By Gary Dretzka Dretzka@moviecitynews.com
The DVD Weekend: Popstar, Civil War, Bigger Splash, King Jack, Standing Tall, Marguerite, Marauders, Tower Records, Vaxxed, Raising Cain and more
Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping: Blu-ray
It’s possible that Andy Samberg, Jorma Taccone and Akiva Schaffer — collectively known as Lonely Island – wrote their occasionally very funny music mockumentary, Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping, thinking it could re-create the commercial, critical and pop-cultural success accorded This Is Spinal Tap. If so, they probably should have set their sights on someone less prone to self-parody than the ever-ridiculous Justin Bieber, who is more worthy of a three-minute sketch on “Saturday Night Live.” The great thing about Rob Reiner’s 1984 comedy was that viewers couldn’t always be sure when the band was making fun of heavy metal music, the musicians themselves, their fans or the industry. They still can’t. It isn’t unusual to hear a cut from Spinal Tap’s fictional “Smell the Glove” album on SiriusXM’s Underground Garage channel, played alongside the Rolling Stones, Iggy Pop, the Ramones and Patti Smith. Any memory of the songs on the “Popstar” soundtrack vaporizes within minutes of hearing them. Although the title references Justin Bieber: Never Say Never, Popstar also recalls Madonna’s self-absorbed performance in Truth or Dare, the posthumous Michael Jackson salute This Is It, Katy Perry: Part of Me, Jonas Brothers: The 3D Concert Experience, One Direction: This Is Us and Justin Bieber’s Believe. Generally well-reviewed critically, if not a commercial success, Popstar follows white-rapper Conner 4Real (Samberg) as he experiences the ups and downs of the pop-star life, especially after his second album “Connquest” is a flop and he is forced to do whatever he can to stay in the spotlight. This includes the possibility of reuniting with his old boy band, the Style Boyz. In addition to Samberg, Schaffer and Taccone, the featured cast includes Sarah Silverman, Tim Meadows, Bill Hader, Imogen Poots, Joan Cusak and Maya Rudolph, with smaller and cameo roles filled by, among others, Emma Stone, Justin Timberlake, Kevin Nealon, Adam Levine, Akon, Arcade Fire, DJ Khaled, Jimmy Fallon, Mariah Carey, Mario Lopez, Michael Bolton, Pink, Ringo Starr, RZA, Seal, Usher, 50 Cent and, even, Martin Sheen. If “Popstar” begins to feel like an “SNL” reunion show after a while, it shouldn’t surprise anyone who’s enjoyed short films by Lonely Island (“Dick in a Box”) on the sketch-comedy series. Producer Judd Apatow probably had more to do with rounding up the all-star lineup than anyone else, but it’s Samberg who keeps the ball rolling for 86 minutes. Clearly, his fan base, Emmy nominations and Golden Globe for “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” weren’t enough to produce a hit. The good news comes in the Blu-ray bonus package, which adds commentary with Schaffer, Taccone and Samberg, deleted scenes, a gag reel, music videos, interview outtakes and humorous featurettes “How to Donkey Roll,” “Big Boy Freestyle,” “Frog Jizz,” “Shooting Hoops,” “Turn Up the Beef” backstory, “Sex Tape and “Fun at CMZ,” all of which demonstrate how short-form parody can be just as effective as feature-length mockumentaries … unless you’re Christopher Guest.
Marvel’s Captain America: Civil War: Blu-ray 3D, Blu-ray
Metalstorm: The Destruction Of Jared-Syn: 3D Bluray, Bluray
Anti-American sentiment may be rampant around the world, but international audiences didn’t let their political beliefs keep them from endorsing Captain America and the Avengers on film. After cashing a check of nearly $408 million at North American turnstiles, Marvel’s Captain America: Civil War went on to record another $744.5 in international sales, easily smashing the billion-dollar barrier. Domestically, it became the 23rd film to cross the $400-million mark and the fourth film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe to hit that target. At 147 minutes, there’s more than enough action here to sate the appetite of any comic-book and superhero buff. What qualifies co-directors Anthony Russo and Joe Russo’s follow-up to Captain America: The Winter Soldier as something a bit more thought-provoking than the average genre specimen, though, is a story that demands that viewers face the fact that war ain’t pretty and murder is murder when it comes to the unintended victims of war. The Pentagon calls the slaughter of innocents, family members and bystanders “collateral damage,” but, in any non-military court, the charge probably would be involuntary manslaughter, at least. As was the case with the “pilots” we met in Eye in the Sky and Good Kill, the weight of remorse over collateral damage has begun to weigh heavy on the heads of the Avengers, as well as their superiors and leaders of the United Nations. Government pressure to rein in the Avengers drives a deep wedge between Captain America (Chris Evans) and Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), causing a rift that turns the two friends into bitter enemies. Vision (Paul Bettany), Rhodes (Don Cheadle), Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson) and Iron Man sign off on the pullback deal, while Captain America and Falcon (Anthony Mackie) refuse. With much of the group now under UN control, it’s sent in to interfere with a mission Captain America, Falcon and others have undertaken to track down Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan), a.k.a. James “Bucky” Barnes. The brainwashed assassin is believed to be behind a bombing at the United Nations conference in Vienna, in which the father of the man known as the Black Panther” (Chadwick Boseman) is killed. As alliances are formed and torn apart by writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, who also penned “CA:TWS,” their “CA:CW” sometimes requires a scorecard to keep track of the players and their allegiances, as well as the introduction of new and old characters. Let’s just say, it defies easy summarization. It certainly isn’t lacking in action. I haven’t seen the 3D version, but have to assume it holds up to close scrutiny. The supplemental material adds “United We Stand, Divided We Fall: ‘The Making of Captain America: Civil War,’” a two-parter in which cast and crew look back at the story’s comic-book origins and discuss its thematic depth and relevance, as well as nearly every aspect of the production process; “Captain America: The Road to Civil War” and “Iron Man: The Road to Civil War”; a sneak peek at the next Marvel film, “Doctor Strange”; deleted and extended scenes; a gag reel; and commentary with the directors and writers.
