The Descendants: Blu-ray
I didn’t know until the night of the Oscar telecast that director Alexander Payne co-wrote the screenplay for “The Descendants” with Groundlings Nat Faxon and Jim Rash. Although I don’t know exactly where Payne’s contributions end and Faxon and Rush’s input begins – the bonus interviews don’t offer much information on the subject — it helps explains some of the movie’s kookier moments. It’s also possible that Kaui Hart Hemmings’ novel of the same title was sufficiently meaty to require little more than a gentle massage and the guys put some new words into the mouths of the characters, especially the kids’ wickedly funny digs and disses. No matter, Hemmings is a Honolulu native whose bloodlines aren’t all that dissimilar those of her protagonist, attorney Matt King (George Clooney). Her novel dovetails perfectly with Payne’s approach to making movies, in that his characters are recognizable as everyday people who normally wouldn’t stand out in a crowd, but, somewhere along the way, took a detour or hit a bump that made their stories worth hearing. Several things like that happen at once in “The Descendants.” At the same time as King is legally obliged to make a decision that could change the face of Kauai forever, his wife is involved in an accident that leaves her in a vegetative state and his wiseass daughter discloses a devastating piece of news she’s been harboring for months. Along with a whole bunch of cousins, King stands to benefit from the sale of one of the largest undeveloped tracts on the island. After 150 years of family stewardship, the property must either be put up for sale or left undisturbed. A huge amount of money is at stake and several of the cousins have already cut side deals with local real-estate developers. Meanwhile, King conducts business from a makeshift desk alongside the bed upon which his comatose wife languishes. He has none of the experience required to succeed as breadwinner and single parent, and his precocious ’tween-age girl, Scottie (Amara Miller), and her hugely troubled sister, Alexandra (Shailene Woodley), are beginning to freak him out. After King rounds up Alexandra from the expensive boarding school/rehab center she attends on another island, she explains why she continues to hate her mother and consider him to be a sap. While Dad was focused almost exclusively on business, Mom was stepping out on him with a local real-estate salesman. Stunned, he makes a beeline for the home of his in-laws, who also neglected to inform him of his wife’s affairs and unhappiness. With so many different individual characters already involved directly in the narrative, it’s a small miracle that so many of them are accorded memorable moments of their own. This includes the eldest daughter’s pothead boyfriend (Nick Krause), whose evolution from doofus to King’s confidante is delightful to watch.
Besides possessing a gift for finding extraordinary qualities in ordinary people, Payne has located and successfully exploited the qualities that make the locations of his stories unique. The portrait he paints of Hawaii and its permanent residents effectively captures both their obsessively hang-loose lifestyle and the chinks in the state’s heaven-on-Earth façade. It could hardly be more dissimilar to the one he sketched of California’s Central Coast and wine fascism (“Sideways”) and those of the aggressively forthright and unabashedly hypocritical – but, in a nice way — citizens of the American heartland (“Primary,” “Citizen Ruth,” “About Schmidt”). Not many movies have as distinct a sense of place as “The Descendants” and the credit for that belongs to Hemmings, who imbued Payne and the cast with the native “aloha spirit.” For his part, Clooney looks exactly like the kind of middle-aged guy who grew up in Hawaii and sees it less as paradise than as the place where his chickens come home to roast every night. Not so much his daughters, who mostly take the islands’ splendor for granted. By the time the movie reaches its climax, we care as much about the fate of the disputed chunk of land as the cousins and marvel at the distance traveled by the Kings in such a short time and over such rough terrain. The Blu-ray adds several deleted scenes, with introductions by Payne; seven behind-the-scenes featurettes of varying degrees of value; a trio of music videos; a silent-era travelogue, “The World Parade: Hawaii”; and an amusing conversation with George Clooney and Alexander Payne. Also excellent in the ensemble cast are Beau Bridges, Judy Greer, Matthew Lillard, Rob Huebel and Robert Forster, as King’s thoroughly unlikeable ex-Marine father-in-law. – Gary Dretzka
My Week with Marilyn: Blu-ray
At 31, Michelle Williams already has three Oscar and a pair of BAFTA nominations to her credit and a bunch of Independent Spirit trophies and nominations for films going back to 2004’s “Land of Plenty.” Her myriad choices reveal a degree of confidence that borders on fearlessness. Only time will tell if she’ll be accorded the same royal status as Meryl Streep and Glenn Close, who keep piling up nominations and awards simply for gracing the screen with their presence. As long as Williams continues to challenge herself with clever scripts and fascinating characters, I don’t see why not. In “My Week With Marilyn,” Williams takes on one of the most complex and thoroughly enigmatic women in show-business history. She doesn’t try to explain or mimic Marilyn and, yet, there are moments when we can read in her portrayal of Hollywood’s greatest tragic figure both the joy that comes with impromptu adulation and the pain of being perceived as a mindless sex doll, to be used and abused by the media, her industry and men who treat her as trophy fuck. At the same time, Williams makes us see how Monroe could be her own worst enemy, putting herself in harm’s way when avoiding a collision would have been the more sensible option. “My Week With Marilyn” locates the star at the precise moment, we’re told, that she was at the emotional zenith of her career and, possibly, her life. She’d recently married playwright Arthur Miller and felt as if working in England with Laurence Olivier would validate everything she hoped to accomplish during her time at the Actor’s Studio. Apparently, though, what the Strasbergs neglected to teach her was the ability to discern the difference between projects that can sustain the Method approach and those that simply require one to show up for work on time, hit your marks and read your lines. “The Prince and the Showgirl,” a light period romance, was the perfect example of the latter. Even so, Monroe felt it necessary to be joined outside London by a visibly bored Miller and Paula Strasberg, whose advice to Olivier could be boiled down to, “Let Marilyn be Marilyn, until Marilyn is ready to become your ‘showgirl.’” Naturally, that approach didn’t cut much ice with the traditionally trained Olivier (Kenneth Branagh). I’m no psychiatrist, but it seems as if the angels and demons residing Monroe’s head rarely could agree on where they wanted to her to be on any given day. Without a prescribed sense of purpose and direction, Monroe floundered. Williams allows us to weigh both sides of her bipolar equation.
“My Week With Marilyn” was adapted from a memoir written many years after the fact by Colin Clark (Eddie Redmayne), a third assistant director – a.k.a., go-for – assigned specifically to somehow keep Monroe on an even keel. In doing so, the recent university graduate won her over with his innocence and sincere concern for her well-being. He was the kind of a friend who happily took her on sight-seeing trips and didn’t paw at her whenever he got within two feet of that world-famous bosom. Even if they hadn’t slept together – and it’s never made precisely clear that they did anything, besides sleep together – Monroe’s brief respite from pain and anxiety would have qualified as the greatest moment in any young man’s life. (The son of historian Sir Kenneth Clark, he would go on to be a successful documentarian and author.) Williams captures the star’s many highs and lows with equal dexterity, finally charming Olivier with comedic chops no acting coach could have taught her. Except for one or two scenes, “The Prince and the Showgirl” is an eminently forgettable confection that’s more of a footnote than a career landmark for either actor. Similarly, without Williams and Branagh’s splendid contributions, “My Week With Marilyn” might be just another Lifetime movie. The Blu-ray adds the making-of featurette, “The Untold Story of an American Icon,” with background material and interesting interviews with Branagh, Williams, Judi Dench and other co-stars, as well as commentary with director Simon Curtis. – Gary Dretzka
Young Adult: Blu-ray
Almost none of the movies released in 2011 scored better reviews from established critics than Jason Reitman’s “Young Adult.” Even so, it was stiffed by Academy Award voters, who ignored noteworthy performances by Charlize Theron and Patton Oswald and Diablo Cody’s imaginatively caustic original screenplay. I’m guessing that members were intimidated by a movie that failed to wear its genre on its sleeve and refused to insult its audience by offering phony redemption and a happy ending. Judging from how many different examples of the poster art I’ve seen – the DVD and Blu-ray editions have different covers, as well — it’s likely that Paramount’s marketing team struggled with its mission to identify an audience and sell those viewers a comedy so dark it’s a drama … that’s also kind of funny. It’s interesting that Cody’s name appears on the front cover of the Blu-ray jacket, while Theron and a cute little puppy alone are required to sell the DVD. Are hi-def advocates somehow more hip to the nuances than DVD buyers? I doubt it. As noted on the theatrical posters I’ve seen, Cody and Reitman partnered previously on “Juno,” another movie that defied easy pigeonholing, but benefitted from its likable characters. Reitman’s other features, “Thank You for Smoking” and “Up in the Air” also required some work on the audience’s part to enjoy.
