MCN Columnists
Gary Dretzka

By Gary Dretzka Dretzka@moviecitynews.com

The DVD Wrapup

Mary Poppins: 50th Anniversary Edition: Blu-ray
Although I can vividly recall the same scenes everyone remembers from their first or second viewings of “Mary Poppins,” experiencing them again – this time in Blu-ray – made me suspect I hadn’t actually watched the in its entirety. Besides the beloved song-and-dance numbers, it felt as if I was watching the Disney classic for the first time. That’s how much of a difference the hi-def presentation made in my eyes. Even after all of these years and miles traveled, “Mary Poppins” is best described with a single adjective: “delightful.” If you demand more of a description, how about, “absolutely delightful”? I’m pretty sure that the things I found delightful this time aren’t the same ones as I when I was younger and only looking at the surface pleasures. Pigeon-holing “Mary Poppins” in any category reserved, but limited to “family entertainment” – the most overused and least precise two words in the Hollywood lexicon – only reduces the potential audience for the Blu-ray iteration. The same would apply to any review that limited its praise to the performances of Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke, while ignoring the musical contributions of the Sherman Brothers, choreography by Marc Breaux and Dee Wood, Richard Stevenson’s direction, Cotton Warburton’s editing and Edward Colman cinematography. For film-school students and buffs of any age, “Mary Poppins” offers a virtual master class in movie musicals. (Are film students encouraged to study Disney’s live-action musicals with the same sense of wonder usually reserved for Busby Berkeley’s extravaganzas?) Among the many other joys that pop off the screen in repeated viewings are Ed Wynn’s partially ad-libbed turn as Uncle Albert.  Like too many fine comic actors who worked in more than a couple of  Disney films – as characters or voices – Wynn’s loopy performances were easy to take for granted. This one is a gem.

I don’t know if the Blu-ray release of “Mary Poppins” was timed specifically to take advantage of the marketing push for “Saving Mr. Banks.” I’m guessing that it was one way to cut down on the expenses that usually attend the release of both features and DVD/Blu-rays these days. Certainly, “Saving Mr. Banks” and its fascinating backstory aren’t ignored in the bonus-features package. That the featurettes are extremely well made and not treated simply as teases to the movie is a classy move on Disney’s part. In one of them, co-stars Tom Hanks and Emma Thompson describe the process of being enlisted to dramatize Walt Disney’s nearly 25-year courtship of author Pamela L. Travers, and their acrimonious divorce, when she became disenchanted with the changes made to the source material. The Blu-ray also benefits greatly from the superb digital transfer to 1080p and DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 surround. The other bonus features new to the 50th anniversary edition include “Becoming Mr. Sherman, in which Jason Schwartzman sits down for a “fun and musical-filled afternoon” with the lyricist he plays in “Saving Mr. Banks.” Then, there’s the “Mary-Oke” sing-along feature, which allows fans to practice their karaoke moves on “Spoon Full of Sugar,” “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious,” Step in Time” and “Chim Chim Cher-ee.” Among the “classic” bonus features are “Disney on Broadway”; “Backstage Disney”; the short, “The Cat That Looked at a King”; commentary with Julie Andrews, Karen Dotrice, Richard Sherman and Dick Van Dyke; a reunion featurette; the deleted scene, “Chimpanzoo”; and a couple of less-elaborately conceived sing-alongs. – Gary Dretzka

Despicable Me 2: Blu-ray
All kids will need to know about “Despicable Me 2,” before demanding a copy be put in their Christmas stocking, is that Gru (Steve Carell), his three adopted daughters and the mischievous Minions are back from hiatus, only this time around, serving the forces of light and goodness. Once one of the most unpleasant of all unpleasant characters, Gru has become a model dad for Margo, Edith and Agnes (Miranda Cosgrove, Dana Gaier, Elsie Fisher). When some top-secret mutation serum is stolen, the head of the Anti-Villain League (Steve Coogan) asks the Man Who Stole the Moon to go undercover to reveal the identities of the new fiends and recover the serum. To accomplish the task, the single father is partnered with agent Lucy Wilde — Kristen Wiig, wearing a different hat in the sequel – who, while adding a pinch of 007 sparkle to the proceedings, could eventually bring out the romantic side of Gru.

All parents need to know about “Despicable Me 2” is that they’ll find plenty to enjoy here, as well. The Minions might even remind them of their own children on a sugar rush. And, although box-office results shouldn’t matter to mere viewers, grown-ups might also be interested in learning that their kids are backing a winner. While the sequel only cost about $76 million to make – a pittance in the animation game – it’s already returned $367 million in American greenbacks and $551.3 in foreign currency. That compares with a $251.5/$291.6 split on the first installment of the series, which cost an even more modest $69 million. For those keeping score at home, the percentage of international revenues returned to Universal Pictures jumped in four years from 53.7 to 60 percent. That’s the trend across the board and roughly why movies are now being made like Japanese and Korean cars, whose brands mean nothing in any language, so as not to offend anyone in a focus group. Animated features as important to a studio as “Despicable Me 2” is to Universal play well in all languages, with recognizable actors hired to voice the character in each market. I never know why slightly offbeat receive a PG rating, instead of the G historically reserved for most Disney products. It’s possible that someone raised an objection to the nearly stereotypical representation of mall taco titans, El Macho (Benjamin Bratt) and his teenage son, Antonio (Moises Arias), who has eyes for Margo. Instead, the ratings board cited “rude humor and mild action” … absurd. Look for a spin-off prequel, “Minions,” set for release in July of 2015. The Blu-ray adds several brief featurettes, commentary with directors Chris Renaud and Pierre Coffin, a deleted scene and, best of all, the mini-movies “Puppy,” “Panic in the Mailroom” and “Training Wheels,” along Carell’s introduction and a making-of short. I haven’t seen the 3D version of “DM2,” but I’ll bet it’s better than OK. – Gary Dretzka

Adore: Blu-ray
Even though it doesn’t contain any full-frontal nudity or graphic sex, Anne Fontaine’s “Adore” is the kind of high-minded trash that would clear out a theater if the protagonists weren’t played by Naomi Watts and Robin Wright. If the roles had required even a tad more nudity and gratuitous copulation – however simulated – the DVD could be filed under “MILFS,” “Cougars” and such mixed-doubles porn as “Mother/Daughter Exchange Club.” Because the stars’ intentions have shown to be beyond reproach, however, “Adore” was taken more seriously by critics and the celebrity press than it deserves. Ditto, last year’s sex-addiction drama, “Shame,” which was guided by Steve McQueen’s artistic “vision” and distinguished by the fine acting of Michael Fassbender and Corey Mulligan. Minus those names in the credits, it’s entirely possible that “Shame” would have been greeted with the same cold shoulder as Paul Schrader and Lindsay Lohan’s “The Canyons.” In “Adore,” Watts and Wright play lifelong friends and neighbors, Lil and Roz, whose surfer-dude sons, Ian and Tom, we watch growing up in neighboring homes overlooking a lovely Australian beach. At some point around their boys’ 18th birthdays, Lil and Roz notice how strapping they are in their trunks. Conversely, the lads have probably shared naughty thoughts about each other’s moms since hitting puberty. If that isn’t a scenario ripe for exploitation by a porn director, I don’t know what is. Lil, the sex-starved widow, strikes first by giving in to Ian after a night of drinking and small talk. As soon as Tom becomes aware of the tryst — meant only to be a one-off — he sprints to Ian’s house for some revenge sex with Roz, whose dramatist husband spends most of his time in the big city working on his works. After these one-offs, of course, the MILFs and their boy-toys continue their forbidden assignations, protected from the glare of peeping-tom neighbors by steep cliffs and lush foliage. Such relationships probably wouldn’t last sixth months in a more crowded environment, but, here, it’s a hothouse for sin. Indeed, even Roz’ husband, Harold (Ben Mendelsohn), and their closest friends think Lil and Roz are more interested in each other than anyone else.

