By Gary Dretzka Dretzka@moviecitynews.com
The DVD Gift Guide 2: Da Cubs, Hellraiser, Downton Abbey, Bill & Ted; Bob Hope, Klown and more
2016 World Series Champions: The Chicago Cubs: Blu-ray
Chicago Cubs 2016 World Series Collector’s Edition: Blu-ray
The nation’s longest-running soap opera ended this fall, after many generations of drama, romance, comedy, misplaced expectations, broken hearts, dismally small audiences and finally over-the-top ratings. It ran for more than a century, spanning the first isolated radio broadcast, in 1921, and the era of Internet streaming. Millions of fans lived and died without closure. It would come on a rainy early-November night in Cleveland, itself no stranger to heartbreaking losses, in an extra-inning baseball game fraught with tension and mixed emotions. Anyone who hasn’t already guessed that the subject of this review is the Chicago Cubs’ World Series championship – ending a 108-year drought — need never consider auditioning for “Jeopardy!” or any sports game show. For those diehard fans on your gift list who’ve yet to come down from the clouds, the only presents they’re likely to tear open and immediately demand to sample are Shout! Factory’s 2016 World Series Champions and Chicago Cubs 2016 World Series Collector’s Edition, available in Blu-ray and DVD. If the Cubs hadn’t met consensus expectations this year, it would have been a far greater blow to its inexplicably loyal followers — a list that includes Hollywood celebrities, politicians, blue- and white-collar workers, bleacher bums, men, women and kids — than anything that’s happened since the infamous 1969 flop. No one who followed the club via WGN that year has ever recovered from the team’s blowing a 17½-game lead in the standings to the Mets in the last quarter of the season.
Owner Tom Ricketts’ money, GM Theo Epstein’s brains and manager Joe Maddon’s cunning combined to make players Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo, Javier Baez, Jake Arrieta, Dexter Fowler, Jon Lester and Ben Zobrist’s trip to the Fall Classic nearly inevitable. The Indians, however, made it a battle by taking a 3-1 series lead, forcing the Cubs to the Ivy-covered wall. It’s all here: the games, play-by-play broadcasts, comprehensive highlights, exclusive access and interviews. The less costly option, “2016 World Series Champions: The Chicago Cubs” features regular-season and World Series highlights, “clinching moments” and the World Series parade. “World Series Collector’s Edition” boasts footage of “every inning, play and heart-stopping moment” of the 2016 World Series, in its entirety, as well as key post-season games. The set adds eight complete broadcasts, including all games from the World Series and bonus material from the post-season “and beyond.” Enjoy it while you can, Cubs Nation. Fame is fleeting, disappointment is eternal.
50 Years With Peter Paul and Mary
In hindsight, 1963 probably wasn’t the most memorable year for pop music. Among Billboard’s multi-week chart-toppers were such forgettable adult-contemporary hits as the Village Stompers “Washington Square,” the Singing Nun’s “Dominique,” Rolf Harris’ “Tie Me Kangaroo Down, Sport,” Kyu Sakamoto’s “Sukiyaki,” Andy Williams’ “Can’t Get Used to Losing You” Al Martino’s “I Love You Because,” the Rooftop Singers’ “Walk Right In” and Steve Lawrence’s “Go Away Little Girl.” Bobby Vinton’s version of “Blue Velvet” remained at No. 1 for eight weeks, before being resurrected two decades later in David Lynch’s offbeat thriller of the same title, reprised by an unfortunate torch singer played by Isabella Rosselli. It was a great year, though, for the contemporary-folk trio, Peter, Paul and Mary, who scored a pair of No. 1 hits on the AC charts, with “Puff the Magic Dragon” (two weeks) and Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind” (five weeks), and a No. 2 with his “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right.” Recorded in 2014, “50 Years With Peter Paul and Mary” is a documentary that celebrates the impact of the pre-eminent trio on the American music scene and countercultural revolution of the 1960s. Their recordings of Dylan’s socially relevant songs helped make the “mystery tramp” a very rich young man. An original song based on a children’s story, “Puff the Magic Dragon” enjoyed a bizarre afterlife when rumors began to circulate claiming that it contained hidden references to marijuana use, and soldiers in Vietnam named deadly weapons after the dragon. The 78-minute film includes more than two dozen songs, in addition to the interviews and archival clips. And, yes, it is exceedingly giftable, especially to Baby Boomers who still own acoustic guitars they haven’t touched in decades.
