By Gary Dretzka Dretzka@moviecitynews.com
The DVD Wrapup
China Beach: The Complete Series
The news divisions of three major television networks may have come of age covering the Vietnam War, civil-rights movement and campus turmoil of the 1960s, but it took nearly 20 years for broadcast executives to come to grips with what happened in dramatic form. Unlike the inky black movie comedy that inspired it, TV’s “M*A*S*H” allowed its audience the freedom to draw its own conclusion about which war the sitcom actually was satirizing and why it was worthy of such treatment. Its huge popularity suggests that most viewers considered show’s comically anti-establishment message to be more universal than specific and, in the early 1970s, “M*A*S*H” fit well alongside “All in the Family,” “Maude” and “Laugh-In.” That Vietnam had become an absurdist nightmare, practically defining the term, “SNAFU,” had been established as early as 1968, when, after the 1968 bombing of Ben Tre, AP correspondent Peter Arnett quoted a ranking officer’s observation, “It became necessary to destroy the town to save it.” Even “M*A*S*H” co-creator Larry Gelbart would have had a tough time topping that whopper. Otherwise, allusions to the Vietnam War on television were pretty much limited to the occasional wild-eyed veteran as a suspect in a violent crime on police dramas. In 1980, “Magnum, P.I.” offered an alternative in the form of three male characters, who served in Vietnam, but weren’t traumatized beyond all recognition. Magnum, T.C. and Rick occasionally employed skills they learned in the service – extreme helicopter maneuvers and weaponry, for example – and seemed as normal as anyone attempting to jump-start their lives in Hawaii.
Finally, seven years later, CBS used the success of “Platoon” as a springboard for the series “Tour of Duty,” which was set in 1967 Vietnam and dealt with issues especially pertinent to infantrymen fighting a highly motivated, mostly invisible enemy. ABC would launch “China Beach” a season later, shifting the primary focus to nurses and medics stationed at the evacuation hospital at My Khe beach and the wounded servicemen who found refuge and relief there. The restful setting, in addition to presence of women and civilians, increased the number of avenues open to the show’s writers to explore dramatic, comedic and romantic themes. It allowed “China Beach” to tap into a demographic not likely to be attracted to “Tour of Duty” and war movies of the time. For once, women characters weren’t limited to supporting roles or playing second fiddle to male authority figures. As in the war, itself, the non-combatant nurses, volunteers, officers, privates and angels of mercy were portrayed as being a crucial cog in military machine, as well as healers of the body, mind and spirit. They were no less impervious to pain, fatigue, heartbreak or errant bullets than the men at China Beach and their stories had yet to be told in the media. As portrayed by Dana Delaney, First Lieutenant Colleen McMurphy was a composite of nurses who actually served in Vietnam and shared their stories with series creators William Broyles Jr. and John Sacret Young. (“ER” creator John Wells would take the helm in the second season.) Marg Helgenberger, Nan Woods, Concetta Tomei, Chloe Webb, Megan Gallagher, Nancy Giles and Ricki Lake filled roles ranging from prostitutes and singers, to motor-pool mechanics and reporters. They did this alongside such male actors as Michael Boatman, Robert Picardo, Tim Ryan, Jeff Kober and Brian Wimmer. As “China Beach” evolved during its four-season run, it occasionally would introduce stateside storylines and experiment with plot devices.
It’s hard to believe that “China Beach” is only now making its debut in any home-entertainment format. Instead of releasing it in dribs and drabs, StarVista Entertainment and Time Life have chosen to do it right the first time, with “China Beach: The Complete Series” and “China Beach: 25th Anniversary Collectors’ Edition,” both containing a pile of bonus features. The packages don’t come cheap ($199 and $275, respectively), however, and they’re only available at chinabeachondvd.com. The same thing that precluded any previous release of “China Beach” is responsible for the eye-popping price tag, I suspect. “China Beach” is one of the few television shows that used contemporary music, performed by the original artists, to inform what was happening on screen. Because of this, anyone who wanted to send the series out in VHS or DVD had to consider substituting the original songs with generic music or the same songs performed by other artists, neither of which would have had the same effect. The package includes 268 familiar songs, as they were played in the original broadcasts, and this required StarVista to re-license all of them for DVD. (Rights don’t automatically extend from one medium to the next, anymore.) Included in the 10 hours of new bonus material are interviews with cast members and creators, five audio commentaries, footage and featurettes from the 2012 reunion, three roundtable discussions with cast and crew, a gag reel, deleted scenes and behind-the-scenes footage. The “25th Anniversary Collectors’ Edition” adds three signed scripts and photographs from the reunion.
