New to DVD: 'J. Edgar' 'Tower Heist' 'Borgia: Faith and Fear' and 'Underdog: Complete Collector's Edition'
3 stars = Good
"J. Edgar" covers the nearly half-century that J. Edgar Hoover ran the FBI and then some, fueling his reputation as the person "who wielded more power, longer, than any man in American history," as a New York Times columnist once said.
Leonardo DiCaprio, snubbed for the Oscar nomination, pulls off the portrayal, thanks to a change in the style, color and texture of his hair, along with makeup that ages him from his 20s to 77.
Under the helm of director Clint Eastwood, the movie uses a stilted device as one of its underpinnings. Hoover, portrayed as a young, a middle-age and an age-spotted older man, recounts the history of the FBI and his role in it to a procession of young agents seated at a manual typewriter in his office.
The weak link is the screenplay by writer Dustin Lance Black, an Oscar winner for his original script for "Milk." The story also moves back and forth to his relationships with his overly protective mother (Judi Dench), his loyal-to-a-fault secretary (Naomi Watts) and, of course, his second-in-command Clyde Tolson and Hoover's rumored paramour (Armie Hammer).
What the film does well is show how Hoover's sheer devotion built the FBI into a crime-fighting powerhouse, with agents finally allowed to carry weapons, assemble a national collection of fingerprints and have sophisticated experts and labs at their disposal. On the flip side was Hoover's hoarding of secret files he used to try to force the hands of American presidents or perceived enemies.
Its ambitious story goes from the appearance of communists in America after World War I to the White House days of Richard Nixon, the eighth president he served. Along the way are snapshots from noteworthy cases such as the capture of outlaw John Dillinger and the kidnapping of the Lindbergh baby.
Even with a running time of 137 minutes, "J. Edgar" seems to just skim the surface of a complicated man whose real story likely will never be known.
The Blu-ray comes with the 18-minute featurette "The Most Powerful Man in the World," which finds the director and others speaking about his legacy. A shortened version appears on the DVD.
2 1/2 stars = Average
Arthur Shaw (Alan Alda) has a Warhol on his wall, a red 1963 Ferrari in his living room and a fleet of people at his beck and call in The Tower. He likes to play the regular-guy card, but deep down, he likely is a Wall Street swindler who stole $2 billion from his investors.
He also has raided the pension money of the staff of The Tower, leading building manager Josh Kovaks (Ben Stiller) and a motley gang -- including a petty crook (Eddie Murphy); a concierge (Casey Affleck); a former Merrill Lynch employee (Matthew Broderick) who has hit bottom; and an elevator operator (Michael Pena) -- to plot a "Tower heist."
There are reasons why heist movies, if they pit the little guy against a corrupt business, bank or government, can be irresistible. You, too, will want to wipe that smirk off the billionaire's face and may relate to the longtime worker whose retirement dreams go poof.
"Tower Heist" makes terrific use of New York and an annual tradition that plays a key role, but an elaborate centerpiece stunt seems to defy the laws of physics (or weight-bearing loads).
The movie can be funny, but it isn't as sophisticated or intricately plotted as "Ocean's Eleven" and its sequels.
The DVD comes with deleted scenes and a pair of alternative endings that extend the story line just slightly.
TV ON DVD
2 1/2 stars = Average
No, this isn't "The Borgias," the Showtime series starring Jeremy Irons that returns for its second season on April 8. "Borgia: Faith and Fear" is a competing series about the same characters that's executive produced by Tom Fontana, executive producer of "Homicide: Life on the Street." Both Borgia shows were in development at the same time, and this one, a mostly European production, never found an American network distributor (it was available on Netflix).
It's a grittier, less polished, less sensational series than the glossy "Borgias," and Mr. Fontana does a better job giving viewers a sense of context. It also offers more opportunity to get to know the characters before Rodrigo Borgia (John Doman, "The Wire") ascends to the papacy in episode four; in "The Borgias," Mr. Irons' Rodrigo became pope before the end of the pilot episode.
Both "The Borgias" and "Borgia" have their positive and negative attributes; if you took the best of both you'd have one good show rather than two mediocre dramas. Take the Juan (Stanley Weber) from "Borgia" and the clearer storytelling and drop them into the Showtime series for an instantly better show.
The tag line on the "Borgia: Faith and Fear" DVD cover says, "Before the mafia, there was the Borgia," a mantra producers took to heart. While all the other characters speak in an array of European accents, Rodrigo speaks in a flat American accent and has the look and bearing of an oily tough businessman. The lack of a European accent creates a real disconnect -- Mr. Doman's Rodrigo Borgia pales compared to Mr. Irons' performance.
While "Borgia" has its sex scenes, they're less explicit than those in "The Borgias," and the story puts a greater emphasis on the sibling relationship/rivalry between Juan and Cesare (Mark Ryder).
Most of the cast will be unknown to American viewers, the exceptions being Mr. Doman ("Damages," "The Wire") and John Bradley ("Game of Thrones"), who appears in a few episodes as Giovanni De Medici.
The "Borgia" DVD ($39.98, Lionsgate) includes a wealth of interviews with the show's cast and crew, including Mr. Fontana, the show's costume designer and a hair stylist.
-- Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV writer
3 stars = Good
Kudos to Shout! Factory for another thorough release with niche appeal and for its transparency about the challenges in putting this box set together. A note on the 20-page pamphlet that accompanies "Underdog: Complete Collector's Edition" ($69.97) explains efforts to return episodes to their original broadcast form after years of being sliced and diced for syndication that resulted in some missing elements.
"We have done our best to give you the most complete version of the original series that could be assembled from the remaining masters and film elements," explains DVD producer Cliff MacMillan. Most TV shows released on DVD do not come with such explanations, but it is a smart move that shows respect for fans.
This DVD set includes all three seasons of the cartoon that premiered on NBC in 1964.
The show is basically "Superman" as a comedy with a dog in a cape. Polly Purebred stands in for Lois Lane. A 30-minute featurette includes interviews with an animation historian and the show's co-creator, who explains the inspiration for "Underdog" was the "Lucy and Superman" episode of "I Love Lucy."
Some episodes include commentary tracks, but a second extra, listed as being on Disc 3 of season two, wasn't to be found when I popped the disc in the DVD player.
• "Puss in Boots" (stars): Puss in Boots always threatened to steal the show, and now he's done it, starring in his own animated prequel to "Shrek." "Puss in Boots" gives the orange tabby (voice of Antonio Banderas) a back story about his earliest days in an orphanage before he acquired the leather boots and jaunty hat with the red band and feather.
The orphanage is where he conspires with Humpty Dumpty (Zach Galifianakis) and Kitty Softpaws (Salma Hayek) to steal the goose that lays the golden eggs.
While missing the sweet spot and sentiment always found in a Pixar movie, "Puss" is expertly executed when it comes to the action and animation.
• Tuesday: "Hugo"; "Johnny English Reborn"
• March 6: "Footloose"; "Immortals"; "Jack & Jill"; "Like Crazy"; "The Skin I Live In"
• March 13: "The Adventures of Tintin"; "Happy Feet Two"; "Melancholia"; "My Week With Marilyn"; "The Three Musketeers"; "Young Adult"
• March 20: "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo"; "Carnage"; "The Muppets"; "The Sitter"; "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy"; "Hop"
• March 27: "A Dangerous Method"; "In the Land of Blood and Money"; "Alvin & the Chipmunks: Chipwrecked"
• April 3: "We Bought a Zoo"; "Angels Crest"
• April 10: "The Darkest Hour"; "The Iron Lady"
First Published February 23, 2012 12:00 am