By Gary Dretzka Dretzka@moviecitynews.com
The DVD Wrapup
Murph: The Protector: Blu-ray
On Friday, Peter Berg’s “Lone Survivor” spreads to theaters around the country. It is an account of SEAL Team 10’s ill-fated mission to locate notorious anti-coalition fighter Ahmad Shahd and call in an air strike. Operation Red Wings was initiated after military intelligence discovered a band of some 200 insurgents in the Hindu Kush Mountains along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. Shahd and his Mountain Tigers were responsible for facilitating movement of Taliban and Al-Qaeda fighters along the mountainous border separating Afghanistan and Pakistan. The four-man team was compromised by local goatherds who stumbled upon the SEALs, but were spared in an act of commendable, if ill-advised mercy. As the Tigers advanced on their position, team leader Michael Murphy raced to a clearing to call in reinforcements and buy some time for the others. Only one SEAL survived the attack, which also claimed the lives of eight SEALs and eight U.S. Army Nightstalkers on a Chinook helicopter hit by an RPG. As the title implies, Berg’s movie focuses, as well, on the incredible escape of Marcus Lottrell. The documentary “Murph: The Protector” is a very different sort of film, precipitated by the same tragedy. It honors Medal of Honor winner Lt. Michael Patrick Murphy, the first member of the U.S. Navy to receive the award since the Vietnam War. Scott MacTavish tells his story almost exclusively through the recollections of family, friends and teammates, as well as home movies, photos and material supplied by the Navy. That he’s painted as a hero’s hero is no surprise. The Medal of Honor, Silver Star and Purple Heart awarded him posthumously should attest to his heroism. He’s also described as the ultimate team player and, even as a boy, a person willing to make sacrifices for his hometown, school and country. More than anything else, “Murph: the Protector” reminds me of an episode of “This Is Your Life.” I’m guessing that its low-budget look is the result of cost limitations and unavailability of classified material, but also by any deals possibly cut between the makers of “Lone Survivor” and Luttrell. Very little about the actual mission or escape is discussed or described here, except what could be gleaned from official sources and newspaper articles. Conversely, little time is spent relating the life stories of the two other men killed that day in 2005. “Murph” also breaks our hearts with visual material from the outpouring of praise and grief that greeted Murphy’s casket as it made its way from Dover Air Force Base to his Long Island home. – Gary Dretzka
Grand Ukulele: Live in Boulder
The ukulele is one of those instruments that comes into vogue every 30 or 40 years and disappears with the same regularity, minus 15 minutes. The four-stringed instrument is said to have been invented in Hawaii in the 1880s, based on smaller guitar-like instruments introduced by Portuguese sailors. It was introduced to stateside audiences in 1915, during San Francisco’s Panama Pacific International Exposition. Small, inexpensive, easy to learn and tuneful, the ukulele would find a ready audience among early blues, country, jazz and vaudeville musicians. (At about the same time, Hawaiian players would introduce the lap- and pedal-string technique to the Nashville crowd.) After World War II, as tourists began to flock to Hawaii, tourists were reminded of the ukulele’s modest charms. In the U.S., plastics manufacturer Mario Maccaferri took advantage of the fad by turning out about 9 million inexpensive ukuleles, which could be used in school bands and other groups. The instrument would enjoy mainstream popularity when it was embraced by the popular radio and TV host, Arthur Godfrey. Beyond-eccentric singer-musician Tiny Tim played it on his 1968 novelty hit “Tiptoe Through the Tulips,” as well as the many talk shows that clamored for an appearance. In the wake of the blockbuster success of “Titanic,” British musician/musicologist Ian Whitcomb brushed aside the instrument’s novelty-act gloss by producing an album of songs played by the orchestra aboard the RMS Titanic, as interpreted for the ukulele. Today’s rise of popularity can be laid directly at the feet of Japanese-American Jake Shimabukuro, whose lovely 2006 rendition of George Harrison’s “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” went viral on YouTube to the tune of more than 12 million views. “Jake Shimabukuro: Live in Boulder” demonstrates just how versatile and beautiful an instrument the ukulele can be when in the hands of a virtuoso. In it, his solos extend the “aloha spirit” into territory traditionally reserved for rock gods and guitar heroes. The music showcased in the concert includes songs from Shimabukuro’s “Grand Ukulele” CD – “Island Fever Blues,” “Gentlemandolin,”” Dragon,” “Bohemian Rhapsody,” “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” – as well as interviews and behind-the-scenes material with producer Alan Parsons. It’s really quite remarkable. – Gary Dretzka
