By Gary Dretzka Dretzka@moviecitynews.com
The DVD Wrapup: Beasts of Southern Wild, ParaNorman, Butter … More
Beasts of the Southern Wild: Blu-ray
Normally, come the first week of December, true aficionados of quality cinema – those who actually care about the Academy Awards, anyway — have entered into the annual ritual of predicting which deserving Best Picture candidates will be snubbed in favor of movies released after Thanksgiving. Last year, the Academy finally acknowledged the build-in frailty of its nominating procedure and doubled the number of finalists. Even though this cleared the way for at least one ringer (“Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close”), a difficult arthouse challenger (“The Tree of Life”) and a sentimental choice (“Midnight in Paris”), it would have been nice if a couple of spots had been reserved for “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows,” Foreign Language-winner “A Separation” or “Tinker Tinker Soldier Spy,” all superior entertainments. Several of the nominees wouldn’t be seen by anyone except critics, voters and a few people in New York and Los Angeles until February. Upon its limited July 1, Ben Zeitlin and Lucy Alibar’s near-miraculous debut feature, “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” was accorded front-runner status by everyone who’d seen it. Today, it’s being dismissed by pundits as a dark-house, behind “Les Miserables,” “Lincoln,” “Argo” and a few titles the public won’t be able to see until January. They’ve left it for Independent Spirit voters to decide what trophy its producers will be handed that weekend.
I don’t foresee “Beasts of the Southern Wild” being completely ignored by the academy, however, if only because the formidable marketing team at Fox Searchlight won’t let that happen. It will be prominent in the year-end roundups, top-10 lists and for-your-consideration campaigns, as well. More importantly, any nominations it gets will go a long way toward boosting revenues for this very deserving movie. Now that “Beasts” has been released in DVD and Blu-ray, renters will be able to overlook the arthouse gloss and sample what, at its core, is a wonderfully original and completely accessible story. Set in the tiny southern Louisiana community of Bathtub – outside the levees separating the “dry world” from the “wet world” of the marshes — this prime example of “magical realism” combines the tragedy of Hurricane Katrina with elements of Greek mythology, disasters of biblical proportions and fears over global warming. Before he unleashes Katrina on the fiercely independent, if dirt-poor residents of Bathtub, Zeitlin allows us to marvel at their ability to survive in the primordial Louisiana ooze and dwellings straight out of a dystopian novel by Philip K. Dick. If New Orleans is “the city that care forgot,” Bathtub is its nearest suburb. Our guide is a remarkably resourceful 6-year-old girl, Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis), whose tortuous relationship with her emotionally unstable and seriously ill father, Wink (Dwight Henry), continually tests viewers’ hearts and tear ducts. They are as dependent on the Mississippi River and bayous for their well-being as any alligator, catfish or nutria.
As the waters around them slowly but surely continue to rise, Hushpuppy fears they’ll also be forced to deal with prehistoric aurochs loosed as the glaciers melt. Hushpuppy’s teacher has two of the great horned beasts tattooed on her arm and they’ve stampeded into her fertile imagination. Also motivating the girl is her desperate desire to reconnect with her mother, who “swam away” years earlier, abandoning them. The few clues that might lead Hushpuppy to her mother’s current location point to a mysterious off-shore light, possibly from an oil derrick. After escaping from the sterile storm shelter to which they were forced to evacuate, Hushpuppy and some other Bathtub girls are escorted to the light’s source by the captain of a freelance barge pusher. Turns out, it’s “floating catfish shack” named Elysian Fields (“Girls, Girls, Girls”) that caters to the derrick workers, shrimpers and river rats. The women there are kind to the girls and Hushpuppy even imagines that one of them could be her mother. The reference to Elysian Fields invites viewers to associate her journey with the one taken in Greek mythology by dead souls being escorted to the afterlife by Hades’ ferryman, Charon. Only the most heroic passengers are allowed a round-trip ticket. One needn’t be a student of the classics to enjoy “Beasts,” however. It can be savored by anyone with a desire to meet new people and visit a place they never knew existed. Oh, yeah, the music and set design are terrific, as well. The Blu-ray arrives with Zeitlin’s commentary, an interesting making-of featurette, deleted scenes, auditions and the director’s previous short, “Glory at Sea,” which also deals with the storm and Hades. – Gary Dretzka
Hope Springs: Blu-ray
Meryl Streep and Tommy Lee Jones deliver marvelous performances in a “comedy from the director of ‘The Devil Wears Prada’” that, more often than not, is about as funny as a toothache. “Hope Springs” warms up significantly in the latter third of the proceedings, but, by then, many adults enduring endangered marriages will be watching it with their hands over their eyes. Jones plays an Omaha accountant, Arnold, so oblivious to his longtime wife’s needs that he might as well as be married to the pro on golf-instruction show he watches before bedtime each night. Almost unimaginatively passive, Kay would appear to be the ideal spouse for a guy who spends most of their time together with his head buried in a newspaper. No matter how grouchy Arnold is, Kay continues to feed him, wash his clothes and put up with his abrupt responses to her small talk and romantic advances. They sleep in separate bedrooms, mostly because he’s gotten used to it, and haven’t had sex in years. (Kay’s orgasms can be counted on one hand.)
Many older viewers will recognize something of themselves, at least, in Kay and Arnold, even as they deny their own shortcomings. Some younger viewers might even think the characters were based on their own parents. Working off a script by Vanessa Taylor (“Game of Thrones”), director David Frankel gives us plenty of reasons to sympathize with Kay, but almost none to think Arnold is worthy of anything but our contempt. No matter, because the Arnolds of the world would rather eat their 9-irons than watch a movie that, despite the presence of manly-man Jones, promises to be a “chick flick.”
