MCN Columnists
Gary Dretzka

By Gary Dretzka Dretzka@moviecitynews.com

The DVD Wrap: Welcome to the Rileys, Conviction, No Tomorrow, A Woman, a Gun and a Noodle Shop, Let Me In and more …

Welcome to the Rileys: Blu-ray

As yet another Sundance festival sails slowly into the sunset, swag bags stowed safely below deck, it’s worth recalling the large number of films that seemed destined for greatness in the rarified air of Park City, but lost traction at sea level. Can’t count that high, you say? For indie filmmakers fortunate enough to have their films included in the festival, reality tends to kick in once “ET” and “TMZ” no longer are interested in taking your picture and the lines on those contracts have gone unsigned.

Take Welcome to the Rileys, for example. Blessed with outstanding performances by heavyweight actors James Gandolfini, Melissa Leo and Kristen Stewart, it was nominated for the Grand Jury Prize at last year’s Sundance. The screening of any picture by director Jake Scott — son of Ridley, nephew of Tony — would have piqued the curiousity of the media hoard, in any case. It was the buzz surrounding Stewart’s turn as a stripper/hooker that pushed the celebrity meter past its limit, though.

Still, it wasn’t until March that a distribution deal was signed. When Scott’s gritty interpretation of the Ken Hixon’s screenplay finally opened on a handful of screens on Halloween, it was greeted with reviews that ranged from flattering to downright nasty. Stewart certainly held up her end of the publicity bargain, but, apparently, a blizzard of hype in the blogosphere can only take a picture so far. It ended up grossing less than $200,000 in limited release.

Nevertheless, based solely on the fine work turned in by the movie’s likable stars, it’s easy to recommend WTTR to folks who’ve become accustomed to sampling arthouse-sized pictures on DVD. Gandolfini and Leo play Doug and Lois Riley, an Indianapolis couple playing out the string in their loveless marriage. Lois hasn’t left the house since the death of their daughter in an automobile accident years earlier. Doug, who supplies plumbing equipment to contractors, finds emotional and sexual release in the company of an African-American waitress with a weak ticker.

On a business trip to New Orleans, Doug stumbles into a sleazy Bourbon Street strip joint, where a dancer named Mallory (Stewart) shakes her money-maker in his face. Doug pegs Mallory to be around the same age as his daughter, when she died, and takes a paternal interest in her hard case. While not at all interested in the scruffy, foul-mouthed waif sexually, Doug comes to believe she could benefit from a handy father-figure around her disheveled house. As ridiculous as it sounds, Scott somehow makes the arrangement seem remotely plausible, at least.

When Doug informs the reclusive Lois of his decision not to return to Indy, she uncharacteristically packs a bag and heads off to the Crescent City in Doug’s Cadillac. Leo turns Lois’ odyssey into a wonderfully misguided journey into the cold, cruel world. Once apprised of Doug’s mission of mercy, she resists the temptation to call the cops and have him committed. Eventually, she, too, sees in the young stripper an opportunity to return to some semblance of a normal family life. Even if Mallory isn’t particularly interested in being saved, these three lost souls form an uneasy bond. For his part, Scott keeps the premise from coming apart at the seams, by avoiding quick fixes and cliched resolutions.

If that sounds even slightly interesting to you, give WTTR a shot on a slow night. The performances by Gandolfini, Leo and Stewart, alone, are worth the price of a rental or download. The DVD includes one of those overblown making-of featurettes that make WTTR sound substantially more significant than it is, but that, too, has become something of a Sundance tradition.

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Conviction
No Tomorrow

Few actors are better at portraying women with true grit than Hilary Swank. In Tony Goldwyn’s against-the-odds legal drama “Conviction,” she plays a divorced, working-class Massachusetts mom, who spends most of her adult life trying to exonerate her brother, Kenny (Sam Rockwell), in an especially brutal murder. To that end, Swank’s Betty Anne Waters not only earns a GED, bachelor’s and master’s degree, but she also puts herself through law school and convinces DNA expert Barry Scheck to accept the case for review by the Innocence Project. True story. In the meantime, Betty’s marriage dissolves and her sons decide they’d be better off living with their father. Since we know the outcome of the case going into the movie, it’s to the great credit of Goldwyn, the actors and writer Pamela Gray that “Conviction” holds our interest throughout its 107-minute length.

