingrad, it became clear to Helmuth that his fuhrer was leading Germany into disaster. After his hospitalization, he and Jutta joined the Resistance movement, which, she insists, was larger and more active than Americans even now give it credit for being. Jutta introduced Helmuth to her friend, Werner von Haeften, an officer in the Wehrmacht who was secretly in the Resistance and was one of the driving forces behind Operation Valkyrie. After that operation failed, nearly 5,000 people believed to have been involved in it were executed and others were jailed. By the time the Red Army had entered Berlin, Jutta believed that Helmuth and her parents all were dead. We share her surprise when the truth is revealed. “Surviving Hitler” is interesting primarily for giving us an idea of what life was like behind the front lines, but it also serves as a heart-warming romance and nearly unbelievable story of survival.

One needn’t be an ardent feminist to agree wholeheartedly with the conclusions reached in actor-turned-director Jennifer Siebel Newsom’s debut documentary, “Miss Representation.” That the media is obsessed with sexual imagery and exploits it sell products and ad-supported publications and shows is an inarguable fact of American life. It’s been 57 years since the first Miss America was crowned on national television women and how far have we come? “Toddlers and Tiaras”? “Bad Girls of Las Vegas”? NBC’s disgraceful “Playboy Club”? In Los Angeles and other markets, longtime weather forecasters are being replaced by increasingly busty beauties whose wardrobe appears to have been selected by Larry Flynt. Nothing’s really changed and the data presented in Newsom’s documentary supports her theory. This might have been sufficient cause for its inclusion in the OWN Documentary Club lineup, but, if she really wanted to do some damage, Newsom would have advanced the dialogue to 2012. Despite the presence on her witness list of a couple dozen distinguished and learned talking heads – Gloria Steinem, Katie Couric, Jane Fonda, Rachel Maddow, Dianne Feinstein, Geena Davis and Margaret Cho among them – several tough questions go virtually unanswered. For example, why do so many women in positions of power do so little to prevent such exploitation? There’s no scarcity of women in the executive suites at studios, networks and magazines, yet the women who get the most exposure in their movies, shows and covers are young (and getting younger), thin (and getting thinner), digitally and/or cosmetically enhanced, and required to wear skimpy outfits picked out for them by sponsors and product-placement firms. That’s because executives, producers, directors and editors of the female persuasion answer to the same gods of Wall Street as their male counterparts.

In hindsight, Couric wonders if she inadvertently became part of the problem when she allowed “Today” producers to photograph and dress her in ways they considered to be sexy, right down to the free Manolos and Jimmy Choos on her feet. Yes, Katie, you did. Likewise, Fonda is allowed to take off on media exploitation without being challenged on her own enhancements. If Newsom is suggesting that OWN Documentary Club viewers forgo dieting, having their boobs done and going out sans makeup, she owes it to them to explain why these celebrities play the media’s game. And, if they do decide to undergo the same procedures as the celebrities, they shouldn’t be chastised for it. As worthwhile an exercise as “Miss Representation” is, it often feels more like a PDA than a call to arms. – Gary Dretzka

A Streetcar Named Desire: 60th Anniversary Edition: Blu-ray
Kate & Leopold: Blu-ray
Bounce: Blu-ray

Newly re-released into Blu-ray, “A Streetcar Named Desire” stands tall both as a supreme entertainment and a reminder of a time when Hollywood was afraid of its own long shadow. As important a film as it remains in the repertory, Elia Kazan’s adaptation of Tennessee Williams’ landmark play – also directed by Kazan on Broadway – was anything but an easy sell as a movie. Darryl F. Zanuck’s plans for producing the movie version at Fox were thwarted by his bosses, who foresaw insurmountable problems getting “Streetcar” approved by the Hays Office and Legion of Decency. It ended up at Warner Bros., where Charles K. Feldman shepherded the movie through the landmines laid by censors and priests. This was 1951, after all, and everyone in power in the motion-picture industry feared being a purveyor of anti-American values to defenseless adults (all of whom had somehow just endured the agonies of a world war and economic deprivation). To appease the MPAA and Roman Catholic ratings board, several alterations were made in the adaptation. As documented in the excellent bonus material, they included inferences of desires felt by Blanche and Stella DuBois toward Stanley Kowalski and another male visitor; dialogue that makes it clear that Blanche’s husband committed suicide after she found him in bed with another man; the depiction of Stanley’s rape of Blanche; and Stella’s final reaction to her husband’s lustful behavior. Neither were Alex North’s sultry musical score and Harry Stradling’s brilliant black-and-white cinematography exempt from the legion’s prudish nitpicking. A featurette uses side-by-side comparisons to show how several scenes looked before and after being edited. What the censors couldn’t contain, however, was Brando’s raw animal magnetism. In an unprecedented performance, Brando reeks of unvarnished sexuality, unbridled lust and unexpected vulnerability. It set the standard for actors looking to escape the straitjacket of tradition and conformity so commonplace at the time.

It’s also interesting to learn how the movie allowed Kazan to re-balance the characterizations of Stanley and Blanche. On stage, he catered to audience expectations by allowing Brando to dominate every scene in which he appeared. In the movie, it’s made clear that Williams intended Blanche to be every bit as compelling and formidable a character, if far more damaged. By the end of the stage version, anyway, it’s clear that that war between Stanley and Blanche symbolizes post-war divisions dividing the increasingly less agricultural, more urbanized New South and faux gentility of Old South traditions. So, throughout most of the story, it was important that a certain balance between the opposing forces be enforced. Vivien Leigh, who took over the role of Blanche originated on Broadway by Jessica Tandy, benefited from being directed in the London production by her husband, Laurence Olivier, who wasn’t required to defer to an actor of Brando’s strength. Kim Hunter and Karl Malden reprised their roles in the movie version and lived long enough to be interviewed here about their recollections of the experiences. Their thoughts are included in the making-of featurettes. Of the four primary actors, only Brando failed to take home an Oscar. The informative commentary track adds the thoughts of Malden and historians Rudy Behlmer and Jeff Young. Among the other featurettes are the feature-length “Elia Kazan: A Director’s Journey,” “A Streetcar on Broadway,” “A Streetcar in Hollywood,” “Censorship and Desire,” “North and the Music of the South,” “An Actor Named Brando,” Brando’s screen test, outtakes, audio outtakes, trailers and Digibook packaging, with photos and text. Of course, the Blu-ray represents the un-edited, pre-censored version of “Streetcar.”

Other Blu-ray re-issues pale in comparison to “Streetcar,” but that’s only to be expected. In 2001, Meg Ryan’s career still was benefitting from the fumes left behind such successes as “You’ve Got Mail,” “Sleepless in Seattle” and “Courage Under Fire,” while multitalented Aussie Hugh Jackman was the handsome new kid on the block. The time-travel rom-com “Kate & Leopold” seemed on paper, at least, a logical place to combine her spunky charm and his natural good lucks. He was the charming 19th-century nobleman magically transported to 21st Century New York, where she would assume he’s just another poser friend of her brother looking to get into her pants. It’s fun to watch Leopold struggle to make sense of myriad consumer goods, cars and fast-food restaurants, while Kate is, well, just another stereotypical blond career gal playing hard to get. Other than the fish-out-of-water confusion, there’s not much else to recommend “K&L” to anyone who’s not a fan of the stars. The Blu-ray brings back commentary by director James Mangold, a making-of featurette, deleted scene, a music video of Sting’s “Until” and short piece on Donna Zakowska’s costumes.

Also from the Miramax vaults, now controlled by Lionsgate, comes “Bounce,” a romantic drama starring the hot couple of 2000, Ben Affleck and Gwenyth Paltrow. Affleck plays Buddy Amaral, a slick ad exec who avoids being killed in a plane crash by agreeing to give his ticket to a passenger “bounced” due to overbooking. That poor soul (Tony Goldwyn) was in a hurry to get home to his wife, Abby Janello (Paltrow). The near-miss disturbs Buddy to the point where he nearly drowns himself in drink and must find help of the 12-step variety. Following one of the organization’s tenets, Buddy feels it necessary to meet Abby and explain his role in the tragedy. Instead, he pretends to be a friend of her late husband. They spark, but the flame is extinguished by his admission of what really happened. Can love survive deceit? Duh. Again, “Bounce” will be appreciated more by fans of the stars than anyone else. The Blu-ray package contains commentary by director Don Roos (“The Opposite of Sex”) and co-producer Bobby Cohen; deleted scenes and a gag reel; a pair of behind-the-camera featurettes; a “Need to Be Next to You” music video; a pullout of selected scenes with additional commentary. – Gary Dretzka

American Reel
The Museum of Wonders
Claustrofobia

Although not in the same league as “Crazy Heart,” fans of the Jeff Bridges vehicle might consider renting “American Reel,” in which David Carradine plays another singer-songwriter whose refusal to sell out has kept him out of the spotlight for 20 years. Instead of bashing his head against the wall, James Lee Springer has made a modest living teaching school and doing his own musical thing. Out of the blue, a song he wrote as a young man hits the charts, opening the door to a comeback tour. Springer’s all for it, as long as he isn’t required to compromise the same ideals upon which he refused to compromise two decades earlier. If anything, though, the music industry – now, apparently, centered in Chicago — has only gotten more segmented, hit-driven and rigid in its demands on artists. His old friend and manager, played by British Shakespearean Michael Maloney, tries desperately to get Springer to bend just a wee bit, if only to acknowledge the passage of time. He hires a Second City comedian (Mariel Hemingway) to babysit the singer and keep him amused (not sexually … just happier). Even if the setup doesn’t reflect current reality and the ending is fairly predictable, “American Reel” moves along at an even pace and the music, at least, is good. Finished in 2002, Carradine looks very much alive and comfortable in his character’s boots. He co-wrote and plays guitar on several the songs on the soundtrack, which gets a boost from some of Nashville’s top session players. “American Reel” is serious enough to qualify as a drama, but it has gentle heart and offers more than few laughs.

If Todd Browning’s “Freaks” ever were to be turned into an Italian opera — or David Lynch decided to direct a summer-stock revival of “Cabaret” — it might look a lot like Domiziano Cristophro’s very bizarre, “The Museum of Wonders.” The characters who gather to celebrate the good fortune of the wee circus owner, Marcel (Fabiano Lioi), and his dancer bride, Salome (Maria Grazia Cucinotta), don’t share the same physical deformities as sideshow attractions in “Freaks.” There’s a strongman, mystic, sword-swallower and fire eater, tattooed and bearded ladies, a transvestite or two, and a creepy master and mistress of ceremonies. Civilians come to their little theater to marvel at things people now take for granted. (A professional tattooed lady wouldn’t stand out in any crowd, today.) It’s the drama of the characters’ personal attitudes toward themselves, each other and so-called normal people that Cristophro accentuates with his brilliant lighting design and special visual effects. Salome shows her true colors by adding poison to her diminutive lover’s drinks and attempting to steal away with the strong man, Sansone. Marcel diagnoses his own malady before Salome can make her getaway, however, causing the other museum attractions to exact their punishment on the fiends. For all of its horror conceits, “Museum of Wonders” is an unusually artful blend of Italian genres. The acting is quite good, by any standards, and the score mixes elements of tragic opera and carnival midway music.

Also from the MVD catalog arrives “Claustrofobia,” a claustrophobic Dutch thriller that succeeds even though its plot has holes through which you could drive a truck. Eva aspires to be a veterinarian, although her study habits would qualify her only to change the newspapers on the bottom of bird cages. Feeling her youthful oats, she decides to move into an apartment in a building seemingly populated with peepers and perverts. One morning, after being plied with drinks by the doctor downstairs, Eva awakes to find herself chained to a bed in a dank dungeon. Loud noises and disembodied voices unnerve her, of course, but it’s the black-clothed creep with the gas mask who really freaks her out. Eva fights back, however, eventually unmasking her captor and discovering cracks in his veneer and that of her prison. Just when we think she’ll be able to pull off her escape, Eva discovers her captor’s greater mystery and the reality that a security system won’t allow her to get past the coded door lock. Hope is trumped by disappointment twice more, with the stakes rising each time her plans are thwarted. As the clock ticks closer to Eva’s personal midnight, viewers might find themselves far more deeply invested in her predicament than they thought possible. – Gary Dretzka

Kill
The Terror Experiment
Thou Shalt Not Kill … Except: Blu-ray
Hidden

This isn’t the best week for horror releases of the domestic variety. Since Troma’s “Kill” has the most unusual fiends – birdbrains wearing Tiki and knight gear – it immediately jumps to the head of the class, and I use that word advisedly. Even by the usually low production standards associated with Troma’s do-it-yourself features, this one is cheesier than a mountain of warmed-over nachos. Made on a budget estimated to be $5,000 in play Canadian money, Gabriel Carrer and Chad Archibald’s collaboration is one movie that could have benefited from far more gratuitous nudity and fewer cardboard props. In it, a half-dozen unrelated characters are surprised to find themselves trapped in a locked house, whose bedrooms and common areas are monitored by obviously placed cameras and linked to their puppet masters by a loud-speaker system. Curiously, too, they’re all wearing head-to-toe white outfits. They first sense that things aren’t going to get any better any time soon comes when a bleeding man is tossed into the mix and they’re told that their survival depends on killing everyone else around them. Before that happens, though, the Tiki warriors invade the living quarters. Their unexpected presence is funnier to us than it is to the characters, who don’t appear to be particularly surprised. If somehow the producers had been able to stage this atrocity in Disneyland’s Enchanted Tiki Room or Trader Joe’s, “Kill” might have had a shot at immortality.

Any movie in which top billing is shared by C. Thomas Howell, Judd Nelson and Robert Carradine either was made in 1985 or a quarter-century later in a straight-to-video thriller. You’ll find “The Terror Experiment” (a.k.a., “Fight or Flight”) in the bargain-bin wing of the latter category. In it, a disgruntled veteran detonates a biological weapon inside a crowded federal building to alert the world to a secret government program to create a similarly hideous toxic gas. Never mind the hypocrisy, however, because what “The Terror Experiment” then becomes is an escape thriller. Can the people inside the federal building exit the facility without infecting humanity or being shot by soldiers awaiting orders from high command? In a rare foray from the TV arena, director George Mendeluk has produced a film that feels as if it were commissioned by the Syfy or Chiller networks. Tipping the balance closer to a younger demographic — not aware earlier entries in Nelson, Howell and Carradine’s resume — are co-stars Alicia Leigh Willis (”The L Word”), Serah D’Laine (“General Hospital”) and Alexander Mendeluk (“The Twilight Saga: New Moon”).

And, speaking of 1985, that’s when “Thou Shalt Not Kill … Except” (a.k.a., “Stryker’s War”) reared its bloody head from the wilds of Detroit. Josh Becker’s cut-rate action-thriller combines elements of “Platoon,” “The A-Team” and “Helter-Skelter,” in the service of a story that probably would have been more relevant in the early 1970s. When the injured Marine Sergeant Jack Stryker (Brian Schulz) returns home from Vietnam, he’s required to rescue his ex-girlfriend (Cheryl Hausen) from the clutches of a Charles Manson-like cult leader. Horror maestro Sam Raimi, another Michigander, hams it up as the deranged fellow. Synapse Films gives “Thou Shalt Not Kill …” a new 2K high-definition transfer from the original negative. It’s probably better treatment than the movie warrants. It includes amusing audio commentaries featuring director Josh Becker, co-writer Bruce Campbell and Schulz; a new video interview with Campbell; a deleted scene with optional director’s commentary; an alternate title sequence; and original theatrical trailer.

Not much more entertaining, but technically proficient, at least, is “Hidden,” a movie with the rare distinction of being co-written by the fictitious Alan and Alana Smithy. Originally intended to be presented in 3D, it tells a story that appears to have been borrowed from David Cronenberg’s “The Brood.” The son of a mad scientist is invited to return to the “Divine Sanctuary of Hope,” where his mother conducted her experiments on people addicted to various evil substances. She was able to locate the place in the brain where the neurons controlling the addiction are found and transform them into livings capable of being delivered from the body as babies. Or, something like that, anyway. Turns out, these manifestations of evil are significantly more dangerous than the thing being cured. In any case, the clinic was closed for some ghastly reason and Brian and his friends are about to discover that the buggers are tough to kill. I’m guessing that “Hidden” is more effective in 3D, but I doubt if it will ever be shown publically in that format. – Gary Dretzka

True Story of a Woman in Jail: Sex Hell
Debauchery

Historically, the Japanese cinema has bowed to no one in its willingness to push the boundaries of good taste, simply to sell a few more tickets and videos. And, the titles are almost as wonderfully vulgar as what happens in the movies. In the late-1960s, Japanese horror and action flicks gave way to what was loosely termed, soft-core porn. In fact, the difference between “Emmanuelle” and “True Story of a Woman in Jail: Sex Hell” and “Debauchery” is quite a bit greater than the occasional glimpse of pubic hair and genitalia, which were strictly prohibited there at the time. The prominent Japanese studio Nikkatsu entered the “pink” movie game in 1971 with its Roman Porno line, adding higher-the-usual production values to sexploitation fare. As goofy as some of the movies seem today, critics gave them high marks for writing and direction. Released in 1975, “True Story of a Woman in Jail: Sex Hell” resembles all other women-in-prison movies in that it offers such staples as scenes involving convict changing uniforms, medical examinations, communal showers, predatory lesbians, gentle lesbians, a prison break, catfights and brutal male and female guards. Director Koyu Ohara didn’t stop there, however. As if to compensate for the absence of pubic hair, Ohara added sexual sadism, “water sports,” implied fisting and the insertion of foreign objects into the vagina, and even the occasional used tampon. The larger story is largely told in flashbacks, during which the women relate how it came to be that they’ve been incarcerated. As genre specimens go, “Sex Hell” is wild by American standards and routine compared to similar Japanese fare.

Released in 1983, “Debauchery” represents a step in a different direction from “pink” films, which were tame compared to the hard-core (if still censored) VHS tapes then flooding the adult marketplace. Hidehiro Ito’s stylish film borrows shamelessly from “Belle du Jour,” in that a bored, if extremely attractive housewife (Ryôko Watanabe) is talked into taking a shot at prostitution by a friend of her surgeon husband. He directs her to the elite Madame Machiko Society Club, which specializes in sex games, S&M, bondage, beads and whips. Her original intention was to add a bit of spice to her marriage, but, of course, she becomes addicted to the pain and humiliation she suffers at the hands of anonymous men. Things begin to get weird when her husband’s friend becomes her costumer. A lot of the stuff in “Debauchery” is pretty rough, even compared with such S&M classics as “The Story of O” and “The Image,” and it makes “9½ Weeks” look like a Disney cartoon. Both pictures come with informative notes by Japanese film historian Jasper Sharp. – Gary Dretzka

Fix: The Ministry Movie
Anyone who had Al Jourgenson in their office death pool during the latter half of the 1990s probably felt pretty confident about their chances for winning it. Based on the information provided in “Fix: The Ministry Movie,” it’s truly a wonder that the pioneer of “industrial rock” not lived through the making of the documentary, but also has survived to reconstitute the band, record an album and make plans for another tour of Europe this summer. Besides following in the footsteps of other debauched rock-’n’-roll survivors – shooting heroin and cocaine, drinking copious amounts of booze, avoiding sleep – Jourgenson managed to avoid being killed by fans who make the Hell’s Angels look like Boy Scouts. It’s no coincidence that the “scariest rock band ever” attracted some of the most frightening people in the world to their concerts, including, Jourgenson testifies, at least one of the planet’s most aggressively horny groupies. Industrial is an interesting distillation of rock genres. While as unquestionably loud and percussive as a drop forge, it also is characterized by transgressive and provocative themes. Early on, it mixed experimental electronic conceits with punk and heavy metal, and everyone involved seems to be pissed off about something or other. In case anyone doubts Jourgenson’s contributions to the genre, director Doug Freel records the observations of such kindred musicians as Trent Reznor, Jonathan Davis, Dave Navarro, Ogre Nivek, Lemmy, Jello Biafra, David Yow and former and current members of Ministry, of which there are many. If none of these names are familiar, “Fix” probably isn’t the movie for you. (Although listed as a co-producer, Jourgenson sued when denied final-cut privileges). The DVD adds extended interviews and footage. – Gary Dretzka

Donald Glover: Weirdo: Live From New York
Comedian Donald Glover is best known for his role as the nerdy junior-college student, Troy Barnes, in the NBC sitcom, “Community.” Before landing that job, however, he wrote for “The Daily Show” and “30 Rock,” and did sketch work on stage and bits on late-night television. He also records hip-hop music as Childish Gambino. In “Weirdo: Live From New York,” Glover spends most of his time telling stories from his childhood and describing what it’s like to be a kid. I’m not partial to this brand of comedy, if only because one generation’s iconography is another’s trivia. Bill Cosby made a great pre-“I Spy” living telling stories about Fat Albert and other friends from his neighborhood, but I doubt they resonant much with kids living there today. In some neighborhoods, Chris Rock’s memory sitcom “Everybody Hates Chris” probably seems hopelessly out of date, as well. That’s not to say “Weirdo” won’t appeal to anyone over, say, 25. Glover has an appealing nature and confident stage presence, and much of his material is very funny. Glover’s comparisons of visits to Toys ‘R’ Us and Home Depot, from a kid’s point of funny, are hilarious. His reverence for Cocoa Puffs, a source of amusement since 1958, is shared by several generations of Americans. The DVD adds an interview with Glover. – Gary Dretzka

The Witches of Oz: Blu-ray
Astonishing X-Men: Dangerous

Shown outside the U.S. as a television mini-series, “The Witches of Oz” made a brief appearance in theaters in our Midwestern tornado belt before shipping into DVD and Blu-ray. The latest updating of L. Frank Baum’s enduring legend finds aspiring writer Dorothy Gale (Paulie Rojas) in New York, where a big-time publisher hopes to sign her and make hay of the Oz stories she learned from her grandfather. Although Manhattan, New York, is a long way from Manhattan, Kansas, Dorothy is anxious to get a taste of the Big Apple in all of its cosmopolitan glory. Far from being a shrinking violet, she spends her first night in town at a cocktail lounge, where she tries to pick up a young Scotsman. The next morning, her agent gives her a sophisticated new hairdo and a flashy outfit. Somehow, news of Dorothy’s big break reaches the Wicked Witch of the West, who, contrary to what Dorothy has been led to believe, is very much alive and anxious to add Earth to her real-estate holdings. “The Witches of Oz” is full of young adults who are much more attractive than those in the beloved 1939 classic. In fact, it’s as much “Gossip Girl” and “Hannah Montana” as it is Judy Garland and Victor Fleming. I don’t think it will play well with anyone older than 14, but that leaves a lot of room for success. The special effects look pretty spiffy in Blu-ray. Other cast members include Billy Boyd, Sean Astin, Ethan Embry, Mia Sara, Lance Henriksen and Christopher Lloyd. Although she’s petite enough to be blown to Nebraska by a stiff Kansas wind, star-to-be Rojas has enough pep and verve to light up the entire city of New York in a blackout.

