By Gary Dretzka Dretzka@moviecitynews.com
The DVD Wrapup
The Extraordinary Adventures of Adele Blanc-Sec: BluRay
When it comes to adapting comic books and graphic novels for the big screen – especially those targeted at younger audiences — there’s a lot to be said for cutting to the chase and letting what’s wonderful about the story speak for itself, as is the case with Luc Besson’s fanciful “The Extraordinary Adventures of Adele Blanc-Sec.” CGI technology allows for directors to re-create with some exactitude the graphic-novel experience, with its odd-sized frames, explosive color palettes, noir textures and movements that don’t conform to the laws of gravity, but, unless one is familiar with the source material, the conceit is lost on most viewers. When genre nerds already attuned to an author’s quirky rhythms and personal vision approve of the adaptation – as is the case with Frank Miller’s “Sin City,” “300” and animated “Dark Knight” – rewards are there to be reaped. Likewise, “Persepolis” and “Road to Perdition” were embraced by niche audiences and Academy Award nominating committees. By contrast, Steven Spielberg’s stop-motion 3D adaptation of the Tintin stories and Besson’s “Adele Blanc-Sec,” based on comics popular in Europe, failed to ripple to the water in the U.S. “Tintin” failed attract adults and children in numbers typically associated with Spielbergian adventures, while the producers of “Adele Blanc-Sec” restricted their theatrical campaign to foreign markets. (“Tintin was released first in Europe, scoring big numbers there but tanking here. Along with solid home-video sales, the overseas response explains the commitment to a Peter Jackson-directed sequel, in 2015.)
Both movies are set during the early years of the 20th Century and feature reporters as their intrepid protagonists, although very little is committed to paper. As opposed to “Tintin,” Besson decided that “Adele Blanc-Sec” should play out in the live-action format, with a largely straight-forward narrative. There’s plenty of CGI in the fantasy sequences, but much of the film was shot on location, in Egypt, and at easily recognizable Parisian landmarks. As so delightfully played by the long and lean redhead, Louise Bourgoin (“The Girl From Monaco”), Our Heroine is a quick-witted and seemingly fearless “adventuress.” Adele was created before the first of Spielberg’s “Indiana Jones” installments, so, no matter how much she resembles that estimable character, no one can accuse author Jacques Tardi or Besson of plagiary. Instead, her bravado and well-heeled appearance likely were influenced to various degrees by fictional characters Arsene Lupin, Becassine, Amelia Peabody and Tardi’s own Adieu Brindavoine. Bourgoin describes her character as a combination of Lupin, Indiana Jones and Sherlock Holmes. If American audiences need other points of reference, the most obvious would be the “Pirates of the Caribbean” and “Night at the Museum” franchises. With directorial credits that include “La Femme Nikita,” “The Fifth Element,” “The Professional” and “Angel-A,” however, Besson is no stranger to fantasy, action and drama.
Here, Adele begins her extraordinary adventure at the Pyramids of Giza on the back of a reluctant camel. She is attempting to retrieve the mummy of a revered scientist, who died several millennia ago, and bring it back with her Europe. Tipped to the nature of her quest, the grotesque archaeologist Dieuleveult – played by a thoroughly unrecognizable Mathieu Amalric –follows his rival to the booby-trapped tomb, nearly ruining her unlikely mission. Adele has been led to believe that a Parisian necromancer, Professor Espérandieu (Jacky Nercessian), might be able to revive the mummy, so he can pull her sister, Agatha (Laure de Clermont), out of a concussion-induced coma. And, here’s where things go gonzo for her. Coincidental to Adele returning to Paris, the professor has been imprisoned for re-animating a pterodactyl and allowing it to escape his laboratory. For this, he faces a date with the guillotine. Even more coincidentally, an exhibit of mummified pharaohs is taking place at a Paris museum and the professor’s spell awakens them, as well. One of the more learned of the emancipated mummies actually proves to be the one who holds the key to Agatha’s recovery.
As confusing as this summary may sound, Adele’s adventure plays out in a way kids in their early teens and their parents can understand. Bourgoin is the real surprise here, even if she’s required to share the spotlight with the special-effects wizards, set designers and wardrobe mavens. Curiously, Besson decided it might be fun to add a short scene in which Adele disrobes in front of the mummy, before stepping into a bathtub. To ensure the widest possible exposure to the otherwise PG-worthy material, the folks at Shout! Factory excised several seconds from the scene, sparing Americans any embarrassment over watching Adele’s wash her perky breasts in the company of their children. (They can be witnessed in all their brief glory by subscribers to the Mr. Skin website.) The American distributor also elected to make the dubbed English track the first option for viewers. It’s reasonably well-done and, for purists, the arguably more interesting French-language track available is easily accessible. The disc is better for both decisions, I think. Besson is known for his visual acuity and the Blu-ray edition easily handles the shifts between the blinding sun of the Egyptian desert, dark shadows of the tomb, dimly lit Parisian interiors and vibrancy of life in the streets. Also added are a few short deleted scenes and an informative making-of featurette. – Gary Dretzka
Imagine a movie inspired in equal measure by “La Dolce Vita,” “Here Comes Honey Boo Boo” and Sara Goldfarb’s fever dreams in “Requiem for a Dream” and it might look pretty much like Matteo Garrone’s “Reality.” It’s that strange. Garrone previously mapped the dark side of Naples in the brutal gangland drama, “Gomorrah.” He returns to relate the fractured fairy tale of a Neopolitan fishmonger whose dream of joining the cast of “Big Brother” comes dangerously close to a reality. As a natural-born comedian, who supports his family by selling all things aquatic, Luciano (Aniello Arena) makes the salmon-tossers at Seattle’s Pike Place Market look like amateurs. At the urging of his daughter, Luciano auditions for the upcoming season of “Big Brother.” Despite the fact that he’s 20 years older and several times less attractive than the other candidates, he somehow makes it through the first round. He goes to Rome for the finals, where the competition is even tougher. Even so, Luciano convinces himself that he aced the exam and the only thing standing between him and fame is a phone call. When he fails to hear back from the show immediately, Luciano assumes the real final test is yet to come and it will take place in the plaza in which he sells fish.
