By Gary Dretzka Dretzka@moviecitynews.com
The DVD Wrapup and Gift Guide: One-Eyed Jacks, Hell or High Water, Kubo, Mia Madre, The Land, Holiday Horror, Poldark and much more
One-Eyed Jacks: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
Re-watching One-Eyed Jacks, after many years, in its pristine Blu-ray incarnation, and listening to the testimony included in the Criterion Collection’s bonus package, I was reminded of another movie that was tortured by studio edicts, yet turned out to be pretty good, anyway: The Magnificent Ambersons. First-time director Marlon Brando and then-sophomore director Orson Welles share many attributes, but being in the same league at the helm of a classic motion picture isn’t one of them. Both movies were taken away from the directors at the insistence of executives who demanded changes to make them more acceptable to mainstream tastes and, in the process, were “butchered.” Welles’ presence can be felt throughout The Magnificent Ambersons, anyway, and not just as the story’s narrator. As the star of One-Eyed Jacks, as well as its original director, Brando delivers a performance so distinctively nuanced –it runs the gamut from bizarre to brilliant – that it’s been indelibly etched into the memories of everyone who’s seen it. Ditto, his delivery of the lines, “Get up you scum sucking pig! I want you standing when I open you up,” “You may be a one-eyed jack around here, but I’ve seen the other side of your face” and “Get up, you big tub of guts!” to Kid Rio’s adversaries. Neither is it likely that the directors’ original visions ever be shown intact, unless the discarded footage is discovered in a salt mine in Kansas or abandoned cinema in the Amazon Basin.
Even so, as remains the case for Welles’ near-masterpiece, there are a dozen other good reasons to pick up the pristine Criterion Collection editions. This is especially true of the newly released Blu-ray of One-Eyed Jacks, a Western that broke all the rules and is always ripe for critical reevaluation. Pressing the case are a supporting cast that includes Ben Johnson, Slim Pickens, Sam Gilman, Timothy Carey, Katy Jurado, Pina Pellicer, Elisha Cook Jr. Pina Pellicer, as well as longtime Brando compadres Karl Malden, Larry Duran and Wally Cox, who didn’t make the cut; a back story that includes Stanley Kubrick, Sam Peckinpah, Elvis Presley, Henry Fonda and Billy the Kid; spectacular Mexican desert and California coastal locations, as captured by the since-abandoned VistaVision format; its many unsubtle Freudian implications; and One-Eyed Jacks’ distinction as the missing link between John Ford and Sergio Leone, between the acknowledge Hollywood classics and revisionist Westerns that have dominated the genre ever since. Moreover, adapted from a novel by Charles Neider, it’s built on a terrifically entertaining story. The 4K digital restoration was undertaken by Universal Pictures, in partnership with the Film Foundation and in consultation with filmmakers Martin Scorsese and Steven Spielberg, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack on the Blu-ray. It adds an introduction by Scorsese; excerpts from voice recordings Brando made during the development of the film’s script; video essays on the film’s production history and on its potent combination of the stage and screen icon Brando with the classic Hollywood Western genre; and an essay by film critic Howard Hampton.
Hell or High Water: Blu-ray
Because you never know who’s going to get shafted when Oscar nominations are announced, I’m kind of hoping that pundits and Golden Globes voters don’t forget David Mackenzie and Taylor Sheridan’s contemporary Western, Hell or High Water. An August release, it could easily get lost when ballots are cast. Everybody loves Jeff Bridges, so it would be difficult to ignore his turn here as a retirement-age Texas Ranger handed a doozy of a goodbye assignment. I hope that voters can look beyond it long enough, however, to appreciate the job done by Chris Pine (Star Trek) and Ben Foster (3:10 to Yuma) as sibling bank robbers raised in Larry McMurtry, Cormac McCarthy and Jim Thompson territory. Based on his screenplay for Sicario, Sheridan clearly appreciates the splendid isolation and vast emptiness of the desert Southwest, where daily life hasn’t changed all that much in the last 150 years. Pickup trucks have replaced horses, for the most part, but there remains an uneasy relationship between cowboys and lawmen, cattle and oil pumps, ranchers and the bankers holding their mortgages. These elements come into play here when brothers Tanner and Toby are told that a patch of oil might lie under their late mother’s iron-flat property and it will belong to the bank if they don’t pick up some quick money.
In a decision that smacks of Lone Star irony, Toby convinces ex-con Tanner to only rob branch offices of the bank salivating over the prospect of picking up some oil leases. Their success attracts the attention of the Texas Rangers, who assign good-ol’-boy Marcus Hamilton (Bridges) and his half-Commanche/half-Mexican partner, Alberto Parker (Gil Birmingham), who patiently puts up with Marcus’ purposefully offensive banter. In that sense, at least, Hell or High Water pits two sets of brothers/partners against each other in a low-tech game of cat-and-mouse. Giles Nuttgens’ highly evocative cinematography pairs well with Nick Cave and Warren Ellis’ high-lonesome soundtrack. Mackenzie, a Brit, must have been a cowboy in a past life, because he nails the ethos on the head here. Certainly, he’s found the beauty and character in a largely barren landscape that most people either take for granted or ignore. The Blu-ray adds the worthwhile featurettes, “Enemies Forever: The Characters of Hell or High Water,” “Visualizing the Heart of America,” as well as a post-screening Q&A and red-carpet reception. (Taylor Sheridan, Ben Foster and editor Jake Roberts have been nominated for an Indie Spirit Award.)
