By Gary Dretzka Dretzka@moviecitynews.com
The DVD Wrapup: Founder, Punching Henry, Paris 05:59, Apocalypse Child, Donnie Darko, Woman of the Year, Tampopo, Handmaid’s Tale and more
The Founder: Blu-ray
As McDonald’s struggles once again to figure out how it wants to be perceived in markets in the U.S. and around the world, The Founder reminds of us of what made the concept so revolutionary in the first place. There’s a scene in John Lee Hancock’s appealing biographical drama in which Ray Kroc visits an early franchisee, where the operator has chosen to change the menu’s emphasis on hamburgers, fries and shakes and garishly promote its chicken entrees. The look on Kroc’s face made me think that he might take a cue from the New Testament and banish the blasphemers from his golden-arched temple, turning over tables and upending trash cans. Heaven only knows what he’d do if he returned to Earth, today, and visited my local McDonald’s, where, in addition to Big Macs, Quarter Pounders W/Cheese, World Famous Fries and Coca Cola, he could choose from a Premium Crispy Chicken Ranch BLT Sandwich, Braised Lamb, Premium Caesar Salads w/Crispy or Grilled Chicken, 16 different Snack Wraps, McCafé Hot Chocolate, McCafé Cappuccino, Fruit ‘N Yogurt Parfait and four varieties of McFlurrys. And, that’s not even half the items on the menu. My guess is that he’d prefer spinning in his grave than sampling an Angus Mushroom & Swiss on a “premium bakery style bun.” The thing that impressed the Midwestern shake-machine salesman (Michael Keaton) on his first tour of Mac and Dick McDonald’s bustling San Bernardino walk-up restaurant was the simplicity of the operation and how easily the concept could be transferred to new business partners.
Here, the lightbulb above Kroc’s head begins to glow while watching Dick (Nick Offerman) use a stopwatch to time every movement of his employees, from grill to window. He’s similarly impressed by brother Mac’s unbridled enthusiasm and devotion to the brand. Unlike today, customers didn’t have to think very hard about what they might want to order, although choosing between a soft and shake might require a few extra seconds. And, at 15 cents per burger, they could dine all afternoon on a buck. While Dick and Mac were content to satisfy the immediate needs of their customers, it didn’t take long for Kroc to concoct a blueprint for unlimited expansion through franchising. The Founder is roughly divided into two parts. One follows Kroc, as he struggles to expand the brothers’ brainstorm to fit his vision of golden arches stretching from sea to shining sea, while the second half shows him punishing his new partners’ lack of business acumen and killer instinct. Instead, he sets the wheels in motion behind their backs. It isn’t often that a filmmaker allows audiences to reverse their opinions on the protagonist’s character – or lack, thereof — so drastically and in so short a time. For all their hard work and good intentions, the million-dollar checks the McDonald brothers received from Kroc for the use of their name and ideas proved to be small compensation for broken hearts. The Founder also spends some time with the two of the burger king’s three wives – Ethel (Laura Dern) and Joan (Linda Cardellini) – and hand-picked business partners, all of whom would help lead the company to unprecedented growth as both a real-estate interest and pioneer in super-sizing. Hancock and writer Robert D. Siegel don’t attempt to open that can of worms, though. Morgan Spurlock did that for them. The Blu-ray adds a post-screening Q&A with junket press.
Punching Henry: Blu-ray
I watch a lot of movies that debut at festivals, but wind up being distributed solely on DVD, VOD or the Internet. There are many reasons, mostly financial, for why they’re denied even a limited theatrical run. Among those is a reasonable expectation that they’ll be savaged by critics and fail to make back the money it takes to publicize the release. Expensive superhero pictures and cartoon fantasies don’t require the approval of mainstream critics to get past their opening weekends, while indies, docs and foreign-language films can’t survive without it. The studios can buy all the publicity they want by throwing elaborate schmooze-fests for the junket press and targeting easily impressed bloggers. Sometimes that strategy doesn’t work, either. For the life of me, I can’t figure out why someone didn’t take a shot on Punching Henry, a smart and funny dramedy about one guitar-strumming comedian’s rise from obscurity to accidental fame. It is immediately remindful of HBO’s similarly semi-autobiographical “Crashing,” IFC’s “Maron” and “Seinfeld,” which, during its first three seasons, was bookended by shots of Jerry doing bits in a nightclub, as well as musician/comedian/actor Martin Mull’s career trajectory. More than anything else, though, it is a virtual sequel to co-writer/director Gregori Viens and co/writer star Henry Phillips’ previous collaboration, Punching the Clown. After winning the Audience Award at the 2009 Slamdance Film Festival, it mostly vanished from view. The primary difference this time is a higher-profile cast.
