MCN Columnists
Gary Dretzka

By Gary Dretzka Dretzka@moviecitynews.com

The DVD Wrapup: Space Between Us, xXx, Starlight, Operation Mekong, Serial Mom, Brain Damage and more

The Space Between Us: Blu-ray
Apparently, Mars has become the Las Vegas of planets, at least in the eyes of screenwriters looking for a convenient place to add some tourist-appeal to their next sci-fi drama. By comparison to Neptune, for example, the Red Planet is close, potentially habitable, already mapped from space and explored by rovers, and visible from Earth. Several generations of novelists and filmmakers have explored it, as well, in works that have stirred the imaginations of audiences around the world. The problem now, of course, is that we’ve become so familiar with Mars that fantasists have had to reduce their dependence on little green men and other alien creatures as potential antagonists. Instead, they’re creating new ways for humans to make problems for themselves. Ridley Scott’s captivating drama of ingenuity and survival, The Martian, relied less on science-fiction for its conceits than raw data, visual evidence and empathy for its appeal. It made more than $600 million in global box-office returns, before sailing into the aftermarket. Indeed, there are exteriors in the largely Mars-based The Space Between Us that look as if they might have been ported over from The Martian. Its lack of success commercially and critically, however, probably can be traced to issues unrelated to space fatigue. Absent any of the bells and whistles that helped launch other recent sci-fi extravaganzas — 3D, IMAX, 3D IMAX — even The Martian faced an uphill climb. Neither were its chances enhanced by three release-date changes and a marketing campaign hobbled by mixed messages. Unlike Gravity, Passengers, Interstellar, Life, Approaching the Unknown and various franchise and comic-book adventures, The Space Between Us played like a teen romance that began and ended on Mars, but, otherwise, was earthbound. Its less grandiose scale reminded me of Duncan Jones’ underappreciated Moon (2009), a twisty lunar mystery about a lonely lunar engineer, played by Sam Rockwell, and his computer, GERTY, voiced by Kevin Spacey.

The intrigue begins when a seasoned NASA mission commander, on her way to Mars for a corporate colonization project, discovers in midflight that she’s pregnant. I can’t imagine how this potentially calamitous medical situation could have be missed by the team’s medical staff or come as a complete surprise either of the adults involved in the reproduction process, but it did. Shortly after landing, while giving birth to the first human born on Mars, the mother dies. In a potentially disastrous public-relations dilemma for the project’s sponsor, back home, Genesis CEO Nathaniel Shepard (Gary Oldman) and director Tom Chen (B.D. Wong) decide to keep the birth a secret from the media and invent a logical explanation for the high-profile woman’s death. Flash forward 16 years and the boy, Gardner Elliot (Asa Butterfield), is living what most viewers, I think, would consider to be a reasonably normal life … considering the circumstances. Watched over by a nagging android and astronaut Kendra Wyndham (Carla Gugino), Gardner’s assimilated naturally into the 15-member crew. Like any other adopted teenager, Gardner scratches around the space station for clues to his parentage, finally discovering a photo of his mother and a man the gangly 16-year-old closely resembles. He also has become addicted to Internet surfing and the social sites, upon which he’s befriended a similarly lonely teenage girl. Gardner’s led Tulsa (Britt Robertson) to believe that she’s corresponding with a bubble boy, limited to life in a Manhattan penthouse. Feeling that it’s time for him to broaden his horizons, Kendra helps Gardner hitch a ride on the next supply shuttle home. What she doesn’t know is how desperate he is to touch base with Tulsa and locate his father, based solely on the photo and an advanced computer search of similar backgrounds. Once he’s able to break free from corporate headquarters, he makes a beeline to Colorado, where he confounds Tulsa with his actual life story and convinces her to join him in his crusade. Their road trip to the beach communities of Southern California, is interrupted with an obligatory pitstop in Las Vegas, where Gardner’s life-threatening aversion to Earth’s atmosphere betrays him. The Space Between Us becomes a race against time and gravity. As far-fetched as it sounds, I think that teen and young-adult viewers would find a lot to enjoy here, especially in the sometimes awkward interactions between Gardner and Tulsa. The Blu-ray adds a decent alternate ending, deleted scene, a background featurette and commentary with director Peter Chelsom (Serendipity).

xXx: Return of Xander Cage: Blu-ray
As easily identifiable as Vin Diesel is as xXx operative Xander Cage, it’s worth remembering he’d been missing in action for 15 years before returning as the protagonist in the franchise’s second sequel, xXx: Return of Xander Cage. In xXx: State of the Union, the first sequel to 2002’s succinctly titled xXx, the lead kick-ass agent was played by Ice Cube. It didn’t do nearly as well as the original and a lot of people gave the franchise up for dead. With Diesel coaxed out of retirement for the triquel and a script that successfully forgoes logic for extreme action, a return to profitability seemed inevitable. And, while it underperformed domestically, it did well in the worldwide market, especially China, where it broke the $100-million barrier in six days. “Return’ opens with a smorgasbord of extreme-sports gags that a 25-year-old James Bond might envy. After scaling a dizzyingly tall broadcast antenna, high atop a mountain in the Dominican Republic, Xander base-jumps into the forest greenery below to avoid police. Once grounded, he skies down the mountain side, avoiding boulders, low-hanging branches and tree trunks. Then, he commandeers a skateboard and races down a winding road to the sea, where a group of rabid soccer fans is awaiting the transponder box needed to watch a World Cup match. The captivating set piece anticipates everything to come action-wise, while, back in the Estados Unidos, a smash-and-grab attack at a top-secret gathering of intelligence officials introduces viewers to the all-powerful Pandorada’s Box gizmo that, if triggered, could destroy humanity. When the wily invader succeeds in stealing the box, it disappears into the netherworld of high-tech hoodlums and corrupt spooks. Apparently, Xander is one of the few people on the planet capable of recovery the device and almost everyone in Washington thinks he’s deceased. It takes a visit from Augustus Gibbons (Samuel L. Jackson), the NSA agent in charge of the xXx Program, to convince his former recruit to prevent a satellite-launched apocalypse. (Gibbons is the only character to appear in every installment of the franchise.)