Kubo and the Two Strings: Blu-ray
If Laika Entertainment doesn’t enjoy the same brand recognition outside the animation community as Pixar/Disney, DreamWorks, Aardman, Tokuma Shoten, Studio Ghibli or Blue Sky, it has a batting average any established studio would envy. The Oregon-based stop-motion studio’s first three features – Coraline, The Boxtrolls, ParaNorman – were nominated for Oscars. (It also participated in the success of ABC Family’s “Slacker Cats” and Tim Burton’s Corpse Bride.) I wouldn’t be surprised to find its latest, Kubo and the Two Strings, among the finalists for this year’s competition. The epic action/fantasy was directed by the company’s president and CEO, Travis Knight, whose affiliation with the company began in 1998, as an animator, when his father, Phil, co-founder of Nike, made his initial investment in Portland’s Will Vinton Studios. It took a few years for things to settle down at the studio, which was also doing commercial work at the time, but, once it dedicated itself to features, Laika found its natural footing. Set in ancient Japan, Kubo and the Two Strings tells the story of a boy with a vivid imagination and a gift for paper-folding, who lives on a high cliff perched above the same restless sea that claimed his mother. Kubo (Art Parkinson) has an eye patch hidden beneath his bangs, disguising a wound he claims was made by his grandfather. When he accidentally summons an evil warrior spirit seeking vengeance on his family, Kubo is forced to embark on a quest to solve the mystery of his fallen samurai father and his mystical weaponry. Knight attributes the film’s distinctly Asian look to such inspirations as Japanese origami, ink-wash paintings, woodblock prints, Noh theater, Edo period doll making, ukiyo-e (“pictures of the floating world”) and 20th Century graphic artist, Kiyoshi Saito. Fans of Ray Harryhausen’s skeletal warriors will find something to cheer here, as well. The all-star cast of voice actors includes Charlize Theron, Matthew McConaughey, Ralph Fiennes, George Takei, Rooney Mara, Brenda Vaccaro, Minae Noji and Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa. Among the subjects covered by Knight and his team in the bonus making-of featurettes are the film’s Japanese inspiration, “Mythological Monsters,” “Braving the Elements” and “The Redemptive and Healing Power of Music.” Knight adds commentary and an epilogue.
The title, Homo Sapiens, is a tad misleading, but only because the documentary pays homage to the discarded landmarks of mankind, without also showing the men and women responsible for them. That’s because, for all intents and purposes, they no longer exist. At best, they’ve escaped the dystopian landscapes by moving somewhere more hospitable to the whims of beings who’ve spent most of the last 100 years developing weapons that assure mutually assured destruction. Anyone who’s studies video footage taken of the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone from distances of 10, 20 or 30 years of the nuclear-reactor disaster will know what to expect from Nikolaus Geyrhalter (Our Daily Bread, Pripyat) here. Using only the organic sounds of nature as narration – birds, the wind, rain trickling through the holes of abandoned factories, auditoriums and cathedrals – his largely static camera lingers on empty spaces, ruins, ghost towns increasingly overgrown with vegetation, crumbling asphalt … absent any sign of human life. As such, the Austrian documentarian wants us to ponder the fragility and finite nature of human existence at the end of the analog age, as well as planned and unexpected obsolescence. Absent any identification, viewers are left to guess the locations of the ruins. Some aren’t hard to name, though: the skeleton of a roller-coaster swallowed in waves raised by Hurricane Sandy; decaying movie palaces in Detroit; trashed multiplexes in Japan; a place in Argentina that has been swallowed up by a salt-water lake, which then receded, leaving a sea of white salt; the mosaics on the Buzludzha Monument in Bulgaria; the irradiated buildings of the Fukushima and Chernobyl nuclear plants; an island off Japan that nearly was mined out of existence. It may take a while to accustom one’s self to Geyrhalter’s artistic conceits in Homo Sapiens, but patience is rewarded with poetry.
The Childhood of a Leader
Psychiatrists and criminalists have compiled an extensive list of behavioral traits that, when combined, can predict whether a bad little boy will grow up to become a sociopathic killer. Watch enough reruns of “Law & Order” and you’ll begin to wonder if those skeletons of unfortunate little animals in your son’s bedroom suggest a career as a zoologist or someone who could become the next Jeffrey Dahmer. Determining whether a naughty boy will grow up to become a world leader with sociopathic tendencies is another question altogether. Who knows what horrors could have been averted if a psychiatrist had veto power on the candidacies of Hitler and Mussolini and ascendancies of Franco, Stalin, Pol Pot and Kim Il-sung. Americans will elect a sexual deviant or megalomaniacs to lead them, as long as he promises to make them great. Brady Corbet’s clunkily titled directorial debut, The Childhood of a Leader, profiles one very naughty little boy whose coming of age parallels the rising tide of fascism in Europe, after World War I. It’s the opposite of the kind of high-concept film that only takes a few words or sentences to synopsize. Set amidst the turmoil of World War I and its aftermath, The Childhood of a Leader takes place primarily within the confines of a French villa of an American diplomat (Liam Cunningham) assigned to negotiate the terms of the Versailles Agreement. When he’s away from home, his European-born wife (Bérénice Bejo) passes the time shopping, dining out and bullying the villa’s employees. Their young son, Prescott (Tom Sweet), is a dead-ringer for Little Lord Fauntleroy. As such, he constantly is forced to remind his parents’ adult friends that he’s a boy. Instead of attending a local school, where he’s likely to bullied, Prescott is being home-schooled by his father’s presumptive mistress (Stacy Martin), who he tortures with his obstinate behavior and grabby fingers.
His parents can’t tolerate the boy’s behavior, which includes interrupting meetings and receptions in the nude, but, likewise, have exhausted the limits of non-corporal punishment. Add to this pathology the boy’s tendency to eavesdrop on conversations between the duplicitous and short-sided diplomats, determined to break the backs of the defeated German populace. We know how that turned out. Prescott wasn’t drawn specifically to remind us of Hitler, Franco or Mussolini, although he shares certain behavioral traits. He’s also too young and too American to have joined them in a leadership position in a similarly fascist regime. Scott Walker’s thunderous, Bernard Herrmann-inspired score discourages viewers from sweating such details. Corbet and co-writer Mona Fastvold’s intriguing debut, The Sleepwalker, was a psychodrama about siblings from a dysfunctional family. Frankly, I’m not sure who they thought would be the natural audience for The Childhood of a Leader, except Twilight fans attracted by Robert Pattinson’s name on the poster or admirers of Bejo, who was nominated for a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for The Artist. (Pattinson plays a worldly diplomat whose sound advice is superseded by the American negotiator’s desire to return to the U.S.) The Indie Spirits judges just nominated The Childhood of a Leader and director Brady Corbet in the Best First Feature category.
