By Gary Dretzka Dretzka@moviecitynews.com
The DVD Wrapup
Ain’t Them Bodies Saints: Blu-ray
Just because an independent movie garners glowing reviews and comparisons to Robert Altman and Terrence Malick, doesn’t mean that anyone will remember what was written and predicted months before awards season. Amnesia often strikes critics and voters for the various academies around this time each year, and, while the vast majority of all nominations are legit, it’s the sins of omission that hurt most. “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints” presents just such a case. There’s no question that writer/director David Lowery’s second feature recalls Altman’s “Thieves Like Us” and Malick’s “Badlands,” in a very favorable way. It can stand on its own two legs, though. Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara play star-crossed lovers and small-time crooks, Bob and Ruth, who, in the opening reel, are arrested after a shootout with police at an abandoned rural school house in the Hill Country of Texas. An accomplice is killed and a cop is wounded by Ruth’s unlucky shot. Bob voluntarily takes the fall for her and is promptly sentenced to 25 years in prison, while Ruth, who’s pregnant, gets a much shorter term. A few years later, with Bob out of the picture, Ruth is able to enjoy a semblance of a normal life, thanks to the financial backing of Bob’s somewhat shady father (Keith Carradine, in another brilliantly restrained performance). When Bob escapes, everyone knows where he’ll be heading after the smoke clears. He takes his time getting back to their dusty hometown, but the vagaries of tainted love demand it. For everyone else, to paraphrase Tom Petty, “The waiting is the hardest part.”
Bob is obsessed with reuniting with Ruth and their daughter, not considering for a moment that she might turn him away at the door. In his one-track mind, Bob can’t accept the possibility that Ruth might not want their daughter to be cursed by their sins. Bob’s dad rightfully fears she might be too weak to resist, as well, even if she’s become close to the deputy (Ben Wheeler, also excellent) she shot and has yet to acknowledge her role in the capture. Rather than turning “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints” into one long chase, with multiple gunfights and a Shakesperian ending, Lowery interweaves Bob and Ruth’s parallel threads after news of the escape reaches the Hill Country. It’s during this weeks-long process that Carradine and Wheeler come to the fore in their efforts to keep Ruth from backsliding. There are other forces at work here, but they best be left unrevealed. Neither should viewers read anything into the title, which, according to Affleck, derives from Lowery misinterpreting a lyric from a song he hears. Like “Badlands” and “Thieves Like Us” before it, “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints” is, at its core, a tone poem. Everything from the acting, dialogue and cinematography, to the locations, music and set design, come together as a harmonious whole. Lowery co-edited indie sensation “Upstream Color” with writer/director Shane Carruth, so fans of that movie might already know what to expect here. The Ross brothers’ making-of featurette nicely captures the film’s ominous mood. (Although I wouldn’t bet money on it, Lowery’s finale might have been influenced by Carradine’s first movie, “McCabe and Mrs. Miller.”) There’s also deleted scenes, a behind-the-scenes featurette, music video and Lowery’s predictive first feature, “St. Nick.” – Gary Dretzka
The Lone Ranger: Blu-ray
I wonder if Disney’s prognosticators were able to walk away from test screenings of “The Lone Ranger” – which, by the way, looks and sounds terrific in DVD and Blu-ray – brimming with confidence that Jerry Bruckheimer, Gore Verbinski and Johnny Depp had captured the same lightning in a bottle as they had with “Pirates of the Caribbean.” I also wonder if any of them had bothered to check out the fate of “The Legend of the Lone Ranger” on IMDB.com. Corporate hubris, alone, might have blinded them to the terrible drubbing that William Fracker’s action-adventure received upon its release in 1981. To be fair, the producers of “Legend” shot themselves in the foot when they prohibited Clayton Moore – beloved star of the TV series – from wearing the character’s trademark mask when appearing in public. It didn’t go over very well with loyal fans, who might have welcomed some cross-promotion. If the casting of Depp, as Tonto, didn’t go over well in some quarters, Disney might have countered by pointing out that he wasn’t a pirate either and “POTC” tested well in Somalia. (Conceivably, anyway.) A lot of things had changed in the 32 years since “Legend” tanked, after all, and that film’s $18 million budget wouldn’t make a dent in Disney’s marketing campaign. Still, going into the long Fourth of July weekend, it remained an open question as to how moviegoers in the prime demographics would respond to a big-budget Western. The Coen Brothers’ talent-laden “True Grit” did extremely well domestically, but its budget was $175 million smaller. Adjusting for inflated ticket prices, worldwide revenues were virtually the same. That suggests that consumers will pay good money to see excellent Westerns.
