MCN Columnists
Gary Dretzka

By Gary Dretzka Dretzka@moviecitynews.com

The DVD Wrapup: Agnes Varda, Macbeth, Coming Home, Finding Gaston and more

Jane B. Par Agnès V./Kung-Fu Master: Blu-ray
At 87, the much celebrated European filmmaker Agnès Varda doesn’t show any signs of slowing down. Aligned with the French New Wave, her early work not only pre-dated the movement and but also influenced its more identifiable practitioners. If she isn’t as well-known as André Bazin, Jean-Luc Godard, François Truffaut, Éric Rohmer, Claude Chabrol, Jacques Rivette and her future husband, Jacques Demy, it’s because of her desire to make films that didn’t focus on established traditions or classical standards. So it took longer for American audiences to warm to her singular vision and experimentation. Being a woman in an industry dominated by men couldn’t have helped her chances for commercial success, either. Varda also has remained active as a creator of stylized documentaries, a judge at prestigious festivals and frequent recipient of honorary awards. Cinelicious Pics has done the arthouse crowd a huge favor by releasing a double feature of rarely seen films Varda made concurrently with Jane Birkin in the mid-1980s: Jane B. Par Agnès V. and Kung-Fu Master (a.k.a., “Le Petit amour”). Varda has described the former as a collaborative portrait of a woman at 40. Although a huge star and multitalented celebrity in Europe, Birkin probably is best known here for being, 1) one of two topless nymphets who invade David Hemmings’ photo studio in “Blow-Up” and, 2) the mother of actress Charlotte Gainsbourg. She’s enjoyed far greater popularity in England and France as an actress, singer, model, cultural attaché, activist and “muse” to French composer Serge Gainsbourg. In 1986, she was approaching 40 with trepidation. Varda, who had passed that milestone 20 years earlier, hoped to convince her that it was a glorious age, with much room left to accomplish great things. In the non-linear bio-doc, Birkin relives key moments in her life through fantasy tableaux, some verging on the surreal. She wanted to “make a feature film about how I really am: jeans, old sweaters, messy hair, barefoot in my garden. Just once, I’d like to forget wigs and pretty costumes. I’d like to be filmed as if I were transparent, anonymous, like everyone else.” While Jane B. Par Agnès V. isn’t remotely mundane, Birkin comes across as a celebrity without airs or false modesty. For those familiar with the London-born personality’s history, it’s as revealing as it is entertaining.

Sometime during the filming of Jane B. Par Agnès V., Birkin described to the filmmaker a story in which a desperately lonely single mother of two girls fills the void in her life with a fling that would qualify as statutory rape in most civilized countries in the world. (In others, the perpetrator probably would be a candidate for summary execution.) Varda saw so much promise in the premise that she put their primary project on hold and quickly embarked on Kung-Fu Master, a purposely misleading title. In it, Birkin’s Mary-Jane becomes infatuated with a 14-year-old boy – played by the director’s son, Mathieu Demy – who can’t hold his liquor at a birthday party and required the help of a maternal figure to make it through his dry and wet heaves. In due course, Mary-Jane develops an unlikely crush on Julien, whose parents have left him alone while they’re gallivanting through Africa. In the time it takes most people to spell M-I-L-F, Varda has put the character on the path of forbidden love, albeit one that remains relatively chaste on screen. In one of her first roles, Charlotte Gainsbourg plays Mary-Jane’s teen daughter, who’s having her own troubles with boys, if of a far more normal variety. The title refers to Julien’s obsession with a violent arcade game of the same name. It reminds us that the boy is a long way away from being mature, while the decidedly immature Mary-Jane might have benefitted from having a son to nurture in more acceptable ways. She even goes so far as to invite Julien to join her and the girls on a trip to England, to visit her folks, and on a vacation to a secluded island. And, yes, it’s fraught with danger for everyone involved. As if to ground the story in something resembling reality, Varda adds a through-line involving a media campaign to alert young people in France and England about the then-growing peril of AIDS. If the thought of a 40-year-old woman becoming sexually infatuated with a 14-year-old boy disgusts you, as it should, Kung-Fu Master is definitely not for you. Ditto, if the fantasy romance between Mena Suvari and Kevin Spacey, in American Beauty, made you squirm. This one, methinks, is strictly for Varda/Birkin completists, who would allow the creative process some slack. Cinelicious Pics has done a nice job restoring both pictures from the original 35mm camera negatives. The set adds new interviews with Varda, one with Miranda July, and an essay by Sandy Flitterman-Lewis

