By Gary Dretzka Dretzka@moviecitynews.com
The DVD Wrapup: Streep Sings, Obama’s Date, Seagal Kills, Noir Classics, Roma, Driller Killer and more
Florence Foster Jenkins: Blu-ray
Anyone who watches Florence Foster Jenkins and opines, “That’s a role only Meryl Strep could play,” would only be half right. As terrific as Streep is, playing the most innocently delusional opera diva of the twentieth century, her characterization was equaled months earlier by perennial César Award candidate Catherine Frot, in Marguerite, a movie inspired by the same American singer. The Florence Foster Jenkins Story, made by German writer-director Ralf Pleger, who specializes in musical docu-dramas, has yet to be released in the United States. In any language, it’s a wonderful tale. During World War II, Jenkins was one of a handful of New York socialites whose contributions to the classical-music scene allowed it to survive the drought in charities not related to the war effort. The only stipulation was that the heiress be allowed to perform in public every so often. Her generosity was such that the people who benefitted most from her largesse held back their astonishment, grimaces and laughter whenever she performed. Critics weren’t invited and audience members unaware of her vocal limitations would be shushed if they wondered out loud whether she was in on the joke. She wasn’t.
In addition to Streep’s safely under-the-top performance, Florence Foster Jenkins benefits from Stephen Frears’ steady hand on the reins and a humorous Nicholas Martin screenplay that allowed plenty of room for Alan MacDonald’s production design and Consolata Boyle’s period costumes to shine. “She was a supreme performer, so her clothes were gorgeously outrageous,” Boyle emphasized, in interviews. “They were high camp, but with a softness, so she drew people in. And she had no embarrassment about how she looked.” It shows. Martin’s script also includes a throughline in which Jenkins’ real-life accompanist, Cosmé McMoon (Simon Helberg), depicts what life must have been like for a closeted gay artist in mid-century New York. Hugh Grant came out of semi-retirement to play Jenkins’ supportive, if unfaithful husband and manager, St. Clair Bayfield, an aristocratic English actor determined to protect his wife from the truth. It’s no easy trick and Grant uses all of his considerable charms to pull off the ruse. He fears that the jig may be up when he isn’t allowed to control ticket sales to her a sold-out 1944 Carnegie Hall showcase, to which critics can’t be barred. Remarkably, Streep recorded her own singing for the soundtrack and Helberg does his own piano playing. I wouldn’t be surprised if Streep, Grant and Boyle all received Academy Award nominations, in addition to the Golden Globe nods. By the way, the only recording of Jenkins’ singing – depicted in the movie – still is a best-seller at the Carnegie gift shop.
Southside With You: Blu-ray
No matter what one thinks about Donald Trump, it’s never been easy to look at the future First Lady with anything but sympathy and bewilderment. Until her presence was no longer needed on the campaign trail, the Slovenian native served mostly as an expensive ornament to the billionaire candidate. Then, when he secured the nomination, she disappeared for the next three months. Derided by Internet wags for all sorts of reasons — some fair, most dubious — Melania potentially could become the least visible First Lady in modern history. Trapped in a New York penthouse, she already seems to be Donald’s bird in a gilded cage, preferring, he says, to stay home with their 10-year-old son than take up residence in the White House. Right now, it’s impossible to imagine anyone making as compelling and sensitive a movie about their relationship as Richard Tanne’s Southside With You, which merely covers the Obamas’ contentious first day together as couple. Or, if Melania might someday be portrayed with the same sensitivity as Natalie Portman invests in her portrayal of Jacqueline Kennedy, in Pablo Larraín’s Jackie. There was good reason to fear that writer/director Tanne’s debut feature would turn out to be something as schmaltzy, uncritical and inaccurate as the average Lifetime movie of the 1990s. (They’ve gotten better.) Instead, Southside With You not only underplays the first sparks of romance, but it expands what we know of Barack Obama’s experience as a community organizer.
Tika Sumpter (Ride Along) presents Michelle as a proud and accomplished black woman, not without a sense of humor, working at a Chicago law firm where she might be more valuable as a “two-fer” than a litigator. In his portrayal of the future president, relatively unknown Parker Sawyers (Snowden) comes across, first, as an almost frivolous, borderline arrogant young man, whose lack of concern for first appearances is apparent in his sloppy attire, ramshackle automobile and cigarette addiction. It isn’t until he appears before a meeting of black Chicagoans, seething over yet another slap in the face from the city’s lock-step aldermen, that Barack’s natural charisma and commitment to social change surfaces. Michelle doesn’t immediately fall head over heels, but his change in demeanor and purpose makes her look at him through different eyes … and it feels absolutely real. Tanne meets the challenge of convincing us that love could blossom from such an occasionally awkward first day in each other’s presence, even as Michelle insists it isn’t really a date and their jobs preclude after-hours socializing. Frankly, I was surprised he could pull it off. The Blu-ray adds animated illustrations pulled from the story.
If the sci-fi/action thriller, Morgan, could have benefitted immensely from a less-generic title, its biggest handicap was having to follow Alex Garland’s similarly themed Ex Machina so quickly into theaters. Like the humanoid played by Alicia Vikander in that picture, the title character in Luke Scott’s debut feature is an engineered being. It looks and acts human, but is gender neutral, androgenous and prone to violent outbursts when her circuits overload. After five years of accelerated growth, Dr. Lui Cheng (Michelle Yeoh) and the scientists who created and nurtured Morgan (Anya Taylor-Joy) have become extremely protective of “her.” They are even willing to forgive a savage attack perpetrated on a fellow researcher (Jennifer Jason Leigh), who pushes her buttons too hard. By contrast, the company that’s financing the experiment treats Morgan as an “it,” whose temperament could prove troublesome in the corporate marketplace. The executive in charge (Brian Cox) assigns risk-assessment agent Lee Weathers (Kate Mara) to investigate the incident and return with a report based solely on the facts. Her objectivity is greeted with skepticism by the emotionally engaged staff members, who treat Morgan as if she were an errant child. It’s the untimely appearance of an arrogant psychologist, Dr. Alan Shapiro (Paul Giamatti), that likely will be the determining factor as to whether Morgan’s circuitry will continue to be modified or terminated. To say that Shapiro’s brain is outmatched by Morgan’s synthetic instincts would be an understatement. The confrontation leads to a wild-west finale that feels out of step with what’s come before it, but, in fact, may have been the only endgame for Scott. The scenery provided by locations in Northern Ireland and British Columbia recalls the bucolic setting of Ex Machina and looks great in hi-def. In addition to the usual making-of featurettes, the bonus package includes some discussion of our shared A.I. future.
