By Gary Dretzka Dretzka@moviecitynews.com
The DVD Wrapup: Moana, Brand New Testament, Weissensee Saga, 100 Streets, and more
Seventy-five years ago, at the behest of President Franklin Roosevelt, Walt Disney embarked on a good-will mission to South America. FDR knew that America would soon be forced to intercede in the war in Europe, at least, and Adolf Hitler and Francisco Franco had already made political and financial inroads there. Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck had already won the affection of tens of thousands of people there and Disney was greeted warmly everywhere he went. His absence from the Burbank studio coincided with the bitter walkout by animators unhappy over broken promises and the firing of a key ally. The Good Neighbor Policy excursion south not only allowed for a cooling-off period, during which federal mediators worked out a settlement, but it also led to the Oscar-nominated package pictures, Saludos Amigos and Three Caballeros. The sponsors allowed Disney to bring along a group of roughly 20 composers, artists, writers and technicians, whose observations directly informed both of the movies, which debuted in South America and Mexico before their American premieres. It’s paid dividends ever since, especially through the popularity of José “Zé” Carioca, a dapper, cigar-smoking parrot who’s served the same branding purpose as Jiminy Cricket. Today, it isn’t unusual for Disney/Pixar creative personnel to be flown to countries that will provide the settings for animation projects. In 2011, directors John Musker and Ron Clements (The Princess and the Frog) fell in love with the idea of a project based on Polynesian mythology and the heroic exploits of the demigod Maui. They pitched the original treatment for Moana to Pixar-Disney Animation boss John Lasseter, who recommended they go on research trips to Fiji, Samoa and Tahiti.
Over time, Moana was reshaped from a story focused on Maui to one that chronicles the historic migrations of Polynesian people and their symbiotic relationship with the ocean. They decided to set the film at the end of the last great mass exodus, about two thousand years ago, on a fictional island in the central Pacific Ocean, not unlike Fiji, Samoa and Tonga. The protagonist became Moana, the daughter of a chief, and she would be voiced by Hawaiian teenager Auli’i Cravalho. Dwayne Johnson, whose mother is of Samoan background, was hired to voice the repurposed Maui. In another critical decision, Disney recruited a variety of experts on Polynesian history and culture to ensure authenticity and pre-empt what had become almost pro-forma accusations of cultural insensitivity in earlier features. Throughout the production process, revisions to everything from language and characterizations, to hair styles,, tattoos and ancillary products, were suggested and made. The result is a wonderfully entertaining family movie whose Oceania influences are reflected in the color palate, music, dance, dress, physical backdrops and customs.
As the story of Moana now goes, a small jade stone that is the mystical heart of the island goddess Te Fiti is stolen by the demigod Maui, who was planning to give it to humanity as a gift. As he makes his escape, he is attacked by the lava demon Te Kā, causing the heart of Te Fiti and Maui’s power-granting magical fish hook to be lost in the ocean. A millennium later, Moana Waialiki is chosen by the ocean spirit to receive the heart, but drops it when her father, Chief Tui (Temuera Morrison), comes to get her. He insists the island provides everything the villagers need, but, years later, fish become scarce and the island’s vegetation begins dying. After Tui forbids Moana from going “beyond the reef” to find more fish, her grandmother, Tala (Rachel House), encourages the precocious princess to trust her ancestral instincts and take to the sea to save their people. She sets out with her pet rooster, Heihei (Alan Tudyk), to find Maui, recover the hook and heart, and make Te Fiti happy, again. It could just as easily been Jose, Jiminy or Tink. The extensive bonus package adds the short films, “Inner Workings” and “Gone Fishing,” with Maui; the deleted song, “Warrior Face”; “Voice of the Islands,” on the filmmakers’ trip to the islands and islanders’ trips to Burbank; rapid-fire Q&As with the talent; deleted scenes; commentary with the directors; and several making-of featurettes.
