Dallas Buyers Club: Blu-ray
There have been several very good movies and miniseries made about the AIDS crisis and people who’ve made a difference in the ongoing struggle for a cure. Among the storylines that have been consistent throughout the 30-year fight is the one that describes the U.S. government’s steadfast reluctance to acknowledge the immediacy of the problem. Because the FDA was hesitant to treat AIDS as an epidemic from the get-go, scientists and researchers weren’t able to devote the time, money and resources to understand how it spread, let alone test possible cures. When other countries began to make experimental drugs available to patient volunteers, the FDA left the research to the big pharmaceutical companies that stood to benefit financially from any successful treatment programs. Field trials were conducted as if there was no greater urgency than is usual in combating a virus. Instead, they followed traditional guidelines, including the issuance of placebos to people whose lives literally hung in the balance. This was very much the case in 1985, when AIDS/HIV was still considered to be a disease limited to gay men and a Texas electrician and part-time rodeo rider, Ron Woodroof, discovered that he was infected with the HIV/AIDS virus. Because Woodroof was a committed heterosexual and virulent homophobe, the diagnosis was as much a mystery as a shock. When he was given 30 days to live by his doctors, he was faced with the choice of accepting the diagnosis and getting his “affairs in order” or putting up a fight against the disease and the stigma that came with it. Instead of dying according to schedule, Woodroof would defy the odds by living another six years. Moreover, as a source for experimental drugs, he would provide a ray of hope for other Dallas AIDS patients and a pain in the ass of the FDA. It’s this six-year period that director Jean-Marc Vallée (“Café de Flore”) chose to chronicle in “Dallas Buyers Club,” a finalist in six Academy Award categories, including Best Picture, Best Lead Actor and Best Supporting Actor.
Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto give the performances of their careers as Woodroof and the cross-dressing patient, Rayon, with whom he enters into a business arrangement. If Woodroof could provide the drugs, Rayon would lead him to desperate customers. The rough-tough rodeo rider was still homophobic, but business was business. His first trip was to Mexico, where an outlaw doctor (Griffin) was puttering around with various substances, some of which were as dangerous as the virus. In those days, the components weren’t yet banned from importation, as they soon would be. The search for more effective treatments would lead Woodroof to Japan and Europe, where researchers were in high gear. And, yes, he made a lot of money. It couldn’t make up for the loss of his hetero friends and government intransigence, but it served as a means to an end. How much of Woodroof’s race against time is depicted accurately in “Dallas Buyers Club” is open to conjecture. What else is new? What’s indisputable is the impact Woodroof’s mission had on the search for the cure and the ferocity of McConaughey and Leto’s performances. The actors lost 47 and 30 pounds, respectively, to add another layer of credibility to their performances. Given the subject matter, it’s a small miracle the “Dallas Buyers Club” was able to find financial backing, let alone distribution. Because Hollywood treated the concept as if it carried the virus, McConaughey was required to find financing and backers. By most standards, the movie wasn’t much of success at the box office, returning just north of $20 million. With an estimated budget of $5.5 million, however, it could very well end up in the black, which is something most of the Oscar favorites can’t say for themselves. Among the other actors who turn in nice performances are Jennifer Garner, Steve Zahn, Denis O’Hare, Dallas Roberts and Kevin Rankin. The only Blu-ray extra is “A Look Inside ‘Dallas Buyers Club.’” – Gary Dretzka
The Armstrong Lie: Blu-ray
In a somewhat perverse twist, daredevil skiing, boarding and other “extreme” pursuits have joined figure skating as must-watch events in Winter Olympics coverage. Up until the mid-1990s, boarders were banned from commercial ski runs as being too wild and uncontrollable. It was characterized as a sport best suited for stoners and misfits. That image changed dramatically as soon as operators discovered the commercial potential of snowboarding and other freeform activities and purveyors of ski fashions saw an opportunity to exploit the outlaw look. With NBC in need of another showcase event – one not likely to be dominated by Swedes and Russians – extreme skiing was put on the fast track to legitimacy. Fans of such extreme activities ought to do themselves a favor by picking up a copy of the documentary, “McConkey.” Blessed with the kind of looks normally associated with pro surfers and downhill skiers, Shane McConkey was the perfect cover boy for extreme sports. Thanks in large part to DNA passed along by his sporting parents, Shane was a natural on his way to becoming a golden boy. On and off the slopes, he