By Gary Dretzka Dretzka@moviecitynews.com
The DVD Wrapup: Bling Ring, Someday Up There Likes Me, Tim Buckley, Two Men in Manhattan, World War Z, Hidden in Woods, Shanghai Calling, Simon Killer, Arrow … More
The Bling Ring: Blu-ray
Although Sofia Coppola’s profile of a gang of juvenile delinquents from the right side of the tracks is entirely watchable, often funny and sometimes alarming, its existence is as difficult to justify as most reality shows in which human oddities are put on parade for our amusement. For 15 minutes, anyway, these incorrigible Hollywood club kids became nearly as celebrated as Honey Boo Boo and Snooki Polizzi. “The Bling Ring” effectively added another 15 minutes to their fame. But, then, who wouldn’t enjoy breaking into Paris Hilton’s home and using it as a clubhouse for a couple of days … or Oprah’s for that matter? The most noteworthy thing about the movie — to me, anyway — was learning just how little time these criminals were required to spend in jail for stealing some $3 million worth of overpriced jewelry, clothes and shoes. If it had been a reality show, it might have been titled “Celebrity Scavenger Hunt” and be hosted by Hilton, herself. As it is, “Bling Ring” dramatizes the kind of headline-generating spree that could only have taken place in one city on Earth and among teenagers who could only exist within its storied zip codes. If copy-cat break-ins had occurred in Milwaukee or Chattanooga, there would have been no movie. If the perpetrators had been Hispanic, African-American or poor white, one or more of the robbers might still be in jail. Like the actors playing the trendy hoodlums here, as well as those in the 2011 Lifetime movie of the same title, the mini-skirted and manicured sinners still have their looks and the rest of their lives for people to forget their crimes. Sadly, for Coppola, by the time the movie debuted at Cannes, the public had already disappeared from the public’s radar. Even with a minimal $15-million budget, “The Bling Ring” tanked.
Adapted from Nancy Jo Sales’ wonderfully titled and exhaustively researched Vanity Fair article, “The Suspect Wore Louboutins,” Coppola’s breezy screenplay benefits mightily from the teens’ well-documented arrogance and ability to make the Internet complicit in the crimes. By scanning the entertainment websites, the kids were able to locate the residences, learn when the celebrities would be out of town and discern likely entry points. Once inside, they acted as if they belonged there. If their parents ever wondered about their children’s nocturnal pursuits and lack of homework, it goes unmentioned in “Bling Ring.” I suppose, the same could be said about the parents of murderous gang-bangers in Chicago. Cast members Israel Broussard, Katie Chang, Claire Julien, Gavin Rossdale, Carlos Miranda, Georgia Rock, Taissa Farmiga, Leslie Mann and Emma Watson do nice jobs impersonating the perpetrators. Fortuitously, the arrests and court hearings were so aggressively covered in the media that they had plenty of video footage to study. Conveniently, too, some of the gang members partied at the same clubs as the actors did.
I’d be very surprised if Farmiga, Watson and Mann hadn’t perused episodes of the horrifying reality show “Pretty Wild,” during which the very real Tess Taylor, Alexis and Andrea Neiers were followed by cameras in the course of their daily activities and modeling sessions. The timing couldn’t be more opportune, as Alexis would be arrested and arraigned during the same period. The producers famously captured Alexis’ insane phone call to Sales, in which the teenager demanded that the reporter retract the assertion she wore Louboutins with six-inch heels to a hearing. Because the reporter wasn’t home at the time and the girl’s space-cadet mother infuriated her by repeatedly interrupting the call, Alexis repeated the harangue several times, if only for the benefit of the answering machine. It became an instant Internet classic. Alexis’ demented behavior suggests how much crazier Coppola’s movie could have been, if she had portrayed the bling-ringers as the self-absorbed freaks they are. (In another delicious twist, Alexis was held alongside Lindsay Lohan in the same jail.)
