Ivan’s Childhood: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
Pina: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
One of the cinema’s greatest artists, poets and dreamers, Andrei Tarkovsky made “Ivan’s Childhood” in the early 1960s, during the 13-year “thaw” that followed the death of Stalin. During that fleeting period, Soviet filmmakers enjoyed considerably more freedom from censorship and ideological restrictions than had been allowed for several decades. It wouldn’t last, but from the window emerged several important works and filmmakers. Tarkovsky’s debut was unlike any war movie anyone outside the Eastern bloc nations was likely to make or could be made before the thaw. It focused on the youngest victims of the war. Instead of heralding individual heroism or the triumphs of great armies, “Ivan’s Childhood” told a far more personal story, one that didn’t conform to traditional form or rules passed down from one generation of filmmakers to the next. It did, however, reflect an awareness of the movies that were being made in western European states. It opens pre-war, in an idyllic pastoral setting, with a young towheaded boy and his mother drawing water from a well. That scene shifts abruptly to wintertime, during the war, as Red Army troops are preparing to advance on a German position across a wide river. The boy we met is preparing to cross the river from the German side, on his way to a Soviet bunker. Once there, the nearly delirious Ivan demands that the officer in charge contact one of his superiors. The headstrong boy has been acting as a spy from behind enemy lines, but, his direct supervisor believes it’s now time for him to come in from the cold and attend officer’s training school. That is something he won’t do, however. Having already lost his parents, Ivan won’t be deterred from continuing the task at hand, however dangerous. In the kind of the movie favored by proponents of the Socialist-realism school, Ivan’s story would have been told not with ellipses, flashbacks and memory shards, but as matter-of-factly as possible, with all of the boy’s courageous actions explained by dedication to the Soviet people and Communist Party. In fact, the movie ends in a way similar to how it began. The death of his mother and sister at the hands of an unseen gunman is all the motivation Ivan would need to hate the Germans and live or die depriving them of victory.
The Great Patriotic War on the eastern front was unique to anything else that was happening in World War II and its impact on civilians was unprecedented. Ask the Poles and they’ll tell you that both sides were guilty of horrendous crimes in the names of political ideology, military expediency, expansionist policies and ethnic divisions. In Tarkovsky’s story, the capitals of the opposing forces feel much further removed from the fronts than in similar movies. Until the very end of it, in fact, the Germans are largely invisible, while the Red Army soldiers and officers could have been drawn by Samuel Fuller. Although “Ivan’s Childhood” was adapted from a 1957 short story by Vladimir Bogomolov, Tarkovsky invested in Ivan many of his own personal qualities and memories from his own upbringing, including imagery inspired by his father’s poetry. “Ivan’s Childhood” would be awarded the top prize at the Venice Film Festival and become a commercial hit in the USSR. His next feature would be “Andrei Rublev.” Now considered to be one of the greatest movies of all time, it would be tortured by Soviet censors and the demands of distributors, near and far away, until the full 205-minute version was released by Criterion Collection in the mid-1990s. Not surprisingly, perhaps, Criterion’s Blu-ray edition of “Ivan’s Childhood” looks and sounds amazing. It adds, as well, the featurette “Life as a Dream,” with historian Vida T. Johnson; interviews with actor Nikolai Burlyaev and cinematographer Vadim Yusov; and an illustrated booklet with an essay by film scholar Dina Iordanova and “Between Two Films,” Tarkovsky’s essay on “Ivan’s Childhood.” There, too, can be found “Ivan’s Willow,” the poem by his father, Arseny Tarkovsky.
Also from Criterion, the 3D documentary “Pina” began as a collaboration between German filmmaker Wim Wenders and choreographer Pina Bausch, in part to test how stereoscopic technology and modern dance could bring out the best in each other. Sadly, Bausch died of cancer only five days after diagnosis, and two days before shooting was to begin. When completed two years later, “Pina” stood as a loving homage to Bausch’s memory and a brilliantly realized review of her influential works. Wenders said he was inclined not to continue with preparations for the movie, but the dancers in her company asked him to go ahead with it. They had, after all, performed the pieces already and knew precisely what Bausch intended them to be. One needn’t be conversant with her work and the current state of modern dance to be deeply moved by the performances. Fortunately, one needn’t invest in a 3D television and Blu-ray 3D player in order to enjoy “Pina.” Even in hi-def 2D, it stands out as one of the most remarkably beautiful releases in the format and, thanks to Wenders’ command of the technology, as fine a dance movie as has ever been made. His strategically placed cameras nimbly capture Bausch’s trademark moves, gestures and contrasts. Dancers perform elegantly, against a background of buses, elevated trains and construction sites. A hippopotamus sidles up to a dancer on a rock in a river. Artistic tension derives from the convergence of such variables as gender archetypes, love and pain, beauty and beasts, blandness and sensuality. The colors in the stage backdrops often stand in stark contrast to costumes of the men and women in the foreground. Bausch was known, as well, for including such elemental influences as earth, water, stone and gravity in her “dance theater.” Indeed, “Vollmond” seems to combine elements of Cirque du Soleil’s “O” and Gene Kelly’s “Singing in the Rain.” The Blu-ray package adds deleted scenes, Wenders’ commentary, an interview with the director, behind-the-scenes footage and a booklet with novelist Siri Hustvedt, reprinted pieces by Wenders and choreographer Pina Bausch, information on the dances featured in the film and portraits of the dancers. – Gary Dretzka
Searching for Sugar Man: Blu-ray
Once upon a time in Detroit, the early-1970s to be exact, a singer-songwriter recorded two Dylanesque albums, then disappeared from the face of the Earth. Swedish director Malik Bendjelloul’s Oscar-nominated documentary “Searching for Sugar Man” tells us the rest of the story. Apparently, the only two places on the planet that Rodriguez – son of Mexican immigrant and Native American parents — was popular were South Africa and Australia, where his bootlegged music was received as if it were the voice of God. Legend had it that Rodriguez was so despondent over lack of recognition that he committed on stage, either by setting himself on fire, purposely overdosing or blowing his brains out. For the better part of three decades, that’s all anyone knew or thought they knew about the musician, who favored shoulder-length black hair and ever-present shades. Thirty years later, the ever-expanding Internet allowed fans and journalists to pursue the truth. Cape Town devotees Stephen Segerman and Craig Strydom began their search by attempting to trace royalties paid to Sussex Records, which, at the time, was owned by a former Motown executive. He also found producers who worked with Rodriguez, but had no idea where he was or that his music was popular, anywhere. Bendjelloul’s became interested in their quest while scouting stories for Swedish television in Africa. What, then, was the truth?
