By Gary Dretzka Dretzka@moviecitynews.com
The DVD Wrapup: Hacksaw Ridge, Manchester, Arrival, Bad Santa 2, Tharlo, Chabrol X 3 and more
Hacksaw Ridge: 4K/Blu-ray
When a Hollywood movie is said to have been based on a true story, it’s safe to assume that the actions of the protagonist were embellished to make the character more heroic or saintly. In his multiple Oscar candidate, Hacksaw Ridge, director Mel Gibson was faced with the opposite problem. The real-life story of U.S. Army medic Desmond Doss — the first conscientious objector to be awarded the Medal of Honor – was too good to be true, even for the movies. If anything, the truth behind Doss’ actions during the Battle of Okinawa, in World War II, had to be scaled back, so that viewers wouldn’t think they were pumped up for dramatic effect. In Gibson’s first directorial effort since 2006’s Apocalypto – or, to be more precise, since he disgraced himself after being stopped in Malibu on suspicion of driving while drunk – the number of men Doss saved or rescued was limited to 75, when it probably was much higher. Left out, as well, was a similarly courageous action that occurred a few hours late, in which the seriously wounded PFC crawled off his stretcher and gave it to an even more critically wounded soldier. Awaiting the litter bearers’ return, he was struck by a sniper’s bullet. Then, too, even before Doss’ infantry unit reached Okinawa, while serving on Guam and the Philippines, he was awarded a Bronze Star Medal for aiding wounded soldiers under fire. In an interview contained in the bonus package, Gibson concedes that even alluding to these heroic acts in Hacksaw Ridge might have been too much for audiences to buy and he’s probably right. If Doss’ amazing story came as news to most viewers, it’s only because he preferred to maintain a low profile throughout his life. He even turned down soldier-turned-actor Audie Murphy, when the Medal of Honor-winner attempted to secure the rights to his biography. His only concession to fame was a 1959 appearance on Ralph Edwards’s “This Is Your Life” and that might have come as a surprise to him, as well. It wasn’t until 2001, when a fellow Seventh Day Adventist convinced Doss that such a movie might serve the interests of the church, that the long, arduous long process could begin in earnest.
The easiest way to describe Hacksaw Ridge is to compare it favorably to Letters From Iwo Jima, Saving Private Ryan, The Big Red One and The Thin Red Line, movies in which the hell of war isn’t played down in favor of melodramatic backstories, a character-based scheme (Kelly’s Heroes) or suicide mission (The Dirty Dozen). After Gibson documents the problems Doss overcame in order to serve his country, without also having to carry a gun, ignore the Sabbath or eat meat, Hacksaw Ridge is all action, all the time. Squeamish viewers might be tempted to look away, at times, but they’d be in the minority. Oscar nominee Andrew Garfield is extremely credible as the soft-spoken American patriot, who’s willing to serve his country in the heat of battle, without also relinquishing his constitutional rights or reacting to peer pressure and persecution with violence. Robert Schenkkan and Andrew Knight’s screenplay does take some liberties with the film’s portrayal of Goss’ family life, but only to demonstrate what led to his commitment to non-violence. For once, too, the romantic throughline — Teresa Palmer plays his wife, Dorothy — doesn’t feel tacked on or contrived. The Aussie-heavy cast includes Sam Worthington, Luke Bracey, Rachel Griffiths, Hugo Weaving and Richard Roxburgh. Garfield and Vince Vaughn represent the token Yanks. It should be noted, as well, that Hacksaw Ridge is well represented in the technical categories, with nominations for editing, sound mixing and sound editing. The excellent 4K UHD and Blu-ray editions provide plenty of evidence for the worthiness of those honors. The comprehensive, feature-length featurette, “The Soul of War: Making Hacksaw Ridge,” pays homage to Gibson’s ability to re-create the battle scenes on a patch of farmland in New South Wales, on a modest $40-million production budget. It also includes material on Goss, casting, stunts and special effects; deleted scenes; and a Veterans Day greeting from Gibson.
Manchester by the Sea
If Casey Affleck doesn’t walk away with an Oscar for Best Lead Actor, as expected, it will only be because of past allegations of sexual harassment, which he’s denied. Writer/director Kenneth Lonergan, who wrote and directed Manchester-by-the-Sea, is slightly less likely to be honored with a statuette or two, but a La La Land juggernaut could sweep everyone away. Casey Affleck is terrific as Lee Chandler, an understandably moody loner, working off his penance for past sins as the custodian for an apartment complex outside Boston. When his older brother unexpectedly dies, Lee is stunned and perplexed to learn that he’s been anointed legal guardian of his 16-year-old nephew. While Patrick (Lucas Hedges) isn’t a bad kid, life has dealt him some bad cards and his defense mechanisms are solidly in place. Years earlier, Patrick was abandoned by his mother (Gretchen Mol), whose alcoholism and depression got the best of her. For his part, Lee had lost his children in a fire that he blamed on his own negligence, but was ruled an accident. His hysterical wife, Randi (Michelle Williams), deserted him at about the same time as he lost his will to live. Lonergan makes sure that viewers won’t be tempted to slash their wrists after the first reel by surrounding Patrick with friends from his high school hockey team, rock band and couple of horny girlfriends. Lee isn’t nearly as fortunate. He had no intention of ever moving back to working-class Manchester, where his demons are waiting around every corner. Neither is he ready to deal with the mood swings of an otherwise normal teenager, forced by circumstances to become a man overnight. As fragile as their relationship is, Lonergan allows us to anticipate a time when Lee and Patrick will feel compelled to hug it out and leave us smiling. When that doesn’t happen, exactly, we still feel good about their chances. Although Manchester-by-the-Sea provides a scenic backdrop for the drama, its brutal winter weather adds another layer of agony to the story. When Patrick is told that his father’s body can’t be buried until the spring thaw, it has the same effect as frostbite on exposed fingertips. Affleck knows the area and its blue-collar residents as well as anyone, so everything from the accents to the beer guts and bad haircuts feel authentic. First-time viewers should know going in to Manchester-by-the-Sea that the narrative is driven by frequent flashbacks and crucial information is revealed in each one. The Blu-ray adds a “conversation” with director/writer Lonergan, in lieu of a commentary; an EPK featurette, in lieu of a more comprehensive making-of feature; and six minutes’ worth of deleted scenes.