End of a Gun
Steven Seagal may never win an Oscar, but he’s been nominated for several Razzie Awards, winning one for directing On Deadly Ground. As a pioneer in the lucrative video-original market, the action star has made the kind of fortune that trumps his detractors’ jokes and jibes. He’s also made a mark on reality television by serving as a fully commissioned deputy with the Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s Office, in Louisiana, and Arizona’s Maricopa County. He’s a citizen of the United States, Russian and Serbia, who, like our president-elect, considers Vladimir Putin “one of the great living world leaders.” He represents the Russian firearms manufacturer ORSIS and has considered running for governor of Arizona. If that doesn’t qualify him for a Cabinet post in the Trump administration or ambassador to Russia, what would? Certainly, not the release of his new kick-ass feature, End of a Gun, which verifies that the 64-year-old black belt in aikido hasn’t lost more than a step or two in the last 20 years.
Here, he plays an ex-DEA agent living in Paris, but longing for retirement in Key West. After coming to the rescue of an exotic stripper, Lisa (Jade Ewen), her abusive boyfriend/pimp/dealer mistakes the gravelly voiced intruder for a well-meaning geezer. Within moments, the punk is dead. The next day, Lisa convinces Decker to help her steal two-million euros from the trunk of her dead lover’s car, which has been impounded by police. Apparently, they’re in no hurry to search the vehicle for clues to dead man’s identity, so Decker only is required to flash his fake badge to get past the impound guard and steal the money. Leaving involves a bit more violence on his part, but not enough for Seagal to work up a sweat. We quickly learn that the dough belongs to a Houston crystal-meth magnate who demands that his Parisian stooges get it back. In doing so, they are required to kidnap Lisa and use her as bait to hook Decker, who gets some help from a sympathetic friend (Ovidiu Niculescu) in the Paris PD. For what’s it’s worth, End of a Gun was co-written/directed by Seagal’s frequent collaborator, Keoni Waxman. Fans won’t have to wait very long for their next project, Contract to Kill, which hits the street on February 28. All told, Seagal has appeared in six movies in the past 12 months.
Stagecoach: The Texas Jack Story: Blu-ray
Not to be confused with Stagecoach, the John Ford Western, Stagecoach: The Texas Jack Story, was shot in British Columbia and substitutes Trace Adkins for John Wayne … hardly a fair trade, even if the country singer frequently looks as if he was rode hard and put up wet. This isn’t his first cinematic rodeo, though, and Atkins would make a credible cowboy in anyone’s movie. That said, the stagecoach robbery that opens the movie was staged by director Terry Miles (Lonesome Dove Church) as if he’d been inspired by the Monty Python sketch in which John Cleese plays the masked highwayman, Dennis Moore. Adkins’ Nathaniel Reed hung up his guns after the holdup, preferring to work a farm with his wife Laura Lee (Michelle Harrison), who’s no shrinking violet when it comes to gunplay. Reed (a.k.a., Texas Jack) is facing foreclosure on the farm by the local bank, as well as the unexpected threat from U.S. Marshal Calhoun (Kim Coates), who blames Reed for losing an eye, years earlier, in stagecoach heist. After a gun battle, during which Laura Lee is supposedly killed, Reed joins former partner Frank Bell (Claude Duhamel) and Sid Dalton (Judd Nelson) on a new series of stagecoach robberies, with Calhoun and his blond bounty hunter Bonnie Mudd (Helena Marie) in hot pursuit. Stagecoach: The Texas Jack Story will be best appreciated by Western completists and members of the Trace Adkins fan club.
No Pay, Nudity
The titillating title refers not to amateur night at a strip club, but a stipulation in ads found in casting magazines seeking actors willing to disrobe, gratis, for the sake of their art. Most of the over-the-hill actors we meet in Lee Wilkof and writer Ethan Sandler’s surprisingly compelling comedy/drama, No Pay, Nudity, have answered such ads at various times in their careers. I say “surprisingly,” because everything about the packaging argues against it being anything more than another straight-to-DVD disappointment. Still, it would be difficult to ignore any movie with a cast that includes such veteran actors as Gabriel Byrne, Nathan Lane, Frances Conroy, Donna Murphy, Valerie Mahaffey, Ellen Foley, Jon Michael Hill, Loudon Wainwright III and Joe Grifasi. Anyone who loves the theater and appreciates the sacrifices of the men and women who appear on stage should find something to savor in No Pay, Nudity. Byrne plays Lester Rosenthal one of half-dozen, or so, thespians who meet each day at the Actors Equity office in Manhattan, as if they were longshoremen waiting at the union hall to be picked for a day’s work. While none is likely to hear the call, each has a story to tell or complaint to lodge, knowing that their audience wasn’t likely to walk out on them.
Lester’s first big mistake was souring on a steady gig on a popular soap opera. He thought it would catapult him to bigger and better assignments on stage and in the movies. When his agent stopped returning his calls, however, he turned to the bottle and refused to listen to the suggestions forwarded by his estranged ex-wife and daughter. If he’s lucky, Lester will be asked to play the lead role in “King Lear,” in a theater in his Ohio home town. It may not be Broadway, but it’s Lear and a paycheck. The longer it takes for that to happen, though, the more Lester resents the success of his friends and closer he comes to a diagnosis of cirrhosis of the liver. Lane is excellent as an actor who became so tired of dealing with incompetent directors that he effectively killed his career by punching one out. The ending may seem a bit too tidy, but, at least, it’s happy.
