By Gary Dretzka Dretzka@moviecitynews.com
The DVD Wrapup
The Wolf of Wall Street: Blu-ray
The King of Comedy: 30th Anniversary Edition: Blu-ray
If any filmmaker is more adept at making us feel sympathy for the devil than Martin Scorsese, I don’t know who that person would be. Even when there isn’t an ounce of decency to be mined from the gangsters, moguls and monsters played by Robert De Niro, Harvey Keitel, Daniel Day-Lewis, Jack Nicholson and Leonardo DiCaprio in his pictures, we’re willing to hang on to the belief that they might be salvageable, if only out of respect for the actors. In “The Wolf of Wall Street,” however, he might have met his match in a character who’s as despicable in real life as he is in real life. Not only is New York stockbroker Jordan Belfort (DiCaprio) an opportunistic leech, but he also lacks the cinematic heft to justify his presence in a Scorsese movie. After three hours of screen time, we’re given no concrete reason to whether he ODs on drugs, is given a disease by one of the many hookers he hires or is thrown in prison for the rest of his life. From beginning to end, Belfort’s fortune is built and maintained by individuals who forgot to read the small print when they were suckered into investing through Stratton Oakmont and one of its “pump and dump” schemes. Yes, even amid the greatest bull market in history, it was possible to lose money. Unlike the gangsters in Scorsese’s most famous films, Belfort targeted the innocent and spared the equally guilty. Scorsese’s incapable of making a movie that’s less than entertaining, as is DiCaprio, but the real selling point here is the protagonist’s ability to shovel mountains of cocaine and Quaaludes into his system without killing himself. The closest thing to a victim we see in “Wolf of Wall Street” are his ex-wives, one of whom is portrayed as a gold-digger and the other his high school sweetheart, who simply couldn’t compete in the big leagues of debauchery. In “Boiler Room,” based loosely on the same “pump and dump” scheme, we’re introduced to a client who lost everything in his dealings with one of Belfort’s firms and was about to inflict his own form of justice as the FBI raids the offices.
Despite these qualms, there’s a lot to like about “Wolf of Wall Street.” No one stages a party quite as deliciously as Scorsese or make criminal enterprises seem so worth the risk of prison. I have no way of knowing if Bernie Madoff celebrated his ill-gotten gains with hookers, midget-tossing and extreme substance abuse, but, from what I know about traders at Chicago’s Board of Trade, the celebrations in “Wolf of Wall Street” may only be slightly exaggerated. Ditto, the amounts of Quaaludes, cocaine and booze consumed. In “Casino” and “GoodFellas,” characters played by Joe Pesci paid a heavy price for letting their hubris get the best of them. Instead of spending a lifetime in prison for his crimes and fully repaying the people he swindled, Belfort served a mere 22 months in stir and has yet to pony up the full $110.4 million ordered by the court. Sounds like a fair trade to me. Danny Porush, who is the model for Jonah Hill’s Donnie Azoff, served 39 months in jail and has managed to repay some of his fine. He now runs a Florida medical-supply business, which has employed several other former workers from Stratton Oakmont firm, and is being investigated for questionable Medicare billings. Porush and his second wife, Lisa, live in a $4 million mansion and drive matching Rolls-Royce Corniche convertibles. And, yes, he did eat a live goldfish at a company party. The Blu-ray presentation nicely captures the technical attributes Scorsese always brings to his projects. If it only adds one 17-minute making-of featurette, a DVD copy and UV/iTunes digital copies, I suspect that it won’t be long before we’re invited to see the uncropped “director’s cut” version, with commentaries and other bonus features.
If only because the DVD/Blu-rays were released on the same day last week, “King of Comedy” begs comparison with “Wolf of Wall Street,” as well as debate about Scorsese Now and Scorsese Then. Without diminishing what’s excellent in the new title, I suspect that the truly challenging “King of Comedy” will stand the test of time better the saga of Jordan Belfort. Paul Zimmerman’s script was first shown to Scorsese in 1974, the same year as People magazine was launched and a few years before Mark David Chapman and John Hinkley Jr. introduced a dangerous new wrinkle to the celebrity game. Today, the media has turned stalking into something resembling a career. Watch “King of Comedy” alongside “The Bling Ring” and “Keeping Up With the Kardashians” and you’ll understand what Zimmerman had seen in his crystal ball four decades ago. De Niro plays Rupert Pupkin, a wannabe standup comic who’s convinced himself that he’s ready for prime-time. He sees in late-night talker Jerry Langford (Lewis) his ticket to stardom. Indeed, Pupkin’s deepest secret is that he not only wants to perform on the show, but usurp Langford’s crown, as well. Compounding Langford’s misery is Masha (Sandra Bernhard), a rabid fan who shows up at the same back doors and red carpets as Pupkin. Her dementia manifests itself in a desperate desire to have sex with him, preferably on the dining-room table of her parents’ posh Manhattan apartment. After Langford recognizes their latent hostility and blows them off, Masha and Rupert decide to kidnap him and hold him for ransom. All Rupert wants is a spot on the show, while Masha is determined to rape him. Lewis is terrific as the host, who fully understands how much of himself he’s sacrificed for wealth and fame, but is too addicted to stop. The fact is, Scorsese didn’t quite know what to do with the script when De Niro pushed it on him. It’s very much an actors’ vehicle and dark as coal mine. Given the talent involved, critics and audiences were as