As the hours and days pass him by, Luciano begins to imagine that scouts from the show are lurking behind every booth. Like Mrs. Goldfarb, though, the longer he anticipates fame, the crazier he gets. Garrone surrounds Luciano with a colorful cavalcade of freaks that wouldn’t have escaped the attention of Federico Fellini or producers of American reality shows. Among Luciano’s family members, only he and his wife weigh less than Honey Boo Boo’s corpulent Mama June. Garrone takes us to a wedding, during which a reality-show winner swoops down from the rafters, high-fiving the guests and inspiring more dreams of TV-born celebrity-hood. I don’t know where Garrone found Arena, because his IMDB.com resume lists only a single credit. He couldn’t have picked a better actor to play Luciano if Fellini, himself, came down from heaven and introduced them. In Arena’s hands, he’s the Ron Popeil of fishmongering and, as a victim of the pursuit of fame, as tragicomic a character as any since Burstyn was nominated for an Oscar in a similarly heart-churning role. The many amateurs hand-picked for the occasion are wonderful as themselves. The Blu-ray adds deleted scenes, interviews, making-of and background pieces and a profile of Arena, who, as it turns out, remains an inmate in an Italian prison. Twenty years ago, he was convicted of being a Camorra hitman, so, when his working day was over, Arena spent the night in jail. Amazing. – Gary Dretzka
The Odd Angry Shot: Blu-ray
Even though the Vietnam War played out on televisions across the United States, very Americans were made aware of the contributions and sacrifices of troops from South Korea, Thailand, the Philippines, New Zealand and Australia. Korea, alone, buried 5,099 of its soldiers and marines, while another 10,962 were wounded and 4 reported missing. My guess is that very few, if any of their names were mentioned in dispatches from American reporters gathered there. If more people are aware of the Aussie contingent, it’s probably because the fighters shared the same bars in Saigon and a common passion for beer. Released in 1979, “The Odd Angry Shot” preceded the 1986 release of Oliver Stone’s “Platoon,” which it resembles. Based on William L. Nagle’s war novel, Tom Jeffrey’s film describes the activities of a special-forces unit from shortly before deployment to just after its return to “the world.” The title reflects the belief that the war most soldiers experienced involved long bouts of monotony punctuated by intense, frantic bursts of action. It was only the odd angry shot that could kill or get one killed in combat. The same ratio of boredom to chaos holds throughout the movie, whose most recognizable star is Bryan Brown. Because the Aussies are bereft anyone of color, including Aboriginals, director Tom Jeffrey could avoid any discussion of racial tension in the ranks. Unlike “Platoon,” the soldiers aren’t divided by one’s choice of inebriants or political points of views. It allows for more time spent drinking Foster’s, swapping barbs and reading Dear John letters. The only black soldiers in the picture are the American GI’s the Aussies meet on leave and at a barbecue, during which bets are taken on a fight to the death between the Yanks’ scorpion and their guests’ tarantula. The Vietnamese are represented by VC corpses and half-naked B-girls. The Aussies are represented as the congenial blokes they tend to be, whether found in war zones or on a Sydney beach. They see action, but mostly in sporadic bursts. It’s not that kind of movie.
Even if “The Odd Angry Shot” doesn’t wallow in politics, the soldiers fully understand that the war isn’t popular back home and they shouldn’t expect any welcome-home parades. Unlike the growing legion of disgruntled draftees in Vietnam, the guys in this elite unit consider themselves to be warriors, first, and are determined not let moralistic distractions get them killed. Even so, none of them signed on to an assignment for which none of their superiors were likely to accept any blame or give them credit for small victories. Worse, perhaps, many of them would be shunned by veterans groups and politicians back home, if only as way to distance themselves further from unpopular government policies. Americans who fought in Vietnam were spared that indignity, at least. The actors trained and the picture was shot at the rugged Canungra Army Land Warfare Center in south-east Queensland. (The Australian military reportedly denied the same privilege to the producers of “Apocalypse Now.”) In addition to the new high-def transfer, the Blu-ray benefits from commentary with Jeffrey, producer Sue Milliken and actor Graeme Blundell and the featurette, “Stunts Down Under,” with Buddy Joe Hooker. Fans of Ozploitation should know that this title won’t satisfy their gratuitous sex and graphic violence. – Gary Dretzka
Errors of the Human Body
There’s no disguising the filmmakers who influenced director Eron Sheean and writer Shane Danielson in the creation of their first feature, a nifty medical thriller invitingly titled, “Errors of the Human Body.” David Cronenberg and Michael Crichton’s creative DNA informs every frame of the German/American co-production. In it, brilliant Canadian geneticist Geoff Burton (Michael Eklund) moves to Dresden, home of the Max Planck Institute of Molecular Cell Biology and Genetics. It’s here that he hopes to continue research into a cure for the hideous disease that claimed the life of his infant son, who literally was suffocated by tumors. Haunted by his inability to help the boy while he was alive, Geoff is obsessed with preventing the deaths of other children. Also studying at the institute is his former intern, Rebekka (Karoline Herfurth), who is deeply involved with a project she hopes will result in the development of a human regenerative gene. Anyone familiar with the subgenre knows that messing with the building blocks of life frequently results in greater human suffering, and that’s what happens here. Her rival for Geoff’s attention and a possible Nobel Prize is an arrogant researcher, who resembles a clone of “Nosferatu” star Max Schreck.
While they’re battling each other for leverage, control and prestige, Geoff’s anxiety over finding a solution any time soon causes him to inject himself with one of their treatments. Self-experimentation is never a good idea in the movies and his reaction to the drug isn’t very pretty. “Errors of the Human Body” builds a palpable level of suspense, as institute bureaucrats and self-serving scientists push the research teams to come up with a product that could bring big money to the laboratory, as well as something that incidentally might serve mankind. Dresden, home to the Planck, is an apt, if unexpected place to set a movie financed by American interests. Germany’s “jewel box” city was unmercifully targeted by RAF and USAAF planes, carrying powerful bombs and incendiary devices. The city center had to be completely rebuilt, with some buildings assuming their previous historical stature and others drawn to accommodate the drab whims of Soviet architectural policy. Much of the movie was shot, as well, inside the institute. This ensures an added a level of authenticity and institutional claustrophobia that might have been lost on a soundstage. The background featurette includes an imaginative, if disturbing Q&A between a lab rat and a mouth and tongue detached from a make-believe skull. – Gary Dretzka
The Guillotines: Blu-ray
Western audiences may be more than a tiny bit confused by the title of this sprawling historical epic directed by Andrew Lau Wai-Keung (“Infernal Affairs”). The only resemblance between a French executioner’s tool and the emperor’s secret assassination squad, the Guillotines, is the razor-sharp blade used to put a swift and bloody end to enemies of the state. Here, it takes the form of a circular disc, which acts like a Frisbee and has prongs that attach themselves to a victim’s neck and swiftly decapitates him. In “The Guillotines,” Qing Dynasty Emperor Yong Zheng sics the death squad on a messianic bandit, Huang Xiaoming, and his white-robed followers, who take refuge among the hated Han Chinese. When a younger emperor ascends to the throne, he decides that modern weaponry supplied by the British will kill more of his enemies, faster, than the Guillotines’ blades. At some point, the emperor also decides to turn the cannons on his own warriors.