Don’t look for an answer in this capsule review, because the seeds of good mysteries only reveal themselves gradually. To me, anyway, the wonderful thing about “Searching for Sugar Man” is that, like “Hard Core Logo” and “”Last Days Here” – only one of which is factual – it works fine as non-fiction and faux documentary. It’s an amazing story either way and Bendjelloul maintains the mystery for a surprisingly long time. Blessedly, Rodriguez’ folk-inflected music is actually very good. “Searching for Sugar Man” also adds another chapter to the growing inventory of amazing stories about post-war Detroit, which also plays a supporting role in the documentary. I won’t go into too much detail about the Blu-ray extras, either, as they easily could be construed as spoilers. They include commentary, a making-of piece and festival Q&A with the principles. – Gary Dretzka
About Cherry: Blu-ray
Despite the fact that the pornography industry is experiencing a bit of a recession, it remains one of the few businesses today in which a young man or woman can find work and make money according to their ability to get the pwerform. More than any other enterprise, there are niches to be filled that run the gamut from “pixie” to obese, barely legal to very old, straight to transgender, lap dancing to prostitution. It’s the dirty little secret of the American economy and has been for nearly 40 years. That it also can be one of the cruelest and most personally degrading ways to make money has also been well documented. The way Hollywood has characterized the sex industry and its practitioners has changed, as well. Writer/director Paul Schrader’s esteemed body of work began, in part, with such moralistic dramas as “Hard Core,” “Taxi Driver” and “American Gigolo.” His latest picture, the erotic neo-noir thriller “Canyons,” written by Bret Easton Ellis, stars Lindsey Lohan and the hugely successful porn star, James Deen. The gossip emerging from the shoot, including a frequently quoted New York Times piece, is reminiscent of the reports that emerged about Marilyn Monroe in her final productions. In another example of the mainstreaming of adult industry, one of the Lifetime network’s biggest hits, “The Client List,” concerns a financially troubled Texas mom who provides for her two children by giving “happy endings” – in a decidedly PG-13 sort of way — for clients of a local spa.
“About Cherry” is a movie about a pretty small-town blond, 18-year-old Angelica (Ashley Hinshaw), who gets introduced to the adult industry after her boyfriend convinces her to have naughty pictures taken for a premium website. The money’s better than what she makes at a laundry and she’s justifiably proud of her body, so the promise of a few hundred dollars a session is hard to reject. Neither does the opportunity to escape to San Francisco, far from her alcoholic mother and brutal stepfather, require much soul-searching. Once there, she works her way up from waitress at a “gentleman’s club” to a model for a streaming-video site. At first, she limits herself to masturbating for the pay-by-the-minute punters. Soon, though, she graduates to girl-girl, boy-girl and girl-girl-boy. While delivering cocktails, she began dating a handsome, if cocaine-addicted young lawyer, Francis (James Franco). He introduces her to the city’s high-end cultural scene, but freaks out when she goes for the big money that comes with hard-core porn. Soured by that relationship, Angelica (a.k.a., Cherry) allows herself to be seduced by a sweet, slightly older lesbian photographer (Heather Graham), who also has a taste for pretty young things. As written by fetish actor Lorelei Lee, the porn industry almost looks as safe as milk. It’s the predators and parasites who make it ugly. Angelica isn’t the sharpest tool in the shed, but she has a world-class body and a bright personality. We like her and accept that the photographer is a decent sort, as well.
“About Cherry” might have been easier to recommend if only novelist-turned-filmmaker Steven Elliott (“The Adderall Diaries”) had a knack for the things that make movies different than books. Given the need to include enough sex to maintain the interest of young viewers already conditioned to the 24/7 availability of soft- and hard-core porn, Elliott was required to cut back on the development of the supporting characters. Dev Patel plays Andrew, the sexually ambiguous friend who escorts Angelica to San Francisco. They agree to share a two-bedroom apartment with an out-gay man and, out of necessity, sleep in the same bed. While she’s out waitressing, Andrew begins to hit the nightclub scene with their roommate. Although we’re led to believe that he’s taken to being gay like a duck takes to water, he’s actually carrying a torch for Angelica. Like her, viewers fully comprehend the impossibility of any kind of sexual relationship between the two friends and resent the idea he would risk a perfectly good friendship for a few seconds of bliss. Francis also hates having to share his girlfriend with anonymous porn partners. As long as the sex was girl-girl, things were fine for the lawyer. Instead of wasting time in the courtroom, he lets the cocaine tell him what to do, which is treat Angelica as if she were a football at the Super Bowl. The men in “About Cherry” would make any women consider going girl-girl in real life. Other key characters are similarly inconsistent in their treatment of Angelica. Technically, “About Cherry” looks pretty good in Blu-ray and the sex scenes in the studio seem credible. As it is, though, the movie comes off more as a recruitment poster for the adult industry than a straight drama. If it weren’t for the occasional nudity and crude language, “About Cherry” could follow “The Client List” on the Lifetime schedule. – Gary Dretzka
Dead Sushi: Blu-ray
Not having seen “Zombie Ass: Toilet of the Dead,” “The Machine Girl” and “RoboGeisha,” I couldn’t say with any credibility where “Dead Sushi” fits in writer/director Noboru Iguchi’s oeuvre, or, even, if such word applies to the delightfully trashy horror/gore/action movies he’s made. Iguchi compares “Dead Sushi” to “Piranha 3D” and “Attack of the Killer Tomatoes,” in that it marries the when-animals-attack subgenre to the when-food-attack sub-subgenre. In several wonderfully insane ways, it even out-Tromas Troma. Black-belt actress Rina Takeda plays the daughter of a legendary sushi chef and karate master, who insults her by saying she’ll never make it as a chef. His admonishment causes her to run away from home and seek work as a waitress/maid at a rural inn. Although Keiko isn’t cut out for hustling trays of food from the kitchen to the private chambers of VIP patrons, either, she desperately wants to fit in with everyone there. One day, the pompous boss and ass-kissing employees of a major Japanese pharmaceutical firm gather at the inn for a retreat. A disgruntled former researcher has followed them with the intention of ruining their party. As part of an evening’s entertainment, the hosts have invited another well-known sushi chef to prepare dinner and explain preparation techniques. Chaos ensues after the boss and nearly all of his employees berate the chef for including an egg sushi creation with the seafood dishes. A single dissenting employee risks his livelihood by defending the chef, as does Keiko. For a servant, of course, disobedience is strictly forbidden. Her knowledge of sushi does raise eyebrows, though.
