Inferno (Sony, Blu-ray or standard DVD, PG-13, 121 min.). "Inferno," the third of Dan Brown's captivating books starring symbologist Robert Langdon filmed by director Ron Howard, is darker and was made on a more limited budget, but still greatly entertains. The key here is that Langdon, again played by Tom Hanks, must solve the mystery with a ticking clock and mild retrograde amnesia: he basically cannot remember the events of the past day or so.
The film follows "The Da Vinci Code" in 2006 and "Angels & Demons" in 2009. However, unlike the first two films, director/co-producer Howard and screenwriter David Koepp have radically changed the book's ending. That said, if one has not read the book, one would find the film's ending very satisfying. So, while I was personally upset at the change, I can accept the film for what it is, an entertainment based on the book, but not a faithful reproduction. The Hollywoodization of the story also invents a past romance for Langdon with World Health Organization (WHO) official Elizabeth Sinskey, played by Danish actress Sidse Babett Knudsen. Overall, the film benefits from its broadly international cast, as well as location shooting in Florence and Venice, Italy, Istanbul and Budapest, standing in for parts of Italy.
The chase this time is based on clues related to Dante's "The Divine Comedy" and its portrayal of Inferno, the circles of hell. While Langdon has been robbed of his short-term memory, during the film's start he is plagued by dark visions of Dante's hell being enacted, including blood-red floods, copious fires and people being half-buried alive in cement. This is where the film's darkness originates from. Ben Foster plays biochemical engineer Bertrand Zobrist -- mostly in flashbacks, as he dies in the film's prologue -- who would lecture on mankind's over-population problem. Calling mankind the cancer in its own body, Zobrist says, "Maybe pain can save us." It turns out he has devised a viral plague to kill off half the world's population. The clues, when followed, will lead to the killing agent. In the film, the story is mostly about the chase -- Langdon is pursued by both WHO and a mysterious organization led by Harry Sims (Indian actor Irrfan Khan) that uses motorcycle-riding Vayentha (Romanian actress Ana Ularu) and Christoph Bouchard (French actor Omar Sy) -- while the book has Langdon questioning whether it is better to kill half the population now or let mankind self-destruct in a century over population pressure. Helping Langdon get around and stay ahead of his pursuers is Dr. Sienna Brooks (Felicity Jones), who treated him at the hospital and helps his initial escape from Vayentha.
The ending at the Basilica Cistern in Istanbul (a re-created set, as they could not film on the actual locations as they did in Florence and Venice) is the best part, with top-notch action. The cistern is a colossal subterranean chamber that was used to store water in the era when Istanbul was the ancient city of Byzantium. While there is no audio commentary, the release comes packed with worthwhile extras, the least of which is seven deleted and extended scenes (27:19), including an extended opening and close. In "Visions of Hell," Howard talks about how Langdon's fevered visions were "meant to be disturbing" and we see bits of how the hellish visions were accomplished. Book author Brown is featured in a look at Langdon as a character (6:21), while a longer piece (13:34) looks at the international cast and the filming locations. Be warned that the latter has major spoilers. There also are pieces on characters Brooks (5:48) and Zobrist (5:13). Very good is Howard's own director's journal (10:02), covering the two-and-a-half days of shooting in Venice, the building of the cistern set and other location aspects. Grade: film 3.25 stars; extras 2.75 stars
Rating guide: 5 stars = classic; 4 stars = excellent; 3 stars = good; 2 stars = fair; dog = skip it
Masterminds (20th Century Fox, Blu-ray or standard DVD, PG-13, 94 min.). Surprisingly based a lot on the North Carolina Loomis Fargo 1997 heist -- the second largest cash heist in U.S. history -- this film, directed by Jared Hess ("Napoleon Dynamite") builds upon the facts with some "Saturday Night Live" style sketch comedy. The result is uneven, but the film definitely gets funnier post-heist, when armored car driver David Ghantt (Zach Galifianakis, with very puffy hair) goes on the lam in Mexico, waiting for his supposed sweetheart (Kristen Wiig as Kelly Campbell) to join him. Instead, co-conspirator Steve Chambers (Owen Wilson) first sends the Mexican authorities and then a hitman (Jason Sudeikis as Mike McKinney) after him. David had been sent off with $20,000 stuffed in his underwear, while the heist netted more than $17 million.
