By Gary Dretzka Dretzka@moviecitynews.com
The DVD Wrapup: Binoche, Coogan, Lewis, Clarkson, Mamet, Maclaine & Plummer and More
1,000 Times Good Night
Women have become such an essential part of the workforce that it’s almost impossible to recall the time — not so long ago — when the struggle for equal rights, pay and opportunities seemed as unwinnable as, say, the election of an African-American president. Just as unforeseeable in post-WWII America was a time when mothers of newborns would be welcomed back to the workplace, especially if they expected paid medical leave and a return to their previous positions. Erik Poppe’s emotionally charged drama, 1,000 Times Good Night, dramatizes one extremely talented woman’s challenge when forced to allocate quality time between her career and family. It does so without resorting to polemics or demanding we choose sides. Neither does Poppe cushion the debate for mainstream audiences by merging satire with star power, as was the case with the delightfully subversive Nine to Five. This isn’t to say that Oscar-winner Juliette Binoche isn’t a formidable talent, only that she’s never carried the same weight at the box off as Jane Fonda, Lily Tomlin and Dolly Parton in their prime. In 1,000 Times Good Night, Binoche plays one of the world’s top photojournalists, no matter the gender or ethnic background. Rebecca specializes in covering wars and all kinds of other disasters. When we’re introduced to her, she’s covering something only a hugely courageous woman would be allowed to shoot: the final personal, religious and tactical preparations of female suicide bomber. A slight miscalculation on her part lands several bystanders in a morgue and Rebecca in an intensive-care unit of a Middle Eastern hospital. No one in the west was clamoring for her to bear witness to the rituals of murderous jihadists, but Rebecca felt it necessary to capture the depth of commitment on the part of women in a struggle that so far has done nothing but marginalize them. She also knows that the stakes have been raised for any woman stationed in the war zone, whether she’s in uniform or carrying a camera. As the need for covering such topics as the persecution of women in male-dominated societies, ritual rape and genital mutilation has grown, the potential risk for women journalists given access to the victims has risen in kind. In the last year, alone, two women photojournalists were listed among the KIAs in Afghanistan and the Central African Republic.
Rebecca has faced great physical danger in previous assignments, of course, but her near-death experience in the wake of the female-jihadist story prompted her husband and two daughters, back home in Ireland, to draw a line in the sand. Severely shaken, as well, she senses that this might be a good time for her to play it safe for a while. After vowing to quit intentionally putting her life in jeopardy, Rebecca accepts an assignment to shoot a refugee camp in a war-torn corner of Africa. Because she is convinced of the improbability of any harm coming to her in a United Nations-protected area, her husband (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) reluctantly agrees to allow their oldest daughter tag along as part of an elaborate high school project. To the surprise of absolutely no one watching the movie, heavily armed militants attack the camp just as they’re wrapping up the assignment. Instead of high-tailing it out of the camp, Rebecca angers Steph (Lauryn Canny) at the UN guide by demanding that she be allowed to document the atrocities certain to occur in the camp. Although she manages to avoid being killed, Steph has been completely traumatized by her mother’s refusal to take shelter. Things turn even colder back home when Rebecca’s asked to reshoot some of the material leading to the suicide of the female jihadi. For a while, she holds to the promise she makes to her family, but ultimately it’s compromised by her addiction to adrenalin and adherence to the code of the photojournalist’s road. This time, however, she knows that she can’t survive with her heart divided by distance and devotion to duty. She has to decide, one way or another, where her allegiance lies. Thousands of women in the military face similar dilemmas every day. What distinguishes Poppe’s film from such movies as Liza Johnson and Linda Cardellini’s similarly devastating Return is the tight focus on the children. They are as much a victim in their mom’s wars as the children left behind by the suicide bomber. It should go without saying, by now, that Binoche is terrific as Rebecca, never overplaying her hand or being anything less than credible as a photographer and mother. If academy members don’t check out her performance before voting, they’ll be doing everyone who takes the Oscars seriously a disservice. The DVD adds an interesting making-of featurette.
