MCN Columnists
Gary Dretzka

By Gary Dretzka

The DVD Wrap: Fair Game, I Love You Phillip Morris, Chronicles of Narnia, The Next Three Day, Desert Son, Treme …

Fair Game: Blu-ray
Here’s another feel-bad movie about being an American … just what we need, right now. It used to be easy for those on the right (as opposed to left) side of any political debate to blame Hollywood’s many commies, sodomites and Jewish studio executives – sometimes all three simultaneously — for distributing films deemed unpatriotic and immoral. Today, such baloney merely provides talk-show hosts and televangelists fodder for their daily rants. (Fact is, everyone in show biz and politics either already is rich or aspires to great wealth, so they’re all playing for the same team.) “Fair Game,” however, is an example of a movie that should enrage anyone with a conscience and high school diploma, but, judging by the lackluster box-office, clearly didn’t. Among other things, it describes what happens when our leaders decide the Constitution and laws of the land don’t apply to them. And, guess what, Oliver Stone and Michael Moore had nothing to do with it. That honor goes to writer/director Doug Liman, whose credits include such subversive films as “The Bourne Identity” and “Swingers.”

“Fair Game” tells the story of former CIA operations officer Valerie Plame Wilson, whose cover was blown in retaliation for an op-ed piece, written by her husband, who argued President Bush was using false intelligence to justify the impending invasion of Iraq. (It doesn’t even suggest Bush knew the information was false.) Plame’s spouse, diplomat Joseph Wilson, had been asked by intelligence officials to investigate the possibility that Saddam Hussein was attempting to purchase yellowcake uranium, from Niger, for use in weapons of mass destruction. At the same time, Wilson’s wife and other CIA operatives were attempting to determine whether aluminum tubes, purchased by Iraq, could be used in a centrifuge for nuclear enrichment. In both instances, the reports indicated Hussein was not using such materials for WMDs. Wilson was so stunned by President Bush’s statement on Hussein’s intentions, he unilaterally decided to refute the charge in the New York Times.

As played by Sean Penn, Wilson is sufficiently self-absorbed to believe that the administration – especially Vice President Dick Cheney and his stooges – wouldn’t avenge what they perceived to be a traitorous act. Sure enough, though, they conspired not only to “out” Plame (Naomi Watts) and her relation to Wilson, but insinuate Plame was a “mediocre” operative, at well. Wilson would further assert that the administration broke the law by revealing such sensitive information about his wife. After much legal wrangling and ethical debate, political adviser Israel Lewis “Scooter” Libby was convicted of a felony and disbarred for his role in the debacle. Widely viewed as a fall-guy, Libby was spared time in jail, as well, after President Bush commuted his sentence.

Blessedly, “Fair Game” is less concerned with the courtroom activity than Plame’s role as a highly regarded CIA operative. It also shows how her husband’s hubris – however warranted – caused her to leave a job she loved and be kicked around official Washington like a football. Watts is quite convincing as the beautiful blond agent, whose effort to help Iraqi nuclear scientists defect to the west is thwarted by the revelations. Several critics have argued that Liman’s decision to accentuate the melodramatic aspects of the Wilsons’ case, instead of all the legal and political wrangling, diminished its significance. I doubt that a more clinical approach would have made “Fair Game” any more compelling, really. If anything, I think it would have benefitted more by being made for HBO, where the writers would have been free to sharpen the story’s cutting edge. Not surprisingly, perhaps, “Fair Game” was ignored by Oscar voters and, absent that push, underperformed at the box. The only Blu-ray bonus worth mentioning is the commentary provided by Plame and Wilson. – Gary Dretzka

I Love You Phillip Morris
Once they had acquired the rights to reporter Steve McVicker’s book, the creators of “I Love You Phillip Morris” faced the kind of choice few filmmakers in Hollywood are asked to make. The book chronicles the uncommonly fascinating story of consummate conman and escape artist Steven Russell, who, for years, made the Texas judicial and penal systems his own personal sandbox. He found numerous ways to get out of several secure jails and be hired into positions of responsibility with important companies. In one escape, Russell even managed to fake his own death. As such, any adaptation of “Phillip Morris” could easily have borne comparison to “The Talented Mr. Ripley” and “Catch Me If You Can.” Better yet, Russell did it all for love.

