Posts Tagged ‘Ashton Kutcher’

So I Saw No String Attached…

Thursday, February 24th, 2011

Ivan Reitman was once one of the three biggest directors on the planet.  Natalie Portman is on her way to her first Academy Award.  Ashton Kutcher…well, he entered the word “Punked” into the lexicon.  You team up the three of them for an R-rated romantic comedy about two people who enter into a “fuck buddy” agreement and it sounds like a recipe for success, right?

Okay, maybe it doesn’t at all, considering that Ivan Reitman hasn’t been “Ivan Reitman” since the 80s, Natalie Portman has often slummed in movies that aren’t worthy of her talents, and Ashton Kutcher is…well, Ashton Kutcher.  Still, for some reason, I decided that I would walk into the movie theater a month after its release and check out No Strings Attached.

This is actually a fascinating movie to dissect because it does so many things right while simultaneously doing just as many things wrong.  Every time it takes a step forward or does something interesting, it will take a step backwards into convention.  For example, the film gets off to an inauspicious start by blatantly aping When Harry Met Sally and showing our two main characters as they meet several times over the years before finally settling into a “friendship” that revolves mostly around sex.  However, the way in which they fall in bed together is kind of clever and out of the ordinary.

Another example: Kutcher’s friends in the film are stock characters that are given one note to play and they play that one note loudly.  Ludacris plays the “urban” friend and that’s his role from beginning to end, while Jake Johnson plays the token “loud” friend who is brash and “wacky” and has two gay dads, so that explains…absolutely nothing about his character.  However, on the flip side, we get the interesting perspectives of Portman’s friends who are all doctors like she is.  Her friends, played by Greta Gerwig and Mindy Kaling, seem more fully developed and interesting than the two leads of the film.  I desperately wanted the film to turn into a Grey’s Anatomy kind of show, but based around Gerwig and Kaling.  Alas.

One more example: Portman is given a typical asshole guy as her “other option.”  He has no depth whatsoever and says a couple of rude comments to Kutcher about how Kutcher is just a boytoy while he will be the one that Portman marries.  On the flip side, Kutcher is given Lake Bell as his “other option” and she is such a delight that I actually wanted him to wind up with her.  She is supportive and engaging and cares about him.  Which is more than can be said for Portman’s character…

Which leads me to my biggest problem with the film: I don’t want the two leads to end up together.  Despite the fact that the film desperately wants me to be engaged in their romance, I was consistently put off by the fact that Portman’s character is cold, moody, and anti-relationship for no good reason.  She’s stressed, she doesn’t have time, blah blah blah.  The conceit of her character is that she is against being in a relationship, forever and for always, but why the hell is this so?  We are never given a concrete reason why she wouldn’t want to be with a guy who she consistently calls wonderful in every aspect of his being.  What is holding her back from entering into this relationship besides the constraints of the premise?  The only reason this movie isn’t 30 minutes long is because the script demands that there should be obstacles in the way.  Except, the movie never comes up with a convincing obstacle outside of Portman’s reluctance to be in this relationship for no goddamned reason whatsoever.  I was sitting there, thinking, “Shit, I really hope Kutcher ends up with Lake Bell since she actually seems to care for him.”

The other massive problem with the film is that it has too many characters and too many subplots.  Jake Johnson is dating Greta Gerwig in the background and it doesn’t mean anything to us because we don’t know their relationship at all.  Also, Kevin Kline plays Kutcher’s lothario father who is sleeping with Kutcher’s ex.  Snooze.  We also have Cary Elwes inexplicably showing up once in a while as a doctor that Portman hits on and it goes…nowhere.  Or Olivia Thirlby as Portman’s little sister who is getting married and shows us that…marriage is possible?  Or how about Portman’s mother who is sleeping with a man named Bones…nowhere.  The wonderful Abby Elliott shows up as a waitress for a few scenes…wasted.

All of these characters, all of these subplots, what are they adding to this world that has been created?  What are we, the audience, gaining from their inclusion?  The answer is, now and for always, nothing.  It’s like the film doesn’t trust its central premise and the charisma of its two leads enough to actually run with them.  I mean, we have a premise that is potentially interesting and ripe for a good romantic comedy: friends who have sex.  But instead of focusing on how that works, what the slow emotional boil of that kind of relationship is really like, we are instead given a short montage of scenes of them having sex and a few big set-pieces and then a lot of bullshit that really doesn’t have anything to do with the premise.  Instead, the film fans out to multiple characters and different subplots (did I mention that Kutcher is an aspiring writer for a Gleeish TV show?) that paper over the initial conceit.  What that does is make me less invested in the relationship I should be invested in and more invested on when the hell the movie is going to be over.

