MCN Columnists
Gary Dretzka

By Gary Dretzka Dretzka@moviecitynews.com

The DVD Wrapup

American Hustle: Blu-ray
So much of “American Hustle” resembles farce that post-Boomer audiences could be excused for not recognizing the source material, the unfunny Abscam caper of 1978-80. In hindsight, the actual scandal was so inherently strange that co-writer/director David O. Russell only was required to stretch the truth a wee bit for his story to be credible. It wasn’t until the faces behind the facts were revealed that it became obvious how buffoonish the operation truly was and how fortunate was the FBI that it didn’t completely blow the sting. The targets defined what it means to be a “sitting duck,” yet the agency even managed to offend the Arabs willing to sell us oil after the 1973 embargo.  In “American Hustle,” Russell asks a far more pertinent question, though: Is it right for law-enforcement agencies to lay traps for public officials – or Mafiosi, for that matter – who may not have taken the bait had it not been too luscious to resist? As represented by the opportunistic Bradley Cooper, the FBI would be nothing at all, if it weren’t for its ability to set such traps and deputize criminals, who, in some cases, should already have been locked away in prison. After an unmatched pair of con artists, Irving Rosenfeld and Sydney Prosser (Christian Bale, Amy Adams), have their covers blown in a failed attempt to move stolen art, they hand Cooper’s Richie DiMaso an offer he can’t refuse. Richie’s boss (Alessandro Nivola) can hardly contain himself when he’s told that, in return for Sydney’s freedom, Irving would be willing to cooperate with the feds in a sting operation. Among those Irving promises to deliver is the mayor of Camden, N.J., a so-called “man of the people,” who uses his connections with the unions, mob and politics to help keep his constituents employed. In Jeremy Renner’s nimble hands, Mayor Carmino Polito combines the political alacrity of the Daleys of Chicago with Bill Murray’s smarmy lounge singer on “SNL.” Polito is so anxious to begin the construction of newly legalized casinos in Atlantic that he’s completely open to a scheme that pairs Arab money with Mafia gaming interests, for the benefit of union workers who need the jobs. Apart from the illegality of it all, the plan has win, win, win written all over it.

If the characters don’t exactly resemble the true players in the Abscam scandal, they’re close enough for Hollywood to lampoon for the good of a picture. The retro disco-chic hairdos and fashions, alone, are worth the price of a rental. Jennifer Lawrence is a hoot as Irving’s Jersey-girl wife, whose sole ambition in life appears to be finding the perfect nail polish, a trait she shares with Polito’s even more exaggerated spouse. (Reportedly, the Oscar nominee’s portrayal was informed by TV’s “housewives of New Jersey.”) Although Adams looks strangely contemporary throughout “American Hustle” – and way more desirable than Irving – she and Lawrence make a terrific tag team. (She deserved some kind of a nomination, simply for being able to keep her nipples from flopping out of her deeply cleaved dresses.) In Russell’s master plan, Abscam mostly provides an excuse to bring these crazy characters together in one movie. As crimes go, it couldn’t hold a candle to Watergate or the Iran-Contra affair. Russell’s real challenge was getting us to cheer for dyed-in-the-wool crooks over the men and women assigned to protect taxpayers from such schemes. By now, however, we expect such behavior from them. “American Hustle” was nominated for 10 Academy Awards, winning exactly none. If it’s any consolation – and it should be – the movie was widely praised by critics and recorded $250 million in worldwide box-office returns, 60 percent of them from U.S. audiences. The Blu-ray adds a 16-minute making-of featurette and several deleted scenes. The scary thing to remember is that Congress’ immediate response to Abscam was to write laws forbidding the FBI from conducting such stings against upstanding public servants, like themselves.  – Gary Dretzka

Frozen: Collector’s Edition: Blu-ray
Doc Mcstuffins: Mobile Clinic
Jungle Book 2: Blu-ray
The idea of adapting Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale, “The Snow Queen,” into a feature-length fantasy had been kicking around Disney Studios, in one form or another, for exactly 70 years before it finally was committed to film last year as “Frozen.” It’s not that the story was considered to be unfilmable by the folks at the Mouse House, because it had already been adapted a couple dozen times under its original title. Instead, “The Snow Queen” simply wasn’t as light or malleable as other of Andersen’s fairy tales — or various public-domain stories by the Grimm Brothers — which have made a fortune for the studio over the last 70-80 years. In 1943, Walt Disney and Samuel Goldwyn had considered the possibility of collaborating on an Andersen biopic, for which Goldwyn’s studio would shoot the live-action sequences and Disney would create the animated sequences, based on the stories. (Nine years later, Goldwyn would hand the reins to Danny Kaye for the live-action, “Hans Christian Andersen.”) The “Snow Queen” idea would be revisited several times since the late-1990s, but, until “Frozen,” nothing stuck. If bad things happen to some of the key characters in “Frozen,” none is too dark for consumption by Disney’s family audience. And, in this case, that’s a very good thing. Besides being exceedingly enchanting, “Frozen” extended Walt Disney Animation Studios’ winning streak – apart from any strictly Pixar production — which began with “Tangled.” On a production budget estimated at $150 million, not counting marketing costs, the movie has returned just north of a billion dollars, 61 percent from foreign markets. Throw in the DVD/Blu-ray revenues, video games, toys and a possible Broadway musical and we’re talking real money.

