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

Thursday, December 6th, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Unforgivable
Tell No One: Blu-ray

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Falls
Inspired: Voices Against Prop 8

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

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

The Whale
Money and Medicine

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

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

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

The DVD Gift Guide

Thursday, November 29th, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, November 27th, 2012


Men in Black 3: Blu-ray

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, November 19th, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, November 14th, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, November 7th, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, October 30th, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, October 24th, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, October 17th, 2012

The Forgiveness of Blood: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
Say what you will about Enver Hoxha, the Communist dictator of Albania who died in 1985, but he was able to do something about the country’s tradition of blood feuds that previous leaders hadn’t been able to accomplish in many centuries. After taking control of the country after its liberation from Germany in 1944, Hoxha declared an end to quasi-legal vendettas, especially in rural areas. Although widely accepted as a way to maintain order in lawless regions, Kanun had always been something of an inexact science when it comes to adjudicating everything from trespassing to murder. Basically, though, Kanun law can be boiled down to, “Whoever kills will be killed. Blood is avenged with blood.” Since Hoxha’s death and the installation of parliamentary democracy, six years later, at least 10,000 Albanians have been killed due to blood feuds. It’s also estimated that more than 5,500 families are currently engaged in blood feuds, with some 20,000 men and boys living under a de facto death sentence. The only alternatives for persons deemed responsible for a blood crime are permanent house arrest, the sacrifice of another male family member or the announcement of an agreement among the men in both families.

In “The Forgiveness of Blood,” American director Joshua Marston (“Maria Full of Grace”) introduces us to two Albanian families engaged in just such a feud. He steers our sympathy to a popular teenager and promising student, Nik, who’s kept under house arrest until his father is either arrested or killed for murdering a neighbor. That man had denied him access to a road he’s used for business ever since his grandfather opened it to all residents of the village. If Nik is seen outside the house and killed by a member of the grieving family, his death would satisfy the debt. Where’s Judge Judy when you need her? By casting mostly inexperienced actors from the specific area in northern Albanian where vendettas are most commonplace, Marston has informed “Forgiveness” with the truth that comes when actors know precisely what’s going on in the minds of their characters. In a group interview conducted by Marston for the bonus package in Criterion Collection’s Blu-ray edition, all of the key actors said they knew or were aware of people stuck in the same situation as Nik.

Watching the feature, I was struck immediately by the similarity between the two families engaged in the fictional feud and two actual Albanian families featured in Jennifer Baichwal’s documentary “Payback.” That film is based on Canadian novelist Margaret Atwood’s thoughts on the concept of paying back debts for all manner of transgressions, financial and otherwise. Baichwal interviewed a man who’s been placed under house arrest with his family after a disagreement over a moved fence led to murder. He, too, could lawfully be killed if he leaves his property. The similarities between the situations and people in the two films are uncanny. If Nik is the most empathetic character in “Forgiveness,” we also care about his doting teenage sister and selfless mother; homebound younger brother, who bridles at the likelihood of his never being able to go to school again; and the father, who allowed a cousin to talk him into confronting the neighbor. There’s no reason, though, to reserve any pity for the adult male relatives of the families who insist on honoring the antiquated practice. They’re so hidebound that they refuse to listen to Nik’s thoughts and ideas on the subject, based solely on his age. Underlying everything that’s happening on the surface of “Forgiveness” is the reality that the outside world – with its Internet networks, cellphones and paved highways – is quickly encroaching on the village and its sordid tradition. The Blu-ray also contains commentary by Marston and co-writer Andamion Murataj; audition and rehearsal footage; making-of material; and an essay by Oscar Moralde. – Gary Dretzka

Neil Young’s Journeys: Blu-ray
Leonard Cohen: The Complete Review
Yardbirds: 1966-1968: The Lost Tapes

I can’t think of another musician who’s revealed so much of his talent and humanity on film as Neil Young. In addition to his own quirky ode to small-town life, “Greendale,” Young has collaborated with Jonathan Demme on three films, once with Jim Jarmusch and was the subject of an “American Masters” episode, “Neil Young: Don’t Be Denied.” There are many others, including performance films that demonstrate his devotion to charitable organizations and disaster relief. Young is revered for performing whatever kind of music he wants to on any given day; dressing for comfort, instead of stage presence; saying what’s on his mind, even if the record labels don’t approve of his views and some of it comes out backwards. “Neil Young’s Journeys” is Demme’s hybrid follow-up to “Neil Young Trunk Show” and “Neil Young: Heart of Gold.” In “Journeys,” Young and Demme spend time in his hometown of Omemee, Ontario, before heading for Toronto’s Massey Hall, in his 1956 Crown Victoria. His memories of growing up in a small town on the Trans-Canada Highway could hardly be called remarkable, but they are fun to hear. Several of the songs performed in concert are from the 2010 album “Le Noise,” along with such classics as “Ohio,” “Hey Hey, My My,” “I Believe in You,” “Helpless” and “Hitchhiker.” The most remarkable thing about “Journeys” to me is the brightness and clarity of the Blu-ray audio/video presentation. It literally shines.

Leonard Cohen is another Canadian singer-songwriter of mythic proportions. For the most part, the Montreal native has avoided the glare of the media spotlight, letting his music and poetry speak for him. This hasn’t prevented his admirers from writing endless odes to his art and prodding him to contribute to bio-docs and concert films. The latest is MVD Visuals’ “Leonard Cohen: The Complete Review,” which appears to be a merger of two previous “Under Review” discs, which divide his career roughly in half. Now 78, Cohen’s journey began well before he was recognized for his musical talent in 1967, with “Songs of Leonard Cohen.” By then, he had already been recognized as a significant poet in Canada, written two novels, been the subject of a documentary, purchased a home on Hydra and was a fringe player in Andy Warhol’s Factory scene. Far from being a hippie or Dylan acolyte, his achingly romantic music was embraced by post-folkies, college students and such emerging hit-makers as Judy Collins. “Leonard Cohen: The Complete Review” is broken roughly in half, at the point of his ill-fated collaboration with Phil Spector, “Death of a Lady’s Man.” His phoenix-like resurgence in the 1980s is fully covered on the second disc. The set is informed by the opinions of learned critics and producers and includes snippets of performance clips and other archival material. If you’ve dug Cohen from the get-go or discovered him yesterday, this is a DVD to savor.

Yardbirds: Paris 1966-1968: The Lost Tapes” finds one of the most influential rock groups of all time on the eve of its dissolution. Eric Clapton had left the group in 1965, leaving rave-up duties to Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page, then only Page. The future Led Zep is pretty much the star of this collection, although Beck can be seen on a few tracks, as well. The music clips appear to have been found deep in the archives of a French television network, as if someone were embarrassed by the shoddy production values on display. The music sounds OK, though. This collection includes several of the Yardbirds’ biggest hits, as well a couple of unexpected treats. Here’s the play list: “Train Kept a Rollin’,” “Shapes of Things,” “Dazed and Confused,” “For Your Love,” “Goodnight Sweet Josephine,” “Over Under Sideways Down,” “Louise,” “I’m a Man,” “Hang on Sloopy,” “I Wish You Would,” “Heart Full of Soul,” and “Happenings Ten Years Time Ago.” – Gary Dretzka

Legendary Amazons: Blu-ray
When I think of Amazons, legendary or otherwise, my mind drifts toward Lucy Lawless, Anita Ekberg, Lynda Carter, Sandahl Bergman, Brigitte Nielsen … heck, even 5-foot-1 Maria Ouspenskaya, who played a tribal queen in “Tarzan and the Amazons.” None of the women warriors to whom we’re introduced in Frankie Chan’s “Legendary Amazons” – or, for that matter, its 1972 precursor “The 14 Amazons” – are related to the women who fought at Troy or took on Hercules. Ferocious fighters all, the Chinese Amazons are closer in stature to Ouspenskaya than Xena. Still, in the world of Hong Kong cinema, a little poetic license goes a long way. “Legendary Amazons” is the latest in a series of folk tales, books, movies, plays, operas, TV shows and musicals extolling the virtues of the Yang Clan, who, for several generations, defended the borders of the Song Dynasty against invaders. “Legendary Amazons” describes how the widows, sisters and daughters of several slain Yangs rose up to repel the attackers and exact vengeance on those who betrayed the family and killed all but one young general. Not only are the women courageous, but they’re also well versed in the martial arts.

Chan’s first film in a decade resembles other historical epics in its scale, action sequences and wonderfully crafted design elements. Once the women get going, there are few moments when something wild isn’t happening on screen. If anything, “Legendary Amazons” is a bit more ragged around the edges than other recent imports from China and Hong Kong. The fighting scenes are terrific, of course, but they carry little historical weight. They’re fun to watch and that’s reason enough to watch the movie, which reminded me of the Saturday matinees of my youth. The Blu-ray arrives with a rambling making-of featurette, which offers some informative material on the creation of the fighting scenes, along with some typically vacuous interviews. The set also adds a dubbed track in English. – Gary Dretzka

Excision: Blu-ray
Chernobyl Diaries: Blu-ray

Richard Bart Jr.’s profoundly unnerving debut as a writer/director drags viewers to places they probably never thought they’d see in a movie starring such interesting actors as AnnaLynne McCord, Traci Lords, John Waters, Malcolm McDowell, Ray Wise and Marlee Matlin. In “Excision,” McCord (“90210”) is almost unrecognizable as Pauline, a deeply disturbed high school student who is physically repulsive, delusional and pitiable. Her skin appears to be made of green canvas and it’s dappled with pimples and fever blisters. Her stringy brown hair looks as if Pauline is shampoo-phobic, while her posture can best be described as “defensive.” If that weren’t sufficiently disagreeable, Pauline’s willingness to speak her mind around the “popular” kids in school ensures that the only way she’d ever be elected prom queen is if that year’s theme was “Come back, Carrie, all is forgiven.” An exceedingly gruesome murder in the final scene isn’t the only thing “Excision” shares with Brian De Palma and Stephen King’s “Carrie.” Pauline’s mother, played admirably by Lords, is a bible-banging blond who’s lost all patience with her daughter’s appearance, wiseass remarks and unwillingness to get with the program. Nor does it help that Pauline’s sister, Grace (Ariel Winter), has cystic fibrosis and necessarily gets most of Mom’s concern and pity. Their parents are pleased that Pauline wants to be a surgeon someday, but remain doubtful due to her refusal to study or pay attention in class.

If Pauline is no different than tens of thousands of other teenage girls who live to torture their mothers mercilessly, the vividness of her blood-drenched nightmares would set her apart in any crowd. They take the form of sordid surgical procedures and bodily functions of a strictly female nature. Bart commits them to the screen with visual nods to David Cronenberg, Stanley Kubrick, Tarsem Singh and David Lynch, among other arthouse favorites who’ve approached horror in non-generic ways. If there are times during “Excision” when it seems as if Pauline is about to be revealed as Satan’s spawn on Earth, they’re countered by scenes in which she’s clearly trying to do the right things, but doesn’t know how. That’s especially true in the shocking climax, when the teenager combines her career aspirations with a mad desire to make her sister’s life more comfortable. Obviously, “Excision” isn’t for the squeamish or, even, genre buffs looking for a break from zombie and vampire fare. It will be interesting to see where Bart’s ambition takes him next.

