“Let me try and be as direct as I possibly can with you on this. There was no relationship to repair. I didn’t intend for Harvey to buy and release The Immigrant – I thought it was a terrible idea. And I didn’t think he would want the film, and I didn’t think he would like the film. He bought the film without me knowing! He bought it from the equity people who raised the money for me in the States. And I told them it was a terrible idea, but I had no say over the matter. So they sold it to him without my say-so, and with me thinking it was a terrible idea. I was completely correct, but I couldn’t do anything about it. It was not my preference, it was not my choice, I did not want that to happen, I have no relationship with Harvey. So, it’s not like I repaired some relationship, then he screwed me again, and I’m an idiot for trusting him twice! Like I say, you try to distance yourself as much as possible from the immediate response to a movie. With The Immigrant I had final cut. So he knew he couldn’t make me change it. But he applied all the pressure he could, including shelving the film.”
~ James Gray
By Gary Dretzka Dretzka@moviecitynews.com
The DVD Wrapup: Fences, Elle, Passengers, Solace, Film/Not Film, Robert Flaherty, Drunk History and more
It’s possible to enjoy Denzel Washington’s adaptation of August Wilson’s Pulitzer-, Tony- and Drama Desk-winning play, Fences, without knowing anything about the playwright or his Pittsburgh Cycle (a.k.a., Century Cycle) of 10 plays chronicling the evolution of the African-American experience throughout the 20th Century. You could watch it simply to savor Viola Davis’ Oscar-winning performance or Washington’s interpretation of Troy Maxson, a could’ve-been baseball star, who, at 53, is supporting his family as a garbage collector for the city. The stories behind Fences’ long journey to the screen and Wilson’s rise to prominence as a distinctly American voice in the theater are definitely worth a closer look. Nine of the 10 plays in Wilson’s cycle are set in Pittsburgh’s predominantly blue-collar Hill District, which, while economically depressed, seemingly offered a secure mid-century home for a cross-section of African-American residents and recent immigrants. Even so, everything that happens in Fences is colored by Troy’s resentment over being passed over by the Major Leagues for reasons he believes range from his prison record and advanced age, to being black, which is the one he prefers to blame. His resentment is equaled by his pride at having pulled himself up by the bootstraps to be a self-sufficient family man. Troy conveniently overlooks the $3,000 stipend the government awarded his brother (Mykelti Williamson) for a traumatic head injury he suffered in the war, but was redirected to pay for the Maxsons’ modest house. Rose Maxson (Davis) is proud of her husband, but often bears the brunt of Troy’s disapproval of his trumpet-playing son from a previous marriage, Lyons (Russell Hornsby), and weekly visits for “loans.” Then, there’s the perceived disrespect shown him by their headstrong teenage son, Cory (Jovan Adepo), who’s been given an opportunity to play football at a college in North Carolina, but, for mostly selfish reasons, Troy vetoes. Rose isn’t given the opportunity to add her two cents to the debate, mostly because her husband has convinced himself that those two cents already belong to him. The voice of reason is supplied by their good-natured friend, Bono (Stephen Henderson), who he met during their time together in prison and works alongside him on the truck. The title, Fences, derives as much from the walls that failed to contain Troy’s Negro Leagues home runs, as the wooden barrier Rose has asked Troy to build around their house, but will only complete when and if Cory buckles to his demands.
In 1987, when “Fences” was first produced on Broadway, Wilson rejected prospects for any movie adaptation that wasn’t directed by an African-American. In its infinite myopia, Hollywood was unable to come up with one until producer Scott Rudin asked Washington to reprise on film his Tony-winning portrayal of Maxson in the 2010 revival of the play and direct it. Davis, Williamson, Hornsby and Henderson also agreeed to repeat their roles. A few eyebrows were raised when playwright-screenwriter Tony Kushner (“Angels in America”) was hired to build on a draft written by Wilson before his death in 2005. Finally, though, Wilson was given sole authorship of the adapted screenplay, as well as an Academy Award nomination, while Kushner is credited as co-producer. It explains why Fences sometimes feels as if it were transplanted directly from the stage and the establishing exteriors are limited to a few shots of Troy and Bono working in the streets of Pittsburgh, his visit to downtown headquarters to be promoted to driver and a shot of kids playing stickball. The movie never feels stagebound or contrived, however. Wilson’s genius for turning conversations into poetry is as evident as ever. It’s worth noting that Washington has committed to a deal with HBO to bring the other nine plays in the Pittsburgh Cycle to the premium-cable network as producer, one a year, for the next decade. The featurettes, which could have benefitted from being longer, include “Expanding the Audience: From Stage to Screen”; “The Company of Fences,” a closer look at reuniting the stage cast for the film and a few new faces; “Building Fences: Denzel Washington; “Playing the Part: Rose Maxson,” an examination of Viola Davis’ character and her performance; and “August Wilson’s Hill District.”
Not having seen La La Land – its release on Blu-ray/4K/DVD is now set for April 25 – it would be impossible for me to say with any certainty if Emma Stone’s performance was more deserving of an Academy Award than Isabelle Huppert’s, Elle, an honor for which they were both nominated. By splitting its Best Actress contest into light and dark categories, the HFPA allowed its members to accord both women their due respect and avoid any fruitless debate. In hindsight, of course, it’s easy to see how Huppert was the perfect choice to play the emotionally damaged, but fiercely resilient title character. Among the names floated ahead of Paul Verhoeven’s decision to stage Elle in France, instead of the United States, as planned, were Nicole Kidman, Sharon Stone, Julianne Moore and Diane Lane. He wanted Jennifer Jason Leigh to be considered by the producers, as well, but, “She’s an artistic presence and we were looking for names.” While Marion Cotillard and Carice van Houten then were mentioned, the combination of rape, rough consensual sex and nudity would be enough to scare any A-list actress away from the project. Huppert was the obvious choice all along, I suspect, but she wouldn’t be any easy fit in an English-language adaptation of Philippe Djian’s French-language novel, “O …” Nevertheless, at 64, Huppert is still a highly prolific and popular star in Europe, as well as an arthouse draw here. Moreover, throughout her 45-year career, she’s portrayed several female characters caught in desperate straits – beautiful and short in stature, but never fragile — and has looked as comfortable acting nude as clothed.
