By Gary Dretzka Dretzka@moviecitynews.com
The DVD Wrapup: Queen of Katwe, Jack Reacher, Tyler Perry, Killbillies, Victoria and more
Queen of Katwe: Blu-ray
Harry and Snowman
Mira Nair’s inspirational and wonderfully uplifting Queen of Katwe straddles three subgenres generally reserved for the athletic and academic accomplishments of minority and underprivileged youths. Typically, such entertainments focus on Americans who succeed against great odds, but, here, the closest we come to native soil is the Disney logo before the credits. That Queen of Katwe is set almost entirely in Uganda, with a side trip to Russia, shouldn’t matter a whit to anyone looking for an escape from the bad news relayed by the talking heads on cable news. The unlikely story of 10-year-old Phiona Mutesi, who rose from poverty in the slums of Kampala to excel in the cutthroat world of international chess competition, fits neatly alongside such compelling David-vs.-Goliath, Cinderella and fish-out-of-water dramas as Stand and Deliver, The Blind Side, The Perfect Game, The Great Debaters and Music of the Heart, as well as uplifting chess-specific titles as The Dark Horse, Life of a King and Brooklyn Castle. Shot largely in Johannesburg and the protagonist’s home turf, Queen of Katwe describes exactly how difficult it was for Phiona (Madina Nalwanga) to overcome every obstacle thrown in her way by the poverty that enslaved her dirt-poor mother, elitist big-city chess clubs and her own bouts with self-confidence and illiteracy. It also pays homage to the understated heroism of her coach, Robert Katende (David Oyelowo), another child of poverty and war, who, after graduating No. 1 in his college class, was unable to find work as an engineer. To make ends meet – barely — Katende returned to the same slums in which he was raised to coach soccer and begin the Katwe Chess Academy, as part of a sports-outreach program organized by Christian missionaries. Phiona’s 11-year-old brother, Brian, was attracted to the youth center by the promise of free porridge, but he stayed to learn the game.
Their mother, Nakku Harriet (Lupita Nyong’o), had lost her husband to AIDS when Phiona was 3 and another daughter, soon after, to an undiagnosed malady. Nakku couldn’t afford to keep the kids in school, so, while she and Phiona sold boiled maize from a saucepan on her head, in the market, Brian was pretty much left to his own devices. He encouraged his sister, then 9, to join him at the center, if only for the porridge. After Nakku created a scene by pulling Phiona from a chess game, Katende rushed to the market to plead with her to give the girl the same opportunity he got to break the cycle of dead-end poverty. Although she had never seen a chessboard before visiting the center – there was no word for the game in her native tongue — Phiona demonstrated an uncanny ability to recognize strategy and anticipate her opponents’ moves. After much trial, error and frustration, Phiona and two other boys were chosen to compete in Sudan, where she experienced modern plumbing and slept in a bed of her own for the first time. She would be chosen to represent Uganda at the 39th Chess Olympiad in Khanty-Mansiysk, Siberia. That’s not the end of the story, by any means, but, once she got rolling, Phiona, now 20, wasn’t about to be deterred from gaining an education and serving as a role model for kids like her. Nair and writer William Wheeler (The Reluctant Fundamentalist) reserve a recitation of Phiona and Katende’s accomplishments for a comprehensive wrap-up that leads into the closing credits, which begin at the movie’s two-hour mark. (Yes, it is a tad long.) In a sterling example of Mouse House synergy, the screenplay was adapted from an ESPN Magazine article and book by Tim Crothers, while the film was produced by Walt Disney Pictures and ESPN Films. Alicia Keys wrote and recorded the song “Back to Life” for the film and Walt Disney Records’ soundtrack album. The Blu-ray adds Nair’s commentary; 20 minutes of deleted scenes; a half-hour making-of featurette; a three-part feature on the film’s music; and “A Fork, a Spoon & a Knight,” Nair’s original short film on Katende.
The against-all-odds subgenre also includes horses standing one step away from the glue factory, before someone recognizes a hidden talent and rescues them. Harry and Snowman is just such a story and a bit more, besides. In 2008, Ron Davis directed Pageant, a crowd-pleaser doc about five female impersonators vying for the 2006 Miss Gay America crown. He returned to the pageant circuit in 2013, this time with Miss You Can Do It, a film that chronicled the challenges facing Abbey Curran, Miss Iowa USA 2008, before she became the first woman with a disability to compete at the Miss USA Pageant. In it, he also introduced eight other girls from around the country with various physical and intellectual disabilities, as they participated in the Miss You Can Do It Pageant, which Abbey founded in 2004. Harry and Snowman is, indeed, a horse of a different color. In 1956, Dutch immigrant Harry de Leyer attended an auction in Pennsylvania looking for horses that could be used for lessons at his Long Island school. Arriving late, de Leyer was left only one horse – a large whitish-gray gelding, previously used as a plow horse – to study. He purchased the slaughterhouse-bound Snowman for $80. It wasn’t until Snowman was sold to a doctor who owned a farm six miles away, for $160, that its real talent became apparent. It would leap the fences surrounding the new owner’s paddock – once, dragging a tire deployed as an anchor — and return to de Leyer’s stables. The doctor, tired of retrieving Snowman, decided to leave it there. He would sell the horse back to de Leyer for expenses accrued from boarding fees.
After two years of extensive training, it began competing on the open-jumper circuit as “The Cinderella Horse,” against pedigreed show horses that cost their similarly pedigreed owners tens of thousands of dollars. At the time, show jumping was sport reserved for socialites, who could afford to compete at its highest levels. It still is, except when jumping and dressage are televised from the Summer Olympics. Snowman became famous as a people’s champion, even allowing Johnny Carson to sit on its back. De Leyer (a.k.a., “The Fly Dutchman” and “The Galloping Grandfather”) had a story of his own to tell on such shows as “To Tell the Truth” and in Life magazine. As a boy, growing up during WWII, he helped rescue Allied paratroopers and carry grain through enemy lines. After immigrating to the U.S. with his wife, de Leyer worked on a North Caroline tobacco farm. After saving some money, he returned to the life of a horseman in New York and, later, Virginia. At 88, he’s still riding and coaching. Snowman was euthanized in 1974, at 26, after suffering from multiple internal ailments. There’s nothing fancy about Harry and Snowman, either. The story is told in as straightforward a manner as possible, through first-person interviews and archival footage.