I know that “Chernobyl Diaries” could have been a terrifically entertaining thriller, because at least one truly fascinating documentary – Nature’s “Radioactive Wolves” – has been produced about essentially the same subject. In the 25 years since the devastating meltdown at the then-Soviet nuclear power plant caused an entire city to be evacuated and abandoned, Mother Nature has reclaimed the wilderness in the 1,200-square-mile death zone, creating a haven for forest animals, homeless pets and the occasional endangered species. Any hunter would be out of his mind to think it could be safe to plunder the accidental refuge, let alone eat any animal or bird killed there. Extreme tourism enthusiasts, however, now risk life, limb and lung for the privilege of posting pictures from the summits of mountains, bungee jumping into a live volcano or swimming with sharks. In the surprisingly lackluster “Chernobyl Diaries” – written by Oren Peli, creator of the the “Paranormal Activity” franchise – a mixed group of six American tourists take a Ukrainian guide up on his offer to go on a photo safari behind the heavily guarded borders of Chernobyl. Naturally, it isn’t until the van is parked deep within the ruined facility that the guide realizes that the vehicle won’t be able to make it out before nightfall. By this time, the explorers have already witnessed mutant fish, feral dogs, decomposing corpses of stranded animals and a large bear that sought temporary shelter in an empty office building. Given what generally happens at night in horror movies, viewers should have been able to expect chills and thrills beyond comprehension … zombies, even.

I won’t reveal what happens after this promising premise is established, except to say that Peli and freshman director Bradley Parker run out of steam soon after the radioactive animals began to smell human blood. One of the reasons “Diaries” is such a disappointment is that we knew going into it how terrorizing an experience a night at Chernobyl could provide. Parker had already proven his horror chops in “Paranormal Activity,” practically inventing the “lost tape” subgenre. If it weren’t for special sound and lighting effects, which hit us like stun grenades, the movie would be even flatter. (Unlike the Chernobyl documentaries, Parker was required to find representative locations in Serbia and Hungary.) The Blu-ray does a pretty good job capturing the minimal-light environments and audio jolts, but the dialogue and narrative are weak. It adds an alternative ending, a short deleted scene, a Chernobyl conspiracy viral video and mock commercial for the tour company. – Gary Dretzka

Terror Train: Collector’s Edition: Blu-ray
Funhouse: Collector’s Edition: Blu-ray

When it comes to high-concept cinema, it would be tough to beat “‘Halloween’ on a train.” It preceded the famous “Miami Vice” pitch, “MTV cops,” by several years. After watching “Silver Streak” and “Halloween” back-to-back one weekend, Daniel Grodnik dreamt about just such a conceptual merger. Seven hours after committing his idea to paper, he convinced Sandy Howard Productions to jump aboard the “Terror Train.” As directed by Roger Spottiswoode, “Terror Train” was practically a paint-by-number project. A cruel prank is played on a medical student, looking to get laid at a party, and the result is that he’s placed in a mental institution. Four years later, on New Year’s Eve, the traumatized young man learns of a masquerade party being staged on a train by the same group of college students. The temptation to wreak havoc and re-connect with his dream girl – Jamie Lee Curtis, of course — is too strong to resist. Even before the train leaves the station, the disguised killer begins picking off students one by one. “Halloween” on a train, indeed. Among the costumed suspects is a magician played by none other than David Copperfield. (It’s a good thing that he didn’t give up his day job to become an actor.) Look, as well, for Ben Johnson, Hart Bochner and D.D. Winters (a.k.a., Vanity). The Blu-ray adds new commentary and interviews with Grodnik, production executive Don Carmody, production designer Glenn Bydwell and composer John Mills-Cockell, a stills gallery and original marketing material.

By the same token, “Funhouse” could have been pitched as “‘Halloween’ in a carnival funhouse” and it would have been just as easy to sell. With Tobe Hooper at the helm, a good time was guaranteed for all. As the story goes, a teenager disobeys her parents by attending a carnival with a shady reputation that’s passing through town. After taking in the freak show and visiting a fortune teller, she and her three friends hop off the haunted-house ride and find a hiding place until the park closes. When they witness a murder taking place and are spotted by the killers, the teens are required to spend the rest of the night avoiding the death penalty themselves. Both of these Scream! Factory releases have been given a fresh hi-def polish and look great. The Blu-ray includes commentary with Hooper, four new interviews, deleted scenes and advertising spots. – Gary Dretzka

Rites of Passage: Blu-ray
40 West
Of all the hoary clichés employed by writers of horror movies, perhaps the hoariest of all allows for the convenient construction of a house or shopping mall on hallowed ground once reserved for the dead bodies of Indians … or upon the gates of hell, one. As resourceful a screenwriter as W. Peter Iliff has proven himself to be — “Point Break,” “Patriot Games,” “Varsity Blues” – you’d think that he’d be among the last to set his directorial debut anywhere near such a formulaic, if sacred site. For the purposes of “Rites of Passage,” however, the temptation must have been too great to resist. Iliff and co-writer Rick Halsey had been trying for years to collaborate on a project that could take advantage of the many empty greenhouses now standing empty on property once used in the Halsey family’s flower business, near Santa Barbara. As everyone who attended school on the Central Coast probably was taught, as many as 20,000 Chumash Indians once lived year-round in the area, with only a couple thousand of them surviving. Given the damage done to the population by diseases introduced by Spanish soldiers and priests, there probably are too many sacred burial grounds to count. It’s also likely that shamans used hallucinogenic jimson weed in their ceremonies, just as the anthropology majors do here while partying at a fellow student’s beachside home. Conveniently, it is nestled between a burial ground and the empty greenhouses.

What we know and the students won’t learn until later is that the student’s demented brother, Benny (Wes Bentley), and his meth-fueled buddy, Delgado (Christian Slater), have their own nefarious uses for the greenhouses. When the students, half of whom are wearing itsy-bitsy, teeny weeny bikinis, arrive on the scene, Benny is convinced by the jimson-weed tea he’s ingested that his future Native-American bride is among them. For his part, Delgado discovers that the drunken teenage girl who killed his wife and child in a terrible accident, and has escaped prosecution, is among the crowd, as well. An imaginary sock-monkey, perched on his rifle, directs his every move. Mayhem ensues when Benny and Delgado come in direct contact with the students, who, by this time, have imbibed their own cups of jimson tea. None of it is remotely credible, terrifying or particularly interesting. Adding to the confusion is the hot-and-horny anthropology teacher played by Stephen Dorff. He’s a swell guy and isn’t at all reluctant to break the rule forbidding professors from taking advantage of the mini-skirted sorority sisters sitting cross-legged in the first row of his classroom. Dorff must have owed Iliff a favor. The director would have been better served if Dorf had convinced him to set “Rites of Passage” at the Chumash casino, just up the 101 from Santa Barbara, instead of a deserted greenhouse. That way, when the ghost of the shaman appears, it would be possible for him to avenge the genocide of his ancestors at the green-felt tables and greenhouses.

Some micro-budget indies, and “40 West” is one of them, look more like acting exercises than stories committed to film. Long stretches of dialogue substitute for action and the actors get equal time to hog the camera. Nothing feels natural, especially not the emotions on display. If the actors are given interesting things to say, most sins of omission can be forgiven. If not … what’s the point? Well, the imbalance can be partially explained here by the fact that the movie’s protagonist, Maeve, is played by the same woman, Jennifer Nicole Porter, who also wrote, produced, composed the score and help cast it. Maeve is the leader of an all-woman blues band popular in Texas. One night, after a gig, her car breaks down and she’s mugged for the money in her purse. A guy in the convenience store comes to her rescue, practically demanding that she accept his help in finding a place to stay and something to eat and drink. He’s so persistent, in fact, that he can only be a pervert or in cahoots with the thief. Maeve isn’t nearly as skeptical as viewers will be. Turns out, the guy’s been hired by Maeve’s abusive ex-husband – a recently paroled ex-con — to track her down and arrange a surprise meeting. The guy claims he’s still in love with Maeve, but it takes him all of about two minutes to begin beating her up again. After Maeve passes out, everybody gets an opportunity to explain themselves, including the ex-con’s prison groupie and, later, her husband – played by Wayne Newton, who may be the most natural actor of the bunch – who tracks them to the cheapo motel room. Then, he gets his turn to talk. That’s all. Besides the fact that nothing of substance really happens here, the abuse the women suffer is an extremely ugly thing to watch. A long making-of featurette is included, but it, too, is a vanity project. – Gary Dretzka

Last Ride
From Australia, “Last Ride” tells a highly compelling story about a violent ex-con who kills his former criminal cohort in a fit of justifiable, if excessive rage and takes his 10-year-old son along on his attempt to escape justice. Given the circumstances and his previous record, Kev (Hugo Weaving) knows that he might not have any time left to do anything remotely paternal with the boy, Chook (Tom Russell), who’s as sweet as his father is bitter. With the police hot on their trail, Kev and Chook embark on the kind of road trip every son wants to take with his dad, if only once their lives together (or forever regret not taking). Indeed, they act more like buddies than father and son, enjoying an easy rapport when the old man isn’t stealing cars or beating up clerks at a convenience store. Instead of heading for Sydney or another big city, where Kev might be able to blend in with blue-collar types, he revisits places his father took him as a boy. He also repeats stories told him by his father and other relatives, some of which seem pretty far-fetched. Chook eats them up like candy. As it becomes clear that Kev’s days of freedom are numbered, viewers naturally begin to wonder about the boy’s ultimate fate on Earth, especially what kind of impact watching his father in action might have on his subconscious mind.

What’s wonderful about “Last Ride” are the locations director Glendyn Ivin has chosen to shoot the scenes in which Kev and Chook come the closest to a normal father-son relationship. There’s a secluded campsite near a hidden pond, just outside the borders of a national park where Kev attempts to teach Chook how to swim, just as his father had done for him. There also are places in the Outback that are as spectacular as any in our desert Southwest. The shimmering surface of a vast salt flat is captured in a way I wish someone would shoot Utah’s Great Salt Lake. The skies are similarly magnificent. No matter how warmly he gets along with Chook during these interludes, Kev always finds a way for us to dislike him, intensely. He’s a career criminal with a hair-trigger temper, after all, and too much of a loose cannon to assure us that they could have a secure future together. I haven’t seen a father-son pairing like this on any size screen. The DVD comes with two intriguing shorts by Ivin; a short film in which Russell interviews people on the set; and a piece on the hidden beauty of Australia. – Gary Dretzka

Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted: Rainbow Wig Pack
TV Tunes to Go
Big Bad Beetleborgs: Season One, Volume One
Trooper and the Legend of the Golden Key

With a few noteworthy exceptions, most movie franchises built on the popularity of an animated feature are governed by the law of diminishing returns. As costs for production and marketing increase and previously established storylines are stretched to the breaking point, it becomes difficult to meet the margins expected by studio bean counters. Some find an afterlife as DVD originals, while others succeed theatrically by expanding their international audience and resisting the temptation to churn out new episodes simply because they can. By exploiting the straight-to-video revenue stream, which depends heavily on characters and storylines drafted under Jeffrey Katzenberg’s tenure, Disney has been able to extend franchises on the cheap. After Katzenberg’s acrimonious break from Disney, he took over responsibility for DreamWorks Animation. Starting from scratch, with the CGI-animated “Antz,” the company made movies the public and critics wanted to see, but still played in the shadow of the emerging Goliath, Disney/Pixar. While the story-driven “Prince of Egypt,” “Road to El Dorado,” “Sinbad” and “Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron” made money, they would look like pikers alongside the funny-animal-driven “Shrek,” “Kung Fu Panda” and “Madagascar” juggernauts. Against a production budget of $145 million, “Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted” would return $681.6 million worldwide, in traditional 2D and 3D. It extends the storylines established in the first two installments, during with Alex (Ben Stiller), Marty (Chris Rock), Melman (David Schwimmer) and Gloria (Jada Pinkett Smith) left their habitats in a New York zoo, in search of greener veldts. Upon reaching Madagascar, it only took about 90 minutes of screen time for them to become homesick. Here, the quartet travels to Monaco, where they hope to hook up with their penguin pals, but end up buying a traveling circus that could provide them with a ticket home. In addition to the animal antics, the circus itself provides a showcase for some Cirque du Soleil-style acrobatics. The finish even allows for a fourth installment. An optional Blu-ray gift-pack edition comes with a Halloween-ready rainbow wig, just like the one belonging to Marty; a “Get Them to the Train” game; “Animators’ Corner”; a trivia track; “Mad Music Mash-Up”; deleted scenes; circus acts; commentary; the featurette, “Making of ‘How to Train Your Dragon’ Live Spectacular” arena show; and digital and Ultraviolet copies of the film.