Arrival: 4K UHD/ Blu-ray
Without diminishing the originality of Arrival one bit, it would be difficult for fans of sci-fi movies not to make comparisons between it and such pictures as Close Encounters of the Third Kind, E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial and Contact, in which breakthroughs in communications open the door to understanding. Compared to what happens in these films, deciphering the Rosetta Stone was a piece of cake. At least, the ancient Egyptians thought enough about the inscribed trilingual stele to leave it in a place where it could be discovered by scholars, instead of used as fill at a dilapidated Ottoman fort near the town of Rashid in the Nile Delta. If one of Napoleon’s aides-de-camp hadn’t uncovered it while repairing the defenses at Fort Julien, in 1799, we might never have learned how to decipher Egyptian hieroglyphs. Two centuries later, in more thoughtful Hollywood movies, scientists and linguists struggle to translate communications between aliens and humans, without the benefit of a Rosetta Stone, before someone in a military uniform decides to blow it to smithereens. It would be helpful if someone in deep space would respond to the images and sensory hieroglyphics beamed from Earth to the heavens from communications centers around the globe. So far, as far as we’ve been told, no one has. Instead, we make do with such advanced sci-fi entertainments as Arrival, in which the forces of enlightenment are pitted against the forces of ignorance, fear and brute strength in a race to make sense of infinity. In very real way, Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival merely connects the dots leading from The Day the Earth Stood Still, past the planet Spielberg and on to a digital universe that allows filmmakers to create alien beings that don’t look as if they were products of a Japanese toy factory or Jim Henson’s Creature Shop. It’s modern, without also being particularly revolutionary.
Villeneuve (Sicario) and screenwriter Eric Heisserer (The Thing) – working from a story by Ted Chiang – allow viewers to consider the possibilities raised by the simultaneous arrival of a dozen egg-shaped extraterrestrial vehicles, hovering a few feet above the earth in as many disparate locations around the world. We’re encouraged do so with the same curiosity, bewilderment and sense of wonder as that evidenced by linguist Louise Banks (Amy Adams) and physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), who’ve been escorted to a makeshift military camp in Montana by U.S. Army Colonel G.T. Weber (Forrest Whittaker). It’s located a few minutes’ drive from one of the low-hovering UFOs, which is being monitored by CIA agent David Halpern (Michael Stuhlbarg) and a small of army of computer jockeys. Halpern looks upon Banks and Donnelly with the same impatience and aura of superiority as intelligence agents usually reserve for residents of Guantanamo Bay, while Weber stands between them as a buffer between blind certitude and fervid curiosity. It takes a while before the scientists are able to board the ship and even longer before making contact with a pair of “heptapod” aliens, dubbed Abbott and Costello. Scientists and militarists in China and Russia are also monitoring the spacecraft, grasping with the question of how much data to share with their rivals and how interpret the meaning of such words as “weapon” in English, Russian, Chinese and Heptapodian. To reveal much more of the story would spoil the fun for viewers, who also are asked to decipher a plot device that merges ESP with the space-time continuum. Arrival is a movie that rewards patience and paying close attention to narrative detail. Viewers are encouraged to ponder deeper questions, such as the aliens’ motivations and our place in the universe, but I found it easier to simply focus on the central linguistic mystery. The bonus featurettes add plenty of information on the formation of the “xenolinguistics” specifically created for the film; sound design; musical score; editing process; and “principles of time, memory and language.” The 4K/Blu-ray presentation isn’t particularly enhanced by the purposefully cloudy backdrops and non-descript laboratory scenes, but the artificially lit scenes inside the spacecraft work well. Like Hacksaw Ridge, Arrival received nominations for editing, sound mixing and sound editing.
Bad Santa 2: Unrated: Blu-ray
The good news for fans of the original Bad Santa comes in knowing that, after a 13-year hiatus, Willie Soke (Billy Bob Thornton), Marcus (Tony Cox) and the Kid (Brett Kelly) have returned for Bad Santa 2. You’ve probably already guessed the bad news: almost no one else involved in the hit comedy joined them. That includes director Terry Zwigoff, writers Glenn Ficarra and John Requa; executive producers Ethan and Joel Coen; and actors Lauren Graham and the late Bernie Mac and John Ritter. In 2003, foreign receipts comprised 21.5 percent of the Bad Santa’s $76.5-million haul. Of Bad Santa 2’s $17.8-million worldwide take, 0 percent of the money came from overseas. Why bother, right? So, what does the sequel have going for it? Thornton, Cox and Kelly, are every bit as nasty as they were in the original; Kathy Bates is delightfully evil, as Willie’s detestable mom, Sunny; Christina Hendricks looks great, even in winter gear; and the unrated version is raunchier, more profane and vile than the R-rated theatrical cut. This time, the action moves to Chicago – or Montreal-for-Chicago – where Marcus has been apprised of a sting involving the proceeds of a Christmas season’s worth of charitable donations. It isn’t until Willie and Marcus reach the Windy City, however, that the source of the information is Sunny, who’s gone undercover at the Salvation Army. The Kid follows them to Chicago, if only to provide a bit of humanity and non-toxic humor to the mix. Hendricks is a decent substitute for Graham, even if it’s impossible to believe her character would allow herself to be touched by, let alone shag, Willie. (Sadly, if Hendricks wants to reach the next level, she might have to put her physical assets on display as a sexy, non-comedic character, like Honey Bruce, in Lenny, for which Valerie Perrine was accorded an Oscar nomination.) The true winner here is Kelly, who gained 50 pounds to reprise the role of the Kid (a.k.a., Thurman Merman). Portrayed largely as a doofus, the Kid emerges as the character who, in the end, melts everyone’s heart, including those of viewers. The unrated version is only available on Blu-ray and 4K UHD, which also include the rated version of the film and the exclusive bonus feature, “That’s My Willie,” an original animated series. Additional bonus materials include “Thurman Then & Now”; “Just Your Average Red Band Featurette”; “Jingle Balls,” an adult version of the classic holiday song; a gag reel; alternate opening and ending; and deleted scenes.