Jack Reacher: Never Go Back: Blu-ray/UHD/DVD
If Steven Seagal and Dolph Lundgren had been asked to star in this sequel to the 2012 action/thriller Jack Reacher, instead of Tom Cruise, it probably wouldn’t have been accorded a $60 million production budget and a worldwide theatrical run. It would have gone straight to DVD/Blu-ray, skipped the 4K upgrade and lived up to more reasonable expectations. For their parts, fans of novelist Lee Child’s best-selling series would be happy to see an actor more in keeping with the character’s stature – 6-foot-5, between 230-250 pounds – and critics wouldn’t feel it necessary to point out that almost nothing in Jack Reacher: Never Go Back makes any sense. Nothing makes sense in movies starring Seagal, Lundgren or, for that matter, Jean-Claude Van Damme, and they still make money. As capable an action star as Tom Cruise has proven to be, here and in the Mission:Impossible films, it’s likely that Child’s loyal readers have yet to forgive him for being short. Diehards might also wonder why Edward Zwick and Marshall Herskovitz – co-creators of the touchy-feely series “thirtysomething” and “Once and Again” — were brought in to helm and polish Jack Reacher: Never Go Back. Clue: Cruise is loyal to past collaborators and he scored big with Zwick and Herskowitz, on The Last Samurai. (Likewise, he’s teamed with writer/director Christopher McQuarrie on Jack Reacher, Valkyrie, Edge of Tomorrow, Mission:Impossible: Rogue Nation and the upcoming M:I 6.) The only decision here that might raise eyebrows, but shouldn’t, is the casting of Cobie Smulders, best known for her co-starring role on “How I Met Your Mother.” At 5-foot-8, the athletic Vancouver native has played Agent Maria Hill in The Avengers, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Avengers: Age of Ultron and Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., and she’s no slouch here as Reacher’s military liaison, Major Susan Turner. The picture opens moments after the former major in the U.S. Military Police and full-time drifter single-handedly dismantles a human-trafficking operation. Curiously, perhaps, Reacher dispatches the bad guys off-camera, saving the kick-ass stuff until he hitchhikes to Washington and discovers that the woman holding his old job is awaiting court-martial for what we can safely assume are trumped-up charges of espionage and being an accomplice to the murders of two of her investigators in Afghanistan.
In the first of several preposterous plot twists, JAG prosecutor Colonel Bob Moorcroft (Robert Catrini) attempts to steer Reacher off the case by advising him that he and the army are being sued by a former prostitute, who claims that Jack fathered her daughter, now 15, Samantha (Danika Yarosh), and abandoned them. Never mind that Reacher has no recollection of having had relations with the woman, whoever she may be, let alone impregnating her. In 2001, or thereabouts, the likelihood of a working girl not requiring the use of a condom when having sex with a soldier was practically nil. Moreover, if such as suit were successful, every prostitute within shouting distance of a military base would follow suit, hoping to scam a fortune from Uncle Sam. Essentially, the conceit allows for the introduction of a character that normally wouldn’t have anything to do with Major Turner’s court-martial. His curiosity piqued, our modern-day Paladin is compelled to check out Samantha, a move that assures she will become a bargaining chip for the mercenaries in their pursuit of Reacher, who, by this time, has broken Turner out of a high-security prison on a military base. To discover the truth behind the conspiracy, the trio heads for New Orleans, where even more unlikely circumstances lie. The saving grace in all this mishigas is that Zwick doesn’t allow viewers much time to become bogged down in plot lapses and inconsistences in logic. Between having to protect Samantha and solving the mystery, without getting killed, Cruise and Smulders are rarely given a moment’s rest or time, even, to have a sex scene. And, that’s a very good thing, because there’s a 20-year difference in their ages and, in Blu-ray 4K, especially, he’s finally starting to show his age. The Blu-ray package adds 80 minutes of bonus content, including interviews with the cast and crew, background on Lee Child’s popular character, filming on location in Louisiana and creation of intense action sequences. Some configurations add an illustrated version of Child’s short story “Everyone Talks.”
Pinocchio: Walt Disney Signature Collection: Blu-ray
Like previous inductees to Disney’s top-end Signature Collection — Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and Beauty and the Beast – the 1940 animated classic, Pinocchio, is a movie that needs no introduction. Neither do future designees Bambi, Aladdin, Fantasia, Peter Pan, The Lion King and Lady and the Tramp. As is the case for any Disney film released in a new audio/visual format, it behooves consumers to review the features included on previous editions they might already own and compare them to the ones added (and subtracted) from the most current release. So far, Signature Collections have reprised the Blu-ray audio/visual presentations from Diamond Edition releases, without adding the 3D or 4K Blu-ray enhancements many fans would love to own. It’s also worth checking out such niche sites as Blu-ray.com to learn of special editions only available, so far, through Best Buy and Target. That said, here are the latest enticements for collectors and newcomers, alike: “Walt’s Story Meetings: Pleasure Island,” with Pixar’s Pete Docter and Disney historian J.B. Kaufman as they explore artwork recently discovered in Disney’s animation research library; “Pinocchio” in which Uncle Walt discusses the making of “Pinocchio” through archival recordings and interviews; “The Pinocchio Project: When You Wish Upon a Star” follows music influencers Alex G, Tanner Patrick and J.R Aquino as they create their rendition of the film’s signature song for a new music video; the recently restored and scored 1927 short feature, “Poor Papa,” featuring Oswald the Lucky Rabbit; and “Classic Bonus Features” ported over from prior editions, with deleted scenes, sing-alongs, storyboards and theatrical trailers. There’s also a Disney Digital copy of the film.