Hellraiser: The Scarlet Box Limited Edition Trilogy: Blu-ray
Serious collectors of modern horror have been given several reasons to rejoice this year, with Arrow Films/MVD’s continuing stream of “Limited Edition” packages of vintage films, the latest being “Hellraiser: The Scarlet Box.” Not all of the reclaimed titles are as familiar as Halloween and Nightmare on Elm Street, whose success triggered an avalanche of genre pictures released in the 1980s and relegated to drive-ins and shoebox multiplexes. Most arrived before the explosion in niche media and were left to the mercy of mainstream critics, who could barely disguise their unhappiness at being forced to sit through such gruesome fare. Decades later, fans and buffs have joined genre specialists in lauding the lasting entertainment value in movies that overcame miniscule production and marketing budgets, bargain-basement effects, over-the-hill stars, unrecognizable supporting casts, studio interference and outraged parents. Arrow’s stewardship of such movies demonstrates that it, along with several other likeminded companies, takes the frequently dismissed titles seriously and is willing to invest money in director’s-cut editions, audio/visual upgrades, the porting over of featurettes, creation of new bonus material and compilation of marketing and publicity memorabilia. Roger Ebert may have awarded Hellraiser a half-star kiss-off, but it was embraced by genre buffs for its outrageous special makeup effects, imaginative demons and not-so-subtle S&M. It made 20 times its $1-million production budget, thus ensuring hope for franchise status.
The 1987 British release was written and directed by Clive Barker, upon whose novella, “The Hellbound Heart,” it was based. It involves the resurrection of bad-brother Frank (Sean Chapman), who had opened the door to an alternate dimension and had his body torn to pieces by creatures known as Cenobites. Years later, his good brother, Larry (Andrew Robinson), moves into Frank’s abandoned house with his daughter, Kirsty (Ashley Laurence), and naughty wife, Julia (Clare Higgins). An accident causes some of Larry’s blood to spill on the attic floor, which somehow triggers Frank’s resurrection. To complete his resurrection, he requires more blood, which Julia provides in the form of innocent visitors. Meanwhile, Kirsty discovers an ancient puzzle-box that attracts the Cenobites, all of whom have horrific mutilations and/or body piercings, and wear fetishistic black leather clothing. Pinhead, one of the great monsters of genre history, is one of the leaders of the Cenobites. “Hellraiser: The Scarlet Box Limited Edition Trilogy” includes 2K restorations of Hellraiser, Hellbound: Hellraiser II and Hellraiser III: Hell on Earth; “The Clive Barker Legacy,” a fourth disc with Barker’s short films and documentary; the 200-page book, “Damnation Games”; and numerous interviews and making-of featurettes. The movie remains shocking, but fun, in a sadomasochistic sort of way.
It’s been said that the current trend in extreme body piercings and modifications can be traced to the popularity of Hellraiser, which wallowed in them. I wouldn’t be surprised if it did. Hellraiser is included, along with several other Arrow, Scream Factory, Criterion, Mondo Macabro, Grindstone Vestron/Lionsgate and MPI volumes, in Steve Jay Schneider’s “101 Horror Movies You Must See Before You Die.” The thick, if compact book – perfect for bathroom reading — takes an in-depth, chronological look at the genre, with essays and stills. No subgenre, nationality or deformity is ignored. It’s also very affordable.
