‘Dark Knight,’ ‘Expendables’ lead action pack
Owls Head — The Dark Knight Rises (Warner, 2 Blu-ray + 1 standard DVD, PG-13, 165 min.). Director Christopher Nolan, and co-writer with his brother Jonathan, brings his Batman trilogy to a fitting, and exciting, end in this multi-layered film, which neatly ties back to incidents in the preceding films. Nolan says he will not be making any more Batman films, let the lamenting begin.
The third film takes place eight years after the last, with the life of Harvey Dent being memorialized. Wanted for Dent’s murder and physically shattered, Batman has disappeared and his alter ego, billionaire Bruce Wayne (both played by Christian Bale), has gone into seclusion, with only faithful servant Alfred (Michael Caine) by his side. Police Commissioner James Gordon (Gary Oldman) knows the lie that surrounds Dent’s death, but lives uneasily with it because the resulting law has resulted in the incarceration of hundreds of deadly criminals. Now, however, new events are set in motion. Close to home -- in fact inside Wayne mansion -- Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway) steals a pearl necklace from Wayne’s safe, although her real object is Wayne’s fingerprints. The theft is part of a plan by some Wall Street backstage types to bankrupt Wayne to gain control of his corporation and the fusion generator he developed, an invention he has kept hidden because it can easily be turned into a nuclear weapon, which is what, in fact, Bane (Tom Hardy) does after he appears on the scene. Bane, who wears a breathing apparatus to ease his pain (and which makes his voice jump out of your speakers), is the product of a diabolical prison, Pena Duro. He also is a former member of the League of Shadows and a protégée of Ra’s al Ghul. Bane comes to Gotham City to create anarchy, by releasing all the Dent Act prisoners, trapping most of the police underground and arming the nuclear device, which will go off anyway in a few days due to its instability.
In a confrontation with Batman, Bane breaks Batman’s back and imprisons him in Pena Duro. It is during his time there, while rebuilding his body, that Wayne overcomes his spiritual crisis, one pointed out earlier by Alfred, when he tells Wayne he is only waiting for things to go bad again, instead of living his life. (This leads to a rather cool ending.) In addition to Selina, who ultimately would become Catwoman in the Batman mythos, the film introduces policeman John Blake (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), who has sussed out Batman’s secret identity, as both have similar backgrounds of loss of family by violent means. I was not very familiar with Bane and feared he would not be a bad enough opponent, but I was wrong. This is a very satisfying film on all levels. By the way, the sound on the Blu-ray edition is outstanding.
Extras found on the second Blu-ray disc include a 58-minute look at the history of the Bat mobile (covers comic book and earlier film incarnations, including a lot on director Tim Burton’s version; 68 minutes on this film’s production, broken into 12 focus points; three looks (28 min.) at the characters of Wayne, Bane and Selina; and 15 minutes of reflections, including a look at Wally Pfister’s cinematography. Grade: film 3.75 stars; extras 3.25 stars
Rating guide: 5 stars = classic; 4 stars = excellent; 3 stars = good; 2 stars = fair; dog = skip it
Batman: The Dark Knight Returns Part 1 (Warner Premier, Blu-ray disc, NR, 76 min.). Of related interest is this animated adaptation of the acclaimed graphic novel by Frank Miller and Klaus Janson. In the days when superheroes are just a faded memory, Harvey “Two Face” Dent shuns his former rehabilitated life for one of crime, forcing an aged and weathered Bruce Wayne to once again don the cowl cape. The voice cast includes Peter Weller, Ariel Winter and David Selby. Blu-ray exclusives include the digital comic (only 4 minutes unfortunately) and a featurette on Robin (cast as a female!), plus a featurette on Batman creator Bob Kane (38 min.) and two bonus cartoons (46 min.). Grade: film 3.5 stars; extras 3 stars
The Expendables 2 (Lionsgate, Blu-ray or standard DVD, R, 102 min.). The first film worked so well, and made so much money, why not do it again? After all, all these old actors needs to be employed. Sylvester Stallone, who co-wrote the film, is back as Expendables leader Barney Ross. In the 14-minute action prologue, we see Ross lead three vehicles filled with Expendables into and through an armed camp in Nepal to rescue a man being tortured. That turns out to be Trench (Arnold Schwarzenegger), Ross’ old nemesis and competitor, who has failed to protect a Chinese hostage. During the action, Yin Yang (Jet Li) runs out of bullets and has to use frying pans to fight with. There’s a neat escape down some wires through the jungle -- shooting as they go, of course -- and then action on water. During this scene we meet the newest expendable, Billy, a sniper played by Liam Hemsworth.