In the Disney version, Princesses Anna and Elsa are sisters and each other’s closest friend. Elsa of Arendelle possesses the ability to create ice and snow, but doesn’t quite know how to control it. After she freaks herself out by accidentally injuring her younger sister, their parents request help from trolls. They heal Anna and remove her memory of Elsa’s power. Her fear of this “gift” turns Elsa into a recluse, which causes a rift between the girls as they grow up. After their parents die at sea during a storm, Elsa is required to come out of hiding to ascend to the throne. No sooner does a thaw melt the ice separating the sisters than Elsa pulls a power play on Anna that frightens everyone invited to the coronation. It’s so unexpectedly explosive that the kingdom is thrown into a state of permanent winter. So as not to do any more damage, Elsa escapes into the mountains of Arendelle, where everything before her turns to ice and her constituency considers her to be wicked. Knowing better, Anna goes on mission to find her Elsa and convince her to bring summer back to the kingdom. Along the way, she’s joined by a silly mountain man, anthropomorphic reindeer and a friendly snowman. Together, they face various obstacles and hardships, none of which are so frightening your kids will forever give up ice-skating and snowball fights. They will, however, be exposed to several moral lessons about dealing with one’s temper and the need for reconciliation. “Frozen” is distinguished by beautiful artwork; memorable songs; delightful characters; and much humor. The blue-tinged Nordic scenery and curly wisps of ice created by Elsa are especially effective on Blu-ray. The bonus material, although a bit skimpy by Disney standards, adds deleted scenes; short making-of and background pieces; music videos of “Let It Go,” in four different languages by three different singers; and, best of all, the animated short, “Get a Horse,” starring Mickey Mouse.

Also from Disney come “The Jungle Book 2,” for the first time on Blu-ray, and “Doc McStuffins: Mobile Clinic.” The latter enjoys the distinction of being the first show commissioned for Disney’s re-branded “Disney Junior” blocks on the Disney Channel. The series follows 6-year-old Dottie McStuffins who, one day, wants to become a doctor like her mother. Until then, she pretends to be a physician by fixing up toys and dolls. Thus, her nickname. In fact, when she puts on her stethoscope, the toys magically come to life. Each 11-minute episode includes original songs and tips for kids to stay healthy. The compilation clocks in at 90 minutes. It’s probably worth mentioning that Dottie is one of the few African-American characters with their own show … animated or live-action.

“The Jungle Book 2” looks quite a bit better on Blu-ray than it did in its original iteration, which wasn’t up to Disney standards. Originally planned to go out straight-to-video, exhibitors convinced the studio to give them an opportunity to squeeze some profits from the sequel. (Actually, two live-action sequels appeared in the 1990s.) It made a lot of money for everyone, in and out of video. Basically, the movie picks up a short time after the original ended. Mowgli’s happy living in the “man-village,” but misses the gang in the jungle. Unfortunately, for him, his nemesis Shere Khan still lingers in his former stomping grounds.  – Gary Dretzka

Saving Mr. Banks: Blu-ray
And, speaking of Disney … there’s “Saving Mr. Banks” to consider. Because there’s no mystery surrounding its eventual outcome, “Saving Mr. Banks” is one of the few Hollywood movies we can unreservedly cheer for the studio executive, instead of the embattled artist. P.L. Travers, author of the “Merry Poppins” books, is the portrayed by Emma Thompson as being the kind of Australian-British scold who sees everything through her own prism and feels threatened by anyone doesn’t stand in awe of her talent, including those entrusted with adapting her novels. When confronted with certain show-business realities, including the need to make money and embrace the collaborative process, she really gets her dander up. In the movie, as in real life, Walt Disney (Tom Hanks) had been waiting 20 years to fulfill his daughter’s dream of seeing “Merry Poppins” work her magic on the big screen and he wasn’t going to pop her balloon because of an author’s aversion to animation and charming pop songs. Instead of steamrolling his guest, however, Disney actually believed that a spoonful of sugar would make the make Travers’ medicine go down. And, in this case, at least, he was proven right.

To the credit of writers Kelly Marcel and Sue Smith, working alongside director John Lee Hancock, we’re shown how events in Travers’ childhood might not only have influenced her stories, but also caused her to grow up to be so protective of her property. Wisely, her life story is intertwined with the creative path followed by the creative team assigned by Disney to work magic of their own on “Merry Poppins.” In doing so, the writers also were able to soften the revisionist image of the long-dead mogul, whose anti-Semitism, racism, anti-labor stances, self-aggrandizement and unwillingness to share the spotlight steal cast a long shadow in the industry. (Indeed, some observers have suggested that Disney’s perceived sins may have been the reason “Saving Mr. Banks” was snubbed by Oscar voters.) Outside of Hollywood, however, Disney’s reputation as a visionary and purveyor of top-shelf family entertainment has never been in doubt.

What I found to be most appealing about the movie is how well the collaborative process is represented, especially for those of us who may not fully appreciate what it takes to keep a no-brainer from tanking. Travers was vehemently opposed to adding bright and clever ditties from the Sherman Brothers songbook – and, of course, Don DaGradi’s dancing penguins — to the soundtrack, but, eventually, they were able to make a dent in her armor. B.J. Novak, Jason Schwartzman and Bradley Whitford deserve a lot of credit for translating the songwriting experience so effectively. In Hanks’ hands, Disney’s dogged pursuit of Travers’ approval also is borderline inspirational. Their temporary marriage may not have been made in heaven – or Disneyland – but the child it spawned did very well for itself. Paul Giamatti and Colin Farrell hold their own in key supporting roles, while Hollywood, circa 1964, retains most vestiges of its glamorous past. The Blu-ray presentation could hardly be better, either. It includes “Walt Disney Studios: From Poppins to Present”; “Let’s Go Fly a Kite,” in which cast and crew break out in a heartfelt tribute to composer Richard Sherman on the last day of filming; and three deleted scenes. Be sure not to miss the surprise revealed in the final credits.  – Gary Dretzka

Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom: Blu-ray
Punk in Africa
It’s difficult to make a biopic about a man who’s gone through as many dramatic changes as Nelson Mandella did in the 70 years covered in “Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom” and not make it feel like a ride on the milk train. Each of the three actors assigned to capture Mandela’s immense reserve of energy, courage, intelligence and compassion would be required to work as one, without dropping the baton as it was passed to them. Most of us only knew Mandella as he’s pictured on the cover of the DVD/Blu-ray: a broadly smiling survivor of a lifetime of struggle and pain … a gray-haired saint called by God at 86 to heal a nation long wracked with hate and fear. It’s a far cry from the image of the angry young man we saw in the one-sheet posters for the theatrical release. Working off a blueprint created by the man, himself, in his autobiography, director Justin Chadwick (“The Other Boleyn Girl”) and writer William Nicholson (“Les Misérables”) winnowed 650 pages to 144 minutes’ worth of compelling history. Siza Pini and Atandwa Kani play Mandella from 7-9 and 16-23, while Idris Elba covers the period from adulthood to his inaugural address, in 1994. Many Oscar handicappers believe that Elba was robbed of a nomination for reasons that have more to do with executive producer Harvey Weinstein’s personality than anything in the movie, itself. (Its sole nomination was for the original song, “Ordinary Love,” by U2.) “Long Walk” covers a sliver of his boyhood adventures in the South African village of Mvezoto, before flashing ahead to the promise he showed as young lawyer in the big city and his first, unsuccessful marriage. Elba takes us through the radicalization process that changed Mandella so dramatically and led to the events that put him behind bars for so many years, dodging the gallows by a near miracle. And, yet, many important events in Mandella’s were skimmed over or edited out for the purposes of time and pace. This isn’t to infer that some of the warts were excised, because his tarnished halo is very much in evidence during less-disciplined periods in his life. His politically charged break from Winnie Mandela isn’t completely explained, nor are the tribal divisions that threatened the electoral process. A mini-series might have served Mandella better, but “Long Walk to Freedom” is worth the price of a rental for the many fine performances; its depiction of the toll taken by 27 years in prison; and a short course on the long fight to eliminate Apartheid. The Blu-ray adds “Mandela: The Leader You Know, The Man You Didn’t,” commentary with director Justin Chadwick, behind-the-scenes featurettes; and a tribute video gallery.

For many years, South African officials attempted to build a wall around itself, not only to keep the international media from focusing on Apartheid, but also to prevent its black, white and colored residents from learning about various social and cultural movements happening around them. Until the shocking news of the Sharpeville massacre leaked out from Transvaal, this was OK with most western news organizations that prided themselves in being open and free. Television wouldn’t open the door to the outside world until 1976. By this time, though, Mandela was in jail and an underground musical scene had emerged, not unlike those that took root in the U.S. and Europe in the mid-’60s. Government officials attempted to pull that thorn from its side, as well, but music crosses borders that marches and protesters can’t. Keith Jones and Deon Maas’ enlightening 2012 documentary, “Punk in Africa,” describes the role played by bands of multi-racial rockers in creating a new front on the war against Apartheid. If they called their music punk, it’s because nothing in the repressive system escaped their wrath. Unlike the protest songs of American folkies, though, you could dance to it. Naturally, the bands absorbed traditional rhythms, combining them with ska, punk, reggae, jazz and R&B. At the same time, artists living in Mozambique and Zimbabwe also challenged the status quo by merging music with politics. “Punk in Africa” contains new and archived interviews, as well as rare and unseen footage of such bands as Suck, Wild Youth, Safari Suits, Power Age, National Wake, KOOS, Kalahari Surfers, the Genuines, Hog Hoggidy Hog, Fuzigish, Sibling Rivalry, 340ml, Panzer, the Rudimentals, Evicted, Sticky Antlers, Freak, LYT, Jagwa Music, Fruits and Veggies and Swivel Foot. – Gary Dretzka

Swerve: Blu-ray
There’s something about a good Australian crime thriller that should remind American viewers of movies once churned out by Hollywood studios in the dozens. We know them as film noir, B-movies and potboilers, depending on their casts and budget. The best of the Aussie crime crop are too fresh and nuanced to be labeled Ozploitation, but they share certain tendencies. As the ancestors of exiled prisoners and hoodlums, they seem to display a genetic predisposition to settling scores outside the law and a lack of trust in anyone deemed incorruptible. And, that’s just the women. Kidding. Like other movies set in places beyond the coastal cities, “Swerve” recalls a Western as written by Jim Thompson. Set in the barren, semi-arid flatlands bordered by the Flinders Ranges in South Australia, “Swerve” opens with a double-cross that quickly becomes a triple-cross and grows exponentially from there. A suitcase full of drugs is exchanged for a suitcase full of cash. It only takes a minute for the recipient of the drug cache to discover that he’s been deceived. By this time, however, he’s driven several hundred yards across the flats leading to the highway. Even though he turns his vehicle around immediately, the drug courier can’t avoid being blown to smithereens by a bomb hidden among the bags of white powder in the suitcase. The man with the cash is fed his just desserts when, forced to swerve by an approaching convertible, he’s killed in the crash. Of course, it’s driven by an intoxicatingly beautiful blond, Jina (Emma Booth). The blond is shaken, but OK. The fellow with the suitcase full of cash, however, is indisputably dead.

