MCN Columnists
Gary Dretzka

By Gary Dretzka Dretzka@moviecitynews.com

The DVD Wrapup: Transformers, Are You Here, Sordid Lives, American Muscle, Last of the Unjust, Ida, Lucky Them, Hellion, Wolf, Ivory Tower … More

Transformers: Age of Extinction: Blu-ray
I’ll admit to being one of those fair-weather fans of the extended “Transformers” franchise – theatrical and animated – who doesn’t rush to see them on IMAX or 3D, but routinely catches the latest installments on DVD/Blu-ray. My adult son, who once collected the toys, probably remains conversant in the mythology, but I still can’t tell the difference, if any, between the Autobots and Decepticons. Just as Michael Bay’s true-blue fans don’t wait to read a reviewer’s opinion before laying down their money for a ticket, mainstream critics get paid whether audiences agree with them or not. Most wouldn’t invest five minutes of their precious time researching ’Bot history before watching a new episode. It’s what makes to the screen that matters, not the health of the franchise. That said, however, the fourth installment of the theatrical series, Transformers: Age of Extinction, represents a much needed changing of the guard, Shia LaBeouf had finally worn out his welcome and was replaced by Hollywood’s always-welcome Excitable Boy, Mark Wahlberg. Most of the series’ other human regulars were jettisoned, along with Autobots and Decepticons destroyed in the Battle for Chicago. In several obvious ways, however, “Age of Extinction” serves mostly as a longer, louder and more conclusive sequel to Transformers: Dark Side of the Moon. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, though. Despite their heroics in the Windy City, Optimus Prime and the remaining Autobots have been forced into hiding to avoid being destroyed by a special-forces team comprised of anti-robot bigots. Wahlberg discovers Optimus Prime in an abandoned Texas theater, disguised as a rusty White Freightliner. A tinkerer and robotics nut, his Cade Yeager tows the truck to his farm, where he lovingly restores it for Prime-time. When Yeager’s goofball partner, T.J. (Lucas Flannery), discovers that there’s a reward on the heads of the hidden robots, he tries to make some quick cash by ratting them out.

The arrival of a heavily armed team of government eradicators signals the beginning of an orgy of mechanized death and destruction that dominates most of the movie’s 260-minute length. If that sounds like an inordinately long period of time for any movie not based on a Russian novel, you should know by now that Bay’s international legion of fans would hardly settle for anything less. He rewards their loyalty here with a titanic display of non-stop CGI magic and in-your-face effects. Heavy objects fall from the sky, not unlike the frogs in the rainstorm scene in Magnolia. In this way, Age of Extinction is the cinematic equivalent of a really explosive fireworks display on the 4th of July. Lots of things sparkle and go “boom,” but nothing lingers for very long. In addition to returning to Chicago for a while, Bay takes us to Hong Kong, Beijing, Monument Valley, Iceland and Detroit, which was redressed to fill in for other locations. China’s willingness to accommodate Michael Bay’s Flying Circus has paid off in record box-office receipts there. Also new to “Age of Extinction” are Stanley Tucci, Kelsey Grammer, Jack Reynor, Titus Welliver, Thomas Lennon, Nicola Peltz, Sophia Myles and the radiant Chinese superstar Li Bingbing. The Blu-ray bonus package includes a separate disc, containing several Bay-heavy featurettes. Among them are an eight-part making-of supplement, a piece showcasing on-sets antics, a visit to the Rhode Island Hasbro headquarters and “T.J. Miller: Farm Hippie,” in which the actor pays humorous home visits to his co-stars. In case you’re wondering, yes, three-time writer Ehren Kruger is already at work on “Transformers 5.”