And, yet, therein laid the rub. Much of what Russell (Jim Carrey) was able to accomplish as a conman was inspired by his love for a fellow inmate, Phillip Morris (Ewan McGregor). As documented, the two men weren’t drawn to each other simply as temporary lovers, who would return to women or other gay men upon their release. Neither was anyone coerced or threatened with physical harm if he didn’t play ball with a more aggressive convict. They loved each other openly and with a dedication typically reserved for heterosexual lovers whose love is being tested by forced separation.

Fact is, though, at most American megaplexes, homosexuality remains the love that dare not speak its name. If it weren’t for the presence of Carrey in the lead role, it’s difficult to imagine “Phillip Morris” being made by an American studio, let alone distributed worldwide. After all, the critically praised and much honored “Brokeback Mountain” — a movie with far less overt sexuality and better reviews — has yet to pass the $100-million barrier. (Reportedly, “Phillip Morris” had already made more than $18 million internationally, before being allowed to open on a handful of screens here. Otherwise, the domestic tally, alone, would barely have made a dent in its $13-million budget.)

It may not be a crowd-pleaser, like “The Birdcage” and “The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert,” but the far less campy“Phillip Morris” deserves to do well on DVD and Blu-ray. Co-writer/directors Glenn Ficarra and John Requa’s film merges comedy, drama, romance and eccentric criminal behavior in a way that should be familiar to anyone who subscribes to premium cable networks for the original productions. Carey and McGregor make an excellent team, and they get terrific support from Leslie Mann, as Russell’s supportive, if confused ex-wife, and Michael Mandel, as the cellblock fixer. The Blu-ray package includes commentary with Requa, Ficarra and producer Andrew Lazar, as well as a making-of featurette. – Gary Dretzka

The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader
In the third installment of the “Chronicles of Narnia” saga, the two youngest Pevensie siblings once again are able to escape wartime England for the fantasy kingdom of Narnia, where far different challenges await them. Edmund would have liked nothing better than to be allowed to join England’s struggle against the Huns, but apparently he’s too young to fight anywhere but in Narnia. This time around, the portal from one land to the next is a waterscape oil painting in the Cambridge home of priggish cousin Eustace. Once the painting starts leaking sea water, it’s the Viking vessel shown navigating the roiling waves that will come to the rescue of Edmund, Lucy and Eustace. Even more fortuitous, the Dawn Treader is captained by now-King Caspian. Their mission is to sail to the ends of the Earth, searching for the missing lords of Telmar and source of a deadly green mist threatening the Narnian population.

Fans of the first three adaptations of C.S. Lewis’ immensely popular fantasy novels will already know what to expect from “The Voyage of the Dawn Treader.” Newcomers will have to rely on the cynical musings of cousin Eustace, a reluctant stowaway with a distinctly low regard for enchanted kingdoms. (Starting with “The Lion, the Witch & the Wardrobe” would be the more ideal option, however.) That’s because Michael Apted’s face-paced direction and rapid deployment of fantasy creatures, new and old, leaves little time for reflective thought. Just sit back, enjoy the action and don’t forget to dodge the 3D dragons. The less one thinks about it all, they more fun is available.

In any case, the wait for the next adaptation of a “Narnia” book could be long and fret with peril. The franchise finds itself in the odd position of having been too successful, too early. Although Episode 1 was a huge, if somewhat surprising success, its sequel was an expensive disappointment (relatively speaking, of course). Not caring to spend another $200 million on enterprise that might only return $100 million, Disney cut its ties with the series after “Prince Caspian.” After Fox picked up the brand, it slashed tens of millions of fatty dollars from the budget, thereby giving “Dawn Treader” a fighting chance at regaining profitability in foreign and ancillary markets. The budget reduction doesn’t look to have spoiled any of the excitement. The Blu-ray bonus material adds deleted scenes; commentary by Apted and producer Mark Johnson; and a series of short segments, in hi-def, intended to amplify on the various island destinations and characters/monsters. The “extras” tab on the menu also leads to a sub-menu, with a nautical map of the five islands and an icon for the Dawn Treader. The movie was sent out theatrically in 3D and 2D versions, but arrives in 2D, looking none the worse for the wear. – Gary Dretzka

