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DVD Review: Thor, The Mentalist, How I Met Your Mother, Basket Case and Clash of Empires

“Thor,” an almost $450 million worldwide box office hit earlier this year, introduced audiences to one of the players in Marvel Studios’ grand, forthcoming “Avengers” saga. And that’s part of the problem, honestly. However admirably ambitious the creation of a unified superhero universe spanning multiple movies, certain entries, like this one, play like little more than origin story pattycake — wan set-up for something of later, actual consequence.

Thor

On the verge of ascending to the throne of Asgard, headstrong Norse God Thor (Chris Hemsworth) flips out over some nasty ice giant interlopers who are vanquished in fairly short order, and decides to seek revenge, against the counsel of his father Odin (Anthony Hopkins), who has brokered a generations-long truce with these enemies. Thor enlists the help of some pals, who travel to the ice giants’ frosty planet and bring the capital-P pain, but the battle is cut short by Odin. After his father strips Thor of his kick-ass hammer and casts him down to Earth, Thor’s quietly conniving brother, Loki (Tom Hiddleston), makes designs on the throne. On Earth, Thor stumbles across some scientists (including Natalie Portman), works to track down and regain his enchanted hammer, and does battle with a ray-shooting Destroyer sent by Loki.

“Thor” is sketched in grand strokes, befitting director Kenneth Branagh’s Shakespearean view of the material. And it looks absolutely gorgeous (cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos trades in canted, evocative angles). The problem is that the script consistently works against this, except for a bunch of overblown dialogue. One almost feels bad for Hopkins — deployed as a sort of melanin-deprived Morgan Freeman, to desperately lend the proceedings some air-quote gravitas — until considering his likely paycheck. The movie puts the weight of its ill-considered budding romance solely on Portman’s batted eyelashes. Hemsworth, meanwhile, is a physical specimen, and not without charisma. But with his ridiculous hair, blue eyes and carefully shaded facial growth, he seems at times almost like a living CGI effect, nipped from a Robert Zemeckis motion-capture movie or something.

Mostly, though, the problem is one of scale. Stuck on Earth, Thor is a classic “fish out of water,” if you will. The movie makes a bit of an attempt to mine this for some comedy, but then discards that tack. Stuck in a dingy desert town that looks and feels like a Hollywood backlot, he feels too big for his surroundings. Once it becomes apparent that the movie isn’t going anywhere — that it’s going to stay rooted in this place, with its military round-up of Portman’s character’s scientific research and all that jazz — there’s a sense of deflation that overtakes the proceedings. “Thor” isn’t terrible; it just kind of weighs on a viewer, passing the time without fully winning one over. If there’s a lesson learned, however, it’s that the thumping frying-pan sound of Thor’s hammer never gets old. It’s hilarious.

While it comes to home video in several different formats, inarguably the best presentation comes by way of “Thor”‘s three-disc set, with Blu-ray 3-D, Blu-ray, DVD and digital copies of the film. The 1080p high definition transfer of the movie is superb, and a home video presentation actually enhances “Thor”‘s 3-D post-conversion, which was saddled with too much darkness in portions of its theatrical exhibition. It’s still not essential viewing in most of its Earthly passages, but the reduction in scope tends to bring into starker relief some of Asgard’s background detail. Colors and sharp and consistent throughout, and the English language 7.1 DTS-HD master audio track is immersive, with resounding pitch in Thor’s battles with the ice beasties, and nice bass levels during Destroyer’s Earthly rampaging.

Director Branagh is an intellectual heavyweight, so it should come as no surprise that his audio commentary track is informative and free of any sort of blockheaded equivocation. He’s upfront about his learning curve on 3-D, and also takes issue with the Shakespearean filter applied by many critics (sorry, Kenneth), but he also has some warm anecdotes about performers like Hopkins, with whom he shares a special history. Presented in high definition, almost a full half-hour of deleted scenes chiefly give a further glimpse of life on Asgard, granting additional material to the character of Thor’s mother (Rene Russo); Branagh offers up optional commentary on these excised tidbits as well. Along with trailers and a teaser clip for “The Avengers” inclusive of interview clips and ComiCon footage, there are also a clutch of behind-the-scenes featurettes that run about 40 minutes in total, and cover everything from the casting of the movie and its production design to its score and action sequences.