As cheesy and derivative as any other low-budget sci-fi adventure from the early-1980s, Metalstorm: The Destruction of Jared-Syn looks as if it were made from props borrowed from Mad Max 2 (1981) and costumes left over from a Star Wars or Indiana Jones parody. Directed by the prolific schlockmeister Charles Band, “Metalstorm” is set on the desert planet of Lemuria, where a miner and his daughter, Dhyana (Kelly Preston) fall prey to the evil dictator Jared-Syn (Mike Preston). Dogen (Jeffrey Byron), a brave peacekeeping ranger, is recruited to save Dhyana and the rest of her planet from Jared-Syn, his son, Baal (R. David Smith) and the hideous Cyclopean warlord, Hurok (Richard Moll). The only person who knows where Jared-Syn’s hiding is an aging, burned-out seeker named Rhodes (Tim Thomerson). It can be fun, but only in the campiest sort of way. The 3D isn’t very effective, either.
A Bigger Splash; Blu-ray
Anyone who enjoyed Luca Guadagnino’s romantic 2009 drama, I Am Love, should find a lot to like in his feature follow-up, A Bigger Splash, if only for another intriguing performance by his muse, Tilda Swinton. Here, she plays a middle-age rock star, Marianne, recuperating from an operation on her larynx on a sun-drenched island located between Sicily and Tunisia. She’s joined there by her long-time lover, Paul (Matthias Schoenaerts), who’s played a key role in keeping her from slipping back into depression and succumbing to various addictions. We worry that Swinton’s milk-white skin might take a beating from the hot Mediterranean sun, but, soon enough, Marianne will face more immediate problems than skin cancer. Her bombastic producer and former lover, Harry (Ralph Fiennes), has invited himself to spent a few days in the company of Marianne and Paul, accompanied by his beautiful and overtly sexy daughter, Penny (Dakota Johnson). We’re given some reason to believe that Harry and Penny may be something other than blood kin, but, when she begins making a play for Paul, it’s also possible she’s serving as wingman for her father, who clearly would like to reignite old passions with Marianne. Fiennes is terrific as the self-absorbed hedonist, Harry, a life-of-the-party type with a million stories about the musicians with whom he’s worked. Far less outgoing, Paul is almost defenseless against Harry and Penelope’s charms. Guadagnino dials up the tension a few more clicks by adding the occasional yard snake to the mix, as well as undocumented African trespassers hoping to use the island as a stepping off point for Sicily and points further north. What happens next in the two-hour-plus erotic thriller may not surprise viewers familiar with Jacques Deray’s 1969 La Piscine, which starred Alain Delon, Romy Schneider, Maurice Ronet and Jane Birkin and was set in Saint Tropez, but others should find the patiently crafted drama to be highly intoxicating and far from predictable. (A Bigger Splash also bears a passing resemblance to Francois Ozon’s 2003 Swimming Pool.) The acting, which is terrific, is matched by the beauty and romantic allure of Pantelleria Island.
Take Me to the River
The Automatic Hate
While critics, producers and exhibitors use the New York Times, Huffington Post and trades to debate the future and possible demise of the cinema — as they do every time the question is raised by a celebrity filmmaker with an opinion to share — exciting unsung artists emerge from the shadows of every festival season with pictures that demand to be seen, admired and discussed. In a perfect world, the films’ post-festival lives would be accommodated by megaplexes and multiscreen arthouse complexes anxious to promote fresh talent on a dormant screen or two. The same could be said of the surplus of excellent documentaries, foreign and other special-interest titles. In this less-than-perfect world, however, it’s nice to know that so many video-on-demand and pay-per-view outlets have sprung up lately to pick up the slack, before distribution on DVD/Blu-ray. The trick for consumers, as always, is separating the wheat among the chaff and encouraging their friends to do the same thing. Fans of horror and sci-fi, especially, have been doing this for some time, to the advantage of the genre and its aspiring stars. No one that I’ve read is contending that the genre film is dead or that we’ll ever experience a drought of fine indie fare. Only that we may have to enjoy the cream of the crop somewhere other than the big screen … sad, but hardly fatal. Coincidentally, three such pictures arrived in the mail this week on DVD, all of them dealing with issues of interest to teens, young adults and parents with uncompromising fervor.
