Rock of Ages: Extended Cut: Blu-ray
The Little Shop of Horrors: The Director’s Cut: Blu-ray
When “Rock of Ages” was released in June, I wasn’t paying much attention to the commercials. Based solely on passing glances, I incorrectly assumed it was a spoof of the music industry in the big-hair era, with Tom Cruise auditioning for a role in “This Is Spinal Tap: The Prequel.” It seemed as if Paul Giamatti, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Bryan Cranston and Alec Baldwin were in on the gag, as well. Now that I’ve watched Adam Shankman’s very decent musical dramedy on the small screen, I wonder if the decision to top load “Rock of Ages” with such heavyweight talent didn’t backfire at the box office. What I didn’t know upon its release was that the movie was adapted from a Broadway hit of the same title, which began small in a Hollywood Boulevard nightclub, in 2005, and grew incrementally from there. It arrived on the same set of waves that brought such “jukebox musicals” as “Hairspray,” “American Idiot,” “Jersey Boys,” “We Will Rock You,” “Footloose,” “Momma Mia!” and, soon, “Flashdance” to the boards in Manhattan, London and Las Vegas. While trick-casting didn’t hurt “Hairspray” and “Momma Mia!” – “Tommy,” “Grease” and “The Little Shop of Horrors” either, for that matter — it did no favors for “Rock of Ages.” I don’t blame the actors, musicians and hoofers, though. The producers probably didn’t understand that metal-heads would rather attend a demolition derby, watch “Beavis & Butthead” or go to an AA meeting than suffer through watered-down versions of their anthems.
“Rock of Ages,” the movie, reveals its theater roots in a story – Chris D’Arienzo’s “book” – that uses the hits of 1980s’ hair-metal bands as a musical backdrop for a boy-meets-girl/boy-loses-girl/girl-forgives-boy/boy-and-girl-live-happily-ever-after setup that’s as old as Broadway, itself. Unlike the generally wasted and disheveled musicians whose success informs the story, the cast of “Rock of Ages” is comprised of shiny, happy people who don’t look as if they’ve ever caught a STD from a groupie, was nearly was killed in a mosh bit or had a beer bottle thrown at them by a deranged fan. The “whiskey” swigged by Cruise’s Stacee Jaxx might as well be Coca-Cola and, if memory serves, no lines of cocaine are in evidence. Dyed-in-the-wool head-bangers likely anticipated such outrages and stayed away from the movie in droves. Neither would they have been able to relate to narrative threads that give prominence to a hypocritical mayor’s wife, based on Tipper Gore; moon-June-croon poetics; and the willingness of the protagonist to sell out for a job in a boy band. Theater audiences eat that stuff up like popcorn.
What I liked about “Rock of Ages,” though, was the positive energy expended by a corps of singers, dancers and actors that includes Julianne Hough, Russell Brand, Mary J. Blige, Malin Ackerman and Diego Boneta. Neither have the lyrics of songs by such legendary performers as Journey, Pat Benatar, Foreigner, Guns N’ Roses, Night Ranger, Skid Row, Joan Jett & the Blackhearts, Poison, Def Leopard, Bon Jovi, REO Speedwagon, Twisted Sister and Quiet Riot sounded any more deeply felt, meaningful or comprehensible. The audio-visual presentation of the Blu-ray is very good, as well. If “Rock of Ages” is more Broadway than Sunset Strip, viewers can get a more realistic description of the era from the still-active musicians interviewed in such featurettes as “‘Rock of Ages’: Legends of the Sunset Strip,” “The Stories We Sing: Defining A Decade,” “It’s All About The Moves,” “The Tease,” “So It Started in a Bar” and “Any Way You Want It.”
The story behind the movie musical, “The Little Shop of Horrors,” is as interesting as any of the productions that have bloomed from the seeds laid by Roger Corman in 1960. That’s when the legendary producer’s inky black comedy-thriller – reputedly shot for $27,000 in two days – found a dedicated audience of drive-in aficionados. It would be given a jump-start several years later when one of its stars, Jack Nicholson, broke out of the indie-exploitation genre in “Easy Rider” and “Five Easy Pieces.” In 1982, and with tongues tucked firmly in cheek, composer Alan Menken and writer Howard Ashman added doo-wop and early-Motown music to the story and shoved it onto an off-off-Broadway stage, where it prospered. That route to Broadway and Hollywood had been paved a decade earlier by “Grease,” a nostalgic rock musical first staged in a trolley barn on Chicago’s North Side. While “Grease” was homogenized to please the arbiters of Broadway taste, “Little Shop” was allowed to maintain its hipness quotient. For the 1986 film adaptation, producer David Geffen knew exactly where to find actors who would appeal directly to the 18-34 demographic. Director Frank Oz had already proven himself capable of working with oversized puppets as a key member of the Muppets troupe. The sadistic dentist was played by Steve Martin. One of his masochistic patients was Bill Murray. Rick Moranis and John Candy had just graduated from SCTV and Four Tops vocalist Levi Stubbs would supply the voice of the voracious killer plant, Audrey II. Sexy Ellen Greene had created the role of ditzy blond Audrey and crusty Vincent Gardenia was one of top character actors of his time. In a few years, Menken and Ashman would help Jeffrey Katzenberg resurrect Disney’s animation division with “The Little Mermaid” and “Beauty and the Beast.”
