By Gary Dretzka Dretzka@moviecitynews.com
The DVD Wrapup: Sea of Trees, Uncle Nick, Imperium, Men & Chicken, Judge Archer, IT Team and more
The Sea of Trees: Blu-ray
Now that California has become the fifth state to allow terminally ill residents to request life-ending medication from their physicians, is it beyond the realm of possibility that it might permit them to use the Golden Gate Bridge as the delivery system, instead of drugs? Anything’s possible, I suppose, especially in California. One insurer, at least, reportedly already has denied a cancer patient further coverage of chemotherapy treatments, suggesting she take advantage of the new law. It would be willing to pay for the formal authorization by her doctors and the drugs prescribed, but nothing else. Imagine the savings for our impoverished health-care providers. I considered the possibility of such madness after watching Gus Van Sant’s critically maligned The Sea of Trees, which is set in Japan’s Aokigahara rain forest, at the northwest base of Mount Fuji. It is where dozens of people each year travel to commit unassisted suicide, many for reasons that aren’t related to health issues. Famously haunted by the lingering spirits of the yūrei of those left to die, the vast forest is patrolled by park officials, who merely point to signs that advise visitors to reconsider their choice. Negative word-of-mouth from a media screening at Cannes was so intimidating that its backers decided to limit distribution to a small handful of screens here – significantly more elsewhere — probably hoping that Oscar-winner Matthew McConaughey and nominees Naomi Watts and Ken Watanabe might be able to impact the VOD/DVD aftermarket. Stranger things have happened, but not many.
To be fair to Van Sant, dozens of inarguably worse movies have been released by Hollywood and indie distributors already this year, with some even finding their way to major international film festivals. In The Sea of Trees, an American man, Arthur Brennan (McConaughey), travels to the Suicide Forest to relieve himself of extreme guilt feelings related to his failing marriage to Joan (Watts) and her possibly terminal illness. After finding a suitable place to die, he encounters a disheveled Japanese man (Watanabe), who wants to kill himself as well, and both men begin a journey of self-reflection and survival. The movie’s biggest problem, I think, is that the grandeur of the setting frequently overwhelms the melodramatic handling of the Brennan’s marital woes. The struggle to survive in the forest overnight, during a rain storm, may have had the same effect on the philosophical musings of the two guilt-ridden men. Why fight death, after, when you’ve already welcomed it into your life? Ironically, perhaps, Gramercy/Focus/Universal’s low-budget chiller, The Forest, found Natalie Dormer in the same location, searching for her twin sister, who is believed to have committed suicide there. In The Forest (there’s two, actually) and in a couple of others set in Aokigahara recently, the nefarious spirits of the dead are given more of an opportunity to influence the narrative than in The Sea of Trees. The yūrei aren’t completely absent from Van Sant’s film, but, he doesn’t seem to have been particularly interested in horror. The making-of featurette, “The Sea of Trees: A Story of Beauty and Tragedy,” is included.
Uncle Nick: Blu-ray
The cover art on the Uncle Nick package alerts us to the likelihood that the movie contained therein has something to do with Christmas, with the wonderfully lumpen comic-actor Brian Posehn (“The Sarah Silverman Program”) sitting in for Billy Bob Thornton’s Bad Santa or Randy Quaid’s Cousin Eddie, in National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation. While it’s obvious that director Chris Kasick and writer Mike Demski (“Attack of the Show!”) probably created Posehn’s lewd, drunken Uncle Nick from the DNA of those memorable characters and other ghosts of holidays past, a parallel storyline has nothing to do with Christmas. After shopping for gifts at a local liquor and hardware store, Nick shows up early at the fancy lakeside home of his brother, Cody (Beau Ballinger), his rich wife, Sophie (Paget Brewster), quizzically flirtatious niece, Valerie (Melia Renee), and nerdy nephew, Marcus (Jacob Houston). He intends to spike the punch and get a head start on everyone else, especially his ditzy sister, Michelle (Missi Pyle), and her doofus husband, Kevin (Scott Adsit).
Savvy viewers could set their clocks to the series of social abominations committed by Nick over the course of the evening, including sharing booze and cigarettes with the kids, sending selfies of his penis to Valerie, berating his brother for sponging off Sophie and trying to make Sophie feel bad about being rich. Being diehard fans of Cleveland sports teams, the filmmakers pay due homage to one of the lowlights in the city’s checkered history: the dime-beer-night promotion at Municipal Stadium on June 4, 1974, which turned so riotous that it caused the Indians to forfeit the game to the Texas Rangers. (It would be trumped five years later by the Disco Demolition Night riot, July 12, 1979, at Chicago’s Comiskey Park.) Uncle Nick is thus broken into inning-by-inning chapters, whose flashbacks reflect the incrementally bad behavior at the game and party. It’s an interesting device … sometimes more interesting than what’s happening inside the house. Fans of Posehn and such off-brand cable-comedy shows as “Mr. Show with Bob and David,” “The Sarah Silverman Program,” “Human Giant,” “The Increasingly Poor Decisions of Todd Margaret” and “Reno 911” should have a field day with Uncle Nick. A barf-o-meter is included in Blu-ray supplemental package.