As we’ve learned, as well, the mere presence of a “bankable” star no longer assures even a solid opening weekend. Theron may have bombshell good looks, but, to her credit, it’s impossible to pin her down as an actor. She’s never been afraid to assume the identity of horrifying criminals (“Monster”) and unglamorous blue-collar types (“North Country”) and, here, we knew from the commercials that her character was going to be messed up in some way. Known primarily for his standup comedy, Oswald has distinguished himself playing the frumpy sidekick or a pitiable loser. Anyone who’s seen him in “United States of Tara” or “Big Fan,” though, already knows he’s a terrific actor. Patrick Wilson has also done much fine work in interesting projects, but his name on a poster rarely has meant anything commercially, one way or another. The television ads and trailers accentuated the movie’s edgy humor and the potential for offbeat romance, without acknowledging its toxic heart. “Young Adult” was destined to become a textbook case of damned if you do, damned if you don’t. For audiences who don’t mind having their expectations challenged, however, “Young Adult” is a must-see in Blu-ray, DVD or VOD.
Theron’s Mavis is a celebrated author of teen lit, deflated by a recent divorce and tantalized by the news that her high school flame has become a father for the first time. With the concept for a book already percolating in her devious mind, she drives to her small Minnesota hometown of Mercury for the first time in years. Mavis wouldn’t be the first person to return home and find more comfort in a bottle of booze than the house in which she once lived and, the drunker she gets, the more dangerous she becomes. On her first night in town, Mavis shares a drink or two with an old acquaintance, Matt (Oswald), who has more reason to be bitter about his high school experience than she does. Bullied by jocks, who assumed he was gay, Matt finally was left in a wheelchair after taking a beating. He would seem to be the perfect ally for Mavis’ plan to steal back her former boyfriend – and, in doing so, shock the good citizens of tiny Mercury – but, eventually, even he is appalled by her ferocity. Wilson plays the ex-boyfriend, Buddy, who’s too dense to understand the forces at play around him. Neither is his wife, Beth (Elizabeth Reaser) immediately suspicious of Mavis. The only person who’s fully conscious of the potential for disaster here is her mother, nicely played by Jill Eikenberry. Everything else in the story leads to the baby’s “naming ceremony,” where Mavis plans to announce to the gathering of friends and relatives that Buddy has agreed to join her in the Twin Cities, along with the child. Somehow, though, Buddy’s missed all of Mavis’ signals and has no more intention of splitting Mercury than she has of making a fool of herself. Somehow, Theron, Reitman and Cody find ways make us laugh at Mavis’ impertinence, without being required to sympathize with her. The Blu-ray adds deleted scenes; commentary by Reitman; a making-of featurette, with on-set interviews; a deconstruction of a key scene; an overly fawning interview by critic Janet Maslin of Reitman; and a UV digital copy. – Gary Dretzka
The Adventures of Tintin: Blu-ray
Wizards: 35th Anniversary Edition: Blu-ray
Happy Feet Two: Blu-ray
In the hands of producer Peter Jackson and director Steven Spielberg, “The Adventures of Tintin” is a thoroughly enjoyable, if not particularly memorable adaptation of the celebrated comic-book adventures of a young reporter and his intrepid dog, Snowy, by the Belgian artist and writer Hergé. Employing performance-capture and CGI technology to retain the comic-strip texture, it combines the stories “The Secret of the Unicorn,” “Red Rackham’s Treasure” and “The Crab With the Golden Claws.” It opens in a bustling Brussels market, where Tintin falls in love with a model of the seagoing vessel, Unicorn, and purchases it moments before two other suitors offer even more money for it. Before long, it becomes clear that the model ship is valuable for something other than its interest to hobbyists. After his home is ransacked and the ship stolen, Tintin visits the stacks of the Royal Navy Research Archive to research its fate. The evidence leads him to a cargo ship skippered by the rum-soaked Captain Haddock, whose grandfather piloted the Unicorn until it was sunk in battle with pirates. Sakharine, the likely suspect in the break-in at Tintin’s house, is on the same ship as Haddock and seems intent on hijacking it. Turns out, Sakharine is the grandson of the pirate who attacked the Unicorn in pursuit of the fortune he believed to be stored in its hold. All these years later, the grandsons are in pursuit of the same sunken ship, but require three more pieces of the puzzle to locate it. The search takes them from Europe to northern Africa, where Tintin, Snowy and Haddock find themselves stranded on a sea of sand and a wealthy Moroccan potentate is in possession of the second model of the Unicorn. After locating the scroll inside the ship’s mast, a hawk trained by Sakharine grabs it from Tintin’s hand. It leads to a terrifically exciting chase through the streets of the port city.
While “The Adventures of Tintin” is inarguably impressive as an entertainment and technological achievement, I couldn’t help but wonder what prompted Spielberg to direct it, instead of co-producing with Jackson. After all, he already had his hands full with “War Horse” and preproduction for “Lincoln” and “Robopocalypse,” and he certainly doesn’t need the bread. The estimated $130-million budget probably was too Spielbergian for his ego to resist, however. For that amount of money and the cachet of the director and producer on full display in ads, it’s likely American audiences, at least, expected something quite a bit more magical than simply a commendable reworking of a European comic strip. Last year, Shout! Factory got a jump on the project by releasing on DVD the first season of the traditionally animated “Adventures of Tintin,” which aired on HBO in 1991. (The second season is on tap for next week.) That seems to me, at least, to be the proper scale for “Tintin.” But, hey, give Spielberg an “A” for effort. There’s certainly no criticizing the quality of the animation and storytelling on display, and the voice actors (Jamie Bell, Andy Serkis, Daniel Craig, Simon Pegg, Gad Elmaleh, Toby Jones, Cary Elwes among them) earned their paychecks. If there is to be a sequel, as envisioned, his team probably will be able to step into the master’s shoes and not miss a step, even on half the budget.
