Posts Tagged ‘raging bull’

Wilmington DVD Picks of the Week: Black Swan, Raging Bull, The Complete Sherlock Holmes Collection, Farley Granger

Tuesday, April 5th, 2011

PICK OF THE WEEK: NEW

Black Swan (Also Blu-ray and Digital) (Three and a Half Stars)
U.S.: Darren Aronofsky, 2010 (Fox)

Darren Aronofsky specializes in cinema tales of the brilliantly sick, sickly brilliant. He spins, with white-hot intensity, barmy movie stories of a crazed math genius going nuts on the stock market (in Pi), of a family of lower depths junkies and pill-poppers flipping out together (Hubert Selby Jr‘s Requiem for a Dream), and of a battered, beaten-down over-the-hill old wrestler putting himself through hell for one last fight in a world falling apart around him (The Wrestler).

In his latest movie, the justly hailed but occasionally (understandably) ridiculed dance melodrama Black Swan, this unbraked chronicler of mad lives charts the psychological disintegration of a young, ambitious New York ballerina named Nina Sayers (played by Oscar-winner Natalie Portman with ferocious dedication), who’s been given the dream lead role of the swan princess of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake at Lincoln Center and promptly — what else in a Darren Aronofsky film? — goes over the edge into some kind of madness: self-mutilation, paranoid fantasies and sexual hysteria.

As we watch, Nina whirls and leaps and goes delusional — and the camera seems to whirl and leap and go delusional along with her, executing wild leaps and dizzying spins, diving and pouncing and peeking over her shoulder, Polanski-like, wherever she goes. The ballet company’s seductive bully of a master choreographer, Thomas Leroy (played with a sneer by French star Vincent Cassell), casts Nina as the lead in Tchaikovsky’s classic ballet, replacing his former prima ballerina, Beth McIntyre (Winona Ryder, creating a self-destructive witch) — he’s simultaneously anointing Nina, and hurling her into hell.

Leroy tells Nina she‘s ideal casting for half the part (the role of the pure white swan) but not the other half (the wicked black swan). And Aronofsky then bombards us with Nina’s fears and desires, in scenes of dreamily voluptuous terror. The ballet studio and stage become arenas of paranoia. So does her home, an art-cluttered Manhattan apartment she shares with her painter mother Erica (Barbara Hershey).

Stricken with panic, Nina tears and rips at her own flesh — and then the cuts are mysteriously healed. She‘s flung into predatory sexual escapades or fantasies, involving Leroy, and also her main rival, Lilly (Mila Kunis), whom Thomas provokingly says is the perfect Black Swan.

As the fantasies (?) rage, Nina becomes ill, is berated by Thomas, attacked by Beth, played for a fool (maybe) by her rival Lilly, bossed by her devoted yet domineering mother. Amidst this accelerating chaos, the beauty and classicism and first night of “Swan Lake” (modernized by Thomas) looms.

These nightmares in Black Swan, concocted by Aronofsky and his co-writers Mark Heyman, Andres Heinz (original story) and John McLaughlin, are genuinely scary. We all know dancers suffer, actors suffer, writers suffer, artists suffer. (Hell, everybody suffers a bit, except maybe, at times, the upper income tax bracket guys. But artists maybe suffer more, because it’s part of their metier.) Yet Portman’s Nina — who sleeps (and, in one memorable scene, masturbates) in a doll-strewn and teddy bear-packed bedroom — goes through such intense anguish that, though possibly self-inflicted, it seems punishment enough for orgies of badness and sin, and not just with Mila Kunis.

How much of this is really happening? We know some it is real, some of it a dream, some of it is fears made flesh. But we can never be too sure which is which. That’s what makes the movie interesting.

Black Swan is not really a horror movie, but it’s more emotionally horrific than many that are. The movie hooks you, rakes the flesh of your imagination. The production design is dreamily swank. The camerawork is mobile and sometimes even frenzied. (Matthew Libatique is the cinematographer.) Cassell, Kunis and Ryder are fine, often riveting — and so, I would argue is Hershey. I was never less than entertained, and I was often more than edgy.

Ballet films sometimes seem to bring out the mad poet in some filmmakers: Ben Hecht’s eerie Specter of the Rose, for example, or Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s phantasmagorical operetta-ballet film of Offenbach’s Tales of Hoffman. The most famous (and best) of them all was Powell and Pressburger’s great, colorful, rhapsodically loony The Red Shoes, a touchstoine film for young dancers-to-be, in which Moira Shearer’s Vicky suffered too, though at the hand of the tyrannical Diaghilev-like impresario Lermontov (Anton Walbrook).

Like Red Shoes, Black Swan is a movie that seems to adore art and creativity. It also seems terrified of both, scared silly of the worlds they open up. Just like the magical red ballet shoes that carry Vicky up and over the balustrade and down to the train tracks below, Black Swan’s vision of dance and art is a dangerous one, crazily over the top. But Natalie Portman (who was doubled in some dance scenes) is often wildly impressive. Portman plays with fierce, almost trance-like fervor, letting the nightmares pull her (and us) under.

Anyway, in the end, it’s not art or artistry that drives you crazy, but the way the world ignores and treats some artists. As for the artists themselves, even the mad, selfish ones … They can also be angels, even when their hearts hide some darkness, like Nina‘s. As Black Swan rightly suggests, there’s something else to fear: the demons of ambition and jealousy — and madness — that may dwell within us, always. Waiting. Ready to pounce. To whirl. To dance.

PICK OF THE WEEK: CLASSIC

Raging Bull: 30th Anniversary Edition (Also Blu-ray) (Four Stars)
U. S.: Martin Scorsese, 1980 (MGM/20th Century Fox)

This has been out a while. But I’ve got to review it.

