To Rome With Love: Blu-ray
Sleeper/Hannah and Her Sisters: Blu-ray
For various reasons, mostly financial, Manhattan’s ambassador to the world, Woody Allen, spent most of the last 10 years in Europe making movies that ranged from so-so to wonderful. Because Allen is incapable of turning out a truly inferior product, none was less than watchable. While “Match Point,” “Vicky Cristina Barcelona” and “Midnight in Paris” won the admiration of fans and critics, “You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger,” “Scoop” and “Cassandra’s Dream” proved to be a better deal on DVD. Reviews were mixed on “To Rome With Love,” which neatly intertwined a quartet of unrelated stories involving tourists and residents in the Eternal City. I enjoyed “To Rome With Love” both of the times I’ve watched it and, it made a recognizable dent in domestic and worldwide box-off results. That certainly came as good news to its Roman investors, who literally paid for the privilege of having Allen shoot in their city. The ensemble cast includes Alec Baldwin, Roberto Benigni, Penelope Cruz, Judy Davis, Jesse Eisenberg, Greta Gerwig, Ellen Page, Alison Pill, David Pasquesi and several actors who will be more familiar in Italy than anywhere else. Describing two of the stories would require a bit more space than is available here, but, not surprisingly, perhaps, involve relationships put to the test by mistaken identities and hubris.
In the third vignette, Robert Benigni plays a non-descript office drone, who, for no apparent reason, becomes an instant celebrity. His interplay with his family, newfound fans, paparazzi and entertainment reporters is fun, both as a showcase for Benigni’s elastic personality and as a putdown of today’s celebrity-obsessed culture. In the fourth thread, Allen and Davis travel to Rome to meet the parents of their future son-in-law. After hearing his Italian counterpart sing opera songs in the shower, the former talent scout and producer convinces him to consider a second career on stage. The problem is that the man, a funeral director, has no stage presence to match his golden voice. Allen arranges for an audition, during which a portable shower is brought into the studio and the amateur tenor becomes sufficiently relaxed to give a bravura performance. His voice is so remarkable that audiences forgive the singing mortician his bizarre conceit. His family is far less forgiving. Needless to say, Allen and cinematographer Darius Khondji take full advantage of Rome’s grandeur, light and romantic aura. The Blu-ray contains a making-of featurette in which lots of people discuss the joys of working with Allen, but the maestro, as usual, is absent.
Also new to Blu-ray this week are films representing different creative periods in Allen’s long career. Released in 1973, between the anarchic “Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex * But Were Afraid to Ask” and his heady roast of Russian literature, “Love and Death,” “Sleeper” was the last film in Allen’s populist period. For the next dozen years, he would shift gears several times, almost as if he was testing the loyalty of his fanbase. In addition to such easy-to-love pictures as “Annie Hall,” “Manhattan” and “Broadway Danny Rose,” Allen turned out such brain-teasers as “Interiors,” “Stardust Memories” and “Zelig.” Then, almost out of the blue, “Hannah and Her Sisters” would mark another dramatic turn.
I haven’t seen “Sleeper” in a very long time, but a fresh look at Roger Ebert’s review serves as a reminder of what made it so special. “(Allen) gives us moments in ‘Sleeper’ that are as good as anything since the silent films of Buster Keaton.” Cryogenically frozen after a botched medical procedure, a New York nobody named Miles Monroe wakes up 200 years later in an America that’s ruled by the disembodied nose of an evil dictator. All women are frigid and all men are impotent. Miles is viewed both as a potential enemy by the regime and potential savior by the rebels. After being captured by the government, he pretends to be a robot, but is reprogrammed to believe he’s a beauty-contest competitor. Diane Keaton, in her second cinema pairing with her former lover, plays the beautiful, if decidedly untalented poet, Luna, who comes to his rescue. “Sleeper” is informed as much by the slapstick humor of the silent comedies of the 1920s as the progressive science-fiction novels of the 1960s. The movie’s futuristic look benefitted from location shoots at space-age homes and buildings in California and Colorado and clever use of ordinary household items by costume designers. A sequence in which Allen attempts to elude capture by hiding in a garden of huge fruits and vegetables – as well as a slippery banana peel and giant chicken – was hilarious in 1973 and remains so today.
“Hannah and Her Sisters” became his bittersweet take on the protocols of love and marriage among Manhattan’s intellectual and professional elite. Woody’s character provided the humor, while everyone else supplied the pathos and tortured romance. If viewers outside the 212 area code found it difficult to identify with the problems of people they’d never meet, let alone socialize, the comic relief of Mighty Aphrodite” wouldn’t arrive for another 10 years. “Hannah and Her Sisters” resembles a game of musical chairs, played by close friends and relatives within the orbiting of sisters Mia Farrow, Barbara Hershey and Dianne Wiest. Their myriad husbands and suitors include Allen, Michael Caine, Max von Sydow and Sam Waterston. The sisters have been cursed and blessed with show-biz parents (Lloyd Nolan, Maureen O’Sullivan), whose deep-seated hostility towards each other tends to surface at family events, like the Thanksgiving dinners that bookend the movie. In fact, their daughters look as if they might have been adopted, for all the resemblance they have to each other. “Hannah” is widely considered to be one of Allen’s unquestioned masterpieces, in a career full of them. Neither of the re-issues come with anything more than a trailer. – Gary Dretzka
Taken 2: Blu-ray
If ever a movie wrote its own sequel, it’s “Taken.” Writer/producer Luc Besson’s 2008 thriller scored big by giving audiences exactly what they expected and desired from a hyperviolent action film, while also throwing in some dramatic car chases, a beautiful setting and a newly minted superhero in Liam Neeson. The story was simplicity itself. Neeson played a retired and divorced CIA black-ops agent who had been trained to kill in almost every conceivable way. No sooner had Neeson’s Bryon Mills waved goodbye to his college-age daughter, as she left for a semester abroad in Paris, than she is captured by the Albanian mafia, which specializes in white-slaving. Once in their possession, kidnapped girls are hooked on heroin, turned out in sleazy brothel or put up for auction. With the help of a former spook buddy, it took Mills about 10 minutes to figure out who had kidnaped Kim (Maggie Grace) and another 20 minutes to locate the crooks’ den. Her rescue fills the rest of the movie. After locating the apartment of the stereotypically thuggish Albanians, “Taken” becomes one long, exceedingly well-choreographed chase through Paris and its outskirts. The body count was extremely high, but few viewers here or abroad mourned the loss of several more shady immigrants from southern Europe. Clearly, the kidnapers received the kind of justice they deserved and a wholesome American teenager was saved from a life of sexual abuse in a faraway desert oasis or some oligarch’s playpen.