Like “Saturday Night Live,” from whose cast many of the actors here were chosen, the Lorne Michaels-produced Brother Nature is a fitfully funny summer-vacation comedy. Borrowing, perhaps, the basic premise behind the Meet the Parents franchise, it stars former cast member Taran Killam as Roger, a strait-laced political aide who plans to propose to his dream girl, Gwen (Gillian Jacobs), at her family’s Oregon lake house. All of the Turleys are eccentric in their own way, but future brother-in-law Todd (Bobby Moynihan) takes the cake. If Brother Nature had been made before the untimely death of Chris Farley, he probably would have been Michaels’ choice to play the full-time camp counselor, who wants nothing more than to become bros-for-life with Roger. As the boyfriend of Gwen’s sister, Margie (Sarah Burns), and an avid outdoors enthusiast, Todd consistently pushes Roger toward activities he isn’t likely to enjoy, including fishing and water-skiing. He knows that the easiest way to win the hearts of Gwen and Margie’s parents — Jerry (Bill Pullman) and Cathy’s (Rita Wilson) – is to participate in Turley-family rituals and at least pretend to enjoy himself. Among them is catching and releasing the same ugly lunker with each passing season. Directors Matt Villines and Oz Rodriguez, also veterans of “SNL,” do what they can with the tepid script, co-written by Killam and “SNL” writer Mikey Day. Cameo appearances by Kenan Thompson, Aidy Bryant and Mike O’Brien also will make Brother Nature mandatory viewing for “SNL” fanatics. (Killam was unceremoniously dumped from the show, before the new season launched, but just landed a sweet gig on Broadway with “Hamilton.”)
It would be unfair and misleading to dismiss Stevie D as a vanity or calling-card project for aspiring multi-hyphenate Chris Cordone. True, his credits here include writer, director, producer and star, playing both the antagonist and look-alike protagonist. The title character is a Los Angeles mobster’s spoiled and possibly demented son, who accidentally kills the son of a higher-ranking gangster in a spat over a sexy bartender at a strip club. Naturally, the rabidly aggrieved father of the victim demands eye-for-an-eye retribution from Stevie D’s dad. He isn’t given much of a choice in the matter. His loyal aide, Lenny (Kevin Chapman), suggests hiring actor Michael Rose, who he’s just seen in a commercial, to play the role of doppelganger and possible target for revenge, if a peace settlement can’t be arranged. Given an offer he can’t refuse, Rose decides to play it for all it’s worth. This includes standing in for Stevie D in the wooing of Daria Laurentis (Torrey DeVitto), the extremely gorgeous aide to his father’s lawyer. Rose has his work cut out for him, because Stevie D managed to creep her out within minutes of their first meeting. Daria can’t know the details of the ruse or why two thugs are following them around town while they’re on dates. (Neither does Michael.) And, yes, Stevie D is furious to learn that his doppelganger is moving in on what he considers to be his personal property. Writer/director Cordone’s navigates this slapsticky scenario with relative ease, while actor Cordone is credible as antagonist/protagonist. If the two-hour Stevie D were significantly shorter, it would be easier to recommend. The problem is that Cordone probably fell in love with his baby and couldn’t bear the thought of cutting off an arm or a leg. Still, an “A” for effort.
The Asphalt Jungle: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
Sudden Fear: Blu-ray
In this racket, no two words get thrown around with as much imprecision as “film noir.” There’s a lot more to it than shadows, light and some hard-edged dialogue. More than six decades after their theatrical release, The Asphalt Jungle and Sudden Fear – recent recipients of impeccable 2K restorations — remain essential examples of the genre and splendid entertainments, to boot. Adapted from the 1949 novel of the same name by W. R. Burnett, The Asphalt Jungle describes a nervy jewel heist from the point of view of the street-criminals recruited by the no-nonsense mastermind, Erwin “Doc” Riedenschneider (Sam Jaffe), who couldn’t wait for more than a few hours to get back in the game after being released from a seven-year bit in prison. Armed with a sure-fire plan to steal a fortune in unset gems from a warehouse in an unnamed Midwestern city, Doc requires a small handful of professional “operators” — a “box man” (safecracker), a driver, and a “hooligan” — to pull off the crime, as well as enough financial backing to hire the team and collect the equipment they’ll need to bust the safe and escape. A bookie named Cobby (Marc Lawrence) not only is able to put Doc together with the specialists – played by Anthony Caruso, James Whitmore and Sterling Hayden, respectively – but also the corrupt lawyer, Alonzo Emmerich (Louis Calhern), willing to finance the job. You can probably guess which of the links in this chain is the weakest. Inconveniently, for the criminals, the local police commissioner (John McIntire) is unhappy with the detectives in his vice squad and demands they put pressure on their mid-level snitches, some of whom pay them off to avoid arrest. A tip here and a loose lip there provides the cops with the break they’ll need to link Doc to whatever it is that’s going to happen in their backyard in the near future.
In a sense, Huston and screenwriter Ben Maddow are laying out parallel procedurals, in which blue-collar lawmen and crooks go about their business while the filmmakers do their jobs. Unlike more regularly cited noirs, The Asphalt Jungle plays down the cherchez la femme angle, preferring to keep the dames in subordinate, if still interesting roles. Marilyn Monroe nicely plays Emmerich’s young mistress – his invalid wife (Dorothy Tree) is bed-ridden – while Jean Hagen is laying low at the pad belonging to Hayden’s hoodlum character, while the cops are putting the heat on the dime-a-dance joints. The Criterion package adds commentary from a 2004 release by film historian Drew Casper, featuring archival recordings of actor James Whitmore; new interviews with film noir historian Eddie Muller and cinematographer John Bailey; archival footage and audio excerpts of writer-director John Huston discussing the film; an episode of the television program “City Lights,” from 1979, featuring Huston; an essay by critic Geoffrey O’Brien; and the amazingly candid 1983 documentary profile of Hayden, Pharos of Chaos, shot in and around the tricked-out barge he was living on in the Netherlands. In it, the actor drinks heavily, smokes lots of hashish, reads passages from books about the sea and describes the highs and lows of his career.