1950s movie lovers had, for one of their touchstones, Elia Kazan‘s On The Waterfront–a great classic film brilliantly written by Budd Schulberg, phenomenally acted by Marlon Brando, as`the slightly punchy fictional ex-boxer Terry Malloy trapped in a brutal labor struggle, memorably supported by fellow actors Eva Marie Saint, Lee J. Cobb, Karl Malden and Rod Steiger.

And 1980s film-lovers had a movie of their own, too. They had Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull, powerfully written by Paul Schrader and Mardik Martin, unforgettably acted byRobert De Niro as real-life boxer and middle weight champ Jake La Motta trapped in a brutal climb to the championship, terrifically supported by fellow actors Cathy Moriarity, Joe Pesci and Frank Vincent.

These movies are linked, vein to vein, blood to blood, heart to heart. Both were written in the vernacular of the streets: in Raging Bull’s case, such profane and dirty-mouth vernacular, so many “fucks” and “motherfuckers” and “shits,” delivered so off-handedly and almost automatically, that you probably couldn’t have played the show in a regular ‘50s movie theatre without getting arrested. Both movies were shot in black and white — incredible blacks and remarkable whites — by cinematographers Boris Kaufman (“Waterfront”) and Michael Chapman (“Bull”). Both movies had lyrical or booming symphonic/operatic scores, by Leonard Bernstein (West Side Story) for Kazan, and by Pietro Mascagni (Cavalleria Rusticana) for Scorsese.

SPOILER ALERT

Finally, the two movies all but fused into one in the last scene of Raging Bull, the scene where De Niro as the fat, washed up La Motta stares at himself in a dressing room mirror and recites Brando’s famous “Waterfront” speech: “You don’t understand! I coulda had class! I coulda been a contender! I coulda been somebody…instead of a bum which is what I am.” In that scene, De Niro’s La Motta is trying (with some difficulty) to remember his lines, and the legendary speech comes off in an almost expressionless, stumbling monotone: this speech that Brando — as he faced his crooked brother Charlie in the back seat of a Jersey taxicab — filled with so much passion, so much pain and regret, so much humanity

In Raging Bull, we follow Jake La Motta’s life the way La Motta himself told it in his book of the same title: his rise in the city and his battle to become champ, his epochal matches with Sugar Ray Robinson (Johnny Barnes), his ascension (brief, brief) to the middleweight throne, beating Edith Piaf’s lover Marcel Cerdan (Louis Raftis) for the title, and then that last fight with Sugar Ray, where Jake didn’t go down, but lost the title.

END OF SPOILER

We see also his troubled, demon-ridden, violent home life, his almost childish adoration and furious jealousy over his blonde wife Vickie, with her glossy but earthy movie star looks (played by a stunning Cathy Moriarity), and his explosive camaraderie and brainsick fights with his brother Joey (an amazing Joe Pesci). We also see the way everything begins to fall apart for Jake, when he goes crazy with jealousy and puts Joey on the floor and screams “Did you fuck my wife?”

SPOILER ALERT

Terry Malloy was never a contender, but at the end of his story, he won. Jake la Motta was the champion of the world, but at the end of his story, we see him struggling to become a facsimile of Terry the loser at his darkest moment of despair. (“You was my brother, Charley: You should’ve looked after me just a little bit…”)

END OF SPOILER

In the ’50s, most young actors wanted to be a facsimile of Terry too: to be Brando, or to beat Brando, especially in that taxicab scene. In the ’80s, before the decade went all sour and fat and greedy, a lot of them wanted to be De Niro. .(I coulda been somebody…)

And when the decade had passed and a few more years had passed as well, lots of movie people, both critics and filmmakers, decided that Raging Bull — though it had been beaten out for the 1980 Best Picture Oscar by Robert Redford’s good-hearted, well-acted, liberal family drama Ordinary People (while De Niro won Best Actor) — was really the best movie anyone had made during the ’80s, even though it was black and white, and arty, and profane, and about brutal people in a brutal world.

They were right. Raging Bull is the best of the ’80s, and of a few more decades as well. Citizen Kane is the company that Raging Bull keeps. And Casablanca and The Grapes of Wrath and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre and The Godfather Trilogy and Schindler’s List. And, of course, On the Waterfront.

All black and white, except the Godfathers. All movies about the real world, or a world that seems real. All movies that can pummel you in the guts, stun you and tear your heart out.

Why is Raging Bull such a masterpiece among masterpieces? Why is Scorsese a nonpareil director, and De Niro an unmatched actor? (We hear you, Al Pacino.) Why are Terry and Jake two movie characters who live and grow and resonate in our minds as few movie characters ever can or ever will?

It’s not because of the violence and the brutality and the language, though they‘re all a part of the story and they have to be there. They’re done in Raging Bull not just to shock us or give us ugly jolts or show us how streetwise these filmmakers can be, but to reveal to us with lacerating clarity what this world and its people are really like. To show us what they go through: Jake and Vicky and Joey and Sugar Ray and all of the others, even the ones we dislike. “I was blind, but now I see,” is the movie’s last sentence, and it’s written white on black.

That’s what the film gives us most movingly. Not phony uplift. Not schmaltzy sentiment. Not tough guy posturing. Not gutter ranting. But Jake La Motta as Bobby sees him and as Marty sees him: La Motta the champ, a man who was blind, like we all are to some degree, but who now…can see. The man who chases his estranged brother Joey when he sees him in the street after years, and catches him in his arms, and hugs and kisses him with clumsy tenderness (“Charley, Charley…You was my brother…“), and who knows he was wrong, and who asks to see him again, have a drink, talk about things, be a paisano. Be his brother. Forgive him. Christ, forgive him!