Felix Thompson’s debut feature, King Jack, is as good a coming-of-age drama as I’ve seen in a long time. It won the 2016 Independent Spirit Awards’ Someone to Watch prize and a narrative prize at last year’s Tribeca festival. Set in a generic small town, it describes the efforts of a 15-year-old boy to escape the burden of being the target of unwarranted persecution by neighborhood bullies. Jack’s older brother, an auto mechanic, was a star athlete and all-around cool guy, but, a pejorative nickname hung on the boy by his long-gone father gave local jackasses a convenient scab to pick. Already smarting from an unsettling putdown, Jack (Charlie Plummer) is enlisted by his mom to shepherd a cousin around town while the boy’s mother recuperates from a breakdown. The kid, Ben (Cory Nichols), is shorter, fat and has the kind of hangdog look that attracts bullies like mosquitos to a picnic. At first, of course, Jack treats Ben with the same regard shown to him by his tormentors. The event that sets the story in motion is a confrontation with his nemeses, during which Jack picks up a stone and plugs the instigator in the head, leaving an embarrassing scar. From then on in, Jack and Ben are required to stay one or two steps ahead of the gang or take the brunt of retaliatory violence. It allows Thompson the opportunity to introduce a few diversionary elements to the narrative, including several sympathetic female classmates, the discovery of things the cousins share in common and willingness of his brother to put their antagonistic behavior aside and stand up for the boys. Recognizing that his mom, Karen (Erin), has a million other things on her plate, Jack doesn’t burden her with his suffering until it becomes too obvious to ignore. King Jack, distributed by Well Go USA Entertainment, is enhanced by credible performances across the board, a recognizable small-town setting and an extremely well-balanced cast of characters. It deserves to be seen.
Film Movement is responsible for Take Me to the River and The Automatic Hate, both of which serve roughly the same audience and address issues that rarely get an airing outside the indie circuit. In the former, Logan Miller plays Ryder, a California teenager, whose homosexuality is no longer a secret to his parents (Robin Weigert, Richard Schiff), but could pose a problem at the family reunion to which they’re headed in rural Nebraska. While Ryder isn’t opposed to coming out at the affair, his mom advises him against it. Turns out, though, that his mother’s kinfolk take Ryder’s decidedly non-redneck attire as an affront to their manhood and immediately begin to picki on him. Yes, mom should have insisted he wear Levis, a Cornhusker T-shirt and Jordan sneakers to the affair, but she foolishly underestimated the capacity of Red State residents to despise anyone different than themselves. The younger cousins take a shine to Ryder, however, after he agrees to keep them occupied with stories and games. When one little girl runs home from the barn pointing to blood on her dress, her parents and grandparents can only surmise that the older boy molested her and should be run out of town on a rail. While it’s far more likely that the 9-year-old tripped and fell, or, as Ryder’s mom argues, had an early visit from her monthly friend, the Nebraskans begin a guerrilla war, of sorts, on the Californians. Freshman writer/director Matt Sobel could easily have driven the story off the rails, by pushing the limits on homophobic behavior. Instead, he opens up the story to include Ryder’s ability to separate himself from the madness and his mother’s sublimated memories of growing up in such a repressed environment. Even as we wait for a horror story to emerge from the drama, Sobel finds ways to keep the focus on loftier goals. The DVD adds commentary with Sobel, Weigert and Miller and interviews.
Justin Lerner’s sophomore effort, The Automatic Hate, also ventures into family dysfunction, but with more literary ambitions. Joseph Cross plays Davis Green, the son of academics who’s chosen to ignore their goals for him and become a chef. One night, a pretty young blond, Alexis Green (Adelaide Clemens), shows up at the home he shares with his dancer girlfriend (Deborah Ann Woll) and announces to him that she’s his first cousin and would like to know him better. Davis had no idea that his father (Richard Schiff, in another excellent performance) had a brother, let alone cousins, and is vehemently discouraged by him and his dying grandfather from looking into Alexis’ claim. After some digging through the family archives in grandpa’s basement, though, Davis decides to find Alexis and discover the truth in her assertion. In an interesting twist, Alexis and her sisters run a thrift job in a nearby town, which also serves as a dispensary for the family’s medical-marijuana crop. The women take an instant liking to Davis, but remain cautious about introducing him their iconoclastic father, Josh (Ricky Jay), a rough-hewn farmer not too far removed from his hippie roots. Josh almost immediately sees through the ruse, also warning Davis against investigating the cause of split between the brothers. Even so, the cousins use the occasion of their grandfather’s death to arrange for a family reunion. It’s a doozy … right out of Tennessee Williams or Eugene O’Neill. It, too, though, is almost overshadowed by an ill-advised romantic entanglement prompted by the emotions stirred by the shocking discoveries and emotional strain caused by more than 20 years of missed familial opportunities. The Automatic Hate gets pretty heavy, at times, but Lerner is able to relieve it with humor and displays of raw sentimentality. The DVD adds deleted scenes, commentary and a frightening short about racial disharmony in the UK and its effects on a pre-teen girl.