Hands of Stone: Blu-ray
As great a boxer as Roberto Durán was in his prime, winning five world-title belts in four different divisions, his reputation will forever be clouded by two words he denies saying: “No más.” Supposedly, they were uttered as the then-reigning welterweight champion abruptly forfeited his1980 rematch with challenger Sugar Ray Leonard. No one is likely to remember that he would continue to fight, without embarrassing himself further, until an automobile accident forced him to retire 21 years later, at age 50, or how much of his prize money he’s given away to street urchins in his native Panama. I’ve lost count of the movies about boxing I’ve seen since I started writing about DVDs and Blu-ray releases. Most of them are as predictable as a cold day in Chicago in January. Even the ones that do stand out – Creed, Million-Dollar Baby, The Fighter, — are formulaic in one way or another or owe too great a debt to Raging Bull. Venezuelan writer/director Jonathan Jakubowicz’ comprehensive biopic, Hands of Stone, isn’t without its occasional cliché, trope or neglected fact. For the most part, though, it’s a genuinely entertaining profile of a boxer who was one of the most electrifying fighters of the last 50 years. Considered to be more of a brawler than a stylist, what he lacked in charisma – compared to Leonard (Usher Raymond), anyway – he more than made up for in power. Thus, the title of the movie. Jakubowicz owes a huge debt of gratitude to fellow Venezuelan Edgar Ramirez (Joy, “Carlos”), a terrific actor who really looks at home in the ring, and Robert DeNiro, who plays Hall of Fame trainer Ray Arcel. Unlike other recent assignments, DeNiro appears dedicated to honoring his character’s legacy and helping the picture make an impression in the Spanish-speaking world, if not the U.S., which has always been partial to Leonard. Also good is Rubén Blades, as Duran’s financial backer; Ana de Armas, as the loyal wife; and Ellen Barkin, as Arcel’s wife. The Blu-ray adds making-of and background featurettes, including material on Duran’s contributions to Panamanian affairs.
Mia Madre: Blu-ray
You never know when and where John Turturro is going to turn up in a movie. He not only plays gangster Frankie Carbo in Hands of Stone, but also threatens to steal the show from Margherita Buy in Nanni Moretti’s heart-tugging drama, Mia Madre. This, despite the fact that her marvelous portrayal of a director/mother/director constantly on the verge of a nervous breakdown earned the 54-year-old actress a fifth David di Donatello Best Actress award. Turturro provides the comic relief in a film whose protagonist, I suspect, takes everything way too seriously for most American tastes. Turturro’s Barry Huggins is an actor recruited to attract English-speaking audiences to a movie about workers protesting layoffs proposed by a new boss. Turturro drives director Margherita nuts by forgetting his lines, improvising others and becoming frustrated by the day-to-day trials of filmmaking. After-hours, however, Huggins can be extremely charming. It’s a quality that Margherita makes little time to appreciate, having dedicated her free time to sitting alongside her hospitalized mother, Ada (Giulia Lazzarini), as she prepares to die or go home. She also invests a bit too much of her time in the care and feeding of a college-age daughter, who isn’t particularly interested in pursuing a career as a Latin teacher, as mom has decreed. If that weren’t enough, Ada’s chosen to burden herself further by ending her marriage. Mia Madre was inspired by incidents in the life of writer/director/co-star Moretti, who also drew from personal experience for the Palme d’Or-winning The Son’s Room. His own mother, Agata, died in 2010, as Moretti was finishing We Have a Pope. Like Ada, Agata was a teacher of classical languages. The car Margherita drives belongs to Moretti; his parents’ books line the walls of the film’s interiors; and Lazzarini wears clothes Agata wore in hospital. The gravity of such personal references wore me down after a while, but there’s no doubting the sincerity of Moretti’s desire to address questions surrounding human transience, how we process loss and the healing power of humor. The Blu-ray adds deleted scenes; the 42-minute featurette, “Just a Movie: On the Set of Mia Madre”; four minutes of Turturro riffing on his character; and “The Torture of an Actor,” which deals with the question of how actors feel when their director is another actor and keeps handing out “suggestions” throughout multiple takes of a scene.
It’s been quite a year for Cleveland, the much maligned city on the southern shore of Lake Eire. While the weather still stinks most of the year and the football team does, as well, the city’s NBA franchise brought a professional-sports championship home for the first time in a half-century and the Indians appeared in a World Series for the first time in almost 70 seasons. The Republican National Convention was held in the revitalized downtown district, largely without incident, opening the gates for Donald Trump’s successful, if ignoble race against Hillary Clinton. Like most cities worth their salt, it has an international film festival to call its own. And, while the city would hardly qualify as Hollywood Mideast, a handful of genre films has used Cleveland as a backdrop for depictions of urban crime and offbeat comedy. Craig Moss’ The Charnel House and Paul Schrader’s Dog Eat Dog opened in November; Tom Nagel’s ClownTown and Charles Moore’s Madtown, in September and March respectively; Chris Kasick’s Uncle Nick recalled the Indians’ dime-beer night disaster; and Steven Caple Jr.’s The Land demonstrates that Cleveland has a thriving skateboarding and hip-hop scene. Newly released to DVD, it follows the tradition of being made by people who grew up there and hires local actors in key roles. The Land tells the story of four teenage boys who devote their summer to escaping the streets of Cleveland to pursue a dream life of professional skateboarding. It’s interrupted, however, when they boost a cache of party drugs and peddle them to revelers as if they belonged to them. Instead, the drugs belong to a local drug “queen-pin,” Momma (Linda Emond), whose hippie attire belies a cold heart. Before long, the lads find themselves in over their heads so deep, they’ve put the lives of themselves and their families in peril. The appealing cast is led by Cleveland rapper Colson Baker (a.k.a., Machine Gun Kelly), Jorge Lendeborg Jr., Moises Arias, Rafi Gavron and Ezri Walker. Erykah Badu contributes a cameo and songs, including a duet with executive producer Nas. The soundtrack adds songs by Nosaj Thing, Pusha T & Jeremih, Ezzy and other familiar rappers. The Land isn’t completely devoid of clichés, but the pacing is good, as is the skating.