The Trip to Italy: Blu-ray
The short version of this review reads thusly: anyone who fell in love with Michael Winterbottom’s wonderfully offbeat buddy/road comedy, The Trip, should relish the opportunity to follow Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon in the equally delicious sequel, The Trip to Italy. I doubt, however, that anyone unfamiliar with or unimpressed by The Trip — or the not-for-everyone Coogan, for that matter – will have their minds changed by what happens to them in Italy. In the original, Coogan was asked by the Observer to visit some of Britain’s highest-rated and most scenic restaurants for its Sunday supplement. When his American girlfriend decides not to join him on the road trip, he invites his best friend and fellow UK television personality along for the road trip. Despite the posh destinations, Coogan and Brydon frequently bicker over uncomfortable accommodations, sexual peccadillos and the accuracy of their impressions of famous actors. The do exactly the same thing in The Trip to Italy, which, if anything, provides even more spectacular backdrops for their dining, squabbling and tourism. Even more so than the first go-round, the humor is dependent on their takes on dialogue made famous by such stars as Diane Keaton and Woody Allen, Robert De Niro and Marlon Brando, Hugh Grant, Al Pacino, Anthony Hopkins, Humphrey Bogart and, once again, Michael Caine. They visit houses that once provided shelter to Lord Byron, Keats and Percy Shelley; the ruins of Pompeii; a catacomb; the Amalfi Coast and island of Capri; and the kitchens of six of the country’s finest restaurants. It’s worth knowing that Winterbottom stitched together both six-episode BBC mini-series to create the slightly shorter feature-length films for distribution in the U.S. The Blu-ray presentation takes full advantage of the scenery, while the deleted scenes add to the fun.
Kelly & Cal
Juliette Lewis hits all of the right chords in this bittersweet drama about a former Riot Grrrl rocker who can’t quite adjust to married life in the suburbs, a constantly crying baby, a largely absentee husband and meddling in-laws. At 43, Lewis still looks young enough to portray both a woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown and a retired punk-rocker still comfortable with an electric guitar in her hands. (She’s spent much of the last 10 years recording and touring in her own band and performing as a solo act.) In Kelly & Cal, her character finds a kindred spirit in a wheelchair-bound 17-year-old neighbor (Jonny Weston). After a completely awkward first meeting, Kelly and Cal find enough in common to overcome his cynicism and her disillusionment with adult life. If the movie moves forward in a predictably portentous fashion, first-time director Jen McGowan and writer Amy Lowe Starbin are able to avoid the pitfalls that come with dramatizing such perilous relationships. Parallels can be drawn between the baby’s stroller and Cal’s wheelchair, but why bother? Kelly & Cal is a story that turns on the curative power of friendship and overcoming the rough patches that lie in the way of emotional rescue. Josh Hopkins (“Cougar Town”) does a nice job as Kelly’s inattentive husband, as do Cybill Shepherd, Lucy Owens and Margaret Colin as the other women in their lives. The DVD adds a short making-of featurette.
In lieu of finding anything better to write about a movie, critics frequently say they’d gladly pay for the privilege of watching the lead actor read the phone book. In the exasperating family drama, Last Weekend, Patricia Clarkson isn’t required to do much more than that, but, as usual, she excels at it. Whether her performance, alone, is worth the price of admission – another bone we like to throw at undecided readers – is clearly in the eye of the beholder. Clarkson’s many admirers probably will find much to admire in Tom Dolby and Tom Williams’s debut feature. In Last Weekend, she plays the matriarch of a nouveau-riche family that has spent the last 30, or so, summers in Lake Tahoe, just down the road from the Corleone estate. With their three sons scattered to the winds, Celia and her husband (Chris Mulkey) have decided that it might be time to sell the property in one of the world’s most desirable places to vacation, live or retire. It seems unnecessary to make such a rash decision, especially when the rental market is so lucrative, but such are the whims of rich people. Clarkson’s Celia Green is the kind of woman who’s obsessed with controlling every aspect of her family’s life, right down to the carbon emissions expended on delivering her groceries to her favorite gourmet shops. She collects Indian baskets and other expensive tchotchkes to remind her of the important events in her life, including the birthdays of her unappreciative children. On what could be the family’s weekend together in the summer home, Celia’s uptight behavior alienates everyone, including two of her son’s girlfriends, a boyfriend, invited guests and neighbors, who can’t comprehend the decision to leave paradise, either. After all, once the kids begin to have children of their own, what better place could there be for grandparents to dote on them? That is only one of the vexing questions raised in Last Weekend. Another would be why all of the other family members are nothing more than caricatures and not very appealing ones at that. It’s a swell house, however, and Lake Tahoe always provides a fine backdrop for family psychodrama. Not given much to do are supporting characters played by Sheila Kelley, Mary Kay Place and Judith Light.