So, what happened? While “True Grit” and the borderline iconic “Rooster Cogburn” both were adapted from the same best-selling novel, and “POTC” was inspired by the an incredibly popular theme-park ride, “The Lone Ranger” carried 80 years’ worth of very expensive baggage with it going into the summer blockbuster season. Early word on the Verbinski version was that it took many of the same liberties with Western lore as “POTC” did with far-less-sacred pirate tropes. The same creative team had much greater license to mess with pirate stereotypes than the Lone Ranger and Tonto, characters who represented certain distinctly American values. “Lone Ranger” is based on the same origin story as the television show and 1981 adaptation, but some of the comedy touches recall Mack Sennett, the Lenny Bruce cartoon, “Thank You, Mask Man,” and the old gag that ends, “What do you mean ‘we,’ kemo sabe?” And, for what it’s worth, Tonto has traditionally been played Native Americans, including Jay Silverheels, Michael Horse, Ivan Naranjo and Chief Thundercloud. There’s nothing wrong with Depp’s performance or the costume he wears, which signifies that he’s less a sidekick than a medicine man or a phantom warrior. What did it suggest to newcomers and loyal fans, alike, that the title character got second billing to Tonto on the marketing material and seemed infinitely less comfortable in the saddle than anyone else in the trailers? Again, that’s a lot of baggage for screenwriters Justin Haythe, Terry Rossio and Ted Elliott to overcome.
In response the negative reviews and writers’ obsession with the movie’s budget. Bruckheimer argued that time will have the same effect on the movie’s popularity as it has with “Flashdance,” which took a critical licking, but came back ticking. In any case, he clearly makes movies for audiences, not the guys and gals who tend to watch big movies on the small screens of studio screening rooms. I doubt that “Lone Ranger” will ever stand alongside “True Grit,” “”Rooster Cogburn” or even “Cat Ballou,” but I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that it does well in Blu-ray, if not in sell-through, then rental and PPV. That’s where Depp’s marquee value will count most. If Armie Hammer’s name sounds at familiar, it’s because he’s the great-grandson of oil tycoon Armand Hammer and is blessed with the patrician genes that make casting directors drool. Even with his mask on, the Lone Ranger was completely overwhelmed by Tonto, who steals nearly every scene in which they’re together. Even Depp plays second banana to the magnificent scenery of the Four Corners region. No expense was spared in the staging of the train chases, either. (The producers literally built a railroad in the middle of the desert to minimize the use of CGI and miniaturization.) So, there are some very good reasons to cough up a few bucks for a rental or download. Too much of the bonus material resembles an EPK than an in depth look at the movie’s origins and inspiration, but, in between the puffy moments, there’s some nice stuff. Hammer gets most of the coverage in “Armie’s Western Roadtrip,” a scenic tour of the Southwest with the star, Verbinski and Bruckheimer; “Riding the Rails of ‘The Lone Ranger’,” chronicles the construction of the five-mile, looping railway, complete with vintage built-from-scratch trains; “Becoming a Cowboy” follows the actors to Cowboy Boot Camp; and, along with a deleted scene, a blooper reel in which cast members deal with unruly horses, malfunctioning props and mutinous mustaches. – Gary Dretzka
Anyone whose heart skips a beat whenever they pass an Amber Alert warning on the highway, or see a description of a suspect vehicle flash across the bottom of their TV screen, should be able to empathize with the parents of two missing girls in “Prisoners.” Their level of fear and anxiety may not match that of the characters played by Hugh Jackman, Maria Bello, Terrence Howard and Viola Davis, but, if it did, Denis Villeneuve’s first-thriller would be impossible to watch, instead of merely painful. It explains why Jackman’s name – as well as those of supporting actors Paul Dano, Melissa Leo and Jake Gyllenhaal — has come up recently for consideration in the academy’s Best Actor category. If “Prisoners” stirs memories of Ron Howard’s 1996 kidnap drama, “Ransom,” which starred Mel Gibson and Gary Sinise, it’s because fathers in both films decide not to wait for the police to do their job. French-Canadian director, Villeneuve (“Incendies”), and writer Aaron Guzikowski (“Contraband”), elected to make both sets of parents as average as possible and not further burdened by ransom demands. In the upper Midwest, Thanksgiving is rarely a warm and sunny occasion and the film’s overall tone is captured in the menacing skies. The girls’ absence isn’t noticed until well past dinner and the evidence trail has begun to disappear in the slush. The only noteworthy clue emerges when the couples’ older siblings recall having to chase the girls from a motorhome parked in front of the house where the meal would soon take place. The detective assigned to their case, Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal), is quietly efficient and, unlike his boss, isn’t in a rush to announce news of an arrest, if not a conviction. The first thing he does after getting a rough description of the vehicle is to see if it can be linked to any of the registered sex offenders in the immediate area.