The Next Three Days: Blu-ray
How many legal and prison thrillers have you seen in which an innocent man or woman is convicted of a crime any third-year law student could have gotten thrown out of court, even before jury selection begins? Too many, I’m sure. It’s as if the writer and director expect us to believe that anything’s possible, as long as it leads to a car cash, explosion or sex scene. Most of these types of movies go straight to DVD, without passing “Go” or collecting a dime at the box office. In “The Next Three Days,” a smart and sexy blond wife and mother (Elizabeth Banks) is convicted of murder on evidence so circumstantial, you’ll wonder why you didn’t stop watching after the film’s first 15 minutes.

Stick around, though. Soon after is the verdict is read and appeal of Laura Brennan’s life sentence denied, the real action kicks into gear. In an act of sheer desperation, the woman’s teacher husband, John (Russell Crowe), embarks on his Mission:Impossible, a scheme to break her out of prison and split for a country without an extradition treaty with the U.S. In doing so, director Paul Haggis (“Crash”) forces us not only to ignore the incompetence of Laura’s lawyer, but also the impossibility of such a plan working. It helps that Haggis raises the possibility Laura isn’t innocent, after all, so we won’t object too much if she ends up back in the clink.

Most of the credit for making us care so much about John Brennan’s quixotic quest goes to Crowe, who refuses to allow his character one minute of relief from pain and anxiety. John loves his wife and son, and won’t rest until they’re together, again … somewhere. Until that time, he’s a walking, talking toothache.

After first meeting with an expert on prison escapes (Liam Neeson, in what amounts to a cameo), John devises a plan that’s built on pillars of sand and could collapse at any moment, leaving his young son with two parents in prison. When the tick-tock clock hits the 72-hour mark, and Laura is about to be moved to another prison facility, the real funs begins. The police aren’t so much inept in their pursuit of Laura and John, as they are unable to get ahead of the Hollywood curve, which demands innocent blond hotties can’t spend their life behind bars. I haven’t seen “Tout Pour Elle,” the French thriller from which “The Next Three Days” was adapted, but I now plan to add it to my Netflix queue, if only to see if the plot is any more plausible. The Blu-ray adds three making-of featurettes, deleted and extended scenes, and a how-to on lock-picking. – Gary Dretzka

Kenny Chesney: Summer in 3D
As much as I love country music, I’d be hard-pressed to name a single song made popular by four-time CMA Entertainer of the Year, Kenny Chesney. The only way I could recognize him in a crowd would be if he wore his trademark cowboy hat and everyone else was bald. I think I knew that Chesney was married to actress Renee Zellweger, but maybe I have him confused with Keith Urban, which would make his future ex-wife, Nicole Kidman. Nothing of what I just wrote is intended to disparage Chesney, who, in “Summer in 3D,” puts on one helluva show. It just seems to me that country-western ought to be the kind of music that plays on the jukebox at closing time, chronicles heartbreak and tragedy, sounds best when it comes through the tinny speakers of a rusty pickup truck, and this ain’t it. Country music has much to do with jumbo-trons, cameras on Goodyear blimps and digital technology as Hank Williams has to do with hip-hop. But, what do I know?

