By Gary Dretzka Dretzka@moviecitynews.com
The DVD Wrapup: American Dream, Joe + Belle, Barbarella, Chesty Morgan, Kirk Douglas … More
The American Dream
Micro-budget indie pictures are so commercially fragile that it hardly seems fair to question marketing and distribution decisions made on its behalf by people paid to know about such things. On the cover of the DVD version of “The American Dream” is a picture of a Marine in full-dress uniform, with an American flag waving in the background. The setup and timing made me suspect it might be a knockoff of “Act of Valor,” during which actual Navy SEALs demonstrated their skills at vaporizing terrorists and rescuing CIA-trained damsels in distress. Full of skull-exploding action and gung-ho devotion to duty, “Act of Valor” needed an instant sequel about as much as America needed another war to wage. Judging solely from the cover art, I had no reason to believe Jamil Walker Smith’s debut feature wouldn’t be as much a tool for recruitment as “Act of Valor.” It wasn’t until “American Dream” was more than halfway over that its true colors were revealed. I’m still not sure if they’re red, white and blue, however.
The first thing to know about the movie is that its original title was “Make a Movie Like Spike.” The second is that the poster art for the festival release clearly made “American Dream” look substantially more complex thematically than the face of the Marine on the DVD cover. Smith and Malcom Goodwin play Ronald and Luis, longtime friends, who, after graduating from high school, enlist in the corps. Luis had applied to film school, but the short movie he submitted wasn’t deemed of high enough quality to qualify him for enrollment. For his part, Ronald simply wanted to see what the world looked like beyond the confines of their L.A. neighborhood. Barak Obama is about to sworn in as President and it seems as if all things are possible for highly motivated young men and women of color. Moreover, Obama’s campaign promise to end the war in Iraq indicated to these teens that they wouldn’t be placed in harm’s way for very long. So, for most of the first half of “American Dream,” we watch Luis record all of the events leading up to their departure for the war, from the good-bye parties and hugs, to last-minute hookups and hangovers. Because they’re volunteers, no one feels it necessary to curse President Bush or volunteer to take them to Canada, as might have been the case during the Vietnam era.
Luis continues to film everything he sees in Iraq, from the messing around that serves to kill time and build camaraderie between missions, to the frequent mortar attacks and raids of nests of suspected insurgents. Luis even films himself and Ronald after they’ve been separated from their unit and taken refuge in an abandoned building, awaiting rescue or death. These scenes are interspersed with home-movie footage likely taken by someone else, back home in Los Angeles. In Luis’ mind, his honest portrayal of blacks and Hispanics in organic settings and wildly divergent situations is exactly the kind of movie Spike Lee might have made in similar circumstances. He also hoped it would be his ticket to film school. The effect is chilling. Even if “American Dream” asks a few more questions than it answers, it’s a movie that deserves to be seen by more than the handful likely to be drawn to the recruitment-poster cover. – Gary Dretzka
Some Guy Who Kills People
If the independent-film industry had its own Walk of Fame, Kevin Corrigan’s star would be embedded in the sidewalk alongside such actors as Steve Buscemi, John Turturro, William H. Macy, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Paul Giamatti, Parker Posey, Sarah Polley, Chloe Sevigny, Julianna Moore, Patricia Clarkson and Catherine Keener. He’s appeared in more than 100 films in his career — now in its third decade — and I’d be surprised if the combined budget for all those movies equaled that of “Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End” or “John Carter.” The Bronx native has played far more than his fair share of slackers and misfits, who, like Ken Boyd in “Some Guy Who Kills People,” have inner lives that are far more interesting and complicated than the ones visible to other characters and audiences. After spending a stretch of time in a mental hospital, suffering from the traumatic effects of a beating he took at the hands of high school bullies, Boyd is back at home drawing violently graphic comic books and working at an ice-cream parlor for minimum wage. Slowly, but surely he’s putting his life back together. Does it include exacting revenge on his attackers? Maybe or maybe not, because he’s just learned that he’s the father of a delightful young girl and a pretty British woman his age has taken a shine to him. In any case, being told that the bullies finally are being served their just desserts doesn’t seem to disturb him. (Splatter-horror enthusiasts surely will enjoy the grotesque nature of the murders.) Coincidentally, too, Boyd’s mother (Karen Black) is dating the police detective (Barry Bostwick) investigating the case. Even when all the evidence points directly at Boyd, however, the cop isn’t so sure. “Some Guy Who Kills People” works pretty well as a horror/comedy – as opposed to a black comedy – with a genuinely tender side, involving the daughter and girlfriend. These days, that’s a pretty unusual combination. – Gary Dretzka
Wind Blast: Blu-ray
