New Releases | Tom Russo
A heroic awakening in a world gripped by crisis
Director Alfonso Cuarón's tense, thought-provoking "Children of Men" (2006) has drawn the odd comparison to "Blade Runner," aptly, for its portrait of a dystopian future that's fully realized yet tantalizingly incomplete.
In the film, adapted by Cuarón from the novel by P.D. James , it's 2027, and the world is gripped by an infertility crisis. There hasn't been a baby born anywhere in 18 years, and end-is-nigh despair has led to chaos and violence around the globe. (A meltdown montage early on gives Boston a cameo.) Britain, the one country that's managed to keep it together, wages an ugly isolationist campaign to drive out foreign refugees seeking sanctuary.
Enter numb, boozy everyman and former activist Theo (Clive Owen) , whose long-estranged wife (Julianne Moore) forcibly recruits him to her cause: aiding Kee (newcomer Clare -Hope Ashitey) , a young illegal who's miraculously become pregnant. We buy into Theo's heroic awakening without ever entirely knowing, say, the motivations of Kee's pursuers, but that's by design. In a story where man is fast losing himself biologically and spiritually, Cuarón deliberately leaves us wanting more answers.
Extras: Taking an idea from the "Matrix" megaset , the disc swings the bonus material spotlight toward philosophers, sociologists, and other deep thinkers, and asks them to weigh in on the film and the issues it raises. (Here, the device is legitimate discourse, rather than just a vanity exercise.) Eastern European cultural critic Slavoj Zizek compellingly argues that Cuarón's sometimes oblique handling of his setting feels more real than if he'd left nothing to conjecture. A particularly hot topic : the sociopolitical irony that as technology makes the world more connected, resistance to connection grows. (Universal, $29.98)
"THE PURSUIT OF HAPPYNESS" (2006)
Oscar-nominee Will Smith poignantly steps into the pavement-pounding shoes of Chris Gardner, a real-life single dad and model of determination struggling to segue from floundering salesman to stockbroker in early '80s San Francisco. The film is a mix of pat elements and ambitious ones: The intrusive score, for instance, tries to sugar-coat how surprisingly oppressively relentless the movie is in showing Gardner's plight go from bad to worse. Meanwhile, the casting of Smith's own young son, Jaden, is a move that initially threatens to fall into the too-precious category, but that ultimately serves the story fairly well.
Extras: One featurette smartly raises the question of how and why an Italian filmmaker, Gabriele Muccino ("Remember Me, My Love"), was chosen to direct a story about the American dream. (Smith was a fan; the moussed producers just give fluffy sound bites half-ignoring the point.) Another segment tells nostalgia buffs everything they always wanted to know about the movie's featured prop, Rubik's Cube. Muccino supplies commentary, while Gardner makes the requisite appearances in an interview and behind-the-scenes footage. (
"HAPPY FEET" (2006)
Director George Miller's Oscar-winning animated fable takes families to an Antarctic landscape where penguins ritualistically belt out '70s and '80s pop tunes -- and where Mumble (voiced by Elijah Wood) has a downright awful time of it as the only one who dances rather than sings. The story loses momentum in its last act, when it starts preaching, and gets away from Robin Williams's double-edged shtick as an attitudinal Latino bird and a penguin who channels Barry White. (One bit of narration tells us Mumble is "enraged" by the indifference of marine harvesters -- but isn't he supposed to be, you know, "Happy"?) Still, when the movie is dishing up loopy musical numbers or slippery-sloped thrills, it really sings.
Extras: Tap dance revivalist Savion Glover, who choreographed and danced Mumble's energetic moves, gives kids a live-action tutorial. Some sharp-minded 'toon enthusiast thought to include Tex Avery's 1930s Merrie Melodies classic "I Love to Singa," a similarly themed short featuring "Owl" Jolson. (Rudolph's misfit lament would've worked, too.) There's also a bonus scene with a blue whale and Steve Irwin voicing an albatross. (Warner, $29.98)
DVD Box Set | Matthew Gilbert
And then there was 'Maude'
What did Norman Lear do after he made Archie Bunker into a right-wing bigot for the ages? He came up with a classic liberal bigmouth named Maude Findlay , introduced her on "All in the Family" as Edith's cousin, and moved her into her own 1972 sitcom, "Maude." He gave us a yin, and then he gave us a yang, a pair of equally loud, opinionated hypocrites who came from opposite ends of the political spectrum. It was a brilliant stroke.
And Lear made "Maude" as good, in its own way, as "All in the Family." The complete first season of "Maude," newly out on DVD, has aged remarkably well. The show is a piece of raw social comedy the likes of which we rarely see on TV even today, and not just because it so impolitely took on race, sexuality, vasectomy, psychiatry, abortion, and divorce. The show's writers were unusually willing to corner Maude ruthlessly, rubbing her nose in her own upper-middle-class white guilt. In one episode, a black man pickets the home Maude shares with fourth husband Walter (Bill Macy ) because they're investors in a slum tenement; in another, Maude's all-white fund - raising party for a black militant leader is a flop. See Maude squirm. See Maude rationalize. See Maude contradict herself.