“Summer in 3D,” now available in both Blu-ray 3D and standard 2D, was filmed over six nights of Chesney’s 2009 concert tour and features more than two dozen tracks. It intersperses concert footage with warm-and-fuzzy biographical material and observations by the Tennessee native on life, love and music. To me, it all sounds like rock ’n’ roll, but so do Garth Brooks and Hank Jr. If you dig those guys, you probably already love Chesney. – Gary Dretzka

Desert Son
As far as I’m aware, this very decent teen thriller was shown at only one film festival — last year’s Method Fest, in Calabasas – and subsequently was left to fend for itself in the straight-to-DVD marketplace. In it, a teenage boy is unmercifully dumped in the southwestern desert by his wicked stepfather, who’s jealous of his athletic ability and connection with his mother. How the jerk managed to drive his car so far off the beaten path without blowing all four tires is a conceit one has to accept as given, because it sets up everything that happens in the rest of the story. “Desert Son” looks to have been set among the deteriorating shacks built at the nuclear test site, north of Las Vegas, or a mining town gone bust. Moments before Phillip is about to die of thirst and malnutrition, he’s discovered by a pretty redhead on a bicycle. Lucy takes Phillip back to a different row of abandoned dwellings, which she and the truly twisted teen, Jack, call home. Although Phillip immediately becomes Jack’s whipping boy, the trio joins forces to break into homes on the exurban fringe, playing in the pools of absent owners and stealing their goods. Shit happens, of course, as it always does in movies about renegade youths. When it does, Phillip must decide whether he’s ready to fight back against the bullies in his life or forget ever winning the hand of the one good thing in his life. Lucy must decide, as well, if she really wants to cut ties with her cruel father/brother/lover figure and go with Phillip. The ending may not come as much of a surprise, but “Desert Son” avoids most clichés along the way. The actors, especially super-cute Erica Curtis, are well up to their tasks and the desert setting is quite striking. – Gary Dretzka

AI: Artificial Intelligence: Blu-ray
Ten years ago, Steven Spielberg pulled off a rare sci-fi double by directing “AI: Artificial Intelligence” and “Minority Report” back-to-back. Even though neither title comes immediately to mind in most discussions of Spielberg’s best films, they advance more interesting ideas on a per-frame basis than a dozen other works of speculative fiction. “AI” likely is best remembered as the forever-in-gestation collaboration between Spielberg and Stanley Kubrick. It was adapted from Brian Aldiss’ short story, “Supertoys Last All Summer,” but a tip of the hat goes to “Pinocchio,” as well. In it, Haley Joel Osment plays a robotic child discarded by his adoptive parents after their human son recovers from a serious illness. The robot boy, David, then wanders the untamed countryside and submerged coastal cities — covered by water from the melting polar ice caps — in search of a way to become human and finally impress the mother who abandoned him.

As intellectually stimulating and contemplative as “AI” often is, it also is funny, scary and fascinating to watch. Jude Law’s “mecha,” Gigolo Joe, is worth the price of admission, as is Janusz Kaminski’s wildly colorful cinematography. Critics and buffs, alike, had a field day attempting to parse the unique contributions of Spielberg and Kubrick, who had died unexpectedly in 1999. Given the distance of time, the Blu-ray edition might find a more appreciative audience today than did the movie a decade ago. The bonus package adds more than a half-dozen making-of featurettes in 480p, as well as photo archives and trailers. – Gary Dretzka

The Greatest Story Ever Told: Blu-ray
Fiddler on the Roof: Blu-ray
Teen Wolf: Blu-ray

MGM continues to open the doors to its vaults, allowing classic titles from all genres to be given a Blu-ray makeover. This week, the list includes a pair of films appropriate for the spring religious holidays and a goofy teen confection. Released in 1965, George Stevens’ “The Greatest Story Ever Told” was one of the last of the Hollywood biblical epics to take the gospels literally and portray the torment of Jesus Christ without the benefit of horror makeup. It’s a grand affair, far more entertaining than I thought it would be, even with the disruptive appearances of several dozen famous Hollywood actors in cameo roles. The choice of Max Von Sydow, then still known primarily for his work with Ingmar Bergman, was anything but an example of stunt casting, however. His presence added an air of dignity to the proceedings that is palpable even today. “TGSET” is also noteworthy for its magnificent settings. An entirely recognizable Monument Valley and the Colorado River basin, now covered by Lake Powell, stand in for the Holy Land. Their beauty is enhanced by the fine cinematography, which remains crisp and expressive in Blu-ray, and puts Stevens’ signature touches on full display. The movie runs 199 minutes, down nearly an hour from its original director’s-cut version. It also features a pair of vintage making-of documentaries.