What really kills me are that some of the supporting characters are funny and some of the inter-personal complexities of love in this modern era are spot-on and strike a chord.  But, it always reverts back to these conventional moments and you can really feel the McKeeish way the script was structured.  You can time your watch to it: “Oh, time for the inciting incident!”  “We’re about 65 minutes in, time for the big fight!”

Look, this is mediocre cinema anyway you slice it, so nobody comes out of the film covered in muck and nobody walks out smelling like a daisy either.  Portman gets to have a filthy mouth (and keep her bra on during sex, something that always pulls me out of every goddamned sex scene) and Kutcher gets to be starry-eyed and show his ass, but neither are really getting anything out of this movie except a paycheck.  Reitman, the man who brought us Stripes and Ghostbuster, has now directed his best film since Dave…which isn’t really saying much when you look at the film he’s directed since then (we’re talking Father’s Day, 6 Days 7 Nights, Evolution, My Super Ex-Girlfriend) and has also clearly checked out as a filmmaker worth paying attention to.

This is the kind of picture that will horrify no one and will please very few.  It’s an airplane movie, and a shrug-inducing one at that.  Oddly, I’m really looking forward to Will Gluck’s Friends with Benefits, to see how Justin Timberlake and Mila Kunis do with similar subject matter.

DVD Wrap: Prince of Persia, Letters to Juliet, Killers, The Black Cauldron, Cemetery Junction, and more…

Tuesday, September 14th, 2010

Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time: Blu-ray

In Hollywood’s Cathedral of Concepts, the Reverend Jerry Bruckheimer presided over the marriage of a beloved amusement-park attraction to the classic swashbuckler. Nine months later, the fruit of their union arrived in the form of Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl. Other children would follow. At the same church, seven years later, Reverend Bruckheimer would unite a popular action-packed video game with a direct descendant of Ray Harryhausen’s Sinbad, with the result being Prince of Persia: The Sand of Time. The couple is unsure as to the prospect of future progeny. Unlike the agreements, which, in the past, resulted in such movies as Captain Blood and Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves, here the unions were founded on dowries valued at $200-million and backed by in-laws at Jerry Bruckheimer Films and Walt Disney Pictures. It was a steep price, but someone had to carry the load for generations to come. Like a champion thoroughbred at stud, POTC has already demonstrated its ability to deliver the goods and keep on producing offspring. Whether POP: TSOT will have siblings remains an open question.

It would be difficult to find a more entertaining way to kill a Saturday afternoon in the suburbs than to commit two hours of time to Prince of Persia. That it didn’t return quite the bang for the budgetary buck as POTC is a matter for concern primarily for Disney shareholders, headline writers at Variety and other Hollywood soothsayers. In it, a remarkably buff Jake Gyllenhaal plays Dastan, the adopted son of a Persian potentate whose murder causes a power vacuum within the desert kingdom.  The king’s blood relatives hold Dastan responsible for the assassination, forcing the innocent prince to beat a hasty retreat into the sandy wilderness. There, he’s joined by princess/sorceress Tamina (Gemma Arterton), who covets the glass-handled dagger carried by Dastan. The weapon, it seems, can not only be used to eviscerate enemies, but also to manipulate time and all sorts of other demonic forces. As directed by the very capable Mike Newell (Harry Potter, Young Indiana Jones), Prince of Persia hardly leaves more than a minute or two for audiences to catch their breaths, as the action evolves from ordinary swordplay to potentially apocalyptic horror. In this regard, Newell’s grand adventure lives up to its advance billing and hype. The crucial difference between POP and POTC arguably can be laid at the feet of the audience’s investment in the plight of the heroes and their ultimate success at retaining what rightfully belongs to them. Considering that POTC was inspired by one of the most venerable rides in the Disney kingdom – indeed, it was the last attraction Uncle Walt would personally oversee – very little of the mythology had to be explained. The POP video game had more limited generational appeal and its commercial success was dependent on the public’s ability to withstand the overwhelming barrage of fights, captures, escapes and special effects. No matter how well Gyllenhaal and Arterton performed, a half-baked script ensured they would play second fiddle to the action. Alfred Molina and Ben Kingsley bring a palpable sense of menace to the proceedings, and Morocco’s sands are match for those of ancient Persia, but something barely palpable was missing. None of this should detract kids and their dads, mostly, from enjoying the Blu-ray presentation, which looks terrific and adds a deleted scene: The Banquet: Garsiv Presents Heads; the interactive, pop-up feature, CineExplore: The Sands of Time; and behind-the-scenes, An Unseen World: Making ‘Prince of Persia,’; and BD-Live functionality.


