By Gary Dretzka Dretzka@moviecitynews.com
The DVD Wrapup: Inferno, Handmaiden, Light Between Oceans, Black Girl, Man Who Fell to Earth, Monster, Takashi Miike, Korean War … More
One way to tell that a movie franchise has run out of gas is when its third installment comes in a distant second to a Tyler Perry holiday-themed comedy in its second week in release. Madea may be a freak of nature, but who would have predicted she could outdistance Tom Hanks and Ron Howard’s next adaptation of a best-selling novel by Dan Brown? In 2006, The Da Vinci Code did extremely well domestically and around the world. Its 2009 sequel, Angels & Demons, made significantly less money on both fronts, if not enough to discourage Sony/Columbia from anticipating Brown’s next novel featuring Harvard “symbologist” Robert Langdon. Tellingly, though, Inferno would only be allowed a production budget less than half the $150 million spent on “D&A.” Howard isn’t capable of making a movie that’s less than entertaining and the commercial success of Sully is proof of Hanks’ continuing box-office appeal. Neither does Inferno lack for excitement or gorgeous scenery. The problem, for me, anyway, is a story that links the death of cyber-billionaire Bertrand Zobrist (Ben Foster) – possibly modeled after Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg — to Dante Alighieri’s 14th Century poem “The Divine Comedy,” a death mask of the poet and a modified rendition of Sandro Botticelli’s “Map of Hell.” Zobrist’s plan to combat overcrowding and diminishing resources involves either killing off two-thirds of the world’s population or preventing it from reproducing … take your pick.
The poop hits the revolving blade when the crackpot scheme grabs the attention of the World Health Organization and a mysterious international mercenary force, the Consortium (represented by Sidse Babett Knudsen and Irrfan Khan, respectively). As the movie opens, Langdon is in a Florence hospital, slowly exiting from a coma that erased his memory, but left him with horrifying visions he later recognizes as being related to “Map of Hell.” The film’s least convincing character, Dr. Sienna Brooks (Felicity Jones), helps him escape an assassination attempt before becoming his traveling companion and confidante. (At 5-foot-3, the lithe 33-year-old brunette neither resembles a doctor nor a badass sidekick.) David Koepp’s screenplay keeps us guessing throughout Inferno as to which characters Langdon can trust and the ones trying to kill him. On the plus side, the action carries us, along with Langdon and Brooks, from Florence to Vienna, Budapest and Istanbul’s magnificent Hagia Sophia and Basilica Cistern. If Nostradamus had compared notes with Dante, viewers are led to believe, we might have been able to avoid 9/11, the 2008 Depression and the Trump presidency. The DVD, Blu-ray and UHD package adds nearly a half-hour’s worth of extended and deleted scenes; the featurettes, “Visions of Hell,” “Inferno Around the World,” “A Look at Langdon,” “This Is Sienna Brooks” and “The Billionaire Villain: Bertrand Zobrist”; and Ron Howard’s “Director’s Journal.”
I’ve rarely completely agreed with the academy members who decide which foreign-language entries deserve, first, to make the short list of nominees and, later, the five finalists. The list of excellent films overlooked by the host countries and nominating committee should make Oscar blush. Even when reforms are instituted the voters invariably miss the mark. But, hey, what do I know? In my opinion, and those represented in the year-end polls of a dozen-plus critics’ groups, Park Chan-wook’s intricately plotted psycho-thriller The Handmaiden deserved to be included in both lists. So, there. Inspired by Sarah Waters’ 2002 novel, “Fingersmith” — a “third slice of engrossing lesbian Victoriana,” by the Welsh author — Park changes the setting from 19th century London to Korea, which, in the 1930s, was subject to Japanese colonial rule. Like the novel, an orphan raised in family of thieves is hired by a phony aristocrat to infiltrate the household of a wealthy young Japanese heiress. The devious Count Fujiwara (Ha Jung-woo) has persuaded the lovely, if terribly naive Lady Hideko (Kim Min-hee) to take on Sook-Hee (Kim Tae-ri) as her handmaiden and confidante. The pretty young con artist is instructed to convince Her Ladyship to ditch the older gent to whom she’s betrothed — the pervy Uncle Kouzuki (Cho Jin-woong) – and run away with the faux count. Clearly, his intentions are far from honorable. That scenario, however, is only the first of three presented by Park (“The Vengeance Trilogy”) and co-writer Jeong Seo-kyeong (Lady Vengeance), as variations on Waters’ original Victorian theme. In the next two, the double-crosses not only are wickedly difficult to predict, but fun to watch transpire, as well. Consistent throughout, however, are the steaming-hot moments when Sook-Hee teaches the sexually naive Hideko what to expect on her wedding night. She proves to be a remarkably quick study, but not in the way Fujiwara anticipates. Park tweaks the narrative further to add ironic humor and other kinky notions to the mix, making the 144-minute story almost feel like a hot breeze from the tropics. Typically, The Handmaiden’s production values could hardly be any higher.