The studio is celebrating the 40th anniversary of “Fiddler on the Roof” with a pristine hi-def transfer and a new 7.1 audio track. The set also includes commentary by director Norman Jewison and star Topol; a deleted song; several making-of and historical featurettes; and a dissection of “Teyve’s Dream Sequence,” by Jewison.

“Teen Wolf” is interesting mostly for the presence of Michael J. Fox in the role of a height-challenged high school basketball player, who, like Michael Landon before him, turned into a teenage werewolf. Fox already was a big star on television, but, in the summer of 1985, he successfully made the transition to the big screen with “Back to the Future” and “Teen Wolf.” The release of “TW” anticipates the launch of MTV’s “Teen Wolf” series, in June. Also new from MGM are hi-def editions of “All Dogs Go to Heaven,” “All Dogs Go to Heaven 2,” “Picture This,” “The Secret of NIMH,” “Material Girls” and “Legally Blonde 2: Red, White & Blonde.”Gary Dretzka

Anywhere, USA
Movies don’t get much more indie than the beyond-quirky “Anywhere, USA,” a triptych profile of some of the characters who give Asheville, North Carolina, its unique flavor. Director/co-writer Chusy Haney-Jardine is a Venezulean-born advertising director, who moved to the United States to attend film school, make commercials and become an outsider celebrity, of sorts. He and his family moved to the Smoky Mountains gateway city of Asheville, where he began collecting the stories that comprise a “subjective portrait of what he saw as his America.” The film, which reminds me of both the IFC series “Portlandia” and the truly weird Southern Gothic musical documentary, “Searching for the Wrong-Eyed Jesus,” introduces us to individuals representing three strata of Asheville society, from inarguably dumb hicks to country-club liberals. The portrayal of these eccentric characters borders on the stereotypical – how could it not? – but without resorting to cruel parody or minimizing their humanity. In the first section, a collection of clueless rednecks imagines that Al Qaeda operatives are attempting win over local lovelies by sending them pistachios and sexy e-mails, in return for access to a local racetrack. In the second, a darling young orphan approaches puberty, while traveling through the South with her hippie uncle. Before she can comprehend the dawn of womanhood, however, she must first learn to forgive her uncle for blowing the Tooth Fairy’s cover. In the final story, a wealthy gentleman has an epiphany over lunch, prompting him to go out and meet an African-American.

“Anywhere, USA” reveals many sad, poignant and funny truths about life in Asheville and the South, in general. A stunning performance is turned in by the filmmaker’s charming 13-year-old daughter, Perla, who’s already appeared in “Kill Bill: Vol. 2,” “Dark Water” and “Spider-Man 3.” Otherwise, the majority of actors are local non-professionals, recruited from fast-food restaurants, malls and job sites by the director’s wife and co-writer Jennifer McDonald. “Anywhere USA” played a number of festivals, winning a Special Jury Prize at Sundance, without being accorded the dignity of a limited release. Indie buffs looking for an evening of offbeat entertainment could do a lot worse than this often enchanting movie. The cinematography and rural settings are outstanding, as well. – Gary Dretzka

Treme: The Complete First Season
Teenage Paparazzo

There is no more culturally stimulating city in the United States than New Orleans. New York is the great marketplace for culture, but everything that makes New Orleans wonderful – its music, food, architecture, art, dialects, smells, joie de vivre – is homegrown and organic. The HBO series, “Treme,” captured the rhythms and spirit of the City That Care Forgot as well as any show or movie I’ve seen, at least since Jim McBride’s “The Big Easy,” in 1986. No matter how many hard blows it takes from outside forces, the city still remarkably manages to return to life much in the same way as it was before the interruption. The same, of course, can be said about the swamps and bayous that surround NOLA, where nothing will ever seem new.

It was anyone’s guess as to how Baltimore stalwarts David Simon and Eric Overmyer would transfer the collaborative success they enjoyed with “The Wire” and “Homicide: Life on the Streets” to a series set in alien territory. Some ruined cities resemble each other in essential ways, however, and post-Katrina New Orleans and crime-ridden Baltimore are practically cousins in that regard, at least. Here, the neighborhood put under tight-focus is Treme, a uniquely representative enclave favored by musicians, resilient natives and up-and-comers of all stripes. The city has begun showing signs of awakening from its long nightmare, with residents returning from forced exile and businesses beginning to repair their wounded exteriors.