Are You Here: Blu-ray
It’s only natural that admirers of AMC’s brilliant drama series, “Mad Men,” would want to check out Matthew Weiner’s first feature film, Are You Here. After a brief flurry of advance publicity, however, it crashed and burned without anyone noticing it had been let out of the barn. Take a look at the cover of the newly released DVD/Blu-ray package and you’ll wonder how any movie starring Zach Galifianakis, Owen Wilson and Amy Poehler could be kept from view, with or without Weiner’s name on the jacket. Judging simply by the presence of those fine actors, most people would assume that the film contained therein would be a comedy. The two men are sitting on a scruffy couch that’s been placed on a grassy hillside, overlooking a neighboring farm. A free-ranging chicken stands like a sentry on one side of the couch, while Poehler stares into the middle-distance from behind it. It may not be “American Gothic,” but some room is left there for a chuckle, or two. In fact, while the characters played by Wilson and Galifianakis, if not by Poehler, exactly, look as if they might have been borrowed from the set of Wedding Crashers or The Hangover, they occupy very different roles. Wilson plays a womanizing TV weatherman, Steve Dallas, whose idea of a good time is going on date (or hiring a prostitute) and convincing her that he’s destitute and can’t pay the bill. His best friend from childhood, Ben Baker (Galifianakis), is, of course, a stoner who somewhere along the way lost a few of his marbles. When his estranged father dies, Ben is stunned to learn that he’s inherited the bulk of his old man’s estate. Even more surprised is his sister, Terri (Poehler), who expected far more consideration from him. Left with even less inheritance is their father’s flower-child wife, Angela (Laura Ramsey), who doesn’t appear to be flustered about anything, despite the real possibility she’ll be evicted from her own home. Believing that Ben can’t possibly handle the responsibility that comes with running a farm, his humorless sister naturally attempts to invalidate the will. Nothing that happens from this point forward should surprise anyone, except possibly the lack of humor Weiner is able to wring from the situation. Finally, even at 112 minutes, we’re left with characters with whom we have no emotional ties and no questions that we care to see answered. Are You Here has a few good moments, but not enough to please fans of the actors or “Mad Men.”

Sordid Lives: Blu-ray
Like Rocky Horror Picture Show, Del Shores’ wildly eccentric Sordid Lives began its life on stage as a campy crowd-pleaser. Both enjoyed an afterlife on screen, attracting fans who frequently dressed like their favorite characters and memorized their every line. Unlike “Rocky Horror,” however, Sordid Lives’ greatest success was pretty much limited to Palm Springs, where it played for 96 weeks, and LGBT audiences in the South, which is where the play and movie are set. Shores’ semi-autobiographical story follows two basic storylines. The titular narrative describes an extended family of archetypal Southern gargoyles, who spend most of their time gossiping, drinking and either ignoring or wallowing in their prejudices. The second features a closeted gay actor, Ty, who left Texas as soon as he could afford a ticket on the Greyhound and may still be too traumatized to return home for his grandmother’s funeral. Peggy died after she tripped over the unattached wooden legs of her much younger lover, G.W. (Beau Bridges), and cracked her head on a piece of furniture in a no-tell motel. Peggy’s low-rent rendezvous with the husband of her daughter’s best friend would be the talk of the town, if it weren’t for all of the other crazy stuff happening in advance of the funeral. By far the nuttiest character is Ty’s uncle, “Brother Boy” (Leslie Jordan), who has been institutionalized for 23 years for being a cross-dressing homosexual and Tammy Wynette impersonator. Not everything said by the other cast members is as hysterical as the material the impish Jordan was handed, but all of the characters have their moments. Best known for writing Daddy’s Dyin’ … Who’s Got the Will?, as well as several episodes of “Queer as Folk” and “Dharma & Greg,” Shores was able to recruit former cast members of the play and other friends, including Bridges, Bonnie Bedelia, Delta Burke and Olivia Newton-John, who sings a few songs. Eight years later, in 2008, the Logo Network would spin off “Sordid Lives: The Series,” but it lasted only one season. The DVD adds new interviews with Shores, Bedelia, Jordan, Bridges, Kirk Geiger, Sarah Hunley, Ann Walker, Newell Alexander, Rosemary Alexander and Beth Grant, along with vintage audio commentary

American Muscle: Blu-ray
Sniper: Legacy
Too often, revenge movies get caught up in sentimentality, a protagonist’s pursuit of redemption or the sapping of strength that comes with finding love at a most inconvenient time. They sometimes get tripped up, as well, by making the kind of factual mistakes that are caused by cutting corners and distract viewers from the narrative flow. Ravi Dahr’s unrelenting American Muscle wastes no time whatsoever getting to the point and staying there for its entire 90-minute length. The movie opens with a flashback to a violent crime that occurred 10 years earlier, then quickly takes us inside a prison where, presumably, one of the participants is about to be released. As played by veteran hard guy Nick Principe, John Falcon resembles a walking tattoo parlor. His muscular frame attests to a decade spent in the prison yard lifting weights and consuming steroids smuggled into the facility with marijuana, heroin and cellphones by guards and guests. It doesn’t take long to realize that Falcon is a man on a violent mission. After catching a ride with a woman who happily quenches all 10 years’ worth of his sublimated lust, Falcon is asked if he’d like to have her phone number. No, he replies, “I’ll probably be dead in 24 hours.” Indeed, every hour of the next 24 is spent tracking down his brother, who betrayed him, and the wife he left behind when he was captured and went to prison. Falcon’s also vowed to kill the other gang members who avoided arrest and split up his spoils. He wastes no time doing just that. Writer John Fallon adds several more expository flashbacks and a few scenes in which crank whores are required to go topless, but, again, they don’t impede the forward trajectory of the story or keep Falcon from a final reunion with his brother. I’m usually not overly impressed by revenge pictures, especially those so obviously made on a limited budget. American Muscle managed to hold my interest, however, despite a deluge of wholly gratuitous bloodshed. (Gratuitous nudity is something else entirely.) It helps greatly that Dahr took advantage of the beauty and desolation of the desert near 29 Palms. Nothing says “meth labs” and “psycho-bikers” quite as eloquently as a drive through the giant “wind farms” outside Palm Springs.

