By Gary Dretzka Dretzka@moviecitynews.com
The DVD Wrapup
Seven Psychopaths: Blu-ray
Before turning to film in 2005, the then-35-year-old Irish/British writer Martin McDonagh had established a solid reputation as one of the most promising playwrights of his generation. He didn’t seem to have much problem making the transition, winning an Academy Award his first time out of the gate for Best Live Action Short Film (“Six Shooter”) and, a couple of years later, by being nominated for Best Original Screenplay for “In Bruges,” which he also directed. Although “Seven Psychopaths” didn’t make the cut in any of the Oscar category, it’s a finalist for a BAFTA in the Outstanding British Film category and Independent Spirit Awards for Best Screenplay and Best Supporting Actor (Sam Rockwell). “In Bruges” is a darkly comic crime story set in the charming Flemish city, whose history goes back to its conquest by Julius Caesar. Although his writing can stand on its own merits, “In Bruges” naturally drew comparisons to the early films of Guy Ritchie, while “Seven Psychopaths” reminded critics of Quentin Tarantino’s hyper-violent hybrids. The two movies may share many qualities, but their settings could hardly be more different. “In Bruges” takes place principally in its historic city center, where tourists are drawn to scenic canals and medieval architecture. Half of “Seven Psychopaths” is set in and around the less-touristy neighborhoods of Los Angeles and the rest takes place deep in the Mojave Desert. To go into any depth about what happens in the multi-layered black comedy would require a spoiler alert ahead of every sentence. It’s that complex … or convoluted, depending one’s tastes.
The title derives from a screenplay being written, haltingly, by a borderline Irish alcoholic, Marty (Colin Farrell). After creating the first fictional psychopath, Marty develops a nearly insurmountable block. His dog-napper pals Billy (Rockwell) and Hans (Christopher Walken) ride to his rescue with tales of outrageous crimes carried out by serial killers and avenging angels, all of whom easily qualify as psychopaths. The pair of hooligans recently made the potentially fatal mistake of grabbing a Shih Tzu belonging to a seriously unhinged gangster, Charlie (Woody Harrelson), from his dog-walker (Gabourey Sidibe). Once apprised of the pup’s pedigree, Billy and Hans could have avoided a lot of trouble simply by returning it and apologizing, but how much fun would that be? Instead, one crime leads to another and so many lies are told in the service of Marty’s novel that, by the time the guys reach the desert, the fabrications start to double back on each other. Such madness would have been difficult to sustain if it weren’t for the presence of Harry Dean Stanton, as a razor-toting Amish looney, stalking the killer of his daughter; a rabbit-fondling nutcase, played by Tom Waits; Hans’ terminally ill African-American wife; a female serial killer who preys on serial killers; a onetime Viet Cong monk, who lost his family at My Lai; a blond Vietnamese-speaking prostitute and Ivy League graduate; and other candidates for inclusion in Marty’s manuscript. As usual, Walken’s performance alone is worth the price of a rental and Farrell proves to be a master of dark comedy. The Blu-ray adds the usual array of making-of pieces and interviews, but the real treat is the short parody, “Seven Psychocats.” – Gary Dretzka
The Tin Drum: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
In an interview included in the Criterion Collection’s Blu-ray edition of “The Tin Drum, ” Volker Schlöndorff says that the Cannes- and Academy Award-winning film was never intended merely to be an adaptation of Gunter Grass’ literary masterpiece and a home-grown vehicle for selling tickets in the Rhineland. Rather, like the novel, it would be a provocation. “Germany, to this day, is the poisoned heart of Europe,” the director wrote in his journal. “It is a country unable to mourn.” Germans born during and after the WWII were required to carry the burden of their parents’ sins and weren’t at all pleased by having to wear the stain of genocide. Ironically, in its rush to stem the red tide, the United States was partially responsible for creating an atmosphere of non-repentance. The western powers were so anxious to pre-empt the Soviet Union’s ability to encourage the spread of communism in war-torn Europe and the colonies, they went to great lengths to convince impoverished survivors that turning to Russia for help would be a mistake. The Marshall Plan not only was used to provide food and other forms of economic relief to Europeans, but its provisions demanded a general American-ization of the culture. If western Germany could rise from the ashes, it was believed, the halo effect of prosperity would be felt throughout Europe and the “free world.” As unbelievable as it sounds today, provisions of the Marshall Plan also linked levels of aid directly to the recipients’ willingness to accept imports of U.S. motion pictures, among other products. Any promotion of middle-class American values and lifestyle conceivably could stimulate American exports at large and advance ideological agendas. Before long, Germans were too busy reconstructing to waste time examining their consciences, even if they were so inclined to do so … which most weren’t.
