By Gary Dretzka Dretzka@moviecitynews.com
The DVD Wrapup: Barney’s Version, Season of the Witch, Sucker Punch, Erasing David, Tetsuo, The Warrior’s Way, Camille 2000 …
Barney’s Version: Blu-ray
Although few things are certain in life, it’s safe to say any movie in which Paul Giamatti appears is going to save some aspiring actor, somewhere, the cost of attending a master class in acting. If there’s nothing else to like in the picture – an unlikely proposition, considering his many fine credits – Giamatti’s performance is going to raise a smile. Even when he plays characters that are chronically unhappy or unapologetically misanthropic – which is to say, almost always – he gives viewers a reason not to regret their investment at the box office. Is this a long way of cautioning potential renters of “Barney’s Version” that Giamatti’s performance, alone, trump the gloom and unhappiness that pervades everything else in the picture? Sort of, I guess. It is, however, worth knowing ahead of time that Giamatti’s Barney Panofsky is not someone in whose company many people normally would want to spend two hours. Barney isn’t evil, merely unpleasant when he’s drunk, which, yes, is pretty much always.
Adapted from a novel by Mordecai Richler, “Barney’s Version” is of a piece with “The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz” and “Joshua Then and Now,” all which of trace the precarious life paths taken by Jewish males, who hailed from working-class roots in Montreal. Here, Panofsky narrates his own story, focusing on the circumstances surrounding his three marriages and the mysterious death of his closest friend, Boogie (Scott Speedman). Rosamund Pike is the other very good reason to see “Barney’s Version.” She’s wonderful as Panofsky’s third wife, Miriam, a highly intelligent NPR reporter who became an obsession on the same day he married his second wife (Minnie Driver, as the archetypal JAP). Amused, but no home wrecker, Miriam rejects the newlywed groom’s advances. It doesn’t stop Panofsky from making a fool of himself, however.
In something of a mixed blessing, Panofsky is given legitimate grounds for divorce when he catches his wife making love to Boogie (Scott Speedman), who might very well have been anticipating his friend’s needs. The two men square off in a drunken fit of jealousy and revenge, anyway, leaving Boogie dead in the lake outside the Panofskys’ summer home. Relieved of his obligations to his second wife, the Brillo-haired mope somehow convinces Miriam to take a chance on him. She sees something redeemable in Barney that most viewers will fail to appreciate, and cuts through his increasingly drunken haze long enough to raise two fine children and establish a comfy life. When hubris rears its ugly head, there’s almost nothing left of Panofsky to save.
Richard J. Lewis, known primarily as a director of television series, is the beneficiary of world-class performances by Giamatti and Pike, as well as stellar work by Driver; Rachelle Lefevre, as Barney’s crazy-hippie first wife; Mark Addy, as a police detective who’s written a true-crime book on Boogie’s death; and Dustin Hoffman, as Barney’s father, Izzy, a street-wise Montreal cop whose salty anecdotes and language horrify the second Mrs. P’s parents and friends. (Hoffman’s son, Jake, plays Izzy’s grandson.) On that front, alone, “Barney’s Version,” is an embarrassment of riches. I recommend watching the Richler interview in the bonus package, during which the novelist explains that the movie adaptation is only one “version” of the story told here, and each character has his/her own interpretation. – Gary Dretzka
Season of the Witch
I know it isn’t fair to judge a book by its cover or a movie by its title, but sometimes I simply can’t help myself. Even after watching Dominic Sena’s medieval action/thriller, “Season of the Witch,” and all of its deleted scenes, making-of featurettes and an alternate ending I liked more than original, I’m still wondering what the movie has to do Donovan Leitch, author of the iconic song. As far as I recall, the movies doesn’t contain any “rabbits running in the ditch,” “beatniks out to make it rich” or any picked-up stitches. Must not be the season of the witch, after all.
Am I the only person who gets turned off by titles that are chosen precisely for any Pavlovian response they might engender? If that were the only thing wrong with “Season of the Witch,” I’d probably have been able to let it go and enjoy the picture. On closer inspection, however, I also was bothered by the fact that two decidedly American actors were playing crusaders, who, disgusted by their priest commander’s un-Christian brutality toward Muslims, deserted their units and headed back to England. After all, if British and Aussie actors are required to effect American accents when playing Yanks, why weren’t Nic Cage and Ron Perlman asked to pretend to sound British, at least? Never mind. I already know the answer to that question.
Cage and Perlman don’t have to prove anything to me when it comes to their action chops. Their popularity isn’t confined to North America, certainly. “Season of the Witch” opens in 1235 AD, on a bridge where three women presumed to be witches are about to be hung. After being tossed off the bridge and lowered into the river below, the priest presiding over the execution can’t talk his henchmen into hoisting the corpses back, onto the bridge, so he can deliver the final incantation. Satan helps the women rise from the dead, instead, and on his own terms, possibly so they can help him trigger the Black Plague. Flash forward to 1332 AD, when Cage and Perlman’s knights decide they’ve killed enough infidels in the name of God and split for home. By the time they get there, the plague has begun to decimate entire villages. On his deathbed, a bishop asks the men to escort a woman accused of being a witch to a distant monastery, where monks versed in such matters can decide her fate. Impeding the safe completion of their mission are a pack of hungry wolves and a suspension that probably won’t be able to bear the weight of the wagon, horses, men and prisoner. The plague beats the crusaders to the monastery, however, leading to a confrontation with winged minions of Lucifer. Pretty standard stuff, really, except for the nicely rendered set designs and CGI demons. Still no Donovan , though. “Season of the Witch” took a pasting from critics, and viewers were in no hurry watch another movie about the crusades. On DVD, though, the price of a rental makes the investment in time quite a bit more reasonable. – Gary Dretzka
Sucker Punch: Blu-ray
Zack Snyder was on a heck of a winning streak there, for a while, with “Dawn of the Dead,” “300” and “Watchman” keeping fanboys and action freaks hanging on his every special effect. It wasn’t until last year’s 3D “Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole” and the elaborately staged “Sucker Punch” that he hit a wall at the box office. It’s not difficult to see why, at least in the case of “Sucker Punch.” The female-empowerment fantasy starts out well – a very pretty teen heiress is sent to an asylum by her evil stepfather, who covets her inheritance – but almost everything that follows is a nearly incomprehensible, if often delightfully over-the-top collage of genre references, iconic photographs, video-game theatrics and CGI pyrotechnics. The animated set pieces are a by-product of the fertile imagination of the blond bombshell, Babydoll. If Snyder had been able to coax Hieronymous Bosch to interrupt his eternal rest – in return for an AD credit — the visual effect might have been similar. (And, yes, “Sucker Punch” looks and sounds terrific on Blu-ray, especially in its R-rated, 128-minute extended cut version.)
