Source Code: Blu-ray
While it would be misleading to describe the existential sci-fi thriller “Source Code” as “‘Groundhog Day’ on a train loaded with explosives,” it’s close enough for government work. In the Bill Murray role here is an American helicopter pilot recently returned from Afghanistan, sufficiently incapacitated to have been in a coma for several weeks, at least. The first time we Capt. Colter Stevens (Jake Gyllenhall), though, he’s on a commuter train headed due east into Chicago’s Loop. He’s just been jolted awake from a nap and is confused by the familiarity with which he’s greeted by the pretty young brunette woman (Michelle Monaghan) sitting across from him. For one thing, Christina addresses Colter as “Sean,” and a glimpse of himself in the mirror of the train car’s bathroom reveals a face belonging to a very different-looking person (Frédérick De Grandpré). His befuddlement is interrupted by the blast of a powerful explosive, which sends a fireball through the train. Instead of being turned into a crispy critter, though, the man we know to be Colter is jolted back to consciousness once again. This time, he’s strapped inside a contraption resembling a Mercury-era space capsule. On a video monitor in front of him is a woman in uniform (Vera Farmiga), who’s far less concerned about his confused state of mind than what he can remember of the events leading to the explosion.
She informs Colter that the mission to which he’s been assigned involves traveling back and forth in time, so as to repeatedly re-create the same event and gather evidence that could be used to affect its outcome. While, in “Groundhog Day,” Murray is allowed the luxury of 24 hours to construct a strategy to win the heart of Andie McDowell, Colter is given only two minutes to discover where the bomb is planted and who did it. Each time Colter goes back to the future, he not only adds another piece to the puzzle, he falls a little bit more in love with Christina, as well. Eventually, his insistence on saving Christina from the inferno causes a rift between Colter, Farmiga’s G.I. Jane and her boss, a self-centered scientist (Jeffrey Wright). Needless to say, the drama doesn’t end with the discovery of the culprit and defusing of the bomb, which was pre-ordained from minute one.
Director Duncan Jones (“Moon”) does a nice job keeping things moving in a forwardly direction, even when they’re going backwards. It would be impossible for viewers not to be as confused as Colter at several key junctures of “Source Code.” That only serves to put the movie in the same existential company as “Matrix,” “Inception,” “Adjustment Bureau” and “A.I.: Artificial Intelligence,” though, and sci-fi buffs have shown they don’t mind exercising their minds in the service of a good story. Even if much of the movie was shot against a green screen, Jones (son of David and Angela Bowie) effectively puts viewers in the same car as Colter, Christina and the other passengers, all of whom are suspects, at one time or another. Admirers of “Source Code” will be disappointed by the scarcity of bonus material, which is limited to a commentary track with Jones, Gyllenhaal and writer Ben Ripley, a picture-in-picture feature that offers interviews with the cast and “behind the science” discussions. – Gary Dretzka
Winter in Wartime
Leon Morin, Priest: The Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
Jackboots on Whitehall
The Conqueror: Taras Bulba
Outside the Wire/Sniper
Apart from depictions of the Holocaust, mainstream filmmakers have found it difficult to to re-create the drama and horror of living in an occupied country during wartime. It’s only natural that they’ve found it far easier to honor the valor of American soldiers in combat, than to validate the sacrifices and martyrdom of Resistance fighters and partisans, whose heroism didn’t come with a familiar face attached to it. Moreover, because a goodly number of them were unabashedly communist, anti-fascist and intellectual, the studios logically feared being tarred as fellow travelers by government witch hunters. During the cold war, it was far easier to forgive the crimes of former Nazi scientists and SS functionaries, if they were designing our rockets and sniffing out commies in Europe and South America. Yes, I know, it’s complicated.
Along with “The Black Book,” “The Girl With the Red Hair” and “Soldier of Orange,” “Winter in Wartime” is a drama about the Dutch Resistance that translates into English extremely well. There are recognizable heroes to be found here, to be sure, but within the shades of gray lie traitors, collaborators and Nazis who do good deeds. Some of the heroines we meet are scorned by their neighbors because their clandestine activities brought them into the bedrooms of Gestapo brass. Lacking evidence to clear their names, they were treated with the same contempt as any Nazi sympathizer. Adapted from a best-selling novel, Martin Koolhoven’s thrilling coming-of-age story chronicles the efforts of 14-year-old Michiel (Martijn Lakemeier) to help a downed pilot (Jamie Campbell Bower) make connections that would allow him to return to England. While hanging from a tree in the woods outside Michiel’s village, the pilot kills a German soldier on patrol. Unaware that the pilot had survived, the Nazis blame Resistance fighters for the soldier’s death and threaten the lives of residents for withholding information. In fact, Michiel and his sister, a nurse, are the only people aware of the pilot’s existence. In a terrible twist of fate, their father is one of the men condemned to death by firing squad if the truth isn’t revealed. In his naiveté, Michiel had always considered his father – the town’s mayor during the occupation – something of a coward for not openly condemning the Germans, preferring to embrace his uncle, who apparently has ties to the Resistance. For better or worse, he’ll even entrust the pilot’s safety to the uncle.
The final half-hour of “Winter in Wartime” is as suspenseful as any fictional account of bravery under fire I’ve seen in a long time. In a compelling making-of featurette, author Jan Terlouw recalls what life in frigid Holland was like in the winter before the end of the war. The hi-def cinematography also captures the look and feel of the season, which, even in mild years, tends to be gray, gloomy and cold. You might want to have a sweater handy, while watching this DVD at home.