After threatening to leave Arnold if he doesn’t agree to travel to Maine for a week of couple’s therapy with a prominent marital shrink (Steve Carell), the old goat begrudgingly accepts her pre-paid invitation. Dr. Feld’s office may be located in the kind of quaint town only a Grinch could hate, but Arnold is far too distracted by the high prices – by Omaha standards, anyway – to enjoy himself. Anyone expecting a laugh riot in Carell’s performance will be disappointed, because, while possessing a genial desk-side manner, he’s condition to remain neutral. Before focusing on Arnold’s hang-ups, he gets Kay to open up about her own sexual naiveté. Here’s one of the most telling exchanges: “What about oral sex?,” Feld asks; “I wasn’t … I wasn’t comfortable with that,” she responds; “Giving or receiving?,” he continues; her, “Huh?,” prompts the movie’s first genuine laugh. Streep’s fully animated performance tells us everything we need to know about Kay’s well-guarded opinions on intimacy. The mood lightens even more when Feld tells her to purchase “Sex Tips for Straight Women From a Gay Man” and she purchases a banana on which to practice her oral techniques.
Arnold is moved by Kay’s memories of the better times between them, but the positive inertia isn’t strong enough to reverse years of pigheaded negativity. There’s no need to expand what happens next, except to point out that the final half-hour of “Hope Springs” delivers on the promise of being a romantic comedy, instead of just another “very special episode” of “Dr. Phil.” And, unlike most other Hollywood hybrids of the last 10 years, it clearly was made for the consumption of grownups whose everyday lives more closely resemble those of Kay and Arnold than the characters played by former cast members of “Saturday Night Live.” That, in itself, is a blessed event. It’s to the great credit of Streep, Jones and Carell that their unforced performances are able to carry the story beyond its unpromising beginning. (Warning: the funniest stuff in the movie accompanies the end credits.) The Blu-ray adds commentary with Frankel; a gag reel; several making-of featurettes; interviews with the cast and crew; an admiring salute to Streep; “An Expert’s Guide to Everlasting Passion,” with the author of “Relationship Stalemate: From Roommates to Soulmates”; and some alternate takes. – Gary Dretzka
Finding Nemo: Collector’s Edition: Blu-ray
If I suggested to you that “ParaNorman” probably is going to go down as the best Halloween-themed movie to open in theaters in mid-August and be released in early December into DVD, Blu-ray 2D and Blu-ray 3D, would you assume I was paying it a left-handed compliment and didn’t much like it? I hope not. I’m more baffled by the timing of distributor’s strategy than anything else and am wondering out loud how it came to be. In fact, I think “ParaNorman” could someday become an evergreen Halloween attraction, if not to the same degree as “It’s the Great Pumpkin Charlie Brown,” then “The Nightmare Before Christmas,” which also confuses holiday shoppers. Enough people failed to catch “ParaNorman” in its initial theatrical release for me to think it could benefit from a powerful word-of-mouth campaign and strategic repositioning on store shelves. Even if there was nothing more to recommend it than the production company, Laika Entertainment, which also was responsible in part or in whole for Henry Sellick’s “Coraline” and Tim Burton’s “Corpse Bride,” that would be good enough reason to check it out. Fact is, the stop-action animation company has been struggling financially, so you could think of a rental or purchase as an investment in the future of American entertainment.
Like Cole Sear in “The Sixth Sense,” the protagonist of “ParaNorman” sees dead people. He also converses with them. Norman Babcock (voiced by Kodi Smit-McPhee) watches horror movies with his late grandmother in his living room and chats with ghosts of all ages on the way to school, where he’s an easy target for ridicule. For 11-year-old targets of bullies, school is what purgatory must be like for spirits waiting to pass over to the other side. One day, Norman’s strange Uncle Prenderghast (John Goodman) informs Norman of a 300-year-old curse placed on Blithe Hollow by a woman persecuted as a witch. So far, certain gifted individuals have been able to repel the curse, but zombies have already been spotted exiting their graves, so time is of the essence. Apparently, this year, Norman is the only person in town capable of maintaining the peace. Because of the role the town played in the infamous witch trials, Blithe Hollow has long been a destination for tourists anxious for a spook-tastic Halloween experience. Norman’s only ally in this cause is a fellow outcast, Neil (Tucker Albrizzi), but, when the deal goes down, even the bullies look to him for help. By now, too, any resemblance to “Sixth Sense” will have been long forgotten. It’s wickedly funny, full of heart and scary enough to satisfy a broad cross-section of viewers. That it works as well as it does visually can be traced to directors Chris Butler and Sam Fell ability to work on a larger-than-normal set, with puppets designed to take advantage of a far more flexible skeleton. The characters’ brightly colorful appearance takes full advantage of the 3D format, as well. Only a holiday purist might find it difficult to enjoy “ParaNormal” at Christmas. The Blu-ray adds commentary, an hour’s worth of making-of and background featurettes, U-Control and preliminary animatic sequences.