If Albanians are famous for anything these days, besides surviving two generations of draconian communist rule, it’s the adherence by many of rural citizens to the ancient practice of vendetta justice. And that, in a nutshell, is what “Taken 2” is all about. This time, the setting is Istanbul and the villains are the revenge-crazed relatives of the men Mills dispensed with so cruelly in Paris. Rade Serbedzija plays the father of one of the corpses shipped back to Albania in a chrome box and head of what’s left of his clan. It has now become his mission in life to avenge his son’s death-by-electrocution. Along with three Land Rovers full of heavily armed relatives, he somehow learns that Mills is in Istanbul with his daughter and ex-wife (Famke Janssen), who conveniently has ditched her wealthy second husband. This time, it takes the bad guys about 10 minutes to find Mills in the sprawling Turkish metropolis, another 15 or so for Mills and his former wife to be captured and less than an hour for Mills to escape and team up with his daughter to exact their own vengeance on the stubborn Albanians. There’s a bit more exposition in “Taken 2” than “Taken,” but it doesn’t get in the way of even more high-octane chases, brutal hand-to-hand combat and wildly inaccurate marksmanship on the part of the villains. (It’s become axiomatic that villains can’t hit the broad side of a barn with automatic weapons, while the guys in white hats are sharpshooters.) As such, it’s a safe bet that anyone who enjoyed the original will find a lot to like in the sequel. It did very well at the domestic box-office and even better worldwide.
Through no fault of its own, Istanbul is in danger of becoming an overly familiar city for foreign intrigue. If nothing else, location scouts should consider discouraging filmmakers from using the rooftop of the Grand Bazaar for foot and motorcycle chases for a while, anyway. Among the other movies that have used the exact same site recently are “The International” and “Skyfall.” “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” and “Five Minarets Over New York” made full use of the city, as well. The Blu-ray includes both the unrated extended and theatrical cut; featurettes, “Black Ops Field Manual,” “Kill Counter” and “Tools of the Trade”; deleted and extended scenes; an alternative ending; a special-effects piece; digital copy; and UltraViolet. – Gary Dretzka
Won’t Back Down: Blu-ray
That our nation’s public schools are a mess is hardly a secret. Things are so bad, in fact, that, last November, California voters actually voted to raise taxes to help fix them. That, in itself, is a very big deal. It’s that kind of spirit that pervades “Won’t Back Down,” a movie that argues against the common perception that our democracy is hopelessly broken and common folks are too polarized to make a difference. In Daniel Barnz’ inspirational drama, Maggie Gyllenhaal and Viola Davis demonstrate how two motivated women can change the way things have always been done at a dysfunctional Pittsburgh elementary school. (It was inspired by the enactment of parent-trigger laws, first passed in California three years ago, which allow parents and teachers to petition for underperforming programs to be turned into charter schools.) Teachers at Adams Elementary are dispirited, students are bored and parents can’t figure out how some kids can pass one from one grade to another, even without being able to read or write. Davis plays Nona, a teacher and mother of a young boy at the school where Gyllenhaal’s dyslexic daughter is being bullied by her fellow students and ignored by an impatient teacher. The women meet at a lottery drawing for the few spots open at an award-winning magnet school in the district. Although neither child’s name is announced. Nona and Jamie are inspired by the words of the principal of the magnet school to act. Until parents and faculty got involved there, it was just other institution in which students are warehoused until it is time to graduate. “Won’t Back Down” chronicles the women’s struggle to turn a non-starter into a winner for everyone involved. One guess as to how the movie ends.
Although Barnz’ heart is in the right place, “Won’t Back Down” suffers from some formidable stumbling blocks. More than anything else, Adams School doesn’t look as if it’s being neglected by the district or is a hellhole for students and faculty. The kids are well dressed, ethnically diverse and well behaved – for the most part, anyway – and none of the teachers appear to have been assaulted lately. The real bogeymen here are the teachers’ union, which protects lousy teachers, and school board members too set in their ways to expend energy on fixing broken schools. Union leaders have convinced the majority of Adams’ teachers that their job security will be jeopardized if they join the revolt, while the board has forced the principal to crack down on its organizers. In both cases, the script devices used to demonize the union and school board are far too broad to be convincing. Still, Davis and Gyllenhaal invest their performances with enthusiasm and sincerity, and Holly Hunter, Oscar Isaac, Rosie Perez, Lance Reddick and Marianne Jean-Baptiste add sparkle in supporting roles. The Blu-ray adds deleted scenes and a couple of short pieces on the importance of teachers and supporting our schools. I’d be very surprised to learn, however, that anyone involved in the movie has enrolled their kids in a public school outside Beverly Hills. – Gary Dretzka
Pregnancy has become so politicized in this country that one hardly knows what to say when a friend or relative tells you she’s with child. At the risk of hearing, “But, I don’t know if I’m going to keep it,” the only safe response is something excruciatingly neutral like, “That’s interesting. How do you feel about it?” That’s the response I had to Delphine and Muriel Coulin’s “17 Girls,” which transfers the Gloucester, Massachusetts, “pregnancy pact” scandal to the Brittany coast of France. In Gloucester, the 18 pregnant girls denied such a pact existed and the baby boom was coincidental. In “17 Girls,” however, 16 of them definitely were on the same wavelength. After one of the school’s “popular” kids gets knocked up, by accident, the others followed, if not like lemmings, exactly, then cows heading to the barn to get milked. The driving force apparently was that it might be fun — diverting, at least — to go through the experience together and raise their kids in the same working-class environment. As was the case in Gloucester, the first girl to get pregnant and her boyfriend had simply neglected to use a condom properly. The girls in her clique acted in solidarity with her, while others followed suit because they wanted to hang with the popular girls. And, yes, it did help raise their esteem. Two girls fake their pregnancy. Strangely, we only witness one set of parents act out their anger and frustration. Very few of the boys involved are shown behaving one way or the other to the news that they were on the way to becoming fathers.