I wonder if movie theaters still host cartoon marathons over holiday weekends to keep kids and their parents from driving each other nuts. One way for youngsters to know that they’d reached puberty and were ready for more stimulating fare was when they could recite dialogue and act out gags from cartoons they’d already seen a half-dozen times. Today, of course, anyone with a Blockbuster card can program an afternoon’s worth of Looney Tunes, Merrie Melodies, Silly Symphonies, Tom & Jerry, Woody Woodpecker and Popeye cartoons. These are the classics, of course, and today’s kids might have distinctly different ideas of what’s funny than adults who weren’t conditioned to the aliens, mutants and gargoyles of the post-“Rugrats” era. The cartoons in “TV Tunes to Go” represent a period in animation when costs were being cut to the bone and storylines were far less than sophisticated. Still, there’s a niche audience for almost anything these days and a residual fondness may exist for “Heathcliff,” “Archie’s Weird Adventures,” “Horseland,” “Huckle Cat,” “Johnny Test,” “Lowly World,” “Where on Earth Is Carmen Sandiego,” “C.O.P.S.,” “Busytown Mysteries,” “Get Along Gang,” “Pole Position,” “The Legend of White Fang,” “Jayce and the Wheeled Warriors,” “Gadget Boy” and “The Busy World of Richard Scarry.” “TV Tunes to Go” represents more than 40 hours and 110 episodes of cartoons, all packaged in a circular tin travel case, with plenty of room left for other DVDs.

Like other Saban Entertainment productions of the 1990s, “Big Bad Beetleborgs” is an amalgam of live-action superhero adventures and programming imported from Japan, in this case the “Metal Hero” series “Juukou B-Fighter” and “B-Fighter Kabuto.” The story revolves around a trio of kids, who, on a dare, explore a mansion rumored to be haunted. Once inside, the gang frees a phantasm, Flabber, trapped in a pipe organ. In return, Flabber grants them their wish to be superheroes from their favorite comic book, Beetleborgs. As so often happens in these cases, the “phasm” also mistakenly releases the evil Magnavores. There are a zillion other characters, but most of the kids’ time is spent fighting monsters in the mansion. The Shout! Factory collection contains the first 27 of 88 episodes of the show, which ran for two years on Fox Kids. “Big Bad Beetleborgs” (a.k.a., “Beetleborgs Metallix”) died an unnatural death when Saban ran out of source material from Japan.

Of all breeds of slobbering dogs, my favorite is the bloodhound. In addition to having a face only another bloodhound could love, it can track escaped convicts through swamps. Let’s see a dachshund or Jack Russell terrier try that. Apparently, they can also find hidden treasures, as we see in the Dove-approved “Trooper and the Legend of the Golden Key.” After moving to a new town with his owner, Tommy, and his family, Trooper is enlisted in the search for a treasure rumored to be worth a million dollars. This is one treasure, though, that some folks in town want to keep for themselves, which leads to the kind of trouble dogs are better at handling than humans. Adding to the comedy factor is local puppy who adopts Trooper as his mate. – Gary Dretzka

PBS: Broadway: The American Musical: Blu-ray
Now playing on PBS stations around the country, “Broadway: The American Musical” is the rare television documentary series that could open with a placard guaranteeing audiences a wonderful time and not have to return a single penny to an unhappy viewer. Overflowing with music, dance and memories, the six-part series chronicles the history of American musical theater from Florenz Ziegfeld’s “Follies” to the present. Along the way, it examines the impact on legitimate theater from the post-WWI exuberance of the Roaring Twenties and ragtime; the catastrophic chill of the Depression; competition from radio, the movies and television; the decline and subsequent revival of Times Square; and a corporatization of Broadway, which has resulted in such megahits as “The Lion King,” “Wicked” and “Cats,” as well as budgets that have a chilling impact on producers of less ambitious entertainments. The series also demonstrates how the history of Broadway in the 20th Century has mirrored that of the country. Although most of the musicals launched over the last 100 years have been created from fluff and enforced optimism, “Broadway: The American Musical” demonstrates how some productions have addressed racism, poverty, immigrants, the emergence of youth culture, the anti-war and civil rights movements, AIDS and the farce that American politics have become. The series also showcases the individual stories of such influential individuals as Ziegfeld, George M. Cohan, Irving Berlin, the Gershwins, Fanny Brice, Ethel Waters, Cole Porter, David Merrick, Hal Prince, Bob Fosse and Cameron Mackintosh, with the testimony of dozens more participants and observers. The Blu-ray supplements include extended interviews, archival performance footage and a featurette on “Wicked.” – Gary Dretzka

HBO: Marina Abramovic: The Artist Is Present
Kati With an I

There’s a telling moment in “The Artist Is Present,” when the acclaimed performance artist, Marina Abramovic, and marathon illusionist David Blaine discuss the possibility of combining their unique talents for a project. To anyone familiar with both performers, it’s easy to see how one’s talents might complement those of the other. Both can endure long periods of time without movement, after all, and attract large crowds of curious bystanders. When Abramovic broaches the possibility with an advisor, however, he pours cold water on it, cautioning that it’s one of the dumbest ideas he’s ever heard. His opinion is based on a belief that “performance art” and “illusion” are two very different things and to confuse one with the other is to cheapen the experience for their respective audiences. No matter how artistic a magician/illusionist may be, an artist’s talent shouldn’t be reduced to trickery. At least one piece staged by the self-dubbed “grandmother of performance art” begs the question, however. In 1974, Abramovic performed an act of extreme “purification” by starting a large five-pointed star on fire in a public space and, after trimming her nails and hair and throwing the bits into the flames, she leapt into the center of the star and lay on her back. As Blaine might have advised had he been there, the raging fire depleted the oxygen she had to breathe and left her unconscious. At first, spectators assumed her lack of response to the heat was part of the show, but others guessed correctly that she was dying before their eyes. The point of the piece had been to distance herself, if only symbolically, and other young adults who had grown up under Communist rule, from a society that was collapsing under the yoke of party politics and censorship. She learned, as well, possibly for the first time, that art can be dangerous. As a cultural provocateur, Abramovic has since drawn attention to herself through self-mutilation and bouncing into inert objects; appearing naked in public spaces and galleries; and hiking 2,500 km to the middle of the Great Wall of China, where she met up with her longtime lover, who started at the opposite end of the wall, and simply said “Goodbye” before parting for good.

The title of this intriguing HBO documentary refers to Abramovic’s 2010 retrospective show at New York’s MOMA, where younger artists re-created several of her more famous works and she performed her grueling “The Artist is Present.” It is a 736-hour static, silent piece, in which she sat immobile in the museum’s atrium – sometimes at a table, sometimes not — while spectators were invited to take turns sitting opposite her and communicate in other ways than talking or gesticulating. People queued up for hours outside the museum for the right to participate in the event. Many are visibly moved by the experience of mind-melding with Abramovic. One thing we learn inadvertently here is that Abramovic’s fans can be every bit as nerdy and unhinged as those who flock to Blaine’s outdoor extravaganzas. The museum crowd tends to outfit itself in more expensive eyeglasses, non-clingy clothes and practical shoes than those worn by magic enthusiasts.

When we first meet Kati Genthner in the intimate cinéma vérité documentary “Kati With an I,” she is preparing for her graduation from high school in a smallish Alabama town. More than simply passing the milestone and looking ahead at more interesting things to come, Kati has come to the point in her life where she has to decide if catering to the needs of a largely unmotivated 21-year-old boyfriend, James – he promises marriage, but not for five years – will provide a richer experience than pursuing a career or degree. James refuses to accommodate Kati’s plans by agreeing to move to a college town and she doesn’t want to spend a single day without him. Kati seems bright enough to see the bumps in the road ahead, but in every other way possible she’s a perfectly normal kid with normal ambitions and parents who make do as well as they can in a struggling economy. Considering the limited number of options available to teenage girls in Smalltown, America – most involving minimum-wage jobs — you could probably guess how the story of Kati and James plays out. The film was shot by her step-brother, Robert Greene, who probably intended simply to make a graduation gift for his sister. As the “fly on the wall” here, he couldn’t miss the larger drama playing out in front of him. Some people in Hollywood dismiss the possibility of making compelling entertainment about average folks, but Greene does just that in “Kati With an I.” There are brief follow-ups included on the DVD. – Gary Dretzka

Touch: The Complete First Season
The Firm: The Complete Series: Blu-ray
Alcatraz: The Complete Series
BBC: The Ice House
Drinking Made Easy: Season 2
Military: Nazi Collaborators

The programming geniuses at the nation’s half-dozen broadcast networks love to keep their audiences guessing. Constantly tinkering with their shows’ timeslots, release dates and casts, they seem to believe viewers are so starved for entertainment that we’ll find our favorites wherever and whenever they appear on their schedules. That attitude, as well as a belief that commercials are somehow entertaining, is the reason so many of us have purchased TiVo recording devices and are willing to pay an extra monthly fee for the rental of video recorders from our cable and satellite providers. Fox thought so much of its new Keith Sutherland series, “Touch,” that they introduced it during the heart of the NFL-playoff season. It wouldn’t be seen again until March 22. The abbreviated season came to a successful close at the end of May with a two-part episode. Lo and behold, a 13th episode would air on September 14. The show’s second season, originally scheduled for October 26, was pushed until January, 2013. In its place is yet another reality cooking show … just what this country needs. My guess is that a goodly number of the series’ fans will program their VCRs to capture it when it finally returns and make full use of the machine’s ability to skip through the ads. Sutherland stars as a single dad, Martin – his wife was killed in the attacks of 9/11 – of an 11-year-old son so emotionally damaged that he doesn’t speak to anyone. Jake’s a real handful and his unwillingness to stay put tests his journalist-turned-baggage-handler father’s last nerve. The boy’s behavior is due less to a mischievous streak than an innate ability find patterns in random numbers and digital noise, all of which anticipates potential disasters and evil doing in distant places. “Touch” is one of many TV series whose characters are gifted or cursed with ESP, supernatural powers or other magical touches. Two years after the final episode of “24,” Sutherland’s return was welcomed by his fans and Fox’s corporate sponsors.