Unlike American Muscle, Sniper: Legacy combines revenge with several other excuses for the exploitation of extreme military-grade violence. Here, they include unbounded patriotism, PTSD, devotion to military tradition, the seduction of sacrificing one’s life for his country and outright bloodlust. For the past 20-plus years, viewers have been attracted to the direct-to-video series for the vicarious thrill that comes with watching the head of a perceived enemy explode like a watermelon in a microwave oven and no actor does it better than Tom Berenger. (Fellow video Hall of Famer Billy Zane has also played prominent roles in the series.) Throw in the occasional a hot babe with a big gun and some splendid scenery and it becomes irresistible. In one of the worst-kept spoilers of all time, the cover photograph of legendary Marine sharpshooter Thomas Beckett (Berenger) alerts viewers to the fact that the character is not, in fact, killed in the opening sequence by a disillusioned American sniper, as suggested. The cover art also hints at a father/son with ace marksman Brendan Beckett (Chad Michael Collins), who was introduced in the fourth installment, Sniper: Reloaded, in which Berenger was AWOL. The Becketts’ genetic code dictates that their devotion to duty can’t be shaken by mere terrorists and other enemies of the United States. They are not at all reluctant, though, to make an end run around a commanding officer who orders them to do something with which they disagree. Here, Brendan disobeys a direct order to stay put in the sniper squad’s base camp, while his fellow Marine assassins set a trap for the man who purportedly killed Thomas Beckett and other officers who ordered his team to participate in a suicide mission.

To no one’s surprise, however, Brendan makes his way to the scene of a firefight between terrorists and two squadrons of Marines. One is targeting a heroin transaction between terrorists, while the other expects the rogue assassin to claim another victim at the drop-off point. All too conveniently, perhaps, the reunion takes place at precisely the moment Brendan is in the most danger of being killed by the rouge sniper. (Anyone allergic to plot twists based solely on coincidence may want to avoid “Legacy.”) The trail now leads to the spectacularly beautiful Greek island of Santorini, where their shady Colonel (Dennis Haysbert) has set up shop in a cliff-top villa. As illogical and contradictory as much of the storyline is, director Don Michael Paul keeps things moving in a forwardly direction throughout, frequently adding victims of head-shots to the body count. Although the interaction between the Becketts doesn’t always ring true, I doubt very much that fans of the series will complain about the sentimentality. They might also be happy to learn that a shapely sniper played by Mercedes Mason goes mano-a-mano with a similarly stunning look-alike terrorism, who, for some reason, goes unnamed in the list of credits.

The Last of the Unjust: Blu-ray
Ida: Blu-ray
Sundays and Cybèle: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
Nightcap (Merci Pour le Chocolat): Blu-ray
Ali: Fear Eats the Soul: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
September was a very good month for classy European imports from Criterion, Cohen Media and Music Box. Although nowhere near as emotionally draining as Sophie’s Choice, Claude Lanzmann’ virtual postscript to his definitive Holocaust documentary, Shoah, introduces us to a prominent Holocaust survivor who also was required to make the kind of decisions no human should be forced to do. Benjamin Murmelstein was the last president of the Jewish Council in the Theresienstadt camp in Czechoslovakia, a showcase ghetto used to masquerade the reality of Nazi policy. By the war’s end, he was the only Elder of the Jews not to have been murdered for doing something that upset the wrong people. The ghetto was initially populated with older, high-profile Jews from Eastern Europe and marketed as a place where influential co-religionists could sit out the war. Later, its mission would change drastically for the worst. Lanzmann interviewed Murmelstein in 1975, 10 years before the release of Shoah, but held on to the tapes until well after the rabbi’s death, in 1989. Like all Jews who were required to work with Final Solution architect Adolf Eichmann, he would be accused of collaboration with the Nazi government. Because of this, he lived in exile in Rome for the rest of his life. He wrote a book about Eichmann and Theresienstadt, and says he was willing to testify at the monster’s trial, but was never subpoenaed. Israeli prosecutors likely determined that his presence would have resulted in a sideshow of recriminations that could distract from the serious business of making an iron-clad legal case against Eichmann. Lanzmann doesn’t doubt Murmelstein was able to save thousands of Jews from death and gave up several opportunities to emigrate before the war, choosing, instead, to hand his emigration papers over to other people. That he was used by the Germans, one way or another, to push their agenda also is acknowledged. Instead of being constructed as a debate or apologia, however, Lanzmann edited the 3½-hour Last of the Unjust to allow his subject ample space to describe life in the ghetto, the masking of Nazi policy and how it devolved from deportation to extermination. The rabbi’s rhetorical gift is amply demonstrated in the interviews. At this time in his life he was as interested in shining light into the shadows of history as simply recording his place in it. It’s at once fascinating and horrifying. The Blu-ray adds a stills gallery and interview with the director.

