By Gary Dretzka Dretzka@moviecitynews.com
The DVD Wrapup: 2 Days in New York, 360, Following, Black Like Me … More
Why Stop Now: Blu-ray
With an ensemble cast that includes Melissa Leo, Jesse Eisenberg and Tracy Morgan, you’d think that an eccentric screwball comedy would have a fighting chance of getting noticed. In the case of “Why Stop Now” (no question mark), however, you’d be wrong. After getting a look-see at Sundance, co-writer/directors’ Phil Dorling and Ron Nyswaner’s collaboration took a shot at the VOD market and a brief theatrical run, before launching in DVD and Blu-ray. In it, Eisenberg plays a piano prodigy, Eli, whose budding career has been put on hold so as to perform the kind of duties his mother would do, if she weren’t a drug addict. In an effort to get back on track and protect his younger sister from the same problems he faced growing up, Eli practically drags Penny to a rehab facility. Once there, however, Penny somehow passes her drug test. By definition, then, she’s not an addict and can’t be admitted. The guy who conducts the urine test knows she isn’t likely to stay clean for long and recommends she cop some weed or pills and come back later in the day. This unlikely contrivance sets the stage for all of the craziness to come. Penny directs Eli to her dealer, Sprinkles (Morgan), to whom she owes money. Sprinkles lives at home with his Chinese mother and is in the middle of negotiations with a Puerto Rican pusher when Eli arrives. Sprinkles and his partner can’t speak Spanish, so Eli volunteers to translate and assist him at the exchange, which inconveniently takes place during a quinceanera. He does this to hasten Penny’s return to the facility and allow him to make an audition on time. By now, though, Penny’s back in the picture and everything’s begun to spin out of control. The whole motley crew, which now includes Eli’s nutty sister, accompanies Eli to the audition, where, amazingly, a Revolutionary War re-enactment also is underway. Among the costumed participants is a pretty young woman (Sarah Ramos), who distracts Eli just when he needs to be focused on the task ahead of him.
I get tired just thinking about what happens in “Why Stop Now,” so it’s easy to imagine how freshman co-director (Dorling) might have gotten tangled up in his own devices. His partner, Nyswaner, may be a veteran screenwriter, but his last assignment behind the camera came a quarter-century ago with the long-forgotten “The Prince of Pennsylvania” (notable mostly for the presence of a pre-“Bill &Ted’s” Keanu Reeves). The good news is that Leo and Eisenberg are at the top of their game right now and couldn’t turn in a half-assed performance if they tried. Morgan, too, is coming into his own as a featured actor. Here, he’s both funny and a little bit scary. It’s easy to believe that Sprinkles would see a little bit of himself in Eli, who’s reached that fork in the road where one bad decision could spell disaster. If the directors had only been able to find the right balance between comedy and drama, the pace of “Why Stop Now” might have been less chaotic and viewers would be free to catch their breath every now and again. As Leo as demonstrated in her portrayals of several other troubled women, there’s nothing remotely funny about substance abuse and the toll it takes on everyone around them. Here, though, the script cuts Penny too much slack after she’s denied entry to the rehab facility. By allowing her to be portrayed as God’s own dope fiend and turning Sprinkles into a teddy bear, the filmmakers do no one any favors. Viewers who would consider renting “Why Stop Now,” based simply on the names of the actors on display, shouldn’t consider the mixed message to be a fatal flow. The Blu-ray contains an interview with Morgan and a making-of featurette. – Gary Dretzka
2 Days in New York: Blu-ray
It isn’t enough that Julie Delpy is as fine an actress in English as she is in French and, at 43, still one the world’s most beautiful women. In such films as “Before Sunset,” “The Countess” and “2 Days in Paris,” she’s also proven herself to be an exceptional writer, director and singer-songwriter. “2 Days in New York” is a direct sequel to “2 Days in Paris,” in which Adam Goldberg played Delpy’s American boyfriend and her real-life parents, Albert Delpy and Marie Pillet, essentially played themselves. (Pillet died in 2009, but her character’s spirit lingers throughout the sequel.) Chris Rock plays convincingly against type as Mingus, Marion’s new lover. They both have children from previous relationships and appear to live comfortably in a slightly rundown apartment. The surprise awaiting Mingus when Marion’s family arrives for an extended visit is of the kind that should only happen to snobs who prefer French over California wines. As Marion’s father, Albert Delpy remains totally incorrigible. Her sex-crazed sister, Rose (Alexia Landeau), writes about child psychology but doesn’t seem to know anything about flesh-and-blood kids, while her irresponsible husband and Marion’s former lover, Manu (Alexandre Nahon), spends most of his time in New York trying to score weed. Although Marion is accustomed to such madness and is eccentric in her own right, Mingus is a cool and cultivated public-radio host whose patience decreases with every new assault on his sense of decency and decorum. If that weren’t bad enough, Marion is in the final stages of preparing an exhibit of her photographs – she also plans to auction off her soul — and she begins to suspect that she may be pregnant with her second child.
Comparisons to Woody Allen naturally followed the release of the comedy and, for once, they’re valid. Her New York bears a closer resemblance to Allen’s than the one surveyed by Edward Burns and she seems to be as comfortable behind the camera as in front of it. As kooky as Marion is, it’s easy to believe that Delpy didn’t have to stretch too far to create her. New York and Paris share certain fascinating rhythms, after all, so it might be fun to see how Delpy’s keen eye for cultural quirks captured a return home with Mingus and the kids in tow. Being a dyed-in-the-wool New Yorker, he probably gets nervous whenever he’s required to travel beyond the outer boroughs and when the Knicks are on the road. Although Rock isn’t required here to carry the comedic load, it’s funny to watch Mingus conduct one-sided conversations with the cardboard cut-out of President Obama in his office. The Blu-ray adds interviews with Delpy and Rock. – Gary Dretzka
Despite a terrific international cast, wonderful performances, interesting locations, the words of Peter Morgan (“The Last King of Scotland”) and direction of Fernando Meirelles (“City of God”), the sum of its parts couldn’t equal success for “360.” As an ensemble thriller with tangentially related characters and interlocking storylines, it demands of us that we buy into a universe in which the impact of chance meetings, missed opportunities, karmic consequences, coincidence, fate and divine intervention can be measured like ripples on the surface of a quiet pond. Morgan’s screenplay is based on Arthur Schnitzler’s play “La Ronde,” which, in 1897, caused a scandal by linking a series of sexual encounters between disparate characters in a daisy chain. Meirelles opens up the play by introducing us first to an aspiring model (Lucia Siposova) who commutes between Bratislava and Vienna, accompanied by her sister, first to be photographed for a website, but, soon thereafter, to turn tricks for her photographer/pimp. Her first assignment is to meet with a British businessman (Jude Law) in Austria for a convention. Their rendezvous coincides with a sexual assignation his wife (Rachel Weisz) is having back home sex with a younger man, whose South American girlfriend, Laura (Maria Flor) has been spying on them. The circular dance continues with intertwined scenarios in Paris, a snowed-in airport in Denver, a Miami morgue and back, again, in Vienna.
