By Gary Dretzka Dretzka@moviecitynews.com
The DVD Wrapup: Infiltrator, Blood Father, Violent Cop, Sherpa, Les Cowboys, Hills Have Eyes and more
The Infiltrator: Blu-ray
If it weren’t for the likelihood that American audiences already know as much about Pablo Escobar and the Medellín Cartel as they’ll ever care to learn, Brad Furman’s compelling drug-war drama, The Infiltrator, might have managed to break even at the box office. Instead, fine performances by Bryan Cranston (“Breaking Bad”) and Diane Kruger (“The Bridge”), as undercover U.S. Customs agents Robert Mazur and Kathy Ertz, will pretty much go for naught. Enough is enough, already. Although Escobar makes a brief cameo, the primary antagonist here is Roberto Alcaino (Benjamin Bratt), a Chilean-born gem trader who connects with Mazur when the cartel runs out of places to stash its ill-gotten gains. One of those is the thoroughly corrupt Bank of Credit and Commerce International, which agrees to accept cash deposits in return for a percentage of the money laundered. At various times, the BCCI’s clientele included depositors representing the Abu Nidal terrorist group, the CIA, Saddam Hussein, Manuel Noriega, Bangladesh leader Hussain Mohammad Ershad and Liberian strongman Samuel Doe. Because we’ve been inundated recently with such Escobar biopics and mini-series as Netflix’s “Narcos,” Telemundo’s “El Señor de los Cielos” and Andrea Di Stefano’s Escobar: Paradise Lost – with takes by John Leguizamo and Javier Bardem still to come — The Infiltrator almost feels like an afterthought. Endless repeats of Scarface on cable TV have contributed to the surplus of knowledge on cocaine trafficking, as well. Perhaps, in anticipation of this logjam, Furman and screenwriter Ellen Brown Furman chose to balance the bloodshed and blow, as described in Mazur’s book, with a solid romantic angle designed to divert our attention away from the tiresome details of the smuggling industry.
The heroes of Operation C-Chase were Customs Service agents, after all, and their motivation was to deprive the cartel of the fuel that fanned the flames of so-called narco-terrorism. If the Colombian cartels weren’t brought down in this or any other U.S. operation, the arrests and trials were able to temporarily inconvenience Escobar and other smugglers and re-direct millions of drug dollars to other covert missions, including the Iran-Contra Affair. It’s worth recalling that Al Capone was brought down by his failure to pay his fair share of income taxes, not in a hail of bullets, like the characters he inspired: Al Pacino’s Tony Montana and Paul Muni’s Tony Camonte. Cranston never looks as comfortable in his undercover guise as John Leguizamo, playing Mazur’s street -smart partner, Emir Abreu. Much of the drama, then, derives from whether Mazur will succumb to such perks as lap dances from strippers (remarkably, he doesn’t) and the temptations that come from making the staged relationship with a beautiful partner look real. Mazur is happily married to Evelyn (Juliet Aubrey) when he’s assigned the blond beard (Kruger), who looks great in borrowed jewels and furs, but resists the temptation to be compromised by them. It’s difficult to tell if Evelyn’s doubts about her husband’s relationship to his partner was a plot device or based on real life. When it comes time to reel in the fish, Mazur’s boss (Amy Ryan) wrings some money out of the budget to afford a first-class wedding, to which all of Bob’s BFFs in the cartel and bank are invited, only to be betrayed … much to Mazur’s consternation. The Infiltrator stands out as a platform for Cranston, primarily, not as the kind of tick-tock thriller or romance-under-fire more easily marketed to crossover audiences from “Breaking Bad.” Fans of movies set at the juncture of underworld commerce and law enforcement, however, aren’t likely to be disappointed. The Blu-ray adds deleted scenes, a making-of featurette and EPK interviews.
Blood Father: Blu-ray
I know that Jean-François Richet’s action-thriller Blood Father was released in some U.S. theaters in mid-August, but you couldn’t prove in by anything in the box-office reports found on IMDB.com or BoxOfficeMojo. It even received mostly above-average marks from the dozen, or so, mainstream critics listed on Metacritic.com. Even so, it quickly disappeared from view. The quick turn-around into DVD/Blu-ray/VOD belies the movie’s excellent pedigree. Richet delivered excellent work in the 2005 John Carpenter remake, Assault of Precinct 13, and two-part French gangster flick, Mesrine. It was adapted for the screen by author Peter Craig (The Town, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay) and Andrea Berloff (Straight Outta Compton) and impeccably shot in the wilds of New Mexico by regular Richet collaborator, Robert Gantz. The imaginatively cast supporting roster includes Erin Moriarty, Diego Luna, Dale Dickey, William H. Macy, Michael Parks and Miguel Sandoval. Daniel Casillas and Rick Stratton’s tattoo work is nothing short of frightening. That, of course, leaves the star and protagonist, Mel Gibson, who’s been in Hollywood’s doghouse for at least the last 10 years for his derogatory comments about women, police, blacks, gays and Jews, as well as residue from being raised in a Sedevacantist (traditionalist) Catholic household led by a right-wing Holocaust denier and outspoken critic of Vatican reforms. Hollywood was willing to forgive most of those sins, as long as he was a box-office sensation, and, as they say, a credit to the industry. When, on July 28, 2006, Gibson allowed the booze in his system do the talking for him during a Malibu police stop, he became the punchline for a thousand jokes on late-night talk shows and persona non grata everywhere else. Since then, he’s starred in Jody Foster’s instantly forgettable The Beaver and Martin Campbell’s Edge of Darkness and made appearances in Machete Kills, Get the Gringo and The Expendables 3.
