Your Sister’s Sister: Blu-ray
Just when it seemed as if Lynn Shelton’s “Your Sister’s Sister” was going to turn into a really long version of a dopey Gen Y sitcom, it switched into a higher gear and became something far more unexpected, sophisticated and interesting. Mark Duplass’ emotionally tortured slacker, Jack, dominates the first half-hour of the movie, even though he’s the least compelling character in the story. The rest of it belongs to the sisters, Iris and Hannah (Emily Blunt, Rosemarie DeWitt), in whose Puget Sound vacation home Jack takes refuge after an embarrassing night with friends. By acting out his frustrations over the death of his brother, who’s being memorialized a year after his death, he comes off as a total dick. When Iris, Tom’s ex-girlfriend, invites Jack to enjoy the scenery and savor the solitude of the “cabin,” it isn’t clear how close they are as friends or potential lovers. As survivors, neither of them is handling the loss very well. Moreover, both are too numbed by their pain to commit to anything beyond being best buddies … not yet, anyway.
Once Jack arrives at the cabin after a long bike ride, however, things lighten up quite a bit. Assuming that he would be left alone with his thoughts, he’s surprised to spy Iris’ sister Hannah through a window, standing in the kitchen in a T-shirt, panties and slippers. After a meet-cute encounter, Hannah explains that she’s just broken up with her longtime lover and was at loose ends, herself. Jack already knows that Hannah is a lesbian, so the inevitable sexual tension doesn’t kick in until hours later, when both are shit-faced on whisky. If the sitcom ended in Hannah’s bed – to be continued next week, as they say – “Your Sister’s Sister” could have been written off as a mere reflection of the stereotypical male fantasy of seducing a lesbian and rescuing her from a life without his penis. (Although five minutes would be triumph enough for most guys.) Iris makes an unexpected appearance the next morning, adding confusion and shame to the pain of Hannah and Jack’s hangover. There’s no way to delve any deeper into the story without revealing what makes the movie finally so special. It’s enough to say that Jack’s role is temporarily marginalized, in order to explore the new dynamic affecting the sisters. Duplass has played Gen Y and slacker characters so often that he could have phoned in his performance and it would still be more than satisfactory. Ditto, Blunt, who’s entirely credible and appealing. What’s truly terrific, though, is DeWitt’s remarkably nuanced performance in a role that easily could have become as clichéd as any, well, sitcom character. Even after the liaison with Jack, we know that Hannah isn’t going to suddenly go all hetero or bi on us. Shelton’s narrative will just have to proceed on its own steam, without that crutch supporting it. “Your Sister’s Sister” was shot in hi-def, so the Blu-ray – thanks to some especially scenic detours — is quite pleasant to watch. It adds commentary with Shelton and Duplass. – Gary Dretzka
Sunset Boulevard: Blu-ray
It’s interesting that Blu-ray editions of “Sunset Boulevard” and “What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?” have been released within weeks of each other. Both, of course, describe once-famous women who, long ago, bought into the Hollywood dream and have been sustained by its lingering glow ever since. Indeed, I wonder if the highly entertaining Bette Davis and Joan Crawford psycho-drama could have been made if it weren’t for Gloria Swanson’s heroic performance in the Billy Wilder classic, a dozen years earlier. If the two films had only been about the sad fates of three delusional actresses, they probably wouldn’t have made as big an impression on audiences upon their release and, again, 50 and 60 years later, on DVD. “Sunset Boulevard” is as much a noir romance and dissection of the Hollywood dream factory as it is about a sad old actress, Norma Desmond, still waiting for her final curtain call. There’s a murder at the heart of the story, but we’re made aware of that fact in its first scene. Desmond, who chronologically is only a couple of decades past her prime, lives elegantly in a Sunset Boulevard mansion with her onetime director/husband (Erich von Stroheim) – now her devoted chauffeur and a butler– and a recently deceased monkey. Financially, she lacks for nothing except the spotlight. When down-on-his-luck screenwriter Joe Gillis (William Holden) arrives at her doorstep, she mistakes him for the undertaker, who, by now, is used to catering to the bizarre whims of Hollywood’s elite. At first, Gillis wants nothing to do with this Titanic-sized iceberg, of which he’s only seen the tip. Desperate for money, though, he allows himself to be cast as a stand-in for Desmond’s monkey. Besides serving as her boytoy, Gillis agrees to look at a screenplay she’s written and offer advice on how movies have changed since the silent era, not that she’d listen.
There’s no reason to rehash the story here or offer commentary on a film long considered to be among the very best ever made. Anyone who professes to love movies and hasn’t already seen “Sunset Boulevard,” really must rush out to get the Blu-ray edition. Those who’ve only watched it once or twice owe it to themselves to take advantage of the digital platform, which allows for freeze-frame and slow-forward analysis, is complemented by learned commentary and offers copious background material. That the new hi-def disc arrives in its original 1.78:1 aspect ratio and the audio presentation is Dolby TrueHD Mono will greatly please buffs, who expect nothing less than a pristine presentation, and surprise those who last watched a corrupted version of “Sunset Boulevard” on an ancient analog television.
Most of the supplementary material has been borrowed from earlier “Centennial Collection” and “Collectors’ Edition” DVD iterations and, of necessity, sent out again in 480p. It hardly matters. Commentary is provided by Ed Sikov, author of “On ‘Sunset Boulevard’: The Life and Times of Billy Wilder,” who covers every aspect of the production. Sikov returns in the featurettes “Sunset Boulevard: The Beginning,” “‘Sunset Boulevard’ Becomes a Classic,” “Stories of ‘Sunset Boulevard’” and “Sunset Boulevard: A Look Back,” alongside critics and actors. The other featurettes include “The Noir Side of ‘Sunset Boulevard,” in which author and former LAPD Sergeant Joseph Wambaugh discusses the movie and his reactions to its noir-inspired elements; “Two Sides of Ms. Swanson,” with granddaughter Brooke Anderson and actress Linda Harrison”; “Mad About the Boy: A Portrait of William Holden,” which producer A.C. Lyles, actresses Stefanie Powers and Nancy Olson, and Wambaugh; “Recording ‘Sunset Boulevard,” in which critic Andrew Sarris and soundtrack album producer Robert Townson discuss Franz Waxman’s score and his re-recording of it in 2002 for a commercial album release; “Morgue Prologue Script Pages,” reproductions of the “original” and “revised” scripted pages for the cut opening sequence; a deleted scene, “The Paramount Don’t Want Me Blues”; a Hollywood location map; a profile of costume designer Edith Head; a peek behind the gates of Paramount Studios and a look at its classic films of the 1950s; production and publicity galleries; and the theatrical trailer. – Gary Dretzka
Guys and Dolls: Blu-ray
When audiences poured out of Broadway’s 46th Street Theater, where “Guys and Dolls” logged 1,200 performances from 1950 to 1953, they stepped directly into the criminal demi-monde they had just seen mimicked on stage . The number of people whose pockets were picked by someone approximating Harry the Horse or Benny Southstreet remains unrecorded, but ticketholders almost certainly kept a tighter grip on their wallets, purses and watches. In 1955, audiences leaving theaters showing the Hollywood version of “Guys and Dolls” were far less likely to mistake the Cinemascope representation of the milieu with the real thing, even if the closest thing to a criminal element in their towns was the occasional shoplifter and Bingo cheat. Joseph Mankiewicz’s adaptation of Frank Loesser’s Tony Award-winning musical — based on the stories of Damon Runyon — imagined a midtown Manhattan whose color palette more closely resembled a box of crayons than the one in which grime and smoke competed with brightly lit marquees and neon signs for tonal dominance. Samuel Goldwyn’s version of “Guys and Dolls” was further distanced from the Broadway musical by the presence in lead roles of genuine movie stars Marlon Brando, Frank Sinatra and Jean Simmons. It’s been speculated that Marilyn Monroe would have stepped in for Vivian Blaine, as Adelaide, if Mankiewicz hadn’t already worked with the troublesome actress and vetoed the request. (Blaine and Stubby Kaye had both created their roles on Broadway and there was no good reason for them not to reprise them in the movie.) Michael Kidd’s exuberant choreography also made the transition. Loesser wrote three new songs for the movie — “Pet Me Poppa,” “A Woman in Love” and “Adelaide” – at the expense of “My Time of Day,” “I’ve Never Been in Love Before,” “More I Cannot Wish You,” “Marry the Man Today” and the wonderful “A Bushel and a Peck.” In addition to directing, Mankiewicz adapted Jo Swerling and Abe Burrows’ book with the intention of heightening the profiles of the characters, Sky Masterson (Brando) and Nathan Detroit (Sinatra).
