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.
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.
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, will.i.am, 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.