The Black Cauldron: 25th Anniversary Special Edition

Released in 1985, after more than a dozen years of preparation and almost constant re-conceptualization, The Black Cauldron represents a major transitional point in the history of Disney animation. Budgeted at a then-astronomical $25 million — a million for every title in the studios Animated Classics series — it was an unusually dark and foreboding adaptation of Lloyd Alexander’s series of children’s fantasies drawn from Welsh mythology. So potentially disturbing was the imagery, in fact, that incoming animation czar Jeffrey Katzenberg eliminated entire scenes before release, fearing the sword-and-sorcery epic might be dealt an R or PG-13 rating from the MPAA. As it was, Black Cauldron was the first animated feature to be released PG. (It can be argued that Bambi, at least, required more parental guidance than other G-rated entertainments, even by today’s standards.) An assistant pig-keeper named Taran, along with a band of misfit characters – including the oracular swine, Hen Wen — embarks on a quest to save mankind from the unholy forces pent up in the mysterious Black Cauldron. The cauldron is also coveted by the evil Horned King, who needs Hen Wen’s guidance if he is to possess the lands and riches of Prydain.  It sounds pretty corny, but the visual effects delivered a powerful supernatural punch. The Black Cauldron was a huge disappointment commercially, a fact that could be blamed either on the PG rating or lingering effects of a creative slump at Disney. Katzenberg’s subsequent successes would soon make the film more of a footnote in studio history than a chapter onto itself. Among other things, though, The Black Cauldron is noteworthy today for its blend of old-school drawing styles and CGI technology, and for being the last film to be shot in Super Technirama 70. The anniversary edition adds a deleted scene, The Fairfolk and a Witches’ Challenge Game, while retaining a gallery of behind-the-scenes artwork and photos; the original theatrical trailer; a Quest for the Black Cauldron trivia game; and the 1952 Donald Duck cartoon, Trick or Treat.


Letters to Juliet: Blu-ray

Of all the love stories and rom-coms released in the last couple of years, I found Letters to Juliet to be the most appealing. Blessed with wonderful performances by Amanda Seyfried, Vanessa Redgrave, Christopher Egan and Franco Nero – as well as good, if smaller turns by Oliver Platt and Gael Garcia Bernal – the nicely terraced, multi-generational romance is less interested in showcasing a flavor-of-the-month ingénue and terminally hip writing, than allowing a clever story to evolve at its own pace and the actors the luxury of looking natural on screen. Seyfried, one of the most versatile actresses of the current crop, plays a New York magazine writer who takes a pre-nuptial honeymoon with her chef fiancé, in Verona. While there, Sophie stumbles upon a group of women who retrieve and answer mail left for Juliet Capulet in the cracks in a wall in the courtyard where she and Romeo presumably exchanged pleasantries. One letter, found behind the brick façade, has been sitting there for several decades. Spellbound by its message of unrequited love, Sophie decides to track down the author and find out what happened to the star-crossed couple. As it turns out, Claire (Redgrave) is a wealthy widow, who, at this point in her life, wouldn’t at all mind an adventure. She accepts Sophie’s invitation to return to Verona – with her decidedly unromantic grandson in tow – to seek out the handsome Italian man whose path she crossed in her youth.  All she can recall of her lost love, however, is that his name was Lorenzo Bartolini, and he once lived in a scenically wondrous section of Tuscany. The problem, of course, is that the local phone book is full of Lorenzo Bartolinis and none of them appear to be related. Sophie and Claire are up to the task, even if the handsome grandson isn’t. Given all that information, it should be possible for astute fans of the genre to guess one or two potential spoilers, at least, so I won’t ruin the surprise. Suffice it to say that director Gary Winick (13 Going on 30, Tadpole) takes full advantage of both the romantic and scenic landscapes, while refusing to condescend to the taste of 16-year-olds and those viewers who may never have read a sonnet by Shakespeare or, for that matter, anyone else. Because Bernal’s character is a successful chef, his tour of Verona includes tastings of splendid wines and mouth-watering pastas. If you aren’t hungry – or romantic — when you begin watching Letters, you will be by the time it’s over. So, be prepared. The extras include deleted and extended scenes; audio commentary with Winick and Seyfried; and featurettes on the making of Letters to Juliet and the actual courtyard in Verona.