The Light Between Oceans: Blu-ray
The title of Derek Cianfrance’s tear-jerking follow-up to Blue Valentine and The Beyond the Pines refers to the movie’s fictional location: a lighthouse on fictional Janus Rock, an island a half-day’s journey from the coast of western Australia, where where the Indian and Pacific oceans meet. Based on a 2012 novel by M. L. Stedman, The Light Between Oceans was largely shot at New Zealand’s Cape Campbell, but the images recorded further south, in Tasmania, are the most striking. Back from four years of fighting in World War I, an emotionally stressed Tom Sherbourne (Michael Fassbender) takes a job tending the gas-lit lamp in the lighthouse on the desolate, if quite habitable island. He’s warned about the dangers posed by such absolute isolation, but, after the horrors of trench warfare, he needs some time away from people. On one of his infrequent visits to the nearest town, Tom becomes captivated by the younger, far more spirited Isabel (Alicia Vikander), who’s in desperate need of a man in her life. (This is 1919, remember.) A determinedly ethical sort, Tom will only agree to live with her on the island if they are married, which is jake with Izzy. They enjoy each other’s company and relish the opportunity to start a family. After two miscarriages, though, it doesn’t appear to be in the cards. One day, Tom spots a dinghy floating toward shore with a body in it. On further inspection, they discover that the man in the boat is dead, but clutching a very alive and hungry baby girl. When Tom suggests reporting their find to mainland officials, Izzy insists that it’s act of God and they should be entitled to keep the little bundle of joy.
A while later, as they’re about to have Lucy christened at a church on the mainland, Tom spots a woman, Hannah Roennfeldt (Rachel Weisz), kneeling in front of a grave. It bears the names of Frank Roennfeldt and his baby daughter, Grace Ellen, who were lost at sea on the day the Sherbournes found Lucy, in April, 1923. Wracked by feelings of guilt, Tom secretly leaves a message in the German woman’s mailbox, assuring her that the baby is alive and in good hands. There’s no need to spoil surprises that can be seen from a mile away, except to say that many viewers will be seriously torn when Tom’s note prompts Hannah to seek further investigation into the disappearance. At 133 minutes, Cianfrance’s pacing may feel a bit too leisurely for some viewers’ tastes, but it allows time to explore questions about love, heartbreak, joy, secrecy, guilt and the impact of those emotions on people we have no reason to distrust. Anyone looking for an old-fashioned weeper will find it in the lovingly photographed The Light Between Oceans. The Blu-ray adds commentary with the director and his college mentor, film-studies professor Phil Solomon; the 16-minute featurette, “Bringing the Light to Life”; and “Lighthouse Keeper,” a closer look at finding just the right shooting location for the film.
Black Girl: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
At a time when the debate over immigration policies has reached the boiling point, here and in Europe, Ousmane Sembène’s Black Girl arrives on Blu-ray to remind us that a passport and visa have rarely ever protected outsiders from bigotry and greed. Released originally in 1966, six years after Senegal severed its colonial ties to France, it tells the heart-breaking story of a young woman who leaves Dakar as a governess to a bourgeois French family, but arrives in Antibes to serve as a slave for the Madame. Diouana (Mbissine Thérèse Diop), a proud African woman from an impoverished section of the capital, couldn’t have anticipated how much her life would change after stepping off the boat from Dakar. The family’s three children were nowhere to be seen and, in their absence, Diouana would be required to do cook, clean, do the laundry and take Madame’s abuse, from morning until night. Her earnings are withheld for no good reason and the Madame forbids her from dressing up to perform her chores. Worse, promises of free time to explore France and shop together in fashionable stores, are ignored by Madame (Anne-Marie Jelinek) as soon as Diouana empties her suitcase. “For me, France is the kitchen, the living room, the bathroom and my bedroom,” she says in a first-person voiceover. “It’s the black hole I see when I look out the window at night.” Monsieur (Robert Fontaine) appears to be somewhat sympathetic, but is no match for his wife’s inexplicable behavior. Sembène, a popular novelist and Marxist who studied film in Moscow after laboring as a longshoreman in France, doesn’t completely explain Madame’s change in heart, except to imply that it comes with the territory … once a colonist, always a colonist. The final straw comes when one of the boys returns home and Diouana is expected to act as maid, nanny and playmate. Black Girl is informed by flashbacks to better times in Dakar, when poverty didn’t prevent her from falling in love and showing off in the clothes and shoes handed down to her by Madame. Her final act of rebellion is open to wide interpretation today, but, in the mid-1960s, it probably reflected on the inability of some post-colonial states – as well as the men and women who served their white masters — to enjoy the fruits of independence, after being drained of their valuable natural resources and tribal heritage.
Only 65 minutes long, Black Girl is believed to be the first feature made by a sub-Saharan filmmaker. Sembène’s 1963 short subject, Borom Sarret, is also included in the Criterion set. Like Black Girl, it reveals the writer/director’s admiration for Italian Neo-Realism and the French New Wave. It describes a day in the life of a “cartman,” Le Charretier (Ly Abdoulaye), who struggles to provide for his wife and child by transporting people and goods through Dakar’s shantytown for whatever money can get. His customers represent a cross-section of life there, including a woman about to deliver a baby, people transporting construction material and man who’s carrying his dead child in a blanket and needs a ride to the cemetery. Le Charretier’s horse is only slightly less broken down than his wooden cart, which is distinguished by a loudly squeaking wheel. When a nicely dressed gentleman hires the driver to take him to the part of the city where wealthier residents reside, Le Charretier advises him about the prohibition on using horse-drawn carts in the swank neighborhood. The man waves off the warning. Sure enough, a black cop stops the driver and writes a ticket for disobeying a law that was left behind by the French, who once populated the neighborhood. Instead of merely giving Le Charretier a summons, the cop ensures the cartman won’t be able to afford to pay the fine by confiscating the wagon. He ignores the passenger, who, having reached his destination, slips away without paying for the ride. Dejected, Le Charretier once again returns home emptyhanded. This time, however, his wife gives him the baby and tells him to wait for her to put food on table, “the only way she can.” The package includes the hour-long documentary, “Sembène: The Making of African Cinema,” and other background featurettes.