His first directorial credit in 10 years comes attached to the upcoming World War II biopic, Hacksaw Ridge, set to open in a couple weeks. Curiously, perhaps, the preview trailer for Hacksaw Ridge, which precedes Blood Father on the DVD/Blu-ray, doesn’t carry Gibson’s name, merely “From the Academy Award winning director of Braveheart.” Ouch. In Richet’s thrill-a-minute picture, Gibson plays the father of a long-missing daughter, Lydia (Moriarty), who only returned home after accidentally shooting her hoodlum boyfriend (Luna) in a failed hostage-taking incident sanctioned by La Eme (Mexican Mafia). Gibson’s Link is an ex-con, ex-biker and ex-alcoholic, who’s living in a trailer in the middle of the desert, working as a tattoo artist. No sooner does Lydia wake up from a long nap than the trailer is besieged by La Eme assassins, whose faces are tattooed with a veritable spider’s web of ink. Link and Lydia somehow manage to escape the first assault, but are followed around the Land of Enchantment by gangsters, bikers and anyone interested in collecting a $30,000 reward for Lydia’s return. (That part doesn’t make a lot of sense, except as an excuse for some high-speed motorcycle action.) Richet knows how to direct action and that’s what makes Blood Father worth a look by fans of the genre and Gibson, who hasn’t lost more than a step or two in the last 10 years. It’s rated R for some naughty language and substance abuse, but nothing more potentially harmful to teenagers than that. It adds deleted scenes and a making-of featurettes.
Violent Cop: Blu-ray
Boiling Point: Blu-ray
The significance of the Film Movement releases of Violent Cop and Boiling Point begins and ends with their being the first two directorial efforts of Japanese Renaissance man Takeshi (Beat) Kitano, who, before becoming the country’s foremost action star, was a successful standup comic and TV host. Based on the nature of Japanese comedy and variety shows in the 1980s – parodied in Lost in Translation — the transition from hosting an over-the-top TV variety show to starring in yakuza movies would be comparable to Paul “Pee-wee” Reubens taking over the Dirty Harry franchise from Clint Eastwood. In fact, when lead actor Kitano was asked to assume directorial responsibilities from Kinji Fukasaku, the movie was a comedy. He insisted that the script be rewritten to remove the gags, so that he could distance the character from his television persona. After re-watching Violent Cop recently for an interview, he said, “Frankly, I couldn’t bear to watch it. It’s like being forced to watch yourself when you were a kid. I felt so embarrassed.”
Kitano needn’t be any more embarrassed than Jerry Lewis, whose first experience as a multi-hyphenate was The Bellboy, or Woody Allen for What’s Up, Tiger Lily? and Take the Money and Run. In the beautifully restored edition of Violent Cop, Kitano plays a rogue cop who often uses extreme violence and other unethical methods to get results. It’s shocking, to be sure, but in the highly stylized fashion that has marked mass-market yakuza films for decades. While investigating a series of drug-related homicides, Detective Azuma discovers that his friend and colleague, Iwaki (Sei Hiraizumi), is supplying drugs from within the police department. After Iwaki is murdered and Azuma’s sister is kidnapped, he leaves no stone unturned in getting retribution.
Boiling Point, which followed hot on the heels of Kitano’s 1989 directorial debut, is another yakuza picture, this time probably a bit more difficult to grasp for western audiences. That’s because its primary conflict involves a junior-league baseball team and lackluster player, Masaki (Masahiko Ono), who makes the mistake of defending himself against a gangster who bullies him at a local gas station, where he works. The thug loses face after being hurt in the confrontation and, despite a round of apologies from management and staff, demands from his boss that he be allowed to avenge the insult. The incident leads Masaki from the baseball diamond into the underworld of the yakuza and a lifestyle that doesn’t square with the image of teamwork, accommodation and almost overreaching formality that characterizes Japanese sports. Kitano has been a frequent critic of Japanese society and the use of baseball as a metaphor would have struck a chord with mainstream viewers. Like Violent Cop and most of Kitano’s succeeding features, Boiling Point isn’t for the faint of heart. Action junkies won’t mind the violence and other garish touches, though. The Blu-ray packages are available separately, with lengthy making-of featurettes and informative essays.
There’s been no scarcity of excellent documentaries lately about mountaineering and the challenges of scaling the world’s highest peaks. Lightweight digital camera equipment has allowed filmmakers to follow along on these dangerous mission, recording triumphs and tragedies as if they were staged in a soundstage or on location in Colorado. The same 1996 climbing tragedy described in Jon Krakauer’s harrowing best-seller, “Into Thin Air: A Personal Account of the Mt. Everest Disaster,” inspired the ABC-TV movie “Into Thin Air: Death on Everest,” the IMAX large-format doc Everest and Baltasar Kormákur’s Everest, all spectacular. Between May 10-11, eight people died after being caught in a blizzard while ascending or descending from the summit. Krakauer had already been assigned to report on the overcrowding on Mount Everest, caused by the growing number of commercial expeditions, and the risks involved for everyone from the climbers to the Sherpa guides, whose expertise was never in greater demand. The deaths didn’t, however, discourage mountaineers of varying degrees of experience from paying the tens of thousands of dollars required to make the trek to base camp and beyond. A shot taken from a helicopter in Jennifer Peedom’s documentary Sherpa shows a long line of climbers heading for the summit, one right after the other, like ants on their way to a picnic. The guides call it “gridlock.”
For the Sherpas who live in the Himalayas year-round, the boom in expedition tourism came as mixed blessing. The income was welcome, of course, but the overcrowding was taking a toll on the natural environment and health of the guides, who were making the roundtrip to the 29,029-foot summit more often than ever. Used oxygen tanks and the frozen corpses of dead climbers were becoming an eyesore, as well. Peedum’s team was already on the mountain shooting a documentary from the point of view of the Sherpas and their families – the guides now included women — when an even greater tragedy struck. On April 18, 2014, an ice avalanche occurred on the Khumbu Icefall, killing 16 Nepalese guides. Beyond he human toll, the cameras were able to capture the angry confrontations between the guides, foreign expedition leaders and Nepalese government officials regarding wages and benefits, working conditions and enforceable protocols. Tempers had flared a year earlier, when a foreigner insulted a guide in language the Sherpas considered disrespectful to the mountain they know as Chomolungma. After the debate, it was decided that the mountain would be closed to climbers for the season. The 2015 season was cancelled, as well, due to avalanches in the wake of the April 2015 Nepal earthquake, killing 21 on the mountain. Sherpa goes a long way toward placing the guides’ contributions to the success of foreign climbers – including Sir Edmund Hillary’s long-ignored partner, Tenzing Norgay – in their rightful perspective. It adds an interesting making-of featurette, which includes material taken of families in a nearby village.