Of all the animated movies currently making the transition from DVD to Blu-ray, “Finding Nemo” may be the easiest to recommend to those seeking a sure-fire test of their new home-theater system. Nothing in Andrew Stanton and Lee Unkrich’s chronicle of a father’s adventure-filled search for his kidnaped son – both of whom happen to be clownfish — has changed from previous editions. Parallel stories play seamlessly, as Marlin is required to overcome sharks, jellies and trigger fish, while Nemo is stuck in an aquarium in a dentist’s office overlooking the sea. The difference here, in the Blu-ray “Collector’s Edition,” is its brilliant audio/visual upgrade. (One shot of the descending sun is so unexpectedly dazzling that it made me jump from my seat.) The Blu-ray 3D version might even be more spectacular, but, until prices drop on the hardware, I won’t be able to testify on the subject. I suspect that it is. For those with short memories, the voicing cast includes Albert Brooks, Ellen DeGeneres, Willem Dafoe, Geoffrey Rush, Allison Janney, Brad Garrett and Alexander Gould. All sound particularly robust on Disney’s Dolby TrueHD 7.1 surround track, as do the more subtle underwater sounds. The Blu-ray package includes a half-dozen new hi-def features, as well as an equal number of previously released bonus material. – Gary Dretzka
Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry: Blu-ray
It isn’t enough for Ai Weiwei to be one of the most celebrated and prolific visual artists in the world. He’s also a political dissident whose voice resonates throughout China and beyond it. During the 2008 Olympics, more people marveled at the design of the Beijing National Stadium (a.k.a., the “Bird’s Nest”) — a collaboration with the Swiss firm, Herzog & De Meuron — than could possibly be counted and, yet, he had nothing good to say about the Games themselves. A few months later, Chinese rulers would condemn and harass him for his role in bringing attention to the unnecessary deaths of thousands of children in the devastating Sichuan earthquake. For such heinous crimes against the regime, Weiwei has been arrested, beaten, spied upon, had his studio demolished and hard-drives stolen by police; lost his travel privileges; and was stuck with a phony tax debt of $1.85 million. Last and perhaps least, Ai’s parody of the “Gangnam Style” Internet sensation recently was blocked by authorities. Alison Klayman’s fascinating documentary, “Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry,” covers a lot of ground as it follows the artist around the world from one installation to another, and throughout China campaigning for various causes. He’s a larger-than-life character, who commands respect from everyone he meets and is influenced by his work.
Another thing that Klayman’s film explores, perhaps inadvertently, is how much Weiwei has become a prisoner of his own best intentions. He admits to spending as many as 18 hours a day blogging, studying and surfing the Internet. When he isn’t doing that, he’s on his cellphone talking to admirers, curators and fellow activists. If Weiwei feels trapped by the amount of time he spends away from the studio and on the Web, he doesn’t show it. He’s the center of attention wherever he goes and seems to enjoy the glare of the spotlight. The artist is constantly followed by videographers of his own choosing and those of various news outlets. Weiwei also enjoys photographing everything he sees and doesn’t seem to mind being photographed with his fans. As much as we’re left admiring the artist’s commitment to his many pursuits, it’s just as easy to feel sorry for him. In some ways, at least, he’s a bird in a gilded cage. Weiwei lives in luxury wherever he is – even at home, in “communist” China – but, perhaps because of the legacy left him by his reformist father, is driven to embrace challenges average citizens would be crazy to accept. After being released from jail, where he was held incommunicado until he admitted cheating on his taxes, Weiwei looked visibly shaken and reluctant to say anything that might give officials another chance to punish him. After all, his friend and fellow activist Liu Xiaobo — awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2010 — still has seven years left on an 11-year sentence for voicing reformist sentiments not unlike those advocated by Weiwei. No amount of international condemnation has prompted the regime to free him. The Blu-ray adds commentary, deleted scenes and interviews. – Gary Dretzka
Tell No One: Blu-ray
In Andre Techine’s new romantic drama, “Unforgivable,” the French enchantress Carole Bouquet is no less ravishing than she was in 1977, playing one of two obscure objects of desire named Conchita for Luis Bunuel’s, or as Melina Havelock in the 1980 Bond adventure “For Your Eyes Only.” She’s older, yes, but no worse for the wear of 35 years making movies, modeling for Chanel and inspiring much delicious gossip. Here, Bouquet seems right at home playing a real-estate agent in Venice, where she’s lived and loved bisexually after giving up a career as a model. One rainy day, a famous French novelist stops in her office, asking to be shown an apartment with the same kind of appointments and views afforded by hotels along the Grand Canal for absurdly steep rates. Instead, Judith convinces Francis (Andre Dussollier) to share a boat with her to an island where a neat little cottage is available for an affordable price. Unimpressed, Francis tells Judith that he’ll sign a year’s lease, but only if she agrees to move in with him. After seeking the advice of a former lover, Anna Maria (Adriana Asti), they agree that Judith “isn’t getting any younger” and she accedes to this seemingly preposterous request. Flash forward a year later and they appear to be enjoying each other’s company on the isolated island of Sant’Erasmo very much, indeed. It isn’t until Francis’ daughter and granddaughter arrive for a visit that things take a turn for the strange. A chronic malcontent, the daughter soon thereafter disappears into the world of decadent Venetian aristocracy
Francis hires Anna Maria to track her down and report back to him. She suspects correctly that the young woman has fallen for the debauched son of a local countess and is perfectly content to be left unfound. This doesn’t completely satisfy Francis, who takes out his frustration by fretting over the one woman in his life he thinks can control. After spotting Judith giving a local grape grower a ride to the island on her motor boat – the water taxi operators are on strike — Francis falls into the same trap as every man who suspects his younger lover of cheating. If he can’t even see her in his binoculars, he thinks, she must be doing something wrong. In a very ugly turn, he hires Anna Maria’s troubled son, Jeremie, to spy on Francis. Helen Keller could have figured out she was being followed by someone as clumsy as Jeremie, but Judith turns on her cougar charm to form an alliance with him. Francis isn’t a bad guy, really, although his fits of jealousy are extremely disturbing. His basic problem is that, whenever he’s in love, he develops writer’s block and that gives him extra time to worry. In “Unforgivable,” Techine has delivered another stimulating essay on the way relationships are complicated by unchecked emotions and outside influences. The acting, not surprisingly, is impeccable and the many wonderful Venetian settings provide sufficient cause to immediately reserve a flight to Italy.
