MCN Columnists
Gary Dretzka

By Gary Dretzka Dretzka@moviecitynews.com

The DVD Wrapup: Boulevard, D Train, Gemma Bovary, Good Kill, Felt, Aquarius, Haven and more

Boulevard: Blu-ray
The D Train: Blu-ray
For most of the last 20 years of Robin Williams’ life and career, his most objective fans came to agree with critics that his best work could be found in dramas and comedies in which he wasn’t required to act like a tragic clown or impersonate a cocaine-fueled Mork From Ork on talk shows. The Academy Award Williams received for his supporting role in Good Will Hunting was as much an acknowledgment of his ability to play against type as it was a reward for legitimately excellent work. (Burt Reynolds’ nomination for Boogie Nights, also in 1998, was considered in much the same light.) It would be followed by a series of roles in the movies and on television in which he played sociopaths and loners we couldn’t help but pity. With the exception of the Night at the Museum installments, few of his later movies attracted large audiences. Although serious personal problems and depression would finally take their toll on Williams, he was always a welcome guest on talk shows and supporting actor in other actors’ star vehicles. Depending on whom one believes, Boulevard was Williams’ final film. In it, he plays 60-year-old bank employee, Nolan Mack, whose low-key attention to detail at work belies an extremely messy private life. Just as Nolan’s about to be promoted to the position he probably deserved 20 years earlier, he finds himself in the kind of situation that could nullify all of the respect he’d earned in the interim, and possibly destroy his sexless marriage to Joy (Kathy Baker). One night, after making an excuse for leaving home, Nolan finds himself on a street where elderly johns cruise for barely legal male prostitutes. Accidentally on purpose, he picks up a handsome trick and takes him to a no-tell motel. Instead of having sex, Nolan only asks of Leo (Roberto Aguire) that he take off a few articles of clothing and share some therapeutic small talk. It’s at this moment that the closet in which he’s been living for an undetermined amount of time crashes in on the unprepossessing loan officer, threatening to crush Joy and alienate him from his closest friend (Bob Odenkirk). Although we’re given hope that Nolan’s fatherly advice and kindness will sink in, it’s likely that Leo will amount to a lost cause. Still, even in an 88-minute drama, there’s usually room for a miracle. In a very real sense, director Dito Montiel (A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints) and writer Douglas Soesbe (The Wrong Woman) have created a story whose closet-case dynamic lost its currency years ago, thanks to the evolution of Queer Cinema and the persistence of such indie distributors as Wolfe. Joy certainly suspected that her husband’s emotional absence at home was caused by something resembling a confusion of sexual identity and not from a lack of love for her. His closest male friend, a professor, is an understanding fellow, who wouldn’t have cared if Nolan had suddenly announced that he was grandmaster of this year’s Gay Pride Parade on Ork. Given time, the bank executive who recommended him for promotion, no matter his engrained mid-South prejudices, probably would have found more important things to worry about, as well. These glaring miscues, aside, Williams delivers an emotionally charged performance that nearly overcomes the anachronisms.

Ever since Jack Black broke into the spotlight some 15 years ago in HBO’s “Tenacious D: The Complete Master Works,” High Fidelity and Shallow Hal, the likable musician/actor has worked feverishly to remain in its direct glare. At 5-foot-6, it hasn’t always been easy to remain visible, but, in Hollywood, being short isn’t always the liability it is in, say, the NBA. Based on his oversized screen persona, alone, however, Black might have found a way to play in the same backcourt as “Spud” Webb or “Muggsy” Bogues, who are as short or shorter. Even without taking his lucrative voiceover work into consideration, it’s possible that, by now, he may have reached the point of overexposure and it’s beginning to backfire on him. His work alongside old pal Tim Robbins in HBO’s diplomatic sitcom, “The Brink,” demonstrates just how good he can be when the comic load is distributed equally. Robin Williams, Jim Carey and Bill Murray discovered at crucial turning points in their careers how difficult it can be to break out of the class-clown mold when your fans aren’t ready for it. Like Boulevard, the creation and release of The D Train might have made sense in the early- to mid-1990s, when Kevin Kline and Tom Selleck shocked moviegoers with a surprise kiss, in In & Out. Frank Oz and Paul Rudnick’s comedy was targeted for consumption by mainstream audiences who weren’t used to seeing gay characters that weren’t sexual predators, closet cases or AIDS casualties. It struck a chord with gay and straight audiences, in the same way as Andrew Mogel and Jarrad Paul’s The D Train might have, if it had come out in 1997. As it is, it grossed a pathetic $447,524 when it opened on last May on 1,009 screens. Black plays Daniel Landsman, the chairman of his high school class’ 20th reunion; husband to Stacey (the similarly ubiquitous Kathryn Hahn); and father to a teenage son who’s confused by the first unmistakable pangs of post-pubescent lust. In a truly unbelievable setup, Daniel convinces his boss (Jeffrey Tambor) at a computer business to take him along to Los Angeles on a sales trip, during which he hopes to convince a popular former classmate, Oliver Lawless (James Marsden), to come home for the reunion.

Having seen him on a national commercial as a spokes-model for a sunscreen manufacturer, Daniel assumes incorrectly that Oliver is swimming in money and will only need a bit of coaxing to be the reunion’s star attraction. Although they exist on opposite ends of the charisma spectrum, Oliver agrees to let Daniel’s company bankroll a night on the town. After experiencing Hollywood night life at its most decadent, he remains sufficiently star struck to readily accept the non-star’s hotel room overture. When morning arrives, they agree to treat the incident as if it were something as common as visit to the Chinese Theater and Walk of Fame. It begs a couple of questions that won’t be answered conclusively until moments before the closing credits roll and we’ve already endured the sight of Daniel making a complete fool of himself in spasms of unrequited jealousy. As great a comic actor as he is, though, Black is only able to keep the gag funny for a couple of minutes, before it collapses of its own weight. Except for a wickedly funny scene in which Oliver gives Daniel’s 14-year-son hideously bad advice on dating protocol, the cast of very good actor could sue Mogel and Paul for lack of creative support.