The Man Who Fell to Earth: Collector’s Edition: Blu-ray
Lair of the White Worm: Blu-ray
Jack Frost: Blu-ray
By 1975, when Nicolas Roeg chose him to play the title character in The Man Who Fell to Earth, David Bowie had already transitioned from his Space Oddity/Ziggy Stardust persona, to one that merged American soul and early British glam-rock influences. A student of avant-garde theatre and mime, Bowie’s acting instincts were incorporated into his live performances, exquisitely captured by D.A. Pennebaker in his 1973 performance film, “Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars.” That he was a logical candidate to play the orange-haired alien, Thomas Jerome Newton, who splashes to Earth in a remote lake in the American Southwest, was one of the few choices not in question about Roeg’s sci-fi drama. Newton had come to Earth from a drought-stricken planet in search of water, leaving his family behind him. After somehow managing to find a fashionable hooded coat to wear into the nearest town, Newton sells a couple of the gold rings he’s brought with him to finance his plan to build a spaceship and transport water to his home planet, before his wife and children perish. He must have done his homework, because one of his first calls is made to a patent attorney, Oliver V. Farnsworth (Buck Henry). In exchange for an equity share Newton’s company, World Enterprises Corp., Farnsworth is able attain patents for nearly a dozen gadgets previously unknown to corporate America. Among them is a disposable camera that develops its own film. The inventions make Farnsworth a very wealthy lawyer and Newton a tycoon who flies below the radar of the media. After registering as a guest in a dusty Gallup hotel, the dapper alien makes the mistake of accepting a ride in the elevator to an upper floor. He faints and begins bleeding from his nose. Fortunately, hotel maid Mary-Lou (Candy Clark) revives him and carries his emaciated body to his room.
She’s easily impressed by his limousine and British accent, while Newton is pleased to be with someone who makes few demands on him – apart from questioning his ability and desire to watch a dozen TVs simultaneously – while alleviating his loneliness. Meanwhile, a debauched college professor and rocket-fuel technician, Dr. Nathan Bryce (Rip Torn) is hired by WEC to help create the interplanetary water tank. Before the task is completed, however, Newton is kidnapped by a mysterious Mr. Peters (Bernie Casey), who appears to be rouge CIA agent on loan to a rival company. Newton, now an alcoholic, is held in abandoned building for decades, during which Clark and Bryce grow old together and Newton continues to look as young as he did when he came to Earth. Beneath the camouflage of his normal-looking epidermis, however, lies a very different creature, indeed. As wondrously inventive as The Man Who Fell to Earth turned out to be, Paramount executives decided to re-edit it to fit their own limited imaginations and temper some of sex scenes. Until recently, Roeg’s completed version of the film was limited to imported tapes and discs, while “Papa” John Phillips and Stomu Yamashta’s soundtrack disappeared completely. Nine years ago, Criterion released its well-regarded version of The Man Who Fell to Earth, but it’s since gone out of circulation. The new Lionsgate/Studio Canal edition includes supplements in DVD and Blu-ray, including fresh interviews with Candy Clark, writer Paul Mayersberg (Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence), cinematographer Tony Richmond, Roeg, costumers May Routh, photographer David James, filmmaker/superfan Sam Taylor-Johnson and producer Michael Deeley; a featurette on the creation and fate of the original soundtrack; and a 1977 Bowie interview, recovered from French TV. Recollections of shooting at various New Mexico locations in the 166-minute interview featurette are especially fascinating.
No two British filmmakers did more to put a cap on the era of “kitchen-sink realism” than Roeg and Ken Russell, with, in 1970, Performance and The Music Lovers, respectively. Suddenly, home-grown movies were being made for the express purpose of tickling viewers’ senses, funny bones and libidos, instead of rubbing their noses in the country’s post-World War II doldrums, especially those pertaining to working-class families. While Roeg traveled to the far corners of the Earth to make movies that were, at once, stimulating, exotic and disturbing, Russell spent the decade reimagining the lives of great artists, such as Peter Ilych Tchaikovsky, Franz Liszt, Rudolph Valentino and Gustav Mahler; adapting “Tommy” and “The Boy Friend” for the screen; and rewriting the clerical history of 17th Century France, in “The Devils.” Russell gained a reputation for being able to shock and infuriate critics, clergy and historians, in equal measure to mainstream viewers who paid good money to have their limits tested. He would veer away from making biographies in the 1980s, even as he continued to provoke audiences and critics. Released in 1988, The Lair of the White Worm was loosely adapted from Bram Stoker’s final novel, based on the legend of the Lambton Worm. Stoker set the story around the River Wear, in Derbyshire, North East England. In it, young John Lambton skips church one Sunday to go fishing in the Wear. He doesn’t catch anything until the church service finishes, at which point he lands a small eel-like creature with nine holes on each side of its salamander-like head. John declares that he has caught the devil and decides to dispose of his catch in a nearby well. After he joins the Crusades, John forgets about the creature.