In Elle, her Michèle Leblanc dusts herself off after being raped and pummeled by a ski-masked intruder, clearly distressed but curiously unwillingly to bring in the police to conduct an investigation or immediately turn to anyone else for comfort and support. She goes to work, as usual, at the video-game company she runs with a close friend, Anna (Anne Consigny). We soon will learn just how conversant Michèle is with manifestations of abhorrent violence: the video games sold by her company contain nightmare visions of rape, while, as a girl, her abusive father was imprisoned as a mass murderer. A haunting photograph of the very young Michèle, staring blankly at the camera in her underwear, had been widely disseminated in France and, even decades later, she and her mother are harassed by strangers with long memories. As determined as Michèle is to not be reduced to being a victim, she does show signs of cracking. In addition to racing a deadline at work, Michèle is forced to deal with a needy ex-husband with a much younger girlfriend; a jealous lover, who’s married to her closest friend (and, likely, onetime lover); and an aimless son, trapped in a relationship with an abusive girlfriend and pregnant by another man. That’s a lot of turmoil for an actor to imbue in a character, especially one as chic as the bourgeois Michèle. Her opportunity to take control of her predicament – and turn the tables on her attacker — comes in another shocking home invasion. Huppert skillfully navigates her character through a perfect storm of diverse emotional impulses, looking disheveled and vulnerable one minute and fashionably buttoned-down the next. In the interviews included in the bonus package, Verhoeven says he intended Elle to be considered “a protest against genre” and easy pigeonholing as either a victim or avenging angel. Then, in the closing scene, the tables are turned on her in a completely unexpected way. Special features are “A Tale of Empowerment: Making Elle” and “Celebrating an Icon: AFI’s Tribute to Isabelle Huppert.”
For the Love of Spock
Ghost in the Shell: Movie: Blu-ray
Far be it for me to make excuses for a major studio, but Sony/Columbia clearly drew the short straw when its big-budget sci-fi picture Passengers was forced to open a week after Buena Vista’s even more expensive sci-fi adventure, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, just ahead of the long Christmas holiday. Even if the two movies’ narratives could hardly be more different, they both were largely set on space vessels in galaxies far, far away. And, while “Rogue One” promised fun and excitement for three generations of filmgoers, Passengers carried a distinctly mature vibe with it into megaplexes. Director Morten Tyldum (The Imitation Game) and screenwriter Jon Spaihts (Doctor Strange) imagine a time, several hundred years down the road, when Earth has become so crowded and unlivable that 5,000 people from around the globe willingly board a giant luxury liner – yes, the Titanic in outer space – for the 120-year-long voyage to the idyllic, corporate-owned colony, Homestead II. In addition to the thousands of passengers, the spacecraft is carrying 255 crew members, all of whom have been placed in a state of suspended animation for the duration. Again, in keeping with the Titanic’s first and final voyage, the ship’s protective energy shield is damaged in a collision with an asteroid. The ship’s computerized repair system corrects most of the damage, without being thrown off course or destroyed. It isn’t until one of the passengers, mechanical engineer Jim Preston (Chris Pratt), is awakened from his induced slumber, 90 years short of the spacecraft’s scheduled arrival. Jim spends the next year living in splendid isolation, with only a few maintenance robots and Arthur the android bartender (Michael Sheen) providing company. (Here, Tyldum admits to freely borrowing the bar’s look and lighting from the Gold Room bar in The Shining.) Instead of committing suicide, Jim takes a gigantic moral leap by picking out another passenger to make his ordeal easier. Given a choice of 5,000 pods from which to choose, Jim decides to disrupt the slumber of Aurora (Jennifer Lawrence), a blond beauty who looks as if she knows how to party.
It takes a while before Aurora warms to Jim and they begin to partake in the luxuries the ship offers. It takes even longer for her to learn that her predicament is anything but accidental. By then, however, the ship is starting to malfunction. Coincidentally, another pod failure awakens Gus (Laurence Fishburne), a chief deck officer and veteran space traveler. Together, they discover multiple failures in the ship’s systems that will eventually cause the ship to break down if not fixed. It opens the door for a thrilling series of precarious repair efforts that might remind viewers of Gravity. We wouldn’t be at all surprised to watch one or both of the protagonists float off into deep space, with a broken tether hanging from their space suit. The reason I don’t think young audiences here didn’t flock to Passengers – it did very well in the overseas market – is that the action that occurs in the final third of the movie comes after a bit too much courting, romance, moralizing and jogging around the ship’s interior. There’s also the incongruity of Lawrence’s many costume changes, which might have been appropriate if a character played by Elizabeth Taylor had been awakened from hibernation, not a reporter on a 250-year-long assignment (don’t ask). That said, sci-fi buffs should enjoy the amount of thought and hard work that went into the set design and scientific touches. The best occurs when Aurora is swimming in the pool in her suite – which extends from the ship’s outer shell, like the one in Playboy suite in the Las Vegas Palms resort – and a mechanical glitch knocks out the ship’s gravitational control. It causes the water to swallow up Aurora and knock her around as if she were a goldfish in a plastic bag. I also loved Sheen’s turn as the android bartender, whose computerized memory holds the recipes for thousands of cocktails and the languages of all the passengers. He also has the temperament of a professional, who’s heard all the jokes a dozen times and still manages a chuckle. The bonus package adds a great deal of background and making-of material, as well as deleted scenes, outtakes and interviews.
