Say what you will about Roman Polanski, the man can still direct movies. The fact that no one on either side of the Atlantic Ocean has devised a way for him to return to the United States without either party losing face – including the victim, who has long forgiven his perverted fetishes – is evidence of a dysfunctional and vindictive judiciary. (Don’t take my word on it, watch the documentary “Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired.”) In his adaptation of Yasmina Reza’s Tony-winning “God of Carnage,” Polanski demonstrates how peaceful relations between otherwise normal couples can devolve over a short period of time into something approximating the ferocity of armed combat. In this way, at least, “Carnage” resembles “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” and other staged arguments against mixing booze with marriage. Here, the combatants include two well-off New York couples – John C. Reilly and Jodie Foster, Christoph Waltz and Kate Winslet — who agree to work out a no-fault agreement after their sons are involved in a playground skirmish, which leaves one boy with two seriously damaged teeth. Together, they iron out a precisely worded statement acknowledging the incident and factors that led up to it, while carefully weighing every adverb and adjective. Insurance will cover the injury, but it’s important to the moms, especially, that some kind of resolution be reached, in as civil and non-pejorative a manner as possible. No sooner do the parties agree on the wording, however, than they begin exchanging demands for codicils, amendments and formal apologies. Needless to say, the new wrinkles ignite flames that cause a nearly complete breakdown in decorum.
Just when it looks as if the parents of the antagonist will do the smart thing and leave for home, the other couple suggests they not end the meeting on a sour note. Coffee and dessert are served, one of the women gets violently ill, and the husbands decide this would be a good time to open a bottle of single-malt scotch and sample some Cuban cigars. If nothing else, the guys figure the fireworks will be easier to enjoy if they’re stewed. To this end, Reilly gets the ball rolling by admitting to kidnapping his daughter’s pet hamster and dropping it off at a local park to fend for itself. Horrified, Winslet uses the admission as a weapon in her defense of her child – a notorious brat who had reacted violently to being accused of snitching — and after a couple of drinks Foster agrees that her husband’s thoughtless act was indefensible. Instead of tag-team match between couples, the fight erupts into a verbal free-for-all. The hugely skilled actors do a fine job interpreting the material, of course, but Polanski deserves the bulk of the credit for keeping “Carnage” from becoming overly stage-bound and claustrophobic. The handsome set is spacious enough to contain the action, without forcing the characters to get in each other’s face. After weeks of rehearsal, the actors are as comfortable and familiar with the floor plan and furniture as they would feel in their own homes. Kept to a brisk 80-minute length, the film demands little more from viewers than their attention. When, finally, the camera pulls back from the apartment, they’ll be rewarded with a totally satisfying surprise ending involving the boys and the forlorn hamster. The Blu-ray edition adds a making-of featurette and an amusing Q&A interview with Reilly and Waltz. — Gary Dretzka
Louder Than a Bomb
It’s somehow appropriate that the documentary “Louder Than a Bomb” is being released on DVD in the same month as the NCAA basketball tournament kicks off and elite high school players are given an opportunity to impress college and pro scouts in tournaments of their own. The games are hotly contested and fans, players and coaches wear their emotions on their sleeves. Some of the young men and women will go on to become stars at the next level or, perhaps, skip college altogether. The mad skills of one or two of the most talented athletes might even inspire an equipment manufacturer to name a shoe after them. Chicago poetry slammer Nate Marshall, one of the students we meet in “Louder Than a Bomb,” aspires to becoming the “first spoken-word brother with a shoe deal.” After watching Greg Jacobs and Jon Siskel’s undeniably exhilarating film, you’ll be pulling for Nate to do just that. You might even shed a tear of joy for the other contestants, many of whom come from dirt-poor backgrounds and will have their coaches to thank for college scholarships and a real shot at finding a meaningful career, just like their schools’ star athletes.
It’s said that Chicago is the home of the poetry slam, an activity that, in less than a decade, spread from the Get Me High Lounge and Green Mill Tavern, to nightclubs and stages around the globe. The competition came of age in 1994, when it debuted on HBO’s “Def Poetry Jam.” Last year’s National Poetry Jam attracted more than 75 teams from the U.S. and Canada, and one from Australia. “Louder Than a Bomb” follows four teams as they prepare for the eighth annual poetry competition between schools in the Chicago school system. A spotlight is turned on individual contestants from each of the teams, as well. The kids’ personal stories, when merged with the rapping, rhyming and cheers from the audience, are powerful stuff. The poetry can’t help but be semi-autographical, as the sentiments speak directly to issues shared by their peers. Knowing that the returning champions represent a school outside Chicago’s elite magnet and college-prep program only adds to the drama of the 2008 contest. The previous year’s achievement was made doubly impressive because the inner-city youths took top prize in their first appearance.