When Brando was cast, questions naturally were raised about his ability to sing and act in way that supported Loesser’s music, not the studio’s bottom line. Simmons hadn’t sung on screen, either, but both of them did just fine. Brando’s rendition of “Luck Be a Lady,” a song that would become associated with Sinatra, is especially fun to watch today. Sinatra and Blaine are terrific, of course, but the real show-stopper is Kaye’s re-creation of Nicely Nicely’s big number, “Sit Down, You’re Rocking the Boat.” It comes near the end, after Masterson and Detroit successfully managed to wrangle the craps players into Sergeant Sarah Brown’s rescue mission for a midnight revival meeting. Their grand scam depended on getting the gang of Runyon-esque characters to put down their Racing Forms long enough to help Sergeant Sarah convince the Salvation Army general not to close the mission. If successful, Masterson might be able to win her affections for real and Adelaide could finally get Detroit to commit to marriage. The Blu-ray edition captures all of the colors brilliantly and the soundtrack is enhanced by the DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 upgrade. The Blu-ray edition arrives in digi-book format, with a 72-page scrapbook and photo gallery; a pair of making-of documentaries; a profile of independent producer Samuel Goldwyn; interviews with Kidd and members of the Goldwyn, Mankiewicz and Loesser families; and access to individual musical performances. – Gary Dretzka
Even the Rain
If all one read all day were the Hollywood trade papers and industry-obsessed bloggers, it would be easy to imagine that movie making is of greater importance to humanity than ready access to shelter, food and water. Even the debuts of demonstrably crappy movies, with B- and C-list stars, are greeted with klieg lights, red carpets, paparazzi and bleachers full of screaming fans. (Investors have to be given one reason, at least, to keep the river of money flowing.) Variations of the same ritual exist in most other countries, I suspect. “Even the Rain” describes a situation in which a team of Spanish filmmakers working in Bolivia is required to weigh the importance of completing a significant film project against the basic needs of indigenous peasants, some of whom have been cast as characters and extras in the movie. Gael Garcia Bernal and Luis Tosar play the idealistic director and pragmatic producer of a movie that casts Christopher Columbus’ accidental “discovery” of the Americas in a much different light than it has historically been accorded in textbooks. Instead of being a fortuitous accident, Columbus is shown to be a cog in a much larger machine, operated by imperialistic aristocrats, cold-blooded missionary priests and vicious soldiers. No matter the nobility of their intentions, though, the filmmakers still can’t resist the capitalistic imperative that demands they exploit the Native Americans on their payroll with absurdly low wages and dangerous working conditions. At the same time as the movie is being shot in Cochabamba and the forests around Villa Tunari, poor natives are rallying against a plan set forth by Spanish interests to require them to pay exponentially more for potable water than they’ve previously been able to afford. In Bolivia and most other countries in the Americas, Indians are treated with little more respect by those of European heritage than they were in the first waves of colonization. Finally, the reality of the explosive political situation demands that the filmmakers take stands that weren’t taught at film school.
Paul Laverty’s screenplay was inspired by the so-called Cochabamba Water War of 2000, during which the government’s decision to allow the privatization of the city’s water supply, including rain water, was reversed in the face of widespread riots. Director Iciar Bollain nimbly juxtaposes what’s happening in Bolivia’s third-largest city, with the production of the movie being shot in the forested highlands outside Cochabamba. The setting, which is extremely lush and beautiful, probably hasn’t changed much since Garci Ruiz de Orellana bought the land on which the city now sits from tribal chiefs for the 130 pesos. The indigenous actors are so adept at switching time periods that it’s sometime difficult to tell when exactly when the shooting stops and present-day reality kicks in. As the political situation intensifies, Bollain approximates how it actually might feel when unarmed peasants are surrounded by soldiers with itchy trigger fingers and no sympathy for their cause. It would have been interesting to learn more about “Even the Rain” but the DVD arrives without bonus features. – Gary Dretzka
What Happened to Kerouac?
In three years, Jack Kerouac will have been dead and gone as long as he was alive. And, yet, his books continue to sell and the myths surrounding his lifestyle and influence grow like weeds around an untended gravestone. After being shown at Cannes and opening in several other countries, Walter Salles and Jose Rivera’s long-awaited adaptation of “On the Road” finally will open in the United States on December 21, just in time for awards consideration, of course. In a very real sense, it’s been gestating ever since the book’s publication in 1957. So many writers, directors and producers have tried to synthesize Kerouac’s “spontaneous prose” on film, but failed, that “On the Road” was deemed unfilmable. Also in the works is Michael Polish’s adaptation of Kerouac’s 1962 “Big Sur,” a roman a clef many critics and admirers consider to be his most revealing and honest book. Through alter ego Jack Duluoz, the now famous author chronicles his in ability to deal with unexpected fame and the breakdown he experienced while laying low and attempting to dry out in a Bixby Canyon cabin owned by Lorenzo Monsanto (Lawrence Ferlinghetti). Duluoz hoped to escape the media attention and fan adoration engendered by the publication of his best-seller, which came seven years after he had written it and in a far different America than existed under John F. Kennedy. With more readers attracted to Sal and Dean’s long-extinguished bromance than any of his later, more preferred works, Kerouac was free to drink himself to death in near anonymity. Directed by Richard Lerner and Lewis MacAdams and released 1985, “What Happened to Kerouac?” fills many of the gaps in what most people know about the writer’s life in the dozen years between “On the Road” and his death.