Even at 110 minutes, we don’t have much time to get fully acquainted with the characters. On stage, this wouldn’t present a problem, but movie audiences need a more complete picture if they’re being asked to buy into such a demanding scenario. Just being a Muslim dentist, Soviet gangster, the father of a teenage runaway, unfaithful spouse, a convicted sex offender, parasitic pimp, German extortionist and aspiring prostitute doesn’t necessarily make a character compelling. The best moments in “360” come when the individual players are required to look into themselves and confront their demons. No one does this better than Anthony Hopkins, as the tortured father of a runaway who connects with Laura after she inquires about the pictures and newspaper articles he’s studying on the plane from London to Denver. After John describes his almost certainly fruitless mission, they bond in a way that nearly crosses the narrow border between paternal and romantic. Before they go their separate ways, Laura says something to him that hits him like a bolt of lightning. He shares the experience at an AA meeting in a soliloquy that is nothing short of awe-inspiring. Laura also impacts the life of Ben Foster’s newly paroled sex offender, Tyler, another lost soul stuck at the Denver airport. It is a target-rich environment for a rapist and Tyler is desperately trying to avoid a relapse. Instead of meeting John for dinner, Laura demands that Tyler accompany her to her hotel room, where she can satiate her hunger for revenge sex. He attempts to reject the invitation, but the blissfully naïve Laura is adamant. Foster’s performance is scary good. The Blu-ray arrives with making-of featurettes and interviews. – Gary Dretzka
Hard Core Logo/Hard Core Logo 2
Just as difficult as it is to imagine anyone attempting to make a mockumentary about Frank Sinatra, Maria Callas or Miles Davis in their artistic prime, it’s that easy to argue that several of the best movies about rock ’n’ roll are satires. There’s so little difference between truth and fiction that such very real documentaries as “Dig!,” “Hype!” and “Last Days Here” seem too preposterous to be true. Bruce McDonald and Noel Baker’s “Hard Core Logo” — an adaptation of Michael Turner’s novel about aging punk rockers — is considered to be one of the best examples of faux non-fiction, albeit one in which “mock” doesn’t necessarily equate to “funny.” At its lightest, the self-described mockumentary is the color of ink and often no more amusing. The fake Canadian punk ensemble Hard Core Logo made a reputation for itself by combining a take-no-prisoners attitude with a playlist of kick-ass songs. After the group disbands, a fan asks the members to reunite for an anti-gun benefit to support a music “legend,” who, we’re told, had his legs blown off in an assault. Self-absorbed lead singer Joe Dick (Hugh Dillon) convinces guitarist Billy Tallent (Callum Keith Rennie) to return to the Great White North from California, where he’d gotten a gig with a more popular band. The benefit goes so well that the band members agree to embark on a tour of the hinterlands. The other members are content to get back on the road, where they can raise a little hell before admitting they’re too old to rock. Somewhere between Saskatoon and Vancouver, things begin to unravel. Truths are revealed and egos are bruised. Turner, Baker and McDonald all have enjoyed a bird’s-eye view of the Canadian punk scene and “HLC” benefits from their collective memory.
Fourteen years later, McDonald revisited the tale in “Hard Core Logo 2,” but without the assistance of Turner and Baker. It is far less successful. The story focus on a Courtney Love clone (rocker Care Failure, playing herself) who believes she’s possessed by the twisted spirit of Joe Dick and is on a highway to hell. A demented character from the first film agrees to produce her next album in a snowbound lodge in Saskatchewan and it becomes an exercise is sadomasochism. McDonald’s greatest lapse in judgment comes in turning his own character, Bruce the Filmmaker, into a central player in the faux drama. Hitchcock appeared in his pictures for only a few seconds at a time and McDonald’s no Hitchcock. Even so, fans of the original might find something in this punk nightmare to their liking. They certainly will be pleased by the handsome new package and restoration, which makes both films look and sound great. The set adds interviews and featurettes. – Gary Dretzka
Following: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
Over the course of 12 years, Christopher Nolan has gone from making no-budget shorts that almost no one has seen (“Doodlebug”) to mega-budget features that fans wait in line overnight to savor (“The Dark Knight Trilogy”). Newly re-issued by Criterion Collection with a restored, hi-def digital transfer, “Following” is the movie Nolan made before his breakthrough feature, “Memento.” Like that critical and box-office success, “Following” is a gritty crime story that unfolds in a resolutely non-linear fashion. Instead of a mysterious stranger with a severe case of amnesia, the protagonist of “Following” is a blocked writer, Bill, who follows strangers in the street for reasons even he doesn’t seem to understand. He becomes fascinated with a slick operator named Cobb, who turns the tables by confronting his stalker in a restaurant. At first, Bill tries to deny that he’s following Cobb, but it’s fruitless. In fact, Cobb reveals to Bill that he’s something of a snoop himself. Instead of following people, he’s mastered the art of hands-on voyeurism by breaking into apartments and going through the owner’s property, if for no other reason than that he’s good at it. He talks Bill into joining him on a practice run, but has bigger things in mind for their partnership.
Things get complicated after they break into the apartment of a gangster’s moll and they take souvenirs – lingerie, a single pearl earring – that will figure prominently at various times in the narrative. It helps to pay close attention to the things that happen along the way to the movie’s unexpected conclusion, because the narrative frequently doubles back on itself. Among the things that make “Following” special is the grainy black-and-white cinematography, which heightens the noir feel and looks terrific in Blu-ray. The package adds a lengthy interview with Nolan; a fresh 5.1 surround sound mix; Nolan’s commentary; a chronological rendering of the story; a side-by-side comparison of three scenes in the film, with the shooting script; the three-minute short, “Doodlebug”; and a booklet featuring an essay by critic and programmer Scott Foundas. – Gary Dretzka
Black Like Me
Now relegated mostly to the backwaters and footnotes of 20th Century history is “Black Like Me,” a book written by a white Texan, John Howard Griffin, for the purpose of enlightening fellow Caucasians about life in the Jim Crow South. It’s greatest success came in confirming the horror stories related by negroes – this was before “black” and “African-American” entered the vernacular – about such terrible realities as lynching; designated whites-only sections in restaurants and theaters; forbidden rest rooms and drinking fountains; “coon hunts”; and men being forbidden from looking into the eyes of a white woman. Agitators were routinely beaten for demanding their constitutional rights and voting was privilege limited to citizens who could pay a fee and/or pass a test. Northerners knew more about Apartheid in South Africa and Rhodesia than the effects of segregation in Dixie. Griffin had witnessed things that shocked him and knew nothing would change if the truth continued to be swept under the rug by the media. To this end, he worked with doctors to tint his skin to a shade that would allow him to “pass” and spent hours under a sunlamp. It worked so well that he was able to experience things he previously believed were passed along for shock value.
