Life (NR, 2009, BBC Earth)
The title of “Life” — an 11-episode look at, yes, life — would suggest a series with delusions of being the end-all, be-all, definitively definitive look at the world’s staggering collection of species in their respective habitats. In reality, though, the title simply grants “Life” license to shift between vignettes without necessarily bowing to any sort of obligatory pattern. One minute might bring an incredible look at the bouncing pebble toad’s amazing survival trick, while the next might provide insight into the social mores of hippos (and what happens when an outcast violates them). If the randomness sounds like a bad thing, it’s not: The massive length of “Life, which was filmed worldwide over a period of more than eight years, affords it a treasure chest of stories to tell and footage to show, and the loose structure values variety and unpredictability over order for order’s sake. It also allows “Life” to tell the stories it wants to tell and do so at paces that best suit each segment. That, in turn, allows the series to let its incontrovertible selling point — eight-plus hours of see-it-to-believe-it footage of all manner of species completely in their element — to shine as brightly as it can. High-definition technology brings “Life’s” creatures home in staggering detail, but no amount of gadgetry would amount to anything if the people handling those cameras weren’t as incredibly skilled (and, most likely, angelically patient) as they so clearly are here.
Contents: 11 episodes, plus deleted scenes, making-of video diaries and an optional audio track that removes the narrator but keeps the music.
New York Street Games (NR, 2010, NY Street Games Productions)
We’ve all heard the bemoaning by adults who reminisce about childhoods spent outdoors instead of in front of televisions and computers. Cynically, that would appear to be the point of “New York Street Games,” which rounds up celebrities (Ray Romano, Whoopi Goldberg, Keith David, Regis Philbin, C. Everett Koop and more) and street game aficionados to reflect on days spent in the street with nothing but other kids, a Spaldeen ball and their imaginations to make time fly. Happily, though, it isn’t. Instead, our subjects delve into giddy detail while describing the wild rules and customs of such creations as stoopball, ringoleavio, and punchball, and the only thing more convincing than their genuine love of those games is the sense of community that permeates throughout these otherwise disconnected interviews. The spirit of the games — be it the ingenuity that conceived them, the inclusive nature that turned city blocks into neighborhoods, or the inspiring efforts to reintroduce them to today’s kids — is completely infectious. By the time some of the subjects turn to handwringing, no explanation is necessary for their angst to resonate. “Games” is heavier on interviews than action, and the film is likely to resonate with parents more than kids. But in an inspired touch, the DVD includes a 26-page illustrated booklet that details every game’s rules. Get a ball, find some blacktop, and what’s old is new and exciting again.
Extra: The aforementioned rulebook.
My Dog: An Unconditional Love Story (NR, 2009, Docurama)
Sometimes, a movie’s title demands an explanation. And sometimes, as with “My Dog: An Unconditional Love Story,” the title says so much about the movie that even reviewing it seems kind of stupid. “Dog” collects some famous (Glenn Close, Edie Falco, Richard Gere) and not-so-famous (but often more illuminating) people together to share stories about what their dogs mean to them, and the result is as evenhanded as a kindergartener’s review of a candy store. For dog lovers, though, this is a preaching to the choir of the best kind. “Dog” isn’t an educational documentary so much as a virtual gathering with friends you didn’t know you had who love their dogs as much as anyone moved to watch this probably does, and while we’ve been conditioned to suspect the true colors of celebrities when cameras are rolling, those suspicions just don’t fly here. The only knock is that, at 50 minutes long, “Dog” ends too quickly, but the additional 17 minutes of entirely worthwhile deleted scenes help mitigate that somewhat.
Extras: Deleted scenes/interviews, filmmaker bios.
American Pickers: The Complete Season One (NR, 2010, History)
Be jealous, shopaholics and collectors: Not only have Mike Wolfe and Frank Fritz found a way to spend their days traveling the country and buying stuff most didn’t even know was for sale, but they make a pretty cool living by occasionally turning that stuff around for pretty amazing profit. Mike and Frank are pickers, and “American Pickers” rolls camera as they visit garages, sheds and storerooms full of antiques and novelties most would consider trash and that their owners have long treated as such. “Pickers” works as a television show because the stuff the guys find often is ridiculous, and it works as a History Channel show because of the stories and historical connotations many of the items have. But it works as entertainment because Mike and Frank have exactly the kind of charisma one needs to knock on complete strangers’ doors, ask to go through their stuff, and successfully haggle with them before hitting the road with a truckload of their possessions. They love their profession, they’re fun to watch as result, and the folks they meet in the process — many of whose stories “Pickers” shares alongside those of our pickers — are pretty fascinating as well. The show occasionally raises an eyebrow when segments show what feels like lowballing of regular folks who may not understand the value their stuff potentially has, but the pickers don’t hide behind pretense and the stuff likely would stay indefinitely buried otherwise, so it’s a fleeting grievance.