Ironically, Paris Hilton comes off as the most human of all of the participants. Even though the professional celebrity was the primary target of the Bling Ring, she graciously allowed Coppola to pick her brain about the thefts of family heirlooms and use her bizarrely appointed home as a shooting location. Along with Kirsten Dunst, Hilton makes a cameo appearance in a nightclub scene and she was the focus of a making-of featurette, as well. The fact that she opened up her home to Coppola either demonstrates an admirable sense of humor about her well-managed reputation or that she is completely oblivious to how ridiculous her cavernous shoe closet, jewelry horde and vanity pillows must look to people outside the Hollywood Hills. The Blu-ray’s audio-visual presentation is quite good and a couple of the featurettes fill in the blanks left over from the case. – Gary Dretzka
Somebody Up There Likes Me
Some people’s lives consist merely of a series of unfortunate accidents and unrealized dreams, all in anticipation of the inevitable release into the void. Or, so it seems in the world of independent movies. In Bob Byington’s resolutely quirky “Somebody Up There Likes Me,” there’s nothing particularly unique, special or even interesting about his protagonist or any of the other primary characters. They exist on the fringes of everyone’s periphery, except their own. Byington positions Max Youngblood (Keith Poulson) at the center of this sly comedy, but there would be no reason for him to exist if it weren’t for his sole friend, sidekick and co-worker, Sal. He’s played by Nick Offerman (“Parks and Recreation”), the new go-to actor for world-weary cynics who stick pins in balloons just to see them deflate. Together, Max and Sal add up to one reasonably compelling character. Their lives, work, marriages and infidelities pass in five-year increments, divided neatly by the animated vignettes of Bob Sabiston (“A Scanner Darkly”) and an original score by Vampire Weekend’s Chris Baio. It’s as if the two men are stand-ins for every anonymous waiter who’s ever placed a dish on our table and disappeared immediately from our memories … and vice versa. When we need to be reminded of Max’s anointed place at the center of “Somebody Up There Likes Me,” Byington brings out the magic powder-blue suitcase he inherited from his father. Although we aren’t made privy to its contents, its glow reminds us of similar plot devices in “Pulp Fiction,” “Repo Man” and “Kiss Me Deadly.” At a mere 76 minutes, “Somebody” feels very much like a short story or novella. Admirers of early Wes Anderson and Richard Linklater are the target audience here, but Offerman’s presence should attract interest, as well, from his expanding fan base. The DVD adds an interview with Nick Offerman and other cast and crew members; a music video; a faux EPK and commentary with Offerman and Byington. – Gary Dretzka
Greetings From Tim Buckley
With his soaring vocals, deeply personal lyrics and an intensity that could hardly be contained by the unresponsive amps and speakers of their day, Tim Buckley took the New York and Los Angeles folk scene by storm in the mid-1960s. Unlike every other male singer who was being compared to Bob Dylan at the time, the former high school quarterback from Orange County didn’t sound much like any other singer making the rounds of college campuses and clubs. The jingle-jangle poetics were there, alright, but his voice was sufficiently nimble to handle the same modern-jazz conceits as Van Morrison in “Astral Weeks.” By the time writers, deejays and fans were ready to pin a label on his music, Buckley, like Dylan, had moved on to something else. By the time he’d embraced free jazz, funk and improvisation, in the early 1970s, the singer-songwriter had left his original base so far behind him that it never caught back up to him. By the end of June, 1975, Buckley would be dead of a drug overdose. He had outrun everything that made him a star and was recalled mostly, if at all, by the heart-breaking inclusion of “Once I Was” in Hal Ashby’s powerful anti-war drama, “Coming Home.” Then, 16 years later, someone sounding very much like Tim Buckley began getting airtime on progressive radio stations. Turns out, it was Jeff Buckley, the son only a few of Tim’s friends and followers knew existed. Even if the newcomer played down his inheritance, the physical and vocal resemblance was uncanny.