Standing Tall: Blu-ray
The first of two excellent Cohen Media releases to be considered this week is Standing Tall, a ferocious coming-of-age drama that opened the 2015 Cannes Film Festival and went on to win two Césars. In chronicling the formative years of the feral youth Malony Ferrandot (Rod Paradot), from 6 to 18, co-writer/director Emmanuelle Bercot (On My Way) and writer Marcia Romano (Under the Sand) severely test the time-honored observation of Boys Town founder Father Flanagan’s, “there’s no such thing as a bad boy.” Abandoned by his mother (Sara Forestier) into the custody of a children’s magistrate, Florence (Catherine Deneuve), Malony is constantly in and out of juvenile court. Prone to outbursts of rage when things don’t go his way, he’s only happy when he’s in a stolen car, trying to impress his passenger with is daredevil driving. While his good-for-nothing mother pops her head into his life at various times, the boy’s real family is Florence, his caseworker Yann (Benoît Magimel), school supervisors and the one or two boys with whom he gets along. When he is sent to a stricter educational center, he forms an unlikely relationship with the daughter, Tess (Diane Rouxel), of one of his teachers. Their relationship doesn’t immediately translate into redemption and the boy’s natural inclinations toward violence keep him from a life outside the gates of the reform schools and penal institutions. The difference between the French facilities and their American counterparts is equal to the space between Boys Town and the reformatories described by Brendan Behan in “Borstal Boy.” The boys are given cigarettes in lieu of punishment and their teachers possess the patience of saints. Finally, at nearly the two-hour mark, Maloney is given one last opportunity to take charge of his life and break the cycle that began when his mother lost her ability to control him. Paradot’s performance would be remarkable, even if it weren’t his debut, and Deneuve and Magimel are perfectly cast, as well. The Blu-ray adds a lengthy interview with them and Bercot, as well as deleted scenes and commentary.
The connective tissue between Standing Tall and Marguerite, besides their French pedigree, is the contribution of writer Romano. It describes the amateur singing career, such as it was, of Florence Foster Jenkins, a New York heiress who dreamed of becoming an opera singer, despite having a terrible singing voice. Meryl Streep deftly portrayed the title character in Stephen Frears’ critically acclaimed biopic, which opened almost concurrently with Marguerite here. Neither made a dent in the box office, but are well worth finding for the serio-comic portrayals by two of the cinema’s finest actresses. The slightly older American actress’ name comes up whenever it’s Oscar season, of course, while Catherine Frot’s performance has already been honored with a César for Best Actress in the similarly inspired role. Here, co-writer/director Xavier Giannoli (Superstar) elected to name his protagonist Marguerite Dumont, after the actress (Margaret Dumont) who never caught on to the fact that she was the brunt of so many of Groucho’s jokes in the Marx Brothers’ comedies. Although she possessed a voice that could stop a racehorse in mid-stride, Marguerite loved the operatic repertoire, collected musical memorabilia and frequently sponsored charitable events, where the cause was more important than the sound of her voice. Because the era of the Victrola and recorded music had yet to spread to her estate, near Paris, Marguerite could pretend, at least, that she was worthy of playing a grand concert venue. In deference to her wealth, generosity and status, the audiences at her chamber events went along with the ruse without betraying their true opinions to the diva. She’s buoyed by the tongue-in-cheek praise she receives from a prominent critic (Sylvain Dieuaide), who has his own reasons for joining Marguerite’s philandering husband (André Marcon), pompous singing coach (Michel Fau) and protégé (Christa Théret) in keeping the 800-pound gorilla at bay. Most of the fun here is derived from Giannoli’s attention to post-war detail and the diversity of the cultural scene. I haven’t seen Streep’s portrayal of Jenkins, but I can’t imagine it being much better than the one turned in by Frot. That’s the highest of praise, in my book. The Blu-ray adds deleted scenes and an interview with the director.