The Blu-ray’s bonus package is a treasure trove for viewers of all ages. The featurettes help explain how the special effects were achieved and fill in the blanks of the characters’ backgrounds. They include, “The Who’s Who of Tintin”; “‘Tintin: Conceptual Design”; “Tintin: In the Volume,” a detailed look inside the 3D box in which the human performances were captured on film; “Snowy: From Beginning to End,” on the brilliant canine companion; “Animating ‘Tintin,’” which describes the animation process that follows the performance captures; pieces on John Williams’ score and Tintin collectibles; and “The Journey to Tintin,” in which Spielberg and Jackson recall how they were introduced to Tintin. (Spielberg discusses his first exposure to the character, through European critics who referenced the strip in their reviews of “Raiders of the Lost Ark.”) I haven’t seen the 3D edition, but can’t imagine it being all that much better than the Blu-ray 2D
It’s interesting that Ralph Bakshi’s “Wizards: 35th Anniversary Edition” is being released simultaneously with “The Adventures of Tintin” and so quickly after the arrival of Martin Scorsese’s “Hugo.” One of the true pioneers of modern animation, Bakshi became the first old-school animator to create feature films — “Fritz the Cat,” “Heavy Traffic,” “Coonskin” — relevant to the generation of young people who came of age in the 1960s, but cut their teeth on new and re-released Disney movies. Perhaps taking a cue from Disney’s experimental “Fantasia,” the Brooklyn-raised filmmaker also was one of the first to make rock, jazz and R&B music as integral a part of his movies as any character. Adults weren’t merely the target audience for such entertainments, they were the only people allowed to see them. Based on its subject matter, language and cartoon sex, “Fritz the Cat” has the distinction of being the first animated film to be rated “X” and gross more than $100 million. (This was before the introduction of NC-17. The DVD would go out unrated.) “Wizards” would be different than those three movies in that it was a post-apocalyptic fantasy and, although violent, rated PG. If it’s less known than other of Bakshi’s movies, it’s only because after opening well, it would be dwarfed a week later by the release of “Star Wars.” “Wizards” is set many millennia after the population of Earth is decimated by a nuclear holocaust. Those few who survive have evolved into elves, fairies and grotesque humanoids, and a battle between twin spirits, representing good and evil, looms on the horizon. The forces of evil are inspired by newly recovered films that date back to the Nazi propaganda machine. Budgetary restraints required of Bakshi that he employ economic rotoscoping techniques and film stock of battle scenes from older movies. As such, some critics of the DVD and Blu-ray have slammed “Wizards” for looking hopelessly old-fashioned, bordering on primitive. Considering the context of its origins, however, its vintage didn’t bother me. Bakshi forcefully defends the process and the results in his commentary. What does survive is a singular dystopian vision that has influenced an entire generation of disaster geeks. The Blu-ray package includes a 24-page collectible book packaging; Bakshi’s commentary; the bio-featurette, “Ralph Bakshi: The Wizard of Animation”; and a still gallery.
“Happy Feet Two” is a perfectly amiable sequel to the very successful “Happy Feet,” which, itself, was inspired by the surprise hit documentary, “March of the Penguins.” Although more expensive than both of its predecessors combined, “Happy Feet Two” returned only a third as much as the first feature and $8,000 less than U.S. revenues for the documentary. I’m no mathematician, but those numbers tell me that any “Happy Feet Three” will be released straight-to-DVD and without most of its A-list voicing talent. As the story goes, the male child of Mumble (Elijah Wood) and Gloria (Pink) has not inherited his parents’ happy feet. Instead, Erik (Ava Acres) is determined to fly, like the puffin Mighty Sven (Hank Azaria). Naturally, this disturbs his parents, but not as much as a seismic disturbance that causes a glacier to shift, trapping Gloria and many other emperor penguins without food. At one point, a live-action rescue team of live-action humans appears on the icy cliffs above the penguins, but just as quickly disappears, never to be heard from again. Ultimately, an army of elephant seals is trained to use their happy flippers to thunderously reverse the damage caused by the earthquake. In a completely different story, Brad Pitt and Matt Damon lead a revolt of bright orange krill. These sequences looked spectacular on my Blu-ray. Considering the budget, backers of “Happy Feet Two” probably relied too heavily on young children for its box-office appeal. The music’s is fun, without being memorable, but the animal characters are too reliant on pop-cultural references and scatology to impress older viewers. It arrives with bonus features, “Helping Penguins and Pals,” “How to Draw a Penguin,” “I Taut I Taw a Putty Tat,” “Running with Boadicea,” “The Amazing Voices of ‘Happy Feet Two,’” three sing-a-longs and a video of Pink’s new song. – Gary Dretzka
The Three Musketeers: Blu-ray
Alexandre Dumas’ classic swashbuckler, “The Three Musketeers,” has been adapted for the large and small screens more than 30 times, with the 1973 Richard Lester edition being the one against which all others are now measured. In an interview included in the Blu-ray package, horror specialist Paul W.S. Anderson admits as much, while recalling how he was inspired to create a new one, anyway. It boils down to his desire to cast as D’Artagnan an actor under 20, as Dumas intended, and a balls-out action flick in luscious, historically accurate locations. I’m guessing that Anderson also was anxious to use all of the new digital tools available to him, given a $75 million budget. This time around, the aspiring musketeer is played by the relatively unknown American actor Logan Lerman, while Athos, Aramis and Porthos are portrayed by Matthew Macfadyen, Luke Evans and Ray Stevens, respectively. Brits Orlando Bloom and Freddie Fox assume the roles of the Duke of Buckingham and King Louis XIII, and Germans Til Schweiger and Christoph Waltz and Dane Matts Mikkelsen fill out the male cast. It’s the women, Milla Jovovich, Gabriella Wilde, Helen George and Juno Temple, however, who steal most of the scenes they share with the men. None of the actors, though, is given enough meat to satisfy adults for very long in this oft-told tale.
Although it’s rated PG-13, there’s nothing in “The Three Musketeers” to concern parents, unless it’s a fear of exposing tween-age males to the existence of women so far out of their league that they might forsake any thought of pursuing the perfect woman. No sense destroying a boy’s enthusiasm for the hunt before it’s even begun. Most will happily settle for enjoying Anderson’s deft touch at creating fantastic flying machines and fight scenes that owe as much to James Bond, “The Wild Wild West” and Hong Kong-style martial arts as anything in Dumas. The swordplay is lots of fun to watch; the costumes are splendidly conceived; and the Bavarian settings are out of fairytale. The movie didn’t do very well in the U.S., although I suspect that the largely European cast helped drive ticket sales overseas. Whether they were enough to green-light the planned sequels right now is anyone’s guess. The Blu-ray 2D bonus package adds commentary, in which Anderson discusses “reinventing the Dumas story in a post-‘Matrix’ world”; deleted and extended scenes; interesting picture-in-picture background material; and several too-short featurettes. I can’t vouch for the 3D, but can see how it might look impressive. – Gary Dretzka
House of Pleasures
Every couple of years, police in New York and Los Angeles uncover a prostitution operation that’s been prospering under their noses by catering to some of the cities’ wealthiest and most influential men, including lawmakers and politicians. The tabloid press eats it up, of course, even as replacement operations are gearing up to claim the suddenly underserviced customers and unemployed working girls. I suspect that the turn-of-the-(last)-century Parisian brothel in which “House of Pleasures” is set is what most men would consider to be the perfect house away from home … a refuge from all women, except the ones who don’t say “no.” It goes without saying that the girls are gorgeous and sexually proficient. More than that, though, they’re friendly and flattering; know how and when to breathe new life into a dying conversation; agree to all requests, unless the money isn’t right; and a gentleman isn’t given the bum’s rush once he’s been satisfied. The needle that will pop most men’s balloons here is learning that the women of the “L’Apollonide are little more than indentured servants, in debt to Madam Marie-France. The madam keeps a running tally of what’s owed to her for opium, clothes, cosmetics and hygienic products, such as they were in 1900. If any of the women dare voice their disapproval of the deal, Marie-France need only threaten to “sell” them to a bordello owner in Marseilles.