Gemma Bovery: Blu-ray
It seems like only yesterday when I reviewed the latest film adaptation of “Madame Bovary,” and, yet, it’s almost been a full month. Fortunately, almost all of the movies made from the malleable Flaubert classic have been extremely easy on the eyes, lush with beautiful French scenery and attractive actors playing interesting characters. Based on a graphic novel by Posy Simmonds, Gemma Bovary takes an altogether different approach to the same time-honored material. Set in a quaint village in Normandy, Anne Fontaine’s adaptation opens by introducing us to Martin, an obsessive Flaubert reader who left Paris seven years earlier with his wife to take over his father’s bakery. The hangdog romantic, Martin Joubert (Fabrice Luchini), can’t believe his good fortune when an English couple, Charlie and Gemma Bovery (Jason Flemyng, Gemma Arterton), moves into the vacant yuppie-bait property across the street from him. More closely resembling Roberto Benigni than Marcello Mastroianni, Jobert hopes to enchant Gemma with the heavenly aroma of baked goods. In his mind, it would make good on prophesy that he’s chosen to read into “Madame Bovary.” Every bit the friendly neighbor, Gemma allows Martin to get close enough to her to become intoxicated with her femininity, without also encouraging him to act on it. Like Emma, Gemma eases her boredom with her husband’s mundane pursuit of antiquities repair by entering into liaisons with younger, more delicious looking locals. Martin observes her pursuits from afar, knowing that something untoward is going to happen to someone very soon. Gemma Bovary may end in tragedy, but it retains enough of its graphic-novel edge to also provide some laughs and erotic sparks before the story is wrapped up in a satisfyingly literary fashion. The handsome Blu-ray presentation adds “In the Footsteps of Emma: The Making of ‘Gemma Bovery’”; “Master Class With Director Anne Fontaine”; and “From Page to Screen Graphic Novel Gallery.”

Good Kill: Blu-ray
The greatest philosophical debate of the 20th  Century involved the morality of dropping atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, when it might have been possible to negotiate a solution that didn’t require an invasion of the Japanese mainland, conceivably resulting in even more deaths, including those of Allied troops. From what we know now about the resolve of Japanese leaders to commit their countrymen to mass hara-kiri, rather than submit to unconditional surrender, that theory probably was accurate. It was the simultaneous invasion of Manchuria by 1.6 million Soviet troops and legitimate fear of a divided Japan that more likely sealed deal for the Allies. Then, too, evidence of the bombs’ ferocity might have convinced Stalin not risk a third world war by taking advantage of an Allied invasion of Japan to claim disputed territory nearer its borders. The term “collateral damage” wouldn’t come into favor militarily until the Vietnam War, when the Pentagon was required by the media to address criticism of the inordinate number of deaths and injuries to non-combatant adults and children. Publication of Kurt Vonnegut’s 1969 novel “Slaughterhouse-Five, or The Children’s Crusade: A Duty-Dance with Death,” and its subsequent adaptation into film, provided a disturbing reminder to Americans that the mass slaughter of innocents wasn’t limited to Hiroshima and Nagasaki or, for that matter, to German death camps and Japanese P.O.W. facilities. After limiting media access to the front lines of the first Gulf War, Pentagon spokesmen tantalized reporters and producers with images of precision-guided munitions getting the job done without endangering civilians. By buying into the concept of a “The Nintendo War,” the media was conned into ignoring collateral damage caused to people who had the misfortune of living near targets deemed strategic by the architects of Operations Desert Storm and Enduring Freedom. In fact, the number of pin-point attacks was dwarfed by the use of traditional “dumb bombs,” cluster bombs and daisy-cutters. The use of combat drones in our continuing “war on terrorism” once again demands that we question why advanced weaponry hasn’t been able to reduce collateral damage and the accidental targeting of innocents. Andrew Niccol’s Good Kill penetrating drama does exact that.

By setting his vastly under-distributed film in Nevada, thousands of miles from the killing fields of Pakistan, Afghanistan and Yemen, Niccol demands of viewers that they consider aspects of the war left untouched in American Sniper, Lone Survivor and the post-torture sequences in Zero Dark Thirty. Those more or less conventional boots-on-the-ground thrillers did well at the box office, unlike Good Kill, whose paltry $316,472 return from 143 screens came despite excellent reviews and similar number of confirmed kills to enemy combatants. Ethan Hawke plays Major Thomas Egan, an Air Force fighter pilot assigned to Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicle duty when demand for manned-aircraft missions dropped. Along with his veteran commander (Bruce Greenwood) and three other “pilots” – recruited because of their joystick skills, playing video games – Egan’s base of operation is an air-conditioned railroad freight container, filled with high-tech communications equipment and video monitors carrying images captured in real time by armed drones. The first kills we witness are of known terrorists, either outside buildings or in vehicles. None of the pilots are portrayed as being particularly bloodthirsty, even with their high-fives and “good kill” salutations. They try to avoid collateral damage and sound the alarm if a civilian enters the picture in the 8-10 seconds it takes to squeeze the trigger and observe the explosion caused by a precisely aimed missile. Forsaking their own comfort and sleep, the team provides cover for a patrol of soldiers in dire need of some shuteye halfway around the world. As soon as each shift is over, Egan hops into his muscle car and heads into Las Vegas for a beer or two. Rarely does he head straight home to his wife (January Jones) and kids. We’re given no reason to question the team’s devotion to duty or ethical integrity.

Niccol does a nice job establishing the juxtaposition between what the pilots do all day – or, to be more specific, where their attention is focused – and everyday life in a city, state and country whose citizens may assume that drones are controlled from ships or bases closer to the action. The media seems to pay attention only reporting the assassination of a U.S.-raised terrorist leader or the collateral damage includes children. It isn’t until the unit’s command is transferred to the CIA, in the form of the disembodied voice of Peter Coyote. Langley, as he’s known to unit members, demands in no uncertain terms that they now locate the targets he identifies and eliminate them with extreme prejudice. If non-combatants are in the vicinity when the terrorist is incinerated, it will be left to Allah to sort out the bodies. Neither is he concerned about how such an escalation might impact the team’s morale, religious beliefs and ethical code. It gets worse when Langley decides to borrow a page from the Iraqi insurgents’ handbook by ordering second attacks on targets where bodies are still being pulled from the rubble. While this goes against everything Egan and Airman Vera Suarez (Zoe Kravitz) entered the program to accomplish, their partners take the time-honored just-following-orders approach to collateral damage. Not surprisingly, by the time the movie’s dramatic ending rolls around, the collateral damage will include team members and their loved ones. Finally, the drone jockeys of Good Kill and Chris Kyle, in American Sniper, ask the same questions of themselves about their role in the war and the toll they’ve paid in a war that no longer has much to do with the events of 9/11. The Blu-ray includes “‘Good Kill’: Behind the Scenes.” Given recent events in ISIS-controlled Syria, I was left wondering why a well-directed drone – or three – couldn’t have prevented the destruction of ancient ruins at Palmyra.