Shout! Factory has released the second installment in Joss Whedon and John Cassaday’s continuation of the “X-Men” saga, animated to resemble the uneven pacing, muted color palette and dotty texture of graphic novels and motion comics. In “Astonishing X-Men: Dangerous,” the heart-breaking death of a student at the Xavier Institute reveals a greater threat to destroy the organization from within its walls. As such, the evil force already knows the weaknesses and tendencies of the various mutants. This follow-up to “AXM: Gifted” encompasses the events described in Issues 7 through 12 of Whedon and Cassaday’s 2004 comic book series for Marvel Comics. It’s divided into six 12-minute episodes and, in addition to our favorite “X-Men” characters, the “Fantastic Four” make an appearance. – Gary Dretzka

Goodnight for Justice: Measure of Man
In his second of three “Goodnight for Justice” Westerns for the Hallmark Channel, Luke Perry’s circuit-riding Judge John Goodnight arrives in dusty frontier town just as it’s about to have its bank robbed by the Spradling Gang of cold-blood killers. In the resulting shootout, one of the gang is killed and a teenager is arrested. Unbeknownst to the teenager and judge, the kid is Goodnight’s son by former Chicago showgirl Callie Bluepoint (Stefanie von Pfetten). Coincidentally, she also lives in the town where her long-ago boyfriend is temporarily assigned. That’s a lot of coincidences for the first 15 minutes of an 88-minute movie. It leaves a lot of room for old-fashioned Western action and intrigue, including the very real possibility that the boy will reject the father he didn’t know he had and stick with his criminal mentors in the gang. The “Goodnight for Justice” pictures never would be confused with a Clint Eastwood movie, but they’re a good fit on Hallmark. – Gary Dretzka

Dark Shadows: Fan Favorites/The Best of Barnabas
Logan’s Run: The Complete Series
Adam 12: Season Seven
Doctor Who: The Daemons/Carnival of Monsters

By the time the otherworldly soap “Dark Shadows” arrived on ABC, viewers had already fallen in love with “The Munsters” and “The Addams Family.” Even so, its success was anything but assured. In the mid-’60s, the demographics of daytime TV were significantly different than those associated with prime-time sitcoms. Fewer women worked in full-time jobs and they tended to control buying patterns at the supermarket. Romance in the afternoon was blooming and it didn’t include fangs and capes. Even so, Dan Curtis’ brainstorm would enjoy a six-year run, thanks, in large part, to support from teenagers who rushed home from school – or, so we’re told – to enjoy the kinky storylines and handsome undead characters. It was as different from “The Guiding Light” and “The Days of Our Lives” as “American Bandstand” was to “Lawrence Welk.” The DVD compilations “Dark Shadows: Fan Favorites” and “Dark Shadows: The Best of Barnabas” have been released in advance of the Tim Burton/Johnny Depp adaptation, set for May 11, and simultaneous to the super-duper, all-inclusive “Complete Original Series: Limited Edition,” priced to sell at $500-plus. In this way, newbies and diehards both have been given an appetizer for the main course to come. Fans always will be the harshest critics of any adaptation or re-imagining of a beloved show or movie, so it remains an open question as to how closely their expectations meet those of critics and admirers of Depp and Burton. Both “Fan Favorites” and “Best of Barnabus” run about 180 minutes, minus commercial breaks, so they serve well as primers on “Dark Shadows.” The early episodes were shot in atmospheric black-and-white, on a set that must have seemed elaborate at the time, but now looks pretty basic. Color episodes would test the work of makeup artists, but, by then, the storylines were firmly established. Neither would Jonathan Frid’s debonair vampire be required to carry the weight of evil-doing alone, as he would eventually be joined by a zombie, werewolf, ghosts and witches. It remains great fun. The episodes are introduced by a still-gorgeous Kathryn Leigh Scott, a.k.a. Maggie Evans.

Sci-fi fans of a certain age will remember with fondness – if only for Jenny Agutter’s skin-tastic performance – the futuristic confection, “Logan’s Run.” Set in 2274 and set in a giant crystal dome, citizens were allowed to live as they wanted until they were 30, when they would be terminated. Those who balked and tried to escape their doom were called “runners” and their goal was to elude the killer Sandman. A year later, MGM and CBS decided to see how a spinoff series would fly, even if the network found it difficult to commit to a single day and timeslot. The series only lasted a year, adding a cult-like sheen to its memory. The setup is basically the same, with Gregory Harrison playing a turncoat Sandman, Logan, and Heather Menzies-Urich taking over for Agutter in the runner role. In another deviation, a few “elders” were allowed to survive and run things in secret. Approaching 30, Logan and another enforcer decide to split the dome in advance of their termination date. Look for such cast regulars and guest stars as Donald Moffat, Randy Powell, Mariette Hartley, Christopher Stone, Spencer Milligan, Kim Cattrall, Ellen Weston, Nicholas Hammand, Linden Chiles, Leslie Parish, Angela Cartwright, Paul Shenar and Melody Anderson.

During the seven-year run of NBC’s hit police-procedural “Adam-12,” public attitudes toward uniformed officers ran the gamut from respectful to downright hostile. It didn’t help that rank-and-file cops were being required to do the dirty work of conservative politicians, moralistic preachers and parents who’d lost control of their kids. They took the brunt of the abuse, often returning it in kind. In addition to nipping real crimes in the bud and capturing hardened criminals, they often were ordered to don helmets and beat the crap out of students protesting the Vietnam War and harass blacks and Hispanics whose only crime might have been standing in front of a liquor store drinking beer. Hippies had become fair game for impromptu searches and candidates for office demanded a tougher stance on law-and-order issues. “Adam-12” was different from its sibling series, “Dragnet,” only in that its primary characters wore crisp blue uniforms, while detectives Joe Friday and Bill Gannon were allowed the luxury of cheap suits and hideous sport coats. Both series did a pretty good job humanizing the cops, without delving very deeply into the issues dividing them from those assumed to be guilty, even when proven innocent. By the time the seventh and final season of “Adam-12” rolled around, Joseph Wambaugh’s novels and NBC’s “Police Story” had waded far more deeply into the muck surrounding the job and difficult situations at home. As representative as Martin Milner and Kent McCord’s characters might have seemed, it was impossible to envision them howling at the moon, alongside the other “choir boys” of the LAPD, in Wambaugh’s breakthrough novel.

Both “Doctor Who: The Daemons” and “Doctor Who: Carnival of Monsters” are from the Jon Pertwee years, 1970-74, and are highly regarded by fans and collectors, alike. In “The Daemons,” the Doctor is laying low in a rural England burg known as Devil’s End, favored by diehard pagans and archeologists interested in the nearby burial mounds. The Doctor recognizes them as being of alien origin and things get even more complicated when a local preacher shows up, looking very much like the Master. In “Carnival of Monsters,” a test drive of the TARDIS delivers the Doctor to a cargo ship, seemingly steaming through the Indian Ocean in 1926. He’s joined on the ship by Lurman entertainers Vorg and Shira, turned away from the planet Inner Minor. They’re in control of a “miniscope” peepshow plinth, which has imprisoned the TARDIS crew, along with a dinosaur and various Orgons, Cybermen and Drashigs. The DVD sets contain a plethora of bonus features. – Gary Dretzka

PBS: Inside Nature’s Giants: Sperm Whale
PBS: Secrets of the Manor House

The latest DVD offerings from PBS are a curious lot. “Inside Nature’s Giants: Sperm Whale” devotes most of its time to a makeshift autopsy of a beached sperm whale. To say it’s graphic is only to scratch the surface of the show’s strange appeal, especially for those viewers who enjoy watching the deconstruction of once-living things. Sperm whales are particularly interesting because they’re able to dive to extreme depths and stay there for more than an hour collecting food for themselves and nourishment for their calves. Besides that, they’re able to withstand the extreme cold of the depths and the tentacles of giant squid. In this episode, the researchers are forced to do their digging below the surface of the blubber only when the tide’s out, which complicates things considerably. Even so, the corpse does reveal several deeply held secrets … even a few booby traps involving trapped gas and other noxious artifacts. (Fortunately, the whale had starved to death and not much was left to spoil.) Another researcher, located near the Azores, collects bones, teeth and ambergris, a substance that is as valuable as a truffle and can only be found in a whale’s rectum. It’s used in the production of some of the world’s most expensive perfumes. Arriving next week, “Inside Nature’s Giants: Monster Python” examines what one large snake enjoyed for its last dinner. Considering how pythons have now become a menace in Florida, this episode is especially scary.

The title, “Secrets of the Manor Born,” is a bit misleading in that no mysteries are solved and the juiciest details already are recorded, such as the huge discrepancy between the wages paid the servants and annual income of their bosses. It’s more of a national shame than a secret. What’s truly wonderful, though, are the manors and estates visited in the report and some of the stories about the privileged few who could afford them. (Many have been turned over to the National Trust and their maintenance is afforded through tourist revenues.) The show is especially timely now that we’re between seasons of “Downton Abbey.” The history of the manors corresponds directly to the rise and fall of the British Empire. – Gary Dretzka

The DVD Wrapup: War Horse, Zoo, Miss Bala, Chinatown, Tyrannosaur…

Wednesday, April 4th, 2012

War Horse: Blu-ray
I’d be willing to bet that horses have been the subject of more memorable movies than any other animal, Lassie and Rin Tin Tin notwithstanding. Among the 30 best titles, compiled by the editors at HorseChannel.com, are “Seabiscuit,” “Phar Lap,” “National Velvet,” “Into the West,” “The Horse Whisperer,” “Hidalgo,” “Dreamer” and “The Black Stallion.” Clearly, no one’s bothered to update the list lately, because Steven Spielberg’s equine epic, “War Horse,” has yet to be added to it. The Motion Picture Academy included it among the eight movies nominated for this year’s Best Picture, and it competed in five other categories. Adapted from a popular novel and hit play, “War Horse,” tells the story of Joey, a rambunctious colt blessed with both the brute strength required to pull a plow through a rock-strewn field and the nerves of steel needed to lead an officer into battle in an old-fashioned cavalry charge. Unfortunately, both for Joey and the cocky British officer, front-line German soldiers in World War I weren’t about to be intimidated by mounted swordsmen. The Huns feigned surprise and beat a hasty retreat to a nearby tree line, where a dozen or so machine guns laid in wait. The swift and sure slaughter anticipated a war that wouldn’t be contested by gentlemen on horses or rows of brightly clad infantrymen marching smartly into battle. Joey would survive the debacle, only to be put to work by an enemy with no respect for his royal bloodlines. Through an unusual series of events, Joey soon would find temporary refuge in the home of a French farmer and his granddaughter. After being re-captured, the Thoroughbred was forced to drag cannons up hills and wade through mud, carrying supplies to the bloody Battle of the Somme. When Joey finally managed to break away from the Germans, his only escape route was littered with steel barriers, potholes, dead bodies and gas canisters. Only an act of divine mercy and human kindness, though, could save him from being strangled by barbed wire and crushed by a tank. Other miracles were yet to come. How any of this action could be contained on a stage remains for me to be seen.

A large part of the appeal of Spielberg’s adaptation is its majestic sweep and the great physical beauty of the Devon countryside, where Joey was born, broken and first put to work by a boozy farmer (Peter Mullan) who couldn’t resist a bad deal when he saw one. Instead of purchasing a plow horse, Ted Narracott finds it necessary to engage in a bidding war with his tight-fisted landlord (David Thewlis) for the Thoroughbred, which he neither can afford nor expect to break ground for crops. All too aware of his dad’s shortcomings, his son, Albert (Jeremy Irvine), takes it upon himself to train Joey to cut rows for turnips. After a summer storm destroys the crop, the desperate old sod breaks the boy’s heart by selling Joey to an army captain (Tom Hiddleston) in need of a war horse. Albert decides to joins the infantry, as much to reconnect with Joey as to spite his father and serve his country. Finally, though, all either of them wants to do is return home.

It may not take a crystal ball to anticipate a happy Spielbergian ending for “War Horse,” but nothing that happens between the auction and the credit roll is predictable or routine. The battle scenes are as gruesome as the Devon countryside is beautiful. “War Horse” has been compared with films of John Ford, whose films often combined spectacular landscapes with stories of common folks forced by circumstances to make heroic stands. In a making-of featurette, Spielberg says that he was constantly attuned to changes in weather over the moors — “the skies here are as dramatic as the story” – and would stop production on a scene to capture a cloud formation or sunset on film. The Blu-ray presentation does an excellent job capturing the brilliant cinematography of Spielberg regular, Janusz Kaminski, and the artistry of his design team. Apart from the amazing performances by the horses – there were several Joeys – it’s the overall look of the movie that will remembered most by the audience. In addition to the interesting and informative background features, digital copy and DVD, the Blu-ray package adds “Through the Producer’s Lens,” in which Kathleen Kennedy shares photos she took during filming; “War Horse: The Journey Home,” with Spielberg and members of the production team and cast; “A Filmmaking Journey,” in which Spielberg describes what compelled him to make the movie; “Editing & Scoring,’  with Spielberg, editor Michael Kahn and composer John Williams; and “The Sounds Of ‘War Horse,’  with sound designer Gary Rydstrom.” Given the recent uproar over the loss of horses in the production of HBO’s “Luck,” it’s interesting that the featurettes devote so much time on the Humane Society’s role on the “War Horse” set. – Gary Dretzka

We Bought a Zoo
Terry Thompson didn’t do filmmaker Cameron Crowe any favors when, immediately before committing suicide last October, he freed his collection of exotic pets into the wilds of Zanesfield, Ohio. Thompson did far more harm to the 48 animals — lions, cougars, leopards, bears, monkeys, wolves and 18 Bengal tigers – that paid the ultimate price for their owner’s financial problems and emotional instability. Seven of the animals survived the ordeal, but man’s tendency to harness everything that’s wild and foreign to him had already prevailed. Even with a two-month buffer between the outrage and launch of Crowe’s warm family dramedy, “We Bought a Zoo,” the barrage of horrifying headlines and photographs almost certainly took their toll at the box office. Such terrible coincidences are nothing new in Hollywood and damage-control experts made sure that potential customers understood the differences between a private preserve, a wildlife refuge and a public zoo. The movie is based on a memoir by British newsman Benjamin Mee, who saved Devon’s Dartmoor Zoological Park from financial ruin, much in the same way as Matt Damon’s Benjamin Mee saves a broken-down zoo in California. Unlike the real Mee, Damon’s Mee has the great good fortune of working alongside a zookeeper who looks exactly like Scarlett Johansson. He’s also been given a beyond-cute 7-year-old daughter (Maggie Elizabeth Jones) and a 14-year-old son (Colin Ford), who Mee fears has gone to the dark side since the recent death of his mother.

In the movie, Mee faces two possible barriers to the zoo’s re-opening. One, of course, is the unexpected amount of money required get such a facility in shape to protect both the animals and patrons. Two, the official (John Michael Higgins) responsible for accrediting zoos has an unpleasant history with an employee of the Rosemoor Wildlife Park and his OK to re-open it is anything but a done deal.  Otherwise, the crew Mee inherited from the former owners displays the kind of kooky traits usually associated with blue-collar types in the movies; parallel love stories emerge, linking Mee and the pretty zookeeper, and his son to her bright-and-sunny cousin (Elle Fanning); and the animals face significant crises of their own. Pretty standard stuff for a family entertainment, but competently rendered by Crowe and his cast. The director’s touch also is evident on the soundtrack, which overflows with songs from artists as well-known as Neil Young, Tom Petty, Bob Dylan, Yusef Islam (Cat Stevens) and Randy Newman and such hipster faves as Temple of the Dog, jonsi, the Bronx and Quantic.

“We Bought a Zoo” probably made money, but didn’t produce the kind of numbers desired from a Christmas release with A-list stars. It’s impossible to say whether its underperformance can be pinned on the Ohio animal slaughter, an ineffective marketing campaign or the mostly indifferent reviews from critics who still can’t forgive Crowe for making them sit through his last bomb, “Elizabethtown.” It’s not in the same league as “Jerry Maguire” or “Almost Famous,” but I can’t imagine anyone reading the script and thinking it would be. Mostly, it’s a very decent family film – in the broadest sense of the term – that should do lots of business in DVD and Blu-ray. The bonus package adds commentary with Crowe, co-star J.B. Smoove and editor Mark Livolsi; featurettes on the Mees’ actual zoo and the creation of Mees’ movie zoo; a bunch of delted scenes; and a gag reel. – Gary Dretzka

Chasing Madoff: Blu-ray
Almost everything one needs to know about the inability of federal regulators to prevent a financial catastrophe during the run-up to the collapse of this nation’s economy can be found in this alarming documentary. Although “Chasing Madoff” sticks primarily to the bungled handling of Bernard Madoff’s worldwide Ponzi scheme, it clearly demonstrates that such a massive fraud didn’t happen in a vacuum. Agencies created after the last Great Depression to protect investors were allowed to take a nearly 30-year, post-Reagan snooze, while Wall Street predators routinely picked the pockets of clients, homeowners and people looking forward to retirement. The scope of Madoff’s arrogance, along with the familiar names of many of well-heeled clients he swindled, ensured headlines for months and years to come. In fact, though, his scheme represented only the tip of an increasingly visible iceberg. Jeff Prosserman’s film describes how Boston-based securities analyst Harry Markopolos came to smell a rat 10 years before Madoff’s arrest, but couldn’t get any of his bosses to take the investigation to the next level. The scheme may appear hopelessly complicated to a layman, but the evidence was there all along for anyone with a business degree to see. In fact, after a decade without any movement – even the Wall Street Journal refused to believe the scoop of the crime — Markopolos began to fear that his findings were being deliberately swept under the rug and his life was in danger. Only after the story finally was printed and Madoff was arrested did congressional oversight committees find the time to put SEC flunkies on the hot seat. Still, only a handful of people involved in the overall economic disaster have been penalized and neither President Obama nor any of his potential opponents seem comfortable pursuing bankers and other business executives they might want to hit up later for campaign contributions. Madoff likely will spend the rest of life in prison, while investors scramble to rebuild their dreams and con artists are formulating the next big swindle. “Chasing Madoff” is structured like a good detective story, with a palpable level of suspense throughout it. If any of the corrupt wheel-dealers who were bailed out by taxpayers had been prosecuted and jailed, alongside Madoff, Prosserman’s documentary might have had a far more satisfying ending. – Gary Dretzka

Miss Bala
The Yellow Sea

The Hidden Face

The Double Hour

If the DVD and Blu-ray revolution has taught film buffs anything, it’s that the international cinema is far more productive and worthy of our attention than previously thought. Every week, new foreign titles are released into the domestic marketplace that may only have been shown here in festivals or extremely limited release. Although these films are readily available through subscription services and VOD, Americans’ reluctance to read subtitles is reflected in anemic sales and rental revenues. Neither is there much money invested by distributors in marketing. One of the encouraging signs, however, is the willingness of some new companies to take a risk on our desire for something besides action, horror and rom-coms … not that those genres aren’t explored, as well, by artists around the world.