Beauty and the Beast: Blu-ray
As the countdown continues toward the release of Disney’s live-action adaptation of its animated classic and subsequent Broadway musical, Beauty and the Beast, it’s worth reminding a generation of admirers that the story’s roots extend far beyond the studio’s Burbank headquarters. The company deserves kudos for all sorts of things, but giving credit where its due isn’t always one of them. No one there felt it necessary to mention Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve’s source fairy tale, “La Belle et la Bête,” published in France in 1740, or Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont’s abridged version, published in 1756. Walt Disney also borrowed ideas from Jean Cocteau’s magical translation, released in 1946 and available in a splendid Criterion Collection. (For all I know, then-Disney chairman Jeffrey Katzenberg was inspired by CBS’s cult-favorite, “Beauty and the Beast,” which ran from 1987-90 and starred Ron Perlman and Linda Hamilton.) While the Cocteau version may be a bit too sophisticated for tykes, whose first experience with the fairy tale is in the Disney versions, it should be considered a must-see for fans in their teens and older. They might also be interested in Christophe Gans’ 2014 live-action fantasy, La Belle et la Bête, which stars Léa Seydoux and Vincent Cassel in the lead roles. Not quite as poetic as the 1946 iteration, or as welcoming as the Disney version, Gans’ take is very much in the European tradition, with grandiose sets and amazing costumes.
When her widowed father, Le marchand (André Dussollier), loses his ships in a storm, Belle is the only member of her family to embrace their new, humbler life in a country cottage. Her sisters and brothers lounge around dreaming of the life they’ve lost. When one of the lost ships makes it back to port and the merchant attempts to retrieve his earnings, Belle’s ungracious sisters demand of their father that he return home with jewels and dresses. Belle only asks that he bring back a rose. In another wicked twist of fate, however, her father loses his ship and its cargo to a cruel opportunist, Perducas (Eduardo Noriega), who holds his debts. On his way back to the cottage, the old man spies a crumbling castle full of strange doglike creatures and overgrown with roses branches. It belongs to the Beast, who offers food and shelter to the stranger, but bristles when he picks a rose without asking permission. The Beast gives him one day to say goodbye to his family and return to the castle for his punishment. The guilt-ridden Belle sneaks off to take her father’s place in the bargain, unaware that she has given her brothers, who are beholden to evil Perducas, a clue to the castle’s location. In the resulting tumult, Belle will learn to appreciate the Beast’s generosity and attempt to free him from the curse that turned him into a monster. It’s tres, tres romantic. The movie can be enjoyed in French, with subtitles, or credibly dubbed into English. It adds extended interviews with Gans, Cassel and Seydoux.
It’s the rare film about Tibet that isn’t tightly focused on Buddhism, the Tibetan diaspora and current Dalai Lama, or protests over the Chinese annexation of the country. It’s rarer, still, to find a movie that’s made in Tibet, by a Chinese or native-born filmmaker. Last year, Zhang Yang’s fascinating documentary, Paths of the Soul, followed a group of Tibetan villagers, who left their families and homes in Nyima to make a “bowing pilgrimage” — laying their bodies flat on the ground after every few steps — along the 1,200-mile road to Lhasa. Stunningly photographed over the course of an entire year, with non-professional actors and no script, it offered glimpses of contemporary life in the capital and the impact of modernity on the ancient culture. Tharlo is the fourth feature by Pema Tseden, a Tibetan novelist and filmmaker, who was born on the foothills of the Himalayas in rural Qinghai province. Tseden first wrote the story of the titular monastic shepherd (Shide Nyima) as a novella, but decided to adapt it to film when it was approved by the famously capricious Chinese censorship board. Tharlo experiences the vicissitudes of life in the high country when forced to obtain an ID card by bureaucratic police officials, but not before he entertains them by reciting the Mao Quotations by memory. (During the Cultural Revolution, communist authorities demanded such demonstrations of patriotism from native Tibetans.) In the mountains, the shepherd’s long ponytail was all the identification that was required of him.
After making the trek to the nearest city, Tharlo’s directed to a photographer who, among other things, stages pictures of costumers in front of large-scale photographs of the Lhasa temple, Tienemein Square and the Manhattan skyline. Before she takes Tharlo’s picture, though, she insists he get a shampoo from the makeshift salon, across the street. The young and attractive hairdresser, also of Tibetan heritage, takes a shine to the shepherd (and the “kid” he’s brought with him), even inviting him to a local karaoke joint, where they warble songs that span the generation gap. The lighthearted tone ends abruptly when Yangtso (Yangshik Tso) convinces her new friend to cut off his ponytail. It doesn’t have the same effect on Tharlo as Delilah’s shaving of Samson’s locks, but close enough. Sadly, when he returns to his flock, nothing is the same for Tharlo or his pastoral way of life. As spectacular as the Himalayan backdrop can be, Tseden decided that region’s natural beauty would detract from the story’s realism. Besides choosing to give Tharlo a more austere look, by shooting in black-and-white, he also managed to relate the entire 123-minute parable in 84 meticulously composed shots, many of them showing mirrored reflections of the characters. This is the case as we watch Tharlo’s reaction to having his head shorn by Yangtso. In real life, Nyima was identified by a ponytail, which he’d grown for 17 years previous to accepting the role. So, some of the emotional distress seen in Tharlo’s face is real. The six-panel digipack includes Tseden’s original novella, “Tharlo”; a music video cued to the shepherd recitations; and a post-screening Q&A with the writer/director.