That not only would make sense, but also, framed within the context of their inseparable friendship, be considered a perfectly acceptable alternative to the women’s years of desolation and loneliness, albeit in a beachside paradise. A lesbian/bisexual coupling would be far easier to take than the sight of moms and sons going at it, no matter how legal it may be. (If the genders were reversed, of course, “Adore” probably wouldn’t have made it past the script stage.) Fontaine, working from Christopher Hampton’s adaptation of a Doris Lessing novel, then fast-forwards a bit to the period after both of the boys have left the nest and find partners more their age. Lil and Roz seem to accept as fact that they’ll react like adults when their sons/lovers leave the nest for good and resist the natural temptation to feel a wee bit jealous of the new women in the family. The same mystery surrounds the question of how the sons will handle being corralled by women other than the mothers. Watts and Wright pull out all of the stops to make these scenes palatable. Audience members who’ve stayed with “Adore” this long should find the resolution to the story quite compelling.

As you can guess, the movie was an easier sell to festival planners than distributors. This is reflected in the change in titles, from Lessing’s “Grandmothers,” to “Two Mothers,” “Perfect Mothers,” “Day at the Beach,” “Adoration,” “Love Without Sin” and, finally, “Adore,” depending on which country it’s being shown. Once again, Fontaine is working in territory first staked out by Catherine Breillat territory.  Far more skin was on display in “Nathalie,” “Dry Cleaning” and “Chloe,” than in “Adore,” and the sex was borderline kinky. Other works by Fontaine, including “My Worst Nightmare,” ”Coco Before Chanel,” “The Girl From Monaco” and “How I Killed My Father,” demonstrated a willingness to present the woman’s point of view in such scenarios and take risks to fortify her vision. If nothing else, Christophe Beaucarne’s cinematography will have viewers checking out ticket prices to the beaches of New South Wales. I wouldn’t try to dissuade Watts and Wright’s many fans from giving “Adore” a shot, but it certainly isn’t for every taste. – Gary Dretzka

Vic
Typically, the only time most people get excited about short films – or, at least, interested – is when Academy Awards office pools are due and an educated guess in any one of the three categories devoted to them could mean the difference between winning the jackpot and wasting the entry fee … again. It’s far easier to predict the winners in editing and fashion categories, where clues can be found on the screen, in magazines and the Internet. Recently, alternatives to voting blind have been introduced in the form of combined preview screenings and Internet viewing sites, including iTunes. It’s always worth the effort of finding such outlets and streaming the content, even for non-prognosticators, because the films almost always are fun to watch. The only reason I bring this up is the arrival of a very good 2006 short film, “Vic,” which has been disguised to look like a feature. Normally, such a deception would prompt accusations of the distributor employing bait-and-switch tactics to sell an inferior product. In this specific case, however, I’ll give it a pass.  Among other things working in its favor, “Vic” has an intriguing pedigree. It was co-written/directed by Sage Stallone, who died last year of coronary artery disease, at 36. In addition to being a co-founder of Grindhouse Releasing, a company that restores and distributes noteworthy exploitation titles, Sage was the son of Sylvester Stallone and his first wife, Sasha Czack, who also appears in the film. Stallone was a good friend of cinematographer/editor John Culager, whose father, Clu, plays the title character as if it were a last will and testament to him.

Vic Reeves is an actor who’s seen his better days. He still gets the occasional assignment, in which he’s killed in some hideous way or plays the person doing the dirty deed. Forty years ago, Reeves worked in top-shelf Westerns and TV dramas. It’s almost as if someone in a talent agency invented slasher and splatter flicks for the sole purpose of keeping actors like Vic working. Today, his only friend is his dog, George. He has a bad heart and hasn’t been sent a decent script in years, perhaps decades. One night, out of the blue, he gets a call from a director, Tony LaSalle (Tom Gulager), of whom he knows nothing.  Tony says he’s always admired Vic’s work, but, at the risk of insulting the actor, asks him to come in the next day for a reading. After he feigns outrage, it’s easy to see that Vic is more than a little bit frightened of being judged by people half his age, who he doesn’t know and probably wouldn’t respect. When he gets to the casting office, Vic realizes that he knows most of the other elderly actors at the audition and they’re in exactly the same position as he is. The rest is best left unspoiled. A brief perusal of Gulager’s IMDB.com file would lead one to believe that his career was the model for the script. His was a familiar face on television in the 1960-70s. Handsome and virile, Gulager looked to be on the brink of stardom several times. After playing Larry the Mechanic in “Winning,” alongside Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward, he was chosen to play the caddish Abilene In “The Last Picture Show.” After turning down an opportunity to read for “M*A*S*H” – reportedly, he hated the story — Gulager spent most of the next 35 years playing supporting characters on television series and becoming a cult favorite in horror pictures. He says that rejecting the “M*A*S*H” overture was one of his biggest career mistakes and you can almost read it in his face.

Although it’s only 30 minutes long, “Vic” tells the kind of compelling story that wouldn’t benefit from another 30 minutes or 30 seconds of footage. Reeves is an easily recognizable character in Los Angeles and Culager expertly captures both his thoroughly broken spirit and the brief jolt of excitement that comes with possibly being given a new lease on his career. In a bizarre interview added to the bonus material, along with a montage of scenes from his many roles, Culager says that an actor’s greatest fear is being forgotten. But, as long as films like “The Last Picture Show,” “Winning,” “The Killers” and even “Piranha 3DD” are being shown somewhere in the world, that shouldn’t be his fate. Also along for the ride here are old-timer Carole Lynley, John Philip Law, Gary Frank, Gregory Sierra and John Lazar. – Gary Dretzka

Russ Meyer’s Fanny Hill/The Phantom Gunslinger: Blu-ray
Wakefield Poole’s Bible!
The Snake God
Cult Movie Marathon, Vol. 2
Far more a delicious oddity than a cause for celebration is Vinegar Syndrome’s double-feature release of “Russ Meyer’s Fanny Hill” and Albert Zugsmith’s “The Phanton Gunslinger” in sparkling Blu-ray and DVD. When, you ask, did King Leer put his double-D stamp on the oft-banned and frequently adapted classic of 18th Century porn? It was in 1964, immediately prior to giving the world a trio of unequaled classics of his own, “Mudhoney,” “Faster, Pussycat! Kill Kill!” and “Motorpsycho” (none of which, as far as I know, have been adapted or remade). First, though, a caveat. Although Vinegar Syndrome’s version bears Meyer’s name, it isn’t clear how much of the credit/blame belongs to the Bard of Bosoms and how much is shared by Albert Zugman, who produced such disparate titles as “Touch of Evil,” “Dondi” and “Sex Kitten Goes to College.” As the interviews included in the bonus package suggest, Zugman probably was more responsible for the final cut than Meyer. Indeed, Meyer buffs could probably pinpoint which scenes bear his signature and those directed by Zugman. At some point during the production process, Meyer and Zugman came to loggerheads over the direction the movie should take. For once, Meyer chose to take the straight-and-narrow path, forsaking his trademark in-your-face T&A for a more comically erotic approach to the material. Zugman insisted on the movie being flat-out “funny,” with more pratfalls, slapstick, wacky visual effects and midgets. Taking a cue from the employees of Mrs. Brown’s brothel, Meyer decided to take a powder, rather than comply with his boss’ desires. The result is less sexploitation than simulated anarchy, not unlike a Richard Lester film. What’s most interesting about “Fanny Hill,” however, is the cast. I recognized Leticia Roman for her turns in “G.I. Blues,” Mario Bava’s “The Evil Eye” and guest spots on such TV series as “F-Troop,” “I Spy,” “The Man From U.N.C.L.E” and “The Andy Griffith Show,” almost always as the voluptuous Italian visitor. Other familiar actors include Miriam Hopkins, Chris Howland, Helmut Weiss and Walter Giller.

