MCN Columnists
Gary Dretzka

By Gary Dretzka Dretzka@moviecitynews.com

The DVD Wrapup: Ronin, Wedding Banquet, The Stranger, Baywatch, Bring It On, Dean, Born in China and more

Ronin: Special Edition: Blu-ray
I’ll admit it: all these years, I’ve confused John Frankenheimer and Robert DeNiro’s 1998 heist thriller, Ronin, with Ridley Scott and Michael Douglas’ strangers-in-a-strange-land policier, Black Rain. My excuse: the former’s title refers to a samurai, who, for various reasons, no longer serves a daimyo, or feudal lord. To survive, he is required to freelance his services to another master or, failing that, commit seppuku. In Ronin, which, it turns out, I hadn’t seen, De Niro and his fellow thieves sharpened their skills while working in the military or for intelligence services, but now use them in the service of gangsters, private armies or their own numbered bank accounts. Other than that, the movie has nothing to do with Japan. Black Rain, which was released in 1989 and I caught at the time, involves two New York City cops (Douglas, Andy Garcia), who, after arresting a yakuza member, must escort him to Japan. When the prisoner escapes, in Tokyo, they’re required to adapt to Japanese culture, criminology and idiosyncrasies. The black rain of the title refers to fallout from the atomic bombs that hit Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but has only a peripheral relation to the movie. Otherwise, both pictures are packed with gunplay, suspense and action, much of it of the vehicular variety, as would be expected from two such seasoned practitioners. At least, I didn’t confuse Ronin with Philip Kaufman and Sean Connery’s 1993 crime drama, Rising Sun. Heck, I was only off by a decade and a few thousand miles. I’m glad that I decided to watch Ronin, instead of reviewing Black Rain from memory … not that that ever happens. All three pictures provide a heck of a ride.

On a rain-swept night in Paris, an international crack team of professional thieves, weapons buffs and a computer geek assembles in an old-fashioned neighborhood bistro, summoned by a shady crime syndicate fronted by the enigmatic Deirdre (Natascha McElhone). None of the crooks appear to know each other or the special skills they’re bringing to the table. They will be handsomely paid to steal an aluminum briefcase, handcuffed to the arm of their mark, who’s guarded by several armed men – presumably, ronin, themselves, — and safely make the transfer to Deirdre’s employers. It serves as Ronin’s McGuffin. No matter what the briefcase contains, its theft will inspire two unquestionably great car chases, one through the narrow streets of Nice, the other in Paris; a shootout in and around the centuries-old Arles Amphitheatre and Café Van Gogh; and a sniper attack inside a Paris skating rink. (East German figure-skating champion Katarina Witt plays a Russian figure-skating champion, in cahoots with a Russian Mafia goon.) If it sounds confusing, it’s only because viewers aren’t supposed to be able to separate the white hats from the black hats until the final reel. Besides De Niro and McElhone, who are in top form here, the cast includes Jean Reno, Stellan Skarsgård, Sean Bean, Skipp Sudduth, Michael Lonsdale and Jonathan Pryce, none of whose characters would trust the other as far as they could throw him. It all works marvelously. Arrow Video is presenting Ronin in a new, cinematographer-approved 4K restoration, from the original camera negative; vintage audio commentary with Frankenheimer; a new interview with DP Robert Fraisse; Quentin Tarantino’s video essay on Robert De Niro; archival featurettes, “Ronin: Filming in the Fast Lane,” “Through the Lens,” “The Driving of Ronin,” “Natascha McElhone: An Actor s Process,” “Composing the Ronin Score” and “In the Ronin Cutting Room,” along with Venice Film Festival interviews with De Niro, Reno and McElhone, an alternate ending, new sleeve artwork and a collector’s booklet illustrated by Chris Malbon, featuring new writing on the film by critic Travis Crawford.