Fox International Productions and Fox World Cinema are relative newcomers to the game of co-producing and co-distributing interesting foreign-language movies. If FIP’s support of a 2009 Japanese remake of Alexander Payne’s “Sideways,” didn’t exactly set the world on fire, recent releases demonstrate how far the strategy has come in a short time. The offbeat crime thriller “Miss Bala” not only was Mexico’s nominee in the 2012 Academy Awards’ foreign-language category, but it’s also an extremely topical story. Gerardo Naranjo’s film describes how weird things can get when the trajectories of a violent drug gang and contestants in a beauty pageant cross paths in one of the world’s most dangerous cities, Tijuana.  Stephanie Sigman plays the painfully shy and withdrawn Laura Guerrero, who may be one of the least prepared contestants in a beauty pageant, anywhere. After checking in at the auditorium, Laura and a friend agree to meet at a disco frequented by Baja Norte’s flashiest men and women. While powdering her nose in the ladies’ room, she hears automatic-weapons fire on the dance floor and catches sight of an assault team dressed in ninja gear. Even though Laura’s seen by one of the gunmen, she’s allowed to escape the carnage. Unnerved by the experience, she attempts to contact police to discover the fate of her friend. It’s just her luck that the policeman she chooses to tell her story is in cahoots with the gang, to whom she’s promptly delivered. It’s at this point where things begin to get really strange. Instead of silencing her forever, the ruthless leader of the gang hands her keys to an Escalade and instructs her to follow him and park it in front of a consulate. We assume that it’s loaded with explosives, but don’t know if Laura will be allowed to survive the blast. Instead of turning Laura into toast, gang leader Lino Valdez (Noe Hernandez) returns her to the pageant venue and pulls the strings necessary to get her back on the program. In fact, he hands her a wad of cash and tells her to go on a shopping spree for an appropriately glamorous gown. Every time Laura attempts to escape, Lino or one of his guys picks her up and gives her another dangerous assignment to perform. Once completed, she’s again returned to the pageant, which, by now, we know is demonstrably fixed. “Miss Bala” is an extremely violent movie, as befits the times in Mexico’s drug war, but Lino’s determination to give Laura her shot at stardom borders on the hilarious. By the time she gets to the interview stage, Laura can barely remember her name. Naranjo uses Tijuana as well as Steven Soderbergh did in “Traffic” and the cruelty of the perpetrators of the violence is palpable throughout the movie. While it’s definitely not something for the faint of heart, fans of new Mexican cinema should get a charge out of it.

Likewise, Na Hong-jin’s “The Yellow Sea” is extremely violent, wickedly entertaining and occasionally darkly comic. Ha Jung-woo plays Gu-nam, a Korean-born taxi driver living in a lawless province of northern China. He’s cursed with a huge debt, a gambling habit and a missing wife he fears is turning tricks in Seoul, instead of making money to send home to support their daughter. To pay off his debt, the driver accepts an assignment from a local vice lord to sneak into Korea and assassinate one of his enemies, bringing the man’s severed thumb home as proof of his success. If he has any time left before the next smuggling ship leaves port, the reluctant assassin hopes to track down his errant wife. It doesn’t take long for us to realize that Gu-nam has been lured into the web of a vicious spider and his odds of escaping border on nil. When he isn’t waiting outside the apartment of his target, freezing his ass off, Gu-nam is being chased through the streets of Seoul by police and two opposing gangs, at least. It’s easy to get lost in the conspiracies here, but the real fun comes in watching Gu-nam avoid being captured. To that end, nearly as many cars and trucks are sacrificed in “The Yellow Sea” as the “The Blues Brothers.” And, given the choice of weapons employed by the gangsters, this is one movie in which “getting medieval” actually means something.

The less revealed upfront about what happens in Andres Baiz’ pyscho-thriller “The Hidden Face,” the better the experience will be for viewers. As it is, the trailer gives away far too much of the plot. On the off chance you see it coming, hit the skip-ahead button. Any appreciation of “The Hidden Face” requires buying into a plot twist that’s worthy of an Edgar Allen Poe story and isn’t predictable 10 minutes ahead of the reveal. The movie’s protagonist certainly doesn’t see it coming. Adrian is an up-and-coming Spanish symphony director, who’s awarded a year-long residency with the Bogota orchestra. He brings his jealousy-prone girlfriend along to keep him company. After Belen determines that he’s cheating on her with a violinist, she decides to test his loyalty. The estate’s owner, who was married to a Nazi war criminal for several decades, comes up with deliciously devious idea, which we won’t discuss. As could be predicted, the test backfires on Belen, leaving Adrian vulnerable to the advances of a pretty Colombian waitress, Fabiana, who’s rescued him from a drunken stupor. Those are all the hints you’re going to get. Fans of the genre won’t be disappointed by this terrific thriller, which is a feast for the mind, as well as the eyes.

Samuel Goldwyn Films can also be counted on to deliver stimulating entertainments from around the globe. Giuseppe Capotondi’s debut feature “The Double Hour” is a complex and occasionally bewildering thriller that reminded critics of Guillaume Canet’s international sensation, “Tell No One,” but probably owes a great deal to Alfred Hitchcock and Nicolas Roeg. After opening with a mysterious suicide, a speed-dating party and a quick roll in the hay, “The Double Hour” abruptly transitions into a psycho-drama in which all easy assumptions are challenged and the characters never betray the intelligence of viewers by dropping easy-to-read hints. One minute, Slovenian immigrant Sonia (Ksenia Rappoport) is chatting with a guest whose bathroom she’s cleaning; the next, the maid is staring down on the patio upon which the women took a header. Apparently, the suicide didn’t cause her any lasting trauma, because the next time we see Sonia, she’s interviewing potential suitors at a speed-dating event. Among them is recent widower Guido (Filippo Timi), a former Turin cop and current security guard at a fabulous palazzo outside the city. Their five-minute chat wouldn’t qualify as “meeting cute,” by any means, but they convince each other that an impromptu snog wouldn’t hurt anything. After an awkward late-night goodbye, Sonia and Guido actually do spark. Their romance is upended, however, when armed thieves interrupt a stroll they’re taking through the grounds of the estate and tie them up among the treasures being ransacked. During a skirmish with one of the gunmen, a fatal bullet exits Guido’s chest and wounds Sonia, leaving her in a coma. After that, everything we see happening on the screen is open to question, but in an entirely satisfying way. Don’t expect to figure things out in one sitting, though. Some clues are provided in the deleted scenes and making-of featurette, but not many. – Gary Dretzka

Chinatown: Blu-ray
It’s taken a while for “Chinatown” to arrive in Blu-ray, but its continued presence on all other formats –and repeated airings on premium cable – have probably kept fans from going through withdrawal. It’s nice to report that “Chinatown” looks and sounds spectacular on Blu-ray and a third, fourth or fiftieth revisiting is definitely recommended. Moreover, there’s no reason to think that the experience could get much when the next new technological wonder arrives. The story and dialogue remain the same, of course, but everything around them is better. In no previous iteration has the overworked term, “California noir,” made so much sense. That includes Jerry Goldsmith’s haunting score, which was completed in a mere nine days and sounds splendid in TrueHD 5.1. The hi-def transformation isn’t discussed in the featurettes, but the decisions that allowed “Chinatown” to be the perfect candidate for a Blu-ray facelift are fully explored. Because of this, I recommend to return viewers that they savor the making-of featurettes – borrowed from two previous DVD editions – before re-screening Roman Polanski’s classic mystery. I hadn’t studied them previously, but took the time this time around to learn some things I hadn’t previously known about one of my favorite movies. Robert Towne and David Fincher’s commentary plays like a clinic in the art of making all pieces of a cinematic jigsaw puzzle come together in seamless fashion. The 78-minute documentary, “Water and Power,” explains how thin a line there is between truth and fiction in “Chinatown.” Many of the same issues that caused the split between Noah Cross and Hollis Mulwray continue to be heatedly debated today, especially by conservationists and folks who would have enjoyed the kind of water sports Kern Lake might have accommodated had the water not been diverted to faucets in L.A. In “‘Chinatown’: An Appreciation,” directors Steven Soderbergh and Kimberly Peirce, cinematographer Roger Deakins and composer James Newton Howard offer their observations on “Chinatown” and why it continues to be an important and influential drama. “‘Chinatown’: The Beginning and the End” describes how the movie came to be made in the first place and how it was envisioned as a trilogy, covering more than 30 years in L.A. history. It includes the reminiscences of Polanski, Towne and Jack Nicholson. The same guys contribute to “Legacy,” which looks back at the success of the “Chinatown.” The Blu-ray package also includes a booklet with text and photos. – Gary Dretzka

Truth or Dare: Blu-ray
Nicole Kidman/Gwyneth Paltrow/Renee Zellweger: 4-Film Collection

It’s fitting that “Truth or Dare” is being released on Blu-ray just as Madonna is about to embark on another world tour, in support of a new album.  It will be interesting to see if she’s as spry, at 53, as she was in 1991, when the so-called Material Girl enjoyed a following of “Madonna wannabes” as loyal as any of Lady Gaga’s “Little Monsters.” In addition to becoming a gay icon and tormentor of David Letterman, Madonna made people care about dance as much as anyone since Chubby Checker, Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. (Michael Jackson was from a different planet, altogether.) Today, Gaga is the reigning queen of pop music and Madonna may have to do something more radical than grab her crotch and invent new ways to abuse crucifixes. While both Gaga and Madonna continue to re-invent themselves in public, it is Madonna’s insistence on rubbing her private life into the noses of fans and non-fans, alike, that keeps her profile high. When “Truth or Dare” launched, Madonna was at the top of her game and commanded every stage on which she appeared. She was dating the much older Warren Beatty, then, instead of men closer to her daughter’s age.

Her 1990 “Blond Ambition” tour was distinguished by the kind of masturbatory dance routines that caused Canadian police to threaten her with arrest, as well as her extravagantly pointed bras. Off-stage, we watch her mother-hen the young dancers with whom she shares the stage, going so far as to hold pre-show prayer circles and nightly tuck-ins for the fortunate few. While in Detroit, Madonna requires that we join her on a visit to her mother’s grave and asks the crowd to sing “Happy Birthday” to her dad. In other stops, she has great fun dissing Kevin Costner, for the sin of calling her show “neat,” and barely tolerates the presence of her best childhood friend, whose letters Madonna has continually ignored. The music’s as good as expected, but, otherwise, there isn’t a moment in “Blond Ambition” when something resembling spontaneity is allowed to prevail. The Blu-ray presentation does justice to the both the performance and off-stage segments, which alternate between black-and-white and color, and the music sounds fine in lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1. Also crystal clear is Beatty’s observation, “She doesn’t want to live off-camera, much less talk. There’s nothing to say off-camera. Why would you say something if it’s off-camera? What point is there existing?”

And, while we’re on the subject of divas, Lionsgate is taking advantage of its year-old distribution deal with the new owners of Miramax by repackaging films made by company faves Nicole Kidman, Gwyneth Paltrow and Renee Zellwegger. None of the titles in the four-packs is particularly underrepresented in DVD, but, at $19.98, the price is right. I don’t know if or when the same material will be repackaged in all-Blu-ray sets.

The Kidman package includes Alejandro Amenabar’s stylish, suspenseful and often downright scary thriller, “The Others”; John Cameron Mitchell’s emotionally draining family drama, “The Rabbit Hole”; “Dogville,” Lars von Trier’s taxing story of a woman attempting to hide from gangsters in a Colorado mining town; and Anthony Minghella’s intricately re-imagined adaptation of Charles Frazier’s best-seller, “Cold Mountain.” Kidman received a Best Actress nomination for her performance in “Rabbit Hole.”

“Cold Mountain” also shows up in the Zellweger four-pack, which is appropriate because it is the picture for which she won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar. Although Zellwegger hasn’t had much luck lately finding comparable roles, the DVDs remind us that she made a big splash in “Bridget Jones’ Diary,” alongside Colin Firth and Hugh Grant, resulting in an Oscar nomination for Best Actress. She was accorded the same honor for her turn as Roxy Hart in Rob Marshall’s splashy musical, “Chicago.” “New in Town” is the clinker in this group, as the fish-out-of-water story was trashed by most mainstream critics and quickly forgotten by fans.

With the exception of Harvey Weinstein, Paltrow was the public face of Miramax in its heyday. She took home the Best Actress prize for her delightful performance in “Shakespeare in Love,” the period rom-com that stunned Hollywood by stealing the Best Picture Oscar from heavily favored “Saving Private Ryan.” Two years later, she rejoined then-boyfriend Ben Affleck in “Bounce,” an offbeat romance that split critics down the middle. Paltrow may have been a tad out of place as the title character in the Jane Austen adaptation, “Emma,” although no more so than Zellwegger in “Bridget Jones’ Diary.” “View From the Top” is the turkey plucked clean by critics. Along with Christina Applegate, Kelly Preston and Candice Bergen, Paltrow plays a flight attendant with sky-high ambitions. – Gary Dretzka

Del Shores’ My Sordid Life
Sebastian Maniscalco: What’s Wrong With People

In addition to his skills as a writer, playwright, director and producer, Del Shores is a heck of a monologist and raconteur. Among the award-winning plays on his list of credits are “The Trials and Tribulations of a Trailer Trash Housewife,” “Daddy’s Dyin’ (Who’s Got the Will?),” “Sordid Lives,” “Cheatin’” and “Southern Baptist Sissies.” Extremely funny and great story teller, Shores has contributed to such TV series as “Queer as Folk,” “Dharma & Greg” and “Sordid Lives: The Series.” “Del Shores’ My Sordid Life” spans his rural Texas boyhood and success as an in-demand Hollywood writer. Openly gay and married to his longtime lover, Shores draws from a barrel full of recollections about growing up in a wildly eccentric Southern Baptist family and making a living among the loony-tunes in Hollywood. They’re gay-centric, but completely accessible to straight viewers, as well. Filmed in front of a largely gay and lesbian audience – peppered with actors who’ve acted in his productions – he’s preaching to an enthusiastic choir.

In “What’s Wrong With People?,” Sebastian Maniscalco demonstrates that the kind of observational humor that killed ’em in the 1980-90s still can work today … even without flurries of dick jokes and f-bombs. His material sounds like pretty standard stuff – growing up Italian-American, picking up girls in club – but he’s surprisingly adept at making it sound fresh and relateable. I don’t remember him being as funny when he was touring with “Vince Vaughn’s Wild West Comedy Show.” The bonus features, “Getting to the Stage,” “Sebastian’s Fans,” “Photo Shoot” and “Pictures With Fans,” may not add much to the package, but they’re pretty harmless. – Gary Dretzka

Being Elmo: A Puppeteer’s Journey
The timing for the release of the bio-doc, “Being Elmo: A Puppeteer’s Journey,” couldn’t be much better. With last week’s release on DVD and Blu-ray of “The Muppets,” it’s likely that several young viewers, at least, will wonder if they have the talent it takes to make a living at puppetry or, best case, Muppetry. Growing up in a middle-class Baltimore family, Kevin Clash defied the expectations of his African-American neighbors and friends – anyone who doesn’t aspire to a career in sports or music must be gay — by sewing puppets and giving them personalities and voices of their own. This happened even before “Sesame Street” launched on PBS, changing his life forever. Before long, Clash’s puppets would be entertaining kids in the neighborhood and contributing to a local kiddies’ show on one of Baltimore’s leading stations. To make his dream come true of working with Jim Henson and his gang, Clash invested part of his class trip to New York in visiting the Muppet workshop there, making friends and learning secrets. That trip eventually would lead to a regular gig with “Captain Kangaroo” and odd jobs in the Muppet universe. Flash-forward only a few years and the kid with a dream has grown into the man behind one of the world’s most popular foam-and-felt characters: Elmo. Constance Marks’ inspirational documentary chronicles Clash’s longshot bid for the coolest job in the world and the honor of breaking bread on a daily basis with heroes Henson, Frank Oz, Bill Barretta, Fran Brill and Caroll Spinney.  It took Clash a while to realize that he was spending far more time with his puppet creations than his wife and daughter, but he made time to rectify the situation before it was too late. He also decided to become a mentor to aspiring performers, just as he benefitted from the kind advice of strangers in the Muppet Workshop.  The DVD adds interviews and a Sundance Q&A with the filmmakers and extended footage. – Gary Dretzka

The Kate Logan Affair
At first glance, Alexis Bledel appears to be the least likely actor to play a cop. At 30, the thin and willowy brunette still could pass for a virginal freshman at an Ivy League college, as she did in “Gilmore Girls.” In the movies, anyway, anything is possible, so one willingly suspends disbelief for a reel or two of “The Kate Logan Affair.” When we first meet rookie cop Kate Logan, she’s about to arrest a handsome French conventioneer she mistakes for a wanted serial killer. He’s not, of course, so it’s not surprising that she’d be profusely apologetic. What we don’t expect, however, is that Kate would show up later at his motel, practically demanding that they go out for dinner. One thing leads to another and the married actuary (Laurent Logan) agrees to be her boytoy for a couple of nights, not anticipating that Kate might be as nutty as Glenn Close’s character in “Fatal Attraction.” After her gun accidentally discharges in his motel room, Kate convinces him they both would be in jeopardy if the truth came out. So, they escape through the bathroom window just as her cop cronies are about to enter. It’s best to leave what happens in the next half-hour unexplained. Writer/director’s sophomore feature probably wouldn’t hold up to close scrutiny on the big screen, but on DVD, at least, it’s quite convincing. Bedel turns out to have been an inspired choice. Here’s one case where still waters actually do run deep. – Gary Dretzka

Dysfunctional Friends
Black Butterfly

In Corey Grant’s overly crowded ensemble drama, “”Dysfunctional Friends,” a group of college friends gathers for the funeral of a well-liked comrade who died too young.  The group is so disparate that it’s difficult to imagine any school that could accommodate their many interests and majors. Because they’re all African-American, the characters don’t immediately remind us of the ones we met in “The Big Chill,” which this movie admittedly resembles. At the funeral, they’re told that their friend left behind an estate valued at $13 million, but they all would have to spend five days and nights together, without anyone getting fed up and fleeing, to share it. Naturally, the characters all are undergoing crises of their own and have old scores to settle, several of the romantic variety. Among the actors in the young and attractive cast are Datari Turner, Stacey Dash, Terrell Owens, Hosea Chanchez, Persia White, Christian Keyes, Jason Weaver, Stacy Keibler (George Clooney’s current squeeze), Wesley Jonathan, Tatyana Ali and Reagan Gomez-Preston. Their fans may not be surprised by what happens in “Dysfunctional Friends,” but they probably won’t be disappointed, either.