David Miller’s Sudden Fear, from Cohen Media, offers a substantially different take on noir. Deemed a “rediscovered masterpiece” of the genre, it stars Joan Crawford as a successful Broadway playwright, living in San Francisco, who marries a younger actor (Jack Palance), willing to abandon his career to build the foundation for a long con. Myra should have smelled a rat when Blaine, an actor she once fired, bumps into her on a train from the Apple to the west coast. By the time they reach the San Francisco Bay, they’re practically married. Blaine probably would have been able to pull off the gigolo act a bit longer, if it weren’t for two things: learning that her will leaves most of her fortune to a foundation and very little to him; and the arrival of a former lover, Irene (Gloria Grahame), who knows what he’s up to and is perfectly willing to blow the whistle on him, if she isn’t cut into the deal. When Myra overhears Blaine and Irene laying out the scam, she uses her literary wiles to turn the table on them. The plan is so diabolical that Myra almost pulls out of it at the last moment. It’s one of the tropes that makes noir so much fun to watch. The screenplay by Lenore J. Coffee and Robert Smith was based upon the novel of the same name by Edna Sherry. Oscar nominations were accorded Crawford, for Best Actress in a Leading Role; Palance, as Best Actor in a Supporting Role; Charles Lang, for Best Cinematography, Black-and-White; and Sheila O’Brien, for Best Costume Design. San Francisco would have qualified as Best Supporting Location, if such a prize were available. Crawford’s only occasionally over-the-top portrayal of a woman in distress shouldn’t be missed. It adds commentary with film historian Jeremy Arnold.
Roma: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
Released back-to-back in the early 1970s, The Clowns, Roma and Amarcord are three of Federico Fellini’s most overtly nostalgic films, with the latter two titles collecting memories – and fantasies – of growing up in the coastal town of Rimini and moving from there to Rome, as a young man (Peter Gonzales). In all three, the maestro abandoned plot and linear narrative, in favor of a less constrictive, more poetic approach to storytelling. In Roma, he alternates the arrival narrative with one about creating a movie about the city amidst the political and cultural turmoil of the late-1960s. In this way, he’s able to contrast Roman life in wartime Fascist Italy with its counterpart in then-present Rome. Most striking about the wartime scenes are the raucous gatherings of neighbors and strangers – mostly poor or working class – in street restaurants, a variety show and a bomb shelter. There’s a brothel for the people who probably can’t spare the money and one for those who can. In the contemporary setting, workers building a subway inadvertently discover a chamber covered with ancient frescoes, all of which are threatened when the polluted air from the streets wafts through its brick walls. Fellini is shown conversing with hippies and radical students, who ask him not to romanticize the “eternal city,” which is experiencing social upheaval and a growing chasm between the rich and poor.
The most Fellini-esque portion of Roma is a fantasy fashion show, featuring runway models in outlandish clerical garb and a papal audience. There’s an invasion of motorcycles and a horse loose on a crowded freeway, where a truck carrying livestock – deadstock, actually – is lying on its side. It’s a remarkable portrait of a city and its people, some of the most luminous – Marcello Mastroianni, Anna Magnani, Gore Vidal, Alberto Sordi, Feodor Chaliapin Jr.– appear, as themselves, in cameos. Woody Allen’s To Rome With Love probably owes a lot to it, even if no one could touch Fellini for sheer extravagance and sense of place. In addition to the 2K digital restoration, the Blu-ray set adds commentary, with Frank Burke, author of “Fellini’s Films”; deleted scenes; new interviews with filmmaker Paolo Sorrentino, on Fellini’s lasting influence, and poet/friend Valerio Magrelli; images from the Felliniana archive of collector Don Young; and an essay by film scholar David Forgacs.
When American movies combine a reluctant, but dedicated male bodyguard with an extremely troubled, yet intoxicatingly sensuous woman-in-peril, the tension between them usually explodes by the end of the second reel, clearing room for an ill-advised sexual coupling. That’s what happened in Ridley Scott’s Someone to Watch Over Me, which paired Tom Berenger and Mimi Rogers, and in The Bodyguard, between Kevin Costner and Whitney Houston, to cite just two of many titles. Audiences expect it and studio execs are overpaid to give it to them. In European films, this isn’t always the case. French writer/director Alice Winocour’s much anticipated follow-up to Augustine and Mustang, on which she shared a writing credit with Deniz Gamze Ergüven, is a bodyguard movie with a difference. In Disorder, an Afghanistan War veteran (Matthias Schoenaerts), still suffering from PTSD, is assigned to work security at a party hosted by a Lebanese arms negotiator and his wife (Diane Kruger) at their luxurious villa on the French Riviera. Vincent performs his duties with a hyper-vigilance that the borders on paranoia. The next day, he’s asked to return to the mansion and watch over Jessie and their young son, Ali, while the businessman is away on business.
Once again, Vincent treats the assignment as if he were walking point on a patrol, hoping to sneak up on an unseen enemy. It gives Jessie the creeps, but his wariness pays off during a trip to the beach, where her limousine is attacked by hooded thugs. Things grow even more suspenseful from there. There are several points in Disorder when Winocour could have jacked up the tension between them with suggestive glances, brushed bodies or a wary embrace. Not here, not yet. Vincent knows that the enemy has yet to be vanquished and, even though he’s barely enjoyed a moment of sleep, plans to stay the course … as do we. In the meantime, Vincent is led to wonder how much Jessie knows about her husband’s work and what she might be hiding from him. She, in turn, grows increasingly concerned about the effects of sleep-deprivation on a walking time-bomb. The audience is rewarded with one of the most thrilling and ultimately surprising payoffs I’ve seen in a long time. Simply put, Schoenaerts and Kruger are two of the most interesting and underappreciated actors working both sides of the Atlantic.