For Babydoll to be relieved of her mindless KP duties at the asylum, which, conveniently, has a performing-arts faculty, she must exhibit her dancing skills in front of the other girl inmates and staff members, some of whom look as if they escaped from a road-show staging of “Rocky Horror.” I still don’t know what her audience sees when Babydoll dances, but we, at home and in theaters, are treated to wildly choreographed dogfights between vintage fighters and flying dragons; Hong Kong-style sword fights outside Japanese temples and in the trenches separating German and Allied troops in World War I; and corseted classmates wielding Gatling guns. All of it is accompanied by an excruciatingly loud rock soundtrack. So distracting is her dance that patients feel safe to plan an escape in mid-performance. If you’re guessing thatTaylor owes a debt of gratitude here to Terry Gilliam, Quentin Tarantino, Baz Luhrmann, Howard Hawks, the Wachowskis, Michael Bay, Ridley Scott, Amy Heckerling and King Kong, you’d be right. And, you don’t even have to scratch the surface to find the references.
Emily Browning, who bears a disturbing resemblance to Hef’s former lover, Holly Madison, plays Babydoll as if she were Navy Seal Barbie … not necessarily a bad thing. Her girl gang includes Abbie Cornish, Jena Malone, Vanessa Hudgens and Jamie Chung. The eternally hot Carla Gugino, sexy in dominatrix drag, plays the inmates’ dance instructor. Although they’re completely overshadowed by the riot grrrls, the male actors include Oscar Isaac, Jon Hamm, Gerard Plunkett and Scott Glenn. The outstanding Blu-ray package includes both the R-rated extended cut and shorter PG edit (hard-core action fans already know which version to choose); a quartet of animated shorts, or motion comics, synopsizing the fantasy set pieces; a featurette on the soundtrack; BD-Live compatability; and Maximum Movie Mode, in which Snyder goes into great detail on the making of “Sucker Punch.” – Gary Dretzka
Given the recent arrest of longtime fugitive Whitey Bulger, it would appear as if it’s still possible to disappear in America, if, of course, you’re able to stash hundreds of thousands of dollars in the walls of your home and can trust your lover not to blow your cover. It took years before members of the Weather Underground and SLA were tracked down by authorities, as well. Based on the evidence presented in the British documentary, “Erasing David,” those days may soon be over. Anyone who watches “MI-5” already knows that Britain is one of the most surveilled countries in the world. A terrorist can be traced from his doorstep to the site of a suicide attack, without missing a step. (Knowing who to follow, and when to begin surveillance, remains the real trick.)
Concerned about the vast amount of computer-based intelligence now available to the British government and corporate interests, private citizen David Bond decided he would test the limits of privacy by attempting to “disappear” for a while. After giving himself a head start in this game of hide-and-seek, Bond sicced a pair of private detectives on his trail. They were allowed to use all the information the “surveillance society” makes available to such sleuths, including e-mail and Internet traces, banking records, GPS and CCTV, and other interpreters of personal tendencies. Bond would leave behind his pregnant wife and young daughter, a decision that added a level of drama to the story. What Bond discovered should distress citizens of the so-called free world, whether they’re liberals or conservatives. The same bankers responsible for the current depression are the primary beneficiaries of such surveillance. (Anyone with an outstanding debt to a bank or utility already knows how little privacy remains.) Bond’s documentary is informed by the testimony of security experts at every level of the game, including people who have been interrogated by the Stasi and folks who believe Facebook is a tool of the CIA. (I’m starting to believe that one, myself.) It makes for fascinating viewing. The DVD adds a Q&A with Bond and other background material. – Gary Dretzka
The Warrior’s Way
Try to imagination a movie influenced as much by Chinese wuxia storytelling, as such the stylized work of non-Asian artists as Sergio Leone, Federico Fellini, Alejandro Jodorowsky, Sam Pekinpah, Salvador Dali, Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez. This phantasmagoric cowboys-vs.-ninjas adventure describes what happens after a master swordsman kills off all his enemies except one, an infant girl he adopts and hopes to train as future inheritor of his title. Well, as has been demonstrated countless times, there’s no shortage of potential adversaries in the Wild West. First-time South Korean writer/director Sngmoo Lee has created something quite special in “The Warrior’s Way,” a movie that will appeal more to fans of “Kung Fu Hustle,” “Shaolin Soccer” and “A Woman, a Gun and a Noodle Shop” than those who’ve only experienced Ang Lee’s “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” and Zhang Yimou’s “House of the Flying Daggers” and “Curse of the Golden Flower.” (“Kung-Fu Panda” qualifies as wuxia, as well.)
