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by Mark Burger

DVD PICK OF THE WEEK: WE WERE HERE

(Acorn Media)

A first-rate documentary about the dawn of the AIDS era, conveyed with power and compassion by filmmaker David Weissman.

Weissman, who come to San Francisco in 1976, witnessed first-hand the effects of the epidemic as it slowly, inexorably began ravaging the gay community. The film focuses on five individuals whose lives were forever changed by the disease, and their stories are both heartbreaking and heroic. The only thing scarier than not knowing what AIDS was, was finding out what exactly what it was.

The impact of the disease would have an affect far beyond the homosexual community and change the human landscape forever. In the lines of demarcation of the late 20th century, there was a time before AIDS and a time after AIDS, and things would never be the same after.

One of many cruel ironies is that the gay community, which had fought so hard for basic rights and mainstream acceptance in the ’60s and ’70s, would be catapulted back into the dark ages because of fear and mistrust — at precisely the time when it needed sympathy and compassion the most. Although the film ends on something of a hopeful note, and although there have been vast advancements in the treatment of AIDS since its identification, there’s the ominous overtone at the end: There still is no cure. It’s still a factor in our lives. We Were Here is both an illuminating and an important chronicle.

42ND STREET FOREVER (Synapse Films/CAV Distributing): The Blu-ray debut ($24.95 retail) of the fun-filled compilation of vintage schlock trailers, including Chained Heat, The Dark, The Deadly Spawn, I Dismember Mama, Savage Sisters, Shogun Assassin, Super Fuzz, Werewolves on Wheels and more. The sad thing is that I have most of these films.

“BEING HUMAN”: THE COMPLETE FIRST SEASON (Entertainment One): Sam Witwer, Meagan Rath and Sam Huntington play unusual roommates — each with a supernatural secret — trying to live normal lives in all 13 episodes from the premiere 2011 season of the awardwinning Syfy series, based on a popular British series of the same name. The DVD boxed set retails for $44.98, the Blu-ray boxed set for $49.98.

CITY PARK (Alpha Home Entertainment): Sally Blane (Loretta Young’s lookalike sister) plays a destitute woman rescued on a park bench by retired colonel Henry B. Walthall in this 1934 morality play, which is as quaint and corny as it is charming.

DEATH AND CREMATION (Green Apple Entertainment): Justin Steele makes a noteworthy feature debut as director/coscreenwriter for this psychological thriller/ black comedy with Brad Dourif in top form as a small-town crematorium owner with a penchant for knocking off those he perceives as bullies. Jeremy Sumpter plays a teenaged outcast who becomes his acolyte — in more ways than one. The third act’s a little shaky, but all told pretty good. Not for the squeamish.

“DESIGNING WOMEN”: THE COMPLETE SIXTH SEASON (Shout! Factory): Julia Duffy and Jan Hooks join Dixie Carter and Annie Potts in all 22 episodes from the 1991-’92 season of the award-winning CBS situation comedy. Alice Ghostley picked up an Emmy nomination as Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Comedy Series. The DVD boxed set retails for $44.99.

“HELL ON WHEELS”: THE COMPLETE FIRST SEASON (Entertainment One): The Old West is wilder — and grittier — than ever in this AMC series starring Anson Mount as a Confederate war veteran bent on killing his wife’s murderers, set against the backdrop of the construction of the Union Pacific transcontinental railroad. The regular cast also includes Colm Meaney, Tom Noonan, Wes Studi and Common. All 10 episodes from the premiere 2011-’12 season, plus bonus features, are included in the DVD boxed set ($39.98 retail) and Blu-ray boxed set ($44.98 retail).

INGREDIENTS (Docurama Films/New Video): Bebe Neuwirth narrates this light but informative documentary exploring the rise of the independent film movement, in which advocates and local farmers work to convince consumers of the worth of food grown and raised in their communities.

INTO THE ABYSS (IFC Films/MPI Media Group): In this award-winning documentary, acclaimed filmmaker Werner Herzog turns his camera on convicted killer Michael Perry for a series of interviews in the days leading up to his execution, and an in-depth examination of crime and punishment in the US. The DVD retails for $24.98, the Blu-ray for $29.98. Rated PG-13.