By the early 1960s, the German cinema was barely a shadow of its former self. The loss of its greatest pre-war artists, along with the lingering effects of Joseph Goebbels’ propaganda machine, left the next generation of filmmakers scratching for ways to address issues pertinent to themselves and the newly industrialized Germany. The young directors and writers who signed the Oberhausen Manifesto of 1962 declared that “Papa’s movies are dead,” even as audiences continued to be drawn to Hollywood fare and resources remained scarce. Almost a decade later, the German New Wave would officially arrive in the form of Schlöndorff, Wim Wenders, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Werner Herzog, Alexander Kluge, Margarethe von Trotta and Hans-Jurgen Syberberg. The movement was influenced by the Italian and French new waves, which found success doing more with less. They also looked to such American mavericks as Francis Ford Coppola, Hal Ashby, Martin Scorsese and Peter Bogdanovich, who proved that personal films could be entertaining and commercially successful. Schlöndorff’s adaptation of “The Tin Drum” would demonstrate how far things had changed on all fronts. It would go on to be the first German film to won both the Palme d’Or (shared with “Apocalypse Now”) and the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film.
The story of three generations of the Matzerath family, of the Free City of Danzig, is told through the eyes and sometimes questionable memory of Oskar, a boy born with an adult’s capacity for thoughts and perception. At 3, after falling down a flight of stairs in pursuit of a toy drum, he willed himself not to mature physically. It was his way of protesting the conformity, complacency, hypocrisy and overall mediocrity he’d witnessed from birth. His cognitive skills would continue to grow, however, and they would serve him as a weapon against those who simply judged him by his stature. He carried the tin drum wherever he went, occasionally beating it to the accompaniment of a piercing, glass-shattering shriek when deeply disturbed by the behavior of his fellow human beings. In addition to chronicling Oskar’s life, “The Tin Drum” describes how the proprietorship of Danzig and its rural environs would be disputed from the late 19th Century to war’s end. (The book continues beyond that point.) His grandmother sold turnips and potatoes in Kushubian markets, where the local tongue blended into Polish and German. Danzig (later Gdansk) would be declared a “free city” by the terms of the Versailles Treaty. In Oskar’s lifetime, its status would be contested by Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union and Poland. Oskar’s ability to cope was further tested by an early understanding of his mother’s promiscuity; the blind acceptance of Nazism by his relatives (who would soon live to regret it); the persecution of a close Jewish friend of his mother; his own sexual maturation; and the realization that his actions had serious repercussions. Still, he found ways to survive not available to 20-year-olds of normal size. The liberties taken with Grass’ novel were overseen by the author, director and writers Jean-Claude Carriere and Franz Seitz. There’s no question, though, that David Bennett’s amazing portrayal of the man-child, Oskar, made “The Tin Drum” the unforgettable experience it became.
The Criterion Collection Blu-ray edition is enhanced by a newly restored high-definition digital transfer of the complete 162-minute director’s-cut version, and a re-mastered 5.1 surround soundtrack presented in DTS-HD Master Audio. It also includes a new interview with Schlöndorff about the making of “The Tin Drum” and creation of the 2010 restored version; the musings of film scholar Timothy Corrigan; a recording of author Günter Grass reading an excerpt from his novel, with musical accompaniment and corresponding footage from the film; television interview excerpts featuring Schlöndorff, Grass, actors Bennent and Mario Adorf, and cowriter Carrière; a new English subtitle translation; and a booklet featuring an essay by critic Michael Atkinson and 1978 statements by Grass about the adaptation of his novel. Some viewers will recall the clamor over scenes in which Oskar has non-graphically rendered sex with female characters his age, if not his height. One Oklahoma judge, after being shown a single out-of-context scene, demanded the removal of VHS copies from rental stores and the tracking down of renters who had one in their possession. The decision would be overturned, but the damage to the movie’s reputation among non-discerning viewers had already been done. – Gary Dretzka
Nominated for a BAFTA as one of the top documentaries of 2012, “The Imposter” may also be one of the year’s most chillingly effective crime thrillers. Here’s what happens: 3½ years after a 13-year-old boy disappears from a basketball court near his San Antonio home, his family receives a call from southern Spain saying that he has been found and is living in a group home there. Naturally, the working-class family is ecstatic, insisting on immediately being given access to him. What viewers already know is that the boy in question doesn’t look a bit like Nicholas Barclay and speaks in a dialect bridging Spanish and French. How do we know that? The real-life imposter, Frederic Bourdin, tells us so, upfront, from prison. He also tells us that he feared being discovered from the moment he devised the ruse – using reports on missing children he purloined from the local police station – to the moment he sat down for coffee with an old-fashioned private investigator, who could have been modeled after Wilford Brimley. The P.I. kept searching for the truth long after the family and FBI closed the book on the case. Once the family bought into the young Frenchman’s story of being kidnaped, beaten and used as a sex slave, there wasn’t much the FBI could do. After five months, Bourdin had already studied family photo albums with Nicholas’ sister and learned family history from their mother. Unless he slipped up, Bourdin was in the clear.