The Brand New Testament: Blu-ray
Belgium may not be the largest country in the world, or even northern Europe, but its contributions to cinema are substantial. Among the names and titles that have been honored at festivals and awards ceremonies over the past 40 years, or so, are Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne (Rosetta, L’Enfant), Chantal Akerman (Jeanne Dielman, 23 Commerce Quay, 1080 Brussels), Marc Didden (Brussels by Night), Robbe De Hert (Blueberry Hill), animators Nicole van Goethem (A Greek Tragedy) and Raoul Servais (Harpya), Stijn Coninx (Daens), Erik Van Looy (The Alzheimer Case), Nic Balthazar (Ben X), Lieven Debrauwer (Pauline and Paulette), Michaël R. Roskam (Bullhead) and Rémy Belvaux, André Bonzel and Benoît Poelvoorde (Man Bites Dog). And, while most of these films would hardly qualify as mainstream entertainments, it should be noted that Belgian bad-ass Jean-Claude Van Damme starred in Mabrouk El Mechri’s JCVD (2008), one of the most engaging and intelligent martial-arts/action flicks made anywhere west of Pacific Rim. If Belgian surrealist artist René Magritte had followed the lead of Salvador Dali and Luis Buñuel and ventured into a cinematic collaboration, like Un Chien Andalou, the result might have looked something like Jaco Van Dormael’s feature debut, Toto le héros (1991), which won the Caméra d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival. In it, 8-year-old Thomas Van Hasebroeck is convinced that he was exchanged with his neighbor, Alfred, the day of their birth during a fire in the hospital. As a result, Thomas comes to believe he is living the life God intended for Alfred, and vice versa. He resents Alfred’s good fortune and spends most of own life seeking revenge for the perceived injustice. Once seen, it lingers in the memory like a brilliantly colored dream that combines mystery, fantasy, drama, action and comedy. Van Dormael’s 1996 follow-up, The Eighth Day, features an unexpected friendship that develops between an unhappy salesman (Daniel Auteuil) and a young man (Pascal Duquenne) with Down’s syndrome, who’s just escaped from a mental institution. His 2009 drama/fantasy/romance Mr. Nobody examines the life of Nemo Nobody (Jared Leto), a 118-year-old man who is the last mortal on Earth after the human race has achieved quasi-immortality. The English-language story is told through the different lives Nemo would have led, had he made different choices as a 9-year-old boy, waiting at a train station. It starred Jared Leto, Sarah Polley and Diane Kruger. Kiss & Cry (2011) is an experimental fantasy featuring miniatures and dancing hands.
Anyone familiar with Joan Osborne’s 1995 hit record “One of Us” will immediately recognize the conceit in Van Dormeal’s his delightfully playful surrealist fantasy, The Brand New Testament. The song asks, “What if God was one of us?/Just a slob like one of us/Just a stranger on the bus/Tryin’ to make his way home …” In the film, God has taken up residence in an apartment in Brussels he shares with his meek and disengaged wife (Yolande Moreau) and 10-year-old daughter Ea (Pili Groyne), to whom he is emotionally and physically abusive. God (Benoît Poelvoorde) is a grumpy sadist who created humankind specifically to have something to torment. He manipulates reality via a personal computer, which, one day, Ea manages to hack and provide everyone on Earth the day and hour of their deaths. She escapes the apartment through a washing machine that provides a worm hole to the outside world. Jesus, materializing in the form of a religious statue in the kitchen, encourages his sister to defy their father by gathering a motley crew of disciples and writing a brand-new New Testament. Her six apostles include a one-armed woman, a sex maniac, a killer, a woman who has been left by her husband, an office worker and a gender-dysphoric child. Catherine Deneuve’s love-starved housewife is the funniest and most absurd vignette of them all. Meanwhile, in his blundering attempt to corral his daughter, God is cursed by having to play by the same maniacal laws he imposed on humans living outside his apartment. It wouldn’t be fair to spoil any more of the surprises, except to point out that they are consistent with our dependence on personal computers and the plot isn’t any more blasphemous than “One of Us.” In Van Dormael’s hands, it’s a celebration life and love. The Music Box package adds interviews with the director and making-of material.
It’s easy to draw comparisons between Robin Pront’s directorial debut, The Ardennes, and David Mackenzie’s Oscar-nominated Hell or High Water. In each, a pair of brothers – one a hot-headed ex-con – embark on a crime spree intended to fund what turns out to be an impossible dream of going straight. The violence, which is harsh and explosive in both pictures, is diluted somewhat by one of the brothers’ relationship with a woman who decided over time to modify her own behavior. The settings could hardly be any more diverse, however. While Mackenzie’s drama played out against a bleak and wind-swept background of the American Southwest, The Ardennes is set in the gritty working-class neighborhoods of Antwerp, as well as the dense forests of Belgium and Luxembourg. Brothers Dave and Kenneth (Jeroen Perceval, Kevin Janssens) are reunited on Kenneth’s release after four years in prison, following a failed home invasion. While Kenneth is anxious to dive headfirst into the drug-centered existence that ensnared him in the first place, both Dave and his brother’s former girlfriend, Sylvie, have adopted clean lifestyles. When Kenneth begins to sense that Sylvie was unfaithful to him while he was away, he goes on a tear that threatens to pull everyone into a maelstrom of violence and death. Tonally, at least, The Ardennes will remind viewers of Michaël R. Roskam’s Bullhead. Many of the same actors and producers — Jeroen Perceval, Bart Van Langendonck — involved in that crime drama play key roles here. Even if the narrative doesn’t always keep pace with the action sequences, the imaginatively staged shootouts, fistfights and emotional eruptions should please fans of such things. The Film Movement DVD adds commentary and an interview with director Pront and Janssens; a making-of featurette; a short film by director Robin Pront, “Injury Time”; a director’s statement; and the distributor’s “Why-We-Selected” statement.