As family melodramas go, “Black Butterfly” is about as subtle as a hand grenade or sledge hammer. If there are any shades of gray in this story about crime and punishment in an extended African-American family, my eyes couldn’t discern any. That’s not to say it’s a bad movie, only that potential viewers should expect to be manipulated within an inch of their heart strings. When we meet her, Ariel (Mahogany Monae) is a perfectly normal American teenager with a jock boyfriend and dreams of representing her country as an Olympics-level swimmer. She’s immediately likable and the rape she suffers early in the movie is so upsetting it nearly causes “Black Butterfly” to derail before it’s even left the station. We’ve already met the rapist, a cop, who threatens to harm her family if she reveals what happened. The truth eats on Ariel’s soul and conscience to the point where she finds it difficult to practice her sport, feel close to her boyfriend or answer the growing concerns of her parents. Meanwhile, the cop commits another rape and murders a fellow officer who becomes suspicious of him. There’s more, but you get the point. After writer/director Mark Harris convinces us of the antagonist’s unredeemable evil, he demands that we take a side on vigilantism. Again, without revealing everything, he stacks the deck in a most unconscionable way. The largely untested cast almost succeeds in maintaining a grip on the unwieldy narrative, but, more often than not, the script leaves them handcuffed. The DVD adds a making-of featurette. – Gary Dretzka

Tyrannosaur
The Truth About Kerry

With his second screenplay and in his directorial debut, Paddy Considine has delivered a protagonist very much like the ones he’s played in such films as “Dead Man’s Shoes,” “Stoned,” “My Summer of Love” and “Red Riding: In the Year of Our Lord 1980.” In his place stands Peter Mullan, another British actor who demands our attention with every new performance. (He plays the boozing Devon farmer in “War Horse.”) “Tyrannosaur” is less a story than a character study. Mullan plays Joseph, a man filled with rage and prone to violence. He drinks to excess and willingly puts himself in the way of potential harm. After very nearly pushing his luck to the limits of its elasticity, Joseph reluctantly seeks redemption and forgiveness in the hands of a saintly woman, Hannah (Olivia Colman), who works at a Christian-charity thrift shop. If her nature tells her to take Joseph under her wing and protect him from himself, Hannah’s insanely jealous husband orders her to keep her distance from all men and punctuates his demand with a punch to her face. Because of this, Joseph is required to take a windy path to rehabilitation. In addition to working out his own inner demons, he could solve Hannah’s problems simply by playing to type and beating the life out of the husband. Instead, Considine adds a twist that offers Joseph hope for salvation and Hannah an opportunity to become whole, again. “Tyrannosaur” isn’t an easy movie to watch, but the acting, alone, rewards the effort.

Set in a remote Irish fishing village, “The Truth About Kerry” is being promoted as a psycho-thriller with paranormal overtones. In fact, though, it’s only slightly more suspenseful than your average sweeps-month episode of “Desperate Housewives.” In it, a young American woman, Emma (Stana Katic), travels to Ireland to investigate her friend Kerry’s suspicious death. Police ruled it a drowning, but the weird behavior of the locals toward her suggests otherwise. There’s nothing wrong with Emma’s investigation, per se, even if it basically goes nowhere fast (84 minutes). The problem is that Emma is prone to hysterics and the ghost she sees is leading her in the wrong direction. Anyone who’s watched more than few “Law & Order” episodes will guess the “truth” about Kerry, even if Emma doesn’t. On the plus side, County Kerry is a lovely place to set a mystery and Katic is easy on the eyes. The one truly interesting thing about “Kerry” is its journey to the screen. Shot in 2004, it wasn’t screened at a festival until 2010 and is only now showing up on DVD. In the meantime, according to her making-of featurette, writer/director Katherine Torpey shed 140 pounds and husband/collaborator Shaun O’Sullivan. Before feeling confident enough to finish the project, she decided it was necessary to disappear from view and “find herself.” Good for her. – Gary Dretzka

Alien Opponent: Uncut
I’m not all that familiar with cable’s Chiller network, but, solely judging from the evidence presented in “Alien Opponent,” I can only guess that it’s competing with SyFy for the honor of airing the least competently made horror flicks. That I’m making that judgment based on the “Uncut” edition, made available by Shout! Factory, I dare not imagine how bad the “cut” version must have been. Like almost every basic-plus network carrying original movies and mini-series, Chiller is required to pull back on extreme gore and horror – and merely hint at nudity and normal human sexuality – in order not to rouse the ratings gods and various parental watchdog groups. In doing so, these channels often appear to be more prudish than PBS and BBC America. The best thing about the hugely derivative “Alien Opponent” is the assault of the slug aliens that threatens the happiness of a bunch of hillbillies who spend most of their lives hanging out at a rural junkyard. At approximately the same moment as the son-in-law of the junkyard’s owner kills his blond wife’s lover, and is himself murdered by the older woman, a space vehicle crash lands in a nearby cornfield. In the morning, it becomes clear that the aliens are up to no good and need to be exterminated. Their presence is first manifested in the appearance of slugs that make a beeline to any human orifice not protected by a cork or mouth gag. If these atrocious creatures weren’t sufficiently obnoxious, the junkyard owner puts a bounty on the robots controlling the slugs and using her toolshed to invent new weaponry. On paper, then, “Alien Opponent” displays a sliver of originality. In execution, however, Colin Theys and John Doolan (“Banshee!!!”) have delivered a movie that looks as if it were intended as parody, but someone forgot to add the laughs. The only stars anyone is likely to recognize are former wrestler Roddy Piper, as a crazed priest, and Jeremy London (“7th Heaven,” “Party of Five”). – Gary Dretzka

BBC: Great Expectations: Blu-ray
BBC: Torchwood: Miracle Day: Blu-ray

Call Me Fitz: The Complete Second Season

Designing Women: The Complete Sixth Season

Top 21 Best Episodes of ‘21 Jump Street’

Knowing that Gillian Anderson was born in Chicago and attended high school and college in the Midwest, I’ve wondered how it’s come to be that most of her recent work has either been filmed in England or has roots there. Even amid the hysteria surrounding “X-Files” and its unworthy sequels, Anderson was commuting between Hollywood and London. In fact, though, she spent a great deal of time in England in her youth, returning to America with a decided British accent. If the BBC ever wanted to adapt “Laverne & Shirley,” she and fellow ex-pat Elizabeth McGovern could star as the characters, now employed by Watneys Red Label, or moms of L&S II. In the latest remake of Charles Dickens’ “Great Expectations” – not counting the Mike Newell version, arriving later this year – Anderson plays one of the great characters in English literature, Miss Havisham. The three-part BBC mini-series currently is currently being shown on PBS’ “Masterpiece Classics,” which no longer airs on Los Angeles’ KCET-Ch. 28, but can be seen on outlying  KOCE and KLCS. She is joined by Douglas Booth, as Pip; Ray Winstone, Abel Magwitch; David Suchet, as the lawyer Jaggers; Paul Rhys, as Compeyson; Mark Addy, as Pumblechook; and Dickens’ great-great-great-grandson, Harry Lloyd, as Herbert Pocket. (The names, alone, are worth the price of admission to any Dickens’ story.) Your Blu-ray will be tested by the production’s dark and moody tones. For the uninitiated, “Great Expectations” follows the young Pip, who, after being talked into helping an escaped convict, manages to steal a meat pie, instead. He wants to work at his brother’s forge, but, again, fate intervenes, this time in the form of the rich recluse, Miss Havisham. Through his eccentric neighbor, Pip is introduced to her devious adopted daughter, Estella, who likewise has a chip on her children about men. Pip’s path takes him to London, where, through the kindness of a strange, he is able to lead a fat life and envision a bright future. It isn’t to last, however.

Also from the Beeb comes the fourth season of the hit sci-fi series, “Torchwood,” whose story arch was labeled “Miracle Day.” Ever hear the old bromide, “Be careful what you wish for, it just might come true”? The wisdom in it is tested on the day convicted child killer Oswald Danes (Bill Pullman) is executed, but doesn’t die. And, neither does anyone else. In fact, people around the world start not-dying at an alarming frequency, causing a rush on medical and food supplies that threatens our ability to respond to normal comings and goings, as well as the occasional disaster. In the course of investigating the phenomenon and possible links to the disbanded Torchwood institution, CIA agent Rex Matheson (Mekhi Phifer) follows a path of crumbs back to Washington and officials in his own organization. To save humanity, Rex is required to make contact with surviving members Gwen Cooper (Eve Myles) and the mysterious Captain Jack Harkness (John Barrowman), both of whom were introduced in “Doctor Who.” The hi-def bonus package adds a behind-the-scenes special, iTunes intros and a “Web of Lies” motion comic.

Call Me Fitz” is a wildly profane, unabashedly sacrilegious and often very funny Canadian sitcom, set around the nation’s most ethically challenged used-car dealership. Jason Priestly plays the boss’ thoroughly unwanted son and the survivor of automobile accident that, we learn, would have killed anyone with a conscience. Lacking one, the Almighty provides Fitz with the next best thing: a guardian angel/brother who desperately attempts to make him see the error in his ways, mostly with women. In the second season, Larry is given 73 days to clean up Fitz’ act and have him make amends to the many people — again, mostly women – he’s hurt. Adding to the intrigue is a sexy, red-haired temptress, Dot Foxley, who would love to see him fail. But, then, so would his rotten-to-the-core father and off-the-wall sister. Features include, “Profanity as Art,” “Fitz Family,” “Meet Dot Foxley,” behind-the-scenes material, interviews, bloopers and selected audio commentaries.

The sixth season of “Designing Women” was noteworthy for a couple reasons, not the least of which was the forced departure of Delta Burke, a.k.a. Suzanne Sugarbaker, and voluntary exit of Jean Smart. In their place would arrive Julia Duffy (“Newhart”) and Jan Hooks (“Saturday Night Life”). The changes would test the series’ popularity with loyal viewers, insomuch as the original ladies all had distinct personalities and strong opinions. At the same time, creator Linda Bloodworth-Thomason and her husband, Harry, were becoming integral members of fellow Arkansan Bill Clinton’s presidential campaign. As unofficial media advisers, they produced the documentary film, “The Man From Hope,” which won Clinton more votes than the windy speech he gave at the Democratic National Convention. The season debut of “Designing Women” drew a huge, publicity-driven audience, but, in hindsight, it also probably spelled the beginning of the end for the show.

The recent theatrical re-imagining of “21 Jump Street” garnered surprisingly positive reviews, as well as decent, if not great box-office returns. Originally co-created by Patrick Hasburgh and Stephen J. Cannell, the TV series became one of the first hits on the fledgling Fox Network and a magnet for the much-desired teen audience. Best known today for its role in launching the career of Johnny Depp, it also was one the first TV series to take the problems of contemporary teens seriously and tell stories from their point of view. Full-season packages already are in circulation, but “Top 21 Best Episode” pretty much cuts right to the chase for those who’ve only seen the movie. Among the highlights in the three-DVD collection are Johnny Depp’s last appearance, several themed episodes and a roster of guest stars that includes Brad Pitt, Christina Applegate, Vince Vaughn, Jason Priestly, Shannen Doherty, Josh Brolin and Blair Underwood. – Gary Dretzka

The DVD Wrapup: Dangerous Method, Broken Tower, Delta… More

Wednesday, March 28th, 2012

A Dangerous Method: Blu-ray
To laymen, the vernacular of psychoanalysis often sounds as if it were invented simply to maintain some hierarchical distance between patients and their doctors. The closest most people get to a couch is in a Woody Allen movie and the results don’t often speak well for the science. With all due respect for Mr. Freud’s teachings, sometimes a train entering a tunnel in a dream simply means the invisible engineer is attempting to get to the other side of an impediment. In David Cronenberg’s fascinating “A Dangerous Method,” we watch three brilliant people — Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen), Carl Gustav Jung (Michael Fassbender) and Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightley) – explore places in the mind that are as deeply hidden as the rusted hulk of the Titanic once was. While Freud and Jung’s names are familiar to most educated people, Spielrein may only be known to post-graduate students and documentary buffs who’ve stumbled upon Elisabeth Marton’s illuminating “My Name Was Sabina Spielrein” (Facets Video). “A Dangerous Method” opens in 1904, upon the hugely troubled young woman’s forced placement in a clinic in which Jung is attempting to put his mentor’s theories into practice. A Russian Jew from a wealthy family, Spielrein’s gift is locked behind a thick wall of anger, repressed memories and sexual mania. Employing Freud’s “talking cure” to uncover points of entry into her dreams, Jung gets his reluctant patient to sit still long enough explain how the beatings applied by her abusive father triggered sexual urges that confused and disturbed her. Jung’s willingness to probe corners of Spielrein’s mind that other specialists consider to be off-limits helps clears a path for her recovery and emergence as a formidable therapist. Although Jung’s success validates Freud controversial theories, his inability to rein in his own libido represents an ethical breach that ultimately will drive a wedge between the two men.

Unlike most of Cronenberg’s movies, the violence here is largely limited to the incoming patient’s confrontational behavior and Jung’s shocking willingness to replicate the whippings Spielrein endured at her father’s hands. It unclogs a blocked sexual artery in Spielrein and causes Jung to re-evaluate his personal and professional ethics and marriage to the independently wealthy analyst, Emma. It is at this point in the movie that another former student of Freud, the rebellious hedonist Otto Gross (Vincent Cassel), convinces Jung that it would be counterproductive to sublimate his own sexual urges. As finely tuned and wonderfully acted as “A Dangerous Method” is, it’s difficult to recommend it to anyone without at least a passing interest in psychoanalysis and psychiatry. Christopher Hampton’s adaptation of his own play is talky and much of the dialogue is medical in nature. There are places in “A Dangerous Method” where fans of Cronenberg’s previous films will want Mortensen to break out of his muted characterization of Freud and kick the crap out of Jung, who deserves a good thrashing. The kinky sex is limited to the aforementioned whippings and a brief nip-slip, so admirers of “Crash” and “Eastern Promises” likely will be disappointed here, as well. On the plus side, the story is undeniably compelling and Cronenberg’s team has conjured a fin-de-siecle Vienna that is as rich and tasty as a chocolate cake from the Café Sacher. To this end, the Blu-ray featurettes are essential viewing. They describe the hard work that went into the sets and costumes, as well as the development of the story. – Gary Dretzka

The Broken Tower
Compared to James Franco’s impressionistic profile of the important, if difficult poet Hart Crane, in “The Broken Tower,” Cronenberg’s psychoanalytic “A Dangerous Method” might as well be a “Roadrunner” cartoon. Poetry is difficult enough to translate into film, without also introducing a protagonist who’s openly gay in an intolerant society (but sleeps with a woman once, at least); a drunk capable of great metaphorical clarity; and a distinctly American writer who often felt more at home on foreign soil. As an actor, Franco is nearly as difficult to pin down. Like Johnny Depp and Tilda Swinton, he’s the rare performer who can play mad and frivolous in one movie and deadly serious the next. Neither is he afraid to compound the expectations of fans and the media, who only want easy answers to their questions about his sexual preferences, willingness to dull the luster of his Academy Award nomination by acting in daytime soap operas and put his career on hold while pursuing advanced academic degrees. In “Howl,” Franco portrayed the beat poet Allen Ginsberg at a pivotal juncture in his career. Compared to Crane, Ginsberg might as well be Jerry Seinfeld. Both poets were homosexual, rebellious and possessed complex personalities. Ginsberg lived to the ripe old age of 70, long enough to experience several social and cultural reformations and the blossoming of queer culture. Crane died at 32, largely uncelebrated, after jumping or falling from the fantail of a ship in the Gulf of Mexico. His body was never recovered. (Ironically, Crane’s father had invented Life Saver candy, which resembles the kind of buoy that might have saved his son’s life.)

Franco, who also wrote and directed “The Broken Tower,” divides his biopic into “Voyages,” after one of Crane’s most erotically charged poems. He bases much of the desperately sad story on the scholarship of biographer Paul Mariani and his own scholastic research. Contrary to what’s posited in the tabloid press, Franco is no sometime-scholar or flake. Besides a bachelor’s degree in fine arts from UCLA, he has two MFA degrees — both in writing — from Columbia and Brooklyn College, and a third MFA, in film, from New York University. Cinematically, “Broken Tower” owes a great deal to John Cassavetes and other independent filmmakers unafraid to break the mold when they feel it necessary to do so. It isn’t an easy movie to absorb in one sitting, especially if one isn’t committed to an appreciation of poetry. It does, however, challenge viewers to consider what it was like to be poet when poetry mattered as much as any art form. Franco set the movie in New York, Mexico and Paris, all haunts of the writer, as far away from away from Crane’s native Ohio as money and time would allow. Commentary is provided by Franco, producer Vince Jolivette and cinematographer Christina Voros; and Franco interviews several Crane scholars, via Skype. – Gary Dretzka

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close: Blu-ray
Finding fault with a movie in which a precocious 9-year-old boy attempts to make sense of his father’s death inside the World Trade Center on 9/11 would be as cruel an exercise as stomping an unwanted puppy or kitten. So, I won’t bother, except to say that some viewers will come away from “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close” feeling as manipulated as the many critics who did voice their disappointment. In his debut performance, young Thomas Horn plays Oskar Schell, the boy who comes to believe that his delightfully eccentric dad (Tom Hanks) left clues to a task which needs to be completed if his soul is ever to rest in peace. It arrives in the form of the key he finds in a broken vase, along with a vague reference to the name of its possible owner. Without telling his still distraught mother (Sandra Bullock) of his plans, Oskar enlists the help of a mysterious mute “Renter” (Max Von Sydow), who lives across the street with his grandmother. Together, they scour the boroughs in an effort to contact everyone with the surname, Black. Further driving Oskar are guilt feelings over his refusal to answer his phone as his father tried to reach him before and after the collapse of the towers. It would be a difficult enough task for an adult to accomplish, but only in Hollywood could a boy and an 80-year-old man realize success in 129 minutes.

Despite the large number of suspensions of disbelief director Stephen Daldry (“The Reader,” “Billy Elliot”) demands of his audience, “Extremely Loud” doesn’t allow his audience much time to worry about them. A hectic pace is maintained throughout, even in flashback interludes that define the boy’s relationship to his father. Horn and Von Sydow make a terrific team, even if the old man’s background remains a question mark. Hanks is fine as the extroverted parent, but it’s the kind of role we’ve seen him play many times in his long career. As Oskar’s mother, Bullock isn’t given much to do or say until the very end of the movie, when the character makes an essential, if equally unbelievable revelation to her son and viewers. Eric Roth’s screenplay gives a fair reading of Jonathan Safran Foer’s novel, I think, and New York plays its part quite well. “Extremely Loud” is likely to test the patience of even the most loyal viewers, but those willing to stick with it probably won’t mind being manipulated all that much. The Blu-ray package includes commentary by Daldry, Hanks, Bullock and John Goodman, who offers a bit of connective tissue as the family’s doorman; a piece on Horn’s journey from being a contestant on “Jeopardy!” to star of the movie; a 44-minute interview with Von Sydow; and a short profile of a character who died in the collapse of the towers, but whose inspiration message lives on a decade later. – Gary Dretzka

In the Land of Blood and Honey
The first question that anyone familiar with the pedigree of “In the Land of Blood and Honey” will ask is about Angelina Jolie’s ability to direct a drama in which she doesn’t also star. The answer: the Oscar presenter with the most famous right leg in Hollywood not only demonstrates a gift for direction, but her screenplay also stands up to close scrutiny. She avoids most of the landmines that could have upended the difficult and potentially divisive war movie and elicits terrific performances from actors working in their native tongue. Even today, it’s difficult to parse the elusive scraps of truth from the mounds of propaganda left behind in the wake of the stalemated Bosnian War. If the region is currently experiencing something resembling peace, it could disappear in a heartbeat if and when international peacekeepers split the scene. While the Bosnian Serbs are painted in the darkest possible colors here, the seeds of war and atrocious behavior were planted long ago, in conflicts dominated by the Muslim majority and Croatian fascists aligned with the Nazis, as well as the Turks, Austrian and Bulgarians before them. Jolie has chosen not to focus on the political decisions that led to the Bosnian, preferring to indict those who used rape and terror as weapons and, by extension, continue to do so in Africa and other war zones. In a country populated by followers of three different religions, everyone believed God was on their side. “Land of Blood and Honey” suggests early on that God had decided to sit this conflagration out. The cruelty on display demonstrated that civilization hadn’t progressed much from the days when, as the Old Testament teaches, rape, pillage and plunder not only were commonplace, but also demand by the deity. The war crimes tribunal found evidence of atrocities in all three sectors.