Department Q Trilogy
Admirers of the kinds of Scandinavian crime mini-series that get remade for consumption by subtitle-averse Americans should relish this collection of movies, featuring the morose Danish detective Carl Morck, his assistant and best/only friend, Assad, and their diligent secretary, Rose. Carl (Nikolaj Lie Kaas) has been assigned to duty in the cold-case department of the Copenhagen PD after an ill-planned raid on a suspect’s home leaves one cop dead, another one crippled and Morck guilt-ridden and depressed. He treats the assignment as a demotion, of course, but Assad eventually convinces him of the importance of tackling unsolved cases with the same dedication as that reserved for active investigations. The films included in Department Q Trilogy are based on best-selling stories written by Jussi Adler-Olsen. Released about a year apart from each other, The Keeper of Lost Causes, The Absent One and A Conspiracy of Faith set box-office records in Denmark and deserve the attention of viewers who’ve enjoyed such originally Nordic thrillers as “The Killing,” “Wallander” and “The Bridge.” Mikkel Nørgaard’s “The Keeper of Lost Causes” kicks off the series with the reopening of a case that Carl’s supervisors all assume was a suicide or accident, because she was last seen on a ferry with her autistic brother. The team comes to believe differently, as the victim’s body was never found and her political activity was sometimes controversial. Nørgaard’s 2014 “The Absent One” tackles the unsolved murder of twins at a prestigious prep school and the resurfacing of a witness missing for 20 years. Hans Petter Moland’s “A Conspiracy of Faith” involves a series of killings that appear to be linked to a religious fanatic and a more-recent kidnapping of a preacher’s young son and daughter. The investigations lead detectives to places so dark and frightening you’d think they existed here, not in the fairytale kingdom of Denmark. The DVDs include making-of featurettes.
I was surprised to learn that Nørgaard also directed Klown Forever, Klown and 42 episodes of the hilariously offbeat “Klown” television series, from which the movies were adapted. (He also helmed four episodes of the terrific political drama, “Borgen.”) All three comedies focus on the lives of the main characters, Frank (Frank Hvam) and Casper (Casper Christensen), who let their worst instincts get them into all sorts of trouble with their spouses, friends and acquaintances. As such, the “uncomfortable” humor that informs “Klown” has frequently been compared to Larry David’s aggressively non-PC behavior in “Curb Your Enthusiasm.” I would also suggest Rowan Atkinson, whose nebbish character, Mr. Bean, inspired a hit British TV show and spin-off movies. Niche distributor Drafthouse Films, which imported Klown in 2012, also is handling the sequel, Klown Forever. In the sequel, Casper decides to leave Denmark to pursue a solo career in Los Angeles, where he’s living large in the Hollywood Hills. Missing his BFF and creative partner, with whom he’s publishing a book about their friendship, Frank decides to visit him. It doesn’t take long for the horndog Casper to regret inviting the socially awkward Frank to his babe-magnet home. Long story short, Klown Forever is darker than the original in ways that some sexually cautious Americans might find offensive. Look for cameos by Isla Fisher and Adam Levine. The package contains deleted scenes and three hilarious episodes from the TV show. Apparently, Warner Bros. has slated an English-language remake of Klown, starring Sacha Baron Cohen.