In the not too distant future, fans of Chinese action pictures could become as familiar with the amazingly rugged locations of China’s arid Gansu province as Monument Valley became to lovers of John Ford’s Westerns. Located at the geographical center of the PRC, with borders on Mongolia and the Yellow River, Gansu can claim among its attractions the Gobi Desert, the Jiayugan Pass of the Great Wall, remnants of the Silk Road, the Mogao Grottoes and many magnificent temples and monasteries. More to the point of “Wind Blast,” it has badlands the equal of any in South Dakota and vistas surprisingly similar to those of our own Great Basin. It was writer/director Gao Qunshu’s intention to create in this wonderful landscape a contemporary Chinese Western, also informed by police- and bandit-movie conventions and elaborately choreographed action scenes. Toss in some terrific wire-work and the result is a wildly engrossing cross-genre entertainment. The characters pursue each other on horses, construction vehicles and SUVs, and fight with guns, knives, explosives and martial-arts techniques more common to mainland Chinese than Hong Kong. In the two-hour long chase, a notorious contract killer and his moll are chased by a team of bounty hunters and posse of cops. A powerful mob boss hires the bounty hunters to collect potentially damaging evidence being carried by the killer and would be of great value to the police. All of the participants are capable of using the territory to their advantage. It’s a lot of fun to watch, as much for the scenic beauty and action, as the over-the-top acting of Duan Yihong (“Hot Summer Days”), Francis Ng (“Turning Point”), Xia Yu (“Electric Shadows”), Ni Dahong (“A Woman, a Gun and a Noodle Shop”), Charlie Yeung (“After This Our Exile”), Zhang Li, Yu Nan, and martial arts star Wu Jing (“Shaolin”). The Blu-ray looks great and adds a pretty interesting making-of featurette. – Gary Dretzka
Mac & Devin Go the High School: Blu-ray
Snoop Dogg may not display the range of fellow hip-hoppers working in movies these days, but no one can touch him when it comes to playing stoners whose only ambition in life is to stay high and have fun. Certainly, it isn’t much of stretch from the Snoop Dogg we see on stage, talk shows and on the sidelines of sports events. Sean Penn, James Franco and Brad Pitt have turned in remarkably credible performances as stoners in “Fast Times at Ridgemont High,” “Pineapple Express” and “True Romance,” respectively, but it isn’t likely we’ll see those characters any time again, soon. It’s difficult to imagine Snoop portraying anyone other than a stoner, whose Buddha-like observations are imbued with logic only longtime pot-heads can fully appreciate. For the purposes of “Mac & Devin Go to High School,” a casting director would have been nuts to look any further than Snoop to play the world’s oldest high school senior and least threatening dope dealer on the planet. The gag here is that the only thing possibly keeping nerdy Devin (Wiz Khalifa) from becoming valedictorian and being accepted into MIT is being partnered with Mac (Snoop) in an all-important chemistry project. Naturally, Devin considers Mac’s participation to be a disaster waiting to happen and a complete waste of time. Instead, being totally cool, Mac not only supervises Devin’s evolution as playa’, but he also saves the day in the chemistry lab. Everything else is what you probably could expect from a movie about the joys of smoking pot at an institution named N. Hale High School. The music’s pretty good, though. – Gary Dretzka
Joe + Belle
The Disappearance of Aeryn Gilleran
Normally, when a publicity blurb compares a previously unknown movie to a classic, it’s best to reserve judgment or ignore it completely. This is especially true when the quote is taken from a review by a critic who’s even less well-known than the DVD, itself. So, when I saw “Joe + Belle” and “a lesbian ‘Thelma & Louise,’ in the same sentence, I pretended to be from Missouri and said, “Show me.” From Israel, “Joe + Belle” not only talks the talk, but it also walks the walk … right to the edge of the abyss. The better news is that Veronica Kedar’s debut feature can stand firmly on the four feet of its protagonists, without the benefit of comparisons to Ridley Scott and Callie Khouri’s immensely popular and influential female buddy adventure from 1991. Set largely in cosmopolitan Tel Aviv, “J+B” stars Kedar and Sivan Levy as the title characters. Joe is drug trafficker, who’s just returned from a run to Thailand and plans to hand over the stash to a friend, Abigail (Romi Aboulafia), whose clientele frequent the resorts of Eilat. Belle is a quirky, if unbalanced young woman, who, after a stint in a mental hospital, decides to break into Joe’s apartment and commit suicide in her tub. Joe doesn’t quite know what to do with Belle, but she allows her to tag along as she makes the rounds of local bars. Joe’s ex-boyfriend has become a pest, by leaving messages at all hours and coming over uninvited after he hears she’s back in town. He makes the mistake of coming over when Belle is in the apartment by herself and she uses Joe’s pistol – poorly hidden in the microwave oven – to shoot him. Not visibly upset by the sight of her former boyfriend bleeding out on her kitchen floor, Joe grabs the gun and puts another hole in his body. Unaware that Abigail has been having an affair with the deceased, Joe asks to borrow her van and help her dispose of the body, which she does. It then takes Abigail a few hours to call her friend, a crooked cop, to ask him what she should have done, instead.