Colin (David Lyons) is solid citizen, on his way to a job interview further south, when he witnesses the crash. Playing the Good Samaritan card, Colin picks up the suitcase and delivers it to the sheriff of the nearest town. The sheriff, Frank (Jason Clarke), gladly accepts the suitcase and its contents, then offers Colin a place to crash for the night. And, here’s where “Swerve” turns very pulpy. Frank is married to Jina, an evil seductress if there ever was one. In combination with the contents of the suitcase, she sees in Colin a way to escape life in a town more suited to sheep worship than maintaining the upkeep of a world-class beauty. After dinner, when Frank returns to the jail to secure the suitcase, Jina attempts to lure Colin into a moonlit skinny-dip, which he declines. The next day, other hoodlums arrive in town – along with several buses containing police marching bands – to retrieve the treasure. Suffice it to say, the suitcase is never where it’s supposed to be at any given time and viewers are left in the dark as to where to find it. The answers, which reveal themselves in time, are cleverly hidden among the red herrings and narrative chicanery. In this way, it recalls the work of Thompson, James L. Caine and Alfred Hitchcock. “Swerve” was written and directed by the late Craig Lahiff (“Heaven’s Burning,” “Black and White”), who used a similar suitcase device in his 1988 thriller, “Fever.” The Blu-ray adds a quartet of EPK interviews. – Gary Dretzka

The Hidden Fortress: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
By now, no fan of the American Western should be unfamiliar with the visually arresting and action-heavy Easterns created by the Japanese maestro Akira Kurosawa. “The Hidden Fortress,” released in 1958, was the first film Kurosawa made in the wide-screen Toho Scope format and recorded in stereo. As such, it’s probably the movie most influenced by one of Kurosawa’s heroes, John Ford, whose shooting techniques and eye for visual grandeur were a perfect match for American Westerns, Spaghetti Westerns and Asian Easterns. Here, Toshiro Mifune (Yojimbo) plays the general of a disgraced army who’s charged with guarding his boss’ intrepid daughter (Misa Uehara) and a fortune in gold. (Kurosawa patterned the princess after a teenage Elizabeth Taylor.) Traveling together behind enemy lines, they run the common risk of being captured, robbed and killed. Instead, at a fortress hidden deep in the mountains, they hook up with a pair of reward-hungry peasants who can barely get out of each other’s way. Together, the travelers don’t look like much of a threat to the conquering army, so it’s easier for them to get past checkpoints and escape detection. Once the general and princess are identified, though, they’re required to use their wits, fighting skills and horsemanship to remain free. Even after a half-century, “Hidden Fortress” is extremely exciting and sometimes quite amusing. The black-and-white cinematography, too, is remarkable. In an interview included in the Criterion package, George Lucas describes how he became acquainted with Kurosawa’s work and patterned R2-D2 and C-3PO after the two peasants, through whose voices the story unspools. Kurosawa’s reflections on “Hidden Fortress” and memories of Ford are detailed in the 41-minute featurette, “Akira Kurosawa: It Is Wonderful to Create.” Commentary is provided by film historian Stephen Prince, while a booklet adds an essay by film scholar Catherine Russell. – Gary Dretzka

Return to Nuke ‘Em High: Vol. 1 Blu-ray
The Slumber Party Massacre: Blu-ray
Contracted
Loathe, though I am, to describe “Class of  Nuke ’Em High” as a classic example of anything … well, it is. How else would one describe as a merger of “Blackboard Jungle,” “Rock ’n’ Roll High School” and “Toxic Avenger”? Troma Entertainment/Studios co-founders Lloyd Kaufman and Michael Herz have, for more than 40 years, consistently turned out pictures that have blurred the boundaries between horror, sci-fi, eco-terror and low camp. Kaufman, Troma’s public happy-face, is an impresario created from the same mold as Roger Corman, John Waters, John Carpenter, Russ Meyer and Ed Wood Jr. Not only have these singular filmmakers been willing and able to squeeze every last penny from already tight budgets, but they’ve also influenced dozens of younger artists. If their films truly “aren’t for everyone,” it’s only because they aren’t intended to fit all sizes. Kaufman has spent the better part of the last year promoting “Return to Nuke ‘Em High: Vol. 1,” at film festivals, film markets, campuses, museums and retrospectives, as if it were his magnum opus. Editors and critics have received dozens of e-mails, offering news releases and photos of Kaufman on the hustings. Although eight movies carry “Nuke ’Em High” in their titles, only five have anything to do with Troma (including the upcoming “RTNEH: Vol. 2”). The first three film comprised a series, while “RTNEH: Vol. 1” is a re-boot of the franchise. This time around, we’re back at Tromaville High School, which must be every substitute teacher’s idea of a living hell, and the nuclear plant has been turned into Tromorganic Foodstuffs Conglomerate. Needless to say, residual radioactivity taints the food the students are served at the cafeteria, turning some of them into mindless cretins … or, worse, lesbians. More than that, I dare not reveal. Asta Paredes and Catherine Corcoran appear to be having a blast as the forbidden lovers, as will genre buffs as they attempt to spot all of the homages and parodies. But, of course, repeat after me … it’s not for everyone. There are several entertaining featurettes and interviews, as well.