Macbeth: Bu-ray
There’s nothing that demands to be seen live, in a theater, more than the plays of William Shakespeare. Several great adaptations have been committed to the big screen, as well, but too many of them feel forced, contrived or inconsequential. The ones that knock me out are those that take advantage of the settings Shakespeare left for his audience to imagine, through his words. The first time I traveled through Europe, for example, I was astounded by the number of castles visible from the windows of a train. I was also impressed by the close proximity of ancient battlefields, some hundreds of centuries older than the arrival of Columbus in the Americas. In an instant, I was able to envision events impossible to grasp completely in a classroom. The number of film adaptations of Shakespeare plays now is well beyond easy count. Stage productions captured on video only add trees to an already dense forest. Frankly, I didn’t expect much from Justin Kurzel’s recent adaptation of Macbeth, starring Michael Fassbender as the Thane of Glamis, Marion Cotillard as Lady Macbeth and a host of terrific Brits in key supporting roles. What differentiates this version of “the Scottish play” from others, though, is the verisimilitude of meteorological conditions that must have plagued generations of warlords and soldiers hoping for fair skies, under which to conduct their bloody business. “Macbeth” is gloomy enough, without adding enough rain, fog, muck, dirt, dust and portentous clouds to test the resolve of any seasoned cinematographer. Here, Aussie shooter Adam Arkapaw (“True Detective”) turns all of those potential hurdles into gifts from the cinematic gods. Many of the battle scenes were staged on the rocky slopes of Scotland’s Isle of Skye, the largest and most northerly major island in the Inner Hebrides. Blood had been shed there for hundreds of years before King Duncan was born. Other sites include Bamburgh Castle, Northumberland; Ely Cathedral, Cambridgeshire; Hankley Common, Surrey; and the as-yet unsettled landslip of Quiraing, on Skye. It’s easy to imagine terrible things happening there.  In this, I was reminded of Grigori Kozintsev’s Soviet-era Hamlet and King Lear – available through Facets Video which were shot largely in Estonia and featured translations by Boris Pasternak, music by Dmitri Shostakovich and Jonas Gricius’ icy cold cinematography. You’ll want to keep a sweater close, before hitting play on these DVDs. The splendid Blu-ray adds an excellent Q&A with Fassbender and descriptive “Making Macbeth” featurette. And, how’s this for trivia: Fassbender is the fourth actor of the “X-Men” franchise to play the future king of Scotland, but the only one who’s never played the character on stage. James McAvoy, Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen have all played the role on stage and on screen. Moreover, Cotillard has twice starred opposite an actor who played Magneto in the series.

Nights With Theodore
Of all the millions of tourists who visit Paris each year, I wonder how many get a chance to stroll through Parc des Buttes Chaumont, an island of serenity situated in northeastern Paris. Its history, alone, would require another movie or documentary to fully explore. From certain vantage points, it’s possible to marvel at City of Light, fully illuminated, bookended by the Eiffel Tower and Basilica of Sacre-Coeur. Other attractions include two manmade streams, an artificial lake, waterfall and grotto, left behind from the park’s days as a gypsum and limestone quarry. (Before Emperor Napoleon III assigned Jean-Charles Alphand to reclaim the land, it had also served as a site where the bodies of hanged criminals were displayed, as a refuse and sewage dump, and a place for cutting up horse carcasses.) The gardens, woods, bridges and “Temple of Sybille” are pretty spectacular, too. If your Parisian friends are reluctant to share their love of the park, it’s only because they don’t want to see it overrun by tourists. Anyone who picks up a copy of Sébastien Betbeder’s Nights With Theodore, which is largely set within its fenced perimeter, will almost certainly want to add it to the itinerary on their next tour of the 19th arrondissement. The beguiling romance began its life in 2012 as a made-for-TV movie, which explains the 67-minute length. One night, at a party, willowy college student Anna (Agathe Bonitzer) and an underemployed millennial, Theodore (Pio Marmaï), are smitten with each other, if only because this is a fairytale and serendipity is at play. Not wanting the night to end, Theodore leads the Modigliani-esque beauty to a climbable portion of the fence protecting Parc des Buttes Chaumont at night. They fall asleep under a majestic tree, awakening when the sun is high and the park is bustling. It’s a great way to begin a romance and one night of bliss leads to several more, if not always under the same tree. So far, so idyllic. It isn’t until they discover the presence of another park resident that things begin to get weird. Although Theodore is in fine fettle at night, alone in the park with Anna, outside of it he can barely make it from his bed to the door. Could it be that the park, which has a long and fascinating history, provides some magical curative charm over Theodore? Are we supposed to associate Theodore’s condition with Mimi, in La Bohème? And, what’s the deal with the other people who arrive there on moonlit nights to sit on a hill and stare into space? It’s that kind of enigmatic story. Even if we’re left with more questions than answers, the time we spend with the possibly star-crossed lovers is well worth the too-short visit to Paris.