The news from Gloucester raised eyebrows around the world; inspired numerous magazine articles, talk-show chatter and an episode of “Law & Order”; and, of course, it was dramatized in a made-for-Lifetime movie. In the less-media-crazy French town, however, the girls don’t seem to have been given an opportunity to experience even 14 minutes of fame, let alone a bidding war for interviews. Most returned to school before settling into full- or part-time motherhood. The depiction is all so matter-of-fact, it’s practically maddening. Instead of judgment or an invitation to pass judgment, the Coulins have delivered an interesting and occasionally quite moving essay on friendship. Now, if the same thing had happened in an inner-city American high school or, perhaps, a Parisian school full of the children of immigrants from Africa, some loudmouth talk-show host might have demanded mass sterilization, or a pro-choice activist would have lobbied for more sex-education courses and greater access to birth control. The thing to remember here, though, is that 17 of the 18 American girls and 16 of 17 French girls knew exactly what could happen by having unprotected sex. At a time when tens of millions of young men and women prey that the urine test will register negative, that’s probably the most difficult thing to grasp in “17 Girls.” – Gary Dretzka
Farewell, My Queen
Although the events described in “Farewell, My Queen” and “Les Miserables” take place almost 25 years from each other, I think that fans of Victor Hugo’s novel and its many stage, television and movie adaptations will enjoy Benoit Jacqout’s story of life at Versailles as the Bastille was being ravaged. Unlike Sophia Coppola’s “Marie Antoinette,” which ends where “Farewell” begins, Jacqout’s story focuses on the servants who were closest to her and had concerns of their own about their fates. Based on the best-selling novel by Chantal Thomas, it stars Léa Seydoux as the queen’s reader and confidante. Her timing couldn’t be less fortuitous. Just as she is attaining a position of comfort among the ladies-in-waiting, the bottom falls out from under her. Diane Kruger portrays Marie Antoinette as being less flighty and full of herself than the same character played by Kirsten Dunst. The “Upstairs Dowstairs” aspect of “Farewell, My Queen” is more pronounced, especially as gossip about the rebellion spreads through Versailles. Like Coppola, Jacqout takes full advantage of the access he received to the royal chateau. The attention to period detail in the set and costume design is exquisite, especially in hi-def, and well worth the price of a rental. The Blu-ray adds interviews with the director and several stars. – Gary Dretzka
More than any other movie I’ve seen in a long time, “Compliance” demands that viewers put themselves in the place of the characters on screen and experience some of the same pain they do. You might remember the incidents that inspired Craig Zobel to make the intentionally controversial film, which divided critics and angered festival audiences. A prank caller, masquerading as a cop, convinced a manager at a fast-restaurant that one of her employees may have stolen some money from a customer and she must work with police to discover the truth. The last thing the caller is interested in is the facts, however. Of greater importance to him is seeing, even vicariously, how far an average person might go to comply with the patently illegal demands of someone who merely pretends to be in law-enforcement. Here, Ann Dowd turns in a terrific performance as Sandy, the manager of a suburban Ohio chicken joint too harried to give more than a moment’s pause over what she’s being asked to do. The caller, who almost certainly had visited the establishment earlier that day, perfectly describes the pretty blond server, Becky (Dreama Walker), as the culprit. Instead of agreeing to take Becky directly to the police station, where she could be read her rights and appraised of the accusation, Sandy agrees to take her employee into a storage room and conduct an agonizingly slow strip search. When she declares that this is taking too much time away from her duties, the caller suggests several options, including having a male employee stand guard over the half-naked teenager. The sexual thrill the caller is getting from this exercise in power is palpable through the line.
The first obvious question Zobel wants us to ask ourselves is how we’d act in the same situation. Sandy may not be an ogre, but she’s criminally unaware of the rights afforded American citizens under the Constitution and workers by the NLRB. Before you assume she’s too stupid to hold a management position, even in the fast-food business, you should know that the same ruse was attempted 70 times in 30 states and those managers who refused to participate were in the distinct minority. Indeed, before things got too nasty, Becky and the co-conspirators reluctantly agreed to participate in the investigation, for fear of losing their job. If stupidity were a legitimate defense, we’d all be guilty of something. Zobel, whose “Great World of Sound” chronicled the gullibility of aspiring musicians, elicits thrilling performances from his cast. (Dowd deserved a Supporting Actress nod as much as any of this year’s finalists.) He also holds his audiences in his grip throughout “Compliance,” asking questions that demand answers. Are the characters being unfairly manipulated by the director? Are we? Is the manager as gullible as she seems to be or are extenuating circumstances left out of the narrative? Can we, the viewers, be accused of voyeurism, simply for staying in our seats during Becky’s ordeal? The critics who gave the movie low grades felt tarnished and manipulated. I wouldn’t put too much stock in their concerns, though. Occasionally, movies should leave emotional scars. The Blu-ray contains a couple of backgrounders, as well as an interview with Zobel. – Gary Dretzka
Now Is Good
Movies in which attractive young people die before their time have been a cinema staple for as long as there have been movies. The first adaptation of Alexandre Dumas’ “Camilla” was made in 1907, with another half-dozen to come in the next decade. The first adaptations of “Anna Karenina” were shown in 1910 and 1911, with the latest take on the Tolstoy classic arriving in time for 2013 awards consideration, last November. In 1969, author/screenwriter Erich Segal’s “Love Story” cut the template from which all modern tear-jerkers would be built. If it weren’t for “Love Story” the disease-of-the-week genre may never emerged and, with it, the Lifetime Movie sub-genre. Released last fall in the international market, there probably weren’t enough screens available for Ol Parker’s tear-jerking teen tragedy, “Now Is Good.” If not, someone here might have given it a shot. The always-wonderful Dakota Fanning plays Tessa Scott, a pretty blond teenager who knows that she’ll probably die before experiencing the same rites of passage as most of her friends. Moreover, she’s been battling leukemia long enough to demand that she no longer participate in chemotherapy. If she’s going to die, she’ll do it on her own terms. Paddy Considine plays the obsessively protective father who means well but often gets in the way of her enjoying what left of her life. Her mother (Olivia Williams) can’t take the pressure – or doesn’t want to be bothered, one – and stays in the background for half of the movie, at least.