Broken Horses
It isn’t often that a filmmaker as esteemed as Alfonso Cuaron (Gravity) turns up in a trailer to introduce a picture made by a virtually unknown writer-director representing a cinema as foreign to Americans as Bollywood. Her he is, however, on one of the promotional pieces that pops up on the IMDB.com page for Vidhu Vinod Chopra’s contemporary noir Western, Broken Horses. And, while the sub-genre’s trademark singing and dancing are nowhere to be found, the multilayered storytelling and fantasy elements are there in abundance. So, too, are the parched landscapes and otherworldly vistas that so distinguished the Spaghetti Westerns of the 1960s. What’s missing in Chopra’s first English-language, quasi-Hollywood venture is the narrative logic that American audiences come to expect from traditional Westerns and, therein, lies the rub. Anton Yelchin plays Jacob, a cherubic young man who left the badlands along the lawless U.S./Mexican border years earlier to pursue a career as a classical violinist in New York City. Now, Jacob has returned to his hometown to alert his simple-minded brother, Buddy (Chris Marquette), of his impending marriage, an event the younger sibling has anticipated in his mind since they were separated. The difference between the two brothers is as ludicrous as it profound. Ever since he was conned into settling a score for a local crime boss, Julius Hench (Vincent D’Onofrio), Buddy has been intermittently employed as an assassin for cross-border entrepreneurs. No sooner does Jacob show up at the house built for him by his brother than Julius devises a scheme to dispose of a powerful Mexican rival. And, yes, it requires Buddy’s assistance. A seemingly simple executive gets infinitely more complicated by the unexpected appearance of Jacob’s porcelain-doll fiancé, Vittoria (María Valverde), who hasn’t heard from him about an important job offer for several days. Besides making Buddy giddy with happiness, Vittoria’s surprise visit gives the ruthless Julius a bit more leverage to use against the brothers if they decide to split for New York. Broken Horses is best when Chopra focuses on the atmospherics, attitude and bad-ass action. I still don’t completely understand what compelled Cuaron to testify in behalf of Broken Horses, but neither do I have any reason to doubt his sincerity. A making-of featurette explains how Chopra was able add a taste of Bollywood to the production, without spoiling the neo-Western broth. If nothing else, it’s nice to watch D’Onofrio chewing up the scenery, again.

The Chambermaid
The Lesson
Film Movement delivers again, with a pair of obscure new releases from Europe that showcase independent filmmaking at its most inventive and unexpected. Typically, any film with “chambermaid” in the title is going to be full of kinky sex involving women in sexy uniforms, not at all suited for household chores, and the occasional whip. There’s some of that in Ingo Haeb’s inventively kinky, if inarguably strange The Chambermaid (a.k.a., “The Chambermaid Lynn”), in which Vicky Krieps plays a decidedly plain-looking and excruciatingly shy maid in a German hotel frequented by business travelers. Lynn has mental problems of undetermined origin that prevented her from working for a while. She owes her return to the job to a supervisor, who only expects the occasional snog. In return, he gets the services of one of the most thorough and competent maids imaginable. Lynn even has time left over from her chores to try on the lingerie of female guests and hide under the beds of gentlemen when one returns earlier than expected. It’s a habit she adopts for personal amusement during her free time, as well. One day, while prone under king-size mattress, a male guest returns with a dominatrix, Chiara (Lena Lauzemis). Her androgynous look, even in the reflection provided by a mirror, so enchants the maid that she calls a number left behind in the room and books a date. The bond that develops between these two very different women is based on mutual need, as well as the emptiness at the core of their respective professions. Needless to say, The Chambermaid isn’t for everyone, if only because the pacing is resolutely patient and the sexuality isn’t intended for the titillation of male viewers. As gimmicks go, however, it’s not bad. As usual, the Film Movement package includes an interesting short film.

From Bulgaria comes Kristina Grozeva and Petar Valchanov’s fable about what happens when a corrupted seed is planted in fertile ground and it grows into a tree that’s never as sturdy as it seems. In The Lesson, an extremely fragile looking teacher, Nadezhda (Margita Gosheva), starts her day with one small problem to mend, but, by its end, her dilemma has become something far more vexing. One of her pupils has stolen money from the knapsack of another child, but no one will ‘fess up to it. Nade will continue to test the students’ integrity, even as she’s required to deal with a financial mess of great significance caused by her irresponsible husband. Without her knowledge, he’s used money intended to pay the mortgage to buy and repair a bus he hopes to turn over for quick cash, if only he weren’t such a lousy mechanic. In fact, he’s missed enough payments to put the house in immediate risk of foreclosure. To come up with the money, Nade eventually will be reduced to begging, borrowing and, if necessary, stealing it. Meanwhile, a trap she’s set to reveal the thief among her students backfires on her, just as her plans to save her home begins to crumble at the most inconvenient time possible. It is well worth the investment in time it takes to discover if justice is served, in both cases, without thoroughly corrupting Neda.

Wolf Warrior: Blu-ray
Redeemer: Blu-ray
It takes a while before Wolf Warrior reveals itself to be the kind of post-Rambo recruitment tool for Special Forces wannabes as such film franchises as Delta Force, Sniper and Missing in Action. The rub here, however, comes in knowing that any recruiting to be done after watching Wolf Warrior will already have been done in China, where it was a big hit. American audiences must decide how good they’ll feel after cheering on a crack unit of People’s Liberation Army commandoes as they defend the PRC against a team of foreign mercenaries, led by a Brit with the unlikely name of Tom Cat. In his second test as a director, Beijing-born action star Wu Jing (Legendary Assassin) has assigned himself to the role of marksman Sergeant Leng Feng. Feng was jailed for disobeying an order in an operation designed to eliminate a drug lord hiding in a Southeast Asian jungle. While the mission was successful, Feng was thrown in jail for disobeying an order. When the drug lord’s successors unwisely decide to take their revenge during a training exercise, Feng is freed from prison to join the elite Wolf Warriors, a unit even CGI-animated wolves are given reason to dread. In an interesting twist, Yu Nan (The Expendables 2) plays the formidable female captain of the unit, who corresponds with her fighters via headphones from her all-seeing monitors at headquarters. It shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone familiar with modern Chinese cinema that there’s action aplenty – choreographed by Nicky Li Chung Chi (Rush Hour) – mostly of the jungle warfare variety, yet little need to justify narrative inconsistencies. Also noteworthy is the show of force put on by the Chinese military in support of the production. The Blu-ray offers the usual array of making-of assets.