Zugman’s preferred style is fully on display in “The Phantom Gungslinger” (1970), an entirely forgettable Western comedy that reminded me of “The Monkees,” “The Terror of Tiny Town” and “Lust in the Dust.” Here, the cast includes Troy Donahue, Pedro Armandariz Jr. and Emilio Fernandez. If there’s a politically correct nerve upon which Zugman’s film doesn’t stomp, I couldn’t find it. Donohue plays a divinity school graduate deputized when a gang of wildly stereotypical bandits invade he frontier town of Yucca Flats. Being on very good terms with God, Donahue gets several opportunities to dodge death and deal with the madness below. Both films have been restored from their original negatives and are being offered fully uncut for the first time. The package contains an amusing interview with “Fanny Hill” co-star Ulli Lomell, a more scholarly chat with film historian Eric Schaefer and reversible cover art.

Just as Meyer’s brand of soft-core features would, in the wake of “Deep Throat,” become marginalized by the mainstreaming of hard-core porn, so, too, would the work of writers and directors who saw a future for gauzy erotica and tastefully raunchy adaptations of Harlequin Romance novels. Radley Metzger, who saw naked women in an entirely different light than Meyer, would be forced to make the transition from such elegantly produced erotica (“The Lickerish Quartet,” “Therese and Isabelle”) to artsy hard-core porn (“Opening of Misty Beethoven,” “Barbara Broadcast”) that attracted couples and turned off the raincoat crowd. Arthouse sensation “Emmanuelle” was required to ratchet up the girl-girl sex and peep-show nudity, as well. In “Boys in the Sand” and “Bijou,” Poole had effectively lifted gay-porn cinema from the underground to the surface, playing in legitimate theaters and occasionally getting reviewed in the mainstream press. For some reason, Poole decided to go boy-girl in “Bible!,” a retelling of the Old Testament stories of Adam and Eve, Bathsheba and David, and Samson and Delilah, from the woman’s perspective. The only actor anyone is likely to recognize is Georgina Spelvin, a true porn pioneer who worked in the New York theater (“Guys and Dolls”), straight pictures (“Police Academy”) and hard-core (“The Devil in Miss Jones”). Her experience is evident in the scene in which Bathsheba comes between David and her husband, Uriah. Conceptually, “Bible!” wasn’t a bad idea. The “Adam & Eve” sequence is eloquently conceived and photographed … respectful, but with a funny twist at the end. Not surprisingly, perhaps, it failed. Too soft for the hard-care audiences and too irreverent for general consumption, “Bible!” (a.k.a., “In the Beginning …”) disappeared until its resurrection here. The transfer from 16mm is as good as one could possibly hope and the DVD includes Poole’s commentary; vintage interviews with Poole and Spelvin; screen tests, costume tests and effects tests; a stills gallery; and original trailer.

The Snake God” represents a sub-set of Italian sexploitation films, in which ultra-beautiful, if sexually frustrated women find themselves in exotic locations, largely populated with people of color. At some point, early in the narrative, the woman ears the jungle drums and discards her resistance to inter-racial sex and goes native. The forbidden fruit was planted in American horror movies of 1930-40s, when the wives of scientists and doctors stuck in Haiti dug the same jungle rhythms and discovered zombie love.  Voodoo filled the air and another stereotype was born. In the 1970s, Italian filmmakers would revive the conceit in such movies as “The Snake God” (“Il dio serpente”). In the U.S., the same scenario frequently played out in Blaxploitation pictures, including the vile “Mandingo.” The nightly drum circles drove Antoinette Cosway (a.k.a., the first Mr. Rochester) batty in “The Wide Sargasso Sea,” while, as late as 2005, “Heading South” exposed viewers to a new spin in the sexual-tourism business, which made the fantasies of older white women come true on junkets to Haiti. In Pierro Vivarelli’s “exotic-erotic” saga, “The Snake God,” a young Italian woman travels to the Caribbean with her much-older husband on business, but finds plenty of time to unwind, as well. On a boat ride around a supposedly haunted island, Paola (Nadia Cassini) spots a handsome black couple making love on the beach. It stimulates her to the point where she returns to find the woman, Stella (Beryl Cunningham), who she quickly befriends. Stella explains one of the island’s secrets, involving the Caribbean love god, Jambaya, who appears in the form of a python-like snake. Soon, Paola is feeling the same heebie-jeebies that all of the island women share when the jungle drums summon Jambaya. When the snake does make its presence known, the women shed their clothes faster than they would at a 75-percent-off sale at Nordstrom’s. By the time Jambaya reaches Paola, he’s transformed into the man who was chasing Stella on the beach. Bestiality, anyone? When Paola’s lover arrives for a visit, he’s powerless against the spell cast on her by Jambaya, so he trades partners with Stella, making everyone happy. Vivarelli would go on to make a couple more black-sexploitation flick and write scripts in the “Emmanuelle” series.

Shout!Factory’s second installment in its “Cult Movie Marathon” is full of cheesy oddities that defy viewers to spend more than 10 minutes of their valuable time watching. “Savage Island” (1985) combines scenes from “Hotel Paradise” (1980) and “Escape from Hell” (1980), with 10 minutes of fresh material with a fully clothed Linda Blair in an extended cameo. In his first film appearance, Penn Jillette plays a freaked-out prison guard. “The Naked Cage” (1986) is the better of the two women-in-prison movies here, in that it wasn’t made in the Philippines out of spare parts and stars Shari Shattuck, Angel Tompkins and Cathy Lee Crosby’s sister, Lucinda. In it, a young woman is falsely convicted of a bank robbery and sent to a maximum-security prison run by a corrupt warden. In “Angels from Hell” (1968), producer Joe Solomon’s sequel to the infinity better “Hell’s Angels on Wheels,” an angry Vietnam vet takes his bitterness out on cops and small-town residents. Its only redeeming virtue is Arlene Martel, who played Spock’s Vulcan bride, T’Pring, in “Star Trek,” and dated James Dean. Martel also appears in “Chatterbox” (1977), a very broad comedy about a pretty blond (Candice Rialson) who wakes up one morning, after having boring sex with her boyfriend, to discover that her vagina can talk. “V” is disgusted with Penelope’s choices in men and doesn’t care who knows it. After V is taught how to sing, they become a popular novelty act. Despite the film’s naughty premise and Rialson’s world-class body, “Chatterbox” is pretty chaste by today’s standards. Nothing below Penelope’s belt is shown and the humor is limited to double-entendres. It’s fun to see the zany comics, Professor Irwin Corey and Rip Taylor, in action. The extras include an interesting interview with the director; profiles of the stars; an essay on the film; and some wonderfully nasty previews of other Mondo Macabro titles. – Gary Dretzka