Unlike the ladies we meet in sex-umentaries on HBO, the prostitutes in Bertrand Bonello’s “House of Pleasures” (a.k.a., “House of Tolerance”) don’t have meters implanted in their heads, measuring time in half-hour increments. Neither do they engage in cat fights or throw hissy fits when they’re aced out by the new girl on the block. In fact, they’re downright friendly and helpful to each other when the chips are down. They understand that their options are limited to one – streetwalking — and appreciate having a roof over their heads, being able to dress like ladies and tricks who bathe regularly. Here, at least, they’ll meet handsome, intelligent and wealthy men who give them some faint hope for freedom through marriage or the money to pay off their debt. Bonello is quick to emphasize the camaraderie and esprit de corps that, all things being equal, allows them to survive. The greatest kindness is shown to a popular prostitute, Madeleine, known as “the Jewess,” whose face is disfigured by a knife-happy client. Instead of being tossed to the curb like a piece of damaged luggage, Marie-France allows her to stay on in the house, doing odd chores and counseling the other gals. She avoids the lineups, but makes herself available for “special” engagements as “the woman who laughs.” We also watch the prostitutes rally around a colleague slowly dying of the syphilis.
Most of the gentlemen we meet in “House of Pleasures” live off inherited wealth or are adept at one lucrative profession or another. Even so, they tend to be as dim and debauched as a hooker married to her opium pipe. In 1900, all that was required of most noblemen and learned men was that they keep their names out of the papers and not squander the family fortune. Even the occasional psychopath was tolerated, if he didn’t continue to damage the merchandise. Finally, though, it isn’t the freaks or disease that puts the bordello at risk. It’s the rising cost of maintaining a discrete business on a good street. After teasing his narrative with songs that wouldn’t be written for several decades, Bonello ends his story on an ironic note. In a quick cut to the distant future, we watch as a familiar looking prostitute steps out of a customer’s car and returns to the stroll, showing how little actually changes for working girls. In a nice narrative touch, the filmmaker keeps something terribly wicked up his sleeve for the slimeball who disfigured Madeleine, yet kept showing up at the house. I don’t know if anyone in France considers Bonello to be the male equivalent of Catherine Breillat, but here and in such provocative films as “The Pornographer,” he definitely has had interesting things to say about sex and commerce. The DVD adds casting sessions with the women portraying the prostitutes and interviews. They’re all splendid in roles that demanded much of them. – Gary Dretzka
The Women on the 6th Floor
In the movies, great cities rarely show their true age. The Manhattan of “Manhattan,” for example, looks much the same today as it did when it was profiled by Woody Allen. As others continue to point out, as well, the Paris of “Paris Street, Rainy Day” remains easily recognizable 135 years after Gustave Caillebotte first committed it to canvas, dot by pointillist dot. Ditto, for the Rome of “La Dolce Vita” and 65 Eaton Place, Belgravia, London, of “Upstairs, Downstairs.” As Jacques Tati reminded us in “Play Time” and “Mon Oncle,” it’s only on the edges of these eternal cities that dramatic changes can be found. I only mention this because of my confusion over the Paris described in Philippe Le Guay and co-writer Jerome Tonnerre’s gentle period farce, “The Women on the 6th Floor.” It’s the 1960s, but nowhere to be seen are the street barricades and calls for revolution, as are the mini-skirts and blue jeans favored by young people no longer impressed by haute couture. It wasn’t until the movie was nearly over that I guessed what French audiences and American Francophiles probably had already assumed, that “The Women on the 6th Floor” recalls a time when people all over the world were asking themselves whether the mainstream was somewhere they wanted to be and if, by steadfastly maintaining the status quo, they might be complicit in some crime against humanity. Just such a sea change is experienced by Jean-Louis Joubert (Fabrice Luchini), an uptight stockbroker who doesn’t realize how miserable he is until his snooty wife gets a bug up her ass and fires their longtime family maid. He’s thrown a lifesaver when she hires an attractive Spanish housekeeper, Maria (Natalia Verbeke). Through Maria, Joubert is introduced to a small community of maids from a country where poor people can’t afford to be obsessed with money, status and bourgeois diversions. Unbeknownst to both of the Jouberts, several of the Spanish women live directly above them, in the servants’ quarters on the 6th Floor of the posh apartment building he owns.
The Jouberts are strict but not uncaring employers. Once discovered, Jean-Louis allows the women to use the family phone to maintain contact with relatives in Spain, and, while still in the dark, Suzanne (Sandrine Kiberlain) encourages Maria to take advantage of the apartment’s modern plumbing. The women’s optimism has a transformational effect on Jean-Louis, who immediately improves their living quarters and gives them solid advice. Naturally, he begins to fall in love with Maria, who has problems of her own back home. It isn’t until his two sons return from boarding school and begin bossing around Maria that Jean-Louise decides that they probably wouldn’t benefit as human beings from automatically being handed the reins of the family business. Instead, he moves into the maids’ quarters and begins the process of becoming Spanish. Even if it seems a tad unfair to Suzanne, who’s only guilty of behaving in a way Jean-Louis expected a woman of her stature to act, we’re happy for him. When Maria moves back to Spain to reconnect with her son, all of the Jouberts are affected in one way or another. “Women on the 6th Floor” is entertaining without being frothy or manipulative. Indeed, plenty of previously hide-bound adults were profoundly changed by things that happened in the 1960s, some of which couldn’t be attributed to psychedelics or liberation politics. Fans of French comedies should find something to love on the 6th Floor. – Gary Dretzka
The Sweet Season
This gently affecting documentary answers the musical question, “Whatever happened to those darling musicians from Ireland, I think, who sang that nice song on the Oscars a couple of years ago?” For the record, that melodious duo was comprised of Marketa Irglova and Glen Hansard and they sang the 2008 Academy Award-winning song, “Falling Slowly,” from “Once,” the low-budget indie that introduced them to the non-Irish world. Not surprisingly, that appearance made Marketa and Glen overnight stars around the world. Millions more people became fans on the night they performed on stage in Hollywood’s Kodak Theater than had seen John Carney’s heartwarming musical romance in theaters. (The already-released DVD would benefit the most from the magical moment on stage.) “The Sweet Season” reminds us of Marketa’s inspiring acceptance speech, “This is such a big deal, not only for us, but for all other independent musicians and artists that spend most of their time struggling, and this, the fact that we’re standing here tonight, the fact that we’re able to hold this, it’s just the proof that no matter how far out your dreams are, it’s possible. And, you know, fair play to those who dare to dream and don’t give up.” Fair play, indeed. Nick August-Perna, Chris Dapkins and Carlo Mirabella-Davis’ documentary tags along with the duo on several subsequent tours, during which they experience for the first time the frequently suffocating adulation that accompanies any such phenomenon. Suddenly, they were the toast of every town in which they appeared. Fans not only stood in line for autographs, but also the opportunity to bend their ears about how the music forever changed the course of their lives. The local media at each stop on the road pressed Marketa and Glen for morsels of gossip not already widely disseminated.