Coming Home: Blu-ray
Zhang Yimou’s name might be familiar to Americans, if at all, as director of the opening and closing ceremonies of the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympic Games. Movie buffs, however, know him from such modern classics Red Sorghum, Ju Dou , Raise the Red Lantern, Not One Less, Hero and  House of Flying Daggers, some of which were seen by more people in the west than in the PRC. One of the curious things about Chinese censorship is that it allows for movies unavailable to its citizens to be shown openly elsewhere. Zhang is one of several Chinese artists, who, despite such impediments, continue to work there.) His latest period drama, set during and immediately after the so-called Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, anticipated problems with the censorship board and worked around them. Apparently, there are certain aspects of the Cultural Revolution that Communist Party officials don’t want to see revisited. Coming Home was adapted for the screen by Zou Jingzhi (The Grandmaster) from Yan Geling’s novel, “The Criminal Lu Yanshi.” While the Shanghai-born Yan was serving with the army in Tibet, Zhang was sent to the boonies to work on a farm and in a textile mill. His crime: having a father, uncle and brother who left for Taiwan after the Nationalists lost the Chinese Civil War. It was a small miracle that he was allowed to enroll in film school after the madness of the Cultural Revolution ended.

Zhang has said that he’s wanted to make a film that dealt specifically with the horrors of life during the period, but was prohibited from using that half of her novel for his film. Instead, he focused on the aborted romance between a professor, Lu (Chen Daoming), forced to work in a labor camp during the 10-year period, and his long-suffering wife, Feng (Gong Li), who develops amnesia to compensate for her pain. After escaping from his labor camp, Lu risks immediate re-arrest by making a beeline home. Being a loyal follower of Chairman Mao, his daughter, Dandan (Zhang Huiwen), turns him in to police after a brief, if less-than-fruitful reunion. For her trouble, Dandan is denied a leading role in her ballet company’s production of “Red Detachment of Women.” When Lu is finally freed, along with millions of other men and women, Dandan has abandoned dance and is working in a factory. His wife not only doesn’t recognize him, but she also associates his face with that of a supervisor who sexually harassed her. Without giving too much away, the rest of the movie is taken up with the reconciled father and daughter’s struggle to fix Feng. Not surprisingly, Gong Li delivers a powerful performance for Zhang. Not so coincidentally, her acting debut was in his first film as director, Red Sorghum. The Blu-ray adds a Q&A with Zhang Yimou at the Toronto International Film Festival and directors’ commentary.

Flesh for the Inferno
When it comes to exploitation, few filmmakers are as reliably prolific and, well, exploitative than Richard Griffin, who’s churned out more than 30 movies in the last 15 years. Not all of them are gems, but who can resist such titles as Accidental Incest, Seven Dorms of Death, Frankenstein’s Hungry Dead, The Disco Exorcist and Creature from the Hillbilly Lagoon? In the giallo-inspired Flesh for the Inferno, Griffin and writer Michael Varrati (Jagoff Massacre) jump on the pederast-priest bandwagon. In 1999, four nuns at a Catholic school confront a priest over allegations that he’s been molesting children. After listening to them patiently, he shoots one in the forehead and walls the other three behind a brick wall in the basement. Before they suffocate, the nuns sell their immortal souls to the devil … not that it does them any good. Skip ahead 15 years and the school’s been abandoned by the archdiocese and is ripe for gentrification. Guess what happens when a neighborhood youth group volunteers to clean up the place? That’s right, someone accidentally dislodges the bricks in the nuns’ prison, unleashing the demonic zombies and turning Flesh for the Inferno into an ungodly splatterfest. It helps that Griffin’s been able to round up his usual repertory company of genre-ready actors, Jamie Lyn Bagley, Anna Rizzo, Michael Thurber and Jamie Dufault.

