By Gary Dretzka Dretzka@moviecitynews.com
The DVD Wrapup: Innocents, Swiss Army Man, Purge: Election Year, Diary of a Chambermaid, The Wailing, Homestretch and more
The Innocents: Blu-ray
For most of its 1,050 years as recognizable entity, Poland has stood at the crossroads of European history. It’s rarely been a particularly comfortable place to be. In September, 1939, the country was invaded almost simultaneously by Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. Before the dust cleared and an Iron Curtain on freedom fell, at least 5.6 million ethnic Poles and Polish Jews perished at the hands of the invaders, 90 percent of the deaths being non-military in nature. The Warsaw Uprising of 1944 left 150,000 civilians dead. Another 320,000 were deported to Siberia. In the 50 years between the fall of Poland and raising of the curtain, most of what Poland could offer the world culturally emanated from an émigré community frustrated by the broken promises at Yalta and oppressive Communist Party censors. Movies dramatizing the horrors of occupation and heroes of the resistance were left largely to filmmakers working in the west. Those made internally were weighted toward a Moscow-approved view of reality. They included Wanda Jakubowska’s 1948, The Last Stage, which was shot on location at the Auschwitz-Birkenau Concentration Camp and employed Holocaust survivors as actors. Largely unseen here until 2009, when Facets Video distributed the Polart edition, The Last Stage remains one of the most disturbingly accurate Holocaust movie ever made, even considering the pro-Soviet propaganda at its close. Since 1990, the free cinema of Eastern European has become one of the most vital movements of them all. Among titles with direct connections to Poland are Agnieszka Holland’s Europa Europa and In Darkness; Roman Polanski’s The Pianist; Andrzej Wajda’s Korczak and Katyn; and Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List, which was shot in several Polish locations. Released in 2014, Pawel Pawlikowski’s post-World War II drama, Ida, told the story of Anna, an orphan brought up by nuns in the convent after being left there by Polish neighbors during the occupation. Eighteen years later, on the eve of taking her vows, Anna is instructed by Mother Superior to meet Wanda, a Communist Party functionary and atheist, who’s Anna’s only living relative. After Wanda tells Anna about her Jewish roots, both women embark on a journey not only to learn more about their family’s tragic story, but also to look inward and question engrained beliefs. Intricately conceived and full of surprise revelations, Ida was awarded the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film.
Likewise set largely inside a convent, this time in December 1945, Anne Fontaine’s deeply engrossing The Innocents (a.k.a., “Agnus Dei”) is the based-on-fact story of French Red Cross doctor Mathilde Pauliac (Lou de Laage), who, while treating the last of the French survivors of German concentration camps in Poland, is summoned to a Benedictine convent by a distraught nun. Although not authorized to leave the medical outpost, as it’s surrounded by Red Army troops, Mathilde reluctantly agrees to follow her to church outside town. When she arrives, she finds one of the younger sisters in labor and promptly delivers the baby via C-section. The silence and shame that accompanies the infant’s birth would suggest that the nun had been impregnated by the devil – or, perhaps, the Holy Ghost — and no word of it should leave the convent’s walls. Instead, as the strict Mother Abbess (Agata Kulesza) and similarly rigid Sister Maria (Agata Buzek) explain, the nun was one of seven nuns that had been impregnated by Soviet soldiers who had forced their way into the monastery. The women had survived the German occupation, only to be raped by their “liberators” from the east. Although Mathilde agrees to minister to the pregnant women, some refuse pre-natal care out of personal shame, a reluctance to being touched below their habits and the bizarre belief that they somehow shared the blame. All of them have been emotionally and spiritually traumatized. Eventually, with the help of a “worldly” French-speaking nun, Mathilde wins the confidence of the pregnant women, if not the elders. The overriding question then becomes what happens to the children born out of wedlock and the “tarnished” nuns. Despite the nuns’ continuing chorus of prayers, no one knows how God wants the situation to be resolved, of course … the Mother Abbess would probably veto it, anyway. After the horrors of the war, it’s difficult to believe God ever paid much attention to what was happening in Poland. Meanwhile, Mathilde is faced with crises of her own. Working from screenplay by Sabrina B. Karine, Alice Vial and Pascal Bonitzer, Luxembourg-native Fontaine (Gemma Bovary, Coco Before Chanel) has crafted a spiritually informed drama that respects the faith of the nuns, while questioning the motivations of people whose notions of morality are suspect, at best. Finally, too, it asks us to re-consider our beliefs about motherhood, religion and heroism. Like Ida, The Innocents is a story about, but not strictly for women, which, sadly, I can’t see being made in Hollywood. I can only hope it’s remembered when Oscar voting begins in January. The Music Box Blu-ray arrives with a pair of interviews with Fontaine, one hosted by Holland.
