DVDs: Despair Triumphs at the Movies

Despair travels well, which may be one reason German director Michael Haneke has gradually built an art house following around the world. The Films Of Michael Haneke ($99.95; Kino) collects seven of his movies (though not the apocalyptic puzzler The Time of The Wolf from 2003). You get his "glaciation trilogy" about the poisonous effect of the violence spoon fed via television (is it okay to watch it on TV anyway?), the mordant Funny Games, Frankz Kafka's The Castle (an inevitable project for him), Code Unknown" and his masterpiece The Piano Teacher.

It's best to watch Piano Teacher without any knowledge of Haneke. The less you know about his transgressive ways, the more surprised you'll be by Isabel Huppert's tightly wound instructor and the ruggedly handsome student she falls into a masochistic relationship with.

Maybe "despair" isn't quite the right word for playwright and director David Mamet. But surely Mamet is never astonished when life throws him a curve ball, as amply demonstrated in the coldly clever House of Games ($39.95; Criterion) his directorial debut 20 years ago about a therapist (Lindsay Crouse) who just knows she can't be conned by a con man (Joe Mantegna). Mamet is certainly the rare playwright to enjoy such an accomplished career in film.

If you're despairing over contemporary life, one time-honored way of attacking it is science fiction -- throw current events into the future, tweak them ever so slightly and hope that somebody realizes you're satirizing the present in hopes of changing the future. Certainly the wittiest parts of Robocop ($22.98; FOX) are the frenzied news breaks and over-the-top commercials. They still seem absurd...but not so far-fetched. Peter Weller still imbues his mechanistic hero with a soul, but it's director Paul Verhoeven's revelation that we're losing ours that really stays with you.

When the world seems dirty and filthy and sad and cruel, why waste time with despair when you could do something about it? That's the cheerful approach of Dexter: The First Season ($39.98; Showtime), the well-adjusted forensic specialist who does a little community service as a discriminating serial killer. The only despair felt here is over actor Michael C. Hall not getting an Emmy nomination for Best Actor.

Compared to Dexter, House: Season Three ($59.98; Universal) is a big softie. The show is tilting a bit too much towards the private lives of all the characters (save the workplace sexual shenanigans for Grey's Anatomy). But Hugh Laurie keeps the soapiness in check and his bark is still wonderfully omni-present and darn near just as bad as his bite.

Finally, film buffs may be ready to despair with the minor up-tick in colorization that's taken place in the last few years. (Don't ask me why -- no matter how good colorization gets, the biggest fans for old black and white movies and TV shows are precisely the same people who hate colorization the most.) The latest example is 1935's adventure tale She ($24.95; Kino), an otherwise marvelous restoration of this tale from the people behind King Kong. I don't care if special effects whiz Ray Harryhausen was involved and old movies were sometimes tinted; there's no need to colorize this movie. Of course, they give you both versions, so you can focus on the better-than-ever print in glorious black and white when watching this Raiders-like tale of derring do in a subterranean kingdom

Some people prefer a sunny disposition, so if all this despair has you down, there's always the cheery Ugly Betty Complete First Season ($59.99; Buena Vista). If this candy-colored bit of foolishness can't cheer you up, nothing will. Mind you, the show is best when focusing on Betty and her real life. They've got the tone of a telenovela down pat -- they don't need the silly, over-the-top plots as well.

Also out this week: South Park Complete Tenth Season ($49.99; Paramount), a series that hit its stride just a few years ago and is better than ever; Serenity Collector's Edition ($26.98; Universal), the terrifically fun spin-off of the TV series Firefly (maybe if we buy enough copies they'll make another movie); 1991's The Dark Backward Special Edition ($14.94; Sony), a comedy about a guy with a third arm that actually deserves to be called a cult classic. Honor Roll: The Best Of College Football Vol. 1 and 2 ($19.95 each; ESPN) has one problem: at more than two hours each, they're still too short for the fans who will always want more.