It does so through reflective interviews with Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso, William S. Burroughs, Carolyn Cassady, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Michael McClure, Gary Snyder, Herbert Huncke, Fran Landesman, Edie Kerouac Parker, John Clellon Holmes, Diane Di Prima, Joyce Johnson, Father Armond “Spike” Morissette, biographer Ann Charters and his late daughter, Jan Kerouac. Such influential people as Neal Cassady, Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie appear in archived material. Also valuable are excerpts from a panel discussion in which Kerouac participated on William F. Buckley’s “Firing Line” and a reading on Steve Allen’s variety show. Kerouac’s voice is heard throughout, reading from his own novels and poetry, usually over boppish jazz solos. The point most of these people make is that Kerouac was a great writer, a wonderful friend and someone who sold lots of books but was never accepted by the New York literary establishment. He was a keen observer of life, land and nature, but hardly a visionary or prophet. He disavowed any connection to the hippies and radicals, even though they clearly were influenced by the challenges to the status quo he presented in “On the Road” and “Dharma Bums.” He died a devout Catholic, but lived much of his adult life as a Buddhist. He predicted that he would drink himself into an early grave, but only because the Church forbade suicide. The new Shout! Factory edition of “What Happened to Kerouac” is enhanced by a full disc of extended interview material. (Ironically, it is biographer Charters, who, in the last entry on the bonus CD, pretty much answers the question proffered in the film’s title and in less than five minutes.) No matter how the upcoming movie adaptations turn out, a screening of this fine documentary is recommended to anyone who wants to know more about Kerouac or attempt to separate the man from the myth. – Gary Dretzka
Maximum Conviction: Blu-ray
Steven Seagal and Steve Austin have become such brand-name institutions in the world of straight-to-DVD action flicks that one hesitates even to describe their new “Maximum Conviction,” let alone judge it using the same criteria applied to review pictures intended for theatrical release. It is what it is … nothing more and nothing less. I’m pretty sure that this is the first time that the two warriors have appeared together in the same movie and on the same side of Uncle Sam. Their martial talents complement each other in combat and neither seems interested in one-upping the other. If you’ve liked them in previous movies, separately, it’s likely you’ll enjoy “Maximum Conviction,” even if it adds nothing new to the genre. Here, at least, one and one equal one. Both play former black ops types who get paid handsomely to sweep up the trash employees of the CIA and FBI prefer not to touch. They’ve been assigned to decommission a top-secret “dark” prison, holding the worst of the worst prisoners. Everything’s going along fine, until they’re asked to oversee the arrival of two mysterious women prisoners who don’t seem to be on anyone’s radar. No sooner are they bunked together – why? – than a team of mercenaries arrives to capture or kill them. Austen smells a rat when a large truck arrives at the prison and conveniently breaks down in the docks area. Seagal, who’s headed for dinner with his laddies, brings with him a piece of paper with a code he hopes one of them can translate. Whatever it says convinces Seagal to interrupt dinner and head back to the prison with his own bad boys. Because the mercenaries hadn’t built into their plan any room for error, they’re still chasing their targets around the prison when the posse arrives. This leaves about any hour of screen time for gunplay, karate chops and knife work. I’m still a bit confused as to what the women had done to deserve such treatment, but it does involve a foreign object strategically implanted near her boobs. So, there you have it. “Maximum Conviction” offers several passable action sequences and some imaginative kills, if not much else. The Blu-ray package includes interviews, making-of material and other hero worship. – Gary Dretzka
With Great Power: The Stan Lee Story
Watching this overly reverent profile of living comic-book legend Stan Lee – and, yes, I understand what differentiates merely great men from legends and myths – I was struck by how blessed we are that the 89-year-old writer, editor, actor, producer, publisher, television personality and co-creator of hundreds of wonderful characters is still alive and kicking. Although too many people are under the misconception that Marvel Comics sprang from Lee’s brow unassisted, Lee was an integral part of a team that included Jack Kirby, Bill Everett and Steve Ditko. The creation of great comic books is as collaborative an undertaking as making movies and Lee has always been among the first to acknowledge it. Lee’s most lasting contribution to the art has been inventing multidimensional characters and balancing their awesome powers with the same flaws, emotions, alienation and doubts as mere mortals. He challenged the idiocy of the Comics Code Authority, which, like the Hollywood Production Code, set ludicrous content guidelines designed mostly to keep conservative legislators from creating laws governing the industry. Lee also was instrumental in moving Marvel into the world of multimedia, high-tech publishing and officiating over the marriage between Hollywood and comic books. Lee is a wonderful storyteller and extremely influential spokesman for the medium. If some of his tales have grown shaggy over the years, they’re no less interesting to hear one more time, at least. “With Great Power: The Stan Lee Story” effectively captures his effervescent personality and sense of humor, both of which are shared with his wife, Joan. Not all of the controversies are addressed, but, in hindsight, they haven’t tarnished his image or held him down. I could have done without most of the celebrity blurbs, but they do add a touch of Hollywood glitz to the proceedings and context for the emergence of superhero movies – Richard Donner’s “Superman” is widely credited as the icebreaker – from the Saturday matinee and television ghettos to the arena of movie franchises. Lee didn’t have anything to do with DC Comics success with Superman, but his association with “The Avengers,” “Spider-Man,” “Iron Man,” “The Incredible Hulk,” “X-Men,” “Fantastic Four” and a dozen other movies has long been duly noted. – Gary Dretzka
[Rec]3: Genesis: Blu-ray
The Pact: Blu-ray
John Carpenter’s They Live: Collector’s Edition: Blu-ray
With the arrival of “[REC]3: Genesis” on DVD and Blu-ray, one would assume that a third “Quarantine” – the Spanish franchise’s English-speaking twin brother — is on the drawing boards, at least. Writer/director Paco Plaza and co-writer Luiso Berdejo must have sensed that the found-footage gag was getting stale, because barely half of the third installment is told through the eye of a camera lens. Much of story takes place, as well, in the light of day and inside a well-lit church and party facility, where the wedding of Koldo and Clara abruptly erupts into a reception of the living dead. One minute, the guests are toasting the newlyweds, and, the next, the guests themselves are toast. For all viewers know, the zombie virus was introduced in a bad batch of shrimp cocktails and it took all of about 10 minutes for it to infect most of the attendees. Among those not affected are the bride and groom, a priest, a guy in a taco costume and a couple of horny toads who slipped out of the reception to knock boots. In her determination to reunite with Koldo, the pregnant Clara turns herself into a stone-cold killer. Too much of the humor here is of the slapstick variety and the shocks aren’t all that shocking really. But, at 80 minutes, things go by rather swiftly. There’s even a surprise ending that explains how “Genesis” fits in the trilogy. By far the best thing in the movie is the twig-thin, doe-eyed bride, Clara (Leticia Dolera), who goes from demure to dangerous when she’s separated from Koldo. The Blu-ray adds a bunch of deleted scenes.