Griffin and his editor both understood he would be putting his career and possibly his life in jeopardy, simply for reporting the truth. Moreover, Griffin put himself in a position where he could be accused by black activists of exploiting the situation strictly for personal gain and self-aggrandizement. This was especially true when the serialization of “Black Like Me” ended in Sepia magazine and the subsequent book became a must-read in many parts of the country. In fact, it became required reading in some high schools. Three years later, “Black Like Me” was adapted for the screen by Carl Lerner — editor of “The Fugitive Kind” and “Requiem for a Heavyweight,” among other ’50s classics — as his first and only feature.
Without researching the film’s history, it’s difficult for me to say why the movie was entrusted to as many first-time filmmakers as it was. It’s entirely possible that distribution would have been limited to only a very few Northern cities and college towns and it wasn’t worth the effort or financial risk for the studios. At the time, movies were edited so as not to offend racist audiences in the South with visions of blacks and whites consorting and carrying on. Lerner’s adaptation isn’t the most elegant or technically proficient movie ever made, but it’s true to the book and has a decidedly noir texture that still is effective. The scenes shot on the nighttime streets of New Orleans and in the nightclubs where black patrons danced wildly to post-war swing and R&B are especially effective. The movie’s biggest problem comes in the inconsistent skin tones on the face James Whitmore, which went from light brown to minstrel-show black. The script also demanded of Whitmore that he chew far too much scenery when he wasn’t gracefully interpreting Griffin’s message. Among the cast members are such now-familiar faces as Roscoe Lee Brown, Al Freeman Jr., Will Geer, Heywood Hale Broun, David Huddleston, Raymond St. Jacques, Denver Pyle, Matt Clark and Sorrell Brooke (a.k.a., “Boss Hogg”). “Black Like Me” isn’t easy to watch, even now, but its value as a historical document can’t be dismissed. It is being released for the first time in DVD, fully restored from the original negative, the package includes the bonus disc, “Uncommon Vision: The Life and Times of John Howard Griffin,” an excerpt from “Reluctant Activist: The Authorized Biography of John Howard Griffin.” – Gary Dretzka
The Mark of the Devil: Yack Pak
Doomsday Book: Blu-ray
If it could be proven that Osama Bin Laden didn’t exactly die after being shot and killed in the raid on his compound in Pakistan, would film critics in New York and Boston feel compelled to give their best-picture award for “Zero Dark Thirty” to the runner-ups? That isn’t the burning question that comes to mind while watching “Osombie,” but it is right behind, “Who comes up with this stuff?” Apparently, when it pertains to zombie movies, the answer is, “Anyone with a typewriter.” If D.W. Griffith were alive today, it’s possible we’d be reviewing “Birth of a Zombie Nation” in this space. Contrary to what Americans have been told, Osama’s compound actually was built on a storage-locker facility in which he was assembling a zombie army. When attacked by Seal Team Six, the terrorist leader knew that the only way to escape being killed or kidnaped by emissaries of the Great Satan was to cheat death. He accomplished this by injecting himself with a chemical substance developed for use by NATO troops, but was re-formulated by a pharmacist at the Walgreen’s in Kabul … or something like that. Once deposited in Davy Jones’ Locker for the big sleep, Bin Laden woke up as a zombie capable of walking along the floor of the ocean (do zombies swim?) to an encampment of his fellow undead. By coincidence, a crack Special Forces team is in the same neighborhood and they’ve got their hands full slaughtering the Al Qaeda irregulars. They’re everywhere and nowhere, at once. Apart from the appearance of Osama, “Osombie” plays out in much the same way as a zillion other such genre specimens. The only differences are the head scarves worn by the zombies and the lovely desert scenery. As ludicrous as John Lyde and Kurt Hale’s movie may be, it exudes a goofy can-do charm capable of enchanting even the most sophisticated and critical slackers.
Decades before “torture porn” was given a name and sub-genre of its own, the German-made “The Mark of the Devil” tested the limits of how much simulated pain the typical drive-in and grindhouse customer could stand. Dubbed by its American distributors as being “positively the most horrifying film ever made” – they conveniently forgot “Santa Claus Conquers the Martians” — Michael Armstrong and Adrian Hoven’s gorefest was screened with an airplane barf bag for every ticket sold. (And, so does the DVD.) Reportedly banned in Germany, where it was titled “Witches Are Tortured to Death,” “Mark of the Devil” is still capable of raising a shudder or two. The many scenes of torture derive from the bloodlust of 18th Century priests and inquisitors who believe that any beautiful, large busted woman who wouldn’t sleep with them must be a sorcerer or blasphemer and, for that, deserves to die under unspeakable circumstances. Genre buffs will enjoy seeing a 26-year-old Udo Kier playing the understudy of the Grand Inquisitor (Herbert Lom) and his chief henchman (Reggie Nalder). He discovers the truth after enjoying a night of bliss with one of the women (Katarina Olivera) accused of heresy. (In 1970, at least, Kier could easily have been mistaken for David Cassidy.)
From Australia arrives “The Caretaker,” a vampire movie that will sound more familiar to genre buffs than it actually is. Like any flu epidemic, vampirism has crossed the oceans and taken hold in the continent’s largest cities. The plague appears to have taken officials by surprise, however, and news of it has yet to make its way to the provinces. Once it does, a small group of survivors congregates at the rural home of a strangely twisted wine merchant. He’d previously called a doctor to see what’s wrong with his mom, who’s stashed away in the basement. It doesn’t take the doctor long to figure out her problem or the owner to grasp why the doctor isn’t interested in the potatoes that accompany his juicy steak dinner. The doctor is an old-school vampire willing to protect the survivors from attack by the infected vampires at night, if they promise to keep bounty hunters away from him in daylight. As you can imagine, that leaves plenty of time for heartfelt discussions between the hot blond survivor and the buff vampire, as well as sinister plotting and back-stabbing by the others. Thanks to some beautifully photographed sunrises, sunsets and cloud formation, “Caretaker” sometimes even borders on the contemplative.