The Driller Killer: Limited Edition Steelbook: Blu-ray
Black Christmas: Collector’s Edition: Blu-ray
Dreamscape: Collector’s Edition: Blu-ray
Creepshow 2: Limited Edition: Blu-ray
Phantasm: Remaster: Blu-ray
I don’t know if Abel Ferrara’s 1979 shocker, The Driller Killer, was the first to introduce the electric drill into the toolbox of implements used to murder characters in horror films. Three years earlier, Marathon Man had introduced the concept of torture by dental implement, which sent me scurrying out of the screening room in a fit of sympathetic pain. I didn’t react the same way while watching the death-by-drilling scene in Body Double, which was shot voyeuristically, from a distance. The notoriety of The Driller Killer, which I had yet to see, increased exponentially after it was made a charter member of Britain’s “video nasty” club. The Arrow Video upgrade of the shot-on-16mm movie goes a long way toward demonstrating how much more was going on in Ferrara’s mind than what was revealed in the cruddy iterations blown up to 35mm and shown on drive-in screens and other imperfect venues. More than anything else, it was a movie about an artist driven insane by the inescapable sights, sounds and trials of life in Lower Manhattan, decades before it was gentrified. At the time, Ferrara called Union Square home and it provided him with derelict locations and access to underemployed and amateur actors. Like Travis Bickle, in Taxi Driver, and Nada and Billy, in Blank Generation, struggling artist Reno Miller (Ferrara) snaps after too much exposure to an environment in which depravity rules and poverty limits all expectations. At the same time that he is missing deadlines on commissioned work, dodging unpaid bills and supporting two lesbian roommates, Reno is being plagued, as well, by the inescapably abrasive No Wave music being rehearsed well into the night in the basement next-door. The winos and bums, who also call the neighborhood home, become the first victims of Reno’s rage-driven power tool. The madder he gets, the wider he casts his net for new victims. If The Diller Killer has been relegated to the pigeonhole labeled “horror,” it’s primarily because it’s less easy to categorize black comedy whose social and cultural commentary are driven home by a power drill. Either way, it works. And, Ferrara’s ability to capture the same dead-end milieu on film – based on the screenplays of regular collaborator Nicholas St. John — would be demonstrated in such gritty exploitation pictures as Ms. 45, The Addiction, China Girl and King of New York. Arrow’s Limited Edition SteelBook edition features original artwork (2500 copies); new commentary by director and star Ferrara, moderated by biographer Brad Stevens; a new interview with Ferrara; “Willing and Abel: Ferraraology 101,” a visual-essay guide to the films and career of Ferrara, by author Alexandra Heller-Nicholas; “Mulberry St.,” Ferrara’s 2010 feature-length documentary portrait of the same New York location; and a collector s booklet, featuring new writing by Michael Pattison and Brad Stevens.
Released in 1974, still the infancy of the slasher sub-genre, Black Christmas has withstood the test of time to become one of the most influential and copied movies of all time. If some of the gags and camerawork look exceedingly derivative today, it’s only because they originated in Bob Clark’s Canucksploitation classic. A few days before Christmas, an unknown and largely unseen intruder sneaks into the attic of a university sorority house. Inside, Barbara (Margot Kidder), Jess (Olivia Hussey), Phyl (Andrea Martin) and Clare (Lynne Griffith) are pulled away from their holiday party by a frighteningly obscene phone call. Barbara laughs it off, until she hears an unmistakable death threat over the snorting, screams and gurgles. From that point on, no one in the house is safe, including boyfriends. Despite all the violence, Clark infuses a lot of tension-breaking humor into the narrative. Black Christmas (Silent Night, Evil Night) would be a direct influence on John Carpenter (Halloween) and any director considering using the convention of a killer calling from inside the house or filming the action from that point-of-view. Black Christmas wasn’t greeted with open arms by critics and pundits, but the same can be said of reaction to his sexploitation Porky’s series. A decade later, Clark would redeem himself with the family-friendly A Christmas Story, a wonderful holiday comedy that would sneak up on everyone. The Scream Factory Collector’s Edition benefits from a fresh 2K scan of the negative (1.85:1), a DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 and DTS-HD Master Audio Mono; more than a dozen ported-over featurettes; and a couple of new ones, in which co-stars Art Hindle and Lynne Griffin recall the film’s production.
Dreamscape is a respectable psychological thriller, released in 1984, whose stellar cast suggests that it harbors pretentions of belonging in an arthouse. Multiple Oscar nominees Max von Sydow, Christopher Plummer and Eddie Albert support Dennis Quaid – fresh off his portrayal of astronaut Gordon “Gordo” Cooper, in The Right Stuff – who plays Alex Gardner, a young man of fantastic psychic abilities. The brash young man has dropped off the radar after playing lab rat for a top dream researcher, Doctor Paul Novotny (Von Sydow) and his drop-dead gorgeous assistant, played by a brunette edition of Kate Capshaw. After a period of time spent using his “gifts” to manipulate women and pick winners at the horse track, Alex is coerced into returning to the lab to test a machine that would allow someone with his talents to enter the dreams of others. Coincidentally, the President (Albert) is suffering from severe nightmares that have begun to affect the way he conducts business. Jealous of his fellow psychic’s prowess, another one of Novotny’s subjects (David Patrick Kelly) goes to work for a presidential aide (Plummer), who wants to get into POTUS’ head for nefarious reasons of his own. Things get really weird when the two young men perform dream linkage and confront the demons inside the President’s head. The new featurettes here include “The Actor’s Journey,” an interview with Dennis Quaid; “Dreamscapes and Dreammakers,” a retrospective including interviews with director Joseph Ruben, co-Writer David Loughery, actor David Patrick Kelly and members of the special-effects team; “Nightmares and Dreamsnakes,” about the monsters, with Kelly and Craig Reardon; and a conversation between producer Bruce Cohn Curtis and co-writer/producer Chuck Russell.