In the meantime, Belle has introduced Joe to the pleasures of girl-girl sex. When they learn of Abigail’s betrayal, the pair high-tail it by bus to a truly remote hamlet, currently under siege by rockets lobbed at settlements by Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip. While there, the desperadoes befriend an ethically lax cop of their own and fall further in love at a depressing little café on open-mike night. Sensing the hot breath of the law on their necks, Joe and Belle head out on their own to places unknown, while rockets land around them. So, not quite “Thelma & Louise,” but the characters grow on us, even knowing that the boyfriend didn’t deserve to be murdered and heroin trafficking is several times more anti-social than robbing a small-town market at gunpoint. “J+B” feels very much like an American indie, right down to the terrific performances by unknown actors and its many loose ends. Based on what’s revealed in the making-of featurette, its micro-budget also demanded that it become something of a guerrilla production.
In their dealings with the LGBT community, I think it’s safe to say that U.S. law-enforcement agencies have come a long way in the last 30 years. Sloppy police work and overt bigotry no longer are tolerated, if only because the penalties for such malfeasance are steep. Clearly, the protection of the law doesn’t apply in countries where politicians and police officials aren’t nearly as concerned about being punished for their own crimes. Vienna would seem to be as sophisticated and lawful a city as there is in Europe, so the case described in “The Disappearance of Aeryn Gilleran” is all the more shocking because it takes place there. Gretchen and John Morning’s devastating documentary chronicles the efforts of veteran New York police officer Kathy Gilleran to discover what happened to her son, a United Nations researcher and former Mr. Gay Austria, who disappeared in 2007 and almost certainly died within hours of his last sighting. As a cop, Gilleran expected to be accorded the same professional courtesy by Vienna police that she would offer any police officer whose child had died in her Upstate jurisdiction. In fact, Gilleran was treated as if she should be ashamed of her son’s sexuality and take them at their word that they did everything in their power to discover the fate of her son. They didn’t, of course. Instead of tracing the obvious leads and some Gilleran uncovered on her own, the Vienna police spent their time inventing unlikely scenarios and falsifying evidence. (They said he was depressed over being diagnosed with AIDS, for example, knowing he was HIV-negative.) Eventually, the cops wrote his death off as “spontaneous suicide.” Everywhere she turned, including the gay social club at which her son was last seen, she hit a brick wall. As near as anyone can figure, something happened at the club that caused him to run, naked, from there to the Danube Canal, into which he plunged and likely drowned. It took his mother two years to collect even that much evidence, along with a long-submerged theory about a cover-up involving highly placed members of the club. Like the truth, the body was never recovered. According to Gilleran’s website, “The Disappearance of Aeryn Gilleran” (a.k.a., “Gone”) will air on Austrian television for the first time next week. I, for one, am anxious to see what happens next. – Gary Dretzka
The Casserole Club
As undernourished as it is, Steve Balderson’s period comedy, “The Casserole Club,” is a cross between “Mad Men,” the failed CBS drama “Swingtown” and John Waters’ “Serial Mom.” Set in typically middle-class suburb in the early 1960s, it describes the weekly gatherings of a neighborhood recipe club and how it became an easy excuse for drinking too much and trading partners. If they lived on Long Island, instead of southern California, the men and women in “Casserole Club” might have attended PTA meeting with some of the characters in “Mad Men.” In “Swingtown,” male commuters brought the Playboy Philosophy with them on the train home from their jobs in Chicago’s Loop, hoping their wives would serve their meatloaf in Bunny outfits. Thirty years later, any one of the women might have served as the model for Kathleen Turner’s murderous character in “Serial Mom.” Almost nothing could be easier than satirizing the actual behavior of