By now, surely, you’re wondering how the entire family of a missing person could be so delusional and/or desperate for closure. In fact, though, it’s Bourdin who provides us with the most obvious clue, which somehow eluded police, if not the P.I. Even if it’s the truth, though, the sad fact remains that the only person who served time in prison is the imposter and his crime was passport fraud and forgery. He’s since been released, convicted in other ruses and freed again. Anyone who marveled at the story behind Steven Spielberg’s “Catch Me If You Can” should run out and find a copy of Bart Layton’s documentary. Apparently, Bourdin had been getting away with impersonating other people – perhaps, as many as 500 — for years. To his credit, only a handful of them were teenagers previously reported missing. The thing that will haunt viewers most, beyond Bourdin’s affectless testimony before Layton’s camera, is the enduring question of what happened to Nicholas. Apparently, the only person still looking for him is investigator Charlie Parker. – Gary Dretzka
All Superheroes Must Die: Blu-ray
Misfits: Season Two
There are essentially two kinds of superhero movies: the ones that are backed by the piles of money needed to create amazing special effects and action sequences and those whose only collateral is the imagination of the filmmakers. The same applies to horror movies, although the cost-per-scare ratio has dropped markedly since special-effects software became so affordable. Absent a decent budget, the trick is to get the audience to buy into the quirkiness of the conceit almost as soon as the opening credits stop rolling, and then pray that they invest their own imaginations into the narrative, filling the larger holes themselves. While it’s impossible to guarantee the success of any movie, let alone one not backed by a multimillion-dollar marketing budget, it’s nice to know that near-misses now can find a respectable home in the straight-to-DVD market. Jason Trost, co-writer/director of “All Superheroes Must Die” (a.k.a., “Vs”), went down this same road with his crazy post-apocalyptic action flick, “FP.” In it, rival gangs fight for control of the I-5 pit-stop town of Frazier Park, settling scores with the ancient arcade game, Dance, Dance, Revolution. It’s amazing how much the Frazier Park of today resembles his dystopian Frazier Park. The sets in “All Superheroes Must Die” look as if they were built from items discarded from “Storage Wars,” while the costumes were designed by Sarah Trost, immediately before she became a contestant on “Project Runway.” As the story goes, superheroes Charge, Cutthroat, Sledgesaw and Shadow awaken one day in an abandoned town, minus their superpowers and recollections about how they got there. Archrival supervillain Rickshaw (James Remar) has brought them together to engage them in a cruel game, in which they must choose between saving themselves, their buddies or civilians strapped with bombs. Rickshaw can monitor their every move via security cameras and taunt them with threats and insults. If the fiend isn’t stopped, he’ll destroy everyone he’s captured. The idea that superheroes, relieved of their superpowers, must rely on common sense, trust, ethical resolve and cunning is sound. If the movie occasionally seems rushed and lacking in logic, it’s probably because budget restraints – it cost an estimated $20,000 to make – forced Trost to take several shortcuts.