Seven years later, he returns home to find his father’s estates and nearby farms almost destitute because of the worm. Russell updates the legend to more contemporary times, relocating it to Staffordshire, to take advantage of scenic Thor’s Cave, which makes a perfect hiding place for the beast. Peter Capaldi plays a Scottish archaeology student, excavating the site of a convent at the Derbyshire bed-and-breakfast run by the Trent sisters, Mary (Sammi Davis) and Eve (Catherine Oxenberg). When he unearths a large skull, which appears to be that of a snake, he believes it may be connected to the local legend of the “d’Ampton worm,” said to have been slain by an ancestor of current Lord of the Manor, James d’Ampton (Hugh Grant). The mysterious Lady Sylvia Marsh (Amanda Donohoe) steals the skull and abducts Eve, intending to offer her as the latest in a long line of sacrifices to the snake god. In Russell’s hands, Lady Sylvia is a sexy MILF who dresses like a dominatrix and lures boys and young men to her lair, where she sucks them dry with her giant fangs and feeds them to the worm. He employs nasty jump scares to introduce the creature, as well as some blasphemous religious imagery. The Lair of the White Worm is not a movie you’ll want to watch while tripping on acid. In her day, Donahoe was among the top-10 hottest actresses working in film and television. During her two-year tenure on “L.A. Law,” she took part in the first of the so-called “lesbian kiss episodes” on American television, planting one on lawyer Abbie Perkins. Here, she’s both incendiary and dangerous. The Blu-ray package adds commentaries with Ken Russell and former wife Lisi Russell, in conversation with film historian Matthew Melia; a featurette on the special effects; interviews with editor Peter Davies and Sammi Davis; and a “Trailers From Hell” chapter, featuring producer Dan Ireland.
I’m not sure it’s fair to mention Michael Cooney’s direct-to-video Jack Frost within spitting distance of movies by Russell and Roeg, but all three were made by Brits and could be stretched to fit certain genre conventions. It’s also been repackaged to include a classy new audio/video upgrade, several new background and making-of featurettes, cover art and interviews. The similarities end there, however. Before putting his writer/director/producer’s hat on for good, Cooney owned video stores and was a presence on late-night television. Like everyone else who’s watched more than a dozen genre-specific movies, he came to believe that he could make a better movie than they ones his customers were renting. He didn’t, but Jack Frost was entertaining enough to qualify for cult-classic and so-bad-it’s-good status. In it, a vehicle carrying serial killer Jack Frost to his date with Old Sparky collides with a tanker containing hazardous genetic material. It turns him into a snow- covered mutant, determined to terrorize Snomonton, “The Snowman Capitol of the Midwest,” and exact revenge on the town’s sheriff (Christopher Allport), who ended his cross-country killing spree. The bulbous freak uses icicles to impale his victims and, in the case of a pre-American Pie Shannon Elizabeth, commit rape … before turning her bath water into a giant ice cube. It’s every bit as goofy as it sounds.
The Monster: Blu-ray
In his three produced screenplays, writer/director/producer Bryan Bertino has shown a knack for taking simple genre conventions and turning them into movies with identities of their own. In 2006, his vacation-home-invasion thriller, The Strangers, hit pay dirt with an 8-to-1 return on investment at box offices around the world. The 2014 found-footage flick, Mockingbird, failed to get a theatrical release, opening, instead, on VOD outlets before going into DVD/Blu-ray. Bertino’s latest, The Monster, effectively combines elements of the child-in-peril and bogeyman-in-the-woods sub-genres in the service of a story that also manages to tug at the heartstrings of more sensitive viewers. Zoe Kazan is extremely convincing as an alcoholic single mom, Kathy, whose license to raise a child should have been revoked before she got pregnant. Her pre-teen daughter, Lizzy (Ella Ballentine) grows up fast in a household where she frequently is required to protect her mom from her own worst instincts. Lizzy is happy to learn that she’s been invited to move to her father’s house, which is where they’re headed when Kathy is forced off the main highway in the rain and detoured onto a lonely country road that cuts through a forest. Stop me, if you’ve heard this one before. While bickering with Lizzy, Kathy hits something she believes to be a wolf, seriously damaging the car. After calling for a tow truck, she gets out of the vehicle to check if the animal’s still alive. Just as naturally, the animal has disappeared. No matter, because another beast is lying in wait for stranded motorists, tow-truck drivers and ambulance personnel, and this one isn’t messing around. Bertino doesn’t rush the reveal, literally preferring to keep his characters and viewers in the dark, only hinting at the danger to come. When the monster makes its presence known, however, it’s 50/50 whether more viewers will be frightened or underwhelmed. A side benefit of Kathy and Lizzy’s terrifying encounter with the monster can be seen in their increasing willingness to trust each other’s instincts and work as a team, things that had been missing in their relationship. The enclosed EPK “Eyes in the Darkness” sheds a bit of light on the creation of the monster and what it actually looks like.