was a daredevil’s daredevil and a magnet for the growing number of extremists. Too cool to limit himself to the pursuit of Olympic gold, he was like the rare athlete who’s able to make the transition from high school to the NBA over the course of a summer. Even as a junior skier, he’d pushed the limits on everything from slalom and downhill to freestyle and moguls. When the snow melted, he got his kicks from bungee and BASE jumping, neither of which provided a safety net or a soft cushion of fresh powder. Helicopter delivery would provide extreme skiers access to the steepest, most remote and dangerous slopes, as well as a living from starring in documentaries. When those stopped floating his boat, McConkey and his pals introduced ski-BASE jumping –as seen in the opening of the James Bond movie, “The Spy Who Loved Me” – and wingsuit flying on skis, activities that border on the suicidal. In 2009, during the production of a movie for Red Bull Media House and Matchstick Productions, Shane failed to execute a BASE landing and died on impact, leaving behind his wife, toddler daughter and cult following. “McConkey” is equal parts bio-doc and demonstration of Shane’s many skills. By combining captivating home-movie footage with the spectacular on-location material and a tick-tock narrative, “McConkey” could be a next-generation sequel to “Downhill Racer.” It does beg the question – frequently asked, but never fully answered – of why any sane adult would risk losing a loving wife and beautiful child people to a “sport” that almost no one follows and has hubris written all over it. Putting one’s live on the line for no good reason can be every bit as addictive as heroin, alcohol and gambling, for which 12-step programs have been organized in every city in the nation. If only they had one for extreme athletes with families, too. The DVD adds more video footage and interviews. Needless to say, the scenery is uniformly spectacular.
Americans are as fond of bicycles as anyone in the world. Until the arrival of Lance Armstrong on the international racing scene, however, we got excited only when an American was a contender at the Olympics. That changed somewhat when the movie “Breaking Away” introduced European-style road racing to America in 1979. The popular dramedy captured the danger, excitement and beauty of the sport, while also proving that colorful, skin-tight outfits and an aerodynamic helmets could be sexy. It wasn’t off-road BMX racing — short for Bicycle Motocross – was embraced by kids in Southern California in the late-1970s that things really took off. BMX combines road, track, and mountain-biking events in a way that’s relatively safe and attractive to kids who find racing in circles to be a tad boring. In fewer than 40 years, BMX racing went from dirt tracks in southern California to the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing. It would take Lance Armstrong to create the same amount of excitement for long-distance road racing to be embraced by Americans. In addition to be a true champion and conqueror of European dominance in the sport, McConkey courageous battle against cancer made him a true hero and inspiration for people everywhere. Just below the surface of his media-enhanced profile, however, Armstrong was a rambunctious, frequently pugnacious warrior, totally unwilling to give an inch of leeway toward his peers or lose face in public. In other words, he could be a real prick. The same thing that drove McConkey to keep on jumping off cliffs, even after losing a step physically, pressured Armstrong to come back to racing four years after he’d conquered cancer. Throughout his recovery, his critics were willing to forgive and forget their claims against him of using banned substances. After all, the sport was widely considered to be a proving ground for the abuse of performance-enhancing drugs and he’d be in the minority if he didn’t follow suit. In the space of those four years, though, the spotlight had finally begun to shine on doping and, as tests became more accurate, several top racers faced bans. Suddenly, the target was on Armstrong’s back again and he resented the accusations. He was willing not only to tarnish his reputation, but also disappoint his many fans and put his fortune at risk. Hubris being what it is, however, Armstrong could resist the challenge. Hollywood didn’t want to believe the accusations, either, and documentarian Alex Gibney was hired to create a film about his nearly miraculous comeback. A year later, another victory in the Tour de France to his credit, Armstrong’s story was tainted by overwhelming scientific and circumstantial evidence of cheating. Even as he continued to deny what others, including former teammates, considered to be overwhelmingly obvious, Gibney’s financial backers decided to shut down the project. Finally, three years later, Armstrong unexpectedly surrendered. Like other celebrities, he bared his guilty soul on “Oprah” and, a few hours later, before the camera of a devastated Gibney. To his credit, he recognized a tragedy as it was happening, allowing him to re-selling the idea to Hollywood. He changed the title from “The Road Back” to “The Armstrong