Shutter Island (R, 2010, Paramount)
Sometimes, the best special feature a DVD offers is the capacity to pause the film. That arguably holds true on multiple levels for “Shutter Island,” which finds U.S. Marshal Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio) hiding an ulterior motive and suppressing personal demons while investigating a missing persons case in an ocean-locked hospital for the criminally insane. The details of Teddy’s motive, as well as the return favor the hospital has for him, are best left unspoiled, but the net result transforms “Island” from a slightly interesting mystery into a genuinely unnerving horror story about the state of Teddy’s mind. “Island” dresses its central mystery inside piles of imagery that may or may not be real, and occasionally and unfortunately, it complements that imagery with needlessly ham-handed music and the repetition of devices that don’t always need return visits. That makes “Island,” at 137 minutes long, at least 20 minutes longer and several pounds heavier than it needed to be, and it gives way to moments where the film is looking busy accomplishing nothing. But “Island” possesses an equal tendency to catch viewers sleeping and sneak in the occasional foreshadowing verbal exchange or visual cue that eventually pays out to those watching closely. So keep that pause button handy: You might crave a timeout from the heaviness, but you also might find yourself needing to look twice at the innocuous details that come back around during a last-act reveal that’s both open to interpretation and very darkly satisfying. No extras except on the Blu-ray version, which has two behind-the-scenes features.
Curb Your Enthusiasm: The Complete Seventh Season (NR, 2009, HBO)
A lot of people got back to talking about “Curb Your Enthusiasm” again once word got out that it, and not some disastrous NBC cash grab special, would be the home of the “Seinfeld” cast reunion. Sure enough, the foursome find their way back to Jerry’s old apartment. But because we’re in Larry David’s universe instead of Jerry Seinfeld’s, we’re treated to a thoroughly entertaining show about the show, starring the “Seinfeld” cast as the cast rather than the characters, and the multi-episode sendup of bad reunion specials is so much more appropriate for this crowd than the real thing would have been. Also good news: The rest of the season, which — despite never wavering from its relentless theme of Larry being the world’s most accomplished bridge arsonist — finds “Curb” as sharply observant and freshly funny as it’s ever been. The “Seinfeld” reunion starts in episode three and casually plays out alongside the rest of the season, and opportunities abound for David and individual “Seinfeld” cast members to play off each other in scenes that have nothing to do with the reunion and don’t need any novelty whatsoever to work. The restraint needed to regularly step completely away from the reunion storyline is impressive, and while the reunion arc is perfectly conceived, many of the season’s best moments have nothing to do with it.
Contents: 10 episodes, plus four behind-the-scenes segments (all related to the “Seinfeld” storyline).
From Paris with Love (R, 2010, Lions Gate)
Say, did you like “Training Day?” And did you like it enough that a hokier, logically questionable take on it sounds like something you’d enjoy? If so, it’s probably in your best interest to check out “From Paris with Love,” which finds a fresh-faced undercover CIA agent James Reece (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) teamed up with grizzled wackjob loose cannon Charlie Wax (John Travolta) for an assignment whose details remain somewhat cloudy to him. “Love” feels slightly like a cartoon from the moment Travolta walks on, and by the time the film’s big twist sends it tumbling toward a completely strange ending, it feels like a smart thriller for stupid people. But is that such a bad thing? “Love’s” action doesn’t disappoint, Travolta’s bananas performance makes for one outrageously fun character, and while the storyline swims in some stupid waters, it isn’t due to cringeworthy dialogue or lifeless storytelling. “Love’s” ultimate destination has some gaping plot holes and a weird case of detachment on one character’s part, but the journey that gets us there is pretty fun. In this realm, that’s better than the other way around.
Extras: Director commentary, three behind-the-scenes features.
Power Kids (R, 2010, Magnet/Magnolia)
Wun (Nantawooti Boonrapsap) is a normal little kid except for two things: He lives and trains (along with his older brother and several other kids) at a Muay Thai academy, and his heart is failing him. The good news? A nearby hospital has a new heart for him. The bad news? The same hospital is under siege by terrorists, and if the kids can’t rescue the heart quickly, Wun won’t survive. So yes, this is a movie about young, ragtag martial artists taking on armed and dangerous adults. And yes, movies like that tend to reduce the adults to complete imbeciles while the kids say such unbelievably, cutesily obnoxious things that you still feel tempted to root for the bad guys. But “Power Kids” goes the complete other way. The criminals are credibly nasty, the kids genuinely likable, the action legitimately great. And while the dialogue (to say nothing of the super cheesy English dub) isn’t exactly great, the story is a terrific mix of excitement, comedy, sweetness, darkness and, particularly during the final act, legitimate surprise. The tale of the tape is no less absurd, but “Kids” at least makes it fun to play along and let the imagination take over. In Thai with English subtitles, but the aforementioned English dub is available as well.