100 Streets: Blu-ray
Fans of such British TV series as “Luther,” “Rebus,” “The Inspector Lynley Mysteries,” “Beowulf: Return to the Shieldlands,” “Hollyoaks” and “EastEnders” are the target audience for 100 Streets, a trio of interconnected stories that play out within an economically and racially diverse section of London. The title suggests that it’s an extension of screenwriter Leon Butler’s debut short, “One Square Mile: London.” In the first segment, Idris Alba plays a retired rugby star, Max, whose womanizing has caused him to be kicked out of the home he shared with his estranged wife (Gemma Arterton) and children. His massive ego prevents him from giving them the space they need to heal from his abuses. Eventually, the green-eyed monster of jealousy will force Max into the same corner as Othello. If that’s too obvious a comparison, Alba makes the most of it, at least. Ken Stott (“The Vice”) plays a retired actor who sees something in a local gang-banger and drug dealer (Franz Drameh) that’s invisible to everyone else in the boy’s circle. Even as Terence and Max’s wife, also a semi-retired performer, attempt to turn Kingsley into an actor, his street cronies vow to keep him in the game. The third story involves a cabbie and soccer coach (Charlie Creed-Miles), who made a mistake years earlier that could block his and his wife’s efforts to adopt a child. Meanwhile, an unavoidable accident puts him into a depressive state that threatens his marriage. 100 Streets may not be the most original of stories, but the actors give it their all … which is plenty.
Cold War 2: Blu-ray
Upon its release in 2012, Sunny Luk and Longmond Leung’s Cold War was promoted as the second coming of international hit, Infernal Affairs, which spawned a prequel, sequel and Martin Scorsese adaptation, The Departed. While, it didn’t have the same desired impact, Cold War left enough people wanting more to warrant Cold War II. Fans of the original will recall how a van carrying five highly trained Hong Kong police officers and equipment was hijacked by criminal/terrorists demanding a huge ransom. Thanks to an informant inside the department, the hijackers always managed to stay one step ahead of the police. A power struggle at the highest level of the police hierarchy suggests there’s plenty of room for intrigue. Left unresolved at the end of the thriller were the identity of the mole and whereabouts of the van. Cold War II picks up a while after the events of the original, which ended in a successful rescue operation, with the kidnapping of the wife and daughter of Commissioner of Police Sean Lau (Aaron Kwok). The ransom demand this time involves the release of an imprisoned hijacker, who has connections of his own within the department. Lau’s former rival, the retired commissioner M.B. Waise Lee (Tony Ka Fai Leung), is called upon to rein in the ringleaders and determine, once and for all, who’s in control of Hong Kong. And, of course, there’s the unresolved matter of the mole. Despite a bit too much talk and posturing, the action sequences are sufficient reason to recommend Cold War II to admirers of the original. An EPK-style behind-the-scenes featurette is included.
Trespass Against Us: Blu-ray
To completely understand and appreciate Adam Smith’s ferocious theatrical debut, Trespass Against Us, a wee bit of knowledge about England’s “travelling people” is necessary. Although all three groups play by their own set of rules and answer to family before law-enforcement authorities, they believe in a God-given right to navigate the highways and backroads of the U.K., camping illegally on public or private land and causing mayhem wherever they weigh anchor. The original Rom Gypsies aren’t as prominent in Britain as they are on the continent; Irish Travelers, comprise an itinerant ethnic group (a.k.a., pavees, pikeys and tinkers) that maintains a set of religious, cultural and familial traditions; and Scottish Highland Travelers, known as Tinkers for their origins as itinerant tinsmiths, no longer mend household utensils for income. Although hundreds of thousands of gypsies were slaughtered in World War II, Roms and Travelers don’t appear to be protected by any politically correct guidelines. No ethnic group is more widely and freely slandered, although some filmmakers have attempted to give them a fairer shake than others: The Man Who Cried, The Red Violin, Black Cat/White Cat, I Even Met Happy Gypsies, Time of the Gypsies, The Field, Into the West and Trojan Eddie. Like The Harder They Come, whose English-language dialogue and patois demanded the addition of subtitles. Trespass Against Us not only could benefit from subtitles, but footnotes, as well. Conversations are peppered with Shelta or Cant, dialects that bear enough of a resemblance to English as to be confusing, if not indecipherable to outsiders and moviegoers.