Lie” and changed the focus from the comeback to his ability to hide the facts about doping for more than a decade. The result is a fascinating, if overlong film that has a lot to say about the nature of sport in the 21st Century, when, it’s said, “If you aren’t cheating, you aren’t winning” … or rich. Sadly, even after admitting his shame, Armstrong’s admission fell short of anything resembling contriteness and humility. What we’re left with is his arrogance in the face of the facts, perhaps, because lawsuits are pending against his foundation and other interests. “The Armstrong Lie” combines the footage taken during his comeback period and Tour de France, with newly collected interviews concerning the cover-up and lies. The hi-def cinematography brilliantly captures the splendor, glory and danger of racing against a couple hundred world-class cyclists in the narrow roads through crowded towns and steep mountains. It certainly explains why Europeans are so absorbed with such events. The film adds commentary from Gibney; a festival Q&A with Gibney and cycling figures Frank Marshall, Bill Strickland, Jonathan Vaughters and whistle-blowers Betsy Andreu; and 40 minutes of deleted scenes. – Gary Dretzka
A Case of You: Blu-ray
There are certain touchstones found in rom-coms made for and by Millennials that differ from those made for consumption by Gen X, Gen Y, slacker, baby boomer and other pre- and post-war audiences. These movies are set in neighborhoods populated with the same people one meets in “Girls” and “New Girl.” The characters are obsessed with their instant-communication devices, boutique coffee, offbeat fashions and finding jobs that pay well and allow them to exercise their creative muscles. They smoke pot and take ecstasy, but are weaning themselves off cocaine. Millennials are perfectly willing to pay $15 dollar for cocktail, but not a dollar for a newspaper. That doesn’t mean they’re stupid or vapid – far from it – merely, that they can get almost everything worth knowing on their Avatar or iPad. Like members of all three or four generational groupings since World War II, Millennials ask themselves the age-old question when they turn 30: Is this all there is? Hollywood’s finally recognized the commercial value of seducing the post-slacker, post-hipster crowd, even if it has almost no clue as who or what they’re all about. Along with those filmmakers in the Sundance crowd, television’s done a far better job at that. In such films as “Life Happens,” “And While We Were Here” and “A Case of You,” director/actress/writer Kat Coiro has demonstrated that she has a pretty firm grasp on how Millennials think and act. One thing to understand, of course, is how short their memories are. Blame it on the temporal efficiency of YouTube, TiVo and satellite-delivered music, as well as the transportability of handheld devices. The competition for eyes and ears has become ferocious.
In “A Case of You,” a title borrowed from the Joni Mitchell song, a young writer meets a frequently tardy barista in a Brooklyn coffee shop. Evan Rachel Wood is the almost ridiculously adorable Birdie, who disappears from the shop within a few days of making a connection with customer Sam (Justin “The Mac Guy” Long). Her bitchy supervisor (Peter Dinklage) only knows enough about his former employee to provide him with her first name and the neighborhood she’s most likely to live. Forty years ago, solving this kind of dilemma would take up the entirety of a rom-com, with a half-dozen missed connections and blown opportunities providing the humor. Today, of course, it’s as easy as typing “Birdie” and “Brooklyn” into a search engine and waiting 40 seconds for the life history of the person being investigated to pop onto the screen, which is pretty much what happens here. In a device more appropriate to an early Woody Allen movie, the chronically pessimistic Sam picks the longest way to go from Point A to Point B. Instead of simply sending Robin a confidential e-mail, he studies her Facebook profile in hopes of setting up a meet-cute moment, which also happens. Before he can seal the deal, however, Sam is required to take guitar lessons from a hippie burnout (Sam Rockwell) and ballroom-dancing classes with a bunch of amorous geezers; learn how to fake an appreciation for Birdie’s favorite singers and authors; and take several other uncomfortable-looking shortcuts. Once they do meet, everything falls into place, anyway. Normally, this would be a good thing. Instead, Sam now is required to prove that he can play guitar (he can’t) and listen to Joni Mitchell albums without gagging. His happiness – relatively speaking, of course – effects his writing to the point where his generally downbeat literary persona turns upbeat, something his agent (Vince Vaughn) decides is unsaleable to publishers. Their bliss can’t last … or can it? The bigger question is: Can Coiro prevent her film from drowning in a sea of schmaltz before the end credits role? The Blu-ray adds brief interviews with Long, Wood and co-writer Kier O’Donnell, intercut with scenes from the trailer. – Gary Dretzka