Likewise, the bargain-basement British television series “Misfits” examines the phenomenon from the viewpoint of cut-rate superheroes. In its first episode, five young juvenile delinquents are struck by lightning while performing menial tasks in a rundown section of London in the name of community service. Its title, at least, may have been inspired from the short-lived 1985 American fantasy show, “Misfits of Science,” to which it bears a resemblance. Naturally, it takes a while for the misfits to identify their powers and, by that time, the electrical storm has impacted the lives of several other Londoners, not all of whom are heroic. In Season Two, the gang finishes its obligation to the juvenile justice system, but that doesn’t mean they’re in the clear. Even when they attempt to sell their powers, it backfires on them. That “Misfits” is a bare-bones production, with no fancy sets or CGI magic, barely matters. Its appeal largely derives from the differences between how these punky characters handle their gift, as opposed to the way most other fictional heroes do. It’s nice to find a group that isn’t obsessed with their public image and cool costumes. It should be noted that the new Season Two package represents shows that aired in 2010.
It couldn’t have cost Irish newcomer Ciaran Foy much money to make “Citadel,” either, as almost all of the sets look abandoned and about to be demolished. By comparison, Chernobyl looks hospitable. Likewise, the idea for the movie came from Foy’s own personal experiences. In the time it takes a young father-to-be to take a couple of suitcases to a cab waiting outside their high-rise apartment building, his pregnant wife is attacked by hooded thugs and left for dead in a hallway, a hypodermic needle stuck in her belly. Tommy (Aneurin Barnard) witnesses the assault through a window in the elevator, but is powerless to exit before it descends mysteriously to the first floor. The comatose woman dies after the baby is delivered safely, but Tommy is left a basket case. Although he insists on taking care of his infant daughter, he’s crippled with chronic agoraphobia and lives in mortal fear of once again encountering the feral youths. A vigilante priest tells Tommy that he’ll never be free of the gang, which now is intent on kidnaping the baby, until he overcomes his fears and confronts the hoodlums on their own turf. Like Trost, Foy was able to make the most out of the dark, dank surroundings, which would be fearsome even without the criminal element. He also was successful in using his own agoraphobia — triggered by a severe beating – to inform Barnard’s behavior. The Blu-ray adds a making-of featurette. – Gary Dretzka
The Perfect Ending
Out in the Open
In the tear-jerking romance, “The Perfect Ending,” an attractive middle-age woman learns almost too late what it means to fall in love with someone who isn’t interested in her solely for how she looks on his arm at social events and as the woman who’s always there when it’s time for breakfast and dinner. After going through marriage and motherhood without experiencing an orgasm, Rebecca (Barbara Niven) finally admits her shame to lesbian girlfriends who suggest an alternative. Widely believed to have been born with a stick up her ass, Rebecca reluctantly agrees to try what she’s told is a sure-fire orgasm remedy, in the form of a therapeutic session with a compassionate female prostitute. After a frustrating number of deliberate misfires, Rebecca hooks up with the much younger and genuinely stunning Paris (Jessica Clark). Voila, instant ecstasy. Back home, her prick of a husband (John Heard) continues to make Rebecca’s life miserable in ways that would have a real-life woman consulting a divorce lawyer or reaching for a butcher knife. Not surprisingly, once Paris finally lights Rebecca’s rockets, the women fall for each other in a way highly discouraged by her boss (Morgan Fairchild) and atypical in the world of hookers and tricks. Nonetheless, once the audience warms to Rebecca, most such qualms don’t matter much, if only because the sex scenes are so hot. One month removed from 60, Niven delivers the performance of her career, opening herself up emotionally and physically, and convincing us of the integrity of her character. Clark may be a bit too perfect as the prostitute … but, what the hell. Writer/director Nicole Conn is a pioneer of the new Queer Cinema, but, even so, it’s rare to see as many mainstream actors in a decidedly lesbian romance. She’s also able here to maintain a hell-no secret throughout the course of the movie’s length. The DVD’s bonus material includes deleted scenes, a photo gallery, interviews and making-of featurettes.