Badges of Fury: Blu-ray
If the new Jet Li vehicle had been produced in the U.S. by, say, Mel Brooks or Zucker/Abrahams/Zucker, the genre-bending parody “Badges of Fury” might have generated some of the same heat as “Blazing Saddles” and “Police Squad!” Given that translating Chinese titles into English is anything but an inexact science, “Badges of Fury” could be any kind of movie. Like the English phrases stenciled on T-shirts favored by Japanese teenagers, some concepts simply defy literal translation. Wong Tsz-ming’s action/comedy opens with the first of several mysterious deaths involving people who’ve expired with a broad grin on their faces. We have an advantage over veteran cop Huang (Li), his reckless young partner Wang (Zhang Wen) and their bookish supervisor, Angela (Michelle Chen), because we already know how one of the victims of the Smile Killer came by grin. The trio is assigned the case after spectacularly muffing the arrests of a pair of long-sought criminals. The common denominator in all of the smile-killings is a previous relationship with popular actress Liu Jinshui (Shishi Liu). It results in Wang being ordered to pretend he’s her latest lover. When her jealous sister, Dai Yiyi (Yan Liu), arrives in town, his status as a living, breathing human being becomes even more precarious. At 50, Li is showing signs of slowing down a little in the action scenes, but Wen’s martial-arts and slapstick skills pick up the slack. Serious fans of Hong Kong genre flicks are likely to get the most out of “Badges of Fury,” as it contains several cameos and locations that will be most familiar to them. Special features include a four-part making-of documentary and behind-the-scenes featurette. – Gary Dretzka
Hail Mary: Blu-ray
For Ever Mozart: Blu-ray
Twenty years after the furor surrounding the release of “Monty Python’s Life of Brian” finally subsided, John Cleese said about the Christian groups that considered it to be blasphemous, “We’ve brought them all together for the first time in 2000 years!” Jean-Luc Godard’s “Hail Mary” (1985), Martin Scorsese’s “The Last Temptation of Christ” (1988) and Kevin Smith’s “Dogma” (1999), in which Alanis Morissette played God, would prompt the same protests and cries for censorship from many of the same guardians of the faith. (In “Butcher Boy,” Neil Jordan tweaked the Church by having Sinead O’Connor playing “Our Lady” in Lourdes-like visitations.) The Pope, who must have had better things to do, even felt it necessary to weigh in on “Hail Mary.” Naturally, the vast majority of protesters took accusations of blasphemy on faith, rather than judge the movie themselves. Needless to say, these controversies mostly served to sell more tickets than would have been purchased if the angry few had simply kept their opinions to themselves. Today, of course, the same movies are available hassle-free on the Internet and at the corner video mart.
I was reminded of these controversies by the arrival this week of Cohen Media’s Blu-ray edition of “Hail Mary.” Re-watching it from a distance of 30 years reminded me of just how far off base the protesters actually were about the movie. In it, Godard contemporizes New Testament accounts of the virgin birth of Jesus Christ, foremost to speculate about how “a young woman named Mary, who, at a certain moment in her life, finds herself part of an exceptional event that she would never have wished for herself.” I would venture to say that precious few Sunday-school students have ever been able to get their heads around either the concept of virgin birth or the Immaculate Conception of Mary. Today, as well, young Christian women must wonder how they would react if the angel Gabriel – here, Uncle Gabriel, arrives by plane to deliver the news – visited them one night. How many guys, too, have pondered how they would react to Gabriel’s defense of their girlfriend’s chastity? Godard’s crime, apparently, was asking the same questions on film, instead of taking everything taught to him by nuns and priests as the gospel truth.
