MCN Columnists
Gary Dretzka

By Gary Dretzka

The DVD Wrapup: X-Men: First Class, Hanna, The Arbor, Henry’s Crime, Scarface, Straw Dogs, Madea, Police Story …

X-Men: First Class: Blu-ray
Let’s assume that the producers of “X-Men: First Class” had a very good reason for not naming the latest chapter in the franchise “X-Men Origins: First Class.” Like “X-Men Origins: Wolverine,” it provides some of today’s most popular superheroes coherent back-stories and new cast members an opportunity to carve niches for themselves in the series. I’m not an expert on Marvel mythology – and, yes, it’s an extremely small point — but consistency isn’t something to fear, even in the movies. In the capable hands of Matthew Vaughn (“Kick-Ass,” “Layer Cake”), the origins of future archenemies Magneto and Professor X are laid out in a logical, if decidedly dark progression of catastrophic events, beginning with the murder of Erik Lehnsherr’s mother at the hands of a mad Nazi scientist, Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon), with superpowers of his own. Meanwhile, well out of harm’s way, mind-reading Charles Xavier (Laurence Belcher/James McAvoy) has found a friend in the shape-shifting Raven (Jennifer Lawrence). Bacon’s energy-absorbing fiend avoided justice at Nuremberg by moving to Argentina, where he became filthy rich and acquired a posse of obedient mutants. Xavier and Lehnsherr had loftier goals.

Flash forward to 1962, when, in the run-up to the Cuban Missile Crisis, the world’s own superpowers seem prepared to test the viability of Mutually Assured Destruction by drawing a line in the sand on Fidel Castro’s beaches. Knowing that mutants are the only people likely to survive such a holocaust, Shaw tips the balance of power by blackmailing a U.S. colonel and encouraging the Soviet hierarchy to test John F. Kennedy’s resolve. Stunned that diplomacy appears to be working, despite his malevolent intentions, Shaw contrives a plan to block instructions to Soviet naval officers to honor the blockade and return to Europe. In Uncle Sam’s corner that day is Lehnsherr and Xavier’s hastily trained and thoroughly untested mutant cadre. If World War III is to be averted, the young mutants will have to beat Shaw to the punch. While it’s bizarre to watch mutants battle each other in a setting more suited to James Bond and Dr. Julius No, it’s equally discomfiting to witness the combined forces of the U.S. and USSR navies obey orders to subsequently destroy the mutants, who had just saved their collective asses. As the movie reaches its fiery conclusion, the seeds of mutant discontent are sewn for the next 50 years.

Since shifting his primary focus away from production in 2004, Vaughn has proven himself to be a first-class director of action sequences, especially those of the comic-book variety. “First Class” isn’t as delightfully fresh and exhilarating as “Kick-Ass,” but, as a prequel, it has to carry a lot more narrative baggage.

As a CIA agent and “Man in Black,” Rose Byrne and Oliver Platt aren’t allowed to have as much fun as the first-generation of X-Men, including Beast (Nicholas Hoult), Emma Frost (January Jones), Riptide (Alex Gonzalez), Azazel (Jason Flemyng), Angel (Zoe Kravitz), Banshee (Caleb Landry Jones), Havok (Lucas Till) and Darwin (Edi Gathegi). Taming their disparate talents, youthful exuberance and emotional crises is no picnic, but it inspires Professor X to found a school for that very purpose … and, of course, a highly profitable movie franchise. The Blu-ray package offers fans a choice of cover art, deleted scenes, an isolated musical score and featurettes “X Marks the Spot,” “Cerebro: Mutant Tracker” and the eight-part “Children of the Atom,” as well as digital copy. – Gary Dretzka

Hanna: Blu-ray
Try to imagine a supercharged action picture capable of appealing both to genre buffs and arthouses audiences and it might look a lot like “Hanna.” Always surprising and blessed with a gung-ho cast of award-winning actors, Joe Wright’s thriller is a dark fairy tale that comes alive in the hands, feet and elbows of Cate Blanchett, Eric Bana and Saoirse Ronan (“The Lovely Bones”). Respectively, they play a ruthless rogue intelligence officer, a former CIA assassin living in self-imposed exile, and his daughter, who he’s been trained to be a human killing machine … charming, but lethal. Raised in a cabin near the Arctic Circle in Finland, Hannah is anxious to discover the truth about her dead mother, and then live something resembling a normal life. Her father, Erik, has shielded her from civilization as he came to know it in the spook corps. With Hanna finally of age, Blanchett’s Marissa fears they’ll seek revenge for the death of his lover, who the girl presumes to be her mother and a victim of a CIA-staged accident. Marissa’s uptight because she knows it could only be a matter of time before Hannah’s true identity was revealed and, consequently, the agency’s complicity in an evil genetics experiment.

What sets Hanna apart from the suspense-thriller crowd is a conceit that crosses Hans Christian Andersen with Robert Ludlum. In the imaginations of Wright and screenwriters Seth Lochhead and David Farr, Hannah’s knowledge of the outside world is limited to her dad’s memories and the storybook illustrations of Edmund Dulac. If we’re supposed to consider her in the same breath as the Little Mermaid, seeking her own place in the world, then Erik is the Woodcutter and Marissa is the quintessential Wicked Stepmother. If that connection weren’t sufficiently obvious, Wright also sets several key scenes among the fantasy cottages and other whimsically decorated attractions at an abandoned amusement park in Berlin. Before the three protagonists converge there, however, Hanna is required to run a gauntlet of sadistic agents that stretches from the Arctic Circle, where she’s captured by a Special Forces assault team; to a secret underground intelligence facility in the barren Sahara Desert; to a tourist hotel in Morocco; and back through Spain and southern Europe, to Germany. Along the way, she hitches a ride with the parents of a precocious Brit, Sophie (Jessica Barden), and her conspiratorial younger brother. Both girls are desperately in need of soul-mates, with whom they can confide their deepest secrets and begin the journey to womanhood. Things get a bit too real for Sophie, though, when a frighteningly twisted assassin (Tom Hollander) tracks the family down, presumably in Spain, and Hannah leads his posse on a wild chase through and on top of hundreds of storage containers on a busy dock.