Berberian Sound Studio
Toby Jones delivers a mesmerizing performance as a British sound engineer hired by an Italian production company to work on a giallo horror picture, “The Equestrian Vortex.” Almost from Minute One, the introverted Gilderoy feels as if he’s a stranger in a very strange land, even though he should be at home inside any recording studio in the world. In the 1970s, the worlds of Italian and British cinema were as different as James Bond was from Roberto Benigni. The hard work of creating sound effects and conducting a symphony of horrifying screams, moans, grunts and growls is entrusted to the normally orderly Gilderoy, but Berberian Sound Studio is as chaotic as a traffic circle in Rome at rush hour. Producers pass the buck on expenses to secretaries who pass the buck right back their bosses. Arrogant studio executives lecture Gilderoy on techniques that he probably mastered in his freshman year in film school. The female voice actors must put up with the producers groping them in the recording booth, while the Foley technicians turn groceries into garbage to find the right sound to accompany blunt-force trauma. At lunch, everyone wants to talk when Gilderoy only is interested in eating and reading. He may be disgusted by the picture, “The Equestrian Vortex,” but the challenge of creating a soundtrack to match what’s happening on the monitor is too great to pass up. Then, just when he nails the supernatural vibe, the ghosts in the machine begin to talk back to Gilderoy. And, that’s when we know we’re in territory previously mined by David Cronenberg, David Lynch, Mario Bava, Dario Argento and Alfred Hitchcock. Unlike giallo, where the color schemes are as exaggerated as the women are sexy, “Berberian Sound Studio” looks as if it were shot in a backroom card game in the 1940s. Indeed, because 95 percent of the scenes are shot inside at Berberian, the only horror to be witnessed here plays out on the soundman’s face. With only two features under his belt writer/director Peter Strickland has proven the he doesn’t shy away from challenges. His well-regarded debut, the revenge thriller “Katalin Varga,” is a Hungarian-language film set in the Carpathian Mountains of Romania. Working on a miniscule budget, it reportedly was completed in four days. I can’t imagine “Berberian Studio” was any easier to film or that Strickland was given much more money to make it. I can’t wait to see what he does with his next picture, “The Duke of Burgundy.” The DVD adds deleted scenes, a photo gallery, a short documentary taken from the film and an interesting making-of featurette. – Gary Dretzka

Jump
Sightseers
The Angels’ Share
Whenever something terrible happens to people wearing silly costumes in movies, it’s impossible to take anything they do seriously? “Jump” takes place on New Year’s Eve in Northern Ireland and it seems as if everyone in Derry is celebrating a belated Halloween.  The ones who aren’t appear to have stepped out of a Guy Ritchie movie, which, I suppose, is just another sort of costume. As “Jump” begins, we’re introduced to a pretty young woman, Greta (Nichola Burley), standing on a very high bridge contemplating suicide. She’s wearing angel wings. Apparently, she’s just ditched two of her close friends (Charlene McKenna, Valene Kane) and inexplicably headed for the bridge. They’re wearing wigs, hats, mini-skirts and the kind of exaggerated makeup that suggests they’re either channeling Dorothy from “The Wizard From Oz” or Katy Perry in performance. While staring out over the inky black water below, Greta is approached by a young man, Pearse (Martin McCann), with two crimson slashes across his face. This time, the blood is real. It’s impossible to explain what happens next, without blowing the surprises to come. Let’s just say that co-writer/director Kieron J. Walsh spends the next 80 minutes interweaving the lives of all four of these people through wild coincidences and shared concern for their futures and those of loved ones. I can say, however, that the actual starting point for the non-linear story came hours earlier. That’s when Pearse’s brother, Eddie, stole a bundle of money from the safe belonging to Greta’s gangster father. Greta’s costumed buddies get caught in the maelstrom at various stages in the story. “Jump” sounds more complicated than it is, but only because Walsh and co-writer Steve Brookes have conceived interesting ways to keep the storylines from crashing into each other and burning. Not having instant access to British and Irish television networks, I didn’t recognize any of the characters. They’re all very appealing, though.

If any movie speaks to the “banality of evil,” it’s Ben Wheatley’s “Sightseers.” Rarely has the principle been as fairly demonstrated as in this inky-black comedy, which demands comparison to “The Honeymoon Killers” (1970). From decidedly lower-middle-class backgrounds, Tina and Chris are dysfunctional lovers. We sense this from Minute One by the choice of “Tainted Love” to play over the opening credits. Rather than listen to Tina’s overbearing mother whine about the accidental death of her beloved dog, they decide to go off on a roadtrip to England’s Lake Country. They seem perfectly suited to each other on the first leg of their journey, even if Tina seems a bit too fragile to leave the nest. That Chris has rage issues becomes apparent when he seethes over a fellow tourist’s refusal to pick up a candy wrapper he’s carelessly discarded. After an unfruitful discussion with the litterbug, Chris waits for the opportunity to penalize the mope for being discourteous. Tina is nowhere near as shocked as we are by the result. At every stop along the way through the pristine region, the lovers take turns being righteously indignant about some horrifying display of rudeness. As the death toll rises, their trigger points become frightfully more trivial. Those viewers who’ve ever had the urge to murder the guy sitting next to them on a plane for snoring – or slash the tires of a perfectly fit driver parked in a handicapped space – will recognize the anger the fuels Chris and Tina’s spree. That’s what “Sightseers” is about and, boy, is it effective. The juxtaposition of murder-most-foul and some of the most placid scenic attractions the U.K. has to offer is handled with just the right combination of editorial detachment and a perverse desire to make viewers squirm. Wheatley raises the degree-of-difficulty bar by staging the horrific violence in daylight hours. Wheatley has already proven himself a master of the unexpected moment in “Down Terrace” and “Kill List.” Stars Alice Lowe and Steve Oram co-wrote the screenplay. The DVD adds interviews with the cast and filmmakers.

Winner of the 2012 Cannes Film Festival Jury Prize, “The Angels’ Share” recalls the comedies of Glaswegian filmmaker Bill Forsyth. His “Local Hero,” “Gregory’s Girl” and “Comfort and Joy,” aren’t uproariously funny, but they were full of heart and acutely aware of the wrinkles in the human condition. For nearly a half-century, Ken Loach has been mining much the same naturalistic territory. His directing style springs from a social-realist point of view, although he’s capable of surprising us with such narrative dramas as “The Wind That Shakes the Barley.” “Angels Share” opens with a scene that suggests it will be anything but a comedy. Robbie is a typical ne’er-do-well, living in a city, Glasgow, over-populated with terminally unemployed punks and criminals in training. When under pressure, he can’t control his rage and, for that, he’s serving 300 hours of community service. Robbie’s already been given a couple of second chances, but, as long as he remains in Glasgow, he isn’t likely to find himself on the right track anytime soon. Time actually is of the essence, though, if only because his girlfriend is pregnant with their first child and he’s committed to providing for them. The people who share public-service duties with him may be every bit as hopeless as he seems to be, but they bond while on the job and the occasional field trip. It’s during a visit to a distillery that Robby discovers that he has a nose for guaranteed-age Scotch whisky. In Scotland, where some casks are worth their weight in gold, this is a valuable asset. Jobs in the whisky business are difficult to find in the best of times. In the worst, they’re impossible. When Robbie and his cronies are tipped to the auction of an extremely valuable cask, they devise a plan to profit from the sale without compromising the integrity of the distillery. Even if the movie’s outcome is clear from the get-go, everything in between is unpredictable. Loach’s frequent collaborator, Paul Laverty, deserves much of the credit for that. – Gary Dretzka