Broken City: Blu-ray
At this point in the history of our republic, it’s become nearly impossible for writers of movies about political corruption to top the antics of the venal swine who misuse their offices for personal gain. Not only are mere citizens unable to compete for access to their elected representatives, constantly being pushed aside by campaign contributors and lobbyists, but constant exposure to corruption also appears to have soured voters on the process as dramatized in movies. Showtime’s “Boss” and Netflix’s “House of Cards” succeeded, in large part, because mini-series are allotted the time necessary to explore the root causes of corruption and amplify the drama with frequent outbursts of gratuitous violence and sex. “Broken City” benefits primarily from the familiarity of the lead characters – Russell Crowe, Mark Wahlberg, Catherine Zeta-Jones – and the portentous direction of Allen Hughes. As the movie opens, troubled New York cop Billy Taggart (Wahlberg) is fighting for his career and freedom against charges that he used excessive force against a street punk with whom he had something of a history. Taggart dodges the big bullet, but, as a concession to the rabble protesting the verdict, the mayor (Crowe) talks him into taking a smaller bullet for the sake of political stability. Seven years later, it’s clear that things have gone easier for the mayor than Taggart, whose private detective business isn’t doing at all well. Almost out of nowhere, Taggart’s presence is required at City Hall, where Mayor Hostetler offers him the face-saving assignment he’d been promised years earlier.
Ostensibly, the task involves investigating the mayor’s beautiful, strong-willed wife (Zeta-Jones) and an affair she may or may not be having with person- or persons-unknown. That, of course, would be far too easy. Soon, Taggart finds himself in the middle of a potential scandal that could bring down Hostetler and anyone else hoping to fill his seat. Meanwhile, in a diversion at least as old as Frank Sinatra in “The Detective,” Taggart must compete for his wife’s attention with a gaggle of her artsy-fartsy friends. “Broken City” was written by a first-timer, Brian Tucker, so it’s possible that he fell in love with the complexity of his screenplay and convinced Hughes – directing apart from his brother, Albert, for the first time – to keep the kitchen sink in the picture. The Blu-ray, which holds the camera’s noir texture pretty well, adds deleted scenes, a making-of documentary, alternative ending and UltraViolet capacity.
Not Fade Away: Blu-ray
If there’s one thing upon which people in 49 of our 50 mostly united states can agree, it’s that the deadline on New Jersey’s 15 minutes in the spotlight has been pushed way too far. Even if it leads the nation in reality-based television shows and locations for HBO series, New Jersey is Nebraska with an accent and a lot more Italians. David Chase can be forgiven almost anything, if only because he gave us “The Sopranos,” but his highly personal feature debut, “Not Fade Away,” pushes the envelope to the breaking point. It is a coming-of-age drama that wants us to believe that the same bolt of lightning that struck Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, in 1960, would, five years later, strike three Jersey boys about to embark on a rock-’n’-roll odyssey. It did so at approximately the same moment as the Rolling Stones were performing on “The Hollywood Palace” and enduring the cheap shots dished out by host Dean Martin. Seemingly overnight, Chase’s alter-ego here, Douglas (John Magaro), began growing his hair, effecting Cuban-heeled boots and giving up the drums for being lead singer in his band, mostly because it’s the first place the cool girls look when the music begins.
Naturally, his blue-collar old man (James Gandolfini) strongly disapproves, assuming that his son has been subverted by communists and is in need of a good beating. Normally, one could expect Mom to come to her boy’s defense, if only in private, but Chase has decided to paint her in the most unflattering light possible. In Molly Price’s hands, she becomes a shrill suburban gargoyle, rarely seen without her hair in curlers and wearing something other than a thread-worn housecoat. She constantly guilt-trips Douglas by saying that his long, curly hair and anti-war views are an insult to his father’s hard work and all the sacrifices they’ve made for him. Despite all this weeping and wailing, the band manages to attract the attention of big-time producer Jerry Ragovoy (Brad Garrett) and Douglas hooks up with the hottest babe in the tri-state area (Bella Heathcote). So, where’s the rub?
Watching “Not Fade Away,” whose killer soundtrack balances the parent’s nasty treatment of Douglas, I could only think of how outdated and cliché the story seemed from a distance of nearly 50 years. The same arguments and threats that accompanied Douglas’ metamorphosis were taking place in hundreds of thousands of American homes and still are, perhaps, when kids show off their spanking-new tattoos and piercings. Thousands of garage bands still struggle to be heard and marijuana continues to bring the silly out in teenagers. The most shocking thing about “Not Fade Away,” perhaps, is realizing how little has changed since the period described in the movie. Each succeeding generation must endure some degree of torture from its elders, if only to prepare teenagers for the cold facts of adulthood.