Tyler Perry’s Boo! A Madea Halloween: Blu-ray
Tyler Perry’s Madea on the Run: The Play: Blu-ray
Almost Christmas: Blu-ray
Of all the things asked of a certified film critic working for a mainstream publication, by far the most Sisyphean is being assigned to review any new movie by Tyler Perry. It isn’t necessarily because they aren’t particularly well made or that their readers aren’t interested. Most movies released between January and November by major distributors underachieve in one way or another. It’s vexing, as well, to know that Perry’s films – especially those starring Medea – are likely to succeed no matter what critics say about them. Not unexpectedly, Boo! A Madea Halloween was dismissed by the vast majority of all reviews cited on Metacritic and Rotten Tomatoes. And, yet, in its first two weeks in theaters, it would crush such Hollywood hopefuls as Inferno and Jack Reacher: Never Go Back at the domestic box-office. Perry admits that the holiday-themed comedy, which took a mere six days to shoot, was conceived after watching Chris Rock’s Top Five. In it, Rock’s character is distressed to see movie goers lined up for a fictional Tyler Perry movie, “Boo!,” in which Medea fights ghosts in a haunted house. “A Medea Halloween” is a tad more complicated than that, but not much. Madea is asked by her son, Brian, to spend the night at his house, with Uncle Joe (all Perry) and Aunt Bam (Cassi Davis), so as to prevent her granddaughter, Tiffany (Diamond White), from attending a party at a local frat house with three of her BFFs. If they’re lucky, their underage status might dissuade the frat boys from roofie and raping them, but only if they chose to admit it. Eventually, the brothers must deal with Madea and her posse and hilarity will ensue. Or, not. “A Medea Halloween” isn’t completely devoid of belly laughs, but only fans of the Three Stooges, “Mama’s Family” and “Nutty Professor II: The Klumps” are likely to go ape over it. Special features include “Why We Love Madea!” and “Boo! From the Crew Montage.”
Tyler Perry’s Madea on the Run: The Play is one of several productions that began on the stage, in Atlanta or New Orleans, and toured the “chitlin’ circuit” (a.k.a., “urban theater circuit”) before ending up on the screen or video. Perry makes no effort to disguise the fact that what is being shown is exactly the same as what theater audiences saw, right down to the mics visible on the actors’ heads and responses of audience members. At one time, these movies suffered from inferior acoustics, a drawback that might have been cured with subtitles. Apart from the clunky mics and artificiality that naturally derives being stage-bound, most of the technical problems have been fixed here. Madea on the Run finds Our Heroine on the lam from police, laying low at the Bams’ house. Aunt Bam is recovering from hip-replacement surgery and fresh out of pain-killers and marijuana. It makes her more cranky than usual. The house gradually fills up with family and friends, all of whom have their own way to get on Madea’s last nerve. This time around, though, high-pitched Aunt Bam and her drug habit nearly steal the show from the characters played by Perry. Cassi Davis is a heck of a singer, as are most of the other cast members, and the songs are good. I enjoyed Madea on the Run a lot more than I thought was possible, probably because of the actors are able to overcome the many barriers imposed on them by being limited to a fixed stage and immobile cameras.
David E. Talbert’s Almost Christmas is a holiday-themed urban dramedy that owes less to Tyler Perry than it does to George Tillman Jr.’s Soul Food, Malcolm D. Lee’s The Best Man and The Best Man Holiday, and Lance Rivera’s The Perfect Holiday and The Cookout. (Before he died last July, Garry Marshall was Hollywood’s go-to guy in the sub-genre, logging the star-studded hits and misses, Valentine’s Day, New Year’s Eve and Mother’s Day.) Not surprisingly, perhaps, Almost Christmas divided the mostly white corps of mainstream critics, whose judgments don’t carry much weight in the minority community corps, anyway. Universal probably was far more interested in the opinions of the same First Weekend Club members whose early buzz helped Hidden Figures become a surprise crossover hit for Fox. Not that my vote counts for much, but I was entertained by Almost Christmas and would hope its appeal isn’t limited to “urban” audiences. Danny Glover plays Walter, the recently widowed patriarch of a large and noisy family, gathering in Birmingham for the first time since the death of their beloved wife, mother and grandmother. Considering the wildly divergent personalities of the siblings, it’s destined to be a bittersweet reunion, at best. Walter hopes their differences won’t erupt into the same cacophony of arguments, jealousy and posturing that accompanied such gatherings in the past. No such luck. It starts innocently enough with Walter comically trying to duplicate one of his wife’s favorite recipes … sweet-potato pie, if I’m not mistaken. It’s a messy disaster. When the daughters arrive, their first mission is to locate mom’s recipe tin, which she hid somewhere in the kitchen. Christmas won’t be Christmas without them. Anticipation for the annual feast served to quell the discord that continued to build as more guests arrived. Without the recipes, there may be no way to save Christmas. Never fear, the clichés are here to save it. For once, they don’t get in the way of the actors’ own personalities and charisma. The talented cast includes Gabrielle Union, Kimberly Elise, Omar Epps, Mo’Nique, JB Smoove, Jessie Usher, DC Young Fly, John Michael Higgins, Romany Malco and Nicole Ari Parker. The package adds commentary with Talbert, editor Troy Takaki and apprentice editor Gene Lewis Jr.; a gag reel; and several short featurettes.