Lau further clouds the broth by adding flashbacks and other narrative gimmicks to the mix. And, that’s the primary knock against “The Guillotines.” Without a scorecard, it’s sometimes difficult to get a firm grip on who’s doing what to whom. What Lau has captured, though, is the frenzy of war, unvarnished brutality of combat and absurdity of standing up to artillery, rifles and bombs with swords, bows and arrows. It makes “The Guillotines” one of the more graphically violent Chinese movies I’ve seen. The Blu-ray looks good, but it’s the audio that will blow viewers out of their chairs if their speakers aren’t dialed down in anticipation of the cannon fire. The interviews and making-of material are, as usual, exhaustive and infrequently enlightening. – Gary Dretzka
Kim Chapiron and Jeremie Delon’s horrific study of life at a Youth Correctional Center, supposedly in Montana, may be constructed from bits and pieces left over from dozens of other prison movies, but, they proved sufficiently sturdy to contain the madness that permeates “Dog Pound.” What differentiates it from previous films in the genre is the sense of hopelessness with which viewers will be left after the last cell door slams shut. It’s magnified by the knowledge that several of the actors, all of whom are completely credible in their roles, were serving time in actual correctional facilities during production and some have failed to maintain their freedom. I couldn’t tell the pros from the cons. “Dog Pound,” whose title should be self-explanatory, focuses on three or four inmate cliques, as well as a cabal of guards and administrators with a decided Us-vs.-Them mindset. If there’s an ounce of decency or compassion expended by any of the primary characters, it’s only in brief humorous interludes or out of pity for one outrage or another. These short displays of humanity are balanced almost immediately, however, by acts of revenge, rage, sadism and bullying.
As portrayed, the guards and administrators wouldn’t have had any trouble finding work in a camp or prison run by the SS. It could be argued, though, that any overt show of liberality on their part would soon be rewarded with the monkeys taking over the zoo. If there’s anyone who comes close to being a protagonist here, it’s 17-year-old Butch. He was assigned to a less rigid facility when he attacked a guard, whose frequent use of brutality ultimately would be uncovered and punished. It became a moot point, however, when Butch was transferred to the Enola Vale facility and immediately became the target of bullies. Rather than risk being ostracized for “snitching,” Butch decides to exact his own form of justice on the perpetrators. (Another boy bullied by the same thugs pleads to be left in “the hole,” so as to avoid another fearsome thrashing.) We’d like to cheer Butch on, but already foresee the cycle of violence into which he’s just condemned himself.
I’m no expert on prisons or youth correctional facilities, even if I’ve seen dozens of movies in which they provide the background for drama. Therefore, it’s impossible for me to attest one way or the other to the veracity of Chapiron’s presentation. It’s safe to assume, I suppose, that there’s more of an emphasis on rehabilitation in places like Enola Vale than at state or federal prisons, where that concept has been rendered ancient history. There’s precious little rehabilitation going on in “Dog Pound,” either, beyond that provided ineptly by a rage counselor and a gym coach who favors dodge-ball to therapy. The producers freely acknowledge their debt to Alan Clarke’s 1977 BBC teleplay and subsequent 1979 movie, “Scum.” Because “Scum” takes place in a notorious British borstal, it begs the question as to why the French-Canadian co-production was deliberately set in an American facility, instead of a neutral location. New Brunswick is a long way from Montana, literally and figuratively. (The 1983 drama “Bad Boys,” also based on “Scum,” was set and shot in Chicago.) No matter, because, despite winning a prominent prize at the 2010 Tribeca festival, it was destined to find a home on DVD, instead of theaters. That fact doesn’t make the movie any less noteworthy, merely more accessible to viewers who enjoy a good prison drama. Parents of children in danger of following a path that could lead to incarceration might consider renting a copy for a family night at the movies. It might have the effect of scaring the delinquency out of them. – Gary Dretzka
Seconds: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
It wasn’t difficult for an adventurous American filmmaker to find himself standing alone, ahead of the curve, in the mid-1960s. John Cassavetes and other pioneers of independent and experimental cinema were operating in uncharted territory and audiences were limited pretty much to New York, Boston, San Francisco and the odd college campus. The same audiences that embraced the various New Waves and existential film movements abroad were slow to warm to directors attempting the same sorts of things here. Before accepting the challenge of adapting David Ely’s novel, “Seconds,” John Frankenheimer had long been associated with the live-television scene based in New York City. He hit Hollywood running with such edgy, issue-oriented pictures as “The Young Savages,” “The Manchurian Candidate” and “Seven Days in May,” as well as action dramas “Birdman of Alcatraz” and “The Train.” What set him apart from the pack, though, was his embrace of unexpected, European-inspired camera angles; noir-informed cinematography; existential themes; and intimately rendered personal encounters. “Seconds,” which showcased all of these elements, would prove to be one of the most controversial and divisive titles of the decade.
Equal parts horror, sci-fi, social commentary and Faustian drama, “Seconds” tells the story of Arthur Hamilton (John Randolph), a successful New York banker who’s been in a comfortable rut for more years than he can recall. He belongs to an easily recognized species, found mostly in large cities east of the Mississippi River and loudly ridiculed by free-thinkers, satirists and liberal sociologists. Benjamin and his emotionally estranged wife live in a Scarsdale home that meets the requirements of his upper-middle-class lifestyle, but is far too large for their current needs. If they even come close to making love, it would simply be a failed exercise in going through the motions, hardly worth the time it takes to disrobe. Their conformist lifestyle and traditional beliefs would face a mighty challenge in the second half of the decade. Ironically, it would be their sons and daughters who led the charge by joining radical student groups or splitting for San Francisco on daddy’s credit card.
One night, out of the blue, Benjamin gets a call from a college buddy he’d nearly forgotten, demanding that he meet the next day with a representative from a top-secret organization. Once he arrives at its clandestine headquarters, he’s given a cup of tea that causes him to fall asleep and experience a series of frightening hallucinations. In one, he smothers a much younger woman in a hotel room. By the time he awakes, his fate has been sealed. Benjamin must agree to undergo a fountain-of-youth transformation or face the prospect of being charged in the death of a woman he’s never met. After he awakens from his operation and the bandages are removed, we see that he’s been given the body of an athlete, the face of Rock Hudson, a solid reputation as an artist and the unlikely name of Antiochus “Tony” Wilson. Benjamin’s new home is a beachfront cottage in Malibu, where grey-flannel suits and attitudes are prohibited by law. In short order, he also meets an attractive young woman (Salome Jens), who, among other things, invites him to join her and a group of nude pre-hippies in a giant barrel, stomping grapes. While Benjamin/Wilson relishes the opportunity to enjoy some free love with his sybarite girlfriend, his traditional moral code draws the line at orgies. The generational disconnect scrambles his brain to the point where he chooses to test the limits of his contract with the organization. For a banker, this was an uncharacteristically risky decision and it didn’t pay any dividends.