Raging Bull. Best of the 1980s. A great movie. A terrible decade. Fuck that decade. You can watch Marty’s and Bobby’s picture again though, and you can see it all so clearly, why it’s great — even though there are people, filmmakers, critics, who dislike this movie still (the language maybe?) or maybe are afraid of it (the violence maybe?) or even disgusted by it (The sex, maybe? These low-life, lower-class guys, maybe?) and who think it’s overrated, that Scorsese is overrated, and that even De Niro is overrated. When I think of that…

You don’t understand, I coulda had class.

You know what? To hell with them.
Extras: Three commentaries by Scorsese, Schrader and others; Documentary Raging Bull: Fight Night; Featurettes; Cathy Moriarity with Johnny Carson on The Tonight Show; Vintage newsreel footage of Jake La Motta in the ring, defending his title.

PICK OF THE WEEK: BOX SET

The Complete Sherlock Holmes Collection (Blu-ray) (Five discs) (Three and a Half Stars)
U. S.: Various directors, 1939-46 (MPI)

None of the many screen acting teams who played master detective Sherlock Holmes and his roommate/chronicler Dr. John Watson ever nailed the parts quite the way Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce did — Rathbone, the hawk-faced, eagle-eyed, lean, brilliant and lovably arrogant Holmes; Bruce the chubby, dithering stout-fella sidekick Watson.

One might complain that Bruce was sometimes a little too chubby and dithering. (Did this bumbling, bewildered chap ever really earn a medical decree?) But Bruce’s Watson, though little like the character that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle actually wrote, was the perfect foil for Rathbone’s Holmes. And there will probably never be another Holmes to match Basil‘s, or a team to match them both. Not the admirable Jeremy Brett with David Burke or Edward Hardwicke, not Ronald Howard and H. Marion Crawford. And no, not Robert Downey, Jr. and Jude Law in Guy Ritchie’s recent Sherlock Holmes movie, though it’s an interesting try, and Downey a sometimes ingenious Holmes.

The only competition for Rathbone and Bruce, I think, is a movie team that never was, except in What’s New, Pussycat? That’s Billy Wilder’s provocative first choices for his underrated 1970 The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes, Peter O’Toole as Holmes and Peter Sellers as Watson. (Wilder, of course, feuded with Sellers after Kiss Me Stupid and Sellers’ heart attack and exit, and Jeremy Brett’s buddy Robert Stephens wound up playing the part for Billy, with Colin Blakely as his Watson.)

But I‘d like to see Steve Coogan, Robin Williams or someone from Monty Python doing a schizophrenic Holmes some day , a mad master detective who, after Watson’s seeming murder by Moriarity, takes on both personalities; Watson comes back of course, and Holmes is caught between reality and schizophrenia. Works for me.

Rathbone and Bruce, though: Nobody beats them, as a pure team.

It all started at Twentieth Century Fox in 1939 (that supposed movie year of years), where Rathbone and Bruce appeared together in The Hound of the Baskervilles (Sidney Lanfield, 1939) and The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (Alfred Werker, 1939). They were both model adaptations. (See below.) But Fox never followed up on plans for a Charlie Chan-style series, especially after both films were blasted in England and by the Doyle estate, and the nonpareil movie Baker Street duo wasn’t reunited until four years later, starting in 1942, and running through 1946, for a lower-budget series at Universal.

The Universal films were almost all directed by Roy William Neill, a silent movie veteran who gives them a strong touch of noir — and, though some critics disagree, I think the series was good all the way to the end. They were all superior B Movies, well-written, well-cast and directed, but with one notable flaw.

The first two Rathbone-Bruces had been period movies, set properly in gaslit, fog-shrouded Victorian London. The later movies, probably in order to let Holmes bring down the curtain with stirring anti-Fascist speeches and tributes to the WW2 Grand Alliance, were all set contemporaneously, in the 40s. That makes them seem anachronistic today, and its really a shame the studios didn’t just continue doing Doyle stories with the perfect pair, in period. (See below.)

Still and all, Rathbone and Bruce remain transcendent, whatever the era they’re plopped into. Rathbone‘s Holmes really does seem smarter than anyone else in the room, including anybody else (say, Professor Moriarity), who might possibly drop by. And Bruce’s priceless fumbling, silly-ass bragging and doggy devotion to Holmes, though hardly According to Doyle, sets Rathbone up, and off, beautifully.

Two from Fox. Twelve from Universal. Fourteen in all. Ah, as Sherlock H. might say, the game’s afoot! In a way, all you really need for a good Sherlock Holmes movie and a good time — elementary, my dear Watson — are Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce.

The twelve Universal films are all the painstaking UCLA restorations. (They should have taken more pains over the DVD subtitles though; at one point Samuel Johnson’s very own Watson, James Boswell, is renamed “James Bosvo.”) All of the films star Basil Rathbone as Sherlock Holmes and Nigel Bruce as Dr. John Watson.

Includes: The Hound of the Baskervilles (U.S.: Sidney Lanfield, 1939) Three and a half Stars. This very good-looking adaptation of the most popular of all the Holmes novels, puts us eerily on the foggy moors where a monster (“Mr. Holmes, they were the footprints of a gigantic hound!“) seems to be dogging the Baskerville household (including heir Richard Greene, bride-to-be Wendy Barrie, sinister servant John Carradine and the inevitable Lionel Atwill). Not all that faithful, but it’s a fine introduction and showcase for the series’ Holmes and Watson — and, incidentally for Mary Gordon as their endearing landlady Mrs. Hudson.

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (U.S.; Alfred Werker, 1939) Three and a Half Stars. Adapted not from Doyle, but from William Gillette‘s hugely popular play, with Holmes and Watson battling that archest of arch-criminals Professor Moriarity (George Zucco), while trying to save both Ida Lupino and the crown jewel collection. (I’d choose Ida.) In one delicious garden party moment, Holmes, in music hall disguise, sings and dances an Archie Rice-style version of “By the Seaside.”