Clash of Empires

As long as movies exist, there will be an appetite for tales of historical plundering. America, of course, is a relatively young country, so as often as not, we turn our eyes overseas when wanting to indulge in said genre offerings. Another Eastern import, the rather forthrightly titled “Clash of Empires” unfolds in 120 A.D., and concerns the colliding interests of various figures from Rome, China and Malaysia. Merong (Stephen Rahman-Hughes), a warrior and descendant of Alexander the Great, is escorting a Roman prince (Gavin Stenhouse) through a dangerous region of Asia to meet his bride, Chinese princess Meng Li Hua (Jing Lusi), when disaster strikes in the form of her kidnapping. Crossed swords and martial arts mayhem ensues.

Stunt choreographer Chan Man Ching has a solid pedigree, and stages enough nice dust-ups to generally keep action fans happy. It’s a shame, though, that director Yusry Kru’s movie doesn’t wring more tension out of the culture-clash mash-up its general conceit provides. Just about the best (and worst, really) that can really be said about this movie is that it dutifully meets expectations, so those inclined to want to see a movie with this title will find reward while others will find only reasons to shrug. “Clash of Empires” comes to DVD housed in a regular plastic Amaray case with a snap-in tray, presented in 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen with a Dolby digital 5.1 surround sound audio track and English SDH and Spanish subtitles. Apart from its chapter stops and a couple trailers, there are unfortunately no supplemental bonus features.

The Mentalist

The constant juggling of fresh cases with an adherence to a personality that doesn’t change with the wind is frequently a tough order for hour-long scripted procedurals, but crime-solving drama “The Mentalist” does a good job of paying forward (and paying off) character tidbits while also remaining true to its core principles and entertainment mission. Set within the framework of the California Bureau of Investigation, or CBI, the series centers around consultant and former sham-psychic Patrick Jane (Simon Baker), whose wife and young daughter were two of the 15 victims murdered by an elusive serial killer known as Red John. Working with Theresa Lisbon (Robin Tunney), Grace Van Pelt (Amanda Righetti) and others, he’s tracked down plenty of leads over the years, but after a homicide suspect is set ablaze in his jail cell and a CBI agent is later framed as an informant for Red John, Patrick comes to realize that his adversary may be much closer than he imagined. The two dozen episodes here, in “The Mentalist: The Complete Third Season,” superbly blend discrete casework with a nice wrap-up of this haunting arc, leaving the series poised for plenty of interesting turns in its current, fourth season.

The set comes to DVD spread out over five discs, in a regular, clear plastic Amaray case with a sturdy snap-in tray and a complementary cardboard slipcover. Apart from a collection of unaired scenes and a fold-out insert booklet with photos and episodic recaps, there’s also a 10-minute featurette spotlighting Baker’s directorial debut on the series with the season’s ninth episode, “Red Moon.” In this featurette, on-set footage is intercut with Baker and series creator and executive producer Bruno Heller talking in warm tones about workshopping the script, and their overall collaboration. Baker rocks some scholarly specs, and costar Owain Yeoman jokingly talks about Baker reneging on his promise not to over-gesticulate and frame shots with his hands while working behind the camera. There’s also a longer, half-hour featurette spotlighting the “psychological build,” if you will, of the character of Red John, as well as other criminals on the show. In this clip-laden roundtable lecture, field experts and show consultants like professor of investigative psychology Gabrielle Salfati and Lawrence Kobilinsky, the department chair of forensic science at John Jay College, discuss the manner in which crime scene details can be predictive with respect to both past and future behavior.

How I Met Your Mother

CBS sitcom “How I Met Your Mother” has milked its central conceit — in which Bob Saget narrates the proceedings looking backward, as a series of flashback, title-indicative reminiscences shared with his kids — for much longer than one might have believed possible. It certainly helps that it has such a roster of young, comedically gifted heavy hitters. The New York-set show centers around Ted (Josh Radnor), his best friend Marshall (Jason Segel), Lily (Alyson Hannigan), Robin (Cobie Smulders) and the requisite slick lothario, Barney (Neil Patrick Harris). The sixth season finds the show further hitting its stride; Marshall and Lily are more settled, and hoping to become parents, while Barney endeavors to track down his real father, and Robin deals with drunk-dial regrets and an old acquaintance from her pop-star past. As with any long-running sitcom, there’s a party-train of cameos and guest stars (Katy Perry, John Lithgow, Will Forte, Rachel Bilson, Bob Odenkirk, Nicole Scherzinger and Jorge Garcia all oblige), but they’re almost all smoothly integrated into the proceedings, and the show’s characters are warm and its interplay sharp and for the most part enjoyable.