Daniel Algrant’s slow-to-evolve “Greetings From Tim Buckley” doesn’t dig too deeply into Jeff’s grinding, mostly anonymous journey from his Anaheim home to the New York tribute concert recalled in the movie. It’s enough to know that the 25-year-old musician — played well by Penn Badgley — had yet to stretch the limits of his own voice or come to grips with the personal legacy of the man he’d only “met” twice. He finally would do so in the company of musicians who knew or played with Tim Buckley and would accept his son as one of their own. I’m not sure if the women we meet here are real or composite characters, but, in Imogen Poots’ Allie, he finds a muse for a musical coming-of-age, as well as a convenient scapegoat for his many anxieties. If the expository material borders on the melodramatic, it serves two purposes. The first is to introduce flashbacks to father Tim’s battles with his angels and devils and, two, prepare viewers for the dynamic performances in the concert. It works, too. The soundtrack is a blend of songs written or co-written by Tim Buckley and sung either by Buckley, the actor playing him in flashbacks or Badgley. It doesn’t include the two albums worth of material that would make Jeff a premiere attraction two years later. Moreover, we’re spared the sight of Badgley drowning in Memphis’ Wolf River almost six years later. The concert is sufficiently inspirational to carry the final third of the movie. The DVD extras add making-of material and interviews. I recommend that admirers check out albums by father and son, as well. – Gary Dretzka
Two Men in Manhattan: Blu-ray
Lovers of American noir who think they might be running out of great movies to discover ought to consider taking a flier on this obscure French export from Jean-Pierre Melville. Although “Two Men in Manhattan” falls short of being a classic, the shadowy 1959 crime story offers several fine things to recommend it. It reveals the greatly underappreciated director at a point in his career, where he’d convinced his French New Wave peers they could reclaim the term “noir.” American studios were turning to color, even for stripped-down genre pieces, but, in post-war Europe, there still were plenty of stories more suited to black-and-white. Neither his vastly under-seen “Bob le Flambeur” nor Jean Luc Godard’s “Breathless” would have had the same impact in Technicolor, and there was nothing sunny and bright in Britain’s kitchen-sink movement, either. More to the point at hand, however, “Two Men” paints a fascinating outsider’s-view portrait of New York City at night. And, because Melville wasn’t handcuffed by the Hollywood Production Code, he wasn’t required to sugarcoat reality: men and women were free to sleep on the same mattress, together and naked; strippers remove their clothes, both on and off stage; lesbian love isn’t forbidden; and an ethically ambiguous solution to a sticky situation was allowed to stand.
Here, a French diplomat to the United Nations disappears on the eve of important vote. Moreau, a reporter for Agence France-Presse (played by Melville), is anxious to know the reason for his absence and if it involves a potential pre-Christmas scandal. Before making any dangerous Cold War assumptions, the editor gives his reporter a night to discover what may have happened to the war hero. Moreau isn’t as familiar with the city’s soft underbelly as the ex-pat freelance photographer Pierre (Pierre Grasset), who, when summoned, is enjoying the company of a woman not his wife. Indeed, the photographer is familiar with the rumors surrounding the married diplomat and his weakness for women who work at night. His reasons for pursuing the mystery are far more mercenary than those of the reporter, however. Among their stops are a smoky jazz joint, whose sultry torch singer is known to have been a companion of the diplomat; a burlesque house, where one of the dancers is interviewed in various stages of undress; and the apartment of the diplomat’s secretary, whose Sapphic preferences are duly noted by the cinematographer. When the diplomat finally does show up – as we knew he would – the journalists are faced with an ethical dilemma that rings as true today as it did in the scandal-starved 1950s. All of this happens during the course of a daily news cycle in the city that never sleeps. The Cohen Film Collection Blu-ray holds up pretty well for its age and adds the informative featurette, “Keeping Up Appearances: A Conversation Between Critics Jonathan Rosenbaum and Ignatiy Vishnevetsky.” – Gary Dretzka
World War Z: Unrated: Blu-ray
Day of the Dead: Collector’s Edition: Blu-ray
Not to diminish Marc Forster’s achievement in creating an exciting tick-tock thriller about a subject that couldn’t possibly be more over-exploited, but there’s something obscene about spending more than $200 million to make and market a zombie movie. The combined budget for all six of George Romero’s “Dead” movies was, after all, less than $30 million and they’ve returned roughly $170 million at the international box-office. At a time when the cost of the average Beverly Hills Sweet 16 and bar mitzvah is nearing six figures, it’s possible that no one at Paramount blinked at spending a fortune on a movie starring Brad Pitt. Even so, some studio executives couldn’t resist the temptation to spend more money tinkering with “World War Z,” by bringing in a fourth writer to “fix” what the previous three couldn’t in their adaptation of zombie-specialist Max Brooks’ novel. In anticipation of a sequel, perhaps, they were asked to add lots of action and a family-in-danger angle, while devising a more upbeat ending than the one forwarded in the book. Instead, of being a reflective “Oral History of the Zombie War,” the movie was set in the not-too-distant future and the author’s political commentary was tossed overboard, as well. So, what happened? “World War Z” barely broke even – if at all – at the domestic box-office, before adding $336 million worldwide. So, maybe all the monkeying around with “World War Z” was worth it. There’s certainly no reason to believe that the VOD, DVD, Blu-ray and Blu-ray 3D versions won’t do very well, possibly even boosting the likelihood of a franchise play.