On April 19, 1995, a rental truck packed with explosives was detonated in front of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in downtown Oklahoma City, leaving 168 people dead and hundreds more injured. The immediate knee-jerk reaction by most Americans, I suspect, was that this horrifying crime was perpetrated by the same sort of Islamic terrorists who had denoted a similar device in a truck parked under the North Tower of the World Trade Center, two years earlier, killing six people and injuring more than a thousand. Instead, within two days, right-wing extremists Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols were identified, arrested and charged in the attack. The former was executed in 1999, while the latter remains in prison. Like the true believers we meet in Daniel Ragussis’ Imperium, the former U.S. Army roommates were inspired by what they believed to be illegal government repression of the survivalists living at Ruby Ridge, Idaho, and the deadly siege on the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas. In the 20 years since that attack, the Internet has served as a clearing house for groups, previously not thought directly linked by their hatred for the government, to swap conspiracy theories, learn how to make explosives, trade hate literature, music and Hitler memorabilia, and coordinate actions.
In what at first glance seems to be an illogical casting decision, Ragussis chose wee Daniel Radcliffe to portray FBI agent Nate Foster, who’s based former undercover agent and counterterrorism expert Mike German. He’s recruited by Angela Zamparo (Toni Collette), who monitors such things, to infiltrate a white-supremacist group that she believes is connected to a network of hate organizations holding several containers full of radioactive material. It’s worth noting, however, that Radcliffe, formerly known as Harry Potter, is of the same height and stature as Edward Furlong, who was so scary in American History X. After convincing a group of bonehead Nazi wannabes of his hatred for non-Aryans, he’s introduced to members of other groups far more capable of committing a heinous assault on a big-city utility. Even though Foster is a thorough investigator, there are times when taking a by-the-book approach could cost him his life. His ability to think on his feet makes things interesting and exciting for viewers and everyone around him. The Blu-ray adds commentary with Ragussis and German; cast and crew interviews; and the featurettes “Living Undercover” and “Making Imperium.”
My Love, Don’t Cross that River
Boiled to its essence Jin Mo-young’s thoroughly enchanting My Love, Don’t Cross That River is a romance for the ages and a reminder that love can be eternal … or as close to it as we’re allowed on Earth. Jo Byeong-man and Kang Kye-yeol, have been inseparable companions for 76 years. Being several years younger than her husband when they were introduced to each other, Kang admits to initially being shy and intimidated in his presence. All these years later, they dress in matching outfits, finish each other’s sentences and laugh at each other’s jokes. At the beginning of the film, Jo and Kang are a surprising spry 89 and 98 years old. They show few signs of slowing down as they navigate the rocky paths, hills and streams of their gorgeous rural property. Around a year into the production, Jo developed a serious cough and begins to look his age. No one, except Kang, appears to be concerned enough to bundle him up, put him into a car and take him to the local clinic for a check-up, at least. The closest we get to an early prognosis is Kang explaining to her children that a doctor has concluded that he’s too old to benefit from drugs or stop-gap treatment, so let him hack his lungs out.
Still, it’s possible to wonder if Jin might have considered handing him a bottle of codeine-laced cough syrup and worry about journalistic ethic later. My Love, Don’t Cross That River ends the way it has to end, though, with one of the subjects mourning the passing of the other. Here, as the title suggests, it’s handled with extreme dignity and poetic finality. Even after 86 minutes, we don’t know a great deal about the details of this wonderful couple’s time together. We do know they loved each other and, for reasons of their own, were willing to share their joy and pain with us, and that’s enough. The DVD arrives with Christian Bruno and Natalija Vekic’s short doc, Ed & Pauline, a portrait of the creative collaboration between uber-critic Pauline Kael and fellow movie lover Ed Landberg. In the 1960s, they transformed a small storefront theater in Berkeley into a church for cineastes. As a married couple, however, they were a bust. It recalls a time before Kael was a dominant force in movie criticism at the New Yorker and art films were a rare and endangered species outside New York.
Ugly, Dirty & Bad: Blu-ray
Men & Chicken: Blu-Ray
Now that I’ve seen Ettore Scola’s uncharacteristically uproarious and dark comedy, Ugly, Dirty & Bad, I have a pretty good idea where Paul Abbott might have come up with the narrative structure for the raunchy TV series “Shameless,” in both its British and America iterations. Although Abbott is said to have based the story and characters on his own dysfunctional family and adolescence in rough-and-tumble Burnley, Lancashire, they’re cut from the same cloth as Scola’s film. At the lazy, drunken and dishonest heart of all three is a worthless father, Frank Gallagher, in “Shameless,” and Nino Manfredi, as the despicable Giacinto Mazzatella, in Ugly, Dirty & Bad. So much, though, for idle speculation. Mazzatella lives with his wife and brood of around 18 children, grandchildren, in-laws, his TV-addicted mother and for a third of the movie, at least, his much younger mistress. The seriously overcrowded home is in a hilltop shantytown, located almost in the shadow of the Vatican and homes of people who benefitted from Italy’s post-war “economic miracle.” All the people in the house are distinguished by one or more unappealing personality trait, physical characteristics or financial challenges. The old man lost his sight in one eye from an industrial accident, for which he was compensated with a million lires. A miser, Mazzatella knows that his family would kill him for what they considered to be their share of the money. He hides it in the house or on his person, even going so far as to sleeping with a shotgun. When he brings home his fat prostitute mistress and lavishes her with gifts, food and clothes, the family members do conspire to get rid of him. These are people, we’re told, are “miserable people, living miserably.” The only person in the shantytown considered to be even remotely successful is a pretty teenage girl who poses for pinup magazines and gets lifts home from men who drive Mercedes. She makes her mother proud. Ugly, Dirty & Bad doesn’t offer much of anything hopeful or redemptive to the characters, beyond the ability to survive on the edges of society on their own terms. Neither, though, does he ridicule or slander them. In this way, the movie turned Italian neo-realism on its head. The Film Movement Classics package includes commentary by Richard Peña, professor of film studies, Columbia University and a collector’s booklet with an essay by film scholar, Ronald Bergan.