Shooting in his native Poland for the first time, Pawel Pawlikowski explores one of the many untold stories of World War II’s lingering effect on survivors and descendants of victims. Ida describes what happens when a young woman learns, just as she’s about to take her final vows to be a nun, that she was born to Jewish parents who were killed in the Nazi occupation of Poland. She is informed of this by her aunt Wanda, who one day shows up at the convent in which she was raised and asks her to share a visit to the village in which they were raised. At this point in the 1960s, Poland is hopelessly frozen in a Cold War glacier and memories of the atrocities committed by the Gestapo and citizenry, alike, sit painfully close to the surface. The prospect of Poles being required to relinquish property confiscated from Jewish farmers hangs over the people to whom she’ll be introduced, as well. Wanda was able to survive the war by aligning herself with the Red Army and, as a hard-core Communist Party member, was eventually elevated to a judgeship. As such, she was responsible for the incarcerations and deaths of many people deemed enemies of the state. Neither has she any use for the Catholic Church or its rituals. If she ever smiled, it might have cracked the lines in her face. Wanda doesn’t attempt to brainwash her niece, but she does offer advice as to what she can do with her life and vocation. What Ida does with the advice is what makes this austere black-and-white drama so fascinating. Pawlikowski’s study in post-war guilt and paranoia among Poles who benefitted from the disappearance of Jewish neighbors – even as they risked death, themselves, by protecting them — raises the tension level to the boiling point. Ultimately, though, Ida poignantly demonstrates how one virtual innocent responds to an unexpected test of faith versus facts. Almost as a bonus, Pawlikowski paints an engrossing portrait of an imprisoned society and how some young Poles searched for freedom through music, dance and sex. The package includes an interesting background featurette and post-screening Q&A.

Sundays and Cybèle is Serge Bourguignon’s haunting story – based on a novel by Bernard Eschassériaux — of how a psychologically damaged war veteran and a deserted child form an almost shockingly intimate friendship, again, in a post-war environment. As the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Picture of 1960, it is graced by brilliantly evocative performances by Hardy Krüger, as the pilot traumatized by the death of an innocent child in the Indochinese campaign, and Patricia Gozzi, as the girl who takes her place in the man’s subconscious. After briefly meeting the girl at a railroad depot and witnessing her abandonment at the gates of a convent, Pierre takes it upon himself to rescue her from further pain as a combination surrogate father, guardian angel and, in her mind, at least, a future husband. Their weekly visits to a beautifully landscaped park in the suburbs of Paris are interpreted in different ways by everyone who witness the pair, including viewers. They’re handled with great sensitivity, as well as a palpable undercurrent of mystery, by co-writer/director Bourguignon, cinematographer Henri Decaë and composer Maurice Jarre. Anyone without a tear in their eyes at the picture’s end simply is missing a heart. The Blu-ray is enhanced by a new 2K digital restoration, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack; new interviews with Bourguignon and Gozzi; Bourguignon’s amazing Palme d’Or–winning short documentary, Le sourire; and an essay by critic Ginette Vincendeau.

