By Gary Dretzka Dretzka@moviecitynews.com
The DVD Wrapup: Danny Collins, Get Hard, Decline of Western Civilization, Downtown 81 and more
Danny Collins: Blu-ray
There are moments in Dan Fogelman’s wildly uneven rock-‘n’-roll fantasy, Danny Collins, that suggest the author was raised on classic-rock radio and his titular protagonist (Al Pacino) was modeled less after Bruce Springsteen, Bob Seger or Rod Steward, than Neil Diamond, Billy Joel or a post-Wings Paul McCartney. That much is clear when Collins arrives on stage for the first time, looking as if he might rip into “Born in the U.S.A.,” “Katmandu” or “Maggie May,” but, instead, delivers what amounts to Diamond’s between-innings anthem, “Sweet Caroline.” Not that there’s anything wrong with the Fenway Park favorite. It just sounds out of place when sung by a wrung-out, blurry-eyed geezer, whose “Elvis scarves” are older than everyone in his band. Collins has been so strung out for so long that he hasn’t written a new song in 30 years and can’t readily recall the details of two of his marriages. As the inspired-by-a-true-story story goes, Collins’ longtime manager (Christopher Plummer) uncovers a 40-year-old letter written to his client by John Lennon, but intercepted by the Rolling Stone reporter who conducted the interview that caught the Beatle’s eye. In it, Collins was given some positive career advice and invited to visit him and Yoko when he was in the neighborhood. Being a huge fan of Lennon, there’s no telling how Collins’ career path might have changed had he been aware of the letter. (In fact, throughout much of the 1970s, the drunk-and-disorderly Lennon was in no shape to offer advice – solid or otherwise – to any up-and-coming musician.) Like Scrooge, after his cathartic journey into the future with the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, Collins is inspired by the letter not only to clean up his act, but also make a pilgrimage to New Jersey to make nice with his bitterly estranged son, Tom Donnelly (Bobby Cannavale), incredulous daughter-in-law, Samantha (Jennifer Garner), and super-cute granddaughter, Hope (Giselle Eisenberg).
Even if Tom and Samantha want nothing to do with the genuinely repentant Collins, he eventually weasels his way into the family’s good graces by enlisting Hope in his campaign. Not surprisingly, the toddler reacts favorably to a tour bus full of toys and some playful piano tickling. At the same time, Collins is wooing the manager of the mid-range motel in which he’s staying. Annette Bening is uncharacteristically schoolmarish as the no-nonsense, nose-to-the-grindstone Mary Sinclair, who, at first, easily resists the Pacino-ish charms of the reformed musician, but eventually succumbs to his charms. As the author of Last Vegas, The Guilt Trip and Tangled, Fogelman knows exactly which buttons to push to keep the emotional roller-coaster rolling for 106 minutes. All of the actors, especially Pacino, deliver performances sufficiently likeable to bridge the gaps between fantasy, reality and schmaltz. His appearances in such largely unseen indies as Manglehorn, The Humbling, Salome, Stand Up Guys and The Son of No One Pacino have given DVD renters a great return on their investment. But, they mostly reminded us of earlier work and such memorable characters as Sonny (Dog Day Afternoon), John Milton (The Devil’s Advocate) and Lefty (Donnie Brasco). As long as his hair doesn’t fall out completely, he’ll always look younger than his 75 years and still make a credible date for female characters a decade or two younger than him. Bening may even remind some viewers here of Diane Keaton’s Kay, in the Godfather trilogy. A couple other things should be mentioned in any discussion of Danny Collins: 1) The Lennon-dominated soundtrack is so appealing that it completely overshadows the original music by Ryan Adam and Theodore Shapiro, and 2) onerously obtrusive product placement disturbs the rhythm of nearly every scene in which a name brand is dropped or logo added in the background. The Blu-ray adds a behind-the-scenes featurette and gallery of faux “Danny Collins album covers” through the years.
Get Hard: Unrated: Blu-ray
Far be it from me to recommend marketing strategy to a major studio, but the next time Will Ferrell is cast in an odd-couple, Mutt-and-Jeff or fish-out-of-water comedy, some thought should be given to the less-is-more theory as it pertains to publicity. Whether he’s promoting a Major League Baseball tie-in or sequel to an earlier blockbuster, Ferrell defines the word, “overexposed,” and like Sasha Baron Cohen, he tends to appear in character. Talk-show hosts and their audiences eat it up, as do the entertainment “news” shows, but it’s only fun in small does. More problematic, however, is the over-familiarity that comes with oft-repeated production anecdotes, video clips and character sketches, leaving practically nothing to the imagination. His many cameo appearances in the movies, television shows and websites of fellow comedians – along with such vanity projects as the Lifetime movie, “A Deadly Adoption,” with Kristen Wiig – have made him a ubiquitous media personality. Like a good soldier, Ferrell pulled out all of the stops for Get Hard, as did his nearly inescapable co-star Kevin Hart. Considering his long and arduous trek to the A-list, no one can blame Hart for milking his 15 minutes of fame. By contrast, Ferrell has been in the spotlight for so long, he’d probably go through withdrawal if denied it.