“Land of Blood and Honey,” then, is as sad and depressing a statement on moral relativism and intolerance as we’ve seen outside the documentary arena. In setting up her story, Jolie returns to the period when members of all three ethnic groups – or those born after WWII, anyway – worked, partied and served their country together. Serbian soldier Danijel (Goran Kostić) and Bosniak artist Ajla (Zana Marjanović) meet in a popular nightclub, but their budding romance is put on hold when a bomb tears the place apart and war begins. They meet again when dozens of women and children are rounded up and imprisoned in an abandoned school. Just after the first rape occurs there, Danijel interrupts a soldier about to mount Ajla from behind. As a senior officer, he appears to claim her for his own personal amusement. Naturally, she’s in no mood to rekindle their fire, fearing him as much as the other Serbs. She comes around as protects her from the systematic rapes, but doesn’t demand anything in return. Danijel tells his men that she’s painting his portrait, while servicing his sexual desires, and she’s off-limits to them. After he orders them to find paints, canvas and easel for her to use, Ajla and Danijel become lovers. Things get extremely complicated after his father (Rade Šerbedžija), a commander in the breakaway army, demands that his son get rid of his Muslim roommate, one way or the other. Like almost every Serb in the former Yugoslavia, the old man’s memory extends past the horrors of World War II, to 1389 and the Battle of Kosovo. Shot on location in Bosnia and Hungary, “Blood and Honey” has an extremely convincing look. Many of the actors lived through the war and have distinct memories of the violence and deprivation. If some of the political and cultural aspects of the war aren’t made precisely clear, what’s inarguable is the integrity of the performances and Jolie’s passion. The Blu-ray adds deleted scenes, a Q&A with Jolie and extensive making-of material. Oh, yeah, the DVD comes in English and the Blu-ray offers a track in the native tongue. – Gary Dretzka

Delta

"Delta"


Devotees of spectacular cinematography, especially, will want to invest time in a screening of “Delta,” a disturbing Hungarian drama set among the lush and fertile wetlands of the Danube Delta. The way Mátyás Erdély’s camera lingers on natural phenomena recalls the haunting imagery that distinguishes the Terrence Malick, Bela Tarr and Andrei Tarkovski. In Hungarian director Kornél Mundruczó’s film, depictions of the area’s natural beauty run contrary to the ugliness of the local male population, whose only mission in life appears to be diminishing the potential for happiness in others. Their targets in “Delta” are a young man, who, after a long absence, returns to his home town with some money in his pocket and a dream of constructing a home on stilts on a lake where is father once fished. After being introduced to a half-sister he’s never met, they decide to work together on the project, even knowing that the geezers who idle away their days in their mother’s tavern will accuse them of incest. Nevertheless, the possibility of finding happiness, freedom and sanctuary in a location so richly blessed is too much to resist. It also provides the fools in the town sufficient reason to despise and plot against them. It would be easy to blame their intolerance solely on the likelihood that the couple is breaking the law of God and man, but Mundruczó leaves vague the extent of the couple’s sexual attraction to each other. There’s clearly an instant rapport between Mihail and Fauna. He comforts her after she’s raped by her brutal pig of a stepfather and anticipates their housewarming party, as if they’re a couple. It is the audacity of their invitation, perhaps, that causes the villagers to believe they’re putting on airs and, therefore, deserve a comeuppance. We know that’s not the case, but it would be impossible for the lard heads to discern the difference between hospitality and arrogance. That it all plays out in such a splendid setting is all the more upsetting. “Delta” won the International Critics’ Prize and was nominated for the Golden Palm at the 2008 Cannes festival. It stars Felix Lajko and Orsi Toth in roles that were short on dialogue, but long on physicality. The original soundtrack by Felix Lajko also is noteworthy. The set includes three interesting shorts. – Gary Dretzka

Casablanca: 70th Anniversary Limited Collector’s Edition: Blu-ray
In this week’s edition of “Can There Ever Be Too Much of Good Thing When It Comes to Re-Releases of Classics on DVD and Blu-ray?,” we offer for your consideration, “Casablanca: 70th Anniversary Limited Collector’s Edition,” from Warner Home Video. It’s entirely likely that viewers of a certain age already own copies Michael Curtiz’ great romance in several different formats and special editions, dating back to the era of Beta, VHS and Laserdisc. Given that “Casablanca” has been available on DVD for almost 14 years and on Blu-ray since 2008, with a brief appearance on HD-DVD in 2006, it could easily be argued that the company is trying to milk a dry cow. It’s also a staple on cable’s TCM channel, widely available via subscription services and pay-for-view outlets and, last week, was exhibited on the big screen in select markets. That’s a lot of exposure for a 69½ -year-old product. Even so, we’re talking about “Casablanca” here, folks, and there’s almost always something to crow about in subsequent iterations and new generations to enchant. The same holds true with the latest edition.

Even those Blu-ray enthusiasts who couldn’t explain the difference between 1080i, 1080p and 720p should be able to grasp how much better the new edition looks and sounds, thanks to an all-new 4K scan of the master, a closely monitored frame-by-frame restoration and 1080p/AVC-encoded MPEG 4 video transfer, backed by a lossless DTS-HD Master Audio track. What that boils down to is recognition of the fact that no matter how good the 2008 Blu-ray edition was, the 2012 upgrade makes “Casablanca” a more satisfying experience for everyone. I’m not very sophisticated technologically, but Roger Ebert’s commentary provided me with another reason to look deeper into the picture quality. He recalled sitting with cinematographer Haskell Wexler during a screening and learning how Arthur Edeson photographed Ingrid Bergman to make her face look thinner and body less statuesque than usual, so as not to tower over Humphrey Bogart. He also described how inventive deployments of shade and light were used to make Rick’s nightclub more credible as a hotbed of intrigue and give his upstairs office a different personality with each new visitor. The restoration and technical upgrade make it easier than ever to understand Wexler’s observations. Viewers with more sensitive ears than mine will relish the fact that the dialogue sounds more natural than in previous versions and the Max Steiner’s score sounds cleaner than it’s ever been.

The limited and numbered “Giftset” includes a full-size reproduction of the original 1942 film poster; a 62-page production art book, with rarely seen photos, personal memos and archival documents about the production; four drink coasters in a faux-leather jacket; and a three-disc Digipak, containing a Blu-ray edition of the movie, a second BD disc, with ; and a DVD copy. New on the first disc are “Warner Night at the Movies,” which replicates the audience’s experience in 1942”; “Casablanca: An Unlikely Hero,” with this testimony from contemporary filmmakers; and audio-only “Vox Pop Radio Broadcast,” which includes a behind-the-scenes “listen” with Jack Warner. Disc 2 is comprised of the documentaries “You Must Remember This: The Warner Bros. Story,” “The Brothers Warner” and “Jack L. Warner: The Last Mogul.” Most of the material included in the bonus package on Disc 1 goes back to the 2003 DVD upgrade, 2006 HDTV and 2008 “Ultimate Collector’s Edition.” – Gary Dretzka

A Night to Remember: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
I’m pretty sure that I’ll skip the new 3D edition of “Titanic,” when it sails into my local megaplex on Friday. It’s not that I dislike James Cameron’s movie or have anything against 3D. It’s just, after watching all the DVDs released and rereleased to commemorate the centennial of its sinking, I feel as if I’ve actually sailed halfway across the Atlantic and ice floes are gathering around me. The good news, though, is that the 1958 “A Night to Remember” has been given a facelift and shipped out again in hi-def by Criterion. If I had watched it first, I could have skimmed through Discovery’s “100th Anniversary Collection,” Mill Creek’s “The Definitive Documentary Collection” and History’s “The Complete Story,” and ignore the three docs yet to come. I’m surprised the Fox hasn’t released a Blu-ray version of the melodramatic 1953 “Titanic,” with Barbara Stanwyck and Clifton Webb, although it’s currently available on VOD outlets. Directed by Roy Ward Baker and adapted from Walter Lord’s book by Eric Ambler, “A Night to Remember,” benefits from a straight-forward approach to the tragedy and judicious deployment of only a few subplots. It’s obvious that Cameron relied largely on Lord’s research for the non-fiction elements of his blockbuster and the author couldn’t possibly have been cognizant of evidence revealed 50 years later by men using submersibles to probe the ship.

Baker’s version of the story is told from the point of view of 2nd Officer Charles Herbert Lightoller (Kenneth More), the most senior of the RMS Titantic’s deck officers to survive the disaster. With the exception of the crew members who followed insane orders prohibiting passengers in steerage from passing through first- and second-class quarters, the heroes of “A Night to Remember” are those who kept their heads about them and helped as many people as possible to reach the inadequate supply of lifeboats. The goat is the captain of the nearby SS Californian, Stanley Lord, who instructed his officers to ignore rockets and Morse-lamp signals from the Titanic and let him sleep. The Criterion Collection edition includes commentary by historians Don Lynch and Ken Marschall; an hour-long British TV documentary about the making of the film; the U.S. and British theatrical trailers; a Swedish documentary on the 50th anniversary, with interviews with three survivors; and a 25-minute interview from 1990 with survivor Eve Hart. – Gary Dretzka

David Lean Directs Noel Coward: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
It’s difficult to imagine any movies being made in Engla, nd during the war years, 1942-45, considering the constant threat of Nazi bombers, nightly blackouts, the enlisting of actors and lack of raw material for sets. I was surprised, then, to learn that David Lean had collaborated four times with playwright Noel Coward during this turbulent period. Lean, of course, would become known chiefly for such historical epics as “Lawrence of Arabia,” “Bridge on the River Kwai,” “Doctor Zhivago,” “Ryan’s Daughter” and “Passage to India,” while Coward was a kind of Renaissance man famous for his sharp wit, dapper dress and first-class tastes. After joining Coward as an editor on “In Which We Serve,” Lean was given an opportunity to direct the action sequences that, as an actor, he had little time to prepare and, as a playwright, wasn’t much interested in supervising. Lean would earn sole director’s credit in their next three collaborations, “This Happy Breed,” “Blithe Spirit” and “Brief Encounter.” Coward already was working at the top of his game and busy entertaining troops when the call came in for the war drama “In Which We Serve.” The patriotic film was inspired by the sinking of the destroyer HMS Kelly, commanded by his friend Lord Louis Mountbatten. A big hit on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean, it earned two Academy Award nominations in 1944 and a special Oscar a year earlier. The amazing thing about “In Which We Serve” is the ability of the producers to construct a set that so resembled a fighting ship, with so few resources and combat footage available to them. Even if it’s possible to recognize the seams in the plywood and paint, the picture remains captivating.

This Happy Breed” chronicles the affairs of a working-class family, living in the London suburbs, in the decades between the wars. The Technicolor picture effectively blends political upheaval with topical news events and domestic melodrama. This includes labor strife, the rise of the fascism in Britain and reaction to the Neville Chamberlain’s non-aggression pact with Adolf Hitler. It occurs against a familiar background of familial highs and lows, including one daughter’s declaration of independence from traditional ways of doing things and a friend’s undying loyalty to her. At 105 minutes. “This Happy Breed” accomplishes things the television mini-series would be able to build on three decades later.

Coward didn’t particularly like Lean’s interpretation of “Blithe Spirit,” in which a successful author agrees to participate in a séance, strictly as research for his next book, and is made a believer through circumstances beyond the control even of the medium. The ending was changed while he was in New York and some of the characters’ personalities were altered to fit a distinctly comic tone. Neither did he approve of the choice of debonair Rex Harrison to play the protagonist, who he envisioned quite differently. His Charles Condomine is a chap who wears a tuxedo to dinner and whose wealth provides a buffer to the cares of the world. To the author’s great surprise and disappointment, he is visited by his late wife, who finds herself trapped between dimensions. His current wife, Ruth, is none too pleased, either, as Charles comes to enjoy exchanging barbs with his extremely sarcastic ex and stays up all night doing so. Neither do things work out as planned when Ruth revisits the medium (Margaret Rutherford), hoping to exorcise the “old girl,” as Charles refers to Elvira. The special effects look prehistoric today, but are fun to watch, nonetheless. The project didn’t get off on the right foot, because almost everyone involved thought less of the play than Coward. For his part, the playwright considered “Blithe Spirit” to be far less comedic than anyone else, including the audience. He envisioned a more ironic ending and more tragic overtones, and this was reflected years later in revivals.

Even so, Lean and Coward would collaborate again on “Brief Encounter,” a movie consistently listed alongside “Gone With the Wind” and “Casablanca” as the greatest romances in cinema history. Adapted from Coward’s “Still Life,” the movie chronicles the fleeting, if emotionally intense affair – possibly imaginary – between a married Buckinghamshire housewife (Celia Johnson) and a doctor (Trevor Howard) after a chance meeting on a train platform. The spectacular black-and-white cinematography adds a dramatic element that further separated the movie version from the play. It was Coward’s intention to show how such a momentous thing could happen to an “ordinary” woman, whose uneventful marriage had stalled in midstream. The doctor asks her to join him in his new posting in Africa, causing her to rethink everything she’s taken for granted. Typically, of course, such dangerous liaisons only occur among the upper-crust. Lean was in the processing of mastering the art of letting the camera say things that dialogue couldn’t express and he succeeds wonderfully. All four of the movies collected her represent high-definition digital transfers of the BFI National Archive’s 2008 restorations, with uncompressed monaural soundtracks on the Blu-ray editions. Coward scholar Barry Day adds informative background material at the end of each film and all feature interviews with cast and crew members, making-of featurettes and commentary. Also included is an episode of the British television series “The Southbank Show,” from 1992, on the life and career of Coward, and an audio recording of a 1969 conversation between Richard Attenborough and Coward at London’s National Film Theatre. A booklet features essays by Ian Christie, Terrence Rafferty, Farran Nehne, Geoffrey O’Brien and Kevin Brownlow. – Gary Dretzka

Romantics Anonymous
You can add the frothy French confection “Romantics Anonymous” to the list of food-centric movies that can’t help but provoke a sudden craving for something sweet and dark. As such, John-Pierre Ameris’ rom-com perfectly complements Lasse Hallstrom’s “Chocolat,” Alfonso Arau’s “Like Water for Chocolate,” Claude Chabrol’s “Thank You for the Chocolate,” “Willy Wonka/Charlie at the Chocolate Factory” and, yes, even “Forrest Gump.” The title doesn’t come right out and say it, but everything important in this dysfunctional love story takes place against a backdrop of the art and science of making chocolate. Jean-Rene (Benoit Poelvoorde) owns a chocolate company whose specialty product is facing stiff competition from smaller and more flexible chocolatiers. Jean-Rene may be able to run a company, but the thought of sitting across the table from a woman leaves him apoplectic. Angelique (Isabelle Carre) enters his life after her career as the anonymous creator of chocolates for a rival firm ends abruptly, with the death of her employer. Because of her fear of being in close proximity to strangers, she produced her delicacies in private and without credit. She takes a job with Jean-Rene’s company as a salesman, but yearns to prove herself as a top-flight chocolatier without also ruining her mentor’s reputation. Even though her emotional hang-ups keep her from committing to something as concrete as a relationship, she accepts a dinner date with her new boss. It ends hilariously in disaster. Angelique attends “émotif anonymes” meetings to deal with issues relating to her inability to connect with outsiders. At these meetings, she’s very supportive of her neurotic peers. The only other place Angelique feels comfortable is in the factory kitchen, where she pretends to be working off recipes transmitted to her by the same person who helped her former employer prosper. One former customer approves of the new treats so much that she suggests that Angelique enter them in an important competition. It forces Angelique and Rene to confront the probability of sleeping together.

If the happy ending seems completely inevitable, what happens in between their arrival at the contest and the end credits isn’t at all predictable. Blessedly, Ameris keeps us guessing right up to the moment when all such movies must succumb to sentimentality and viewers’ needs for a happy resolution. Even so, “Romantics Anonymous” is blessedly free of clichés and stereotypes. Carre is appropriately shy and withdrawn, while Poelvoorde is all ticks and flop sweat. Whoever was responsible for designing the chocolates knew what they were doing, as well. – Gary Dretzka

Trinity Goodheart
Soda Springs

Produced by ReelWorks Studios and the Gospel Music Channel, “Trinity Goodheart” is one of the more interesting faith-based, family-friendly movies I’ve seen lately. Most of the credit belongs to writer Rhonda Baraka, who knows the difference between a universal message and evangelical tub-thumping, and the title character, played by 12-year-old star of the future Erica Gluck. Joanne Hock’s compelling drama probably wouldn’t have found a home anywhere except a niche festival or cable television, but that’s not to say it doesn’t have a big heart. Trinity lives with her father, Jeremy (Eric Benoit), a musician who loses his girlfriend to the lure of the road and arguments with her parents over his value as a man and provider. Jeremy also is estranged from his father, a wealthy man who desires something more from his son than a career as an itinerant musician. Trinity is of mixed black-and-white heritage, which is a far larger problem for her maternal grandparents than Jeremy’s folks. Even so, she’s had no contact with any of them. After a quasi-religious experience, Trinity has developed a healthy curiosity about her roots and endeavors to make contact with her grandparents, despite her dad’s objections. Trinity has been visited by an angel, who leaves behind half a heart medallion that must have belonged to her mother. Trinity makes it her mission to mend the broken heart, hoping that it will lead directly to a re-connection with the troubled woman. Her journey isn’t an easy one, but it’s ultimately satisfying for almost everyone involved, including the audience. Trinity’s faith and perseverance is the glue that closes the fissures separating the warring parties. It helps, of course, that she has a couple of angels in her corner.

The bible makes an early appearance in “Soda Springs,” a contemporary Western in which an ex-con returns to his Idaho home to find redemption for his role in an accident that left several people dead. Even after spending eight years in prison, several residents of the small country town in which he grew up aren’t ready to accept him back home. They remember him as a wild youth whose day of reckoning eventually was going to come and it wouldn’t be pretty. Eden (Jay Pickett) recognized the heavenly light pouring in through the bars on his windows and turned his back on his wicked ways. No sooner does he arrive in town, however, than he is confronted by halfwit cops and the redneck thug married to his ex-girlfriend. He also is blindsided with the news that he’s the father of an 8-year-old boy. It should come as a surprise to no one that the bully doesn’t want to share the boy with Eden and warns him to stay away from him. If not, there will be hell to pay. “Salt Springs” has a nice sense of place and leisurely pace that’s in keeping with the western locale. Director Michael Feifer allows the tension between the two men to build to a point where it’s nearly unbearable and, then, let’s the steam out in way that should satisfy viewers, if not the man who first suggested we turn the other cheek to our enemies. “Soda Springs” isn’t nearly as polished or compelling as “Crazy Heart,” to which it bears a slight resemblance, but both movies share a common sensibility. And, like “Trinity Goodheart,” there’s a guardian angel looking over the shoulder of the protagonist. — Gary Dretzka

Breaking Wind: Unrated
Just in case you can’t guess the movie’s ongoing gag from the title, “Breaking Wind” is a spoof of the wildly popular “Twilight Saga” franchise and much of the humor, such as it is, derives from fart jokes. It was written and directed by Craig Moss, whose credits include “The 41-Year-Old Virgin Who Knocked Up Sarah Marshall and Felt Super Bad About It” and the comic short, “Saving Ryan’s Privates.” His latest effort borrows the template used to make “Eclipse,” in which Bella was required to choose between a vampire and a werewolf for her eternal love interest. Her indecision caused quite a disturbance in that film, but led to the lovely wedding and terrifying delivery of a monster in “Breaking Dawn.” Both “Breaking Dawn” and “Breaking Wind” will be of interest only to “Twilight” fanatics. For the record, Bella is played here by Heather Ann Davis, while Eric Callero and Frank Pacheco assume the roles of Edward and Jacob. Put this movie alongside last week’s “The Legend of Awesomest Maximus” and you have two of the least funny straight-to-DVD parodies in cinema history. – Gary Dretzka

Alvin and the Chipmunks: Chipwrecked: Blu-ray
Assigning a movie critic to review every new entry in the “Alvin and the Chipmunks” series is like asking an Al Qaeda terrorist about to be water-boarded to answer the question, “sparkling, flat or tap?” It’s torture, either way. It’s also beside the point. In the third sequel since the series was revived in 2007 – 20 years after the big-screen Chipmunks were last put on hiatus – the series keeps rolling in the dough for Fox 2000, Regency and heirs to creator Ross Bagdasarian’s 1958 brainstorm, “The Chipmunk Song” (“Christmas, Don’t Be Late”). Would it surprise you to learn that “Chipwrecked” earned $132 million at the domestic box office last Christmas, against an estimated budget of $75 million? Revenues from international distribution, DVD/Blu-ray, CDs and plush toys are simply the icing on the cakes. Needless to say, the critics’ negative grades had virtually no impact on the kids or their moms and dads. Hey, it’s cute … almost irresistibly so. Here, Dave (Jason Lee) and the sprightly rodent trio hop a Carnival Cruise Line ship, where they sing, dance and create mayhem. Eventually, they become castaways on a not-so-deserted island that reminds us of “Gilligan’s Island,” “Lost” and “Castaway.” Before attempting to escape the island with its other inhabitants, the Chipmunks take time to impersonate Indiana Jones and track down a hidden treasure. All of this occurs against a CGI backdrop and soundtrack that includes such re-synthesized pop hits as “Vacation,” “Real Wild Child,” “Bad Romance,” “Kumbaya,” “Conga” and “Born This Way.” The boys are voiced by Matthew Gray Gubler, Jesse McCartney and Justin Long, while the damsels in distress are given a vocal assist from Amy Poehler, Anna Faris and Christina Applegate. Children should enjoy the Blu-ray bonus features, including the dance-along and sing-along segment; several making-of featurettes, extended scenes, “Growing Up Alvin” and “In Character With Jason Lee”; and an “Ice Age” short, also involving a hidden treasure. – Gary Dretzka

Red Persimmons
One Lucky Elephant
Betty White: Champion for Animals

There’s an old line, which I can’t place, to the effect, “I’m not afraid of hard work, I could watch people do it all day.” The late Japanese director Shinsuke Ogawa loved to watch the farmers of his country labor, as well, and record them doing it, going to exhaustive lengths to make sure he got it right. “Red Persimmons” was begun by Ogawa in 1985 and finally completed 15 years later (after his death in 1992) by one of his devotees, Chinese feminist filmmaker Peng Xiaolian. On its surface, the documentary simply describes the annual process of growing, picking, peeling, drying, preparing, selling and packaging the fruit for delivery to stores in the city. It’s an arduous process and no one appears to be prospering greatly in the village he observes. The farmers we meet are in the autumn of their life cycle and young consumers in the city don’t have much of a taste for persimmons. Anyone looking for a analogy here will find it in the steadily decreasing number of agricultural communities dedicated to the growing of items many now see as specialty products. Unlike the acceptance of boutique-brewed beer by American yuppies, Japanese yuppies have yet to embrace specialty persimmons. But, that’s only part of the story. Ogawa and his crew lived among the villagers, observing them and asking questions. In “Red Persimmons,” he records the history of the techniques and tools devised specifically to make the process easier and more profitable. Along the way, he captures the beauty in common practices and the dedication in his subjects faces. It’s an amazing documentary, if intended only for the most patient of viewers.