We’d probably feel a whole lot better about the American legal system, too, if it weren’t for the terrible miscarriage of justice that put Kenny behind bars, in the first place. To be fair, though, Kenny Waters would seem to have been a legitimate suspect in any crime within a 20-mile radius of his home, including the 1980 murder of Katharina Brow. He had a negative history with the victim and was known mostly for being one of his town’s “usual suspects.” He was questioned immediately after the killing, but it took two years for enough evidence to be gathered to convict him. Conviction argues that a local cop (Melissa Leo) had a vendetta against Kenny and she coerced false testimony from witnesses, including two of his girlfriends. It wasn’t until much later that DNA evidence would become a recognized legal tool and, without it, Kenny likely would still be in prison. (As it is, he died in a fall shortly after being freed from prison, in 2001.)

It’s a fascinating case and all of the participants, including Juliette Lewis as one of the witnesses and Minnie Driver as Waters’ legal partner, are excellent in Conviction. The DVD adds a conversation between Waters and Goldwyn, which spends a lot of time on the film’s difficult gestation and too little on the aftermath of the original case. I, for one, would sure like to know who really killed Brow and if, after nine years, the DNA evidence has turned up any new suspect.

No Tomorrow is a similarly compelling film about the fate of a young man convicted of murdering a Los Angeles teenager profiled in the documentary, Aging Out. In the PBS film, Risa Bejarano’s story served as testimony that it was possible for kids in foster care to find success after “aging out” of it. Sadly, shortly after becoming the first person in her family to graduate from high school, Risa was murdered. Gang-banger Juan Chavez killed the bright young woman to prevent her from fingering him in two other slayings. Before the jury agreed that Chavez deserved the death penalty, they were shown the segment of “Aging Out” in which Risa’s triumph was celebrated.

Vanessa Roth and Roger Weisberg, two of the directors of Aging Out, were so disturbed that prosecutors used their film in the service of the death penalty that they decided to make No Tomorrow. The film doesn’t argue the facts of the case or innocence of Chavez. It does, however, demonstrate how the ultimate sentence is handed out in inordinately large numbers in cases where the defendant is poor and of color. Moreover, everything else being equal, there’s no common standard for deciding why a killer in one California trial should be condemned to death and another to a life sentence. In liberal San Francisco, for example, the death penalty is rarely imposed, while, across the bay in Oakland, it’s always on the table in murder cases.

Roth and Weisberg also compare the conditions that led to Bejarano and Chavez’ fatal encounter. Both grew up in homes where they were routinely abused by alcoholic and drug-addicted parents, and, at an early age, left to their own devices. One chose education as a way out of the barrio, while the other joined a gang. The filmmakers feel that clips from Aging Out were employed to tip the balance in favor of condemning Chavez and their theory is bolstered in interviews with jurors. The DVD adds material from Aging Out, chronicling Risa s last year of life.

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A Woman, a Gun and a Noodle Shop: Blu-ray

In addition to any significance attached to being the Coen Brothers’ first feature, it’s worth recalling that Blood Simple was among a handful of smallish, low-budget projects — Stranger Than Paradise, Desperately Seeking Susan, She’s Gotta Have It — that forced Hollywood to take the indie movement seriously.

The great Chinese director Zhang Yimou had yet to introduce himself to the international film community with Red Sorghum and Ju Duo, but he’d already seen Blood Simple and it would influence his work for years to come. Twenty-five years later, Zhang went the extra mile with A Woman, a Gun and a Noodle Shop (originally, A Simple Noodle Story), which transplanted the Coens’ inky black crime story into a noodle shop in feudal China.

Otherwise, the plot’s familiar: the owner of the noodle shop fears his wife is having an affair with one of the cooks and hires a patrol officer to, first, spy on them and, next, kill them; the wife, meanwhile, has purchased a multibarreled pistol from traveling merchants, with the intention of taking out the abusive cur herself. The cop is far less honorable than he appears to be and, after confirming the restaurant owner’s fears, sets his sights on the treasures in the old man’s safe. The rest of the film becomes a race to see who kills whom first and lives to escape with the fortune.

Where Blood Simple was darkly comic, Noodle Shop leavens the carnage with slapstick humor and outlandish portrayals of the kitchen staff. (The acrobatic noodle-making scene is worth the price of a rental, alone.) And, while the Coens set their film in a backwoods Texas bar, Zhang chose to situate the intricately designed noodle shop on a barren patch of land near the magnificently beautiful badlands of western China. It allows him to add bright splashes of color to the noir narrative and find interesting places for his combatants to bury the bodies.

