DVD 8/18/09: Surveillance, Sons of Anarchy S1, The Garden, The Golden Boys, The Poker House, The Last House on the Left (2008) UR, TV roundup (Dexter, Everybody Hates Chris, Tim and Eric, Flight of the Conchords, Californication, House M.D.)

Surveillance (R, 2008, Magnolia)
“Surveillance” doesn’t waste much time getting going, brutally killing off a sleeping couple roughly one minute into the show. From there, the story migrates to the local police precinct, where a police chief (Michael Ironside), his officers (Charlie Newmark, Kent Harper, Gill Gayle) two FBI agents (Julia Ormond, Bill Pullman) and two witnesses (Ryan Simpkins, Pell James) of unknown origin gather in three separate rooms for supervised questioning. If that sounds like a positively heatless story on paper, it’s because it is … on paper. But if “Surveillance” is just another story about just another murder, no one told the characters, who by and large lack anything resembling a filter. Nor did anyone inform the cast, which is gifted to a startling degree with actors who know how to play that role for maximum effect without overdoing it. All that hilariously dark candor makes for some great exchanges at the station, but it also opens the door for numerous possibilities when the film goes back to reconstruct how what happened in minute one involves all these separate parties. As should be no surprise, “Surveillance” tops it off with a few twists, including a biggie at the end. You might see it coming — it would seem the film wants you to figure it out — but even if you do, what happens in its wake is as unhinged, and fiendishly enjoyable, as all that preceded it. French Stewart also stars.
Extras: Director/supporting cast commentary, alternate ending, deleted scenes, two behind-the-scenes features.

Sons of Anarchy: Season One (NR, 2008, Fox)
With respect to Hollywood’s Golden Age and all the images it brought forth, being in a motorcycle gang — check that, a motorcycle club — isn’t nearly as reckless and carefree as outside appearances would suggest. To the contrary, the same non-rebellious hassles of normal life apply, right down to the workplace politics that find a club president (the always fantastic Ron Perlman) diplomatically but impatiently butting heads with his young vice president (Charlie Hunnam), who also happens to be the son of a dead former member and his widow (Katey Sagal), who just so happens to be presently romantically involved with the aforementioned president. Like the best of its FX Network brethren, “Sons of Anarchy” isn’t afraid to get its hands dirty — as a show about a motorcycle club should. But while “Anarchy’s” depictions of violent means to violent ends is as good as any on television presently, its best moments transpire when the show drills deep into the oft-mundane nitty gritty of all the stupid little things that make a motorcycle club and its members — like any other job or family and its members — operate. The writing’s first-rate, the characters instantly interesting, and some terrific story arcs effortlessly take it from there. Maggie Siff, Kim Coates, Johnny Lewis, Tommy Flanagan and Theo Rossi, among several others, also star.
Contents: 13 episodes, plus commentary, deleted scenes and five behind-the-scenes features.

The Garden (NR, 2008, Oscilloscope)
Were “The Garden” a work of fiction about a 14-acre garden established in South Central Los Angeles in the wake of the 1992 riots, it’d likely emerge as a feel-good redemption tale about a small subset of people who allowed such a project not only to take shape, but to flourish in the face of politicians and developers bent on stealthily reclaiming the land for commercial purposes. But the garden is real, the gardeners are real, the developer who wants his land back is real and the meddling politicians with conflicting interests are real. Thus, “The Garden,” being the good documentary it is, has no choice but to take all that attempted human spirit and trample all over it with eight axles of business and politics as usual. As it should, “The Garden” quietly rolls camera and distributes its time between the garden, the lives of those tending to it, the trials they face and the groups and institutions that picked this fight. Everyone gets a chance to speak freely, and while it doesn’t take a great deal of courage to put money on where the filmmakers’ sentiments lie, the film itself doesn’t actively meddle in the discussion. The story doesn’t need the help, anyway: As a microcosm for bureaucratic struggles everywhere and a picture of what happens when a labor of love is interrupted by those who don’t understand it but still can disrupt it, it’s first-rate storytelling all by itself. In English and Spanish with optional subtitles as needed.
Extras: Director/producers commentary with farmer and activist Tezozomoc, extended scenes, bonus footage, director interview.