The horror anthology, Creepshow 2, followed the original by five years. Stephen King probably could have supplied enough source material for a release every 12 months, but he was probably busy re-writing the bible in the mid-1980s and couldn’t spare the time. The surprisingly successful Creepshow contained five stories, all written by King and directed by George A. Romero. In “2,” King shared the writing credits with Romero, who passed along the director’s baton to Michael Gornick (“Tales From the Darkside”), for the three new segments. In “Old Chief Wood’nhead,” three young hoodlums face retribution-in-kind from an unlikely source after looting a remote hardware store. It is owned by George Kennedy and Dorothy Lamour, who are famous locally for forgiving the debts of their Indian customers, but are defenseless against these monsters. In “The Raft,” a group of pot-smoking teens travel to a chilly spring-fed lake, hoping to get in a swim before the owners pull in the raft. In the boys’ rush to get to the raft and practice their breaststroke on their girlfriends, they miss the icky film on the water that’s devouring unsuspecting ducks. Somehow, when it senses the presence of human prey, the blob floats speedily toward the raft, where the teens are now trapped. “The Hitch-Hiker” describes what happens when an unfaithful wife rushes to beat her unsuspecting husband home, but gets into an accident after the lit joint in her fingers slips to floor. Assuming the hitch-hiker she’s hit is dead, Annie (Lois Chiles) splits the scene. Horror fans will already know that the corpse (Tom Wright) has a life of its own. Wrapping around the episodes is an animated story featuring the Creep (Tom Savini), who delivers bundles of comic books to rabid fans of Creepshow comics.
Don Coscarelli’s Phantasm series has become one of the most prolific in genre history, with a final installment released in October, 18 years after the last one. It began in 1979, with strange things happening at the Morningside Cemetery. While Jody Pearson (Bill Thornbury) attends the funeral of a recently departed friend, his younger brother, Mike (Michael Baldwin), observes a tall mortician (Angus Scrimm) tossing the heavy, unburied coffin into a waiting hearse. Mike returns to the cemetery that night and breaks into the mortuary, where he discovers deadly, spectral creatures inhabiting the embalming cellar and comes face-to-face with the sinister Tall Man. After barely managing to escape with his life, Mike enlists Jody and their close friend, Reggie (Reggie Bannister), to investigate whether the fiend is reanimating corpses and why. Originally released in 1979, it can lay claim to inventing gags and gadgets that would be borrowed in other genre specimens. Restored in 4K hi-def, Phantasm: Remastered adds commentary with Coscarelli, Baldwin, Scrimm and Thornbury; deleted scenes; the featurette, “Graveyard Carz”; and vintage interviews with Coscarelli and Scrimm. The final chapter, Phantasm Ravager also is being sent out on Blu-ray by Well-Go. It brings back several of the original cast members, including Scrimm, who died last January, at 89. It, too, arrives with several making-of shorts, interviews, deleted scenes, bloopers, commentary and a car-centric featurette.
Sins of our Youth
Way back in 1986, Tim Hunter (Tex) and writer Neil Jimenez (Where the River Runs Black) created a sensation with River’s Edge, an alarming drama about a new generation of teenagers too wasted on booze, pot and bored to respond to tragedies staring them in the face. While killing time on the banks of the Sacramento River, a group of slackers somehow manages to ignore the naked corpse of a strangled friend in a patch of weeds only a few feet away from them. Even those inclined to notify the police were talked out of doing so by classmates who feared the shit storm that was sure to follow such a revelation. For many parents, River’s Edge provided a first, ugly glimpse into what would become known as Generation X in the long-prophesized Teenage Wasteland. I was reminded of that movie while watching Gary and Edmund Entin’s similarly disturbing, if not nearly as accomplished teen drama, Sins of Our Youth. Set in the suburbs overlooking the Las Vegas basin, it is the story of four teenagers who accidentally kill a younger boy, while shooting off assault weapons they’d borrowed from the closet of a friend’s father. They’d been drinking all night and wanted to use the weapons to demolish a Christmas display they’d stolen from a nearby home. Santa Claus and his reindeers stood a better chance of surviving the attack than the poor boy who ducked behind the display when the bullets started to fly. He only wanted to return a cellphone to one of the boys who’d left it behind at one of their hangouts, but failed to telegraph his approach with any authority.
The shooters’ natural reaction was to deny their culpability in the crime, while also scrambling to decide what to do with the corpse. They didn’t understand the legal ramifications of their act or feel any moral obligation to reveal the location of the boy’s body, at least. The one plan they come up with is so absurd that it barely lasts the course of a night. Instead, they attempt to make themselves feel better about themselves by returning to school the next day and waiting for the next shoe to drop, which likely would be the marshalling of a search party for the boy. All it takes for a chain to break is for one of its links to weaken and, of course, that’s what happens in Sins of Our Youth. The ending may be too melodramatic by half – it’s Christmas Eve, after all, so why waste the symbolism? – but it’s nothing we see coming or being conveniently staged. Lucas Till, Joel Courtney, Mitchel Musso and Bridger Zadina are all very good, but it’s Ally Sheedy who almost steals the show as one the boy’s less-than-exemplary mother.