Kim Ji-Woon and Yim Pil-Sung’s “Doomsday Book” is a three-part anthology from Korea that neatly combines horror and science-fiction. In the first, “A Brave New World,” a pandemic is caused when the metabolisms of cattle no longer are capable of filtering out the toxins from their feed, which literally comes from the garbage thrown away by humans. The poison beef, when consumed, doesn’t merely kill people, it turns them into zombies. In the brilliant sci-fi sendup, “Happy Birthday,” a girl uses the Internet to purchase a replacement 8-ball for her father’s pool table. Because of a malfunction in the computer, the order is misdirected and the delivery arrives in the form of a giant black meteor from space. It’s the second chapter, “The Heavenly Creature,” that struck me as being the most provocative. It imagines a time in the not too distant future when robots not only can react instinctively to our needs, but also learn from us in ways that don’t require the input of programmers. At a Buddhist monastery, a robot leased by the monks to perform various duties has begun showing signs that it has absorbed religious teaching. While meditating, it asks the million-dollar question, “From where I do I come and to where will I go?” For their part, the monks ask themselves, “If humans were created by a greater force, is it possible for their creations to attain enlightenment, as well?” The owner of the company that manufactures such advanced robots demands that the monks allow him to destroy their unit and replace it with something less willful. He argues that by accepting the robot’s free will, it could open a Pandora’s Box that might fundamentally change our ways of life. Where’s the HAL 9000, when you need it?
Matthew Sconce’s possession-thriller “Stricken” did well on the festival circuit before being released into DVD, where it also deserves a fair shot at success. Newcomer Stephanie French plays a young woman, Sarah, who’s been haunted by terrible dreams and bizarre visions ever since the funerals of her mother and father. His suicide arguably was caused by a frightening Celtic curse that somehow found its way to America. It goes back to the Scottish river deity Agrona, who’s known as the “goddess of carnage” and manifests herself in mirrors and reflections. A police detective played by veteran tough guy David Fine had dated the mother in high school and believes that Sarah’s curse might explain a 10-year string of murders that he’s been investigating. He’s the rare good-guy cop, who is willing to give air to Sarah’s fears instead of dismissing them out of hand. His only problem is that he falls into a deep sleep when she needs him the most. – Gary Dretzka
My Heart Beats
Sex Hunter: Wet Target/I Love It From Behind
Richard Kern: Hardcore Collection: Director’s Cut
Naked in the 21st Century: Collector’s Edition
In her feature debut, the erotic ugly-duckling story, “My Heart Beats,” Huh Eun-hee adds another dimension to the evolving Korean film renaissance. Decidedly soft-core, the film’s protagonist, Yoo Jo-Ri, is a 37-year-old professor of English and literature, with a special emphasis this semester in Victorian erotica. It’s an unlikely topic for a woman who can barely raise her eyes when talking to a man and develops a rash when confronted with a possible real-life sexual encounter. It isn’t that Yoo is a prude, exactly, because she’s well-versed in Internet porn and seems desperate to experience a life-changing orgasm. Her reticence has far more to do with a certain embarrassment over having to admit she’s a virgin. She’s also self-conscious about her weight and drab persona. Fortuitously, one of her closest friends is a producer of adult films. Given that there’s a niche DVD to match every niche taste, her friend provides her one she thinks might quench the professor’s desire to perform in a porno. It has the opposite effect, however, and the producer decides to give her a shot. Because Yoo braces at the idea of even removing her clothes, things don’t go well. Still, she perseveres. To protect her position at the college, she wears a Mardi Gras mask and this eases her tension a bit. It isn’t until she begins to see the relationship between sex and sensuality — here, in the shape and scent of luscious fruits and the erotic pull of an aroused heart – that Yoo begins to blossom as a woman. If that summary could describe several dozen Cinemax movies, it’s worth knowing that the cinematography, direction and acting all are terrific and clichés are kept to a minimum.
As batshit crazy as most of vintage Roman Porno titles in the “Nikkatsu Erotic Films Collection” are, it’s almost always possible to find at least a grain of social commentary contained in them. They’re unlike anything you’ve seen on cable TV or probably ever will. Roman Porno was grindhouse before grindhouse was cool. The biggest hurdle for American viewers to get past always has been the filmmakers’ liberal attitude toward portraying rape, not always as a violent crime, but sometimes as an act of foreplay. At the height of their popularity, Japanese censorship guidelines famously prohibited the display of pubic hair, requiring filmmakers to pixelate genitalia or avoid graphic nudity entirely. Everything else was fair game, including unleashed semen, “water sports,” women’s sanitary products and sex toys.
Yukihiro Sawada’s “Sex Hunter: Wet Target” combines elements of the “pink” and “rebel youth” formats in the service of a story that decries the reluctance of Japanese courts to punish American soldiers who commit sex crimes while on leave. Set during the Vietnam War, three drunk Yanks decide it might be fun to assault a couple of working girls outside the military base. When one woman protests the brutality of the attack, she is beaten and hung. After whiskey is poured on the other woman – the camera angle leads us to believe it’s something else — she is left behind in a nearly comatose state. A black man passing by on his bicycle stops to help her, but he, too, is beaten. Upon his release from prison, the dead prostitute’s brother – half black and half Japanese – pledges to avenge her death. He gets a bartending job in the nightclub in which his sister worked and the other victim is living and performing in a zombie-like state. When he isn’t performing live sex shows with her for VIP customers, he’s plotting revenge on the soldiers. Upon discovering that the Viet Cong have already taken care of that for him, he works out his frustration on customers taking advantage his sister’s friend. “Wet Target” ain’t pretty, but it did cause a bit of an uproar at the time.
Koyu Ohara’s “I Love It From Behind” is a mutation of the horny-housewife sub-genre, which speculated on what goes on at home when the wives of “salary men” are left to their own devices. In it, a young woman committed to an arranged marriage goes on a pre-nuptial sex spree, during which she hopes to sleep with 100 men and collect inked imprints of their penises. After exhausting the supply of eligible men in Sapporo, Mimei travels to Tokyo for the home stretch. Upon arriving at her closest friend’s apartment, she discovers Masumi in a sexual embrace with her mousy roommate, Rei. Being of the strictly-dickly persuasion, Mimei talks them into reacquainting themselves with the joys of hetero love. Although Rei seems more interested in her toy collection, Masumi takes on the challenge of seducing a handsome executive in her office. After enjoying several dinner dates with the prim fellow, they dial up the relationship by going home together. Finally, he reveals his pervy side, by tying her up, cutting off her clothes with a straight razor, shaving her pubes and sodomizing her with a dildo … in a soft-core sort of way, of course. Meanwhile, Mimei continues her pursuit of penises, failing only once in her quest. Severely damaged by her ordeal, Masumi decides to join her friend on one of her nightclub romps, during which she cuts a stray out of the herd and does unto him what was done unto her. Amazingly, her victims kind of dig being abused and buggered, hence the movie’s title. With only a couple of days left before her wedding, Mimei tracks down her elusive and thoroughly egomaniacal prey and challenges him to an orgasm contest, which actually is pretty sexy. What began with a rape evolves rather quickly into a bawdy comedy with a twist ending.