Here, Henry is slowly recovering from being mistaken for another guitar-strumming comic, whose bigoted routines act might have kept audiences in Nazi-controlled Berlin in stitches, but not here … ever. Henry is being lured to L.A. by a TV producer (J.K. Simmons) who wants to make him a reality star. It isn’t a perfect gig, but it’s better than kicking around Trump country on weekend stands. His act involves singing observational and self-deprecating songs, while accompanying himself on guitar. They’re funny and mostly well-received, but, like Pete Holmes on “Crashing,” he suffers from a charisma deficiency. Fortunately, that’s exactly the kind of comic the producers of the reality show are seeking. When Henry arrives in L.A., almost everything that could go wrong, does. The mishaps range from having his car towed, and not paying attention to a phone message from police as to where to find, to failing miserably when attempting to inseminate the wife of an old lesbian friend (Stephanie Allynne, Tig Notaro). He also makes the mistake of looking a gift horse in the mouth, when, on tour, an on-stage accident turns into a hilarious Internet meme, accidentally reviving plans for the now-dormant TV show. Much of what we learn about Henry’s travails is dispensed during a podcast hosted by Sarah Silverman. Also appearing are Jim Jefferies, Doug Stanhope, Mark Cohen, Mike Judge, Clifton Collins Jr., Derek Waters and Nikki Glaser. I can’t find a single reason why someone who loves standup comedy might not enjoy Punching Henry. The DVD adds deleted scenes.
This refreshingly different Filipino film, based on a local legend, is a perfect fit for those of us who repeatedly watch Apocalypse Now and Apocalypse Now Redux, whenever they pop up on TV; has memorized a dozen or more lines of dialogue and references them ad nausea to impress friends; watched Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse once, at least; and perused Eleanor Coppola’s “Notes: The Making of Apocalypse.” It’s also for anyone looking for a compelling family drama from a distant corner of the world. Mario Cornejo and Monster Jimenez’ Apocalypse Child is introduced thusly, “A critically acclaimed American movie about the Vietnam war was filmed in the area back in 1976, and legend has it that its famous director had an affair with a local girl of only fourteen years old. He returned to the States, and nine months later she gave birth to a baby boy.” It doesn’t take a genius to fill in the blanks, but the operative word here is “legend.” The film is set on the same Baler Bay beach that Kilgore declares, “Charlie don’t surf!” The other half of the legend suggests that, after Francis Ford Coppola and company departed, locals pulled a surfboard from the now-peaceful sea. It then was used by a generation of boys and girls, who later became champion surfers. A couple of decades pass and a young man named Ford (Sid Lucero) is a surfing instructor content to while away his days on the azure blue waves or in the arms of his pretty runaway girlfriend (Annicka Dolonius). He may or may not be the illegitimate son of the famed director. Either way, he doesn’t appear to be in any hurry to have his DNA analyzed and the results sent to the Napa Valley to be compared with that of his namesake. The question does come to a head, however, with the return of his childhood best friend, Rick (RK Baggatsing), now a local congressman, who threatens his idyllic existence with some ghosts from the past. Rick’s disaffected fiancé, Serena (Gwen Zamora), is both attracted to the rugged Ford and shocked by the rumor, which she has never heard. Cinematographer Ike Avellana takes full advantage of the location’s natural beauty, including that of the relatively tame sea. There isn’t any bombast here or recollections of the smell of napalm in the morning. It’s simply a wonderfully low-key story, based on an incident Eleanor might have missed in her book.
The flip side of spending a romantic holiday on a lovely deserted island in the tropics, is the horror that comes when shit invariably happens and there’s no one to call, even if it were possible to raise a signal. It could be storm clouds assembling in the distance, in advance of a hurricane, or an unannounced gathering of sharks off the pier, upon which a diving board has just been added. In The Shining, the horror emanated from a writer’s decision to move into a remote hotel for a long winter’s stay, only to realize that all of the other guests are ghosts. Allegedly inspired by true events, Isolation describes what happens when of a pair of lovebirds are invited to relocate to a guest home on a tiny Bahamian island, after complaining about the noise from construction work outside the hotel they originally booked. The island is far enough away from Nassau to require a boat trip of a several hours’ time to arrive and not even close to being in cellphone range. The house is well-stocked and cozy, even the water in the shower takes an eternity to get hot. On a stroll to the nearest white-sand beach, Creighton (Luke Mably) and Lydia (Tricia Helfer) encounter a full-time resident, William (Stephen Lang), of the island, who invites them for dinner, prepared by his wife, Mary (Claudia Church). We’ve already seen William attack a pair of trespassers with his nail gun and wonder what he might have in store for the newbies.
William look as if he might have made a ton of money flying marijuana or cocaine from Colombia, with a brief stop in the Bahamas to refuel and wait out the DEA surveillance. They enjoy a swell dinner, with fine ganga and whiskey, before stumbling back home to the guest house, which, in the interim, has been ransacked. Who you gonna call? No one. The next day, while trying to find a land line, the couple is greeted by a burly gent, Max (Dominic Purcell), who’s wandering around shooting snakes with a handgun … or, so he says. Before asking Creighton and Lydia to stay for dinner, Max and Nina (Marie Avgeropoulos) make a convincing case for William is a pirate and thief, who’s only squatting in the beach house. They buy Max’s theory on who stole their valuables and promised to Creighton out on his boat to muster a signal. In this closed-island thriller, viewers are asked to determine which of the other couples’ stories is true and who really to trust. Max and William both look as if they could supplement their incomes by hijacking expensive pleasure craft or yachts full of dope, while the women seem content to live off the spoils. To my mind, co-writer/director Shane Dax Taylor tips his hand a bit too quickly, as if to provide more time for the chase and bloodshed to follow. Still, some of the setups and dialogue are sufficiently creepy to inspire dread in viewers.