So much hoopla was raised in the media by last year’s 50th anniversary of “Star Trek” that anyone who wasn’t a card-carrying, costume-wearing Trekkie could be excused from wanting to see anything franchise related, at least until it begins again this spring with “Star Trek: Discovery” and “Star Trek Equinox: The Night of Time.” The title, For the Love of Spock, suggests yet another fan-driven salute to everyone’s favorite Vulcan, cobbled together after Leonard Nimoy’s death on February 27, 2015, at 83. Instead, Adam Nimoy’s compelling bio-doc celebrates the life and career of his father, without obsessing on his alter-ego, Mr. Spock, or playing down the character’s importance in his life. Originally, the film was going to focus on Spock – he’d already directed “Leonard Nimoy’s Boston” for the city’s PBS affiliate, WGBH — but his father died, Adam decided to expand the scope of the project. In addition to dozens of clips, interviews, home movies and testimonial, For the Love of Spock explores the son’s frequently troubled personal relations with his father. If these reflections sometimes disrupt the rhythm of the nearly two-hour film, they demonstrate, once again, that no one’s perfect. Fellow Bostonian Barry Newman describes the struggles they faced breaking into the business in the 1950s, while making a meager income doing odd jobs and appearing in bit parts on TV series. Nimoy shares his own anecdotes about the road to “Star Trek,” which began when he worked on Gene Roddenberry’s “The Lieutenant.” This leads to the give and take that preceded the launch of “Star Trek,” including the problems involved in shaping Spock’s trademark ears. Also testifying are William Shatner, George Takei, Nichelle Nichols, Jeffrey Katzenberg, Neil deGrasse Tyson, J.J. Abrams, Jim Parsons, Mayim Bialik, Chris Pine, Zoe Saldana and Simon Pegg, among several others. The DVD adds “Leonard Nimoy’s Boston”; a Kickstarter gallery; a Tribeca panel; “Trivia Time,” with Jason Alexander; an on-set visit with “The Big Bang Theory” cast; Adam Nimoy’s commentary and the Tribeca Teaser.
There already are two Blu-ray editions of Ghost in the Shell: Movie extant, as well as various sequels and television offshoots. The difference in Starz/Anchor Bay’s new edition is its “Mondo X SteelBook” packaging, which is nice, as far as it goes, but doesn’t make original the adaptation of the Japanese anime/manga classic any better than it already was. What the release does do, however, is anticipate Paramount’s life-action adaptation, starring Scarlett Johansson, as the Major; Michael Pitt, as Kuze; and Juliette Binoche, as a new character, Dr. Ouelet. In the anime, it’s 2029 and a cybernetic government agent, Major Motoko Kusanagi, and the Internal Bureau of Investigations, are hot on the trail of the Puppet Master. It’s a mysterious and threatening computer virus capable of infiltrating human hosts. The movie, which combines CGI with standard animation, questions human existence in the fast-paced world of the information age. Not everyone is excited about the “whitewashing” of “Ghost in the Shell” and protests have already been lodged about reports on the dubbing and use of visual effects to make white actors look Asian. But, who knows what it will turn out to be. What hasn’t been kept secret, especially as fanboy bait, is news that Johansson will appear nude, as is her character in the original. If you haven’t seen Ghost in the Shell: Movie already, I recommend checking out the Blu-ray.
The cover of Solace appears to promise a mano a mano battle between characters played Anthony Hopkins and Colin Farrell, although it’s impossible to tell from their expressions who’s the protagonist and who’s the antagonist. The only hint we’re allowed is the subtitle, “How do you stop a killer that can read your mind?” Given only that much evidence, I couldn’t wait to find out who’s mind was being read and which one these somber-looking characters was capable of doing it. About two-thirds of the way through Afonso Poyart’s 101-minute drama, I began to wonder if the producers had failed to inform the Brazilian director (Two Rabbits) that they’d hired the two-time Golden Globes-nominated actor – Lobster, In Bruges – and he was waiting in the dressing room for his call. I had just watched Passengers, in which the fifth-listed actor, Andy Garcia, appears in the last 15 seconds of the movie and doesn’t have any lines. When Farrell does make his appearance in Solace, it’s like a breath of fresh air in a room wrapped tightly with plastic sheeting. Hopkins, who couldn’t deliver a poor performance if he tried, has already established himself as a former FBI consultant, John Clancy, who used clairvoyance and psychometry to solve crimes. He’s being beckoned from an uneasy retirement by his friend, Joe Merriwether (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), and newbie agent Katherine Cowles (Abbie Cornish), who are in desperate need of help in capturing a serial killer, whose gifts include clairvoyance, clairaudience and claircognizance. They’ve kept the killer several steps ahead of the FBI, which is only now reaching out to him. Like Hannibal Lector, Clancy wants to see the case files before making a commitment. They suggest he anticipates doing battle with the master and has been setting traps to make such a confrontation happen. The problem is that far too many other seemingly unrelated things happen before the two psychically gifted men meet finally meet and are given very little time to tie up loose ends. In fact, it isn’t until the killer spells everything out for him that we’re left to wonder if he isn’t such a bad guy, after all. Legend has it that the original script for Solace was picked up by New Line as a sequel to Se7en (1995), tentatively titled “Ei8ht.” Several years after that didn’t happen, the stand-alone version of Solace – now owned by Warner Bros. – was bought by Relatively, which went bankrupt and sold it to Grindstone and Lionsgate for a limited release and DVD/Blu-ray. The faces on the cover have to count for something, after all. The disc arrives with Poyart’s commentary and an eight-minute making-of featurette.