Sophie and the Rising Sun
It’s probably just a coincidence that the DVD release of Sophie and the Rising Sun coincides with 75th anniversary of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s signing of the executive order that authorized the internment of 120,000 men, women, and children of Japanese descent during World War II. It isn’t likely, either, that Monterey Media anticipated the lynch-mob mentality currently infesting President Trump and his brain trust, such as it is. The timing couldn’t have been more appropriate, though. Based on the 2001 novel by Augusta Trobaugh, Sophie and the Rising Sun is set in the autumn of 1941, in the tranquil fishing village of Salty Creek, South Carolina. It opens with the discovery of the badly beaten body of an Asian man, left behind when a cross-country Greyhound passed through town. That he’s unconscious and without identification immediately raises a red flag in a Southern community depleted of draft-eligible men and traditionally wary of anyone whose color isn’t white. While he’s recuperating, the man tends the garden for his nurse, Anne Morrison (Margo Martindale), an atypically liberal widow. Turns out, the man they assume to be Chinese is of Japanese extraction, born in California with a decidedly green thumb. After news of the bombing of Pearl Harbor breaks and Ohta’s secret is revealed, he becomes an easy target for every redneck with a desire to avenge the sneak attack with a cowardly act of their own.
In turn, the town’s hyper-virtuous flowers of Southern womanhood begin spewing the venom usually reserved for the town’s “colored” residents on Ohta and Anne. Swept up in the hysteria, as well, is Sophie Willis (Julianne Nicholson), a widowed neighbor of Mrs. Morrison. One day, while fishing for blue crabs in the marshy inlets outside town and taking time to paint, Sophie and Ohta strike up a friendship based on their mutual appreciation of art. News travels fast in a small town, so, when they’re spotted together, she’s accused of consorting with the enemy, who’s as American as they are. When Mrs. Morrison senses that her patient’s days are numbered in Salty Creek, she suggests he move into a fishing cottage in the boonies. For a while, Sophie and Grover feel sufficiently safe to pursue a romantic relationship. Their sense of security isn’t destined to last very long, however. Blessedly, the bittersweet ending stops well short of tragedy. Sophie and the Rising Sun was adapted for the screen by Maggie Greenwald, who disappeared into TV purgatory after making the highly respected, if little seen indies The Ballad of Little Jo (1993) and Songcatcher (2000). The deceptively tranquil rural setting is expertly captured by cinematographer Wolfgang Held, a documentary specialist with an eye for painterly landscapes. The bonus material includes deleted scenes and an interview with Greenwald.
Tie the Knot
Anyone who’s ever wondered what Tara Reid does when she isn’t playing April in every new chapter in Syfy’s epic Sharknado saga may care to check out Tie the Knot, an early candidate for this year’s movie with the most ethnic clichés and least number of laughs per 90 minutes of screen time. Sharknado must be very popular among Indian viewers, because there’s no other reason for the eternally youthful blond to be in a romantic comedy for cross-cultural audiences or, for that matter, on a plane heading for Mumbai. Tie the Knot is Indian actor Shuja Paul’s debut feature. It tells the story of Sonia (Karishma Ahluwalia), a leading surgeon who’s been tricked into returning to Mumbai, so that her parents can badger her into dating an Indian man … presumably, any Indian man. Inexplicably, they rely on the local equivalent of Match.com to satisfy the perceived needs of their highly educated and beautiful daughter. Not surprisingly, Sonia is introduced to more frogs than princes in her parents’ quest to turn over every lily pad in the western shore of the subcontinent to find a son-in-law. That the L.A.-based surgeon, who has the least discernable accent of any Indian actor this side of Bollywood, is prepared to sacrifice her own happiness to make her parents happy, is par for the course in movies designed to appeal to mixed audiences. A third of the way through Tie the Knot, top-billed Reid disappears until it’s time for her to ride to the rescue on her new friend’s wedding day. Naturally, too, it coincides with the mandatory Bollywood dance sequence. It isn’t Tie the Knot’s most outrageous plot contrivance – that occurs in the surgical theater – but it’s close. Meet the Patels and Bride and Prejudice are two movies that have a better hold on the Indian matchmaking process and are far funnier.
Given the revolution in digital filmmaking technology, a producer of nature films either would have to be incompetent or uncommonly unimaginative to make a bad documentary on the world’s endangered flora and fauna. Fortunately, that isn’t the case for Seasons, from the filmmakers already responsible for the imaginatively rendered docs, Winged Migration and Oceans. Jacques Perrin and Jacques Cluzaud have remained in the forefront of the genre since 2001, when Winged Migration was nominated for an Academy Award and returned $32.2 million at the global box office. Thematically, Seasons is probably their most ambitious of the three. Using a quasi-narrative format, it chronicles the gradual shrinking and subsequent depopulation of the European wilderness, from the close of the Ice Age until modern times. It wasn’t an easy task. The evolutional domestication of food-providing animals and near eradication of natural predators made their mission especially challenging. To re-create Ice Age conditions, the production team had to re-locate to the frozen of tundra of Lapland, while Poland’s Bialowieza Forest provided a backdrop for bison and other primary habitats. Various national parks throughout France were used to show how deer, wild horses and pigs, lynx, wolves and birds went about their daily business, before, during and after humans came to dominate the landscape. (Horses, for example, are depicted both as naturally wild creatures and the servants of aristocrats and farmers.) Amazing footage was captured in limited spaces with the assistance of “imprinters” – previously known as trainers or wranglers — who worked closely with the animal actors, so they would perform in as organic and natural way as possible, without resorting to genetically coded instincts to kill each other. The technicians put cameras on drones, scooters, ultralights, hot-air balloons and cables to allow the animals to run at top speed or be viewed from unusual angles. Cinematographers hid behind camouflaged barriers to be able to photograph birds and squirrels nesting inside and on the branches of trees. The result is a 97-minute documentary that is hypnotically beautiful and deceptively educational. The Seasons package includes a making-of featurette that’s as lengthy as the documentary, itself, but every bit as fascinating.