“Louder Than a Bomb” is the latest title from the OWN/Documentary Club to find distribution on DVD. Last month’s entry, “Most Valuable Players,” told a similarly rousing story about teams competing in a high school musical-theater competition, in Pennsylvania’s Lehigh Valley. It is Oprah Winfrey’s intention to use her name and network to promote noteworthy documentaries, just as she’s previously done with books on her syndicated show. In addition to following the contestants, the filmmakers describe the interaction between students and teachers, some of whom can’t disguise the strain that comes with enforcing discipline and serving as a sounding board for kids with personal problems. At a time when many parents, politicians and educators have written off the Chicago schools as being unmanageable, it’s wonderful to observe students and teachers working together for a common educational goal and not accepting non-existent budgets and decrepit facilities as an excuse for underachievement. Watch “Louder Than a Bomb” and you’ll feel a whole lot better about the future of our country. – Gary Dretzka
The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo
Typically, I anticipate English-language remakes of foreign movies with the same dread I reserve for rom-coms starring television stars who believe they’ve outgrown the confines of the small screen. They’re rarely, if ever, an improvement on the original and only serve to reward American audiences too lazy to read subtitles. In the capable hands of director David Fincher and writer Steven Zaillian, however, their interpretation of “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” easily qualifies as the exception that proves the rule. It may not improve on the 2009 Swedish original, but the changes to the first installment of the Stieg Larsson’s “Millennium Trilogy” demonstrate respect for both the nearly 700-page novel and Niels Arden Opley’s film. Avid readers shouldn’t feel slighted by either adaptation. This time, Daniel Craig portrays the disgraced financial journalist, Mikael Blomkvist, who’s hired by the least demented member of the powerful Vanger clan to investigate a murder that occurred years earlier. The disappearance of the man’s niece, Harriet, has haunted the old man ever since he began receiving anonymously sent mementos on his birthday. As an investigative reporter, Mikael might be able to discover clues overlooked by police.
I think that most people would agree that Noomi Rapace owns the essential role of Lisbeth Salander and could have stepped right into the Hollywood version. Her replacement, Rooney Mara, may not improve on Rapace’s interpretation of the troubled punk investigator, but its close enough to earn a cigar … and justify her Academy Award nomination. The same can be said for fellow cast members Christopher Plummer, Stellan Skarsgard, Robin Wright, Joely Richardson, Yorick van Wageningen, Goran Visnjic, Steven Berkoff and Tony Way. Neither can Fincher’s work be faulted. Not listed among the cast members in either iteration is Old Man Winter, whose presence can’t be underestimated. Shooting took place during one of Sweden’s coldest winters on record. Fincher and his fave cinematographer, Jeff Cronenweth, capture every frost-bitten minus-degree reading, especially in scenes shot on the Vangers’ private island. Also intriguing are Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’ soundtrack, the incidental music chosen by Fincher, Angus Wall and Kirk Baxter’s editing, the locations and amazing credits sequences.
