By Gary Dretzka Dretzka@moviecitynews.com
The DVD Wrapup: Free State of Jones, Beauty & Beast, Bettie Page, Pele and more
Free State of Jones: Blu-ray
At 139 minutes, Gary Ross’s frequently exhilarating, sometimes grueling Free State of Jones dramatizes one of the most unlikely and virtually unknown – outside Mississippi, anyway – chapters in Civil War history. Unlike Django Unchained, 12 Years a Slave and the recent re-adaptation of “Roots,” viewers averse to sadistic violence and racial epithets weren’t required to gird their loins for what was to come. Ross (Seabiscuit) cobbled Free State of Jones from three separate stories, based on original research, concerning Mississippi farmer Newton Knight (Matthew McConaughey) and the loose coalition of deserters and escaped slaves he led from a dense swamp along the Leaf River, in southeast Mississippi. Their revolt was sustained by local residents, whose property and livestock had been confiscated as a tax to support Confederate troops, and disdain for a newly passed law that allowed plantation owners to avoid military service if they owned 20 slaves or more. (An additional family member was exempted from service for each additional 20 slaves owned by the planter.) After making the 200-mile trek home from the Siege of Corinth, in the northeastern corner of the state, Knight was jailed for desertion by Confederate authorities, who also ordered the burning of his homestead and farm. After his escape and retreat to the swamp, Knight would be led to an enclave of escaped slaves and eventually be joined by several hundred deserters. Even after the union victory at Vicksburg, there were enough Confederate troops in southeast Mississippi to keep the guerrilla force from joining the Yankee juggernaut. Ross’ re-creation of Knight’s swampy Southern Unionist encampment, along with depictions of skirmishes launched against Confederate supply wagons from the thick cover, are painstakingly rendered. He also does a nice job portraying Knight’s ability to quell a mini-revolt by white soldiers, who resisted his insistence that they fight alongside the blacks as brothers in arms and share whatever provisions available to them. When news that the war had ended reached Knight, he couldn’t have known that the peace would be as difficult to sustain as their insurrection.
If Ross had decided to wrap up the story here and merely allude to the perils of Reconstruction, Free State of Jones could have ended naturally and entirely satisfactorily, without further testing his viewers’ ability to maintain their attention for what amounts to a half-hour postscript. The story already had been interrupted occasionally by flashforwards to a court case, begun 85 years later, involving the great-great-great grandson of Newton and his common-law wife Rachel (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), a freedwoman and student who helped him survive the swamp ordeal. Since he is of one-eighth black descent, the light-skinned descendant was arrested under Mississippi’s miscegenation laws, prohibiting his interracial marriage to a white woman. While interesting and historically relevant, the through-line feels forced and disruptive of dramatic flow. Likewise, the final chapter pertaining to the Reconstruction period almost demands that we see it as an apology by Hollywood’s liberal establishment for D.W. Griffith’s revisionist portrayal of the Ku Klux Klan, in The Birth of a Nation. This time, any notion that Klansmen are heroes or defenders of traditional Southern values are destroyed by accounts, far closer to reality, by atrocities against the freed slaves who fought alongside Newtown. In one or two instances, Ross appears to be referring directly to scenes shots by Griffith, showing Klansmen riding to the rescue of damsels in distress and against black farmers and homesteaders. Again, its value as a corrective is diminished by its length and tacked-on feeling. Even so, there’s plenty of good stuff to be learned here about a subject – some Mississippians still consider it to be a fable, unworthy of revisiting – about which most of us are ignorant. If Free State of Jones failed at the box office – as it did — the blame should be attributed more on Civil War fatigue than anything to do with the story, production values, acting or, even, its length. The nicely rendered Blu-ray adds the excellent documentary featurette, “History of Jones County,” which features real local residents and descendants discussing the history, intercut with numerous clips from the film.