Extras: Two behind-the-scenes features.
Oceans (NR, 2008, BBC Earth)
Give BBC Earth points off for releasing the comparatively ordinary “Oceans” a scant week after releasing “Life,” which very likely will stand alone as the best nature DVD release we see all year. “Oceans,” by contrast, isn’t eight hours of impossibly high-definition footage of sea creatures all alone in their element. To the contrary, its arguable primary subject is people — specifically, an expedition that includes divers, a biologist, a maritime archeologist and the grandson of Jacques Cousteau. But that arrangement is to the series’ benefit rather than detriment. “Life” already covers one terrain rather magnificently on its own, and by incorporating a heavy human element, “Oceans” lets its people tell stories, from their own firsthand perspective, that “Life’s” footage and narrator can’t feasibly tackle. The only place “Oceans” feels like “Life” is in the best way it can: At eight hours long, it’s nothing if not comprehensive, and by electing to tell the stories it wants to tell instead of conforming to needless structures and themes, it doesn’t let those minutes go to waste.
Contents: Eight episodes, no extras.
Ghostwriter: Season One (NR, 1992, Shout Factory)
Age hasn’t been terribly kind to “Ghostwriter,” a PBS cult classic that had young teenager Jamal (Sheldon Turnipseed) and his friends communicating with a ghost whose writings they could see but their parents and other adults could not. The show’s special effects already looked creaky when they originally aired in 1992, the kids can’t really act, and all that was annoying about fashion in the early 1990s is on full, low-definition display here. But “Ghostwriter” wasn’t made for obnoxious DVD reviewers when it first aired, and beyond those who grab this for nostalgic purposes (a point helped along by Shout Factory’s typical attention to fan service packaging), it still isn’t for adults. And where it really counts — in the realm of educational entertainment — “Ghostwriter” still has it. The cases that play out over multiple episodes are clever, opportunities abound for viewers to pla
y along and solve the riddles, and the slowly-unfolding mystery of the ghost’s identity might, 18 years on, satisfy a new generation of kids more than the “Lost” finale satiated their parents. (Of course, that mystery is to be continued in season two.)
Contents: 34 episodes, plus a 12-page liner notes booklet that doubles as a casebook for note-taking.
Worth a Mention
— “Jim Henson’s Dog City: The Movie” (NR, 1989, Lions Gate): The Emmy Award-winning movie, which combined gangsters, film noir and dog puppets at long last, finally gets the DVD treatment as part of Lions Gate’s entirely welcome dive into the vault of Henson’s lesser-known but no less stellar projects. Extras include concept art and behind-the-scenes galleries.
— “Sing-Along Travel Kit: The Wheels on the Bus” (NR, 2010, Scholastic Storybook Treasures): If putting a DVD on for the kids in the back seat and having them stare at a screen like zombies while the great outdoors passes them by isn’t quite your thing, this set, which includes sing-along versions of the titular story and 14 other short stories, might make for a more active compromise. The kit also includes a standalone soundtrack CD, 34-page activity book, some crayons and a few travel tips for adults.
— “The A-Team: The Complete Series” (NR, 1983, Universal): Obviously, this is a cynical ploy by Universal to further cash in on the big-screen “A-Team” reboot that itself appears primed to cash in on fans’ memories of the show. On the other hand: How awesome does this thing, which comes housed in a box that looks like the A-Team van, look? Includes all 97 episodes on 25 discs, plus a retrospective and an interview with series creator Stephen J. Cannell.
— “Bob Hope: Thanks for the Memories” (NR, 1938-48, Universal): Includes six Hope movies: “Thanks for the Memory,” “The Cat and the Canary,” “The Ghost Breakers,” “Nothing But the Truth,” “Road to Morocco” and “The Paleface.” Extras include footage of live Hope performances, sing-alongs, a retrospective and photo galleries.