The Falls: Covenant of Grace
Of all the unexpected successes in recent television history, the five-season run logged by HBO’s “Big Love” must be near the top of the list. Imagine the initial response of programing executives when presented with the idea for a mini-series based on the shorthand premise, “A (atypically handsome) polygamist and his relationship with his three (atypically pretty) wives.” (Parenthesis, mine.) And, yet, it worked in every conceivable way. Actually, some ground might have already been broken with the 2004 release of C. Jay Cox’s Latter Days, which made the jump from the gay-and-lesbian festival circuit to a theatrical release. The sudsy rom/dram/com concerned a well-scrubbed Mormon missionary who falls in love with his neighbor, a promiscuous Los Angeles waiter named, of all things, Christian. Although not a huge success, it helped raise the profile of Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Rob McElhenney, Erik Palladino and Wes Ramsey. Ten years later, a one-man-band filmmaker, Jon Garcia, launched a straight-to-DVD mini-franchise, The Falls, through Breaking Glass Pictures. In it, Mormon missionaries played by Nick Ferrucci and Benjamin Farmer fall in love while on their mission. Elders Chris Merril and R.J. Smith travel to a small town in Oregon, which, while not far away from home, presents many of the same challenges that college roommates experience in their freshman years. They share a passion for their faith, even though its forbids the kind of intimacy they seek from each other’s company. A year later, The Falls: Testament of Love advanced the story five years, with Chris and R.J. reuniting for a friend’s funeral and addressing the factors that led to their separation, including the Church’s discipline and Chris getting married and having a child. The third and likely final installment, The Falls: Covenant of Grace, finds Chris newly divorced, but still an active member of the LDS. He lives in Salt Lake City with his daughter Kaylee, while R.J. has become a successful writer, in Portland. Chris takes a weekend trip to visit R.J., but their re-ignited relationship is dampened by the Church’s ban against baptisms for children of same-sex couples. When Chris’ mother unexpectedly dies, R.J. and his father fly to Utah for the funeral. They initially receive a frosty welcome from Chris’ father, Noah (Bruce Jennings), a member of the Church’s Quorum of the Twelve Apostles who disapproves of same-sex relationships. Once again, the protagonists are asked to weigh their devotion to their faith and families, against the power of their love. More to the point, will Chris stand up to his father and force him to face the same dilemma. Stay tuned. The Falls trilogy clearly could have benefitted from much larger budgets and more experience on Garcia’s resume. Even so, it successfully addresses important questions within both the LGBT and religious communities, while also showcasing fresh acting talent. It’s a unique and refreshing change of pace within a genre that’s rapidly finding new audiences. The DVD adds director’s commentary, deleted scenes, a Q&A with cast and crew, a behind-the-scenes featurette.
Based on a young-adult novel by Jessica Schiefauer, Girls Lost employs fantasy to take on issues pertaining to teen bullying and gender identification. Alexandra-Therese Keining’s imaginative Swedish-language drama describes how three girls’ friendships are tested after taking refuge in the garden planted by Bella’s late mother and tending to a very special flower. Tasting the vanilla-flavored nectar immediately changes them, by granting a wish that allows them to experience life as “one of the guys.” It works only too well, of course, but only so long as the spell lasts. Happiness for teens struggling with ostracism, sexuality and gender fluidity is a sometimes thing, in the best of cases, and magical realism only takes the characters so far. Girls Lost tackles such issues with a clarity and sense of purpose generally lacking in studio-produced pictures here, if only because such honesty could result in an automatic R-rating from the homophobes in the MPAA ratings board. In Sweden, on the other hand, the film was cleared for audiences above the age of 11.
Kampai! For the Love of Sake
Several years ago, a friend with better-educated taste buds than I’ll ever possess invited me to a sake tasting being staged for his benefit at a fancy Japanese restaurant in Las Vegas. I’d already enjoyed a tequila tasting at an upscale Mexican restaurant – not the same day, if you must know – and looked forward to the experience. In both cases, I marveled at the subtle differences in taste and texture from one flight to the other, backgrounds of the distillers and learning which brands complemented various foods. It was easily comparable to any wine tasting I’d attended in northern California and, of course, the personal attention was greatly appreciated. Now, at least, I know what I’m missing when I can’t afford to buy a shot of sake or tequila from the top shelves of the posh restaurants. Mirai Konishi’s debut documentary, “Kampai! For the Love of Sake,” feels a lot like an industrial film – a good one – that honors the labor and traditions of the craft, but doesn’t dwell on the sensory pleasures of the end products. It also devotes a lot of time to the devastating effects of the last great earthquake and tsunami on the business. “Kampai!” journeys from rice paddies in Japan, to breweries and tastings around the globe, as it chronicles the experiences of three passionate exponents of the increasingly popular beverage: Philip Harper, a British ex-pat who has become Japan’s first foreign master brewer (a.k.a., toji); John Gauntner, an American journalist known as the Sake Evangelist; and Kosuke Kuji, a fifth-generation Japanese brewer determined to shake up the industry. They’re all terrific ambassadors for industry and proponents of modernity and ecumenism in the ancient art. You’ll never look at your Rice Krispies the same way, again.
Discovery: Harley and the Davidsons: Blu-ray
Nickelodeon: Legend of Korra: The Complete Series: Blu-ray
AMC: Fear the Walking Dead: The Complete Second Season: Blu-ray
A&E: Streets of Compton
Nickelodeon: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Earth’s Last Stand
Having grown up in Milwaukee, I approached Discovery’s fact-based mini-series, “Harley and the Davidsons,” with more than the usual amount of trepidation I reserve for productions shot in Romania, when Wisconsin would have served just as well. If Harley-Davidson holds an iconic place in the annals of American industrial history – not to mention, pop culture – imagine what it means to the people in Milwaukee, which has been abandoned by most of the beer companies that made it famous. Today, it benefits greatly from revenues related to high product demand, factory tours, museum admissions, annual pilgrimages and, presumably, T-shirt sales. Presented as an inspirational, all-American family saga, the three-part series dramatizes the origins of the motorcycle manufacturer from its inception to the introduction of the Knucklehead model, prior to World War II. Michiel Huisman, Bug Hall and Robert Aramayo deliver credible portrayals of as Walter Davidson, Arthur Davidson and their childhood friend, engineer Bill Harley, who risked their entire fortune and livelihoods to launch the budding enterprise. The accuracy of the depiction of the battle for motorcycle supremacy between H-D and Indian ranges from fictional to highly dramatized, which is par for the course. Even so, most of the people likely to tune into “Harley and the Davidsons” will be happy with the reproductions of motorcycles and prototypes from the era, as well as exciting re-creations of races that may or may not have happened. The mini-series did very well for the cable network, so a second season isn’t out of the question. It could cover the post-war boom in motorcycle riding and outlaw clubs, the near-devastating sale to penny-pinching AMF, its popular resurgence and spectacular brand recognition. The Blu-ray includes a behind-the-scenes featurette and “Biketacular,” a special 44-minute showcase of impressive bike builds, through history.