The Forest for the Trees
Film Movement originally released The Forest for the Trees on DVD in 2006, as a Film of the Month Club selection. The company has since expanded upon the original subscription concept, which was based on making festival favorites available to viewers with little or no access to such events. It is wisely re-releasing The Forest for the Trees to piggy-back on the heat generated by Maren Ade’s third feature, Toni Erdmann, which was nominated in the Best Foreign Picture category by Academy, Globes and BAFTA voters. It will be released by Sony Classics on April 11. The Forest for the Trees, which was Ade’s film-school graduation project, follows mousy country girl Melanie Pröschle as she weathers the same rocky shoals faced by countless other teachers when they enter a classroom for the first time. She left her parents and boyfriend behind, thinking that big-city life would be exciting enough to compensate for their absence. In her first staff meeting, Melanie sets herself up for a huge fall by promoting her plans for a progressive curriculum and ability to bring a “warm breeze” of fresh ideas to the school. Naturally, the kids in her classroom are as brash and rowdy as any depicted in an American movie, including “Blackboard Jungle” and “Rock ‘n’ Roll High School.” Eager for some kind of companionship, aside from the attention of a creepy co-worker her age, Melanie orchestrates a “chance meeting” with her neighbor, Tina (Daniela Holtz). As friendships go, however, Tina’s runs as hot and cold as tenement shower. The butt of jokes at school and a thorn in Tina’s side, Melanie decides that enough is enough and she’s due a fantastical escape. Ade based the movie on stories her parents, both teachers, had shared with her. The incorrigible father in Toni Erdmann also was modeled after her father. The short film added to the DVD is Paul Cotter’s “Estes Avenue.”
Most Internet biographies of Nobel Prize-winning author Samuel Beckett introduce him as an avant-garde Irish novelist, playwright, theatre director and poet. They quickly mention, as well, that he lived in France for most of his adult life and wrote in both English and French. Anyone who isn’t already familiar with “Waiting for Godot,” his monumentally influential “tragicomedy in two acts,” probably was searching for a different Samuel Beckett. Buried deep within these biographies, if at all, is mention of Film, his only known screenplay. Commissioned by Barney Rosset, of Grove Press, as part of a larger project matching playwrights and the cinema, it was filmed in New York City in July, 1964. (Rosset had also solicited scripts from Alain Robbe-Grillet, Marguerite Duras, Eugene Ionesco and Jean Genet, to no immediate avail.) and In his first and only visit to the U.S., Beckett spent two weeks of a hellishly hot and humid Manhattan summer quietly observing the production and offering advice when solicited by first-time feature director Alan Schneider. While it debuted at the 1965 Venice Festival to acclaim, Film’s New York release prompted wildly divergent opinions from film and theater critics. The best reason for anyone who isn’t a PhD candidate to pick up the excellent Milestone restoration is the presence of 68-year-old Buster Keaton, who, at the time, was occasionally asked to appear in straight and comic roles on television, movies and the stage, but was broke, terminally ill and largely stayed busy playing imaginary games cards with long-dead studio moguls. He quickly accepted Schneider’s offer. As the 20-minute film opens Keaton’s “Man” is a lonely figure, a handkerchief over his face, skittering alongside a large brick wall in a barren patch of land on the Manhattan end of the Brooklyn Bridge. His destination is a furniture-less apartment, where, after he silently scrambles to control the cats and dog that sneak into the room as soon as he shoves them out the door. The Man commences to rip up photos of what may be his mother, himself and turn-of-century ancestors, before he is finally forced to confront his own face in a mirror. In an interview with a reporter for the New Yorker, Beckett said, “It’s a movie about the perceiving eye, about the perceived and the perceiver – two aspects of the same man. The perceiver desires like mad to perceive and the perceived tries desperately to hide. Then, in the end, one wins.” OK, but Film is worth the effort of finding just to see Keaton perform, again, in a serious work of art.
The Blu-ray adds a restored edition of Schneider’s definitive 1961 television adaptation of “Waiting for Godot,” which starred Zero Mostel and Burgess Meredith, for NET’s “Play of the Week,” as well as outtakes from cats-and-dog sequence. Also from Milestone comes film-restorationist Ross Lipman’s 2015 documentary, Notfilm, an exhaustive kino-essay on the making and meaning of Film. At 128 minutes, it is six times longer Beckett’s movie. Without it, however, I don’t think that an appreciation of Film would be fully attainable, especially for those of us without a degree in film theory or contemporary literature. Through clips, interviews, anecdotes and analysis, Lipman is able to frame Film within the context of western culture at a pivotal time in the mid-20th Century, while also deconstructing it as a cinematic treasure. Among the first sources interviewed by Lipman was in his seven-year restoration process was maverick publisher and First Amendment champion Rosset, who discovered reels under the sink in his kitchen. He then turned to Beckett’s biographer, James Knowlson; film historian Kevin Brownlow; Film actress Billie Whitelaw; Keaton’s friend and Film actor James Karen; and critic Leonard Maltin, who visited the set as a star-struck 14-year-old Keaton fan. Other featurettes include “Street Scene: A Lost Scene Reconstruction, from outtakes; audio Recordings of Beckett, Kaufman, Rosset and Schneider; “Buster Keaton and Film,” James Karen in conversation; “Memories of Samuel Beckett: An Afternoon with James Knowlson,”; “Jean Schneider: Memories of Alan Schneider”; “Jeannette Seaver: Beckett and Godot”; “Photographing Film/Photographing Beckett,” Steve Schapiro and I.C. Rapoport in conversation; a photo gallery; and “The Music of Notfilm,” with downloadable MP3 recordings by Mihály Víg.