mid-century suburbanites, who, in the wake of Eisenhower-era conformity and its institutionalized complacency, spent their money to claim neighborhood bragging rights on everything from the cutest kids and most-spacious station wagon, to the fanciest lawn ornaments and most desirable spouse. When such one-upmanship became tiresome, legend has it that the FDA approval of oral contraceptives, in 1960, made it significantly safer to cheat and/or swing, just like on TV’s “Peyton Place.” Like “Mad Men,” “Casserole Club” reminds us of the copious amount of alcohol that were consumed by these upwardly mobile, middle-class Americans, simply to get through their days without taking out their anxiety and aggression on the people they married and spawned. In some cases, swinging allowed couples to save their marriages – temporarily, at least — while also working out their frustrations and fantasies on someone else’s wife or husband. I’m not sure that’s what Balderson had in mind with “Casserole Club,” which straddles the line separating kinky comedy and melodrama, but it has one thing going for it that “Peyton Place” didn’t: nudity. Yes, even in the ’60s many people removed their clothes before having sex … ask your grandparents, if you don’t believe me. It’s a rather obvious point, but “Casserole Club” wouldn’t have been nearly as entertaining without it. It also helps that several of the actors are recognizable from their work in higher-profile projects, including Daniela Sea, decidedly more femme here than as Max/Moira on “The L Word”; former Backstreet Boy, Kevin Scott Richardson; former Go-Go, Jane Wiedlin; and veteran character actor, Susan Traylor. The DVD adds a making-of piece. – Gary Dretzka
Barbarella: Queen of the Universe: Blu-ray
Chesty Morgan’s Bosom Buddies: Blu-ray
Ilsa: Harem Keeper of the Oil Sheiks
Zoom In: Sex Apartments
True Story of a Woman in Jail: Continues
Watching the Blu-ray edition of “Barbarella” after all these years, I was struck by several things: the first and most obvious is how wonderfully retro the special effects and sci-fi set designs remain today, even in the piercing glare of hi-def; how much Lindsay Lohan resembles the French comic-book super-diva and, accordingly, the 30-year-old Jane Fonda, who portrayed her; and that the PG rating still allows for a mid-air, zero-gravity striptease, during which Fonda’s boobs and nipples are clearly visible. (Clearly, the MPAA can’t be bothered to upgrade ratings and protect modern families from things deemed less than shocking 40-some years ago. Today, it would be rated “R” or trimmed to meet “PG-13” specifications.) At the time of its production, Fonda was married to director Roger Vadim, who, like John Derek, habitually married the female leads in his movies. It prompted the many comparisons of Fonda to Vadim’s former wife, to fellow “sex kitten” Brigitte Bardot. It took back-to-back Best Actress nominations – “They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?” and “Klute” – and misguided propaganda tour in North Vietnam for the media to drop that label and substitute it with “Hanoi Jane.” As conceived by comic-book author Jean-Claude Forest, Barbarella was a thoroughly modern 41st-century woman, not at all reluctant to use her sexual wiles to further her investigations of intergalactic intrigue. Here, she’s been asked by the President of Earth to track down the evil genius Durand Durand, inventor of a machine capable of killing people softly, by according them too much sexual pleasure. Along the way, Barbarella encounters outlandish characters played by John Phillip Law, Anita Pallenberg, Milo O’Shea, Marcel Marceau and David Hemming, as the revolutionary leader Dildano. If it weren’t for the sexuality and star power, “Barbarella” could have passed for an episode of the hit British series, “Doctor Who,” which began in 1963. What’s neat about the new Paramount release is how good the 44-year-old movie looks in Blu-ray. The psychedelic color scheme holds up very well, as does the audio. Sadly, the only bonus feature is a vintage trailer. I would have loved to have seen the deleted scenes and the recollections of Fonda or someone who knew screenwriter Terry Southern. If you’re so inclined, pick up Roman Coppola’s “CQ,” which, in 2001, imagined what might have been happening behind the scenes of a movie very much like “Barbarella.”