All are discussed extensively in the commentary track and mini-docs included on a separate second disc of the Blu-ray. (The DVD screener I received added only commentary.) A half-dozen of the featurettes are devoted to the casting of Mara and the evolution of her portrayal of Salander, one of the most complex characters in contemporary cinema. The Craig/Blomkvist transformation is put under the microscope. The only real question that remains after perusing the bonus material is the status of the other two English-language sequels. “TGWTDT” wasn’t cheap to make and it didn’t crack the $100 million milepost at the domestic box office. While the second installment of the trilogy works well in print, however, any Hollywood-produced adaptation of “The Girl Who Played With Fire” would require a lot more tweaking than the first movie. Salander’s ordeal is far from over, but much of her torment is internalized in first sequel. Rapace’s terrific performance can’t disguise the fact that “TGWPWF” is the bridge that connects “TGWTDT” to the more satisfying “The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest.” Replacement director Daniel Alfredson’s adaptations of the sequels are readily available on DVD and Blu-ray here for anyone who wants to get a headstart on the Hollywood sequels that may never come. The trilogy was re-edited and extended for Swedish television. The six-episode mini-series is available from Music Box as “Dragon Tattoo Trilogy: Extended Edition.” – Gary Dretzka
The Sitter: Totally Irresponsible Edition: Blu-ray
Everything happens very quickly in “The Sitter,” the 2011 comedy for which Jonah Hill didn’t earn an Academy Award nomination. That movie was “Moneyball” and, in it, he plays an untested and somewhat intimated baseball geek, who, under Billy Beane’s tutelage, matures into a formidable sports executive before our eyes. “The Sitter” finds Hill in the familiar position of a young-adult slacker, except that, here, his one great talent is performing cunnilingus. It’s a small gift from the Almighty, but the only thing that keeps his Noah Griffith from being completely ignored by women. As a favor to his divorced mother, Noah agrees to babysit the children of the couple hoping to set her up with an eligible bachelor. The kids are a distinctly mixed lot: 13-year-old Slater (Max Records) is an anxiety-ridden closet case; 8-year-old Blithe (Landry Bender) is a Paris Hilton wannabe; and 10-year-old Rodrigo (Kevin Hernandez) is a Nicaraguan adoptee, well on his way to a career in urban terrorism. Needless to say, Noah has his hands full. When his “girlfriend,” Marisa (Ari Graynor), calls him from a party, requesting “party favors,” Noah grabs the kids, packs them into the family mini-van and lights out for her drug dealer (Sam Rockwell, in a wildly bizarre performance). At first, the kids aren’t at all pleased with Noah’s decision. After a strange brush with cops, a burglary at the diamond store owned by his estranged father, a stop at a hip-hop nightclub and a few dances at the party, however, they decide their sitter isn’t a dick, after all. A late-night confrontation between Noah and the drug dealer at the merry-go-round in Central Park threatens to get ugly for everyone involved, but some quick thinking on Blithe’s part gives them a chance to make it home before their parents’ notice they’re missing. (To get into the nightclub, Hill convinces the doorman that the kids are midgets, with wee Blithe adding, “I’m a grandmother.”)
Director David Gordon Green (“George Washington”) and freshman writers Brian Gatewood and Alessandro Tanaka weren’t at all reluctant to pepper their story with extremely crude language and put impressionable children not only in harm’s way, but also in the company of drug dealers and alcohol abusers. In some ways, “The Sitter” resembles a kiddie version of Martin Scorsese’s “After Hours.” Is it funny? Very often, it is. Parents of young children should know going into it, though, that its R-rating is fairly earned and “The Sitter” shouldn’t be used as babysitter, no matter how cute and harmless Hill looked on “Saturday Night Live” and in “Moneyball” and commercials for “21 Jump Street.” The Blu-ray package gives viewers the choice of watching a rated and unrated version; deleted and alternate scenes; a gag reel and outtakes; and three making-of featurettes. – Gary Dretzka
Gainsbourg: A Heroic Life
To the extent that Serge Gainsbourg is known on this side of the Atlantic at all, it’s for his scandalous duet with Jane Birkin, “Je t’aime … moi non plus,” and his second noteworthy collaboration with Birkin, the gifted Anglo-French movie star, Charlotte Gainsbourg. (Birkin is best recalled here, perhaps, as one of the first women to flash her pubes in a mainstream movie, “Blow-Up.”) Dead, lo these many years, Gainsbourg still is considered to be a national treasure. Joann Sfar’s delightfully offbeat “Gainsbourg: A Heroic Life” is one of the most intriguing biopics I’ve seen in a long time. Adapted from his own graphic novel, “A Heroic Life” employs music, puppetry, hallucinations and other special effects in an effort to understand what made the multifaceted artist tick. As a young, Jewish art and music student in occupied France, Gainsbourg was exposed to images of great beauty while also being surrounded by the specter of being arrested by French police and turned over to Nazis. Much to the consternation of his parents, he would give up art and his classical training to become a chanson who sang jazz, pop and rock-inflected songs of his own creation. In his new career, he embodied the popular image of the French saloon singer as a melancholy loner with an omnipresent cigarette dangling from his mouth.