The diversity of the ever-changing scenery is captured beautifully in hi-def and the extras are plentiful. They include Wright’s commentary, deleted scenes and an alternate ending, and featurettes on Ronan and Bana’s martial-arts training, CIA archetypes and iconology, the Chemical Brothers’ exciting score; the dissection of an escape scene; and BD-Live functionality. Anyone looking for stars of the future need look no further than Ronan, whose performances in “Atonement,” “The Lovely Bones,” “The Way Back” and “Hanna” are nothing short of extraordinary. – Gary Dretzka

Triad Underworld
Clash of Empires: Blu-ray

Loyalty and the “omerta” code of silence may have worked swell in the formative years of the Mafia, especially in Sicily, but such protocols haven’t been worth the price of pasta lately anywhere else. To save his skin, a mobster will sell out his “godfather” in roughly the same amount of time as it takes for a 10-year-old girl to tattle on her younger brother (and vice-versa, of course). Apparently, the same is true when it comes to the Hong Kong triads. In Ching-Po Wong’s “Triad Underground,” all it takes for a spark of doubt to explode into a full-blown gang war is for the wife of triad boss, Hung, to give birth to a son. Within minutes, fears that el jefe will turn into some kind of pussy run rampant throughout Hong Kong, and underlings and rivals conspire to fill the void left by his demise … or not. Hung, though, has given enemies and lieutenants no one reason to doubt his willingness to run the mob as he had before the child’s arrival, and, anyway, why would he screw up a business he would pass down to his son? Never mind the logic or lack thereof, because the screenwriters have already cast the dice. Based strictly on rumor, Hung’s trusted right-hand man, Left-Hand, is prepared to take out a trio of lieutenants and their families. A rival triad boss also is targeted. Likewise, though, the seeds of doubt and paranoia have been sewn into Left-Hand’s mind. Fearing Hung will become cautious or take his mind off business, Left-Hand asks his boss to consider lying low in New Zealand for a while. When he decides to meet his fate at home, instead, Left-Hand’s continued loyalty, in the face of a tsunami of Young Turks, could prove suicidal.

Genre stalwarts Andy Lau and Jackie Cheung play Hung and Lefty, respectively, while Edison Chen and Shawn Yue portray the young hoodlums who win the right to kill the triad leader by drawing lots. Like Lau, Yue and Chen are veterans of the “Infernal Affairs” series and, therefore, familiar to western fans of the genre. Director Wong doesn’t waste any extra movements in the 85-minute “Triad Underworld,” which is shot nicely by Charlie and Kenny Lam. The fight scenes rely more on good-ol’-fashioned knife- and gunplay, than wire work and martial arts.

Clash of Empires” is that rare creature, an epic historical action flick from Malaysia. While most Malaysian movies have been expendable genre exercises, Yusry Abdul Halim’s picture would be considered ambitious by the national cinemas of most countries. It also should force viewers to make a beeline to Wikipedia. I’m no expert in the history of the Roman Empire, and my Latin studies stopped short of exposing me to the collision of cultures described here, but I’m always willing to suspend my disbelief for the sake of a good story. ‘Clash of Empires” is set on and around the Malay Peninsula, circa 129 AD. Hindu ruler Merong Mahawangsa — apparently a direct descendant of Alexander the Great — had traveled extensively in the west and was in a position to escort Roman Prince Marcus Carprenius to his homeland of Langkasuka, where he would meet and marry Princess Meng Li Hua of China, thus uniting two of the world’s great empires. Along the way, though, the fleet is attacked by pirates under the spell of the winged Hindu deity Garuda and destroyed. The Garudans capture the princess and her handmaiden, but Merong and Marcus survive – barely – to launch another attack, this time with the assistance of other native Malay tribes. A lesson taught by Archimedes helps Merong gain a temporary advantage on the pirates, who, once again, benefit from Garuda’s intervention.

Ultimately, a new nation is forged from the blood and ashes left behind after the final battle is waged. Much of “Clash of Empires” could have benefited from the optical tricks of Ray Harryhausen, in that much of it looks no more credible than “The 7th Voyage of Sinbad” and “Jason and the Argonauts.” Nevertheless, “Clash of Empires” represents a great leap forward for the Malaysian cinema, which, until now, hasn’t even had a film worthy of being sent out on Blu-ray. – Gary Dretzka

The Arbor
My Name Was Sabina Spielrein

For a while there, it was fashionable to hand video cameras to underprivileged youth for the purpose of recording what happens every day in their impoverished neighborhoods, well beyond the boundaries drawn to keep media voyeurs and other outsiders from their home turf. Much, if not all of the footage the kids came back with was revelatory. A similar conceit informed Fernando Meirelles and Katia Lund’s “City of God.” In 1977, at the ripe old age of 15, British student Andrea Dunbar began chronicling life in hardscrabble Buttershaw Estate (a.k.a., the Arbor), in Bradford, in the form of a play. Three years later, “The Arbor” would be staged at London’s Royal Court Theater. The Irish playwright and screenwriter, Shelagh Delaney, called Dunbar, “a genius straight from the slums.” If that sounds like hyperbole, watch Clio Barnard’s brilliant hybrid documentary, “The Arbor,” and decide for yourself if the description holds water. Drawing from the same source material, Dunbar would write two more plays, “Rita, Sue and Bob Too” – later adapted for the screen – and “Shirley.” In 1990, at 29, Dunbar would die of a brain hemorrhage on the floor of the bathroom of a pub. Her death wasn’t blamed on her alcoholism, per se, but it was only a matter of time, apparently. Besides her work and unrealized promise, she left behind three children by three different fathers. The oldest, Lorraine, whose father was Pakistani, would grow up to lead an even more troubled life than her alcoholic mother. “The Arbor” also is her story.

