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The DVD Wrapup: Sister’s Sister, Even the Rain, Kerouac, [REC]3, Arthur Christmas … More

Wednesday, November 7th, 2012

 
Your Sister’s Sister: Blu-ray
Just when it seemed as if Lynn Shelton’s “Your Sister’s Sister” was going to turn into a really long version of a dopey Gen Y sitcom, it switched into a higher gear and became something far more unexpected, sophisticated and interesting. Mark Duplass’ emotionally tortured slacker, Jack, dominates the first half-hour of the movie, even though he’s the least compelling character in the story. The rest of it belongs to the sisters, Iris and Hannah (Emily Blunt, Rosemarie DeWitt), in whose Puget Sound vacation home Jack takes refuge after an embarrassing night with friends. By acting out his frustrations over the death of his brother, who’s being memorialized a year after his death, he comes off as a total dick. When Iris, Tom’s ex-girlfriend, invites Jack to enjoy the scenery and savor the solitude of the “cabin,” it isn’t clear how close they are as friends or potential lovers. As survivors, neither of them is handling the loss very well. Moreover, both are too numbed by their pain to commit to anything beyond being best buddies … not yet, anyway.

Once Jack arrives at the cabin after a long bike ride, however, things lighten up quite a bit. Assuming that he would be left alone with his thoughts, he’s surprised to spy Iris’ sister Hannah through a window, standing in the kitchen in a T-shirt, panties and slippers. After a meet-cute encounter, Hannah explains that she’s just broken up with her longtime lover and was at loose ends, herself. Jack already knows that Hannah is a lesbian, so the inevitable sexual tension doesn’t kick in until hours later, when both are shit-faced on whisky. If the sitcom ended in Hannah’s bed – to be continued next week, as they say – “Your Sister’s Sister” could have been written off as a mere reflection of the stereotypical male fantasy of seducing a lesbian and rescuing her from a life without his penis. (Although five minutes would be triumph enough for most guys.) Iris makes an unexpected appearance the next morning, adding confusion and shame to the pain of Hannah and Jack’s hangover. There’s no way to delve any deeper into the story without revealing what makes the movie finally so special. It’s enough to say that Jack’s role is temporarily marginalized, in order to explore the new dynamic affecting the sisters. Duplass has played Gen Y and slacker characters so often that he could have phoned in his performance and it would still be more than satisfactory. Ditto, Blunt, who’s entirely credible and appealing. What’s truly terrific, though, is DeWitt’s remarkably nuanced performance in a role that easily could have become as clichéd as any, well, sitcom character. Even after the liaison with Jack, we know that Hannah isn’t going to suddenly go all hetero or bi on us. Shelton’s narrative will just have to proceed on its own steam, without that crutch supporting it. “Your Sister’s Sister” was shot in hi-def, so the Blu-ray – thanks to some especially scenic detours — is quite pleasant to watch. It adds commentary with Shelton and Duplass. – Gary Dretzka

Sunset Boulevard: Blu-ray
It’s interesting that Blu-ray editions of “Sunset Boulevard” and “What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?” have been released within weeks of each other. Both, of course, describe once-famous women who, long ago, bought into the Hollywood dream and have been sustained by its lingering glow ever since. Indeed, I wonder if the highly entertaining Bette Davis and Joan Crawford psycho-drama could have been made if it weren’t for Gloria Swanson’s heroic performance in the Billy Wilder classic, a dozen years earlier. If the two films had only been about the sad fates of three delusional actresses, they probably wouldn’t have made as big an impression on audiences upon their release and, again, 50 and 60 years later, on DVD. “Sunset Boulevard” is as much a noir romance and dissection of the Hollywood dream factory as it is about a sad old actress, Norma Desmond, still waiting for her final curtain call. There’s a murder at the heart of the story, but we’re made aware of that fact in its first scene. Desmond, who chronologically is only a couple of decades past her prime, lives elegantly in a Sunset Boulevard mansion with her onetime director/husband (Erich von Stroheim)  – now her devoted chauffeur and a butler– and a recently deceased monkey. Financially, she lacks for nothing except the spotlight. When down-on-his-luck screenwriter Joe Gillis (William Holden) arrives at her doorstep, she mistakes him for the undertaker, who, by now, is used to catering to the bizarre whims of Hollywood’s elite. At first, Gillis wants nothing to do with this Titanic-sized iceberg, of which he’s only seen the tip. Desperate for money, though, he allows himself to be cast as a stand-in for Desmond’s monkey. Besides serving as her boytoy, Gillis agrees to look at a screenplay she’s written and offer advice on how movies have changed since the silent era, not that she’d listen.

There’s no reason to rehash the story here or offer commentary on a film long considered to be among the very best ever made. Anyone who professes to love movies and hasn’t already seen “Sunset Boulevard,” really must rush out to get the Blu-ray edition. Those who’ve only watched it once or twice owe it to themselves to take advantage of the digital platform, which allows for freeze-frame and slow-forward analysis, is complemented by learned commentary and offers copious background material. That the new hi-def disc arrives in its original 1.78:1 aspect ratio and the audio presentation is Dolby TrueHD Mono will greatly please buffs, who expect nothing less than a pristine presentation, and surprise those who last watched a corrupted version of “Sunset Boulevard” on an ancient analog television.

Most of the supplementary material has been borrowed from earlier “Centennial Collection” and “Collectors’ Edition” DVD iterations and, of necessity, sent out again in 480p. It hardly matters. Commentary is provided by Ed Sikov, author of “On ‘Sunset Boulevard’: The Life and Times of Billy Wilder,” who covers every aspect of the production. Sikov returns in the featurettes “Sunset Boulevard: The Beginning,” “‘Sunset Boulevard’ Becomes a Classic,” “Stories of ‘Sunset Boulevard’” and “Sunset Boulevard: A Look Back,” alongside critics and actors. The other featurettes include “The Noir Side of ‘Sunset Boulevard,” in which author and former LAPD Sergeant Joseph Wambaugh discusses the movie and his reactions to its noir-inspired elements; “Two Sides of Ms. Swanson,” with granddaughter Brooke Anderson and actress Linda Harrison”; “Mad About the Boy: A Portrait of William Holden,” which producer A.C. Lyles, actresses Stefanie Powers and Nancy Olson, and Wambaugh; “Recording ‘Sunset Boulevard,” in which critic Andrew Sarris and soundtrack album producer Robert Townson discuss Franz Waxman’s score and his re-recording of it in 2002 for a commercial album release; “Morgue Prologue Script Pages,” reproductions of the “original” and “revised” scripted pages for the cut opening sequence; a deleted scene, “The Paramount Don’t Want Me Blues”; a Hollywood location map; a profile of costume designer Edith Head; a peek behind the gates of Paramount Studios and a look at its classic films of the 1950s; production and publicity galleries; and the theatrical trailer. – Gary Dretzka

Guys and Dolls: Blu-ray
When audiences poured out of Broadway’s 46th Street Theater, where “Guys and Dolls” logged 1,200 performances from 1950 to 1953, they stepped directly into the criminal demi-monde they had just seen mimicked on stage . The number of people whose pockets were picked by someone approximating Harry the Horse or Benny Southstreet remains unrecorded, but ticketholders almost certainly kept a tighter grip on their wallets, purses and watches. In 1955, audiences leaving theaters showing the Hollywood version of “Guys and Dolls” were far less likely to mistake the Cinemascope representation of the milieu with the real thing, even if the closest thing to a criminal element in their towns was the occasional shoplifter and Bingo cheat. Joseph Mankiewicz’s adaptation of Frank Loesser’s Tony Award-winning musical — based on the stories of Damon Runyon — imagined a midtown Manhattan whose color palette more closely resembled a box of crayons than the one in which grime and smoke competed with brightly lit marquees and neon signs for tonal dominance. Samuel Goldwyn’s version of “Guys and Dolls” was further distanced from the Broadway musical by the presence in lead roles of genuine movie stars Marlon Brando, Frank Sinatra and Jean Simmons. It’s been speculated that Marilyn Monroe would have stepped in for Vivian Blaine, as Adelaide, if Mankiewicz hadn’t already worked with the troublesome actress and vetoed the request. (Blaine and Stubby Kaye had both created their roles on Broadway and there was no good reason for them not to reprise them in the movie.) Michael Kidd’s exuberant choreography also made the transition. Loesser wrote three new songs for the movie — “Pet Me Poppa,” “A Woman in Love” and “Adelaide” – at the expense of “My Time of Day,” “I’ve Never Been in Love Before,” “More I Cannot Wish You,” “Marry the Man Today” and the wonderful “A Bushel and a Peck.” In addition to directing, Mankiewicz adapted Jo Swerling and Abe Burrows’ book with the intention of heightening the profiles of the characters, Sky Masterson (Brando) and Nathan Detroit (Sinatra).

When Brando was cast, questions naturally were raised about his ability to sing and act in way that supported Loesser’s music, not the studio’s bottom line. Simmons hadn’t sung on screen, either, but both of them did just fine. Brando’s rendition of “Luck Be a Lady,” a song that would become associated with Sinatra, is especially fun to watch today. Sinatra and Blaine are terrific, of course, but the real show-stopper is Kaye’s re-creation of Nicely Nicely’s big number, “Sit Down, You’re Rocking the Boat.” It comes near the end, after Masterson and Detroit successfully managed to wrangle the craps players into Sergeant Sarah Brown’s rescue mission for a midnight revival meeting. Their grand scam depended on getting the gang of Runyon-esque characters to put down their Racing Forms long enough to help Sergeant Sarah convince the Salvation Army general not to close the mission. If successful, Masterson might be able to win her affections for real and Adelaide could finally get Detroit to commit to marriage. The Blu-ray edition captures all of the colors brilliantly and the soundtrack is enhanced by the DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 upgrade. The Blu-ray edition arrives in digi-book format, with a 72-page scrapbook and photo gallery; a pair of making-of documentaries; a profile of independent producer Samuel Goldwyn; interviews with Kidd and members of the Goldwyn, Mankiewicz and Loesser families; and access to individual musical performances. – Gary Dretzka

Even the Rain
If all one read all day were the Hollywood trade papers and industry-obsessed bloggers, it would be easy to imagine that movie making is of greater importance to humanity than ready access to shelter, food and water. Even the debuts of demonstrably crappy movies, with B- and C-list stars, are greeted with klieg lights, red carpets, paparazzi and bleachers full of screaming fans. (Investors have to be given one reason, at least, to keep the river of money flowing.) Variations of the same ritual exist in most other countries, I suspect. “Even the Rain” describes a situation in which a team of Spanish filmmakers working in Bolivia is required to weigh the importance of completing a significant film project against the basic needs of indigenous peasants, some of whom have been cast as characters and extras in the movie. Gael Garcia Bernal and Luis Tosar play the idealistic director and pragmatic producer of a movie that casts Christopher Columbus’ accidental “discovery” of the Americas in a much different light than it has historically been accorded in textbooks. Instead of being a fortuitous accident, Columbus is shown to be a cog in a much larger machine, operated by imperialistic aristocrats, cold-blooded missionary priests and vicious soldiers. No matter the nobility of their intentions, though, the filmmakers still can’t resist the capitalistic imperative that demands they exploit the Native Americans on their payroll with absurdly low wages and dangerous working conditions. At the same time as the movie is being shot in Cochabamba and the forests around Villa Tunari, poor natives are rallying against a plan set forth by Spanish interests to require them to pay exponentially more for potable water than they’ve previously been able to afford. In Bolivia and most other countries in the Americas, Indians are treated with little more respect by those of European heritage than they were in the first waves of colonization. Finally, the reality of the explosive political situation demands that the filmmakers take stands that weren’t taught at film school.

Paul Laverty’s screenplay was inspired by the so-called Cochabamba Water War of 2000, during which the government’s decision to allow the privatization of the city’s water supply, including rain water, was reversed in the face of widespread riots. Director Iciar Bollain nimbly juxtaposes what’s happening in Bolivia’s third-largest city, with the production of the movie being shot in the forested highlands outside Cochabamba. The setting, which is extremely lush and beautiful, probably hasn’t changed much since Garci Ruiz de Orellana bought the land on which the city now sits from tribal chiefs for the 130 pesos. The indigenous actors are so adept at switching time periods that it’s sometime difficult to tell when exactly when the shooting stops and present-day reality kicks in. As the political situation intensifies, Bollain approximates how it actually might feel when unarmed peasants are surrounded by soldiers with itchy trigger fingers and no sympathy for their cause. It would have been interesting to learn more about “Even the Rain” but the DVD arrives without bonus features. – Gary Dretzka

What Happened to Kerouac?
In three years, Jack Kerouac will have been dead and gone as long as he was alive. And, yet, his books continue to sell and the myths surrounding his lifestyle and influence grow like weeds around an untended gravestone. After being shown at Cannes and opening in several other countries, Walter Salles and Jose Rivera’s long-awaited adaptation of “On the Road” finally will open in the United States on December 21, just in time for awards consideration, of course. In a very real sense, it’s been gestating ever since the book’s publication in 1957. So many writers, directors and producers have tried to synthesize Kerouac’s “spontaneous prose” on film, but failed, that “On the Road” was deemed unfilmable. Also in the works is Michael Polish’s adaptation of Kerouac’s 1962 “Big Sur,” a roman a clef many critics and admirers consider to be his most revealing and honest book. Through alter ego Jack Duluoz, the now famous author chronicles his in ability to deal with unexpected fame and the breakdown he experienced while laying low and attempting to dry out in a Bixby Canyon cabin owned by Lorenzo Monsanto (Lawrence Ferlinghetti). Duluoz hoped to escape the media attention and fan adoration engendered by the publication of his best-seller, which came seven years after he had written it and in a far different America than existed under John F. Kennedy. With more readers attracted to Sal and Dean’s long-extinguished bromance than any of his later, more preferred works, Kerouac was free to drink himself to death in near anonymity. Directed by Richard Lerner and Lewis MacAdams and released 1985, “What Happened to Kerouac?” fills many of the gaps in what most people know about the writer’s life in the dozen years between “On the Road” and his death.

It does so through reflective interviews with Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso, William S. Burroughs, Carolyn Cassady, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Michael McClure, Gary Snyder, Herbert Huncke, Fran Landesman, Edie Kerouac Parker, John Clellon Holmes, Diane Di Prima, Joyce Johnson, Father Armond “Spike” Morissette, biographer Ann Charters and his late daughter, Jan Kerouac. Such influential people as Neal Cassady, Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie appear in archived material. Also valuable are excerpts from a panel discussion in which Kerouac participated on William F. Buckley’s “Firing Line” and a reading on Steve Allen’s variety show. Kerouac’s voice is heard throughout, reading from his own novels and poetry, usually over boppish jazz solos. The point most of these people make is that Kerouac was a great writer, a wonderful friend and someone who sold lots of books but was never accepted by the New York literary establishment. He was a keen observer of life, land and nature, but hardly a visionary or prophet. He disavowed any connection to the hippies and radicals, even though they clearly were influenced by the challenges to the status quo he presented in “On the Road” and “Dharma Bums.” He died a devout Catholic, but lived much of his adult life as a Buddhist. He predicted that he would drink himself into an early grave, but only because the Church forbade suicide. The new Shout! Factory edition of “What Happened to Kerouac” is enhanced by a full disc of extended interview material. (Ironically, it is biographer Charters, who, in the last entry on the bonus CD, pretty much answers the question proffered in the film’s title and in less than five minutes.) No matter how the upcoming movie adaptations turn out, a screening of this fine documentary is recommended to anyone who wants to know more about Kerouac or attempt to separate the man from the myth. – Gary Dretzka

Maximum Conviction: Blu-ray
Steven Seagal and Steve Austin have become such brand-name institutions in the world of straight-to-DVD action flicks that one hesitates even to describe their new “Maximum Conviction,” let alone judge it using the same criteria applied to review pictures intended for theatrical release. It is what it is … nothing more and nothing less. I’m pretty sure that this is the first time that the two warriors have appeared together in the same movie and on the same side of Uncle Sam. Their martial talents complement each other in combat and neither seems interested in one-upping the other. If you’ve liked them in previous movies, separately, it’s likely you’ll enjoy “Maximum Conviction,” even if it adds nothing new to the genre. Here, at least, one and one equal one. Both play former black ops types who get paid handsomely to sweep up the trash employees of the CIA and FBI prefer not to touch. They’ve been assigned to decommission a top-secret “dark” prison, holding the worst of the worst prisoners. Everything’s going along fine, until they’re asked to oversee the arrival of two mysterious women prisoners who don’t seem to be on anyone’s radar. No sooner are they bunked together – why? – than a team of mercenaries arrives to capture or kill them. Austen smells a rat when a large truck arrives at the prison and conveniently breaks down in the docks area. Seagal, who’s headed for dinner with his laddies, brings with him a piece of paper with a code he hopes one of them can translate. Whatever it says convinces Seagal to interrupt dinner and head back to the prison with his own bad boys. Because the mercenaries hadn’t built into their plan any room for error, they’re still chasing their targets around the prison when the posse arrives. This leaves about any hour of screen time for gunplay, karate chops and knife work. I’m still a bit confused as to what the women had done to deserve such treatment, but it does involve a foreign object strategically implanted near her boobs. So, there you have it. “Maximum Conviction” offers several passable action sequences and some imaginative kills, if not much else. The Blu-ray package includes interviews, making-of material and other hero worship. – Gary Dretzka

With Great Power: The Stan Lee Story
Watching this overly reverent profile of living comic-book legend Stan Lee – and, yes, I understand what differentiates merely great men from legends and myths – I was struck by how blessed we are that the 89-year-old writer, editor, actor, producer, publisher, television personality and co-creator of hundreds of wonderful characters is still alive and kicking. Although too many people are under the misconception that Marvel Comics sprang from Lee’s brow unassisted, Lee was an integral part of a team that included Jack Kirby, Bill Everett and Steve Ditko. The creation of great comic books is as collaborative an undertaking as making movies and Lee has always been among the first to acknowledge it. Lee’s most lasting contribution to the art has been inventing multidimensional characters and balancing their awesome powers with the same flaws, emotions, alienation and doubts as mere mortals. He challenged the idiocy of the Comics Code Authority, which, like the Hollywood Production Code, set ludicrous content guidelines designed mostly to keep conservative legislators from creating laws governing the industry. Lee also was instrumental in moving Marvel into the world of multimedia, high-tech publishing and officiating over the marriage between Hollywood and comic books. Lee is a wonderful storyteller and extremely influential spokesman for the medium. If some of his tales have grown shaggy over the years, they’re no less interesting to hear one more time, at least. “With Great Power: The Stan Lee Story” effectively captures his effervescent personality and sense of humor, both of which are shared with his wife, Joan. Not all of the controversies are addressed, but, in hindsight, they haven’t tarnished his image or held him down. I could have done without most of the celebrity blurbs, but they do add a touch of Hollywood glitz to the proceedings and context for the emergence of superhero movies – Richard Donner’s “Superman” is widely credited as the icebreaker – from the Saturday matinee and television ghettos to the arena of movie franchises. Lee didn’t have anything to do with DC Comics success with Superman, but his association with “The Avengers,”  “Spider-Man,” “Iron Man,” “The Incredible Hulk,” “X-Men,” “Fantastic Four” and a dozen other movies has long been duly noted.  – Gary Dretzka

[Rec]3: Genesis: Blu-ray
The Pact: Blu-ray
John Carpenter’s They Live: Collector’s Edition: Blu-ray
With the arrival of “[REC]3: Genesis” on DVD and Blu-ray, one would assume that a third “Quarantine” – the Spanish franchise’s English-speaking twin brother — is on the drawing boards, at least. Writer/director Paco Plaza and co-writer Luiso Berdejo must have sensed that the found-footage gag was getting stale, because barely half of the third installment is told through the eye of a camera lens. Much of story takes place, as well, in the light of day and inside a well-lit church and party facility, where the wedding of Koldo and Clara abruptly erupts into a reception of the living dead. One minute, the guests are toasting the newlyweds, and, the next, the guests themselves are toast. For all viewers know, the zombie virus was introduced in a bad batch of shrimp cocktails and it took all of about 10 minutes for it to infect most of the attendees. Among those not affected are the bride and groom, a priest, a guy in a taco costume and a couple of horny toads who slipped out of the reception to knock boots. In her determination to reunite with Koldo, the pregnant Clara turns herself into a stone-cold killer. Too much of the humor here is of the slapstick variety and the shocks aren’t all that shocking really. But, at 80 minutes, things go by rather swiftly. There’s even a surprise ending that explains how “Genesis” fits in the trilogy. By far the best thing in the movie is the twig-thin, doe-eyed bride, Clara (Leticia Dolera), who goes from demure to dangerous when she’s separated from Koldo. The Blu-ray adds a bunch of deleted scenes.

After a short version of “The Pact” received a positive reception at the 2011 Sundance festival, writer/director Nicholas McCarthy decided he didn’t need to look any further for inspiration for his first feature. Although the mixed-genre thriller didn’t impress many mainstream critics in its limited New York release, “The Pact” fared much better among bloggers and reviewers for niche websites, based on its return to Sundance and a run on VOD outlets. Essentially a ghost story, it gradually extends its reach across the genre borders separating restless spirits, murder mysteries and family psychodramas. The central character is Annie (Caity Lotz), a pretty young blond who reluctantly returns to her childhood home after her mother dies and her estranged sister disappears after a Skype conversation with her daughter, who sees things not visible to her mom. Perhaps because she rides a motorcycle, Annie considers herself strong enough to spend the night, alone, in the clearly haunted house. In the morning, she contacts a police detective (Casper Van Dien) and a clairvoyant to determine how to proceed. (I would have suggested spending the next few nights in a hotel, but that would have been too obvious.) Slowly the truth about what happened in the house during Annie’s absence begins to reveal itself, literally and figuratively. Working on a micro-budget, “The Pact” makes good use of the haunted setting, which has all sorts of hidden rooms, tunnels and trap doors.  The DVD comes with a decent making-of featurette.

When John Carpenter made the pre-apocalyptic sci-fi thriller, “They Live,” Ronald Reagan had already kick-started the American economy by instituting policies that would come back to haunt us in the second George W. Bush administration and first four years of the Obama presidency. As long as everyone was making money and there was enough cocaine being imported to keep stock traders motivated, nobody seemed particularly concerned about the future. Adapted from a graphic novel by Ray Nelson, “They Live” theorizes that humanoid aliens have infiltrated the country and are responsible for delivering subliminal messages to Americans, encouraging them to embrace laissez-faire capitalism, conservative principles and authoritarian government. In other ways, the movie also resembles “Invasion of the Body Snatchers.” Roddy Piper plays an unemployed drifter, Nada, who finds works in Los Angeles on a construction site. He spends his nights at a park colonized by homeless people, who are among the first to suspect something weird is going wrong. After cops demolish the camp, Nada escapes to a church, where he finds a box containing cool-looking sunglasses. The glasses allow him to see the aliens for who they are and what they’re doing to the country. Not only can he identify the aliens among us, but he also can study the subliminal messages — OBEY, CONSUME, NO INDEPENDENT THOUGHT — hidden in magazines, on billboards, street signs and currency (THIS IS YOUR GOD). Like Roger Corman, Carpenter is able to stretch a dollar until the eagle grins. On a $4 million budget, he produced a movie that entertained audiences in a grindhouse sort of way, while also delivering a message. It would take another 20 years for Americans to get that message, but better late than never. Naturally, there’s some pretty crazy stuff in “They Live,” including a nearly endless fistfight between Piper and Keith David, over his refusal to check out the glasses handed him by Nada. The Blu-ray revamp makes the movie a more pleasant visual and audio experience than it’s been since it was released in 1988. It adds fresh interviews, making-of featurettes and a profile of Meg Foster, whose piercing blue eyes are more powerful than any laser. – Gary Dretzka

The Miners’ Hymns
Imagine if, someday, the shores of Lake Michigan in northwest Indiana are cluttered with homes, resorts and casinos, instead of steel mills and toxic wetlands. That’s the way things were headed in the 1970s and 1980s, after all, when such companies as Wisconsin Steel, South Works, American Bridge, Republic Steel, the Falstaff Brewery were shuttered and low employment turned one once-thriving city, Gary, into an urban wasteland. The steel industry has been revived somewhat and EPA regulations helped turn the skies over Lake Michigan from black to blue. If the economy continues to tank, however, the land upon which the mills sit – especially U.S. Steel, which, among other things, was allowed to dredge marshes and bulldoze magnificent sand dunes – would be more valuable than anything produced by the plants. Lost, though, would be a way of life that provided hope for countless immigrant and working-class families that their children could afford college and make a living in places that didn’t resemble the fires of hell. That’s the easiest way for me to describe Bill Morrison’s multi-media documentary, “The Miners’ Hymns,” which lays out a similar scenario, except this one isn’t based on speculation. It describes how things have changed in northeast England since the area’s many coalmines were closed forever during the Margaret Thatcher regime, if for no other reason than to spite the labor unions. From above, you’d be hard pressed to believe that the same lovely countryside being surveyed once was dominated by giant chimneys, slag heaps, conveyor belts, railroad tracks and handling and preparation plants. Neither would you be able to discern from that distance the absence of hope on the faces of the residents now consigned to low-paying jobs in the service and tourism industries.

Instead of relying on descriptions and narratives to explain what he’s trying to accomplish in his films, Morrison lets the images from found and archival footage speak for themselves. They’re frequently accompanied, however, by the complementary music of important avant-garde composers, including Steve Reich, Bill Frisell, Gavin Bryars, Julia Wolfe and, in “The Miners’ Hymns,” the Icelandic minimalist Jóhann Jóhannsson. Here, Johannsson describes his score as a “kind of requiem for a disappearing industry, but also a celebration of the culture, life and struggle of coal miners,” as well as the strong regional tradition of colliery brass bands. The footage mostly focuses on the aboveground life of Durham residents, all of whom were dependent on the mines in one way or another. This included a century’s worth of material shot at union rallies, parades, picnics and riots and in the streets lined with identical row houses. Even more striking is the material shot underground, as the men labored in the longwall mines so shallow and narrow that most of the work is done while laying on one’s back. I was struck by the cinematography and lighting, which, at times, makes the archival British Film Institute and BBC footage look as if it were shot by a German Expressionist. “The Miners’ Hymns” is less than an hour long, but it packs a powerful punch. The faces in the crowds might have belonged to any of our grandparents and the scenes could have been staged in thousands of American towns that relied on the promises – almost all of which were broken – of bosses and politicians who cared more about a pothole on their street than their workers. The DVD adds three of Morrison’s short films: “Release,” for which Morrison re-purposed footage of a Philadelphia crowd anticipating the release of Al Capone from jail; another split-screen short, “Outborough,” this time from film shot in 1899 from the vantage point of a trolley crossing the Brooklyn Bridge; and “The Film of Her,” a far more linear piece about a Library of Congress clerk, who was able to save from destruction the institution’s amazing Paper Print Collection. – Gary Dretzka

Kiss Me
Hollywood to Dollywood
Although this extremely well made and almost achingly romantic Swedish export was introduced at gay and lesbian film festivals and is being released on DVD here on the niche Wolfe Video label, “Kiss Me” is drama that desperately wants to escape the queer-cinema ghetto and be judged completely on its own narrative merits. Plenty of other movies that deal with issues relating to homosexuality and closets of the characters’ own making demand to be taken just as seriously, but rarely do they allow their characters to exist in a world free of clichés and compromises. Even if the ending feels ripped from the Hollywood rom-com playbook, writer/director Alexandra-Therese Keining has put her protagonists through such an emotional wringer that we’re willing to forgive her a bit of schmaltz, if it means the characters will enjoy a chance at happiness, at least. What also told me that “Kiss Me” was a horse of a different color was the presence of such estimable Swedish actors as Lena Endre (“Wallander,” “Millennium”), Krister Hennriksson (“Wallander,” “Superintendent Winter”) and Joakim Natterqvist (“Arn: The Templar Knight”), whose casting as auxiliary characters in any other genre melodrama would make no sense. Their through-lines are every bit as compelling as those of the very nearly star-crossed lovers played by the less known Ruth Vega Fernandez and Liv Mjönes.

Mia and Frida, both in their thirties, meet for the first time at their parents’ engagement party. Mia’s somewhat estranged father, Lasse, is about to marry Frida’s mother, Elizabeth, which would make them stepsisters. At first, Mia suspects that Frida is flirting with her fiancé, Tim, but, in fact, the cute blonde’s googly eyes are directed strictly at her. We already suspect that Mia and Tim might not be so simpatico while watching her eyes glaze over during a love-making session earlier in the movie. He’s too full of himself to realize that the only person enjoying the grunt-and-grind session is him. Still, it takes us by surprise when, after a birthday party for Lasse, Mia initiates the first kiss between them. In the morning, though, Mia looks as if she had thrilled the guests by chugging the contents of her future mother-in-law’s aquarium, fish and all, and doing a jig on the piano. When Lasse and Tim make an unexpected exit from the villa on a beautiful island off Ystad, it gives Mia and Frida time to test their fragile bond and Elizabeth an opportunity to study the mysterious appearance of dark clouds on the horizon. Even so, Mia seems intent on marrying Tim, leaving Frida to return reluctantly to a one-time lover. What happens next isn’t totally unexpected, but the interaction between all of the characters is handled in a way that’s credible and ultimately satisfying. Everyone grows up in different ways, whether they want to or not. Ragna Jorming’s cinematography takes full advantage of the lovely outdoor settings and Marc Collins’ original music nicely captures the intensity of the romance and drama playing out on the screen. Anyone looking for a different sort of love story ought to consider “Kiss Me,” no matter who’s kissing whom at any particular moment. The DVD adds a music video.

The compelling personal documentary, “Hollywood to Dollywood,” seems to have played every gay-and-lesbian in the U.S., without striking a theatrical distribution deal. I wouldn’t read too much into that regrettable piece of business, though. I don’t what strikes more fear into the hearts of exhibitors: “gay” or “documentary.” My guess would be the latter. In DVD, “H2D” deserves to find a larger, if initially segmented audience. As the title suggests, there’s a bit of gimmick at the heart of the documentary. Twin brothers Larry and Gary Lane have written a screenplay they think would be a perfect vehicle for Dolly Parton. Instead of sending it to her agent or flying to the airport nearest to her theme park, the twins and a friend drive a RV named Jolene cross-country to east Tennessee. Because the young men are from the South, gay and huge fans, it probably made more sense to contact Dolly directly than play games with a Hollywood agent. One of the reasons the multitalented entertainer has attained iconic status in the gay community is her loudly professed non-judgmental stance on homosexuality, drag queens and transsexuals. Along the way to Nashville, the Lanes find and interview several people – gay, straight and in between — whose lives have been saved by Dolly and her songs. Complicating their journey is a once-in-a-lifetime flood that devastated parts of Tennessee ahead of the Dollywood 25th anniversary celebration. In a very real sense, as well, “H2D” could be described as a journey into America’s heart of evangelical darkness. Many of the people we meet in the film are native Southerners, whose relatives and boyhood friends are strict Baptists and openly disparaging of gays and lesbians, no matter whose kids they might be. Almost the same amount attention is paid to confronting inner demons and religious intolerance as delivering the screenplay to Dolly, which isn’t as easy as it might sound. The “H2D” DVD adds deleted scenes, new music by Parton (15 of her hits already are on the soundtrack), extended interviews and outtakes. – Gary Dretzka

House of Dark Shadows: Blu-ray  
Night of Dark Shadows: Blu-ray
Wolf Lake: The Complete Series
As we’ve had the distinct misfortune to observe over the past two decades, television shows don’t translate easily to the demands of big-screen entertainment. Sitcoms are written specifically to fill about 22 minutes of small-screen time, with breaks allotted for canned laughter, lead-ins and lead-outs to commercials and gag setups. Even in these days of TiVo and PPV, audiences are conditioned to the breaks and either go to the kitchen for a cookie or fast-forward through them. One of the worst things that can happen in the cinematic experience is to leave subliminal breaks in the narrative flow that take audiences out of the movie, even for a second or two. Soap operas are even more difficult to adapt than sitcoms and dramas because of the constant repetition of plot points and daily cliffhangers. Not only are the movie versions of “Dark Shadows” better than most other adaptations, but it’s one of the few, if not the only soap drama that’s made the transition. Now, this isn’t to say that the stand-alone “House of Dark Shadows” and “Night of Dark Shadows” – both were directed by Dan Curtis — are among the best vampire movies of all time, just that they’re true to their source material and conform to long-form rules. Moreover, these films aren’t parodies of the Gothic soaps or overt homages to the groundbreaking daytime series. (I think that Tim Burton’s recent adaptation owes as much to the Addams Family cartoons and TV show as it does to “Dark Shadows.”)  True fans of a popular show aren’t all that keen on outsiders toying with their favorites or telling them what makes it special, if only because they’re usually wrong.

By focusing on the characters Barnabas Collins (Jonathan Frid), Dr. Julia Hoffman (Grayson Hall), and Maggie Evans (Kathryn Leigh Scott), “House of Dark Shadows” (1970) more consciously recalls the TV series than its feature-length sequel, “Night of Dark Shadows.” Barnabas has just been released from his coffin prison by a local drunk and he immediately sets out to ingratiate himself with family members and Collinsport residents, some of whom resemble acquaintances from a long-ago life. He also takes it upon himself to restore Collinwood and make up for lost time in the blood-sucking department. By contrast, “Night” expands on the Quentin Collins story arc. The tone is younger, less overtly scary and genuinely romantic, with David Selby, Kate Kackson and Lara Parker re-emerging from the cast of the TV series. (This time, Grayson Hall plays Carlotta Drake.) Quentin married Jackson’s Tracy Collins before returning to Collinwood to paint, a decision for which the resident ghosts and spirits will make him – or, at least, her – pay. The Blu-ray re-mastering pays dividends by restoring the saturated colors of the originals and lightening some of the darker shadows, allowing once-cloudy details to emerge. The effect also makes “House” and “Night” look very much like horror flicks from the Hammer Studios. Don’t look for many extras, though, as they only include theatrical trailers.

In its initial five-year run on ABC, “Dark Shadows” logged 1,225-episodes. Ten years ago, another vampire series, CBS’ “Wolf Lake,” managed to air 5 of its 10 shot episodes before being canceled. Reruns would bounce around the dial for a while, but, really, how long can 10 episodes stay fresh? The show’s fans, as well as undead completists, should find it interesting that CBS DVD is releasing the whole thing in a set that includes the unaired pilot episode, with commentary, and a making-of featurette. The story centers on a Seattle sheriff’s search for his girlfriend who disappears after she accepts his proposal for marriage. His investigation leads to a town called Wolf Lake, where a pack of werewolves co-exist with the human population. (It’s probably near Forks, Washington, so the unemployed werewolves probably found work on the “Twilight” set.) If nothing else, the series didn’t lack for familiar faces and soon-to-be popular stars. The cast included Lou Diamond Phillips, Tim Matheson, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Mia Kirshner, Graham Greene, Paul Wesley, Sharon Lawrence, Bruce McGill and Carmen Moore. – Gary Dretzka

Comes a Bright Day
This neat little Brit export combines traditional elements of a botched-heist-and-hostage drama with some very stylish dialogue, romance and fine acting, all in the service of a claustrophobic chamber piece. That’s probably a few too many adjectives, but it helps to know what you’re getting into when movies with such strong bloodlines fizzle after their festival debuts. Because writer/director Simon Aboud married into the McCartney clan – husband of Mary, brother-in-law of Stella and James, son-in-law of Paul and the late Linda McCartney – his first feature, “Comes a Bright Day,” was destined to capture the attention of the media in ways most freshman efforts can’t. Also of interest to the UK media, at least, was a sterling cast that includes Timothy Spall, Imogen Poots, Craig Roberts, Kevin McKidd, Josef Altin, Geoff Bell and Anthony Welsh. The exteriors were filmed in the heart of London’s posh Mayfair district, while the interiors replicated a classy jewelry store there that specializes in expensive antique jewelry. (“Some of the actual pieces we photographed were worth more than our entire budget,” quips Aboud, in one of the making-of featurettes.

In the short expository portion before the heist, we follow a bellboy (Roberts) as he heads for the jewelry store on an errand for an important guest, but is sidetracked to a restaurant where a friend makes the best risotto in town. They discuss imprecise plans for a restaurant of their own, but are distracted by the super-cute blond (Poots) waiting to be served. She works in the jewelry store and, of course, the bellboy follows her like a moth to flame. He neglected to disavow her notion that the suit he borrowed from another guest might indicate he is independently wealthy and tries to extend the charade with the job owner (Spall). It isn’t likely he could have fooled him for long, though, because he was headed to the jewelry store anyway and he’s pals with the young man’s boss. No sooner are the pleasantries exchanged than a pair of robbers stomp into the shop, shoot a customer to prove they’re bad and begin to fill their shopping list. By the time things get really nasty, the owner’s already triggered the silent alarm and the cops are on their way. When the robbers aren’t bullying them, the hostages pass the time by telling stories about the jewelry on display, their personal ambitions and the things that could get them killed. There’s no escape route for the robbers, so all communication with the outside world is conducted by phone. The movie progresses from there with a distinct aura of menace enveloping the store. The claustrophobic setting and dialogue probably would have lent itself better to the stage, but John Lynch is able to open things up a bit with his expressive cinematography. As far as I can see, Paul McCartney has nothing to do with the movie besides his DNA. – Gary Dretzka

Planes, Trains & Automobiles: Blu-ray
If all one knows about the John Hughes comedy “Planes, Trains & Automobile” is that critics used it as a point of reference for Todd Phillips’ “Due Date,” I highly recommend a rental of the Blu-ray edition of the 1987 classic for comparison and enjoyment. Both movies are built on the same foundation: two guys need to get from one city to another in a specific number of hours, but the buffoonish behavior of one of the men threatens the odds of this happening. In “Due Date,” the Everyman character (Robert Downey Jr.) needs to get from Atlanta to Los Angeles in five days to witness the birth of his first child. To accomplish this feat, the man must accept a ride and all of its silly consequences from a well-meaning doofus (Zach Galifianakis). In “PT&A,” a snobby traveler (Steve Martin) and affable goofball (John Candy) are attempting to get from New York City to Chicago in time for Christmas, but their plane is diverted to Kansas by a widespread snow storm. In both cases, requiring the polar-opposite characters to find common ground in support of a singular goal proves to be an exercise in hilarity. If most viewers were expected to empathize with Everyman’s dilemma, it’s impossible not to find something to love and respect in the clowns. The same is true with the characters themselves. The Blu-ray supplements include “John Hughes for Adults,” “A Tribute to John Candy,” “Getting There Is Half the Fun: The Story of ‘Planes, Trains and Automobiles,’” “John Hughes: Life Moves Pretty Fast” and a deleted scene. – Gary Dretzka

Cartoon Network: Regular Show: Best DVD in the World (At This Moment in Time)
PBS: Sesame Street: Old School 3
CMT: Louie Anderson: Big Baby Boomer
PBS: Cook’s Country: Season Five
GMC: The Love You Save
Cartoon Network’s hit animated comedy series, “Regular Show,” started out as a student exercise – based on J.G. Quintel’s experiences performing minimum-wage jobs — and evolved into an Emmy-winning and Annie-nominated series. One of the assignments students at California Institute of the Arts are routinely asked to do involves picking scenarios and characters out of a hat and turning them into animated films within a 48-hour period. He pitched “Regular Show,” which is anything but regular, to Cartoon Network as part of its Cartoonstitute development project and it was picked up. Amazing how some dreams come true, right? “Regular Show: The Best DVD in the World” is comprised of 16 episodes from the show’s second and third seasons. Everything revolves around the misadventures of a pair of 23-year-old slackers – a blue jay, Mordecai, and a raccoon, Rigby – who escape the boredom at their groundskeeper jobs by engaging in surrealistic adventures and irresponsible actions. Their girlfriends, co-workers and boss are as strangely adorable as they are. As one might guess about a project initiated by CalArts graduates, “Regular Show” appeals more to adult hipsters than kids typically attracted to other Cartoon Network series (as opposed to Adult Swim titles).

I don’t care what Mitt Romney believes, I’d much prefer for my tax dollars to go for production of “Sesame Street” than for the development of natural-gas pipelines and any more wars in Middle East. It’s done more good for the children of the world than a million Mormon missionaries and Republican political initiatives. Anyone who doubts the lasting value of the PBS shows and its wonderful creations need look any further than the DVDs in the “Sesame Street: Old School” series. The third installment in the series covers 1979 through 1984, including the premieres from seasons 11 to 15. Among the events covered are the gangs’ excursion to Puerto Rico for Maria’s birthday and Snuffy and Gordon’s New York City marathon run? In addition, a bonus DVD adds never-before-seen behind-the-scenes footage, clips from special episodes, an excerpt from “Goodbye, Mr. Hooper”; an interview with puppeteer Carroll Spinney; the on-screen storybook, “How to Be a Grouch”; a booklet; and commentary by Sonia Manzano.

One of the last places I’d expect to find a Louie Anderson comedy special would be CMT: Country Music Television, alongside such series as “Bayou Billionaires,” “My Big Redneck Vacation” and “Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders: Making the Team.” The Food Network or Gourmet Channel, maybe; the Comedy Channel, sure; CMT, not very likely. Thank God, Louie doesn’t push the envelope by wearing cowboy boots, a Stetson hat and Nudie suit, as if he were the Grand Ol’ Opry’s comedian-in-residence. In “Louie Anderson: Big Baby Boomer,” the plus-size comic does what he does best: self-effacing jokes about eating, dieting and other bad habits; going to the doctor; traveling between shows; irritating family members; and growing older.

Among the many fine shows that combine the joys of eating and cooking is PBS’ venerable “Cook’s Country.” The hook here is the tight focus on regional “comfort food,” especially that associated with the American South and Southwest. The show is headquartered in a renovated 1806 farmhouse with a full working test kitchen, a live audience and the odd neighbor who stops by with cooking problems that need immediate attention. In Season Five, host Christopher Kimball and the chefs from “America’s Test Kitchen” tackle such topics as “Hearty Autumn Dinner,” “Dixie Chicken,” “Breakfast Breads,” “Italian Favorites Revisited,” “Great American Cookout” and “Dinner at the Diner.” The DVD adds tips and techniques, equipment tests and printable versions of all recipes.

I might have enjoyed “The Love You Save” more if it weren’t accompanied by the worst laugh and applause track I’ve ever heard … repeat, ever. I would bet money that the controller was on a three-second delay, because that’s how long it took for the gags to be acknowledged by the laughter. The track also made it sound as if the audience was in a theater next door to the one in which the play was being filmed, the responses are that distant. No matter, because of all the stage-to-screen urban dramedies I’ve seen lately, “The Love You Save” is easily the weakest and most predictable. It was shown on cable’s GMC, as part of its “World Premiere Gospel Play” series. Robin Givens plays a real-estate mogul and the single parent of three grown children. She’s spoiled, opinionated and unprincipled. Two of her children have taken after Mom, while the youngest son volunteers his time at a homeless shelter. While there one day, he meets an older guy who taunts him about his motivations for helping the poor. Before long, they take a shine to each other and believe that by working together they can save the building from development. Unbeknownst to the young man, Mom has just gotten into bed – figuratively – with the developers and plans to make a killing on it. When her scheme is revealed, it provokes a revelation that shakes the family to its core and inspires some old-fashioned gospel belting. Maybe, you can guess what the deep, dark secret turns out to be. The cast also includes Kareem J. Grimes, Denyce Lawton, Jill-Michele Melean and Sean Riggs. – Gary Dretzka

Arthur Christmas
It’s a Spongebob Christmas!
Adventures of Bailey: Christmas Hero
Aardman Animation’s delightful seasonal comedy, “Arthur Christmas,” successfully addresses two mysteries, at least, that have perplexed children ever since Saint Nicholas morphed into the consumer face of Christmas, Santa Claus: 1) it offers a semi-plausible explanation for how he might be able to deliver gifts to all children of the world in a 24-hour period, taking into account time zones and pit stops, 2) Santa’s ability to get down all sorts of chimneys and enter homes without fireplaces, 3) the U.S. Postal Service’s willingness to deliver mail to such a distant zipcode, and 4) the question of Santa’s mortality. Showing “Arthur Christmas” to the kiddies will save you countless hours trying to explain how such miracles can happen and, perhaps, postpone the day when they will call, “Bullshit!,” on the whole thing. In the meantime, I probably wouldn’t push the making-of demonstrations, included in the Blu-ray supplements, on them. Why test your luck? The story begins when a little girl in a quaint English town drops her letter to Santa in the mailbox. Its arrival at the North Pole triggers a multifaceted response that requires split-second timing and the expertise of a million highly trained and fully computerized elves. Once the solicitation is filed and the fulfillment center locates the parcel, it’s loaded onto Santa’s sleigh – which more closely resembles the USS Enterprise than a reindeer-drawn carriage – and delivered by teams of three commando elves, who have 18 seconds to enter the recipients home by any means necessary, avoid pets and other obstacles, place the gift alongside the tree and be collected by the mother ship, which is hovering over the city. The title of Santa Claus is passed from one generation of white-bearded, red-suited geezers to another, much in the same way as any royal family or dynasty. Grandsanta, the reigning Santa and First Lady, the heir apparent, Steve, and his klutzy brother, Arthur, all live under the same roof, occasionally debating the merits of old-school practices and digital technology.

For various reasons, Arthur has been assigned a low-level job in the North Pole’s mailroom. Instead of being a mere cog in the machine, however, the chronically optimistic Arthur considers himself to be an essential piece of the annual Christmas puzzle. After Steve pulls out of the warehouse on his high-tech S-1 sleigh – Santa monitors the entire operation, his 70th, from his easy chair – Arthur and the wrapper elf Bryony find a gift that’s been inadvertently left behind. Arthur recognizes the wrapped bike and the name of the girl who requested it. Committed to making every child happy, Arthur talks Grandsanta into pulling his ancient sleigh and reindeer out of mothballs and making the trip to Trelew, Cornwall. The problem is that Grandsanta’s navigation skills have rusted since his retirement, decades earlier, and he directs the sleigh everywhere but England. If it were up to Steve and Santa, the bicycle would be written off as a glitch in the system and it would be delivered after Christmas. Mrs. Santa sides with Steve and Bryony, however, and demands that every effort be made to race the dawn and make sure the girl isn’t disappointed. Three generations of Santas arrive almost simultaneously, causing a logjam of sleighs on the Trelew cul-de-sac, minutes before sunrise and the girl’s awakening. Their efforts could be thwarted, though, if Steve and Santa don’t quit bickering about the best way to get into the girl’s house at such a late hour. Aardman is known for its stop-action Claymation techniques, as popularized in “Wallace & Gromit,” but for its first collaboration with Sony Pictures Animation, the company turned to computer-graphics technology. Even if I haven’t seen the Blu-ray 3D edition, I can tell by the 2D disc that it probably looks excellent. Among the voice actors are James McAvoy, Hugh Laurie, Bill Nighy, Jim Broadbent, Joan Cusack, Imelda Staunton, Eva Longoria, Michael Palin and Laura Linney. The lively soundtrack is highlighted by Justin Bieber’s “Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town,” which channels the Jackson 5.

It took a few minutes to adjust to the sight of SpongeBob and the Bikini Bottom gang cavorting in stop-animation, but the novelty is worth the momentary visual disconnect. The Nickelodeon holiday special, “It’s a SpongeBob Christmas!,” pre-supposes that the GPS device on Santa’s sleigh also is equipped with sonar, so he can find Bikini Bottom and deliver the goods. John Goodman guest stars as the jolly fat man, who, it’s feared, will fall for a scheme arranged by Plankton to get gain possession of the Krabby Patty secret formula. To do so, he plans to dose everyone with his special jerktonium-laced fruitcake. The bonus package adds a behind-the-scenes featurette, an animatic, a SpongeBob Yule Log and two downloadable songs from the episode.

There’s always room for another mischievous dog at Christmas and the live-action anthropomorphic Bailey, from Hungry Bear Productions, will fill the bill for very audiences. “Adventures of Bailey: Christmas Hero” is the second of three films in the series (“Bailey’s Billion$,” from 2005, has different roots.) Like every other naughty kid at Christmas, Baily fears that Santa will overlook him on Christmas morning. The panic extends to his human family, as well. Taking matters into his own paws, Bailey a mysterious Native American shaman, who appears to have a direct line to Hollywood. To get Santa to reserve a tennis ball, stuffed animal and bone, Bailey enlists the help of his brother, Duke. Apparently, in doing so, Bailey discovers the “true” meaning of Christmas. – Gary Dretzka

Dinotasia: Blu-ray
There are things things about “Dinotasia” – think dinosaurs and “Fantasia” – that differentiate from most other series, mini-series, documentaries and movies about Jurassic history and paleontology. The first is the disembodied Bavarian voice of Werner Herzog, as narrator of this often interesting CG re-creation of prehistoric life. Second, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a dinosaur – or anything else, for that matter – take a dump on screen, during the course of a normal day’s events. Three, I don’t recall ever watching a dinosaur or pterosaur freezing to death in the weeks after a giant meteorite hit Earth some 65 million years ago. I doubt that Herzog’s voice would sound much different it had been created in a synthesizer, but everything else in “Dinotasia” has been created by 2D CGI animation. Originally intended by co-directors/co-writers David Krentz and Erik Nelson has a 12-part series for History Channel, “Dinosaur Revolution,” the 83-minute final product spans millions of years and three geological periods, when these wonderful, terrifying creatures roamed the planet. Their stories are told in vignette form much in the same way as Walt Disney shaped his “True-Life Adventures” series. Most are violent and unforgiving in a strictly Darwinian way. Even so, because the series originally was intended to include comedy, some of the action reportedly was inspired by specific “Looney Tune” cartoons. Critics may not have been impressed by “Dinotasia” in its brief, limited release, but I dug the visualizations of the dinosaurs, which were informed by the latest fossil discoveries and research. About halfway through the movie, the fatal meteorite begins to loom ominously in views shared from deep space, giving us a reason to empathize with these otherwise disagreeable critters. Dino-crazy kids should get a big kick out of “Dinotasia” and their parents shouldn’t mind sharing time with them, attempting to answer questions and share the delight of watching dinosaurs poop. The Blu-ray adds a deleted scene and making-of material. – Gary Dretzka

RVBX: Ten Years of Red vs. Blue Box Set: Blu-ray
Red vs. Blue: Season 10: Blu-ray
Digimon Adventure: The Official First Season, Volume 1
It’s no coincidence that two new “Red vs. Blue” compilations are being released simultaneously with the release of the “Halo 4” first-person shooter video game for the Xbox 360 console and beginning of a new trilogy of Halo series games, “The Reclaimer Trilogy.” The game begins four years after the ending of “Halo 3” and marks the return of the Master Chief as the main protagonist, and the artificially intelligent Cortana. Early reviews of “Halo 4” have been extremely positive, so there’s no reason to believe it won’t be as explosively popular as the previous iterations had been. “RvB” is to the “Halo” franchise what remora fish are to sharks. A year or so after the first trilogy was introduced, “Red vs. Blue: The Blood Gulch Chronicles” became a fixture on the Internet. The episodes would be collected on DVD and, later, Blu-ray, as well. The story centers on two opposing teams of soldiers fighting a civil war in the middle of a desolate box canyon. It was intended as a parody of FPS, military and sci-fi conventions. As “Halo” moved from one trilogy to another, so, too, did the “RvB” franchise. Full-length installments would be added, as well. All were created with a new form of animation called “machinima,” also popularized by “Halo.” Flatiron Films and Rooster Teeth have combined resources for the release of the 14-disc Blu-ray edition of “RVBX: Ten Years of Red vs. Blue Box Set,” which collects the first 10 seasons with newly re-mastered surround-sound audio. The extremely giftable set is further enhanced with eight hours’ worth of additional videos and miniseries, special features, interviews and behind-the-scenes footage.

Fans who’ve laughed their way through the series in seasonal DVD releases need not buy the entire box set to get the final season of “Project Freelancer.” “Red vs. Blue Season 10” chronicles the top-secret military operation from its inception to its conclusion, as well as the many detours along the way. Both sets include new videos based on “Halo 4,” featuring Elijah Wood, commentary and outtakes.  

Frankly, there are now so many different “Digimon” variations in the marketplace that I’ve lost track of what’s new and special and what’s a retread or spinoff. “Digimon Adventure: The Official First Season, Volume 1” is comprised of the first 21 episodes, which carry us through the first two natural story arcs of Saban Entertainment’s 1999 series. In the first arc, seven kids are transported to a strange digital world where they make friends with the digital monsters and defend the world from common enemies. In the second, the kids travel to continent Server and learn they have the ability to help their Digimon “digivolve” with the power of Crests, which are guarded by Etemon and his Dark Network. By my count, there are 33 more episodes left in the season. I seem to recall that a full first-season “Digimon Adventure” box was released last month. I’m confident that devoted fans will be able to figure out the best deal for their digi-dollar. – Gary Dretzka

Aim High: The Complete First Season
“Killing is easy … high school is hard”: this appears to be the working principle behind “Aim High,” an entertaining Internet action series in which teenagers moonlight as government assassins. Balancing the two is every bit as difficult as it sounds for the students, who also are preoccupied with sex and becoming a target for revenge killings. Unlike most webisodes, whose cheesy production values add to their charm, “Aim High” looks polished and professionally directed. This probably can be credited to executive producer McG (“Chuck,” “Nikita”) and professionals in every level of production. In addition to veteran guest stars, such as Greg Germann, Nick Swardson, Rebecca Mader and Clancy Brown, the high school students are played by actors with substantial resumes. Among them are Nick Green (“Twilight”), Aimee Teegarden (“Friday Night Lights”), Johnny Pemberton (“21 Jump Street”) and Natalie Lander (“The Middle”).  On the negative side, the DVD is comprised of a mere six bite-sized episodes, a pair of background featurettes and a music video by Teegarden. As much fun as “Aim High” is to watch, it feels more like a pilot for an MTV sitcom than an Internet series. – Gary Dretzka

The DVD Wrapup: Campaign, Americano, This Waltz, Ruby Sparks, Upstairs Downstairs … More

Tuesday, October 30th, 2012

The Campaign: Extended Cut: Blu-ray
Fans of Will Ferrell and Zach Galifianakis don’t attend their movies to savor the subtle or ironic moments that come between the broadsides hurled by and at their buffoonish characters. They want to be doubled over in laughter by material some people would consider to be inappropriate, if not downright rude, and surprised by how far they’ll be allowed to take the gags. Because upbeat endings are required of the most movies made today, the closer they inch toward their final scenes, the less anarchic they become. Such is the case with “The Campaign,” a comedy that could have left viewers in a funk about the electoral process, but, instead, is content to provide comic relief for voters already beaten down by lies, distortions and the reality that nothing is likely to change, no matter who wins. Jay Roach has delivered the laughs in the “Austin Powers” and “Meet the Parents” franchises, while also finding the hearts of gold buried inside his frequently unpleasant antagonists. In “The Campaign,” the dialogue is provided by Chris Henchy and Shawn Harwell, who previously collaborated on the nasty HBO mini-series, “Eastbound & Down.”

Here, Will Ferrell delivers a dead-on impression of good-ol’-boy congressman Cam Brady, a slick North Carolina politician who’s never met a lobbyist he hasn’t exploited or a cause he’s championed on its merits. Farrell invests in the incumbent some of the vacuous charm, at least, that made his hilarious take on George W. Bush so memorable. By comparison to Brady, however, Bush was Abraham Lincoln. For some inexplicable reason, a disreputable pair of billionaire brothers — not unlike the real-life Koch siblings, who finance right-wing PACs – has come to believe that the unopposed Brady isn’t doing enough for them in Congress and want to put up their own candidate. Incredibly, they settle on Marty Huggins (Galifianakis), an effeminate family man, whose father is a local wheeler-dealer and crypto-fascist. When it becomes obvious that Huggins is too soft to compete with Brady on his own, the brothers hire a political strategist with Dylan McDermott’s good looks and Karl Rove’s Satanic cunning. Once that happens, “The Camapaign” more closely resembles a “Road Runner” cartoon than a sendup of the American political process, which has reached a nadir where it’s beyond parody. For every dirty trick that Brady plays, Huggins is able to come up with one of his own. He even manages to lure the congressman into a situation where, by nimbly ducking a punch, he causes Brady to slug a baby. In retaliation, Brady seduces Huggins’ wife and tapes it for use in a commercial. Huh? Don’t ask. “The Campaign” is full of such illogical, if funny moments.

Despite the slapstick, it’s easy to enjoy the give-and-take between Farrell and Galifianakis as they skewer the pitiful state of politics today and the voters’ willingness to believe anything they’re told by pre-packaged candidates. When Brady senses that his campaign is losing steam, he merely picks a larger American flag from his jewelry box and pins it to his lapel. As we’ve seen, the absence of a flag trinket can spell disaster for a candidate among voters conditioned to despise liberals by talk-radio hosts. It’s only natural, then, for Brady to assume that a larger-than-average flag could tip the election in his favor. That’s about as subtle as things get in “The Campaign,” though. The lead actors get ample support from Jason Sudeikis and McDermott, as the political strategists; John Lithgow and Dan Aykroyd as the Motch brothers, whose scam is too preposterous to explain; Brian Cox, as Huggins’ loathsome father; and Katherine LaNasa and Sarah Baker, as the candidates’ wives. The Blu-ray adds several entertaining deleted scenes; a funny gag reel; an improv montage; and 11 minutes of material not included in the theatrical release. – Gary Dretzka

The Lovers’ Guide: The Essential Set
Infidelity: Sex Stories 2
Question: What’s the difference between a remote control and a woman’s clitoris? Answer: A guy will keep looking for the remote control until he finds it. If a woman repeats that joke to her partner, what she’s really doing is delivering a message that defines what it means to “kid on the square.” Even if the gag elicits laughter, there’s nothing remotely funny about a heterosexual relationship in which the man is the sole beneficiary of an orgasm. Explained in the most basic terms possible and dramatized by the participation of live actors, “The Lover’s Guide: The Essential Set” provides viewers with all the tools necessary not only to experience heightened sexuality and orgasmic bliss, but also tighter and more meaningful relationships. While explicit, “The Lover’s Guide” is neither pornographic not clinical. The couples who demonstrate the techniques were chosen because they represent a demographic cross-section of adults, not the cast of a late-night movie on Cinemax (where orgasms occur with amazing regularity and the clitoris is never seen). The producers don’t assume anything about their audience, preferring to start at the beginning, with kissing, and slowly advance to sexual positions and acrobatics, some of which aren’t even mentioned in the Kama Sutra. Couples are encouraged to watch the instructional films in bed, where they can use their remote controls for their intended purpose … skipping ahead to the good parts.

After surviving a long legal struggle with censors, the first edition of “The Lovers’ Guide” was cleared for launch in England in 1991. Presented by sexologist Dr. Andrew Stanway, it became the only non-fiction film to top the UK video charts, by selling 1.3 million copies. It would go on to be released into 13 languages and 22 countries around the world. The empire has grown to include 10 subsequent DVDs, including one in 3D; a book, an encyclopedia, two CD-ROMs; and cassettes and CDs of the soundtracks. Only the North American market has been underserved by the publishers. New York-based True Mind is betting that we are in need of help as anyone else on the planet and is introducing “The Lovers’ Guide” here in three editions, on all digital platforms: “The Original Collection,” a 306-minute, 5-disc box set; “The Essential Collection,” a 351-minute, 5-disc box, with advanced coaching; and “Sexual Positions,” a 52-minute single DVD from the “Essential Collection.” That set is also comprised of “Secrets of Sensational Sex,” “What Women Really Want,” “Sex Play” and “Satisfaction Guaranteed.” At the chapters do tend to overlap, even using identical narration, but that’s why God added fast-forward buttons to remote controls.

Graduates of “The Lovers’ Guide” lessons seeking to spice up their love-making with some pornography playing in the background would do well to check out the “Sex Stories” series by the French adult-movie star, Ovidie. Nowhere near as graphic and unrelentingly gonzo as American hard-core movies, the two “Sex Stories” volumes are targeted at couples who need something more explicit than the make-believe intercourse and oral sex on cable TV. Men who simply want to cut to the chase aren’t likely to appreciate the conversations that precede the action, but women, I think, will welcome the chatty respites from the wall-to-wall sex as much as the absence of grotesquely sculpted blond bimbos. The characters all seem to be experiencing problems that are causing them anxiety and threatening their relationships. By sharing advice and techniques with each other, the characters provide logical solutions to solvable problems. The most obvious difference between the characters in “Sex Stories” and 90 percent of all other hard-core titles – including those in the phony MILF and “mature” genres – is that the characters range in age from the mid-20s to 50-something. The men are handsome in a conventional sort of way, while the women are naturally attractive. Neither does Ovidie require her women to wear platform shoes and other stripper regalia to bed. – Gary Dretzka

Americano: Blu-ray
Although too many of the interviews included in the bonus packages of DVDs are self-congratulatory and largely irrelevant to the movies to which they’re attached, occasionally something really interesting rises to the surface. Sometimes, even, a revelation will inspire a second look. “Americano” benefits from such candid discussions. The feature debut for Mathieu Demy as actor/writer/director follows a Parisian businessman, Martin, on his trip to Los Angeles to settle the affairs of his late mother, from whom he’s been forcibly estranged since he was a little boy. Martin claims not to remember much of his childhood after his father returned with him to France and his mother stayed on in Venice Beach to paint and lead an entirely different sort of life. Almost immediately it’s made clear to us that Martin has been suppressing memories that begin to return when he’s surrounded by his mother’s things. Among them are her longtime best friend (Geraldine Chaplin), who guilt-trips Martin into acknowledging her sacrifices in her dying days, and a neighbor who’s working on the same book he was when Martin was a boy. A photograph reminds Martin of Lola (Salma Hayek), a playmate with whom his mother maintained a relationship after he was shipped back to Paris.

As the memories come flooding back, Martin becomes perplexed by his lack of knowledge about his mother’s life and dreams. Although Lola’s been deported to Tijuana, Martin is determined to find her and pick her brain. If he so choses, he’ll also inform her of his mother’s generous bequest to her. In Tijuana, Martin learns that she’s been working in a seedy strip joint and she’s not at all excited to reconnect with him. His obsession with Lola borders on the pathetic, especially after the club owner (Carlos Bardem) beats the crap out of him and she refuses to indulge his fantasies. The ending ties most of the loose ends together, but, perhaps, not in a way that will satisfy impatient viewers.

What we learn in the interview is that “Americano” is far more personal a movie than is evident on first viewing. Demy is the son of the celebrated French filmmakers Agnes Varda and the late Jacques Demy, and the footage used in the flashback scenes are borrowed from his mother’s 1981 semi-autobiographical film, “Documenteur.” It is about a French woman — separated from her lover, as was Varda from Demy — attempting to find a home in L.A. for her and her son, who’s played by the 8-year-old Mathieu Demy. The name, Lola, was appropriated from his father’s first feature film, “Lola,” which was made in 1961 and starred Anouk Aimee as a cabaret dancer. Aimee also played a Los Angeles pin-up model in Demy’s first American-made picture, “Model Shop.” Demy points out, as well, that he cast Chaplin, for her connection to L.A and Europe, and Chiara Mastroianni, in part, because she’s the daughter of Catherine Deneuve and Marcello Mastroianni, two of his father’s favorite actors. He liked Hayek for the role of Lola because she is of Mexican descent and married to a French man. (She bears a passing resemblance to Aimee, too). Bardem is Javier’s older brother. It’s easy, then, to think of Demy’s Martin in “Americano” as the grown-up reiteration of Mathieu in “Documenteur.” (He’s played four Martins in his career.) That doesn’t make his character’s flaws any more palatable, but it helps explain why he appears to be carrying the weight of someone else’s world on his shoulders through most of the movie. – Gary Dretzka

Ruby Sparks: Blu-ray
Trust me on this: Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris’ modern-day fairy tale, “Ruby Sparks,” is the best movie almost no one has bothered to see in 2012 … so far, at least. Fixing blame, however, would require too lengthy a post-mortem than there’s space for here. The characters could hardly be any more appealing and the directors were able to prove that their first feature, “Little Miss Sunshine” wasn’t a fluke. Writer-star Zoe Kazan’s screenplay is smart, funny and frequently irresistible. That’s why it’s so difficult for me to see how young-adult viewers, especially those who embraced “(500) Days of Summer” and other similarly quirky rom-coms, missed “Ruby Sparks” in its limited release. Paul Dano plays a socially inept novelist, Calvin, who’s been blocked since his late teens, when he penned a best-seller. He’s encouraged by his brother (Chris Messina) and psychiatrist (Elliot Gould) to write about something he knows, which, in his case, isn’t easy because he’s withdrawn into a world in which his only friend is his brother. When this doesn’t work, his shrink suggests he adopt a dog, take it on long walks and simply write about what happens. Unfortunately, the scruffy terrier mix, Scottie – after F. Scott Fitzgerald – is as hapless as Calvin. At about the same time as Scottie arrives on the scene, however, Calvin begins to experience dreams in which a spectral figure gradually assumes the shape of a gorgeous young woman. She appears to take an instant liking to both man and dog. The dreams inspire Calvin to invent a fictional character, Ruby Sparks (Kazan), who one day appears fully blown in his living room, acting very much like his girlfriend.

Naturally, Calvin doesn’t believe his good luck. He waits to commit until her presence is confirmed by people who couldn’t possibly be in on such an elaborate practical joke. His brother can clearly see Ruby, but it takes a bit more to convince him that she’s a flesh-and-blood manifestation of Calvin’s imagination. As proof, he changes Ruby’s nationality in his manuscript to French, a language she suddenly begins speaking as if it were her native tongue. Once Calvin realizes the power of his pen and accepts it as real, he decides not to exploit it in nefarious ways. Ruby already digs him, so why mess with a good thing? When Calvin isn’t writing, however, Ruby isn’t evolving as an adult. This causes a dilemma for the novelist, who knows full well that he holds his lover’s fate in his hands and interesting books rarely are inspired by happy relationships. Kazan’s screenplay doesn’t rely on gimmicks or illogical behavior to maintain our interest in Ruby and Calvin’s dilemma. If, at first, her self-drawn character seems altogether too perfect, we know that it can’t last forever. Dano and Kazan, who are together in real life, display a natural chemistry on screen. There are times, however, when Ruby’s bright and upbeat personality makes Zooey Deschanel look like Oscar the Grouch. Also good are Annette Bening and Antonio Banderas as Calvin’s hippy-dippy mother and step-father. The Blu-ray adds several interviews and making-of featurettes, including one on how the filmmakers were able to avoid the clichés of shooting in Los Angeles. – Gary Dretzka

Take This Waltz: Blu-ray
It’s difficult to imagine any relationship drama in which Michelle Williams, Seth Rogan and Sarah Silverman could co-exist without it seeming as if they stepped out of the wrong screenplay. Throw in the annoyingly handsome Luke Kirby and a title borrowed from an achingly romantic song that Leonard Cohen adapted from a poem by Federico Garcia Lorca, and you have a movie that’s easy to market but difficult to explain. Once primarily known for her ability to steal the spotlight from better known actors in such indie flicks as “The Sweet Hereafter,” “Last Night,” “Guinevere,” “eXistenZ” and “The Weight of Water,” Sarah Polley has since proven herself as a formidable writer/director in “Away From Her,” which was as good a movie as was released in 2006. Take This Waltz” is a story about a woman, Margot, in her 30s, who seemingly has outgrown her marriage to a genuinely nice, if single-minded cookbook author, Lou (Rogan), when fate steps in to deliver the man of her recent dreams, nearly to her Toronto doorstep. Margot had coincidentally encountered Daniel (Kirby) – personable, but almost the polar opposite of Lou — on a writing assignment in Nova Scotia and, again, on the plane ride home. It isn’t until they agree to share a cab home that they realize they live across the street from each other. If the gods aren’t in cahoots, she thinks, what else could possibly be going on here? Williams tries to make Margot as unglamorous as possible, but she can’t contain the appeal that’s buried just below the surface of her makeup.

Despite the fact that Lou and Margot seem perfectly suited to each other – borderline nerds, but happy – he can’t match Daniel in the wish-fulfillment category. That Lou’s become obsessed with chicken dinners reflects how boring he must seem in Margot’s eyes. For his part, Daniel could hardly care less if Lou’s heart is broken. Ostensibly an artist, he makes a modest living steering a rickshaw, of all things, through the streets of Toronto and this allows him opportunities to interrupt Lou and Margot on their dates. Lou digs the rickshaw and is blissfully unaware of his wife’s discomfort when the three of them are in such close proximity. Margot may be embarrassed by her feelings for Daniel, but she clearly doesn’t want to share him with Lou. Playing in heavy rotation somewhere in the back of Margot’s head is the song, “Take This Waltz,” which demands that listeners throw caution to the wind and accept love for the miracle it is. Polley stages a pair of steamy pas de deux – one in an empty ballroom and the other as an underwater ballet – to convince us of Daniel’s magnetism and her need to once again be overwhelmed by love. Rubbing spices onto the skin of a broiler is no match for Daniel’s ability to waltz. Lou discovers her affair at approximately the same time as his cookbook becomes a best-seller. Still, Margot wants it all.

Her sister-in-law and confidante, Geraldine (Silverman), is a recovering alcoholic who can recognize an addict when she sees one and Margot has willing succumbed to the intoxicating fragrance of romance. If viewers maintain a slim hope that things will work out without anyone getting hurt, Geraldine knows that de-toxing from love is as difficult as kicking heroin or whiskey. It’s nice to see Silverman play a serious character in a drama for once, instead of being assigned the role of the snarky friend. As with Rogan, though, it takes a while to separate the actor from the role. Despite the incongruities, Polley walks the tightrope with ease, following a recipe of her own making that provides for a nourishing blend of drama and comedy, heartbreak and arousal. We care about all of the characters and what will happen to them by the end of the movie and beyond. If “Take This Waltz” isn’t nearly as accomplished as “Away From Her,” it’s still easy to recommend in DVD. Sadly, the movie’s release pattern bordered on incomprehensible. A shower scene, in which Williams and Silverman’s bodies are on full display, was leaked to adult sites within days of the movie’s debut at last year’s Toronto Film Festival.  By the time it resurfaced at the Tribeca and Seattle events, and soon thereafter on VOD platforms, it had already played in festivals around the globe. It would have been easy for American audiences to assume that “Take This Waltz” had already come and gone, with its DVD run imminent. Instead, at the end of June, it aired on another premium-cable channel, before a limited run in New York. The most screens “Take This Waltz” has played on simultaneously since then were 69, in mid-July. I get the whole multi-platform strategy, but there has to be a more logical way to promote indie movies than this. The Blu-ray arrives with a pair of making-of featurettes. – Gary Dretzka

Stealing Summers
If there is one great fantasy that has survived the passage of time, it’s the one in which American students believe it’s still possible to live like Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald on foreign soil  for more than a summer after graduation and partake in the movable feast spread before their eyes. If it’s always been more of a pipedream than a realistic alternative to the sameness of American life, well, even in the 1920s, home has never been more than a phone call away. In “Stealing Summers,” the feature debut of director David Martin Porras and writer Matt Lester, three American ex-patriots living in Buenos Aires plot a no-brainer heist that, of course, proves disastrous in execution. They do this is instead of writing novels, painting, hosting literary salons or exploring the provinces. Trevor and Sam roomed together at Duke, where they probably majored in attending basketball games in silly costumes and wearing war paint. The beautiful Alexandra attended Brown, alongside the spoiled children of rock stars and other celebrities. She has an Argentine boyfriend, who keeps hundreds of thousands of dollars in an unlocked drawer of his home office – cash is king in South America, we’re told — and guns to protect it. For recreation, Alexandra toots lines of her boyfriend’s cocaine off coffeetables and dances her way around town in the company of friends spending their junior years abroad. Trevor and Sam drink … a lot. We aren’t made privy to how these three co-conspirators fell into each other’s arms, but it’s enough to know that they did and that she’s managed to seduce both of them. Not particularly beholding to her boyfriend for anything besides drugs and a place to hang her Victoria’s Secret lingerie, Alexandra matter-of-factly alerts her new friends to the hidden treasure.

And, yes, the heist should have gone off without a hitch, but nothing like this ever does in Buenos Aires. This is especially true on the weekend of the “Superclasico” soccer match between the city’s greatest rivals, when the air is filled with unharnessed team spirit and the possibility of sectarian violence. If “Stealing Summers” feels more like a short story or character study, I’m not sure it would have gained anything by being made longer and more complex. Clocking in at a brisk 75 minutes, it’s as complete as it ought to be. For my money, the best thing about “Stealing Summers” is its depiction of streets teeming with sports fanatics, political opportunists, tourists and restaurant barkers. Even at night, the city looks beautiful. Alexandra and her boyfriend live in a high-rise apartment that provides a view of Buenos Aires money actually can buy. Despite their Duke education, the young men share a crummy apartment whose only view is provided by the mirror in the bathroom, and it isn’t pretty. All four of the primary characters seem credible as types you might encounter in a bistro or café in one foreign destination or another. They are played by smoking-hot Sophie Auster, Wilson Bethel (son of writer Joyce Maynard and artist Steve Bethel), James Jagger (son of Mick Jagger and Jerry Hall) and telenovela star Mariano Martinez. I can think of a lot worse ways to kill 75 minutes. – Gary Dretzka

Elvis & Madonna
After making the circuit of several dozen gay-and-lesbian film festivals – and a few mainstream events, as well – Breaking Glass Pictures has given this kooky 2010 Brazilian export an opportunity to find an audience of its own on DVD. “Elvis & Madonna” shares certain things with “La Cage Aux Folles” and “The Adventures of Priscilla: Queen of the Desert,” but is a far more modest enterprise. Set in Rio’s Copacabana district, Marcello Laffitte and Jose Carvalho’s rom-com describes a love affair between a transvestite hairdresser, Madonna, who moonlights as a showgirl, and a lesbian photographer, Elvis, who delivers pizzas on her motorbike, but aspires to being recognized as a photojournalist. They meet after Madonna’s brutish boyfriend – a Brazilian cross between Wes Studi, Oddjob and Danny Trejo – steals the money she’s been saving to open a nightclub and bounces her head off a table for good measure. Madonna had already ordered a pizza and, after Elvis arrives, she comforts the well-known and well-liked starlet-to-be. She also volunteers to take better photographs of her new friend than the ones she sees hanging on her walls. It takes almost no time for this unlikely pair to fall in love and consummate their relationship. In the course of photographing Madonna, Elvis takes a picture of her former boyfriend, Tripod Joe, selling drugs from his car. When it ends up on the front page of a local newspaper, Joe is arrested and temporarily rinsed from Madonna’s hair. Elvis’ subsequent pregnancy only complicates things a little more than they already are. Laffitte treats his many diverse characters and E&M’s romance with the same respect others reserve for straight characters in a more mainstream movie. While he leaves plenty of room for humor, the only person who could complain about getting a bum rap is Tripod Joe. – Gary Dretzka

Love & Valor: The Intimate Civil War Letters
One of the ways Ken Burns draws us into his documentaries is by humanizing the stories with photographs and letters found in family albums and boxes of memorabilia. There’s nothing more hauntingly personal than hearing the words of a husband and wife, separated by war, read by from a distance of 150 years. The release into DVD of “Love & Valor: The Intimate Civil War Letters” follows the publication of Charles F. Larimer’s book of the same title, in 2000, by specialty label Sigourney Press. Through the letters exchanged by his great-great-grandparents, Jacob and Emeline Ritner, Larimer has fashioned a chapter in the history of the Civil War that had eluded most researchers. Although it took a great deal of patience and not a small amount of luck, Larimer was able to collect the letters of Jacob and Emeline from separate sources, find some of the descendants and graves of people mentioned in them and add context to what we’ve already learned about various Civil War battles and campaigns. Before enlisting in 1st Iowa Infantry and re-enlisting in the 25th Iowa Infantry, which saw heavy action from Vicksburg to Charleston, Jacob was a teacher, farmer and father of four children in Mount Pleasant. From abolitionist stock, Jacob and Emeline believed strongly in the Union cause, freedom for slaves and President Lincoln. From what we learn in his letters, he had little patience with officers who, themselves, were racist and smoked, drank heavily, cussed and played cards around the campfires. (Out of religious principles, I believe.) From Emeline’s writings, we are able to understand how it felt to be left behind to fend for herself and their family, and how people in the community coped with their own struggles and tragedies.

“Love & Valor” appears to have been a labor of love and something of a one-man show. Although it isn’t likely that Larimer made much money off of the book, he staged re-enactments, traveled to locations mentioned in the letters and even was able to convince Brian Dennehy to share narration duties. In addition to the soldiers with whom Jacob served, we’re introduced to a young runaway slave who led Union soldiers two miles into a swamp, where a plantation owner had chained his slaves to trees in anticipation of the departure of the soldiers from his land after the siege of Vicksburg, and a Savannah merchant known as the Ice Merchant of Savannah, who hosted Jacob and other enemy troops for Christmas dinner in 1864. (During his research, Larimer would meet the great-great-grandson of the same man mentioned in the letters.) In the bonus features, he also describes things he’s learned about his ancestors – including Jacob’s aunt, who provided shelter to John Brown in her rooming house – in the years since the publication of the book and completion of the documentary. – Gary Dretzka

Steve Jobs: The Lost Interview
In the rush to beatify Steve Jobs, the media focused on the empire he helped build and products introduced in the last 10 years. His hyper-aggressive management style was duly noted, but, generally speaking, the term most frequently attributed to him was “visionary.” Obituary writers were too polite to dwell on the many despotic decisions he made after he corrected the course of Apple in his second tenure at the company. They included restricting how consumers used the popular mini-computers and hand-held entertainment devices they bought and arbitrarily censoring some of the content that they could download or stream. Neither was the extent of Apple’s reliance on poorly paid and virtually captive laborers at Chinese sub-contractors. Hey, no one wants to speak ill of the dead, but the deference shown Jobs bordered on the shameful. A more human, if geeky side of Jobs is revealed in the lengthy 1995 interview recently discovered gathering dust on a shelf in a Silicon Valley cupboard. The interview was conducted by Robert Cringely for his 1996 documentary, “Triumph of the Nerds: The Rise of Accidental Empires,” which chronicled the creation and evolution of personal computers. Jobs had been fired from Apple 10 years earlier, but would be re-hired a year later. In the meantime, he was focusing on his NeXT Computer startup and Pixar, which, in 1995, was putting the finishing touches on “Toy Story.”

The entrepreneur we meet in “Steve Jobs: The Lost Interview” is friendly, relaxed, talkative, generous with his praise of former “teammates” and dismissive of the suits who ousted him and nearly ran Apple into the ground. It helped, of course, that Cringely was a techie with a working knowledge of the development of the company and Jobs’ role in it. If anything, Jobs seems humbled by the experience of being fired and working hard to re-gain the respect of movers and shakers in the computing community. Upon his return to Apple, one of Jobs’ greatest tasks would be to relieve the stranglehold Microsoft was able to impose on the industry through its association with IBM-based PCs. While acknowledging Windows’ commercial and technological success, he dissed the company and Bill Gates, personally, for lacking any sense of “taste.” There’s no hint of such innovative products as iPhone, iPad, iTunes and the iTunes Store, all of which would be introduced much later. The DVD also includes commentary and an interview with the filmmaker and an enlightening extended interview with Andy Hertzfeld, the original Macintosh programmer at Apple. I don’t know when it was conducted but it seems to pre-date the widespread acceptance of handheld computers and hand-held devices, as well. – Gary Dretzka

BBCA: Copper: Season One
PBS: Upstairs Downstairs: Season Two
A&E: Coma
Adult Swim: Metalocalypse: Season 4
PBS: Gourmet’s Diary of a Foodies: Season 2
Apparently, the programming executives at BBC America aren’t content with providing Yank audiences with top-notch series from England – maybe because that once-fertile stream has been polluted with too many cooking shows and retread movies – because the network has begun creating original programming of its own and setting it in the U.S. Not surprisingly, perhaps, the first mini-series arrives in the form of a period drama involving immigrants from the British Isles. Exec-produced by Tom Fontana and Barry Levinson (“Oz,” “Borgia,” “Life on the Street”), among several other producers, “Copper” is a 10-part dramatic mini-series, which centers on Kevin Corcoran, an Irish-American cop whose beat includes New York’s Five Points neighborhood. It is the same god-forsaken place and time surveyed by Martin Scorsese in his hyper-violent “Gangs of New York,” which ended with the fierce Draft Riots 1863. In Tom Weston-Jones (“MI-5”), the hard-boiled cop has more on his mind than keeping the melting pot of malignant malcontents from self-destructing. He also is obsessed with the disappearance of his wife and the death of their daughter. To both ends, Corcoran welcomes the assistance of wartime compatriots, the son of a wealthy Fifth Avenue industrialist and an African-American physician from the emerging community of former slaves in rural northern Manhattan. The Blu-ray adds a making-of documentary, character profiles, deleted scenes and commentary.

Compared to what happened in Season One of the second edition of the posh British soap opera, “Upstairs Downstairs,” Season Two might as well be set in Peyton Place, U.S.A., instead of 165 Eaton Place, London, England. Indeed, it seems as if most of the first season was prelude to the steamy and hot-button material introduced almost immediately in the opening episode. Lady Agnes and Sir Hallam Holland (Keeley Hawes, Ed Stoppard) no longer can claim newlywed status and Hallam’s nosy mum, Maud, is history, as will be her pet monkey in due time. In her chair sits Aunt Blanche (Alex Kingston), whose secrets will soon be revealed, as well. Among the staff’s new duties are tending to a new baby Holland and trying to make sense of Agnes’ increasingly strange whims, which include forcing her charges to join her health and beauty regimen, adopting fashion trends and flirting with guests. Meanwhile, essential housekeeper Mrs. Rose Buck (Jean Marsh) is killing time in a rest home in the country and the Nazis have pulled the wool over Lord Chamberlain’s eyes. (Sir Hallam is far more skeptical of Hitler’s intentions and orders the staff to prepare for war.) Re-enter fascist groupie Lady Persphone (Claire Foy) and “Upstairs Downstairs” becomes a real hum-dinger of a domestic drama. The DVD set is comprised of six hourlong episodes and interviews with cast and crew.

When it comes to ideas for new mini-series to be shown on lower tier cable channels than HBO and Showtime, there are a few different ways to go: pay the freight necessary to purchase such quality entertainment as “Rescue Me,” “Mad Men” and “The Walking Dead”; tap into the Roger Corman horror pipeline for such hybrid creatures as “Dinoshark,” “Piranhaconda” and “Sharktopus”; or re-adapting movies produced, written or directed by such brand-name talents as Michael Crichton, Robin Cook, Robert Wise or Stephen King. Before retrofitting “Coma” for A&E, brothers Ridley and the late Tony Scott did the same for Crichton’s “The Andromeda Strain,” which was turned into a 175-minute mini-series with a more ethnically diverse cast and familiar, if not A-list actors. In the case of “Coma,” Crichton adapted the screenplay from Cook’s best-seller and directed it. Although it wasn’t a blockbuster, the 1978 medical thriller is remembered best for being Michael Douglas’ first major credit after leaving “The Streets of San Francisco.”  Once again, a young doctor becomes suspicious of the large number of healthy patients who fall into a coma after routine procedures. Lauren Ambrose replaces Genevieve Bujold as Susan Wheeler, the medical student who discovers that the patients are being warehoused in a facility away from the hospital and are hanging suspended in anticipation of some kind scientific breakthrough. Meanwhile, people in Wheeler’s orbit are being murdered or set up for crimes. How she manages to survive into Episode Two, during which the contents of the warehouse are revealed, remains a greater mystery than who’s behind the conspiracy. “Coma” picks up steam from there. In addition to Ambrose, the cast includes Richard Dreyfuss, Geena Davis, Ellen Burstyn, James Woods, Joe Morton and Steven Pasquale (“Rescue Me”).

One of the things that make heavy-metal musicians different than all others is that it’s almost impossible to discern when they’re playing a trick on their audiences and when they’re being deadly series. The same can be said of the animated Adult Swim series, “Metalocalypse.” It follows the exploits of Dethklok, which is said to be so commercially successful that it represents the seventh largest economy in the world. The band members are none too bright, even by rock-music standards, but they wreak havoc wherever they go and some detractors believe they could be harbingers of the Apocalypse. Among the guest stars in Season Four are Amber Tamblyn, Werner Herzog, Dweezil Zappa, John Hamm, Chris Elliot, Patton Oswalt and members of Corpsegrinder, 3 Inches Of Blood, Soundgarden and ZZ Top. The Blu-ray includes a Facebones DethGame, FanArt tribute, BlackKlok montage sequence, Nathan reads “A Comedy of Errors, band member stare-downs, “MurderThoughts,” a “Pickles Flyby” and featurette on the Tribunal.