Here, after the opening battle in a bamboo forest, our master assassin is transported to a parched town in the American west – or, more specifically, an earth-tone Kiwi soundstage — where he and the baby are given refuge by a clan of semi-retired circus performers. Yang (Dong-gun Jang) takes a shine to a comely knife thrower (Kate Bosworth) and makes her his student, in return for some baby wrangling. Naturally, trouble follows him in the form of a small army of ninjas and a masked American outlaw, played by Danny Huston. The rest has to be seen to be believed. (Geoffrey Rush and “small” actor Tony Cox also do nice jobs as circus veterans.) “Warrior’s Way” isn’t for everyone, but I haven’t seen much to match it in terms of freshness and imagination in a long time. The set comes with deleted scenes and a too-short making-of piece. – Gary Dretzka
Tetsuo: The Bullet Man
If “Tetsuo: The Bullet Man” isn’t the most aggressively loud and angry movie I’ve ever seen, I’d be hard-pressed to come up with another one. Watching it reminded me of what it must be like working in a steel mill or foundry for full shift, and heading directly to a bar to hear some industrial rock or death metal. As is the case in so many other sci-fi and horror thrillers, the future here looks like it was founded on the ruins of America’s Rust Belt. The clean, sterile architecture of “2001: A Space Odyssey” has been obliterated by the demands of corporate greed and man’s unending pursuit of self-destruction. Cult favorite Shinya Tsukamoto’s third entry in his “Tetsuo” franchise resembles the previous two, in that a man is transformed into a metallic monster after an accident or tragedy. Here, the transformation begins after an American “salary man” is inexplicably forced to watch his son run over in a deserted tunnel. The reason is left ambiguous, but it clearly involves his own father, who was involved in techno-genetic research. Beyond that, I haven’t the vaguest clue. In any case, the American evolves into a metallic weapon of mass destruction before our eyes, taking on waves of assassins and soldiers. Given the volume, it’s tough to recommend “The Bullet Man” to anyone new to the series or Tsukamoto. Fans, however, will find it to be essential viewing. When the dialogue can be discerned, it’s in English, – Gary Dretzka
Camille 2000: Extended Version: Blu-ray
More a curio from a time when everything seemed to be changing all the time, than a movie capable of titillating contemporary audiences, “Camille 2000” remains interesting for its excesses and use of Technicolor and Panavision in the service of soft-core porn. Released in 1969, it was of a piece with Radley Metzger’s other explorations of European-style sex, skin and Carnaby Street fashions. Mainstream American audiences were slow to embrace gratuitous nudity, even in the service of beautifully feminine imagery, but such films as “The Alley Cats,” “Carmen, Baby” and “Therese and Isabelle” had caught the eye of critics and big-city libertines. The lavish, contemporary update of the Alexandre Dumas novel, “The Lady of the Camellias” — along with Metzger’s similarly artsy “The Lickerish Quartet” – gave adventurous exhibitors an opportunity to test the market in places other than New York and L.A.
The sexual revolution described in “Camille 2000” owed more to Swinging London and la dolce vita Rome than anything happening in San Francisco at the same time. Indeed, the partygoers and Euro-trash lay-abouts who populate “Camille 2000” wear expensive boutique fashions and tuxedoes to in orgies in spectacular villas and penthouses. They drink champagne and consume hor’deurves hippie or college student could afford to sample, let alone gorge themselves. The sex, too, was mostly simulated – more Cinemax, than “Deep Throat” – with nary a pubic hair in sight in “Camille 2000.” Metzger’s doomed Lady of the Camillias, Marguerite (Daniel Gaubert) uses her supermodel looks and puffy bouffant to snare counts and playboys willing to support her expensive lifestyle. Against her better judgment, though, she allows herself to fall for handsome, well-groomed Armand (Nino Castelnuova), the son of an image-conscious industrialist. The Blu-ray includes the previously unreleased extended version, a newly restored high-definition transfer, “On the Set of Camille 2000,” “Restoration of Camille 2000,” “Syviane’s Striptease,” “Cube Love Scene,” comparison of restoration before and after, audio commentary and trailers. – Gary Dretzka
Deliver Us From Evil
Cyrus: Mind of a Serial Killer
Although comparisons to “Straw Dogs” are only natural, “Deliver Us From Evil” adds a distinctly religious and political spin to Ole Bornedal’s tale of vengeance, deceit and intolerance in a rural Danish town. As the film opens, a detached narrator describes what’s about to happen on a lonely stretch of highway bordered on both sides by water. Distracted for a few seconds, a semi-trailer runs into a motorcycle, whose elderly female rider presumably is killed and tossed to the side of the road. Petrified, the driver immediately conceives a plot to put the blame on the town’s sole Bosnian refugee, a man so traumatized by recent events in his life that he’s nearly incapable of speech. Although the man, Alain, would seem to have an easy alibi, he is easily set up to take the fall. When a vigilante mob sets upon Alain, he’s given shelter in the home of a prominent local family. Within minutes, the house becomes a war zone not unlike the one from which Alain escaped in Bosnia. Finally, we watch as a gentle man, Johannes, is transformed into a monster, if only to protect his loved ones and home from the rabble. So far, so “Straw Dogs.”