When the prime suspect, Alex Jones (Paul Dano), practically falls in his lap, Loki does everything he can do to get a statement from the suspect, short of beating one out of him. Because Alex has an IQ too low to register on the police equivalent of a Richter scale, the police are at a distinct disadvantage. When one of the fathers learn about the arrest, he assumes they have the right man in custody, but have botched the interrogation. We know this isn’t the case and aren’t at all surprised when Keller Dover (Jackman) attacks Alex upon his release for lack of evidence. He believes that his assumption is correct when Alex whispers something he deems to be incriminating into his ear. Of course, no one hears it except Keller. Frustrated to the point of rage, he decides to launch and independent investigation and focus it entirely on Alex. Loki casts a wider net, revealing several nasty sex offenders still practicing their perversions. Everything that happens from this point in the narrative qualifies as a potential spoiler, even if the title provides a hint at the likeliest scenario. Just as Gibson turned into a completely different person when forced to deal directly with the kidnappers in “Ransom” – or Harrison Ford, in “Frantic,” and Liam Neeson, in “Taken” – Jackman goes all Wolverine on Alex. Loki hasn’t entirely ruled him out, but the evidence has begun to point in another direction. The men aren’t that far off base, even if they’re looking in different direction. I can say, however, that audiences will solve the crime before the dads and the cops. It won’t spoil anyone’s enjoyment – if that’s right word – of “Prisoners,” however. Leo, as Alex’s protective aunt, once again is excellent, as is Roger Deakin’s atmospheric cinematography. The 153-minute Blu-ray edition adds only interviews and a short making-of featurette. – Gary Dretzka
The Family: Blu-ray
Robert De Niro’s name and screen persona are so identified with the Mafia that his presence, even in such parodies as “Analyze This,” immediately elevates them to a level they couldn’t possibly have attained without him. Would Andrew Bergman’s criminally underappreciated, “The Freshman,” gotten off the page if Marlon Brando hadn’t agreed to play Corleone clone Carmine Sabatini? Would Marisa Tomei have been in position to earn an Oscar if Joe Pesci hadn’t agreed to channel Tommy DeVito in “My Cousin Vinny”? Without such hooks, filmmakers satirize classic movies and beloved characters at their own risk. They’ve set the bar so high that anyone who attempts to copy their success is only courting disaster. Frankly, before the Blu-ray arrived in the mail this week, I didn’t even know that “The Family” existed. In it, DeNiro plays a character, Giovanni Manzoni, who, before “ratting out” his boss, was a major player in the New York mob. By his own admission, Manzoni served as the model for the kid wearing the yellow shirt in the opening sequence of “Good Fellas.” After testifying, Manzoni and his wife (Michelle Pfeiffer), their teenage son, Warren (John D’Leo), daughter, Belle (Dianna Agron), and German shepherd, Malavita, entered the federal Witness Protection Program and were sent to France. Old habits die hard, however, so, while they’re supposed to be lying low, they can’t help but act as if nothing had happened to earn a one-way ticket to Europe. Wife Maggie’s personal fixation on explosives and arson follows her to France. The kids take what the learned at the feet of their father and his pals to their new high school, where they make friends by dispensing of the bullies and organizing the school’s rackets. Frank would prefer to live in peace with his neighbors, but, being French, they can’t help rubbing him the wrong way. The ones who go so far as to attempt to fleece the newcomers are given several good reasons not to repeat the mistake. Meanwhile, too, a contract put out on Manzoni – now known as Fred Blake – has followed him across the ocean. Tommy Lee Jones plays the exasperated federal marshal assigned to make sure that the Manzoni/Blakes’ profile remains low and the assassin is eliminated before he can eliminate the family. That’s the essence of Luc Besson’s inky-dark treatise on clashing cultures – based on Tonino Benacquista’s novel – and I enjoyed the first two-thirds of it immensely. After the jailed don almost miraculously discovers where the family is currently residing, he orders a small army of goombahs to team up with the hitman.