Len and Company
In Tim Godsall and Katharine Knight’s debut feature, Len and Company, the title character (Rhys Ifans) is a seen-it-all rock-star so disenchanted with the current scene that he barricades himself inside his spacious rural retreat in Upstate New York and refuses to be civil to anyone who makes the mistake of caring about him. This includes his estranged, college-age son, Max (Jack Kilmer); a pop-star protégé, Zoe (Juno Temple); and ex-wife, Isabelle (Kathryn Hahn). He seems to have warm feelings for a shy local kid, William (Keir Gilchrist), who does odd jobs around the house and makes sure his studio is wired correctly. We know that Len has a few crossed wires of his own, because, when we meet him, he’s snorkeling in an outdoor swimming pool that doesn’t look as if it’s been cleaned since Esther Williams was inducted into the Swimming Pool Hall of Fame, in 1967. Max drives to the property from New York, hoping that Len would do him the courtesy of listening to his band’s demo tape and giving it an honest critique. Assuming it will be just another example of art-school bollocks, he refuses to even listen to it. Despite his dislike for pop music, as opposed to his love for cashing in on its popularity, Len produced Zoe’s last hit album and made her a bigger star than she already was. She hopes that Len will find it in his heart to cheer her up from the teeny-bopper blues and maybe prevent yet another accidental-on-purpose OD on pills. Needless to say, he’s pissed off by her visit.
He even manages to upset William, when, in a fit of pique, Len berates him for attempting to add chlorine to the pool. He retaliates by pulling out the studio wiring and burying it in the woods. Nice guy. It isn’t as if we haven’t already encountered disgruntled Baby Boomers artists, so delusional they consider themselves to be more amusing and creative after they stop taking their meds. We’ve been given little to no evidence of Len’s contributions to mankind and lose patience with him at about the same time Godsall offers him a way out of his – and our – misery. If it weren’t for our familiarity with Ifans’ previous, more likeable work, we’d have given up on Len and Company before redemption became an option. Actually, we care more about the well-being of the supporting characters, no matter how Len turns out. Kilmer allows us to feel the pain of being the unwelcome son of a narcissistic genius, who may well be jealous of his offspring’s decency and ability to emote. I’d sit through 102 minutes of anything in which Temple appears, even HBO’s “Vinyl.” The 27-year-old daughter of producer Amanda Temple (Joe Strummer: The Future Is Unwritten) and director Julien Temple (London: The Modern Babylon, The Filth and the Fury), brightens any screen on which she appears. Everyone else is pretty good, as well.
Les Cowboys: Blu-ray
Am I the only person who sees the title, Les Cowboys, and immediately thinks it might be the third installment in a City Slicker trilogy, with John C. Reilly sitting in for Jack Palance? Probably. Instead, it is a serious attempt by the prolific French screenwriter Thomas Bidegain — Rust and Bone, A Prophet, Saint Laurent – to comprehend what’s going on in a world that stopped making sense after 9/11. In doing so, Bidegain borrows the template created by John Ford and Frank S. Nugent for The Searchers. When Alain Balland’s teenage daughter goes missing from their rural community in the southeast corner of France, he grabs his young son, Kid, and hits the road to find her. Kelly (Iliana Zabeth) had vanished while the Stetson-sporting Alain (François Damiens) was singing “Tennessee Waltz” at the region’s annual Country Festival. He and his wife, Nicole (Agathe Dronne), assumed the girl was too busy doing line-dances or taking target practice to completely disappear from view. Her friends offer no excuses in her defense or clues to her whereabouts. In the absence of a thorough police investigation, Alain learns that Kelly split for points unknown in the company of her Arab boyfriend, Ahmed (Mounir Margoum), whose existence was unknown to the family. A few days later, a letter informs them that she’s voluntarily gone full-blown Muslim and they needn’t worry about her. Not surprisingly, this doesn’t satisfy Alain, who grabs Kit and follows a trail that leads to northern Africa. This is 1994, so the level of paranoia isn’t nearly as high as it will be seven years later.
A few years pass until Alain is tipped to the possibility that a clue to Kelly’s whereabouts – and that of the granddaughter, whose existence has been hidden from him — might be found in Belgium. To his chagrin, Kid and Nicole decide not to accompany him on what’s probably just another wild-goose chase or an imposition on Kelly’s chosen lifestyle. Sadly, Alain’s killed after falling asleep behind the wheel on a lonely stretch of highway leading to Brussels. By now, terrorist attacks in New York, London and Spain have transformed the world and Kid can’t help but pick up the baton of his dad’s obsession. He travels to Afghanistan as a Red Cross volunteer, but can’t help flashing Kelly and Ahmed’s photographs to locals on the off-chance she will be recognized. Instead, Kid is taken under the wing of an American mercenary (Reilly), who seems as comfortable in the battle zone — negotiating with warlords to solve problems — as he would have been, back home, on the range. From this point on, spoilers lie. Suffice it to say that there are plenty more revelations and surprises to come. Les Cowboys’ overriding message eventually comes down to something Reilly’s L’Américain tells Kid about the necessity for carving one’s own path through life and respecting those chosen by others. It sounds simple, but, if the aftereffects of 9/11 have taught us anything, it’s that intolerance and bigotry aren’t limited to any one religion, ethnic group or nationality. Despite its surface resemblance to The Searchers, Les Cowboys is a uniquely satisfying movie that can stand on its singular vision and the imagination of an outstanding filmmaker in his directorial debut. The Cohen Media Blu-ray adds an extensive making-of featurette.