Blood on the Mountain
West Virginia, a traditionally Democratic state, gave Donald Trump all the ammunition he needed to deliver on inherently contradictory promises he made to mine owners, union members and everyday people whose lives depend on the viability of the coal industry, as well as safeguards imposed on it to prevent tragedies. Although the Republican presidential candidate won big, most of the races for state and federal offices went to Democrats. Go figure. If Hillary Clinton had watched and studied Mari-Lynn C. Evans and Jordan Freeman’s searing documentary, Blood on the Mountain, she might have found a way to convince voters that concerns over the loss of mining jobs and destruction of the environment aren’t mutually exclusive. While she may not have carried the state, Clinton could have raised questions that residents of the Mountaineer State will ask of their President allows mine owners to turn back the clock on 100 years of progress. Tellingly, one of his first decisions was to nominate Wilbur Louis Ross Jr. – the “King of Bankruptcy,” whose fingerprints are visible throughout the documentary – as his Secretary of Commerce. Ross founded the International Coal Group after several companies declared bankruptcy in the early 2000s, in lieu of paying legal settlements and penalties. The United Mine Workers of America protested the reorganizations, as they led to drastic cuts in health-care benefits and pensions for the existing employees, and prompted layoffs when ICG sold two of its union mines to Massey Energy Group. ICG retained its stake in two other non-union mines under favorable financial circumstances. Massey’s name comes up with regularity in Blood on the Mountain, as a company willing to blame coal miners and environmental “terrorists” for the loss of jobs and benefits. (If Obamacare is butchered by the Republican-controlled Congress, it’s possible that miners will lose their health insurance and/or coverage of pre-existing conditions.)
The 2006 Sago Mine Disaster, in which 12 miners died, occurred at a property indirectly owned by International Coal Group. The New York Post’s Roddy Boyd reported that Ross “had been intimately involved with the company that owned the West Virginia mine where 12 miners perished — and he knew all about its safety problems, former executives charged.” The article also reported that the mine had 12 roof collapses in 2005, and that the U.S. Department of Labor data showed 208 citations for safety violations in that same period, including 21 times for build-up of toxic gasses. Blood on the Mountain, which adds even more fuel to the fire, was released after the election, so it doesn’t dwell on the consequences of either candidate taking the state’s Electoral College. Evan and Freeman look much further back in regional history, at a time when every politician in the state was corrupted by industry money and union leaders followed suit. The documentary also shows what happened when miners decided that enough was enough and went on strike, only to be pitted against scabs, police and troops determined to keep the mines running at all costs. Blood on the Mountain isn’t as one-sided as this synopsis might make it seem to be. Institutionalized corruption is a demonstrable fact of West Virginia life, as are the tactics used by owners to crush the union and profit from the layoffs of workers. An overflight of southeastern West Virginia makes it abundantly clear how much damage has already been done to the land and the potential for disaster if the dams holding back toxic coal slurry suddenly break. If that happens, it’s a safe bet that the President will blame Obama, Hillary and the media, instead of his own mismanaged administration.
The King of New Orleans
If memory serves, the producers of HBO’s “Taxicab Confessions” only recorded their encounters in New York and Las Vegas, where there were more than enough oddball passengers willing to sign away their rights to the crazy things captured by the lipstick cameras hidden inside the cars. If they had decided to take the show to the City That Care Forgot, it might have looked a lot like The King of New Orleans. At first, second and third glance, I thought the seemingly improvised film was a non-scripted documentary. Veteran character actor David Jensen (Free State of Jones) plays longtime Big Easy cabbie, Larry Shirt, who’s seen it all in a city where anything can happen. New Orleans is a bigger place than most outsiders think it is and Larry visits places tourists and outlanders are warned against going. He stocks a cooler full of beer for his customers and native fast-food cuisine for himself and whatever homeless person is fortunate enough to get his leftovers. He spends his breaks with fellow cabbies, telling stories and discussing the Saints’ chances for a Super Bowl bid. One of his recurring passengers, Bobby Cohn (Richard Brien), has just been kicked out of Harvard and must deal with his parents’ disappointment in him and his own negative self-image. The King of New Orleans is set before and immediately after Hurricane Katrina, which allows for interaction with passengers who are victims of the tragedy and lookie loos more interested in having their photos taken in front of a condemned house. Allen Frederic, Coodie Simmons and Chike Ozah shared the directing duties, while Brian Friedman is credited with the screenplay. Anyone who’s spent more than a weekend in New Orleans, though, may have a tough time parsing fact from fiction. And, in this case, that’s a very good thing. If you like The King of New Orleans, you might also enjoy Chicago Cab, which began its life in 1992 on a Windy City stage, as “Hellcab.”
3 Classic Films by Claude Chabrol: Blu-ray
Cohen Film Collection’s love affair with the films of French suspense maestro Claude Chabrol continues, this month with a triple-feature of thematically divergent thrillers, starring a trio of superb actresses. One of the prime instigators of the French Nouvelle Vague, Chabrol rode the wave from 1958-2009, creating lean and keenly observed entertainments that were frequently mentioned in the same breath as “Hitchcock” and a few he preferred to forget. With 73 directorial credits to his name and more than 50 for writing and acting, Chabrol’s batting average is far higher than that of most of his peers. The three titles collected here are representative of his work in the 1990s, when he made eight narrative films that were somewhat taken for granted by critics and audiences, as well as a pair of documentaries.