As so often happens when Broadway goes Hollywood, the musical was edited to please studio executives who probably hadn’t attended a live musical since high school. Geffen told the director to expect heat on the apocalyptic ending, but let him shoot it anyway. To his credit, Oz doesn’t waste any time on the commentary track complaining about something that happened 25 years earlier. He agrees that the changes helped at the box office and is happy viewers finally will be able to see the original ending, which he still defends. Even the opinions of a test audience and studio suits couldn’t screw up this bullet-proof gem, however. Neither was “Little Shop” damaged by expanding its scale. The skid-row sets, which were built in several soundstages at Britain’s Pinewood Studios, look terrific and the production numbers take up as much space as they need. The songs remain wonderful, as well, even with the fresh level of gloss and polish applied to them. The new Blu-ray edition of “Little Shop” captures it all, without breaking a sweat. The hi-def picture is alternately bright and shady – as the mood demands – and the audio remains bright and lively. For Oz, “Little Shop” was his first directing assignment outside the Muppet universe and, in discussing the alternate ending, he acknowledges that there was no way movie audiences were going to buy an ending in which the lovers die and “the plant wins.” In a play, he stresses, actors who die on stage come back to life for the curtain calls and the antagonists rarely succeed. Deprived of intimate close-up shots, theater audiences tend not to get as emotionally involved with the individual characters, either. Oz seems genuinely pleased that viewers now can witness the contributions of FX supervisor Richard Conway – nothing digital here, folks – and he can claim his share of the creative spotlight. Both men discuss its creation in a newly made featurette. The discs come wrapped in a collectible 40-page digibook with production photos, notes and text. — Gary Dretzka
Nova: Space, Time and the Universe
As long as human beings reign supreme on Earth, the debate between Creationists and Darwinists is likely to continue unabated, growing increasingly more hostile as self-serving clergy, politicians, atheists and scientists seek new platforms for debate. Even if we could all agree that there is a God – as most people do in Middle East — we’d probably still go to war over whether the deity is a benevolent and forgiving entity or one who demands fealty and constant worship. Most science-fiction is an exercise in attempting to discover – or to contemplate, at least – how we got here and why. In “Prometheus,” the female protagonist (Noomi Rapace) is a scientist who hedges her bets by wearing a cross around her neck. The male protagonist, a robot named David (Michael Fassbender), is a product of the corporation that’s sponsoring the mission. David could very well have been modeled after Mr. Spock. He’s inquisitive, empathetic and desirous of securing his freedom. The mission described in “Prometheus” is prompted by the discovery of cave drawings that indicate an ancient astronaut – not unlike the ones discussed by Erich von Daniken – may have visited the Earth and left clues as to the location of a mother ship or an alternate civilization. These astronauts (a.k.a., Engineers), we’re led to believe, abandoned their Earthly experiments before whatever it is they wanted to accomplish was revealed. They literally spilt their seed on the Earth and split town. Rapace’s Elizabeth Shaw has dedicated herself to getting answers to those questions, while the man sponsoring the mission believes the Engineers can help him live forever.
Director Ridley Scott doesn’t mind that viewers have taken “Prometheus” as a virtual prequel to the “Alien” quartet and its spinoffs. He assumes they will quickly identify the clues and will be able to focus their attention on the new story. Neither does he linger on the metaphysical and quasi-religious aspects of the story. You couldn’t miss them if you tried, anyway. Scott knows that fans of the “Alien” quartet are less interested in questions without answers than action, suspense, terror, special effects and creatures. And, to be sure, there’s no scarcity of such crowd-pleasing material. If hard-core sci-fi buffs didn’t fully embrace “Prometheus,” it’s likely that they anticipated being scared completely shitless. They’d already seen enough mammoth spaceships to last a lifetime and were tired of quarrels between crew members pushing different agendas. “Prometheus” did OK business at the domestic box office, without blowing anyone away. I find it noteworthy, though, how dependent the franchise’s life has become on worldwide revenues, especially considering the steady uptick in production budgets. The combined estimated budgets of the “Alien” quartet are put at $165 million; the price tag for “Prometheus” alone is estimated to be $130 million, without marketing costs. Of the movie’s $303-million return, only about $130.5 million can be traced back to North America.
Viewers looking for answers to some of the questions raised in “Prometheus” – intentional and otherwise – would do well to check out the bonus features in the Blu-ray edition, especially if they expect to re-watch certain scenes. There are two commentary tracks, one with Scott and the other with writer John Spaihts and co-writer/producer Damon Lindelof; nearly 37-minutes of deleted/extended/alternate scenes, with optional commentary by editor Pietro Scalia and visual-effects supervisor Richard Stammers; and “The Peter Weyland Files,” in which the mission’s sponsor (Guy Pearce) introduces himself and his motivations. (It’s comprised of buzz-worthy Internet promo videos, repackaged in dossier form.) The special four-disc Blu-ray 3D edition adds a 3½-hour making-of documentary.
In the “Nova” presentation, “Space, Time and the Universe,” physicist and best-selling author Brian Greene explains how science-fiction writers might only be scratching the surface when it comes to imagining what’s possible in the universe. Truth not only is stranger than fiction in the scientific world, but it’s endlessly fascinating, as well. It helps if you have a postgraduate degree in astrophysics and quantum mechanics, however. We’re told that there are entire universes, dimensions and parallel worlds out there to be discovered and explored. The one we know exists apparently is gliding along on solar waves that approximate the surface of a trampoline and teeny, tiny stringy things may hold the key to everything we’ll eventually learn about space, time and matter. Simply put, one scientific law could very well govern everything … or not. It’s almost impossible to test theories about things exponentially smaller than atoms, after all.
Greene doesn’t dumb his lectures down for those of us who couldn’t tell you the difference between string theory and a string quartet, unification and diversification, or quantum mechanics and a NASCAR pit crew. It’s still pretty thick, though. That said, anyone who wasn’t completely bewildered by the science in “The Matrix” and “Inception” should be able to follow the author and his collection of learned scientists through the case studies here. Understanding them, however, may require a different level of understanding. After all, even the greatest of physicists – Isaac Newton, Albert Einstein – went to their graves seeking answers for questions that had eluded them in life. The “Nova” presentation combines previous PBS series, “The Elegant Universe” and “The Fabric of the Cosmos,” both of which demand we re-examine everything we think we know about physics. I suggest making a double-feature of “Prometheus” and “Space, Time and the Universe.” If nothing else, your dreams should be pretty wild. – Gary Dretzka
People Like Us: Blu-ray
Riddle me this Batman: when is a Hollywood rom-com or rom-dram, not a rom-com or rom-dram. Answer: when, as in “People Like Us,” the man and woman who are perfectly suited for each other are brother and sister, but only one of them knows it. Otherwise, the characters played here by Chris Pine and Elizabeth Banks act every bit as unnaturally as any pair of would-be lovers in a rom-com-dram, where lives are manipulated by unlikely coincidences, blind luck and contrived dialogue. Pine plays Sam, a hotshot New York businessman who screws up horribly at work on the same day he discovers that his father, from whom he’s estranged, has died in Los Angeles. His relationship with his family is so disastrous that he fakes losing his ID, so that he and his girlfriend (Olivia Wilde) can miss the funeral. Even though he’s dead, Dad continues to disappoint his son by leaving Sam stacks of records and a shaving bag full of hundred-dollar bills to be delivered to the half-sister, Frankie, he never knew existed. Instead of performing the task and handing over the cash intended for Dad’s grandson, Sam decides to play fast and loose with the truth and investigate his stepsister before deciding whether or not to reveal himself or abscond with the $150,000. He follows her to an AA meeting, where he fakes an addiction and can eavesdrop on her confessionals. (Twelve-step programs have become the go-to contrivance for screenwriters looking for plausible shortcuts to advance comedy, drama and tragedy. Stop it!) Worse, Sam does an end-around by making friends with the pubescent nephew he didn’t know he had, either. In this way, he hopes to insinuate himself into Frankie’s life and become someone the single mom might love as a sibling, if not a lover. Just as it seems as if we might be forced to watch one of Hollywood’s still-taboo activities unfold, Sam pulls back. We feel sorry for Frankie, because she doesn’t need any more pain and confusion and misdirected affection in her life. Just as naturally, then, when Sam finally does reveal the truth to Frankie, she freaks out, believing that it’s simply another act of deceit, this time by the son of the man who abandoned her. Meanwhile, Sam’s mother (Michelle Pfeiffer) is dragged into the situation, by being forced to admit her own complicity in her deceased husband’s bad behavior. Finally, co-writer/director Alex Kurtzman gives us reason to believe everyone will live happily ever after and this, perhaps, is Hollywood’s most unforgiveable lie.