It’s been more than 20 years since Michael Mann’s excessively violent, if exceedingly stylish thriller, Heat, raised the ante on all future bank-heist movies to come, large and small. Henceforth, all such pictures would feature crooks trained to pull off the robberies with the precision of a special-forces unit attacking a terrorist enclave in enemy territory and nearly the same volume of fire power. It may even have inspired the bloody shootout, two years later, outside of a Bank of America branch office in North Hollywood, during which the bank robbers were killed and 11 officers and 7 civilians were wounded. The criminals wore body armor and carried AK-47 assault rifles. The ferocity of the shootout wasn’t lost on a generation of police and screenwriters, who’d already been inspired by Heat. In Marauders, the offenders borrow the shock-and-awe tactics of Hitler’s blitzkrieg strategy, as well, by hitting the facility quickly, ruthlessly and with no apparent concern for the well-being of customers, employees or guards. Moreover, the masks they wear would frighten an army of trick-or-treaters. If only the rest of the story were as straight and to the point as the opening salvo. For the first time in quite a while, Bruce Willis provides substantially more of himself to a low-budget thriller than a cameo and his name on the posters and cover arts. He does so as the Daddy Warbucks-like owner of Cincinnati’s Hubert National Bank, from which tens of thousands of dollars are stolen in a seeming heartbeat. Other branches are hit in similar fashion. Steven C. Miller worked with Willis previously on Extraction, if for far less screen time, while Marauders represents Michael Cody’s first screenplay. I suspect he received some help from Chris Sivertson, who’s previously given the world two versions of All Cheerleaders Die. The overly complicated screenplay ties the robbers to Hubert in a rather far-fetched way, and, in turn, the FBI and police officers in charge of the investigation. Agent Montgomery (Christopher Meloni) is still haunted by the torture killing of his wife and escape from prosecution of the primary suspect. Adrian Grenier plays Agent Wells, assigned to work as liaison between Montgomery and a local policeman (Richie Chance), whose corruption helps pay for treatment of his cancer-ridden wife. Action fans, at least, won’t require a scorecard to keep track of the players and or care much about who does what to whom. The Blu-ray adds commentary with Miller and cinematographer Brandon Cox; a featurette, “The Making of ‘Marauders’”; deleted/extended scenes; and interviews.
All Things Must Pass: The Rise and Fall of Tower Records
Back in Time
The title of director Colin Hanks and writer Steven Leckart’s exhaustive documentary, All Things Must Pass: The Rise and Fall of Tower Records, invites us to imagine a conspiracy or financial scandal attributable to corruption or greed. In fact, though, Tower Records fell victim to the same digital revolution that’s put a dent into brick-and-mortar stores selling books, shoes and tickets to destinations far and wide. The music industry bought a temporary buffer against the inevitability of the digital future by crushing Napster and a few other underground file-sharing services and individual traders, but it only looked venal in the process. In the end, the fear demonstrated by the record labels in legal battles only confirmed the imminent arrival of a technology that would revolutionize the way we listen to music as much as the Victrola and Walkman put together. At 38, the son of Tom Hanks and his first wife, Samantha Lewes, grew up within hollering distance of the first Towers Records store, in Sacramento. In 1996, when he briefly appeared in his father’s feature debut, That Thing You Do!, the landmark store on the Sunset Strip was still a mecca for music lovers and musicians, and it became his personal hangout. “Tower Records was a place to meet your friends, your co-workers or a place to meet new friends who shared a common love of music, literature and all things cultural,” Hanks has said. “I’ve been able to find just as much interesting, exciting music through the Internet and iTunes. The personal interaction is not the same, and I’m not walking out of a store with a physical thing, so there’s definitely an element that is lost, for sure.” Beyond the laid-back approach to selling records embodied by the company, the documentary demonstrates how the founders made employees feel as if they were part of larger family and maintained it for many years. The first Sacramento store caught the second wave of rock-’n’-roll commercialism, inspired by the Beach Boys, Beatles and Motown, when album sales overwhelmed those of 45s and kids would have lived in listening booths, if they hadn’t been eliminated. All the company had to do, whether launching a new store on the west coast, New York or Japan, was open the doors and let connoisseurs and buffs feast on a vast collection of albums, books, magazines and other goodies. It didn’t help when used-CD stores began to pop up like mushrooms to take advantage of the format’s forever-clean sound and recordability on PCs. Inevitability, though, record sales would dry up and streaming services provided services, selection and prices even Tower couldn’t match. Individuals were able to create their own playlists without the help of a middleman or PhD in pop studies. “All Things Must Pass” is informed by interviews with company founders, executives and employees, as well as longtime customers and musicians who frequented the stores, including Elton John, Bruce Springsteen, Dave Grohl, David Geffen and Chuck D. You’d think it would be sadder, but we still have the music and memories.
For me, anyway, a little bit of Back to the Future nostalgia goes a long way. Only a few weeks after watching DeLorean: Living the Dream, which put a tight focus on the actual car in No. 1 and its restoration, I received a second, more polished documentary, Back in Time, which not only expanded on the DeLorean angle, but also contains interviews with Steven Spielberg, Robert Zemeckis, Bob Gale, James Tolkan, Lea Thompson, Christopher Lloyd, Huey Lewis, Michael J. Fox and several studio executives and techies. Director Jason Aron’s film isn’t as reverential as it might sound, but that doesn’t mean diehard fans of the trilogy won’t love it.