After the mission, Billy talks about wanting to leave the life and settle down with his girlfriend -- always a bad sign in a movie like this -- and then Mr. Church (Bruce Willis) of the CIA shows up to force Ross into one more mission, as Ross had stole $5 million from Church. The job is to recover a safe from a plane downed in China, so Maggie Chan (Yu Nan) is sent along, as she can disarm the safe’s code, which changes every 120 seconds. The twist comes when evil mercenary Vilain (ha ha!), played by Jean-Claude Van Damme, shows up at the plane site and steals the safe’s contents. The contents, it turns out, are the locations of where some plutonium is stored in Russia. With revenge and the completion of the mission on their minds, the Expendables track down Vilain and, in the process, safe a village or poor miners. “What’s the plan,” asks one character. The answer: “Track ‘em, find ‘em, kill ‘em”; and there really is not much more to it than that. Simon West directs this time and handles all the action well. Also onboard are Jason Statham as Lee Christmas, Dolph Lundgren as Gunner Jensen, Randy Couture as Toll Road and Terry Crews as Hale Caesar (gotta love these names). Chuck Norris’ Booker shows up as well.
Extras include anecdotal audio commentary by West; 21:19 on assembling the cast; a 24:59 looks at the 1980s rise of the action film; a 13:36 look at the weapons used in the film with Couture; 24:19 on real-life mercenaries; five deleted scenes (4:39, including Maggie fighting with a hockey stick); and a 5:09 gag reel (mostly Van Damme forgetting his lines). Grade: film 3.25 stars; extras 3 stars
Savages (Universal. Blu-ray or standard DVD, R/NR, 131/142 min.). There is no conspiracy theory or historical backstory to this Oliver Stone film, just all-out action as both sides in a disagreement -- probably too mild a word -- get nastier and nastier. Chon (Taylor Kitsch), a former Navy SEAL, and Ben (Aaron Johnson) have a very nice thing going. Their dope is of most excellent strength -- Ben got some seeds when stationed in Afghanistan -- allowing them to live a wonderful lifestyle with their shared girlfriend O (Blake Lively), as in Ophelia. Ben launders their money (mostly through a character played by Emile Hirsch) and uses the proceeds to fund charities in Africa and Asia.
A Mexican drug cartel led by Elena (Salma Hayek) is being squeezed and may lose a lot of its influence in the upcoming election, so it wants to buy up some independents, especially Chun and Ben, more for their expertise and network than their product. An offer is made, and refused, Ben would simply like to turn everything over to Elena and disappear, but Chon is not ready for that. Elena has a slightly psycho henchman in Lado (Benicio del Toro), who uses a landscaping firm as a cover. O is kidnapped to force Con and Ben to cooperate, but instead Ben engineers the theft of $3 million from one of Elena’s drug shipments, and people start dying. John Travolta plays a world-weary, and bent, DEA agent, who, in turns out, has arrangements with more than one main character. It is Travolta’s best performance in some time. Oh yes, the tale is sometimes narrated by O, who begins by saying, “Just because I am telling you this story does not mean I’m alive at the end of it,” and at one points that seems to be the case, before the film has a jarring reset (the reason for a half-grade knockdown).
Extras include information audio commentary by Stone; nine deleted scenes (16:01, including one with Chun’s father); a five-part making of (33:53); and an audio commentary by producers Eric Kopeloff and Moritz Borman, co-screenwriters Don Winslow and Shane Salerno and production designer Tomas Voth. Grade: film and extras 3 stars
Midsomer Murders: Set 20 (2010-11, Acorn, 2 Blu-ray discs, NR, 360 min.). Sadly, these are the final four episodes with John Nettles as DCI Tom Barnaby, as Nettles, who has been with the series since its inception in 1997, retired in real life. Helping offset this a little is this second Blu-ray set of the series looks wonderful and is presented widescreen.
The first mystery involves competition for a prestigious music prize, with Barnaby’s wife Joyce (Jane Wymark), whose participation has grown in the series, helping run the competition. The school is run by the Fieldings. James Fox plays Sir Michael Fielding, a well-respected pianist, while his daughters are played by Sylvestra Le Touzel and Frances Barber. Barnaby and the police are brought onto the scene when one of the competitors (Lydia as Zoe Stark) sees a woman carrying a baby jump into the nearby river. This is quite similar to a drowning that occurred 18 years ago. An hour in, the bodies really start to mount up and we learn of a horrific family secret. The middle two episodes include the reenactment of a championship boxing match and a clash over a property development.