Richard Kern is best known today as a photographer of borderline-sleazy soft-core porn that can be found in magazines, coffeetable books, premium websites and album jackets. He seems fixated by young adult women who enjoy taking their clothes off for his camera, exchanging biographical chit-chat with the geezer and posing with everyday items in ways only fetishists would find provocative. (Others might consider the poses to be weird, boring or lame.) The short movies included in “Richard Kern: Hardcore Collection: Director’s Cut” represent work done in his salad days, 30 to 40 years ago, as a prominent East Village filmmaker, photographer and scenester. Rougher and far angrier in tone than Kern’s work today, the films were labeled Cinema of Trangression by fellow practitioner Nick Zedd. They were done in collaboration with such underground fixtures as Lydia Lunch, Henry Rollins, Lung Leg, David Wojnarowicz, Sonic Youth, Kembra Pfahler and various other strippers, drug addicts and starving artists. The generous Blu-ray collection of digitally restored, re-mastered and re-cut pieces isn’t at all easy to watch – the 1970-80s offered more opportunities for transgressive types – as they include scenes of extreme sexuality, violence and very loud punk music. Longtime admirers will consider the collection to be essential viewing. It adds outtakes, the unreleased “Destruction” and revealing interviews.
A couple of weeks ago, Doris Wishman’s nudie-cutie classic, “Hideout in the Sun,” was re-released into DVD through MVD Visual. Made in 1960, it involves a pair of bank robbers who find refuge in a Florida nudist resort. The setting allowed for plenty of nudity, while discussions extolling the naturalist lifestyle allowed it to pass for educational, under the restrictions imposed by the Production Code. In cinematic terms, at least, it was primitive. “Naked in the 21st Century: Collector’s Edition” tackles the same subject in a way that might have passed inspection in 1960, too. In fact, it’s a come-on for investors in T.L. Young’s theatrical project, “The Naked Place.” The most surprising thing about the documentary may be the news that nudist camps still exist, although suburban sprawl and skittish neighbors now threaten their existence in sunnier climes than tiny Roselawn, Indiana, where there are two. The film offers a look back at the history of the camps and the culture, as well as some contemporary scenes. It also goes behind the scenes of auditions for “The Naked Place” and adds interviews with members of the International Naturists Association conducted by Playboy model Christine Nguyen as a guest faux newscaster. – Gary Dretzka
The Skinny: Director’s Cut
Jonathan Lisecki’s let’s-have-a-baby comedy, “Gayby,” takes a well-worn cultural cliché and twists it just enough to wring a reasonably funny and often very entertaining rom-com from its disparate parts. Adapted on an obviously meager budget from a similarly themed short, “Gayby” accomplishes something that Hollywood filmmakers have failed to do after numerous attempts: finding the fun in alternative birthing and keeping it real. While decidedly formulaic, it doesn’t attempt to turn gays into straights, and vice-versa, simply for the sake of a few laughs or ignore the way gays and lesbians make love. Matthew Wilkas plays Matt, the gay best friend of a straight woman, Jenn (Jenn Harris), whose bad luck with men has convinced her to have a baby before her biological clock stops ticking. Now in their mid-30s, Matt and Jenn have been friends since they were kids and agree that making a baby together would be the best remedy for her dilemma. At the same time as they’re trying to conceive, however, both are attempting to find new love interests. This is much easier for Matt to pull off than Jenn, because only a very few potential boyfriends welcome hearing that their date wants to become a parent in the immediate future.
Matt is hilariously uncomfortable with the prospect of making babies “the old-fashioned way.” Even the thought of seeing Jenn naked is the furthest thing to a turn-on in his mind. The big complication comes in the form of a handsome lug who approaches Jenn at the very moment when she can’t possibly say, “no,” to a quick roll in the hay. It isn’t until a few weeks later, when Jenn’s many attempts bear fruit, that she runs into the lug and he off-handedly mentions the five condoms that broke in the fury of their tryst. Apparently, condoms can dry out and crack when stored for five years in a bathroom drawer. Foolishly, perhaps, she alerts Matt to the possibility he isn’t the dad on the night of his birthday and he doesn’t take it well. There are several directions “Gayby” might have gone at this point, but, I think, Lisecki found the right path to a credible solution. The lead actors benefit from a strong supporting cast and a script that doesn’t play to the cheap seats.