Sherlock Holmes and The Voice of Terror (U.S.; John Rawlins, 1942) Three Stars. Holmes battles Nazi spies, traitors and the Hitler-loving Voice, this movie’s version of Lord Haw Haw. First of the RKO series, not based on Doyle, but with a top cast: Reginald Denny, Evelyn Ankers, Henry Daniell, Montague Love and Thomas Gomez.

Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon (U.S.; Roy William Neill, 1942) Two and a Half Stars. Holmes baffles Inspector Lestrade (Dennis Hoey) while outwitting Moriarity (Atwill this time) and fighting Nazis. Can Holmes beat Hitler? Elementary, my dear Winston. With Kaaren (sic) Verne and Holmes Herbert.

Sherlock Holmes in Washington (U.S.; Neill, 1943) Two and a Half Stars. One of the sillier, more improbable (but still enjoyable) of the modern Holmeses, finds the intrepid sleuth Sherlock and his bumbling sidekick Watson, tracking spies and microfilm. We sometimes endure a lot for the pleasure of their company. With Henry Daniell, Marjorie Lord and Zucco as Moriarity.

Sherlock Holmes Faces Death (U.S.; Neill, 1943) Three and a Half Stars. One of the Neill series‘ very best. Scary too. Based on the prime Conan Doyle story The Musgrave Ritual, a clever cipher murder mystery, it’s set in a country manor. So — if you ignore the modern references — you can imagine you’re back in gaslit Victorian times with Holmes and Watson. The cast includes Rathbone, Bruce, Halliwell Hobbes, Hoey (as Lestrade) and two later ‘50s TV mainstays: Hillary Brooke (the blonde on The Abbott and Costello Show) and Milburn Stone (Doc on Gunsmoke).

Sherlock Holmes and the Spider Woman (U.S.; Neill, 1944) Three stars. One of the series‘ best villains, Oscar-winner and future black list victim Gale Sondergaard as the smiling, murderous Spider Woman, battling wits and webs with Holmes. A good one, with Hoey as Lestrade.

The Scarlet Claw (U.S.; Neill, 1944) Three and a Half Stars. Often called the best of the Rathbone-Bruce Universal shows, and it probably is, though again it‘s original, rather than Doyle-derived. Holmes and Watson track a seeming werewolf-like monster and a string of bloody murders in foggy Canada. With Miles Mander and Ian Wolfe.

The Pearl of Death (U.S.: Neill, 1944) Three Stars. Holmes and Watson hunt for the Borgia Pearl, which is hidden in one of six busts. Based on Doyle‘s “The Six Napoleons.” With Ankers, Mander, Hoey and Rondo Hatton as “The Creeper.”

The House of Fear (U.S.: Neill, 1945) Three and a Half Stars. A houseful of eccentrics, united in a kind of tontine (whoever survives all the others gets all their insurance) are being picked off one by one, under the very noses of Holmes and Watson. A tense, ingenious variation on “The Five Orange Pips.” With Hoey, Herbert and Paul Cavanagh.

The Woman in Green (U.S.: Neill, 1945) Three Stars. Holmes hunts a serial killer who chops off fingers. Grislier than usual, but Watson is there to relieve the tension. With Daniell, Brooke and Cavanagh.

Pursuit to Algiers (U.S.; Neill, 1945) Two and a Half Stars. Holmes and Watson aboard a sea liner, guarding a royal heir. Far-fetched but fun.

Terror by Night (U.S.; Neill, 1946) Three Stars. Holmes and Watson take the train in the series’ only example of that delicious sub-genre, the railroad thriller. With Hoey and Alan Mowbray.

Dressed to Kill (U.S.; Neill, 1946) Three Stars. Holmes reveals his flirtatious side as he pursues master femme fatale criminal Patricia Morrison, in a plot involving stolen music boxes. Holmes, flirt? This one has several references to “that woman” Irene Adler of the classic Doyle tale, “A Scandal in Bohemia,” some supplied by the perhaps slightly jealous Watson.
The series ends here, partly because World War II had ended. But I think Universal missed a sure thing by not continuing the Adventures, this time transferring Holmes and Watson to their proper Victorian era. There was another problem though: Neill, an underrated director (and also the producer), died in 1946 after following up Terror By Night and Dressed to Kill with Black Angel, a nice little noir from a Cornell Woolrich novel, starring Dan Duryea and Peter Lorre. That’s a big loss. But why couldn’t someone like RKO’s literate Val Lewton have taken over the Holmes series as producer?

Anyway, I loved watching all these movies, some once again, some for the first time, some good, some not so good, but all blessed by Rathbone’s inimitable sardonic, brainy cool, Bruce’s world-class bumbling, and that perfect movie detective team’s unbeatable chemistry. Why did audiences love them, together, so much? It’s easy to see. Holmes was the cerebral superman, Watson the fubsy everyman. We all want to be Holmes, but mostly we’re Watsons, at best. (And that’s not bad.)
Anyway, as Dr. Watson says, in The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, in Nigel Bruce’s grandest moment in the entire series, “Elementary, my dear Holmes.”

Extras: Six commentaries with actress Patricia Morrison and others; Interview with UCLA Film and Television Archive Preservation Officer Robert Gitt; Short sound film of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle; Photo galleries; Theatrical trailers.

Farley Granger Noir on DVD

1. Rope (U.S.: Alfred Hitchcock, 1948) Four Stars. Warners (Also in the Warners box set “Alfred Hitchcock: The Signature Collection.”)

