DVD 12/9/08: The Dark Knight, A Man Named Pearl, Swingtown S1, Dr. Seuss' Horton Hears a Who!, Man on Wire, Phillies World Series DVDs, Frost/Nixon: The Original Watergate Interviews

The Dark Knight: Two-Disc Special Edition (PG-13, 2008, Warner Bros.)
Even if they somehow haven’t already seen it in theaters, Batman fans likely already know more than they need to know about “The Dark Knight.” Whichever the case may be, their preorders are in the mail, and any ink “Knight” gets this week has zero value to them. So this is where the rest of you — whether you assume “Knight” is fodder for teenage boys or if you simply avoid comic book movies on instinct — come in. And here is what you may not know: You need not care one iota about superheroes, comic books or even Batman himself to absolutely love this movie anyway. “Knight” delivers as a work of fan service — The Joker (Heath Ledger) is as advertised, and the emergence of Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart) satisfies on the same level — but it delivers just as powerfully as a smart, morally ambiguous criminal thriller starring characters who would be among the year’s best even if they shed the costumes, washed off the makeup and called themselves Tom, Bill and Dave. “Knight” also proves, beyond doubt, that a first-rate thriller in 2008 need not lean on cheap violence and gore for the sake of it to actual thrill an audience. There are some brilliant action scenes and some stuff certainly goes boom, but it’s the sheer brilliance of the script that takes this one to a plane few of its contemporaries even know exists. Michael Caine, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Gary Oldman and Morgan Freeman also star. Oh, and Christian Bale returns as Batman.
Extras: Multi-part behind-the-scenes feature, six scenes in original IMAX framing, six episodes of “Gotham Tonight,” stills gallery, digital copy.

A Man Named Pearl (NR, 2006, Docurama)
When Pearl Fryar and his wife moved to Bishopville, S.C., and settled into an all-white neighborhood, assumptions about the character behind the color of his skin sent neighbors’ imaginations into a frenzy, with some going so far as to peg Fryar as unfit to keep his own lawn from descending into ruin. Pearl’s masterful response? Win the neighborhood’s yard of the month award and leave no doubt. His method? Twenty-plus years of obsessive, self-taught topiary — creating living sculptures from trees and bushes — that transformed a backyard into a literal tourist attraction and put Bishopville on the map. The work of art Pearl unleashed is an achievement in its own right, but it’s exponentially remarkable when “A Man Named Pearl” reveals how much formal training Fryar accrued before his undertaking began. “Pearl” is full of other pleasant surprises, but perhaps no development is more pleasant than a complete lack of the character conflict that always seems to disrupt documentaries like these. Between Pearl’s achievements and Pearl himself, it would seem impossible to come away anything short of moved and impressed, and it would appear those feelings aren’t limited to the film bearing his name. If you’re the creative sort and/or if you find your ambitions in a rut, this one’s a must-see.
Extras: CD Soundtrack, Pearl/director updates, composer interview, filmmaker bios.

Swingtown: The First Season (NR, 2008, CBS/Paramount)
Seeing how “Swingtown” is not just a network show, but a CBS show, it’s understandably automatic to assume the title’s allusions to swinger culture are either coincidental or accidental. Surprise: They’re not, and “Swingtown” is, as a matter of fact, a show about swingers, their kids and their neighbors making sense of it all in suburban Chicago during America’s bicentennial. This being a network show, the content limitations are obvious. But beyond predictable restrictions placed on swearing and nudity, “Swingtown” feels positively cable-esque: The characters and situations aren’t dumbed-down or coated in sugar for safe consumption, and the show arguably achieves a higher level of maturity by taking taboo head on in spite of the detours it has to take. Given the absurd rift between sexual and violent content that broadcast television allows on its airwaves, a little gap closure is long overdue. “Swingtown” does it with taste, intrigue and style, and it tosses in a monster of a soundtrack — another staple of first-rate cable TV — to boot. Molly Parker, Grant Show, Jack Davenport, Lana Parrilla, Miriam Shor and Josh Hopkins, among others, star.
Contents: 13 episodes (just like cable!), plus commentary, deleted scenes, two behind-the-scenes features and bloopers.