Swiss Army Man: Blu-ray
When in doubt, fart. Ever since Mel Brooks broke the flatulence barrier in Blazing Saddles, the almost always gratuitous addition of a fart to a scene has induced laughter among viewers, young and old. And, it isn’t limited to gross-out flicks anymore, either. Any time two or more unrelated characters share an elevator or friends take a road trip, a fart is sure to follow. Neither are animated pictures exempt. Of all the things the MPAA ratings board based its R-rating for Swiss Army Man – the Citizen Kane of flatulence-informed films – excessive farting wasn’t one of them. And, yet, the film’s many fart gags reportedly caused several audience members at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival screening to take an early powder. Blessedly, co-writer/directors Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert elected not to add Smell-O-Vision to the sensory mix. Early buzz on Swiss Army Man accurately described it as Weekend-at-Bernie’s-meets-Cast Away. In it, Paul Dano plays Hank, the sole survivor of some kind of terrible disaster or accident, living on a deserted stretch of beach. Finally, he decides that suicide is a better option to such a solitary existence than waiting for a passing ship to rescue him. Just as the rope tightens around his neck, however, Hank spies the only slightly bloated corpse of another man (Daniel Radcliffe) being washed upon the shore. After toying with “Manny” like a kitten with a baby bird, Hank discovers an aspect of the decomposition process not commonly acknowledged in television dramas and movies, but well known to morgue attendents. The post-mortem passing of gas can be shocking, but it’s hardly unusual or harmful. Apparently, though, Manny has a natural-gas reserve not unlike those being fracked in North Dakota. Being bored and resourceful, Hank discovers a plethora of ways to exploit Manny’s gifts. Some are off-putting, while others genuinely hilarious. Meanwhile, Radcliffe remains in character throughout the indignities. If this was all there is to Swiss Army Man, the story could be reduced to an episode of “South Park.” Instead, the Daniels, as the filmmakers sometimes call themselves, find ways to turn their creation into the strangest of buddy pictures, complete with romance, hallucinations, wildlife and a poignant climax. Manchester Orchestra’s Andy Hull and Robert McDowell contributed a soundtrack that sounds improvised, but adds an emotional tug not typically associated with movies this unusual. Dano and Radcliffe have evolved over the past few years into actors who defy stereotypes at every turn and demand that their work be seen. The Blu-ray adds commentary with Kwan and Scheinert, production designer Jason Kisvarnay and sound mixer/“fartist” Brent Kiser; deleted scenes; a pair of making-of featurettes; and a lengthy Q&A with the filmmakers, featuring Glenn Kiser moderating at the Dolby Institute. It focuses on a grant “Swiss Army Man” received from Dolby for sound design and production.
The Purge: Election Year: Blu-ray
Defying most of the laws of box-office physics, each new installment in the Purge series has earned more money than its predecessor. Typically, after the second or third installment in genre franchises, producers start weighing the pros and cons of going straight-to-DVD/VOD. After all, why waste money on distribution and marketing when a fan base has been established and its loyalty has been assured? Budgets have risen only marginally, while critical response has grown more favorable. The Purge: Election Year was widely expected to be the third chapter in a trilogy that began in 2013, with a home-invasion scenario, starring Ethan Hawke and Lena Headey. Then, a year later, The Purge: Anarchy focused on a three groups of people caught outside in Los Angeles on Purge night, when all crimes are legal and forgiven. “Election Year” takes the action to Washington, D.C., where a senator who wants to abolish the 12-hour event becomes an assassination target. It has been two years since former police sergeant Leo Barnes (Frank Grillo) stopped himself from a regrettable act of revenge on Purge Night and, now, he’s head of security for presidential candidate Senator Charlie Roan (Elizabeth Mitchell). It’s the same woman, who, in 2022, helplessly witnessed her family get murdered by a Purger. Roan believes Purge Night, which now attracts hooligans from around the world, is nothing more than a scheme to enhance the wealthy and erase the poor. As a way to counter that argument, the organizers agree to remove the prohibitions against killing government officials above a certain ranking. It becomes Griffin’s duty to protect her not only from the riff-raff celebrating “Halloween for adults,” but also from those who would go to extreme lengths to preserve the ritual slaughter. The setup allows for a maximum amount of action and surprises in the allotted 110-minute time, with the addition of several non-governmental characters and references to bullying and intolerance that seem to have been inspired by the Trump campaign. Fans also are given reason to believe a fourth installment could be on its way. The Blu-ray includes deleted scenes, a short backgrounder and character spotlight on the return of Leo Barnes.
Into the Forest: Blu-ray
If more dystopian movies were written and directed by women, they might look less like Mad Max and more closely resemble Patricia Rozema’s deliberately paced and emotionally engaging Into the Forest. If there was a zombie in it, I missed it. Based on Jean Hegland’s word-of-mouth best-seller, published in 1996 in paperback by tiny Calyx press and in hardback, two years later by Bantam, Into the Forest has been described as a feminist drama. It can, however, be enjoyed as a struggle for survival by two teenage girls, who must learn to cope without their parents and conveniences of modern civilization they’ve taken for granted since birth. Ellen Page and Evan Rachel Wood play Nell and Eva, sisters who find themselves stuck in an isolated house in the forests of northern California after a nationwide power outage … or, perhaps, a more permanent disaster. Having lived in the sparsely populated region most of their life, the girls aren’t completely unprepared for roughing it for a couple of weeks while the electricity and gasoline supplies are restored. Long-term solutions, however, aren’t as easy to find. Nell is an extrovert, who’s natural inclination is to party until the cows come home, while Eva has resorted to dance therapy to get over her mother’s recent death, to cancer. (Their father dies in a terrible accident, while cutting down a tree.) As time goes by, they’ll be required to deal with declining food, gas and water supplies, destructive animals, inclement weather, solitude and thieves. They probably could attempt to move into the nearest city, 30 miles away, but there’s no telling what’s happening there. Months pass and their home succumbs to the meteorological realities of life and decay in a rain forest. When Eva is impregnated by an acquaintance determined to steal their last jerrycan, Nell must adjust to being her sister’s ob-gyn, psychiatrist, provider and source of warmth and protection. With Google unavailable, Nell must rely on the family encyclopedia for information. Anyone who’s read the novel and is familiar with Rozema’s resume — I’ve Heard the Mermaids Singing, When Night Is Falling, Mansfield Park – wouldn’t expect her to provide an easy way out to the sisters, like a sudden power surge or unexpected arrival of the National Guard. Into the Forest further benefits from Daniel Grant’s lush cinematography and superb acting by Page and Wood, two of our finest young actresses. The Blu-ray adds Rozema’s commentary and a making-of featurette.