Unbeknownst to the diners, the fired researcher has applied a chemical toxin to the fish that’s been served. It reanimates the sashimi, causing the bite-sized morsels to grow teeth of their own and attack the guests when they bite into it. Apparently, the sushi is offended by such insults as being served on the bodies of two women wearing only bras and panties, and, yes, including the egg sushi on the menu. The attacks, especially one by a full-size squid, are as hilarious as they are ridiculous. Not only does the sashimi bite back, but it also is capable of regenerating itself, reproducing at warp speed and flying around the restaurant seeking new targets. It’s up to Keiko to combine her food-preparation training with her martial arts skills to rescue everyone worth saving at the inn. Her only ally among the killers is, of course, the maligned egg sushi. It’s pretty nuts. Yoshihiro Nishimura’s special makeup effects are consistently entertaining, even when the dialogue and acting begin to fade and the story stops making any sense at all. Cognizant of this, as well, Igochi throws in a completely gratuitous, if welcome nude shower scene and an extended karate catfight between Keiko and the boss’ arrogant secretary. The Blu-ray extras include interviews, a making-of featurette, an introduction at the Montreal Fantasia Festival and scenes from an “extreme” sushi-eating contest. – Gary Dretzka
Jackie Chan: Crime Story/The Protector: Blu-ray
Admirers of gritty and often very violent Japanese genre films from the 1960-70s should find a lot to like in Gu Su-yeon’s autobiographical crime story, “Hard Romanticker.” It combines elements of both the “youth violence” and yakuza subgenres in a tightly wrapped package that doesn’t take shortcuts, simply because expectations aren’t necessarily that high for action films. Indeed, “Hard Romanticker” looks as different from the grainy Japanese genre flicks of yore as “Rebel Without a Cause” did from the micro-budget juvenile-delinquent and teens-ploitation movies being churned out by Roger Corman, AIP and Allied Artists. Here, the popular TV actor Shota Matsuda plays the bleach-blond Korean-Japanese hoodlum, Gu, who goes through life with a cool, detached demeanor that immediately recalls James Dean. He lives in the dead-end slums of the western port city of Shimonoseki, headquarters of the Goda-ikka yakuza syndicate. Gu inadvertently becomes the target of a rival Korean gang, after his associates accidently kill the grandmother of one of its leaders. A loner by nature, Gu further causes problems for himself when he comes between a gang member and the glue-sniffing girl he’s groping. He’s less interested in stopping the rape than beating the tar out of the punks for their arrogance. If the rival gangs weren’t enough trouble, Gu also is being harassed for information by a local police detective.
Just as Gu begins to feel the heat, he’s recruited to manage a yakuza-owned hostess nightclub in a different city. It offers him a steady income and the usual respect accorded gangsters in the high-crime areas. As if he’s acting on a death wish, however, Gu returns to Shimonoseki when he’s apprised of attacks on friends of his. His unexpected presence causes local thugs to go into a feeding frenzy. It also allows Su-yeon to stage a wild chase across the rooftops of a densely populated slum and a pair of wild fights between Gu and his enemies. The clashes aren’t of the martial-arts variety, in which viewers could expect the protagonist to escape unscathed after being surrounded by several dozen punks. The violence here is conducted the old-fashioned way, with knives, iron bars, fists and whatever else is lying around. As exciting as “Romanticker” frequently is, however, potential viewers should know that the violence against women is even worse than that between gang members. I’m not inclined to label it gratuitous, because such behavior might be common in Japanese thug culture, as Su-yeon experienced it. The brutality is extremely troubling, however. The DVD comes with a 12-page booklet that includes an essay on the movie, a study of Toei Studios’ yakuza films and a gallery of original Toei posters.
Shout! Factory’s double-feature package of “Crime Story” and “The Protector” shows off Jackie Chan’s skills at what some observers sensed was the beginning of the end of his acting career. He had only recently come to the attention of American audiences, but it wouldn’t take long from them to expect the same self-deprecating humor, amazing stunts and wild kung-fu action his Hong Kong fans admired. Chan was 38 when he made “Crime Story,” a thriller based on the real story of millionaire Teddy Wang, who was kidnapped twice, surviving only once. Chan campaigned for the assignment to establish that he could act in serious roles when his action career began to wane. Under the direction of Kirk Wong, the story was told in a straight-forward fashion with a dark edge and an indictment against police corruption. Very late in the production process, Chan became concerned that “Crime Story” might damage his image more than help it, especially in his character’s reliance on guns to solve crime instead of fists and feet. Against Wong’s wishes, Chan took control of the editing to lighten things up a tad. He added scenes showing off his ability to escape death, using trademark acrobatics and nimble footwork. Still, it’s a lot of fun to watch.
Released eight years earlier, after Chan had been introduced to American audiences in the “Cannonball” comedies, “The Protector” also involves a kidnapping. This time, the victim is the daughter of a New York gangster who’s been kidnapped by a former associate, a Chinese druglord. Chan plays a NYPD cop who travels to Hong Kong with Danny Aiello to get to the bottom of things. This time, though, there’s plenty of action and mayhem in the style for which Chan was famous. It also features martial-arts stars Moon Lee and Roy Chiao. The optional Chan-approved cut adds even more action. The Blu-ray package adds deleted scenes, original trailers, an interview writer/director James Glickenhaus and featurettes on the New York locations used in “The Protector,” and other making-of material. There’s also an interview with Wong on the changes made to “Crime Story.” – Gary Dretzka
Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai: Blu-ray
If Japanese auteur Takashi Miike is known at all in the United States, it’s for his 1999 torture-porn epics “Audition” and “Ichi the Killer.” To describe his movies as merely being transgressive hardly does them justice. They are nightmares waiting to be dreamt. In addition to his revenge and torture flicks, his cinematic provocations also have included titles that are simply ultraviolent and sexually perverse. One of the most prolific filmmakers in the world, he doesn’t limit himself to horror, though. For example, after completing the more-or-less traditional samurai remakes, “13 Assassins” and “Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai,” he immediately embarked on something called “Ninja Kids!!!” Nearly the entire last hour of “13 Assassins” is reserved for a savage battle between forces loyal to a feudal lord and samurai dedicated to taking him out. Apart from being made for viewing in 3D, “Hara-Kiri” takes a more formal approach to storytelling. Its primary set is elegant and the fighters, for the most part, are restrained. The disconnect that comes from watching this classically constructed motion picture, knowing it isn’t representative of Miike’s non-period work is palpable.