2. They Live By Night (U.S. Nicholas Ray, 1949) Four Stars. Warners (In the Warners Box Set “Film Noir Classic Collection: Volume 4″)

3. Side Street (U.S. Anthony Mann, 1949) Three Stars. Warners (In the Warners Box Set “Film Noir Classic Collection: Volume 4″)

4. Strangers on a Train (U.S.: Alfred Hitchcock, 1951) Four Stars. Warners (Also in the Warners box set “Alfred Hitchcock: The Signature Collection.”)

The DVD Wrap: The Social Network, Army of Shadows, Dances with Wolves, Raging Bull … and more

Tuesday, January 11th, 2011

The Social Network: Blu-ray

Depending upon whom one asks, Facebook is 1) 500 million friends and friends of friends who pretend to care desperately about their friends’ pets and bowel movements (or is that Twitter?), 2) a convenient way for parents to spy on their kids while they’re away at college, or 3) a massive data base of potential customers that can be sold to companies too cheap to create one of their own.

Facebook’s unlikely evolution from brainchild of an amoral Ivy League dweeb to multibillion-dollar phenomenon is the focus of Aaron Sorkin and David Fincher’s wonderfully entertaining movie, The Social Network. In a rare Hollywood trifecta, the film is sitting on top of most year-end critics’ polls; odds-on favorite to win a bushel basket full of Academy Awards; and already in the black. While it’s true Social Network has yet to pass the $100-million barrier at the box office, it cost half that to make and stands to make a killing in DVD and Blu-ray.

Apart from the presence of Sorkin and Fincher’s names in the credits, it was nearly impossible six months ago to imagine that anyone could make a film about Facebook that was even remotely amusing … interesting, sure; entertaining, no. As stories regarding addictions go, networking is about as provocative as caffeine and a million times less stimulating. After all, Facebook’s bedrock appeal was to collegians desperate for a tool that would allow them to separate the wheat from the chaff of Boston’s dating pool. It spread like wildfire from one Ivy League school to another and, nearly as fast, to all manner of public and private institutions.

Eventually, the network would be co-opted by large corporations and Boomer parents, but that’s another story altogether. Sorkin chose to forgo all the boring “likes” and cutesy photos of dogs and babies, in favor of sex, drugs and cutthroat litigation. It allowed Fincher to re-imagine dusty old Harvard as a breeding ground for potential Fight Club franchisees and, perhaps, the odd serial killer. At other times, Social Network resembles Wall Street in a beanie.

As drawn here, Faceback founder Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg) is the kind of exceedingly bright, if socially inept kid who craves acceptance by the cool guys, but on his own merits. He’s not worldly enough to appreciate the fact that, at Harvard, the game is fixed from Day One and the only way dweebs can escape their caste is to provide the sons of privilege with something they value: money, prestige or a hard-on. Math-wiz Zuckerberg caught the attention of the BMOC Winklevoss twins (Armie Hammer), whose idea for an Internet-based date-screening service required the algorithms only he could provide.

When Zuckerberg’s hopes for advancement in the college’s social whirl are dashed, he decides to forge ahead on his own with Facebook, ignoring any legal niceties. By the time the full weight of the American judicial system begins falling on Zuckerberg’s shoulders, Sorkin and Fincher already have the audience hooked. The movie’s second half is dominated by the presence of former Napster founder Sean Parker (Justin Timberlake), a force as dark and charismatic as Gordon Gekko. It’s only in comparison to the haughtiness of the twins and ruthlessness behavior of Parker that we sympathize with Zuckerberg, whose own bad behavior we’d like to blame on naiveté … but can’t.

The Blu-ray edition of The Social Network benefits from Fincher’s decision to shoot digitally. It looks and sounds great, and the making-of material in the two-disc set is generous. On the first disc are two separate commentary tracks, one with Fincher alone and the second with Sorkin and cast members. The second disc adds the four-part “How Did They Ever Make a Movie of Facebook?; discussions with Fincher and DP Jeff Cronenweth, editors Angus Wall, Kirk Baxter and Ren Klyce, and musicians Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross; a comparison of music that was scrapped from the soundtrack with the piece that made the final cut; “Swarmatron,” in which Reznor introduces viewers to one of the unique instruments that played a critical role in the film’s soundtrack; and a multi-angle breakdown of shots used in the Ruby Skye VIP Room sequence.

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Army of Shadows: Blu-ray: Criterion Collection

Lots of people thought critics were up to their usual high-brow tricks when they anointed Jean-Pierre Melville’s 37-year-old wartime thriller, Army of Shadows, one of the top films of 2006. That was it was French, subtitled and shot in black-and-white only made readers that much more suspicious. When the fully restored adaptation of Joseph Kessel’s 1943 novel finally made the rounds of American arthouses and debuted months later on DVD, Army of Shadows was widely acknowledged as the masterpiece critics claimed it to be. Now that it’s arrived in Blu-ray from Criterion Collection, there’s no reason for mainstream audiences not to embrace it, as well.

The “shadows” refer to the French Resistance fighters who, in 1942, were seriously outmanned by Vichy stooges and Gestapo thugs. The movement had yet to develop to the point where anyone outside a very small circle of like-minded people could be trusted with knowledge of their underground activities. It explains why the portrait painted Melville, himself a Resistance fighter, was so dark and devoid of broad heroic gestures. Unlike other World War II movies, in which partisans are shown blowing up railroad tracks and outfoxing stupid Nazis, Army of Shadows is far more a psychological thriller.

While even the most basic operations carry with them the threat of torture, at least, Melville also makes palpable the sense of isolation and despair that comes from being forced into employing the same tactics against traitors as the Nazis would use against them. As bleak as it sometimes feels, though, Army of Shadows is as exciting as it is illuminating.