The Wedding Banquet: Blu-ray
The Stranger: Blu-ray
Hell Up in Harlem: Blu-ray
The latest batch of vintage Blu-ray releases from Olive Films contains some real treasures. Ang Lee’s The Wedding Banquet was released in 1993, two years before Sense and Sensibility made him a household name in some Hollywood zip codes and 12 years before Brokeback Mountain confirmed everyone’s suspicions about how cowboys and shepherds make it through the night, when on cattle drives or protecting sheep from wolves. It also arrived a year after B. Ruby Rich coined the term “New Queer Cinema,” in an essay for Sight & Sound. Although The Wedding Banquet bares a thematic resemblance to La Cage aux Folles (1978), it’s inspired by a true story and its queer credentials weren’t limited to words on a screenplay. Made for about $1 million, the bedroom dramedy returned $23 million at the international and domestic box office, prompting Variety to designate it the most profitable movie, dollar-for-dollar, of 1993. (By contrast, top-grossing Jurassic Park earned a ratio of 13.8 percent, based on its $914-million rake and $60-million production budget.) That, alone, should have opened the eyes of studio executives to the potential audience for gay and lesbian-themed pictures. Moreover, The Wedding Banquet was nominated for a Best Foreign Language Picture award by the Motion Picture Academy and at the Berlin Film Festival. Instead, the genre practically was forced into the indie underground, where it contended with miniscule budgets, poor distribution and casting prejudices. In it, Taiwan native Wei-Tong Gao (Winston Chao) is a successful, if harried, New York property developer, enjoying a thriving relationship with his live-in lover, Simon (Mitchell Lichtenstein), who’s a great cook and speaks passable Chinese.

A monkeywrench is tossed into their life together when Wei-Tong’s parents decide to visit the city, where they can pester their son about getting married and giving them a cherished grandson. Rather than reveal their deep, dark secret, Simon suggests that Wei-Tung marry one of his tenants, Wei-Wei (May Chin), a penniless artist from mainland China in need of a green card. Once the Gaos return to Taiwan and the bride scores her green card, the sham marriage can be dissolved and life can go on, as before the interruption. Nothing could go run with this scheme, could it? After Wei-Tung disappoints his parents by having the marriage formalized in a civil ceremony at City Hall, Simon treats the family to dinner at one of New York’s top Chinese restaurants. While there, Mr. Gao is recognized by the owner, who served as his driver during the Chinese Civil War and credits him with saving his life. In an effort to minimalize the Gaos’ shame, he demands of Wei-Tung that he be allowed to host a proper banquet and invite several dozen guests, including other Chinese immigrants who owe their lives and current success to the general. Many other things happen to the Gaos, Wei-Wei and Simon – funny, sad and bittersweet – in the next 45 minutes of screen time, but we’ll leave it at that. Even at this early stage of development in Lee’s career, he not only makes us care deeply for the characters and their shared dilemmas, but he and writing partners Neil Peng and James Schamus also deftly avoid clichés and cop-outs usually associated with such fare. The Blu-ray adds the featurette, “A Forbidden Passion.”

It’s said that Orson Welles didn’t care much for The Stranger, his third credited feature, for reasons pertaining to commercial expectations and having the final product taken from his hands … again. Released in 1946, he might still have been reeling from the public’s lack of support for Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons. Because he wanted to prove that he could deliver a picture on time and on budget, Welles agreed to a disadvantageous contract and limited creative control. Even so, he couldn’t have been pleased when, in 1973, the film’s copyright was allowed to lapse, giving anyone with the right equipment free rein to re-edit, duplicate and distribute the picture without concern for the customers’ ability to enjoy it. Forty years later, an archival restoration — mastered from a 35mm print at the Library of Congress — was released on DVD and Blu-ray disc by Kino Classics. Although far from pristine, it was a big step in the right direction. It also contained some excellent bonus material. The new Olive Films edition, adds more clarity, new commentary and another featurette. I suspect that Blu-ray audiences will enjoy The Stranger considerably more than Welles did.

