21 (PG-13, 2008, Sony Pictures)
As movies go, “21” is a respectably entertaining semi-thriller about a pack of brilliant college students (Jim Sturgess, Kate Bosworth, Liza Lapira, Aaron Yoo and Jacob Pitts, Aaron Yoo) and the professor (Kevin Spacey) who assembles them, teaches them to count cards, and turns them into a human profit machine at Las Vegas’ blackjack tables. Problem is, this respectably entertaining film is based on an extremely entertaining book (Ben Mezrich’s “Bringing Down the House: The Inside Story of Six M.I.T. Students Who Took Vegas for Millions”), which itself is a work of non-fiction. Why the crew charged with bringing “House” to the big screen felt an obligation to completely rearrange and dramatize the story is anybody’s guess, but it did. As such, fascinating chapters about the science of legal cheating and the business of profiting at Vegas’ expense never materialize on screen, scrapped in favor of contrived character conflicts ripped wholesale from the playbook of dramatic clichés. Again, the ultimate product is decent. But decent thrillers are everywhere, stories the likes of “House” are not, and “21” trips over its own feet on what should have been a very easy journey to becoming something far more special than it became.
Extras: Filmmaker commentary, card counting primer, two behind-the-scenes features.
Boston Strangler: The Untold Story (R, 2008, Weinstein Company)
Did Albert De Salvo (played here by David Faustino) really commit the murders of 13 women by himself? His confession says yes, but the evidence and circumstances of the case left serious doubt that it was his or even any one man’s doing. According to “Boston Strangler: The Untold Story,” De Salvo was merely a willing prop, along with cellmate Frank Asarian (Kostas Sommer), in a scheme to take credit for the murders in a way that would net their families the reward money and allow them to spend their days in state-run rehabilitation centers. Purely in entertainment terms, “Story” competently coasts by, giving the bulk of its runtime to its best-developed assets (Faustino and Sommer) and, outside of some clumsy decisions involving chronology and pace, moving the story along without excessive detour into soul-searching or other wasteful devices. But real life and history work against the film by not only spoiling the ending, but holding it to a certain standard of credibility and honor not necessarily met given the shaky claims. The influx of hammy Boston accents injects some fun into the film, but “Strangler” often challenges you to take it seriously for the same reason. Well-intentioned or not, the film often plays like pulp fiction instead of the history-altering game-changer the filmmakers (or at least the back of the box) seem to think it is.
Extra: Filmmakers/Faustino commentary.
Manswers: The Best of Season One (NR, 2007, Spike)
Chocolate and peanut butter, this most assuredly is not. The object of “Manswers” is to answer the burning questions meatheads everywhere are afraid to ask. What’s the best organ to eat if you become a cannibal? How do you survive freefalling elevator ride? How can you build a hot tub for a few bucks? What’s more valuable than gold and lurking in oceans everywhere? What’s the most dangerous wild animal in the country, and can the fabled touch of death really kill you? With exceptions, the questions chosen for this best-of set are scientifically fascinating at best and good for some lowbrow trivia at worst, and “Manswers” trots out some presumably legitimate academics and experts to back up its findings. But that reasoned research is presented to viewers in the only manner Spike TV understands: with lots of noise, a narrator with no indoor voice and ditzy girls in skimpy outfits just for the sake of it. The clash between the forces of intellect and unbridled stupidity is so fierce and acute, it’s a wonder a tiny tornado doesn’t emerge from the DVD tray and wreak havoc on all who witness it. But the bizarre juxtaposition also is what makes “Manswers” a surprisingly enjoyable guilty pleasure in spite of itself. Just don’t feel obligated to pay for it: Even if the segments were worth a repeat viewing, most of them are freely available to watch in full on Spike’s Web site. Oops. No extras.
LA Ink: Volume 1 (NR, 2007, TLC)
For those who looked at “Inked” and “Miami Ink” and screamed, “I need more!” at the top of their lungs, here you go — yet another tattoo parlor reality show. Admittedly, the back-story behind “LA Ink” is somewhat interesting: The face of the show, Katherine von Drachenberg, originally appeared on “Miami Ink” before a falling out left her jobless and on the road back to her hometown. But outside of a few introductory paragraphs this doesn’t factor much into the show’s storytelling, and beyond that point, it’s more of the same stuff that fueled the other two shows. Like its peers, “LA Ink” tries to squeeze drama where there really shouldn’t be any (This just in: Constructing a tattoo parlor doesn’t happen overnight!), and some of the interactions between the four artists feel puzzlingly rehearsed given what should be a pretty intimate setting. As with the other two shows, the most (only?) interesting ingredient of “LA Ink” is the non-celebrity customers who come into the shop to get work done. They are the ones to whom we can relate, and their stories often are genuinely engaging enough to unintentionally make the faux-drama of the shop look silly by comparison. Still, even this trail has been blazed to death at this point. Until a show decides to reconfigure the formula, only those with an unusually insatiable appetite for this formula need apply at this point.
Contents: 13 episodes, plus a cast interview and some temporary tattoos.
The Last Winter (NR, 2007, IFC Films)
A team of oil scouts (Ron Perlman, James LeGros, Connie Britton, Zach Gilford and Kevin Corrigan, among others) has descended on Northern Alaska in hopes of drilling and saving Americans a few pennies at the pump, but did anyone ask the spirits lurking beneath the surface what they think of all this? Seems not, which is why our crew suddenly finds itself with a much tougher job than drilling in sub-zero temperatures already entails. Scary, right? Sure — if 101 minutes of dulled thrills and lukewarm character drama is what keeps you up at night. “The Last Winter” is proficiently in tune with its setting, and it certainly doesn’t struggle to convey the sense of desolation that comes from working in an area so demonstrably unfit for human habitation. But one can channel that sense of atmosphere, almost verbatim, into any genre up to and including comedy, and if “Winter” was counting on atmosphere alone to keep people on seat’s edge, it badly miscalculated. The film’s few thrills aren’t terribly thrilling, the vibe more neutered than nuanced, the characters too stock to make the consequences of their actions too terribly engrossing, and the wait for something truly frightening to emerge extends all the way past the closing credits. Worse, “Winter” wears an entirely unsubtle message — rhymes with “woble glorming” — on its sleeve, and regardless of one’s stance on that issue, it’s a distraction that undermines all that attempted immersion. Considering the final reveal is something even Al Gore might find a bit ridiculous, it’s a sermon not worth enduring.
Extras: Writer/director commentary, feature-length making-of documentary.
Worth a mention
— “Comedy Central’s TV Funhouse: Uncensored” (NR, 2000, Comedy Central): Robert Smigel’s too-short-lived series, featuring Triumph-like puppets (including Triumph) and cartoons too hot for “Saturday Night Live,” finally comes to DVD. It’s only a shame that, at eight episodes, the offering is so meager. Extras include audio and video commentaries, outtakes and behind-the-scenes footage.
— “André Téchiné: 4-Film Collector’s Edition” (NR, 1981-94, Lions Gate): In case you’re hungry for more sophisticated and possibly educational fare, this sleek four-film collection, packaged in the same fashion as the previously-released Jean-Luc Godard set, provides a wonderful introduction to a director you may not know. All four films (“Hotel America,” “I Don’t Kiss,” “My Favorite Season” and “Wild Reeds”) are in French with English subtitles. No extras.
— “Transformers: Cybertron: The Ultimate Collection” (NR, 2005, Hasbro/Paramount): “Transformers: Cybertron” inspired a polarizing reaction from Transformers fans when it originally aired on television three years ago, and there’s no reason to figure the arrival of this seven-disc set won’t do the same. For those who care, all 52 episodes are here. No extras.