The characters around which the story whirls, then, are a radio deejay and aspiring musician, Davis McAlary (Steve Zahn); trombonist and all-around playa, Antoine Batiste (Wendell Pierce); his ex-wife, LaDonna (Khandi Alexander), a bar owner who’s desperately searching for her missing brother; Creighton Bernette (John Goodman), a professor and activist, who’s just discovered the rhetorical possibilities of social media; his wife, Toni (Melissa Leo), a lawyer who specializes in the disposition of cases involving the corrupt and brutal NOPD; the gifted, if struggling restaurateur Janette (Kim Dickens); and Albert Lambreaux (Clarke Peters), a respected Mardi Gras Indian, whose home and business were destroyed in the flood. Their through-lines are propelled by the music of such artists as the Rebirth Brass Band, Allen Toussaint, Dr. John, Ernie K-Doe, Lee Dorsey, the Meters, Trombone Shorty, Coco Robicheaux and representatives of the zydeco, trad jazz and Dixieland communities. Also appearing are such outsiders as Elvis Costello and Steve Earle.

The set includes downloadable videos of 10 musical performances inspired by “Treme,” featurettes on the neighborhood, the songs, the creation of the series and commentaries. The second season kicks off in a couple of weeks, with one great mystery, at least, waiting to be solved. (No sense spoiling the surprise.) Newcomers and non-subscribers to HBO would do well to pick up the first season on DVD and, yes, let the good times roll.

“Teenage Paparazzo” was something of a side project for HBO and Adrian Grenier, the star of the hit series, “Entourage.” As the title suggests, the pop-documentary focuses on the photographers who swarm around the “Entourage” gang and other celebrities, looking for photographs that are either sexy or embarrassing. His subject is 13-year-old paparazzo Austin Visschedyk, a young pro comfortable among the jackals and newsmakers, alike. Grenier has points to make about living in the skin of a red-hot celebrity, but it’s trumped by the excitement of the chase (and escape) and appearances by other limelight seekers, including Paris and Perez Hilton, Eva Longoria, Brooke Shields, Matt Damon and Alec Baldwin. – Gary Dretzka

Masterpiece Classic: Any Human Heart
Lark Rise to Candleford: Complete Collection

Among the time-honored conceits used to chronicle the passage of time in a film is the introduction of the protagonist in the present and having him lapse into the flashbacks, in which memories literally come alive. Such is the case with “Any Human Heart,” the marvelously entertaining BBC/PBS mini-series adapted from the sprawling novel by William Boyd, who’s also credited with the teleplay. The “Masterpiece Theater” production not only chronicles the amazing life of a sharp Brit novelist and reporter, Logan Mountstuart, but it also dramatizes and personalizes key events throughout the 20th Century. As alternately portrayed by the estimable Jim Broadbent, Matthew Macfadyen (“MI-5”) and newcomer Sam Claflin (“Pillars of the Earth”), Montstuart is a charming and highly literate fellow, if also a chronic philanderer and something of a Candide-like explorer. Montstuart.has inherited from his father the notion that life is but a series of events governed by good and bad luck, and, from others, a belief that one should look forward in life, not backwards. If his resume seems a bit too adventurous to be true, it’s because Boyd created Monstuart from the memoirs, press clippings and letters of several non-fictional men very much like him. Among other things, Montstuart’s Uruguayan mother was wealthy enough to afford him an Oxford education, where he made the contacts that would serve him well for the rest of his days. Through them, he was introduced to women who would inspire his early racy novels; Naval Intelligence officers, including Ian Fleming, who would train him to be a spy; the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, upon whom he was asked to spy; fellow war correspondents, such as Ernest Hemingway, and French avant garde writers, all living in pre-war Paris; and important contributors to the New York art scene, after the war. Over the years, Montstuart rests his head in chalets, estates, bunkers, brothels, flophouses and crash pads. Sadly, too, he manages to outlive all of his friends and lovers. Among the long list of guest stars are Tom Hollander, Gillian Anderson, Hayley Atwell, Kim Cattrall, Holliday Grainger, Charity Wakefield, Richard Schiff and Samuel West. The mini-series was directed by Michael Samuels, who found interesting ways to balance the drama, pathos, tragedy and humor (especially in the closing chapter) in Boyd’s book and script. American viewers will be happy to learn that the DVD contains the un-cut British version, not the significantly shorter and censored one made available here by an increasingly squeamish and time-conscious PBS. The package also includes several interviews, making-of pieces and deleted scenes.