Made at the dawn of the slasher age, “Slumber Party Massacre” is the rare genre picture that’s managed to age as gracefully as the actresses interviewed in the bonus package. In 1982, when it received a limited release by New World, it was lambasted by critics who couldn’t see beyond their hatred for slasher flicks and were disappointed, as well, by the absence of an easily identifiable feminist subtext. It was, after all, written by gay-rights activist Rita Mae Brown (“Rubyfruit Jungle”) and directed by Amy Holden Jones, who had cut her teeth as an assistant to Martin Scorsese on “Taxi Driver.” Brown’s original script was written as parody, but shot as a genre picture according to the dictates of the producers at Corman’s company. The satire probably would have been lost on the slasher audience, anyway. It took a few years for other filmmakers and critics to understand what Brown and Jones had in mind – it’s there if one bothers to look hard enough — and, by that time, genre fans had caught up with the movie on VHS. The movie would generate direct sequels in 1986 and 1990, and a separate “Massacre Collection” franchise on top of those titles. The “Slumber Party” premise is as simple as inviting a sociopath with an electric drill – “Body Double,” anyone — to crash a slumber party of wannabe Playboy bunnies. The Blu-ray package contains lengthy interviews with Jones and some of the stars, as well as trailers for the sequels.

In “Contracted,” writer/director Eric England bends, folds and mutilates the hoary slasher-film trope, which stipulates that teenagers who have sex in cars will be slaughtered by a serial killer in the first reel. Here, a newly minted lesbian, Samantha (Najarra Townsend), cheats on her lover with a creep who takes advantage of her alcohol-exaggerated anxiety over some unreturned phone calls. Samantha immediately regrets the indiscretion, hoping against hope that her girlfriend won’t learn of it. The die already has been cast, however. As punishment for having unprotected sex, she begins to leak frighteningly high volumes of blood from her orifices … all of them. If Samantha had only waited for the guy to put on a condom, the scolds argue, she would have been spared the agony. Good advice, but delivered a tad too late. Based on just that much information, gore addicts might be tempted to sample “Contracted.” Samantha’s ordeal doesn’t end with spilled blood and distorted eyeballs, though. It gets much, much worse. Unfortunately, England doesn’t bother to enlighten us about the origin of the killer STD and the intentions, if any, of the stranger. The DVD adds commentary and a making-of piece, with auditions. – Gary Dretzka

The Wrath of Vajra: Blu-ray
Commitment: Blu-ray
Flu
As atypical as it is vastly entertaining, “The Wrath of Vajra” is the kind of martial-arts picture that demonstrates how much the venerable genre still is able to surprise us and evolve. It does so by combining wall-to-wall action and splendid cinematography with a wartime story that almost defies description. It also features one of the most diverse and unexpected casts of characters I’ve seen in a long time. “The Wrath of Vajra” describes an elaborate scheme by Japanese occupation forces to create a division of clandestine assassins, comprised of Chinese youths who have been kidnaped or purchased and brought to Japan to drink the Emperor’s Kool-Aid. The children are trained in the most lethal martial-arts techniques, with the intention of re-inserting them into China when required by the Imperial Army. The boys are known by the number tattooed on their arm, which signify their place in pecking order of the Temple of Hades. One of the boys, K-29, escapes after he seriously injures his brother while horsing around. He finds his way to a Shaolin temple in China, where he masters the monks’ preferred kung-fu discipline. Skip ahead several years, towards the end of WWII, and the Temple of Doom has moved its operation to mainland China, where it’s easier to kidnap children and Allied planes aren’t about to drop Bombs of Doom on their heads. They take over a traditional temple complex, where there’s plenty of room for training, fighting and holding prisoners, including American special-forces troops captured in Burma, where they fought alongside Chinese guerrillas and learned the language. They arrive at the temple at about the same time as the all-grown-up K-29, who’s taken a vow to free the kids and destroy the death cult. To accomplish this, K-29 must conquer and kill the cream of the cult’s assassins. These freaks of nature resemble characters in an arcade game, in that one could be Andre the Giant’s body double and the other, Crazy Monkey, fits his nickname like an old shoe.  Posing the greatest threat, however, is an officer famous for his skills in Japanese martial arts. The fights are nothing short of spectacular, mixing styles, techniques and passion for opposing causes. In another storyline, the daughter of the cult leader is a journalist who starts out as a true believer, but becomes increasingly more skeptical as K-29 battles his way through the cult’s most celebrated combatants. Considering how well K-29 is doing, the reports do nothing but confirm the army’s earlier decision to ban the Temple of Hades. As K-29 makes his final preparations for the ultimate fight, so, too, are the POWs solidifying their plot to break out of the temple, and taking the kids with them. The last half-hour is even more dramatically choreographed than the anything in the 85 minutes that preceded it. I found it interesting to learn that the movie’s star, Xing Yu, is a 32d generation Shaolin monk and a legitimate Zen warrior. The rest of the cast is comprised of actors from Japan, China, the U.S., Britain and Korea (pop stars, Yoo Sungjun and Nam Hyun-joon), many of whom bring their own preferred disciplines to the battle scenes. The beautiful mountain setting is nicely captured in Blu-ray, as well.