He wasn’t an attractive man, by most standards, but his artistry attracted some of the country’s great beauties, including Brigitte Bardot, to his boudoir. In Sfar’s imagination, the adult Gainsbourg (Eric Elmosnino) is accompanied at all times by effigies – whose faces bear an exaggerated resemblance to the Nazi Party’s “Eternal Jew” – who serve as mirrors, agitators and confidantes. The Gainsbourg we meet in “A Heroic Life” is as self-destructive as he is prolific. Besides the Gitanes, he’s an alcoholic and a masochist. Before emerging as a superstar, he risks alienating an entire nation by writing a song, in which lollipop licking and fellatio are performed with equal gusto, for a teen pop sensation. Later, he and Charlotte record a song with incestuous overtones and he makes a rock album about Nazis. A reggae version of “La Marseillaise” brought death threats from right-wing veterans of the war in Algeria. In the end, his death was as inevitable as that of Amy Winehouse. “A Heroic Life” is a remarkably compelling movie, but not one that welcomes curious viewers with open arms and an air kiss. It’s never easy to watch someone you admire slowly but surely commit suicide. The great music and beautiful women playing Gainsbourg’s many lovers do make the medicine go down smoothly, though. The DVD adds a making-of piece; galleries of Sfar’s lyrical storyboards and character sketches; and views of the artist at work. – Gary Dretzka
The Muppets: Wooka Wocka Value Pack: Blu-ray
Wallace & Gromit’s World of Invention: The Complete 6-Part Series
Jim Henson’s world of make-believe has undergone great upheavals over the last 50-plus years, not the least of which being the maestro’s untimely death in 1990. What began as a late-night sensation in Washington, D.C., would go nationwide over the next decade in appearances with his puppet menagerie on several popular talk and variety shows, including several incarnations of “Tonight” and Ed Sullivan’s show. At the time, they were a hipster’s delight, right up there with Mad magazine and post-Beat poetry. When the puppet troupe was invited to join “Sesame Street,” it inspired a new generation to learn their A-B-C’s, while also following a decidedly progressive social agenda. The Boomer crowd would find the original puppets once again on season one of “Saturday Night Life,” if only for 13 episodes. It wouldn’t take long, however, for Miss Piggy, Kermit the Frog, Rowlf the Dog et al. to find new life in prime-time specials, the syndicated “Muppets Show” and in “The Muppet Movie” (1979). After this came the deluge, of course. In addition to various splinter projects, including “Fraggle Rock” and “Muppet Babies,” there were several other movies, a couple minus the Muppet gang. A merchandising empire also was inspired by the characters’ popularity. His premature death, at 53, of an ignored bout with bacterial pneumonia, threw a huge monkey wrench into the Muppet juggernaut. Among other things, it delayed a planned sale to Disney for a dozen years. Family members would continue turning out various Muppet and Creature Shop entertainments, but much of the thrill was gone.
“The Muppets” cleverly acknowledges both the commercial hysteria that accompanied the Muppets rise and their subsequent battle to remain fresh and relevant. It is the first Muppet film to open in theaters in 12 years and, for some young viewers, probably their first introduction to most of the auxiliary characters. Going into the project, it was difficult to gauge just how much gas was left in the tank was anyone. Blessedly, Disney made a stop at a filling station before committing to spending $45 million. (Sounds modest by today’s standards, doesn’t it?) The movie could hardly be more entertaining. Veteran television director James Bobin (“Da Ali G Show”) was put at the helm, with Jason Segel and Nicholas Stoller putting the words into everyone’s mouths. Segel also stars as the peppy fanboy, Gary, who travels to Hollywood with his puppet brother, Walter, and longtime girlfriend, Mary (Amy Adams), who simply couldn’t be any cuter. When they arrive in L.A., the trio realizes all that remains of the empire is a tour of the Muppets’ rundown studio. Walter, who’s slipped away from the group, overhears a discussion in which a greedy oilman, Tex Richman (Chris Cooper), discusses his evil plans for the Muppet Theater, under which sits a fortune in oil. In the deal, he also acquires rights to all Muppets properties and character likenesses. (Not unlike the deal with Disney, minus the evil intentions.) After locating a lonely Kermit in his Beverly Hills mansion, the trio volunteers to help raise the $10 million necessary to buy back the theater before Tex can take control. It takes a while to round up the old gang and decide that a telethon is the only way to accomplish the nearly impossible task. A network run by Rashida Jones has a timeslot open and is willing to release it if they can find a celebrity host. The rest, as they say, is Muppet history. The whole thing, from star cameos to “Rainbow Connection,” is right out of the Henson playbook. There’s also the irreverent wisecracks from the balcony, Miss Piggy’s sassy double entendre, a cliffhanger ending and songs that diabetics would be wise to turn out, including the Oscar-winning “Man or Muppet.” The Blu-ray adds some sketchy commentary by the filmmakers; the amusing making-of featurettes, “Scratching the Surface” and “Explaining Evil: The Full Tex Richman Song”; deleted scenes and a blooper reel; an in-character read-through of the script; promotional spoof trailers; and a downloadable soundtrack album.