Tessa is fiercely independent, even to the point of hurling sarcastic retorts at her father when he questions her choices. She has a bucket list of things to do that mostly fall under the heading of misdemeanors, but it’s topped by a desire to experience sex, if not make love, exactly. She comes close to it a couple times, but pulls back when the boy admits to knowing of her condition through her more randy girlfriend (Kaya Scodelario). She definitely isn’t into mercy sex. Almost on cue, a young man (Jeremy Irvine) who fits her needs precisely moves in next door. A gentleman through and through, his reserved responses to her sexual advances confound Tessa. Their courting ritual gets a bit tiresome after a while, but the urgency returns when her illness kicks into a higher gear. The movie’s final half-hour plays out with as much dignity and as little tear-coaxing as could possibly be hoped for in a teen tragedy. Fanning’s performance should please younger viewers also awaiting the first stirrings of genuine love, especially with a dreamboat like Irvine (“The War Horse”). Conversely, I can’t imagine any teenage boy staying with the movie for more than hour. “Now Is Good” is adapted from Jenny Downham’s best-seller, “Before I Die.” Parker previously wrote and directed “Imagine You & Me,” and penned the screenplay for “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel.” The DVD adds deleted scenes and a bankgrounder. – Gary Dretzka
Jack and Diane: Blu-ray
John Mellencamp fans who go back to his “John Cougar” iteration shouldn’t confuse the new DVD, “Jack and Diane,” with his 1982 chart-topper, “Jack & Diane.” I only mention this because that song was the first thing that came to mind when I saw the movie’s title. Instead, it’s a gritty, punky, urban coming-of-age story about two teenage girls experimenting with their emerging sexuality. Oh, yeah, there’s also a Freudian werewolf involved. Set in a funky New York City neighborhood, “J&D” describes the intense, if frequently transgressive relationship between the skateboarding street urchin, Jack (Riley Keough), and an aspiring fashion designer, Diane (Juno Temple), who comes off as a 21st Century Stevie Nicks. Both are outcasts, with more baggage between them than the average bus station. The same could be said of Bradley Rust Gray’s overly ambitious movie. Jack is the take-charge character who dominates the ultra-femme Diane for most of the movie. When she learns that her sovereignty will disappear when Diane splits for fashion school in Paris, Gray dials up the intensity level by adding disturbing images of a werewolf’s transformation, from below the epidermis. The Quay Brothers really outdid themselves in the creation of these icky sequences. As you might have already guessed, “J&D” can be an unholy mess, as the girls wrestle with their personal identity issues and master-slave relationship (for lack of a better term).
Easily the best things about the movie, which should play far better among teens living on the fringes of their own claustrophobic worlds, are the lead performers. Only 23, Juno Temple has already proven herself to be one of the bravest and most convincing actors of her generation. She’s given amazing performances in the edgy indies “Killer Joe,” “Dirty Girl” and “Kaboom,” while holding her own among the big kids in “The Dark Knight Rises,” “Atonement” and “The Three Musketeers.” She’ll probably be competing for roles with Elizabeth Olsen, Kristen Stewart, Alicia Vikander, Saoriise Ronan, Dakota Fanning and the various Gemmas and Emmas out there for years to come. Keogh, Elvis’ granddaughter, may have fewer credits, but she’s made her presence known in such films as “The Good Doctor,” “Magic Mike” and “The Runaways.” The Blu-ray adds new music by Mum and Kylie Minogue, who plays Diane’s cantankerous aunt. – Gary Dretzka
Lightning Bug: Blu-ray
The artwork on the cover of “Lightning Bug” suggests that the movie contained therein is of the slasher persuasion. Although there are no knives or pools of blood in evidence, I’ve seen the same layout on the jackets of a dozen earlier horror movies. Throughout most of the first half of Robert Hall’s 2004 directorial debut, I wondered when the special-effects wizardry would wane and the real horror begin. Instead, “Lightning Bug” stayed true to Hall’s original vision – if not the marketing material – by slowly, but surely evolving into a highly compelling coming-of-age drama. The horror exists in the protagonist’s fertile imagination, which late will provide a ticket out of his backwater hometown and color the black hearts of his antagonists. Once that concept took hold in my mind, it was easy to sit back and enjoy the heartfelt semi-autobiographical story being told in “Lightning Bug.”
At 39, Hall is one of Hollywood’s most prolific creators of special makeup effects. Like the film’s central character, Green Graves (Bret Harrison), Hall spent his high school years in Alabama creating monsters and freaking out his friends, especially at Halloween. How much of the rest of the movie is autobiographical is irrelevant to any enjoyment of “Lightning Bug.” Green, his brother and mother have recently moved to the rural South after the death of his father in Detroit. Any teenage male who doesn’t participate in sports or covet his neighbor’s pickup truck is a freak of nature in Alabama. Having acquired only a couple of goofball buddies, Green is the proverbial square peg in a round hole. His mother’s new boyfriend is a brute cut from the same cloth as Dwight Yoakum’s character in “Slingblade.” He demands that Green seek employment at the town’s chicken-processing plant, where most of locals are condemned to live out their lives. After hooking up with the pretty clerk at the video store (Lauren Prepon), he’s encouraged to scale the mountain standing between him and Hollywood. First, though, he must deal with his mother’s boyfriend and local holy rollers, who consider the boy to be a tool of Satan.
Hall does a nice job keeping the redneck stereotypes from distracting viewers from Green’s journey. His mom’s boyfriend is a gargoyle, but no more so than any of the fright masks and monsters he creates for the town’s annual haunted house. Again, unlike most slasher movies, most of the violence takes place off-screen and in the recesses of the viewers’ imagination. Sadly, “Lightning Bug” didn’t find distribution off of the festival circuit in 2004, with the subsequent DVD release attaining something resembling cult status. It richly deserves to be discovered anew in its Blu-ray incarnation. Besides Harrison and Prepon, the cast includes Kevin Gage, Ashley Laurence, Hal Sparks, Shannon Eubanks, Lucas Till and Josh Todd. It arrives with both the theatrical and director’s-cut versions; deleted scenes, most featuring a nutso character played by Donald Gibb; a couple of decent making-of featurettes; and a music video.