To be fair, however, it should be mentioned that “Not Fade Away” received mostly positive reviews and it’s not at all difficult to watch, even if one has seen variations of it already in such movies as “That Things You Do!,” “The Commitments,” “Almost Famous,” “I Wanna Hold Your Hand,” “The Runaways” and “Backbeat.” The young actors are all quite good and Chase takes full advantage of their enthusiasm. Even if Gandolfini will only seem to be reprising Tony Soprano, some viewers will find that sufficient cause to recommend “Not Fade Away.” (In that case, also rent “Down the Shore.) Steven Van Zandt, Silvio in “The Sopranos,” does a great job as music supervisor, mixing vintage songs with more obscure tunes and making sure the actors look good on stage. For my money, though, the best scene in the movie comes at the very end, when Douglas’ sister, I think, appears out of nowhere to perform a dance to the future on a deserted Hollywood street. It punctuates everything that’s gone before and anticipates everything that lies ahead for her generation. The Blu-ray nicely captures the rich sound and unpolished mono texture of the music – classic and original – adds a lengthy backgrounder with Chase, deleted scenes and a look at how the musician/actors were chosen.
Wasted on the Young
Revenge dramas set in high schools are nothing new and thanks, in part, to amoral NRA lobbyists, the massacres that inspire them aren’t going to disappear any time soon. So far, the only meaningful thing to emerge from the killings at Columbine was Gus Van Sant’s “Elephant” and pro-gun legislators are trying to convince us that taking automatic weapons out of the hands of a sociopath couldn’t have prevented Sandy Hook. Even if bullies usually aren’t given the last word in movies and television shows, they still seek spotlight of the Internet whenever they perpetrate their crimes. Psychologically battered teens will continue to commit suicide after leaving heart-breaking messages on Facebook and perpetrators will be given a pass by prosecutors, parents and school administrators. Internet vigilantes, including Anonymous, have begun to fight back by putting the heat on law-enforcement officials, but victims of bullying know the deck is stacked against them. It’s against the backdrop of the recent Steubenville and Nova Scotia rape scandals that the Aussie teen drama “Wasted on the Young” arrives here on DVD. The night after I screened the movie, an eerily similar case was dramatized on “Law & Order: SVU,” and not for the first time, either.
In something of a Cain and Able scenario, cool-dude Zack (Alex Russell) and his computer-obsessed stepbrother Darren (Oliver Ackland) attend the same tony Perth prep school, which is divided socially by the “popular” crowd and everyone else. With their parents away on one of their many vacations, Zack and Darren are allowed free reign of their expensive home. Darren is so preoccupied with his computer projects and surveillance system that he might not even notice his parents’ absence. Zack uses the occasion to host a party that threatens to evolve into an orgy as the drugs and booze begin to flow. At one point, the ruling clique decides it might be fun to dose the blond newcomer, Xandrie (Adelaide Clemens), gang-rape her and dump her on a sand dune to die of exposure. Turns out, Xandrie is the only girl in school who’s paid much attention to Darren and shown any interest in his off-campus pursuits. Days later, when Xandrie returns to school and the perpetrators have been cleared by the administrators, Darren decides that it’s time for his stepbrother to get his comeuppance. Freshman writer/director Ben C. Lucas lays out this incendiary scenario with great patience and an eye for avoiding the clichés of revenge dramas. If the ending doesn’t quite deliver a knockout punch, it doesn’t seek the easy path, either. Dan Freene’s frequently ominous cinematography fits the story like a glove. Not surprisingly, the star attached to the career of Adelaide Clemens already is on the rise in Hollywood. Look for her in “The Great Gatsby.”
Happy People: A Year in the Taiga
After watching four hours of Dmitry Vasyukov’s multipart documentary about fur traders living and working in one of the most isolated outposts on the planet, Werner Herzog contacted the director via Skype and made him an offer he probably could have refused, but wisely didn’t. Herzog volunteered to trim approximately 2½ hours from the film, put a more commercially viable spin on the remaining 90 minutes and add his mellifluous narrative to it. He also requested creative control over the process. Herzog had been fascinated by what he saw in Vasyukov’s source material, so it wasn’t likely that he would approach the task as an exercise in fat-cutting or a mercy-edit for a kindred documentarian. Instead, he proposed cutting and re-editing “Happy People: A Year in the Taiga” to fit the attention spans and interests of western audiences, something the re-interpreter of “Grizzly Man” and author of “Encounters at the End of the World,” “Cave of Forgotten Dreams,” “Little Dieter Needs to Fly” and “Into the Abyss” would know how to do better than anyone. Like “Grizzly Man,” “Happy People” would be comprised of another team’s footage, but informed by the humanistic sensibility of the veteran filmmaker. It works, wonderfully. Vasyukov chronicled a year’s worth of seasonal change in a region of the Siberian Taiga so distant from the so-called civilization that its nearest medical clinic and police department are 150 kilometers distant. There are no cell towers or high-tension wires to be seen in the village of Bakhtia — population 300, not counting work dogs, moose and the occasional bear – which straddles the Yenisei River. You can get there by helicopter or boat, but snowmobiles aren’t practical modes of transportation until the river freezes. Moreover, the Taiga is a place where spring and summer can be measured in minutes and hours, rather than days and months.