Because Hart and Ferrell are two of the most popular actors on the planet right now, I would think that Warner Bros. expected more than $105 million in worldwide box-office revenues. (The marketing campaign, alone, probably cost WB more than the estimated production budget of $40 million.) Get Hard was funny enough to please fans of both actors, but not nearly enough to ignite the same kind of cross-over business as such kindred comedies as Trading Places and Stir Crazy, which it resembles. Outside of England and Canada, however, I doubt that many overseas viewers fully grasped the central gag. Here, Ferrell plays a successful hedge-fund manager, James King, who’s been set up as the patsy by his future father-in-law (Craig T. Nelson) to take the fall for a highly lucrative, if thoroughly illegal investment scheme. In a true stretch of current reality, James is put on trial and convicted of fraud. Sentenced to several years at San Quentin, James has been allowed 30 days to get his affairs in order before surrendering to prison officials. This scenario is so preposterous as to beg unintentional laughter. After all, how many financiers have been found guilty of anything since 2008 and, of that handful, how many were required to do hard time? For all of his crimes, Bernie Madoff is being allowed to spend the rest of days in a medium-security prison.
James’ fear of being beaten, killed or raped by hardened San Quentin cons, who can smell a fresh fish from across the San Francisco Bay, isn’t really all that preposterous. In Spike Lee’s 25th Hour, a convicted coke dealer played by Ed Norton voluntarily takes a beating from a pal, so as to make himself less susceptible to rape in prison. Unwilling to take such drastic measures, James recruits the only African-American he knows, Darnell (Kevin Hart), to prepare him for the experience. What he doesn’t know is that Darnell has always been an upstanding, law-abiding citizen and doesn’t know any more about how to survive prison than Woody Allen in Take the Money and Run. Not wishing to disappoint a valuable customer in his car-wash customer, Darnell makes a futile attempt to toughen James up by enlisting some local hoodlums to give James a tutorial in survival. In an effort to play to the cheap seats, co-writer/director Etan Cohen has Darnell take James to a restaurant popular with gay men for brunch. He reacts accordingly, even if the paying customers don’t. This may be Cohen’s first directorial credit, but he’s collaborated on such features as Men in Black 3, Idiocracy, Tropic Thunder and Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa, so he knows how to use broad material to make people laugh. Ferrell and Hart’s fans should enjoy the seven minutes of fresh material added to what already was a R-rated picture. The Blu-ray package includes both versions of Get Hard; deleted scenes and gag reel; and several comic featurettes, including “The Kevin Hart Workout,” “A Date with John Mayer,” “Will Ferrell, Gangsta” and “Twerking 101.”
The Decline Of Western Civilization Collection: Blu-ray
At a time when punk and heavy metal were being dismissed as the bastard stepchildren of rock ’n’ roll, Penelope Spheeris took the music seriously enough to showcase them as evolving art forms and accord the musicians the same respect shown any other chart-topping performer. The rock-media mainstream had yet to embrace the artists and record labels weren’t anxious to back unproven commodities whose uncouth manners and angry lyrics could backfire on them. Released in 1981, The Decline of Western Civilization focused on the burgeoning punk-rock scene in Los Angeles, especially as it migrated from temporary homes on the Sunset Strip, Chinatown and concrete bunkers in the beach communities. The American punk crowd had never been beholden on British acts, except for fashion tips, so it didn’t miss a beat when Sid Vicious died of a heroin overdose in February, 1979. Spheeris’ ability to locate its beating heart was, perhaps, its greatest accomplishment. A minimalist affair from Day One, she captured the organic, if frequently mock-violent relationship between the musicians and fans, for whom safety pin jewelry and Mohawk hairdos weren’t reserved for special occasions. Like punk, heavy metal music existed as an identifiable subgenre for nearly 20 years before Spheeris made The Decline of Western Civilization Part II: The Metal Years. Iggy and the Stooges, the MC5 and hundreds of garage-rock aficionados had opened the door for Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, T-Rex and, by extension, the Sex Pistols. They’ve never really gone away, either.