After a short version of “The Pact” received a positive reception at the 2011 Sundance festival, writer/director Nicholas McCarthy decided he didn’t need to look any further for inspiration for his first feature. Although the mixed-genre thriller didn’t impress many mainstream critics in its limited New York release, “The Pact” fared much better among bloggers and reviewers for niche websites, based on its return to Sundance and a run on VOD outlets. Essentially a ghost story, it gradually extends its reach across the genre borders separating restless spirits, murder mysteries and family psychodramas. The central character is Annie (Caity Lotz), a pretty young blond who reluctantly returns to her childhood home after her mother dies and her estranged sister disappears after a Skype conversation with her daughter, who sees things not visible to her mom. Perhaps because she rides a motorcycle, Annie considers herself strong enough to spend the night, alone, in the clearly haunted house. In the morning, she contacts a police detective (Casper Van Dien) and a clairvoyant to determine how to proceed. (I would have suggested spending the next few nights in a hotel, but that would have been too obvious.) Slowly the truth about what happened in the house during Annie’s absence begins to reveal itself, literally and figuratively. Working on a micro-budget, “The Pact” makes good use of the haunted setting, which has all sorts of hidden rooms, tunnels and trap doors. The DVD comes with a decent making-of featurette.
When John Carpenter made the pre-apocalyptic sci-fi thriller, “They Live,” Ronald Reagan had already kick-started the American economy by instituting policies that would come back to haunt us in the second George W. Bush administration and first four years of the Obama presidency. As long as everyone was making money and there was enough cocaine being imported to keep stock traders motivated, nobody seemed particularly concerned about the future. Adapted from a graphic novel by Ray Nelson, “They Live” theorizes that humanoid aliens have infiltrated the country and are responsible for delivering subliminal messages to Americans, encouraging them to embrace laissez-faire capitalism, conservative principles and authoritarian government. In other ways, the movie also resembles “Invasion of the Body Snatchers.” Roddy Piper plays an unemployed drifter, Nada, who finds works in Los Angeles on a construction site. He spends his nights at a park colonized by homeless people, who are among the first to suspect something weird is going wrong. After cops demolish the camp, Nada escapes to a church, where he finds a box containing cool-looking sunglasses. The glasses allow him to see the aliens for who they are and what they’re doing to the country. Not only can he identify the aliens among us, but he also can study the subliminal messages — OBEY, CONSUME, NO INDEPENDENT THOUGHT — hidden in magazines, on billboards, street signs and currency (THIS IS YOUR GOD). Like Roger Corman, Carpenter is able to stretch a dollar until the eagle grins. On a $4 million budget, he produced a movie that entertained audiences in a grindhouse sort of way, while also delivering a message. It would take another 20 years for Americans to get that message, but better late than never. Naturally, there’s some pretty crazy stuff in “They Live,” including a nearly endless fistfight between Piper and Keith David, over his refusal to check out the glasses handed him by Nada. The Blu-ray revamp makes the movie a more pleasant visual and audio experience than it’s been since it was released in 1988. It adds fresh interviews, making-of featurettes and a profile of Meg Foster, whose piercing blue eyes are more powerful than any laser. – Gary Dretzka
The Miners’ Hymns
Imagine if, someday, the shores of Lake Michigan in northwest Indiana are cluttered with homes, resorts and casinos, instead of steel mills and toxic wetlands. That’s the way things were headed in the 1970s and 1980s, after all, when such companies as Wisconsin Steel, South Works, American Bridge, Republic Steel, the Falstaff Brewery were shuttered and low employment turned one once-thriving city, Gary, into an urban wasteland. The steel industry has been revived somewhat and EPA regulations helped turn the skies over Lake Michigan from black to blue. If the economy continues to tank, however, the land upon which the mills sit – especially U.S. Steel, which, among other things, was allowed to dredge marshes and bulldoze magnificent sand dunes – would be more valuable than anything produced by the plants. Lost, though, would be a way of life that provided hope for countless immigrant and working-class families that their children could afford college and make a living in places that didn’t resemble the fires of hell. That’s the easiest way for me to describe Bill Morrison’s multi-media documentary, “The Miners’ Hymns,” which lays out a similar scenario, except this one isn’t based on speculation. It describes how things have changed in northeast England since the area’s many coalmines were closed forever during the Margaret Thatcher regime, if for no other reason than to spite the labor unions. From above, you’d be hard pressed to believe that the same lovely countryside being surveyed once was dominated by giant chimneys, slag heaps, conveyor belts, railroad tracks and handling and preparation plants. Neither would you be able to discern from that distance the absence of hope on the faces of the residents now consigned to low-paying jobs in the service and tourism industries.
Instead of relying on descriptions and narratives to explain what he’s trying to accomplish in his films, Morrison lets the images from found and archival footage speak for themselves. They’re frequently accompanied, however, by the complementary music of important avant-garde composers, including Steve Reich, Bill Frisell, Gavin Bryars, Julia Wolfe and, in “The Miners’ Hymns,” the Icelandic minimalist Jóhann Jóhannsson. Here, Johannsson describes his score as a “kind of requiem for a disappearing industry, but also a celebration of the culture, life and struggle of coal miners,” as well as the strong regional tradition of colliery brass bands. The footage mostly focuses on the aboveground life of Durham residents, all of whom were dependent on the mines in one way or another. This included a century’s worth of material shot at union rallies, parades, picnics and riots and in the streets lined with identical row houses. Even more striking is the material shot underground, as the men labored in the longwall mines so shallow and narrow that most of the work is done while laying on one’s back. I was struck by the cinematography and lighting, which, at times, makes the archival British Film Institute and BBC footage look as if it were shot by a German Expressionist. “The Miners’ Hymns” is less than an hour long, but it packs a powerful punch. The faces in the crowds might have belonged to any of our grandparents and the scenes could have been staged in thousands of American towns that relied on the promises – almost all of which were broken – of bosses and politicians who cared more about a pothole on their street than their workers. The DVD adds three of Morrison’s short films: “Release,” for which Morrison re-purposed footage of a Philadelphia crowd anticipating the release of Al Capone from jail; another split-screen short, “Outborough,” this time from film shot in 1899 from the vantage point of a trolley crossing the Brooklyn Bridge; and “The Film of Her,” a far more linear piece about a Library of Congress clerk, who was able to save from destruction the institution’s amazing Paper Print Collection. – Gary Dretzka
Hollywood to Dollywood
Although this extremely well made and almost achingly romantic Swedish export was introduced at gay and lesbian film festivals and is being released on DVD here on the niche Wolfe Video label, “Kiss Me” is drama that desperately wants to escape the queer-cinema ghetto and be judged completely on its own narrative merits. Plenty of other movies that deal with issues relating to homosexuality and closets of the characters’ own making demand to be taken just as seriously, but rarely do they allow their characters to exist in a world free of clichés and compromises. Even if the ending feels ripped from the Hollywood rom-com playbook, writer/director Alexandra-Therese Keining has put her protagonists through such an emotional wringer that we’re willing to forgive her a bit of schmaltz, if it means the characters will enjoy a chance at happiness, at least. What also told me that “Kiss Me” was a horse of a different color was the presence of such estimable Swedish actors as Lena Endre (“Wallander,” “Millennium”), Krister Hennriksson (“Wallander,” “Superintendent Winter”) and Joakim Natterqvist (“Arn: The Templar Knight”), whose casting as auxiliary characters in any other genre melodrama would make no sense. Their through-lines are every bit as compelling as those of the very nearly star-crossed lovers played by the less known Ruth Vega Fernandez and Liv Mjönes.