The men we meet in “Happy People” sustain themselves and their families by fur trapping, a profession that isn’t nearly as lucrative as it used to be. One of the most cogent points made by Herzog is that residents of Bakhtia are constantly working, from the minute they get up to the moment their heads hit a pillow, very nearly 365 days a year. (We celebrated celebrate Christmas with a family here.) That’s because there’s always something that requires attention and no one else to do it. As soon as the snow melts, for example, there’s wood that needs to be gathered and chopped in anticipation of the next winter and countless repairs to be made on property damaged by ice and cold. Soon, fathers and sons will venture into the woods once again to prepare traps, blaze trails, restock provisions in their huts and train the puppies in the art of survival. While it’s impossible not to be impressed with the grit and fortitude of the men and women who live in Bakhtia – and, perhaps, envy their happiness in life – Herzog doesn’t seem interested in romanticizing them or finding heroism in necessity. What’s more compelling to him is documenting the constant pursuit of balance between the needs of man and demands of nature. The luxuries of modernity, available to hunters almost everywhere else in the world, can’t be afforded by families that rely, instead, on centuries-old traditions and practices. Everything from dugout canoes to mosquito repellant are created by hand, using tools passed down through the generations. Convenience and distance demand that some motorized vehicles be deployed, but there are times when motors and belts are no match for the obstacles presented by a raging river or giant snow drift.
“Happy People” is a documentary everyone in a family truly can enjoy and profit from viewing. Out of necessity, not choice, the folks we meet here are required to live the life Chris McCandless sought so desperately in Sean Penn’s “Into the Wild.” They value the freedom provided by nearly complete isolation from society and are constantly on the lookout for outsiders who attempt to redraw boundaries and threaten their well-being by over-aggressive hunting and fishing. I would have loved to see “Happy People” in Blu-ray, but the DVD looks pretty terrific as it is. The package contains footage trimmed from Vasyukov’s documentary, a beautiful film that shows how nature awakes from a long Taiga winter and an interview with Herzog.
In Danger and Deep Distress, the Middleway Spells Certain Death
To get the most out of the films of Alexander Kluge, non-German viewers should possess at least a rudimentary understanding of the country’s post-war, pre-unification history. The West Germany to which he exposes us eway Spells Certain Deathis vaguely familiar, even if the characters aren’t. It’s the glimpses into life in East Germany – mostly through characters who managed to get past the wall – that add something new to our understanding of the Cold War and how people got through it. West Germany may have turned the corner on prosperity, but it largely was a country without an identity. In the east, clocks had stopped in 1946 and that’s the way the Communist Party wanted it. For a generation of filmmakers and artists who grew up after the war and wanted to distance themselves from the horrors perpetrated in the name of the Third Reich, change couldn’t come too soon. Kluge was one of the key players in the New German Cinema movement, which, in the early 1960s, argued for an open discussion of the war and its legacy, as well as the expanding capitalist juggernaut and disappearing social safety net. It took a while, but, by the mid-’70s, German directors were making waves around the world.
For the last several years, Facets Video has done lovers of quality cinema the favor of releasing refurbished editions of Kluge’s films on DVD. “In Danger and Deep Distress, the Middleway Spells Certain Death” (1974) is set in Frankfurt during a period of great physical and social upheaval. Buildings are being torn down as soon as police can evict the squatters who inhabited them. This resulted in pitched battles between cops and protestors in the streets, which, here, also were cluttered with Carnival revelers. Kluge used the occasion to tell the stories of two women from different backgrounds, who are attempting to understand and exploit the unsettled situation. One is a prostitute who can’t resist the temptation to steal from her clients, while the other is a newly minted East German spy. The latter is constantly criticized by her handler for writing long-winded reports he considers to be overly poetic and irrelevant to working-class people behind the wall. The same handler defends his viewing of pornographic films as a means to explain the decadence of the west to his superiors. It’s a miracle the wall stood as long as it did, before crumbling from embarrassment.