Here, Mary is a typical Swiss teenager, about the same age as the biblical Mary when she became pregnant. She enjoys playing basketball, helps out at her father’s garage and, while resolutely chaste, has an older boyfriend. Once notified by Gabriel that’s she’s won the celestial lottery, she becomes every bit as confused about God’s plan as Mary must have been, 2,000 years ago. Godard visualizes her shock, confusion and anger through elemental images of the sun, moon, clouds, flowers, and water. All of our meditations should be so thoughtfully portrayed. The thing that bothered the protesters most, I think, was the depiction of Mary as a woman who removed her clothes to perform such mundane tasks as bathing. Because this was 1985, and waxing was in its infancy, her nudity was punctuated with a full shock of unruly pubic hair. Even so, it’s difficult to imagine anyone being titillated to the point of masturbation by images of the naked Mother of God. (Mary Magdalene, maybe, but not Jesus’ mom.) Admittedly, “Hail, Mary” wouldn’t be my ideal choice as a starting point for any discussion of Roman Catholic dogma, but I’ve seen worse. I wouldn’t discourage my adult children from seeing it, though. For the record, it stars Myriem Roussel, Thierry Rode, Philippe Lacoste and Juliette Binoche, in only her second feature. The Blu-ray edition adds a short film, “The Book of Mary,” which was directed by long-time Godard collaborator Anne-Marie Miéville and tells the story of the break-up of a marriage as seen through the eyes of the couple’s young daughter; “Notes on ‘Hail Mary,’” Jean-Luc Godard s video notebook; commentary by director Hal Hartley and Museum of the Moving Image Chief Curator David Schwartz; and a booklet, with an essay by film critic David Sterritt and Boston University lecturer Charles Warren.
Also new to Blu-ray is Godard‘s far more difficult “For Ever Mozart,” a later work that demands of its audience that they consider the relationship between art, death, politics and war, in a society capable of creating works of great beauty and committing horrific atrocities in the name of their deity, nationality or cultural background. Made in 1996, it follows a young troupe of idealistic actors from western Europe who travel to war-torn Sarajevo to create order and beauty in a world ruled by chaos. Along the way, they’re arrested by irregular troops, imprisoned and forced to dig their own graves while reciting poetry. The movie also involves an elderly director’s efforts to complete his final film, which will have the unfortunate fate of being released in a multiplex opposite the latest “Terminator” episode. It isn’t a movie for casual moviegoers, seeking a few hours of diversionary entertainment. In fact, much of it is the cinematic equivalent of navel-gazing. For those willing to take a chance on a difficult artist, “For Ever Mozart” poses questions that deserve to be asked and discussed by citizens of the 21st Century. The bonus package adds four featurettes previously not available in the U.S.; commentary by James Quandt; and a booklet with an essay by critic/author Fergus Daly; and Hartley’s interview with Godard. – Gary Dretzka
Runner Runner: Blu-ray
There probably is or was a very good movie to be made about the perils of on-line gambling, but “Runner Runner” isn’t it. It’s also possible that on-line gambling isn’t an inherently interesting subject for exploration on film and the only way this one might have been saved is if Ben Affleck had elected to direct it, instead of agreeing to be the movie’s antagonist. It also could have taken the “American Hustle” route, by turning the primary characters into gargoyles. The money at stake is real, if invisible to almost every involved. Even so, Internet gaming, by definition, requires players and dealers to sit in virtual seats, miles apart from each other, using virtual chips that represent real money already deposited in a virtual bank. Unless one has a degree in mathematics or is a master of probability, an opponent’s “tells” are virtually undetectable. It’s easy to ignore the digitally scrolled remarks that pass for table chat. In the movies, high-stakes poker games are juiced up by injecting long, dramatic pauses and trash talking. As far as I’ve seen, no one with even a tenth of the charisma exuded by such legends of poker as Nick the Greek, Puggy Pearson, Doyle “Texas Dolly” Brunson, Amarillo Slim, Stu “The Kid” Ungar or Johnny “Great Wall of China” Chan has emerged from the ranks of the online poker crowd and now dominate the World Series of Poker. When all of those virtual dollars are added up, however, the numbers are nothing short of staggering.