Having been shoved out of the print marketplace by the Internet and dozens of niche dining and cooking shows, Gourmet magazine’s brand was used by Conde Nast to spearhead its efforts to exploit the Internet, books and television. Although it lasted only three seasons, “Gourmet’s Diary of a Foodie” was a classy addition to the genre. It benefitted both from the Gourmet braintrust and distribution through the PBS network of stations. Typically, the episodes were divided among regional cuisines, the insight of celebrity chefs, specific tastes and ingredients, various foodie crusades and trends. Watching a recipe being tested in Gourmet’s test kitchen also was a popular segment. Among the places visited in Season Two were New Zealand, Southern India, North Carolina, Baja and Vietnam. Other topics included bread, aromas, drinks, the art of culinary deception, blogs and sweets. – Gary Dretzka

Hallmark: Love’s Christmas Journey
The latest in a series of made-for-Hallmark movies based on the books of Janette Oke, “Love’s Christmas Journey” opens with recently widowed Ellie King (Natalie Hall) visiting her brother, Aaron (Greg Vaughan), and his children for Christmas. Even with the loss of her husband and daughter in a tornado, she tries her best to enjoy the holidays in a western town anticipating the possible arrival of the railroad. Even without a formal announcement, the town’s residents, greedy business interests and con artists are positioning themselves to profit from it. Bad luck appears to have followed Ellie when Aaron, the town’s sheriff, goes missing on a trip to check out some contested land. The Dove-approved “Love” series carries a family-friendly Christian message and has been compared to “Little House on the Prairie.” Among the guest stars are JoBeth Williams, Sean Astin and Ernest Borgnine. The DVD includes a souvenir greeting card. – Gary Dretzka

The DVD Wrapup: Magic Mike, Blade Runner, Invisible War, Abraham Lincoln, Sunday, Kovacs, Tinker Bell, Peter Gunn … More

Wednesday, October 24th, 2012

Magic Mike: Blu-ray
With the exception of the “Ocean’s” trilogy, Steven Soderbergh doesn’t seem to have made the same movie twice. He refuses to be confined by genre boundaries and never tires of surprising anyone who tries to pigeonhole his work. Neither does he limit his output to potential commercial successes. Box office returns for the entire theatrical runs of “Bubble,” “Che” and “The Girlfriend Experience,” together, didn’t come close to matching the opening weekend total of “Magic Mike,” which reportedly cost $7 million to make and returned nearly $114 million in North America, alone. Throw “Solaris” and “The Good German” into the mix and the numbers would still come up short. This isn’t to imply that the underperforming movies haven’t made back some of the money in ancillary markets or that the good will he’s earned as a producer doesn’t count for something in Hollywood, because it does. Moreover, the three “Ocean’s” romps have grossed nearly a billion dollars worldwide. In addition to making plenty of money for its investors – always a good thing – “Magic Mike” received excellent reviews in the mainstream media. I wasn’t all that impressed with the story, which reminded me of a more circumspect “Coyote Ugly” and a less daring “Dancing at the Blue Iguana” than something fresh and original, but Soderbergh’s contributions as editor and cinematographer are enchanting. The Blu-ray images are nothing short of spectacular, while his choice of camera angles and locations is inspired. Clearly, the actors were having the time of their lives, as well.

As you probably already know, “Magic Mike” is set in and around the world of male strip clubs that cater to straight women, many of whom are celebrating a birthday or participating in a bachelorette party. Unlike some of the party footage you can find on the Internet, nothing remotely hard core goes on at the Tampa nightclub owned by Matthew McConaughey’s Dallas. The elaborately choreographed dances and expensively costumed hunks are naughty, at worst, and the women in the crowds seem relatively composed … by Las Vegas standards, anyway. Reid Carolin’s script is informed by Channing Tatum’s own experiences as a 19-year-old dancer. He plays the title character, Mike, who, of course, has higher ambitions than stripping, but needs the bread to pursue them. Until that happens, he’s enjoying the fast life that comes with being a freakishly handsome man in a sea of horny women. Mike befriends a guy, Adam (Alex Pettyfer), he meets at one of his other odd jobs and convinces Dallas to give him a shot on the Club Xquisite stage. Although Adam lacks most of the usual social graces, he, too, is abnormally handsome, exceedingly fit and a natural dancer. Adam has a rather stern, if pretty sister, Brooke (Cody Horn), who completely disapproves of her brother’s career track, but gradually comes around to seeing something worthwhile in Mike. The screenplay borrows a subplot from “Boogie Nights,” by having Adam succumb to the temptation of selling drugs and taking advantage of some of the young women he entertains outside the club. Although Mike is arrow-straight, Brooke and Dallas both blame him for not keeping Adam from nearly self-destructing. If the ending ties everything up in too neat a bow, anything more realistic would have spoiled the movie’s natural trajectory.

I found it interesting that the only character who exposes anything more than butt cheeks in “Magic Mike” is his occasional girlfriend, Joanna. She’s played by Olivia Munn, who seems to have a bit of a kinky streak running through her, but more closely resembles the Sweetheart of Sigma Chi than a super-freak. There’s no questioning her physical bona fides, though. Straight guys required to watch “Magic Mike” with their significant others will definitely appreciate her sacrifice. Aspiring filmmakers, too, will find much to enjoy in the movie. Soderbergh is nothing if not inventive and, strictly as eye and ear candy, “Magic Mike” rivals the movie adaptations of “Chicago” and “Chorus Line.” The Blu-ray extras include a sizzle reel of dance scenes, extended routines and an undernorished making-of featurette. – Gary Dretzka

Blade Runner: 30th Anniversary Collector’s Edition: Blu-ray
At some point, Ridley Scott is going to have to stop monkeying with “Blade Runner” and let it rest on its already impressive laurels. We’ll give a pass to the “30th Anniversary Collector’s Edition,” if for no other reason than it looks and sounds so fantastic. It’s as if Scott made “Blade Runner” in anticipation of every not-yet-practical technological advance from Laserdisc to Blu-ray and was confident that he’d eventually be able to get it right … in his mind, anyway. Despite a shabby reception by audiences upon its release in 1982, “Blade Runner” has since been recognized – thanks in large part to home-video enthusiasts – for what it’s been all along: a masterpiece. If nothing else, it added the word “dystopian” to the vernacular and a portrait of a dying metropolis (Los Angeles, but it could have been Tokyo, Manhattan or Peking just as easily), circa 2019, that with a bit more acid rain could end up being spot-on. The fact is, there was so much bad mojo associated with the project from Day One that it’s nearly a miracle Scott didn’t give up in the development stage. He reportedly told author Philip K. Dick that he wasn’t interested in making an “esoteric” movie, but it boggled minds from the opening credits. Even before shooting was completed, grousing could be heard from participants, ranging from cast and crew to producers and studio heads, if for altogether different reasons. Because test audiences didn’t dig the movie’s deliberate pacing, imprecisely defined characters and non-traditional ending, a voice-over track was added in post-production, along with a happier ending that satisfied no one. Neither did it impress at the box office.

Sci-fi buffs would find it in video, but that spark wouldn’t ignite a flame until seven years later when a 70mm print of Scott’s original cut was discovered and shown at a film festival in Hollywood. In 1992, Warner Bros. sent this version out in what was purported to be the “director’s cut” edition, one of the first titles to make such a distinction. In 2001, Scott and producer Charles de Lauzinka committed themselves to an actual director’s-cut version, employing state-of-the-art technology and adding various re-conceptualizations. For legal reasons, the planned 2002 DVD release wasn’t cleared for a theatrical run until 2007, as “Blade Runner: The Final Cut.” Anyone who already owns the “Ultimate Collector’s Edition” gift set should know that the equivalent “30th Anniversary Collector’s Edition” adds an all-new concept Spinner Car; action Lenticular; a 72-page art-production book with Scott’s sketches, poster art and photos from the set; and an UltraViolet copy. The “Final Cut” Blu-ray remains the same version that was restored and re-mastered from original elements and scanned at 4K resolution, with a the 5.1 Dolby Digital audio track. In addition to the “Final Cut,” with three separate commentary tracks, the sets contain the original 1982 theatrical and slightly more violent International versions; the 1992 “Director’s Cut”; and a “Workprint” version, with commentary and a making-of featurette. Anyone with the time and inclination will find something worthwhile in all of the versions. – Gary Dretzka

Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter
If advocates of the Birther movement have been allowed to spread their insane message by exploiting the willingness of the media to repeat partisan nonsense, even if they eventually knock it back down, I reserve the right to believe Abraham Lincoln could have been President by day and a slayer of undead Confederate plotters by night. Both theories are equally stupid, but only one qualifies as entertainment. In addition to Seth Grahame-Smith and Timur Bekmambetov’s highly entertaining “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter,” we recently saw the release into DVD of the Asylum “mockbuster” “Abraham Lincoln vs. Zombies.” I’ve yet to see the latter, but assume that its basic premise is the same as the movie it mocks: armies of vampires and zombies used the Civil War as an opportunity to take control of the split republic, first by lending their support to rebel forces and, then, invading Washington, D.C. In Birther mythology, of course, if President Obama were to win a second term, hordes of Kenyans of the Muslim persuasion would descend on the capital on Inauguration Day, after which their leaders would be appointed to leadership positions in his Cabinet. I’m guessing that Obama’s detractors would prefer vampires and zombies to more liberals and illegal aliens.

Bekmambetov’s period thriller benefits mightily from his decision to refrain from snarky asides and wink-wink humor and play the material straight down the middle. By assuming that grown-up audiences would be willing to suspend their disbelief long enough to be entertained, he was allowed the luxury of not having to make his protagonist a caricature of his historic image. After a young Abe Lincoln (Benjamin Walker) witnesses the death of his mother to a vampire, he vows to exact justice on the fiends. A few years later, he encounters a mysterious young man, Henry Sturgess (Dominic Cooper), willing to teach him the ins and outs of vampire hunting. Because of his rail-splitting expertise, it’s only natural for Lincoln to choose a silver-bladed ax as his weapon of choice. Rufus Sewell and Erin Wasson play Lincoln’s most aggressive foes, going so far as to sneaking into the White House and attacking one of their sons. It wouldn’t be fair to reveal the killer app that turns the tables at Gettysburg, except to say that it’s a logical alternative to crosses, garlic and wooden stakes. There’s also a terrific scene aboard a moving train, during which Lincoln and Sturgess battle vampires who are intent on capturing the secret weapon. Who knew Abe could move like that?

Bekmambetov’s team was able to take advantage of the period authenticity still provided by New Orleans’ French Quarter, the Oak Alley Plantation in Vacherie, Louisiana, and outlying areas used to stage combat scenes. The look is further enhanced by the cinematography of Caleb Deschanel and the attention to detail paid by set and costume designers. It’s probably also worth mentioning that Tim Burton is listed among the producers and, as the First Lady, Mary Elizabeth Winstead couldn’t look less like the unflattering photographs we’ve seen of Mary Todd Lincoln. A 3D version of “Vampire Hunter” also was released and is available on Blu-ray. Among the supplementary features are commentary by the author; a graphic novel, “The Great Calamity”; an extensive making-of piece; and music video by Linkin Park. – Gary Dretzka

Sunday Bloody Sunday: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
It would be difficult to exaggerate the controversy associated with the release of John Schlesinger’s brilliant 1971 relationship drama, “Sunday Bloody Sunday,” both here and the director’s native England. The buzz leading up to its debut was generated by a single scene, early in the story, in which a gay doctor, Daniel (Peter Finch), and his much younger lover, Bob (Murray Head), exchange a brief kiss. In context, it was a perfectly natural and spontaneous gesture. Both men are clothed, vertical and not at all ashamed by the private display of affection. Contrary to the gossip generated in the media, the kiss was significant to the story only as a way to demonstrate the men’s fondness for each other and it wasn’t intended to deliver a message, one way or another. (In the days of the Production Code, one or both of the men would have been required to commit suicide, go insane or marry the girl next-door.) While critics embraced the movie for all the right reasons, reporters from other newspaper departments were assigned to survey audience members to get the impressions, not about the movie in its entirety, but the then-scandalous embrace. Almost all of them came back with a quote to the effect, “It almost made me vomit,” which, of course, was the response their editors desired. Even though “Sunday Bloody Sunday” wasn’t a box-office hit, it was nominated for an Academy Award in the top four categories. Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Director and Best Writing. It’s certainly possible that some fans of Schlesinger’s previous triumph, “Midnight Cowboy,” had somehow missed that film’s homosexual subtext and were expecting something completely different from “Sunday.” Or, perhaps, lovers of “Far From the Madding Crowd,” “Darling” and “Billy Liar” anticipated a lecture on gay rights and took a pass on it. The Stonewall riots were fresh in the minds of most arthouse habitués, after all, and the movement was gathering steam. The upshot was that its box-office failure freed Hollywood from treating homosexuality or gay characters with any degree of honesty for years thereafter.

The kiss notwithstanding, Bob is every bit as romantically involved with a thirty-something woman — employment counselor, Alex, played by Glenda Jackson – who knows the physician and is aware of their relationship. She also knows that there isn’t anything – short of murder, and “Sunday Bloody Sunday” isn’t that kind of movie – that would keep Bob from Daniel. In fact, it’s difficult to gauge Bob’s appeal to either of his lovers, except to note that he’s an artist and remarkably handsome. Otherwise, he’s kind of a drip. The central issue here is how Alex and Daniel react to the news that Bob is about to travel to America, where he hopes to sell his kinetic sculptures, and probably stay there for a while, effectively breaking up with both of them. That neither of them freaks out, commits suicide or asks the other to get married is what differentiated “Sunday Bloody Sunday” from the usual portrayal of scorned lovers. Forty years later, it’s difficult to believe any controversy was attached to “Sunday Bloody Sunday,” especially considering its intended audience of sophisticated adults. Far more fascinating is the continuing debate, as described in the Blu-ray featurettes, over who’s more responsible for the screenplay, Schlesinger or the Oscar-nominated Penelope Gilliatt. The novelist and critic died in 1993, so no longer is around to defend herself against his assertions that he was more responsible for the screenplay, as shot, than she was. He sounds extremely bitter over the inability of critics to have intuited how his changes made “Sunday Bloody Sunday” a better picture than it would have been. He cites the fact that he experienced just such a relationship and it informed his interpretation of the story, even if she received single credit. Criterion Collection has added new interviews with biographer William J. Mann; photographer Michael Childers, the director’s longtime partner; actor Murray Head, cinematographer Billy William and set designer Luciana Arrighi; illustrated audio excerpts from a seminar given by Schlesinger at the American Film Institute in 1975; and a booklet with essays by critic Terrence Rafferty and cultural historian Ian Buruma, as well as Gilliatt’s 1971 introduction to the film’s screenplay. – Gary Dretzka

The Invisible War
Kirby Dick is a documentarian of uncommon perseverance and an uncanny ability to ferret his way through barriers put up by hypocritical organizations that most Americans trust implicitly and defend against perceived slander. These have included the Roman Catholic Church (“Twist of Faith”), U.S. Congress (“Outrage”) and the Motion Picture Association of America (“This Film Is Not Yet Rated”). Already making headlines and raising eyebrows is “The Invisible War,” which in its documentation of widespread rape, discrimination, bullying and cover-ups makes the U.S. military look like a barbarian horde. It is as shocking as any of the documentaries about sexual misconduct among priests and many viewers will take the accusations as personally as coverage of the My Lai massacre, which also was perpetrated by average soldiers and career officers. The Pentagon and politicians traditionally have been given a pass, as well, in cases of rape committed in combat zones and outside our bases around the world. Boys will boys, after all, and drunken rampages are as much a part of the military experience as the deprivations imposed during boot camp. This attitude prevailed as women began playing important roles in the armed services. It wasn’t until the revelation of sexual assaults on 83 women and 7 men, committed by more than 100 Navy and Marine Corps aviators at the 1991 Tailhook Association convention, however, that media coverage forced the Pentagon and Congress to act. Even though several officers were disciplined or lost their jobs, we’re told, the good ol’ boys and girls in command continue not only to overlook rape, but they also punish the victims by denying them benefits and prosecuting them for breaking ranks. The vast majority of American military personnel is innocent of any wrongdoing and, themselves, would be shocked by the information forwarded in this film. The “wall of silence,” however, remains a very real problem, just as it does among cops, crooks, corporate executives and honor-code-bound students caught in cheating scandals.

In “The Invisible War,” possibly for the first time, dozens of victims of sexual assaults come forward to describe their experiences. This includes both women and men, whose attackers likely would be insulted if they were referred to as gay. Indeed, they’re no more homosexual than the imprisoned sexual sadists who prey on weaker convicts. The statistics are horrifying: a female soldier in a combat zone is more likely to be raped by a fellow soldier than killed by enemy fire; 20 percent of all active-duty servicewomen have been sexually assaulted; in 2010, alone, the Department of Defense processed reports of 3,198 new assaults, but estimated the actual number of assaults to be closer to 19,000; and these reports resulted in convictions against only 244 perpetrators. The charges in many cases were reduced to facilitate judgments that prevented the guilty servicemen from being included on the national sexual-offenders list, where at least some of them belonged. After the Sundance debut of the film and a private screening, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta ended the practice of commanders prosecuting sexual assault cases from within their own units. As is pointed out in the movie, working through the chain of command often meant that officers would refuse to punish buddies or, in some cases, reveal their own complicity. If the war in Afghanistan ever ends, perhaps, the military can take a year off from killing and fix itself. The special features include extended interviews, deleted scenes, a post-screening speak-out session and introductions to VetWOW and National Veterans Wellness & Healing Center, organizations and retreats for veterans of both genders experiencing PTSD. – Gary Dretzka

The Ambassador: Blu-ray
At first glance, you’d think that making a film documenting crime and corruption in central Africa, and exposing the underground trade in passports and other official documents, would be as difficult as fishing with hand grenades. It pretty much is, but no one told Mads Brügger that the hard part would be staying alive long enough to see it finished. In “The Ambassador,” Brugger tells one of those stranger-than-fiction stories that are alternately frightening and hilarious. A journalist, TV host and amateur comedian, Brugger’s original target was the easy availability of fraudulent diplomatic credentials, if one knows where to look and can afford them. Once obtained, the documents open the door to powerful and influential people willing to trade their nation’s most valuable commodities for foreign currency and sometimes allow for diplomatic immunity. The Dane’s last “ironic” documentary, “The Red Chapel,” took him to North Korea, so, by comparison, how much worse could things be in the Central Africa Republic? Pretty bad, it turns out.

Looking like a cross between Hunter S. Thompson, Sascha Baron Cohen and the late comedian, Michael O’Donoghue, Brugger often affected the look of a mid-20th Century “colonial dandy.” Brugger’s triumph in “The Ambassador” is to show, using tiny surveillance cameras, what transpires in the inner chambers of corrupt states and recording the musings of fellow diplomats, local wiseguys and swindlers. To put it mildly, it’s appalling. When one confidante suggests that the diamonds can be smuggled out of the country by secreting them in various orifices of the body, it pushes Brugger’s co-conspirator – production manager Eva Jakobsen – almost over the brink of sanity. The commentary track allows him the opportunity to expand on his experiences in ways that wouldn’t have fit the context of the theatrical version. A booklet with photos and credits also is included. – Gary Dretzka

Secret of the Wings: Blu-ray 3D/2D
DreamWorks Spooky Stories: Blu-ray

If one were ignorant of the importance of Mickey Mouse to the birth and development of the Walt Disney Company and its global empire, it would be easy to mistake Jenny-come-lately Tinker Bell for the corporation’s flag bearer. Tink’s been around for as long as Peter Pan and Wendy, although in a subordinate role for most of those 108 years. Even in Disney’s 1953 animated feature, the pixie was rendered without a voice or wand. Those would come much later. In 1954, when Disney expanded its reach into television and other electronic media, Tinker Bell became the company’s unofficial hostess and a cross-platform star in her own right. Although the character has since been played by such actors as Julia Roberts, Jane Horrocks and Ludivine Sagnier, it wasn’t until Disney’s straight-to-DVD “Tinker Bell” was released in 2008 that the animated Tink was allowed a voice. It belonged to Mae Whitman (“Parenthood”) and has been heard on “Tinker Bell and the Lost Treasure,” “Tinker Belle and the Great Fairy Rescue,” “Pixie Hollow Games” and, now, “Secret of the Wings,” all of which are set not in Neverland, but Pixie Hollow. She has a teeny-tiny waxwork sculpture in Madam Tussauds, a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and her own Disney franchise, “Disney Fairies.” For all the money Tinker Bell’s earned for Disney, she might as well be Oprah Winfrey.

In “Secret of the Wings,” Tinker Bell can’t understand why summer fairies are prohibited from visiting the Winter Woods or why messages from the winter fairies must be delivered by magnificent snowy owls. Although she isn’t dressed for cold-weather conditions Tink decides to hitch a ride to the forbidden land. Once there, she meets her long-lost sister, Periwinkel (Lucy Hale), who introduces her to the joys of ice skating, tobogganing and throwing snowballs. Lord Milori of the Winter Woods (Timothy Dalton) and Queen Clarion of the Summer Woods (Anjelica Huston) have their reasons for maintaining a distance between their kingdoms, some of which involve topical environmental issues, but Tinker Bell’s a formidable opponent. Anyway, the computer-generated animation is wonderful – it also is available in Blu-ray 3D – and the story should be of interest to boy kiddies as well as girl kiddies. The supplementary material includes music videos by the McClain Sisters and Zendaya; a preview of “Fright Light”; and “Pixie Hollow Games,” an animated short in which the fairies stage their own Olympics-style competition.

If, however, your boy kiddies balk at feigning interest in fairies and pixies – however foxy – I’m certain they’ll find something in “Shrek’s Spooky Stories” to enjoy, especially in the lead-up to Halloween. Very little has been lost in the transition between the big and small screens. The characters retain their individual personalities and characteristics, while the animation is typically first-rate. Much of the humor derives from the homages paid to classic Hollywood horror movies, with familiar DreamWorks characters standing in the immortal monsters. (A reformed ogre playing a monster, indeed!) The titles include “Thriller,” “The Ghost of Lord Farquaad,” “Scarred Shrekless,” “The Pig Who Cried Werewolf,” “Monsters vs. Aliens: Mutant Pumpkins From Outer Space” and “Night of the Living Carrots.” Besides Shrek and his family, the characters have been enlisted from “Monsters vs. Aliens,” “Puss in Boots” and various fairytales represented in the kingdom. The extras include a pop-up trivia track for “Night of the Living Carrots,” music videos and previews. – Gary Dretzka

The Ernie Kovacs Collection, Volume 2
Ernie Kovacs Presents Percy Dovetonsils … Thpeaks

One of the most highly anticipated and glowingly reviewed DVD sets of 2011 was Shout!Factory’s “The Ernie Kovacs Collection.” The 6-disc, 780-minute package introduced countless viewers to the genius who pioneered the talk- and variety-show genre, while also creating illusions and special effects still copied by hosts of late-night chat shows and comedians. For those old enough to remember watching Kovacs live or via kinescope, the collections brought back indelible images of a medium in its infancy. Kovacs often worked without a net, testing limits and borders that had yet to be established. “The Ernie Kovacs Collection, Volume 2” extends the legacy of an entertainer who died too young, but left the bar set at an extremely high level. It weighs in at a slightly more compact 3 discs, 540 minutes, if only because it literally takes us to the point of his fatal car crash in January, 1962. The material here benefits from being less primitively recorded and surprisingly diverse. The compilation includes 8 more episodes From Kovacs’ national morning show; 18 bonus sketches, featuring many of his beloved characters; 3 complete episodes of “Take a Good Look,” his anarchic answer to “What’s My Line?”; the pilot for the sitcom, “A Pony for Chris,” co-starring Buster Keaton; the only existing filmed solo interview; and a 2011 post-screening panel at the American Cinematheque, with entertainers who worked alongside Kovacs or were heavily influenced by him. There would been plenty more material available if it weren’t for the fact that short-sighted executives at ABC and Dumont hadn’t taped over the stored shows or dumped them in the ocean. A similarly fate awaited kinescopes of Johnny Carson’s “Tonight Show” while it was still shot in New York.

In June, Omnivore Recordings did all fans of Kovacs a great favor by releasing – for the first time – the album upon which the comedian was working at the time of his death, “Ernie Kovacs Presents Percy Dovetonsils … Thpeaks.” His shows’ outrageous “poet laureate” would register very low on the Meter of Political Correctness today, I’m afraid. He was to poetry what Liberace was to the piano, an unabashed and unapologetic caricature of his own outrageous persona. Sadly, Percy possessed none of Liberace’s estimable talent. Routinely introduced with a flourish of harp music, Dovetonsils was distinguished by heavily slicked hair, with two spit-curls plastered to his forehead; extraordinarily thick glasses, whose lenses are dominated by large eyeballs; a zebra-patterned smoking jacket; an ever-present martini glass and cigarette holder; and a decided lisp. He delivered his poems in a self-satisfied style that emphasized how goofy they were. Among the titles are “Thoughts While Falling Off the Empire State Building,” “Ode to a Housefly (Philosophical Ruminations on a Beastie in the Booze),” “Ode to Sam, the Taller of the Two Monkeys” and “The Night Before Christmas on New York’s Fashionable East Side.” You might want to hit pause on the DVD, so you can see Percy while listening to him read. It’s easily half the fun. – Gary Dretzka

Wrong Turn 5: Bloodlines: Blu-ray
Dropping Evil
Bloody Christmas

Like most every other states in the union, West Virginia has a state motto, slogan, color, bird, animal, fish, flower, tree and song. For some reason, legislators also saw fit to choose an official state insect, reptile, rock, butterfly, fossil, gemstone, soil, fruit and tartan. What it doesn’t have is an official state movie franchise. May I suggest the five installments of the “Wrong Turn” series? What, besides a John Denver song, says West Virginia quite as well as mountains, forests, rivers, automatic weapons in the hands of crazed mass murderers and in-bred cannibal hillbillies, all of which figure prominently in all five episodes? “Wrong Turn 5: Bloodlines” differs from the other four episodes very little. Once again, a group of clueless tourists (this time, college kids) encounters a family of grotesquely disfigured hillbillies while on their way to the annual Halloween Mountain Man Festival. The town is so small it has one only cellphone tower and no replacement generators, both of which are put out of commission by the killers. The twist here is that the hillbillies’ self-proclaimed father – a relatively normal looking fugitive serial killer – has been arrested and he’s thrown in the hoosegow with one of the students. His “sons” will do anything in their considerable powers to spring the old man from jail. In fact, it’s only matter of time. Before that can happen, though, the pinheads find it necessary to slaughter more than a dozen people who get in their way. The result is a bloodbath that, while gory, isn’t at all frightening. What’s scary are threats hurled at the town’s only surviving sheriff, a woman, by the “father,” who’s played with great menace by Doug Bradley, a.k.a., Pinhead in the “Hellraiser” series. The Blu-ray comes with the behind-the-scenes pieces, “A Day in the Death,” “Hillbilly Kills” and “Director’s Die-aries”; and commentary by director Declan O’Brien

By all appearances, the micro-budget “Dropping Evil” was intended as a franchise product. Three years and very little demand later, director Adam Protexter and writer Louis Doerge are fortunate to see “Dropping Evil” being released on video, with three mini-sequels included in the bonus package, along with deleted scenes and other material. This is one very strange movie, by anyone’s standards. It begins with an aborted camping trip, during which a religious fanatic is slipped a dose of LSD by his three companions, if only to shut him up. Instead, he demands to be let out of the moving vehicle, so that he can pick up a stick and beat the crap out of his “friends.” Meanwhile, somehow, the evil ValYouCorp is monitoring the incident via a camera embedded in one of the young people’s eye. The company believes that God’s “disappearance” can be solved by teenagers, but only if they’re involved in the procedure. It’s goofy, if not to the point where it could reach cult status. Any movie in which Tiffany Shepis is the brightest star and best actor – no offence, intended — is one with which no one needs to reckon.

Sometimes, it’s easy to give micro-budget indies of the DIY persuasion the benefit of a doubt. There’s usually a grain of something interesting lurking therein or worth staying awake for 90 minutes to find. Unless an aspiring filmmaker has robbed a convenience store to get the money to pay the actors, it’s better to encourage talent than condemn ineptitude. Michael Shershenovich’s “Bloody Christmas” uses horror to deliver a message about rampant consumerism and the people who have “taken Christ out of Christmas.” His avengers include a sad-sack Santa and killer priest, while the victims come in various shapes, sizes and colors. Unlike Chanukah, Kwanza and Ramadan, Christmas has provided a solid launching pad for slasher specialists ever since the 1974 release of “Silent Night, Evil Night” and “Black Christmas.” Shershenovich’s only previous experience in feature films was as production coordinator and set designer on “Bad Biology.” Here, he’s cited as director, writer, cinematographer, producer, editor and actor. That’s five too many responsibilities for any first-time filmmaker to take on and it shows. – Gary Dretzka

The Slut
Tokyo Playboy Club
Climb It, Tarzan!
Cherry.

Of all the loaded words in the English language, “slut” carries one of the most explosive charges. Sexual semantics allow for as many different interpretations as there are people who use such four-letter words – longer ones, too – as nouns, verbs, adverbs, adjectives, expletives, slurs and terms of endearment. The elasticity of the English language can be a wonderful thing. In a review I read of the recent Israeli export, “The Slut,” the author argues that the title has been mistranslated or purposefully changed to something more provocative than “The Giver.” Not being adept at the Google translator app, I’ll take his word for it. Having watched “The Slut,” I would suggest that the latter title is the more accurate one. Freshman writer/director/star Hagar Ben-Asher plays the single mother of two young daughters, living in a cooperative agricultural settlement that seemingly is bereft of any women, let alone attractive ones in their mid-thirties. Some people might consider Tamar to be a woman who defines the term, slut, because she willingly has four men on her sexual string and demands nothing from them in turn. I think that Tamara more closely resembles a “giver,” for the simple reason that she doesn’t appear to derive any sensual pleasure from her encounters and appears merely to be servicing several of the men in the settlement. They come to her when they need to get off and she willingly complies. If anything, it’s charity. The movie’s drama, such as it is, derives from the position in which she finds herself when an old acquaintance returns to the area and they enter into a romantic relationship. This would be swell, except for the fact that Tamar eventually comes to the conclusion that she’s more interested in personal freedom than monogamy and she truly does enjoy making men happy. I wish I could report there was something more to “The Slut” than that, but I couldn’t find it. The only truly disturbing thing about it is watching her pre-teen daughters watching mom in flagrante delicto and aping some of her gestures. The rural setting was interesting, at least, if only because it’s so different from the usual views we get of Israel.

Anyone looking for Bunnies at the Tokyo Playboy Club will be sorely disappointed. The closest this movie comes to Playmate of the Year material are three giggly hookers who dress up in costumes and don’t seem to have many customers. Anyone looking for a terrific yakuza flick from out of left field, though, will find one in writer/director Yosuke Okuda’s “Tokyo Playboy Club.” Any resemblance between the cheesy brothel of the title and the nightclub atop the Palms resort in Las Vegas wouldn’t merely be coincidental, it would be impossible. Action star Nao Omori (“Ichi the Killer,” “The Vulture”) plays an out-of-work businessman, Katsutoshi, who kills a wiseass student with a monkey wrench, because he was making too much noise and the tool was handy. The assailant decides to make a quick trip to Tokyo, where his cousin, Sekichi (Ken Mitsuishi), runs the aforementioned nightclub for the yakuza. It doesn’t take long for Katsutoshi to take advantage of his cousin’s generosity by beating a mob associate to a pulp in the men’s room of a restaurant. The ante is raised when the two men find themselves in possession of the body of a yakuza boss who died of electro-shock while attempting to rape a young woman whose boyfriend betrayed him. When the boss’ evil brother comes around demanding answers, Katsutoshi freely admits his role in making the body disappear and he doesn’t care who knows it. With its extreme displays of violence and twisted sense of humor, “Tokyo Playboy Club” should remind genre buffs of the early work of Takashi Miike. That’s high praise for the newcomer, Okuda.

And, speaking of titles, it would be difficult to beat the one writer/director Jared Masters gave his most recent sleaze epic, “8 Reels of Sewage.” Talk about tempting fate, this one takes the cake. New to DVD is Masters’ 2011 homage to the pre-“Deep Throat” sexploitation era, “Climb It, Tarzan!,” and, even after watching it, no, I can’t recall seeing anyone who looks even remotely like the King of the Apes. Fact is, there aren’t any men in the cast of several dozen largely unknown actors. Neither is there a semblance of a plot. There is, however, a lesbian pinup photographer who holds one of the many aspiring actresses who come to her for work hostage and uses her as a sexual plaything. Otherwise, the women spend an inordinate amount of time gabbing on vintage dial telephones and walking around half-dressed. This one’s strictly for fanciers of do-it-yourself cinema and other oddities.

I don’t know why “Cherry.” has a period tacked to the end of it, except to distinguish it from the many other unpunctuated movies titled, in part or whole, “Cherry.” It refers specifically to Brian Cherry, an overly sensitive young man whose discomfort around women is palpable. Naturally, his best guy pal, Sam (Rey Valentin), is the complete opposite of Brian (co-writer David Crane). One night, at a Los Angeles tavern, Sam spots a brunette, Jules (Lili Bordan) who looks as if she had been hired by Satan to tempt men into selling their souls for a hand job. Sam talks Brian into buying a drink for Jules and following it up with a bit of conversation. He even goes so far as to approach Jules and offering her cash merely to be nice to his timid friend. Even though she pretends to be offended by the offer, Jules surprises everyone – viewers included – by entering into a relationship with Brian. Sam senses trouble in the offing and warns Brian about what happens when opposites stop attracting. As much as Sam tries to keep his prophecy from coming true, by resisting Jules’ unexpected advance, he succumbs to her wiles. It leads to a broken heart for Brian, but not because he knows what happened that night. She merely decides that the affair has run out of gas and splits. What doesn’t make any sense at all is Jules’ insistence on revealing the truth about his best friend’s betrayal when they run into each other six months later and she and Sam have entered into a relationship of their own. What happens next is so clumsily handled by director Quinn Saunders that it makes everything that happened earlier in the movie suspect. The only thing I retained from “Cherry.” is a lingering image of Bordan, who’s real deal, in a Linda Fiorentino sort of way. – Gary Dretzka

Circle Jerks: My Career as a Jerk
The production of films documenting the rise and fall of rock bands has grown into something of a cottage industry. It doesn’t matter if the subject is a group with the impact of the Rolling Stones and Beatles or, in the case of “SpokAnarchy,” a nearly forgotten punk scene in an isolated corner of the American Northwest. The value of each of these rock-docs is determined largely by the passion of the groups’ fans. “Circle Jerks: My Career as a Jerk” is interesting because it not only describes what made a popular band important, but also how it fit into musical milieu. Here, it’s the SoCal hard rock and punk scene, which, in the late-1970s, had blossomed into a viable force everywhere except mainstream radio. Formed in late 1979, the Circle Jerks was comprised of former members of Black Flag and Redd Kross, but would see a revolving door of personnel representing several other Los Angeles bands. It was a hyper-dynamic unit then and has continued that way through its many incarnations and reunions. Filmmaker David Markey (“1991: The Year Punk Broke”) has created a blend of in-depth interviews, live footage and historical perspective to illustrate the band’s story. It isn’t radically different from dozens of other rock-docs, but fans of hardcore punk should enjoy it. – Gary Dretzka

Peter Gunn: The Complete Series
Wallander3
Fantasy Island: The Complete Third Season
Ghost Hunters: Season 7: Part 2

The release on DVD of all 114 episodes of the classic TV series, “Peter Gunn,” is good news for all sorts of reasons, the least of which may be the shows themselves. From 1958-61, Craig Stevens played the hipster private detective, who dug cool jazz, “dated” a sultry cabaret singer (Lola Albright), got referrals from a friendly police detective (Herschel Bernardi) and used a wharf-side gin mill for his office. The show was created, written and occasionally directed by Blake Edwards, who had previously written for “Richard Diamond, Private Detective” and would go on to make such movies as “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” “Days of Wine and Roses,” the “Pink Panthers” series and “10,” among other comedies. Even more memorable is the show’s theme song and background music contributed by Henry Mancini. The “Peter Gunn Theme” and two soundtrack albums became huge hits and guitar wizards, ranging from Duane Eddy to Jeff Beck, have covered the trademark song. From a distance of 50 years, the crime-detecting aspect of the show’s borders on the ridiculous. Packaged to fit 30 minutes of interrupted air time, the teleplays gave Gunn just enough time to solve complex crimes, hang out with his girlfriend and share wisecracks over corpses with Lieutenant Jacoby. Edwards seems to have enjoyed taking Gunn out of his natural habitat – an unnamed coastal city – and sticking him into situations where he might be required to wear a Howdy Doody cowboy outfit and traipse around in fins and scuba gear. If it lacked all credibility, “Peter Gunn” succeeded at being undeniably entertaining. The Timeless Media Group set also includes a disc of Mancini’s soundtrack music.

By now, no introduction should be needed to Henning Mankell’s brooding Swedish police detective, Kurt Wallander, whether he’s being played by Krister Henriksson or, in the English-language “Wallander3,” by Kenneth Branagh. Both editions of the series are readily available on DVD, if not all PBS outlets, and both qualify as a must-see television. It does, however, still feel a bit odd to listen to Branagh’s unaccented English coming out of the mouth of the same crime-obsessed Swedish cop in the same location, Ystad, where the novels and series are set. Frankly, though, after a half-hour it barely matters and subtitle-phobic Americans can rest assured their brains won’t be overly taxed by the experience. The three 90-minute episodes included in this boxed set are “An Event in Autumn,” based on “The Grave,” a short story published only in the Netherlands; “The Dogs of Riga,” which takes Our Hero to the capital of Latvia to assist in a drug case; and “Before the Frost,” in which Wallander’s semi-estranged daughter plays a key role. Most mystery buffs already appreciate the quality of the works from which these stories have been adapted. These mini-series are just as compelling.

Not much has changed on “Fantasy Island” in Season Three. Mr. Roarke (Ricardo Montalban) and Tatoo (Herve Villechaize), are still greeting the planes and resolving problems – romantic and otherwise — that can’t be fixed anywhere else in the world. Among the guest stars this time around are Peter Graves, Abe Vigoda, Doris Roberts, Roddy McDowall, Don Adams, Sonny Bono, Dick Sargent, Fred Williamson, John Larroquette, David Cassidy, Leslie Nielsen, Bob Denver, Annette Funicello and Robert Goulet. I wonder what “Fantasy Island” would look like with an A-list cast.

You’d think all of the ghosts worth finding have already been cornered by the TAPS team, by now. Apparently, there are still a few of the boogers left. Hauntings are getting a bit harder to detect, though. The second half of Season Seven found “Ghost Hunters” in such places as the Carnegie Library, in Homestead, Pa.; Hawaii’s Plantation Village; the Friars’ Club, in New York; Missouri State Penitentiary; Buffalo Trace Distillery, in Frankfort, Kentucky; and Hartford’s Elk Lodge No. 19. Wouldn’t you love to see TAPS take on the ghosts of the White House and Disneyland? – Gary Dretzka

Kartemquin: The Last Pullman Car
History: Disasters Deconstructed: A History of Architectural Disasters
Nova: Secrets of the Viking Sword

Long before anyone had heard of Bain Capital, outsourcing, NAFTA and the auto-industry bailout, the closing of a century-old interest in Chicago and Indiana presaged the collapse of America’s Rust Belt economy. Kartemquin Films (“Hoop Dreams”), which then focused almost exclusively on labor and other progressive causes, committed its cameras to documenting the impending closure of the plants where Pullman Company’s railroad sleeping cars were built. In 1981, Pullman workers dedicated themselves to the effort to convince state and national legislators to stall the closure and/or enact laws protecting the 8,000 Pullman workers from the immediate loss of their jobs and benefits. As is demonstrated in “The Last Pullman Car,” the unions were greeted with false promises, outright disdain and legislative inaction. Today, such treatment is commonplace. That their union was duped by the company, as well, added insult to injury. The documentary also chronicles the history of labor unrest and occasional progress at Pullman and the boom-bust cycle of American industry. One of the things in “Last Pullman Car” that struck me was the solidarity of the union members and their awareness of the issues directly impacting their future. Everything foretold in the film, including the fate of Pullman Company, now is history. Sadly, blue-collar workers now are more likely to accept the lies told them on talk radio than entrust their futures to progressive political candidates. The new Facets release adds an update on the people we met in the film, a look at protests against anti-labor laws in Wisconsin, filmmaker interviews, archival Pullman photos and a study guide.

American’s falling apart. That’s part of the message delivered loudly and clearly in History’s “Disasters Deconstructed: A History of Architectural Disasters.” The other thing the producers want us to know is that the next great manmade disaster likely will be deemed preventable, but only if politicians and taxpayers agree to pay the freight it will take to repair this country’s aging infrastructure. In hindsight, too, it’s possible to see how the Titanic and Hindenburg disasters might have been averted. The multidisc package is broken into three sections: “Inspector America,” in which a structural engineer visits several cities to demonstrate how the infrastructure is being ravaged and what’s being done about it; “Modern Marvels: Engineering Disasters,” which uses on-the-scene footage, re-enactments, re-constructions and detailed analysis to examine some of the greatest disasters of the past 40 years; and in-depth post-mortems on the Titanic and Hindenburg.

In the “Nova” presentation, “Secrets of the Viking Sword,” one of the most intriguing mysteries in the evolution of combat armaments is investigated and partially solved. The Vikings, of course, have gone down in history as one of the most potent fighting forces in history. What, however, gave them an edge over the warriors of the tribes they confronted on their home turf? It’s argued here that some of Vikings, at least, carried swords that were comparatively light, razor sharp and virtually indestructible. A few of these weapons, recovered hundreds of years later in archeological digs and from river beds, carried the maker’s name, ULFBERHT, inlaid along the blade. Otherwise, there remains no trace of who or what Ulfberht was, where the sword was made and what made the steel so strong. While attempting to answer those basic questions, the producers asked a metallurgist and a master blacksmith to attempt to “reverse engineer” an exact replica. This footnote in history makes for a fascinating hour-long documentary. – Gary Dretzka

Hopper’s Silence
PBS: Great Museums
PBS: The Art:21 Collection: Art in the Twenty-First Century: Seasons 1-6

Edward Hopper is one of the most referenced artists in the world of cinema, as well as one of the most popular among museum browsers. “Nighthawks,” alone, has influenced countless cinematographers and directors seeking just the right combination of shadows and light to represent a big-city diner and the people who inhabit them in the wee hours. Their faces and decors give almost nothing away, but the loneliness of the subjects and impersonal nature of urban life is palpable. The noir shadings of his many urban canvases hide mysteries, yet suggest countless possibilities. As much as Hopper has influenced several generations of filmmakers, he, too, was inspired by the German Expressionists and creators of pulpy crime dramas in the 1930s and ’40s. His voyeuristic eye captured, as well, the lonely and, perhaps, troubled souls who smoked their cigarettes while gazing out the windows at everything and nothing. Hopper’s vision and influence wasn’t limited to cityscapes, however. Any filmmaker attempting to re-create life away from the urban centers would necessarily have borrowed – and, in some cases, reverently copy – from such paintings as “Gas,” “Road in Maine” and “The Lighthouse at Two Lights.” His houses could seem as isolated as the people in his city paintings. “Mansard Roof” and “House by the Railside,” for example, directly inspired Alfred Hitchcock (“Psycho”), George Stevens (“Giant”) and Terence Malick (“Days of Heaven”). Brian O’Doherty’s 1981 documentary, “Hopper’s Silence,” which was funded by the National Foundation for the Arts, may be on the short side, but it allows us to sense the austerity and integrity Hopper invested in his work. The film includes previously recorded interviews with Edward and Jo Hopper, curators of a major exhibit at the Whitney Museum, friends and other acquaintances.

PBS’ “Great Museums” is a documentary series celebrating the myriad world of museums, off and on the beaten path. In addition to the great institutions in major cities, there are another 15,000 museums in the United States serving general, corporate and niche interests. Many of them provide hands-on experiences, while others showcase the benefits of cutting-edge digital technology. Among the museums visited are the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, National D-Day Museum, George Eastman House, Institute of Texan Cultures, Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum, Ellis Island Immigration Museum, DuSable Museum, California Surf Museum, Hollywood Entertainment Museum, Autry Museum of Western Heritage, Delta Blues Museum, Morris Museum of Art and Molly Brown House Museum. Each is worth a visit, if only vicariously.

Art museums tend not to make news unless they’re about to open a blockbuster exhibit of Impressionist art or showcase anything by Pablo Picasso (signed napkins, anyone?). The Los Angeles County Museum of Art received more media coverage by importing a giant rock from a San Bernardino quarry than for any exhibit since the last King Tut show, if then. The gallery scene outside of a handful of cities has been impacted negatively as much as any small business in the U.S. And, yet, art continues to be made and art schools continue to flourish. The producers of the essential PBS series “Art:21” seemingly haven’t had much trouble finding visual artists to profile, as the new six-season compilation, “Art:21 Collection: Art in the Twenty-First Century,” so richly demonstrates. They were accorded unparalleled access to today’s most important artists, as well as their studios, homes and communities. In doing so, viewers can get a better understanding of how their lives outside the studio impact creative processes and serve as sources of inspiration. The 24 hour-long episodes reveal the art world beyond the walls of museums and galleries, where only the end products are revealed. – Gary Dretzka

Rogue Saints
I’ve attended comedy shows in which the performers intentionally limited their humor to jokes that wouldn’t make anyone older than a freshman at a Christian college blush. Afterward, one of the performers told me that the hardest part of his gig is convincing hardcore born-again types it’s OK to laugh about the same things that make people in the secular world chuckle and that Jesus probably enjoyed a good knock-knock joke when he heard one. Before George Carlin opened the floodgates on words you can’t say on the radio, the vast majority of all comedians worked “clean” and, if they’d didn’t, they knew that material that killed ’em in Vegas might not be appropriate at Grossinger’s or the Sullivan show. When comedy clubs began to blossom in the 1980s, though, too many standups substituted profanity for gags, knowing it would get an immediate reaction. Not all comedians are able to spin obscenity-laden material as if it were wool from a blue-ribbon sheep. Generally speaking, though, trying to find a genuinely funny DVD on the shelves reserved for family-friendly Christian movies is a fool’s errant.

I give “Rogue Saints” credit for attempting something different. In addition to pushing the usual touchy-feely, Jesus-is-awesome shtick, Adam Lubanski and David C. Brunk have made a credible hybrid of the buddy and heist subgenre. Neither do they seem reluctant to poke a little fun at overly pious proselytizers; people who praise God before doing anything, including working on a car engine; shiny-happy blond bliss missiles who wear their virginity like a target; and other hug-it-out archetypes of the New Age Evangelical movement. (Blessedly absent are old-school, fire-and-brimstone bible bangers.) Here, two old friends re-connect via the Internet after a long separation. They agree to join forces on a mission to solve a mystery that’s intrigued them since childhood. It involves the location of a possibly mythical mega-diamond that once belonged to a prosperous businesswoman and has been missing for decades. Their theory is that it’s buried somewhere in the crawlspace beneath the altar of a church, but most likely underneath the immersion tank used for baptisms. Their plan calls for them pretend to be nighttime janitors, so they can dig without being noticed and snatch the gem before the font is filled for the annual baptismal ritual. Well, as they say in church, “poop happens,” and it takes a miracle to get things back on the right track after things go sideways and the church members who have embraced them are hurt. “Rogue Saints” lays it on pretty thick as things get hairy and the baptismal orgy that follows the inevitable, if tricky recovery is way over the top. For the first half of the movie, at least, it was going in an interesting new direction.

I wonder if somewhere among the new breed of Evangelical filmmakers there might be someone who wants to advance the genre to the point where it’s OK to make the occasional movie that doesn’t restrict itself to family-friendly norms and flirts with issues common to adults of all faiths and outright comedies. These don’t have to include anything of an overtly sexual nature or require coarse language and displays of skin. As it is, too many of the films I’ve watched seek the broadest common denominator and pander to the Stepford Christian crowd. Indeed, if you watch the deleted scenes, you can find a more representative movie. – Gary Dretzka

The DVD Wrapup: Forgiveness of Blood, Neil Young, Legendary Amazons, Excision, Last Ride, Broadway, Check It Out! … More

Wednesday, October 17th, 2012

The Forgiveness of Blood: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
Say what you will about Enver Hoxha, the Communist dictator of Albania who died in 1985, but he was able to do something about the country’s tradition of blood feuds that previous leaders hadn’t been able to accomplish in many centuries. After taking control of the country after its liberation from Germany in 1944, Hoxha declared an end to quasi-legal vendettas, especially in rural areas. Although widely accepted as a way to maintain order in lawless regions, Kanun had always been something of an inexact science when it comes to adjudicating everything from trespassing to murder. Basically, though, Kanun law can be boiled down to, “Whoever kills will be killed. Blood is avenged with blood.” Since Hoxha’s death and the installation of parliamentary democracy, six years later, at least 10,000 Albanians have been killed due to blood feuds. It’s also estimated that more than 5,500 families are currently engaged in blood feuds, with some 20,000 men and boys living under a de facto death sentence. The only alternatives for persons deemed responsible for a blood crime are permanent house arrest, the sacrifice of another male family member or the announcement of an agreement among the men in both families.

In “The Forgiveness of Blood,” American director Joshua Marston (“Maria Full of Grace”) introduces us to two Albanian families engaged in just such a feud. He steers our sympathy to a popular teenager and promising student, Nik, who’s kept under house arrest until his father is either arrested or killed for murdering a neighbor. That man had denied him access to a road he’s used for business ever since his grandfather opened it to all residents of the village. If Nik is seen outside the house and killed by a member of the grieving family, his death would satisfy the debt. Where’s Judge Judy when you need her? By casting mostly inexperienced actors from the specific area in northern Albanian where vendettas are most commonplace, Marston has informed “Forgiveness” with the truth that comes when actors know precisely what’s going on in the minds of their characters. In a group interview conducted by Marston for the bonus package in Criterion Collection’s Blu-ray edition, all of the key actors said they knew or were aware of people stuck in the same situation as Nik.

Watching the feature, I was struck immediately by the similarity between the two families engaged in the fictional feud and two actual Albanian families featured in Jennifer Baichwal’s documentary “Payback.” That film is based on Canadian novelist Margaret Atwood’s thoughts on the concept of paying back debts for all manner of transgressions, financial and otherwise. Baichwal interviewed a man who’s been placed under house arrest with his family after a disagreement over a moved fence led to murder. He, too, could lawfully be killed if he leaves his property. The similarities between the situations and people in the two films are uncanny. If Nik is the most empathetic character in “Forgiveness,” we also care about his doting teenage sister and selfless mother; homebound younger brother, who bridles at the likelihood of his never being able to go to school again; and the father, who allowed a cousin to talk him into confronting the neighbor. There’s no reason, though, to reserve any pity for the adult male relatives of the families who insist on honoring the antiquated practice. They’re so hidebound that they refuse to listen to Nik’s thoughts and ideas on the subject, based solely on his age. Underlying everything that’s happening on the surface of “Forgiveness” is the reality that the outside world – with its Internet networks, cellphones and paved highways – is quickly encroaching on the village and its sordid tradition. The Blu-ray also contains commentary by Marston and co-writer Andamion Murataj; audition and rehearsal footage; making-of material; and an essay by Oscar Moralde. – Gary Dretzka

Neil Young’s Journeys: Blu-ray
Leonard Cohen: The Complete Review
Yardbirds: 1966-1968: The Lost Tapes

I can’t think of another musician who’s revealed so much of his talent and humanity on film as Neil Young. In addition to his own quirky ode to small-town life, “Greendale,” Young has collaborated with Jonathan Demme on three films, once with Jim Jarmusch and was the subject of an “American Masters” episode, “Neil Young: Don’t Be Denied.” There are many others, including performance films that demonstrate his devotion to charitable organizations and disaster relief. Young is revered for performing whatever kind of music he wants to on any given day; dressing for comfort, instead of stage presence; saying what’s on his mind, even if the record labels don’t approve of his views and some of it comes out backwards. “Neil Young’s Journeys” is Demme’s hybrid follow-up to “Neil Young Trunk Show” and “Neil Young: Heart of Gold.” In “Journeys,” Young and Demme spend time in his hometown of Omemee, Ontario, before heading for Toronto’s Massey Hall, in his 1956 Crown Victoria. His memories of growing up in a small town on the Trans-Canada Highway could hardly be called remarkable, but they are fun to hear. Several of the songs performed in concert are from the 2010 album “Le Noise,” along with such classics as “Ohio,” “Hey Hey, My My,” “I Believe in You,” “Helpless” and “Hitchhiker.” The most remarkable thing about “Journeys” to me is the brightness and clarity of the Blu-ray audio/video presentation. It literally shines.

Leonard Cohen is another Canadian singer-songwriter of mythic proportions. For the most part, the Montreal native has avoided the glare of the media spotlight, letting his music and poetry speak for him. This hasn’t prevented his admirers from writing endless odes to his art and prodding him to contribute to bio-docs and concert films. The latest is MVD Visuals’ “Leonard Cohen: The Complete Review,” which appears to be a merger of two previous “Under Review” discs, which divide his career roughly in half. Now 78, Cohen’s journey began well before he was recognized for his musical talent in 1967, with “Songs of Leonard Cohen.” By then, he had already been recognized as a significant poet in Canada, written two novels, been the subject of a documentary, purchased a home on Hydra and was a fringe player in Andy Warhol’s Factory scene. Far from being a hippie or Dylan acolyte, his achingly romantic music was embraced by post-folkies, college students and such emerging hit-makers as Judy Collins. “Leonard Cohen: The Complete Review” is broken roughly in half, at the point of his ill-fated collaboration with Phil Spector, “Death of a Lady’s Man.” His phoenix-like resurgence in the 1980s is fully covered on the second disc. The set is informed by the opinions of learned critics and producers and includes snippets of performance clips and other archival material. If you’ve dug Cohen from the get-go or discovered him yesterday, this is a DVD to savor.

Yardbirds: Paris 1966-1968: The Lost Tapes” finds one of the most influential rock groups of all time on the eve of its dissolution. Eric Clapton had left the group in 1965, leaving rave-up duties to Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page, then only Page. The future Led Zep is pretty much the star of this collection, although Beck can be seen on a few tracks, as well. The music clips appear to have been found deep in the archives of a French television network, as if someone were embarrassed by the shoddy production values on display. The music sounds OK, though. This collection includes several of the Yardbirds’ biggest hits, as well a couple of unexpected treats. Here’s the play list: “Train Kept a Rollin’,” “Shapes of Things,” “Dazed and Confused,” “For Your Love,” “Goodnight Sweet Josephine,” “Over Under Sideways Down,” “Louise,” “I’m a Man,” “Hang on Sloopy,” “I Wish You Would,” “Heart Full of Soul,” and “Happenings Ten Years Time Ago.” – Gary Dretzka

Legendary Amazons: Blu-ray
When I think of Amazons, legendary or otherwise, my mind drifts toward Lucy Lawless, Anita Ekberg, Lynda Carter, Sandahl Bergman, Brigitte Nielsen … heck, even 5-foot-1 Maria Ouspenskaya, who played a tribal queen in “Tarzan and the Amazons.” None of the women warriors to whom we’re introduced in Frankie Chan’s “Legendary Amazons” – or, for that matter, its 1972 precursor “The 14 Amazons” – are related to the women who fought at Troy or took on Hercules. Ferocious fighters all, the Chinese Amazons are closer in stature to Ouspenskaya than Xena. Still, in the world of Hong Kong cinema, a little poetic license goes a long way. “Legendary Amazons” is the latest in a series of folk tales, books, movies, plays, operas, TV shows and musicals extolling the virtues of the Yang Clan, who, for several generations, defended the borders of the Song Dynasty against invaders. “Legendary Amazons” describes how the widows, sisters and daughters of several slain Yangs rose up to repel the attackers and exact vengeance on those who betrayed the family and killed all but one young general. Not only are the women courageous, but they’re also well versed in the martial arts.

Chan’s first film in a decade resembles other historical epics in its scale, action sequences and wonderfully crafted design elements. Once the women get going, there are few moments when something wild isn’t happening on screen. If anything, “Legendary Amazons” is a bit more ragged around the edges than other recent imports from China and Hong Kong. The fighting scenes are terrific, of course, but they carry little historical weight. They’re fun to watch and that’s reason enough to watch the movie, which reminded me of the Saturday matinees of my youth. The Blu-ray arrives with a rambling making-of featurette, which offers some informative material on the creation of the fighting scenes, along with some typically vacuous interviews. The set also adds a dubbed track in English. – Gary Dretzka

Excision: Blu-ray
Chernobyl Diaries: Blu-ray

Richard Bart Jr.’s profoundly unnerving debut as a writer/director drags viewers to places they probably never thought they’d see in a movie starring such interesting actors as AnnaLynne McCord, Traci Lords, John Waters, Malcolm McDowell, Ray Wise and Marlee Matlin. In “Excision,” McCord (“90210”) is almost unrecognizable as Pauline, a deeply disturbed high school student who is physically repulsive, delusional and pitiable. Her skin appears to be made of green canvas and it’s dappled with pimples and fever blisters. Her stringy brown hair looks as if Pauline is shampoo-phobic, while her posture can best be described as “defensive.” If that weren’t sufficiently disagreeable, Pauline’s willingness to speak her mind around the “popular” kids in school ensures that the only way she’d ever be elected prom queen is if that year’s theme was “Come back, Carrie, all is forgiven.” An exceedingly gruesome murder in the final scene isn’t the only thing “Excision” shares with Brian De Palma and Stephen King’s “Carrie.” Pauline’s mother, played admirably by Lords, is a bible-banging blond who’s lost all patience with her daughter’s appearance, wiseass remarks and unwillingness to get with the program. Nor does it help that Pauline’s sister, Grace (Ariel Winter), has cystic fibrosis and necessarily gets most of Mom’s concern and pity. Their parents are pleased that Pauline wants to be a surgeon someday, but remain doubtful due to her refusal to study or pay attention in class.

If Pauline is no different than tens of thousands of other teenage girls who live to torture their mothers mercilessly, the vividness of her blood-drenched nightmares would set her apart in any crowd. They take the form of sordid surgical procedures and bodily functions of a strictly female nature. Bart commits them to the screen with visual nods to David Cronenberg, Stanley Kubrick, Tarsem Singh and David Lynch, among other arthouse favorites who’ve approached horror in non-generic ways. If there are times during “Excision” when it seems as if Pauline is about to be revealed as Satan’s spawn on Earth, they’re countered by scenes in which she’s clearly trying to do the right things, but doesn’t know how. That’s especially true in the shocking climax, when the teenager combines her career aspirations with a mad desire to make her sister’s life more comfortable. Obviously, “Excision” isn’t for the squeamish or, even, genre buffs looking for a break from zombie and vampire fare. It will be interesting to see where Bart’s ambition takes him next.

I know that “Chernobyl Diaries” could have been a terrifically entertaining thriller, because at least one truly fascinating documentary – Nature’s “Radioactive Wolves” – has been produced about essentially the same subject. In the 25 years since the devastating meltdown at the then-Soviet nuclear power plant caused an entire city to be evacuated and abandoned, Mother Nature has reclaimed the wilderness in the 1,200-square-mile death zone, creating a haven for forest animals, homeless pets and the occasional endangered species. Any hunter would be out of his mind to think it could be safe to plunder the accidental refuge, let alone eat any animal or bird killed there. Extreme tourism enthusiasts, however, now risk life, limb and lung for the privilege of posting pictures from the summits of mountains, bungee jumping into a live volcano or swimming with sharks. In the surprisingly lackluster “Chernobyl Diaries” – written by Oren Peli, creator of the the “Paranormal Activity” franchise – a mixed group of six American tourists take a Ukrainian guide up on his offer to go on a photo safari behind the heavily guarded borders of Chernobyl. Naturally, it isn’t until the van is parked deep within the ruined facility that the guide realizes that the vehicle won’t be able to make it out before nightfall. By this time, the explorers have already witnessed mutant fish, feral dogs, decomposing corpses of stranded animals and a large bear that sought temporary shelter in an empty office building. Given what generally happens at night in horror movies, viewers should have been able to expect chills and thrills beyond comprehension … zombies, even.

I won’t reveal what happens after this promising premise is established, except to say that Peli and freshman director Bradley Parker run out of steam soon after the radioactive animals began to smell human blood. One of the reasons “Diaries” is such a disappointment is that we knew going into it how terrorizing an experience a night at Chernobyl could provide. Parker had already proven his horror chops in “Paranormal Activity,” practically inventing the “lost tape” subgenre. If it weren’t for special sound and lighting effects, which hit us like stun grenades, the movie would be even flatter. (Unlike the Chernobyl documentaries, Parker was required to find representative locations in Serbia and Hungary.) The Blu-ray does a pretty good job capturing the minimal-light environments and audio jolts, but the dialogue and narrative are weak. It adds an alternative ending, a short deleted scene, a Chernobyl conspiracy viral video and mock commercial for the tour company. – Gary Dretzka

Terror Train: Collector’s Edition: Blu-ray
Funhouse: Collector’s Edition: Blu-ray

When it comes to high-concept cinema, it would be tough to beat “‘Halloween’ on a train.” It preceded the famous “Miami Vice” pitch, “MTV cops,” by several years. After watching “Silver Streak” and “Halloween” back-to-back one weekend, Daniel Grodnik dreamt about just such a conceptual merger. Seven hours after committing his idea to paper, he convinced Sandy Howard Productions to jump aboard the “Terror Train.” As directed by Roger Spottiswoode, “Terror Train” was practically a paint-by-number project. A cruel prank is played on a medical student, looking to get laid at a party, and the result is that he’s placed in a mental institution. Four years later, on New Year’s Eve, the traumatized young man learns of a masquerade party being staged on a train by the same group of college students. The temptation to wreak havoc and re-connect with his dream girl – Jamie Lee Curtis, of course — is too strong to resist. Even before the train leaves the station, the disguised killer begins picking off students one by one. “Halloween” on a train, indeed. Among the costumed suspects is a magician played by none other than David Copperfield. (It’s a good thing that he didn’t give up his day job to become an actor.) Look, as well, for Ben Johnson, Hart Bochner and D.D. Winters (a.k.a., Vanity). The Blu-ray adds new commentary and interviews with Grodnik, production executive Don Carmody, production designer Glenn Bydwell and composer John Mills-Cockell, a stills gallery and original marketing material.

By the same token, “Funhouse” could have been pitched as “‘Halloween’ in a carnival funhouse” and it would have been just as easy to sell. With Tobe Hooper at the helm, a good time was guaranteed for all. As the story goes, a teenager disobeys her parents by attending a carnival with a shady reputation that’s passing through town. After taking in the freak show and visiting a fortune teller, she and her three friends hop off the haunted-house ride and find a hiding place until the park closes. When they witness a murder taking place and are spotted by the killers, the teens are required to spend the rest of the night avoiding the death penalty themselves. Both of these Scream! Factory releases have been given a fresh hi-def polish and look great. The Blu-ray includes commentary with Hooper, four new interviews, deleted scenes and advertising spots. – Gary Dretzka

Rites of Passage: Blu-ray
40 West
Of all the hoary clichés employed by writers of horror movies, perhaps the hoariest of all allows for the convenient construction of a house or shopping mall on hallowed ground once reserved for the dead bodies of Indians … or upon the gates of hell, one. As resourceful a screenwriter as W. Peter Iliff has proven himself to be — “Point Break,” “Patriot Games,” “Varsity Blues” – you’d think that he’d be among the last to set his directorial debut anywhere near such a formulaic, if sacred site. For the purposes of “Rites of Passage,” however, the temptation must have been too great to resist. Iliff and co-writer Rick Halsey had been trying for years to collaborate on a project that could take advantage of the many empty greenhouses now standing empty on property once used in the Halsey family’s flower business, near Santa Barbara. As everyone who attended school on the Central Coast probably was taught, as many as 20,000 Chumash Indians once lived year-round in the area, with only a couple thousand of them surviving. Given the damage done to the population by diseases introduced by Spanish soldiers and priests, there probably are too many sacred burial grounds to count. It’s also likely that shamans used hallucinogenic jimson weed in their ceremonies, just as the anthropology majors do here while partying at a fellow student’s beachside home. Conveniently, it is nestled between a burial ground and the empty greenhouses.

What we know and the students won’t learn until later is that the student’s demented brother, Benny (Wes Bentley), and his meth-fueled buddy, Delgado (Christian Slater), have their own nefarious uses for the greenhouses. When the students, half of whom are wearing itsy-bitsy, teeny weeny bikinis, arrive on the scene, Benny is convinced by the jimson-weed tea he’s ingested that his future Native-American bride is among them. For his part, Delgado discovers that the drunken teenage girl who killed his wife and child in a terrible accident, and has escaped prosecution, is among the crowd, as well. An imaginary sock-monkey, perched on his rifle, directs his every move. Mayhem ensues when Benny and Delgado come in direct contact with the students, who, by this time, have imbibed their own cups of jimson tea. None of it is remotely credible, terrifying or particularly interesting. Adding to the confusion is the hot-and-horny anthropology teacher played by Stephen Dorff. He’s a swell guy and isn’t at all reluctant to break the rule forbidding professors from taking advantage of the mini-skirted sorority sisters sitting cross-legged in the first row of his classroom. Dorff must have owed Iliff a favor. The director would have been better served if Dorf had convinced him to set “Rites of Passage” at the Chumash casino, just up the 101 from Santa Barbara, instead of a deserted greenhouse. That way, when the ghost of the shaman appears, it would be possible for him to avenge the genocide of his ancestors at the green-felt tables and greenhouses.

Some micro-budget indies, and “40 West” is one of them, look more like acting exercises than stories committed to film. Long stretches of dialogue substitute for action and the actors get equal time to hog the camera. Nothing feels natural, especially not the emotions on display. If the actors are given interesting things to say, most sins of omission can be forgiven. If not … what’s the point? Well, the imbalance can be partially explained here by the fact that the movie’s protagonist, Maeve, is played by the same woman, Jennifer Nicole Porter, who also wrote, produced, composed the score and help cast it. Maeve is the leader of an all-woman blues band popular in Texas. One night, after a gig, her car breaks down and she’s mugged for the money in her purse. A guy in the convenience store comes to her rescue, practically demanding that she accept his help in finding a place to stay and something to eat and drink. He’s so persistent, in fact, that he can only be a pervert or in cahoots with the thief. Maeve isn’t nearly as skeptical as viewers will be. Turns out, the guy’s been hired by Maeve’s abusive ex-husband – a recently paroled ex-con — to track her down and arrange a surprise meeting. The guy claims he’s still in love with Maeve, but it takes him all of about two minutes to begin beating her up again. After Maeve passes out, everybody gets an opportunity to explain themselves, including the ex-con’s prison groupie and, later, her husband – played by Wayne Newton, who may be the most natural actor of the bunch – who tracks them to the cheapo motel room. Then, he gets his turn to talk. That’s all. Besides the fact that nothing of substance really happens here, the abuse the women suffer is an extremely ugly thing to watch. A long making-of featurette is included, but it, too, is a vanity project. – Gary Dretzka

Last Ride
From Australia, “Last Ride” tells a highly compelling story about a violent ex-con who kills his former criminal cohort in a fit of justifiable, if excessive rage and takes his 10-year-old son along on his attempt to escape justice. Given the circumstances and his previous record, Kev (Hugo Weaving) knows that he might not have any time left to do anything remotely paternal with the boy, Chook (Tom Russell), who’s as sweet as his father is bitter. With the police hot on their trail, Kev and Chook embark on the kind of road trip every son wants to take with his dad, if only once their lives together (or forever regret not taking). Indeed, they act more like buddies than father and son, enjoying an easy rapport when the old man isn’t stealing cars or beating up clerks at a convenience store. Instead of heading for Sydney or another big city, where Kev might be able to blend in with blue-collar types, he revisits places his father took him as a boy. He also repeats stories told him by his father and other relatives, some of which seem pretty far-fetched. Chook eats them up like candy. As it becomes clear that Kev’s days of freedom are numbered, viewers naturally begin to wonder about the boy’s ultimate fate on Earth, especially what kind of impact watching his father in action might have on his subconscious mind.

What’s wonderful about “Last Ride” are the locations director Glendyn Ivin has chosen to shoot the scenes in which Kev and Chook come the closest to a normal father-son relationship. There’s a secluded campsite near a hidden pond, just outside the borders of a national park where Kev attempts to teach Chook how to swim, just as his father had done for him. There also are places in the Outback that are as spectacular as any in our desert Southwest. The shimmering surface of a vast salt flat is captured in a way I wish someone would shoot Utah’s Great Salt Lake. The skies are similarly magnificent. No matter how warmly he gets along with Chook during these interludes, Kev always finds a way for us to dislike him, intensely. He’s a career criminal with a hair-trigger temper, after all, and too much of a loose cannon to assure us that they could have a secure future together. I haven’t seen a father-son pairing like this on any size screen. The DVD comes with two intriguing shorts by Ivin; a short film in which Russell interviews people on the set; and a piece on the hidden beauty of Australia. – Gary Dretzka

Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted: Rainbow Wig Pack
TV Tunes to Go
Big Bad Beetleborgs: Season One, Volume One
Trooper and the Legend of the Golden Key

With a few noteworthy exceptions, most movie franchises built on the popularity of an animated feature are governed by the law of diminishing returns. As costs for production and marketing increase and previously established storylines are stretched to the breaking point, it becomes difficult to meet the margins expected by studio bean counters. Some find an afterlife as DVD originals, while others succeed theatrically by expanding their international audience and resisting the temptation to churn out new episodes simply because they can. By exploiting the straight-to-video revenue stream, which depends heavily on characters and storylines drafted under Jeffrey Katzenberg’s tenure, Disney has been able to extend franchises on the cheap. After Katzenberg’s acrimonious break from Disney, he took over responsibility for DreamWorks Animation. Starting from scratch, with the CGI-animated “Antz,” the company made movies the public and critics wanted to see, but still played in the shadow of the emerging Goliath, Disney/Pixar. While the story-driven “Prince of Egypt,” “Road to El Dorado,” “Sinbad” and “Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron” made money, they would look like pikers alongside the funny-animal-driven “Shrek,” “Kung Fu Panda” and “Madagascar” juggernauts. Against a production budget of $145 million, “Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted” would return $681.6 million worldwide, in traditional 2D and 3D. It extends the storylines established in the first two installments, during with Alex (Ben Stiller), Marty (Chris Rock), Melman (David Schwimmer) and Gloria (Jada Pinkett Smith) left their habitats in a New York zoo, in search of greener veldts. Upon reaching Madagascar, it only took about 90 minutes of screen time for them to become homesick. Here, the quartet travels to Monaco, where they hope to hook up with their penguin pals, but end up buying a traveling circus that could provide them with a ticket home. In addition to the animal antics, the circus itself provides a showcase for some Cirque du Soleil-style acrobatics. The finish even allows for a fourth installment. An optional Blu-ray gift-pack edition comes with a Halloween-ready rainbow wig, just like the one belonging to Marty; a “Get Them to the Train” game; “Animators’ Corner”; a trivia track; “Mad Music Mash-Up”; deleted scenes; circus acts; commentary; the featurette, “Making of ‘How to Train Your Dragon’ Live Spectacular” arena show; and digital and Ultraviolet copies of the film.

I wonder if movie theaters still host cartoon marathons over holiday weekends to keep kids and their parents from driving each other nuts. One way for youngsters to know that they’d reached puberty and were ready for more stimulating fare was when they could recite dialogue and act out gags from cartoons they’d already seen a half-dozen times. Today, of course, anyone with a Blockbuster card can program an afternoon’s worth of Looney Tunes, Merrie Melodies, Silly Symphonies, Tom & Jerry, Woody Woodpecker and Popeye cartoons. These are the classics, of course, and today’s kids might have distinctly different ideas of what’s funny than adults who weren’t conditioned to the aliens, mutants and gargoyles of the post-“Rugrats” era. The cartoons in “TV Tunes to Go” represent a period in animation when costs were being cut to the bone and storylines were far less than sophisticated. Still, there’s a niche audience for almost anything these days and a residual fondness may exist for “Heathcliff,” “Archie’s Weird Adventures,” “Horseland,” “Huckle Cat,” “Johnny Test,” “Lowly World,” “Where on Earth Is Carmen Sandiego,” “C.O.P.S.,” “Busytown Mysteries,” “Get Along Gang,” “Pole Position,” “The Legend of White Fang,” “Jayce and the Wheeled Warriors,” “Gadget Boy” and “The Busy World of Richard Scarry.” “TV Tunes to Go” represents more than 40 hours and 110 episodes of cartoons, all packaged in a circular tin travel case, with plenty of room left for other DVDs.

Like other Saban Entertainment productions of the 1990s, “Big Bad Beetleborgs” is an amalgam of live-action superhero adventures and programming imported from Japan, in this case the “Metal Hero” series “Juukou B-Fighter” and “B-Fighter Kabuto.” The story revolves around a trio of kids, who, on a dare, explore a mansion rumored to be haunted. Once inside, the gang frees a phantasm, Flabber, trapped in a pipe organ. In return, Flabber grants them their wish to be superheroes from their favorite comic book, Beetleborgs. As so often happens in these cases, the “phasm” also mistakenly releases the evil Magnavores. There are a zillion other characters, but most of the kids’ time is spent fighting monsters in the mansion. The Shout! Factory collection contains the first 27 of 88 episodes of the show, which ran for two years on Fox Kids. “Big Bad Beetleborgs” (a.k.a., “Beetleborgs Metallix”) died an unnatural death when Saban ran out of source material from Japan.

Of all breeds of slobbering dogs, my favorite is the bloodhound. In addition to having a face only another bloodhound could love, it can track escaped convicts through swamps. Let’s see a dachshund or Jack Russell terrier try that. Apparently, they can also find hidden treasures, as we see in the Dove-approved “Trooper and the Legend of the Golden Key.” After moving to a new town with his owner, Tommy, and his family, Trooper is enlisted in the search for a treasure rumored to be worth a million dollars. This is one treasure, though, that some folks in town want to keep for themselves, which leads to the kind of trouble dogs are better at handling than humans. Adding to the comedy factor is local puppy who adopts Trooper as his mate. – Gary Dretzka

PBS: Broadway: The American Musical: Blu-ray
Now playing on PBS stations around the country, “Broadway: The American Musical” is the rare television documentary series that could open with a placard guaranteeing audiences a wonderful time and not have to return a single penny to an unhappy viewer. Overflowing with music, dance and memories, the six-part series chronicles the history of American musical theater from Florenz Ziegfeld’s “Follies” to the present. Along the way, it examines the impact on legitimate theater from the post-WWI exuberance of the Roaring Twenties and ragtime; the catastrophic chill of the Depression; competition from radio, the movies and television; the decline and subsequent revival of Times Square; and a corporatization of Broadway, which has resulted in such megahits as “The Lion King,” “Wicked” and “Cats,” as well as budgets that have a chilling impact on producers of less ambitious entertainments. The series also demonstrates how the history of Broadway in the 20th Century has mirrored that of the country. Although most of the musicals launched over the last 100 years have been created from fluff and enforced optimism, “Broadway: The American Musical” demonstrates how some productions have addressed racism, poverty, immigrants, the emergence of youth culture, the anti-war and civil rights movements, AIDS and the farce that American politics have become. The series also showcases the individual stories of such influential individuals as Ziegfeld, George M. Cohan, Irving Berlin, the Gershwins, Fanny Brice, Ethel Waters, Cole Porter, David Merrick, Hal Prince, Bob Fosse and Cameron Mackintosh, with the testimony of dozens more participants and observers. The Blu-ray supplements include extended interviews, archival performance footage and a featurette on “Wicked.” – Gary Dretzka

HBO: Marina Abramovic: The Artist Is Present
Kati With an I

There’s a telling moment in “The Artist Is Present,” when the acclaimed performance artist, Marina Abramovic, and marathon illusionist David Blaine discuss the possibility of combining their unique talents for a project. To anyone familiar with both performers, it’s easy to see how one’s talents might complement those of the other. Both can endure long periods of time without movement, after all, and attract large crowds of curious bystanders. When Abramovic broaches the possibility with an advisor, however, he pours cold water on it, cautioning that it’s one of the dumbest ideas he’s ever heard. His opinion is based on a belief that “performance art” and “illusion” are two very different things and to confuse one with the other is to cheapen the experience for their respective audiences. No matter how artistic a magician/illusionist may be, an artist’s talent shouldn’t be reduced to trickery. At least one piece staged by the self-dubbed “grandmother of performance art” begs the question, however. In 1974, Abramovic performed an act of extreme “purification” by starting a large five-pointed star on fire in a public space and, after trimming her nails and hair and throwing the bits into the flames, she leapt into the center of the star and lay on her back. As Blaine might have advised had he been there, the raging fire depleted the oxygen she had to breathe and left her unconscious. At first, spectators assumed her lack of response to the heat was part of the show, but others guessed correctly that she was dying before their eyes. The point of the piece had been to distance herself, if only symbolically, and other young adults who had grown up under Communist rule, from a society that was collapsing under the yoke of party politics and censorship. She learned, as well, possibly for the first time, that art can be dangerous. As a cultural provocateur, Abramovic has since drawn attention to herself through self-mutilation and bouncing into inert objects; appearing naked in public spaces and galleries; and hiking 2,500 km to the middle of the Great Wall of China, where she met up with her longtime lover, who started at the opposite end of the wall, and simply said “Goodbye” before parting for good.

The title of this intriguing HBO documentary refers to Abramovic’s 2010 retrospective show at New York’s MOMA, where younger artists re-created several of her more famous works and she performed her grueling “The Artist is Present.” It is a 736-hour static, silent piece, in which she sat immobile in the museum’s atrium – sometimes at a table, sometimes not — while spectators were invited to take turns sitting opposite her and communicate in other ways than talking or gesticulating. People queued up for hours outside the museum for the right to participate in the event. Many are visibly moved by the experience of mind-melding with Abramovic. One thing we learn inadvertently here is that Abramovic’s fans can be every bit as nerdy and unhinged as those who flock to Blaine’s outdoor extravaganzas. The museum crowd tends to outfit itself in more expensive eyeglasses, non-clingy clothes and practical shoes than those worn by magic enthusiasts.

When we first meet Kati Genthner in the intimate cinéma vérité documentary “Kati With an I,” she is preparing for her graduation from high school in a smallish Alabama town. More than simply passing the milestone and looking ahead at more interesting things to come, Kati has come to the point in her life where she has to decide if catering to the needs of a largely unmotivated 21-year-old boyfriend, James – he promises marriage, but not for five years – will provide a richer experience than pursuing a career or degree. James refuses to accommodate Kati’s plans by agreeing to move to a college town and she doesn’t want to spend a single day without him. Kati seems bright enough to see the bumps in the road ahead, but in every other way possible she’s a perfectly normal kid with normal ambitions and parents who make do as well as they can in a struggling economy. Considering the limited number of options available to teenage girls in Smalltown, America – most involving minimum-wage jobs — you could probably guess how the story of Kati and James plays out. The film was shot by her step-brother, Robert Greene, who probably intended simply to make a graduation gift for his sister. As the “fly on the wall” here, he couldn’t miss the larger drama playing out in front of him. Some people in Hollywood dismiss the possibility of making compelling entertainment about average folks, but Greene does just that in “Kati With an I.” There are brief follow-ups included on the DVD. – Gary Dretzka

Touch: The Complete First Season
The Firm: The Complete Series: Blu-ray
Alcatraz: The Complete Series
BBC: The Ice House
Drinking Made Easy: Season 2
Military: Nazi Collaborators

The programming geniuses at the nation’s half-dozen broadcast networks love to keep their audiences guessing. Constantly tinkering with their shows’ timeslots, release dates and casts, they seem to believe viewers are so starved for entertainment that we’ll find our favorites wherever and whenever they appear on their schedules. That attitude, as well as a belief that commercials are somehow entertaining, is the reason so many of us have purchased TiVo recording devices and are willing to pay an extra monthly fee for the rental of video recorders from our cable and satellite providers. Fox thought so much of its new Keith Sutherland series, “Touch,” that they introduced it during the heart of the NFL-playoff season. It wouldn’t be seen again until March 22. The abbreviated season came to a successful close at the end of May with a two-part episode. Lo and behold, a 13th episode would air on September 14. The show’s second season, originally scheduled for October 26, was pushed until January, 2013. In its place is yet another reality cooking show … just what this country needs. My guess is that a goodly number of the series’ fans will program their VCRs to capture it when it finally returns and make full use of the machine’s ability to skip through the ads. Sutherland stars as a single dad, Martin – his wife was killed in the attacks of 9/11 – of an 11-year-old son so emotionally damaged that he doesn’t speak to anyone. Jake’s a real handful and his unwillingness to stay put tests his journalist-turned-baggage-handler father’s last nerve. The boy’s behavior is due less to a mischievous streak than an innate ability find patterns in random numbers and digital noise, all of which anticipates potential disasters and evil doing in distant places. “Touch” is one of many TV series whose characters are gifted or cursed with ESP, supernatural powers or other magical touches. Two years after the final episode of “24,” Sutherland’s return was welcomed by his fans and Fox’s corporate sponsors.

NBC didn’t do its high-profile legal series, “The Firm,” any favors, either. Based on the same John Grisham novel that inspired the Memphis-based movie of the same title, “The Firm” picked up where the film’s story left off, with Tom Cruise’s Mitch disappearing into the federal witness-protection program. Mitch had brought down the mob-associated law firm of Bendini Lambert & Locke, but, after 10 years, he and his wife (Josh Lucas, Molly Parker) had grown weary of living an underground existence and were willing to risk exposure. “The Firm” debuted in a special two-hour episode on a Sunday night last January, before moving to its intended regular spot on Thursday nights, after four quirky sitcoms. It would be shifted to Saturdays and a completely different network, AXN, before being canceled. What looked like a no-brainer six months earlier finally was being treated as if it were poison ivy. The good news for fans of the show is that the complete season has been stitched back together and is being sent out in a Blu-ray package. The bad news, of course, is that there won’t be a second season.

The same sort of fate awaited Fox’s “Alcatraz,” a far-fetched time-travel drama based on the theory that 256 inmates and 46 guards disappeared from the island prison in 1963, only to show up in San Francisco nearly 50 years later. The government covered up the incident by closing the prison and telling reporters it was for the good of the convicts. A secret agency anticipates their return and sets out to round up the criminals before they can be caught by police for returning to old habits or attempting to find old acquaintances or hidden treasure. Among the stars were Sam Neill, Sarah Jones and Jorge Garcia. The 13 episodes that comprised the show’s one and only season have been collected on DVD. It adds the featurette, “Alcatraz: Island of Intrigue,” deleted scenes and a gag reel.

With the next big James Bond movie looming on the horizon, it’s as good a time as any to look back to the point in Daniel Craig’s career when he was about to make the transition from BBC mini-series to feature films. “The Ice House” debuted on “Masterpiece Theater” in 1998, when Pierce Brosnan was still serving on Her Majesty’s Secret Service. It was adapted from Minette Walters first mystery novel, which is set at an elegant Hampshire country house, where a badly decomposed body is discovered in an outbuilding once used to store ice. All of the village gossips assume that the victim is the missing husband of one of the three women who live in the house and are presumed to be lesbians, witches or both. The investigation goes off in all sorts of different directions before coming together in the closing minutes of the two-part mini-series. Craig plays the recently separated police detective who’s drinking too much and jumping to conclusions about what happened 10 years earlier, when the husband disappeared. The more he gets to know the women, however, the more willing he is to keep an open mind. Craig’s many female fans will get a kick out of watching the ruggedly handsome detective getting shot down every time – in Part One, at least — he tries to make out with a suspect who isn’t at all reluctant to admit she’s a lesbian and unavailable. “The Ice House” may be too complicated for people not obsessed with mysteries to follow, but, as a curiosity, it will do until “Skyfall” opens on November 9. The DVD comes with a documentary that follows Walters through the process of writing “The Shape of Snakes.”

Who says drinking can’t be fun? Men and women belly up to the bar for all sorts of reasons, including getting blind drunk and fall off their stools. Typically, though, a cocktail serves more as an accessory than a featured attraction. Everyone is expected to have a favorite drink or brand of beer, which distinguishes them from other boozehounds as much as any fingerprint. Even casual imbibers know they’ve arrived when a bartender sets them up without having to ask what they want. Zane Lamprey, host of “Drinking Made Easy,” knows that most people won’t experiment with other tastes unless they’re on vacation and it’s impossible to resist the local concoctions. This willingness to deviate from form is what help popularize Trader Vic’s and Don the Beachcomber. If most folks couldn’t afford more than one trip to the tropics in their lifetimes, Vic’s and Don’s mixologists brought the tropics to them. In a very real sense, that’s exactly what happens in “Drinking Made Easy.” Each week on HDNet (newly retitled, AXS-TV), Lamprey and sidekicks Steve McKenna and Wes Dubois visit a new city where boutique distillers and brewers have joined forces with professional bartenders to change the way we drink. The trend probably began with the emergence of brewpubs in cities of any size and the popularization of flavored martinis, thanks to the gals on “Sex and the City.” The show is lively, informative and quite entertaining. In addition to the willingness of the host and McKenna to get bombed on a weekly basis, the show contains drinking contests and recipes for the more complicated cocktails. In Season Two, the lads visited 25 different cities, from Maui to Key West and Vancouver to Cape Cod. The DVD package includes commentary, an hour-long comedy special, deleted scenes, extended interviews and “Steve’s Best Dumb Moments.”