Diary of a Chambermaid: Blu-ray
One definition of chutzpah would be a filmmaker re-adapting a classic book that’s already been successfully interpreted by such masters as Jean Renoir and Luis Bunuel. The prolific French writer/director/actor Benoît Jacquot (Farewell, My Queen, 3 Hearts) has that kind of chutzpah, in spades, so it’s important that he bring something more to Octave Mirbeau’s 1900 book, “Diary of a Chambermaid,” than a tonal shift from black-and-white to color. The class-conscious novel takes the point-of-view of a resentful maidservant, Mademoiselle Célestine, whose job Jacquot equates to a form of indentured servitude, created to simplify the decadent lives of wealthy men and women. One of them fetishizes her boots to the extent that he is found dead one morning with one of them stuffed in his mouth. While some of Celestine’s bosses may be better than others, none is free of the turpitudes of bourgeois society. If the poor and laboring classes aren’t any better when it comes to morals, at least they have an excuse. As Célestine, Léa Seydoux easily stands up to our inevitable comparisons with Paulette Goddard and Jeanne Moreau, whose portrayals were shaped by the restrictions of the time – 1946 and 1964 — or personal quirks of the director. After excelling in such high-profile pictures as Spectre, Mission:Impossible – Ghost Protocol, The Grand Budapest Hotel, Farewell, My Queen, Midnight in Paris and Lobster, Seydoux is as hot as anyone in the business, right now. Here, Célestine braces at the humiliating submission to Madame Lanlaire’s onerous terms of employment, her husband’s constant groping and the handsome gardener Joseph’s virulent anti-Semitism. She knows her only alternative might be a job in a brothel, which, of course, is just a different sort of slavery. As a period piece set largely in northern and coastal France, Diary of a Chambermaid could hardly be more eye-catching. It was nominated for César Awards in the categories of Best Costume Design, Best Production Design and Best Adapted Screenplay (with Hélène Zimmer). The gorgeous Blu-ray includes an extensive making-of featurette, with a tight focus on Jacquot’s approach to the material.
Heart of the World: Colorado’s National Parks
It’s difficult to imagine how such a delightful and visually arresting picture as Amazonia failed to land a single 3D screen upon which it could exhibited to school groups and families looking for some G-rated entertainment. The French/Brazilian live-action co-production tells the story of how a domesticated capuchin monkey, Sai, survives a plane clash in the rain forest and learns to fend for himself in an environment so foreign to him it might as well be Mars. A terrifically energetic and expressive actor, Sai literally is required to learn how to feed himself, avoid predators, survive an unexpected journey down a raging river and ingratiate himself with the jungle’s primate population. Natural hams, capuchins are captivating whether they’re performing for tips in the company of an organ grinder or using their wits to crack open nuts and fruits. Here, though, Sia must share the spotlight with the production team, which logged several years of hard work and filled barrels of sweat, no doubt, traipsing through the rain forest with equipment and provisions. The newly available DVD isn’t available in 3D or Blu-ray, but the visuals don’t look as if they were staged to make objects pop off the screen or scare the kiddies. It’s simply good fun. It includes an informative making-of featurette and a few cute animated shorts.
Colorado may be best known these days as the marijuana-consuming capital of North America, but, after that distinction wears off, it will still be famous for its spectacular natural beauty and diversity of its geologic resources. That will never change. The travel documentary, Heart of the World: Colorado’s National Parks, focuses on a half-dozen of the state’s most scenic national parks and monuments, each one worthy of a separate excursion during the course of one’s lifetime. The beautifully photographed film carries us through all four seasons and hundreds of centuries of geologic time. Even if the three hour-long episodes sometimes repeat scenes, interviews and information, while giving off an unnecessarily promotional air, there are too many things to love about Colorado to lower the film’s score for boosterism.