Once scorned, “Seconds” long ago transcended its cult-classic assignation. It is now is considered to be one of the most prescient and influential movies of the period. In 1966, however, the response was largely negative, even at Cannes. Many viewers were repulsed by a scene in which an actual rhinoplasty operation is performed, while the visualized effects of psychotropic drugs made others dizzy. Even if the intriguingly staged nude grape-grope was excised from the film for its American release, most of the other west-coast attitudes on display were considered fair game by New York-based pundits and talk-show hosts. Critics and viewers used to seeing Hudson in his fluffy rom-com persona also had a difficult time buying him as a character at his wits’ end from existential torment. By the time Johnny Carson abandoned New York and moved to Malibu, not far from Benjamin/Wilson’s pad, none of this would be considered even remotely foreign. The new video transfer for the Criterion Blu-ray really makes James Wong Howe’s innovative cinematography come alive. Also included in the package is a new interview with Alec Baldwin, who was friendly with the director; a documentary featuring interviews with Evans Frankenheimer and Salome Jens; a visual essay by film scholars R. Barton Palmer and Murray Pomerance; archival interviews with Frankenheimer and Hudson; an audio commentary with the director, taped in 1997; and an illustrated booklet featuring an essay by critic David Sterritt. – Gary Dretzka
The Damned: Classics of French Cinema: Blu-ray
A few weeks ago, while preparing to review “Phantom,” I spent some time on the Internet sampling lists of other writers’ favorite submarine movies. As far as I can recall, none contained Rene Clement’s brilliant World War II drama, “The Damned.” If I had drawn up a list at the time, mine wouldn’t have acknowledged the French film, either. For viewers on this side of the pond, even those who consider themselves to be Francophiles, “The Damned” seemed to be a movie that was destined to remain “lost.” In 1947, hardly anyone wanted to see a movie in which Nazis weren’t depicted as the despicable agents of evil many of them were. Filmmakers in France, Britain, the Soviet Union and U.S. had their own stories of heroism and patriotic ardor to tell, after all, and Allied censors weren’t about to clear a movie that seemed to argue that Nazis could be human, too, for exhibition before audiences that might sympathize with the characters. Far from being an apologia or magnet for sympathy, “The Damned” more closely resembles “Das Boot,” which did attract a wide, enthusiastic response.
Set during the closing days of the war, Clement’s film describes what might have happened aboard a U-boat carrying a high-ranking Nazi general, his mistress and her Italian industrialist husband; a sleazy Gestapo commandant and his hoodlum boy-toy; a French journalist, who collaborated with the Germans; a Scandinavian scientist and a teenager described as his daughter; and, of course, officers and sailors who have been led to believe the war is still winnable. It’s not, but they won’t learn how badly they’ve been deceived until much later in the movie. The vessel has disembarked from Occupied Norway, on its way to South America, where these true-believers actually believe they can build a Fourth Reich on the distant philosophical ashes of the third. This wasn’t as outlandish a dream as it seems today, considering the fascist tendencies of South American politicians and militarists, alongside the countries’ need for cash, military training and fresh ideas in the ongoing crusade to crush impoverished peasants and communist agitators.
It doesn’t take long before the submarine is spotted by British destroyers and attacked with depth charges. One of them causes the general’s mistress to suffer a concussion and, of course, he demands she be repaired. Not having a medical officer on the vessel, he orders the captain to make a stop at a French port, where they kidnap a doctor and, again, set sail for Argentina. The doctor, Guilbert, knows that he isn’t likely to be freed and shipped back to France, with a thank-you note from Hilda the Whore. So, he buys time by declaring that ship is in imminent danger of becoming a floating petri dish for killer germs and only he can save them from an epidemic. It instantly makes Guilbert the closest thing there is to a protagonist on “The Damned,” as he also is able to win the confidence of the sub’s radio operator, who knows where a dingy is hid. While the doctor’s fate may remain in doubt throughout the movie, we’re pretty certain plans for a new Reich aren’t going to fly.
To maintain suspense, Clement did something very unusual for a movie made almost immediately after the war. Instead of making the Nazis dumber and more inept as the story moves forward, while also creating a timetable for a heroic escape or rescue, he raises the ante by allowing the officers to demonstrate the same complexity and survival instinct that allowed them to make it this far in the war. Meanwhile, the rank-and-file sailors only want to go back home and salvage what’s left in their lives. They sense, they’re being lied to by everyone from their captain to the passengers. Interviews included in the bonus package describe how Clement maintained the claustrophobic aura throughout, while building a realistic mechanical environment. “The Damned” has been fully restored for its Blu-ray debut. Having been lost for so long a time, however, it isn’t surprising that some sequences fare more poorly than others. Only a perfectionist would find room to complain. The package also offers an excellent making-of documentary and a commentary/conversation between French and German film scholars. – Gary Dretzka
There’s no question of the place George Stevens’ exquisitely made and still-relevant Western, “Shane,” holds in the Hollywood Pantheon. Not only is it considered to be one of the most beautiful and influential movies ever filmed, but it practically defined what it meant to be a mensch in the Old West, as the open range gave way to farms, ranches and homesteaders. In Alan Ladd, Shane was a gunslinger who dared to hang up his holster in anticipation of a day when only outlaws and lawmen carried six-shooters. When confronted by the forces of evil, however, his moral code was flexible enough to allow him to pick up his gun and cut the bullies down to size. It would have been far less problematical for him if a system was in place that caused killers and crooks to fear the law as much as they feared losing a split second on their draw. In “Shane,” it was difficult to determine with any certainty in whose name the local sheriff served and which laws he decided to enforce. The Marshall Dillons of the west wouldn’t make it to northern Wyoming for several more years, leaving it to honorable men to protect the sheep from the wolves. In this way, “Shane” was of a piece with “High Noon” (1952) and “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence” (1962). It would reverberate, as well, in such Clint Eastwood Westerns as “Pale Rider” and “High Plains Drifter.” If that was all there was to admire in “Shane,” it still would be a heck of movie. Instead, it would teach other lessons, as well.
Nonetheless, I think it’s fair to wonder how Stevens’ seemingly ageless standoff between good and evil, white and black, change and tradition might registers with viewers whose preferred vision of the Old West is the one advanced in “Rooster Cogburn,” “True Grit,” HBO”s “Dead Wood” and “Blazing Saddles,” a comedy that honors and satirizes “Shane” in equal measure. Do the moral questions raised by Stevens and screenwriter A.B. Guthrie Jr. still resonate with people raised on a steady diet of Tarantino and Scorsese? In a world colored by shades of gray is there a place where white and black hats can determine a man’s virtue? Would Brandon De Wilde’s portrayal of the wildly inquisitive Joey Starrett and his incessant, “Shane … come back,” win the hearts of today’s jaded audiences or be deemed a giant pain in the ass? If a few more guys wearing white hats were gunned down by sociopathic gunslingers in the final reel of several decades’ worth of Westerns, would the NRA be so quick to advocate that teachers, principals and janitors be armed to prevent violence in our schools?