USS Indianapolis: Men of Courage: Blu-ray
Among the unforgettable scenes in Jaws is the one in which Quint drunkenly recalls surviving the sinking of the USS Indianapolis and subsequent horror of being attacked by sharks while drifting in the Philippine Sea awaiting rescue and life-saving provisions. It’s likely that most members of the audience weren’t aware of the tragedy and some even assumed the screenwriters had invented the story. Apart from a couple of excusable factual errors, it was only too true. Since then, details of the sinking have been revealed in a 1991 made-for-TV documentary and several short films, some featuring first-hand accounts by survivors. An attempt by National Geographic to locate the doomed cruiser and film the wreckage is expected to take place later this year. Quint’s monologue only revealed the most harrowing details of the ship’s final voyage, though. Of almost equal interest is the historic top-secret mission just completed by the USS Indianapolis – it delivered the enriched uranium and other parts crucial to the bombing of Hiroshima to Tinian island — and the shabby treatment accorded Captain Charles B. McVay III, who barely survived the attack and ordeal at sea. In desperate need of a scapegoat to blame for the Navy’s own mistakes, his superiors in Washington court-martialed McVay, convicting him of “hazarding his ship by failing to zigzag,” a bogus, but convenient charge. Strapped with an inadequate budget to properly tell all three stories, USS Indianapolis: Men of Courage tries its best to honor both the living and dead sailors. If it falls short, it’s only because director Mario Van Peebles was required to take narrative shortcuts and make concessions on the production side. Nicolas Cage’s portrayal of McVay is low-key, yet informed by his passion for the project. Tom Sizemore, Thomas Jane and Matt Lanter probably are the most recognizable actors in supporting roles. I appreciated Van Peebles and screenwriters Cam Cannon and Richard Rionda Del Castro’s attempt the show the role played by African-American sailors in the war effort, but learned later that liberties were taken here for dramatic effect. So, what else is new? It’s about time that anyone in Hollywood went even this far to dramatize such an essential piece of WWII history. The 33-minute featurette, “The Making of USS Indianapolis: Men of Courage,” is well worth the effort to check out.
Not having grown up on a farm, I had to look up “harrow” in the dictionary, just to see what to expect here. It read, “a cultivating tool set with spikes, teeth or disks and used primarily for breaking up and smoothing the soil.” As such, I foresaw yet another genre flick featuring deaths by farm implements. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but I’d just seen a trailer for Pitchfork and wondered how much more agricultural horror I could stand. In fact, as The Harrow progressed I kept wondering when the blood and gore would kick in and the expository stuff would fade into the background. The story, after all, involves a Southern drifter, Miller (Tom McKay), who lives in seclusion in an abandoned 100-year-old slaughterhouse, while restoring antiques and performing other tasks for the owner. The hooks once used to hang and drain the carcasses of animals still are attached to a makeshift conveyor belt and on the walls of the abattoir. Oozing with portent, it is the perfect setting for a thriller. Miller is haunted by a vision of Gale (Maggie Geha), his dead lover who was murdered a decade ago. When Gale’s daughter, Ruth (Sonya Harum), arrives, hoping to discover what happened on the fateful night she died. Miller is extremely uncomfortable with her presence, but she eventually wears him down. The truth, in Kevin Stocklin’s debut feature, plays out in flashbacks, while the fitful relationship between Miller and Ruth takes on a palpable aura of suspense of its own. This may come as bad news to gore geeks, but fans of Gothic dramas should find something in The Harrow to like. The DVD adds two of Stocklin’s short film, “Eve” and “The Position,” as well as a Q&A from the Big Apple film Festival.
Flight 313: The Conspiracy
Even when a major star is attached, such investigative thrillers as Erin Brockovich and The Insider can only succeed if the science doesn’t overwhelm the drama — and vice versa — and the dialogue isn’t dominated by legalese and research-speak. Flight 313: The Conspiracy (a.k.a., “A Dark Reflection”) has only one star that might be well-known outside the U.K., Marina Sirtis, who will be forever recognized as counselor Deanna Troi, on various “Star Trek” spinoffs. It is a dramatized sequel to writer/director Tristan Loraine’s 2007 documentary, Welcome Aboard Toxic Airlines, which, among other things, accused the airline industry of covering up knowledge of a defect in modern jetliners that exposes passengers and crews to unfiltered air, pulled directly from the engines, known to become contaminated with neurotoxins, carcinogens and other hazardous chemicals. Loraine, a former commercial pilot, has been investigating this 50-year-old problem ever since friends and co-workers registered claims of short- and long-term health problems, due to “aerotoxic syndrome.” Studies have since been conducted by governmental and scientific bodies disputing the cause of such ailments and, of course, the aviation industry has long denied its existence. In Flight 313: The Conspiracy, the journalist wife (Georgina Sutcliffe) of a wrongfully suspended air traffic controller embarks on an investigative journey that reveals a disturbing succession of cover-ups, regarding air quality on flights, dating back to 1954. Sir Charles Jaspar (Nicholas Day) has tasked his company’s CEO (Mark Dymond) with the responsibility of keeping his business and his wife, Maggie (Sirtis) out of the investigation. Loraine does what he can to make the picture entertaining, but, without a concrete conclusion or settlement rendered, the tension is short-lived.
Antarctica: Ice and Sky
With a man in the White House who’s as obstinately anti-science as he is fiercely pro-commerce, it’s important for knowledgeable people to fight the good fight against ignorance and political recalcitrance. Although data can be manipulated to fit most any agenda, the preponderance of evidence argues in favor of battling global warming before things get worse than they already are. By that time, however, President Trump’s Mar-a-Lago “club” could be under three feet of water and he’d still be blaming the liberal media for distorting his vision of reality. Antarctica: Ice and Sky pays homage to Claude Lorius, a French glaciologist who’s participated in 22 polar expeditions, beginning in 1955. At the time, Antarctica was essentially untouched by scientific research and experimentation. Since the International Geophysical Year opened the door for multinational research, the ice-covered continent has practically become a suburb of Buenos Aires, Santiago and Hobart, Tasmania, as well as a popular bucket-list destination. At 22, Lorius volunteered to spend a year in Antarctica, practically writing the book on scientific study under hellishly frigid conditions. Foremost among the methodology was pulling cores from the ice pack and reading them like the rings on a tree stump. Not only could the scientists discern periods of atypical warmth and cold, but also the fallout from natural and manmade disasters. Air bubbles created many centuries ago revealed secrets, as well. Global warming and climate change weren’t on anyone’s radar when Lorius dedicated his life to glaciology and fell in love with Antarctica. When it became clear to him that the changes were caused largely by unnatural forces, he became a crusader for the unpopular truth. Luc Jacquet, whose March of the Penguins became a global box-office sensation, weaves archival and contemporary footage into a documentary that’s, at once, informative, entertaining and cautionary. As a contemplative memoir, too, Antarctica: Ice and Sky is extremely compelling.