Chuck Taylor All-Stars may be enjoying something of a comeback as the anti-Nike sneakers, but the only way a pair would be valuable is if they carried the DNA of Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain or Michael J. Fox, who wore Chucks in Back to the Future. Freshmen documentarians David T. Friendly and Mick Partridge’s Sneakerheadz describes how athletic footwear evolved from the dark ages – which lasted into the 1960s – to the point where boutique sneakers autographed by Michael Jordan and other athletes are traded on eBay for tens of thousands of dollars. The emergence of athletic shoes as fashion statements coincided with mainstream acceptance of hip-hop, graffiti and skateboard culture, as well as the corporate footwear wars that raised the ante on endorsements. The trend became a craze when lines began to appear outside shoe stores – some now dedicated exclusively to sneakers – on days when every new release of an Air Jordan model, the most recent being the AJ 31. Sneakerheadz is informed by the testimony of designers, manufacturing executives, collectors, speculators and traders. Left until nearly the end is the downside of the craze. As Nike and its competitors began capitalizing on it by introducing new editions of its shoes and encouraging its designers to make them as cool and desirable as possible by jacking up the retail prices. It encouraged gang-bangers to use violence to steal them from unfortunate wearers, whose only crime was requesting a pair for a birthday or Christmas. Neglected completely is the controversy sparked by strikes in Indonesia, Vietnam and China, where workers complained of sweatshop wages and conditions.
The Marx Brothers Silver Screen Collection: Blu-ray
Gregory Peck Centennial Collection: Blu-ray
I can’t think of a more sure-fire gift idea than Universal’s Blu-ray set, “The Marx Brothers Silver Screen Collection.” The temptation, of course, is to suggest it for older movie lovers on your list, but I’ve never met anyone – of any age – who hasn’t fallen in love with the on-screen antics of Groucho, Harpo, Chico and Zeppo, even if the unfunny Marx brother, Zeppo, requires more explanation than the essential role played by straight-woman Margaret Dumont. This “restored edition” features the only five movies in which all four brothers performed together: The Cocoanuts, Animal Crackers, Monkey Business, Horse Feathers and, of course, Duck Soup. Commentaries are provided by film scholars Anthony Slide, Jeffrey Vance, Robert S. Bader and Bill Marx (son of Harpo), F.X. Feeney and Leonard Maltin. Duck Soup is accompanied by “The Marx Brothers: Hollywood’s Kings of Chaos” and vintage “Today Show” interviews with Harpo, Groucho and Bill Marx. No matter how often you watch them, the movies always reveal something delightfully new.
As the title of Universal’s “Gregory Peck Centennial Collection” points out, 2016 is the centennial year of the great, La Jolla-born actor’s birth. A five-time nominee for the academy’s Best Actor in a Leading Role prize, Peck finally took home Oscar’s bacon in 1963, for his unforgettable performance in To Kill a Mockingbird, the first half of this double-feature. In 1968, he would be honored with the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award. In the infinite wisdom of American Film Institute voters, Peck’s Atticus Finch was named the No. 1 Screen Hero of the last 100 years, while the movie – adapted from Harper Lee’s Pulitzer-winning novel – ranked No. 2 on the list of 100 Most Inspiring Movies of All Time and the 25th Greatest Movie of All Time, in its TV special, “100 Years, 100 Movies, 100 Heroes & Villains.” In Cape Fear, Peck plays a different small-town lawyer, this one forced to put his loved ones at risk in order to trap a criminal (Robert Mitchum) he’d helped send to prison years earlier. Based on a novel by John D. MacDonald, Cape Fear remains a unnerving experience. For his 1991 remake, Martin Scorsese convinced Gregory Peck, Martin Balsam and Robert Mitchum to re-appear in key roles. The Centennial set arrives with the feature-length documentary, “A Conversation With Gregory Peck,” “Fearful Symmetry: The Making of To Kill a Mockingbird,” Peck’s Best Actor acceptance speech, the American Film Institute’s Life Achievement Award ceremony, an excerpt from “Tribute to Gregory Peck,” “Scout Remembers,” commentary with director Robert Mulligan and producer Alan Pakula, “100 Years of Universal: Restoring the Classics,” “The Making of Cape Fear” and production photographs.
Horror for the holidays
Rabid: Collector’s Edition: Blu-ray
Dead Ringers: Collector’s Edition: Blu-ray
Canadian filmmaker David Cronenberg emerged at a time in the mid-1970s when horror and sci-fi had yet to merge in any meaningful way and the splatter/slasher sub-genre was in its infancy. He knew that Frankenstein was equal parts horror and science-fiction, as was Kurt Neumann’s original version of The Fly, which he would revisit 18 years later with a budget that allowed him to take advantage of contemporary makeup, technology and set design. Cronenberg also understood the fright and anxiety that accompanied everyday medical and dental procedures, bodily transformation surgery and infections. His early films fit into the pigeonhole reserved for visceral “body horror.” Influential Canadian journalist Robert Fulford nearly killed Cronenberg’s career before it reached takeoff velocity by attacking Shivers in the national magazine, Saturday Night. Since the film was partially financed by the taxpayer-funded National Film Board of Canada, the headline read, “You Should Know How Bad This Movie Is: You Paid for It.” The money dried up faster than blood on a barroom floor. Fortunately, budding producer Ivan Reitman had faith in his fellow Canadian and found the money to make Rabid, which combined vampirism, zombies, viral disease and experimental skin grafts. Reitman also ratified his friend’s decision to cast Marilyn Chambers – the Ivory Snow cover girl, turned porn star – as a pretty, young blond who develops a blood-craving thirst and misplaced vagina after emergency surgery for a motorcycle accident.