Those are some of the questions that came to my mind while watching “Shane” in the splendid new Blu-ray edition from Paramount. I also was mesmerized by the majesty of the Tetons Range, which served as the background for the movie. (Today, the same land has been divided up by cocaine cowboys, Hollywood action stars with too much money, hedge-fund crooks and lawyers who eat barbed wire for breakfast. Forget the Rykers, the Starretts would need Ladd, Eastwood and John Wayne to stand up to these guys.) It’s interesting to learn from the commentary track that at least two key through-lines were abandoned in the production process. The most obvious one involves the sexual tension that slowly builds between Shane and Joe Starrett’s wife (Jean Arthur). Although an illicit attachment wasn’t allowed to develop, the sparks might have inspired the more dangerous liaison in “Jubal,” also set in Jackson Hole. The other would have expanded on Joey’s obsession with guns and Shane’s reputation as a quick-draw artist. As Joey grew fonder of the newcomer, he would have turned to him as a father figure, instead of the role model he became. Both scenarios, though, probably would have required one of the two men to be killed, one way or another, and the diminishment of Shane’s honorable stature. It’s difficult to imagine that happening. Throw in some truly gorgeous Technicolor cinematography by that year’s Oscar winner, Loyal Griggs, and you’ve got one humdinger of a Blu-ray title. No matter how you look at it, “Shane” translates into two hours well spent. The commentary track is provided by George Stevens Jr. and producer Ivan Moffat, both of whom were in Wyoming for the shoot. – Gary Dretzka
The World Before Her
My Amityville Horror
If there is a God and He/She/It isn’t too busy creating life in other solar systems, this would be a wonderful time to declare He/She/It’s feelings on such 21st Century conceits as killing for peace, murdering for country, flying airplanes into buildings to honor the Lord, reproduction rights, same-sex love, the power of prayer and what those stories in the Old Testament really mean. Earth appears to be on a collision course, not with an asteroid, but with religious extremists hell-bent on destroying the planet so they can get to heaven before their neighbors. Watching Nisha Pahuja’s remarkable documentary, “The World Before Her,” I got the distinct impression that the world’s problems won’t be solved with divine intervention, however. With a tight focus on the second most-populous country on Earth, Pahuja describes a cultural chasm so wide and deep that it’s impossible not to fear the worst for everyone within 10,000 miles of the subcontintent. In fact, India’s Hindu population is showing signs of following the lead of Shiite and Sunni fundamentalists who pray to the same God, but can’t wait to kill each other when Allah isn’t watching. Israel’s fundamentalist minority now effectively holds the reins on the country’s democracy, just as America’s Christian right has taken control of the Republican Party and stalemated our nation’s future.
According to “The World Before Her,” India’s undeclared war on women has reached the point where the millions of girls who weren’t aborted or killed at birth are being asked to express their desire for equal rights by choosing between fundamentalism and the lure of consumerism. Pahuja was given extraordinary access to both a “beauty boot camp,” during which a male instructor trains teenagers to compete in the Miss India pageant, and a militant Hindu fundamentalist camp for girls, at which they learn the basics of weaponry, bomb building and martial arts. They also are required to pray and study cultural beliefs, but indoctrination is what mostly happens. Pahuja is the first filmmaker given permission to film inside a Durga Vahini camp for women followers of the Vishva Hindu Parishad, which considers Muslims and Christians to be its enemy. The number of women we meet in each camp is about even and their motivations are remarkably similar. The women and girls desperately want to escape poverty and being dominated, abused and marginalized by societal norms, their fathers and brothers, and government restrictions. Pahuja doesn’t appear to take sides, allowing her subjects to speak openly and without challenge.
Watching the women prepare for the Miss India might not lead one to believe they’re enduring the abuse dished out by their coach simply in the name of equal rights, but, for most of them, it’s their only ticket out of dead-end futures. Winning not only provides a free ticket to Donald Trump’s Miss World Pageant, but it also opens doors to lucrative gigs as models, brand representatives and Bollywood stars. If the coach demands they seduce the judges with their poses, posture and smiles, it’s only because that what it takes to stand out from the crowd. Objectification is a small price to pay for an opportunity to hit the same jackpot as the kids in “Slumdog Millionaire.” For them, second place isn’t an option. Pahuja juxtaposes scenes from the bootcamp with news footage of fundamentalist Hindus attacking women they feel have strayed too far from the path to righteousness. It is almost impossible to watch these clips without being left sickened and infuriated by the power of religion to corrupt souls and destroy innocent lives. What women we meet at the Durga Vahini camp feel about such ugly behavior isn’t addressed directly. The arrival of “The World Before Her” is timely because of coverage of recent gang rapes of tourists and aid workers, as well as the mass protests that followed by women I assume weren’t fundamentalists, just angry as hell. Like Muslim victims of rape, the tendency among Hindu women is to forsake any hope of criminal prosecution. Sometimes, the greater threat is to report the rape and forever carry the brand of a “scarlet letter.” The DVD adds several extended interviews.
I will admit to not knowing a damn thing about the events that inspired Jay Anson’s book “The Amityville Horror,” which, in turn, generated an incredibly successful franchise of fright, horror, distorted facts, speculation, fraud and exploitation. I’m sure that anyone who bothers to read this summary of “My Amityville Horror” already is aware of the details of the DeFeo-family murders and subsequent hauntings reported by the Lutzes, who moved in 13 months later. What’s fascinating in Eric Walter’s documentary is the re-emergence, after 35 years, of eyewitness Daniel Lutz, who was 10 years old at the time his family moved into the house at 112 Ocean Avenue, in the Long Island burg. The family would inhabit the house for less a month before being driven out of it by what they describe as satanic forces. Clearly, Daniel has remained deeply scarred ever since then. Everything about his testimony feels credible from distance, but, then, so do reports of alien abductions, ghosts, angels and the living Elvis on reality-based shows on cable television. Daniel, who bears a passing resemblance to Ed Harris and Bulldog Briscoe on “Frasier,” has apparently been wandering in the American wilderness since being “possessed” by spirits and tortured by his ex-marine stepfather. He switches from credible witness one moment to paranoid lunatic the next.