Guardians of Oz
Outside the U.S., the computer-animated adventure/fantasy Guardians of Oz was known as “Wicked Flying Monkeys,” which would be a great name for rock band or circus act in Las Vegas. Targeted at younger viewers, though, that title might be a bit too on-the-nose for anyone whose lasting memory of “The Wizard of Oz” wasn’t Judy Garland singing “Over the Rainbow,” but being frightened to death by the winged monkeys dispatched from the Wicked Witch’s castle to harass and capture Dorothy and Toto. While still plenty nasty, the animated monkeys in Guardians of Oz aren’t nearly as intimidating as those in the 1939 live-action classic. The story picks up after the Wicked Witch of the West is melted by a bucket of water and Dorothy is sent back to Kansas. Glinda, the Good Witch of the South, decides to revive the Wicked Witch, but remove her powers by storing them in a magic broom. Glinda then gives the broom to Dorothy’s friends, Tin Woodman, Cowardly Lion, and Scarecrow, and they become its guardians. Evilene, the Wicked Witch, conspires with her flying monkeys to retrieve her broom. After Evilene transforms his father into a chicken, a friendly monkey named Ozzy joins forces with the Guardians to make the kingdom safe once and for all. Guardians of Oz was conceived in Mexico by Anima Estudios (“Top Cat”) and produced with India’s Discreet Arts. The animation looks modern and not remotely cut-rate, as might have been the case even 10 years ago. Kids not quite ready for the original might benefit from first checking out Guardians of Oz.
The Passing Season
Co-writer/director Gabriel Long’s freshman feature, The Passing Season, is an indie drama about a hockey player forced to come to grips with the likelihood that he’ll never sip champagne from Lord Stanley’s Cup or even make it to the NHL. (And, no, it wasn’t made in Canada.) Understandably shattered when he’s told by his coach that he’s being cut, Sam (Brian J. Smith) decides to leave town in a hurry, only stopping for one last booty call with his girlfriend, Lindsey (Elizabeth Alderfer), who he keeps in the dark about his plans. He returns to his hometown, where his high school pals still enjoy getting hammered night after night and he’s something of a local hero. To keep busy, Sam agrees to help a friend refurbish his house, which he hopes to put up for sale when the time’s right. Despite his buddy’s generosity, Sam can’t resist the temptation to hook up with his girlfriend. It’s a disaster, of course. Although he’s a bit young for a midlife crisis, Sam struggles to put his life back on even keel, although he’d settle for getting back together with Lindsey. Because Long hasn’t been able to sell us on Sam’s worthiness as an adult, we’re as perplexed as she is by his desire to get back in her life.
A Month of Sundays
It’s a lot easier to find Australian actors portraying American characters in Hollywood movies than it is to find excellent Australian pictures starring the same talented men and women. It has almost nothing to do with the quality of the films or production values, either. Among those who made the grade Down-Under, before being lured Up-Over are Hugh Jackman, Cate Blanchett, Margo Robbie, Mel Gibson, Emily Browning, Rose Byrne, Liam Hemsworth, Heath Ledger, Miranda Otto, Joel Edgerton, Judy Davis,Toni Collette, Rachel Griffiths, Eric Bana, Bryan Brown, Rachel Ward and Geoffrey Rush. The list goes on. Many of them return home on a regular basis to appear in “smaller” homegrown pictures and on stage, where they don’t have to fake an American or British accent and regional variations, thereof. Anthony LaPaglia has been working in the U.S. for so long, he might as well have been born in Oshkosh, instead of Adelaide. Until the excellent 2001 crime drama, Lantana, set in Sydney and its woodsy suburbs, I didn’t recognize his roots, either. The compelling coming-of-middle-age story, A Month of Sundays, was shot in LaPalgia’s hometown, which very much resembles hometowns here and the U.K. Adelaide real-estate agent Frank Mollard (LaPaglia) is stuck in deep personal and professional rut. He’s tired of selling properties owned by the recently or soon-to-be deceased and is having trouble recovering from his recent divorce from Wendy (Justine Clarke), an actress who grew apart from him after achieving sudden fame on a TV medical drama. He connects easier with his surprisingly nonchalant boss, Phillip (John Clarke), than his overly sensitive teenage son.