None of this is to imply that the core story is outlandish, because such revelations happen all the time. Brothers and sisters learn of each other’s existence in the wake of funerals, as do some women (mostly) discover their husband’s infidelity and bigamy in awkward ways. We’re told early on that “People Like Us” was inspired by a true events, leaving out the part about there not being a little boy involved and there’s more than a dozen years between Kurtzman’s half-siblings and himself. (He was at a party when a woman introduced herself as his sister.) No matter, the ending is satisfying and there’s no quibbling about the performances of the actors. That’s especially true of Banks, who’s often confused with a half-dozen other blond actresses, but is the real deal. Philip Baker Hall, Mark Duplass, Jon Favreau and Michael Hall D’Addario fill out the cast. The Blu-ray adds three commentary tracks, a background featurette, deleted and extended scenes, bloopers and bit more footage from a mostly improvised scene at a taco stand. – Gary Dretzka
A Cat in Paris: Blu-ray
I wonder if the story behind the Oscar-, Annie- and Cesar-nominated “A Cat in Paris” (“Une vie de chat”) might have been influenced, even in some small way, by Alfred Hitchcock’s “To Catch a Thief.” That’s where my mind went while watching the acrobatic cat burglar Nico scamper over the rooftops of Paris with the feline felon, Dino, following closely behind him. Jean-Loup Felicioli and Alain Gagnol’s wonderfully imaginative movie unfolds like an animated police procedural with noir shadings. By day, Dino lounges lazily around the apartment of a young girl, Zoe, whose mother, Jeanne, is a lead detective in the Paris police department. At night, the cat sneaks out of the apartment to join the cat burglar on his nightly quests. Zoe’s father, also a cop, was killed in the line of duty while chasing a vicious gangster, Costa, who’s obsessed with stealing larger pieces of art. Zoe’s rendered mute by the loss of her dad, while Jeanne has become obsessed with capturing Costa.
The police pursuit of the two very different criminals merges when Dino brings home a valuable necklace previously reported stolen – nicer than the dead lizard he brought home to Zoe a few days earlier — and the detectives suspect that it might be linked with a heist being planned by Costa. One night, Zoe decides to follow Dino on his nightly escapade, risking her life on the rooftops and ledges high above the darkened streets of Paris. When she’s caught eavesdropping on a strategy session being held by Costa and his gang, they chase her to the home of the cat burglar, where they discover his loot and steal it. Before long, Costa’s kidnaped Zoe, with the help of her nanny, whose perfume becomes a trail Dino easily can follow. Dino leads Nico to Costa’s hideout, which leads to a chase that takes all four of them to the Notre Dame Cathedral, where’s Jeanne’s waiting. Nico and Costa engage in a fight to the finish, grasping onto the gargoyles to avoid plunging the plaza below them. An even happier ending awaits the survivors.
Paris could hardly provide a better backdrop for this sort of thing. Each hand-drawn frame looks as if it were a page torn from an award-winning children’s book with characters right out of a Modigliani sketchbook and backgrounds inspired by Matisse. The soundtrack is informed both by American jazz and Hitchcock’s composer, Edward Herrmann. In short, “A Cat in Paris” is a delight. The English voicing cast includes Angelica Huston, Matthew Modine and Marcia Gay Harden. And, yes, the movie looks great in Blu-ray. The extras include a video flipbook with three alternate versions of the story; an alternate French audio track; and the hilarious animated short, “Extinction of the Sabre-Toothed Housecat.” – Gary Dretzka
Werewolf: The Beast Among Us: Blu-ray
The Barrens: Blu-ray
Basket Case 3: The Progeny
It looks as if Universal is going to attempt to extent its lycanthrope legacy whether the public buys into it or not. In 2010, the studio spent a fortune on “The Wolfman,” which starred Benicio del Toro and Anthony Hopkins, only to see it fail both at the domestic and international box office. After a decent opening weekend, the effects-heavy thriller failed to ignite any buzz among horror fans. Two years later, the studio is back with the far more modestly ambitious “Werewolf: The Beast Among Us,” this time released under the studio’s Universal 1440 Entertainment banner, which specializes in moderately budgeted genre fare shot in countries other than the U.S. Even without marquee stars and CGI effects, I think the studio got it right this time. “The Beast Among Us” reminds me of the horror movies Hammer Films made in 1950-60s to steal some of the thunder from Hollywood genre mills. Shooting entirely in Romania, director Louis Morneau was able to take full advantage of the rustic locations, ruins and actors who probably would have paid him to fill supporting roles. Neither was Morneau required to jazz up the production with esoteric re-interpretations of the legend or extraneous subplots.