Despite the incendiary title, the 13-part documentary series “Nazi Collaborators” sometimes raises more questions than it answers. In some of the cases detailed in the Military Channel presentation, the lines separating collaborators and the people chosen to represent those Hitler and Mussolini despised were thin and often blurred by deception. Some of the cases are cut-and-dried, while others ask us to consider what we would do under similar conditions. Produced in England, “Nazi Collaborators” contains much archival footage I hadn’t seen already. – Gary Dretzka

Check It Out! With Dr. Steve Brule
D.L. Hughley: Reset

Anyone old enough to remember Norman Lear’s faux small-town soap opera, “Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman,” and the subsequent emergence of do-it-yourself TV shows on local cable-access stations, really ought to check out “Check It Out! With Dr. Steve Brule.” As mandated by the FCC at the dawn of the mass-media age, cable-television companies were required – as part of their deals with local governments – to provide channels and facilities where ordinary people could create content and see it air in their neighborhoods. The shows were decidedly eclectic, ranging from live coverage of public hearings and high school musicals to crackpot talk shows and, in Manhattan, live sex. The creators weren’t required to run their material past the same standards-and-practices poobahs as network producers. John C. Reilly, looking suspiciously like Jack Nance in “Eraserhead,” plays the hilariously awkward, if self-centered host of “Check It Out!,” which airs at 4:30 a.m. on a local-access channel and is followed by “Mass for Shut-Ins” and the “Married News.” Reilly created the show with the comedy team of Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim, who also gave us “Funny or Die Presents …,” “Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!” and “Atom TV.” The long-awaited DVD package includes all 12 shows from the show’s two-season run. In them, Brule and local “experts” discuss such topics as “Boats,” “Pleasure,” “Money,” “Space” and “Animals,” between Brule’s snarky asides and lamebrain opinions. Lovers of experimental comedy should relish the return of “Check It Out!”

As a key player in the cast of Spike Lee’s “Original Kings of Comedy” – alongside Steve Harvey, Cedric the Entertainer and Bernie Mac — D.L. Hughley demonstrated his ability to bridge the gap between fans of Redd Foxx’s ribald jokes and the in-your-face humor of newcomers often backed by hip-hop deejays. The common denominator is adult-oriented material that directly addresses topical issues and, of course, sex. In Hughley’s latest HBO special, the targets include Michael Jackson, Tiger Woods, President Obama, Arnold Schwarzenegger, bullies, marriage and family, all stamped “explicit.” Even so, while being extremely funny and observant, “D.L. Hughley: Reset” doesn’t push any boundaries already drawn by other extreme comics. – Gary Dretzka

PBS: Olmsted and America’s Urban Parks
Nova: Forensics on Trial

In the Declaration of Independence, our forefathers guarantee all Americans the unalienable right to life, liberty and pursuit of happiness. Every school child has been required to memorize that much of the document, at least, even if most people couldn’t agree as to what it means to be happy. If any one American had a solid grasp on the concept, however, it would be Frederick Law Olmsted, the Johnny Appleseed of urban parks. Born in 1822, in Connecticut, Olmsted was exposed to the joys and beauty of wilderness at an early age and forever after felt more comfortable outdoors than inside a classroom or office building. After traveling through the South, Olmsted would find work in New York as a city planner. At the time, New York’s teeming masses and growing immigrant population were living mostly in squalor, while the wealthy were able to pick and choose the prime locations to live in luxury. If New Yorkers wanted to partake in the city’s few open spaces, they tended to gather in well-tended cemeteries. Along with Calvert Vaux, Olmsted created a plan to turn a vast section of undeveloped city-owned land into what will still knew today as Central Park. It wasn’t simply a matter of clearing out the squatters, picking up the garbage and planting some trees. Intricately designed, it would take an army of workers 16 years – with little time off to accommodate the Civil War – to complete the project and put to full use. Even if it would eventually be bordered by high-rise buildings, housing the city’s wealthiest residents, the park would remain open to all New Yorkers, regardless of their station in life. The PBS documentary, “Olmsted and America’s Urban Parks,” not only describes that process, but it also chronicles Olmsted’s role in designing parks and open-space systems in dozens of American cities. In doing so, he also resolved issues concerning flood control and sanitation. After watching this fine documentary, those of us who sometimes take our parks for granted will never look at them in the same way.

No matter on which side of the aisle one stood, the one inarguable thing that emerged from the O.J. Simpson murder trial was the necessity for a more consistent and scientifically demonstrable interpretation of blood, fingerprint and DNA evidence. Both sides were able to argue that blood and other key evidence supported their case, with the prosecution arguing the findings were irrefutable and the defense using police department bungling as a way to suggest that they were, in this instance, highly refutable. In the end, facts mattered less than personality and race, but the debate rages on. In the “Nova” investigation, “Forensics on Trial,” we’re also reminded of the case in which an Oregon man was linked to a terrorist attack in Spain by solid fingerprint evidence, but was cleared when a more likely suspect was found to have almost matching prints and a motive to commit mass murder. The film finds several of the chinks in the system, while also demonstrating how even more modern forensics technology—including 3D visualizations, laser imagery and MRIs – could do much of the work police detectives can’t. – Gary Dretzka

Essential Games of the Milwaukee Brewers
Carl Jackson: Through the Eyes of a Caddy

The baseball playoffs are in full gear, but fans of the Milwaukee Brewers – who came within two games of reaching the World Series in 2011 – don’t have a dog in either fight. They may consider picking up the DVD collection “Essential Games of the Milwaukee Brewers,” to relive past thrills and forget, for a moment, that the hated St. Louis Cardinals are still in the hunt. The Brewers have the rare distinction of having made the playoffs, if not the MLB championship as the representative of both the American and National leagues, having traded affiliations in 1998. It would be difficult for anyone to pick just four great games to represent an entire franchise, but, considering that the team is only 42 years old and a loser for most of that time, the task wasn’t as hard as it could have been. This DVD time-capsule includes the Brewers 1982 American League pennant clincher; the fourth game of the subsequent 1982 World Series, against the Cardinals; the 2008 wild-card playoff game, against the Chicago Cubs; and Game 5 of the 2011 divisional playoffs versus Arizona. Although it could be argued that these aren’t the best games played by the team, they, indeed, were “essential” victories. In addition to the games, the bonus package includes pieces on Robin Yount, “Harvey’s Wallbangers,” Juan Nieves’ no-hitter, Ben Sheets’ 18-strikeout game, Richie Sexton and Jeremy Burnitz’ six-homer game, a post-clincher celebration, a pair of “This Week in Baseball” episodes and Ryan Braun’s three home-run feat. And, yes, I am a thick-or-thin fan of the Brewers.

As interesting and challenging as golf can be, it would be difficult to find broadcasting teams more square than those who cover the major tournaments. An interesting commentator occasionally slips through the cracks, but they can easily be silenced when a sponsor complains about perceived irreverence shown to their hallowed game. Of all the golf professionals I’d like to hear share their opinions on a tournament, it wouldn’t be yet another clever Irish bloke or former champion. It would be a veteran caddy, who’s seen it all and conversed with more players than Jim Nance will in his lifetime. Just such a man is Carl Jackson, the subject of Cathy Irby Durant’s not very well made instructional video, “Carl Jackson: Through the Eyes of a Caddy.” Jackson certainly possesses all the credentials necessary to comment on the game and help amateurs with their swing. In addition to his 50 years of caddying at Augusta National Golf Club – home of the most pretentious and challenging of all tournaments, the Masters — Jackson has enjoyed a 36-year collaboration with Ben Crenshaw. Caddies don’t simply carry the bag and course layout card for the pro, they often reveal secrets and strategy when things get rough. – Gary Dretzka

The Heart of Christmas
PBS Kids: Arthur’s Perfect Christmas

Not to rush the Christmas season, but I can’t afford to fall behind in my reviews of holiday-related DVDs. The trickle soon will become a flood, after all. While most wouldn’t pass muster at any other time of the year, they all tend to feature recognizable, if not A-list stars and carry the kind of positive message some observers say is missing in Hollywood’s cold, cold heart. Dove-approved “The Heart of Christmas” debuted last year on cable’s Gospel Music Channel and some of the proceeds from its DVD release, we’re told, will go to the St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. In it, Austin and Julie Locke (Eric Jay Beck, Jeanne Neilson) are devastated by news that their young son, Dax, has been diagnosed with cancer. To bring solace and comfort to the boy, they decide to give Dax a one last Christmas, two months early. When neighbors see the holiday decoration and learn the truth, they rally the community to show their support for Dax, as well. The DVD adds a music video of the Matthew West’s Emmy-nominated song, “The Heart of Christmas.”

Because the residents of Elwood City are committed to making this year’s holiday celebrations the best of all possible Christmases, Hanukkahs, Kwanzaas and “Baxter Days,” despite all the obstacles put in their way, it’s possible to see “Arthur’s Perfect Christmas” as a “Candide” for kids. OK, maybe not. Based on the children’s books by Marc Brown, “Arthur” has been a staple of PBS Kids programming for the last 16 years. The title character, Arthur Read, is an 8-year-old anthropomorphic aardvark through whom viewers are introduced to each show’s theme. Animated characters typically are shown working out the same issues as the live-action schoolchildren in film footage interspersed in the story. “Arthur’s Perfect Christmas” was first shown in 2000 and has since become an evergreen event. – Gary Dretzka

The DVD Wrapup: Rock of Ages, Little Shop, Prometheus, Cat in Paris, People Like Us … More

Wednesday, October 10th, 2012

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

Prometheus: Blu-ray
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
The Cottage
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

Crazy Eyes
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

The DVD Wrapup: Dark Shadows, Cinderella, Iron Sky, Flying Swords … More

Wednesday, October 3rd, 2012

Dark Shadows: Blu-ray
Everything about Tim Burton’s feature-length remake of the ancient TV soap opera, “Dark Shadows,” must have seemed perfect on paper, at least. Frequent collaborator Johnny Depp was on board to play the aristocratic vampire Barnabas Collins, alongside such fine talents as Michelle Pfeiffer, Helena Bonham Carter, Eva Green, Jackie Earle Haley, Chloe Grace Moretz and Christopher Lee. Their characters are well known to the original’s silver-haired fans — if not their children and grandchildren — and Burton acknowledged them by including Jonathan Frid, Kathryn Leigh Scott, Lara Parker and David Selby on the guest list to the movie’s ball. Having re-watched several episodes from the soap opera recently, I think it’s only realistic to point out that “Dark Shadows” is hardly the stuff of which sacred texts are made. It toyed with soap-opera conventions by exploiting the sexual subtext of all vampire stories, but didn’t stray very far off the beaten path from there. It didn’t have to, really. Still, if there were few solid reasons to remake it, there weren’t any good ones prohibiting it, either, at least from the audience’s point of view. It was only logical that the wildly creative Burton would get the assignment. To re-create stately Collinwood Mansion, he probably was allotted more money than it cost to produce the entire television series.

As the movie opens, we’re reminded of the circumstances that led to Barnabas being turned into a vampire and locked in a coffin for the next 200 years. It’s tragically romantic, but the mood quickly changes to terror when he slaughters the construction workers who rescue him from eternal sleep. It lightens considerably when Barnabas discovers the changes that have taken place in Collinsport in the meantime. Depp reacts wonderfully to each new revelation of cultural upheaval, even if his mannerisms and reactions are familiar from other Burton productions. Some of the other characters look as if they might have been borrowed from a rejected script for “The Addams Family,” however. Green’s wickedly beautiful witch is supposed to be as formidable a force in the narrative as Depp, but, alas, she doesn’t possess the comic chops he does. She’s voluptuous and not much else. Far more seasoned, Pfeiffer does a better job as Elizabeth Collins Stoddard, the eldest child in the Collins family … in non-vampire terms, anyway. Considering the talent involved and marketing assault, “Dark Shadows” greatly underperformed at the domestic box office. Of the reported $234 million in worldwide revenues, only a third was contributed by U.S. audiences. It ought to do just fine in DVD and Blu-ray, though. The moody cinematography is captured nicely in hi-def, while the rock-oriented soundtrack livens the pace when the narrative lags. (Alice Cooper, who Barnabas mistakes for a woman, performs at the ball.) DVD and Blu-ray owners with older hardware won’t be able to take advantage of the PiP embellishments in Maximum Movie Mode and Focus Points. They’ll have to settle for six minutes of deleted scenes. – Gary Dretzka

Cinderella: Diamond Edition: Blu-ray
It’s difficult to imagine how one 74-minute cartoon could inspire as many romantic dreams and joyous memories as Disney’s 62-year-old “Cinderella.” It’s a story that demands of us that we buy into the studio mythos that evil is no match for virtue, nothing is impossible for those whose hearts are true and, in times of desperation, every planet in the animated universe will line up to ensure a gloriously happy ending. In “Cinderella,” not even a cat named Lucifer could prevent the household’s mice, horses, dog and songbirds from helping a lowly scullery maid from finding her charming prince. If anyone in the audience had a reason to feel left out in the cold, it’s the many generous stepmothers and outgoing stepsisters who were tarred with the same brush as Lady Tremaine, Anastasia and Drizella. Fairy godmothers, easily duped monarchs and handsome princes always fared better in Disney features than domineering female characters. Obsessives will continue to debate where “Cinderella” fits in the studio’s canon, but there’s no mistaking the place it holds in the hearts of women around the world, even those whose fantasies never quite come true. That the commercial success of “Cinderella” also would ensure that Walt Disney’s dreams came true is a less known chapter in the story.

In addition to being the first feature-length film the studio – then, $4 million in debt — produced and released after wartime cutbacks, “Cinderella” would introduce the concept of vertical integration to Hollywood. The movie made a bundle at the box office, of course, but, for the first time, additional profits flowed in from record sales, music publishing, publications and other merchandise. Even today, it remains a cash cow that’s never gone dry. It provided Walt Disney with the money he needed to finance a slate of productions, establish his own distribution company, enter television production and begin building Disneyland. In 1957, and in regular intervals thereafter, “Cinderella” would be re-released for a new generation of children and parents to savor. Down the road, the same strategy would allow Disney engineers to take advantage of every new technology and keep the product looking fresh.

This time around, it’s Blu-ray’s turn to shine. First and foremost, the “Diamond Edition” boasts an impressive restoration and video transfer; two fine DTS-HD Master Audio tracks (a 7.1 remix and a lossless presentation of the original audio); and a full slate of bonus features, many of which are borrowed from the 2005 “Special Edition” DVD. The new ones include an introduction by Diane Disney Miller and an alternate opening sequence; a 30-minute addition to the previous “Backstage Disney” tour; the animated short, “Tangled Ever After,” which allows a comparison between Rapunzel and Cinderella; the personalized digital storybook, “Bibbidi-Bobbidi-You,” in the interactive Disney Second Screen format; DisneyView, which adds artwork to the normally black borders of the traditional visual format; and featurettes, “Behind the Magic: A New Disney Princess Fantasyland,” “The Magic of a Glass Slipper: A Cinderella Story” and “The Real Fairy Godmother.” – Gary Dretzka

Lawrence of Arabia: 50th Anniversary Event: Digitally Restored
The anxiously awaited Blu-ray edition of “Lawrence of Arabia” arrives on November 13, but Sony is offering buffs and scholars an opportunity to watch it the way David Lean intended, on the really big screen. The digitally restored version will be shown on Thursday, October 4, at 7:00 p.m. local time, with special matinees in select theaters. It was restored by Sony Pictures Entertainment in 4K at Sony Pictures’ Colorworks, from the original 65mm negative. This special event features an introduction from Omar Sharif, newsreel coverage of the gala New York premiere and footage of King Hussein visiting the film set in Aqaba, where he met David Lean, Sam Spiegel and Peter O’Toole. Director Martin Scorsese will also discuss the overarching themes of “Lawrence of Arabia” and its influence on other iconic films.

Tickets are available at participating theater box offices and online at www.FathomEvents.com. The two-disc Blu-ray will add even more supplementary material.

The Lady: Blu-ray
The timing of the release of “The Lady” could hardly be better. Longtime Burmese democracy advocate and Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi is wrapping up her tour of the United States, during which she was presented with the Congressional Gold Medal. Moreover, though, it appears that a stable form of self-determination may finally be taking hold in Myanmar – Burma, before the military government changed the country’s name – after almost 50 years of draconian rule. During this period, the resource-rich Southeast Asian nation became an international eyesore, with a disintegrating economy and health-care system and a human-right record only the North Korean government might applaud. Meanwhile, the military officers in charge of the nation became fabulously wealthy men. Rather than assassinate Suu Kyi and risk a backlash in Myanmar and beyond, the generals decided, instead, to put her under house arrest and strictly limit access to her. For most of the next 20 years, that was Suu Kyi’s fate.

Of all the directors who might have been asked to stage a biopic of this very brave and inspirational woman, you’d hardly think action-specialist Luc Besson would be high on the list of candidates. Working from a script by Rebecca Frayn, Besson uses the recent history of the country as a frame for a depiction of the romance between Suu Kyi (Michelle Yeow) and her British husband, Dr. Michael Aris (David Thewlis). As compelling as that story might be, it presented a challenge for audiences. After all, between 1989, when his wife was first placed under house arrest, and his death to cancer in 1999, Aris had seen Suu Kyi only five times. The government forced them to live in two extremely different worlds. No matter the temptation, both were cognizant of the fact that Suu Kyi would never be allowed to return to Myanmar if she went to England to visit Aris and their two sons. Besson gets around this dilemma by inserting far too many cumbersome phone calls, mysterious disconnections and attempts to monitor world affairs via forbidden radios. Things were happening in the streets of Rangoon (a.k.a., Yangun), but, like Suu Yi, we feel trapped behind the gates of her lakeside estate.

Most of the rest of the tumultuous story is told in postscript form (riots organized by monks and students) or overlooked (the devastating effects of a hurricane). In fact, in October, 2010, while they were shooting in Thailand, the cast and crew were pleasantly surprised to learn that Suu Kyi had been released from house arrest. Less than two years later, as the movie was opening around the world, MP-elect Suu Kyi was preparing to take her place in Parliament. Because of conditions imposed on the dissidents by the military hierarchy, it wasn’t until they actually took oath that anyone close to situation stopped holding their collective breath. The making-of feature describes how difficult it was to make “The Lady,” given Besson’s desire to stick to English and Burmese dialogue and shoot footage surreptitiously inside Myanmar, itself. Many of the crowd scenes were shot in Thailand, where there’s a large community of Burmese exiles. – Gary Dretzka

Peace, Love & Misunderstanding: Blu-ray
In Bruce Beresford’s multigenerational rom-com, “Peace, Love & Misunderstanding,” the estimable Jane Fonda plays a hippy-dippy GILF – you figure it out – whose daughter and grandchildren are as square as she is groovy. Catherine Keener portrays her daughter, Diane, a soon-to-be-divorced Manhattan lawyer with a stick up her ass, and her overly sheltered kids are played by Elizabeth Olson and Nate Wolff. To get as far away from her husband as possible, Diane grabs the teenagers and heads back to the family farm for the first time in 20 years. There, she finds Granny Grace still fighting the good fight: protesting the war in the town square during the morning; attending a music festival in the afternoon; and, later, hosting a gathering of women to celebrate the full moon. In any other context, the proselytizing and morally questionable lifestyle of the pot-growing, chicken-liberating, still sexually adventurous Grace might be seen as something less than charming. After hearing several years’ worth of horror stories told by their mother about Grace, however, Zoe and Jake quickly bridge the generation gap separating the two stubborn women and find common ground between them. Clearly, it’s more fun to be a hippy on an idyllic Adirondacks farm than afterthoughts in a divorce battle in steamy summertime Manhattan.

As unconventional as “Peace, Love & Misunderstanding” feels, at times, it really doesn’t stray very far from the tropes of the rom-com genre. Once again, perfectly matched men and women aren’t allowed to fall in love unless they first clear all of the hurdles placed in their way by the director and screenwriters. Even then, the characters are required to overcome feelings of guilt for betraying their normal tendencies toward avoiding intimacy. To suggest that real human beings don’t act and say things the way that the characters do in “Peace, Love & Misunderstanding” is only to state the obvious. When was the last time you saw a rom-com in which they did, however.

What “PL&M” does have going for it is an acknowledgement that love isn’t limited to teenagers and the kind of bright and peppy yuppies who populate Michelob Light commercials. Contrary to what normally happens in Hollywood movies, middle-age men and women and senior citizens are perfectly capable of enjoying sex and finding fulfillment in relationships, too. In Christina Mengert and Joseph Muszynski’s story the geezers are given as much time as the kids – Olson, Wolff, Chace Crawford and Marissa O’Donnell – to find love, lose it and re-capture it. It may sound like a small point to audiences under 30, but the older one gets, the more we need to be reminded that romance can be re-kindled after the kids leave home. Other familiar cast members are Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Kyle MacLachlan, Rosanna Arquette and Katharine McPhee. Shot in and around Woodstock, New York, the scenery looks pretty nice in Blu-ray, as well. It adds a standard-issue making-of featurette. – Gary Dretzka

Iron Sky: Blu-ray
For almost 70 years, Nazi hunters have been searching the globe for war criminals who’ve escaped justice for their unconscionable actions in WWII. As we learn in the sci-fi parody, “Iron Sky,” they’ve been looking in the wrong place. Apparently, in 1945, participants in a secret Nazi space program fled to the dark side of the moon, where they’ve been plotting revenge on the Allies who put an end to the Third Reich. Using available lunar resources, Nazi fugitives and their offspring constructed a gargantuan fortress and aeronautics facility invisible even to the many satellites and space capsules that once surveyed the orb. Skip ahead to 2018, when a Nazi armada is on the brink of attacking Earth. All that’s missing is a trigger mechanism for the central computer and it’s inadvertently provided by an African-American astronaut who stumbles upon the factory during a normal lunar mission. During his interrogation, the head scientist discovers the astronaut’s iPhone, which is capable of performing more calculations in a minute than the Germans have in 70 years. Alas, the iPhone’s batteries are nearly depleted and an advance team of astronauts is sent to Earth to pick some up.

That’s a fairly straightforward description of what happens in Timo Vuorensola’s “Iron Sky,” which appears to have found theatrical distribution everywhere on the planet except here. It was made by the same team of Finns responsible for the “Star Wrecks” series of sci-fi parodies, which have grown far more elaborate since the first animated entry in 1992. The latest, “Star Wreck: In the Pirkinning” was downloaded more 700,000 times in its first week on the Internet. “Iron Sky” is an extension of that clever series.

Among the many gags that bring the story to life are the appearances of Udo Kier as the Fuhrer in exile; Sarah Palin look-alike Stephanie Paul as the President of the United States (there’s a stuffed polar bear, wolf and moose head in the Oval Office); members of an advance team of Gestapo officers, who are mistaken for fashion models; and a pretty blond Nazi (Julia Dietz), who sees a gang of Skinheads spray-painting swastikas on a wall and assumes they’re kindred spirits. “Iron Sky” probably could have benefitted from a rewrite by Mel Brooks or the “Kentucky Fried Movie” team, because too much of the material arrives only half-baked. What’s sensational about “Iron Sky,” though, is its overall look, which benefits from some 1,000 visual effects. With a price tag of about $9 million – much of it donated by fans of the filmmakers’ previous work – it could easily be confused with an American genre flick brought in at three times the budget. The Blu-ray supplements include a pair of making-of featurettes. – Gary Dretzka

Flying Swords of Dragon Gate: Blu-ray 3D/2D
Imagine a movie set primarily at an inn located in the middle of the desert, where old grudges are settled, outlaws clash with government troops and fabulous treasures are rumored to be hidden. Then try to imagine what the film might look like if it were directed by Sam Peckinpah and starred Steve McQueen, Charles Bronson and Jim Brown. Sounds fun, doesn’t it? Substitute the Gobi for the Sonoran Desert, Tsui Hark for Peckinpah, and Jet Li, Xun Zhou and Kun Chen for the American actors, and you have “Flying Swords of Dragon Gate.” Prepare to be dazzled. Instead of being armed with six-guns and Winchesters, the Ming Dynasty characters fight with their hands, feet, spears, whips, arrows and other exotic wuxia weaponry. Special effects, wire work and swordplay add a level of excitement not available to American filmmakers, whose myth-making normally doesn’t include kung-fu acrobatics and shape-shifting. The common denominators are horses and a high body count.

“Flying Swords” is the second re-working of Hu King’s 1967 martial-arts adventure, “Dragon Inn.” It is set three years after the destruction of the outpost in Hark and Raymond Lee’s 1992 reworking of that hit zatoichi film. Here, the inn has been rebuilt and it has become a mecca for warriors, fugitives and assassins. If a sheriff can’t find a criminal at Dragon Inn, he’s off-duty and not looking for trouble. The primary combatants, though, are troops loyal to General Chow Wai-On (Li) and the dangerous royal eunuch Yu Hua-Tian (Chen), who’s intent on killing the emperor’s pregnant maid and her formidable bodyguard, Lin Yan-Qiu (Zhou). Everyone else at the inn is focused on the gold believed hidden under the inn. “Flying Swords” may be a tad talky and thickly plotted for the tastes of action freaks, but what there is of it is amazing. The IMAX 3D version of the movie was a big hit in China, where the format has yet to reach critical mass. The Blu-ray includes making-of and behind-the-scenes material, as well as interviews. – Gary Dretzka

Chained: Blu-ray
It’s difficult to say how being the daughter of filmmaker/artist David Lynch has impacted the career of Jennifer Lynch. While there’s no question the media was predisposed to embrace her first movie – the erotic horror tale, “Boxing Helena” – critics nullified the puff pieces by treating it as they would any of her father’s new films. Instead of merely voicing their unhappiness with the work of a 25-year-old rookie and moving on to the next assignment, they sharpened their knives and went out of their way to disembowel it. In hindsight, the story of extreme obsession fits alongside other modern horror movies, before and since, that have attempted to elevate the genre intellectually. Lynch was unable to convince her detractors of the necessity of putting themselves in the box alongside the quadruple-amputee Helena and accepting that the character was a stand-in for all women stuck in abusive relationships. The bombastic reception stung Lynch, who wouldn’t write and direct another film for 15 years. The dark thriller didn’t do much better with critics.

In “Chained,” Lynch returns to the serial-killer subgenre with a vengeance. Vincent D’Onofrio, who does crazy as well as any actor, plays a deranged cab driver, Bob, who frequently kidnaps his female fares and takes them to his rural home, where he rapes and kills them. Early in the movie, Bob does exactly this to Julia Ormond. The difference this time is that Bob forces her young son to listen to the screams, before he decides to hold the boy captive and mold him into a miniature copy of himself. He even beats the boy with the same crazed fervor as his father beat him. Flashing ahead a few years, it’s clear that “Rabbit” (Eamon Farren) has been brutalized and psychologically manipulated to the point where he’s an automaton. Even so, Bob demands that Rabbit take his home schooling seriously, especially the anatomical lessons that could prove useful when swiftly killing and dismembering his victims. The time eventually comes when Bob thinks Rabbit is ready to participate in the hunts and break through the final barrier, by killing a prostitute brought back to the house. Lynch keeps us guessing as to whether Rabbit has a smidgen of humanity left in him or he’s a lost cause. “Chained” is the kind of uncompromising film that horror buffs will embrace far more than casual fans and critics. Graphically violent and undeniably disturbing, it originally was rated NC-17, but cut to a “R,” ostensibly for DVD distribution. The Blu-ray includes commentary by Lynch and D’Onofrio, as well as a slightly longer version of one of the murders. – Gary Dretzka

We Are the Hartmans
A couple of weeks ago, I reviewed a low-budget indie comedy, “Gone Hollywood,” whose story could have come from the same Screenplays ‘R’ Us store as “We Are the Hartmans.” In both, a local watering hole catering to a rural town’s eccentrics and misfits is threatened with closure by an avaricious corporation bent on building yet another big-box store or something equally atrocious. At first, estranged relatives of the owners – one dead, the other laid low by a stroke – seem bent on taking the money and running home. When they become aware of how much the tavern means to the community, however, they have a change of heart. In “We Are the Hartmans,” Richard Chamberlain, looking a lot like Howard Hesseman at his most stoned, plays the owner of Hartman’s Rock Club. Although he isn’t at all happy about being stuck in the hospital after the stroke, the old hippie is thrilled to learn that he qualifies for medicinal pot and has been given some kick-ass pain-killers. Marijuana also figures in the transition of his up-tight, big-city daughter (Jennifer Restivo) from money-grubber to one of the gang of offbeat locals attempting to raise the money needed to buy the facility. “We Are the Hartmans” was made for an estimated $200,000 and it looks it. If too much of the comedy looks like a film-school project, it deserves credit for its upbeat spirit and unpretentious attitude. – Gary Dretzka

The Samaritan: Blu-ray
$hifty
Although Samuel L. Jackson tends to dominate every scene of every movie that he’s in, he isn’t often assigned lead roles. Casting directors could probably provide a dozen reasons why that’s the case, but, fact is, Hollywood doesn’t make all that many movies that call for black-male protagonists. Jackson exudes a different sort of charisma than Denzel Washington and Denzel is Hollywood’s go-to African-American for lead roles in high-budget action films. Still, I don’t suppose Jackson minded playing Nick Fury and Mace Windu in several of Hollywood’s biggest blockbusters. Jackson also is in great demand as a voice actor in major animated features. In the noir-ish Canadian crime thriller, “The Samaritan,” he not only plays the lead character – a recent parolee determined to stay on the straight, if razor-thin path – but his presence also provides the only good reason to check it out.

No sooner is Jackson’s Foley released from prison than he’s confronted by the son of his former partner, who he murdered at the behest of a gangster who was pointing a gun at his head. The guy probably had it coming, but that’s not what the mid-level hoodlum, Ethan (Luke Kirby), wants to hear. He demands that Foley participate in a three-person grift known as “the Samaritan” or he will reveal a long-harbored piece of intelligence that would devastate the ex-con and the woman closest to him. The secret has been so deeply guarded, in fact, only one person besides Ethan knows it. It’s a doozy, though. Unfortunately, co-writer/director David Weaver couldn’t decide if wanted to make a movie about a tricky scam or a smart action picture. By attempting to have it both ways, Weaver met neither goal. Even so, Jackson is great fun to watch and the atmospherics are pretty good. He’s joined by Tom Wilkinson, Deborah Kara Unger (too briefly) and the exotic beauty Ruth Negga, who is equal parts Irish and Ethiopian.

The popular image of a drug dealer is a gang member working a corner for a more senior thug or a young white guy who dreams of hitting Vegas with supermodel on each arm. The truth is far more banal. Open any high school yearbook, close your eyes and point a finger at a random student. That person is more likely to be a purveyor of recreational drugs than the archetypal street dealer. The gritty British crime story, “$hifty,” introduces viewers to bottom-rung dealers who risk their freedom everyday by selling nickel and dime bags of powder, rocks or grass to customers who would be the mostly likely to rat them out if arrested. As long as supply and demand remains on even keel, however, business runs smoothly and risks are low. Freshman writer/director Eran Creevy follows one such dealer, Shifty (Riz Ahmed), as he goes about his duties over the course of one unusually eventful 24-hour period. The day begins when a friend from Manchester surprises Shifty by showing up at the door of his home on the outskirts of London after a four-year absence. Chris (Daniel Mays) abruptly split the scene for reasons that remain a mystery throughout most of the movie. Chris accompanies Shifty on his rounds, remaining mute but absorbing how much the business has changed in his absence. This also is the day that Shifty’s otherwise smooth operation hits potholes dug by his supplier, a desperate customer and his brother Paul, a devout Muslim who discovers his hidey-hole and flushes the stash down the toilet. By doing so he effectively puts a price on Shifty’s head. The quietly powerful “$hifty” owes far more to the British cinema’s “kitchen sink” era than anything made by Guy Ritchie and his imitators. Buffs may find that to be more of a compliment than a curse. – Gary Dretzka

Sound of My Voice: Blu-ray
I’ve never pitched a movie idea to anyone except, maybe, a friend sitting on the stool next to me in a tavern. In the psycho-thriller, “Sound of My Voice,” however, there’s a snippet of dialogue that would seem to be an ideal pitch: “Somewhere in the Valley, there is a woman living in a basement who claims to be from the future. She’s actually amassing followers. These people believe that she will lead them to salvation, or whatever. And, yes, she’s dangerous, but we have to see this thing through … all the way.” The only things missing are a description of the woman – drop-dead-gorgeous blond, Brit Marling – and the identities of the persons who “have to see this thing through.” They are a strikingly attractive journalist (Nicole Vicius) and her skeptical partner — and part-time teacher (Christopher Denham) — who go undercover to expose someone they believe to be a fraud. As full of promise as this premise is, I suspect that “Sound of My Voice” wouldn’t stand a snowball’s chance in hell of getting made if the key female characters weren’t beautiful and there weren’t a couple of shower scenes, however chaste.

Freshman director Zal Batmanglij in his first of two collaborations with Marling, is basically asking us to question what leads some people to follow charismatic religious leaders – be they L. Ron Hubbard or Jesus H. Christ – after listening to appeals that sound preposterous on the face of them. Here, Marling plays a woman who claims to be a time-traveler from the future – 2054, to be exact – and a prophet of much trouble to come in the 21st Century. Maggie wears the customary white shawl and diaphanous gown, while sermonizing in a tone that resonates with self-confidence and integrity. The screenplay leaves lots of room for conjecture as to Maggie’s motivations and credibility, but that’s OK because we already know that such cults can grow and prosper or end up making headlines when they drink the Kool-Aid. Part of the mystery in “Sound of My Voice” derives from trying to figure out how Maggie and one of the teacher’s young students know things about each other that normally would seem impossible. Batmanglij’s deliberate pace and willingness to leave so many questions unanswered help sell “Sound of My Voice” as a quietly creepy feature. The DVD adds interviews and a making-of featurette. – Gary Dretzka

Splinters
Whittle: The Jet Pioneer
Hungry for Change
As the legend is told in “Splinters,” Papua New Guinea became a surfing nation in the 1980s, after an Australian pilot left behind a board in the remote seaside village of Vanimo. The outlander had taught a local man the sport and he taught everyone else. Today, there are enough surfing clubs to support a national competition and dreams of competing in Tahiti, Australia and everywhere else waves break, curl and crash. Because of the lack of economic opportunity in the developing nation, surfing has also provided residents of the beach communities with a source of pride and purpose. Adam Pesce’s documentary doesn’t dwell on how much the surfing culture in Papua New Guinea resembles cargo-cult religions, but it’s difficult to ignore. Once mastered, the men and women we meet put surfing above nearly everything else in their lives, including marriage, paying alimony and finding work outside the village. Their passion isn’t unique, of course, or something that can absorbed from magazines. Surfing does that to people, especially if the homegrown waves are among the best in the world.

If Pesce’s intention was simply to record a curiosity in the wide world of sports, however, the facts of life in an impoverished nation caught up with the first-time, do-it-yourself filmmaker and forced him to widen the documentary’s scope. What “Splinters” reveals is a society in such a state of flux that the surfing competitions naturally rekindled ancient rivalries, family feuds and traditional prejudices. At stake, after all, besides bragging rights, was the opportunity for winners to visit countries that might has well have been designed for them by Walt Disney. There are several times in the movie when fights almost break out among the competitors and dirty tricks are played on the favorites. What’s also revealed are attitudes toward women that border on the prehistoric: one club leader refuses to comply with guidelines forbidding the exclusion of women surfers; donated boards are grabbed by the men, although they’re intended to be shared; it’s OK for men who’ve “purchased” wives to beat them whenever the mood strikes; and family members are free to beat sisters and daughters who bring shame to them. Things are changing, but too slowly to help the victims. That said, “Splinters” is mostly uplifting and positive. The smiles on the faces of the competitors and audience members during the contest speak volumes about how it feels to be part of a global community that demands nothing more than a love of surfing.

Aeronautics buffs certainly are aware of Air Commodore Frank Whittle, the British engineer credited with inventing the turbojet engine and advancing jet propulsion in the 20th Century. In Nicholas Jones’ fascinating, if dry as a Saltine cracker documentary, “Whittle: The Jet Pioneer,” we learn just how much more prominent his name would be if the British government hadn’t put the brakes on the development of the jet fighter that could have taken out Hitler’s Luftwaffe well before the battle of Britain. By extension, at least, it’s possible to assume that the Allies had in their possession a weapon that could have changed the course of history, but repeatedly dropped the ball. This happened, even though we were fully aware of Germany’s intentions to use propeller-less planes at its earliest convenience. Hell, no one even bothered to label the project “top secret.” News of Whittle’s invention was splashed on the front page of newspapers around America and Briton. How could such a debacle be allowed to happen? Unfortunately, the documentary merely points fingers at the likely culprits, without providing the hard evidence that would be needed for a blanket indictment. Whittle was so disturbed by the course of events that he spend much of the war and post-war period in the United States, where he would be compromised by nervous breakdowns. In due course, Whittle’s achievements would be recognized by the British government, if not the ramifications of past decisions. Also interviewed at length is Whittle’s Germany counterpart, Dr. Hans von Ohain.

The same chronically healthy folks who produced the 2008 documentary/infomercial, “Food Matters,” have returned to spread the vegan gospel in “Hungry for Change.” The gist of their argument is that by drinking vegetable juice and eating more produce that’s raw and full of anti-oxidants, you not only can lose weight and prevent certain illnesses, but it’s also possible to reverse cancer and other serious diseases. The other thing stressed here is that the diet industry doesn’t necessarily have the best interests of its customers in mind. The movie provides plenty of testimonials, as well, to back up the assertions of the experts, who coincidentally also are the filmmakers. – Gary Dretzka

Hypothermia
James Felix McKenney’s throwback creature-feature, “Hypothermia,” combines the cheesy special effects of “The Creature From the Black Lagoon” and sub-zero shivers of the original 1951 “The Thing From Another World.” The result, however, is a story that is more silly than scary. Ever-credible Michael Rooker plays Ray, the father in a family hoping to enjoy a pleasant weekend of ice fishing, somewhere in Minnesota, Wisconsin or the Adirondacks. Joining him are his outdoorsy wife, Helen (Blanche Baker), son David and his fiancé Gina (Benjamin Forster, Amy Chang). Ray’s an old-school angler, whose idea of comfort is an upturned fruit crate and makeshift plywood windbreak. While sampling the ice on their first night at the cabin, Ray manages to slip through a thin patch that we are led to believe is an entry point for the “Lake Man” monster. After spending enough time semi-submerged to believe he should have experienced hyperthermia, his family senses something is wrong and rescues him. Still, after a night spent defrosting and being blasted with some heebie-jeebies effects, the family is good to go in the morning.

After a few hours on the ice, they’re joined by a father-son team of yahoos whose fishing shack resembles the model kitchen in a late-night ad for a mobile-home dealership. They’re noisy, obnoxious and ready to party. Ray’s family reluctantly joins the newcomers after nearly being killed by a monstrous aquatic creature drawn to mechanical vibrations. After that, of course, “Hypothermia” turns into a tale of survival, in which the two families battle a creature so obviously phony it could have been created by a high school AV club with access to scuba gear and a VHS copy of “Creature From the Black Lagoon.” Not surprising, then, “Hypothermia” is just now making its delayed debut on DVD. The best part of the experience is the making-of material, which explains how one might go about making a horror movie in sub-zero conditions, as well as the motivations of filmmakers, who admit to being scared out of their minds by the horror films they saw on TV when they were kids. It’s also kind of painful to watch veteran actor Blanche Baker pretend she isn’t feeling absolutely miserable, staring into a small hole in the ice with the frigid wind blowing in her face. – Gary Dretzka

Funkytown
By all outward appearances, “Funkytown” would appear to be a Canadian clone of “54” and “The Last Days of Disco,” which, of course, the world needs about as much as a paisley hockey puck. Fact is, though, folks in the Great White North have a very good reason to crow about their disco heritage. In the mid-1970s, Montreal had a nightclub scene that was the equal of New York and Los Angeles, and celebrities routinely made pit stops there on the way to other destinations. The fictional Starlight nightclub in “Funkytown” is modeled after such hotspots as the Lime Light and 1234, and several of the characters were inspired by actual players in the scene. Hanging like a black cloud of doom over the proceedings, however, is the political dynamic that would result in a vote among Quebecois as to the question of secession from the rest of Canada. This led directly to the flight of major corporations from Montreal to Toronto, where businesses were free to hang signs in any language they desired, not just French. (Overnight, the Starlight was required to advertise itself as Le Starlight.) In a couple of more years, Montreal had lost its luster as one of the most culturally hip and fastest-growing cities in North America. “Funkytown” isn’t in the same league with Whit Stillman’s “The Last Days of Disco,” but the ensemble cast is game and characters have other things on their minds than partying and cocaine (although there is some of that, too). The most recognizable actor for U.S. audiences probably is Justin Chatwin, who’s played key roles recently in “Weeds,” “Shameless” and “War of the Worlds.” He plays a featured dancer with a struggling Italian restaurant and sexual-identity issues. – Gary Dretzka

Brian Wilson: Songwriter, 1969-1982
Tight
No rock band has experienced more tumult and caused more anxiety among its fan base than the Beach Boys. Unless you were there, between 1969 and 1982, it’s difficult to imagine that this most American of ensembles rode a roller-coaster that carried them from the highs of immense popular and critical acceptance to the lows caused by Brian Wilson’s breakdowns, public rejection of the band’s most artistically ambitious material and their label’s demand for Top 40 hits. It played out on the pages of Rolling Stone and via the rumor mill, which made Brian sound as if he was either completely out of his mind or was under the control of an evil puppet master. Brian had more than his fair share of mental problems, certainly, and his personal psychologist did as much harm as good. The fact that he didn’t finally join Jimi, Janis, Jim and a dozen other dead musicians in Rock ’n’ Roll Heaven suggests he might have carried an angel on his shoulder. After many years spent walking the razor’s edge, Wilson returned to his piano, the stage and recording studio. Alone among the Wilson brothers, he’s still alive to tell the tale.

Songwriter 1969-1982” extends Sexy Intellectual’s previous critical biography, “Songwriter 1962-1969,” which chronicled the band’s spectacular rise to the top of the charts and wildly innovative studio work that led to “Good Vibrations” and other psychedelic-surf music. “1969-1982” is a far more downbeat documentary. In addition to the headline-making turmoil, the Beach Boys were coming apart at the seams. Towards the end of the ’70s, Brian’s music was emanating from places the others couldn’t understand or appreciate, especially when a resurgence of interest in the early material promised a continuous stream of revenues from concerts and greatest-hits albums. Brian would be wheeled out on stage and treated as if he was a “trained bear.” As is typical in documentaries from Sexy Intellectual, the interviews with critics, historians, producers and collaborators are smart, interesting and based on intimate knowledge of the subject. If Brian’s life story reads like a novel, it’s nice to know that the final chapter has yet to be written. The DVD adds extended interviews and the insightful featurettes, “Behind the Music,” “Out of Bed/The Man Behind the Myth” and “Brian Goes Country.”

If “Spinal Tap” taught us anything, it’s that the line between rock ’n’ roll and parody is very thin, indeed. (Actually, Frank Zappa showed us the same thing, only 20 years earlier.) “Tight” chronicles the transition of four porn stars into a touring rock ensemble of the same name. Originally intended as a raunchy reality mini-series — Showtime’s “Family Business,” comes to mind — “Tight” looks about as vérité offstage as “Honey Boo Boo.” As far as I can tell, it can only be seen here on DVD and a couple of adult websites. Tight, the band, is comprised of Monica Mayhem, Layla Labelle, Tuesday Cross and Alicia Andrews. It’s managed by Bree Olson, whose 15 minutes of fame came when Charlie Sheen introduced her to the world as his “goddess.” Conveniently, most of the band’s dates are booked in strip clubs, where they can take off their tops and there’s a good chance someone in the audience will recognize them. Each night, too, one of the ladies throws a “golden condom” into the audience, giving whichever guy or gal who catches it an opportunity for extracurricular activity. If the women play to type and appear to enjoy making music together, Olson’s inability to manage becomes apparent when she hires her hayseed Hoosier “cousin” to be the band’s road manager. The dork spends most of his time ogling the ladies and eating sardines from the can with his hands. At its best, “Tight” provides some goofy fun for porn fans – the band took first place in Howard Stern’s “XXX Factor” – and, at worst, it’s unwatchable. The same can be said about most reality series, though. The DVD adds deleted scenes, music videos, concert footage, a photo gallery and liner notes. – Gary Dretzka

Pet Sematary: Blu-ray
There was a time, maybe a quarter-century ago, when movies adapted from Stephen King’s novels and stories weren’t as predictable as rain in the jungle. In 1983, alone, five titles were turned into films. “Pet Sematary” was released in 1989, three years after “Stand By Me” showed us another, more introspective side of King. In that movie, King explored how a boy’s coming of age could be hastened by experiencing a tragic event. Here, almost perversely, a toddler’s shocking death becomes the catalyst for horror, and many parents of young children found “Pet Sematary” to be excruciating. As the story goes, a city-slicker doctor (Dale Midkiff) and his family move to a small town in Maine, where the greatest threat to happiness appears to be the giant trucks that pass by their property at breakneck speed. After a neighbor (Fred Gwynne) rescues the toddler from disaster, he mentions that the road “uses up” a lot of small animals. The more beloved of the roadkill end up in a pleasant pet cemetery nearby, a fact that creeps out the boy’s older sister. He also mentions to the doctor that there’s another cemetery, a bit further removed, where, it’s said, the dead don’t stay dead for very long. That’s because it’s built on an ancient Indian burial ground and the corpses aren’t fond of sharing the space with critters. Sure enough, this is the place that Dad decides to bury his daughter’s precious kitty cat after it’s killed by a truck. A few hours later, it returns a very different creature. No use spoiling anyone’s fun by going too deeply into the plot. Suffice it to say that the doctor can’t resist playing God, no matter how dangerous.

The supernatural aspects of “Pet Sematary” are pretty chilling, but what kicks the story up several notches higher are the special makeup and sound effects. The deaths are horrifying and the people who return from the dead look very much like considerably more ambulatory zombies. What happens when the little boy returns from the dead is almost unconscionably monstrous. That’s why they call it horror, though. The Blu-ray upgrade makes the 23-year-old movie look as fresh as a daisy, while the sound design is as unnerving as it could be. The Blu-ray package adds commentary by director Mary Lambert and three background featurettes. The 3D cover image is pretty scary, too. – Gary Dretzka

Note to Self
The upbeat urban rom-com, “Note to Self,” uses one trick too many to tell the story of Curtis King (Christian Keyes), a popular and soft-spoken student athlete, and the many trials he faces upon entering his senior year in college. After being caught pulling a prank, his no-nonsense coach tells him to see a psychologist to help get his priorities straight. In most other movies targeted directly at the African-American audience, the troubled protagonist would seek the advice of a preacher. Here, while asking the same kinds of questions, the counselor encourages Curtis to keep a journal detailing his circumstances and thoughts. Their conversations don’t feel at all organic, serving mostly to provide a bridge from one problem to the next. Among the things contributing to the young man’s malaise are a seriously ill mother; a father who disappeared 16 years earlier; an upcoming conference tournament; and an impatient libido. His life is further complicated by a brief affair with a sexy femme fatale and his determination to keep on the right side of things with his new girl, a genuinely nice single mother and nursing student. It’s a lot of weight for a graduating senior to carry, but Curtis benefits from good advice and direction from the psychologist. In addition to starring in “Note to Self,” Keyes wrote the screenplay for director Trey Haley, who also is a partner in the company that produced the picture. The cast includes former Destiny’s Child member, Letoya Luckett; singers Brian McKnight and Jason Weaver; and lots of faces that will be familiar to BET viewers and fans of Tyler Perry’s projects. The DVD supplements include deleted scenes, bloopers, a making-of piece and an “I’m Alright” music video. – Gary Dretzka


General Education: Blu-ray
Tom Morris’ first feature as writer, director and producer is a teen rom-com so devoid of humor and lacking in romance, it defies categorization. Given the genre, you’d think there would be one or two scenes in which kids drank too much and were stricken with projectile vomiting or fainted while sneaking peeks into the girls’ shower room at school. But, noooooo! “General Education” is a story about a teen tennis phenom, Levi Collins, who’s spent all his time practicing, instead of studying for the science final he needs to pass to graduate and qualify for a scholarship. Not only does Levi (Chris Sheffield) fail the course, but he also stands to flunk summer school. For some reason, he withholds this information from his wealthy parents (Larry Miller, Janeane Garofalo), freaking out his tennis-obsessed father when it’s revealed. At the same time as Levi breaks the news to his dad, he comes to the realization that, as good as he is, he doesn’t enjoy playing tennis and would prefer hanging out with his geek buddies and the pretty daughter of the teacher who’s failing him. That everything eventually works out for Levi should be evident from the moment the opening credits begin to roll.

What isn’t predictable is how darn nice everyone is or becomes. If it weren’t for Levi’s jerk father and his main competition for the tennis scholarship, there wouldn’t any conflict whatsoever. Given what I saw and heard, even the PG-14 seems extreme. With some gentle editing, it could easily qualify as an after-school movie on ABC Family or Disney Channel. I don’t think that was what the filmmakers were going for, though. The bonus material includes outtakes, a making-of featurette and commentary with director, producers and sound editor. – Gary Dretzka

Downton Abbey: Limited Edition: Seasons One & Two: Blu-ray
With 9 wins among 27 nominations, “Downton Abbey” has become the most celebrated British television production in Emmys competition. Like its kindred predecessor, “Upstairs Downstairs,” it has been embraced wholeheartedly by American audiences, as well. (FYI: The third season of “Downton Abbey” had already begun in England and will show up here in January, while the next go-round of “Upstairs Downstairs” begins October 7 on PBS.) The uninitiated would do well to catch up with the doings at “Downton Abbey” by picking up “Limited Edition: Season One & Two” on DVD or Blu-ray. There’s no better reason than to admire the Emmy-winning performances of Dame Maggie Smith, who stars as the imperious Dowager Countess of Grantham, matriarch of Downton. As her dutiful son and progressive American daughter-in-law, Hugh Bonneville and Elizabeth McGovern also are great fun to watch.

Season Two takes place as World War I rages across Europe and the impact is felt, as well, by everyone at the estate — rich and poor – especially after its been retrofitted as a hospital. Amid the chaos, there’s plenty of soap-opera melodrama to keeps fans happy, including a wedding and the scourge of the Spanish flu. The package adds “Downton Abbey Christmas Special” and the bonus features from Season One: “Making of ‘Downton Abbey’: A House in History” and “Great British Heritage Pass,” a promotional spot for British tourism.” The Season Two supplements include “Fashion and Uniforms,” “Romance in a Time of War” and “House to Hospital.” – Gary Dretzka

David Blaine: Decade of Magic
Throughout much of the 1990s, magic experienced the kind of commercial renaissance that standup comedy had a decade earlier. Las Vegas may have been the world capital of magic, but exposure on network television encouraged club owners to switch from comedy to magic. The same thing that burst the comedy clubs’ balloon eventually impacted on magicians. Once an entertainer had performed his act on HBO or the Comedy Channel, it was dead. Not even the most devout fan would put down hard-earned money to see the same jokes and “ad-libs.” Magicians faced the same dilemma. After viewers watched one made an elephant disappear before millions of viewers, how many people would pay for the same privilege on stage? Among the survivors was David Copperfield, who made a very good living by dispensing with the tuxedo and top hat and creating illusions that might have made Houdini gasp. If he wasn’t the hippest guy on the planet, at least he was young, handsome and exceedingly charismatic. How would the next generation of magicians top his act?

Along with Chris Angel, David Blaine found another way – guerrilla magic, if you will — to build a customer base. Instead of forcing their fans to buy tickets to a club or showroom, they took their act to the streets and made new friends along the way. Cable networks would exploit the popularity, using unobtrusive cameras to capture the excitement and wonder on the faces of the spectators. In most cases, these rock-’n’-roll magicians were performing card tricks and small illusions that were as old as George Burns, but spectators still reacted with “cool” and “awesome.” The more popular the magicians became, the more risks they took. The bigger the risks, the larger the audience became. After a rocky opening, Angel’s mind-freaky collaboration with Cirque du Soleil has found a home in Las Vegas’ Luxor. As is on full display in “Decade of Magic,” Blaine’s reputation has grown even more dependent on spectacle. His illusions and tests of endurance go on for days at a time and in places in full view of thousands of non-paying customers. The two-disc DVD compilation balances the big, headline-making stunts with televised accounts of “street magic.” In “Vertigo,” Blaine stands atop a 100-foot-high pillar in a New York City park, unharnessed, for 35 hours; in “Drowned Alive,” he spends a week submerged in a sphere containing 10,000 gallons of water, then attempts to break the record for holding one’s breath; and in “What Is Magic?,” Blaine catches a .22-caliber bullet, traveling at a speed of over 1,000 feet per second, in a cup clutched in his teeth. It’s a great stunt, but I swear I saw the same thing accomplished in Penn & Teller’s show. Perhaps, I missed something. – Gary Dretzka

Magic City: The Complete First Season: Blu-ray
New Girl: The Complete First Season
Hart of Dixie: The Complete First Season
How I Met Your Mother: The Complete Season 7
From Dust to Dreams: Opening Night at the Smith
Frontline: Alaska Gold
The Starz network has been around for 18 years, but, in all that time, it hasn’t attracted the kind of positive heat as it has in the last two or three seasons. Credit belongs to the bold decision to begin showcasing high-quality original mini-series, produced on budgets nearly the equivalent of those afforded shows on premium-cable competitor HBO and Showtime. Starz’ resurgence can be traced to the British historical epics “Pillars of the Earth” and “Camelot,” as well as the sci-fi fantasy, “Torchwood: Miracle Day,” and contemporary series “Crash” and “Gravity.” It scored a direct hit with the sword-and-sandal mini-series “Spartacus: Blood and Sand,” which combined graphic sex and violence and a highly stylistic visual style, reminiscent of Zach Snyder’s “300.” Even after losing its star to cancer, the mini-series would spin off a prequel and sequel. Next on tap were the classy political drama, “Boss,” and sexy gangster period piece, “Magic City.” Coming up next year is another historical drama, “Da Vinci’s Dreams.” Nine other shows are in the development stage. The common denominators are T&A – gladiator penises in “Spartacus” — and lots of spilt blood.

“Magic City” is set in Miami Beach, 1959, when the giant oceanside resort/hotels were the hottest places to stay in winter – imagine Las Vegas without the gambling — and, 90 miles away, Fidel Castro’s rebels were preparing to storm Havana. The white-hot center for action in Miami, we’re told, is the Miramar Playa resort, which serves as a home away from home for the Rat Pack, the Kennedys and mobsters about to lose their Cuban playground. The place is managed by Ike Evans (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), an ethical, if thoroughly compromised second-generation hotelier who is in constant danger of losing his property to the resident gangster, Ben “the Butcher” Diamond (Danny Huston). Otherwise, the story borrows liberally from “Casino,” “Godfather II” and “The Sopranos,” which is OK, I suppose. (When in doubt, steal from the best.) I don’t think any show can touch “Spartacus” for graphic displays of sweaty flesh, but “Magic City” comes close. If most of the men look as if they just stepped out of a police lineup, the women – Olga Kurylenko, Jessica Marais and Elena Satine, among them — may as well have been recruited from the Playboy mansion. (Although the introduction of silicone and saline breast implants would come several years after the period in which the show is set.) For the sake of cheap thrills, alone, “Magic City” is difficult to beat. The Blu-ray adds several background and making-of featurettes, none of which is long enough to add much perspective.

There are two very good reasons to watch the hit Fox sitcom, “New Girl”: 1) Zooey Deschanel and 2) it isn’t nearly as stupid as it sounds. The kooky flavor-of-last-year star, Deschanel, plays a slightly ditzy young woman, who, after losing her cheating boyfriend and job, moves into a bachelor pad with three single guys. This is the kind of thing that happens every day outside TV Land, right? Deschanel’s character, Jess, is pretty enough to set any young guy’s heart aflutter, but her purpose here is to play den mother and confidante for the trio of doofuses and her more worldly girlfriend, Cece. Tentatively titled “Chicks and Dicks,” which probably wouldn’t fly past network censors, anyway, the series was created by executive producer Elizabeth Meriwether. Her previous credits include the screenplay for “No Strings Attached” and an episode of “Children’s Hospital.”

Season One of the CW’s fish-out-of-water dramedy “Hart of Dixie” was targeted directly at the hearts of those young women who made hits out of “The O.C.” and “Gossip Girl.” The connective tissue between all three shows is the presence of writer/producer Leila Gerstein. Rachel Bilson plays Dr. Zoe Hart a New Yorker bred in the bone hoping to become a heart surgeon, just like Daddy. After a major setback, Zoe agrees to accept a job at a practice in someplace called Bluebell, Alabama. Before she can even open a box of tongue depressors, though, the doctor who owns the practice dies. Unexpectedly, he bequeaths half of it to Zoe. The other half belongs to a doctor played by Tim Matheson, who had the audacity to name his pretty blond daughter Lemon (Jaime King). Like father, like daughter, Lemon takes it upon herself to make the newcomer’s life in Bluebell a nightmare. Naturally, too, the rest of the Gulf Coast town is populated by colorful rustics, one of whom keeps an alligator as a pet. The second season begins on October 2.

Meanwhile, the hit CBS sitcom, “How I Met Your Mother,” has already entered its eighth season. The DVD package is subtitled “The Ducky Tie Edition,” in reference to the bad-penny tie that’s already made out-of-sequence appearances in previous episodes “The Naked Truth” and “The Best Man.” Here, in typical “HIMYM” fashion, Barney is so desperate to see and/or feel Lily’s pregnant breasts that he makes a wager with Marshall he’s sure to win. If, perchance he loses, Barney must agree to wear the duckling-patterned tie that he finds hideous. In the episode’s clever ending, Barney comes out on top, as usual, even after losing the bet. If that weren’t enough excitement for Barney, he’s also getting married. Look out, as well, for the return of the Slutty Pumpkin.

For those “HIMYM” viewers who simply can’t get enough of the multitalented Neil Patrick Harris (a.k.a., Barney), there’s “From Dust to Dreams: Opening Night at the Smith.” He hosts the opening-night concert at the sparkling new Smith Center for the Performing Arts, in Las Vegas. Not surprisingly, perhaps, there was no real impetus for such a facility as long as the Strip resorts brought in the world’s top entertainers. That’s not necessarily the case anymore and the city has grown to the point where it requires a permanent home for the Las Vegas Philharmonic, Nevada Ballet Theater and touring cultural attractions. Back in the day, the casino bosses would have put the kibosh on any such complex, but the city is large enough now to provide separate entertainment magnets for tourists and locals. The entertainers include Jennifer Hudson, Willie Nelson, Martina McBride, Joshua Bell, Mavis Staples, Merle Haggard, Pat Monahan, John Fogerty, Carole King and a company of Broadway All-Stars.

The “Frontline” presentation, “Alaska Gold,” tells another familiar story of life in our times. As if the state’s natural resources haven’t already been exploited enough, this documentary describes yet another confrontation between environmentalists and commercial interests hoping to squeeze every penny of profit out of mineral deposits discovered in the Bristol Bay region of southwest Alaska. Inconveniently, the bay also is home to the last great wild Sockeye salmon fishery in the world. The battle already is being waged in the statehouse and courts. – Gary Dretzka

Cartoon Network: Adventure Time: Jake vs. Me-Mow
Nickelodeon: Dora’s Royal Rescue
Everyone enjoys getting extra value for their money, no matter if they’re shopping for tires or DVDs. The new compilation of 16 episodes from the offbeat Cartoon Network series, “Adventure Time,” not only arrives with the special trivia feature, “Little Did You Know,” but also a cloth replica of Finn’s iconic bear cap, valued at $20. (Take that, Criterion Collection!) In the title episode, “Jake vs. Me Mow,” 14-year-old Finn’s shape-shifting dog does battle with a feline assassin, Me Mow, who is the size of a tick. The character’s look was inspired by a drawing sent to series creator Penn Ward by a young fan, whereas Jake is based on Tripper Morgan, Bill Murray’s character in “Meatballs.” Finn and Jake live in the post-apocalyptic Land of Ooo.

Dora’s Royal Rescue” arrives with coloring and activity book. The new double-length episode follows Lady Knight Dora as she joins the effort to rescue Don Quixote from Malambruno (voiced by Andy Garcia and Placido Domingo respectively). The Knight of the Woeful Countenance is being held captive in the Story Castle. The DVD also adds the new-to-DVD episode “Dora’s Knighthood Andventure.” – Gary Dretzka

VR Troopers: Season One, Volume One
Red vs. Blue: The Best
Saban Entertainment’s live-action companion to “Mighty Morphin Power Rangers,” “VR Troopers” was cobbled together from three different shows in the Japanese “Metal Hero” series: “Superhuman Machine Metalder,” “Dimensional Warrior Spielban” and “Space Sheriff Schaider.” The “action fighting kids show” introduced viewers to the world of virtual reality, which was hot at the time, but enjoyed a short shelf life. It tells the story of Ryan Steele, Kaitlin Star and J.B. Reese, three teens with the ability to turn themselves into virtual superheroes. Ryan’s father created a technology that allows the Troopers to defend our reality from an evil mutant, Grimlord, who threatens to take over the world. It debuted in 1994 and ran for two years. The DVD contains 26 episodes.

The gimmick behind “Red vs. Blue” is adding voiceovers to the blockbuster videogame Halo, just as Woody Allen did with the dopey Japanese actioner, “International Secret Police: Key of Keys,” which became “What’s Up, Tiger Lily?” The effect was hilarious, as it is here. “Red vs. Blue” is a parody of first-person shooter games, military life and science fiction films. It begins with two opposing teams of soldiers fighting a civil war in the middle of the desolate box canyon. None of this makes much logical sense, but that’s pretty much the point. The episodes included here were voted by fans to be the best. – Gary Dretzka

The DVD Wrapup: Klown, Avengers, American Horror Story … More

Wednesday, September 26th, 2012

Klown: Blu-ray
No sooner has Frank mentioned to an acquaintance over drinks, “If I had wanted kids around, I’d have worked in a kindergarten,” than he’s accidentally informed by the family doctor that his longtime girlfriend, Mia, is pregnant. She has been hiding the news from him because she isn’t at all sure that he’s sufficiently mature to be a parent. Nonplussed, Frank decides to prove to Mia that he not only is capable of being a good father, but also that his discomfort with being around children can be cured. Still, Mia isn’t convinced. So, one day, instead of driving her nephew to his grandparents’ home for a weekend visit, Frank decides to take the boy, Bo, on a long-planned canoe excursion with his friend, Casper. This comes as bad news for Casper, who waits all year long for the annual “tour de pussy” and has planned to visit a legendary brothel in the countryside. He fears that a pre-pubescent 12-year-old would spoil the fun. He’s only half right. Bo’s at that delicate stage in a boy’s life when he’s open to ridicule if the transition to manhood is delayed and his pubic area is as bald as a billiards ball. Neither does it help Bo’s confidence any that he’s never mastered the art of peeing standing up, like other boys. Easing his nephew’s anxiety is just one of many tests Frank will fail on the canoe trip.

Because “Klown” is the product of a country, Denmark, that isn’t afraid of portraying the sexual maturation process in an honest and occasionally comedic way, director Mikkel Norgaard can have his cake and reserve a large slice of it for viewers, too. The fact is, while Bo’s condition is temporary, Frank and Casper’s immaturity is chronic. After making fools of themselves with a gaggle of pretty teenage girls and a roly-poly Good Samaritan, the men invest in some blackmail insurance to ensure Bo’s silence. This plan fails even more miserably. It simply wouldn’t be right to describe how that happens, precisely, or how the men’s asses are saved in the end. “Klown” overflows with delightful surprises – including some hilariously filthy dialogue from mischievous senior-citizens – too clever to spoil.

Apparently, the characters played by Frank Hvam and Casper Christensen are quite familiar to Danish TV viewers. “Klown” is an theatrical extension of a popular sitcom that could only run here on HBO or Showtme. One of the episodes, written by Lars Von Trier, is included in the Blu-ray bonus package, along with commentary with the director and stars; three making-of featurettes; outtakes; deleted scenes; and a photo booklet. Don’t miss this one. – Gary Dretzka

Marvel’s The Avengers: Blu-ray
Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, Part 1: Blu-ray
Resident Evil: Damnation
For comic books and the movies inspired by them to serve a greater service to mankind than keeping idle minds occupied, they must trigger the imaginations of young people who live in a society where individualism is encouraged but conformity is rewarded. If mere mortals felt sufficiently empowered to prevent evil from sprouting in our soil, there would be no need for superheroes. At the moment, though, even a cameo appearance by a Captain America or Iron Man at the White House would go a long way toward easing fears of imminent global apocalypse. I have no way of knowing how many kids’ imaginations may have been sparked while watching “The Avengers,” but in the 70-some years Marvel Comics have been published – under one banner or another – countless readers have been taught to recognize the difference between good and evil and encouraged to serve the greater good. As we’ve learned, however, not all comic-book heroes and comic-book movies are created equal. There’s a huge difference in quality between “Marvel’s The Avengers” and “The Dark Knight Rises/Returns” and everything else.

For those of you who may have been vacationing in Afghanistan last spring, “The Avengers” was released in May to excellent reviews and went on to gross nearly $1.5 billion worldwide. The title refers to the crime-fighting collective comprised of Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Captain America (Chris Evans), Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner). They operate at the behest of S.H.I.E.L.D. world-government commander Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) and trusted aide, Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg). The Avengers are re-assembled here when Loki, the disgraced villain and brother of Thor, comes to Earth to retrieve the Tesseract, a blue-glowing energy cube that could set him apart from every other supervillain in the universe. In doing so, writer/director/fanboy Joss Whedon has created a movie that is greater than the sum of all previously released movies featuring the individual Avengers. The characters retain their superpowers and character traits – Iron Man is the same wise-cracking billionaire he always was – but aren’t required to fill two hours of screen time with CGI acrobatics and muscle-flexing. Loki’s forces are drawn to same scale, with wonderfully rendered flying fortresses and formidable skills. The final battle, on and above the streets of Manhattan, adds the personality missing in last year’s destruction of Chicago in “Transformers: Dark of the Moon.”

For once, a $250-million budget seems reasonable. I can only assume it looks pretty amazing in 3D, too. The Blu-ray package adds Whedon’s entertaining commentary; “The Avengers Initiative: A Marvel Second Screen Experience,” which allows viewers to remotely access a S.H.I.E.L.D. database; “Marvel One-Shot: Item 47,” a direct-to-video short in Jesse Bradford and Lizzy Caplan play thieves who stumble upon a piece of extraterrestrial gadgetry; a gag reel; deleted and extended scenes, including an alternate opening and ending; background featurettes “A Visual Journey” and “Assembling the Ultimate Team”; and a Soundgarden music video, “Live to Rise.”

In the darkly animated feature, “Batman: The Dark Knight Returns,” Bruce Wayne (voiced by Peter Weller) is forced to come out of retirement by the anarchic antics of teenage Mutants ravaging Gotham City. He’s 55, which is old even for superheroes, and has recruited a young female Robin (Ariel Winter) to help him understand the new generation of villains. Compared to them, Joker and Two-Face are pussycats. “The Dark Knight” is closely based on the futuristic 1986 graphic novel by Frank Miller and, of course, characters invented by Bob Kane. In “Part 2,” due next year, Batman will be pitted against former ally Superman.

If Capcom’s “Resident Evil”/“Biohazard” franchise were a publically traded corporation, someone in the Justice Department’s Antitrust Department might be investigating if the multiplatform brand has violated the law. This thought sprang from my confusion over the nearly simultaneous release this month of “Resident Evil: Retribution,” currently in theaters, and the DVD “Resident Evil: Damnation,” as well as next week’s release of video-games “Resident Evil 6,” “RE6/Anthology” and “RE6/Archives.” Fans already know that Paul W.S. Anderson’s wildly popular live-action series – which isn’t necessarily tethered to the hit video game – is in its fifth iteration, with geek-bait Milla Jovovich reprising her role as bad-ass Alice each time. In the CGI-generated “Damnation,” Courtenay Taylor voices the equally sensuous Ada Wong, a free-agent spy who prefers Manolo Blahnik pumps to combat boots. Here, Wong’s pet project – U.S. agent Matthew Mercer (Leon S. Kennedy) — goes off the reservation in Eastern Europe to verify rumors that Bio-Organic Weapons are being used in a civil war. They are. Followers of “R.E.” movies, video games, novelizations, comics and merchandise should enjoy “Damnation,” as well, if only for the wonderfully lethal catfight between Wong and nationalist leader Svetlana Belikova. Oh, yeah, don’t forget to visit the Biohazard Cafe & Grill S.T.A.R.S. the next time you’re in Tokyo. It sounds yummy. – Gary Dretzka

Delicacy
I don’t know how many actors, besides Audrey Tautou, could pull off the role of Natalie in the touching, if dangerously fragile French rom-com, “Delicacy.” Although Natalie is a successful business executive, with several employees reporting to her, she has been rendered nearly comatose by the unexpected death of her husband in a traffic accident. In the three years since his death, Natalie has done nothing but keep her nose to the grindstone at work and inert at home. More impishly cute than classically beautiful, Natalie has spent some of her time, at least, brushing off the advances of her boorish boss. One night, after a promotion, he convinces her to join him for a celebratory cocktail. When he makes his move on the walk home, she averts it with a ferociousness we hadn’t seen in her. Even so, Natalie is too valuable an asset to be fired for giving the married man his just dessert. The next morning, Natalie does something else that’s completely unexpected. When a tall, shy and gawky employee comes into her office to update her on the progress of project, she gets up from behind her desk and gives him a passionate kiss.

While it’s clear to viewers that it’s some kind of delayed reaction from the night before, the gawky Swede, Markus (François Damiens), is overwhelmed with feelings of joy and hope. The next day, though, Natalie deflates Markus’ balloon by showing no memory of the kiss. She doesn’t outright reject Markus, but it’s clear to her that the kiss was a one-off. When her jealous boss threatens to transfer Markus to his native Sweden, with a raise, it triggers something in her subconscious that says it’s time to get her life together and rejoin the rest of the world. It takes a while for the inevitable to happen, but, when it does, co-directors David and Stephane Foenkinos find a way to make it magical, and it’s probably the closest thing to a return to “Amelie” as Tautou’s fans are likely to get. There are times in “Delicacy” – adapted from a best-selling novel by David Foenkinos –when Natalie seems to belong in the catbird seat at a major company, but, more often, the gorgeous 5-foot-3 (almost always in flats) actor looks plain and mousy, as unaware of the world outside her emotional cocoon as a recent escapee from a convent. It’s quite a trick for Tautou, a highly recognizable international star who rarely plays vulnerable women, anymore. The Blu-ray adds a long and casually delivered making-of featurette. – Gary Dretzka

FDR: American Badass
Strippers vs. Werewolves: Blu-ray
Strip Mahjong: Battle Royale
Vampire Dog
Even though “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter” laid an egg the size of Transylvania in theaters this summer, it would be nice to think that all movies about presidential superheroes wouldn’t be tarred with its lack of success. “FDR: American Badass,” for example, is one terrific comedy and deserves to be seen by anyone who loved “Airplane!,” “I’m Gonna Git You Sucka” and any of the parodies that followed in their long wake. For one thing, the cast is extremely talented and fully engaged in the conceit: Barry Bostwick is terrific as F.D.R.; Lin Shaye was an inspired choice for Eleanor Roosevelt; Bruce McGill plays the president’s trusted aide, Louis; Ray Wise is Douglas MacArthur; Kevin Sorbo, as Abraham Lincoln; Paul Willson, as Winston Churchill; and Paul Ben-Victor, as Mussolini.

As the movie opens, then-Governor Roosevelt is attacked by a werewolf on a hunting trip – someone forgot to put silver bullets in his rifle – and he contactx polio from the spattered blood. Eleanor is repulsed by his shriveled legs, but FDR is inspired by a boy in a wheelchair to persevere. Meanwhile, Louis learns that the werewolf lying in the morgue has a swastika tattooed on its hairy chest. Years later, as POTUS, Roosevelt will be tested by full-blown werewolves: Hitler, Mussolini and Hirohito. I wasn’t a huge fan of Garrett Brawith and Ross Patterson’s previous collaboration, “Poolboy: Drowning Out the Fury,” but “American Bad Ass” is a direct hit. It’s worth knowing beforehand, however, that much of the R-rated humor derives from dialogue that is unabashedly politically incorrect. Here, that’s a very good thing.

The easiest and best way to describe the Brit import, “Strippers vs. Werewolves,” is that it’s the best Roger Corman movie anyone not named Corman has produced in the last 20 years. Back in the day, it would have appeared on the bill at every drive-in theater from San Diego to Bangor, Maine, and might even have been held over for a weekend or two. Besides the title characters, “Strippers vs. Werewolves” has everything anyone could want in an exploitation flick: blood, guts, nudity, Robert Englund, Cockney thugs, a stripper engaged to be married to a werewolf, direct references to past genre classics and a lively sense of humor. As the movie opens, a stripper is giving a gangster a lap dance. He gets so worked up by her moves that he can’t contain his identity as a werewolf. Frightened to her core, the stripper grabs a silver pen from her faux uniform – a nurse’s outfit, if I recall correctly – and jabs him in the eye, killing him. The werewolves in genre-specialist Jonathan Glendening’s movie hold a place in society similarly to those in “True Blood.” They co-exist uneasily with humans, until a full moon gets their juices flowing. When they finally notice that the leader of the gang is missing and presumably has been made to disappear by the dancers in his favorite club, the battle is on. How much simpler can genre filmmaking be? The Blu-ray adds the producer’s commentary and a behind-the-scenes featurette.

If there’s a drive-in theater in hell, “Strip Mahjong: Battle Royal” is on the eternal triple-bill. Even as an extension of the Japanese “pink” sub-genre, it will be incomprehensible to anyone to anyone in the west who isn’t conversant in the ancient tiles game. Those who do know how to play mahjong probably wouldn’t dignify the movie’s premise by watching it. As the title suggests, however, there’s plenty of topless gaming. The jist of the non-story is that there is a show on Japanese cable-TV in which four Japanese women are grabbed off the street – some have vague connections to degenerate mahjong gamblers – and forced to play the game as if their lives depended on it, which they do. Before they go broke, however, the losers in each round are required to remove articles of clothing. While this is OK in a voyeuristic sort of way — in true Japanese tradition, glimpses of pubic hair are avoided — the scenes in which rape is simulated to extract confessions are no fun at all to watch. As is typical in these sorts of “Battle Royale” movies, there’s an annoying announcer with whom to contend and his lovely, if clichéd female assistant. In fact, all of the women here are shrill characterizations of the kind of Japanese teenagers who incessantly giggle or squeal, instead of converse in any known language. It’s possible that the mahjong action is genuinely exciting, but I wouldn’t know. This one’s only for Japanese genre completists.

Now that vampires have insinuated themselves into the bloodstream of American pop culture, it shouldn’t surprise anyone that the Dove Foundation has given its seal of approval to a ’tweener comedy titled, “Vampire Dog.” There was a time, not so long ago, that positive images of supernatural demons were discouraged by bible-bangers and fundamentalists of all stripes. Here, the undead superdog is a wisecracking cutie-pie. A boy living in a stereotypical suburban community inherits a 600-year-old dog, Fang, from his Carpathian grandfather. It doesn’t take long for Ace (Collin MacKechnie) to figure out that Fang not only can talk (in Norm MacDonald’s voice) but is as uncomfortable in his new digs as he is in his new school … Lugosi Public School. Neither does Fang escape the attention of an anti-aging researcher, Dr. Warhol (Amy Matysio), who wants to extract a sample of the dog’s DNA and create a miracle drug for profit. First-time director Geoff Anderson’s background is in special effects, which allows him to invest some vampire cred into Fang, whose addiction is to cherry-flavored Jello and jam, not blood. Kids too young to be addicted to “Vampire Diaries” and “True Blood” should enjoy the cute story. – Gary Dretzka

Drunkboat
It’s difficult to imagine how John Malkovich, John Goodman and Dana Delaney found themselves in Bob Meyer’s adaptation of his own coming-of-age stage drama, “Drunkboat.” Meyer and Malkovich are longtime friends, but a star’s commitment to a pal’s predictably doomed feature film doesn’t explain the presence of the other two headliners. It’s entirely possible, of course, that what made sense in the script simply was lost in the translation to the screen. In any case, if it weren’t for the game performances of Malkovich and Goodman – Delaney’s role is little more than a cameo – there would be no reason to adapt it, let alone for anyone to rent the DVD. Those performances, however, are reason enough for fans to give “Drunkboat” a shot.

Although the timeline is murky, Malkovich plays the alcoholic Uncle Mort, who’s witnessed something sufficiently harrowing to scare him sober. He can barely remember the circumstances, though, when he shows up one day in front of his sister’s suburban Chicago home. Delaney is reluctant to invite him into the house, but her 16-year-old sees in the coot an opportunity to escape forever, as did his older brother. To do so, he wants to buy a boat from a shady dealer, Mr. Fletcher (John Goodman), who uses plaster of Paris to fix leaks. Not surprisingly, Mom refuses to sign the papers. Hoping to connect with a blind date in another town, she entrusts the Abe (Jacob Zachar) to the care of Mort. Abe doesn’t quite buy Mort’s reformation and expects he will serve as a surrogate signatory for Mom. When Mr. Fletcher shows up with the boat, which wouldn’t last five minutes on Lake Michigan, Mort surprises everyone by doing the responsible thing. Abe and Mr. Fletcher then silently conspire to rob Mort of his sobriety. The final act is too far-fetched to be believed, but, considering the autobiographical nature of the story, it may have some basis in fact.

Almost every male playwright who came of age in the last 30 years in Chicago has been influenced in some way by David Mamet and such rough-and-ready theater companies as Steppenwolf, Remains and the Organic Theater. Meyer’s play was written in 1985 – the heyday of off-Loop theater – which explains the movie’s rough edges and period trimmings. Malkovich and Goodman fit theirs character like well-worn leather gloves and deliver compelling performances. Even so, Meyers probably wasn’t right guy to interpret his own material. “Drunkboat” has been sitting on a shelf for two years, in search of a distributer willing to take a chance on it. Fans of the lead actors, at least, might be willing to forgive Meyer his lost opportunity. – Gary Dretzka

388 Arletta Avenue
While it’s perfectly OK to withhold key pieces of information from viewers when establishing a narrative, it’s difficult to get anyone to care about characters about whom we know next to nothing. That’s especially true in cyber-stalking movies, such as “388 Arletta Avenue,” in which the audience’s only access to the characters is from the point of view of cameras hidden throughout the protagonist’s home, inside his car and carried by the antagonist. Nick Stahl plays James, a graphic designer who’s being tortured systematically by the cyber-stalker, who has somehow gained remarkable access to the large suburban house he shares with his wife, Amy (Mia Kirshner). We feel sorry for the couple when Amy disappears, but it isn’t as if we actually know much about them. It’s to the credit of writer/director Randall Cole that we stick with “388 Arletta Avenue” until the bitter end. Credit also belongs to sound editors David McCallum and David Rose for the many audio tricks that will keep DVD renters on the edge of their seats throughout the movie. They’re scarier than the stalker, who remains a cypher for the movie’s 87-minute length. The bonus interviews explain how the hidden cameras that were used to shot the movie were deployed. – Gary Dretzka

Sleepness Night
Snowman’s Land
From France, of all places, comes a nonstop action picture that should have no problem pleasing American fans of “Drive,” “Taken” and any number of Bruce Willis and Mel Gibson thrillers. In fact, I wouldn’t be at all surprised to learn that “Sleepness Night” is being remade, in English, even as I’m writing this review. As the movie opens, a pair of guys in balaclavas is preparing to stop a Corsican mobster’s car and steal a gym bag full of either heroin or cocaine destined for a Turkish gang. The robbery doesn’t go quite as planned, but they get the drugs, anyway. As it turns out, however, the two guys are cops and the head of the Corsican syndicate somehow knows it. He orders his underlings to kidnap the teenage son of one of the cops and hold him for ransom, in return for the bag. In Europe, Corsicans enjoy their reputation for bad-ass criminality and the Turks aren’t far behind them on the pecking order, so Vincent (Tomer Sisley) knows the boy is in real danger. When Vincent agrees to trade the drugs for the teen, he isn’t aware that other cops in the department are desperate to keep the bag and make a fortune for themselves. That much information is delivered to viewers in the first 10 minutes of “Sleepless Night.” The rest of the action takes place in a trendy nightclub owned by the Corsicans. It’s triggered by a double-cross in which a female cop following Vincent guesses correctly that he wouldn’t be dumb enough to turn over the cache before his son is within his grasp, and he’s likely to take only one bag with him to the meeting. She finds the bag in the false ceiling of the men’s room and, naturally, stashes her discovery above the toilets in the ladies room. Unbeknownst to her, another cop – one even dirtier than she believes Vincent to be – steals the bag and stashes it somewhere else. From this point on, “Sleepness Night” becomes a wild chase throughout the length, breadth and depth of the nightclub, which has multiple bars, salons, restaurants, a billiards room, offices, a large kitchen and hidden tunnels. All come into play when Vincent learns of the triple-cross and must come up with the real stuff he assumes is still hidden in the nightclub, as is his son. Within minutes, the cop is being chased through the club not only by the Corsicans but the Turks and fellow cops.

Sisley, who began his career as a standup comic, has already proven that he can play action parts. Although the two unfortunately titled “Largo Winch” films — he played the comic books’ hero — bombed miserably in the U.S., the blame couldn’t be pinned on him. He’s good in “Sleepness Night” as both a pissed-off cop and desperate father. Co-writer/director Frederic Jardin even allows room for some comedy, especially in the scenes set in the kitchen, which is staffed largely by illegal immigrants. The DVD adds an interview with the movie’s cast.

In the character-driven German crime story, “Snowman’s Land,” the crooks are as colorfully eccentric as any we’ve met in the post-Tarantino age. The most interesting element, though, is the violence itself. As far as I can tell, there is no story to Tomasz Thomson’s film. There’s plenty of innovative bloodshed in it, though, and lots of swell atmosphere. I don’t know where it was shot, but it looks a lot like the Carpathians in winter. The primary human character is a disheveled professional hitman, who botched an assignment and is ordered to leave town to avoid the heat. Until things cool down, Walter (Jurgen Ribmann) is sent to the mountains, where he and an old friend, Mickey, will guard the chalet of another crime boss, Berger (Reiner Schone). Together, Walter and Mickey make a real Mutt & Jeff team. Walter is old-school goon, who prefers not to draw attention to himself, while Mickey is a party-hardy hustler. They’re greeted at the chalet by Berger’s lover, a pill peddler and unabashed sybarite, appropriately named Sibyll (Eva-Katrin Hermann). After her nightly run, Sibyll returns home in a frisky mood. Although Walter knows she’s up to no good, Mickey takes the bait and Sibyll ends up dead.

When Berger finally returns to the chalet, with his Russian henchman, Kazik (Walera Kanischtscheff) carrying a dead wild boar over his shoulders, the first person he wants to see is Sibyll. After a while, he begins to believe that she was kidnapped and Walter and Mickey are to blame. To get them to confess, he and Kazik take turns beating the crap out of the newcomers, who know that the consequences of telling the truth could be even worse than a thrashing. The only funny thing that happens in this otherwise grisly sequence is watching Kazik’s face when he slams his fist into the side of Mickey’s head. What we know and he doesn’t is that Mickey’s skull contains a large metal plate. The gag is reprised later – when the truth about Sibyll emerges — with decidedly different results. As far as the plot goes, though, the only question that remains is who’s going to leave the chalet on his own two feet and how. At a brisk 95 minutes, the absence of a narrative is hardly noticed. “Snowman’s Land” adds a making-of featurette. – Gary Dretzka

In the Eyes of the Killer
Anyone who’s spent the last 22 years of their lives waiting for Louis and Costas Mandylor to appear together in a feature film now can die easy. The Greek-Australian brothers appear in “In the Eyes of the Killer,” a relatively predictable thriller about a blind criminology professor, who, in an experimental procedure, is given the eyes of an executed murderer. It almost goes without saying that, before long, the newly sighted professor, Jack (Louis Mandylor), begins to see things only the killer would recognize. They come to him in the form of lightning-quick flashbacks of gory crime scenes and murders. An alcoholic congressman played by Costas shows up about halfway through the movie — with a bad attitude and a buxom babe — at the same island resort as Jack and his newlywed wife, Gwen (Gwendolyn Edwards). By this time, Jack has begun to exhibit anti-social habits that are especially vexing to Gwen. They do, however, play right into the somewhat soiled hands of their new friends. “In the Eyes of the Killer” wasn’t original enough to demand a theatrical release and there’s too much nudity for non-premium cable outlets. That leaves the straight-to-DVD marketplace, where, after the clichés fade away and a veritable bloodbath begins, the movie fits just fine. – Gary Dretzka

The Man From Beijng
To Whom It May Concern: Ka Shen’s Journey
Over on PBS, the third series of English-language adaptations of Henning Mankell’s “Wallander,” starring Kenneth Branagh, is wrapping up its run on “Masterpiece Mystery!” If you haven’t already watched or recorded it, there’s probably still time to catch at least one of the stories. The first two series are available on DVD, as are the complete Swedish-language compilations. It’s worth the effort to find them. Newly available on DVD is the original two-part mini-series based on Mankell’s “The Man From Beijing.” It is a very different kettle of lutfisk thematically, but similarly engrossing. As the title might suggest, the international thriller sometimes suffers from narrative dissociation and the curious decision to have all characters – Scandinavian, Chinese, American – converse in Swedish. Again, your patience will be rewarded. The story opens with the discovery of a ghastly mass-murder on a farm complex in rural Hudiksvall. Eighteen members of the Andren family have been chopped apart by someone wielding a sharp blade. There are two survivors, but they mostly provide the baffled police with convenient suspects to serve the voracious appetite of the media.