Barnard’s film is constructed from plays and letters written by Dunbar; taped interviews with the writer, her family and friends; and readings of “The Arbor,” staged in a theater and on the lawn of the Buttershaw Estate. At times, actors lip-synch the words of people interviewed for the project. The effect is quite literally stunning. If anything, Bradford Estate is in worse shape today than it was when Dunbar grew up and died there. Hard drugs and strong liquor have replaced marijuana and beer as the inebriants of choice, and many of the residents have embraced racism as the cure-all for their chronic unemployment, bad habits and whatever else ails them. “The Arbor” played the international film festival circuit, with a too-brief stop in New York, before winding up on DVD. An admittedly dark and unforgiving film, it introduces us to two extremely complex women whose life stories deserve to be heard and shared.

Based on letters and diaries discovered in 1977 in the cellar of Geneva’s former Institute of Psychology, “My Name Was Sabina Spielrein” documents a love affair between the married, 29-year-old Carl Jung and his first patient, an 18-year-old Russian-Jew whose crippling depression was considered to be hysteria. Traditionally, this diagnosis was the medical community’s way of saying, “she’s caught the vapors.” The daughter of physicians, Sabina Spielrein would use what she learned in therapy as a springboard for her own career as a psychoanalyst. Also typical of the era, however, women found it nearly impossible to be accorded the same respect for their research as their male counterparts. Indeed, the case is made that Jung and Sigmund Freud’s work was influenced by Spielrein’s research, and Jung – who comes off as a true cad, here – may have plagiarized her conclusions. Her belief that sexual drive contains both an instinct of destruction and an instinct of transformation anticipated both Freud’s “death drive” and Jung’s views on “transformation.” The community was so close-knit at the time that it’s difficult to determine precisely who was influenced by or stealing from whom. Jung’s long emotional hold on the woman would weigh on Spielrein throughout her career and draw Freud’s condemnation. After the Russian revolution, she moved back to Soviet Russia, whose leaders decided psychoanalysis was “decadent” hogwash and banned its practice. She returned to her hometown of Rostow-on-Don, only to be murdered, along with her children, by Nazi SS death squads. (Her politically active husband and brother had already been eliminated by Stalin.) Elisabeth Marton’s documentary employs re-enactments and staged readings to add dimension to the letters exchanged by Spielrein, her mother, Jung and Freud. Most viewers, I imagine, would find the film to be too much of a slog to enjoy. As an educational tool, however, it benefits from an intriguing cast of characters and the drama that comes from watching brilliant thinkers attempt to kick the crap out of each other without dirtying their hands. – Gary Dretzka

Henry’s Crime
The Entitled
Assassination Games
A Horrible Way to Die: Blu-ray

Leading the parade of crime movies this week is a lighthearted heist comedy that might remind viewers of Woody Allen’s “Take the Money and Run” and “Small Time Crooks.” Keanu Reeves, who, at 47, doesn’t look a day over 30 here, plays an un-ambitious toll-booth collector, whose unsuspecting role in a failed bank robbery lands him a three-year stretch in prison. Likable, if not very outspoken, Henry shares a cell with Max (James Caan), a hardened con who does nothing to advance his chances of parole. Soon after his release, Henry visits the scene of his non-crime. While crossing the street, he’s nearly run over by a car driven by a self-absorbed actress, Julie (Vera Farmiga), with whom Henry will later attempt to spark a relationship. In the meantime, though, Henry decides that it might be therapeutic to rob the bank, after all. His discovery of a Prohibition-era tunnel that connects the theater and the bank encourages him to convince Max to make a bid for parole, which is successful. Together, they devise a scheme that requires them to enlist Julie and make friends with the producers whose offices access the tunnel. As unlikely as it sounds, after Julie teaches Henry some rudimentary acting skills, Max concocts a scheme to convince the director that he could assume the lead role in “The Cherry Orchard” conveniently vacated by the star. There’s no reason to reveal more key plot points, except to say that Henry and Julie’s romance is put to a stiff test. “Henry’s Crime” is a smallish movie that benefits greatly from the likability of its stars, especially the ever-credible Farmiga and a consciously goofy Caan. There are many far worse ways to kill a rainy night than an unpretentious crime movie like this.

In “The Entitled,” a college-educated young man with deep blue-collar roots is continually stymied in his attempts to puts his skills to good use and help his parents with the medical care and mortgage payments they no longer can afford. Because he’s surrounded by the trapping of wealth and entitlement on campus, Paul (Kevin Zegers) becomes increasingly convinced that the only way to help his parents is to steal from the rich and give to the poor, himself included. With the ill-advised assistance of a pair of even more embittered youths, Paul kidnaps three acquaintances, who he assumes will be worth $3 million in ransoms. And, he isn’t far from wrong. The problem comes in controlling the nihilist impulses of his accomplices, one of whom is an aspiring anarchist and the other simply stupid. Meanwhile, two of the three fathers (Ray Liotta, Victor Garber, Stephen McHattie) can’t seem to agree on how to proceed, absent sufficient funds. Instead of being honest and forthright with each other, they play counterproductive macho games. The ending may not come as a total surprise, but it is satisfying. So, too, is the very different alternate ending.