Primarily, that’s because of the glorious visual presentation, which incorporates camera angles and perspectives favored by the director and chiaroscuro lighting techniques that anticipate those employed by Carol Reed in The Third Man. Moreover, Welles and the studio’s original directorial choice, John Huston, contributed dialogue that, even without being credited to them, added to the suspense. Welles plays Franz Kindler, a Nazi war criminal who managed to expunge his records before escaping to a quiet New England town, where, as Charles Rankin, he’s somehow landed a teaching job at the local college. In fact, he’s blended into the community to the point where he’s about to marry Mary Longstreet (Loretta Young), the terribly naive daughter of a Supreme Court justice. Kindler’s past is about to catch up to him, in the unexpected appearance of a Nazi death-camp functionary, who’s being tailed by Mr. Wilson (Edward G.  Robinson) of the United Nations War Crimes Commission. Kinzler’s hobby of fixing clocks, large and small, adds a Hitchcockian dimension to the story. Welles’ bold decision to incorporate footage taken after the liberation of the concentration camps delivers a jolt he felt was necessary to awaken Americans, who had yet to be fully apprised of Nazi atrocities. Through Kinzler, the point is made that Nazism and fascism could, under the right conditions, be still adopted by such unaware Americans … and, of course, that belief is being realized today. It makes The Stranger even that much more timely.

Released in 1973, at the height of the blaxploitation phenomenon, Black Caesar and its almost immediate sequel, Hell Up in Harlem, featured genre superstar and former Kansas City Chiefs defender, Fred “The Hammer” Williamson. (Before Super Bowl I, Williamson bragged that he would use karate chops to immobilize Green Bay Packers receivers. Instead, he ended up being carried off the field, when his head met the knee of running back Donny Anderson.) He would find considerably more success on the big screen, beginning with a supporting role in Robert Altman’s M*A*S*H. AIP boss Samuel Z. Arkoff was so impressed by the Black Caesar’s early grosses that he ordered writer/director Larry Cohen and Williamson to begin working on the sequel, even while they were making It’s Alive and That Man Bolt, respectively. In fact, in New York, both of Williamson’s pictures opened simultaneously. Because Cohen had so little time to prepare for Hell Up in Harlem, it lacks the coherency and polish of the original. The body count makes up for those lapses, however. Here, protagonist Tommy Gibbs, who was believed to have been killed in Black Caesar, is targeted by Gotham’s corrupt district attorney (Gerald Gordon) after he steals a ledger with the names of every policeman and city official on the mob’s payroll. After his baby-momma (Gloria Hendry) rats him out to sthe D.A., ostensibly to protect him from being murdered by dirty cops, Gibbs is gunned down in the street outside Tiffany & Co. Seriously wounded, he will require the assistance of his OG father, Papa Gibbs (Julius W. Harris), and an army of street thugs to straighten things out. The audiences, of course, relished stickin’ it to the man … on screen, at least. The Blu-ray contains new audio commentary with Cohen, moderated by Steve Mitchell, director of the upcoming documentary, “King Cohen: The Wild World of Filmmaker Larry Cohen.” Other Palm Films Blu-ray releases this month are “‘Flipper’: Seasons One and Two,” Don Taylor’s “The Island of Dr. Moreau,” Nick Millard’s “Dracula in Vegas” and, on DVD, Spirits of the Somme (reviewed below).

Baywatch: Extended Cut: Blu-ray
I don’t think that I’ve ever watched more than 10 minutes of any episode of “Baywatch,” in its original television iteration, or any of its spinoffs and direct-to-video movies. I did catch a few episodes of FX’s parody series, “Son of a Beach,” exec-produced by Howard Stern, but can’t remember much about it, either. I waited to catch the long-delayed sequel on Blu-ray – Baywatch: Extended Cut – guessing that very little would be lost in the transition from the big screen to home theater and there was nothing in the movie that wasn’t already revealed in the trailers and commercials. I was right, on both counts. The critics have already savaged Seth Gordon’s creation and I see no point in piling on, here. It underperformed at the domestic box office, but may have recovered some money overseas, where, I’m guessing, bodacious lifeguards in form-fitting one-piece suits are still something of a novelty. Several points are worth noting for folks – teenage boys and their dads, in particular – who may have waited for the DVD/Blu-ray/VOD version of Baywatch to arrive for home ogling. First and foremost, they should know the MPAA awarded it a “R” rating for “language throughout, crude sexual content and graphic nudity.” The “graphic nudity” is of the male variety, as is much of the “crude sexual content.” There are a few pairs of protruding nipples and jiggling breasts, but nothing you couldn’t have seen on television in its initial 11-season run. It’s as if Internet porn and Skinemax hadn’t existed in the interim. Then, too, the producers decided to turn the 45-minute action/drama series, sans commercials, into an interminably long action/comedy/drama … accent on comedy. (The theatrical cut ran 1:56:27 and, here, the extended version adds five minutes.) Finally, not that it makes much difference, the story has been relocated from Los Angeles and Hawaii, to Florida.