In a separate film, included on the DVD, “A Visit to Ogawa Productions,” the filmmaker and members of the collective are interviewed during mid-production of a documentary about rice growing in mountainous northern Japan. In it, we learn that he was inspired to focus on farmers while chronicling the riots over the confiscation of fields upon which the Narita International Airport now sits. If his assignment was to record the clashes between police and radical farmers and students, what fascinated him was the passion for the land and way of life being sacrificed for the convenience of business executives and tourists. Again, remote rice-growing villages are dying for lack of a solid financial reason to exist, apart from being way stations for motorists going in opposite directions. Being a staple crop, corporations have found ways to make the production of ordinary rice highly profitable and not nearly as dependent on the whims of nature.

“One Lucky Elephant” describes a romance between man and beast … the owner of a small circus and the elephant after which it is named. It represents a 10-year immersion in a single subject by director Lisa Leeman. Depending on one’s point of view of circuses and the ownership of exotic pets, the title can be interpreted as ironic or the true attitude of the filmmakers. What isn’t in dispute is that David Balding adopted Flora, an orphaned baby African elephant, with the intent of creating a marquee attraction for the circus. The training process is forceful to the point of cruelty, although Balding appears to have been cognizant of the dangers to the animal and moderated his techniques accordingly. Over the years, he became as close to Flora as he might a child. As he grew older and his health deteriorated, Balding decided that Flora’s fate ought not to depend on his. Through his contacts in the training community, he’s able to place Flora in a Florida zoo with a modern facility for the large beasts. Then, unexpectedly, Flora becomes a problem elephant. Instead of socializing, her temperament becomes unpredictable and occasionally threatening to zookeepers. The same thing happens when Flora is moved to a large elephant sanctuary in Tennessee. The diagnosis suggests that, as a social creature living alone in a small space, she may have become too dependent on the love and nurturing provided by Balding, who, we sense, may have been more interested in his own emotional needs than those of Flora. After each of his frequent visits to the zoo and sanctuary, Flora would experience something resembling post-traumatic-shock syndrome, causing her to act out her aggressions. Because of this, he is asked not to visit. The trainer refuses to buy this theory – which could extend all the way back to the “culling” process in the wild — preferring the advice of an “elephant whisperer” at the Pittsburgh Zoo. In any case, the death of a more dominant female at the sanctuary appears to relieve much of Flora’s anxiety, if not that of Balding. “One Lucky Elephant” is a fascinating documentary, which naturally begs the question as to the ethics of separating such beasts from their parents and clan and shipping them across the ocean, not always to the most humane environments.

Things are more cut and dry in “Betty White: Champion for Animals,” which is as much a celebration of the star’s longevity as it is a cautionary tale about the need for humans protect and cherish species both thriving and endangered. White’s job here primarily is to share anecdotes about pets and other animals in her life, as well as introducing representatives of organizations dedicated to their care, protection and maintenance. We also are invited to go behind the scenes at national parks, zoos and aquariums. Although “Champion for Animals” has been recommended by the Dove Foundation, children might be disturbed by some of the images of wounded animals. – Gary Dretzka

The Gruesome Death of Tommy Pistol
Die

Even by the standards usually associated with Troma and Vicious, “The Gruesome Death of Tommy Pistol” is a grotesque and intensely revolting entertainment. Most of the shocks involve the separation of limbs, organs and erogenous zones from the bodies of naked skanks and male slimeballs in drag. Throw in a few puss bombs and flesh-eating penis extenders and you have a movie that could turn the stomach of a zombie. Tommy Pistol is an aspiring actor and full-time doofus, too stupid to understand that insulting the boss’ mother may not be a good idea. After being fired and losing his wife and child, Tommy wastes away on his couch watching porn and being pleasured by a suction tube. In his dreams, he fantasizes answering a casting notice in a Hollywood trade paper, only to learn that the job involves being the killer in an actual snuff film. It sets him off on a course that leads to becoming a director of a torture-porn flick and capturing, skinning and pretending to be Arthur Schwarzenegger, if he were a psycho killer. Given the bare-bones budget of the project, the effects can’t help but look absurdly cheesy and frequently hilarious. “TGDOTP” shouldn’t be mistaken for an entry point for aspiring horror fans. No matter how ridiculous the carnage seems, it sometimes is capable of momentarily fooling the brain and inducing physical revulsion. If this sounds like your cup of tea, see a doctor before checking out the bonus features, which add commentary, behind-the-scenes footage, the music videos “It Ate His Face” and “DJ Tommy Pistol,” interviews with the director and cast and “Cheese Theater,” a look at the “first sketch comedy troupe from Queens.”

Director Dominic James and screenwriter Domenico Salvaggio’s freshman feature, “Die,” is an overfamiliar and ultimately not terribly convincing torture thriller, in which a half-dozen troubled individuals are imprisoned and forced to roll the die to determine each other’s fate. They are being held by the wealthy, if psychotic author of ‘The Will of the Die,” which has developed a cult following among people who have survived the game. Depending on their luck, a participant either will be on the receiving end of a lethal dose of something or be the one who doles out the punishment. They will be familiar with the implements from their own experience at attempting suicide. The other wrinkle allows for the dungeon master to administer punishments that are far less than lethal, thus adding an element of surprise to the “game.” Among the more familiar cast members are John Pyper-Ferguson, Emily Hampshire, Catarina Murino, Katie Boland and Elias Koteas. – Gary Dretzka

The Heir Apparent: Largo Winch
Some European exports simply don’t translate into English. One of them is “Largo Winch,” an action hero first introduced in the 1970s as a character in a Belgian comic-book series by Philippe Francq and Jean Van Hamme. The character has since been revived in novels, a TV series, video game and a pair of movies, the first of which has only now reached our shores. “The Heir Apparent: Large Winch” was greet in limited by middling review and almost no interest at the box office. I can’t help but think that the unwieldy title had almost everything to do with its failure here. As a child, the character was adopted from the Bosnia war zone by one of the richest men on Earth, Nerio Winch. His existence remains a closely kept secret while he explores the world and gets into the kind of trouble all untethered young men tend to find, left to their own devices. When the old man is assassinated by forces unknown, Largo (Tomer Sisley) is called to world headquarters in Hong Kong by the second-in-command (Kristin Scott Thomas) and is expected to assume the role of sole heir. The corporation is so huge and profitable that the list of Largo’s potential enemies is practically endless and the action takes us from Brazil, to Bosnia, Hong Kong, Macau, Sicily, Malta and Paris. If the plot isn’t all that compelling, the scenery makes up for it. – Gary Dretzka

Girls Just Want to Have Fun
I’m of the opinion that Cyndi Lauper’s “Girls Just Want to Have Fun,” was as anthemic for girls who came of age in the 1980s as “I Am Woman” and “I Will Survive” were for women asserting their independence in the ’70s. Indeed, it may have been the first post-feminist anthem to achieve broad mainstream acceptance. Naturally, the song inspired a movie to exploit both the jauntily affirmative message of the song, but also anticipate such emerging “girl power” movies as “Pretty in Pink,” “Dirty Dancing,” “Flashdance,” “Adventures in Babysitting” and “Clueless.” It also influenced the “Riot Grrrl” movement, which sprang up in the Pacific Northwest in the mid-1990s. As much an exemplar of gender independence as Lauper was, however, the movies that “Girls Just Want to Have Fun” most closely resemble are “Footloose” and the 1988 “Hairspray.” Unfortunately, those films are several times more inspired, original and entertaining than Alan Metter’s movie. Today, “GJWTHF” best serves as a time capsule to a time when mullets, “big hair” and spandex ruled. Moreover, the fashions adopted by the characters bordered on the hideous.

So why would anyone want to invest time in a movie that could otherwise be used as punishment for unruly teenagers. “GJWTHF” is loaded with stars of the future, not the least of whom are Sarah Jessica Parker and Helen Hunt in their first big non-TV roles. They play students at a Catholic high school in Chicago whose primary aspirations in life are becoming dancers on the “Dance TV” show and meeting cool boys. Hunt’s character, Lynne, is quite a bit hipper than Parker’s more repressed Janey, whose father is the movie’s designated Nazi figure. He forbids Janey to audition for the show, which, of course, only makes her more likely to do just that. Before the audition takes place, the girls decide it might be fun to crash a party at the local country club in the company of a pack of Madonna-wannabes, punks and women body builders. The intrusion only serves to piss off the richest guy in town and his daughter, who also wants to dance on the show. Among the now-familiar faces to be found in the cast are
Shannen Doherty, Jonathan Silverman and dancers Robin Antin and Gina Gershon, (The body-double dancers are easy to spot.) Poor Cyndi Lauper is given a cameo, but the producers were too cheap to license her version of the title song, — Gary Dretzka

The Seminarian
It would be difficult to find a subject more taboo in Hollywood – or anywhere else, for that matter – than homosexuality and the priesthood. It’s been difficult enough for established religious leaders to acknowledge its very existence, let alone attempt to separate the sexual predators from the gay men whose faith is more important to them than their sexuality. Even if such a thing were possible, it would open the gates to a tacit acceptance of something they’ve taught goes against the teachings in the bible. Holy conundrum, Batman. Typically, it’s independent filmmakers who allow themselves the freedom to explore questions the mainstream media elect to ignore. If writer/director Joshua Lim’s “The Seminarian” doesn’t directly address the issues that make sordid headlines, it does at least accept as a given that gay clergy do exist and their faith isn’t in question. The ones we meet here are attracted to other male adults, sometimes, but not always in a sexual way. What’s important here are the kinds of questions only God could answer in person and not in a book written and interpreted by humans.

Ryan (Mark Cirillo) is a gay seminarian entering his last semester of studies and anxious to attend Yale. The evangelical seminary isn’t progressive on the question of homosexuality, of course, but it isn’t difficult for Ryan to find like-minded students, with whom he can confide. He also seeks and finds friendship on the Internet, albeit with a young man with unresolved issues. As Ryan prepares his thesis, “The Divine Gift of Love,” he ponders, “If love is a gift from God and love entails great suffering, then what does that say about God?” What, indeed. Lim’s film attempts to appeal to too many cinematic suitors, including the ones attracted handsome young men willing to sample forbidden fruit. It would be interesting to see what a movie like “Seminarian” might look like given a larger budget and more profound theological mandate. – Gary Dretzka

PBS: Solartaxi: Around the World With the Sun
The BBC High Definition Natural History Collection 1: Blu-ray

Green documentaries tend to be preachy and resplendent with images of smog-shrouded cities, suffocating rivers and the corpses of birds and fish. Watch enough of them and you’ll either become hugely depressed or motivated to seek out the local recruiter for Earth First! I prefer the second option, but not all such documentaries are downbeat. “Solartaxi: Around the World With the Sun” is one such movie. In 2007, Swiss teacher Louis Palmer embarked on an epic journey in which he would drive an automobile towing its own solar battery around the world. Along the way, he hoped not only to avoid being rescued or transported by vehicles powered by fossil fuels, but also to prove to everyone on his route that such a thing can be done. Director Erik Schmitt picked up the tour in India, where he was sent by a Berlin-based agency to produce a series of YouTube clips. The 18-month project covered some 50,000 kilometers, touched 40 countries and produced 200 hours of video footage. Part of what makes “Solartaxi” so interesting is the reception Palmer received along the way. In some, he was received like a hero, while in others his mission was ignored. Energy-rich countries, such as Australia, fail to recognize any threat to the environment by carbon-based fuels. In Syria, an accident that threatened his progress became a huge teaching opportunity, when a minister personally greased the wheels for his recovery. Another accident, in India, might have turned into an international incident if Everett’s camera hadn’t proven that Palmer was blameless. They traveled through hostile territory in Pakistan without any problems and made it to a Chinese border station with only moments to spare before their entrance permit would expire. Palmer is a soft-spoken guy with a decent sense of humor, so “Solartaxi” comes off less as a lecture than an entertaining adventure, with guest cameos by James Cameron, Jay Leno, Bianca Jagger, Larry Hagman and UN officials.

Another way to teach kids the value of green thinking is simply to show them examples of the kinds of wildlife and vegetation that might not be around to show their grandchildren. No series has made the connection between survival and extinction clearer than the films included in the BBC’s magnificent “Natural History Collection.” And, they’ve done so without having to beat viewers over the head with obvious conclusions. The Blu-ray set is comprised of the full, six-disc “Special Edition” of “Planet Earth,” single discs of “Galapagos” and “Ganges,” as well as the two-disc “Wild China.” Each disc also contains making-of featurettes and bonus films. Fans of the series may already have purchased previously released editions, so some caution is advised. It’s the addition of the complete BBC-version of “Planet Earth” – important distinction, there — that sets the box set apart. The “Special Edition” includes 107 minutes of video “Diaries”; the bonus documentaries “Snow Leopards: Beyond the Myth,” “Secrets of Maya Underworld,” “Elephant Nomads of the Namib Desert” and “Natural World: Desert Lions”; the three-hour, “The Future,” with “Saving Species,” “Into the Wilderness” and “Living Together “; “Great Moments,” narrated by Sir David Attenborough; audio commentaries on “Pole to Pole,” “Mountains,” “Caves,” “Great Plains” and “Shallow Seas”; and a sneak peak of the upcoming “Frozen Planet” series. If nothing else, it’s worth the cost of the set to show American kids that not all homes come ready-made with air conditioners, microwave ovens and flat-screen TVs. In some parts of India, the homes’ only luxury is hot- and cold-running cobras and rampaging elephants are a greater threat than electrical fires. – Gary Dretzka

Corman’s World: Exploits of a Hollywood Rebel: Blu-ray
Camel Spiders: Blu-ray

Roger Corman has been producing and directing movies longer than most people in the world have been alive. As far as I know, none has come close to being nominated for an Academy Award. One way or another, though, the vast majority of them have made money. In 2009, at 83, Corman was honored by the academy for “his rich engendering of films and filmmakers,” decidedly not for making such drive-in epics as “Creatures From the Haunted Sea,” “Bloody Mama,” “X: The Man With the X-Ray Eyes,” “Last Woman on Earth,” “The Wasp Woman,” “The Fast and the Furious,” “Little Shop of Horrors,” “The Crybaby Killer,” “House of Usher” and “The Wild Angels,” which, in1966, bumped his list of credits to 100 (and, incidentally, was nominated for a Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival. Forty-six years later, he’s still churning out movies. One of his worst, “Camel Spiders,” is his latest release. He has four more movies, at least, at the filming stage or in post-production. More to the point, as we’re reminded throughout Alex Stapleton’s highly entertaining bio-doc, “Corman’s World: Exploits of a Hollywood Rebel,” he’s done all of the movies his way … on the cheap and with a smile on his face. The documentary overflows with anecdotal evidence of the maestro’s legendary penny pinching and the stories are funnier than most of the so-called comedies being made within the studio system these days. Among the many stars and filmmakers testifying in Corman’s defense are Paul W.S. Anderson, Peter Bogdanovich, Robert DeNiro, Peter Fonda, David Carradine, Pam Grier, Ron Howard, Eli Roth, Martin Scorsese and William Shatner. Graduates of the “Corman School of Filmmaking” learned how to bring in pictures for substantially less than a million dollars, shoot without permits, gratuitously flash their breasts, jerry-rig sets and props, and sneak social messages into exploitation flicks. More importantly, perhaps, Corman has somehow managed to remain a gentleman for more than 55 years in a business that rarely rewards kindness and generosity.

Lately, the Corman factory has focused on making quick-and-dirty entertainments for cable television and international distribution. “Camel Spiders” isn’t a good movie by any stretch of the imagination, but it demonstrates the limitations imposed on him in a post-grindhouse environment. Most obviously, while basic-cable networks are able to show bikini-wearing beach bunnies being torn in half by hybrid sea monsters, bare breasts (a Corman drive-in staple) are prohibited. If anything, cable budgets are more restrictive than the ones handed such fledgling directors as Howard, Bogdanovich, Scorsese and Jonathan Demme. Bargain-basement dino-sharks, piranhacondas, supergators and camel spiders – carried to America in the coffin of a dead soldier – look as if they were created by kids in a high school AV club. The budgets only allow for the casting of mid-list actors, such as C. Thomas Howell and Brian Krause, and newcomers who’d pay him to land a part in a Corman-produced movie. My suggestion for longtime fans and those unfamiliar with the drive-in genre is to start with the classic titles in new “Cult Classics” releases, instead of the new stuff. “Camel Spiders” doesn’t add any featurettes, but “Corman’s World” includes extended interviews and tributes. – Gary Dretzka

Doc Proves Rumors Of Pentagram Singer’s Death Greatly Exaggerated

Friday, March 23rd, 2012

If Cleveland’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame ever decides to dedicate a wing specifically to those musicians who’ve lived the life and survived to tell their tales, several obvious candidates would emerge immediately: Keith Richards, Brian Wilson and Steven Tyler would be inducted on the first ballot; second-ballot entries might include Iggy, Sly, Ozzy, Bret, Gregg, Roky, Hank Jr. Stevie, Shane and the members of Lynyrd Skynyrd who didn’t die in the 1977 plane crash that claimed their mates. Any participant in a 12-step program with more than two near-death experiences to their credit could also apply for consideration.

A strong argument can be made that Bobby Liebling, a founding member of the early heavy-metal band Pentagram, has as good a story to tell than as any of aforementioned survivors. As evidence, his sponsors would only need to screen the chilling rockumentary, “Last Days Here.” If anything, Liebling would qualify for automatic induction simply for showing up on stage just as his band was preparing to play their final song at the 2001 Doom Fest. He had overdosed on heroin an hour earlier, but somehow rallied to meet his commitment to his fans … sort of, anyway.

Four years later, he would play a gig at a Washington club and, again, OD before the start of the band’s set. After being revived by paramedics, “friends” escorted him to the stage, where he promptly collapsed. He is said to have died twice on the way to a hospital, but pulled through each time. If that ain’t rock ’n’ roll, I don’t know what is.

According to co-directors Don Argott and Demian Fenton, whose previous documentaries include “Rock School” and “The Art of the Steal,” Liebling’s career has been a 40-year-long dance with overnight stardom and imminent doom. That the Arlington, Va., native burned through bands, sidemen and managers the way most guitarists go through picks testifies to Liebling’s inability to keep things together for more than a few weeks at a time. And, yet, in certain circles, the singer/songwriter is recognized as one of the most influential forces in the history of metal.

“In 1974, Pentagram was one session away from success,” says Argott, ahead of the film’s release in Los Angeles. “Paul Stanley and Gene Simmons, of Kiss, showed up at Bobby’s door one day to listen to the band, but two of the members had trouble getting time off from work. The managers of Blue Oyster Cult paid for a demo to be cut at Columbia, in New York, but, instead of accepting the producer’s advice that a vocal track Bobby didn’t like could be fixed in post-production, he threw a tantrum.