After being out of circulation for some time, the Blu-ray edition of Guillaume Cadet’s intricate adaptation of the Harlan Coben thriller, “Tell No One,” is being re-issued by Music Box Films. Lovers of mysteries who somehow missed the movie its first time around should do themselves a favor by picking it up and trying to figure out why a pediatrician, whose wife (Marie-Josee Croze) was killed in a vicious attack eight years earlier, suddenly is getting emails and video links from her or someone pretending to be her. The doctor (Francoise Cluzet) is especially intrigued because he was knocked unconscious during the beating and still is considered to be a prime suspect in her death. Despite the new information, he is advised by his sister (Marina Hands) and her wife (Kristin Scott Thomas) to accept the fact of his wife’s death and get on with his life. Then, they too become involved in the messy proceedings. When the bodies of two men are discovered at a construction site near the location of the attacks, police naturally seek to re-interrogate the doctor, causing him to flee. Even though he looks guilty as hell, he launches his own search for clues. Ultimately, it leads him to the exact point where the story began eight years earlier. Although the dialogue is in French, the integrity of Coben’s fiction comes through loud and clear. The Blu-ray adds deleted scenes and outtakes, and a 56-minute making-of featurette. – Gary Dretzka
Growing up in Wisconsin, a.k.a., “America’s Dairyland,” we were taught from birth that butter is better. At the time, consumers looking for a less expensive alternative to butter were required to make a run for the Illinois border, where oleo margarine was freely available and fairly priced. By 1967, the dairy lobby no longer was able to prevent the spread of “colored” oleo and consumers were given the option of buying one or the other product. In some parts of the state, oleo may still be considered to be morally aberrant and down-right anti-farmer. I mention this because Jim Field Smith and Jason A. Micallef’s fanciful comedy, “Butter,” is about people obsessed with the ancient art of butter sculpting and margarine simply won’t cut it in competition. Unless one has attended a state fair in the last couple of decades and witnessed such a contest, the artistic discipline might as well not exist. It would be easy, then, for viewers unexposed to butter sculpting to completely dismiss the movie’s premise as preposterous. In fact, people have been doing it for several millennia and for very different reasons.
Although the story is as full of narrative holes as Swiss cheese from New Glarus, “Butter” has a good heart and often is quite funny. At its best, it reminds me of “Waiting for Guffman.” Jennifer Garner and Ty Burrell play the Sonny and Cher of butter sculpting in Iowa. Bob is so talented, if fact, that after 15 straight state championships, he’s been asked to retire the trophy and serve as an ambassador for the truly amazing activity. His status-conscious wife, Laura, fears that Bob’s retirement would diminish her position in Iowa society like a pat of butter left in the sun. Instead, she decides to enter the contest and use the skills she’s learned through osmosis to retain the crown. Instead of competing unopposed, as expected, Laura will face off against a wonderfully nutty friend (Kristen Schaal), Bob’s demanding stripper girlfriend (Olivia Wilde) and Destiny (Yara Shahidi), the delightful African-American foster child of characters played by Rob Corddry and Alicia Silverstone. It’s safe to assume from here that Laura will do everything in her power to win, including sabotaging the work of a little girl whose natural mother has just died … but in a funny way. The stripper, too, wants a pound of flesh from Laura, who’s forced Bob to the end the affair and stop giving money to her. The fine ensemble casts nimbly avoids the holes in the screenplay, turning “Butter” into an unexpected treat. – Gary Dretzka
The Odd Life of Timothy Green: Blu-ray
Ho-hum … another day, another terrific performance by a largely unknown child actor. This week, alone, we’ve been introduced to Quvenzhané Wallis, of “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” and Yara Shahidi, of “Butter.” Add to that number the young star of “The Odd Life of Timothy Green,” JC Adams. In it, he plays a child who mysteriously turns up inside the house of Cindy and Jim Green (Jennifer Garner, Joel Edgerton), a couple so desperate to have a baby they buried a box containing a wish list of attributes in their garden. There’d been a storm that night and Timothy is completely covered in mud. His legs have leaves growing from them … not many, but enough to make an impression. Timothy is a bright and courteous kid and the Greens quickly consider him to be a gift from God or Mother Nature, one. He may not be blessed with superpowers or unusual healing skills, but he’s a quick learner and appreciative of any help given him. Even so, he’s enough of a bumbler to become a natural target of bullies and intolerant coaches. The only person who treats him with kindness is a slightly older girl (Odeya Rush), who senses something extraordinary in Timothy and nurtures the talents he does possess. With her in his corner, the boy can’t help but influence the lives of adults in the Greens’ orbit with less admirable character traits. As “Odd Life” progresses, it also becomes abundantly clear that the leaves on Timothy’s legs have a special meaning all their own, just as the seasons impact people not born in a cabbage patch. Director Peter Hedges puts his audience on a bit of an emotional roller-coaster, but the Walt Disney brand tells parents the message delivered in this heartfelt movie is suitable for most children, and the leaves on Timothy’s legs are in no way freakish. A cast that also includes Dianne Wiest, David Morse, Joel Edgerton, Rosemarie DeWitt, M. Emmet Walsh and Lois Smith guarantees an ensemble performance the whole family will enjoy. Of special notice is the soundtrack, which includes the song “This Gift,” by Glen Hansard (“Once”) and the voices of Marketa Irglova and the Brooklyn Youth Chorus. If the Greens’ house looks familiar, it might be because it also was used in Rob Zombie’s “Halloween II.” Frank’s son, Ahmed Zappa, is credited with the story for “Odd Life” and as a producer. The Blu-ray presentation makes the lovely Georgia setting look inviting and there are several decent bonus features, as well. – Gary Dretzka