If there’s anything that brings out the high-school sophomore in adult men, it’s a bust that measures 73 FF. That vital statistic, alone, made Chesty Morgan (a.k.a., Lillian Wilczkowsky) a name recognized in frat, fire and grind houses throughout North America from 1972 to 1991. And, yes, her breasts were – and continue to be, at 75 – 100 percent real. The two grindhouse epics she made in 1974 for legendary soft-core auteur Doris Wishman – “Deadly Weapons” and “Double Agent 73” — comprise Image Entertainment’s Blu-ray package, “Chesty Morgan’s Bosom Buddies.” Also included is “The Immoral Three,” a 1975 knockoff in which a considerably less buxom stand-in is killed off in the first reel, leaving her horny daughters to take over where Chesty left off. Like “Austin Powers,” “Deadly Weapons” and “Double Agent 73” are parodies of James Bond and other spy flicks from the 1960s. In the latter, a camera is implanted in her left breast, as a way of confirming the death by asphyxiation of members of a notorious drug gang. If you’ve already guessed that Chesty smothers her victims with her boobs, go to the head of the class. Apart from this cheap thrill, the movies are nothing more than excuses to display Morgan’s assets on the big screen. In a cheap blond wig, she looks more like Dolly Parton’s grandmother than Ursula Andress or Joey Heatherton. As is made clear in the trailer reel included in the package, along with production stills, Wishman’s reputation was built on noir-inspired sexploitation flicks (“Bad Girls Go to Hell,” “Another Day, Another Man”) and nudie-cuties (“Blaze Starr Goes Nudist,” “Nude on the Moon”), thus drawing frequent comparisons to Russ Meyer. Morgan’s greatest cinematic moment came would come a couple of years later, when she was hired to play Barberina in “Fellini’s Casanova.” Although her scene can be easily accessed on the Internet, it ended up on the floor of the maestro’s cutting room.
Like the personal story of the actress known as Bettie Page, Morgan’s intriguing history would make a terrific movie. Born in Poland, Lillian Wilczkowsky was sent to Palestine after her mother was grabbed off a Warsaw street and presumably sent to a concentration camp. Her father died in the uprising of the Warsaw Ghetto. After growing up in a Israeli kibbutz, Lillian married an American and moved with him to New York, where he owned butcher shops and they had two daughters. In 1965, her husband and two employees were murdered in what the tabloids described as the “Icebox Murders.” In 1972, a man she dated suggested that she consider going into burlesque. Lillian feels insulted, but comes to realize that her physical attributes outweigh anything else she might be able to offer a potential employer. It doesn’t take long for her to become a show-business sensation. Because of Lillian’s thick Polish accent, Wishman was required to dub all of her dialogue in their two movies together, but her voice wasn’t much of a problem on the stage, where she was merely required to reveal her 73s, tell a couple of jokes and, sometimes, allow customers to cop a feel. The latter would result in several well-publicized busts – pun intended – and an even greater income. Her second husband was National League umpire Dick Stella. Like her oldest daughter, who was killed in 1984, Stella would die three years later in a freak automobile accident. At last report, Lillian was living a comfortable life in Tampa, where she owns a home on the bay and an apartment building. A member of the Burlesque Hall of Fame, the former Chesty Morgan experiences back pain from carrying around the weight of her breasts for more than 50 years – she refers to herself as a “late bloomer” – but it doesn’t stop her from doing odd jobs around the house and walking to the store as often as possible. Her glory days will live for eternity on the Internet. That sounds like a pretty good movie to me.
Other recent sexploitation releases include the second entry in the “Ilsa” trilogy and two more installments in the Nikkatsu Erotic Films Collection. “Ilsa: Harem Keeper of the Oil Sheiks” finds Dyanne Thorne in the Middle East, years after her stint as “She Wolf of the SS” and before her transformation as “Tigress of Siberia.” Ilsa labors as the sadistic headmistress of a charm school for a power-mad sheik’s harem of imported sex slaves, including a millionaire’s daughter, a movie star and a champion equestrian. She pleases her boss by devising a scheme in which some of the women under her command are literally turned into sex bombs, tricked out to explode when they experience an orgasm. Besides Thorne, “Harem Keeper of the Oil Sheiks” is enhanced by the presence of Russ Meyer regulars Haji and Uschi Digard and “Nubian bodyguards” Tanya Boyd and Marilyn Joi. Some scenes of torture and violence aren’t for the faint of heart or easily offended, but anyone able to read the title should know that already.