Saving General Yang: Blu-ray
Man of Tai Chi: Blu-ray
By now, fans of historical epics from China have come to expect elaborate battle scenes, brilliant costumes and set design, and spectacular locations. No country does it better, if only because Chinese filmmakers are able to ensure high-end production values that otherwise could only be afforded through the use of CGI technology. In this way, at least, “Saving General Yang” compares favorably to other super-sized adventures that depict important landmarks in the country’s tumultuous history. Director Ronny Yu takes us back to 10th Century Han and the battles that the Yangs of the Song Dynasty fought against the Khitans. Lessons learned from those conflagrations continue to resonate today. When the highly respected military strategist, General Yang, is called into battle against the approaching enemy, he expects the support of another general’s forces, as planned. When it doesn’t come, Yang is left to fend for himself against the powerful Khitans, who are intent on settling scores with his family. When the general’s seven sons, who are as different from each other as the Cartwrights from “Bonanza,” are apprised of the deception, they risk everything to bring their patriarch home to his wife, even if he’s barely alive. Each of the brothers present a different challenge to the Khitan leader. Not surprisingly, then, each of the battles has an individual personality, apart from being elaborately staged and undeniably exciting. The toll of war is powerfully depicted in scenes that don’t shy away from the horrific lengths that some men will go to intimidate their foes and desecrate the blond-drenched earth. Lingering scenes of battlefields strewn with thousands of corpses – some impaled on their spears –almost brought tears to my eyes. In another remarkable scene, bags filled with flammable material are hurled by advancing horsemen, torn open by a fuselage of arrows and set aflame by a another volley of fire-tipped arrows. The soldiers below are toast. It’s not something one would expect from the director of “Bride of Chucky” and “Freddy vs. Jason,” but the change in scenery must have worked wonders on Yu.

The older Keanu Reeves gets, the more he looks like Wayne Newton in “License to Kill.” There also times in the China-set wushu, “Man of Tai Chi,” when he resembles Kareem Abdul-Jabbar fighting Bruce Lee in “Game of Death.” Reeves directs and co-stars in “Man of Tai Chi,” playing a ruthless promoter of no-holds-barred and to-the-death kung-fu matches for the consumption of pay-per-view subscribers around the world. Tiger (Tiger Chen) is a student of one of the great tai-chi masters, who teaches that spirituality, discipline and balance are the keys for any class-A fighter. Reeves’ Donaka Mark recognizes in Tiger a superbly trained athlete of average size, whose master has instilled in him the attitude and skills necessary to bring down the mighty oaks of the sport. In fact, he’s nearly invincible. What he can’t do, however, is kill. That’s exactly what Marks expects his fighters to do, however. It presents a dilemma for Tiger, who desperately wants to win enough money to restore the master’s fighting school to its former grandeur. Ultimately, Tiger and Mark will be required to duke it out, and that’s when the difference in height of the two men becomes almost comical. Reeves doesn’t embarrass himself in the director’s chair, but some of the credit for his success belongs to fight choreographer Yuen Wo Ping and Chen, both whom worked with Reeves on the “Matrix” trilogy. The Blu-ray adds interviews with the principals. – Gary Dretzka

Jayne Mansfield’s Car
In this frequently captivating story, set in Vietnam-era Alabama, co-writer/director/star Billy Bob Thornton introduces us to a dysfunctional family that could be related to the Snopes clan of Mississippi’s Yoknapatawpha County and the characters in “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.” While “Jayne Mansfield’s Car” doesn’t match up to the work of William Faulkner and Tennessee Williams – what can?  — I’d be surprised to learn that Thornton crafted his story without their inspiration. In it, Robert Duvall delivers another fine performance as the cranky patriarch of the Caldwell family. Once the county’s medical examiner, Jim Caldwell spends his free time monitoring a police radio for car crashes and showing up at the scene minutes later to “assist” the local constabulary. An odd hobby, it serves the purpose of getting out of the house and giving him something to talk about at dinner. Early in the tale, co-written by Tom Epperson (“The Gift,” with Thornton), the old man learns of the death of his long-estranged wife, who moved to England when she got good and fed up with taking order from him. Among her last wishes was to be buried in the family plot, near the children she left behind. Her second husband, Kingsley Bedford (John Hurt), and members of his only slightly less eccentric family accompany the casket to Alabama, where a culture clash of epic proportions is about to explode. At first meeting, the families circle each other warily, trying to gauge how long it will take for the two widowers to get around to dealing with the 800-pound gorilla in the living room. The younger family members find it much easier to get along, if only because their dysfunctions complement each other. The Vietnam War comes into play when Carroll Caldwell (Kevin Bacon), a wounded veteran of that fracas, gets arrested for leading a peace rally in full hippy regalia. After that incident, much of the drama is informed by the flawed service records of the men in both the Caldwell and Bedford families.  Just as the war was a black cloud that followed every American around in the 1960s, so, too, do marijuana, LSD and whiskey create a haze around everything that happens when the families begin to find things in common, besides a dead wife and mother. Novelists tend to fare better with family material like this than filmmakers limited to two hours of screen time.  That’s certainly the case in “Jayne Mansfield’s Car,” which sometimes reaches for laughs and tears. Even so, there are enough wonderful things here to keep ship afloat. I especially enjoyed Katherine LaNasa’s interpretation of a prototypical Miss Alabama, 20 years past her glory days and horny as hell. You’d think that Bacon would be too old to play a recently returned Vietnam vet, but, turns out, he’s not. Robert Patrick, Ray Stevenson, Tippi Headron and Frances O’Connor also contribute to the story. – Gary Dretzka

The Big Gundown: Blu-ray
Scream Factory Presents TV Terrors
If I could take away only one thing from the interviews contained in the Blu-ray edition of Sergio Sollima’s “The Big Gundown,” it’s that Italian filmmakers really, really hate to hear their work labeled “spaghetti Westerns.” I get the feeling that the ones we meet here don’t understand the history of the term or why they shouldn’t take it personally. Before being recognized a legitimate subset of the genre, the imported titles were given very little respect by distributors, exhibitors, audiences and most critics. It took the combined contributions of Sergio Leone, Ennio Moricone and Clint Eastwood to awaken Western fans to the reverence paid to the genre by Italian filmmakers and the operatic grandeur of such films as “Once Upon a Time in the West,” “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly” and the “Dollars Trilogy.” (Italian-American directors Francis Ford Coppola and Martin Scorsese would do the same thing for the gangster movie.) Released in 1966, “The Big Gundown” got lost in the backlog of Italian movies waiting to be cleared for landing in America’s overcrowded B-movie marketplace. For lack of a more distinctive classification for “Italian-American Westerns made in Spain” – which Sollima and his pals might have preferred – critics and fans went with the snappier, “spaghetti Western.” It was, after all, pretty tough for Americans to admit that the best Westerns being produced in the 1960s were being made by Italians. Lee Van Cleef was pretty well known in Europe and America when he was teamed with the Cuban-born rising star Tomas Milian in the “The Big Gundown.” (Milian would make an even bigger splash in the stylized crime movies of the 1970s.) Here, Van Cleef plays the bounty hunter Jonathan “Colorado” Corbet, who’s tracking a cowboy, Manuel “Cuchillo” Sanchez (Milian), falsely accused of raping a 12-year-old girl. Even while sharing a jail cell in Mexico, the gunfighter refuses to accept Cuchillo’s version of the story. In Colorado’s mind, he was guilty until proven innocent or lynched to save the time and effort required for a trial.