“World War Z” may feature zombies galore, but, thematically, it more resembles hundreds of earlier plague pictures – “12 Monkeys,” “28 Days,” “Outbreak” and “The Andromeda Strain,” among them — which borrowed elements of sci-fi and horror to create cautionary tales about dubious scientific choices. We don’t exactly know what caused the zombie apocalypse here, but it’s spreading faster and with far more urgency than in any previous zombie flick. These zombies move at speeds generally reserved for track meets in Jamaica and are able to leap, climb and attack with the dexterity of meth-heads desperate for a fix. Pitt plays a former United Nations troubleshooter, Gerry Lane, who experiences the ferocity of the zombies in a nifty scene, set in a traffic jam. Lane manages to have his family extracted to a Navy vessel on the high seas, but their continued security is used to blackmail him into agreeing to come up with a solution to the global pandemic. He interviews a disgraced CIA agent and gun-runner (David Morse), who extolls the genius of North Korean leaders for their decision to pull the teeth from the mouths of all of its citizens. He also points to Israel, where a giant wall was built in anticipation of the crisis. Lane learns early on that sophisticated weapons can’t stop the attacks. It’s only through studying the tendencies of the infected hordes that he finally comes up with a way to neutralize the zombies.
Even if I wanted to spoil the ending for you, I don’t think I could explain with any degree of accuracy how Lane’s solution might work. Suffice it to say that, when all hope appears to be lost, Brad Pitt lays his life on the line for humanity, which is as it should be. As exciting as “World War Z” is, though, I didn’t find it to be particularly scary, at least in the way that “Night of the Living Dead” raised goosebumps on the arms of viewers. The Blu-ray bonus package includes some interesting making-of material, but it’s spoiled by the pompous baloney dished out by producers, writers, actors and Forster about the significance of their picture. Most of Brooks’ observations about how such a plague could spread in a world made smaller by digital technology didn’t even make the first cut. And, as usual, I couldn’t tell the difference between the new “unrated” and PG-13 version.