From Denmark comes Anders Thomas Jensen’s outlandish and frequently disturbing slapstick comedy, Men & Chicken, described by one wag as a dark hybrid of the Three Stooges and “The Island of Dr. Moreau.” And, that’s as good a description as any of what awaits viewers. Mads Mikkelsen, once again playing hilariously against type, and David Dencik (The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo) are paired for the fourth time in a Jensen film, this time as personality-challenged siblings who are appraised of their actual genealogical roots in their late father’s videotaped will. Seeking more information, they travel to the small Danish island of Ork, where they stumble upon three additional half-brothers. Each of them has a hereditary harelip and lunatic tendencies, probably from living in a dilapidated mansion overrun by barn animals. At first, the outsiders engage in a competition of wills. Eventually, though, they’re accepted into the secretive clan. More than that, I can’t reveal. To say that Men & Chicken won’t fit everyone’s tastes is something of an understatement. For anyone looking for something completely different, though, it will come as a godsend. The Drafthouse Films release contains a lengthy booklet, featuring behind-the-scenes photos and concept art from the film’s production, as well as a brief essay from Jensen.
More absurdist than dark, Uruguayan director Federico Veiroj’s The Apostate describes the confounding pursuit of the baptismal certificate a Spanish man needs to officially renounce his Roman Catholic faith. Rather than simply stop attending Mass and partaking in the sacraments, aimless graduate student Gonzalo (Álvaro Ogalla) wants to justify his decision to church leaders, by decrying all the usual things lapsed Catholics decry when considering their religious options. The clerics with whom he meets consider his opposition to Church dogma to be sufficiently sound to make him a candidate for redemption. The higher he climbs on the Church’s hierarchical ladder, the more his quest for a simple sheet of paper comes to resemble that of Yossarian in “Catch-22.” The Apostate touches on the conflict between tradition and modernity within the Catholic Church, using Gonzalo as an example of a sinner – sleeping around, mostly – who has no use for the Church, but abides by its ludicrous protocols, anyway. Despite the subject matter, The Apostate doesn’t demand much more of viewers than they open themselves to the possibility that they’ll find one man’s religious crisis to be entertaining. The “deluxe edition” of the Breaking Glass DVD includes Veirjo’s two other full-length features, “Acne” and “A Useful Life.”
Men Go to Battle
Most of the recent movies set around the Civil War have necessarily dealt with slavery and its effects on individuals and society at large. Zachary Treitz’s feature debut, Men Go to Battle, deals far less with the politics and violence surrounding the issue, or the preservation of the union, than with the reality of life for young Northern farmers destined to become fodder for Southern cannons. In 1861, Francis and Henry Mellon (David Maloney, Timothy Morton) are struggling to keep their Kentucky property from drying up and blowing away, even as rumors of war swirl around them. When the homestead becomes too small for their divergent personalities, Henry takes off one night to take advantage of the security and benefits of army life. When the war begins for real and the generals put their men directly in harm’s way, Henry is so stunned by the carnage that he decides to walk home and keep going. What distinguishes Men Go to Battle from other movies set during the war is cinematography and pacing that recalls the more pastoral scenes in Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line. Treitz also does a nice job realistically depicting the interaction between hard working men and women, and their children, in social situations.
Carnage Park: Blu-ray
Last Girl Standing
By now, it’s safe to assume that most, if not all aspiring filmmakers under 30 have seen enough pulpy movies made or influenced by Quentin Tarantino, the Coens or Robert Rodriguez – and, by extension, grindhouse classics of the 1970s – that the genre DNA has become encoded in their bloodstreams. What excites niche critics most is the discovery of newcomers willing to find to tweak, twist and tickle tropes and clichés whose origins can be traced back to the silent era. After Bob Dylan was named Nobel Laureate last month, it became fashionable for pundits to point out how much his songs owe to such early blues and country giants as Charlie Patton and Jimmie Rogers, not to mention such acknowledged masters as Woody Guthrie and Blind Willie McTell. An open secret for 50 years, his ability to steal from the best is something we’ve always loved about Dylan. In turn, singer-songwriters have been borrowing from Dylan ever since he was signed to Columbia by John Hammond. I only mention this because reviews of Michael Keating’s truly freaky, if completely derivative Carnage Park reference Tarantino, the Coens and Rodriguez as if viewers couldn’t figure out it out for themselves. A few even refer to Peter Watkins’s 1971 faux-documentary Punishment Park, which, itself, owes its existence to Irving Pichel and Ernest B. Schoedsack’s 1932 shocker The Most Dangerous Game. Here, it’s 1978 and a bank robbery gone wrong forces two criminals to take a hostage, the young-but-resilient Vivian (Ashley Bell), as they go on the run. Things go from bad to berserk when Vivian and her captors wind up in the crosshairs of a deranged ex-military sniper (Pat Healy), who ensnares them in his deadly game of cat and mouse. The sniper, who wears a gas mask and carries an M-16, has carved a theme park dedicated to torture and death out of his vast Southwestern enclave. He would love to add a few more trophies to his underground boneyard. If there’s nothing particularly new in the premise, what makes Carnage Park fresh are 1) the presence of the delightfully unimposing Bell (The Last Exorcism), a scream queen for our time, 2) Mac Fisken’s frequently spectacular desert cinematography, and 3) Keating’s ability to keep us guessing as to who’s going to be killed next and how it will be accomplished. In five productive years – Ultra Violence, Ritual, Pod, Darling – he has proven himself to be the real deal.