You’re Killing Me
Black comedies don’t get much darker than You’re Killing Me, Jim Hansen’s LGBT answer to “Dexter.” It tells the story of a group of friends so self-absorbed that they not only fail to recognize the presence of a sociopath in their midst, but also refuse to believe him when he admits as much to them. As played by Matthew McKelligon (“Eastsiders”), Joe may not seem normal, exactly, but he’s far too gorgeous and sexy to be a serial killer. It must be a joke. Before George (Jeffrey Self), a narcissistic wannabe Internet star, begins to date Joe, viewers have already witnessed what happened to his last boyfriend. A week into their relationship, he made the mistake of pressing Joe on the sex thing and paid the price for pushing his luck. Joe then became obsessed with George after seeing him perform on his very silly webcast. It isn’t until the folks around them start disappearing that George and his colleagues begin to take Joe seriously. Is it too late or will Joe have the last laugh? While You’re Killing Me lacks the polish of Eating Raoul or “Dexter,” it’s certainly in line with other movies currently attempting to cross over from the LGBT festival circuit.

We Come as Friends
The age of colonization may be long gone, but imperialism continues apace in Africa, where Chinese and American interests now are fighting over what was left behind when the Europeans took their balls and went home. The newly liberated nations basked in the glory of independence for a while, but the celebrated ended when they realized how little was left in the way of easily exploitable resources. Meanwhile, the vultures, buoyed by unlimited capital or religious zealotry, hovered overhead in wait for the most megalomaniacal and greedy leaders to emerge. Nowhere is that more apparent than in South Sudan, which gained its independence from Sudan in 2011 and has endured internal conflict ever since then. Apart from traditional tribal rivalries, the largely agrarian population is divided by religion, politics, economics and other allegiances. The government also is required to burn what little money it has protecting its borders. In We Come as Friends, Austrian-born documentarian Hubert Sauper returns to the continent that inspired him to make the similarly harrowing Darwin’s Nightmare and Kisangani Diary.

This time, he arrived in homemade ultralight plane that took him to places not accessible to large craft and also served as an ice-breaker in more hostile areas. Impoverished villagers and refugees from the north are far more accustomed to the giant transport planes that could either be carrying relief provisions or heavy equipment to rape the and. South Sudan may not have been blessed with the best climate or rich soil, but it has oil, timber and minerals desired in the outside world. Some of their new “friends” didn’t even wait for the fighting to end to come calling. Unfortunately, once the oil started flowing, the prospect of jobs and prosperity didn’t follow. Sauper’s easy mobility allows him to flit from one village to next, listening to the elders’ stories – some of which extend beyond the arrival of the first European colonists – and meeting with politicians charged with cutting deals with the neo-colonists. He eavesdropped on missionaries selling Christianity, Islamists demanding allegiance to the Koran and business executives promising better times to come. Then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is as optimistic as anyone on the subject of trickle-down economics, even as oil drilling has poisoned the ground water supply garbage dumps have spoiled the scenery. If We Come as Friends asks troubling questions, it’s important to understand why poor people around the world still associate their poverty with U.S. “interests” … Chinese, too.