“He had an idea of how the track should sound and producers of young bands don’t want to work with musicians who think they know what’s best. Rock music was founded by rebels and Bobby never could get past the stage of rebellion in his life and music.”

The timing for such a confrontation couldn’t be worse. The backers sensed that a vacuum existed in the marketplace and Pentagram could have filled the gap between Black Sabbath and the Sex Pistols. It didn’t take long before the band imploded for the first time.

The idea for Pentagram was conceived in 1971 by Liebling and drummer Geof O’Keefe, longtime friends who weren’t satisfied with the progress of their own bands, Shades of Dark and Space Meat. Heavy-metal music had yet to coalesce as a genre, although such bands as Black Sabbath, Led Zeppelin, Cream, Jimi Hendrix, Deep Purple, Iron Butterfly, the Stooges, Grand Funk Railroad, Blue Oyster Cult and Blue Cheer had laid the foundation for it, punk and glam-rock. No one has pinned down exactly when the term entered the vernacular, but a reference to “heavy metal thunder” in Steppenwolf’s “Born to Be Wild” probably had more to do with its spread as any line in a William Borroughs novel or the overuse of the adjective, “heavy,” by stoners.

In any case, it stuck. Such variations on the heavy-metal theme as “death,” “doom,” “black,” “thrash,” “industrial,” “power” and gothic” would emerge later, as new bands attempted to strike gold by playing louder, faster and with more intensity than the last collection of chart-toppers. Still, like Liebling and the filmmakers, the average “metalhead” was a white, suburban male, whose rebellion wasn’t inspired by parental abuse, poverty or sensory deprivation. Being a card-carrying Satanist wasn’t a requirement of fandom, even if Lucifer deserved a writing credit on some songs.

“The changes are analogous to what happened to the Haight-Ashbury,” observes Fenton. “Two years after the Summer of Love, the neighborhood was overrun by speed freaks and junkies. By the mid-1970s, the darkness of the times had begun to be reflected in fans’ choices in music and drugs.

“Bobby’s parents have always been there for him, but, growing up, he felt more at home on the other side of the tracks with the winos and junkies. He still does.”

Liebling, who admitted to the directors that he’d never recorded an album when he wasn’t stoned, became his own worst enemy and, of course, that of Pentagram. One step forward always was followed by two steps back, causing frequent defections and the creation of new units. Liebling and O’Keefe had written dozens of songs, but the singer’s reputation for squandering their potential put the kibosh on label signings and tours.

“Of course, if Bobby had found success and made lots of money, it probably would have killed him years ago,” Argott suggests.

The filmmakers began the long process of making “Last Days Here” shortly after Liebling nearly died at the Washington show. They’d heard all of the horror stories and watched ancient VHS recordings of past performances, when he was at the top of his game.

Even so, Argott and Fenton were acutely aware of the surplus of documentaries about rock musicians with serious problems, including “Derailroaded,” about Wild Man Fischer; “You’re Going to Miss Me,” about Roky Erickson; and “The Devil and Daniel Johnston.” They needed to separate the truth from fiction before going any further and that required a trip to the generic suburban home he shared with his parents in Germantown, Md.

To say that Liebling looked like death warmed over doesn’t give the Grim Reaper sufficient credit for sensing when a body is ripe for the plucking. With his sunken cheeks, long and straggly gray hair and tombstone eyes, he resembled someone who was already halfway to the hereafter before he realized that he’d left his crack pipe at home in the infamous “sub-basement” of his parents’ home. To rid his body of imaginary parasites, Liebling scratched holes in his skin and covered them with soiled gauze.

Even if screening audiences weren’t familiar with Pentagram, his appearance in the first minutes of “Last Days Here” shocked them. By comparison, Keith Richards looks like Jack Lalanne in his prime.

“Our first thought was that we didn’t want to make a movie about guy who could die at any given moment,” Fenton recalled. “Bobby could be apologetic and sincere one moment and not care at all the next. He cried when he saw himself in the movie.”

Now 58, the singer smoked crack throughout the first interview and nearly pitched a fit when he lost a good-sized rock. Things didn’t look very promising to the filmmakers. Two things worked in favor of green-lighting the movie, though.

“You could see a change in Bobby whenever he started sorting through his albums and drawers full of cassettes and CDs,” Argott points out. “It told us that he was sincere about his dedication to music, if not his health, and wanting to make more of it. He was in a haze, but there was a glimmer in his eyes.”

The other positive force in his life was Sean “Pellet” Pelletier, a fan-turned-manager who refused to let his hero completely destroy himself and constantly reminded him that there were people outside the sub-basement who wanted to see him perform. They remembered how he looked in his 20s, when he dominated any stage on which he appeared, and still collected his albums. His songs have been covered, as well, by such musicians as Hank Williams III, Witchcraft and Dead Weather.

During the course of the next four years, Argott and Fenton watched as Liebling rode a roller-coaster of emotional and physical highs and lows. He found a girl to love him, lost her and won her back after cleaning up from crack and methadone. He spent a bit of time in jail, after which he emerged looking as fit as a pawn-shop fiddle. (“It probably was the best thing that could have happened to him,” Pelletier says.)

Fenton says they got together a couple of weeks ago for a screening and the first-time father of a son is married, looking good, touring and even was seen driving a car through Manhattan. Life in the basement bunker of his parents’ home – his dad estimates that a million dollars has gone into Bobby’s career and recovery – is becoming a distant memory now that his family has moved to Pennsylvania.

“You’ve got to hand it to Pellet,” he adds. “He stuck with Bobby, even when there was almost no hope for him making money as his manager. Their relationship was something of a bromance romance.”

“Last Days Here” may have been in constant danger of crumbling like an ant hill in a hurricane, but, Argott says, “Ironically, it the happiest ending of all of our films.” — Gary Dretzka

The DVD Wrapup: Carnage, Louder Than a Bomb, Dragon Tattoo, Gainsbourg… More

Wednesday, March 21st, 2012

Carnage: Blu-ray
Say what you will about Roman Polanski, the man can still direct movies. The fact that no one on either side of the Atlantic Ocean has devised a way for him to return to the United States without either party losing face – including the victim, who has long forgiven his perverted fetishes – is evidence of a dysfunctional and vindictive judiciary. (Don’t take my word on it, watch the documentary “Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired.”) In his adaptation of Yasmina Reza’s Tony-winning “God of Carnage,” Polanski demonstrates how peaceful relations between otherwise normal couples can devolve over a short period of time into something approximating the ferocity of armed combat. In this way, at least, “Carnage” resembles “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” and other staged arguments against mixing booze with marriage. Here, the combatants include two well-off New York couples – John C. Reilly and Jodie Foster, Christoph Waltz and Kate Winslet — who agree to work out a no-fault agreement after their sons are involved in a playground skirmish, which leaves one boy with two seriously damaged teeth. Together, they iron out a precisely worded statement acknowledging the incident and factors that led up to it, while carefully weighing every adverb and adjective. Insurance will cover the injury, but it’s important to the moms, especially, that some kind of resolution be reached, in as civil and non-pejorative a manner as possible. No sooner do the parties agree on the wording, however, than they begin exchanging demands for codicils, amendments and formal apologies.  Needless to say, the new wrinkles ignite flames that cause a nearly complete breakdown in decorum.

Just when it looks as if the parents of the antagonist will do the smart thing and leave for home, the other couple suggests they not end the meeting on a sour note. Coffee and dessert are served, one of the women gets violently ill, and the husbands decide this would be a good time to open a bottle of single-malt scotch and sample some Cuban cigars. If nothing else, the guys figure the fireworks will be easier to enjoy if they’re stewed. To this end, Reilly gets the ball rolling by admitting to kidnapping his daughter’s pet hamster and dropping it off at a local park to fend for itself. Horrified, Winslet uses the admission as a weapon in her defense of her child – a notorious brat who had reacted violently to being accused of snitching — and after a couple of drinks Foster agrees that her husband’s thoughtless act was indefensible. Instead of tag-team match between couples, the fight erupts into a verbal free-for-all. The hugely skilled actors do a fine job interpreting the material, of course, but Polanski deserves the bulk of the credit for keeping “Carnage” from becoming overly stage-bound and claustrophobic. The handsome set is spacious enough to contain the action, without forcing the characters to get in each other’s face. After weeks of rehearsal, the actors are as comfortable and familiar with the floor plan and furniture as they would feel in their own homes. Kept to a brisk 80-minute length, the film demands little more from viewers than their attention. When, finally, the camera pulls back from the apartment, they’ll be rewarded with a totally satisfying surprise ending involving the boys and the forlorn hamster. The Blu-ray edition adds a making-of featurette and an amusing Q&A interview with Reilly and Waltz. — Gary Dretzka

Louder Than a Bomb
It’s somehow appropriate that the documentary “Louder Than a Bomb” is being released on DVD in the same month as the NCAA basketball tournament kicks off and elite high school players are given an opportunity to impress college and pro scouts in tournaments of their own. The games are hotly contested and fans, players and coaches wear their emotions on their sleeves. Some of the young men and women will go on to become stars at the next level or, perhaps, skip college altogether. The mad skills of one or two of the most talented athletes might even inspire an equipment manufacturer to name a shoe after them. Chicago poetry slammer Nate Marshall, one of the students we meet in “Louder Than a Bomb,” aspires to becoming the “first spoken-word brother with a shoe deal.” After watching Greg Jacobs and Jon Siskel’s undeniably exhilarating film, you’ll be pulling for Nate to do just that. You might even shed a tear of joy for the other contestants, many of whom come from dirt-poor backgrounds and will have their coaches to thank for college scholarships and a real shot at finding a meaningful career, just like their schools’ star athletes.

It’s said that Chicago is the home of the poetry slam, an activity that, in less than a decade, spread from the Get Me High Lounge and Green Mill Tavern, to nightclubs and stages around the globe. The competition came of age in 1994, when it debuted on HBO’s “Def Poetry Jam.” Last year’s National Poetry Jam attracted more than 75 teams from the U.S. and Canada, and one from Australia. “Louder Than a Bomb” follows four teams as they prepare for the eighth annual poetry competition between schools in the Chicago school system. A spotlight is turned on individual contestants from each of the teams, as well. The kids’ personal stories, when merged with the rapping, rhyming and cheers from the audience, are powerful stuff. The poetry can’t help but be semi-autographical, as the sentiments speak directly to issues shared by their peers. Knowing that the returning champions represent a school outside Chicago’s elite magnet and college-prep program only adds to the drama of the 2008 contest. The previous year’s achievement was made doubly impressive because the inner-city youths took top prize in their first appearance.

“Louder Than a Bomb” is the latest title from the OWN/Documentary Club to find distribution on DVD. Last month’s entry, “Most Valuable Players,” told a similarly rousing story about teams competing in a high school musical-theater competition, in Pennsylvania’s Lehigh Valley. It is Oprah Winfrey’s intention to use her name and network to promote noteworthy documentaries, just as she’s previously done with books on her syndicated show. In addition to following the contestants, the filmmakers describe the interaction between students and teachers, some of whom can’t disguise the strain that comes with enforcing discipline and serving as a sounding board for kids with personal problems. At a time when many parents, politicians and educators have written off the Chicago schools as being unmanageable, it’s wonderful to observe students and teachers working together for a common educational goal and not accepting non-existent budgets and decrepit facilities as an excuse for underachievement. Watch “Louder Than a Bomb” and you’ll feel a whole lot better about the future of our country. – Gary Dretzka

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo
Typically, I anticipate English-language remakes of foreign movies with the same dread I reserve for rom-coms starring television stars who believe they’ve outgrown the confines of the small screen. They’re rarely, if ever, an improvement on the original and only serve to reward American audiences too lazy to read subtitles. In the capable hands of director David Fincher and writer Steven Zaillian, however, their interpretation of “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” easily qualifies as the exception that proves the rule. It may not improve on the 2009 Swedish original, but the changes to the first installment of the Stieg Larsson’s “Millennium Trilogy” demonstrate respect for both the nearly 700-page novel and Niels Arden Opley’s film.  Avid readers shouldn’t feel slighted by either adaptation. This time, Daniel Craig portrays the disgraced financial journalist, Mikael Blomkvist, who’s hired by the least demented member of the powerful Vanger clan to investigate a murder that occurred years earlier. The disappearance of the man’s niece, Harriet, has haunted the old man ever since he began receiving anonymously sent mementos on his birthday. As an investigative reporter, Mikael might be able to discover clues overlooked by police.

I think that most people would agree that Noomi Rapace owns the essential role of Lisbeth Salander and could have stepped right into the Hollywood version. Her replacement, Rooney Mara, may not improve on Rapace’s interpretation of the troubled punk investigator, but its close enough to earn a cigar … and justify her Academy Award nomination. The same can be said for fellow cast members Christopher Plummer, Stellan Skarsgard, Robin Wright, Joely Richardson, Yorick van Wageningen, Goran Visnjic, Steven Berkoff and Tony Way. Neither can Fincher’s work be faulted. Not listed among the cast members in either iteration is Old Man Winter, whose presence can’t be underestimated. Shooting took place during one of Sweden’s coldest winters on record. Fincher and his fave cinematographer, Jeff Cronenweth, capture every frost-bitten minus-degree reading, especially in scenes shot on the Vangers’ private island. Also intriguing are Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’ soundtrack, the incidental music chosen by Fincher, Angus Wall and Kirk Baxter’s editing, the locations and amazing credits sequences.

All are discussed extensively in the commentary track and mini-docs included on a separate second disc of the Blu-ray. (The DVD screener I received added only commentary.) A half-dozen of the featurettes are devoted to the casting of Mara and the evolution of her portrayal of Salander, one of the most complex characters in contemporary cinema. The Craig/Blomkvist transformation is put under the microscope. The only real question that remains after perusing the bonus material is the status of the other two English-language sequels. “TGWTDT” wasn’t cheap to make and it didn’t crack the $100 million milepost at the domestic box office. While the second installment of the trilogy works well in print, however, any Hollywood-produced adaptation of “The Girl Who Played With Fire” would require a lot more tweaking than the first movie. Salander’s ordeal is far from over, but much of her torment is internalized in first sequel. Rapace’s terrific performance can’t disguise the fact that “TGWPWF” is the bridge that connects “TGWTDT” to the more satisfying “The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest.” Replacement director Daniel Alfredson’s adaptations of the sequels are readily available on DVD and Blu-ray here for anyone who wants to get a headstart on the Hollywood sequels that may never come. The trilogy was re-edited and extended for Swedish television. The six-episode mini-series is available from Music Box as “Dragon Tattoo Trilogy: Extended Edition.” – Gary Dretzka

The Sitter: Totally Irresponsible Edition: Blu-ray
Everything happens very quickly in “The Sitter,” the 2011 comedy for which Jonah Hill didn’t earn an Academy Award nomination. That movie was “Moneyball” and, in it, he plays an untested and somewhat intimated baseball geek, who, under Billy Beane’s tutelage, matures into a formidable sports executive before our eyes. “The Sitter” finds Hill in the familiar position of a young-adult slacker, except that, here, his one great talent is performing cunnilingus. It’s a small gift from the Almighty, but the only thing that keeps his Noah Griffith from being completely ignored by women. As a favor to his divorced mother, Noah agrees to babysit the children of the couple hoping to set her up with an eligible bachelor. The kids are a distinctly mixed lot: 13-year-old Slater (Max Records) is an anxiety-ridden closet case; 8-year-old Blithe (Landry Bender) is a Paris Hilton wannabe; and 10-year-old Rodrigo (Kevin Hernandez) is a Nicaraguan adoptee, well on his way to a career in urban terrorism. Needless to say, Noah has his hands full. When his “girlfriend,” Marisa (Ari Graynor), calls him from a party, requesting “party favors,” Noah grabs the kids, packs them into the family mini-van and lights out for her drug dealer (Sam Rockwell, in a wildly bizarre performance). At first, the kids aren’t at all pleased with Noah’s decision. After a strange brush with cops, a burglary at the diamond store owned by his estranged father, a stop at a hip-hop nightclub and a few dances at the party, however, they decide their sitter isn’t a dick, after all. A late-night confrontation between Noah and the drug dealer at the merry-go-round in Central Park threatens to get ugly for everyone involved, but some quick thinking on Blithe’s part gives them a chance to make it home before their parents’ notice they’re missing. (To get into the nightclub, Hill convinces the doorman that the kids are midgets, with wee Blithe adding, “I’m a grandmother.”)

Director David Gordon Green (“George Washington”) and freshman writers Brian Gatewood and Alessandro Tanaka weren’t at all reluctant to pepper their story with extremely crude language and put impressionable children not only in harm’s way, but also in the company of drug dealers and alcohol abusers. In some ways, “The Sitter” resembles a kiddie version of Martin Scorsese’s “After Hours.” Is it funny? Very often, it is. Parents of young children should know going into it, though, that its R-rating is fairly earned and “The Sitter” shouldn’t be used as babysitter, no matter how cute and harmless Hill looked on “Saturday Night Live” and in “Moneyball” and commercials for “21 Jump Street.” The Blu-ray package gives viewers the choice of watching a rated and unrated version; deleted and alternate scenes; a gag reel and outtakes; and three making-of featurettes. – Gary Dretzka

Gainsbourg: A Heroic Life
To the extent that Serge Gainsbourg is known on this side of the Atlantic at all, it’s for his scandalous duet with Jane Birkin, “Je t’aime … moi non plus,” and his second noteworthy collaboration with Birkin, the gifted Anglo-French movie star, Charlotte Gainsbourg. (Birkin is best recalled here, perhaps, as one of the first women to flash her pubes in a mainstream movie, “Blow-Up.”) Dead, lo these many years, Gainsbourg still is considered to be a national treasure. Joann Sfar’s delightfully offbeat “Gainsbourg: A Heroic Life” is one of the most intriguing biopics I’ve seen in a long time. Adapted from his own graphic novel, “A Heroic Life” employs music, puppetry, hallucinations and other special effects in an effort to understand what made the multifaceted artist tick. As a young, Jewish art and music student in occupied France, Gainsbourg was exposed to images of great beauty while also being surrounded by the specter of being arrested by French police and turned over to Nazis. Much to the consternation of his parents, he would give up art and his classical training to become a chanson who sang jazz, pop and rock-inflected songs of his own creation. In his new career, he embodied the popular image of the French saloon singer as a melancholy loner with an omnipresent cigarette dangling from his mouth.

He wasn’t an attractive man, by most standards, but his artistry attracted some of the country’s great beauties, including Brigitte Bardot, to his boudoir. In Sfar’s imagination, the adult Gainsbourg (Eric Elmosnino) is accompanied at all times by effigies – whose faces bear an exaggerated resemblance to the Nazi Party’s “Eternal Jew” – who serve as mirrors, agitators and confidantes. The Gainsbourg we meet in “A Heroic Life” is as self-destructive as he is prolific. Besides the Gitanes, he’s an alcoholic and a masochist. Before emerging as a superstar, he risks alienating an entire nation by writing a song, in which lollipop licking and fellatio are performed with equal gusto, for a teen pop sensation. Later, he and Charlotte record a song with incestuous overtones and he makes a rock album about Nazis. A reggae version of “La Marseillaise” brought death threats from right-wing veterans of the war in Algeria. In the end, his death was as inevitable as that of Amy Winehouse. “A Heroic Life” is a remarkably compelling movie, but not one that welcomes curious viewers with open arms and an air kiss. It’s never easy to watch someone you admire slowly but surely commit suicide. The great music and beautiful women playing Gainsbourg’s many lovers do make the medicine go down smoothly, though. The DVD adds a making-of piece; galleries of Sfar’s lyrical storyboards and character sketches; and views of the artist at work. – Gary Dretzka

The Muppets: Wooka Wocka Value Pack: Blu-ray
Wallace & Gromit’s World of Invention: The Complete 6-Part Series
Jim Henson’s world of make-believe has undergone great upheavals over the last 50-plus years, not the least of which being the maestro’s untimely death in 1990. What began as a late-night sensation in Washington, D.C., would go nationwide over the next decade in appearances with his puppet menagerie on several popular talk and variety shows, including several incarnations of “Tonight” and Ed Sullivan’s show. At the time, they were a hipster’s delight, right up there with Mad magazine and post-Beat poetry. When the puppet troupe was invited to join “Sesame Street,” it inspired a new generation to learn their A-B-C’s, while also following a decidedly progressive social agenda. The Boomer crowd would find the original puppets once again on season one of “Saturday Night Life,” if only for 13 episodes. It wouldn’t take long, however, for Miss Piggy, Kermit the Frog, Rowlf the Dog et al. to find new life in prime-time specials, the syndicated “Muppets Show” and in “The Muppet Movie” (1979). After this came the deluge, of course. In addition to various splinter projects, including “Fraggle Rock” and “Muppet Babies,” there were several other movies, a couple minus the Muppet gang. A merchandising empire also was inspired by the characters’ popularity. His premature death, at 53, of an ignored bout with bacterial pneumonia, threw a huge monkey wrench into the Muppet juggernaut. Among other things, it delayed a planned sale to Disney for a dozen years.  Family members would continue turning out various Muppet and Creature Shop entertainments, but much of the thrill was gone.