It was a risk few, if any, producers have been willing to take, before or since Rabid. (Former Playboy bunnies don’t count.) She wasn’t required to display any more skin than, say, Cybill Shepherd, in The Last Picture Show, and easily held her own in the acting department. Because government and medical authorities refuse to admit a problem exists, the virus spreads rapidly. (The delivery system is so bizarre and cruel that describing it would spoil the fun.) The Scream Factory makeover begins with a 2K scan from the negative at Cronenberg’s preferred aspect ratio (1.66:1); new audio interviews with Jill C. Nelson, author of “Golden Goddesses: 25 Legendary Women of Classic Erotic Cinema, 1968-1985” and Chambers’ personal-appearances manager Ken Leicht; an interview with co-star Susan Roman; separate commentaries with Cronenberg and William Beard, author of “The Artist as Monster: The Cinema of David Cronenberg”; archival interviews with Cronenberg, Reitman and co-producer Don Carmody; the featurette, “From Stereo to Video,” a video essay by Caelum Vatnsdal, author of “They Came from Within: A History of Canadian Horror Cinema”; marketing material; and a stills gallery.
Following by two years the commercial and critical success of The Fly, Cronenberg based Dead Ringers on the true story of twin gynecologists Stewart and Cyril Marcus, who were found dead in their apartment on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. The cause of the deaths was, at first, determined to be withdrawal from barbiturate addiction, but other reasons were later forwarded. Inspired by the novel “Twins,” by Bari Wood and Jack Geasland, Cronenberg created a world of obsession, seduction, betrayal, misplaced love and addiction that played better in arthouses than the megaplex. The horror trope exploited here is the mad-scientist conceit, with experimentation on women patients and the invention of surgical tools the Marquis de Sade would have been proud to claim for himself. Beverly and Elliot Mantle (Jeremy Irons) have been fascinated with sex and women’s reproductive organs since childhood. Even before they graduated from college, the brothers invented a mechanical devise that made gynecological examinations significantly easier. They would continue their experimentation with tools of their trade – one more medieval-seeming than the other — until Beverly had gone mad from drug abuse and what he believed to be unrequited love. Anyone who thinks their dentist’s office resembles a stainless-steel torture chamber, will be made just as queasy by brothers’ surgical theater … male viewers, as well as women.
The madness extends to their relationship with a patient, actress Claire Niveau (Genevieve Bujold), whose trifurcated uterus makes her a freak of nature and, as such, of particular interest to the Mantles, who also consider themselves to be outsiders. Before Claire’s arrival, the more confident brother, Elliot, would pass along his sexual conquests to the painfully withdrawn Beverly without their knowledge. All he was required to do was related exactly what happened on the dates. Claire intuits Elliot’s game and jealousy over her being able to reach something in Beverly’s psyche that he thought belonged to him. Into this already creepy scenario, Cronenberg adds a layer of visually poetic eroticism that may be too twisted for some viewers’ taste. Not only did Dead Ringers score year-end honors with mainstream critics in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and Canada, but it also impressed niche judges in France and Portugal and at the Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy & Horror Films. Irons and Bujold earned all the accolades they received. Also impressive are Howard Shore’s evocative score, Peter Suschitzky’s chilly cinematography and split-screen magic, and Carol Spier’s exquisitely sterile set design. Viewers can choose between the high-definition transfer of the film (1.78:1 aspect ratio) or 2K scan at the director’s preferred aspect ratio (1.66:1). A new commentary with writer Beard and old one with Irons; fresh interviews with actress Heidi Von Palleske, artist/actor Stephen Lack, special-effects artist Gordon Smith, director of photography Peter Suschitzky, and reclaimed chats with Irons, Cronenberg, producer Marc Boyman and co-writer Norman Snider; and a vintage behind-the-scenes featurette.
C.H.U.D.: Special Edition: Blu-ray
C.H.U.D II: Bud the Chud: Blu-ray
Return of the Living Dead 3: Blu-ray
I Drink Your Blood: Blu-ray
In 1984, just as the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles were finding their footing in the sewers of New York, Douglas Cheek’s unpretentious creature-feature C.H.U.D. – also set there — was released to no great acclaim into drive-in theaters across America. Ramon, the 40-foot-long star of Lewis Teague and John Sayles’ Alligator, had been vanquished four years earlier, turning the city’s plumbing system into a Darwinian swamp. The TMNT phenomenon caught on, while C.H.U.D. needed some help from “The Simpsons” to develop a cult following. In it, the corpses of missing homeless men, women and pet dogs are being stockpiled underground by once-human monsters – not unlike the creature from Black Lagoon – who’ve been infected by toxic waste illegally stored in Gotham’s netherworld by Wilson, an insane Nuclear Regulatory Commission official. City officials are hesitant to sound the alarm when the disappearances are brought to the attention of police by A.J. “The Reverend” Shepherd (Daniel Stern) and photographer George Cooper (John Heard), who’s been shooting homeless “undergrounders” for a pet project. Once the C.H.U.D. monsters – its stands for Cannibalistic Humanoid Underground Dwellers or Contamination Hazard Urban Disposal – begin to extend their rubbery reach through manhole covers and even the shower of Cooper’s naked girlfriend (Kim Greist) the impending disaster can’t be ignored. Wilson suggests sealing the sewers, opening gas lines and asphyxiating the C.H.U.D.s, despite the inherent danger to the city. The ending isn’t particularly coherent, but it’s an ending, nonetheless. Arrow Video’s C.H.U.D. benefits from a new 1080p restoration from original film elements; commentaries with director Douglas Cheek, writer Shepard Abbott and actors Heard, Stern and Christopher Curry; new interviews with the crew and the music composers; the theatrical cut and extended version; a deleted shower scene; behind-the-scenes gallery; newly commissioned artwork by Dan Mumford; and a collector’s booklet featuring new writing on the film.