Suddenly, though, the scene shifts abruptly to Beijing, where a man is about to be executed for corruption perpetrated in the name of his boss, who’s too powerful to convict. Afterward, the smug businessman is berated by his sister for putting their family’s honor at stake and choosing laissez-faire capitalism over the Communist Party’s core beliefs. Then, just as abruptly, we’re back in Sweden and the offices of a judge, Brigitta (Suzanne von Borsody), who, along with her estranged husband (Michael Nyqvist), represent the last of the Andren line. As the local police rush to frame the wrong suspects, Brigitta discovers family letters and photos that indicate someone’s been waiting 150 years to avenge the deaths of Chinese ancestors working in the United States on the transcontinental railroad. The suspicion is confirmed when police in Reno inform her of the killings of several more Andrens at the hands of a sword-wielding assassin. Sensing that the only thing likely to satisfy the killer is the murder of the final two Andrens, Brigitta begins her own investigation. After barely surviving an attack, the judge not only learns the identity of the killer, but that he’s already split for Beijing, which is where she heads next. Being a stranger in a strange land, her appearance draws the attention of state authorities and, yes, the brother and sister we met earlier. Unlike the investigations in “Wallander,” the pieces of Brigitta’s puzzle fall together all too conveniently. Even so, the film’s pace continues to accelerate throughout its three-hour length and we willingly suspend our disbelief.

It wasn’t so long ago that Asian actors were as visible on American screens and stages as pandas in zoos outside China. The very few exceptions were required to play subservient roles to Caucasian actors, occasionally in Asian drag. “To Whom It May Concern: Ka Shen’s Journey” describes how a freckly Eurasian teenager from Hong Kong helped break the ice of institutional racism in Hollywood and on Broadway. Classically trained at the Royal Ballet School, in London, Nancy Kwan was discovered by producer Ray Stark and became an international star playing non-cliché roles in “The World of Suzie Wong” and “Flower Drum Song.” For a little while, anyway, she was as hot a commodity as there was on the planet. When screenwriters and playwrights ran out of ideas for material requiring Asian actors – even those who could pass for Natalie Wood – Kwan’s career hit a doldrums. In 1970, she moved back to Hong Kong to care for her ill father. Kwan would play action parts in Southeast Asia until 1980, when she moved to Los Angeles, where she accepted a relative handful of roles over the next 30 years and promoted the hiring of actors with Asian roots.

Brian Jamieson’s insightful biopic frames Kwan’s career within the context of her appearance at the Hong Kong Ballet’s adaptation of “The World of Suzie Wong.” We learn more about her in on-location interviews at Angkor Wat, vintage film clips, screen tests and home movies. “To Whom It May Concern” also spends a great deal of time recalling the deaths to AIDS of Kwan’s actor son and his wife, and her determination to commemorate their lives as an activist. Maybe change was inevitable, but Kwan’s efforts to convince casting directors to hire Asian-American and Pacific Rim actors have found traction. Movies from China, Korea, Japan and Thailand have found a home in arthouses and video stores, as well. The DVD adds a photo gallery and original watercolor art gallery of images from the documentary. – Gary Dretzka

Bob Dylan and the Band: Down in the Flood
Just Around the Corner: The Bob Benjamin Story
When Bob Dylan was injured in a 1966 motorcycle accident, between tours, near his Woodstock home, it precipitated a storm of rumors even more intense than the “Paul McCartney is dead” insanity. If the accident had happened today, several hundred paparazzi would have descended on the town immediately after hearing the first rumor and “TMZ” would have moved its entire operation to Upstate New York. In 1966, though, the first issue of Rolling Stone had yet to be published and the mainstream media were still struggling to figure out why all the folkies were upset that he’d “gone electric.” Fans fretted as concert tours were canceled and new records stopped coming. Others believed he was dead, comatose or tragically disfigured. When finally, in December 1967, his “John Wilson Harding” was released, its Nashville roots and biblical references would cause listeners to panic even more. Like the still-incensed folkies and radicals, fans of “electric Dylan” didn’t know quite what to make of the new change in direction, which included a return to acoustics.

Among the rumors that managed to slip through the cone of silence were reports of private sessions Dylan was conducting in Woodstock with his backup band, the Hawks, soon to be known as the Band. This rumor, along with speculation about “basement tapes,” turned out to be true. Rock mavens assumed incorrectly that any new album would, in fact, be comprised of session tapes. Instead, the sessions provided the foundation for the Band’s debut album, “Music From Big Pink,” which featured several songs written by Dylan, whose head, at least, was already in Nashville with the city’s best session musicians. (Eight years later, after bootleg copies of “Basement Tapes” began popping up, Dylan and his slippery manager, Albert Grossman, agreed to release an arguably bogus album that satisfied no one.) Their collaborations wouldn’t continue, primarily because the Band wanted to forge its own path to the charts.

Bob Dylan and the Band: Down in the Flood” goes on to chronicle what happened to both parties between the release of “Music From Big Pink” and the “The Last Waltz” concerts, which effectively put an end to the Band’s long run. It features new interviews with Garth Hudson; producer John Simon; the Hawks’ 1966 tour drummer, Mickey Jones; the Hawk’s founder, Ronnie Hawkins; Dylan guitarist, Charlie McCoy; Band biographer Barney Hoskyns; “Basement Tapes” archivist, Sid Griffin, Isis magazine’s Derek Barker; and Rolling Stone’s Anthony De Curtis. Dylan obsessives will want this DVD in their collection.

I can’t imagine many people outside New Jersey being familiar with Bob Benjamin or the Jersey-based Light of Day Foundation, which he helped found after being diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease at 38. As a fan, journalist and rock promoter, Benjamin’s passion was the music that emanated from the Jersey Shore, before and after the explosive rise of Bruce Springsteen. Benjamin, musician Joe D’Urso and former Asbury Juke Tony Pallagrosi have since worked tirelessly for the foundation, whose funds come primarily from benefit concerts staged around the world in the interest of finding a cure for Parkinson’s. Likewise, proceeds from “Just Around the Corner” will go to the foundation. The DVD contains much fine music and the imprimatur of Michael J. Fox. – Gary Dretzka

Del Shores’ Sordid Confessions
Twisted Romance
Del Shores is a successful television writer (“Sordid Lives,” “Queer as Folk,” “Dharma and Greg”) who specializes in shows that have decidedly offbeat characters and a kinky streak you can cut with a butter knife. Being gay and a native Texan, Shores doesn’t have to reach very far for material. In his follow-up to last year’s “My Sordid Life,” Shores expands on how his life as a gay man is going, so far. Well, for one thing, he has the rare distinction of being divorced from a woman and a man. “Sordid Confessions” is full of funny stories about how things have changed since he got re-married, re-divorced and re-entered the singles scene. One involves dating a man with a “perpendicular dick” and, yes, he does describe how fellatio might be difficult in such a situation. Another large section of the film is dedicated to people and things he hates or freak him out, including midgets, fat homeless men, “QAF” co-star Randy Harrison, former “SNL” cast member Victoria Jackson and self-righteous letter writers. Suddenly, Shores has turned into the gay Andrew “Dice” Clay, even using the C-word for emphasis. You can imagine how this might sound coming from a comedian, who, from a distance, could pass for John Denver. The DVD adds a behind-the-scenes featurette, audience interviews and footage of the cover photo shoot.

Also from Breaking Glass Pictures’ QC collection comes Jose Campusano’s dark drama, “Twisted Romance.” Set in a shabby neighborhood on the outskirts of Buenos Aires, it describes the coming-of-sexual-age of a bored young man, Roberto. One day, after spying his mother and sister service a couple of bozos at home, he decides to find a less compromised place to live. He allows himself to be picked up by a 50-something man, whose “look” appears to have been inspired by the “hair bands” of the 1970s. Before meeting Raul, most of what Roberto knew about being gay seemingly was what could be gleaned in TV sitcoms and other 21st Century clichés. Raul would introduce to him an earlier, less enlightened period in history, when self-loathing homosexuals took out their shame and hostility on young prey, in short and violent encounters. He hurts Roberto in their first coupling, but not so much as to convince the boy to leave. All he asks is for Raul to be more considerate of his feelings and for him to agree occasionally to be the “bottom.” Before long, they do reach common ground and Roberto’s mother and sister take to Raul, as well. The older man’s dark side reveals itself again when Roberto meets a Spaniard his age and he’s spied leaving their home. Raul’s anger is amplified by being refused meetings with his young daughter and money problems that lead him to burn a teenage who entrusts him with cash to buy drugs. Things get even more complicated, but in ways that make sense within the context of the story. “Twisted Romance,” then, is both a throwback to an earlier period in gay history and a story in which the characters run headlong into the walls built around them. It’s interesting, but primarily for niche audiences. – Gary Dretzka

Paul Rodriguez: Just for the Record
Although Paul Rodriguez looks younger than 57 in “Just for the Record,” the cane in his hand serves as a reminder that he’s one of the grand old men of the comedy circuit. The same men and women who helped launch the comedy-club revolution of the 1980s are getting to the point in their career where Buddy Hackett, Milton Berle, George Burns and Bob Hope were when Johnny Carson moved “The Tonight Show” to Los Angeles, 40 years ago, and the guest list always seemed to include one comic who started out in vaudeville. Had they lived, Richard Pryor would be turning 72 in December and Freddie Prinze would be 58. Steve Martin is 67. Standup comedy was nearly dead around the time Rodriguez and his peers made their mark on fledgling HBO and L.A.’s Comedy Store. He became one of very few Hispanic comedians getting work at a time when comedy clubs were blooming in every major city. “Just for the Record” is Rodriguez’s first one-man theatrical show. Far less a standup routine than a memoir, it recalls his early years as the son of migrant workers from Mexico and, soon, a Hispanic in mostly black Compton. From there, it was the military, college on the G.I. bill and a detour from the road to law school into a job parking cars at the Comedy Store. He also reminisces about some of the stars he met on his way to the top. His timing couldn’t have been better. “Just for the Record” is a heartfelt and often very funny presentation by a comedian who’s long been taken for granted and criticized for being too soft. – Gary Dretzka

Arachnophobia: Blu-ray
A joint venture between Steven Spielberg’s Amblin Entertainment and Disney’s fledgling Hollywood Pictures, “Arachnophobia” may not have been the first thriller in which the antagonists were spiders or tarantulas, but it almost certainly was the most expensive to date. Amblin wasn’t making small pictures anymore and Disney needed a banner under which it could produce pictures aimed for the PG-13 crowd. “Arachnophobia” filled the bill nicely, even if its storyline was straight out of the genre playbook. The movie opens in the Venezuelan rain forest, where a previously unknown type of spider is killing villagers. After hitching a ride to the United States in a casket, one of the spiders escapes detection and is able to cross-breed with critters here. The offspring are real killers and, of course, they find their way into the house recently purchased by an arachnophobic doctor looking for some peace and quiet in the country. What separated “Arachnophobia” from previous spider chillers – “Tarantula,” “Kingdom of the Spiders” (William Shatner!) – was its $31-million budget, such versatile actors as Jeff Daniels, John Goodman and Julian Sands, and uber-producer Frank Marshall, who was taking his first shot at directing features. Horror buffs weren’t terribly impressed by the results, but it made plenty of money and proved that the world wouldn’t end if PG-13 and Disney were used in the same sentence. The Blu-ray adds featurettes on the production and Marshall, as well as more material from Venezuela. – Gary Dretzka

The Carol Burnett Show: Carol’s Favorites
Among the many things missing on prime-time television these days are the old-fashioned variety shows, which, each week, mixed comedy, music, dance, popular stars and a stock company of sidekicks, around which the hosts could work their magic. For many years, Ed Sullivan hosted the most popular variety show on the air. In addition to presenting Elvis Presley and the Beatles to mainstream America, Sullivan featured a steady stream of entertainers representing the best of their respective discipline. One a single show, it wouldn’t be uncommon for a the world’s greatest tenor to be followed by the world’s most talented plate-spinner, a puppet theater, an animal act and a world-class comedian passing through New York on his way to Miami, Las Vegas or the Catskills. When Sullivan left television, dozens of entertainment specialists, Broadway shows and touring companies lost their primary publicity source. Some ended up in Vegas, Branson and on the cruise ship circuit, while others simply disappeared. Then came the era of the flash-in-the-pan host, including such passing fancies as the Captain & Tennille, John Davidson, Mac Davis, Bobby Goldsboro, Rod Hull & Emo, Barbara Mandrell, Tony Orlando & Dawn and Lynda Carter. There were many more, but none of them could hold a candle to Sullivan, Jackie Gleason, Dinah Shore, Perry Como, Dean Martin, Sonny and Cher or even the Muppets. Now, there’s only “Sabado Gigante. The afternoon and late-night talk shows have picked up the slack somewhat, but guests are mostly limited to bands, actors and comics that appeal to the 18-to-34 demographic or are pitching a new movie.

Watch even a half-hour of the episodes included in Time Life’s six-disc “The Carol Burnett Show: Carol’s Favorites” and you’ll know what made her different from any host before or after her 11-year tenure on CBS. As complete an entertainer as she was, the Hollywood High School graduate maintained a repertory company of gifted comic actors, not unlike those who surrounded Sid Caesar in his heyday. In Harvey Korman, Vicki Lawrence, Lyle Waggoner and Tim Conway, Burnett had a troupe capable of turning an idea into a sketch overnight and contributing songs and dance routines whenever necessary. The skits ranged from recurring character pieces (“Mrs. Wiggins,” “The Charwoman”), slapstick with Conway and Korman and parodies of popular movies and TV shows (“As the Stomach Turns,” “Went With the Wind”). These were interspersed with formally choreographed dance and musical interludes, chats with guests and a weekly Q&A with the audience. Today, these elements would be considered square as hell, but the personal touch is exactly what’s missing on prime-time television. (Watch Ellen DeGeneres’ afternoon show and you’ll see how much she owes to Burnett and how well the audience responds.) “Carol’s Favorites” is part of a larger Burnett initiative by Time Life, but there’s already enough here to keep fans laughing for weeks. The material on the discs looks and sounds as good as it ever will and probably of better quality than color TV permitted in 1960s. The full set contains 18 complete, unedited episodes, some introduced by Burnett and other regulars. Also available are “The Best of the Carol Burnett Show” in one- and two-disc packages; and the 20-DVD boxed set, The Carol Burnett Show Ultimate Collection,” with 50 episodes and more than 10 hours of never-before-seen bonus features. “Carol’s Favorites” adds three hours of extras, including a history of the show, cast reunion, interviews, the “Dentist” skit and Carol performing her famous Tarzan yell for the first time, on “The Garry Moore Show.” – Gary Dretzka

American Horror Story: Blu-ray
Key & Peele: Season 1
Portlandia: Season Two
Gossip Girl: The Complete Fifth Season
Family Guy: Volume Ten
Imagine buying a house in which both the Manson and Addams families once lived, then having to deal with their spirits on a daily basis. That, in a nutshell, is a synopsis of FX’s “American Horror Story.” It is into just such a house that the Harmons move after leaving Boston to escape memories of a miscarriage and infidelity. If it weren’t haunted, the home (the 1908 Rosenheim Mansion) would have been an exceptional bargain. As it is, however, it’s a nightmare of ever crazier visions, graphic violence, psycho-sexual perversion and time-shifting ghosts. The mansion is so notorious it’s even referred to by ghoulish crime-tour guides as the Murder House. Adding to the bad vibes are the psychiatric patients drawn to Dr. Ben Harmon’s (Dylan McDermott) office in the house. The candles on the cupcake, though, are the busybody neighbors played by Jessica Lange and Jamie Brewer, who pop up at the most inconvenient times for the fragile Vivien Harmon (Connie Britton). Each episode of the 12-episode series, which was created by Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk (“Nip/Tuck,” “Glee”) opens with depictions of killings that occurred years earlier in the Murder House and continue to resonate within the walls. The Blu-ray set adds commentary on the pilot episode, a visit to the mansion by Eternal Darkness Tours of Hollywood and four behind-the-scenes featurettes.

Anyone who misses the irreverent sketch comedy popularized on “In Living Color,” “Chappelle’s Show” and “MADtv” ought to check out “Key & Peele,” which begins its second season on Comedy Channel this week. It stars Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele, whose collective resume include stints with “MADtv,” “Reno 911,” “Childrens Hospital” and the Second City troupe. If that doesn’t say, “funny,” nothing does. Among the characters to look for in the new Blu-ray collection and on Comedy Central are Barack Obama (Peele) and his anger translator, Luther (Key), who says the things the President would say if the black half of his personality was the dominant side. Reportedly, Peele was in line to portray Obama on “Saturday Night Life,” before the writer’s strike put those plans on hold and he joined the gang at “MADtv.” The Blu-ray adds more from Luther, outtakes, interviews, commentaries and “Live at South Beach Comedy Festival.”

When Dish dropped channels owned by AMC earlier the summer, the most immediate victims were fans of IFC’s original comedy series, “Portlandia,” whose season was cut short by the action. It was a cruel blow, indeed. Unlike “Key & Peele,” “Portlandia” is mostly shot on location in and around Oregon’s largest and most politically correct city. Written by and starring Fred Armisen (“SNL”) and Carrie Brownstein (the Sleater-Kinney band), it parodies the hipper-than-thou post-hippie residents of Portland who are notoriously obsessed with being green, vegan, mellow and in tune with their spiritual side. They mistrust people they consider to be square, mainstream, opponents of non-motorized transportation and intolerant of New Age theories. If there ever was a show Republicans could enjoy unreservedly – while completely missing the point – it would be “Portlandia.” I’m not a big fan of Armisen on “Saturday Night Live,” but here, in league with Brownstein, he nails practically every offbeat character they create. Like all Oscilloscope products, the Blu-ray package is environmentally safe and the features include elongated and deleted scenes, and some funny making-of material.

Season Five of “Gossip Girl” opens with Serena in L.A., working temporarily as a production assistant on a movie that probably could have done just as well without her help. Chuck and Nate take a break in Tinseltown from their cross-country tour, as well. At a swank party, Nate encounters a glamorous cougar (Elizabeth Hurley) and Chuck bonds with stunt woman Zoe Bell. Meanwhile, back in Gotham, a pregnant Blair is preparing for her marriage to Prince Louis, scheduled for Episode 100. Unlike every other up-and-coming novelist, Dan is trying to prevent his roman-a-clef from being published. Things only get more complicated from there. Thank goodness, Season Six will put the show out of our misery. The DVD set adds “Gossip Girl Turns 100!,” “5 Years of Iconic Style,” a gag reel and unaired scenes.

The thing for collectors of “Family Guy” DVDs to know is that “Volume 10” opens with “Halloween on Spooner Street,” from Season Nine, and ends with “Foreign Affairs,” the same season’s penultimate episode. And, no, I can’t explain why that’s the case. The three-disc set adds deleted and extended scenes, several scene animatics and commentaries, and “Adam West Star Ceremony.” The dialogue is uncensored. – Gary Dretzka

American Masters: The Day Carl Sandburg Died
PBS: I’m Carolyn Parker: The Good, the Bad and the Beautiful
The Inner Game: Golf/Tennis
PBS’ “The Day Carl Sandburg Died” recalls the incomparable American poet/journalist/historian/musician whose radical beliefs and personal activism were ignored by generations of English teachers trying to sell poetry to students who’d rather be napping. This “American Masters” presentation reminds us of the man behind words and the events he witnessed that shook him to the core. The students who paid attention to Sandburg’s words in class could visualize an America very different than the one promoted by politicians and chambers of commerce. He wrote the poetry at a time when everything seemed possible for people who worked for a living, but, in fact, the road to success and happiness required paying a stiff toll. “The Day Carl Sandburg Died” should be shown in high school English classes before a single word of poetry is taught. That it’s enjoying a resurgence in popularity among the poetry-jam crowd is very good news, indeed.

With another season of “Treme” having just begun on HBO, it’s a good time to recall the real, on-going horror that is post-Katrina New Orleans, especially the Lower 9th Ward. “I’m Carolyn Parker: The Good, the Bad and the Beautiful” is told through the point of view of the last resident to leave and first to return to the devastated community. In doing so, Parker became one of the only residents left to represent the 9th Ward at public hearings held to discuss reclamation efforts. She tells city, state and federal officials that she doesn’t want to live in a trailer or another city. Parker demanded she be allowed to live in the house in which she’s resided ever since a time when “all my neighbors were white” and worship in the same Roman Catholic Church she attended before the flood. It also was important to her that her former neighbors be encouraged to the return to the ward to live something resembling normal life. “Normal,” of course, is a relative term in New Orleans. When it came to rebuilding the wards, “normal” meant being approached by contractors who would lie about being licensed and were given a pass because they had paid off someone for the privilege of doing so. It also means that only the squeakiest wheel gets the grease, and that’s what Parker became. Her commitment attracted no less a filmmaker than Jonathan Demme to tell her story and that of her community. He made 21 visits to the Lower 9th in five years to keep track of the progress of this “ordinary” woman.

For those amateur athletes who believe that the cure for a weak backhand or shaky putter can be found in the mind, there’s newly updated editions of PBS’ “The Inner Game: Tennis” and “The Inner Game: Golf.” In them, author Tim Gallwey coaches a celebrity in the techniques of the so-called Inner Game as applied to their sport. Among the questions Gallwey attempts to answer: how does one maintain concentration under pressure?; how to avoid the mental and physical tensions that can sabotage any shot, from the simplest putt to a demanding drive; and how to quiet the negativity that often bubbles up at the most crucial times. For the time being, anyway, the easiest place to find these DVDs during Pledge Month is on the websites of your local PBS station. – Gary Dretzka

London 2012: Games of the XXX Olympiad: Blu-ray
Ever since the tragic terrorist attack that marred the 1972 Summer Olympics, too much of the early speculation surrounding each new Games involves security measures, not sports. This was certainly true in the advance of the XXX Olympiad in London, long a target for extremists. Blessedly, apart from some early concern over traffic congestion, the event went on as planned. It was full of great performances by world-class athletes and there were plenty of surprises, as well. Less than two months after the gala Closing Ceremony comes NBC’s “London 2012: Games of the XXX Olympiad,” in Blu-ray and SD editions. Just as the network’s coverage rankled almost everyone committed to watching as many hours of competition as possible, “London 2012” isn’t likely to satisfy anyone, either. For one thing, it doesn’t include the Closing Ceremony, which was truncated to accommodate a preview of a new NBC sitcom. The disgraceful decision eliminated several important musical presentations plugged in advance. The Blu-ray package is comprised of two discs – sold individually in the SD versions – one of which is a compilation of highlights and the other, coverage of the swimming and gymnastics events, as well as select moments from the track-and-field and, of course, the women’s beach volleyball contests. – Gary Dretzka

Yoga Is: A Transformational Journey
Occupy Unmasked
If any industry is likely to survive unscathed during the continuing economic doldrums, it’s the physical- and spiritual-wellness racket. There now seem to be as many yoga facilities sprouting up in strip malls and dance-rehearsal spaces as there were karate dojos in the 1990s. Suzanne Bryant is a former harried journalist (“60 Minutes”) who discovered the ancient practice just as her job was robbing her of her free time and sanity. Desperately in need of a transformation, the New Yorker split to California to get a master’s degree in spiritual psychology and nutrition. To become a teacher, she enrolled in a 500-hour training regimen with Alan Finger, who practices Ishta Yoga. Two years later, she was ready to commit herself to changing the world through yoga. For “Yoga Is,” Bryant traveled to India and throughout the U.S. to interview teachers and other facilitators of true happiness. No self-help DVD is complete without a celebrity or two and, here, they include producer Russell Simmons, musician Michael Franti and super-duper model Christy Turlington-Burns. And, yes, she looks kind of hot in a leotard.

Just as ’60s-era leftists imagined seeing FBI agents behind every tree and mailbox – we’ve subsequently learned their paranoia might have been justified – the late right-wing fantasist Andrew Breitbart was haunted by visions of liberal slogans spelled out in his alphabet soup. “Occupy Unmasked” arrives in the wake of the first anniversary of the Occupy Wall Street movement. Before his untimely death last March 1, Breitbart and fellow paranoids Brandon Darby, David Horowitz, Pam Keys, Anita Moncrief, Mandy Nagy and Lee Stranahan felt it necessary to alert the world to the fact that Occupy outposts weren’t the latter-day Woodstocks the media made them out to be. Instead, according to the message of this DVD, the camps also harbored homeless people, petty criminals, bongo players and anarchists, as well as well-meaning, if misinformed liberals. Yikes … someone call a cop. Actually, civic leaders did just that, eliminating any threat to domestic peace and free-market economics, once and for all. As was adequately demonstrated on September 17, the Occupy movement either no longer exists or it has transformed itself into organization more interested in education than killing time in sleeping bags and sharing Port-o-Potties with conspiracy theorists. The documentary was written and directed by Stephen K. Bannon (“Generation Zero”). – Gary Dretzka

The DVD Wrapup: Chico & Rita, Detachment, Cabin in Woods, End of Road … More

Wednesday, September 19th, 2012

Chico & Rita: Blu-ray
In Tono Errando, Fernando Trueba and Javier Mariscal’s beautifully illustrated celebration of Afro-Cuban music and those who make it, we’re invited to recall a time when the musicians of “Buena Vista Social Club” were young and bebop was redefining American jazz. “Chico & Rita” was a finalist for an Oscar this year as Best Animated Feature, but, in what must have been a tight vote, lost to “Rango.” It opens in 1948 Havana, when music filled the streets, but only a fortunate few could make a living in the resorts and casinos that catered to Yankee tourists, gangsters and home-grown thugs. As the reputations of the musicians grow, they’re shuttled back and forth from Havana, to Manhattan, Paris and Las Vegas, where the Fates have their way with the characters. While its story reads like an epic romance between star-crossed lovers, in spirit “Chico & Rita” recalls Ralph Bakshi’s underappreciated animated features “Heavy Traffic,” “Coonskin” and “American Pop.”

Chico is a young piano player with great ambition. In Rita, he sees not only a beautiful singer, but also a muse and potential lifelong partner. She has dreams and ambitions of her own, some of which coincide with Chico’s and others that require the assistance of sugar daddies and fixers. Just when it seems as if Chico and Rita finally will be allowed to dictate their own fortunes, destiny denies them an opportunity to overcome the forces that enslaved too many cabaret, lounge and nightclub performers in the 1950s and 1960s. Upon Chico’s forced return to Havana, he discovers that his brand of Afro-Cuban music has been declared counter-revolutionary and employment is conditioned on one’s status within the Communist Party. In a nod to Ry Cooder and the “Buena Vista Social Club,” perhaps, Chico finally is rediscovered years later by a pretty young songbird who can’t get one of his ancient love songs out of her mind. She opens the doors for him to freely travel abroad and dare a long-delayed reunion with Rita, whose career was also forcibly put on hold, this time in Las Vegas. Their story is backed by an original musical score by Cuban pianist and Grammy-winning composer Bebo Valdes. It is framed within animated cameos by Thelonious Monk, Charlie Parker, Cole Porter, Dizzy Gillespie, Woody Herman, Tito Puente and Chano Pozo, whose untimely death is witnessed by Chico. The limited-edition collector’s-set Blu-ray includes the full-length soundtrack and a 16-page excerpt from the graphic novel based on the film. There’s also an excellent making-of featurette. – Gary Dretzka

Detachment
In the powerful ensemble drama, “Detachment,” director Tony Kaye and writer Carl Lund imagine what it might be like not only to teach in a school that, in and of itself, could constitute a level in Dante’s “Inferno,” but also how that experience might impact the teachers in their off-hours. As somber and dirge-like as “Detachment” often is, it demands that we not give up on our public schools and children who were born behind an 8-ball. It is appropriate that the movie is being released on DVD just as the Chicago teachers’ strike is winding down. Many of the same important issues that have been emphasized in the talks between the CTU and Chicago school authorities – including the current obsession with testing and making principals the arbiters of performance standards – are dramatized in “Detachment.” So, too, is the abandonment of responsibility by the parents of students in our nation’s most troubled schools.

Given the controversies that erupted in advance of Kaye’s “American History X” and the misrepresented abortion documentary “Lake of Fire,” it isn’t surprising that Kaye pushes the envelope of artistic license in “Detachment.” In longterm substitute teacher, Henry Barthes (Adrien Brody), he’s invested all of the saint-like qualities we’d like to see in our educators, while also saddling the character with a tortured past of his own and several administrative and personal obstacles. Most of what we know about Barthes we discover through flashbacks and short monologues. Other teachers are drawn as being permanently damaged by combative students and criminally out-of-touch parents, who simply don’t give a good crap about themselves or their kids’ futures. In one tenuous subplot, Brody practically adopts a teenage prostitute (Sami Gayle, of “Blue Bloods”) whose life is on the brink of careening out of control. It might not be entirely credible, but it serves to further humanize Barthes.

The photograph that accompanies Kaye’s resume on IMDB.com makes him look as if he’s just escaped from a 19th Century loony bin. The juxtaposition of that image with the amazing cast he managed to assemble for “Detachment” – undoubtedly at scale or gratis – couldn’t be more jarring. In addition to Brody and Gayle’s fine work, excellent performances are turned in by Marcia Gay Harden, James Caan, Christina Hendricks, Lucy Liu, Blythe Danner, Tim Blake Nelson, William Petersen, Louis Zorich, Betty Kaye and some terrific teen actors. Anyone interested in the preservation of our public-schools system ought to check out “Detachment,” if only to be reminded as to what’s at stake. While it doesn’t nullify or contradict such crowd-pleasers as “Mr. Holland’s Opus” and “The Dead Poet’s Society,” Kaye’s drama spins those movies on their flipside for us to hear, as well. The DVD adds interviews with Kaye and Brody. – Gary Dretzka

The Babymakers: Blu-ray
Conception
As portrayed by Olivia Munn and Paul Schneider in “The Babymakers,” Audrey and Tommy are at a point in their marriage where they’re anxious to become parents and fully aware of the sacrifices they’ll be forced to make in their social lives. Unfortunately, after nine months of trying, they must admit to each other that something physiological is keeping them from conceiving. Such troublesome things happen frequently in life and movies. When a specialist informs Tommy that he’s shooting blanks, his reaction is one of bewilderment. He had, after all, previously sold his sperm to a clinic without any problems being noticed. He can’t believe that his swimmers have weakened over the course of three years. Naturally, he goes back to the clinic, hoping to retrieve a vial of his sperm. Sadly, only one remains frozen and it’s been sold to a married gay couple. That’s not a bad premise for a decidedly adult comedy. After laying out the story and convincing us that Audrey and Tommy are worth our sympathy, however, director Jay Chandrasekhar puts a banana under their every step, expecting us to laugh uproariously at the missteps and tumbles.

The result is a “sperm-bank heist movie” with the frat-boy sensibility of a Broken Lizard gross-out comedy. Tommy, especially, is sufficiently adult to understand the responsibilities of parenthood, but too dimwitted to figure out how to get there without making a fools of himself. By deferring to the stupid suggestion of his moronic buddies, he demonstrates how ill-prepared he is for such duty. They steer him to an Indian thug, played by Chandrasekhar, who’s required to remind the guys that he’s neither an American Indian nor an Indian in the mold of Gandhi.

Munn is to the geeks who followed her various hosting duties on G4 and Spike TV what Marilyn Monroe was to Playboy subscribers in the 1950s … ubiquitous, but completely unattainable. She possesses a terrific sense of humor, a great body, exotic good looks and a seemingly unlimited future in the movies. What she lacks, so far, anyway, is the ability to convince viewers that she’s not just another model or TV host blessed by privilege and glamour. Munn was extremely likeable hosting “Attack of the Show!” and in appearances on “The Daily Show.” As much as I’ve wanted to buy her character on HBO’s “The Newsroom,” she serves more as an Aaron Sorkin wet dream than the Greta van Susteren of international economics and finance. As an actor, Munn can only get better. Her management, though, must find her roles that will amplify her talents, not neutralize them before audiences anxious mostly to see her boobs exposed. The Blu-ray comes with a silly behind-the-scenes featurettes and interviews.

 
Normally, any romantic comedy that stars as many 19 actors known mostly for their work on television will bear a passing resemblance, at least, to “The Love Boat” or “Fantasy Island.” Against all odds, Josh Stolberg’s “Conception” breaks the mold by successfully telling several stories simultaneously, in support of a central theme. As the movie opens, a teacher played by David Arquette is nonplused by one of his kindergarten students, who asks, out of the blue, how babies are made. Stolberg spends the next 90 minutes introducing us to nine disparate couples in the process of conceiving a child, avoiding conception, breaking their virginity, turning away their spouse’s sexual advances or attempting to steal a few minutes of sleep between feedings, diaper changes and desperate cries for attention. The balancing act maintained by Stolberg requires him to bounce repeatedly from one storyline to another, without diminishing any one couple’s experience. On their own, the vignettes aren’t terribly complex or enlightening. When combined, however, they’re surprisingly compelling, easily identifiable and not a little bit sexy. Among the most recognizable cast members are Julie Bowen and Sarah Hyland (“Modern Family”), Connie Britton (“Friday Night Lights”), Jason Mantzoukas (“The League”), Moon Bloodgood (“Falling Skies”), Pamela Adlon (“Californication”), Jonathan Silverman (“The Single Guy”), Jennifer Finnigan (“Better With You”) and Alan Tudyk (“Suburgatory”). The DVD includes interviews with Stolberg and producer Leila Charles Leigh, as well as quite a few deleted scenes and outtakes. – Gary Dretzka

The Cabin in the Woods: Blu-ray
Halloween II/Halloween III: Season of the Witch: Collector’s Edition: Blue-ray
Bait 3D: Blu-ray
The presence of Richard Jenkins and Bradley Whitford in the first few moments of “The Cabin in the Woods” gave me reason to believe it might be something other than the run-of-the-mill genre thriller I expected it to be. Their non-descript office-drone characters appear to be heading to work in an underground bunker, not unlike one at a nuclear power plant or government research center. In an abrupt change of direction, however, the setting changes to a college town, where a quintet of knuckleheads is preparing to leave town for a weekend at a secluded cabin. Now, at least, we were in familiar territory. On the way to their destination, the kids’ Winnebago makes a mandatory pit stop at an ancient filling station, manned by the requisite in-bred hillbilly. Finally at the cabin, they quickly discover signs of Satan worship and other demonic treachery. Less predictably, one of the girls begins reading from a book of incantations, causing a family of zombies escape from their eternal resting places. Unexpectedly, the movie flashes sideways to the bunker, where the men in white shirts and ties are congratulating themselves on picking the right threat to the teens, whose every movement they’ve been monitoring all along. What? Have we just entered the realm of reality shows gone insane? Not exactly.

Even as the zombies continue to assault the campers in predictable ways, viewers are left to fend for themselves as to what’s happening in the bunker. The guessing game continues even when the most stoned teenager in the group discovers surveillance equipment in the besieged cabin. It wouldn’t be fair to reveal anything more of the story, except to point out that “Cabin in the Woods” and “Blazing Saddles” share a surprise in the third act. Combine the Mel Brooksian conceit with the knowing satire of Wes Craven and Kevin Williamson’s “Scream” and you have Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard’s wildly entertaining genre-bender. As such, it should play as well to folks who think they know everything there is to know about monster-in-the-woods flicks as those who demand to be surprised. “Cabin in the Woods” isn’t perfect, but it’s a lot more enjoyable than most of the movies it’s spoofing, especially those in which gore substitutes for wit. The Blu-ray’s bonus package adds commentary, making-of material and interviews.

The huge success of John Carpenter and Debra Hill’s “Halloween,” in 1978, assured not only a long succession of sequels, but also 34 years’ worth of lesser filmmakers – as well as some pretty good ones — would shamelessly borrow its methodology. Carpenter was replaced at the helm of “Halloween II” by freshman Rick Rosenthal, but almost everyone else from the original returned. To hold the audience’s interest, the level of blood and gore was ratcheted up and some supernatural mumbo-jumbo was added to explain how such terrible things could happen in sleepy suburbia. In “Halloween III: Season of the Witch,” producer Carpenter hoped to break his own rule against killing the bogeyman, but he learned, instead, that audiences didn’t want to see a “Halloween” in which Michael Myers isn’t the antagonist. Instead, the Halloween theme extends only to a mad Celt who wants to punish American kids for despoiling the holiday and some Stonehenge lore. The triquel also borrows from “Invasion of the Body Snatchers.” It didn’t work. The Blu-ray packages include several commentaries, interviews with cast and crews, a making-of piece, deleted scenes, an alternate ending for “HII,” and a pair of “Horror’s Hallowed Grounds,” in which the films locations are revisited.

In a season already overflowing with shark movies, you wouldn’t think there would be any room left for a 3D thriller that promised even more great whites. Aussie-import “Bait” won’t make anyone forget “Jersey Shore Shark Attack,” let alone “Jaws,” but it definitely keeps you wondering what’s going to happen next. Kimble Rendall’s sophomore effort doesn’t open all that promisingly, if only because the first shark attack and dive-bombing seagulls appear to have been staged as a sop to 3D obsessives. They add nothing to the drama to come and look phony, to boot. In short order, though, “Bait” gets to its point. A holdup in a large supermarket is interrupted by a tsunami, which devastates the coastal city and traps an odd collection of shoppers, cops, criminals and hotties inside the flooded building. Further complicating things for the survivors are the sharks that also found their way into the store. As is their wont, the sharks prefer live bodies to the corpses floating around the submerged parking lot and partially submerged display floor. The only home-grown actor — a.k.a., bait — I recognized was Julian McMahon of “Nip/Tuck.” There’s nothing in “Bait” we haven’t seen before, including the decaying bodies, but Rendall resists the obvious temptation to focus all of the action on shark attacks. He gives the actors plenty to do, as well. – Gary Dretzka

Indiana Jones: The Complete Adventures: Blu-ray
Judge Dredd: Blu-ray
It isn’t only the studios that have become dependent on sequels as a source of inspiration, product and profits. Fans, likewise, have become so addicted to quick fixes that they forget how disappointed they were in their last hit of Hollywood heroin. No sooner had the clamor over the relative weakness of “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull” died down in 2008 than reporters and loyalists began bugging producer Frank Marshall about the likelihood of an “Indiana Jones 5.” No matter how often Marshall denied a fourth sequel was in the works, the media refused to take “no” for answer. As if to shut everyone up, he let on that Steven Spielberg, George Lucas and the producers might have come up with the “germ of an idea,” but nothing remotely concrete. Even so, the release of “Indiana Jones: The Complete Adventures” on Blu-ray gives bloggers another opportunity to raise the question, as if they were the first to consider such a possibility. Given the extremely high quality of the hi-def package, I’m perfectly content to wait until the powers-that-be finally are able to write a screenplay that not only is exponentially better than “Crystal Skull,” but also written with posterity in mind, not merely another huge payday.

No matter how many times you may have watched “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” “Temple of Doom,” “Last Crusade” and “Crystal Skull” in their many video iterations, it’s certain you’ll treasure the latest collection of Blu-ray upgrades. Not only do they look and sound terrific, but their overall quality will make home-theater nuts even happier they invested in the biggest screen and most powerful sound system they could afford. These are films, after all, that were created from the DNA of everything that’s special about the Hollywood studio experience. In addition to the four movies, the Paramount boxed set adds the 1080p on-set featurettes “From Jungle to Desert” and “From Adventure to Legend,” in which various key aspects of the productions are dissected, discussed and expanded upon, complete with deleted scenes, bloopers and outtakes. Resurrected from previous releases are five lengthy making-of featurettes and a dozen behind-the-scenes pieces, focusing mostly on techie issues. Still absent are commentaries.

Released in 1995, at the dawn of the CGI era in action fantasies, “Judge Dredd,” was one of three movies adapted directly from existing comic-book franchises. “Batman Forever” and “Tank Girl” were the other two titles. (“Mighty Morphin Power Rangers: The Movie,” “Black Scorpian” and “Darkman II: The Return of Durant” were originals.) “Batman,” of course, made a bushel-basket full of money, while “Tank Girl” tanked and “Judge Dredd” only recouped its nut from worldwide grosses. Even in hindsight, Sylvester Stallone seemed the perfect choice to play a one-man judge, jury and executioner in a futuristic world in which anarchy reigns supreme. Instead, he became a lightning rod for controversy, first, from hypercritical fans of the 2000 AD comic-book franchise; second, in his ham-handed dealings with director Danny Cannon; and third, with the MPAA ratings board, which wouldn’t budge on its “R” rating. Finally, though, it was the negative critical consensus – in the U.S. market, anyway — that killed any hope for a rally, a la “Rocky.” And, yet, a less-expensive reboot, “Dredd 3D,” opened last week in the UK, eliciting mostly positive reviews, and will arrive here this weekend. It reportedly hews closer to comic-book vision than the original, which, in Blu-ray, isn’t without its campy charms. It adds the featurette, “Stallone’s Law: The Making of ‘Judge Dredd.’” – Gary Dretzka

Children of Paradise: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
Les visiteurs du soir: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
Marcel Carne, one of the greatest of all French directors, made both of these splendid entertainments under the ever-censorial eyes of the Nazis occupying France. “Children of Paradise” is universally regarded as his masterpiece, arguably the greatest French movie of all times. Even those who favor other titles rank it among the top two or three best movies the country has produced. That it was made at all is an achievement worthy of admiration and retelling. At a time when human and material resources were in short supply, Carne was able to stage the most expensive movie to date and hire people who certainly would have been arrested and probably put to death if their true allegiances were revealed. Vichy government officials forbade the making of films longer than 90 minutes, so, to override their concerns, Carne convinced them that he intended the two parts of the film to be released separately. The Allied invasion allowed him to postpone the planned release date and show the 190-minute period fantasy as intended. Although disguised, Carne and writer Jacques Prevert’s sly references to Vichy and Nazi policies made it through the editing process.

A prime example of romantic-realism, “Children of Paradise” is set in the Parisian theater scene of the 1820s and ’30s. The protagonist is a flirtatious actress/courtesan, Garance (Arletty), who’s being courted by four very different lovers: a mime, actor, criminal and aristocrat. Not willing to compromise the terms of her affections, Garance eventually shuns them all. While the four primary characters are based on actual Parisians, the title refers to the fans who worship the performers from afar, in the cheap sides of the upper balcony. They, it’s suggested, are closer than anyone else to heaven. Until the 2002 release of “Children of Paradise” on DVD, much of the enjoyment of watching the movie was marred by degradation of the video presentation. Pathe’s restoration and hi-def digital transfer have failed to impress some tech-minded critics, but less-trained eyes won’t notice and everything else about it passes muster.  It adds new commentaries by film scholars Brian Stonehill and Charles Affron; a 2010 making-of documentary; a visual essay on the design of “Children of Paradise” by film writer Paul Ryan; “Once Upon a Time,” a 1967 German documentary that visits Nice, where the film was partially shot, and features interviews with cast members Arletty, Jean-Louis Barrault and Pierre Brasseur, and production designer Alexandre Trauner; a restoration demonstration; and a booklet featuring an essay by film scholar Dudley Andrew and excerpts from a 1990 interview with Carné. It retains a Terry Gilliam intro.

The new Criterion Collection edition of Carne and Prevert’s far less frequently seen “Les visiteurs du soir” (“The Devil’s Envoys”) marks its first transfer to DVD and Blu-ray. To my amateur eyes, it doesn’t look as if it has aged at all since its release in 1942. This romantic fantasy takes viewers to the 15th Century and the castle of a wealthy aristocrat. In the midst of festivities leading to a royal wedding, two strangers dressed as minstrels (Arletty, Alain Cuny) arrive at court, ostensibly to spoil everyone’s fun. That’s the devil’s intent, anyway. Instead, Gilles and Dominique enchant the baron’s daughter and her fiancé. When the devil (Jules Berry) gets wind of their deception, he makes his own appearance at court, dispensing bon mots and pointed barbs. It’s a wonderfully wicked performance. The question here, as it must be in such romances, is, “Can love conquer all obstacles, even those created by the devil?” The Blu-ray adds “L’aventure des ‘Visiteurs du soir,’” a documentary on the difficulties of making films in occupied France – the Germans wanted to compete with Hollywood, but not with Jews and leftist filmmakers and actors — and a booklet featuring an essay by critic Michael Atkinson. – Gary Dretzka

The Woman in the Fifth
Anyone with a taste for spare, borderline-creepy psychological thrillers – especially those told with a French accent – should consider tracking down Pawel Pawlikowski’s “The Woman in the Fifth.” Adapted from a novel by Douglas Kennedy, it chronicles the return to Paris of troubled American novelist Tom Ricks (Ethan Hawke) to be near his divorced wife and estranged daughter. We learn early-on that Ricks has either been hospitalized or jailed for a violent encounter with his French. He fits the profile of a dangerous stalker, but seems to have reconciled himself to being merely damaged property. Circumstances force him to seek shelter in a decrepit room above a bistro frequented by temperamental immigrants from northern Africa. Because his suitcase and wallet have been stolen, he has no other choice but to accept an assignment from the bistro owner that requires him merely to sit in front of a video monitor in an empty room and check out who comes to a locked door. It makes no sense, but is of importance to his landlord. Meanwhile, while browsing through a bookstore, Ricks is recognized by the owner, who invites him to a literary salon, where he encounters an even more mysterious woman, Margit (Kristin Scott Thomas). They hit it off, but in a way that ensures intrigue and, perhaps, insanity, down the road. When it does occur, we’re left wondering if what we’ve witnessed is real or something hallucinated by the novelist.

Pawlikowski leaves several doors open in that regard. If you’ve already guessed that the director’s methodology owes something to the early films of fellow Pole Roman Polanski, go to the head of the class. The moody cinematography and eerie soundtrack fit perfectly with the increasingly ambiguous behavior of the characters, including the romantic advances of the landlord’s Polish girlfriend, who doesn’t quite fit within the puzzle, either. Pawlikowski isn’t the most prolific of filmmakers. His last picture, “My Summer of Love,” was released in 2004. It contained some of Emily Blunt and Paddy Considine’s best work to date and is easy to recommend to those who enjoy “The Woman in the Fifth.” The DVD adds a very decent making-of featurette. – Gary Dretzka

The Salt of Life
On the subject of growing old somewhat less than gracefully, writer-director-actor Gianni Di Gregorio’s bittersweet comedy “The Salt of Life” hits the nail directly on its head.  His character, Giovanni, is retired, approaching the far edge of middle age and living frugally on a pension with his demanding mother. Although he’s still reasonably handsome, Giovanni has reached that point in a man’s life when he’s become invisible to the women he once courted and conquered. To paraphrase Leonard Cohen, Giovanni aches in the places he used to play. This isn’t to imply, he isn’t surrounded by women who treat him cordially and accept his kindnesses and generosity. In the love department, though, the old Roman lion has lost too many teeth to be dangerous. Still, he refuses to give up the ghost. He puts himself in places where he might inadvertently attract a woman’s attention and is coached by an even older buddy how to court mistresses and use Viagra. It’s only when he finally accepts what he’s become that serendipity comes into play and something magical happens to him. “The Salt of Life” is set in and around the narrow, cobblestone streets of Rome’s historic Trastevere district, which is itself worth the price of a rental. The acting is terrific, as is the cinematography and writing. It’s easy to imagine “The Salt of Life” being made in the Hollywood, if any of its 60-plus actors would deign admit to being old and desperate enough to play such a role. Instead, they’re still being allowed to play opposite 20- and 30-year-old ingénues, whose interest in their characters is dubious, at best. The DVD contains an excellent behind-the-scenes featurette and interview with Di Gregorio. – Gary Dretzka

End of the Road
From the mid-1950s to the early 1970s, there was no more influential a novelist than John Barthes. An academic who often set his stories in and around colleges, Barthes experimented with literary form and often took on controversial subjects through his characters. Although his works weren’t as associated with the 1960s counterculture as, say, those of Kurt Vonnegut, Richard Brautigan, Jack Kerouac and Joseph Heller, they had a wide effect on intellectuals and other novelists. Published in 1958, “The End of the Road” spoke directly to the decade’s love affair with conformity and social acceptance. It also tackles two of the era’s most sensitive issues: race and abortion. The novel would translate easily to the late 1960s, when it was adapted by director Aram Avakian and writer Terry Southern. Immediately after accepting a post-graduate degree from a major college, Jacob Horner (Stacy Keach) is found standing on the platform of a railroad station unable to move. In the book, Horner suffers from “cosmopsis”: an inability to choose from among all possible choices he can imagine. In the movie, Horner appears more to be traumatized by the many violent events of the period, including the assassinations, Vietnam War and civil-rights protests. He is taken to an asylum, the “Remobilization Farm,” run by a specialist in mythotherapy, Doctor D (James Earl Jones). After treatment, Horner is ordered to teach English at a rural college, where the students have begun to embrace anti-establishment behavior and the first stirrings of the sexual revolution. He is encouraged by the doctor to experience things as they came, without passing judgment on his reactions.

Off-campus, Horner begins an affair with the wife of a seriously twisted colleague (Dorothy Tristan, Harris Yulin). They secretly watch him practice drawing his pistol in front of a mirror, while wearing a scoutmaster’s uniform. The love triangle is more complex in the book, of course, but these were intelligent people who did what they wanted to do and championed dangerous philosophies without considering the possible consequences. (Vietnam, anyone?) The end result of the affair is the harrowing abortion scene that gave “End of the Road” an X-rating and practically guaranteed an abbreviated release. (That, and a mental patient who gets his kicks screwing chickens.) This was, of course, several years before abortion was deemed legal by the Supreme Court.

“End of the Road” was quite unlike any movie that was being made in the United States at the time, even on the emerging indie circuit. It more closely resembled the foreign movies favored by buffs and students. It spoke to the angst being experienced by teachers and intellectuals trapped between generations in the 1960s, as well as the widely accepted belief among young people that Eisenhower-era conformity had contributed to a society increasingly dominated by conventional wisdom and political paranoia. It’s easy to see how young people today might believe that America is stuck in reverse. The DVD includes interviews with surviving members of the cast and crew, including Jones, Keach, Yulin, the son and daughter of Southern and Avakian and cinematographer Gordon Willis, for whom “End of the Road” was his first picture. – Gary Dretzka

Oslo, August 31st
It’s been 40 years since Neil Young recorded “The Needle and the Damage Done,” a song that laments the descent into drug addiction by friends of his in the music business. While watching Joachim Trier’s “Oslo, August 31st,” I was reminded of the final lines, “I’ve seen the needle and the damage done/A little part of it in everyone/But every junkie’s like a settin’ sun.” We don’t learn much more about the movie’s protagonist, Anders (Anders Danielsen Lie), than we did about the people whose deaths inspired Young, but their stories, by now, are all too familiar. As much as we’d love to save Anders from himself, we know early on that complete rehabilitation is unlikely. In the most austere and sympathetic way possible, Trier describes a 24-hour period in Anders’ life. After living several years in a drug-rehabilitation facility in the scenic countryside outside Oslo, Anders considers himself ready to return to the capital for a job interview. While there, he intends to re-connect with friends and lovers from both his youth and the tortured period when he was addicted to every drug or drink within his reach. The women he knew aren’t pleased to learn Anders is out and about, but most of his male friends are cordial, at least. He claims to have been clean and sober for a year, but a feeble attempt at suicide earlier that day suggests he may be less ready for the outside world than his supervisors think he is.

It only takes a few hours for Anders to realize that the world didn’t stop spinning when he was incarcerated five years earlier. His former running mates have started families and girlfriends have decided to pass on his invitation to hear his apology. What really trips him up, however, is a request by the editor of the magazine that posted the job offer to fill in the five-year blank in his resume. Although the man seems genuinely impressed by Anders’ opinions, he abruptly decides that such an explanation would be only lead inevitably to rejection. He storms out of the building after grabbing his resume from the hands of the stunned journalist. From this point onward, Anders’ day becomes an emotional roller-coaster ride. Ultimately, though, the lows are more powerful than the highs and he comes to the conclusion that his is a lost case. If this sounds too depressing for words, know that Trier gives Anders every opportunity to break out of his personal prison and he does experience moments, at least, of happiness. So many movies have been made about our own friends and neighbors struggling to break the chains of addiction, it probably would take more than excellent performances and fine directing by Norwegians to attract audiences to “Oslo, August 31st.” It’s their loss. It’s worth knowing, though, that critics have been almost unanimous in their praise for Trier’s movie.  – Gary Dretzka

Something From Nothing: The Art of Rap
The history of rap, hip-hop and street dancing hasn’t exactly been underrepresented by documentary makers over the last 30 years. On strictly a per-lyric basis, it’s possible that more has been written and documented on film about the urban art forms than any other musical genre. Of course, the proof is in the pudding and that’s what elevates “Something From Nothing: The Art of Rap” from other films about rap and hip-hop. Musician/actor/filmmaker Ice-T employs the oral-history technique in explaining the music’s roots, influences, creative forces and legacy. During interviews with 40 of the most influential rappers and MCs, Ice-T is able to draw a timeline and expand on the creative process employed by the artists. Almost of them offer a sample of their own poetry, along with anecdotes from the streets and studio. Blessedly absent are the scholarly observations and critical dissections that too frequently add unnecessary context to obvious truths. I found it interesting, though, that the emergence of rap can be traced directly to the elimination of music programs in the public schools of New York. Emerging from this cultural deprivation chamber were kids who grasped the most simple and economical ways to express themselves musically: rhymes, unused turntables found inside almost everyone’s home and plywood boards upon which to dance and spin. Hip-hop would add electronic beats to the rapped poetry. Once noticed by the media, the message spread from New York to Chicago and L.A., and on to every city in the world with a sizable population of disaffected youth. If hip-hop has been mainstreamed to the point where it’s heard between innings at baseball games, it still provides an entry point for individuals of all colors and ethnic backgrounds to voice their unhappiness with the status quo, willingness to “fight the power” and brag about their sexual prowess. Among those appearing here are Afrika Bambaataa, Eminem, Nas, Mos Def, Kanye West, Chuck D, KRS-One, Snoop Dogg, Run-DMC and Ice Cube. The DVD extras include extended interviews, commentaries, a making-of piece and, yes, an essay by a scholar. – Gary Dretzka

The Victim: Blu-ray
Veteran hard-guy actor Michael Biehn clearly paid attention while participating in such high- and low-budget action flicks and TV series as “The Terminator,” “Aliens,” “Grindhouse: Planet Terror” and “The Magnificent Seven.” He took the lessons he learned from more celebrated filmmakers into account while directing his second feature, “The Victim,” a grindhouse-inspired “thriller” that looks very much as if it were shot, as advertised, in 11 days and on a budget of $800,000. It isn’t at all convincing, but Biehn is a likeable presence and there’s enough violence and boobage to qualify for a late-night shot on Cinemax. The breasts are supplied by Jennifer Blanc-Biehn, a healthy 38-year-old blond who may be coming into her own as a late-blooming scream queen. Here, she plays Annie, one of two strippers enticed to join a pair of cops in a secluded picnic in the woods. The other woman is beaten to death after she ridicules her demonic lover for not being able to ejaculate in due course. Annie escapes into the forest, finally finding refuge in a cabin owned by a mysterious stranger played by Biehn. He believes the stripper’s story against that of the cops, who also appear at his door. He answers their threats with violence of his own, while also partaking in Annie’s ample charms. Even though there’s a surprise ending grindhouse fans will spot a mile away, “The Victim” is strangely watchable. The making-of featurette explains why it looks like such a homemade project. – Gary Dretzka

October Baby
There is a widely held perception among people who populate the Red and “battleground” states that filmmakers in Hollywood play fast and loose with issues pertaining to morality and religion because they’re more interested in profits than salvation. Intentionally or not, these heathens are playing into the hands of the devil by promoting liberal values and ignoring God’s word. The box-office success of Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ” is widely credited with sparking the studios’ interest in faith-based filmmaking and marketing these products to a select audience demographic. Until recently, though, limited budgets and amateurish production values have kept the movies from finding widespread acceptance and critical respect. “October Baby” is a well-made and professionally acted drama about the lasting effects of abortion on everyone from the rare survivors of the procedure to adoptive parents, birth parents and peers. While it isn’t bombastic or overtly hateful, though, Andrew and Jon Erwin’s drama plays just as fast and loose with key characterizations as the movies accused of being anti-Christian.

Attractive newcomer Rachel Hendrix plays Hannah, a college student who experiences an emotional breakdown she believes is related to asthma, epilepsy and thoughts of suicide. At about the same time, her parents uncover a diary in which she obsesses over guilt feelings related to an incident buried deep within her subconscious. It’s as if Original Sin has metastasized inside Hannah and revealed itself at the most inappropriate time in her life. In an effort to help her doctor diagnose an exact cause for the problem, Hannah’s parents (John Schneider, Jennifer Price) hit her with a double-barreled shotgun of bad news. Not only is she informed of the fact that she was adopted, but that it came after a failed abortion allowed her to be born. She later would learn that a twin brother wasn’t so fortunate, having died shortly after the procedure. That’s a lot of psychological weight to lay on a kid who otherwise was enjoying a normal teenage existence. It’s at this point that Hannah turns against her loving parents, who really should have informed her she was adopted, if not the circumstances that caused it. That she guilt-trips her father over being the child to survive the abortion doesn’t seem fair, either.

Hannah uses the guise of a spring-break trip to New Orleans and Birmingham to search for her birth parents, who, we’re told, are themselves ridden with subconscious guilt and want nothing to do with her. In a rare show of ecumenical reach-out, the Erwins allow a Roman Catholic priest to explain the concept of Christian forgiveness to the troubled young Baptist. (It’s a good thing she wandered into a cathedral, instead of consulting such merciless monsters as Pat Robertson, Rush Limbaugh and Pat Ryan.) By accepting that simple message – the essence of Christ’s teaching on Earth – Hannah is free to move forward with her parents, boyfriend, theater career and birth mother, who is given her own cross to bear. The Erwins’ all-life-is-beautiful message doesn’t seem to allow for shades of gray, even if the question of rape and incest isn’t addressed. How much of the movie was financed by anti-abortion groups isn’t made clear, either, although web addresses and appreciations do appear in the credits. As loaded as Hannah’s dilemma is, “October Baby” may be the most balanced statement on the subject we’re likely to see from the religious right. The DVD adds commentary, deleted scenes and character studies. – Gary Dretzka

Gone Hollywood
Telenovela heartthrob Fernando Carrillo and Texas-born sitcom actor Valente Rodriguez are the primary attractions for this agreeable piece of fluff targeted directly at regular viewers of Spanish-language television. Personally, I found myself drawn more to bombshells Erlinda Orozco and Amrapali Ambegaokar, but to each his/her own. Caracas-born Carrillo plays a Latino actor, Al, struggling to avoid obscurity after his hit Hollywood show left the air. Just when it appears that Al will be reduced to working for a living outside show business, he receives word that his late father has left him a property in their Texas hometown that has been inexplicably valuable. The bar is something of a local phenomenon, especially with the old-timers who resist pressure on Al to sell the bar to outside interests. The locals sense he’s “gone Hollywood,” and couldn’t give a flaming frijole for the future of the town and bar. Naturally, though, hometown cooking and a pair of Chicana beauties have given him reason for pause. Meanwhile, his Hollywood agent (Ambegaokar) is trying desperately to get him to agree to participate in a reality show. “Gone Hollywood” didn’t receive a theatrical release, as far as I can tell, but fans of the actors might want to give it a shot. Heaven knows, no one in Hollywood is breaking their neck in an attempt to fill the void in movies aimed at the mainstream Hispanic market. – Gary Dretzka

Katy Perry: Part of Me: Blu-ray
What happens when the God-praising Christian daughter of hard-core Evangelical ministers OD’s on tepid gospel-rock and adds Alanis Morrissete to her personal playlist? Well, after severing the parental umbilical cord by moving to the Sodom & Gomorrah that is Los Angeles, Katy Perry introduced herself to Morrissette’s producer, hired gay shape-shifters to perform an image makeover, dropped the Alanis-wannabe façade and recorded “I Kissed a Girl.” Her parents weren’t amused, but the little girls who download iTunes by the truckload certainly understood her infectious message. As if to demonstrate His sense of humor, God then cleared a path for the ’tween queen to marry British bad boy Russell Brand. Fourteen months later, their marriage would evaporate in a cloud of tabloid headlines. All of these milestones are addressed in “Katy Perry: Part of Me,” which is equal parts biopic, concert film and girls-just-wanna-have-fun rave-up. Not being 12-years-old, I can’t explain why the 3D extravaganza didn’t blow off the hinges of every multiplex from here to Timbuktu, as did “Hannah Montana & Miley Cyrus: Best of Both Worlds Concert.” But, it did well enough in theaters to believe it will perform even better in its Blu-ray 3D & 2D, DVD and digital iterations.  Directors Dan Cutforth and Jane Lipsitz’ documentary does a nice job capturing Perry’s charm and appeal to her legions of fans. It doesn’t address the debt she owes to forbears Josephine Baker, Carmine Miranda, Minnie Pearl, Karen Carpenter, Cyndi Lauper, Madonna and, although they’re contemporaries, Lady Gaga, preferring to showcase Perry’s gospel roots. Her decision to perform, despite the nasty breakup with Brand – really, what could have possessed her? – becomes part of the storyline, as well. If the heroic portrayal makes her look overly vulnerable and a victim to love, well, so be it. It worked for Paul McCartney. The Blu-ray editions take full advantage of Perry’s playfully colorful stage presentation, while also adding extended concert footage and some insider stuff. – Gary Dretzka

Suburgatory: The Complete First Season
Modern Family: The Complete Third Season: Blu-ray
The Mentalist: The Complete Fourth Season
Supernatural: The Complete Seventh Season: Blu-ray
If television sitcoms weren’t built on faulty foundations, they probably wouldn’t exist at all. “Friends” and “Seinfeld,” two of the best network series, asked us to believe minorities didn’t exist in the characters’ urban environment and they lived in buildings so safe they didn’t have to lock the doors to their apartments. Such anachronisms must be taken for granted by viewers if the show is to be successful. The weaker the writing, the less likely it is for the anachronisms to pass muster. The ABC comedy “Suburgatory” is premised on the possibility that a big-city single dad (Jeremy Sisto) could be so naïve as to think his 16-year-old daughter (22-year-old Jane Levy) would be less likely to be corrupted if they moved to the suburbs. If that were the case, no character in a suburbia-set sitcom would be older than 12 and the greatest threat to a child’s future would be an out-of-control ice-cream truck. In “Suburgatory,” Levy’s Tessa Altman is required to adapt all the usual cliches of suburban life, from synchronized sprinkler systems, competitive gardening and casual wear, to country-club bimbos and shopping-mall crawls. This is less difficult a chore for Tessa than one would expect. It’s dad who ultimately must come to grips with the huge disconnect between urban and suburban life. Fortunately, Sisto is surrounded by several veteran comedic actors — Carly Chaikin, Rex Lee, Allie Grant, Alan Tudyk, Cheryl Hines, Ana Gasteyer, Jay Mohr – who take much of the weight of carrying the show off of his and Levy’s shoulders. Writer/producer Emily Kapnek (“Hung,” “Parks and Recreation”) also was allowed to bounce between the adult world and that of their kids. Even better, “Suburgatory” was fortunate to be assigned the timeslot between “Middle” and “Modern Life,” which almost assured a second-season run. The DVD includes unaired scenes, a gag reel and “Somewhere Between Heaven and Hell: Life in Suburgatory.”

Meanwhile, the “Modern Family” juggernaut continues apace, with 14 Emmy nominations up for grabs this weekend. Can it pull off the hat trick in the Outstanding Comedy Series category? I wouldn’t bet against it. At a time when Republican bottom-feeders and religious fanatics of all stripe are exposing their intolerance and bigotry by so vocally condemning same-sex marriages, it’s interesting that a TV series in which two of the key male characters are married to each other is so popular in a wide-cross-section of American homes. It begs the question as to why the champions of Holy Matrimony aren’t nearly as exorcised over the number of people in life and on television who are living together and pro-creating, but can’t be bothered with nuptials. With any luck the haters will crawl back into their holes after Election Day. The Season Three package adds a gag reel, deleted scenes, deleted “couch confessions,” the “A ‘Modern Family’ Christmas” featurette and behind-the-scenes pieces, “Destination: Wyoming,” “A Day on the Set with Ty,” “Adventures of the ‘Modern Family’ Kids,” “Driving Lessons,” “Ed O’Neill Gets a Star” and “‘Modern Family’ Goes to Disneyland.”

CBS’ hit procedural, “The Mentalist,” is based on such a flakey premise that it’s difficult for me to imagine it lasting five weeks, let alone five years. But, that’s show biz in the 21st Century. The off-the-charts personable Tasmanian actor Simon Baker plays a onetime psychic, who gave up the ruse after the murder of his wife. His talent for observation and instant analysis draw the attention of the California Bureau of Investigation, which apparently needs all the help it can get in solving the state’s toughest homicides. Among the criminals he’s most determined to arrest is the serial killer, Red John, he holds responsible for his wife’s death. Unlike “The Fugitive,” the investigators in “The Mentalist” have other cases to worry about besides the one that drive’s Baker’s character. Indeed, one of the series’ recurring storylines involves the CBI’s frustration with his unorthodox methodology and frequently borderline-illegal interrogations. At the end of each season, Baker seems closer to nailing the bastard than ever before, only to realize Red John has once again slipped from his grasp. There’s a featurette in which the LAPD Homicide Task Force profiles its counterparts on the CBI.

As the title suggests, the hit CW series “Supernatural” combines elements of the police procedural with an on-the-road bromance and encounters with supernatural forces. Besides the personal demons Sam and Dean encounter each week, the brothers also are required to combat villains of biblical proportions, including the Leviathans that break out of Purgatory. (It makes one wonder what God, his archangels and Jesus are watching when “Supernatural” airs on the CW.) In Season 7, the laddies are tortured with visions of Hell by Lucifer, while family friend and ally, Bobby, is killed by alien forces that capture his spirit and condemn it to a whiskey flask. The Blu-ray offers an interactive “Supernatural Creature Fest Drive-In,” as well as commentaries on select episodes, unaired scenes, a gag reel, an outtake with Jensen singing Air Supply’s “I’m All Out of Love” and featurettes on directing and scoring the show. – Gary Dretzka

American Experience: Death and the Civil War
Frontline: Endgame: AIDS in Black America
History: Secret Access: The Presidency
H2: America’s Book of Secrets
History: James Bond’s Gadgets
History: Best of Ancient Aliens: Blu-ray
History: Cajon Pawn Stars: Season One
It is commonplace today for American soldiers killed in combat to be accorded a government-financed funeral, a flag-draped coffin and, perhaps, a salute by a squad of riflemen, although budgetary concerns now threaten even that tradition. All efforts are made to identify the dead, a chore made easier through the use of DNA coding. We honor the dead on Memorial Day and salute the survivors on Veterans Day. As the North and South prepared to engage in a calamitous civil war, the last thing on the minds of politicians, military and clergy was the question of how to deal with death and other casualties. It’s as if those in command expected it to be a bloodless war, from which entire armies would march home intact. This wasn’t to be the case, of course, and it took nearly four years for officials to come to grips with such mechanics and trivialities of war as burials, identification and notifications. Ric Burns’ latest film on the Civil War tackles this grisly, if enormously important issue. It was released as part of PBS’ “American Experience” series. Again, his technique involves the reading of letters home, interviews with historians, somber narration and quiet music, and archival photographs. It feels familiar, but delivers the same powerful punch as the original “Civil War” series. Being exposed to Mathew Brady’s photographs of the dead soldiers lying bloated and abandoned on a now-quiet battleground is an education in itself. As Burns also points out, the government was ill-prepared to handle the mass of refugees and wounded civilians. For freed, fugitive and escaped slaves, the situation may have been even worse and that realization led in part to the Emancipation Proclamation. So, as the series asks, what is our responsibility to the dead? For one, continuing to create films, such as “Death and the Civil War,” that question all aspects of war and hold our leaders responsible for the affronts to humanity. The film is based on Drew Gilpin Faust’s book, “This Republic of Suffering.” Anyone looking for heroes here will find them in poet/humanitarian Walt Whitman and nurse Clara Barton.

In “Frontline: Endgame: AIDS in Black America,” the question becomes, “In times of epidemic, what is owed the living?” For too many years, American politicians treated the AIDS epidemic – a.k.a., the gay cancer – as if it simply didn’t exist. That was made easier by the fact that the disease first impacted immigrant African and Haitian communities. Even when it began to devastate homosexual communities in France and the United States, officials acted as if other people were immune from the disease and there was no urgency to treat AIDS as if it were a plague threatening all Americans. Even when budget-makers and the medical establishment began to take action, poor blacks, infected children and drug addicts continued to get the least attention. “Endgame” chronicles the epidemics with a tight focus on its continued impact on Black America. HIV may now be treatable, but, for some patients, the cost of keeping it in check is prohibitively expensive. The documentary is a reminder of the distance we still need to go for a cure.

Cable television thrives on the promulgation of conspiracy theories, government secrets, military intelligence and lore, mysterious fraternal organizations, lost and hidden documents and outright bullshit. Indeed, the money spent today on forwarding, examining and debunking such theories could pay for the development of personal lie detectors and embedding of them in the arms of every American man, woman and child, not just the politicians and business executives who think we can’t handle the truth about everything from UFOs and captured extraterrestrials, to the role played by Freemasons in determining government policy and such international bogey-men as the Trilateral Commission, the Illuminati and G8. Newly released DVDs on such subjects from History and its ancillary network include “Secret Access: The Presidency” and “America’s Book of Secrets.” In the former, we’re allowed to ponder bits and pieces of previously classified information once reserved only for our presidents. The chapters: “Secret Access: Air Force One,” in which we follow the President on a 20,000-mile international mission aboard the First Plane and are allowed to ride in the cockpit, witness security protocols and learn what constitutes “zero-fail” itinerary; “The White House Behind Closed Doors” takes us along on a private tour conducted by former residents George W. and Laura Bush; and “The President’s Book of Secrets,” which explains what sorts of information are passed from one president to another, be they secrets codes, intelligence or information on ongoing projects. H2’s 10-episode “America’s Book of Secrets” attempts to bring down some of the walls surrounding the White House, Pentagon, Area 51, Freemasons, Fort Knox, presidential transports, the Playboy Mansion, Black Ops, the FBI and West Point. Not all of the secrets are all that well-kept and the ones that are highly classified remain so. Still, it’s difficult to take your eyes off the shows.

For more than a half-century, the lore and legend surrounding British Secret Agent 007 has continued to grow unabated. I don’t know how well Ian Fleming’s novels sell, or those written in his voice, but every new movie is greeted with media fanfare and solid performance at the box office. Always are essential element of the books and movies are the gadgets, gizmos and weapons created for James Bond by Q – for Quartermaster — and his team. Once considered to be mostly fanciful, many of the items on display in History’s “James Bond’s Gadgets” now are available at your friendly neighborhood shop catering to private detectives, professional locksmiths, amateur sleuths, crooks, peeping toms and jealous spouses. Neither is it beyond the realm of possibility to imagine cars within built-in RPGs and oil slicks being sold alongside SUVs and vehicles that run on garbage. For those keeping score at home, the new Bond film, “Skyfall,” is slated for release on November 9, with Ben Whishaw taking over for John Cleese as Q. The DVD adds a biography of Ian Fleming.

The first thing loyal fans of History’s “Ancient Aliens” series should know about the latest addition to the library is that “Best of Ancient Aliens” is only new to Blu-ray, not DVD, and it is comprised of four episodes that have previously been released in season-long compilations. Two, at least, already are available in hi-def. Moreover, these episodes – “The Evidence,” “Mysterious Places,” “Aliens and the Old West,” “The Mayan Conspiracy” – all are the first from their respective seasons. It’s true, though, that they look fine in Blu-ray.

By my count, there are now three “reality” shows set in pawn shops, two of them on History. The newest is “Cajun Pawn Stars,” which puts a rural spin on “Pawn Stars” and “Hard Core Porn,” set in Las Vegas and Detroit, respectively. “Cajun Pawn Stars” takes place in and around the family-owned Silver Dollar Pawn & Jewelry,” of Alexandria, Louisiana. Like any sitcom, the family members often are joined on screen by colorful sidekicks and resident authorities. The shop is known for its Civil War and Mardi Gras artifacts. – Gary Dretzka

Katt Williams: Kattpacalypse
Even if comedian Katt Williams is America’s pimp laureate, the frequency with which he uses the n-word makes it difficult to listen to his rants, no matter how funny they may be. He doesn’t use the word for emphasis or shock value, merely as another way of saying “he,” “she,” “you” and “us.” It isn’t likely that his longtime fans mind the vernacular, but newcomers shouldn’t go into his DVDs unprepared. This time around, he begins by taking on President Obama’s record, then tears into atheists and Michael Jackson’s doctor. He then wonders out loud why NASA has begun to launch and return the Space Shuttle in the wee hours of the morning. He concludes that white people at NASA have come up with a way to escape the Mayan-prophesized apocalypse, but don’t want black people to know about it. Sounds like another good reason to get out the vote for Obama in November. The New Year’s Eve performance included a half-dozen lesser-known comics. It would have been nice if someone though to include more than a snippet from their sets. There is a Katt animated short, though. – Gary Dretzka

Team of the ‘80s: San Francisco 49ers
Behind the Steel Curtain: The Pittsburgh Steelers
The new line of titles from NFL Films and Vivendi Entertainment puts so-called dynasties of professional football under a microscope, not only by recapping games that led to championships, but also exploring the things separating those teams from the one-year wonders and formidable also-rans. With the San Francisco 49ers under John Walsh, the dominating feature was the “West Coast offense.” Widely copied, but never completely duplicated, the scheme emphasized the widespread passing game and the development of athletes collected specifically to make it work. Moreover, it became as identified with the city as the Golden Gate Bridge and sour-dough bread. The set adds the 1981 NFC Championship Game and Super Bowl XVI.

The same could be said of Chuck Noll’s Pittsburgh Steelers, which personified the industrial region’s most famous export and the workers who poured the molten steel no matter the heat of the summer or frigid temperatures of winter. Unlike the 49ers, these were blue-collar teams constituted for the enjoyment of blue-collar fans. There may never have been a more dominant defense as the famous Steel Curtain, which literally was impenetrable. The offense, led by Terry Bradshaw, Franco Harris and Lynn Swann wasn’t too shabby, either. The DVD includes the 1972 “Immaculate Reception” game and 1974 AFC championship. – Gary Dretzka

The DVD Wrapup: Goats, Where Do We Go Now?, My Trip to Al Qaeda, Loved Ones, Titanic 3D, Nympho Divers, AbFab, Spartacus … More

Thursday, September 13th, 2012

Goats: Blu-ray
In the world of independent filmmaking, a very thin line separates dysfunctional families from those merely offbeat, quirky and unconventional. In “Goats,” director Christopher Neil and writer Mark Poirier straddle that razor-thin barrier for most of its 94 minutes, while also attempting to convince us that a child born into such a family could survive to manhood uncorrupted by his parents’ selfish behavior. The young man in question here, Ellis (Graham Phillips), has lived with a desperately New Age-y mother in the desert outside Tucson for most of his 14 years on Earth. Wendy (Vera Farmiga) has led him to believe that his estranged father, Frank (Ty Burrell), is a total prick, who made her life a living hell and abandoned them, emotionally, if not financially. In the absence of positive role models, Ellis’ well-being and education has been entrusted to a scruffy botanist, Goat Man (David Duchovny), who cares for Wendy’s desert garden, cleans the pool, tends to the family’s goats and stays high on home-grown pot. Ellis accompanies Goat Man on his vision-quest treks, during which the bearded wise man shares hippy-dippy philosophies and bong hits with the boy. We meet this atypical family, just as Ellis is about to travel east to attend the same prep school as his dad and learn to exist in an infinitely more traditional world of privilege and excess. At Thanksgiving break, he will reconnect with the father he’s learned to hate and his new, exceedingly sweet and pregnant wife (Kerrie Russell).

The only thing wrong with this scenario – and it’s something of an indie cliché, by now — is how well Ellis manages to adapt to his new environment. He’s remarkably self-sufficient, an A-student and generous to a dweeb roommate who demonstrates why early exposure to booze and parental neglect is far more harmful than early exposure to marijuana and parental neglect. To suggest that Ellis is more mature, at 14, than his parents ever were is only to point out the obvious. Neither is it too far-fetched to think Goat Man ultimately will emerge as the better father figure than Frank or Wendy’s new lover, a self-centered gigolo who panders to her Sedona-based theories on spiritual health. I don’t think Neil and Poirier mind comparisons to “The Royal Tenenbaums,” the Wes Anderson masterpiece that launched a couple dozen lesser dramas about familial dysfunction. By staying close to the Tenenbaum’s New York home, Anderson could focus more on the individual family members than the physical distance between them. The same applies with Campbell Scott’s vastly underappreciated “Off the Map,” in which Joan Allen plays a woman whose post-hippy isolation isn’t governed by fads and crystal-gazing philosophies. Her daughter was allowed to leave the nest, as well, but off-screen.

There’s simply too much to absorb in too short a time in “Goats.” Nevertheless, for those who enjoy such family dramedies – with the accent on drama, here – there are solid performances by the principle actors, beautiful scenery and, of course, goats. The Blu-ray arrives with a couple of deleted scenes and background featurettes, but’s nothing special. It’s probably worth noting, as well, that Neil is linked to Hollywood royalty by being Eleanor and Francis Ford Coppola’s nephew and the son of a special-effects cameraman on a pair of “Star Wars” movies. Although “Goats” marks his debut as a director, he’s worked on several Coppola-family projects and “Star Wars: Episode III.” – Gary Dretzka

Where Do We Go Now?
In this bittersweet fable about life in the boonies of war-torn Lebanon, director-actress Nadine Labaki’s suggests that sectarian violence can be as much a product of too much information as too little compassion. “Where Do We Go Now?” is set in a village so remote that the residents have yet to learn that Christians and Muslims are supposed to hate and fear each other, instead of co-exist in peace as they have for centuries. It isn’t until a television and big-city newspapers are introduced to the village that news of the troubles in Beirut and south Lebanon prompt young people with too much time on their hands to play pranks inspired by the faraway tensions. The adult males mistake these pranks for the bitter fruits on intolerance and begin to plot against each other. The women, who jointly mourn the deaths of loved ones now lying in segregated cemeteries, concoct a scheme to defuse the increasingly volatile situation. One involves the importation of a troupe of exotic dancers from the Ukraine to channel the men’s sexual energy. Another has the women dosing the men’s food with powerful hashish. If this sounds far-fetched, so, too, must the belief that a common God sanctions the violence that’s spoiled the peace that once exemplary nation.

Left to their own devices, the villagers could have lived in peace for another century, at least. As the war and news of it encroach even closer on the town square – where a church and mosque stand side by side — it seems as if only a miracle can prevent further strife. Although censored in some countries, “Where Do We Go Now?” played very well in the Mideast and was selected by Lebanon to be its entry for an Oscar in the Best Foreign Language Category. This, after winning the People’s Choice Award at last year’s Toronto International Film Festival. Labaki (“Caramel”) takes full advantage of the sheltered rural setting and coaxes excellent performances from the largely amateur cast. She balances the potentially tragic realities of war with comedic interludes and songs. Anyone who can’t get their head around the horrors of daily life in the Mideast war zones – and who can, really? – ought to check out some of the films being released by filmmakers attempting to make sense of them, as well. If only such dialogues were possible in real life, we all could sleep easier. – Gary Dretzka

My Trip to Al-Qaeda
I may not be 100 percent sure why it is that we’re still fighting a losing battle against rabid religious fundamentalists in Afghanistan – and with killer drones in Pakistan and Yemen – but, after watching “My Trip to Al-Qaeda“, I understand why our endgame could resemble what finally happened in Vietnam. There are few more celebrated documentary makers than Alex Gibney, who’s won an Oscar for “Taxi to the Dark Side” and was nominated for “Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room.” His other credits include “Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer,” “Casino Jack and the United States of Money” and “Freakonomics.” “My Trip to Al-Qaeda” is his interpretation of a 2006 one-man performance piece by journalist Lawrence Wright, which itself was based on more than 600 interviews and 4,100 pages of notes with a broad cross-section of interested parties. They include former CIA operatives, torturers, torturees, historians, clerics and, even, the late brother-in-law of Osama Bin Laden. The production is further informed by maps, photographs, news footage and charts, covering a period from the assassination of Egyptian leader Anwar Sadat, through 9/11 and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. In it, Wright uses Bin Laden’s own words to show how, simply by drawing the U.S. and its allies into a “crusade” against Islam, Al Qaeda had succeeded in its mission. In effect, then, the terrorist attacks on 9/11were calculated to draw the west into areas deemed “sacred” by Muslims, who, theoretically, would rise up against the Great Satan. That didn’t happen, of course, but President Bush’s determination to kill Saddam Hussein gave Al Qaeda the gift of time. The Taliban used it to regroup, expand and argue that the infidels were there to stay. Can the new democracies hold up against religious fundamentalists – and, as we’ve seen this week, the rabble-rousers — who teach that paradise awaits those who die in the service of Allah? Stay tuned. – Gary Dretzka

The Loved Ones
The Complete Hammer House of Horrors
Australia may be known best for its kangaroos, koalas, killer sharks and bushy blond surfers, but it’s also become a reliable exporter of highly imaginative and genuinely frightening horror and crime thrillers. Unlike the low-budget Ozploitation flicks described in Mark Hartley’s wonderfully twisted documentary, “Not Quite Hollywood,” recent genre pictures have benefitted from larger budgets, better acting and writing, and a decreasing reliance on T&A to sell the action. Sean Byrne’s “The Loved Ones” debuts on DVD after securing some excellent reviews from festival screenings. If it fails to meet your standards for twisted behavior and storytelling, I suggest having yourself committed … immediately.

Although not at all geeky or unpleasant to look at, mousy wallflower Lola (Robin McLeavy) has a history of being rejected and dissed by the cool crowd at school. Instead of throwing a pity party for herself or leaving herself open to humiliation, a la “Carrie,” Lola simulates dating situations with the boys her nutzo father rounds up and brings home for their mutual pleasure. Such is the case with Brent (Xavier Samuel), a troubled young man who accidentally killed his father while trying to avoid a naked teenage boy standing in the middle of the road, bleeding. When Lola approached Brent for a prom date, he had already committed to attending with the likely queen, Holly. There was nothing personal in his rejection of Lola’s offer, but it was sufficient cause for Daddy (John Brompton) to hunt down the boy and bring him home for a simulated prom. I don’t care how crappy your prom might have been, this one will be difficult to erase from your memory. Since the release of “The Loved Ones,” in 2009, McLeavy has been cast in “Hell on Wheels” and “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter,” while Samuel has appeared in “The Twilight Saga” and “Anonymous.”

With “The Complete Hammer House of Horror,” Synapse Films continues to mine the rich vein of horror gold found in the archives of the legendary British studio. In 1980, the Hammer team went on location to the old Hampden Manor House, where it produced an anthology series of 13 stories to air on ITC television. Not surprisingly, the tales of suspense and terror were populated with such Hammer stalwarts as Peter Cushing (in “The Silent Scream”), Anthony Valentine (“Carpathian Eagle”) and Denholm Elliott (“Rude Awakening”), as well as such familiar faces as Pierce Brosnan, Brian Cox, Simon MacCorkindale and Diana Dors in less prominent roles. The Synapse package presents the complete series in its original airdate order, with all-new introductions, featurettes and a stills gallery. – Gary Dretzka

Titanic 3D: Limited Edition: Blu-ray
When it comes to 3D and hi-def, consumers can always count on James Cameron to deliver the goods. His instincts may add a few shekles to a production budget, but ultimately it’s to the consumer’s benefit.  Just as he pushed the theatrical release of “Titanic” from July to December of 1997, he waited until everything was right before releasing the epic period romance on 3D and 2D Blu-ray. I doubt if many “Titanic” obsessives were unhappy that Cameron didn’t adjust his schedule to make the Blu-ray launch coincide with the centennial celebration, which already was overcrowded with shipwreck-themed films. If fans felt deprived, they simply could re-watch their VHS or DVD copies and anticipate how much better “Titanic” would look and sound in Blu-ray. They needn’t have worried. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that sales of 3D-ready televisions jumped after the first glowing reviews of the new release were published. It’s the kind of game-changing product that lifts all boats.