The writing is sharp, and, as on "All in the Family," there's no effort to counteract the topicality with goofiness. And the supporting ensemble is engaging, including Esther Rolle as Maude's maid, Florida, who was later spun off into her own sitcom, "Good Times." But the DVD set, which comes with no extras, truly belongs to Bea Arthur. Using her towering presence fully, she introduced to TV an outspoken woman who was willing and able to spar with the men. Watching Arthur mug, deadpan, spew, and attack -- and still remain oddly lovable -- is to watch a master on the stage. Right on, Bea. (
Documentary | Wesley Morris
'Dolls' looks behind glamour of drag life
Like a lot of drag queens, the ones in Tomer Heymann's highly affecting documentary "Paper Dolls" (2006) don't lead a glamorous life. They've come to a suburb of Tel Aviv from the Philippines, and they work, mostly, as caregivers to the elderly, some of whom are Orthodox Jews. They do so in their street clothes, as men, and when their weekend shifts end, they change into their costumes and perform as an entertainment collective called the Paper Dolls.
Heymann's approach to the Dolls -- who, unfortunately, are referred to only by their drag names -- is curious and friendly. He appears in the film, following them to work and to a gay pride parade. He's affectionate and inquisitive . In macho Israel, drag culture almost has to exist underground, so Heymann's interest in the nitty-gritty of performing as a woman and his astonishment about gender fluidity seem sincere.
What the Paper Dolls really want is a gig at a real nightclub. They audition for a manager. But, to be honest, their act isn't very exciting. The choreography, costumes, and lip-synching are off. But the manager sees potential. Some professionalism is needed, he says, that's all. By "professionalism" he means an entirely different approach. At his club, the Dolls are made to take the stage as geishas and, later, are required to bow in costume at the entrance.
That sequence gets at the exploitative indignities of performance: how your art only rarely truly belongs to you. It also reinforces the cultural otherness the Dolls feel every day -- they're turned from human beings to live exotic flavoring.
Heymann's film was originally a six-part series for Israeli TV. The feature smoothly truncates those three hours into a rich, discreetly damning 85-minute portrait of intolerance. (Strand, $24.99)
ALSO THIS WEEK
This Aussie indie stars Heath Ledger as a junkie who genuinely loves his girl (Abbie Cornish, "A Good Year"), yet can't stop himself from dragging her down with him. Ledger is convincingly, passively devoid of self-respect, but the film doesn't scrape bottom as graphically as, say, "Trainspotting," even when Cornish starts turning tricks to feed their mutual habit.
Extras: Commentary by filmmaker Neil Armfield and source novelist Luke Davies; production featurette. (THINKFilm, $27.98)
Nubile young travelers go off-road in Brazil and wind up hitting the gurney for unscheduled procedures by a surgeon from hell. One more predictable entry in the newly christened "torture porn" genre, for those who'd tweak the "Hostel" franchise by adding bikinis.
Extras: Unrated footage; filmmaker commentary. (Fox, $29.98)
"VAN WILDER 2: THE RISE OF TAJ" (2006)
Not really a sequel at all, but a spin-off vehicle that sends supporting miscreant Kal "Kumar" Penn to Cambridge, England. We prefer watching him get serious in "The Namesake," thanks.
Extras: Unrated footage. (Fox, $29.98)
"THE JUDI DENCH COLLECTION" (2007)
In the States we're so used to picturing Dame Judi playing regal and/or hardened in period dramas, in "Notes on a Scandal," or as James Bond's boss, we sometimes forget just how expansive her resume is. This eight-disc set spotlights Dench's work in everything from a pair of adaptations of "The Cherry Orchard" to French farce and a Sondheim production.
Extras: Hourlong Dench conversation with "Scandal" director Richard Eyre; radio plays; liner notes. (BBC Video, $99.98)
"ERROL FLYNN" (2007)
Flynn swashbuckles -- and battles, flies, and boxes -- in a new five-movie set. Includes "The Charge of the Light Brigade" (1936), director Michael Curtiz's "Dive Bomber" (1941), and "Adventures of Don Juan" (1948).
Extras: Commentary on "Don Juan"; vintage newsreels and shorts. (Warner, $49.92; individual titles also available separately, $19.97 each)
"CURSE OF THE GOLDEN FLOWER" (2006)
Director Zhang Yimou's period piece merits a look for his reunion with Gong Li ("Raise the Red Lantern," "Ju Dou"), but finally is just dynastic melodrama, and hardly as noteworthy as his recent "House of Flying Daggers" and "Hero." With Chow Yun-Fat.
Extras: Production featurette. (
"FAVELA RISING" (2006)
A sobering but ultimately uplifting documentary about a musical movement known as AfroReggae, which worked to change the bleakest realities of life in a Rio de Janeiro slum. It's the gospel according to activist Anderson Sa, but despite issues of balance and over-styling, this film is a real looker, with a feel-good message that's undeniably seductive.
Extras: Production featurette. (
"THE ADDAMS FAMILY: VOLUME 2" (1964-66)
Gomez, Morticia, and the gang continue to get mysterious (but not altogether ooky ) DVD treatment in best-of collections rather than full-season sets. (MGM, $29.98)
Capsules are written by Globe correspondent Tom Russo and titles are in stores Tuesday unless otherwise specified.