This week, we begin on second base:
In this inspirational biopic written and directed by Brian Helgeland, relative newcomer Chadwick Boseman stars as Jackie Robinson, the first black man to break the invisible color line and play Major League Baseball in the modern era. Harrison Ford plays Branch Rickey, the Brooklyn Dodgers general manager who promoted Robinson to the big leagues in 1947 but warned him against reacting to the obvious racial abuse he would endure, which he did.
Helgeland covers much of Robinson’s challenge, providing a portrait of the athlete’s life off the field as well as on. Robinson wore the number 42, subsequently retired by Major League Baseball in his honor.
The release, in all formats, includes the nine-minute featurette “Stepping Into History,” 10 minutes on “Full Contact Baseball,” and nine minutes discussing “The Legacy of Number 42.”
Letters From Jackie: The Private Thoughts of Jackie Robinson Major League Baseball produced this paean to Jackie Robinson, taking excerpts from some of his letters to such people as Martin Luther King Jr., President Eisenhower and others. Sitting for interviews about Robinson are his daughter, Sharon Robinson; historian Joe Dorinson; and various former ballplayers.
Not rated, 45 minutes. Also available in various downloads and formats.
Death by China -- This provocative documentary offers only a single viewpoint, but it is one aimed to touch the nerves of thoughtful Americans regardless of political leanings.
Director Peter Navarro asserts that this country is slowly being ruined, taken over, squeezed to death (take your pick) by China. Martin Sheen narrates, examining many of China’s current harmful practices.
Navarro interviews variously agreeing economists and academics and includes charts and graphs along with sprightly animation to deliver a message that comes across as more cautionary than apocalyptic. One interviewee complains about trying but failing to find a microwave oven not made in China. Good luck finding one.
Not rated, 78 minutes. The DVD contains commentary, a short film and several related featurettes.
Winter Meeting -- and Front Page Woman -- The Warner Archive Collection releases two unrated, made-on-demand Bette Davis DVDs that showcase the magnetic star at different stages of her long career.
The lesser Winter Meeting suffers from a hackneyed story made worse by clumsy direction. Davis plays Susan Grieve, a renowned poet who begins a reluctant love affair with a returning military hero, Slick Novak. He is played by James — later known as Jim — Davis, whose lasting fame came years later as Jock Ewing, the first Ewing family patriarch on TV’s Dallas.
Mr. Davis’ stiff presence and monotone delivery clash with Bette Davis’ fiery persona. She eats him alive, making it impossible to believe that her intellectual poet would be won over by him.
Plus, rookie director Bretaigne Windust (really) choreographs his actors through variously embarrassing and unbelievable situations filled with an abundance of trite dialogue. Still, watching the great Davis is always a treat. Released in 1948, 96 minutes.
A 26-year-old Bette Davis unleashes her energy in Front Page Woman, one of the fast-paced newspaper comedy-dramas so popular around this time (see: The Front Page and the ultra sublime His Girl Friday). She plays Ellen Garfield, a New York reporter who wants to be taken seriously despite being (gasp!) a woman.
She makes a deal with her boyfriend, Curt Devlin (George Brent), that she will quit the newspaper racket and marry him if she doesn’t trump him in covering a murder case. Prolific director Michael Curtiz (Casablanca) steers the two through a series of ingenious plot twists before solving the crime. Released in 1935, 83 minutes.
Would You Rather -- Not much here to recommend in this worthless torture flick. An eccentric rich man (Jeffrey Combs) entices eight strangers to his creepy mansion by telling them they will compete for a grand prize that will solve all their problems.
Once there, it turns into an elimination snuff game based on the party game “Would You Rather.” But the twist comes in the options: Would you rather stab the person sitting next to you or whip him? And so on, with each exercise escalating in graphic gruesomeness and stupidity. Not rated, 93 minutes.
And for kids this week:
Tom and Jerry: No Mice Allowed! Try as he might, that darn cat never catches the sneaky mouse in any of these 30 cartoons that feature some of the best-known shorts from the famously feuding team: “24 Karat Kat,” “Timid Tabby,” “Smitten Kitten,” “Power Tom,” “The Bodyguard” and more. On two discs. Not rated, 229 minutes.
Barney: Imagine With Barney Barney returns on four episodes to encourage children to use their imaginations. A game and two music videos are included. Not rated, 76 minutes.
Angelina Ballerina: Mousical Medleys Angelina and friends Gracie and Viki vie for the spotlight in this disc’s five episodes, which come with a memory game and a music video. Not rated, 62 minutes.
And finally, from our week’s TV arrivals:
The Smurfs: Smurfs to the Rescue! The mischievous little blue creatures return in these six cartoons featuring the handiwork of Papa, Jokey, Handy, Clumsy, Dreamy, Brainy, Vanity, Lazy, Smurfette and other members of their gang. They visit outer space, face down a volcano, and most important, escape from a sideshow. Not rated, 110 minutes.
Hell on Wheels: The Complete Second Season These episodes of the breakout series from AMC still deliver plenty of action in this post-Civil War saga’s sophomore season.
By now, Cullen Bohannan (Anson Mount) has left his job with the railroad and has joined a gang and begun robbing trains, but only to save enough money to join the group’s ex-Confederate friends in Mexico. When he is captured, Mr. Durant (Colm Meaney) springs Bohannan to return to railroad work for him as he continues to drive his train tracks west. Weekly murders and betrayals play out with great flair.
Not rated, 413 minutes. The set includes a 10-part, 21-minute “making of” featurette, brief segments on the end of the first season and on the second season’s cast, and five minutes on set with Mount. On three discs.
George Lopez: The Third Season Comedian George Lopez stars as the head of the Lopez family of Los Angeles in this sitcom based on his clan’s dynamic adventures. In the season’s 28 episodes, George continues to work as a supervisor at an airplane parts factory, and his wife, Angie (Constance Marie), struggles to take care of their son, Max (Luis Armand Garcia), and teenage daughter, Carmen (Masiela Lusha).
But the biggest surprise comes from George’s mother Benny (Belita Moreno), who starts dating a man her son finds inappropriate. Of course, other domestic problems play out, including a family member needing a kidney transplant, and one of George’s offspring failing in school.
The season sees several guest stars, including Sandra Bullock. On three discs. Not rated, 598 minutes.
Also available Tuesday on DVD: Erased, Wild Bill, Wild Deep.