PBS: Downton Abbey: The Complete Limited Edition Collection: Blu-ray
PBS: Masterpiece: Mr. Selfridge: The Complete Series
PBS: Masterpiece Mystery: Inspector Lewis: The Complete Series
There once was a time when collections of PBS/BBC series were kept out circulation in video for months and sometimes years after their original airings. I think that it had something to do with the prices it could charge institutions, versus what the consumer marketplace would bear. The great acceptance of VCRs and DVRs made that practice obsolete, based primarily on the improvement of playback quality and competition from British distributors. Extreme popularity creates great opportunities, however, and Downton Abbey: The Complete Limited Edition Collection is a perfect example of how PBS has joined the crush of companies that have come to believe that more is more and more is never enough for rabid fans of beloved series. Arriving in a package the size of a toaster, the Limited Edition includes all six seasons (53 episodes) in the original, unedited UK versions; five all-new hours of bonus video and seven more hours of extras; a hardcover book for storing all 22 discs; a working pull-bell (just like Lady Mary used to summon Anna); six cork-backed coasters; and an exclusive, photo-filled booklet, “The Costumes of Downton Abbey,” with a foreword from the show’s executive producer, Gareth Neame. Less-inclusive Blu-ray packages are priced to sell, as well. Complete-series collections, based on the original UK episodes, of Mr. Selfridge and Inspector Lewis also were released in October. Unbeknownst to many American audiences (and subscribers), PBS routinely edits British imports for naughty bits and length, when Pledge Month pitches cut into the shows. It shouldn’t, but it does. The remedy comes in the form of these boxed sets, which represent the UK versions.
ABC: Two Guys and a Girl: The Complete Series
If it’s remembered at all, the late-1990s sitcom “Two Guys and a Girl” will be recalled as the show that changed its original title, “Two Guys, a Girl and a Pizza Place,” when the setting was changed from a restaurant to wherever it was the characters were working or sleeping. Of its three continuing stars — Ryan Reynolds, Richard Ruccolo, Traylor Howard – only Reynolds (Deadpool) would enjoy much forward trajectory. In 2005, Howard caught a sweet gig on USA’s “Monk,” as Tony Shalhoub’s extremely tolerant assistant, but, since then, nada. Even so, at one time, “TG&G” averaged more than 10 million viewers. Today, that would be considered cause for rejoicing. When, in 2001, ABC moved it from Wednesdays to Friday, some 4 million of those viewers failed to follow it. The series focused on the lives of twenty-somethings Pete, Michael and Sharon, who, naturally, worked at a Boston pizza joint for the first two seasons … just like, surprise, the show’s creator Kenny Schwartz, while in college. After the first successful season, the producers decided to jettison David Ogden Stiers, Jennifer Westfeldt and Julius Carry, replacing them with recurring characters played by Suzanne Cryer, Jillian Bach and Nathan Fillion. More impressive was a list of guest stars that included Carmen Electra, Jon Cryer, Nomar Garciaparra, Fred Willard, Adam Carolla, Conchata Ferrell and bands Blink-182, Barenaked Ladies and Dan Finnerty & The Dan Band. The 11-disc set features all 81 episodes of the series, as well as its alternate, Internet-determined finale.
The Hunger Games: 4K Ultra HD/Blu-ray/Digital HD
It’s anybody’s guess as to whether this Christmas buying season will be the one that lights a fire under sales for 4K Ultra High Definition televisions and DVR units. (I just gave in to the temptation.) While the launch of Blu-ray 3D was greeted with consumer aversion to high prices and equipment limitations, the switch to 4K hardware isn’t nearly as prohibitive. I was given an opportunity to test my system with UHD copies of The Hunger Games, whose third chapter, “Mockingjay” was split into two parts. I assume that fans of the hit mega-series have already either purchased copies of it in DVD or Blu-ray – to savor the bonus package, if nothing else — so I’ll refrain from reprising the plot summaries. If the difference in resolution wasn’t visually overwhelming, it was at least noticeable, as was the “immersive, object-based audio,” although it would be more pronounced on a more expensive system than mine. The new releases accommodate Blu-ray 2D and digital HD formats. There are plenty of good reasons not to make the switch – shortage of product, for one – but, unlike the televisions, 4K units usually accommodate Blu-ray and DVD.