Documentaries and movies about real people coming out as homosexual have been a dime a dozen for at least the last two decades. Onetime child star Matthew Smith (“Real Stream”) probably was aware of this glut of titles when he set out to make “Out in the Open,” a film that updates what it means to be a member of the LGBT community in 2013. The timing is pretty good. In his second inaugural address, President Obama made a strong, if belated statement on assuring equal rights for gays, lesbians and transsexuals (etc.), and the legalization of same-sex marriages has been approved by voters in several states. Smith interweaves the testimonies of actors, celebrities, politicians, clergy and average Americans with snippets of a mock PSA decrying homosexuality and telling viewers how to identify gay and lesbian traits in themselves. The film is targeted at teenagers, as well as their parents and teachers, who may be wrestling with the same identity issues as those people we meet in the film. It also addresses problems associated with bullying, name-calling and stereotyping. Among the people interviewed are Eric and Eliza Roberts, Eliza’s son Keaton Simons, Carson Kressley, Josh Strickland, Greg Louganis, Cassandra Church and poker pro Vanessa Selbst. If many of the coming-out stories are sad, the overall tone of “Out in the Open” is uplifting, revelatory and frequently humorous. – Gary Dretzka
Tales of the Night: Blu-ray
The best way to describe “Tales of the Night” to someone who isn’t remotely familiar with the work of French animator Michel Ocelot (“Kirikou and the Sorceress,” “Azur & Asmar”) is to compare Julie Taymor’s stage version of “The Lion King” to the original Disney feature. One of the amazing things about the Broadway musical is the deployment of puppets, masks and silhouettes against a brilliantly sunlit background, in addition to the actors and dancers. In the six fables that comprise Ocelot’s “Tales of the Night” silhouetted characters – human, animal and mythical – perform before brilliantly colored backgrounds with intriguing patterns. Ocelot used a computer to tell the stories here, but he prefers to work in paper and that’s the effect he got. He also employs a computer as a narrative device. An illustrator uses it to demonstrate to a pair of actors how they might inform the look of the characters they play in a separate project. The locales include a medieval European realm in which humans interact with werewolves and humans turn into deer; a Caribbean island; Africa; Tibet; and an Aztec capital. It’s marvelously entertaining and, in Blu-ray, a supreme test of your home-theater system. It also adds an interview with Ocelot and making-of material. – Gary Dretzka
The Love Section
There aren’t many options open for people of color to see movies in which characters date and marry people who look like them, laugh at the same things they do, listen to the same music and hold meaningful jobs. Broadcast television networks aren’t built to accommodate such niche programming any longer, no matter how successful Tyler Perry may be, and diverse casting has become so formulaic as to be laughable. It isn’t as if such movies as “Why Did I Get Married Too?,” “Jump the Broom” and “Think Like a Man” don’t make money in theaters, because they do. Ronnie Warner and Lawrence B. Adisa’s romantic comedy “The Love Section” isn’t quite in the same league as those titles, let alone “Waiting to Exhale” or “Stella Got Her Groove Back,” but it has a lot of nice things going for it. Among other things, the cast is full of attractive men and women, who look good in business suits and lingerie, and they have good jobs that don’t require wearing Nikes and jockstraps to work. The old-school R&B soundtrack is a real pleasure to hear, as well. The stereotypes are kept to a minimum and, unlike the adaptations of stage plays adapted for TV, there’s no laugh track to tell us when to laugh or spiritual time outs. Lawrence Adisa plays Ali, a struggling real estate agent and ladies’ man who has resisted commitment of any kind. No sooner has this much been established than Ali falls for Sandrine (Davetta Sherwood), a hard-working single mother who wouldn’t mind a bit of commitment in her life. Typically, Ali begins to listen to friends, who cause him to doubt his own best instincts. It isn’t until a real-estate mogul (Mekhi Phifer) enters the picture that Ali begins to take over his own life that real decisions have to be made. Among the supporting cast are Brian Hooks, Kellita Smith, Omar Benson Miller, Teyana Taylor and Elijah Long. – Gary Dretzka
How Green Was My Valley: Blu-ray
Gentleman’s Agreement: Blu-ray
Wild River: Blu-ray
Although John Ford’s “How Green Was My Valley” is an inarguably great movie and was among the first 50 titles inducted into the National Film Registry, its place in history still stumps people foolish enough to bet on trivial Hollywood pursuits. Among other things, it is the answer to the question, “Which 1941 movie defeated ‘Citizen Kane,’ ‘The Maltese Falcon,’ ‘Sergeant York,’ ‘The Little Foxes,’ ‘Here Comes Mr. Jordan,’ ‘Suspicion’ and three other films in the race for Best Picture?,” while Ford’s name answers the question, “Which director took home the Oscar that year, beating Orson Welles, William Wyler, Howard Hawks and Alexander Hall?” You can learn a lot more about Ford and fellow nominee Philip Dunne’s adaptation of Richard Llewellyn’s novel by listening to the commentary track and “Hollywood Backstory” featurette on the new Blu-ray edition of “How Green Was My Valley.” Told from the perspective of 10-year-old Huw Morgan (“Master Roddy McDowall”), it’s the still-topical story of a family torn apart by the prospect of a potentially crippling strike at a Welsh coal mine. Huw’s father (Donald Crisp) refuses to join any such action, believing that the mine owner wouldn’t do anything to hurt the livelihoods of his employees. His older sons, however, have personally been affected by the influx of laborers, including children, willing to work at much lower wages. Huw also describes the failed romance between his sister (Maureen O’Hara) and the local preacher (Walter Pidgeon); the scattering of his older brothers into the Welsh diaspora; the trials he faced as a coal-miner’s son in a school populated by elitist bullies; unexpected deaths in the family; and his inner struggle over the benefits of continuing his education or following his elders into the mines. The Fox Blu-ray edition sounds great and looks spectacular, even in black and white. (Arthur C. Miller took Oscar honors over “Citizen Kane” cinematographer Gregg Toland.) There’s a fascinating story behind the decision to shoot B&W, as well as Daryl Zanuck’s efforts to keep “How Green Was My Valley” from being overtly pro-union.