The cover art for “Ghoul” may be more forthcoming, but the message is pretty much the same: even in horror movies, it isn’t always easy to spot the real monsters. The movie was adapted from a novel by Brian Keene that became a best-seller among teens. It takes several liberties with the material, but is close enough for a made-for-cable movie. It’s the summer of 1984 and a trio of pre-teen boys plans to spend much of it in a clubhouse carved into a series of tunnels on the outskirts of Golgotha Cemetery. Local legend has it that a ghoul haunts the area around the cemetery, where, between the newly dead and canoodlers, it never has to order out for food. That’s news to the boys, who, upon closer inspection, find heirloom trinkets and jewelry scattered throughout the tunnels. Coincidentally, several other young people are found dead or feared kidnaped at about the same time. It’s at this point that “Ghoul” director Gregory Wilson slows things down a bit by focusing on family dynamics among the boys. By the end, everything makes perfect sense. “Ghoul” isn’t a terribly frightening experience, but fans of the book should find it entertaining. There’s also a making-of featurette. – Gary Dretzka
China Heavyweight: Blu-ray
I Am Bruce Lee: Blu-ray
Westerners can learn a lot about China from the spate of new documentaries from the People’s Republic. Yung Chang’s “China Heavyweight” joins such fascinating studies as “High Tech, Low Life,” “Last Train Home,” “Beijing Punk,” “Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry” and Chang’s earlier “Up the Yangtze.” This doesn’t take into account the many docs about the situation in Tibet and foreign-made documentaries about working conditions in Chinese factories, toxic products and the predatory economy. I’ve seen hundreds of movies and documentaries about boxing, many of which use the ancient sport as a metaphor for something or other. “China Heavyweight” is familiar in the sense that boxing has traditionally been used by poor people as an escape route to respectability and prosperity that otherwise would be denied them. The situation in China is different, if only because Chairman Mao banned the sport for being overly violent and too influenced by capitalism. Some 30 years later, boxing and other competitive activities were revived as was the pursuit of Olympics glory. To that end, former star boxers and coaches have been entrusted with the responsibility of discovering promising boys and girls, who will be moved from their farms and villages to state supported schools dedicated to sports. “China Heavyweight” follows Qi Moxiang around Sichuan province as he scouts the territory and visits the students. In his late-30s, he also harbors the hope of rekindling his own boxing career. Those amateurs who do make it to the top rung of the sport face a dilemma not unlike the one faced by the great Cuban Olympians of the 1960-70s. They can continue to fight for the collective good as amateurs or decide to go pro and risk the economic punishments that come with failure. American professionals have confronted many of the same roadblocks, without the security of state-supported facilities. In addition to the scenes shot at the school and competitive events, Chang emphasizes the natural beauty of the province, where the men, women and children not similarly gifted labor in the fields cutting tobacco. The DVD includes 30 minutes of deleted scenes.
I didn’t see any photos of Bruce Lee alongside those of the many champion boxers in Qi’s bedroom, but the fighters had one thing in common, at least, besides being Chinese. Although Lee remains one of the most admired practitioners of martial arts, he studied boxing techniques and combined them with his expertise at wing chun karate. That’s one of the things I learned while watching the new bio-doc, “I Am Bruce Lee.” In it, former lightweight boxing champion Ray “Boom Boom” Mancini testifies as to Lee’s influence on him and, when asked, how he might have gone about a face-to-face challenge. UFC president Dana White suggests that Lee was the “father of mixed martial arts.” There have been several documentaries and profiles of Lee in the nearly 40 years since his death, at 32, but none that’s as well made, wide ranging and disparately sourced. Besides White and Mancini, those interviewed are Kobe Bryant, boxer Manny Pacquiao, actors Mickey Rourke and Ed O’Neill, musician Taboo, veteran martial artists Dan Inosanto, Richard Bustillo, Bob Wall, Gina Carano and Gene LeBell; and Lee’s daughter, Shannon Lee, wife, Linda Lee Cadwell, and honorary niece, Diana Lee Inosanto. Pete McCormack’s film also contains dozens of clips from martial arts action films and rare archival footage, and a discussion about the myths and circumstances surrounding his death. All bio-docs should be as solid as “I Am Bruce Lee.” The Blu-ray adds several more clips, including Lee’s Hollywood screen test. – Gary Dretzka
Battle for Brooklyn
For most of the last 40 years, Detroit has been the civic personification of dystopia-American style. Instead of maintaining its status as a 143-square-mile symbol of this country’s industrial might, the grand city became the capital of the Rust Belt. Detroit might have disappeared altogether if the government didn’t bail out its automakers when the recent depression hit. I wonder if Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady’s “Detropia” didn’t begin its life as a eulogy, but, as the bail-out worked its magic, change direction by offering a sliver of optimism to viewers. Unlike the congressmen and conservatives who argued against the rescue effort, the people we meet in “Detropia” have lived and worked in the city for decades. Some came here to escape racism in the Jim Crow South, while others moved to Detroit to build the tank, trucks and planes that would be needed to win World War II. The unions helped these people move into the middle class and give their children the choice of going to college, serving their country in uniform or making more cars and trucks. Their stories play out against a background of the urban decay, local watering holes and an opera representing traditional Motor City culture, which was largely backed by GM, Chrysler and Ford. Some of the witnesses are flat broke and hopeless, while others continue to fight the good fight. It’s an interesting document, if incomplete. Two questions remain: what would Detroit look like today if Mitt Romney and his cronies had convinced Congress not to bail out the automakers? The other, “What will Detroit look like in two or three years, given the current upswing in the auto industry.”