Killers: Blu-ray

If nothing else, the almost entirely humorless action rom-com, Killers, should prove once and for all that Ashton Kutcher and Katherine Heigl simply can’t save a doomed theatrical film, alone or together. Neither possesses the physical presence or acting chops to hold an audience’s attention for more than a few minutes at a time, and their delivery of dialogue is pedestrian, at best. As likeable as they are on the small screen, very little of that chemistry translates to the megaplex. Here, Kutcher and Heigl are required to carry the weight of a script that is at once overly familiar and completely lacking in credibility. (That could apply, as well, to 90 percent of all of today’s rom-coms.) Kutcher plays Spencer, an ace assassin-for-hire who meets Heigl’s recently jilted Jen at an outdoor café in Nice, France. Naturally, Spencer keeps his profession a secret from his bride-to-be and her ultra-conservative parents (Tom Selleck and Catherine O’Hara). So smitten is Spencer that he agrees to hang up his assassin’s tools and move to suburban Atlanta, where he becomes a corporate consultant and Catherine is an accomplished computer tech. Fast forward three years, to when Spencer discovers there’s a $20 million reward on his head and the population of their hometown has grown exponentially with the presence of bounty hunters. They’re everywhere and nowhere, simultaneously, and Robert Luketic (The Ugly Truth) is required to turn his already slight domestic comedy into slapstick version of True Lies. The only spark of originality comes when Spencer agrees to go skeet shooting with his insufferably boastful father-in-law. The old man trash talks Spencer about his inability to shoot clay pigeons, until the young man lifts his shotgun imperceptibly and nonchalantly takes out a rapidly descending skeet a couple of feet above the ground. It blows Selleck’s mind and opens opportunities to familial intrigue left un-pursued by the director and writers. As it is, the assassins assigned to take out Spencer are far less capable – and entertaining – than the ones dispensed with by Inspector Clouseau. The Blu-ray edition adds deleted, extended and alternative scenes, a gag reel and the featurette, Killer Chemistry: Behind the Scenes with the Killers’ Cast. Nice looks nice in hi-def, too.


Cemetery Junction: Blu-ray

Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant were the creative team behind the original BBC version of The Office, which, of course, inspired the hit NBC sitcom of the same title. They were responsible as well as HBO’s Extras and The Ricky Gervais Show, a re-creation of semi-animated radio chat show. I wouldn’t be at all surprised to learn their first theatrical feature, Cemetery Junction, was consigned to direct-to-DVD purgatory after the commercial collapse of last winter’s The Invention of Lying. Infinitely less complex than that overly cerebral comedy, Cemetery Junction is a straight-forward coming-of-age story, set in a working-class British burg in the early-‘70s. Inspired by Gervais’ hometown of Reading, Cemetery Junction is populated by people more influenced by post-war austerity than Carnaby Street and the Beatles. They are as dependent on the local factories for employment and retirement benefits, as they are on the local pubs for sustenance and camaraderie. Margaret Thatcher’s conservative government soon would rock these proud folks’ concept of security to the core, but, for now, they’re doing all right. Local lads Freddie, Snork and Bruce (Christian Cooke, Jack Doolan, Tom Hughes) have felt the youthquake and are dealing with the pop-cultural revolution in vastly different ways. Cemetery Junction clearly was inspired by American Graffiti in its portrayals of local kids at such a key juncture in their lives. Wisely, though, considering the setting, it also adds crucial information about the adults in the boys’ lives, including the local police. Although the movie didn’t enjoy great reviews in the UK, I found CT to be an extremely compelling entertainment. The Gervais-Merchant touch is palpable, without being snarky or condescending. Also good are Ralph Fiennes, as a soulless insurance executive who despises his own working-class background; Emily Watson, as his pitiable wife; and Felicity Jones, as the daughter whose every move has been pre-determined. In addition to wearing the hats of writer, producer and director, Gervais plays the machinist dad of the most adventurous young man, a guy who thinks he’s seen it all and learned that even a dead-end job is better than none at all. Be sure to listen to Gervais and Merchant’s commentary, which is as funny as it is informative. The period soundtrack is also pretty terrific.  


