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DVD Report

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May 18, 2008

New Releases | Tom Russo

Almost-history repeated, for the fun of it

It would probably be going a bit far to call "National Treasure: Book of Secrets" (2007) the brainiest brainless entertainment hitting DVD right now. Still, there's no denying that this popcorn movie's fixation on historical trivia, both real and gleefully invented, is atypical. In fact, it's something that once again actually elevates this guilty-pleasure franchise several notches above the generic. "The Da Vinci Code" is all reverential stuffiness compared to Nicolas Cage's latest outing as letter-box treasure hunter Ben Gates. Oh, was that his name? Returning director Jon Turteltaub and friends kid themselves that we will remember, as the movie quickly dives into scenes about the old gang of forgettable characters getting back together. Gates is determined to clear an ancestor implicated in Lincoln's assassination - and the only way to do it is by finding the conquistador-era Lost City of Gold, supposedly a target of Confederate schemers who'd sought to finance further civil warring. The trail leads from Paris to Buckingham Palace to a handsomely shot Mount Rushmore, with a loopy stopover to abduct the president (Bruce Greenwood, "Thirteen Days") and grill him about his urban-legend tome of the title. Crusty scholar Jon Voight, as Cage's dad, is best at handling the silly exposition, acting believably impatient with some of it - but at least the movie cares enough to float the occasional history book passage, even if it's from "History for Dummies."

Extras: Don't look for scholarly material here; a bonus disc featurette devotes two minutes to the dubious Civil War conspiracy theory that drives the story. A featurette on the Library of Congress is also breezy, but gives a sense of the scope of cataloging and restoration efforts. Turteltaub and Voight supply commentary. (Disney, $29.99; two-disc version and Blu-ray, $34.99)

"HAMBURGER HILL" (1987)

Director John Irvin's Vietnam drama is notable for its graphic depiction of soldiers struggling through one particularly impossible turf battle, as well as for its cast of then-unfamiliar faces, including Dylan McDermott, Steven Weber, and, very briefly, Don Cheadle. Courtney B. Vance ("Law & Order: Criminal Intent") stands out as an experienced platoon member meeting the ugly injustice of his situation with viper-room cool and, occasionally, flashes of grief and rage. (Don't miss Vance drilling new recruits on proper toothbrushing technique.) The film's stated aim not to editorialize gives it some bursts of power, but keeps it from having a more distinctive identity, particularly amid the current wave of Iraq-theme releases.

Extras: Retrospective interviews with McDermott, Weber, Vance, and castmates. (Lionsgate, $19.98)

"THE FLOCK" (2008)

You've probably got some familiarity with Hong Kong director Andrew Lau's work, whether or not you've actually seen his movies. "The Departed," after all, was an Americanization of his stylish import "Infernal Affairs." Lau tries his hand at American fare with this Richard Gere-Claire Danes psychological thriller, but the result is disjointed enough that it's no mystery why it bypassed theaters. Gere plays an obsessive fed who keeps tabs on sex offenders, and who's got no patience for Danes, the too-trusting newbie assigned to nudge him out to pasture. Danes is no Clarice Starling, and there are some unintentional laughs in her jittery reaction to an S&M dungeon they encounter. But a later jump cut to Gere beating on one of his degenerate regulars (French Stewart of "3rd Rock," nicely cast) shows there's some hope for Lau stateside. (Genius Products, $19.97)

"SQUARE PEGS": THE COMPLETE SERIES (1982-83)

Despite the fond, dorky memories it conjures for some, Sarah Jessica Parker's cliques-dissecting comedy has far more in common with stilted tween sitcoms than "My So-Called Life." Sure, there's some theme music by the Waitresses - but '80s high schoolers doing Jimmy Cagney jokes? Oof. Still, timely as a fun contrast to Parker in Carrie Bradshaw mode.

Extras: In an interview, Parker recalls that she was a bit square herself. She welcomed the show as a chance to get away from her real-life school scene. (Sony, $29.95)

Television DVD | Matthew Gilbert

Great drama in a small-screen package

This adaptation of the knockout 2004 stage revival of "A Raisin in the Sun" is a model of how the screen can bring us up close to great stage acting without deadening it. The movie, starring Phylicia Rashad, Audra McDonald, Sean "Diddy" Combs, and Sanaa Lathan, shows us every facial expression and eye flicker, and yet the camerawork, with its probing intimacy, never distracts from the story.

Written by Lorraine Hansberry on the eve of the 1960s civil-rights movement, "A Raisin in the Sun" is both a period piece about African-American identity and a statement for the ages. Set in 1959 Chicago, it follows the financially struggling Younger family through crises hinging on a forthcoming insurance check for $10,000. While Walter Lee (Combs) plans to gamble the money on a liquor-store venture, his widowed mother, Lena (Rashad), and his wife, Ruth (McDonald), want to buy a home in a white neighborhood. His sister, Beneatha (Lathan), hopes the windfall will pay for her medical school.

Both McDonald and Lathan deliver revealing, visceral performances. As McDonald's Ruth considers aborting her second child, her face is twisted with grief and exhaustion. Lathan's Beneatha is an extroverted free spirit unwilling to stop expressing her creativity, her African heritage, and her ambition. She is drawn to assimilate, as a black American, although she snaps, "I am not an assimilationist" at her Nigerian boyfriend. She embodies an internal divide. Rashad, meanwhile, is as restrained as the other actresses aren't. She pulls back from every possible chance of turning Lena into a self-consciously noble heroine.

