DVD 7/28/09: Bart Got a Room, Dollhouse: S1, Life on Mars S1, Fast & Furious, Streets of Blood, The Alzheimer's Project, This American Life S2, Madoff and the Scamming of America, The Spectacular Spider-Man S1, Comic Legends: Four Disc Collection

Bart Got a Room (PG-13, 2008, Anchor Bay)
A lifetime of looking at movie posters and DVD covers might lead you to believe that the Bart in “Bart Got a Room” is the pathetic-looking guy in the tux on the front of the DVD case. But no, that’s actually Danny (Steven Kaplan), the latest in a never-ending line of flustered, dateless teenagers who feel an unnatural compulsion to jump through all the hoops necessary to attend their senior prom. Because if the unseen kid known only as Bart can do it, then what’s Danny’s problem? Every theme “Room” touches on feels some degree of familiar, be it the platonic female friend (Alia Shawkat), the newly-separated and newly-dating parents (William H. Macy and Cheryl Hines), or the usual spate of improvised and ill-advised solutions to time-sensitive problems. But “Room” treads through this familiarity with unmistakable ease, toeing the line between awkwardly funny visual humor (not to be confused with cheap gags) and smartly hilarious (and uncommonly understated) writing to keep the visual gags from having to carry the familiar themes to completion. You can see the path some scenes (and perhaps the whole film) are going to take from miles away, but a thousand words are just as perceptible in any random look of horror on poor Danny’s face. With that kind of care going into so much of “Room’s” finer points, the clichés in the bigger picture are of no concern.
Extras: A pop-up production notebook visual track, which plays on top of the movie when enabled.

Dollhouse: Season One (NR, 2009, Fox)
The advantage of watching a new television show on DVD? You don’t have to wait six weeks to wait and see if it’s ever going to find its groove. “Dollhouse” initially coasts by on its concept: The Dollhouse is a top-secret service in which the rich and connected can employ a “doll” (Eliza Dushku) whose memory has been artificially rebuilt to give him or her whatever personality or expertise he or she needs to complete the assignment. But outside of a slightly intriguing story arc about an FBI agent (Tahmoh Penikett) obsessed with outing the whole thing, the show seems content with a procedural format that finds the dolls inhabiting some well-written but disappointingly ordinary scenarios. But then the sixth episode happens, a barrage of awesome twists rather dramatically changes the landscape, and for whatever reason, “Dollhouse” takes a sharp turn into serial territory. The one-shot stories are still there, but they feel more distinctive to the show’s established characters and norms, and they share equal time with overriding story arcs that benefit significantly from those twists in episode six. One helps the other, and from there out, it’s like watching a completely different (and significantly better) show.
Contents: 13 episodes, plus commentary, the unaired pilot, deleted scenes and five behind-the-scenes features.

Life on Mars: Series 1 (NR, 2006, Acorn Media)
Suddenly finding yourself stripped of 33 years’ worth of human ingenuity is a jarring prospect for anyone, and that’s particularly true for detective Sam Tyler (John Simm), who wakes up as a cop in 1973 after a car barrels into him in 2006. It’s silly, but it works, because “Life on Mars” uses the concept to cash in on two separate levels. The cases contained within individual episodes achieve their own unique flavor not only due to how wildly different Sam’s ideas are from his comparatively technologically primitive colleagues (and, as it happens, bosses), but due also to how hardheaded both parties are in their strained attempts to work together. “Mars,” to its endless credit, eschews snappy dialogue and detached characters in favor of a cast of detectives (Sam included) who are jagged around the edges but awfully good at what they perceive the job to be. At the same time, the mystery of Sam’s bizarre reawaking looms. Is he nuts? Dreaming? Or is it all real? “Mars,” with its clever illustrations of Sam’s condition — or clever teases toward that end — makes it fun to find out. John Simm, Philip Glenister, Liz White, Dean Andrews, Marshall Lancaster, Noreen Kershaw and Tony Marshall also star.
Contents: Eight episodes (commentary on every episode), plus an hour-long behind-the-scenes documentary, interviews, outtakes and two behind-the-scenes features.