In “Deliver Us From Evil,” however, everything that happens is measured against a yardstick carved out of oak by Northern European Protestant preachers. The brooding sky and billowing clouds that keep’s God’s holy light from reaching coastal Jutland suggest the same yardstick might have been used years earlier by Ingmar Bergman. When her bike is struck, the victim of the accident is carrying prayer-book pages from one city to another. The truck is driven by Lars, Johannes’ white-trash brother. Upon learning of her death, the woman’s pious brother is easily convinced by Lars that Alain is guilty, and, after renouncing God, leads a skinhead gang to Johannes’ house to exact his unholy revenge. (To drive home his point about the xenophobia of the skinheads, Bornedal has them refer to the Muslim refugee as “Negro.”) Things get really ugly before the truth is revealed, but not in a way viewers could anticipate. If “Deliver Us From Evil” sometimes feels derivative and obvious, there’s no escaping the power of the images employed to make the writer/director’s various points. Every bit as penetrating, Dan Lausten camera has no trouble locating “the evil inside all of us.” I wonder if Rod Lurie’s upcoming Americanization of “Straw Dogs” will be nearly as effective. The DVD comes with a trio of behind-the-scenes featurettes.
At the very least, “Cyrus: Mind of a Serial Killer” owes its title to John McNaughton’s “Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer.” Everything else in Mark Vadik’s debut feature can be traced to various other splatter, torture, slasher and cannibal flicks. The only thing missing is footnotes. Based on any number of true stories, “Cyrus” opens with a perky TV reporter interviewing Lance Henriksen, whose characters has news to impart to her about a long-dormant serial killer (Brian Krause) reportedly responsible for the deaths of 200 Midwestern college students. A former POW, Cyrus, is taking out his hatred of his former wife on young women and their companions. He also is responsible for a local deli delicacy, “Road Kill.” (I’ll let you do the math.) Henriksen’s Emmett knows so much about Cyrus that it becomes immediately obvious to everyone, except the reporter (Danielle Harris), that either he’s the fiend or his surrogate. His recollections of the carnage are extreme, even by the standards of direct-to-DVD horror titles. Vadik balances the blood-letting with the observations of criminologists concerning the backgrounds and motivations of serial killers. Any fan of the genre could have provided the same information with a greater degree of veracity. On the plus side, “Cyrus” is competently produced and provides another opportunity to watch Henriksen.
The classic Hollywood put-down, “The movie wasn’t released, it escaped,” could apply to so many pictures these days, all but the laziest of critics have stopped using it. Even so, I’ll risk personal and professional humiliation by arguing some horror titles weren’t so much released, as they rose from their graves and began stalking the earth like so many zombies or vampires. You could blow off their heads and pound a dozen stakes in their hearts, and the new-to-DVD monsters still would find a way to terrorize genre buffs. God bless ’em. The latest batch of horror films from Severin provides a prime example of the trend. Made in the early 1970s, “The Baby” is one of the most disconcerting movies I’ve ever seen. In it, a mother and her two demented daughters have conspired to keep a male child, born with more than a couple of loose screws, from maturing beyond the diaper and goo-goo stage of development. Nearing adulthood, Baby wears diapers and cries incessantly when his needs aren’t met. It isn’t made clear whether the boy ever had a chance at maturing or his man-hating mother simply didn’t provide him with the tools to do so. When a new social worker (Anjanette Comer) is assigned the family’s case, she becomes obsessed with Baby and finding ways to get him into a facility for developmentally handicapped children. The mother (Ruth Roman) and her slutty daughters resist, however. Ninety percent of “The Baby” is creepy in the extreme – with sexual tension adding yet another layer of depravity – but the ending is so inspired, it trumps nearly of all of the queasy moments. The DVD includes interviews with director Ted Post and Baby, David Mooney.
In 1980, Aussie soft-core specialist John Lamond tried his hand at giallo horror with “Nightmares” (a.k.a., “Stage Fright”). In it, a young blond girl is traumatized, once, by the sight of her mom getting humped in bed, and, again, being groped while driving her car in a rainstorm. Concerned by her mother’s uneasiness, little Cathy yells at the man to make him stop. This distracts her mom long enough to cause an accident, during which she’s propelled through the windshield. The girl makes the situation worse by pulling her mom back into the car, causing her to cut an artery. As an adult, Cathy (now Helen) is still traumatized by her role in the accident and the blame placed on her by her mom’s boyfriend, who survived the crash. Now an actor, Helen wins a role in a play in which death is treated comically. In short order, we learn that she’s unable to have sex, but perfectly capable of slashing the throats of her fellow cast members, the playwright and a critic. Considered a prime example of “Ozploitation,” “Nightmares” (1980) is only for real genre freaks. The best things about the DVD are a featurette on the history of slasher flicks and a reel of unusually graphic trailers for Lamont’s movies.
The truly disturbing violence in “Bloody Birthday” is caused by a trio of sociopathic kids, all of whom were born under a bad sign during an eclipse. To mark the occasion of turning 10, the little darlings go on a killing spree that takes out everyone from their teacher and local sheriff, to their parents and classmates. Having been born in the early 1970s, they very easily could be the evil spawn of Charles Manson, given up for adoption to unsuspecting families. The murders are grisly, alright, but the creepiest thing about “Bloody Birthday” is the kids themselves. The production values still hold up and the cast is far above average for this sort of thing. It includes Lori Lethin, Joe Penny, Michael Dudikoff, Susan Strasberg, Jose Ferrer, Ellen Geer, Elizabeth Hoy and Julie Brown, whose topless scene will easily be worth the price of a rental for her fans. The DVD package adds interviews with writer/director Ed Hunt and Lethin. All of the Severin Films releases have been polished up and look better, now, than after their first showing in theaters.