The Vampire Lovers: Blur-ray
Newly released into Blu-ray, “The Vampire Lovers” is typical of the horror films turned out by Hammer before the studio went south in the mid-1970s. Equal parts campy, schlocky and thrilling, the movies borrowed characters and themes popularized by Universal years earlier, and freshened genre conventions by adding garish color, over-the-top acting and Victorian settings to the mix. “The Vampire Lovers” was noteworthy for two things mostly: the presence of Ingrid Pitt, one of the leading cult goddesses of her time; and for being the first entry in Hammer’s Karnstein trilogy –“Vampire Lovers,” “Lust for a Vampire,” “Twins of Evil” – all adapted from J. Sheridan Le Fanu’s novella “Carmilla.” Published in 1872, 25 years before the Bram Stoker classic, the erotic Gothic novella traced the link between vampires and lesbians for the first time. Universal avoided that particular angle in its adaptations of the legend, but Hammer suspected the time was ripe for a sexy take on horror. Pitt plays three different characters: Marcilla, Carmilla and Mircalla Karnstein. The lesbian vampiress Marcilla is invited to stay at the castle of General Von Spielsdorf (Peter Cushing), whose pretty daughter (Pippa Steele) is far too tempting to ignore. There are other women on the menu, of course, and each is left with bite marks on a breast. After murdering a couple of people who suspect the truth, Marcilla (now Carmilla) takes refuge in the family’s ancestral mansion, where she’s pretty much a sleeping duck. The Blu-ray edition of “Vampire Lovers” looks pretty good, especially considering its age and low-budget origins, and the bonus is excellent. It includes “Feminine Fantastique: Resurrecting “The Vampire Lovers”; Ingrid Pitt’s reading of “Carmilla”; an interview with Madeline Smith; and commentary with director Roy Ward Baker, screenwriter Tudor Gates and Pitt.
The Heroin King of Baltimore: The Rise & Fall of Melvin Williams
No matter how awful the crime and brutal the punishment, it’s impossible for filmmakers to de-glamourize the rewards associated with organized crime and big-money drug dealing. After watching “American Gangster,” for example, how many viewers would have traded the relatively brief amount of time Frank Lucas spent in prison for two weeks living the life of a drug kingpin? Ditto, Tony Montana. Much the same can be said about “The Heroin King of Baltimore: The Rise & Fall of Melvin Williams,” a rudimentary documentary in which a man who amassed a fortune selling poison on street corners to kids is allowed the luxury to shape his life story the way he wants it to look. And, yes, it’s pretty fascinating stuff. Williams began his life in crime as a gambler and pool hustler in the streets of Baltimore. His uncanny skills attracted the attention of adults only too willing to take the young wizard of odds under their wing and teach him the ways of the world. According to Williams, his career as a heroin dealer began in earnest when a cop planted narcotics on him during a bust and he figured he would reap the benefits of being a dealer if everyone assumed he was a criminal, anyway. Full of moxie, Williams arranged for a steady supply of junk and cocaine and he was off to the races. At one point, Williams was such a force in Baltimore’s African-American community that city officials solicited his help in quelling the riots that followed the assassination of Martin Luther King. It gave him a sense of power no amount of money could buy. When he finally was caught and convicted, Williams took his medicine like an OG and got out in time to be immortalized on HBO’s “The Wire.” Indeed, series creator David Simon appears several times here to offer his insight into the man and his legacy. In addition to Williams’ near-soliloquies and the recollections of reporters and cops, there are some cheesy dramatizations of street life in Baltimore.
Any Day Now
It’s been 40 years since the events described in “Any Day Now” are supposed to have occurred. At the time, any possibility of legalizing same-sex marriage was so far out of the question it was tantamount to believing we’d have a gay or lesbian president by now. Perhaps the most divisive issue — and it hasn’t gone away — was the legality of LGBT adoptions. “Any Day Now” is based on an actual case, in which two gay men sought to adopt a boy with Down syndrome. The boy’s mother is an alcoholic who often leaves Marco alone in their rundown apartment or kicks him out of it when she brings home a boyfriend or trick. On one of these occasions, a drag entertainer, Rudy (Alan Cumming), rescues Marco (Isaac Leyva) from possible danger by allowing him to stay in his apartment while mom is AWOL. They develop a strong personal bond, even as Rudy is attempting to shove his gay lover, Paul (Garret Dillahunt), out of the closet in which he’s been hiding for years. It isn’t until Marco’s mother finally shows up and demands custody of the boy that Paul, a lawyer, decides to emerge and acknowledge his feelings for both of them. Although they’re something of an odd couple, Rudy and Paul make a formidable team in court. In the 1970s, though, the rights of a parent – however unsuited to the task – easily trumped a gay couple’s willingness to save a child from further harm. Watching the legal case proceed is as frustrating for viewers as it might have been for Rudy and Garret. The acting is good and the story remains relevant. The only problem I had with “Any Day Now” is that the period setting makes it seem too much like ancient history, instead of a something that could play out the same way even today.