Beauty and the Beast: 25th Anniversary Edition: Blu-ray
Because a new demi-generation of children arrives, like clockwork, every five years, or so, Disney has never required much of an excuse to re-release its classics to whet their appetites for quality entertainment and those of adults in need of a break from the demands of parenthood. In the late 1990s, the studio faced a challenge with the widespread acceptance of DVD, a format that suffered little from ravages of age and overuse. As kids grew more savvy and demanding, Disney would offer a full menu of new and recycled bonus features, as well as interactive activities. Blu-ray added its own highly defined reason for existing, as did, five years ago, Blu-ray 3D. The only thing that Beauty and the Beast: 25th Anniversary Edition doesn’t provide consumers is a new reason for 3D adaptors to rejoice, a marketing decision that hardly qualifies as a snub. That will be corrected soon enough, probably when the cycle begins again, with the release of a 4K UHD/Blu-ray 3D/DVD/Digital HD combo. The Signature Collection edition of Beauty and the Beast needs no further introduction beyond mentioning the fresh featurettes added to a vintage array of bonus material. It includes four versions of the movie: the Blu-ray release of the original theatrical film; an extended version, with the “Human Again” song sequence; a sing-along version, new to home entertainment; and the original work-in-progress version, which will be available digitally and on Disney Movies Anywhere. One of the new bonus extras invites fans to gather around a piano with composers Alan Menken (Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin), Stephen Schwartz (The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Pocahontas), Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez (Frozen), and Lin-Manuel Miranda (Disney’s upcoming Moana and “Hamilton: An American Musical”) as they sing and share how they’ve personally been inspired by the film’s award-winning music. Others focus on how Walt Disney sought to adapt this famous European fairytale at various times before his death, in 1966; an update on Paige O’Hara, the voice of Belle; behind-the-scenes access into the recording booth with the cast; 25 Fun Facts, hosted by Gus Kamp and Kayla Maisonet; and a sneak peek at Disney’s upcoming live-action re-telling of Beauty and the Beast, arriving in theaters in 2017.
Here’s another movie that, on its surface, would appear to have everything going for it, but couldn’t escape VOD hell on its long-delayed release. Stephen King’s novel “Cell” was published in January, 2006, and, ever since, has been the subject of fanboy speculation and Internet chatter. Eli Roth (Hostel) originally was attached to the project, then scheduled for a 2009 release. “It should feel like an ultra-violent event movie,” he said. A couple of years later, Roth decided that his vision of Cell and that of the Weinstein Company were two completely different things and he should move on to more personal projects. At the end of 2009, King announced that he had completed a screenplay, but, get this, “changed the ending based on negative feedback from readers of the book.” Another three years would pass before John Cusack and Samuel L. Jackson signed on to play Clayton Riddell and Tom McCourt respectively. It wasn’t until June 10, 2016, that Cell debuted on streaming services. As these things usually go, Cell is a perfectly acceptable rainy-day diversion … easy to watch, just as easy to forget. King might have been inspired by the sight of dozens of people in any given place, walking and talking, exchanging thoughts and information of use only to them, their ears glued to wireless gizmos. Only a few of the cellphone junkies, if any, considered the possibility that their phone would turn on them and cause brain tumors, as alarmists warned. In King’s mind, however, it couldn’t have been a very large leap from listeners contracting tumors to their turning into brain-eating zombies, instead, triggered by a loud, pulsating signal via the cellphone network. The protagonist, Riddell, only escapes because the batteries on his phone were dead. In his personal mission to find and save his wife and son, Riddell encounters many zombies (a.k.a. phoners) – some aimless, others guided by mysterious sounds — and a smattering of people who shared Riddell’s exemption, including McCourt and a teenager played by Isabelle Fuhrman (“Masters of Sex”). While Riddell has difficulty finding his wife and son, but he does discover the source of the signal, which might have been inspired by the annual Islamic gathering at Mecca. Tod Williams’ flat and listless direction, combined with some lackluster performances, make the ending anticlimactic. The Blu-ray adds commentary with Williams and the making-of featurette, “To Cell and Back.”