The assumption is that the box is currently is in the hands of another former xXx agent, Xiang (Donnie “Ip Man” Yen), but he’s only one of several characters whose motivations are unclear. Xander agrees to lead the recovery mission, but only if he pick his teammates. It will be comprised of fellow extreme athletes played by Thai martial arts star, Tony Jaa (Ong Bak); Bulgarian gymnast/dancer, Nina Dobrev; lanky Bollywood model/actress, Deepika Padukone; scary Aussie tattoo freak, Ruby Rose (“Orange Is the New Black”); Chinese singer/actor Kris Wu; British UFC champ, Michael Bisping; “Game of Thrones” favorite, Rory McCann; Brazilian soccer phenom, Neymar; ex-NFL tight end, Tony Gonzalez. Dobrev’s master hacker, Becky Clearidge, desperately wants to kick some butts, but her talents are better suited to blocking the bad guys’ computer transmissions and making the impossible possible. Toni Collette is typically credible as a duplicitous CIA official and Ice Cube returns from the dead for a cameo. “Return” looks perfectly suited for 3D or UHD playback, so early adapters should look for it in those formats. Director D.J. Caruso (I Am Number Four), DP Russell Carpenter (Ant-Man) and the huge stunt team keep things moving at a breakneck speed for nearly all of the film 107-minute length. The Blu-ray adds “Third Time’s the Charm: Xander Returns,” a nuts-and-bolts supplement that examines Vin Diesel’s return to the series, new characters and cast members; “Rebels, Tyrants & Ghosts: The Cast,” on assembling the film’s international cast; “Opening Pandora’s Box: On Location,” on the various sets and shooting locations; “I Live for This Sh#t!: Stunts,” takes viewers behind-the-scenes for a look at making the action sequences; and a gag reel.

Starlight: Blu-ray
A few decades ago, when Iggy Pop was one of the odds-on favorites in everyone’s office dead pools, it would have been preposterous to think he might someday be the marquee attraction in a French art film, albeit as a guardian angel named La Conscience. And, yet, here he is. Iggy’s return to touring and recording is back on track, as well. He didn’t have to stretch much for his performance in Sophie Blondy’s Starlight, where he’s mostly limited to staring blankly into the camera from a blurred background. He wasn’t even required to wear a shirt or learn more than a few words of dialogue. Iggy’s spirit image merely appears at various times to members of a small circus company, reduced to performing before meager audiences in a community protected from the North Sea by a magnificent bank of sand dunes. Like the threadbare circus, itself, the performers are on their last legs. Two love triangles threaten to hasten its demise even further. The warring factions are comprised of ballerina Angele (Natacha Regnier), her clown lover Elliot (Bruno Putzulu) and the cruel, schizophrenic ringmaster (Tcheky Karyo), and the Gypsy fortune-teller Zohra (Beatrice Dalle), who’s also in love with Elliot. Although there are moments of Antonioni-inspired beauty, especially in the over-saturated black-and-white scenes at the beach and dunes, some of Starlight‘s more strident confrontations resemble outtakes from “Bum Fights” videos. I would have appreciated some bonus background features, but, alas, it is what it is. Iggy completists should get a kick out of it.

Outcasts
Borrowing from one of the hoariest of all hoary teen-movie plots — the revenge of the nerds — Peter Hutchings’ The Outcasts succeeds by taking advantage of the manic energy of its stars and a surprisingly smart screenplay by a pair of newcomers to the writing game. Casting specialists Dominique Ferrari and Suzanne Wrubel went to great lengths to create an unusually large cast of precisely defined characters, while also avoiding or fine-tuning the many cliches associated with the subgenre. Victoria Justice (“Vctorious” and Eden Sher (“The Middle”) play Jodi and Mindy, an amiable pair of scholastically oriented geeks, who, after becoming the targets of a nasty practical joke, spark a revolution of like-minded outcasts. The rebels include AV specialists, science-fair champs, debate-club wordsmiths, Girl Scouts, fatties, marching-band lifers, cosplay kids and honor-roll dorks. United, they present a formidable resistance to the tyranny of the “popular” kids. It also helps that the imaginatively conceived dialogue is delivered at breakneck speed by teens, who, conceivably, prepared by chugging Diet Mountain Dew spritzers and shots of Starbucks double-espresso. As archetypal as some of the characters are, Hutchings dispensed with the cardboard typically used to create stereotypical background elements, including parents and teachers. Each is allowed to retain a measure of humanity normally reserved for the protagonists. The “psycho Barbie” mean girls and brain-dead jocks may have been drawn with broad strokes, but they’re given opportunities to repent their sins. None of this would have worked if the costume and set designers hadn’t done their homework, or if the overtly moralistic resolution and requisite post-scripts underperformed. To my adult mind, the only noticeable drawback is a straight-to-Internet visual sheen more suited to YouTube webisodes than a movie that someday could be mentioned in the same listicle as Clueless or Election. That said, I doubt that anyone who grew up watching MTV sitcoms will object.