One thing that Spheeris was able to discern rather quickly was how punks and metal musicians defined success and accepted their place as outsiders and provocateurs. By this time, of course, most mainstream bands and performers had been seduced by gigantic contracts and the mountains of cocaine that were delivered to their homes whenever they were running low. The desperation voiced by X in early songs “The Unheard Music,” “The New World” and “I Must Think Bad Thoughts” lamented the status of L.A. punk bands, while refusing to give an inch to convention or cooptation. You could ride skateboards or mosh to punk and metal, but the likelihood of Michelob or Coors licensing a song for a commercial was nil. This, of course, made it easy to spit on the trappings of lifestyle conformity and adopt a nihilistic stance. By contrast, the heavy-metal musicians we meet in the sequel are direct descendants of the glam-rock pioneers, right down to the high-heel boots, makeup and bouffant hair styles for men. That much would disappear, at least, as the Beavis and Butt-heads of the world embraced a decidedly more proletarian vibe to the movement. In 1987, though, the androgynous look still appealed to groupies – it even survived the satirical lashing administered by This Is Spinal Tap – and, without them, the pursuit of sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll would be meaningless. A few years later, “The Osbournes” and Ozzfest would bring heavy metal into the mainstream, but not nearly to the same extent as the Eagles or Fleetwood Mac. Among the still-popular musicians we meet as hairy young adults in “The Metal Years” are Steven Tyler, Joe Perry, Alice Cooper, Gene Simmons, Paul Stanley, Lemmy, Bret Michaels and several other unabashedly hedonistic musicians and groupies.
Judged solely as documentaries, the first two segments of The Decline of Western Civilization hold up very well as windows into a world that was far more shocking three decades ago than it is now. They have inspired scores of filmmakers to follow suit. That isn’t the case with The Decline of Western Civilization Part III, a disturbing film in which you can actually watch the chickens of a crippled society come home to roost. It is much less about the evolution of hard-corps music and rabid fan base, circa 1998, than a delayed sequel to Spheeris’ 1983 culture-clash drama, Suburbia. In 1998, the streets, alleys and abandoned houses of Hollywood were home to hundreds, perhaps thousands, of homeless youth commonly dismissed as “gutter punks.” Their self-destructive nihilism echoes the nearly indecipherable lyrics hurled at us in “Part I” by the Germs, Black Flag, X, Fear and Circle Jerks. In 1998 and, maybe, still today, these kids had to panhandle, steal or sell their blood to purchase tickets to see their favorite bands in a club. Mostly, though, if they couldn’t sneak into a club, why bother? In the absence of their parents and siblings, the teenagers we meet have formed families of their own, but without any of the safety nets provided by society or relatives. Just as Hollywood has changed in the interim, we’re left to wonder how these young people have fared since then. All three films are collected in this long-awaited Shout Factory box, which is enhanced by new 2K scans supervised by Spheeris; commentary by Dave Grohl; vintage interviews with the director; never-before-seen original footage of performances and interviews; theatrical trailers; and a 40-page booklet, featuring rare stills and text by Domenic Priore.
At the exact same time as Spheeris was surveying the L.A. punk scene for the first installment of “TDOWC,” Edo Bertoglio and Glenn O’Brien collected snapshots of Manhattan’s East Village and Lower East Side for Downtown 81 (originally, “New York Beat Movie”). Although these neighborhoods resembled “Dresden after the war,” a closer examination of the shaded corners, blank walls, basements, studios and dive bars revealed a veritable ant hill of cultural activity by artists and musicians of all stripe. O’Brien recalls how Downtown 81 was first envisioned as a New Wave fairytale, but exists today more as a documentary about a city and scene that no longer exist. In it, the camera follows then-undiscovered street-artist Jean Michel Basquiat from a hospital bed, to his locked apartment, to underground recording studios and fashion fittings, CBGB and the Mudd Club and other landmarks of the hipster diaspora. He’s in a desperate search for the $500 required to reclaim access to his studio/home. Although Basquiat had yet to become a cause célèbre in the art world, he was already known in some quarters as a graffiti artist and scenester. O’Brien had served as the first editor of Andy Warhol’s Interview magazine, before launching the public-access sensation, “TV Party,” which was to the New York underground scene what “Soul Train” was to R&B and hip-hop.
Among the people who make cameos or perform here are Debbie Harry, Eszter Balint (Stranger Than Paradise), James White and the Blacks, Kid Creole and the Coconuts, Plastics, Fab 5 Freddy, Vincent Gallo, Maripol, Debi Mazar, Coati Mundi, Chris Stein and Elliott Murphy. They all fit into the underground scene organically, but aren’t asked to impersonate themselves. Basquiat’s desperate search for bread adds an urgent pace and tempo that would have been missing in a documentary. Today, however, Downtown 81 can be viewed as a funky travelogue of a section of New York absent AIDS, gentrification, drug rehab, crack, media vultures and inflated egos spawned by fame. That’s all gone now. By contrast, Hollywood and Sunset Boulevard have remained pretty much the same, although noticeably cleaner and safer. Production hassles resulted in Downtown 81 being held captive in an Italian warehouse for 20 years before its limited debut in 2001. Despite the fact that the dialogue track was lost, the restored edition looks and sounds better than ever. A second disc adds fresh interviews and the recollections of O’Brien, Maripol and Fab Five Freddy; vintage video clips; and a gallery.
Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter: Blu-ray
If the Coen Brothers had made a feature-length sequel to Fargo, instead of merely lending their names and suggestions to the creators of the FX series, “Fargo,” as executive-producers, it might have looked a lot like Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter. Just as Fargo had convinced viewers that the inspiration for the movie came from an actual event in the criminal history of Nordic Minnesota, David and Nathan Zellner based their film on an urban legend – or, in this case, a North Woods legend – that proved too good to be completely accurate. In it, a young Japanese office worker, played by Rinko Kikuchi (Babel), discovers a VHS cassette of Fargo hidden under a rock, while on dreamlike stroll on a misty beach. The tape has been degraded to the point where the video images appear scrambled and barely intelligible. The one thing Kumiko is able to discern is the scene in which a battered and bloody Carl Showalter (Steve Buscemi) buries a suitcase full of money in the snow, along a long fence line that parallels the wind-swept highway. Already emotionally damaged by the barely veiled threats of her horny boss, Kumiko imagines the video images to be gifts from God, directing her to an actual hidden treasure. After measuring the distances between the fence posts that lead invariably to Fargo, North Dakota – actually, Bemidji, Minnesota, home to Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox – she hops on a plane to the Twin Cities, absent any of the provisions one would need to spend more than 10 minutes outside in the middle of winter. And, that includes enough money to afford lunch, a motel room, parka or translation app for a cellphone.
Despite looking like a discarded piece of Kleenex on the side of the road, Kumiko gets rides, food and unheeded advice from cops and other strangers. In an effort to convince her that Fargo is a work of fiction, a policeman who shares several Minnesota-nice traits with Marge Gunderson, searches high and wide for a sushi restaurant, where the owners might be able to serve as interpreters. The closest they come is an all-you-can-eat Chinese buffet. After mistaking the cop’s kindness for love, Kumiko begins to lose hope of locating her treasure. The Zellners are content here to follow the same roadmap laid by north-country mythologists intent on expanding the tourist trade already generated by the many quirky events described in Coens’ fish story. Since the ending is essentially the same, viewers should resist the temptation to conduct an Internet search for the woman who inspired the story, Takako Konishi. It can wait. Kikuchi’s portrayal of the painfully withdrawn and utterly colorless Kumiko stands out from everything else in Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter, except an evocative score by the Octopus Project and the brilliant cinematography by Sean Porter (It Felt Like Love), which makes the forbidding Minnesota winter look every bit as cold as it is, but more beautiful than anyone living south of the Minneapolis–Saint Paul International Airport could ever imagine. The DVD adds commentary with writer/director David Zellner, writer/producer Nathan Zellner and producer Chris Ohlson, as well as deleted and alternate scenes.
Valerie and Her Week of Wonders: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
Of Girls and Horses
If the name of Czech filmmaker Jaromil Jireš doesn’t ring a bell, it’s probably because he elected to continue working in the nation of his birth after the Warsaw Pact nations crushed the reforms brought about by Prague Spring, as well as the spirit of filmmakers associated with the Czechoslovak New Wave. He wasn’t soft on communism, by any means, but, by choosing not to follow Miloš Forman, Ján Kadár, Vojtěch Jasný and Jan Němec into self-exile in the West, he was required to abide by government censorship and soften his political edge. It’s difficult to imagine how the delightfully surrealistic and overtly erotic Valerie and Her Week of Wonders slipped past the eyes of humorless censors long enough to be shown in a handful of foreign venues. Between the late 1970s and its release on DVD in 2004, however, the movie mostly disappeared from view anywhere. And, yet, its influence likely extended to English writer Angela Carter, whose screenplay for Neil Jordan’s The Company of Wolves (1984) echoed similar themes. It’s also possible that “Valerie” caught the eye of Alejandro Jodorowsky, whose surrealistic The Holy Mountain and El Topo captured the imagination of arthouse audiences and acid heads in the 1970s. “Valerie” is a period piece based on a Gothic fantasy by Vítezslav Nezval. In it, the first period of a charming 13-year-old (Jaroslava Schallerova) triggers a series of hallucinatory events that mirror the sexual confusion and disturbing urges that are synonymous with the arrival of puberty in many unsuspecting girls and boys. In Valerie’s case, the passage is tipped when earrings left to her by her mother are stolen while she’s sleeping in a gazebo — either by the malevolent Weasel or benevolent Eagle — and replaced the next morning while lounging in a pool with three giddy blonds. The arrival of a carnival only serves to confuse an already bewildering situation, complicated by the appearance of vampires, witches, wicked priests and twisted relatives. As perplexing as these daydreams and nightmares may be, Jireš (The Joke) cloaks them in a phantasmagoria of colors and distinct cinematic textures. At a brisk 73 minutes, “Valerie” comes and goes like a fractured dream on a restless night. Anyone in the mood for more New Wave challenges ought to check out Vera Chytilová’s Daisies “Criterion’s Eclipse Series 32: Pearls of the Czech New Wave.” The Blu-ray features a new 4K digital restoration, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack; three of JIres’ early shorts, “Uncle,” “Footprints” and “The Hall of Lost Steps”; a new interview with Czechoslovak film scholar Peter Hames; earlier interviews with actors Jaroslava Schallerová and Jan Klusák; an alternate 2007 psych-folk soundtrack by the Valerie Project; and an essay by critic Jana Prikryl.