Vaxxed: From Cover-Up to Catastrophe
Yes, this is the same documentary that was scheduled to be shown at the 2016 Tribeca Film Festival, but whose invitation was withdrawn when a controversy erupted over the film’s message, motives and methodology. It didn’t help that co-founder Robert De Niro had a personal reason for endorsing the film and defending its inclusion. Vaxxed: From Cover-Up to Catastrophe was directed by first-timer Andrew Wakefield, who wrote the study printed in the Lancet that started the controversy between vaccines and autism. The British medical journal later redacted the 1998 article and, in 2010, Wakefield lost his medical license as a result. The British gastroenterologist accuses the Centers for Disease Control of destroying data on a 2004 study that showed a link between the MMR vaccine (mumps, measles, rubella) and autism. The documentary is well enough produced to convince viewers already pre-disposed to believe anti-government conspiracy theories that the CDC and pharmaceutical interests might risk the health of millions of Americans for profit and prestige. Most viewers, though, won’t have any trouble seeing the holes in the argument. Wakefield conveniently ignores the case made by those who see the proven benefits in using the MMR vaccine and question his statistics. The arguments of those who can remember the scourge of polio and introduction of vaccines to prevent it are ignored, as well. It’s understandable that parents of autistic children have been drawn to his theories, based solely on the coincidental timing of an onset of the disease and a vaccination. Vaxxed plays directly on the personal guilt feelings of these parents and the medical community’s inability explain the causes of autism. The California Legislature was so unimpressed with arguments that it voted to require parents to vaccinate their children before they’re allowed to enroll in public schools. Most of us are happy it did so.
See the Keepers: Inside the Zoo
IMAX: Wonders of the Arctic: 4K UHD/3D Blu-ray/Blu-ray
IMAX: The Last Reef: Cities Beneath the Sea: 4K UHD/3D/Blu-ray
Who hasn’t wondered what goes on behind the scenes at a zoo or circus, when the animals aren’t on display and their keepers aren’t part of the show. See the Keepers: Inside the Zoo may not provide the most sophisticated take on the subject of what goes on when no one’s looking. If anything, it has a homemade, do-it-yourself feel that endears viewers to workers who barely make minimum wage for the privilege of doing what some of them might do for free, as docents or retired volunteers. As we learn in this visit with four different zookeepers at the Memphis Zoo, their contributions to our enjoyment are immense. After all, there aren’t many things worse than visiting a zoo and being confronted by undernourished and sickly animals, losing their fur and absent any gleam in their eyes. The keepers here take it personally when one or more of their charges isn’t in tip-top shape when the gates open each morning. Viewers also are introduced to the big cats, giraffes, penguins, snakes and Komodo dragons up close, on the other side of the zoo exhibits.
With its recent slate of new releases, Shout! Factory continues its drive to convince consumers of the value of 4K Ultra High Definition and Blu-ray 3D. They’re still reputed to be the next big thing in home-theater technology, but have yet to catch fire. (They still cost too much for average consumers.) Fortunately, Wonders of the Arctic and The Last Reef: Cities Beneath the Sea look great in all of the most popular formats. The former showcases the ongoing mission to explore and come to terms with the future of Arctic, above and below the ice, for human and animal residents. Underlying all is the crucial role that ice plays in the northern environment and why it demands to be saved.
From the Academy Award-nominated creators of the Broadway show “STOMP” and the award-winning film Wild Ocean, The Last Reef is an inspirational large-format and 3D experience, capturing one of nature’s more vibrant, diverse and endangered wonderlands. Shot on location in Palau, Vancouver Island, French Polynesia, Mexico and the Bahamas using groundbreaking 3D and ultra-high-def cinematography, The Last Reef takes viewers on a journey to explore the connection between our cities on land with the complex, parallel world of the coral reefs beneath the sea.
Raising Cain: Collector’s Edition: Blu-ray
Apart from resurrecting a noteworthy Brian DePalma psychodrama, which features a stellar performance by John Lithgow (yes, I realize that’s redundant), the Shout! Factory “collector’s edition” of Raising Cain spotlights exactly how Blu-ray can simultaneously serve the filmmaker, consumer and distributor by making a good thing better. Instead of merely releasing a remastered edition of the creepy 1992 thriller with the usual array of featurettes, deleted scenes and commentary options, Shout! Factory took the filmmaker’s reservations about the original to heart and found a way to realize both his original vision and the studio-preferred re-edit. It did so at DePalma’s urging, after he watched a version of “Raising Cain: Recut,” which had been posted on Indiewire in January 2012. Geoff Beran, moderator of the blog De Palma à la Mod (and ultimate fanboy), used previously deleted material to change the point of view of the narration, essentially turning the story inside-out. “It’s what we didn’t accomplish on the initial release of the film,” DePalma said in his note to Beran, adding, “It’s what I originally wanted the movie to be. Could you contact the company releasing the Blue-ray and tell them I think it’s important they include it with the new release? If you need me to talk to some at the company just give me a number and a name.” And, that’s exactly what he did. It’s possible that Beran was inspired by Paramount’s and Francis Ford Coppola’s various remixes of The Godfather trilogy, one of which, at least, put “I” and “II” in linear order and added some missing elements. “Raising Cain: Recut,” though, was strictly a labor of love.