unnerved by the setup as Scorsese, at first. There’s plenty of comedy on display here, but it emerge from the scariest of situations. No matter how much the world has fallen in love with celebrity and the trappings of wealth, for example, how many of us haven’t considered taking Lindsay Lohan, Justin Beiber and any one of a dozen of Langford’s heirs to the woodshed for a good whuppin’? Finally, after forcing the network’s hand, Rupert ends his bit by looking at the camera and telling his nationwide audience, “Tomorrow, you’ll know I wasn’t kidding and you’ll all think I’m crazy. But I figure it this way: better to be king for a night, than schmuck for a lifetime.” And, if that doesn’t sum up the motivation for appearing such shows as “Duck Dynasty” and “Bad Girls,” what is? Clearly, something that bordered on the preposterous 30-plus years ago seems prescient, today. That’s what we expect from our top talents. The Blu-ray presentation suffers a bit from all of the garish fashions and blinding colors on display in “King of Comedy.” It’s a minor distraction, though. The deleted scenes are well worth watching, as are the hilarious post-screening Q&A with Scorsese, De Niro, Lewis and Bernhard, and making-of featurette filled with anecdotes about the shoot. – Gary Dretzka
Girl on a Bicycle
The audience most likely to enjoy “Girl on a Bicycle” is the same one that embraced the frothy rom-coms imported from France in the 1970-80s: “La Cage aux Folles,” “The Tall Blond Man With One Black Shoe,” “Les compères” and “Cousin, Cousine.” Because Americans had stopped reading subtitles by then, Hollywood tended to lard the remakes with gooey sentimentality and cutesy star turns. (The best translation, “The Birdcage,” benefitted from the combined talents of Michael Nichols, Elaine May, Robin Williams, Gene Hackman, Nathan Lane, Dianne Wiest and composer Stephen Sondheim.) I can’t imagine anyone here remaking “Girl on a Bicycle,” if only because it’s already been internationalized by writer/director Jeremy Levin. The South Bend native put together an attractive pan-European cast, used several different tongues, several photogenic Parisian locations and mildly sexual interludes. These assets add balance to a story that’s both light as a feather and completely unrealistic. The likable Italian actor Vincenzo Amato plays Paolo, a multilingual driver of a tour bus with the worst timing in Paris. No sooner has Paolo proposed to German stewardess Greta (Nora Tschirner) than coincidence puts him in daily contact with the titular girl on a bicycle, Cécile (Louise Monot). After chasing Cecile to get her number, his erratic driving causes an accident that puts her in a cast. Feeling an obligation to his victim, Paolo carries the heavily doped Cecile home to the apartment she shares with her half-Australian kids. In a funny twist, the kids take an immediate liking to Paolo, even to where they immediately begin to refer to him as “Poppa.” Meanwhile, the newly engaged stewardess is allowing herself to be wooed by one of the pilots. “Girl on a Bicycle” can’t help but succumb to farce when Paolo and Greta become suspicious of each other and she’s led to believe that her fiancé is already married and a father of two. Yeah, it’s nonsense, but harmless and occasionally funny enough to recommend to Francophiles. Paddy Considine plays the best-friend role, adding even more sexual tension to the mix. The DVD adds some interviews. – Gary Dretzka
The Great Beauty: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
Comparisons between Federico Fellini’s “La Dolce Vita” and Paolo Sorrentino’s “The Great Beauty” not only were inevitable, upon its debut at Cannes 2013, but they also were welcomed by everyone involved in the production. Just as Fellini’s 1960 masterpiece defied easy criticism by being so unlike any other movie of its time, “The Great Beauty” stands out from today’s crowd by introducing us to a man cloned from Marcello Mastroianni’s DNA and dedicated to the proposition that the sweet life is always worth savoring. Stage specialist Toni Servillo (“Il Divo”) plays a writer, Jeb Gambardella, who was famous long ago for writing a best-selling novel and influencing an entire generation of Italians. Now pressing 65, he’s accorded the same respect and privileges as when the novel was published. For reasons of his, not related to any possible writer’s block, he’s chosen to rest on his laurels. Today, he occasionally interviews celebrities and historical figures for a magazine edited by a feisty dwarf, Dadina (Giovanna Vignola), who’s as much a scenester as he is. Jeb’s one of those guys, like the Las Vegas-based Robin Leach, who’s extended his 15 minutes of fame by more than 30 years. He loves being surrounded by beautiful women and is loved, in turn, for not being openly critical of their vapidity. Jeb observes Rome from the perspective of a man who rarely goes to sleep until everyone else in the city is getting ready to go to work. He purposely walks home from the clubs and parties he attends, marveling at the amazing things one can find in the Eternal City if you keep your eyes open and take the time to embrace the curiosities. Jeb shows no sign of slowing down until he receives word of the death of his first lover. It makes him wonder why hasn’t done more with his life and is so easily satisfied as being the life of any party he’s in attendance. Because of the Botox and other elixirs to which his friends are addicted, it’s difficult to read the ages and desperation in the faces of his closest friends. An unexpected death notice can turn an energetic middle-aged man a contemplative senior citizen overnight. What’s so wonderful about “The Great Beauty” is the love, compassion and admiration shown both to Jeb and Rome by Sorrentino and cinematographer Luca Bigazzi. He isn’t made the object of ridicule or pity and holds his own in the discos.