Under the Sun
If North Korea didn’t possess weapons of mass destruction and a will to deploy them, the country depicted in Under the Sun might be forgiven as a terrible joke. Even the most straight-faced mockumentarian couldn’t have invented a scenario as strange as the one delivered by Russian director Vitaly Mansky, under the strict supervision of government officials. The idea was for Mansky to document an “ordinary” Pyongyang family, whose charming 8-year-old daughter, Lee Zin-mi, has been chose for induction into the quasi-military Children’s Union. It’s a great honor, of course, and the children have prepared for the events by memorizing dances and hosannas to Kim Jong-Un on the Day of the Shining Star, the nationally celebrated birthday of former leader Kim Jong Il. It hardly seems possible to escape images of Jong-Un, Jong-Il and Kim Il-Sung, whether they’re in the form of monumental statues in public squares or mass-produced photographs hung in every classroom and household in North Korea. The country is frighteningly regimented, but Mansky plays it straight, letting the pictures speak for themselves. What’s truly bizarre is the micromanagement of his movie by handlers who simply can’t leave well enough alone. Not only do they orchestrate coverage of Zin-mi’s induction ceremony, but go so far as to falsify the jobs of her parents and micromanage the décor of their tidy apartment. The handlers aren’t ham-fisted or impolite, however. They go about their jobs as if it’s a perfectly normal and expected part of the filmmaking process. Just as it’s impossible not to feel sorry for the people we meet here, it’s just that difficult to figure out if they’ve been brainwashed beyond the point of redemption or how bad their lives might be when the cameras were turned off.
The Exotic Dances Of Bettie Page: Blu-ray
The first and foremost thing to know about Andreas Marschall’s modern giallo is that it’s built on a template created by the great Dario Argento, for Suspiria. It takes more than little bit of chutzpah to futz around with a true classic of the form, but that’s one attribute filmmakers rarely lack. Indeed, Tilda Swinton and Dakota Johnson are already booked to star in Luca Guadagnino’s remake, set for release in 2017. The actresses also were featured in Guadagnino’s erotic drama, A Bigger Splash, recently released on DVD. Marschall’s film re-sets the story from Dance Academy Freiburg to a private drama school, in Berlin. While the cast is almost entirely Germanic – Argento enlisted Yanks Jessica Harper and Joan Bennett — he does borrow the musical conceit of surrounding the action with a jarring soundtrack, not unlike the one originally contributed by Goblin. Here, an aspiring actress, Stella, played by first-timer, Susen Ermich, realizes her dream by being accepted to the Matteusz Gdula-Institute. In the 1970s, the school´s founder, Matteusz Gdula (Norbert Losch) practiced a learning style that promised to let students shine by driving them to their mental limits. The method was banned after mysterious deaths occurred during his lessons. They weren’t forgotten, though. No sooner does she arrive than Stella begins to hear thing go bump in the night and they appear to emanate from a closed door that leads to the abandoned, forbidden wing of the school. Several extremely gory deaths later, disturbing secrets are revealed. Because it was shot digitally, Masks isn’t able to replicate the garish Technicolor splendor achieved by Argento using the three-strip Technicolor process. (The maestro reportedly asked cinematographer Luciano Tovoli to watch Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, so that he could model Suspira’s color scheme after it.) The Blu-ray from Reel Gore Releasing recalls Strand’s 2014 hi-def edition of Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani’s The Strange Color of Your Body’s Tears, which also paid homage to the masters of classic Italian giallo horror. Curiosity is probably the best reason to check out Masks, whose limited edition includes a CD of the original soundtrack, a collectible Blu-ray/DVD slipcase and sleeve, a 24-page booklet, a behind-the-scenes featurette, deleted scenes, a music-video clip and slideshow.