Only the most deep-pocketed of fans need consider the Amazon-exclusive “Titanic Collector’s Edition,” which, for around $240, offers a souvenir book, passenger dossiers and postcards, in addition to the exhaustive amount of bonus material in the standard Bu-ray editions. In addition to the three commentary tracks borrowed from the 2005 DVD edition, the new material includes documentaries, “Reflections on ‘Titanic’” and “‘Titanic’: The Final Word With James Cameron,” both in 1080p and at a combined length of more than 2½ hours; an hour’s worth of deleted and extended scenes, in 1080p; 60 behind-the-scenes featurettes in standard definition; a digital copy of the film; marketing material; stills galleries; and “Titanic” parodies. With it, stocking-stuffer season has officially arrived. – Gary Dretzka

Nympho Divers: G-String Festival
Female Teacher: Dirty Afternoon
Karate-Robo Zaborgar
Western fans of the movies in Impulse Pictures’ Nikkatsu Erotic Films Collection typically are drawn first to crazy titles and, then, to the promise of lurid, if abysmally censored sex. The new additions to the series are reliably gonzo, even though pubis-disguising techniques have improved. (That prohibition would be lifted, in part because of the importation of adult videos from abroad, in the 1990s.) “Nympho Divers: G-String Festival” not only is more humorous than most of the “pink” films I’ve seen, but it also extends the “girl diver” sub-genre of Japanese exploitation flicks (a.k.a., “ama”). Here, a once-thriving Japanese coastal village is experiencing a shortage in divers to go after oysters, abalone, octopi and clams. The local talent has moved to the larger cities for higher paying jobs, so the mayor’s son is assigned to go to Tokyo to hire pretty young women to lure tourists, as well as bivalves, to the town. Naturally, the girl divers are wildly promiscuous and seemingly insatiable. It doesn’t take long for them to wear out the elderly men in the village, who are as interested in muff-diving as they are in pearl diving. The ladies also are required to compete in a thong-bikini contest, during which the sumo-like G-strings cause excruciatingly painful wedgies. Curiously, the cash-short producers decided there was no need to waste money on underwater scenes when a good cat fight or perverse sexual coupling are all that’s needed to keep viewers’ attention.

Likewise, Nikkatsu produced a series of “Female Teacher” titles that satisfied viewers’ cravings for movies about “lusty schoolmistresses.” (Where were they when I was growing up?) In “Female Teacher: Nasty Afternoon,” a teacher, Sakiko Kurata (Yuki Kazamatsuri), is surprised by a call from jail by a vaguely remembered former student. The girl is accused of prostitution, even though she freely surrenders her physical gifts to strangers. As tendentious as the student-teacher connection is, it causes Sakiko to recall an event from her past – she was raped by a masked man who “smelled of paint thinner” – that may have resulted in the conviction of the wrong person. This revelation haunts the teacher to the point where she seeks redemption through illicit sexual encounters of her own. Both DVDs arrive with the theatrical trailers and liner notes.

American viewers unfamiliar with the Japanese sci-fi/fantasy genre tokusatsu – live-action, effects-heavy dramas in which humans interact with superheroes – probably would be completely baffled by “Karate-Robo Zaborgar,” especially if they picked it up for their Transformers-crazy kids. (Not a good idea.) Older geeks, however, might recognize it as a completely freaked-out parody of – or, perhaps, tribute to – the 1974 TV series, “Denjin Zaborger,” in which a bionic vigilante avenges the death of his creator by rebooting a transforming robot/motorcycle invention and targeting his rage at an evil organization led by the wheelchair-bound cyborg and his robotic army. After establishing the backstory, “Karate-Robo Zaborgar” abruptly flashes forward 25 years, to the recession plagued present and another threat to mankind.

This is truly crazy stuff, not at all appropriate for kiddies with a Transformers fixation. But, then, what else might one expect from Noboru Iguchi, creator of “The Machine Girl,” “Mutant Girls Squad,” “Robo Geisha” and “Zombie Ass: Toilet of the Dead”? Here, cyber-babes use their breasts as weapons and command such transformers as the Diarrhea Monster. I know just enough about Japanese fantasy to have found Iguchi’s new movie far more entertaining than I expected it to be and several degrees more insane. For connoisseurs of fart jokes, there’s a doozy near the movie’s climatic battle between Zarborgar and a giant transformed woman in a bikini.  The DVD adds the short film, “Go, Zaborgar Go!” and coming attractions from Sushi Typhoon, Japan’s answer to Troma. – Gary Dretzka

Cleanskin: Blu-ray
6 Bullets
After almost 30 years in the biz, Sean Bean has emerged as one of the most dependable action stars on the virtually-direct-to-DVD circuit. He also continues to do interesting work in non-genre projects, of course, but Bean’s fanbase has grown steadily since his work in the “Sharpe’s …” saga and “Red Riding” trilogy. In “Cleanskin,” he plays a ready-to-retire secret-service agent, Ewan, who’s agreed to accept one last mission for his old counter-terrorist boss (Charlotte Rampling). It requires him to take out a deeply entrenched terrorist cell, using the same license granted to James Bond and other 00- agents. At first, Ewan is perfectly willing to do his duty for Queen and country. After a while, though, he begins to sense that his mission is serving an entirely different purpose. Hadi Hajaig’s film gives ample time to the antagonists, whose motives for provoking violence go further back than last week’s rant by a bloodthirsty mullah. “Cleanskin” is best, however, when Hajaig lets the tick-tock action dominate the story. The DVD adds a making-of featurette.

After emerging briefly from the straight-to-DVD arena in “The Expendables 2,” Jean-Claude Van Damme has returned to the cheap-and-dirty world of action thrillers with “6 Bullets.” Once again, he’s joined here with his children, Kristopher Van Varenberg and Bianca Bree, as well as “Assassination Games” director Ernie Barbarash. He plays a veteran mercenary – duh – who specializes in child abductions. While in Eastern Europe, the teenage daughter of a MMA fighter is kidnaped by white slavers and JCVD is recruited to show him the finer points of tracking down hoodlums in Russia. Not surprisingly, the action is fast, furious and not remotely credible. Who really cares about credibility, though, when the Van Dammes are in the house? – Gary Dretzka

Play in the Gray
It would be far too easy to portray the Boston-based dance, music and performance troupe, All the Kings Men, as simply a highly evolved drag act. Comprised of a half-dozen multi-talented lesbian artists, ATKM has built on its drag-king foundation to probe the limits of gender identity and breaking down the barriers that limit sexual choice. It does so through the use of satire and crowd-pleasing comedy. In “Play in the Gray,” we meet the women, listen to their stories and watch as they transform themselves into a variety of different characters. Some of their observations are directly on-point, while others float in from left field. For performer Katie Allen, “Drag is putting on a skirt and high heels to give me long hair and being a girl.” Karin Webb allows, “When I put on the mask of a character, when I’m performing drag, the comment that I’m making can be any comment. There are comments that I care about, there are comments that I hope the audience gets out of it, but I’m also really not interested in dictating what those comments are or should be.” On stage, ATKM is a little bit of a lot of entertaining things. Off stage, we follow the women along on tour stops and visits to relatives, some of whom are still coming to grips with their sexuality. Kaitlin Meelia’s direction is unobtrusive, observant and not locked into any one letter in the initialism, LGBT(Q,U,I, P,TS,C,A). – Gary Dretzka

Absolutely Fabulous: 20th Anniversary Specials
It was entirely appropriate for Jennifer Saunders and Joanna Lumley to jointly carry the Olympic torch through the streets of London, a day before the lavish Opening Ceremony two months ago. It might have been even more appropriate if Lumley had lit a cigarette off the sacred flame while trotting along. After all, long before Stella McCartney, Alexander McQueen and the Middleton sisters set the standards for British fashion, Edina Monsoon and the chain-smoking Patsy (Saunders, Lumley) defined what it means to be a fashionista. After 20 years, the AbFab girls may have a few more well-camouflaged wrinkles, but they can still party-hardy and make complete fools of themselves, without realizing – or caring — how foolish they look. The three specials that comprise “Absolutely Fabulous: 20th Anniversary Specials” – “Identity,” “Job,” “Olympics” – were produced both to celebrate their anniversary and piggyback on the country’s Olympics Fever. Also back for the ride are long-suffering Saffron (Julia Sawalhe), Mother Monsoon (June Whitfield) and the wonderfully ditzy Bubble (Jane Horrocks). The DVD package also includes “AbFab Does Sports Relief” and a behind-the-scenes featurette. And, yes, of course, Patsy lights her cigarette off the flame for the “AbFab” audience. – Gary Dretzka

TV to DVD:
Spartacus: Vengeance: Blu-ray
Terra Nova: The Complete Series: Blu-ray
The Vampire Diaries: The Complete Third Season
The Big Bang Theory: The Complete Fifth Season
Roseanne: The Complete Fifth/Sixth Season
Grounded for Life: The Complete Series
Kojak: Season 5
Among the many unexpected things that can happen to a popular TV series between seasons is the loss of a key character due to the actor’s contract disputes, bloated ego, incarceration or health problems. “Two and a Half Men” survived the departure of Charlie Sheen, who many people, including Charlie, believed was the sole reason viewers tuned into the show. Between the first and second season of Starz’ decidedly adult gladiator series, “Spartacus,” the actor playing the title character succumbed to non-Hodgkin lymphoma. To fill the gap between seasons, Starz ordered the six-episode prequel, “Spartacus: Gods of the Arena.” It told the story of Gannicus, the original champion of the House of Batiatus. Another Aussie hunk, Liam McIntyre, replaced the late Andy Whitfield in “Spartacus: Vengeance,” without creating too many ripples in the water. It picks up after the gladiator rebellion and subsequent bloodbath that capped Season One, “Blood and Sand.” The rebels present a growing threat to the empire, so Gaius Claudius Glaber and his Roman troops are sent to Capua to crush the growing band of freed slaves under Spartacus’ leadership. Glaber, of course, betrayed the Thracian warrior at the beginning of “B&S,” separating Spartacus from his wife and condemning him to death in the arena. Among the returning veterans are Lucy Lawless, Peter Mensah, Manu Bennett, Nick Tarabay and Viva Blanca. There’s also plenty more of the trademark sex and gore. Indeed, the special makeup effects used in the battle scenes could very well set the standard for nightmares to come. It’s the writing, though, that truly sets “Spartacus” apart from lesser mini-series. The Blu-ray package contains a bounty of making-of and behind-the-scenes featurettes, historical pieces, interviews, previews of the upcoming “Spartacus: War of the Damned,” commentaries on extended episodes and bloopers.

In its abbreviated run on Fox, “Terra Nova” failed to receive the same kind of support from sci-fi geeks that buoyed similar fantasies holding steady in the cable arena, where ratings are interpreted differently that they are by the networks. Any description of the show, even in capsule form, might provide a reasonable explanation of why “Terra Nova” might not have succeeded. One, it involves time travel from the unforeseeable future, 2149, to the fog of the distant past, when dinosaurs roamed the Earth. Remarkably, the Shannon family is able to survive certain destruction – along with the rest of humankind – by escaping to the prehistoric refuge, Terra Nova. Unfortunately, the situation there is similarly tenuous, even 85 million years removed from environmental wasteland that men wrought through their ignorance. Even in the distant past, rival forces aren’t satisfied with watching dinosaurs mate from afar, preferring instead to further their own selfish interests. Sounds yummy, huh? Fox took its time cancelling the series, though, hoping Netflix or a cable network would bite on a second season. Even the loyalty of vocal fans couldn’t stop the network from pulling the trigger on its demise. The DVD package includes all of the 13 episodes, including the two-hour pilot and conclusion; a gag reel; deleted scenes; behind-the-scenes and background material; a hour’s worth of extended and original scenes, plus commentary, on the finale; and a featurette on the show’s dinosaurs.

Meanwhile, over on the more modestly ambitious CW, the soap-opera characters on “The Vampire Diaries” still refuse to die. The new Blu-ray package should get newcomers up to date on what happened during Season Three on the sexy teen melodrama. Not being 17 years old, “Vampire Diaries” has proven far too complicated by romantic entanglements and interchangeable characters to maintain my short attention span. Clearly, the intricacies are far more interesting and logical to the show’s many loyal fans. In Season Three, when a family of vampire hunters awake from their millennial sleep, none of the residents of Mystic Falls – be they hybrid, ghost, witch, vampire or werewolf – will be safe. The Blu-ray adds fan-favorite scenes, unaired scenes, a gag reel, a discussion on the show’s take on the supernatural and a detailed producer’s diary.

When politicians bemoan the status of American students in the sciences and math, it’s probably because they’ve never watched “The Big Bang Theory.” With minds like these at our disposal, we need not worry about the national grade-point average. If nerd physicists can avoid flunking out of Caltech, while also playing video games, reading comic books, collecting “Star Trek” gear and making out with a normally untouchable blond waitress, imagine what they could do if they did their homework. There isn’t much about “TBBT” that viewers don’t already know, but that shouldn’t stop anyone from reliving the highlights of Season Five. They include visits from Dr. Stephen Hawking and “Star Trek” actors Wil Wheaton and Brent Spiner. Meanwhile, Howard is forced to balance NASA’s needs with those of bride-to-be Bernadette. The DVD includes all 24 episodes, a featurette on the show’s 100th episode, interviews and a gag reel. It’s interesting to note how many “Roseanne” alumni have appeared on “TBBT.” Fans of both shows can find Johnny Galecki, Sara Gilbert and Laurie Metcalf in the Mill Creek collection of episodes from the fifth and sixth seasons. The show’s creator, Chuck Lorre, wrote a dozen episodes of “Roseanne” in 1990 and 1991.

Also from Mill Creek comes all 91 episodes of “Grounded for Life,” which starred Donal Logue, Megyn Price, Kevin Corrigan and Richard Riehle. The show is based on the premise that teenagers shouldn’t become parents, unless they’re ready to give up their hard-partying ways. “Grounded for Life” has the rare distinction of being picked up by the WB after being cancelled by Fox, then being adapted for British television under a different title.

By the time “Kojak” reached its fifth and final season, the show had run out of steam in the ratings race. Blessedly, it will live forever on DVD, a format far more favorable than reruns. Joining Telly Savalas here are such guest stars as Armande Assante, Andrea Marcovicci, Stephen McHattie, David Ladd, Tige Andrews, Danny Thomas, Charles Cioffi, Paula Kelly, Lew Wallace, William Windom, Jennifer Warren, Sam Jaffe, Diane Baker, Liberace, Ken Kercheval, Meeno Peluce, Michael Lerner, Lincoln Kilpatrick, Gail Landry and did I mention, Liberace? – Gary Dretzka

PBS: Mariachi High
PBS: John Leguizamo: Tales From a Ghetto Klown
PBS: Orangutan Diaries
Outside of Mexico, the American Southwest and Mexican-American communities elsewhere, mariachi is treated more like a cliché or novelty than a living, breathing musical idiom, as much a part of life here as it is in Mexico City’s Plaza Garibaldi. Don’t take my word for it, though. Watch the PBS documentary “Mariachi High” and study the faces of the Texas teens learning, practicing and performing wonderfully meaningful songs you can’t hear at the local Mexican restaurant. Their joy makes the kids on “Glee” look like grinches. It’s the same rush of excitement, pride and accomplishment that paints the cheeks of champion athletes and winners of the Publisher’s Clearing House drawings. What distinguishes the kids who comprise Mariachi Halcon of Zapata High School in the small border town of Zapata is that their success isn’t expected, widely celebrated or determined by the luck of the draw. If it weren’t for the mariachi program, most of the students we meet here would have remained in the high-risk category and struggled for respect and opportunity. “Mariachi High” follows the ensemble from auditions, through statewide competition and on to graduation day. At a time when meathead politicians willingly build walls along our southern border, these young Americans – and possibly a few immigrants who snuck in years earlier – chose to embrace their heritage and interpret it with a Texas accent. The DVD includes follow-up material on the musicians.

The first half of “John Leguizamo: Tales From a Ghetto Klown” feels very much like a conventional making-of featurette for an in-concert performance film. We follow the gestation of Leguizamo’s fifth one-man show from its Chicago tryout, which was greeted by a record-breaking snowstorm, to its star-studded opening on Broadway, which was greeted with disappointing reviews. For 30 minutes, I waited for the talking to end and “Ghetto Klown” to begin. Instead, and here’s the good part, we’re allowed to eavesdrop on Leguizamo as he prepares to take the show to his native Colombia. This requires the 48-year-old comic actor to re-learn Spanish, so that he can present the show in the language of the people paying good money to see it. He prepares for it as if he were a boxer getting ready for the fight of his life. The bonus package adds interviews and several bits recorded in Chicago, some of which I’d swear I’d heard before in other Leguizamo productions. But, that’s OK, because he’s hasn’t lost much in his hyperactive delivery.

Originally produced for the BBC, “Orangutan Diaries” is a five-part documentary describing the Borneo Orangutan Survival Foundation’s heroic efforts to prevent the apes’ extinction. Hosts Michaela_Strachan and Steve Leonard tag along with animal rescuers hoping to return graduates of the “forest school” rehabilitation program to the bush. In what has become a far too familiar story, corporate interests – here, in the form of palm-oil and rubber plantations — have greatly depleted the orangutans’ natural jungle habitats. At any one time, some 600 displaced orangutans reside at the foundation’s headquarters, where they are given a new lease on life. Once healthy in mind and body, the strongest orphans are moved to a protected reserve in the interior of Borneo. The new PBS set contains the first and second series, which aired in England in 2007 and 2009. Although the accent here is on survival of the species, anyone who enjoyed what they saw in Disney’s “Chimpanzee” will find something just as fascinating in the longer “Orangutan Diaries.” In several ways, the apes here resemble their human cousins even more than chimps. This is especially true when they’re ill and their hair gets patchy. Don’t be surprised if you find yourself reaching for your wallet after watching the series and “adopting” an orangutan at the foundation’s website. – Gary Dretzka

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s: The Lost World: Double Feature
Sherlock Holmes: 2 Complete Mini-Series
While best known for introducing Sherlock Holmes, Doctor Watson and Moriarty to readers, Arthur Conan Doyle also contributed one other unforgettable character, the irascible Professor George Edward Challenger, to the literary world. Described as a “caveman in a lounge suit,” the scientist and adventurer was known for his ill temper and sometimes bizarre theories. In “The Lost World,” Challenger leads an expedition to a South American plateau so remote that dinosaurs still can be found there. Naturally, his findings are greeted with skepticism by London’s scientific elite. “The Lost World” has been adapted many times since Wallace Beery first portrayed Challenger in 1925. In “The Lost World: Double Feature,” he is played by John Rhys-Davies, who very much looks the part. In it and “Return to the Lost World,” the location of the plateau has shifted to Africa and oil prospectors are threatening its dinosaur population. Challenger feels obligated to go to Africa to fulfill his promise to a local tribal chief, but first must get over himself and settle a nasty feud with a rival. David Warner plays Professor Summerlee and Eric McCormack is a Canadian reporter looking for a juicy assignment. I don’t know how much theatrical exposure, if any, these films received here upon their release in 1992. Michael Crichton’s novel, “Jurassic Park,” had already been published and Steven Spielberg’s adaptation of it was already in production. Conan Doyle wasn’t given credit for inspiring that blockbuster, even though Crichton referenced him in his book.

How does one fairly distinguish one adaptation of Holmes material from the more than 250 others that have preceded or succeeded it since 1900? Typically, we’ve categorized them according to the actors who’ve played the legendary private investigator, from Eille Norwood and Basil Rathbone to Peter Cushing, Jeremy Brett and Robert Downey Jr. And they keep right on coming. Jonny Lee Miller plays a contemporary New York sleuth on CBS’ “Elementary,” alongside Lucy Liu. Presumably, it was inspired by the success of the Brit mini-series “Sherlock,” with Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman. In the mini-series “Double Feature” from Mill Creek Entertainment, the venerable Christopher Lee plays Holmes and Patrick Macnee is Watson. More interesting is the casting of Morgan Fairchild as the formidable Irene Francis Adler and Engelbert Humperdinck as Eberhardt Bohm in “Sherlock Holmes and the Leading Lady.” In “Incident at Victoria Falls,” Lee and Macnee are joined by Jenny Seagrave as Lilly Langtry and Claude Akins as Teddy Roosevelt. Holmes completists, more than casual readers, will want to check it out. – Gary Dretzka

The DVD Wrapup: Quick, My Sucky Teen Romance, High School, Touchback … More

Wednesday, September 5th, 2012

My Sucky Teen Romance: Blu-ray
There are no larger targets for parody than the conventions that attract obsessive fans of sci-fi, horror and comic-books. Trekkies were the first to find comfort the numbers of like-minded people drawn to such events, but other fanatic fans soon followed suit. Planners of the first official “Star Trek” convention, in 1972, expected about 500 fanatics to find their way to New York’s Hotel Pennsylvania. Instead, more than 3,000 Trekkies showed up to hear Gene Roddenberry and Isaac Asimov and survey two tons of NASA artifacts. After that, of course, came “le deluge.” As juicy a target as Trekkies and other cultists have become, however, the parodies have been relatively gentle and supportive. I’m guessing this has something to do with the fact that so many filmmakers easily qualified as geeks in high school and college and have been laughing all the way to the bank since then.

The career of 19-year-old genre wunderkind Emily Hagins provides ample evidence to support just such a theory. By the time Emily was 11, she already had produced several horror shorts and written a script for her feature debut, “Pathogen.” Her third feature, “My Sucky Teen Romance,” is set during a local SpaceCON convention, where several of the attendees actually are teen vampires. Far less a parody of the convention scene than a smart and funny exploration of teen angst, “My Sucky Teen Romance” uses the media’s current fixation on vampires to dramatize one 17-year-old girl’s struggle with forbidden love. In fact, being a vampire is almost incidental to the Austin resident’s story about growing up geeky and digging it. Her many references to vampire tropes, trivia and genre history only make “MSTR” that much more appealing. It has some gory moments, but nothing that would frighten a 10-year-old.

Hagins seems dedicated to portraying teenagers, in all their awkwardness, as just that … kids. They don’t look at all like the twentysomethings who play teenagers in “Glee” and “Gossip Girl.” The closest touchstone movie to it is Terry Zwigoff’s “Ghost World,” to which “MSTR” compares favorably. The Blu-ray includes a nice making-up featurette, a deleted scene, bloopers and a short film, “Cupcake.” Hagins’ decision to cast professional Austin-ite and notorious fanboy Harry Knowles as a SpaceCON panelist only adds to the movie geek quotient. – Gary Dretzka

High School: Blu-ray
The guiding principle behind most stoner comedies – especially those destined for a straight-to-DVD launch — is to spend money on an actor or singer notorious for public consumption of dope and put the expository material in the script in the first 30 minutes. After that point, viewers probably will be too high to appreciate any of what passes for witty repartee and clever gags. Why waste good material when all it takes to get viewers laughing uproariously is a monkey with a bong or a talking squirrel? When in doubt, cast Snoop Dogg in a prominent role, add a shower scene or have the characters answer all questions with, “Blow me, dickwad.” We’re not talking about Shakespeare here, folks, even if fans of the genre often behave like groundlings. The artwork on the cover of “High School” makes it abundantly clear that lots of teenagers will spend the next 90 minutes putting the “high” in high school. Also prominent are the names of Oscar-winning actor Adrien Brody, Emmy-winning actor Michael Chiklis, rising star Colin Hanks and some young actors I heard are pretty good. How bad could it be? I still don’t know, because I wasn’t wasted.

The entry-point gag in “High School” involves likely class valedictorian Henry Burke (Matt Bush), who chooses the wrong day to acquaint himself with chronic. Tomorrow, he learns, the school’s principal (Chiklis) has scheduled mandatory drug tests for all students. If he flunks the test, Henry could be demoted to class shmuck and lose his ride to MIT. Instead of calling in a bomb scare as kids in his parents’ generation might have done, Henry and an oft-stoned buddy, Breaux (Sean Marquette), elect to steal enough high-powered dope from a local dealer (Brody) to dose the whole school. The surest delivery system, they reckon, would be the hundreds of delicious brownies they’ll donate to the school bake sale. If everyone’s drug test comes up positive, it’s likely that all of the results will be thrown out and by the time new ones can scheduled, his urine will be free of drugs. Genius, right?

In fact, the flakey plan works like a charm, stoning everyone from the cheerleading squad to the vice principal. The stuff the boys stole is so potent that it’s practically psychedelic. And, here’s where the 30-minute rule kicks in. The students and teachers get so high, they’re practically catatonic. It takes an inordinate amount of time for them to come up with the non sequiturs, ass-backward logic and goofy revelations that distinguish conversations between people who are completely whacked out on drugs. Much of it I found to be quite funny, if not easily translatable for the consumption of straight audiences. It was almost as if the filmmakers threw away the script, got everyone stoned and told the actors to improvise from experience. Brody’s confrontation with the principal is funny, if only because his drug dealer is in full rasta regalia and Chiklis resembles Chris Farley after one of his more strenuous “SNL” sketches. Anyone who sees the award-winning actors’ names on the box and anticipates another “The Pianist” or “The Shield” would be well-advised to consider another title. The Blu-ray adds a few deleted scenes. – Gary Dretzka

Quick: Blu-ray
Although the nearly always hysterical characters in the Korean motorcycle thriller, “Quick,” make Jerry Lewis seem withdrawn, they can be forgiven because someone has planted a bomb in their helmet and is threatening to blow them up. I’ll go out on a limb here and suggest that the producers intended for “Quick” to be the Asian response to “Speed,” the 1994 runaway-bus thriller starring Keanu Reeves and Sandra Bullock. The unseen force controlling the action here is working with more firepower than the monster in “Speed” and the humor is significantly broader, but the idea is the same. The chase begins when motorbike messenger is assigned to do something for a cute singer in a poppy girl group. When she makes the mistake of trying his helmet on for size, a countdown mechanism is automatically triggered and the time left for detonation becomes visible in the wind shield. Removing the helmet would instantaneously trigger the bomb and the anonymous caller also warns against the pair separating by more than 10 feet. In fact, it’s only one of several such devices that pepper the messenger’s route. The setup is pretty simple, but director Cho Beom-gu loves to see things blow up real good, especially in crowded urban streets, shopping malls and trains. I can’t imagine American action junkies not enjoying “Quick,” especially since the subtitles are practically superfluous. There’s plenty of making-of and special-effects information included in the supplementary material. – Gary Dretzka

White Vengeance: Blu-ray
In such epic historical entertainments from China as “White Vengeance,” it would be next to impossible for most western viewers to separate the facts from the invention. We still debate what happened at the OK Corral and Little Big Horn. Action specialist Daniel Lee’s military and political drama, “White Vengeance,” is set at the fall of the Qin Dynasty, which only was in power from 221 to 207 BC. Though the emperor’s reign was short, the changes and reforms he implanted would impact Chinese life for many years. A cursory perusal of the Internet tells me that “White Vengeance” is close enough to accurate for us not to sweat the details and such elaborately staged events as the sword dance at the Hongmen Banquet actually did occur. Still, most of what westerners know about Chinese history – from books, lore and movies – could be cut from whole cloth and we’d want it to be true, at least. We know that Sun Tzu’s “The Art of War” was compiled during the same period, so it makes sense that the great warriors we meet in “White Vengeance” would engage in long discussions about strategy and philosophy, instead of rushing into war for the sake of creating exciting cinema. In fact, the greatest glory is reserved for those leaders who convince their enemy to surrender without a fight. Some disputes are settled over the board game, weiqi (a.k.a., Go), as well.

Lee forgoes much of the usual expository narrative we get in such epics, so it would pay to bone up on the period before jumping into “White Vengeance” with both feet. Basically, though, the story is about a time of great change in China, when sworn brothers in arms, Liu Bang and Xiang Yu, are pitted against each other in pursuit of the title of Lord Qin and leadership of the emerging Han Dynasty. The fighting scenes are as exciting as they usually are in such movies, while the costume and set design work also are splendid. The Blu-ray extras add a long behind-the-scenes featurette and interviews with cast and crew. – Gary Dretzka

Jersey Shore Shark Attack: Blu-ray
Jersey Shore: Season Five: Uncensored
Piranha 3DD: Blu-ray
The English poet who first observed that “all things come to those who wait” couldn’t possibly have imagined it would someday apply to a niche cable-television network specializing in science fiction and horror. That phrase came immediately to mind when watching the surprisingly funny Syfy original movie, “Jersey Shore Shark Attack.” Normally, the only funny things about these cut-rate rip-offs of Roger Corman’s greatest hits are the titles and mutated monsters. “JSSA” not only is a surprisingly accurate parody of MTV’s “Jersey Shore” — a long-running reality show that’s become a parody of itself — but it also does justice to “Jaws” and 25 years of Shark Week programming on Discovery. The significant differences between the setup here and the plot of “Jaws” is in its blue-collar Jersey setting and the reason behind the attacks by albino bull sharks, which is right out of the Corman playbook.

Greedy developers are turning the ocean-side city and amusement park into a ritzy resort for seasonal traffic and the vibrations from the heavy equipment have awoken the creatures from an almost century-long dormancy. After exhausting all other alternatives, the police chief agrees to let the faux Guidos and Guidettes make an attempt to save the July 4 holiday for local businesses. The actors appear to be so familiar with the characters they’re lampooning that they could do it in their sleep. The cast of mostly fresh-faced young actors is supplemented by such familiar old-timers as Paul Sorvino, William Atherton, Jack Scalia, Tony “Paulie Walnuts” Sirico and Joey Fatone, who has the singular honor of being snatched from the stage by a giant leaping shark. Syfy regulars know that monster antagonists often perform such impressive acrobatic feats. “JSSA” may not be in the same league as such world-class parodies as “Airplane!” and “Blazing Saddles,” but it’s the closest Syfy has come to a crowd-pleasing original movie. The Blu-ray edition comes with a making-of featurette.

What is it about the word, “uncensored,” that is so difficult for the folks at MTV to grasp? Even though the censors have given a pass to the vulgar language in “Jersey Shore: Season Five: Uncensored,” it only takes five minutes to spot the first digitized blur of an up-skirt shot at a disco. It may seem like a small thing to less-perverted fans, but those of us who care about the English language find it difficult to get past such miscarriages of grammatical justice. Otherwise, it’s mostly the same old stuff that’s made the show such a strange pop phenomenon. It takes the stars about three minutes to get past their jet lag from the trip home from Italy to head for their favorite barbers, tanning facilities and exfoliators to get back in shape for whatever it is they do. That is, besides eating with their fingers and sleeping in their clothes. And, that’s just the guys. MTV has just announced that the current season will be the last for “Jersey Shore.” In six months, the void probably will be filled with a show starring Snooki’s newly born son, Lorenzo. The bonus features add episodes of “After Hour,” confessionals, deleted scenes, interviews and the reunion special.

If you’re planning on making a parody of an exploitation picture that didn’t take itself all that seriously to begin with, it would be wise to hand the reins over to someone who knows the difference between funny and stupid. I know that we’re discussing a straight-to-DVD product here, but any picture in which David Hasselhoff is given the best lines and asked to carry the final half-hour by playing himself is one that is asking for trouble. At one point in “Piranha 3DD,” a boy approaches the lifeguard stand, where Hasselhoff grills him about “Knight Rider,” “Baywatch” and other of his credits. The tyke admits to not having a clue as to who he is or what he’s done. I think that’s movie’s biggest problem, right there. No one outside of L.A., Las Vegas and certain quarters of Germany give a good crap about the Hoff. The same goes for Gary Busey’s cameo in the opening sequence.

In “3DD,” the prehistoric piranhas make their way from one part of Lake Victoria to the other, where the owner of a water park has decided to divide it in half, one only for adults. The 3D boobies are interesting to watch for a while, but they’re too quickly overshadowed by the orifice-seeking fish. When this happens, the line between parody and splatter completely disappears. Ving Rhames is wheeled in for a few quick laughs, before director John Gulager (“Feast”) hands the baton off to the Hoff. It’s possible that the Blu-ray 3D effects helped make “3DD” a more entertaining movie, but, not having a compatible set, I couldn’t vouch for that. The Blu-ray bonus material includes a few things fans of the franchise might enjoy, but they’re mostly dumb and self-serving. An unrelated short featuring John McEnroe is the best thing in the three-disc package. – Gary Dretzka

Mother’s Day: Blu-ray
Sometimes it is fun to go back and read the reviews of movies that stirred controversy and outrage movies when they were released. When “Mother’s Day” slithered into theaters, 32 years ago, Roger Ebert demonstrated his disgust with mindless splatter and slasher films by refusing to give it a single whole or half star. While he certainly wasn’t alone in his opinion, it wasn’t universally shared, either. In one of the new Blu-ray’s bonus features, no less a force in the horror genre than Eli Roth practically credits “Mother’s Day” with the genesis of his entire career, which includes such pivotal titles as “Hostel” and “Cabin Fever.” Splatter flicks haven’t gone away and neither have critics willing to denounce them. The difference between then and now is the emergence of niche websites and blogs dedicated to such genre fare. Their criteria are far different than those of mainstream critics, whose opinions are read by a cross-section of readers. One writer’s atrocity is another one’s slice of cherry pie. “Mother’s Day” remains a tough film to watch, especially to those of us who don’t see much to enjoy in simulated scenes of rape and dismemberment. It’s also easy to see how Charles Kaufman and Warren Leight’s movie might have influenced the next generation of genre specialists, including those responsible for Troma’s less-demented remake starring Rebecca De Mornay. The original only set its producers back to the tune of $150,000, while the remake cost $11 million. The premise to both movies is that several hideous crimes are committed by criminally insane young men to impress their mother, who is a dyed-in-the-wool sadist. In the 1980 version, everything is done with an eye toward being as offensive as possible, while also telling something of a story. In it, three longtime friends hope to revisit the good old days by spending a weekend communing with nature in the woods. Even before they’re able to take off their clothes to go skinny-dipping, the mamma’s boys cut off the head of their male companion. Things get worse, of course, before the women figure out a way to fight back. Inadvertently, perhaps, Kaufman and Leight were creating a template that would shape Troma products for years to come. For my taste, or lack thereof, the best thing about “Mother’s Day” is the performance of Broadway, radio and early-television veteran Beatrice Pons, who’s best-remembered for her recurring roles on “The Phil Silvers Show” and “Car 54, Where Are You?” She lent “Mother’s Day” an air of dignity – well disguised as it may have been – it didn’t deserve and viewers probably didn’t notice. – Gary Dretzka

Harry Potter Wizard’s Collection: Blu-ray
Friday, fans of the “Harry Potter” franchise will have their loyalty put to the ultimate test, along with the limits of their bank accounts, with the release of “Harry Potter Wizard’s Collection.” The 31-disc limited-edition package arrives with an MSRP of $499. (Heavily discounted collections are already available.) In addition to Blu-ray, DVD and UltraViolet Digital Copy editions of all eight films – Blu-ray 3D editions of both “Deathly Hallows” installments and extended versions of “Sorcerer’s Stone” and “Chamber of Secrets” — the collector’s set adds more than 37 hours of special features. They include all previously released materials and more than 10 hours of new-to-disc bonus content, as well as five hours of never-before-seen material.

No need to rehash what made the movies so wonderful. Anyone willing to shell out the dough for the “Wizard’s Collection” already has them memorized. So, what about the new stuff and other bonus material? The 48-page “Harry Potter Catalogue of Artefacts,” by former HP graphic designers Eduardo Lima, Miraphora Mina and Lauren Wakefield reminds us of the many props designed in “shadow boxes”; nearly four hours long, “The Harry Potters You Never Met” demonstrates how stunts from the films were performed and reveals the “tricks” that contributed to the creation of the major set pieces; and, also from MinaLima Design, a 32-page book “Label Collection,” filled with images of imaginatively designed labels from prop potions, memory vials, Honeydukes and Wheasley’s Wheezes. The “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1” bonus disc adds the all-new “Creating the World of Harry Potter, Part 7: Story,” whole “HPATDH: 2” contains “Creating the World of Harry Potter, Part. 8: Growing Up” and the extended “A Conversation with JK Rowling and Daniel Radcliffe.” – Gary Dretzka

8:46: Never Forget
As we approach the 11th anniversary of the terrorist attacks on 9/11, at least one new film is being released to remind us of the human side of tragedy, not that it’s began forgotten by anyone. It does this by introducing us to victims and survivors in the hours before the planes hit the WTC and, again, in the minutes before the towers collapsed. “8:46: Never Forget” doesn’t relate any stories we haven’t already heard – indeed, the characters are fictional – so it’s important to remember that it was produced to benefit the actual families of people who died that day. Writer/director/actor Jennifer Gargano’s heart clearly is in the right place. Because she focuses so tightly on the average, everyday people impacted by the terrorist attack, she forgoes stories of heroism. The idea here is to push the not-at-all-subliminal message, “We Will Never Forget” … as if we possibly could. Proceeds from “8:46” will be directed to the non-profit organization, Tuesday’s Children. – Gary Dretzka

David E. Talbert Presents: Suddenly Single
One of the things I like about the movies written, directed and produced by David E. Talbert is that he takes the time to welcome his audience to his movies and give them backstage tours when they’re over, sometimes with his wife and collaborator, Lyn. Even if the none-to-subtle melodramas aren’t brewed to be my cup of tea, I admire his generosity. Shot before a live audience, “Suddenly Single” is another fable involving black families in crisis and marriages torn apart by conditions beyond the wife’s control. Even if Talbert’s productions tackle adult themes with humor and compassion, he respects the fact that his fans are both traditionally religious and smart enough to see how things happen in the real world. Here, we meet Samantha Stone (Garcelle Beauvais) as she prepares to move to her dream home with her husband, Sylvester (Isaiah Washington), the man she’s loved since high school. Just as Samantha’s about to tape up the last box, however, Sylvester announces that he’s fallen in love with another woman, Brittany (code for “white woman”), and he’s leaving her high and dry … well, almost. It’s clear that the audience approves of the way the cad gets his comeuppance. And, yes, it involves a totally buff black man – their son’s basketball coach – to whom Samantha is introduced to when her husband splits. Even though the humor and pathos are as broad as a barn, “Suddenly Single” is the most entertaining Talbert release I’ve seen. – Gary Dretzka

Ballplayer: Pelotero
Baseball’s Greatest Games: San Francisco Giants’ First Perfect Game
Anyone who was impressed by the 2008 sports drama “Sugar” should make a beeline to the local video emporium to find the similarly themed documentary, “Ballplayer: Pelotero.” Both take us to the same baseball schools that serve as feeders for Major League teams hoping to sign prospects from the Dominican Republic. In “Sugar,” after the signees were shown stumbling over some rudimentary English phrases, we followed the fictional Miguel Sanchez to Iowa, where things get crazy. In “Ballplayer,” the camera stays in the Dominican, following two prospects whose ages are in dispute by MLB officials … a.k.a., the plantation owners. The ordeal these teenagers endure would never have been permitted if the kids grew up in the U.S. and attended schools here. Sadly, potential stars in the Dominican attend baseball schools as they approach 16, knowing they can provide the only escape route from poverty. Someday, maybe sooner than later, you may hear the names, Jean Carlos Batista and Miguel Angel Sano, on baseball broadcasts or called out as they step up to the plate … maybe not. If they do make “the show,” “Ballplayer” will serve as a reminder to a time when the MLB conspired with demonstrably corrupt team agents to impede their success and rob them of money. Directed by Ross Finkel, Trevor Martin and Jonathan Paley, the film opens on a deceptively positive high, then, unexpectedly, turns the corner on the depressing chicanery, before ending on the uptick. Comparisons to Kartemquin’s “Hoop Dreams” are inevitable and warranted.

Just as we’ve had the season of the juiced home run and the asterisk-home-run record, the season of stolen bases and various strike seasons, 2012 already has become the season of the perfect game. For those not keeping score at home, to achieve a perfecto a pitcher must shut down all of the opposition’s 27 batters, in order, and without the benefit of a double-play or picking off a runner who’s reached base on an error or walk. Until the beginning of the current season, pitching a no-no was as rare a feat as catching a foul ball with a full cup of beer. Already this year there have been three. On June 13, against the Houston Astros, Matt Cain became the first pitcher in the Giants’ storied history to throw a perfect game. His 14-strikeout gem matched that of the Dodger’s Sandy Koufax, on September 9, 1965. In addition to the game, the Major League Baseball presentation, “Baseball’s Greatest Games,” allows fans to watch the television broadcast and listen to the Giants Radio Network announcers. – Gary Dretzka

Touchback: Blu-ray
Despite the many sports clichés that inform Don Handfield’s football drama, “Touchback,” it never feels handcuffed by stereotypes or guided by the rules that govern such inspirational fare. Just when you think it’s going down one overly familiar road, it takes a detour. The destination is the same, but the path to get there is refreshingly different. “Touchback” opens by introducing us to a young farmer about to lose his soybean farm to the banks. People remember him most as the hard-nosed quarterback who led a team of farm boys to an unlikely championship against an Ohio prep powerhouse. After being injured in that game, Scott Murphy (Brian Presley) lost his opportunity to star at Ohio State and make a fortune as a pro. Just as he’s about to end it all, however, Scott is given a chance to go back in time and change his fortunes. To tell that story, Handfield has borrowed bits and pieces from such kindred movies as “It’s a Wonderful Life,” “Peggy Sue Gets Married,” “Back to the Future” and, in an obvious visual reference, “Field of Dreams.” Instead of strolling through the pearly gates, Scott is dumbfounded to find himself walking into his former high school the week before the championship game. Instead of being the macho prick his roughneck buddies recognize, Scott is a mature and chastened young gentleman. His girlfriend (Sarah Wright) is the prototypical blond cheerleader, whose odds of getting pregnant before Scott enters the NFL draft are prohibitively high. Instead of giving himself wholeheartedly to the cheerleader, he recognizes the band-geek girl (Melanie Lynskey) he would marry in real life and raise a family. She can’t believe her good luck and, thinking she’s being set up for a joke, resists his advances for as long as possible. Kurt Russell plays the team’s coach, who, contrary to stereotype, is not a fire-breathing fascist or someone who wants to ride the boy’s coattails to a job with OSU. No need to spoil the ending, except to say that it’s fresh, heart-warming and beautifully shot. Anyone who loves sports movies should give “Touchback” a shot. – Gary Dretzka

David Bowie: The Calm Before the Storm
In this “In Review” selection from Britain’s Sexy Intellectual catalog, David Bowie’s first steps toward superstardom are chronicled and evaluated by critics, musicians and producers who’ve witnessed his many career choices. “The Calm Before the Storm” opens with a look at his early, formative years as a rocker clearly influenced by folk, R&B and Music Hall, but with no real identity of his own. It winds up in 1971, after “Space Oddity,” “Man Who Sold the World” and “Hunky Dory” hit the charts. These albums elevated Bowie’s career from being an interesting newcomer to as influential and imitated a performer as there’s been in rock history. If it weren’t for Bowie and the risks he took – continuing into the Ziggy Stardust era and beyond — it’s entirely possible that Boy George, Madonna and Lady Gaga might not have had the courage to be as provocative and outrageous as they became. Conversely, if it weren’t for Liberace, Little Richard, Elvis and Mick Jagger, Bowie would have been required to cut himself out of whole cloth. Neither would androgyny win acceptance as a powerful fashion and lifestyle statement. Today, teenagers are still discovering the many Bowie incarnations and buying his CDs as if he were something very new and different. In fact, he’s been new and different for most of the last 45 years. The discussions and assessments in “Calm Before the Storm” are knowledgeable and not the least bit pompous or condescending. – Gary Dretzka

The Guest House
If there’s a point to this anemic lesbian drama, I’m not at all sure what it is. “The Guest House” isn’t steamy enough to qualify as erotica, but the chemistry between Ruth Reynolds and Madeline Merritt is the only thing keeps us interested for most of the movie’s 83 minutes. Reynolds plays an 18-year-old Goth gal who’s in the process of breaking up with her dickhead Goth boyfriend when she meets the recent college grad played by Merritt. She’s been hired by the younger woman’s father – also a dickhead – who “grounds” her for no apparent reason. This gives her plenty of time to make friends with Amy, who was invited to stay in the guest house so the old man can have easy access to her when he comes back from a business trip. Instead, all too conveniently, Rachel convinces Amy to sample Sapphic pleasures and they’re off to the races. When daddy comes home he finds them in bed and pitches a fit. Seemingly, the thought of having to share his mistress with his daughter — and vice versa – only works in hard-core porn. Her bliss abruptly disturbed, Amy is left wondering what hit her.

That’s pretty much it, except for some nice musical interludes from Rachel. There’s a tricky ending, but why spoil it? In “The Guest House,” everything happens far too quickly and for reasons that haven’t been valid since 1959. Nonetheless, if you’re a fan of the actors, you’ll appreciate the rather tame sex scenes, at least. – Gary Dretzka

Game of Life
After “Crash” stunned Hollywood movers and shakers by winning the Best Picture Oscar at the 2006 Academy Award ceremony – prompting comparisons to “Magnolia” and several of Robert Altman’s best movies – the floodgates opened to other ensemble dramas with interwoven storylines. Few of them received exposure outside the festival and straight-to-DVD marketplace – “American Gun” and “Powder Blue” come to mind – despite some interesting casting and nearly identical posters. In 2007, prolific B-movie writer/director/producer Joseph Merli contributed “Game of Life” (a.k.a., “Oranges”) to the glut and it’s only now being made available on DVD. Although it tugs the viewer’s heart in all of the right places and some of the acting is pretty good, “Game of Life” wants us to accept coincidences and relationships that wouldn’t be credible, even in Los Angeles. I believe this because, in the first five minutes, we’re told that a character played by Tom Arnold is married, if shakily to a lingerie designer played by Heather Locklear, in all her MILF glory. Give me a break. The other members of the racially and economically diverse cast are experiencing one crisis or another, and not all of them are going to survive their ordeals. This time, the common denominator is a soccer team comprised, in large part, of the sons of the primary characters. Needless to say, the kids have serious problems of their own with which to deal. Besides Arnold and Locklear, the cast includes Tom Sizemore, Jill Hennessy, Richard T. Jones, Beverly D’Angelo, Orson Bean, Marina Sirtis and Ruth Livier (“Revenge of the Bimbot Zombie Killers”). – Gary Dretzka

The Hand That Rocks the Cradle: Blu-ray
Hocus Pocus: Blu-ray
Cold Creek Manner: Blu-ray
The titles in this month’s package of new Blu-ray releases from the Disney library share one thing in common, at least. Their directors were selected from the top shelf of their profession. Five years before “L.A. Confidential” would become a cross-generational hit and be accorded huge critical success, Curtis Hanson directed the taut psychological thriller, “The Hand That Rocks the Cradle.” In it, Rebecca De Mornay plays a nanny who devotes herself to destroying the life and serenity of Clair, the woman (Annabella Sciorra) she blames for her husband’s suicide and the miscarriage of their child. The nanny does this by ingratiating herself with the husband and 5-year-old daughter, even going so far as to breast feed the baby, so he’s never hungry when Claire returns from work and is ready to feed him. By the time Claire figures out what’s been happening behind her back, everyone around her is convinced she’s going nuts.

Before directing the spooky Halloween-theme comedy, “Hocus Pocus,” in 1993, Kenny Ortega was primarily known for overseeing Cher’s Heart of Stone Tour and Michael Jackson’s Dangerous World Tour. (He also was a founding member of the Tubes.) Among the movies and television shows he choreographed were “Dirty Dancing,” “Newsies,” “Pretty in Pink” and “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.” He would go on to choreograph and direct the “High School Musical” trilogy, “The Cheetah Girls 2,” the XIX Winter Olympics’ Opening Ceremony and the Hannah Montana/Miley Cyrus tour. In “Hocus Pocus,” a Salem teenager named Max accidentally resurrects three sister witches whose spirits survived the witch trials. Three hundred years later, they pick up where they left off in the mischief department. Bette Midler, Sarah Jessica Parker and Kathy Najimy star as the Sanderson Sisters, alongside Omri Katz, Thora Birch and Vinessa Shaw.

Before directing “Cold Creek Manor,” Mike Figgis had garnered two Academy Award nominations for “Leaving Las Vegas” and a Palme d’Or for “The Browning Version.” His willingness to take huge risks thematically and structurally hasn’t always paid off at the box office, but he remains a formidable artist. The Touchstone Pictures thriller re-tells the familiar story of city folks who try to make the transition to country living, but don’t anticipate having to share their new digs with reminders of its past owners and their secrets. The stellar cast includes Dennis Quaid, Sharon Stone, Stephen Dorff, Juliette Lewis, 13-year-old Kristen Stewart and Christopher Plummer.

The scheduled release of the creature-feature “Arachnophobia,” directed by the prolific and much-honored producer Frank Marshall, has been pushed back to September 25. – Gary Dretzka

R.L. Stine’s The Haunting Hour: The Series: Volume One/Two
For the last 20 years or so, R.L. Stine’s name has been as synonymous with the children’s-horror and supernatural-thriller genres as Alfred Hitchcock and Stephen King were for fans of the horror and psycho-terror in their parents’ and grandparents’ generations. Although his profile isn’t nearly as recognizable as Hitchcock’s was and he doesn’t share his musings in Entertainment Weekly, like King, Stine’s literary brand is every bit as recognizable. Few writers sold more books in the 1990s in any genre. He created “Eureeka’s Castle” for the Nick Jr. cable channel and “Goosebumps” for Fox Kids, in addition to adding video gaming, amusement-park attractions and new and spinoff series to his repertoire. “R.L. Stine’s The Haunting Hour” is a Canadian/American co-production that airs here on the Hub network (formerly Discovery Kids.) The half-hour anthology series features performances by some of the brightest young actors working in TV and themes that demand they reflect a contemporary teenager’s point of view. The shows do raise goosebumps, while proving that today’s kid actors can scream with the best of the scream queens. Newly available on DVD are episodes from the first two seasons. A third is in production. – Gary Dretzka

TV-to-DVD Wrapup: Revenge, Homeland, 2 Girls, Walking Dead, Sons of Anarchy … More

Monday, September 3rd, 2012

Now that the flow of TV-to-DVD compilations has grown from a trickle to a flood, it’s time for those titles to escape ghetto-status in DVD Wrapup, if only occasionally, and find their own place in the MCN world. Normally, there aren’t enough to fill a standalone column, but, rather than wait for the shows to enter the syndication market, the networks hope to boost interest in returning series and keep newcomers and fans, alike, up to date. Collections of episodes from vintage series, including next week’s “Kojak: Season Five,” make wonderful gifts for those convinced that everything has gotten worse since they turned 30. There’s even a market for shows that were canceled before completing a full season. Most DVD and Blu-ray packages arrive with a generous list of bonus features not available on TV or a show’s Internet sites.

Revenge: The Complete First Season: Blu-ray
Once Upon a Time: The Complete First Season: Blu-ray
Homeland: The Complete First Season: Blu-ray
2 Broke Girls: The Complete First Season
When gorgeous Canadian blond Emily VanCamp joined the cast of the ABC’s psycho-soap, “Brothers & Sisters,” as the late William Walker’s secret love child – or, so it seemed at the time — it quickly became clear that she was a star in the making. If nothing else VanCamp gave the audience something pleasant to look at while the rest of Walkers yelled at each other and swapped gossip they had sworn not to repeat. Her good looks and independent bearing also work well in “Revenge,” a prime-time melodrama that’s set in Hamptons and populated with some of the most despicable characters on television. Her Emily Thorne arrives as an accommodating stranger in a strange land, but quickly evolves into a femme fatale dedicated to avenging the death of her father. In each episode, Emily constructs intricate plots to discredit and humiliate the people, all of whom summer in the Hamptons, responsible for framing her dad. The acts of revenge are often quite intricate and highly entertaining. The spoiled young adults, ruthless middle-age men and women (Madeleine Stowe, among them) all seemingly were put on Earth to host charity luncheons, commit adultery and stab each other in the back, so what’s the harm? On the flip side, the dialogue and much of the acting are laughable. By comparison, “Gossip Girl” and “Royal Pains” look like “Downton Abbey.” The complete-season package adds several crowd-pleasing extras, including backgrounders, making-of pieces, music videos, deleted scenes, a gag reel and a look at the fashion design.

The setting for ABC’s fantasy drama, “Once Upon a Time,” is a quaint Maine town both enchanted and cursed. As conceived by Edward Kitsis and Adam Horowitz (“Lost,” “Felicity”), Storybrooke is situated at the junction of present-day reality and a fairy-tale past. The people who live there are familiar storybook characters, cursed by the Evil Queen (Lana Parrilla) to live within the town’s boundaries in human form and absent any memory of their true identities. Because he was adopted after the curse was imposed, a boy named Henry is the only resident able to leave Storybrooke and co-exist in both realms. He uses the free pass to track down his birth mother, Emma (Jennifer), who, he believes to be the daughter of Snow White (Ginnifer Goodwin) and Prince Charming (Josh Dallas), and the only person capable of lifting the spell. First, though, Henry must convince Emma that this entire scenario isn’t constructed from baloney. It isn’t easy. The series’ creators employ sophisticated CGI effects and time warps to keep everyone guessing as to how the characters’ unique traits will serve the residents of Storybrooke. “Once Upon a Time” sounds far-fetched, but so did the premise of the beloved Broadway musical, “Brigadoon.” Fantasy fanatics are encouraged to hit the pause button as often as necessary to study the references, puns and homages buried in the stories and set designs. Considering who owns ABC, the writers probably had few concerns about borrowing liberally from the Disney library. The Blu-ray package offers several entertaining features, including commentaries; fairy-tale history lessons in Maximum Movie Mode; a tour of Storybrooke; interviews with cast members about their favorite stories; deleted scenes and bloopers; and making-of material. Season Two is scheduled to premiere September 30.

Showtime scored a direct hit with its taut post-9/11 drama, “Homeland,” about a U.S. Marine who was captured by Al Qaeda and may or may not have been brainwashed into becoming a “sleeper” terrorist. CIA officer Carrie Mathison (Claire Danes) certainly believes that Nicolas Brody (Damian Lewis) has changed teams during his incarceration and cautions against giving him too much latitude. Reports of Brody’s brutal treatment at the hands of his captors feel far too real to be contradicted and too juicy not to be exploited by image-conscious politicians and bureaucrats. Before long, it’s Mathison’s patriotism that’s put to the test. “Homeland” was nominated for Emmys in the Best Drama, Best Actors, Best Writing and Best Directing categories, as well as for four more in the Creative Arts section. The series was developed for American television by Howard Gordon and Alex Gansa, after the Israeli series “Hatufim” (“Prisoners of War”). The Blu-ray package contains commentaries, deleted scenes, a Season Two preview and behind-the-scenes featurette.

The heat surrounding the CBS sitcom, “2 Broke Girls,” was generated primarily by its association with comic Whitney Cummings, whose other 2011-12 sitcom, “Whitney,” struggled on NBC. Apart from fans of the raunchy Comedy Central roasts, Cummings was a mostly unknown quantity. Insiders appreciated her racy, often self-deprecating approach to standup comedy and willingness to mix it up with the guys. Very little of that spunkiness came through in “Whitney,” if only because viewers could see her character’s wisecracks coming from a mile away and she usually stood flat-footed while delivering the punches. “2 Broke Girls” had a much smoother flow and the lead characters were drawn as equals from opposite sides of the tracks. The odd-couple roommates were played by physical opposites Max (Kat Dennings) and Caroline (Beth Behrs), both of whom wait tables in a Brooklyn diner. Their goal is to save $250,000 and invest it in a cupcake shop. The restaurant’s multi-ethnic staff wasn’t created to promote diversity as much as it provides context for the racially charged barbs hurled liberally throughout the shows. If nothing else, they made an easy target for easily offended critics. – Gary Dretzka

The Walking Dead: The Complete Second Season: Blu-ray
Haven: The Complete Second Season
Sons of Anarchy: Season Four
Fringe: The Complete Fourth Season
Two and a Half Men: The Complete Ninth Season
Adapted from a comic-book series set against the background of a zombie apocalypse, “The Walking Dead” became the unlikeliest of hits two years ago for AMC, a cable network that took a big risk on “Mad Men” and saw it pay huge dividends. Although the big screen and DVD market had already become saturated with tales of the undead — ranging from good to awful – someone saw room on television for even more zombies, and it became an instant hit. Who knew, right? With that challenge overcome, the producers could focus on turning Season Two into something deeper than a survival thriller. Instead of letting the walkers steal the show this team around, it’s the humans who take charge of the drama. The Blu-ray adds commentary on several key episodes; a dozen short making-of featurettes covering all aspects of the production; a half-dozen Internet webisodes; and a half-hour’s worth of deleted scenes.

Everything’s a bit off-kilter in Haven, Maine. Even the FBI agent assigned to track down a prison escapee there decided to remain as a cop, if only out of curiosity about her own secret past. As the city’s name suggests, the residents aren’t particularly welcome in other American. That’s because they possess myriad supernatural qualities that would freak out and possibly endanger their neighbors. In Syfy’s “Haven,” such disturbances are almost taken for granted. The Season Two episodes followed a similar pattern to those in the inaugural go-round, with Audrey and Nathan (Lucas Bryan) solving bizarre crimes and investigating her own secrets. The series is based on a novel by Stephen King.

When two of the best and most devotedly followed shows on television are based on the premise that outlaw motorcycle gangsters and meth cookers are people, too, you know that something has changed fundamentally in the American psyche. Characters most people would be afraid to sit next to in bar now are welcomed into our houses every week on television. Of course, the same can be said about zombies. More than anything else, I suppose, “Sons of Anarchy” is a show about how one atypical family takes care of itself and its own. If the bikers too often put their loved ones in harm’s way, their struggle to pull them back to safety is that much more thrilling. Season Four opens with the release of gang members imprisoned for crimes committed in Season Three, which almost jumped the shark with a wild storyline involving the “True IRA” and screw-ups back home. The boys are challenged immediately by a new sheriff and U.S. attorney. News that a developer is intent on building an upscale subdivision in Charming also pisses off the Sons. On the plus side – for viewers, anyway – is the introduction of Danny Trejo in a storyline that reads as if it were written just for him. The DVD comes with commentaries, deleted scenes, a gag and an app that provides access to the gang’s clubhouse.

Fox’s “Fringe” combines elements of the police procedural with sci-fi fantasy, much in the same way as “Haven.” The difference is that FBI agents in “Fringe” must contend with criminals and investigations involving enemy universes, alternate timelines, shape-shifters and other bizarro stuff. In Season Four, the characters learn that human love may be as strong a force in the universes as anything else. Apparently, the upcoming season will be its last.

Despite the absence of Charlie Sheen, the ninth season of “Two and a Half Men” went on as planned. The show easily survived the loss and will live to see yet another season. Given Jake’s physical development, it could re-titled “Three Men and a Cranky Maid.” As billionaire slacker Walden Schmidt, Ashton Kutcher helped make the transition smoother than could have been expected, considering all the media hoopla. In Season Nine, Jake had a transition of his own to make and the passage was a tad rocky. One of the season’s highlights came when Walden decided to cut his hair and shave his beard. And, so it goes. BTW: now that FX has given Sheen’s “Anger Management” sitcom a 90-episode extension, you can cancel the tag day plans. – Gary Dretzka

Jim Gaffigan: Mr. Universe
I didn’t know that Jim Gaffigan spent his formative years in Indiana, but, now that I do, it’s easy to trace his straight-from-the-heartland approach to comedy and big personality. Even after all these years toiling on the standup plantation, he can still get away with material about fast-food restaurants, resisting the temptation to get in shape and being a lazy husband. In his new comedy special, “Mr. Universe,” Gaffigan still looks like the guy next-door, who’s on his way to or just returned from Home Depot. He opens the door to that world for us and we’re happy to join him, even for 77 minutes and absent bonus features. – Gary Dretzka

PBS: The Barnes Collection
PBS: Guilty Pleasures
PBS: e2: Intervention Architecture
PBS: The Musical Brain
PBS: Golf’s Grand Design
PBS: The First Ladies
PBS: American Experience: The Presidents
PBS: America & the Civil War
In 2009, Don Argott’s documentary, “The Art of the Steal,” exhaustively chronicled the intricate legal maneuvering that led to the transplantation of the Barnes Foundation art museum from Lower Merion, Pa., to a spanking-new facility a short stroll away from the Philadelphia Museum of Art. The movie made a very good case for the argument that chemist and art collector Albert C. Barnes would have never permitted the move, if, in fact, he hadn’t died in a car accident in 1951. Because his will stipulated that the museum and school should stay where they are, it appeared as if clout-heavy foundations and politicians had bullied administrators and judges into ignoring Barnes’ wishes. The other side of that coin revealed that the original site couldn’t be sustained financially and repairs to the buildings would have cost a fortune. The museum’s well-heeled neighbors were getting pissy about traffic and parking hassles, while the 12-mile relocation would allow more exposure to the magnificent collection, which was next to impossible for tourists to see. PBS’ 55-minute overview, “The Barnes Collection,” mostly skirts the legal maneuvering, showcasing, instead, the history of the collection, Barnes’ great prescience, construction of the new facility and the philosophy behind the interior design and placement of the artwork. While it’s sad whenever the wishes of an individual are overridden by commercial ambition, it’s wonderful to know that the Impressionist-heavy collection now is so readily accessible. “The Barnes Collection” should serve as a useful primer for art lovers who will be in the neighborhood and don’t mind doing a little homework. For them, I’d also recommend renting “The Art of the Steal,” if only to fully understand how the business and politics of art often detract from the beauty and sensitivity of what’s on exhibit.

Guilty Pleasures” takes an almost frivolous topic and turns it into a compelling examination of how we live today. The only thing most people know about romance novels is that their primary contribution to culture is the beatification of Fabio and other models who personify passionate love and hidden desire. Not at all condescending, the PBS documentary profiles five people whose lives have been changed by novels published by Harlequin and Mills & Boon. A prolific author describes the formulaic structure of the novels and how he meets the specific demands of his readers. A fastidious male model explains the physical requirements of the job, including proper grooming and acting as if you’ve got the world by the tail. A woman in Japan has been inspired by her favorite characters to master ballroom dancing; an Indian woman hopes that by dressing more like a siren she can lure her estranged husband back home; and an English woman travels fantasy worlds while her husband smokes cigarettes and watches the telly. The film argues persuasively that frivolity is only the eyes of the beholder.

For all of his achievements as an actor, Brad Pitt may finally be best known for his contributions toward the rebuilding of New Orleans’ Lower 9th Ward, which was devastated by Hurricane Katrina and ignored by politicians. His Make It Right Foundation commissioned several internationally prominent architects to design homes that were affordable, green, flood resistant, attractive and functional, while also maintaining a neighborhood feel. It’s no accident, then, that he was called upon to narrate “e2: Intervention Architecture,” which documents the efforts of the Aga Khan Development Network to encourage new thinking about how architecture can meet the needs of communities in the Muslim world, by awarding prestigious prizes and financial considerations. The criteria for nomination stipulate that “projects set new standards of excellence in architecture, planning practices, historic preservation and landscape architecture,” in societies with a significant Muslim presence. Inherent in those guidelines is an understanding of Islam’s traditional influence on architecture, which has been huge and not limited to mosques and castles. To put it crudely, when it comes to supporting reconstruction projects in the Islamic world – and promoting the religion’s positive core beliefs — the Aga Khan walks the walk and talks the talk, just as Pitt did in New Orleans. The projects spotlighted here include the Wadi Hanifa Wetlands, in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia; revitalisation of the Hypercentre of Tunis, Tunisia; Madinat Al-Zahra Museum, Cordoba, Spain; Ipekyol Textile Factory, Edirne, Turkey; and Bridge School, Xiashi, Fujian, China. Even people whose knowledge of architecture is limited to how the word is spelled will find something in “e2” worth pondering.

One of the guiding principles of music appreciation, at least for laymen, is not to overthink the joy it brings. If a song or rhythm makes you want to dance, snap your fingers or bang your head … do it. In the PBS documentary, “The Musical Brain,” however, scientists and musicians put their heads together to understand how the brain retains musical memories and, essentially, makes us feel better. Inspired by Dr. Daniel Levitin’s book, “This Is Your Brain on Music,” the show examines how infants benefit from listening to music, adults from allowing themselves to dance when the groove hits and Alzheimer’s patients from listening to songs that meant something special to them when they were young. In fact, researchers have determined that the last part of the brain to deteriorate is the one to appreciate music. Among the musicians interviewed are Sting, Wyclef Jean and Michael Buble.

Like music lovers, golfers don’t spend a lot of time analyzing a course’s architecture, composition and logic while also trying to get the little white ball in a hole. Television analysts often touch on a tournament course’s peculiar challenges and how they relate to an architect’s thinking. It’s rare that anyone will show us what a course looked like before breaking ground and at various stages of its construction, as well as the final layout as seen from above and at eye level. “Golf’s Grand Design” looks back at century’s worth of development in the U.S. and introduces us to the people responsible for the traditional designs and evolutionary changes made to improve the game.

As we approach the final stretch of another interminably long and increasingly dispiriting presidential campaign, “American Experience: The Presidents” reminds us of a time when mudslinging, obfuscation and dishonesty weren’t the only things we got from candidates. This isn’t to suggest that previous campaigns were fair and aboveboard, just that the White House represented something more important than being a source of jokes on late-night talk shows and a B&B for wealthy campaign contributors. The documentary profiles 11 20th Century presidents, with an eye toward demonstrating how they shaped the office and left their mark on the country. Likewise, “The First Ladies” puts a tight focus on the wives of five presidents from different eras: Dolley Madison, Eleanor Roosevelt; Lady Bird Johnson; Betty Ford and Nancy Reagan.

For those buffs who simply can’t get enough Civil War history, the latest compilation of PBS shows adds to the accumulated understanding of a war that continues to shape the national dialogue. “America & the Civil War” is comprised of Robert Child’s “Gettysburg: The Boys in Blue & Gray,” “American Experience: John Brown’s Holy War,” “Nova: Lincoln’s Secret Weapon,” “American Experience: The Massachusetts 54th Colored Infantry” and “American Experience: Reconstruction: The Second Civil War.” – Gary Dretzka

History: 10 Things You Don’t Know About: Season One
BBC: Planet Dinosaur
It’s too bad that the shows on History, Discovery and PBS don’t come with footnotes, on screen or at their Internet websites. In academia, footnotes are what separate fact from speculation and outright fantasy. On television, viewers are at the mercy of research assistants and producers, who, we assume, read the footnotes for us. History’s fascinating, if frequently hyperbolic “10 Things You Don’t Know About” assumes we have a basic knowledge of the well-known figures profiled in it. In the case of such well-known subjects as JFK, Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, J. Edgar Hoover, Adolf Hitler and the Rat Pack, the producers assume, as well, we’ve heard much of the gossip. Columbia PhD David Eisenbach assumes a casual approach while revealing the trivia behind the headlines and gossip and conducting dopey man-and-on-the-street interviews with people who, not surprisingly, are ignorant of such minutiae. Hint: cocaine and homosexuality figure prominently in several segments. Other historical figures probed are Albert Einstein, Benjamin Franklin / Abraham Lincoln, the Earps and Clantons, the Mormon hierarchy, Pablo Escobar, George Patton and Caligula, The DVD adds bonus footage.

It must be frustrating to be a publisher of textbooks on paleontology. Every time the discovery of a new bone or fossil has been announced lately, it introduces us to a previously unknown dinosaur that’s larger, stranger looking and more vicious than the previous title holder. I stopped keeping track after my son lost interest in pursuing a career in the science, when he was 6 or 7. Some people never waver in their love of dinosaurs and experience orgasms with the discovery of each new species. Narrated by John Hurt, last year’s six-part BBC series, “Planet Dinosaur,” makes extensive use of CGI technology and the latest research based on field work and laboratory science. Among the fresh reptilian faces introduced here are the gigantic Spinosaurus; marine creature, Predator X; and the cannibalistic Majunasaurus. The immersive experience combines 3D graphics and CGI to create photo-realistic fight scenes unlike previous efforts. – Gary Dretzka

Ninja Turtles: The Next Mutation: Volume One
The Amazing World of Gumball
Nickelodeon: Big Time Movie/Rags
Nickelodeon: SpongeBob Squarepants’ Ghouls Fools
It’s rare that a multiplatform media phenomenon is spawned by action figures, instead of the other way around. “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” accomplished this feat in the mid-1980s, when a one-off, tongue-in-cheek comic book by Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird attracted the attention of licensing agent Mark Freedman, who suggested also creating an action figure. The toy prompted interest from television executives, who experimented with an animated mini-series. It took a while, but when the toys started selling and the mini-series went into repeats, “TMNT” found a more permanent home with Group W and CBS. Before long, images of Leonardo, Raphael, Donatello and Michelangelo could be found everywhere. The cleverly named crimefighters — genetically mutated turtles that lived in the sewers of New York City – served at the behest of a mutant ninja rat, Master Splinter, whose nemesis, Shredder, controlled the evil Foot Clan.

After the animated series ran its course, “Ninja Turtles: The Next Mutation” was handed the baton carried by the live-action turtles in New Line Cinema’s theatrical franchise. It didn’t fare nearly as well as the previous iterations, despite the addition of female turtle, Venus De Milo. Another product of genetic experimentation, Venus was swept down the sewer system at the same time as the other turtles, but ended up in China. While there, she studied with a martial-arts discipline called Shinobi, which would come in handy when forced to deal with new villains Dragon Lord, Bonesteel and Vam Mi. The series lasted only one season and 26 episodes. “Volume Two” will arrive sometime early next year.

Hipsters of the pre-teen variety have found a lot to like in Cartoon Network’s “The Amazing World of Gumball,” a show that combines 2D, 3D, stop-motion, CGI, live-action and puppetry in a sometimes dizzying visual mash-up. Series creator Ben Bocquelet specialized in producing commercials in Britain before committing to “Gumball.” Apparently, he recycled rejected characters from his commercials and threw them together into a typically wacky – for Cartoon Network, anyway – domestic setting. Among them are trouble-making cat, Gumball Watterson; Darwin Watterson, a goldfish with legs; short-tempered sister, Anais; mother Nichole, a workaholic cat; and father Richard, a large stay-at-home rabbit. The DVD adds the featurette, “Meet the Wattersons.”

In Nickelodeon’s “Big Time Movie,” the BTR ensemble stumbles into trouble on their first world tour, when their bags are switched at the London airport. Instead of their instruments, they discover a possibly devastating weapon. It makes them a target for someone other than their teeny-bopper fans. The second half of the double-feature, “Rags,” offers a reverse-take on “Cinderella,” with Max Schneider and Keke Palmer. They are, of course, filled with music and action designed to remind us of the Beatles’ “A Hard Day’s Night.”

The arrival of the new compilation, “SpongeBob Squarepants’ Ghouls Fools,” officially marks the beginning of Halloween-hype season. Besides several boats’ worth of ghosts and other ghastly characters, the DVD takes fans on a treasure hunt and teaches them nautical knots. The episodes include the double-length “Ghoul Fools,” “The Curse of Bikini Bottom,” “Ghost Host,” “Born Again Krabs,” “Arrgh!,” “Your Shoe’s Untied” and “Money Talks.” – Gary Dretzka

A colonial dandy gets more than he bargained for in ‘Ambassador’

Friday, August 31st, 2012

At first glance, you’d think that making a film documenting crime and corruption in central Africa, and exposing the underground trade in passports and other official documents, would be as difficult as fishing with hand grenades. It pretty much is, but no one told Mads Brügger that the hard part would be staying alive long enough to see it finished.

“It’s the ultimate dog-eat-dog world,” says Brugger, in New York for the debut of “The Ambassador,” his alternately disturbing and darkly humorous documentary. “Corruption defines all social interaction. It’s like chasing the white rabbit down the hole in ‘Alice in Wonderland’ … you don’t find it as much as it finds you.

“I didn’t encounter much honesty. Everyone was a crook … even me.”

A journalist, TV host and amateur comedian, Brugger’s original target was the easy availability of fraudulent diplomatic credentials, if one knows where to look and can afford them. They open the door to powerful and influential people willing to trade their nation’s most valuable commodities for foreign currency and sometimes allow for diplomatic immunity – was too tempting to ignore. The Dane’s last “ironic” documentary, “The Red Chapel,” took him to North Korea, so, by comparison, how much worse could things be in the Central Africa Republic?

Located at the geographical center of the continent, the onetime French colony is just a tad smaller than Texas. Since gaining its independence in 1960, there have been several successful coups and a few that have failed. They are, perhaps, less expensive than holding elections.

Despite such abundant resources as timber, gold, diamonds, uranium and oil, the CAR is one of the least developed countries in the world and its citizens are among the poorest. If the country wasn’t largely self-sufficient in the production of food, its people probably would have starved to death 20 years ago and no one would have noticed.

Perversely, not long after gaining its independence, the CAR succeeded in leading the world in bad publicity, mostly resulting from the egomaniacal behavior of its onetime “president for life” Jean-Bedel Bokassa. Not satisfied with that title, the dictator would later declare himself emperor of the freshly re-named Central African Empire and spent $30 million of someone else’s money for the coronation ceremony. Before being deposed three years later, Bokassa is believed to have stashed away $125 million in Swiss banks.

The CAR was the first destination suggested to Brugger after he illegally obtained a Liberian diplomatic passport from a shady character in Portugal. Because the smaller, frequently embattled coastal nation didn’t have normal relations with the CAR, he was able to pretend that he – a very white northern European man poseur – was conducting business in its name. And, boy, did he take to the part.

Looking like a cross between Hunter S. Thompson, Sascha Baron Cohen and the late comedian, Michael O’Donoghue, Brugger often affected the look of a mid-20th Century “colonial dandy.” With his dark sunglasses, light-colored suits, riding boots, cigarette holder and elitist attitudes, it looked as if he was to the manner born.

“Journalistically, the look I was going for was ‘Borat meets the Economist,’” Brugger quips. “I was every black African’s fantasy of what every white businessman looked like. I learned that if I were a black, people there would be more suspicious of me.

“But, then, I had my own fantasies of black Africa. Ever since I was a teenager, I’ve entertained the notion of living with pygmies and practicing voodoo.”

Indeed, as a cover for his interest in the country’s lucrative blood-diamond trade, Brugger announced his plan to build a matcfactory in collaboration with members of the pygmy community. His government contact was so warmed by this that he assigned two pygmies to accompany the faux businessmen wherever he went. They weren’t, however, fluent in any of the languages Brugger spoke, so “communicating was difficult.”

Although, historically, pygmies have lived primarily in the bush and rain forest, “The Ambassador” takes us to a small village, only a short drive from the capital of Bangui. Brugger suspects that all dignitaries are exposed to the same dog-and-pony show, as it appears to demonstrate the nation’s concern for their welfare. Not surprisingly, the festivities involve lots of homemade hooch.

“Racism is the order of the day … black on black, white on black, black on the French and Chinese, tribe on tribe,” Brugger argues. “Part of who I am in the film would be out of character if I didn’t play along, at least.”

Institutional corruption is fueled not by racism or political beliefs, though. It takes “envelopes of happiness,” filled with millions of CFA francs, to grease the exchange of rough diamonds. This, of course, was on top of the $135,000 tab for the passport, a MBA from a Liberian college and driver’s license. The money was supplied by the Danish Film Institute, which, along with Lars Von Trier’s Zentropa production company, supported the documentary.

“It’s a highly inflated currency, so it’s not as impressive a figure as it sounds,” he points out. “Still, within the boundaries of the CAR, it was a lot of money. Because of the strict restrictions imposed on the trade of uncut blood diamonds, they’re not that valuable, either.”

Brugger’s triumph in “The Ambassador” is to show, using tiny surveillance cameras, what transpires in the inner chambers of corrupt states and recording the musings of fellow diplomats, local wiseguys and swindlers. To put it mildly, it’s appalling. When one confidante suggests that the diamonds can be smuggled out of the country by secreting them in various orifices of the body, it pushes Brugger’s co-conspirator – production manager Eva Jakobsen – almost over the brink of sanity.

“She understood the finer details of what he was saying,” he adds. “The people we were dealing with are very misogynistic, so she was very brave. They display no higher thoughts on the role of women … who are simply considered to be of lesser importance.”

It was at this point in the proceedings that things began to unravel very quickly, and the chaos is reflected in the abruptness of the documentary’s ending. We wonder if Brugger suddenly had figured out what we already knew – that he was being played like a violin– and was pushing the envelope on the ruse.

Brugger decided to end the charade when he learned that the head of state security – a veteran of the French Foreign Legion – had been murdered. The self-assured, cigar-chomping white man had been one of the filmmaker’s primary resources and frequently is seen and heard in “The Ambassador.” It isn’t likely that the assassination had anything to do with Brugger, but it speaks volumes as to the instability of the political situation.

“If I could foresee that happening, I wouldn’t have proceeded,” he says.

The CAR may look small and insignificant on a map, but its natural resources are extremely valuable to countries in need of uranium and oil. The competition between the French and Chinese is especially ferocious. It seemed as if the Africans embraced Brugger simply because he wasn’t from those countries.

We assume that the fixers and government officials shared the money contained in the “envelopes of happiness” and now are cultivating some other suckers. Left unanswered, though, is the question of what happened to the small fortune in rough diamonds in the faux diplomat’s possession. Turns out, Brugger sold the diamonds in-country and donated the money to the pygmies.

Ironically, when he was passing through Customs on his way out of the country, the special police unit assigned to monitor such traffic welcomed him by name and waved him through the inspection point. Naturally, it briefly occurred to Brugger that the bribes paid off and he could have gotten away with murder. He had stipulated beforehand, though, that he wouldn’t profit from any of his character’s shenanigans.

Let’s hope that more juicy details of his adventure have been reserved for the DVD release, slated for late October.

Even though Brugger doesn’t mind the comparisons to Sascha Baron Cohen’s early work, especially the outrageous interviews with gullible politicians and celebrities in “Da Ali G Show,” he defers to a guerrilla journalist from an earlier era.

“Emily Hahn was an American journalist and author who traveled by herself in the 1930s, living with pygmies for two years, crossing central Africa by foot, alone, and partying with Shanghai’s elite before the war,” Brugger relates, forgetting to mention that Hahn often brought her pet gibbon along as her plus-one, wearing a diaper and tailored dinner jacket. “Most journalism today is conducted via telephone. Reporters never leave their desk.”

No matter how much heat he takes from journalism purists for his methodology, Brugger can’t be accused of staying too close to home or avoiding risks. If sometimes he feels as if a target has been painted on his back, it’s not because he’s paranoid.

Embarrassed by the revelation of how easy it was to get phony documents in its name, the government of Liberia threatened him with a lawsuit. Other individuals, whose incomes might have suffered from the revelations, could be inspired to skip the courtroom.

“The Liberian courts and prison service are not the best in the world,” Brugger told the Danish publication, Politiken. “We are speaking of a country in which the president’s son is chairman of the national oil company, despite the fact that he knows next to nothing about oil. They have previously promised that they have stopped the sale of diplomatic titles, so it’s embarrassing that my film shows that is not the case.”

The DVD Wrapup: Battleship, Lonesome, Monsieur Lazhar, Penumbra … More

Wednesday, August 29th, 2012

Battleship: Blu-ray
Those fans of the movie “Battleship” born after Nintendo and Sega were introduced to American consumers might find it difficult to believe that one of Hollywood’s most expensive movies was inspired by one of the least costly pastimes of all. Back in the day, all it took to play the Battleship guessing game was a pencil; illegally mimeographed sheets of papers replicating the grids on the Milton Bradley board; and a folded-over checker board to prevent cheating. Players used their pencil to indicate where various sized warships are located and guess the location of their opponent’s fleet, using a bingo-like alphanumeric system. It provided simple, time-consuming and free fun on a rainy day. Today, of course, the game is a staple of computer gaming and anything but free. Even without a certifiably marketable star at the helm of Universal’s “Battleship” – unless Liam Neeson now qualifies as one –the sci-fi military epic cost at least $209 million to make and probably another $50 million to market. Despite the fact that it brought in $303 million worldwide, it barely topped $65 million domestically. That didn’t cut it for exhibitors who were anticipating the summer’s first big popcorn movie. “Blockbuster” should do just fine in DVD and Blu-ray, but the damage done to Universal’s summer flagship might not be repairable. Considering that star-to-be Taylor Kitsch also headlined Disney’s “John Carter” — one of the biggest financial bombs of all time – the harm inflicted on the young man’s career may prove to be even worse.

Adding seemingly invincible alien warships to what essentially was a WWII-era activity doesn’t fundamentally alter the way the game is played: sunken vessels are exchanged until one of the competitors takes a strategic advantage and slaughters the opponent. In Hollywood, the good guys always win, but not without a struggle. Here, screenwriters Jon and Erich Hoeber were required to invent a fatal chink in the alien opponent’s armor – a lack of resistance to bacteria, sensitivity to light, cooties, whatever – that allowed director Peter Berg to pull our fat out of the fire in the final reel. Indeed, the most surprising and satisfying scene in “Battleship” comes precisely in the nick of time and by comparison to all of the CGI firepower, it’s practically analog. There’s also a mandatory romantic subplot that mostly serves to draw attention to Brooklyn Decker’s curves and the predictable showdown between a rebellious young officer (Kitsch) and the hard-nosed admiral (Neeson), who, conveniently, is Decker’s father. It works, if only fitfully. The closer you are to 15, the better “Battleship” will look.

There’s certainly nothing wrong with the Blu-ray presentation, which sparkles and bellows at all the right times and takes full advantage of CGI technology. (Is it a coincidence that the inner workings of the alien battleship so closely resemble the start-up screen on an Android phone?) The bonus package adds Berg’s picture-in-picture video commentary; a Second Screen interactive experience; a pre-visualized version of an alternate ending; a “VIP tour” of the USS Missouri memorial; a short piece on adapting the board game for the screen; several making-of featurettes; and My Scenes Bookmarking. I can’t help but wonder, though, which genius selected CCR’s angry antiwar anthem, “Fortunate Son,” to play over the final credits? The only way it could have been less appropriate is if co-star Rhianna had been asked to sing it, instead of using the original John Fogerty version. – Gary Dretzka

Lonesome: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
It’s been a long time since silent movies made as big a splash as they already have in 2012. First, “The Artist” surprised everyone by becoming a true crowd-pleaser, winning Academy Awards for Best Picture, Best Director and Best Actor. Then, two weeks ago, Dziga Vertov’s brilliantly inventive “Man With a Movie Camera,” from 1929, joined the list of movies honored by critics in Sight & Sound’s decennial poll of the top-10 films ever made. The critics have always favored silent classics, but this one came straight out of left field. Why stop there, though? Just as “Man With a Movie Camera” chronicled a typical day in the life of Muscovites, Walter Ruttmann’s 1927 “Berlin: Symphony of Great City” surveyed 24 hours of activity in the German capital between the wars. Both provide a captivating cinematic experience and are now readily available in DVD. Likewise, the Criterion Collection’s newly released Blu-ray edition of Paul Fejos’ 1928 “Lonesome” is full of fascinating images from New York City over the course of a single day of work in Manhattan and a night of play at Coney Island.

Mann Page and Edward T. Lowe Jr.’s story describes what it’s like for a young man and woman to feel alone in a metropolis overflowing with people just like them and bustling with all sorts of activity. That they live next-door to each other in a residence hotel, but have never met, has become one of the enduring ironies in romances set in Manhattan. Fejos’ fingerprints may not be the screenplay, but few filmmakers have captured the hustle-bustle of the city nearly as well as the Austrian-born filmmaker. From dawn to midnight, Fejos’ New York is a veritable beehive of activity and a cauldron for endless possibilities. That two characters so desperate for companionship would finally meet on a beach teeming with overheated people, on the 4th of July, borders on the miraculous. They go on to sample nearly every attraction Coney Island has to offer, dance up a storm and fall hopelessly in love. Fate steps in when an accident and human stampede separates them before they’re able to exchange last names and addresses. He attempts to rescue her, but a boneheaded NYPD officer intercedes. Another unexpected coincidence allows them to reunite as the picture nears the 69-minute mark. Curiously, the weakest parts of “Lonesome” come in the short segments that contain spoken dialogue, instead of explanatory panels. “The Jazz Singer” had been released only a few months earlier, so, as was observed in “The Artist,” studio executives were anxious to hop on the “talkie” bandwagon.

Also entertaining are two rarely seen films included in the Blu-ray package, “The Last Performance” (1927) and “Broadway” (1929). The former tells a Mamet-esque story about a famous entertainer, Erik the Great, who must resort to magic when an act of kindness toward a stranger threatens to deny him the love of his assistant and freedom. “Broadway” is a wonderfully melodramatic jazz-age gangster musical, partially staged on one of the most elaborate nightclub sets ever created. The music and dancing are a joy to watch, even when the story lags. The nearly lost movie has been cobbled together from pieces of found film and reconstructions of still-missing audio tracks. The history of the production numbers, as recalled by cinematographer Hal Mohr, also is fascinating. Fejos’ own life story borders on the epic. Not satisfied with mastering one demanding discipline, Fejos excelled as a theater and opera designer, medical researcher, explorer, anthropologist and documentary maker. The booklet, which contains essays by critic Phil Lopatae and historian Graham Petrie, as well as material from interviews with the artist, should be considered must-reading. – Gary Dretzka

The Lucky One: Blu-ray
Darling Companion: Blu-ray
I Heart Shakey
Even if the dog days of summer — as defined by the Farmer’s Almanac, anyway — no longer are with us, movies of interest to canine lovers continue to be released as if they’ve never ended.