Lush and intensely colorful, this is a movie that demands to been seen on Blu-ray, if not a theater equipped with the latest technology. Not only does Bigazzi capture the city’s grandeur and respect for antiquity, but his camera also shines a celestial light on the Holy Roman Church’s many sacred and profane customs. One of the minor characters is a keeper of the keys to several of Rome’s most historical and elegant homes, so we’re granted access to them, as well. Like Fellini, Sorrentino’s cast of characters includes people many viewers would consider to be freakish, if essential pieces of the puzzle that is Jeb. Among the most curious is a fabled nun, not unlike Mother Teresa, known far and wide as “the Saint.” The 103-year-old Sister Maria eats nothing but boiled roots, sleeps on the floor and prepares to return to her African mission. She’s in Rome to renew her commitment to Christ by climbing by making her way to the top of a famous steeple, on her knees. The only journalist to whom she’ll give an interview is Jeb, whose book she read and admired before taking a vow of poverty. Maria’s escorted around the city by a Cardinal, reputed to be the Vatican’s most successful exorcist, but now is more interested in discussing his recipes for Italian food with anyone pretending to listen.
It’s possible to enjoy “The Great Beauty” in the same way as an informed tourist or student of art history might when in Rome. It makes few demands on the viewer, except those who, like Jeb, are nearing the goalposts of life and don’t know if they’ll go out in glory or a has-been. It’s also fun to attempt to identify the homages paid by Sorrentino to Fellini and other great filmmakers. Beyond those simple joys, however, is a movie that demands of viewers that they look at life as a continuum and not wait until they’re retired to find their place in the world … or, stop having fun. “The Great Beauty” is a very special movie and the Criterion Collection presentation, digitally transferred in 2K, is nothing short of spectacular. The supplemental features include fresh interviews with Servillo and co-screenwriter Umberto Contarello; a filmed conversation between Italian film scholar Antonio Monda and Sorrentino; deleted scenes and an illustrated booklet featuring an essay by critic Philip Lopate. – Gary Dretzka
The Past: Blu-ray
In what, at first, appears to be a thematic sequel to his brilliant “A Separation,” Iranian writer/director Asghar Farhadi introduces us to Ahmad and Marie, a woman and man soon to be divorced in Paris. It’s thousands of miles away from Iran, but a place both once called home. No one’s disputing the facts of the case and, as far as I can tell, there’s no religious subtext to consider. The fewer assumptions viewers make about ethnic stereotypes and political imperatives, the easier it will be for them to stay on the same page as Farhadi. Neither are Marie and Ahmad wealthy exiles, killing time in the west until the next revolution rolls around. Marie has just picked up Ahmad from the airport and is driving him back to the modest house they once shared with their two kids. He had asked her to get him a hotel room, but she decided it would be too expensive and, anyway, he should spend time with the girls. And, there’s the rub. For Ahmad, coming back to Paris wasn’t a daunting task, even if he could have phoned in the divorce through a lawyer. He wants to see his kids, too. No sooner are both doors closed, however, than Marie (Berenice Bejo) begins beating him over the head with a litany of problems that await him. Their 16-year-old daughter, Lucie, has turned into a monster ever since Marie’s boyfriend, Samir, moved into the house with his young son. Samir’s wife is in a hospital, lying comatose, after a suicide attempt. The absence of his mother compounds the boy’s anxiety and serious rage issues. A bit later, we’ll learn that Marie is pregnant with Samir’s child. This is quite a bit more craziness than Ahmad expected and he gets the impression that Marie expects him to at least get Lucie back on track. “The Past” doesn’t dwell on the past four years in Marie’s life, however, and that’s a considerable blessing.