Every time a new Jean Claude Van Damme movie is released – in theaters, or more likely on DVD – his many loyal fans argue incessantly over whether their hero has lost a step or two, or is merely running in place. If he’s still taken more seriously than other over-the-hill action heroes, it’s because 2008’s “JCVD” was such a smart and unexpectedly self-aware satire. It suggested that Van Damme had a bit more to offer. “Assassination Games” won’t remind anyone of “JCVD,” but lots of bad guys get their just desserts and the deaths of some innocents are avenged, as well. Van Damme plays a knife-throwing assassin who joins forces with a sharpshooter (Scott Adkins) to take out a ruthless Eastern European drug kingpin, with connections to top Interpol agents and a small army of heavily armed thugs. If anything, the two most prominent women in “Assassination Games” have it worse than their male counterpoints, if only because their torture lasts longer. To me, the worst thing about the movie is the amber sheen that is supposed to represent something or other, but merely is a distracting affectation.

A Horrible Way to Die” follows the bloody path of a sociopath as he makes his way from a commandeered police van to the new home of his former girlfriend, still traumatized by the discovery she had been living with a serial killer. The young woman, Sarah (Amy Seimetz), has since found a job she likes and has begun attending AA meetings. After one of the sessions, Sarah and another recovering alcoholic hook up and embark on a serious romance. By now, we know that the paths of Sarah and Garrick (A.J. Bowen) eventually will meet, but it’s impossible to predict where or when, exactly. There’s no reason to reveal anymore than that about the unexpected ending, but what’s most scary is watching Garrick killing innocents with the same affectless demeanor as an angler casting a fly. Viewers, though, aren’t spared the sight of the corpses. Anyone with the stomach for that sort of thing will be rewarded by the movie’s ending. – Gary Dretzka

A River Called Titas
This long, historical drama from East Bengali director Ritwik Ghatak reminds me of the early narrative documentaries of Robert J. Flaherty and Marion C. Cooper, whose journeys to exotic destinations in the 1920s were exhibited as entertainment vehicles. For “A River Called Titas,” Ghatak returned to his homeland, which would be partitioned into East Pakistan and, later, Bangla Desh. He would base the 1972 movie on an autobiographical novel by Advaita Malla Barman, who described the customs and harsh reality of life in a small fishing village through the experiences of a woman who’s a lightning rod for tragedy. The village lies on the banks of a once life-sustaining river that’s gradually receding and forcing the men to travel further afield for sustenance. Rich landowners, money lenders and corrupt officials continually attempt to deprive the villagers of what’s left of their property, which could be stolen to grow rice. Ghatak employs local dialects, folk songs and ceremonies to make “Titas” feel genuinely authentic. The movie recently was restored by the World Cinema Foundation, a non-profit organization established by Martin Scorsese to preserve and restore neglected films from around the world. – Gary Dretzka

Scarface Limited Edition Steelbook: Blu-ray
Straw Dogs: Blu-ray
Dressed to Kill: Blu-ray

The only people who aren’t intimately familiar with the plot and defining excesses of Brian De Plama and Oliver Stone’s crime extravaganza, “Scarface,” probably weren’t born when in it was first released into theaters and video. Now that the cocaine cowboys have been forced to maintain a much lower profile than when the drug flowed like water in Miami, the movie seems more like a historical curio than commentary on a great American city hijacked by Colombian gangsters and criminals exported from Fidel Castro’s prisons. It has since been adopted by hip-hop’s gangsta community as a source of inspiration. As shocking as Armitage Trail, Howard Hawks, Richard Rosson and Ben Hecht’s 1932 original must have seemed in the days before the Hays Code kicked in, it’s worth recalling the uproar that followed the release of the 1983 remake, newly available in an expansive “Steelbook” edition. It’s no secret that Al Pacino’s over-the-top portrayal of the opportunistic Cuban thug, Tony Montana, sold the movie to audiences outside the genre faithful. It trumped Paul Muni’s fierce take on Antonio “Tony” Camonte and served as an excuse for mainstream audiences to dip their toes in the muck of gratuitous violence, garish fashions and nasty ethnic stereotypes, all of which had a precedent in real life. You know a movie’s captured the fancy of a generation, when more than one snippet of dialogue becomes part of the vernacular. “Scarface” contained nearly a dozen.

Universal’s special two-disc Blu-ray includes the 1932 “Scarface,” on DVD; 10 “collectible” art cards and, of course, a code for a digital download of the movie. There also are deleted scenes; several making-of and background featurettes; examples of how the movie was edited for television; and U-Control features that allow viewers to keep track of the “f-bombs” and bullets fired, and picture-in-picture comparisons between both versions of “Scarface.”

A decade earlier, Sam Peckinpah’s “Straw Dogs” divided mainstream critics over many of the same issues. Newly available on Blu-ray, as well, it arrived at approximately the same time as “Dirty Harry” and “A Clockwork Orange,” which also were seen as desensitizing. In addition to the use of bear traps to stop an assault on the home of a seemingly milquetoast American and his flirtatious wife, well known to the local scum from her high school days, critics of “Straw Dogs” felt Peckinpah unjustifiably used Susan George as rape-bait. It wasn’t until 2002 that British censors allowed unedited versions of “Straw Dogs” to be shown on DVD and VHS. It’s unlikely that Rod Lurie’s new Americanization of “Straw Dogs” will stir a fraction of the debate, if only because viewers have, indeed, become desensitized and, let’s face it, James Marsden isn’t in the same league as Dustin Hoffman. Believe it or not, in 1971, adults actually went to the movies in greater numbers than teenagers and healthy debate was encouraged. Today, the opposite is true. No one, though, was neutral about the performances of Hoffman and George, who fit their roles like a glove. The new Blu-ray edition is the unrated, extended version of the movie, which doesn’t include any of the bonus material of the Criterion DVD.