“How I Met Your Mother: The Complete Sixth Season” comes to DVD on three dual layer discs, in a clear plastic Amaray case. Deleted scenes and a behind-the-scenes featurette are enjoyable, but the most bonus feature bang for your buck comes by way of the optional writer-producer commentaries on select episodes. These are a frequently enjoyable listen, particularly for fans who’ve already seen each episode; throwing on a “repeat” with these tracks enabled sheds often amusing light on which elements are lifted from real life experiences and which are exaggerated for effect. A gag reel and “What We Know About Your Mother” featurette round out the supplemental extras.

Ghost Hunters

A show like “Ghost Hunters,” currently in its seventh season on the Syfy Channel, is tailor-made for casual viewing. A sort of Kryptonite to aimless channel surfing, its paranormal investigations — fronted by Grant Wilson and Jason Hewes, and their Atlantic Paranormal Society — can easily suck in viewers, often striking just the right balance of chills and mock informativeness to cause someone to put down the remote control. Taken in aggregate, though, the entertainment factor dips quite a bit. This collectible DVD set (which is also available on Blu-ray) of the first half of the show’s sixth season includes a dozen episodes that target some fairly interesting locales. That’s a big part of the appeal of “Ghost Hunters,” of course — that historical or somewhat well known sites, like Alcatraz Prison and Fort Ticonderoga, are more apt to be haunted. Along with those sites, this set includes looks at the historic Otesaga Resort Hotel in Cooperstown, author and abolitionist Harriet Beecher Stowe’s old home, and America’s first zoo, in Philadelphia.

“Ghost Hunters: Season Six, Part 1” collects these episodes on three discs, housed in an inch-thick case with a complementary cardboard slipcover. They’re presented in 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen with a Dolby digital 2.0 stereo track that more than adequately handles the show’s emphasis on low-register audio track builds. There aren’t any supplemental bonus features, and if there’s an additional (albeit small) irritation, it’s that the set has a double-sided snap in tray, meaning there are four spots for only three DVDs. This isn’t a huge problem, but the two-sided trays often tend to shake and shift around a bit more than some of their sturdier single-disc counterparts, increasing the likelihood of discs coming loose and getting scratched.

Given the huge amounts of money his movies have raked in for distributor Lionsgate, one could be somewhat forgiven for thinking that Tyler Perry won actual election as the official spokesperson for African-American filmmakers and filmgoers. He hasn’t, of course. There exist tones and pitches other than manic hyperbole in so-called minority movies, as evidenced in small, to-scale fashion by writer-director Russ Parr’s “35 & Ticking,” a well cast and mostly winning ensemble romantic comedy.

Centered around longtime friends Victoria (Tamala Jones), Zenobia (Nicole Ari Parker), Cleavon (Kevin Hart) and Phil (Keith Robinson), the film’s story offers nothing particularly new or groundbreaking; it’s a measured comedy about ticking-clock and mid-life issues. One woman is married to a partner who doesn’t want kids, the other is looking to start a family; one guy has trouble with the ladies, while the other has kids with a disengaged wife. The typical conflicts all get stirred here, but with a fair amount of skill that also allows for a few not completely shoehorned-in cameos, from Mike Epps and the like. Presented on Blu-ray in high definition 1080p in 1.78:1 widescreen with a DTS-HD master audio 5.1 track, “35 & Ticking” includes a clutch of bonus features as well — deleted scenes, a photo gallery, a behind-the-scenes featurette, and a number of trailers for other Image Entertainment home video releases.

basket case

The success of “Halloween” and a number of other groundbreaking horror films of the late 1970s paved the way for the robust reemergence of the horror genre, and the explosion of the VHS format only created more demand for gory genre material. Writer-director Frank Henenlotter’s “Basket Case,” released in 1981, is a movie basically built with one thing in mind — being as memorably gruesome and schlocky as possible. The story centers on a pair of once-conjoined twins, Duane and his blobby brother Belial, who set out to gain revenge on the surgeons who separated them so long ago. Offsetting the buckets of blood used in the proceedings is a rather cheerfully demented tone; unfortunately, the special effects work… well, in the immortal words of Butt-head, isn’t that special. If the movie often stumbles and flails about as an actual horror film, it’s still so supremely weird and outrageous as to generally achieve a strange hold.