It’s all pretty straightforward, really. A werewolf has ravaged a local village and the terror is spreading from one end of the forest to the other. A team of mercenary werewolf hunters is brought in to kill the elusive beast, but it becomes increasingly unclear as to who’s the more dangerous entity. Things get even murkier when a young medical student (Guy Wilson) volunteers to join the posse and he’s infected with wolfen DNA. When the truth is finally revealed, a battle royal between undead factions ensues. Genre buffs will appreciate the generous investment made by the producers in fake blood, gore, period costumes and dentures. “The Beast Among Us” never takes itself over seriously, even referencing such previous Universal fare as “An American Werewolf in London.” Among the few other recognizable cast members are Steven Rea, Steven Bauer, Nia Peeples, Ed Quinn and Ana Ularu. The very decent Blu-ray presentation arrives in both an unrated and R-rated version, although PG-13 seems just as appropriate; deleted scenes; a pair of making-of featurettes; commentary with Morneau and producer Mike Elliott; a piece on Universal’s horror history; UltraViolet; a digital copy; BD-Live; and a pocket Blu App.
The best thing about horror-specialist Darren Lynn Bousman’s latest foray into the macabre, “The Barrens,” is watching Stephen Moyer – the Civil War-veteran vampire in “True Blood” – go bat-shit crazy and collapse with fright over a local legend known as the Jersey Devil (no relation to the hockey team.) The next best thing is the eerily lit cinematography, which accentuates Moyer’s character’s descent into madness and the parallel monster-in-the-woods storyline. Richard Vineyard is convinced that a weekend spent camping in the New Jersey Pine Barrens would be just the thing to bring his family together after some internal conflicts. He also wants to disperse his father’s ashes over a fishing hole they frequented when he was a kid. No sooner do the Vineyards enter the forest than they begin to find disemboweled deer, dogs and the occasional human. The specter of the Jersey Devil is first raised by a young man telling ghost stories around a campfire. Richard, who’s strangely upset by the story, decides to move the family’s tent even further into the Barrens, where worse secrets lie. (And, no, it isn’t the body of Adriana La Cerva, Drea de Matteo’s character in “The Sopranos.”) Bousman’s ambiguous ending leaves plenty of room for conjecture – or a sequel – but whatever’s in the woods doesn’t suffer strangers gladly. The rest of the cast includes Mia Kirshner, (”The L Word”), Erik Knudsen (“SAW II”) and Allie MacDonald (“House at the End of the Street”). “The Barrens” didn’t get a theatrical release, but it plays just fine on Blu-ray.” It adds an alternate ending.
In “The Cottage,” the oft-creepy David Arquette plays a romance novelist with a deep, dark secret: he’s the evil spawn of Charles Manson. Not literally, perhaps, but as a personable middle-age guy with a harem of women half his age to do his bidding. If he encouraged them to carve an X in their foreheads, as Manson did, they would have done that, too. That’s the gist of Chris Jaymes and Nick Antosca’s surprisingly chaste killer-next-door thriller, whose worst crime is not giving us a clue as to what motivates the story’s antagonist. Arquette simply shows up at the door of a nice suburban couple, hoping to lease the “cottage” in their backyard, and, shortly after doing so, begins toying with the family as if they were mice and he was a sadistic cat. He keeps his harem in another house, a few miles away in the country. The only thing missing is a reason, why. There’s enough blood to satisfy most casual fans of slasher flicks, but nothing truly scary, except the occasional sound effect.
In a genre overflowing with guilty pleasures, the horror flicks of Frank Henenlotter are practically in a league by themselves. There aren’t all that many, really, but it would be difficult to top “Brain Damage,” “Frankenhooker,” “Bad Biology” and the “Basket Case” trilogy for their ability to simultaneously frighten, repulse and tickle the ribs of viewers. New to DVD is “Basket Case 3: The Progeny,” which, in 1992, demonstrated that being a horribly deformed parasitic twin was no obstacle to parenthood. Redneck cops spoil the blessed event by kidnapping Belial and Eve’s brood and holding the freakazoid infants for ransom. It results in a rumble between the police and a busload of Granny’s beloved defectives. As punishing as it is to watch the great jazz and cabaret singer Annie Ross participate in all this hokum, it’s comforting to know that she would be handed the role of a lifetime a year later in Robert Altman’s ensemble drama, “Short Cuts.” – Gary Dretzka
The Giant Mechanical Man
The kooky indie rom-com “The Giant Mechanical Man” really ought to come with a mime warning on its cover. Not only is the title character a performance artist thoroughly committed to posing on stilts in a metallic-looking suit inspired by Charlie Chaplin’s Little Tramp, but he also enjoys making spectators uncomfortable with his silence. Chris Messina plays the thoroughly self-absorbed mime, Tim, who, when he steps out of character, goes out of his way to insult those he considers to be lower forms of life. When we first meet Tim, he’s living with a very decent and pretty blond artist, who finally decides she’s had enough of his act and splits. Meanwhile, in another part of town, Janice (Jenna Fischer), is about to lose her job at a museum, which causes her to be evicted from her apartment and forced to move into the home owned by her sister and brother-in-law. Their well-meaning attempt to fix her up with a creepy self-help guru makes viewers as uncomfortable as it does Janice. Still, they’re determined to save Janice from herself. Given only that much information, you can probably guess most of what will transpire in the next hour or so.