There’s something hiding in the forest in Gregg Holtgrewe’s micro-budget thriller, “Dawning,” and it bodes ill for anyone who ventures outside the family cabin after dark. That could describe any one of a thousand horror flicks and this Breaking Glass release won’t make anyone forget too many of the others. Still, as these things go, “Dawning” makes use of every cent of its $115,000 budget. In it, adult siblings Chris and Aurora make the schlep to the North Woods to visit their father and stepmom at the family cabin. Tension begins to percolate within minutes of their arrival, when the gruff old man refuses to allow Aurora to bring in the pet dog for the night. It doesn’t take a genius to anticipate a canine disaster in the offing, and it’s followed by the arrival of a crazed stranger who insists he’s there to save the family from something unknown. Whatever it is, he declares, caused the death of his girlfriend, as well as the pooch. The uncertainty causes old fissures between family members to re-open, which, of course, could lead to human disaster. If only they’re able to hold things together until dawn, all might not be lost. The DVD adds bonus features not available on the review screener. – Gary Dretzka
I never thought I’d live to see the day when performances by Rob Schneider and Tia Carrere were the best thing about any movie I’d just seen. In the stunningly not sexy teen comedy, “Wild Cherry,” Schneider plays the father of a pretty high school senior anxious to lose her virginity before heading off to college. As we’re led to believe in a series of short interviews interlaced throughout the movie, the only students not getting laid at Benjamin Dover High School are the popular girls in Helen McNicol’s clique and a few desperate football players. Even the class geeks and fatties are losing their cherries. Schneider, as dad Nathan, is as clumsy at being the single father of a horny teenage girl as anyone could have asked him to be, especially in the scenes in which he attempts to give Helen the facts of life and birth control. Carrere is a teacher who coaches the girls on the “power of pussy” – I kid you, not – and the history of dildos. And, those are the funny parts.
It’s less amusing to watch the boys attempt to take advantage of the girls, according to the dictates of a top-secret Bang Book. Until they overhear their suitors discuss the status of their individual pursuits, Helen and her friends think everything his kosher. Once they learn the truth, however, the girls take their revenge in kind. Director Dana Lustig wasn’t given much with which to work by a trio of mostly inexperienced screenwriters, but, clearly, all involved were shooting for a female version of “American Pie.” To that end, there are several dumb jizz jokes, some slapstick involving vibrators and a few scenes in which the girls dance around in conservative, color-coordinated underwear. The cast includes Rumer Willis (“90210”), Tania Raymonde (“Lost”), Kristin Cavallari (“The Hills”) and a bunch of guys, who, though nearly 30, can still pass for high school boys. – Gary Dretzka
If Jesco White didn’t exist, an author like Harry Crews, Carl Hiaasen or Elmore Leonard might have tried to invent him. Already the subject of three documentaries and a couple of theatrical films, Jesco is the best known member of the infamous hillbilly family profiled in the superb 2009 biodoc, “The Wild and Wonderful Whites of West Virginia.” Like his late daddy, Donte Vixen Ray (“D. Ray”) White, Jesco is widely renowned for his skills as a “mountain dancer.” It’s a discipline that combines tap with clog dancing, and appears largely improvisational. In “White Lightnin’,” Jesco dances to the accompaniment of a single guitar, mandolin or banjo. If he’s not on stage, Jesco taps on sheet of plywood. Because it’s considered to be something of an endangered folk art, D. Ray and Jesco’s style has been recorded for posterity by the Smithsonian museum and PBS outlets in West Virginia, as well as several admiring songs by country and rock musicians.
If that was all there is to the Whites’ story, it would make an interesting 15-minute documentary short. Instead, the family has been portrayed as an Appalachian dynasty famous less for dancing than committing more crimes in a week than the characters in “Justified” during its entire two-year run. It can be argued that the Whites put the white in white trash. “White Lightnin’” chronicles Jesco’s story from his addiction at 6 to lighter fluid and gasoline, through his stints at reform school and a hospital for the criminally insane, to his introduction to speed and other hard drugs, and finally to his marriage to a woman twice his age.
“White Lightnin’” doesn’t concern itself with the entire White clan or their collected crimes, electing to focus instead on Jesco’s travails and the voices inside his head. Edward Hogg turns in an unforgettable performance as the tortured dancer, who could go from personable and lucid, to psychotic and dangerous, with the flick of an internal switch. Carrie Fisher, too, is amazing as the woman who gives up a stable home life to enter the Whites’ orbit. Dominic Murphy’s highly stylized and darkly impressionistic film would make a terrific midnight movie, if such things exist anymore. Watching it, it’s easy to dismiss the notion that the United States has become a nation homogenized to the point of generic conformity. Travel a few miles off the between path and you’re likely to run into a few folks, anyway, who would even give Jesco a run for his money. – Gary Dretzka
For the record, “BLAST!” is a documentary about the attempt by a group of American and Canadian astrophysicists and their students to launch a high-altitude balloon, carrying a revolutionary new telescope they hope will provide clues to the genesis of our solar system. The Balloon-borne Large Aperture Submillimeter Telescope does so by mapping the cosmos and locating cloud clusters in which future galaxies may be forming. And, yes, the venture is every bit as difficult to synopsize as it sounds. Why the scientists are using a balloon and not a satellite or space station remains anyone’s guess, but there must have been a very good reason they were able to invest six years’ worth of time and money into such an esoteric pursuit. Or, maybe I just missed the explanation.
Emmy-winning filmmaker Paul Devlin tags along with his Ph.D.-bearing brother, Mark, from the Arctic Circle in northern Sweden and Canada, to Chile, New Zealand and Antarctica, where the movie opens with an epic fail and ends on an extremely high note. Lots of digitized data is collected on hard drives, but its full value won’t be fully computed and analyzed until the 2020s, if ever. On the plus side, such research keeps aspiring astrophysicists employed and prevents roving gangs of science nerds from ravaging college campuses. If, as we’re told, 96 percent of the universe remains a mystery to the scientific community, astrophysics will be a growth industry for decades to come.