That said, Dwayne Johnson and Kelly Rohrbach were good choices to play lifeguards Mitch Buchannon and C.J. Parker. Johnson, whose mother is Samoan, played football at the University of Miami, before gaining fame as “The Rock.” Rohrbach, who played golf in college, actually looks as if she might not be afraid to appear in public – let alone, the ocean — without makeup and hairspray. Priyanka Chopra and Alexandra Daddario provide the jiggle, while 5-foot-11 villainess Ilfenesh Hadera would make a great Bond Girl. Buff Zac Efron and out-of-shape Jon Bass play polar-opposite candidates for the Baywatch team. The drama concerns the mysterious arrival, by boat, of a dangerous synthetic drug, apparently in oil drums that also threaten to pollute the water of Emerald Bay. Too much of the investigation takes place at night, either as a homage to “Baywatch Nights” or simply to show off the actress’ physiques in evening apparel. I suspect, the latter. The Blu-ray and 4K UHD editions add fan-bait featurettes, “Meet the Lifeguards,” “Continuing the Legacy” and “Stunts & Training,” as well as deleted and extended scenes.

Bring It On: Worldwide #Cheersmack: Blu-ray
The hashtag in the title of the sixth entry in this surprisingly venerable franchise, Bring It On: Worldwide #Cheersmack, isn’t a typographical error. Anyone who needs me to clarify why it’s there is too old to get much out of the movie, anyway. Hashtags are to the social media, what area codes are to telephones and zip codes are to the postal service. Once known primarily to signify numbers or weight, the hashtag is a way to label something, typically a Tweet or Facebook post. Beyond that, I can’t help you. Bring It On: Worldwide #Cheersmack’s visual presentation overflows with images of hashtags and Internet-delivered messages, limited to 140 characters or less, or via Skype. I haven’t seen another movie that has so accurately nailed the way teenage girls communicate with each other these days. And, unlike so many other movies that attempt to capture the teen zeitgeist, they are integral to the story. I wonder if screenwriter Alyson Fouse had the “Telephone Hour” number from Bye Bye Birdie in mind when she envisioned some of the cellphone and notebook conversations in the movie. Unfortunately, for anyone over the age of say, 16, that’s about all that feels remotely real and organic in “Worldwide #Cheersmack.” When the “Bring It On” series launched, in 2000, with the hit theatrical film of the same title, competitive cheerleading was maturing as a spectator sport, for lack of more precise term. ESPN first broadcast the National High School Cheerleading Competition nationwide, in 1983, and, 14 years later, the network added international coverage.

By this time, traditional uniforms were supplanted by Spandex tights and tops, with bare midriffs. The guys also were encouraged to show off their six-packs and guns. Some of the routines became so dangerous that cheer organizations insisted on safety training for participants and coaches, as well as the elimination of certain stunts. By now, competitive cheer squads appear to exist independently of any actual team sport or event. The choreography owes more to Beyonce and Madonna, than to the Dallas Cowboy or UCLA cheerleaders, who couldn’t exist without teams that benefit from their enthusiasm. The crisis in “Worldwide #Cheersmack” involves Destiny (Cristine Prosperi), captain of three-time national champions, the Rebels, who’s become something of a dictator. She bristles at the thought of sharing power with other girls or varying the routines that have proven successful. Out of the blue, a new team, the Truth, hacks into their social-media network, denouncing Destiny and showing off some fresh and edgy new material. Thoroughly perplexed, Destiny calls upon Cheer Goddess (Vivica A. Fox), the internet’s most popular “Cheer-lebrity.” She organizes a virtual battle for squads from around the world, via Skype, or something quite like it. If the competition holds nothing in the way of surprises, there’s no denying the athleticism, skills and world-class choreography on display. The Blu-ray adds featurettes “Around the World: Building the Squads,” “A New Routine” and “The Look of Bring It On: Worldwide,” as well as a gag reel.