After watching a painfully awkward television interview with Tim, Janice goes out of her way to find him and engage the mime in conversation. Duh. They will meet again, but at a local zoo, where both are forced to accept menial work to make ends meet. They hit it off, but not right away. Meanwhile, her sister (Malin Ackerman) continues to bug Janice about hooking up with the author (Topher Grace). Fans of “The Office” and “New Girl” are likely to enjoy “The Giant Mechanical Man” more than viewers in any other demographic sector. Most guys, I suspect, won’t make it past the second segment with Tim in costume. Fischer’s Janice is almost indistinguishable from Pam, her character in “The Office.” It appears as if the role was specifically written with Fischer in mind by Lee Kirk, who also is her husband and the movie’s director. The DVD includes adds a short interview with the writer/director and his leading lady. – Gary Dretzka
The Courier: Blu-ray
Although Jeffrey Dean Morgan’s been kicking around show business since 1991, it wasn’t until his character on “Grey’s Anatomy” went to that big waiting room in the sky that his career grew wings and took off. Blessed with leading-man good lucks and a quietly brooding demeanor, Morgan also has become a favored actor for action roles. In “The Courier,” Morgan plays a character very much like the one Jason Statham embodied in the “Transporter” trilogy. Known only as Courier, Morgan delivers things for people who can easily afford UPS, but would feel terrible if the shipment was lost or stolen. He’s blackmailed by a foreign-sounding gentleman (Til Schweiger) into accepting an assignment involving a million-dollar delivery, for which he’ll be paid $100,000. In no time at all, Courier is besieged from all sides by people who either want the briefcase he’s carrying or the person to whom it’s being delivered. Suddenly, $100,000 doesn’t sound like a great deal, anymore. The search takes him from New Orleans, to St. Louis, back to New Orleans and, finally, Las Vegas. With so little information to go on, it’s impossible to pick sides in the storyline. Morgan becomes the favorite if for no other reason than his family has been kidnaped and he’s been given only 48 hours to make the deal. I have no idea why a cast that includes Mickey Rourke (channeling Elvis), Mark Margolis, Miguel Ferrer, Lily Taylor and Josie Ho would sign on for a project that has direct-to-video written all over it. I’m guessing that the actors wanted to work with the excellent Dutch-Palestinian filmmaker, Hany Abu-Assad (“Paradise Now,” “Rana’s Wedding”), in his first English-language project. Sadly, while well made, it’s a far from promising debut. The Blu-ray comes with a behind-the-scenes featurette and deleted scenes. – Gary Dretzka
The Raven: Blu-ray
Even without Edgar Allan Poe’s wrinkles and dissipated countenance, John Cusack bears more than a passing resemblance to the man he plays in “The Raven.” Someone is running around Baltimore, killing people in ways depicted by Poe in his short stories, and a well-read police detective (Luke Evans) has enlisted the author in the investigation. As the story opens, Poe is only a few short days away from his mysterious death. Cusack, however, doesn’t look much like a doomed alcoholic or someone suffering from ailments rumored to range from cholera to syphilis. Poe does sense that he’s met his match in a killer who knows his stories as well as he does and is egomaniacal enough to assume that he can get away with the crimes, even while leaving clues behind that only the writer might recognize. When the killer stages a premature burial for the woman (Alice Eve) Poe loves, he realizes that more than her life is hanging the balance. In true Hollywood fashion, Poe’s allowed to die with dignity and not in a drunken stupor. Viewers, too, are accorded the courtesy of an explanation for how the writer came to be in that particular Baltimore park on October 7, 1849, babbling about someone named, “Reynolds,” before uttering his famous last words, “Lord, help my poor soul.” Historians weren’t even that fortunate. “The Raven” was directed with great attention to period and literary detail by James McTeigue (“V for Vendetta”). Writers Ben Livingston and Hannah Shakespeare (that’s right, Shakespeare) had a bit more difficulty devising a mythic end to a greater author’s life, without making it seem like an American version of a Sherlock Holmes fantasy. With so much attention given Arthur Conan Doyle’s creation these days, comparisons were inevitable. Nevertheless, the DVD and Blu-ray edition of “The Raven” should please older viewers who fondly remember reading Poe in their youth and won’t confuse the title with a dozen earlier films, including those starring Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff (1935) or Vincent Price and Peter Lorre (1963). In an interview included in the Blu-ray, the screenwriters allow that they intended their Poe to be a “profiler” and Detective Fields to be an expert in criminal forensics. The package also includes deleted scenes. – Gary Dretzka
It’s difficult to feel anything, one way or the other, about the characters we meet in “Crazy Eyes.” Rich and/or beautiful, the young Angelenos spend every waking hour getting drunk, high or laid. When they feel good about themselves, the characters assume it’s because they’re just cool dudes and dudettes. When the hangovers kick in, however, these users and abusers blame Los Angeles. Lukas Hass plays Zach, an aimless single parent with a home in the hills and another one in Malibu, where his former wife lives and occasionally calls him for money. She’s only one of us several women who continuously call Zach, for no apparent reason other than that he’s rich enough to afford weekend trips to New York and someone to keep his Jacuzzi clean. The title character, Rebecca a.k.a., Crazy Eyes (Madeline Zima), is a gorgeous drunk, who slaps him around instead of actually engaging in intercourse with him. (The actress performed a version of the same trick in “Californication.”) Rebecca pretends to be asleep while Zach’s masturbating to another woman’s sex talk and maintains a boyfriend on the side, just in case she needs one. They have a common interest in seeing the Bosch exhibit at LACMA, but are put off by the lines, so head for their favorite bar, instead.
I don’t doubt for a moment that such people exist in Hollywood and New York, maybe even Des Moines. All one needs to be is rich and/or beautiful, after all. We’ve met them before, in such movies as “Less Than Zero” and “Bright Lights, Big City,” and, more recently, on “Gossip Girl.” The ones that don’t overdose or drown in their swimming pools eventually will find work somewhere in the entertainment industry or invest in a bar. Many will sober up long enough to get married, have a child or two, and have the best divorce lawyer in town on retainer. This doesn’t make them interesting or charming, of course, and, as drunks go, none of these people will ever be a worth a tenth of the concern we invested in Charles Bukowski’s liver. For those viewers who enjoy such things, however, it’s worth knowing that director Adam Sherman has a pretty good eye for the trappings of such depravity and “Crazy Eyes” isn’t without a modicum of humor, at least. Others might consider staying home and reading “Barfly,” “Under the Volcano” or “The Man With the Golden Arm.” Also, for what it’s worth, Hass turns in an excellent performance of a complete dick. – Gary Dretzka
Shut Up and Play the Hits: Blu-ray
According to what I’m able to gather from “Shut Up and Play the Hits,” LCD Soundsystem is probably the greatest and contextually most important rock band – technically dance/electronic – of which I’d never heard. The hugely popular ensemble came and went before I’d consciously listened to a single note of its music, let alone jumped up and down in a trance in a crowd of Ecstasy-fueled youth. The only song I recognize from the documentary is “Jump Into the Fire” and that’s only because it was a hit for Harry Nilsson in the 1970s. Until today, I wouldn’t have been able to recognize the band’s frontman, James Murphy, from the guy who tunes the Rolling Stones’ guitars between songs. I’m still not convinced that I’ve missed anything of great cultural importance, but I’ll admit, at least, that I was moved to check out the lyrics to several of LCD’s songs to see what all the fuss is about. I get it.