The Golden Boys (PG, 2008, Lions Gate)
Like the DVD box says, “The Golden Boys” finds retired shipmates (David Carradine, Bruce Dern and Rip Torn as Captains Zeb, Perez and Jerry, respectively) having a bear of a time transitioning into their new lives as housemates. It’s so bad, in fact, that the three have hatched a scheme for one of them to marry a woman simply for the purpose of having a female roommate who can cook for and clean after the three of them. (It’s 1905, so this is in perfectly politically correct taste for the time.) In contrary to what the box says, though, the caper doesn’t send the former sailors into hilariously uncharted waters. And thank goodness for that, because such madcap hilarity would simply disrupt the pleasant buzz that ensues instead. “The Golden Boys” is about as effortlessly enjoyable as silly comedies get, parlaying the talents of its cast into some accessibly interesting characters and getting similarly amusing results from the turn-of-the-century setting and all the backward good intentions it entailed. The scheme, of course, benefits as well though, it’s striking (and ultimately telling) how much more “Boys'” heartfelt story and character turns have to do with that success instead the pedestrian hilarity original promised on the box. Mariel Hemingway and Charles Durning also star. No extras.

The Poker House (R, 2008, Phase 4 Films)
“The Poker House” is a picture-in-a-dictionary example of a movie that, for all it does well, is a vastly different experience for the writer/director (Lori Petty) tasked with creating it than it is for the audience tasked with watching it. “House” is a dramaticized account of Petty’s (played here by Jennifer Lawrence) early-teenage years in the eponymous house, which was headed by her strung-out prostitute mother (Selma Blair), co-inhabited by her two little sisters (Sophia Bairley and Chloe Moretz) and overrun at any given hour with pimps, addicts, gamblers and hustlers. As should be expected from a film based on the life of the person making it, “House” also is brimming with intimate detail that’s distributed equally to some impressively through character designs, a setting that really takes you there, and numerous of scenes that thrive on their authenticity more than their place in the story’s central thread. That last part is the closest “House” comes to having an undoing. Petty seems determined to paint as all-encompassing a picture as she can in 93 minutes’ time, and moments that hold special significance in her memory don’t necessarily play as strongly for the rest of us. But those little detours ultimately do contribute, leaving behind little details about the characters that make the film’s most powerful moments that much more significant once the story returns to the main road.
Extras: Petty commentary, photo gallery.

The Last House on the Left: Unrated (R/NR, 2008, Universal)
It’s a bit unfair to penalize a horror film for being too horrifying, so what follows isn’t so much a condemnation as a warning: This film — about a daughter (Sara Paxton as Mari), her friend (Martha MacIsaac) and the turn of events that finds them in the middle of nowhere and in the company of an escaped killer (Garret Dillahunt) and his cohorts (Riki Lindhome, Aaron Paul, Spencer Treat Clark) — is dangerously good at being absolutely savage. That, of course, denotes a mission accomplished: “The Last House on the Left” is a predictably gorier remake of the 1972 original, but it doesn’t simply lean on better special effects and excess blood the way so many sorry horror remakes so often have lately. Its principal characters benefit from actual, honest-to-gosh character development, and the film’s grasp of genuine suspense and pit-in-stomach dread is deniable only by those who dismiss its tactics as abhorrent. This, of course, is where the warning lies. Without spoiling what happens or where it goes from there, “Left’s” story takes a swift and dramatically dark turn roughly halfway through the film that almost certainly will have perfectly sensible viewers shutting it off in disgust or derision. For horror connoisseurs, that might be the best warning ever, but for the rest of you, consider that a caution not to be taken lightly. Monica Potter and Tony Goldwyn also star.
Extras: Deleted scenes, behind-the-scenes feature.

Worth a Mention: Must-See Returning TV Edition
— “Dexter: The Third Season” (NR, 2008, Showtime): Includes 12 episodes, plus the first two episodes of Showtime’s “The United States of Tara,” interviews, the first two episodes from the third season of “The Tudors” and excerpts from the newest “Dexter” novel.
— “Everybody Hates Chris: The Final Season” (NR, 2008, CBS): Includes 22 episodes, plus commentary, executive producer introduction, director Webisodes, bloopers, deleted scenes and five behind-the-scenes features.
— “Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!: Season Three” (NR, 2008, Adult Swim): Includes 10 episodes (including an extended version of “Muscles for Bones”), plus deleted scenes, bloopers, a behind-the-scenes feature and more.
— “Flight of the Conchords: The Complete Second Season” (NR, 2008, HBO): Includes 10 episodes, plus Dave’s pawn shop commercials, New Zealand Consulate Meetings with Murray and Greg, deleted scenes, outtakes and a behind-the-scenes feature.
— “Californication: The Second Season” (NR, 2008, Showtime): Includes 12 episodes, plus commentary, interviews, the first two “Tara” and “Tudors” episodes and a behind-the-scenes feature. Available August 25.
— “House, M.D.: The Complete Fifth Season” (NR, 2008, Universal): Includes 24 episodes, plus commentary, a 100th episode feature and four other behind-the-scenes features. Available August 25.