The leader of the resistance fighters, Phillipe Gerbier, is portrayed by Lino Ventura, who looks more like an accountant or lawyer than a soldier. Certainly, he doesn’t resemble a man nimble enough to escape capture several times. Simone Signoret is unforgettable as Mathilde, a woman who can sneak into places a man couldn’t and knows she would face the same torture if arrested. Army of Shadows wasn’t shown in American and many other markets until 2006. In fact, a controversy in France over the favorable portrayal of the exiled Charles De Gaulle helped derail the film’s success upon its release in turbulent 1969.

The pristine Criterion Blu-ray adds commentary by film historian Ginette Vincendeau; interviews with cinematographer Pierre Lhomme and editor Francoise Bonnot; a restoration demonstration by Lhomme; on-set footage and excerpts from archival interviews; a profile of Melville, “L’armee des ombres”; the 1944 documentary “Le journal de la Resistance”; an interview with Simone Signoret and Lucie Aubrac, who was an inspiration for Mathilde; “Ouvrez les guillemets,” excerpts from an episode of the popular French television series in which former members of the Resistance recall their activities; theatrical trailers; and a booklet featuring essays and an interview with Melville.

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Dances with Wolves: 20th Anniversary Edition: Blu-ray
Raging Bull: 30th Anniversary Edition: Blu-ray

For all the abuse heaped upon Kevin Costner, there’s no questioning his willingness to take great chances as an actor, director and producer. At a time when his handlers would have been content to see him reprise romantic lead roles in thrillers and comedies about over-the-hill jocks, Costner elected to throw the dice on a three-hour epic western. Apart from the odd “revisionist” or Brat Pack oater, the genre was dead. In addition to telling a remarkable story, though, the actor/producer/star of Dances With Wolves endeavored to create something in which Native American actors could inhabit key roles and 25 percent of the dialogue would be in Lakota, a language not even co-star Graham Greene understood.

Costner’s future projects would be greeted with bouquets and brickbats almost in equal measure, but Dances stood alone as a gamble that paid off for everyone. Within the western genre, he would go to appear as the title character in Lawrence Kasdan’s Wyatt Earp; star in, co-produce and direct the splendid Open Range; and produce the expansive multi-part documentary on Native Americans, 500 Nations. There’s a sequel to Dances With Wolves on the drawing boards, but John Dunbar reportedly will be played by Viggo Mortensen.

The “20th Anniversary Edition” presents the extended cut, with 50 minutes of extra footage, in hi-def and 7.1 audio; commentaries by Costner and producer Jim Wilson, and director of photography Dean Semler and editor Neil Travis; the “in-feature experiences,” “Military Rank and Social Hierarchy Guide” and “Real History or Movie Make-Believe?”; backgrounders “A Day in the Life on the Western Frontier,” the original “Making of ‘Dances With Wolves’” and “The Creation of an Epic: A Retrospective Documentary”; the original music video, featuring music by John Barry; a photo montage with introduction by Ben Glass; poster gallery; theatrical trailer; and TV spots.

Unlike westerns, boxing movies have never gone out of favor with audiences or Oscar voters, and Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull is arguably the greatest of them all. In one of his signature roles, Robert De Niro played the brilliant, if self-destructive pugilist Jake LaMotta in the ring, at home and into retirement. Shot in crystalline black-and-white, Scorsese’s cameras put us in the ring with LaMotta and his opponents, demanding we experience the brutality of the sport at close range and with a clear understanding of the fighter’s primal motivations, including jealousy and blind rage.

Already released once on Blu-ray, the “30th Anniversary Edition” adds the featurettes “Marty & Bobby,” “Raging Bull: Reflections on a Classic,” “Remembering Jake,” “Marty on Film” and Cathy Moriarty’s appearance on “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson,” in 1981. It retains “Raging Bull: Fight Night,” “The Bronx Bull,” “DeNiro vs. LaMotta,” “LaMotta Defends Title” and the commentaries.

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The Narnia Code

If anyone’s terribly disappointed that box-office tallies for the second and third chapters of the on-going Chronicles of Narnia series haven’t matched those for the 2005 original, it’s probably limited to producers who shelled out more than $150 million on each picture. The kids who comprise the target audience for the fantasy/adventure series – adapted from C.S. Lewis’ seven novels for children – certainly haven’t minded returning to the magical kingdom. The budgets didn’t seem unreasonable at the time, I suppose.

The 2009 BBC documentary, The Narnia Code, argues that Lewis’ books were informed not only by his embracing of Christianity and desire to entertain young readers, but also his research into medieval astrology. The key to Dr. Michael Ward’s theory is Lewis’ poem, “The Planets,” in which references to themes in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe are echoed. The DVD adds 45 minutes of related material.

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Soul Kittens Cabaret

Tyler Perry became famous for making the leap from producing broadly comic and deliberately heart-tugging stage productions for niche “urban audiences,” to successfully repackaging film adaptations of the same shows for the same audience. In the face of uniformly negative reviews and intellectual condemnation, Perry guessed correctly that fans of Madea and other, more spiritually challenged characters, would be welcomed as much on the silver screen as the boards of the “chitlin’ circuit.”

His first two films – Diary of a Mad Black Woman and Madea’s Family Reunion — grossed a stunning $50 million and $65 million respectively. Soul Kittens Cabaret won’t do nearly as well, if only because Nicci Gilbert’s musical is going straight from the stage to DVD, and it’s nowhere near as a polished an entertainment. Indeed, it often looks as if someone pointed a video camera at the stage from various angles and left it at that. It needed to be edited down to movie length and the performances are far too stage-bound.

That said, targeted viewers might not mind the 147-minute experience, considering the presence of “American Idol” veteran Fantasia Barrino; the Notorious B.I.G.’s baby-mama, Faith Evans; and Gilbert, former lead singer of Brownstone.