Miike’s remake of Masaki Kobayashi’s 1962 “Harakiri” looks very much like the original, except for the color cinematography and 3D format (not yet available on Blu-ray). Once again, a mysterious samurai arrives at the gates of the estate of a feudal lord, requesting he be allowed an honorable death in his courtyard. Because of the brutal economy and consolidation of power, in the absence of war, ronin have been left with nothing to do and no way to make money. Before the warrior is allowed to impale himself on his sword, however, he must listen to what happened to the last such visitor. That man asked the same favor of the lord, but probably would have settled for a job or handout. Instead, the resident samurai called his bluff, forcing him to take his life in an extremely cruel way. The new visitor asks the lord if he could tell him a story, as well, before dying. It turns out to be the backstory of the man who died such a miserable death in the same courtyard. In its telling, he calls into question the honor of the lord and the absurdity of honoring the Bushido code, over the life of a honorable man seeking help. Ebizo Ichikawa gives a remarkable performance as the second ronin, and his story could hardly be more tragic. There is some swordplay and fighting in Miike’s version, but nothing comparable to his previous works. It is an exceedingly satisfying experience, though. The Blu-ray adds a short discussion with Geoffrey Gilmore from Tribeca Film. – Gary Dretzka
Tai Chi Zero: Blu-ray
Every week’s mail seems to bring another marvelously conceived historical epic from China on Blu-ray. Most are as historically accurate as possible, given the distance between the events being portrayed and conditions in the post-Mao People’s Republic. Others are based on myths or legend, requiring some sort of special-effects magic to enhance the experience. A very few, such as “Kung Fu Hustle” and “The Butcher, the Chef and the Swordsman” tweak an historical period, trend or person to the point where the movie is a hybrid of fantasy, parody and fact. “Tai Chi Zero” is one of those movies. At its most basic level, it tells a martial-arts story from the early 20th Century, when foreign investors were competing to exploit the Qing Dynasty’s greed before the republic was formed. After a terrible battle, a gifted young man, the Freak – modeled after the real-life tai-chai innovator, Yang Lu Chan — is advised by his dying master to travel immediately to Chen, where he might be allowed to study a form of tai chi used to defend the village. The residents, though, are protective of their gift and turn Freak away. It’s at this point that the movie shifts into an even more fantastical gear, with contraptions right out Jules Verne and other conceits that refer to then-inconceivable video games, clever animation, American westerns and other off-the-wall stuff. Freak’s arrival roughly coincides with the appearance outside the village’s gates of a steam-powered, armadillo-shaped tank with explosive weaponry and claw-like appendages. It was driven here on rails by a former resident, who went to school in Europe and returned with the wardrobe of a dandy and a western girlfriend. (When he left, he was betrothed to the village’s leader.) Because the machine moves on rails, we know that it represents the inevitable approach of the railroad, operated by British interests and protected by the imperial army. The confrontation between the army and villagers, as well as the destruction of the machine, is lots of fun to watch. (Sammo Hung choreographed the action scenes.) By now, Freak has been adopted by the villagers and enjoys a testy relationship with the shunned bride-not-to-be, also a tai chi specialist. Director Stephen Fung sprinkles the narrative with cameos and quirky asides that break the fourth wall. The closing credits serve as a teaser to the sequel, “Tai Chi Hero,” as does the extensive Blu-ray featurette, which blends making-of material from both movies into one. “Tai Chi Zero” wasn’t well received by the critics who study martial-arts flicks for a living, but newcomers and fans of outrageous comedy shouldn’t hold it against Fung. One interesting tidbit to come from the bonus interviews is the news – to me, anyway – that tai chi not only is used as an exercise to relieve stress and release impediments to meditation, but also as a form of self-defense in combat. – Gary Dretzka
Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning: Blu-ray
I don’t know if there’s any significance to data that shows the latest iteration of the “Universal Soldier” franchise opened last fall in 420 screens in Russia, 90 in Turkey, 48 in the Ukraine, 34 in the UAE, but only 3 in the United States. I mean, why bother? It’s difficult to imagine anyone in the full-bore action genre actually coveting reviews from the non-fanboy critics in the New York press. “Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning,” after all, is targeted at action/revenge junkies who wish President Obama had named Jean-Claude Van Damme Secretary of Defense and Dolph Lundgren director of the CIA, instead of a couple of namby-bamby Washington bureaucrats. Not being conversant in the “Universal Soldier” mythos – six titles, including two made-for-TV efforts – I was completely lost for the first hour or so of the new movie. I can see the appeal, even if non-stop fantasy violence isn’t exactly my cup of tea. Within minutes, director John Hyams introduces us to the protagonist, John (Scott Adkins), who has to watch helplessly as someone resembling Van Damme brutally murders his wife and daughter. After spending two months in a coma, John awakens to the sight of a federal agent and nightmarish visions of the killings. After leaving the hospital, he’s constantly threatened by a UniSol (Andrei Arlovski) who was born to play a villain in an old-school James Bond flick. The UniSols, I would learn, are genetically designed mercenaries who once fought terrorists but now do the bidding of reanimated super-soldiers played by Van Damme and Lundgren. The really nutso stuff here is figuring out who and what John really is and why the monsters want to kill him.