Michael Fassbender plays Chad Cutler, the second generation in a small band of Irish Travelers living in a slum of their own creation somewhere in the scenic west of England. His father, Colby (Brendan Gleeson), is the rough-hewn patriarch of the clan, which enjoys a parasitic relationship to their upscale neighbors. He enjoys nothing more than telling tall tales around the campfire and reminding his grandchildren not to believe anything they learn at school. Even so, Chad and his wife (Lyndsey Marshall) are adamant that their children get an education. While Chad envisions a more conventional future for the kids, he’s limited to a life of crime, kicks and car chases … lots of them. The drama comes when he attempts to wrest control of his brood from his father and brothers, without being completely disowned by them. Smith and screenwriter Alastair Siddons don’t always succeed in balancing drama with action, but it’s lots of fun to watch … in a Tarantino-ish sort of way. Finally, though, apart from Chad’s wife and children, there’s no one in Trespass Against Us that stands out as being particularly sympathetic. The Chemical Brothers’ score is a big plus. Special features include “Blood Bonds: On the Set of Trespass Against Us” and “Heartfelt,” in which Smith discusses his collaborations with the Chemical Brothers.
Tupac: Assassination: Battle for Compton: Blu-ray
Last month, in this space, I commented on Michael Dorsey’s Murder Rap: Inside the Biggie and Tupac Murders, a documentary largely based on interviews with lead LAPD detective Greg Kading and other witnesses. At Amazon.com, at least, the title of Kading’s book, “Murder Rap,” adds the misleading “Investigations by the Detective Who Solved Both Cases.” As self-serving as the documentary is – for Kading and the department — it couldn’t help but be of interest to true-crime enthusiasts and fans of the hip-hop legends. In Tupac: Assassination III: Battle for Compton, Richard Bond makes a rather different case, using some of the same evidence, testimony and sources. Bond’s entry in IMDB.com only shows documentaries related to Tupac and events that led up to and followed the attack in Las Vegas. It goes to great lengths to explain why, after 20 years, the investigation has bogged down to a crawl and isn’t likely to pick up any time soon. Reporters, lawyers, cops, gang-bangers and other people close to the story describe just how bolloxed up the investigation got after police in three cities – Los Angeles, Compton and Las Vegas – decided it wasn’t in their interest to solve the crimes. The depth of corruption in L.A. and Compton – at one time, Death Row Records controlled the suburb – matched the ability of street gangs to operate with impunity. It also was matched by the greed of participants hoping to derail their gravy train. As the mafia has demonstrated, making witnesses disappear is the easiest way to ensure a mistrial or not-guilty verdict. Finally, too, Bonds appears to be making the case for treating the murders – however devastating to their fans – as sideshow events to a much larger conspiracy. At just short of two hours, “Battle for Compton” may be exhausting, but rarely tiresome.
In what could easily be described as a family-friendly adaptation of Love Story or Terms of Endearment, Drew Waters’ debut as a co-writer/director is a three-hanky weeper that takes a paint-by-numbers path to an uplifting ending. New Life opens with a love-at-first-sight moment between kids who live next-door to each other and continues through long-distance relationships, diverting flirtations, marriage, pregnancy, sickness, recovery and I’ll bet you can guess what comes next. Jonathan Patrick Moore (Christian Mingle) and Erin Bethea (The Redemption of Henry Myers) make a very cute and credible couple, no matter how formulaic New Life gets. The worst faux pas, however, is forcing American supporting actress Kelsey Formost to affect a French accent even Pepé Le Pew wouldn’t buy. Old pros Barry Corbin, Bill Cobbs and Irma P. Hall add a sentimental aura to the proceedings, as well.