Contents: 12 episodes, no extras.
Alice in Wonderland (PG, 2010, Disney)
It was a mere matter of time before someone with lots of money brought “Alice in Wonderland” back to the big screen as the adult-oriented fever dream so many have interpreted Lewis Carroll’s book as being. It probably also was a matter of time before that someone was Tim Burton. And therein lies the problem not only with the movie, but also its director: It’s all just a little too predictable. Millions upon zillions of dollars’ worth of special effects technology have made the new “Wonderland” some kind of visual spectacle, and it’s hard to argue with pitting Johnny Depp (as the Mad Hatter) against Helena Bonham Carter (as the Red Queen) one more time. But beyond the amazing visuals and talents and energies of some reliably great performers, little about “Wonderland” rises beyond being exactly what one expects it to be. At worst, when it beats viewers atop the head with its adult leanings or goes through the motions for special effects’ sake — obligations that contradict each other when the film decides late that it wants to be all things to everyone — “Wonderland” feels pretty soulless. That’s problem the comparatively saccharine animated film, to say nothing of the technologically-deficient book, never had. Mia Wasikowska (as Alice), Anne Hathaway, Crispin Glover and Matt Lucas, among others, also star.
Extras: Three behind-the-scenes features.
The Eastwood Factor: Extended Version (NR, 2010, Warner Bros.)
It’s hard to ignore the slightly self-back-patting tone of “The Eastwood Factor,” which chronicles Clint Eastwood’s astounding resume (35 films in as many years) at Warner Bros. Studios. Morgan Freeman — who has collaborated with Eastwood on a number of films and who most recently was as responsible as anyone for bringing his latest directorial project, “Invictus,” to screen — handles narration duties, and when he describes “Invictus” as “the most inspi
ring movie Clint Eastwood has ever made,” it’s enough to wonder where the objectivity lines are drawn. Then again, it probably doesn’t really matter. “Factor” studiously bounces from one Eastwood project (“Dirty Harry,” “Bronco Billy”) to the next (“Unforgiven,” “Gran Torino”), and it makes few bones about being anything more than a fond celebration of his career to this point. Fortunately, Eastwood himself didn’t get that memo: He has numerous opportunities to discuss his own work, and he’s candid, humble and occasionally self-deprecating enough to offset whatever self-congratulatory designs everyone else might have had. Just make sure you’ve seen whichever of these movies you wish to see before putting this one on. “Factor” assumes you have, and it isn’t afraid to spoil the endings of most of them in its process. No extras.
— Also available: Warner Bros. goes a little Eastwood crazy this week with the availability of several rereleases on top of “Factor.” The “Essential Eastwood: Director’s Collection” box includes “Letters from Iwo Jima,” “Million Dollar Baby,” “Mystic River” and “Unforgiven,” while “Essential Eastwood: Action Collection” includes “Firefox,” “Heartbreak Ridge,” “Kelly’s Heroes” and “Where Eagles Dare.” The Blu-ray “Clint Eastwood Collection” includes 10 films (including everything from the “Director’s” set), and a handful of double features (including “Dirty Harry/Magnum Force”) are available alongside individual catalog releases in Blu-ray form. In other words, basically everything. Fox also crashes the party with the Blu-ray debut of “The Man with No Name Trilogy,” which includes “A Fistful of Dollars,” “For A Few Dollars More” and “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.”
Worth a Mention:
— “Elvis 75th Birthday Collection” (NR, Fox): It’s going to get a little confusing later this summer when Warner Bros. releases its own “Elvis 75th Anniversary DVD Collection” box set, but for now, the racket is all Fox’s. The seven-disc “Birthday” box includes seven films: “Love Me Tender,” “Flaming Star,” “Frankie and Johnny,” “Wild in the Country,” “Follow That Dream,” “Kid Galahad” and “Clambake.” No new extras.
— “MLB Bloopers: Baseball’s Best Blunders” (NR, 2010, MLB/Shout Factory): You won’t find last week’s footage of Kendry Morales breaking his leg during a walk-off grand slam celebration gone abysmally wrong. But while the 2010 season creates fodder for future volumes, there’s more than enough recent material to fill these 90 minutes, which do for today’s players what the mountain of baseball bloopers VHS tapes did for players in the 1970s and 1980s. Extras include random bonus segments that cover fun with gum, fun with mascots and, among other things, fun with Chicago Cubs pitcher Ryan Dempster.
— “Aqua Teen Hunger Force 7” (NR, 2009, Adult Swim): Either you need no introduction to this volume’s availability or you’re shocked there’s a seventh volume’s worth of episodes to put on shelves. Either way, the 11 episodes on “Aqua Teen Hunger Force 7” include the live-action episode, which also receives the behind-the-scenes feature treatment.