“BLAST!” isn’t the most compelling documentary about the space science I’ve ever seen. The producers attempt to make the material accessible to non-academics, but the geek-speak and nerdy clichés – computers are named after “Lord of the Ring” characters — quickly get tiresome, as do the words “cool” and “awesome.” Devlin also tries to humanize the mission by describing the sacrifices made the researchers and their families, which amount mostly to missing the occasional holiday gathering. The scientists are asked but don’t seem to comprehend the perceived dichotomy between being Christians – as most of those interviewed profess to be – and seekers of data that challenges the theory of Creationism. (“Hey, I can’t even prove you exist,” is the answer to a question about one scientist’s belief in God.) God or no God, though, there’s no disputing the majesty of the images already retrieved from deep space. If he’s proven to be the architect of the universe, then, he (or her, or it) deserves our respect.
Always fascinating, though, is the description of life at Antarctica’s McMurdo Station, where scientists and engineers mingle with drifters and self-described misfits of all stripe under extreme conditions. The bonus package includes several deleted scenes, including one too-brief segment with Xtreme documentarian Werner Herzog. I’m also a little surprised that the often spectacular scenery, shot in digital video, isn’t being made available in Blu-ray. (Large stretches of snow and ice look fantastic in hi-def.) “BLAST!” will be of greatest value to kids who aspire to be scientists and want to know what happens in the field. – Gary Dretzka
Call Me Bwana
Riot on Sunset Strip
The Killer Is Loose
Starring Bob Hope, Anita Ekberg and Edie Adams, “Call Me Bwana” reads like a time capsule from Camelot … JFK’s Camelot, that is. When it was released in 1963 – references to the president’s rocking chair date it – America still was feeling the glow of the post-war economic boom and Vietnam had not yet begun making headlines, despite the American “advisers” already there. It was still OK to portray native Africans as if they were cartoon characters put on Earth to amuse white people of western European background … again, even knowing that anti-colonial movements were changing the facing of the continent. In “Call Me Bwana,” Hope plays an authority on Africa, called in to help NASA recover a space capsule that landed in tribal territory. The natives, of course, consider it to be a gift from the gods and refuse to return the craft to the U.S. recovery team. Also rushing to capture the capsule is a team of secret agents from the Soviet Union presumably – the party chairman rocks on a squeaky chair given to him by President Kennedy — led by Secret Agent Luba (Anita Ekberg) and Dr. Ezra Mungo (Lionel Jeffries). Ekberg has a body that could launch a thousand double entendres, and almost all of them are heard here. Within a few short months of its release, the world would change dramatically and “Call Me Bwana” would look every bit as dated as it does now. Among the many unbelievably corny moments is the inexplicable appearance of Arnold Palmer at a golf course on the African veldt … if the veldt were located in the general vicinity of England’s Pinewood Studios. His chief reason for being there, I think, is to insert a Bing Crosby reference and show a monkey hitting a golf ball with stick … or was this a premonition of “2001.”
Also newly released as part of Fox and MGM’s manufactured-on-demand program are “Phaedra,” “Riot on Sunset Strip” and “The Killer Is Loose,” among other vintage titles. All are interesting in their own way.
Two years after the international success of “Never on Sunday,” Jules Dassin and future wife, Melina Mercouri, collaborated once again on “Phaedra,” an intense drama inspired by Euripides’s play “Hippolytus.” For those unfamiliar with the movie, imagine if Dustin Hoffman and Anne Bancroft’s characters had killed themselves at the end of “The Graduate” and go backwards from there.“Phaedra” is a first-class production by anyone’s reckoning. Mercouri plays the second wife of an immensely rich shipping magnate (Raf Vallone), who invites his adult son from a previous marriage (Anthony Perkins) to return to Greece to learn the family business. Before he does, however, the playboy engages in a steamy and tempestuous affair with his stepmother. Naturally, the fates couldn’t let such a liaison play out happily. The tragedy even spreads to the crew of a cruise liner, the S/S Phaedra, which is judged guilty by association. Filmed on location in Athens, Hydra, Paris and London, “Phaedra” looks amazing, even in black-and-white. Theoni V. Aldredge earned an Academy Award nomination for her costume designs. Dassin, who had been blacklisted in the U.S., was one of the few ex-pat filmmakers who succeeded outside the U.S., and, here, he’s working at the top of his game.
Budd Boetticher’s “The Killer Is Loose” is a very decent B-movie noir about a robbery that goes tragically wrong, for almost everyone involved. Wendell Corey plays a dirty bank clerk whose wife is killed by mistake in a police shootout. His time in prison gives the con plenty of time to plan his revenge, which involves the cop who killed his wife (Joseph Cotton), his wife (Rhonda Fleming) and a sergeant who tormented him in World War II. Corey is especially frightening as the deadpan psycho, who, once he becomes a fugitive, immediately begins to settle scores. This one is past due for a re-make.