The C Word
At a time when the Trump administration is on the brink of opening the floodgates built to protect Americans from industrial, chemical, medicinal, food- and water-borne toxins, Meghan O’Hara cautionary documentary, The C Word, could hardly be more relevant. Most of the information dispensed in the film has been available on the Internet, in documentaries and books, but, here, the immediacy of the message carries a sense of urgency and timeliness. Apart from narrator Morgan Freeman, the voice of authority belongs to French physician and neuroscientist David Servan-Schreiber, author of “Anticancer: A New Way of Life,” a New York Times best-seller that has been translated into 35 languages. In it, he discusses his two successful battles with a malignant brain tumor – the first, at 31 — and the treatment program he put together to help himself beyond his surgery, chemotherapy and radiotherapy. He would succumb to brain cancer on July 24, 2011, but not until 20 years after his first diagnosis. While it’s probably true that everything we eat, drink, touch and breath can potentially cause cancer, Servan-Schreiber’s treatments and research demonstrated that much less exposure to the carcinogens, even after surgery, can temporarily thwart its progress, at least. O’Hara’s clever mix of animation, graphics, clips and interviews makes the 90-minute film pass quickly and painlessly. The DVD adds several ancillary featurettes.
Here’s another borderline-mainstream film about a gay teenager that likely will be pigeonholded among new releases of gay/lesbian videos, but easily could find a ready audience among arthouse audiences. Neither a coming-out or first-kiss drama, Departure tells the story of a family in crisis about things other than romances between same-sex couples. In it, an English mother (Juliet Stevenson) and her teenage son (Alex Lawther) spend a week preparing for the sale of their lovely summer home in the Languedoc district of France. Beatrice is having a difficult time dealing with the imminent dissolution of her loveless marriage to his father, Philip (Finbar Lynch), and it’s interfering with Elliot’s pursuit of an enigmatic local, Clément (Phénix Broassard). A budding poet, Elliot doesn’t appear to be the kind of boy to whom the older, more robust Clément would be attracted. With his mother back home in Paris, dying of cancer, however, Clément not only values his sincerity and companionship, but he also warms to Beatrice’s unquestioning approach to their friendship. While Clément isn’t oblivious to Elliot’s advances, he puts up an ambivalent front during their time together. This includes lazy interludes at the local reservoir, swimming, sunning and sharing confidences. At the cottage, Clément helps Beatrice put together the family’s memorabilia, while also performing chores and, yes, sharing confidences. Predictably, perhaps, as their stay in the country nears its end, both mother and son are compelled to confront their desires for Clément, as well as the growing storm in their family’s dissolution and clandestine betrayals. Stevenson, an atypically attractive actress, is best known here for her appearances in Bend It Like Beckham and imported British mini-series. She provides a touch of class as the almost tragically vulnerable Beatrice. Lawther, who impressed as the young Alan Turing in the film, The Imitation Game, is excellent, as well. Largely unknown outside France, Broassard does a nice job as the object of their attention. The bucolic Languedoc locations also add to Departure’s appeal. Freshman writer/director Andrew Steggall interviews his stars in the bonus package.
Co-writer/director Amit Gupta’s debut feature is a what-if tale, adapted from a novel by Welsh poet, author, playwright and TV presenter Owen Sheers. (In 2011, Sheers also became the first writer-in-residence at the Welsh Rugby Union.) Resistance explores the possible ramifications of a failed D-Day invasion and successful crossing of the Channel by German forces. It’s set in a remote village in the Olchon Valley in the Black Mountains of south-east Wales, where a group of women awake one morning to find their husbands missing and the village occupied by a small unit of German soldiers. Almost everything that happened to the battle-weary troop after D-Day is held back from viewers, as the bulk of the fighting presumably occurred elsewhere. Michael Sheen plays a resistance leader who pops up every so often to assure us the men haven’t been slaughtered or abducted by alien. Otherwise, everything’s quiet on the Welsh front. The story really belongs to the women and their dealings with the soldiers, who seem more interested in waiting out an armistice than intimidating the residents or scrubbing the countryside for partisans. As such, Resistance offers a substantially different take on the dynamics of occupation than we’ve seen in movies driven by fighting and cruelty. Given what we know about the punishments meted out by Nazi forces on villagers believed to be supporting resistance fighters, however, the movie doesn’t always ring true, especially as they begin to feel an affinity with the women and friendships grow. Excellent performances by Andrea Riseborough (Birdman), Iwan Rheon (“Game of Thrones”) and Tom Wlaschiha (Game of Thrones) allow us to suspend our disbelief, if only for 92 minutes.