Watch “Day of the Dead” alongside “World War Z” and it immediately becomes apparent of how far the sub-genre has grown from its horror roots. Forster’s zombies are as different from George Romero’s as Romero’s are from those in Jacques Tourneur’s 1943 classic, “I Walk With a Zombie.” Released in 1985, “Day of the Dead” is the third chapter in Romero’s undead trilogy, which began in 1968 with “Night of the Living Dead,” and was followed a decade later with “Dawn of the Dead.” By now, the ratio of zombies to unaffected humans is 400,000 to 1. The survivors live in a mammoth underground bunker, where scientists and military personnel attempt to determine if there’s any real hope for the future of mankind. It’s when the scientists begin to experiment on soldiers, as well as zombies, that the military decides to banish them to caves already infiltrated by the monsters. It’s here that the fight to the finish begins in earnest. The triquel didn’t do nearly as well as the first two movies in the series. The barrage of then-new slasher and splatter thrillers was about to put zombies in the deep freeze for another 20 years and aesthetics were the last thing fans wanted to consider. Today, however, the setting is as worthy of comment as the wonderfully grotesque make-up effects of Tom Savini. It was shot in an abandoned Nike missile silo and the former Wampum limestone mine, near Pittsburgh, where the cavernous maze provided a splendid backdrop for terror. As we learn in a featurette, the 2.5-million-square-foot mine now is being operated as the Gateway Commerce Center, a huge “subsurface storage facility.” Another interesting thing about “Day of the Dead” is the highly unusual decision to make a strong woman character (Lori Cardille) the protagonist. The new hi-def transfer is accompanied by “World’s End: The Legacy of ‘Day of the Dead’”; a new interview with Romero; commentary with Romero, Savini, Cardille and production designer Cletus Anderson; commentary with filmmaker Roger Avary; footage from Savini’s archives; and photo galleries. – Gary Dretzka
Java Heat: Blu-ray
The most compelling reason for spending time with the terrorist thriller, “Java Heat,” is hidden in plain sight on the Blu-ray’s cover and it isn’t the presence of Mickey Rourke or the studly Kellan Lutz. Far and away, it’s the rarely filmed Indonesian island of Java. Lutz plays an American traveler, who could never be mistaken for someone other than a CIA agent in post-graduate drag. Soon after his arrival, American Jake Travers appears at a party thrown for a beautiful sultana. Not long after complimenting her on her necklace –he’s pretending to be a gemologist – an explosion occurs, presumably killing the woman. Jake is hauled into jail as a suspect and witness to the bombing. After convincing Muslim police detective Hashim (Ario Bayu) of his innocence, they team up to find an elusive terrorist-cell leader. While Hashim is interested primarily in the terrorist, Jake is targeting the criminal mastermind, Malik (Rourke), who’s pulling the bomber’s strings. Conveniently, Hashim and Jake find both criminals operating under the same roof. Predictably, Rourke’s portrayal of Malik is so bizarrely conceived as to render everything he says unintelligible and his character’s background indeterminable. Turns out, the weapons trafficker has Al Qaeda in his hip pocket. Effectively amoral, he greases the skids for terrorists, so they can take out his enemies along with their own. He profits by stealing things the terrorists aren’t interested in claiming. Action fans won’t be disappointed by the many gratuitous chases and shootouts and neither should Rourke completests. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with the scenery and street scenes, which are simultaneously fascinating and terrible. – Gary Dretzka
Hidden in the Woods
Exploitation films don’t get much more exploitative than Chilean filmmaker Patricio Valladares’ truly nasty rape-and-revenge thriller, “Hidden in the Woods.” OK, maybe, “I Spit on Your Grave 2,” but this one won’t make you want to take a shower immediately after watching it. As difficult as it is to handle at times, however, “Hidden in the Woods” really delivers the goods. Based on a true story, “Hidden in the Woods” follows three siblings – sheltered to the point of captivity by their abusive father — as they not only attempt to escape the clutches of Daddy Dearest, but also his demented drug-lord boss, Uncle Costello. They get their chance at freedom after a confrontation between the chainsaw-wielding ogre and a pair of underprepared narcotics police. The cops die horrible deaths, while the father is left seriously wounded with a knife wound. The siblings find shelter in a cabin located deep in a forest, somewhere outside Santiago. The older sister turns to prostitution to afford food for her pathetically naïve sister and brother, who is seriously retarded and physically deformed. Uncle Costello, who believes the kids know where their father’s drugs are stashed, sics his thugs on them. What happens next is best left to the imaginations of viewers with strong stomachs. Valladares clearly understands the difference between making quick-and-dirty horror flicks and turning exploitation into something approaching art. He challenges viewers to grasp the same distinction. Valladares already is working on an Americanized version of “Hidden in the Woods,” starring Michael Biehnm, William Forsythe and Electra Avellan. I’d pay to be in the screening room when the MPAA ratings board evaluates this one. It arrives with a decent making-of featurette, explaining the special makeup effects.