Canoa: A Shameful Memory: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
45 Years: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
Most of what Americans remember about the 1968 Summer Olympics, held in Mexico City, between October 12-27, involves the black American medal-winners – the Australian sprinter who came in second also supported them — who raised their black-gloved fists and lowered the heads during the playing of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” They did so in solidarity with civil-rights activists back home, who were being targeted by law-enforcement agencies in the wake of riots that followed the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. and growing influence of militants in the Black Power movement. In response, IOC president Avery Brundage suspended Tommie Smith and John Carlos from the U.S. team and banned them from the Olympic Village. It triggered a huge furor in the U.S., based largely on the photographic images displayed on front pages of newspapers across the country and, likely, the globe. Ask any Mexican of a certain age and they’re likely to say that the thing they remember most about the Olympics were the widespread protests leading up to Games, under the banner of the Mexican Student Movement. They prompted the country’s right-wing government to impose strict restrictions on speech and assembly, as well as a visible military presence.
Ten days before Opening Ceremonies were scheduled to begin, army and police snipers were ordered to open fire on a gathering of some 10,000 protesters in the Plaza de las Tres Culturas, in the Tlatelolco section of Mexico City. Early government reports put the death toll at between 20-28 people, with hundreds wounded and 1,300 more arrested. The foreign media, which had yet to reach Mexico City to cover the Olympics, were unable to verify the extend of the massacre and accepted the lowball figures from partially complicit U.S. authorities there. Most of the Mexican media reported that the students provoked the army’s violent response with sniper fire of their own, from the apartment buildings surrounding the plaza. Witnesses and other non-government observers estimated that at least 300 students and bystanders were killed or made to disappear. The Games went on as planned, with visitors from around the world largely ignorant of the actual carnage. It would take another 32 years and toppling of the longtime ruling party for an impartial investigation and accurate tally of casualties. It supported the eyewitness reports.
Eight years later, Felipe Cazals and writer Tomás Pérez Turrent’s Canoa: A Shameful Memory would become the first Mexican movie to dare challenge official accounts of the summer of student protests and comment on the deep schisms within mainstream Mexican society and the Catholic Church, which, itself, was split between hard-liners and the priests espousing liberation theology. As far as I know, the new Criterion Collection Blu-ray edition of the movie offers American viewers their first glimpse of the winner of the Special Jury Prize at the 1976 Berlin International Film Festival. It’s about time. Canoa: A Shameful Memory employs a Brechtian narration conceit to re-stage the 24-hour period that led to and followed the savage attacks on five innocent hikers, two weeks before the Tlatelolco massacre in the capital. The tragedy occurred in the impoverished rural village of San Miguel de Canoa, about 120 km southeast of Mexico City, in the shadow of La Malinche. News of the protests in the capital and universities around Mexico had reached villagers through politically slanted television reports and the fiery rhetoric of the local priest (Enrique Lucero), who not only calls the demonstrators godless communists, but also the physical embodiments of Satan on Earth. He demands from the easily bullied parishioners that they maintain a militant vigilance against outsiders, while simultaneously picking their pockets of whatever centavos they have. It is into this highly charged atmosphere that five employees of the Autonomous University of Puebla – employees, not students – arrive in the village, by bus, on a rain-soaked evening. The only shelter afforded the young men, who were turned away from the church and jail, is the home of a resident who freely shares his disdain for the priest. Before long, word is passed via a public loudspeaker that Satan’s envoys have, indeed, arrived and are about to plant the “communist flag” at the church’s altar, defile their animals and steal snacks from the village store. After a lynch mob is mobilized, four of the five outsiders and the man who opened his door to them are beaten, slashed and shot to death. Ambulance drivers are denied access to the village, before military police are called to quell the violence. Meanwhile, the priest who fomented the lynching – a dead ringer for Peoples Temple founder Jim Jones — stands in the background, acting like the cat that ate the canary.
Canoa: A Shameful Memory is most effective in its characterizations of the dirt-poor peasants, whose misplaced pride and religious convictions turn them into mindless killers. Cazals builds tension by shifting the camera’s perspective from the hikers’ points-of-views, to the church, bar and homes of the villagers. Cinematographer Álex Phillips Jr. is especially adept at finding whatever light is available – the mob’s torches, bare lightbulbs –and using it to illuminate the horror, without rubbing our noses in it. I don’t know if Cazals would consider himself to be a student of Costa-Gavras’ documentary-style indictments, but “Canoa” feels as if it were made with Z, State of Siege and The Confession in mind. Although there aren’t as many bonus features attached as most Criterion titles, the conversation between Cazals and Alfonso Cuarón (Gravity), describing the effect the movie had on a new generation of Mexican filmmakers, is fascinating. A new introduction by Guillermo del Toro and essay by critic Fernanda Solórzano also are included.
It’s only taken nine months for “45 Years” to be given the Criterion treatment, after a perfectly decent Blu-ray release by Paramount last June. The difference between them, I suspect, lies in a bonus package that includes the original Sundance Select theatrical trailer; “The Making of 45 Years,” with clips and fresh interviews with director Andrew Haigh, Tom Courtenay, Charlotte Rampling, producer Tristan Goligher and editor Jonathan Alberts; commentary with Haigh and Tristan Goligher; a new video interview with author and poet David Constantine, who discusses Haigh’s adaptation of his short story; and an illustrated leaflet featuring an essay by critic Ella Taylor. The title refers to the 45 years of marriage Geoff and Kate soon will celebrate, as well as his sublimated memory of the woman he loved and lost before he met his wife. A letter addressed to Geoff from Germany informs him – and Kate, who’s only heard of the woman – that her body has been discovered in a glacier, somewhere in the Swiss Alps. Not only that, but, even after 45 years in the deep freeze, her body is in perfect condition. Geoff’s reaction to the discovery makes Kate wonder if she’s been playing second-fiddle to a ghost for all that time or he’s just experiencing a particularly disturbing senior moment. It’s a neat premise and Rambling and Courtney are terrific.