From Cult Epics arrives SIN, an hourlong triptych from Nico B, a Dutch filmmaker known for his 1998 underground horror production “Pig” and the biographical “Bettie Page: Dark Angel.” Conveniently, he’s also founder of the L.A.-based distribution company, which also handles the work of Walerian Borowczyk, Tinto Brass, Jean Genet, Fernando Arrabal, Rene Daalder, Abel Ferrara, Radley Metzger and Irving Klaw. “SIN” is comprised of three episodes, ostensibly staged in the 1920-40s, where each story describes the “duality” of a female protagonist: the belly/frolic dancer (Angelita Franco), the sculpture model/nun (Caroline Pierce) and the legless aristocrat/nurse (Dahlia Dark). Inspired by early 20th Century erotica and surrealistic filmmaking, Nico B explores the subliminal curse of destiny we call sin. They’re shot in Super 8 silent film, with a soundtrack by Claude Debussy. The limited edition BD/DVD combo features original artwork and a booklet with storyboards by artist Brian M. Viveros. The new HD Transfer adds nude color outtakes, teasers and several
Super 8 short films by Nico B.
So much has been written about Bettie Page that it hardly seems necessary to add any more, except to alert fans to a new release. Cult Epics’ newly restored Blu-ray collection, The Exotic Dances of Bettie Page, does a wonderful job cleaning up imperfections that have attached themselves to these short 8mm films, shot by Irving Klaw and previously compiled 25 years ago. It was about that time – 40 years past the long-retired model’s underground prominence — that Page’s cultural significance was upgraded from fetishist’s dream to mainstream pop icon … Bettie Boop, in the flesh. Since the dances themselves would barely warrant a PG-13 rating these days, the most revealing thing here is the quality of the images, which have been given a sharp 2K HD transfer from the original masters. (A comparison between the VHS, DVD and Blu-ray editions can be found on YouTube.) Also included are more risqué selections from the Bettie Page Kamera Club, a photo gallery, “Bettie Page Uncovered: The Private Life and Photographs,” a 2016 Q&A with her nephew and an O-ring silver print.
Dead End Drive-In: Special Edition: Blu-ray
Like so many other good exploitation flicks, Brian Trenchard-Smith’s Dead End Drive-In comes tantalizingly close to making lucid points about the future of mankind, using sex, drugs, booze, rock ’n’ roll, violence, hot rods and pyrotechnics to address sticky societal concerns. The Ozploitation classic was released in 1986, in the rather long wake of Peter Weir’s The Cars That Ate Paris, George Miller’s Mad Max trilogy, Ian Barry’s The Chain Reaction, Richard Franklin’s Roadgames, John Clark’s Running on Empty (a.k.a., “Fast Lane Fever”) and non-Aussie cousins Alex Cox’s Repo Man, Paul Bartel’s Death Race 2000 and Ron Howard’s Grand Theft Auto, among many other high-octane specimens. Australia and the United States share many things in common, including the twin passions of open road and speed. The juvenile delinquents of the 1950s embraced the motto, wrongly attributed to James Dean, “Live fast, die young, have a good looking corpse.” Better that than be burned to a crisp by a Soviet ICBM missile. By the 1970s, Ozploitation specialists found other things about which to worry. They included shortages of gasoline, anarchic punks in fast cars and an invasion of immigrants from Southeast Asia. In the not-so-distant dystopian future described in Dead-End Drive In, the Australian economy has crumbled and violent gangs have taken control of the streets after dark. To counter the endless wave of violence, government authorities have decided to lure youthful offenders into drive-in theaters by offering reduced ticket prices for the unemployed. Once inside, their cars are disabled and the kids are trapped inside a concentration camp of their own device.