You want more violence? DePalma’s “Dressed to Kill” has all you can stand and several other genuine shocks to the system, along with it. Thirty-one years after its theatrical release, the Blu-ray “Dressed to Kill” is every bit as thrilling as it ever was. Angie Dickinson remains stunning as the sexually frustrated patient of Michael Caine’s Dr. Robert Elliott, and Nancy Allen’s hooker is incendiary in her black lingerie. (It’s also swell to watch Dennis Franz in a role he says informed his characters in “Hill Street Blues” and “NYPD Blue.) I don’t think anyone cares anymore that DePalma may have borrowed too freely from Alfred Hitchcock, as some critics argued. Who cares? “Dressed to Kill” has had no trouble standing on its own merits for the last 30 years. The controversy surrounding the filmmaker’s alleged misogyny and scapegoating of transsexuals has exhausted itself, as well. Slash-for-slash, it remains one of the classiest horror films ever made. The Blu-ray contains the unrated cut, but there’s also a comparison of scenes in their R-rated and TV-safe versions. De Palma, Dickinson, Allen and Dennis Franz reminisce in a making-of featurette. There’s an appreciation by teen co-star Keith Gordon and an animated photo gallery. – Gary Dretzka

Madea’s Big Happy Family
Laugh to Keep From Crying: The Play
Meet the Browns: Season One

If the title to Tyler Perry’s latest opus doesn’t quite describe what to expect from “Madea’s Big Happy Family” – irony not being one of the fabulously successful writer/director/producer/actor’s strong suits – it probably would have made just as much money if it had been called, “Madea … Again” or “Madea Redux.” Like any successful brand name, all Perry is required to do is deliver virtually the same product, repeatedly, to essentially the same audience. Critics may disapprove, but there’s been no clamor from fans for Madea to evolve from one movie to the next, or for Perry to experiment with his trademark character. (Madea versus Big Mamma, anyone?) Nor do they think Perry’s wearing out his welcome by churning out movies, plays and TV series at a rate some people would consider to be superhuman. The simultaneous release on DVD of “Madea’s Big Happy Family,” “Laugh to Keep From Crying: The Play” and “Meet the Browns: Season One” represents a typical year’s output from the Atlanta mogul. Good for him.

This time around, Madea’s niece Shirley (Loretta Devine) learns the cancer that’s been in remission for several years has returned and it’s become irreversible. She accepts the news stoically, telling the doctor that every new day is a blessing and, as a Christian, she knows she’ll be welcomed into heaven. Among the things Shirley wants to accomplish in the time she has left is to bring her three children together, so she can break the news to them simultaneously. When that finally happens, though, they monopolize the forum with their selfish grousing and barely controlled disgust for their spouses. Her daughters, especially, are seriously miserable human beings. Her son is desperately trying to make a legitimate living, but the greedy mother of his children keeps pushing him toward street commerce. As played hysterically by Teyana Taylor, she displays all of the negative qualities of a hyena and none of the positive ones. Knowing her niece needs help keeping her morale up, Madea and the pot-addled Aunt Bam jump into the fracas feet first, starting with the ill-behaved grandchildren. And when those two women get on a roll, there’s no stopping them or the laughs. The adults aren’t nearly as easy to corral. Never far away, either, are Madea’s dime-store moralizing and fractured interpretations of the bible. On the more serious side of any Perry vehicle, some deep dark secrets are revealed in Shirley’s final hours, adding sobriety to the proceedings and unexpected complexity to the characters … whether viewers want it or not. The set comes with several featurettes, including cast interviews, character sketches and a piece on the nightmarish Maury Povich throughline

Laugh to Keep From Crying” is taken directly from the 2009 theatrical presentation, which, typically, is a blend of comedy, drama and music, set in an apartment building in a predominantly African-American neighborhood. Cheryl Pepsii Riley plays a single mother raising two diametrically opposed teenagers: a son who works hard at school and participates in a gospel choir, and a daughter who is rebellious, refuses to attend church and is desperate to find her real father. Among the other residents are a prostitute, a cost-conscious white couple and her mother, and Floyd, the superintendent. Typically, too, the music redeems the melodrama. The set includes cast and audience interviews.

The TBS sitcom, “Meet the Browns,” was adapted from the stage play and movie of the same title. The series opens with Leroy Brown inheriting a rundown senior-care facility in Atlanta, naturally, and turning it into something livable. David Mann, who has a funny turn in “Madea’s Big Happy Family,” shares the responsibility of running Brown Meadows with his real-life wife, Tamela Mann, who, here, plays his daughter, conceived during a one-night-stand with Madea. – Gary Dretzka

Blessedly free of exploitative images of the collapse of the Twin Towers, political rhetoric and tabloid grandstanding, “Rebirth” describes the healing process through the experiences of a seriously burned survivor; the son of a woman who died on 9/11; the fiancé of a man who was killed; a firefighter who was monitoring a radio when his best friend announced his intention to rescue people trapped on higher floor; and a construction worker who lost a brother and has been diagnosed with serious recovery-related ailments. Not surprisingly, perhaps, none of the people we meet heals completely in the nearly decade-long effort by director Jim Whitaker. The then-teenage son and woman who lost her fiance have recovered sufficiently to take giant steps forward in their lives, and seem to have been able to compartmentalize their grief. The burn victim finally has been told, after 10 years, she wouldn’t need any more surgeries, while the two older men have returned to work, with their spirit largely broken. Using time-lapse photography, Whitaker also has been able to record the construction of a memorial at Ground Zero. The film is a fitting tribute to the victims and survivors, alike, a reminder that it takes more than a terrorist attack to kill the human spirit. Philip Glass provides an original musical score. – Gary Dretzka