I don’t think “Wallace & Gromit’s World of Invention” found a home on American television, so “W&G” completists should take due note of its release on DVD and Blu-ray. In it, the inveterate tinkerer and cheese lover, Wallace, and his canine better half, Gromit, primarily serve as hosts on a show devoted to the inventions and brainstorms of people as wacky as they are. The stop-motion characters, molded from plasticine modeling clay on metal frameworks, are limited to introductions and interstitials. As such, the producers of “World of Invention” could have borrowed the title of an exhibit at London’s Science Museum, “Wallace & Gromit Present a World of Cracking Ideas.” The inventions are heavy on robotics, but there is also room for the occasional giant flying mantra ray and pedal-powered submersible. All six episodes are presented here, along with “Your ‘World of Invention’ Shorts,” which includes such do-it-yourself construction experiments as “Atmosphere Railway,” “Wind-Powered Sprinkler,” “Fin Ray Grabber,” “Air Rocket,” “Spy Camera” and “Upside-Down-O-Scope.” – Gary Dretzka
Battle Royale: The Complete Collection: Blu-ray
I don’t want to accuse Suzanne Collins of stealing ideas from other peoples’ books and movies, but it’s interesting that both “Battle Royale” and “Hunger Games” envision a blood sport in which teens are required to kill other teens to ensure their own survival. “Battle Royale” and “Battle Royale II,” also adapted from a novel, demand that they employ youthful resourcefulness to a task that’s not otherwise associated with juvenile delinquency and disobedience to their elders. It caused a huge sensation in Japan and wasn’t shown here until late last year (after its DVD release). The reality that American kids already are killing each other with some regularity may have had something to do with the reluctance of an American distributor to pick it up, only to be accused of inspiring the next Columbine. The conceit governing “BR” is that the arrival of a new millennium coincided with a widespread epidemic of lawlessness among Japanese youth. Desperate, the government decides to organize a survival game in which a class of 9th Graders is captured, shipped to a remote island and given three days to eliminate all but one student. Each student is handed a weapon, provisions and a GPS-equipped dog collar, which also contains a listening device and explosives. If any of the kids refuse to participate or more than one contestant survives the games, they’ll be killed, anyway. In the sequel, the collars are linked to one belonging to a fellow classmate, ensuring they’ll act as a team or perish as individuals. In the sequel, too, the government decides to pit the students against a gang of terrorists, led by a survivor of the previous contest, plaguing the world from an island outpost. Among the things pissing them off is the popularity of the Battle Royale competition, itself. Again, teenagers who may have begun their day as pacifists, vegans, PETA volunteers or wimps are, within hours, required to storm a beachhead, not unlike the GIs in “Saving Private Ryan” and scale cliffs leading to the stronghold. Yes, it’s genius.
The movies are every bit as violent, gory and frightening as one might expect from Japan’s genre specialists. Credit for that here belongs to veteran action director Kinji Fukasaku – who defied his doctors by beginning the sequel while in the late stages of prostate cancer – and his son, Kenta, working from a novel by Koushun Takami. The teacher in the original is portrayed by the great action star, Beat Takeshi. His character is knifed by a student, but heals in time to join the class on the island as an instructor and exact his punishment on misbehavers. He’s replaced in “II” by Takeuchi Riki, but reappears in flashbacks. (Even Sonny Chiba makes a cameo.) I’m not quite sure what the movies want us to think about the role of the United States in the narratives, but one of the terrorists’ crimes bears a resemblance to 9/11and subsequent imposition of the Patriot Act. In a making-of featurette, Fukasaku describes a scene of carnage he recalls from the final days of World War II and, later, peaceful protests that were thwarted by armed police. The special commemorative boxed set includes two versions of the 2000 “Battle Royale,” a copy of the 2003 sequel and a fourth disc of extras that will vary greatly in value to U.S. viewers. – Gary Dretzka
A Lonely Place to Die: Blu-ray
Here’s a terrific English-language thriller that saw almost no distribution in the United States, despite the presence of a star of hit prime-time series (“Grey’s Anatomy,” “In Treatment”), some spectacular scenery and much edge-of-your-seat action. Just because you haven’t heard of “A Lonely Place to Die,” however, doesn’t mean it’s not worth your attention. Melissa George plays the leader of a team of climbers testing the vertical cliffs of the Scottish Highlands. After a scare, they reach a forested plateau where they discover a little girl who’s been kidnapped and buried in a box with a visible air vent. No sooner has the frightened girl been rescued than the climbers are targeted by snipers armed with high-power, long-distance rifles. The craggy landscape allows for hiding places, but one fewer than would have been needed to protect one of the original five climbers. George’s character, Alison, narrowly avoids a similar fate after she and a less fortunate chap leave the girl with the other couple and attempt to find help. It isn’t clear immediately what the snipers want