Noodle Shop wasn’t intended to be a frame-by-frame re-make of Blood Simple, as was Gus Van Sant’s take on Psycho. It not only can stand on its own narrative merits as a grisly entertainment, but also as an unmistakably Chinese entertainment in tone, look and spirit. It’s cut from the same cloth that Zhang used to create Hero, House of Flying Daggers and Curse of the Golden Flower Its attention to period detail also may remind some viewers of the opening ceremony for the 2008 Olympic Games, which he produced. The Blu-ray presentation takes full advantage of Zhao Xiaoding’s splendid cinematography. The making-of featurette is more production diary than treatise on Zhang’s process.

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Let Me In
Chain Letter
Legion of the Final Exorcism

Finally, a Hollywood remake of a foreign film that does justice to the original. If American audiences weren’t too lazy to read subtitles, there probably would have been no need for an English-language version of Tomas Alfredson’s terrifying vampire drama, Let the Right One In. Blessedly, Matt Reeves’ adaption of John Ajvide Lindqvist’s novel retains the suspense and most of the horror of the original, while also honoring the strange romance at its core.

The primary thing missing in Let Me In is the sense of foreboding that arrives with the disappearance of the sun during Sweden’s long winter. Chloe Grace Moretz (Kick-Ass) is splendid as the eternally youthful vampire, Abby, who moves into the apartment next door to a lonely adolescent, Owen (Kodi Smit-McPhee, of The Road). When he isn’t being bullied at school, the scrawny Owen practices for the day when he can turn the tables on the thugs. He’s left pretty much to his own devices by his largely absentee mother and completely absent father. He finds a friend in the androgynous newcomer, who lives with a man (Richard Jenkins) who may or may not be her father.

Soon after Abby’s arrival, the town is beset with a series of savage killings that can’t simply be dismissed as the work of undead creatures in their midst. It doesn’t take long before a local cop (Elias Koteas) begins nosing around the apartment complex. What happens next is best left unrevealed, but it involves both the comeuppance of the bullies and death of Abby’s benefactor.

Let Me In is extremely violent, in parts, but the evolution of Abby and Owen’s relationship is surprisingly sweet and truly poignant. It demands that we consider not only the ramifications of eternal youth, but eternal dependence on an aging partner, as well. Reaves also demands that we put ourselves in the shoes of a child so lonely and abused by his peers that he would weigh the possibility of killing them and sharing all of his tomorrows with one trusted friend.

As is the case with A Woman, a Gun and a Noodle Shop and Blood Simple, it’s worth making the effort to compare one adaptation of Let the Right One In with the other. The Blu-ray adds Reaves’ commentary, deleted scenes and featurettes “From the Inside: A Look at the Making of ‘Let Me In'” and “The Art of Special Effects,” in which a car-crash sequence is broken down by steps.

There’s far more than the length of an ocean separating Let the Right One In and the other new horror releases this week. Deon Taylor’s Chain Letter melds one well-trod genre convention — being penalized for not passing along a chain letter — with the introduction of an excruciatingly novel instrument of torture-porn. Among the things that don’t make sense here is the villain’s use of modern technology to pass along a chain letter condemning the use of e-mails, instant messaging and other such communication devices. A medieval ending is guaranteed the teenager who dares not pass along his screeds. Gore fiends may find something to savor here, but more discerning fans of the genre likely will take a pass on it. Among the stars are Nikki Reed, Betsy Russell, Brad Dourif, Keith David and co-writer Michael J. Pagan.

I’m guessing that Legion of the Final Exorcism was released in time to take advantage of the buzz surrounding Anthony Hopkins’ exorcism thriller, The Rite. Apparently, David Heavener’s movie was shopped around the television marketplace as the pilot for a series, Costa Chica: Confessions of an Exorcist. Heavener plays the ex-priest, Michael San Chica, who encounters a familiar demonic foe when ministering over the newly possessed daughter of a Baptist minister.

Also new: Hatchet 2: Unrated Director’s Cut picks up exactly where the original left off, with Marybeth (Danielle Harris, this time) escaping the clutches of a Victor Crowley, but returning to the Louisiana swamps to finish the monster off with a posse of gore-hungry vigilantes. In Virus X, several medical researchers are infected with a mutant strain of the H1N1 “swine flu” virus and have only three days to escape quarantine. Israel Luna’s bloody horror-comedy, Fright Flick, takes viewers behind the scenes of a B-movie set, where cast and crew are being targeted by a real-life slasher.

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The Tillman Story

After he gave up his multimillion-dollar NFL career to join the Army Rangers and fight in Afghanistan, Pat Tillman resisted all attempts by Bush administration officials to make him the poster boy for patriotism. When he died in combat, the same officials wasted no time turning him into a martyr for patriotism. The official story had Cpl. Tillman taking a bullet while steering his comrades out of harm’s way. All that was missing were claims that he was in heaven, being fed grapes and margaritas by a hundred veiled virgins, and … the truth. A statement issued a few months later would conclude that 27-year-old Tillman was killed by a stray bullet.