The Muppets” cleverly acknowledges both the commercial hysteria that accompanied the Muppets rise and their subsequent battle to remain fresh and relevant. It is the first Muppet film to open in theaters in 12 years and, for some young viewers, probably their first introduction to most of the auxiliary characters. Going into the project, it was difficult to gauge just how much gas was left in the tank was anyone. Blessedly, Disney made a stop at a filling station before committing to spending $45 million. (Sounds modest by today’s standards, doesn’t it?) The movie could hardly be more entertaining. Veteran television director James Bobin (“Da Ali G Show”) was put at the helm, with Jason Segel and Nicholas Stoller putting the words into everyone’s mouths. Segel also stars as the peppy fanboy, Gary, who travels to Hollywood with his puppet brother, Walter, and longtime girlfriend, Mary (Amy Adams), who simply couldn’t be any cuter. When they arrive in L.A., the trio realizes all that remains of the empire is a tour of the Muppets’ rundown studio. Walter, who’s slipped away from the group, overhears a discussion in which a greedy oilman, Tex Richman (Chris Cooper), discusses his evil plans for the Muppet Theater, under which sits a fortune in oil. In the deal, he also acquires rights to all Muppets properties and character likenesses. (Not unlike the deal with Disney, minus the evil intentions.) After locating a lonely Kermit in his Beverly Hills mansion, the trio volunteers to help raise the $10 million necessary to buy back the theater before Tex can take control. It takes a while to round up the old gang and decide that a telethon is the only way to accomplish the nearly impossible task. A network run by Rashida Jones has a timeslot open and is willing to release it if they can find a celebrity host. The rest, as they say, is Muppet history. The whole thing, from star cameos to “Rainbow Connection,” is right out of the Henson playbook. There’s also the irreverent wisecracks from the balcony, Miss Piggy’s sassy double entendre, a cliffhanger ending and songs that diabetics would be wise to turn out, including the Oscar-winning “Man or Muppet.” The Blu-ray adds some sketchy commentary by the filmmakers; the amusing making-of featurettes, “Scratching the Surface” and “Explaining Evil: The Full Tex Richman Song”; deleted scenes and a blooper reel; an in-character read-through of the script; promotional spoof trailers; and a downloadable soundtrack album.

I don’t think “Wallace & Gromit’s World of Invention” found a home on American television, so “W&G” completists should take due note of its release on DVD and Blu-ray. In it, the inveterate tinkerer and cheese lover, Wallace, and his canine better half, Gromit, primarily serve as hosts on a show devoted to the inventions and brainstorms of people as wacky as they are. The stop-motion characters, molded from plasticine modeling clay on metal frameworks, are limited to introductions and interstitials. As such, the producers of “World of Invention” could have borrowed the title of an exhibit at London’s Science Museum, “Wallace & Gromit Present a World of Cracking Ideas.”  The inventions are heavy on robotics, but there is also room for the occasional giant flying mantra ray and pedal-powered submersible. All six episodes are presented here, along with “Your ‘World of Invention’ Shorts,” which includes such do-it-yourself construction experiments as “Atmosphere Railway,” “Wind-Powered Sprinkler,”  “Fin Ray Grabber,” “Air Rocket,” “Spy Camera” and “Upside-Down-O-Scope.” – Gary Dretzka

Battle Royale: The Complete Collection: Blu-ray
I don’t want to accuse Suzanne Collins of stealing ideas from other peoples’ books and movies, but it’s interesting that both “Battle Royale” and “Hunger Games” envision a blood sport in which teens are required to kill other teens to ensure their own survival. “Battle Royale” and “Battle Royale II,” also adapted from a novel, demand that they employ youthful resourcefulness to a task that’s not otherwise associated with juvenile delinquency and disobedience to their elders. It caused a huge sensation in Japan and wasn’t shown here until late last year (after its DVD release). The reality that American kids already are killing each other with some regularity may have had something to do with the reluctance of an American distributor to pick it up, only to be accused of inspiring the next Columbine. The conceit governing “BR” is that the arrival of a new millennium coincided with a widespread epidemic of lawlessness among Japanese youth. Desperate, the government decides to organize a survival game in which a class of 9th Graders is captured, shipped to a remote island and given three days to eliminate all but one student. Each student is handed a weapon, provisions and a GPS-equipped dog collar, which also contains a listening device and explosives. If any of the kids refuse to participate or more than one contestant survives the games, they’ll be killed, anyway. In the sequel, the collars are linked to one belonging to a fellow classmate, ensuring they’ll act as a team or perish as individuals. In the sequel, too, the government decides to pit the students against a gang of terrorists, led by a survivor of the previous contest, plaguing the world from an island outpost. Among the things pissing them off is the popularity of the Battle Royale competition, itself. Again, teenagers who may have begun their day as pacifists, vegans, PETA volunteers or wimps are, within hours, required to storm a beachhead, not unlike the GIs in “Saving Private Ryan” and scale cliffs leading to the stronghold.  Yes, it’s genius.

The movies are every bit as violent, gory and frightening as one might expect from Japan’s genre specialists. Credit for that here belongs to veteran action director Kinji Fukasaku – who defied his doctors by beginning the sequel while in the late stages of prostate cancer – and his son, Kenta, working from a novel by Koushun Takami. The teacher in the original is portrayed by the great action star, Beat Takeshi. His character is knifed by a student, but heals in time to join the class on the island as an instructor and exact his punishment on misbehavers. He’s replaced in “II” by Takeuchi Riki, but reappears in flashbacks. (Even Sonny Chiba makes a cameo.) I’m not quite sure what the movies want us to think about the role of the United States in the narratives, but one of the terrorists’ crimes bears a resemblance to 9/11and subsequent imposition of the Patriot Act. In a making-of featurette, Fukasaku describes a scene of carnage he recalls from the final days of World War II and, later, peaceful protests that were thwarted by armed police. The special commemorative boxed set includes two versions of the 2000 “Battle Royale,” a copy of the 2003 sequel and a fourth disc of extras that will vary greatly in value to U.S. viewers. – Gary Dretzka

A Lonely Place to Die: Blu-ray
Here’s a terrific English-language thriller that saw almost no distribution in the United States, despite the presence of a star of hit prime-time series (“Grey’s Anatomy,” “In Treatment”), some spectacular scenery and much edge-of-your-seat action. Just because you haven’t heard of “A Lonely Place to Die,” however, doesn’t mean it’s not worth your attention. Melissa George plays the leader of a team of climbers testing the vertical cliffs of the Scottish Highlands. After a scare, they reach a forested plateau where they discover a little girl who’s been kidnapped and buried in a box with a visible air vent. No sooner has the frightened girl been rescued than the climbers are targeted by snipers armed with high-power, long-distance rifles. The craggy landscape allows for hiding places, but one fewer than would have been needed to protect one of the original five climbers. George’s character, Alison, narrowly avoids a similar fate after she and a less fortunate chap leave the girl with the other couple and attempt to find help. It isn’t clear immediately what the snipers want with the little girl, who apparently speaks only Serbo-Croatian. The cat-and-mouse game continues for another hour, before moving to the nearest northern city, where the very freaky Beltane Fire Festival is being celebrated. Now, however, we learn that the bad guys are being pursued by a trio of mercenaries in league with a wanted fugitive from the Balkan war. In addition to the girl’s well-being, at stake is a $20 million ransom. The chase through the streets of the ancient town is nearly as exciting as the one in the mountains, although far less scenic. “A Lonely Place to Die” was directed by Julian Gilbey and co-written by his brother, Will (“Rollin’ With the Nines,” “Rise of the Foot Soldier”), both of whom mastered the sport before shooting the film. They seem to do everything right here, including making the threat of falling rocks feel very real to the characters and viewers. – Gary Dretzka

Sidewalls
Gustavo Taretto’s gentle romantic comedy, “Sidewalls,” reminds me of the line, widely credited to Martin Mull, “Writing about music is like dancing about architecture.” Set in Buenos Aires, where building codes apparently are accorded the same respect as visiting soccer teams, the movie opens with an essay on the city’s anarchic skyline and the alienation that comes from such an undisciplined and impersonal approach to life. After making its case in this regard, “Sidewalls” drops a pair of innocents into the deep end of the pool and demands they swim or sink, emotionally. A wafer-thin Pilar Lopez de Ayala plays Mariana, a former architect who’s taken up window dressing and brings mannequins home to decorate and keep her company. Javier Drolas, who doesn’t look any more robust than Ayala, portrays the Web designer Martin. His whole life is wrapped up in Internet exchanges with anonymous people and games. That they meet at all is a small miracle, considering the city’s size and street life that resembles a page from “Where’s Waldo?” But, as we learn, finding the elusive cartoon character is an activity Mariana enjoys doing, so it fits. After an encounter with Martin at an indoor swimming pool, the couple spends a night together. It doesn’t seem to amount to much, really, but the prospect of romance lingers in the air like static electricity. The fun comes in observing the whimsical machinations Taretto fashions so Martin and Mariana can reconnect. “Sidewalls” provides a fun and unabashedly romantic experience for viewers, whether or not they understand Spanish or have ever danced about architecture. – Gary Dretzka

Letter Never Sent: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
The War Room: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
Making great art in the Soviet Union, even after the death of Josef Stalin, was rarely an option for the communist creative class. Still, given the context, some amazing work did survive, and not all of it was merely a variation on the common hammer-and-sickle, triumph-over-adversity, workers-paradise theme, although there was plenty of that, too. Only years after the collapse of the Iron Curtain did movie buffs in the west find access to the more obscure masterpieces of eastern-bloc artists. “Letter Never Sent” remains a terrific example of a film that extolls Soviet ideals, while also providing great entertainment value. Mikhail Kalatozov is best known here for “The Cranes Are Flying” and “I Am Cuba,” both which benefit mightily from the sometimes astonishing cinematography of Sergei Urusevsky. “Letter Never Sent” is a survival drama set in the Siberian wilderness, where a team of four geologists is searching for diamonds, not for personal gain, but for the good of the state. After being dropped off on a beautiful, if completely isolated river basin, the team quickly gets to work. It is summer and their duties require mostly digging and toting. The youngest geologists are enthusiastic and in love, while the two older men have been through this unrewarding drill several times already and are only along for the heavy lifting. In a stunning reversal of usual fortune, Tanya (Tatyana Samojlova) finds a diamond about six feet deep in a hole dug into a hillside. Their “eureka” moment brings great celebration, including the ceremonial opening of the last bottle of vodka. After drawing a map and detailing their discovery, the team is ready to be extracted. Overnight, however, a fire erupts across a large section of the forest. It traps them, leaving only small avenues of escape. In the scramble to get to the river, their radio is rendered useless; one of them is killed by a falling tree; and another is seriously wounded in a fall. Sergei and Tanya attempt to carry him to the river, but the man sacrifices himself for the good of the team and mission. Even so, the journey proves too strenuous for Tanya and nearly destroys the emaciated Sergei. After finally reaching the river, already revealing signs of colder times ahead, Sergei manages to fashion a crude raft and, unconscious, floats downstream among the early ice floes. In a final moment of clarity, he fantasizes a vision of a mine, where happy Soviet workers exploit the earth’s bounty, enriching Kremlin coffers and making him a people’s hero. When his frozen body is finally discovered, the map and diagrams are found intact on his body. “Letter Never Sent” is graced with some of the most imaginative and evocative cinematography one is likely to find in a black-and-white movie, anywhere. The Criterion Blu-ray is splendidly restored and includes an essay by film scholar Dina Iordanova.

Also from Criterion Collection is D.A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus’ fly-on-the-wall political documentary “The War Room,” in a restored high-definition edition. Relevant now that we’re in the midst of an especially hideous presidential campaign, the film reflects on the hotly contested 1992 race for the White House. Bill Clinton would win his party’s nod for the general election, but only after surviving “bimbo eruptions” and other traps laid by his Republican opponent. Clinton’s reputation ultimately would be damaged by his horndog hubris, but, in 1992, his team and voters both were willing to buy his excuses and lies. Politics got really ugly after Clinton assumed office in1993. Dirty tricks and pranks have since given way to character assassination and we probably haven’t seen the worst of it yet. “The War Room” does shine a light on how far the science of politics had come since the days of back-room negotiations and brokered conventions. A decade later, the Internet would make James Carville and George Stephanopoulos’ methodology seem just as primitive. What’s valuable in the Blu-ray edition are the excellent featurettes that point out the ramifications of what happened in 1992 and the update the key players. Among them are “Return of the War Room,” a 2008 documentary in which Carville, Stephanopoulos, Paul Begala and other advisers reflect on the what they had wrought; a conversation on the difficulties of filming in the campaign’s fast-paced environment; a fascinating  and often hilarious panel discussion, hosted by the William J. Clinton Foundation and featuring Carville, Clinton adviser Vernon Jordan, journalist Ron Brownstein and surprise guest Bill Clinton, who picked up the mike and added his own testimony; and an interview with strategist Stanley Greenberg on the increasing importance of polling. – Gary Dretzka

National Lampoon’s the Legend of Awesomest Maximus: Blu-ray
Clown Hunt
If Will Sasso’s interpretation of Curly in the upcoming “Three Stooges” is as lame as his portrayal of the title character in “The Legend of Awesomest Maximus,” he may want to consider hitting his agent over the head with one of Moe’s mallets. The National Lampoon product is yet another parody of sword-and-sandal epics, ranging from “300” to “Gladiator.” The setting here is the Trojan War, even if the name of Sasso’s character implies a Roman heritage. “Legend of Awesomest Maximus” exists mostly as an excuse to give other funny names to historical figures: King Looney and Ellen of Troy; King Erotic of Greece; the doomed warrior, Testiclees, whose Achilles’ heel is in his nut sack; Maximus’ greedy wife, Hotessa; and the self-descriptive, Minoritees, Pervius, Testiclees’ Little Cousin and Milfia. Oh, yeah, Jeff Kanew’s comedy also shows off voluminous pairs of breasts. I, for one, was ignorant of the fact that women in ancient Greece and Troy had such easy access to boob jobs. If any of that strikes a chord in you, go for it.

Others, looking a truly funny and inventive parody, ought to find a copy of “Clown Hunt.” Barry Tubbs’ outrageous comedy takes pot shots at goons-with-guns horror flicks and such Outdoor Channel staples as “Duck Trek,” “Women of Hunting” and “Ted Nugent: Spirit of the Wild.” Here, the hunters are taking advantage of the open seasons on clowns – one for happy clowns and another for sad ones – in a huge reserve in Texas. The targets come in all shapes, sizes and varieties, from Pierrot to Emmett Kelly. They exist in the wild, doing the same things as any species would do, left to their own devices. Somehow, though, when clowns get back to nature, the results are a million times creepier. In response to the annual assault on their habitat, killer clowns stalk the hunters and bomb them from the air with water balloons. The only recognizable actors in “Clown Hunt” are David Keith, singer Robert Earl Keen and rodeo legend Tuff Hedeman. Among other things, Tubbs proves that a tight budget doesn’t necessarily preclude funny material. – Gary Dretzka

Resurrection County
Splintered: Blu-ray
Snow White: A Deadly Summer
Fans of movies in which inbred homicidal hillbillies terrorize naïve suburban tourists will revel in the depravity that is “Resurrection County.” It begins in typical fashion when two couples arrive in a wooded retreat for a few days of fun. Before they get there, they stop at a convenience store where they meet some of the locals, who look like rejects from “Sons of Anarchy.”  The two male campers light out on the ATVs, leaving the gals behind. Instead of listening to the local sheriff’s advice by staying on the assigned paths, they get lost and ask directions of a gun-toting good ol’ boy. Things get nasty when the man’s brother interrupts the discussion, waving his gun around and threatening the Yankee scum. What no one expects is that one of the campers is armed and willing to protect himself and his friend from further harm and humiliation. He shoots and kills the moron brother in self-defense – no defense for innocence in these hills – thus triggering a chain of events that will include kidnaping, rape, torture, more rape and lots more torture. And, things just keep getting worse. Yeah, this is one you’ll want to hide from the kiddies.

Simeon Halligan’s “Splintered” combines several different horror tropes, including ones involving teen campers in jeopardy, virgins in jeopardy, non-virgins in jeopardy, inescapable nightmares of childhood trauma, the boogey man in the abandoned building, unheard screams, evil priests, vindictive orphans and werewolves. The result is a good-looking, if not particularly interesting or scary horror hybrid that even at 85 minutes seems long. Holly Weston (“John Carter”) plays Sophie, who we meet as a child being attacked by a goat-like creature that might have been an abusive relative. While walking through the woods in pursuit of a perceived menace – always a good idea – she and friend chance upon an abandoned building. On a dare, she enters the building and is quickly locked up by someone or something lurking in the shadows. Although it looks as if she’s hopelessly trapped, Sophie manages to open the lock and search the surroundings. While sneaking around, Sophie meets a young man who appears during the daytime hours to tend the beast’s needs. Naturally, the rest of the camping party falls prey to the creature in one unpleasant way or another. Then, a priest arrives to explain what’s happening in the building and what might be causing Sophie’s nightmares.

When viewed on the same day as “Snow White: A Deadly Summer,” “Splintered” looks like “Psycho.” Here, a teenage girl is sent to a tough-love disciplinary camp after being caught with her boyfriend in a stolen car. Snow (Shanley Caswell) isn’t a bad girl, but she’s been in a funk ever since her widowed father (Eric Roberts) married a woman who would turn out to be her own personal wicked stepmother (Maureen McCormick). The camp is full of kids just like Snow and none takes kindly to the over-the-top exhortations of the former Navy SEAL owner and his lackey. Naturally, Snow suspects that something or someone is lurking in the bushes and she wonders if it might be the one responsible for the death of a camper years ago. What she can’t possibly know is that her stepmother has been aware of the legend all along and is orchestrating events through her “mirror, mirror on the wall.” Just in the nick of time, Snow gets some help of her own from beyond the grave. – Gary Dretzka

!W.A.R.: !Women Art Revolution
Lynn Hershman Leeson’s insightful documentary looks back at the roots of the feminist-art movement and extends them to the current day, when post-feminist and post-post-feminist artists are reaping the rewards of their foremothers’ labors. After more than 40 years of protest and the usual infighting that leftists engage in when they have nothing better to do, the pioneers are starting to find the respect denied them by mainstream curators, their male peers and critics. Much of the archival footage looks pretty silly in hindsight, but it’s of a whole with other aspects of the 1960-70s counter-culture. In their protests against the objectification and forced subservience of women, several of the artists created work that only served to encourage condescension and ridicule. (A naked woman, even one who’s righteously indignant and threatens castration, will always be met with approving glances by men, no matter their ideological persuasion.) Even so, over time, progress undeniably was made. “!Women Art Revolution” benefits greatly from testimony provided by artists and other observers able to contextual the art and performance pieces. Statistics, though, often speak louder than angry words. The argument that women artists have been marginalized, when they weren’t downright ignored, is borne out by the historical lack of representation in museums, galleries, textbooks, exhibitions and commercial equity. And, for the most part, that inequality has been institutionalized by politically liberal educators, curators and buyers. This shouldn’t come as any surprise to anyone who’s studied art history or visited an art museum in the last hundred years, or so, but that the same practices were allowed to continue in this seemingly enlightened period simply was a cross women artists and activists found too heavy to bear. It took the accessibility and clarity of Judy Chicago’s “The Dinner Party” to open the door to museums for other women and for meathead congressmen to publicize the work through their mean-spirited diatribes and threats. Among the women spotlighted here are Miranda July, the Guerilla Girls, Yvonne Rainer, Judy Chicago, Marina Abramovic, Yoko Ono, Cindy Sherman, Barbara Kruger, B. Ruby Rich, Ingrid Sischy, Carolee Schneemann, Miriam Schapiro and New Museum founder Marcia Tucker. The film also features a score by Carrie Brownstein, Sleater Kinney and “Portlandia.” – Gary Dretzka