In Barnaby’s swan song, Joyce has brought him to a spa for a relaxing weekend. It proves not so relaxing, when a couple of murders occur. Meanwhile, Barnaby is having a personal crisis, spurred by his impending birthday, his impending police physical, the circumstances of his father’s death years ago and his dislike of the New Age-y stuff he encounters at the spa. At the end of the episode, at a small birthday party at his home, Barnaby gives what proves to be farewell toasts and then lets his recently reassigned cousin John Barnaby (Neil Dudgeon) answer the phone and next the next case, as character Tom Barnaby is retiring too.
We have known for a couple of years that this day was coming. That is why it is so disappointing that Acorn hardly acknowledges the occasion. The only extras are two pages of print, naming several favorite episodes and a 1:43-long photo gallery. For shame; there should have been much more. Grade: shows 3.5 stars; extras dog
Brave (Disney/Pixar, Blu-ray or standard DVD, PG, 93 min., also 3D Blu-ray). This is an almost non-stop action film that will be particularly appealing to wee little girls. Merida (voiced by Kelly Macdonald) is the heir to King Fergus (Billy Connolly) and Queen Elinor (Emma Thompson) has assembled the three other clans to that the first-born of each may compete for Merida’s hand. Merida has not been consulted and balks at the very idea. Instead she enters the competition by herself and wins. Thereafter, though, she encounters a witch and makes a wish for a spell that will change her mother’s mind and stop her engagement. Naturally, the swell has a twist that puts everyone in danger. Fun along the way is provided by Merida’s young triplet brothers (with lots of red hair themselves). Overall, there is a message about how the love within a family can heal wounds. Bonus features include two charming Pixar shorts, “La Luna,” about three generations of men who clean the moon, and “The Legend of Mor’Du,” a prequel to “Brave.” There also are eight making-of featurettes (50 min.), four extended scenes (13 min. with white scissor icon to indicate the cuts)and audio commentary by director Mark Andrews, co-director Steve Purcell, story supervisor Brian Larsen and editor Nick Smith. Disc two contains 14 minutes of deleted scenes and snippets, an alternate opening that shows Fergus losing his leg to Mor’Du, collections of deleted shots and the grime of the times, a look at Scottish slang, how the horse Angus was animated, a look at the tapestry, and five art galleries. Grade: film 3.25 stars; extras 3.5 stars
Pixar: Short Films Collection 2 (2007-12, Disney/Pixar, Blu-ray disc, NR, 75 min.). This is a collection of 12 shorts, previously available on individual Pixar releases, including “La Luna” from “Brave.” Two of the best here are from “Wall-E”: “Presto” and “Burn-E.” The disappointing “George and A.J.” was originally an iTunes exclusive, but “Small Fry,” with “Toy Story”’s Buzz, is wonderful. It was shown in theaters with “The Muppets” and makes its DVD debut, as does “Time Travel Mater” with the “Cars” character. There are audio commentaries and seven student films. Grade: shorts 3.5 stars; extras 3 stars
ParaNorman (Universal, Blu-ray or standard DVD, PG, 92 min.). A pretty accurate description of this animated film is it is the best Tim Burton movie not made by Tim Burton. From the makers of “Coraline” comes the story of Norman, the town outcast because he can see and talk to dead people, including his beloved Grandma (voiced by Elaine Stritch). However, Norman (Kodi Smit-McPhee) does not feel down on himself because of that, he just makes do and continues to live his life. Then, his Uncle Penderghast (John Goodman) reaches out to him -- both alive and then dead -- to tell him there is a witch’s curse due to come in play (the witch’s revenge for her death 300 years earlier, placed on the seven who sentenced her to die). Norman’s attitude is the first unexpected thing about the movie; the second is the curse is the opposite of what you think. While trying to read from his uncle’s book -- there is some nice ghoulish humor when he tries to pry the book from his dead uncle’s hands -- Norman collects a little group to help him, including his sister Courtney (Anna Kendrick), his new best bud Neil (Tucker Albrizzi, playing another outcast because he is fat), Neil’s muscled brother Mitch (Casey Affleck) and Norman’s tormentor at school Alvin (Christopher Mintz-Plasse). The film has a good story, with characters that actually develop, and the animation is good, particularly during the showdown with the witch. Extras include audio commentary by writer/co-director Chris Butler and co-director Sam Fell; nine featurettes (41 min.); seven more exclusive Blu-ray featurettes (15 min.); and nine minutes of preliminary animatic scenes. Grade: film 3.5 stars; extras 3.25 stars