Benjamin R. Moody’s paranoid thriller, The Last Girl Standing, deviates from the well-trodden path, as well. It opens with a scene of ritualistic carnage that would serve as the climax for most other slasher flicks. The “final girl,” Camryn (Akasha Villalobos), dispatches with the masked-and-horned fiend, but is severely traumatized by the murder of her closest friends. Flash-forward five years and Camryn finally feels well enough to get a job at a dry-cleaning shop, if only as therapy, and to test her stability. No such luck. It doesn’t take long before she begins to feel as if she’s being stalked by something or someone evil. To calm her tortured nerves, Camryn agrees to move into a house owned by a co-worker and his tightknit group of friends. They sympathize with Camryn’s plight, but eventually tire of her frequent outbursts, which they consider to be PTSD-induced hallucinations. On the other hand, her release from the booby hatch might simply have been premature. Not even a return to the scene of the crime and exhumation of the killer’s body bring closure. Camryn now believes that the killer will invade the house and leave her alone and in shock, once again. Is this even possible? Moody does a nice job maintaining tension in a story whose highpoint may have come before the opening credit roll.
Reign of Assassins
The Lost Bladesman
Bruce Lee: Tracking the Dragon
Around here, it seems as if every week is a good week for new martial-arts pictures. While none of them have been created equally, each has its own reason for existing and, given the enduring nature of Asian myth and legend, they make the history of the American West look like a blink of the eye. Then, too, there’s the diversity in set and costume design, weaponry and fight choreography. If Bruce Lee served as the catalyst for bringing wuxia, kung fu and other fighting disciplines into the late 20th Century, the titles covered here demonstrate the enduring allure of the past. Xu Haofeng, writer/director/stunt-coordinator of Judge Archer, may be a newcomer to the game – his third screenplay became The Grandmaster, a collaboration with Wong Kar-Wai and Zou Jingzhi Zou – but he prepared for the transition by studying hand-to-hand combat, researching martial-arts history, lecturing on film direction and writing novels. Judge Archer is set in the early part of the 20th Century, a time of great social, political and economic upheaval in China. Warlords, their soldiers and other practitioners of the martial arts would find their control of underground activities challenged by police and opponents with access to guns and explosives. The story follows a young man (Song Yang), who escapes from his village after being cruelly beaten up and witnessing the rape of his sister by the local landlord. He takes refuge in a monastery, where his talents are honed and he’s trained to take over the position of the Judge Archer. Less a promotion than a death sentence, the arbitrator adjudicates conflicts between the various academies, each one of them serving a different warlord. The intricacies of the plot don’t always gel, but it’s fun to watch the dizzying array of fighting styles and weapons on display. Judge Archer also features a tad more sexuality than usual, as well.
Reign of Assassins, a wuxia directed by Su Chao-pin and co-directed by John Woo, may be set during the Ming Dynasty, but it feels as if it could very easily be adapted to an old-fashioned Western. Michelle Yeoh (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) is a skilled assassin dedicated to returning the mummified remains of a mystical Buddhist monk to their resting place, before they can be stolen or purchased for their magical powers. Along the way, Zeng falls in love with Jiang (Jung Woo-sung), whose father was killed by her gang, but is unaware of her past. He has secrets of his own, which will be revealed when the Black Stone Gang realizes where their missing accomplice is laying low. (The press material suggests we think of it as Face/Off meets Mr. and Mrs. Smith.) The gang endeavors to recover the monk’s remains and teach Zeng a lesson in humility. The film’s cast includes actors from Taiwan, Korea, Hong Kong and China, as well as Woo’s daughter, Angeles, as Eater Bear. (The names of the gang members are a hoot.) The action recalls the heyday of the 1990s, when fantasy and creative wire work combined to enchant audiences drawn to historical epics.
Written and directed by Alan Mak and Felix Chong, collaborators on the Infernal Affairs trilogy, The Lost Bladesman is loosely based on Luo Guanzhong’s historical novel, “Romance of the Three Kingdoms.” Once again, ancient China is in a state of turmoil. To unify the country, General Cao Cao (Jiang Wen) takes the great warrior Guan Yu (Donnie Yen) prisoner, in the hope of convincing him to turn his back on the general’s enemy, Liu Bei (Alex Fong). As leverage, Cao Cao has taken Guan Yu’s lover, Qi Lan (Betty Sun), hostage, as well. Once the smoke clears, Cao Cao makes promises to Guan Yu that he has no intention of keeping. The double-cross prompts an exciting mix of wild battle scenes and furious duels, all choreographed by Yen. Guan Yu frequently is required to take on hordes of opponents, typically with only a spear or ax at his disposal. He’s one very bad dude.
Whenever I receive a DVD purporting to offer something new on the life and films of Bruce Lee – gone, lo, the past 43 years – I wonder how cheesy the clip job is going to be. Lee didn’t have the largest inventory of films from which draw and the ones available to most documentary makers are weathered almost beyond recognition. It explains why I was so surprised by John Little’s unusual take on the subject, Bruce Lee: Tracking the Dragon. More than anything else, it reveals the time, effort and money invested in a product most people are probably going to dismiss out of hand. Little does nothing more than visit and report what he finds from the locations of scenes shot for The Big Boss, Fist of Fury, The Way of the Dragon and Enter the Dragon. It’s a device that Scream Factory has repeatedly employed as a bonus feature in its Blu-ray packages of upgraded horror flicks. Besides being fun to watch, it allows fans to revisit what’s left of the locations and witnesses. Many of the sites Little visits remain largely unchanged nearly a half-century later. At monasteries, ice factories, the Colosseum, mansions, outdoor landmarks, dojos and on urban streets, Little is able to present a comprehensive review of Lee’s legacy. The clips are clean, useful and don’t look as if they were transferred from World War II surplus film stock. He also was able to interview co-stars, crew members, hotel and factory workers, and witnesses to the productions. Fans will love it.