Either way he sliced it, though, Raising Cain would tell the story of twin brothers, Carter and Josh, one good and the other evil, so warped by their father’s psychological experiments that they would commit heinous crimes in their pursuit of new human specimens for him to study and manipulate. Lolita Davidovich plays Jenny, the good twin’s wife and working mother of their toddler daughter, upon whom Carter dotes. Jenny inadvertently sets off a terrible series of events when she hooks up with an old boyfriend (Steven Bauer) in a public park, in plain view of potential peepers. To reveal anything more would spoil the fun for viewers of either version. Suffice it to say that DePalma pays homage to Alfred Hitchcock, Orson Welles and Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom, as is his wont, while also referencing several familiar thematic touchstones. In addition to the original cut, which isn’t at all bad, and “Recut,” the Blu-ray package adds interviews with actor Lithgow, Bauer, Gregg Henry, Tom Bower, Mel Harris and editor Paul Hirsch; original marketing material; the featurette, “Changing Cain: Brian De Palma’s Cult Classic Restored”; and a video essay of “Recut.”
The Purging Hour
The Neon Dead
With a new edition of the found-footage classic, The Blair Witch Project, set to open in theaters around the world today, this time from frequent collaborators Adam Wingard and Simon Barrett (V/H/S, The Guest), it once again is possible to separate the real-dealers from the many imitators in the sub-genre. Although I’ve yet to see Blair Witch, I’ve sampled a few of the early positive reviews and am sure that the veteran filmmakers will take advantage of a budget several times greater than the original cost of $60,000. It’s also worth noting that Blair Witch wasn’t rushed into the production, simply to capitalize on the sensation, as was Joe Berlinger’s roundly panned Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2. In fact, Wingard reportedly was able to work on his film for five years, before anybody even knew it was being made. I only mention this in reference to The Purging Hour because the deck now clearly has been stacked against the success of every other new found-footage project. Not only are they destined to be compared to “TBWP,” but also Cloverfield, Paranormal Activity, V/H/S and the Quarantine/Rec series. Also made for a pittance, Emmanuel Giorgio Sandoval’s The Purging Hour describes what might have happened during the first 24 hours of a family’s stay in their new house in the mountains of California. No sooner can the Diaz family change their mailing address than they disappear into thin air, leaving only some bloody remains. Years later, personal home footage has anonymously shown up on the “dark web,” purportedly clearing up the cold case. This rough camcorder footage fills most of the movie, interspersed with documentary-style interviews with town residents and friends of the family. The film’s 80-minute length isn’t enough to compensate for the hum-drum nature of the interviews and postponement of any real action.
Torey Haas’ first feature, The Neon Dead, benefits from his visual-effects background, but naturally is hamstrung by a budget estimated to be $17,000. In it, a recent college graduate (Marie Barker) hires two free-lance paranormal exterminators (Greg Garrison, D. Dylan Schettina) to combat a monster infestation in her bathroom. It isn’t their primary work, so a certain amount of ineptitude is to be expected. It explains how, instead of eradicating the beast, the exterminators unleash veritable flood of undead guests. It turns out the ghouls are under the command of the deadly Guy Smiley, who has links to the demon realm and has set in motion plans to take over the world. The makeup and special effects work pretty well, primarily through the use of funhouse colors and oddly shaped features. On a dollar-for-dollar basis, the entertainment value is surprisingly high.