With a title that will come dangerously close to being misunderstood by people with porn on their brains, Monika Treut’s Of Girls and Horses reminds me more of a Germanic The Horse Whisperer than the lesbian coming-of-age drama it also resembles. In fact, the attachment between girls and horses here closely corresponds to the opinion shared by Peggy Orenstein, author of “Cinderella Ate My Daughter,” that women “identify with their strength … and are a source of power and motion and transformation.” I wouldn’t know, but it makes sense within the context of the movie. Alex (Ceci Chuh) is a self-destructive 16-year-old, who has finally gotten on the last nerve of her adoptive mother and is sent to a farm in northern Germany to work with horses as an intern. Given her pissy moods and generally downbeat attitude toward life, we aren’t given much reason to hope for Alex’s reform. If she rebels against the entry-level chores she’s assigned, her next step is reform school or prison. Like Robert Redford in The Horse Whisperer, the farm’s resident trainer, Tina (Vanida Karun), senses an immediate attraction between the city girl and horses. Even so, Alex is always one step away from messing up. Her biggest challenge comes when an upper-class girl, Kathy (Alissa Wilms), arrives with her magnificent Thoroughbred and practically lives in the same stall with him. In a departure from form, Treut doesn’t require her characters to become mortal enemies, whose differences suddenly narrow after a cathartic event. Their differences do narrow, but naturally and over time. Most of the tension comes when Tina’s relationship with her lover in Hamburg (Ellen Grell) becomes complicated and she begins to take it out on Alex. Instead, that tension brings the teenagers together amid the gorgeous rolling hills of northern Germany.
Chantal Akerman, From Here
Marcel Ophuls & Jean-Luc Godard: The Meeting in St-Gervais
It isn’t often these days that one comes across such an unrepentant art film as Austrian writer/director Daniel Hoesl’s debut feature, Soldate Jeannette (“Soldier Jane”). Appealing primarily to the nichiest of niche audiences, it wouldn’t stand a snowball’s chance in Palm Spring for distribution outside the festival circuit or feminist film clubs. That it is the product of something called the European Film Conspiracy recalls a time when radicalism in film mirrored the rebellions in the streets. Jean-Luc Godard led the way in Europe, making movies that no longer told stories but embraced political movements for which creative freedom was anathema. In the U.S., John Cassavetes experimented with form and function, limiting politics to the diplomacy practiced by men and women over the kitchen table and in bed. These films weren’t made for those people who frequented the local Bijou to be entertained or relieved of their cares for 90-plus minutes. They were intended to challenge, provoke and enflame us. The best were puzzles for the mind, while the worst were masturbatory wastes of our times. Soldate Jeannette seems to combine elements of Godard’s work with the spirit Cassavetes’ collaborations with Gena Rowlands. Johanna Orsini-Rosenberg is the woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown here, a middle-age Viennese resident of haute-bourgeois persuasion. Jane’s boredom with her lifestyle is manifested by her refusal to pay rent, embezzle money from her family’s trust fund and discard expensive clothing she’d purchased only moments earlier. When she finally decides to forgo her yoga and self-defense classes, Jane buys fancy boots and camping equipment and heads for the Alps. To keep her warm the first night, Jane burns thousands of dollars’ worth of Euros. After sharing her body with strangers for a place to sleep, she takes up residence in a communal farm and slaughter house that might have seemed ideal in the 1960s, but, today, remains a bastion for male entitlement. Newly emboldened by her own quest for freedom, Jane takes it upon herself to rescue a younger woman of less privileged background. Nothing is resolved, but, as a character study, it held my attention. The DVD adds interviews with Orsini-Rosenberg and Hoesl, as well as a couple of shorts.