No one plays inscrutable French women quite as convincingly as Isabelle Huppert and, in Claude Chabrol’s Nightcap (Merci pour le Chocolat), she’s been assigned a real doozy. Her character, Mika, is chief heir to a famous Swiss chocolate maker and a respected member of Lausanne society. Her husband, Andre (Jacques Dutronc), is a celebrated concert pianist, with a son from his second marriage and a performance block caused by depression. Technically, Mika is both the first and third wife of Andre, whose second wife died under mysterious circumstances in a suspicious car accident. One day, out of the blue, a pretty young woman, Jeanne, appears at their doorstep, reminding Pierre that she and his son were born on the same day and in the same hospital. A confused nurse had introduced Jeanne to Andre as his natural offspring and, for a moment, at least, he thought he might be the father of a girl, instead of boy. Jeanne, who’s grown up to be a talented piano student, had only recently heard the story from her mother and decided to check out the man who, she would like to believe, handed down his musical genes to her. Having a competitor for his father’s already limited attention bothers Andre’s son, Guillaume, more than it does Mika, who we suspect isn’t anxious to share the time she reserves for her adopted family, either. Nevertheless, Mika is pleased that Jeanne’s presence has renewed his interest in teaching and playing the piano. Even before Chabrol reveals details of the accident that claimed Andre’s second wife, viewers will have begun to assume that things won’t end well in Nightcap. They don’t, of course, but that’s not really the point here. As usual, Chabrol is far more interested in dissecting the curious habits of France’s haute bourgeois than exposing a beguiling serial killer.

Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s unusually accessible 1974 melodrama, Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, takes Douglas Sirk’s indictment of middle-class conformity and intolerance, All That Heaven Allows, and turns it inside out for followers of the German New Wave cinema. Instead of setting his film in a well-off American suburb, Fassbinder arranges a forbidden romance between a handsome Moroccan immigrant laborer in his mid-30s and a frumpy, 60-something German cleaning lady in a blue-collar neighborhood in Munich. Of course, their decision to marry isn’t greeted with good will from her family members, neighbors and co-workers, whose prejudices aren’t reserved solely for people of color. By the time the couple returns home from their honeymoon, however, opinions have changed drastically in both camps. It sets up a dilemma unforeseen in Sirk’s movie. The Criterion edition offers a new 4K digital restoration, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack; vintage interviews with actor Brigitte Mira, editor Thea Eymesz and American filmmaker Todd Haynes, whose much lauded Far From Heaven was built on the same Sirkian foundation; Shahbaz Noshir’s 2002 short, “Angst isst Seele auf,” which reunites Mira, Eymèsz, and cinematographer Jürgen Jürges to tell the story, based on real events, of an attack by neo-Nazis on a foreign actor while on his way to a stage performance of Fassbinder’s screenplay; “Signs of Vigorous Life: New German Cinema,” a 1976 BBC program about the national film movement of which Fassbinder was a part; a scene from Fassbinder’s 1970 film, The American Soldier that inspired Ali; and an essay by critic Chris Fujiwara.

Lucky Them
With a cast that includes such actors of a certain age as Toni Collette, Thomas Haden Church, Oliver Platt and Johnny Depp, there was no way Lucky Them was going to be a bust. Even if the appeal of Megan Griffith’s low-key dramedy involving a middle-age rock critic would appear to be limited to people old enough to remember when Rolling Stone magazine was still relevant, you’d think it warranted something larger than a nine-screen opening. If Depp’s name had appeared on the publicity material for the theatrical release – essentially a cameo role – it probably would have enhanced the chances for a wider release. It would have spoiled any chance for a surprise, however. Considering that he’s only on screen for a few minutes, this is one example of truth-in-marketing working against the filmmakers. Collette is close to perfect as the veteran journalist, Ellie Klug, who might have covered the same tours as Patrick Fugit’s character in Cameron Crowe’s autobiographical Almost Famous. Unlike Crowe, however, Ellie continues to churn out articles on musicians half her age and sleep with a goodly number of them. Platt plays her editor, Giles, who understands only too well that his magazine’s days are numbered, but can’t quite bring himself to admit that rock-’n-roll has passed him by, along with the print medium. In a final futile effort to win back some of the Boomers who’ve deserted the publication, he assigns Ellie to track down her long-lost ex-boyfriend, Matthew Smith, and determine once and for all if he truly did commit suicide or he’s been laying low in anticipation of a comeback album. The article would commemorate the release 10 years earlier of a collection of songs admired in equal measure by fans, critics and fellow musicians. Not surprisingly, Ellie resists accepting the assignment, knowing that either version of the truth she uncovers could break her heart … again.