Also new to Blu-ray from Fox are Elia Kazan’s “Gentleman’s Agreement” (1947) and “Wild River” (1960), both of which were highly topical at the time of their release, but feel like cultural artifacts today. I wonder how many potential viewers, drawn to Kazan’s name on the jacket, know that the deeply entrenched, almost institutional anti-Semitism described in “Gentleman’s Agreement” actually was a problem in America, especially considering what we knew about Hitler’s death camps. In it, a single magazine reporter, Philip Green (Gregory Peck), moves to New York from California, in the company of his young son (Dean Stockwell), and is asked to come up with a story angle on the subject. Knowing that anti-Semitism is practiced among New York’s elite is different from proving it, however. Green’s idea is to impersonate a Jewish writer who is attempting to accomplish the same things as he is upon landing in the city. This includes pursuing permanent employment, finding a place to live, reserving a room in a hotel or planning a honeymoon. So-called gentleman’s agreements and exclusionary covenants accomplished in the North what decades of segregation had in the South, only in far less obvious way. Because it’s set among the moneyed and professional classes of New York, the anti-Semitism often is cloaked in codes and protocol. Indeed, the reporter’s wealthy fiancée (Dorothy McGuire) is an avowed liberal who doesn’t even know when she’s being offensive or accommodating the bigotry of relatives and neighbors. The more the reporter grills her and challenges her assumptions, the further a divide grows between them. The movie, which was adapted from a novel by Laura Z. Hobson by Moss Hart, became a big hit before being awarded Best Picture and Best Director Oscars. It arrives with commentary, an “AMC Backstory” and newsreel footage from the premiere.
Elia Kazan’s “Wild River” may not have been accorded the same accolades as previous titles in his canon, but it’s stood up to close critical scrutiny over the years and now is considered one of his classics. (It joined the National Film Registry in 2002.) The story, adapted from the writings of William Bradford Huie, describes a standoff between an elderly woman (Jo Van Fleet) and a TVA field administrator (Montgomery Clift) over the disposition of her island home, even as the dammed waters of the Tennessee River begin to rise. The New Deal initiative is designed to bring much-needed flood relief, electricity and jobs to the region, but the woman cares more about individual liberty and family tradition than bringing light bulbs to the blind. As long as her dead husband is resting there, she’s staying. The question of racial inequality in the rural South also rears its ugly head when the TVA interloper hires black workers at the same wages as those provided whites. In the early 1930s, this wasn’t something the local rednecks – some of whom appear in the movie — would accept. Lee Remick plays the obstinate landowner’s widowed daughter, with two children and an urge to leave the island. Naturally, Remick and Clift’s characters fall for each other, further complicating his mission. Kazan shot “Wild River” in color to take advantage of the natural Tennessee setting and it looks great in Blu-ray. – Gary Dretzka
PBS: More Than a Month
March On!: The Day My Brother Martin Changed the World
Stone Soup … and Other Stories From the Asian Tradition
In “More Than a Month,” Shukree Hassan Tilghman asks a couple of timely questions: if America actually has become a “post-racial” society, as some learned folks argue, has Black History Month outlived its usefulness, and, if so, should it be abolished? In soliciting the opinions of his fellow New Yorkers, he wore a sandwich board with “End Black History Month” printed on the front of the sign and “Black History Is American History” on the back. The responses he received were inconclusive, so he began asking African-American scholars, activists, historians and, even, a group of Civil War enactors how they felt about the relevancy of Black History Month. Not surprisingly, perhaps, the blacks with whom he spoke argued persuasively that ending it could backfire on those who swallowed the “post-racial” bait hook, line and sinker. Indeed, the weekend warriors he met in Virginia suggested replacing it with a Confederate History Month. Tilghman’s questions are legitimate, certainly. In the best of all possible Americas, the histories and contributions of all citizens already would be incorporated into the curriculum of all our schools and children would grow up knowing that no race, nationality or gender held a monopoly on intelligence, talent or courage. In the worst of all possible Americas, however, a February without purpose would pass in the same way as it always had before Black History Month was instituted, except that the text books would have been re-written to reflect the viewpoints of pinhead politicians and televangelists. This already happens in Texas, a state that demands rewrites of more textbooks than any other. Given the economy, once school boards stopped giving lip service to African-American history, at least, they could stop pretending they gave a crap about Native Americans, Hispanics, Asian-Americans and women, too. By the time Tilghman returned home to the liberal bubble that is New York, it seems as if he had rethought his previous position and was left without a clear answer to his questions. The difference is that Tilghman was having more fun debating the issue when he thought he was right.