Soul Kittens Cabaret chronicles the journeys of seven women as they attempt to come to grips with the problems usually associated with life in the spotlight. Here, the healing plays out at a Detroit nightclub on the rebound. Barrino plays the women’s Good Conscience, while Evans is her polar opposite. The musical, dance and acting skills of the women entertainers are complemented by the talents of a chorus of handsome young men.

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The Hessen Conspiracy

Billy Zane, who makes movies like Carter used to make Little Liver Pills, gets to look dapper in both an army uniform and tuxedo in The Hessen Conspiracy (a.k.a., The Hessen Affair).

In the wake of the Allied victory in World War II, Zane’s Col. Jack Durant is an American colonel, who, while bivouacked in a German castle, stumbles upon a cache of jewels that once belonged to the royal family. Durant conspires with a beautiful American lieutenant, Kathleen Nash (Lynn Renee), to smuggle the crown jewels into the United States, and, then, decides to steal them back from the mobsters with whom they were entrusted.

The scheme might have gone unnoticed if it weren’t for the intercession of a German princess, who needs the gems for the wedding of her brother to another royal personage. Because the prince had supported the Allied cause, American authorities are anxious to return the jewels to their rightful owner. The post-war setting allows director Paul Breuls to frame the action as a noir thriller. Nicholas Meyer’s name on the screenplay adds luster to the straight-to-DVD story.

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Masterpiece Classic: Downton Abbey
Masterpiece Contemporary: Framed
Great Performances: Macbeth
Nature: A Murder of Crows

Lovers of Upstairs, Downstairs will be ecstatic to find Downton Abbey playing on their local PBS station or on the new-releases shelves in video stores. As scripted and produced by Julian Fellowes (Gosford Park, The Young Victoria), the seven-part “Masterpiece Classic” mini-series chronicles the affairs of the Dowager Countess of Grantham (played with imperious precision by Maggie Smith), her privileged family and a dozen of their servants, who range from impeccably loyal to downright frightening.

As World War I approaches, the matriarch’s son, Lord Crawley (Hugh Bonneville) and American daughter-in-law (Elizabeth McGovern) face the prospect of having their vast wealth and property re-distributed to a distant cousin, the only male heir in the family. The Crawleys’ son was killed aboard the Titanic, leaving a gap that couldn’t legally be filled by one of his three feuding daughters. Meanwhile, the servants are unsettled by the surprise appearance of a valet hired from outside the clan by Crawley.

The daughters could hardly be any more different from each other. One is sexually adventurous, another snooty and the third, a suffragette. Their troubles wouldn’t amount to a hill of beans if it weren’t for the fine ensemble cast and their ability to make us care about family squabbles and back-stabbing employees. Many viewers will conclude that the real star of the series is the mansion itself, magnificent Highclere Castle, in Hampshire. If something like that isn’t worth fighting to keep, nothing is. The DVD represents the original un-edited UK version of the program. It includes a pair of background features.

The charming romantic comedy, Framed, is a co-production of the BBC and PBS’ Masterpiece Theatre Contemporary series. It imagines what might happen if a flood caused by obsolete plumbing threatened the treasures being housed in the National Gallery. Instead of panicking, curator Quentin Lester (Trevor Eve) borrows a page from World War II history books for a solution.

To escape the Blitz, dozens of valuable paintings were boxed and shipped by truck to a slate mine in Wales. It worked once, so why not? Given the possibility of terrorist action during the transfer, security officials are put on high alert. On television, there’s nothing quite as insecure as a secret being kept from the residents of a tiny village. In Framed, it’s the remote Welsh town of Manod. Before the curator is free to breathe a sigh of relief over the successful transfer, though, locals deduce there’s art in them thar’ hills.

Before long, teacher Angharad Stannard (Eve Myles) has Lester hosting art-history lessons for her students and adults in the community. Normally, this sort of a scenario wouldn’t offer enough entertainment to fill the average British sitcom, let alone a movie. Writer Frank Cottrell Boyce, a frequent collaborator with Michael Winterbottom, introduces storylines involving an amusing heist and celebration the community’s naïve artists. There’s nothing here the whole family couldn’t enjoy together.

Patrick Stewart and Kate Fleetwood star in Rupert Goold’s updating of Macbeth under the BBC/PBS “Great Performances” banner. This time around, the setting is post-World War II Eastern Europe, where treachery and paranoia have reached epidemic levels. The period and place lend themselves well to the “Scottish Play,” whose bleak tone matches the emotional climate of most countries trapped behind the Iron Curtain during the Cold War. Lady Macbeth could stand her own against Stalin, certainly. Both of the lead actors are terrific. Stewart has been nominated for a 2011 SAG Award for his portrayal of the overly ambitious king.

It would be difficult to imagine a timelier documentary than A Murder of Crows, part of PBS’ “Nature” series. At a time, when flocks of birds literally are falling from the skies in Arkansas and other places, it’s important to understand just how fragile is the environment for crows, even in the best of times. In fact, only 40 percent of hatchlings born in the wild make it to their first year, while 50 percent of the survivors don’t last a second year. The research is provided by ornithologists from the University of Washington in Seattle and Austria’s Konrad Lorenze Institut. That crows are among the most evolved of birds makes the death rate only that much more alarming.

Other fascinating new releases from PBS: “Secrets of the Dead: Silver Pharaoh”; “Frontline: Death by Fire” and “Frontline: the Spill”; “Top Secret Rosies: The Female Computers of WWII”; and “Slave Ship Mutiny.”

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Love Hurts
The Freebie

Among the handful of stock male characters available for middle-age actors to play these days is the recently divorced father too emotionally damaged to do anything but feel sorry for himself. In Love Hurts, Richard Grant plays the grieving father and Carrie-Anne Moss the former wife. (And, yes, you’d grieve, too, in the absence of Moss.)