Burial Ground: The Nights of Terror: Blu-ray
Razors: The Return of Jack the Ripper
The Trail of Dracula
Giallo specialist Andrea Bianchi (Malabimba: The Malicious Whore) was working against type when he took on the gory zombie thriller, Burial Ground: The Nights of Terror. The experiment was less than successful, but not completely devoid of rewards. The action starts when a nutty professor opens the cover to an Etruscan tomb and is rewarded for his enterprise by being killed by one of its undead inhabitants. Coincidentally, a mixed group of clueless jet-setters takes up residence in the estate’s opulent castle, where they become easy targets for the zombie horde. Bianchi adds some kinky sexual interludes before the ghouls’ attack, including a too-close relationship between a sexy mom (Mariangela Giordano) and her needy 12-year-old son (played by 25-year-old dwarf actor Peter Bark). Burial Ground isn’t likely to show up on any expert’s list of top horror films. It remains, however, a creep show worthy of any buff’s attention. The Severin Blu-ray adds “Villa Parisi: Legacy of Terror,” a featurette on the historic house location; “Peter Still Lives,” a festival Q&A with Bark; “Just for the Money,” an interview with actor Simone Mattioli; “The Smell of Death,” interviews with producer Gabriele Crisanti and actress Mariangela Giordano; and deleted/extended scenes.
Because Jack the Ripper may be as familiar to American moviegoers as Billy the Kid and John Dillinger are to European audiences, it takes something new and different to capture our collective attention. Typically, it arrives in the form of a new suspect in the infamous Whitechapel murders, which took place between April 3, 1888, and February 13. 1891. The royal connection has been explored, as has the dubious theory that the monster moved to the United States and picked up here where he left off in London. Ian Powell and Karl Ward’s appropriately dark and dreary, Razors: The Return of Jack the Ripper is based on premise that seems reasonably fresh, at least. A half-dozen screenwriting students, gathered in a dank Islington warehouse (the Elektrowerkz nightclub), are assigned by their hot-shot teacher to come up with an idea for a new horror franchise. One of them, Ruth Walker (Kelby Keenan), comes to class with a box of knives and razors she’s been led to believe once belonged to the killer. The warehouse is said to have been built over a smelter that police of the period used to destroy confiscated weapons, so why not? When the box disappears, the bad craziness begins. This includes ghosts of victims past and a new series of murders. Not bad, but don’t try to watch “Razors” on your iPhone, because it will look like a blackout during the blitz. It also suffers from some narrative lapses. The DVD adds the featurettes, “Lights, Camera, Speed!” and “Behind the Walls,” as well as clips and interviews, and commentary with the directors and cast.
The Trail of Dracula takes 75 minutes to trace the path the vampire king took from folkloric nightmare to prominence in the 20th Century’s most powerful and popular medium. Some of the world’s foremost experts on the Dracula legend open with scholarship surrounding Vlad the Impaler and their influence on Bram Stoker’s celebrated novel, then discuss landmark stage productions and classic movie adaptations. Vintage interviews with Bela Lugosi, John Carradine and Christopher Lee add some life to all the talk of the undead, as do clips from later cinematic iterations. “The Trail” feels very much like the kind of extended featurettes now appearing in Arrow Video Blu-ray packages, but I didn’t recognize it as such. The bonus package is pretty good, too, starting with 94 minutes of Dracula-themed movie trailers, audio interviews with Lee and Francis Lederer (Return of Dracula). It adds video interviews with director Werner Herzog (Nosferatu the Vampyre) and actor Udo Kier (Blood for Dracula).
Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street in Concert: Blu-ray
Leonard Bernstein’s Candide in Concert: Blu-ray
If the idea of bringing Broadway musicals to Blu-ray doesn’t sound particularly novel or revolutionary, consider how few live stage performances of landmark productions have been recorded for posterity on hi-def. Typically, we get film adaptations of important works, but rarely without revisions being made for the medium. For Academy Award consideration, if nothing else, original songs are added or deleted and actors more familiar to movie audiences replace Broadway or West End cast members. This has been going on for generations, only occasionally bringing loud protests from audiences. Way back in the early 1970s, when such things were still possible, producer Ely Landau launched a series of completely faithful film adaptations of 14 important stage plays under the American Film Theatre banner. They were contracted to be exhibited in 500 theaters in 400 cities, with admissions based on subscriptions to the entire series. Landau wanted to reach American audiences who rarely get to see the seminal works of theatre, as interpreted by Broadway’s greatest actors and directors. Among the titles were “A Delicate Balance,” “The Homecoming,” “The Iceman Cometh,” “Three Sisters,” “The Maids” and “Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris.” Directors and stars included Tony Richardson Peter Hall, John Frankenheimer, Harold Pinter, Laurence Olivier, Katharine Hepburn, Paul Scofield, Lee Marvin, Jeff Bridges, Robert Ryan, Fredric March, Brock Peters, Stacy Keach, Gene Wilder, Zero Mostel, Alan Bates and Jessica Tandy. The “subscription only” conceit probably had as much to do with the series’ failure as a general unfamiliarity with too many of the plays. Still, when Kino International announced it would release individual titles on DVD, in 2003, and a boxed set, in 2008, it came as welcome news to lovers of English-language theater.