Jim: The James Foley Story
I watched Brian Oakes’ Emmy-winning and Oscar-nominated documentary on the same day that President Trump’s executive order, banning refugees from several Muslim countries, turned JFK Airport into a holding cell for people who had already been vetted by immigration authorities. Jim: The James Foley Story tells the heartbreaking story of the teacher and freelance war correspondent, from New Hampshire, who was captured in northwestern Syria on November 22, 2012, and beheaded by ISIS terrorists on August 19, 2014. Before being abducted, the Marquette graduate reported from the rebel-held city of Aleppo, which was the target of bombardments by Syrian government officials aligned with Soviet monster-in-chief Vladimir Putin. Foley’s reporting helped raise awareness of the horrifying human tragedy playing out in Aleppo, which would soon lead to the flood of immigrants into Europe. It’s possible that Foley made contact with some of the same Aleppo residents who would be banned by our monster-in-chief from entering the U.S. Jim: The James Foley Story is further haunted by the fact that he had been abducted a year earlier, as well, while covering the revolt against Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi. After 44 days of beatings and torture, Foley was allowed to return to the U.S. He spent the next couple of months resting, re-connecting with friends and family, and thanking the people who worked toward and prayed for his release. It wouldn’t be long before he caught the bug to return to the Middle East to cover the Syrian Civil War, which proved to be even more hellish than the Libyan uprising. Oakes, whose previous credits included Bobby Fischer Against the World, Inequality for All and Wordplay, probably didn’t know what he was getting himself into, either. After 110 minutes, there isn’t much we don’t know about Foley and his fatal obsession with “the truth”; the twice-visited anguish of his parents and siblings; his close relationship to fellow journalists in the line of fire; and how it felt to be surrounded by indiscriminate death and destruction. It would be nice to say that Foley’s suffering wasn’t in vain, but we know now that it probably was. Libya is still divided, Aleppo has fallen, Bashar al-Assad is still in power, ISIS has yet to be defeated, the refugee crisis gets more critical by the hour and American voters punished the refugees by voting for Putin’s good buddy, Donald Trump. Still, Jim: The James Foley Story is an essential addition to the growing list of documentaries dedicated to chronicling the collapse of the Middle East as we once knew it. Blessedly, the producers let us know ahead of time that the beheading, itself, won’t be shown during the film, thus relieving us of the sense of dread triggered by anticipating moments of true horror.
Addicted to Fresno
Yoga Hosers: Blu-ray
Director Jamie Babbit and writer Karey Dornetto are either great fun to work for or extremely generous with their producers’ money. How else to explain the lineup of talent attracted to their inky black hipster comedy, Addicted to Fresno, which was doomed to failure after the critics began trashing it at the kind of festivals created to promote such offbeat fare. The compound modifier used most often to describe the film was “mean-spirited,” especially towards the city that lent it its name and locations. Judy Greer and Natasha Lyonne play sisters Shannon and Martha – a sex addict fresh out of rehab and an unlucky-in-love lesbian, respectively – condemned to clean up after lodgers at the Fresno Suites hotel and convention center. Shannon’s addiction not only got her fired from a teaching job, but it also jeopardizes her freedom when a hotel guest, Boris, a failed Olympian, is accidentally killed during a relapse. Martha decides to help her sister avoid prison by volunteering to cover up the crime. First, though, they must figure out a way to get the corpse out of the hotel and into a hole in the ground or crematorium. As is the case in most movies involving an inconvenient corpse – including the disposal of Billy Batts, in Goodfellas – the farcical elements quickly begin to dominate the story. When Shannon and Martha fail to convince the owners of a pet cemetery (Fred Armisen, Allison Tolman) that the body they’re toting is a Great Dane, their woes are further complicated by a blackmail demand. Broke and desperate, they concoct a plan that involves a tub full of dildos, a female softball team and a bar mitzvah for a boy channeling the Beastie Boys. Adding some comic relief to the increasingly nasty affair are Aubrey Plaza, as the personal trainer who takes a shine to Martha; Malcom Barrett’s disgruntled hotel employee and potential boy toy for Shannon; Ron Livingston, an easily seduced therapist; and Molly Shannon as Boris’ wacky sister. Babbit and Dornetto have worked with the actors together or separately in such entertainments as But I’m a Cheerleader, “Portlandia,” “Community” and “The Life & Times of Tim.” The DVD adds deleted scenes.
Lyonne, who’s everywhere these days, also appears in Kevin Smith’s Yoga Hosers, part two of his Canada-based trilogy, which opened with the generally well-received Tusk and will be followed by Moose Jaws, none of which have been shot anywhere north of North Carolina or Ventura County. Yoga Hosers was not well received by critics or anyone else outside the Smith or Depp households for that matter. In it, two 15-year-old yoga enthusiasts named Colleen (Lily-Rose Depp, Harley Quinn Smith) join forces with a legendary man-hunter, Guy Lapointe (Johnny Depp), to battle Canadian Nazis who take the form of deadly Bratzi sausages. (Don’t ask.) Smith’s wife, Jennifer, plays Colleen M’s mother. Depp and Vanessa Paradis’ son, Jack, plays cool history teacher Ms. Maurice. Other recurring characters are played by Genesis Rodriguez, Haley Joel Osment, Justin Long, Ashley Greene and Harley Morenstein. They’re joined by Tony Hale, Tyler Posey, Stan Lee, Adam Brody and Jason Mewes. Beyond that, I’d be hard pressed to explain what happens in Yoga Hoser, except to point out the forced Canadian accents and a Goalie Golem.
Robert Carlyle’s darkly humorous directorial debut shares one thing, at least, with the aforementioned Addicted to Fresno: a corpse resistant to being buried or burned. Barney Thomson puts a contemporary spin and Glaswegian twist on the “Sweeney Todd” legend, beginning with the accidental death of a Glasgow barber, while scuffling with his tonsorially inept co-worker, Barney (Carlyle). Unable to think of a way to dispose of the body without being discovered, Barney seeks the advice of his outrageously dissipated mother, Cemolina, played by a scene-stealing Emma Thompson. Cemolina is full of nasty wrinkles, only some of which were caused by chain-smoking cigarettes. Barney’s bad luck is compounded by the arrival of Ray Winstone’s Cockney cop, Holdall, who has problems of his own when it comes to taking orders. He immediately suspects Barney of being an elusive serial killer, famous for mailing his victims’ body parts to family members in the mail. He isn’t, but that’s another twist in the story. Richard Cowan and Colin McLaren’s adaptation of Douglas Lindsay’s “Thee Long Midnight of Barney Thompson” keeps the surprises coming until the very end of the movie. The only real problem with the DVD is an absence of subtitles to translate the characters’ thick Glaswegian accents.