There are too many surprises to be found on the way to answering those questions and potential spoilers abound. For all the artsy-fartsy visual effects Hyams employs to describe how wigged out John has become, the real fun comes in the vicious fight scenes, which are out of this world. OK, allow me one spoiler: towards the end of the movie, Van Damme is transformed into a bargain-basement version of Marlon Brando playing Colonel Kurtz in “Apocalypse Now.” It’s a cool conceit even loyal fans of the series might find difficult to believe they’re seeing. The Blu-ray adds a lengthy and informative making-of featurette. – Gary Dretzka
Officer Down: Blu-ray
It’s nice to see that Stephen Dorff still has acting to fall back on if those e-cigarette commercials don’t work for him. “Officer Down” is the kind of diverting straight-to-DVD crime thriller that gets better the less one tries to make sense of it. Even as intentionally inside-out dramas go, Brian A. Miller’s follow-up to “House of the Rising Sun” – another DVD original – pushes its audience’s indulgence to the breaking point. Miller’s trump card, though, is a supporting cast that includes David Boreanaz, Stephen Lang, AnnaLynne McCord, Walter Goggins, James Woods, Soulja Boy, Elisabeth Rohm, Dominic Purcell and 2008 Mrs. World, Kamaliya. As usual, Dorff looks as if he were rode hard and put up wet as a police detective attempting to atone for years of bad behavior with strippers and Russian gangsters, fueled by too much booze and cocaine. One way of doing so, he thinks, is to capture and/or kill a serial sex offender terrorizing the women of Bridgeport, Connecticut. Early on, he’s somehow in the right place at the right time to disrupt a suspect in mid-attack. After a chase and a fist fight, he discovers that the guy is a cop who, for years, has been attacking brunettes who look like his ex-wife. The bust leads to a new assignment, this time involving the apparent suicide of a woman who danced at a club he used to frequent, before he was shot in the act of trying to extort cocaine from a pair of dealers. Fortunately for screenwriter John Chase’s scenario, Callahan remembers precious little of what happened that night and who was the Good Samaritan that prevented worse harm from coming to him. That confusion and a notebook left behind by the dead stripper are the keys to everything that transpires during the next hour or so in “Officer Down.” Most of it is far too convenient and coincidental to maintain credibility among viewers, but, even so, the actors are able to keep logic from getting in the way of some stylish filmmaking. The Blu-ray arrives devoid of extras. – Gary Dretzka
Deadly Blessing: Collector’s Edition: Blu-ray
There are several good reasons to pick up Shout!Factory’s upgraded edition of Wes Craven’s 1981 quasi-religious thriller, “Deadly Blessing.” The movie, was released after Craven’s attention-getting “The Hills Have Eyes” and “The Last House on the Left,” and immediately before “Swamp Thing.” (In 1975, he made the X-rated ditty “The Fireworks Woman,” as Abe Snake.) By today’s standards, it might as well be “Psycho.” The most interesting thing about it, perhaps, is the cast. Ernest Borgnine plays the head of a Hittite clan – Hutterites, by another name — that makes the Amish look hi-tech, while the wonderful Michael Berryman (Pluto, in “Hills”) runs around the Pennsylvania countryside accusing women of being incubi, even though such creatures are traditionally male. “Deadly Blessing” also represents Sharon Stone and Lisa Hartman’s first meaningful film roles. Among the other beauties on display are Lois Nettleton (“Centennial”), Maren Jensen (“Battlestar Galactica”), Susan Buckner (“Grease”) and Colleen Riley (“Hills Have Eyes II”). In fact, most of the mayhem in “Deadly Blessing” involves women. The men are so twisted by their religious beliefs that they’re barely functional.
The Hittites are pissed off at Jensen’s character, Martha, because they believe she seduced one of their men, causing him to leave the church and begin to use the devil’s tools to work the land next to the hand-tilled property of his family. Strange things begin to happen when the Hittites learn that Martha is pregnant. Among them, her husband is killed by a tractor in his barn and Berryman’s giant simpleton is killed while looking for his lost shoe in the same structure. This causes Borgnine’s character to declare war on his daughter-in-law and her blond guests from Los Angeles. The question that begs to be asked is why the women remain in the line of fire, while the town’s useless police department twiddles its collective fingers. But, why bother asking it? If logic were to be applied to the horror genre – or, at least, most movies made in the wake of “Psycho” – there wouldn’t be a horror genre. Otherwise, “Deadly Blessing” offers enough skin, gore and scares to satisfy viewers, even 30 years past its original release. It looks pretty decent in Blu-ray, as well. The bonus material includes commentary with Craven and Horrorhound magazine’s Sean Clark; interviews with Berryman, Buckner and creature designer John Naulin; and a post-mortem on the script by writers Glenn Benest and Matthew Barr.
Patrick Steele’s extremely polished first feature, “True Nature,” demands that viewers maintain their attention to what’s happening on the screen, even with the usual distractions that come with DVD viewing. I let my attention waver for a few minutes and had to go back soon thereafter to make sense of what I was seeing. If it were a lesser production, I wouldn’t have bothered. Equal parts psycho-thriller, supernatural teaser and whodunit, “True Nature” fits in the horror category mostly for what isn’t shown than what is slowly revealed. Steele leaves hints as to his intentions, but it takes most of the movie’s running time see where they fit in the puzzle. Newcomer Marianne Porter plays a college student, who, during a break from school, disappears during a run around the neighborhood. One night, a year later, she awakens her father at their posh suburban home by suddenly reappearing covered in mud. Doctors can’t find anything wrong with her, physically, but her dreams and flashes of memories are frightening her nearly to death. They don’t make a lot of sense to us, either, but the more we learn about her father’s troubles at work and her mom’s insistence on maintaining face in her social circle, the closer we get to some answers. Any more information than that would spoil the surprises in this fragile narrative. Carolyn McCormick (“Law & Order”) and Reg Land are very good as the parents. – Gary Dretzka
Birders: The Central Park Effect
Beauty Is Embarrassing: The Wayne White Story
At first glance, “Birders: The Central Park Effect” would appear to be yet another documentary about eccentrics drawn to the nation’s largest city, if only because the concrete canyons provide food and shelter not available in less tolerant habitats. For the most part, though, the transients seeking food and shelter in “Birders: The Central Park Effect” are birds drawn to the resources provided them in one of the world’s largest urban parks. And, just as Manhattan has become a mecca for a hugely diverse array of human beings, Central Park annually attracts a myriad temporary population of birds that might not be available to nature lovers anywhere else in the United States. If for only a few days at a time, birds that some might consider already extinct in the wild – or, at least, rarely seen – hunt here for the food to fuel the remainder of their migratory journeys. They’re bright, colorful, full of song and as different from one another as the passengers on a subway train leaving the 42nd Street/Grand Central Terminal at rush hour. For his debut documentary, Jeffrey Kimball spent a year watching a select group of New Yorkers as they were watching the birds living in and visiting Central Park. The “birders” among them kept exacting records as to the names and numbers of the birds – valuable to scientists and environmentalists – while “bird watchers” basically went along for the ride for their own reasons. Among them are authors Jonathan Franzen and Jonathan Rosen; Starr Saphir, the grande dame of New York birding and a cancer patient; Anya Auerbach, who insists that a teenage girl can be a birder without also being a nerd, geek or un-cool; musician and sculptor Chuck McAlexander, who creates squirrel-proof feeders to attract hungry birds; and various academics.