This week, Shout! Factory launched its new home-entertainment series, Shout Broadway, with live-performance renditions of Gypsy, Leonard Bernstein’s Candide and Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. If they’re missing the cast members who made them famous — “Gypsy” was first performed on Broadway in 1959, after all – the actors who do perform here are uniformly excellent and familiar to most Americans. Arthur Laurents, Jule Styne and Stephen Sondheim’s “Gypsy,” one of Broadway’s most memorable productions comes to life in 2015’s stunning West End production, starring Imelda Staunton, Peter Davison and Lara Pulver. The colorful and catchy production of “Leonard Bernstein’s Candid in Concert,” about an innocent young man’s journey through a life filled with colorful characters and unexpected life obstacles, stars Tony Award-winners Patti LuPone and Kristin Chenoweth. “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street in Concert” is represented by the 2001 concert presentation of Broadway’s black-humored thriller of revenge, razors, murder, and meat pies. It features LuPone, Tony-winner George Hearn, and Neil Patrick Harris and adds a making-of featurette, with Sondheim. “Sweeney Todd” and “Candide” were previously released on standard-definition DVD.
Meathead Goes Hog Wild
Have you ever begun to watch a movie — at home or at a festival — and, after 15 minutes of boredom, decided to hit the stop button or sneak into another screening down the hall? Then, when you read the reviews, it’s as if the critics watched a completely different movie. By giving up early, it seems, you missed the good parts. I felt like hitting the stop button on Meathead Goes Hog Wild when I gave up hoping the unnamed protagonist would do something to justify my investment in time. In another five minutes, however, things changed dramatically. It was as if a different director had taken the helm and righted the ship’s course. Made for something on the order of $6,000 in Kickstarter funds, and what the trio of co-writer/co-director/co-producers — Kevin Cline, Zach Harris, Sean Pierce — could squeeze out of their piggy banks, Meathead Goes Hog Wild is an urban revenge fantasy not unlike Taxi Driver and Falling Down. Cline plays the unknown protagonist, a slacker whose wealthy suburban roots are revealed early in the narrative. We empathize with him when he returns home to say goodbye to his family’s terminally ill dog and discovers that his parents have ignored his wishes by putting Care packages filled with household staples and cash in the backseat of his car. Despite his protestations, he’s about to lose his job at the local mom-and-pop butcher shop for his slovenly appearance and inappropriate interaction with customers. When the owner refuses to accept his apology, the young man cuts off his straggly hair and swears vengeance. Considering how few resources he has, however, this would not be easy. Even so, the movie suddenly has become interesting. The newly bald avenger decides to break into the shop and steal a supply of meat, which he neatly repackages and tries to hand out to needy residents of Chicago’s predominantly African-American Near West Side (I guessing). Not acquainted with the saying, “Beware of geeks bearing gifts,” the wannabe Santa is stunned by how few people refuse the free meat. During the course of the evening, he also is attacked, robbed, shot at, used as bait for a cheating husband and accused of mocking a gang’s graffiti signatures. The protagonist is so scrawny and clueless that we change our mind about him entirely. What impressed me most about “Meathead” is how well the creative team captures a hyper-sanitized vision of Chicago at night, from a brightly polished El station to streets free of garbage, standing water and potholes. (Spike Lee accomplishes the same effect in his movies.) If “Meathead” had cost $60,000 or $600,000 to make – still bargains – I might not have arrived at the same conclusion. At $6,000, though, it’s a small miracle.
Don McLean: Starry Starry Night
Morphine: Journey of Dreams
“American Pie” is the kind of classic tune that millions of amateur troubadours have sung along to over the past 45 years, but very few professional artists have attempted to cover. Madonna recorded an abridged version of it, along with two music videos, as did Mott the Hoople. The song is so closely associated with Don McLean’s personal history, however, that few artists will touch it. And, that’s a very good thing, because a lot of Baby Boomers consider the song a part of their personal songbook, as well. Last year, McLean’s original working manuscript for “American Pie” sold for $1.2 million at Christie’s auction house. His first televised special, Don McLean: Starry Starry Night, has been a PBS Pledge Month staple for the last 10 years. The DVD is newly available to civilians, as well. Recorded in Austin’s Paramount Theater, it features “Vincent,” “It Was a Very Good Year,” “Castles in the Air,” “Crying,” “Singing the Blues” and, of course, “American Pie,” as well as interstitial interviews. Nanci Griffith joins him on “And I Love You So” and “Raining in My Heart.” It has now been visually upgraded with concert footage from the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s.