The new four-disc package from Grindhouse represents the vastly under-seen movie’s first U.S. home-video release. The 2K digital restoration looks and sounds great, especially Moricone’s evocative score. One of three feature-length versions found in the special edition, “La Resi Del Conti,” contains 15 additional minutes of uncensored action never before seen in the U.S. There are expanded DVD and HD versions of the original American cut, with three deleted scenes. The fourth disc contains Moricone’s original soundtrack. Additional bonus features include extended interviews with Sollima, Milian and screenwriter Sergio Donati (“Once Upon a Time in the West”); commentary By Western film experts C. Courtney Joyner and Henry C. Parke; liner notes by Joyner and music expert Gergely Hubai;
stills galleries; and marketing material.

“Scream Factory Presents TV Terrors” is thusly titled because they represent the variety of horror-lite movies made for presentation on network television in the 1970s. The movie-of-the-week concept originated in the early 1960s, but, like the mini-series, didn’t blossom until the need for fresh material in lucrative prime-time spots surpassed the cost of licensing hit movies. They were distinguished by the attributes of today’s made-for-cable fare and limited by tight budgets and network censors. More often than not, such pictures copied ideas already forwarded in features. The most interesting thing about “The Initiation of Sarah” and “Are You in the House Alone?” is the mix of up-coming-actors and older, more familiar stars. The former borrows several basic themes from “Carrie,” while discarding the nudity and bloodshed. When two very different sisters enter college, the deeply withdrawn adoptee is rudely rejected by the sorority that is anxious for the prettier and more outgoing one to join. After other hurtful bullying takes place, Sarah (Kay Lenz) turns her telekinetic powers to high and begins to wipe out cool kids. Among the other fresh-faced youth are Morgan Brittany, Morgan Fairchild, Tony Bill, Robert Hays, Tisa Farrow, Talia Balsam and Michael Talbott. Shelley Winters plays a sorority house’s resident witch bitch, while Kathryn Crosby plays the mean mother of the sisters. I don’t know if the villain in “Are You in the House Alone?” inspired the mysterious caller in “Scream,” but they share the same modus operandi. Kathleen Beller plays a teenager being plagued by a series of increasingly ominous phone calls. Among the recognizable names and faces here are Dennis Quaid, Blythe Danner, Tony Bill (again), Robin Mattson and John Travolta’s sister, Ellen. – Gary Dretzka

Far From Vietnam
PBS: Held Hostage
Forty years after the end of one of the bloodiest wars in American history, a unified Vietnam has become a major trade partner with the United States, as well as a destination for tourists and soldiers seeking “closure.” Meanwhile, historical revisionists and diehard patriots have contrived ways to turn defeat into victory. “If only we’d been allowed to invade North Vietnam,” they argue. “Things would have ended differently.” They might as well suggest, “If we had drones, we could have won the war without putting American boots on Vietnamese land.” No matter, say business executives on both sides of the Pacific … let Saigons be bygones. “Far From Vietnam,” a collaborative anti-war documentary Initiated and edited by Chris Marker, was shown in the United States no more than a handful of times, months before the mind-changing impact of the Tet offensive. A showing at the 1967 New York Film Festival was greeted with enthusiasm by left-leaning viewers and outrage by audience members pre-disposed to believe the lies spread by American politicians over the opinions of a half-dozen French (a.k.a., commie) filmmakers. The lineup included Jean-Luc Godard, Joris Ivens, William Klein, Claude Lelouch and Alain Resnais, all of whom worked, Marker insisted, “to affirm, by the exercise of their craft, their solidarity with the Vietnamese people in struggle against aggression.” With the exception of Ho Chi Minh, General Vo Nguyen and a bunch of captured soldiers, the faces of average North Vietnamese men, women and children were absent in media reports from the front. “Far From Vietnam” was made, in part, to introduce us to the people upon whom our bombs were falling and who were resisting the most powerful war machine in history in every conceivable way.

Besides visiting the country and filming non-combatants preparing for the next bombardment, the filmmakers recorded the opinions of French and American protesters on both side of the picket signs.  In other segments, Tom Paxton sings an antiwar song; the history of post-World War II Vietnam is enumerated; the story of an American man who set himself on fire and died as a statement against the war is recalled; Godard speaks to a camera; Fidel Castro sits in a field, explaining Cuba’s take on wars of liberation; students get the crap kicked out of them by police; and an intellectual decries the impotence of French liberals. Many of the arguments could apply to the war and liberation struggles going on, right now, around the world. The stark and disturbing photographs and newsreel footage – given a fresh 2K polish by CNC film archives – go a long way toward explaining why our government and military have conspired with the media not to show us the innocent victims of drone strikes in Pakistan and elsewhere. For years, photographers weren’t allowed to take pictures of flag-dragged caskets lined up in an airport hanger. The DVD includes Marker and Francois Reichenbach’s “The Sixth Side of the Pentagon,” which documents the October 21, 1967, Mobilization to End the War in Vietnam rally in Washington It was the largest gathering of anti-war protesters to date, coming two weeks after Che Guevara had been killed in Bolivia with the help of CIA operatives. Norman Mailer wrote about it in “Armies of the Night.” I wonder how the 50th anniversary of that event, which took place at some of the same landmarks as Martin Luther King’s “March on Washington,” only four years earlier, will be treated in the media.

The intense PBS documentary, “Held Hostage,” dissects the Al Qaeda attack on Algeria’s Amenas natural-gas plant, deep in the heart of the desert. The terrorists crossed into Algeria from either Mali or Libyan to take over the facility, which practically defined what it means to be a “sitting duck.” The four-day siege left more than 37 foreign hostages dead, most of the terrorists eliminated and much of the plant destroyed. When the sand settled, several other perplexing questions remained. In an attempt to answer them, the producers of “Held Hostage” replicated as many of the scenarios as they could, based on interviews with journalists, family members, intelligence officials and survivors of the ordeal. The testimony and dramatizations are backed up by images collected from spy planes and the officially sanctioned reports supplied by Algerian spin-doctors. The film has a tick-tock feel to it, as the longer the hostages were endangered, the less chance there was for rescue. Government officials declared the rescue mission a success because the gas facility wasn’t completely destroyed and several terrorists were killed. Even from the start of the siege, however, there seemed to be little concern for the well-being of the foreign workers, who merely got in the way of Algerian special-forces soldiers anxious to keep the gas pipeline flowing. At one point, two men who had survived rocket attacks on a convoy moving from one gas facility to another, five miles away, were strafed by an assault helicopter and turned back from a line in the sand drawn by the military. At a time when NSA employees can monitor the porn-viewing habits of terrorists and average citizens, alike, it seems incredible that a convoy of SUVs could go undetected as they sped across hundreds of miles of territory on a solidary desert road. Conversely, how could the mastermind of the attack escape, perhaps on the same road? Another unsolved mystery surrounds the inadequate security afforded the workers at the plant, where guards weren’t allowed to carry guns, so as not to trigger a massive explosion. It wasn’t a point that concerned the terrorists, who weren’t afraid to fire their weapons whenever the mood struck them. Then, too, if the intent of the fighters was to trade hostages for Al Qaeda prisoners in Algerian jails, why didn’t they even pretend to negotiate. Somehow, “We don’t negotiate with terrorists” doesn’t quite cut it. “Held Hostage” doesn’t get many, if any, of the questions answered, but its coverage of the siege is as exciting as any movie. – Gary Dretzka