To Tell the Truth
A Boatload of Wild Irishmen
When is a documentary not a fact-based reflection of the truth? When it’s propaganda. OK, but is it possible for a documentary to also be propaganda? In the same way that history is said to be written by the victors, the difference between documentaries and propaganda depends on whether the ox is being gored or doing the goring. These and other questions are raised in Calvin Skaggs’ two-part To Tell the Truth, which, in “Working for Change,” explores the evolution of the non-fiction genre through social documentary films, from 1929 through 1941, and, in “The Strategy of Truth,” examines the uses of documentary/propaganda during World War II. The latter allows us to wonder how the Third Reich would have treated Colonel Frank Capra, mastermind of the U.S. Army’s “Why We Fight” series, if Germany had won the war. After the Nazis were defeated, Allied forces hunted down Triumph of the Will director Leni Riefenstahl and virtually assured that she would be ostracized from the international film community. In “The Strategy for Truth,” we’re shown how Capra’s 1944 follow-up, “The Negro Soldier,” was used to soften African-Americans’ reluctance to serve in an officially segregated and, frequently, downright racist military, typically in service, custodial and maintenance jobs. He also hoped the film would convince white Americans of the patriotism of black soldiers and positive role they’re already playing in the war effort. Although it was an undeniably impressive piece of work, it’s foundation was built on sand. Among the people interviewed are Alec Baldwin, the late Agnes Varda and Kevin Brownlow. It adds John Huston’s wartime contributions, “Anatomy of a Jeep” and “Let There Be Light,” which was suppressed for 30 years. It’s also worth noting that many of the progressive filmmakers who participated in the U.S. Office of War Information’s propaganda campaign would be thanked by being blacklisted and banished from Hollywood.
Several generations of film students knew Robert Flaherty as the “father” of the modern documentary film. Revisionist historians probably would argue that the director of “Nanook of the North,” “Moana,” “Man of Aran” and “Louisiana Story” is the father of modern reality-based programming. That, however, would have us stipulate that “reality based” and the manipulation of known cultural and historical facts for the purposes of mainstream entertainment are synonymous, which they most assuredly are not. The whimsically titled “A Boatload of Wild Irishmen” makes the case for the latter, while explaining why his films are as relevant and emulated today as they’ve been for most of the last 90 years. Flaherty is said to have opened Pandora’s box by demonstrating how filming the everyday life of real people could be molded into dramatic, entertaining narratives. If the events and dialogue shown on the big screen didn’t take place in precisely the same order as they were captured by the camera, it wasn’t because Flaherty hadn’t studied them for countless days and hours ahead of time. And, if the ethnographic details were fudged, who back home in the U.S. would know it. Certainly not, paying customers. The title, A Boatload of Wild Irishmen, refers to the Aran Island fishermen he convinced to go to sea in a stiff gale and risk their life attempting to make it back to shore unscathed. Mac Dara Ó’Curraidhín and writer Brian Winston’s 2010 warts-and-all documentary is best when drawing a portrait of a Hollywood original and old-school adventurer who lived the kind of life others only read about in books or observed in newsreels during double-features. The film benefits from much archival footage, clips and interviews with people who either are related to people in the documentaries or remember when they were being made. Joseph Boudreaux, who played “the Boy” in 1948’s The Louisiana Story, may not have appeared in another movie, but he’s lived long enough to re-live some of the hunting and fishing scenes staged by Flaherty for Ó’Curraidhín.
The Gospel of Mark
Every once in a while, some ambitious producer decides that it might be fun to make a series of movies based on stories from the Old Testament or New Testament gospels. This doesn’t include the individual Hollywood biblical epics that Cecil B. DeMille churned out for holiday viewing for more than 30 years or such politically and spiritually charged stand-alones as Pier Paolo Pasolini’s The Gospel According to St. Matthew and Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ. In the mid-1960s, Dino De Laurentiis announced that The Bible: In the Beginning …,” directed by and starring John Huston as Noah, would be the first in a series of feature films based on the books of the Bible. When Fox lost $1.5 million on the deal, however, it abandoned any plans for sequels. Imagine if God had simply pulled the plug on humanity after Sodom and Gomorrah, instead wasting good fire and brimstone on it, and waited for something cheaper and more malleable to come along in its place? Thirty years later, a group of producers led by former Jimmy Carter aide Gerald Rafshoon commissioned a series of seven classic Old Testament stories — employing top-shelf actors, directors and composers – even going so far as to build a production facility in Ouarzazate, Morocco. They established a worldwide distribution network, taking advantage of new cable- and satellite-delivery systems. It has since been recycled several times over in DVD and other cable networks. The Gospel of Mark is the third of four films from a consortium of production companies with experience in the Christian subgenre. The others are The Gospel of Luke/John/Matthew. The simplicity of the idea is practically inspirational. Each depicts the life and toils of Jesus Christ, as written in the gospels. Narrated in English, they adhere to the New International Version of the scripture, while the actors speak in Aramaic. (You’d have to lip read Aramaic to understand it, though.) Each installment shares David Batty, as director; Selva Rasalingam, as Jesus; Karima Gouit, as Mary; Leila El Fadili, as Mary Magdelene; El Housseine Dejjiti, as Judas Iscariot; and so on and so forth. No screenwriters are credited and it’s entirely possible they used the same Moroccan facilities as the ones built by Rafshoon. I was impressed by how effective the concept worked as cinema and entertainment. The casting of Middle Eastern and Northern African actors and extras adds verisimilitude missing in past religious epics. The featurettes include “Deconstructing a Scene,” “Building Jerusalem,” “Composing the Gospels,” “Filming the Gospels” and “Narrating the Gospels.”