Veteran genre writer/director Mark Jones (“Leprechaun”) and freshman writer/actor Sadie Katz (“Nipples & Palm Trees”) combine their skills on “Scorned,” a straight-to-DVD hybrid of revenge-porn and torture-porn. That brief description might constitute a distinction without a difference, but, within the realm of horror sub-genres, it might help potential viewers decide if their particular fetish is being served. Here, AnnaLynne McCord plays Sadie, the sexy girlfriend of an unctuous playboy, Kevin (Billy Zane), who, while rich, is too stupid to erase the salty text messages he exchanges with his lover’s best friend, Jennifer (Viva Blanca). When Sadie does discover their deceit, she awakens Kevin with a blow to the head. Realizing, now, that Kevin hoped to stage a three-way during their visit to his country home, Sadie ties him to a chair and plans her ambush of Jennifer. Instead of merely staging a burglary-gone-bad, she decides to have some fun torturing them, before bumping them off. It’s as if Sadie wanted to prove the adage, “hell hath no fury like a woman scorned.” In fact, the word “scorned” is repeated several times during the movie. Fortunately, Jones/Katz decided to stretch the boundaries of the sub-genres, by taking “Scorned” out of the house for a while and adding a heavily tattooed prison escapee to the mix. Considering that Jones only had a budget of $1.7 million with which to work, “Scorned” is more interesting than it has any right to be. (I’m not sure, however, that it would benefit from another $10 of financing.) Zane plays smug and despicable as well as any actor, but it’s McCord and Bianca (a.k.a., Viva Skubiszewski) who make us forget that he’s even in the movie. – Gary Dretzka
Million Dollar Baby: 10th Anniversary: Blu-ray
Two Weeks Notice: Blu-ray
City of Angels: Blu-ray
I don’t know what effect the release of “Million Dollar Baby” had on women’s boxing, if any, on the sport, but it really cleaned up at the Oscars. My guess is that the popularity of women’s boxing, such as it was, peaked in the late 1990s, several years before the release of Clint Eastwood’s comparatively intimate drama. (His 25th directorial effort and 57th movie role.) Even if women’s boxing was included in the 2012 Olympics, in London, with 36 women competing in three weight classes, I doubt that many viewers want to watch women beat the crap out of each other, even in three-minute intervals. It can be argued, of course, that “Million Dollar Baby” isn’t about boxing in the same way that “Raging Bull” isn’t about boxing. The sport merely serves as a backdrop for something far more human and personal. Tens years later, “Million-Dollar Baby” hasn’t lost of any of its appeal. Boxing is, by no means, incidental to the drama, however. In describing one woman’s determination to beat the odds on her terms, Clint Eastwood’s Academy Award-winner has things in common with most great movies in which an outsider is required to fight to attain a lifelong dream. Hilary Swank is terrific as Maggie, a young woman from the sticks, who sees in boxing a road out of poverty and irrelevance; Eastwood and Morgan Freeman are also terrific as the almost over-the-hill trainer and corner man who once fought for Eastwood, but now must push him to accept Maggie as he was, years earlier. “Million Dollar Baby” broke the mold of previous sports stories, not only because the ending isn’t a pre-ordained cliché, but also because it forces viewers think about things beyond winning and losing. Indeed, audiences and critics respected it to the point where they managed to keep the ending a secret for a very long time. I’m not sure that could happen at a time when everybody with a laptop and an opinion considers themselves to be a critic. Simply adding “spoiler alert” to a review doesn’t quite cut it. The tenth-anniversary edition of “Million Dollar Baby” contains a new “loseless” soundtrack, if not a re-mastering of original Blu-ray visual look. It adds a couple of new featurettes to the original package, as well, including commentary with producer Albert Ruddy and the 25-minute “On the Ropes,” a retrospective documentary on the experience of making “Million Dollar Baby.” (Eastwood is said to have based his voice on Ruddy.)
Released in 2002, “Two Weeks Notice” is a lightweight romantic comedy that demonstrates just how far the personalities of two appealing actors can carry a story that’s as improbable as finding a check for a $1 million in a box of Crackerjack. Sandra Bullock plays a Harvard-trained lawyer who’s adamant about her principles, but is a bit short in confidence. Hugh Grant is a rich and charming real-estate tycoon who hires the lawyer to fight one of his battles. Because it impacts the Coney Island neighborhood, in which she was raised, she decides to take the risk of quitting the firm to protest the implications of her own case. Bullock and Grant could play such an unmatched couple in their sleep – and probably have – but, here, we care less about saving the neighborhood (a foregone conclusion) than whether they fall in love (another foregone conclusion). The Blu-ray adds commentary with writer/director Marc Lawrence, Grant and Bullock; a making-of featurette from HBO; additional scenes; and “Two Bleeps Notice,” which basically is a gag reel.