Just as his 1969 Resistance thriller, “Army of Shadows,” found no distribution in the United States upon its release, Jean-Pierre Melville’s earlier “Léon Morin, Priest” only made its way to these shores in 2009. Set in a French village not far from the Italian border, the movie opens with an almost comic depiction of Italian occupation troops, strolling through town wearing feathers in their hats and enjoying pastry. Aware that the Gestapo wouldn’t long tolerate such benign neglect, some Jewish women elected to have their children baptized into the Catholic Church or sent to the mountains to live with sympathetic farmers. When one of them, the widow Barny (Emmanuelle Riva), decides to learn more about the intricacies of Catholicism, she comes under the spell of Father Léon (Jean-Paul Belmondo), who challenges her intellect and libido in equal measure. Being one of the only young men left in Saint Bernard, the priest is courted by several lonely young women, none of whom are interested in Catechism lessons. Although he appears to encourage the flirtation process, Leon remains strangely aloof, probably celibate and committed intellectually, at least, to Barny, who, by the way, is a communist. Despite the many differences between them, the electronic arc connecting Barny and the priest is white hot.
Given the current state of the Catholic Church, it would be difficult for many of today’s viewers not to cheer for a romantic entanglement between the protagonists, however sticky the results could be. Such a concession, even in the early 1960s, would have made “Léon Morin, Priest” a very different and not nearly as provocative a movie. The sexual and intellectual tension between the two remains palpable, even after American troops liberate the town and Leon prepares to move to a different parish. American arthouse habitués have embraced Melville for such atmospheric and air-tight crime tales as “Bob le Flambeur,” “Le Doulos” and “Le Cercle Rouge,” all of which are distinguished by taut story-telling and noir visual conceits. “Léon Morin, Priest” may be a far more cerebral exercise, but the trademark look and morally ambiguous characters are here, as well. And, of course, a sin is a crime in the eyes of God. The Criterion Collection edition’s digital restoration captures everything in glorious black-and-white, adding deleted scenes, commentary, the original trailer, an archival interview with Melville and Belmondo – in 1961, approaching the height of their popularity – and a booklet featuring an essay by critic and novelist Gary Indiana.
The British, of course, were spared a German land invasion and possible occupation. That hasn’t prevented anyone from imagining what England might have been like if the Huns had succeeded in their mission to dominate all corners of Europe. Like the infinitely more scabrous “Team America: World Police,” “Jackboots on Whitehall” is an epic war story dramatized by puppets. In it, the British army has just been overwhelmed at Dunkirk and the Battle of Britain is being lost in the skies above London and other southeastern counties. Moreover, Hitler is about to realize his dream of drilling a tunnel under the English Channel, so a Panzer division can enter the heart of London unimpeded by hostile fire. (His dream also includes taking up residence in Buckingham Palace, raiding the queen’s closet and imprisoning Winston Churchill in a birdcage.) With the British army stuck in Dunkirk, the country’s thin line of defense is limited to a platoon of Punjabi soldiers, a handful of Kent farmers, an alcoholic vicar and his blond daughter, an American airman and a French sailor. Armed only with weapons from the prime minister’s private reserve, some explosives and an ancient steam tractor, the limey irregulars hold off the tanks long enough to escape with Churchill to Scotland, a province still deemed dark, remote and hostile by British aristocracy. It’s at Hadrian’s Wall that the Brits strike up an alliance with the Scots, led by Sir William Wallace (in full “Braveheart” drag), and prepare to confront a legion of Nazi stormtroopers. Depending on the reverence one reserves for proper history lessons, “Jackboots on Whitehall” can either be enjoyed as an often-hilarious parody of war-movie conventions, or condemned as a travesty. The hard work and intelligence that informs the puppetry can’t be argued, however. It’s terrific. For admirers of the movie, the making-of featurette ought to be considered must-viewing. Among the voice actors are Timothy Spall, Dominic West, Tom Wilkinson, Alan Cumming, Rosamund Pike, Ewan McGregor and Richard E. Grant. If the Scots’ role in war is overstated, feel free to blame writer/directors Edward and Rory McHenry.
A far more historically accurate depiction of English history is presented in “The Wars of the Roses: A Bloody Crown,” a documentary mini-series made for airing in 2002 on the UK’s History Channel. It uses battlefield re-enactments and interviews with historians to dramatize the bloody civil wars contested between 1455 and 1485 by rival branches of the House of Plantagenet: Lancaster and York. The DVD also adds weapons demonstrations, forensic investigations and animated maps.
Released overseas in 2009, “The Conqueror: Taras Bulba” is another epic history, this time adapted from Nikolai Gogol’s novel about a 16th Century Cossack hero. In it, forces of the Ukraine and Poland are engaged in a brutal war over land and religion. The handsome 130-minute period drama was commissioned by Russian state television and, therefore, reflects the 1842 edition of the same book, which was re-written to placate Russian nationalists. The novel’s anti-Semiticism has been polished over, as well, in the movie.
The history of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan is still being written. In terms of movies, however, it’s clear that documentaries have proven to be more effective in telling the story than theatrical films. Based solely on the size of potential audiences for fact-based and fictional films, a greater percentage of documentary lovers have viewed related titles than those who prefer more traditional pictures. Although it’s impossible to pin down a precise explanation for the discrepancy in audience reach, mainstream viewers may have seen as much as they can stomach from watching the wars play out on television and in other authorized military footage. From Mill Creek Entertainment come the documentary series “Outside the Wire” and “Sniper: The Unseen Warrior,” which describe different aspects of the warfare playing out in the recesses of America’s memory bank. In the former, we are handed a ringside seat to important events in the Iraqi invasion and occupation, by embedded reporter J.D. Johannes. “Sniper” takes a far broader approach to the singular skills of America’s uniformed “hunters” and assassins, from the Revolutionary War to the present. – Gary Dretzka
The Matrimony: Blu-ray
Dylan Dog: Dead of Night
Ghost stories are as commonplace in Japan, Taiwan and Korea as tales about zombies are here and in England. Apparently, though, the inclusion of apparitional protagonists in fiction is frowned upon by the powers that be in China, where everything must be interpreted through a flag-red prism. It explains why “The Matrimony” has received a bit more attention in the genre press lately than other ghost stories from the region, where they’re about as unusual as chopsticks. With the exception of one laughably cheesy effect early on, Hua-Tao Teng’s spine-tingler would stand out from the pack, if only for the set design. That it’s also entertaining as hell is a bonus. Set in Shanghai during the 1930s, “The Matrimony” focuses on the tragically interrupted love affair between a film editor and a radio story-teller. Just as Junchu is about to pop the question to Manli, her bicycle is struck by a car and she’s killed. He blames himself for beckoning her across the busy street and is nearly paralyzed with guilt. Fast-forward a few years and Junchu is living in a richly appointed house outside the city with his mother and his new wife, Sansan. Clearly, though, the marriage was forced upon the young man and Sansan is no more respected than a servant. Things begin to change, however, when Sansan begins hearing mysterious sounds and decides to trace their source. She disobeys the wishes of her husband and mother-in-law by unlocking the door to the attic, where Junchu’s stored everything he could recover that would remind him of his dead lover. Turns out, Manli’s spirit has taken up residence there, as well. She takes advantage of Sansan’s intrusion to make her ethereal presence known to Junchu, eventually exchanging personalities with Sansan. The changes in his wife so impress Junchu, he falls in love with Sansan for the first time. This would be fine if Manli’s ghost could be satisfied reliving their romance vicariously through Sansan, but, sadly, she can’t. On the technical side of the coin, “The Matrimony” looks terrific, and the actors do a nice job working out the intricacies of a supernatural ménage-a-trois. The Chinese backdrop adds a fresh new look to the sub-genre, as well.