The same confrontation between cops and kids that inspired the Buffalo Springfield to record “For What It’s Worth” also formed the basis for the 1967 hippie exploitation picture, “Riot on Sunset Strip.” Of the two, the hit song was by far the more accurate depiction of this footnote in pop-culture history. More than anything else the turmoil on the Strip – L.A.’s equivalent to the Haight-Ashbury, further north — merely served as a backdrop for a ludicrously muddled portrayal of youth culture in its infancy. Aldo Ray plays a cop who seems genuinely concerned about police brutality and the bullying tactics demanded by merchants against teens milling around their stores. (They should be so lucky, today.) His attitude changes when his estranged daughter (Mimsy Farmer) is raped by frat boys posing as hippies, who slip a dose of LSD in her diet soda and take advantage of her naiveté. The father snaps at the most inopportune time, almost causing a riot of his own making. Improbable lessons are learned along the way. The best things in the movie are Farmer’s silky solo dance while tripping to a trad-jazz soundtrack and the music of the Standells and Chocolate Watchband. Almost everything else borders on the deplorable. – Gary Dretzka
When it comes to movies targeted at the segment of the African-American audience perceived to be drawn more to Tyler Perry than Spike Lee, subtlety is the first thing to hit the cutting-room floor. Nearly every plot twist feels pre-programmed, as if to eliminate any trace of originality and spontaneity. Even when the dialogue does leave room for conjecture, a silky R&B ballad will emerge from the background to tell viewers how to feel (not that the same thing doesn’t happen in most Hollywood movies). The relative popularity of overly broad comedies and preacher-knows-best dramas movies have limited the output of such outstanding African-American filmmakers as Lee, Allen and Albert Hughes, F. Gary Gray, George Tillman Jr., Antoine Fuqua, John Singleton and any one of a dozen Wayans. Any established director that can’t bring in a movie for less than $10-15 million, while guaranteeing domestic returns in the $25-35 million range, is going to have a tough time competing for jobs in Hollywood. (Once-promising black filmmakers now are finding greener pastures in television than cinema.). In the wake of the huge breakout success of Tyler Perry — whose characterizations and scattershot gags have outraged critics of all colors — studios hoping to score big with the older “urban” audience have settled for paint-by-numbers melodramas and low-brow comedies. The truth is, though, Perry understands the formula and succeeds within its parameters. His imitators have yet to figure out the nuances.
“N-Secure” is just such an underachieving entertainment. In director David M. Matthews and writers Julius Lewis and Christine Taylor’s story, a successful African-American business executive terrorizes the women in his life by controlling their every thought, action and phone conversation. In return for his expensive gifts and the key to his plush Memphis estate, ex-marine David Washington (Cordell Moore) demands obedience and blind loyalty. If any woman in his orbit – lover, secretary, his lovers’ friends – fails to meet his deadlines or obey his orders, David goes into a violent rage. By painting his protagonist with such broad strokes, and in such angry colors, there’s an insinuation that any woman who would stay with David is a gold-digger. Part of David’s dementia is blamed on his first fiancé’s aborted affair with a friend, even though we know she was bullied into setting a date with a man she didn’t truly love and eventually would make her miserable.
In his feature-film debut, Moore chews up the scenery – no doubt, as directed – leaving almost no oxygen in the room for anyone else. If nothing else, though, it allows the other cast members the space to maintain a more sensible pace and normal temperament. Among them are such veterans as Essence Atkins, Lamman Rucker, Tempestt Bledsoe, Nephew Tommy, Caryn Ward, and Denise Boutte. The R-rating is a bit of a stretch, even for the MPAA, resulting from a flash of side-boob, a 12-letter word beginning in “mother-” and ending in “-ucker,” and some violence toward women. The DVD adds several cast interviews – of the press-junket variety – but no sight of the director and co-writer Taylor, who is of the white persuasion.
All this said, I think it’s important to point out that any movie with a predominantly minority cast is an occasion for some celebration, at least, if only because each new one gives an underappreciated actor a chance to pay their bills . Moreover, if it weren’t for Perry’s success, what producer would attempt to tap the African-American audience? The same thing was true in the blaxploitation era. The problem, of course, is that black, Hispanic, Asian and women filmmakers too often are required to hit a more difficult target than average white guys. If it weren’t for cable television, many wouldn’t find any work in their discipline. – Gary Dretzka
Lifetime Original Movies:
Amanda Knox: Murder on Trial in Italy
Taken From Me: The Tiffany Rubin Story
Bringing Ashley Home
Patricia Cornwell’s The Front/At Risk
No one, besides Dick Wolf and his “Law and Order” franchise, makes better use of the tabloid media than the folks who program Lifetime’s original movies. It doesn’t require a lot of effort to dramatize a news event and there’s never a shortage of aspiring and fading actors around to add their names to the marquee. Wolf’s shows turn the incidents inside-out, supplying inventive twists to played-out storylines. Lifetime, which has picked up the mantle once carried by the networks’ made-for-TV franchises, tends to play things more down the middle. Usually, the movies are based on true-crime books, already thoroughly researched by a journalist. Occasionally, though, they comment on on-going trials and investigations, combining known facts with conjecture. Today, there’s no more bewildering a legal case than the one surrounding Amanda Knox, the American student convicted of murdering her roommate in Italy. Given the vagaries of the Italian legal season, the truth may never be known, although new clues and rumors are popping up now on an almost daily basis. In “Murder on Trial in Italy,” Hayden Panettiere plays the Seattle honors student and Marcia Gay Harden portrays Knox’s mom. The “facts” of the movie and trial – the guilty verdict currently is under review – have been disputed by other journalists following the trial, as well as Johnny-come-lately witnesses. The DVD adds the documentary, “Beyond the Headlines: The Amanda Knox Story.”
“Taken From Me: The Tiffany Rubin Story” is based on the 2008 case of a Queens mother (Taraji P. Henson) whose 7-year-old son is abducted by his biological father and taken to Seoul, South Korea. Joining her in her mission were Mark Miller (Terry O Quinn) and his charitable organization, the American Association for Lost Children.
A.J. Cook, Jennifer Morrison and Patricia Richardson star in “Bringing Ashley Home,” which chronicles the tireless efforts of a young woman to find and rescue her missing younger sister, who suffers from bipolar disorder and drug addiction. The search ultimately inspires the formation of a resource center for families looking for missing loved ones.