The first surprising thing Americans will notice is that Ahmad isn’t portrayed as being some kind of brooding fundamentalist prick, here today and back to Iran tomorrow with his daughters in tow. In fact, he attempts to blend right into the makeshift family, soothing and babysitting for Samir’s boy and his youngest daughter. He also tries to make sense of Lucie’s deeply rooted bitterness toward her mother and Samir. If you think that you know where “The Past” is heading from here, you don’t. That’s because Farhadi turns the tables on us by collecting the background material, standing it on its head, throwing in some outright lies and allowing “The Past” to slowly evolve into the mystery it was intended to be all along. Personalities change dramatically before our eyes, reversing any preconceptions we might have about the characters and what happened in Paris while Ahmad was back in Iran. The suspense that wasn’t in evidence during for the first 20-or-so minutes of the movie continues to build, until it becomes a character of its own, as is working-class Paris. The Blu-ray adds an interview with Farhadi, undisputedly one of the world’s elite filmmakers. – Gary Dretzka
Evil: In the Time of Heroes
The single best piece of advice most aspiring novelists will ever receive is, “Write what you know.” This applies as much to screenwriters as it does to anyone who’s limited their discourse to Twitter and Facebook. One may not require a thorough knowledge of the undead – or relish the taste of flesh – to make a good zombie picture, but an appreciation of the subgenre’s entire history is essential. Independent filmmakers are excruciatingly familiar with is the horror that derives from trying to sell a genre picture to distributers who’ve literally seen them all. In “Junk,” the protagonists’ ordeal requires that they find someone — anyone – willing to watch their movie, at least. And, where better to find the living dead than at a film festival dedicated to horror. In real reel life, collaborators Kevin Hamedani and Ramon Isao spent a lot of time on the festival circuit hawking their 2009 debut, “ZMD: Zombies of Mass Destruction,” which went straight-to-DVD as part of Lionsgate’s “After Dark Horrorfest” series. (No small reward in a period of genre overload. ) Here, they play a couple of horror geeks, Kaveh and Raul, who have been invited to their first festival to screen the terrorist-monster flick, “Islama-rama 2.” Their primary objective is pitching producer, Yukio Tai (James Hong), who’s hired bodyguards to ward off such wannabes. Meanwhile, they’re also required to deal with personal issues, cutthroat colleagues, inept agents, romantic entanglements, prima-donna actors, the effects of too much cocaine on affairs of the penis, Islamic protesters, dopey Q&A questions and, finally, each other. Fortunately, they’ve received a positive review from a legit critic to shield them from the riff-raff. “Junk” may leave a lot to be desired, but its slapstick approach to the subject should resonate with anyone who’s attended more than one festival or entered a film into competition. The DVD includes commentary with the filmmakers.
Greek yogurt, Greek salads and feta cheese have taken America by storm, so why not Hellenic zombie movies? What, indeed? As far as I can tell, “Evil: In the Time of Heroes” is only the second such film that’s made the journey to the U.S., the first being the 2005 prequel, “Evil.” Unless I’m reading it entirely wrong, “Time of Heroes” is far less Greek tragedy than a parody on the order of “Shaun of the Dead.” Set in Athens, with the Parthenon frequently in the background, it’s pretty much a continuation of what happened in the earlier picture, except for the presence of Greek-American Billy Zane. Here, he plays some kind of messenger of the gods with a violent streak. The same zombies unloosed in “Evil” are terrorizing the city and the same quartet of unaffected mercenaries is attempting to stay alive. “Time of Heroes” flashes back occasionally to ancient Athens, where shepherds were the targets. Given the economic issues plaguing modern Greece, zombies may only amount to a nuisance. It’s possible to kill them, after all. If the story, apart from the setting, could apply to a hundred other such movies, it’s to the credit of co-writer/director Yorgos Noussias and co-writers Claudio Bolivar, Christos Houliaras and Petros Nousias that the dialogue is as fresh and funny as it is. Even with its fractured subtitles – hire a Greek to translate the diluted profanities — it’s a continually entertaining spoof. The gore factor is high, as well. – Gary Dretzka
Far more a curiosity than a reason for cheer, Stephen Verona’s 1979 family drama,
“Boardwalk,” stars Ruth Gordon and Lee Strasberg, two of the giants of the stage and screen in the 20th Century. Gordon, who began appearing in movies in 1915, finally took home an Oscar 56 years later for her unforgettable performance in “Harold & Maude.” Until his Oscar-nominated turn as gangster Hyman Roth in “The Godfather: Part II,” Strasberg was best known for mentoring such prominent actors as Marlon Brando, James Dean, Marilyn Monroe, Dustin Hoffman, Al Pacino, Ellen Burstyn and dozens of others as director of Actors Studio. Alas, almost none of Gordon and Strasberg’s knowledge and experience was absorbed by Verona (“The Lords of Flatbush”) and co-writer Leigh Chapman (“Dirty Mary Crazy Larry”), whose portrait of a New York neighborhood in transition is so clunky and stereotypical that it resembles a “Death Wish” for senior citizens. David and Becky Rosen have lived in Coney Island for many decades. They raised a family there and ran a successful business. Like everything else in New York in the 1970s, Coney Island was going through serious demographic changes. Crime was rampant and people who could afford to move to the suburbs did so, leaving the elderly to deal with the new realities of urban life. In this case, it’s a gang of street punks, the Satans, that’s intent on terrorizing elderly Jews and convincing them to leave. The punks ransack a synagogue, throw a firebomb into the Rosens’ restaurant, beat up a frail old woman and make the famous Boardwalk off-limits to anyone they don’t like. The problem is that the gang members are cut from cardboard and are no more credible than the archetypal bikers, student radicals and hippies depicted in “The Mod Squad” or on the LSD episode of “Dragnet.” They appear out of nowhere and don’t seem to be motivated by anything except anti-Semitism and bad tempers. The cops are never there when they are needed and the Guardian Angels were still in their infancy. The Jewish characters, played by several then-prominent Broadway character actors, are given more depth and fewer onerous prejudices. Despite the movie’s problems, it was fun to watch Gordon and Strasberg as longtime lovers. Janet Leigh is wasted as the Rosens’ daughter, while songwriter Sammy Cahn and Altovise Davis appear in cameos. – Gary Dretzka
The Truth About Emanuel: Blu-ray
There’s a pretty decent psycho-thriller lurking just beneath the surface of “The Truth About Emanuel,” but sophomore writer/director/producer Francesca Gregorini undermines her story revealing the gag before viewers have even gotten comfortable in their seats. Only those new to the genre will be unable to see what’s coming from a mile away. That said, however, Gregorini’s all-pro cast keeps us wondering if she might be able to pull it off, anyway. Emanuel (Kaya Scodelario) is a troubled teen, who refuses to accept the woman (Frances O’Connor) her widower father (Alfred Molina) has chosen to be her stepmother. Even before we get to the gag, we’re made aware of the survivor’s guilt Emanuel still harbors over the drowning death of her mother, before she had an opportunity to learn much about her. When a new neighbor (Jessica Biel) moves in next-door, the girl can’t help but notice the resemblance to photographs of her mom hanging on the walls of her house. At first glance, Linda looks to be a perfectly normal mother of newborn daughter, who Emanuel immediately volunteers to babysit. At second glance, however, there’s no disguising the fact something is terribly unnatural about the baby. I’m not spoiling anything by pointing this out, because most of the movie concerns itself with figuring why Emanuel and Linda aren’t seeing the same crazy things that we are and why Linda’s husband has yet to join them in their new suburban digs. Blessedly, “The Truth About Emanuel” isn’t completely lacking in suspense – or some magical realism, either — so fans of the actors, at least, won’t be disappointed. The Blu-ray adds deleted scenes, outtakes and an interview with the director.