From Chile, the 88-minute-long action flick Redeemer took me back to the early days of the Hong Kong martial-arts boom, when all an audience required of a movie was a hero, an evil crimelord and a small army of nunchaku-waving stiffs for the protagonist to destroy before eliminating the threat to mankind. In a sense, that’s all that has ever been required of a chop-socky picture in the post-Bruce Lee era. Somewhere along the way, however, audiences began to demand higher production values and technological proficiency, recognizable storylines, more charismatic protagonists and contemporary settings. Co-written and directed by genre specialist Ernesto Díaz Espinoza (Mandrill), all we’re given in the no-budget Redeemer is a human killing machine turned God-fearing vigilante, Pardo (Marko Zaror); a ruthless gringo druglord (Noah Segan); and a dozen or so cartel stooges for Pardo to demolish before eliminating the threat to mankind. The sole concession to plot embellishment is Pardo’s demand that his potential victims seek redemption before the lord to prevent their demise. They never do, though. That’s it. On the plus side, Zaror (Machete Kills) performs as advertised and the action is non-stop. There also are a few deleted scenes and a making-of featurette.

Felt
Unless one is familiar with performance art as a medium for self-expression, most of what passes for it in Felt will look pretty ridiculous. Inspired by the costume art and personal experiences of Amy Everson, Jason Banker’s follow-up to the award-winning Toad Road decries the horror genre’s “rape culture” and reliance on rape/revenge flicks. Playing a version of herself, Everson is struggling to cope not only with past sexual trauma, but also what she considers to be the daily aggressions of a male-dominated society. Amy wears a felt costume that makes her look like a robot in pajamas and a hoodie, except for the exaggerated male genitalia protruding from its fly. (There are other, less bizarre costumes, but none so on-the-nose as a militantly “feminist” statement.) Even Amy’s friends recognize how close to the edge she’s come, as she seeks shelter in the forest and appears to have found companionship with someone (Kentucker Audley), who theoretically, at least, represents the rape culture. Even as we wish them both the best, Amy goes off the deep end for good. Felt is as disturbing a movie as I’ve come across in a long time and I’ve seen a lot of straight-to-DVD, do-it-yourself genre flicks. This one, however, is informed by the personal life of a well-regarded experimental artist and up-and-coming writer/director. It’s possible that Felt was a homework assignment from Everson’s shrink.

Dark Star: H.R. Giger’s World   
The name, H.R. Giger, might not ring a bell for newcomers to the horror/sci-fi genre, but it’s the rare buff who hasn’t come face-to-face with one or more of his horror-erotic nightmares. Before his death last year, at 74, the Swiss artist was known in and outside the genre for his surrealistic paintings, censored album covers and the creatures borrowed by Ridley Scott for the Alien franchise. His self-described “biomechanical” style often merged guns and other weaponry with the sex/birth/death cycle of humans and other of his humanoid creatures. Although he fits squarely within the borders of 20th Century surrealism, Belinda Sallin’s terrific documentary portrait, Dark Star: H.R. Giger’s World, explores the influence this one-off artist had on rock musicians, production designers, sculptors, interior decorators, video game creators and tattoo artists throughout a career that rocked the counterculture in the same way that Ralph Steadman’s ink-blotch sketches did through exposure in Rolling Stone magazine. Because he suffered from night terrors, he kept an artist’s pad near his bed to illustrate his nightmares, at least one of which is said to have influenced the monsters in Aliens. Giger wasn’t strictly a recluse, but he feared flying and rarely left Switzerland. Sallin was able to spend a considerable amount of time inside Giger’s home, which could fill a season’s worth “Hoarders” episodes, and his fanciful mountain retreat. We meet friends, lovers and curators, along with the occasional death-metal musician whose body has been transformed into a living canvas for Giger’s art.

The Editor: Blu-ray
Morituris: Legions of the Dead: Blu-ray
Extinction
Army of Frankensteins
Lost After Dark: Blu-ray
Mystery Science Theater 3000: Volume 1
It isn’t as easy to parody a genre of films that so frequently appeared to be playing fast and loose with its own tropes and conventions. At first glance, the giallo titles exported from Italy in the 1970-80s would seem to be as easy to tweak as American beach-party and creature features from the 1960s. The degree of difficulty associated with sending up such grandmasters as Dario Bava and Dario Argento has kept a flood of imitators from inundating the straight-to-DVD market. It takes real skill to keep a gag fresh for a minimum of 90 minutes. Even then, a working knowledge of giallo – now made easier to achieve through streaming sites – is required to recognize the references when they appear on screen. Even though Astron-6’s latest “homage to obscure VHS movies of the ’80s” tais one of the few I’ve seen that accurately captures the full flavor, as well as the nuances, of giallo, I think that The Editor can stand on its own merits as a horror flick not limited to one subgenre. There are enough nods to memorable horror movies (“The Crawling Hand”) and episodes of classic TV anthology series – “Night Gallery,” “The Twilight Zone,” “Alfred Hitchcock Presents,” “Boris Karloff’s Thriller,” “The Outer Limits” – to keep American buffs happy. Here, co-writer/director Adam Brooks plays Rey Ciso, once acknowledged to be the greatest film editor in the business. Since a terrible accident left him with four wooden fingers on his right hand, Ciso’s been reduced to cutting bottom-of-the-barrel genre fare. The real fun for viewers involves separating the grisly murders that occur on screen, with those that happen off screen, and others perpetrated in classic giallos. The list of likely culprits begins with the bitter wooden-fingered editor, but includes nearly everyone who could be seen in a frame from the movies he cut. In addition to the members of the Astron-6 repertory company, The Editor features dead-on performances by Udu Kier (Blood for Dracula), Paz de la Huerta (Nurse 3D), Laurence R. Harvey (The Human Centipede II: Full Sequence) Tristan Risk (House of Manson), Samantha Hill (Bad Meat) and Brent Neale (Father’s Day). The Blu-ray adds commentary with Brooks and fellow Astron-6 stalwarts Connor Sweeney and Matt Kennedy; deleted scenes; the “Making Movies Used to Be Fun” featurette, with some funny interviews with the stars; music and poster featurettes; and an Astron-6 film festival introduction.