While based on Tiziano Sclavi’s comic books of the same title, “Dylan Dog: Dead of Night” also appears to be informed by “True Blood,” “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and “The Night Stalker.” Appropriately transplanted from New York to New Orleans, this horror-lite concoction chronicles the exploits of a handsome young P.I., Dylan (Brandon Roush), who wouldn’t look out of place on “Entourage.” Before devoting himself to the destruction of particularly aggressive undead criminals, Dylan intervened between feuding vampires, werewolves, zombies, agents of Satan and garden-variety ghouls. It isn’t until Dylan’s friend, Marcus (Sam Huntington), is killed and resurrected as the cleanest-looking zombie in Louisiana that the P.I. agrees to accept a case involving the murder of a noted vampire hunter, at the hands of a werewolf, and recovery of an ancient artifact linked directly to the devil’s heart of darkness. There’s plenty action in “Dylan Dog,” but the violence is as absurd as any found in a “Roadrunner” cartoon. Petite Icelandic beauty Anita Briem, who seeks revenge for her father’s death, is a breath of fresh air throughout the narrative, while Peter Stormare, Taye Diggs and Brian Steele merely appear to have been encouraged to ham it up. Nevertheless, given the PG-13 rating, there’s nothing in “Dylan Dog” that could prevent it from becoming part of a starter kit for aspiring horror fans.
In “Frozen Kiss,” a pair of young lovers attempts to inch their home from a party at a mountain retreat during a raging blizzard. Surrounded by a forest infested with skinheads, meth fiends and crazed ex-boyfriends, Shelley (Cameron Goodman) and Ryan (Jamie Martz) narrowly miss connecting with police. Oddly enough, their cellphones somehow appear to be working perfectly well and a call to their service provider might have located their positions, via GPS. We’re told “Frozen Kiss” is based on a similar tragedy, which left its lovers frozen in an eternal embrace. If only Mimi Rogers, who plays the doomed girl’s invalid mother, had graced us with an appearance in a steaming hot tub, all might not have been lost here. — Gary Dretzka
Life During Wartime: The Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
High and Low: The Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
While there’s nothing remotely unusual about a director making a sequel or prequel to a highly successful movie – Francis Ford Coppola accomplished both tasks simultaneously in “Godfather II” – Todd Solondz’ “Life During Wartime” sets a new standard for indie filmmakers. Thirteen years ago, in the inky black tragicomedy “Happiness,” Solondz introduced arthouse audiences to a New Jersey family that redefined the term, “dysfunctional.” By all outward appearances, the Maplewoods seemed to be a perfectly normal suburban clan. It wasn’t until Solondz scratched the surface of this veneer that a host of neuroses and psychoses sprang forth, like bats out of a cave in hell. From the writer/director’s point-of-view, the Maplewoods were America in microcosm. “Life During Wartime” revisits surviving family members and the ghosts of their lovers – a decade older, if not a minute less screwed up – now living in a Florida suburb. What separates “Life During Wartime” from other sequences is Solondz’ decision to re-cast the characters, if only because he thought it was a cool idea. “Happiness” did reasonably well for an indie movie, more than breaking even at the box office and scoring some top critics’ prizes. Even so, no one was breaking filmmaker’s door down, demanding a sequel, especially given current arthouse economics.
Two key pieces of the puzzle are revealed early on in the movie. Pedophile dad Bill Maplewood (Ciaran Hinds) is being released from prison after serving a 10-year bit, and his clueless wife, Trish (Allison Janney), has finally found a potential new husband, Harvey (Michael Lerner), who’s opened her shattered libido “like a tulip.” (Even after sex, however, Trish and Harvey look as if they’re posing for an Alka-Seltzer commercial.) The Maplewood sons, both having adjusted quite differently to their family’s public ordeal, now face the very real possibility of having to relive the horror if daddy comes calling, again. As scary as that prospect is, it’s Trish’s adult siblings (Shirley Henderson, Ally Sheedy) who demand the most emotional healing for their psychological scars, which haven’t healed much in 10 years. Simply put, they’re still wacko.
The youngest Maplewood son, Timmy (Dylan Riley Snyder), grew up believing his father is dead. He was disavowed of this notion after being daunting by classmates, who somehow know otherwise. Timmy not only fears being condemned to following in his father’s footsteps, but he’s also become consumed with questions about the nature of forgiveness and absolution in a world that could bring forth such monsters as his father and the 9/11 terrorists. To move forward, both sons know they may ultimately be required to confront their father and address their most disturbing inner thoughts. As such, “Life After Wartime” is only slightly less difficult to watch than was “Happiness.” For Solondz’ many admirers, however, the benefits will outweigh the pain. The acting, alone, is worth the agony. The Blu-ray version adds an interesting off-camera interview with the filmmaker, as he responds to questions posed by fans. There’s also an informative making-of featurette, an extended interview with cinematographer Edward Lachman and a booklet featuring an essay by film critic David Sterritt.