In Betty (1992), Marie Trintignant plays a seriously withdrawn wife and mother, who sacrifices her comfortable bourgeois lifestyle when it begins to interfere with her alcoholism. After signing the papers agreeing to a divorce settlement, Betty makes a beeline for a hole-in-the-wall bar, where she allows herself to be picked up by a doctor who’s hooked on booze and heroin. They drive to a restaurant whose menu is dominated by rabbit dishes. When the host escorts the doctor into a room, where, we’re told, he’s getting his daily fix, Betty picks up her head long enough to notice that everyone has their eyes on her. It’s kind of like what happens in “Cheers,” when a stranger enters and the regulars are given a few moments to decide if he’s someone whose name they’ll all want to know. Just before Betty passes out, she makes the acquaintance of an older woman and fellow drunk, Laure (Stéphane Audran), who appears to be attached to the restaurant’s owner, Mario (Jean-Francois Garreaud). They take Betty to a fancy Versailles hotel, where Laure maintains a suite with an extra bedroom and welcomes the company. After routinely curing their hangovers with a bit of the hair of the dog that bit them the night before, they head for the restaurant … where, in fact, everyone does know their names and sad tales, to boot. This can’t go on forever, obviously, so it comes as no surprise when one boozehound turns on the other in the cruelest of possible ways that doesn’t involve violence. That’s it, really. Based on a novel by Georges Simenon, Betty represents something of a parlor trick on Chabrol’s part. He wondered if it might be possible to make an engrossing picture, during which we learn a lot about one or more characters, but the protagonist’s actions aren’t hooked to a recognizable plot or denouement. Trintignant’s almost aggressively enigmatic portrayal of her far less than sympathetic character proved it can be done.
L’Enfer (“Hell”) is a 1994 psycho-drama that Chabrol adapted from a project begun 30 years earlier by Henri-Georges Clouzot, but was left unfinished. Unlike Betty, L’Enfer has a plot that couldn’t be easier to discern. The protagonists are Paul and Nelly Prieur (François Cluzet, Emmanuelle Béart), an attractive couple that runs a popular lakeside inn in southern France. The antagonist is the same green-eyed monster that sits on the shoulder of insecure older men, whose sexy wives appear to be flirting with handsome, younger men, but probably aren’t. It isn’t as if Paul isn’t given the occasional hint that Nelly might be cheating – accepting an invitation to water ski with a guest who owns a boat – but most viewers, I think, would guess that she’s faithful to her increasingly mistrustful spouse. Others might assume that any woman as hot as Béart is guilty of something and probably deserves what’s going to happen to her. Because the story spans several summers, Chabrol is able to turn the screw of jealousy into his mind incrementally. We do wonder why Nelly stays with the jerk, but Paul’s also depicted as being exceeding charming, when he isn’t bouncing off the walls. Waiting for the volcano to erupt could hardly be made to feel more excruciating. The Blu-ray adds commentary by Wade Major and Andy Klein
Cluzet appears in a supporting role in Chabrol’s 50th film, The Swindle (1997), a caper flick in which the heavy lifting is left in the capable hands of Isabelle Huppert and Michel Serrault. “Betty” and “Victor” make the rounds of conventions in France and Switzerland, scamming middle-class professionals who mistake the affections of a con artist for true love. Once the hook is set, the 30-years-older Victor swoops in to memorize credit-card numbers and bank-account info, then steal a check or two and just enough money so that the victim will think he splurged at the casino or on a bottle of champagne for his date. Hubris arrives in the form of a naïve financial courier, Maurice (François), that Betty latches onto during a break from the convention circuit. Victor is apprehensive about the potential score, until he learns that Maurice is carrying a small fortune in Swiss francs in the attaché case attached to his wrist. Even a small fortune can be an overwhelming temptation to a savvy criminal, nearing the end of a long and arduous career, so he allows Betty to call the shots for a while. Maurice has been assigned by his handlers to deliver the money to Guadeloupe, a former French colony in the Lesser Antilles. Along the way, however, he either figures out that Betty is about to swindle him or she lets him in on the deal, so they can cut Victor out of the scam. It’s also possible that Victor, who’s practically clairvoyant when it comes to opening numeric locks, will stab both the supposed lovers in the back and steal all the money. There are other variables, of course, but those are the most obvious schemes. Once Victor and Betty reach the tropics and meet the men to whom the money belongs, the cold reality of their dilemma hits them over the head, like a blackjack in a Dick Tracy comic. Chabrol, who also wrote the screenplay, keeps everyone guessing until the very end of the 101-minute movie. Besides the Caribbean, the settings include the ancient spa destination of Aix-les-Bains, France, and Switzerland’s scenic Lake Sils. It adds commentary by Major and Klein, and an informative discussion with Cluzet and New York Film Festival director Kent Jones.
Five Nights in Maine
One of the new clichés of screen, stage and TV involves the drama that typically erupts when the widowed spouse of a young adult is called upon to deliver the urn containing the loved one’s ashes to parent(s) who disapproved of their marriage in the first place. To achieve takeoff speed, it’s almost essential that the husband/wife, husband/husband, wife/wife couples also were of different races and estranged from their families in one way or another. Five Nights in Maine provides an ideal example of the subgenre, whose roots can be traced to Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner and similarly confrontational fare. Writer/director Maris Curran adds a higher degree of difficulty to the proceedings by having the widower, Sherwin (David Oyelowo), be an African-American from the South and the grieving mother-in-law a fire-breathing Yankee lady, Lucinda (Dianne Wiest). She would love to blame him for Fiona’s death, but can’t because it occurred in a traffic accident. Lucinda, who’s dying of cancer, was so nasty to Fiona during her last visit that she vowed never to return to her childhood home. Talk about a boxcar full of baggage, Five Nights in Maine is it. Although it isn’t without a decent dramatic twist or two, Five Nights in Maine is recommendable mostly as an opportunity to watch two of our finest actors working at full speed and in total control of their gifts. Fiona (Hani Furstenberg) is mostly shown in happier times, via flashbacks. When the action moves outdoors, the Maine countryside does its job admirably.