Walter has gathered several of the reporters, clairvoyants, psychologists and law-enforcement personnel who were around in 1975-76 and have remained engaged in the debate. They have ideas of their own about what happened in the Amityville house and, while sympathetic to Daniel, don’t necessarily buy into his concept of the truth. It’s more likely, they agree, that any 10-year-old who endured the same amount punishment and indoctrination would naturally merge fact and fiction in later recollections. By all accounts, his parents were religious nuts whose brains might have been fried by psychedelics. They seemed to enjoy their 15 minutes of fame, however. It isn’t likely Daniel reaped any financial benefit from his long ordeal or ever be asked to participate in “Dancing With the Stars.” The same can’t be said for the many people who’ve profited from his family’s great misfortune. The DVD includes commentary, a making-of featurette and Q&A. – Gary Dretzka
The Captains Close Up
If any recent movie defines geek comedy, it’s Paul Seetachitt’s “Rock Jocks.” Please don’t take that as an insult, because cast and crew members spend a great deal of time in the bonus interviews discussing its geek cachet and appeal to the kinds of folks who would camp outside a Best Buy in anticipation of the release of a hot video-game title or Leonard Nimoy’s autograph. Here, a group of young men trained in the art of Shooter video games remains in position in a top-secret Defense Department facility to zap any asteroids that threaten earthlings. Employees of the Asteroid Management Initiative aren’t exactly overworked, so there’s plenty of time for them to exchange dick jokes and ogle the lone woman character, Alison, played by lust object Felicia Day. In addition to space debris, the rock jocks are threatened by the appearance of a DOD bean-counter looking to eliminate the budget-draining AMI. Fortunately for the misfit marksmen, an asteroid shower appears in their radar screen before the ax can fall. So dulled are they by the long wait for action, they require the finger-crossed promise of a blow job from Alison before they can fully adjust to the asteroids. Just because I didn’t get most of the jokes, doesn’t mean you won’t. Interviews from a panel discussion are included on the DVD.
And, while we’re on the subject of geek iconography, also newly available on DVD is Entertainment One’s “The Captains Close Up,” a mini-series spun off of William Shatner’s feature-length documentary, “The Captains.” I can’t say with any certainty how much of the movie was repurposed for the mini-series, if anything, but the conversations here are pretty entertaining. The interviews, first shown on premium cable’s Epix network, feature former captains Patrick Stewart (“The Next Generation”), Avery Brooks (“Deep Space Nine”), Kate Mulgrew (“Voyager”), Scott Bakula (“Enterprise”) and Chris Pine (“Star Trek Into Darkness”), who, as the reigning Kirk, interviews the originator of the character. The conversations go beyond what it meant for the actors to play captains, adding observations on acting and fan support. The 150-minute-long collection adds fresh interview material in the bonus package. – Gary Dretzka
When reviewing movies by freshman filmmakers, especially those that go straight to video or are emerge in very limited release, it’s never a good idea to get one’s hopes up too high. There usually are good reasons why a distributor elects not to invest a lot of money into a title that isn’t likely to make back its marketing nut. So, the best thing for us to do is look for things that might pay off down the road or reveal undiscovered talents. No critic wants to be known as the one who was too busy to watch the next “Blair Witch” or miss the emergence of a rising star like Greta Gerwig. I don’t think I missed anything significant in Jimmy Loweree’s feature debut, “Absence,” except a missed opportunity. It opens promisingly enough, when a woman in the third trimester of her pregnancy wakes up one morning to discover the fetus is no longer in her womb and there’s no medical explanation for its disappearance. Naturally, the terrible news travels quickly to police investigators and friends who’ve kept track of Liz’ pregnancy. The immediate suspicion is that the woman and her husband, Rick, couldn’t deal with the baby’s birth and they got rid of it. Post-partum depression can make a mother do terrible things and some fathers lose any interest in parenthood if their child is likely to be deformed or otherwise challenged. The trouble with those theories is that doctors found no signs of a baby’s birth, miscarriage or abortion. Neither could police discover any evidence that the fetus was killed or disposed of in some hideous way. Moreover, the expectant parents’ grief and astonishment seem genuine. We’re advised ahead of time that in 20 percent of all violent infant kidnappings, the babies are removed directly from the mother’s body via caesarian section. That, too, however, would have left a scar for doctors to find. So far, so good.
After some time has passed, Rick and Liz decide to take the tragedy off their minds by renting a cabin in the mountains. And, this is precisely where the picture begins to go sideways. Instead of following through on the original premise, Loweree decided to go all found-footage on us. It may be a cheap, quick and easy means to an end, but, here, it insults our intelligence. Disaster strikes, in the form of Liz’ brother Evan, who hopes on-camera interviews will reveal some truth hidden deep in the subconscious mind of the married couple. But, Evan doesn’t stop there. He records practically every second of their time together and, worse, provides a running commentary complete with stupid jokes and moronic observations. Almost none of it is pertinent. As long as he keeps shooting, though, the easier it is for Loweree to introduce bizarre occurrences that will end up on the found-footage. Evan is so annoying, though, we stop caring where the baby went and who or what is responsible for its disappearance. There are a few good jump-scares along the way to a more-or-less predictable ending. By then, however, the thrill is long gone. The Blu-ray adds commentary and a making-of featurette. The good news for Loweree is that mistakes are only lessons waiting to be learned. – Gary Dretzka
The Muppet Movie: The Nearly 35th Anniversary Edition: Blu-ray
Winx Club: Magical Adventure
Cartoon Network: Totally Spies!: Top-Secret Missions/Wild Style
It’s worth remembering, perhaps, that when “The Muppet Movie” was released in 1979, Jim Henson was very much alive, “The Muppet Show” was a mainstay of syndicated television and the company was still in family hands. Two years ago, under the Disney umbrella, “The Muppets” proved there still was some life left in the old franchise. It effectively reintroduced Kermit and the gang to an audience that hadn’t seen them in a feature-length film for 12 years by following the same basic formula as the nearly 35-year-old “The Muppet Movie.” The strategy impressed critics, delighted audiences and ensured a sequel would soon follow. Like its predecessor, “The Muppets” overflowed with original songs, wisecracking puppets, celebrity cameos and an anarchic approach to life in general. The folks at Disney must have been busting at the seams to release the Blu-ray edition of “The Muppet Movie,” if only to whet kids’ appetites for the 2014 release of “Muppets Most Wanted.” Can it be nearly 35 years ago that Kermit decided to leave his swampland home and head for the hills of Hollywood to launch an all-puppet comedy revue? Actually, he didn’t know what he’s find in California. Things just kind of materialized as he went further west, always trying to stay one or two hops ahead of fast-food magnate Doc Hopper (Charles Durning), who was in need of a spokesfrog for his restaurant franchise. Among the then-famous faces that appeared in cameos were James Coburn, Dom DeLuise, Madeleine Kahn, Steve Martin, Milton Berle, Bob Hope, Carol Kane, Cloris Leachman, Mel Brooks, Richard Pryor, Telly Savalas, Elliot Gould, Orson Welles, Big Bird and the beloved ventriloquist team of Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy. Today, those names are virtually meaningless to kids in the target demographic who were born after Henson’s too-early death. Parents won’t have trouble remembering the actors, though, so, for them, Kermit’s ride will be a trip down Memory Lane. The Paul Williams score holds up very well and Kermit’s bicycle skills remain a magical mystery. The Blu-ray package for “The Nearly 35th Anniversary Edition” adds director Jim Frawley’s “Extended Camera,” with previously unseen footage; an interactive intermission, starring the Muppets; the featurette, “Kermit: A Frog’s Life”; an all-new interactive “Frog-E-Oke Sing-Along”; a commercial for Doc Hooper’s French-fried frog-legs restaurant; original trailers; and a digital copy of the film.