Even if Raffaele Picchio’s morbidly audacious Morituris: Legions of the Dead isn’t a homage to giallo, or a parody, it owes its very being to such past masters of extreme Italian horror and violent crime as Lucio Fulci and Fernando Di Leo. Based on a horrifying rape, torture and murder (dubbed “Massacro del Circeo”) that stunned the nation in 1975, Morituris describes what happens when two pretty Romanian girls accept a ride to a rave from three charming sociopaths. They think nothing of stopping in the dead of night for pit stop in a forest, where the guys immediately begin to torture and rape them. It is the same place where, years earlier, a family stopped for a picnic – observed through found film footage shown in the opening scene – but, instead, became the victims of a mysterious slaughter. If they had been able to read the Latin etchings on the stones scattered around the picnic ground, they might have realized they were trespassing on an ancient grave yard and split immediately thereafter. Arriving at night, the trio of sadists couldn’t see the stones scattered around them. Such trespassing pisses off the zombie gladiators who also inhabit the dense forest. What follows is as nasty a depiction of ritualistic carnage as I’ve seen in a long time and it’s guaranteed to offend a large percentage of its target audience. Anyone not disturbed by the final scene ought to check himself into a facility for mental health before he hurts someone. Think I’m kidding? Check out the trailers on the Internet.

Miguel Ángel Vivas’s Extinction puts an entirely different spin on the zombie-apocalypse genre, by staging it somewhere in the land of the frozen tundra, where the undead have adapted to the environment in the same way as Arctic foxes and polar bears. Somehow, they’re also several times more active than their counterparts in more temperate climes. Patrick (Matthew Fox), Jack (Jeffrey Donovan) and his daughter Lu (Quinn McColgan) have outlasted the first zombie takeover by shutting themselves off in the snowbound town of Harmony. The two men have maintained a serious grudge against each other for nine years, so their homes are separated by tall chain fences and a road to nowhere. The fences are designed to keep the zombies from climbing over or digging under them. After an absence of several years of activity, during which the creatures evolved at an abnormally rapid pace, they’ve returned to Harmony to finish the job. And, yes, I know that zombies aren’t known for their evolutionary capabilities. Neither are the undead known for adapting to the dominant hue of their environment, unless there are chameleon zombies. For the most part, though. Because their eyesight hasn’t kept up with their senses of touch and sound, the humans have at least one chink in their armor to exploit. Alerted to other survivors by short-wave radio, they discover a young woman (Clara Lago) who’s been hiding out for years, as well. Her appearance encourages them to break free from Harmony and explore the southern regions. It’s easier said than done.

Ryan Bellgardt’s truly crazy Army of Frankensteins also an adds an interesting new twist to an ancient trope, by pitting squadrons of the mad doctor’s monsters against each other in the American Civil War.  Given that the first edition of Mary Shelley’s incredibly influential novel was published in 1818, anonymously, I suppose it might have been possible for Victor Frankenstein to have mass produced a sufficient number of his “modern Prometheus” to fill a battlefield an ocean’s distance from his German laboratory. Stranger things have happened, I suppose. Anticipating skepticism on the part of viewers, Bellgardt conceived a scenario in which his 21st Century protagonist, Alan Jones (Jordan Farris), finds himself in the laboratory of a mad scientist attempting to re-animate the original creature. This time, though, the experimentation creates a hole in the time/space continuum, through which “an army’s worth of the infamous creatures from hundreds of parallel universes” converge on opposite sides a Civil War battlefield. Jones’ excellent adventure isn’t confined to the frontlines, though, and room is made for more melodramatic material on the fringes. I wondering if Bellgardt was thinking of Back to the Future when he sat down to write Army of Frankensteins. If so, he succeeds in re-creating a similar story without the advantage of a studio budget and fully equipped makeup-effects department.

Lost After Dark is for diehard fans of 1970-80s slasher films in which a reasonably diverse group of teenagers is preyed upon by a depraved freak of nature. The cast of characters here includes Adrienne (Kendra Timmins), a straight-A student; her quarterback crush, Sean (Justin Kelly); her all-American best friend, Jamier (Elise Gatien); Goth girl, Marilyn (Eve Harlow); bitchy blond, Heather (Lanie McAuley) and her douche-y boyfriend, Johnny (Alexander Calvert); token black dude, Wes (Stephan James); sex-starved fatso stoner, Tobe (Jesse Camacho); the ex-marine vice principal, Mr. C (Robert Patrick); and cannibal hillbilly killer, Junior Joad (Mark Wiebe). Anything I missed? Oh, yeah, in order to fumble their way into the legendary fiend’s killing ground, one of the teens hotwires a school bus. I don’t know if cinematographer Curtis Petersen was required to use a camera that hasn’t been cleaned since 1984 – the year Lost After Dark is set — but much of what happens in it is too dark to discern, even on Blu-ray. The smaller the screen, the less likely it will be to see. So, I don’t advise downloading it to one’s iPhone or Android.

Some collectors of “Mystery Science Theater 3000” compilations will have their prayers answered with the re-release of the turkeys and bonus material contained in “Volume 1.” The movies embody the spirit of the original “MST3K” mission, which was to determine the feasibility of using really bad B-movies against an enemy force. To do so, Dr. Clayton Forrester and Dr. Laurence Erhardt, launch Joel Robinson, a janitor working for Gizmonic Institute, into space and force him to watch such movies as Catalina Caper, The Creeping Terror, Bloodlust and The Skydivers. None of the titles has any redeeming social or artistic value, except for showcasing some momentarily popular dances performed by young adult women in bikinis. While the movies and interstitial entertainment in “Volume 1” aren’t connected in linear order, they all come from the archives of Crown International Pictures, whose story is told in the bonus material. The only title here that comes close to having historical value is Catalina Caper, in which some college guys, including Tommy Kirk (The Shaggy Dog), set off from San Pedro to enjoy a bit of island sunshine, scuba diving, and beach “bunnies,” while another boy’s con-artist parents scheme to sell a stolen scroll. Lyle Waggoner also plays a prominent role, as do Little Richard, The Cascades, and Carol Connors, who provide musical diversions.