All of the great gambling flicks, such as “Rounders,” “The Cincinnati Kid,” “Big Hand for a Little Lady,” “California Split,” “The Hustler,” “The Color of Money,” “Croupier” and “The Gambler,” have used face-to-face, hand-to-hand combat as a tilting point for suspense. In “Runner Runner,” all of the drama is generated by elements separate from the games themselves. The sheer volume of gaming revenues allows for the “casino” owners to collect pennies on a dollar and still make a huge fortune. Here, Justin Timberlake’s Richie Furst is enjoying his reputation as the rackets king of Princeton University when he decides to raise the ante on his career. He’s discovered what he believes to be a swindle being perpetrated on on-line poker players and he’s cocky enough to want his money back. The fresh-faced kids hops the next plane to Costa Rica, where he intends to confront Affleck’s suave “casino” boss, Ivan Block. Instead of getting his losses back, Block convinces Richie to join the firm as a systems analyst. Basically, the job involves ferreting out cheats within the company and outside of it, while also serving as a go-between Block and the stereotypically corrupt and thuggish Costa Ricans. The turning point for Richie comes when he finds himself caught in a power play between Block, a hard-ass FBI agent and government thugs. Geez, how’s Mr. Ivy League going to weasel his way out of this one and still win the heart of the boss’ prettiest moll? Brad Furman’s film isn’t unwatchable, by any means, but the less one knows – or cares – about gambling, the more entertaining it’s likely to be. The Blu-ray includes deleted scenes and an informative featurette about the rise of Internet gaming, some of which should have been integrated into “Runner Runner.” – Gary Dretzka
We Are What We Are: Blu-ray
Jim Mickle’s Americanization of Jorge Michel Grau’s Mexican horror film, “We Are What We Are” (“Somos lo que hay”), provides yet another example of how difficult it is for fresh and innovative genre fare to succeed in an industry dominated by guys only willing to back movies with pre-sold titles and Roman numerals attached to them. I suppose the same can be said about mainstream audiences, who would rather pay $10 to see the umpteenth edition of “Paranormal Activity” or, even, an unnecessary sequel to “Carrie.” Although it requires some homework on the part of genre buffs, the best place to be advised of interesting horror pictures these days is in publications that cater to the straight-to-DVD market place. Sure, that requires monitoring the websites devoted to horror and sci-fi, as well as taking chances on promising films that carry subtitles. The rewards are worth the effort, however. Mickle and co-writer Nick Damici (“Stake Land,” “Mulberry St.”) saw something they liked in Grau’s 2010 original and, instead of making wholesale changes, simply tinkered with the premise and setting. Instead of Mexico City, the protagonist family lives on a patch of land in New York’s Catskill Mountains. At first glance, the father is a religious nut who listens to televangelists while he kidnaps vulnerable young women. He locks them up in his basement or shed, where they’re kept alive until he’s ready for them to be sacrificed. By minding his business in the rural community, he becomes invisible. When his wife dies inexplicably on a trip into town, Mr. Parker demands of his seemingly normal teenage daughters that they take over the work load and protect family secrets. Among them is a curse handed down through several generations of Parkers, involving ritual cannibalism. As the date for the next ceremony approaches, clues into the deaths of other missing girls begin turning up in a nearby creek bed. The girls, who, if they aren’t twins, might as well be, are played by the angelic Julia Garner and Ambyr Childers. We hope against hope that, once freed from their father’s grip, they’ll be able to lead a normal life. Of course, one man’s “normal” is another man’s “crazy as a loon.” No matter how many spoilers you might think I’ve revealed here, I guarantee that the ending will surprise you. The Blu-ray adds “An Acquired Taste: The Making of ‘We Are What We Are’”; and interviews with Mickle, Gardner and the creepy male lead, Bill Sage. It probably should be noted, as well, that old hands Michael Parks (“Kill Bill”) and an unrecognizable Kelly McGillis (“Top Gun”) play key supporting roles. – Gary Dretzka