Maybe I’m getting soft in my old age, but I wasn’t nearly as disappointed by the basketball comedy “Thunderstruck” as the reviewers who managed to see it in its very limited release in August. The story’s premise is extremely familiar, in that it involves the transference of physical powers from an adult to a child and vice-versa. In this case, it’s from NBA superstar Kevin Durant to a teenage klutz, Brian, whose hoops skills are limited to not embarrassing himself while warming the bench. Brian (Taylor Gray) becomes the laughing stock of his school when videos of his inept practice sessions are leaked on video monitors in the cafeteria. Worse, he makes a complete ass of himself during a half-time contest at an Oklahoma Thunder game. It’s after this debacle that Brian is handed an autographed ball from Durant and inadvertently acquires the talents of the All-Star. In exchange, Durant’s skills become that of, well, a teenage klutz. Guess which player becomes the surprise star of his team and an instant chick magnet. There’s nothing particularly fresh or inventive in John Whitesell’s “Thunderstruck,” which also stars Jim Belushi; his son, Robert Belushi; Tristin Mays, of “Private”; Brandon T. Jackson, of “Big Mommas: Like Father, Like Son”; and Larramie Doc Shaw, of “House of Payne.” It reminds me a bit of the Fred McMurray and Tommy Kirk vehicles, “The Shaggy Dog” and “The Absent-Minded Professor,” which probably wouldn’t hold up too well in 2012, but easily passed for family entertainment in 1959 and 1961. By the time things get straightened out in “Thunderstruck,” lessons will have been taught and bullies vanquished. ’Twas ever thus. A featurette in the bonus package describes how difficult it was to teach Durant how to look ridiculous on the court. – Gary Dretzka
Silent Night: Blu-ray
Silent Night, Deadly Night: Christmas Survivor Double Feature
One of the most enduring axioms of the film-distribution game is that even the most outrageously despicable genre flick not only can survive the venom spewed on it by mainstream critics, but it can flourish behind strategic marketing and anticipatory buzz from buffs and bored teenagers. This is especially true of the slasher, splatter and women-in-jeopardy films that followed in the wake of such quality genre fare as “Halloween” and “Friday the 13th,” which obviously were influenced by “Psycho” and “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.” A perfect case in point is provided by the 1984 gore-fest “Silent Night, Deadly Night.” Taking a nod, perhaps, Bob Clark’s 1974 “Black Christmas,” the thriller generally considered to be the first modern slasher film, it used exploited the holiday as if it were a brand-name quantity. Shocked by marketing material showing a man in a Santa Claus costume preparing to butcher holiday revelers, outraged parents’ organizations picketed theaters scheduled to show “SN/DN.” For their part, mainstream critics worked overtime to come up with new ways to condemn it. According to an interview included in the bonus package, director Charles E. Sellier Jr. admits to being surprised by the protests, but he also points out that the movie made back its nut and pocketed plenty more money before it was pulled from theaters by its distributor after two weeks. No sooner did the furor settle down than “SN/DN” was sent out on video, where it did extremely well, as would the four sequels. None was sufficiently well made to be considered a classic, but genre buffs still reserve some warmth for the first installment, at least.
In it, a young boy witnesses the murder of his parents – his mother is raped, as well — by a Santa-costumed fiend who we’d already seen kill a convenience-store clerk. Deeply traumatized, Billy is shipped to an orphanage, where he’s brutalized by the Mother Superior and taught that all sex is dirty. Adding insult to injury, the nun forces Billy to sit on the lap of a department-store Santa, an act that causes him great distress. Later, as a teen, his boss at a different store insists he play Santa for all the kiddies who show up. Quickly thereafter, Billy snaps like a twig and goes on his infamous killing spree. It ends at the same orphanage in which he was raised and his younger brother is being warehoused. The finale opens the door for the sequels to come. The new DVD edition of “SN/DN” has been completely restored, with some fresh material spliced in, as well. The package also includes the sequel, “Silent Night, Deadly Night: Part 2,” which came and went without much hubbub from detractors. Using lots of recycled material from the original, the story picks up with the brother, Ricky, being interviewed by a psychiatrist in the mental hospital in which he currently resides. By the time he gets done regurgitating everything that happened in the first movie – including some things he couldn’t possibly have recalled – we’re more than ready to discover what caused him to be institutionalized. The highlight here is the scene in which Ricky and his date decide to take in a movie and it turns out to be “Silent Night, Deadly Night.” The mind boggles.
The spanking-new “Silent Night” is a semi-sequel, in that it re-employs the Santa Claus schematic and is chock-full of murders of the most grisly sort. As it opens, a serial killer has claimed two new victims and, when police led by Malcolm McDowell and Jaime King investigate, it becomes obvious that the villain favors the same Santa outfit as a dozen other department-store wish-takers. In other words, there are more suspects than there are crimes. A lot of people die, including at least two other white-bearded monsters. The one slaying everyone will remember is the one that replicates Linnea Quigley’s now-classic impalement on the antlers of a stuffed deer’s head from “SN/DN.” Otherwise, there’s not much to recommend it to anyone except the folks who substitute a Christmas Eve horror marathon for midnight mass.
“V/H/S” is an intermittently successful horror anthology, in which a couple of hoodlums are hired by an anonymous third party to burgle a house in the country, then find and return a specific cassette to him. When they get into the dark and nearly empty house, they find a corpse reclining on couch placed in front of a bank of video monitors. Rather than collect all of the video cassettes and carry them back to their client, they punks decide to have a film festival. The short films run the gamut from creepy to disturbing, strangely erotic to sexually cautionary. A couple of them, however, are extremely difficult to watch because of the directors’ intention to showcase stylized filming and editing techniques from the VHS era. The writers and directors, some of whom are graduates of the Mumblecore school, include Adam Wingard (“A Horrible Way to Die”), Glenn McQuaid (“I Sell the Dead”), David Bruckner (“The Signal”), Joe Swanberg (“Alexander the Last”), Ti West (“The Innkeepers”) and the collaborative group, Radio Silence.