Musically, Will Lovelace and Dylan Southern’s “Shut Up and Play the Hits” reminds me of the Talking Heads 1984 concert film, “Stop Making Sense.” Director Jonathan Demme’s greatest accomplishment in that film, I think, was to showcase the art-rock band’s ability to kick out the jams as well as anyone, while accentuating lyrics that not only are smart and hip, but can be danced to, as well. Here, the filmmakers do a nice job of capturing the appeal of LCD’s words and music, along with some of the idiosyncrasies of their leader, who bears a passing resemblance to Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys. They also follow Murphy around New York during the two-day period leading to the band’s final farewell concert. He spends a lot of time chillin’ with his pet French bulldog, Petunia; is interviewed over lunch by writer Chuck Klosterman on a wide variety of topics; pays a visit to “The Colbert Report,” chats with manager Keith Wood in his office and Upstate New York farm; and walks around the streets of the city unrecognized and uncelebrated. Murphy took a chance on rock ’n’ roll far later than most professional musicians and his unique perspective on fame led him to get out while the gettin’s good. Two full discs of the extremely well produced Blu-ray are devoted to the Madison Square Garden concerts. – Gary Dretzka
What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?: 50th Anniversary Edition
Dead Ringer: Blu-ray
Fifty years ago, all eyes in Hollywood were on “What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?,” a low-budget horror movie that literally threatened to explode on the big screen. That’s because the combined temperaments of its legendary stars, Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, could best be described as incendiary. Longtime rivals on and off the set, the veteran leading ladies didn’t just talk the talk – think, Nicki Minaj and Mariah Carey –they walked the walk. They genuinely disliked each other and it was entirely possible that the production would implode. Anticipated with nearly as much excitement as the movie itself was the marketing campaign, during which Davis and Crawford would be required to maintain their uneasy truce or trash each other mercilessly. Today, such a pairing would be dismissed as “trick casting” and the movie would turn out to be a sad postscript to the stars’ brilliant careers. Instead, director Robert Aldrich and screenwriter Lukas Heller crafted one of the gems of the psycho-drama subgenre and the stars would enjoy resurgences in their careers. “Baby Jane” would be nominated for five Academy Awards — winning one for costume design, black and white — and Crawford reportedly would actively campaign against Davis winning for Best Actress. Possibly inspired as much by Gloria Swanson’s amazing performance in “Sunset Boulevard” and the gothic menace of Hitchcock’s “Psycho” as Henry Farrell’s Grand Guignol novel, “Baby Jane” chronicled the horrific relationship between a child star in the vaudeville era and her wheelchair-bound sister, a movie star forced to retire after a crippling accident. They live in a decaying mansion, where Jane (Davis) has confined Blanche (Crawford) to her room and delights in torturing her. In its day, the movie was a huge hit, even without gratuitous displays of blood and gore. The new AVC-encoded 1080p transfer in 1.78: 1 and lossless DTS-HD Master Audio Mono mix restore its original luster. Supplements borrowed from the DVD special addition include the campy commentary of Charles Busch and John “Lypsinka” Epperson; the featurette, “Behind the Scenes With Baby Jane”; Davis’ appearance on “The Andy Williams Show,” during which she sings the title song; three bio-docs; and a “Dan-O-Rama” movie mix.
Davis’ success in “Baby Jane” spawned such unrelated follow-ups as “Hush … Hush, Sweet Charlotte,” “The Nanny” and the new-to-Blu-ray “Dead Ringer.” In Paul Henreid and Albert Beich’s psycho-thriller, Davis gets to play opposite herself as estranged twin sisters, one rich and the other poor. Edie is a struggling nightclub owner when she encounters her wealthy twin, Margaret, at the funeral of her husband. Edie still holds a grudge against Margaret for stealing the man she loved from her 20 years earlier. Rather than accept charity, Edie fakes her suicide, kills Margaret and steps into her lavish lifestyle. She doesn’t, however, consider the possibility that a cop (Karl Malden) and lover (Peter Lawford) would see through the scheme. The Blu-ray borrows earlier commentary with Busch and biographer Boze Hadleigh; a discussion with Hadleigh about the movie’s 20-year gestation and Davis’ relationship with Warner Bros.; and a tour of Los Angeles’ Doheny Mansion, where many of the scenes were set and other well-known movies were made. – Gary Dretzka
Strangers on a Train: Blu-ray
Dial M for Murder: Blu-ray 3D/2D
October’s turning out to be a heck of month for lovers of Alfred Hitchcock and it has nothing to do with Halloween, I suspect. In addition to this week’s release on Blu-ray of “Strangers on a Train” and “Dial M for Murder,” in 3D and 2D, from Warner Bros., Universal is sending out the 15-title “Alfred Hitchcock: The Masterpiece Collection” on October 30. The Blu-ray collection will contain a 50-page commemorative book and 15 hours’ worth of new and vintage supplements. Between 1948 (“Rope”) and 1954 (“Rear Window”), Hitch made five films for WB: “Strangers,” “Dial M,” “Stage Fright,” “I Confess” and “Under Capricorn,” which was made for Transatlantic Pictures, but distributed here by WB.
Made in 1951, “Strangers on a Train” is one of the most emulated motion pictures of all time. The quid-pro-quo thriller describes what transpires after tennis pro Guy (Farley Granger) and an obsessive fan, Bruno (Robert Walker), meet on a train, where they agree to perform a murderous act for each other’s benefit. And, of course, they were strangers when they met. Bruno agrees to kill Guy’s unfaithful wife, in return for which Guy says he’ll murder Bruno’s spiteful father. The camera jumps between characters so often, viewers will feel as if they’re watching one of Guy’s matches. “Strangers” bears re-watching with every new technological platform and updated bonus feature. Lest we forget, the film was co-adapted from a Patricia Highsmith novel by Raymond Chandler, Czenzi Ormonde, Whitfield Cook and an uncredited Ben Hecht. It’s one of the most cold-blooded movies in the thriller genre. The Blu-ray bonus package adds a commentary track with nearly as many all-star voices as there are actors in the cast; the slightly longer “Preview Version,” also considered the “British” version of the movie; and a five-part “Behind the Story” making-of documentary.