Eva Doesn’t Sleep
If all the average, post-Baby Boomer American knows about Eva Peron derives from Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s acclaimed musical “Evita” and movie based on it, Eva Doesn’t Sleep will beg all sorts of questions that will require a visit to Wikipedia. It’s worth the effort. The musical argues rather successfully that Peron – an entertainer before becoming then-Colonel Juan Perón’s mistress and wife – triggered the cross-pollination of celebrity and politics in the mid-20th Century, and Madonna was the perfect person to play her in the movie. Eva’s rise from illegitimacy and poverty appealed to Argentina’s poor and working class, as did her familiarity as model, radio and movie star. Eva met Juan Peron at an earthquake-relief “festival” he organized to entertain survivors and raise money for recovery efforts. They clicked immediately, no doubt sensing how each other’s strengths could be merged in his pursuit of higher office and her desire to appeal to the masses, one way or the other. She proved to be a quick study. In 1946, now-President Juan Peron acknowledged her growing role in the country’s famously mercurial political arena by handing her the bill he had just signed, granting women the right to vote. Before her untimely death in 1952, at 33, the cancer-ridden Evita was given the official title of “Spiritual Leader of the Nation.” The weeks-long outpouring of love and grief by everyday Argentines made headlines around the world. He planned to construct a monument that would make Lenin’s mausoleum in Red Square look like a shoebox casket for a child’s dead pet. Before that could happen, though, Peron was overthrown in a 1955 military coup, causing him to leave the country without her extensively embalmed body in tow. Eva Doesn’t Sleep blends fact and conjecture in its attempt to make sense of what happened to her body and why the militarists and other ruling-class Argentines implemented plans to wipe all mention of the Perons’ activities from the country’s official memory. In 1973, Perón was allowed to return to Argentina, from Spain, and become president for the third time. After he died in office a year later, his third wife, Isabel, succeeded him, becoming the first female president in the Western Hemisphere. Isabel had Eva’s body returned to Argentina and briefly displayed beside her husband’s, before being interred in the Duarte family tomb in Buenos Aires’ La Recoleta Cemetery.
In the largely unseen Eva Doesn’t Sleep, Pablo Agüero (Salamandra) uses newsreel footage to illustrate the public reaction and turmoil that followed Evita’s death. Far more intimate are the episodic segments that dramatize the highly personal feelings of individuals in close contact with the embalmed body. Gael Garcia Bernal (Amorres Perros) plays Admiral Emilio Massera, who can barely disguise his glee after learning of Evita’s death. He despised the populist initiatives she championed and place she held in the hearts of the public. Twenty years later, Massera would play a key role in the military coup that deposed Isabel Peron and the ensuing disappearance of some 9,000 dissidents and potential foes of the junta in the “Dirty War.” Spanish actor Imanol Arias (The Liberator) portrays Madrid-based professor of anatomy Dr. Pedro Ara, who was called in to embalm the body. His work was occasionally referred to as “the art of death” and that’s exactly how Aguero approaches the potentially creepy tableaux. Even more macabre is the interchange between an officer and his driver (Denis Lavant) assigned the duty of transporting a wooden box carrying the embalmed body to a secret location in Europe. After the driver is left alone with the makeshift coffin, he dares to lift the cover to determine the value of the cargo. The officer understands the significance of their mission and why it must be kept secret. After several nips of alcohol from a canteen, the young man and his seen-it-all superior bond over their respective wounds and their almost absurdly close proximity to death and history. Finally, Aguero demonstrates Evita’s legacy with a depiction of the kidnapping and assassination of former President Pedro Eugenio Aramburu Silveti in 1970, by leftist Montoneros guerrillas. His regime was ruthless in its pursuit and persecution of Peronists left behind after the 1955 coup. During the interrogation of Aramburu, he justifies the abuses he authorized and the disappearance of Evita’s corpse. Although not shown, the Montoneros would demand the return of the body before they would release his corpse. Eva Doesn’t Sleep probably could have been dramatized very easily on stage, accompanied by projections of archival images. As it is, Aguero’s story is a haunting reminder of the lengths men in positions of power will go to preserve their status, however temporary, and stand in the way of true democracy.
Laid in America: Blu-ray
Despite the large number of coming-of-age movies targeted directly at American teenagers, it’s amazing how many adult characters never made it past that milestone in life and how the “bromance” subgenre has emerged to address the problem of premature adulthood. With the borderline clichéd ensemble comedy Joshy, Jeff Baena (Life After Beth) gives us a half-dozen more reasons not to care much about chronically pampered yuppies and their rituals. One of them, Josh, played Thomas Middleditch (“Silicon Valley”), is about to be married and accept some of the responsibilities, at least, of adulthood. Before that can happen, his fiancé (Alison Brie) commits suicide. Aware that she had been struggling with depression, Josh tries not to take it personally. Her parents (Paul Reiser, Lisa Edelstein), though, are perfectly willing to blame him for her well-disguised illness, if only to assuage their feelings of guilt. Four months later, a half-dozen of Josh’s bros decide that a “cleansing the palate” is in order and decide to meet at the cabin in Ojai, where they’d intended to have his bachelor party. Even if none of the guys appear to have much in common, besides a desire never to grow up, the conditions are ripe for Joshy to evolve from bromance to soul-baring weekend reunion picture, a sub-genre inspired by the popularity of The Big Chill. Despite the presence of such familiar television actors as Adam Pally (“The Mindy Project”), Nick Kroll (“The League”), Brett Gelman and Jenny Slate (“Married”), Lauren Graham (“Gilmore Girls”), Aubrey Plaza (“Parks and Rec”) and Jake Johnson (“The New Girl”), Joshy was accorded only the most limited of releases. I suspect that’s because viewers have tired of seeing the same actors playing characters similar to the ones here. Or, perhaps, they anticipated a backlash to the many reunion pictures that promise laughs but contain more angst and kvetching than hijinks. The guys pick up some girls at a local bar/casino, but only the married one scores. He appears to regret the liaison in the morning, but takes his time informing her of the complication. The young woman (Jenny Slate) has been down this road before and isn’t about to let it ruin her birthday weekend. She shares a hot tub with the rest of the guys, but everyone keeps their clothes on. (These are serious actors, after all.) Strippers are booked, of course, but the guys can’t work up anything resembling an erection. The discovery of a BB gun prompts some childish target practice. The only laughs in a surprise visit by the owners of the cabin (Joe and Kris Swanberg) derive from some toddler-in-jeopardy moments. Everyone here can and has done better work on TV and in ensemble movies. There’s a commentary track with Baena, Middleditch and producer/actor Adam Pally.