NBC didn’t do its high-profile legal series, “The Firm,” any favors, either. Based on the same John Grisham novel that inspired the Memphis-based movie of the same title, “The Firm” picked up where the film’s story left off, with Tom Cruise’s Mitch disappearing into the federal witness-protection program. Mitch had brought down the mob-associated law firm of Bendini Lambert & Locke, but, after 10 years, he and his wife (Josh Lucas, Molly Parker) had grown weary of living an underground existence and were willing to risk exposure. “The Firm” debuted in a special two-hour episode on a Sunday night last January, before moving to its intended regular spot on Thursday nights, after four quirky sitcoms. It would be shifted to Saturdays and a completely different network, AXN, before being canceled. What looked like a no-brainer six months earlier finally was being treated as if it were poison ivy. The good news for fans of the show is that the complete season has been stitched back together and is being sent out in a Blu-ray package. The bad news, of course, is that there won’t be a second season.

The same sort of fate awaited Fox’s “Alcatraz,” a far-fetched time-travel drama based on the theory that 256 inmates and 46 guards disappeared from the island prison in 1963, only to show up in San Francisco nearly 50 years later. The government covered up the incident by closing the prison and telling reporters it was for the good of the convicts. A secret agency anticipates their return and sets out to round up the criminals before they can be caught by police for returning to old habits or attempting to find old acquaintances or hidden treasure. Among the stars were Sam Neill, Sarah Jones and Jorge Garcia. The 13 episodes that comprised the show’s one and only season have been collected on DVD. It adds the featurette, “Alcatraz: Island of Intrigue,” deleted scenes and a gag reel.

With the next big James Bond movie looming on the horizon, it’s as good a time as any to look back to the point in Daniel Craig’s career when he was about to make the transition from BBC mini-series to feature films. “The Ice House” debuted on “Masterpiece Theater” in 1998, when Pierce Brosnan was still serving on Her Majesty’s Secret Service. It was adapted from Minette Walters first mystery novel, which is set at an elegant Hampshire country house, where a badly decomposed body is discovered in an outbuilding once used to store ice. All of the village gossips assume that the victim is the missing husband of one of the three women who live in the house and are presumed to be lesbians, witches or both. The investigation goes off in all sorts of different directions before coming together in the closing minutes of the two-part mini-series. Craig plays the recently separated police detective who’s drinking too much and jumping to conclusions about what happened 10 years earlier, when the husband disappeared. The more he gets to know the women, however, the more willing he is to keep an open mind. Craig’s many female fans will get a kick out of watching the ruggedly handsome detective getting shot down every time – in Part One, at least — he tries to make out with a suspect who isn’t at all reluctant to admit she’s a lesbian and unavailable. “The Ice House” may be too complicated for people not obsessed with mysteries to follow, but, as a curiosity, it will do until “Skyfall” opens on November 9. The DVD comes with a documentary that follows Walters through the process of writing “The Shape of Snakes.”

Who says drinking can’t be fun? Men and women belly up to the bar for all sorts of reasons, including getting blind drunk and fall off their stools. Typically, though, a cocktail serves more as an accessory than a featured attraction. Everyone is expected to have a favorite drink or brand of beer, which distinguishes them from other boozehounds as much as any fingerprint. Even casual imbibers know they’ve arrived when a bartender sets them up without having to ask what they want. Zane Lamprey, host of “Drinking Made Easy,” knows that most people won’t experiment with other tastes unless they’re on vacation and it’s impossible to resist the local concoctions. This willingness to deviate from form is what help popularize Trader Vic’s and Don the Beachcomber. If most folks couldn’t afford more than one trip to the tropics in their lifetimes, Vic’s and Don’s mixologists brought the tropics to them. In a very real sense, that’s exactly what happens in “Drinking Made Easy.” Each week on HDNet (newly retitled, AXS-TV), Lamprey and sidekicks Steve McKenna and Wes Dubois visit a new city where boutique distillers and brewers have joined forces with professional bartenders to change the way we drink. The trend probably began with the emergence of brewpubs in cities of any size and the popularization of flavored martinis, thanks to the gals on “Sex and the City.” The show is lively, informative and quite entertaining. In addition to the willingness of the host and McKenna to get bombed on a weekly basis, the show contains drinking contests and recipes for the more complicated cocktails. In Season Two, the lads visited 25 different cities, from Maui to Key West and Vancouver to Cape Cod. The DVD package includes commentary, an hour-long comedy special, deleted scenes, extended interviews and “Steve’s Best Dumb Moments.”

Despite the incendiary title, the 13-part documentary series “Nazi Collaborators” sometimes raises more questions than it answers. In some of the cases detailed in the Military Channel presentation, the lines separating collaborators and the people chosen to represent those Hitler and Mussolini despised were thin and often blurred by deception. Some of the cases are cut-and-dried, while others ask us to consider what we would do under similar conditions. Produced in England, “Nazi Collaborators” contains much archival footage I hadn’t seen already. – Gary Dretzka

Check It Out! With Dr. Steve Brule
D.L. Hughley: Reset

Anyone old enough to remember Norman Lear’s faux small-town soap opera, “Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman,” and the subsequent emergence of do-it-yourself TV shows on local cable-access stations, really ought to check out “Check It Out! With Dr. Steve Brule.” As mandated by the FCC at the dawn of the mass-media age, cable-television companies were required – as part of their deals with local governments – to provide channels and facilities where ordinary people could create content and see it air in their neighborhoods. The shows were decidedly eclectic, ranging from live coverage of public hearings and high school musicals to crackpot talk shows and, in Manhattan, live sex. The creators weren’t required to run their material past the same standards-and-practices poobahs as network producers. John C. Reilly, looking suspiciously like Jack Nance in “Eraserhead,” plays the hilariously awkward, if self-centered host of “Check It Out!,” which airs at 4:30 a.m. on a local-access channel and is followed by “Mass for Shut-Ins” and the “Married News.” Reilly created the show with the comedy team of Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim, who also gave us “Funny or Die Presents …,” “Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!” and “Atom TV.” The long-awaited DVD package includes all 12 shows from the show’s two-season run. In them, Brule and local “experts” discuss such topics as “Boats,” “Pleasure,” “Money,” “Space” and “Animals,” between Brule’s snarky asides and lamebrain opinions. Lovers of experimental comedy should relish the return of “Check It Out!”

As a key player in the cast of Spike Lee’s “Original Kings of Comedy” – alongside Steve Harvey, Cedric the Entertainer and Bernie Mac — D.L. Hughley demonstrated his ability to bridge the gap between fans of Redd Foxx’s ribald jokes and the in-your-face humor of newcomers often backed by hip-hop deejays. The common denominator is adult-oriented material that directly addresses topical issues and, of course, sex. In Hughley’s latest HBO special, the targets include Michael Jackson, Tiger Woods, President Obama, Arnold Schwarzenegger, bullies, marriage and family, all stamped “explicit.” Even so, while being extremely funny and observant, “D.L. Hughley: Reset” doesn’t push any boundaries already drawn by other extreme comics. – Gary Dretzka

PBS: Olmsted and America’s Urban Parks
Nova: Forensics on Trial

In the Declaration of Independence, our forefathers guarantee all Americans the unalienable right to life, liberty and pursuit of happiness. Every school child has been required to memorize that much of the document, at least, even if most people couldn’t agree as to what it means to be happy. If any one American had a solid grasp on the concept, however, it would be Frederick Law Olmsted, the Johnny Appleseed of urban parks. Born in 1822, in Connecticut, Olmsted was exposed to the joys and beauty of wilderness at an early age and forever after felt more comfortable outdoors than inside a classroom or office building. After traveling through the South, Olmsted would find work in New York as a city planner. At the time, New York’s teeming masses and growing immigrant population were living mostly in squalor, while the wealthy were able to pick and choose the prime locations to live in luxury. If New Yorkers wanted to partake in the city’s few open spaces, they tended to gather in well-tended cemeteries. Along with Calvert Vaux, Olmsted created a plan to turn a vast section of undeveloped city-owned land into what will still knew today as Central Park. It wasn’t simply a matter of clearing out the squatters, picking up the garbage and planting some trees. Intricately designed, it would take an army of workers 16 years – with little time off to accommodate the Civil War – to complete the project and put to full use. Even if it would eventually be bordered by high-rise buildings, housing the city’s wealthiest residents, the park would remain open to all New Yorkers, regardless of their station in life. The PBS documentary, “Olmsted and America’s Urban Parks,” not only describes that process, but it also chronicles Olmsted’s role in designing parks and open-space systems in dozens of American cities. In doing so, he also resolved issues concerning flood control and sanitation. After watching this fine documentary, those of us who sometimes take our parks for granted will never look at them in the same way.

No matter on which side of the aisle one stood, the one inarguable thing that emerged from the O.J. Simpson murder trial was the necessity for a more consistent and scientifically demonstrable interpretation of blood, fingerprint and DNA evidence. Both sides were able to argue that blood and other key evidence supported their case, with the prosecution arguing the findings were irrefutable and the defense using police department bungling as a way to suggest that they were, in this instance, highly refutable. In the end, facts mattered less than personality and race, but the debate rages on. In the “Nova” investigation, “Forensics on Trial,” we’re also reminded of the case in which an Oregon man was linked to a terrorist attack in Spain by solid fingerprint evidence, but was cleared when a more likely suspect was found to have almost matching prints and a motive to commit mass murder. The film finds several of the chinks in the system, while also demonstrating how even more modern forensics technology—including 3D visualizations, laser imagery and MRIs – could do much of the work police detectives can’t. – Gary Dretzka

Essential Games of the Milwaukee Brewers
Carl Jackson: Through the Eyes of a Caddy

The baseball playoffs are in full gear, but fans of the Milwaukee Brewers – who came within two games of reaching the World Series in 2011 – don’t have a dog in either fight. They may consider picking up the DVD collection “Essential Games of the Milwaukee Brewers,” to relive past thrills and forget, for a moment, that the hated St. Louis Cardinals are still in the hunt. The Brewers have the rare distinction of having made the playoffs, if not the MLB championship as the representative of both the American and National leagues, having traded affiliations in 1998. It would be difficult for anyone to pick just four great games to represent an entire franchise, but, considering that the team is only 42 years old and a loser for most of that time, the task wasn’t as hard as it could have been. This DVD time-capsule includes the Brewers 1982 American League pennant clincher; the fourth game of the subsequent 1982 World Series, against the Cardinals; the 2008 wild-card playoff game, against the Chicago Cubs; and Game 5 of the 2011 divisional playoffs versus Arizona. Although it could be argued that these aren’t the best games played by the team, they, indeed, were “essential” victories. In addition to the games, the bonus package includes pieces on Robin Yount, “Harvey’s Wallbangers,” Juan Nieves’ no-hitter, Ben Sheets’ 18-strikeout game, Richie Sexton and Jeremy Burnitz’ six-homer game, a post-clincher celebration, a pair of “This Week in Baseball” episodes and Ryan Braun’s three home-run feat. And, yes, I am a thick-or-thin fan of the Brewers.