Hitchcock wasn’t thrilled with the idea of shooting “Dial M for Murder” in 3D, a format, which by 1954, already was losing commercial steam. That’s the way the studio wanted this adaptation of a popular stage play produced, however, and Hitch almost made it work. It wasn’t widely shown in 3D on its original release. Like the director, exhibitors preferred the “flat” version. The 3D “Dial M” would be re-introduced here in 1980, 2004 and in the new Blu-ray 3D edition, which benefits only marginally from the digital upgrade. It works just as well in Blu-ray 2D, however. Once again, one of the protagonists is a tennis player (Ray Milland) who wants his wealthy, philandering wife (Grace Kelly) dead. She’s just re-connected with a former lover (Robert Cummings) and both are concerned that her husband has found an incriminating mash note. As we’ve learned in other Hitchcock movies, however, intended victims don’t always accommodate the intentions of their antagonists. The set adds a background featurette, informed by Peter Bogdanovich, Robert Osborne, M. Night Shyamalan, Richard Franklin, Pat Hitchcock O’Connell, Richard Schickel and Nat Benchley. – Gary Dretzka
Kingdom: Season One
Digimon Adventure: The Official First Season
The League: The Complete Season Three
It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia: Blu-ray
Bones: The Complete Seventh Season: Blu-ray
Stephen Fry’s name on the cover of a DVD is good enough reason to give whatever’s inside something more than passing notice. Whether he’s acting, writing, hosting or narrating, Fry is one of those rare performers whose presence elevates everything he attempts. The British legal dramedy, “Kingdom,” is a very good case in point. Without him, the ITV mini-series might have run a season and been forgotten. With Fry, it ran three seasons and is a worthwhile rental in DVD. Fry plays a family lawyer in the gorgeous, if fictitious town of Market Shipborough, Norfolk, where you can’t walk more than two blocks without encountering a resident eccentric and/or potentially troublesome client. There’s also the spectacular beach at Holkham Bay, where the 6-foot-4 Peter Kingdom makes his evening constitutional with his Jack Russell terrier. In each hour-long episode of “Kingdom,” there’s at least one legal issue to be settled, in addition to the continuing storylines involving his nutty sister (Hermione Norris), dutiful secretary (Celia Imrie), gung-ho trainee (Karl Davies), wise ol’ mum (Phyllida Law) and brother and business partner (Dominic Mafham), who’s declared dead in Episode One, but continues to make his presence known throughout the season. If “Kingdom” had been based on a series of mystery novels, they would be from the subgenre referred to as “cozies.” This means the show is blessedly free of gunplay and the abnormally sexy women cops who overpopulate American crime series, and there’s nothing at all wrong with that. It comes with nice making-of featurette.
Baby Boomers may not want to hear this, but most of the young voters who could decide the presidential campaign this year are as nostalgic for Japanese animation and Transformers as their parents are for Howdy Dowdy and Rocky & Bullwinkle. When Mitt Romney threatened to eliminate funding for Big Bird, the biggest fuss was raised by parents who remember when the character was hatched, in 1969. It should come as good news to young Americans, then, that all 54 episodes of the first season of “Digimon Adventure” now are available in an eight-disc collector’s set from Flatiron Film. The multiplatform Japanese franchise made the transition to the U.S. in 1999. It follows the exploits of seven kids, who, while at summer camp, are transported to a strange Digital World, inhabited by Digimon (a.k.a., Digital Monsters). The campers were transported to the kingdom to help the Digimons merge their strengths to defend it from various evil forces. The DVD set arrives with a 36-page character guide, featuring the original characters and early newcomers, and a gallery with behind-the-scenes sketches.
About to enter its fourth season on FX, “The League” describes the pitiful lives of a half-dozen suburban men and one of their wives, who devote far too much of their lives to Rotisserie Football and pretending they’re teenagers again. The men are involved in a six-way bromance, which entitles them to act like high school sophomores whenever the subject of sex is brought up. The married guys envy the bachelors, while the single guys are desperate to see their friends’ wives naked. It’s hilarious in a juvenile sort of way, so it’s easy to feel sorry for the wives, girlfriends and nannies required to put up with their antics. The dialogue is at least partially improvisational, adding to the show’s loosey-goosey charm. The Season Three set includes extended episodes, deleted scenes, a gag reel, “Alt Nation” and “Taco Tones.” Among the guest stars are Seth Rogan, Brie Larson, Ray Liotta, Jeff Goldblum, Sarah Silverman, Will Forte, Eliza Dushku and Bears’ running back Matt Forte.
Going into its eighth season, “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” remains one of the funniest sitcoms on TV, even if it doesn’t have a laugh track to tell viewers when and how loudly to laugh. The FX series follows the exploits of five adult slackers who work in the same South Philadelphia bar and give new meaning to the term, “With friends like this, who needs enemies?” Among other things that happen in and around Paddy’s Pub in Season Seven are a “real life version of ‘Pretty Woman’”; a children’s beauty contest, for which Frank must prove that he isn’t a pedophile; a visit to the Jersey shore; Dee fakes a pregnancy to get out of an IRS audit; Frank’s long-lost brother pays a visit to Paddy’s; and the Gang endures a traumatic high school reunion. The set adds four commentaries, “Artemis Tours Philadelphia and a blooper reel.