Out of (the) Darkness
Before I Die
Search as I might, I couldn’t find the “the” in the title of Out of the Darkness on the cover of the DVD sent to me as Out of Darkness. It wasn’t on the side panel or the non-shiny side of the disc, either. The “the” was clearly there, on the illustration accompanying the Amazon Video VOD release and the film’s page on IMDB.com. On further inspection of the DVD packaging, I found the “the” in the smaller type, above the credits at the bottom of the backside of the box. Even knowing that that the mainstream-media establishment has effectively turned copy editing and proof reading into lost journalistic arts, this lapse was a doozy. Greed and shortsighted staff reductions have driven readers of novels to distraction with typos, misspelling and errors. Such a lapse shouldn’t prevent anyone from enjoying Shawn Justice’s faith-based drama – let’s call it, Out of (the) Darkness – but it does raise a red flag as to the care taken by its distributors not to confuse potential viewers … myself included. That said, the movie concerns a veteran of a foreign war, still in his 20s, who, upon his return home, finds himself alienated from his family and disconnected from the faith he once followed. Earlier in his life, Eli (Adam Elliott Davis) felt a calling from God that sparked a desire to become the Billy Graham of his time. His wartime experiences put the kibosh on those plans, however. After being fired from his father’s company for incompetence and arguing with his wife (Sherry Morris) in front of their daughter, Eli pays a visit to the local pub, where he decides to get out of town. Eli misses a turn on a lonely mountain highway and careens over an embankment, landing deep in the forest. Disoriented, he neglects to follow the path of broken trees and car parts that might lead back to the highway. Instead, he heads deeper into the woods. Along the way, he encounters people who appear to be channeling Satan (John Lewis) and God (Graham Greene), during Jesus’ 40 days and nights of fasting in the Judean Desert. Out of (the) Darkness suffers from simplistic storytelling and a budget that forced Justice to make too many sacrifices, including adequate lighting at night. I would think that the faith-based audience is accustomed to such limitations, by now, and focuses more on the message than production values.
The Pacific Northwest is also the setting for the Brothers Freeman’s debut picture, Before I Die, which I’ve seen described as Christian horror. I’m not sure that in this case, anyway, faith-based and Christian are synonymous. Apparently trimmed from 142 minutes to a less grueling 105, I found it difficult to pay attention to the details of the story of Pastor Dan Bennett (Robert McKeehen), who uncovers a world of unholy trouble after moving his family to a seemingly idyllic small town. It’s far less than that, of course. The congregation appears to be cursed with strange spiritual obsessions, newly unearthed secrets and threats to the well-being of everyone involved. Before I Die may have made sense at its unedited length, but, at 105 minutes, it’s one long mystery without any clues.
Wax Mask: Blu-ray
Barely seen in the U.S. upon its release in 1997, Sergio Stivaletti’s wildly derivative Wax Mask recalls the glory days of Hammer Horror, Italian giallo and drive-in delights from William Castle and Roger Corman. If it didn’t gain any traction here, it’s probably because the economics of distribution had changed so drastically since the 1960s and the easy availability of vintage titles on VHS and cable made such throwbacks redundant. Today, however, the DVD/Blu-ray revolution has allowed distributors to restore even the most obscure titles to within an inch of their former luster – maybe less – while also adding interviews with the filmmakers and other featurettes. What’s interesting about Wax Mask is its pedigree. Written by Dario Argento (Phenomena) as a comeback project for Lucio Fulci (Don’t Torture a Duckling), it was finished by special-effects wizard Sergio Stivaletti and writer Daniele Stroppa after the director’s death in 1996. It freely borrowed elements from Mystery of the Wax Museum, House of Wax and Gaston Leroux’s The Phantom of the Opera. In 1900, Paris, a young girl witnesses the gruesome murder of a couple, whose hearts are ripped out by the clawed hand of a masked fiend. Twelve years later, in Rome, she’s hired as a dresser in a newly opened wax museum dedicated to re-creating heinous crimes in its dioramas. Things get weird when people start disappearing from the streets and the museum’s halls begin filling up with new figures. The Blu-ray adds featurettes on backstage and special-effects scenes.
Poltergeist II: The Other Side: Collector’s Edition: Blu-ray
Poltergeist III: Collector’s Edition: Blu-ray
Blood Rage: Special Edition: Blu-Ray
Somewhere in the dark recesses of my analog memory bank, I managed to confuse Bob Balaban’s darkly comic 1989 suburban psychodrama, Parents, with John Waters’ darkly comic 1994 suburban psychodrama, Serial Mom. One is not a copy of the other, as the former is about a boy who can’t deal with the possibility that his seemingly normal parents, Nick (Randy Quaid) and Lily (Mary Beth Hurt), might be feeding him meat harvested from human beings. In the latter, Kathleen Turner is a serial killer, whose worst instincts are triggered by minor infractions of suburban decorum. In Parents, young Michael Laemle (Bryan Madorsky) lives in the horror of thinking his parents – or, whatever alien is inhabiting their bodies – are turning him into a cannibal. They do so in the nicest possible way, but still. The only people in whom Michael can confide are the school’s social worker (Sandy Dennis) and a classmate, Sheila (London Juno), who’s more than a head taller than he is and encourages him to search for clues behind his parents’ backs. Balaban and writer Christopher Hawthorne keep us guessing as to their motivations, as well. The Blu-ray package contains commentary with Balaban and producer Bonnie Palef; isolated score selections and an audio interview with composer Jonathan Elias; “Leftovers to Be,” with screenwriter Hawthorne; “Mother’s Day,” with Mary Beth Hurt; “Inside Out,” director of photography Robin Vidgeon; “Vintage Tastes,” with decorative consultant Yolanda Cuomo; and a stills gallery. (It was announced this week that a Blu-ray edition of Serial Mom will be released on May 9, just in time for Mother’s Day.)