In a bit of a coincidence, Godard and Belgian filmmaker Chantal Ackerman are referenced in Soldate Jeanette in the same week as films about them are being released by Icarus. Both will be of interest almost exclusively to arthouse buffs and Francophiles. Chantal Akerman, From Here is a wide-ranging interview rendered almost useless by a gimmick employed by the filmmaker to re-create one of Akerman’s artistic conceits. A stationary camera points into a boardroom or dining room, from outside a door in the hallway, allowing for a view of a seated Ackerman and whoever else might pass before the lens. The anonymous interviewer is hidden behind a wall thick enough to muffle his questions and push some of her answers well out of context. It helps, somewhat, that the discussion is primarily in English.
The title, Marcel Ophuls & Jean-Luc Godard: The Meeting in St-Gervais, makes the event related here sound as if it might have been a championship fight promoted by Don King. Instead, this too-brief meeting of the minds, recorded in 2009, only skims the surface of careers that literally changed the face of the international cinema. Neither Godard, 79, nor Ophuls, 82, was ready to retire, even if both men would have been put out to pasture long ago in Hollywood. The conversation, which took place before a small audience of admirers, is lively and the recollections are frequently profound. Especially compelling are the directors’ recollections of growing up under the cloud of World War II.
The best reason for picking up Simon Blake’s slow-burn thriller, Still, is an electrifying performance by Aiden Gillen, a Dublin-born actor who specializes in mesmerizing performances. If his face is familiar, it’s because he played an ambitious Baltimore politician in “The Wire” and Lord Petyr Baelish in “Game of Thrones.” No one does intense with more intensity than Gillen. Here, he plays a London photographer who’s yet to recover from the death of his teenage son in a hit-and-run accident a year earlier and divorce from a wife who once properly fit him like a glove. For no good reason, Tom Carver has become the target of teenage punks, who object to his kindness to a boy too weak to protect himself against the bullies. It takes a long time for Carver to turn into Charles Bronson in Death Wish, but, once he’s pushed beyond his limit, the explosion can be heard from miles away. Anyone anticipating a clichéd ending, though, will be pleasantly surprised. Gillen gets more than ample support from tough-as-nails Sonny Green, Jonathan Slinger, Elodie Yung and Amanda Mealing.
Charlie Levi’s first and only feature, Childless, deals with the grief associated with the unexpected loss of a child, as well, but in very different ways. Having sat on a shelf gathering dust since at least 2009, the intense drama practically dares us to empathize with the four adults closest to the teenage girl, who’s probably getting far more attention in death than she ever did while alive. As played very well by Barbara Hershey, Joe Mantegna, Diane Venora and James Naughton, the middle-class Angelinos prepare for the funeral by wallowing in self-pity and hurling accusations and recriminations at each other and the camera, not only for the conditions that prompted Katherine (Natalie Dreyfuss) to take her life, but also the fissures in their own marriages and those of peripheral relations. If Levi leaves the door open for reconciliation, it’s only over Katherine’s cold dead body. Edward Albee might have been able to make these people interesting, if not exactly sympathetic, but Childless could never be mistaken for a sequel to Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Even so, it’s always fun to watch actors of this stature at work in something other than TV crime series and horror flicks. The DVD adds a not particularly enlightening making-of featurette.
I Am Evel Knievel: Blu-ray
As difficult as it is to believe in 2015, there was a time not so long ago when a daredevil with the unlikely name of Evel Knievel held the world in the palm in his hand, simply for his willingness to risk life and limb by jumping his Harley-Davidson over several dozen automobiles, buses, tanks filled with shark and crates containing snakes. Mostly, though, Kneivel is remembered for crashing his bike in ways that can be only described as spectacular. It begged the question as to whether fans paid to see him complete the jumps or die trying. Knievel was a master showman in an era when simply showing up wasn’t enough to please an audience. By the time he announced his intentions to jump the Grand Canyon, but had to settle for a failed attempt to bridge the Snake River, there was nowhere to go but Hollywood. That proved to be as big a flop as the Snake River debacle. Among those testifying in Knievel’s defense are celebrities Matthew McConaughey, Michelle Rodriguez, Kid Rock, Guy Fieri, Robbie Maddison; daredevils Spanky Spangler and Mike Vallely; Willie G. Davidson, of Harley-Davidson; comedian Bob Einstein (a.k.a., Super Dave Osborne); racing promoters Chris and J.C. Agajanian; and family members, including sons Kelly and Robbie, and former wives Linda Knievel and Krystal Kennedy-Knievel. Not surprisingly, footage of his successful jumps isn’t nearly as captivating as the film taken of Kneivel hideously rolling head over heels on the forgiving concrete, breaking a new bone with each bounce. Derik Murray and David Ray’s I Am Evel Knievel exceeded my meager expectations, at least, reminding me of a time when a man could become a hero simply by putting on a red, white and blue jump suit and putting his reputation on the line for a few thousand paying customers. Or, was that Elvis? The Blu-ray adds plenty of like-minded bonus features.