After Francis Ford Coppola threw his 19-year-old daughter Sofia under a bus, by casting her as Mary Corleone in The Godfather: Part III, it took almost a full decade before she would re-emerge triumphant as a writer/director of The Virgin Suicides. Three years later, Lost in Translation would prove that Coppola’s talent was best placed behind the camera and the success of her first feature was no fluke. I couldn’t help but recall Sofia Coppola’s journey while watching Clara Mamet’s freshman film, Two-Bit Waltz, a seemingly autobiographical dramedy that prompts as many winces as it does anything else. I don’t think the multi-hyphenate daughter of David Mamet and Rebecca Pidgeon, and half-sister of Zosia Mamet (“Girls”), had to be pushed by her parents, or anyone else, to test the waters of show business at an early age. As the story goes, Clara became legally emancipated at 15, in order to leave school a year later to pursue a career as a playwright and actress. She started auditioning for acting parts when she was 14, but, frustrated by her lack of progress, began creating roles for herself on paper. In the meantime, Clara joined the cast of the ABC sitcom “The Neighbors.” She not only wrote and directed the feature-length Two-Bit Waltz, but she also stars as the wildly eccentric protagonist, Maude, a high school senior who wouldn’t be out of place in a Wes Anderson film.
Maude openly smokes cigars on campus, if only to piss off the school’s administrators, and imagines herself surrounded by students wearing elephant-head masks, tutus and scuba equipment. Pidgeon plays her screen mother, the kind of overly theatrical parent who wears costumes around the house and probably dreams of playing Norma Desmond in a Broadway revival of the “Sunset Boulevard.” After Maude is rejected by her first lover, Maude considers suicide. It isn’t until she turns down a $5 million inheritance, by refusing to commit to the pursuit of a college degree, that we become convinced that her idiosyncratic behavior is more self-destructive than rebellious or hopelessly naive. It’s almost as if Mamet is making a prep-school version of Rebel Without a Cause. Mostly, we’re left feeling that Maude’s in need of a good spanking and Mamet might have been better advised to stay in school, instead of settling for a 44-episode stint in a sitcom about aliens in our midst. Still, Two-Bit Waltz is far from the worst movie I’ve seen this year, by a first-timer or anyone else, and Mamet doesn’t embarrass herself in the lead role. Instead of wearing three hats on her next project, though, she really ought to reduce her responsibilities to one or two. A supporting cast that also includes Jared Gilman, David Paymer and William H. Macy also helps keep the film from careening into the fourth wall. The DVD adds a making-of piece with interviews that border on the reverential.
Elsa & Fred: Blu-ray
Faithfully adapted from the 2005 Spanish/Argentinian rom-com of the same title, Elsa & Fred tells the story of a November-December romance between serendipitously placed neighbors that unspools almost exactly as you think it might, even with no knowledge of Marcos Carnevale’s film. Perfectly cast as the titular protagonists, originated by Manuel Alexandre and China Zorrilla, are the eternally youthful octogenarians Christopher Plumer and Shirley Maclaine, who meet cute in an apartment building they share in the Garden District of New Orleans. A busybody, Elsa has resided in this lovely neighborhood for many years, while Fred is not at all happy about having been re-located there by his daughter and son-in-law, Lydia and Jack (Marcia Gay Harden, Chris Noth). While they are upstairs unpacking boxes, Elsa backs into the front bumper of the expensive car belonging to Jack. After she fails in her effort to convince Fred’s grandson to pretend he didn’t witness the accident, Elsa’s son Raymond (Scott Bakula) writes a check to cover the damages. She comes up with an elaborate lie to explain why her new neighbor might consider not accepting the payment and he agrees to tear up the check, if only to get rid of her. In an act of kismet common to Hollywood movies, Fred is forced to ask Elsa for help when he can’t control a raging leak in his sink. Even before the water on the floor of the kitchen can dry, the distance between evaporates. In getting to know each other, Elsa describes her longtime desire to re-create the scene in La Dolce Vita, in which Anita Ekberg and Marcello Mastroiani wade in the waters of the Trevi Fountain. Even though Fred has never lacked for money, we’re led to believe that his late sourpuss of a wife failed to inspire any desire for such trysts in him. Impediments to their blossoming friendship occur at regular intervals from this point on, but none so serious as to disrupt the flow of the film’s natural trajectory. This, in large part, can be attributed to the contributions of Michael Radford and Anna Pavignano, who, in 1994, collaborated on the Oscar-nominated Il Postino: The Postman. The Blu-ray adds a decent making-of featurette. Anyone who enjoys Elsa & Fred really ought renting the 2005 original, as well as Federico Fellini’s 1986 Ginger & Fred, with Giulietta Masina and Mastroiani in only slightly different roles.