The sequels to Tobe Hooper and Steven Spielberg’s hugely successful supernatural thriller, Poltergeist, didn’t do nearly as well as the 1982 original, critically or commercially. Considering the talent involved, the first installment’s $10.7-million budget was a steal for MGM. It would nearly double for Poltergeist II: The Other Side, which only enlisted the repeat services of principles Craig T. Nelson, JoBeth Williams, Heather O’Rourke and Zelda Rubinstein. It made a bit of money, but not enough for MGM to consider wagering any more than $10.5 million on 1988’s Poltergeist III, three years later, with Tom Skerritt, Nancy Allen, Lara Flynn Boyle, O’Rourke and Rubinstein. The 2015 remake, Poltergeist, starring Sam Rockwell, Rosemarie DeWitt, cost more than three times that much to make, and, at best, may have broken even, thanks to foreign receipts. In “PII,” the Freeling family is forced by previous circumstances to move to a new home. The problem, of course, is that the same demons that plagued them earlier hone in on the family’s new abode, thanks to Carol Anne’s psychic GPS. The most noteworthy thing here is the presence of Will Sampson, as the Indian healer; Geraldine Fitzgerald, as Gramma-Jess; and Living Theater co-founder Julian Beck, as the Reverend Henry Kane. If Kane looked half-dead, it was because Beck was dying of stomach cancer during production and there was no need to disguise it. Anyone familiar with Swiss surrealist artist H.R. Giger will want to watch “PII,” if only to see how his designs are integrated into the creation of the monsters. In “PIII,” Carol Anne has been shipped off to Chicago, where she’ll live in a famous high-rise building with her aunt and uncle. Once again, the supernatural forces are close behind. Besides new 2K scans of the inter-positives, both packages feature new commentaries and interviews with cast and crew members.
Thirteen months ago, Arrow Video released a three-disc special edition of Blood Rage, which contained three different cuts of a routine slasher flick that could never be mistaken for a classic. The film was shot in 1983, perhaps under the working title “Complex,” but wasn’t released to theaters until 1987, as “Nightmare at Shadow Woods.” Loopy Louise Lasser (“Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman”) pulls out all the stops as the mother of twins Todd and Terry, one of whom kills a guy making out with his girlfriend at a drive-in theater, while his brother looks on in horror. Guess which one ends up in a mental institution for underage youths for committing the crime and which one gets to go home. Ten years later, the innocent twin escapes from the hospital, much to the consternation of everyone but his mother. Mayhem ensues. Genre buffs can still appreciate the mindless killings, gallons of spilt blood and T&A. Others will be less easily tempted. The two-disc edition contains a brand new 2K restoration of the ”hard” home-video version, transferred from the camera negative and featuring the original title card; high definition (1080p) and standard definition DVD presentations; commentary with director John Grissmer; interviews with producer/actress Marianne Kanter, actor Mark Soper, Lasser, special make-up effects creator Ed French, actor Ted Raimi; a featurette revisiting the original locations in Jacksonville, Florida; alternate opening titles; a still gallery; and a reversible sleeve, featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Marc Schoenbach.
The Ecstasy of Isabel Mann
Here are two fine examples of European splatter flicks that can stand alongside their American counterparts, in or out of a large puddle of blood and gore. The title, The Ecstasy of Isabel Mann, immediately reminded me such late-night temptations as The Disappearance of Alice Creed, The Seduction of Misty Mundae, The Submission of Emma Marx and The Sexual Liberation of Anna Lee. Whatever ecstasy Isabel Mann (Ellen Mullen) experiences here can be compared to that of a vampire as it sinks its fangs into the neck of a willing victim. By all accounts, Dublin teenager Isabel Mann enjoyed a normal childhood, until entering her senior year of high school. Her mentally unstable mother disappeared years earlier, but, ever since, her father and siblings have filled the void admirably. It isn’t until Isabell comes home from a day in the forest, with her face and blouse smeared with blood, that viewers sense they’re in for wild ride. We learn that she’s been seduced by Alejo, leader of a gang of “day-walking vampires,” and now recruits fellow students for their nourishment. The disappearances from school alert the local constabulary to the likelihood of a serial killer having moved to town, but the brutal nature of the killings suggest that others are involved, as well. Meanwhile, Isabel’s own absenteeism and ability to avoid slaughter raise red flags in their minds. This isn’t to suggest, however, that The Ecstasy of Isabel Mann is strictly a vampire movie. Instead, the blood-letting is far less interesting than her coming-of-age as a monster – a pretty one, but a monster nonetheless — and being completely unprepared for the changes she’s experiencing internally and externally. Perhaps, if her mother were still around to help her navigate the shoals of womanhood, but … well, maybe she’s not that far away, after all. Four years ago, writer/director Jason Figgis impressed genre buffs and critics with the dystopian thriller, Children of a Darker Dawn, and “Ecstasy” proves that their instincts were correct. It’s scary, repulsive, thought-provoking and exhilarating in equal measure. The same adjectives can be used to describe Michael Richard Plowman’s highly complementary soundtrack. The bonus features include other Dublin Noir trailers, deleted scenes, a music video and Figgis’ commentary.
Somewhere between Ljubljana and the United States, the title of Tomaz Gorkic’s debut feature changed from “Idyll” to the less ironic, if substantially more provocative, Killbillies. Combined with the grotesque likeness of one of the film’s antagonists on the cover, the natural tendency is to think of what’s contained therein as a Rocky Mountain High sequel to Deliverance. Well, sort of. The movie opens portentously with a group of Slovenian fashionistas getting shit-faced in a dumpy bar on a mysterious distillation of mountain herbs. Sensing an easy conquest, one of the local boozehounds attempts to rape Zina (Nina Ivanisin) in the bar’s communal bathroom. Instead, the heavily banged brunette lands a quick kick to the thug’s nuts, incapacitating him for the next 70 minutes of movie time. The next day, models Zina and Mia are driven to a photo shoot high in the Slovenian Alps, where they’re taken captive by the DVD’s heavily scarred cover boy and, presumably, his even more bizarre-looking son, who wouldn’t have been out of place on that porch in Deliverance. The models, their makeup artist and the photographer are taken to the dungeon in the men’s prison-like house, which also contains a still to make the evil brew. The rest of Killbilly is an exercise in torture porn, culminating in a harrowing chase through a dense forest. Gorkic packs more surprises and artfully delivered action into 83 minutes than most filmmakers provide in movies half-again that length.