There’s nothing funny about rape, even in the movies, and the creators of “Zoom In: Sex Apartments” probably weren’t begging for laughs in the brutal attacks on Japanese women by an insane piano tuner in a ninja outfit. The stylized rapes unquestionably were designed to be outrageously absurd, however. There’s no disguising the horror that comes in watching his victims’ loins being torched, certainly, even if censors forbade the exposure of public hair and genitalia. All of the rapes occur near a nearly empty apartment complex in the kind of desolate wasteland not often seen in movies from Japan. The jarring blend of colors, music and violence appear to pay homage to Dario Argento, in whose giallo women don’t fare much better. “True Story of a Woman in Jail: Continues” is just that, a sequel to the story of hardened convict Mayumi, who gave as well as she got in the first installment. This time, she’s emerged from solitary confinement to find an all-new gang of felonious fiends turning a meek, young female prisoner into Yakuza bait. As women-in-prison flicks go, the “True Story” series can’t be beat for sheer over-the-top carnage and perversions that wouldn’t fly in genre pictures made in the U.S. Bonus features include trailers and liner notes by Jasper Sharp. – Gary Dretzka
Jesus Henry Christ
No one plays moms on the verge of a nervous breakdown quite as well as Toni Collette. Indeed, in Showtime’s “United States of Tara,” she portrays a half-dozen of them, sometimes simultaneously. In Dennis Lee’s offbeat comedy, “Jesus Henry Christ,” Collette plays the single mother of a freakishly brilliant son, Henry, who was artificially conceived in a Petri-dish. For reasons that become clear in the early stages of the movie, Patricia is no fan of human beings of the male persuasion. Through artificial insemination, she can have her sperm and impregnate herself, too. The craziness begins even before Henry is able to walk, as he begins to form complete sentences and mimic his elders. By the time he’s 10, Henry (Jason Spevack) has dragged the truth about his birth from his nutty, ex-cop grandfather, causing him to embark on a search for his biological father, using Post-It notes to collect clues. Turns out, Henry shares things in common with an outcast girl in his school, Samantha. Her brilliance, however, is tempered by the constant taunting she receives at the hands of bullies who accuse her of being a lesbian. She insists that she isn’t, but it’s tough to argue after her likeness was inconveniently used on the cover of her dad’s book, “Born Gay or Made That Way?” Her father, Dr. Slavkin O’Hara (Michael Sheen), accommodates his daughter by attempting to recover all extant copies of the book and burning him in their empty pool. He meets Henry in one of the local book stores, where he’s just finished reading the book in a single sitting. O’Hara senses that only a 10-year-old carrying his genes would be capable of doing such a thing. Moreover, he also uses Post-Its as a way to collect his thoughts.
“Jesus Henry Christ” is largely an exercise in applying glue to two disparate movie families and seeing what sticks. The characters bear a passing resemblance to those in “The Royal Tennebaums,” even if their individual stories lack similar gravitas. I’m not quite sure that the families here qualify as dysfunctional, but they’re close enough for the festival circuit. The actors give it their all, however, and this should be enough for fans of Collette and Sheen. The kids will be seen in better pictures, as well. – Gary Dretzka
One needn’t hail from the great state of Washington to find something interesting in the site-specific rock-umentary “SpokAnarchy!,” but it definitely helps. More than the punk-rock music on display, the film describes what life was like in the 1980s for outcast kids and young adults in cities as far off the beaten path as Spokane. In the days before MTV, CDs and the Internet, countercultural change in the Pacific Northwest could best be described as glacial. Or, so it seemed to kids who preferred the Ramones and Sex Pistols to the Seattle Seahawks, hunting and top-40 radio. If a Mohawk, dog collar and green hair could still attract attention in New York and L.A., imagine the reaction to punk fashion and uncloseted gays in flyover country. “SpokAnarchy!” couldn’t have been made if a critical mass of like-minded young people hadn’t been reached in Spokane, the largest city between Minneapolis and Seattle, and some prescient filmmakers weren’t there to record it. Although classified as punk, the music produced by the growing number of bands also showed the influence of such acts as Devo, Talking Heads, B-52’s, Led Zeppelin and, of course, Black Sabbath. Police tried in vain to shut down the movement, but it took hard drugs, booze and a desire to make it in L.A. to put a dent in the scene. “SpokAnarchy!” locates the survivors and interviews them about the experience of growing up weird and unwanted in Spokane. Much time is devoted, as well, to an anniversary reunion of the bands and scenesters, held a couple of years ago. Like every other town its size, Spokane has grown more culturally diverse and the mainstream has expanded to include all sorts of things once considered freaky. There’s lots of music in the documentary and a visit to a museum dedicated to the art, publicity material and music of the period covered.