Last year, on an autumn “Ramble” through the park, Saphir recorded such exotic finds as the hairy woodpecker, black-capped chickadee, tufted titmouse, red-tailed hawk, peregrine falcon, ruby-throated hummingbird and several varieties of thrushes, warblers, wrens and sparrows. People not living in New York have learned to fear Central Park, as if it were flea market for felons. Maybe, maybe not. During the day, however, it can serve, as it did for Rosen, as a “portal to the natural world.” “Birders” is an absolutely delightful film, beautiful to look at and a treat for the ears. Kimball saves the scholarly stuff for the bonus features, along with extended interviews and visual catalogue of the birds on display. This truly is a movie the whole family can enjoy.
Anyone who’s spent any amount of time watching “Pee-wee’s Playhouse,” “Shining Time Station,” “The Weird Al Show” and “Beakman’s World,” or watched the videos for Peter Gabriel’s “Big Time” and Smashing Pumpkins “Tonight, Tonight,” already has seen some of the art on display in “Beauty Is Embarrassing.” The name of the artist, Wayne White, may not be familiar, but that goes with the territory in show business. The designers, painters, sculptors, musicians and most puppeteers who work behind the scenes on TV shows and movies exist only in the credit rolls, if then. “Pee-wee’s Playhouse” was one of the first programs to attract large numbers of hipsters, stoners, slackers and ironists to what essentially was a kiddie show. The surrealistic touches in the background and incidental characters were as much fun to look at and study as any of Pee-wee’s nutty observations, asides and skits. White contributed his art design, voice-overs and puppets to that Emmy-winning series.
Before that, the Chattanooga native worked as a cartoonist and illustrator for several underground publications in New York, as well as the Times and Village Voice. He picks the banjo and creates “word paintings” on the bones of cheap landscape lithographs he buys already framed in thrift shops. The incongruity of seeing bold glossily rendered words and phrases – ranging from mysteriously random to aggressively profane — pop out from such a pastoral setting can produce laughs or gasps, depending on the viewer. BEAUTY IS EMBARRASSING is just such a phrase. In his one-man show of the same title, White explains how difficult it is to explain to people he meets that his job is to “create beauty,” and their discomfort with the description can be embarrassing to both parties. The documentary also follows White home to rural Tennessee, where other incongruities reveal themselves. He’s a supremely talented guy, who sometimes looks as if he’s only one freeway exit from a sanitarium. Apart from the sometimes raw language, “Beauty Is Embarrassing” could be used as incentive for kids who display artistic talent, but are too withdrawn, bullied or embarrassed to use it to their advantage. It comes with extended interviews and stage material. – Gary Dretzka
Keep the Lights On: Blu-ray
Sometimes, a filmmaker gets so close to his work that he can’t see how it might look to viewers who revolve in a different orbit than his. Although the jacket avoids the label “autobiographical,” deferring to the less precise, “fearlessly personal,” Ira Sach’s romantic drama “Keep the Lights On” chronicles his turbulent 10-year relationship with literary agent Bill Clegg, author of “Portrait of an Addict as a Young Man.” Only the details are tweaked to keep the film from being a documentary with dramatizations. Outsiders either buy into the relationship or they don’t. As exquisitely made as “Keep the Lights On” is – mainstream critics gave it high marks – the dramatic and romantic elements aren’t sufficiently compelling to distinguish it from several other “fearlessly personal” movies in which gay men, especially, deal with issues that don’t come up in heterosexual couplings. Here, a Danish documentarian living in New York hooks up with a lawyer in the publishing industry, who habitually abuses drugs. Erik (Thure Lindhardt) is gay and doesn’t care who knows it. Paul (Zachary Booth) is straight at work and gay at night, when he drops his sexual pretenses. Their decade-long relationship has most of the peaks and valleys encountered by other couples – straight, gay, neutral – but the drug thing finally wears down Erik. After a stretch in rehab doesn’t quite work, they separate and kinda, sorta reunite. That’s about it.
The movie works as well it does because of the fine acting by Lindhardt and Booth, who are both talented and attractive. Sachs’ honest approach to the material precludes any cheering from the peanut gallery for the characters to beat the odds by finding a way to stay together for ever and ever, amen. They had their time and it passed. Next. Also very good is the supporting cast: David Anzuelo, Maria Dizzia, Julianne Nicholson, Souleymane Sy Savane, Miguel Del Toro and Paprika Steen. The Blu-ray adds a making-of featurette, Sachs’ commentary, audition tapes and deleted scenes. If you dig “Keep the Lights On,” you should take a chance on Sachs’ equally challenging “The Delta,” “40 Shades of Blue” and “Married Life.”