PBS: Masterpiece: Churchill’s Secret
PBS: Frontline: Business of Disaster
Little House on the Prairie: Legacy Movie Collection
PBS Kids: Odd Squad: Creature Encounters
Transformers: The Movie: 30th Anniversary Edition: Blu-ray
PBS may be best known for presenting classy mini-series, in-depth documentaries and quality children’s programming, but it occasionally offers a stand-alone drama, such as the “Masterpiece” production, “Churchill’s Secret.” In it, Michael Gambon plays Winston Churchill, the Prime Minister of England, who, at 79, suffered a serious stroke after a state dinner, and had to disguise his condition to keep the wolves in his own political parties at bay and not show weakness to England’s foes. Charles Sturridge and Stewart Harcourt’s adaptation of the Jonathan Smith novel, “The Churchill Secret KBO,” basically covers the period between June 23, 1953, and his October speech before a Conservative Party convention in Margate. Two months later, Churchill would be well enough to meet with President Eisenhower, in Bermuda, but, otherwise, it was pretty much touch-and-go. The citizens of both countries were none the wiser. American viewers probably would find this to pretty dry stuff, if it weren’t for Gambon’s typically brilliant portrayal of the irascible patient. It also benefits from Sturridge’s tighter focus on the two principle care-givers in his rehabilitation period: his protective wife, Clementine (Lindsay Duncan), and the fictional nurse Millie Appleyard (Romola Garai). Before arriving at Chartwell, the Churchill estate in Kent, Appleyard had no idea who her patient would be or the challenge facing both of them. Churchill has suffered a second stroke and may not last the weekend. The other interesting segment involves the squabbling that goes on when his son, Randolph, and surviving daughters gather to brighten his spirits … or not. The recent medical emergency experienced by Hillary Clinton reminds us that American politicians – JFK and FDR come immediately to mind — can be every bit as circumspect about their health as anyone else, even knowing the stakes of maintaining such secrecy. The Blu-ray adds a making-of featurette and interviews.
The PBS “Frontline” presentation, “Business of Disaster,” reveals how victims of natural disasters, even those with insurance, are preyed upon by companies and government agencies whose mandate it is to protect them from further harm. The film focuses on the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy, which left thousands of people homeless and unable to collect the money they needed to rebuild or relocate. It isn’t that the money wasn’t there for them, however. Too much went to insurers, who counted on subcontractors to lowball victims, and company executives who demanded obscene profits to protect their bottom lines. On visits to disaster areas, politicians promised much in the way of relief, knowing Congress wasn’t about to allot the money to make everyone well. The findings are truly horrifying and should be a source of shame for everyone involved. That such injustices follow in the wake of every natural disaster tells us that shame is for suckers.
Michael Landon probably wasn’t the first person to recognize the appetite of post-Vietnam Americans for television shows that didn’t challenge their conservative values or ridicule their faith in God and the American Dream. After his tenure on NBC’s “Bonanza,” Landon could pretty much write his own ticket and he foresaw the vacuum in such programming. Based on the popular series of books by Laura Ingalls Wilder, recalling her childhood in the northern Midwest during the 1870-80s, “Little House on the Prairie” could easily be mistaken for what today is categorized as faith-based programming. In fact, “Little House” explored many topical themes besides religion, including adoption, alcoholism, poverty, handicaps and prejudice of all types. It also took on drug addiction (morphine), leukemia, child abuse and rape. Landon made sure that the drama was balanced by comedic and romantic moments. The “Little House on the Prairie: Legacy Movie Collection” is comprised of three movie adventures that ran on NBC after the series was canceled and Landon was working on other projects. In “Look Back to Yesterday,” Albert displays courage in the face of a serious illness that threatens his scholarship to medical school. “Bless All the Dear Children” follows Laura and Almanzo as they race to find their missing baby daughter. In “The Last Farewell,” the residents of Walnut Grove unite to defend their town against a railroad tycoon who holds the deed to the township and wants to turn it into an open-pit mine.
PBS Kids’ “Odd Squad: Creature Encounters” is the latest DVD compilation from the Fred Rogers Company. It features five “odd” stories from the popular series, including a special extended adventure called “6:00 to 6:05.” When it comes to dealing with bizarre situations and unusual creatures, the agents of the Odd Squad are always ready for the challenge. This time, viewers can join agents Olive and Otto as they interrogate a mummy, a unicorn and a robot that escaped from library books; work to find a powerful weapon capable of defeating the Hydraclops; and travel back in time to prevent dinosaurs from destroying headquarters.
Like the animated TV series, the feature-length spinoff, The Transformers: The Movie, was based upon Hasbro’s Transformers toy line, which itself was inspired the Diaclone and Microman toy lines, originally created by Japanese toy manufacturer Takara. It arrived in 1986, between the second and third seasons of the syndicated show here. For those of you who’ve been sleeping under a rock for the last 30 years, or are childless, the story goes like this: For millennia, the heroic Autobots, led by Optimus Prime (voiced by Peter Cullen), have been at war with the evil Megatron (Frank Welker) and his Decepticons over control of their home planet of Cybertron. However, an even greater threat: Unicron (Orson Welles), a colossal converting planet that devours everything in its path and is heading right for Cybertron. The only hope is the Autobot Matrix of Leadership. Other voices are provided by Judd Nelson, Leonard Nimoy, Eric Idle and Robert Stack. The Shout! Factory Blu-ray is presented in a fresh 4K transfer and adds the 46-minute featurette, “Til All Are One: Looking Back at ‘Transformers: The Movie’,” with interviews and information about the film; “Transformers: The Restoration,” about scanning and restoring the feature; “Rolling Out the New Cover,” an interview with artist Livio Ramondelli; commentary with director Nelson Shin, story consultant Flint Dille and star Susan Blu; and several short pieces covered from previous video editions.