I don’t know about you, but I’ve learned everything I care to know about the birth and formative years of the PC, Apple and Internet. The worldwide success of The Social Network emboldened such eminent directors as Danny Boyle and Oliver Stone to try their luck with Steve Jobs and Snowden, which tanked. Both “Halt and Catch Fire” and “Silicon Valley” have done well enough to earn a fourth season renewal, and that’s techy enough for me. Jason Cohen’s exhaustively researched and surprisingly enjoyable documentary, Silicon Cowboys, tells almost exactly the same story as “Halt and Catch Fire,” right down to the fast cars, lawsuits and occasional divorce. Conveniently, the Compaq executives interviewed aren’t nearly as nerdy today, as they probably were 30 years ago. The battle for dominance in the PC marketplace is presented in an interesting manner, but, to me, anyway, it’s ancient history.
Murder Rap: Inside the Biggie and Tupac Murders
Two decades have passed since Tupac Shakur and Christopher Wallace (a.k.a., Biggie Smalls/ Notorious B.I.G.) were gunned down in the streets of Las Vegas and Los Angeles, respectively. Although allegations have been thrown around like hand grenades for most of those 20 years, no one has been brought to justice for the crimes. Michael Dorsey’s nearly two-hour documentary Murder Rap: Inside the Biggie and Tupac Murders is based on a book of the same title by former LAPD detective Greg Kading. Apparently, before taking his pension, Kading was assigned the task of clearing the tarnished department of wrong-doing in the murders. A huge lawsuit had been filed against it by the Wallace family and the LAPD couldn’t afford to lose one that size. Not only did he dig up enough evidence to save the city’s treasury from being drained, but he also came up with the most likely perpetrators and an explanation for both killings. Given the nature of gangland omerta, however, getting verification of the evidence probably would have been impossible, so the LAPD scotched any further investigation. Without an indictment, the documentary effectively loses its reason for existing as anything besides a true-crime show on television, narrated by Bill Kurtis. Without any of Tupac and Biggie’s music to accompany the revelations, the doc gets flatter and more repetitive as it nears the halfway mark.
4th Man Out
Here’s another movie that’s almost 20 years out of date … unless, I suppose, one lives in a red state, in which case, it might be au courant. In Andrew Nackman and writer Aaron Dancik’s first feature, 4th Man Out, a car mechanic in a small, working-class town exits the closet on the event of his 24th birthday, naturally shocking his unsuspecting, blue-collar best buds. They act like 4th-Graders who discover a gay skin mag in the school’s locker room, sparking a wildfire of misinformation and misplaced accusations in their unformed, prepubescent minds. While attempting to support Adam (Evan Todd), who’s handsome but dresses like every other guy in town, his friends toss around good-natured homophobic jokes to get around their obvious discomfort. I can’t recall anyone actually saying “Some of my best friends are gay,” but now they could fall back on the cliché and not worry about being called on it. Adam’s declaration is tested by friends who set him up with eligible young women, not knowing he’s been auditioning eligible young men at the same time. That sort of thing. Before the process becomes insufferable, though, Nackman tightens the reins on the awkward asides to reveal the humanity in Dancik’s script. How’s this for unsourced trivia: Alex Rennie, who plays “Paul the Stoner,” was at one time “an up-and-coming amateur boxer.” Alas, his career record stands at 1-17-5, with all 17 of his losses listed as TKOs. That and bus fare will get him a one-way ticket to Palookaville.
If the class dunce in all of our high schools formed a production company with the class clown and class nerd, their first production might look a lot like “Alien Engineers,” a TV reality show lambasted in Jake Myers’ occasionally funny, if pointedly stupid Conspiracy Theory (a.k.a., “Lake on Fire”). It’s no coincidence that “Alien Engineers” resembles every flaky conspiracy show since 1973’s “In Search of Ancient Astronauts,” an edited version of the German documentary “Erinnerungen an die Zukunft” (“Chariots of the Gods”), which examined the theory that aliens landed on Earth in ancient times and were responsible for many of mankind’s oldest mysteries … such as the Edsel, New Coke and the proliferation of Trump towers. In it, a group of conspiracy theorists, led by a skinny hipster named Bjorn (Ben Kobold), travel from Chicago to the UFO-infested badlands north of Las Vegas and Lake Mead. In addition to interviewing generally clueless tourists on the Strip, Bjorn chats with NASA engineer T.D. Barnes, who worked on special projects in Area 51; park rangers, who navigate the waters of the giant manmade reservoir; and an inarguably unstable woman, who, for the last six months, has camped out on the lake’s northern shore to monitor strange lights in the sky and below the surface of the water, where she believes an alien submarine is parked. As prove, Bjorn points to the tourist walkway above Hoover Dam, where statues of winged guardians and a mosaic of a millennial clock greet visitors. The host further argues that no human could have designed and built the massive dam, which will come as a surprise to the descendants of the thousands of laborers – 112 of whom died during construction – who were hired to build the damn thing (pun intended). The payoff comes about 70 minutes into the 89-minute parody of found-footage and conspiracy flicks with a special-effects shit storm. Considering its low-budget, DYI approach to the threadbare subject matter, Conspiracy Theory works better than anyone could have expected.
If aliens are still commuting back and forth to Earth, better that they look like Clarabelle than the bloated creatures laid out on slab in a Roswell morgue, after their UFO crashed in 1947. The extraterrestrial clown in Graham Skipper’s DIY sci-fi farce, Space Clown, more closely resembles “Rock’n Rollen” Stewart, who, before he was convicted on kidnapping charges, in 1992, was famous for holding up signs reading “John 3:16″ at sporting events around the world. Apart from some outdated special effects lifted directly from 2001: A Space Odyssey handbook, Space Clown demonstrates exactly how cruel, heartless, noisy and insufferable a bozo in a multicolored wig can be. It should not be confused with the Chiodo brothers’ 1988 cult classic, Killer Klowns From Outer Space
Tripp Rhame’s first feature, Bleed, is a mélange of classic horror tropes: ghost-hunting, a haunted prison, uninvited visitors to the protagonists’ new home in the country, twisted hillbillies and a troubled pregnancy. Fortunately for everyone involved, those tropes fall well short of being clichés. When newlyweds Sarah (Chelsey Crisp) and Matt (Michael Steger) invite their friends Bree (Brittany Ishibashi) and Dave (Elimu Nelson) to celebrate their new marriage, new house, and soon-to-be family, they are unexpectedly followed to the rural house by Sarah’s brother, Eric (Riley Smith), and his girlfriend, Skye (Lyndon Smith). When Dave remembers there once being a prison nearby, which burned down with the inmates inside, the intruders suggest a visit. To top it off, one of the ghosts bears a striking resemblance to Charles Manson.