There is a point in the lives of most college graduates when they are required to face the fact that they probably won’t realize their dream of making the world a better place for all mankind to cohabit and they’ll accept the first job that comes along to soften the blow of drifting into the mainstream. Those fortunate few who are able to ward off the crippling effects of conformity likely will have to compromise eventually, if only to afford private-school tuitions and summer camp for their kids. The characters in Ryan Darst’s tres, tres quirky debut, “Dreamworld,” live in the kind of nerd’s paradise where aspiring artistes are free to play video games, read graphic novels and design the costumes they’ll wear to the next Comic-Con. Oliver (Whet Hertford) is a not-untalented animator whose self-esteem drops with every fruitless job interview and rejected romantic overture. It doesn’t help any that, at 5-foot-2, Oliver fears he will always be considered a freak of nature, at least until his peers are forced to look up at him as their boss at a “cool” company like Sony, Microsoft or Comedy Central. One night, at a party, he meets the captivating and impulsive Lily Blush (Mary Kate Wiles), who encourages him to drop everything and go with her to northern California, where she knows someone at Pixar. Lily is the kind of woman, sometimes characterized as a Magic Pixie Goddess, who’s more fun than a barrel of monkeys, sexually aggressive, eccentric in dress and manners, and quite possibly bipolar. Their trip north recalls the non-linear journey taken by Miles and Jack in “Sideways.” The more Oliver learns about Lily, however, the less magical she becomes. Once they reach San Francisco, even more surprises are revealed, causing Oliver’s emotional barometer to go completely haywire. I found “Dreamworld” to be sufficiently entertaining for a recommendation, although its appeal to those not in the characters’ hipster demographic might be limited. Most of the actors are members of the same L.A. improv troupes that populate popular sitcoms, cable comedies and webisodes, so there’s no lack of good acting here. The special features include commentary, artwork, animated blog entries and three very enjoyable short films. – Gary Dretzka
The Killing Fields: 30th Anniversary: Blu-ray
If, in 1984, anyone was still operating on the mistaken belief that the horrors of Nazi Germany wouldn’t be repeated in our lifetimes, the release of “The Killing Fields” quickly disabused them of that notion. In 1969, on the advice of Henry Kissinger, then-President Richard Nixon authorized a “secret” bombing campaign against North Vietnamese, Vietcong and Khmer Rouge strongholds inside Cambodia. A year later, American troops would cross the border on foot in an attempt to finish off the communist forces our warplanes couldn’t eliminate. Alas, military intelligence greatly overestimated the offensive’s ability to impact the flow of supplies, weapons and soldiers along the Ho Chi Min Trail. Instead, Cambodian civilians retreated from their rural villages en masse, seeking relief in Phnom Penh from the on-going civil war and bombings. Eventually, the capital would explode like an overripe melon, opening the door for a final assault by hordes of communist ants. Within days of the takeover of Saigon, insurgents proclaimed victory over Cambodia’s western-backed regime. Unlike Vietnam, whose new leaders were more interested in uniting the country through “re-education” than force-marching the country’s most industrious, educated and skilled citizens into concentration and work camps, the new Cambodian government was comprised of ideologues and sadists. By this time, however, the American people, media and government were so sick of war that they mostly ignored what little news was emerging from “the nation of peasants.” In another three years, Vietnamese leaders who once were allied with the Khmer Rouge would become so distressed by its continuing reign of terror, an offensive was launched to eliminate Pol Pot and restore the nation’s economy and infrastructure. It worked.