After four memorable seasons, the BBC has put “Lark Rise to Candleford” to bed, seemingly for the Big Sleep. The gossipy series, set in rural England at the close of the 19th Century, introduced us to the residents of two communities, representing both the advance of the Industrial Age and a desire to keep things just as they’ve been for centuries. We witness most of the tumult through the eyes of Laura Timmins, whose job at the post office provides her with an excellent vantage point for the observation of scandals, feuds and affairs involving prominent residents of both towns. Included in the boxed set are several behind-the-scenes and making-of featurettes, character studies and biographical pieces on author Flora Thompson. – Gary Dretzka

Life Unexpected: The Complete First and Second Seasons
iCarly: Season 2, Volume 3

Although the newly released “Life Unexpected” boxed set promises the “First and Second Seasons,” it’s something of a half-empty promise. The CW stopped producing new episodes of the prime-time soap for teens halfway through the sophomore stanza. It culminated in a two-hour finale, also included in the package. Diehard backers of the series hope that strong sales of the DVD might prompt the CW to give “Life Unexpected” another shot, but the actors playing key characters appear to have already found other gigs. Intended as a companion piece to “One Tree Hill,” the series is about a 16-year-old foster child – a pretty blond girl, of course – who seeks emancipation from her long-estranged parents, but, instead, re-connects with them. One is an adult slacker, while the mother is Portland radio personality. Their daughter, Lux, was the surprise package that arrived nine months after a one-night stand and destined to be raised by other people. The set adds pieces on the show’s casting and production, and a gag reel.

As near as I can tell, the “Season 2, Volume 3” box of “iCarly” episodes actually encompasses the entirety of Season 3, plus two made-for-TV movies. It’s difficult to tell if the studios that favor such categorization are trying to fool the show’s fans or if loyal viewers actually understand the distinction being made. In any case, the episodes begin with “iTwins” and end at “iBloop.” Also included are the pilot for “T.U.F.F. Puppy” and other shorts. The Nickelodeon series parallels an Internet show created by and for precocious kids. Both star Miranda Cosgrove, Jennette McCurdy, Nathan Kress and Jerry Trainor. – Gary Dretzka

Apocalypse: World War II: Blu-ray
Nova: Deadliest Earthquakes
Our Planet: The Past, Present and Future of Earth
Wild Kratts: Creature Adventures
The Universe: The Complete Season Four: Blu-ray
The Best of ‘Ask This Old House’

Sorting through the many documentaries about World War II is a difficult task. All promise never-before-seen or rarely shown film footage, unedited clips and interviews with untapped sources. Considering that the war ended 56 years ago and the reserve of eye-witnesses declines annually, it’s difficult to imagine how much fresh material remains extant. On the other hand, the opening of records once buried in the archives of Iron Country nations has revealed a treasure trove of information. So, keep ’em coming, please. The best thing going for “Apocalypse: World War II” might be its French origin. It means that the films aren’t locked into a primarily rah-rah, pro-American point of view, with other Allied contributions scattered along the sidelines. It opens earlier than most U.S.-made documentaries and, in some cases, offers more scenes unfiltered to suit American sensitivities. The DVD logs in at 318 minutes and includes two hours of bonus material and much color footage. It previously was offered exclusively through Time-Life.