The Great & the Small
I’d be lying if I pretended to understand the motivations of the characters in Dusty Bias’ offbeat sophomore feature, The Great & the Small, or said that I felt compelled to re-watch it, because, in both cases, I didn’t. Even so, from what I could deduce, the pluses outnumber the minuses, especially in the acting department and fans of the key players probably will want to check it out. Relative newcomer Nick Fink (“Glee”) convincingly plays a young petty crook, Scott, who graduates to felonies at the behest of his no-count boss, Richie (Ritchie Coster). Although Scott frequently looks as if he’s been sleeping under highway overpasses and in unheated basements since graduating from high school, he has winning smile and tries to be helpful to Richie and their marks. When he isn’t breaking into the homes of middle-class families on vacation and relieving them of their valuables and appliances, Scott is struggling to win back the heart of his ex-girlfriend, Nessa (Louisa Krause), a working single mom. He isn’t much good in the babysitting department, but her child doesn’t demand much of him, either. His payment for services rendered is a romp in the sack. Otherwise, nada. Melanie Lynskey, who’s been in more indie films lately than any actor whose name comes to mind, is fine as a forlorn teacher who warms to Scott as the child she lost somewhere in the past. Meanwhile, a too-folksy-by-half police detective, Dupre (Ann Dowd), is on Scott’s trail. The likelihood that Scott will find redemption, with the help of one or all three women, is pretty high.
I can’t recall if anyone condemned the producers of Psychomania (“The Death Wheeler”) for inspiring the Academy Award-winning British actor George Sanders to commit suicide, after completing what turned out to be his final picture. He had prophesized his own death years earlier, after all, but it’s entirely possible that a desire not to be around when the picture opened was as much to blame as Nembutal and “boredom.” Sanders plays the manservant to a wealthy medium, Mrs. Latham (Beryl Reid), who practices the occult arts and keeps frogs around the house to freak out her guests. Her son, Tom (Nicky Henson), is the leader of a Triumph-favoring motorcycle gang, the Living Dead, notorious primarily for being comprised of seriously reckless drivers. Mrs. Latham has convinced Tom that anyone who willingly commits suicide, with the firm intention of returning from the dead, will have eternal life. To test the theory, Tom steers his motorcycle off a bridge. Accordingly, his friends bury him in a sitting position on his beloved motorcycle. The prophesy comes true, of course. After Tom comes roaring out of the grave, his fellow gang members can hardly wait to off themselves. When red-headed gang member Abby (Mary Larkin) balks at killing herself, she risks losing Tom and the respect of her peers forever. It’s at this point that Shadwell (Sanders) and Mrs. Latham step in to put an end to the nonsense, breaking the curse and ridding Surrey of zombie bikers, if not witches turned into frogs. Psychomania was directed by Hammer Horror veteran Don Sharp (The Kiss of the Vampire), who made it look better than it had any right to be. The Arrow Video Blu-ray package includes a fresh and funny interview with star Nicky Henson; the 2010 featurette, “Return of the Living Dead,” featuring interviews with Henson, Mary Larkin, Denis Gilmore, Roy Holder and Rocky Taylor; “The Sound of Psychomania,” with composer John Cameron; “Riding Free,” with Harvey Andrews, singer of the film’s “folk anthem”; “Hell for Leather,” an interview with Derek Harris, owner of Lewis Leathers, the firm that provided the distinctive outfits the biker gang wore in the film; “Restoring Psychomania,” a short piece documenting the heroic efforts to rescue a color presentation from black-and-white separation master source elements; and an illustrated insert booklet.
Originally conceived as a web series from creator Skye Dennis (Myra’s Angel), Underground Kings has been reconfigured as a feature film set in Philadelphia’s netherworld of corrupt cops, gangsta hoodlums and aspiring comedians, of all things. The action begins in Harrisburg, where undercover cop Jayson Wylie (Dennis) is shot and left for dead in a botched drug bust. His partner, Noah Carter (Kevin Savage) and DEA agent Daniel House (Mark Kochanowicz) are already pissed off over the overdose of the agent’s wife and suspect a setup. Meanwhile, back in Philly, police Lt. Jack Wilcox tips off crime boss Walter “Smooth” Davis to be aware of the shit storm heading his way. Underground Kings is one of those not-ready-for-prime-time actioners that require a scorecard to distinguish between the players. This best thing about it is a realistic-looking cast, whose members dress, talk and act as if they’ve played similar roles in better productions. The episodic structure works against maintaining an even flow throughout the picture.
At 90 minutes, on the button, Luciano Saber’s police drama, Fatal Instinct, contains just enough twists, turns and action to fill an hour-long television show … commercials included. After that, the story runs out of gas and the mystery stops being mysterious. Once again, a serial killer/rapist is terrorizing the streets of Los Angeles and only a hard-boiled cop, enduring marital problems and the possible loss of his children is capable of ending the murderous spree. The most interesting thing about Fatal Instinct, perhaps, is seeing Krista Allen and Paul Michael Robinson reunited, possibly for the first time since their Skinemax days on the “Emmanuelle in Space” series.
PBS: American Masters: Maya Angelou: And Still I Rise
Lifetime: Heaven Sent
Netflix: Grace and Frankie: Season Two
PBS: Alzheimer’s: Every Minute Counts
In her 86 years on Earth, Maya Angelo lived as full a life as any 10 persons put together. Not just any 10 men and women, but 10 highly motivated and accomplished artists, dancers, novelists, poets, activists, teachers, scholars, speakers, actors and mentors. The two hours allotted by PBS for the “American Masters” presentation, “Maya Angelou: And Still I Rise,” provides barely enough time to cover the length and breadth of her many accomplishments. Most of what we know about Angelo can be traced back to the 1969 publication of the first of her seven autobiographical books, “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.” She was 41 at the time and it only covered the first 17 years of her life. She didn’t sugarcoat a single word or incident. After hearing her stories many times over, author James Baldwin introduced Angelou to cartoonist Jules Feiffer and Random House editor Robert Loomis, who challenged her to put pen to paper and record them for posterity. What most interested me in the documentary were the accounts of her rise from being the first black female streetcar conductor in San Francisco, a 17-year-old single mother and worker in the sex trade, to prominence as a singer and dancer, who specialized in calypso. Angelou performed in a Las Vegas showroom, toured Europe with a production of the opera “Porgy and Bess,” danced with the Alvin Ailey company and contributed to an off-Broadway revue that inspired the 1957 film, Calypso Heat Wave, in which she sang and performed her own compositions. In 1960, after hearing Martin Luther King Jr. speak, she helped organize Cabaret for Freedom, to benefit the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. A year later, Angelou performed in Jean Genet’s avant-garde play “The Blacks,” alongside Abbey Lincoln, Roscoe Lee Brown, James Earl Jones, Louis Gossett, Godfrey Cambridge and Cicely Tyson. She would spend the next several years living in Africa with her son, Guy Johnson, before returning to a far more politically energized United States. In 1967, before she sat down to write “Caged Bird,” she hoped to be named permanent understudy to Pearl Bailey, in the all-black Broadway production of “Hello, Dolly,” but the star vetoed David Merrick’s decision, reportedly saying, “Oh, no … I ain’t gonna have this large old ugly girl be my understudy.” The recollection brings a tear to Johnson’s eyes. After being nominated for a Tony, composing songs with Roberta Flack and co-starring in “Roots,” Angelou would turn to academia and more writing. That only covers the first captivating third of material covered in “Maya Angelou: And Still I Rise.” Among the witnesses testifying on her behalf are Bill and Hillary Clinton, Common, Louis Gossett Jr., Cicely Tyson, Alfre Woodard and, of course, Oprah Winfrey. Baldwin and Feiffer appear in taped interviews.