After losing an envelope full of expense money during a chat with her busker boy-toy, Ellie reluctantly accepts the help of a directionless multimillionaire – yet another person she can barely recall dating – who lends her the money, but only if he can come along and document the experience with his old-fashioned camcorder. To demonstrate his sincerity and largess, Charlie (Church) rents a motorhome for their travels through the Pacific Northwest. Church is as likeable here as he was in Sideways, in which he played a reluctant groom-to-be and best friend of a Merlot-hating wine snob immortalized by Paul Giamatti. As was the case in that film, Church’s performance here nicely complements the one turned in by Collette. It wouldn’t be fair to disclose what they discover as the movie draws to a close, but it will strike a chord with anyone who’s turned to Facebook or Google to reconnect with “the one who got away.” Apparently, Lucky Them was inspired by the real-world experiences of co-screenwriter Emily Wachtel, one of those self-absorbed overachievers one finds in the indie game. In Griffith, the producers found a late-blooming director (The Off Hours, Eden) able to build stories around offbeat characters with over-sized personalities, without allowing them to blow everyone else off the screen. Movies, such as Lucky Them, that appeal primarily to middle-age adults, are few and far between these days. Increasingly, after being introduced on the festival circuit, they’re required to find their audience in DVD/Blu-ray. This one deserves to be discovered. The DVD package includes a decent making-of featurette.

Hellion
Fueled by testosterone and heavy-metal music, Hellion, describes what can happen to boys left to their own devices by a single parent who has lost control of his own life. Aaron Paul (“Breaking Bad”) is terrific as Hollis, the father of a teenager, Jacob, who may already be too damaged to save, and a younger boy, Wes, who, for lack of proper supervision, appears to be following in his brother’s footsteps. The situation at home was forever complicated by the death of the wife/mother who provided the glue that kept the family together. It resulted directly in Hollis’ three-week drinking binge, during which the boys were abandoned; a court’s decision to put Wes in the care of his aunt Pam (Juliette Lewis), who sees in the boy an excuse for accepting adulthood; and Jacob’s obsessive approach to motocross racing, arson and “rescuing” Wes from a conventional lifestyle. When Hollis isn’t working long hours at an oil refinery, he’s rushing to finish construction of his family’s unfinished dream house before it’s foreclosed upon a bank. Likewise, when Jacob’s antics don’t require his attention, Hollis is fighting to retain custody of Wes. Unlike viewers, Hollis and Jacob are convinced that maintaining the family unit is more important than giving the boy a fair shot at normalcy with Pam. It’s an impossible situation for everyone involved, but one that’s become far less uncommon in today’s bankrupt economy. It only seems that much uglier when set against the hard-scrabble background of blue-collar life in southeast Texas. Kat Candler’s film doesn’t pretend to have any answers for the family’s dilemma, but it’s finally made clear that the only way Jacob is likely to avoid ending up in prison is to be scared straight. As writer/director, she puts him smack-dab in a situation that will test his will to make something of himself. The DVD includes the short film, Hellion, from which the feature was adapted. The effect is the same, even if some of the emphasis on Wes is somewhat more comical. It also adds a making-of piece and material from Sundance 2013.

Leprechaun Origins: Blu-ray
Grave Halloween
Any resemblance between the titular boogeyman in Leprechaun Origins and any other such character you’ve seen in a book, TV show, Disney movie, cereal box, St. Patrick’s Day parade or Notre Dame football game is purely coincidental. It also might be cause for having your eyesight examined. Neither does the antagonist her look like the vindictive villain immortalized by the British dwarf superstar Warwick Davis (Star Wars, Willow) in the 1993 original (with Jennifer Aniston) and subsequent straight-to-video franchise. The leprechaun in “Origins” resembles one of those slimy, hairless beasts introduced in the 1980s by visual-effects wizards Stan Winston and Rick Baker. This time, the creature is physically animated by the American dwarf actor/wrestler Dylan Postl (a.k.a., Hornswoggle), who’s mostly invisible in his icky prosthetic disguise. If anything, the WWE-produced “Origins” resembles the revisionist Irish critter in the 2012 made-for-Syfy movie, “Leprechaun’s Revenge.” Apart from not being very scary, Zach Lipovsky and Harris Wilkinson’s movie repeats one of the most conventional of all horror tropes. After stopping in a remote pub, four Americans are offered a cabin in which they can spend a night or two in the lovely Irish countryside. What’s left unsaid is that a “leprechaun” also uses the cabin occasionally, stashing the artifacts of slain tourists in the basement. To avoid being slaughtered themselves, the locals offer up outsiders to the demon as sacrificial lambs, locking the cabin behind them and stealing their gold to further appease it. Can these fresh-faced collegians end the leprechaun’s lucky streak, by escaping from his clutches? Stay tuned. Ultimately, though, it hardly matters. The Blu-ray adds a making-of piece and interviews, in which even the filmmakers are unable to justify desecrating a venerable franchise.