The story behind Dominique Mollee and Vinny Sisson’s kooky rockumentary, My Way, is so Hollywood perfect that there were times when I thought it might have been scripted by the fabulists at MTV’s “Real World” or “Road Rules.” We follow the all-women rock band, fronted by Rebekah Starr and Estonian tambourine player Annika, as they travel from a rural Pennsylvania town to L.A., with stops along the way to sell their CDs and perform at the occasional dive bar. When they aren’t out hustling their product, bickering or looking for the nearest watering hole, the members stand before the camera to record their confessions and observations of life on the road. Their goal is to shot music videos that showcase all their attributes. Although Starr abhors sexist labels and being ogled by horndogs – she left the corporate world because of her distaste of the toxic workplace environment — it’s impossible to ignore the fact the women are drop-dead gorgeous … all of them. And, they’re extremely competent musicians, to boot. Although more poppy than punk, their songs bear the imprint of Hole, the Go-Go’s, Bangles and a dozen different Brit power-pop bands. If anyone is attempting to resurrect the Monkees today, I’d suggest they consider the pre-packaged RSB. The sad fact, though, is that the music business is a cruel way to make a living and it’s getting tougher. By focusing their appeal to serious fans of hard-core rock, they’ve effectively eliminated the kids who actually spend money on their favorite acts … Taylor Swift being the prime exemplar of what sells today. Also testifying are rock legends Steven Adler (Guns N’ Roses), Rikki Rockett (Poison) and, inexplicably, Ron Jeremy, who plays a character in one of their videos. My Turn would have benefitted from the opinions of Courtney Love, Joan Jett and Ann or Nancy Wilson. The DVD adds extended interviews and full-length videos.
Morphine: Journey of Dreams is yet another rockumentary about a highly regarded band that woulda, coulda, shoulda become a bigger attraction, but couldn’t break through the clutter of the 1990s’ music scene. A big hit in Boston and cities with a substantial audience for alternative rock ’n’ roll, Morphine limited its own appeal by creating a “low rock” niche. The trio’s unique and mesmeric sound echoes the Velvet Underground and bands not afraid to cross genre boundaries and write lyrics that are worth the effort it takes to decipher. Witnesses include the trio’s surviving members — saxophonist Dana Colley and drummers Billy Conway and Jerome Dupree — plus the late Mark Sandman’s girlfriend, and peers Joe Strummer, Steve Berlin and the ever-quotable Henry Rollins. The in-concert material speaks for itself. The DVD adds 40 minutes of extended interviews, Colley’s journal readings and Sandman’s photographs.
Midnight Run: Collector’s Edition: Blu-ray
In 1988, when the coast-to-coast buddy film Midnight Run was released, no one in Hollywood was convinced that Robert De Niro had the necessary chops to play one of the male leads in a comedy. He had been disguised beyond easy recognition in Brazil and Rupert Pupkin, in The King of Comedy, could hardly be mistaken for a comedian. A hard-boiled skip-tracer, maybe; a funny hard-boiled skip-tracer, who knew? Charles Grodin, playing the crooked bookkeeper DeNiro’s character is committed to find and return, had already displayed his sly comic charm in several supporting roles, but rarely in the lead position. Even if Midnight Run more than broke even at the box office, it didn’t do the kind of business that would inspire anyone to repeat the experiment. A decade later, De Niro made people laugh in Wag the Dog, Jackie Brown and Analyze This. Meet the Parents served as the palette cleanser fans needed to remove the bad taste left from The Adventures of Rocky & Bullwinkle. With the exceptions of Silver Lining Playbook, American Hustle and Joy, it can be argued that he’s been phoning it in ever since. Dirty Grandpa, anyone? The release of Midnight Run: Collector’s Edition into Blu-ray serves as a reminder not only of the magic that comes from perfect casting, but also the importance of well-matched supporting characters, including Yaphet Kotto, John Ashton, Dennis Farina and Joe Patoliano and a budget that can afford location shoots in Arizona, Chicago, New York, Los Angeles, Michigan, Manhattan, Las Vegas, Idaho and New Zealand. It benefits from a 2K scan from the Inter-postive; hi-def interviews with De Niro (sort of, anyway), Grodin, Pantoliano, Ashton, Kotto and writer George Gallo; and a vintage making-of featurette.
Channel 4: The IT Crowd: The Complete Series
PBS: Masterpiece: Durrells in Corfu: Blu-ray
A&E: 50 Years of Star Trek
AMC: Hell on Wheels: Season 5, Volume 2: The Final Episodes
BBC/PBS: India: Nature’s Wonderland
BBC Earth/PBS: Forces of Nature: Blu-ray
PBS: Simple Gifts: The Chamber Music Society at Shaker Village
PBS: Craft in America: Teachers
Nickelodeon: Paw Patrol: Pups Save Christmas
When desktop computers became ubiquitous appendages to office workers here and around the world, it soon became apparent that an entire class of employees would have to be created to service both machines and humans. Because IT staffers held the keys to a company’s fluid operation, and were ridiculed as geeks and nerds, it sometimes seemed as if they held fellow employees in contempt (“Have you tried turning it off and on again?”) and punished them in ways that weren’t always apparent. The Channel 4 sitcom, “The IT Team,” confirmed such notions in hilarious stories and throughlines. Here, the support team was comprised of bitter slacker, Roy (Chris O’Dowd), socially inept Moss (future Conchord, Richard Ayoade) and their new boss, computer illiterate Jen (Katherine Parkinson). The show also focuses on the bosses of Reynholm Industries: Denholm Reynholm (Chris Morris) and later, his son Douglas (Matt Berry). The British series ran four seasons, from 2006 to 2013. An American adaptation was planned, but never came to fruition. The DVD adds commentary with writer/director Graham Linehan on select episodes, deleted scenes, outtakes; interviews, original opening-sequence animatic, “Kalypso” by Sweet Billy Pilgrim and the rarely seen episode, “The Internet Is Coming.”