Stuck to Your Pillow
In yet another twist on the “Heaven Can Wait” theme, Spanish export “Stuck to Your Pillow” imagines a romantic affair between the spirits of a comatose man and unhappily married woman, who can only experience love and happiness in her dreams. Lovely newcomer Paola Verdu plays the woman who’s torn between her cheap, if materialistic husband, Miguel (Jesus Marin), and the outgoing and athletic Miguel of her dreams (Susu Marin). One can’t tear himself away from his job long enough to make sure his wife is happy, while the other Miguel is free to wine and dine Patricia, if only when she’s asleep. When she isn’t, he tags along unseen and unheard, like any other ghost in the paranormal world. The first indication of where Mari Navarro’s rom-com is heading comes when Miguel shows up in Patricia’s dreams, clothed only in scuba gear and flippers. They were the last thing he was wearing before he died in a diving accident and their presence doesn’t seem to bother the dreaming damsel in emotional distress. Miguel, the husband, begins to suspect something is awry when Patricia no longer is anxious to awaken and get on with her day, meanwhile wearing the kind of smile that generally signals romantic bliss. This Miguel’s too busy to follow his wife around all day and, of course, refuses to buy her explanation of having a dream lover, so he hires a pair of inept security guards to do the job for him. Beyond that, “Stuck to Your Pillow” doesn’t offer many surprises. It is, though, harmlessly silly and relatively diverting. Audiences already attuned to frothy European rom-coms could find something here to like.
Urban myths and legends couldn’t maintain their hold on us if there weren’t some factually basis to them. Big cities would be far less interesting places to live if residents couldn’t imagine that albino alligators thrived in ancient sewer systems, devouring rats and half-dead goldfish flushed down toilets by evil little boys. Growing up, kids in our neighborhood were cautioned about sneaking into at least two different abandoned houses, believed to be haunted by the ghosts of people murdered inside them. Every city and generation has or had such places to fear. “The Wicked” takes the haunted-house scenario and adds a bit of a twist to one local legend. In the small Michigan town of Summerset, children are warned never to throw rocks at a deserted house in the forest. As the story goes, severe punishment is exacted on anyone who breaks a window, on purpose or otherwise. Not surprisingly, throwing rocks at the windows of the house has become a rite of passage for teenagers hoping to prove their courage to their cronies or dates. As “The Wicked” opens 7-year-old Amanda Drake is swept from her bedroom window by an evil wind. The girl had been petrified of just such an occurrence after returning from a rock-heaving competition with older kids in the neighborhood. Her mom assured her that the persistent rumors were bogus, but Amanda disappeared anyway. Undaunted, two groups of teens decide to test the legend further. They’re frightened by the appearance of movements inside the house, but, after finding Amanda’s teddy bear in the woods, they decide to investigate … bad idea. In his feature debut, Peter Winther effectively uses the thick woods, darkness and overall creepiness of the old house to conjure an aura of dread. The teenage girls appear to be trying out for the title of Miss Michigan Scream Queen, while the boys are required to wipe cobwebs and witch drool off of their shoulders. Even when one of the girls decides to call the local police into action, they’re too full of themselves to take the kids seriously. “The Wicked” probably wouldn’t be of much interest to older horror buffs. Teenagers, though, should recognize something of themselves in the actions of the alternately dumb/courageous/horny kids who dare to tackle the legend head-on.
Nova: Earth From Space: Blu-ray
PBS: Dangerous Edge: A Life of Graham Greene
Independent Lens: The Power Broker: Whitney Young’s Fight for Civil Right
PBS: Shelter Me
Now that NASA’s Buck Rogers era has come to an end and planet-roving robots have cornered the spotlight, it’s probably a good time for everyone to assess what’s been accomplished in more the a half-century of space exploration. The highlights of headline-grabbing missions, from Mercury to the Curiosity rover, are well known and fondly remembered. The tragedies continue to haunt us, as well. The money needed to fund the Space Shuttle has largely dried up and blown away. Before watching the “Nova” presentation, “Earth From Space,” I was ambivalent about spending more money on a program that seemed more interested in maintaining its public image than practicing pure science. Neither was I sure how I felt about financing gridlock in space and raising the odds in favor of someday getting hit by obsolete space debris.