They occupy their time drinking, getting into fights, stealing parts from other disabled cars and getting their hair spiked or colored in makeshift, unisex salons. At night, they get to watch Trenchard-Smith’s action movies on an unending loop. Ned Manning and Natalie McCurry play Crabs and Carmen, the captive couple with the most to lose – a souped-up 1956 Chevy convertible — while Peter Whitford portrays the manager of the drive-in who’s in cahoots with corrupt cops. Complicating matters for the prisoners is a bus load of Asian immigrants dropped off at the facility by police, who hope to instigate a race riot. Donald Trump couldn’t have imagined a worse fate for outsiders than the one contrived by the hoodlums who outnumber them 10-to-1, at least, and have crafted weapons out of discarded car parts. The punks convince their girlfriends that they’ll be raped by men in turbans if they don’t join their ethnic-cleansing campaign. If nothing else, though, the distraction allows for Crabs’ escape attempt and terrifically staged chase inside the perimeters of the drive-in between tow trucks and police vehicles. Lawrence Eastwood’s post-apocalyptic production design was nominated for a 1986 Australian Film Institute award. (Sadly, designers on genre films are widely ignored here by awards committees.) Once again, Arrow Video outdoes itself with a fresh 2K restoration from original film materials, Blu-ray, audio commentary by Trenchard-Smith, and a pair of ancient documentaries, “The Stuntmen,” Trenchard Smith’s portrait of Grant Page (Mad Max, Road Games) and other Australian stunt performers, “Hospitals Don’t Burn Down,” the director’s 1978 public information film, and a fully-illustrated collector’s booklet containing writing on the films by Cullen Gallagher and Neil Mitchell.
The Real MVP: The Wanda Durant Story
Pele: Birth of a Legend
Although these inspirational biopics are from different distributors, they both feature sports superstars and the family members that stood behind them and obscurity when the going got tough. From Lifetime Television, The Real MVP: The Wanda Durant Story dramatizes the struggle of a single African-America mother to raise two sons – one of them, Kevin, would reach the zenith of professional basketball — while working nights as a postal employee and, during the day, as an unlicensed hair stylist in her Washington, D.C., kitchen. Cassandra Freeman does a nice job as Wanda Durant, who sacrifices mightily to provide her sons with every opportunity to succeed, including encouraging them to participate in a community program and AAU ball. Kevin’s choppy ascent from the prep ranks to stardom in the NBA – with a brief stop at the University of Texas – is covered, of course, but it’s Wanda that we’re encouraged to care about most. Her son’s on his way to the Golden State Warriors, where’s he’ll help them regain the championship, while mom gets to bask in his reflected glory.
Likewise, Pelé’s stardom can be traced directly back to the encouragement and sacrifices of his father and mother. Raised in poverty in the slums of São Paulo, Brazil, Edson Arantes do Nascimento couldn’t even afford a proper ball or shoes. His father, an ex-footballer, is shown here teaching his son how to score goals with mangos. His mother worked as a maid, bringing home leftovers and hand-me-downs. Pelé led ragtag Bauru Athletic Club juniors to three consecutive São Paulo state youth championships before being recruited, at 15, by scouts for Santos FC. He finished the 1957 season, his second, as the league’s top scorer. A year later, Pelé became the youngest player to play a World Cup Finals, the youngest scorer in a World Cup Final and the youngest player to win a World Cup Winner’s Medal. It’s also where Pele: Birth of a Legend leaves off, assuming that everyone else in the soccer-obsessed world already knows the rest of the story. Vincent D’Onofrio and Colm Meaney add a bit of international flavor to the proceedings. The DVD adds a couple of background featurettes.
Rodeo & Juliet
While Thadd Turner’s contemporary oater, Rodeo & Juliet, isn’t much different than dozens of other family-friendly romances, it does have something the others don’t. In the role of the beautiful country girl who moved to the big city to escape a romantic dilemma, but then returns 20 years later with her snooty big-city daughter in tow, is Krista Allen. In addition to being one of the most beautiful women on the planet, the 45-year-old actress is one of the very few who’s won the admiration of fans of soap operas, sitcoms, dramas, feature films and soft-core porn. Granted, a lot of water has passed underneath the bridge since she last doffed in her top in the “Emmanuelle in Space” series, but casting agents tend to have long memories when it comes to an actress’ world-class body. Good for her. Even though Rodeo & Juliet earned the blessing of the Dove Foundation, it isn’t particularly faith-based or overtly religious. Allen’s Karen embarrassed her father and fiancé (Tim Abell) after leaving them at the altar, years earlier. In the meantime, she’s become a successful author of romance novels. After her dad dies, Karen is called back to the ranch, which is deep in debt. The last place her daughter, Juliet (Nadine Crocker,) wants to spend the summer is in the boonies, but it isn’t long before she falls for a cool dude, Monty (Zeb Halsell), in a cowboy hat. Turns out, he’s the nephew of the jilted ranch hand, who’s persona non grata for insisting that the old man’s will left him half the ranch. The only drama comes when Karen finds out that Monty is teaching Juliet how to ride the ranch’s prized horse, Rodeo, to the local barrel-racing championship. Rodeo & Juliet isn’t the most compelling drama I’ve seen lately, but fans of Lifetime movies and barrel racing should like it.