Jane Kaczmarek, Rebecca Williams and Nick Thurston star in “Reviving Ophelia,” a movie that cautions teens and parents about the issue of abusive relationships and the difficulty in identifying them. Here. a teenage girl and her boyfriend experience problems once thought exclusive to old married couples.
Lifetime’s “The Front” and “At Risk” are adapted from novels by Patricia Cornwell, whose Dr. Kay Scarpetta mysteries are perennial best-sellers. Here, though, the protagonists are hard-charging DA Monique “Money” Lamont (Andie MacDowell) and her dogged investigator Win Garano (Daniel Sunjata). Together, they make a good, if rarely on the same page team. – Gary Dretzka
Saving the Ocean: Shark Reef & the Sacred Island
Underwater Universe: Season 1
American Experience: The Duel
Supernatural/Billy the Exterminator/Dog the Bounty Hunter/Ancient Aliens
Not content with the pillaging and rape of Earth’s forests, minerals, wildlife and other resources, mankind is close to decimating the ocean’s great bounty, as well. If overfishing and the destruction of coral reefs weren’t bad enough, a double whammy of bad news was recently delivered by BP and the Japanese nuclear industry. PBS’ “Saving the Ocean” series takes on the horrendous devastation of the shark population for no other reason than to satisfy the taste buds of a few billion Chinese soup sippers. After the fins are harvested – and I use that term reluctantly – the plunderers throw the still-living fish into the sea. “Shark Reef” visits Glover’s Reef Marine Reserve, in Belize, where researchers have been studying, tagging and counting the local shark population, which here, anyway, is thriving. “Sacred Island” takes viewers to an island off Zanzibar, where villagers successfully fought back against resort developers and rapacious fishing interests.
History’s “Underwater Universe” introduces us – as if any introduction were necessary – to the undersea forces conspiring to punish mankind for daring to control its power and resources. The series explains what happens when Poseidon and Neptune decide to take back what rightfully belongs to the gods. Among the elements covered are tides and currents, predators, lethal pressure and killer shockwaves. CGI animation and footage shot above and below the surface of the ocean provide answers for people wondering how killer tsunamis and underwater mountain ranges happen. The set adds an hour of additional material.
Not many disagreements are settled by duels, anymore. The most famous in American history didn’t take place between high-priced lawyers in a courtroom, but in a clearing outside of Weehawken, New Jersey. In the unfortunate face-to-face confrontation described in “The Duel,” the country’s first secretary of the Treasury, Alexander Hamilton, was mortally wounded by Vice President Aaron Burr. (Imagine that happening today.) The “American Experience” production examines the historical context, while also looking back at the men’s disparate backgrounds and great contributions to the fledgling nation.
Produced by Chicago’s Kartemquin Films and shown on PBS, “Typeface” looks back to a time when the printer’s art was honed and practiced in shops and presses around the globe. In the wake of the closing of the analog age, the documentary visits an obscure museum in Two Rivers, Wisconsin, where the past and the present meet, and artisans learn from the remaining masters. Like most Kartemquin products, “Typeface” takes a populist view of history and the lessons we can learn from it.
It’s another slow week for TV-to-DVD releases, apart from the usual flood of PBS and History titles.
Now approaching its seventh season on the CW network, “Supernatural” adds a bit of a “Route 66” angle to the usual array of supernatural occurrences on prime-time television. Brothers, Sam and Dean Winchester (Jensen Ackles, Jared Padalecki) take to the open road to avenge the murder of their mother and demonstrate the skills taught them by their father. In the Season 2 package, the telegenic young hunks literally go to the gates of hell, while also battling a cannibal clown, a genie and various ghouls, ghosts and vampires. The second-season set includes commentaries and a behind-the-scenes featurette, as well as Padalecki’s screen test, a gag reel and three webisodes.
In Season 3 of “Billy the Exterminator,” the one-man pest-control conglomerate, Billy Bretherton, takes on a virtual Noah’s ark worth of Louisiana-bred critters. Among them are feral hogs, raccoons, fire ants, rats, bees, alligators, snakes, spiders and the occasional fox and wolf. The DVD package is comprised of all 17 episodes from the third season, commentary and best-of-Billy compilation.
As difficult as it is to believe, there might be some episodes of “Dog the Bounty Hunter” still out there not already collected in the eight full-season compilations, the complete-series package and bonus DVDs. But, here comes “This Family Means Business,” eight top-rated episodes, previously unreleased on DVD, from recent abbreviated seasons.
“Ancient Aliens” returns in its second season to question the possible existence of clues leading to a belief that intelligent life forms visited Earth thousands of years ago. Once again, the producers use “newly decoded artifacts” to make the case for such a possibility, as well as other discoveries. If a single episode could sum up a series’ implied mission statement, it would be “Aliens and the Third Reich.” After considering whether Hitler might have designed weaponry and flying saucers from ancient texts, the producers then suggest these concepts could have been brought to the U.S. with Werner Von Braun and other Nazi engineers who designed our space program. – Gary Dretzka
Michael Flatley Returns as Lord of the Dance
Fans of Irish step-dancing phenomenon Michael Flatley will have to trip the light fantastic to the nearest Best Buy, if they want to enjoy the latest DVD/CD package from the self-anointed Lord of the Dance. Not being a diehard fan, I wasn’t aware that he’d been away from the stage for 13 years. As brand-name entertainers go, Flately’s name is one of the most recognizable around the world. “Returns as Lord of the Dance” was filmed in Dublin and London during the troupe’s sold-out 2010 tour. It arrives with a bonus two-CD set, comprised of more than two dozen danceable ditties. – Gary Dretzka