Also new from Criterion Collection is the digitally restored, hi-def edition of Akira Kurosawa’s 1962 crime thriller, “High and Low.” In this highly compelling adaptation of Ed McBain’s pulpy “King’s Ransom,” Toshiro Mifune stars as a wealthy industrialist who has just mortgaged his family’s future well-being by initiating a hostile takeover of his longtime employer’s shoe company. The younger executives fear that the owner’s conservative approach to the business will cause revenues to flatten out in the near future, unless he allows them to make changes in the designs. Immediately after a contentious meeting with his fellow executives, Mifune’s prideful Kingo Gondo receives a phone call from someone demanding a small fortune for the return of his kidnapped son. It doesn’t take long, however, for Gondo to discover that the extortionist has abducted the wrong child. Because his son had switched cowboy outfits with his playmate — the son of Gondo’s chauffer — the kidnapper was left holding a much weaker hand. Or, so it seemed. The question now becomes: how much is the life of an employee’s child worth? The dilemma: if Gondo pays the ransom with the money he’s raised for the takeover of his company, he risks financial ruin; if not, his reputation could be tarnished to the point where the company would suffer, anyway, because of the bad press. Indeed, among the suspects are Gondo’s friends and business associates, all of whom fear the takeover could put them in a more precarious position than the plotter.
Gondo elects to enlist the services of local police, who quickly realize they’re dealing with a criminal as cunning as he is diabolical. After failing to trace his calls, they are forced to put Gondo’s honor to the test. Once Gondo decides to cooperate, what had been a tense standoff between a stubborn businessman and an equally determined crook instantly transforms into a tick-tock police-procedural. The movie’s pace, tone and volume all literally turn on a dime, taking “High and Low” out of the controlled space of the industrialist’s well-appointed hilltop home into the streets, alleys and lower depths of Yokohama. The Criterion upgrade restores the original “Tohoscope” aspect ratio of 2.35:1 and four-track surround sound. It also contains commentary by Kurosawa scholar Stephen Prince; a making-of doc; video interviews with Mifune and Tsutomu Yamazaki, who plays the kidnapper; theatrical trailers from Japan and the U.S.; and a booklet with an essay by critic Geoffrey O’Brien. – Gary Dretzka
Monamour/Kick the Cock: Blu-ray
Live Like a Cop, Die Like a Man
The Secret of Dorian Gray
Dangerous Babes Collection
While several logical comparisons can be made of the movies by soft-core maestros Russ Meyer and Tinto Brass, the singular difference between the men can summed up in two words: boobs … butts. No set of enormous breasts was too big for Meyer’s camera to capture and Brass still wallows in his obsession with buttocks. While Meyer’s indie teases often appeared to be set at the intersection of sex and violence, though, Brass’ boudoir fantasies frequently focus on the connection between unbridled sex and cultural decay. As for ass-worship, Brass concedes, “A round behind speaks to me. … A face can be painted over with make-up, conceal its age or impurities; a mouth can spew cruel lies. A butt is definitely more honest than that. … Of course, I do not consider it detached from the rest (of a woman’s body).” Released in 2006, “Monamour” may stand as Brass’ final film. Last year, at the ripe old age of 87, he suffered an intracranial hemorrhage, from which, we hope, he’s recovering. “Monamour” features all of Brass’ trademark touches, including lots of body parts and faces reflected in mirrors; unabashedly hirsute armpits; spectacular settings; indescribably luscious female protagonists; Eurotrash cocksmen; and a rich gloss that really sparkles on Blu-ray. Even if it isn’t likely to be listed among the director’s classic works, “Monamour” is genuinely erotic, reasonably couples-friendly and an excellent testimonial to the romantic attractions of Mantua, Italy. In it, Anna Jimskaia plays Marta, the vivacious blond wife of an Italian publisher, who, after only six months of marriage, has begun to take their sex life for granted. Naturally frustrated by Dario’s inability/unwillingness to give her an orgasm, Marta succumbs to the charms of a handsome French artist she meets at a gathering of publishers in the ancient city. Leon has no trouble unlocking the door to her pent-up sexuality, which bursts into flame at a party at which Dario also is present. Even so, Marta leaves enough hints around their hotel room to inspire Dario to validate a friend’s belief that jealousy can be a potent aphrodisiac. Although there’s plenty of sex and booty shaking in “Monamour,” it’s the Mantua’s the lush setting and the magnificent frescoes of the Te Palace that linger in the memory.
A second disc in the Cult Epics package adds Brass’ award-winning short film, “Kick the Cock,” named after an old Dutch saying, meaning “peek in the kitchen,” although I don’t see the connection. Extremely butt-centric, Brass stars as a dirty old man, getting his rocks off watching his fetishized housekeepers go about their chores. Among the other bonus features are a new high-def master; a pair of making-of films; an animated comic strip by Franco Saudelli; coverage of the short’s Venice Film Festival premiere; a Spanish dance, performed by Angelita Franco, Anyone offended by the overt objectification of women’s bodies and leering Italian directors may want to skip the bonus material.
The latest bundle of Italian film rarities from RaroVideo is a mixed-bag of genre classics and a politically charged documentary essay. Fans of Italian exploitation flicks ought to already be familiar with director Ruggero Deodato, as an assistant director of “Danjo” and primary perpetrator of “Last Cannibal World” and “Cannibal Holocaust.” In between, Deodato directed the hyper-violent “Live Like a Cop, Die Like a Man,” which is best characterized as “‘Starsky and Hutch’ on Ducatis.” Alfredo (Marc Porel) and Antonio (Ray Lovelock) are dreamy Roman supercops, who bend more rules in 90 minutes than Dirty Harry did in his entire career. I lost track of the affiliations of the many dead gangsters, but the motorcycle chases are wonderfully choreographed and more exciting than anything Hollywood stuntmen were being asked to do at the same time.