Mia and Frida, both in their thirties, meet for the first time at their parents’ engagement party. Mia’s somewhat estranged father, Lasse, is about to marry Frida’s mother, Elizabeth, which would make them stepsisters. At first, Mia suspects that Frida is flirting with her fiancé, Tim, but, in fact, the cute blonde’s googly eyes are directed strictly at her. We already suspect that Mia and Tim might not be so simpatico while watching her eyes glaze over during a love-making session earlier in the movie. He’s too full of himself to realize that the only person enjoying the grunt-and-grind session is him. Still, it takes us by surprise when, after a birthday party for Lasse, Mia initiates the first kiss between them. In the morning, though, Mia looks as if she had thrilled the guests by chugging the contents of her future mother-in-law’s aquarium, fish and all, and doing a jig on the piano. When Lasse and Tim make an unexpected exit from the villa on a beautiful island off Ystad, it gives Mia and Frida time to test their fragile bond and Elizabeth an opportunity to study the mysterious appearance of dark clouds on the horizon. Even so, Mia seems intent on marrying Tim, leaving Frida to return reluctantly to a one-time lover. What happens next isn’t totally unexpected, but the interaction between all of the characters is handled in a way that’s credible and ultimately satisfying. Everyone grows up in different ways, whether they want to or not. Ragna Jorming’s cinematography takes full advantage of the lovely outdoor settings and Marc Collins’ original music nicely captures the intensity of the romance and drama playing out on the screen. Anyone looking for a different sort of love story ought to consider “Kiss Me,” no matter who’s kissing whom at any particular moment. The DVD adds a music video.
The compelling personal documentary, “Hollywood to Dollywood,” seems to have played every gay-and-lesbian in the U.S., without striking a theatrical distribution deal. I wouldn’t read too much into that regrettable piece of business, though. I don’t what strikes more fear into the hearts of exhibitors: “gay” or “documentary.” My guess would be the latter. In DVD, “H2D” deserves to find a larger, if initially segmented audience. As the title suggests, there’s a bit of gimmick at the heart of the documentary. Twin brothers Larry and Gary Lane have written a screenplay they think would be a perfect vehicle for Dolly Parton. Instead of sending it to her agent or flying to the airport nearest to her theme park, the twins and a friend drive a RV named Jolene cross-country to east Tennessee. Because the young men are from the South, gay and huge fans, it probably made more sense to contact Dolly directly than play games with a Hollywood agent. One of the reasons the multitalented entertainer has attained iconic status in the gay community is her loudly professed non-judgmental stance on homosexuality, drag queens and transsexuals. Along the way to Nashville, the Lanes find and interview several people – gay, straight and in between — whose lives have been saved by Dolly and her songs. Complicating their journey is a once-in-a-lifetime flood that devastated parts of Tennessee ahead of the Dollywood 25th anniversary celebration. In a very real sense, as well, “H2D” could be described as a journey into America’s heart of evangelical darkness. Many of the people we meet in the film are native Southerners, whose relatives and boyhood friends are strict Baptists and openly disparaging of gays and lesbians, no matter whose kids they might be. Almost the same amount attention is paid to confronting inner demons and religious intolerance as delivering the screenplay to Dolly, which isn’t as easy as it might sound. The “H2D” DVD adds deleted scenes, new music by Parton (15 of her hits already are on the soundtrack), extended interviews and outtakes. – Gary Dretzka
House of Dark Shadows: Blu-ray
Night of Dark Shadows: Blu-ray
Wolf Lake: The Complete Series
As we’ve had the distinct misfortune to observe over the past two decades, television shows don’t translate easily to the demands of big-screen entertainment. Sitcoms are written specifically to fill about 22 minutes of small-screen time, with breaks allotted for canned laughter, lead-ins and lead-outs to commercials and gag setups. Even in these days of TiVo and PPV, audiences are conditioned to the breaks and either go to the kitchen for a cookie or fast-forward through them. One of the worst things that can happen in the cinematic experience is to leave subliminal breaks in the narrative flow that take audiences out of the movie, even for a second or two. Soap operas are even more difficult to adapt than sitcoms and dramas because of the constant repetition of plot points and daily cliffhangers. Not only are the movie versions of “Dark Shadows” better than most other adaptations, but it’s one of the few, if not the only soap drama that’s made the transition. Now, this isn’t to say that the stand-alone “House of Dark Shadows” and “Night of Dark Shadows” – both were directed by Dan Curtis — are among the best vampire movies of all time, just that they’re true to their source material and conform to long-form rules. Moreover, these films aren’t parodies of the Gothic soaps or overt homages to the groundbreaking daytime series. (I think that Tim Burton’s recent adaptation owes as much to the Addams Family cartoons and TV show as it does to “Dark Shadows.”) True fans of a popular show aren’t all that keen on outsiders toying with their favorites or telling them what makes it special, if only because they’re usually wrong.
By focusing on the characters Barnabas Collins (Jonathan Frid), Dr. Julia Hoffman (Grayson Hall), and Maggie Evans (Kathryn Leigh Scott), “House of Dark Shadows” (1970) more consciously recalls the TV series than its feature-length sequel, “Night of Dark Shadows.” Barnabas has just been released from his coffin prison by a local drunk and he immediately sets out to ingratiate himself with family members and Collinsport residents, some of whom resemble acquaintances from a long-ago life. He also takes it upon himself to restore Collinwood and make up for lost time in the blood-sucking department. By contrast, “Night” expands on the Quentin Collins story arc. The tone is younger, less overtly scary and genuinely romantic, with David Selby, Kate Kackson and Lara Parker re-emerging from the cast of the TV series. (This time, Grayson Hall plays Carlotta Drake.) Quentin married Jackson’s Tracy Collins before returning to Collinwood to paint, a decision for which the resident ghosts and spirits will make him – or, at least, her – pay. The Blu-ray re-mastering pays dividends by restoring the saturated colors of the originals and lightening some of the darker shadows, allowing once-cloudy details to emerge. The effect also makes “House” and “Night” look very much like horror flicks from the Hammer Studios. Don’t look for many extras, though, as they only include theatrical trailers.