So many action flicks have been compared to the works of Guy Ritchie and Quentin Tarantino in the last 20 years, it’s kind of refreshing for one of the filmmakers to admit their debts. Co-director/co-writer/co-star/editor/stunt-director of “The Lackey,” Shaun Paul Piccinino admires “Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels” and “Snatch” and doesn’t care who knows that he’s modeled much of his action-packed, if sometimes difficult to understand picture after them. He also is a fan of Don Siegel (“Dirty Harry”), Michael Winner (“Death Wish”) and Tom Tykwer (“Run Lola Run”). Piccinino plays a disheveled henchman for some Maori gangsters – in California! – who pay him to kick the crap out their enemies. This, he accomplishes no matter how drunk he is. The turning point for his character comes when he accidentally learns that he’s fathered the young daughter of his ex-girlfriend, a junkie. That they’re practically starving makes him feel like a heel, so he takes another job specifically to raise money for their welfare. Nothing works out quite as planned in this low-budget thriller, but watching the little guy destroy several monstrous gangsters is worth the price of a rental.
It’s been said that Southern California is the bank-robbery capital of the United States, so why wouldn’t a slacker with nothing to lose rule out pulling a heist at his local savings instituition, if only for shits and giggles? Keep your gun at home at home and the most you’re risking is a couple of months in an overcrowded jail. In Doug Maguire’s super-low-budget “Bank Roll,” which failed to raise more than $400 in a Kickstarter campaign, a young businessman learns he has only a few months to life. To go out on a high note, Benny Big Time decides to stage a bank robbery, employing the entertainment-industry talents of several of his buddies. It takes surprisingly little effort for Benny to convince them to go along with the ridiculous scheme. Once in, however, the wannabes go about their tasks as if they’re making a movie about a bank robbery, which, of course, they are. “Bank Roll” won’t make anyone forget “Dog Day Afternoon,” but, on a reported budget south of $800, it’s a miracle there are any laughs at all. Maguire deserves that much credit, at least.
You also have to give low-budget props to “Unsolved,” a school project about a school project. Co-writer/director Lance McDaniel and co-writer Sean Lynch met on the campus of Oklahoma City University, back in 2008, and decided to put their minds together on “Unsolved,” as a Masters project. That the entire movie would be produced by OCU students and faculty, in Oklahoma, helped entice backers to cough up the funds necessary to complete it. It couldn’t have been all that expensive to make and would be exec-produced Hollywood veteran Fritz Kiersch (“Children of the Corn”), who oversees the OCU program. In a nutshell, “Unsolved” describes what happens when a professor asks his class to make up a story about an unsolved crime and create a logical ending. The protagonists here decide to dig into an actual on-campus murder, which has remained open for the past 15 years. Once they do start nosing around, however, things start getting ugly very quickly. – Gary Dretzka
The Last Tycoon: Blu-ray
Bruce Lee Legacy Collection: Blu-ray
Judging solely from the evidence presented in these two films, it would be easy for anyone suffering from Rumpelstiltskin syndrome to assume that the last 100 years of Chinese history didn’t include a communist revolution. “Shanghai Calling” is a light contemporary rom-com, set in one of the world’s most aggressively capitalist cities. Up-and-coming Chinese-American attorney Sam Chao (Daniel Henney) is sent to Shanghai by his New York City law firm to close a deal, even though he understands very little Chinese. Within a couple of hours of his arrival, Sam meets an American businessman (Bill Paxton) and two young women – one Chinese (Zhu Zhu), the other a single American mom (Eliza Coupe) – who will test his reputation as a problem-solver. He’s put up in a luxurious high-rise apartment and expected to solidify a lucrative cellphone deal with his company. Naturally, the toughest problem he finds is sorting out the two women’s feelings toward him. Writer/director Daniel Hsia keeps the romance bubbling at a PG pace – despite its PG-13 rating – and party politics pretty much out of sight. There’s nothing particularly wrong with “Shanghai Calling,” except its extremely western outlook on love among the wealthy class. And, the city once again provides an exciting backdrop for corporate intrigue.