Held Hostage
Doc West

Held Hostage is an above-average made-for-Lifetime thriller, in which Julie Benz (Dexter) plays a small-town bank manager forced to participate in robbery by hooded gunmen holding her young daughter as collateral. If that were all to the movie, though, it wouldn’t be as interesting as the average episode of Cops. Benz’ Michelle Estey goes along with the robbers only after sticks of what she believes to be dynamite are strapped to her body and that of the girl. Her orders are to stroll into the bank, as usual, and put the contents of the walk-in safe into a gym bag, which she’ll hand over to the bad guys. She disobeys orders by showing the rigged vest to a fellow employee and begging her not to pull the alarm until her daughter is freed. The operation is so slick, Michelle is automatically considered to be a willing accomplice and skilled liar. We know this isn’t true and watch with horror as she’s interrogated by police, doubted by co-workers and grilled by a self-serving lawyer after the real culprit is caught and put on trial. Her past is put on trial and her meager bank account is used evidence that she was complicit in the crime. Any half-way decent lawyer could have protected Michelle, but, typically, she believes the truth will keep her free. If TV movies were expected to be logical, though, there wouldn’t be any to review. Since it was based on an actual event, there are lessons to be learned here for Lifetime’s predominantly female audience.

Originally filmed as a two-part pilot for Italian television, Doc West is a throwback to the days when spaghetti westerns ruled the drive-in circuit. It stars 70-year-old Terence Hill (My Name Is Trinity) as a tough old hombre, Minnesota West (an oxymoron?), who, when he isn’t playing poker and chasing bad guys, practices medicine. Here, West goes after bandits who stole money targeted for his daughter’s education, back east. When things go sideways, he ends up in a local jail (for his own protection) minded by a sheriff played by 70-year-old Paul Sorvino. It ain’t much, but fans of Hill should enjoy Doc West.


My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done?

In case there was any doubt as to who the target audience is for My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done?, the words above and below the title proclaim, David Lynch Presents … A Werner Herzog Film. The packagers might just as well have added, Buckle up, fans, it’s going to be a bumpy ride. Hot on the heels of Herzog’s exceedingly weird crime thriller, The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call – New Orleans, My Son, My Son re-assembles the pieces of a puzzle built from the actual 1979 murder of a San Diego woman, at the hands of her sword-wielding son. Apparently, the demented young man was channeling his character from a production of the Greek tragedy, Orestes, and was simply putting her out of some prophesized misery down the road. The killer, Brad McCullum, is played with glowering menace by Michael Shannon (the institutionalized neighbor in Revolutionary Road) and the ditzy mom by Lynch regular Grace Zabriskie. Willem Dafoe and Michael Peña play a pair of San Diego police detectives assigned to negotiate with McCullum, based on intelligence gleaned in flashbacks provided by his girlfriend (Chloë Sevigny), director (Udo Kier), an ostrich rancher (Brad Dourif), a not-at-all-surprised neighbor (Irma B. Hall) and a trademark Lynchian little person (this time. Gabriel Pimental). McCullum’s one of those damaged souls who believe God has him on speed-dial and has given him permission to do unspeakable things. We wonder what make people like him tick, but not until they’ve gone batshit and decimated a day-care center or post office. Otherwise, he’s the kind of person who kept to himself and was known to talk to himself. It’s prime territory for Herzog and Lynch, if more than a little too desolate and foreboding for the average filmgoer. Shannon is one scary dude, though. If nothing else, fans will enjoy counting the references to previous works by Herzog and Lynch.