Likewise, Michael Galinsky and Suki Hawley’s “Battle of Brooklyn” describes what can happen when politics and capitalism merge for only some of the right reasons. The documentary describes one small community’s lonely, Sisyphean battle to block a land grab by some of the wealthiest and powerful people in New York. As is so often the case, a developer went behind the backs of residents and their representatives to push through a project of dubious need and value to Brooklyn. In this case, it was Forest City Ratner’s Atlantic Yards sports complex in a largely industrial, partially residential area of the borough. A similar thing happened to the working-class residents of Chavez Ravine, when the Dodgers moved to L.A., and when Chicago’s United Center chewed up more of the blighted West Side than the Stadium already had. The lure of bringing one of the NBA’s worst teams to the borough and, with it, food courts, mini-malls, discount stores and movie theaters was too great a temptation for city and state authorities to resist. Instead of low-rise housing, the company wanted to create the densest upscale real-estate development in U.S. history. In doing so, Ratner dangled the promise of jobs to the largely African-American Brooklynites – as if New York unions could be told who to hire — and the benefits of the so-called halo-effect before small businesses.
In this way, it split the community and painted the residents of the target neighborhood as the bad guys. Meanwhile, Ratner was paying off pro-development activists and clergy from outside the neighborhood. All along, though, the fix was in. Government agencies were already in bed with the company and no pissant neighborhood group was going to prevent them for getting access to luxury boxes, campaign contributions and outright bribes. The David in this confrontation is represented by Daniel Goldstein, a resident who, for seven years, refused to buckle to the misuse of “eminent domain” abuses. Goldstein and his supporters refused to take “no” for an answer and fought the case against eminent domain as far as it would go. Finally, the smugness that oozes from the faces of the developers tells everything that needs to be said about the results of the campaign. In the film’s postscript, it’s duly noted that almost none of the promises made by Forest City Ratner came to pass, except the sports arena, and New York taxpayers are paying for those shortfalls in company profits that didn’t include executive compensation. – Gary Dretzka
The Last Fall
Writer/director Matthew A. Cherry played wide receiver in the NFL before turning to the music-video game and, with “The Last Fall,” his first feature film. Its protagonist, not surprisingly, is a wide receiver who’s just been relieved of his duties on a team’s practice squad. Kyle Bishop is one of many players who aspire to making a solid living, if not to achieve stardom, as a professional player. When that dream appears to end, he returns to his boyhood home with a pile of IOU’s on his plate and a chip on his shoulder. I’m not sure I buy how quickly things turn sour for Kyle, but they surely do. Although he can’t find a job, he’s able to re-establish his ties to his first girlfriend, who’s now a single mother of a nice little boy. No sooner does he give up his dreams of returning to the big show and getting married, he gets a call from his agent with news about a tryout in Jacksonville, where Cherry once played. Things get even more complicated when his girlfriend appears to be getting together again with her baby’s daddy. It humbles Kyle, a self-centered man who could use some help in that department. “The Last Fall” may be quite a bit too melodramatic for its own good, but underserved “urban” audiences might enjoy watching such actors as Lance Gross, Nicole Beharie, Vanessa Bell Calloway, Obba Babatunde, Keith David and Darrin Dwight Hanson. – Gary Dretzka
30 Nights of Paranormal Activity With the Devil Inside the Girl With the Dragon Tattoo: Blu-ray
The Golden Age of Movie Parodies is long past, so fans of the genre are forced to take what they get these days. Sadly, most of these straight-to-video spoofs have been no funnier than the movies, TV shows and commercials they purport to lampoon. Somehow, Craig Moss’ “30 Nights of Paranormal Activity With the Devil Inside the Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” has managed to elevate itself above the usual junk. This isn’t to imply it’s in the same league as “Blazing Saddles,” “Airplane!” or “I’m Gonna Git You Sucka,” just that it’s a step or two more entertaining than the stuff churned out by Jason Friedberg and Aaron Seltzer, including “Meet the Spartans,” “Disaster Movie,” “Vampires Suck” and “Epic Movie.” In fact, it’s noticeably better than Moss’ own “Breaking Wind” and “41-Year-Old Virgin Who Knocked Up Sarah Marshall.” Perhaps, that’s because Kathryn Fiore, Flip Schultz, Olivia Alexandra, French Stewart and Danny Woodson are more polished comedians than the stars of his other movies, or it could simply mean the found-footage subgenre is so much richer. “30 Nights” begins with the opening of a storage locker by women who won a bidding war on “Storage Wars.” Besides Adele, who’s performing at a piano when she isn’t eating, the only treasure to be found inside the locker in a VHS cassette labeled “found footage.”
Fiore and Schultz move into a house that shows signs of being haunted, so they immediately hire a security firm to install cameras in every conceivable corner, as the families in the “Paranormal Activity” did. They also hire a cut-rate Ghostbusters operation, Ghost Brothers. In this way, too, they can monitor the activities of their year-old baby and a teenage daughter who takes her fashion cues from Lisbeth Salander. The teenager attracts the attention of their next-door neighbor, Abraham Lincoln, and a pair of lesbian vampires. Eventually, the parents get used to being haunted and are able to sleep through whatever tricks the ghosts play on them. This, of course, only serves to piss off the resident poltergeists. The riffs on “Paranormal Activity” are pretty effective, as is a parody of “Black Swan” performed by the couple’s gay nanny. If any of that sounds funny to you, a rental wouldn’t be the worst investment in time and money. If not, don’t bother. The Blu-ray adds a short making-of featurette. – Gary Dretzka
Joan Rivers: Don’t Start With Me
Harland Williams: A Force of Nature
Don Rickles has spent most of the last 50 years hurling insults at fans and celebrities, alike. Legend has it that he made his bones in the 1950s by poking fun at Frank Sinatra, who was catching his act in a Miami Beach nightclub. Instead of telling his bodyguards to beat the crap out of him, Sinatra told all of his friends to catch his act. And, late at night in the lounge of Las Vegas’ Sahara Hotel, they did. Besides a few mild racial and ethnic jabs, the worst thing he called anyone was a “hockey puck.” I mention this after watching Joan Rivers’ latest in-performance DVD, “Don’t Start With Me.” Now, that’s some mean-ass shtick. While still plenty funny, her material tests the invisible borders drawn between insult comedy and character assassination. And her targets aren’t limited to such newsmakers as Chaz Bono, Oprah and Gayle, Angelina Jolie and the Kardashians. It’s when she wrings laughs out of the “gift shop” at Auschwitz, Anne Frank’s one-book career, Jacqueline Kennedy’s wild side and other personalities too dead to fire back bon mots. I think I can recall many of the same sexually oriented gags from 20 years ago, but, for those whose ears are younger than mine, it still brings the house down. In this case, the “house” is the grand old Chicago Theater, only a couple miles from the venerable Second City troupe’s Old Town headquarters, where Rivers got her start. “Don’t Start With Me” originally was shown on Showtime and, unfortunately, doesn’t include bonus features.