The medical art of organ transplantation has come a long way since the first edition of Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein” was published anonymously in London in 1818. For many years, the early resurrectionists shared with surgeons and anatomy professors a willingness to reward grave robbers for providing the cadavers needed for training purposes, education and experimentation. This occurred primarily in times when there weren’t enough criminals awaiting execution to keep up with demand. With each new advance in surgical science, the number of potential transplant recipients grew exponentially, while the availability of fresh corpses declined. Today, of course, there’s so much demand for organs from live donors that criminals have organized to provide them to the highest bidders. They frequently are supplied by people living in poverty, with an extra kidney or lung to spare, or unsuspecting innocents who wake up in a bathtub full of ice with a crudely sewn-together scar on their abdomen. In Kim Hong Sun’s debut feature, Traffickers, unsuspecting donors are lured on board a ship travelling between South Korea and China and, then, relieved of their organs by an alcoholic surgeon who wouldn’t be allowed within 20 feet of an operating theater on dry land. The protagonist of the story here is a thief who’s gotten on the wrong side of a Korean crime boss and is ordered to forgo his plans for retirement to compensate the organization for money stolen in a previous deal. It isn’t until he realizes that one of the potential beneficiaries is the father of a woman he loves from afar that he agrees to take the assignment. Needless to say, the process doesn’t go quite as smoothly as planned. In fact, it leads to a high-seas race against the clock, during which several other lives are threatened. Because Traffickers opens with a flashback and somewhat complicated return to the present, it took a while for me to sort out the players and get a handle on the serpentine plot. Adding to my confusion was the absence of a character with whom to identify, with the exception of the poor souls awaiting their fates on gurneys. Once the fog clears, however, it isn’t at all difficult to get wrapped up in the drama.
Reach Me: Blu-ray
Such intricately woven ensemble flicks as Short Cuts, Magnolia and Crash can only reveal so many loose threads, before viewers begin pulling at them and the tapestry either unravels or becomes even more compelling, through the strength of its individual parts. The threads holding John Herzfeld’s Reach Me together are so thin as to threaten the stability of the picture from beginning to end. Herzeld employed the same narrative gimmick, if to greater success, in the often wickedly funny 1995 dramedy, 2 Days in the Valley. Despite a similarly attractive cast of veteran actors, Reach Me’s connective tissue is too weak to sustain the conceit beyond the mere fact of their presence. The thing all of the characters share is an obsession with a motivational book, written by an anonymous, publicity-shy author known only as Teddy (Tom Berenger). “Reach Me” basically advises readers to take complete control of their lives, using a form of self-hypnosis to conquer their fears and addictions. Sylvester Stallone plays an editor/painter who assigns journalist Roger (Kevin Connolly) to find Teddy and explain to readers what inspired him to write the book. Among the other people we meet are a recently paroled prison inmate (Kyra Sedgwick), an ex-con hip-hop mogul (Nelly), an actor (Cary Elwes) and a trigger-happy undercover cop (Thomas Jane). Also determined to confront the author are characters played by Kelsey Grammer, Lauren Cohan, Ryan Kwanten, Tom Sizemore, Danny Trejo and Danny Aiello, who also starred in 2 Days in the Valley. In a scene that recalls the climax to The Day of the Locust, their disparate lives will collide at a coming-out party for the reclusive author in the working-class beach community of El Segundo. The problem, of course, is that we never learn enough about the book’s message to understand why it might have a greater influence on the thinly drawn characters than dozens of other self-help books available to them.
Hi-8: Horror Independent Eight
It takes something special for me to recommend a found-footage film, especially those that still take their cues from The Blair Witch Project. The story behind Tara Anaïse’s freshman feature, Dark Mountain, isn’t any fresher or more exciting than a dozen other films in which a group of aspiring documentary makers invades the wilderness to get to bottom of a local legend or pop-culture myth. What it does have going for it, however, are spectacular desert scenery and parallel legends involving a fascinating Old West mystery. Ever since reports of the Lost Dutchman’s Gold Mine began spreading around the world in the 1890s, treasure hunters have combed Arizona’s Superstition Mountains to find a hole in the ground that might lead them to a fortune in gold once mined by the German immigrant Jacob Waltz. Because a few of the tens of thousands of would-be prospectors have died in pursuit of the gold, rumors of a curse on intruders have merged with an Apache belief that a larger hole leads to the lower world, or hell. In 1977, historian Byrd Granger identified 62 variants of the Lost Dutchman mystery, several of which are discussed in interviews with local desert rats in Dark Mountain’s first reel. Their curiosities whet, three Los Angeles filmmakers then set out to document their search for the mine. We already know that none of them will return to claim the camera and cell phones that were recovered along the western edge of LaBarge Canyon and which reconstruct of their last days. So, that part of the mystery is already solved. As for the rest of it, we’ve all watched enough found footage to predict with no small degree of precision when to brace ourselves for jump-scares, mysterious lights in the sky and sudden noises. Nothing particularly new is to be found here, except several good reasons to visit the Superstitions on a weekend trip. The DVD arrives with three separate commentary tracks and extended interviews.