The world was a much larger place, when, in 1935, Louisa Durrell announced that she and her four children were moving from Bournemouth to the Greek island of Corfu. Her husband has died some years earlier and the family is experiencing financial problems. A Homeric battle ensues as the family adapts to life on the island which, despite a lack of electricity, is cheap and an earthly paradise. The family of five had already been uprooted from India to England, after the death of patriarch Lawrence Samuel Durrell, and money was tighter than she expected it to be. Compared to England, island life promised to be idyllic … practically free … except when it wasn’t. The “Masterpiece” mini-series, “Durrells in Corfu,” was adapted from youngest son Gerald Durrell’s memoirs, “My Family and Other Animals” (1954), “Birds, Beasts and Relatives” (1969) and “The Garden of the Gods.” He portrayed his mother Louisa (Keeley Hawes) as the family’s well-meaning but slightly eccentric matriarch. Women can’t be too eccentric for PBS audiences. Much of the show’s first six-episode season deals with the family adjusting to the new environment and the sometimes-difficult Greek residents. Gerald’s obsession with animals and Margo’s roller-coaster romances add quite a bit of spice to the proceedings. ITV has already committed to a second season.
The History documentary 50 Years of Star Trek is a celebrity-enhanced look back at a half-century of Trekiana, based on memories of things past and their importance in the pop-cultural universe. Only those neophytes who haven’t heard about the series’ premature demise and subsequent resurrections will find anything revelatory in the discussions with cast, crew, creators and critics. Dyed-in-the-wool Trekkies will gravitate toward Leonard Nimoy’s last interview and the celebrity testimonials. Kevin Pollak, Nerdist podcast co-host Matt Mira, history professor John Putman, actress Jeri Ryan, NASA engineer Bobak Ferdowsi and make-up effects artist Doug Drexler sat down at the Leonard Nimoy Event Horizon Theater at the Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles to talk about Trek. It arrives on the same day as Star Trek Beyond.
I don’t if the folks at AMC planned for “Hell on Wheels” to last as long as the time it took to complete this country’s first transcontinental railroad. That’s how it played out, however. “Hell on Wheels: Season 5, Volume 2: The Final Episodes” completes the journey undertaken by former Confederate soldier Cullen Bohannon (Anson Mount) on Nov. 6, 2011. and his work on America’s first transcontinental railroad. The final push to finish the monumental undertaking brings with it a reckoning for Bohannon and the men standing in his path: the bloodthirsty Swede, the mercenary Chang and the rapacious Thomas Durant. While the railroad’s completion is certain, who and what will survive the golden-spike ceremony remains in question, with no one more at risk than Cullen Bohannon. With plenty more rail to be laid in the U.S. and Canada, the show might never end, despite “The Final Episodes” distinction.
India isn’t the first place that comes to mind when travelers plan trips based on safaris, birding or eco-tourism. There are so many other things to see and do in the subcontinent that it hardly seems time- or cost-effective to go off the beaten to ind exotica. In any case, in many places, the animals come to you. The BBC’s wondrous two-part mini-series, “India: Nature’s Wonderland,” travels from the mountainous north, where the holy waters of the Ganges originate, to the verdant hills and forests of the distant south, where elephants graze among the tea bushes. Wildlife expert Liz Bonnin, actor Freida Pinto and mountaineer Jon Gupta are our guides to this vast land, bringing within feet of potentially dangerous elephants, Asiatic lions and tigers, once hunted to near extinction. The hosts also attend celebrations and dances held each year to celebrate animals they fear, respect and worship. And, of course, babies are well represented: rhinos, turtles, lions, hornbills, caciques, elephants and macaques.
In four episodes, the BBC and PBS co-production, “Forces of Nature,” describes how and why so many of Earth’s wondrous sights, global communities and habitats are created by the forces of the universe that seem random and arbitrary, but are anything but that. Exploring motion, shapes and colors, the series connects things like snowflakes and the largest human-made towers to the laws of science and nature. The documentary take us from Florida’s coastline to Papua, New Guinea, inside of a volcano, to the icy seas of Greenland and beyond to learn how complex forces shape our planet: Why is water blue? How can a shape defy gravity? Why do bees make hexagonal honeycombs? It also describes how forces that began at the beginning of time create meteorological phenomena today.
Each year on Memorial Day weekend, the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center takes up residency in one of the country s most beautiful historic sites: Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill in Kentucky, where a vibrant Shaker community once flourished. The “Live From Lincoln Center” went on the road with the ensemble for the first time in its 40-year history, taking its cameras, trucks and a 15-member crew into the heart of rural America for “Simple Gifts: The Chamber Music Society at Shaker Village.” Performed for a riveted audience in a converted tobacco barn, the concert celebrated American music with unparalleled intimacy and intensity, climaxing with Aaron Copland’s iconic “Appalachian Spring,” which incorporates a traditional Shaker theme at the heart of the work. The film draws parallels between the interrelatedness of art and craftsmanship, the beauty and hardships of the frontier, and the quest for transcendence in American life.
PBS’ “Craft in America: Teachers” highlights artists committed to sharing their skills and passion for craft with students of all ages. It features Navajo weavers Barbara Teller Ornelas and Lynda Teller Pete, at Idyllwild Arts; glass artist Mark Mitsuda, at Punahou School; and glass artist Therman Statom and ceramic artist Linda Sikora, at Alfred University School of Art and Design. The award-winning documentary series is a journey to the artists, objects, techniques and origins of American craft.
“Paw Patrol: Pups Save Christmas” is the latest collection of episodes from the hit Nickelodeon show, which features daring rescues by canine crusaders. Kids are invited to join Ryder, Chase, Everest and the rest of the gang as they embark on snow-filled adventures to help Santa save Christmas, rescue penguins, polar bears, Sports Day, Skye Pups and Danny Pups.