Doctor Who 50th Anniversary Special: The Day of the Doctor: Blu-ray 3D/Blu-ray
Futurama: Volume 8: Blu-ray
Weird Creatures With Nick Baker, Series 2
Nature: Parrot Confidental
Nature: Love in the Animal Kingdom
Considering the dominance of British-made mini-series in recent Emmy competition, it’s remarkable that no one at the television academy has seen fit to honor one of the most popular BBC exports in broadcast history. Earlier this year, the prestigious Peabody Awards honored “Doctor Who” with an Institutional Peabody “for evolving with technology and the times like nothing else in the known television universe.” On the occasion of the show’s 50th anniversary – including the occasional hiatus – several things happened. Among them, fans were jolted by the news that Matt Smith would be relinquishing his title as the 11th Doctor and a two-month search for his successor would ensue. In August, it was announced that Peter Capaldi (“The Thick of It”) would be introduced in the upcoming Christmas special. The “rejuvenation” almost overshadowed the events leading up to the international simulcast of “Doctor Who 50th Anniversary Special: The Day of the Doctor,” in HD and 3D (in theaters). As is the nature of such dramatic transitions and anniversary commemorations, the show would combine the past, present and future to simultaneously inform, reminisce and entertain. The special chronicles the dramatic last day of the Time War. It stars Matt Smith and Jenna Coleman, as his companion, Clara Oswald. Previous leads David Tennant and Billie Piper were recruited for the show, along with War Doctor John Hurt. The cast was rounded out with a cameo by 4th Doctor Tom Baker; Joanna Page, as Queen Elizabeth I, and Jemma Redgrave, as the daughter of Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart. The special also marked the return of the Daleks and Zygons, shape-shifting aliens from the 1975 serial “Terror of the Zygons.” The new Blu-ray 2D/3D package contains featurettes that will go a long way toward making sense of the story for newcomers: prequel “mini-sodes,”  “The Last Day” and “Night of the Doctor”; a behind-the-scenes glimpse of the production; “Doctor Who Explained,” in which 50 years of Doctor Who” are condensed to 47 minutes; and marketing material.

It’s entirely possible that the good doctor, in at least one of his iterations, steered the TARDIS to 31st Century America, where former pizza-deliverer Phillip J. Fry is working for a new and different delivery service, run by distant relative-to-be, Professor Farnsworth. He’s also spent the last 14 years attempting to deal with his feelings for Leela, who figures prominently in the final season … or, should I say, what purports to be the final season. We’ll see. As is often the case with series that have experienced production delays or long hiatuses, the title, “Futureworld: Volume 8,” is far from precise. In fact, Volume 8 is comprised off the last 13 episodes of Season 7. The Blu-ray adds amusing audio commentaries on all of them; “Precious Trimming,” a compendium of deleted scenes; “Futurama University,” a set of featurettes detailing production information; and “Inside Futurama: The Writers’ Room of Tomorrow.”

British explorer and biologist Nick Baker returns from his travels to his natural habitat — the British Natural History Museum — for another season of “Weird Creatures With Nick Baker.” Ever since he was “dumped” at the august institution as a kid, Baker’s been fascinated with the least attractive of creatures. As an adult, he travels to exotic locations around the globe to commune with the critters in their natural habitats. Among the second season’s offerings are up-close-and-personal visits with Slovenia’s “human fish,” snapping turtles in the bayous of Louisiana, the “mimic octopus,” “Frankenstein fish” and an “invisible lizard” or two. Baker’s a terrific host, who takes his job – risking his life and limbs for our amusement – very seriously.

Like too many Dalmatians purchased whenever Walt Disney updates its “101 Dalmatians” franchise, parrots of all color and stripe fare poorly when purchased as a pet or household accessory. The fact is, parrots simply aren’t suited for domestication. They tend to outlive their owners, snap at people who get too nosey, sometimes repeat offensive language and are noisy beyond belief. The temptation to own such a magnificent creature is sometimes too great for humans to resist. It explains why the smuggling of infants had to be banned by Customs officials and people in such places as Brazil and Costa Rica will snatch those babies out of their nests and conspire to bypass the restrictions. “Nature: Parrot Confidental” documents the process and subsequent dangers posed to the population, no matter their origins and habitats. The focus is on education, protection and re-introduction into the wild. Along the way, we meet the kind folks who rescue and treat abandoned and abused birds, but often run out of space, money and patience for people who shouldn’t have purchased them in the first place.

Also from “Nature” comes “Love in the Animal Kingdom,” which examines the mating rituals of animals around the world. Sure, we’ve seen plenty of shows on the same subject, but this one sticks pretty much to the rituals themselves and leaves the rest to our twisted imaginations. If it stops well short of what some might consider to be animal pornography, the documentary also makes it clear that all of the weird dances, flushes of color and mano-a-mano combat isn’t simply for the entertainment of the herd, school or pack. The photography is splendid. – Gary Dretzka

 
Angels Sing: Blu-ray
Christmas Bounty
The Ultimate Life: Blu-ray
Have yourself a merry little alt-country Christmas with “Angels Sing,” a sugar-coated dramedy that adults – especially lovers of rootsy music – are likely to enjoy more than kiddies, although there’s enough going on here to keep most ’tweens, at least, interested for 90 minutes.  If the story is instantly recognizable – events conspire to turn a boy against the spirit of the season – the cast is full of surprises. Harry Connick Jr. and Connie Britton (“Nashville”) play David’s parents, Michael and Susan Walker, who, one day, are given an amazing deal on a first home by a mysterious bearded gentleman (Willie Nelson). His only stipulation is that they honor a neighborhood tradition. It involves decking the house with a something approaching a million lights in various configurations. No sooner does the couple move in than the neighbors (Lyle Lovett, among them) start bugging the newcomers about their obligation to the community. As the holiday approaches, Michael loses any interest in making his neighbors happy and, when David joins the chorus, he’s sent to his grandparents (Kris Kristofferson, Fionnula Flanagan) to get out of dad’s hair. On the way back, David is injured in a car crash that claims the life of his grandpa. Because he momentarily delayed their departure, the boy blames himself for the tragedy. Now, it’s David’s turn to say, “Bah, humbug,” to Christmas. Knowing that “Angels Sing” is a Dove-approved DVD, it’s a safe guess that something miraculous is going to happen to Michael and David to restore their faith in the power of Christmas lights to heal the world’s wounds. Despite the fact that Jesus doesn’t make a cameo at his own birthday celebration, “Angels Sing” is an enjoyable and meaningful way to kill a couple of hours in the lead-up to Christmas. Other musicians making an appearance are trucking troubadour Dale Watson, Texas swinger Ray Benson and blues-belter Marcia Ball.

From ABC Family and WWE Films – two names you never thought you’d see together – comes “Christmas Bounty,” a movie that’s far more about bounty(hunters) than Christmas.  Francia Raisa, the almost terminally cute star of ABC Family’s “The Secret Life of the American Teenager,” plays the daughter of the owners of a New Jersey skip-tracing business. She’s laying low in New York City for some reason, working as a teacher. When Tara gets a threatening phone call from a mobster she helped put away years earlier, she makes an excuse for leaving her wimpy boyfriend in the lurch and hightails it back to Jersey. Things get a tad on uncomfortable side, when she reunites with her former boyfriend – WWE superstar Mike “The Miz” Mizanin – who’s still jonesing for her. Things will get even weirder when the boyfriend shows up unexpectedly, almost simultaneous to the arrival of the mobster. By the time things get back to normal, it’s Christmas. Hence, the title.