Add perky blond actor Mallory James Mahoney to the list of irresistible curly-haired, half-pints who’ve inherited the mantle once worn by Shirley Temple, Alisan Porter (Curly Sue) and Aileen Quinn (Annie). In the Lifetime movie, “Heaven Sent,” Mallory plays an “8-year-old runaway from heaven” who pops up in the home of Billy and Maire Taylor, a no-longer-happy couple on the verge of signing divorce papers. After a heart-breaking loss, their lives and careers went in two different directions. In the hands of veteran faith-based director Michael Landon Jr. (“When Calls the Heart”), the likelihood of Billy and Maire (Christian Kane, Marley Shelton) not getting back together after 90 minutes of sugar-coated melodrama is practically zero. Which is OK, because it’s Mallory’s showcase and no one is going to take it away from her. There are, however, two complicating factors: the make-out artist at Maire’s office (Ryan McPartlin) and Donatello (Ernie Hudson), a celestial bounty hunter commissioned to track down the winged tyke and bring her home. And, yes, prayers are answered along the way. As these things go, Heaven Sent is reasonably entertaining and no more contrived than any other holiday movie on the network.
The Netflix-original sitcom, “Grace and Frankie,” probably would have found a convenient timeslot on network television, if anyone had cared to offer it to any or all four leading broadcast outlets. Any pitch that includes such popular actors as Jane Fonda, Lily Tomlin, Martin Sheen and Sam Waterston would certainly grab the attention of executives in desperate need of a hit. I wonder if their interest would have stayed as high, knowing that the two male protagonists had decided to divorce their wives and move in together. Cable and streaming services aren’t nearly as beholding to timid advertisers and uptight censors as the networks. Still, the show’s openness on the subject of same-gender couplings isn’t any more provocative than the gags and double-entendres that informed “Will & Grace,” in its day, or Fran Dresher’s autobiographical “Happily Divorced” on TV Land. Going the streaming route makes it easier to work in a throughline involving Frankie’s line of organic-yam lubes and some pot smoking. At the start of Season Two, a serious health scare puts a kink in Robert and Sol’s wedding preparations and that, of course, causes a frenzy in Grace and Frankie’s household. Fans of the series also will welcome the arrival of Sam Elliott as Grace’s love interest. A gag reel is included in the package.
The informative PBS production, “Alzheimer’s: Every Minute Counts,” arrives at a time in our collective history when the President and Republican-controlled Congress are salivating over the prospect of finally being able to reward their benefactors in the medical and insurance industries, by gouging poor and middle-class taxpayers. Unless a cure is found soon, the threat posed by Alzheimer’s disease could bring about a crisis in our social and economic systems. The hour-long investigation follows several families dealing with Alzheimer’s. One or two have the parent in their home full-time. Another has had to put the mother in an expensive private-care facility, without the benefit of health insurance, Obamacare or Medicare. It examines the issue from different perspectives, including that of nursing-home industry.
Down on the Farm
Absent pullout quotes from critics or the names of widely known stars, it’s difficult to promote straight-to-DVD titles, such as the animated adventure, Air Bound. Bannered over the top of the box is “FROM A PRODUCER OF SPIDER-MAN & IRON MAN.” That’s right, “a producer.” To be precise, Avi Arad is an Israeli-American businessman, who, took over Marvel Entertainment and founded Marvel Studios in the mid-1990s, when the company was in desperate financial trouble. His role in the superhero movies probably was limited to cutting the deals that allowed the use of the characters in those movies, but licensing is more important these days than green-lighting a logical screenplay. While Arad’s standing in the production of the upcoming tentpole pictures, Borderlands and Ghost in the Shell, is significantly more active, it’s difficult to monetize or promote ahead of the release. So, “a producer,” it is. I can’t tell you what the distinction means for Lionsgate’s Air Bound, which might benefit more from having Jon Lovitiz’ name above the title, alongside those of three voice actors mostly familiar to YouTube subscribers. That, and the Dove “family approved” seal on the cover. Kids won’t care a lick about anything except the cute and colorful flying mice, whose presence actually anticipates what they can expect to see on the DVD. In a nose-on example of typecasting, Lovitz provides the voice for a character named Winston the White Weasel. Winston and his clan of wicked varmints are threatening to harm a family of mice living on Dream Island. At 94 minutes, Air Bound may be on the long side for very young viewers, but they probably know where to find the pause button. The set also includes a making-of featurette and four amusing “Minuscule” cartoons.
Kostas Macfarlane and Lisa Baget’s animated feature, Down on the Farm, also carries a five-star blessing from the folks at Dove, as well as the name of exploitation mainstay Bill Oberst Jr. (Stressed to Kill). Here, Oink the Flying Pig and Boink the Owl have been entrusted with solving the mystery surrounding the disappearance of a bale of hay from the farm. The suspects represent a cross-section of barnyard buddies. There’s got to be a featurette-worthy story in the background of someone named Kostas Macfarlane.