At first, of course, it was fun. After a while, though, the pressure would get to Marketa, who, at 16, met her future partner at a concert in her native Czechoslovakia and followed him to Ireland. “Once” made them the most famous buskers in the world. Seventeen years older than Marketa, Glen was already something of a road warrior when they set out to exploit their 15 minutes of fame. In his mind, the hysteria served to validate the hard work it took for him finally to become a star. Marketa played along for as long as she could stand it and split before things got too weird. “The Sweet Season” deftly captures both the on-stage chemistry they shared and the devolution of their off-stage relationship. It seems to begin after Glen attempts to put his career in perspective for his parents, who worship the ground upon which he walks. It’s a tough scene to watch, especially because we know that Glen’s dead is an alcoholic and soon will die of cancer. His son’s Oscar was the highlight in a life that started out promising, but fell into disrepair when abruptly ended his boxing career. Watching Marketa’s reaction to Glen’s insensitivity is similarly wrenching. Blessedly, the directors elected not to dwell on the discordant moments, allowing the lyrics of their newly written songs to tell the story. Nothing explosive or jarring … life would go on and we’d still have the music. “The Sweet Season” is intimate, without being intrusive, and informed by some wonderful songs. The DVD adds deleted scenes and extended concert footage. – Gary Dretzka
La Terra Trema
Young, Violent, Dangerous
The latest shipments of post-war Italian movies from Entertainment One and Raro Video contain some prime examples of neo-realism, commedia all’italiana and Italo-crime, all rarely shown in the U.S. Released in 1948, Luchino Visconti’s “La Terra Trema” is both a heart-breaking example of post-war neorealism and a curious choice for an aristocrat-turned-communist. The setting is a Sicilian fishing village, whose residents live and die by the bounty of a fickle sea. Even on a good day, however, the fishermen are nickeled and dimed by the kind of wholesalers who’ve cheated poor workers for centuries. The practice is so engrained in the culture that the locals have stopped questioning it. Their resistance to change is challenged by a soldier, who, after seeing how people in the rest of Italy conduct business, convinces family members to invest in a strategy designed to bypass the thieves. Just when it looks as if the scheme might bear fruit, a devastating storm nearly destroys the family boat and all of its equipment is lost. Ntoni was advised not to go out in testy weather, but even one day without income could prove disastrous for a family living on the edge. Instead of supporting their neighbor, all of the other fishermen take the opportunity to mock him and insist that his hubris could have cost all of them their livelihoods. Too proud to accept a place on the boats owned by one of the wholesalers, Ntoni turns to booze and a bland acceptance of his pitiful condition. When it becomes clear that Ntoni won’t be able to honor the terms of a second mortgage, Ntoni’s brother leaves home to work with smugglers supplying black-market profiteers, a sister turns to penny-ante prostitution, another sister’s humiliation deprives her of an opportunity to accept the love of a hard-working mason, his ailing father is shipped to a hospital in another city and a younger brother is given a cruel lesson in life. Viewers know that Ntoni is an honorable man and, if it weren’t for this twist of fate, his plan might have worked for the betterment of the community. If “La Terra Trema” had been produced in the Soviet Union at the same time, the other fishermen would have rallied around their fallen comrade and banished the wholesalers from the pier, allowing them to find success in a communal marketplace. That the opposite happens in Visconti’s operatic social tragedy makes one wonder what he had in mind, unless it was to outrage his out-of-touch countrymen who munched on their sardines, oblivious to the conditions endured by the fishermen. Among the decisions that contributed to the movie’s strength was Visconti’s determination to cast non-actors and retain the Aci Trezza location.
Three years later, Visconti would merge neorealism with satire in “Bellissima.” It features a tour de force performance by Anna Magnani as a fame-obsessed stage mother, whose only moderately talented daughter becomes a pawn in a game designed to impress studio executives looking for the next big child star. Magnani’s Maddalena Ciccone is so self-centered and determined to win the contest that she fails to notice how much pain she’s causing little Maria and her husband, Spartaco, whose dreams of building a house for them diminishes with every dollar Maddalena spends on photographs, costumes and bribes. In Magnani’s hands, Maddalena makes all off the stage mothers you’ve seen in the movies and on television reality shows look like amateurs. The portrayals of studio executives and hangers-on are exaggerated, of course, but not so much as to be unrecognizable by anyone who’s ever had the misfortune of dealing with such weasels. The mass call for talent is a veritable three-ring circus of cynical filmmakers, rabid stage moms and almost impossibly precocious children. Combine the early rounds of “American Idol” with “Toddlers and Tiaras” and you’ll have an idea of what happens on the Cinecitta stage. Back home in their tenement apartment, Maddalena and Spartaco do their best imitation of Ralph and Alice Kramden.
In “La Visita” (“The Visitor”), two lonely people from different parts of Italy attempt to make a love connection through ads in a magazine’s Lonely Hearts column. The bubbly and highly personable Pina (Sandra Milo) is a thirtysomething northerner, who resembles Judy Holliday crossed with Bette Midler. Neat and efficient Adolfo works in a book store in Rome, where he’s admired by no one, and looks a bit like a bespectacled John Hillerman. They meet for the first time at the train station near her village, the kind of place where everyone knows everyone else from birth and the local nutcases are treated as tourist attractions. Their differences are apparent immediately. Where Pina is vivacious and outgoing, Adolfo is uptight and quiet. She lives in a cottage otherwise populated by a singing parrot, a small tortoise and a lazy dog. He’s unnerved by animals. Our perceptions of both of them will change gradually as we get to know the characters – he’s a drunk and lecher, she’s involved in an affair with a married truck driver – but not so much that we don’t find room in our hearts for them. Indeed, in certain key ways, they complement each other. In the short run, though, Pina is made to feel uneasy by all the attention Adolfo pays to the teenage granddaughter of her maid. The girl is right out of the pages of “Lolita” and knows exactly how to flout her assets in private and public. Another potential problem arises when Adolfo suggests that he’d love to open a book shop in a small village like the one in which Pina grew up, while she is looking forward to experiencing big-city diversions. Milo is a blast to watch, as she goes about her chores in a comical rush and attempts to rinse the starch out Adolfo’s sails. “La Visita” was directed and co-written by Antonio Pietrangeli, one of the unsung heroes of Italian post-war cinema, from a story by Gino De Santis, Ettore Scola and Ruggero Macarri. In the interviews included in the DVD, we learn how rare it was for women to land such substantial comic roles in movies of the period.