Like vampires and zombies, movies set in haunted houses never seem to go out of style. The best keep viewers guessing until nearly the end as to whether the hauntings are supernatural or quasi-religious in nature, showcases for the latest in jump-scares and special effects, or thrillers in which apparitions serve as red herrings for what’s really ailing the characters. Both Naciye and The Watcher maintained my curiosity, at least, for longer periods of time than I would have expected. In the former, Turkish writer/director Lutfu Emre Cicek (Mac & Cheese) uses flashbacks to establish plot points that lead us to believe the house in question is possessed by a malevolent spirit. Unaware of its history, a pregnant couple (Esin Harvey, Gorkem Mertsoz) moves into the house for some relaxation before the blessed event, only to wonder upon further inspection why the furnishings, closets and adornments suggest that someone is still living there or it was hurriedly abandoned for some unknown reason. We’re also encouraged to speculate on whether the woman hanging around in the shadows is a ghost or lodger who’s decided not to honor the sales agreement. Beware, the knitting needles. Either possibility leads to some unsettling speculation. Naciye stars Derya Alabora (A Most Wanted Man) as the elderly mystery woman/specter, capable of switching on a dime between kindly spinster and monster. The fact that the pregnant woman not only is due in a month, but unsure of which of her male associates could be the father, adds another pretty good reason for her to be a wit’s end. You don’t often see pictures like this coming from places outside the U.S., Korea and Japan.
Set thousands of miles west of the house in Naciye, Ryan Rothmaier’s debut feature, The Watcher, is built on the same foundation as Cicek’s film. Thinking they’ve just purchased their dream home, another young couple – in a rare casting decision, the man is black and the woman white – can’t wait to move into their spacious new home in the ’burbs. The listing neglected to mention that a heinous crime had been committed there years earlier. Before long, Emma (Erin Cahill) is freaked out by the sight of a face peering into her second-floor bedroom from a tree house, growing on the property. Not to worry, it’s only the very weird neighbor boy (Riley Baron), whose mother (Denise Crosby) is welcoming Emma and Noah (Edi Gathegi) to the neighborhood in the front of the house. To make things even stranger, packages filled with what appear to be housewarming gifts – but aren’t – begin arriving in the mail, along with warnings of even more dire things to come. And, if all that weren’t enough, there’s the nightly visits by a large raven-shaped figure, with very real claws. The Watcher appeared first on the Lifetime Channel, which isn’t known for its selection of horror originals. Considering the source, it plays very well outside the network’s target audience.
Paris 05:59: Théo & Hugo: Blu-ray
Olivier Ducastel and Jacques Martineau’s festival favorite begs the question as to whether it’s possible to fall in love – not merely in lust — with someone you’ve just met, fucked and shared at an orgy in a neon-lit basement. Actually, I can’t recall precisely how many men the title characters may, or may not have shared in the 20-minute-long opening scene of Paris 05:59: Théo & Hugo. It’s after midnight in a gay sex club, in Paris, and the pulsating electronic dance music is turning the crowd of naked or leather-strapped guys to writhe as one. They aren’t there for the exercise, however. They’ve come to hook up with someone – seemingly, anyone – who returns their stare. The scene recalls similar gatherings in films made before the AIDS epidemic forced the closure of gay, bi- and straight sex clubs, glory-hole emporiums and bathhouses around world. The sex on display, while explicit, doesn’t feel particularly gratuitous or exploitative. I don’t know how many rehearsals or reshoots it might have required to look spontaneous, however. OK, that cover’s the movie’s most obvious talking point. It stars Geoffrey Couët and François Nambot as the two men who meet during the opening scene and are followed in real time for the remainder of its 92-minute length. The rest of Paris 05:59: Théo & Hugo has reminded most observers of the walking/talking scenes in Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise and Andrew Haigh’s much-lauded Weekend. After they leave the club and their eyes adjust to the far-less-stimulating lights of the post-midnight streets of northeast Paris, they decide to get to know each other better as friends, which, I presume, isn’t what usually happens post-coitus in such situations. Watching Théo & Hugo walk and bike around town in the wee hours, especially after the sensory overload in the first 20 minutes, is a tad jarring. As is the sobering revelation that Theo neglected to use a condom and Hugo is HIV-positive. Wisely, they agree to head for a nearby hospital to be tested and receive post-exposure prophylaxis. Can their budding relationship take such a jolt and survive? Stay tuned.