As interesting and challenging as golf can be, it would be difficult to find broadcasting teams more square than those who cover the major tournaments. An interesting commentator occasionally slips through the cracks, but they can easily be silenced when a sponsor complains about perceived irreverence shown to their hallowed game. Of all the golf professionals I’d like to hear share their opinions on a tournament, it wouldn’t be yet another clever Irish bloke or former champion. It would be a veteran caddy, who’s seen it all and conversed with more players than Jim Nance will in his lifetime. Just such a man is Carl Jackson, the subject of Cathy Irby Durant’s not very well made instructional video, “Carl Jackson: Through the Eyes of a Caddy.” Jackson certainly possesses all the credentials necessary to comment on the game and help amateurs with their swing. In addition to his 50 years of caddying at Augusta National Golf Club – home of the most pretentious and challenging of all tournaments, the Masters — Jackson has enjoyed a 36-year collaboration with Ben Crenshaw. Caddies don’t simply carry the bag and course layout card for the pro, they often reveal secrets and strategy when things get rough. – Gary Dretzka

The Heart of Christmas
PBS Kids: Arthur’s Perfect Christmas

Not to rush the Christmas season, but I can’t afford to fall behind in my reviews of holiday-related DVDs. The trickle soon will become a flood, after all. While most wouldn’t pass muster at any other time of the year, they all tend to feature recognizable, if not A-list stars and carry the kind of positive message some observers say is missing in Hollywood’s cold, cold heart. Dove-approved “The Heart of Christmas” debuted last year on cable’s Gospel Music Channel and some of the proceeds from its DVD release, we’re told, will go to the St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. In it, Austin and Julie Locke (Eric Jay Beck, Jeanne Neilson) are devastated by news that their young son, Dax, has been diagnosed with cancer. To bring solace and comfort to the boy, they decide to give Dax a one last Christmas, two months early. When neighbors see the holiday decoration and learn the truth, they rally the community to show their support for Dax, as well. The DVD adds a music video of the Matthew West’s Emmy-nominated song, “The Heart of Christmas.”

Because the residents of Elwood City are committed to making this year’s holiday celebrations the best of all possible Christmases, Hanukkahs, Kwanzaas and “Baxter Days,” despite all the obstacles put in their way, it’s possible to see “Arthur’s Perfect Christmas” as a “Candide” for kids. OK, maybe not. Based on the children’s books by Marc Brown, “Arthur” has been a staple of PBS Kids programming for the last 16 years. The title character, Arthur Read, is an 8-year-old anthropomorphic aardvark through whom viewers are introduced to each show’s theme. Animated characters typically are shown working out the same issues as the live-action schoolchildren in film footage interspersed in the story. “Arthur’s Perfect Christmas” was first shown in 2000 and has since become an evergreen event. – Gary Dretzka

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

Wednesday, October 10th, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, October 3rd, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, September 26th, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, September 19th, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Cabin in the Woods: Blu-ray
Halloween II/Halloween III: Season of the Witch: Collector’s Edition: Blue-ray
Bait 3D: Blu-ray
The presence of Richard Jenkins and Bradley Whitford in the first few moments of “The Cabin in the Woods” gave me reason to believe it might be something other than the run-of-the-mill genre thriller I expected it to be. Their non-descript office-drone characters appear to be heading to work in an underground bunker, not unlike one at a nuclear power plant or government research center. In an abrupt change of direction, however, the setting changes to a college town, where a quintet of knuckleheads is preparing to leave town for a weekend at a secluded cabin. Now, at least, we were in familiar territory. On the way to their destination, the kids’ Winnebago makes a mandatory pit stop at an ancient filling station, manned by the requisite in-bred hillbilly. Finally at the cabin, they quickly discover signs of Satan worship and other demonic treachery. Less predictably, one of the girls begins reading from a book of incantations, causing a family of zombies escape from their eternal resting places. Unexpectedly, the movie flashes sideways to the bunker, where the men in white shirts and ties are congratulating themselves on picking the right threat to the teens, whose every movement they’ve been monitoring all along. What? Have we just entered the realm of reality shows gone insane? Not exactly.

Even as the zombies continue to assault the campers in predictable ways, viewers are left to fend for themselves as to what’s happening in the bunker. The guessing game continues even when the most stoned teenager in the group discovers surveillance equipment in the besieged cabin. It wouldn’t be fair to reveal anything more of the story, except to point out that “Cabin in the Woods” and “Blazing Saddles” share a surprise in the third act. Combine the Mel Brooksian conceit with the knowing satire of Wes Craven and Kevin Williamson’s “Scream” and you have Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard’s wildly entertaining genre-bender. As such, it should play as well to folks who think they know everything there is to know about monster-in-the-woods flicks as those who demand to be surprised. “Cabin in the Woods” isn’t perfect, but it’s a lot more enjoyable than most of the movies it’s spoofing, especially those in which gore substitutes for wit. The Blu-ray’s bonus package adds commentary, making-of material and interviews.

The huge success of John Carpenter and Debra Hill’s “Halloween,” in 1978, assured not only a long succession of sequels, but also 34 years’ worth of lesser filmmakers – as well as some pretty good ones — would shamelessly borrow its methodology. Carpenter was replaced at the helm of “Halloween II” by freshman Rick Rosenthal, but almost everyone else from the original returned. To hold the audience’s interest, the level of blood and gore was ratcheted up and some supernatural mumbo-jumbo was added to explain how such terrible things could happen in sleepy suburbia. In “Halloween III: Season of the Witch,” producer Carpenter hoped to break his own rule against killing the bogeyman, but he learned, instead, that audiences didn’t want to see a “Halloween” in which Michael Myers isn’t the antagonist. Instead, the Halloween theme extends only to a mad Celt who wants to punish American kids for despoiling the holiday and some Stonehenge lore. The triquel also borrows from “Invasion of the Body Snatchers.” It didn’t work. The Blu-ray packages include several commentaries, interviews with cast and crews, a making-of piece, deleted scenes, an alternate ending for “HII,” and a pair of “Horror’s Hallowed Grounds,” in which the films locations are revisited.

In a season already overflowing with shark movies, you wouldn’t think there would be any room left for a 3D thriller that promised even more great whites. Aussie-import “Bait” won’t make anyone forget “Jersey Shore Shark Attack,” let alone “Jaws,” but it definitely keeps you wondering what’s going to happen next. Kimble Rendall’s sophomore effort doesn’t open all that promisingly, if only because the first shark attack and dive-bombing seagulls appear to have been staged as a sop to 3D obsessives. They add nothing to the drama to come and look phony, to boot. In short order, though, “Bait” gets to its point. A holdup in a large supermarket is interrupted by a tsunami, which devastates the coastal city and traps an odd collection of shoppers, cops, criminals and hotties inside the flooded building. Further complicating things for the survivors are the sharks that also found their way into the store. As is their wont, the sharks prefer live bodies to the corpses floating around the submerged parking lot and partially submerged display floor. The only home-grown actor — a.k.a., bait — I recognized was Julian McMahon of “Nip/Tuck.” There’s nothing in “Bait” we haven’t seen before, including the decaying bodies, but Rendall resists the obvious temptation to focus all of the action on shark attacks. He gives the actors plenty to do, as well. – Gary Dretzka

Indiana Jones: The Complete Adventures: Blu-ray
Judge Dredd: Blu-ray
It isn’t only the studios that have become dependent on sequels as a source of inspiration, product and profits. Fans, likewise, have become so addicted to quick fixes that they forget how disappointed they were in their last hit of Hollywood heroin. No sooner had the clamor over the relative weakness of “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull” died down in 2008 than reporters and loyalists began bugging producer Frank Marshall about the likelihood of an “Indiana Jones 5.” No matter how often Marshall denied a fourth sequel was in the works, the media refused to take “no” for answer. As if to shut everyone up, he let on that Steven Spielberg, George Lucas and the producers might have come up with the “germ of an idea,” but nothing remotely concrete. Even so, the release of “Indiana Jones: The Complete Adventures” on Blu-ray gives bloggers another opportunity to raise the question, as if they were the first to consider such a possibility. Given the extremely high quality of the hi-def package, I’m perfectly content to wait until the powers-that-be finally are able to write a screenplay that not only is exponentially better than “Crystal Skull,” but also written with posterity in mind, not merely another huge payday.

No matter how many times you may have watched “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” “Temple of Doom,” “Last Crusade” and “Crystal Skull” in their many video iterations, it’s certain you’ll treasure the latest collection of Blu-ray upgrades. Not only do they look and sound terrific, but their overall quality will make home-theater nuts even happier they invested in the biggest screen and most powerful sound system they could afford. These are films, after all, that were created from the DNA of everything that’s special about the Hollywood studio experience. In addition to the four movies, the Paramount boxed set adds the 1080p on-set featurettes “From Jungle to Desert” and “From Adventure to Legend,” in which various key aspects of the productions are dissected, discussed and expanded upon, complete with deleted scenes, bloopers and outtakes. Resurrected from previous releases are five lengthy making-of featurettes and a dozen behind-the-scenes pieces, focusing mostly on techie issues. Still absent are commentaries.

Released in 1995, at the dawn of the CGI era in action fantasies, “Judge Dredd,” was one of three movies adapted directly from existing comic-book franchises. “Batman Forever” and “Tank Girl” were the other two titles. (“Mighty Morphin Power Rangers: The Movie,” “Black Scorpian” and “Darkman II: The Return of Durant” were originals.) “Batman,” of course, made a bushel-basket full of money, while “Tank Girl” tanked and “Judge Dredd” only recouped its nut from worldwide grosses. Even in hindsight, Sylvester Stallone seemed the perfect choice to play a one-man judge, jury and executioner in a futuristic world in which anarchy reigns supreme. Instead, he became a lightning rod for controversy, first, from hypercritical fans of the 2000 AD comic-book franchise; second, in his ham-handed dealings with director Danny Cannon; and third, with the MPAA ratings board, which wouldn’t budge on its “R” rating. Finally, though, it was the negative critical consensus – in the U.S. market, anyway — that killed any hope for a rally, a la “Rocky.” And, yet, a less-expensive reboot, “Dredd 3D,” opened last week in the UK, eliciting mostly positive reviews, and will arrive here this weekend. It reportedly hews closer to comic-book vision than the original, which, in Blu-ray, isn’t without its campy charms. It adds the featurette, “Stallone’s Law: The Making of ‘Judge Dredd.’” – Gary Dretzka

Children of Paradise: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
Les visiteurs du soir: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
Marcel Carne, one of the greatest of all French directors, made both of these splendid entertainments under the ever-censorial eyes of the Nazis occupying France. “Children of Paradise” is universally regarded as his masterpiece, arguably the greatest French movie of all times. Even those who favor other titles rank it among the top two or three best movies the country has produced. That it was made at all is an achievement worthy of admiration and retelling. At a time when human and material resources were in short supply, Carne was able to stage the most expensive movie to date and hire people who certainly would have been arrested and probably put to death if their true allegiances were revealed. Vichy government officials forbade the making of films longer than 90 minutes, so, to override their concerns, Carne convinced them that he intended the two parts of the film to be released separately. The Allied invasion allowed him to postpone the planned release date and show the 190-minute period fantasy as intended. Although disguised, Carne and writer Jacques Prevert’s sly references to Vichy and Nazi policies made it through the editing process.

A prime example of romantic-realism, “Children of Paradise” is set in the Parisian theater scene of the 1820s and ’30s. The protagonist is a flirtatious actress/courtesan, Garance (Arletty), who’s being courted by four very different lovers: a mime, actor, criminal and aristocrat. Not willing to compromise the terms of her affections, Garance eventually shuns them all. While the four primary characters are based on actual Parisians, the title refers to the fans who worship the performers from afar, in the cheap sides of the upper balcony. They, it’s suggested, are closer than anyone else to heaven. Until the 2002 release of “Children of Paradise” on DVD, much of the enjoyment of watching the movie was marred by degradation of the video presentation. Pathe’s restoration and hi-def digital transfer have failed to impress some tech-minded critics, but less-trained eyes won’t notice and everything else about it passes muster.  It adds new commentaries by film scholars Brian Stonehill and Charles Affron; a 2010 making-of documentary; a visual essay on the design of “Children of Paradise” by film writer Paul Ryan; “Once Upon a Time,” a 1967 German documentary that visits Nice, where the film was partially shot, and features interviews with cast members Arletty, Jean-Louis Barrault and Pierre Brasseur, and production designer Alexandre Trauner; a restoration demonstration; and a booklet featuring an essay by film scholar Dudley Andrew and excerpts from a 1990 interview with Carné. It retains a Terry Gilliam intro.