For my money, the real gem hidden between the covers of the DVD is the supplementary documentary, “In Search of Avery Willard.” Willard is the subject of the film researched, completed and honored during the course of Erik and Paul’s relationship. In real life, Willard was a New York photographer active from the late 1940s through the 1960s. In addition to the movie stills, celebrity shots and commercial work he took early in his career, Willard specialized in “physique art,” male nudes, leather fetishists and drag history. In the period immediately after the Stonewall riots, he published and personally distributed the activist magazine, Gay Scene, under the pseudonym Bruce King. Much of what’s seen in Cary Kehayan’s film was discovered in his cluttered Bronx apartment after his death in 1999. It’s a genuinely fascinating portrait of a largely unsung artist, whose contributions have hardly been accorded a footnote in the history of the gay-rights movement. – Gary Dretzka
The Age of Czeslaw Milosz
The lives of some men and women are so fascinating that it’s possible to watch a 180-minute bio-doc, in Polish, about his or her life and not once nod off into oblivion. I know, because I did it. The Facets Video documentary, “The Age of Czeslaw Milosz,” commemorates the 100th birthday of the Nobel Prize-winning poet, who, in 2004, died at the age of 93. Recent films about writers Gregory Corso, Norman Mailer, Allen Ginsberg, Hart Crane, Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes, Walt Whitman and Edgar Allen Poe are shorter by at least an hour. Americans tend to have less patience and shorter memories than Eastern Europeans, for whom the 20th Century could hardly be described as a walk in the park. In the case of Milosz, however, that’s pretty much the whole point. Born in a cross-border region of Lithuania, in 1911, he grew up fluent in Polish, Lithuanian, Russian, English and French. He received a degree in law, but preferred to communicate via radio broadcasts and the written word. Immediately before and during World War II, he and his wife, Janina, would be caught in the vice applied to Poland and Lithuania by the Germans and Soviet Union. He was required to reserve his words for the resistance, via underground presses. After the war, Milosz served as a cultural attaché in Washington – where he was taunted as a Soviet dupe by exiles and treated like a spy by our government – and in Paris, far away from his wife. The Polish communists were as suspect of intellectuals as J. Edgar Hoover, so he finally defected to France, where he wrote his most famous prose work, the anti-Stalinist “The Captive Mind.” In the early 1960s, Milosz was invited to teach at the University of California, Berkeley, where he taught Slavic languages and literature. He would return to Europe after the deaths of both of his wives and the fall of the Iron Curtain. While being received as a literary hero in Poland, where his writing had been banned for decades, he was criticized in his former Lithuanian home for dredging up memories of anti-Semitism there. He died at his Krakow home in 2004, at 93. Director Juozas Javaitis said that wasn’t intention to “show Milosz as icon. … Our main aim was to reflect the personality and biography of the poet. We wanted this film to raise public interest in the figure of Miłosz and encourage people to read some part of the work of this fascinating and talented man.” It’s ironic, then, that just before he died, this great intellectual — who was born nine years before the first radio news broadcast — anticipated a day when his poetry might be licensed for use in advertising and commercials, like any rock band or jingle writer, and no reading will be required. “Age of Czelaw Milosz” intertwines snatches of verse with interviews with such people as his secretary, Agnieszka Kosińska; journalist Mark Danner; translators Robert Hass, Natalia Gorbaniewska and Tomas Venclova; and his son, Antoni. – Gary Dretzka
Nobody Walks: Blu-ray
Sometimes, it simply doesn’t pay to stick with a DVD long enough to sample the interviews with the directors, writers and stars. I’m not referring to the making-of and behind-the-scenes featurettes in which everyone’s pretending that the movie they’re working on is the second coming of “The Godfather” or “Annie Hall.” Rather, it’s the in-depth, face-to-face conversations, during which the artists’ hopes, dreams and intentions are explored. In the interviews that accompany “Nobody Walks,” co-writer/director Ry Russo-Young and star Olivia Thirlby don’t seem to have watched the movie they’re describing. It’s more like they’re discussing the movie that was playing in the heads of Russo-Young and co-writer Lena Dunham as they were writing the screenplay. Dunham’s fingerprints can be seen throughout “Nobody Walks.” It’s as if one of the characters in “Girls” was given an opportunity to move to L.A.’s hipster-invested Silver Lake neighborhood to finish a project meaningful to them, if no one else. Here that woman has been invited to finish her experimental film with the assistance of an accomplished sound engineer, Peter (John Krasinski), and move into the family’s pool house for the duration. Thirlby plays the 23-year-old New Yorker, Martine, whose veneer of self-confidence masks a desperate need to be admired, coddled and fulfilled sexually. What Martine and Peter have yet to learn in all their years on Earth is something most animals are taught as soon as they’re able to walk or fly: don’t shit where you eat. Working at close proximity in Peter’s home studio, it’s only a matter of time before something sufficiently unnerving happens to Martine that he feels the need to comfort her. One thing leads to another and they’re in each other’s pants. It takes Peter’s psychiatrist wife, Julie (Rosemarie DeWitt), about 30 seconds to sense that something fishy is happening between her husband and their guest. Even so, she decides to cut them some slack.
For her part, Julie allows herself to be verbally seduced by a smarmy male patient (Justin Kirk), an actor who describes/invents a dream in which she comes onto him in an outfit right out of the Victoria’s Secret catalog. After confirming her fears about Peter and Martine, Julie allows her patient to paw her at a party. Their precocious teenage daughter, Yma (India Ennenga), is inspired by Martine after mistaking her unbridled libido for sexual liberation. Martine also comes to the girl’s rescue when her smarmy Italian tutor has a fit over a poem that she’s written. Peter also will blow a gasket, but for an entirely different reason. In the interviews, Russo-Young and Thirlby treat Martine’s ill-considered behavior as some kind of rite of passage experienced by young New Yorkers when blasted by the bright California sun for the first time. The men in the movie have all the sense given pieces on a checkerboard and Julie gets a pass, even though, 1) she naively allowed a pretty 23-year-old daughter of an old friend to move into their pool house, and 2) put her career on the line for the momentary thrill of being told she looks sexy in her britches. I don’t buy it. Even though “Nobody Walks” could boast of performances by three of America’s hottest actors, it played in only a small handful of theaters. Anyone wondering what all the fuss over Dunham is about probably should start with “Girls,” “Tiny Furniture” and the Web-based “Delusional Downtown Divas.” The Blu-ray adds a deleted scene, the completed short film on which Peter and Martine were working and a short making-of piece. The short film, “Scorpio,” shows off Russo-Young’s keen photographic eye, but, alas, is exceedingly pretentious. -– Gary Dretzka
Nature Calls: Blu-ray
Writer/director Todd Rohal really dodged a bullet when the Christian Slater vehicle, “Playback,” was accorded the dubious distinction of being the lowest-grossing feature film of 2012. All things being equal, however, the producers of that turkey could argue that it only played on one screen, for a week, while “Nature Calls” required two screens to collect $382. Based solely on the names of the actors on the cover of “Nature Calls” Blu-ray/DVD – Patton Oswald, Johnny Knoxville, Rob Riggle – I would be willing to bet that the boys-will-be-boys comedy will make more than $382 in its first hour in video stores. Not much more, but enough to stem the bleeding, at least. Oswald plays the scoutmaster of a troop of boys whose ability to survive in the woods overnight is highly questionable. Nevertheless, he’s determined to take his ancient, wheelchair-bound father on one more camping trip before he’s shipped off to a retirement home. The problem is, Scoutmaster Randy’s far more successful stick-in-the-mud brother has already scheduled a slumber party for his newly adopted 10-year-old son the same weekend.