Based on the Oscar Wilde novel, “The Picture of Dorian Gray,” Massimo Dallamano’s 1970 “Secret of Dorian Gray” updates the classic story of a man who tempts fate by selling his soul for eternal youth. The almost impossibly handsome Helmut Berger plays a rich European playboy, who starts out as a decent guy, but quickly becomes obsessed with his looks after seeing a portrait of him painted by a friend. That portrait serves both as a blessing – art patrons invite him to join their sordid little worlds – and a curse. No matter how hard he tries, Dorian can’t escape the truth it reveals whenever he revisits it. Like most other Italian genre specimens from the period, the cheeseball melodrama and horror are relieved by sexual interludes, visits to discos and scenic sojourns on luxury conveyances. To maintain this lifestyle, Dorian occasionally is required to service dowagers and queens of both genders. As his longtime friends age gracefully, though, Gray becomes more desperate. Berger could hardly have been a better choice for the role and he gets ample support from Herbert Lom, Richard Todd, Maria Rohm and Marie Liljedahl. Early presses of the DVD reportedly were defective, but the problem apparently has been acknowledged and fixed by RaroVideo. As is typical with the label, the upgraded visuals and sound greatly enhance the experiences and the interviews are almost as entertaining as the movies themselves
“The Anger” (a.k.a., “La Rabbia”) is a rarely seen exercise in Cold War agitprop, comprised of separate visual essays by Pier Paolo Pasolini and Giovanni Guareschi, prominent intellectuals from opposite sides of Italy’s gaping mid-century political divide. Both men address the question, “Why are our lives characterized by discontent, anguish and fear?” To back up their theses, they compiled a collage of images from newsreel footage, magazine articles and political pronouncements. Released in 1963, the discussions naturally focused on the decolonization of Africa and Southeast Asia; the arms race between the United States and Soviet Union; emerging evidence of a sexual and cultural revolution; and the pros and cons of Marxism and capitalism. Although the two men argue from very different points of view, both agree that the world may be hopelessly fucked … and the tumult usually associated with the 1960s had yet to happen. It’s all pretty weighty stuff and ultimately irrelevant to anything happening today. And, yet, there’s no reason anyone turned on by such discourse couldn’t find something in “La Rabbia” to be enjoy. Even more historical background on the times and essayists is provided in the bonus material.
The only thing separating Italian gialli and the vast majority of American cult and genre favorites is a vivid color palette and a certain technological proficiency. Cross-fertilization cuts both ways, as filmmakers openly borrow ideas from each other and study each other’s techniques. The video and DVD revolution has lowered cultural barriers even further. Mill Creek’s compilations of genre titles make it easy for buffs to immerse themselves in exploitation fare from the Crown International Pictures catalogue. The12 “locked and loaded” movies in the “Dangerous Babes” collection include: “The Virgin Queen of St. Francis High” (1987); “Sextette” (1978), with Mae West, Timothy Dalton, Ringo Starr, George Hamilton, Tony Curtis and Dom DeLuise; “Hot Target” (1985); “The Sister-in-Law” (1974), John Savage and Anne Saxon; “Night Club” (1989); “Weekend With the Babysitter” (1971); “French Quarter” (1978), with Virginia Mayo and Bruce Davidson; “Blue Money” (1972); “Noon Sunday” (1975), the first movie made on Guam; “Yellow Hair & the Fortress of Gold” (1984); “Click: The Calendar Girl Killer” (1990), with Troy Donahue and Ross Hagen; and “Separate Ways” (1981), with Karen Black, Tony LoBianco, Sybil Danning and David Naughton. Five of these titles are making their DVD debut here. – Gary Dretzka
Four Weddings and a Funeral: Blu-ray
Honeymoon in Vegas: Blu-ray
Be Cool: Blu-ray
Along with a “A Fish Called Wanda,” Richard Curtis and Mike Newell’s surprise 1994 hit, “Four Weddings and a Funeral,” helped revive the British romantic comedy as an exportable commodity. More significantly, perhaps, it did so without the benefit of Monty Python alums in the cast, as was the case with “Wanda.” For those American viewers who weren’t already a fan of “Mr. Bean” or “Blackadder,” Andie MacDowell was the only immediately recognizable face in the ensemble cast. Despite the British accents and vicar jokes, “Four Funerals” struck a universally recognized chord about important occasions, whether sad or happy, turn into roller-coaster rides. The movie arrives on Blu-ray with commentary, deleted scenes, wedding-planner and making-of docs and interviews.
Andrew Bergman’s “Honeymoon in Vegas” also made viewers laugh and cry, which is what some studio heads believe to be the ultimate compliment. There was no guarantee it would be a hit, either. Nic Cage, Anne Bancroft, James Caan and Pat Morita were known commodities, but Sarah Jessica Parker had yet to make a name for herself. “Swingers” and “Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas” were still a half-decade from opening, so the average Las Vegas visitor already was eligible to apply for Social Security. It was the opposite of hip. The ongoing Elvis-impersonator convention, around which so much of the film’s comedy was built, might have turned off as many young ticket-buyers as it attracted. And, yet, “Honeymoon in Vegas” remains a very easy movie to like. (The Flying Elvi have become a Vegas institution.) The Blu-ray arrives with any bonus features.