It’s unfortunate that plans for a spinoff of the Night at the Museum franchise were put on ice after the untimely death of Robin Williams. If the producers would consider extending the concept into R-rated territory, a template has already been laid by Víctor Matellano’s truly ooky horror flick, Wax, which extends the conceit to wax museums. Shot largely in actual wax museums in Barcelona and Madrid, Wax combines elements of the 1953 House of Wax and the 1933 Mystery of the Wax Museum, if not particularly the 2005 remake, with Paris Hilton. Here, an eager-beaver reporter (Jimmy Shaw) is hired by a TV producer (Geraldine Chaplin) to spend a night in Barcelona’s reportedly haunted Museu de cera. The hauntings appear to have been generated by the infamous cannibal surgeon, Dr. Knox (Jack Taylor), who, when he isn’t impersonating Vincent Price upstairs, is slicing and dicing naked women in the basement. Adding an extra layer of terror to the proceedings is the fact that the reporter, Mike, already has a sad history with the evil doctor. Hidden cameras allow us to monitor Mike’s adventure, as well as examples of the doctor’s skills at torture porn. Spanish horror is as good as any being made in the world right now and, if Wax is a grade or two below prime, there’s still plenty in it to enjoy.
Among the methods our government-sanctioned sadists employed to torture prisoners they believed to be holding back information on the whereabouts of Osama bin Laden was to deprive them of weeks of sleep … repeat, weeks of sleep. College students have been known to stay up for days at a time, while studying for various board exams or to catch up on textbooks they neglected to read earlier in the semester. Helping them to endure the ordeal, of course, were pots full of hot coffee, piles of amphetamines and the occasional hot shoulder. Presumably, the only relief afforded those believed to be terrorists was the cold shock of a water-boarding session. In his sophomore feature, Coyote, Trevor Juenger (Hermetica) offers several very good reasons for us not to trust confessions and other information gleaned from victims of sleep deprivation, at least. Genre favorite Bill Oberst Jr. (“Criminal Minds”) plays a St. Louis man who moves furniture by day and sits at a typewriter each night, futilely trying to overcome his insomnia long enough to refresh his overstressed mind. What happens, instead, is that Bill goes completely and, perhaps, irretrievably mad. If his hallucinations could be harnessed or recorded, they’d probably result in an award-winning work of fiction. Imagine a combination of James “Buffalo Bill” Gumb, Travis Bickle and Norman Bates and you’ll have a pretty good idea of what Bill becomes after only a couple weeks without sleep. Only those viewers ready for intense psycho-drama should attempt Coyote, let alone jump into it head-first.
When Stephen Hawking recently observed, “The development of full artificial intelligence could spell the end of the human race,” he was merely adding his imprimatur to a theory already advanced by several esteemed masters of science-fiction. Today, a new generation of engineers, computer geeks and theoretical physicists is making possible what those writers could only imagination. If the development and subsequent abuse of nuclear energy provide any lessons for mankind, today, it’s that technology and humanity sometimes make for strange bedfellows. From the Netherlands comes APP, an ambitious cyber-thriller that imagines what could happen when a piece of truly diabolic software – as opposed to generic malware — infects the computers and smartphones of unsuspecting consumers, revealing deeply hidden secrets and providing a catalyst for disaster. Here, the ex-boyfriend of a lackadaisical student at the University of Amsterdam downloads his latest experimental app on her cellphone, while she’s otherwise engaged at a party. When Anna attempts to delete the app, which, among other things, sends inappropriate photos of a friend to all of her contacts, it triggers terrible accidents and acts of violence. The question then becomes, how does one kill an artificially intelligent menace that doesn’t want to die? The DVD arrives with instructions that allow viewers to download sonic technology that triggers additional content during the movie, enhancing the viewing experience in real-time. The fact that I couldn’t get it to work should not reflect on the app’s usefulness to those who are more adept at such things. Bonus features include director commentary and a special FX featurette.
Anthologies aren’t for everyone, but, for those who do enjoy them, there’s no shortage of options on film, television, records and in books. There’s hardly a major director who hasn’t contributed a short film to a collection focusing on such themes as love and romance, popular destinations, great authors, wartime experiences, works of art, horror, sci-fi and popular culture. The stories collected in Hi-8: Horror Independent Eight share something relatively unique: a collective memory of the micro-budgeted films shot on video in the 1980s and released almost exclusively on cassette. At first, these crudely made products occupied the shelves reserved for direct-to-video releases and, if a filmmaker was very fortunate, cult titles. It took some time before genre buffs recognized that creativity wasn’t limited to artists able to afford studio-quality equipment, talent and distribution. Flash-forward to the dawn of the digital era and the same sorts of filmmakers who could only afford to make movies on VHS cassettes would take advantage of the even more reasonably priced equipment and software that could be transferred via thumb-drives, uploads and streaming. These economies tended to dilute the stigma attached to straight-to-video titles, while also allowing their creators to add commentaries, making-of features and deleted scenes, just like the big boys and girls. The DIY movement effectively replicated the spirit and experimental tone of the early direct-to-video pioneers, while adding a gloss that sometimes could mask the do-it-yourself methodology and credit-card productions. The indie-horror filmmakers represented in Hi-8 were challenged to return to their analog roots, without sacrificing any of their storytelling chops and evolved themes. Among the directors and writers on tap here are Tim Ritter, Brad Sykes, Donald Farmer, Todd Sheets, Chris Seaver, Ron Bonk and Marcus Koch. Even if going retro doesn’t quite fit the DVD format, there’s plenty of fun to be had here by sentimental genre buffs.