“Young, Violent, Dangerous” was written primarily by “master of mafia mayhem” Fernando Di Leo, from a novel by Milanese crime specialist Giorgio Scerbanenci. No stranger to exploitation flicks, himself, director Romolo Guerrieri had by 1976 successfully made the transition from spaghetti westerns, including Johnny Yuma, to Italo-crime (a.k.a., poliziottesco). This collaboration is considered to be a minor-grade action movie, interesting primarily for the behind-the-camera talent and Cuban-American actor Thomas Millian’s formidable presence as police commissioner. In a scenario that recalls Roger Corman, “Young, Violent, Dangerous” tells the story of a trio of trigger-happy young punks whose plans for a simple bank heist are altered after a murderous shootout at a gas station with police, during which several bystanders also are killed. The cops had already been tipped by one of the guy’s girlfriends, who, knowing that trouble was brewing, hoped they could nip it in the bud and save the guy from a prison sentence. The intensity of the car chases increases as the trio closes in on the Swiss border. The digitally enhanced DVD adds the documentary, “Ragazzi Fuoro,” and access to a PDF booklet with critical analysis. – Gary Dretzka
As portrayed by writer/star Peter Facinelli, Bobby is a pickpocket so skillful at his game that he’s able to steal the shield of a NYPD detective (Michael Madsen) without him being aware of its absence. If nothing else, the theft guarantees the young man will be hounded by police throughout the rest of the movie. Bobby seems to enjoy his work, insisting at one point that he only steals from people who seem as if they can afford the loss. The problem is that he can’t quit, even if he so desired, because he’s inherited a huge debt left behind by his father, a degenerate gambler. The shylock (Vincent Gallo) has Bobby by the balls and is concerned that he might lead the cop with the lost shield to his lair. Complicating things even further is the re-appearance in his life of a pretty one-night stand, Lucy (Jamie Alexander), who informs him that she’s pregnant and he supplied the sperm. Being a standup guy, he offers to pay for an abortion. When they get to the clinic, however, he not only changes his tune about fatherhood, but also is mugged while arguing with Lucy and is chased through the facility by the cop and his cronies. If that weren’t enough baggage, Facinelli demands of his character that he react strongly to his mother’s blossoming romance with a diamond merchant and all-around nice guy played by Joe Pantoliano. When it comes time to pull all of the disparate storylines together, Facinelli deftly conceives a device that requires the participation of all of the key characters and a few of the lesser ones. It’s a nifty conclusion, well worth the time and head-scratching required to get there. The title, “Loosies,” refers to the New York tradition of being able to buy individual cigarettes at magazine stands and bars. – Gary Dretzka
Screwball: The Ted Whitfield Story
A couple of weeks ago, I reviewed a do-it-yourself comedy, “Poolboy: Drowning Out the Fury,”
which employed several actors and writers also responsible “Screwball: The Ted Whitfield Story.” While not exactly a laugh riot, when compared to “Screwball,” “Poolboy” might as well have been made by Mel Brooks. Writer Ross Patterson stars as the title character, whose claim to fame is that he’s the greatest living player of wiffleball and during the baseball strike of 1994, whiffleball briefly replaced it as the national pastime. (It takes place on a triangular playing field, upon which batters holding a long, thin wooden stick attempt to hit a hollow, aerated plastic ball past markers representing bases.) In effect, Ted Whitfield is a trailer-park version of Barry Bonds, with the same power and steroids habit. Patterson and director Tommy Reid chronicle Whitfield’s various bad habits and how the end of the strike impacted his legend. Their first mistake, however, was limiting Whitfield to a precise and practically meaningless time frame. Fact is, whiffle leagues and national tournaments actually do exist and a storyline could have been written around the pursuit of a championship, not unlike “Kingpin” and “Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story.” That, or having Whitfield compete against big-leaguers during the strike. As it is, “Screwball” lacks much reason to exist. – Gary Dretzka
The Burning Moon
One thing upon which most horror fans can agree is that a movie can be creepy without also being gory and gory movies aren’t necessarily scary. Here are two movies that I’d use as examples of those beliefs. Mike Flanagan’s “Absentia,” which has made the rounds of dozens of horror film festivals, now hopes to make its case in DVD. Made on a budget of about $70,000, much of which was funded by Kickstarter.com donors, “Absentia” has received sensational reviews from bloggers and other indie critics. Spending millions of dollars on a marketing campaign for a theatrical release would have proven counterproductive as it isn’t anywhere as new and different as, say, “The Blair Witch Project,” which, too, was creepy without being gory. That’s a long way of saying that genre fans ought to consider taking a shot on it in the video store or from a subscription service. Indies need your love and support as much the folks who wasted your time on “Twilight: Breaking Down.” Here, a woman whose husband has been missing for seven years petitions to have him declared dead, in absentia. She’s pregnant and wants to get on with her new life. Her sister, a dedicated jogger, has come to live with her in the months leading up to the birth of her child. One day, while running through a tunnel that connects one side of the freeway to the other, the sister spots a man who looks half-dead lying on his side. She decides to offer the man a plate of food, an act of kindness that coincides with appearances of spectral figures in the mirrors and odd corners of their house. They occur with such frequency that the pregnant sister is able to ignore them after a while, a luxury easily frightened viewers aren’t accorded. Then, no sooner does the ink dry on the death certificate than her missing husband stumbles down the street to her home, bruised and bloody. And, no, he has no idea where’s been, either. Apparently, such disappearances have been happening with some regularity since the construction of the freeway and police only now are putting 2 and 2 together. Anyone familiar with “Three Billy Goats Gruff” will have a leg up on understanding the mystery. The DVD adds a worthwhile making-of featurette.
Conversely, “The Burning Moon” is gory, disgusting and not all that scary. Made in 1997, German splatter specialist Olaf Ittenbach cut his teeth in the industry on “The Burning Moon” and it shows. There’s a story or two here somewhere, but I’ll be damned if I can summarize them. I know that they involve several Teutonic slackers and dopefiends, the occasional escaped psychopath and deranged priest, and a Satanist or two, and one of the storylines appears to have been inspired by Warren Zevon’s “Excitable Boy.” Basically, though, the story is what happens in between the disembowelments, extractions, gouging, beheadings and bisections. That, of course, is what the people in the cheap seats pay to see. Ittenbach has benefitted from once having the movie banned, ensuring cult status and much positive word-of-mouth among genre fanatics. On the Intervision DVD, the movie probably looks and sounds as good as it ever has, but this isn’t saying a lot. Gore fans will want to stay tuned for the lengthy making-of piece. – Gary Dretzka
Have you ever wondered what it might feel like to be admonished by George Costanza and Michael Moore simultaneously? I hadn’t either, until I put on the green documentary “Bag It” and experienced such an unspeakable horror first-hand. It’s not pretty. The star of Suzan Beraza and Michelle Curry Wright’s film is a nebbishy “ordinary guy” named Jeb Berrier who bangs on viewers like Jerry Seinfeld’s annoying pal, but leavens his preachy delivery with the same fact-based message and snarky humor as Moore. When he isn’t lecturing folks on the evils of petroleum-based products and plastic bags, Berrier can be found in such scream-queen movies as “Die, Garage Band, Die” (a.k.a., “Azira: Blood From the Sand”) and “Satan Hates You.” Berrier has the great, good fortune of living and acting in Telluride, the kind of pristine habitat even Rush Limbaugh might hate to see polluted with free-floating shopping bags and empty pop bottles. In “Bag It,” his message is every bit that simple: if people in Telluride, Seattle, San Francisco and dozens of foreign countries are actively working to curb the plague of plastics pollution, why aren’t more Americans as concerned about what’s happening in their waterways and national parks? There are plenty of answers to that question, but none of them are easy to stomach. For one thing, Americans are addicted to convenience and enjoy testing innovations in packaging, such as twist-off caps on orange-juice containers and snack-size yogurt. For another, too many of us actually believe that capitalism is a benign economic system, designed to create good-paying jobs and level the playing field for all Americans. And, because we believe this, we don’t march on Washington en masse to neuter fat-cat lobbyists and loudly declare, “We’re mad as hell and we’re not going to take it anymore.” Some of us even believe President when he says he’s powerless against the rise in gasoline prices.
“Bag It” presents evidence against the chemical and plastics industries only a boneheaded radio talk-show host or Republican candidate for president would attempt to dispute. It isn’t exactly news that there’s an island of plastic floating around the Pacific Ocean that’s larger than many states, or that whales, seals and seabirds die horrible deaths after ingesting plastic items they mistake for food. And who doesn’t know by now that it takes a plastic bag about a billion years to degrade and, no matter how recyclable, water bottles require an unnaturally large amount of petroleum to produce. It makes as much sense to limit our consumption of petroleum-based plastics as it does to stop buying gas-guzzling cars. And, yet, the only thing that prevents Americans from buying oversized SUVs is gasoline at $5/gallon. Members of Congress and everyone else running for office in this country should be required to watch documentaries like “Bag It.” As for the rest of us, the next time you’re asked, “paper or plastic?,” respond, “Neither, I brought my own.”