Jim Valdez’ modest teen-slasher thriller began life three years ago as “Spring Break Killer,” but probably became “Machine Head” after someone noticed the upcoming “Spring Breakers” and “Spring Break ’83,” as well as such recent gems a “Spring Break Massacre,” “Spring Breakdown” and “Spring Break Shark Attack.” I doubt that anyone was terribly concerned with being mistaken for the 1963 romp, “Palm Springs Weekend,” which isn’t far from Rancho Mirage,” where “Machine Head” was shot and practically didn’t exist back then. Anyway, a group of pretty young women is given the keys to a dramatically positioned home overlooking the Coachella Valley, as long as a younger sister is allowed to tag along … bummer. Along the way, the driver of a black muscle car taunts them and provides Valdez with an alternate title. The good news for male viewers, anyway, comes when they’re ensconced in the remote desert digs and the sun is ripe for tanning. As night begins to fall, of course, it’s back to terror time with the mysterious owner of the car lurking. Anyone with a jealous younger sibling might be able predict the outcome. I don’t, so it came as a bit of surprise to me. “Machine Head” provides the requisite number of cheap thrills for a straight-to-DVD offering, but benefits from the beautiful scenery. – Gary Dretzka
The Punk Singer
I always thought that the “riot grrrl movement” was founded on a belief that women in rock ’n’ roll were simply fed up with their second- and third-class status in the music business: “chick singers,” backup units, groupies and novelty acts. The few women who managed to cut through the crap and emerge as stars have had to overcome great odds and a litany of insults to make it to the top. It’s even rarer to find a female musician among the boys in the bands. Finally, though, women with comparable talent and moms who taught them what it means to be a feminist in a post-feminist age, came to the fore. I wouldn’t dismiss the inspiration of Cyndi Lauper’s “Girls Just Want to Have Fun” and her wild fashion sense in the creation of the riot grrrl movement, either. Kathleen Hanna, lead singer of the punk band Bikini Kill and dance-punk trio Le Tigre served as the prototype for the riot grrrl. She took shit from no one and sang louder than anyone else. More to the point, she rocked. By the time Hanna was diagnosed with Lyme disease and sent to the sidelines, she had influenced an entire generation of young women, who would could never be confused with the chick singers of yore. Then, she kind of disappeared. Sini Anderson’s lively and inarguably vital rock-doc, “The Punk Singer,” answers the question many fans must have asked themselves over the last eight or nine years: what ever happened to her? Well, she’s still alive and kicking, doing the things her health allows her to do artistically. “The Punk Singer” isn’t the first rock-doc to explain the movement. While “Who Took the Bomp? Le Tigre on Tour,” “Don’t Need You” and “She Said Boom: The Story of Fifth Column” did a nice job in that regard, “Punk Singer” focuses directly on its most visible and influential player. Anderson pored through 20 years of archival footage and interviews to form his portrait, adding observations by such luminaries as Beastie Boy/husband Adam Horowitz, Joan Jett, Carrie Brownstein, Kim Gordon and Tavi Gevinson. The DVD adds extended interviews and background material. – Gary Dretzka
The Swimmer: Blu-ray
Best of Bogart Collection: Blu-ray
When people talk about important movies from the past that Hollywood wouldn’t dream of making today, Frank Perry and replacement director Sydney Pollack’s 1968 drama, “The Swimmer,” is almost always referenced. Based on a John Cheever short story, “The Swimmer” almost didn’t make it to the screen. It stars a 55-year-old Burt Lancaster as a resident of the kind of upper-class Connecticut community, where the men took the train to the train to work and the women worked on their alcoholism at the country club. This being “Mad Men” territory, some of the wealthier guys maintained a pied-à-terre. The only thing we know about Lancaster’s Neddy Merrill going into the story is that he has an extremely likable personality and looks buff in a swimsuit, which is all he wears throughout the movie’s 95-minute length. Inexplicably, he’s also been away for a while. We meet Neddy as he surveys the valley before him from the heights established by a friend’s house and pool. He’s invited to stay for drinks, but has something else on his mind. Noting the large number of turquoise pools visible before him – in-ground pools were still considered a status symbol – he determines that he could jog and swim his way home from there. He names the unlikely trek, “Lucinda’s River,” after his absent wife. Cheever’s vision works equally well as satire, tragedy or fool’s errand. By combining all three elements, though, it becomes a multi-layered quest for the truth about Neddy. At first, he’s welcomed back to the community