A Street Cat Named Bob
If parents can get over the fact that the protagonist of A Street Cat Named Bob is a slowly recovering drug addict, Roger Spottiswoode’s winning adaptation of James Bowen and Garry Jenkins’ international best-seller could easily qualify as an unlikely family entertainment. Unrated, presumably, to avoid a de rigueur “R” for drug references and language, it is the true story of a homeless London busker and the ginger feline who adopts him. Street musician James (Luke Treadaway), based on the co-author’s own experiences, struggles to control his addiction with methadone and chronic poverty by hawking magazines and performing catchy songs, with Bob on his shoulders, for spare change. In this way, A Street Cat Named Bob immediately recalls Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova in Once. Another unavoidable comparison is to The Soloist, in which a homeless, Juilliard-trained musician is discovered by a reporter who sees something remarkable behind the dirt and grime. Even so, it’s an uphill battle all the way. Spottiswoode has previously displayed a kinship with animal actors in Turner & Hooch and The Journey Home. Here, Bob isn’t required to perform any anthropomorphic gags or be anything but a strangely obedient pet and loyal friend. The only animal-centric conceit is having the camera observe certain things — a mouse, yarn, household items and the occasional canine threat — from a feline point-of-view. The gimmick is used sparingly, however, and, perhaps, relates to something in the book. The closing scene — no spoiler alert necessary — is as uplifting as movies about addictions and homelessness get. The songs are pretty good, as well. Solid support is provided by Ruta Gedmintas, Joanne Froggatt, Anthony Head and Beth Goddard. The DVD comes with a pair of background pieces.

Between Us
I doubt that Olivia Thirlby and Anna Kendrick share anything beyond dark hair, being short in stature, winning smiles, a similar age and tendency to be cast in roles that are interchangeable. Even in their 30s, they can get away with playing recent college graduates. The first word that comes to mind when they appear on screen is, “cute.” That’s fine, but five more inches in height would be better. Neither is likely to be cast as a femme fatale. That’s OK, too. Anna received an Oscar nomination, for Up in the Air, and has enjoyed success in a pair of monster franchises, Twilight and Pitch Perfect. Olivia was a member of Juno‘s terrific ensemble cast and stood out in the Sundance favorite, The Wackness. If their characters don’t always get their man, we sometimes wish they would steal someone else’s. None of that matters much in the overall scheme of things, but it’s what came to mind while waiting for something interesting to happen in Thirlby’s latest near-miss, Between Us. Its an urban rom/dram/com about longtime friends and lovers, who, for all the usual reasons, decide that it’s probably time to test fate by getting married. What that means here, of course, is that Henry (Ben Feldman) and Dianne’s hastily arranged wedding will fall apart, even before they can consummate the marriage … officially, that is. Their first night as husband and wife turns into a nightmare of accusations, recriminations and temptations that should have been considered before hiring a limousine for the ride downtown.

A similar thing happens in Richard LaGravenese and composer/lyricist Jason Robert Brown’s rom/dram/com musical, The Last Five Years. In it, Kendrick plays a struggling actress, Cathy, whose marriage to the up-and-coming novelist, Jamie (Jeremy Jordan), falls apart just when it should be solidifying. Their story is told almost entirely through songs, using an intercutting timeline device that causes all of Cathy’s songs to begin at the end of their marriage and travel backwards in time to the start of their love affair. Conversely, Jamie’s songs take us in a forwardly direction, from the beginning of their romance to the end of their marriage. The individual arcs of their stories meet at the point when Cathy and Jamie are at their happiest. It’s an extremely complicated concept to pull off in a dramatic narrative, anywhere, but Anna’s an excellent singer and, I suspect, The Last Five Years worked better on the stage, where it originated.

But, where was I? Oh, yeah. Thirlby and Kendrick work so hard to convince us of their characters’ virtues that it’s difficult to believe that their partners would give up on them so easily. It’s almost as if they’re in the wrong movies. In Rafael Palacio Illingworth’s Between Us, Henry uses the wedding-day argument as an excuse to hook up with a free-spirited musician, Veronica (Analeigh Tipton), who admires his books, but looks as if she might have missed the last bus to the Burning Man festival. For her part. Dianne makes the last-minute decision to call a guy she just met on her job as a project coordinator, using the pretext of wanting to drive his sports car around town. Although she’s shocked to learn that he’s married — his wife is in the back seat when he arrives — their performance-artist friend, Liam (Adam Goldberg), is only too happy to pick up the pieces of her heart. Although Illingworth’s script offers a short-term resolution to the newlyweds’ dilemma, neither hookup comes remotely close to being a match made in heaven. Thirlby’s first big on-screen sex scene session — without a body double, anyway — was more cringeworthy than stimulating or erotic. (It might have been hotter if Goldberg had taken off his Doc Martins and greasy jeans.) Peter Bogdanovich and Lesley Ann Warren make an entertaining appearance as Henry’s parents.

On the Road, Somewhere
Guillermo Zouain and co-writer Wendy Muniz’ debut feature, On the Road, Somewhere (a.k.a., “Algun lugar“), follows three high-school buddies on a summer road-trip through the Dominican Republic, likely their last joint adventure before going their separate ways. I suspect that IndiePix Films would love for potential viewers to anticipate seeing a grass-roots version of Y Tu Mama, Tambien, but, at a brisk 71 minutes, there simply isn’t enough there to warrant comparisons beyond the obvious coming-of-age similarities. Even so, its good-natured amiability and scenic beauty recommend it to admirers of emerging Latino artists. (Zouain is a third-generation Dominican, of Lebanese descent, who emigrated to the U.S. in 2010.)  In it, Oliver (Arnold Martínez), Moises (Javier Grullon), and Hemingway (Victor Alfonso) need to arrive at the remote town of Pedernales, so that Oliver can say goodbye to his high school sweetheart, before she moves to New York. Moises is documenting the trip as a last tribute to his love of photography, before studying civil engineering in college, while Hemingway hopes to escape his oppressive family and become a writer in a society that doesn’t appreciate them. Complicating their mission is an automobile in desperate need of a new radiator. It forces them to rely on shared jitneys and an acquaintance with a motorboat. They encounter “nearly every character under the Dominican sun,” including a Haitian hitchhiker, a famous photographer, a political fanatic, an intriguing artist and voluptuous libertine. On the Road, Somewhere presents a different side of the D.R. than we’ve seen in action films (xXx: Return of Xande Cage), baseball-themed docs (Ballplayer: Pelotero), political dramas (Kill the Dictator) and cross-cultural romances (Sand Dollars). It’s the island’s natural beauty and cultural diversity that sell the picture.