The Harvest: Blu-ray
Backcountry: Blu-ray
It’s been a long time between feature films for John McNaughton, who, 30 years ago, made one of the most notorious movies in the history of any genre. Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer is still a movie that, once seen, could influence a young filmmaker’s career. He’s directed some excellent films and television shows since then — Mad Dog and Glory, Normal Life, Wild Things, five episodes of “Homicide: Life on the Street” – but, somewhere along the line, he must have stepped on someone’s toes. As is amply demonstrated in The Harvest, McNaughton still knows how to make a movie that keeps audiences on the edge of their collective seats. And, he manages to do so based on a slow-burn formula that puts a great deal of weight on the actors to keep viewers hanging on for the big reveal. Here, that responsibility falls largely on the broad shoulders of Samantha Morton, Michael Shannon, Natasha Calis and Charlie Tahan, with an assist from Peter Fonda and Leslie Lyles. Morton and Shannon portray the parents of Andy, a bed-ridden boy who dreams of someday being able to play baseball. His mother maintains a nearly constant vigil to ensure Andy has no contact with the outside world, no matter if it’s in the human or bacterial form. Along comes a slightly older new neighbor, Maryann, who lives with her grandparents and feels as trapped in her loneliness as Andy is in his. After secretly insinuating herself into the boy’s life and opening up his horizons a bit, his mother forbids her to come in contact with him. What could possibly be the reason for smothering her son to such a degree? All is revealed in the final reel, when everything we think we know about the family is turned upside down. The Harvest may not equal “Henry” as stomach-churning entertainment, but it would be difficult to find parents as creepy as those played by Morton and Shannon. Commentary is provided by McNaughton and producer Steven A. Jones

Adam MacDonald’s debut feature, Backcountry, keeps viewers waiting for nearly 50 of its 92 minutes to reveal the catalyst for the encroaching dread felt by a pair of weekend campers who think they know where they’re going, but are actually quite lost in the Canadian wilderness. Of course, a quick glance at the cover will reveal the nature of the beast stalking Alex (Jeff Roop) and Jenn (Missy Peregrym). Wisely, though, MacDonald wastes little time convincing us that dangers of a more human variety lurk in the darkness. There’s no need to betray any more of the plot, which picks up a lot of steam in a short time. The Scream Factory Blu-ray adds commentary with MacDonald, Peregrym and Roop; a behind-the-scenes featurette; and stills gallery.

The Dempsey Sisters
Urban rom/dram/com specialist Roger Melvin’s latest feel-good movie for African-American audiences – mostly of the female persuasion – is the Dove-approved Dempsey Sisters. It tells the story of a group talented siblings (and an in-law) who share the same dream of success, but lack the confidence to pull it off. Denyce Lawton, Teairra Mari and Cymphonique Miller play Deena, Sheena and Tina, singing sisters who are pushed by circumstances to finally stop sweating the small stuff and get their act together, literally. Fortuitously, older brother Thad (Antwon Tanner) returns to the familial fold in time to supply the push. First, though, he must find a way to convince the ladies that his new wife (Valarie Pettiford) isn’t trying to get between them and Thad. By the time the melodrama begins to get too thick, the movie’s musical motor kicks in.

7 Minutes: Blu-ray
Checkmate
There’s an entire sub-genre of crime pictures dedicated to thrillers in which wannabe outlaws are so inept that you wonder how they found their way out of their mother’s birth canal, without choking on the crack smoke or drowning in spilled vodka. There’s no reason to trace the lineage beyond Reservoir Dogs and Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, because Quentin Tarantino and Guy Ritchie practically wrote the book on wildly dysfunctional criminals. The art of merging comedy, drama, music and time-shifting was something new in the 1990s, but its freshness wouldn’t last for long. When the formula works, however, as it almost does in 7 Minutes, it’s possible to enjoy even the dumbest of dumb-criminal flicks, despite themselves. First-time writer/director Jay Martin appears to have been blessed with an innate sense of pacing, because 7 Minutes never stops moving. It may not always know where it’s going, but, because we already know that the heist is going to end badly, the details don’t much matter. It doesn’t take long for a twentysomething ex-con to be talked into joining his high school buddies in a get-rich-quick drug deal. The trouble begins when the driver mistakes the patrol car in his rear-view mirror for a clear-and-present danger, instead of a mode of transportation for a cop looking for a place to eat. Fearing that the bag full of MDHD they’re carrying would buy him a one-way ticket back to prison, he decides to flush it down a toilet. Knowing that the drug dealer isn’t likely to forgive a $48,000 debt, they now must figure out a way to come up with the bread in 72 hours. We know from Minute One that the place they pick to rob is a bank whose manager will almost immediately recognize the face behind one of the masks. Luke Mitchell, Jason Ritter and Zane Holtz are credible as the would-be robbers, as is a double-crosser played by Kevin Gage. Kris Kristofferson is mentioned in the list of credits, even though his contribution amounts to about three minutes of hard glaring at the released con.

It took three first-time writers to device a script that overflows with ambition, but lacks anything resembling a coherent plot. Checkmate is the kind action-for-action’s-sake thriller that inspires viewers to believe they could write and direct a better version of the same movie with their hands tied behind their backs. Only one in 10,000 probably could accomplish such a thing, but most amateur critics would have no trouble spotting the holes through which they could drive a fleet of trucks. Because Checkmate isn’t the first rodeo for director Timothy Bass Woodward Jr. (SWAT: Unit 887), we can only guess at the reasons he didn’t spot them, himself. All of the characters are linked in one way or another to a bank heist taking place in an enormous bank in downtown Somewhere USA. As near as I can figure, two separate gangs have descended on the bank at precisely the same time. One of the gang leaders is a loudmouthed bigot, who appears to be overdosing on steroids before our eyes, while the other is a black guy who thinks his ass is being covered by a van full of doofuses with automatic weapons. (One stands on top of a building, shooting at police, without even once seeking cover.) His treatment of the hostages, including a pregnant Mischa Barton, would embarrass even Alvin “Creepy” Karpis, who ran with Ma Barker and, while in prison, taught Charles Manson how to play the guitar. The cops are alerted to the robbery almost before the crooks can figure out what the other gang is doing there. Meanwhile, what’s happening downtown appears to have some strategic relationship to a chess game being played in a nearby vault between Lucifer (Vinnie Jones) and the Hebrew God, Elohim (Danny Glover), who’s accompanied by a hot female samurai. I kid you, not. Also participating are Sean Astin, Michael Pare, Johnny Messner, Katrina Law, Willa Ford, Antwon Tanner and David Chisum.