Beyond Redemption: Blu-ray
Return of Kung Fu Trailers of Fury: Blu-ray
It took a while for me to figure out where Beyond Redemption, the debut feature by stuntman-turned-director Bruce Fontaine, was set and why all the Asian characters were speaking undubbed English. That’s because Vancouver isn’t the first place that comes to mind when organized crime comes to mind … great food, welcoming Canadians and cruise-ship depots, sure … but Triads? In the 2011 National Household Survey, it was determined that 27 percent of Vancouver’s “visible minority” community – or, roughly, 163,000 people – were of Chinese ancestry. Apparently, many of the city’s wealthy Asian immigrants winter in places other than British Columbia, so the number fluctuates. In the 1980s, Canadian martial arts expert Fontaine made a name for himself as a western gweilo villain and stuntman in Hong Kong cinema. He’s since returned to B.C. to train actors working in western Canada’s film industry. In Beyond Redemption, undercover cop Billy Tong (Brian Ho) fights his way into the inner circle of a street gang that’s kidnapped the daughter of a Triad boss and is in danger of becoming collateral damage in a police sting … or something like that. Frankly, the only things that work in Fontaine’s film are the action sequences. With so many first-rate martial-arts exports now available on DVD and PPV, though, it’ll take more than a few good fights to compete with Hong Kong as a reliable producer of such products. But, then, they probably said the same thing about Vancouver and Toronto before they were turned into Hollywood North and New York North. The package adds short studies of two fighting scenes.
Anyone interested in seeing just how far the Hong Kong film industry has come since Bruce Lee turned it into a prime source for action flicks should pick up “Kung Fu Trailers of Fury” or the newly released “Return of Kung Fu Trailers of Fury.” The sequel adds 35 more original trailers from the Golden Age of Martial Arts Cinema, starring such legends as Angela Mao, Bolo Yeung, Don Wong, Chang Yi, Bruce Li, Leanne Liu, Lo Lieh and, yes, even Chuck Norris. According to the marketing material, it’s “another invincible collection of treachery, brutality, swordplay, wirework, darting daggers, flying fists and the most insane fighting styles ever unleashed on celluloid,” with “insane” being the operative adjective. Considering that the plots of these movies were as nonsensical as the action was fun to watch, the extended previews contain most of what made the movies watchable in the first place. The Blu-ray makes them look better than they have in 40 years, but no less off the wall. Among the titles represented are Yellow-Faced Tiger, Bruce and the Iron Finger, Revenge of the Shaolin Kid, The Avenging Boxer, Snuff-Bottle Connection, Hell’s Windstaff, Thundering Mantis, The Legendary Strike, Kung Fu Killers, Crazy Horse & Intelligent Monkey and Shaolin Invincible Sticks. Audio commentary is provided by writer Ric Meyers (“Films of Fury”), Frank Djeng (New York Asian Film Festival), martial arts instructor Greg Schiller and Ric Stelow, of Drunken Master Video
Firestarter: Collector’s Edition: Blu-ray
Drive-In Massacre: Blu-ray
By 1984, when Firestarter was released into theaters, seven of the eight novels Stephen King had written under his own name – as opposed to Richard Bachman — and five of his short stories had been adapted for the screen. His first book “Carrie,” had been turned into a supernatural horror film that launched or expanded the careers of Sissy Spacek, Nancy Allen, William Katt, Amy Irving, and John Travolta, and confirmed Brian DePalma’s promise as a potential successor to master of suspense Alfred Hitchcock. Like Spacek’s telekinetic Carrie, Drew Barrymore’s Charlene ‘Charlie’ McGee has been gifted/cursed with psychic powers she sometimes has trouble controlling. In an extreme stretch of narrative logic, the cute 8-year-old has inherited ESP and the ability to start fires – pyrokinesis, if you will — from her parents, Vickie and Andy (Heather Locklear, David Keith). While in college, they had participated in a controlled trial of a mind-expanding drug, like LSD, coming out of it with telepathic and other psychic abilities. When Charlie’s powers first manifested themselves, they were fairly easy to contain. Before long, however, her pyrokinesis grew far more powerful. Andy was able to teach his daughter how to extinguish the fires she started, but her ESP failed to predict that agents from the federal Department of Scientific Intelligence (a.k.a., “the Shop”) would murder Vickie while kidnapping the child. Andy is able to short-circuit the agents’ efforts to bring Charlie into the Shop, causing them to seek refuge with an anti-government farmer and his wife (Art Carney, Louise Fletcher) who provide them with a vehicle to a secluded cabin on a beautiful North Carolina lake. When they make the mistake of telegraphing their location in a letter to the New York Times, Captain Hollister (Martin Sheen), sends Agent John Rainbird (George C. Scott) to capture them and stop the release of state secrets. Father and daughter are kept in separate living units until the pony-tailed, half-Cherokee Rainboard allows them to escape. Inexplicably, he hates Charlie and vows to kill her. The final fiery showdown – none of which is beholden to computer graphics – provides a showcase for some of the industry’s top stuntmen and pyro technicians. Throw in a juicy musical score by Tangerine Dream and Firestarter is a guilty pleasure for the ages. The Shout!Factory Collector’s Edition adds commentary with director Mark L. Lester; a 53-minute making-of featurette, featuring interviews with Lester, actors Freddie Jones, Drew Snyder and stuntman/actor Dick Warlock, and Johannes Schmoelling of Tangerine Dream; a visit to Schmoelling’s studio and performance of “Charlie’s Theme”; and a stills gallery.