Wong Jing’s “The Last Tycoon” straddles very different periods in modern Chinese history: the overthrow of the Qing Dynasty, the rise of underworld crime and occupation of Shanghai by Japanese forces. Chow Yun-Fat and Huang Xiaoming play real-life gangster Cheng Daqi, during 30 tumultuous years of his life in the village and Shanghai. Circumstances conspire both to separate Cheng from the love of his life and put him in cahoots with big-city “tycoon” and crimelord (Sammo Hung) and a corrupt soldier (Francis Ng). If you’ve ever wondered how a merged adaptation of “The Godfather II” and “Casablanca” might look, this is it. As usual, the Chinese production looks and sounds terrific in Blu-ray. There’s plenty of action, in addition to the more reflective romantic scenes. The Blu-ray adds a gushy making-of featurette.
From Shout! Factory arrives “Bruce Lee: The Legacy Collection,” which includes Blu-ray versions of “The Big Boss,” “Fist of Fury,” “Way of the Dragon and “Game of Death.” (“Enter the Dragon” is from a different distributor.) Also included in the 11-disc set are three documentaries, “Bruce Lee: The Legend,” the original version “Bruce Lee: The Man, The Legend,” as well as “I Am Bruce Lee,” plus a bonus disc with over two hours of exclusive bonus material on a single disc. It’s collected in a book-style package, with 68 pages of rare and unseen photos, memorabilia, timeline and a new essay on lee’s amazing career. – Gary Dretzka
Based on his edgy 2008 debut feature, “Afterschool,” Antonio Campos made a small name for himself as a young filmmaker willing to take chances and demand of his audience that it pays attention to what’s happening on screen. In it, a teenage videographer captures the deaths – by strychnine-laced cocaine – of popular twin sisters at a posh New England boarding school. Instead of creating a furor or cause celebre among fellow students, the images are treated almost as if they’re something you can find everyday on YouTube. I don’t know what it means that Campos is listed among several producers of the disturbing drama, “Martha Marcy May Marlene,” but it is of a piece with “Afterschool” and “Simon Killer.” In the latter, Brady Corbet plays a college-age American, who’s laying low in Paris after experiencing some kind of troubling incident with his girlfriend back home. We aren’t told precisely what Simon did, but it only stands to reason that it was disturbing in a sexual way. After unsuccessfully hitting on a trio of pretty Parisians, Simon is lured into a nightclub populated with prostitutes. One of them, Victoria (Mati Diop), breaks tradition by befriending Simon and letting him stay at her modest pad. Always scheming, he hatches a plan to blackmail one or two of Victoria’s wealthy clients with video footage of their tryst. At the same time, he reconnects with the far more innocent blond girl whose number he kept from the earlier encounter outside the sex club. Neither strategy works exactly as planned. They do allow viewers to see how delicate Simon’s mental state is, however, as well as witness the potentially devastating ramifications of betrayal. Less story than character study, “Simon Killer” makes excellent use of the Paris setting and characters we recognize from noir-tinged French-language thrillers. The DVD adds a fawning interview with the clearly quite talented, if strangely self-absorbed Campos, who is an avowed admirer of Stanley Kubrick and whose work has been compared to that of Gus Van Sant. – Gary Dretzka
And Now a Word From Our Sponsor
Several entertaining indie dramedies have been built on foundations far flimsier than the one propping up Zack Bernbaum and Michael Hamilton-Wright’s “And Now a Word From Our Sponsor.” Few, however, have demanded so much patience from viewers. In a story that bares some thematic resemblance to “Being There,” Bruce Greenwood plays the CEO of a major advertising agency, who, one day, is found unconscious in front of a wall of TVs. When Adan comes out of his comatose state, the only way he’s able to communicate is through advertising slogans, most of which have, at one time or another, wormed their way into the vernacular. While some of his responses are perfectly apropos to a conversation, others couldn’t be less out-of-synch and mysterious. His condition leaves Adan in a fragile position with his company, of course, but not one absent comedic possibilities. Providing the poor guy with shelter from the corporate storm is Karen (Parker Posey), the hospital’s Head of Charity Foundation. She recognizes Adan from an inspiration seminar at which he spoke and offers him a place to hide, while waiting for a placement from a care facility. At first, Aden’s presence in Karen’s life irritates the woman’s teenage daughter (Allie MacDonald), who, typically, is at war with her mother. Just as Greenwood’s imitation of Chance Gardener begins to grow on viewers, his presence also has a calming effect on the daughter. And, yes, it’s just as possible that audiences could find Adan’s affliction every bit as irritating as spending 90 minutes in the company of someone with a virulent strain of Tourette’s syndrome. Fans of Posey and Greenwood are the most likely viewers to stick with “Sponsor” after the first 20 minutes. – Gary Dretzka
Arrow: The Complete First Season: Blu-ray
Homeland: The Complete Second Season: Blu-ray
The Mentalist: The Complete Fifth Season
Leverage: The Final Season
PBS: Frontline: Two American Families
It seems unlikely that the CW would green-light an entire series based on the archery craze that followed in the wake of the books and movies in the “Hunger Games” series, but anything’s possible. It certainly didn’t hurt the show’s chances for survival that “Arrow” is based on DC Comics’ Green Arrow superhero and the actor playing him is young, handsome and looks buff with only a quiver on his back. The character has been around since 1941, albeit undergoing occasional facelifts, costume upgrades and philosophical twists. For the TV series, his cover allows him to be both a playboy and vigilante. After being marooned for five years on a remote island, billionaire Oliver Queen returns home with a mysterious agenda and a lethal set of new skills. More than anything else, though, Queen is committed to righting the wrongs of his father and his corrupt cronies. The Blu-ray arrives with the backgrounder, “Arrow Comes Alive!”; “Arrow: Fight School/Stunt School,” which breaks down the stunt work; a Q&A with cast and producers from the 2013 Paley Festival; deleted scenes; and a gag reel.
“Homeland” walked away from last year’s Emmy ceremony with wins in six key categories, including Outstanding Lead Actress (Claire Danes), Outstanding Lead Actor (Damian Lewis) and Outstanding Drama Series. Last season, Marine Sgt. Nicholas Brody went from terror suspect to U.S. congressman, and former CIA agent Carrie Mathison has returned to civilian life. It theoretically could capture 11 more on Sunday. When another terror threat emerges, Brody and Carrie’s “delicate dance of suspicion, deceit and desire” is resumed. The three-disc Blu-ray set adds deleted scenes and a four making-of featurettes, including one on shooting in Israel.
With Season Six of “The Mentalist” about to arrive on CBS, it’s time to catch up with the search for serial killer Red John and other cases requiring the attention of former psychic Patrick Jane, Teresa Lisbon and the California Bureau of Investigation. The season begins with the interrogation of the killer’s captured associate, Lorelei, and ends with the slaying of another person close to the detective. In the hands of debonair Simon Baker is smart, easy on the eyes and entertaining. Robin Tunney and Emmanuelle Chriqui aren’t too shabby, themselves.
Last Christmas, fans of TNT’s terrific “Leverage” were handed a lump of coal, in the form of a cancellation notice for the long-running series. An entertaining hybrid of “Robin Hood” and “Mission:Impossible,” the show’s final season was highlighted by the changing personal dynamics of Parker and Hardison and Nate’s continuing struggle with his inner demons. Among their big-shots who get the comeuppance are characters played by Cary Elwes, Treat Williams and Matthew Lillard. Mark Sheppard returns as nemesis Interpol-agent, Jim Sterling.
The frequently heartbreaking “Frontline” presentation, “Two American Families” recaps all of the economic calamities that have befallen the Neumanns and the Stanleys of Milwaukee in the last 20 years, while also giving us an idea of what the future holds for the subjects and their children. It isn’t pretty. They continue to struggle mightily to hold onto their homes, their jobs, their health insurance, marriages and sanity in the worst economy in 80 years. In a very real sense, the families’ plight reflects the disintegration of the American middle-class and the death of dreams fueled by the promises of five of our presidents. – Gary Dretzka