Like Harlequin Romance novels and Lifetime Original movies, the films adapted from books written by Nicolas Sparks are constructed from a time-tested template. Achingly romantic, emotionally draining, archetypally cast and beautifully shot, such movies as “The Notebook,” “Dear John” and “The Lucky One” are shot with the greatest possible economy, usually in and around the Carolinas, and return a healthy profit for investors. The young-adult characters are almost freakishly attractive, while the older ones carry the wisdom of the ages in their back pockets and purses. The romantic interludes can be sexy, but only in a wholesome kind of way. Too often, the song selections tell us how to feel, even when no additional prompting is necessary. “The Lucky One” fits that mold with almost no room to spare for spontaneity. The only curve thrown at Sparks’ fans here, and it’s barely noticeable, is that the story’s location has been moved from North Carolina to Louisiana, probably to take advantage of a tax incentive.

Zac Efron plays a veteran of intense action in Iraq who credits the discovery of a photograph of a pretty blond for saving his life. He knows that it once belonged to an American soldier or Marine, but little beyond that. Once home, Logan manages to track down the likely whereabouts of the woman, who remains nameless. Curiously, he decides to hike from Colorado to Louisiana with his German shepherd. Once in the woman’s company, however, he freezes. Unable to articulate the reason for his crusade, Logan allows Beth (Taylor Schilling) to believe he’s simply answering a help-wanted ad for work at her kennel. If Beth is reluctant to hire a drifter, her mother (Blythe Danner) takes a shine to him and puts him on the payroll. Things would be fine, if it weren’t for the presence of Beth’s pinhead ex-husband, a cop whose neck is so red he treats the soft-spoken Logan as if he were a member of an Al Qaeda cell and attempts to provoke a fight with him. Jealous and afraid of losing the ability to control his son’s destiny – the boy plays the violin, instead of football, like his dad — the cop makes Beth and Logan’s life miserable. If the ending feels a bit too pat, it won’t bother Sparks’ many admirers. Director Scott Hick’s direction benefits mightily from Alar Kivilo’s splendid cinematography, which looks terrific on Blu-ray. The bonus package adds featurettes on the transformation of Efron from teen heartthrob to gung-ho Marine, capturing the sparks in Sparksian romances and “gauging the chemistry” between Efron and Schilling.

It would be easy to dismiss “Darling Companion” as just another movie in which the canine actor upstages the humans at every turn. Alas, the mixed-collie in Lawrence Kasdan’s first film in almost a decade isn’t on-screen long enough to do anything heroic or, even, particularly clever here. Freeway’s primary role here is to warm our hearts – as well as those of the key players – and take a powder for almost an hour while the adults work out their problems. His absence creates a void even such fine actors as Diana Keaton, Kevin Kline, Elisabeth Moss, Dianne Wiest, Richard Jenkins, Mark Duplass, Sam Shepard and Ayelet Zurer can’t fill. Co-written with Kasdan’s wife, Meg, “Darling Companion” not only fails to take full advantage of its all-star cast, but the Utah mountain setting too often looks like a photographic backdrop. If the name, Freeway, doesn’t sound as if it belongs on the collar of a dog, it’s explained by an incident that happens early in the film. One day, after bidding a tearful farewell to one of her daughters and her grandchild at the airport, Keaton’s character, Beth, spots a wounded dog along the side of the highway. Beth and her other daughter, Grace (Moss), take it to a handsome young veterinarian, who, when he isn’t patching Freeway up, makes googly eyes at Grace. At first, Beth’s husband, Joseph (Kline), demands that Beth find a new owner for Freeway, which, of course, doesn’t happen. She’s already lost one daughter to marriage and, in another year, Grace will marry the veterinarian in a ceremony to be held at a lovely mountain lodge, leaving her an empty-nester.

Devastated by Freeway’s disappearance, Beth chastises Joseph for ignoring her demand that he always carry a dog whistle with him on their walks. It doesn’t take a crystal ball to see that the Kasdans are about to use the loss of Freeway as a metaphor for the sorry state of Beth and Joseph’s marriage. Far less understandable is their decision to turn the next hour of the movie into a dull-as-dishwater search for the dog, with a half-dozen award-winning actors running through the mountains, fruitlessly shouting, “Freeway, Freeway” and blowing whistles. When they aren’t doing that, they’re falling down hillsides, battling kidney stones and blindly following the instructions of a Gypsy wedding planner (Zurer), whose tips are dubious, at best. It gets worse, but why spoil the disappointment? I would have preferred knowing, if only sporadically, what Freeway is doing while the family of the bride searches for him in vain. In an interview included in the bonus package, Kasdan said that he wanted to make a movie with cross-generational appeal, using actors recognizable to older and younger audiences, alike. Sadly, “Darling Companion” isn’t likely to leave anyone except dog obsessives and unconditional fans of the actors with any degree of satisfaction.

The Dove Family-Approved comedy, “I Heart Shakey,” addresses one of the most traumatic situations any family can face when relocating from one city to another. After single father J.T. decides to move from Toledo to Chicago, he makes the mistake of not reading the fine print in a rental agreement that prohibits tenants from owning pets. For his daughter, Chandler, and their mutt, Shakey, this blunder is tantamount to boarding a plane for a European vacation without first applying for a passport. Because their new home is a snooty Gold Coast hi-rise, the lease is iron-clad. What to do? What to do? Because dad (Steve Lemme) is kind of a middle-age doofus, Chandler (Rylie Behr) takes it upon herself to devise a plan that keeps the family intact, but doesn’t compromise J.T.’s job prospects. Old hands Steve Guttenberg and Beverly D’Angelo add a bit of sparkle to the proceedings, playing two of several oddball characters in the film. The easiest way to tell “I Heart Shakey” is fiction is the fact most renters would sign away the rights to their children before being separated from their cat or dog. No fine print would be small enough for a dog owner to miss the humans-only clause in a lease. Apart from that, “I Heart Shakey” should keep family audiences amused for most of its 90-minute length. Although originally released in 3D, it’s only available in DVD. — Gary Dretzka

The Heineken Kidnapping: Blu-ray
Considering that neither the Heineken brand nor Rutger Hauer is an unknown quantity in the English-speaking world, it’s odd that Maarten Treurniet’s genuinely exciting film depicting the 1983 abduction of the world’s wealthiest brewer couldn’t find any traction here. Certainly, all of the elements of a hit movie can be found somewhere in “The Heineken Kidnapping.” In exchange for Alfred Heineken’s safety a huge amount of ransom money was paid – some of which is still missing – to a gang of amateur kidnapers. What the perpetrators lacked in experience, though, they made up for with chutzpah and beginners’ luck. Although it isn’t clear if they would hold up their end of the bargain, Heineken and his chauffeur narrowly avoided freezing to death and most of the kidnapers managed to avoid justice, one way or another, for years. As usual, Hauer is excellent as the dour industrialist, for whom the ordeal inspired a dramatic change in his lifestyle, personality and relationship with a long-suffering wife. “The Heineken Kidnapping” is split into four equal parts: the planning of the crime, the victims’ 21-day ordeal, the police investigation and rescue, and extradition standoffs between France and Holland, and Paraguay and Holland, which went on for years. The re-creation of Heineken’s imprisonment – chained to the wall of a cramped cell in an abandoned warehouse – is extremely well done, as is the shocking near-miscarriage of justice in the courts.

In similarly plotted crime stories made in the U.S., filmmakers typically will reserve at least some small measure of sympathy for the criminals, whose misguided decisions can be attributed to societal, cultural or parental malfunctions. Treurniet doesn’t ignore Heineken’s cold personality and philandering – neither of which had anything to do with the crime – and, with one exception, the kidnapers are portrayed as young punks willing to test Holland’s lenient judicial system. The only wild card here is the gang’s ringleader, who had an ax to grind with Heineken. His father had earlier lost a suit against the brewery, his former employer, whose encouragement of excessive drinking not only made him an alcoholic, but also led to his emphysema from too much smoking while socializing. Even though Treurniet freely admits to taking certain liberties with the facts surrounding the case, it didn’t prevent three of the convicted kidnapers from suing him for misrepresenting them and opening them up to public disdain. Not surprisingly, they didn’t prevail. The Blu-ray adds a making-of featurette with interviews and a visit to a warehouse that virtually serves as a museum to the kidnapping. – Gary Dretzka

Monsieur Lazhar
Looking back at our experiences in grade school, we can still see the faces of most our friends and teachers and recall certain key milestones in our educational development. Victims of bullying by fellow students or ridicule at the hands of a teacher or principal may recall horrors others don’t, but, by and large, things happened at too great a velocity to stay in the mind of a child for a very long time. With rare exceptions, it also would be impossible to know how our teachers interacted with each other behind the doors of their lounges and, after school, with their friends. I suspect that the sixth-graders we meet in “Monsieur Lazhar” never will forget Martine, the teacher who committed suicide one morning before class, and Bachir Lazhar, the teacher who replaced her. In addition to having to stand in for a popular teacher, Lazhar is struggling to deal with a tragedy of his own. He had found refuge in Quebec after Algerian extremists threatened to murder his wife as a result of a book she had written. Lazhar was in the process of preparing for her arrival in Montreal when he learned that she and their children had died in a suspicious fire back home. Although this was mostly kept hidden to fellow teachers and the students, his fragility is clearly visible to viewers.

As the school year progresses, it also becomes obvious that Martine’s suicide has had a deeper impact on the children than first observed by the psychologist brought in by the district. Because Lazhar is the adult who spends more time with the students than even some of their parents, he feels obliged to address their concerns when tensions in the classroom mount. He doesn’t want to intercede, but is left little choice when it becomes obvious that the parents have abdicated their duty in addressing the suicide and Martine’s sudden departure from the kids’ lives. For his troubles, this gentle and caring 55-year-old immigrant has his background probed by the self-absorbed parents of the bossiest student. They take their findings to the school board and, well, why spoil the story? Mohamed Fellaq is splendid as Lazhar, as are the child actors who represent a cross-section of middle-class Montreal. Aside from anything that happens in the story, “Monsieur Lazhar” should serve as a reminder to tax-weary Americans that education budgets should preserved, even as changes in pensions and benefits are negotiated. If parents don’t fight back against pound-foolish tax reformers, the negative impact on our society could prove irreversible. Phillippe Falardeau’s heart-breaking film was deservedly nominated for an Oscar in the Best Foreign Language Film category. – Gary Dretzka

Screaming in High Heels
Trucker’s Woman
In the entertaining new documentary, “Screaming in High Heels,” scream queen extraordinaire Linnea Quigley describes her appeal thusly, “I guess I stood out because I was pretty and people liked to see me get chopped up.” That Quigley and her fellow scream queens were naked or topless when they were being attacked by grotesque sociopaths or mutants from outer space was the icing on the cake. The rise, fall and resurrection of horror movies once relegated to drive-in theaters are chronicled here by several veteran filmmakers and participants. The doc really belongs to Quigley, Brinke Stevens and Michelle Bauer, whose presence in any such movie assured fans there would be enough boobs, blood and mayhem to make their investment in a ticket worthwhile. Most such documentaries, and there have been plenty, have focused on the careers and films of the acting talent. I probably knew as much about Quigley going into “Screaming in High Heels” as I did when it ended. Still it would be tough not to be enchanted by these veteran stars, who, while well into their 50s, still make the rounds of fanboy conventions and frequently are cast in genre flicks.

The arc of the industry begins in the 1950s, with the boom in drive-in movies. It got a boost with the introduction of the MPAA ratings code, which, ironically, opened the door for nudity and simulated sex in movies with large and minute budgets, alike. Just as drive-in movies began to disappear from the American landscape, mom-and-pop video stores emerged as the place to find outrageously titled genre fare. All three women could be seen in “Sorority Babes in the Slimeball Bowl-O-Rama” and “Nightmare Sisters.” Premium cable channels also helped pick up the slack in sales. Just as the direct-to-VHS movie trend was reaching warp speed, however, the mom-and-pop stores were forced to make way for Blockbuster and Hollywood Video outlets in every strip mall from Seattle to Key West. Instead of three reigning scream queens, there were now 300 women who divided their time between porn and slasher films claiming the title. The distribution channel narrowed significantly – the major chains weren’t keen on the whole sex-and-violence thing – and the expense of making movies on film became prohibitive. Today, of course, any 13-year-old with a cellphone can make and distribute a movie of their own and, if they can afford it, hire Stevens, Quigley or Bauer to make a cameo. When it comes to screaming, the ladies can still bring it.

No matter what anyone thinks about the movies they distribute, no one can accuse the folks at Cheezy Flicks of misrepresenting their products. On the DVD package of “Trucker’s Woman,” for example, it clearly states, “One of America’s hilariously cheesy low-budget drive-in wonders.” The only way “Trucker’s Woman” (a.k.a., “Truckin’ Man”) could be any cheesier – cheezier? – is if it came with nachos and jalapenos attached to the box. But, seriously, folks … I wonder if the May1975 release of this would-be expose of mob ties to corrupt shipping companies somehow might have had anything to do with the disappearance, two months later, of former Teamsters boss Jimmy Hoffa. Christian Slater’s dad, Michael Hawkins, plays a young man who becomes an over-the-road trucker after his father is killed in a suspicious accident. He was attempting to organize independent drivers unhappy about having to transport stolen merchandise for the syndicate. In a scene that would be ripped off eight years later for “National Lampoon’s Vacation,” driver Mike is distracted by a hot blond (Mary Cannon) in a convertible who, he’s convinced, wants him to stalk her from roadhouse to roadhouse for the entire length of South Carolina. When he finally shows up at the door of her fleabag motel room, unannounced, we notice that her blond tresses were donated to the production by Wigs ‘R’ Us and she favors granny panties. Turns out, as well, the blond is the daughter of one of the mobsters Mike blames for the death of his father.

Contrary to the DVD’s cover art, “Trucker’s Woman” isn’t remotely sexy and the action is far less than riveting. The acting is laughable, as well. “Trucker’s Woman” is exactly the kind of bargain-basement flick that filled the bill at drive-in theaters throughout the South and rarely could be found north of the Mason-Dixon Line, like the infinitely better “Thunder Road.” The peek-a-boo nudity likely pushed the limits of what Bible Belt audiences were allowed to experience in the mid-1970s. The only other interesting things in the movie are the presence of future Emmy winner, Larry Drake and Doodles Weaver, uncle of Sigourney Weaver and former member of Spike Jones’ band. Puffing on a pipe and wearing a tweed suit, Weaver looks as if he wandered over from a completely different movie shoot and no one told him to leave. The DVD arrives with vintage intermission shorts and Cheezy trailers. – Gary Dretzka

A Day of Violence
The Scar Crow
Zombie A-Hole
If there’s anything we’ve learned from Guy Ritchie and Bob Hoskins it’s that British gangsters are the equal of any organized-crime entity – or the CIA, KGB and Al Qaeda, for that matter – when it comes to inflicting pain on informers, cheats and turncoats. The Cockney slang and Savile Row suits only add to the fun. Darren Ward’s stylishly made, if extremely gory “A Day of Violence” adds large dollops of giallo, splatter and torture-porn to what already was an extremely violent offshoot of the gangster genre. It wouldn’t be too far-fetched to suggest it represents a subgenre of its own, gangster-horror. Mitchell Parker is a freelance debt collector for several crime families in the port city of Southampton. On one particularly shabby assignment, he stupidly elects to steal the 100,000-pounds he discovers, instead of turning it in to his boss. Unbeknownst to boneheaded behemoth, his victim managed to record the act on his cellphone, before succumbing to a slashed throat. Sadly, for the men and women the boss wrongly believes stole the money, Mitchell refuses to cop to the truth, even while he’s watching them being tortured. And, really, who can blame him? Once the cellphone is discovered and the true culprit is reveal, Mitchell finds himself on the receiving end of the abuse. Just when it looks to be curtains for the low-life criminal, he manages to escape the warehouse torture chamber, leading the gangsters on a merry chase through the city, killing anyone who crosses his path. Because Mitchell’s fate is revealed in the first few minutes of a “A Day of Violence,” we already know the proper degree of sympathy and pity to expend on the protagonist. In fact, Mitchell has one redeeming quality, at least, and it surfaces very near the movie’s final credit roll, which, otherwise, would have been anti-climactic. Needless to say, “A Day of Violence” isn’t for the faint of heart or viewers looking for a jolly good time. For adventurous fans of gangster movies, though, it should prove sufficiently off-the-beaten-path to justify the investment in a rental. The bonus material includes an entertaining dissection of a key scene, with special attention paid to the special makeup effects and interviews with cult-favorite actor, Giovanni Lombardo Radice.

Despite a sound mix so unbalanced it requires almost constant adjustment via remote-control, “The Scar Crow” is the kind of excessively violent indie that grows on you. It begins in 1709, somewhere in the English countryside, where a woman is being executed for practicing the dark arts. Historians have convinced us that the self-righteous zealots who believed they were defending God-fearing Christians from eternal damnation often mistook epilepsy for possession and even mildly overt sexual behavior as a recruitment strategy for Satan’s legions. The woman’s absence opens the door for her husband to molest her three daughters, whenever he feels like it. After they overpower the lecher and turn him into a human scarecrow, the movie flashes forward 300 years. Apparently, a curse has condemned the Tanner women to eternal life on the same homestead, where they torture and kill men who cross their path. If “The Scar Crow” is often difficult to follow, the ferocious bloodlust of the sisters adequately fills the gaps in logic.

Made on a budget estimated to be $3,000, “Zombie A-Hole” is a movie that’s so unrelievedly outrageous that it simply defies description. An abnormally mobile and determined zombie by the name of Pollux is on a mission to kill twin girls – preferably those who are a bit out of shape and naked – for reasons too complicated to mention … trust me on that. As Pollux’s legend grows, he becomes the subject of a manhunt (zombiehunt?) led by a cowboy-inspired gunman, the ghoul’s surviving twin and the one-eyed sister of one of the victims. Adding to insanity is a shrunken puppet-man who lives in a box. Apart from some slow-motion effects, the pace is relentless and the gore flows like water. Horror fans, I think, will be impressed with how much action, however ridiculous, Dustin Mills (“The Puppet Monster Massacre”) was able to wring from his micro-budget. He gives aspiring DIY filmmakers everywhere a reason to get out of bed each morning and go back to work. The DVD adds his commentary, a trailer and a deleted scene and character. – Gary Dretzka

Breathless
Murderer
The Viral Factor: Blu-ray
Another week, another movie titled “Breathless,” this one from the mean streets of Seoul, South Korea. Disguised as a disturbingly violent and unabashedly profane action picture, Yang Ik-june’s debut as writer/director delivers the kind of punch that made “City of God” and mid-century domestic dramas from England so powerful. Yang also plays the protagonist, Sang-hoon, who, as a child, was abused physically by his brutal father and carried his sister to the hospital after the old man stuck her with a knife for interceding in a fight with his wife, who also was killed. Not surprisingly, Sang-hoon has grown into a much-feared enforcer for a gang bankrolled by a loan-shark relative. When he isn’t kicking the crap out of deadbeats, he’s picking fights with strangers and bullying his young nephew. If Sang-hoon is harboring a conscience under his cast-iron shell, it’s impossible to discern. That is, until he confronts a hard-bitten teenage girl, Yeon-Hue (Kim Kkobbi), who gives as well as she takes. At first, he’s disturbed by the girl’s behavior. Soon, however, Sang-hoon sees a kindred spirit in her – she’s been abused by her father and brother, as well – and becomes her friend and confidante. “Breathless” is staged in what appears to be Seoul’s shantytown district, where violence, debt and alcoholism are as common as fleas. Naturally, it’s the gangsters and loudmouths who stand out from the mass of working-class and unemployed residents. Yang describes in telling detail the cycle of violence that holds succeeding generations of poor people hostage, leaving room only for the slimmest rays of hope for the future. “Breathless” is an exceedingly difficult movie to watch, but not because it’s been carelessly orchestrated or is exploitative. It’s just plain rough. Anyone allergic to the c-word probably would be wise to avoid “Breathless,” as it is used to punctuate nearly every other sentence of dialogue.

Set in contemporary Hong Kong, “Murderer” stars Aaron Kwok as the ambitious 40-year-old Chief Inspector Ling, whose promotion to Superintendent of Police already has been scheduled. If his competency has never been questioned, it’s possible that his rise to the top has ruffled some older feathers. The movie opens with a real bang, when his partner lands on the concrete floor of a high-rise apartment building. Ling was the only other person in the vicinity, but can’t remember a thing after being ambushed. The attacks are linked to a series of grisly unsolved murders that, upon further examination, all are tentatively linked to Ling. So far, so Hitchcockian. It isn’t until nearly three-quarters of the 120-minute movie have passed that something so strange occurs that it takes the suspenseful procedural into David Lynch territory. I won’t spoil your fun, but it isn’t likely you’d be able to guess what it is, even with 100 chances. The denouement may not be to everyone’s taste, but it’s certainly different. “Breathless” is co-writer/director Roy Chow Hin Yeung’s first feature film after assisting Ang Lee on “Lust, Caution.” (He shares writing credit with Christine To.) I suspect that he has a bright future ahead of him.

There’s so much action in Dante Lam’s two-hour-long “The Viral Infection” you’ll likely want to take a nap after watching it. (I took one in the middle, but rallied for the slam-bang ending.) I suspect you’ll also lose track of who’s fighting whom and which side of the ideological fence they’re on. It opens with a firefight in the streets of Jordan, between terrorists and International Security Affairs agents attempting to transport a scientist who specializes in viral diseases out of the country. Because a member of the ISA has conspired with the terrorists to kidnap the man and use his knowledge for profits and power – and everyone seems to be wearing the same color uniform — the confusion over who’s who begins early in the picture. When the smoke clears, it becomes clear that a cop, Jon (Jay Chou), has survived the ambush, but with a bullet lodged precariously in his brain. During a visit to his Beijing home to see his mother, quite possibly for the last time, she tells Jon that not only is his father not dead, but he has an older brother. They live in Malaysia, where his father made a living gambling. No sooner does he collect his baggage at the airport than the van in which he’s travelling is attacked by a gang of criminals, also looking for the evil scientist, led by his estranged brother. Coincidence? I think not. The young men somehow recognize each other and immediately bond. When the terrorists discover that Yeong (Nicolas Tse) has changed sides, they decide to kidnap his daughter and infect her with the time-release virus. If he wants to save her, Yeong must take sides against his Jon, once again, which he only pretends to do. The chases and gun battles in the final third of the movie involve helicopters – slicing through the skyscrapers of Kuala Lampur – and a shootout on a container freighter. The sentimental ending, while predictable, fits perfectly within the context of Lam’s family-first subplot, and doesn’t require more than one miraculous medical cure. If the action scenes and melodramatic throughline feel as western as anything on Cinemax or Starz, the scenes shot in Jordan and Malaysia add interesting backgrounds for Lam’s breakneck action. The making-of featurette and interviews are almost as exhausting as the movie, itself, but verbosity and hyperbole are traits all Chinese filmmakers and actors appear to share. In their eyes, it seems, every movie they do is as meaningful as “Battleship Potemkin.” — Gary Dretzka

Madness
Of all the self-ordained celebrities and superstars to emerge from Andy Warhol’s Factory, Joe Dallesandro was the only one with the star quality it would take to move from the underground to mainstream and indie films. Undeniably handsome, some would even describe him as “beautiful” – think Denis Leary crossed with Jean-Paul Belmondo — “Little Joe” appealed as much to gay men as straight women, and didn’t care who knew it. Because of his various bad habits, however, any fame from such movies as “Flesh” and “Trash” would be squandered. Like Mary Woronov, another Factory graduate, he would have to settle for elevated cult status. After shooting “Andy Warhol’s Frankenstein” and “Andy Warhol’s Dracula” – both directed by Paul Morrissey – he decided to stay in Europe and attempt the same career makeover as Clint Eastwood. Among the 18 films he made there is the Fernando Di Leo giallo “Madness” (a.k.a., “Vacanze per un massacre”), in which everyone, except Dallesandro, was required to disrobe. Here, he plays Joe Brezzi, a thief who breaks out of prison all too easily and murders two farmers while attempting to steal their car. It soon becomes clear that the villa, in which he plans to lay low for a while, also was used by Brezzi to hide the loot he stole before going to prison. Just as he’s about to begin breaking bricks, the owner of the villa unexpectedly arrives with his wife and her sister, who’s also his lover. Being an Italian movie, the women are drop-dead gorgeous.

Unlike the owner’s wife, Brezzi has no trouble figuring out what’s going on behind her back and he uses the knowledge to torture his hostages, if only in a way most people wouldn’t particularly mind. No matter how good looking the actors are, the sex isn’t all that exciting. Neither is the criminality as interesting as it is in Di Leo’s Italo-crime trilogy, “Caliber 9,” “Manhunt” and “The Boss.” “Madness” serves mostly as a mildly tasty pop-cultural hors d’oeuvre. A few years later, Francis Ford Coppola cast Dallesandro as Lucky Luciano in “Cotton Club” and he also made a memorable appearance in an episode of “Miami Vice.” He still can be seen occasionally in movies and documentaries about the Factory and the Eurocrime genre. Unlike most other RaroVideo releases, there are no bonus features worth mentioning. – Gary Dretzka

Death Watch: Blu-ray
A Beginner’s Guide to Endings
When it was released, in 1980, Bertrand Tavernier’s “Death Watch” easily fell under the generic umbrella of science fiction. Three decades later, though, the intense spy-in-the-eye drama looks far more prescient than speculative. The reality-television concept, as we know it today, had already been advanced in PBS’ “An American Family” when David Compton’s source novel, “The Continuous Katherine Mortenhoe” (a.k.a., “The Unsleeping Eye”) was published in 1974. Albert Brook’s parody, “Real Life,” would be released five years later. I have no way of knowing if the great French director, working in English for the first time, was influenced by “The American Family,” or had ever seen the widely watched and highly controversial series. In “Death Watch,” Harvey Keitel plays a risk-taking reporter, Roddy, who volunteers to have a camera lens implanted in his eye and a transmitter embedded in his brain. The producers, including Harry Dean Stanton, assign him to make friends with a terminally ill woman, Katherine (Romy Schneider), and record the last months of her life for the titillation of English viewers. Adding to the drama is the fact that Katherine is unaware that Roddy is filming her or of the existence of the show. Today, of course, cameras smaller than the human eye are being used to record the behavior of people, most of whom have volunteered to share their lives with complete strangers. Moreover, several recent movies I’ve reviewed anticipate the day when terminally ill people will agree to be executed in front of a camera in exchange for money. For better or worse, we live in a world and at a time, where there is an audience for everything.

Like Stanley Kubrick, Andrei Tarkovsky and other brilliant interpreters of science-fiction, Tavernier isn’t as interested in robots, space ships and extraterrestrials as he is in understanding how our descendants might co-exist with the advanced technology and retain their humanity. In “Death Wish,” the future looks very much like the present and an insane drive for profits continues to push the boundaries of medicine and technology. Once Roddy fully comes to grips with his mission, it literally tears him apart. It’s interesting how Tavernier’s color scheme changes as Roddy begins to comprehend the impact of the show on his audience, which, as we’ve learned, eventually will accept as entertainment even the most atrocious conceit. What begins bleakly in the industrial wastelands of Glasgow ends in the verdant Scottish countryside, with a modern work by Antoine Duhamel providing the musical backdrop for a soliloquy by Max von Sydow about the medieval French composer, Robert De Bauleac. The speech was so realistic sounding, classical-music buffs subsequently confounded sales people at record stores by asking to purchase works by the non-existent artist. Sadly, the only bonus feature is a photo gallery. The movie, itself, has been nicely polished for its Blu-ray debut.

Of all the fine actors who came to prominence from their work in Martin Scorsese’s still-electrifying breakthrough film, “Mean Streets,” I think it can be fairly argued that Harvey Keitel’s career has followed the more challenging path and remained relevant longer than Robert De Niro. From “Bang the Drum Slowly” through “Casino” and “Heat,” De Niro was a force of nature who made few mistakes in the projects he chose to take on and mostly avoided the limelight. Keitel excelled in key supporting roles in big-budget movies and the occasional male lead in such interesting indies as “Smoke,” “Bad Lieutenant,” “Fingers,” “The Piano,” “Ulysses’ Gaze,” “Holy Smoke” and the aforementioned “Death Watch.” No less unforgettable were his lower-profile performances in “Reservoir Dogs,” “Pulp Fiction,” “Last Temptation of Christ,” “Blue Collar,” “Welcome to L.A.” and “Bugsy,” for which he received his only Oscar nomination. De Niro’s had a few noteworthy assignments since “Heat” – surprisingly, in comedic roles — but he mostly seems preoccupied with other activities, such as his restaurants and the Tribeca Film Festival. It’s far more difficult to predict where Keitel will pop up next. Even his performances in ABC’s short-loved cop series, “Life on Mars,” were fun to watch.

In Jonathan Sobol’s mostly inconsequential dark comedy, “A Beginner’s Guide to Endings,” Keitel plays a Niagara Falls gambler and con artist whose relationship with his five sons has ranged from neglectful to toxic. Although he clearly loves the boys, who range in age from about 7 to 40, Duke White probably should have been sterilized when he took out his first wedding license. His greatest ethical lapse, perhaps, was enrolling the three older sons in a risky drug test, for which they would have received $2,000 each, if Duke hadn’t pocketed half of it for himself. Years later, when the pills were determined to be nothing more than slow-acting poison, he stole the $300,000 in blood money they received and blew it at the race track. Too embarrassed to reveal the bad news to them himself, he commits suicide – the body wasn’t found, of course – and gives it to them in his last will and testament, along with their paltry inheritance. Apparently, they have only a few days to live. In the brief period of time allotted to them, they’ll attempt to tie up all of their loose ends and salvage what they can of their father’s dubious legacy. Their uncle, well-played by veteran character actor J.K. Simmons, is on hand to provide guidance, but he gives up trying to keep the ever-contentious young men from killing themselves before the pills take their toll. As usual, there’s more to the story than needs to be revealed here. Suffice it to say that Sobol neatly ties up some very loose ends of his own. If “Beginner’s Guide” often feels less than hefty, it isn’t because the cast, which also includes Scott Caan, Paulo Costanzo, Jared Keeso, young Siam Yu and Tricia Helfer, doesn’t give it their all. Maybe having Keitel in their presence helped them dial things up a notch or two. – Gary Dretzka

Lovely Molly: Blu-ray
The Moth Diaries
There is a point in every movie involving ghosts and haunted houses at which viewers will demand to know why, in God’s name, one or more of the characters doesn’t simply leave the premises and split to somewhere safer. But, God rarely has anything to do with it. Budding genre specialists probably were taught in film school that demons rarely travel far from the gates of hell – unless, of course, the portal is a car, boat or airplane – and human DNA doesn’t allow for rational behavior when ghosts are involved. Selling those theories in a market saturated with horror stories of all varieties and points of origination is another trial altogether. Most stories fail simply because we begin to hate the protagonists for their unwillingness to do what’s good for them. In “Lovely Molly,” we stop asking those questions when we buy into the conceit that the lovely blond newlywed has no choice but to remain in the house, whose sordid history began in the 1700s, and she belongs there as much as the evil force itself. It is to the great credit of co-writer/director Eduard Sanchez (“The Blair Witch Project”) and rookie star Gretchen Lodge that we’re willing to suspend our disbelief long enough for “Lovely Molly” to work as intended. In fact, the demon doesn’t make an appearance until nearly the very end of the picture.

I don’t intend on spoiling anything else about the story, except to point out that Sanchez remains fixated on the storytelling powers of hand-held cameras. Here, though, Molly’s is only used sporadically and to good effect. He also retains his eye for appropriately spooky lighting, creepy music and efficient storytelling. Indeed, the budget for “Lovely Molly” is estimated to be a mere $1 million. I’m not at all sure that another million dollars or so would have made the picture any more profitable in its limited theatrical release, because too many festival goers might have considered it to be a one-trick pony and distributers were too scared off by it to invest in an effective marketing campaign. DVD and Blu-ray viewers benefit from a four-part background featurette, presented as if it were an episode of a show like “Ghost Hunters,” during which Sanchez fills in many of the holes and Satanic mythology. Is that cheating? I suppose, but adding the explanations and history certainly would have overburdened the spare narrative and broken some of the tension. Already 99 minutes, “Lovely Molly” didn’t need to be another minute longer. I also suspect that Ms. Lodge is on her way to a bright career.

By all rights, Mary Harron should have become a household name in Hollywood after the positive critical response and moderate commercial success of “I Shot Andy Warhol” and “American Psycho,” movies that play as well today on DVD as they did in 1996 and 2000. Instead, Harron’s name would appear only sporadically as director on such very good TV series as “The L Word,” “Six Feet Under,” “Oz” and “Big Love” before scoring another artistic success with “The Notorious Bettie Page.” I can’t explain why this is so and won’t bother to speculate. What I do know is that Harron has coaxed terrific performances from such actors as Christian Bale, Lili Taylor, Gretchen Mol and Jared Harris at key points in their careers. Only her fourth feature, “The Moth Diaries” was accorded a shamefully limited release here, especially considering that it was adapted from Rachel Klein’s best-seller. Not being a post-pubescent girl, I can’t say how well Harron captured the angst, neuroses, anxieties and rivalries associated with being trapped in a boarding school while blossoming into womanhood. It seems to be me, however, that it would be embraced by the same audience drawn to the “Twilight” and “Hunger Game” sagas.

So few of us have attended boarding schools that they seem from afar, at least, to be breeding grounds for all manner of bad behavior among sons and daughters of the ruling class, here and in England. In “Moth Diaries,” three friends not only are required to experience all of the growing pangs associated with being a teenager in western society, but also a domineering newcomer (think, a slightly older Wednesday Addams) who could very well be a vampire. In any case, her arrival coincides with a series of tragic accidents and the central diarist losing her place of power in the social hierarchy. Because of the school’s formal architecture, the film’s many night shoots and the pervasive aroma of forbidden romance, “Moth Diaries” easily slips into the category of gothic horror. The nocturnal creatures referenced in the movie’s title account for the occasional flashes of magical realism, which really benefit from the Blu-ray presentation. Typically, Harron has elicited excellent, often haunting performances from Lily Cole, Sarah Gadon, Sarah Bolger, Laurence Hamelin and Scott Speedman as the requisite hunky poetry teacher who assigns them the sexy vampire novel, “Carilla.” The Blu-ray features don’t add much you couldn’t already glean from the movie itself. I can’t imagine any teenage girl being able to resist it. – Gary Dretzka

Home Run Showdown
Although he’s remained busy in the world of episodic television over the past 31 years, Oz Scott has directed only one feature film (the virtually unseen, “Spanish Judges”) since his debut effort, “Bustin’ Loose.” Talk about bad luck, it was the movie Richard Pryor was working on when he accidentally set himself on fire, smoking free-base cocaine and drinking 151 rum. I’m reluctant to blame Scott for concocting the dopey competition that informs the title, “Home Run Showdown,” but he apparently wasn’t forceful enough to talk first-time screenwriters John Bella and Tim Cavanaugh out of insisting on it. The sheer implausibility of a high-stakes contest without rules ruins what might have been a perfectly acceptable family entertainment. Clearly influenced by “The Bad News Bears” and other such David-vs.-Goliath fables, “Home Run Showdown” describes the efforts of a motley crew of wannabe Little Leaguers to convince the powers-that-be that they should be allowed to compete with the established teams. To accomplish this, the kids convince a local bartender and onetime minor-leaguer, Joey (Matthew Lillard), to coach them. He prefers chasing around the Little League moms, but is talked into accepting the job when the brother he hates dares him to place a wager on the game. Dean Cain plays the brother, a former Major League player, BMOC and lifelong irritant to Joey. He, of course, coaches the long-established league powerhouse. Instead of a championship game, the fate of the wager comes down to a contest staged during a professional high-profile Home Run Derby, during which the Little Leaguers are entrusted with shagging balls. The team with the most balls caught on a fly is the champion. Is this actually a sport in Detroit, where the movie was filmed, or anywhere else? Like I said, if it weren’t for this nonsense, the other problems with “Home Run Showdown” could easily be excused. The kids certainly aren’t lacking in enthusiasm and chutzpah, while the veteran adult actors – Annabelle Gish, Barry Bostwick, Wayne Duvall — do their best not to embarrass themselves. – Gary Dretzka

Penumbra
In a story that could have been written by Rod Serling for a special Halloween edition of “Twilight Zone,” an arrogant Spanish businesswoman, Marga, is experiencing a day from hell. While in Buenos Aires, she takes time off from her duties to the branch office to show and lease a rundown apartment. Compounding her discomfort is her belief that South Americans are nothing more than low-caste Spaniards living in exile from the motherland. Although fashionable, attractive and privileged, Marga is about to discover just how weird things can get when instant karma hits you right between the eyes. After waiting 40 minutes outside the apartment building, she discovers to her relief a man cooling his heels outside the door of the unit. Guessing that Jorge’s there representing the client, she begins asking him the kinds of questions that have the answers built into them. He says that his client will arrive momentarily with the proper papers and is willing to pay far more than she’s asking for the monthly rent. That should have provided Marga with a clue as to what to expect in the hours to come.

The real craziness in “Penumbra” begins when she steps outside to buy some coffee from a market across the street and is confronted by a belligerent street person, who, when he isn’t calling her a whore, is demanding her opinion of an eclipse set to occur later that day. When he gets too close to her, she zaps him with a Taser. Pedestrians, shopkeepers and a security guard defend the panhandler as being someone who wouldn’t hurt a fly. We know better, but are in no position to defend her. When she finally is able to return to the apartment, she’s a bit surprised to see that Jorge has been joined by a woman, claiming to be his partner. They assure her that their boss is about to arrive, but Marga is starting to get nervous. Her anxiety intensifies when she begins hearing noises from behind locked doors and loses the keys she knows she had with her earlier in the morning. Apparently, Jorge has also exhausted all the minutes she had left on her cellphone. Margo seeks the assistance of a downstairs neighbor, whose offer of strawberry tea ultimately results in the death of her beloved goldfish. Once she gets back to the flat, even more people have joined Jorge and his presumptive assistant.

It’s at this point that “Penumbra” spirals rapidly in the direction of the Twilight Zone and a minefield of potential spoilers. Suffice it to say that things continue to get stranger and stranger as the hour of the eclipse approaches and Marga begins to fear for her safety. It’s a pretty sure bet from the get-go that she will be emotionally scarred from her ordeal, but the path to madness doesn’t reveal itself until it’s too late for her. At 90 minutes, Adrian and Ramiro Garcia Bogliano’s film feels more like a creepy chamber piece than a claustrophobic thriller. Christina Brondo does a nice job measuring Marga’s psychological ordeal and keeping her at arm’s length from viewers with her elitist attitude toward every other character. It isn’t that we don’t care what could happen to her when the sun’s fully blocked out. Our only concern is that the climax won’t live up to the promise of the events that precede it. It does. – Gary Dretzka

Citizen Gangster
Battleground
For his feature debut, “Citizen Gangster,” writer/director Nathan Morlando was dealt an almost unbeatable poker hand in the person of notorious 1940s bank robber Edwin Boyd and his former wife, who he befriended and allowed him to tell their story. Unfortunately for everyone involved, however, while Boyd’s story resonates across the length and breadth of Canada, the exploits of his gang pale in comparison to what we’ve seen in 80 years of Hollywood genre exploitation. Gangster buffs also have been introduced recently to similarly interesting bank robbers who plied their trade in France, Italy, England and Australia. Like a goodly number of veterans who’ve gone to war and returned home in no shape to conform to the norms of American and Canadian society, Boyd took a job that had no meaning to him – except as a way to support his family – and was shut out of his true love, acting. Something in his brain said, “Rob a bank,” which he did. The flush of success compared favorably to the adrenaline rushes he experienced in combat, thus sealing his fate as a gangster. Meanwhile, the media exploited his bravado – and that of fellow gang members after his first escape from prison – and that only served to get him higher. By adding some rockabilly tunes to the soundtrack, Morlando sets Boyd up to be Canada’s first rock-’n’-roll criminal, which may be wishful thinking on his part.

The so-called existential angst Boyd was experiencing – combined with survivor’s guilt – was a common malady among WWII veterans and maybe always has been. It’s been attributed to the genesis of the Hell’s Angels and similarly rowdy gangs in the UK. In Jean-Francois Richet’s “Mesrine” couplet, the protagonist had returned from the Algerian war for independence damaged from what he saw. The robber we met in Michele Placido’s “Angel of Evil” had no such excuse, but likely was motivated by boredom and his status as the bastard child of a Milanese businessman. His first known job was freeing a tiger from a circus at age 8. By comparison to these guys and John Dillinger, Boyd’s a saint. This fact doesn’t diminish the quality of “Citizen Gangster,” which is a perfectly acceptable freshman effort. Scott Speedman is good as the bank robber, as are Jessica Chastain look-alike Kelly Reilly as his beleaguered wife; Brian Cox, as his self-righteous policeman father; and Kevin Durand and Brendan Fletcher as his mates. Lorne Greene (a.k.a., Ben Cartwright) makes a posthumous cameo as narrator on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s first newscast. The DVD adds interviews and background material.

Bank robbers and PTSS also figure in Neil Mackay’s first psycho-horror feature, “Battleground” (a.k.a., “Skeleton Lake”). Here, a half-dozen gang members are forced to lay low for 24 hours after stealing $3.2 million from a bank in northern Michigan. If successful, a plane will arrive to whisk them to Canada. Their first mistake is to pick as their hideout a forest that a deranged Vietnam vet, the Hunter (Hugh Lambe), has staked out for his own purposes. Having learned a thing or two from the VC, the Hunter uses guerrilla tactics to pick off the crooks one by one. Apparently, he also is a fan of Buffalo Bill, in “Silence of the Lambs,” because he also enjoys skinning his victims. Rather than sit back and wait to be exterminated, the heavily armed robbers decide to play the Hunter’s game as long as possible. Considering its indie budget, “Battleground” succeeds pretty well as a then-there-were-none thriller. The weakest link is a buxom blond, whose boyfriend was killed a day earlier and expends a lot of energy screaming. – Gary Dretzka

Let Go
This light-as-feathers dramedy from freshman writer/director/producer Brian Jett tells the stories of three recent parolees, struggling to make it in a world that has no room for them. They share the same parole officer, Walter Dishman (David Denman), whose melancholy mood fits the job to a tee. “Let Go” is weighted down by all of the faults associated with one-man-band filmmakers, including an only sporadically humorous or meaningful script and wildly uneven pacing. Ed Asner plays a grumpy geezer, who’s trying to get the old, really old gang together for some heists; blond beauty Gillian Jacobs (Britta, on “Community”) uses her wiles to get her things she hasn’t earned; and comedian Kevin Hart, who’s required to take part-time jobs that would drive lesser men to suicide. They do their best to keep “Let Go” afloat, but Walter is too maudlin a character to hold things together. – Gary Dretzka

Free Havana
Nate & Margaret
On paper, at least, people in Cuba’s LGBT community have enjoyed greater personal liberties and acceptance since laws restricting homosexual activity began to be relaxed in the 1970s. The changes, which have taken hold gradually, seemingly can be overridden on whim, however, especially those pertaining to transsexuals and effeminate men. Like their Republican counterparts in the United States, Cuban officials have historically and adamantly been opposed to legalizing marriage between same-sex couples. In Eliezar Perez Angueira’s poignant documentary, “Free Havana,” six Havana residents describe what it’s been like to be gay and Cuban during the bad and not-so-bad days. Before laws were liberalized in 1979, males recognized as being homosexual could be sent to work camps, hospitalized, imprisoned and barred from certain jobs. Many were forcibly deported in the Mariel boatlift. It wasn’t until recently that straight Cubans began to change their basically hostile attitude towards gays and lesbians. It’s also worth noting that sexual-reassignment surgery is covered under universal health care and transsexuals can marry.

In 2010, Fidel Castro apologized for the mistreatment and injustices directed at LGBT Cubans during his regime, blaming it on negative attitudes cultivated during the previous government. Still, the stories are undeniably sad and some of the people interviewed insisted on having their faces shaded, because they weren’t certain things wouldn’t change again, overnight. Apart from the work camps, though, Angueira could have found thousands of American gays, lesbians and transsexuals from the pre-Stonewall era who could relate stories as bad or worse than these six subjects. And, in many places here, attitudes towards homosexuals have gotten progressively more hostile in the face of a Supreme Court ruling that could legalize same-sex marriage. The DVD adds an interview with the director.

The title characters in Nathan Adloff’s observant indie dramedy “Nate & Margaret” are best pals, despite the fact they’re three decades in age removed from each other. When we’re introduced to them, they’re at very different places in their cycle of life, although one of them won’t admit it. Nate (Tyler Ross) is a 19-year-film student, who, for the first time in his life, is experiencing something resembling love. That it’s with another young man is almost incidental to the movie’s plot. Margaret (Natalie West) is a waitress at a Chicago restaurant and, at 52, an aspiring standup comedian. She isn’t very funny, but she’s real … almost too real. Just when James (Conor McCahill) has turned on Nate’s love light, Margaret begins to wonder if she can muster amorous feelings for any man, especially the one who’s begun to take an interest in her career. When Nate begins behaving inconsiderately toward his best pal, as anyone might in the first blush of love, their friendship unravels and she begins to grow older before our eyes. Former child star Gaby Hoffman (“Uncle Buck,” “Field of Dreams”) also has a prominent role in the story, but her character is poorly defined. “Nate & Margaret” clearly is a first effort, with all that implies, but Adloff’s got a good eye for people and isn’t afraid to put them in awkward situations. If only he’d given Margaret better material and a makeover, her transformation would be a lot easier to buy. – Gary Dretzka

Mitch Ryder: Live at Rockpalast
Graham Parker: Live at Rockpalast
I think it’s safe to say Mitch Ryder & the Detroit Wheels influenced more garage-band musicians in the 1960s than any other act. Here was a white singer who could hold his own with the black R&B artists who were first responsible for the songs in his playlist and a band that compared favorably to those backing the soul superstars in Memphis, Philadelphia and the Motor City. Unlike other rock ensembles of the period, the music they made was intended to be danced to, not merely admired from afar while screaming your lungs out or tripping on acid. A staple of AM rock stations, even during the British invasion, Ryder sold a lot of 45s and albums, but made too many enemies in the industry to be allotted his rightful place in the Hall of Fame. After taking some time off to nurse an aching throat and sit out various trends, Ryder hit the road again in the ’90, when everything old began to sound good again. The concerts included in the “Rockpalast” two-disc DVD find Ryder in near-top form, both in 1979 and 2004. In addition to his greatest hits, Ryder covers songs by Bob Dylan, the Rolling Stones, Velvet Underground, Doors, Jimi Hendrix and Edwin Starr.

Graham Parker and the Rumour had the great misfortune to launch his career at a time when several different trends began to converge on each other, none of them being blue-eyed soul. In hindsight, though, the band’s first two albums hold up as well as any music from the late-1970s. Like the Detroit Wheels, the Rumour was powered by a dynamic horn section and some of England’s top session musicians. The concerts, from 1978 and 1980, represent the band at its prime. Among the songs included in the two-disc DVD are “White Honey,” “Back to Schooldays,” “Don’t Ask Me Questions,” “Soul Shoes” and “Howlin’ Wind.” Look for an appearance on piano by the legendary sideman Nicky Hopkins at the 1980 gig. There’s no need to point out that Ryder and Parker gave the “Rockpalast” audiences what they paid to see and hear. – Gary Dretzka

Starship Troopers: Invasion
Newcomers to the “Starship Troopers” franchise probably aren’t aware of its literary roots and influence on at least two generations of American military officers. Based on a still controversial 1959 novel by Robert A. Heinlein, the first film adaptation of the military sci-fi adventure didn’t surface until 1997. Paul Voerhoeven’s live-action extravaganza starred Casper Van Dien, as protagonist Johnny Rico, and a bunch of attractive up-and-coming actors whose characters were recruited to fight giant alien bugs in space. Fifteen years later, Rico and other veterans of that campaign are back to inspire new recruits to the armored thrill-kill cult. This time, however, the characters have been generated in a computer, with that semi-creepy hyper-realistic sheen that distinguishes sophisticated video games from the bargain-basement stuff. Some viewers might find the female nudity more disturbing than titillating, but only if they’re parents and their kids are holding the remote-control as if it were a Fleshlight. The fearless troopers have been assigned to look for survivors in an intelligence-gathering vessel attacked by bugs. “Invasion” recalls the early live-action installments in the series more than any of the direct-to-video and animated entries. There’s nothing really new or special in “Invasion,” so my advice is for young fans to tackle Heinlein’s novel first. They can thank me, later. The Blu-ray adds commentary by director ShinjiAramaki; a conceptual art gallery; deleted scenes and a voice-over gag reel; and a feature-length making of featurette. – Gary Dretzka

The Pirates: Band of Misfits: 3D Blu-ray
Mia and the Migoo
The Jungle Bunch: The Movie
Everyone loves pirates these days and the ones created by the folks at Britain’s Aardman Animations are lovable in the extreme. Known foremost for such stop-action delights as “Wallace & Gromit” and “Chicken Run,” Aardman ventures into the worlds of Darwinian science, Victorian history and salty adventure in “The Pirates! Band of Misfits,” based on a series of books by Gideon Defoe. Young viewers might not be able to grasp the historical references, but most of the comedy is of the slapstick variety and the characters are largely archetypal. That description would not, however, cover Queen Victoria and Charles Darwin, who might require a tiny bit of explanation. The idea here is that a borderline inept Pirate Captain (voiced by Hugh Grant) wants desperately to fit in with such recognized buccaneers as Black Bellamy (Jeremy Piven), Cutlass Liz (Salma Hayek), Peg Leg Hastings (Lenny Henry) and the Pirate Who Loves Sunsets and Kittens (Al Roker), so he enters the annual Pirate of the Year competition to prove his mettle. Working in his favor is the ship’s mascot, Polly, which Charles Darwin (David Tennant) recognizes as the world’s only surviving dodo, not the parrot Captain assumes the bird to be. Because the discovery could make him front-runner as Scientist of the Year, he convinces Captain to make a beeline from the tropics to London forthwith. Once they arrive, Captain learns that Queen Victoria (Imelda Staunton) hates pirates. Everything’s played for maximum fun, of course, and co-director Peter Lord has taken off his producer’s hat to assure “A Band of Misfits” looks great and appeals to the broadest audience. A soundtrack that includes songs by the Pogues, Jimmy Cliff and the Clash goes a long to assuring parents their interests aren’t being ignored. The Blu-ray 3D package also adds 2D Blu-ray and DVD discs. All look great. There’s also commentary by Lord, co-director Jeff Newitt and editor Justin Krish; the entertaining 18-minute animated short, “So You Want To Be a Pirate!”; an interactive “Pirate Disguise Dress-Up Game”; the informative, “From Stop to Motion” and “Creating the Bath Chase Sequence”; Lord’s short films, “Wat’s Pig” and “War Story.”

Jacques-Rémy Girerd’s colorfully drawn “Mia and the Migoo” didn’t get a lot of exposure here, in 2011, when it played the festival circuit and maybe one other theater in New York. With its hand-drawn art and environmental message, it should remind animation buffs of Hayao Miyazaki’s work, even if the story can’t sustain close scrutiny. In it, a frizzy-haired young girl, Mia, has a premonition that her father’s life is in danger at the construction of a resort being built near a remote tropical lake. Not only are the construction workers lives in danger, but the desecration of the site is pissing off the forest spirits protecting the Tree of Life, which is situated in the middle of the lake. The extras add a making-of featurette and “Jacques-Remy Girerd: Maker of Dreams.”

The Jungle Bunch” is an extremely fanciful animated movie about a penguin chick, Maurice (John Lithgow), who fell off an ice floe and was raised in the jungle by a tiger. By the time Maurice is old enough to think about such things, he’s convinced himself that, in fact, he is a tiger and in need of stripes. Naturally, he’s also learned to take care of himself in the hostile environment and make the right kinds of friends. Somehow, his reputation grows to the point where it reaches his fellow penguins in Antarctica. They need protection from an aggressive pack of walruses and Maurice and posse are up to the task of protecting them. – Gary Dretzka

The DVD Wrapup: Porno Gang, A Separation, Dictator, Chimpanzee, Bernie … More

Wednesday, August 22nd, 2012

A Separation
Perhaps the most widely celebrated film made in any language last year, “A Separation” is best known here as the winner of the 2012 Oscar in Best Foreign Language Film category. If the emotionally draining Iranian drama had been nominated in the Best Picture, Best Director and Best Actors categories – as it rightly should have been — “A Separation” also might have split the vote for such crowd-pleasers as “The Artist,” “The Descendants” and “The Help.” As it is, writer/director Asghar Farhadi was a runner-up to Woody Allen for the Best Original Screenplay. The brilliantly constructed story about a divorce that goes tragically haywire deserved every accolade it got. Anyone who has yet to discover the amazing cinematic achievements of contemporary Iranian filmmakers, especially considering the limitations imposed on them in their homeland, would do well to begin with “A Separation” and work their way backwards from there.

Men and women who have gone through the divorce process, even vicariously, know that nothing about it is as simple as it looks, legally or emotionally. In Iran, such overlapping considerations as civil law, Islamic law and male privilege combine to make it even more complicated and traumatic. “A Separation” opens in Family Court as a woman not only petitions the court to be allowed to divorce her husband, but also to take their 11-year-old daughter with her to a western country, for which she’s already gotten a visa. For this to happen, Nader (Peyman Moaadi) must agree to such an arrangement and he’s already decided that he must stay in Iran to care for his father, who has Alzheimer’s. He’s committed to maintaining custodial rights to Termeh (Sarina Farhadi). Not only must Simin (Leila Hatami) deal with the vagaries of the legal system, but also Termeh’s unwillingness to choose sides, believing her parents would reconcile before agreeing to live without her. Though exceedingly stubborn, Nader is portrayed as a loving father and dedicated son, who believes Termeh can get a good education in Tehran. We’re predisposed to side with Simin, if only because of all the negative things we’ve absorbed about Iran since the Islamic revolution and its treatment of women. (Today, it was announced they no longer will be allowed to attend certain colleges and take courses in which they’ve excelled over male students.) Again, the situation here is more complex than it first appears to be.

After Simin moves back in with her mother, Nader hires housekeeper Razieh (Sareh Bayat) to care for his father while he’s working and Termeh is at school. Deeply religious, Razieh balks when she’s confronted with the reality of having to assist the old man in the bathroom and help keep him clean. Her imam clears her to do this, but only until a replacement can be found. Her husband agrees to take her place, but Razieh is required to fill in for him while he can square his debts. It’s at this point in the narrative that “A Separation” becomes less a movie about divorce than what can happen when secrets turn into lies and small deceptions lead to much greater calamities. Without spoiling anything, Nader becomes so frustrated after coming home early and finding his father on the floor, tied to the bed, that he pushes Razieh out the door of his apartment and down a flight of stairs. What he doesn’t know – or, perhaps, fails to take into consideration – is that Razieh is pregnant and she soon will be taken to a hospital, where the fetus is declared dead. Under Iranian law, Nader can be charged with murder and, unless a financial agreement is reached, he likely would be found guilty and go to prison. His refusal to accept such an agreement sets the stage for a second legal entanglement. A third one unfolds when Nader accuses Razieh of stealing money from him and neglecting his father.

It would be fair to think Farhadi might have had English writer Walter Scott in mind all along. In the epic poem, “Marmion,” Scott observed, “Oh what a tangled web we weave when first we practice to device.” Everyone, it seems, is either harboring portentous secrets or offering advice based on facts not in evidence. Complicating matters even further is the court’s tendency to believe the word of a middle-class professional over the accusations of a working-class couple that’s deeply in debt. It explains why a legally binding settlement, with or without an apology, would appear to be the most viable solution to everyone. By the time Farhadi finally is able to revisit the divorce proceeding, we’re far less sure about whose side to take. All of this mishegas is wonderfully choreographed by Farhadi (“Fireworks Wednesday”) and splendidly performed by an ensemble cast, which, collectively, captured the top acting awards at the Berlin International Film Festival. (The director’s daughter plays Termeh.) The DVD arrives with Farhadi’s commentary (in Farsi, with English subtitles), a post-screening Q&A with the director’s comments translated into English and the background featurette, “Birth of a Director.” – Gary Dretzka

The Dictator: Banned & Unrated: Blu-ray
If the Eddie Murphy comedy “Coming to America” comes to mind while watching Sasha Baron Cohen’s latest assault on politically correct storytelling, the resemblance is probably more coincidental than intentional. Why risk another court case, like the one Art Buchwald brought against Paramount, even if the popular columnist couldn’t have dreamed of as outrageous a character as Cohen’s Admiral General Aladeen, Supreme Leader for Life of the Democratic Republic of Wadiya? (Despite a landmark court ruling against the studio, director John Landis still insists that Buchwald’s early script ideas had no bearing on the final version of the 1988 hit.) Like Murphy, Cohen plays an African potentate, who, while visiting Manhattan, inadvertently experiences life from the point-of-view of an everyday New Yorker. Unlike Murphy’s good-natured prince, Cohen’s dictator is so mean-spirited he makes Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad look like Bernard Baruch. Aladeen is in New York to condemn the UN for imposing sanctions on his country over the likelihood he’s stockpiling WMDs. While in Manhattan, his top aides conspire to substitute Aladeen with a look-alike sheep herder, who will deliver a speech promising reforms and democracy. Shorn of his trademark beard, Aladeen is just one of many ex-patriots claiming to have been robbed of their rightful titles and power. When he isn’t attempting to persuade police and diplomats of his true identity, he’s freaking out New Yorkers and tourists with his mindless bigotry, outrageous behavior and allusions to 9/11 and Osama bin Laden, who, he claims, is still hiding out in his presidential mansion back home. (The Navy SEALS killed a body-double.)

In a reasonably fruitful subplot, Aladeen convinces the manager of a vegan grocery co-op that he’s a political refugee and, in solidarity with the people of Wadiya, she should give him a job. It puts him in a position to insult and antagonize everyone who gets within 10 feet of him. Against all odds, Zoey (Anna Faris) sees something good in Aladeen that no one else has been able to identify. Once that happens, “The Dictator” runs pretty true to form. Needless to say, “The Dictator” will engage the same audiences that loved “Borat,” “Bruno” and “Da Ali G Show,” and deeply disturb most other viewers. (One of the things he discovers in America is masturbation, to which he becomes addicted.) Women, especially, are unlikely to find anything humorous in the rape gags and Aladeen’s other misogynistic beliefs. In Cohen’s defense, however, the offensive material is on a par with the comedy in his previous work and, within that context, often is hilarious. (His characterization of the dogged station inspector, in “Hugo,” proves Cohen isn’t limited to broadly comedic roles.) If only Ahmadinejad and other truly evil dictators were as harmless as Aladeen, the world would be a much more pleasant place to be. Cohen’s fans will be happy to learn that the Blu-ray “Banned & Unrated” edition is about 20 minutes longer than the original 83-minute version of “The Dictator.” It also contains some deleted and extended scenes, a music video of “Your Money Is on the Dresser,” a longer take of the Larry King interview and a DVD of the theatrical version. – Gary Dretzka

Bernie
The idea for “Bernie” began percolating in Richard Linklater’s head after reading an article on the real-life Bernie Tiede in a Texas Monthly article in 1998. He couldn’t resist a story that was so quintessentially Texan – east Texan, to be precise – it truly was stranger than fiction. Here, in a state with more than 300 prisoners living on Death Row, the murder trial of a mild-mannered mortician had to be moved to another venue, because the residents seemed likely to forgive him in the death of a widely disliked woman. Having worked with Jack Black previously in “School of Rock,” Linklater knew he was a perfect fit for the role of such an extroverted character as Tiede. Ditto, Matthew McConaughey as the good-ol’-boy prosecutor, who defied the community by seeking the change of venue. When he convinced Shirley MacLaine to play wealthy widow Marjorie Nugent, Linklater knew he could finally get to work on “Bernie.” To add another layer of credibility to the mix, he scheduled an open casting call in the Carthage area to ensure the additional speaking parts would be filled by people who looked and sounded as if they were raised in the Piney Woods. Indeed, several of the locals who auditioned had known both Tiede and Nugent.

Mostly though, “Bernie” is Black’s show to dominate. Always impeccably dressed in sport coats and slacks that might have come from the Johnny Carson collection at Sears, and sporting a mustache only a carnival pitchman could admire, Tiede was the kind of civic leader who volunteered for any gig lacking a host. He also led the church choir, sang and acted in musicals, and kept the women in town occupied while their husbands played dominoes and drank beer. Nugent considered herself to be above everyone else in Carthage, if only because was the richest and most traveled woman in town. It took a while for the grand dame to warm to Tiede, but, when she did, they became inseparable. He managed her money, while she managed his time. After blowing a gasket when Bernie was late to report for a date – their relationship doesn’t appear to have been sexual – he picked up the rifle she bought to control armadillos in her backyard and shot her dead. He compounded the crime by stashing her away in a freezer and pretending she was still alive.

It took quite a while before the truth was revealed and, by then, he’d contributed a sizable portion of her assets to local charities. So, you can see the prosecutor’s dilemma when it came time to finding an impartial jury. In theaters, “Bernie” suffered from its small-screen scale and proximity to such other based-on-a-true-story movies as “I Love You Phillip Morris,” “Charlie Wilson’s War,” “The Social Network” and “Casino Jack.” It has more in common with HBO’s “The Positively True Adventures of the Alleged Texas Cheerleader-Murdering Mom” than any of those movies. This isn’t meant to slight Black, McConaughey and Linklater, just to keep “Bernie” in its proper perspective. You don’t have to be a diehard Black fan to love “Bernie,” but his performance is reason enough to put the darkish comedy on your must-rent list. The DVD comes with making-of material, including interviews with the actors, filmmakers and residents of Carthage. – Gary Dretzka

Virginia
Hide Away: Blu-ray
God’s Ears
These new titles argue against two once-prevalent assumptions about straight-to-video movies: 1) great actors can overcome a multitude of sins on the part of a director or screenwriter, and 2) movies that bypass the theatrical circuit are never as good as the ones that find wide distribution. The movie business has become such a guessing game lately that it pays to download a movie-review app before venturing forth to the local video store. (I prefer Metacritic.)

Given the presence of such top-shelf actors as Jennifer Connelly, Ed Harris, Amy Madigan, Toby Jones and Carrie Preston – all under the direction of Oscar-winning writer, Dustin Lance Black (“Milk”) – what possibly could have gone wrong with the modestly budgeted indie, “Virginia” (a.k.a., “What’s Wrong With Virginia”)? As it turns out, almost everything besides the performances. There are more storylines intersecting here than rails in a switching yard outside of Chicago. Keeping track of them all in a two-hour psychodrama requires a degree of patience – and tolerance for damaged characters — most viewers simply don’t possess. Connelly plays the somewhat unstable mother of a personable teenager, who may or may not be the son of the local sheriff and contender for a State Senate seat. She claims not to remember with whom she slept nearly two decades ago, but it’s clear she’s been involved for years in an S&M affair with the conservative Mormon sheriff (Harris). His even more devout wife, played by Madigan, is a stern old prune without a clue about her husband’s fetishes. Complicating things mightily for everyone is the emerging romance between their kids, Emmet (Harrison Gilbertson) and Jessie (Emma Roberts).  Because the sheriff is convinced Emmet is his illegitimate son – the boy doubts it – he forbids Jessie from seeing him. On another tangent, Jones plays the cross-dressing owner of an amusement park, through which several other story threads run. Oh, yeah, despite the likelihood she has cystic fibrosis, Virginia smokes like a chimney.

Black is too good a writer to reduce his characters into generic weirdoes or plastic figurines. He has, however, given them way too much baggage to carry in what appears to be a commentary about intolerance and hypocrisy in small-town America. When Virginia isn’t coughing up blood and piloting a tram in the amusement park, she’s fighting off social workers and hatching plots to keep the sheriff from ignoring her. He’s torn between the passion he found in Virginia and the commitment he made to his wife as a dedicated Mormon. Moreover, a scandal could destroy his political agenda. Apart from HBO’s “Big Love,” for which Black wrote several episodes, I’ve rarely encountered as much Mormon iconography and ideology as I did in “Virginia.” It helps explains why the sheriff is so messed up and why his daughter is in a quandary about falling in love with the non-Mormon, Emmet.

Finally, though, the fate of the characters in “Virginia” hinges on a pair of failed robberies in which the perpetrators wore a gorilla mask and the off-chance Virginia could benefit from expensive experimental treatment in San Francisco. It’s a very unreliable hook upon which to hang such a heavy plot, even if the bittersweet ending ties up most of the loose ends. The movie’s been sitting in a can, somewhere, since debuting at the Toronto film festival two years ago. At some point, there probably was some talk about Oscar nominations for Connelly and Harris. For that to have been realized, though, a distributor would have had to see something more encouraging in “Virginia” than a list of acting credits and Gus Van Sant’s participation as executive director. The DVD adds a making-off documentary.

Anyone who’s ever felt like turning his back on the world and sailing away to points unknown should be able to find something to like in “Hide Away” (“A Year in Mooring”), another grown-up drama that was accorded only the most minimal of releases. In its DVD iteration, however, Chris Eyre’s film deserves a longer look. Josh Lucas plays Young Mariner, a middle-age man inspired by a personal tragedy to find something more meaningful in life than laboring for a company that probably would have laid him off in a couple of years, anyway. To help take his mind off his loss, for which he blames himself, YM chooses to buy a sailboat that will require months of hard work to rescue. As further penance, YM elects to spend the harsh Michigan winter inside the vessel, which would be condemned if it weren’t floating alongside a pier. Moreover, it’s painfully lonely after tourist season in Traverse City, where the average high temperature in January and February is below freezing. Nevertheless, after suffering a near breakdown, YM comes out of his self-imposed shell to make friends with the pretty seen-it-all Waitress (Ayelet Zurer); a fellow urban refugee, Divorced Man (Jon Tenney); a pretty young blond (Casey LaBow) whose problems are worse than his; and a philosophical old salt, the Ancient Mariner (James Cromwell), who plays bagpipes and builds model ships. If Peter Vanderwall’s overwrought script barely holds water – winters in northern Michigan are far more hostile than he imagines them to be here – Eyre and cinematographer Elliot Davis nicely capture the look of the region over the course of a year and one man’s determination to jump-start his life after tragedy. Lucas wisely doesn’t attempt to oversell YM’s breakdown and the script doesn’t require he find relief in all-too-convenient affairs. The DVD adds a making-of piece and interviews. It’s been more than a decade since Eyre, one of several then-promising Native American directors, made “Skins” and “Smoke Signals.” It’s nice to see him back.

Having sat on the shelf two years longer than “Virginia,” the romantic drama “God’s Ears” also has made a belated debut on DVD this week. In it, a gorgeous blond stripper, Alexia (Margot Farley), falls head over platform heels for a handsome young man, Noah (Michael Worth), with autism. Yes, you read that right. There are no limits to what a determined lap-dancer can do in the movies. Alexia and Noah meet cute in a diner, where he unexpectedly begins a conversation about chickens and eggs, about which he knows more than most farmers. Fascinated by his willingness to break his usual silence in her company, the dancer begins to stalk him to see what’s what. In addition to being a chicken savant, Noah works as a go-fer in a boxing gym and, more importantly, looks pretty buff with his shirt off. No dummy, Noah picks up on Alexis’ offer to accompany her and another stripper north to a farm, where his grandmother lives and guards his mother’s ashes. Just as everything begins to click for the two lovebirds, Alexis inexplicably flakes out on him. Noah takes out his surprise and disappointment on a punching bag held by the gym’s owner (John Saxon). Is this relationship doomed to failure or will Alexis and Noah find common ground for the most unlikely of love affairs. Duh. Farley is appealing as a stripper who isn’t required to remove all of her clothes in our presence, while Worth does a fairly good job juggling acting, writing and directing duties. As straight-to-DVD movies go, I’ve seen worse. – Gary Dretzka

Disneynature: Chimpanzee: Blu-ray
In the grand Disney tradition, the makers of “Chimpanzee” follow a playful young ape, Oscar, as he learns from his mother, Isha, how to survive in the wild. The filmmakers, who spent three years in the dense Tai rainforest of the Ivory Coast, had originally planned to make a mother-son story, but had to shift gears Isha was killed in a raid by rival chimps. Instead of having to kill the project, directors Alastair Fothergill and Mark Linfield caught a huge break when the pack’s alpha male, Freddy, uncharacteristically adopted the toddler and began to pass along his survival skills. They were extremely fortunate, as well, in being accepted by chimpanzees that had mastered the use of rocks and small logs to separate nuts from their shells and sticks to collect honey and ants without being stung or bitten. At a time when chimps are making headlines for cannibalizing their young in zoos, chewing the faces off their owners in captivity and escaping into the wilds of Las Vegas to do God-knows-what, “Chimpanzee” paints a portrait that is more in keeping with what adults expect from Disney and its Disneynature offshoot.

After the familiarization process takes hold, Freddy allows the filmmakers to follow the gang as it treks into enemy territory for food. It’s here that I would caution parents about letting young children watch “Chimpanzee” without supervision. Although the MPAA raters don’t seem to think kids might need guidance when it comes to chimps attacking and killing rival chimps, babies being orphaned and hungry apes trapping and feasting on colobus monkeys, I’d beg to differ. Even if no carcass is revealed, the ferocity of the attack in which Oscar’s mom presumably is killed could chill an animal lover of any age. That said, however, the Blu-ray presentation is terrific, especially in the bonus featurettes that examine other territories and aspects of the team’s research. In one, the filmmakers are besieged by bees to the point where they’re unable to shoot for days. Kids won’t mind Tim Allen’s often quite silly narrative, but adults will tempted to turn down the sound. – Gary Dretzka

Freelancers
One in the Chamber
I’m old enough to remember the heyday of Blaxploitation movies, when any void in plot or logic could be filled with gratuitously violent attacks on “the man,” gratuitous sex with a blond hooker, the assassination of a heroin pusher by cops or mobsters, or a romantic interlude accompanied by a song from the Motown catalog. Those were the days. Although the name has changed, I sense that the Blaxploitatation era is being revisited in straight-to-DVDs that are a tad more racially inclusive and back the action with hip-hop music. Instead of pitting the Brothers against the world, the protagonists and antagonists, alike, come in all shapes and colors. “Freelancers” is typical of the urban-action pictures now finding a home in video stores. In addition to a star from the world of hip-hop – here, 50 Cent – there are actors who will be recognizable to audiences of all persuasions. Here, they include Robert De Niro, Forest Whitaker, Vinnie Jones and Dana Delaney, the latter two actors appearing in what essentially are cameo roles. I’d rent any movie with De Niro and Whitaker’s names on the cover, even knowing that their recent track record hasn’t been all that terrific. Generally speaking, the mostly anonymous women need only look good in Victoria’s Secret lingerie or stripper’s gear.

50 Cent/Curtis Jackson plays Malo, the son of an on-the-take NYPD officer who goes from mean streets to the police force at lightning speed. I think he might have spent some time in the slammer, as well, but I could have been hallucinating. No sooner does he graduate from the police academy than Malo is assigned to the same team of rogue cops that ran with his dad. The dirtiest cop in the bunch, Sarcone (De Niro), takes the rookie under his wing and gives him the keys to the corrupt kingdom mere moments after their first meeting (in a strip joint, naturally). Two of Malo’s buddies from their days in the ’hood somehow manage to be assigned to the same precinct, as well, allowing them to form a cell within the team that threatens to be as evil as the one run by Sarcone and Whitaker’s LaRue. Even though the NYPD may be one of most frequently monitored forces in the country, the money and drugs flow like wine and everyone gets a cut. Conveniently, the two most hideously depicted characters are a virulently racist white cop and the Italian mob boss, who everyone fears. Director Jessy Terrero and writer L. Philippe Casseus take their time getting to the point of the story, which is to explain the role Malo’s father played on the team and help him exact his revenge. If it’s mindless violence you’re looking for, there’s plenty of it in “Freelancers.” Look elsewhere, though, if its vintage performances by De Niro, Whitaker and Delaney.

The same basic theory applies to films in the international-crime genre, but only in the titles designed to go straight-to-DVD. One of things that Hollywood still does well is make political, espionage and crime thrillers — “Mission:Impossible,” the Bourne flicks, “Eastern Promises” – and audience continue to flock to the best of them. “One in the Chamber” is pretty representative of the non-theatrical products in that it has recognizable international stars – Cuba Gooding Jr., Dolph Lundgren, Billy Murray, Louis Mandylor – several generically beautiful female stars and lots of violence, although it isn’t always graphic. There’s usually some T&A, but not as much as in American hip-hop movies. Here, B-list action faves Gooding and Lundgren play rival assassins, whose loyalty is in question throughout “One in the Chamber.” So many Russian mob bosses get eliminated, it’s impossible to determine where the director is taking us and what makes them so despicable. A safe bet is the importation of drugs and Euros, and export of sex slaves and enriched uranium. – Gary Dretzka

Bonsai
It isn’t easy to find a movie that isn’t reluctant to remind us that literature was the first social medium and served much the same purpose as Facebook did when Mark Zuckerberg co-founded the social networking site. How better than a chat over coffee about a good book to break the ice between like-minded strangers? The same thing probably happens today in literary-minded websites on the Internet, even if the surroundings aren’t quite so romantic as a bistro or cafe. In Cristian Jimenez’ introspective romantic drama, “Bonsai” – adapted from a novella by Alejandro Zambra — Julio is an archetypal struggling writer who’s developed a writer’s block that seems insurmountable. He begins to chip away at it after a meeting with a successful novelist in need of a transcriber. His disappointment over losing the position becomes the inspiration for seeking renewed momentum on his own work. Instead of revealing the truth to his girlfriend, though, he steals an idea from the author’s manuscript for his own use. It involves a love affair he may or may not have had eight years earlier with a fellow student and lover who needed help with Proust. Before long, of course, the past begins to appeal to Julio more than the present and the border between reality and illusion fades completely. The title refers to the solace Julio gets from the maintenance of the miniature trees. – Gary Dretzka

The Life and Death of a Porno Gang: Blu-ray
Even before the collapse of the former Yugoslavia and subsequent wars for self-determination, the country’s filmmakers could be counted on to deliver closely observed tales of a society driven insane by Cold War politics and the realization that any freedoms they’ve enjoyed could disappear overnight. Now that an uneasy truce appears to have taken hold in Bosnia, Kosovo and once-disputed parts of Croatia, the savagery that marked those struggles continues to haunt the cinemas of the newly independent states. The ongoing war-crimes tribunals are a constant reminder of the horrors committed on all sides as is the continued presence of UN peacekeepers. It explains much of what happens in Mladen Djordjevic’s inky black dramedy “The Life and Death of a Porno Gang,” a movie that, we’re told, will remind the cognoscenti of Srdjan Spasojevic’s “A Serbian Film.” Both titles exemplify what can happen when the border separating horror and pornography is breached and arthouse values collide with graphic representations of sex and violence. For me to point out that these movies aren’t for everyone is like suggesting fugu sushi may not be an appropriate appetizer to serve at a White House state dinner.

“Porno Gang” is set in Serbia during the final days of Slobodan Milosevic’s government, in 2000. Marko (Mihajlo Jovanovic) has recently graduated from film school in Belgrade, but isn’t having any luck finding investors for his horror screenplay. Desperate, he accepts an offer to direct porno flicks of the crudest possible variety. To satisfy an artistic itch, Marko creates a “porno cabaret” comprised of out-of-work actors and assorted exhibitionists. Any chance that it will become a hit is dashed when the mobsters to whom Marko owes money demand he clear up his debt before embarking on another dubious project. Instead, he decides to take his show on the road and present it to appreciative farmers, voyeurs and old-school nationalists with chips on their shoulders. It’s like commedia dell’arte for perverts. Still, it beats staying at home watching “Kojak” reruns in Serbo-Croatian. While on the road, Marko encounters a dapper older gentleman who identifies himself as a reporter who once covered the wars in Balkan states for major news outlets. He also moonlighted by providing footage of battlefield casualties and ghastly atrocities to rich freaks who get off on such dubious entertainment. Now that the wars have ended, however, the supply of this kind of material has dried up. If Marko agrees to produce snuff films for the reporter, everyone will profit.

The troupe members agree to stage the executions in ways meant to titillate the purchasers of such fare, but only because the victims are terminally ill and want to leave something behind for their family. They’re able to convince themselves the murders are Kevorkian-like mercy killings, only with more painful instruments of destruction. Naturally, the increasingly bizarre rationalizations they invent to justify the killings stop making sense after a while, just as the effect of watching people die in violent ways becomes ever more toxic. Meanwhile, their sloppy disposal of the corpses has put police, gangsters and vigilantes on their trail. It’s easy to see in Djordjevic’s story a connection between the war and the executions. When the killing stopped in Bosnia, a void was left in the battered souls of some of the combatants. Constant reports of atrocities, along with the endless finger-pointing that followed, left many civilians numb to extreme violence, as well. What else to think when images of soldiers playing soccer with the head of an enemy prisoner are mimicked by actors doing the same thing with the head of one of their volunteers?

In addition to several deleted and extended scenes and an almost whimsical making-of featurette, the Blu-ray offers Djordjevic’s feature-length documentary “Made in Serbia.” The often hilarious, always outrageous film profiles four domestic porn actors, as they go about their business in front of and behind the cameras. They include a male star, forced to commute to Hungary to find willing and attractive female co-stars; a bisexual actor on his visit home; an elderly actress whose husband can’t get it up when asked to share a scene; and a portly middle-age man introduced as a peasant version of John Holmes and Rocco Siffredi. The doc is framed around a filmmaker’s search for an ex-girlfriend who’s disappeared into the porn underground. The movies are being distributed by Synapse Films, which has cornered the market on titles that mix horror, sex and violence. – Gary Dretzka

The Aristocats: Blu-ray
It’s the rare Tuesday in August when the folks at Disney release as many new Blu-ray editions of its animated features as it did this week. The “Special Edition” combo packs aren’t being accorded the same marketing push that normally accompanies the release of it classic titles in “Diamond Edition” volumes — look for “Cinderella,” in October, for that — but it’s the audio-visual content that counts and it’s up to snuff here. “The Aristocats” is notable primarily for being the last animated feature to be green-lit by Uncle Walt, his own self. The rest of the bounty is comprised of “The Rescuers: 35th Anniversary Edition” (1977) and “The Rescuers Down Under” (1990); “Pocahontas” (1995) and “Pocahontas II: Journey to a New World” (1998); “The Tigger Movie: Bounce-A-Rrrific Special Edition” (2000); and “Lady and the Tramp II: Scamp’s Adventure” (2001). “Aristocats” describes what happens when an opera star and wealthy Parisian socialite (voiced by Hermione Baddeley) leaves her fortune to her pampered cats, one of whom is voiced by Eva Gabor. The butler attempts to thwart the socialite’s intentions by eliminating the competition and reaping the fortune himself. The cats avoid a watery grave, but must adapt to life in the countryside. As befits the location, the soundtrack is filled with jazzy French music. The extras include a discussion of a storyboarded song and character that didn’t make the cut; a profile of pet Disney composers, the Sherman Brothers; another deleted song; a quintet of sing-alongs; a music video; the 1956 short, “The Great Cat Family,” hosted by Walt Disney; and the cartoon, “Bath Day,” with Minnie Mouse and Figaro.

A similar assortment of standard-definition and hi-def bonus features accompanies the direct-to-video “Lady and the Tramp II: Scamp’s Adventure” and “Pocahontas II: Journey to a New World.”  “The Rescuers” combo adds the 31-minute documentary, “Water Birds: A True Life Adventure,” from 1952,” while “The Tigger Movie” adds 10 Winnie the Pooh mini-movies, narrated by John Cleese, to the mix of music and making-of pieces. One need not be a Disney completist to enjoy these vintage titles and share them with your kids. – Gary Dretzka

Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers: Blu-ray
Halloween 5: The Revenge of Michael Myers: Blu-ray
Devote fans of the “Halloween” franchise probably already are aware of this quirk in distribution patterns, but it’s worth repeating: this week’s release of “Halloween 4” and “Halloween 5,” from Starz/Anchor Bay, precedes by a month the release of “Collector’s Editions” of “Halloween II” and “Halloween III: Season of the Witch” from the newly formed Shout Factory offshoot, Scream Factory. I’m not sure what, if any, significance should be attached to the change from Roman to Arabic numerals or how the original “Halloween” managed to be included in the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry. The important thing to remember is that Michael Myers continues to maintain a hold on the collective psyche of horror fans everywhere, and his name still sells tickets. Even the sequels have spawned sequels and remakes.

In “Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers,” we learn that the fiend wasn’t actually killed in the fire at the end of “Halloween II,” but has been in a coma. After coming out of his deep sleep and escaping from custody, Myers heads straights for the daughter of Laurie Strode. In “Halloween 5: The Revenge of Michael Myers,” he has recovered from gunshot wounds and a mineshaft explosion, but must bide his time before pursuing Laurie, who is being dangled as bait by Dr. Loomis. The sequels each cost about $5 million to make, so diminishing box-office revenues ($17.8 million, $11.6 million) had to be recouped in the video, DVD and Blu-ray marketplace. “H4” arrives with commentary, deleted scenes and a panel discussion, while “H5” adds commentary, an original promo and raw production footage. – Gary Dretzka

Sedona
In 1980, “Serial” lampooned the post-hippy lifestyles of the wealthy residents of northern California’s beyond-trendy Marin County. It was adapted from Cyra McFadden’s novel, “The Serial: A Year in the Life of Marin Country,” which, among other things, helped boost sales of hot tubs around the country. What Marin County was in the 1970s, Sedona is today … or, maybe, yesterday. The gorgeous Arizona town is both a destination for high-end tourists drawn to the spectacular Red Rock vistas and refuge for middle-age dropouts in search of spiritual healing. Sedona is one of the few places on Earth where New Age philosophy and healing are accorded the same respect as traditional medicine and science. Its leading exports are therapeutic crystals and the kind of music usually reserved for the massage rooms in expensive spas. Tommy Stovall’s dramedy, “Sedona,” takes a gentle stab at satirizing the folks drawn to the Arizona mecca by some sort of mystical concordance of spirit waves and electromagnetic vortexes. Mostly, though, Stovall wants us to know that, for all its eccentricities, Sedona remain a groovy place to live and visit. He also suggests there might be something completely legitimate about all of this New Age stuff. It helps mightily, of course, if newcomers arrive with lots of money to spend and a tolerance for the occasional nutcase and charlatan.

Frances Fisher plays a harried marketing professional traveling by car from Portland to Phoenix for a series of client meetings. As she approaches Sedona, her car is pushed off the road by a lightplane making an emergency landing on the highway behind her. While waiting for her car to be fixed, Tammy encounters the kind of blissed-out folks most people outside certain precincts of California, Arizona and New Mexico still consider to be wackos and unrepentant hippies. The closer Tammy comes to missing her first meeting, the more hysterical she gets. This is in marked contrast to the Sedona residents, who don’t let anything get them rattled. Meanwhile, in the Red Rocks wilderness, a big-city attorney and his partner fear that one of their sons has gotten lost. With the help of a Native American hiker, the attorney is able to track down the boy, who’s been having the time of his life and doesn’t think he’s lost.

In Stovall’s Sedona, nothing happens without a purpose, including the plane’s emergency landing, an interrupted reflexology session, the car’s broken axle and time spent searching for the boy. It takes Tammy nearly the entirety of “Sedona” to accept that her professional life sucks and her stars are directing her to the Arizona desert. If the movie is a lost opportunity for satire, the natural beauty on display itself is worth the price of a rental. – Gary Dretzka

Payback: Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth
Ecstasy of Order: The Tetris Masters
One of the great fallacies of our democratic system is that an extraordinarily large percentage of the citizenry will vote against its own best interests, even when all available evidence argues against it. For example, any American worker who’s been laid off and stills elects to vote for the current Republican candidate, either is a masochist or hasn’t been paying attention for the last 30 years. Likewise, any barely unemployed Democrat who blindly follows the party line and doesn’t question the President’s economic policy, whatever it is, is guilty of the same thing. It’s become exceedingly clear that neither party has the best interests of its less affluent constituents in mind, but we continue to treat third- and fourth-party candidates as if they were Martians or insane. I’ve seen nearly two dozen documentaries in the past year that have spelled out exactly why this country is in trouble and what needs to be done to take the first baby steps toward a solution. I’d be surprised to learn that more than one or two of them have been seen by even half of our congressional leaders. I know they aren’t as popular among the citizenry as the latest hit action movie or best-selling romance, if only because the truth hurts and we, the people, feel powerless against the institutions in charge.