Approaching the Unknown
Frankly, I didn’t pay much attention to Approaching the Unknown when it joined the stack of DVDs scheduled to be review in future columns. I didn’t recognize the face of the astronaut on the cover and wasn’t anxious to spend another 90 minutes lost in space. I should have noticed the names of Mark Strong and Luke Wilson and put the DVD on the top of the stack, but the rust-brown coloring caused them to blend into the dark background, above an unfamiliar title that didn’t exactly pop out at me from the cover, either. Strong is an extremely versatile British actor, who’s excelled in such high-profile projects as Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Body of Lies, Sherlock Holmes, Kingsman: The Secret Service and The Imitation Game. Here, he plays astronaut William D. Stanaforth, who’s volunteered for a one-way mission to Mars to lay the groundwork for colonization of the red planet. One of the reasons he’s been chosen to serve as the mission’s advance man is the system he created to use dirt to produce water. After making an ill-advised stop at a space station, where he is greeted by fellow astronauts who are only slightly more welcoming than the creature in “Alien.” After that, his ship begins to misbehave and his efforts to fix the problem only add to the misery. His mission controller (Wilson) wants Stanaforth to return home, but he is having none of it. For the rest of the journey, he’s pretty much reduced to tinkering with machinery, contemplating infinity and hallucinating. In this way, Approaching the Unknown will remind sci-fi buffs of The Martian, Gravity, Interstellar, Solaris and 2001: A Space Odyssey. Arriving so closely on the heels of The Martian and Gravity, though, Mark Elijah Rosenberg’s drama was doomed to a limited theatrical release and low-key re-entry to DVD and VOD. And, that’s really too bad, because Strong’s performance is comparable to any of the ones in the aforementioned titles and the deep-space visuals – likely collected from or inspired by the spectacular images captured by the Hubble telescope – keep the 90-minute film from wearing out its welcome or feeling derivative.
Before re-reading some articles on Fatal Attraction, I didn’t know that there was a scientific term – two, actually – for the malaise that was driving Glenn Close’s lovesick character, Alexandra Forrest. There are plenty of words to describe the behavior of Michael Douglas’ dangerously randy protagonist, Dan Gallagher, with “horndog,” “dickhead” and “Bill Clinton wannabe” coming immediately to mind. Poor Alex suffered from a disorder commonly known as “erotomania” and “de Clérambault’s syndrome.” In the 1971 psychological thriller Play Misty for Me, Jessica Walter’s wigged-out stalker, Evelyn Draper, gave director/star Clint Eastwood more problems than any of the bad guys in the Dirty Harry franchise. I don’t know if either of those two shots across the bow for marital fidelity actually discouraged anyone from cheating on a spouse with someone who might be crazy, but, I suspect, they did. If Bram Coppens’ debut feature, Broken Vows, from a screenplay by James Agnew and Sean Keller, won’t be confused with Fatal Attraction or Play Misty for Me, it might convince one or two bachelorettes, at least, to limit the number of cocktails they imbibe on their girls-go-wild weekend. Here, Jamie Alexander (“Blindspot”) plays Tara, a fetching lass celebrating her impending marriage in New Orleans. After way too many drinks and some prodding from her bridesmaids, Tara makes a play for the handsome bartender, Patrick (Wes Bentley), who’s game for what she imagines will be a one-night stand. No harm, no foul … just some last-minute payback for a fling enjoyed by her fiancé, Michael (Cam Gigandet), years earlier. Imagine Tara’s surprise when Patrick shows up a day or two later at the home she shares with Michael, assuming that she feels the same way about him as he does for her. Nothing Tara says or does convinces him of her affection for Michael and her intention to marry him. It causes Patrick to shift into full Alexandra Forrest gear, even going so far as to call all the vendors providing services for the nuptials and telling them they won’t be needed, after all. It gets worse, but not in ways that are likely to surprise fans of stalker pictures and psycho-thrillers. As a first effort, though, Broken Vows isn’t bad, just overly familiar.
This high-spirited dramedy about play within a play represents Henry Jaglom’s 20th feature and the sixth starring his red-headed muse, Tanna Frederick. The backstage-as-center-of-the-universe conceit incorporated by Ovation! reminds me of Robert Altman’s final theatrical film, A Prairie Home Companion, which chronicles the last week in the broadcast life of America’s favorite radio/variety show. And, yes, except for the A-list cast playing beloved on-stage characters and backstage hands, it looks and sounds very much like what we imagined life on Garrison Keillor’s radio home might be like. Jaglom doesn’t enjoy the luxury of being able to recruit an all-star cast, typically making due with an ensemble cast of actors with whom he’s familiar and comfortable. His son and daughter Simon and Sabrina, have also been given meatier than usual assignments here. Frederick’s Maggie Chase is one of the stars of a play being staged in a financially challenged theater on the west side of Los Angeles. Although we aren’t permitted more than one or two glances at the audience or performance, we’re told that the play is receiving standing ovations after each show. The cast has grown weary of being promised definite word on the fate of the theater and is concerned when Maggie is offered a TV gig by mainstream star Stewart Henry (James Denton). Although both have regular companions, they spark immediately in a post-performance meeting. Besides the mysteries surrounding Maggie’s decision and the fate of the theater, there’s no scarcity of intrigue involving the various cast and crew members, agents, producers and directors. It includes an abusive relationship that disturbs everyone within shouting distance of the couple, the high anxiety exhibited by a Tarot reader and other shenanigans. I’m not sure that I buy the simplistic depictions of the abusive behavior of two male cast members, but Jaglom finds interesting ways to neutralize them. He also creates a tidy resolution for the other mysteries. If you love the theater the way Jaglom does, there’s a pretty good chance you’ll enjoy Ovation!, too.
Der Bunker: Blu-ray
German newcomer Nikias Chryssos’ truly creepy debut feature, Der Bunker – not to be confused with Adolph Hitler’s final resting place – made the rounds of fantasy and other genre festivals before taking the path of least resistance to Blu-ray/DVD. That shouldn’t stop horror buffs from checking it out before arranging their Halloween playlists, however. In it, a young man known to us only as Student answers an ad for a quiet room to let, in a remote place, so that he can complete an important project. As he approaches the door to the underground bunker, we intuitively know that Student (Pit Bukowski) isn’t going to get much work done. Father (David Scheller) immediately attaches himself to the young man, telling silly jokes and acting as if he were a partner in the project. Mother (Oona von Maydell) demands that he sit down in their kitchen for something she insists is dinner. Lurking off-screen is Klaus (Daniel Fripan), a stereotypical dimwit whose home schooling includes paternal bullying and maternal breastfeeding. When Father declares that Klaus is being groomed to be “president,” it becomes unclear as to which of the family members is more retarded, to coin a perfectly appropriate description. To this end, the parents coax Student to take over tutoring Klaus. Father suggests he learn the capitals of the world, first. The results are darkly comical. Things begin to turn really weird after Klaus – and, by extension, Student – fails his father’s first pop quiz. Student is so distressed by the boy’s punishment that he decides to coach him in the art of cheating. It doesn’t take long before he also discovers Mother’s trick to get her big baby boy to sleep. That she isn’t embarrassed when she spies Student checking her out only adds another layer of intrigue. And, yes, things get even stranger from there … not in a gory sort of way, but disturbing nonetheless. Chryssos is able to build and maintain tension through Matthias Reisser’s claustrophobic cinematography and a color scheme that reflects the feeling of being trapped underground. It only changes toward the end, when an opportunity for escape opens up and it’s indicated in neon red hues. Weighing in at 85 minutes, Chryssos isn’t given much time to make a lot of freshman mistakes. The Blu-ray adds a good making-of piece and deleted scenes.