Donnie Darko: Limited Edition: Blu-ray
Arriving a month after the 9/11 attacks, Donnie Darko presented a huge challenge to its distributors, Newmarket/Pandora. In addition to crossing a confounding number of genre bordaries, the original advertising campaign included visual references to a calamity involving a jet engine that descends from an empty sky and crashes into the title character’s home. It is central to any enjoyment of writer/director Richard Kelly’s film, so supplanting that image with one showing the face of the monstrous 6-foot-tall rabbit, Frank, forced potential viewers to guess whether Donnie Darkie was a horror flick, supernatural thriller, science fiction or some other variety of fish or fowl. Whoever or whatever he is, Frank appears to be wearing a frightening rabbit costume and silver mask possibly inspired by the fabled jackalope of the western plains. On October 2, 1988, Frank awakens the emotionally troubled Donnie (Jake Gyllenhaal), leads him outside the house and informs him that the world will end in 28 days, 6 hours, 42 minutes and 12 seconds. At dawn, Donnie returns home to find a jet engine has crashed into his bedroom, leaving FAA investigators puzzled as to its source. It touches off an agonizing 28-day journey for the increasingly distressed teenager, whose more curious actions appear to be guided by Frank’s invisible hand. There aren’t many people or things in Donnie’s immediate orbit unaffected by the epidemic of bad craziness spreading through the middle-class suburban town. His bizarre actions don’t go unnoticed by high school bullies, paranoid teachers, admiring misfits and a similarly troubled new student, Gretchen Ross (Jena Malone). Immediately drawn to each other, Gretchen has recently moved into town with her mother, under new identies, to escape her violent stepfather. There probably isn’t anything I could reveal here that would completely spoil the surprises in Kelly’s narrative, which he’s summarized as ”‘The Catcher in the Rye’ as told by Philip K. Dick,” with Donnie standing in for Holden Caulfield. I can’t top that, so why try?
Donnie Darko barely avoided a straight-to-cable release, but not a puny $7.3-million worldwide gross in its severely limited and erratically timed theatrical released. It didn’t cost much to make, so there was some wiggle room left for profit. Its cult status was assured a year later, after positive word-of-mouth inspired genre buffs to give it a shot on VHS and DVD. It then attracted the attention of teenagers, who saw in Donnie’s alienation from society a reflection of their own angst. It has been released on Blu-ray three times, each one with more bonus features and some minor tinkering. The Arrow Films upgrade benefits from 4K restorations of both the theatrical-cut and director’s-cut versions and the original 5.1 audio (DTS-HD on the Blu-ray). There are three separate commentary tracks, with cast and crew; “Deus ex Machina: The Philosophy of Donnie Darko,” a new documentary containing interviews with Kelly, producer Sean McKittrick, director of photography Steven Poster, editor Sam Bauer, composer Michael Edwards, costume designer April Ferry, actor James Duval and critic Rob Galluzzo; “The Goodbye Place,” Kelly’s 1996 short film, which anticipates some of the themes and ideas of his feature films; “The Donnie Darko Production Diary,” with optional commentary by cinematographer Steven Poster; 20 deleted and alternate scenes, with optional commentary by Kelly;
archival interviews with Kelly, actors Jake and Maggie Gyllenhaal, Jena Malone, Drew Barrymore, James Duval, Holmes Osborne, Noah Wyle and Katharine Ross, several producers; and cinematographer Steven Poster; three fan-based featurettes, “They Made Me Do It,” “They Made Me Do It Too” and “#1 Fan: A Darkomentary”; “Storyboard comparisons”; “B-roll footage”; “Cunning Visions” infomercials; a music video of “Mad World,” by Gary Jules; galleries; and an exclusive collector’s book, containing new writing by Nathan Rabin, Anton Bitel and Jamie Graham; an in-depth interview with Richard Kelly; introduction by Jake Gyllenhaal; and contemporary coverage, illustrated with original stills and promotional materials.
Woman of the Year: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
Buena Vista Social Club: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
Tampopo: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
While watching the new Criterion Collection edition of Woman of the Year, I tried to imagine some today’s A-listers trying to fill the shoes of Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn, if, God forbid, a remake were ever to be considered. Because the stars of George Stevens’ classic were 42 and 35 at the time of the movie’s release, such usual suspects as Meryl Streep, Glenn Close and Annette Bening would be ruled out for the Tess Harding role. Nicole Kidman and Laura Dern are pushing 50, while their “Big Little Lies” cohort, Reese Witherspoon, is too short. Logical choices to play Tracy’s manly-man sportswriter, Sam Craig, are even more limited. Mike Nichols’ 1988 comedy Working Girl gave off many of the same vibes as Woman of the Year, but in reverse, with Melanie Griffith’s spunky Tess McGill finally refusing to play second fiddle to the male chauvinist establishment represented by Harrison Ford’s Jack Trainer and Sigourney Weaver’s Katharine Parker, who represented the good-ol’-gal establishment, perfectly willing to waste their prime reproductive years for the sake of a seat in the board room. I don’t really know who could fill in for Tracy today, except for the likelihood that the actor probably would be British. Despite the contributions of Eleanor Roosevelt and Rosie the Riveter to the war effort, test audiences deemed Hepburn’s take on her renaissance-woman character to be overly confrontational and something of a ball-buster. In their minds, Sam was being lost in her long, lanky shadow and Tracy was too big a star for that to happen. (The fact that Tess’ tycoon father approved of Sam didn’t make things any easier for her when push came to shove.) According to the folks interviewed in the bonus package, the ending of Woman of the Year was subsequently changed to allow audiences to leave theaters with a smile, rather than a reason to argue on the way home. In it, Tess hopes to convince her estranged husband that she’s changed her tune, by sneaking into his bachelor pad and attempting to fix breakfast for him, albeit without stopping to shed her fur coat or put an apron over her designer ensemble She couldn’t make a bigger mess of the meal — or kitchen – if the recipes were written in ancient Greek. It’s hilarious. Ring Lardner Jr. and Michael Kanin’s terrifically smart and witty screenplay was honored with an Academy Award, and Hepburn was nominated for Best Actress. Woman of the Year also marked the beginning of the personal and professional union between Hepburn and Tracy, who would go on to make eight more films together. The digitally restored Blu-ray edition adds new interviews with George Stevens Jr., the director’s son; Stevens’ biographer Marilyn Ann Moss; and writer Claudia Roth Pierpont, on actor Katharine Hepburn. There’s also the 86-minute documentary, “The Spencer Tracy Legacy: A Tribute,” hosted by Hepburn, and an essay by critic Stephanie Zacharek.