PBS: Frontline: The Rise of the ISIS
PBS: American Experience: Cold War Roadshow
PBS: Moveable Feast With Fine Cooking, Season 1
PBS: American Experience: Ripley: Believe It or Not
Discovery/Science: Survivorman Season 5: Blue Ray
When the existence of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) was first revealed by seemingly clueless media outlets, people around the world wondered how its presence could have caught the intelligence community so far off-guard. We live in a time, after all, when the NSA is capable of monitoring the electronic correspondence of tens of millions of American citizens, most as harmless to the interests of our democracy as kittens on sale at a flea market. Our President also has led us to believe that a cabal of North Korean hackers has been able to bring a giant international conglomerate – Sony – to its knees and threaten protections assured filmmakers by the Constitution. And, yet, no one seemed able to anticipate the blitzkrieg of second-hand tanks, ATVs and combat-ready pickup trucks that devoured large sections of Syria and western Iraq, almost in a single gulp. The startling “Frontline” documentary “The Rise of ISIS” explains not only how the collection of Islamic extremists became a major force so quickly, but also why policymakers missed the many signs that just such an alliance even existed. Although the rebellion against Syria’s Bashar al-Assad provided a staging ground for the coalition of Al Qaeda fighters, Baathist loyalists and disaffected Islamic fundamentalists from an estimated 80 countries, the seeds were sown in the immediate wake of the Allies’ occupation of Iraq, when the Bush/Cheney team totally screwed up the country’s transition from Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship to a democracy that only theoretically would include the country’s Shia and Sunni populations. If nothing else, we should have known that Shia Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki would take advantage of the American withdrawal to crush his Sunni opponents, thus assuring ISIS would find popular support in western Iraq. If it weren’t for the terrible images of genocidal attacks and mass executions – including the beheadings of Western journalists and relief workers by ISIS’s presumably large lunatic fringe – it’s entirely possible that President Obama would not have gotten the support even to form an alliance of countries willing to bomb ISIS targets. Because the documentary doesn’t leave much room for optimism, some viewers will come away from it thinking that the threat of potentially devastating civil war between Sunni and Shia forces would be the only solution to the problem.
The “American Experience” presentation, “Cold War Roadshow,” takes us on a strangely nostalgic trip back to a time when the Cold War threat of mutually assured nuclear destruction was the only thing that thwarted the reality of mutually assured nuclear destruction. As unforgettable as Nikita Khrushchev’s exhibition of shoe-banging rhetoric at the UN, in 1960, it’s just as easy to forget the Soviet leader’s far more amiable tour of the United States, which took place a year earlier. By then, Khrushchev had already begun to reverse draconian policies instituted by Josef Stalin and there was reason to hope that serious talks designed to reduce both nations’ nuclear arsenals could take place during the amazing 13-day visit. The eastern swing of the tour was characterized largely by the determination of law-enforcement agencies to keep him from being assassinated by right-wing extremists. Khrushchev became frustrated by his inability to connect with everyday Americans and break away from an itinerary that would put a child with ADD to sleep. As the tour moved west, he was able to visit farms, factories and even a supermarket, places where his ready smile and goofy jokes convinced many Americans that this cartoonish figure might be human, after all. In Los Angeles, the Soviet premier was famously denied permission to visit Disneyland, supposedly over security concerns. The openly hostile mayor of Los Angeles, Norris Poulson, made light of the situation, which Khrushchev didn’t think was very funny. The mayor further antagonized him by hammering on his “we will bury you” proclamation, which Khrushchev thought he had thoroughly explained already several times on the tour. One of the things that comes across in the documentary is that the Soviet leader represented a nation of blue-collar and agricultural workers as fearful of being enslaved by greedy, war-mongering capitalists as Americans feared losing their personal freedoms under communism. Today, under Putin, they fear the same thing.