Phantom of the Theatre
The Invoking 3: Paranormal Dimensions
The Devil’s Forest
The primary selling point for the haunted B&B thriller, The Inhabitants, is the Rasmussen brothers’ shared writers’ credit on John Carpenter’s 2010 disappointment, The Ward, which starred Amber Heard, Mamie Gummer and Danielle Panabaker. Co-writers/directors Michael Rasmussen and Shawn Rasmussen then collaborated on the haunted-sanitarium chiller, Dark Feed. It received some decent marks on niche sites, but others suggested the brothers stick to writing. The Inhabitants tells the story of Dan (Michael Reed) and Jessica (Elise Couture), a couple who buy the March Carriage House, a historic New England bed-and-breakfast whose up-keep became too expensive for the previous owner and her wacky aunt to afford. The sale’s due-diligence period must have expired before the couple discovered the inn’s history of depraved ownership, which dates back to the Salem witch trials. This, combined with all of things that go bump in the night in the first month of their occupancy should have told Dan not to leave his wife home alone when he left town on a business trip. Instead, he fulfills the requirements of the Idiot Plot by letting her fend for herself in a house only a moron wouldn’t realize is haunted. Sure enough, by the time he returns home, Jessica is in a catatonic state and the dog is missing. The Rasmussens also decided to add a hidden room loaded with surveillance equipment of the type used for making sex tapes to be sold on the Internet. A collection of ancient surgical implements harkens back to a time when the house was used as a midwifery and several of the town’s children died while being supervised by a woman presumed to be a witch. The Inhabitants was shot in color, but it might as well have been black-and-white for all of the nearly indistinguishable imagery, caused by a suspicious electrical blackout.
If, in Hitchcock’s Rear Window, Jimmy Stewart had been confined to wheelchair in an apartment haunted by malevolent spirits, it might look a bit like Joseph Sims-Dennett’s freakishly atmospheric Observance. The filmmaker’s influences might also have included Polanski’s The Tenant and, for its deployment of eerie sonic effects and listening devices, Coppola’s The Conversation. That’s not to suggest that the Aussie filmmaker’s sophomore feature is completely derivative, but these influences seem pretty clear. Parker (Lindsay Farris) is a young man who recently lost everything in his life he holds dear, including money. To make ends meet and keep his mind off his troubles, Parker reluctantly returns to work as a private investigator. His assignment is to observe a pretty blond (Stephanie King) from an abandoned apartment in a derelict building across the street. Like Stewart, he uses a high-power lens to keep track of her inside her apartment. He also has tapped her phone and is able to ask a friend to translate the intelligence for clues of what, he does not know. Neither is his employer concerned when he witnesses some possibly illegal exchanges between the woman and an unknown man. The Employer is so determined that Parker completes his mission that he offers additional pay for additional days on the job. Parker suspects that the Employer is the same man who’s paying visits to the woman, but, again, to what end? It’s at about this time in the proceedings that things begin to go sideways for Parker. The haunting takes the form of an infection that causes him to cough up a dark, bloodlike fluid and have hallucinations of near-past tragedies. Still, if he wants to be paid, he must remain on the investigation, which, after several days, moves outside for a while. More suspenseful than scary, Observance is best when the atmospherics are used to advance the action, instead of the indeterminate narrative. A precede is included on the DVD/Blu-ray.
Considering that the State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television of the People’s Republic of China makes the bluenoses at the Hays Office look like libertines, it’s a wonder that Raymond Yip’s Phantom of the Theatre could be made. That’s because it goes against the same ban on promoting superstitions and aberrations that kept Ghostbusters and Ghostbusters: Answer the Call and Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest, among other pictures, to be refused access to Chinese audiences. The question is addressed in the film when filmmaker Gu Weibang (Tony Yang) is cautioned by a crew member about censorship relating to supernatural content. He responds, “What aberrations? The Book of Rites clearly states that ‘all beings die and return to the ground.’ That is how a ghost is defined. Even our ancestors acknowledge ghosts.” Even so, some Pacific Rim critics have suggested that Yip voluntarily pulled back on the horror and special effects, replacing them with a sometimes ponderous romantic through-line. The theater that provides the setting here was destroyed in a deliberately set fire 13 years earlier, killing a family troupe of acrobats who gave a command performance for a local warlord. The once grand playhouse has reopened to accommodate the film shoot, despite the presence of the ghosts of the acrobats. The supernatural movie within a movie will star a promising young actress Meng SiFan (Ruby Lin). No sooner does production begin than the leading man and producer each spontaneously combust. But, even in this ghost-filled theater in pre-World War II Shanghai, the show must go on. If Yang’s story was been hobbled by censorship, Phantom of the Theatre can be recommended for the ghosts that remain and its splendid re-creation of the rebuilt theater and period costumes.
In 2013, Jeremy Berg’s supernatural thriller, The Invoking, was accorded some positive reviews on genre websites and prizes at a couple festivals. How it evolved into the low-budget anthology series The Invoking 2 and The Invoking 3: Paranormal Dimensions is a mystery to me. The dots between them don’t appear to connect in terms of creative talent, producers or distributors, except for the participation of Ruthless Pictures in the similarly developed All Hallows Eve franchise. Lee Matthews (The Horror Network) is cited on IMDB.com – if not the final credit roll — as writer and director of the nine chapters of “Invoking 3.” Each short film purportedly was shot at the location of disturbing paranormal events, involving Grim Reapers, evil poltergeists, satanic forces and conjured spirits. They could be film-school projects, for all I know. The chills in these micro-budget efforts derive largely from scary makeup effects and bizarre masks.