At a time when the United States was still promoting the dubious notion that Cuba was the greatest threat to our democracy than all of our former wartime enemies combined, occasional groups of American musicians would defy the travel embargo to perform with Cuban musicians in cultural-exchange missions. As far as I know, none of the musicians was converted to godless communism and their instruments weren’t melted down for statues of Che Guevara. In 1996, virtuoso guitarist Ry Cooder was invited to Havana by British world-music producer Nick Gold to record a session in which musicians from Mali were set to collaborate with Cuban musicians. Long story short, the African contingent failed to obtain the necessary visa, forcing Cooder and Gold to punt. They decided, instead, to record an album of Cuban son music with local musicians, some of whom were household names before Fidel Castro came to power. For these veteran vocalists and instrumentalists, it was the day the music died. Not really, but the traditional jazz-inflected mix of cha-cha, mambo, bolero and other traditional Latin American styles was forced into hibernation for almost 50 years. Cooder would name the all-star orchestra the Buena Vista Social Club, after a popular danzón nightclub in Havana’s Marianao neighborhood that was closed in 1959, along with other clubs the regime considered to be segregated … even if the members were struggling Afro-Cuban musicians. In 1997, the studio album, “Buena Vista Social Club,” arranged by Cooder, Gold and Cuban bandleader and musician Juan de Marcos González was recorded and distributed by the niche World Circuit/Nonesuch labels. The album was awarded the Grammy Award for Best Traditional Tropical Latin Album and Tropical/Salsa Album of the Year by a Group at the 1998 Billboard Latin Music Awards. German director Wim Wenders would lure his friend, Cooder, back to the island a year later to re-create and film the original sessions with the same musicians, several in their 90s. Once again, the experience and result were wonderful. Wenders’ cameras followed the members around Havana – an eye-opener, for sure – and the orchestra to Amsterdam and New York’s Carnegie Halls, chronicling their observations along the way. In 2000, Buena Vista Social Club was nominated for an Academy Award for best documentary feature. The Criterion Collection Blu-ray features a high-definition digital transfer, with 5.1 surround DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack; commentary from 1999, featuring director Wim Wenders; a new interview with Wenders; “We Believe in Dreams,” a new piece featuring never-before-seen outtakes from the rehearsals for the Buena Vista Social Club’s Amsterdam concerts; a delightful interview from 1998 with musician Compay Segundo on his career and the Cuban music tradition; radio interviews from 2000 featuring musicians Ibrahim Ferrer, Rubén González, Eliades Ochoa, Omara Portuondo and others; additional scenes; and an essay by author and geographer Joshua Jelly-Schapiro.