Jimi Hendrix: The Guitar Hero: Classic Artists

Few rock musicians have left as substantial a legacy as Jimi Hendrix. In addition to a seemingly endless library of rehearsal tapes and video footage, Hendrix memorabilia includes plaster casts of his penis, sex tapes and a truckload of imprecisely worded wills and contracts. The basic facts are well known. After serving in the army and backing up such R&B greats as Little Richard and the Isley Brothers, the Seattle native appeared as if out of thin air in London, where he impressed the shit out of the leading rockers of the mid-1960s, including Eric Clapton, Dave Mason, the Beatles, Who and Rolling Stones. Most of the testimony collected for this Classic Artists edition comes from peer artists far more interested in his incomparable music than any recollections of hippy-dippy excess or scurrilous gossip. Among the first-hand witnesses are Dave Mason (Traffic), Clapton, Mick Taylor (Rolling Stones), Eric Burdon (The Animals), Paul Rodgers (Bad Company), Ginger Baker (Cream), Mickey Dolenz (Monkees), Bev Bevan (ELO) and Stephen Stills. It is narrated by Slash. Extras include a 20-page booklet; Henry Diltz’ 8mm silent footage from the Monkees tour; the Experience performing Hey Joe at the Marquee; extended interviews; and photo galleries.  


Mad Ron’s Prevues From Hell
Starcrash: Roger Corman Cult Classics

Grindhouse revivals will come and go, but the beyond-classic trailers included in Mad Ron’s Prevues From Hell will live forever. Apart from being important cultural artifacts, the previews describe an America learning to live with a new breed of killer, one unafraid to use an entire tool shed or surgeon’s locker worth of lethal instruments when the occasion calls for something more interesting than a knife or gun. Unlike the current generation of movie trailers, which must pass MPAA muster before being shown, the ones here lack nothing in the area of blood, gore, ground corpses, slashed veins, severed limbs, bouncing boobs and insensitive portrayals of minorities. Several add the warning, “Keep reminding yourself, it’s only a movie,” while others advise that medical staff will be in attendance for the faint of heart. Among the rarities is 1970’s  Flesh Feast, which marked Veronica Lake’s final big-screen appearance, and the blatantly racist Africa: Blood and Guts, a documentary disguised as a horror movie about actual human and animal slaughter in post-colonial Africa. The mini-movies are bookended by exceedingly geeky skits, in which zombie imitators pretend to be watching a movie at the local Bijou. Feel free to fast-forward through these bits.

Necromentia is an exercise in torture porn unrelieved by logic or a recognizable narrative. The quartet of key characters, one more grotesque than the other, all have a vested interest in discovering a portal to hell. One wants to be re-united with a dead girlfriend; a professional sadist hopes to rescue his suicidal brother from eternal damnation; an obese pig-man taunts easily swayed cripples into self-mutilation; and the other is a messenger from Satan. The clues to finding the portals can only be found on a large occult symbol tattooed to on a large patch of dead skin. Fans of Hellraiser, Resident Evil and Saw are the target audience. The set adds commentary with director Pearry Reginald Teo; a Q&A with Teo and star Chad Grimes; and a trailer.

Previously titled The Adventures of Stella Star, Starcrash is the latest entry in Shout! Factory’s Corman Cult Classics series. A bargain-basement Star Wars rip-off, the incomprehensible spaghetti sci-fi adventure involves a mission by a team of space rebels to destroy a powerful new weapon, developed by the evil Count Zartham. Although the story is wafer-thin and the special effects prehistoric, even by 1978 standards, Starcrash is noteworthy for several things: a cast that includes David Hasselhoff, Marjoe Gortner, Christopher Plummer and cult princess Caroline Munro; a John Barry score (although he wasn’t shown the movie ahead of time); the direction of the otherwise estimable Luigi Cozzi; some wonderful color cinematography by Paul Besson and Roberto D’Ettorre Piazzo; and production design of Aurelio Crugnola ( Inglorious Bastards).  The set adds several making-of featurettes, memorabilia and interviews, including one with Munro, who, to this day, confuses Starcrash with a work of art.