with the little girl, who apparently speaks only Serbo-Croatian. The cat-and-mouse game continues for another hour, before moving to the nearest northern city, where the very freaky Beltane Fire Festival is being celebrated. Now, however, we learn that the bad guys are being pursued by a trio of mercenaries in league with a wanted fugitive from the Balkan war. In addition to the girl’s well-being, at stake is a $20 million ransom. The chase through the streets of the ancient town is nearly as exciting as the one in the mountains, although far less scenic. “A Lonely Place to Die” was directed by Julian Gilbey and co-written by his brother, Will (“Rollin’ With the Nines,” “Rise of the Foot Soldier”), both of whom mastered the sport before shooting the film. They seem to do everything right here, including making the threat of falling rocks feel very real to the characters and viewers. – Gary Dretzka
Gustavo Taretto’s gentle romantic comedy, “Sidewalls,” reminds me of the line, widely credited to Martin Mull, “Writing about music is like dancing about architecture.” Set in Buenos Aires, where building codes apparently are accorded the same respect as visiting soccer teams, the movie opens with an essay on the city’s anarchic skyline and the alienation that comes from such an undisciplined and impersonal approach to life. After making its case in this regard, “Sidewalls” drops a pair of innocents into the deep end of the pool and demands they swim or sink, emotionally. A wafer-thin Pilar Lopez de Ayala plays Mariana, a former architect who’s taken up window dressing and brings mannequins home to decorate and keep her company. Javier Drolas, who doesn’t look any more robust than Ayala, portrays the Web designer Martin. His whole life is wrapped up in Internet exchanges with anonymous people and games. That they meet at all is a small miracle, considering the city’s size and street life that resembles a page from “Where’s Waldo?” But, as we learn, finding the elusive cartoon character is an activity Mariana enjoys doing, so it fits. After an encounter with Martin at an indoor swimming pool, the couple spends a night together. It doesn’t seem to amount to much, really, but the prospect of romance lingers in the air like static electricity. The fun comes in observing the whimsical machinations Taretto fashions so Martin and Mariana can reconnect. “Sidewalls” provides a fun and unabashedly romantic experience for viewers, whether or not they understand Spanish or have ever danced about architecture. – Gary Dretzka
Letter Never Sent: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
The War Room: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
Making great art in the Soviet Union, even after the death of Josef Stalin, was rarely an option for the communist creative class. Still, given the context, some amazing work did survive, and not all of it was merely a variation on the common hammer-and-sickle, triumph-over-adversity, workers-paradise theme, although there was plenty of that, too. Only years after the collapse of the Iron Curtain did movie buffs in the west find access to the more obscure masterpieces of eastern-bloc artists. “Letter Never Sent” remains a terrific example of a film that extolls Soviet ideals, while also providing great entertainment value. Mikhail Kalatozov is best known here for “The Cranes Are Flying” and “I Am Cuba,” both which benefit mightily from the sometimes astonishing cinematography of Sergei Urusevsky. “Letter Never Sent” is a survival drama set in the Siberian wilderness, where a team of four geologists is searching for diamonds, not for personal gain, but for the good of the state. After being dropped off on a beautiful, if completely isolated river basin, the team quickly gets to work. It is summer and their duties require mostly digging and toting. The youngest geologists are enthusiastic and in love, while the two older men have been through this unrewarding drill several times already and are only along for the heavy lifting. In a stunning reversal of usual fortune, Tanya (Tatyana Samojlova) finds a diamond about six feet deep in a hole dug into a hillside. Their “eureka” moment brings great celebration, including the ceremonial opening of the last bottle of vodka. After drawing a map and detailing their discovery, the team is ready to be extracted. Overnight, however, a fire erupts across a large section of the forest. It traps them, leaving only small avenues of escape. In the scramble to get to the river, their radio is rendered useless; one of them is killed by a falling tree; and another is seriously wounded in a fall. Sergei and Tanya attempt to carry him to the river, but the man sacrifices himself for the good of the team and mission. Even so, the journey proves too strenuous for Tanya and nearly destroys the emaciated Sergei. After finally reaching the river, already revealing signs of colder times ahead, Sergei manages to fashion a crude raft and, unconscious, floats downstream among the early ice floes. In a final moment of clarity, he fantasizes a vision of a mine, where happy Soviet workers exploit the earth’s bounty, enriching Kremlin coffers and making him a people’s hero. When his frozen body is finally discovered, the map and diagrams are found intact on his body. “Letter Never Sent” is graced with some of the most imaginative and evocative cinematography one is likely to find in a black-and-white movie, anywhere. The Criterion Blu-ray is splendidly restored and includes an essay by film scholar Dina Iordanova.