Criterion also is releasing one of the great foodie movies of all time – likely, the most entertaining foodie comedy – the Japanese “ramen western,” Tampopo. Juzo Itami’s 1985 film is the tale of an eccentric band of culinary ronin, who guide Tampopo (Nobuko Miyamoto), the widow of a noodle shop owner, on her quest for the perfect recipe. The genre-bending adventure pays homage to several different styles, from the Spaghetti Western to the silent comedies of Charlie Chaplin. It also satirizes the way social conventions distort the most natural of human urges: hunger. It does so, in part, by interspersing the efforts to make her café a success with the erotic exploits of a gastronome gangster and glimpses of food culture both high and low. Now that Americans have embraced ramen noodles for their taste, nutritional qualities and low-cost variations, our ability to enjoy Tampopo and savor its nuances probably has never been easier. The vastly underappreciated American/Japanese dramedy, The Ramen Girl (2006), in which Brittany Murphy’s character learns how to make noodles even Japanese admire, contains many references to Tampopo, including a cameo by Tsutomu Yamazaki, the male star of the earlier film. The Blu-ray is enhanced by a 4K digital restoration, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack; “The Making of Tampopo,” a 90-minute documentary from 1986, narrated by Itami; new interviews with co-star Nobuko Miyamoto and ramen enthusiasts Hiroshi Osaki, Seiko Ogawa and American chefs Sam White, Rayneil De Guzman, Jerry Jaksich, and Anthony Bourdain; “Rubber Band Pistol,” Itami’s 1962 debut short film; a new video essay by Tony Zhou and Taylor Ramos, on the film’s themes of self-improvement and mastery of a craft; and an essay by food and culture writer Willy Blackmore
The Handmaid’s Tale: Blu-ray
With the Hulu re-adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s 1985 best-seller, “The Handmaid’s Tale,” right around the corner, the timing of Shout!Factory’s Blu-ray edition of the original 1990 interpretation could hardly be better. Although it wasn’t a big hit with critics, Volker Schlöndorff’s The Handmaid’s Tale – from a challenging screenplay by Harold Pinter – probably will suit more viewers today than it did then. With a newly elected president, who many voters considered to be a male chauvinist pig, Robert Duvall’s portrayal of the story’s fundamentalist Christian dictator, Commander, will feel all too prescient. He is in control of the Republic of Gilead, a theocracy formed within the borders of what was formerly the United States of America after the “Sons of Jacob” launched a revolution and suspended the Constitution under the pretext of restoring order. Human rights are severely curtailed, especially those once instituted to level the playing field for women, who no longer are allowed to read. The story is told in the first person by Kate/Offred (Natasha Richardson), one in a class of women – handmaids — still able to reproduce in an era of declining births, due to sterility from pollution and sexually transmitted diseases. The condition allows upper-crusters to control fertility and ensure that children born to handmaidens are placed in the homes of powerful men with infertile wives. When the Commander decides to take Kate for his handmaiden, he’s unaware of his infertility. When Kate finds this out on her own, she knows that he would blame and punish her his sperm deficiency. The Commander’s wife, Serena Joy (Faye Dunaway), who’s pretty sick of meeting his demands, as well, arranges for chauffeur Nick (Aiden Quinn) to impregnate Kate – or, give it his best shot, anyway – freeing them from their sexual obligations. Meanwhile, members of the resistance have infiltrated the compound and threaten to overthrow the dictatorship. Also prominent in the cast are Elizabeth McGovern and Victoria Tennant. The first 10-episode season of the Hulu mini-series is expected to be more faithful to the novel, while adding racial and religious minorities not included in either the book or first adaptation, because the Commander simply didn’t recognize their existence. The only extra is an original trailer.
Tales from the Hood: Collector’s Edition: Blu-ray
Before watching Scream Factory’s Blu-ray re-release of Rusty Cundieff and Darin Scott’s 1995 horror anthology, Tales from the Hood, I assumed it would be a laugh riot, on the order of I’m Gonna Git You Sucka, Don’t Be a Menace to South Central While Drinking Your Juice in the Hood and In Living Color. While there’s plenty of comedy on the menu here, though, the film delivers a potent socially conscious message in each of the four urban-themed horror stories. They deal with police brutality, domestic abuse, institutional racism and gang violence, and are presented within a framing story of three drug dealers buying some “found” drugs from a scary funeral director, well-played by Clarence Williams III (“The Mod Squad”). He leads them on a tour of his establishment, introducing them to his corpses, who have tales of their own to tell. Among the more recognizable cast members are David Alan Grier, Wings Hauser, Paula Jai Parker, Corbin Bernsen, Roger Guenveur Smith, Rosalind Cash and Ricky Harris. The extensive bonus package adds “Welcome To Hell: The Making Of Tales From the Hood,” featuring interviews with Cundieff, Scott, Bernsen, Hauser, Anthony Griffith, special-effects supervisor Kenneth Hall and doll-effects supervisors Charles Chiodo and Edward Chiodo; Cundieff’s commentary; a vintage featurette; and stills gallery.