“City of Angels” is a romantic comedy from 1998, based on Wim Wenders’ far more contemplative and elliptical “Wings of Desire.” I doubt that many audience members knew that the German film existed, even though it’s one of the great movies of our time. They expected and got a light dramedy starring the appealing Meg Ryan, Nicolas Cage, Andre Braugher and Dennis Franz. It was Wenders’ framework, however, that holds the whole thing together. Instead of a trapeze artist, Ryan plays a heart surgeon who catches the eye of a resident angel, played by Cage. He’s in Los Angeles to help recently passed souls make the transition to the afterlife. Although they work in the same hospital, Cage is required to pine for her from afar. Cage’s angel wishes desperately for that situation to change. Franz is a patient whose ability to see the angel is the result of being a fallen angel, himself. Braugher plays another L.A.-based angel, who discusses philosophy with Cage from a perch on top of building being constructed downtown. As entertaining as “City of Angels” is, it’s no match for the complexity and mystery of “Wings of Desire,” which starred Bruno Ganz, Solveig Donmartin and Peter Falk, as “Der Filmstar.” (The kids in Berlin call him Columbo, based on his physical similarity to the TV character and trademark coat.) I would like to believe that watching “City of Angels” might encourage American viewers to sample “Wings of Desire,” but that would be a stretch. – Gary Dretzka
Night of the Demons: Collector’s Edition: Blu-ray
Several movies have been made about Adolph Hitler’s fascination with the occult and how Nazi leadership might have planned to deploy supernatural forces in the waning days of World War II. Long after Allied leaders ceased worrying about Joseph Goebbels’ stated desire to unleash a network of “Werwolfs” — irregular German partisans who would continue to harass and punish Allied troops occupying the Fatherland – the myth continues to haunt. The German partisan idea was inspired by Hermann Lons’ novel “Der Wehrwolf,” which was set in Lower Saxony during Thirty Years War. It involved a militia of peasants determined to avenge the deaths of the protagonist’s family at the hands of marauding soldiers. Although Goebbels hadn’t mentioned “werewolves,” the name Werwolf gave post-war novelists, screenwriters and paranoids a perfect opportunity to speculate on Hitler’s last gasp of madness. While several of the books (Ian Fleming’s “Moonraker”) and movies (Sam Fuller’s “Verboten!”) dealt specifically with the human Werwolf threat, others clung to the “werewolf” twist (“True Blood”). Lately, fans of straight-to-DVD horror have been offered such supernaturally based stories as “Outpost,” “Outpost: Black Sun” and “Outpost 3: Rise of the Spetsnaz“; “Frankenstein’s Army”; the sci-fi “Iron Sky” and similarly themed comic book, “Nazi Werewolves From Outer Space”; and the “Wolfenstein” video-game series. Valeri Milev’s “Code Red” offers a Stalinist twist to sub-sub-genre conventions, by providing evidence that a nerve-gas agent developed by Soviet scientists has turned up in Bulgaria 60 years after the war ended. US Special Forces Captain John McGahey (Paul Logan) is called to a NATO hospital, where a wickedly hot doctor (Manal El-Feitury) has witnessed a dead patient come back to life on a slab in the mortuary. As the gas filters through the base and nearby town, more and more people return from the dead in the same way. It becomes incumbent on McGahey to save the world from Zombie Apocalypse. And, as far as these things go, “Code Red” doesn’t disappoint.
I don’t understand why such an underwhelming horror flick as writer/director Kevin Tenney’s “Witchboard” is regarded with reverence in some corners. I suspect that it has something to do with the presence of former O.J. Simpson flame, music-video goddess and husband-beater Tawny Kitaen, in an early-career nude scene. (She crashes through the glass door of a shower, locked shut by a ghost.) Otherwise, the story about a beautiful woman caught between two estranged brothers rests on our willingness to believe Ouija boards really do provide windows to the afterlife. At first skeptical, Kitain becomes obsessed with one of two seemingly unholy spirits who make contact with her. There are several gruesome deaths caused by the revelation of the ax-wielding spirit, but none that we haven’t seen before or since 1986.