PBS’ “Moveable Feast With Fine Cooking” is hosted by Pete Evans, Australia’s top celebrity chef. The show’s reason for being, I think, is to show how great meals come together, from the sourcing and gathering of products to their preparation and appreciation of them by foodies invited to share in the feasts. Evans collaborates with such talented chefs as Jacques Pepin, Marcus Samuelsson, Susan Feniger, Mary Sue Milliken, Donald Link, Marco Canora and Tom Douglas on dishes that, we’re told, can be re-created in the kitchens of average viewers. As the “moveable feast” progresses from the waters off Seattle and vineyards of northern California, to a Manhattan rooftop and forests of Maine, we’re encouraged to connect interactively with the show’s producers and staff of Fine Cooking. Among the printable recipes are those for Spicy Thai Coconut Sauce, Balinese Chicken, Lobster Chowder, Fennel-Parmesan Fritters, Roasted Carrot Salad, Lemongrass Panna Cotta, Spiced Chicken with Papaya-Mango Salsa, Grated Carrot Salad with Raisins, Lamb Sausage Patties with Avocado Relish, Grilled Pork loin with Peaches and Coffee Creme Brulée.
Older-timers watching the “American Experience” presentation “Ripley: Believe It or Not” are likely to feel twinges of nostalgia for the glory years of newspapers, when information wasn’t bought and sold like any other commodity on the Chicago Board of Trade. Younger viewers should find it instructive as a history lesson in how their grandparents and great-grandparent learned about the world’s wonders in the days before radio, television and the Internet. What began as a weekly illustrated feature about great athletic feats in the sports pages of major New York newspapers, soon spread around the world via syndication, radio shows, television and every subsequent “new media” platform. A chain of “odditoriums” – museums of curiosities – still operate in numerous tourist destinations, some including sideshows with human attractions that more sensitive types might consider to be freakish. Besides being informative, the PBS profile of LeRoy Robert Ripley is genuinely entertaining. The show’s producers had plenty of archival material from which to choose, including audio and video footage from Ripley’s broadcast from Ground Zero of the recently ravaged Hiroshima.
The Canadian-produced adventure series, “Survivorman,” is to CBS’ “Survivor” what collegiate wrestling is to the WWE. Instead of participating in games, challenges and back-stabbing, host Les Stroud uses survival skills acquired through years of strenuous wilderness activities to stay alive and more or less healthy, alone, for up to 10 days in truly remote locations. Stroud’s conceit, honed in his previous show, “Stranded,” is to limit his carry-in inventory to little or no food, water or equipment. Each location is scouted extensively by Stroud and his team, who consult with survival specialists and natives of each new area. More to the point, he performs the filming himself. In Season Five, we join Stroud on his visits to the jungles of Grenada, uninhabited Frigate Island, Tierra del Fuego, Ontario’s Temagami range, Tofino, Wabakimi, Nordegg and Alberta’s Radium Springs, where Stroud takes his shot at finding Bigfoot.
Positive Force: More Than a Witness; 30 Years of Punk Politics in Action
The public image of the punk-rock movement has changed very little since the Sex Pistols added safety pins, garishly colored hair and spittle to the jeans, leather and T-shirts preferred by the Stooges, Ramones and the CBGB crowd. As much as the Pistols espoused the nihilistic and anarchic sentiments of disaffected UK youth, they had been manufactured with as much attention to detail as the Monkees. Finally, though, the Pistols musical legacy was dwarfed by the band’s influence on rock-’n’-roll fashion and the introduction of pogoing. Like spiked hair and random piercings, though, punk music has withstood the onslaught of time and trends that followed the death of Syd Vicious. To survive, groups were required to adjust to the realities of a marketplace still dominated by the major labels, but vulnerable to guerrilla attacks by savvy start-ups working from a completely different business model. Robin Bell’s borderline-schizophrenic documentary, Positive Force: More Than a Witness: 30 Years of Punk Politics in Action, describes what happened when several prominent punk-rock groups extended their stage personae to include traditional grass-roots activism and communal lifestyles. Positive Force emerged in 1984, in Nevada, as activists linked arms with local punk bands to use the money raised in benefit concerts to finance the organization’s charitable and self-help activities. The movement spread across the country, with varying degrees of success. Bell’s focus here is directly on the only still-active branch of Positive Force, in Washington, D.C. The film mixes archival concert footage of performances by such bands as Fugazi, Bikini Kill, Nation of Ulysses and Anti-Flag, with new interviews of Positive Force co-founder Mark Andersen and supporters Ian MacKaye, Ted Leo, Riot Grrrl co-founder Allison Wolfe and other musicians. Through them, we meet Washington residents who participate in PF programs and the distribution of food. Some of them admit to being leery of the group members, whose hair styles and accessories were completely foreign to them. The DVD, which serves equally well as a call to renewed action, adds several interesting featurettes, “Wake Up! A Profile of Positive Force DC”; “Green Hair, Grey Hair,” an award-winning short documentary that spotlights the unlikely alliance between inner-city seniors and young punk rockers, fostered by PF’s work with the We Are Family senior outreach network; “Punks, Votes, Riots,” with bonus performances by Fugazi, Seven Seconds, Chumbawamba, Anti-Flag, Soulside, The Evens and Beefeater.