The Mask You Live In
Finding Gaston
It’s not out of the question to think that filmmaker/actress/speaker/activist Jennifer Siebel Newsom could someday be residing in the White House. She’s married to California Lieutenant Governor Gavin Newsom, a Kennedy-esque politician and odds-on favorite to succeed Jerry Brown in 2018. Only 48, Newsom probably already is being groomed for the nation’s highest office. Her resume is impressive, as well. After moving behind the camera, Jennifer’s executive produced two of the most provocative documentaries of the decade: The Hunting Ground and The Invisible War. In 2011, she co-directed with Kimberlee Acquaro another eye-opening film, Miss Representation, which explored the under-representation of women in positions of power and influence in America, and challenged the media’s limited portrayal of what it means to be a powerful woman. The Mask You Live In examines gender issues from the other side of the fence. Without promoting what could be dismissed as a feminist agenda, the film explores how our culture’s definition of masculinity is harming boys, men and society at large, practically from the cradle to the grave … or, to be more precise, from the color of the paint in a newborn’s nursery to the tears we’re only allowed to shed at the funeral of a close friend, spouse or relative. Some boys can fit into any pigeonhole they’re placed, sailing through life confident in our choices and without resorting to bullying or accepting stereotypes as fact. Others are able to roll with the punches and reach our preferred destination without making too many compromises or concessions to predetermined notions of manhood. Increasingly, though, society is being forced to come to grips with the effects of boys being bullied, shunned, humiliated and forced to conform with absurdly rigid societal norms. Newsom has gathered a diverse group of witnesses to testify on the own experiences, observations and research. They include experts in neuroscience, psychology, sociology, sports, education and media. And, blessedly, none argues for boys and young men to accentuate their “feminine side.” The discussions cover sexuality, homophobia, sexism, pornography, abuse, suicide, rape and acting like a dick because that’s what is expected of males in certain social situations. The Mask You Live In is the kind of film that could be shown in prenatal parenting classes – without putting any macho-man dads on the spot – and again when a son or daughter reaches puberty.

Julia Patricia Perez’ mouth-watering documentary, Finding Gaston, provides even more evidence of the value of a young male listening to his heart and acting accordingly, even if it temporarily causes a parent apoplexy. Gaston Acurio, the only son of a prominent Peruvian politician, was expected to follow in his father’s footsteps, first as a lawyer and, then, as a candidate for office. It wasn’t to be. After one day in a law office, Gaston traded his briefcase for a toque and never looked back. The documentary follows his journey from student, in Paris, to one of the most admired chefs in the world. After establishing himself in Paris, Gaston’s father encouraged him to return to Peru and give something back to the culture and people who influenced his ascendency in the culinary universe. And, that’s exactly what he did. In popularizing Peruvian cuisine, Gaston listened to farmers, fishermen and women whose recipes had been handed down to them for generations. He returned the favor by founding schools for aspiring chefs and everyday homemakers, alike, while also providing a market for native produce, fruit, fish and spices. The Lima restaurant he opened with his wife, Astrid, started out French, but grew increasingly Peruvian as they became more familiar with the food available in their own backyard. Its influence spread throughout South America and among foodies, for whom Peru is now a destination for something other than Machu Picchu.

Sucker
In the right hands, there’s almost nothing more fun than a good heist movie. Scam artists come in all sizes, shapes and colors – witness the “Oceans” franchise – and recognize no language barrier. In the wrong hands, of course, the tell is visible from the first sleight-of-hand gag and only an inattentive blind person could miss it. The Australian export, Sucker, falls somewhere in the middle. Its saving grace is a typically delightful performance by Timothy Spall, as a career con artist who takes an 18-year-old Chinese-Australian lad under his arm. TV specialist Ben Chessell collaborated on the screenplay with comedian/actor Lawrence Leung, whose one-man show “Sucker” was a big hit at the Edinburgh Fringe, Melbourne International Comedy Festival and Sydney Opera House. Viral Internet star John Luc (“Mychonny”) plays Leung as a fragile young man who becomes estranged from his parents after being caught cheating on his entrance exams for medical school. Banished to his uncle’s house for the summer, Lawrence meets the Professor (Spall) after he single-handedly takes on the local chess club … drunk. The kid’s such a quick study that the Professor enlists him as a silent partner in his cons. The old man’s teenage daughter is already on the team, so, maybe, you can already see where this thing is headed. If not, hint, it’s a high-stakes card game in which Prof hopes to exact revenge for a beat-down he took years earlier. Frankly, it isn’t much of a scam, but Spall helps the kids pull it off.