Bill & Ted’s Most Excellent Collection: Blu-ray
For most of the last 100 years, the San Gabriel Valley city of San Dimas was known primarily for its many orange and lemon groves. Until the 210 Freeway extension was completed, the sleepy burg was relatively removed from the urban sprawl that had devoured groves further west and soon drag upscale commuters to area. Before that, however, San Dimas served as a destination for rabid fans of the “Bill & Ted” series, in search of the dudes’ high school and Circle K, where all the magic happened. In fact, most of the original comedy was shot in and around Phoenix, as in Arizona, although it was difficult to tell. In 2010, when the city celebrated 50 years of incorporation, its slogan was “San Dimas, 1960-2010 — An Excellent Adventure.” It could just as easily been “San Dimas, 1960-2010 — Center of the Universe,” as B&T referred to it. (Porn star Andy San Dimas, who was born and raised in Maryland, is said to have borrowed her screen name from references in the movies.) “Bill & Ted’s Most Excellent Collection,” from Shout! Factory, is built around hi-def copies of Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure (1989) and Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey (1991), but the set’s biggest draw is a bonus package with six new additions to the vintage material also included. Star Alex Winter and producer Scott Kroopf provide fresh commentaries on both pictures, as do writers Chris Matheson and Ed Solomon. There’s “Time Flies When You Are Having Fun!,” an extensive documentary looking back at a “Excellent Adventure,” with Keanu Reeves, Winter and several other members of the cast and crew, “Bill & Ted Go to Hell,” which revisits “Bogus Journey,” with the same lineup. It adds eight featurettes from previous editions, stickers and guitar pick.
The Bob Hope Specials: Thanks for the Memories
The folks at Time Life/WEA don’t necessarily wait for holidays to arrive to release their collections of classic television programming. Every year, however, they like to remind DVD owners of their catalogue of boxed sets, which includes such evergreens as the newly updated “The Carol Burnett Show: The Lost Episodes: Collector’s Edition: Official TV Release” and “Hee Haw: The Collector’s Edition”; and holdovers “The Wonder Years: Complete Series,” “The Tonight Show Vault Series, Collection Volume 1-6, Starring Johnny Carson” and “Motown 25: Yesterday, Today, Forever.” The newest entry is “The Bob Hope Specials: Thanks for the Memories” collects comedy-variety specials the entertainer did for NBC-TV, beginning in 1950 and spanning five decades … or, as Hope might remind, 10 presidential administrations, from Harry Truman to Bill Clinton. The six-disc set features Bob’s first studio special “in living color,” with guests Jack Benny, Bing Crosby and Janet Leigh; “The Bob Hope Chevy Show,” with the entire cast of “I Love Lucy,” plus James Cagney and Diana Dors; a spoof of “Star Wars” and other sketches with Tony Bennett, Perry Como, James Garner, Mark Hamill, Dean Martin, Olivia Newton-John, Barbra Streisand, Tuesday Weld and the Muppets; the murder-mystery parody, “Joys (A Comedy Whodunit),” with nearly 50 guest stars, Charo, Milton Berle, Dean Martin, Don Rickles, George Gobel, Alan King, Don Knotts, Groucho Marx, Vincent Price and Freddie Prinze; 30 years’ worth of bloopers; the 1967 USO tour to 22 bases around Vietnam, Thailand and the South Pacific, in 15 days, with special guest Raquel Welch; highlights from more than 25 years of specials in “Bob Hope’s World of Comedy”; a look at Bob’s personal relationships with American president, including Franklin D. Roosevelt, Bill Clinton, John F. Kennedy and Harry Truman; his 90th birthday celebration; and the exclusive bonus feature, “Shanks for the Memory,” with historic clips of Bob with Bing Crosby, presidents and pros on courses around the world, and special appearances by President Gerald Ford, pro golfers Arnold Palmer, Ben Hogan and Jack Nicklaus.