F. Gary Gray’s “Be Cool” is the sequel to Barry Sonnenfeld’s “Get Shorty,” which was an adaptation of an Elmore Leonard best-seller that itself would follow in short order by the novel, “Be Cool.” The differences between the iterations of “Be Cool” would be far greater than those separating the versions of “Get Shorty.” The biggest change was precipitated by some Hollywood genius’ decision to turn the roots-rock band in the novel into a hip-hop group, necessitating a wholesale retranslation of the book’s dialogue and attitude. John Travolta reprises his portrayal of tres cool gangster-turned-producer Chili Palmer, who’s discovered a singer (Christina Milian) he wants to promote to stardom. The problem is that she’s already mortgaged her future to a couple of record-biz sleazeballs, including a jive-talking white guy (Vince Vaughn) who pretends to be black. To set the singer free, Palmer is required to recall some of the skills he enlisted as a shylock in Miami. Also appearing are Steven Tyler, Uma Thurman, Cedric the Entertainer, Andre Benjamin, Gregory Alan Williams, Dwayne “Rock” Johnson, Harvey Keitel, Danny DeVito and James Woods. The Blu-ray extras include making-of featurettes, deleted scenes, a gag reel, interviews and music video. – Gary Dretzka
It takes skill to make the lives of average, everyday Americans sufficiently interesting to fill two hours of screen time. Somehow, the words “average” and “everyday” don’t translate into the language of drama and comedy. Spicing things up with a little sex and violence helps make the experience taste better, but, without them, bland lives are always going to result in bland entertainment. For a television sitcom to work, otherwise bland characters must be invested with a wellspring of wisdom that transcends common sense, or a sense of irony that makes scripted cynicism palatable. Such qualities, along with precise comic timing, allow them to stand out against dull suburban backgrounds, without also appearing to be subversive or too hip for the room. Hour-long dramas work best when in set in the kinds of workplaces – police stations, hospitals, courtrooms — where noteworthy things happen on a daily basis. Our most stimulating cities aren’t breeding grounds for people who are inherently interesting. For some kids, though, their bright lights and vibrant institutions hold a magnetic attraction for exceptional young men and women, like C.J., who we meet in “Lebanon, Pa.” That C.J. knows she’ll have to leave her friends and family behind if she wants to find success isn’t much of premise upon which to hang a two-hour movie. Neither, though, is watching her older cousin’s pondering whether he should to leave the big city behind and seek the solace of small-town life. For a movie like “Lebanon, Pa.” to work as entertainment, the intolerance and ignorance of the local yokels is exaggerated for comic or dramatic effect and an unlikely romance is thrown in for good measure.
“Lebanon, Pa.” is noteworthy for its willingness to play things pretty much down the middle and risk being as bland as most of its characters. It deals with serious issues – including abortion – in ways they might be handled in average, everyday families. This is to say, awkwardly and with temporary resolutions.
At 35, Will (Josh Hopkins) is a successful Philadelphia advertising executive, who doesn’t seem alienated from his work or particularly devastated by the loss of his longtime girlfriend. Interrupted at work by the news of his father’s death, Will packs up his VW bug – the expensive new model – and heads for Lebanon. He was raised there, but had been abruptly uprooted when his mother decided she hated the old man and wanted nothing to do with rural outposts. His relationship with his father was tainted by his mother’s unhappiness. Once back at home, Will becomes enchanted with the quiet charms of small-town life, including a pretty teacher (Samantha Mathis) who forgets she’s married long enough to enjoy a romp with the handsome city slicker. He reconnects with C.J. (Rachel Kitson) just as she’s about to make the most important decision of her young life. Her mother is no longer in the picture and her dad, a staunch Catholic, is close-minded on the subject of abortion. C.J. turns to Will as someone who might be objective and sufficiently open-minded to give her a full range of options. What she isn’t old enough to understand is that, when it comes to abortion, objectivity is next to impossible. Will is reluctant to get between relatives he barely knows and a take a position on a subject he’s unqualified to discuss. It’s turns out to be a lose-lose proposition for everyone involved, including a teacher who agrees to share her own experiences. Will’s finds sanctuary in a comfy neighborhood tavern, where he would like to know everybody’s name, but is introduced to the painful ramifications of infidelity. If the balance of Ben Hickernell’s drama is weighted on the side of tolerance and liberality, he doesn’t make the mistake of painting Lebanon as the capital of international hickdom and irrational prejudice. No one died and made his protagonist God. Nothing gets blown up and life goes on, regardless of the decisions made by the characters. Does that qualify as entertainment? If nothing else, the performances of Hopkins, Kitson and Mathis serve to make these “average, everyday” people interesting for, maybe, the first and only times in their lives. – Gary Dretzka
Rivers of a Lost Coast
Fly fishing once was an activity associated exclusively with landed gentry and tweedy pipe-puffers. Perhaps, it still is. For the most part, equipment was prohibitively expensive for most average Joes and, of course, it’s impossible to cast with a beer in one hand and a cigarette in the other. At elite clubs and private streams, anglers could spend as much time polishing their technique as they did hooking trout. It bore as much resemblance to fishing with live bait and lures as a Bentley did to a Chevy pickup, which was just fine with loyalists in both camps. A funny thing happens to elite pastimes when they become rooted in California soil. They become democratized and are made affordable to the masses. Justin Coupe’s fascinating documentary “Rivers of a Lost Coast” describes what happened to fly fishing when aficionados moved west and convinced a few NoCal good ol’ boys that this how fish should be caught. Before long, the upstarts began hauling 50-pound lunkers from rivers inaccessible to anyone without a Jeep or pickup truck.
For thousands of years, California-bred steelheads made their final runs to ancient spawning grounds in schools large enough to knock a man off his feet. Men who otherwise might have made their bones on drag strips or surfing became legends not only on their local waterways, but in the pages of magazines targeted at dweebs who may not have owned a pair of jeans, let alone driven a truck. Before long, northern California rivers and streams became as crowded as the 405 at rush hour, with shoulder-to-shoulder lineups of fly fishermen from around the world. Some of the men interviewed in “Rivers of a Lost Coast” were among the pioneers who first tested the coastal waters known only to Native Americans, Russian immigrants and loggers. Sadly, they also recall how man’s encroachment on the pristine, free-flowing rivers of northern California poisoned spawning grounds and forced flood-control measures that would block the salmons’ road home. Clear-cut loggers filled streamed with dirt, creating roads where fisheries once thrived. Tom Skerritt, who portrayed author Norman Maclean in “A River Runs Through It,” narrates the documentary, but lets the fishermen do most of the story-telling and legend-enhancement themselves. – Gary Dretzka
Quarantine 2: Terminal
Born to Ride
Something truly unusual happened in the planning stages of “Quarantine 2: Terminal”: it was made significantly better than the movie that inspired it. This qualifies as an upset, since the first “Quarantine” was a direct lift of the Spanish thriller “[Rec],” which itself spawned a sequel, albeit one that isn’t as good as its predecessor or “Quarantine 2.” Someone, probably writer/director John Pogue, decided not to follow the lead of “[Rec]2,” which was set in the same toxic apartment building as the one in first movie, a mere half-hour after the events of the first movie concluded. “Quarantine 2” also begins in the immediate wake of the original, but, here, the plague has somehow made its way to a plane about to leave LAX for Nashville. From here on in, spoilers lie. Suffice it to say, no sooner does the plane leave southern California airspace, than one of the passengers, at least, begins doing weird and exceedingly dangerous things. Pogue also made the right decision by having the plane make an emergency landing in Las Vegas, where the action is allowed to move into a much more spacious arena. Without giving anything more away, Pogue also gives his fans a far better reason to anticipate another sequel than the audience for “[Rec]2.” The only bad decision made here, I think, was not give “Quarantine 2” a wide theatrical release and back it with even a minimal marketing budget. But, what do I know?