In “A Force of Nature,” Harland Williams attempts to answer the question, “If a comedian performs atop a hill in the desert and no one is there to hear him, does he get laughs?” The deafening silence that greets Williams after each of his frequently scatological observations suggests that the answer is emphatically “no.” Neither does he elicit much of a response when he turns his back to the camera and pisses off the edge of his “stage” deep in the Mojave. This isn’t to imply that the Toronto native isn’t funny or that, all things considered, the tortoise and crow he uses as second-bananas upstage him. Mostly, it proves that in-performance DVDs tend to fare better with a live audience there to validate the comic’s humor. Originally staged for Showtime, “Force of Nature” benefits most from the lively cinematography, which probably was accomplished with cameras positioned on tall cranes. Usually in televised comedy performances, the last thing viewers are supposed to notice is the camerawork. Here, the desert background often is more interesting than the material. You do have to give Williams some credit, though, for attempting such an experiment. Although “Force of Nature” falls short of being surreal, it’s never short of weird. – Gary Dretzka
BBC: The Hour 2: Blu-ray
BBC: The Adventures of Merlin: The Complete Fourth Season: Blu-ray
Doctor Who: Shada
BBC: Being Human: Season Four: Blu-ray
BBC: Waking the Dead: Complete Season Seven
BBC: Red Dwarf X: Blu-ray
BBC: Last of the Summer Wine: Vintage 1997
SCI: An Idiot Abroad 2
TNT: Men of a Certain Age: The Complete Second Season
Comparing a yet-to-air television mini-series to bona-fide hit, such as “Mad Men,” can be a blessing and a curse for a show. Such marketing boasts, even when culled from positive reviews by influential critics, may guarantee a big opening for a seemingly derivative show like the BBC’s “The Hour,” but, after a couple of weeks, it either has to justify the hype or die a very public death. While NBC’s “Playboy Club” and ABC’s “Pan Am” failed to live to the publicity material, “The Hour” was able to overcome negative reviews in the British press and become a modest hit for BBC America. (Starz’ sexy period soap “Magic City” succeeded by playing down the “Mad Man” comparisons and focusing on the Rat Pack angle and frequent nudity.) “The Hour” is set during a particularly interesting period in recent British history. Sex scandals, political corruption and revelations about espionage at the top levels of government kept the tabloid press buzzing in the 1950s, even as the country’s post-war recovery inched slowly forward. The BBC’s “The Hour” was a general-interest newsmagazine, not unlike “60 Minutes,” which kept news executives, censors and spin-doctors busy in the Cold War period. In its first season, the show’s editors and reporters bristled when they were told to spin the Suez crisis in favor of the British intervention. Sources ended up dead and spies turned up in the unlikeliest of places. Season Two finds the country in better financial straits, but with “The Hour” having to start from Square One after being forcibly put on hiatus. This time, the target of the show’s investigative team is organized crime in London’s entertainment district, as well as its reach into the pockets of police, business and government circles. The fine cast includes several actors familiar from other BBC imports. They include Ben Whishaw, Dominic West, Romola Garai, Tim Pigott-Smith, Juliet Stevenson, Burn Gorman, Anton Lessa, Anna Chancellor, Julian Rhind-Tutt and Oona Chaplin. It’s as good an hour of television that can be found this side of “Mad Men.” It comes with a making-of featurette.
“The Adventures of Merlin” is to British fantasy-adventure series what “Smallville” is to comic-book heroes on big and small screens in America. The wizard Merlin has yet to grow whiskers and Arthur is still a prince. That’s not a bad angle for a series, anywhere. In the fourth go-round, Merlin is still taking bullets for Arthur and keeping the various dragons and demons at bay. Morgana shows her gratitude by doing everything in her to power to get rid of her half-brother and use Merlin as a weapon in her court. By now, it’s getting difficult to tell all of the real and fantasy players without a scorecard. By the end of the season, we’re back in familiar territory with Merlin leading Arthur to his inevitable date with the sword in the stone and remounting his campaign to return to Camelot. The set adds commentaries, deleted scenes and outtakes. After a brief fling with NBC, “Merlin” continues on Syfy.
Most of what the late Douglas Adams contributed to “Doctor Who” was done under the pseudonym David Agnew or as a script editor. “Shada” was written in the late 1970s as the final serial of the 17th season. A writers strike prevented Adams from completing it, but two short clips from the unfinished episode were used in the 1983 special episode, “The Five Doctors.” The new DVD contains the “Fourth Doctor” story, newly restored from original film negatives and studio recordings. It linked material from the Tom Baker years, 1974-81, and the 1993 anniversary special, “More Than 30 Years in the Tardis.” As usual, the BBC release adds a bunch background material on the episode, the writers’ strike, interviews, PDF material and, from 2003, an audio book/Flash animation for BBC Interactive. The remade version starred Paul McGann, as the Doctor, with Lalla Ward reprising her role as Romana and John Leeson as K-9.
It’s getting tough to keep the new DVD compilations of “Being Human” straight. Two weeks ago, the second season of the American/Canadian remake, shown on Syfy, was shipped and this week’s release is from the BBC and BBC America version, which, later in 2013, will enter its fifth season. Things are getting tough in Honolulu Heights, where Annie gets two new supernatural roommates, Tom and Hal, and the late Nina’s human baby, dubbed the Chosen One. Drastic measures need to be taken to avoid mutual-assured destruction of ghosts, vampires and werewolves. They come in the form of extreme sacrifices, emotionally and physically. It’s pretty exciting, really. The Blu-ray adds deleted scenes, interviews and a behind-the-scenes featurette.