by former friends and lushes. The closer he gets to his home, however, the more resistance and outright disdain he faces. That the negativity confuses him indicates that he doesn’t know himself as well as we do. Constructed in chapter form, each stop adds to what we know of the man and how he impacted the lives of other neighbors, including their children. Each chapter reveals a story arc its own, as well. As remarkable as “The Swimmer” continues to be, it left many critics and viewers befuddled in the 1960s, when many Americans felt as if their country could do no wrong and a swimming pool in a quiet home in the country was considered to be a brick in the American Dream. Now that such objects are widely accessible to anyone with a little bit of money, a different kind of allegory goes into play. Rich people have been knocked down a few pegs in the social hierarchy and a good plumber is held in the same esteem as a stock broker or advertising executive. In any case, it’s a wonderful example how literary concepts need not be destroyed to save them for adaptation to screen, stage or television. (Eleanor Perry is credited with the screenplay.) The splendid Grindhouse Releasing Blu-ray edition was given a digital restoration created from 4K scans. It includes a new, five-part documentary by Oscar-winner Chris Innis featuring in-depth interviews with stars Janet Landgard, Joan Rivers and Marge Champion, composer Marvin Hamlisch, film editor Sidney Katz, assistant directors Michael Hertzberg and Ted Zachary, UCLA Olympic swim coach Bob Horn and daughter Joanna Lancaster; the original New Yorker short story read by the author; a 12-page booklet with liner notes by director Stuart Gordon; production stills from the lost alternate scenes; and extensive stills galleries.
“The Best of Bogart Collection” offers little in the way of surprises for longtime collectors and film buffs, except, perhaps, for collectible lobby cards and miniature posters. The movies, classics all, need no introduction or re-reviewing, either. “Casablanca,” “The Maltese Falcon,” “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre” and “The African Queen” all have been released on Blu-ray previously, so the set’s major selling point is as a gift for people new to the collection game or those with newly purchased hi-def units. The price is right and there are several hours’ worth of vintage bonus material included, as well. – Gary Dretzka
Let the Fire Burn
Alien Boy: The Life and Death of James Chasse
In the 1960s, when “police brutality” became a rallying cry for activists and radicals, very few mainstream Americans bought it. The argument that protestors should expect to be to be beaten when breaking the law, along with a belief in the infallibility of police, was fairly prevalent at the time. Whenever police did appear to overreact in certain situations – as happened at the Democratic Convention in Chicago – the kneejerk reaction was argue that they had been pushed beyond the boiling point. Finally, though, when too many middle-class American kids came home from college with the same fractured skulls and serious bruises as those caused by cops questioning ghetto youths, the tide began to turn for real. Neither did it boost relations between police and civilians when LAPD officers allowed an SLA hideout to burn to the ground, due to the use of incendiary devices, instead of trying to save a still conceivably innocent Patricia Hearst, who was believed to be inside the house. When brutality cases went public and an investigative panel was formed, it was the rare law-enforcement official who actually was charged with a crime or disciplined. “Let the Fire Burn” reminds us of a day in 1985, in Philadelphia, when police also set a home on fire and prevented the fire department from attempting to put out what would become a neighborhood-wide inferno. Shaggy members of MOVE were as despised by police as the SLA was in California and they give the city just cause for reigning in some of its anti-social behavior. Unlike the SLA victims, though, the MOVE contingent was comprised of African-Americans and black-power advocates. Claims of harassment were commonplace from MOVE, as were the complaints of neighbors who were unhappy about the behavior of their neighbors. Neither were capital crimes. Instead of resisting to take MOVE’s bait on May 13, 1985, the police decided to take control of the house and not sweat the harm done to property or people inside if things went sideways. When the smoke cleared, six adults and five children were killed and a stunning 61 houses were destroyed. Director Jason Osder uses archival footage, legal hearings and fresh interviews to reconstruct the events that led up to the disaster and follow up on the investigation. It’s a hugely sad documentary, especially considering the options open to everyone from the city mayor and police officials, to individuals on the ground. Neither is the aftermath terribly uplifting.