In another five years, C.H.U.D. II: Bud the C.H.U.D. would open on VHS to even less acclaim than the original. It is built around the idea that enzymes taken from the sewer-dwelling creatures could be used to make hyper-effective killing machines for the army. The Pentagon has ordered military scientists to kill the project, but one of the super-soldiers – Bud the C.H.U.D. (Gerrit Graham) – has been hidden away for possible reanimation, later. A trio of bumbling teenagers steal and accidentally reawaken Bud, who hopes to form a C.H.U.D. army of his own. It results in a slapstick monster mash. There are a couple of things that make C.H.U.D. the more watchable of the pair, both newly released on Blu-ray. The former’s cast included established actors Heard (Cat People) and Stern (Diner), as well as early appearances by Greist (Manhunter), Curry (Starship Troopers), John Goodman (True Stories), Jay Thomas (“Mork & Mindy”) and Jon Polito (Miller’s Crossing). The concern shown New York’s homeless population – contrasted to official disregard – also was admirable. The sequel’s main attractions are the bathing suit worn by Tricia Leigh Fisher, daughter of Eddie Fisher and Connie Stevens; Graham’s over-the-top Bud; and contributions, however, Robert Vaughn (who died last week, 83), Larry Linville, Jack Riley, Norman Fell, June Lockhart, Rich Hall and Bianca Jagger. The Lionsgate/Vestron edition of C.H.U.D. II contains commentary with director David Irving; featurettes “Bud Speaks!” with Graham, “Katie’s Kalamity,” with Fisher, “This C.H.U.D.’s For You!,” with special-effects artist Allan Apone; and a stills gallery.
Lionsgate’s collector’s edition of Return of the Living Dead 3 focuses on two teenagers who get caught up in a secret government program to use Trioxin from previous films to develop a cadre of zombie-like “super soldiers.” If that sounds like the C.H.U.D. II scenario, minus the sewer connection, well, great minds tend to think alike. Colonel John Reynolds (Kent McCord), Colonel Peck (James T. Callahan) and Lieutenant Colonel Sinclair (Sarah Douglas) oversee the reanimation project, which, of course, doesn’t go as planned. After the zombie are subdued and quarantined, those responsible for the disaster are transferred. Colonel Reynolds’ son, Curt Reynolds (J. Trevor Edmond), and his punk girlfriend, Julie Walker (Melinda Clarke), have already borrowed his father’s key card to access the lab and spy on the experimentation. So, when Julie is killed in a motorcycle accident, Curt takes her to the lab to see if he can use the Trioxin to re-animate her. It works, but a girlfriend zombie is no easier to control than a “super soldier” zombie, and it causes problems of a very different sort for Curt. Coincidentally, the couple ends up in the sewer system, as well, where they encounter a vagrant (Basil Wallace) who takes them in and hides them. If the ending is extremely off-the-wall, it’s fun to watch super-sexy Clarke (“The O.C.”) in action, wearing peek-a-boo costumes that might have been designed by Jean Paul Gaultier for her later turn as professional dominatrix Lady Heather on “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation.” Like the previous “ROTLD” sequel, this one bears almost no resemblance to George Romero’s 1968 zombie and should be viewed as part of a completely separate five-part franchise. It contains commentaries with Clarke, director Brian Yuzna and special-effects supervisor, Tom Rainone; featurettes “Ashes to Ashes,” a conversation with Yuzna and screenwriter John Penney, “Living Dead Girl,” interview with Clarke, “Romeo Is Bleeding,” an interview with actor J. Trevor Edmond (“Beverly Hills, 90210”), “Trimark & Trioxin,” interviews with production executive David Tripet and editor Chris Roth, “The Resurrected Dead,” with special make-up effects designers Steve Johnson and Chris Nelson; a storyboard gallery; and still gallery.
Grindhouse Releasing has revived the 1971 drive-in “classic” I Drink Your Blood, a clumsily made gorefest that holds the distinction of being the first movie branded X by the MPAA ratings board, simply on the basis of its violent content. Clearly feeding off the fearful public reaction to the Manson Family killings, and reports of a rabies plague in Iran, David E. Durston’s micro-budget chiller describes what happens when a van full of hippie Satanists arrives in a small New York town that’s practically deserted and, at the time, actually was a ghost town. The group, led by the longhaired Horace Bones (East Indian dancer, Bhaskar Roy Chowdhury), takes refuge in an old rat-infested hotel. When two members of the group rape a local girl, her crusty grandfather later shows up at the hotel with a shotgun. The hippies rough up the old man, give him LSD and set him free in mid-freakout. The old man’s scene-stealing grandson, Pete (Riley Mills), decides to carry out his own revenge. In a twist that might have presaged Christopher Bond’s 1973, “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street,” the grandson shoots a rabies-infected dog and injects its blood into the meat pies baked in the local bakery and consumed voraciously by the cultists. The results aren’t quite as predictable as one might think. Like the meat pies, I Drink Your Blood – or, to be more precise, “I Eat Your Blood” – shouldn’t be attempted on an empty stomach. The extensive bonus package includes a restored version of the original uncensored director’s cut; four deleted scenes, including the original ending deemed too disturbing for 1970s audiences; audio commentaries by Durston and Bhaskar, and co-stars Jack Damon and Tyde Kierney; on-camera interviews with future scream queen Lynn Lowry, Kierney and Damon; a new interview with Durston; original theatrical trailer and radio spots; extensive gallery of stills and poster art; rare film of Bhaskar performing “The Evil King Cobra Dance”; the very strange 1964 zombie flick, I Eat Your Skin, with an interview with second-unit director William Grefe; and Blue Sextet, Durston’s long-lost psychedelic skin flick presented for the very first time on home video; liner notes by horror journalist David Szulkin; and an embossed slipcover.