The first thing to know about “Bones: The Complete Seventh Season” is that it contains only 13 episodes. Fox decided not to put production on hiatus to accommodate Emily Deschanel’s maternity leave and extend the season into the summer. (Why bother with summer when you have three other perfectly good seasons to mess up?) The first half of the season uses her pregnancy as a throughline, while the delayed second half adds material about Dr. Temperance Brennan’s adjustment to motherhood and relationship with FBI Special Agent Seeley Booth (David Boreanaz). Look for a new “21st Century, tech-savvy” antagonist, as well. The DVD includes an audio commentary, deleted scenes, a gag reel and two featurettes. – Gary Dretzka
The World Series: History of the Fall Classic
It’s that time of year, again, when pumpkins are treated with the respect they deserve – fruit, not vegetables, damn it! — and the best teams in the American and National Leagues compete in the World Series. Most male Baby Boomers can remember a time when the Fall Classic was contested in the daytime and teachers looked the other way as we listened to the games on transistor radios we snuck into school. Although the games became more accessible when they were moved under the lights, something was lost in the translation. Before long, corporate sponsors would be allotted blocks of seats typically reserved for fans and the season was extended to the point where parkas and earmuffs had to be worn to keep from freezing. After so many exciting playoff games, it’s even become possible to see the finals as anticlimactic, somehow. Still, when everything comes together just right, as they did last year, there’s nothing more exciting than the World Series … not even the one-and-out Super Bowl and World Cup. But, don’t take my word for it. Check out “The World Series: History of the Fall Classic” and relive the memories of several generations of American sports fans. If baseball had an official voice, it would be that of Bob Costas. He narrates this four-disc, seven-hour collection of material gathered from the Major League Baseball Film & Video Archives. It looks back at more than a century’s worth of highlights through blended footage, select action and more than 100 interviews with players, managers, writers, broadcasters and historians. The bonus features include historic official game programs and scorecards; ceremonial first pitches; the “ultimate World Series lineup”; World Series clinchers; MVP award winners; clubhouse celebrations; and
interviews with World Series participants. – Gary Dretzka
Jeff Dunham: Minding the Monsters: Blu-ray
Among the many things I hadn’t known about Jeff Dunham before digging into “Minding the Monsters,” his fifth Comedy Central special, is that many observers consider him to be the most successful standup comedian – not to mention ventriloquist – of the last few years. In 2009, Forbes ranked him behind only Jerry Seinfeld and Chris Rock as the most highly paid comedian. In the pre-Halloween special, Dunham gives equal time to such crowd favorites as Walter, Bubba J, Jose Jalapeno, Achmed the Dead, Peanut and his alter ego, the Purple Avenger of the Night. All are very funny, as well as rude, lewd, obscene, politically incorrect and impressively designed. Generally speaking, the audience for ventriloquism is decidedly mainstream, conservative and family oriented. I once covered a ventriloquist convention, where, during a 12-hour period, an adults-only show and a gospel session both were mounted. If Dunham is able to satisfy both audiences on a nightly basis, more power to him. The special arrives in two versions, “bleeped” and “unbleeped.” It also includes features on the characters and how they’re constructed. – Gary Dretzka
Lifetime: The Fantasia Barrino Story: Life Is Not a Fairytale
Lifetime: What Color Is Love?
Lifetime continues to dig into its archives for fresh DVD releases and this month’s delivery includes “The Fantasia Barrino Story: Life Is Not a Fairytale” (2006) and “What Color Is Love?” (2009). Both of the titles conform to the cable network’s dedication to stories about women who overcome hardships or about issues important to its core audience. Directed by Debbie Allen from a teleplay based on the subject’s memoirs, “Life Is Not a Fairytale” tells the story of Fantasia Barrino, a North Carolina native who overcame great adversity to become the third winner of “American Idol.” The next year, she became the first female artist to place three songs in the top five of Billboard’s Adult R&B Chart, with “Truth Is” and “Free Yourself.” Her fame came despite having grown up in poverty, being illiterate and enduring sexual abuse in high school. Barrino plays herself in “Life Is Not a Fairytale,” alongside Loretta Devine, Kadeem Hardison and Viola Davis. In the six years since the movie was first shown on cable TV, Barrino has experienced roller-coaster highs and lows in her personal life and career. Maybe, it’s time for a sequel.
From 2009, “What Color Is Love?” describes a situation all too prevalent in the world of professional sports: overpopulation. According to reports in leading newspapers and newsmagazines, pro athletes pro-create at a rate far greater than your average traveling salesman or truck driver, who remain on the road for long stretches and often seek the company of unattached women. Professional athletes are in as high demand as rock stars and rarely have trouble finding post-game dates at nightclubs known for attracting highly paid jocks and their female (and male) groupies. Apparently, it isn’t uncommon for women looking for love or child-support payments to conveniently forgo contraception, thinking the athletes will do right by them. Failing that, however, a DNA test also could do the trick. Conversely, any woman who entrusts her reproductive system to a man – especially one whose ego might be invested in the number of children he fathers – is fooling herself.
Based on a true series of events, “What Color Is Love?” describes the case of a white Canadian sports groupie who becomes pregnant after an affair with a married NBA player. After suing for custody and child support, the athlete countersued for joint custody and liberal access to their son. The court would side with the woman – here, Nicole (Jennifer Finnigan) – but the athlete and his wife would petition for custody based on their belief that black children should be raised among black family members, who, in this case, were wealthier than the birth mother and in a more stable environment, despite the athlete’s infidelity. This time, the athlete and his wife prevailed. Undeterred, however, Nicole would take her case to the Supreme Court of Canada, which sided with the first judge. In the real case, the verdict led to the athlete suspending child-support payments and ceasing to make visits. The drama leans in the direction of Nicole’s side of the case, as she’s the mom and probably learned her lesson. In real life, the father moved back to North Carolina to be with his family and find a post-NBA career. Because Canadian law doesn’t extend that far and visitations became a hardship for the Vancouver-based mother, the father stopped making child-support payments and expending the effort to fly to Canada for court-approved visits. Even on TV, that sounds like a Pyrrhic victory to me. — Gary Dretzka
The Adventures of Scooter the Penguin
My First Collection, Volume 4: Robot Zot
Seven years after “The March of the Penguins” took the world by storm, the parade of penguin-centric movies continues to grow longer. The latest entry, the Dove-approved “The Adventures of Scooter the Penguin,” is a CG-animated feature targeted at very young viewers. Abandoned at birth, Scooter has the DNA of a line of blue penguins known for their amazing speed and strength. Even though he’s taken in by a family of silver penguins who encourage his talents, Scooter feels alone in the world. He needs to prove himself in a race against similarly talented swimmers before he can return home and make a case for his worthiness among other birds.
Scholastic’s “My First Collection” series is designed to foster creativity and learning in toddlers through storytelling and wordplay. You never know, after all, when a spark will light a fire in a child’s mind. The new collection is comprised of 12 read-along stories on three DVDs. Each promotes a different positive step in the educative process. “Robot Zot,” for example, introduces kids to rhyming, “Too Many Toys” encourages problem solving and “The Curious Garden” opens up the natural world to them. The special features include interviews with authors and illustrators. Zach Braff is part of the narration team. – Gary Dretzka