The Golden Cane Warrior: Blu-ray
For the past 10 years, Well Go USA Entertainment has been a primary source for new martial arts and action pictures from China, South Korea, Japan and other Pacific Rim countries. It takes real nice care of the DVDs and Blu-rays distributed under its banner here. The Golden Cane Warrior is a fantasy wuxia picture not unlike others produced elsewhere in the region, except for the fact that it was made in Indonesia, by Indonesians, for distribution inside and outside Indonesia. Moreover, it looks as if someone invested real money in the project. The weapons of choice are staffs and sticks, including the “golden cane” of the title. The multigenerational cast of characters is comprised of men and women, boys and girls, who twirl their sticks with the same intensity as any Miss Texas aspirant, albeit with exponentially more lethal force. As Master Cempaka and her four disciples – orphans of her enemies, now potential heirs to the golden cane – prepare for the new warrior guardian to ascend, a treasonous act threatens to destroy the clan. The trouble starts when Cempaka separates Dara, the youngest of the two young women, and Angin, the youngest of the two boys from the group. One will be awarded the Golden Cane and learn the secret maneuver only handed down to masters. The two orphans who are left behind decide to uphold the honor of their parents’ clan by ambushing Cempaka and stealing the staff, thus tipping the balance of power in the mountainous region. Let the fighting commence. The Golden Cane Warrior’s greatest asset might be Indonesia, itself. The vast multi-island nation has been largely unexploited by movie and television teams, so almost anything shot in the boonies would look new and different. And, it does. The Blu-ray easily captures the contrasting colors, flora and topography. If Ifa Isfansyah’s unrated film had gone through the MPAA process, it probably would have qualified for a PG-13 tag. The violence isn’t particularly graphic and, Indonesia being a predominantly Muslim nation, there’s no sex or nudity. What it mostly is, though, is fun.

Children of the Stars
Anyone who thinks that the cosplay phenomenon began at midnight showings of The Rocky Horror Picture Show, hippy-dippy Renaissance fairs, Trekkie conventions and ComiCon, isn’t taking into account Civil War re-enactments and gatherings of sci-fi fans in 1908 and 1939. It’s only within the last 20 years that every subset of genre fanaticism has been represented in gatherings around the planet. Bill Perrine’s jaw-dropping documentary, Children of the Stars, introduces us to the late Ruth Norman (a.k.a., Uriel), who, in 1954, founded the Unarius Academy of Science with her husband, Ernest. Unarius is short for “Universal Articulate Interdimensional Understanding of Science” and, if it sounds wacky, imagine trying to explain Roman Catholic, Mormon and Scientology tenets to a newly discovered tribe in the Amazon. If it weren’t for the fact that Spanish missionaries threatened the indigenous peoples of the New World with death and dismemberment, they would have been laughed back to Europe. That the Unarius faithful appear to be normal, whatever that means, and not at all cultish, attests to lengths people will go to find something – anything – to hold on to as the world spins its merry way around the sun. At the Unarius Academy of Science, death does not exist, Nicola Tesla was a Space Brother, Satan drives a Cadillac and “Star Trek” creator Gene Rodenberry was a fellow traveler. Members stage their own pageants, make their own movies and get together to discuss where they met and who they’ve been in previous lives. For some reason, Hitler’s name is dropped throughout the film. Not at all self-conscious, believers opened the archives to Perrine and offered testimony that doesn’t sound at all goofy, compared to the nonsense spouted by this year’s crop of Republican presidential candidates. Indeed, given the choice between an America led by Donald Trump, Ted Cruz or the next incarnation of Ruth Norman, a lot of us would pick up the Uranius flag. In any case, Children of the Stars should be of special interest to folks drawn to the early docs of Errol Morris and Trekkies who look for hidden meaning in the original series and its spinoffs. The DVD adds 25 minutes of bonus material.

Open Season: Scared Silly: Blu-ray
After 10 years and four animated features, the four-legged stars of Sony Pictures’ “Open Season” franchise show no sign of throwing in the towel, even after a wholesale change in the actors who voice them.  Open Season: Scared Silly follows the pattern of opening theatrically in some overseas markets, before debuting on DVD in others, including the U.S. The nice thing about it is that it doesn’t shortchange fans, by trimming each new installment to an hour or less and saving money on the animation. This time around, Elliot the mule deer entertains the woodland creatures with a campfire story meant to raise a few goosebumps before turning in for the night. Unfortunately, the legend of the Wailing Wampus Werewolf only serves to scare the bejeezus out of the scaredy-cat bear, Boog. The thought of confronting a werewolf in Timberline National Forest convinces Boog that he should skip the annual summer camping trip. The critters come together on a plan to scare the fear out of their ursine pal, if that makes sense. The Blu-ray comes with bloopers and outtakes; a “super speedy” re-cap of the movie; the featurettes, “Stepping Into the Spotlight: Mr. Weenie’s Process” and “Scaredy Pants: The Fears of ‘Open Season: Scared Silly’”; feature commentary with director David Feiss; and a director profile.