This unrelievedly bleak portrait of a 13-year-old runaway, Zack (Lucas Koch), plays out like a dark underground horror flick, until it becomes clear that the horrors on display in Pig Pen are extremely real and probably more prevalent than anyone cares to believe they are. The sadly alienated child of a pill-popping mom (Nicolette le Faye), Zack is thrown out of their home by her sadistic boyfriend, dealer and would-be pimp (Vito Trigo). He instructs the boy not to come home until he’s earned – in one of the worst ways possible – at least $50 to pay for his mother’s habit. While on his own in the streets of Baltimore, Zach encounters all sorts of the usual riff-raff, as well as a couple of homeless folks who take pity on him. When he returns home to rescue his mom, he’s forced to confront the monster who’s devoured her soul and hopes to do far worse to him. Co-writer/director Jason M. Koch (7th Day) pretty much limits the narrative to what’s revealed in those few sentences, but anything more would be overkill.
The potential hazards of online dating have been exhaustively considered and described in police dramas on TV and countless straight-to-video releases. Apparently, these warnings continue to be ignored by young women, especially, who believe their intuition provides a better defense against unhappy endings than healthy doses of skepticism and caution. But, then, where would the slasher genre be without desperate dumbasses? In Chip Gubera’s imprecisely titled, Slasher.com, no sooner do Jack (Ben Kaplan) and Kristy (Morgan Carter) meet on-line than they embark on a weekend getaway to the woodlands of rural Missouri. Things start out innocently enough, until they’re introduced to their hosts, Jesse (R.A. Mihailoff) and Momma Meyers (Jewel Shepard), who are right out of Central Casting. Mihailoff, some might recall, played Leatherface, in Texas Chainsaw Massacre III, while, back in the day, Shepard was a highly visible princess of soft-core porn (Christina, Mission: Killfast). The newly introduced lovebirds’ timing could hardly be any worse, as a serial killer is on the loose and all signs lead to the backwoods inn and the torture chamber contained within it. But, you knew that already. Slasher.com isn’t much, but fans of hillbilly horror – and/or Ms. Shepard — might find something to like.
Try to imagine Francis Ford Coppala’s The Cotton Club being remade on a bargain-basement budget, with Ice-T as the speakeasy’s bandleader/host and more corrupt cops than the average episode of “Boardwalk Empire.” Now, consider that Ice-T’s character not only is a vampire, but ruler of a nest of undead prostitutes and traffickers in bottles of moonshine blood. (“True Blood,” anyone?) Not a bad concept, really, but co-writer/director/editor/cinematographer/designer Dan Lantz probably should have sold Bloodrunners to someone with enough money to do a vampires-vs.-cops picture right. Shooting Bloodrunners on a digital 4K camera only serves to enhance the shortcuts taken in the construction of otherwise credible nightclub set and costumes. And, apart from Ice-T and a few of the vampires, the acting is well below standard, even for genre fare.
Man Down: Blu-ray
When he isn’t making a spectacle of himself, Shia LaBeouf routinely demonstrates how capable an actor he is. His amazing performance in American Honey is proof enough of that. In Dito Montiel’s thoroughly disjointed Man Down, LaBeouf’s battle-scarred Marine, Gabriel, starts out as a loving husband and father, who enlists after 9/11 with his childhood friend Devin (Jai Courtney), and, after surviving boot camp, lands in the thick of battle in Afghanistan. While there, Gabriel and Devin are involved in a bloody encounter with insurgents that also claims the lives of civilians. From this point forward, Gabriel and Montiel’s well-meaning narrative both begin to unravel. After their tour of duty ends, Gabriel and Devin return home to an America that’s suffered a catastrophic attack and is unrecognizable to them. Oh, yeah, his wife and son have disappeared and may be in the possession of terrorists … or, perhaps, the demons in his head. Montiel, who worked with LeBeouf previously on A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints, is making a statement on the continuing PTSD epidemic among veterans, but it only becomes clear when an info card is flashed before the final credits. Otherwise, it too often resembles just another crazed-veteran flick. The Blu-ray adds commentary with Montiel and military advisor Sergeant Nick Jones Jr.