Years before Chihuahuas became the purse-dog of choice among spoiled Hollywood starlets and wannabes, they were best-known as the pets so tiny they could fit into tea cups. We knew this because that’s how the wee things appeared in advertisements found in the back of comic books. The breed actually has an interesting history and deserved better than being sold between ads for X-Ray Specs and “amazing” Ant Farms. The huge success of “Beverly Hills Chihuahua” prompted Disney to build a video-original franchise around them. Then came a pair of knockoffs from Engine 15 Media Group: “The Chihuahua Movie” and “Chihuahua Too!” Even though, according to IMDB.com, the latter title doesn’t exist, I have a screener copy on my DVD player right now. You can tell how much of a budget the production was accorded by how little the lips of the dogs move when they’re “talking.” No matter. Younger children who love dogs probably will find something in “Chihuahua Too” to enjoy, if only the silly ghost story in which they appear. Here, the Fastener family moves into an old family vacation home, which is haunted by a deceased relative’s movie-star dog, Sophie. Homer, their golden retriever, is the only one who can see and converse with Sophie, even though the pup makes his presence known to the family in the same way that a poltergeist does. The Fastener children are perfectly willing to go along with Homer’s instinct and enlist Sophie in their quest to save the house from being sold out from under them.
At first glance, it appears that the primary claim to fame for Iginio Straffi’s “The Winx Club” is that it’s the first animated series from Italy to be sold and shown in the American market. A closer look reveals a highly successful franchise that’s been shown here on Fox’s 4Kids bloc and Nickelodeon. On the show’s website, Straffi explains, “‘Winx Club’ is an action and fantasy show combined with comedic elements. In the mystical dimension of Magix, three special schools educate modern fairies, ambitious witches and supernatural warriors, and wizards from all over the magical universe.” Sounds to me like a hybrid of “Harry Potter” and Sookie’s fantasies on “True Blood.” “Winx Club: Magic Adventure” is the second feature-length movie in the franchise. It was originally shot in 3D, but that version hasn’t yet made it to the U.S. Apparently, the movie has been edited to correspond with questionable editing decisions in the TV series. Only true-blue fans are likely to know the difference. The DVD adds seven bonus episodes from Season Five, including “The Rise of Tritannus” and “The Power of Harmonix.”
If the pampered teens in “Clueless” weren’t the inspiration for Sam, Alex and Clover in Cartoon Network’s “Totally Spies!: ‘Top-Secret Missions’/‘Wild Style,’” I can’t imagine a more appropriate trio to copy. The press material refers to them as “three typical high school girls and best of friends.” Typical, perhaps, if that school is in the 90210 area code, because these ladies want for nothing and spend most of their free time at the mall. It is while shopping that they discover their calling as international secret agents for WOOHP: the World Organization of Human Protection. Besides playing 007, however, they must complete their studies and shop until they drop. The bonus material includes tips for making your own door hanger. – Gary Dretzka
The Good Life
In this urban morality tale, a cheating husband prays to God that his lover won’t spill the beans to his wife, who’s also having an affair. That’s relevant only because co-writer/director Christopher Nolen implies in a postscript that God is so benevolent, he’ll make time in his busy schedule to help a sinner maintain his secret and forgive him his trespasses. While it’s entirely possible that the deity would forgive someone who’s truly contrite about his transgression and opens up to his wife about it, I doubt the jerk would get off that easy. Since the wife is also feeling guilty about her affair, it’s also possible that the Lord called the whole thing a draw and went on to more pressing business. I wouldn’t bet much money that this is what happened to the couple in Nolen’s “The Good Life,” but the producers of some faith-based movies would like to think such sanctified endings are what the urban (a.k.a., African-American) audiences comes to see. If that were the case, however, God probably wouldn’t have consigned “The Good Life” to straight-to-DVD purgatory.
In it, Richard Gallion plays straying letch Jacques Vandeley – no relation to George Costanza’s alter ego, Art Vandelay — opposite the lovely TanGi Miller. Gallion recently wrote an article for Essence titled, “Why My Wife Forgave Me for Cheating.” In his case, before God would let him back in the fold, he was required to admit to the mother of his legitimate child that there was a second baby momma in his life. His character here only has to devise a way to keep his lover from spilling the beans to his wife. The actress’ name, get this, is Honey Lane (Maya Gilbert). Apparently, there’s a decent-sized market for this sort of thing, because I get review screeners from the same distributors on an average of once a month. Some are pretty sexy, while others aren’t ready for prime time. All carry a faith-based message for the universally attractive and mostly seasoned actors to endorse. These films may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but the cast and crew members don’t cheat those who’ve invested in a purchase or rental to see them. – Gary Dretzka
Schoolgirl Report 10: Every Girl Starts Sometime
With the wildly hyped opening of “Lovelace” now behind us, it’s worth recalling that the mainstreaming of porn – launched by “Deep Throat” — was occurring, as well, in many other countries around the world. To avoid the appearance of fully endorsing explicit eroticism of the hard-core persuasion, some countries provided guidelines for filmmakers that bordered on the ridiculous. Japan, for example, famously required the blurring of naughty bits, while censors in several countries in northern Europe only allowed content that was deemed educational in nature. The sex-positive movies in the popular German “Schoolgirl Report” series skirted the “educational” onus by creating themes based on material lifted from scholarly studies. The actors gleefully dramatized – satirized, as well, in many storylines – these fully researched observations, which, of course, were intended to be taken seriously by sociologists and educators. “Schoolgirl Report 10: Every Girl Starts Sometime” opens with a classroom discussion, during which a teacher provides an example of how parents and law-enforcement officials sometimes are manipulated by teenagers trapped in the nether zone between adolescence and womanhood. The sexually precocious girl in question here holds a grudge against a teacher who spurned her advances. It manifests itself in the form of a more successful attempt to lose her virginity to a boy sadly untrained in the erotic arts. She takes out her disappointment by telling her mother that it was the teacher who stole her maidenhead and, in turn, her mom took the accusation to police. Much time is spent, thereafter, recreating the possible scenarios that led to the charges being filed. The moral of the story, of course, is that little girls who cry wolf make things worse for those little girls who actually are abused by men in positions of power. The payoff for fans of the series is plenty of skin. If the hypocrisy is too obvious to miss, well, it is a distinction that probably was lost on the audience fixated on the soft-core sex. The vignette is one of several others in the movie, all of which practically look Victorian, by now. Unlike some artifacts from era long past, “Schoolgirl Report” still retains its ability to entertain. It also has benefited greatly from a good scrubbing by the folks at Image Entertainment. — Gary Dretzka
Syfy: Super Storm: Blu-ray
NBC: Community: The Complete Fourth Season
USA: Political Animals: The Complete Series
TNT: Southland: The Complete Fifth and Final Season
Cartoon Network: The Amazing World of Gumball: The Party
Like cheese at a gourmet delicatessen, Syfy movies come in all shapes, sizes, colors and odors. What makes one a hit and another a miss is a mystery best left to the TV gods. Somehow, “Sharknado” caused a sensation denied other equally improbable titles and mutant-shark stories. It could simply be that Tara Reid, Ian Ziering and John Heard have more fans than even they know exist or some primal fear of flying sharks. If the latter is true, “Super Storm” might have fared better if the malfunction affecting Jupiter’s red spot was caused by a school of rocket-propelled hammerheads. The storm is pretty nasty, though, even without flying predators. In any case, the mysterious disappearance of the planet’s giant pimple coincides with a wave of calamitous electrical storms and powerful
mega-cyclones on Earth. As frequently happens in Syfy movies, only a coalition of brave teenagers and amateur scientists is able to discover ways to end the misery. Here, these include characters played by David Sutcliffe (“Private Practice”), Erica Cerra (“Eureka”), Brett Dier (“The L.A. Complex”), Leah Cairns (“Battlestar Galactica”), Luisa D’Oliveira (Seeds of Destruction”) and Mitch Pileggi (“The X-Files”). The producers and director, who shall remain nameless, also were responsible for “Ice Quake,” “Iron Invader,” “Stonehenge Apocalypse” and “Snowmageddon.”