At 119 nerve-jangling minutes, Yohei Fukuda’s “X-Game” (a.k.a., “Death Tube”) combines several different sub-genre themes in the service of a modern, Internet-savvy horror flick. Young people are kidnapped and put on trial in kangaroo courts for sins committed much earlier, sometimes on playgrounds and in classrooms. Confessions are coerced using torture tactics similar to those shown in the “Saw” series. The tormentors take orders from unseen puppet masters, while victims are culled from the pack through seemingly random Internet contest and pieces of paper pulled from the X-box. Although the eccentric editing doesn’t lend for easy comprehension and interpretation by viewers, the suffering looks very real. Anyone who’s seen “Tokyo Gore Police,” “Mutant Girls Squad,” the banned-in-Britain “Grotesque” and other titles pushed by Sushi Typhoon will have a headstart on trying to figure out what to expect from “X-Game.” All others should prepare for a bumpy ride. – Gary Dretzka
Wu Dang: Blu-ray
The stream of enchanting period fantasies from China has grown from a trickle to a flood. Many combine action with history, while others emphasize romance and mythology. Martial arts, whether as an art or weapon, is what originally sold tickets in the American marketplace, but the success of such epic entertainments as “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” “House of Flying Daggers” and “Curse of the Golden Flower” has encouraged distributors to take a chance on more elaborate hybrids, especially in Blu-ray and DVD. Beyond the story and action, I’m most impressed by the amazing natural beauty of the films’ settings. Fifteen years ago, if a movie was made outside Beijing, Shanghai or the Great Wall, it almost never was shown here. “Wu Dang” isn’t the easiest movie to follow or most thrilling, certainly, but it’s tough to beat the setting. Much of Patrick Leung’s movie takes place at a Taoist monastery in the Wudang mountain range, where, hundreds of years ago, the tai chi school of “internal” Chinese martial arts originated.
It is here that a Chinese-American professor is drawn on his first trip back to China since the end of the Qing Dynasty. An experienced adventurer, Tang Yunlong (Vincent Zhao) is traveling with his teenage daughter, Tang Ning (Josie Xu), to the monastery for a martial arts competition he is sponsoring. She will compete against top Chinese practitioners, while daddy spends time looking for a 2,000-year-old sword rumored to have magical powers. All of this takes place against a spectacular background of scenic mountains, deep canyons and magnificent temples. The fighting is entertaining, but hardly the most interesting part of the experience. – Gary Dretzka
Catch Me If You Can: Blu-ray
To say that some men’s lives are more interesting than others begs several questions. Are they interesting in the Chinese sense of the word or simply noticeably different from the status quo. By any measure, Frank Abagnale Jr.’s life is about as interesting as they come. In fact, if it weren’t so well documented, it would be impossible to invent a credible biography of a man who spent four years impersonating an airline pilot, a doctor, lawyer and a qualified teaching assistant at BYU before he was 21. He forged checks and conned people out of thousands of dollars, simply by looking and sounding honest. Abagnale became a wanted man in several countries and even had his own FBI agent. Not everything he said he did could be independently corroborated, but, in the hands of director Steven Spielberg and screenwriter Jeff Nathanson’s hands, it made for a good story, anyway. Leonardo DiCaprio had the just the right twinkle-in-the-eye attitude to make us believe he was a master con artist and enjoying every minute of it. Hanks’ FBI agent, Carl Hanratty (Tom Hanks), is equal parts fascinated and perplexed by the slippery criminal. In these actors’ hands, “Catch Me If You Can” is practically a buddy film. Throw in Christopher Walken and Nathalie Baye as Abagnale’s somewhat zany parents and you’ve got quite a yarn. The Blu-ray package includes several informative and entertaining background featurettes about Abagnale and the making of “Catch Me If You Can.” – Gary Dretzka
Reelz: Ken Follett’s World Without End: Blu-ray
It’s amazing how well English history lends itself to mini-series and soap-opera intrigue. The same, I suppose, can be said about the Catholic Church and its historical disregard for Christian values when seeking political and military influence among the crowned heads of Europe. By combining both institutions in “The Tudors” and “The Borgias,” the Showtime network finally achieved parity with HBO in terms of audience reach and adventurous programming. Recently, the premium-cable services Starz and Reelz got into the act by picking up “Ken Follett’s The Pillars of the Earth” and “Ken Follett’s World Without End” and “The Kennedys,” all of which blend cutthroat politics and religion. (The former two titles also added nudity to the formula.) Newly released into Blu-ray, Reelz’ “World Without End” is a sequel to “The Pillars of the Earth,” in which the melodramatic aspects are secondary to the completion of a magnificent Gothic cathedral in the fictional 12th Century town of Kingsbridge. “World Without End” is set in the same town, only a 150 years later, in advance of the Hundred Years’ War and Black Death. The architectural achievement here is the construction of a bridge important to commerce, but the real action comes inside the royal bedrooms, on the gallows and in priories. Once again, the priests are as venal and predatory as the corrupt royals and their lords and ladies. Scrub the dirt off the faces of the peasants and farmers and they’re as attractive as anyone at court alongside Edward III and his mother, Isabella, the “she-wolf of France.” It’s great fun to watch and the history isn’t bad, either.