We’re advised on the cover of The Devil’s Forest (a.k.a., “The Devil Complex,” “The Devil Within”) that the movie is based on true events. Doubtful, but let’s say it was. In it, documentarian Rachel Kusza (Maria Simona Arsu) travels to Transylvania with a film crew to collect evidence that the Hoia Baciu forest is haunted and possibly complicit in a dark history of strange occurrences, ghost sightings and countless cases of missing people. After entering the forest, they were never seen or heard from again. After searching for the film crew for two years, Rachel’s teacher, Howard Redman (Tom Bonington) found the crew’s camera buried in the snow. Before taking his own life, Redman uploaded the footage to the internet. He needn’t have bothered. The found-footage reveals little besides sinister looking trees and dirty snow. Apparently, the forest judges the people who enter it and decides which ones are allowed to leave. Some movies have that effect on viewers, too.
Carrie: Collector’s Edition: Blu-ray
She Who Must Burn
The Hills Have Eyes: Limited Edition: Blu-ray
Vamp: Special Edition: Blu-ray
Looking back on Carrie with the benefit of Scream Factory’s sterling 40th-anniversary Blu-ray edition fresh in my mind, it’s easy to see why Brian De Palma’s revenge fantasy freaked the hell out of a generation of Baby Boomer audiences. Everything was changing in the marketplace and viewers were just getting accustomed to such things as tent-pole pictures, demographic-specific marketing campaigns, the virtual end to platform releasing and wide acceptance of horror films in which teens are butchered simply for doing the kinds of things teenagers do late at night in cars. Hollywood’s relative inattention to the genre gave new-breed filmmakers the opportunity to be subversive and scary, while giving kids what they wanted to see. In Carrie, De Palma respected his audience enough to include dozens of references to the work of important directors and classic movies, while also taking advantage of the freedoms afforded by the extinction of the Production Code and protections provided by the MPAA film-rating system. Because Carrie was the first Stephen King novel adapted for the big screen, viewers really didn’t know what to expect. Critics, by and large, kept the movie’s secrets to themselves and “spoilers” didn’t travel around the globe at the speed of light. I have to believe that Carrie is still capable of shocking viewers new to the movie 40 years later. What viewers who haven’t seen it since 1976 may not recall are early non-television appearances by John Travolta, Amy Irving, William Katt, Nancy Allen, Betty Buckley, P.J. Soles, Michael Talbott and Edie McClurg. Sissy Spacek was familiar only to those who’d seen her terrific performance, alongside Martin Sheen, in Terrence Malick’s debut feature, Badlands. For their work here, Spacek and her terrifying on-screen mother, Piper Laurie would be nominated for Oscars, notably for what many in Hollywood must have considered to be a genre picture. Not for nothing, Carrie also demonstrated how telekinesis could be used a defense to being bullied at school and at home. In addition to the bonus features carried over from previous iterations and formats, the two-disc Collector’s Edition Blu-ray boasts a 4K Scan of the original negative and restoration; fresh interviews with Nancy Allen, Betty Buckley, William Katt, Piper Laurie, Edie McClurg and P.J. Soles, screenwriter Lawrence Cohen, editor Paul Hirsch, director of photography Mario Tosi, casting director Harriet B. Helberg and composer Pino Donaggio. Also new is another segment in Scream Factory’s “Horror’s Hallowed Grounds,” during which viewers to take a tour of the film’s locations, then and now.
Every time zealots from the Westboro Baptist Church picket the funeral of a soldier killed in action, an AIDS victim or religion whose teachings it abhors, an atheist is born … maybe more. Piper Laurie’s character in Carrie might have been inspired to join the WBC if she hadn’t been crucified by cutlery by her telekinetic daughter. Veteran Canadian filmmaker Larry Kent must have had the same church in mind when he conceived the unusually pointed anti-hate thriller She Who Must Burn. In it, a women’s-care clinic is shut down after its doctor is shot to death by anti-abortion protester, Abraham Baarker (James Wilson), who was arrested soon after. Undeterred, the doctor’s assistant, Angela (Sarah Smyth), relocates the clinic to her home, which then becomes the target of the fanatics, who mistakenly believe she’s performing abortions. Even assisting battered women leave their abusive spouses or counseling pregnant teens is grounds for retribution by the assorted Baarkers and their followers. Assuming they have the Constitution on their sided, the Baarkers push their luck once too often causing local lawmen to finally get off their asses. This may not sound as if She Who Must Burn movie fits under the heading of horror, but there’s monsters aplenty among the church members, who would even set a “sinner” on fire to punish her … again, not unlike Carrie. Evans has built a career around addressing social ills through genre themes. By not turning the Baarkers into gargoyles or overly exaggerated characters, he refuses to allow the horror of hate to be compromised or ignored.
If one takes into account Wes Craven’s stylish, if pseudonymous 1975 porno, The Fireworks Woman, The Hills Have Eyes stands as his third feature and second horror flick, behind The Last House on the Left. It must not have been easy for Craven to find financing for a follow-up to a film so graphically violent that it caused the critic for the New York Times to walk out in disgust after 50 minutes. (By contrast, Roger Ebert gave it 3½ out of 4 stars.) That it was loosely based on Ingmar Bergman’s The Virgin Spring demonstrated that Craven was interested in something other than torture-for-torture’s-sake. Five years would pass before the release of The Hills Have Eyes, which, Craven allowed, was inspired by the legend of Sawney Beane and his loathsome family (a wife, eight sons and six daughters), who roamed the highlands of Scotland’s East Lothian County, near Edinburgh, in the early 1400s. Standing in for those lush hills are the scrub-brush wastelands of Apple Valley, Mojave and Victorville, Clalifornia. It resembles the high-desert landscape north of Las Vegas, where the station wagon and trailer belonging to the white-bread California family from Cleveland, breaks down on their way to Disneyland. Unfortunately, the AAA TripTik failed to warn them of the feral varmints who inhabit the hills surrounding their unexpected bivouac and feast on interlopers. The rest of the story is best left to your imagination … or nightmares. Even if Craven doesn’t disguise the influence of Tobe Hooper’s 1974 The Texas Chain Saw Massacre on The Hills Have Eyes, it’s different enough to stand on its own as a pioneer in the torture-porn, revenge and cannibal-clan subgenres. The Arrow Video 4K restoration from original film elements was supervised by producer Peter Locke and adds postcards; a reversible fold-out poster, featuring new and original artwork; limited edition booklet, with new writing on the film by critic Brad Stevens and a consideration of the “Hills” franchise by Ewan Cant, illustrated with original archive stills; audio commentary with Wes Craven and Peter Locke; “Looking Back on The Hills Have Eyes” making-of documentary, featuring interviews with Craven, Locke, actors Michael Berryman, Dee Wallace, Janus Blythe, Robert Houston, Susan Lanier and director of photography Eric Saarinen; “The Desert Sessions,” a new interview with composer Don Peake; the alternate ending, in HD for the first time; marketing material; an image gallery; original screenplay (BD/DVD-ROM Content); and reversible sleeve, with original and newly commissioned artwork by Paul Shipper.
