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New releases: Ken Burns takes strong tone in 'Central Park Five'

Also new: 'Happy People: A Year in the Taiga,' 'The Impossible' and more.

April 21, 2013|By Noel Murray
  • Rapist suspect Yusef Salaam is escorted by police. Part of the Ken Burns documentary "The Central Park Five."
Rapist suspect Yusef Salaam is escorted by police. Part of the Ken Burns… (Clarence Davis, NY Daily…)

The Central Park Five, PBS, $24.99; Blu-ray, $29.99

This documentary (made by Ken Burns, his daughter Sarah and her husband, David McMahon) revisits the racial tensions of '80s New York, via the story of a white, female investment banker who was raped and beaten, reportedly by a "wilding" mob of black youths. The city found suspects and got convictions quickly, but the Harlem teens they jailed claimed their confessions were coerced and were eventually exonerated — after they'd served out their terms. Burns tells this story largely via interviews with the Five, supplemented with archival news footage and atmospheric location footage. Unlike the comprehensive, authoritative voice of most Burns docs, "The Central Park Five" is more subjective, openly decrying a rush to judgment by a city on edge, where the facts of the case mattered less than what it represented: a strong stand against thugs, guilty or not. The DVD and Blu-ray contain additional interviews.

Happy People: A Year in the Taiga, Music Box, $29.95

Documentarian Dmitry Vasyukov made a four-hour Russian television series about the people who survive Siberian taiga; Werner Herzog and his son Rudolph have reduced it to a 90-minute typically Herzog-ian "man against the elements" film complete with contemplative Herzog narration. Herzog follows Vasyukov's season-by-season arc, beginning in the spring, when trappers prepare for the year's hunt, and continuing into summer, fall and winter, when all the planning pays off. But Herzog adds his own musings on what it means to be free and self-reliant, using basic survival skills passed down through generations. The DVD includes the documentary "Chasing Spring in West Siberia" and a Herzog introduction.

The Impossible, Summit, $29.95; Blu-ray, $39.99

Available on VOD beginning April 23

Director J.A. Bayona finally follows up his magnificent ghost story "The Orphanage" with this film, based on the true story of a family touring Thailand in 2004 when the Indian Ocean tsunami hit. Ewan McGregor and Naomi Watts play the family heads who get separated by the storm and try to work their way back to each other. But the real star is Bayona's visual storytelling, which makes the tsunami sequence impressively harrowing and then follows that up with smaller but no less gripping scenes of people scrambling through a devastated foreign land. The script isn't in the same class — the dialogue tends to be either functional or corny — but overall, this is a superb disaster film, anchored by the panic that sets in when one people fear they've lost loved ones. Bayona contributes a commentary track to the DVD and Blu-ray, which also contain deleted scenes and featurettes.

Promised Land, Universal, $29.98; Blu-ray, $34.98

Available on VOD beginning April 23

For an example of how a great director and cast can elevate humdrum material, see this muddled environmental melodrama that's a decent movie until its plot kicks in. Matt Damon (who also co-wrote the movie with John Krasinski, adapting a Dave Eggers story) stars as a representative of a natural gas company, trying to get a small Pennsylvania town to sign over its mineral rights over the objections of an activist (played by Krasinski). The conflict's overheated and the multiple "surprise" twists are ridiculous, but Damon is terrific as a man who makes the wrong choices for the right reasons, and Frances McDormand delivers one of her best performances as his partner. Most importantly, director Gus Van Sant gives "Promised Land" a natural look and feel that suggests how good the film might've been, had it been less plot-driven. The DVD and Blu-ray add deleted scenes and a featurette.


Gangster Squad

Warner Bros., $28.98; Blu-ray, $35.99

Available on VOD beginning April 23

A Haunted House

Universal, $29.98; Blu-ray, $39.98

Available on VOD beginning April 23

Jurassic Park 3-D

Universal Blu-ray, $49.98

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