Neither does Laid in America advance the boys-will-be-boys conceit very far beyond the Dude, Where’s My Car visual reference on the cover. Fans of YouTube “sensations” KSI and Caspar Lee are the target audience for this teen comedy, which includes the obligatory inflatable sex doll, happy-to-oblige dominatrix and oddball pairing of a desirable blond and nerdy virgin. KSI (a.k.a., Olajide “JJ” Olatunji), 23, has more than 14 million subscribers on YouTube and was named the UK’s “most influential creator” in 2015. The South African Lee has more than 6 million subscribers on YouTube. It explains why they decided to bypass a theatrical release and sell the movie via downloads or DVD/Blu-ray. In the extremely broad comedy, Duncan (KSI) and Jack (Lee) are exchange students with just one night left in the United States to fulfill their bucket-list dream of losing their virginity to a beautiful young woman … although, as the deadline approaches, their criteria lessen. Bobby Lee (“Mad TV”), as a wannabe Korean gang-banger, steals every scene in which he appears, along with his gal-pal (Alexis G. Zall). Angela Kinsey (“The Office”) also manages to elevate the proceedings. Laid in America’s single bonus feature features KSI and Caspar Lee hosting an in-depth, day-by-day, behind-the-scenes look at the making of the movie. Among other topics, the hosts and additional cast and crew discuss the differences between shooting a film versus shooting for YouTube, specific scene details, locations, character details, cast and performances.
The Hunting of the President Redux
Only the most diehard Republican could argue with any integrity that a small, but influential cabal of conservatives has conspired to make life hell for Bill and Hillary Clinton. The current Democratic candidate for the presidency opened herself up to ridicule in 1998, when she defended her philandering husband by pointing to a “vast right-wing conspiracy,” rooted in backwater Arkansas politics and extending to such tomfoolery as the Whitewater, Troopergate and Travelgate scandals; unfounded speculation surrounding the suicide of deputy White House counsel Vince Foster; and the then-president’s unwillingness to acknowledge his affairs. Like the Benghazi brouhaha, none of these so-called conspiracies amounted to hill a hill of beans. Sadly, the constant barrage of rumors, accusations and gossip found a ready audience in the mainstream media, which had been embarrassed when the National Inquirer and other tabloid rags beat them to key revelations in the O.J. Simpson murder trial and other juicy stories. In Nickolas Perry and Harry Thomason’s adaptation of Joe Conason and Gene Lyons’ exhaustively reported book, “The Hunting of the President,” the facts are laid out alongside the rumors and profiles of the key accusers, one more grotesque than the next. The film was nominated for the WGA’s Documentary Screenplay Award. Turns out, the rumors had a longer shelf life than the book and documentary. When it became clear that Hillary would emerge as the Democratic candidate and many of the same non-truths were resurrected by the right-wing media, Perry and Thomason decided to update their film with fresh interviews of the people featured earlier. The result is a litany of mea culpas and embarrassed faces, from Little Rock to Washington. They freshen an already interesting and compelling documentary, especially if one is predisposed to buy into the Clintons’ side of the endless debate. As was the case of the original film, though, what’s lacking is any reasoned discussion of Bill and Hillary’s willingness to shoot themselves in the foot by lying as their first line of defense and building a wall around themselves when attacked. It’s a strategy that continues to trip up Hillary. It remains to be seen if she would have benefited more from cutting Bill loose after l’affaire Lewinsky or defending the indefensible with an eye toward maintaining his fan base in the presidential campaigns of 2008 and 2016.