In fact, the former Phoenix Cardinals defensive back was mistaken for a Taliban fighter and slain by members of his own platoon unaware that Tillman had climbed a mountain wall to provide cover for Rangers exiting a treacherous canyon road. His brother and fellow Ranger, Kevin, was riding at the tail end of the convoy, but immediately shielded from the facts. It wasn’t until a reporter in Arizona began investigating the incident that Tillman’s family learned what really happened that night, along the border separating Afghanistan and Pakistan. Further research revealed that Tillman’s death could have been avoided if proper procedures were followed and the soldiers carried communications equipment that actually worked.

The Tillman Story goes to exhaustive lengths not only to uncover the facts of the bloody encounter, but also the lies that continue to be told by Pentagon officials. Moreover, Amir Bar-Lev and Mark Monroe’s documentary introduces us to an American family whose faith in their country was shattered by the same people who held their son and brother up as a role model for all Americans. Tillman’s father caused the first ripple of concern at the Pentagon by telling Pentagon brass to go fuck themselves. Mary Tillman would apply so much pressure on her congressional representatives that a special hearing was called to grill military spokesman. The only thing that came of it was the scapegoating of a retired general for mishandling the investigation. (Among other things, Tillman’s uniform, body armor and diary were burned immediately after the shooting.) Typically, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and top Pentagon brass pled ignorance of the cover-up and were allowed to skate over the thin ice.

The Tillman Story could hardly be a more punishing denunciation of official Washington’s unwillingness to own up to its mistakes or believe that American citizens can handle the truth. Ironically, the Oscar-nominated documentary arrives amid the controversy stirred by the release of cables deemed sensitive by the State Department. It should be must-viewing for any new member of Congress, but, I’d bet, almost none of them took the time. (The same, of course, could be said of Inside Job.)

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Never Let Me Go

Unless you’ve already read reviews or synopses of Never Let Me Go — and I recommend that you don’t, so stop — you won’t know where it’s heading until the movie’s passed the 15-minute mark, at least. This, however, gives viewers a lengthy headstart on the primary characters, who won’t gain a firm grasp on their situation for nearly another half-hour.

It is a function of Kazuo Ishiguro’s heart-churning novel, upon which Mark Romanek’s film is based, that key pieces of information are revealed slowly and with benign indifference to the reader’s natural curiosity. All we’re given at the top of the movie is an introductory admonition that the 20th Century world in which the characters exist is different than the 20th Century world we remember. For one thing, people routinely live beyond 100 years of age. How they get to that landmark birthday is the story’s central question.

After a brief, not terribly revealing flash-ahead scene, viewers are shuffled back to the 1970s and the kind of boarding school that we recognize from dozens of other British films and prime-time BBC mini-series. The instructors look stern, but not as draconian as most we’ve met and the children seem perfectly ordinary. A scene in which a boy refuses to chase an errant ball over a fence raises the first possibility of something odd going on at Hailsham. In due time, it’s revealed that these children were created specifically to provide spare parts for the adults who plan to live past 100. They know they’re different, somehow, but can’t understand how, exactly. As they pass into adulthood, the characters expect to be notified of the necessity of the surrender of a kidney, lung or organ that can be transplanted into an older person’s body. It’s a reality they accept without question and anticipate with pride.

What isn’t clear is if the donors are aware of the ethical questions that would be raised if the situations were reversed and the clones were designed in the image of the recipients to populate a master race. Neither are the viewers and young people entirely clear on what to make of feelings of love and freedom. Romanek doles out the information in a patient, orderly manner. The overriding tone is somber and the color scheme is monochromatic. If viewers feel a tear running down their cheek every so often, blame the wrenching performances by Carey Mulligan, Andrew Garfield and Keira Knightley, whose characters we watch making the transition from Hailsham to pre-ordained service as adults.

The Blu-ray package adds the featurette, “The Secrets of Never Let Me Go”; examples of Romanek’s on-set photography; some of the art produced by Garfield’s Tommy; a plug for Britain’s National Donor Programme and graphics from the Hailsham Campaign; and a theatrical trailer.