The Ultimate Life” is a follow-up to the inspirational 2006 drama, “The Ultimate Gift,” based on a novel by Jim Stovall. Critics weren’t at all charitable Michael Landon Jr.’s faith- and family-based story. The first installment, which was made for $1.2 million, grossed nearly three times that number, even though it played in relatively few theaters. I don’t know how it did on DVD, but, I’m guessing, not bad. It was blessed with decent reviews, something that can’t be said for the sequel, which failed to cover its production nut of $3.1 million. “Life” basically covers the same ground as “Gift,” in that the story is based on advice given a spoiled trust-fund kid by his wealthy grandfather (James Garner). Once again, Jason has found himself stuck in a moral and ethical quagmire. More interested in making money than the needs of his family, he returns to his grandfather’s electronic will for guidance. Now, if only his own kids would get over themselves. Garner makes a video cameo here, while Peter Fonda adds some in-person advice. Frankly, I lost track of who’s who less than halfway through the movie. “Gift” is only for hard-core fans of faith-based entertainment. If anything, though, the message is more Ayn Rand than Jesus Christ. – Gary Dretzka

Secret Life of Walter Mitty
Stella Dallas
With the release of Fox’s reimagining of “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” just around the corner, Warner Home Video thought it appropriate to dust off the 1947 original, which stars Danny Kaye, Virginia Mayo and, yes, Boris Karloff. According to Hollywood legend, author James Thurber offered producer Samuel Goldwyn $10,000 to not make the film. (After seeing the early reviews of the Ben Stiller version, I can almost see his hands reaching out from the grave, offering $100,000 to buy back the rights.) As usual, Kaye is delightful as the mild-mannered proofreader who daydreams himself into numerous far-fetched situations in which he can be heroic. The restoration not only brings the story back to life, but it reminds us of a time Hollywood set designers worked their magic on giant sound stages, even knowing that audiences could see the seams that bound fantasy to reality. If audiences minded the conceit, they were too busy enjoying the singing, dancing and storytelling to complain.

Barbara Stanwyck delivers an Oscar-worthy performance in King Vidor’s adaptation of Olive Higgins Prouty’s novel and Henry King’s original 1925 silent version of “Stella Dallas.” Born into poverty, Stella is an aggressively persistent social-climber. Upon landing a wealthy gentleman and tasting the lush life, Stella sacrifices everything so that her daughter never is required to experience deprivation. When Stella becomes too meddlesome. In doing so, she relinquishes custody to her husband. Stanwyck’s performance is one for the ages. I recommend watching “Stella Dallas” before tuning in to the Oscar ceremony, where lesser performances are celebrated on an annual basis. Everybody remembers the heart-breaking ending, but the rest of “Stella Dallas” is excellent. The new DVD upgrade also includes the 1925 version, which is pretty good, too. (The movie was remade in 1990, as “Stella,” with Bette Midler and Trini Alvarado.) – Gary Dretzka

The Seasoning House: Blu-ray
7E
Set in some Balkan shithole, at the height of the recent troubles, “The Seasoning House” expands on rumors – some probably true – of the enslavement of young women orphaned by the murder of family members. Here, the kidnap victims are forced to live in horrid conditions, trapped inside a makeshift brothel, where soldiers are encouraged to work out their psychoses on the helpless women. The girls who balk at such treatment are shot up with drugs that keep them just this side of being comatose. If that scenario sounds too hideous to contemplate, it gets worse.  In his first feature, co-writer/director puts everything he’s learned about special-effects makeup and prosthetic design to use, ratcheting up the horror to near-unwatchable levels, even for those already exposed to torture porn. And, yet, there is a very thin silver lining to all the darkness. The very talented Brit actress, Rosie Day (“Homefront”), plays a deaf girl required to stand by while her parents and siblings are slaughtered by militia members, one of whom has a financial stake in the brothel. Instead of having to prostitute herself, “Angel” does most of the dirty work for the pimp (Kevin Howarth), Viktor, who claims to love her. When Angel isn’t shooting up the other girls or ministering to their wounds, she investigates ways to escape. With the doors locked and windows barred, her only exit is accessible by crawling and climbing through the old house’s infrastructure, behind walls, amid the ducts, pipes and chimneys. She’s sufficiently petite to slip through holes the size of a doggy door, allowing her to bypass hallways and locked doors. It’s a cool skill for a tortured protagonist to possess, even if it is wasted in such an offensive movie. It comes in especially handy when the militia men attempt to murder everyone from the pimp to the girls. So much for the silver lining. Once Angel does manage to escape, the chase continues in the woods and nearby homes, where the residents pretend not to know what’s going on in the house on the hill. Viewers who make it that far probably would value from the informative making-of featurette.

The silver lining on the cloud over “7E” is even thinner. After the mysterious death of his cousin’s roommate, Clyde (Brendan Sexton III) travels to her ramshackle New York apartment to care for her. The cousin, Kate (Antonella Lentini), is completely freaked out, so Clyde has trouble connecting with her. As he scours the neighborhood in search of clues to the murder, potential suspects (James Russo, Armando Riesco) start climbing out of the woodwork. In his first film, Teddy Schenck delivers a palpable sense of dread, throughout, but I’ll be damned if I could tell to what end. – Gary Dretzka

Comments are closed.

Dretzka

Quote Unquotesee all »

“Most of these women were in their early twenties. Most of them refused to go any further with him, but a few went to dinner, or to some sort of casting situation, or to someplace private… if the stories were just about some crazed sex addict who approaches thousands of women on the street trying to get laid, I wouldn’t be posting this now. I don’t want to be attacking every Hollywood douchebag who hits on countless women. That type of behavior isn’t cool, but I think it’s important to separate douchebaggery from any kind of sexual coercion. But the women I talked to who DID go someplace private with Toback, told stories that were worse than the women only accosted on the street… So I did what I could do in my impotent state – for over twenty years now, I’ve been bringing up James Toback every chance I could in groups of people. I couldn’t stop him, but I could warn people about him… I’ve been hoping the Weinstein/O’Reilly stuff would bring this vampire into the light (him and a couple others, frankly). So I was happy today to wake up to this story in the L. A. Times.”
~ James Gunn

“BATTLE OF THE SEXES: Politics and queerness as spectacle/spectacle as politics and queerness. Pretty delightful, lovely, erotic. A-

“Not since EASY A and CABARET have I seen Emma Stone give a real sense of her range. Here, she has pathos and interiority and desire. I love the cinematography and the ways in which the images of the tennis icons are refracted and manipulated via various surfaces/mediators. Also, wild how a haircut is one of the most erotic scenes in cinema this year. Spine tinglingly tactile that feels refreshing. Proof that *cough* you don’t need to be ~graphic/explicit~ to be erotic *cough*. Also, it made me want to get into tennis. Watching it, at least.

“There are interesting touches and intimations as to the cinematic nature of sports, & unpacking the formal approach of broadcasting sports.Also, I was here for Sarah Silverman smoking. And also, hi Mickey Sumner!! It’s a really interesting film about the ways in which public spectacle is never apolitical, and how spectacle is prone to assignation.

“There’s this one other scene from BATTLE OF THE SEXES that I love, and it’s the one in the bar. You see Billie looking after Marilyn as she dances. Through a crowd. There’s a paradoxical closeness and distance between them. In the purple light, and the kitschy decor, everything is distorted. But Billie catches a glance and you can feel the nervous swell inside.”
~ Kyle Turner