Unlike most other Korean action pictures that make the hop over the Pacific, the spy-vs.-spy thriller “Commitment” is targeted directly at the heart of teen audiences. Its protagonist, Myung-hoon, is played by boy-band favorite Choi Seung-hyun (a.k.a., T.O.P) and rising star Kim Yoo-jeong as his teenage “friend.” After his father fails to return to Pyongyang after completing a mission in South Korea, the spy’s son and daughter are jailed as “traitors” by extension. To escape torture or death, and ensure the safety of his younger sister, Myung-hoon agrees to infiltrate the South and perform tasks as assigned. Because he’s still in his teens, Myung-hoon is placed in the home of foster parents and required to attend high school, where he is required to pretend to be a transfer student too timid to protect himself against the bullies. It isn’t until they humiliate his shy seatmate, Hye-in (the same name as his sister) that he decides to reveal his killer instinct. Myong-hoon’s assignment is to assassinate those on a kill-list monitored by those holding his sister in the North. Tired of the bullying, as well, Hye-in, simply disappears from school. The next time they meet, she’s cut her hair and broken out of her shell. For performing all of his chores as ordered, Myung-hoon fully expects to be allowed to return North and what passes for a normal life with his sister. Instead, he’s betrayed by the same intelligence bureaucracy that took down his father. This time, the paranoia level has been heightened by the death of the nation’s demented leader and replaced by one even crazier. By now, Myong-hoon has no idea on which side of the DMZ his worst enemy resides. He only wants to do right by the two Hye-ins in his life and it takes all of his martial-arts expertise to do so. The Blu-ray adds a fan-oriented making-of featurette.

The title of the Korean epidemic thriller, “Flu,” pretty much sums up what to expect in the movie’s exhaustive 122-minute length. In this regard, at least, it isn’t much different than “Contagion,” “Outbreak,” “Quarantine” and “The Plague of the Zombies.” In Kim Sung-su’s take on the horror staple, a mutation of the Avian Flu is transported into a suburb of Seoul along with a shipping canister filled with mostly dead illegal immigrants from Indonesia. Once the virus is identified, public-health officials fear they won’t be able to prevent it from spreading beyond the borders of Bundang. If that happens, the epidemic could evolve into a pandemic, causing world powers to quarantine the entire nation or take even more drastic military measures to stop it. The primary difference between “Flu” and dozens of other such disaster films is the role played by a rescue worker, Ji-go, and the infectious disease specialist, In-hye, he saves from a pit into which her car has fallen. Together, they attempt to find the lone survivor of the doomed canister, whose blood could contain the antibodies needed to end the plague. This sort of personalization of the story is to be expected, I suppose. What isn’t predictable is the degree of annoyance generated by In-hye’s young daughter when the flu catches up with her. The incessant weeping and wailing, while understandable, become a plague onto themselves after about 10 minutes. What saves “Flu” from becoming a movie better suited to the Syfy channel than theaters are the well-rendered scenes of mass mayhem and panic. The Blu-ray adds making-of featurettes and deleted scenes. – Gary Dretzka

TV-to-DVD
BBC: Atlantis: Season One: Blu-ray
Chiller: Monsters: The Complete Series
Nova: Roman Catacomb Mystery
Frontline: To Catch a Trader
Nick Jr.: Peppa Pig: My Birthday Party
I’m not sure what I expected to see when I put “Atlantis” on my Blu-ray player … probably a combination of Donovan’s song of the same title and such syndicated action-fantasy shows as “Xena: Warrior Princess” and “Hercules: The Legendary Journeys.” And, guess what, I was right. The show, which ran originally on BBC One, found its way to North America on Canada’s Space Channel and as part of BBC America’s “Supernatural Saturday” bloc. If any students of Greek mythology depend on the information proffered in “Atlantis,” they probably deserve the F they’re going to get. The same probably holds true for any series based on history or popular fiction, though. Here, the mash-up of mythological characters is especially bizarre, in that demi-gods, goddesses and monsters we know to have existed in Greece millennia earlier have taken up residence in Atlantis. It opens with an oceanographer/argonaut named Jason, whose submersible breaks through a hole in the time-space continuum, leaving him stranded on a beach in Atlantis. Apparently, it’s the same hole his father passed through years earlier, disappearing forever. While running away from a two-headed dragon, Jason finds shelter in the home of a bloated Hercules (Mark Addy) and “the triangle guy,” Pythagoras (Robert Emms). In due time, we’re introduced, as well, to King Minos, Ariadne, Medusa, Pasiphae, the Oracle, Circes, Atalanta, the Minotaur, Maenads and other demons. Adults will see right through “Atlantis,” but should find the fantasy elements to their liking.

TV producers have always had a soft spot in their hearts for anthology series, especially those targeted for syndication and cable. They also were radio staple, before it turned almost exclusively to music, news and talk. In the so-called Golden Age of television, anthologies typically were sponsored out-front by such companies as Kraft, Philco, General Electric, United States Steel and Alcoa, or hosted by familiar stars, like Loretta Young, Barbara Stanwyck, Danny Thomas, Alfred Hitchcock and Walt Disney. The format has probably been adopted most often as a base for sci-fi, horror and suspense: “Twilight Zone,”  “The Outer Limits” and “Night Gallery,” among them. “Monsters” ran in syndication from 1988-91 and reruns still can be found on NBC/Universal’s niche cable network, Chiller. The series, which bears comparison to “Tales From the Dark Side,” deals less with the supernatural than manifestations of horror, including subgenres introduced in the 1970-80s, when censors relaxed their grip on violent imagery. Being syndicated, “Monsters” relied more on twisty stories and macabre humor than established guest stars for their appeal. Here, the list of writers, directors and stars is very heavy on names of B- and C-list stars of yore and up-and-comers far more recognizable today than in the early 1990s. Among them are Tempestt Bledsoe, David Spade, Meat Loaf, Laraine Newman, Tori Spelling, Chris Noth, Gina Gershon, Bette Gordon, Lizzie Borden, Julie Brown, Kevin Nealon, Matt LeBlanc, Wil Wheaton, Luis Guzman and Tony Shaloub. The complete-series box contains 1,560 minutes of nicely re-mastered dark comedy and horror.