“Alien Boy: The Life and Death of James Chasse” describes a problem that has challenged police and social agencies ever since budget constraints forced states to close mental hospitals and let the patients fend for themselves. Everyone who’d had contact with James “Jim Jim” Chasse on an individual basis understood that he was a schizophrenic and could be a public nuisance when off his meds. He could also be a regular guy. A former rock singer of some local repute, Chasse had gone off the rails years earlier and was deathly afraid of being confined or handled by police. He had a support system at home, but his family and friends couldn’t be everywhere all the time. On September 17, 2006, a policeman thought he noticed Chasse urinating in a public space – maybe he was, maybe it just looked that way – and ordered him to stand still and agree to being handcuffed. Instead, the 42-year-old man spooked and took flight, only to be tackled and have the burly cop fall on top of him, causing severe trauma to his chest and breaking several bones. Instead of letting the suspect recover, the cops who had gathered treated him aggressively, as well. Chasse was photographed lying on the concrete with his hands cuffed behind his back, recovering from being tazzed, while a small gang of cops and medical responders stood around and drank coffee. An investigation would reveal that paramedics weren’t told about the nature of the takedown, which was powerful and ill-advised, if not declaratively brutal. Neither were his screams of pain and requests for water in the jail taken seriously. He would die hours later. It wasn’t the first time that the officer would be charged with over-aggressive behavior and his lack of compassion for the victim was palpable in taped interviews. Could Chasse have been saved if the cop brought him down in a different manner or he wasn’t kicked and tazzed? Even then, could a quick trip to a hospital prevent death? Probably, the autopsy indicated. Initial studies found the police not culpable in the incident, but citizens and mental-health advocates continued to fight for a less-biased investigation. Three years later, the city announced settlements with family members and more training for officers.
A few years later, in Anaheim, officers were cleared in the beating death of another schizophrenic man, outside a gas station. In this case, video showed what clearly was a beating taking place on a man who’d lost his will and ability to resist. It was horrifying, but not sufficiently cruel to convince a SoCal jury. If law-enforcement agencies had learned anything from the Chasse case, it hadn’t made its way to southern California. – Gary Dretzka
After screenings at dozens of niche film festivals, Gary Entin’s “Geography Club” has been released on DVD, targeted especially at teenagers with questions about their sexual identity. Based on a young-adult novel by Brent Hartinger, “Geography Club” compares favorably to the best entries in the old “Afterschool Specials” series. When local affiliates demanded those timeslots back from the networks for their laughable early-news broadcasts, the stations basically were telling their youngest viewers to go out and buy a Nintendo to keep themselves amused while waiting for dinner. The specials were known for taking a stand on issues of importance to teens – bullying, intolerance, cheating, sexuality – and encouraging them to read more on the subject after watching the show. The, “Geography Club,” refers to the name given as a cover for a regular place for LGBT etc. students to gather and not draw too much attention to themselves. One of the kids drawn to the club is a quasi-hetero jock who doesn’t quite understand his attraction to a teammate who’s even more closeted. When some of the other players demand that Russell participate in the hazing of an effeminate classmate, it pushes him over the edge of conformity. In turn, Russell demands that his secret boyfriend join him in standing up for the LGBT kids in the club. Nothing comes easy, though. “Geography Club” managed to score a PG-13 from the conservative MPAA ratings board, so miracles do happen. – Gary Dretzka
Bordello Death Tales
America’s Alien Invasion: The Lost UFO Encounters
Mystery Science Theater 3000: XXIX
If the Chiller cable network continues to turn out “thrillers” on the order of “Beneath,” the Syfy channel never will have to apologize for any of its original movies, again. Genre specialist Larry Fessenden has modeled his water-borne creature-feature after the killing machines in “Jaws” and “Piranha.” There’s even a smidgen of Hitchcock’s “Rowboat” tossed in to make it look smart for high school graduates. Unfortunately, the creature terrorizing a group of teens celebrating their graduation at a friend’s lake house is about as credible as the tired premise. Fessenden probably guessed that no one would buy the prehistoric fish, so he waited as long as possible for the “reveal.” Unfortunately, because Chiller is a basic-cable operation, no one is allowed to take their clothes off to make the wait easier on viewers. No one over 14 will buy a minute of it. Ironically, the Blu-ray is accompanied by a bonus package comparable to those created for Criterion Collection releases.
The title, “Bordello Death Tales,” and old-school cover art, tell you all need to know about what’s contained inside the package. Released in 2009, three stories are set in a whorehouse run by Madam Raven. They capture the spirit of Britain’s Amicus Productions, which specialized in “portmanteau” anthologies. The studio was closely aligned with Hammer Films, which more often specialized in period horror. Included here are Jim Eaves’ “The Ripper,” Pat Higgins’ “Vice Day” and Alan Ronald’s “Stitch Girl,” with the wonderfully creepy Eleanor James in the title role. Although all of the chapters are pretty raw, none overstays its welcome. Buffs are the more likely target for “BDT.”