Japan’s Aokigahara Forest, on the northwest base of Mount Fuji, is well-known as the final resting place for people who decide that committing suicide in such a hallowed environment is a better option than living in pain at home or becoming a burden on loved ones. Halloween isn’t traditionally celebrated in Japan – except at Tokyo Disneyland and Universal Studios Japan – but the Aokigahara Forest is an inarguably cool place to stage a horror movie, such as the weirdly titled Grave Halloween, which actually was shot in the rain forests of British Columbia. A documentary crew from an international university in Tokyo decides to visit the Suicide Forest after being told that a classmate, Maiko (Kaitlyn Leeb), was orphaned after her mother died there. Raised in America, Maiko feels as if she’s being drawn to the Sea of Trees by a supernatural force, possibly related to her mother. And, sure enough, no sooner do the filmmakers begin to explore the woods than they start seeing the ghosts of fitfully dead suicide victims. Naturally, when confronted by a seemingly human stranger and park police, the students are ordered not to disrespect the dead by filming in the forest and cautioned to be very careful where they stepped. A separate group of knuckleheads from the college arrives after the admonishments are rendered and commits every possible discretion possible, including stealing a Rolex from a corpse. The spirits aren’t remotely pleased by the intrusion. As made-for-cable movies go, Grave Halloween is very good, indeed. Considering that it debuted on Syfy makes it even that much more of a surprise. Steven R. Monroe (I Spit on Your Grave) and writer Ryan W. Smith (“Untold Stories of the ER”) probably were asked to pull a few punches, given the number of Syfy viewers still in their teens, so it’s fair to wonder how Grave Halloween might have looked if tackled first by a master of J-horror or someone not limited by the standards of basic-cable. Shot largely in heavily shrouded daylight, Canada’s Suicide Forest is plenty scary. I wonder how much more frightening it would be if shot in the real Aokigahara, which is treated with considerably more respect by Japanese officials.

Wolf
When this unrelenting Dutch crime drama was shown at handful of festivals here, critics were quick to point out its debt to Raging Bull and dismiss it for being derivative. Yes, the protagonist of this eloquently shot black-and-white film is a prize fighter and brawler, with a hair-trigger temper. Stylistically, too, the mixed-martial-arts scenes probably were influenced by Martin Scorsese’s powerful profile of boxer Jake LaMotta. Writer/director Jim Taihuttu (Rabat) wouldn’t be the first filmmaker to borrow from that masterpiece, and he certainly won’t be the last. I would argue, though, that Wolf owes less to any film about a troubled soul seeking glory and redemption in the ring than it does to the deeply entrenched criminal elements terrorizing the immigrant ghettos of northern Europe. In this way, it’s thematically related to Nicolas Winding Refn’s grueling Pusher trilogy, Mathieu Kassovitz’ La Haine, Jacques Audiard’s A Prophet, Daniel Espinosa’s Easy Money and the Dardenne Brothers’ The Silence of Lorna. In his depiction of Marwen Kenzari’s rage-filled Moroccan fighter, Majid, I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that Taihuttu was directly influenced by Tom Hardy, in Bronson; Matthias Schoenaerts, in Bullhead; and Vincent Cassel in Mesrine: Killer Instinct. The desperation of legal and illegal immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe, the Middle East and Africa has created a surge in criminality and violence unequaled, even in the days when the Sicilian and Corsican Mafia controlled the drug trade there. The gangs recognize no borders and are every bit a vicious as the Mexican cartels and American street gangs that sell their products. Drawing from the surpluses of civil wars and black-market profiteers from the former Soviet Union, the immigrant gangsters’ access to automatic weapons and explosives has never been greater. The burgeoning subgenre of European gangster movies might also remind American audiences of Hollywood’s fascination with Prohibition-era hoodlums. Today, of course, there’s no Hays Office to tell filmmakers to tone down the graphic violence.

Kenzari’s performance in Wolf is downright frightening. His character, Majid, has recently been paroled from prison and isn’t looking forward to working in the same factory at which his father labored obediently for some 30 years. Blessed with natural fighting skills, Majid is given an opportunity to be handled professionally by Turkish gangsters, who also want him to provide muscle for their dealers, rob the occasional armored truck and fix fights. Unfortunately, his allegiances are split between his new benefactors and Dutch-Moroccan pals who also want a piece of his action. Like LaMotta, Majid’s fatal flaw is his inability to control his pent-up rage and jealousy issues. If his temper serves him well in the ring, it’s a hindrance in a world that demands a modicum of discipline, at least. As such, Wolf isn’t for the squeamish. The DVD package adds an amusing making-of featurette, a piece on Kenzari’s training regimen, a music video and discussion of eardrum-pounding soundtrack.