TV-to-DVD
NBC: Aquarius: Blu-ray
Spike TV: I Am Dale Earnhardt
BBC: Atlantis: Season Two Part Two: Blu-ray
Haven: Season 5, Vol. 1: Blu-ray
Hallmark: When Calls The Heart: Heart And Home
Hill Street Blues: Season Six
Nickelodeon: Out of the Vault Halloween Collection
While binging on NBC’s curiously addictive “Aquarius: The Complete First Season” on Blu-ray, I frequently wondered if the officials at Corcoran State Prison – Charles Manson’s longtime home — had allowed inmates to watch the show when it aired this summer. The opportunity to see how the facility’s most notorious resident ended up in stir probably would have kept the inmates quiet for an hour or so. Now that’s it’s available in an uncensored version, with extended episodes, it’s a question that begs to be asked once again. (Unlike the vast majority of “uncensored” TV series transferred to video, “Aquarius” adds partial, unblurred nudity and coarse language. None of it is any more gratuitous than the average episode of “Masters of Sex” on Showtime.) The first-season episodes follow Manson and his Family members as they begin to lay down their roots in Los Angeles, circa 1967, two years before the killing spree that led to life sentences for several of the characters we meet here. The hyper-charismatic career criminal has already accumulated a harem of starry-eyed flower children and posse of violence-prone men. The show also posits that Manson had extended his grasp into the corporate offices of L.A., by doing dirty work for hypocritical executives, some of whom are linked to Richard Nixon’s comeback campaign. Manson, who started his criminal life as a pimp, traded the sexual favors of his followers for entrée into the city’s pop-music establishment. He was every bit as obsessed with becoming a rock superstar as the Family members are devoted to helping Manson succeed. If that was all “Aquarius” was about, it would have become tiresome after the first episode. Instead, writer John McNamara (“In Plain Sight”) hooks us by showing us how the daughter of wealthy Republican parents. Emma Karn (Emma Dumont), allows herself to become one of Charlie’s most fervent devotees. Frantic, Emma’s mother calls on an old lover, homicide detective Sam Hodiak (David Duchovny), to help track her down. In turn, Hodiak is allowed to recruit a shaggy undercover cop, Brian Shafe (Grey Damon) to shine light into corners unavailable to the flat-topped detective. Through Hodiak and Shafe, viewers are provided a first-hand look at a LAPD, which, at the time, was a proto-fascist force of militaristic bigots. Shafe is far more liberal on most issues than Hodiak, who’s only slightly more progressive than the rest of force. Of course, he’s also a borderline alcoholic. In 1967, Los Angeles was a metropolis coming apart at its seams, with its segregated police force the largest target available to activists. The storylines also work in well-considered looks at the Vietnam War, the peace movement and Black Panthers. Not all of it will ring true to Boomers who witnessed the turmoil at ground level, but, by and large, the clichés, archetypes and stereotypical portrayals are close enough to pass muster. The summer startup series already has been renewed for a second season. The Blu-ray adds the backgrounder, “First Look: Aquarius,” and webisodes.

The Spike TV bio-doc, “I Am Dale Earnhardt” may not qualify as a warts-and-all portrait of a man who truly was a racing legend, but it digs far enough below the surface of that legend to demonstrate what made him someone NASCAR fans either loved or loathed. Not only was he the son of one of the original good-ol’-boy drivers, but he left behind a son to carry on the racing line. Known as the

“The Intimidator” for reasons even a Prius owner could understand, it was just this all-or-nothing attitude that made a valuable commodity for sponsors and souvenir hawkers, alike. That fact that Earnhardt died with his boots on, as it were, on the final lap of the 2001 Daytona 500 seemed only appropriate for some who lived so close to the edge. The DVD adds plenty of short featurettes culled from the NASCAR-produced film.

I don’t know how the BBC determined it would divide the second season of its popular fantasy/adventure series into two parts and not consider the second half of the second season worthy of being designated Season Three. The halves were separated by four months, while the 13 episodes that comprised Season One of “Atlantis” were shown back-to-back. So it is that “Atlantis: Season Two Part Two” contains the same number of episodes – six – in “Atlantis: Season Two Part One.” The pricing doesn’t favor the consumer, but what else is new? As the stanza begins, Pasiphae is determined to stop Jason’s wedding to Ariadne, no matter the cost. With Jason’s execution imminent, Hercules mounts an escape attempt, which, itself, is less than successful. Can Atlantis be saved? Probably not, because a Season Three isn’t likely to be green-lit.

Likewise, for no discernable reason, Season Five of Syfy’s supernatural soap opera, “Haven,” has been divided into two separate halves. The second and probably final series of episodes begins in October. Inspired by one of the million stories written by Stephen King, “Haven” is populated with characters who either struggle with supernatural afflictions or protect the town from the effects of those afflictions. Like “Dallas,” “Beverly Hills 90210” and every other prime-time soap worth its salt, the complexity of the storylines grows exponentially with each successive year. The supernatural elements, when combined with traditional issues involving relationships, crime, personal conflicts and health, almost demand binge viewing of previous seasons. Emily Rose, Lucas Bryant and Eric Balfour lead an attractive cast.

The latest episode culled from Hallmark’s frontier drama, “When Calls the Heart,” is “Heart and Home.” In it, Jack and Elizabeth rush back to Hamilton after learning that his brother, Tom, was involved in an automobile accident, with sister, Julie. Hidden details of that relationship put Jack and Elizabeth at odds with their families and with each other. Their trip is further complicated when Tom and Julie attempt to run off together (via train this time) and Elizabeth’s father asks the Mountie to find Julie.