Traveling through Europe with kids can be a real bummer in the summer. There are attractions, however, that bored teens can enjoy and not feel intimidated by fellow tourists with degrees in art history. While mom and dad visit the museums and cathedrals, the kids can tour the local malls and compare them to their favorite haunts back home or the same landmarks on the Las Vegas Strip. In England, the Tower of London and surrounding historical sites are lots of fun, while, in Scotland, a cruise on Loch Ness is obligatory. Paris offers such strange destinations as the Sewers Museum, which substitutes for the discontinued subterranean boat tours, and the celebrity-heavy Père Lachaise Cemetery. In winter, a side trip to Jukkasjärvi, Sweden, for a night’s stay in the Ice Hotel, defines what it means to be “cool.” Anyone easily unimpressed by the Vatican may want to check out the various catacombs of Rome, which stretch for miles and offer more than mere skeletons to admire. Some contain frescos and other ancient pieces of art, just like Pompei. If that’s more up your alley than, say, the Spanish Steps, be sure to check out the “Nova” presentation, “Roman Catacomb Mystery,” which investigates why one of the underground cemeteries contains thousands of skeletons, stacked like so much firewood, but precious little evidence as to what caused so many people to die in such a short time. It’s creepy, but fascinating stuff.

The “Frontline” episode “To Catch a Trader” opens with a reminder of the 2010 article in the Wall Street Journal that presented evidence of pervasive abuse of laws intended to eliminate insider trading. In it, a persuasive case was made again “King of Hedge Funds,” Steve Cohen, and the brokerage firm he founded, SAC Capital. On the surface, it seemed as if the feds’ case was airtight and the traders involved were dirty as sin, which, of course, they were. Producer Martin Smith’s follow-up to the report is at once enlightening and deeply troubling. No sooner had the American economy tanked, in 2008, causing millions of people from around the world to suffer from lax SEC controls, than guys like Cohen found a different way to rob investors. Agents for SAC Capital made it their business to beg, buy or steal information that might cause the indexes to fluctuate up or down. No matter if a tip was received minutes before news was about to break, a fortune could be made in the time it took to type an order into a computer. So much money was made in this manner that it bordered on the impossible, and Cohen spent it as quickly as he made it. And, yet, while his company agreed to pay a substantial fine, Cohen has avoided prosecution. The PBS documentary is informed, as well, by information requested through the Freedom of Information Act and a video from a deposition Cohen gave in 2011. Using excuses that wouldn’t keep a 5th Grader from avoiding detention – he only admitted to being ignorant of established regulations — he’s been able to avoid being indicted. It no longer qualifies as news that government officials are reluctant to prosecute offenders, unless there’s a near certainty they’ll win or they’re taunted by someone like Leonardo DiCaprio’s character in “The Wolf of Wall Street.” Here, at least, some lower-level executives cut deals and spent some time in jail.

The animal characters on the animated British export, “Peppa Pig,” are drawn in such a deceptively sloppy manner that it could easily fit on Adult Swim, which is where stoners turn each night to be intellectually stimulated. The kid-friendly messages might be lost on them, but who doesn’t enjoy getting blitzed and playing in mud puddles? Enormously popular in England, where there’s a theme devoted to the show, “Peppa Pig” is mostly available here through Nick Jr. and PPV. The “My Birthday Party” DVD welcomes preschoolers with 80 minutes of adventures, featuring 14 “Peppasodes” (12 regular, plus 2 bonus) and a pair of fresh educational extras, “Learn the Alphabet” and “Learn to Count.” Besides Peppa and her family, the cast includes Suzy Sheep, Pedro Pony and Danny Dog. – Gary Dretzka

A Saint … a Woman … a Devil
Peekarama: Sadie/The Seductress
Peekarama: The Altar of Lust/Angel on Fire
As weird and experimental as pornography got in the days after “Deep Throat” and “Behind the Green Door,” and before the dawn of the Golden Age, few could boast as interesting a backstory as “A Saint … a Woman … a Devil” (a.k.a., “Sylvia”).  The original title pins the movie’s inspiration to “Three Faces of Eve,” but “A Saint … a Woman … a Devil” probably sounded too European for the drive-in and grindhouse crowd. “Sylvia” In fact, it does reveal certain arthouse conceits, including a reportedly deranged actress (Joanna Bell) playing a woman with multiple personalities. Her character, Sylvia, transforms in a flash from religious nut, to nymphomaniac (in the classic sense of the term), to a drug-addled biker lesbian and a woman desperate for romantic live. A psychiatrist gets her to recollect the trauma of growing up in a house with a psycho mother, but it doesn’t prevent the sudden personality changes. Writer/director Armand Peters (a.k.a., Peter Savage) received a partial writing and acting credit for “Raging Bull” and appeared in “New York, New York” and “Taxi Driver.” Exploitation special William Lustig (“Manic”) served as an uncredited AD on the film and it was produced with the assistance of students from the NYU film school. (Future mainstream DP Michael Negrin went uncredited as the shooter.) That, at least, explains some of the more polished, artsy shots. Two years later, after a decade in the porn game, Sonny Landham (“Junkie #1”) would be discovered by action-director Walter Hill and cast in “The Warriors,” “Southern Comfort” and “48 Hrs.” Also appearing in bit parts are Joseph LaMotta, son of Jake and Vickie, and porn mainstay Bobby Astyr. The new Vinegar Syndrome DVD includes the 108-minute XXX and 89-minute R-rated versions. There’s a shorter XXX version floating around, as well. I wish that the VS edition had retained the commentary track, with Lustig, and an eight-page booklet. It benefits, though, from a 2K restoration from original 35mm elements.