Also from Criterion Collection is D.A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus’ fly-on-the-wall political documentary “The War Room,” in a restored high-definition edition. Relevant now that we’re in the midst of an especially hideous presidential campaign, the film reflects on the hotly contested 1992 race for the White House. Bill Clinton would win his party’s nod for the general election, but only after surviving “bimbo eruptions” and other traps laid by his Republican opponent. Clinton’s reputation ultimately would be damaged by his horndog hubris, but, in 1992, his team and voters both were willing to buy his excuses and lies. Politics got really ugly after Clinton assumed office in1993. Dirty tricks and pranks have since given way to character assassination and we probably haven’t seen the worst of it yet. “The War Room” does shine a light on how far the science of politics had come since the days of back-room negotiations and brokered conventions. A decade later, the Internet would make James Carville and George Stephanopoulos’ methodology seem just as primitive. What’s valuable in the Blu-ray edition are the excellent featurettes that point out the ramifications of what happened in 1992 and the update the key players. Among them are “Return of the War Room,” a 2008 documentary in which Carville, Stephanopoulos, Paul Begala and other advisers reflect on the what they had wrought; a conversation on the difficulties of filming in the campaign’s fast-paced environment; a fascinating and often hilarious panel discussion, hosted by the William J. Clinton Foundation and featuring Carville, Clinton adviser Vernon Jordan, journalist Ron Brownstein and surprise guest Bill Clinton, who picked up the mike and added his own testimony; and an interview with strategist Stanley Greenberg on the increasing importance of polling. – Gary Dretzka
National Lampoon’s the Legend of Awesomest Maximus: Blu-ray
If Will Sasso’s interpretation of Curly in the upcoming “Three Stooges” is as lame as his portrayal of the title character in “The Legend of Awesomest Maximus,” he may want to consider hitting his agent over the head with one of Moe’s mallets. The National Lampoon product is yet another parody of sword-and-sandal epics, ranging from “300” to “Gladiator.” The setting here is the Trojan War, even if the name of Sasso’s character implies a Roman heritage. “Legend of Awesomest Maximus” exists mostly as an excuse to give other funny names to historical figures: King Looney and Ellen of Troy; King Erotic of Greece; the doomed warrior, Testiclees, whose Achilles’ heel is in his nut sack; Maximus’ greedy wife, Hotessa; and the self-descriptive, Minoritees, Pervius, Testiclees’ Little Cousin and Milfia. Oh, yeah, Jeff Kanew’s comedy also shows off voluminous pairs of breasts. I, for one, was ignorant of the fact that women in ancient Greece and Troy had such easy access to boob jobs. If any of that strikes a chord in you, go for it.
Others, looking a truly funny and inventive parody, ought to find a copy of “Clown Hunt.” Barry Tubbs’ outrageous comedy takes pot shots at goons-with-guns horror flicks and such Outdoor Channel staples as “Duck Trek,” “Women of Hunting” and “Ted Nugent: Spirit of the Wild.” Here, the hunters are taking advantage of the open seasons on clowns – one for happy clowns and another for sad ones – in a huge reserve in Texas. The targets come in all shapes, sizes and varieties, from Pierrot to Emmett Kelly. They exist in the wild, doing the same things as any species would do, left to their own devices. Somehow, though, when clowns get back to nature, the results are a million times creepier. In response to the annual assault on their habitat, killer clowns stalk the hunters and bomb them from the air with water balloons. The only recognizable actors in “Clown Hunt” are David Keith, singer Robert Earl Keen and rodeo legend Tuff Hedeman. Among other things, Tubbs proves that a tight budget doesn’t necessarily preclude funny material. – Gary Dretzka
Snow White: A Deadly Summer
Fans of movies in which inbred homicidal hillbillies terrorize naïve suburban tourists will revel in the depravity that is “Resurrection County.” It begins in typical fashion when two couples arrive in a wooded retreat for a few days of fun. Before they get there, they stop at a convenience store where they meet some of the locals, who look like rejects from “Sons of Anarchy.” The two male campers light out on the ATVs, leaving the gals behind. Instead of listening to the local sheriff’s advice by staying on the assigned paths, they get lost and ask directions of a gun-toting good ol’ boy. Things get nasty when the man’s brother interrupts the discussion, waving his gun around and threatening the Yankee scum. What no one expects is that one of the campers is armed and willing to protect himself and his friend from further harm and humiliation. He shoots and kills the moron brother in self-defense – no defense for innocence in these hills – thus triggering a chain of events that will include kidnaping, rape, torture, more rape and lots more torture. And, things just keep getting worse. Yeah, this is one you’ll want to hide from the kiddies.