The films lampooned in “Mystery Science Theater 3000” always have one or two things that make them more interesting than usual creature-feature revival. “XXIX” is no different. Made in 1957, before the heyday of women-in-prison pictures, “Untamed Youth” combines that timeless subgenre with themes prevalent in juvenile-delinquent pictures. It stars Mamie Van Doren and Lori Nelson as sisters who are traveling across country for jobs in the entertainment industry. They are arrested by a tinhorn sheriff for skinny-dipping in a local lake, but not before the gendarmes get an eyeful of their assets. Found guilty of something-or-other, they are sent to a work camp on a farmer, where they’re treated a slaves. Among the amusing distractions are the rock music and dancing that keep the prisoners active after a day in the fields. It was originally condemned by the Catholic Legion of Decency, a move guaranteed to attract the attention of exploitation fans. Van Doren is interviewed in a bonus feature. This set features two “MST3K” episodes hosted by Joel Hodgson, from the show’s Comedy Central years, and two hosted by Mike Nelson from the Sci-Fi Channel years. The other three pictures are “Thing That Couldn’t Die,” “Pumaman” and “Hercules and the Captive Women,” which will never be confused with those of Steve Reeves or the upcoming, “Hercules,” with Dwayne Johnson. – Gary Dretzka
Whenever critics get together to discuss the ordeals of their chosen profession – or, increasingly, the chosen charity – the question of when to bang the gong on a particularly bad movie always comes up. For those critics who tend watch upcoming movies in big-city screening room, taking an early powder on a movie demands another question, this one concerning the ethics of not sticking around for the ending, regardless of how dreary it promises it do be. For those movies judged to be so bad they’re actually relatively painless to endure, the reward can take the form of review that’s fun to read and write. The more pretentious it is, the better. Released theatrically in 1994, Andrew Chiaramonte’s “Twogether,” played in a handful of theaters, at best, although the filmmaker insists in his introduction that its brilliance was better understood by European audiences and critics than those in America. After being released into VHS in 1995, the tormented rom-dram pretty much disappeared, not to be seen again until this week’s DVD launch. Here, Nick Cassavetes plays a devilishly artist who specializes in erotically charged canvases, and they’re not bad. One night in Venice, the struggling artist hooks up with an attractive blond environmentalist in a bar and, to paraphrase Johnny Cash and June Carter, they “got married in a fever, hotter than a pepper sprout, and they’ve been talking about Vegas, ever since the fire went out.” As soon as is humanly possible, Wolfgang Amadeus ‘John’ Madler and Allison McKenzie (Peyton Place reference?) file for divorce. When it’s time to sign the papers, Madler and McKenzie hook up once again for a quick roll in the hay, this time resulting in … you guessed it. “Twogether” is the kind of movie in which all of the characters have issues, even the issues. I say this because Chiaramonte wants us to believe that consenting adults can be simultaneously pro-sex, condom neutral and pro-life. He also argues that, with apologies to Newton’s third law, “for every action, there is an equal and opposite contradiction.” No one, including a greedy landlord played by a young Jeremy Piven, acts or reacts as human beings do in real life. Neither do the laws of physics and human chemistry. There are lessons to be learned from watching “Twogether, but, sadly, almost all of them are cautionary. On the plus side, though, Eugene D. Shlugleit’s camera nicely captures life in Los Angeles’ seaside playground, Venice. – Gary Dretzka
Walking With Dinosaurs: The Movie: Blu-ray
Scooby-Doo: Wrestlemania Mystery
Not having a HD3D television or a dinosaur-obsessed child handy, I find it difficult to review “Walking With Dinosaurs” – the 2013 movie, not the 1999 mini-series – with any authority. Even in 2D, though, it has its pleasures. I found enough to enjoy in Barry Cook and Neil Nightingale’s movie to recommend it to families whose primary reason for visiting Chicago, New York, L.A., Atlanta and Thermopolis, Wyoming, is to take in the dioramas and skeletal remains of dinosaurs in their fine natural history museums. “WWD” combines CGI storytelling with backgrounds shot in Alaska and New Zealand. The film adds plenty of scientific stuff to please parents, but not enough to bore the kids who probably know about the beasts as the filmmakers. As up-to-date as it looks, the production was constantly pressed by announcements of new discoveries about dinosaurs, including one about feathers. New evidence showing that some raptors were feathered, not scaled, had to finessed, threatening budgets and schedules. Every effort appears to have been made to introduce the new species to viewers, without interrupting the story’s pace. In fact, though, “Walking With Dinosaurs” may be a better movie with the sound turned off entirely. Because the script is geared toward very young viewers, anyone over 7 or 8 probably will find it to be annoyingly juvenile. Everything that happens in the movie’s narrative makes sense with or without the sound. The “Deluxe Edition 3D Combo” includes the feature film in in high definition, standard definition and 3D; an “Ultimate Dino Guide”; interactive map; a “Match the Call” game; “Brainosaur” trivia track; “Cretaceous Cut” (the movie in its “natural” version); and Nickelodeon “Orange Carpet Dino Rap.”
I’m not sure when or how it was decided that young audiences would enjoy a pairing of the Scoobie-Doo gang and a characters based on and voiced by WWE wrestlers. I wouldn’t put anything past the marketing department that made WrestleMania the Super Bowl of professional wrestling, however. The idea behind “Scooby-Doo: Wrestlemania Mystery” is simple enough: Shaggy and Scooby win tickets to WrestleMania and the entire gang travels in the Mystery Machine to WWE City to attend. When a ghostly bear threatens to ruin the show, Scooby, Shaggy, Velma, Daphne and Fred work with WWE Superstars to solve the case. Among them are John Cena, Brodus Clay, AJ Lee, Triple H, The Miz, Kane, Santino Marella, Sin Cara and Mr. McMahon. I’m still not sure what to make of it. – Gary Dretzka