“Rockwell” is a straight-forward recording of a 2009 concert marked by the diversity of the musical groups and collaborations between artists. Among the acts performing at London’s O2 arena were Robert Plant, Tom Jones, Joss Stone, Lulu, Razorlight, Beverley Knight, Escala, David Gray and Dan Gillespie Sells. The highlights for geezers like me include Plant re-interpreting hits from his Zeppelin years and a May-November duet with Joss Stone and the ageless Tom Jones. The show culminates with a joint performance of the Beatles’ classic “”Let It Be.” The Rockwell concerts, which began in 1990, benefit Nordoff-Robbins Music Therapy. The charity, a favorite with Brit musicians, provides over 35,000 therapy sessions a year and runs post-graduate training programs in music therapy for children and adults. – Gary Dretzka
TCM: Greatest Classic Legends: Kirk Douglas
Newsies: 20th Anniversary Edition: Blu-ray
Evita: 15th Anniversary Edition: Blu-ray
The Color of Money: 25 Anniversary Edition: Blu-ray
Ransom: 15th Anniversary Edition: Blu-ray
Sister Act: 20th Anniversary Edition/Sister Act II: Blu-ray
At 95, Kirk Douglas is the perfect embodiment of the term, “still kicking.” The stroke he suffered in 1966 slowed him down, but only until he could figure out how to use it to his advantage. If it seems as if he’s been around forever, it’s because his face is as familiar as any carved from Mount Rushmore. The dimple on his chin is more recognizable than most of the actors nominated for Academy Awards these days. Picking three classic movies from his vast resume is a fool’s errand, but “Young Man With a Horn,” “Lust for Life” and “The Bad and the Beautiful” are as representative as any title. The most interesting film here, though, is a recording of Douglas’ one-man show, “Before I Forget,” made at the theater that bears his name, and first shown in 2010. Even when Douglas is patting himself on the back for his many good deeds, it never comes across as self-serving or gratuitous. He reverses time for self-criticism, as well. “Young Man With a Horn” and “Lust for Life” bear little relationship to the facts of life known to itinerant jazz musicians or long-suffering artists, but Douglas’ performances compensate for the Hollywood baloney. Also swell in the biography of a headstrong trumpet player are Hoagy Charmichael, Doris Day and Loren Bacall. (Harry James provides the music coming out of Douglas’ trumpet.) Vincente Minnelli’s color palette and set design in the Van Gogh biopic are worth the price of admission, as well.
Douglas’ other collaboration with Minnelli, “The Bold and the Beautiful,” is the real deal. I’m kicking myself for not having seen it until now. Douglas stars as a ruthless movie producer, whose instincts and observations about what sells tickets are much more astute than his ability to keep friends and stay under budget. Besides being a fireball of creative activity, his Jonathan Shields is a world-class prick. It is a quality not always deemed negative in the Hollywood of yesteryear or today. Finally, after he’s burned more bridges than span the Mississippi, another producer begs the people he’s hurt to help make Shields’ comeback project. The story is told from the perspective of characters played by Lana Turner, Walter Pidgeon, Barry Sullivan and Dick Powell, with Gloria Grahame, Gilbert Roland, Leo G. Carroll and Elaine Stewart also adding mightily to the drama. That several of the key characters are based on identifiable Hollywood players is a big plus, as well. It comes with a fascinating profile of Turner and much background material.
