- The Washington Times - Friday, March 13, 2009

Synecdoche, New York (Sony, $28.96 for DVD, $39.95 for Blu-ray) — Screenwriter Charlie Kaufman’s directorial debut was called one of the best films of last year and one of the worst. Some critics, it seemed, wanted to call it both. Either way, the film starring Philip Seymour Hoffman as a playwright who builds a full-size replica of New York City inside a New York City warehouse certainly inspired some of the most over-the-top reviews of the year.

Walter Chaw, a critic at the Web site Film Freak Central, makes the very astute point that “Synecdoche, New York” is one of those puzzling films, like David Lynch’s “Mulholland Drive,” that drives reviewers to get personal and talk about themselves rather than just the work under consideration. Mr. Chaw makes the remark in “Infectious Diseases in Cattle: Bloggers’ Roundtable,” an extra on this DVD release.

It’s an interesting idea for a DVD extra, although the execution here doesn’t quite work. Not all of the five critics are interesting enough to listen to for nearly 40 minutes. Some are a bit too show-offy, while others like to spout cliches, such as how the film was about seizing every moment we have.

The release includes two more featurettes, one on the filming of the movie and the other an interview with Mr. Hoffman on building his character. Three animated shorts seen briefly in the film also are available. Most interesting, though, is the “National Film and Television School/Script Factory Masterclass With Charlie Kaufman.”

What is it about the singular Mr. Kaufman that leads interviewers and critics astray? Journalist and author Toby Young, the interviewer for the London event, doesn’t come off too well. (Then again, he is the author of “How to Lose Friends and Alienate People.”) He asks Mr. Kaufman why he had John Malkovich star in “Being John Malkovich” instead of having an actor portray the title character, as if it weren’t obvious.

Mr. Kaufman himself seems a little flummoxed by the questions sometimes. The Oscar-winning writer, one of our most creative, still manages to say plenty of interesting things about how he works and what he’s working toward, however. He talks about how he started his career in television, which he thinks was a wise move for someone so shy. He hadn’t wanted to show his work to a soul, but having to present regular TV scripts cured him of that. The highly competitive nature of working in a room full of smart and funny writers trying to one-up each other also helped with his timidity.

No one should be surprised, though, to hear the author of “Adaptation,” when asked, “How do you know which rules to stick to and which to break?” respond, “I don’t think there are any rules.”

South Park: The Complete Twelfth Season (Comedy Central, $49.99 for DVD, $69.99 for Blu-ray) — This release marks the first time the long-running animated comedy appears on Blu-ray. Both the regular DVD and the Blu-ray edition offer on three discs all 14 uncensored episodes of the 12th season, in which Trey Parker and Matt Stone took on AIDS, “High School Musical,” Canada, breast cancer, “Twilight,” Britney Spears and Barack Obama. Whew!

There are two hours of bonus features, including “Six Days to ‘South Park’: A Day-by-Day Making of ‘South Park’” and some minicommentaries by Mr. Parker and Mr. Stone.

JAG: The Eighth Season (Paramount, $55.98) — The news that the popular and engaging crime drama “NCIS” is spawning a spinoff set to air later this year reminded — or informed — many people that “NCIS” itself is a spinoff. With fortuitous timing, Paramount is releasing the eighth season of “JAG” next week, which just happens to be the season that included the two-part story line that introduced the “NCIS” crew. All 24 episodes, including those “NCIS” episodes, are here on five discs. The only extra, though, is a gag reel.

The Starter Wife: Season 1 (Universal, $34.98) — Watch one episode of this now-canceled USA series and you won’t be able to stop. It’s soapy, but highly addictive, thanks in large part to the comedic gifts of star Debra Messing. The supporting cast, including Judy Davis and Joe Mantegna, is pretty good, too. “The Starter Wife,” based on the book by Gigi Levangie Grazer, was first a miniseries and then got picked up as a full-blown series only to get canned after one season.

Cracker: The Complete Collection (Acorn, $119.99) — Nobody makes dark crime dramas like the British, and perhaps none was darker than “Cracker.” The gritty look at modern urban life starred Robbie Coltrane as a sort of forerunner of “House” — a brilliant but cynical and messed-up man who solves cases while battling his own demons. All 11 television mysteries featuring the forensic psychologist are here on 10 discs, the three seasons that ran from 1993 to 1995, and the two stand-alone movies that aired in 1996 and 2006. There’s also a 45-minute documentary.

Kelly Jane Torrance

Bob the Builder ON SITE: Skyscrapers (HiT Entertainment, $14.98). In this brand-new Bob the Builder production, real-life construction workers get some love (and boy do they need it; latest labor market numbers show the unemployment rate for construction workers is 17 percent) as Bob — with the help of live-action footage of constructions sites — tells his animated crew how to plan and build skyscrapers.

Also interwoven into the animated and live-action story line are segments showing children (ages 3 to 5, roughly the target age for the show) in a playroom building miniskyscrapers and elevators using cardboard boxes, strings and paint.

Total run time is 60 minutes and includes a puzzle game and some trivia. It’s all educational, but not terribly fun. What normally makes Bob the Builder compelling are the sweet and quirky “personalities” of his crew, including Muck the digger and Dizzy the concrete mixer. With the emphasis on live-action there is little room for interaction between Bob and his crew.

In other words, some of the fun and sweetness are lost in the name of education.

Gabriella Boston

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