JINGLES THE CLOWN (Big Bite Entertainment/R2 Films): John Anton plays a cackling killer clown who preys upon a reality- TV crew filming a segment about his crimes in this bargain-basement shocker from director Tommy Brunswick, who shared producing chores with husband/screenwriter/editor Todd. Good-natured, gore-soaked cheese for undiscriminating horror fans. We’ve all seen worse… much worse.

MENOPAUSE IN AN HOUR: AN APPOINTMENT WITH TARA ALLMEN, MD (True Mind): The title tells all in this medical documentary ($24.98 retail) hosted by specialist Tara Allmen.

MICHAEL TILSON THOMAS: THE THOMASHEFSKYS (Docurama Films/New Video): Noted composer Michael Tilson Thomas pays tribute to his grandparents Boris and Bessie — the Thomashefskys of the title — who founded the American Yiddish Theatre, in this grand-scale musical production filmed in 2011 at the New World Center in Miami and originally broadcast on PBS’ “Great Performances.” This special-edition DVD retails for $29.95.

MURDER WITH PICTURES (Alpha Home Entertainment): Pedestrian Paramount programmer from 1936, with Lew Ayres as a newspaperman mixed up in murderous doings. Gail Patrick, Onslow Stevens, Paul Kelly and Joseph Sawyer (as the obligatory dumb inspector) round out a better cast than this deserves. Costumes by Edith Head.

MY KINGDOM (China Lion/New Video): Xiaosong Gao’s historical action drama stars Wu Chun and Han Geng as brothers who find fame during the 19th century heyday of the Shanghai Opera. Originally titled Da wu Sheng, the DVD retails for $26.95. In Chinese with English subtitles.

PRISON MUTINY (Alpha Home Entertainment): Also known as You Can’t Beat the Law, this 1943 prison potboiler features Edward Norris as a playboy unjustly sentenced to prison, where he falls under the influence of both a hardened cellmate (perennial tough guy Jack La Rue) and a reform-minded warden (a pre-”Gunsmoke” Milburn Stone). Routine fare with stock footage of San Quentin adding to the “reality.”

ROMANTICS ANONYMOUS (Tribeca Film/ New Video): A shared affection for chocolate brings lonely hearts Benoit Poelvoorde and Isabelle Carre together in Jean-Pierre Ameris’ romantic comedy, originally titled Les Emotifs Anonymes. In French with English subtitles. The DVD retails for $26.95.

A SMALL ACT (Docurama Films/New Video): Jennifer Arnold’s award-winning documentary follows United Nations lawyer Chris Mburu as he seeks out Hilde Black, an 85-year-old Holocaust refugee who helped finance his education while he was a boy in an impoverished village in Kenya. The DVD retails for $29.95.

“TOP SHOT: THE GAUNTLET”: THE COMPLETE SEASON THREE (A&E Networks): A four-DVD collection ($29.95 retail) containing all 12 episodes from the 2011 season of the popular History Channel reality series, in which marksmen compete for a $100,000 “Top Shot” grand prize. Hosted by Colby Donaldson.

VALLEY OF VENGEANCE (Alpha Home Entertainment): Buster Crabbe and Al “Fuzzy” St. John settle an old score in this 1944 Western from prolific B-filmmaker Sam Newfield, with veteran Glenn Strange on hand as the sheriff. Much of the tale is told in flashbacks, an interesting conceit that adds some novelty.

“VIXENS OF VIRTUE, VIXENS OF VICE: SEASON 2 — THE RISE OF SHR-LIN” (2121 Productions): Foxy female warriors battle nefarious ninjas in this campy, cartoonish fantasy action series created and directed by Rob Longo. All five episodes from the 2011 season are included in this DVD, which retails for $14.95.

THE WARRING STATES (China Lion/New Video): Director Jin Chen’s historical epic (originally titled Zhan Guo) stars Hong-lei and Francis Ng as brothers whose rivalry escalates against the backdrop of political turmoil during China’s Warring States Period. In Mandarin with English subtitles. The DVD retails for $26.95, the Blu-ray for $29.95.

Mark Burger can be heard Friday mornings on the “Two Guys Named Chris” radio show on Rock-92. © 2012, Mark Burger

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