In the sixth season of “Hill Street Blues,” Patsy Mayo (Mimi Kuzyk), Det. Harry Garibaldi (Ken Olin), Lt. Ray Calletano (René Enríquez), Fay Furillo (Barbara Bosson) and Officer Leo Schnitz (Robert Hirschfeld) were all phased out at the start of the season, and Joe Coffey (Ed Marinaro) left near the end. The sole addition was Lt. Norman Buntz, played Dennis Franz, who had played a different character, Det. Sal Benedetto, in several episodes of Season Three. Peter Jurasik played a new recurring character, Sid the Snitch, who was often teamed with Buntz. Careful observers might notice the impact of new show-runners.

Ready or not, the Halloween DVD season has begun in earnest, with Nickelodeon’s “Out of the Vault: Halloween” the first collection of themed content out of the gate. It features 16 vintage Nicktoons episodes, pulled from five different series. The running time is a generous 3½ hours.

Sexual Assault at a Hotel
42nd Street Forever: The Peep Show Collection Vol. 12
The latest package of vintage porn from Image includes the latest installment in a series of 8mm shorts, re-mastered from original film prints, and featuring such rising stars as Desiree Cousteau, Amber Hunt, Sharon Kane and Hershel Savage. 42nd Street Forever: The Peep Show Collection Vol. 12 adds several color loops, bringing us to the point where features are eclipsing the peep shows for business. Liner notes are provided by  Cinema Sewer editor Robin Bougie.

As more women and coupes became drawn to adult films, rape fantasies quickly disappeared from the menu of themes being rented at the local video store. Movies that would be considered degrading to American women remained a staple of Japanese erotica for a much longer time. Sexual Assault at a Hotel is representative of the subgenre in that painfully shy college student is sexually awakened through a series of assaults with the kind of men who grope women on crowded Tokyo subway trains and get their kicks sneaking up on women and pulling up their skirts. Liner notes from Japanese film scholar Jasper Sharp attempt to explain the fetish for Western audiences.

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This is probably going to sound petty, but Martin Scorsese insisting that critics see his film in theaters even though it’s going straight to Netflix and then not screening it in most American cities was a watershed moment for me in this theatrical versus streaming debate.

I completely respect when a filmmaker insists that their movie is meant to be seen in the theater, but the thing is, you got to actually make it possible to see it in the theater. Some movies may be too small for that, and that’s totally OK.

When your movie is largely financed by a streaming service and is going to appear on that streaming service instantly, I don’t really see the point of pretending that it’s a theatrical film. It just seems like we are needlessly indulging some kind of personal fantasy.

I don’t think that making a feature film length production that is going to go straight to a video platform is some sort of “step down.“ I really don’t. Theatrical exhibition as we know it is dying off anyway, for a variety of reasons.

I should clarify myself because this thread is already being misconstrued — I’m talking about how the movie is screened in advance. If it’s going straight to Netflix, why the ritual of demanding people see it in the theater?

There used to be a category that everyone recognized called “TV movie” or “made for television movie” and even though a lot of filmmakers considered that déclassé, it seems to me that probably 90% of feature films fit that description now.

Atlantis has mostly sunk into the ocean, only a few tower spires remain above the waterline, and I’m increasingly at peace with that, because it seems to be what the industry and much of the audience wants. We live in an age of convenience and information control.

Only a very elite group of filmmakers is still allowed to make movies “for theaters“ and actually have them seen and judged that way on a wide scale. Even platform releasing seems to be somewhat endangered. It can’t be fought. It has to be accepted.

9. Addendum: I’ve been informed that it wasn’t Scorsese who requested that the Bob Dylan documentary only be screened for critics in theaters, but a Netflix representative indicated the opposite to me, so I just don’t know what to believe.

It’s actually OK if your film is not eligible for an Oscar — we have a thing called the Emmys. A lot of this anxiety is just a holdover from the days when television was considered culturally inferior to theatrical feature films. Everybody needs to just get over it.

In another 10 to 20 years they’re probably going to merge the Emmys in the Oscars into one program anyway, maybe they’ll call it the Contentys.

“One of the fun things about seeing the new Quentin Tarantino film three months early in Cannes (did I mention this?) is that I know exactly why it’s going to make some people furious, and thus I have time to steel myself for the takes.

Back in July 2017, when it was revealed that Tarantino’s next project was connected to the Manson Family murders, it was condemned in some quarters as an insulting and exploitative stunt. We usually require at least a fig-leaf of compassion for the victims in true-crime adaptations, and even Tarantino partisans like myself – I don’t think he’s made a bad film yet – found ourselves wondering how he might square his more outré stylistic impulses with the depiction of a real mass murder in which five people and one unborn child lost their lives.

After all, it’s one thing to slice off with gusto a fictional policeman’s ear; it’s quite another to linger over the gory details of a massacre that took place within living memory, and which still carries a dread historical significance.

In her essay The White Album, Joan Didion wrote: “Many people I know in Los Angeles believe that the Sixties ended abruptly on August 9, 1969, ended at the exact moment when word of the murders on Cielo Drive traveled like brushfire through the community, and in a sense this is true.”

Early in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, as Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt’s characters drive up the hill towards Leo’s bachelor pad, the camera cranes up gently to reveal a street sign: Cielo Drive. Tarantino understands how charged that name is; he can hear the Molotov cocktails clinking as he shoulders the crate.

As you may have read in the reviews from Cannes, much of the film is taken up with following DiCaprio and Pitt’s characters – a fading TV actor and his long-serving stunt double – as they amusingly go about their lives in Los Angeles, while Margot Robbie’s Sharon Tate is a relatively minor presence. But the spectre of the murders is just over the horizon, and when the night of the 9th finally arrives, you feel the mood in the cinema shift.

No spoilers whatsoever about what transpires on screen. But in the audience, as it became clear how Tarantino was going to handle this extraordinarily loaded moment, the room soured and split, like a pan of cream left too long on the hob. I craned in, amazed, but felt the person beside me recoil in either dismay or disgust.

Two weeks on, I’m convinced that the scene is the boldest and most graphically violent of Tarantino’s career – I had to shield my eyes at one point, found myself involuntarily groaning “oh no” at another – and a dead cert for the most controversial. People will be outraged by it, and with good reason. But in a strange and brilliant way, it takes Didion’s death-of-the-Sixties observation and pushes it through a hellfire-hot catharsis.

Hollywood summoned up this horror, the film seems to be saying, and now it’s Hollywood’s turn to exorcise it. I can’t wait until the release in August, when we can finally talk about why.

~ Robbie Collin