Combs's presence runs the risk of prying us out of the movie, as he doesn't quite disappear behind his portrayal of Walter Lee. Combs remains undeniably Diddy. Still, that contemporary flavor adds a new currency to the play, a sense that it still has something relevant to say about black men trying to get a foothold in adulthood, trying to dream against the odds. Combs doesn't draw every inch of poetry from the script, but his sullen presence adds weight to his scenes.

Director Kenny Leon opens up the play with a few external shots, but only slightly. And yet this movie never feels claustrophobic or overly stagy. Wisely, the people behind the scenes step back and let the actors and Hansberry do the work.

Extras: Director's commentary, featurette on history of the work. (Sony Pictures. $24.94, now available)

Documentary | Mark Feeney

Mann's provocative side is glossed over

The photographer Sally Mann is a great subject for a documentary. She's articulate, forceful, radiantly self-involved. She's also beautiful (think Amanda Peet 20 years on), and her work is photogenic, too.

Mann first came to prominence in the late '80s with her book "At Twelve: Portraits of Young Women," followed by "Immediate Family." The former offered a frank vision of girls on the cusp of adolescence. "Family" included nude portraits of Mann's children (she has two daughters and a son) and some poses that might seem playful in person but looked provocative on the page. More recently, Mann has photographed decomposing bodies.

"I really wasn't trying to push anyone's buttons," she says in "What Remains: The Life and Work of Sally Mann." Whether intentional or not, button-pushing is central to her art. Among several reasons "What Remains" isn't the great documentary Mann merits is its unwillingness to examine Mann's capacity to provoke. Filmmaker Steven Cantor acknowledges it, of course - that's what makes a film about her bankable - but in such a way as to produce neither heat nor light.

Every once in a while something unexpected comes along. Mann's husband discusses his muscular dystrophy. She weeps when a New York gallery cancels her show. Best of all, there's a wondrous moment early on when we catch a glimpse of the upside-down image on the ground glass of Mann's old-fashioned view camera. It's a priceless, startling instant, one that conveys the magic Mann's photographs aspire to and, sometimes, achieve.

Extras: documentary short about Mann, Mann photos, deleted scenes (Zeitgeist, $29.99, already available)

ALSO THIS WEEK

"DIARY OF THE DEAD" (2007)

Zombie auteur George A. Romero takes another stab at lending the cult genre new relevance, serving up a tale of film students documenting a new undead outbreak with camcorders and cellphones. Better than his last try, 2005's inert "Land of the Dead." His original "Night of the Living Dead" gets revived for a companion reissue.

Extras: Romero commentary; character confessionals; production featurettes. (Genius Products, $24.95; "Night," $19.97)

REISSUES

"THE NIGHT THEY RAIDED MINSKY'S" (1968)

William Friedkin teams with Norman Lear for this atypical early-career romp. Amish innocent Britt Ekland heads to the big city, falls in with burlesque vet Jason Robards, and ends up, naturally, doing striptease. A pair of additional swingin' '60s comedies get companion reissues: "If It's Tuesday, This Must Be Belgium," with Suzanne Pleshette and a young Ian McShane; and the Blake Edwards-James Coburn WWII send-up "What Did You Do in the War, Daddy?" (MGM, $19.98 each)

"JAMES STEWART: THE WESTERN COLLECTION" (2008)

Stewart brings a light touch, and order, to the wild West in "Destry Rides Again" (1939), with Marlene Dietrich. The six-film set also includes a passel of Stewart's genre entries with director Anthony Mann, notably the classic "Winchester '73" (1950), as well as "Bend of the River" and "The Far Country." (Universal, $39.98)

"RHYTHM THIEF" (1995)

Matthew Harrison scored a festival hit with his sometimes amusing, sometimes pretentious portrait of a New York music bootlegger (Jason Andrews, "Last Exit to Brooklyn") getting over and getting busted.

Extras: Commentary by Harrison; production featurette. (Kino, $24.95)

TELEVISION

"NIMROD NATION" (2007-08)

Documentarian Brett Morgen's well-done series about a colorfully named high school basketball team in rural Michigan plays like a variation on "Friday Night Lights."

Extras: Morgen interview. (Arts Alliance America, $39.)

"THE MUPPET SHOW": THE COMPLETE THIRD SEASON (1978-79)

Kermit, Miss Piggy, Fozzie Bear, and friends get inspirational/celebrational/Muppetational with guest stars from Roy Rogers and Sly Stallone to Alice Cooper and Liberace.

Extras: 1969 program spotlighting Jim Henson's early work. (Disney, $39.99)

"24": SEASON ONE (2001-02)

Since the writers' strike gave Jack Bauer a temporary reprieve from his latest day from hell, the show's producers fill the void (and their trickling revenue stream) with a DVD encore of where it all began. A pair of new production featurettes and a season seven trailer are the selling points. (Fox, $59.98)

Capsules are written by Tom Russo and titles are in stores Tuesday unless otherwise specified.

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