Good Morning: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
Japanese writer/director Yasujiro Ozu is known best for such observant postwar “home dramas” as Tokyo Story, Tokyo Twilight, Late Spring, Early Summer and An Autumn Afternoon. The Criterion Collection re-release of Good Morning provides ample proof, in case any was necessary, that Ozu’s comedies deserve our attention, as well. It is a loose remake of his own 1932 silent, I Was Born, But …, as well as his second film in color. The rebellious pair of children to whom we’re introduced in both movies could have been fashioned after the Katzenjammer Kids or the Little Rascals, and their friends run the gamut from typically polite and respectful, to anarchic … in a mischievous sort of way. Minoru and Isamu Hayashi stubbornly insist on becoming the next family in the suburban neighborhood to own a television, so they can watch sumo wrestling and baseball without leaving home. (It must have been a demand made by children around the world in 1959.) They even refuse to speak Japanese and eat their meals, until their father surrenders. Their impolite behavior is completely out of character for Japanese children of the period, so it’s especially interesting to see how their decidedly postwar parents deal with it. Good Morning‘s vision extends to the difficulties of multigenerational families living in small, pre-fabricated homes, so close together that one family’s living room practically leads into the kitchen next-door, and drunken grandfathers easily confuse one family’s front door for his own. The boys find ways to avoid having to deal with bullies at school, while, at home, mom learns how to cope with nosy and domineering neighbors, whose gossip can be as sharp as a knife.

The title, Good Morning, itself, offers a clue to Ozu’s overriding theme of changing norms in a society not quite ready to deal with them. The exaggerated repetition of polite greetings, expressions of gratitude, apologies, bowing and other courtesies — the “lubricant in Japanese society” — is hilarious, but only when we finally get the drift of Ozu’s running gag. He also shows how everyday commerce is evolving, by contrasting the efforts of a persistent street peddler who’s knows the territory and a neighbor who finally gets a meaningful job, as purveyor of consumer-electronics products to strangers. And, then, there’s the farting. Even if the unfettered flatulence is hard to detect, at first, it is one of the things that links generations in these households. Everyone lets one go every so often and giggles at their own impoliteness. The Technicolor may also be new, but not the director’s brilliant camerawork and subtle shifts in perspective, which most viewers won’t even notice. The Blu-ray benefits from a new 4K digital restoration from Shochiku Co., with uncompressed monaural soundtrack; the inclusion of “I Was Born, But .,.,” with a score composed by Donald Sosin; the surviving excerpt from “A Straightforward Boy,” a 1929 silent film by Ozu; a new video essay on his use of humor, by critic David Cairns; an interview with film scholar David Bordwell; and an essay by critic Jonathan Rosenbaum.

Extortion
Writer/director Phil Volken’s second feature, after the virtually unseen 2013 dramedy Garbage, is a better-than-average straight-to-DVD thriller that’s set in the Caribbean and involves a kidnaping at sea. A cocky American doctor brings his family to an idyllic island, expecting perfection and respect, but is not averse to flashing hundred-dollar bills when his demands aren’t immediately met. After renting a motorboat that probably is less than seaworthy — in lieu of waiting for a more tourist-friendly jet-ski to become unavailable at his resort — Kevin Reilly (Eion Bailey) decides to take his wife, Julie (Bethany Joy Lenz), and sickly young son to an island that’s just over the horizon. After a few pleasant hours in the sun, the outboard motor predictably fails to start, leaving them high, dry and thirsty for a couple days. Just in the nick of time, a fisherman arrives to rescue them. Not. Miguel (Barkhad Abdi) decides, instead, to kidnap mother and child, while extorting a million bucks from dad. Just as the exchange is set in motion, however, Miguel decides to launch a series of switchbacks that will alternately surprise viewers and make the kidnapper that much more odious. Neither do we anticipate the resistance to Kevin’s plight he’s accorded by local authorities and U.S. consulate officials, who sense that he’s a con artist. Again, though, an unlikely set of circumstances forces the American to take matters into his own hands and find clues leading to his family’s whereabouts in ways anyone with a laptop, Google maps and a chip on his shoulder could do. In a bit of a twist, Danny Glover plays a cop who seems more willing to frame Kevin than find his family. The DVD adds a making-of featurette.

Operation Mekong: Blu-ray
Until the arrival in my mailbox of Dante Lam’s all-action Operation Mekong, I don’t think I’ve seen a movie from China that so clearly lays out the country’s vulnerability to an out-of-control drug epidemic. I know the communist government takes such threats extremely seriously, because I’ve seen news footage of men convicted of all sorts of serious crimes, their hands tied behind their backs, executed within minutes of hearing their verdicts being read. When it comes to portrayals of vices and other social ills, government censors are as stringent as Hollywood’s Hays Office was, back in the day. Still, it makes sense that China would be facing many of the same concerns experienced in less-totalitarian countries. Its immediate proximity to the Golden Triangle and ready supply of contraband from Southeast Asia, along the Mekong and Lamkang rivers, came as a surprise to me. The recent explosion in personal wealth among a younger, more worldly generation of city-based workers would seem to play into the hands of purveyors of all manner of decadent pleasures. It wasn’t so long ago, after all, that British and Qing Dynasty forces went to war, partially over the legalization of the opium trade. (The Brits were all for it.) Its proximity to the poppy fields of Afghanistan also makes China vulnerable to trafficking along historic trade routes. On the flip side, China has become a source country for significant amounts of the ephedrine and pseudoephedrine exported to Mexico and subsequently used to manufacture crystal meth destined for the United States. While it’s hardly a secret — check out the Wikipedia entry dedicated to illegal drug use in the PRC — the still burgeoning mainland movie industry has focused more of its attention on historical epics, martial-arts thrillers and yuppie romances. (Hong Kong-based filmmakers still have their hands full with the triads.)