Female Gaze: Contemporary Films by Women
Beyond Borders: Stories of Interfaith Friendship
Faces of Israel: New Israeli Cinema
Film Movement began its corporate life in 2003 as a movie-of-the-month club, not unlike the Book of the Month Club, except for a smaller list of titles. The subscriber-based service sent out one DVD each month, usually several months ahead of the movie being released to the general public. In addition to an award-winning indie film from a major festival, each DVD contained a short film that’s related to the feature thematically, as well as bios and interviews. Not surprisingly, the first couple of years’ worth of titles were something of a mixed bag, in terms of origin, subject matter and quality. I liked the idea of showcasing arthouse films that weren’t likely to find distribution in a crowded U.S. American marketplace, but, frankly, didn’t give it much of a chance of success. Eleven years later, the company has expanded its monthly inventory of releases, added boxed sets to the retail menu, entered the theatrical market (1,000 Times Good Night, A Life in Dirty Movies) and begun to exploit different online delivery systems. Film Movement has released more than 200 feature films and shorts from 37 countries on six continents, including top prize winners from Sundance, Cannes, Venice, Toronto, Berlin, Tribeca, SXSW and other prestigious festivals.
As qualified women writers and directors continue to struggle in the United States, it’s nice to know that their numbers continue to swell internationally and in the independent marketplace. No better example of this is available than Female Gaze: Contemporary Films by Women, a collection of seven excellent films from the Film Movement catalog. They include Olivia Spencer’s family drama Arcadia; Claudia Llosa’s MadeinUSA, about a 14-year-old Peruvian villager, Madeinusa, who’s last chance for freedom could lie in the incarceration of an innocent outsider; Pelin Esmer’s Watchtower, in which the fates of two troubled young adults meet at an emotional crossroads in Turkey; Ela Their’s Foreign Letters, a dramedy about the bond that develops between a 12-year-old immigrant from Israel and a Vietnamese refugee her age; Valérie Donzelli’s quirky romantic comedy, Queen of Hearts, about one woman’s desperate search for love; Inch’ Allah Dimanche, Yamina Benguigui’s moving portrait of an Algerian woman’s experiences as an immigrant in a racially divided France; and The Forest for the Trees, German writer/director Maren Ade’s story about a young teacher from the countryside, whose ideals are tested in her first job at a city high school.
Beyond Borders: Stories of Interfaith Friendship and Faces of Israel: New Israeli Cinema offer glimpses into life in Israel and Palestine, at a time when hardliners on both sides of the West Bank “security fence” refuse to give peace a chance. The former contains three award-winning features — Diane Crespo and Stefan Schaefer’s Arranged, Thierry Brnisti’s A Bottle in the Gaza Sea and Foreign Letters — that “support the belief that discrimination and fear of the other can be resolved through individual emotional connections.” The latter provides a representative sample of the best work coming out of Israel, highlighting the various themes and issues that are intrinsic to its national cinema. They include Campfire, by Joseph Cedar; For My Father, by Dror Zahavi; The Human Resources Manager, Eran Riklis; and Seven Minutes in Heaven, by Omri Givon. As usual, the DVDs arrive with excellent short films and other features.
Now seen in nearly 150 countries, “Sesame Street” has probably done more for American diplomacy than any single Secretary of State since 1969, when the show launched here on PBS. Not all of the editions look or sound the same as the American original, of course, but, then, our “Sesame Street” has undergone several radical changes, as well, mostly in the interests of political correctness and current theories of child psychology. The dozen DVDs that comprise “Shalom Sesame” (a.k.a., “Rechov Sumsum”), from SISU Home Entertainment, make a very good case for the belief that children from both Jewish and Arab backgrounds are more likely to suggest democratic solutions to resolving conflict – talking, instead of using force – than their parents and grandparents. The shows, from the 2010-11 season, follow Grover and celebrity host Anneliese van der Pol (“That’s So Raven”) as they travel to Israel in this co-production by Sesame Workshop Channel HOP! Each of the 30-minute, live-action and animated DVDs focus on storylines drawn from Jewish cultural traditions, highlighting lessons on Hebrew letters and words, unique sites in Israel and Jewish values. Among the show’s guests are Jake Gyllenhaal, Debra Messing, Matisyahu, Eva Longoria, Christina Applegate, Greg Kinnear and Debi Mazar.