Thunder and the House of Magic Blu-ray
Just as the overseas markets have exploded for big-budget Hollywood exports, audiences there apparently have begun to embrace modestly produced animated features for youngsters. Shout!Factory’s adorable, if thin 3D release Thunder and the House of Magic was barely released in the U.S., before being shuttled into the theatrical aftermarket. The story of an abandoned kitten, who finds shelter in an old mansion owned by an eccentric magician/inventor, reaped a respectable $33 million in foreign sales. In France, South Korea, Belgium, Singapore and Ukraine, it was released in time for Christmas, before receiving a wider rollout throughout 2014. Although the frightened cat seems helpless, Thunder isn’t welcomed by everyone. A devious rabbit and mouse don’t care to share the magician’s attention, which is already sorely tested by a raucous “family” of toys, animals, music makers and gizmos. A greater threat is posed by the old man’s nephew, who wants to put him in a nursing home and sell the mansion.  Thunder must figure out a way to prevent that from happening. The movie’s production values are surprisingly high and it features a soundtrack that includes “the music of Selena Gomez,” as well as a making-of featurette.

Ivory Tower
Andrew Rossi’s documentary, Ivory Tower, asks viewers a question that’s been on a lot of people’s minds lately, “Is a college education today worth the amount of time and money invested in it by students, parents and high school guidance teachers.” Things have changed greatly since the 1960s, when, in some social strata, at least, colleges were viewed as a necessary extension of high school and, if necessary, a way to postpone being drafted. This was a time when jobs were plentiful for college graduates and a degree opened doors closed to those who decided to skip that stage in their development. The student rebellions of the time would caution employers against hiring longhairs and potential rabble-rousers, but, still, the collegiate experience, itself, was deemed valuable enough to encourage for most high school graduates, minorities and returning veterans. Then, a couple decades later, the roof of academia caved in on the student body. Rising costs and short-sighted legislators forced tuitions to soar, while the job pool, even for people with post-graduate degrees, evaporated before our eyes. Evens so, student loans became as accessible as low-interest loans would become for first-time homebuyers with no collateral. Thanks to Congress’ IOU to banking lobbyists, these loans were as iron-clad as tax liens and as difficult to erase. Moreover, questions began to be raised about the quality of the education, including why professors are allowed to hand off their duties to teaching assistants and whether extracurricular activities are given priority over scholastics. Rossi found other holes in the system – all legitimate – but few concrete answers. That’s probably because there aren’t any good ones. Social Darwinism is threatening to put college educations out of reach for low income families, while such alternatives as online degrees and for-profit programs have revealed themselves to be even riskier investments. Ivory Tower delivers an important message none of us should ignore.

In short, the latest additions to the TV-to-DVD shelves include, from CBS’ hot crime-drama lineup, “The Mentalist: The Complete Sixth Season,” in which the saga of Patrick Jane’s nemesis, Red John, is concluded,  and from the PBS vaults, “Vaccines: Calling the Shots,” which points out the risks of following the anti-vaccination trend; Al Capone: Icon,” yet another recounting of the mobster’s rise and fall; the archeological game show,  Time Team America: Seasons 1 & 2,”;  “Mind of a Chef: Ed Lee: Season 3,” which takes a look behind the menus of celebrated chef and contextualizes their creations; and another little-known story from the annals of WWII British intelligence agencies, “Enemy of the Reich: The Noor Inayat Khan Story.”

3 Responses to “The DVD Wrapup: Transformers, Are You Here, Sordid Lives, American Muscle, Last of the Unjust, Ida, Lucky Them, Hellion, Wolf, Ivory Tower … More”

  1. Joe Leydon says:

    Funnily enough, I had someone videorecord a Q&A I did with Church and the filmmakers after “Lucky Them” screened last year at the Houston Cinema Arts Festival. Afterwards, however, I realized that we’d spoiled the surprise by talking about Johnny Depp, so I opted not to post the segment online, as I had originally planned. Maybe I should have spoiled the surprise after all?

  2. Danny says:

    Actually, I wish the Johnny Depp surprise had not been spoiled for the many of us who are more likely to see “Lucky Them” on dvd based on the rest of this review alone than ever got around to seeing this when it was barely release in theaters…

  3. Carly H says:

    Thanks for the DVD wrap up. Perfect timing for holiday shopping. I will be getting Sniper: Legacy, we have the whole Sniper series. Plus cool that Dennis Haysbert is in it this time.

Dretzka

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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