This two-hour special not only reveals what Earth looks like from space – something that hardly qualifies as news – but it also demonstrates the validity of the “butterfly effect,” which posits that a butterfly flapping its wings in one part of the world might ultimately cause a hurricane in another part of the world. Physicists may have a less poetic definition of the phenomenon, but the effect is the same. The “Nova” team collaborated with NASA scientists to produce an episode that condenses more than 50 years’ worth of satellite data into a package that can be appreciated by anyone who knows how to read the Farmer’s Almanac. Among other things, it explains how dust blown west from the Sahara fertilizes the Amazon region; how a vast underwater “waterfall” off Antarctica helps drive ocean currents around the world; and how the sun’s heating up of the southern Atlantic gives birth to a colossally powerful hurricane. Moreover, with every new Hurricane Katrina and Sandy, we learn more about early detection of killer storms and how to sidestep mass destruction. Without satellites, that would be impossible.
When British novelist William Golding observed of Graham Greene that he was “the ultimate chronicler of 20th Century man’s consciousness and anxiety,” he effectively summarized what, years later, would be revealed in the PBS presentation, “Dangerous Edge: A Life of Graham Greene.” Few men experienced the turmoil, chaos and triumphs of that period so intimately and could write about it with such compassion and foresight. His insight into the inner-workings of governments and the human condition, along with a keen awareness of his own demons, contributed greatly to the popularity of his novels and clarity of his non-fiction. For nearly 80 years, his novels and stories have also provided fodder for the movies. Among the titles and screenplays that were adapted more faithfully than others: “Ministry of Fear,” the second “Quiet American,” “Brighton Rock,” “Travels With My Aunt,” “The Power and the Glory,” “The Third Man,” “The End of the Affair,” “Our Man in Havana,” “The Comedians” and “The Human Factor.” Among those testifying on behalf of Greene are novelists John Mortimer, John Le Carré and David Lodge; writer Paul Theroux; former CIA operative and author Frederick Hitz; and his daughter, Caroline Bourget.
“The Powerbroker: Whitney Young’s Fight for Civil Rights” argues that the civil-rights movement wouldn’t have accomplished nearly as much as it did, in as relatively short a time, if it weren’t for the aggressive behind-the-scenes maneuvering of such quiet leaders as Whitney Young. At a time when Martin Luther King Jr. was the public face of the movement, rallying the foot soldiers and pushing a progressive agenda, the head of the National Urban League lobbied the movers, shakers and big-money boys of corporate America for the funds and jobs necessary to move forward before and after King’s death. He also was a confidante ofpresidents Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon. “The Powerbroker” examines the pivotal events of the civil rights era – Brown v Board of Education, the March on Washington, the Vietnam War — through the eyes of a man whose accomplishments remain largely unacknowledged, even today. This is as fitting a eulogy as any.
Judging from the comments found on the PBS website for “Cliffhanger,” it is the rare “Frontline” episode that inspires the wrath of Democrats as much as Republicans … well, almost. “Cliffhanger” attempts to make sense out of the hideous debate in Washington over the nation’s deficit and debt crises. It was broadcast on the same night as President Obama’s State of the Union message and almost nothing has changed in the stalemate since then. The American public continues to feel the pinch of austerity budgets and sequestering, while politicians refuse to make any reasonable compromises, except when the trims inconvenience them. If Shakespeare had written the script for “Cliffhanger,” it could be found under “tragedy” and “comedy.” The episode was informed by interviews with House Speaker John Boehner, White House economic adviser Gene Sperling and Obama’s former Chief of Staff William Daley. It also details the dissension within the Republican Party over how deep the cuts should go and why they should act like adults.
“Shelter Me” takes the position that people who want to add a pet to their family should consider adopting one of the many cats and dogs relegated to shelters, before succumbing to the temptation of purchasing an animal whose pedigree can be traced back to Noah’s Ark. Besides acquiring a pet that will be eternally grateful for your kindness and generosity, you will reap Brownie points for saving it from imminent extinction. That was the fate of more than 3 million perfectly good cats and dogs last year. Hosted by actress Katherine Heigl, “Shelter Me” promotes the many positive stories of rescue and redemption for the animals. It describes how shelter pets are helping returning war veterans cope with PTSD; how women prison inmates are training shelter dogs to become service animals for people with disabilities; and the journeys of two stray dogs, from the day they are picked up on the streets and brought to the shelter, until the day they’re adopted.