Paramount’s “Legend of Korra: The Complete Series” would make an ideal gift for loyal Nickelodeon viewers who came late to the animated fantasy series or have been ridiculed by fellow anime geeks for missing it altogether. It was created in 2012 by Bryan Konietzko and Michael Dante DiMartino as a sequel to the network’s “Avatar: The Last Airbender,” which aired from 2005 to 2008. The series is set in a fictional universe, in which some people can manipulate, or “bend,” the elements of water, earth, fire or air. Only one person, the “Avatar,” can bend all four elements and is responsible for maintaining balance in the world. The series follows Avatar Korra, the reincarnation of Aang from the previous series, as she faces political and spiritual unrest in a modernizing world. I was surprised by the number of well-known actors who worked on the show: James Remar, Anne Heche, Lisa Edelstein, Henry Rollins, Aubrey Plaza, John Michael Higgins, Lance Henriksen and Eva Marie Saint, among them. The package comes with a booklet containing pages from the four “Art of the Animation” books released for each season.
Last season, “Fear the Walking Dead” ended with Travis (Cliff Curtis), Madison (Kim Dickens) and their blended family struggling to escape Los Angeles, before being succumbed by the dreaded Zombie Apocalypse. The 15-episode Season Two opens with the dysfunctional unit aboard the yacht owned by mysterious businessman Victor Strand (Colman Domingo), who has ideas of own about where to find a safe port. Until then, however, the family faces many of the same dangers it thought were left behind on dry land. That’s because, when the military’s Operation Cobalt dropped napalm on various SoCal locations to cleanse it of the Infected, the intended targets also fled to the sea. (Not swimming, per se, but floating with malice aforethought.) Audio commentaries accompany several episodes, along with a disc devoted to deleted scenes, “Flight 462” webisodes, a Q&A with cast and creative Team from Paleyfest LA 2016, “Inside ‘Fear the Walking Dead’” and “The Making of ‘Fear the Walking Dead.’”
A&E’s three-hour documentary mini-series, “Streets of Compton,” picks up several years after the events dramatized in Straight Outta Compton left off. Instead of focusing directly on the creation and ascendency of NWA, Mark Ford charts the city’s transition from idyllic L.A. suburb to gang-infested dead end, where drugs, violence and corruption filled the vacuum left by the departure of factories, businesses and middle-class white homeowners, after the Watts riots of 1965, and subsequent crack epidemic of the 1980-90s. For success stories, Ford not only cites NWA, but also Venus and Serena Williams, comedian Paul Rodriguez, actor Anthony Anderson, producer and musician Lil Eazy-E, singer Kendrick Lamar and superstar rapper, The Game, who truly can be said to be a child of the mean streets. For those interested in contemporary civics and pop culture, “Streets of Compton” should qualify as a must-see.
The latest compilation of “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” episodes, carries the ominous title of “Earth’s Last Stand,” which pretty much applies to what’s at stake in most such collections. Now, the team is back in the Big Apple, catching up with old friends and new enemies, such as the Mighty Mutanimals, Mondo Gecko, Karai, Tiger Claw, Bebop and Rocksteady, Stockman-Fly and newcomer Shinigami. Them too, there’s former reporter April (Mae Whitman), who may be a female ninja now, but may be suffering from identity issues. The episodes include “The Ever-Burning Fire,” “Earth’s Last Stand,” “City at War,” “Broken Foot,” “The Insecta Trifecta,” “Mutant Gangland” and “Bat in the Belfry,” which takes viewers up to the end of the first half of the current, fourth season.
Christmas All Over Again
A Frozen Christmas
Tween-agers may not catch all of the references to Groundhog Day and A Christmas Carol in Christy Carlson Romano’s directorial debut, Christmas All Over Again, but they probably won’t need any introduction to its stars. It’s Christmas Eve, and Eddie (Sean Ryan Fox) hopes a new pair of Breezy 3000 sneakers will catch the eye of neighbor girl Cindy (Amber Montana). He even plans to wear the bright red shoes to the wedding the next afternoon of his father and his soon-to-be stepmother (Romano). Alas, when morning comes, there isn’t a single present under the tree. Things change during the rest of the day, but nothing that will alter the loop in which he’s trapped. Desperate, Eddie turns to a mysterious shoe-store owner (Joey Lawrence), who helps him understand that true joy doesn’t come tied up in a bow. Todrick Hall (“Straight Outta Oz”) plays a younger version of Breezy, after whom the precious shoes have been named. I doubt that Christmas All Over Again will reach the status of holiday classic, but kids might like it. The DVD adds four “Minuscule” bonus episodes, taken from an animated French Disney Channel TV series that looks at the life of insects from a ground-level perspective.
Star Paws tells the occasionally animated story of a team of space-dwelling dogs in search of the scientific wherewithal to travel back in time to thwart an evil cat’s attempts to take over the galaxy. General Ruff must beat Adventure Cat and his army of evil kittens to a giant dinosaur bone, which has been lost in the space/time continuum since the Jurassic Era. Some interesting information about dinosaurs is presented during the course of the saga, but not enough to justify Star Paws’ level of technical incompetence and sheer laziness. (There’s even a Tony Danza joke that won’t make sense to anyone under 40.) The movie’s most obvious problem comes in watching dogs, cats and chickens “speak” without moving their lips or beaks. The dinosaurs’ movement are as repetitive as a record that will continues to skip to the same groove every few seconds if left untended. It’s hard for me to imagine a child of any age not wondering how it’s possible for animals to communicate without so much as a peep. Or, why they’re sitting stock-still, as if they’ve just completed a meal and find no reason to compete for their owners’ attention, anymore.
Don’t be confused with the word, “Frozen,” in the title or, even, the animated wraparound that opens the DVD, “A Frozen Christmas.” That’s because it bears no resemblance to the modern Disney classic and the wraparounds take up no more than 10 percent of the available screen time. The rest of the DVD is dedicated to a disembodied voice narrating holiday stories, while a selection of undulating images from seasonal gift wrapping and wallpaper fill the screen. It’s colorful, but no more appropriate than the Yule-log videos you can download from the Internet for pennies. A segment in which gingerbread cookies dance to hip-hop music could be used to torture terrorist suspects.Star Paws, at least, offered some factual material on dinosaurs.