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Alice in Wonderland: 60th Anniversary Edition: Blu-ray
Beverly Hills Chihuahua 2

In the Disney universe, there are several different niches into which new DVD and Blu-ray releases fall. I’d refer to it as a caste system, but that carries too many negative connotations. You get the idea, though. When it comes to children’s and family films, the creme de la creme are represented by animated classics — from Snow White to Beauty and the Beast — that have stood the test of time and continue to be re-released at regular intervals in ever-grander editions. Then come the animated features that do smashing business at the box office and toy stores, but are associated more with Pixar than Disney. At the bottom rung are live-action franchise series intended strictly for quick sales in the lucrative video-original marketplace.

If Alice in Wonderland stands firmly on the top rung, live-action knock-offs generated by such easily exploitable characters as the talking pups in the many sequels to Air Bud and, now, Beverly Hills Chihuahua, probably reside in a plush, if sheltered doghouse on the Disney backlot. The only real audience for BHC2 is kids too young to appreciate the difference between talking canines and ventriloquist dummies. All that’s required of the dogs is to sit there and look as if they’re capable of mental telepathy or sharing a secret animal language.

Here, the characters are entered into a beauty/talent contest in Beverly Hills, whose top prize could save their owner’s home. They not only perform the kinds of acts Miss America candidates attempt in the “talent” portion of the “scholarship” pageant, but also the Stupid Pet Tricks made popular by David Letterman. There’s also a storyline that involves kidnaped puppies and stolen money, but it’s more of a narrative device than anything else. The dogs are cute enough to enchant young viewers, but no one old enough to know the difference between Miley Cyrus and Hannah Montana. In other words, it is what it is. Blu-ray extras include an interactive game, bloopers and “This Is My Paradise” music video.

Alice in Wonderland certainly needs no introduction. Although it was considered to be a flop upon its 1951 release and took stoned hippies to fully appreciate the movie’s magic, Disney’s paired adaptation of Lewis Carroll’s Alice Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass now has been elevated to classic status. For my money, it’s a far more endearing entertainment than last year’s 3D extravaganza.

So, what’s new in the terrific hi-def “60th Anniversary Edition”? Among the Blu-ray extras are “Through the Keyhole: A Companion’s Guide to Wonderland,” which allows viewers to discover references to the Carroll’s books as they watch the film; “Disney View,
with new Disney art in the wings of the screen; a interactive “Painting the Roses Red” game; a previously unseen introduction by Walt Disney, specifically for color television; reference footage for the scene in which Alice talks to the doorknob; a newly discovered pencil test of Alice shrinking; and previously added DVD features, “Reflections on Alice”; “Operation Wonderland”; the recently discovered Cheshire Cat song and intro, “I’m Odd”; a “Thru the Mirror” animated short, featuring Mickey Mouse”; a tour of Wonderland”; the Alice comedy, “Alice’s Wonderland”; and theatrical trailers from 1951 and 1974.

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An Affair to Remember: Blu-ray
All About Eve: Blu-ray

When old-timers grumble about the inability of contemporary writers and directors to “make ’em like they used to …,” they’re talking about classics such as All About Eve, An Affair to Remember and almost everything else shown on TMC and AMC. In fact. every generation looks back with fondness at the movies and music, actors and athletes, that rocked their particular world, while ignoring the crap that also passed for entertainment.

You certainly don’t have to be an octogenarian, though, to appreciate An Affair to Remember and All About Eve, both of which have been dusted off and given a first-class sendoff in Blu-ray by the good folks at 20th Century Fox.

For those with short memories, An Affair to Remember is the movie about a couple of swells who meet cute on a cruise ship, fall in love, but are already commited to other people. If they feel the same way about each other in six months, they vow to blow off their fiances and get married. Fate, as it’s wont to do, however, intervenes. It’s that simple a story. Released in 1957, it probably would have succeeded, even if Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr hadn’t graced the marquee and Leo McCarey had passed on directing the movie, which he’d done already in the 1939 original, Love Affair, with Irene Dunne and Charles Boyer.

With them, however … gangbusters. Many people remember the tear-jerking ending, but not the comic antics and verbal jousting of Grant and Kerr on the ocean liner. They’re still a gas to watch. The handsome Blu-ray edition of An Affair to Remember also benefits greatly from it being shot originally in Technicolor and Cinemascope. The Blu-ray edition adds commentary by singer Marni Nixon and critic Joseph McBride; video portraits of Kerr, Grant, McCarey and producer Jerry Wald; an “AMC Backstory,” which recalls the stars’ scandalous romance; the featurette, “The Look of an Affair to Remember”; a trailer; a 24-page commemorative booklet; and from Fox Movietone News, “An Affair to Remember Shipboard Premiere Attracts Celebrities.” The movie would be adapted twice more: Sleepless in Seattle, with Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan, and the vaguely remembered Warren Beatty/Annette Bening vehicle, An Affair.