Janeane Garofalo: If You Will: Live in Seattle
Bill Maher: But I’m Not Wrong
Broken Lizard: Stands Up

If, like Richard Nixon, today’s Republican Party maintained a hit list of liberal pests, Janeane Garofalo and Bill Maher’s names would surely be near its top.  Not that either comedian is immune to criticizing Democrats. It’s just that Republican politicians and radio talk-show goons continue to provide so much fertile ground for satire.  Garofalo’s cable special, recorded in Seattle, doesn’t avoid politics, but she spends most of her time commenting on other things just as ludicrous, including current lifestyle choices, Hollywood scenesters, the media and her status as an asexual atheist. It’s her first solo show in more than a decade and she’s as sharp as ever. The set add a pair of extended riffs, on pets and a congressman’s right-wing wet dream.

Maher’s politically oriented material is far more predictable. Indeed, much of it already has been heard on his weekly HBO talk show. The hook here is that this unrepentant liberal atheist is playing before a crowd in Raleigh, North Carolina, in the nicotine-stained lungs of the Bible Belt. No matter, the crowd came to praise Maher, not to bury him. For all of his left-of-center posturing, Maher found room for the first-ever burka fashion show.

The Broken Lizard comedy troupe is best known for such movie showcases as Super Troopers and Club Dread. This Comedy Central special marks a return to their earliest professional incarnations at Syracuse and on the road. The stand-up material retains its sophomoric flavor with commentary on masturbation, getting high and drunk, sexual inadequacies, homoeroticism and the usual scatological references. It’s funny, but rarely hilarious. They also reminisce on how they came together as group. The bonus material includes a live Super Troopers sketch; scenes shot while on the road, between gigs; backstage musings; the bits Jay Loves Everyone, Erik’s Parrot Song, Wonder Woman and ’Who’s on First’ on Steroids.  


America: The Story of Us: Blu-ray
A History of Scotland

The History Channel’s pop-history approach to America: The Story of Us opens the door to viewers who need to be reminded of what makes America stand out from the rest of the world, besides baseball, apple pie and Chevrolets. It’s an easy enough concept to forget, now that we’ve been in a constant state of war for almost 20 years and the national agenda is being set by uninformed focus groups, right-wing demagogues and people whose grasp of the 1st Amendment is limited to the freedom to burn the Koran on You Tube. Executive producer Jane Root employs CGI animation, re-creations, picture-postcard cinematography and celebrity interviews to illustrate key events in our history. The 720-minute Blu-ray edition adds an introduction by President Obama and additional scenes in discussions of the American Revolution, Declaration of Independence, George Washington, Civil War, Transcontinental Railroad, the Statue of Liberty, Henry Ford and the Model T.

Scotland may be a substantially smaller country than the United States, but its history is several time longer than ours and far more turbulent. Produced by BBC Scotland and the Open University, A History of Scotland offers a fresh look at the country’s early tribal clashes, geographical rivalries, wars with England, political struggles and such important leaders as William Wallace, Robert the Bruce and Sir Walter Scott. The set is enhanced by beautiful cinematography and straight-forward story telling.  Bonus features include How the Celts Saved Britain, presented by Dan Snow, and 24-page booklet containing historical facts and striking images of Scottish landmarks.


The Good Wife: The First Season
Glee: The Complete First Season
Less Than Perfect: Season 1
The League: The Complete First Season
The Hunger: The Taste of Terror
Being Human: Season Two
Fringe: The Complete Second Season: Blu-ray
Lark Rise to Candleford: Season Three                                                                
Private Practice: Complete Third Season
Grey’s Anatomy: The Complete Sixth Season

The producers of CBS’ The Good Wife, soon to enter its second season, attempted to answer questions close to the minds of anyone who’s ever watched one of those press conferences in which a sexually disgraced politician is joined on the podium by his seemingly loving and supportive wife. One is how long might it be before the poor woman wises up and divorces the jackass – in Hillary Clinton’s case, never – and the other relates to how she would survive on her own in the outside world. Julianna Margulies was the perfect choice to play the wife of a Chicago politician (Chris Noth) caught in web of deceit mostly, but not entirely of his own creation. In The Good Wife, the errant husband was sent to jail and his wife and kids were required to downsize their lifestyle and dreams. Marguilies’ Alicia Florrick was fortunate to find a job in a prestigious law firm, but her husband’s antics and alibis were never far from her mind. Blessedly, perhaps, the law office offered plenty of diversions, in the form of inner-office politics and intrigue, fascinating cases and potential love interests. The drama was nominated for nine Emmys, winning one for Archie Panjabi’s turn as a private investigator for the firm. The DVD set adds commentary by the producers and stars; deleted scenes; the featurettes, The Education of Alicia Florrick: Making Season One and Aftermath: Real-Life Events; and on-air promos.