Fast & Furious: 2-Disc Special Edition (PG-13, 2009, Universal)
It goes almost without saying that, more than any “The Fast & the Furious” sequel before it, this really didn’t need to get made. “Fast & Furious” ostensibly marks the series’ final lap, and like other sequels that refuse to title themselves like sequels (see “Rocky Balboa” and “Rambo”), it marks something of a return to form. That, in this particular case, means the old cast (Vin Diesel, Paul Walker, Michelle Rodriguez, Jordana Brewster) is back after mostly disappearing in the second film and playing almost no role in the third. In terms of story, it also allows “Fast & Furious” to revisit a few ends left loose by the first film’s story. Problem is, that story wasn’t particularly interesting, nor were the stories that developed in the following two movies. So really, who cares? “Furious” comfortably trots out more of the same: There’s a story, it’s entirely stock and bland, and while it exists primarily to truck the film from one action scene to the next, it also steals far too much time from that action. Those action scenes, however, make for a good time per usual. If that’s enough — and the continued success of this franchise suggests it must be — then “Furious” shouldn’t let anyone down.
Extras: Director commentary, prequel short film “Los Bandoleros,” five behind-the-scenes features, bloopers, digital copy.

Streets of Blood (R, 2009, Anchor Bay)
Six months after Hurricane Katrina touched down, New Orleans remains a dangerous, precarious place. In fact, if “Streets of Blood” is to be taken with anything heavier than a grain of salt, it’s quite possibly the most dangerous place in the history of the universe, with drug lords popping up like weeds in heat and dirty cops openly violating every imaginable human right, life included. To what end, it isn’t so clear. “Blood” begins with real news footage of Katrina’s destruction, sort of mumbles its way through a completely half-hearted segue to its present condition, and then just lets the blood and bullets rain down. Naturally, this being a movie with a finite lifespan, there are a couple of cops (Val Kilmer, Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson) who, apparently all by themselves, aim to make it all just a little bit right. But with opportunistic storytelling running wild, their good intentions feel like a complete waste of time. “Blood” paints New Orleans with insultingly cartoonish strokes, plugging every other scene with some excessively silly depiction of depravity (often for depravity’s sake). The cookie cutter case at the center of the film gets lost in the mess, and attempts to humanize Jackson’s and Kilmer’s characters are vastly undermined by Kilmer’s and Sharon Stone’s (as the police department’s resident psychologist) horrifying attempts at Cajun accents. When unintentional comedy is the only thing a post-Katrina drama has going for it, look out. No extras.

Worth a Mention
— “The Alzheimer’s Project” (NR, 2009, HBO): No one does the epic documentary better than HBO, which proves it again with this four-part, eight-plus-hour, all-points exploration of Alzheimer’s disease. Extras include four additional hours of supplementary material and a 16-page program guide.
— “This American Life: Season Two” (NR, 2008, Showtime): One of premium cable’s most understated gems returns with six more episodes’ worth of extraordinary stories about ordinary people. Extras include commentary, an extended cut of one episode and a live presentation of the audio show on which this is based.
— “Madoff and the Scamming of America” (NR, 2009, History): The feel-good story of 2008 is now a feel-good, feature-length History Channel documentary. Need more cheer? No worries: Another documentary, “Crash: The Next Great Depression?,” is included as well.
— “The Spectacular Spider-Man: The Complete First Season” (NR, 2008, Sony Pictures): Spidey’s latest animated reboot marks a sharply entertaining return to form. In other words, no episodes about a mentally-addled Peter Parker cutting a rug, a la “Spider-Man 3.” Includes 13 episodes, plus two behind-the-scenes features.
— “Comic Legends: Four Disc Collection” (NR, 2009, MPI Media): You can’t really argue with the title. It really is a collection of legendary comedians — Dick Van Dyke, Phyllis Diller, Tim Conway, Redd Foxx and Groucho Mark — on four discs. Each gets a close-up in the form of standup appearances, interviews, sketch comedy and/or some song and dance.