The same high-gloss polish was used on the Blu-ray edition of All About Eve, one of the most celebrated movies in Hollywood history. Today, it can be enjoyed equally for it’s time-honored story of a bitchy stage diva, Margo Channing, whose career and personal life are eclipsed by her star pupil, the ingenue Eve Harrington, or Joseph Mankiewicz’ smart and acidic dialogue. It includes such unforgettable lines, spoken by Bette Davis, as, “Bill’s thirty-two. He looks thirty-two. He looked it five years ago, he’ll look it twenty years from now. I hate men …”; “Fasten your seatbelts, it’s going to be a bumpy night …”; and “I’ll admit I may have seen better days, but I’m still not to be had for the price of a cocktail, like a salted peanut.” But, then, all of the characters have been given wonderful things to say to and about each other.

The Blu-ray package includes commentary by Celeste Holm, biographer Ken Geist and Christopher Mankiewicz; an isolated score track; a pair of profiles on Mankiewicz; featurettes on “The Real Eve” and “The Secret of Sarah Siddons”; an “AMC Backstory” on the movie; promotional material created for Davis and Anne Baxter; Fox Movietone clips on the 1951 Academy Awards, the movie’s premiere and Look magazine awards; and collectible booklet.

Among this week’s other new Blu-ray arrivals are You’ve Got Mail, which, among previously added DVD features, includes the movie that inspired it, The Shop Around the Corner, on a separate disc; Pleasantville which shifted time periods and colors with equal dexterity; and “10,” the sexy Blake Edwards comedy that introduced men to a scoring system for hot women. as if they needed one, and the standard-setting beauty, Bo Derek. People forget how smart and funny the movie is, even when Bolero isn’t playing in the background. Dudley Moore and Julie Andrews are especially good as squabbling lovers.

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Which Way Home

Like Sin Nombre, which also was released in 2009, Rebecca Cammisa’s harrowing documentary, Which Way Home, tags along with several Central American kids as they make their way north from Central America, through Mexico and, with luck, to relatives living in the United States. The trek is difficult enough for adults to attempt, let alone for the many pre-teens who ride the rails with practically no luggage and less money.

To reach the promised land, the children risk predatory teen gangs, brutal cops, immigration officers and the elements. Those fortunate enough to reach the Rio Grande or southwestern desert crossings will be hunted by Border Patrol cruisers, right-wing vigilantes and hungry coyotes.

The sheer number of kids we see making the trip on the top of box cars borders on the staggering. The amazing thing about “Which Way Home” is the access Cammisa was accorded by the travelers, who, had they been born in the U.S., might have found work as actors in a sitcom. They’re that clever and demonstrative.

It’s difficult to see in the kids’ faces the satanic qualities attributed to them by rabid talk-show hosts, right-wing politicians and para-militarists who got a new gun for Christmas and want to test it on human prey. These are human beings who simply want to reunite with a family member and find work that pays something more than peanuts. The ones we meet here would love to have the opportunity to steal your job, but will settle for cleaning your toilets and ashtrays at the minimum wage.

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Red Hill: Blu-ray

I don’t know if Patrick Hughes’ blood-soaked contemporary western, Red Hill, qualifies as an example of Ozploitation, as defined in the raucous documentary Not Quite Hollywood, but it certainly looks the part. In addition to being set in a sleepy rural outpost, surrounded by scenic mountains and free-flowing streams, there are cops on horseback, a hell-bent gunslinger and a lynch mob waiting for a clear shot at an innocent man. The only truly virtuous character is a police officer named Shane (Ryan Kwanten), who, from day one, senses there’s something rotten in the Red Hill sheriff’s department. It isn’t long before Shane is wearing as big a target on his back as the escaped convict.

Aboriginal actor Tommy Lewis plays the vengeful Jimmy Conway, who was framed in the murder of his wife and sent to prison. Unafraid of any armed man, Conway heads directly to Red Hill, where he intends to act as judge, jury and executioner of the men who actually did the evil deed. The lawmen all look as if they’d shoot a mother crossing the street with a stroller, simply for the crime of straying outside the parallel lines of the crosswalk. Here, though, they’re easy targets for Conway’s bullets. The action is fast and furious, and the death toll is impressive. Genre fans will delight in its excesses, even if more timid souls are advised to steer clear of Red Hill.

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Braving Iraq: Blu-ray
Nature: Wolverine: Chasing the Phantom: Blu-ray
Nature: Revealing the Leopard: Blu-ray

Day in and day out, no one presents better nature documentaries than the ones shown on PBS. The network was among the first to commit to high-definition television, a technology that makes films shot in exotic locations shine.

Among the new DVD and Blu-ray titles released in almost simultaneously with their PBS airing is Braving Iraq, the rare nature film that doesn’t require its animal stars to copulate on screen. The show was shot in Iraq’s Mesopotamian Marshes, once the richest wildlife habitat in the Middle East. In a fit of political pique, Saddam Hussein drained the marshes to keep its human inhabitants from using it as a staging ground for attacks on his regime. American forces were ordered not to maintain a presence in the region, leaving Saddam free to destroy what some considered to be the site of the biblical Garden of Eden.

With the dictator finally out of power, one ambitious man made it his mission to restore the marshes to their former glory and make them the kind of place to which birds and animals would return. The title, Braving Iraq, refers both to creatures who stayed and the filmmakers who put themselves in harm’s way.

Its interesting to note that two of the most famous mascots in college sports — the wolverine and badger — no longer can be found in the wilds of Michigan and Wisconsin. Ferocious fighters, the animals share many other common traits, including genetic roots in the weasel family. The “Nature” episode, “Wolverine: Chasing the Phantom” goes to great lengths to locate the critters in their natural habitat and unlock some of their secrets. The results are amazing to watch.

Revealing the Leopard is another Nature production for PBS that goes to great lengths to increase our knowledge of leopards, a cat that enjoys a remarkably wide range but remains a mystery to researchers. This is largely because leopards are extremely secretive, elusive and not at all keen on being studied. The show travels from the Middle East and North Africa, to the island of Sri Lanka. Along the way, the cameras locate a mother leopard and her two cubs who don’t mind showing off a bit.

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Ronald Reagan: An American Journey
History: Jefferson
American Experience: Robert E. Lee

To mark the centennial of Ronald Reagan’s birth, Image Entertainment and Enduring Freedom Productions are releasing the feature-length bio-doc, An American Journey. It covers the events considered to be among our 40th President’s greatest political achievements and historical landmarks, with an emphasis on his tenure as California governor, his debates with then-President Jimmy Carter and candidate Walter Mondale, the assassination attempt and encounters with world leaders. The film doesn’t make the link between his administration’s economics policies and the current depression, but, then, why should it be any different than the Republicans who insist President Obama is responsible for something that began almost 30 years ago and exploded under the last GOP chief executive. An American Journey tells an interesting story, but you might want to resist the temptation to give it to Democratic friends on their birthday.

For them, I would recommend History’s two-hour biodoc, Jefferson. The endlessly fascinating founding father, Thomas Jefferson, may be one of the most well known of American statesmen, but, somehow, historians continue to dredge up new information about him. They also continue to dissect his many personal and political contradiction, not the least of which was his decision to own slaves.

Robert E. Lee is another historical figure who Americans think they know a lot about, but don’t. The “American Episode” documentary on his life puts a tight focus on his struggle to balance defending the principles of the Confederacy with his personal ideals and beliefs, and how the contradictions influenced his military strategies and psyche. The episode is short on visual stimulation, but the complexity of Lee’s ordeal are interesting enough to make the DVD worthwhile.
Other new political documentaries include, “What’s the Matter With Kansas,” which examines the many shifts in policy and attitude experienced by Kansans, all of whom reside at the geographical, if not political center of the U.S. PBS’ “Fixing the Future” attempts to make sense of the current economic malaise, while promoting ideas forwarded by everyday Americans.

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Still Bill
Tupac Uncensored and Uncut: The Lost Prison Tapes

How many times have you listened to a Bill Withers song on the radio and wondered about whatever became of the once exceedingly popular soul singer. Still Bill attempts to answer that very question and discover what’s been on his mind for the last 25 years. Before he began withdrawing from public view in the early 1980s, Withers enjoyed great crossover success with “Ain’t No Sunshine,” “Grandma’s Hands,” “Lean on Me,” “Use Me,” “Lovely Day” and “Just the Two of Us.” It took filmmakers Damnani Baker and Alex Vlack three years to convince Withers to open up and describe his relationship his family and music.

Fourteen years after his death, Tupac Shakur continues to turn out new material. Tupac Uncensored and Uncut: The Lost Prison Tapes contains a never-before-seen interview with the rapper, conducted at New York’s Clinton Correctional Facility, where he was incarcerated in a sexual-abuse beef. In the interview, Shakur discusses thug life, his legal problems, his relationship with his Black Panther mother and the African-American community at large.

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MI-5: Volume 8
Puppets Who Kill: The Best of Seasons 3 & 4

While viewers of Los Angeles’ public-television station, KCET, are being shown reruns from the second season of the British intelligence thriller MI 5 (a.k.a., “Spooks”), fans with access to a DVD player can enjoy eight seasons of the excellent BBC show. Between then and now, several key cast members have disappeared in ways not usually experienced by normal citizens.

In Season 8, much of the group’s time is spent trying to crush a cell of violent Indian nationalists and a conspiracy perpetrated by spies from a variety of nations to eliminate the world’s greatest threats on their own terms. The CIA isn’t portrayed as being particularly helpful to anyone, including our most prominent ally, Britain. Other noteworthy developments include the return of Ruth Evershed and Lucas North’s encounter with a Russian military officer who imprisoned and tortured him for eight years. The set adds demonstrations of a bombing sequence and the death by eight-story plunge of an American bureau chief.

The bawdy Canadian comedy series Trailer Park Boys and Puppets Who Kill are as funny as any sitcom I’ve watched in the United States lately. Their producers take for granted that the kiddies are tucked away in bed by 10 p.m. and that those adults left awake aren’t fearful of strong language, comic portrayals of sexual perversion and drug abuse, and alcoholic bozos.

Puppets Who Kill is set in a halfway house for felonious puppets, plush toys, dolls and ventriloquist dummies. Their case worker, who reminds me of the overweight gay men on Modern Family and Running Wilde, sees the good in his naughty residents, even when they’re conspiring to include him in their plots.

Adding to the show’s absurdity is the appearance of the incorrigible characters, which ranges from creepy to childish. They’ve been found guilty of murder and sex crimes, and dropped from kiddie shows for moral terpitude and violent mood swings. The case worker is only able to keep his job because he’s willing to work for practically and go to great lengths to solicite funding. As a unit, these are kind of neighbors you’d only wish on your worst enemies.

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Dead Space: Aftermath

I don’t suppose one has to be a fan of Electronic Arts’ video-game franchise Dead Space to enjoy the animated features spun off from game, but it probably helps. Without going into too much detail, Aftermath is set in 2509 on the USG O’Bannon, which has been devastated by some sinister deep-space force. Four crew members have survived the assault, but lack a common recollection of what happened.

Their stories are told in flashback sequences, each overseen by a different animation director. The colorfully drawn passages take full advantage of the images of blood and fury locked in the memories of the survivors, voiced by Gwendoline Yeo, Christopher Judge, Curt Cornelius and Ricardo Chavira. The release of Aftermath coincides with the release of the game, Dead Space 2.

One Response to “The DVD Wrap: Welcome to the Rileys, Conviction, No Tomorrow, A Woman, a Gun and a Noodle Shop, Let Me In and more …”

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“With any character, the way I think about it is, you have the role on the page, you have the vision of the director and you have your life experience… I thought it was one of the foundations of the role for John Wick. I love his grief. For the character and in life, it’s about the love of the person you’re grieving for, and any time you can keep company with that fire, it is warm. I absolutely relate to that, and I don’t think you ever work through it. Grief and loss, those are things that don’t ever go away. They stay with you.”
~ Keanu Reeves

“I was checking through stuff the other day for technical reasons. I came across The Duellists on Netflix and I was absolutely stunned to see that it was exquisitely graded. So, while I rarely look up my old stuff, I stopped to give it ten minutes. Bugger me, I was there for two hours. I was really fucking pleased with what it was and how the engine still worked within the equation and that engine was the insanity and stupidity of war. War between two men, in that case, who fight on thought they both eventually can’t remember the reason why. It was great, yeah. The great thing about these platforms now is that, one way or another, they’ll seek out and then put out the best possible form and the long form. Frequently, films get cut down because of that curse in which the studio felt or feels that they have to preview. And there’s nothing worse than a preview to diminish the original intent.Oh, yeah, how about every fucking time? And I’ve stewed about films later even more because when you tell the same joke 20 times the joke’s no longer funny. When you tell a bad joke once or twice? It’s fine. But come on, now. Here’s the key on the way I feel when I approach the movie: I try to keep myself as withdrawn from the project as possible once I’ve filmed it. And – this is all key on this – then getting a really excellent editor so I never have to sit in on editing. What happens if you sit in is you become stale and every passage or joke, metaphorically speaking, gets more and more tired. You start cutting it all back because of fatigue. So what you have to do is keep your distance and therefore, in a funny kind of way, you, as the director, should be the preview and that’s it.”
~ Sir Ridley Scott