In his review of Vamp, Ebert compared it to “a vampire version of After Hours, Martin Scorsese’s great 1985 film about a long night in the big city when everything went wrong.” (Director Richard Wenk acknowledges the influence in an interview here.) He didn’t particularly care much for the story, so chose, instead, to linger on the thoroughly arresting performance by Grace Jones as an undead stripper. Thirty years later, Vamp can be enjoyed not only for her over-the-top dance and costume, but for Billy Drago’s albino thug, Dedee Pfeiffer’s cute-as-a-button stripper, Gedde Watanabe’s nerdy sidekick and Sandy Baron’s sleazy club owner. Chris Makepeace and Robert Rusler play the fraternity pledges who promise the brothers far more than they can deliver in the way of party favors. Vamp also benefits from Elliot Davis’ atypical nighttime cinematography, Alan Roderick-Jones’ imaginative set design and Greg Cannom’s special-makeup-effects work. The Arrow Video upgrade is enhanced by a high-definition digital transfer; original mono audio; “One of those Nights: The Making of Vamp,” a new documentary featuring interviews with director Richard Wenk, cast and crew members; behind-the-scenes rehearsal footage; a blooper reel; image gallery; Wenk’s delightful 1979 short, “Dracula Bites the Big Apple”; a reversible sleeve, featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by the Twins of Evil; and a booklet featuring new writing on the film by critic Cullen Gallagher.
Francesca: Collector’s Edition: Blu-ray
It’s easy to get the impression from an interview included in the Francesca Blu-ray package, from Unearthed Films, that Argentinean co-writer/director Luciano Onetti hates the term “neo-giallo” as much as loves, respects and emulates old-school giallo, right down to the lurid colors, disembodied red gloves playing a piano and grain in the film stock. His first, 67-minute crime drama Sonno Profondo (a.k.a., “Deep Sleep”) got some attention at several niche film festivals, as did the 13-minute-longer Francesca, which doesn’t suffer much from being seen on the smaller screens. As the story goes, it’s been 15 years since the disappearance of little Francesca, daughter of the renowned storyteller, poet and dramatist Vittorio Visconti, and the mystery remains fresh in her home town. Today, the community is stalked by a psychopath bent on cleansing the city of “impure and damned souls,” apparently prompted by various chapters in Dante’s “Divine Comedy.” Police detectives Moretti and Succo know that they can’t solve the current string of murders unless they solve the mystery surrounding Francesca’s fate. You can bet they’re related one way or another. The narrative, which is presented almost entirely from the first-person perspective of its villainous lead character, probably would have benefitted from another 10-15 minutes of exposition. Still, fans of giallo should find Francesca worth the effort of finding. The special edition adds a DVD, a disc dedicated to the atmospheric soundtrack, an essay, a “hidden” scene and alternate opening, interview with Onetti and making-of piece.
A Werewolf in the Amazon Collection
Knowing how much Brazilian exploitation specialist Ivan Cardoso owes to José Mojica Marins (a.k.a., Coffin Joe) explains almost everything on display in Camp Motion Pictures’ truly outrageous “A Werewolf in the Amazon Collection.” Just as Coffin Joe was considered to be the “Dario Argento of Brazil,” Cardoso’s contribution to genre filmmaking was “terrir,” (a Portuguese portmanteau of “terror” and “rir,” “to laugh”), which combined classic horror tropes and homages to such innovators as Alfred Hitchcock and Roger Corman, with elements of the sexy chanchada comedy style. His movies delivered on their promise of mixing T&A with parodies of the most widespread Brazilian stereotypes. They take some time getting used to, of course, but so did giallo and women-in-prison flicks made in the Philippines. This new-to-DVD compilation is comprised of A Werewolf in the Amazon (2005), with Fangoria Hall of Famer Paul Naschy playing both the evil vivisectionist Dr. Moreau and his trademark character, the Wolfman; noir-inspired The Scarlet Scorpion (1990), in which the playboy crime-fighter Anjo takes on his arch-enemy Escorpião Escarlate, who kidnapped a respected fashion designer (Andrea Beltrão); The Seven Vampires (1986), concerning a botanist researching a dangerous carnivorous plant and a bumbling detective investigating a plague of mysterious attacks at a upscale nightclub; and The Secret of the Mummy (1982), which describes what happens when Professor Expedito Vitus discovers the tomb of Runamb, the Mummy, and unleashes a murderous rampage. Unrestored, the latter pair look as if they were produced in 1922, instead of the 1980s. Even so, they’re far from unwatchable. The boxed set adds “A Marca do Terrir,” a short-film collection featuring Cardoso’s 16mm “Nosferatu in Brazil” and the experimental featurette, “O Sarcofago Macabro”; a mini-poster; and liner notes by film critic Justine Smith.
