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The Conspirator, Rio, Spy Kids trio among new home entertainment titles 

The Conspirator
  • The Conspirator

THE CONSPIRATOR (2011). Boston Corbett, the soldier who fatally shot John Wilkes Booth after the latter assassinated Abraham Lincoln, had years earlier removed his own testicles (with scissors!) so he wouldn't succumb to the feminine wiles of prostitutes. Dr. Samuel Mudd, one of the men convicted as part of the conspiracy to kill the president, is believed by many to merely have been a victim of circumstance, unaware as he tended to Booth's broken leg that this man had just murdered the nation's leader. Clearly, there are many fascinating stories surrounding the death of one of this country's most revered presidents, and The Conspirator relates one of them. But it's a doozy: the arrest and trial of Mary Surratt, the only woman charged with taking part in the plot to kill Lincoln. The guilt or innocence of Surratt remains a mystery even to this day, although director Robert Redford's solid film leans strongly toward a "not guilty" verdict. Presented primarily as a principled widow and a protective mother, Mary Surratt (Robin Wright) has the support of her idealistic lawyer (James McAvoy) but not many others — certainly not prosecuting attorney Joseph Holt, played by Danny Huston, nor Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, portrayed by Kevin Kline as an oily cross between Donald Rumsfeld and Alexander Haig. Surratt's fate — freedom or the gallows? — is hardly a secret, but since the studio opted to build this up as a historical cliffhanger, I won't ruin the ending here. But The Conspirator hardly needs this manufactured suspense, as it does a compelling job of presenting a lesson not found in most school texts.

Blu-ray extras include audio commentary by Redford (with the BonusView option to watch him in a picture-in-picture as he comments); the 66-minute documentary The Conspirator: The Plot to Kill Lincoln; a 10-minute making-of featurette; 41 minutes of featurettes relating to the film's historical background; and a photo gallery.

Movie: ***

The Music Never Stopped
  • The Music Never Stopped

THE MUSIC NEVER STOPPED (2011). The music never stops in The Music Never Stopped, and that would be a problem if the tunes on parade were on the order of, say, Phil Collins' execrable "Sussudio" or Rebecca Black's splinter-in-the-tongue Web hit "Friday." But with a soundtrack lined with the likes of The Beatles and Bob Dylan, there's no chance of anybody finding themselves bleeding from the ears. Bleeding from the heart, though, might be another matter. Based on a true story (recounted in Dr. Oliver Sacks' case study "The Last Hippie"), this details the journey of two parents, Henry and Helen Sawyer (J.K. Simmons and Cara Seymour), as they try to deal with the fact that their alienated, grown son Gabriel (Lou Taylor Pucci) has been diagnosed with a head trauma that leaves him unable to form any new memories. As the parents attempt to communicate with their son, the conservative Henry is reminded of the conflicts that led his liberal son to split all those years ago. Progress in Gabriel's medical condition seems bleak until a therapist (Julia Ormond) realizes that music from Gabriel's youth — the classic sounds of 60s rock — can be used to trigger responses from him. It's pleasing to see Simmons in a rare lead role — he's more known for such supporting stints as Juno's dad or Peter Parker's editor — and it's notable that director Jim Kohlberg allows the emotional material to speak for itself rather than bathe it in manipulative, audience-pushing strokes. But perhaps his approach is a tad too muted: As it stands, the film plays like a slightly above-average television movie, the type that used to be described as a "TV weepie of the week." Some will collapse in tears over this story. Others will remain stone-cold. And still others, like me, will land somewhere in the middle of these extremes.

DVD extras include audio commentary by Kohlberg; three interview snippets with Dr. Sacks totaling 11 minutes; nine minutes of deleted scenes; an 8-minute interview with Simmons; and a 7-minute interview with Pucci.

Movie: **1/2

  • Rio

RIO (2011). As straight-ticket children's fare, Rio is better than many toon flicks aimed squarely at this undiscriminating audience (Gnomeo & Juliet, for example), with its visual splendor and Jesse Eisenberg's patented nerd shtick helping overcome deficiencies in the narrative and a slew of humdrum ancillary characters. Eisenberg provides the voice for Blu, a macaw raised from infancy by a Minnesota bookworm named Linda (Leslie Mann). A bumbling scientist (Rodrigo Santoro) convinces Linda to bring Blu to Rio de Janeiro so he can mate with Jewel (Anne Hathaway) in an attempt to prevent the extinction of the species, but the feathered pair hardly prove to be "lovebirds." A smuggler (Carlos Ponce) steals the rare birds with the assistance of his two imbecilic minions and a Scar-like cockatoo named Nigel (Jemaine Clement), and it's up to the timid Blu and the feisty Jewel to extract themselves from this dire predicament. Visually, the film commands attention, not only in the flight sequences (check out the stunning aerial scene set in the skies around the Christ the Redeemer statue) but also during the musical numbers. But the story is drab and uninvolving, and the big-name cast (Hathaway, Jamie Foxx,, George Lopez) is ill-equipped to bring the dull characters to life. The exception is Eisenberg, who is accorded the script's few decent lines and draws some mild laughs from them. Of course, coming so soon after The Social Network, it's hard not to recall Eisenberg as Mark Zuckerberg; as continuing proof that Rio misses its mark at connecting with adults, there are no references to Blu as the creator of FaceBeak.