Released to Blu-ray in loving fashion by Something Weird Video and Image Entertainment, “Basket Case” is presented in 1080p high definition in 1.33:1 full screen, with a mono audio track that is at times problematic in its low-register hiss. Its bonus features are nice, though, and reflective of the new lease on life that can be given to so many marginalized genre works by these new home video formats. Henenlotter provides a new video introduction to the movie, and also sits for an audio commentary with producer Edgar Ievins and actress Beverly Bonner. Rare outtakes give new meaning to the phrase “DIY production” (no fancy trailers or craft services on this shoot, that’s for sure!), while two theatrical previews, a TV spot, two radio ads, a gallery of exploitation art and behind-the-scenes photos, and Henenlotter’s 2001 video short “In Search of the Hotel Broslin” round things out.

Breaking the Press

With the fairly successful release of the end-of-days “Left Behind” series, and similarly moralizing marital homilies like “Fireproof” (also starring Kirk Cameron), it’s been proven that there is a niche — if mostly on home video — for explicitly religious dramatic fare. The problem is that the development of the professional chops, both in terms of screenwriting and savvy filmmaking, hasn’t typically kept up with the demand in this growing market. “Breaking the Press” is certainly illustrative of this. A re-telling of the prodigal son parable, the movie stars Drew Waters (“Friday Night Lights”) as Joe Conaghey, a small town high school hoops coach whose faith is tested by a season of disappointment. Conaghey’s family is torn apart when the naturally gifted Josh (Tom Maden), his adopted son, transfers to a powerhouse school. This leaves Josh’s family and teammates, including older brother Matt (Chad Halbrook), in the lurch. Tempted and corrupted by girls, booze and the like, though, Josh soon gets expelled, and makes his way home. The familiarity and predestined quality of the narrative notwithstanding, what most dings “Breaking the Press” is its uninspired, on-the-nose dialogue and sappy construction. Co-writer-director Andrew Stevens never met an emotional point he couldn’t underscore with lingering camerawork and hammy music, and the acting is hardly nuanced or revelatory.

Presented on a dual layer disc in 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen with an English language 5.1 Dolby digital audio track, “Breaking the Press” is housed in a regular plastic Amaray case. Along with a special Bible study booklet guide, the DVD includes a brief making-of featurette that intersperses film clips with glad-handing interview nuggets from cast and crew, including Stevens.

Jake and the Never Land Pirates

Finally, for family audiences there’s “Jake and the Never Land Pirates: Yo Ho, Mateys Away!,” a rousing multimedia celebration of the Disney Channel’s hit show of the same name. One can reasonably question the metrics used to determine “the top-rated series among boys ages 2 to 5” (wouldn’t a test pattern generally also score pretty high?), but sampling “Jake” proves it a no-harm-no-foul offering in which the title character, a couple pals and their parrot Skully hunt for lost treasure, engage in some swashbuckling shenanigans and work together to outsmart the villainous Hook. Familiar memes (teamwork, patience) are imparted, along with plenty of peppy adventure.

Housed in a plastic Amaray case in turn stored in a complementary cardboard slipcover, “Jake and the Never Land Pirates” is a nice two-disc set. The first collects seven episodes of the show, and also features a couple sing-along options and “Pirate Party” music videos. The second disc is actually a music CD with seven toe-tapping tunes, so one can extend the opportunity for genial distraction to local automobile travel. Best of all, though, for tykes? A little pirate eye patch, so that youngsters can look like Jake when they’re play-acting along with his adventures.

Written by: Brent Simon

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A graduate of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Brent Simon is a three-term president of LAFCA, a contributor to Screen International and Magill's Cinema Annual, and film editor of H Magazine. He cannot abide a world without U2 and pizza.

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