The Herschell Gordon Lewis Feast
Mystery Science Theater 3000: XXXVII
Herschell Gordon Lewis (a.k.a., Godfather of Gore) died last September 26, at the ripe old age of 90. Although his filmmaking career effectively lasted little more than a dozen years – 1961-72, then his 2002 Blood Feast 2: All U Can Eat, 2009’s The Uh-Oh! Show and 2016’s Herschell Gordon Lewis’ BloodMania – his quick-and-dirty exploitation pictures influenced two generations of filmmakers, including John Waters, Robert Rodriguez, Quentin Tarantino and James Gunn. Among other things, Lewis could take partial credit, at least, for introducing the splatter subgenre and merging nudity and violence in ways that anticipated the sexual revolution, biker culture, mainstreaming of porn and subsequent slasher sub-genre. When he wasn’t doing that, the Pittsburgh native and Northwestern graduate taught college-level communications and advertising courses, managed radio stations, directed TV commercials, started a production company, wrote about advertising and public relations and served a three-year bit in prison for fraud. In between those activities, in 1961, he began his collaboration with exploitation producer David F. Friedman on several nudie-cuties, before entering the drive-in-friendly gore market two years later. At various times, Lewis produced, directed, wrote, shot, scored and appeared in his nearly two-dozen films. It was in Blood Feast that Lewis pulled a cow’s tongue out of an actress’ mouth on camera, effectively changing the horror landscape forever. At a MSRP of $229.95, Arrow Video’s 17-disc box set “The Herschell Gordon Lewis Feast,” may cost more than the budgets of some of his pictures. You get a lot of bang for your buck, though.It contains 14 of his “most essential” titles, including nine Blu-ray debuts: Blood Feast, Scum of the Earth, Two Thousand Maniacs!, Moonshine Mountain, Color Me Blood Red, Something Weird, The Gruesome Twosome, A Taste of Blood, She-Devils on Wheels, Just for the Hell of It, How to Make a Doll, The Wizard of Gore, The Gore Gore Girls and This Stuff’ll Kill Ya! None of them fits the generally accepted definition of “good,” but some are worse than others. All have one redeeming quality, at least. It adds brand-new introductions to the films by Lewis, as well as hours of extras, including newly produced interviews and featurettes, commentaries and short films. Two more Blu-ray discs feature 1.33:1 versions of Blood Feast, Scum of the Earth, Color Me Blood Red, A Taste of Blood and The Wizard of Gore. A separate DVD contains “Herschell Gordon Lewis: The Godfather of Gore” and there’s a 28-page H.G. Lewis annual, stuffed full with Lewis-themed activities and archival promotional material.
And, what would Thanksgiving be without a box load of turkeys from Mystery Science Theater 3000. Volume XXXVII features two episodes from the Comedy Central era of the show and two from Sci-Fi Channel. One is hosted by show creator Joel Hodgson and three by Mike Nelson. If it weren’t for the crew’s catty commentary, none would have escaped the dust bin of cinematic infamy. For that matter, neither would half of the rom-coms made in Hollywood in the last 10 years. The Human Duplicators is a 1965 color film, starring Richard Kiel, Hugh Beaumont, George MacReady, Dolores Faith and George Nader. Kiel plays an alien sent to conquer Earth conquer by producing duplicates of certain humans. The fragile ceramic-like heads of the duplicates are an especially amusing touch. Released in 1983, Escape 2000 (a.k.a., “Escape From the Bronx”) is a 1983 color film, starring Henry Silva and a bunch of Italian actors no one west of the Straits of Gibraltar will recognize. A small band of heroes must fight their way through the ruins of the Bronx against an evil corporation bent on exterminating them. Sadly, Snake Plissken does not make a cameo.
From 1964, The Horror of Party Beach is a black-and-white cheapo film with cheesy monsters, bikini-clad twisters, surf bums and a rock band, the Del Aires, dressed like the pre-LSD Beach Boys. The main attraction for 2016 audiences in Invasion of the Neptune Men is watching Sonny Chiba play a heroic protagonist named Space Chief, as he fends off cone-headed aliens from Neptune. Highlights include Mike Nelson’s Noh Theater host segment and the return of Krankor, from Prince of Space. And, yes, H.G. Lewis was well-represented on MST3000.
The Vincent Price Collection III: Blu-ray
The third and, perhaps, final collection of collaborations between Vincent Price is a mixed bag of horror, sci-fi and performance artistry. Master of the World is a departure, in that it represents the work of Jules Verne, not Edgar Allen Poe, and affords a look at what AIP was capable when it decided to expend more money on a project than usual. Screenwriter Richard Matheson (The Incredible Shrinking Man) combined two Jules Verne stories –“Clipper of the Clouds” (1886) and its sequel “Master of the World” (1904) – for this cautionary tale about the hazards of killing for peace. In 1868, an American scientist and his team become hostages of fanatical pacifist Robur (Price) who uses his airship, Albatross, to destroy military targets on Earth. Among those detained is a government worker played improbably by Charles Bronson. The upgraded edition of the 1961 adventures includes commentary with actor David Frankham, “Richard Matheson: Storyteller” and memorabilia. Roger Corman directed Price a year later in Tower of London, in which Richard III is haunted by the ghosts of those he has murdered in his attempt to become the King of England. Bonus features here include interviews with Corman and his producer brother, Gene Corman, and two episodes of “Science Fiction Theatre,” both starring Price.