Blu-ray extras include a 25-minute making-of piece; one deleted scene; a 14-minute featurette on the film's music; two music videos; and an interactive postcard maker.

Movie: **1/2

FAMILY AFFAIR: Daryl Sabara, Alexa Vega (front), Carla Gugino and Antonio Banderas (back) in Spy Kids.
  • FAMILY AFFAIR: Daryl Sabara, Alexa Vega (front), Carla Gugino and Antonio Banderas (back) in Spy Kids.

SPY KIDS (2001) / SPY KIDS 2: THE ISLAND OF LOST DREAMS (2002) / SPY KIDS 3: GAME OVER (2003). Here's yet another Hollywood trilogy that began brightly before running itself into the ground.

Zooming out of left field like a rogue missile, Spy Kids captured the hearts of most critics and the bucks of many moviegoers (its domestic take was $112 million). While numerous scribes at the time compared it to Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory and The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T, I was most reminded of the TV and film output of Pee-wee Herman applied to a James Bond template. Antonia Banderas and Carla Gugino make an attractive couple as Gregorio and Ingrid Cortez, a married couple who long ago gave up their status as secret agents extraordinaire in order to raise a family. But the global-domination plans of children's TV show host Fegan Floop (Alan Cumming) bring the spouses out of retirement, and it's only after they're captured that their two young kids, Carmen (Alexa Vega) and Juni (Daryl Sabara), are drafted into the spy game. A real winner, this finds writer-director Robert Rodriguez offering up a deft blend of slapstick and surrealism.

Spy Kids 2: The Island of Lost Dreams
  • Spy Kids 2: The Island of Lost Dreams

Spy Kids 2: The Island of Lost Dreams is a spirited attempt to recapture the first film's offbeat appeal, but this time, the results, while still enjoyable, are decidedly less satisfying (the film still did robust business, grossing $85 million). Practically the entire original cast returns for this outing, which finds the Cortez family investigating the mysterious occurrences revolving around an island that's inhabited by a meek scientist (Steve Buscemi) and his mutated creations. If anything, Spy Kids 2 is bursting at the seams with even more gadgetry and more eccentric characters than its predecessor, but rather than building on the sense of wonder and fun, this overstuffing only slows the picture down; for example, did we really need to add the siblings' secret-agent grandparents (Ricardo Montalban and Holland Taylor) to the mix, especially since they're given so little to do and could have easily been excised from the final product? The kids and their parents are still appealing, though, and some of the special effects (such as those animated skeletons) pay satisfying homage to the fantasy flicks of the great FX innovator Ray Harryhausen.

Spy Kids 3: Game Over
  • Spy Kids 3: Game Over

The law of diminishing returns clearly applies to Spy Kids 3: Game Over, which made the theatrical rounds as Spy Kids 3-D: Game Over. Inexplicably nabbing $111 million at the box office — yes, a mere one million less than the original — this featured particularly unsightly 3-D effects at the multiplex, so it's a minor mercy to catch it in 2-D at home. Beyond that visual aspect, this is simply a poorly scripted adventure yarn, with Juni forced to enter a "virtual reality" game in order to save his sister Carmen and vanquish the game's mad inventor (hammy Sylvester Stallone, winning his umpteenth Razzie Award for his work). Despite some occasionally interesting graphics, the game itself doesn't seem very exciting (or comprehensible, for that matter), and the action frequently breaks for characters to deliver strained monologues about the importance of family. Speaking of family, Banderas and Gugino, so appealing as the Spy Parents in the previous pictures, have been reduced to nothing more than late-inning cameos.

Blu-ray extras on Spy Kids include a 48-minute retrospective piece; featurettes on the effects, stunts and makeup; and theatrical trailers. Blu-ray extras on Sky Kids 2 include audio commentary by Rodriguez; a 22-minute making-of piece; eight minutes of deleted scenes; 12 minutes of behind-the-scenes footage; a music video featuring Vega; and shorts on the stuntwork and gadgetry. Blu-ray extras on Spy Kids 3 include audio commentary by Rodriguez; a 21-minute making-of featurette; short pieces on the effects and stunts; and three musical performances by Vega.

Spy Kids: ***

Spy Kids 2: The Island of Lost Dreams: **1/2

Spy Kids 3: Game Over: *1/2

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