“Fresh” is yet another feel-bad movie about the American way of producing and marketing groceries that bear the same resemblance to food as Frankenstein’s monster had to people. Here, though, in addition to disturbing scenes of feed lots, chicken ghettos and crop dusting, director Ana Sofia Joanes offers concrete examples of how some farmers already have found ways to return to nature’s way of producing food and are benefitting financially from the decision. Joanes provides several other examples of positive reforms. Like “Food Inc.” and a dozen other recent indictments of industrial farming, “Fresh” should be shown in a recurring loop in the lobby of U.S. Agriculture Department, where corporate interests go to reap the benefits of subsidies and lobby for lax nutritional guidelines. – Gary Dretzka
The Killing: The Complete First Season: Blu-ray
Breakout Kings: The Complete First Season
Victorious: The Complete Second Season
AMC, home of “Mad Men” and “The Walking Dead,” scored another direct hit last year with “The Killing,” an intricately scripted series that stitches together several intriguing storylines in the service of an investigation into the murder of a teenage girl. It is set in Seattle, not from where the investigation into the death of Laura Palmer strained the imaginations of fans of David Lynch and Mark Frost’s “Twin Peaks.” “The Killing” is based on the Danish series “Forbrydelsen,” which was broadcast in England under the name “The Killing.” It is as complex as “Twin Peaks,” without also being determinedly surrealistic and perversely enigmatic. The search for clues into the killing of Rosie Larsen, whose body is discovered in the trunk of a car found submerged in a lake, leads police detectives Sarah Linden and Stephen Holden (Mireille Enos, Joel Kinnaman) into the swamp of local politics and other unanticipated directions. Within two weeks, “The Killing” became must-see viewing for the people who gather around water fountains to discuss their favorite shows. The writers kept them guessing right up to the show’s season finale, which many considered to be a major disappointment. These people were promised a better explanation of their intentions going into Season 2. To this end, the Blu-ray package adds “Orpheus Descending: Extended Season Finale,” as well as commentary on it and the pilot, “An Autopsy of ‘The Killing,’” deleted scenes and a gag reel.
That A&E’s crime drama “Breakout Kings” is premised on a totally preposterous idea wouldn’t make it unique in the world of series television. Cops and federal agents have used criminals and ex-cons to capture fugitives from the law before and likely will again. Here, two U.S, marshals and three jailbirds, skilled in the art of escaping lockups, gather each week to track down assorted perverts and fiends. Each possesses a particular personality quirk that will be used by the team as an irritant or to help zero in on a fugitive with a unique twist. As usual, the woman con is a hot babe, whose hair-trigger temper keeps her behind the 8-ball when attempting to reconnect with her daughter. Another pretty woman runs the computer bank. The guys, of course, run the gamut from handsome to grotesque. Even if the series doesn’t break much new ground, it is well made and competently written. Not surprisingly, too, the show’s fugitives tend to be more interesting than the cops. The DVD adds commentaries, deleted scenes and the featurettes “Bullpen Sessions,” “Good Cons, Bad Cons” and “T Bag: Dealt a Bad Hand.”
The Nickelodeon series, “Victorious,” follows the exploits of teenager Tori Vega (Victoria Justice) and other students at Hollywood Arts High School. Given the school’s location and precociousness of the aspiring superstars, the series often finds the kids in awkward situations, caused by a desire to hasten their rise to the top of the Hollywood food chain. The second season opens with the demand by a new principle that all of the students re-audition for their various school gigs. The band also gets worked up over plans for the prom, a private Ke$ha concert and a scary incident involving a giant cupcake. Bonus material includes “Seven Questions With Victoria Justice” and “Behind the Scenes of ‘Locked Up.’” A soundtrack album is available separately. – Gary Dretzka
Come Fly With Me: Season One
Nature: Raccoon Nation: Blu-ray
Ghost Hunters International: Season 2: Part 1
History: Titanic: The Complete Story
History: History of the World in Two Hours
The best way to describe the wonderfully wacky and thoroughly politically incorrect “Come Fly With Me” is to suggest that it’s “Little Britain” at an airport. Any fan of that BBC America comedy, or its HBO counterpart, “Little Britain USA,” will want to run to the nearest video store to see if they’ve got a copy of the uproarious six-part series. It might take newcomers a while to get the hang of watching what’s essentially a two-man cast slipping in and out of drag, each assuming the identity of more than a dozen different characters, but it’s worth the effort. They range from striking baggage handlers and indifferent flight attendants, to upwardly mobile desk clerks and the pompous president of the low-cost FlyLo airline. Matt Lucas and David Walliams truly are hysterical in their impressions of archetypal airport employees and passengers. In this way, “Come Fly With Me” recalls the A&E reality series, “Airline,” itself an adaptation of “Airline UK,” except for the fact that everything that went right in those shows is handled extremely poorly in “Come Fly With Me.” Bags that go missing, remain missing; agents paid to translate for foreign passengers are conversant only in English; another agent guides curious tourists only to the gayest of attractions in destination cities; and a coffee vendor does everything but sell refreshments to travelers. No matter how exaggerated these characters seem, you’ll recognize several of them, at least, from your own experiences in transit.
Like that of big-city squirrels, the popular image of raccoons has devolved from cute and cuddly, to annoying and undesirable. In “Raccoon Nation,” the PBS series, “Nature,” describes exactly how that reversal occurred and why it has nothing to do with suburbia’s encroachment into the animal’s natural habitat. Indeed, the raccoon’s natural habitat lies closer to the tropical and sub-tropical river basins in South and Central America than the forests of the United States and Canada. These highly proficient breeders now go wherever there’s enough food to sustain their needs and those of their children. Once there, they tend to stay forever. More often than not, the critters’ dietary requirements are being met by foraging through the garbage containers of unfortunate homeowners in cities large and small. Like cockroaches, they have the ability to squeeze into spaces and places humans and other predators can’t. In fact, the greatest threat to an urban or suburban raccoon now is the automobile. Scientists interviewed for the show have attempted to track the journeys made by specially tagged raccoons on a nightly basis. On one city’s grid, the multi-colored trails through neighborhoods cover every backyard, rarely overlapping turf boundaries. In Japan, where raccoons were imported only a few decades ago, the path of destruction leads through the cedar shake roofs and ancient wooden towers of numerous historic monasteries. I haven’t encountered any horror movies in which roving packs of rabid raccoons have served as antagonists, but I’ve read books and articles about the increasing unwillingness of squirrels to put up their human neighbors’ shit anymore. They’ve already become notorious for chewing through the protective covering of cables supplying programming to suburban homes. Where will raccoons draw their line in the sand?
The more often I watch “Ghost Hunters International,” the more it seems as if the team members are as counterfeit as the operators working at Psychic Hotline. Duh, you say? Well, I kind of believe that such spirits exist and would love to see evidence pointing one direction or the other on the subject. Watching the paranormal investigators at work in “GHI,” however, is less informative than, say, sitting through a full season of “Casper the Friendly Ghost” cartoons, which I also did recently. I didn’t pay terribly close attention to the original “Ghost Hunters,” so am ignorant about any successes that show might have recorded prior to going global. I was attracted to “GBI” for many of the same reasons tourists are drawn to castles, prisons, hotels and abandoned monasteries while vacationing in Europe. They look cool and reek of historical importance. The investigators spend lots of time in such places, so that’s a plus. Less appealing is the extraordinary number of loud and annoying interstitials that interrupt the flow whenever a wisp of vapor or blip on the radar screen is recorded. After each break, the narrator rehashes everything that’s gone on before it, right down to such brilliant observations as, “That’s really crazy” and “Wow, I didn’t expect that.” Am I the only viewer who finds it hilarious when the investigators attempt to talk to the ghosts in English, instead of their native German, Czech, Italian or Gaelic dialects? Maybe I’d take the show more seriously if the team members dressed more like the guys in “Ghostbusters.”