Also from Vinegar Syndrome come a pair of double-features, showing the work of Hall of Fame director Bob Chinn – the model for Jack Horner, in “Boogey Nights” – and exploitation legend Roberta Findlay. Chinn is credited with expanding the porno marketplace to include films with recurring characters. John Holmes starred as the titular hero of the porn-noir series, “Johnny Wadd,” which became “Dirk Diggler” in Paul Thomas Anderson’s film. “Sadie” is Chinn’s take on the Somerset Maugham novel, “Rain.” Set against the background of the Vietnam War, it is book that easily translates into porn. Chris Cassidy plays the prostitute, Sadie Thompson, who’s stuck in a low-end brothel on Borneo, popular with GIs on R&R. One day, a bible-banging politician arrives on the island with his strait-laced wife and soon-to-blossom daughter. He makes Sadie’s salvation his personal campaign. Although Chinn sticks pretty close to the text, it’s difficult not to think of “Gilligan’s Island,” especially in the sex scenes. Even as a curiosity, though, “Sadie” is different enough to be worth a look. “The Seductress” resembles a game of reverse musical-chairs blackmail, beginning with a cheating husband, a blond prostitute and an extortionist taking photos behind a mirror in a motel room. It’s pretty standard stuff, until the junkie whore begins to demand extra payments from her client (Lisa Deleeuw) to receive the incriminating photos. Her greed trips alarms all the way up the criminal food chain, until the blackmail schemes begin to overlap and the victims become the predators. Compared to today’s gonzo titles, “The Seductress,” is “Gone With the Wind.”

Even if it didn’t feature two of coolest names in porn history – Harry Reems and Erotica Lantern – “The Altar of Lust” would be of interest to collectors and buffs. It was made in 1971, a year ahead of “Deep Throat,” the movie that made Reems and Linda Lovelace household names. Not quite hard-core, but far too rough to be considered soft-core, “Altar of Lust” carries the personal stamp of Roberta Findlay, who, for many years, had been working the seamier edge of a genre pictures with her husband, Michael. Here, a young woman is so traumatized from being raped by her father-in-law that she becomes promiscuous. When Viveca catches her boyfriend (Reems) in the clutches of another woman, she agrees to join them in a threesome. To the stud’s chagrin, the threesome is reduced once again to a twosome, when the ladies decide they prefer women to men. Like all men of the time, her shrink believes he can treat her malady with his penis. Made three years later, “Angel on Fire” (a.k.a., “Angel Number 9”) reflects the acceptance of hard-core as something no longer limited to the raincoat crowd. The actors are more attractive and the stories are no longer written in crayon. In this twist on “Heaven Can Wait,” a despicable womanizer dumps his girlfriend when she announces that she’s pregnant. His punishment arrives in the form of a VW van, whose driver is distracted by the BJ he’s getting from his girlfriend. Instead of being sent immediately to hell, where he probably belongs, an angel puts him the body of woman and sends him back to Earth. At first, he digs being able to play with his own boobs and command the attention of handsome guys who know how to take care of a gal. It doesn’t take long for the tables to turn, however. Long-timers Jamie Gillis and Eric Edwards make early-career appearances here. All of these titles have been nicely re-mastered, as well.  – Gary Dretzka

One Response to “The DVD Wrapup”

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https://bestwatches.club/ on: The DVD Wrapup: Diamonds of the Night, School of Life, Red Room, Witch/Hagazussa, Tito & the Birds, Keoma, Andre’s Gospel, Noir

Gary Dretzka on: The DVD Wrapup: Sleep With Anger, Ralph Wrecks Internet, Liz & Blue Bird, Hannah Grace, Unseen, Jupiter's Moon, Legally Blonde, Willard, Bang … More

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GDA on: The DVD Wrapup: Bumblebee, Ginsburg, Buster, Silent Voice, Nazi Junkies, Prisoner, Golden Vampires, Highway Rat, Terra Formars, No Alternative … More

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Gary J Dretzka on: The DVD Wrapup & Gift Guide III: Venom 4K, The Super, Snowflake, Marie Curie, Gamechangers, Who We Are Now, 40 Guns, De Palma-De Niro,, Starman and more

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“The word I have fallen in love with lately is ‘Hellenic.’ Greek in its mythology. So while everyone is skewing towards the YouTube generation, here we are making two-and-a-half-hour movies and trying to buck the system. It’s become clear to me that we are never going to be a perfect fit with Hollywood; we will always be the renegade Texans running around trying to stir the pot. Really it’s not provocation for the sake of being provocative, but trying to make something that people fall in love with and has staying power. I think people are going to remember Dragged Across Concrete and these other movies decades from now. I do not believe that they will remember some of the stuff that big Hollywood has put out in the last couple of years. You’ve got to look at the independent space to find the movies that have been really special recently. Even though I don’t share the same world-view as some of my colleagues, I certainly respect the hell out of their movies which are way more fascinating than the stuff coming out of the studio system.”
~ Dallas Sonnier

“My first objective relationship in life was with the camera. I didn’t understand anything but then I realized the camera is my friend. It doesn’t lie to me. It doesn’t manipulate me. It only reports what I’m doing. And therefore, for me to work with a camera and the camera to be directed by an artist, a craftsman, someone who knows what he or she wants, I couldn’t ask for anything more.”
~ Elliot Gould