As quickly as breaking news can be transformed into documentaries and DVDs, it’s just that easy for evolving events to make those products seem hopelessly dated. In the wake of the New Zealand and Japan earthquakes – and, of course, the devastating tsunami that wracked northeastern Japan – any DVD proclaiming coverage of “Deadliest Earthquakes” is going to beg the question of when it was made. The “Nova” doc focuses on the natural disasters in Haiti and Chile, which, while devastating, didn’t include the prospect of worldwide nuclear fallout. That said, coverage of the Haitian earthquake, especially, would be impossible to forget, in any case.

History’s “Our Planet: The Past, Present and Future of Earth” also begs the question of how accurate any discussion of the planet’s future can be, especially considering the ongoing debate over global warming and the advancement of technology used by geologists. Charting what we do know about the physical history of our planet is an endlessly fascinating exercise, though, as is speculating on what it might look like if man disappears from Earth’s face. The set includes additional scenes and the bonus documentary, “Inside the Volcano.”

From PBS Kids Go! comes “Wild Kratts: Creature Adventures,” in which animated characters, named after creators Chris and Martin Kratt, travel the world to observe exotic animals and how they use their survival skills to adapt to radical changes in their environments. Here, the brothers make friends with squid, crocodiles, aardvarks, platypuses, beavers and bees, among other critters. The DVD may be for the youngest viewers, but that doesn’t make it any less interesting.

In the fourth season of “The Universe,” viewers were asked to consider such phenomenon as meteors and comets, death stars, ringed planets beyond Saturn, cosmic clusters, pulsars and quasars, extreme energy and potential threats to the Earth and its moon. Naturally, the CGI elements look excellent in Blu-ray.

“The Best of ‘Ask This Old House’” offers advice on how to make sure common household projects turn out right. The “This Old House” team covers 44 separate projects, from installing a tile backsplash to building a backyard fire pit. Rank amateurs can benefit from the advice of professional contractors as much do-it-yourselfers with a full toolbox and ready cash. The bonus package is comprised of a gallery of 180 before-and-after photographs, more than a dozen articles from This Old House Magazine and a resource guide for projects shown on the DVD. – Gary Dretzka

Ultimate Death Match II
A few months ago, in reviewing the first “Ultimate Death Match” video, I marveled at the ineptitude of a production that appeared to have been made on a budget that would make actual shoestrings look expensive and shot in a VFW banquet hall. The set-up was simple, bordering on primitive. A struggling pro-wrestling federation decides to refill its coffers by staging a series of matches that would culminate in one man becoming a millionaire and the other a corpse. The promoters say they were influenced by the Roman gladiators, but the matches staged for consumption by Internet sadists couldn’t have looked any more fake … even by pro-wrestling standards.

I’m stunned to report that “Ultimate Death Match II” is light years better than the original. It takes place in a facility resembling an actual arena, most of the competitors look as if they might have graduated from middle school, anyway, and there’s a hint of a storyline. As such, it qualifies for cult status. This time around, the combatants include Kevin Nash, Shane Douglas, Johnny Swinger, the Sandman, Larry Zabisco, Raven and Lodi, as well as announcer Al Snow and assorted bimbos. And, in fact, two people die during the course of the film. The DVD adds behind-the-scenes featurette, blooper reel and promotional material. Now that Vince McMahon says he’s getting out of the wrestling dodge and into the entertainment game, anything’s possible for old-school grapplers. – Gary Dretzka

Heaven Ain’t Hard to Find
Say what you will about Tyler Perry, when he made the leap from stage to screen, he carried solid production values along with him. His empire now rivals that of Oprah Winfrey and his star remains on the ascendency. I mention Perry because “Heaven Ain’t Hard to Find” is the second movie I’ve seen in the last few months in which the producers appear to be copying his breakout strategy, right down to the story’s spiritual overtones. Again, the camera appears merely to have been pointed at the stage, with the actors passing before its lens in a way that would suggest they don’t even know they’re being recorded. Here, a church is in desperate need of repair and benefactors, and the only person stepping up to the plate is a troubled young man in desperate need of redemption. See how that works? The church offers some supernatural challenge, as well. “Heaven” stars Clifton Powell and Kym Whitley. – Gary Dretzka

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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon