Country Strong: Blu-ray
With the possible exception of her good friend, Madonna, it would be difficult to think of a more overexposed celebrity than Gwyneth Paltrow. The Kims, Chloes and GaGas of the world will continue to come and go, as long as the media pays attention to them. Madonna, Gwyneth and, even in death, continue to sell magazines, tickets and cosmetics. These are women with staying power.
Even if Gwyneth had accomplished nothing more in life than being recognized as the daughter of actor Blythe Danner and director Bruce Paltrow, she would be considered show-biz royalty and fair game for the celebrity-obsessed media. From the start, however, she demonstrated the natural poise, talent and marketability her peers could only dream of possessing. If she raised a sweat, it didn’t show. Paltrow’s engagement to Brad Pitt in the mid-’90s made headlines around the world, but it wasn’t until she starred in “Emma” and “Shakespeare in Love” that she was recognized for playing in the same league as her mom. She dated fellow Oscar-winner Ben Affleck before marrying rock superstar Chris Martin, a union that made her a larger-than-life personality on both sides of the pond. As a representative for Estee Lauder and fashion concerns in Spain and Korea, she’s continued to make herself available to every glossy magazine in need of a pretty blond face on its cover. Paltrow seems to feel right at home, as well, on TV talk shows and doing guest spots on such programs as “Saturday Night Life” and “Glee.”
In the weeks leading up to the release of “Country Strong,” Paltrow was a ubiquitous presence in the media. This time around, though, her handlers hoped to convince potential viewers that she could act and sing the part of a tarnished country-music diva. Using Faith Hill and Dolly Parton as models for her character’s popularity, Paltrow gives it her best shot as a singer who can tear down the house, no matter how big the venue. If only writer/director Shana Feste had invested in Paltrow’s Kelly Canter a bit more of Tammy Wynette or Tanya Tucker in the character, “Country Strong” might have been a more satisfying movie. They were country before country was cool and paid a stiff price for standing by their men. Feste demands that we take it on faith that Canter, freshly released from a stint in rehab for alcoholism, was the kind of Grammy-winning singer whose music and off-stage woes tugged at the heartstrings of millions of fans, like Judy, Marilyn, Liz and Tammy before her. But, while Paltrow makes us feel terribly sorry for Canter, the songs she’s given to sing are more suburban than country.
Otherwise, there isn’t much of a plot to “Country Strong,” beyond the obvious, “Can Kelly clean up her act?” Feste surrounds Canter on the comeback trail with aspiring singer/songwriter, Beau Hutton (Garrett Hedlund), an aspiring singer-songwriter and clinic worker who helped her get through rehab; former beauty queen and up-and-coming songbird, Chiles Stanton (Leighton Meester); and her inexplicably pushy husband/manager, James Canter (Tim McGraw, in a non-singing role). God knows, the world doesn’t need another remake of “A Star Is Born” or “All About Eve,” but, for “Country Strong” to succeed at the box offer, it would have had to hang its hat on something a stronger than this lyric from a Waylon Jennings song: “If you see me getting smaller, I’m leaving, don’t be grieving, just gotta get away from here. If you see me getting smaller, don’t worry, and no hurry, I’ve got the right to disappear.” Feste had the makings for a dandy psychodrama at her disposal, but apparently not the heart for one. There’s certainly nothing wrong with the movie’s production values, though. “Country Strong” is well-paced and the acting’s very good. Its fatal flaw is confusing the Nashville represented by Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge and the Grand Ol’ Opry, with the Nashville Inc. of Opryland and half-time shows at Tennessee Titans games.
The Sony Blu-ray package is generous with bonus features. They include a substantially different original ending; deleted scenes; the “Country Strong” soundtrack and interactive MovieIQ; an extended performance of “Shake That Thing”; making of featurettes, “Friends in High Places: The Cast of Country Strong,” “Putting the Words in Their Mouths: The Songwriters” and “A Little Bit Country: The Costumes”; and music videos of “Country Strong” and “A Little Bit Stronger,” by Paltrow and Sara Evans, respectively. – Gary Dretzka
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 1: Blu-ray
I’m going to go out on a limb here and assume that 99.9 percent of all people interested in renting or purchasing the first half of “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows,” on DVD or Blu-ray, already have memorized the previous six installments and are breathlessly awaiting “HPATDH, Part 2,” which opens in 3D on July 15. They’ll be there on opening weekend, hell or high water, no matter what critics might say. For the handful of newcomers out there, who might be tempted to see what’s causing all the fuss by leaping into the franchise at this late date, I say, “Yield not.” That’s because “HPATDH, Part I” won’t make any sense whatsoever to anyone unfamiliar with the J.K. Rowling canon. Lacking fundamental knowledge of the characters’ backgrounds, magical strengths and weaknesses, and narrative through-lines, it would be like judging the Corleones from the evidence presented in “Godfather III.” In a very real sense, we’ve adopted the kids educated at Hogwarts as our own, and fear, more than ever, what might lie ahead for them at the end of their journeys. The storm clouds have gathered and it’s time to put what they’ve learned to good use … and, of course, partake in the pleasures of adulthood before it’s too late. Parents should be aware, as well, of the many dark and threatening elements in “HPATDH,” which younger children and pre-teens surely could find unnerving. Eduardo Serra’s cinematography reflects director David Yates’ shadowy strategy, while James Mather’s sound editing accentuates the tumult in the action sequences. Not even longtime fans will gain anything from watching “Part I” on their iPhone or Droids. The bigger the screen, the more intense the experience will be.
The deluxe Blu-ray edition includes hi-def, standand and digital discs, as well as Warner’s Maximum Movie Mode, which provides picture-in-picture interviews, backgrounders, readings, trivia and “fun” facts; five additional featurettes on Disc Two; eight deleted scenes; a sneak peak of “Part 2”; a tour of Universal Orlando’s “The Wizarding World of Harry Potter” attraction with Rowling, Radcliffe and fellow castmates; a study of Alexandre Desplat’s score; and BD-Live functionality. That’s a lot of stuff. Judging from how the “LOTR,” “Alien” and “Avatar” DVDs were parceled out, though, I’d anticipate a super-duper “Harry Potter” Blu-ray collection – complete with more bonus features than one could count – to arrive next July. That’s just a guess, however. – Gary Dretzka
White Material: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
Le Cercle Rouge: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
Frequently, during the 102-minute length of “White Material,” I flashed on the European colonists we met previously in “White Mischief,” “Apocalypse Now Redux” and Claire Denis’ debut film, “Chocolat.” Later, I thought about the similarities between it and “Out of Africa,” if only because Isabelle Huppert, like Meryl Streep before here, plays a character who lives on a remote coffee plantation and is required to perform tasks usually assigned to a husband or estate manager. (I didn’t see any flamingos or lions in Denis’ movie, however.) The historical context for “Out of Africa” was quite different than what’s presented in “White Material.” A century ago, colonial interests were in firm control of the countries they exploited. In “White Material,” the tide has turned and native Africans are taking back the land – and the bounty harvested from it – either by purchase, coercion or deadly force. Like the jaded Brit snobs of “White Mischief” and ghostly French family holding out on a rubber plantation in Vietnam, Huppert’s Maria Vial believes she has as much right to the land as the dark-skinned men and women whose salaries she pays and in whose schools her son has studied. Take her out of Africa and she’s just another sad person who’s failed to make an impression on anyone.
After centuries of domination by tribal and colonial forces, the unnamed country in which “White Material” is set is up for grabs. The French are evacuating their citizens in advance of the anticipated clash of armed men, women and children who are anxious to rekindle ancient tribal hostilities and newer rivalries based on religion, economics and politics. Those fighting for control terrorize former friends and neighbors, as well as the ruling elite, with guns, machetes, flames and the threat of rape and mutilation, short of death. It’s clear Denis and her fellow writers, Marie N’Diaye and Lucie Borleteau, are using the viewers’ awareness of atrocities committed in the Congo, Rwanda and, now, the Ivory Coast, to accentuate the tension in “White Material.”
Denis relies on flashbacks to keep us guessing as to what’s happening at the plantation at any given moment during a chaotic 48-hour period. What we do know is that a rebel leader, known throughout the region as “The Boxer” (Isaach De Bankole, who also starred in “Chocolat”), has been wounded by government troops and has taken refuge in a shed at the plantation. He is also being hunted by a ruthless band of children, armed and supported by rebels disowned by the Boxer. Meanwhile, even though her workers have sought security elsewhere, Maria has deluded herself into believing that it’s still possible to salvage the coffee-bean crop and prepare it for sale through the normal channels of commerce. Huppert’s performance is so palpably fierce, it’s momentarily possible for us to ignore her diminutive physique and think she has a shot at accomplishing the impossible. Finally, though, we accept the very real possibility that Maria’s passion for the land – as well as memories of better times, long past — has literally driven her mad, and that she’s having the same effect on her son, ex-husband and former father-in-law, who actually was born on the plantation and would have liked to pass it on to her. The entire family had an opportunity to get out while the getting was good, but, finally, they’re imprisoned by Maria’s absurd belief that no one would want to do them harm. Also KIA is the Boxer’s dream of democratic reform.
Anyone who enjoys “White Material” ought to take the time to savor the bonus features available in the Criterion Collection package. Denis goes to great lengths to explain her choices as to the tone and texture of the film, as well as the difficulties of filming any movie on the continent, outside South Africa. (Cinematographer Yves Cape’s lighting equipment was inexplicably held up in customs for more than a month.) She also discusses the challenges of working without her regular cinematographer and confidante, Agnes Godard, who was shooting elsewhere, and re-interpreting the same source material – “The Grass Is Singing,” Doris Lessing’s first novel– she borrowed for “Chocolat.” The Blu-ray also adds fresh interviews with Denis, Huppert and De Bankolé; a short documentary on the film’s premiere at the Écrans Noirs Film Festival, in Cameroon, where the movie was shot; a key deleted scene; and booklet featuring a new essay by Amy Taubin.
Also new to Blu-ray, from the good folks at Criterion, is Jean-Pierre Melville’s thrilling 1970 crime drama, “Le Cercle Rouge,” a noir in sheep’s clothing. Shot in color, the policier is as cool as any of the great American and French noirs. You can feel the chill of being caught in the shadows of moral ambiguity, even if the cinematographer wasn’t able to employ the same lightning tricks associated with the genre. As in previous Melville thrillers, the actions of the cops and robbers are allowed to speak for themselves. Their world is different than the one inhabited by regular citizens. Melville’s characters seem as uncomfortable working in the light of day as a bookkeeper might feel on a subway platform, alone, after midnight. Here, Alain Delon plays a newly released convict who almost immediately puts himself on a mob boss’ shit list, by stealing the money he believes the guy owes him for not ratting him out at his trial. On his way back to Paris to participate in a jewel heist engineered by conspirators better at planning than executing crimes, Corey inadvertently crosses paths with a ruthless prison escapee, Vogel (Gian Maria Volonte). The dragnet deployed for Vogel’s arrest makes the trip more dangerous than it normally would be for Corey, but their instant, unstated bond pays a big dividend, as well. By the time the heist is set into motion, the two desperados practically think and act as one person. So, too, will Jansen (Yves Montand), a disgraced ex-cop and marksman going through withdrawal from alcohol addiction. (We watch in horror as Jansen is attacked by the imaginary vermin and reptiles that terrorize people experiencing DTs.) Melville also gives the local gendarmes their due, by treating the detectives with respect and forgiving some of the sins they commit while performing their duties. Street-level experience has taught them whose buttons to push for information and what reasonably can be exchanged for cooperation. With so many of the characters – including the police on Vogel’s trail – stewing in the juices of desperation, greed and deceit, it doesn’t long before the pressure cooker threatens to explode.
Even 40 years after its initial release, “Le Cercle Rouge” is as enthralling a crime story as you’re likely to find in theaters or the local video emporium. The re-mastered color scheme makes it look surprisingly fresh and modern, without diminishing any of Melville’s noir conceits. And, with the restoration of 40 minutes of footage cut for the original American release, it provides a full evening’s worth of entertainment. The bonus package retains the extras included in Criterion’s 2003 DVD, including interviews with Melville and associates of the director; 30 minutes of on-set footage; vintage trailers; and a booklet featuring essays by critics Michael Sragow and Chris Fujiwara, excerpts from “Melville on Melville,” a reprinted interview with composer Eric Demarsan, and an appreciation from director John Woo. – Gary Dretzka
The Incredibles: Blu-ray
Anyone who enjoys the ABC series “No Ordinary Family,” but hasn’t already seen Pixar’s “The Incredibles,” is missing something truly wonderful. Released in 2004, the animated feature told the story of a suburban family of five that’s harboring a deep dark secret. For the past 15 years, Bob and Helen Parr (a.k.a., Mr. Incredible and Elastigirl) have been forced to live “normal” lives in Metroville. Public displays of superheroism have been outlawed by authorities concerned over the shoddy performances turned in by some underachieving crime fighters and the price paid by innocent bystanders. The fun begins when the Parr children begin exhibiting superpowers of their own and Syndrome, a former rival of Mr. Incredible, threatens to destroy the world. As the elder Incredibles prepare to snap back into action, however, it’s clear the passage of time has done them no favors. It’s a problem that will be familiar to any man or woman of a certain age who decides to put on a softball uniform or take up yoga after 15 years of inactivity. It’s appropriate, because much of writer/director Brad Bird’s (“The Iron Giant,” “Ratatouille”) humor is targeted directly at the Boomer and post-Boomer demographic.
The four-disc Blu-ray package is loaded with extras, including separate commentaries with Bird and producer John Walker, and a roomful of animators; a new roundtable discussion with other members of the “Incredibles” team; the animated shorts, “Boundin’” and “ Jack-Jack Attack,” with commentary; deleted scenes, in hi-def; a tour of Syndrome’s island lair; profiles of Pixar team members; and several making-of featurettes, some from earlier DVD editions; a basket full of “Easter eaggs”; publicity material; an interactive art gallery; and, for Disney Rewards members, a free movie voucher for “Cars 2.” – Gary Dretzka
For more than a half-century, documentarians Bruce, Dana and Wes Brown have made movies about surfing and the men and women who ride the boards for fun and profit. Indeed, paterfamilias, Bruce, pretty much invented the surf genre, in 1958, with “Slippery When Wet” and a series of action/travel documentaries intended specifically for the enjoyment of SoCal surf buffs. (Warren Miller had already begun turning out extreme-skiing adventures.) Viewers would whoop and holler enthusiastically whenever a particularly spectacular wave was ridden or the ride ended with a bone-crushing wipeout. Oahu’s North Shore had yet to become a mecca for hard-core surfers and Brian Wilson was hoping merely to achieve a fraction of the success as his heroes, the Four Freshmen. Eight years later, Brown’s “The Endless Summer” would integrate images of extreme wave riding, with jargon-happy dialogue and jangly guitar music. Not only was it a huge international sensation, but, for better or worse, “Endless Summer” opened the gates to sports tourism in Hawaii.
Forty years later, son Dana Brown made a name for himself as writer/director/editor/producer of “Step Into Liquid,” during which we watch experienced surfers ride monster waves at the Cortez Banks, a submerged mountain range 115 miles west of San Diego; the remote island of Rapa Nui (a.k.a., Easter Island); Mavericks, on California’s central coast; and Australia. Brown also found kindred spirits in such unexpected places as Wisconsin, Ireland, the shipping lanes of the Gulf of Mexico and in Vietnam.
Dana’s new surfing adventure finds him in familiar haunts along the fabled North Shore, where his love for the sport and filmmaking was shaped by his dad and the first wave of bushy, blond expatriates from Australia and southern California. The area has changed significantly since the 1960s, rarely for the betterment of surfing. The best athletes now turn can turn pro and reap the benefits of endorsements and a world-tour circuit, but million-dollar homes now have encroached on the best beaches and traffic jams are common sights on the roads and waves. “Highwater” not only gives longtime residents an opportunity to discuss those changes, but to reflect, as well, on how the surfing community has maintained the same laid-back attitude and concern for the sanctity of the sport and the ocean. The documentary’s centerpiece is the annual Triple Crown of Surfing, which is comprised of three separate competitions, at Sunset Beach, Pipeline and Haleiwa Alii Beach. Brown takes the up-close-and-personal approach with the competitors, who include the top big-wave surfers in the world and cream of the women’s tour, as well as next-generation stars and local eccentrics. “Highwater” is fun and extremely easy on the eyes, especially in the sparkling Blu-ray edition. – Gary Dretzka
The Walking Dead Girls
The Worst Horror Movie Ever Made
Frankenstein: A Film by Creep Creepersin
The Inheritance: Blu-ray
It may be difficult to imagine in these ghoul-infested times, but two of the most prominent landmarks in undead cinema – Jacques Tourneur and Val Lewton’s “I Walked With a Zombie” and George Romero’s “The Night of the Living Dead” – were separated by a quarter-century of mostly zombie-free horror. Today, of course, it’s impossible to walk more than two blocks without being reminded of the growing menace to society, thanks to billboards for such movies as “Zombieland” and TV’s “The Walking Dead.” Apparently, too, zombies no longer are a by-product of Haitian voodoo practices, alone, as they tend to multiply anywhere human flesh is on the menu. “The Walking Dead Girls” is a bargain-basement documentary on the phenomenon, short on real insight and history, but long on the contributions of scream queens and other ancillary stuff. Most of the footage appears to have been shot at the fan convention, ZomBcon 2010, where it must have been easy to find people disguised as decomposing corpses and flocks of “sexy female zombies” (a.k.a., “zombie bimbos” or “zimbies”). The film also includes interviews with directors Romero; actors Bruce Campbell, Terry Alexander and John Amplas; and the reflections of scream queens Linnea Quigley, Ellen Sandweiss, Betsy Baker and Theresa Tilly. The doc wouldn’t pass muster in any film-history class, but fans should find something to enjoy.
It takes a lot of chutzpah to title your movie, “The Worst Horror Movie Ever Made,” considering how many really terrible genre flicks have been produced and distributed over the past century. As bad as it truly is, though, “TWHMEM” isn’t even the worst horror movie I’ve seen this month. The made-for-DVD option has opened the floodgates for truly inferior movies to enter the marketplace. While it’s accurate to say Bill Zelub’s movie is crudely made, poorly acted and weighted with humor designed to offend anyone with a brain and conscience, I’d be lying if I didn’t admit to laughing at some of the distasteful gags or welcome the distraction of make-out sessions between skanky vampire lesbians. No, it would take more than a few crummy crucifixion jokes to qualify as the worst anything in cinema history. (In “Bananas,” remember, Woody Allen dreamt about being carried on a cross through the streets of New York and having his parking space stolen by a rival procession of penitents, so we already know that subject is no longer taboo.)
Here, the insanity begins during a poker game, when a man with an ax attacks players and hookers seeking relief in a fart-fumed bathroom. Another woman, in her underwear, of course, is wounded by cards flung at her face. Police arrive shortly thereafter, prompting the couple who own the house to split the scene. On the way out of town, they encounter all manner of horror-movie archetypes and monsters. These characters are grotesque to a fault. For my taste, or lack thereof, the most depraved scene had the male desperado performing an abortion, using a laser gun, inside the womb of his naked wife, who’s digested a compound that’s made her 100-feet tall, or more, depending on the angle of the camera. Because she has the world’s worst annoying Dutch accent and is wearing dime-store lingerie, we don’t actually feel that much sympathy for her. Also included in the set is Zebub’s previous messterpiece, the even worse “Assmonster,” interviews and extended dance and sex scenes with the skanks.
Creep Creepersin (a.k.a., Skrotar the Conqueror) is the auteur responsible for such memorable titles, at least, as “Caged Lesbians A-Go-Go,” “Vaginal Holocaust” and “The Corporate Cut Throat Massacre.” While designated a work of horror, his take on “Frankenstein” owes far less to Mary Shelley, than “Charly,” “The Green Mile,” “Of Mice and Men” and other movies in which a troubled man befriends a rodent. Here, Victor (James Porter) is a socially inept slacker who spends most his time watching old horror movies on TV and reading to his pet rat, Frankenstein. Apart from the rat, the first indication of trouble ahead for Victor comes when the movie images overlap with transmissions he believes to be from his dead mother. Before long, he endeavors to create another, quite different friend. I half-expected “Frankenstein” would be just another candidate for “worst horror movie ever made,” but became quite taken by the story, Porter’s performance and Creepersin’s technique. It comes with a too-long making-of featurette.
I wasn’t expecting to find an appearance by the undead in “The Inheritance,” but, like I said, they’re everywhere. In Robert O’Hara’s freshman feature, the descendants of five families that have been close since before the Emancipation Proclamation – along with a pair of token whites, killed early in the movie – are called to a large country home in the dead of winter to discuss their inheritances. After a night of hardy partying, the “cousins” are awakened by elder relatives anxious to explain the fine points of their families’ history together. Instead of the fortune they expected, the cousins learn of a 200-year-old curse and a debt owed to an escaped slave named Chakabazz.
O’Hara blends several time-honored horror conceits in the service of one story. “The Inheritance” is equal parts ghost story, slasher and woman-in-danger flick, Agatha Christie countdown, and locked-door thriller. Chakabazz needs to impregnate a woman, so that his legacy can be extended to another generation of undead progeny. If the setup sounds goofy, so do the plots of 90 percent of the horror movies that go straight to DVD. Working in the movie’s favor, however, is a veteran cast of very good actors (Keith David, Rochelle Aytes, D.B. Woodside, Novella Nelson, Lanre Idewu, Andre De Shields) and solid production values. I don’t think I’ll include it in my next Black History Month roundup, but as guilty pleasures go, it ain’t bad. – Gary Dretzka
Dirty Mary Crazy Larry/Race With the Devil
Roger Corman’s Action-Packed Collection
The latest installment in the ongoing march of refurbished Roger Corman “cult classics” to DVD should be greeted with great enthusiasm by aficionados of car chases, fiery explosions and state-of-the-art stunt work, circa 1975. (If there was one thing all graduates of the Corman School of Advanced Filmmaking learned before being sent out in the world, it was how to stage a car chase on the cheap.) In addition to the paired Peter Fonda vehicles, “Dirty Mary Crazy Larry” and “Race With the Devil,” there’s a second set containing “Georgia Peaches,” “The Great Texas Dynamite Chase” and “Smokey Bites the Dust.”
The Fonda package is noteworthy (and highly recommendable) for the presence of two very good actors, Warren Oates and Vic Morrow, who shared an unusually circumstantial demise: both died in the same year, 1982, at the unexpectedly early age of 53. When “Race With the Devil” was being filmed, Oates was just coming into his own as an actor not limited to character roles. He died of a heart attack. Morrow was killed in a freak accident on a movie set. He made a big splash in his debut as a crazed juvenile delinquent in “Blackboard Jungle,” but his marquee character would be Sgt. Chip Saunders, in “Combat!” In “DMCL,” Morrow plays a jaded lawman, on an unholy crusade to bring down the former NASCAR driver, Larry (Fonda), and his blond moll, Mary (Susan George), as they carve a path through the Southwest in a 1969 Dodge Charger. As Larry and Mary leave dozens of cops and Highway Patrol officers in their dusty wake, Morrow takes to the air in a helicopter to get a bird’s-eye view of the situation and choreograph the chase.
In “Race With the Devil,” Fonda and Oates play motorcycle nuts and best friends, who hit the road in a large mobile home for a bit of R&R with their wives (Lara Parker, Loretta Swit). At the first place they stop for the night, the couples witness the murder of a young woman at the hands of coven of Satanists. Once the vacationers are spotted, the movie-long chase begins. The problem, of course, is that everyone within a 50-mile radius of the campground is in cahoots with the cult members. And, yes, watching a Winnebago attempt to escape Satanists on motorcycles and police vehicles is an uncommon blast.
“The Great Texas Dynamite Chase!” is a lot of fun, as well. In a typically outrageous Corman conceit, a pair of beautiful young women – one an escaped con, the other a teller at the first bank she robs – become the target of an extensive pursuit up and down, backward and forward, throughout the Lone Star State. The late, great Claudia Jennings, a former Playboy centerfold who would die in an automobile accident in 1979, plays the TNT-toting Candy, while Jocelyn Jones plays her look-alike, built-alike companion, Ellie Jo. The ladies aren’t the world’s most accomplished thieves, but they make enough money to stay on the lam for quite a while. In a Corman movie, women characters take off their clothes as often as they go to the beauty salon, and “Great Dynamite Chase” is full of essential – er, gratuitous – nudity. If she had lived, Jennings, Dorothy Stratten and Shannon Tweed might have combined on a hell of a sequel to “Charlie’s Angels.” With another prominent addition to the cast, it could have been titled, “Hef’s Angels.”
As if the stars of “TGTDC!” needed another excuse to disrobe, they seduce a buff explosives retailer and pick up a rodeo cowboy played by former Mouseketeer and child star Johnny Crawford (“The Rifleman”) for additional sexual hijinks. Despite being 35 years old, “Great Dynamite Chase” remains an entertaining diversion.
“Georgia Peaches” (a.k.a., “Follow That Car”) is a “Dukes of Hazard” knock-off produced as a made-for-TV movie and pilot for a possible series. Tanya Tucker and Terri Nunn plays sisters who run an auto repair shop by day and sing in a honky-tonk at night. Dirk Benedict portrays a moonshine runner, who, after being busted by the feds, agrees to work undercover for them to bring down a gang run by a svelte and gorgeous Sally Kirkland. Since it was intended for TV, “Georgia Peaches” is devoid of any nudity and cussing. Why bother? Tucker would go on to enjoy a long career as a top country-music performer, while Wells became lead singer of Berlin and Kirkland would be nominated for an Oscar in 1988, for “Anna.”
“Smokey Bites the Dust” is one long chase that goes nowhere. Although audiences probably were expected to confuse it with Burt Reynolds’s “Smokey and the Bear” franchise, that charade probably didn’t fool anyone at the drive-in. It involves naughty Southern teens who are in constant trouble with a cornpone sheriff. Teen heartthrob Jimmy McNichol was the marquee name, with an early appearance by the great character actor, William Forsythe. Producer Gale Anne Hurd would recover from this debacle by going on to write and produce the “Terminator” films, and produce a couple dozen other blockbusters. That’s Corman’s real legacy. – Gary Dretzka
A Summer in Genoa
Michael Winterbottom and Francois Ozon are two of the most prolific and versatile filmmakers in the world. Just when you think you’ve spotted a trend in their choices, they make a movie that’s as different from their previous offerings as it could be. Among Winterbottom’s recent titles are “The Killer Inside Me,” “A Mighty Heart,” “The Road to Guantanamo,” “Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story,” “9 Songs,” “24 Hour Party People” and “Wonderland.” There are our others. Since coming to the attention of the arthouse crowd with “Criminal Lovers” and “Water Drops on Burning Rocks,” Ozon has defied expectations by making such confections as “8 Women” and “Potiche”; the psychological thrillers, “Swimming Pool” and “Under the Sand”; the romantic period melodrama, “Angel”; the story of an unpleasant young man, dying of cancer, “Time to Leave”; “Hideaway,” in which an emotionally conflicted young woman decides to have the baby of her dead, junkie boyfriend; and “5 X 2,” a segmented drama about the evolution (and eventual devolution) of one couple’s relationship. Ozon’s films examine the permutations and complications of contemporary family life, with an eye for square-peg characters (often gay), who bear close attention and examination.
One of the characteristics of any Winterbottom movie is the close attention paid to the often mundane realities of everyday life. Sometimes, as is the case in “A Summer of Genoa,” he seems to invite viewers to crawl under the skin of his characters and bear witness to their joy, pain and anxiety from a distance usually reserved for lovers and proctologists. Having such intimate knowledge of someone else’s most personal details can be an extremely discomfiting experience, especially when the grindingly slow pace of the movie demands too much reflection. In “A Summer in Genoa,” recent Oscar-winner Colin Firth plays a college professor, Joe, required to help his daughters deal with the death of their mother in an automobile accident. To lessen the immense pain of her sudden loss, the Chicagoan decides to accept a position at a college in Genoa, Italy, where his family won’t be constantly be fussed over and pitied. The strategy works, but only to a point. When the older daughter discovers the charms of teenage Italian boys, she tortures her dad by testing the limits of the freedom she’s allowed. For her part, the youngest daughter begins to blame herself for causing the accident in which her mother (Hope Davis) was killed, yet she survived. She’s visited by her mother’s ghost, at night, and sees her in unexpected places during the day. Meanwhile, Joe is feeling urges of his own, as he grows closer to an old college friend (Catherine Keener) and meets a charming Italian woman at the beach. Despite the estimable presence of Firth, Keener and Hope, “A Summer in Genoa” found almost no exposure in the U.S. Sure, Winterbottom takes his time getting his characters to the place he wants them to be, but, sometimes, important events in the life of a family don’t happen as quickly and predictably as they do in Hollywood. For me, the movie works as much as a travelogue – the Italian scenery is gorgeous – as a story about a father and his daughter learning to cope with loss, love and guilt. Firth’s newly acquired fan base, as well as longtime admirers, will dig it simply for his presence. And, that’s understandable, too.
Anyone fascinated by the scenes in “Black Swan,” in which the prima ballerina appears to be sprouting real wings, will love Ozon’s “Ricky.” Those who were creeped out, however, will definitely want to take a pass. The title character is the infant child of a French woman and Spanish man who work in the same factory and move in together after sharing a few intimate moments in the men’s room during smoke breaks. At the time, Katie is a single mother, whose 7-year-old clings to the notion that her birth father will someday reappear at the door of their apartment. Instead, the girl is dismayed to find Paco sharing breakfast one morning with mom. Nine months later, Katie and Paco (Alexandra Lamy, Sergi Lopez) bring home from the hospital a baby boy who can’t seem to stop crying. The reason for Ricky’s unhappiness becomes obvious when Katie discovers large bruises on his back. She instinctively accuses Paco of abusing Ricky, but, in fact, wings are trying to break through the child’s skin. By the time she realizes this, however, Paco has accepted Katie’s invitation to leave, before she calls the cops.
What happens next needn’t be revealed in a review. Suffice it to say, the wings are fully operational and, being a baby, Ricky has yet to gain full control of his otherworldly talent. “Ricky” doesn’t play out as a comedy or drama, however. Adapted from Rose Tremain’s “Moth,” a short story set in an American trailer park, the movie is a magical-realist parable with overtly religious overtones. Love it or hate it, “Ricky” is another Ozon movie that will stay in the mind for a very long time. I shudder to think what a Hollywood remake might look like. Incidentally, “Ricky” and “Black Swan” aren’t the only recent movies in which a character sprouts wings. Fetishists may already know that Tim Roth plays one in Annabel Jankel’s strangely compelling “Skellig: The Owl Man,” which was based on an award-winning novel by David Almond. – Gary Dretzka
Philip Ridley, the writer/director of this stylish psycho/horror/thriller, hasn’t made a feature film since 1995, when fans of “The Passion of Darkly Noon” and “The Reflecting Skin” were just getting excited about his potential. The London native had already enjoyed success as a playwright, novelist, photographer, songwriter, artist and screenwriter (“The Krays”), so a move toward directing was pretty much a foregone conclusion. Even though his movies were accorded almost no distribution in the U.S. – despite all-star casts — they found some traction among arthouse audiences attracted to psychological thrillers and discomfiting fantasies. For the past 15 years, Ridley has focused on his children’s novels, art and plays. That’s the nice thing about being a Renaissance man: there’s always something to do.
“Heartless” combines elements of horror, psycho-drama and surrealist fantasy in the service of a story about otherworldly demons terrorizing London. In it, Jim Sturgess (“21,” “Across the Universe”) plays a photographer born with a large, heart-shaped port-wine-stain birthmark on his face. It has causes him to be more of an observer of society than a participant, and London society is literally going to hell in a hand basket. The demonic plague pushes him toward taking dramatic action to contain the threat and making a deal with the devil to cure his skin condition. This opens the door to even more fantastical mayhem, however. Ridley gives viewers a lot to digest – or, perhaps, regurgitate — and his conceits may be considered too artsy-fartsy for horror snobs, but, at least, he’s trying to expand the genre. – Gary Dretzka
Year of the Carnivore
Let’s Talk About Sex
I don’t know if “kooky” means anything to people too young to remember “77 Sunset Strip,” but, since the authoritative Urban Dictionary offers several definitions, let’s assume it does. In the definitively kooky rom-com, “Year of the Carnivore,” a sex-starved and possibly food-starved young woman is required to don bizarre costumes to nab shoplifters at a large grocery store. Sammy (Cristin Milioti) has no trouble sneaking up on culprits and turning them in to her boss, although she does exhibit some concern over his need to kick the crap out of them before unceremoniously tossing them out the door. At night, Sammy goes to clubs, listens to music and worries about her future, just like everyone else in the B.C. hipster scene. She develops a crush on a bushy-haired guy, whose day job is busking outside the supermarket. At night, he plays a mean guitar in a rock band. When they finally hit the sack together, Eugene’s turned off by her tendency to giggle loudly and crunch her skinny body into weird shapes when he touches her. They’re manifestations of her limited sexual experience and poor self-image, of course, but the carrot-topped musician is in no mood to play psychiatrist. Still, they like each other and decide to stay friends, while Sammy tries to work out her ticklish problem and Eugene finds more stable sexual company in groupies.
Desperate to find a way to have sex and not break out in fits of laughter, Sammy experiments on men she catches shoplifting. Instead of turning them over to her boss, she takes them to the nearby woods, ties them to a tree and demands they screw her. Is that rape? Maybe, maybe not, but it sure is a kooky response to a bizarre neurosis. Miraculously, Milioti’s infectious charm, along with writer/director Sook-Yin Lee’s light touch at the controls, turns what could have been an un-releasable indie disaster into an offbeat romantic-comedy for smart, young adult audiences. Although “Year of the Carnivore” didn’t find any distribution outside Canada, I think any fan of “Desperately Seeking Susan,” “Amelie,” “Amy’s Orgasm,” “Party Girl,” “The Oh in Ohio,” or anything with Parker Posey, will be able to find something to like in Lee’s film, too.
At first glance, the box containing “Let’s Talk About Sex” makes it look less like a documentary about sex education, than every other PG-13 rom-com released in the last 15 years, and therefore, part of the problem discussed in the film. That would be the ever-rising tide of teen pregnancy – unwanted or otherwise – along with the proliferation of STDs associated with coming of sexual age and/or promiscuity. Also troublesome to many teens is the notion, promulgated in Hollywood rom-coms and such TV shows as “90210” and “Gossip Girl,” that to be considered fashionable, sophisticated and/or cool, one also is required to drink alcohol excessively, ingest “E” or ’shrooms, and put out sexually. Freshman documentary maker and fashion photographer James Houston takes a reasonably objective stance in the debate between advocates of abstinence and those promoting increased sex education, the ready availability of condoms and frank discussions between adults and teens. He gives partisans their say, while also comparing how sex education and issues relating sexual maturation are handled in other countries and cultures, as well as religious leaders of various stripes. In doing so, Houston reveals the flaws in the abstinence-only movement (kids tend to lie to their parents and preachers about their true intentions on staying “pure” and, lacking basic knowledge about safe sex, are even more prone to becoming pregnant or catching a disease), while also arguing that the benefits of condoms can be trumped by ignorance, laziness and lust. There’s nothing so offensive in “Let’s Talk About Sex” that it wouldn’t make for appropriate viewing at a PTA meeting and other groups that truly concerned about the welfare of today’s youth. Neither is a movie that teens would be too embarrassed to watch with their parents. As ice-breakers for further discussion go, this one is effective and painless. – Gary Dretzka
Whitney Cummings: Money Shot
If you’re a fan of Comedy Central roasts, you’re already aware of Whitney Cummings. She’s the attractive brunette who sits in the back row of the dais and often is ribbed for not being more famous. It’s not for lack of trying, however. Cummings is a regular on the talk-show circuit – two dozen appearances on “Chelsea Lately,” alone – and often makes guest appearances in TV series and works behind the camera, as a writer. If there’s one thing holding her back from wider popularity, it’s probably her facial resemblance to Sarah Silverman. In the boy’s club that is standup comedy, there’s usually only room for one woman of every stripe. Like Silverman and the more physically robust Lisa Lampanelli, Cummings isn’t afraid to turn the air blue with her bawdy observations and R-rated language. Unlike Silverman, though, she doesn’t attempt to deflect the often horrified response of the audience members with a demure smile and a “you know I didn’t really mean to be cruel” gesture. “Money Shot” is 48 minutes of balls-out monology — if you’ll pardon the oxymoron — overflowing with sharp takes on the shortcomings of her male companions and men, in general. They’re funny, no matter the side of the gender divide on which you reside. They are genuinely nasty, though, so don’t say you weren’t warned. – Gary Dretzka
The Speed of Thought
As portrayed by the chronically earnest Nick Stahl, Joshua Lazarus is a telepath’s telepath in a world populated by people who not only can read other people’s minds, but also get inside them, knock down walls and conduct conversations with their inner selves and those of others. Like the mutant children in the “X-Men” saga, Lazarus was taken from his parents at a tender age and raised in a foster home with other psychic children. The government agency in charge of the foster home has ulterior motives for its largesse and they’re not altruistic. To keep Stahl on the reservation, his handlers have convinced him that his brand of telepathy is a side effect of a disease that will make go insane over time and, so, it makes no sense wasting time challenging their directives. Not surprisingly, a couple of hottie telepaths (Mia Maestro, Taryn Manning) do their best to convince him otherwise. There isn’t much else beyond the actors, themselves, to recommend “The Speed of Thought.” Erik Palladino, Blair Brown and Wallace Shawn somehow also were persuaded to come along for the ride. With several more millions of dollars to spend on CGI, there have might been enough sci-fi substance here to justify the effort. – Gary Dretzka
Goodnight for Justice
The Hallmark Channel produced “Goodnight for Justice,” knowing that a large percentage of its regular viewers bemoan the absence of newly made, but distinctly traditional Westerns on television and in the movies. With Jason Priestly and Luke Perry on board as leading man and director, respectively, the company also knew they were dealt a pretty good hand. “Goodnight for Justice” won’t make anyone forget “Gunsmoke” or “The Outlaw Josey Wales,” but it’s baked from most of the same ingredients as those classics. Indeed, if anyone was interested in mounting a new Western series, hiring the Priestly/Perry team would be a good way to start. Being a product of a family-oriented cable network, “Goodnight for Justice” probably is far too tame and self-consciously liberal to satisfy either old- or new-school genre enthusiasts. That isn’t to say, it’s short on gunplay, because there’s plenty of it here. It’s just that the movie wear its liberality on its sleeve and there are too few new twists to old clichés.
Shortly after we first meet Perry’s character, his parents and a brave circuit-rider judge are gunned down by outlaws who’ve chased down the stagecoach in which they’re riding. The boy is spared and subsequently raised by the judge’s wife. Flash-forward 20 or 30 years and the boy’s grown up to be a lawyer and a bit of lush. In lieu of being disbarred, John Goodnight agrees to become a judge in the very same territory as the one in which his parents were killed. This leads to some predictable confrontations with the local authorities, whose idea of a good time is dragging Indians, Mexicans and former slaves down Main Street on Saturday Night. The town’s largest landowner is a racist pig, who may or may not have been associated with the bandits who killed Goodnight’s folks. He also meets a pretty young woman (Lara Gilchrist) who’s probably too perfect for him to be true. You can connect the dots from there. The DVD adds a making-of featurette and interviews with the Priestly, Perry and Gilchrist. – Gary Dretzka
Car 54, Where Are You: Complete First Season
Several of the most forgettable movies ever made in Hollywood have been adapted from very classic television series. Sadly, this broad generalization applies to Nat Hiken’s, “The Phil Silvers Show” (a.k.a, “Sgt. Bilko”) and “Car 54, Where Are You?” Both of the shows were laugh-out-loud funny in their day and remain so decades later. Anyway, who could forget characters named Duane Doberman, Gunther Toody and Leo Schnauser? Then, too, at a time when most shows were as plain as Wonder Bread, Hiken’s shows benefitted from having large ensemble casts that were racially and ethnically diverse. If “Car 54” isn’t as well known as “The Phil Silvers Show,” it’s only because of the sheer force of Silvers’ personality in the lead role of his show and the fact that “Car 54”only lasted two seasons on NBC. (Hiken rejected the network’s demand he split revenues 50/50 with it.) The new boxed set from Shanachie contains all 30 episodes of the first season (1961) and a discussion with two of the cast members, hosted by Robert Klein.
“Car 54” chronicles the careers of a Mutt-and-Jeff team of New York City cops, Toody and Muldoon (Joe E. Ross, Fred Gwynne), who’ve been partners for nine years and whose overall ineptness more often than works in their favor. Less stage-bound than “Bilko,” the action move from 53rd Precinct headquarters, to the apartments and bedrooms of various officers, neighborhood stores and the Bronx Parkway. Being 1961, it was possible to portray law-breakers as comical sorts, who did more harm to themselves than to their victims, and not look naïve or unsympathetic to victims of crime. (The hour-long police dramas of the Golden Age, also set primarily in New York, were anything but comedic.) Drugs and racial violence weren’t yet in the equation, at least not in sitcoms, and neither were women cops, although Hiken created interesting roles for such still-familiar faces as Charlotte Rae, Beatrice Pons, Ruth Masters, Alice Ghostly, Sheri Lewis, Margaret Hamilton, Molly Picon and Maureen Stapleton. (Look for hilarious guest appearances by Jan Murray, Wally Cox and Jake La Motta.) Moreover, the actors weren’t required to disguise their regional accents with the generic American disc-jockey voice, as most are required to do now (unless they’re British and it’s somehow OK to be different). Thanks to a front-to-back restoration — using the only known set of 35mm fine-grain prints — the episodes look as crisp as they could possibly be after a 50-year hiatus. – Gary Dretzka
BBC Tudors Collection
Dallas: The Movie Collection
The Third Reich: Rise & Fall
In an unusual twist of television fate, BBCAmerica now is showing repeats of Showtime’s terrific period mini-series, “The Tudors,” which focused entirely on the reign of Henry VIII. One needn’t be in possession of a degree in English to know that Henry VII was the first of six Tudor monarchs, who reigned from 1485 to 1603, so there was plenty more Tudor history left to mine. The 12-disc “BBC Tudors Collection” is comprised of three separate mini-series based on the Tudors dynasty – “The Shadow of the Tower,” “The Six Wives of Henry VIII,” “Elizabeth R” – which aired from 1970-72. None is a tenth as sexy as the Showtime mini-series, which ran for four seasons, but the acting is every bit as exceptional and the production values are top-shelf. Among the actors represented are Glenda Jackson, James Maxwell, Norma West, Keith Mitchell and Robert Hardy. It’s worth the price of admission just to see Jackson in her prime, as Elizabeth I, and be able to compare her portrayal with those of Cate Blanchett, Laoise Murray, Anne-Marie Duff, Helen Mirren and Miranda Richardson, among other actresses.
Larry Hagman portrayed the American equivalent to Henry VIII, J.R. Ewing, for 14 seasons and in a bunch of made-for-TV movies, with another to come in 2013. The larger-than-life oil titan was the equal of any 20th Century political leader, including those commanding the Allied forces in World War II, and every bit as slick as Ronald Reagan. His power plays, double-crosses, collapses and resurrections were the stuff of legend and opened the door for the “Greed is good” era on Wall Street. The titles in the new “Dallas: The Movie Collection” include “The Early Years,” “J.R. Returns,” “War of the Ewings” and “The Return to Southfork.” They’re not world-beaters when it comes to filmed entertainment, but a little bit of J.R. goes a long way with fans of the series.
History’s two-part, four-hour special presentation, “Third Reich,” draws as broad a portrait of Nazi Germany, before and after World War II, as would seem possible in a popular-media format. In “The Rise,” we’re reminded of the political, social and cultural forces that made fascism an attractive option for a people whose economy was devastated by the treaty that ended World War I. The producers’ intention was to examine the tumultuous buildup to the attempted domination of Europe through amateur films and interviews with people who lived through it. The same applies to “The Fall,” which describes the collapse of the Third Reich and how it affected the German people who would have to live with the ramifications of Hitler’s unwillingness to surrender when the inevitable outcome became clear. – Gary Dretzka
H.R. Pufnstuf: Complete Series Collector’s Edition
Diego Saves the World
Max & Ruby: Rainy Day Play
Bobblehead dolls appear to be the collectible of choice for fans of TV shows, sports teams, branded cartoon characters, company mascots and overbearing co-workers, such as Dwight K. Schrute, on ”The Office.” They’re the natural evolution of the hula dancers once found shaking their tushes on the dashboards of cars from Honolulu to Harlem. Adults who are partial to the “H.R. Pufnstuf” series, which aired on Saturday mornings in the early 1970s, can get a bobblehead likeness of their favorite character in the same box as a DVD of the complete series. There’s a never-before-released episode of “Horror Hotel,” from “The Krofft Superstar Hour,” plus downloadable music and H.R. Pufnstuf coloring book. Only one episode of “Horror Hotel” was created featuring everyone’s favorite Pufnstuf characters, including Witchiepoo.
Youngsters addicted to Nickelodeon programming should enjoy selections from “Diego Saves the World” and “Max & Ruby: Rainy Day Play,” also new this week. If bobbleheads are available for these characters, no one’s made me aware of them. – Gary Dretzka