“Turbulent Skies,” another thriller set in the unfriendly skies, takes a perfectly good premise and turns it into a turkey any film student would be embarrassed to show in class. Here’s how I see it: someone, probably writer/director Fred Olen Ray, came up with the idea of a staging a movie on a jetliner controlled by a computer, and having the maiden flight commandeered by a computer virus. The hook here is that the airline wants to convince investors it can save lots of money by eliminating pilots, and they’ve been invited to join the CEO’s dimwitted son on a cross-country flight. Instead of being given a normal amount of time and money to make a reasonably entertaining straight-to-DVD picture, Ray’s green light came with a $5,000 budget and a three-day production schedule. Basically, this limited the filmmakers to watching DVDs of “Airport” and “Airplane!”; stripping the thrills from “Airport” and laughs from “Airplane!”; and hiring a cast whose most bankable star is Caspar Van Dien. It’s ridiculous, but that’s what might endear “Turbulent Skies” to fans of low camp.
Van Dien returns in “Born to Ride,” an action flick about lovable bikers, corrupt politicians and greedy Native Americans. It doesn’t make much more sense than “Turbulent Skies,” the scenery is better. Van Dien and a buddy are heading for the Sturgis gathering, while being chased by a couple of ’roid freaks looking for a video tapes that links their gangster boss to the corrupt politicians. The bikers don’t even know they have it in their possession, though. There is a charming Roadrunner vs. Wile E. Coyote element to the chase, but not much else. – Gary Dretzka
Mick Jagger: The Roaring 20’s
Kate Bush: A Life of Surprise
Johnny Winter: Live at Rockpalast 1979
Puppet Monster Massacre
Andy Kaufman: The Death of Andy Kaufman
High Times Presents: Nico Escondidos: Grow Like a Pro
I never know what I’m going to find when I open a box of DVD screeners from MVD Visuals, a company whose catalogue includes an eclectic array of concert videos, rock biographies, documentaries and critical analysis, as well as wildly eccentric genre and grindhouse fare. Leading off this month’s selection is “Mick Jagger: The Roaring 20’s,” which puts a tight focus on the Rolling Stones co-founder’s “glory years.” Jagger turned 20 in 1963, so it probably isn’t an exaggeration to call the period between “I Wanna Be Your Man” and “It’s Only Rock ‘n Roll (But I Like It)” his most productive years as a writer and performer. Certainly, the Stones’ concert playlists remain heavy on songs from the decade. I would venture to say, however, that Jagger probably started having a lot more fun after he entered his 30s, when it no longer mattered if an album produced more than one hit single and he could focus on being a bon vivant. That’s for another DVD, however. This one features interviews and non-proprietary material from concerts and studio sessions.
On the other side of the celebrity scale is Kate Bush, a wonderful British singer who’s never much of a splash on this side of the pond. If Bush is familiar here at all, it’s probably for her heart-touching collaborations with Peter Gabriel. That doesn’t mean, however, that her work hasn’t been heard by moviegoers and in appearances on other musicians’ albums. That’s what happens when a singer has no appetite for touring or churning out albums every year. The two-disc “A Life of Surprise” should go a long way toward rectifying that discrepancy, at least in the eyes of aspiring singer-song writers. It features rare concert footage, interviews and testimonials from friends and collaborators.
Few musicians have rocked the blues like Johnny Winter has throughout his long career. He’s a proficient interpreter of traditional sons, but his real strength may be in concert performances that literally burn with energy and pink-eyed soul. “Live at Rockpalast 1979” is representative of his live shows of the period, when the Texas native decided to accentuate his blues roots and forgo the rock flash and glitz for which his brother, Edgar, was better suited. There’s nothing fancy here, but the German audience clearly enjoyed themselves.
“The Puppet Monster Massacre” is a self-described no-budget comedy enhanced by a raucous sense of irreverent humor and willingness to tread on subjects that previous puppet epics have considered taboo. That’s a long way of saying, these hand puppets may look innocent, but they play rough. Here, a group of teens agree to spend a night in a mansion that very well could be inhabited by monsters and ex-Nazis. Once the door to Pandora’s mansion is opened, however, it’s impossible to lock the demons back up. And, yes, bunny farts have been written into the narrative … lots of ’em.
Christopher Maloney’s 2008 documentary, “The Death of Andy Kaufman,” asks us once again to care if the comedian and performance artist actually died, as reported, or faked his death, for God only knows what reason. Fans have already been dragged down this road before and the only thing new appears to be a decent interview with Kaufman’s brother and visit to a Taos ashram, where sightings have been reported. Otherwise, the performance material is of public-domain quality and the archival material reveals almost nothing. If Kaufman is out there somewhere, it’s because he doesn’t want to be found, not to play some kind of cosmic goof on the world. Even if he did surface, the media circus probably would cause him to commit suicide.