The Wailing: Blu-ray
When stripped of context, a total domestic gross of $786,633 may not sound like a huge amount of money. Put under a microscope, however, it’s easy to see how Na Hong-jin’s classy horror film, The Wailing, may signal the arrival of another important writer/director from South Korea. It’s difficult to imagine many viewers, besides fellow countrymen and genre buffs, willing to invest 156 minutes of their time in so unsettling a movie. Moreover, at its widest exposure, The Wailing could only be seen on 35 screens. Well Go USA Entertainment has done a terrific job exposing Pacific Rim artists and titles to American audiences hungry for stories that don’t look as if they’ve been put through the studio meat grinder, suffocated by bean counters and forced to run the gamut of film festivals before scoring distribution or a DVD/PPV debut. I don’t know how much money was invested in Na’s film, but it couldn’t have hurt that 20th Century Fox was one of three companies involved in production. (It also handled the domestic South Korean distribution.) In it, residents of the little town of Goksung are gripped by fear when a mysterious Japanese stranger arrives almost simultaneously with an outbreak of a terrible disease or epidemic of demonic possessions. After the almost buffoonish Inspector Jong-goo (Kwak Do-won) reaches the boundaries of accepted police work, he’s forced to consider more traditional methodology and explanations, including the presence of a ghost or demon. The Outsider (Jun Kunimura) has been seen devouring decaying animals in the forest and flashing bright red eyes at people who get too near to him, so why not? In one riveting scene, Jong-goo takes a police acolyte and a local shaman to the Outsider’s shack in the woods and begins investigating. It’s there that the young cop discovers a hidden room filled with photographs of and personal items belonging to the victims. Outside, the shaman attempts to prevent the owner’s pit bull from breaking its chains and attacking him. The dog isn’t stilled until the Outsider returns home and takes him for a walk, leaving the investigators stunned and empty-handed. The Wailing takes a turn in the direction of The Exorcist when Jong-goo’s adorable daughter Hyo-jin (Kim Hwan-hee) not only begins to exhibit symptoms of the disease, but also demonic possession. And, yes, her portrayal of the poor dear is frighteningly credible. As if the Outsider weren’t a sufficiently distressing presence in the village, another potential suspect, the ghostly Woman of No-name (Chun Woo-hee) appears in Goksung, serving as either a beautiful red herring or the real killer. Na adds some humorous touches to the narrative, besides Jung-goo’s chipmunk cheeks, but we’re never quite sure what to think of them. The gorgeously shot film looks great on Blu-ray, which contains only two short making-off pieces.
By now, I think it’s safe to say that the presidential debates will remain free of any serious discussion of such crucial domestic issues as homelessness, poverty and the twin disparities of income and punishments accorded corrupt bankers and people forced to shoplift diapers and food for their children. The Republican candidates managed to completely ignore the question of global warming (or, if you prefer, climate change) by agreeing that it doesn’t exist, while Democrats have always been better at pointing out problems than fixing them. Anne De Mare and Kirsten Kelly’s essential documentary, The Homestretch, stands as a reminder that homelessness isn’t limited to adults or people who’ve given up hope of ever finding meaningful work, again. Neither are the faces of homelessness and poverty limited to those ravaged by long-term drug addiction, alcoholism and mental disorders. Co-produced by Kartemquin Films, The Homestretch follows three homeless teens as they fight to stay in school, graduate and build a future. Roque, Kasey and Anthony are representative of the estimated 1.6 homeless teens struggling to overcome problems related to parental abuse, drugs and complete lack of ambition and hope. With unprecedented access into the Chicago Public Schools and emergency youth shelters, De Mare and Kelly were able to navigate a landscape of couch hopping, transitional homes, street families and a school system stretched to the limits by budgetary constraints and political imperatives. The filmmakers didn’t think it necessary to devote a great deal of time showing us such manifestations as smoking crack or shooting heroin, panhandling or committing crimes to make ends meet. Instead, the emphasis is on the battle to find ways to provide at-risks kids a leg-up. The devotion of the adult volunteers is almost thrilling to watch, even when they hit roadblocks. It’s also impressive to watch the teens take such positive steps as participating in extracurricular at school – Roque memorizes “Hamlet” in Spanish and English — and cheering each other on for their successes. Of course, it’s impossible for any fly-on-the-wall documentary to ignore recidivism, bad behavior and ignoring the advice of psychiatrists. The real message seems to be that money well spent, along with the participation of sincere and dedicated adults, can overcome problems typically blamed on lack of governmental oversight, heartless bureaucracies, political meddling and societal indifference. It isn’t easy and nothing’s guaranteed. Still, I’d recommend forcing any candidate for public office to attend a screening of
When I saw the title, Coming Out, I assumed the Wolfe Video release would be a throwback to the many dramas and documentaries of the 1990s and early-2000s that focused on the agony, if rarely the ecstasy of exiting the closet and confronting friends and family with the reality of sexual identification. Queer cinema has come a long way in the last 10-15 years and it hardly seems necessary to dwell on the past. I’m not sure what filmmaker Alden Peters expected to experience when he decided to come out to his friends and family and record their responses to his revelation … probably a mixed bag of emotional outpourings. His project was inspired by the cruel outing and subsequent suicide of Rutgers student Tyler Clementi, who had been surreptitiously filmed in his dorm room while having sex with another man. The video was leaked on the Internet by his roommate, who wanted to use it as evidence to get someone new to share the room. Instead, it was shown to others in the dorm as comedy. Clementi’s death brought national attention to the issue of cyberbullying and the struggles facing LGBT youth. Unfortunately, it also prompted several American teenagers to commit suicide after being taunted about their homosexuality. It’s possible that none of the teens was aware of the support network available to troubled LGBT youths embarking on the often difficult passage. Peters, currently enrolled in New York college, decided to film the entire process, as he breaks the news to everyone who is important in his life, and he even goes back and discusses their feelings and reactions again a few days later when the news had sunk in. Anyone expecting the usual amount of Sturm und Drang is likely to be pleasantly surprised by the lack of drama that greeted Peters’ individual announcements. Instead, everyone who hadn’t already assumed he was a gay, expressed their approval of the decision. It turned out that all of his anxiety going into the project went for naught. Granted his family and friends weren’t predisposed to be shocked, in any case, but the responses lent Coming Out an atypically light-hearted and comforting air. The 70-minute documentary adds interviews with psychiatrists and organizers of support groups on social networks.