Glee: The Complete First Season combines and extends previous boxed sets of the series, whose premier season was divided roughly in half by Fox. The new DVD box takes full advantage of the show’s innovative approach to drama, comedy and musical production numbers with such participatory features as Glee Karaoke and Glee Jukebox; the director’s cut of the show’s pilot episode; and several behind-the-scenes looks at key scenes, including those in the Madonna episode; a fashion piece; and Sue’s Corner. For those who’ve already purchased the first half-season DVD, Fox is offering a separate Season One, Volume Two box.

The 2002 ABC sitcom Less Than Perfect took the Upstairs/Downstairs approach to chronicling everyday life at a large New York media conglomerate. The bridge to both worlds was provided by Sara Rue, as Claudia Claude Casey, a largish woman who swam her way across the temp pool to the rarefied air of the television news department. In her new position, Claude is required to deal with a petty pair of jealous co-workers, a demanding peacock of a boss (Eric Roberts) and downstairs friends (Andy Dick, Sherri Shepherd) who spend all of their free time upstairs. The sitcom also concerns itself with Claude’s weight issues and natural tendency to overeat and share her artery-congesting treats. It’s fun, even if almost every single joke is telegraphed several seconds before being delivered.

Now that a new NFL is upon us, the FX network is bringing back its raunchy, sports-centric The League, which is set against a backdrop of rotisserie-league football and the dweebs who obsess over its every nuance. Part scripted, part improvisation, the key players in The League are yuppies who can trace their friendship back to high school, where they honed the art of being class clowns and wiseasses. The women are universally gorgeous, even hornier than their husbands and boyfriends, and can go toe-to-toe with the guys while trading insults. The cast is very good and the writing sharp, even if the characters’ chosen hobby is pretty lame.

Showtime’s sexy 1997 anthology series The Hunger was inspired by Tony Scott’s erotically charged vampire romance of the same title, released in 1983. Instead of focusing entirely of vampires, as it might today, the Canadian export added other elements of horror, mostly psychological, to the mix. Like Red Shoe Diaries, The Hunger put a soft-focus glow on the sexuality, while telling a story only a tad more believable than the entries in Penthouse Forum. The selections in Taste of Terror are more noteworthy, today, for the presence of such still-rising stars as Daniel Craig, Giovani Ribisi, Lena Headey, Balthazar Getty, Timothy Spall, Jason Scott Lee and Amanda De Cadenet, as well as such veterans as David Bowie, Terence Stamp, Karen Black, Sally Kirkland and Michael Gross.

Fans of the occult will enjoy the BBC America series, Being Human, whose second season arrives on DVD. The key characters are vampire Mitchell (Aidan Turner), werewolf George (Russell Tovey) and ghost Annie (Lenora Crichlow), who live together in a Bristol flat and complement each other’s supernatural strengths and peculiarities. This season, the protagonists are threatened by CenSSA, a religious organization committed to the destruction or conversion of supernatural freaks.

Also in its second stanza is Fox’s Fringe, which explores unexplained phenomena, weird crimes and other bizarre incidents, known collectively as The Pattern. Naturally, the Boston-based ghost busters all share something more important than brains and wisdom: youth and good looks. The package adds The Mythology of Fringe, commentary, a gag reel, unaired scenes and other making-of material.

The third-season compilation of the PBS series Lark Rise to Candleford also is newly available. The set adds Flora Thompson Lived Here, in which artist and architect Sir Hugh Casson recounts the life of writer Flora Thompson by visiting her birthplace, Juniper Hill, Cottisford, which was the inspiration for the series.

Full-season compilations of ABC’s popular prime-time medical soaps, Private Practice and Grey’s Anatomy, have been released ahead of the new fall season. In addition to the 23 episodes of Season Three, the five-disc DVD collection adds bloopers, deleted scenes and a collection of Kate Walsh’s personal favorite moments.

 In the sixth year of companion series Grey’s Anatomy, much of the drama centered on the merging of staffs representing Seattle Grace and Mercy West hospitals. Bonus features include two newly extended episodes, in the finale; unaired scenes; outtakes; and webisodes of Seattle Grace: On Call.