Randy somehow convinces the boys to abandon the party and join him on the expedition, which, naturally, becomes disastrous almost before it starts. It’s gets even more complicated when his brother and his cronies come looking for them, along with park rangers and the moms of the boys. What starts as a disaster ends in a farce, and a waste of time for everyone involved. Parents of scouting-age kids attracted by the cover art should know that “Nature Calls” contains much rough language and a couple of boobies. It comes with outtakes and a making-of featurette. – Gary Dretzka
BBC America: Twenty Twelve: Complete Series
Starz: Method to the Madness of Jerry Lewis
PBS: American Experience: The Abolitionists
Those fans of “Downton Abbey” who simply can’t get enough of Hugh Bonneville should consider picking up the BBC mini-series, “Twenty Twelve” on DVD. It isn’t a period soap opera, but it is unmistakably British. All 13 episodes from both seasons, leading up to 2012 Summer Olympics, are packaged alongside cast and crew interviews. Exec-produced by Jon Plowman (“Absolutely Fabulous,” “Little Britain”), “Twenty Twelve” uses the same comic approach as “The Office” to chronicle the efforts of a team of bureaucrats assigned to make sure London doesn’t grind to a complete stop as the Games are being staged. If these guys had actually been in charge of logistics, the Olympics might have experienced gridlock, or worse. Even in hindsight, it’s a lot of fun. Also prominent in the cast are Amelia Bullmore (“Suburban Shootout”), Jessica Hynes (“The Royale Family”), Karl Theobald (“Primeval”) and David Tennant (“Doctor Who”).
As he approaches the ripe old age of 87, Jerry Lewis continues to make headlines in the trade magazines. The type face may not be quite as large as the ones that chronicled his every move between 1946 and the early 1970s, but they draw our attention, anyway. He’s currently in production on a drama in which he plays the title character, Max Rose, and apparently in limbo on a picture “still in development,” “Big Finish.” It’s been about 20 years since he’s starred in a feature that wasn’t animated. That was considered to be a comeback picture, just like “Max Rose” and “Big Finish.” The fascinating bio-doc “Method to the Madness of Jerry Lewis” argues that “comeback” overstates the case. How far can a performer in his 80s come back, after all? In his interviews with director Gregg Barson, Lewis essentially argues that, contrary to rumor, he’s never gone away. Hollywood executives disappeared on him 40 years ago, or so, but audiences always seem to have found him in his performances on stage, on television and during the telethons. Barson, who previously directed the wonderful Phyllis Diller documentary, ”Goodnight, We Love You,” has gathered a wide variety of actors, directors and comedians to testify in Lewis’ defense, as well. Among them are Alec Baldwin, Chevy Chase, Eddie Murphy, Carl Reiner, Quentin Tarantino, Jerry Seinfeld, Billy Crystal, Carol Burnett, Richard Lewis, Steven Spielberg, John Landis and Deana Martin (Dean’s daughter). As usual, though, Lewis gets all of the laughs. Proud of his accomplishments, he isn’t at all shy about pointing out his contributions to the cinematic art, standup comedy and improvisation. Again, the witnesses confirm his testimony. Even 115 minutes, “Method to the Madness” occasionally feels short. Even so, it’s better to admire Lewis’ genius – yes, genius – now, while he’s alive and kicking, than read the words of obituary writers and tweeted testimonials sometime in the future.
The timing for PBS’ “American Experience” documentary series, “The Abolitionists” could hardly be more appropriate. In Steven Spielberg’s much-honored film, “Lincoln,” it would be easy for short-sighted viewers to believe that abolitionism was synonymous with obstructionism, and the debate over the total abolishment of slavery had begun only recently. While it may be true that Lincoln’s ability to convince Republican abolitionists to compromise their principles assured passage of the 13th Amendment, it’s not accurate to paint him as the only politician who didn’t have to wrestle with his conscience on the issue of slavery. Plenty of Americans had committed to abolitionism without having to consult their conscience. “Abolitionists forced the issue of slavery on to the national agenda,” says Sharon Grimberg, executive producer for the three-part documentary. “They made it unavoidable.” By the time John Brown, Frederick Douglass, William Lloyd Garrison, Angelina Grimke and Harriet Beecher Stowe – key figures in the documentary — brought the anti-slavery movement to the forefront of debate in the United States the cause had already been debated abroad and in churches here for many decades. Indeed, it had been abolished among several prominent slave-trading nations and reaffirmed after it was repealed in some countries. Lincoln was a gradualist throughout most of his political career and pragmatic about pushing too hard on the Southern bloc and its Northern supporters, until he picked up the banner with the Emancipation Proclamation.
What Lincoln did understand was that Congress was populated in large part by pompous, self-serving and openly corrupt career politicians, who, if they had consciences at all, never wrestled with them. That much hasn’t changed in 150 years, anyway. If the abolitionists weren’t so adamant about the immediacy of the issue and convincing in their arguments, Lincoln might have acted differently altogether. I don’t know how far into the future that the crystal balls belonging to Lincoln and the abolitionists were able to see. The reality, of course, is that, in some quarters, racist sentiments have never gone out of fashion. It would take the combined force of the 13th, 14th, 15th and the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to make a dent in legal segregation in the South and some western states. Even then, in the 2012 presidential campaign, Republicans pushed to deny some Americans their right to vote, freely and without encumbrance. So, in a very real sense, the Civil War is still being fought. The documentary focuses on the intertwined stories of the leading abolitionists, while also addressing important myths and realities weighing on the struggle. Director Rob Rapley’s cast includes Richard Brooks, Neal Huff, Jeanine Serralles, Wendy Carter, Ingrid Alli and T. Ryder Smith and Kate Lyn Sheil and narrator Oliver Platt. – Gary Dretzka