Vidal Sassoon: The Movie
Kartemquin Films Collection: The Early Years, Volume 3
American Harmony

Is there a fashion icon extant who hasn’t been the subject of a recent documentary? Last year, Vidal Sassoon joined Isaac Mizrahi, Valentino, Coco Chanel, photographers Bill Cunningham and Brian Duffy, Vogue’s September issue, Marc Jacobs, Karl Lagerfeld, Gianni Versace, Yves Saint Laurent and Christian Dior in the parade. If Craig Teper’s “Vidal Sassoon: The Movie” errs, it does so on the gushy side of the legend-enhancement process. Indeed, it appears to have originated as a testimonial, of sorts. They all do, though. If any designer deserves the adulation, it’s Sassoon. Before his arrival on the fashion scene, women looked one way and, afterwards, they looked different … forever. Moreover, like Mary Quant, the Beatles and Jackie Kennedy, Sassoon was at his most influential at precisely the right time and place. The world was ready for change, but the vast majority of the people who lived in it – among them the woman burdened by rollers, curlers, sets and sprays — weren’t yet aware of their craving. At first, Sassoon’s methodology intimidated women. He insisted on cutting women’s hair exactly the way he thought it should look – according to bone structure, primarily — not the way his customers thought it should. Watch “Blow-Up” and it’s possible to see how, in 1966, changes in music, clothes, hair, art, photography and attitude merged, creating what the media characterized as a “youthquake.” Once the media started paying attention, Sassoon’s “five-point” cut was copied by everyone, from Mia Farrow to the fashion victim next-door. It’s assumed that Warren Beatty’s aggressively heterosexual hairdresser, in “Shampoo,” was modeled after Jay Sebring, but much of what Sebring brought to industry in the 1970s, originated with Sassoon in the 1950s-60s, including an international business model. Sassoon’s geometric, Bauhaus-inspired cuts would give way to a more “natural,” less-angular look in the post-hippie era, but, again, once the old molds were broken, new ones could be forged.

The documentary also describes how, at an early age, Sassoon survived poverty, the abandonment of his father and placement in an orphanage; rode his bicycle through the ruined streets of London as a courier during World War II; confronted fascists and anti-Semitic demagogues in post-war England; fought for the independence of Israel in 1948; and learned the basics of hairdressing from the famously flamboyant Roland “Mr. Teasy Weasy” Bessone, before embarking on his own path. In the wake of his great financial success in the 1970s, he reinvented himself as a philanthropist and activist. Since the movie was released, Sassoon has been diagnosed with leukemia and is being treated in hospitals in Los Angeles and London.

As late as 40 years ago, in many American cities, a mother-to-be wasn’t allowed to have her husband with her in the delivery room. Neither was she allowed to use the Lamaze technique or encouraged to breast-feed her child. If that sounds draconian, remember that nostalgia can be a double-edged sword. The third edition of Facets’ “Kartemquin Films Collection: The Early Years” is dedicated to “Marco,” a film that documents the efforts of a founding member of the Chicago collective and his wife, Barbara , to have their first son delivered on their own terms. Unable to find a hospital in Chicago that would accommodate them, the Tamaners did the next best thing. They made plans to have Marco delivered in a Catholic hospital across the border in Kenosha, Wisconsin, an hour’s drive away from Chicago, sans traffic. Cameraman Gordon Quinn was hand to record all the key moments – Lamaze classes, doctor visits, car ride north and looonnng delivery – in his friends’ nine-month journey. He also was able to interview an opponent of all things modern in the delivery room. In hindsight, that doctor sounds like a founding member of the Flat Earth Society. The DVD package adds an interview with Temaner and Quinn, as well as updates on the family at the 7- and 40-year plateaus. There’s even a delightful Philip Glass score.

How is it that barbershop quartets are looked upon as something anachronistic in a world in which every nut case in Hollywood has a television series and “American Idol” is considered by many to be the height of cultural achievement? We’ve been led to believe that it’s hip to be square, but when was the last time you heard a cappella harmonizing on MTV? Aengus James’ “American Harmony” reminds us that barbershop groups are alive, thriving and probably engaged in cut-throat competition, even as we speak. The documentary focuses on four quartets vying to win the International Championships of Barbershop Singing, in Indianapolis or some such Corn Belt town. As luck would have it, James’ cameras would be in place during what turned out to be the closest and most controversial victory in the event’s 70-year history, and each of the finalists has a unique storyline. – Gary Dretzka

Police Story: Season One
Diana Rigg at the BBC
Community: The Complete Second Season
Fringe: The Complete Third Season
Two and a Half Men: The Complete Eighth Season
Sigmund & the Sea Monsters: Season 1
Lucy Hale: A Cinderella Story: Once Upon a Song
Nickelodeon: Olivia/Team Umizoomi

Created by Joseph Wambaugh, “Police Story” holds a special place in the history of television. By balancing time-honored procedural techniques with the realities of life off the job – and spicing the episodes with humor, tragedy and contemporary social realities — the anthology series laid a new foundation for a generation of law-and-order dramas, from to “Hill Street Blues” to “Homicide: Life on the Street.” His books had the same impact on the mystery genre, which, likewise, was heavy on procedurals and P.I.s. Only Ed McBain’s “87th Precinct” novels and TV series came close to approximating the natural ensemble ambience of a working cop’s squad room. (The wacky “Car 54, Where Are You?” actually did that, as well, and be reincarnated as “Barney Miller.”) The typical first-season episode of “Police Story” would open in the home of the featured cop/actor, who was dealing with a personal problem that could affect his police work. Before “Police Story,” who cared about a cop’s wife, lover or kids? In actuality, though, women married to incoming LAPD officers were encouraged to attend classes, during which they’d be introduced the intricacies of living with a cop, including depression, bringing the job home and working undercover in the vice squad. (For instance, what would be the proper response to having your husband assigned to work nights with a vice cop who looks exactly like Angie Dickinson?) Among the first-season guest stars are James Farentino, Tony Lo Bianco, Don Meredith, Laraine Stephens, Vic Morrow, Ed Asner, Lloyd Bridges, Dickinson, Dean Stockwell and Kurt Russell. The DVD set includes all 21 original episodes from 1973-74 season; the pilot film, “Slow Boy”; the movie-of-the-week, “Big John Morrison”; and a new interview with Wambaugh.