In its initial five-year run on ABC, “Dark Shadows” logged 1,225-episodes. Ten years ago, another vampire series, CBS’ “Wolf Lake,” managed to air 5 of its 10 shot episodes before being canceled. Reruns would bounce around the dial for a while, but, really, how long can 10 episodes stay fresh? The show’s fans, as well as undead completists, should find it interesting that CBS DVD is releasing the whole thing in a set that includes the unaired pilot episode, with commentary, and a making-of featurette. The story centers on a Seattle sheriff’s search for his girlfriend who disappears after she accepts his proposal for marriage. His investigation leads to a town called Wolf Lake, where a pack of werewolves co-exist with the human population. (It’s probably near Forks, Washington, so the unemployed werewolves probably found work on the “Twilight” set.) If nothing else, the series didn’t lack for familiar faces and soon-to-be popular stars. The cast included Lou Diamond Phillips, Tim Matheson, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Mia Kirshner, Graham Greene, Paul Wesley, Sharon Lawrence, Bruce McGill and Carmen Moore. – Gary Dretzka
Comes a Bright Day
This neat little Brit export combines traditional elements of a botched-heist-and-hostage drama with some very stylish dialogue, romance and fine acting, all in the service of a claustrophobic chamber piece. That’s probably a few too many adjectives, but it helps to know what you’re getting into when movies with such strong bloodlines fizzle after their festival debuts. Because writer/director Simon Aboud married into the McCartney clan – husband of Mary, brother-in-law of Stella and James, son-in-law of Paul and the late Linda McCartney – his first feature, “Comes a Bright Day,” was destined to capture the attention of the media in ways most freshman efforts can’t. Also of interest to the UK media, at least, was a sterling cast that includes Timothy Spall, Imogen Poots, Craig Roberts, Kevin McKidd, Josef Altin, Geoff Bell and Anthony Welsh. The exteriors were filmed in the heart of London’s posh Mayfair district, while the interiors replicated a classy jewelry store there that specializes in expensive antique jewelry. (“Some of the actual pieces we photographed were worth more than our entire budget,” quips Aboud, in one of the making-of featurettes.
In the short expository portion before the heist, we follow a bellboy (Roberts) as he heads for the jewelry store on an errand for an important guest, but is sidetracked to a restaurant where a friend makes the best risotto in town. They discuss imprecise plans for a restaurant of their own, but are distracted by the super-cute blond (Poots) waiting to be served. She works in the jewelry store and, of course, the bellboy follows her like a moth to flame. He neglected to disavow her notion that the suit he borrowed from another guest might indicate he is independently wealthy and tries to extend the charade with the job owner (Spall). It isn’t likely he could have fooled him for long, though, because he was headed to the jewelry store anyway and he’s pals with the young man’s boss. No sooner are the pleasantries exchanged than a pair of robbers stomp into the shop, shoot a customer to prove they’re bad and begin to fill their shopping list. By the time things get really nasty, the owner’s already triggered the silent alarm and the cops are on their way. When the robbers aren’t bullying them, the hostages pass the time by telling stories about the jewelry on display, their personal ambitions and the things that could get them killed. There’s no escape route for the robbers, so all communication with the outside world is conducted by phone. The movie progresses from there with a distinct aura of menace enveloping the store. The claustrophobic setting and dialogue probably would have lent itself better to the stage, but John Lynch is able to open things up a bit with his expressive cinematography. As far as I can see, Paul McCartney has nothing to do with the movie besides his DNA. – Gary Dretzka
Planes, Trains & Automobiles: Blu-ray
If all one knows about the John Hughes comedy “Planes, Trains & Automobile” is that critics used it as a point of reference for Todd Phillips’ “Due Date,” I highly recommend a rental of the Blu-ray edition of the 1987 classic for comparison and enjoyment. Both movies are built on the same foundation: two guys need to get from one city to another in a specific number of hours, but the buffoonish behavior of one of the men threatens the odds of this happening. In “Due Date,” the Everyman character (Robert Downey Jr.) needs to get from Atlanta to Los Angeles in five days to witness the birth of his first child. To accomplish this feat, the man must accept a ride and all of its silly consequences from a well-meaning doofus (Zach Galifianakis). In “PT&A,” a snobby traveler (Steve Martin) and affable goofball (John Candy) are attempting to get from New York City to Chicago in time for Christmas, but their plane is diverted to Kansas by a widespread snow storm. In both cases, requiring the polar-opposite characters to find common ground in support of a singular goal proves to be an exercise in hilarity. If most viewers were expected to empathize with Everyman’s dilemma, it’s impossible not to find something to love and respect in the clowns. The same is true with the characters themselves. The Blu-ray supplements include “John Hughes for Adults,” “A Tribute to John Candy,” “Getting There Is Half the Fun: The Story of ‘Planes, Trains and Automobiles,’” “John Hughes: Life Moves Pretty Fast” and a deleted scene. – Gary Dretzka
Cartoon Network: Regular Show: Best DVD in the World (At This Moment in Time)
PBS: Sesame Street: Old School 3
CMT: Louie Anderson: Big Baby Boomer
PBS: Cook’s Country: Season Five
GMC: The Love You Save
Cartoon Network’s hit animated comedy series, “Regular Show,” started out as a student exercise – based on J.G. Quintel’s experiences performing minimum-wage jobs — and evolved into an Emmy-winning and Annie-nominated series. One of the assignments students at California Institute of the Arts are routinely asked to do involves picking scenarios and characters out of a hat and turning them into animated films within a 48-hour period. He pitched “Regular Show,” which is anything but regular, to Cartoon Network as part of its Cartoonstitute development project and it was picked up. Amazing how some dreams come true, right? “Regular Show: The Best DVD in the World” is comprised of 16 episodes from the show’s second and third seasons. Everything revolves around the misadventures of a pair of 23-year-old slackers – a blue jay, Mordecai, and a raccoon, Rigby – who escape the boredom at their groundskeeper jobs by engaging in surrealistic adventures and irresponsible actions. Their girlfriends, co-workers and boss are as strangely adorable as they are. As one might guess about a project initiated by CalArts graduates, “Regular Show” appeals more to adult hipsters than kids typically attracted to other Cartoon Network series (as opposed to Adult Swim titles).
I don’t care what Mitt Romney believes, I’d much prefer for my tax dollars to go for production of “Sesame Street” than for the development of natural-gas pipelines and any more wars in Middle East. It’s done more good for the children of the world than a million Mormon missionaries and Republican political initiatives. Anyone who doubts the lasting value of the PBS shows and its wonderful creations need look any further than the DVDs in the “Sesame Street: Old School” series. The third installment in the series covers 1979 through 1984, including the premieres from seasons 11 to 15. Among the events covered are the gangs’ excursion to Puerto Rico for Maria’s birthday and Snuffy and Gordon’s New York City marathon run? In addition, a bonus DVD adds never-before-seen behind-the-scenes footage, clips from special episodes, an excerpt from “Goodbye, Mr. Hooper”; an interview with puppeteer Carroll Spinney; the on-screen storybook, “How to Be a Grouch”; a booklet; and commentary by Sonia Manzano.