The comedy goes from the silly -- practicing for the robbery -- to a fart joke that actually works. The whole bit with David's fiancé Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Ellis) is uncomfortable, though. The only extra is a look at the real crime with the real-life Ghantt (16:30), who seems proud of his crime, after serving seven years in prison, and actually says he would do it all again. Grade: film 2.75 stars; extra 1.75 stars
Sherlock: Series Four (BBC, 2 Blu-ray or 3 standard DVDs, NR, 270 min.). Benedict Cumberbatch's version of Sherlock Holmes is quite manic in the first two of the three episodes that make up the outstanding show's fourth series. In "The Six Thatchers" -- a reference to statues, not people, thank goodness -- he gleefully solves a serious of crimes as fast as he can text the solutions to the police -- and the production uses displays on top of the scenes to convey some of his thought processes. It is quite invigorating. Meanwhile, John Watson (Martin Freeman) is in high spirits as his wife Mary (Amanda Abbington playing the ex-assassin) has delivered their first child. Then comes a case in which a young man's body is found in a car after an explosion in his parents' driveway, while he had been talking to them by video from his mountain-climbing expedition more than a continent away.
Holmes easily solves that case, but is intrigued by a series of broken busts of Margaret Thatcher. Is it a posthumous plot by Jim Moriarty (Andrew Scott)? The episode -- each episode is of movie length and quality -- fills in some of Mary's background, but also ends with a terrible choice that sends the show into the really dark second episode, "The Lying Detective," in which Holmes' drug addiction spirals out of control. However, Holmes also comes to suspect that media celebrity Culverton Smith (Toby Jones of TV's "Wayward Pines") is a serial killer. After all, Smith says the morgue is his favorite place. There are some nice touches involving Holmes' landlady (Una Stubbs as Mrs. Hudson).
The third episode, "The Final Program," is a very psychological one, as Holmes, his brother Mycroft Holmes (series co-creator/writer Mark Gatiss) and Watson are put through a ringer of impossible choices by the heretofore secret third Holmes sibling. This episode is, at times, very bleak, but it does fill in a lot of Holmes' childhood. There also is an excellent flashback return of Moriarty, who arrives via helicopter as if he were a rock star. (I kept thinking of Bono.) Holmes and Watson emerge from this series as the crime-solving duo readers know from the books (albeit transposed to today).
The show continues to be most clever and fulfilling. The extras are copious as well, including a behind-the-scenes look at each episode (20:43, 23:40 and 22:53). In them, we learn how the car crash and explosion were set up and how James Bond film stunt drivers were used in episode two. There also is a writers' chat (6:18) between Gatiss and co-creator Steven Moffat (and how "Redbeard" is their "Rosebud"), plus a script-to-screen making-of (21:44) that starts with the first read through and concludes with composers Michael Price and David Arnold talking about the music. Production manager Arwel Wyn Jones is featured a lot. There is a tour of the new set for John and Mary's flat (4:22) and two Gatiss video diaries (4:55 combined) and a Danny Hargreaves video diary (3:15) on the car explosion stunt. Finally, a time-lapse shows construction of the 221B Baker St. set (1:29). Grade: series 4 stars; extras 3.5 stars
Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency: Season One (BBC, 2 Blu-ray or 2 standard DVDs, NR, 360 min.). This is the second TV series based on author Douglas Adams "other" book series. Adams also gave us "The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy" books. This loose adaptation stars Samuel Barnett as the quirky title detective, while Elijah Wood plays washed-up rocker Todd Brotzman, who is shanghaied into being his assistant. They meet at the hotel where Todd works as a bellhop and Dirk is investigating the homicide of millionaire Patrick Spring, which the police come to believe was committed by a shark. The show is initially confusing -- no, make that confusing for a long time -- as other equally weird characters are introduced. The show is both most intriguing and, at times, annoying. There is a lot of camp and even a little bit of horror, as it is quite the mishmash.
Dirk believes that everything is connected and literally just follows the signs the universe gives him to attempt to solve mysteries. Barnett is like an enthusiastic puppy and comes off much better than the usually cranky Todd. Wood's performance will remind one of his Ryan in the TV series, "Wilfred." Todd has a sister (Hannah Marks as Amanda) with a weird disease (Pararibulitis), who becomes involved with a quartet of van-driving, psychic vampires known as the Rowdy 3. Another thrown-together duo are Ken (Mpho Koaho), a hacker, and crazed assassin Bartine "Bart" Curlish (Fiona Dourif), who initially mistakes Ken for Dirk. She too lets fate guide her, only in this case with her killing. The two are a dark reflection of the dynamic between Dirk and Todd. There also is a missing woman who has been transposed to a dog and, later, a time machine that is used frequently. There are no bonus features. Grade: 2.75 stars
Dreamscape (1984, Scream Factory Blu-ray, PG-13, 99 min.). This was the movie through which I discovered Dennis Quaid had a killer smile. The bonus material includes an interview that shows the actor still has that smile. In this, one of his earliest films, Quaid plays Alex Gardner, who has psychic abilities that he primarily uses at the race track. Alex gets drawn into a dream study program run by Dr. Paul Novotny (Max von Sydow) and Dr. Jane DeVries (Kate Capshaw). The aim is to insert one person mentally into the dreams of another, so they can act upon those dreams.