My Many Sons
Sports fans are a notoriously fickle lot. If their team is winning, all manner of bad behavior by players and coaches is likely to be tolerated. If it’s losing, however, even the smallest infraction could bring calls for sanctions and public humiliation, if not imprisonment. Bobby Knight, a living legend in Indiana, could throw chairs across a basketball court, berate officials and abuse players verbally and physically without registering a peep from fans and alumni. It wasn’t until his behavior embarrassed university officials not completely obsessed with Hoosier basketball that he was dumped. Penn State still can’t decide what it thinks about the role played by football coach Joe Paterno in the Jerry Sandusky scandal. Florida State’s unwillingness to penalize star athletes for committing serious crimes has made front-page news in the New York Times. Now that the media have been shamed into finally blowing the whistle on athletes and coaches for crimes great and small, pressure has increased on parents, alumni and fans to decide where to draw the line on excessive behavior. These are the things that passed through my mind when considering the merits of My Many Sons, the story of basketball coach Don Meyer (Judge Reinhold), who temporarily passed Knight to become the winningest basketball coach in NCAA history. It’s a truly inspirational biopic, especially in its portrayal of Meyer’s ability to continue coaching, despite battling terminal cancer and becoming wheelchair-bound after a nearly fatal car wreck. Like Knight, Meyer was an unabashed taskmaster willing to crush a player’s ego – including that of his son – if he didn’t perform to his exacting standards. Of all the things he could have demanded from his team and the student bodies of the small colleges he served, these were the top three: everybody takes notes, everybody says “please” and “thank you,” and everybody picks up trash. Working in his favor was the fact that Meyer refused to recruit players who might have been inclined to commit rapes, drink until they puked, abuse the athletic department’s 800-line and skip classes. Still, in practices and in games, he could be merciless. My Many Sons may indeed be an unusually heart-warming story of character, relationships, loyalty and turning young boys into men, but, for most of its 97-minute length, it’s also an uncritical endorsement of bullying kids to maintain a winning program. On the plus side, director Ralph E. Portillo (Angels Love Donuts) and first-time screenwriter Carol Miller stick to the facts of Meyer’s official biography, without embellishing either the good or bad aspects of his career and family life.
Fender Bender: Blu-ray
The Demolisher: Blu-ray
Mark Pavia’s unapologetically retro thriller, Fender Bender, is easily recommendable to anyone longing for the days when a masked maniac could prowl the highways and byways of small-town America and stalk, with the intention of slaughtering, innocent teenagers for reasons known only to him. While, admittedly, the slasher subgenre isn’t exactly my cup of blood, Fender Bender opened with a jump-scare that scared the crap out of me and convinced me to stick around for the next 85 (out of 91) minutes. The premise, not that a slasher flick necessarily needs one, involves a creep known to us only as The Driver (Bill Sage), who tools around the country in a souped-up sedan, stopping long enough in any one town to identify his prey, bump into the rear end of her car and invade her home, based on information gleaned from the exchange of insurance information. That Driver doesn’t pull any punches becomes clear when he takes out an attractive MILF (Cassidy Freeman), only hesitating long enough for her to get out of her bath and try to go to sleep. His next stop is a town in New Mexico – Santa Fe or the outskirts of Albuquerque – where he allows his car to make contact with the rear fender of a one driven by Hillary (Makenzie Vega), a 17-year-old girl newly alerted to her dick boyfriend’s infidelity. Although the accident isn’t her fault, Hillary’s parents ground her for pissing them off once too often. Guess what happens, then, when Mom and Dad take off for a weekend trip to the nearest Indian casino? That’s right. And, of course, Hillary invites some friends to keep her company after the second jump-scare. If everything in between transpires according to Hoyle, Pavia does come up with an ending most viewers won’t be able to predict half-way through the movie. Clearly influenced by the work of John Carpenter (Halloween), Pavia does a nice job paying homage to the master. The Scream Factory’s first made-for-cable movie adds a “Retro VHS” version of the film; a 40-minute “Slashback” reel, containing vintage trailers; director’s commentary; producer’s commentary; a behind-the-scenes featurette; and marketing material.
Gabriel Carrer’s highly stylized and almost stiflingly atmospheric revenge thriller, The Demolisher, also pays homage to the masters of slasher porn, while experimenting with frequently annoying audio and visual conceits. Because cable repairman Bruce (Ry Barrett) feels responsible for the beat-down given his ex-policewoman wife, Samantha (Tianna Nori) by a gang of extreme thugs. He wanders around the mean streets of Toronto, donned in modified Robocop gear, looking for the hoodlums and beating the crap out of them. Out of uniform, he isn’t as tough. Halfway through the dialogue-deprived story, Bruce begins to imagine that a different young woman, Marie (Jessica Vano), instigated the violence against Samantha and goes after her. Turns out not to have been a good idea. The story’s moral could be that a mask and leather outfit doth not a superhero make. The Demolisher pretty much left me cold, but it found plenty of admirers on niche websites and among Canucksploitation buffs. The Blu-ray adds a making-of featurette, deleted scenes and a Filmmakers Q&A at the Toronto After Dark Film Festival.