One of the last places I’d expect to find a Louie Anderson comedy special would be CMT: Country Music Television, alongside such series as “Bayou Billionaires,” “My Big Redneck Vacation” and “Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders: Making the Team.” The Food Network or Gourmet Channel, maybe; the Comedy Channel, sure; CMT, not very likely. Thank God, Louie doesn’t push the envelope by wearing cowboy boots, a Stetson hat and Nudie suit, as if he were the Grand Ol’ Opry’s comedian-in-residence. In “Louie Anderson: Big Baby Boomer,” the plus-size comic does what he does best: self-effacing jokes about eating, dieting and other bad habits; going to the doctor; traveling between shows; irritating family members; and growing older.
Among the many fine shows that combine the joys of eating and cooking is PBS’ venerable “Cook’s Country.” The hook here is the tight focus on regional “comfort food,” especially that associated with the American South and Southwest. The show is headquartered in a renovated 1806 farmhouse with a full working test kitchen, a live audience and the odd neighbor who stops by with cooking problems that need immediate attention. In Season Five, host Christopher Kimball and the chefs from “America’s Test Kitchen” tackle such topics as “Hearty Autumn Dinner,” “Dixie Chicken,” “Breakfast Breads,” “Italian Favorites Revisited,” “Great American Cookout” and “Dinner at the Diner.” The DVD adds tips and techniques, equipment tests and printable versions of all recipes.
I might have enjoyed “The Love You Save” more if it weren’t accompanied by the worst laugh and applause track I’ve ever heard … repeat, ever. I would bet money that the controller was on a three-second delay, because that’s how long it took for the gags to be acknowledged by the laughter. The track also made it sound as if the audience was in a theater next door to the one in which the play was being filmed, the responses are that distant. No matter, because of all the stage-to-screen urban dramedies I’ve seen lately, “The Love You Save” is easily the weakest and most predictable. It was shown on cable’s GMC, as part of its “World Premiere Gospel Play” series. Robin Givens plays a real-estate mogul and the single parent of three grown children. She’s spoiled, opinionated and unprincipled. Two of her children have taken after Mom, while the youngest son volunteers his time at a homeless shelter. While there one day, he meets an older guy who taunts him about his motivations for helping the poor. Before long, they take a shine to each other and believe that by working together they can save the building from development. Unbeknownst to the young man, Mom has just gotten into bed – figuratively – with the developers and plans to make a killing on it. When her scheme is revealed, it provokes a revelation that shakes the family to its core and inspires some old-fashioned gospel belting. Maybe, you can guess what the deep, dark secret turns out to be. The cast also includes Kareem J. Grimes, Denyce Lawton, Jill-Michele Melean and Sean Riggs. – Gary Dretzka
It’s a Spongebob Christmas!
Adventures of Bailey: Christmas Hero
Aardman Animation’s delightful seasonal comedy, “Arthur Christmas,” successfully addresses two mysteries, at least, that have perplexed children ever since Saint Nicholas morphed into the consumer face of Christmas, Santa Claus: 1) it offers a semi-plausible explanation for how he might be able to deliver gifts to all children of the world in a 24-hour period, taking into account time zones and pit stops, 2) Santa’s ability to get down all sorts of chimneys and enter homes without fireplaces, 3) the U.S. Postal Service’s willingness to deliver mail to such a distant zipcode, and 4) the question of Santa’s mortality. Showing “Arthur Christmas” to the kiddies will save you countless hours trying to explain how such miracles can happen and, perhaps, postpone the day when they will call, “Bullshit!,” on the whole thing. In the meantime, I probably wouldn’t push the making-of demonstrations, included in the Blu-ray supplements, on them. Why test your luck? The story begins when a little girl in a quaint English town drops her letter to Santa in the mailbox. Its arrival at the North Pole triggers a multifaceted response that requires split-second timing and the expertise of a million highly trained and fully computerized elves. Once the solicitation is filed and the fulfillment center locates the parcel, it’s loaded onto Santa’s sleigh – which more closely resembles the USS Enterprise than a reindeer-drawn carriage – and delivered by teams of three commando elves, who have 18 seconds to enter the recipients home by any means necessary, avoid pets and other obstacles, place the gift alongside the tree and be collected by the mother ship, which is hovering over the city. The title of Santa Claus is passed from one generation of white-bearded, red-suited geezers to another, much in the same way as any royal family or dynasty. Grandsanta, the reigning Santa and First Lady, the heir apparent, Steve, and his klutzy brother, Arthur, all live under the same roof, occasionally debating the merits of old-school practices and digital technology.
For various reasons, Arthur has been assigned a low-level job in the North Pole’s mailroom. Instead of being a mere cog in the machine, however, the chronically optimistic Arthur considers himself to be an essential piece of the annual Christmas puzzle. After Steve pulls out of the warehouse on his high-tech S-1 sleigh – Santa monitors the entire operation, his 70th, from his easy chair – Arthur and the wrapper elf Bryony find a gift that’s been inadvertently left behind. Arthur recognizes the wrapped bike and the name of the girl who requested it. Committed to making every child happy, Arthur talks Grandsanta into pulling his ancient sleigh and reindeer out of mothballs and making the trip to Trelew, Cornwall. The problem is that Grandsanta’s navigation skills have rusted since his retirement, decades earlier, and he directs the sleigh everywhere but England. If it were up to Steve and Santa, the bicycle would be written off as a glitch in the system and it would be delivered after Christmas. Mrs. Santa sides with Steve and Bryony, however, and demands that every effort be made to race the dawn and make sure the girl isn’t disappointed. Three generations of Santas arrive almost simultaneously, causing a logjam of sleighs on the Trelew cul-de-sac, minutes before sunrise and the girl’s awakening. Their efforts could be thwarted, though, if Steve and Santa don’t quit bickering about the best way to get into the girl’s house at such a late hour. Aardman is known for its stop-action Claymation techniques, as popularized in “Wallace & Gromit,” but for its first collaboration with Sony Pictures Animation, the company turned to computer-graphics technology. Even if I haven’t seen the Blu-ray 3D edition, I can tell by the 2D disc that it probably looks excellent. Among the voice actors are James McAvoy, Hugh Laurie, Bill Nighy, Jim Broadbent, Joan Cusack, Imelda Staunton, Eva Longoria, Michael Palin and Laura Linney. The lively soundtrack is highlighted by Justin Bieber’s “Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town,” which channels the Jackson 5.