One good way to expose children to the benefits of diversity and contributions of people of different backgrounds is to provide them with entertainment and “edutainment” options that are inclusive when it comes to race, gender and ethnicity. From Scholastic Storybook Treasures comes a compilation of DVD read-alongs, including “March On!: The Day My Brother Martin Changed the World” In the title track,
Dr. Christine King Farris recalls the early influences that caused Martin Luther King Jr. to evolve into the great orator and activist he became. It also goes behind the scenes as her brother prepared for the March on Washington and one of the most important speeches in American history. It is illustrated by London Ladd and narrated by Lynn Whitfield. Also included in the package are “Martin’s Big Words,” which uses quotes from Dr. King to paint a picture of the man and his dreams (written by Doreen Rappaport, illustrated by Bryan Collier, narrated by Michael Clarke Duncan). “Rosa” describes how the uncommon bravery of a single Montgomery bus rider, Rosa Parks, led to one of most significant victories in the early days of the civil-rights movement (written and narrated by Nikki Giovanni, illustrated by Bryan Collier). “Henry’s Freedom Box: A True Story From the Underground Railroad” tells the story of a young slave who literally mails himself to freedom (written by Ellen Levine, illustrated by Kadir Nelson, narrated by Jerry Dixon). The DVD adds interviews with Christine King Farris and Ellen Levine.
Another timely offering from Scholastic Storybook Treasures is “Stone Soup … and Other Stories From the Asian Tradition,” which should be of interest to kids curious about Chinese culture, especially as we enter the Year of the Snake. The read-along stories include “Stone Soup,” “The Five Chinese Brothers,” “Lon Po Po” and “Stonecutter.” Also included is an interview with author/illustrator Jon J. Muth. – Gary Dretzka
Masterpiece Classic: Downton Abbey Season 3
Cinemax: Femme Fatales: The Complete First Season
PBS: The Mighty Mississippi
Thank goodness for Shirley MacLaine. Just when the Earl of Grantham, Dowager Countess of Grantham and crabby Mr. Carson were beginning to wear on me, even in early hours of Season Three of “Downton Abbey,” relief arrived in the form of MacLaine’s filthy-rich American intruder, Martha Levinson, to burst their balloons. Levinson is the mother of Cora Crawley (Elizabeth McGovern), the countess of Grantham and soon to be the mother of the bride at the stately marriage of Lady Mary Crawley (Michelle Dockery) and distant cousin, Matthew Crawley (Dan Stevens). Before that can happen, however, the Earl (Hugh Bonneville) is required to tell his wife that he’s squandered her fortune on a risky business transaction and Downton Abbey may be lost to them. Worse, perhaps, runaway daughter Lady Sybil Crawley has unexpectedly arrived from Ireland with her commoner husband, Tom Branson, the family’s former chauffer, whose mere presence is treated as an affront to the Earl, his mother (Maggie Smith) and Mr. Carson (Jim Carter). Meanwhile, Bates is cooling his heels in jail, waiting for his bride, Anna, to solve the mystery of his former wife’s death. Wait, there’s more. By now, fans of the “Masterpiece Classic” soap opera relish the constant upheavals at Downton Abbey, which include the introduction of new characters and greater intrigues. The fate of the estate will consume most of the next seven hours of Season 3, as well as that of Bates and the family’s link to the Irish Revolution. Tragedy strikes and controversy ensues. The DVD and Blu-ray package adds the season-ending Christmas Special, “A Journey to the Highlands” and featurettes “Downton Abbey: Behind the Drama,” “Shirley MacLaine at Downton,” “The Men of Downton” and “Downton in 1920.”