First released in 2012, in a small handful of foreign markets, the claustrophobic Australian teen horror, 6 Plots, arrives on these shores with only one fairly tired plot attached to it and a half-dozen happy-shiny young actors. The story involves a mixed group of seven youngsters, all friends, whose lives revolve around partying and, presumably, surfing to their hearts’ content. They hope to stream one of the parties across the Internet, but things don’t work out that way. After one night of mild debauchery goes awry, six out of the seven wake up encased in boxes, unable to escape. The seventh, Brie (Alice Darling), is accorded the responsibility of racing the clock to save her six friends, based on clues provided by a digital puppet master. The victims were allowed to retain their smartphones. The curious thing, perhaps, is that the boxes aren’t buried as much as hidden in precarious Melbourne locations. Brie mustn’t contact parents or authorities, or they will all die. If the premise isn’t bad, the execution is pretty weak. A making-of featurette explains how fragile the concept really was.
It’s a Rockabilly World
The Tubes – Live at German Television: The Musikladen Concert 1981
The popularity of rockabilly music has ebbed and flowed since its heyday, some 60 years ago. It some ways, it originated as a hillbilly answer to zoot-suit finery and the ecstatic response to black swing and R&B, during and after World War II. As Brent Huff’s delightful popumentary It’s a Rockabilly World suggests, the unique nature of rockabilly culture derived from young men’s addiction to cars, hair grease and cigarettes, while the girls emulated the pinup models who lifted the spirits of our fighting men in World War II. At first, it was strictly a working-class phenomenon, unrelated to Britain’s imitative Teddy Boy and Teddy Girl sub-culture. As American rock grew outward from its rockabilly and R&B roots in the 1960s, the Beatles and other Brit rock groups remained faithful until psychedelia took hold. It wasn’t until the American rockabilly band Stray Cats scored some hits that the kids here and in England realized how much fun it was to emulate the 1950s scene and began a revival that continues today, here and around the world. The universality and topicality of the movement is on full display in the documentary, shot at conventions in Las Vegas and other locations. It has expanded to include adherents of shockabilly, schlockabilly, gothability and punkabilly, with the common denominators being tattoos, throwback hairdos, extreme cosmetics and a love of dance. The passion for cars no more went away than the hair grease. The conventioneers we meet do tend to be purists when it comes to their overall look, but inclusivity does seem to be encouraged.
Any Tubes performance video without “White Punks on Dope” and “Don’t Touch Me There” already is suspect. That said, “The Tubes – Live at German Television: The Musikladen Concert 1981” – on DVD for the first time – is a technically sound and visually arresting reminder of the high-concept band at its most magnetic. The concert was staged in the studios of Radio Bremen, Germany, to support the band’s “The Completion Backward Principle” album and European tour. The personnel lineup includes Fee Waybill, Roger Steen, Bill Spooner, Rick Anderson, Vince Welnick, Michael Cotton and Prairie Prince, as well as dancers/showgirls. The funny/cool thing about the Tubes was that newcomers listening to an album might be completely unaware of the group’s highly theatrical stage act, which combined quasi-pornography with wild satires of media, consumerism and politics. As musicians, there were few tighter ensembles.
History: American Experience: The Presidents Collection
PBS: Spillover: Zika, Ebola & Beyond
PBS Kids: Wild Kratts: A Creature Christmas
It probably is an appropriate time to re-release PBS’s award-winning “The Presidents Collection,” if only as a reminder of the great diversity of personalities of the men – temporarily, at least – who’ve served as the nation’s chief executive and commander-in-chief. The series documents each of the presidents, starting with George Washington, and following in chronological order to Barack Obama. Each president’s segment begins with the narrator giving a brief dossier on each one, from their political affiliation, family and notable traits. The segments then highlight the history behind each administration, linking each one to the following. While only a few can be said to be comprehensive, all of them reveal quirks, passions, personality traits and conceits that shaped these mostly rich, accomplished and overwhelmingly Protestant men. It also puts the profiles into the context of their times. Anyone who thinks Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton are unique for their idiosyncrasies is encouraged to check out some of the oddballs who’ve made it to the White House.
PBS’ “Spillover: Zika, Ebola & Beyond” tells the terrifying tale of how vulnerable we are to diseases once limited to animals and insects, but now can easily be transmitted to humans through overcrowding, poor sanitation systems and fear of the unknown. The Ebola epidemic served as a red flag to scientists and medical personnel for its mysterious spread and severe consequences. Now, researchers are on the hunt for deadly diseases, hoping to stop them before they spill over and spread out of control. It’s not a question of if another outbreak will strike, but when? And will we be prepared?
“Wild Kratts: A Creature Christmas” gets the holiday-DVD ball rolling with this hourlong movie. It’s Christmas time and the Wild Kratts are taking a break to celebrate. They are beginning to open their presents when the alarm sounds. The villains, Zach Varmitech, Gaston Gourmand and Donita Donata are kidnapping all the baby animals to turn them into Christmas ornaments. The Wild Kratts’ celebration will have to wait as spring into action to save their friends and get them home for the holidays.