Patrik-Ian Polk’s reunion dramedy, “The Skinny,” shares the usual touchstone points as every movie in which college friends get back together after a year apart from each other. The primary difference here comes in knowing that the good-looking characters attended the trendiest college on the planet, Brown University; are African-American; and are either gay or lesbian. No sooner do the friends reunite in a New York townhouse than the hook-ups and peripheral intrigue begin. As usual, the further they dig into a year’s worth of dirt, the more they find. The decision to hold the gathering in New York, instead of, say, Las Vegas, probably doomed the weekend from the get-go. It’s tough to get away from your demons when you don’t go very far from where they fester. Moreover, the specter of HIV/AIDS hangs over the proceedings like a blimp. “The Skinny” stars Jussie Smollett, Anthony Burrell, Blake Young-Fountain, Shanika Warren-Markland and Jeffrey Bowyer-Chapman. It adds deleted scenes, director’s commentary, web extras and a photo gallery. – Gary Dretzka
Dreams of a Life
Even to her closest friends, Joyce Vincent personified Winston Churchill’s observation, “Russia is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.” Judging from the testimony of friends and associates, the 38-year-old was vivacious, stunning, lovely and very well liked. A product of a conservative Afro-Caribbean family, living in a spare North London bed-sitting room, she loved music and found ways to mingle with celebrities, including Nelson Mandela and Stevie Wonder. And, yet, it took nearly three years for police to discover her decomposed body after presumably dying alone and forgotten in December 2003. Her skeleton was found surrounded by Christmas presents that she was in the process of wrapping and her television was still playing. According to the evidence presented in “Dreams of a Life,” it wasn’t a case of a troubled woman being abandoned by friends or committing suicide. By all indications, Vincent managed to fall off the face of the Earth all by herself, without leaving a forwarding address. She is portrayed here by the waifish British actress Zawe Ashton (“Blitz”), as someone whose presence was magnetic and always welcome. Director Carol Worley (“The Alcohol Years”) read an article about the discovery of Vincent’s body and decided to investigate the circumstances that led to the mystery. She took out ads in newspapers and placed signs on the sides of cabs. Slowly, but surely a biographical portrait emerged from the sensational headlines. Worley expands upon the mystery inside the enigma by employing ethereal music in the background during Ashton’s appearances. Because we’re left only with the official cause of death, natural causes, we leave the movie as perplexed as we are profoundly saddened by seemingly wasted life. The DVD comes with an interesting making-of discussion and further thoughts by the participants. – Gary Dretzka
After watching movies like “Erin Brockovich,” “Silkwood,” “A Civil Action” and “The Insider,” most viewers walk away from them believing that the heroic actions of a handful of Davids can topple the ambivalently murderous Goliaths of American industry. Many such documentaries end on a positive note, as well. It’s the movies and documentaries we don’t see that should scare us the most. “Libby, Montana” describes an environmental horror story that began decades ago, claimed hundreds of patriotic Americans and ended in 2009 with the monsters being cleared of all charges. In this case, the fiend is the huge and powerful conglomerate W.R. Grace, which knowingly put its workers in harm’s way and withheld its own warnings from them. It closed its Zonolite plant in the remote mountain town of Libby, Montana, in 1990, but, even today, residents of all ages and job background continue to die of asbestos-related ailments. Zonolite has been used as a source of insulation in millions of U.S. homes, so it’s impossible to fix a firm number on the harm it’s caused. Grace executives must have feared being found culpable, if not guilty of great crimes, because it began stashing billions of dollars of earnings in “daughter companies” before declaring bankruptcy in 2001. At the time, it was facing 270,000 asbestos-related lawsuits nationwide, of which 150,000 have been settled. This put the responsibility of footing the bill in Libby on the shoulders of taxpayers.
There is no happy ending to “Libby, Montana.” The only thing the red-state governor offered Libby residents was prayers. Health insurers could hardly wait to begin denying benefits and cutting co-pays for drugs. All that was left for the citizens was to pray, themselves, taxpayers would come to their rescue through Superfund designation. If the citizens felt less than hopeful during its decades-long ordeal, it might be traced to an announcement by then-President Reagan, naming the head of W.R. Grace to lead a panel dedicated to streamlining business affairs and eliminating the roadblocks in the way of conglomerates profiting from the misery of others. For his part, President George W. Bush worked mightily to diminish further to ability of the EPA to protect citizens by cutting jobs in the department. All of the politicians we meet in “Libby, Montana” are Republican. You do the math. The DVD adds interviews with director Dru Carr and deleted scenes. – Gary Dretzka
Out the Gate
Kill ’Em All: Blu-ray
It’s been a long time since I’ve seen a movie from Jamaica that didn’t involve Bob Marley or bobsleds. “Out the Gate” is a micro-budget crime thriller whose roots extend back to “The Harder They Come,” “Rockers” and “Countryman,” right down to the subtitled English. In a story as old as time, a young man is sent to L.A. by his uncle to prevent him from attempting to avenge the murder of a friend. Instead of immediately setting the music industry on fire, as he expects, Everton ends up on the street selling CDs and DVDs shipped to him from the island. Ideally suited to his social skills, the gig helps Everton (E-Dee) connect with several influential people, including the musician Father Times, the record mogul Qmillion, ganglord Badz and several women normally out of a country boy’s league. When Qmillion hooks Everton up with a terrific Trinidadian singer (Ms Triniti), he begins to think that he’s on his way to Zion. Naturally, the good times can’t last. Bad news arrives in the form of Badz, who’s pissed over an unpaid IOU that Father Times neglected to mention to his friend. If the story is overly familiar and, technically, “Out the Gate” is an unholy mess, the rest of the movie is redeemed by an excellent dancehall and reggae soundtrack and the enthusiastic acting of a young, virtually unknown cast.
Although it does feature some top-flight martial arts, “Kill ’Em All” ultimately is no more exciting than watching someone else play a video fighting game. After being a given a demonstration of the combatants’ deadly skills in the real world, they’re drugged, kidnaped and consigned to a concrete bunker in which all exits are controlled by the unseen puppet-master, Snakehead (Cia Hui Liu). Although we know that all of the fighters are professional assassins, we’re largely left in the dark as to why they’ve been brought here. We find out gradually as the series of deadly challenges given them by Snakehead plays out. The higher the level, the greater the amount of force is employed against the survivors. That’s the story. Everything else is action. Raimu Death Valley: Blu-ray Death Valley: Blu-ray nd Huber and Ken Miller’s movie stars Johnny Messner, Joe Lewis, Ammara Siripong, Tim Man, Rashid Phoenix, Brahim Achabbakhe and Erik Markus Schuetz. – Gary Dretzka
Trade of Innocents
Like every other business in the world, the sex industry operates on the principle of supply and demand. In the United States, it’s still possible to fly to Reno or Las Vegas, hop in a complimentary limousine and be taken to a legal brothel. The establishments are licensed and taxed, as are the women. Health standards are carefully observed and the customers are plentiful. The same can’t be said about the freelance prostitutes and pimps in Reno, Las Vegas or any other city in the United States. Poverty and drug addiction have driven thousands of American women and men, girls and boys, into the “game.” Because the demand is so great, however, the business of supplying prostitutes through trafficking human flesh has become a global epidemic. There isn’t a police drama series on television that hasn’t incorporated the illegal trade of women from Eastern Europe, China and South America into its story lines. Interpol tells us that many, possibly most of these women were kidnaped or are being held against their wills to pay off debts accrued by their parents or the passage to the U.S. Their customers probably think the women’s accents are cute, but their money finances a United Nations of organized crime.
The quasi-legal sex industry in Thailand and other Southeast Asian nations is different in several important ways. On the demand side, tourists from developed nations around the world flock there to partake in cheap and easy sex and some varieties that are strictly forbidden back home. Tragically, among their number are countless pedophiles who can feed their sick addiction with little or no resistance. On the supply side, impoverished parents often resort to selling or leasing their children to the traffickers who supply the brothels and pimps in the destination cities. The insidious practice has been well documented and reported, but police and government corruption – in addition to the premium prices paid by pedophiles – has thwarted the efforts of relief agencies and international law-enforcement groups.