Also from Tenney, by way of Scream Factory, comes his far better follow-up to “Witchboard,” 1988’s “Night of the Demons.” Here, 10 teenagers decide it might be fun to hold a séance inside an abandoned funeral parlor on Halloween. Not surprisingly, the ceremony awakens the evil spirit living in the basement, where the furnace of the crematorium also can be found. Instead of picking up their belongings and splitting after hearing the first creak in the floorboards, naturally they stay put. The rest of the movie is spent watching the teens being punished for such foolishness. The kids represent all of the various archetypes that populate the genre and, yes, the occasional breast does get flashed, Linnea Quigley’s, among others. The makers of “Night of the Demons” created its scares the old-fashioned way, without the benefit of CGI, and most of them are still effective. Finally, though, it’s Joe Augustyn’s script that sells the laughs and the chills in equal measure. As has been the case with most other horror ditties recycled by the company, the generous bonus package adds fresh, entertaining interviews with the participants, as well as new and vintage making-of featurettes. The visual presentation is quite sharp, considering the age of the picture and undernourished budget. – Gary Dretzka
Starz: The White Queen: Season One: Blu-ray
Encore: Hindenburg: The Last Flight
BBC: Burton and Taylor
BBC: The Lady Vanishes
Masterpiece: Classic English Literature Collection, Volume 2
PBS: Chasing Shackleton
The sheer number of excellent mini-series available today on cable television has made scheduling our DVRs a daunting task. They exist in an environment already brimming with offbeat, adult-oriented sitcoms and quality hourlong dramas on the broadcast networks and PBS. Keeping up with them all is impossible. That’s why TV-to-DVD packages like “The White Queen: Season One” are playing such an important role in the video marketplace. That “The White Queen” only was shown on the Starz network (“Boss,” Spartacus,” “Black Sails”) makes the package’s presence that much more crucial. It is set against the background of the Wars of the Roses, when sons turned against fathers, cousins against cousins and marriages within royal houses could result in peace or disaster. Above all of the powerful men, however, stood Elizabeth Woodville (Rebecca Ferguson), Margaret Beaufort (Amanda Hale), Margaret of Anjou (Veerle Baetens) and both Anne Neville (Faye Marsay) and her mother, Lady Anne Beauchamp, could conspire and backstab with the best them. As played by Janet McTeer, Elizabeth’s mother, Jacquetta, was a behind-the-scenes warrior who would use the family gift of witchcraft to push the odds to her daughter’s favor. When they weren’t strutting around court like horny peacocks, the men spend their time fighting the battles engineered by their mothers. (If presidents and prime ministers were required to fight in the wars they created, today, there probably would be any.) As soap operas go, “The White Queen” is one of the best I’ve seen. If the mini-series is awarded a second season, it would bring viewers to the cusp of Henry VIII’s reign, already dramatized on HBO. Besides the wonderful acting, it’s the spectacular Belgian locations – Bruges and Ghent, especially – that make the mini-series so rewarding. The special features add “The Making of ‘The White Queen,’” a series overview, “Book To Series,” “The History Behind ‘The White Queen,’” a set tour, profiles of the main characters, “A Woman in a Man’s World” and pieces on the witchcraft and fashions. Like other premium-cable mini-series, “The White Queen” adds plenty of sex and violence to spice up the history. (That, too, might keep today’s students engaged in their studies.)
They used to make movies and mini-series like “Hindenburg: The Last Flight” all the time in the 1960-’70s. Besides such disaster epics as “The Towering Inferno,” “The Poseidon Adventure” and “Airport,” there was “The Hindenburg,” which starred George C. Scott and Anne Bancroft. “Hindenburg,” the 2011 mini-series, resembles the 1975 movie in that they both end in tragedy and blimps seem not to be a good option for trans-Atlantic journeys. I don’t care what Shamu, Charlie Brown and a Goodyear have to say about it. They take the conspiracy theories as fact and include the dramatic eyewitness account of the disaster by WLS radio announcer Herbert Morrison. Even from Day One, conspiracy theorists have kicked around the idea that someone had it out for the zeppelin, either as an act of resistance to Nazism or a dangerous game played by rival superpowers. There are other, more scientific theories, of course, but what fun would it be to prove them correct. What makes the case for a bomb planted on the ship so delicious is the necessity for any plotter to have taken into account the possibility of a very late arrival. Because the Hindenburg was delayed by 12 hours, the possibility of the bomb detonating with the passengers still on board was almost a sure bet. Conversely, it also would reveal the perpetrator while he or she was still on the vessel, as it likely be the person sweating like a marathon runner in Miami. There are plenty of suspects in “Hindenburg,” and they aren’t limited to pro- and anti-Nazi sentiments. Here, Philipp Kadelbach borrows a page from Stanley Kramer’s star-studded drama “Ship of Fools,” in which there’s a storyline for each individual character and the long shadow of Nazism stretches from Berlin to Mexico. Some of the ones tossed into “Hindenburg” are pretty flimsy. There’s nothing here that would rule out viewing by anyone over 10, even considering the number of casualties at the movie’s end. Because “Hindenburg” is a largely German production, the only two actors Americans are likely to recognize are Stacy Keach and Greta Scacchi.