Roseanne for President
Eric Weinrib, who’s worked with Michael Moore, recorded for posterity comedian Roseanne Barr’s failed 2012 run for POTUS, as the Green Party’s candidate. Four years later, she might have proven to be a more formidable candidate than Jill Stein – the Alf Landon of quixotic progressive causes — against Hillary Clinton and fellow TV star Donald Trump. Neither would have stood a chance in a debate against the standup comedian, whose monstrous ego equals their monstrous egos, but, as the fictional Roseanne, was embraced by the same voters who’ve drifted away from the Democratic Party and would have voted for Mickey Mouse (or Bernie Sanders) against Hillary. Although Weinrib mined some funny material from Roseanne, she never lets us forget that she’s extremely serious about wanting to advise voters on the corrupt practices of mainstream politicians and the need for extensive government reforms. Not surprisingly, perhaps, she also was extremely fixated on repealing laws prohibiting the sale and use of marijuana, which is happening, anyway. Neither is she reluctant to pepper her discussion with profanity and derogatory remarks about Stein, who barely recognizes her campaign, and such liberal icons as Jon Stewart and Rachel Maddow. As a way to prove her pro-environment credentials, Roseanne chose to conduct most of her politicking via Skype, while puttering around her house in an apron, leaving the hard work to campaign manager Farheen Hakeem. In fact, though, it could have been perceived as something an elitist celebrity would do to avoid having to commune with the hoi-polloi. If the 2016 race weren’t such a shit storm, Roseanne for President, might be more appealing. As it is, only loyal fans of Ms. Barr are likely to stay the distance here.
Typically, in bros-will-be-bros comedies about anti-social behavior in fraternities, the brunt of the gross-out humor is reserved for freshmen, overserved sorority girls and humorless authority figures. Andrew Neel’s Goat adopts a more sobering approach to the increasingly troubling tradition of hazing and other manifestations of entrenched privilege. Hazing, racism and sexism aren’t limited to the Greek system on campus, of course. It is practiced by athletic teams and marching bands, as well. Here, 19-year-old Brad (Ben Schnetzer) survives a severe post-graduation-party beating by unknown assailants, only to be greeted by similarly brutal behavior from upperclassmen culling the weak candidates from the strong among the incoming pledge class. His brother, Brett (Nick Jonas), already is a member of the fraternity and ostensibly could be called upon to protect Brad, if things turn nasty. The tradition of ritual bullying was so ingrained at this frat that Brett let most of it slide, however. At first vaguely humorous, the hazing escalates well beyond the point of brotherly shenanigans. If Neel’s caricatures of neo-fascist upperclassman sometimes feel exaggerated, so, too, were the Greek characters in Animal House … it worked to our advantage, in that case. The overriding question asked in Goat surrounds the amount of torture is necessary to turn impressionable pledges into lockstep “brothers,” committed to preserving a code of silence and traditions that encourage date-rape, ritual humiliation and drunkenness. OK, now I’m exaggerating … not all fraternities are guilty of such atrocities. Whatever contributions co-writer David Gordon Green (George Washington) made to the story likely helped to soften the sharp edges and turn Goat into a movie high school seniors — their parents, too — might want to consider watching before taking the next step to adulthood. James Franco makes a cameo as a gung-ho ex-frat boy.
The timing could hardly be better for Rob Zombie’s new industrial-strength horror flick, 31, in which five carnival workers are required to survive 12 hours locked in warehouse with bunch of insane killer clowns. While it’s highly unlikely that Zombie orchestrated the recent rash of sightings of potentially felonious clowns around the country, he probably wouldn’t deny the subliminal marketing opportunities they represent. It’s more likely that Zombie, whose parents were carnies before things turned ugly for them on the midway, was drawing from memory in the characters he developed for 31. When their van is hijacked, Charly, Venus, Panda, Levon and Roscoe are brought to a large building, where three geezers in Louis XIV garb explain the game to them. How Zombie convinced Malcolm McDowell to play Father Napoleon-Horatio-Silas Murder, alongside Sister Dragon and Sister Serpent (Judy Geeson, Jane Carr), is anyone’s guess.