MHz: The Weissensee Saga
MHz: Corp + Anam
MHz: A French Village: 1945: Season 6
PBS: City in the Sky
PBS: American Experience: Oklahoma City
Time Life: Mama’s Family: Mama’s Favorites Collection
WE: Kendra on Top: The Complete Fourth and Fifth Seasons: Uncensored
Nickelodeon: Paw Patrol: Pups Save the Bunnies
Americans who’ve fallen in love with “Masterpiece” and other programming from the UK, thanks largely to PBS, BBC America and Acorn TV, owe it to themselves to check out MHz Choice and the DVDs of series carried globally by MHz Networks. This week’s releases attest to the quality of programming available to viewers who don’t mind reading subtitles. For example, “The Weissensee Saga” is the kind of sweeping family saga of conflicting loyalties, betrayal, love and hope that we’ve come to expect from the BBC. What’s remarkable about the three-season-long series is that it’s set in East Berlin, in the decade before the Wall was brought down and unification of East and West Germany began. It stars Uwe Kockisch as Hans Kupfer, a high-ranking Stasi official whose oldest son followed him into the internal spying operation and the other a policeman. Kupfer’s wife (Ruth Reinecke) is loyal to her husband and her country, even in the face of evidence that he’s made contact with an old flame (Katrin Saß). The singer also loves her country, but has been marginalized by her willingness to stand up to party officials who use communism as shield for human-rights abuses and fear-mongering. In a coincidence that would strain credulity if it weren’t so well-handled, the cop (Florian Lukas) falls in love with the singer’s daughter (Hannah Herzsprung) after she’s arrested for an aborted attempt to flee to the West. Meanwhile, rising Stasi star Falk Kupfer (Jörg Hartmann) – far more rigid in his neo-fascist beliefs than Hans — has begun to establish a network of spies, informers, backstabbers and dupes, using their own frailties and liberal opinions against them. We also watch their children grow into young adults, with stories of their own to follow. Americans might be surprised by the depiction of East Berlin as city that doesn’t look particularly devastated from post-war neglect and citizens as suspicious of the west as Americans were of Soviet Union. The views of hardliners and dissidents are aired fairly, as are the divides within the Kupfer family. Not surprisingly, the most joyous episode dramatizes the events that followed stunning announcement that border crossings no longer would be policed and citizens of both Germanys could come and go as they pleased. An American version of “The Weissensee Saga” would end there, probably, but there’s still a year’s worth of tumult, intrigue and revelations to go in the series. In one way, at least, it’s a perfect complement to FX’s “The Americans,” in which a pair of Soviet spies embrace socialism, while enjoying a typically middle-class American lifestyle.
From Ireland comes the superb Gaelic-language crime series, “Corp + Anam” (“Body and Soul”), which exposes the seamy side of life in a city large enough to have a couple of TV channels, but still small enough to retain a sense of small-town charm and intolerance. The worst of it is filtered through the lens of dogged television crime reporter Cathal Mac Iarnáin (Diarmuid de Faoite), who, while something of a loose cannon, usually gets to the bottom of things. His intense pursuit of the truth has destroyed his relationship with his wife (Maria Doyle Kennedy) and children. His ethically challenged reporting also causes problems at work, where he frequently locks horns with his too-cautious news editor. In the first season, alone, Mac Iarnáin pursues cases of health-service neglect, Internet pedophilia, teenage recklessness and police corruption. I, for one, wasn’t aware of the prevalence of Gaelic in everyday and official discourse.
In its sixth season, the blockbuster French drama, “A French Village,” arrives at the point where France has been liberated and the citizens of Villeneuve are coming to grips with ensuring peace and the slippery slope of reconciliation. In the wake of the occupation this not only means getting back to work and repairing the damage caused by bullets and bombs, but also identifying and punishing Nazi sympathizers, Vichy collaborators, traitors and opportunists. Resistance leaders have returned from the shadows to exact justice on everyone they determine to have betrayed them. Within the Resistance, of course, the political struggles became just another extension of the war, with Gaullists, communists, socialists and non-allied freedom fighters all struggling to capture the high ground. Common criminals, black-marketeers and blackmailers have also come to the fore. Not having been forced to survive an occupation or play by rules set by a collaborationist government, much of Season Six may seem dry or overly complex. They might be more interested in learning how the newly liberated French citizens consider the American soldiers left behind to counter possible Nazi insurgencies and ensure stability. As much as the French welcomed liberation, some partisans considered them to be enemies of their political beliefs and, as such, capitalist tools. Their relations with French women, some of whom are shown profiting from commerce and romantic alliances with the soldiers, also caused resentment. It isn’t something Americans are likely to have read about in history books, but it’s interesting, nonetheless.