Operation Mekong was inspired by a 2011 attack on two Chinese commercial vessels on the narrow section of the Mekong River that extends from China’s Yunnan Province, through the Golden Triangle, and south to Laos, Cambodia, Thailand and Vietnam. It is believed that pirates, under the command of cartel leader Naw Kham (Pawarith Monkolpisit), boarded the vessels in an attempt to extort money and, then, executed 13 sailors at gunpoint. They planted 900,000 methamphetamine pills, presumably to make it look like the boats were used for smuggling drugs, and dumped the bodies overboard. The Mekong River Massacre was treated as a major national tragedy by the Chinese and an embarrassment by the governments of Laos, Burma and Thailand. Nine Thai soldiers belonging to an elite anti-narcotics army unit were implicated in the attacks, but disappeared after being identified. Naw Kham was arrested by Laotian officials and extradited to China, where he reportedly admitted his guilt, and was executed, 11 months later, with three of his subordinates. Operation Mekong‘s take on the joint police investigation and capture of Naw Kham is based on the official Chinese version of the story, which gives most of the credit to Gao Gang (Zhang Hanyu), head of the elite narcotics-control team, and regional intelligence officer Fang Xinwu (Eddie Peng). Even if Lam’s interpretation of the events more closely resembles Rambo, than, say, American Gangster, the elaborately staged chase sequences are right up there with the one in The French Connection. The DVD adds a comprehensive making-of package.

Willard/Ben: Blu-ray
Way back in the dark ages of the early 1970s, a pair of movies about killer rats caught the fancy of teenagers and young adults, effectively launching a subgenre in which household pests, bugs and reptiles recognized their collective powers and turned on humans, with a vengeance. If the critics weren’t impressed, i’s probably because so many good movies were being churned out by Hollywood “mavericks” and foreign auteurs that they resented having to cover flicks targeted at the drive-in crowd. (They’d change their minds when sharp young filmmakers emerged from the pack to re-invent those genres.) While Willard became a huge financial hit, Ben‘s claim to fame is having its theme song sung by a very young Michael Jackson in the closing credits and having it nominated for an Oscar as Best Original Song. (It won a Golden Globe in the same category.) For some reason, both films have been difficult to find, especially in the refurbished condition afforded them by the archivists at Scream Factory. The first thing to know, besides the killer-rats conceit, is that the protagonist of Willard is an unfortunate young man named Willard Stiles (Ben Davison) and Ben is named after the leader of the movie’s rat pack, and not the other way around.

In the former, Stiles lives alone in a crumbling house with his ailing, slightly addled mother (Elsa Lanchester). His boss (Ernest Borgnine) is a vulgarian, who stole his business from Willard’s father and is now working the young man to death in a menial factory job. Willard is on the verge of a breakdown when he makes a new friend, the aforementioned Ben, one of the many rats who inhabit the house. Not only can Willard communicate with the rodent, but he’s also able to command him to do his bidding, which includes carrying out his vengeance on the man who robbed him of his inheritance. Without giving away too much, Ben opens with a police investigation, led by Joseph Campanella, into the sudden invasion of militant vermin in Willard’s former neighborhood. Ben finds an ally in a lonely 8-year-old boy (Lee Montgomery), who facilitates the ensuing game of cat-and-mouse between the police and four-legged antagonists. Look for Meredith Baxter, Arthur O’Connell and Rosemary Murphy in key supporting roles. Ben suffers here from a substandard visual presentation forced by the unavailability of the original negatives and interpositives. The Blu-rays add an audio commentary and new interview with Davison and Montgomery, as well as vintage marketing material.

Serial Mom: Collector’s Edition: Blu-ray
Watching the movie many of John Waters’ legion of fans considers to be his most widely accessible entertainment, Serial Mom, I couldn’t help but wonder how Divine would have portrayed its wicked protagonist, Beverly Sutphin. The obese cross-dressing mainstay of Waters’ early features had died in 1988 and his loss had a deep impact on the Pope of Trash. Kathleen Turner was chosen to play the homicidal housewife, reportedly after Susan Sarandon and Julie Andrews were considered for the part. It wasn’t the perfect fit Divine would have been, but Turner’s presence assured a larger-the-usual budget for Waters and an opportunity to play in theaters not strictly reserved for arthouse or underground films. It’s still a hoot hearing Turner and Mink Stole exchange vulgarities in the initial obscene phone call that reveals just how duplicitous Waters’ “Breck Girl gone crazy” could be. Along with her doting and largely oblivious husband, Eugene (Sam Waterston, also playing against type), and two children, Misty (Ricki Lake) and Chip (Matthew Lillard), Beverly enjoys the kind of suburban lifestyle only a writer of 1950s sitcoms could invent. Even so, little things trigger her sociopathic instincts: a fly on the butter, a teacher dissing her horror-fanatic son, her daughter’s two-timing boyfriend and the white pumps worn by Juror #8 (Patricia Hearst) after Labor Day.

Waters has always been a big fan of true-crime TV shows and once frequented the kinds of trials that alternately repulsed and captured the public’s attention, including the Hearst/SLA trials. He saw irony everywhere. In an interview included in the bonus package, he points out that the slow-speed chase that preceded Beverly’s arrest was staged only a few months before O.J. Simpson and Al Cowlings led a parade of CHP and LAPD squad cars from Orange County to his Brentwood estate in a white Ford Bronco. If Serial Mom isn’t as shocking as Pink Flamingos or Multiple Maniacs, it remains a movie that can be enjoyed by Waters’ old and new fans. NBCs recent limited series, Trial & Error, certainly owes a huge debt of gratitude to Waters, Beverly Sutphin and Serial Mom. Other faces to look for belong to Suzanne Somers, Traci Lords and Bess Armstrong. The Scream Factory package includes a lively conversation with Waters, Turner and Stole; “Serial Mom: Surreal Moments,” featuring interviews with Waters, Stole, Hearst, Lake, Lillard, casting director Pat Moran and production designer Vincent Pirano; commentaries with Waters and Turner; and vintage featurettes “The Making of Serial Mom” and “The Kings of Gore: Herschel Gordon Lewis and David Friedman.” Waters has indicated that he’s been forced into retirement by production costs that no longer allow him to make the edgy material he favors and still enjoy some financial return. His last release, not counting “Kiddie Flamingos” — a table read, by youngsters, of his classic — was 2004’s A Dirty Shame. The American cinema’s loss is the lecture circuits gain.