When they descend on the quaint Normandy town in their black Escalades, “The Family,” takes an abrupt turn into Besson territory. People not named Manzoni or Blake get gunned down without rhyme or reason and the mercenaries demolish everything in their gun sights, not unlike the Nazis and the American liberators 70 years earlier. As also is typical in such shootouts, machine-gun-toting thugs suddenly lose their ability to hit the broad side of a teenager, opening themselves to the odd lucky shot. The action isn’t bad, but it comes out of left field so quickly one wonders if Besson suddenly realized he was approaching the two-hour mark and needed to call it quits. Believe me, the violence makes both versions of “The Untouchables” look like snack-time in kindergarten. De Niro seems to enjoy playing his character, who drives Jones crazy by insisting on writing his memoirs, inviting neighbors for barbecue and participating in film forums at the local theater. It’s Pfeiffer, though, who steals the show, playing a grown-up version of Angela de Marco, in “Married to the Mob.” “The Family,” which was executive-produced by Martin Scorsese, adds the Blu-ray featurettes “Making ‘The Family’” and “The Many Meanings of FU*%!,” a word that figures prominently in the narrative. – Gary Dretzka
Children of a Darker Dawn
These days, films set in a post-apocalyptic environment literally are a dime-a-dozen. Some of them qualify as quality entertainment, others aren’t worth the makeup lathered on the actors playing zombies. The first example of dystopian fiction that I can recall is the 1959 “Twilight Zone” episode, “Time Enough at Last,” in which Burgess Meredith plays the lone survivor of a nuclear disaster. An avid reader, he was never afforded the time at work or at home to pursue his passion. Among the ruins, however, he has plenty of time to pore through the books he finds inside what’s left of a public library. Unfortunately, something horribly ironic happens to alter his plan. For many longtime fans of “The Twilight Zone,” “Time Enough at Last” has been the standard against which all subsequent dystopian entertainments are measured. Today, something more than irony is required of any movie or television show to reach audiences, whether it’s the aforementioned zombies, space aliens or roving gangs of desperate survivors. Four years ago, in his directorial debut, South African special-effects wizard Neill Blomkamp came up with a spin on the subgenre that made lots of money, received excellent reviews and garnered “District 9” a rare Best Picture nomination for a sci-fi thriller. Set in Johannesburg, it imagines a time, between the end of apartheid and today, when a huge alien spacecraft loses power over the city and continues to hover there for years thereafter. After a cordial welcome the aliens wore out their welcome with the South Africans and were forced to live in deteriorating shantytowns, just as native blacks once were sequestered the The alien Prawns, named for their pinchers and exoskeleton, spark the action scenes by resisting a forced march to another relocation camp. The fighting is captured live as part of the 24-news cycle and viewers’ insatiable desire for blood and guts. “Elysium,” Blomkamp’s futuristic follow-up to that international hit, was greeted with great anticipation by genre buffs and action fans, alike. It didn’t disappoint.
Handed a budget $75 million larger than the one he had on his first feature, Blomkamp came up with a scenario that advanced ideas seen first in “District 9.” In 2154, the gap between Earth’s haves and have-nots has grown so large that the world’s rich now reside in a giant space station hovering over the Earth. That the neighborhoods resemble those in Beverly Hills is no accident. The wealthy have in-home access to health-care appliances capable of curing ills not even discovered in the age of the Prawns. Meanwhile, on Earth, “favela” dwellers are simply left to their own devices. Resistance fighters decide that nothing as good as Elysium should last forever, as long as the poor are promised nothing, except hopelessness. Matt Damon plays an ex-con factory worker exposed to a deadly dose of radiation in an accident. Told he has, at most, a week to life and no access to quality health care, Max volunteers his services to the opposition. His tortured body is fitted with a robo-exoskeleton that makes him nearly as invincible as those accorded Elysium’s Special Forces’ troops, led by William Fichtner and Sharlto Copley. Once the rebels breach the gates of Elysium, the movie becomes one long chase-and-shoot scene, with everyone, including queen bee Jodie Foster, seeking to extract a computer file implanted in Max’s body.
Max won’t rest until he can find a machine to cure the leukemia eating at the daughter of a nurse who ministered his wounds. Even when she’s hooked up to the device, however, she is denied treatment accorded “citizens.” Both Max and the girl are united by a rapidly approaching deadlines for their deaths. After watching one high-profile character die unexpectedly, anything is possible. The Blu-ray is enhanced mightily by Sony’s 4K mastering and DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 lossless soundtrack. The bonus package adds “Visions of 2154,” which explores the conceptual art, 3D models and visual-effects progressions used to create Elysium; an extended scene, “Kruger Wakes Up”; “The Journey to Elysium,” an extensive three-part making-of documentary; “Collaboration: Crafting the Performances in Elysium,” looks at casting and the performances of Damon, Foster and Copley; “The Technology of 2154,” on the picture’s “metaphorical” technological designs with emphasis on robots, exoskeletons, and weapons; “In Support of Story: The Visual Effects of Elysium,” which focuses on the Raven and other flying vehicles, the robots, and a scene depicting the repair of damaged flesh; and “Engineering Utopia: A Society in the Sky,” with a look at futurist Syd Mead’s contributions to the film’s design and creating a believable and functional Elysium.”
