Parents, if your child recognizes the name Ponce de Leon and connects it to the search for a Fountain of Youth, thank a teacher.
My college-student daughter — a graduate of Howard County schools — asked me how in the world I knew of the explorer, much less his quest, when both arose early in the new home edition of "Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides" (Walt Disney Studios Home Entertainment, rated PG, Blu-ray/DVD Combo Pack $39.99).
Besides its educational value for those otherwise engaged, there's little to excite the imagination in this fourth installment in the giga-hit Disney series. Johnny Depp has grown so bored with the well-known quirks of Captain Jack Sparrow that his acting is stuck on "automatic pirate."
It seems King George II is keen on rejuvenating himself and willing to underwrite a follow-up expedition for said fountain, should it exist. That sparks a race between Sparrow's old nemesis, Captain Barbosa (Geoffrey Rush), and none other than Blackbeard (Ian McShane) and his crew of zombies, aided by his brazen, over-empowered daughter, played by series newcomer Penelope Cruz (who has no personal need for a Fountain of Youth, despite being pregnant during production).
The possibility of any romantic subplot between Depp and Cruz fizzles like damp gunpowder, as there is not an ounce of sexual chemistry between the two. Meanwhile, their adventure gets pulled in any number of directions, the highlight being a battle with a race of mermaids that should be canned and marketed at once under the name Harridans of the Sea.
The special effects aren't as elaborate as in the middle sequels, though there are enough slapstick gags and comic asides to justify anyone's escapist investment.
The Blu-ray/DVD Combo Pack is a bit light on bonus extras, but does include an audio commentary by executive producer John DeLuca and director Rob Marshall, a five-minute comic take-off on the film starring Lego characters, and a three-minute blooper reel. There's also an option to download a Disney app for accessing behind-the-scenes content and other goodies. Those who spring for a five-disc, 3-D set ($49.99) will get 75 minutes of exclusive supplements and deleted scenes.
More superheroes, please
• "Batman: Year One" (Warner Home Video, rated PG-13, DVD $19.98; Blu-ray Disc $24.98). Nearly 25 years after its publication as a four-part graphic novel, this DC Universe Animated Original Movie taps into Frank Miller's mix of paranoia, elegance and stylish imagery to explore the Dark Knight's first year as a big-city crime fighter. Bruce Wayne, aka "Batman," (voiced by Benjamin McKenzie) returns to Gotham after some special combat training overseas just as Lieutenant James Gordon (Bryan Cranston) is turning up the heat on corruption while dealing with his wife's pregnancy and battling the emergence of a second masked menace, Selina Kyle aka "Catwoman" (Eliza Dushku).
Fans of this genre will admire what the animators and designers have done here, and the handsome disc has oodles of extras, including a commentary, a look at Batman's "roots," a panel discussion and a new 15-minute Catwoman short, which has not one but two pole-dance interludes that won't likely please many accidental female viewers or parents in the audience.
• "Captain America" Double Feature (Shout! Factory, not rated, DVD $14.95). Christopher Lee's memorable turn as a chemical terrorist elevates the second of these two campy, live-action NBC-TV original movies from the late-1970s. In "Captain America," we meet star Reb Brown as former Marine Steve Rogers, who is saved by a government super-serum that gives him enhanced speed and reflexes to take on the enemies of America.
"Captain America II: Death Too Soon" isn't quite as talky, and finds our hero's son carrying on the fight against evil. Amounting to some 200 minutes of nostalgia for fans, they come on one DVD at a bargain price without extras.
Shocking up on Halloween
The really scary thing this Halloween may be that there are folks who have been eagerly awaiting the Blu-ray debut of "Basket Case" (Image Entertainment, not rated, Blu-ray Disc $17.97). Well, here it is, that early-'80s grindhouse classic about a twisted young man who carries his homicidal, surgically removed conjoined twin with him in a wicker hamper, poised to pounce. For a bare-bones, 16mm production, the film actually looks fresh and presentable in high-def, and the collector extras include a lot of trivia about the filming and the film's gradual emergence as a cult hit.
So, for other closeted "Basket Case" cultists out there, here are more new reasons to get out of bed in the morning and head off to the nearest video dealer:
• "Bad Dreams" & "Visiting Hours" (Shout! Factory, not rated, DVD $16.95). This 1980s double feature is a must-have for fans. These two long out-of-print horror titles are still capable of jump-starting a pulse. The first finds a female survivor of a religious cult mass suicide being stalked by the dead cult leader. The second is a very effective suspense-thriller about a crusading liberal journalist (Lee Grant) who energizes the world's most demented critic. Both movies have been digitally remastered for wide-screen monitors.
• "Blood Trilogy" (Image Entertainment, not rated, Blu-ray Disc $17.97). In the early 1960s, Herschell Gordon Lewis carved out a niche in exploitation films with graphic closeups of supposed blood and guts. None of it looked especially convincing, and the stiff acting and awful dialogue just reinforced the sense of a big-screen, socially incorrect frat party. All three of his signature works are collected here in high-definition — "Blood Feast," "Color Me Blood Red" and the notorious "2000 Maniacs" — along with rare outtakes. Issued separately on standard DVD is a full-length feature on Lewis, "Godfather of Gore" (Image, not rated, DVD $14.98). It is more coherent than his own movies, and is fun slumming from an academic vantage.
• "Chromeskull: Laid to Rest II" (Image, not rated, DVD $24.98; Blu-ray Disc $29.98). If you haven't seen the original "Laid to Rest," rent it instead. It was a smart mix of "Phantasm" and "Halloween." This sequel is stylish but, unlike the original, gives us no sympathetic souls to root for.
• "Roger Corman's All-Night Marathon" (Shout! Factory, not rated, DVD $24.97). Four hard-to-find genre titles from the waning days of fun exploitation flicks are nicely presented here in anamorphic wide-screen transfers on two DVDs: "Lady Frankenstein," "The Velvet Vampire," "Time Walker" and "Grotesque." The first two are feminist takes on horror icons, the third is a mummy with an extraterrestrial pedigree, and the last offers a "mutant revenge" scenario with some surprises. Bios and commentaries make this budget-priced edition a super bargain.