Brain Damage: Special Edition: Blu-ray
American Mummy: Limited Edition: Blu-ray 3D/2D
In the annals of exploitation and sexploitation cinema, Frank Henenlotter’s name may not pop up as often as Herschell Gordon Lewis, Russ Meyer, Doris Wishman, Ruggero Deodato, Jess Franco, Joe D’Amato, Roger Corman and John Waters, but what he lacks in quantity is made up for in notoriety. In addition to the Basket Case trilogy, Henenlotter is responsible for Frankenhooker, Bad Biology, Brain Damage and the documentaries Herschell Gordon Lewis: The Godfather of Gore and That’s Sexploitation! Brain Damage is newly available in an elaborately conceived Blu-ray “special edition” from Arrow Films. It exists today as a classic example of bad taste in the service of hard-core horror, as well as an alternately shocking and hilarious anti-drug allegory from the this-is-your-brain-on-drugs era. The antagonist in Brain Damage is a parasitic creature that’s a cross between the monster in William Castle’s The Tingler (1959) and a lamprey eel. Aylmer (a.k.a., Elmer) is a phallus-shaped thingee that attaches itself to the base of its victim’s brain stem, excreting a hallucinogenic serum into the host, while demanding access to the brain cells of people with whom he comes in contact. After sucking a victim’s cerebellum dry, Aylmer reattaches itself to the brain stem of Brian (Rick Hearst), a handsome chap who’s become addicted to the serum. If these nauseating encounters weren’t sufficiently gut-churning, the Arrow edition of Brain Damage restores a scene so disgusting it completely redefines what it means to experience mind-blowing oral sex. It should come with one of those warning signs that used to flash on screens ahead of gory scenes in the glory days of cheapo horror flicks. Even by the low standards established in Corman and Jack Nicholson’s The Trip, 20 years earlier, Brian’s psychedelic visions must have looked ridiculously primitive to 1980s’ acid heads. That, however, is what makes the micro-budgeted movie so endearing today. The newly recorded backgrounders and making-of featurettes should be considered must-viewing for fans of exploitation films and Henenlotter’s strangely influential Basket Case (1982). The writer/director adds fresh commentary and a Q&A recorded at the 2016 Offscreen Film Festival. There are interviews with cast and crew members; a reversible sleeve, featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Sara Deck; a limited-edition O-card with exclusive artwork and collector’s booklet with new writing on the film by Michael Gingold.

I wouldn’t be at all surprised to learn that the makers of American Mummy had seen Brain Damage and were influenced by some of its more grotesque imagery. Neither would I be shocked to find out that the folks at Wild Eye Releasing had decided to retitle the 2014 release — formerly known as “Aztec Blood” – to piggyback on the hype being generated by Tom Cruise’s upcoming reimagining of The Mummy. Whatever works, I suppose. After a nearly 20-year hiatus, co-writer/director Charles Pinion (We Await, Red Spirit Lake) returned to action with this 3D account of the mayhem that follows the discovery of a gemstone-encrusted mummy, in a cave in New Mexico, by a group of university students. When one of them performs a primeval blood ritual over the mummy, it awakens the malevolent spirit of the Aztec Lord Tezcalipoca. Apparently, he’s intent on finishing his centuries-old reign of terror, beginning with the horny kids. How far he will get is anyone’s guess. I wasn’t able to screen American Mummy on 3D, so am unable to comment on its effectiveness. There’s plenty of carnage on display, however, as well as some T & A. Typically, they compensate for a decided lack of anything else in the movie’s favor. Still, I’ve seen a lot worse. There are some brief making-of pieces.

Disturbing the Peace
Wouldn’t it be great to wake up one morning to the news that peace has been declared in the Middle East and that Israeli and Palestinian leaders are encouraging their followers to pull back from a perpetual war footing? Yeah, I’m not holding my breath on that one, either. Too many war mongers on both sides of the wall dividing the West Bank have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo for peace to break out overnight. Still, occasional documentaries, such as Disturbing the Peace, offer reasons to believe that a reasonable solution to a 70-year conflict may still be possible in our lifetime. Launched in 2005, Combatants for Peace is an organization dedicated to fighting violence through nonviolence. It’s comprised of former Israeli soldiers and Palestinian freedom fighters, who’ve come to the conclusion — after long stretches of time in uniform or behind bars — that talking and listening can be more formidable weapons than guns and bombs. After briefly sketching out the events that led to the current stalemate, directors Stephen Apkon and Andrew Young introduce us to men and women who’ve stood on the front lines and found reasons within themselves to try another option. One of the women was arrested after an aborted suicide mission and served six years in an Israeli prison. It took her at least that long to see the humanity in people she once targeted as enemies. Needless to say, their commitment to the CFP and openly promoting its goals wasn’t always greeted with sympathy or kindness. Disturbing the Peace may not represent the opinions of the majority of voters in Israel, but it’s nice to know that the minority hasn’t given up on a peaceful solution and that a lack of news coverage shouldn’t be mistaken for silence.