Contamination: Special Edition: Blu-ray
The Jester’s Supper
Lilith, a Vampire Who Comes Back
If genre buffs have learned anything from the ongoing digital revolution, it’s that you can’t keep a good “video nasty” down … or any other long-buried exploitation flick, for that matter. Contamination, newly re-released into Blu-ray by Arrow Films, is a perfect example of the zombie-fication of sleazeball cinema. The video-nasty designation was applied to DVDs of questionable taste by Britain’s National Viewers’ and Listeners’ Association and endorsed by the Director of Public Prosecutions, which released a list of 72 films the office believed to violate the Obscene Publications Act of 1959. For it to be enforceable, the legislation needed to be updated to take into account then-current technology. The Video Recordings Act of 1984 didn’t prevent these films from being shown elsewhere or to re-edited and re-submitted. It did, however, serve to elevate the value of bootleg copies in Britain and raise the profile of movies otherwise destined for drive-ins and grindhouses. Noteworthy primarily as a late example of Euro-horror, Contamination borrows key elements from Alien — football-sized eggs and alien “chest bursters” — and relocates them to a ghost steamer speeding toward the docks of New York. No stranger to the international exploitation game, Luigi Cozzi (a.k.a., Lewis Coates) decided that the easiest way to distinguish his film from Ridley Scott’s landmark thriller was to raise the ante on gore, while the cheapest way was to eliminate the spaceship and hire a lower-profile star than Sigourney Weaver. Here, police investigators led by Lieutenant Tony Aris (Marino Mase) are startled to find a cargo containing strange, oversized eggs and the bloody remains of the humans on board. It doesn’t take long before some of the government inspectors to become infected and, when the eggs explode inside the victims’ Hazmat gear, it approximates what might happen if a turtle was cooked in a microwave oven. The investigation leads military personnel headed by Colonel Stella Holmes (Louise Marleau) and former astronaut Ian Hubbard (Ian McCulloch) to a Colombian coffee farm, where the eggs are being manufactured by a one-eyed Martian brought back by a space mission. I kid you, not. If Contamination isn’t a world-beater cinematically, Arrow’s hi-def restoration makes the 95 minutes pass by quickly. It includes an amusing Q&A session with Cozzi and McCulloch and separate interview with the director; an archive making-of documentary with behind-the-scenes footage; a reversible sleeve featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Gary Pullin; a collector’s booklet with new writing on the film, illustrations and original stills and posters; “Sound of the Cyclops,” in which Goblin keyboardist Maurizio Guarini discusses the creation of the score; and commentary with Fangoria editor Chris Alexander.
It’s impossible to predict what a package from One 7 Movies might contain when it arrives in the mail, as the films in its catalog range from vintage porn to obscure foreign horror titles. Made in 1942, in Mussolini-controlled Italy, The Jester’s Supper (a.k.a., “The Dinner of Practical Jokes”) is a rather primitive period piece set in Florence at the time of Lorenzo de Medici. The city is run by a ruthless pair of aristocrat brothers who specialize in playing cruel pranks on their enemies. When one of the victims decides to retaliate, things escalate in unexpected ways. One of them involves the sexual attack on a young woman favored in the Chiaramantesi household by street rabble. None of this would be of current interest if it weren’t for the fact that leading lady Clara Calamai made history by allowing her blouse to be ripped off, revealing the first naked breasts in the Italian sound cinema. The Jester’s Supper isn’t likely to be shown on TMC, but it’s readily available on the Internet.
It isn’t likely that Lilith, a Vampire Who Comes Back will log much air time here, either, but, as curiosities go, it isn’t bad. The conceit, which begins on the jacket of the DVD, requires horror fans to buy into a movie made in 2008 to look and sound like Nosferatu, Vampyr or Haxan: Witchcraft Through the Ages. And, that it does. The difference between “Lilith” and Shadow of the Vampire, the 2000 John Malkovich vehicle, is that its historically based story is far more interesting. Gianni Virgadaula’s original intention with “Lilith “was to make a 17-minute short that combined elements of the vampire, werewolf and haunted castle subgenres. At 81 minutes, the only thing missing is a compelling story.