Fortunately for Ben, he has a 17-year-old son willing to arrange a makeover for his dear old dad, who takes to it like a duck to water. Suddenly, Ben is overflowing with vim and vitality, while everyone else struggles to make sense of his nutty behavior. It’s an old story, far better told in previous versions. Besides Moss, the familiar cast includes Jenna Elfman, Julia Voth, Yvonne Zima, Camryn Mannheim, Janeane Garofalo and a bunch of Pretty Young Things.

As the title implies, The Freebie describes what happens when a bored yuppie couple decides to spice up their non-existent sex lives by setting aside a night in which cheating not only is permitted, but it’s also encouraged. Despite the scarcity of orgasms, Annie (Katie Aselton) and Darren (Dax Shepard) seem to be perfectly compatible. A couple’s special at a Nevada brothel probably would have been a better investment than wasting time on a couple of fitful hookups, but that would have been too smart and easy. Ecstasy might have worked the same miracle, without involving innocent bystanders.

What Aselton, who also directed and co-wrote The Freebie, is doing with a self-absorbed dweeb like Shepard is a mystery to me. Knowing that she has ties to the mumblecore crowd explains why the largely improvised dialogue feels so limp and unstructured. Sometimes, a script is just what a picture needs to be successful.

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Funny or Die Presents: Season One
Top Shot: The Complete Season One
Universe: Complete Season 5: Blu-ray
Criss Angel: Mindfreak: Season 6
Greek: Chapter Five: The Complete Third Season
ER: The Complete Fourteenth Season

HBO raided the Internet for its sketch-comedy series, Funny or Die Presents. In its interactive version, followers submit short comic sketches to be graded by other followers. If the bit isn’t deemed funny, it’s killed … simple as that. The good ones are allowed to live for future consumption by browsers. The HBO iteration doesn’t allow for voting, one way or the other. I assume, perhaps incorrectly, the bits that made Funny or Die Presents are the cream of the crop.

The recurring titles include “Space Baby,” in which a toddler mows down bad guys on a space shuttle; “Designated Driver,” which demonstrates the downside of sobriety; “Playground Politics,” in which playgrounds serve as mini-UN’s; and “Drunk History,” in which a boozehound narrates a chapter in American history and familiar stars dramatize it. The others range from bizarre to stultifying.

Just when you think that all of the ideas for new reality shows have been exhausted, one comes along that almost curls your toes. Cable’s Top Shot combines weaponry with history, by pitting teams of sharpshooters against each in such events as shooting a lit fuse from an explosive device; knife-throwing; obstacle courses; and accuracy from various distances. The contestants use all sorts of weapons, from muskets and Berretas, to longbows and slingshots. It’s simultaneously nuts and completely normal … at least for red-blooded American males. The set arrives with additional footage, contestant bios and elimination interviews.

The fifth season of The Universe focuses on the discovery process, whether through telescopes or seeing what happens when a space probe hits a comet or asteroid. Among the chapters are, “7 Wonders of the Solar System,” “Mars: The New Evidence,” “Magnetic Storm,” “Time Travel,” “Secrets of the Space Probes,” “Asteroid Attack,” “Total Eclipse” and “Dark Future of the Sun.” The hi-def photography makes the CGI effects pop, while the interviews with scientists make astrophysics sound routine.

In the sixth season of Mindfreak, Criss Angel demonstrates his ability to jump across the Grand Canyon on a space-age motorcycle; make a crowd of 100 people disappear; levitate 400 feet in the air; and escape while hanging thousands of feet above the ground. In an amazing feat of cross-promotion, Angel attempts to walk up the side of Las Vegas’ Luxor Hotel, where his show with Cirque du Soleil is headquartered. The DVD adds “The Secrets Behind Criss Angel’s Tricks.”

There’s an internal contradiction in the title, Greek: Chapter Five: The Complete Third Season, but the good news comes in knowing that this installment is a full season and not a halfsie. Besides the party-hardy shenanigans and endless quests for passing grades, the DVD package includes “A Study Break With Nora Kirkpatrick,” cast and crew commentaries, a gag reel and “Gotcha!” featurette.

The strike-shortened 14th season of ER started out with a bang – an explosion – and ends with the departure of Stanley Tucci’s officious Dr. Moretti. In between, too much time was wasted on Abby and Luka’s dysfunctional relationship. It seemed as if everyone was anticipating getting lost during the star-studded 15th and final season. The DVD includes unaired scenes and material from a Paley Festival panel discussion.

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Comedy Central Roast of David Hasselhoff
Louis C.K: Hilarious

If anyone ever deserved to be roasted by a small army of take-no-prisoners comedians it’s David Hasselhoff. In fact, the world’s most famous TV lifeguard (male) provided them with too easy a target. He proved to be beyond embarrassment, even with his daughters sitting in the audience. Naturally, the bulk of the insults were inspired by Hasselhoff’s much publicized drunken behavior and inexplicable popularity outside the U.S. Roastmaster Seth MacFarlane really doesn’t add much to the proceedings, but the Hoff proves a juicy target for Baywatch vets Pamela Anderson, Traci Bingham, Nicole Eggert and Gena Lee Nolin, and such roast regulars as Greg Giraldo, Gilbert Gottfried, Lisa Lampanelli and Jeffrey Ross. I’m not quite sure what Hulk Hogan and George Hamilton have in common with the guest of honor, but their presence is welcome.

At the ripe old age of 43, Louis C.K. may finally be ready for stardom. His FX sitcom, Louie, is his most accomplished TV project yet, while his standup material, including the material in Hilarious, is of a consistently high level. The balance between the personal and political also was honed to near-perfection.