“Trade of Innocents” is the latest movie to take on the illegal trafficking of underage children in Southeast Asia. Although critics have lambasted its almost amateurish “infomercial”/PSA approach to the subject, it delivers an important message and probably is better suited to small-screen viewing than theatrical exhibition. Dermot Mulroney and Mira Sorvino play an American couple who lost their young daughter to a sexual predator and have traveled to Cambodia or, perhaps, Thailand to help put a dent in the criminal enterprise there, as well as encourage rescued women and girls to keep fighting. They’re welcomed with various degrees of cooperation, suspicion and resistance by police and citizens, alike. We hear all of the various sides of the argument, but, because we already know which team is worthy of our support, dismiss most of them out of hand. Not surprisingly, the good guys win this battle, while having to admit that the war is far from over. Clearly, as long as supply and demand remain relatively balanced, it will fall on government and police officials to forgo the rewards of sex tourism and bribes and focus on solutions to the problem. We already know how that’s worked here with the drug trade, but, unlike the legalization of marijuana, legalizing underage prostitution on the supply side simply isn’t an option. – Gary Dretzka
The Joy Luck Club: Blu-ray
Released in 1993, Wayne Wang’s adaptation of the Amy Tan best-seller was significant both as a compelling multi-generational drama and a reminder of how poorly served the Asian-American community was by Hollywood. It still is, but the presence of Pacific Rim characters has increased significantly as the number of first- and second-generation Asian-Americans in the key demographics has grown. Two decades ago, they mostly were relegated to restaurants, war movies, triads, IT jobs and cutthroat business negotiations. Set primarily in and around San Francisco, “The Joy Luck Club” is informed by the memories of four Chinese women, who, since arriving in America just after World War II, have met once a week to play mah-jongg. In a sense, they exist in three different worlds: the one they left, the one in which they currently exist and the one in which their children are entering. Ming-Na Wen serves as our entry point into all three worlds after she joins the circle as the replacement for her recently deceased mother. Their individual stories range from uplifting to heart-breaking. – Gary Dretzka
The Island: Blu-ray
Wild Geese: Blu-ray
Death Valley: Blu-ray
Anyone who watches as many old movies as DVD reviewers do is never surprised to find Michael Caine’s name on a dust jacket. Not only has he appeared in some of classiest movies of the last 60 years, but he’s also lent his talent to more than a few pot-boilers, bombs and turkeys. He can be found in “The Dark Knight Returns” and two new releases this week: Scream!Factory’s big-budget adventure “The Island” and Severin’s slave-trade thriller “Ashanti.”
Writer Peter Benchley and producers David Brown and Richard D. Zanuck had just hit the jackpot with “Jaws” and “Jaws 2” and they tried for a trifecta with the adaptation of Benchley’s “The Island.” Director Michael Ritchie had a nice run going with “Smile,” “The Bad News Bears” and “Semi-Tough.” Universal threw a whole bunch of money at the project and could barely wait for box-office revenues to come flooding back in the return mail. It’s still waiting, probably. Someone there must have thought that the Bermuda Triangle provided a sure-fire theme and expanded upon it by adding old-school pirates, a gimmick that wouldn’t float until Disney’s “Pirates of the Caribbean” took sail in 2003. Caine stars as a reporter fixated on reports of mysterious disappearances in the increasingly infamous triangle-shaped section of ocean. He sets out with his son to check out the area and, indeed, is disappeared in a trap set by an in-bred ancestor of the island’s original pirate cabal. David Warner, who leads the pack, sees in the son a way to get fresh DNA in the bloodstream. When modern marauders target the island, the volume of the violence is dialed up to full blast.
At about the same time, Michael Caine also starred in “Ashanti,” a movie far more interesting in Blu-ray as a travelogue than as an adventure. Everything about “Ashanti,” except the scenery can best be described as ludicrous. I don’t care if it is based on actual events, a declaration I’m not willing to buy. Nearly 60 years after “The Sheik,” it was still alright not only to portray Arabs as neck-deep in the slave trade, but also have them played by gringos. Here, Peter Ustinov has been assigned to lead luscious supermodel Beverly Johnson from the jungles of West Africa to the Mediterranean, where Omar Sharif awaits his delivery. She was abducted while skinny-dipping near a village where she and her husband (Caine) were part of a UN team vaccinating natives. Helping the doctor track down Anansa are Rex Harrison and William Holden. That’s amazing, right? Direct Richard Fleischer benefited from location shooting in Kenya, Israel and Sicily, and the fully restored “Ashanti” takes full advantage of the scenery. Johnson is interviewed about the experience in a bonus feature.
Caine may not appear in “The Wild Geese” alongside Richard Burton, Roger Moore and Richard Harris, but it’s not for lack of trying on the part of the producers. It was 1978 and the movie was being shot in South Africa, which was being boycotted for its apartheid policy. Caine wanted nothing to do with it. Good for him. The story resembles “Dogs of War,” in that it involves a mercenary assault on a central African country, where a despotic leader is in charge. The Brits are hired by a wealthy industrialist to recruit and train a squad of commandos. They will parachute into the African nation, snatch its deposed President from a maximum security prison and escape via the military-controlled airport. Not surprisingly, the mercenaries are double-crossed, causing even more mayhem. The film, which got little exposure in the U.S. and was protested in England, is said to have influenced Sylvester Stallone, director of “The Expendables.” The fully re-mastered Blu-ray adds new interviews with director Andrew V. McLaghlen and military advisor Mike Hoare; a documentary on producer Euan Lloyd, with Moore, Joan Armatrading and Ingrid Pitt; a vintage featurette; and newsreel footage of the Royal Charity Premiere.
Released in 1982, even before its child star, Peter Billingsley, broke through in “A Christmas Story,” “Death Valley” looks as if it could have been made far more recently. That’s because, just as the desert takes millennia to change, movies set in the desert can only be dated by the cars driven by the characters. Given that cars in California tend to last forever, however, a 30-year-old movie might as well have been made yesterday. Here, Catherine Hicks plays a recent divorcee whose city-slicker son (Billingsley) has reluctantly agreed to join her and her boyfriend (Paul Le Mat) on a tour of the Southwestern desert. At first, Billy isn’t ready to let a new man into his life. By the time they reach an Old West movie ranch, where Billy is given a star and a six-gun, the boy is has warmed up to him. His timing is good, because they’re about to run into an insane serial killer (Stephen McHattie) and Billy holds the key to his identity. The cat-and-mouse game that ensues is reasonably exciting, even by today’s standards, and the surprises aren’t easy to spot ahead of time. I wonder, though, how many people saw this movie in the 1980s and assumed that there’s a movie ranch within walking distance of the Furnace Creek Inn. Instead, it’s a few hundred miles south, in Wickenburg, Arizona. It’s still there, too. – Gary Dretzka
Chiller: The Complete Television Series
PBS: History Detectives: Season 10
Frontline: Dropout Nation
Nova Sciencenow: What Makes Us Human?