Decline of Western Civilization: Blu-ray
Decline of Western Civilization Part II: The Metal Years: Blu-ray
42nd Street Forever: The Peep Show Collection Vol. 14/15
Shout! Factory has released a la carte chapters of Penelope Spheeris’ The Decline of Western Civilization trilogy, which, in 1981 and 1988, deconstructed punk and metal music, respectively, for adults too frightened to address the issue with their spaced-out kids. A third installment, which could have been subtitled, “Teenage Wasteland,” was only peripherally concerned with the music in 1998. Chapter One is distinguished by vintage performances with X, Circle Jerks, Black Flag, Catholic Discipline, Germs and Alice Bag Band, as well as conversations with their more coherent representatives. “The Metal Years” takes a fast-paced look at Sunset Strip’s outrageous Heavy Metal scene of the late ’80s. It features Alice Cooper, Ozzy Osbourne, Poison, members of Aerosmith, Kiss and Motorhead, as well as performances by Megadeath, Faster Pussycat, Lizzy Borden, London, Odin and Seduce. It’s the more entertaining of the two, if only because of the amount of alcohol and drugs consumed and ubiquitous groupies.

Impulse Pictures’ comprehensive series of sleazy 8mm shorts, “42nd Street Forever: The Peep Show Collection,” has turned the corner on volumes 14 and 15. By my conservative count, that brings the total to more than 200 entries in the collection, all designed to be viewed during lunch hours and coffee breaks. The no-frills action is definitely not intended for couples’ viewing, unless, of course, the booth is built for two and your partner wasn’t averse to extreme back hair and sticky floors. Among the helpfully descriptive titles in these two volumes are “Totem Pole,” “Licking Lezzies,” “Slippery When Wet,” “Three’s a Ball” and “In the Barn.” Among the recognizable stars are Annie Sprinkle, Erica Boyer, Desiree West, Serena, Linda Shaw, Tina Russell and Veri Knotty, although I think the last one is a ringer. The sets arrive with liner notes from film “archeologist,” Dimitrios Otis, and hall-of-famer, Serena.

TV-to-DVD
IFC: The Spoils of Babylon: Season 1
Hallmark: When Calls the Heart: It Begins With Heart
PBS: Nature: Natural Born Hustlers
PBS: NOVA: Life’s Rocky Start
PBS Kids: WordWorld: Planes, Trains, and Trucks
What began in 2007 as a free-form Internet outlet for comedians and other clever people has evolved, as these things sometimes do, into a spot where producers and programming executives visit regularly to scout talent and borrow ideas. Like National Lampoon, Saturday Night Live and Second City before it, Funny or Die has become a brand synonymous with guaranteed laughs and an audience willing to go the extra mile to find offbeat humor. Founded by Will Ferrell, Adam McKay and Chris Henchy, Funny or Die showcases videos of various lengths from a number of famous and amateur contributors. The in-house Funny or Die Team now creates original material for the site and other outlets. One such project, “The Spoils of Babylon,” aired on the IFC channel. In it, Ferrell plays Hemingway-esque author Eric Jonrosh, a master of dramatic fiction and chronicler of the Morehouse family. In a pose once adopted by Orson Welles to pitch wine to TV viewers with uncultivated taste buds, Jonrush introduces each week’s episode, following it with a postscript of overripe pomposity. In the first series, patriarch Jonas Morehouse (Tim Robbins) shepherds his daughter, Cynthia (Kristen Wiig), and adopted son, Devon (Tobey Maguire), from meager beginnings in the Texas oil patch to powerful boardrooms in New York City. Just as the Welles impersonation might fly over the heads of millennial viewers, the obvious references to such 1970-80s’ mini-series as “The Thorn Birds” and “The Winds of War” probably work more effectively on their Boomer parents. Even so, it was pretty easy to buy into the conceit, especially as enhanced by guests Jessica Alba, Val Kilmer, David Spade, Michael Sheen, Molly Shannon, Haley Joel Osment and a mannequin voiced by Carey Mulligan.  Not yet on DVD is the follow-up series, “The Spoils Before Dying,” in which Jonrosh’s banned movie of the same title is unearthed for a hipper generation of viewers.