A Mermaid’s Tale
In the 180 years since the publication of Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale, “The Little Mermaid,” dozens of other writers have been inspired to adapt it for opera, musical theater, ballets, comic books, manga and anime, television and movies … short and long, animated and live-action. If there are only so many ways mermaids can be portrayed, physically, what they’re able to accomplish in and out of the water has few limits. In Dustin Rikert’s G-rated A Mermaid’s Tale, a 12-year-old newcomer (Caitlin Carmichael) to an oceanside town rescues a teenage mermaid, (Sydney Scotia), who’s become entangled in a fisherman’s net. Without saying as much, Ryan’s crusty grandfather (Barry Bostwick) blames the resident mermaids — in dolphin guise — for scaring off the fish that long supported the community. He has other reasons for discouraging Ryan from getting too close to Coral, but those will come out later, as well as a clever strategy to save the dying town. A Mermaid’s Tale‘s is limited by its budget, which, likely, was capped by the film’s expected audience of tweeners and their little sisters. It is enhanced by the sunny seaside location and bright talents of its supporting cast, including Jerry O’Connell and Nancy Stafford.

TV-to-DVD
PBS: Africa’s Great Civilizations: Blu-ray
DirecTV: Ice: Season One
HBO Latino: Millie & the Lords
PBS: Nature: Viva Puerto Rico
PBS: Frontline: Out of Gitmo
A&E: Duck Dynasty: The Final Season: Last Call
PBS Kids: Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood: Tiger Family Trip
Nickelodeon: Bubble Guppies: Super Guppies
For many years, one of the greatest failings of the American educational system involved a complete disregard of sub-Saharan African history, from the earliest stirrings of human life in the Rift Valley of Eastern Africa to the colonial era. The slave trade was covered, of course, but rarely the circumstances that allowed it to thrive and long-term disruption of historical trends and boundaries it fostered. I remember being taught that African tribes often conspired with European traders to create a reliable supply of slaves, but it sometimes seemed as if we were doing the kidnaped men, women and children a favor by putting them on a boat and shipping them a thousand miles from home to work, for free, while plantation owners sipped mint julips on their verandas. That’s pretty much changed, thanks to demands made by African-American teachers, students and parents to set the record straight. Even so, an awareness of African history before the arrival of European and Arab traders and religious zealots is missing from most elementary and high school curriculums. The illuminating six-part PBS mini-series, “Africa’s Great Civilizations,” makes great strides toward closing that gap. Harvard scholar Henry Louis Gates, Jr. — a fixture in PBS documentary series — takes viewers on a journey through 200,000 years of African history — from the birth of humankind to the dawn of the 20th Century — focusing on the formation of city-states and cultures that withstood the winds of change or were condemned to be buried by the shifting sands. Naturally, most of us are aware of the great Egyptian civilizations and magnificent ruins that still stand. Gates reminds us that just as many ruins, temples and shrines can be found throughout the continent, if one knows where to find them. He describes how the constant demand for gold shaped the great civilizations and lured new ones to Africa’s shores. The same applies to the ebb and flow of imported religions, from the earliest Christian churches in Ethiopia, to the arrival of Jesuit missionaries and amazing sweep of the Muslim empire, as it made its way from Egypt to Spain. With more than 40 years’ worth of Black History Months already behind us, regular presentations of “Africa’s Great Civilizations” could go a long way toward explaining why the continent will remain an important part of our future.

Ice“ is a reasonably ambitious mini-series on a cable network I didn’t even know existed, before a screener copy arrived in the mail. The stylishly shot series follows the questionable affairs of the L.A.-based Green family, whose fortune was made in the diamond trade and jewelry business. It was created and co-written by the hyper-prolific Oscar-winner Ron Bass (Rain Man), along with an exhausting list of writers, directors and producers that includes “Game of Thrones” co-executive producer Vince Gerardis and Antoine Fuqua (The Equalizer). The even longer list of stars and co-stars includes Cam Gigandet, Jeremy Sisto, Raymond Barry, Ray Winstone, Judith Shekoni, Ella Thomas and Donald Sutherland. Diamonds have been sold, stolen, swapped, smuggled and counterfeited for millennia. It’s been a staple in novels, movies and television shows, ever since such mediums have existed. The illegal trade in conflict diamonds from warzones in central Africa added a new wrinkle to the game, as did the dissolution of the Soviet Union and need by organized criminals and coke dealers to minimize the bulk of their assets. In the first episode, when the drug-addled Freddy Green (Sisto) stupidity kills an operative from a rival organization, his brother, Jake (Gigandet), is forced to trade favors with the ruthless Lady Rah (Shekoni) to keep him alive and the family business intact. The double- and triple-dealing that begins in Lady Rah’s penthouse will extend to Moscow, London, Amsterdam and Vancouver, although a dangerous mission to smuggle diamonds into Canada seems pretty far-fetched. The producers appear to have made a concerted effort to diversify the cast to attract the largest audience possible, considering limited reach and marketability. Likewise, the hip-hoppity music score sometimes seems out-of-sync with what’s happening on the screen. When that sort of disconnectedness kicks in, there’s always someone around to shoot or screw.

Writer/director/actress Jennica Carmona and her actor sibling, Jessica Carmona, were the driving force behind HBO Latino’s “Millie & the Lords,” a contemporary look back at the roots of New York’s Young Lords Party, from the vantage point of former members and young Puerto Ricans largely unaware of its existence. The well-meaning, if overly simplistic story ignores the Lords’ Chicago origins and participation in the pre-Jesse Jackson Rainbow Coalition — Black Panthers, Young Patriots, Brown Berets, American Indian Movement — and eventual dissolution due to government infiltration and sabotage. Instead, Carmona approaches the subject through the day-to-day struggles of Milagros Baez, a young Spanish Harlem resident whose self-esteem is on the skids. Something in her father’s past is preventing him from recognizing her stature as an adult and ability to make her own decisions. When a former YLP member returns to El Barrio to teach a refresher course in the group’s history, Mille and her fellow students are inspired to adopt its political and social ideals. The melodramatic aspects are heightened when local thugs target one of the students who’s decided that he wants nothing more to do gang-banging. It inspires Millie to further escape the cycle of violence and poverty that’s strangling her contemporaries. Even if its heart is in the right place, the Kickstarter-financed “Millie & the Lords” is hamstrung by poor production values and overlapping storylines.