One day, he enters into a misdirected phone conversation with an elderly woman, Sarah (Julia Blake), who insists he’s her son. Despite the fact that his mother died a year earlier, Frank is so comforted by their conversation that he plays along with her confusion. He uses his job as an excuse to pay a visit to the retired librarian, whose middle-age son, Damien (Donal Forde), looks at Frank as if he’s trying to steal his inheritance by selling the house to an order of cloistered nuns. Instead, he’s in search of the kind of motherly advice he never sought from his own mom. Writer/director Matthew Saville probably assumed that the audience for A Month of Sundays would be old enough to appreciate the reflexive moments shared by the autumnal characters and wait patiently for them to work out their dilemmas. It’s not the kind of movie anyone in Hollywood is interested in producing, anymore. It’s also a departure for Saville, a television veteran whose memorably offbeat first feature, Noise (2007), involves a young cop whose ability to solve a terrible series of murders is complicated by self-doubt and a sudden attack of tinnitus. His condition reduces his ability to hear, while also magnifying the sound of everyday noises. His second feature, Felony, written by and starring Edgerton, was psychodrama involving three very different Sydney cops forced to decide what ethical lines can be crossed to achieve justice in an accident involving an off-duty police officer and a child, without destroying more than one person’s life. In all three of his films, Saville elicits moving performances from mostly homegrown casts.
Takashi Miike’s Black Society Trilogy: Special Edition: Blu-ray
Before the general release of the torture-porn classic Audition – inarguably, one of the most unsettling movies ever made — Takashi Miike was a largely an unknown quantity outside Asia. He had, in fact, directed more than 30 films over the course of the previous eight years, most of them extremely violent straight-to-video flicks that in America would have been dismissed as grindhouse or drive-in fare. After word-of-mouth turned Audition into a cult sensation, genre buffs around the world rushed to see such brashly energetic entertainments as The Happiness of the Katakuris, Ichi the Killer, Sukiyaki Western Django, Detective Story, Zebraman and the Dead or Alive trilogy. If he continues to defy the expectations of mainstream critics and late-arrivals with the unevenness of his period, mange/anime and yakuza pictures, cultists have been far more forgiving. The films included in Arrow Video’s “Takashi Miike’s Black Society Trilogy: Special Edition” represent the director’s first foray into the theatrical arena. Even if Shinjuku Triad Society (1995), Rainy Dog (1997) and Ley Lines (1999) could be stand alone as non-serial releases, they work best as a series of pictures that capture the feelings of isolation, paranoia and rage that existed within the small population of Chinese and Japanese/Chinese living in Japan. To combat the discrimination they faced as outsiders, the Chinese formed underworld Triads that were as violent and exploitative as the yakuza. Set in the bustling Kabuki-cho nightlife neighborhood of Tokyo, Shinjuku Triad Society follows a mixed-race cop (Kippei Shiina) struggling with private issues while hunting a psychotic criminal (Tomorowo Taguchi) who traffics in children’s organs, especially those of kidnapped Chinese youths. Shot entirely in Taiwan, Rainy Dog concerns an exiled yakuza (Show Aikawa), who, one fateful day, is introduced to the son he never knew existed and has a price put on his head by the same Chinese gang he’s served as an assassin. Ley Lines moves from the countryside to the city and back, as three Japanese youths of Chinese descent seek their fortune in Tokyo, only to run afoul of a violent gang boss (Naoto Takenaka). The narratives are alternately profane and profound, gut-churning and empathetic. The settings shift from brothels and flophouses, to fancy restaurants and villas. If it ever stopped raining on the characters, I didn’t notice it. The neon-lit puddles frequently fill with droplets of blood as the violence in the street escalates to open warfare. The special edition is enhanced by high-definition digital transfers of all three films and original uncompressed stereo audio. The bonus features include new interviews with Miike and Aikawa; commentaries for all three films by Miike biographer Tom Mes; original theatrical trailers for all three films; a reversible sleeve, with original and newly commissioned artwork by Chris Malbon; and an illustrated collector’s booklet, with new writing on the films.
PBS: American Experience: The Battle of Chosin
Battle for Incheon: Operation Chromite: Blu-ray
PBS Kids: Odd Squad: The Movie
Before the embarrassing loss of South Vietnam to communist forces and a series of smaller wars and invasions that ended rather shabbily, thanks mostly to poor decision-making in Washington, the title of “Forgotten War” was worn by the Korean conflict, which lasted from 1950-54. Despite the heroics of American, South Korean and UN forces, all we succeeded in doing was keeping the Chinese- and Soviet-backed North Korean military from attempting to re-invade the South. The situation has yet to be resolved. After the glorious defeat of fascist and imperial governments in World War II, the American people didn’t know how to react to a stalemate. There would be no parades or displays of appreciation. Congressional approval for a Korean War Veterans Memorial only was confirmed on October 28, 1986. It’s in West Potomac Park, southeast of the Lincoln Memorial and just south of the Reflecting Pool on the National Mall. It was a long time coming.
PBS’ “American Experience: The Battle of Chosin” provides us with several very good reasons to remember the Forgotten War and salute the men who nearly were slaughtered, en masse, because General Douglas MacArthur, Commander-in-Chief of the United Nations Command, decided to turn victory into defeat by provoking Chinese leaders to intercede on behalf of the North Korean communists. After the successful invasion at Inchon, American and Allied soldiers pushed the invaders back to the 38th Parallel and beyond. MacArthur decided it might be fun to keep on going, to the Yalu River, where 85,000 Chinese soldiers awaited orders to attack a much smaller force of UN soldiers and U.S. Marines. The general had arrogantly insisted that Chairman Mao Zedong wouldn’t elect to cross the Yalu and, if he did, China wouldn’t put up on good fight. What he didn’t take into account was Chairman Mao’s legitimate fear of a full-fledged invasion of his country by the United States and his willingness to promote communism with the same vehemence previously directed at Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist forces, now ensconced in Taiwan. If Mao did make the move, however, MacArthur was perfectly willing to use nuclear weapons on China. As such, he directly challenged the authority of President Truman to wage the “police action” as he saw fit, and that didn’t include risking a third world war. “The Battle of Chosin” describes in harrowing detail how our men survived long enough – with no food, sleep or uniforms warm enough to withstand sub-zero temperatures — to retreat to a more defensible position, below the Chosin Reservoir. Among those interviewed are survivors of battle, historians and military experts.