This animated feature from Thailand tells the story of a brave elephant, Rock (voiced by Cary Elwes), who commits himself to rescuing his wife, Melody (Alexa PenaVega), after she’s kidnapped by the powerful human king (Patrick Warburton, who else?). Coming to Rock’s aid in Elephant Kingdom is a colorfully offbeat troop of young pachyderms, including Rally (Carlos PenaVega), Pugsley (Mikey Bolts), Wingman (Garrett Clayton) and the human queen (Ambyr Childers). Director Melanie Simka (Frog Kingdom) specializes in English-language adaptations of imported animated fare. Movies about pastel-tinted elephants have become a staple of Thai entertainment, harkening back to the country’s rich folklore tradition.
PBS: Defying the Nazis: The Sharps’ War
PBS Kids: Kate & Mim-Mim: The Mimiloo Zoo
In the wake of the success of Steven Spielberg’s Holocaust drama, Schindler’s List, it comes as something of a surprise to learn that the story of Waitstill and Martha Sharp didn’t find a sponsor. The compassionate American Unitarians displayed similar courage in the face of the Nazi death machine, even though their mission began thousands of miles from the European crucible. In other hands than those of co-directors Ken Burns and Artemis Joukowsky, the 90-minute PBS documentary, Defying the Nazis: The Sharps’ War, might have made a powerfully inspirational feature film. As it is, however, Burns’ dedication to the non-fiction platform assured that the documentary would find a home at PBS and could be mentioned in the same breath as Spielberg’s salute to German industrialist Oskar Schindler. In fact, Schindler and both Sharps are listed among the “Righteous Gentiles” honored by the State of Israel for risking their lives during World War II to save Jews from extermination by the Nazis. The Sharps’ heroism differs from that demonstrated by Schindler in that they were recruited by Unitarian Service Committee to move to Prague, from their New England home, leaving their children behind in the U.S., to help specifically designated individuals to emigrate to the west. Although the foundation for the mission had already been laid by American and European clergy anticipating the German threat to freedom, the Sharps would spend two dangerous years making the network work, employing both legal and extralegal strategies. Contrary to what the U.S. government would openly acknowledge about the status of Jews in the period before we entered the war, the Sharps witnessed atrocities first-hand. Sublimating their emotions made them better at what they did best. John le Carré or Graham Greene couldn’t have improved on their story. There are surprises around every turn and intrigue in such unexpected places as the Sharps’ marriage. Defying the Nazis: The Sharps’ War is informed by interviews with the Sharps’ children, people saved by them and members of the Unitarian community. To say that their story has been underreported – one book, by Susan Elisabeth Subak – is hardly an exaggeration.
“Kate & Mim-Mim: The Mimiloo Zoo” is comprised of six amusing tales and a bonus video called “Mimiloo’s Creatures.” In the PBS Kids’ show, the popular lead characters are joined by friends Lily, Gobble, Tack and Boomer, as they encounter an amazing assortment of curious creatures including baby humming turtles, a unicorn, lemmings, and mitty kats. Exploring themes of friendship, adventure and problem solving, “Kate & Mim-Mim” encourages children to use their imaginations and work together, believing no problem is ever too big to solve. The holiday special, “Kate & Mim-Mim: A Christmas Wish” arrives in another two weeks, with winter-theme stories and a bonus music video.