“Grow Like a Pro” is a travelogue for pot connoisseurs and aspiring farmers, looking to take advantage of state legalization movements. Over the course of two hours, Nico Escondido tours America’s top medical grow facilities and offers guidance on indoor, greenhouse and outdoor cultivation techniques, targeted at beginners, “patients” and the advanced growers, alike. – Gary Dretzka
Stargate Atlantis: Complete Series Gift Set: Blu-ray
Omnibus: American Profiles
Conan: The Adventurer: Season One
Dennis the Menace: Season Two
Jersey Shore: Season Three: Uncensored
The Best of the Littles/The Littles: The Complete Collection
Unless one is a diehard fan of science-fiction and a subscriber to cable’s Syfy channel, it would be difficult to imagine how Dean Devlin and Roland Emmerich’s moderately successful 1994 movie, “Stargate,” evolved into one of the most successful multiplatform franchises in history. The decision to adapt the elaborately plotted genre flick to a widely syndicated television show no doubt was influenced by the fact that of the nearly $200 million “Stargate” made at the box office, $125 million of it was retrieved from markets outside the United States. This happened before the international marketplace surpassed the U.S. in overall revenues and modern multiplexes became as commonplace in northern Europe and Japan as they were here. “Stargate SG-1” began life on Showtime in 1997, and moved to what then was known as the Sci Fi Channel for the second half of its decade-long run. An animated off-shoot, “Infinity,” would only last a year on Fox’s Saturday-morning kids’ block, before “Stargate Atlantis” began its five-season run on Sci Fi/Syfy and “Stargate Universe” made an aborted two-year stint, beginning in 2009. A pair of direct-to-DVD movies – “The Ark of Truth,” “Continuum” – wrapped up the “SG-1” storyline, joining a half-dozen computer, on-line and pinball games, amusement-park rides, trading cards, novels and comic books in stores. There’s more “Stargate” to come apparently, but, right now, all eyes are on the Blu-ray compilation, “Stargate Atlantis: The Complete Series.”
Only a tad smaller than most tombstones, the 20-disc box set contains all 100 episodes, several of which have been extended from their original length. They are accompanied by 88 audio commentaries, with various cast and crew members. Each season has its own series of behind-the-scenes featurettes, labeled “Mission Directives.” There are set tours, seasonal roundups, character intros, effects and stunt demonstrations, bloopers, deleted scenes and other goodies. Just for the record: “Stargate Atlantis” explores the no-longer-mythical city of Atlantis, built thousands of years ago by the Ancients and current home base for an elite expedition team from Earth.
Funded by the Ford Foundation as a way to bring culture to the masses, via television, “Omnibus” remains one of the most ambitious and influential shows in the history of the medium. Watching it, again, from a distance of almost 60 years, is an experience both exhilarating and depressing. Even if there’s no scarcity of genuinely entertaining shows on our cable and broadcast networks, the only program that approaches “Omnibus” in nutritional value is “CBS News Sunday Morning,” and it begins so early my VCR has yet to wipe the sleep out of its eyes. The show was hosted by Alistair Cook, the go-to Brit for all producers attempting to impress American audiences. Among the luminaries featured on this two-disc collection are William Saroyan, William Faulkner, Frank Lloyd Wright, Pearl Buck, E.B. White, Sugar Ray Robinson, James Thurber and Leonard Bernstein. The set includes a 20-page booklet with written contributions by Richard Leacock, Rosemary Thurber, Edgar S. Walsh and the Archive of American Television
Shout! Factory is bringing out the vintage shows “Conan: The Adventurer” and the second-season set of “Dennis the Menace.” Based on a series of novels by Robert E. Howard, the animated incarnation of “Conan” defies any quick and breezy synopsis, without making the mythology sound absurd, anyway. Suffice it to say, “Conan” takes place in the far-distant past, when men with superhuman strength could be brought down by wizards who understood human frailties better than most of today’s doctors. Fortunately for the forces of righteousness, he walked tall and carried a sword forged from Star Metal and with faith in his god, Crom. The half-hour episodes were intended to be shown in syndication in the same neighborhood as “He-Man,” “G.I. Joe” and “The Transformers.”
CBS’ 1959 Sunday-evening sitcom, “Dennis the Menace,” was a live-action adaptation of Hank Ketcham’s popular comic strip. Jay North played the mischievous towheaded boy, whose antics would be considered tame today, even by the standards set by most curmudgeonly suburban neighbors. Looking back, Dennis’ behavior even fell short of that now associated with ADHD. Even so, the show remains one of the few family-oriented programs that successfully made the transition from the funny papers to prime-time, and still is capable of raising a smile of nostalgic recognition. Bonus features include a 2010 interview with co-stars Gloria Henry and Jeannie Russell about everything from casting to the weekly shooting schedule and various troubles on the set; a 2007 audio-only radio interview with Henry and Russell; the 1960 “Donna Reed Show” episode “Donna Decorates,” which guest-starred Dennis the Menace; and the original show promo, credits, and commercials.
In the third season of “Jersey Shore,” cast and crew returned to Seaside Heights from Miami Beach, where the guidos and guidettes never felt completely at home. The feeling was mutual. The season’s most significant change found Angelina Pivarnick replaced by Deena Nicole Cortese, a longtime friend of “Snooki” and a self-described “blast in a glass.” Otherwise, it’s just more of the same fussin’ and fightin’, breaking up and making up, pranking and drinking that made the show the most unlikely hit of all time. “Uncensored” may be too strong an adjective to describe the PG-13 antics and language of America’s first faux family of underachievement.
From Mill Creek comes “The Best of the Littles” and “The Littles: The Complete Collection.” The characters who populate the ’80s ABC Saturday-morning series originated in the children’s novels of John Peterson. “The Littles” features a family of tiny humanoid creatures, with mouse-like features, who live in a house owned by the Bigg family. They are joined in their adventures by a full-sized boy, Henry. – Gary Dretzka
Zin! Zin! Zin! A Violin
Very young musicians will enjoy this collection of animated stories, all based on musical themes. The title entry, in which a lonesome trombone is joined by various instruments to form a chamber group of 10, features music by Marvin Hamlisch. Contributors to the five other stories include Aretha Franklin and some of the country’s top illustrators of children’s content. The DVD arrives with a read-along feature. – Gary Dretzka