Released in 1976, at the dawn of the slasher era, Stu Segall’s Drive-In Massacre is less a a guilty pleasure than an extremely cheesy one. Even so, buffs and completists probably will want to check it out as a historical document, if only to see how things were done when no one in Hollywood wanted to touch the genre. As the title suggests, a sword-wielding serial killer is slaughtering young men and women at a SoCal drive-in theater, seemingly for the crime of demonstrating their affection for each other in public. The killings are gruesome, if not particularly credible, and the usual drive-in hijinks are limited to a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it topless scene. The primary suspects include the drive-in manager, who hates everyone and everything involved in the exhibition business; his unpaid maintenance man, who once labored as a geek in a carnival; a drooling voyeur; and various suspicious characters who come out of left field when the action begins to lag. The Ozploitation classic, Dead-End Drive-In wouldn’t arrive for another 10 years, so, I guess, you can say Drive-In Massacre was ahead of its time. Believe it or not, the movie was restored from the original camera negative, recently discovered in the ruins of the Sky View Drive-In, near Oxnard. The bonus features include commentary with Segall; and interviews with star/co-writer John F. Goff, actor Norm Sheridan and Segall.
Because writer/director Erlingur Thoroddsen is from Iceland, we’re free to wonder if the boogeyman at the heart of his nifty first feature is used by parents around the world to scare their children into behaving properly at night or it’s strictly an American invention. Trolls condemned to live under bridges around the world probably serve the same purpose as bogeymen, but, today, the only beings who live under bridges are homeless people, so, where do they go? Child Eater expands upon a short film of the same title that Thoroddsen took on the festival circuit in 2012. Its bogeyman has a name and a history, but, likewise, is used by parents to scare their children. As the legend goes, a fellow named Robert Bowery owned a petting zoo in the 1970s, but he was forced to close it when he was diagnosed with macular degeneration. On the last day of its operation, it was discovered that all the children visiting the zoo had their eyes ripped out. Ever since, adults have used the story to convince children not to stray too deeply into the forest. In the present day, a curious kid named Lucas (Colin Critchley) and his parents have moved into a house next to the old zoo. Soon, the boy begins telling stories about seeing a scary looking man wandering around the property, and he bears a striking resemblance to the eyeless Bowery. Then, one night, when his parents have hired a babysitter, Lucas simply disappears into the night. Frightened that she’s blown the gig, Helen (Cait Bliss) picks up a flashlight and follows his footprints into the zoo. Child Eater benefits from cinematographer John Wakayama Carey’s ability to shoot at night and not lose the characters in the darkness and an early scene in which a little girl from a quarter-century earlier is shown holding her own severed eyes, innocently delivering the line, “He hurt me.”
Stevie Ray Vaughan: 1984-1989: Lonestar
Texas blues-rocker Stevie Ray Vaughan bought his ticket to Rock ’n’ Roll Heaven on August 27, 1990, when he decided to hitch a ride from Wisconsin to Chicago on one of the four helicopters reserved for Eric Clapton and his entourage. They’d just finished a two-show gig at Alpine Valley and the night sky was heavy with fog. The chopper with Vaughan aboard failed to navigate a 150-foot ski hill and crashed into it, 50 feet below the summit. Legend has it that Clapton gave up his seat to make room for his friend and fellow guitar god, but he’s since denied that was the case. The incisive bio-doc Stevie Ray Vaughan: 1984-1989: Lonestar picks where Sexy Intellectual’s previous documentary, Rise of a Texas Bluesman: Stevie Ray Vaughan: 1954-1983, left off. His debut album, “Texas Flood,” had finally been released to widespread praise and solid sales, and his name was being mentioned in the same breath as Clapton, Jimi Hendrix and Elmore James. Typically, though, one out-of-the-chute success doth not a career make. Vaughan’s demons laid in wait ahead of him and he drove himself and bandmates to the point of exhaustion to avoid losing forward momentum. The 108-minute “Lonestar” is enhanced by rare film footage; exclusive interviews with many close friends and confidantes; contributions from industry professionals and music writers who documented Vaughan’s career as it unfolded; seldom seen photographs; and more concert footage than usual for these unauthorized docs.
Comedy Central: Drunk History: Season 4
PBS Kids: Super WHY!: Triple Feature
PBS Kids: Wild Kratts: Triple Feature
Among the many highlights of the fourth season of Comedy Central’s “Drunk History” is Lin-Manuel Miranda’s narrating of the story of Alexander Hamilton, Aaron Burr and the infamous duel that not only shaped a young nation, but also Miranda’s smash Broadway musical. The trick here is, of course, recounting it while three sheets to the wind. Not drunk are the actors mouthing the narrators’ words, whether or not they make sense. Here, Alia Shawkat plays Hamilton and Aubrey Plaza is Burr. Other founding fathers are portrayed by Tony Hale, David Wain and Bokeem Woodbine. Among the other luminaries featured are Timothy Leary (Thomas Lennon), Marilyn Monroe and Ella Fitzgerald (Juno Temple, Gabourey Sidibe), Carry A. Nation (Vanessa Bayer), Andrew Jackson (Michael Cera), Charles Ponzi (Jesse Plemons) and Julia Child (Michaela Watkins).
In “Super WHY!: Triple Feature,” Whyatt and the Super Readers embark on entertaining and educational adventures set in such classic fairytales as“Humpty Dumpty,” “Hansel & Gretel” and “Jack and the Beanstalk.” The three previously released DVDs are bundled together onto two discs, logging in at 280 minutes. Young viewers can learn from helping Cinderella get ready for a party at the prince’s castle, by spelling D-R-E-S-S and using an alphabet map to aid Hensel and Gretel in their search for the witch’s house. In total, the Super Readers go on 10 journeys designed to help them with the critical skills they need to learn to read.
In “Wild Kratts: Triple Feature” kids are invited to Join Martin and Chris Kratt as they meet amazing animals from around the world. Here, three previously released DVDs – “Predator Power,” “Lost at Sea,” “Rainforest Rescue” — are bundled together onto one 205-minute disc. Among the eight stories included are “Stuck on Sharks,” “Mimic,” “Little Howler,” “Raptor Roundup,” “Speaking Dolphinese,” “Blowfish Blowout,” “Rainforest Stew” and “Shadow: The Black Jaguar.”