The new Criterion Collection edition of Carne and Prevert’s far less frequently seen “Les visiteurs du soir” (“The Devil’s Envoys”) marks its first transfer to DVD and Blu-ray. To my amateur eyes, it doesn’t look as if it has aged at all since its release in 1942. This romantic fantasy takes viewers to the 15th Century and the castle of a wealthy aristocrat. In the midst of festivities leading to a royal wedding, two strangers dressed as minstrels (Arletty, Alain Cuny) arrive at court, ostensibly to spoil everyone’s fun. That’s the devil’s intent, anyway. Instead, Gilles and Dominique enchant the baron’s daughter and her fiancé. When the devil (Jules Berry) gets wind of their deception, he makes his own appearance at court, dispensing bon mots and pointed barbs. It’s a wonderfully wicked performance. The question here, as it must be in such romances, is, “Can love conquer all obstacles, even those created by the devil?” The Blu-ray adds “L’aventure des ‘Visiteurs du soir,’” a documentary on the difficulties of making films in occupied France – the Germans wanted to compete with Hollywood, but not with Jews and leftist filmmakers and actors — and a booklet featuring an essay by critic Michael Atkinson. – Gary Dretzka

The Woman in the Fifth
Anyone with a taste for spare, borderline-creepy psychological thrillers – especially those told with a French accent – should consider tracking down Pawel Pawlikowski’s “The Woman in the Fifth.” Adapted from a novel by Douglas Kennedy, it chronicles the return to Paris of troubled American novelist Tom Ricks (Ethan Hawke) to be near his divorced wife and estranged daughter. We learn early-on that Ricks has either been hospitalized or jailed for a violent encounter with his French. He fits the profile of a dangerous stalker, but seems to have reconciled himself to being merely damaged property. Circumstances force him to seek shelter in a decrepit room above a bistro frequented by temperamental immigrants from northern Africa. Because his suitcase and wallet have been stolen, he has no other choice but to accept an assignment from the bistro owner that requires him merely to sit in front of a video monitor in an empty room and check out who comes to a locked door. It makes no sense, but is of importance to his landlord. Meanwhile, while browsing through a bookstore, Ricks is recognized by the owner, who invites him to a literary salon, where he encounters an even more mysterious woman, Margit (Kristin Scott Thomas). They hit it off, but in a way that ensures intrigue and, perhaps, insanity, down the road. When it does occur, we’re left wondering if what we’ve witnessed is real or something hallucinated by the novelist.

Pawlikowski leaves several doors open in that regard. If you’ve already guessed that the director’s methodology owes something to the early films of fellow Pole Roman Polanski, go to the head of the class. The moody cinematography and eerie soundtrack fit perfectly with the increasingly ambiguous behavior of the characters, including the romantic advances of the landlord’s Polish girlfriend, who doesn’t quite fit within the puzzle, either. Pawlikowski isn’t the most prolific of filmmakers. His last picture, “My Summer of Love,” was released in 2004. It contained some of Emily Blunt and Paddy Considine’s best work to date and is easy to recommend to those who enjoy “The Woman in the Fifth.” The DVD adds a very decent making-of featurette. – Gary Dretzka

The Salt of Life
On the subject of growing old somewhat less than gracefully, writer-director-actor Gianni Di Gregorio’s bittersweet comedy “The Salt of Life” hits the nail directly on its head.  His character, Giovanni, is retired, approaching the far edge of middle age and living frugally on a pension with his demanding mother. Although he’s still reasonably handsome, Giovanni has reached that point in a man’s life when he’s become invisible to the women he once courted and conquered. To paraphrase Leonard Cohen, Giovanni aches in the places he used to play. This isn’t to imply, he isn’t surrounded by women who treat him cordially and accept his kindnesses and generosity. In the love department, though, the old Roman lion has lost too many teeth to be dangerous. Still, he refuses to give up the ghost. He puts himself in places where he might inadvertently attract a woman’s attention and is coached by an even older buddy how to court mistresses and use Viagra. It’s only when he finally accepts what he’s become that serendipity comes into play and something magical happens to him. “The Salt of Life” is set in and around the narrow, cobblestone streets of Rome’s historic Trastevere district, which is itself worth the price of a rental. The acting is terrific, as is the cinematography and writing. It’s easy to imagine “The Salt of Life” being made in the Hollywood, if any of its 60-plus actors would deign admit to being old and desperate enough to play such a role. Instead, they’re still being allowed to play opposite 20- and 30-year-old ingénues, whose interest in their characters is dubious, at best. The DVD contains an excellent behind-the-scenes featurette and interview with Di Gregorio. – Gary Dretzka

End of the Road
From the mid-1950s to the early 1970s, there was no more influential a novelist than John Barthes. An academic who often set his stories in and around colleges, Barthes experimented with literary form and often took on controversial subjects through his characters. Although his works weren’t as associated with the 1960s counterculture as, say, those of Kurt Vonnegut, Richard Brautigan, Jack Kerouac and Joseph Heller, they had a wide effect on intellectuals and other novelists. Published in 1958, “The End of the Road” spoke directly to the decade’s love affair with conformity and social acceptance. It also tackles two of the era’s most sensitive issues: race and abortion. The novel would translate easily to the late 1960s, when it was adapted by director Aram Avakian and writer Terry Southern. Immediately after accepting a post-graduate degree from a major college, Jacob Horner (Stacy Keach) is found standing on the platform of a railroad station unable to move. In the book, Horner suffers from “cosmopsis”: an inability to choose from among all possible choices he can imagine. In the movie, Horner appears more to be traumatized by the many violent events of the period, including the assassinations, Vietnam War and civil-rights protests. He is taken to an asylum, the “Remobilization Farm,” run by a specialist in mythotherapy, Doctor D (James Earl Jones). After treatment, Horner is ordered to teach English at a rural college, where the students have begun to embrace anti-establishment behavior and the first stirrings of the sexual revolution. He is encouraged by the doctor to experience things as they came, without passing judgment on his reactions.

Off-campus, Horner begins an affair with the wife of a seriously twisted colleague (Dorothy Tristan, Harris Yulin). They secretly watch him practice drawing his pistol in front of a mirror, while wearing a scoutmaster’s uniform. The love triangle is more complex in the book, of course, but these were intelligent people who did what they wanted to do and championed dangerous philosophies without considering the possible consequences. (Vietnam, anyone?) The end result of the affair is the harrowing abortion scene that gave “End of the Road” an X-rating and practically guaranteed an abbreviated release. (That, and a mental patient who gets his kicks screwing chickens.) This was, of course, several years before abortion was deemed legal by the Supreme Court.

“End of the Road” was quite unlike any movie that was being made in the United States at the time, even on the emerging indie circuit. It more closely resembled the foreign movies favored by buffs and students. It spoke to the angst being experienced by teachers and intellectuals trapped between generations in the 1960s, as well as the widely accepted belief among young people that Eisenhower-era conformity had contributed to a society increasingly dominated by conventional wisdom and political paranoia. It’s easy to see how young people today might believe that America is stuck in reverse. The DVD includes interviews with surviving members of the cast and crew, including Jones, Keach, Yulin, the son and daughter of Southern and Avakian and cinematographer Gordon Willis, for whom “End of the Road” was his first picture. – Gary Dretzka

Oslo, August 31st
It’s been 40 years since Neil Young recorded “The Needle and the Damage Done,” a song that laments the descent into drug addiction by friends of his in the music business. While watching Joachim Trier’s “Oslo, August 31st,” I was reminded of the final lines, “I’ve seen the needle and the damage done/A little part of it in everyone/But every junkie’s like a settin’ sun.” We don’t learn much more about the movie’s protagonist, Anders (Anders Danielsen Lie), than we did about the people whose deaths inspired Young, but their stories, by now, are all too familiar. As much as we’d love to save Anders from himself, we know early on that complete rehabilitation is unlikely. In the most austere and sympathetic way possible, Trier describes a 24-hour period in Anders’ life. After living several years in a drug-rehabilitation facility in the scenic countryside outside Oslo, Anders considers himself ready to return to the capital for a job interview. While there, he intends to re-connect with friends and lovers from both his youth and the tortured period when he was addicted to every drug or drink within his reach. The women he knew aren’t pleased to learn Anders is out and about, but most of his male friends are cordial, at least. He claims to have been clean and sober for a year, but a feeble attempt at suicide earlier that day suggests he may be less ready for the outside world than his supervisors think he is.

It only takes a few hours for Anders to realize that the world didn’t stop spinning when he was incarcerated five years earlier. His former running mates have started families and girlfriends have decided to pass on his invitation to hear his apology. What really trips him up, however, is a request by the editor of the magazine that posted the job offer to fill in the five-year blank in his resume. Although the man seems genuinely impressed by Anders’ opinions, he abruptly decides that such an explanation would be only lead inevitably to rejection. He storms out of the building after grabbing his resume from the hands of the stunned journalist. From this point onward, Anders’ day becomes an emotional roller-coaster ride. Ultimately, though, the lows are more powerful than the highs and he comes to the conclusion that his is a lost case. If this sounds too depressing for words, know that Trier gives Anders every opportunity to break out of his personal prison and he does experience moments, at least, of happiness. So many movies have been made about our own friends and neighbors struggling to break the chains of addiction, it probably would take more than excellent performances and fine directing by Norwegians to attract audiences to “Oslo, August 31st.” It’s their loss. It’s worth knowing, though, that critics have been almost unanimous in their praise for Trier’s movie.  – Gary Dretzka

Something From Nothing: The Art of Rap
The history of rap, hip-hop and street dancing hasn’t exactly been underrepresented by documentary makers over the last 30 years. On strictly a per-lyric basis, it’s possible that more has been written and documented on film about the urban art forms than any other musical genre. Of course, the proof is in the pudding and that’s what elevates “Something From Nothing: The Art of Rap” from other films about rap and hip-hop. Musician/actor/filmmaker Ice-T employs the oral-history technique in explaining the music’s roots, influences, creative forces and legacy. During interviews with 40 of the most influential rappers and MCs, Ice-T is able to draw a timeline and expand on the creative process employed by the artists. Almost of them offer a sample of their own poetry, along with anecdotes from the streets and studio. Blessedly absent are the scholarly observations and critical dissections that too frequently add unnecessary context to obvious truths. I found it interesting, though, that the emergence of rap can be traced directly to the elimination of music programs in the public schools of New York. Emerging from this cultural deprivation chamber were kids who grasped the most simple and economical ways to express themselves musically: rhymes, unused turntables found inside almost everyone’s home and plywood boards upon which to dance and spin. Hip-hop would add electronic beats to the rapped poetry. Once noticed by the media, the message spread from New York to Chicago and L.A., and on to every city in the world with a sizable population of disaffected youth. If hip-hop has been mainstreamed to the point where it’s heard between innings at baseball games, it still provides an entry point for individuals of all colors and ethnic backgrounds to voice their unhappiness with the status quo, willingness to “fight the power” and brag about their sexual prowess. Among those appearing here are Afrika Bambaataa, Eminem, Nas, Mos Def, Kanye West, Chuck D, KRS-One, Snoop Dogg, Run-DMC and Ice Cube. The DVD extras include extended interviews, commentaries, a making-of piece and, yes, an essay by a scholar. – Gary Dretzka