Based, in part, on New York Times’ reporter Sidney Schanberg’s coverage of the American incursion into Cambodia, the civil war and fall of Phnom Penh, “The Killing Fields” would serve as a wakeup call to a world full of people who still thought that World War II was the be-all, end-all of mass horror and genocide. Cambodian photographer and interpreter Dith Pran would form a close relationship with Schanberg as they traveled around the embattled countryside. When the tanks rolled into the capital, Schanberg attempted to secure an escape route for Pran, who, as an educated professional, would be among the first to be killed or evacuated to a “Year Zero” work camp. Pran failed to join the western journalists expelled, as would Schanberg’s efforts to locate Pran through humanitarian agencies. If Pran’s ordeal in captivity defies description, his attempts to escape internment define heroism and courage. That “The Killing Fields” ends on a positive note doesn’t nullify or dilute the hellish images we’ve already seen. It is estimated that 3 million Cambodians were killed before the regime was toppled. No one knows the actual total or whose names could be attached to the piles of bones and skulls found in the countryside. The purge drained the country of its educators, professionals, artists and doctors. Indeed, anyone who wore glasses was targeted as a potential foe. Pran threw his away and pretended to be a half-wit. Few movies have been as honored as “The Killing Fields.” Oscars went to Cambodian physician-turned-actor Haing S. Ngor, whose wife died in childbirth under the Khmer regime; Sam Waterson, who played Schanberg; cinematographer Chris Menges; editor Jim Clark; and David Puttnam, as producer of the Best Picture. Director Roland Joffe and writer Bruce Robinson also received nominations. Most of the bonus features in the 30th-anniversary edition first were seen in Warner’s 2001 DVD, including a BBC documentary on the making of the film and an interview with Puttnam. Joffe provides the learned commentary. Warner’s DigiBook presentation provides numerous stills from the film, along with short background essays and biographies of Puttnam, Joffé, Waterston and Ngor, trivia notes and a list of awards. “The Killing Fields” was largely shot on location in neighboring Thailand. Sadly, the Cambodian tragedy has been re-enacted in different parts of the world several times since the “Killing Fields” was released. – Gary Dretzka
Fox: The Following: The Complete First Season: Blu-ray
BBCA: Copper: Season Two: Blu-ray
PBS: Midsomer Murders: Series 6
Syfy: Being Human: The Complete Third Season
Syfy: 12 Disasters
Archer: The Complete Season Four: Blu-ray
China Beach: Season 2
The television landscape is so overcrowded with police and serial killers that it no longer is enough for a character to merely be good at what they do. They also have to stand out for reasons other than solving or committing hideous crimes. I wasn’t among the many followers of Fox’s “The Following” – there are only so many minutes in a day – but I remember being creeped-out by the sight of a killer wandering around with an Edgar Allen Poe mask on his face. “The Following: The Complete First Season” arrives just in time, then, for people like me to get caught up with the story before the second season opens later this month. Master show-runner Kevin Williamson (“The Vampire Diaries,” “Scream”) wanted to create a show that was in line tonally with “24” and as gory as network censors would allow. Taking a page, at least, from the Hannibal Lector playbook, “The Following,” is a cat-and-mouse thriller about psychologically damaged ex-FBI agent Ryan Hardy (Kevin Bacon) and the brilliant serial killer, Joe Carroll (James Purefoy), he put behind bars … temporarily, at least. Carroll had killed 14 women students at the Virginia college at which he once taught literature, including Poe’s works. In his twisted mind, the eviscerated bodies were confused with works of art. While in prison, Carroll was able to engineer a network of kindred spirits, who have either killed before or would follow his every sick order. Because Hardy is the world’s leading expert on Carroll – they’ve even shared the affections of the killer’s ex-wife (Natalie Zea) — the FBI director convinces Hardy to un-retire. As was the case with “24,” Bacon brings the same instant credibility to Hardy as Kiefer Sutherland did to Jack Bauer. My only problem with “The Following” is the same as the one I have with most TV dramas in which the characters are impossibly young and far too good-looking to be in the positions they hold. I assume that I’m in the minority on that count.
Anyone who’s familiar with Martin Scorsese’s bare-knuckle drama, “Gangs of New York,” will have a great headstart on understanding what’s happening in BBC America’s first original drama, “Copper.” Created by three-time Emmy Award-winner Tom Fontana and Academy Award-nominee Will Rokos, and executive produced by Barry Levinson, the mini-series is similarly set in Manhattan’s gang-infested Five Points neighborhood, as the Civil War raged only a short distance to the south and west. The series’ protagonist is Kevin Corcoran (Tom Westen-Jones), an Irish immigrant police detective who has his hands full keeping his unsavory constituents from killing each other and drinking the blood of anyone who gets in their way. It’s an interesting time in New York, what with the growing influence of Tammany Hall, the draft riots of 1863, rising tensions between African-Americans and white immigrants and the social stratification among the city’s aristocracy and working poor. A personal touch was added with the disappearance of Corcoran’s wife and child. Season Two stretches from the mean-streets atmosphere of Five Points to the blood-soaked battlefields of Virginia and Maryland. Sadly, “Copper” wasn’t renewed for a third season.