A Cowgirl’s Story
In the dozen-plus years that I’ve been reviewing DVDs in this space, I’ve followed several subgenres that hadn’t amounted to much until the direct-to-DVD era began. One of these can be reduced to two words: contemporary cowgirls. Dozens of movies and television shows have featured characters based on Annie Oakley, Calamity Jane and Belle Starr, even if the actresses chosen to portray them – Doris Day, Jane Russell, Barbara Stanwyck, Abby Dalton, Elizabeth Montgomery, Gail Davis, Mary Martin, Betty Hutton — bore no physical likeness to the Wild West heroines and villainesses, although Ethel Merman (“Annie Get Your Gun”), Robin Weigert (“Deadwood”) Jeanne Cooper (“Tales of Wells Fargo”) might have come the closest. Neither do Dale Evans or Gloria Winters (“Sky King”) fit the mold. No the models for characters in such recent “family friendly” neo-Westerns as the newly released A Cowgirl’s Story, Cowgirls ‘n Angels, Spirit Riders, Dakota’s Summer, Flicka: Country Pride, Flicka 2, Flicka: Storm Rider, Moondance Alexander, Montana Sky, Midnight Stallion, Coyote Summer, International Velvet and All Roads Lead Home appear to be 12-year-old Elizabeth Taylor, in National Velvet, 14-year-old Scarlett Johansson, in The Horse Whisperer; and 11-year-old Dakota Fanning, in Dreamer: Inspired by a True Story. Unlike most new-generation cowgirl flicks, they made their debuts on the big screen and the first two, at least, returned lots of money. Timothy Armstrong’s A Cowgirl’s Story tells the story of 17-year-old Dusty Rhodes (Bailee Madison), entrusted to the care of her military-chaplain grandfather (Pat Boone), while her parents, both soldiers, are deployed in Afghanistan. (At 11, Madison also appeared in Armstrong’s Cowgirls ‘n Angels, which was afforded a very limited theatrical release before going into DVD.) Typically, in contemporary-cowgirl films, the protagonist is angry for one good reason or another and must come to grips with a no-nonsense relative or an elderly pedagogue in need of a reclamation project: Keith Carradine, James Cromwell, Kevin Sorbo, Tim McGraw, Don Johnson, Patrick Warburton, Lance Henriksen, Kris Kristofferson, William Shatner and Ving Rhames, among them. In A Cowgirl’s Story, Dusty isn’t troubled or in need of redemption, but some of the kids at her new school definitely could use some equestrian therapy. She somehow convinces the girls in a prominent clique to form a drill team to perform at rodeos and shows to raise money for wounded soldiers. Dusty’s world is turned upside down when her mother’s helicopter is shot down in action and she goes missing. It’s at this point that the same kids who hazed her at the beginning of the school year rally behind her. Not all of the films listed above play the God card as quickly and repeatedly as is done here, and that includes Boonville Redemption (2016), in which Boone plays the town doctor alongside Diane Ladd, Ed Asner, Richard Tyson and young Emily Hoffman, who plays a small-town girl forced to come to terms with having been “born out of wedlock.”
Arctic Adventure: On Frozen Pond
The latest animated collaboration between Grindstone Entertainment Group and Lionsgate is Arctic Adventure: On Frozen Pond, a cute Chinese-made, English-dubbed adventure that nearly spans the globe. Anthony Padilla and Ian Hecox (YouTube’s “Smosh”) join Jon Lovitz (Hotel Transylvania) in this animated tale of brave frogs on a bold quest. For centuries, the Crystal Frog has protected the Frog Kingdom with its magic, but, when sneaky One-Eye plots to steal the artifact and become King, it’s up to Freddy and the Frog Princess to make the arduous trek to the Holy Land. Through forest, desert, river rapids and icy caverns, the bravery of the frozen warriors keeps this colorful saga “hopping.” Awarded the Dove Family Seal of Approval, “Arctic Adventure” includes the making-of featurette “Giving the Characters a Voice,” shot at the recording studio with Padilla, Hecox, Lovitz and Ambyr Childers.
PBS: Masterpiece: Home Fires: The Complete Second Season Blu-ray
PBS: American Experience: Ruby Ridge
Smithsonian: Hell Below
PBS: John Lewis: Get in the Way
The bad news first: “Home Fires,” the British World War II drama, now airing on PBS, has been cancelled by ITV. This, despite a write-in campaign by disappointed fans desperate to save the show from extinction. (In England, the second season ended last May.) “Home Fires” chronicles the lives of Women’s Institute members, in the rural Chelsea community of Great Paxford,, during the early days of the conflict that would become World II. As more refugees from the continent arrive in England, including soldiers and airmen already in training there, Great Paxford’s eclectic band of volunteer women find they must heighten their efforts to boost morale amidst the chaos and uncertainty enveloping the village. The series was inspired by the book, “Jambusters,” by Julie Summers. The second season opens on June 11, 1940, with the Battle of Britain looming and residents beginning to dread the arrival of each day’s mail. In other story threads, Teresa (Leanne Best) steps in to protect an Italian resident from the other people of the village; pastor’s wife Sarah (Ruth Gemmell) begins to feel alone after she gets some bad news about her husband, who’s on the front lines; Alison (Fenella Woolgar) gets the verdict on whether the charges of adultery will be upheld or dropped; Claire and Spencer (Daisy Badger, Mike Noble) marry in secret; busybody switchboard operator Jenny (Jodie Hamblet) learns of this and tells Frances (Samantha Bond); accused homewrecker Laura (Leila Mimmack) faces the music; and abuse-victim Pat (Claire Rushbrook) befriends a kindly Czech soldier and enjoys her new life with no husband.