When Calls the Heart: It Begins With Heart” originally aired over the Christmas holidays as “A New Year’s Wish.” I don’t know why Hallmark felt it necessary to change the title, but it isn’t the first time and probably won’t be the last. Thus, as they said in ancient Rome, caveat emptor. Neither does it look particularly wintery in Hope Valley, this year. In fact, it looks downright tropical. Everything in the frontier outpost has a fairytale aura. The women are all gorgeous and the men abnormally attractive for the period. Everyone has good teeth and fashionable hairdos. There are other anomalies, but who’s counting? This time around, Rosemary’s essay on what it’s like to be a “real frontier family” has attracted the attention of a reporter from the San Francisco Herald, who arrives in time for the annual fireworks show. Problem is, because Rosemary isn’t married, she has to pose as Lee’s wife. Meanwhile, a mysterious stranger pays a visit to the handsome Pastor Frank and Abigail opens her door and heart to a pair of ragamuffin orphans. There’s more, of course.

The latest release from PBS’ “Nature” series, “Natural Born Hustlers,” introduces younger viewers, especially, to animals noteworthy for their ability to fool predators and attract meals through genetic chicanery. They are the shape shifters, mimics, masters of disguise and illusion, cheats and sneaks in the natural world. The series reveals the modus operandi of remarkable animals going to elaborate lengths to claw their way to the top. I only wish that “Nature” was available in Blu-ray. “NOVA” continues its studies in advanced geology, with “Life’s Rocky Start.” Mineralogist Robert Hazen explains, in language most of us can understand how the same tumultuous convulsions that shaped the Earth also created the conditions ripe for the origins of life.

Also from PBS comes “WordWorld: Planes, Trains, and Trucks,” a show designed to help the youngest viewers get a leg up on the basics, when it’s their turn to begin school. All of the characters are made from the letters that spell their names, so, when Frog loses the letters PL from his plane, he and Bug Band must scour the jungle to find them. This DVD set is comprised of eight episodes, all pertaining to movement and travel.

The Bible Stories: In the Beginning
After serving President Jimmy Carter as White House communications director, the advertising and political strategist Gerald Rafshoon began a third career as a producer of such television docudramas as “The Atlanta Child Murders” and “Iran: Days of Crisis.” Getting a Georgia peanut farmer into the White House might have been a piece of cake compared to collaborating on a rapid-fire series of eight TV movies inspired by Old Testament scripture. The international co-productions were shot in Ouarzazate, Morocco, a desert mecca for studios in need of a reliable place to shoot period flicks set in the Holy Land. “The Bible Stories” collection has been released on video/DVD a couple of times since they aired here on TNT in the mid-1990s. The new Shout!Factory series looks as good as new. The three titles released this week are the four-disc collection, “The Bible Stories: In The Beginning,” with “Abraham,” “Jacob,” “Joseph” and “Moses”; “Abraham,” starring Richard Harris and Barbara Hershey; and “Moses,” with Ben Kingsley, Frank Langella, David Suchet and Christopher Lee. Individual releases of “David,” “Jacob,” “Joseph” and “Samson & Delilah” will trickle out through the spring. “Esther” and “Jeremiah” don’t appear to have a street date.

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Quote Unquotesee all »

“Why put it in a box? This is the number one problem I have—by the way it’s a fair question, I’m not saying that—with this kind of festival situation is that there’s always this temptation to classify the movie immediately and if you look at it—and I’ve tried to warn my fellow jurors of this—directors and movie critics are the worst people to judge movies! Directors are always thinking, “I could do that.” Critics are always saying, “This part of the movie is like the 1947 version and this part…” And it’s like, “Fuck! Just watch the movie and try and absorb it and not compare it to some other fucking movie and put it in a box!” So I think the answer’s both and maybe neither, I don’t know. That’s for you to see and criticize me for or not.”
~ James Gray

“I have long defined filmmaking and directing in particular as just a sort of long-term act of letting go,” she said. “It’s honestly just gratifying that people are sort of reapproaching or reassessing the film. I like to just remind everyone that the movie is still the same — it’s the same movie, it’s the movie we always made, and it was the movie we always wanted to make. And maybe it just came several years too early.”
~ Karyn Kusama