In 1970’s Cry of the Banshee, Price finds himself in Elizabethan England, playing a wicked lord who massacres nearly all the members of a coven of witches. In doing so, he earns the enmity of their leader, Oona (Elisabeth Bergner), who calls up a magical servant, a “banshee,” to destroy the lord’s family. Not only was this Price’s final foray into Gothic horror, but the title sequence was designed and animated by future Python Terry Gilliam and it marked the film debut of Stephen Rea. It adds commentary by film historian Steve Haberman and “A Devilish Tale of Poe,” an interview with director Gordon Hessler. The disc contains both the 87-minute long AIP theatrical cut and the 91-minute director’s cut. From 1963, Diary of a Madman is adapted from Guy de Maupassant story about a French magistrate, who, after visiting a doomed prisoner, becomes the human host for the evil spirit haunting the man. It adds the commentary of film historian Steve Haberman.
Made for television in 1970, “An Evening of Edgar Allan Poe” is a one-man show dedicated to one of the greatest writers of suspense we’ve had. Price reads “The Tell-Tale Heart,” “The Sphinx,” “The Cask of Amontillado” and “The Pit and the Pendulum.” He does so in costume and with a flair that reveals his classically trained roots. It adds a fresh interview with director Kenneth Johnson and commentary track from Haberman.
PBS: Masterpiece: Poldark Season 2: Blu-ray
History: Texas Rising/Sons of Liberty Double Feature
PBS: Nature: Super Hummingbirds: Blu-ray
PBS: American Experience: Tesla
In the sudsy world of prime-time soap operas, the other American broadcast networks can barely compete with PBS and its uniformly top-shelf acting, spectacular locations, splendid costumes and production values. Granted, most of them were made in the UK, where quality isn’t taken for granted, but American dollars help finance them. Neither are nudity and violence promoted as enticements for viewers to sample a series, as is the case even with the best of our premium-cable offerings. For the last several weeks, one PBS affiliate in Los Angles has decided to counterprogram against HBO and Showtime with a triple-bill of “Masterpiece” mini-series, “The Durrells in Corfu,” “Indian Summers” and the second season of “Poldark.” The other local PBS outlet airs such mini-series as “Father Brown,” “Shetland” and “Vera,” on Sunday night, and “Luther,” “The Fixer” and “Prisoners of War,” on Mondays. Thank God, for DVRs, dedicated apps and Blu-rays.
The arrival of “Poldark” last year took some of the sting, at least, out of losing “Downton Abbey.” I don’t know if it’s sapped many television-tourism dollars from north Hampshire, Oxfordshire and Yorkshire, but the Cornwall coast on display in “Poldark” has the benefit of crashing waves, dramatic rock formations and wide sandy beaches, perfect for strolling, horse riding and surfing, although there’s wasn’t much of the latter in the 1700s. Instead, Season Two picks up with struggling mine owner Ross (Aidan Turner) preparing to go to trial for murder and his rival, George Warleggan (Jack Farthing), planning to ruin him once and for all. It just wouldn’t do for the title character to disappear after the first episode of the second season, so count on Demelza to ride to her husband’s rescue. Indeed, the flaming redhead is given plenty more to do in the coming episodes, including dealing with Ross’ infidelity and desires of her own. Affairs of the heart drive several other soapy storylines, before, guess what, Ross once again ends up on trial, this time for giving material support to smugglers. The original BBC edition retains some sexuality excised for the PBS release.
The History Channel’s 2015 period mini-series “Texas Rising” and “Sons of Liberty” are presented as a double-feature edition. Both take liberties with the historical record, choosing action over accuracy. On cable television, such mythologizing is rarely considered to be a crime. The 10-part “Texas Rising” picks up immediately after the defeat of Texan revolutionaries at the Alamo. The bad news is carried by lone survivors Emily D. West and Susana Dickenson, to TRA headquarters, where General Sam Houston (Bill Paxton) leads the insurrectionists. They vow to “remember the Alamo,” while the Mexican army commanded by General Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna (Olivier Martinez) recuperating from the strain of battle. While Houston’s seeming lack of enthusiasm for revenge is challenged by his subordinates, we know that an ill-considered attack would amount to suicide. Also covered here are the origins of the Texas Rangers and the role played by President Andrew Jackson (Kris Kristofferson). Less prominent are the perspectives of Mexicans, Native Americans and slaves. The cast includes Dean Morgan, Ray Liotta, Brendan Fraser, Crispin Glover, Rob Morrow, Jeff Fahey and Cynthia Addai-Robinson. The three-part “Sons of Liberty” mini-series focuses on the years 1765-76, prior to start of the Revolutionary War. Such American and British officers and strategists as Samuel Adams, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, John Hancock, Paul Revere, George Washington and British General Thomas Gage are central characters. The creation of the Colonial Congress, the Declaration of Independence and the eventual outbreak of the war also are depicted. Among the more recognizable stars are Ben Barnes, Marton Csokas, Rafe Spall, Henry Thomas and Dean Norris.
There’s almost nothing more amazing in nature than a hummingbird. In PBS’ “Nature: Super Hummingbirds,” high-speed cameras allow us to appreciate just how special they are and how they serve the environment. The photography slows their flight down to the point where we can easily discern their feeding habits and methodology, as well as study the aerodynamics of flight, nest building and their unique beaks at work. While there’s plenty of science on display here, it’s the magical beauty of the hummingbird in flight that sells the show.
If any American scientist got a raw deal in life, it was Nikola Tesla. A Serbian-American inventor, electrical and mechanical engineer, physicist and futurist, he was best known for his contributions to the design of the modern alternating-current electrical system. While the technology he developed revolutionized the way we’ve all lived and worked for the last hundred-plus years, his fame was eclipsed by Thomas Edison, for whom he worked, and Guglielmo Marconi, who stole his ideas, including some that would open the door to today’s wireless world. PBS’ “American Experience: Tesla” introduces us to the man and scientist who died before he received the credit he deserved for electrifying the world.