Nova Sciencenow: Can I Eat That?
Syfy: Collision Earth: Blu-ray
Fans of horror-anthology series should find something to enjoy in the long-delayed arrival of the British mini-series, “Chiller,” on DVD. Synapse Films, the same company responsible for importing “Hammer House of Horror,” has developed a reputation for finding and distributing obscure tales of the macabre and supernatural from around the world. Most have lurid covers and such titles as “Entrails of a Virgin,” “Horrors of Malformed Men” and “Battle Girl: The Living Dead in Tokyo Bay.” When it comes to genre marketing, great titles and provocative covers beat a thorough synapsis every time. All five 52-minute episodes of the 1995 series are included here, as freshly polished as 16mm films can be these days. Among the things one can count on finding in series like “Chiller” are haunted basements and estates, the spirits of dead babies, people who are punished for performing good deeds, children with knives and Druids. Among the stars are Nigel Havers (“Chariots of Fire”), Martin Clunes (“Men Behaving Badly”), Sophie Ward (“Young Sherlock Holmes”) and Kevin McNally (“Pirates of the Caribbean”).
The only difference between the stars of such reality-based shows as “Pawn Stars,” “Antique Roadshow,” “Storage Wars” and “America’s Pickers” and the sleuths of PBS’ “History Detectives” are the academic degrees attached to the latters’ resumes. All of the investigators on these shows use similar methodologies to determine the value of found objects, family heirlooms and collectibles. In the first episode of the show’s 10th season, detectives Elyse Luray and Wes Cowan investigate the provenance of a Fender Stratocaster purported to have been played by Bob Dylan at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival; Tukufu Zuberi studies autographs allegedly signed by the Beatles during their 1964 tour of the U.S.; and Gwendolyn Wright checks out a $5 thrift-store discovery that could shine some light on Frank Zappa’s musical legacy. If the same items were carried into Las Vegas’ Gold & Silver Pawn Shop, the same procedures likely would be employed to establish a value.
The PBS “Frontline” documentary “Dropout Nation” attempts to stick a pin in the misguided notion that it’s become just as easy for a high school dropout to succeed or fail in the workplace as anyone else, given our current economic doldrums. And, at a time when some unemployed Americans are denied the right to hold minimum-wage jobs because they’re “too qualified,” it’s tough to dispute. In the long run, though, the costs both to the dropouts and society are staggering. This documentary investigates the reasons behind our inner-city schools’ high dropout rates and what can be done to convince teenagers to stay the course.
Given how many things technology writer David Pogue has on his plate at any given moment, it’s a wonder he has any time left to sleep, let alone spend time with his family. Strike while the iron’s hot appears to be his operating strategy. Anyway, Pogue’s a smart guy with personality to burn. He’ll have plenty of time to sleep when he’s dead, as Warren Zevon observed while still alive. As host of PBS’ occasional series, “NOVA ScienceNow,” Pogue gets to answer such big questions as “What Makes Us Human?” and “Can I Eat That?,” which go to the core of who we are and what we do. Although most of us could provide several answers for the former question, Pogue takes a more scientific approach to explaining how our DNA separates us from our simian ancestors and other species. The answers aren’t necessarily earthshaking or of any practical use to us, but they’re interesting, at least. “Can I Eat That?” examines something a bit more practical, but equally fascinating. Why do we love certain foods and can’t stomach others? What could we add to foods we detest to make them palatable? If we could answer that question, we might be able to find new sources of nutrition for food-deprived populations. Pogue doesn’t dumb down the answers, but he does find common denominators to facilitate understanding.
I’ve pretty much said all I care to say about the limitations of made-for-Syfy movies and there’s no need to belabor the point any further. At best, they serve as a starter kit for adolescent boys interested in science fiction and anyone who thinks there’s no longer a market for bargain-basement special effects. “Collision Earth” is no different. After a comet scores a direct hit on the sun, a reversal of some kind of magnetic field pushes Mercury out of its orbit and in a straight path toward Earth, along with all sorts of space debris. The only hope for mankind lies in a toasted space shuttle, whose lone surviving crewmember (Diane Farr) can’t reach mission control by radio but is able to communicate with her husband (Kirk Acevedo) in the middle of the desert. He’s a disgraced scientist and persona non grata at NASA. He’s developed a strategy to counteract “magnetars,” but no one wants to believe him. I do. – Gary Dretzka
The Adventures of Mark Twain: Collector’s Edition: Blu-ray
There are several positive things to say about “The Adventures of Mark Twain,” which, when released in 1985, was reputed to be the first feature employing characters animated by the stop-motion Claymation process. Even so, it stumbled out of the gate. The format was still in its infancy and it took audiences a while to make the leap from the delightful California Raisons commercials to a film that clocked in at 86 minutes. Will Vinton, who created the Raisons, used as his entry point the beloved works of Mark Twain and his belief that, having been born in the year of a visit by Halley’s Comet, he would go out with it, as well. Twain is so excited by its arrival in 1910 that he designs an airship to take him closer to its orbit. Tagging along for the ride are Tom Sawyer, Huck Finn and Becky Thatcher. Before reaching the comet, however, they encounter a variety of his storybook characters from “The Diary of Adam and Eve,” “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” “The Mysterious Stranger,” “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County” and “Captain Stormfield’s Visit to Heaven.” It may have laid an egg in 1985, but the new Blu-ray edition looks as if it were made last year, using modern technology. It easily qualifies as entertainment the entire family can enjoy. It adds backgrounders on Claymation and the music of Mark Twain, as well as commentary and interviews.
I don’t know how director Hirokazu Kore-eda and DP Yutaka Yamazaki are able to capture the everyday life of Japanese children as well as they do in their family-oriented movies. I’m guessing that one or both of them actually travel to the boonies to see how common folks live in multi-generational homes in average communities. These are not people whose lives are still informed by 1950s sitcoms and suburban entitlement. And, yet, the kids can rattle off the top-10 pop songs on the hit parade and play with the same electrical gadgets as their American peers. The air of un-romanticized normalcy is palpable. In “I Wish,” 12-year-old Koichi lives with his mother and retired grandparents in southern Japan, while his younger brother, Ryunosuke, lives with their father in the north. It is Koichi’s great wish that his family be reunited, but even he knows it would take a miracle. His only hope comes in the form of rumor about the new bullet-train route connecting the two cities. It leads Koichi to believe that a miracle will take place the moment these new trains first pass each other at top speed, somewhere in the middle of their journeys. For that to happen, Koichi must be there to witness the miracle and it requires the help of adults, most of whom are in no position to believe in miracles. Guess what happens, though. – Gary Dretzka