In one way, at least, the ITV mystery series, “Midsomer Murders,” shares one thing in common with “Law & Order.” Key characters rotate in and out of the police department, keeping viewers hanging as to the status and life expectancy of their favorites. All manner of bizarre crimes occur in the fictional English county of Midsomer, whose bucolic setting masks a murder rate twice that of London. That ironic touch, alone, is worth the price of admission. “Midsomer Murders” is based on the books by Caroline Graham, as originally adapted by Anthony Horowitz. Series Six’s protagonist is DCI Tom Barnaby (John Nettles), who lives and works in the county seat, Causton. Because of the unusually high number of murder cases, the city’s first-rate Criminal Investigation Department is continuously busy. The team’s efficiency seems to have allowed time for the detectives to hone their senses of humor and deal with several of silly squabbles that erupt between villages. Among the guest stars this time around are Amanda Root, Perdita Weeks, Honor Blackman, Leslie Phillips and Ronald Pickup. The episodes, in their original U.K. broadcast order, are “A Talent for Life,” “Death and Dreams,” “Painted in Blood,” “A Tale of Two Hamlets” and “Birds of Prey.” The set adds production notes and a Midsomer map.
There’s one crucial thing for newcomers to “Being Human” to know while considering a purchase or rental. One edition of the show is shot in England and another is made in Canada for airing on the Syfy and Space networks. While the characters and setup are virtually identical, the Canadian producers consciously avoid creating episodes that repeat what has already been shown in England and is available here, as well, on BBC America and DVD. The youthful roommates – a ghost, vampire and pair of werewolves – are challenged by the need to co-exist with humans and avoid pissing off their supernatural brethren. The English version has exhausted its five-season run, while the North American edition has been renewed for a fourth. The bonus material includes a behind-the-scenes featurette, the “Being Human Panel” from San Diego Comic-Con 2013 and the cast’s take on cliffhangers.
Generally speaking, made-for-Syfy series fare better artistically than made-for-Syfy movies, which range in quality from ridiculously bad to uproariously campy. The latest dopey dystopian drama is “12 Disasters,” which originally was titled “The 12 Disasters of Christmas.” The title’s shortening can be attributed to the fact that, while it debuted on Syfy and in most other markets just before Christmas, 2012, it arrived on DVD in January, 2014. The movie combines the beloved Christmas carol, “The 12 Days of Christmas,” with the plagues of Egypt described in the Book of Exodus. The prophecy here predicts the vastly overrated Mayan apocalypse, which, at the time of production, could only be avoided if 18-year-old Jacey (Magda Apanowicz) and her dad (Ed Quinn) were able to match five golden rings in a geometric formation described by the girl’s grandmother. In the meantime, the mountain village of Calvary, is visited by such tumultuous events as mass bird deaths, blood-red water running from faucets, humongous flying icicles. tornadoes, volcanoes and killer twinkle lights. “12 Disasters” is plenty goofy, alright, so younger teens and their stoned parents should find themselves amused for the first 45 minutes, anyway.
The creators of FX network’s animated spoof, “Archer,” have managed to stretch a single serviceable gag into four seasons of better-than average comedy. It is first-and-foremost a raunchy, pitch-perfect parody of the James Bond franchise and other spy thrillers that followed in its wake. Fact is, however, there’s never been a drought of movies and TV shows that accomplished the very same thing. They range from the 1967 adaptation of Ian Fleming’s “Casino Royale,” which starred Peter Sellers, David Niven, Ursula Andress, Woody Allen and Orson Welles, to James Coburn’s “Our Man Flint,” TV’s “I Spy,” “Modesty Blaise,“ the Matt Helm series, Stephen’s Chow’s “From Beijing With Love,” a Looney Tunes cartoon, Leslie Nielsen’s “Spy Hard,” Mike Myers’ “Austin Powers” and the delightful French farce, “OSS 117” titles. There have been dozens of others, including at least one porn version. “Archer” is marked by sharp writing, dead-on caricatures and the novelty of talking dirty on TV. This time around,
the agents of ISIS must root out evil in such disparate places as the Bermuda Triangle and the Vatican, while bickering amongst each other and putting their feet in all the available pitfalls.