After is another accomplished genre piece by a promising freshman writer/director, Ryan Smith. It debuted in 2012 and has been lying around largely unseen ever since. In it, two survivors of a bus crash, Freddy (Steven Strait) and Ana (Karolina Wydra), awaken from an unconscious state, only to realize that the residents of their small town are either missing or behaving like robots. A John Carpenter-like fog has descended on the community, finally revealing the cause of the devastation to the forced couple. What threatens to become a run-of-the-mill creature feature, evolves satisfactorily into a “Twilight Zone” romance. As derivative as that might sound, Strait and Wydra keep After from succumbing to clichés.
Rarely has the subject of polyamory been handled with so little sexuality, eroticism and nudity as it is in Zoe Eisenberg and Phillips Payson’s Throuple. It’s as if they were shooting for a PG-13, but realized that no one in their target audience would be interested in a kids-safe movie about multiply monogamous couples. Even if the yuppies introduced in Showtime’s “Polyamory: Married & Dating” were self-absorbed dweebs, at least they shed their clothes on a weekly basis. The closest anyone here comes to nudity is an innocently staged shower scene and a simulated BJ that wouldn’t fool anyone over 14. The best things Throuple has going for it are Hawaii’s naturally splendid beaches, coves and waves no set designer could improve upon in a million years. James and Lexi (Jordan Turchin, Ingrid Vollset), we’re told, are a “conflicted couple,” who’ve moved to a lush Hawaiian rain forest after starring in a series of YouTube exercise videos, in which they wear leotards and pretend to be making love. Their nearest neighbors are a recluse, who lives in a castle-like fortress, and a polyamorous “throuple” (Caitlin Holcombe, Mikaal Bates, Todd Litzinger) pre-occupied with digging a hole in the lava behind their house. Mostly, though, they amuse themselves by getting baked on pot and a beverage distilled from local vegetation. For some reason, Lexi spends most her time indoors, calling and Skyping friends on the mainland, while James hangs out with the neighbors, getting high and harvesting marine life from tide pools. When the possibility of same-sex liaisons is broached, Jack and Lexi turn curiously prudish. A chance meeting with their mysterious neighbor (Ayinde Howell) provides them with an opportunity to learn his secrets and the filmmakers with a hook upon which they can hang a suitable ending.
PBS: Masterpiece: Victoria Blu-ray
PBS:16 for 16: The Contenders
Americans can thank Britain’s ITV, BBC and Channel 4 for making them more aware of the history of the British aristocracy than the lives of all but a half-dozen, or so, American presidents. PBS has attempted to rectify this curious anomaly with “American Experience: The Presidents,” “The U.S. Presidency” and such occasional Ken Burns’ treats as “The Roosevelts: An Intimate History” and “Thomas Jefferson.” Even so, it’s the networks’ co-financing and carriage of such “Masterpiece” gems as “Victoria,” and “Wolf Hall” that hold the public’s attention. That, and such nudity spiced mini-series as “The Tudors” and “The White Queen.” If “The U.S. Presidency” taught us anything in its mini-biographies of chief executives from George Washington to Barack Obama, it’s that the bat-shit crazy George III would have been a better fit for the White House than most of our duly-elected presidents, vice presidents and their largely forgotten opponents. That’s certainly true of “Victoria,” an eight-part mini-series, that some might consider to be an unintended sequel to Nicholas Hytner’s BAFTA-winning, The Madness of Henry VIII (1994). That’s because the king’s granddaughter might not have ascended to the crown at 18, if weren’t for several freakish occurrences that eliminated her father and uncles from consideration. As we learn here, as well, Victoria’s enemies in Parliament would attempt to tar the inexperienced and occasionally flighty young woman with the possibility of her possibly suffering from the same malady, possibly caused by the blood disease porphyria.
Created by British novelist Daisy Goodwin, “Victoria” depicts the first few years of the reign of Queen Victoria (Jenna Coleman) from her accession to the throne, through her intense friendship and infatuation with Lord Melbourne, to her courtship and early marriage to her 19-year-old cousin Prince Albert (Tom Hughes), and finally to the birth of their first child, Victoria. Apart from the frequently arcane maneuverings of the power-hungry twits in Parliament and the House of Lords, the story offers romance, upstairs-downstairs intrigue, heroes and villains, splendid set designs, amazing Yorkshire scenery and remarkable acting. The petite Blackpool native Coleman doesn’t look a bit like the photographs we’ve all seen of the doughty Queen Victoria, taken during the later years in her monarchy. Instead, she could be mistaken for a teenage Christina Ricci or Ginnifer Goodwin, while Hughes is a dead ringer for Adam Driver (“Girls”). Also very good are Rufus Sewell, as the honorable Lord Melbourne; Peter Firth, as the demonic Duke of Cumberland; Daniela Holtz, as the loyal Baroness Lehzen; and Adrian Schiller, as the devious head stewart, Penge. The package adds interviews and making-of material.
Also from PBS, in partnership with OZY Media, comes “16 for ’16: The Contenders,” a documentary series profiles some of the candidates and issues that mattered in the run-up to our quadrennial Election Day exercises in futility. Also-rans typically don’t fare well in this country, although points they made on the campaign trail often are latched onto by the winners. Among the 16 campaigns covered in the eight-part series are those conducted by Jesse Jackson, Barry Goldwater, Shirley Chisholm, Ralph Nader, H. Ross Perot, Geraldine Ferraro, Howard Dean and Michael Dukakis. Through freshly conducted interviews and flashback, we learn how previous elections are still influencing those today, sometimes in unexpected ways.