The original title of “Children of a Darker Dawn” was “The Railway Children,” after a popular 1906 novel by Edith Nesbit. It figures prominently in this story of survival among kids orphaned by a virus that ravaged the adult population, but spared children. At its center are Irish sisters whose search for a home takes them from the slums of Dublin to a commune that isn’t dominated by flower children. Like the other abandoned kids, the girls (Catherine Wrigglesworth, Emily Forster) learn how to scavenge food other provisions, while avoiding roving gangs of predatory youth. They wander from town to town and sleep in abandoned buildings, but not before Evie reads to Fran from “The Railway Children.” It’s a book their mother read to them before catching the virus and going mad. After coming to the aid of another girl, Alice, attacked by a gang of boys, they wander through the mostly deserted countryside until they reach the commune. Even there, however, they’re challenged by residents cautious of newcomers. Naturally, things get worse before they get better. It bears thematic comparisons to “28 Days” and “Lord of the Flies.” – Gary Dretzka
Inside every film genre lies a subgenre reserved for true stories that are stranger than fiction. As directed by Renny Harlin, “Devil’s Pass” is one of them. In the winter of 1959, when no sane person should be venturing into remote mountain passes, nine Russian students embarked on a ski trek across the northern Urals in Sverdlovsk Oblast. The degree of difficulty for such an excursion was put at Category III, the highest, and temperatures dropped to minus-30 Centigrade. Two weeks later, the five members of the party led by Igor Dyatlov were found dead. In another two months, the bodies of four others would be revealed. That much is known, at least. It would be determined that the wounds found on the bodies of the first group were of the non-fatal variety, while the others had injuries that could have come from blunt force trauma of one kind or another. Investigators came to believe that the early sounds associated with an avalanche might have caused the campers to quickly exit their tents and attempt to reach a nearby tree break. Most of the bodies didn’t have shoes and a couple of the tents were ripped open from the inside. The four who were found further away, were lying in a ravine, under four meters of snow. One of the women was missing her tongue and forensic radiation tests indicated there were high doses of radioactive contamination on the clothes of a few victims. After the official investigators filed their reports – “compelling natural force … absence of a guilty party” — local residents put their spins on the story. The files were relegated to a secret archive until the 1990s. When they were recovered, parts of the report were missing.
Imagine how much fun a classroom full of aspiring filmmakers might have if assigned to write a screenplay – let’s called it, “The Dyatlov Pass incident” — given only that much information and a free hand to embellish the facts. It probably would look a lot like “Devil’s Pass.” Without giving away the details, writer Vikram Weet decided to take the found-footage approach, so popular with fans of paranormal conjecture. Five American college students are issued a grant to return to the site of the original events and film their trek under the same conditions. Sure enough, an avalanche rips through their encampment. This time, however, the campers are forewarned by two loud noises that could have come from explosives or sonic booms. After assessing the damage, the survivors are approached by Russian soldiers wielding high-powered rifles. They retreat to a partially man-made cave whose secrets are protected by a thick door, which they somehow have no trouble accessing. Then, the real fun begins. Neither very good nor very bad, “Devil’s Pass” maintains a sharp edge throughout most of its 100-minute length. The setting couldn’t be more formidable, as it was filmed very near the incident at the pass. If the actors aren’t particularly noteworthy, neither would a quintet of student filmmakers in real life. – Gary Dretzka
Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters: Blu-ray
Not being familiar with Rick Riordan’s best-selling series of “Percy Jackson & the Olympians” titles for children, I was at a distinct disadvantage watching “Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters.” Like any Boomer, I’ve seen my share of wonderful movies based on the Greek myths. This one started out with all the suspense of a stroll through a Boy Scout jamboree. What I didn’t notice at first glance were the signs that these half-normal kids carried the genes of ancient satyrs, centaurs and Cyclopes. For his part, the title character is the son of Poseidon and his girlfriend is the daughter of Athena. As camp counselor Dionysus, the always-game Stanley Tucci looks like Sam Rockwell after a hard day’s night. What I didn’t get was what a collection of demi-gods was doing in a forest paradise that reminded me of a Club Med for kids. The arcadian playground’s name, Camp Half-Breed, should have given me a clue, at least. “Sea of Monsters,” based on the second book in the series, opens at a point in mythic time when Camp Half-Blood’s ability to repel monsters – a robotic Minotaur –is nearing crisis levels. If the perimeter is compromised, the tree protecting Zeus’ daughter, Thalia, could die, resulting in worldwide catastrophe. Being the son of Poseidon, Percy is the perfect candidate for leading a mission to capture the Golden Fleece from Polyphemus, across the Sea of Monsters. Filmed for presentation in 3D, Thor Freudenthal’s action/fantasy is designed to please t’ween and teen viewers who enjoy a heaping helping of eye candy with their meal.