Among the things that haven’t evolved in the sexy anthology shows that have followed in the wake of “Red Shoes Diaries” on premium cable networks: women characters still haven’t embraced pantyhose, preferring stockings and garter belts; most of the actresses’ breasts were surgically enhanced at puberty; like Barbie and Ken, pubic hair and genitalia are conspicuously missing; all strippers resemble moonlighting supermodels; and prostitutes who could command $1,000 an hour in Las Vegas pound the streets of Los Angeles, instead. The same absurd clichés apply to Cinemax’s “Femme Fatales,” in which top-shelf women outfox, outsmart, out-screw and generally out-everything every male in their nefarious orbits, and they do so in their britches. As created by Steven Kriozere and Mark Altman (“Necessary Roughness,” “Castle”), “Femme Fatales” differentiates itself from other soft-core anthology series by incorporating the sex into the plots of half-hour stories, which are inspired by pulp fiction, film noir and graphic novels. Each episode offers some humor, at least, to go with the obviously staged violence and ironic twists at the end of each week’s offering. The series may not be in the same league as “Twilight Zone” and other anthologies, but, for fans of such things, it’s rarely less than watchable and the sex tends to support the stories, instead of the other way around. It arrives with commentary tracks for every episode, deleted and alternate scenes, background and making-of material, an “anatomy of a sex scene,” isolated music tracks, a blooper reel and panel discussion from San Diego Comic-Con.
British news reader and wandering reporter Sir Trevor McDonald isn’t the first journalist to survey the Mississippi River in search of the ever-beating and occasionally dark heart of America and he certainly won’t be the last. Such ambitious treks have become a staple of travel-obsessed shows on cable television outlets, but the Mississippi seems to hold a special fascination for foreigners. Americans tend to take the Big Muddy for granted, at least until its waters rise to flood tide and the media race to cover the destruction. McDonald traverses the Mississippi’s 2,500-mile length from south to north, making the usual stops along the way. While in Memphis, for example, he spends time at Sun Studios, Beale Street, the Lorraine Hotel, the auditorium where Martin Luther King gave his last speech, a penthouse apartment overlooking the river and the B&B now run by one of Elvis’ earliest and most photographed girlfriends. McDonald is especially drawn to the river’s connection to popular culture and the aspirations of everyday Americans. If “The Mighty Mississippi” is a tad more eloquent than previous mini-series, the credit belongs to the Trinidadian-British journalist, who became the first black news reader in England and enjoyed a career that lasted from the early 1960s to 2008. My only quibble is that the splendid cinematography that graces the 140-minute mini-series hasn’t been translated into Blu-ray. – Gary Dretzka
Nickelodeon: Rootin’ Tootin’ Wild West
Young followers of DreamWorks’ “Madagascar” franchise should get a big Valentine’s Day kick out of the appetizer-portion cartoon, “Madly Madagascar.” Some of them might notice that it arrives out of sequence, before the penguins left for Monte Carlo. This doesn’t make the movie less charming, but it could be confusing to hardcore fans. Here, Alex (Ben Stiller) recalls how much he enjoyed the holiday back at the zoo, where kids showered him with cards and other heart-shaped goodies. The zebra, Marty (Chris Rock), discovers that the only way he can get the attention of a hot okapi lassie is to apply a love potion that miraculously fell from the sky one day. Melman, Gloria, Julien, Skipper and his bobble-head wife also find love in all the weird places. The 28-minute cartoon comes with two other animated shorts, featuring DreamWorks characters.
I don’t know if there’s a national holiday dedicated to cowboys, but, if there were, the latest compilation of cartoons from Nickelodeon would be the appropriate gift for pre-schoolers. “Nickelodeon Favorites: Rootin’ Tootin’ Wild West” is comprised of western-themed stories from the series “Bubble Guppies,” “Team Umizoomi,” “Dora the Explorer,” “The Fresh Beat Band,” “Go, Diego, Go!” and “The Wonder Pets!” It’s a Walmart exclusive from Paramount. – Gary Dretzka