The Victim: Blu-ray
Veteran hard-guy actor Michael Biehn clearly paid attention while participating in such high- and low-budget action flicks and TV series as “The Terminator,” “Aliens,” “Grindhouse: Planet Terror” and “The Magnificent Seven.” He took the lessons he learned from more celebrated filmmakers into account while directing his second feature, “The Victim,” a grindhouse-inspired “thriller” that looks very much as if it were shot, as advertised, in 11 days and on a budget of $800,000. It isn’t at all convincing, but Biehn is a likeable presence and there’s enough violence and boobage to qualify for a late-night shot on Cinemax. The breasts are supplied by Jennifer Blanc-Biehn, a healthy 38-year-old blond who may be coming into her own as a late-blooming scream queen. Here, she plays Annie, one of two strippers enticed to join a pair of cops in a secluded picnic in the woods. The other woman is beaten to death after she ridicules her demonic lover for not being able to ejaculate in due course. Annie escapes into the forest, finally finding refuge in a cabin owned by a mysterious stranger played by Biehn. He believes the stripper’s story against that of the cops, who also appear at his door. He answers their threats with violence of his own, while also partaking in Annie’s ample charms. Even though there’s a surprise ending grindhouse fans will spot a mile away, “The Victim” is strangely watchable. The making-of featurette explains why it looks like such a homemade project. – Gary Dretzka

October Baby
There is a widely held perception among people who populate the Red and “battleground” states that filmmakers in Hollywood play fast and loose with issues pertaining to morality and religion because they’re more interested in profits than salvation. Intentionally or not, these heathens are playing into the hands of the devil by promoting liberal values and ignoring God’s word. The box-office success of Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ” is widely credited with sparking the studios’ interest in faith-based filmmaking and marketing these products to a select audience demographic. Until recently, though, limited budgets and amateurish production values have kept the movies from finding widespread acceptance and critical respect. “October Baby” is a well-made and professionally acted drama about the lasting effects of abortion on everyone from the rare survivors of the procedure to adoptive parents, birth parents and peers. While it isn’t bombastic or overtly hateful, though, Andrew and Jon Erwin’s drama plays just as fast and loose with key characterizations as the movies accused of being anti-Christian.

Attractive newcomer Rachel Hendrix plays Hannah, a college student who experiences an emotional breakdown she believes is related to asthma, epilepsy and thoughts of suicide. At about the same time, her parents uncover a diary in which she obsesses over guilt feelings related to an incident buried deep within her subconscious. It’s as if Original Sin has metastasized inside Hannah and revealed itself at the most inappropriate time in her life. In an effort to help her doctor diagnose an exact cause for the problem, Hannah’s parents (John Schneider, Jennifer Price) hit her with a double-barreled shotgun of bad news. Not only is she informed of the fact that she was adopted, but that it came after a failed abortion allowed her to be born. She later would learn that a twin brother wasn’t so fortunate, having died shortly after the procedure. That’s a lot of psychological weight to lay on a kid who otherwise was enjoying a normal teenage existence. It’s at this point that Hannah turns against her loving parents, who really should have informed her she was adopted, if not the circumstances that caused it. That she guilt-trips her father over being the child to survive the abortion doesn’t seem fair, either.

Hannah uses the guise of a spring-break trip to New Orleans and Birmingham to search for her birth parents, who, we’re told, are themselves ridden with subconscious guilt and want nothing to do with her. In a rare show of ecumenical reach-out, the Erwins allow a Roman Catholic priest to explain the concept of Christian forgiveness to the troubled young Baptist. (It’s a good thing she wandered into a cathedral, instead of consulting such merciless monsters as Pat Robertson, Rush Limbaugh and Pat Ryan.) By accepting that simple message – the essence of Christ’s teaching on Earth – Hannah is free to move forward with her parents, boyfriend, theater career and birth mother, who is given her own cross to bear. The Erwins’ all-life-is-beautiful message doesn’t seem to allow for shades of gray, even if the question of rape and incest isn’t addressed. How much of the movie was financed by anti-abortion groups isn’t made clear, either, although web addresses and appreciations do appear in the credits. As loaded as Hannah’s dilemma is, “October Baby” may be the most balanced statement on the subject we’re likely to see from the religious right. The DVD adds commentary, deleted scenes and character studies. – Gary Dretzka

Gone Hollywood
Telenovela heartthrob Fernando Carrillo and Texas-born sitcom actor Valente Rodriguez are the primary attractions for this agreeable piece of fluff targeted directly at regular viewers of Spanish-language television. Personally, I found myself drawn more to bombshells Erlinda Orozco and Amrapali Ambegaokar, but to each his/her own. Caracas-born Carrillo plays a Latino actor, Al, struggling to avoid obscurity after his hit Hollywood show left the air. Just when it appears that Al will be reduced to working for a living outside show business, he receives word that his late father has left him a property in their Texas hometown that has been inexplicably valuable. The bar is something of a local phenomenon, especially with the old-timers who resist pressure on Al to sell the bar to outside interests. The locals sense he’s “gone Hollywood,” and couldn’t give a flaming frijole for the future of the town and bar. Naturally, though, hometown cooking and a pair of Chicana beauties have given him reason for pause. Meanwhile, his Hollywood agent (Ambegaokar) is trying desperately to get him to agree to participate in a reality show. “Gone Hollywood” didn’t receive a theatrical release, as far as I can tell, but fans of the actors might want to give it a shot. Heaven knows, no one in Hollywood is breaking their neck in an attempt to fill the void in movies aimed at the mainstream Hispanic market. – Gary Dretzka

Katy Perry: Part of Me: Blu-ray
What happens when the God-praising Christian daughter of hard-core Evangelical ministers OD’s on tepid gospel-rock and adds Alanis Morrissete to her personal playlist? Well, after severing the parental umbilical cord by moving to the Sodom & Gomorrah that is Los Angeles, Katy Perry introduced herself to Morrissette’s producer, hired gay shape-shifters to perform an image makeover, dropped the Alanis-wannabe façade and recorded “I Kissed a Girl.” Her parents weren’t amused, but the little girls who download iTunes by the truckload certainly understood her infectious message. As if to demonstrate His sense of humor, God then cleared a path for the ’tween queen to marry British bad boy Russell Brand. Fourteen months later, their marriage would evaporate in a cloud of tabloid headlines. All of these milestones are addressed in “Katy Perry: Part of Me,” which is equal parts biopic, concert film and girls-just-wanna-have-fun rave-up. Not being 12-years-old, I can’t explain why the 3D extravaganza didn’t blow off the hinges of every multiplex from here to Timbuktu, as did “Hannah Montana & Miley Cyrus: Best of Both Worlds Concert.” But, it did well enough in theaters to believe it will perform even better in its Blu-ray 3D & 2D, DVD and digital iterations.  Directors Dan Cutforth and Jane Lipsitz’ documentary does a nice job capturing Perry’s charm and appeal to her legions of fans. It doesn’t address the debt she owes to forbears Josephine Baker, Carmine Miranda, Minnie Pearl, Karen Carpenter, Cyndi Lauper, Madonna and, although they’re contemporaries, Lady Gaga, preferring to showcase Perry’s gospel roots. Her decision to perform, despite the nasty breakup with Brand – really, what could have possessed her? – becomes part of the storyline, as well. If the heroic portrayal makes her look overly vulnerable and a victim to love, well, so be it. It worked for Paul McCartney. The Blu-ray editions take full advantage of Perry’s playfully colorful stage presentation, while also adding extended concert footage and some insider stuff. – Gary Dretzka

Suburgatory: The Complete First Season
Modern Family: The Complete Third Season: Blu-ray
The Mentalist: The Complete Fourth Season
Supernatural: The Complete Seventh Season: Blu-ray
If television sitcoms weren’t built on faulty foundations, they probably wouldn’t exist at all. “Friends” and “Seinfeld,” two of the best network series, asked us to believe minorities didn’t exist in the characters’ urban environment and they lived in buildings so safe they didn’t have to lock the doors to their apartments. Such anachronisms must be taken for granted by viewers if the show is to be successful. The weaker the writing, the less likely it is for the anachronisms to pass muster. The ABC comedy “Suburgatory” is premised on the possibility that a big-city single dad (Jeremy Sisto) could be so naïve as to think his 16-year-old daughter (22-year-old Jane Levy) would be less likely to be corrupted if they moved to the suburbs. If that were the case, no character in a suburbia-set sitcom would be older than 12 and the greatest threat to a child’s future would be an out-of-control ice-cream truck. In “Suburgatory,” Levy’s Tessa Altman is required to adapt all the usual cliches of suburban life, from synchronized sprinkler systems, competitive gardening and casual wear, to country-club bimbos and shopping-mall crawls. This is less difficult a chore for Tessa than one would expect. It’s dad who ultimately must come to grips with the huge disconnect between urban and suburban life. Fortunately, Sisto is surrounded by several veteran comedic actors — Carly Chaikin, Rex Lee, Allie Grant, Alan Tudyk, Cheryl Hines, Ana Gasteyer, Jay Mohr – who take much of the weight of carrying the show off of his and Levy’s shoulders. Writer/producer Emily Kapnek (“Hung,” “Parks and Recreation”) also was allowed to bounce between the adult world and that of their kids. Even better, “Suburgatory” was fortunate to be assigned the timeslot between “Middle” and “Modern Life,” which almost assured a second-season run. The DVD includes unaired scenes, a gag reel and “Somewhere Between Heaven and Hell: Life in Suburgatory.”

Meanwhile, the “Modern Family” juggernaut continues apace, with 14 Emmy nominations up for grabs this weekend. Can it pull off the hat trick in the Outstanding Comedy Series category? I wouldn’t bet against it. At a time when Republican bottom-feeders and religious fanatics of all stripe are exposing their intolerance and bigotry by so vocally condemning same-sex marriages, it’s interesting that a TV series in which two of the key male characters are married to each other is so popular in a wide-cross-section of American homes. It begs the question as to why the champions of Holy Matrimony aren’t nearly as exorcised over the number of people in life and on television who are living together and pro-creating, but can’t be bothered with nuptials. With any luck the haters will crawl back into their holes after Election Day. The Season Three package adds a gag reel, deleted scenes, deleted “couch confessions,” the “A ‘Modern Family’ Christmas” featurette and behind-the-scenes pieces, “Destination: Wyoming,” “A Day on the Set with Ty,” “Adventures of the ‘Modern Family’ Kids,” “Driving Lessons,” “Ed O’Neill Gets a Star” and “‘Modern Family’ Goes to Disneyland.”