Newsreel footage and photographs shot during and after Japan’s surprise attack on Pearl Harbor have become as much a part of America’s historical DNA as Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze’s painting, “Washington Crossing the Delaware.” Every year, on December 7, we mark that infamous event both as a memorial to those who died there, but also as a reminder of our inability to prevent just such a calamity from happening, in the first place. It was a cruel lesson. I wonder how many people under the age of 70 are aware of attacks by Nazi submarines along America’s eastern seaboard, three weeks after Pearl Harbor, carried out under the codename Operation Drumbeat. Even though shipping lanes between the U.S., Canada and the United Kingdom had been targeted by German warships and submarines since the beginning of Hitler’s advances in Europe, Pentagon brass rejected the idea that Admiral Karl Donitz would dare penetrate the waters off America’s mainland. As such, we were as unprepared for Operation Drumbeat – and, later, Donitz’ “wolfpack” strategy — as we were for the attack on Pearl Harbor. The good news, of course, is that we recovered relatively quickly from those tragedies and mounted an increasingly successful offensive against Axis warships. This is only part of what I learned from watching Smithsonian’s intriguing six-part mini-series “Hell Below,” which describes the terrible toll of undersea combat. It is enhanced by archival photos and newsreels; interviews with historians and military experts; re-creations of battles and life inside subs; maps and other graphic devices; and, of course, dramatic narration and music. If there’s anything that cable television has done well in the last 35 years is document the carnage, heroism, blunders, triumphs and execution of wars, dating back to the Crusades, but, especially, World War II. The really scary thing is learning just how close Hitler, if not Hirohito came to realizing his dreams – our nightmares – and forcing a land war on American soil. Maybe all the prayers worked.
Barak Goodman’s “Front Line” documentary “Ruby Ridge” describes just how difficult it is for American law-enforcement agencies to react to challenges by fanatics willing to die for their bent beliefs – and put their families in harm’s way, as well — just to serve as martyrs for future generations of fanatics. Before the deadly siege of the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas, and catastrophic bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building, in Oklahoma City, an 11-day confrontation between federal agents and the survivalist Weaver family, near Naples, Idaho, ended very badly for everyone involved. After patriarch Randy Weaver was discharged from the Army, he relocated to Iowa, where he and his wife, Vickie, had trouble making ends meet. While there, Vicki convinced her husband that the apocalypse was imminent and the family could avoid it by abandoning “corrupt civilization” and moving to a mountainous 20-acre property, outside remote Ruby Ridge, where they would build a cabin in the early 1980s. In that part of Idaho, it would have been difficult for a religious fundamentalist not to make contact with members of the Aryan Nation and other hate groups, if only because the picnics were fun and the gatherings gave kids the age of the Weaver children an opportunity to play together. Although Weaver claims to have never joined the Aryan Nation, he developed a friendship with a man planted within the group by the ATF to develop cases against members stocking weapons and explosives. In an attempt to save his ass, the informant told the feds that Weaver – a fellow gun nut – had supplied him with two illegally modified rifles. Weaver denied it, but his refusal to comply with the bench warrant led directly to the bloody confrontation that, when combined with Waco, inspired the Oklahoma City bombing by riled-up white supremacists. An initial encounter of six marshals with the Weavers had resulted in a firefight and the deaths of Deputy U.S. Marshal William Francis Degan, 42; the Weaver’s son, Samuel, age 14; and the Weaver family dog. The subsequent siege of the Weaver residence, led by the FBI applying especially lethal rules of engagement, resulted in the further death of Vicki, 43, and family friend Kevin Harris, 24, as well as the wounding of Randy Weaver. More than a week later, Weaver and his three surviving children joined presidential candidate James “Bo” Gritz – Randy’s commanding officer during the Vietnam War – on the long walk down the mountain, where they surrendered to a force of between 300-400 agents and police. Not only would Weaver be acquitted of all criminal charges, but he and his daughters would reach a multimillion-dollar settlement with the government for their losses. One of the daughters is interviewed here, along with several law-enforcement officials.
When then-President-Elect Trump decided that it might fun to diss U.S. Representative John Lewis (D-Ga.) on his Twitter feed, in advance of this year’s Martin Luther King Jr. Day celebration, he incurred the wrath of more African-Americans than he did during his entire two-year campaign for the White House. It wasn’t enough that he had courted the KKK and other White Power advocates by not renouncing their support of his reactionary positions. He had reacted to Lewis’ stated belief that Russian hackers helped Trump steal the election by suggesting that the long-serving congressman from Atlanta should “spend more time on fixing and helping his district, which is in horrible shape and falling apart, not to mention crime infested, rather than falsely complaining about the election results. … All talk, talk, talk – no action or results. Sad!” What’s sadder was Trump’s ignorance of the true nature of everyday life in the city – for whites, blacks and all people of color – and his willingness to attack a civil-rights activist who was one of the original Freedom Riders and the youngest speaker at the 1963 March on Washington. As an early member and, later, chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, he had been beaten and arrested by police, and chastised for his non-violent beliefs by militants within his own organization. He paid a severe price for standing up to Gov. George Wallace’s storm troopers in the first Selma to Montgomery march, in support of the Voters Rights Act, and has lived long enough to watch actor Stephan James portray him in Ava DuVernay’s Selma. His career would come full circle twice again: first, on August 28, 2013, at the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom and, then, two months earlier, when he learned, to his horror, that the U.S. Supreme Court had decided to strike down a key part of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Even if Wallace had been elected president in 1972, he couldn’t have pulled that one off. Kathleen Dowdey’s comprehensive biopic, “John Lewis: Get in the Way” was probably already in the can when Trump made his ill-advised tweet. While it’s possible he would have changed his tune if he had watched the film, it isn’t likely that he watches anything that’s not on Fox News. It is informed by interviews with a wide variety of activists, politicians, celebrities and two former presidents.