Made in 1986 for the South African Broadcasting Corporation and distribution around the world, “Shaka Zulu” has the reputation of being the most repeatedly screened syndicated mini-series in American television history. This despite the fact its production was condemned by the United Nation and the actors risked being boycotted by anti-apartheid states. That’s because it was filmed entirely on location in South Africa, which, at the time, had yet to free Nelson Mandela and its native population couldn’t even dream of free elections. Indeed, before Mandella ascended to power, there were frequent clashes between ANC members and Zulus demanding either statehood or autonomy. Zulus comprise the largest ethnic group and the reigning king is a direct descendant of Shaka, who, for lack of a better comparison, was the George Washington of the tribe. I have no way of knowing how accurate the 10-part mini-series may be – historians still debate Shaka’s feats and legacy – but it seems respectful of his memory and accomplishments, as well as tribal culture and rituals. For most of the 19th Century, Zulus fought to reverse of the effects of colonialism on the African continent and the brutal treatment of blacks. The restored mini-series is easy on the eyes, capturing the natural beauty of northeast Africa. Among the recognizable British actors representing George IV in the cast are Edward Fox, Trevor Howard, Christopher Lee, Robert Powell and Gordon Jackson. South African soccer player Henry Cele played the title character twice, once in his first movie appearance, and, 15 years later, in his last. The DVD adds an interview with director William C. Faure and several stars. – Gary Dretzka
Comedy Central: The Legend of Neil: The Complete Series
The Hub: Kaijudo: Rise Of The Duel Masters: Creatures Unleashed
Fox: Futurama: Volume 7
Fox: The Simpsons: The Fifteenth Season
GMC: Sugar Mommas
Nintendo’s fantasy adventure-action game the Legend of Zelda is one of the most beloved, easily accessible and widely referenced video time-wasters in history. Since its launch, in 1986, an estimated 68 million units have been sold, not counting 15 sequel games and several spinoffs. The franchise has also spawned comics, an animated TV series and manga adaptations. Considering Zelda’s special place in the industry, I find it a bit odd that it’s taken 20 years for someone to come up with a parallel Internet parody series, such as “The Legend of Neil,” which feels like an artifact from another lifetime. Or, maybe I simply missed them. The series, created by Sandeep Parikh (“The Guild,” “Community”), began its three-season run as a four-minute YouTube video posted in 2007. As so often happens these days, it caught the eye of a major media company after going viral. Comedy Central found a home for it on Atom.com, before sharing it with MTV2. “The Legend of Neil” The show chronicles the journey of an alcoholic slacker, Neil Grimsley, who passes out in front of his TV while masturbating to one of the game’s fairies. Upon his gaining consciousness, Grimsley (Tony Janning) finds himself trapped inside the world of Zelda, forced to overcome the same obstacles as the intrepid forest elf, Link, in the first version of the game. The various oddballs he encounters while trying to escape Hyrule assume he’s there to rescue Princess Zelda from the clutches of the evil Lord Gannon. He’s none too happy about this development, but finds inspiration in the form of a horny fairy and the lure of Zelda’s virginity. With much vulgarity, ribald humor and lascivious behavior, “The Legend of Neil” is definitely not intended for the enjoyment of the kiddies. The DVD adds fresh bonus footage and a featurette with tips on how to make your own web series.
Parents may be happy to learn that the kid-friendly “Kaijudo: Rise of the Duel Masters: Creatures Unleashed” has far more in common with “Zelda” than “Neil.” On the other hand, if their children fall in love with the Hub series, it’s likely they’ll have to fork out money for such ancillary products as the Duel Masters card game, from the Hasbro subsidiary Wizards of the Coast, on which it’s based. God knows, there are more than enough individual characters to populate a full deck of playing cards. The action-fantasy involves a 14-year-old boy, Ray, who’s been recruited by the wise Duel Masters to battle mystical creatures. They see in Ray a natural talent as a creature tamer and duelist in the kaijudo tradition. Each confrontation leads Ray to new adventures, as well as allies and enemies in both worlds. The voicing cast includes Scott Wolf (“Party of Five”), Phil LaMarr (“Justice League Unlimited”) and Oded Fehr. The set contains a playing card as a starter-kit.
As Mel Brooks and Tom Petty have both observed at different times, “It’s good to be king.” It must be pretty good to be Matt Gruening, too, especially considering that TV viewers around the world are never far from a rerun of “The Simpsons,” and he was able to resurrect “Futurama” from the dead, as well. Why bother changing the channel, though, when so much stuff already is available on DVD and what isn’t can be purchased a la carte through VOD. The newest installment represents only the 15th of 25 seasons, a fact that truly pisses off those fans who would prefer to see more frequent additions to the canon. The four-disc set provides commentary on all 22 episodes, deleted scenes with commentary, “All Aboard With Matt” and other featurettes, commercials and sketches.
In DVD marketing lingo, any TV compilation that arrives in “volumes,” instead of “seasons,” generally represents a partial season or one that overlaps with another. Truth be told, “Futurama: Volume 7” represents the half of Season 7 that already aired in 2012, not the 13 episodes to come next June 13. It’s tricky, but fans should know that the DVD is completely up to date. The two-disc set includes commentary on all episodes, an alternate ending for “Zapp Dingbat,” “Futurama Karaoke,” screen loops, a “smorgasbord” of deleted scenes and a jam session with composer Christopher Tyng.
The latest parable from the Gospel Music Channel involves sisters Sheila (Terri J. Vaughn) and Lynn (Vanessa Williams), who, despite different lifestyles, have come together at a crucial stage in their lives to go into business with each other and their friend, Tommi (Rachel True). That it is a bakery explains the title, “Sugar Mommas.”