CBS’ hit procedural, “The Mentalist,” is based on such a flakey premise that it’s difficult for me to imagine it lasting five weeks, let alone five years. But, that’s show biz in the 21st Century. The off-the-charts personable Tasmanian actor Simon Baker plays a onetime psychic, who gave up the ruse after the murder of his wife. His talent for observation and instant analysis draw the attention of the California Bureau of Investigation, which apparently needs all the help it can get in solving the state’s toughest homicides. Among the criminals he’s most determined to arrest is the serial killer, Red John, he holds responsible for his wife’s death. Unlike “The Fugitive,” the investigators in “The Mentalist” have other cases to worry about besides the one that drive’s Baker’s character. Indeed, one of the series’ recurring storylines involves the CBI’s frustration with his unorthodox methodology and frequently borderline-illegal interrogations. At the end of each season, Baker seems closer to nailing the bastard than ever before, only to realize Red John has once again slipped from his grasp. There’s a featurette in which the LAPD Homicide Task Force profiles its counterparts on the CBI.

As the title suggests, the hit CW series “Supernatural” combines elements of the police procedural with an on-the-road bromance and encounters with supernatural forces. Besides the personal demons Sam and Dean encounter each week, the brothers also are required to combat villains of biblical proportions, including the Leviathans that break out of Purgatory. (It makes one wonder what God, his archangels and Jesus are watching when “Supernatural” airs on the CW.) In Season 7, the laddies are tortured with visions of Hell by Lucifer, while family friend and ally, Bobby, is killed by alien forces that capture his spirit and condemn it to a whiskey flask. The Blu-ray offers an interactive “Supernatural Creature Fest Drive-In,” as well as commentaries on select episodes, unaired scenes, a gag reel, an outtake with Jensen singing Air Supply’s “I’m All Out of Love” and featurettes on directing and scoring the show. – Gary Dretzka

American Experience: Death and the Civil War
Frontline: Endgame: AIDS in Black America
History: Secret Access: The Presidency
H2: America’s Book of Secrets
History: James Bond’s Gadgets
History: Best of Ancient Aliens: Blu-ray
History: Cajon Pawn Stars: Season One
It is commonplace today for American soldiers killed in combat to be accorded a government-financed funeral, a flag-draped coffin and, perhaps, a salute by a squad of riflemen, although budgetary concerns now threaten even that tradition. All efforts are made to identify the dead, a chore made easier through the use of DNA coding. We honor the dead on Memorial Day and salute the survivors on Veterans Day. As the North and South prepared to engage in a calamitous civil war, the last thing on the minds of politicians, military and clergy was the question of how to deal with death and other casualties. It’s as if those in command expected it to be a bloodless war, from which entire armies would march home intact. This wasn’t to be the case, of course, and it took nearly four years for officials to come to grips with such mechanics and trivialities of war as burials, identification and notifications. Ric Burns’ latest film on the Civil War tackles this grisly, if enormously important issue. It was released as part of PBS’ “American Experience” series. Again, his technique involves the reading of letters home, interviews with historians, somber narration and quiet music, and archival photographs. It feels familiar, but delivers the same powerful punch as the original “Civil War” series. Being exposed to Mathew Brady’s photographs of the dead soldiers lying bloated and abandoned on a now-quiet battleground is an education in itself. As Burns also points out, the government was ill-prepared to handle the mass of refugees and wounded civilians. For freed, fugitive and escaped slaves, the situation may have been even worse and that realization led in part to the Emancipation Proclamation. So, as the series asks, what is our responsibility to the dead? For one, continuing to create films, such as “Death and the Civil War,” that question all aspects of war and hold our leaders responsible for the affronts to humanity. The film is based on Drew Gilpin Faust’s book, “This Republic of Suffering.” Anyone looking for heroes here will find them in poet/humanitarian Walt Whitman and nurse Clara Barton.

In “Frontline: Endgame: AIDS in Black America,” the question becomes, “In times of epidemic, what is owed the living?” For too many years, American politicians treated the AIDS epidemic – a.k.a., the gay cancer – as if it simply didn’t exist. That was made easier by the fact that the disease first impacted immigrant African and Haitian communities. Even when it began to devastate homosexual communities in France and the United States, officials acted as if other people were immune from the disease and there was no urgency to treat AIDS as if it were a plague threatening all Americans. Even when budget-makers and the medical establishment began to take action, poor blacks, infected children and drug addicts continued to get the least attention. “Endgame” chronicles the epidemics with a tight focus on its continued impact on Black America. HIV may now be treatable, but, for some patients, the cost of keeping it in check is prohibitively expensive. The documentary is a reminder of the distance we still need to go for a cure.

Cable television thrives on the promulgation of conspiracy theories, government secrets, military intelligence and lore, mysterious fraternal organizations, lost and hidden documents and outright bullshit. Indeed, the money spent today on forwarding, examining and debunking such theories could pay for the development of personal lie detectors and embedding of them in the arms of every American man, woman and child, not just the politicians and business executives who think we can’t handle the truth about everything from UFOs and captured extraterrestrials, to the role played by Freemasons in determining government policy and such international bogey-men as the Trilateral Commission, the Illuminati and G8. Newly released DVDs on such subjects from History and its ancillary network include “Secret Access: The Presidency” and “America’s Book of Secrets.” In the former, we’re allowed to ponder bits and pieces of previously classified information once reserved only for our presidents. The chapters: “Secret Access: Air Force One,” in which we follow the President on a 20,000-mile international mission aboard the First Plane and are allowed to ride in the cockpit, witness security protocols and learn what constitutes “zero-fail” itinerary; “The White House Behind Closed Doors” takes us along on a private tour conducted by former residents George W. and Laura Bush; and “The President’s Book of Secrets,” which explains what sorts of information are passed from one president to another, be they secrets codes, intelligence or information on ongoing projects. H2’s 10-episode “America’s Book of Secrets” attempts to bring down some of the walls surrounding the White House, Pentagon, Area 51, Freemasons, Fort Knox, presidential transports, the Playboy Mansion, Black Ops, the FBI and West Point. Not all of the secrets are all that well-kept and the ones that are highly classified remain so. Still, it’s difficult to take your eyes off the shows.

For more than a half-century, the lore and legend surrounding British Secret Agent 007 has continued to grow unabated. I don’t know how well Ian Fleming’s novels sell, or those written in his voice, but every new movie is greeted with media fanfare and solid performance at the box office. Always are essential element of the books and movies are the gadgets, gizmos and weapons created for James Bond by Q – for Quartermaster — and his team. Once considered to be mostly fanciful, many of the items on display in History’s “James Bond’s Gadgets” now are available at your friendly neighborhood shop catering to private detectives, professional locksmiths, amateur sleuths, crooks, peeping toms and jealous spouses. Neither is it beyond the realm of possibility to imagine cars within built-in RPGs and oil slicks being sold alongside SUVs and vehicles that run on garbage. For those keeping score at home, the new Bond film, “Skyfall,” is slated for release on November 9, with Ben Whishaw taking over for John Cleese as Q. The DVD adds a biography of Ian Fleming.

The first thing loyal fans of History’s “Ancient Aliens” series should know about the latest addition to the library is that “Best of Ancient Aliens” is only new to Blu-ray, not DVD, and it is comprised of four episodes that have previously been released in season-long compilations. Two, at least, already are available in hi-def. Moreover, these episodes – “The Evidence,” “Mysterious Places,” “Aliens and the Old West,” “The Mayan Conspiracy” – all are the first from their respective seasons. It’s true, though, that they look fine in Blu-ray.

By my count, there are now three “reality” shows set in pawn shops, two of them on History. The newest is “Cajun Pawn Stars,” which puts a rural spin on “Pawn Stars” and “Hard Core Porn,” set in Las Vegas and Detroit, respectively. “Cajun Pawn Stars” takes place in and around the family-owned Silver Dollar Pawn & Jewelry,” of Alexandria, Louisiana. Like any sitcom, the family members often are joined on screen by colorful sidekicks and resident authorities. The shop is known for its Civil War and Mardi Gras artifacts. – Gary Dretzka

Katt Williams: Kattpacalypse
Even if comedian Katt Williams is America’s pimp laureate, the frequency with which he uses the n-word makes it difficult to listen to his rants, no matter how funny they may be. He doesn’t use the word for emphasis or shock value, merely as another way of saying “he,” “she,” “you” and “us.” It isn’t likely that his longtime fans mind the vernacular, but newcomers shouldn’t go into his DVDs unprepared. This time around, he begins by taking on President Obama’s record, then tears into atheists and Michael Jackson’s doctor. He then wonders out loud why NASA has begun to launch and return the Space Shuttle in the wee hours of the morning. He concludes that white people at NASA have come up with a way to escape the Mayan-prophesized apocalypse, but don’t want black people to know about it. Sounds like another good reason to get out the vote for Obama in November. The New Year’s Eve performance included a half-dozen lesser-known comics. It would have been nice if someone though to include more than a snippet from their sets. There is a Katt animated short, though. – Gary Dretzka

Team of the ‘80s: San Francisco 49ers
Behind the Steel Curtain: The Pittsburgh Steelers
The new line of titles from NFL Films and Vivendi Entertainment puts so-called dynasties of professional football under a microscope, not only by recapping games that led to championships, but also exploring the things separating those teams from the one-year wonders and formidable also-rans. With the San Francisco 49ers under John Walsh, the dominating feature was the “West Coast offense.” Widely copied, but never completely duplicated, the scheme emphasized the widespread passing game and the development of athletes collected specifically to make it work. Moreover, it became as identified with the city as the Golden Gate Bridge and sour-dough bread. The set adds the 1981 NFC Championship Game and Super Bowl XVI.

The same could be said of Chuck Noll’s Pittsburgh Steelers, which personified the industrial region’s most famous export and the workers who poured the molten steel no matter the heat of the summer or frigid temperatures of winter. Unlike the 49ers, these were blue-collar teams constituted for the enjoyment of blue-collar fans. There may never have been a more dominant defense as the famous Steel Curtain, which literally was impenetrable. The offense, led by Terry Bradshaw, Franco Harris and Lynn Swann wasn’t too shabby, either. The DVD includes the 1972 “Immaculate Reception” game and 1974 AFC championship. – Gary Dretzka

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

Thursday, September 13th, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, September 5th, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, September 3rd, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, August 31st, 2012

At first glance, you’d think that making a film documenting crime and corruption in central Africa, and exposing the underground trade in passports and other official documents, would be as difficult as fishing with hand grenades. It pretty much is, but no one told Mads Brügger that the hard part would be staying alive long enough to see it finished.

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

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

A journalist, TV host and amateur comedian, Brugger’s original target was the easy availability of fraudulent diplomatic credentials, if one knows where to look and can afford them. They open the door to powerful and influential people willing to trade their nation’s most valuable commodities for foreign currency and sometimes allow for diplomatic immunity – was too tempting to ignore. The Dane’s last “ironic” documentary, “The Red Chapel,” took him to North Korea, so, by comparison, how much worse could things be in the Central Africa Republic?

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

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

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

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

Looking like a cross between Hunter S. Thompson, Sascha Baron Cohen and the late comedian, Michael O’Donoghue, Brugger often affected the look of a mid-20th Century “colonial dandy.” With his dark sunglasses, light-colored suits, riding boots, cigarette holder and elitist attitudes, it looked as if he was to the manner born.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Brugger’s triumph in “The Ambassador” is to show, using tiny surveillance cameras, what transpires in the inner chambers of corrupt states and recording the musings of fellow diplomats, local wiseguys and swindlers. To put it mildly, it’s appalling. When one confidante suggests that the diamonds can be smuggled out of the country by secreting them in various orifices of the body, it pushes Brugger’s co-conspirator – production manager Eva Jakobsen – almost over the brink of sanity.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, August 29th, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, August 22nd, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Compliance’ stirs emotions by putting viewers in hot seat

Friday, August 17th, 2012


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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