It’s difficult to think anyone could learn much new about the sinking of the Titanic, 99 years and 11 months after the fact. As we approach the anniversary of the tragic event, however, researchers continue to investigate the whys and wherefores, placing blame on people and things no one could have imagined before the ship’s carcass was first scanned by submersibles. In the History Channel’s often overly exhaustive documentary, “Titanic: The Complete Story,” we’re asked to believe that the notorious killer iceberg was less guilty than previously assumed. In fact, using advanced technology, it’s likely that a previously undiscovered design flaw compounded the impact of the collision, causing the ship to break in half at a completely different angle than first believed. They determined this through a study of long-hidden original blueprints of the Titanic and a dive to its sister vessel, the Britannia, now lying under 400 feet of water in the Mediterranean Sea. Some of the evidence even contradicts information collected in a 2005 dive to the Titanic, also covered by the History Channel. The mini-series couldn’t help but be fascinating, given the subject, but the third and final segment ends far too abruptly, after the Russians call back the ship being used for the Titanic dive and the search for clues on the Britannia ceases to be cost-effective.
“History of the World in Two Hours” employs the Billy Joel, “We Didn’t Start the Fire” approach to the confluence of history, geography, zoology, biology and every other “-ology” that comes to mind. The stop watch begins with the Big Bang, which somehow created “all the energy that will ever exist.” (Creationists will beg to differ on how and when that hyper-epochal event came to be, but their opinions aren’t given much credence here.) From that point on, everything that was going to happen already had been set in motion, whether it’s the introduction of metals that fuel the great leaps in human technology or the creation of vast grassland, where monkeys would test their sea legs and kick-start human evolution. If two hours doesn’t sound like a lot of time to study the history of the world, make a list of all of things that a learned kangaroo wouldn’t give a crap about knowing, given an opportunity to attend an Ivy League school, and substitute them for all the other stuff you can remember from your high school and college textbooks. Minus commercials, it will approximate a two-hour TV show. – Gary Dretzka
Doctor Who: The Tomb of the Cybermen: Special Edition
Doctor Who: The Three Doctors: Special Edition
Doctor Who: The Robots of Death: Special Edition
Doctor Who: The Face of Evil
There must be millions of fans of the BBC series “Doctor Who” who jumped on the bandwagon long after the first TARDIS launched, in 1963. The British showcase network appears to be working overtime to take these folks back to the future in newly restored early-season packages, containing complete story arcs and generous bonus packages. Some have been lost and others belatedly found. “The Tomb of the Cyberman” is one of only three complete serials recovered since 1978. It stars the second Doctor, Patrick Troughton (1966-69), and describes his mission to Telos, accompanied by Jamie and Victoria, to learn the fate of his old enemy, the Cybermen. A team of archeologists from Earth has discovered an entrance to an underground tomb, where the Cyber army rests in hibernation. A rise in temperature threatens to unleash their fury once again. The “Special Edition,” available for the first time on DVD, includes an interview with director Morris Barry; audio commentary by actors Frazer Hines and Deborah Watling; a panel discussion with cast and crew; “Behind the scenes at BBC”; visual-effects outtakes; an unused title sequence; 8mm footage; and several other backgrounders
“The Three Doctors,” which aired during third Doctor (1970-74) Jon Pertwee’s tenure, chronicles the defense of the home planet of the Time Lords, Gallifrey, against attack by unknown and inexplicable forces. The arc celebrated the show’s 10th anniversary, so it was fitting that all three of the Doctors would be ordered join in the fight. Survival involves tapping into the power of a black hole connecting separate universes.
“The Face of Evil” and “The Robots of Death” arcs belong to the fourth Doctor (1974-81), Tom Baker. On a nameless jungle planet in the distant future, the Doctor joins forces with Leela, a “savage” warrior banished from a primitive tribe, the Sevateem. To his surprise and dismay, the Doctor is known hereabouts as the Evil One, because has imprisoned their god and needs to be taught a lesson. Leela sticks around for the subsequent series, “Robots of Death,” during which the TARDIS materializes on a mining ship on a desert planet. The vessel is controlled by robots, but dominated by humans. The interlopers are suspected of killing of human crewmen. Like the other volumes, this one comes loaded with bonus features. – Gary Dretzka
9½ Weeks: Original Uncut Version; Blu-ray
Striptease: Uncut International Version: Blu-ray
This trio of sexy studio films attempted to raise the temperatures of mainstream audiences at a time when hard-core sex was readily available on VHS cassettes and premium cable networks were beginning to offer soft-core selections for teenage boys and their daddies with sleep disorders. Except on VOD outlets, very little has changed. Hollywood remains frightened of exposing genitalia to grown-ups and only on its sex-umentaries does HBO and other premium networks dare more than a glimpse of neatly trimmed pubic hair. Because it’s the rare breast that isn’t obviously enhanced these days in the movies, much of the thrill is gone there, as well. Still, for some reason, “Striptease” remains a staple of cable television and “9½ Weeks” and “Disclosure” probably attract multiple repeat visitors, as well. Each is noteworthy for reasons other than the nudity and sex.
“9½ Weeks” was adapted from an “autobiographical” book by Elizabeth McNeill, in which she describes her experiences in the world of S&M and bondage. Adrian Lyne’s version was stylish and classy, but it stopped well short of putting Kim Basinger in danger of being a true submissive. For all of his slick appeal, Mickey Rourke’s arbitrageur seemed more of a cartoon character than a living, breathing sexual explorer. Bassinger’s playful stripteases and black stockings were the highlight of a movie ostensibly about a woman who becomes sexually addicted to pain and humiliation. It was soft-core for couples. The Blu-ray edition adds no features and I’m not sure what differentiates the “original uncut version” from the theatrical release. It does, however, provide a fair representation of Lynne’s grainy visual technique and ability to match music to action. Co-writer/producer Zalman King would apply the same aesthetic conceits to such cable series as “Red Shoes Diaries,” “ChromiumBlue.com” and “Body Language,” to better effect. (King went to that big gentleman’s club in the sky last month, at, yes, 69.)
The less said critically about “Striptease,” the better. For writer/director Andrew Bergman, who had enjoyed a productive career up until its release, it represented his career Waterloo. He would direct only one more movie, the Bette Midler vehicle “Isn’t She Great,” before disappearing from view. The reason is that his screenplay took Carl Hiaasen’s wonderfully satirical novel, detailing the juncture of sex, politics and corruption in Florida, and turned it into an excuse to expose Demi Moore’s horrendous boob job to the world. All the book’s wicked humor and political haymakers were lost in Burt Reynolds’ slapstick portrayal of a perverted congressman and Moore’s dancing, which she seemed to confuse with a performance of the Bolshoi Ballet. Like I mentioned, though, “Striptease” is on regular rotation on cable TV, so someone is laughing all the way to the bank. The unrated video version of the film includes two minutes of footage not seen in the theatrical release. I’m just guessing here, but I think I recognize some previously unflashed boobies in the Blu-ray.
Moore was significantly more credible in “Disclosure,” in which her super-sexy business executive fakes a sexual encounter gone bad with an old flame. Moore and Michael Douglas are competing for the same top job at a digital-technology company and the easiest way to get rid of him is to play the harassment card. Without having to shed all of her clothes, Moore was able to raise more sweat in male viewers than she had, almost naked, in “Striptease.” The best thing about Barry Levinson and Paul Attanasio’s adaptation of the Michael Crichton novel is the intrigue and back-stabbing that occurs after Moore accuses Douglas of rape. The story takes full advantage of the then-feverish tech boom, even simulating a virtual reality environment that holds up well in Blu-ray. Some of the other technology on display is downright prehistoric. No bonus material here, either. – Gary Dretzka