Naturally, most of the trouble the women are having involves men. One sister is a cougar, while the other feels as if life and motherhood have passed her by. Their friend is being stalked by her ex-, who, of course, is a dog. The men are experiencing personal problems, as well, but it’s always the women in these things who pay the heaviest price. Typically, the production values aren’t nearly up to snuff, but the actors know their audience and work hard to accommodate it. – Gary Dretzka
Inspired: Voices Against Prop 8
The tissue connecting these too otherwise different queer films is the Mormon Church. In “The Falls,” we observe the transformation of two dedicated church missionaries from mere servants of God to servants of God who also happen to be gay and enjoy physical love. “Inspired: Voices Against Prop 8” describes what happens in the direct aftermath of the passage of California’s marriage-restricting ballot measure. The pro-Prop 8 campaign was heavily funded by contributions made by Mormons, as encouraged by church elders. The protagonists of “The Falls” – RJ and Chris – are roommates in a Portland, Oregon, residence hotel provided by the church. They take their jobs seriously and give almost no indication that they have sexual and romantic feelings for each other. Their first sexual experience takes place in a secluded place off a bike path on their way home from a day saving souls. It could hardly be more natural a setting or spontaneous a tryst. Immediately afterwards, they kneel to pray … not out of shame or guilt, but because it’s what they do. Neither is their much sturm und drang after they’re caught in bed by their supervisor. It is what it looks like and RJ, at least, is willing to defend his love to anyone who asks, including his father and church leadership. (Chris lives elsewhere and we don’t see how his family handles the possible excommunication.) There’s no grandstanding on anyone’s part, but also no questioning the courage shown by RJ. One thing that is clear is that church’s rigid position leaves almost no room for forgiveness or compassion, except when it applies to those who choose to accept deprogramming. Nick Ferrucci and Brian Allard are very good as the protagonists, as is Brian Allard in the role of an Iraq veteran who enjoys engaging the missionaries in debate as much as does smoking pot and drinking beer in front of them. Watch it alongside “Latter Days,” which deals with similar issues in a somewhat louder way.
“Inspired” arrives at a propitious time. Later this week, the Supreme Week is expected to decide if it will consider the legality of the Prop 8 marriage ban or leave standing the Federal Court decision reversing it. Charles Gage’s documentary chronicles the spontaneous protests that followed the stunning defeat, which, most admit, was due in large part to a half-assed campaign strategy against the sophisticated and well-financed pro-Prop 8 drive. Taking absolutely nothing for granted, the gay community staged a series of protests in and around Los Angeles that would continue until the California Supreme Court’s “Day of Decision.” Quite a few movers and shakers behind the protests and marches are interviewed here and the responses are not at all uniform. – Gary Dretzka
Money and Medicine
Thanks to marine documentarians Suzanne Chisholm and Michael Parfit, the orphaned killer whale Luna is probably the most famous orca since Willy (a.k.a., Keiko) and Shamu (the stage name for several SeaWold aquatic performers). “The Whale” is their second feature-length documentary about Luna. A fact-based theatrical movie, starring Adam Beach, Graham Greene and Jason Priestley, also was made, but only shown here on the Trinity network. The movies can be watched for their pure entertainment and educational value or as a cautionary drama. (Spoiler alert) Luna is no longer with us, for reasons made tragically clear in “The Whale,” so parents may want to watch it with their kids. When Luna was a mere toddler, he somehow was separated from his pod, which was based in Puget Sound. After being declared an MIA by scientists, Luna popped up hundreds of miles north in Nootka Sound. At first, we’re told, the orca spent most of his time trying to figure out where he was and where his family went. Desperately lonely, Luna began following boats and allowing himself to be petted and treated like a buddy by locals and tourists, alike. Perhaps, you can already see where this is heading. Luna didn’t know he was becoming a pest or endangering the lives of gawkers, kayakers and boaters, but that’s what happened. Worse, he showed no fear around propellers, work boats and skittish tourists.
This drew the attention of government regulators, of course, who feared the socialization process would soon turn dangerous to humans and Luna. Anyone caught interacting with the killer whale was threatened with jail or a fine. A native tribe saw in Luna a kindred spirit and, perhaps, the reincarnation of a leader. The Indians thwarted one attempt to cage the orca and take him to Puget Sound. One local actually attempted to bring a charge of attempted murder against him when he got too close to his boat. The media descended on Nootka to capture the drama but only added to it. Chisholm and Parfit began treating Luna like a playmate. None of it could save the orca from its own worst instincts. Finally, the movie demands we question our relationship with nature and what’s the right thing to do when one threatens the other. “The Whale” was exec-produced by Ryan Reynolds and Scarlett Johansson, with Reynolds providing the narration. It’s a beautiful documentary that would have been even more impressive in Blu-ray.
What hath Michael Moore wrought? In the long wake of “Sicko” have followed more documentaries about America’s health-care dilemma than any reviewer should be required to watch or 99 percent of potential patients ever will see. Roger Weisberg’s otherwise instructive “Money & Medicine” demands we once again consider the question of whether, when it comes to health care, more may be less. The medical-industrial complex pushes doctors to order unnecessary tests and procedures – C-sections, for example – and charges absurdly inflated prices for everything from Q-tips to brain scans. Everybody agrees that the system is broken, but no one wants to face the threat of cancer without knowing every single thing will be done to stem it. Everybody knows that Congress is in the back pocket of AMA lobbyists and other special interests, but Americans keep voting for the thieves, anyway. The media understands that the system needs to be fixed, but it was responsible for spreading Republican/Tea Party propaganda about “socialized medicine” and “death panels.” Because medical corporations require of its hospitals that beds be filled and hospital administrators demand of their doctors that they supply the patients to be warehoused there. “Money & Medicine” offers sound alternatives to status-quo medicine and good advice to adults who foresee a potential plug-pulling dilemma of their own down the road. As long as greedy business executives are allowed a forum to publically threaten the jobs of employees when ObamaCare kicks in, everyone who doesn’t have the same free health-care options as our elected officials is screwed. It’s that simple. – Gary Dretzka