Most folks watching last month’s Tony Awards ceremony probably were unaware that the production number from “Newsies! The Musical” was inspired by the turkey Disney movie musical of the same title. It isn’t rare for movie to be adapted into play or musical, but flops tend to remain flops wherever they’re found. Inspired by its cult popularity built after the release of the VHS and DVD, producers of “Newsies!: The Musical” were able to attract writer Harvey Fierstein to do the stage adaptation and original composers Alan Menken and Jack Feldman to freshen up the score. The peppy musical is still running on Broadway. It remains an open question as to whether Disney would have sent out the movie version on Blu-ray in a 20th Anniversary Edition if it weren’t for the success of the stage musical, but it’s nice that it’s here, if only for fans to compare to the Broadway edition. Originally written as a drama, it became a musical for reasons no one cares to remember two decades later. “Newsies” is based on the 1899 strike by paperboys in New York, a group not generally known to break into song at any given moment. It starred Christian Bale, Robert Duvall, Bill Pullman and Ann-Margret, was directed by Kenny Ortega and the songs were provided by Menken and Feldman. The Blu-ray comes with several nice bonus features, including commentary, making-of pieces, a history of the strike, storyboard-to-screen comparisons and a sing-along.
A scene from the current Broadway production of “Evita” also was featured on the Tony broadcast. The 15th-anniversary edition of the Disney movie musical famously stars Madonna, Antonio Banderas and Jonathan Pryce. The long-awaited adaptation of the Andrew Lloyd Webber-Tim Rice production was directed by Alan Parker, who’d scored a big hit with “The Commitments.” The Blu-ray comes with a 42-minute backgrounder and a musical video, but not any of the material added to the 1997 Criterion Collection edition.
“Sister Act,” too, was represented on the Tony ceremony. Disney has re-released the original movie and its sequel, “Back in the Habit,” in Blu-ray to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the Whoopi Goldberg vehicle. She stars as a lounge singer forced to hide from the mob in a convent, where she turns up the volume on the sisters’ choir. Harvey Keitel and Kathy Najimy co-star. The Blu-ray comes with the featurette, “Inside Sister Act” and a Lady Soul music video.
Disney couldn’t possibly have known Tom Cruise would be back in the news when they scheduled the release of “The Color of Money” and “Cocktail” in Blu-ray. “The Color of Money” is Martin Scorsese’s sequel to the classic pool-hustler flick, “The Hustler.” Paul Newman returns as Fast Eddie Felson, while Cruise plays the hot-shot, almost terminally cocky newcomer. It’s terrifically entertaining and makes excellent use of its Chicago and Atlantic City locations. The makers of “Cocktail” didn’t invent the art of flair bartending, but, by introducing it in a romantic drama with Cruise and Bryan Brown, they turned it into a spectator sport still popular today. A soundtrack filled with ’80s pop hits drives most of the action, while the presence of Elisabeth Shue, Gina Gershon and Kelly Lynch doesn’t hurt, either. – Gary Dretzka
It’s sometimes difficult to tell where the documentary, “Planeat,” ends and an infomercial for unseen forces promoting a militantly vegan agenda begins. I’m not a scientist or physician, but the case made in “Planeat” for the elimination of meat, dairy, sugar and other supposedly bad stuff from our diets sounds reasonable and doable. Credible proof also is offered of the power of organically grown vegetables, nuts, seeds and other borderline food groups to reverse certain symptoms of heart disease, cancer, global warming and the poisoning of our waterways. The experts reinforce the much-ridiculed theory that bovine burps and farts are as dangerous to the environment as the chemicals in fertilizer that find their way into rivers and seas, creating dead zones identifiable in satellite-delivered photographs. That’s the scary news. The good news comes in the form of the food prepared by chefs who specialize in vegan options to popular entrees, appetizers and desserts. The only problem I have with “Planeat” is the requisite guilt trip laid on consumers who have yet to completely abandon foods deemed harmful by the producers of this film, some of whom also serve as its expert witnesses and board of directors of a sponsoring institution. Only briefly mentioned, too, is the willingness of politicians and bureaucrats to accept the word – and money – of lobbyists only interested in keeping the gears of the death machine greased. They’re the ones who pictures and names should have been included in a bonus feature, alongside the damning images of unsuspecting gas-filled cows.The DVD comes with recipes. – Gary Dretzka
G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero: Series 2, Season 2
In toys, comics, movies, video games and TV series, “G.I. Joe” has proven his commercial mettle for nearly 50 years. The animated series, alone, has been resurrected three times. Each time, it’s been used as part of a general strategy to reinvigorate the “G.I. Joe” and “Cobra” products. The second series, launched in 1990, lasted two years in syndication. General Hawk returns, along with Duke, Storm Shadow, Snake Eyes, Cobra Commander, Destro and several new voice actors. The new set includes all 20 episodes in a three-disc set. – Gary Dretzka