Beep: A Documentary History of Game Sound
Among the many things we take for granted in life are the sounds we hear emanating from video games, pinball and slot machines and other electronic entertainments. They don’t exactly fit the traditional definition of music and are rarely hummable. As we’re reminded in Beep: A Documentary History of Game Sound, percussive sounds have always played a role in popularizing arcade and casino games. They were of the bells-and-whistles variety, chiefly used to alert winners and passersby of a jackpot. It encouraged others to join in the fun, even if the odds against winning a stuffed animals or coins was miniscule. The introduction of Pong and other video games changed the way manufacturers considered sound. At first, the bleeps, bloops and gurgles provided little more than ambient background noise. As increasingly sophisticated software allowed more memory to be dedicated to sound, the synthesized notes, mutes and loops more closely resembled movie soundtracks and electronic-music scores. Individual sounds could be attached to specific characters, scenarios, actions and movements, while also branding a game. That’s a layman’s explanation for what’s discussed in Karen Collins docs in clips from more than 80 interviews with game composers, sound designers, voice actors and audio directors from around the world, as well as imagery from groundbreaking games and hardware platforms. While undeniably interesting and comprehensive, at 153 minutes “Beep” almost certainly will wear out its welcome for casual gamers and non-geeks after the first 45 minutes, or so. A documentary about the history and evolution of Muzak, elevator and lounge music would have the same lulling effect. For others, the two-DVD set features an extended director’s cut; the featurette “Big in Japan:A Japanese Special”; a tribute to Ryu Umemoto; and a tutorial on getting into the business.
If the next President of the United States decides to build a 30-foot-high wall on our border with Canada to keep more comedians from entering this country, legally or illegally, America would be a less happy place to live and Canada might be able to maintain a stable entertainment industry. I don’t know how many of Hollywood’s funniest comedians and writers can trace their roots to the Great White North, but it probably is higher than the number of Polynesian islanders playing football in the NFL and colleges here. Robert Cohen’s entertaining documentary, Being Canadian, is less concerned with the nature of humor in the Canadian psyche than “what it means to be Canadian.” This is a question that perplexes Cohen far more than any of the people interviewed here, including Catherine O’Hara, Martin Short, Jason Priestley, Conan O’Brien, Eugene Levy, William Shatner, Seth Rogen, Mike Myers, Dan Aykroyd, Alanis Morissette, the Trailer Park Boys and a dozen celebrities you wouldn’t guess are Canadian. What I took from the film about our quaint neighbor to the north is if Cohen absolutely, positively had to know what it means to be Canadian, he probably spent too much time in L.A.
The Legend of Frenchie King
42nd Street Forever: The Peep Show Collection Vol. 17
Neither Brigette Bardot nor Claudia Cardinale was a stranger to period action pictures when they teamed up on the 1971 spaghetti Western, The Legend of Frenchie King, which, true to form, was shot in Andalucía, Spain, where Sergio Leone had staked a claim years earlier. Bardot had teamed with Sean Connery on the Louis L’Amour adaptation, Shalako, while Cardinale had famously appeared in Once Upon a Time in the West. Bardot would soon retire from making motion pictures, while Cardinale is still performing. Along for the ride was Michael J. Pollard, who was still riding on the fumes left over from his performance in Bonnie and Clyde. Bardot and her sisters have formed a team of train robbers, dressed as men. Cardinale and her brothers own a ranch that promises to produce a gusher of black gold in the near future. Much to the amusement of the local cowhands and sheriff, the ladies engage in a wild cat fight until they figure out how to parley their strengths to profit from the oil. (They also enjoy the brothel workers’ weekly bath in a nearby river.) It’s goofy, alright, but watching two of the 1960s’ most prominent “sex kittens” together is a real hoot, even 45 years later.
Impulse Pictures’ 42nd Street Forever: The Peep Show Collection series must have struck a chord somewhere, as it’s just turned the corner on Volume No. 17. The 15 newly re-mastered 8mm shorts may not be flawless, but they’re probably as clean as they’ve ever been. (I use the word “clean” advisedly.) This time around the stars include Seka, Sharon Kane and Linda Shaw. They all look so young and fit. (Viagra was still 20-some years from reality.) Liner notes are by Dimitrios Otis.
AMC: Feed The Beast: Season 1
PBS Kids: Caillou: Caillou the Courageous
Nickelodeon Favorites: A Very Nick Jr. Christmas
It’s difficult to recommend a series, in this AMC’s Feed the Beast, that hasn’t been renewed or been allowed to tie up loose ends. Fans of David Schwimmer and James Sturgess may not have been aware of the existence of the underpublicized show and want to check it out, anyway. Based on the Danish series “Bankerot,” it involves brothers-from-other-mothers Tommy Moran and Dion Patras, both of whom appear to carrying the weight of the world on their shoulders. Dion (Sturgess) isn’t out of prison for more than a couple hours, before he’s picked up off the street by a fat gangster who carries a pliers around as his weapon of choice. Dion owes him a ton of money for burning down his father’s restaurant while flying high on coke. Tommy isn’t exactly ecstatic to see his friend walk into his life again, because his wife was in the restaurant at the time and failed to escape. Their son is so traumatized that he stopped speaking to anyone, including his teachers. Dion is a chef extraordinaire and Tommy is a master sommelier, so the only hope of raising the money is by opening a fancy new Greek restaurant in a Bronx neighborhood waiting to be gentrified. There’s more. Feed the Beast probably was too convoluted to maintain a steady audience. Miss one episode and you were lost forever, Anyway, the acting’s good, so there’s that. The cooking displays are truly mouthwatering.
Growing up can be fun, but, let’s face it, there are things no child should be expected to experience before puberty, at least. These would include televised presidential debates, hot dog eating contests and watching Pete Rose analyzing a baseball game on Fox Sports 1. To prepare for such real-world shocks and disappointments, today’s preschoolers can get a head start by watching shows such as PBS Kids’ “Calliou” or picking up the occasional DVD compilation, like “Calious the Courageous.” The 55-minute package includes seven stories on overcoming such fears as spiders, shadows, roller-skates and climbing.
The six-episode collection, “Nickelodeon Favorites: A Very Nick Jr. Christmas,” is a sampler of holiday- and winter-themed shows from some of the network’s favorite series and characters. Among them are Blaze and the Monster Machines in “Monster Machine Christmas,” Shimmer and Shine in “Santa’s Little Genies,” Dora and Friends in “Shivers the Snowman,” Bubble Guppies in “A Very Guppy Christmas” and Wallykazam! in “Wally Saves the Trollidays” and “Snow Place Like Home.”