“Burton and Taylor” is the second made-for-TV movie about the royal couple to air in the last year, or so. Nothing the first is quite so revealing as the sequence that opens the picture. Looking back at the first time he met Elizabeth Taylor, years earlier, Richard Burton wistfully recalls, “When she walked onto the ‘Cleopatra’ soundstage, she was just tits and makeup.” He says that it didn’t take long before he would be overwhelmed, not only by her presence, but also her ability to disappear within her character. “Watching the rushes, you could see that, while I was acting Antony, she was Cleopatra.” Flash forward to 1983, we watch, almost in horror, as Taylor breezes through the performers’ entrance of the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre almost an hour late for the Opening Night performance of “Private Lives,” trailing an entourage that includes four noisy and puffed-up dogs and a parrot. If something is askew, you can’t read it on her face. In these few moments, we recognize what their two marriages must have been like … at once glamorous and volcanic. As played by Helena Bonham Carter and Dominic West, the Richard and Elizabeth we meet in 1983 are in the autumn of their years and winters of their careers. Burton is still trying to wean himself from booze, if not the spotlight, while Taylor is only now coming to grips with her own addictions. Both, of course, are as addicted to each other as any manufactured inebriant. Not so coincidentally, perhaps, Noel Coward’s comedy mirrors the public perception of the couple. It was panned in the press, but audiences would pay a small fortune just to say they were there. If “Burton and Taylor” spends more time backstage than anywhere else, it’s because that was where the action was, now that they were married to other people. As much as enjoyed watching Lindsay Lohan play the diva in “Liz & Dick,” the BBC production is clearly the better show. Its biggest problem is absence of fact-checking in some parts. I doubt many casual viewers will even notice the goofs, though.
As is almost always the case when comparing a remake of a great movie or adaptation of a classic novel, the first question that needs to be asked is, “Why bother?” Among the better reasons are to contemporize a narrative, restore ideas eliminated in the previous adaptation, give a contemporary actor or director an opportunity to put their stamp on the material or to correct mistakes. The worst reasons are to exploit the economies that derive from working with material in the public domain and already familiar to audiences. PBS wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for such presentations, though. Upgrading a title to take advantage of advanced technology can be the sharpest of all double-edged sorts and daring to remake anything by Alfred Hitchcock borders on the foolhardy. The BBC decided to take a chance on adapting Ethel Lina White’s story, “The Wheel Spins,” which, as “The Lady Vanishes,” Hitchcock had already done so well in 1938 (and Hammer Film Production had done not so well in 1979, with Cybill Shepherd, Angela Lansbury and Elliot Gould). Here, I think the best answer to “Why bother?,” is that it hasn’t been done in a long while and adding color might make it more accessible to contemporary audiences. It also restores some of the harmless revisions Hitchcock made to the story. Iris Carr (Tuppence Middleton) is travelling across Europe by train, when she unwittingly becomes embroiled in a spot of pre-WWII bother. Veteran BBC director Diarmuid Lawrence’s production is entirely watchable, even if it can’t compete in the department of thrills and intrigue. For that, I encourage viewers to return to Hitch’s version.
Is it possible that the popularity of “Downton Abbey” might spark an interest in previous “Masterpiece” productions, most of them based on the works of great British writers. Volume 1 of PBS’ “Classic English Literature Collection,” released a year ago, was comprised of “Great Expectations,” “Jane Eyre,” “Wuthering Heights” and “Northanger Abbey.” The new edition offers adaptations of Charles Dickens’ “The Mystery of Edwin Drood,” Jane Austen s “Mansfield Park,” Henry James’ “The Turn of the Screw” and and E. M. Forster’s “A Room With a View,” all of which are up to the same standards applied to “Downton Abbey” and other originals. Each set contains rare memorabilia, reproduced from the National Archives and British Library in London. These include hand-written letters from all four authors, illustrations, portraits and photographs.