The terrific BBC and BBC America police-procedural series, “Waking the Dead,” has already bit the dust in England, but three DVD compilations remain extant in the U.S. Season Seven is comprised of six two-part investigations for the Cold Case Squad to solve. They deal with international terrorism, private military contractors, the penal system, sex offenders, Navajo rituals, human trafficking and neo-Nazi politics to close more previously unsolved cases. Boyd’s son, who’s been missing for seven years, also makes a surprise reappearance this season.
The British sci-fi comedy franchise, “Red Dwarf,” has been making Brits laugh since 1988, with several hiatus periods between then and now. If Mel Brooks, the co-writer/director of “Space Balls,” had agreed to do produce one of the “Star Trek” spinoffs, it might have looked a lot like “Red Dwarf.” Although not a monster hit, the series spun off books, music, magazine, role-playing game and other merchandise. A pilot for an American version was shot, but never shown, and a feature film apparently has been in early stages of development since 1999. “Red Dwarf X,” the tenth iteration of the series, reunites the original cast of Chris Barrie, Craig Charles, Danny John-Jules and Robert Llewellyn as passengers on the Red Dwarf mining ship (Kryten). One is the last known human alive, while the crew members are a hologram of the captain’s long-dead bunkmate and humanoid versions of a computer and a cat. In one of the adventures included in the new six-hour compilation, they are transported back in time several million years, to Roman-held Palestine in 23 A.D. It’s here that they meet Jesus and Judas, in a storyline no American sitcom would touch in a million light years. The Blu-ray adds the feature-length documentary, “We’re Smegged,” outtakes and deleted scenes.
Love is in the air during the 18th season of the venerable Brit comedy, “Last of the Summer Wine,” in which geezers Compo, Clegg and Foggy attempt to squeeze as much mischief out of their twilight years as possible. In what turns out to be Foggy’s last year among us, the trio joins the cast of a horror movie being shot in town, become fodder for a new dating service and “help” a hiker writing a guidebook. In an effort to cop a kiss from Nora Batty, Compo buys a motorbike from Auntie Wainwright to impress her. The set includes the 1996 New Year’s Eve special, “Extra! Extra!”
Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant’s hilariously masochistic travel show, “An Idiot Abroad,” is an unlikely hybrid of “Jackass,” “No Reservations” and “Malcolm in the Middle,” with their masochistic buddy Karl Pilkington serving as human guinea pig and village idiot. They previously collaborated on HBO’s animated talk show, “The Ricky Gervais Show,” in which Pilkington’s birdbrain theories also provided most of the laughs. In Season 2, the show’s co-creators asked Pilkington to come up with a Bucket List of things he’d like to do before he died. After the concept is explained to him in painfully obviously terms, the knucklehead is handed airline ticket to several exotic locations in the company of a sound and camera crew. Invariably, Gervais finds ways to turn these dream destinations into living nightmares. For instance, instead of being allowed to swim with dolphins, as requested, he’s required to jump into a shark cage off the Australian coast and act the fool to grab the attention of a Great Shark. Similarly, before he can get a glimpse of a whale in the seas off Alaska, he must spend a few days enduring some of the coldest weather on the planet, traipsing around on snowshoes and helping the driver of a “honey wagon” picking up near-frozen human excrement. Pilkington’s love of monkeys and primate lore provided lots of laughs on the talk show, but when confronted with hundreds of the thieving bastards in a reserve, he quickly changed his mind. Also in Thailand, he visited a cobra habitat and shared with the owner a lunch of ants, bugs and other unsavory treats. In addition to being very funny, “An Idiot Abroad” takes viewers to places that most tourists would never dream of going.
Of all the shows that didn’t get renewed for a third season last year, TNT’s “Men of a Certain Age” created the largest vacuum in my playlist of favorites. It told the story of three longtime friends, who, while on cusp of 50, were experiencing many of the same problems and a few of the joys of other guys in the same middle-class, suburban demographic. Sounds dreary, but the series pretty much told it like it is, without dramatic embellishments or convenient fixes for difficult situations. Even after filtering the realistically profane dialogue, I think “Men of a Certain Age” might have fared better on network television, if only because it would be easier for men to find without a GPS devise and the stars already had proven themselves in popular series. Co-creator Ray Romano plays Joe, the recently divorced owner of a party-supply store and father of two. He’s a recovering gambling addict and dreams of joining the senior golf tour. Owen (Andre Braugher) works at his father-in-law’s car dealership and, if he didn’t love his wife as much as he does, probably would have killed the old goat by now. Terry (Scott Bakula) is an actor whose age works against him when seeking parts and, in the meantime, manages an apartment complex. They get together on a regular basis for breakfast, hikes and fairly standard guy talk. It’s their interaction with women and co-workers that provides the most laughs. In the second and final season, the characters turn 50, an age that comes with more baggage than almost any other milestone. What’s nice is the easy rapport the men share and concern for each other’s well-being. That, and an insistence that live doesn’t have to end at 50. The DVD adds a gag reel, deleted scenes, audio commentary, a behind-the-scenes featurette, “The Bitter/Sweet 50” and music video. – Gary Dretzka
Cartoon Network: Amazing World of Gumball: The Mystery
Nickelodeon: SpongeBob SquarePants: Extreme Kah-Rah-Tay
Nick Jr.: Let’s Learn: ABCs/Let’s Learn: 1, 2, 3s
The new arrivals to the Peanut Gallery are noted duly: No one gets cheated the “Gumball” compilations, which both have logged in at 132 minutes … an eternity by the standards of too many DVDs targeted at kids. This time, the award-winning British/American co-production finds the 12-year-old cat still making trouble at a time when his peers have gotten fat and lazy. Here, he’s chased around school by a T-Rex; has a friend named Anton, who’s literally a piece of toast; develops a crush on Penny, a peanut with antlers. For the uninitiated, Gumball’s dad is a 6-foot-4 bunny; mom works at a Rainbow Factory; and his brother is a goldfish named Darwin.
In the new SpongeBob collection, “Extreme Kah-Rah-Tay,” the emphasis is on sports and competition. Of the eight episodes, only two focus on martial arts and Sandy’s sensei. The rest are funny, but in the extreme.
Your youngest viewers can get a head start on their A, B, C’s and 1, 2, 3’s with the help of their friends from various Nick Jr. shows. The “Let’s Learn” series provides lessons that are both useful and entertaining. – Gary Dretzka