In Jennifer Baichwal’s achingly humanistic “Payback: Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth,” the writings of author, critic and activist Margaret Atwood provide the foundation for a wide-ranging discussion of debt and what it means to “wipe the slate clean.” It isn’t limited to the national debt, credit-card debt or other anchors on our economy. Instead, Baichwal focuses the discussion on the debts we owe each other as human beings, in ways that range from a simple apology to corporate responsibility and reparations for harm done. All of these forms of debt – financial, societal, personal, environmental, spiritual or criminal — combine to deaden the psyche and kill our will to fight back. Along the way, we’re asked to consider a years-long Albanian blood feud; the BP oil spill’s impact on the environment and Louisiana residents; the mistreatment of Florida farm workers and willingness of one grower to do the right thing; media mogul Conrad Black’s prison experience; and a convicted felon whose crimes hurt people profoundly in ways not related to violence. If our attitudes don’t change, Atwood argues, how will we ever lose our chains? Not surprisingly, “Payback” asks more questions than it answers and is weighted toward pie-in-the-sky solutions. The only person representing the rich and greedy here is Black and he appears to have discovered his conscience while incarcerated. The DVD adds a post-screening Q&A with Atwood and Baichwal; deleted scenes; and other short docs.

The primary problem with documentaries in which gaming nerds attempt to explain their obsession with setting meaningless records is that the only people who can address to the question at hand are the ones who speak in a language not shared by most other human beings. No matter how appealing the game, and Tetris is one of the most popular of all time, watching people play it and listening to them discuss their motivations makes cricket seem endlessly fascinating, by comparison. One championship-level chess match is infinitely more revealing than all of the games made for Nintendo ever played. And, yes, I once was a compulsive player of Tetris and other such games, even as an adult. Tetris, as they say, is a cool game. The story of its creation is rather interesting, as well. The people we meet in “Ecstasy of Order: The Tetris Masters” are neither. Its focus is on a reunion of past champs who probably aren’t any more observant or eloquent than there were in their prime, 20 years ago. Neither does it seem as if anyone we meet has gotten a life in the interim. In a bonus feature, we get to watch over the shoulder of a man in his 30s as he attempts to set a record on Asteroids. Blessedly, we only are asked to share 15 minutes of this 52-hour marathon. The truth is that making time fly faster is reward enough for playing these games and sharing the experience seems rather silly. – Gary Dretzka

Mighty Morphin Power Rangers: Season 1, Vol.1
I’d almost put the existence of “Mighty Morphin Power Rangers” out of my mind, entirely, until the arrival of this collection of episodes from the first season. It’s taken me nearly 30 years to get used to the idea that 90 percent of all children’s programming would henceforth be animated, so I was taken aback by this return engagement of these live-action teenagers with superpowers. Once the anchor of Fox’s Saturday-morning kids’ block, the show – really, only 20 years old – looks as if it preceded “Captain Video” on the Dumont network. The characters look as if they’d stepped out of a “Buck Rogers” serial and wield weapons that seem as medieval as they are futuristic. The uniforms were startling bright and the mythology behind the show was as confusing and nonsensical has it could be. Still, the series was incredibly successful with American kids, who had no idea it was based on the 16th installment of the Japanese “Super Sentai” franchise, “Kyoryu Sentai.” How Japanese toy makers and programming executives come up with this stuff is beyond me.

As the mythology goes, explorers from another galaxy land in a suburb of Los Angeles, where they discover an extraterrestrial vehicle – known for its shape and smell as the Dumpster – in which the evil empress Rita Repulsa has been imprisoned for 10,000 years. The wise sage Zordon orders his robotic aide Alpha 5 to recruit a team of “teenagers with attitude” to be known as the Power Rangers. Their assignment was to save the world from Rita and her monstrous thugs … or, something like that. If that sounds as incomprehensible to you as it did to me, it’s worth recalling the impact the show had with American kids and likely could have again. Every day was Halloween for “Power Rangers” fans. Neither is it surprising to learn that parent’s groups attempted to curb the violence on the show, which was about as realistic as the costumes, thus adding to its appeal with kids. The three-disc DVD set contains 600 minutes of whacked-out programming. – Gary Dretzka

The Complete History of the New York Giants
Recent Super Bowl history suggests that New York Giants won’t repeat as NFL champions, not matter how good they may be during the regular season. The Green Bay Packers were one game away from a perfect season last year, yet lost in the second round to the wild-card Giants. It’s with this likelihood in mind that NFL Productions has decided to pull out all the stops to exploit the Giants’ championship and serve fans in the country’s largest media marketplace. “The Complete History of the New York Giants” follows by six months “New York Giants: Super Bowl XLVI Champions,” and by two months the release of “New York Giants: Road to XLVI.” In 2009, we saw “New York Giants: 10 Greatest Games” and, in 2008, recaps of that year’s Super Bowl victory. What could possibly be left? Football fans are insatiable, though, and any reminder of past glory or current championships will sell DVDs. Nice to know that they all look pretty good. – Gary Dretzka

‘Compliance’ stirs emotions by putting viewers in hot seat

Friday, August 17th, 2012


At a time when most mega-budget movies are forgotten 10 minutes after the final credits have rolled, it’s interesting that a no-frills indie has kept serious movie buffs talking since it was screened last January at Sundance. Based on a series of actual events, “Compliance” describes just how hideously wrong things can go when otherwise level-headed Americans think they’re doing the right thing.

As near as I can determine, the currently raging controversy derives from Craig Zobel’s determination to lay out the facts of a headline-making invasion of privacy, leaving viewers to decide for themselves if they would have done the same thing under the same circumstances. Zobel raises the emotional ante, as well, by graphically portraying the humiliation suffered by the victim of what was, essentially, prank phone call. Instead of asking the harried manager if she “has Prince Albert in the can?” or “Is your refrigerator running?,” as previous generations of juvenile pranksters have done, the disembodied voice demanded something far more terrifying.

“It’s a rough subject and ‘Compliance’ is an intentionally challenging movie,” Zobel concedes. “It goes to the question of what we expect movies to do. The response we’ve gotten since Sundance, where some people booed and walked out, has been more positive.”

By invoking the authority of the local police department, the caller asks the manager, Sandra (Ann Dowd), to conduct a strip search of an employee he accuses of theft. The faux cop says he is too busy to conduct the examination himself, so, in effect, he would be willing to deputize Sandra to get to the truth. Instead, he toys with her willingness to serve the public by demanding she dehumanize the girl and recruit accomplices to add to her misery.

To varying degrees of gullibility, they all follow suit. None bothers to recall what they’d observed from watching hundreds of episodes of “Law & Order,” “The People’s Court” or even “Dragnet.” In the post-9/11 era, they may have assumed, as well, that the Patriot Act applies as much to purse snatchers as terrorists. If Zobel’s conceit sounds far-fetched, you should know that the prank was successfully pulled off at least 70 times in the previous 12 years.

Anyone who thinks they’re too hip or sophisticated to fall for such a ruse may want to ask themselves if they bought the Bush-Cheney theory about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, President Obama’s pledge to punish the perpetrators of the ongoing financial disaster or the findings of the Warren Report. Compared to these whoppers, falling for a guy impersonating a police officer – in person at a traffic stop or via a phone call – is small potatoes.

“We all have a moral compass, but it isn’t always clear to us how delicate it is,” Zobel says. “In our society, there’s an implicit social contract between citizens and the police that they’re going to do the right thing. But, it’s true that people of different racial and ethnic backgrounds will see things differently when it comes to police.”

Make no mistake about it, “Compliance” packs the same punch as the horror genre’s most effective examples of “torture porn.” Watching an inarguably innocent teenager being forced to strip by her supervisor and probed by the woman’s boyfriend, however reluctant, isn’t for the squeamish. Not only do we cringe for the victim, but we also sympathize with the manager, who probably was raised to respect the local police force without question. After all, in many parts of the United States, racial profiling and the use of torture to extract confessions represent either legitimate police work or a myth perpetrated by the ACLU.

“I think we were able to capture the feeling that Becky was defenseless throughout her ordeal and Sandra was just trying to get through the day,” Zobel adds. “Naturally, most viewers will respond, ‘I wouldn’t do that.’ But, deep down, everyone wants to be a hero.”

Indeed, it’s entirely possible that the lunatic who went on a shooting spree at a Sikh temple two weeks ago, in Wisconsin, mistakenly assumed the victims’ turbans represented an affiliation with Al Qaeda. In his delusional mind, he must as felt as if he was doing the right thing and should be regarded as an American hero. He wasn’t the first self-styled patriot to mistake a Sikh with a Muslim, with the same deadly result.

Zobel is no stranger to the world of long and short cons. In 2007′s “Great World of Sound,” he dramatized an elaborate scheme in which a pair of sharp operators convinced dozens of mostly tone-deaf singers that, in exchange for a considerable sum of money, they would record the rubes and find a market for the songs. By the time the con artists split town, the victims would be left with a poorly recorded song and dashed hopes. In that movie, Zobel placed ads in local papers to lure “American Idol” wannabes to faux auditions and mixed their sessions with those using actors and reasonably good singers. The effect was similarly creepy, if not nearly as horrifying as the actions portrayed in his new film.

“Compliance” is based on the April 2004 incident a fast-food restaurant in Mount Washington, Kentucky, with an Ohio “ChickWich” standing in for McDonald’s. Although the caller (Patrick Healy) probably wasn’t aware of the fact that the ChickWich was understaffed and short of certain staples that night, he logically guessed (or learned from surveillance) that a pretty blond, Becky (Dreama Walker), would be manning the counter and make an ideal suspect. Sandra inadvertently fills in the blanks for the caller.

Zobel is able to establish credibility by dramatizing the logistics of operating a fast-food franchise during a busy part of the day. Sandra’s already freaked out by the likelihood that a company inspector may be paying a visit on this of all nights. When she fields the prank call, it becomes one of several balls she’s juggling.

Despite the fact that Becky continually denies the accusation, Sandra agrees to take her to a storage room, where the strip search would be captured on a surveillance camera. The alternative would be having Becky arrested, driven to the police station and booked, regardless of the absence of evidence. It would have been the correct procedure, but Sandra felt as if she were protecting both her employee and the franchise’s reputation.

She compounds the injustice by asking other employees to watch Becky when duty called her to the kitchen. Worse, she enlists her fiancé to stand guard. The caller convinces him of the necessity of demanding a sexual act from Becky. In real life, a guilty conscience led the man to confess his compliance to a friend, who alerted police to what was happening just down the road from them.

“Only one caller was brought to justice in all of the cases,” Zobel says. “He wasn’t convicted, but the calls stopped. There were civil and class-action suits brought against the manager and restaurant chains.

“It was difficult to determine the degree of responsibility each party should shoulder. There was one large settlement, at least, and a clarification of company guidelines.”

After Becky is thoroughly humiliated and, likely, traumatized for life, it’s clear that Zobel is referencing the experiments conducted in the early 1960s by Yale psychologist Stanley Milgram and Stanford prison experiment of 1971. In both cases, participants representing law-enforcement interests went to extreme lengths to get volunteer subjects and prisoners to conform to an established norm.

Detractors have argued that Zobel’s decision to linger on Becky’s humiliation degrades the character and provokes the prurient interests of some male viewers. How else, though, to characterize exactly what was at stake in the actual crimes? If we aren’t made to squirm by the willingness of the manager to act as a surrogate for the pervert on the other end of the call, would we be as disturbed to learn that the man arrested for the prank was acquitted due to lack of evidence and, in a postscript, Sandra continues to excuse her own behavior?

In any case, Zobel didn’t intend for “Compliance” to be mistaken for an entertaining night at the local arthouse. Anyone expecting something a bit more uplifting might want to follow their moral compass in the direction of Spike Lee’s “Do the Right Thing” before confronting the ethical morass that is “Compliance.”

The DVD Wrapup: Jaws, Hunger Games, Dardennes, Kill List, more…

Tuesday, August 14th, 2012

Jaws: Blu-ray
News reports of shark sightings and bitings pick up every time a new addition to the “Jaws” franchise is about to be released and, like clockwork, the critters didn’t disappoint the media last week. They’ve occurred with such frequency over the course of the last 37 years as to be attributed to the marketing stealth of Universal’s publicity team. As if. Steven Spielberg’s summer blockbuster has inspired several other gigantic fish stories – as well as trivia and factoids that sound too good to be true, but are — most of which are examined in the sparkling new Blu-ray from Universal’s centennial collection. The marketing campaign, alone, could fill a chapter in a history of the American cinema. In addition to being a movie that bridged all demographic quadrants, “Jaws” changed forever the way studios would sell potential summer blockbusters to the public. Besides introducing the “tent pole” strategy, the campaign was largely supported by television advertising and simultaneous release on 409 screens. It would have been twice that number if Universal boss Lew Wasserman hadn’t decided to cut back on original plans, so has to ensure lines outside each theater. Was it the marketing that sold “Jaws” or the buzz generated from early screenings, reviews and trailers and the anticipation that came with seeing Peter Benchley’s best-seller brought to life? No matter, because the movie gods had already decreed that Spielberg would direct the first movie to cross the $100-million barrier, thus granting him carte-blanche status for life.

Just as important in some circles, the movie’s amazing success allowed distributors to alter the time-honored formula that determined how much of the box-office bounty was returned to studio coffers. Instead of a 50/50 split, distributors could demand 90/10 for the first one or two weeks, with the percentage changing only after most of the money was sucked from the rubes. Distributors would assume most of the advertising and marketing expenses, but the shift forced theater owners to jack up concessions prices to survive. (Popcorn and pop revenues couldn’t rescue exhibitors from a 90/10 bomb, however.) By the time “Star Wars” rolled into town, distributors also had begun to demand money in advance from chains to ensure exclusivity rights, in effect pushing indies to the brink of financial disaster. The late-May release of new record-holder “Star Wars” ultimately led to the current practice of pushing up the start of summer season to mid-spring and avoiding the simultaneous release of potential blockbusters. On the downside, the success of “Jaws” would usher in the era of the unnecessary sequel and even more unnecessary prequel and parody. Judging from the recent premiere of “Jersey Shore Shark Attack” on Syfy, we’re still there.

Despite the many spinoffs, ripoffs, sequels and 25 years of “Shark Week” programming on Discovery, “Jaws” remains a welcome addition to the summer Blu-ray bounty. An exacting audio-visual makeover and digital remastering make the movie look and sound as fresh as it was in 1975 and far better than previous video iterations. As any certified classic should, the Blu-ray edition retains the qualities that made it special from Day One. Even though I knew it was coming, I was startled by the mangled head of the fisherman when it presented itself to Richard Dreyfuss’ Hooper, who’s examining a shipwreck for evidence of a shark attack. The story Robert Shaw tells about surviving the Japanese attack on the USS Indianapolis in shark-infested waters had only recently been de-classified and qualified as news to most viewers. (These included a victim’s mother, who never was told how her son died.) Dreyfuss’ early concern for the well-being of the shark population reminds us that these ancient creatures continue to be slaughtered, simply for the commercial value of their fins. The offshore presence of a single Great White or swarm of lesser predators still prompts the media to pull out stock footage of “Jaws.” It demonstrates just how deeply the larger-than-life Spielbergian tale – it began as an undisguised homage to “Moby Dick” – is etched into the American psyche. The Blu-ray package includes a digital UltraViolet copy of “Jaws”; deleted scenes and outtakes; all-new documentaries, “The Shark Is Still Working” and “Jaws: The Restoration”; the vintage “The Making of ‘Jaws’”; original marketing material and a discussion of the release strategy; and an insider’s look at life on the set of “Jaws.” All are interesting, at least, even if key participants – including author Peter Benchley – pull their punches in describing the near-chaos that surrounded the production. Another interesting addition is material gathered during a recent return to Martha’s Vineyard for Jaws Fest. Amity Island hasn’t changed a bit, while some of the actors, extras and locations still retain their value as tourist attractions. – Gary Dretzka

The Hunger Games: Blu-ray
I waited for “The Hunger Games” to arrive in DVD and Blu-ray to discover for myself what all the fuss was about, without standing in line or selling my car to afford popcorn and pop. No longer having a teenager living at home, I was singularly unaware of the existence of Suzanne Collins and the huge popularity of her novels. If I had attended a pre-release screening, I probably would have come away from it thinking the movie was another one-off tale of survival in a dystopian, post-apocalyptic culture, with feminist overtones. And, yes, it is all of that and a box of Raisinettes. Given the time to pay closer attention to the details, though, I could see that “Hunger Games” also is informed by Greek mythology, the bread-and-circuses politics of ancient Rome, Shakespeare’s “Coriolanus,” the Great Depression, the novels of George Orwell, our misadventures in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan, and such reality-based shows as “Survivor.” I think it unlikely that Collins was directly influenced by Kinji Fukasaku’s “Battle Royale” and “Battle Royale II” – as they weren’t shown widely here until the DVD release – but I’ll bet the filmmakers studied it. Clearly, too, it was shot to accommodate as many as three sequels, one of which would be cut in two pieces, a la “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.” Nothing in “Hunger Games” seemed cynically rendered, though, and I mostly enjoyed it. If I were a teenager or much younger adult, blissfully unaware of the several dozen survivalist thrillers that preceded it, “Hunger Games” probably would have grabbed me even more than it did. I credit that to the attractive young cast and the wild makeup and set designs.

In brief, the participants in “Hunger Games” – one boy, one girl – are chosen from each of 12 districts that comprise, Panem, the nation-state built on the ruins of what once was North America. Characters played by Jennifer Lawrence and Josh Hutcherson represent the poorest district and, although they don’t look it, are supposed to be weakened by malnutrition and hard labor. They will compete in the blood sport known as Hunger Games, which only allows for one survivor out of 24 contestants. It’s nationally televised from the Capitol, a metropolis that’s both ancient and futuristic in design, and, like “Survivor,” the producers manipulate the game for maximum “entertainment” value. The more prosperous the district, the more likely it is that its representatives have undergone formal training. By contrast, Katniss Everdeen (Lawrence) is a master archer who dines on the squirrels she can’t sell to merchants in District 12. Peeta (Hutcherson) is the son of a baker, who’s become muscular from toting bags of flour around the family store. He’s admired Katniss from afar and dreads the thought of anyone causing her harm. She isn’t that keen about killing other contestants, either, but put herself in harm’s way when the name of her younger, far more fragile sister was picked in the lottery. Fortunately, Katniss has already absorbed many of the survival skills necessary to avoid being killed in the first day of the hunt. A good listener and quick study, she also benefits from the tips she receives from her mentors (Woody Harrelson, Lenny Kravitz). Unlike a stand-alone survival story such as “Lord of the Flies,” all of the action here inevitably leads to an ending that will serve as the beginning of the first sequel, “Catching Fire,” when Katniss’ chutzpah will be put to the test by the same Capitol politicians she managed to outsmart in Chapter One. The movie was written to accommodate an on-screen romance, which will be continued down the road, as well.

Fans of the novels seem to have embraced the first installment of “Hunger Games.” It’s possible that newcomers to the fantasy could feel manipulated by the obvious setups for the sequels. There’s no questioning the quality of the Blu-ray presentation, however, as it captures nicely both the outdoors scenes – filmed on location in North Carolina — and those shot in front of a green screen. A second disc contains the special features, of which I’m of a mixed mind. The featurettes, “Game Maker: Suzanne Collins and the ‘Hunger Games’ Phenomenon” and “The World Is Watching: Making ‘The Hunger Games,’” while interesting, are dominated by the oversize egos of Ross and the producers. They laud the absent Collins, of course, but constantly remind us of their many essential contributions and revisions to the source material. In “Letters From the Rose Garden,” Donald Sutherland – who plays the president of Panem — reads the beyond-gushy letter he sent to Ross after reading the script and considering his character. He compares the script to “Paths of Glory,” which, by any stretch of the imagination, it’s not. “Controlling the Games” is a shorter look at the event’s futuristic headquarters; “A Conversation With Gary Ross and Elvis Mitchell” and “Preparing for The Games: A Director’s Process” give the writer/director more time to promote himself; “Propaganda Film” is a faux PSA narrated by Sutherland, which explains the genesis of the games; and there’s a marketing “archive.” Techies should appreciate the Metabeam Smart Remote, BD Touch and DTS-HD Master Audio Sound Check. Ironically, for all the time Ross spends offering self-aggrandizing observations, he will be conspicuously absent from the director’s chair in the sequels. – Gary Dretzka

La promesse: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
Rosetta: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
Few hometowns have provided as large a canvass for a filmmaker as that offered Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne by the industrial city of Seraing, Belgium. Then, again, few filmmakers have found as many different corners of a particular city to survey in such physical and emotional detail as the Dardennes have with the Walloon municipality. It served them extremely well, early on, as fodder for documentaries and continues to inform their theatrical titles, which resemble documentaries. Despite the prosperity and conspicuous consumption that characterized the 1980s and 1990s in Europe and the United States, the people we met in “La promesse” and “Rosetta” upon their release in 1996 and 1999 reminded us folks struggling in the American Rust Belt. The same market forces that caused the elimination of so many jobs here were simultaneously impacting Europe’s blue-collar workforce. They included the illegal immigration and recruitment of foreign workers and the loss of employment due to decreased consumer spending.

In “La promesse,” the Dardennes’ first theatrical film to draw wide notice outside Belgium, a father’s brutal treatment of the illegal immigrants housed in his disheveled apartment building finally builds to the point where his son turns against him. At first, 15-year-old Igor (Jérémie Rénier) is perfectly willing to participate in the scams and schemes perpetrated by the father, Roger (Olivier Gourmet). He loves the old man and, for all intents and purposes, they’re two peas in a pod. Igor begins to change his tune only after one of the men working for peanuts on a building owned by his father accidentally falls from a scaffold to his death. With his last breath, the man pleads with Igor to watch over his wife and child, recently arrived from Burkina Faso, in his absence. It is a pledge Igor takes very seriously and eventually leads to evidence of Roger’s complicity in crime and immoral behavior. Beating the boy for giving the widow money to pay off her “missing” husband’s gambling debt severely damages Roger’s ability to maintain his rapport with Igor. If the woman is able to convince police to investigate, Roger’s livelihood and freedom could disappear overnight. This creates a situation in which Igor is forced to make choices no son should be required to do. The Dardennes’ camera follows Igor, sometimes at breakneck speed, as he goes about his daily activities and co-exist as a teenage boy in an adult world.

The Dardennes also maintain a tight focus on the protagonist of “Rosetta,” a young woman who not only can’t seem to catch a break in life, but also is her own worst enemy. At her trailer-park home, Rosetta is fighting a losing battle against her self-destructive mother and the men hoping to trade booze for sex. At work, despite a good record, she is the first person to be laid off whenever business lags or the boss’ son needs a job. Rosetta’s willing to work for wages that match those given to less capable people and immigrants, but is turned away. Few business owners in town trust the motives of a young white woman willing to work for slave wages. As the Dardennes explain in an interview, Rosetta (Emelie Dequenne) lives to work and can’t contain her misery when she’s idle. Scrupulously honest, she’s even willing to rat out a fellow employee, who’s helped her in several ways, when she discovers that his moonlighting job conflicts with her boss’ interests. It’s her last resort for getting her job back and she doesn’t feel bad about doing it. This creates a dilemma for viewers, who sympathize with Rosetta’s plight but don’t particularly admire her methods. If Americans can’t relate to what Rosetta is experiencing, they aren’t paying attention to the news.

The Criterion Collection Blu-ray benefits from a restored high-definition digital transfer, supervised by the Dardennes’ regular cinematographer Alain Marcoen. It also includes a 2012 conversation between critic Scott Foundas and the filmmakers; new interviews with Dequenne and “La promesse” stars Jeremie Renier and Olivier Gourmet; a new English subtitle translation; and a booklet with an essay by critic Kent Jones. – Gary Dretzka

Jay & Silent Bob Get Old: Tea Bagging in the UK
Ever since their film debut in the 1994 indie sensation, “Clerks,” the comedy team of Jay & Silent Bob have been nearly inseparable. As such, the fictional characters (a.k.a., Jason Mewes and Kevin Smith) have served as role models for millions of underachievers, slackers and potheads around the world. And, why not? They’ve lasted eight years longer than Jerry Lewis and Dean Martin and regularly sell out auditoriums on their tours. Moreover, Mewes has managed to lift a rather large monkey off of his back and Smith looks as if he’s sufficiently slim and trim to be allowed on Southwest flights, without buying a second ticket. When they get together as Jay and Silent Bob, on tour, they sit at a table, exchanging views and anecdotes about getting high, getting laid and other weird scenes along their road to success. I suspected the British audiences that gathered for the three shows captured in “Jay & Silent Bob Get Old: Tea Bagging in the UK” would be a tad more discriminating than the ones that flock to their appearances here. I was wrong. Hard-core fans, those who haven’t already caught the lads’ podcasts and pay-per-view shows, anyway, should enjoy the new DVD very much. Others should acquaintant themselves with “Clerks,” “Mallrats,” “Chasing Amy,” “Dogma” and “Jay & Silent Bob Strike Back” before sinking their teeth into “Teabagging in the UK.” – Gary Dretzka

Kill List
Breathless: Blu-ray
British writer/director Ben Wheatley made a bit of a splash here, in 2010, with “Down Terrace,” a darkly comic story about a Brighton crime family struggling to stay afloat. He also directed more than a dozen episodes of the hilarious slacker sitcom, “Ideal,” for the BBC. “Kill List” is a graphically violent crime thriller, in which a pair of hitmen work their way down a list of people they’ve been assigned to murder. Apparently, the more depraved of the two, Jay (Neil Maskell), did some wet work for the Brit government, but his last trip to Kiev was something of a disaster. He’s spent the last year vegging out at his suburban home, driving his lovely wife with his sour disposition. Sensing that Jay is about to come apart at the seams, Gal (Michael Smiley) talks Jay into getting back in the game. A newborn enthusiasm for killing puts both men in the crosshairs of the evil men who call the shots. Lest viewers get too complacent, though, Wheatley steers “Kill List” in a completely different direction. That it takes the movie into territory previously mined in “The Wicker Man” is all I’m going to say about what happens in the final two reels. It’s pretty astonishing, though, and not for the squeamish.

What would possess an unsung writer/director to borrow the title of one of the cinema world’s most influential crime movies – and a pretty good American remake – and attach it to a movie that has direct-to-video written all over it? It isn’t that “Breathless” is a bad film, because it isn’t. It’s just that the title immediately conjures visions of Jean-Luc Godard’s 1960 classic –starring Jean-Paul Belmondo and Jean Seberg – as well as Jim McBride’s 1983 remake and the Jerry Lee Lewis song that inspires Richard Gere to take suicidal risks in it. Jesse Baget’s “Breathless” is a mildly entertaining black comedy, in which a gorgeous, if slightly over-the-hill Texas trailer dweller, Lorna (Gina Gershon), becomes a suspect in both a bank robbery and the murder of her good-for-nothing husband, Dale (Val Kilmer). Lorna suspects Dale of pulling off a $100,000 haul and stashing it in their remote trailer, with no intention of sharing it. To get him to admit to the crime, she enlists the help of her dimestore-sexpot friend, Tiny (Kelli Giddish). Before they can get him to talk, however, Lorna drills Dale with a seemingly errant bullet. Their attempt to dispose of the body is partially thwarted by a suspicious cop (Ray Liotta), who’s required to spend most of the movie cooling his heels at the entrance of the property, while waiting for a search warrant. There’s also an unkempt private eye (Richard Riehle), who crawls in through the bedroom window and already has much of the mystery figured out. It’s the location of the money that’s kept him guessing. The PI has been given most of the script’s best lines and benefits from a likeness to M. Emmet Walsh in “Blood Simple.” The special features add commentary with writer/director Baget and producer Christine Holder, as well as a behind-the-scenes featurette. — Gary Dretzka

Juan of the Dead
Girls Gone Dead: Unrated and Exposed Edition
Father’s Day: Limited Edition: Blu-ray
Every so often, a zombie movie will arrive out of nowhere and leave you with the feeling that the sub-genre might have some real life left in it, after all. Like Edgar Wright’s delightfully fresh “Shaun of the Dead,” Alejandro Brugues’ “Juan of the Dead” is more interested in entertaining audiences than showcasing new methods of killing the undead and adding to their arsenal of silly walks. First and foremost, “Juan of the Dead” was shot in Cuba, a country not known for its output of genre pictures and freedom of expression. With its decaying architecture and inescapable proclamations of political rhetoric, Havana already is one of the world’s capitals of undead culture. Indeed, it takes the protagonists several days to figure out that the bodies they see shuffling around the streets of their neighborhood aren’t actual human beings. (The same gag informed “Shaun of the Dead.”) Soon enough, the sheer number of zombies convinces them to take action.

As played by Alexis Diaz de Villegas, Juan is a fisherman too lazy to bother attempting to make the 90-mile passage to Florida and starting over on a new life. For Juan and his motley crew of pals, residing in the communist worker’s paradise is akin to attending daily AA meetings and relapsing after each one. When they aren’t fishing, drinking or screwing other men’s wives, they’re required to attend block meetings and watch news reports blaming Yankee imperialists for all of the island’s problems. Indeed, the newsreader isn’t at all reluctant to spread the official government opinion that the “flu” affecting residents is being spread by dissidents in league with the CIA. It causes one of the zombie hunters to refer to his prey only as “dissidents.” Their brainstorm business promises customers that any zombie-infestation problem can be eliminated with one phone call to Juan of the Dead. Even as the newsreader is assuring citizens that the plague is over, the zombie population is growing to the point where only the craziest of hunters will attempt clearing them out. Certain genre conventions apply in any zombie movie, but Havana is such a rich setting for horror that even the clichés feel new. A question not addressed in the making-of featurette is how Brugues and his team managed to stay out of jail for their effrontery.

Girls Gone Dead” is an almost shockingly lame parody of slasher films, in which overweight porn star Ron Jeremy, Iron Maiden’s Nicko McBrain and Howard Stern regulars Beetlejuice and Sal the Stockbroker are required to fill the vacuum left by the absence of a competent director and writer. A horror parody of Joe Francis and his “Girls Gone Wild” empire could be fun to watch, but “Girls Gone Dead” isn’t the one. No sooner does a group of college girls arrive at their Florida destination than a purple-clad stalker, wielding a medieval weapon begins killing them. The killer also targets the “Crazy Girls Unlimited” production team. Why? Clearly, it has something to do with the bible-bangers we meet early in the film and who then quickly disappear. When the fake blood isn’t flowing, fans of cheap and dirty T&A can get their kicks by starring at the ladies. Anyone who makes it through the feature may want to stay tuned for the bonus material, which includes five behind-the-scenes featurettes; the same number of music videos; fake commercials for Crazy Girls Unlimited; deleted scenes; and interviews.

As befits any movie that aspires to becoming a classic, Troma has made its latest slasher epic, “Father’s Day,” available in a super-duper four-disc limited and numbered Blu-ray edition. Years earlier, as the story goes, Ahab (Adam Brooks) convinced himself that he had avenged the brutal rape, murder, dismemberment and digestion of his father, by killing a vicious monster named Chris Fuchman. When new murders bearing the same M.O. begin to occur, Ahab is solicited by a street hustler, Twink, and a priest. Together, they hunt the killer, but not without killing some people on the way. Then, Satan makes a cameo appearance. If it doesn’t make a lot of sense, at least there’s plenty of Troma-tastic violence and gore to keep fans happy. The company’s impresario, Lloyd Kaufman, reportedly staked the Canadian filmmaking/acting troupe Astron-6 to a $10,000 bequest to make a movie based on a fake trailer they’d made. The set also includes deleted scenes, Astron-6 shorts, making-of and behind-the-scenes featurettes, a slide show, soundtrack EP CD and marketing material. – Gary Dretzka

Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory
In the rush to clear and prosecute notorious cases, representatives of the law-enforcement establishment have been known to take shortcuts they hope will lead to convictions, if not the truth. Defense lawyers play fast and loose with the facts, as well, but that’s what we expect of them. Given that human beings comprise American juries, not lie-detector machines, justice is an inexact science, at best. In the case of the so-called West Memphis Three, chronicled in the “Paradise Lost” documentary trilogy, what’s most dispiriting is the willingness of the judiciary to ignore newly uncovered facts and refuse to rehear cases likely to be reversed. In the case of accused child-killers and Satanists Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley, it took 18 years and the tireless efforts of filmmakers Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky – along with private citizens who doubted their guilt – for something approximating justice to prevail. The fact that the real killer(s) likely remain at large and breathing free air reveals an aspect of the system that qualifies as a legitimate flaw. In Arkansas and other states, it’s the responsibility of the judges who presided over the original case to determine if enough new scientific evidence has been uncovered – or reports of police and prosecutorial misconduct authenticated — to warrant a new trial. Unlike DNA evidence, a simple recantation of testimony usually isn’t enough to reverse a decision. The rub, of course, is that too many judges take it personally when the adjudication of the cases before them is tested and routinely side with the prosecutors and police. After all, the presumption of innocence no longer applies. That re-trials can be expensive, time-consuming, similarly inconclusive and emotionally jarring on everyone involved also must be taken into consideration.

Berlinger and Sinofsky were drawn to the case of “the child murders at Robin Hood Hills” was the likelihood that the West Memphis Three not only were guilty in the hideous crimes, but also were inspired by Satanic mischief and heavy-metal music. As time went by, however, they determined that the teenagers had been railroaded and set out to prove it in two subsequent films. They attracted the attention of such high-profile celebrities as Eddie Vedder, Johnny Depp and the Dixie Chicks, whose presence sparked the interest of media outlets that already had put the case to bed. The access accorded the filmmakers was remarkable, even from two men who were likely candidates themselves. “Paradise Lost 3” is a remarkable document, at once uplifting, frustrating and depressing. Indeed, even after it became clear that the men had been robbed of their freedom for nearly two decades, the state demanded that they plead guilty to one murder – while also being allowed to declare their innocence to all three – before they would be allowed to leave prison (and, in one case, Death Row) and get on with their lives. The only other option given them was the right to a retrial, which could take years and result in another conviction or retrial. In the meantime, they’d have to remain in prison. How could this be fair, when even an inadvertent parole violation or misdemeanor could result in a return to the slammer? Meanwhile, the admission of guilt absolves the state in any potential lawsuit. The DVD adds follow-up material, including from press conferences held to promote the documentary. – Gary Dretzka

Ali: The Man, the Moves, the Mouth
The Beatles: Their Golden Age
The Fresh Beat Band: The Wizard of Song
Now that the London edition of the Olympic Games is in our rear-view mirrors, two new non-fiction films might be of interest to young viewers. I was astounded by the lack of coverage of boxing, which can be explained by the fact that no American men were contenders and the successful women were relegated to CNBC. (Was the network too squeamish to show our gold-medal winner, Claressa Shields, and Irish phenom, Katie Taylor, duke it out with other women?) Narrated by the late Bert Sugar, “Ali: The Man, the Moves, the Mouth” not only reminds us of the heavyweight champ’s pride over winning a gold medal, but also that most of his greatest foes also had participated in the Olympics. Even if there isn’t much that’s new here, the 60-minute film serves well as primer for young people who know Ali as a celebrity, without having watched his evolution as a boxer. It’s always fun to watch Ali in his prime, in and out of the ring.

If it weren’t for the contributions of the Beatles to Brit culture, the Opening and Closing ceremonies wouldn’t have been nearly as entertaining or relevant to viewers in the increasingly less desirable Baby Boomer demographic. In “The Beatles: Their Golden Age” publisher, author and former veterinarian Les Krantz documents the Fab Four’s amazing career trajectory through archival, public-domain clips and newsreel material, some of which qualify as rarely seen. Naturally, though, licensing fees preclude the showing of concert material and only bits and pieces from the marketing material for their movies. Again, it’s fun to monitor the band’s changes and relive the hysteria that followed their every move. Otherwise, there isn’t much here that diehard fans haven’t already perused.

I might have saved myself some time if I’d known about Nickelodeon and Nick Jr.’s musical-adventure series, “The Fresh Beat Band: The Wizard of Song,” before I reviewed the live-action feature, “After the Wizard.” When band member Marina gets swept up into a windstorm, she lands in Oz. Like Dorothy, she befriends a Scarecrow, a Tin Woman and a Lion, who lead her to the Wizard of Song. Maybe, he can point her to the way home. The 46-minute episode aired last January. – Gary Dretzka

Glee: The Complete Third Season: Blu-ray
Community: The Complete Third Season
Hallmark: Lake Effects
It took a while, but, once everyone got over the fact that Kurt is gay, the producers and writers of “Glee” finally were able to steer Season 3 in the direction of the Nationals, Graduation Day, life after high school and relieving key characters, including Kurt and Rachel, of their virginity. Also percolating just below the surface was the necessity of finding new members of New Directions to fill the shoes of the world’s oldest teenagers. (Vanessa Lengies, the actor playing newcomer Sugar Motta, just turned 27.) “Glee: The Complete Third Season” provides the perfect remedy for those of us who wavered in our devotion to the Fox series in its third stanza. The fast-forward button allows for easy navigation through and around the increasingly more eccentric storylines, snit-fits and musical set pieces. There were so many strange and unlikely things going on at McKinley High last season that it boggled the mind. Among them are the return of Rachel’s mom (Idina Menzel), with Puck and Quinn’s toddler in tow; Sue’s destructive run for Congress; the near tragedy of Chang getting an A-, an “Asian F,” in math; the Gleek’s Michael Jackson salute; leprechauns and unicorns roaming the WMHS hallways; and the return of Sam Evans. The Blu-ray arrives with a newly replenished “Jukebox”; “Glee Under the Stars”; the deleted number, “Santa Baby”; “Meet the Newbies”; and “Ask Sue: World Domination Blog.”

There’s no more offbeat and unpredictable sitcom on broadcast television then NBC’s “Community,” which often crosses the border from hip to too cool for school. Its often snarky approach to satirizing nerd culture and life, in general, isn’t easy to digest for audiences inclined to react only after a laugh track tells them how to do so. I love it. To recoup, “Community” chronicles the on-campus life of a wildly diverse group of community-college students in Colorado. They met three years ago as members of a study group, but quickly evolved into a family of lovable misfits. The eccentricities that appeal to the sitcom’s core audience also limited its reach, however, and this caused the pinheads at NBC to prematurely declare it dead. After putting the show on a mid-season hiatus, loyal viewers and critics launched a save-“Community” campaign. It worked to the extent that all remaining episodes of the show eventually aired and it’s been accorded a fourth season. The downside came in the announcement that series creator Dan Harmon would be sacrificed to the network gods and other members of the creative team would be leaving with him. Season 3 was noteworthy for its many theme episodes and mini-arcs, as well as the introduction of John Goodman as Greendale’s new vice dean. The complete-season DVD adds commentary on several tracks and some deleted scenes.

Hallmark and Anchor Bay are giving a big push to the made-for-cable movie, “Lake Effects,” which, while family friendly, will appeal primarily to the Lifetime audience of young women and their moms. This isn’t to say that men will be bored to death while watching the family-in-crisis flick – the male characters aren’t total wimps – but it’s the women who drive the drama and make all of the key decisions. With the untimely death of her outdoorsman husband, Jane Seymour’s Vivian faces a financial crisis that involves the legal, if thoroughly unethical foreclosure of her gorgeous lake home. She’s brightened by the arrival of her lawyer daughter (Scottie Thomson) for the funeral, but is dismayed by her desire to get back to L.A. a.s.a.p. She can’t even be bothered with turning off her cellphone during her dad’s Viking rites. Her sister (Madeline Zima) is a local art student who never left home and doesn’t seem to have experienced much in the way of sexual passion. Before long, though, the lawyer reconnects with an old beau, who’s the polar opposite of her fiancé, and the teacher finds love in an unexpected place. While Mom is perfectly willing to accept the reality of losing her home and moving to Arizona, her daughter smells the same rat that’s been running around after the collapse of the housing market everywhere. The process serves to humanize the lawyer daughter and brighten the lives of everyone except her fiancé. That much could have been predicted 20 minutes into the movie. The writing and acting’s serviceable enough, but what really sells the movie is its gorgeous rural Virginia location. The making-of featurette describes how the residents of Moneta, Va., rallied behind the production. – Gary Dretzka

A&E: Dance Moms: Season One
History: American Pickers: Volume Four
History: Pawn Stars: Volume Five
History: Titanic: 100 Years in 3D
Biography: Barack Obama
One of the positive aspects of watching reality-based programming is coming to the realization — maybe for the first time — that there are crazier people out there than your nuttiest relative and some who are far more despicable than the neighbor who encourages his dog to poop on your lawn. They’re everywhere and they’re absolutely frightening. No more so than on A&E’s “Dance Moms,” which is to tweeners what “Toddlers & Tiaras” is to the kindergarten crowd and “Dallas Divas & Daughters” is to aspiring debutantes. Forget for a minute, if you can, that no girl who has yet to reach puberty ought to obsess over makeup and dance routines that wouldn’t be out of place at the Spearmint Rhino. The greater question is why any parent would volunteer to show their worst sides to viewers, week after week, even if they’re paid for the experience. The children are often mature than the moms, which wouldn’t be difficult, but they, too, have their moments. How they’ll act when they have children of their own may never be known. Lifetime’s “Dance Moms” is set in and around Pittsburgh’s Abby Lee Dance Company, which routinely turns out champion dancers. Instructor Abby Lee Miller is Vince Lombardi in stretch pants. In addition to barking and berating the students, she isn’t reluctant to go toe to toe with the moms, all of whom think their daughters are the second coming of Juliet Prowse and Ann Reinking. They could be someday, but they aren’t right now. As nuts as the moms are – one even demands of her seriously injured daughter that she suck it up and compete, like professional athletes — Abby trumps them all by putting the little angels in skimpy costumes they won’t be able to fill out for six or seven years. Even the moms are shocked by the outfits and gyrations. Still, if no one watched these shows, they wouldn’t be renewed season after season. Everyone loves a good horror show.

History’s “American Pickers” is substantially more relatable to those of us who can’t afford lessons at a prestige dance studio and transportation to weekly competitions in all corners of the country. Anyone who owns a car with a large trunk can do the same things as hosts Mike Wolfe and Frank Fritz, who mine for antique gold in the places most people store the stuff they can’t bear to throw away or put on Craig’s List. (We not talking about the mountains of garbage accumulated by the sickos in “Hoarders,” but normally messy Americans.) In the “Volume 4” edition, which, inexplicably, is comprised of shows from Season 2, the hosts begin their trek at the International Clown Hall of Fame, in Wisconsin, and take the circuitous scenic route to southern California.

Most pawn shops look dark and depressing. By comparison, the Harrison family’s shop, in Las Vegas, could be confused with Harrods or Nordstrom’s. Gold and Silver Pawn is bright, spotless and often bustling with activity. Nonetheless, who knew? I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that some of the primo items brought in for sale on “Pawn Stars” were found originally by Mike and Frank in “American Pickers” and given to ringers hired by the show. How else to explain the presence of a 31-ton car-crushing Robosaurus, a midget submarine and a 1936 Rolex watch once owned by Bernie Madoff. Haven’t the customers heard of eBay and Craig’s List? No matter, much of the show’s allure comes from the appraisals made by professionals brought in for their expert opinions. Even when the sellers go home disappointed, they seem happy to be taken seriously and appearing on TV. I’d love to know, however, what some of the items purchased by the Harrisons fetched when put up for sale.

Five months after the centennial of the sinking of the Titanic, the icebergs just keep on coming. The latest addition to the video library is “Titanic: 100 Years in 3D.” The title says it all. It chronicles a 2010 expedition sponsored by Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute and RMS Titanic Inc., during which the entire wreck site was mapped, using high-resolution optical video, sonar, acoustic imaging, 3D HD video and acoustic modeling. In addition to the ship itself, stories connecting the passenger to recovered artifacts are told. Enough already, though. (Also compatible on Blu-ray.)

Biography’s biodoc “Barack Obama” recalls for the one or two people who don’t already know it, how a self-described “skinny kid with a funny name” made the unlikely climb from star speaker at the 2004 Democratic National Convention to President of the United States in four short years. It wasn’t easy, by any stretch of the imagination, but he got a lot of help. In any case, the primary audience for “Barack Obama” is the people too young to have cast a ballot in 2008. It includes new interviews with friends and family members, as well as previously unreleased footage of Obama’s campaign and victory. – Gary Dretzka

Astonishing X-Men: Torn
The latest release in Shout! Factory’s series of material from the Marvel Knights franchise is “Astonishing X-Men,” yet another stylish collaboration between Joss Whedon and John Cassaday. “Torn” picks up where previous arcs, “Gifted” and “Dangerous,” left off. While the video translation of the graphic novel remains faithful to the “Astonishing X-Man” adventures on a frame-by-frame basis, it’s the brilliancy of the colors that sells the DVD. In “Torn,” Emma Frost’s erratic behavior is having an adverse effect on the X-Men, who now have the new Hellfire Club with which to cope. Newcomers to the series are encouraged to begin with “Gifted” and “Dangerous” and other X-Men material before jumping head-first into the deep end with “Torn” and the upcoming “Unstoppable.” – Gary Dretzka

100 Greatest Comedy Classics Box
100 Greatest Western Classics Box
Anyone who’s ever wanted to create his own personal cable channel could start by purchasing the compilations of comedies, Westerns, sci-fi, family, horror and mystery titles, as well as collections of vintage commercials and cartoons, distributed by Mill Creek. Not all of the public-domain titles are classics or even close to being the cream of a studio’s crop; they’re definitely not in pristine condition; and most of the actors, no matter how famous, weren’t close to their prime when the movies were shot. One the other hand, they come in sets ranging from 100 to 1,001 selections and the prices, from $10 to $45. You could pretend to be TMC host Robert Osborne, by introducing each selection, and bring in guest commentators from the neighborhood. If you haven’t bought a new TV in the last 15 years, the quality of the audio-visual presentation won’t matter.

The newest additions to the Mill Creek inventory are “100 Greatest Comedy Classics” and “100 Greatest Western Classics,” the latter combining Mill Creek’s previous “Western” and “Gunslinger” 50-packs. There’s no need to run down the names of the stars of the pictures, because all the great ones are represented, even those of the spaghetti persuasion. The 100-title comedy package combines the earlier “Comedy Kings” and “Comedy Classics” 50-packs. The actors here include many well-known dramatic actors cast in comedic roles. It’s difficult not to find some small gem buried deep inside even the most mediocre of these titles. – Gary Dretzka

The Magic School Bus: The Complete Series
In the mid-1990s, “The Magic School Bus” was one of the most popular series for school-age children on the PBS Kids block. It was adapted by Scholastic Studios from a series of books, by Bruce Degen and Joanna Cole, which were intended to blend educational material, kid-pleasing entertainment and a cohesive throughline. Even after the animated science-adventure was canceled, reruns of the 52-episode series continued on several different commercial networks, including Fox, TLC, Qubo, Discovery Kids and NBC. The new eight-disc compilation contains all 52 episodes of the Emmy-winning series. It also offers a parent’s guide, with a list of episodes, topics and guest stars, and a kids’ guide, with experiments, activities, facts and notes. It can be enjoyed in English and Spanish. – Gary Dretzka

‘Nuit #1′ explores love, sex and despair in Montreal’s lost generation

Thursday, August 9th, 2012

Montreal may seem a million miles from Nashville, but you don’t have to speak French to see how Anne Emond’s psychosexual drama “Nuit #1” resembles any number of country songs about temporary lovers and one-night stands. Take the Amazing Rhythm Ace’s “Third Rate Romance,” for example.

Instead of meeting over drinks “at a tiny table in a ritzy restaurant,” the lovers in “Nuit #1” find each other at an Ecstasy-fueled rave, while pogoing to electro-trance music. The effect is the same:

“Talk was small when they talked at all/They both knew what they wanted/There was no need to talk about it/They were old enough to scope it out/And keep it loose …

“She said, ‘You don’t look like my type, but I guess you’ll do’/And he said, ‘I’ll even tell you that I love you if you want me to’/Third rate romance/Low rent rendezvous.”

It all happens in a flash. No sooner do Emond’s lovers kick the door of his apartment shut than they’re groping each other and striping off their clothes. The cherry is added to the sundae when Nikolai apologizes for having to ask Clara what her name is. The same thing happened in Rod Steward’s “Stay With Me,” another song about sex without love, intimacy without passion.

“There’s a lot of me in ‘Nuit #1,’ of course,” the first-time writer/director allows. “I know how it feels to be 30 and lost.”

Mostly, Emond adds, it’s a composite portrait of people she knows in Montreal.

“The people dancing alongside Clara in the opening sequence aren’t actors … they’re friends,” she says. “They’re the people whose lives shaped the characters. Here we are, nearly 30 years old now, and we we’re still doing this stuff.”

If artfully rendered sex and pretty faces were the only thing “Nuit #1” had going for it, the movie probably wouldn’t have found traction off the festival circuit. Even with all the pre-release notoriety it garnered, Michael Winterbottom’s similarly plotted and far more explicitly sexual “9 Songs” didn’t set turnstiles twirling here. Neither do the erotically charged movies of Patrice Chereau and Catherine Breillat.

“I knew about those movies when I was writing ‘Nuit,’ but they weren’t an inspiration,” Emond insists. “To me, ‘9 Songs’ seemed more like hard-core porn. I wasn’t shocked by it, but I wanted something more natural and less explicit.

“I was more inspired by Jean Eustache’s ‘The Mother and the Whore,’ with Jean-Pierre Leaud.”

That 215-minute relationship epic, from 1973, involves a trio of bored young people – not unlike Clara and Nikolai – who share an open marriage and whose concept of the future is tomorrow. When they’re not in the sack, Leaud spends a lot of time sitting in cafes, sleeping around, getting high or drunk and talking endlessly about himself. The women are a bit more grounded.

In “Nuit #1,” the characters played by Catherine De Léan and Dimitri Storoge do a lot of talking about themselves, as well. To get to that point, however, Clara is required to alter her usual pattern of coming and, immediately thereafter, going away from her latest empty liaison. For his part, Nikolai is harboring rage over being an artist without much discernible talent and an intellectual who can’t seem to finish anything he starts, especially books.

When Nikolai wakes up from a light sleep and notices Clara leaving, he tears into her with the kind of insights and insults generally reserved for unhappily married couples. It’s an ugly, if necessary chapter in the narrative. After one false start and more abuse from Nikolai, she finally does leave the dumpy apartment building. Uncharacteristically, he chases after her to say he’s sorry.
At first, we feel sorry for the waif-like Clara, who, when she’s not out cavorting, teaches third-graders. We also wonder how, out of all the men she could have chosen, she made the mistake of going home with this dickhead? OK, he’s handsome in an exotic sort of way, but how could Clara have allowed herself to sleep on sheets that probably have never been washed and bathe in a tub that isn’t much cleaner?

The answer, we learn in the long, deeply felt confessions that replace the sex in the 91-minute film, is that she isn’t particularly choosy when it comes to the men with whom she sleeps. If they have one redeeming quality, at least, they’re in. By contrast, Nikolai hasn’t had sex in six months and he had to be dragged to the club by friends. He was attracted to Clara for the same reasons we are: she struck him as being “free” and “pure,” if not much of a dancer.

In a pair of soliloquies that follow, Clara admits to even more unpleasant habits than being an indiscriminate lover. Indeed, there’s very little that’s free and pure about her. Referring to herself as an “empty shell,” living in a fog, Clara says she can’t remember the number of men with whom she’s slept, enjoys that they assume she’s a “slut” when she walks into a room and gets her nourishment from pills, pot and booze.

In his confessional, Nikolai lets down his guard long enough for us to think he may be worthy of our sympathy, after all. The ex-pat Ukrainian may be a prick, but, at least, he doesn’t have to hide his “secret life” from school administrators and the PTA. Somewhere, deep down, he might even harbor a soft spot.

Sad, honest and desperately revealing, the rambling monologues may remind older viewers of Marlon Brando’s speeches in “Last Tango in Paris.” All that’s missing is the butter.

The fact is, Clara tells Nikolai, “When the sun comes up, I begin to panic. I can’t let the euphoria end.”

“Sex is the only thing Clara knows how to do well,” Emond says. “She’s only been able to keep her job because the union has made it too difficult to fire teachers, and she keeps coming back to Nikolai’s apartment because she can’t bear to be alone. Neither can he.”

The emptiness both of them feels translates well off screen. Apart from the opening dance sequence and a couple of minutes spent in the rain-soaked street outside Nikolai’s apartment, “Nuit #1” unfolds in his cluttered living room and cramped bathroom.

“There are essentially five big scenes … the sex, he said, she said, he said, she said,” Emond explains. “There was no improvisation and we limited ourselves to three shots for every long sequence. It was easy to fail, because any mistakes couldn’t be saved in the editing room.

“There were times when I wondered what we were doing. The only choice we had was to trust the words and the actors.”

Apparently, she didn’t allot any time to worry how the sex scenes would play off the festival circuit. “Nuit #1,” which practically plays out in real time, is going out unrated and absent the kind of marketing effort that accompanies most mainstream titles.

“I never thought about how shocking the sensuality might be to audiences,” Emond says. “Quebec is not Canada … I’ve paid a lot more attention to films from France and other European countries, than Canada and Hollywood. I wasn’t concerned about it until I began to wonder how my mother might react.

“Besides being an exploration of sex, intimacy and love, ‘Nuit #1’ is a film about despair, individualism and the anxieties of belonging. It does, however, expose the potential in even the most fleeting encounters.”

Viewers will have to decide for themselves if Emond’s ending qualifies as happy, enigmatic or raw material for another sad country song.

The DVD Wrapup: Warriors of Rainbow, Full Metal Jacket, Bunny Game, Scalene, Ladda Land, High Fidelity, Zombies …

Tuesday, August 7th, 2012

Warriors of the Rainbow: Seediq Bale
The most important thing for American audiences to know about “Warriors of the Rainbow: Seediq Bale” is that it comes with the imprimatur of the great Hong Kong action director, John Woo. Although his presence can’t guarantee a positive reaction, it gives us more reason for optimism than the usual stuff found on a DVD cover. I found it to be immensely entertaining, but recommend potential viewers to take a minute beforehand to read the Wikipedia entry on the history of Taiwan. That’s because “Warriors of the Rainbow” is based on events most viewers – even those whose roots extend to the much disputed island – have no idea existed. For reasons that bear more on geophysical phenomenon than politics, Taiwan was home to a thriving, undiluted indigenous culture until as late as the early 1930s. The mountainous interior and rain forests were roughly divided into hunting grounds claimed by as many as 14 distinct clans, none of which liked each other much. Still, as long as the natives minded their own business and refrained from decapitating the immigrant Chinese who populated the villages on the shoreline, no one in authority bothered them much. It wasn’t until the Japanese took control of the island, after the first Sino-Japanese War, that things took a turn for the worst in the interior. Like any imperialist nation in the colonial era, Japan saw much to plunder in its new property. Taiwan’s rain forests represented a bounty in unexploited timber and mineral wealth. Instead of treating the indigenous people with respect, they officially dubbed them “savages” and forced captured tribesmen to work for wages sufficient only for buying enough rice wine to keep them docile. It is against this background that “Warriors of the Rainbow” takes place.

Like the Apache and the Sioux, the mountain aboriginals not only were great hunters, they also were ferocious guerrilla warriors who assumed that dying with honor in combat assured them a reunion in the afterlife with their ancestors. In fact, heaven was only a short rainbow’s glide away from their temporary quarters on Earth.  So, in effect, they had nothing to lose by taking on the Japanese, whose arsenal by this time included automatic weapons, artillery, airplanes, grenades, mortars and gas bombs. The natives preferred cutting off the heads of their enemies, with one swift slice and without making a sound. Against overwhelming force, however, they would condescend to use stolen rifles and machine guns. Japanese attempts to assimilate the clans were thwarted by the arrogance of police officials and disrespect shown laborers, as well as an insistence that even the ones who agree to blend in were savages. In 1930, Seediq leader Mouna Rudo (Lin Ching-Tai) forged a coalition with other clan leaders and plotted a rebellion against the Japanese that would take the police and army by surprise. The revolt was staged by some 300 clansmen against a virtually unlimited supply of Japanese soldiers, so any success would have to be regarded as a Pyrrhic. Not being a country known to hold back on reprisals for such effrontery, Japan made every effort to annihilate the clans that didn’t capitulate to them. (Being ancient enemies, some found it impossible to join forces for the common good or to meet their ancestors prematurely somewhere over the rainbow.)

“Warriors of the Rainbow” is reputed to be the most expensive Taiwanese film ever made, and every NT$ is visible on the screen. The scenery is spectacular and the action scenes are as exciting as any I’ve seen in any American movie that isn’t dominated by comic-book superheroes or CGI action. Indeed, apart from the special-makeup effects employed to assure that the head-hunting is limited to prosthetic necks, the fight scenes look extremely realistic. Close attention has been paid, as well, to the aboriginal culture and roles played by women and children at all strata of society. If Hollywood hadn’t insisted on pursing its juvenile Cowboys-vs.-Indians approach to the history of the American west, our government’s continued disrespect for the Native American population might not have been tolerated by God-fearing immigrants. Now that the some tribes own casinos, however, the conquerors have been allowed to ignore the poverty that still haunts the reservations. (Once Internet gambling is legalized, many Indian casinos will die on the vine, taking the funds needed for infrastructure, education and health with them.)  Anyone impressed by “Warriors of the Rainbow” is strongly advised to sample the bonus material, which adds interviews with Wei Te-Sheng and producer John Woo; background information on the story; and several making-of featurettes. – Gary Dretzka

Full Metal Jacket: 25th Anniversary Edition: Blu-ray
When Stanley Kubrick’s “Full Metal Jacket” was released in 1987, the long shadow of the Vietnam War still held the U.S. in its grip. Naturally, the perception that the movie was inspired by and about Vietnam was widespread and largely went unquestioned. Viewed from the distance of another couple of decades, 9/11 and several foreign wars, however, it’s clear that Kubrick was looking forward instead of backward. Based on what he gleaned from his research, he knew that the next generation of soldiers, especially those drawn to an all-volunteer army or Marine Corps, would be expected to fight and kill without questioning the legality or morality of the next war or be swayed by anti-war protests back home. In large part, that’s exactly what’s happened in Iraq and Afghanistan. Dissension and outright mutiny were very much a part of our Vietnam experience, primarily among draftees, who had every reason to believe that they’d gotten the shaft. With the exception of Joker’s peace button, resistance to the war among the troops in “Full Metal Jacket” is pretty much invisible. In fairness, though, the devastating effects of the Tet offensive had yet to be calculated and Americans in and out of uniform were still willing to believe the lies fed to them by the Pentagon and White House.

The message delivered in the first half of “Full Metal Jacket” is the more prescient one. Marine brass and seasoned drill instructors knew even then that, all gung-ho patriotism aside, Americans fresh out of high school or college couldn’t be turned into killers overnight. The de-humanization process begins with the ritual shedding of facial hair and continues under the tutelage of hardened combat veterans like Gunnery Sergeant Hartman – played with uncommon relish by former drill instructor R. Lee Ermey – who treats everyone the same way, like shit. By allotting nicknames to the recruits and delivering foul-mouthed soliloquies – shocking even members of Kubrick’s creative team – Hartman effectively turned the men into cogs in a killing machine. Their individual personalities and leadership qualities would emerge in due course, but, by the time they do, the nicknames will have held and they’d see themselves as Marines, above all. (Contrast these men to those we met in “Apocalypse Now.”) In effect, then, Private Gomer Pyle’s insurrection at the end of the first half was the exception that proved the rule. Once he “got with the program,” Pyle was an equal among equals. When his inner devil emerged, Pyle’s inability to distinguish between friend and foe became unacceptable.

In the second half of “Full Metal Jacket,” everything that happened in the first half begins to make sense. With the exception of Joker and Rafterman, who, as reporters and photographers have avoided most of “the shit,” the Marines have gotten down to the business at hand. Even after experiencing combat in the attack on the compound, the journalists are itching to put their training to the test on the front lines. The Marines attempting to recapture Hue all have the “thousand-mile stare” and react instinctually to threats to their well-being. In his interview with a TV crew covering the fight, Rafterman is the only person who believes the war is about bringing freedom and democracy to Vietnam. Joker has yet to lose his natural tendency to wise-crack his way through stressful situations. Everyone else accepts the reality of their being in Vietnam to kill or be killed. Perhaps, if Pyle hadn’t killed himself, he might have ended up like the machine-gunner in the helicopter, who shocked the reporters with his laissez-faire attitude toward killing anything that moved, laughing uncontrollably while doing it and keeping score. At least two previous Blu-ray editions of “Full Metal Jacket” have already been released, to varying degrees of acceptance by fans and techies. The “25th Anniversary Edition” retains the already sufficiently upgraded hi-def version and adds the fascinating documentary “Stanley Kubrick’s Boxes.” It chronicles director Jon Ronson’s attempt to peruse and catalog hundreds of cartons full of archival material Kubrick left behind when he died. Some of it is so minute as to call the master’s obsessive behavior into question. There’s also the featurette, “Between Good and Evil,” in which cast members discuss the experience of working for Kubrick. The commentary track contains material recorded separately and absent several key players. – Gary Dretzka

Girlfriend
Scalene
One of the highlights of last year’s Emmy Award ceremony was the bestowing of a Best Supporting Actress trophy to Margo Martindale for her unforgettable portrayal of the matriarch of a hillbilly crime family in “Justice.” As is observed whenever a veteran character actor is rewarded for her work in the role of a lifetime, “It was well-deserved and long overdue.” In “Scalene,” Martindale turns in another award-quality performance, this time as the mother of a young man, Jacob (Adam Scarimbolo), with the kind of brain damage that demands almost constant one-on-one attention. Moreover, he hasn’t spoken a word to anyone since being injured in a glue-sniffing experiment in high school and he might be deaf.  I don’t think the one-man-band filmmaker, Zack Parker (“Quench”), chose the title to demonstrate that he’s hipper than thou, although he very well may be. Anyone who paid attention during their geometry classes might recall that a scalene triangle is one formed by three unequal lines, as is Parker’s perceptual thriller. Unlike “Rashomon,” which is more equilateral, “Scalene” presents its different points of view in non-linear fashion, without offering equal time to each one.

In “Scalene,” we are given every reason to believe that Jacob’s caretaker has been raped and the traumatized 26-year-old is the perpetrator. His mother, Janice, doesn’t believe that he’s capable of such an attack, but we’ve also been shown that she’s capable of responding violently to bad news. Before the incident, Janice had become increasingly more frustrated by the fact that her son’s neurological disorder was causing potential boyfriends to disappear, just as the boy’s had years earlier. To remedy this, she hires a conscientious college student, Paige (Hannah Hall), to hang out with Jacob. Paige comes to believe that Janice is abusing Jacob physically, but, without proof, is reluctant to call police. For his part, Jacob can’t understand why people continue to do things to him that cause emotional and physical pain. Eventually, all of our assumptions are put to the test. Parker wears his debt to Alfred Hitchcock on his sleeve, with early references to “Vertigo” and trademark Bernard Herrmann compositions. He has a long way to go, however, before more valid comparison can be made. Still, considering that “Scalene” was made for $150,000, it certainly earned its Best Picture Award at the 2011 Dances With Films festival. The DVD adds background material, interviews and material shot at the festival.

Judging from the reception “Girlfriend” received at film festivals, it is a movie that appeals far more to audiences than to the pundits required to sift through a hill of rocks to find a couple of gems. Ten years ago, the critics might have been more in tune with viewers, but, today, stories about people with physical and learning disabilities no longer earn brownie points for good intentions and fine acting. Fragile dramas, such as Justin Lerner’s feature debut, “Girlfriend,” must offer something more than a star with Down syndrome to warm the hearts of cold-blooded critics. Set in a working-class town in the boonies, “Girlfriend” describes the coming of age of Evan (Evan Sneider), a young man who is given an opportunity to fulfill his dream of courting his high school crush object. He has Down syndrome, but it hasn’t stopped him from making friends or working alongside his mother (Amanda Plummer) at a local restaurant. Shannon Woodward (“Raising Hope”) plays Candy, a single mother who’s led two unworthy suitors to believe they’ve fathered her son. She’s about to be thrown out of the house she shares with the boy when Evan rides to her rescue. In the wake of his mother’s unexpected death, he has inherited a pile of money from her inheritance. Instead of putting it in a bank, as advised, he hands a large portion of it over to Candy. In return, she agrees to let him watch her take a bath. In Evan’s ever-optimistic mind, this makes him one of her boyfriends. It also turns him into a potential target for extortion by Candy’s actual boyfriend (Jackson Rathbone, “The Twilight Saga”), a handsome cad whose only attributes would appear to be his pickup truck and a swell cowboy hat.  He easily extracts information from Evan about the true paternity of her son and steals the money given to her to avoid eviction. Evan’s gullibility is easily forgiven, but, when her son disappears one afternoon, Candy automatically suspects Evan of committing a ghastly crime. The resolution of the incident leads to a sweet, if decidedly unusual happy ending for Evan and Candy, if you catch my drift. Both of the lead actors are very good, as is Plummer in the short-lived role of a woman with more problems than she can handle. – Gary Dretzka

The Bunny Game: Blu-ray
Imagine the most frighteningly realistic slasher or torture-porn movie you’ve ever seen and then try to recall the exact point at which the director lifted the pedal off the metal, finally relieving all of your anxiety and fear. No matter how much one knows, going in, about special makeup effects, it’s difficult not to empathize with the victim and imagine how it might feel to be attacked by a lunatic with a nail gun or have your teeth extracted with a pliers. While a really good horror movie can induce nightmares, it’s a sure bet that none of the actors suffered permanent physical or emotional scars or missed much sleep over what happened to their characters. “The Bunny Game” offers no such assurances. It’s the closest thing I’ve seen to a snuff film and it left me wondering about the motives of the filmmaker and the well-being of his star, Rodleen Getsic, who makes the pain inflicted on her character palpable. She plays a cocaine-addicted prostitute who services men on the low end of the food chain, mostly to satisfy her lust for the white powder. Bunny doesn’t appear to have any other expensive tastes and she isn’t on the stroll to finance her dream of graduating from college. In Getsic’s hands, Bunny is the most credible movie prostitute since Jennifer Jason Leigh played Tralala in “Last Exit to Brooklyn.” Perhaps, more so, because Leigh wasn’t required to give anyone a blowjob — once in a shitty room in L.A.’s warehouse district and, again, next to a dumpster in an alley – crawl on her knees through the desert at the end of a leash or be branded by a sociopathic truck driver. What you see in “The Bunny Game” is pretty much what Getsic got. As co-writer, she claims most of what we see was drawn from memory and, anyway, writer/director Adam Rehmeier probably couldn’t afford a makeup artist or prosthetics specialist. “The Bunny Game” is what torture-porn looks like when it isn’t intended to titillate or entertain audiences, simply horrify them. By comparison, everything else is kids’ stuff.

Like to many prostitutes whose bodies are found buried in shallow graves or discarded by the side of a country road, Bunny makes the mistake of trusting one trick too many. Because there isn’t much she wouldn’t do for a bindle of blow, she willing climbs into the cab of a semi with a driver who resembles half of the wrestlers on the WWE dance card. Contrary to genre tradition, the protagonist never is given an opportunity to escape the clutches of the fiend, let alone avenge his brutality, or rescue other poor souls being held captive in his dungeon. Instead, after getting high and going down on him, Hog (Jeff Renfro) puts her in a choke hold that knocks her unconscious. My initial thought was that he snapped her neck and was going to spend a few hours playing with her corpse before heading off into the desert and finding another victim. Instead, Hog parks his rig in automobile graveyard off the Interstate, sniffs some glue or ether, and chains her up in the empty trailer. He begins torturing her even before she’s awakened from her stupor and doesn’t let up for what seems like an eternity. As if that weren’t sufficient inducement for nausea, Rehmeier intersperses these scenes with those of another woman being tortured, this time in the basement of his home. Because “The Bunny Game” was shot in black-and-white, its impact is that of a tape put into evidence in the trial of a sexual deviant or serial rapist. Without any actual story to relieve our horror, we’re pretty much left to wonder how much of this stuff she/we can take.

If the movie weren’t frightening enough, the making-of featurette proved to be the icing on the cake for me. Apparently, “The Bunny Game” was largely inspired by things that happened to Getsic in real life, including being abducted. Likewise, Renfro is an actual over-the-road trucker, who very much looks the part of a guy who could go coast-to-coast nourished only by coffee, crystal meth and the occasional convenience-store hotdog. In his interview, Renfro says that he’s met a lot of pretty strange people on the road and nothing in the movie surprised him. For additional verisimilitude, Rehmeier shot in some of the grimmer streets and alleys of the City of Angels, including one that stunk of excrement and a hotel room with blood on the ceiling from a recent suicide. He dispensed with even the semblance of skeleton crew early on, so as to navigate in tight spaces with maximum flexibility. But it’s Getsic’s performance – scratch that, ordeal – that has to be seen to be believed. My advice for those new to torture-porn and modern horror, if you couldn’t make it through “Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer,” there’s no chance in hell you’ll sit through “The Bunny Game.” Caveat emptor, applies. – Gary Dretzka

Steve Niles’ Remains: Blu-ray
Zombie Undead
If there’s anything to be learned from these two movies, it’s that a zombie apocalypse can be triggered by nuclear bombs. I wasn’t aware that this was possible, but, apparently, it is. Otherwise, there’s very little difference between the undead, as portrayed in a hundred other zombie flicks, and the ones who shuffle their way through “Remains” and “Zombie Undead.” Based on the IDW Publishing graphic novel written by Steve Niles (“30 Days of Night”), “Remains” is by far the more entertaining movie. Although the thriller doesn’t break any new ground – what could? – it’s often quite funny and director Colin Theys’ team did a nice job turning a Connecticut hotel into a passable Reno casino. The idea here, of course, is that the radioactivity from a nearby nuclear accident has instantly transformed almost everyone in town into a zombie. The only exceptions are a handful of people who managed to be in an underground storage locker or similarly isolated location at the time of ignition. One old lady remains in front of the same slot machine she was at before the blast, and she’s only stopped from biting the same cocktail waitress who served her a drink earlier when someone impales her on the leg of her walker. It’s that kind of movie. “Remains” stars Grant Bowler (“True Blood”), Lance Reddick (“The Wire”), Tawny Cypress (“Heroes”) and Evalena Marie (“Exhumed”).

In the redundantly titled “Zombie Undead,” a terrorist detonates a dirty bomb in the heart of London, resulting in everyone turning into a flesh eater. It must have happened after the Opening Ceremony of the Olympics, because NBC has yet to show the results of the 10,000-meter shuffle or synchronized chewing competition. Most of the action takes place in a hospital that doubles as a fallout shelter, but quickly is being taken over by zombies. Again, it becomes incumbent on a handful of survivors to battle the horde of deformed freaks, while also looking for relatives that were stashed there before the blast. The facility is too large to induce claustrophobia in viewers and a shift to the rural countryside seems as unlikely as the change of scenery is welcome. The appeal here is largely to zombie completists. – Gary Dretzka

The Hunt
The only thing I know about “The Hunt” is what I saw on the small screen and read on the box. It begs the question, “If you can’t find a movie on IMDB.com, does it really exist?” At first, second and third glance, Thomas Szczepanski’s survival thriller appears to be a composite of several manhunt and bow-and-arrow movies, including “Hunger Games,” “Battle Royale,” “The Condemned” and “Robin Hood.” This means that the game that’s afoot in “The Hunt” is of the human variety. Perfect strangers are abducted from the streets of a French city (I think) and taken to a villa in the middle of the woods, not unlike the one in “Eyes Wide Shut.” Before being pursued by rich people in ninja outfits, the targets of the hunt have their tongues spliced, presumably so they can’t talk their way out of being murdered. While following a lead in a completely different investigation, a reporter for a salacious tabloid magazine steals an invitation to the hunt and buy-in money needed to participate. Completely ignorant of what’s expected of him, the reporter quickly figures out that he has to kill innocent human prey or become a target, himself. An S&M mistress figures in the narrative, but mostly to add some eye candy to the proceedings. Because the hunters remain anonymous, it’s difficult to focus on any character except the reporter, and he’s a dope. – Gary Dretzka

Ladda Land
Every so often, a movie from Thailand finds its way to the beaches of Cannes or shores of the U.S., garnering praise among arthouse and horror-genre buffs for its raw energy and sheer audacity, but not much in the way of box-office revenues. More often than not, a ghost is involved. Sopon Sukdapisit’s “Ladda Land” plays very close to western genre conventions, while also remaining demonstrably pan-Asian. Because the unobtrusive dubbing allows viewers to focus on the action, instead of the subtitles, no one can complain about the extra work. Thee is a salesman for an expanding Thai pharmaceutical firm and, as such, is hailed as a model employee and example for other employees. The boss seems especially impressed by the fact that Thee had decided to mortgage himself up the wazoo to afford a townhouse in an upscale suburban development. So, too, are his wife, Parn, and their young son. A daughter has reached the age where Thee would have to bring Justin Bieber home for dinner to impress her. Still, everything seems pretty idyllic in Ladda Land.

The first sign of trouble comes when word spreads through the community of the murder of Burmese maid in the home of an absentee owner. The second sign is when a neighbor’s black cat drops a welcome-home gift on Thee’s driveway and he steps in it on his way to work. The neighbor apologizes profusely, then orders his wife to scrap every bit of poop off the driveway and Thee’s shoe. Clearly, there’s trouble in paradise. Before long, the daughter makes friends with kids who enjoy staying up late and creeping through unoccupied houses. Naturally, the teens encounter evil spirits in the house where the murder occurred. At least one of them follows her home, where it does its best to unhinge the entire family. Further compounding Thee’s agony is a mother-in-law who despises him and receiving clear indications that the business was built on a foundation of playing cards. Part of the horror that informs “Ladda Land” is observing how much interplay there is between the business and spirit worlds. Watching Thee’s life collapse around him is as sad and frightening as anything the ghosts can dish out. In an American movie, we’d probably be informed somewhere down the road that the subdivision was built on an ancient graveyard or portal to hell. Here, though, other devils are at play.  The only problem I can see with “Ladda Land” is that, at 123 minutes, it feels a quarter-hour too long. Otherwise, genre enthusiasts should get a kick out of it. – Gary Dretzka

High Fidelity/Gross Pointe Blank: Blu-ray
Romy & Michele’s High School Reunion: 15th Anniversary Edition: Blu-ray
The Preacher’s Wife: Blu-ray
Adventures in Babysitting: 25th Anniversary Edition: Blu-ray
If there’s anything the movies in the latest bunch of Blu-ray titles released by Disney share, it’s the attention paid to their musical soundtracks, which are dominated by rock, gospel, soul, blues and pop hits. Instead of being chosen to complement a traditional soundtrack, the songs propelled the narrative and, in some case, kept things from coming to a grinding halt. Moreover, they provided the studios with alternative revenue streams and additional marketing tools. It wasn’t unusual for a soundtrack album to make more money than the movie itself, a fact that didn’t go unnoticed by record labels and copyright holders. Today, the cost of licensing some classics not only has soared into the stratosphere, but disagreements over post-release rights have also held up the release of many DVD and videos.

Directed by Stephen Frears and adopted from a book by Nick Hornby, “High Fidelity” is the most self-consciously hip rom-com in the bunch. It also features the most diverse range of songs. In it, a 33-year-old John Cusack plays a nearly insufferable music nerd, who creates lists of everything from his favorite songs to his most ill-advised romances. His Rob Gordon is the kind of purist who would break up with a woman if she preferred the version of a popular song he thought was inferior to someone else’s version. Likewise, his salesmen (Jack Black, Todd Louiso) would rather not sell an album to a customer if he wanted it for the wrong reason or enjoyed its schmaltziest cut. It’s through this prism that “High Fidelity” examines Gordon’s propensity to screw up relationships with women played by Catherine Zeta-Jones, Iben Hjejle, Lisa Bonet, Lily Taylor, Joelle Carter and Natasha Gregson-Wagner, all of whom are world-class babes. Cusack’s Chicago roots can be seen threading their way through all aspects of “High Fidelity,” from the T-shirts worn by the characters to the posters and leaflets in his store. It would easily make my top-five list of Chicago-centric movies.  And, yes, the soundtrack is a terrific blend of indie selections, current pop hits and classics.

Cusack and his wonderfully gifted sister, Joan, can also be seen in “Grosse Point Blank,” a neo-noir romantic thriller that also stars Minnie Driver, Dan Aykroyd, Alan Arkin, Hank Azaria and John’s booger-buddy, Jeremy Piven. In it, Cusack plays a hitman whose latest assignment coincides with the 10th anniversary of his high school graduation in the ritzy Detroit suburb. As reluctant as he is to attend the dance, the hitman is anxious to re-connect with the woman (Driver) he stood up on the night of their prom. The soundtrack benefits from the fact that she’s a deejay at the local FM rock station and their tastes still coincide. The closer Cusack gets to his intended prey, the more opportunity there is for his destruction by rival assassins and government spooks. George Armitage keeps “Grosse Point Blank” moving in a forwardly direction throughout, mixing tension, romance and comedy in equal measure.

Director David Mirkin came to “Romy & Michelle’s High School Reunion” after spending the previous decade helming TV comedies and sitcoms. It shows. You can almost tell where the commercials would go if the movie ended up on television, instead of the multiplex. That said, however, the chemistry between Lisa Kudrow and Mira Sorvino remains delightfully palpable. They play the blond ditzoids whose lives, 10 years later, still revolve around discos, shopping and hair appointments. Romy and Michelle have always shared an inflated opinion of themselves, even as they endured the cruel jokes played on them by girls in the cool clique. In the ensuing decade, the disco dollies would blossom into the kind of hotties whose sense of fashion continued to be dictated by “Charlie’s Angels” and who gravitated to guys who treated them with the same disdain as their high school nemeses. The reunion offers them an opportunity to redeem themselves in the eyes of their classmates, but they blow it by inventing a story so outlandish the dimwits in the clique see through it immediately. The soundtrack overflows with such hits from the disco era as “Footloose,” “Staying Alive,” “Y.M.C.A.,” “She Blinded Me With Science” and “We Got the Beat.” Alan Cumming and Janeane Garafalo are good as the dweebs who make it big in the adult world, while Camryn Mannheim plays the girl who’s still looked down upon by everyone, even Romy and Michelle.

Chris Columbus’ 25-year-old “Adventures in Babysitting” still retains much of its charm. It is one of several teen-oriented movies set in greater Chicago during the 1980s – the John Hughes films, “Risky Business,” “Class,” “Lucas” — and its soundtrack is distinguished by some terrific home-grown blues selections. In it, Elisabeth Shue is babysitting a disparate collection of North Shore kids, when she receives a call from a friend pleading to be rescued from a bus station downtown. Unable to refuse, she bundles up the gang, hops in the family car and embarks on an excellent misadventure, if you will. If that description reminds you of last year’s “The Sitter,” well, so be it.

In Penny Marshall’s “urban” remake of the classic Christmas movie, “The Bishop’s Wife,” Denzel Washington steps in for Cary Grant, an angel assigned by the deity to repair the marriage of a pre-occupied pastor (Courtney B. Vance) and his longtime love (Whitney Houston), characters originally played by David Niven and Loretta Young. Fifteen years ago, the presence of Washington and Houston in the same movie was sufficient reason for audiences to come to Jesus, if only for two hours. (She later confessed to Mother Oprah that she was stoned on pot and cocaine for most of the production.) If “The Preacher’s Wife” remains a bit squishy around the edges, it’s redeemed by more than a dozen songs performed by Houston, some with the backing the movie’s Nativity Choir and Shirley Cesar and the Georgia Mass Choir. When the preacher’s wife steps out with Washington, Marshall also finds room some decidedly non-gospel singing by Houston.

Not all of the Blu-ray editions come with bonus features. The hi-def upgrade definitely is noticeable, however. – Gary Dretzka

Clue: the Movie: Blu-ray
The murder-mystery board game, Clue, is premised on the likelihood that contestants won’t be able to pinpoint the culprit, victim, weapon and location of the crime on their first, second or third guess. Otherwise, what would be the point of playing? As with any board game, most of the fun derives from the interaction between players and disappointment of failing to outguess them. This interactivity would necessarily be missing from any movie based on the game, as would the possibility that a new game could be played immediately after the last one. “Clue: the Movie” attempted to get around the one-size-fits-all dilemma by offering three different endings to exhibitors, who could advertise which version – A, B or C – was playing where. Ideally, fans would pay to see all three of the alternative endings. Fat chance of that happening, however. Today, of course, it’s possible to play classic board games, including Clue, on tablets, phones and the Internet, even as an advanced form of Solitaire. The new Blu-ray edition of the movie offers the next best solution by allowing viewers to choose between all three endings and a longer, combined version. The actors playing the iconic characters spend way too much time screaming, scrambling and insulting each other for my taste, but it certainly isn’t the worst way one could choose to kill 94 minutes. The cast includes several familiar B-list actors who’ve spent the bulk of their career bouncing between film, TV and stage assignments. They include Tim Curry, Christopher Lloyd, Eileen Brennan, the late Madeline Kahn, Michael McKean, Martin Mull, Colleen Camp and Lesley Ann Warren. – Gary Dretzka

The Decade You Were Born
Before the Internet reduced the distance between nostalgia and overfamiliarity to almost nothing, a surefire hit birthday gift could be found in novelty shops that stocked seemingly endless supplies of pre-read Life magazines or frame-ready front pages from the New York Times collection. Mill Creek Entertainment offers another alternative with its collection of “The Decade You Were Born” DVDs, each of which contains more than four hours’ worth of archival material representing 10 years’ worth of history. For better or worse, these media artifacts are what shaped several generations of Americans, whether they were presented as news, propaganda, entertainment or advertising. In many ways, the commercials tell us more about how we lived – or Madison Avenue spinmeisters wanted us to live – than coverage of breaking stories. In the commercials of the 1950s, minorities simply didn’t exist and any husband who couldn’t afford to buy a station wagon or Osterizer for the stay-at-home missus probably was a closet pinko. The narrative may be dubious, at times, it’s the images that sell the product … just like cigarettes.The individual releases range from the 1940s to the 1980s and include such bonus material as an interactive timeline, a complete feature film and TV episode (nothing special), five commercials and five movie trailers. Fortunately, if the giftee was born on the cusp of decades, the $10 price tag makes a double purchase affordable. – Gary Dretzka

Jesse Stone: Benefit of a Doubt
The Rookies: The Complete Second Season
Squidbillies: Volume Five
POV: Up Heartbreak Hill
It’s no secret that Tom Selleck is one of most popular, if not most versatile actors in the history of the television medium. There’s something about him that you can’t help but like, even when the material isn’t up to what we consider to be his best work. The “Jesse Stone” series of made-for-CBS movies, inspired by a Robert B. Parker novel, is an example of what can happen when a franchise is being powered by the sheer charisma of an actor. “Jesse Stone: Benefit of a Doubt” is the latest and, perhaps, final chapter in the eight-title franchise. After the murder of the sheriff who replaced him when he was forced to retire by the powers that be in Paradise, Massachusetts, Stone agrees to re-assume the position and investigate the case.  It means that Stone spends an inordinate amount of time answering two questions: “Does that PPD cap mean you’re chief, again?” and “Didn’t you’d tell me you didn’t like him?,” in reference to one of the two dead men. The answers essentially boil down to, “I guess,” and “I don’t remember saying that.” The ex-LAPD detective continues to brood, drink, chase younger women and expend more emotional energy on Reggie, the dog, than anyone else in the movie. As the clues begin to lead in the direction of a conclusion that’s predictable, if not obvious, the door is left open for sequel. Whether Selleck will pass through it again is anyone’s guess.

It has taken five years and an entirely different distributor – Shout! Factory – for the second season of “The Rookies” to make its way from the shelves at Sony to the DVD marketplace. Apparently, there hadn’t been enough interest in another stanza to justify the expense of compiling the package. Being smaller and lighter on their feet, the folks at Shout ! Factory enjoy taking in such orphans and proving they’re worth something. The second season of episodes from producers Aaron Spelling and Leonard Goldberg stick pretty close to the template used in the pilot and freshman year. If anything, Nurse Jill is put in jeopardy more often and, therefore, Kate Jackson gets better exposure. Among the season’s guest stars are John Saxon, Don Johnson, Nick Nolte, Strother Martin, John Travolta, Brad Davis, Scott Jacoby, Joseph Campanella, Claude Akins, Joan Blondell, Pat Harrington, James Olson, Mark Slade, Jim Nabors, Richard Hatch, Leif Erickson, Sissy Spacek, Tyne Daly, Bridgette Hanley and Anthony Zerbe.

You never know who or what is going to turn up on “Adult Swim.” “Squidbillies: Volume 5” offers ample proof that just when you think things have gotten too weird on the cable channel, something even more bizarre probably is right around the corner. “Squidbillies” follows the antics of the anti-social Cuyler family of endangered Appalachian mud squids. Federally protected from being hunted or killed, they’re free to raise all the havoc they can. Not even George Jones and Billy Joe Shaver could resist lending their voices to the soundtrack of this trailer-trash revival meeting in Season 5. There’s nothing remotely correct about what happens in “Squidbillies,” politically or otherwise, and that’s its appeal. The DVD set adds plenty of behind-the-scenes material, including recording sessions, animation, character development and interviews.