The odyssey of British adventurer Sir Ernest Shackleton is as exciting a tale as any in the history of exploration. A hundred years ago, Shackleton’s Trans-Antarctic Expedition met with disaster when his ship, The Endurance, sank after being crushed by ice. The expedition had to be scratched, of course, but 28 crewmen were required to endure two years of agony awaiting rescue. Shackleton’s heroic leadership in the face of almost certain death would save their lives, but not before he was able to cross the treacherous Southern Ocean in a small boat and conquer an uncharted mountain range on South Georgia Island on the way to a whaling outpost. A century later, modern-day explorer and scientist Tim Jarvis, along with a team of five other brave men, would attempt to re-create the 800-nautical-mile sail from Elephant Island to the abandoned station. If they were to succeed, it would have to be in a vessel, equipment and clothes that exactly replicated those of Shackleton’s team. The only significant difference between the two would be the rescue and communications ship that followed Jarvis from a short distance and 100 years of hindsight that told them it could be done, if not easily. As a cameraman accompanying the team would document, the modern mission was extremely hard on the men. Weather conditions hadn’t changed and the sea and mountains are every bit as formidable now as then. “Chasing Shackleton” tells an amazing story of superhuman courage and perseverance. Need I also point out the inspirational value of such adventures? Oh, yeah, the entire trek tool place in temperatures as a low as any experienced in the current nation-wide cold wave. There’s no room for weather wimps in the Antarctic. – Gary Dretzka
My Dog the Champion
Geronimo Stilton: Intrigue on the Rodent Express
Lalaloopsy: Friends Are Sew Special
Lego: Chima: The Lion, the Crocodile and the Power of Chi
Kevin and Robin Nation’s story about the reclamation of a dispirited cattle dog is the kind of movie that gives “family entertainment” a good name. Besides teaching an important life lesson to kids about never losing faith in a fallen friend, it features some enthusiastic performances by young Dora Madison Burge (“Friday Night Lights”) and Cody Linley (“Hannah Montana”). The cherry on the sundae, however, is watching creepy old Lance Henriksen play an extremely likeable, if set-in-his-ways Texas cowboy. Even if “My Dog the Champion” is as familiar as a sunny day in L.A., it’s executed with more gusto than most other movies that try to make the same points about coming-of-age in 2014. Madison would be considered a typical city girl, if it weren’t for the fact that her mother is a soldier normally stationed in Afghanistan and she’s been largely raised by her do-gooder grandmother. One summer, while both woman are out of the country, Madison is required to spend a couple of months with gramps. The running gag involves her being so far in the country that she can’t get a signal on her cellphone, a problem her grandfather can’t begin to fathom. It isn’t until she begins to bond with a similarly forlorn dog that something about rural life begins to make sense. Madison sees in Scout qualities that others have given up for lost. While jogging around the countryside with Scout, she encounters a boy around her age training his dog for the annual Youth Trainer Challenge. It isn’t long before they develop a friendship based primarily on their love of dogs. The same is the case with her strained relations with her grandfather, who took the dog in when someone else had given up on him. You can probably guess most of what happens by the time the final credits roll, but not all of them. What I like about this family-friendly product is that the characters aren’t expected to act in certain ungodly ways, simply as an excuse to introduce Jesus Christ into the dialogue. If Madison is caught off-guard by her grandpa’s saying grace before dinner, it’s likely that quite a few viewers would be, as well, by their grandfather leading a prayer before chowing down. I think younger teens will enjoy seeing an old story told in a fresh way.
In the more message-directed drama, “Finding Faith,” Erik Estrada plays Virginia sheriff Mike Brown, a cop who specializes in Internet-related crimes, especially those affecting teenagers. The title character – or title pun, if you will – is a 14-year-old girl who thought she had found a friend in a chat room, but opened herself up to danger, instead. Typically, Faith’s disappearance tests the faith and patience of everyone in her family, town and church. Brown leads the search, as he has in several other such cases. The movie gives him an opportunity to promote the Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force, which teaches lessons all parents and teens need to heed. If that’s considered to be faith-based, I guess anything can. It adds “Introduction to Internet Safety 101,” a 12-page Family Activity Guide and a music video by Grammy Award-winning recording artist Jason Crabb.
And, while we’re on the topic of Dove-approved entertainment, there’s the release of the latest collection of “Geronimo Stilton” episodes, “Intrigue on the Rodent Express.” Popular around the world, Stilton is an editor and writer for the Italian publication, Rodent’s Gazette, As such, he assigns himself to cover events in exotic location, while also working hard to keep his large family from getting themselves into trouble. Being Italian in origin, the cartoons are propelled by a different rhythm and sensibility than American fare for children in the digital era. It only takes a few minutes to get used to Mr. Stilton, however.
Here’s another cartoon character that I didn’t know existed until last week. Although the Lalaloopsy craze appears to have reached its peak three Christmases ago, plenty of dolls, DVDs and accessories are still being sold. Indeed, Lalaloopsy is one of the rare toys that became famous before it produced hit movies and television shows. “Friends Are Sew Special!,” which offers an introduction to crafts, is primarily for the youngest of viewers. In other episodes, a trip to the moon is planned for Dot; preparations for the Princess Parade continue; and a mysterious illness spreads through Lalaloopsy Land. Likewise, the Lego-inspired characters in the “Legends of Chima” series are for kids who have yet to tire of their Lego creations, although these seem to be more streamlined than the blocky creations of yesteryear. “The Lion, the Crocodile and the Power of Chi!” is a two-disc set, containing 10 episodes from the first season. In them the Kingdom of Chima must defend itself from being overrun by any one of eight animal tribes seeking control of a natural resource called Chi. The powerful element is both a source of life and potential destruction, and only a few brave characters understand its true nature. – Gary Dretzka