Friends: The Complete First/Second Season: Blu-ray
GMC: If You Really Love Me
Nickelodeon Favorites: Once Upon a Rhyme
Last fall, when Warner Home Video released its complete-series package of “Friends” in Blu-ray, it was priced anywhere between $192 and $274. The producers went back to the original 35mm negatives for the hi-def upgrade, adding a 1.78:1 video presentation and Dolby Digital 5.1 surround track, while they were at it. While the restoration and bonus material didn’t please techier critics, it was better than previous efforts. The 21-disc set was timed for holiday giving, so those who only received coal in their stocking, instead, will be happy that the seasons are being dealt out a la carte, with most extras included. As logic dictates, the first two seasons are the first to arrive separately, which will come as good news to anyone who missed the pilot episode or came to the program later in its run. Executive producers Kevin S. Bright, Marta Kauffman and David Crane provide the commentary on the pilot, offering insight into how the show was developed and tweaked by the creators and network, alike. There’s also a quick-reference guide to cameos and guest stars.Several of the episodes are presented uncut and extended, with previously unseen dialogue and scenes (not as many as the DVD package, though). The second-season discs add the “smelly cat” video.
I have no idea how such things work, but I find it odd that the women in Gospel Music Channel movies get away with wearing the tightest and most provocative clothing on basic cable. Considering the faith-based messages typically delivered in the final scenes, there must be some correlation between temptation, redemption and forgiveness. “If You Really Love Me” is based on an original stage play written by Cas Sigers (“A Cross To Bear”) and is directed by Roger Melvin (“She’s Still Not Our Sister”). It helps explain the laugh track attached to the film. The story revolves around three sisters, all of whom are required to overcome obstacles in their personal, family and religious lives. “If You Really Love Me” stars Eva Marcille, Keith Robinson, Reagan Gomez-Preston, Mel Jackson and Caryn Ward.
“Nickelodeon Favorites: Once Upon a Rhyme” contains more the two hours of material from some of your pre-school child’s favorite shows. The newest collection from Nickelodeon is comprised of “Who’s Gonna Play the Big Bad Wolf” (“Bubble Guppies”), “Umi City Treasure Hunt” (“Team Umizoomi”), “Royal Wedding” (“The Fresh Beat Band”), “Dora Saves the Three Little Piggies” (“Dora the Explorer”), “Save the Cow Who Jumped Over the Moon” and “Save the Unicorn” (“The Wonder Pets!”) and “Little Red Riding Blue” (“Blue’s Clues”). They’re not Mother Goose, but most kids won’t know the difference.
Hub: Kaijudo: Rise of the Duel Masters: Dragonstrike
Bruce Lee Double Feature: The Big Boss/Fist of Fury
Anyone who’s seen that nasty little piece of slasher business called “Father’s Day” might be interested in the follow-up from the Canadian film collective Astron-6. “Manborg” is yet another takedown of 1980s culture, such as it was under President Reagan’s watch, starring a warrior who’s half-man, half-machine and 100 percent cheeseball. Manborg is a soldier who was killed in the first war against the forces of hell, then resurrected as humanity’s last hope against the villainous Count Draculon. While Manborg resembles a cross between Robocop and Snake Plissken, his sidekicks take after demented Ninja Turtles. It’s the primitive special sci-fi effects that really take the cake, though. “Manborg” is the kind of movie that can be enjoyed by genre buffs and those who think they could have created better monsters in high school shop courses. It’s nice to have filmmakers like Astron-6 around to remind us that the difference between a DIY gem and $100-million turkey is the amount of imagination invested in the project.
“Kaijudo: Rise of the Duel Masters: Dragonstrike” extends the “Kaijudu” franchise further into the DVD marketplace, after debuting on the Hub network. It’s yet another animated action series in which Earth kids interact with monsters from outer space and other dimensions. Here, 14-year-old Raiden ”Ray” Pierce-Okamoto is battling racist bullies in own backyard, when he accidentally summons a creature from the dark side. After that happens, it’s a royal rumble to decide who’s in charge of the planet. The DVD adds a pair of commentaries, deleted and alternate scenes, bloopers, backgrounders, interviews and a Q&A from the premiere.
There’s never been a shortage of Bruce Lee movies in circulation in any video format and now Shout!Factory has begun to roll them out in double-feature packages. In DVD, they look as good as they ever have, perhaps better, considering how beat up they were on the screen. Some have even made the leap to Blu-ray. In “The Big Boss” (1971), Lee moves in with cousins to work at an ice factory, but only after promising not to be involved with fighting. When members of his family begin disappearing after meeting with the management, he breaks his vow and takes on the Big Boss. In “Fist of Fury” (1972), Lee is a martial arts student who returns to his former school to find that his teacher has been murdered. Set in Shanghai in the 1930s, the Japanese are in control and students of one of their Bushido schools are responsible.
“The Way of the Dragon” (1972) finds Lee in Rome, where family members own a restaurant that mobsters are attempting to control. In the thrilling climax, set in Colosseum, Lee is required to fight Chuck Norris. “Game of Death” (1973) Lee plays a martial-arts movie star who takes on a syndicate of drug dealers. This is the movie in which Lee battles Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.