The “Nature“ presentation, “Viva Puerto Rico,” takes viewers to the unincorporated American territory, located in the northeast Caribbean Sea, which is currently being drained of its limited financialza resources by the same Wall Street interests that drove the United States into a depression in 2008. With our current president re-opening the floodgates of corruption and corporate greed for the first time in eight years, prospects for recovery there don’t look promising. As narrated by Jimmy Smits, “Viva Puerto Rico” shows how an endangered economy might affect efforts to avoid the extinction of a myriad of species native to the island. First, though, we are given a good idea of what’s at stake. Puerto Rico is a tropical island infused with such unique natural wonders as the world’s deepest sea-trench, the longest underground cave system, a startlingly bright bioluminescent bay and rain forests that sometimes really do rain frogs. Among the people we meet are scientists dedicated to restoring three segments of Puerto Rico’s rich biological heritage — manatees, parrots and sea turtles — through breeding programs, rehabilitation, and protected zones.

Unlike his predecessors, George W. Bush and Barak Obama, President Trump is in no hurry to release or relocate suspected terrorists housed at Guantanamo Bay prison or permanently close the facility. Remaining mum on the promises he made during his campaign and tweeting fake facts about the recidivist tendencies of those “freed” by Obama. He conveniently ignores the fact that most of the prisoners were relocated during the Bush administration and more of those men returned to their old ways. He’s indicated that he not only wants to keep Gitmo open, but also try Americans accused of terrorism there. For now, at least, the proposal appears to have been placed on the back burner. PBS’ “Frontline: Out of Gitmo” tells the story of a Yemeni detainee released from the controversial prison after 14 years and sent to Serbia, of all places. For all practical purposes, he’s only slightly better off than he was in Cuba. Former Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel describes the challenges and complexities of releasing men who were never charged with a crime, but were once considered too great a risk to set free. The second half, “Forever Prison,” uses rare archival footage to tell the little known story of how the military base came to be used to hold people beyond the reach of U.S. law. It happened a decade before 9/11, when some 70,000 Haitian refugees fled their country, seeking asylum in the U.S. in the wake of a bloody coup.

Carl Hiaasen’s latest novel, “Razor Girl,” is hooked, in large part, to a family of fake redneck outdoorsmen, whose TV reality show is practically a carbon copy of the “Duck Dynasty“ clan, only exponentially funnier. A&E has made a fortune on the show, but decided to pull the plug on it earlier this year, after 11 seasons … not to be confused with 11 years, as its run began in 2012. Some observers believe that A&E buckled to complaints over Phil Robertson’s bigoted misinterpretations of Christ’s teachings and complaints over a culture war he claims was begun by yuppies and vegans, none of whom are known to carry shotguns or crossbows to back their beliefs. Ratings have continued to slide, ever since the Robertsons began to take themselves seriously as public figures and allow themselves to be used as political tools by conservative pols. I don’t think the numbers normally would warrant cancellation, but, frankly, good riddance. I haven’t paid much attention to “Duck Dynasty” since the first season. I’d pay to watch a Texas Death Match between the Robertsons and Kardashians, but voluntarily submitting to such torture became too much to bear. Still, final seasons always reveal something about the people involved and, well, why not? I was most surprised by two things: 1) how much the dialogue resembled that put in the mouths Beavis and Butt-Head, by Mike Judge & Co.; and 2) how little time the Robertsons spend fishing and hunting. Almost everything in the 15-show season seemed scripted by someone at A&E headquarters or edited to make the men in the family look as if they were going to shave their beards 10 minutes after the final wrap party. The women in the show are as articulate and funny as their husbands are made to look moronic. It led me to believe that the wives either were blessed with better writers or they’re in on the scam and can’t wait for those beards to come off, too. Until the end of July, the package is available solely at Walmart.

PBS Kids’ “Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood: Tiger Family Trip“ is an extended story arc created for the Fred Rogers-inspired show for preschoolers. The story follows Daniel and his family on a journey to visit Grandpere, accenting the highs and lows of traveling with young kids. Songs, simple games and gentle reminders of the importance of a positive attitude are some of the takeaways families can expect from the special presentation. Other episodes feature Daniel going to a carnival, watching fireworks and setting up a lemonade stand with Prince Wednesday.

Nickelodeon’s hit series “Bubble Guppies: Super Guppies“ also is designed for the enjoyment of preschoolers and family members who want to help the kids with early lessons on science, math and reading. Music plays a key role in the learning process. The 114-minute package contains the episodes, “Super Guppies!,” “X Marks the Spot,” “Haunted House Party,” “The Unidentified Flying Orchestra” and “Police Cop-etition.”

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“It’s a film festival’s job—and increasingly so—to create moments of recognition, of enjoyment, of shock, of learning. Not of consumerism. Not of implementing cultural policy. But moments without pretence, unclouded by vested interests, by intervention, by cynicism, by everyday business. Committed to nothing but the thing itself. Under obligation to nothing, to no one, not even to the filmmakers themselves. To basically seek access to a form that does not yet exist, a place no one has been to, a time that has not yet come. ’A form that thinks, and a thought that forms,’ as Jean-Luc Godard has it.”
~ Hans Hurch, late director of the Viennale

“There’s a mass belief that if you’re texting, you’re somehow not interrupting the conversation—you’re not being rude. It’s an illusion of multitasking. I started filmmaking when people didn’t expect to have a phone on set, when it would’ve been seen as unprofessional to pull out a phone. Phones have become a huge distraction, and people work much better without them. At first it causes difficulty, but it really allows them to concentrate on what they’re doing. Everybody understands. I’ve had a lot of crews thank me. With a set, we’re trying to create a bubble of alternate reality.”
~ Christopher Nolan