Few television series experience the same internecine drama and network interference as “Community” has in its four years on NBC, then survive to satirize it. Created by the notoriously prickly Dan Harmon, “Community” has been teetering on the edge of cancellation for as long as it’s been on the air and Season Four was no exception. The craziness began when it was announced that Harmon was being replaced as showrunner by David Guarascio and Moses Port and other top-level staffers were leaving, as well. The season opener was delayed from October to February and, later, Chevy Chase threw a temper tantrum that caused him to exit the series. Critics were largely unimpressed by the changes, but, somehow, the consistently inventive “Community” attracted enough viewers in the right demographic to warrant a fifth season, albeit one limited to 13 episodes. In May, as well, NBC announced that Harmon would return as showrunner, along with former writer Chris McKenna. Sadly, Donald Glover’s character, Troy, is only expected to appear in five of the episodes. Perhaps the weirdest thing about the fourth stanza was the placement of the episodes. The show that would have run before Halloween debuted on Valentine’s Day, while the special Thanksgiving show aired on March 7 and the Sadie Hawkins Day dance took place in April, causing Britta to arrange a Sophie B. Hawkins soiree. (DVD buyers won’t notice the calendar confusion.) The highlight of the season for many fans was “Intro to Felt Surrogacy,” during which the characters were given puppet doppelgangers, as therapy, by the nutzo dean. The DVD extras include such “uncensored” special features as deleted and extended scenes, outtakes, commentary and the behind-the-scenes featurettes, “Inspector Spacetime Inspection” and “Adventures in Advanced Puppetry.”
I don’t know what’s worse: affairs of state conducted in the public eye or the affairs of statesmen carried on behind closed doors. Either way, someone is getting screwed and taxpayers end up paying for it. USA Network’s six-part mini-series, “Political Animals,” gave us a view of official Washington that used the antics of the Clinton and Reagan families as a jumping-off point for an edgy prime-time soap opera. Sigourney Weaver stars as Elaine Barrish Hammond, a former First Lady and current Secretary of State, who divorced her philandering husband (Cieran Hinds) after losing a primary election of her own. The former POTUS is a still-handsome man who affects a good-ol’-boy persona to attract much-younger women and keep himself in the loop. Hammond could easily be confused with a Hillary Clinton surrogate in that she’s frequently been embarrassed by her husband’s behavior. The difference is that this woman was courageous enough to divorce him before she could sustain yet another public humiliation. She also is required, as a mother, to tend to adult children who could overdose at any minute or spill family secrets to the reporter (Carla Gugino) assigned to do a hatchet job on her. (The antics of the Reagan brood would have filled the pages of the tabs, if they existed in the same multitude as today.) If that weren’t enough weirdness for one mini-series, Hammond’s mother acts as if she still was a showgirl in Las Vegas. And, those are just the soap-opera elements. The political stuff is much heavier. I assume, by the cliffhanger ending of the sixth episode, that USA intended for “Political Animals” to find the audience it needed to green-light a second season. It didn’t and the cliffhanger is still out there waiting to be concluded. I enjoyed the show, but can see how people allergic to the ugliness of politics might not. The DVD adds some unaired material.
After a near-death experience in its first season on NBC, the terrific police drama “Southland” (a.k.a., “SouthLAnd”) moved to TNT, where it found a loyal and enthusiastic audience. Created by Ann Biderman (“Ray Donovan”) and exec-produced by John Wells and Christopher Chulack (“ER”), the show takes a 24/7 cop’s-eye view of life in Los Angeles, including their private affairs. In that way, at least, it resembled the excellent 1970s anthology series, “Police Story,” created by Joseph Wambaugh. Forty years removed from that groundbreaking show, the writers of “Southland” were allowed the same degree of creative freedom accorded such shows as “The Shield,” “Rescue Me,” “The Wire” and, of course, “NYPD Blue.” The ensemble cast shared the spotlight directly and indirectly, as extended storylines would be timed to come to a head for individual cops in something of a sequential order. Anyone who missed the show after it left NBC owes it to themselves to pick up the complete-season packages now available on DVD. The set contains all 10 episodes of the fifth and final season, as well as unaired scenes, cast interviews and language deemed too rough for basic cable.
When television-watchdog groups complain about the lack of family programming, it’s never clear what kinds of families they’re discussing. “The Waltons” was a show that appealed to kids, their parents and grandparents, mostly because the producers included characters in those age groups in the various storylines. In a very different way, “The Flintstones” accomplished the same thing. For most of the last 30-40 years, family programming has consisted of sitcoms in which young persons accept life lessons previously rejected when brought up by their parents over the dinner table. I remember walking into a northern Indiana restaurant early one afternoon, many moons ago, and the bar was lined with sots watching “Bozo’s Circus,” which WGN then aired at noon to catch the kids at home for lunch. When the Chicago school system stopped allowing students to go home for lunch, “Bozo,” too, it ceased being entertainment the whole family could enjoy. Watching “The Amazing World of Gumball: The Party,” it struck me that it is one of many new-school cartoon shows whose kooky sense of humor and odd-looking characters might appeal to kids and adults, especially those who read underground comix and smoked grass in their youth. The new collection represents the last 12 episodes, of 36, from show’s first season. Frankly, I don’t know what would prevent Comedy Network from releasing Season Two in a complete-season package, but the discount price for this one-third-season disc is reasonable. – Gary Dretzka