Implicit in any discussion of the PBS documentary series “City in the Sky” is the worrisome question, “If we can’t keep our cities and infrastructure from falling apart and malfunctioning on solid earth, how can we expect our cities in the sky from remaining safe and aloft?” It certainly isn’t something passengers care to ponder at great length. We have enough to worry about while standing in interminable lines at the TSA checkpoints. Consider that, at any one time, there are as many as a million people airborne somewhere in the world, with 100,000 flights crisscrossing it every single day at variants of 30,000 feet. In the series, viewers set off around the world to uncover the invisible global networks and complex logistics that make it all possible. The segments — “Departure,” “Airborne” and “Arrival” – bring us into the cockpits of planes traveling at night, in storms and landing at airports that weren’t constructed to accommodate the needs of today’s travelers, carriers and freight haulers.
Domestic terrorism didn’t begin or end with the terrible bombing of the Oklahoma City’s Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building, on April 19, 1995, which killed 168 people and left 675 more injured. People rushed to blame the same Arab terrorists who had attempted to bring down the World Trade Center, two years earlier, but it soon became clear that the attack was timed to coincide with the ATF assault on the Branch Davidian compound and Ruby Ridge standoff. The ripple effects continue to be felt today, as white supremacists sense an opportunity to eliminate gun laws entirely and re-write the Bill of Rights to reflect right-wing values. PBS’ “American Experience: Oklahoma City” traces the events that led Timothy McVeigh to that day and recounts the stories of the survivors, first-responders, U.S. Marshals, FBI investigators and journalists who covered the events. The film provides an in-depth and provocative exploration of the white supremacist, extremist militia movement that rose to prominence in the early 1990s and still makes news today.
It’s difficult to tell how Time Life finally is able to distinguish between complete-series collections of such hit shows as “Mama’s Family” and “The Tonight Show With Johnny Carson” and more tightly focused “best of” and “favorite guest” packages. There’s also individual season sets for fans to consider. The latest, “Mama’s Family: Mama’s Favorites Collection” contains 37 unedited episodes on six discs, hand-picked by Vickie Lawrence and struck from the original broadcast masters. They include “Mama on Jeopardy,” “Mama Goes Hawaiian,” “Found Money,” “Pinup Mama,” “Bubba’s House Band,” “Soup to Nuts,” “Country Club,” “Mama Buys a Car,” “The Wedding” and “Mama’s Boyfriend.” By contrast, the company’s 24-disc and substantially more expensive “Mama’s Family: The Complete Collection” weighs in at 3,052 minutes, including 12 hours of bonus features.
It’s been 10 years since Kendra Wilkinson left Hugh Hefner and the Playboy Mansion in her rear-view mirror. This week, the former cheerleader and celebrity concubine (a.k.a., “girlfriend”) plead her case before her Instagram fans, arguing that she no longer wants to be labeled a “Playboy girl,” because “Comparing me now to that 18-year-old girl, then, is apples ’n’ oranges.” To avoid further confusion, Kendra attached to the post a mildly erotic shot of her stepping into a swimming pool. I assume that this flurry of activity was intended to coincide with the release of “Kendra on Top: The Complete Fourth and Fifth Seasons: Uncensored.” It isn’t clear if the show will be renewed by WE tv, but clearly it’s running on the fumes. In Season Four, producers were able to milk lots of sympathy for Kendra by playing the Hank card. (The former NFL player had an ill-advised affair with someone he may or may not have known is a transvestite.) It doesn’t take long – a couple of tequila shots, to be precise – for her to hook up with pinup boys she met on other reality shows, leaving her baby in Hank’s hands while she’s partying in London, New York and Seattle. In Season Five, Hank appears to have taken a powder, which is exactly what Kendra is seeking on a trip to Sundance. Meanwhile, her evil mother threatens to write a tell-all book, and her estranged brother, Colin, wants to meet with her. There’s lots of other boring stuff, but fans – you know who you are — probably will eat it up.
The top-rated Nickelodeon franchise, “Paw Patrol,” ramps up for the holiday season with the seven-rescue compilation, “Paw Patrol: Pups Save the Bunnies.” They include the double-length mission to save Adventure Bay’s Easter-egg hunt, “Pups Save the Bunnies,” “Pups Get Growing,” “Pups Save the Mayor’s Tulips.” “Pups Save a Stinky Flower,” “Pups Save the Songbirds” and “A Pup in Sheep’s Clothing.”