Diana Rigg probably wasn’t made a Commander of the Order of the British Empire and a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire for her superhot turns as Emma Peel, in “The Avengers,” or one of the early Bond girls. That would be enough to me, if not the Queen of England. You can get a better idea of Riggs’ acting chops – mostly on display on the British stage and TV – in the new “Diana Rigg at the BBC” collection from, you guessed it, BBC Video. The five-disc set features her portrayal of feisty Ms. Adela Bradley in “The Mrs. Bradley Mysteries”; the comedy series, “Three Piece Suite”; “Unexpected Laughter”; “Little Eyolf”; and “Genghis Cohn.” In them, she’s supported by Daniel Craig, Bob Hoskins, John Cleese, Peggy Ashcroft, Charles Dance and Anthony Hopkins. The set also includes a new interview with Riggs, who comments on the shows included in the DVD.

I don’t know what NBC expected from its Thursday night opener, “Community,” in the weeks leading up to its debut two years ago. Joel McHale had enjoyed a modicum of success as the snarky host of the cable clip show, “The Soup,” but Chevy Chase hadn’t done anything interesting in years. The rest of the ensemble cast Gillian Jacobs, Alison Brie, Danny Pudi, Donald Glover, Yvette Nicole Brown, Ken Jeong and Jim Rash had yet to prove they could carry anything heavier than a lunch bucket to work. Fortuitously, their underachieving characters looked as if they actually had been thrown together in a study group in a community college somewhere in southern California. Moreover, the show’s writers understood the value of spreading the comic wealth around an ensemble cast and why a star-centric show might go down in flames employing the same setup. McHale may be the ringleader of study group, but he’s far from omniscient and invulnerable to hurt feelings. The other actors, too, have been allowed to show off their strengths in showcase episodes, which are absent most sitcom clichés and sometimes downright experimental. The second-season Blu-ray adds much commentary, storyboards and animatronics, cast evaluations, outtakes and DJ Steve Porter’s remixes of Season One.

The eighth season of “Two and a Half Men” will go down as the one in which Charlie Sheen and his Uncle Charlie both were written off the show, probably forever. As fans know by now, both Charlies will be killed off and replaced in Season 9 by Ashton Kutcher. How, exactly, remains an unanswered question. Before Sheen jumped ship – or was he pushed? – only 16 episodes were taped. As the season opened, though, Charlie was duped into thinking Rose was putting him behind her and getting married to another man. This didn’t sit right with the Malibu playboy, whose first reaction to rejection is to pursue his prey with greater intensity. Alan also managed to burn down his girlfriend’s house and enlist suckers for a chiropractic Ponzi scheme. Meanwhile, Jake begins shooting an ill-advised ripoff of “Jackass.” I like the series … sue me. It comes with a gag reel.

The third season of the Fox series “Fringe” was largely spent bouncing between its two universes, with the Fringe team escaping the parallel one, but leaving Olivia behind. A doomsday device that reacts only to Peter Bishop’s biological cues was built, prompting Walternate to send Fauxlivia to the prime universe to engage the Fringe Division and assemble a similar device. This one would react to the blood of Peter’s baby with Fauxlivia. Later, Olivia helps Peter experience a vision of the future in which the parallel universe has been destroyed and the same fate threatens the prime one. The season ended with Peter altering his plans for the Machine, by creating a bridge for inhabitants of both universes to meet and solve their dilemma, before disappearing and being forgotten by both Walters and Olivias. If you can make heads or tails out of that synopsis, you know a lot more about “Fringe” than I ever will. The Blu-ray package adds four featurettes, exploring “The Other You,” “Visualizing an Alternate World,” “A Machine of Destiny” and “The Psychology of Duality.” Other pieces include an explanation of how the “Lysergic Acid Diethylamide” episode was animated, “Constructing an Extrasensory Soundscape,” commentary, a gag reel and the option to experience “Os” in Maximum Episode Mode with pop-up commentaries and featurettes.

Boomers may want to introduce their grandchildren to one of their favorite Saturday-morning shows, “Sigmund and the Sea Monsters,” which was produced by Sid and Marty Krofft and ran from 1973-75. The show centered on two brothers, Johnny (Johnny Whitaker) and Scott Stuart (Scott Kolden), who discover Sigmund (Billy Barty), a friendly young sea monster who had been thrown out by his comically dysfunctional undersea family for refusing to frighten people. The boys hide Sigmund in their clubhouse. I don’t believe there’s any truth to the rumor that Whitaker grew up to become Carrot Top.

As the title suggests, the latest Lucy Hale movie for ABC Family, “A Cinderella Story: Once Upon a Song,” updates the classic fairy tale by requiring Lucy to circumvent the evil plans of her stepmother, so she can realize her dream of becoming a recording artist. When she becomes interested in the new boy at her Performing Arts High School, Katie is double-crossed by her stepsister, who takes credit for her singing. The stepmother (Missi Pyle) demands that she go along with the ruse and convince the boy to fall for the imposter at the Winter Talent Showcase. The DVD comes with “Spotlighting Lucy Hale: Our New Cinderella,” “So You Wanna Be a Dancer?,” “Meet Prince Charming,” “Flip Cam Diaries,” “Bless Myself” music video, a gag reel and deleted scenes.