The hostages are pitted against the six clownish “Heads”: Sick-Head, Psycho-Head, Schizo-Head, Death-Head, Sex-Head and Doom-Head. They’re allowed the luxury of cutlery and power tools, at least. Like previous Zombie vehicles, 31 overflows with gore, blood and violence. His fans wouldn’t have it any other way. Even so, he had to take the crowd-funding route to finance 31, which didn’t exactly shatter any records at the handful of theaters in which it played. As usual, Zombie enlisted members of his repertory company: Michael “Red Bone” Alcott, Elizabeth Daily, Ginger Lynn, Sheri Moon Zombie, Lew Temple, Torsten Voges, Jeff Daniel Phillips and Meg Foster. Reportedly, 31 had to be cut three times to obtain an R rating from the MPAA. Considering what was retained, though, it’s easy to see why some people feel that the ratings board’s stance on violent-vs.-sexual content is a joke. The Blu-ray adds commentary and a feature-length length making-of piece, “In Hell Everyone Loves Popcorn: The Making of 31.”
Critics may not be among the world’s most endangered species, but, as legitimate targets for revenge go, I’ve seen a lot worse. Typically, it takes the form of a maligned artist naming evil characters or nasty-tasting dishes after the reviewer who’s slammed their work. In Theatre of Blood, Vincent Price played a failed Shakespearean actor, who brutally settles the score with the critics he blames for ruining his career. In Bitter Feast, a celebrity chef exacts revenge on a food blogger who torpedoes his future. In Carl T. Evans’ Criticsized, the serial killer taunts police investigators who’ve failed to recognize the rather obvious clues that lead to a director whose work is routinely slammed by vitriolic critics. Or, perhaps, the culprit is a fan who resents being labeled a moron for admiring his films. Once the cops do figure things out, the killer has already begun to broadcast his crimes on the Internet, thus enflaming public opinion against the department. If it sounds like the plot to an episode of “Law & Order,” well, maybe it was.
Road to the Well
Children of the Mountain
Freshman writer/director Jon Cvack’s quirky thriller, Road to the Well, tells the story of three old friends who are reunited after a strange and seemingly random murder. The black humor derives from watching how far and how quickly a man’s life can deteriorate, after arriving late to his birthday party and discovering his live-in girlfriend being orally pleasured by his boss. Hours earlier, the boss had told him that he was being transferred to the boonies of northern California and now he knows the reason why. It happens on the same day that Frank (Laurence Fuller) is reunited with his childhood friend, Jack (Micah Parker), a charismatic conman and possibly a drug mule, who doesn’t spend too much time in one place. Jack suggests they drive north together, but not before he hooks Frank up with hooker acquaintance, Ruby (Rosalie McIntire). While they’re making out inside his car, they’re attacked by a hooded, knife-toting punk, who kills Ruby, puts her body in the trunk and leaves Frank standing in underwear holding the murder weapon. It’s at this point that the mild-mannered clerk takes Frank’s advice and heads to their hometown, where, theoretically, nothing worse can happen. And, yet, it does. Cvack’s story benefits from the introduction of wickedly offbeat characters and a lumpen friend, who takes his fashion cues from Michael “Meathead” Stivic, in “All in the Family.” Intrigue follows Frank and Jack to the High Sierra, where they plan to bury Ruby’s body, but encounter another loony character. Road to the Well may be far from perfect, but I hope it’s good enough to lead Cvack’s Kickstarter supporters to believe their money wasn’t wasted on him.