The interesting thing to me was learning that Riordan created novels out of the bedtime stories he would tell his son Haley, after he had been diagnosed with ADHD and dyslexia. Haley had been studying Greek mythology in second grade and requested that his father come up with tales based on Greek myths. Conveniently, Riordan had taught mythology at the middle-school level and was able to come up with enough tales to satisfy his son. When he ran out of ideas, Riordan invented Percy Jackson, an outwardly normal kid whose role in the first episode was to recover Zeus’ thunderbolt, which he had been accused of stealing. That explanation allowed me to understand how an average American kid might end up in Club Med for demi-gods. The first two films in the series did OK business, especially when foreign sales are weighed, but finished well short of blockbuster status. With three more Percy Jackson books still awaiting adaptation, I wonder how committed Fox is to the three other books in the franchise. I hope they find a way to keep it going. The Blu-ray package adds the special features, “Tyson Motion Comic,” “Back to Camp Half-Blood,” “It’s All in the Eye” and “Deconstructing a Demigod.” – Gary Dretzka
Force of Execution
What would Christmas be without a made-for-DVD stocking stuffer starring Steven Seagal, Danny Trejo and Ving Rhames? Another holiday without sunshine, that’s what. In the incomprehensibly titled and routinely formulaic “Force of Execution,” three of the biggest names in the action game battle it out for supremacy of New Mexico’s underworld. (Tax breaks sometime make strange bedfellows.) Seagal plays Mr. Alexander, a mob Brahmin who’s feeling the pressure of up-and-coming warlords representing competing African-American and Mexican-American interests. The fun starts when an assassin hired by Mr. Alexander is duped into killing the wrong prison inmate. As punishment for falling for the ruse, the boss orders his goons to work over the hitman, Roman Hurst, well-played by rising martial-arts star, Bren Foster. In an uncharacteristic act of mercy, Mr. Alexander decides to spare his feet of fury, as they might come in handy someday for both men. Roman can accomplish more with his feet than most bad guys can with their pistols and brass knuckles. After licking his considerable wounds for a few months, he hooks up with Trejo’s ex-con restaurateur, Jimmy Peanuts. Mr. Peanuts claims that he can fix the young man’s busted-up hands, using the freshly extracted poison from a scorpion. A battle royal ensues after the Iceman (Rames) kidnaps Mr. Peanuts’ sparkling blond waitress and the three warring parties meet at Mr. Alexander’s fortress home. I found it unusually entertaining. Foster’s especially fun to watch, with his leg kicks and newly restored fists. The Blu-ray adds interviews and making-of material, with director Keoni Waxman (“Maximum Conviction”). – Gary Dretzka
Considering how many decent-to-great movies and TV mini-series have been set in pre-revolution Cuba, it’s disheartening to find one as flat and poorly executed as “Havana 57.” Once again, the central struggle is between leftist students, Batista goons and the hoodlums who run the casinos and nightclubs. After the body of a naked dancer washes up on the seawall and a student is murdered by a cop, the city’s one honest police detective becomes concerned when both investigations are thwarted. Despite the interference, Officer Velez dedicates himself to solving the crimes, anyway. In doing so, he pisses off everyone involved, including the radical students who condemn him for not reporting his partner’s brutal interrogation techniques. The best thing to be said about “Havana 57” is that the actress who plays dancer/escort Juliana (Elisabetta Fantone) could hardly be any more intoxicating. It also benefits from being shot in Havana, instead of the D.R. The city doesn’t look much different today than it did in 1957, so the producers didn’t have to spend money on vintage automobiles and appropriate locations. Too bad, no one thought it necessary to hire a competent screenwriter. – Gary Dretzka
Ghost Team One: Blu-ray
If a freshman class of aspiring filmmakers were assigned to make a spoof of cable’s “Ghost Hunters International” and other reality-based shows about paranormal events, it couldn’t have turned out as lame as “Ghost Team One,” which was made by professionals. In fact, the movie could be used by instructors as an example of how not to make a movie of any genre. “GTO” is set in a typical college-town flophouse, where slackers throw parties for stoners and the most boastful of them pass out before they can make good on their predictions of getting laid. Brad and Sergio (Carlos Santos, J.R. Villarreal) accidentally arouse the spirit of a man who died in the house and decides it might be fun to freak out the lodgers. You know the spirit is on the premises because the p.o.v. camera starts to shake. A sultry amateur ghost hunter, Fernanda (Fernanda Romero), offers to expose the ghost. When she does, however, she spends the rest of the movie dodging the male characters’ attempts to expose her, instead. As far as I can tell, “Ghost Team One” exists only to attract Hispanic audiences familiar with the actors from television and other movies. It would be more entertaining if the characters spoke Spanish and the subtitles were in Chinese. For what it’s worth, the Blu-ray extras include deleted/extended scenes, “Chuck’s Video Diary,” bloopers and a behind-the-scenes featurette from a dog’s point of view. – Gary Dretzka
The Beast Within: Blu-ray
In 1986, before voyeurism went global on the Internet, perverts were mostly limited to window peeping, long-range telescopes and strategically placed mirrors. Private detectives made money snooping on their clients’ spouses and enemies, but it usually was a lonely job with little money to be made. Today, however, cameras are everywhere and they can be operated by computers. Women who rent apartments or homes from shady landlords are well-advised to have the rooms “swept” by a surveillance expert before they move into them. In “Crawlspace,” none of the women renting space in a rooming house managed by Klaus Kinski suspect that anyone would be able to shimmy his way through secret passageways to peek and play creepy tricks on them. David Schmoeller’s film was strictly intended for consumption by genre buffs and drive-in audiences, Kinski’s presence elevated it to another level of sleaze altogether. The German actor may have appeared in more than anyone’s fair share of crappy films, but he also starred in some truly great movies, including “Fitzcarraldo,” “Nosferatu,” “Aguirre, the Wrath of God” and several memorable 1970s’ gialli. His presence, alone, demanded that critics pay attention to “Crawlspace.” Even if the movie is no great shakes, Kinski’s portrayal of the insane son of a twisted Nazi doctor remains frightening. What’s great about the new Blu-ray edition are Schmoeller’s recollections of working with Kinkski, which range from hilarious to downright bizarre. The anecdotes can be found in the short, “Please Kill Mr. Kinski,” as well as his entertaining commentary.