MacArthur’s instincts were 100 percent correct when it came to the initial invasion of South Korea, already almost completely in the hands of communist troops. John H. Lee’s Battle for Incheon: Operation Chromite, a huge hit in South Korea, describes the essential role played by a South Korean special-forces unit that infiltrated the North Korean army command center in Inchon 14 days ahead of the UN landing. The joint Central Intelligence Agency/military-intelligence reconnaissance effort, codenamed Trudy Jackson, was led by U.S. Navy Lieutenant Eugene F. Clark. After landing at Yonghung-do, an island in the mouth of the harbor, the unit relayed intelligence back to the fleet commanders on the tactical characteristics of the harbor, which is notorious for swift currents and major tidal surges. They also were ordered to secure a lighthouse crucial to the landing’s success and provide information on bombing targets inland. Lee’s direction emphasizes the dangers inherent in such a risky mission, while also pumping up the support provided by MacArthur (Liam Neeson), who went out on a limb to defend it. Although the fact-based action is often quite good, the North Korean government has described the film as “ridiculous bravado from ignorant lunatics.” Whoever wrote that might consider applying for a job with Variety or the Hollywood Reporter, where such criticism could apply to most action films made here.
The PBS Kids series, “Odd Squad,” follows the exploits of a kid-run organization that solves peculiar problems using math skills. “Odd Squad: The Movie” describes what happens when a rival agency, Weird Team, arrives in town with a gadget that fixes any odd problem, effectively putting it out of business. After the agents are forced to go back to their lives as regular kids, they use math and teamwork to uncover the gadget’s inability to fix the problems it masked. Olympia and Otis join forces with Olive and Otto to stop Weird Team and save the world from destruction. Special guests include Sean Cullen, Rizwah Manji, Sue Galloway, John Lutz, Keith Powell, Hannah Simone and Jack McBrayer
Lady Libertine/Love Circles: Blu-ray
42nd Street Forever: The Peep Show Collection Vol. 19
When, in the mid-1980s, Gérard Kikoïne made the transition from hard-core porn to such soft-core “love stories” as Lady Libertine and Love Circles, for non-French companies, it was because the government had imposed prohibitively heavy fees on the thriving industry. At the same time, in the United States, distributors of erotic films to cable-TV networks and video outlets could hardly keep up with the demand. Kikoïne was hired to produce erotic titles for Playboy Productions, which, at the time, was churning out fare that could pass for R-rated in theaters. Kikoïne took a few more liberties with such taboo visuals as full-frontal nudity and pubic hair, but nothing comparable to what’s seen on the Playboy Channel today. (Most grown women had yet to see the benefit, if any, of waxing or shaving their pubes to resemble Barbie dolls.) While almost anyone with a camcorder could create the kinds of movies shown afterhours on Cinemax, Kikoïne was accorded budgets that allowed for elaborate sets, period costumes and travel to exotic locations … or reasonable facsimiles thereof. The sex was integrated organically within the context of a recognizable narrative and the female actors, at least, were world-class beauties. The lavishly staged Lady Libertine was adapted from the Victorian novel, “Frank and I,” by Bill Adler. As such, there’s nearly as much S&M as horizontal sex. In the 1880s, a rich nobleman from London, Charles de Beaumont (Christopher Pearson), adopts a cross-dressing teenage orphan (Jennifer Inch) after learning Frank/Frances had escaped from a brothel. The count already has a lover, Maud (Sophie Favier), who contributes to the teenager’s home-schooling, such as it is. (When, some years later, Favier went legit and became a well-known TV host, she unsuccessfully sued the distributor to prevent the release of the DVD.) Charles is an extremely jealous host, so, when his charge shows signs of hooking up with a suitor closer to her age, he’s forced to make a choice between youth and experience. (Inch would quickly find work as Ruby Gillis, in the CBC/Disney presentation, “Anne of Green Gables.”)
Also included in the package is Kikoïne’s more contemporary Love Circles: An International Odyssey, which is cut from the same cloth as the Emmanuelle series. An update of “La Ronde,” it traces a series of chance meetings between men and women from Paris to Rome, Cannes to Hong Kong, and Los Angeles to New York City. The commen element is a pack of cigarettes handed from horny dude to willing babe. It works pretty well as an erotic fantasy, if nothing else. There’s an entertaining interview with Kikoïne and separate introduction to Lady Libertine at the Fantasia Film Festival. In 1989, he would direct Anthony Perkins in the Jekyll/Hyde-on-crack thriller, Edge of Sanity.
Impulse Pictures’ “42nd Street Forever: The Peep Show Collection Vol. 19” features 15 more “classic” 8mm loops, re-mastered from original film prints, with such titles as “Truck Girls,” “Lesbian Lust,” “Angie’s Dream” and “Pom Pom Power.” Among the stars in this go-round are Linda Shaw, Vanessa Del Rio, Merle Richards and a slew of unknowns, who, like Sophie Favier, wish they’d made better decisions back in the day. Liner notes are provided by “porn archaeologist” Dimitrios Otis