Priscilla Anany’s fact-based narrative, Children of the Mountain, would almost be too sad to watch – or recommend — if we didn’t already know that solutions to the protagonist’s terrible problems would, in real life, been available to her. Set in contemporary Ghana, it is the story of Essuman (Rukiyat Masud), pregnant by her lover, Edjah (Adjetey Anang), and looking forward to life as a family. Inconveniently, she lives next door to the woman Edjah abandoned, and it prompts the close-quarters hostility that breaks out between them. Essuman’s sense of pride and privilege is deflated, however, when her son is born with a cleft lip and palate. Had the baby been born near a hospital staffed by adequately trained physicians – or Internet access to specialists — it might have proven to be a temporary inconvenience for mother and child. Instead, she lives in a village where superstition and prejudice trump science. The father insists that the baby couldn’t be his, while other women say she’s cursed with a “dirty womb.” Nuku’s deformity can be repaired with surgery and such charities as Facing the World provide facial reconstructive surgery to children whose parents are unable to receive treatments in their own countries. Instead, by the time Essuman seeks help from legitimate sources in the nearest big city, she is told that a Craniofacial Team has just left for another African city. If that weren’t enough of a burden to bear, Essuman soon will learn that Nuku has cerebral palsy and Down’s syndrome. Desperate and alone, she’s forced to rely on witch doctors, corrupt preachers and uneducated street healers. She’s also encourage her to abandon the child or take him to the mountains, where the souls of sick children are said to wait. Anany drew in part on the life of her aunt and on the writing of a friend whose child was born with Down’s syndrome. A postscript offers reason for some optimism in related cases.
Based on a bestselling series of YA novels by James Patterson, a proposed adaptation of Maximum Ride at one time seemed a natural companion to the films adapted from the “Twilight” books and other supernatural entertainments for ’tweens and teens. Studio projects were in place, but a sudden glut of movies and TV shows featuring mutant heroes and villains likely precluded another expensive roll of the dice. Jay Martin’s much-delated adaptation looks anything but expensive, although I suspect he did what he could with what he was given. Maximum Ride tells the story of six DNA-enhanced orphans, whose ability to sprout wings and fly was engineered by a diabolical scientist, who keeps them in cages. Lanky Canadian beauty Allie Marie Evans plays Max, the leader of the flock, who’s made it her responsibility to protect her fellow captives from his brutal half-human/half-wolf creations, known as Erasers. The orphans don’t want to believe that they were spawned in a petri dish and truly lack human parents. Their curiosity drives them to escape and hack the scientist’s computer to discover the truth. It’s then that Erasures are let loose and Max must come to their rescue. Think of Maximum Ride as a cross between X-Men and Black Swan and you’ll have an idea of what it could have been.
PBS: Nature: Giraffes: Africa’s Gentle Giants
PBS: Nature: My Congo
It’s ironic that the life of one of the world’s most identifiable and popular wild animals, the giraffe, is still something of a mystery. Unlike rhinos and elephants, their diminishing numbers in the wild have only recently begun to be noticed outside the zoological community. According to Dr. Julian Fennessy, co-founder and co-director of Giraffe Conservation Foundation, giraffe populations in Africa are down by 40 percent in just two decades and for many of the same reasons that elephants and rhinos have become endangered. One of the possible solutions Fennessy has forwarded is the idea of moving a herd of rare Rothschild’s giraffes away from Ugandan poachers and oil-drilling operations, across the Nile River to a safer location in which to breed. Let’s hope that getting the sky-scraping beasts there – no small trick – was the greatest challenge he will face. Parents really ought to make a point of watching “Giraffes: Africa’s Gentle Giants” with their children.
The same applies to the splendid “Nature” episode “My Congo,” which argues against the notion that within the troubled African nation beats a heart of darkness. Instead, when viewed through the eyes of a repatriated wildlife cameraman, it represents the end of the rainbow. Despite the number of years he spent living and working in Europe, Vianet D’jenguet always carried fond childhood memories of the Congo. He had filmed in many locations across Africa, but never in his homeland, which overflows with spectacular wildlife and great natural beauty. Of course, any such return was fraught with danger due to cross-border skirmishes and ongoing civil wars that have driven tens of thousands of people from their homes. In this first-person account, D’jenguet visits sites that evoke happy family memories, tours a famous chimpanzee sanctuary, films a variety of animals and birds in vast national parks, and makes his way through a remote jungle in search of his roots