The other movie in the new Scream Factory package is “The Beast Within,” a truly gruesome affair in which an unseen swamp creature rapes a woman (Bibi Besch) on her honeymoon and, 17 years later, she returns to same area with her husband (Ronny Cox) to figure out what’s gotten into her emotionally damaged teenage son. One guess. No sooner do they arrive than attacks similar to the earlier rape begin to reoccur and law-enforcement official begin to whisper amongst each other. If you’ve already guessed the rest of the story, please keep it to yourself. In hindsight, what’s most interesting here are the special makeup effects that transformed a handsome teenage boy into a hideous beast within minutes. In 1982, the techniques were brand new. – Gary Dretzka
I don’t know what happened to Angela Garcia Combs’ debut feature after it was shown at the Los Angeles Reel Film Festival, in 2009. Beyond one minor review on IMDB, it doesn’t seem to have existed at all. While more of a personal project for the writer/director/star than a fully polished ready-for-prime-time picture, “Nothing Special” features compelling performances by Karen Black and Barbara Bain, as Louise’s mother and maternal boss. Every time Louise’s professional and personal life appears to be straightening out, the bipolar May (Black) finds new ways to crush her hopes. She does this by manipulating situations, demanding more and more of her time and acting out her surplus of bitterness. Louise works in the insurance industry, primarily thinking of new ways for her company to make lots more money. When one of her ideas pans out, she attracts the attention of her boss, Catherine (Bain), who takes her under wing. On the surface, May and Catherine are very different women. A closer look reveals them to be two sides of the same coin. Besides sharing Louise’s attention, they both are undergoing treatment for cancer and, where May has a stranglehold on her daughter, Catherine’s nurturing may be in reaction to the estrangement she feels from her resentful daughter. “Nothing Special” also describes how the tension at home negatively impacts her relationships with men. It’s not a particularly easy film to watch, but it’s honest and deals with issues most filmmakers avoid, if only because they’re a hard sell to distributors and audiences. Black’s performance as a bipolar woman is almost too scary to watch. For what it’s worth, Combs and Black have both worked with Henry Jaglom and, sometimes, it shows. – Gary Dretzka
TV to DVD
Frontline: League of Denial: The NFL’s Concussion Crisis
PBS: The Graduates/Los Graduados
Every week, the toll rises … right before our television eyes. If it isn’t the star quarterback who goes down with a concussion, it’s a wide receiver or defensive back. In years gone by, fans worried most about season-ending knee injuries and the occasional broken neck. For the last couple of years, though, the focus has been on concussions. The National Football League has been aware of the epidemic for a long time and has occasionally attempted to cut down on the rising number of head-trauma injuries by creating penalties for high hits and the use of helmets as lethal weapons. The league also recently mandated that doctors who specialize in such things be stationed at field level. What the NFL has refused to admit is an understanding of the debilitating effects of repeated concussions on retired players. In the face of a multibillion-dollar lawsuit filed in defense of players who give the word, “punch drunk,” new meaning, the accountants and tycoons who run the football industry simply clammed up about the issue. Earlier this season, controversy flared over the possibility that the NFL pressured ESPN to eliminate its name from the “League of Denial: The NFL’s Concussion Crisis” partnership with “Frontline.” This, despite the fact that ESPN reporters Mark Fainaru-Wada and Steve Fainaru wrote the book that inspired the “Frontline” presentation. It was subsequently shown on PBS. Coincidentally, perhaps, a settlement was reached just before the start of the 2013 season. The league cautioned against interpreting the deal as an admission of legal liability. A separate lawsuit, filed by five former NFL players specifically against the Kansas City Chiefs, is still pending. Many observed that the greatest threat posed to organized football – including Pop Warner, high school and universities – is the possibility that parents will read the book or watch the documentary and forbid their children from participating in the sport. With no feeder system, the goose that lays the golden eggs could die of starvation. As such, “League of Denial” should be considered must-reading for parents of teenage boys considering the sport and season-ticket holders.