The PBS documentary series “POV” routinely takes viewers to places they’ve never been and aren’t likely to go. In “Up Heartbreak Hill,” director Erica Scharf describes how difficult it is for ambitious and talented young Native Americans to succeed in the world outside the rez, yet maintain direct links to their cultural heritage and family. Navajo teens Thomas, Tamara and Gabby have been accorded opportunities available to few of their classmates in high school. Of course, they also open the door to failure and disappointment. Tribal elders would love for the best and the brightest to succeed in school, then return home to share what they learned with their friends, families and neighbors. It’s a pipe dream shared with the leaders of countries, such as India and Pakistan, who send their most promising students to the U.S., Canada and Europe, then lose them to the promise of better pay and conditions. – Gary Dretzka

After the Wizard
The Smurfs and the Magic Flute
Winx Club: Secret of the Lost Kingdom Movie
A rite of passage shared by all American children is to sit through “Wizard of Oz” without covering their eyes or running out of the room when the winged monkeys take flight from the castle of the Wicked Witch of the West. “After the Wizard” isn’t at all scary, but kids who’ve passed the first test should get a kick out of seeing what might have happened had the story continued after Dorothy’s return to Earth. In this Dove-approved movie, a tweener living in a Kansas orphanage is so infatuated with the “Wizard of Oz” that she imagines herself to be Dorothy. This brands her as a problem child. Things begin to get interesting, however, when the Tinman and Scarecrow decide they need Dorothy’s advice to solve a problem in Oz. Because of a spasm in the time-space continuum, their balloon lands in New York, years after L. Frank’s Baum’s novel was published and it’s assumed that Dorothy was a figment of his imagination. They succeed in reaching Kansas, by train and bus, after trading some giant emeralds for dollars. (They don’t seem to mind being ripped off by the exchange rate.) After connecting with the faux Dorothy, she asks them to locate a stray dog that looks very much like Toto. “After the Wizard” isn’t particularly well made or convincingly acted, but young viewers shouldn’t notice the difference.

I hadn’t thought about the Smurfs in such a long time that, when I received a DVD copy of “The Smurfs and the Magic Flute,” I actually recalled it as being a product of Japanimation and a conspiracy between producers and toy manufacturers. Apparently, I was confusing the Smurfs with Pokemon and the Mario Brothers, because the little blue beings were born in a Belgian comic strip in 1958 and the movie was first shown here in 1983. It was seven years after “The Smurfs and the Magic Flute” first was released in Europe and two years after the Hanna-Barbera cartoon adaptation was launched here. The rest, as they say, is history. The movie involves the theft of a flute Court Jester Peewit hopes will make everyone dance. When it’s stolen, Smurf Nation rallies to recover the flute, which McCreep intends to use to steal gold reserves. The DVD edition adds features on Smurf history, an image gallery, glossary, a character guide and making-of piece.

Like the Smurfs, Nickelodeon’s “Winx Club” began its media life several years ago in a country other than Japan. It’s taken five years for the feature-length “Secret of the Lost Kingdom” to make its way from Italy and the Cannes media market to the U.S. The plot behind the CGI-animated story is far too complicated to explain here, but, suffice it to say, it involves pixies, fairies and a threat to an enchanted kingdom, Fans will note that the movie picks up where the events of the first three TV seasons left off. The DVD set adds seven bonus episodes. — Gary Dretzka

The DVD Wrapup: Marilyn Monroe, Hatfields & McCoys, Le Havre, Waves of Lust … More

Thursday, August 2nd, 2012

Marilyn in Manhattan
Marilyn: The Passion and the Paradox
As we approach the 50th anniversary of Marilyn Monroe’s untimely death, at 36, expect the media to peel away from the Olympics and Aurora massacre long enough to celebrate the life and career of one of Hollywood’s brightest and most misunderstood stars. Sadly, one of the central mysteries of the 20th Century – did she jump or was she pushed – isn’t likely to be solved anytime soon. What we learn in the fascinating 1998 documentary, “Marilyn in Manhattan,” and Lois Banner’s new biography, “Marilyn: The Passion and the Paradox,” is just how complex a person Monroe was and why she still matters. Although the former Norma Jeane Mortenson was strategically billed as the quintessential “dumb blond” bombshell, we already know that she was no dummy. “Marilyn in Manhattan” chronicles her secret self-imposed exile to New York, in 1955, and subsequent efforts to escape the yoke put on her by greedy executives at 20th Century Fox. In addition to studying her craft at the Actors Studio, she underwent psychoanalysis, went from baseball to Broadway on the marital front and announced plans for her own production company. As usual, her strategy was complicated by the men in her life, chronic insecurity and other complications of her fragile state of mind. Being married to such difficult and domineering men – and sleeping with others, even more powerful – conflicted with her stated hopes for something resembling a normal life and projects that would emphasize her acting skills.

Banner’s book goes into much greater biographical detail, of course, revealing secrets and separating the truth from the fiction. She could be accused and convicted of flagrant name-dropping, if it weren’t for the astonishing number of famous people who found (or insinuated) themselves in her orbit. These include members of the Rat Pack, the Mafia, Camelot and the Motion Picture Academy. Both the documentary and Banner’s book should be of special interest to people introduced to Monroe only last year, in “My Week With Marilyn” In interviews with such friends and associates as Ellen Burstyn, Ben Gazzara, Amy Greene-Andrews, business partner Joshua Greene, Susan Strasberg, Donald Spoto and columnist James Bacon, it’s clear that Monroe’s legacy extends well beyond the sexual iconography of the famous Andy Warhol serigraph, exposed-panty shot from “The Seven-Year Itch” and the skin-tight gown she wore to sing “Happy Birthday” to JFK. If only subliminally, Monroe’s had an incalculable influence on future generations of post-feminist women. Despite her many breakdowns and dalliances with predatory horndogs, that influence has manifested itself in new attitudes towards female sexuality, freedom of choice in everything from fashion to public personas, countering stereotypes and standards of beauty. If, for most of the last 50 years, the media has succeeded in clouding Monroe’s legacy, her struggle for dignity and respect would be admired by women who’ve faced similar hurdles in their own lives. Off-screen and on, she truly was an amazing woman. – Gary Dretzka

Hatfields & McCoys: Original Uncut Version
However alarming, yesterday’s headlines have become fodder for the mini-series, movies, theme parks, video games and reality shows of today. No better example of this exists than the bloody 25-year-year feud between the Hatfields of West Virginia and McCoys of Kentucky, during which a dozen family members were murdered and many others injured and/or imprisoned. The first time it was referenced directly on film was in 1905, in the single-reeler, “A Kentucky Feud,” while, in 1939, Betty Boop found herself trapped between the bloodthirsty hillbillies. Presumably, the vendetta was put to bed peacefully in 1979, on the TV game show “Family Feud,” with a weeklong competition between teams of decedents. The clans would meet 20 years later at a well-publicized reunion of the clans and, again, three years later, when some genius came up with the idea that a truce-signing would help heal wounds left over from 9/11. But, wait, there’s more.  In 2002, after being turned away from the gates of the McCoy Cemetery, Bo and Ron McCoy were required to sue the current owner of the property for access. There now exists, as well, a “Hatfield–McCoy Feud Driving Tour” and 500-mile-long trail along the Tug River, suitable for all-terrain vehicles. It boggles the mind to realize that the feud didn’t begin in earnest until an acrimonious trial was held to decide if Randolph McCoy’s hog was stolen by Floyd Hatfield, or the Hatfields had a legal right to seize and eat the trespassing swine. (Predictably, Justice of the Peace Anderson “Preacher Anse” Hatfield ruled in favor of the Hatfields. The key witness was subsequently murdered by Sam and Paris McCoy, who avoided prosecution.) The History Channel is the latest to benefit from the contretemps, which unofficially ended in 1901 with the last of the trials sparked by the violence. The six-hour mini-series, “Hatfields & McCoys,” scored monster numbers for the cable network in its first foray into the form. The newly available DVD, “Hatfields & McCoys: Original Uncut Version,” adds either significantly more bloodshed or gratuitous tobacco spitting to what already was a pretty messy affair.

From what I know about the feud, the mini-series seems faithful to both the history and legend of the Hatfields and McCoys.  The actors cast to play the wildly unkempt men and their humorless womenfolk certainly look the part. As William Anderson “Devil Anse” Hatfield and Randolph “Ole Ran’l” McCoy, Kevin Costner and Bill Paxton could hardly be more representative of a period in American folklore, seemingly before bathtubs and soap reached the American frontier and killers could quote biblical scripture to justify any atrocity. Among the various imaginatively drawn characters are Tom Berenger (almost unrecognizable as the hairy sociopath Jim Vance), Powers Boothe, Andrew Howard, Ronan Vibert, Jena Malone, Sarah Parish, Lindsay Pulsipher and Mare Winningham. They’re excellent, as are the contributions of the various designers and technicians. Standing in for the hills and hollers of West “Almost Heaven” Virginia is Romania, a beautiful country that has seen its own share of vendetta killings and savagery in the name of the Lord. “Hatfields & McCoys” was directed by Kevin Reynolds, whose previous work with Costner includes “Waterworld,” “Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves” and “Fandango.” The DVD adds background historical and making-of material. – Gary Dretzka

Redemption: For Robbing the Dead
Any history of the American West wouldn’t be complete without some discussion, at least, of the role played by Mormon settlers in what would become the state of Utah. The only thing I can remember being taught is that the strait-laced pilgrims practiced polygamy and seagulls saved them from a plague of grasshoppers. The real story is significantly more complex and fascinating. The founding of a major city on a key route west was noteworthy for all sorts of practical reasons, but it’s in the Mormons’ relations with Native Americans and settlers of other faiths where things get complicated. Although I don’t recall hearing the word, “Mormon,” in the surprisingly compelling “Redemption: For Robbing the Dead,” the circumstances upon which it is based were strongly influenced by doctrine and faith. The overtly Christian message most viewers will take away from “Redemption” may not be exclusive to Mormon teachings, but it probably helped clear the way for the hands-on participation of student interns from the BYU Theater and Media Arts Department. Beyond that, however, “Redemption: For Robbing the Dead” is a terrific Western in the classic mold, wonderfully acted and shot.

Writer/director Thomas Russell couldn’t help but be drawn to the almost unbelievable story of Jean Baptiste, whose infamous crimes earned him the distinction of being “The Ghoul of Salt Lake City.” Mystery surrounds much of Baptiste’s background, but it is believed he moved there in the 1850s with his wife, Marlys (Margot Kidder), who he met in Australia. The death of their child pretty much scrambled Marlys’ brain and Baptiste probably had a few screws loosened in his head before taking a laborer’s job at the Salt Lake City Cemetery. The specifics about how it was discovered that Baptiste (David Stevens) had been digging up coffins and stealing the burial clothes of as many as 300 bodies is a tad on the complicated side. If it weren’t for a chilling series of coincidences, he might have gotten away with it for several more years. Suffice it to say that the revelation caused much revulsion and anger among the citizenry, who feared the fiend might have taken other ghastly liberties with the corpses. Being a frontier town, demands for Baptiste’s immediate trial and execution became the consensus response to the crime. The legal remedies were far vaguer, however. The question of how to respond to such horror even reached Brigham Young – not portrayed here – who observed, shooting him “would do no good to anybody but himself. … If it was left to me, I would make him a fugitive and a vagabond upon the earth,” which, much to the displeasure of the public, is essentially what happened. Before Baptiste could be lynched, a judge ordered that Baptiste be exiled to a large, desolate island in the Great Salt Lake and left to fend for himself. This, after having his ears “cropped” and the words, “For Robbing the Dead,” tattooed on his forehead.

Police officer Henry Heath, whose daughter was buried in the cemetery, was given the responsibility of making sure vigilantes didn’t follow Baptiste to Antelope Island – some did, anyway – and he wouldn’t be able to escape. Against his better judgment and the will of Salt Lake residents, Heath (John Freeman) also takes it upon himself to make sure Baptiste is provided with food staples, medicine and water on a regular basis. This act of Christian charity prompts members of an aggrieved family to import an assassin from Kansas to teach the lawman one final message before he dies. The more hatred directed at him by his neighbors and enemies, the more adamant Heath becomes on reminding them of what Jesus might have done under similar circumstances. (Instead of hitting us over the head with a bible of Book of Mormon, Russell lets the message slowly wash over those in his audience.) Russell invents an ending that doesn’t square with the facts of Baptiste’s exile, but it’s better than leaving viewers with the same question historians have been attempting to answer for 150 years. It isn’t likely Baptiste was able to escape the island – he couldn’t swim – and he wasn’t heard from again. In any case, the movie is less about the criminal than the man, Heath, who found redemption for his own sins according to the teachings of Christ. In addition to telling Heath and Baptiste’s story in a compelling manner, “Redemption” is often staggeringly beautiful. Russell takes full advantage of the magnificent vistas available to him from the barren shore and sunbaked hills and rangeland of Antelope Island State Park. Apart from the introduction of bighorn sheep and a thriving herd of buffalo very little has changed since Baptiste was put there. Wonderful performances are provided, as well, by Hollywood veterans Barry Corbin, Edward Herrmann, Rance Howard, Jon Gries and Robyn Adamson. The DVD adds interviews and a making-of featurette that partially explains how such a handsome Western could be made on a budget of only $200,000. Western buffs should find a lot to admire in “Redemption,” while teachers looking for a movie to stir lively debate about personal ethics could hardly find a better starting point. – Gary Dretzka

Going for Gold
This appropriately sappy movie debuted last week in England, just before the 2012 Summer Olympics got underway and another generation of athletes began their quest for honor and glory. It’s likely that many old-timers in the viewing audience remember the events described in the heart-warming BBC-TV drama as if they occurred yesterday, instead of 54 years ago. If the enthusiastic crowds that gather each day on the lake at Eton Dorney are any indication, however, young fans are well-versed in the history of British rowing, as well. In 1948, the UK was struggling to recover physically, emotionally and economically from the devastating effects of World War II and the citizenry really needed something to cheer. As is made clear in David Blair and William Ivory’s “Going for Gold” (a.k.a., “Bert & Dickie”), there was no guarantee the country could pull off such an event, let alone walk away with gold metals. The money simply wasn’t there to build training facilities and event venues, and there was no guarantee anyone from the world at large would show up to buy tickets, dine in restaurants and fill hotel rooms. Even if they did come, what would they eat? British athletes were expected to remain fit, even though food rationing limited them – and most everyone else – to a 2,500-calories-per-day diet. (A special waiver would allow them to add another 1,100 calories, just like the country’s miners.) Indeed, more money was spent on the fireworks display at the 2012 Opening Ceremony than the entirety of the 1948 Olympics. “Going for Gold” is set against this background of sacrifice, austerity and a class system that German rockets and bombers couldn’t shake.  (Richard “Dickie” Burnell’s partner in the double-scull, Bertram “Bertie” Bushnell, even was temporarily refused access to the “posh” private club at which the finals were held.)

The decision to team the 6-foot-4 Burnell and 5-foot-10 Bushnell, whose glasses made him look like Harold Lloyd, was made only a month before they would be expected to compete against the world’s best rowers. To a small but noticeable degree, Bushnell was resentful of Burnell’s privileged background and suspected they were partnered to enhance his chance of winning a medal, as his father had in 1908. For his part, Burnell was reluctant to listen to the technical advice proffered by his partner, believing it couldn’t be any more sound than that of the man hired to build the scull. In fact, Bushnell’s father had passed along his extensive knowledge of boat building to his son and had been forced to give up rowing at the amateur level to support his family. Their relationship would strengthen after the modifications were made and their times kept improving. Every so often, the filmmakers leave the Thames behind, so we can watch British politicians and Olympics organizers fret about the possibility that the Games might give the government a black eye by falling short of their already low expectations. They needn’t have bothered, as the world was anxious to put the war behind them and celebrate victories that didn’t require bloodshed. Other, more melodramatic touches were added to “Going for Gold,” probably to lighten the mood, but none compromises the excitement of the races or prevents us from admiring the technical achievements. Although the blurbs on the cover of the DVD would have us believe that “Going for Gold” is a virtual sequel to “Chariots of Fire,” Blair and Ivory allow their story to stand on the remarkable accomplishments of their characters. Both films deliver the goods, but, simply put, they’re not cut from the same swath of fabric. This, however, shouldn’t keep admirers of sports movies from seeking out “Going for Gold.” It sure beats watching skeet shooting and synchronized diving. – Gary Dretzka

Le Havre: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
If the 55-year-old Finnish filmmaker Aki Kaurismäki had only made the exceedingly offbeat “Leningrad Cowboys Go America” and “Total Balalaika Show,” he would still deserve the admiration of film buffs around the world. Blessedly, though, he’s decided not to rest on his laurels or join the migration to Hollywood to make movies about comic-book superheroes. It would be nice if American audiences returned the favor by supporting their local arthouse when his new movies find their way here and sampling earlier successes, such as “The Match Factory Girl,” “The Man Without a Past,” “Lights in the Dusk” and most recently, “Le Havre,” on DVD and Blu-ray. Just because he may be more recognizable in Cannes than in Helsinki doesn’t mean mainstream audiences in the United States can’t see in his movies what the judges and critics do. In his case, anyway, adjectives like “enigmatic,” “wry” and “quirky” aren’t necessarily synonymous with “dark,” “challenging” and “impenetrable.” No matter where one lives, there are few hot-button subjects more relatable across-the-board than illegal immigration. In “Le Havre,” Kaurismaki puts us in the center of the debate, without making us take sides or bemoan our inability to find a solution. He assumes we understand how illegal immigration and the smuggling of refugees from poverty can facilitate terrorism, drug trafficking, white slavery, organized crime and the promulgation of bigotry and can put our political beliefs aside long enough to be entertained. Here, he defangs the issue by telling a story about a young African refugee who simply wants to join his mother in London, but finds himself stuck in the French port city of Le Havre. Unlike the adults with whom he shared the misdirected container, Idrissa (Blondin Miguel) is able to dodge police and find refuge in the home of shoe-shiner Marcel Marx (André Wilms), a friendly fellow who appreciates the boy’s pressing need to go to England. Understandably, local immigration authorities have adopted a rigid stance on the subject of illegal immigration and one cop, in particular, immediately suspects that Marcel either is harboring the refugee or knows where he is. While both men are doing what they think is right, only one is willing to bend the rules to make the game more fun. What the cop doesn’t know is that the Marcel’s neighbors and friends are more likely to accept their friend’s word on the boy’s character than a lawman’s arguments about the boy’s potential harm to society.

The boy’s arrival coincides with Marcel’s wife, Arletti (Kati Outinen) being diagnosed with a life-threatening illness and her being admitted to a hospital for longterm care. Marcel needs someone to take care of his dog and keep people’s shoes shined while he spends time with her at the hospital, and having nothing better to do, Idrissa is happy to help him out. Between the cop’s persistence and pessimism of his wife doctors, Marcel needs a diversion, so he takes it upon himself to solve Idrissa’s problem. To give you an idea of how Kaurismaki’s mind works, he has the women who visit Arletti in the hospital read to her from a book by Franz Kafka. He also conceives of a concert, arranged by Marcel to raise money to pay a smuggler to get Idrissa to England, featuring an actual French rockabilly legend, Little Bob. The white-haired singer, who’s probably in his 70s, looks like a cotton swab in red leather. Like Wanda Jackson and Jerry Lee Lewis, he can still kick it. The ending may be purposefully fanciful – its alternate title is “Miracle in Le Havre,” after all — but it could hardly be more satisfying. The handsome Criterion Collection Blu-ray includes interview sessions from the Cannes Film Festival, where “Le Havre” won the FIPRESCI Prize and was nominated for a Palme d’Or. (The writer/director is a bit cantankerous in both.) Little Bob is given a spotlight on two songs and there are extended discussions with Kaurismaki regulars Outinen and Wilms. – Gary Dretzka

Waves of Lust
Except for about 15 minutes of expository material, the 1975 erotic thriller “Waves of Lust” takes place on or directly below a yacht, where two pairs of attractive swingers seem destined to bang each other’s brains out will cruising the seas off Sicily. Based solely from that description, fans of Italian giallo — of which erotic thrillers are an offshoot — already know that what happens next will have nothing to do with romance. Clothes will be shed before the yacht reaches open seas; one of the characters, at least, will emerge as a cruel puppet master; and at least one table will be turned before the movie ends. Ruggero Deodato, whose credits include “Cannibal Holocaust” and “Live Like a Cop, Die Like a Man,” does a nice job building suspense in a waterlogged plot most viewers have seen several times. When wealthy industrialist Giorgio (John Steiner, a dead-ringer for John Holmes) isn’t taunting and terrorizing his masochistic lover, Silvia (Elizabeth Turner), he’s drooling over the prospect of trading up to a liaison with Barbara (Silvia Dionisio). In return, he tempts Barbara’s lover, Irem (Al Cliver), with the implied promise of a night of bliss with Silvia. The women don’t seem to mind the arrangement, even though they seem to prefer each other’s company. A control freak and alcoholic, Giorgio makes it clear to his guests that he’ll be making all the sleeping arrangements on his schedule and they have no say in the matter. If not as claustrophobic as “Dead Calm,” “Open Water” and “Donkey Punch,” the sexual charge is palpable.

What Giorgio doesn’t know is that the Barbara and Irem aren’t the docile hippies he thinks they are and Silvia has taken all the abuse from him she can. The first sign that things might not be going as planned for the cocky millionaire is when his scuba tanks begin malfunctioning in mid-dive. He’s so full of himself that he can’t imagine anyone outsmarting him. The more he drinks, however, the stupider he gets. Dominating the story, though, are the sex scenes, especially those involving Silvia and Barbara and sumptuous meals. The ending leaves one big question unanswered, at least, but it doesn’t seem to matter much. A lengthy interview with Deodato and writer Lamberto Bava is included in the bonus features. In it, the director says that he agreed to the project only after learning that his bombshell wife, Dionisio, had accepted the role of Barbara and would be spending much of the production naked. Even then, he admits, it wasn’t easy being behind the camera while the missus was swapping spit with her co-stars. Like most other RaroVideo releases, “Waves of Lust” looks about as good as it’s ever going to, again. It also comes with commentary, biographies and filmographies. – Gary Dretzka

Hijacked: Blu-ray
The Liquidator
Former UFC champ Randy Couture has a head that looks as if it were sculpted from granite, a chin that could repel a RPG strike and a body that would challenge any costume designer’s ability to keep from splitting at the seams during fight scenes. If he isn’t likely to compete for a Best Actor trophy, his fans don’t demand much more from him than kick-ass action and threatening poses. In “Hijacked,” however, someone had the bright idea to add a love interest that distracts him from the tasks at hand and demands we pay attention, too. This would be fine if we were talking about a woman like Lucy Lawless or Gina Carano, but Tiffany Dupont is about as credible as Couture’s ex-fiance, Olivia, as Sophia Loren would be, albeit for different reasons. Having her on board a hijacked plane, while his security-specialist character, Paul Ross, is attempting to overpower a group of terrorists, makes Couture vulnerable and that isn’t what we pay to see.

Even so, the biggest problem with director Brandon Nutt and co-writers Declan O’Brien and Scoop Wasserstein’s script is that it looks as if it were pieced together from other straight-to-video movies starring former fighters and body builders, and such star vehicles as “Air Force One” and “Executive Decision.” This means, as well, that the same clichés and mistakes are repeated. Bullets don’t fly far enough to tear through the skin of the fuselage and, no matter how many pilots are knocked unconscious, the plane is able to maintain an even keel. Another curious decision involves veteran tough guy Vinnie Jones, who seems to have been given a substantial role in “Hijacked,” but is killed in a dumb shootout between security forces in the first 15 minutes of the movie. Likewise, Couture and Olivia become annoyed with each other’s presence on board the private 747 — owned by the billionaire target of the attack – even though they’ve been invited separately, coincidentally and for business purposes. (It is strange, however, that it only took Olivia 12 hours to go from jobless to a passenger on the plane of one of the world’s most powerful people, yet feels comfortable enough to bring a reporter friend along for the ride.) Neither is Couture’s required to break a sweat, even while dispatching foes who actually are capable of fighting back and defusing a bomb that is discovered way too early in the movie. This leaves plenty of time for a surprise ending that’s as preposterous as it is unsatisfying. By now, Couture should be able to demand more from the scripts he accepts. This one needed a complete re-write.

Jones’ fans will get even less satisfaction from “The Liquidator,” in which the former English Football League “hard man” plays an international assassin for about 10 minutes total time. Nonetheless, his glowering visage is prominent on the cover of the DVD. Otherwise, “The Liquidator” is interesting primarily for being shot exclusively in Kazakhstan, with a largely Kazak cast and crew. It was produced with local money and is in Russian. The revenge thriller involves the killing of an investigative reporter and the efforts of his brother, a former special-forces soldier, to eliminate those responsible. Powerful interests want to bury evidence of their corrupt behavior, so they hire an international hitman, Silent Killer (Jones), to neutralize their new enemy. Being silent allowed Jones to avoid learning his lines in Russian, a benefit that doesn’t extend to non-Kazak fans of the movie, who won’t be able to understand a word of the making-of featurette. For some reason, it isn’t subtitled. – Gary Dretzka

Fortress: Blu-ray
Cross the computer wizardry of the History Channel’s “Dogfights” with an old-fashioned war picture, in which male bonding is as important as destroying enemy positions, and you have “Fortress.” The story chronicles what happens to the crew of a B-17 Flying Fortress both in the skies above Italy and at their base in northern Africa. What differentiates “Fortress” from every other World War II movie we’ve seen are the CGI effects, which allow for the introduction of wave after wave of vintage planes and midair combat that looks and feels hyper-realistic. Although there’s plenty of room left for buffs to seek and find mistakes in the construction, operation and handling of the B-17s, there’s no denying that the re-creation of the bombers from inside-out is pretty darned impressive. If anything, the claustrophobic conditions experienced by actual B-17 crew members in combat are understated. If small allowances weren’t made for camera positions, the filmmakers would have been limited to using pinhole and hand-held devices. The hard work pays off. Too bad, the story itself is so generic.

Except to extend the aura of verisimilitude, I wonder why director Mike Phillips and writer Adam Klein gave themselves the freedom to go out with an R-rating. Sure, airmen cuss like sailors, but why lob f-bombs when it’s the ones that explode on Italian soil that count most in the narrative. I’m pretty sure that “Fortress” could have escaped with a PG-13, even allowing for some rough language and the stomach-churning wounds inflicted on airmen. It would have broadened the potential audience, certainly, and not harmed the picture. Fans of Joseph Heller’s “Catch-22” might find it amusing that the flight crews depicted in “Fortress” actually believe that Pentagon brass would send them home once they fly 25 successful missions. In reality, the promise was about as realistic as every other one made by officers, from time immemorial, to appease the troops. The extremely high attrition rate among B-17 crews made it highly unlikely most of these guys would make it home in one piece, no matter how many missions they completed. And, of course, while American factory workers could churn out planes at will, it wasn’t so easy to replace the crews and pilots. The DVD also offers some interesting demonstrations of the technology used to make the film. – Gary Dretzka

Dead Season
Mystery Science Theater 3000: XXIV
If Jimmy Buffet had executive-produced a horror movie, it might look a lot like “Dead Season” and be subtitled “Zombies in Paradise.” Director Adam Deyoe certainly would have benefited from the loose change Buffet carries around in his pocket for cheeseburger emergencies, but it probably wouldn’t have saved “Dead Season” from straight-to-DVD purgatory. If there isn’t anything particularly fresh or unusual here, however, at least the scenery in this zombie-apocalypse flick is different. A worldwide viral outbreak has devastated the population of the world and opened the floodgates for an infestation of undead “walkers” – “shufflers” would be more accurate — all of whom look as if they were recruited from Central Casting. A paramedic named Elvis (Scott Peat) and a computer-savvy emo girl, Tweeter (Marissa Merrill), manage to escape Florida by boat, destination unknown. They land on an island that looks as if it might have been home to a Club Med in happier times, but are quickly rounded up by a band of heavy armed survivalists. The leader sees the benefit of keeping Elvis around their makeshift fortress for his paramedic skills – Tweeter’s allowed to babysit and protect the guy’s teenage daughter — so they aren’t immediately thrown off the island or fed to the walkers. Although an island would appear to be the perfect refuge for survivors, a ship full of undead tourists capsized offshore and several were able to reach shore. (Even though technically they’re dead, zombies seem to reproduce like rabbits.) They threaten the compound by popping up whenever they sense an opportunity for mayhem, forcing the leader to assert himself a bit too aggressively for Elvis and Twitter’s comfort. “Dead Season” is as gory as modern makeup techniques allow and frequently quite entertaining, as these things go. The DVD adds commentary, a making-of featurette, interviews and outtakes.

No strangers to the undead, the crew of the Satellite of Love introduces us to fiends from Russia, Mexico and Japan in the new “Mystery Science Theater 3000: XXIV” compilation. The selections include “Fugitive Alien,” “Star Force: Fugitive Alien II,” “The Sword and the Dragon” and the long-awaited “Samson vs. the Vampire Women,” the final Comedy Central episode with Frank Conniff as TV’s Frank. (He ascends into Second Banana Heaven during intermission.) The movie, itself, could pass for a traditional low-budget vampire movie, if it weren’t for the presence of the masked luchador hero, Samson (a.k.a., Santo el Enmascarado de Plata), who’s called upon to save the ravishing daughter of a nutty professor from being kidnapped and forced to marry an ancient fanged deity. As one of the wise-guy robots notes, the fights between Samson and the vampires resemble a Keystone Kops fire drill. “The Sword and the Dragon” (“Ilya Muromets”) is a Soviet-era historical fantasy – in Sovscope, no less — which was re-purposed by Roger Corman for distribution here.

And, speaking of repurposing, the semi-infamous Sandy Franks is represented here with the 1978 Japanese TV series, “Fugitive Alien,” which he bought, combined to make two movies, dubbed and, nine years later, released in the U.S. One segment was worse than the other and neither was any good, anyway. The story is nearly incomprehensible in any language, although it appears to have been inspired (a.k.a., ripped off) by “Star Wars.” Naturally, “Fugitive Alien” and “Star Force: Fugitive Alien II” were immortalized on “MST3K.” The crew’s shabby treatment of such a classic resulted in a feud between Frank and the robots. As usual, the bonus material is worth the price of admission here. It includes an introduction by August Ragone, “You Asked for It: Sandy Franks Speaks,” MST “hour wraps,” Conniff’s “Life After MST3K,” shorts, “Lucha Gringo: K. Gordon Murray Meets Santo” and lobby cards. – Gary Dretzka

Last Days Here
By all rights, rockers Keith Richards and Bobby Liebling should be dead by now, victims of a rock lifestyle that’s brought less hardy musicians to their knees. The primary difference between Richards and Liebling – besides tens of millions of dollars stashed away in a vault somewhere — is that one already is enshrined in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, in Cleveland, and the other probably would have to buy a ticket to get into it. This isn’t to say Liebling didn’t, at one time, have as much of a chance of being immortalized there as, say Ozzie Osbourne, just that he blew any chance of that happening long ago. When Liebling began making music in the 1970s, his band Pentagram was one of the pioneers of “doom metal,” which, itself, was a darker offshoot of the brand of heavy metal popularized such groups as Black Sabbath, Uriah Heep,  Deep Purple, Judas Priest, UFO and Sir Lord Baltimore. Anyone considering suicide or starting a heroin habit before attending a concert by a doom- or death-metal band might very well be dead or addicted by the time the encore began … or, anyway, that was the myth. Eventually, the genre would be stretched to include death metal, thrash metal, speed metal, goth, industrial and a half-dozen other head-banging offshoots, but Pentagram still is credited with legitimizing heavy metal as a commercial entity.

Liebling was as charismatic a singer as there was in the 1970s. He had a great voice, knew how to stalk the stage and introduced hand gestures that separated metal-heads from Deadheads. Sadly, though, he became his own worst enemy. The Virginia native was the kind of over-demanding band leader who sought perfection, but wouldn’t recognize what it sounded like if Bob Dylan bit him in the ass. His refusal to accept the word of producers, colleagues, critics and record executives cost him the loyalty of fellow band members and put him on the road to hell. By the time Don Argott and Demian Fenton (“Rock School,” “The Art of the Steal”) began shooting their documentary, “Last Days Here,” he looked like a corpse waiting to die. He lived in the basement of his parents’ home and occupied his time smoking crack, shooting heroin, listening to music and attempting to convince himself that he could resurrect his career, as loyal fan and future manager Sean Pelletier believed. Against all odds, Pelletier’s persistence eventually was rewarded when Liebling cleaned up, married and appeared on stage. This didn’t mean there wouldn’t be potholes along the path to complete recovery, but, at the very least, Liebling didn’t die in the course of shooting the movie. That uncertainty is what makes “Last Days Here” such a compelling entertainment. The DVD adds deleted scenes. – Gary Dretzka

Isa: The People’s Diva
If the classically trained opera singer and much-celebrated interpreter of Yiddish songs, Isa Kremer, had lived long enough to be heard on modern radio stations, her career would be sliced, diced and processed to fit a very small niche on classical stations or the NPR segments reserved for ethnic music. Sadly, that’s the way things are today, and the gifted soprano wouldn’t be alone in fearing her legacy would disappear with the death of her last elderly fans. Blessedly, first-time documentarians Nina Feinberg and Ted Schillinger thought enough about Kremer to capture her music and tell her story on film, in “Isa: The People’s Diva.” Isabelle Yakovlevna Kremer was born in 1887 in the Bessarabian town of Belz, which then was part of the Czarist Empire. Her commitment to music, poetry and revolutionary ideals opened many doors that normally would have been closed to Russian-Jewish girls from the sticks. Her future husband, the much older newspaper editor Israel Heifitz, subsidized her musical training in Italy, where she would make her debut in 1911 and begin touring foreign capitals. Upon her triumphant return to Russia, she would join a circle of Jewish intellectuals, one of whom convinced her of the continued historical relevance of Yiddish folk songs. At the time, many influential Jews, not just in Russia, were running away from their humble beginnings and Yiddish simply wasn’t cool. Kremer, though, took her music directly to people who weren’t interested in hiding their roots and it made her an international star.

Kremer had the great misfortune to live at a time when Jews, especially those of the leftist persuasion, were forced to stay one step ahead of the fascist wave breaking over Europe and South America. She also was forced to confront the broken promises, bigotry and anti-intellectualism of the communist revolution in what would become the USSR. This pattern would continue for most of the rest of her life. Moreover, in addition to institutionalized anti-Semitism, she met resistance from Jews who feared reprisals from Nazi henchmen for listening to the forbidden music and embracing their backgrounds through music. This was as true in pre-war Berlin, where she broke the law by singing in Yiddish, as it was in post-war Israel, where she was encouraged not to sing the songs that weren’t in Hebrew. Upon her return to her final home, Argentina, she and her psychiatrist husband were blacklisted by the Peronist government. (Her fan and protector, Eva Peron had died, opening the door for right-wingers to bully Jews, populists and leftists.) “Isa: The People’s Diva” was made in 2000, for the niche Jewish Channel. It has been refurbished by the folks at Facets Video, who also added an interview with Schillinger and performances of Yiddish songs made popular by a Chicago klezmer band. – Gary Dretzka

ATM: Blu-ray
There’s a certain fear that comes naturally whenever you’re required to take money from an ATM machine, at night, and the only other person in sight is the guy standing six feet behind you. That’s pretty much the premise of “ATM.” Here, though, three young adults become afraid to leave an enclosed, brightly lit kiosk, in the middle of a deserted mall parking lot, after seeing a guy in cold-weather gear pummel a security guard and man walking his dog. Unlike them, the fiend is dressed appropriately for the weather, which is hovering around 0-degrees Fahrenheit. Even though they’re dressed for a baseball game in May, they’ve parked their car 100 feet from the ATM. For most the movie’s 90 minutes, the only thing standing between the guy in the parka and the people in the kiosk is a door that requires an ATM card to open. Somehow, it discourages the guy from invading their space. Anyone willing to buy into such an unlikely scenario might see enough potential in “ATM” to justify a rental. I would suggest, however, the “Seinfeld” episode, “The Secret Code,” in which George reluctantly gives his ATM card and password to a man whose arm in caught in the machine and could be caught in a fire. “ATM” stars Brian Geragthy, Alice Eve and Josh Peck, who all try mightily to look frightened but can’t really pull it off. It was directed by first-timer David Brooks and written by Chris Sparling, whose previous exercise in claustrophobia was “Buried,” with Ryan Reynolds. The Blu-ray arrives with a making-of featurette that’s more interesting than the movie. – Gary Dretzka

Misfits: Season One
Lifetime: Surviving High School
Lifetime: Jodi Picoult Collection
Marvel Anime: Blade/Wolverine: Animated Series
Transformers Prime: One Shall Stand
About halfway through the first episode of “Misfits,” I couldn’t help but wonder when MTV or some other youth-oriented cable network would remake the spunky British import and dilute it to the point where it’s unrecognizable. The same thing happened with MTV’s adaptation of “Skins,” the excellent British series that dared to portray teens and young adults as sexual beings. The howls of censorial watchdog groups are probably still ringing in the ears of programming executives. That disaster notwithstanding, MTV is planning to air an American version of “The InBetweeners,” as well. How it will deal with the show’s coarse language, sexual effrontery and “wanker” jabs is anyone’s guess. That hilarious Brit comedy features a group of typically horny freshmen boys, caught between the cool crowd and total dweebs. “Misfits” puts a different spin on kids from essentially the same age group. The teenagers here are working-class droogs who’ve gotten in trouble with the law for various reasons and are working off their punishment doing menial public-service assignments. After a freak storm passes over London, the kids discover they have acquired superpowers that correspond with their deepest insecurities. They may not be the only ones impacted by the electrical storm, but they’re ones in whose laps the fate of the city rests. Its entertaining blend of sci-fi, rude comedy and angsty drama went over well in England and could succeed here if the kids weren’t required to clean up their acts too much.

From Lifetime Television comes a starter kit of original movies designed to prepare teenage girls – their moms, too — for some of unseemly things they might encounter during their high school years. From 2005, “Odd Girl Out” examines the issue of female aggression and bullying, as seen through the eyes of a popular and well-adjusted middle-schooler (Alexa Vega), who gets a rude awakening in high school. In “Augusta, Gone” (2006), Sharon Lawrence plays a woman struggling with divorce, financial problems and a 15-year-old daughter who’s suddenly turned into a self-destructive monster. “The Perfect Teacher” (2010) stars Megan Park as 17-year-old who falls in love with a handsome math professor (David Charvet) and is willing to go to extremes to make sure he pays attention to her. Based on actual events, “For One Night” (2006) tells the story of a Southern teenager (Raven-Symone) who hopes to reverse decades of officially sanctioned racial prejudice by combining the traditionally segregated proms at her high school.

Another new compilation from Lifetime combines adaptations of best-sellers written by Jodi Picoult. In “Salem Falls” (2011), James Van Der Beek plays a teacher/coach who tries to outrun his past by taking a job at an all-girl’s prep school. Naturally, it catches up to him when a student (AJ Michalka) develops a crush on him and it causes a witch hunt. Salem … witch hunt … get it? First shown in 2004, “Plain Truth” stars Mariska Hargitay as a high-profile criminal attorney who goes slumming in Amish country, where a teenager (Alison Pill) is on trial for murdering her newborn baby. Megan Mullally is center stage in “The Pact” (2002), which describes what happens when one young participant in a “suicide pact” survives and the parents must come to grips with the root causes of the arrangement.

“Marvel Anime: Blade: Complete Series” and “Marvel: Wolverine: Animated Series” represent the second release of titles made primarily for consumption by Japanese fans of the Marvel characters. They were shown there on Animax outlets and, here, on G-4. “Blade,” which began as a comic and evolved into an action-movie franchise, takes the anime route, with half-man, half-vampire Eric Brooks/Blade voiced by Harold Perrineau. In “Wolverine,” Logan (Milo Ventimiglia) continues his quest to rescue his kidnapped lover, Mariko (Gwendoline Yeo), from Japanese crime lords. Transformers Prime: One Shall Stand” collects seven episodes from the “One Shall Fall,” “One Shall Rise” and “Orion Pax” story arcs. They have been re-edited as a stand-alone movie. Fans should know that about half of the material has been released in the Season One compilation, with Season Two soon to follow. – Gary Dretzka

Beautiful Planet: England & the Low Countries: Blu-ray
Beautiful Planet: Germany & Austria: Blu-ray
Anyone who would love to see more of England than is visible in NBC’s coverage of the Olympics should enjoy “Beautiful Planet: England & the Low Countries,” which takes us on a hi-def tour of some of the country’s most beautiful and historic palaces and gardens. With all the emphasis on London and other industrial cities, where the soccer matches are taking place, it’s easy to forget how lovely a country England still is. The Brits are obsessed with gardening and it shows here. The “Low Countries” half of the Blu-ray presentation focuses on the windmills of Holland and medieval city of Bruges, in Belgium.

In “Beautiful Planet: Germany & Austria,” we visit the historic and architecturally significant cities of Bamberg, famous for its beer and seven hills, and 2,000-year-old Speyer. In Austria, we’re introduced to the spectacular city of Hallstatt, which sits on a magnificent lake and in the shadow of Alpine peaks. Another stop on the tour is the amazing Schonbrunn Palace, which served as a home away from home for Habsburg monarchs. The Blu-ray presentation is excellent. – Gary Dretzka

10,000 More Ways to Die: Spaghetti Western Collection
Ultimate Rin Tin Tin: 8 Classic Movies Collection
Ultimate Civil War Series: 150th Anniversary Edition
WWII: Waking the Sleeping Giant
Now that the hype machine is fully engaged in the promotion of Quentin Tarantino’s “Django Unchained,” it’s probably a good time to revisit the Spaghetti Western genre and get reacquainted with what made it so much fun. Many of the movies released in DVD collections such as “10,000 Ways to Die” and “10,000 More Ways to Die” never found distribution here, despite frequent appearances by familiar Hollywood stars. For example, I wasn’t aware of the existence of “The Deserter,” a superlative Western of the Apaches-vs.-the-Cavalry variety that was directed by Burt Kennedy (“The Rounders”) and starred, among other actors, Richard Crenna, John Huston, Chuck Connors, Ricardo Montalban, Woody Strode, Brandon de Wilde, Slim Pickens, Albert Salmi, Ian Bannen,  Patrick Wayne and the immortal Yugoslav leading man, Bekim Fehmiu. Although the Indian characters are cut a pretty raw deal in the script, the “Dirty Dozen” approach to their slaughter works exceedingly well. Cut-rate production values diminish the full impact of the story of a U.S. Army captain (Fehmiu) who goes rogue after his wife is brutally murdered by Apache warriors. The captain believes that the cavalry is partially to blame, because its troops were ill-equipped to fight a guerrilla war. He is offered amnesty in exchange for training a select squad of soldiers in the Apache way. The men don’t like it one bit, but General Miles (Huston) doesn’t give them any options. Under Kennedy’s grip, this is one Spaghetti Western that looks as if it was catered by American chefs. The Django name lives on in “Django, Kill … If You Live, Shoot!,” if only in the movie’s title. Here, the wonderful Cuban-American actor Tomas Milian plays the “Stranger.” It is a very strange Western, even by Italian standards, in which outlaws are punished with crucifixion; gay gunslingers dress in Cisco Kid drag; a surgeon strikes gold inside the body of seriously wounded man; and a vampire bat is used as an implement of torture. This “Django” is best enjoyed stoned. Other movies in the Mill Creek compilation include “Seven Devils on Horseback,” “7 Hours of Gunfire,” “Ride and Kill,” “The Shadow of Zorro,” “The Federal Man,” “Dead Men Don’t Make Shadows,” “Fistful of Lead,” “White Comanche” (with William Shatner and Joseph Cotten), “Dead for a Dollar” and “3 Bullets for Ringo” (with Mickey Hargitay and the ubiquitous Gordon Mitchell).

Last year, the story of “wonder dog” Rin Tin Tin’s journey from the killing fields of Europe in World War I to Hollywood stardom was recounted in the New Yorker magazine and a new biography. It was terrific stuff. The new Mill Creek compilation, “Ultimate Rin Tin Tin,” is a collection of mostly hour-long films, in which Rin Tin Tin Jr. and RTT III took over the reins from Dad. Look for a 14-year-old Robert Blake in “The Return of Rin Tin Tin” (1947). The first thing to know about “Ultimate Civil War Series: 150th Anniversary Edition” is that it’s not the one that was produced by Ken Burns and usually is repeated during PBS pledge months. The two-disc mini-series covers much of the same territory, however, using first-hand accounts — through diaries, letters and memoirs – special visual effects and dramatic re-creations. As the title implies, “WWII: Waking the Sleeping Giant” makes a pretty good case for the theory that Axis powers’ greatest mistakes was pissing off the American people enough to convince them to drop all the isolationist rhetoric and take revenge on the Japanese for the raid on Pearl Harbor. Hitler’s decision to disrupt Allied supply lines by destroying U.S. ships and killing our citizens backfired, as well. The 11-part documentary series uses first-hand accounts and archival materials to explain Japanese pre-war strategy and continues on to the decision to drop atomic bombs on non-combatants in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It also tackles attempts to bring Nazi War criminals to justice. – Gary Dretzka

Twinkle Toes: The Movie
Dora the Explorer: Dora’s Fantastic Gymnastics Adventure
As far as I can tell, Grace “Twinkle Toes” Hastings is the first cartoon character inspired by a line of footwear for kids, Skechers’ Twinkle Toes. Boomers will recall, however, that, for most of the last century, Buster Brown shoes were synonymous with the Buster Brown comic strip and other media spinoffs, most notably the kiddie show, “Andy’s Gang.” (“Plug your magic twanger, Froggie.”)  In this all-new, feature-length movie, TT is forced to overcome her terrible stage fright and fulfill her destiny as an inspiration for aspiring dancers everywhere.

Just in time for the Olympics, Nickelodeon star Dora the Explorer is awarded a special Rainbow Ribbon, which she’ll wield in a series of gymnastics competitions. Naturally, prankster Swiper absconds with the ribbon, forcing Dora and Boots to call on viewers to help them recover it. Their adventure includes a walk over Crocodile Lake on a balance beam, a trampoline jump through the Flowery Garden and ring-swing to the sight of the Games. There’s even a horse show for Pinto the Pony. – Gary Dretzka

The Autism Enigma
According to this potentially groundbreaking documentary, shown on Canada’s “The Nature of Things,” autism is the fastest-rising developmental disorder in the industrialized world, registering a 600 percent rise over the last 20 years. The cause remains a mystery, but theories include the possibility that genetic vulnerability could be triggered by environmental factors. Moreover, the producers of “The Autism Enigma” argue, 70 percent of children with autism exhibit severe gastrointestinal symptoms. This has led an international group of scientists to take their search in an entirely direction. Parents are advised to reserve their excitement over the Bacterial Theory, but a flicker of hope is better than none at all. – Gary Dretzka

The DVD Wrapup: Three Stooges, Margaret, Metropolitan, Institute Benjamenta, Footnote… More

Tuesday, July 24th, 2012

The Three Stooges: The Movie: Blu-ray
Although the plot of the Farrelly brothers’ tribute to the Three Stooges appears to have been lifted directly from “The Blues Brothers,” the comparison pretty much ends there. Besides not being nearly as hilarious, musical or totemic as John Landis’ epic comedy, it strangely lacks the certain undefinable something that caused several generations of women and girls to turn away from the black-and-white shorts in disgust. There’s plenty of nostalgia-inducing slapstick in “The Three Stooges” – much of it very funny – but by putting Moe, Larry and Curly into a position where they might be perceived as heroic, the Farrellys gave them a personality makeover longtime fans never desired and will only make newcomers wonder what all the fuss is about. In fact, as befits the PG-rating, they’re downright cuddly. As disconcerting, by adding color and expanding the visual experience, it’s easy to see how the undeniably game actors (Chris Diamantopoulos, Sean Hayes, Will Sasso) are able to pull their punches and avoid permanent injury. “The Three Stooges” fits far more comfortably in the Farrelly canon – “Dumb, Dumber, Dumbest,” if you will – than the memory banks of Stooges fans who never tire of watching the ancient shorts. This isn’t the fault of the actors – who stepped in for the originally cast Sean Penn, Jim Carrey and Benicio Del Toro — as they make perfectly reasonable facsimiles of the Stooges and have no trouble repeating the hand gestures, wisecracks and “nyuck, nyuck, nyuck” shtick. I would have enjoyed seeing them tackle “Niagara Falls” and “Swinging the Alphabet,” skits that will live forever on the Internet.

After giving us the origin story of the Stooges, the Farrellys bring us up to date by devising a scenario in which the unadoptable boys – now, incorrigible young men – are required to raise the money necessary to save the orphanage from foreclosure. It not only allows for the usual chaos and confusion that arises from any encounter between the Stooges and normal folks, but also a send-up of reality TV shows and other pop-cultural touchstones. Their search for money reunites them with various people from their childhood, not all of whom have the best interests of the orphanage at heart. Viewers will recognize Jane Lynch, Jennifer Hudson, Kate Hudson and Larry David as nuns at the orphanage. (David’s Sister Mary-Mengele wears out her welcome rather quickly.) The cast members of “Jersey Shore” don’t embarrass themselves – if such a thing were even possible – and Sofia Vergara and Lin Shaye (Nurse Crotchet) add their own brand of special sauce to the proceedings. “Three Stooges” is rated PG, so parents need not fear much in the way of unusually gratuitous slapstick violence or the nuns-in-sexy-swimsuits shots promoted in the commercials and trailers. In another amusing touch, actors impersonating the Farrellys deliver a warning to the kiddies against attempting the violent gags and pratfalls at home. (When the shorts became a television staple in the late-1950s and early-1960s, Moe similarly was called upon to stem the epidemic of eye-gouges and hammer attacks.) The Blu-ray adds a making-of feature, explaining how the stunts are accomplished and the essential role played by sound-effects specialists. There’s also a history of the Stooges; deleted and extended scenes; a slapstick mash-up; and screen tests. Anyone who wants to see the real deal ought to check out Sony’s DVD compilations, which have been digitally upgraded and make great bonding gifts for all generations of males in your family. — Gary Dretzka

Margaret: Blu-ray
Typically, movies with a gestation period of more than five years bear the fingerprints of far too many studio meddlers and investors hoping to return a dime on the dollars they put into the project. Some have been edited and re-edited to the point where they’re unrecognizable from the concept originally green-lit and are disowned by their parents. By the time they’re accorded a limited release, more lawyers have seen the movie than critics. “Margaret” has just such a backstory. Without going into much tiresome detail, Kenneth Lonergan’s long-anticipated follow-up to “You Can Count on Me” was first scheduled for release in 2007. Lawyers became involved in the post-production process when the director couldn’t bring the drama in at the agreed-upon length or in the shape anyone wanted it to be. Finally, Martin Scorsese and Thelma Schoonmaker were reportedly enlisted to edit the theatrical version – it shows, I think – with Fox Searchlight agreeing to allow Lonergan to put his stamp on the final product. At 150 minutes, though, “Margaret” never really had a fighting chance at commercial viability. Shown only on a dozen or so arthouse screens, its most likely avenue for success ultimately would be determined by DVD and Blu-ray enthusiasts. On Blu-ray, both the theatrical cut and extended, three-hour version now are available.

“Margaret” is exactly the kind of nearly extinct movie that demands discussion after watching it with a date or friends… and not in Internet chatrooms or blogs. The characters are easily identifiable as upper-middle-class New Yorkers, whose neuroses frequently render them incapable of functioning outside their apartments and jobs. Only one person is truly likable here and he ends up getting trampled by the egos of the three key women characters. When the movie began production, in 2005, Anna Paquin still looked young enough to pass for a 17-year-old student at a private high school in Manhattan. Lisa is a fairly typical teenager, in that she’s constantly at odds with her mother, ignores her younger brother, is anxious to be deflowered (if not by her caring boyfriend) and is an uninspired student who doesn’t see any problem with cheating on assignments. Her mother, Joan (J. Smith-Cameron), is an emotionally fragile off-Broadway actress about to experience her first taste of success. Her father is a deeply unhappy writer, living in a beachfront home in L.A., with his new family. Distance has allowed him to come off as the good guy in all major clashes between mother and daughter. There’s nothing unusual in any of this.

One day, in anticipation of a New Mexico retreat with her dad, Lisa goes on a shopping excursion to find a cowboy hat on the Upper East Side. When she notices a bus driver, Maretti (Mark Ruffalo), sporting a 10-gallon chapeau, she attempts to get his attention by waving and pounding on the moving vehicle’s door. It’s distracting enough to cause him to miss a red light and run smack dab into a pedestrian (Allison Janney) crossing the street. In the few minutes it takes for the woman to die, Lisa comes to believe she’s bonded forever with the woman. Inexplicably, she decides not to tell police detectives about the red light and her role in the incident. As her deception begins to gnaw on her conscience, Lisa quickly evolves into someone unrecognizable to her friends, family and teachers. She’s confrontational, where she used to be passive, and anxious to abandon all trappings of youth (hence the rush to get laid, which coincides with experimentation with cocaine). Moreover, Lisa finally decides to seek “justice” for the victim of the accident by suing the transit authority and attempting to get the driver fired. She does this in collusion with the woman’s best friend in New York, Emily (Jeannie Berlin), and her only known relative, who lives in Arizona and didn’t care much for her cousin. She does, however, like the sound of collecting $350,000 in damages and insinuates herself in the negotiations with the MTA. Lisa begins to see in Emily a surrogate mother, especially since they tend to agree with each other and Joan has begun trying to recover what’s left of her love life by dating a generous and caring opera lover (Jean Reno).

That’s a lot of baggage for one movie to carry, even in its three-hour director’s cut version. And, it doesn’t even take into account the crush she has on a cautiously wary and decidedly Midwestern teacher-confidante (Matt Damon) and bizarre encounters with English teacher (Matthew Broderick), who introduces her to the Gerard Manley Hopkins poem, from whence the title derives. If I had a nutshell and cared to stuff the movie’s plot into it, I’d say that “Margaret” tells the story of a teenage girl who demands the right to grow up too soon, but is hugely disappointed when she discovers the compromises and accommodations required of adults. She savors the bitter taste of revenge served cold on Maretti, but is reviled by the other parties in the suit when, for the sake of expediency, they agree to spare the transit company and driver in the settlement. Neither is she at all pleased by the realization that her dad may be a selfish prick and her mom probably isn’t a monster.

The acting in “Margaret” is uniformly excellent and the characterizations appear spot-on. It’s a shame Academy voters ignored the fine performances. What distinguishes the drama most, however, is the depiction of a New York that goes about its business no matter how great the demands of a single teenage girl. That, too, amounts to a splash of cold water to an impressionable teen. Polish cinematographer Ryszard Lenczewski captures Manhattan with much the same clarity as Gordon Willis, in “Manhattan,” “Annie Hall,” “The Godfather” and “Bright Lights, Big City.” The movie’s length and controversial past don’t allow for much in the way of supplemental features. – Gary Dretzka

Metropolitan: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
One thing all good movies do is introduce us to places and people they never knew existed or, maybe, failed to notice when they were on the way to someplace else. Like Martin Scorsese, in “Mean Streets,” and Woody Allen, in “Manhattan,” Whit Stillman’s precisely observed and delightfully sly comedy of manners, “Metropolitan,” shines a light on a corner of New York rarely visited on film, at least in the previous half-century. Made in 1990, it chronicles how a small group of adolescent preppies spend their Christmas vacation, absent their filthy-rich absentee parents and left to their own devices in Park Avenue apartments. Like the aspiring socialites of “Gossip Girl,” they have easy access to booze and high-class parties, and tend to act like the insufferable adults their parents became after attending Ivy League colleges. The male characters we meet in “Metropolitan” routinely wear suits or tuxedoes, even the occasional top hat, white tie and tails. When the girls aren’t in ball gowns, they favor conservative sweaters, pearls and low-heeled shoes. They appear to care desperately about such things as debutante balls, their educations, social taboos and how they’re perceived in the world. They can quote from Jane Austen and Lionel Trilling, play bridge and know where to find affordable used tuxedos. They don’t seem at interested in popular tastes. In another time in American history, simply being the children and grandchildren of the “urban haute bourgeoisie” would have entitled them to expect invitations to Jay Gatsby’s parties and to dance alongside Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers.

Stillman, who’s the opposite of prolific, would revisit these and other upper-crust characters in “Last Days of Disco” and “Barcelona,” movies that also emphasize smart dialogue (“playing strip poker with an exhibitionist somehow takes the challenge out of it,” one dryly observes”) over glitz, action and cheap sex. The comedy comes in observing how little attention the kids pay to the world outside their dormitories, classrooms and penthouses and how desperately they want to maintain the status quo, as defined by their parents. If they would look freakish, today, alongside their social peers on “Gossip Girl,” it’s only because flaunting inherited wealth and entitlement once was considered gauche and unattractive, even in Manhattan, and preppy their fashions look hopelessly quaint. It also might have something to do with Stillman’s casting of unknown, untested actors, of whom only a small handful would go on to enjoy substantial careers in the movies or television. This lack of experience only adds to the movie’s credibility. The Criterion Collection edition features a restored high-definition digital transfer, supervised by the director; commentary with Stillman, editor Christopher Tellefsen and some of the actors; outtakes and alternate casting (Troma’s Lloyd Kaufman), with commentary by Stillman; optional English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing; and a booklet featuring an essay by critic Luc Sante. – Gary Dretzka

Black Butterflies
The Deep Blue Sea: Blu-ray
Before watching Paula van der Oest’s passionate biopic of the South African poet Ingrid Jonker, I had no idea who she was or why I should care about her work. Upon further review, I learned that Nelson Mandela specifically drew attention to her poem, “The Child (Who Was Shot Dead by Soldiers at Nyanga),” in Afrikaans, during his address at the opening of the first democratic parliament on May 24, 1994. Nearly 30 years after her death, by suicide, he read, “The time will come when our nation will honor the memory of those who gave us the right to assert with pride that we are South Africans, that we are Africans and citizens of the world. The certainties that come with age tell me that among these we shall find an Afrikaner woman. … Her name is Ingrid Jonker.” If her work is good enough for Nelson Mandela, who am I to resist a movie whose sad ending I already know and dread? More than anything else, “Black Butterflies” describes a woman whose soul was torn in pieces by the political and personal realities of Apartheid — her father served as chief censor of arts, publication and entertainment – and her free-spirited nature. As portrayed here by Carice van Houten (“Black Book”), Jonker could have served as the model for her country’s first flower child. Before moving in with her father as a teenager, she lived on a farm outside Cape Town, where, apparently to her father’s great dismay, she was taught not to hate blacks and resisted wearing shoes. She had been writing publishable poetry several years before getting married, in 1956, moving to Johannesburg and having a daughter. After their divorce, three years later, Jonker took to running with a literary crowd that, we’re shown, enjoyed beach parties, jazz and bed-hopping. If her life in one of the world’s most beautiful provinces is made to seem idyllic, it’s also possible to recognize the roots of madness in her behavior and choices. Not surprisingly, the first sign of trouble comes when she chooses to fall in love with married writers, Jack Cope and Andre Brink, both of whom lead her to believe they’ll seek divorces and marry her. Possessed of an explosive temper, Jonker spends much time moving back and forth from her father’s home, to cheap hotels and back to the beach, dragging her daughter with her as she goes.

The soap-opera aspect of Jonker’s life wears thin after a while, of course, as do the arguments she has with her cold and brutally outspoken father. When she witnesses the death of the child during a protest against Apartheid, she writes the poem that will raise her profile beyond the borders of South Africa and take her to the capitals of Europe. (When she convinced her father to read it, he ripped it into pieces.) By this time, however, she’d already endured a one painful and illegal abortion, experienced electroshock therapy at a mental hospital and was well past the border line of alcoholism. Finally, on a stormy night in July 1965, she walked into the sea and drowned. Even then, her father couldn’t find anything kind to say about her. Van Houten, a wonderful Dutch actor, delivers a powerful portrayal of the poet. Rutger Hauer, as her thoroughly contemptible father, is chilling. Likewise, Liam Cunningham is excellent as Cole, Jonker’s lover and, later, administrator of her literary estate. The DVD adds interviews and background material.

Rachel Weisz is exactly the right age to play Hester Collyer, the sexually enflamed protagonist of Terence Davies’ adaptation of Terence Rattigan’s achingly romantic drama, “The Deep Blue Sea.” So, was Vivien Leigh, who played Hester opposite Kenneth More in the 1955 movie. (On stage, the character was portrayed by the slightly older Peggy Ashcroft and Margaret Sullavan.) The difference between Weisz and the other women is that Weisz tends to play 10 years younger than her middle-age characters and she isn’t required to wear the period-appropriate hairdo a woman married to an older judge, Sir William Collyer (Simon Russell Beale, looking older than his 51 years), would in post-war England. More to the point, Weisz doesn’t look anything like a woman who, in her early 40s, had yet to experience an orgasm. Her sexually awakening was sparked by Freddie Page (Tom Hiddleston), a former Royal Air Force ace and devil-may-care playboy, who hasn’t been the same since the end of World War II. If Hester can’t get enough of Freddie, the much younger man has no trouble keeping himself amused in bars and at golf courses and racetracks. Sir William would be perfectly willing to take back his wife, but Hester’s come to like the taste of forbidden fruit and a peaceful upper-middle-class environment – supervised by her disagreeable mother-in-law – no longer fits her lifestyle. Sadly, her inability to satisfy Freddie’s every need – no woman could, really – causes her self-esteem to plummet. Naturally, then, the only thing for a woman to do is attempt suicide. Physical considerations aside, Weisz does a fine job as Hester, as do Hiddleston and Beale. The Blu-ray adds commentary, an interview with Davies and a backgrounder. – Gary Dretzka

Footnote
Nominated for an Oscar in the Best Foreign Language Film category, “Footnote,” effectively validates the acidic observation of educator William Stanley Sayre: “Academic politics is the most vicious and bitter form of politics, because the stakes are so low.” They do, however, add plenty of zest to a drama that might have turned out hopelessly cerebral and stifling. Everything that happens in the Israeli import is the result of a mistake made by a lowly peon at an august academic institution. Normally, the misunderstanding would be diffused with an apology and good laugh. Here, however, it cuts directly to a malignancy that already threatens to destroy an extremely accomplished family. Eliezer Shkolnik (Shlomo Bar Aba) is a no-nonsense professor of Talmudic studies at Jerusalem’s Hebrew University. He takes a strictly scientific approach to philology, a discipline that’s required him to keep his nose buried in microfiche and ancient documents for his entire career. His ornery demeanor can be attributed to having the fruit of his labors drained by an accidental discovery made by a detestable colleague months before the revelation of his own findings. In a relative heartbeat, 30 years of research began to circle the drain.

Instead of directing all of his resentment at the scholar who made him little more than a footnote in the history of Talmudic studies, Eliezer takes it out on his son, Uriel (Lior Ashkenazi), whose work is infinitely more accessible to students, journalists and history buffs. The toxicity of the old man’s attitude is palpable, even when he should be basking in the reflected glory of an award ceremony for his son. That’s nothing compared to what happens soon thereafter, when Eliezer is mistakenly notified by the assistant that he’s finally been accorded the most prestigious honor anyone in his field can receive. His mood brightens as they storm clouds that been hovering over his head for years begin to dissipate. Unfortunately for everyone involved, the actual recipient of the prize is his son. Uriel understands only too well that such a reversal of fortune would likely drive his father into a funk so deep, he’d never recover. As much as Uriel would love to accept the prize, he dedicates himself to convincing the committee to let sleeping dogs lie and give his dad the prize he probably deserves, anyway.

As the day of the ceremony nears, Eliezer allows himself the rare satisfaction of being interviewed for a major Israeli magazine. In his dedication to the “truth,” however, he disparages his son’s research by denigrating his methodology and the people who find it worthwhile. This is the kind of baloney Uriel has been putting up with for years, and, after working so hard to reverse the committee’s decision, it’s the last straw. He takes his unhappiness out on his own teenage son, who’s yet to make up his mind on a career path and, therefore, is deemed worthy of his contempt. Uriel also alienates his wife, by reducing her role in the household to simply “being the mother.” Things lighten up towards the very end of “Footnote,” but the damage has been done. Movies like this don’t come along very often, so, for those interested in academic catfights, it’s well worth catching. The DVD arrives with a Q&A with American-born writer-director Joseph Cedar, interviews, commentary and a piece on the film’s music, which is impressive, indeed. – Gary Dretzka

Brake: Blu-ray
As the movie opens, it becomes clear almost immediately that Stephen Dorff’s character is trapped in a box the size of coffin and isn’t getting out any time soon. It takes almost all of the next 90 minutes of “Brake,” however, to understand who Dorff is supposed to be, where he is and how he wound up in such straits. Director Gabe Torres and writer Timothy Mannion clearly are in no hurry to enlighten viewers, who’ll get the answers to their questions as the filmmakers see fit. Without giving away the store, though, it’s safe to reveal ahead of time that Dorff’s character is a Secret Service agent who’s been abducted by terrorists. They assume he’s privy to information that holds the key to the success of their mission and appreciate the fact that he won’t cough up information voluntarily or without great pain administered to him. Most of the nasty stuff comes in the form of head games involving a timing device that threatens disaster whenever the countdown closes in on zero. Inexplicably, he’s also given access to a cellphone and two-radio that connects him to another federal employee abducted and trapped in a box. Depending on one’s willingness to be thoroughly manipulated by the filmmakers, “Brake” is a reasonably clever and unpredictable thriller of the claustrophobic persuasion. It also features a nice double-barreled ending. The Blu-ray comes with an informative making-of featurette and interviews. – Gary Dretzka

Institute Benjamenta
For anyone unfamiliar with the Quay Brothers’ work – which, even for buffs, qualifies as an acquired taste — any description of “Institute Benjamenta” would be woefully inadequate. I’ll give it a shot, anyway. Based on a 1909 novel by the brilliant, if frequently institutionalized Swiss writer Robert Walser, the very strange “Institute Benjamenta” reminds me of what a remake of F.W. Murnau’s “Nosferatu” might look like if it were directed by David Lynch. Although it was made in 1995, the look and tone of the movie harkens back to the height of the German-Expressionist period, and the characters could hardly be any creepier. Walser’s inspiration for the source book, “Jakob von Gunten,” and others, can be traced to a course he was required to take in order to become a servant at the castle of Dambrau in Upper Selisia. Among other things Walser took away from the experience, apparently, was the mind-numbing repetition of exercises and procedures required of students destined to be mere cogs in a larger machine. In the Quays’ hands, the banality of the lessons is stretched to include synchronized swaying, chanting exercises and drawing circles on floors.

When he arrives at doors of the institute, Jakob (Mark Rylance) is challenged through a peephole by a monkey sitting on the shoulders of Johannes Benjamenta. Jakob (Gottfried John) runs the school, seemingly for his own amusement, with his similarly strange and wistful sister, Lisa (Alice Krige). The only lessons being learned here, it seems, are the attributes of monotonous repetition and other skills that might be useful to working-class drones. The monkey appears to be the only thing operating with some semblance of free will.

“Instituta Benjamenta” represents the Quays’ first foray into feature films. Born near Philadelphia and educated at London’s Royal Academy of the Arts, identical twins Stephen and Timothy began their careers working on commercials, music videos (Peter Gabriel’s “Sledgehammer”) and short films, most employing puppet animation. Their other feature is “The Piano Tuner of Earthquakes,” which also was co-written by Alan Passes and whose characters are little more than automatons. The handsome HD restoration was supervised by the directors and enhanced for widescreen viewing. It includes the hypnotic 2007 short, “Eurydice, She So Beloved,” behind-the-scenes footage and the original theatrical trailer. – Gary Dretzka

On the Inside: Blu-ray
The less one expects from the virtually straight-to-video “On the Inside,” a frequently entertaining prison movie, the more impressed they’ll be by its small surprises. Nick Stahl (“Carnivale”) plays Allen, a college professor who goes postal on a young man he believes to have raped his girlfriend. Unfortunately for everyone concerned, he kills the wrong guy. The savagery of the attack must have convinced the judge that he was criminally insane, because that’s the kind of facility to which he’s sent. Early in his stay there, he’s taunted by a fellow prisoner, who’s truly evil, and attempts to befriend a guy who seems to be auditioning for the role of Lennie in an amateur production of “Of Mice and Men.” Because of Allen’s generally positive outlook on his incarceration, he’s assigned to an experimental socialization program. It’s here that he befriends the bi-polar bombshell, Mia (Olivia Wilde). The guards aren’t particularly brutal, but this doesn’t stop Allen’s tormentor from staging a bloody attempt at a prison break. Curiously, Allen and Mia miss most of the action, because they’re swapping hooch and hugs in an area temporarily out of harm’s way. Naturally, as “On the Inside” nears its climax, there’s a showdown between relative good and absolute evil. Stahl, who’s experienced troubles of his own lately, is good as the brooding convict, while Wilde balances beauty and bi-polarity in convincing fashion. The Blu-ray adds commentary. – Gary Dretzka

My Way: Blu-ray
Sector 7”: 3D/2D Blu-ray
American critics weren’t kind to the Korean WWII movie, “My Way,” when it opened in a handful of theaters here in spring. I guess they felt a responsibility to compare it to every modern war picture, from “Paths of Glory” to “Finding Private Ryan,” no matter the financial or cinematic context into which this pan-Asian effort might fit. It isn’t easy to make even a reasonably exciting wartime action film on a budget of $24 million and I think “My Way” makes very good use of its limited resources. It deserved a critical break. Directed and co-written by Kang Je-gyu (“Brotherhood of War”), “My Way” effectively takes a footnote in history and builds enough of a story around it to support an epic movie. The inspiration came from a photograph taken in the aftermath of the D-Day landing, showing a Korean POW in the uniform of the German Wehrmacht. As far as I can tell, no one knows who the soldiers were or what happened to them after the war. What we do know is that, in a last-ditch effort to survive, POWs and conscripts from other Nazi-held territories agreed to don enemy uniforms and be moved to possible invasion sites to construct seawalls and other defenses. By June 6, 1944, Hitler was willing to gamble that these non-Arayans would fill the vacuum left by German forces needed on the eastern front. He knew that Allied soldiers weren’t likely cut them any more breaks than any other man aiming a machine gun at them. Given the choice between life and death, the Koreans and other conscripts would fight before being given the opportunity to surrender. In any case, the Korean POWs already had been forced to fight for the Japanese, Soviet Red Army and now the Germans. Each time, there was a man with a gun at their backs, demanding they march on for the greater glory of a country not their own.

Kang connects the dots by constructing a backstory in which a pair of marathon runners – one a poor Korean, the other the son of an officer in Japan’s Occupation forces – find their lives intertwined at nearly every turn. They compete against each other in Olympics qualifying races – fixed to favor the Japanese runner – fight the Soviets at the Battle of Nomonhan, share ramshackle barracks in a Siberian POW camp, face German machine-gun fire in a suicide assault near Moscow and finally are captured by the Germans and sent to Normandy. Even if these men ultimately would be forced by circumstances to find common ground, they weren’t friends by any stretch of the imagination. The Japanese were feared and hated by the Koreans, just as the Germans were reviled by the Russians and vice versa. For them to win each other’s respect, it would take tests of strength, endurance and humiliation few novelists would dare invent. The battle sequences are extremely well done, given the budget, and it’s easy to feel the pain of being insulted, tortured and forced to bear arms in battles not of their making. The Blu-ray adds making-of material, interviews and an English-dub version.

Unless you are one of fortunate few who can afford HD3D appliances, it won’t mean much to learn that “Sector 7” is purported to be South Korea’s first 3D live-action thriller. (I think “Shock Labyrinth” actually holds that distinction.) Although there’s nothing in “Sector 7” that would prompt me to run out and buy a new set, it can hold its own with movies in which humans and slimy creatures are required to occupy the same tight quarters. The title refers to a deep-water oil-drilling site in waters claimed at various time by both Korea and Japan. If it is, in fact, rich with black gold, no one working on the derrick has yet to tap into the mother lode. Instead, they’ve managed to incubate a monster that looks as if its mother was a sea lion and its father was a lamprey eel or prawn. What distinguishes “Sector 7” from other imported creature-features is its expensive look and quality of the actors, led by Ha Ji-won (“Closer to Heaven”), who plays the chief honcho on the derrick and heroine. And, yes, it is noteworthy that a woman was chosen to play the protagonist in such a genre film. Things get wilder as “Sector 7” reaches its climax, which is as it should be. The Blu-ray features include a making-of piece and interviews. – Gary Dretzka

Budz House
If all I knew about marijuana came from slacker/stoner movies, such as “Budz House,” I’d probably be against the legalization of marijuana, too. I guess the same could have been said about Cheech & Chong in their heyday, but, at least, they weren’t too stoned to confuse lazy filmmaking and relying on clichés with being funny. I suspect that director Cameron Casey and writer Marvin Watkins were too high on chronic, themselves, to know the difference or care much that they don’t. For what it’s worth, however, the pot ingested in vast quantities by C&C probably was a tenth as strong as the reefer (there’s a word that dates me) grown and smoked by the characters here. But, it isn’t the marijuana gags that killed “Budz House” for me. It was, first, the implied image of a 300-pound guy clogging the toilet after a leisurely dump, and, second, having to watch a plumber attempt to fix the mess with his bare hands.

Just for the record, mayhem ensues after Bud Howard (Wesley Jonathan) and his stoner pals discover a misplaced Hefty Bag full of grade-A “kush” and, instead of returning it to its rightful gangsta owner, smoke as much of it as they can. By the time they realize their mistake, the pot’s gone up in smoke and they owe a guy named “One Punch” a big chunk of money. Fortuitously, the plumber discovers that other thing clogging the pipes are the pot plants hidden in the cabinet under the sink. Unbeknownst to Bud, they’ve been fertilized by the raw sewage overflowing from the broken toilet bowl and acquired an unusually high potency. So, to avoid being killed by either of the two gang chieftains on their tails, the boys decide to sell enough of it to satisfy their debt and have some left over to smoke. That always works. Besides drawing comic books, Bud also is allowing himself to be seduced by one of the gangstas’ horny girlfriends. As if that weren’t enough, there are subplots involving one of Bud’s friends and a transvestite and his sister’s desire to win some kind of a booty-bouncing contest on the Internet. The funniest part of “Budz House” comes in a bonus feature, during which Faizon Love delivers a lengthy comic monologue. – Gary Dretzka

Meeting Evil
As near as I can tell, the dark psychological thriller “Meeting Evil” played in exactly one theater, perhaps, for only for one night. It’s reported box-office return was $181. Actually, the picture opened a month earlier on a VOD service, but, who’s counting? I’ve seen a lot of movies that would have had a difficult time bringing in even that much money in a theatrical run, but none starring Samuel L. Jackson and/or Luke Wilson. Maybe I missed something here, but I found “Meeting Evil” – adapted by Chris Fisher from a Thomas Berger novel – to be reasonably gripping and unpredictable. Even if Jackson and Wilson are playing characters we’ve met several times previously … $181? Wilson plays a poor schmo, John, who, on the day he loses his job, meets a mysterious stranger, Richie (Jackson), who needs help with his car and promises to fix all his problems. After Richie invites John to join him on a road trip to places unknown, all sorts of disturbing things begin to happen, including a string of grotesque murders. Because Richie disappears at inopportune times for John, it’s possible to wonder if the stranger might not be a figment of his imagination and facilitator of subliminal impulses. When the police catch up with John, who’s unilaterally decided to end their excursion, they begin to wonder the same thing. Suffice it to say, we haven’t seen or heard the last of Richie. The ending surprised me and I suspect it will satisfy other fans of the actors. Leslie Bibb also plays a key role as John’s increasingly impatient wife. – Gary Dretzka

The Tested
The adjective “gritty” is loosely attached to almost any movie in which life in the streets of major cities is portrayed as realistically as possible, given the limitations of indie budgets, hand-held cameras and tight shooting schedules. On television, it can mean that graffiti has been added to the sets or left on the sides of buildings, as is. Russell Costanzo’s anything-but-slick urban drama, “The Tested,” is one movie that actually deserves to have “gritty” attached to it. I may not be able to vouch for the validity of the tragedy at the heart of the story, but there’s no denying how authentic it looks and feels. “The Tested” is set in the aftermath of a police shooting that claimed the life of an unarmed teen and left the cop, the boy’s mother and his brother severely damaged emotionally. In the year it’s taken for the cop (Armando Riesco) to be cleared and sober up, the victim’s mother and brother (Aunjanue Ellis, Michael Morris Jr.) have existed in a netherworld of poverty, gang violence, false hopes and broken promises, and a desperate yearning for revenge. The cop holds steady, until he runs into the boy’s mother in a liquor store and falls off the wagon. His desire for redemption is palpable. If he can find it, perhaps the mom and brother can go on with their lives, as well. That, however, is a big “if.” As rough around the edges as it is, “The Tested” delivers a powerful punch for writer/director Costanzo in his first feature. In its rough-cut version, it was chosen to participate in the 2009 Narrative Independent Filmmaker Lab & Independent Film Week, in New York City, and probably benefitted greatly from that experience. Rounding out the excellent cast are Frank Vincent (“Goodfellas”), Annie Parisse (“Law & Order) and Nathan Corbett (“The Wire”).  – Gary Dretzka

Dreams From My Real Father: A Story of Reds and Deception
In his new faux documentary, disgruntled ex-hippie Joel Gilbert attempts to make the case for President Obama lying about the identity of his real father by literally offering an alternative reading of “Dreams From My Father.” As the filmmaker’s theory goes, instead of being born to onetime Kenyan goat-herder Barack Obama Sr. and Stanley Ann Dunham, the future POTUS’ birth father was American poet, journalist, poet, political and labor organizer and card-carrying commie, Frank Marshall Davis. The President has never denied the presence of Davis in his life as a mentor, of sorts, but Gilbert wants us to believe that the beliefs of the long-dead man still influence his each and every decision, as if he was a character in “The Manchurian Candidate.” Oddly enough, Gilbert’s creation myth contradicts the “birther” argument that was Obama was born in Kenya and, therefore, isn’t eligible to be President. Because Davis was an American citizen, it wouldn’t matter where Obama was born. That argument doesn’t sit well with die-hard birthers, like Donald Trump, Sheriff Joe Arpaio and thousands of other people with nothing better to do with their lives than to torture us with their hallucinations. Gilbert thinks it’s more important to focus on Obama’s Marxist DNA. Like everything else in this pitiful documentary, which already has found traction on the Internet, the grains of sands upon which he builds his case for America’s first commie commander-in-chief are easily washed away by the truth. If Obama is carrying out a Marxist agenda, he’s doing a piss-poor job of it. In fact, most of the decisions he’s made in his first four years in the White House have angered dyed-in-the-wool leftists – as opposed to liberal Democrats and TV pundits — as much as they have conservatives. His financial advisers helped rescue Wall Street from collapse and kept bankers out of prison; he hasn’t lifted the ridiculous economic blockade of Cuba; his attorney general continues to target legal marijuana dispensaries and growers; he and his wife are extremely wealthy; he hasn’t ended the war in Afghanistan or stood up to oil cartels; and the Pentagon still is in bed with Halliburton, Academi (formerly Blackwater) and other war-profiteers. That’s some Marxist agenda.

In fact, the person pretending to read from “Dreams From My Real Father” in the documentary reminds me more of Jeff Foxworthy than a 34-year-old Barack Obama. Instead of “You might be a redneck, if …” jokes, Gilbert’s narrator might as well be saying, “You might be a Marxist, if …” By using the laws of flaky logic and hysterical conjecture, he appears to be arguing, “You might be a Marxist if: one of your parents is African-American; one of your parents is poet/photographer/journalist/activist; one of your parents is white and is friends with an African-American poet/photographer/journalist/activist; you attended a school named after Abraham Lincoln (as did Davis); you’ve ever joined a union or participated in a strike; doubted that bankers and Republicans had your best interests in mind; know the difference between Karl Marx and Zeppo Marx; don’t believe that the medical and insurance industries always have your best interests at heart; are friends with Bill Ayres, Bernadine Dohrn, Bill Ayres’ capitalist-tool father, David Axelrod or anyone who went to college in the 1960s; you smoked pot or partied hardy in college; have personally benefitted from affirmative-action programs; are related to someone who may have posed nude for a photographer; don’t believe everything you hear on talk radio; have ever read or listened to the words of Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr. and Reverend Jeremiah Wright; didn’t refuse to read ‘The Communist Manifesto,’ when it was assigned by your high-school history teacher; or if you believe that the Bill of Rights should apply to anyone darker than white.” That’s the extent of the scholarship in “Dreams From My Real Father.”

The point is, though, even if everything Gilbert says were to be proven true and Davis is Obama’s real father, what difference would it make?  If, as POTUS, Obama continues to act more like a moderate Republican than anyone left of, say, Charlie Rose, it won’t bring about a rebellion by the proletariat or unemployed workers. He can’t get anything remotely progressive through Congress, anyway. Better that Gilbert focus on Mitt Romney, who, besides being someone willing to sell the assets of this country to multinational corporations and predatory capitalists, could move to Mexico tomorrow and be granted citizenship by the same government that provided refuge for his grandparents and other members of a well-known polygamous cult. If he wins, American men could be required to marry more than one woman, father dozens of children and voluntarily give up their jobs, so they can be outsourced to any country where workers are paid less than a dollar a day. American women would have to get used to those sister-wife hairdos; be required to share child-custody rights with the men who raped them; and crawl back under the glass ceiling. You see, liberals can make up crazy shit and put it on the Internet, too. – Gary Dretzka

Children’s Hospital: The Complete Third Season
Nature: Cracking the Koala Code: Blu-ray
BBC: Michael Wood’s Story of England
Between 9 p.m. and 6 a.m., on the cable space normally devoted to Cartoon Network programming, Adult Swim attracts a wide demographic of viewers attracted to grown-up animation and comedy shows. It’s here that you’ll find one of the most thoroughly irreverent – and funny – shows on any television platform. Populated with familiar-looking veterans of sitcoms, improv- and sketch-comedy troupes and commercials, “Children’s Hospital” skewers the conventions and clichés of medical dramas in bite-size segments. I wouldn’t be at all surprised to learn that the show was inspired by the similarly irreverent “Soapdish,” which, 25 years ago, sent up TV soap operas and doctor shows. On “Children’s Hospital,” the patients often are as twisted as the medical staff, which includes all manner of misfits, miscreants and fetishists. Show creator Rob Corddry stars with series regulars Malin Akerman, Lake Bell, Erinn Hayes, Rob Huebel, Ken Marino, Megan Mullally and Henry Winkler. There are plenty of drop-ins, as well, by recognizable stars. The DVD includes all 14 episodes from Season Three.

I was struck by how similar “Cracking the Koala Code” is to another recent “Nature” episode, “Raccoon Nation.” Just as raccoons have become as common a presence in America suburbia as ice-cream trucks and skate-boarders, super-cute koalas have become ubiquitous presences in some Australian communities. Encroaching urbanization is to blame for both phenomena. As the suburban housing intrudes on traditional habitats, these clever animals have adapted to traffic, pets, pedestrians and bicyclists, all in the pursuit of food. Just as in “Raccoon Nation,” the researchers here have tagged resident animals and following them via GPS as they go about their daily rounds, avoiding scraps with tougher animals and staking their own territory. We also learn how the koalas communicate with each other and perform their pro-creation rituals. The animals are protected from untoward contact with human beings, but must combat other more virulent ills, including venereal disease. It’s a fascinating show the whole family can enjoy.

By this time next week, we’ll all be knee-deep in up-close-and-personal stories about life in England, especially in places designated as venues for Olympics activities. BBC host Michael Wood, who never stays in one place for very long, has been exploring fascinating places around England and the rest of the world for a long time. In his “Story of England” mini-series, he examines the long history of the country through the perspective of one place – the village of Kibworth, Leicestershire – that’s located at the geographical and historical center of England. Kibworth and its many generations of residents have endured the Roman, Saxon and Viking invasions, Norman Conquest, Black Death, Civil War and bombings in World War II. It also played a key role in the Industrial Revolution, and was even bombed in World War II. Conveniently, much of the archaeology, landscape, language and DNA remain, near and above the surface of the rolling landscape. The two-disc set includes 353 minutes of educative entertainment. – Gary Dretzka

Los Angeles Kings: Stanley Cup 2012 Champions: Blu-ray
It took the Los Angeles Kings 45 years to be crowned NHL champions and be awarded one of the most prized trophies in professional sports, the Stanley Cup. Compared to the regular season, the playoffs practically were a cakewalk for the eighth-seeded team. This officially sanctioned Blu-ray serves a reminder of the roller-coaster ride that was the regular season, as well as the heady moments from the playoffs. It overflows with featurettes, interviews, marketing material and locker-room visits. It also adds material from the celebrations and victory parade. – Gary Dretzka