The latest double-feature from Scream Factory would be noteworthy mostly for the pairing of David Hasselhoff and Linda Blair in Witchery, virtually guaranteeing a celebration of cheesy cinema. Ghosthouse, which offers no such star power, was made specifically to fool Italian audiences into thinking they were watching a Sam Raimi movie. Doesn’t sound promising, but, guess what, they’re both pretty good. The credit belongs to directors Fabrizio Laurenti and Umberto Lenzi, respectively, embellishing American drive-in tropes with the garish gore-for-gore’s-sake excesses of Euro-horror. There’s isn’t much more to say about movies, except that one features an evil clown doll and the other … well, when you say, Hasseloff and Blair, you’ve said it all.
Annika Bengtzon Crime Reporter: Paradise & Deadline
Maria Wern: Episodes 8 & 9
BBC: Planet Ant
1913: Seeds of Conflict
If the only thing aspiring mystery buffs know about Scandinavian writers is Stieg Larsson’s “Millennium trilogy,” which opened with “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo,” they owe it to themselves to widen their horizons with the many fine crime novels exported to the U.S. before and after that media sensation crashed upon our shores. For those of us allergic to ink and paper, however, the good news is that many of the best series have been translated into movies and television shows, now available here on Blu-ray and DVD. And, yes, they’re imminently binge-worthy. They include, of course, the Swedish/Danish- and English-language translation of Henning Mankell’s Kurt Wallander series; Nicholas Winding Refn’s “The Pusher Trilogy”; “The Bridge,” which made the transition from Copenhagen/Malmo to Juarez/El Paso; the Martin Beck mystery series, adapted from the novels of Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo; the “Easy Money Trilogy,” inspired by the novels of Jens Lapidus; and, from Norway, “A Somewhat Gentle Man,” with Stellan Skarsgård. The unsinkable Netflix/AMC series, “The Killing,” is a direct translation of the popular Scandinavian series “Forbrydelsen” (a.k.a., “The Crime”).
American crime series require of their women protagonists that they be drop-dead gorgeous, sexually active or sexually ambiguous, sharpshooters, feisty and either constantly worried about their children or worried that the expiration date on their eggs is drawing near. As compelling as some of the characters have become, it’s the rare female cop, medical examiner, judge or legislator who isn’t required to defer to a male superior. In the episodic Danish political drama, “Borgen,” currently shown on PBS outlets, Birgitte Nyborg (Sidse Babett Knudsen) unexpectedly becomes the first woman Prime Minister of Denmark. The job comes with a target on her back for all manner of corrupt politicians, business executives and special interests to take aim, while also worrying about a distressed daughter and failed marriage. Newly available through MHz Newtorks are chapters from the excellent Swedish series, “Annika Bengtzon Crime Reporter: Paradise & Deadline” and “Maria Wern: Episodes 8 & 9,” neither of which, as far as I can tell, have appeared on America television. Helena Bergström stars as crime reporter Bengtzon in two feature-length films, adapted from Liza Marklund’s best-selling literary series. The abrasive Bengtzon not only is required to investigate crimes, but combat virulent strains of male chauvinism rarely seen any more in films. In “Paradise,” a murder in Stockholm’s harbor leads her to widespread conspiracy involving a government-funded women’s shelter. In “Deadline,” she leads her paper’s investigation into a series of bombings, apparently targeting organizers of the country’s Olympics committee. Eva Röse returns as police inspector Maria Wern in two new movies based on the crime novels by Swedish author Anna Jansson. After the death of her husband, Maria moves to the picturesque Swedish island of Gotland with her two children. Wern is more agreeable than Bengtzon, but no less dedicated to solving crimes, especially the kind of murders one wouldn’t think possible in such an ideal location.
Perhaps you’ve heard a variation of the time-honored riddle, “What are the only things that would survive a nuclear bomb?” One answer suggests, “Cockroaches and a fruit cake. And the cockroaches would starve.” After watching the BBC’s amazing scientific report, “Planet Ant,” I’d be willing to wager that ants not only would be able to survive the blast, but they’d also figure out what to do with the leftover fruit cakes. We’ve all owned an Ant Farm, accidentally disturbed a colony of red ants or been tested on the information gleaned from an educational documentary in school. “Planet Ant” uses state-of-the-art technology to delve even deeper into the miracles of the ant realm, including how they appear to solve mathematical problems that defeat modern computers.
Given the likelihood that war is a more likely prospect in the Middle East than peace and cooler heads will never prevail, now would be a good time to take a step backward, back to a time when a palpable degree of harmony did exist in the region. PBS’ eye-opening “1913: Seeds of Conflict” examines a critical yet overlooked moment of transformation in Palestine, long before the Balfour Declaration and British Mandate, which was never going to work as intended. That’s because no one anticipated how events in other parts of the world, as well as intra-faith divisions, would impact the Jews, Arabs and Christians already co-existing at the fragile crossroads of three of the world’s great religions.