Simeon Halligan’s “Splintered” combines several different horror tropes, including ones involving teen campers in jeopardy, virgins in jeopardy, non-virgins in jeopardy, inescapable nightmares of childhood trauma, the boogey man in the abandoned building, unheard screams, evil priests, vindictive orphans and werewolves. The result is a good-looking, if not particularly interesting or scary horror hybrid that even at 85 minutes seems long. Holly Weston (“John Carter”) plays Sophie, who we meet as a child being attacked by a goat-like creature that might have been an abusive relative. While walking through the woods in pursuit of a perceived menace – always a good idea – she and friend chance upon an abandoned building. On a dare, she enters the building and is quickly locked up by someone or something lurking in the shadows. Although it looks as if she’s hopelessly trapped, Sophie manages to open the lock and search the surroundings. While sneaking around, Sophie meets a young man who appears during the daytime hours to tend the beast’s needs. Naturally, the rest of the camping party falls prey to the creature in one unpleasant way or another. Then, a priest arrives to explain what’s happening in the building and what might be causing Sophie’s nightmares.
When viewed on the same day as “Snow White: A Deadly Summer,” “Splintered” looks like “Psycho.” Here, a teenage girl is sent to a tough-love disciplinary camp after being caught with her boyfriend in a stolen car. Snow (Shanley Caswell) isn’t a bad girl, but she’s been in a funk ever since her widowed father (Eric Roberts) married a woman who would turn out to be her own personal wicked stepmother (Maureen McCormick). The camp is full of kids just like Snow and none takes kindly to the over-the-top exhortations of the former Navy SEAL owner and his lackey. Naturally, Snow suspects that something or someone is lurking in the bushes and she wonders if it might be the one responsible for the death of a camper years ago. What she can’t possibly know is that her stepmother has been aware of the legend all along and is orchestrating events through her “mirror, mirror on the wall.” Just in the nick of time, Snow gets some help of her own from beyond the grave. – Gary Dretzka
!W.A.R.: !Women Art Revolution
Lynn Hershman Leeson’s insightful documentary looks back at the roots of the feminist-art movement and extends them to the current day, when post-feminist and post-post-feminist artists are reaping the rewards of their foremothers’ labors. After more than 40 years of protest and the usual infighting that leftists engage in when they have nothing better to do, the pioneers are starting to find the respect denied them by mainstream curators, their male peers and critics. Much of the archival footage looks pretty silly in hindsight, but it’s of a whole with other aspects of the 1960-70s counter-culture. In their protests against the objectification and forced subservience of women, several of the artists created work that only served to encourage condescension and ridicule. (A naked woman, even one who’s righteously indignant and threatens castration, will always be met with approving glances by men, no matter their ideological persuasion.) Even so, over time, progress undeniably was made. “!Women Art Revolution” benefits greatly from testimony provided by artists and other observers able to contextual the art and performance pieces. Statistics, though, often speak louder than angry words. The argument that women artists have been marginalized, when they weren’t downright ignored, is borne out by the historical lack of representation in museums, galleries, textbooks, exhibitions and commercial equity. And, for the most part, that inequality has been institutionalized by politically liberal educators, curators and buyers. This shouldn’t come as any surprise to anyone who’s studied art history or visited an art museum in the last hundred years, or so, but that the same practices were allowed to continue in this seemingly enlightened period simply was a cross women artists and activists found too heavy to bear. It took the accessibility and clarity of Judy Chicago’s “The Dinner Party” to open the door to museums for other women and for meathead congressmen to publicize the work through their mean-spirited diatribes and threats. Among the women spotlighted here are Miranda July, the Guerilla Girls, Yvonne Rainer, Judy Chicago, Marina Abramovic, Yoko Ono, Cindy Sherman, Barbara Kruger, B. Ruby Rich, Ingrid Sischy, Carolee Schneemann, Miriam Schapiro and New Museum founder Marcia Tucker. The film also features a score by Carrie Brownstein, Sleater Kinney and “Portlandia.” – Gary Dretzka