The Day (Anchor Bay, Blu-ray or standard DVD, R, 84 min.). This low-budget apocalyptic tale actually is quite effective as a thriller, despite a lack of any context whatsoever. Something has happened that has left humans hunting other humans (apparently for food, ugh). The action takes place around a deserted farmhouse far from anything else, one that has been bobby trapped to give off an alert when strangers come across it. Our band of strangers includes Sawn Ashmore as Adam, Ashley Bell as Mary, Cory Hardrict as the injured Henson, Dominic Monaghan as leader Rick Shannyn Sossama as Shannon. Mary is the relative newcomer to the group and, it turns out, has ties to their enemies. Michael Eklund is Father, leader of the “bad guys.” Director Doug Aarniokoski washes out nearly all the color -- it might as well be a black-and-white film -- except for one flashback. Survival is the name of the game, but there is little to no hope. Interestingly, the film is produced by WWE, but contains no wrestlers; they must be branching out. The only extra is audio commentary by the director, producer Guy Danella and writer Luke Passmore. Grade: film 2.5 stars; extra 2 stars
The Watch (Fox, Blu-ray or standard DVD, R, 101 min.). This is indeed a strange movie, one clearly unsure as to who its audience is. Often it is played for laughs -- many of the very cheap variety -- and then it will turn serious, with some pretty decent action sequences. However, half the time, the acting seems to consist of the actors playing off of each other and making up jokes and insults as they go along. Ben Stiller plays Evan, the senior manager at the Costco Store in quiet Glenview, Ohio. Only one night, his night watchman is murdered and he decides to form a community watch group. The only three he attracts join for the wrong reasons: Bob (Vince Vaughn) is looking for buddies to hang out and drink with); Franklin (Jonah Hill) was rejected by the police department so he wants to prove what he can do’ and Jamarcus (Richard Ayoade) is hoping to meet some women. What the mostly argumentative quartet soon realize is that the watchman’s death was part of an alien invasion. Extras include 11 deleted scenes (24:39, including Evan speaking in Spanish at Antonio’s funeral; a lengthy, tiresome showdown with a female cop); a 3:41 gag reel; 5:39 of Hill’s alternate takes; and a 12:16 making-of. Oh yes, there also is a fake interview with the “alien” who played the alien. Grade: film and extras 2 stars
Doctor Who: Limited Edition Giftset (BBC, 41 DVDs, NR, 70+ hours). This giftset is marvelous, but most Doctor Who fans are already going to have the sets, which include the complete first sex seasons of the re-invented Doctor Who -- reinvented by Russell T. Davies, thank you very much. There is the first season with Christopher Eccleston as The Doctor with Billie Piper as his companion, then David Tennant taking over as the Tenth Doctor in series two, three and four, with Piper giving way to Freema Agyeman. Tennant also starred in the five specials between series four and five, before giving way to the current Eleventh Doctor, played by Matt Smith, joined by Karen Gillan and Arthur Darvill as the new companions. So what is new in the set? There are three TV specials on “The Women,” “The Timey-Wimey” and “The Destinations” of Doctor Who. Most fun, though, is a replica of the Eleventh Doctor’s Sonic Screwdriver with light and sound effects. You also get three art cards and the comic book, “Doctor Who at Comic Con.” Grade: overall set 5 stars
Watchmen: Collector’s Edition (Warner, 2 Blu-ray + 2 standard DVDs, R/PG/NR, 738 min.). This collector’s set, which comes with a lenticular cover, includes the ultimate cut of the film, the version that integrates the animated “Tales of the Black Freighter” into the director’s cut of the film. That version includes two audio commentaries by director Zack Snyder and graphic novel co-creator and illustrator Dave Gibbons. There also is more than two hours of bonus material, including 11 video journals, four featurettes, a music video and an “Under the Hood” retrospective look at the biography of Hollis Mason. Also included are the 12-chapter motion comic and a hardcover version of the original classic graphic novel by Alan Moore and Gibbons. The theatrical cut of the film is included on standard DVD. The setting is the mid-1980s, in an alternate world in which superheroes are part of the everyday fabric life. Grade: set 4.5 stars