The rollout of individual-season packages of “China Beach” continues apace. In Season Two, Episode One, we’re introduced to aspiring journalist and former Saigon weather babe, Wayloo Marie Holmes (Megan Gallagher), who wastes no time getting her butt dotted with shrapnel from a mortar round. She survives that indignity to make a documentary about the women of China Beach. The delicate balance of duty, drama, humor and romance is maintained until midseason, when the horror of the Tet Offensive and reverberations from the MLK assassination rock the hospital and R&R destination. Full- and part-time characters come-and-go with a fear-thee-well and, by the time the season is nearly over, McMurphy is stateside and a nervous wreck. One episode is reserved for actual Vietnam vets discussing their experiences in the war. – Gary Dretzka
The information conveyed on the cover of the box art for “Brutalization” suggests that the late, great Sylvia Kristel – the first and most unforgettable star of the “Emmanuelle” series — plays an important role in the 1973 Dutch crime drama. In fact, Kristel’s screen time would amount to little more than a cameo … if she had been famous, which, at the time, she wasn’t. Even Kristel completests would have had a difficult time finding “Brutalization,” which was released under the less sordid and far more logical title “Because of the Cats.” An early rape scene in Fons Rademakers’ steamy policier is brutally executed, but the rest of the movie is more concerned with a tenacious Amsterdam detective’s efforts to hunt down a gang of wealthy young hoodlums who get their kicks by vandalizing homes and, when caught in the act, torturing the owners. Except for what’s shown in the severe rape of a middle-age woman – not unlike a similar scene in “A Clockwork Orange” — the nudity seems to have been added as a sop to attract curious viewers. Adapted from Nicolas Freeling’s novel, “Because of the Cats,” “Brutalization” (a.k.a., “Rape”) comes most alive when the buttoned-down Van der Walk (Bryan Marshall) locates the gang in the posh beachside suburb of Bloemendaa, where local police are too buffaloed by the wealthy residents to act on their own. Ver der Walk is required to break through a thick wall of silence imposed by the Ravens on fellow gang members and their women’s auxiliary, the Cats. We’re surprised when he allows himself to be picked up by a helpful prostitute, who knows as much about what goes on in Bloemendaa as anyone. If the pieces in the puzzle of “Brutalization” don’t precisely fit, it’s probably because, in 1973, European filmmakers had yet to figure out how to blend equal measures of drama, sex and violence into a commercially viable picture. If it had been smoother, “Brutalization” might have reminded me more of such then-contemporary American hits as “Dirty Harry,” “Straw Dogs” and “Death Wish.” It’s also worth noting, perhaps, that Rademakers’ 1986 World War II drama, “The Assault,” would win the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film.
Depictions of violence against women weren’t nearly as frowned upon in the early-’70s as they are today. The barely soft-core French drama, “Erotic Blackmail,” made a year after “Brutalization,” also treats unconventional sex, rape and revenge as if they were foreplay to romance. In it, a posh swinger couple invites a pair of like-minded friends to their country villa for weekend of tag-team sex and relaxation. When the men are called away on some sort of business, the women decide to go into town for a night of drinking and dancing. They’ve already made the acquaintance of local yokels Etienne and Julien, whose idea of casual sex mirrors the violent throes of horses mating. When one of the mopes’ girlfriends suggests blackmailing the big-city women with naughty pictures, they conspire with their husbands to turn the tables on them. “Erotic Blackmail” originally was released as “Le corps a ses raisons” (“The Heart Has Its Reasons”), which doesn’t smack of porn at all. If it wouldn’t stand up to close scrutiny even a few years later, it’s easy to see how European filmmakers were taking advantage of the relaxation of sexual taboos to create entertainments without boundaries. Meanwhile, in the United States, “Deep Throat,” “Behind the Green Door” and “The Devil in Miss Jones” had already raised the bar to the next level. – Gary Dretzka