The altruistic goal is to help those like the young boy (Cory "Bumper" Yothers as Buddy Driscol) who is having nightmares about a snake man (a very cool movie monster) or even the man who dreams his wife is cheating on him with practically everyone she knows (the one humorous dream). However, so far the only successful person to link with another is Tommy Ray Glatman (David Patrick Kelly, just off of making "The Warriors"), who secretly is working for Bob Blair (Christopher Plummer of "The Sound of Music"), head of covert intelligence for the government. Blair wants to use Tommy Ray as a dream assassin. President John (Eddie Albert) is having nightmares of nuclear holocaust and wants to make a disarmament deal with the Russians, much to Blair's dismay. George Wendt (TV's "Cheers") has a small part as a horror writer/journalist. The film makes good use of its small, $5 million budget.
Once again, Scream Factory/Shout! Factory has done an excellent job with the bonus material, which includes audio commentary by producer Bruce Cohn Curtis, co-writer David Loughery and Craig Reardon. There is an excellent look at the making of the film (61:50) with new interviews with director Joseph Ruben, Loughery, Curtis, actor Kelly and members of the special effects team. Ruben, who also co-wrote the screenplay, said he was influenced by Ursula K. Le Guin's "The Lathe of Heaven." This piece is quite detailed, particularly when it comes to creating the snake man and the miniatures of a destroyed Washington, D.C. There is an even closer look at the snake man (23:23), which in the original script was to have been a rat man. There also is the interview with Quaid (14:50), a new conversation between Curtis and co-writer Chuck Russell (23:31); snake man test footage (2:16); and a still gallery. Grade: film 3.5 stars; extras 4 stars
The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976, Lionsgate, Blu-ray + 2 DVDs, R, 139 min.). This impressionistic adaptation of Walter Tevis' 1963 novel was written by Paul Mayersberg, directed by Nicolas Roeg ("Walkabout," "Performance," "Don't Look Now") and starred musician David Bowie, in a non-musical role, as an alien who came to Earth to seek water for his family, back on their drought-stricken world. The unanswered questions in the film are how is he going to get water back to his planet, and would anyone still be alive there as it takes him decades before his plans fail.
The alien, who adopts the name Thomas Jerome Newton, is first seen wandering down a hill and then entering the small town of Haneyville. He sells a storekeeper a ring for $20; yet we next see him on the roadside, having eaten some junk food, unspooling a roll of many $100 bills. It is just one of many unexplained leaps in the film. Newton later approaches patent attorney Oliver Farnsworth (Buck Henry of "Catch-22") with nine revolutionary inventions, including film that develops itself, and eventually becomes the very rich, reclusive CEO of World Enterprise Corp. (The film presents a slight indictment of capitalism.) When Newton relocates to a hotel in New Mexico, he meets hotel worker Mary-Lou (Candy Clark of "American Graffiti"), who becomes his constant companion and eventual lover. She also, unfortunately, helps him become an alcoholic. Rip torn plays randy college chemistry professor Nathan Bryce, who comes on board World Enterprise as Newton tries to develop a space program.
The film is rather unique and a must-own for fans of Bowie. This special edition comes with all the material on the Blu-ray disc, the film itself on one DVD and all the bonus material repeated on the other DVD. It is a bit disappointing that two of the discs only repeat the Blu-ray material. Most of the bonus material consists of lengthy interviews. New interviews include with costume designer May Routh (14:44), featuring original costume design sketches; stills photographer David James (8:38), featuring behind-the-scenes stills; fan Sam Taylor-Johnson (11:20), an English filmmaker and visual artist; and producer Michael Deeley (16:26). Both in the Deeley interview and the new "lost soundtracks" feature (16:44, includes an interview with John Phillips biographer Chris Campion and music producer Paul Buckmaster), there is much about how Bowie was supposed to write music for the film and then did not, and how there never has been a soundtrack released. However, in fact, a two-disc soundtrack album has recently been released, but is never mentioned. Archival interviews include a brief 1977 one with Bowie on a French TV program (8:20; short but wonderful to see) and interviews with actress Clark (27:47; she dated Roeg at the time); writer Mayersberg (31:51), cinematographer Tony Richmond (21:48); and director Roeg (33:28; he discusses Bowie's acting and attempts to remove Bowie from the film). The set also comes with a 72-page illustrated booklet, a reproduction of the press book, four photo cards and a mini-poster. Grade: film and extras 4 stars