Nickelodeon’s latest packaging of “Olivia” episodes opens with “Princess for a Day,” in which Our Heroine trades places with a real look-alike princess and moves into her castle. The set adds seven more regular episodes and the bonus, “Olivia Plans a Tea Party.” “Team Umizoomi: Journey to Numberland” finds the Umi’s in the magical math kingdom, identifying shapes, building a super flashlight to find a Brachiosaurus, figuring out missing numbers in a sequence and completing other skill missions. – Gary Dretzka

Baseball’s Greatest Games
One of the great things about baseball as a spectator sport is that 40,000 people can watch the same game, in person, and come away from it with 40,000 different sensory impressions. If the game is really important – or noteworthy for other reasons – the number of impressions can grow exponentially. The rare exceptions that proof the rule – Bill Buckner’s error, a Cub fan’s foul-ball blunder – are recalled by all viewers in exactly the same way. Less memorable is the fact that most such scandalous mistakes, alone, cost their teams the crown. They have plenty of other opportunities to compensate for them.

It can be argued that the contests revisited in MLB Productions’ “Greatest Games” series aren’t really “the greatest,” and baseball has always encouraged such debate. Logically, only those games played in the television era would provide enough visual material to justify the effort of re-creating the event. Even then, much seemingly irrelevant film and newsreel footage was lost forever on the editing-room floor. It wasn’t until the introduction of video cameras that maintaining a complete record of baseball’s each and every moment became affordable in terms of money and storage. Game 7 of the 1960 World Series, pitting the underdog Pirates and mighty Yankees, inarguably produced one of the most exciting moments in baseball history: Bill Mazeroski’s dramatic walk-off home run. Millions of people remember seeing it live and on television. Some probably feel as if they’ve relived the game countless times since then, somewhere, but, in fact, no official copy of the televised game remains in the Major League Baseball archives. Recently, though, a black-and-white kinescope of the game was discovered in the wine cellar of one of the late Bing Crosby’s homes. Lo and behold, the game turned on other significant plays, in addition to Maz’ homer: Hal Smith’s three-run homer, which earlier resuscitated the Bucs’ hopes, and a freakish error committed by Tony Kubek.

The latest entries in the series include Game 6, in the 1975 World Series; an exciting, if otherwise meaningless 1979 game at Wrigley Field, in which the Cubs and Phillies combined for 45 runs; Game 5 of the 1985 National League World Series; Game 6 of the 1986 World Series; Game 7 of the 1991 World Series; Game 7 of the 1992 NLCS; Game 6 of the 1993 World Series; Game 7 of the 2003 ALCS; and Game 4 of the 2004 ALCS; and the 2011 game in which Derek Jeter earned his 3,000th hit. A special DVD audio feature allows fans to watch the television broadcast, while listening to the original radio play-by-play. – Gary Dretzka

Babar the Classic Series: School Days/Best Friends Forever
Simply put, Babar the Elephant is one of the most significant characters in children’s literature, not only in English, but also in the original French and many others tongues to which it’s been attached. The wonderful illustrations speak for themselves, in a language known to all kids. The character first appeared in 1931, in Jean de Brunhoff’s “Histoire de Babar.” Two years later, its popularity engendered a British edition, which also was published in the U.S. In fact, Babar originally sprang from the imagination of Brunhoff’s wife, Cecile, who had invented the character for their children. It was a yarn about a young elephant that leaves the jungle, visits a big city and returns to bring the benefits of civilization to his fellow elephants. Babar came to represent the quintessential “good king.” Several years after Jean’s death, in 1937, their son, Laurent, picked up the baton as writer and illustrator. The cartoons included in these DVD collections are from the series produced in Canada by Nelvana Limited, which ran from January, 1989, to June 5, 1991, with 65 episodes. It would be resuscitated in 2000. The episodes in these 90-minute sets have been digitally restored and re-mastered. They also come with eight-page coloring books. – Gary Dretzka

Disco Worms
In 2008, the animated Danish novelty act, “Sunshine Barry & the Disco Worms,” was immortalized in a movie comprised of interpretations of such immortal songs as “Boogie Wonderland,” “Disco Inferno,” “YMCA,” “I Will Survive” and “Play That Funky Music.” Sometime between then and now, Sunshine Barry was pushed aside as the marquee attraction and the name of voice actor Jane Lynch replaced him on the American cover of the “Disco Worms” DVD. It’s not difficult to understand why that happened. Jane Lynch has become one of the most popular and ubiquitous talents in the U.S., and the “Glee” star’s name carries a lot more weight than those of a bunch Danish ABBA wannabes. Lynch’s resume includes recent voicing gigs on “Rio,” “Space Chimps 1 and 2,” a “Leisure Suit Larry” video game, Angus MacLane’s “Small Fry,” a pair of “Super Hero Squad ,” “Neighbors From Hell,” “Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs,” “The Spectacular Spider-Man” and “The Adventures of Captain Cross Dresser.” Nowhere on her IMDB resume is “Disco Worms” listed, let alone the interview recorded for the DVD. And those titles are in addition to Lynch’s live-action credit.

While I have no doubt that the kiddies will enjoy “Disco Worms,” I would hope that Lynch soon might consider stopping for a few minutes and taking the time to smell the roses. Her bank account must be significantly larger than it was when “Glee” debuted and, God knows, she needs a real vacation. Lately, though, she’s been boning up for her guest-hosting gig at the Emmys. The only real threat to her career – and it has been sterling – is overexposure. – Gary Dretzka

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One Response to “The DVD Wrapup: X-Men: First Class, Hanna, The Arbor, Henry’s Crime, Scarface, Straw Dogs, Madea, Police Story …”

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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