Dr. Seuss’ Horton Hears a Who! Two-Disc Special Edition (G, 2008, Fox)
Yes, we’re doing this again. And yes, the latest stretching of a Dr. Seuss story into a feature-length film just so happens put Jim Carrey back in the titular and starting role. Don’t fret, though — there’s good news. Right off the bat, “Horton Hears a Who” appears to have learned a lesson neither “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” nor the dreadful “The Cat in the Hat” could grasp: Instead of using live actors to creep us out, it goes the computer animation route. This alone is all the film needs to bury its predecessors: Seuss’ characters lend themselves awfully well to this medium, and Horton the elephant’s universe is teeming with expressive characters (himself included) who can carry moments of filler storytelling whenever “Who” needs to thin itself out to achieve its feature-length runtime. Happily, that proves less of a problem this time as well. “Who” doesn’t exactly rock you when it comes to surprise twists or even twists at all, but between its clever original premise, a handful of likeable main characters, a few more likeable side characters, and a few bit players who are good for some smiles and laughs, there exists more than enough momentum to keep spirits high all the way to the end. What a difference a medium makes.
Extras: Directors commentary, “Ice Age: Surviving Sid” short, deleted footage, animation screen tests, seven behind-the-scenes features, elephants feature, set-top game, DVD-ROM game.

Man on Wire (PG-13, 2008, Magnolia)
One must wonder what it would be like to watch “Man on Wire” — which documents Frenchman Philippe Petit’s 1974 attempt to walk a tightrope between the World Trade Center’s twin towers — had Sept. 11 never happened. Petit’s and his cohorts’ accounts of how a handful of foreigners and a few inside men gained unauthorized access to the towers, no matter how harmless the intention, can’t help but carry an unsettling subtext, and there’s really nothing anyone could do at this point to change that and still keep “Wire” honest. That said, it’s this same subtext, despite “Wire’s” not-quite refusal to even allude to it, that makes “Wire” considerably more transcendent and significant than it otherwise would be for most. And Petit’s professed love of the towers, which bloomed before construction even began, makes “Wire” as much a love letter to the structures as a celebration of the fulfillment of a dream seemingly beyond possibility on numerous levels. Petit and his cohorts narrate their own story with infectious, emotional enthusiasm, and “Wire” mixes in real footage with some inspired dramatizations that skillfully convey the spirit and significance of the moment. Throw in a few mid-mission thrills and a post-climax surprise you probably won’t see coming, and you might be surprised how many directions this straight walk takes you before it’s done.
Extras: Footage of Petit’s 1973 Sydney Harbor Bridge crossing, bonus Petit interview, animated 10-minute retrospective.

Worth a Mention
— Phillies World Series DVDs: Two things not to buy a Tampa Bay Rays or New York Mets fan: “World Series 2008: Philadelphia Phillies vs. Tampa Bay Rays” (NR, 2008, MLB/Shout Factory) and “The Philadelphia Phillies 2008 World Series Collector’s Edition” (NR, 2008, MLB/A&E). The former, a single-disc highlight collection, includes footage of the World Series, playoff and regular season clinching footage, the World Series trophie presentation, an episode of “This Week in Baseball” and two Shane Victorino features. The latter, an eight-disc box set, includes uncut versions of all five World Series games and games four and five of the NLCS (with both the national television and local radio broadcast teams available as options), as well as a bonus disc’s worth of season-wide bonus footage and interviews.
— “Frost/Nixon: The Original Watergate Interviews” (NR, 1977, Liberation Entertainment): More than 45 million Americans watched Sir David Frost’s all-encompassing interview with Richard Nixon when it originally aired on television. This disc includes the complete 80-minute interview, along with a 17-minute, present-day interview with Frost that immediately follows the program.