It took a few minutes to adjust to the sight of SpongeBob and the Bikini Bottom gang cavorting in stop-animation, but the novelty is worth the momentary visual disconnect. The Nickelodeon holiday special, “It’s a SpongeBob Christmas!,” pre-supposes that the GPS device on Santa’s sleigh also is equipped with sonar, so he can find Bikini Bottom and deliver the goods. John Goodman guest stars as the jolly fat man, who, it’s feared, will fall for a scheme arranged by Plankton to get gain possession of the Krabby Patty secret formula. To do so, he plans to dose everyone with his special jerktonium-laced fruitcake. The bonus package adds a behind-the-scenes featurette, an animatic, a SpongeBob Yule Log and two downloadable songs from the episode.
There’s always room for another mischievous dog at Christmas and the live-action anthropomorphic Bailey, from Hungry Bear Productions, will fill the bill for very audiences. “Adventures of Bailey: Christmas Hero” is the second of three films in the series (“Bailey’s Billion$,” from 2005, has different roots.) Like every other naughty kid at Christmas, Baily fears that Santa will overlook him on Christmas morning. The panic extends to his human family, as well. Taking matters into his own paws, Bailey a mysterious Native American shaman, who appears to have a direct line to Hollywood. To get Santa to reserve a tennis ball, stuffed animal and bone, Bailey enlists the help of his brother, Duke. Apparently, in doing so, Bailey discovers the “true” meaning of Christmas. – Gary Dretzka
There are things things about “Dinotasia” – think dinosaurs and “Fantasia” – that differentiate from most other series, mini-series, documentaries and movies about Jurassic history and paleontology. The first is the disembodied Bavarian voice of Werner Herzog, as narrator of this often interesting CG re-creation of prehistoric life. Second, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a dinosaur – or anything else, for that matter – take a dump on screen, during the course of a normal day’s events. Three, I don’t recall ever watching a dinosaur or pterosaur freezing to death in the weeks after a giant meteorite hit Earth some 65 million years ago. I doubt that Herzog’s voice would sound much different it had been created in a synthesizer, but everything else in “Dinotasia” has been created by 2D CGI animation. Originally intended by co-directors/co-writers David Krentz and Erik Nelson has a 12-part series for History Channel, “Dinosaur Revolution,” the 83-minute final product spans millions of years and three geological periods, when these wonderful, terrifying creatures roamed the planet. Their stories are told in vignette form much in the same way as Walt Disney shaped his “True-Life Adventures” series. Most are violent and unforgiving in a strictly Darwinian way. Even so, because the series originally was intended to include comedy, some of the action reportedly was inspired by specific “Looney Tune” cartoons. Critics may not have been impressed by “Dinotasia” in its brief, limited release, but I dug the visualizations of the dinosaurs, which were informed by the latest fossil discoveries and research. About halfway through the movie, the fatal meteorite begins to loom ominously in views shared from deep space, giving us a reason to empathize with these otherwise disagreeable critters. Dino-crazy kids should get a big kick out of “Dinotasia” and their parents shouldn’t mind sharing time with them, attempting to answer questions and share the delight of watching dinosaurs poop. The Blu-ray adds a deleted scene and making-of material. – Gary Dretzka
RVBX: Ten Years of Red vs. Blue Box Set: Blu-ray
Red vs. Blue: Season 10: Blu-ray
Digimon Adventure: The Official First Season, Volume 1
It’s no coincidence that two new “Red vs. Blue” compilations are being released simultaneously with the release of the “Halo 4” first-person shooter video game for the Xbox 360 console and beginning of a new trilogy of Halo series games, “The Reclaimer Trilogy.” The game begins four years after the ending of “Halo 3” and marks the return of the Master Chief as the main protagonist, and the artificially intelligent Cortana. Early reviews of “Halo 4” have been extremely positive, so there’s no reason to believe it won’t be as explosively popular as the previous iterations had been. “RvB” is to the “Halo” franchise what remora fish are to sharks. A year or so after the first trilogy was introduced, “Red vs. Blue: The Blood Gulch Chronicles” became a fixture on the Internet. The episodes would be collected on DVD and, later, Blu-ray, as well. The story centers on two opposing teams of soldiers fighting a civil war in the middle of a desolate box canyon. It was intended as a parody of FPS, military and sci-fi conventions. As “Halo” moved from one trilogy to another, so, too, did the “RvB” franchise. Full-length installments would be added, as well. All were created with a new form of animation called “machinima,” also popularized by “Halo.” Flatiron Films and Rooster Teeth have combined resources for the release of the 14-disc Blu-ray edition of “RVBX: Ten Years of Red vs. Blue Box Set,” which collects the first 10 seasons with newly re-mastered surround-sound audio. The extremely giftable set is further enhanced with eight hours’ worth of additional videos and miniseries, special features, interviews and behind-the-scenes footage.
Fans who’ve laughed their way through the series in seasonal DVD releases need not buy the entire box set to get the final season of “Project Freelancer.” “Red vs. Blue Season 10” chronicles the top-secret military operation from its inception to its conclusion, as well as the many detours along the way. Both sets include new videos based on “Halo 4,” featuring Elijah Wood, commentary and outtakes.
Frankly, there are now so many different “Digimon” variations in the marketplace that I’ve lost track of what’s new and special and what’s a retread or spinoff. “Digimon Adventure: The Official First Season, Volume 1” is comprised of the first 21 episodes, which carry us through the first two natural story arcs of Saban Entertainment’s 1999 series. In the first arc, seven kids are transported to a strange digital world where they make friends with the digital monsters and defend the world from common enemies. In the second, the kids travel to continent Server and learn they have the ability to help their Digimon “digivolve” with the power of Crests, which are guarded by Etemon and his Dark Network. By my count, there are 33 more episodes left in the season. I seem to recall that a full first-season “Digimon Adventure” box was released last month. I’m confident that devoted fans will be able to figure out the best deal for their digi-dollar. – Gary Dretzka
Aim High: The Complete First Season
“Killing is easy … high school is hard”: this appears to be the working principle behind “Aim High,” an entertaining Internet action series in which teenagers moonlight as government assassins. Balancing the two is every bit as difficult as it sounds for the students, who also are preoccupied with sex and becoming a target for revenge killings. Unlike most webisodes, whose cheesy production values add to their charm, “Aim High” looks polished and professionally directed. This probably can be credited to executive producer McG (“Chuck,” “Nikita”) and professionals in every level of production. In addition to veteran guest stars, such as Greg Germann, Nick Swardson, Rebecca Mader and Clancy Brown, the high school students are played by actors with substantial resumes. Among them are Nick Green (“Twilight”), Aimee Teegarden (“Friday Night Lights”), Johnny Pemberton (“21 Jump Street”) and Natalie Lander (“The Middle”). On the negative side, the DVD is comprised of a mere six bite-sized episodes, a pair of background featurettes and a music video by Teegarden. As much fun as “Aim High” is to watch, it feels more like a pilot for an MTV sitcom than an Internet series. – Gary Dretzka