PBS’ special two-part documentary, “The Graduates/Los Graduados,” extends the discussion that began with its six-hour mini-series, “Latino Americans,” by focusing specifically on a half-dozen high school students in as many different regions of the country. The boys and girls profiled by Bernardo Ruiz candidly discuss the personal, financial and societal difficulties that make them consider dropping out of school and weathering the many storms of adulthood, including raising children. One of three Hispanic students, we’re told, leave early. The numbers are as staggering as the hurdles facing students, teachers and administrators in dealing with such problem. Still, the documentary isn’t preoccupied solely with the negative. Ruiz also promotes the successes in the struggle. – Gary Dretzka
Justified: The Complete Fourth Season: Blu-ray
Burn Notice: Final Notice: Season Seven
Family Guy: Volume Twelve
With the recent passing of Elmore Leonard, what better way to honor the memory of one of America’s foremost writers of fiction – please don’t limit his efforts to the mystery genre – than to revisit one of his most popular multimedia characters. Even before Deputy U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens became the protagonist of the terrific FX series “Justified,” soon entering its fifth season, Leonard made him the centerpiece character of the novels “Pronto” and “Riding the Wave,” as well as the short story “Fire in the Hole,” which provided a blueprint for the series. Ever since moving back to his native Harlan County, Kentucky – once, better known as “Bloody Harlan” – he’s continually locked horns with the inbred Crowder, Bennett and Crowe clans. Timothy Olyphant is wonderful as the cocky lawman Givens, widely feared for his shoot-first-ask-questions-later approach. What keeps fans buzzing each new season, however, are the exquisitely drawn villains, some of whom have proven to be too cool to kill. In Season Four, Raylan is forced to deal with a crime that hits pretty close to home. Thirty years ago, a man wearing a defective parachute plummeted onto a residential street in Corbin, Kentucky, dying instantly. His body is surrounded by bags full of cocaine and an ID tag for a “Waldo Truth.” What happened to the bounty and the identity of “Waldo Truth” stayed a mystery until the bag and ID were discovered behind the drywall at a home once owned by Arlo Givens, minus the blow. Apparently, the statute of limitations for flying without wings has yet to expire, because a Detroit mob has been waiting to make the acquaintance of Waldo Truth for, lo, these many years. Meanwhile, Boyd Crowder must deal with a snake-handling preacher, whose sermons are cutting into his business. The Blu-ray package adds the featurettes, “Becoming Boyd,” “Script to Screen: The Finale,” “Deadly Serious: Constable Bob,” “Anatomy of an Episode” and “The Veteran’s Experience,” as well as 10 cast and crew commentaries, outtakes and deleted scenes.
Another one of television’s best series, USA Network’s “Burn Notice,” came to an end this fall, with a story arc almost exclusively devoted to discovering if Michael has sold his soul to the megalomaniacs at the CIA to keep his partners out of jail. The same question comes up when we are introduced to the international super-vigilante, James, who is the real target of Michael’s CIA mission. The CIA didn’t do their “burned” spy any favors by inserting him into a deep-cover investigation in the Dominican Republic. Fiona, Sam, Jessie and mama Maddie have yet to come to grips with Michael’s disappearance and Fi, at least, has found another boyfriend. As they put out smaller fires around Miami, Michael is assigned to free the former Russian agent, Sonya, who appears to be wanted by several different governments, including our own. Trouble is, she’s being held in Cuba by her former employees and needs to call on the gang help him out. Later, as Michael begins to fall for Sonya, he becomes conflicted over his lingering feelings for Fi and the CIA. The same applies for his cronies, who suspect Michael truly has gone over to the “dark side.” If anything else defines the season, apart from Maddie’s ongoing hysteria, it’s the deployment of explosives to solve most problems. It’s almost as if the producers had a ton of explosives left in the warehouse and needed to get rid of them before the series finale. Like “Justified,” “Burn Notice” is as binge-worthy as any show on television. The DVD adds plenty of deleted scenes.
The first thing to know about Fox’s “Family Guy: Volume Twelve” is that it covers the episodes in Season Eleven – including the 200th episode, “Yug Ylimaf” – not the already-infamous 12th “season,” in which millions of fans were forced to prematurely mourn the death of Brian, the martini-guzzling dog. The new DVD collection includes 22 uncensored episodes, including fan-favorite “Into Fat Air” and “Roads to Vegas.” Among the celebrity guest voices are those belonging to Johnny Depp, Jon Hamm and Sofia Vergara. Those who cared so desperately about Brian’s fate should know by now that their prayers were answered. It’s entirely possible that creator Seth MacFarlane was simply attempting to see if anyone was still paying attention after all these years. It’s interesting to learn that “Family Guy” literally was saved by people whose numbers didn’t necessarily show up in the ratings, but purchased the season collections. – Gary Dretzka