Dean
Even if the only thing one knew about Demetri Martin, going into his debut feature, Dean, is that he’s a new-school comedian and artist, it would be possible to guess that his principle influences are deadpan comic Stephen Wright and cartoonist Gary Larson, creator of “The Far Side.” When Martin’s Brooklyn-based character, Dean, suffers through a visit to California – or, most of it, anyway – you’d swear that he’d also committed to memory the scenes in Annie Hall, in which Alvy Singer followed the aspiring starlet to L.A. In Dean, which is informed by tragic events in his own life, Martin plays a character who looks two decades younger than his 44 years of age. Stung by the recent death of his mother, Dean has become estranged from his father, Robert (Kevin Kline), who believes that it’s time for him to sell their longtime home in the suburbs and slowly get on with his life. Dean is dragging his feet on the sale of the house, which he believes hold all the memories of his mother he’s ever likely to have. One of the reasons he goes to Los Angeles is to avoid having a conversation with his father about the sale. That, and to pitch his drawings to a potential client. Although the owners of the company like his work, their laid-back attitudes and SoCal idiosyncrasies cause him to abandon all hope of working for them. Invited to a party by an old girlfriend, Dean makes a fool of himself by upending an unsupported serving tray and misjudging the guests’ tolerance of droll humor. On the plus side, he befriends a young woman, Nicky (Gillian Jacobs), who’s amused by his clumsiness and odd jokes. Less enthusiastic is Jill (Ginger Gonzaga), who seems curiously overprotective of her friend. Once home, Dean not only must deal with his father’s plans, but accept that he might be dating his Realtor (Mary Steenburgen). There’s no reason to spoil the resolution to the story, except to say that it pulls everything together nicely and allows Dean to finally come of emotional age. Dean clearly isn’t for everyone, but fans of Martin and other offbeat comedians should check it out. It arrives with “This Is a Movie: Making Dean,” “Drawing on Film: Stories About Dean” and “Dean: Q&A With Demetri Martin and (co-star) Rory Scovel.”

The Lion King: The Circle of Life Edition: Blu-ray
Born In China: Disneynature: Blu-ray
News that The Lion King is being re-released this week as part of the exclusive Walt Disney Signature Collection, joining Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Beauty and the Beast, Pinocchio and Bambi, has been overshadowed a bit by reports from the Mouse House on other issues relevant to home-theater enthusiasts. When it was announced that Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2, and Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man Tell No Tales would become the studio’s first foray into 4K UHD, early adapters naturally hoped classic animated titles would soon follow. Not only is The Lion King being released only in Blu-ray, DVD and digital, but the list of featurettes includes only one fresh item, a “Brand New Sing-Along Version.” The other material is a mix-and-match collection of previously issued featurettes, although several weren’t included on the previous “Silver Edition.” It’s also become next to impossible to pre-order titles from Amazon, due to a stalemate on business issues. The other news refers to Disney’s decision to end its streaming relationship with Netflix in two years, opting to begin its own service. Let’s hope the mishigas gets sorted out before the arrival of the live-action reboot of the animated classic. This film is scheduled to be released on July 19, 2019, the 25th anniversary of The Lion King. It’s shaping up as a doozy. For the record: among the featurettes included here are commentary with producer Don Hahn and co-directors Roger Allers and Rob Minkoff; “Visualizing a Villain,” set against a backdrop of live dancers and the animated “Be Prepared” sequence; “The Recording Sessions,” with footage of the actors recording their roles, matched with the final animation; “Inside the Story Room,” in which the co-directors present archival footage of five original story pitches; “Circle of Life,” on how color creates emotion and meaning in the film’s iconic opening; story meetings; “Hakuna Matata” and Rafiki and Reflecting Pool,” in which Allers and Minkoff sing, act and dance their pitches; galleries and storyboards; and, on digital only, hours of bonus material from previous editions, including bloopers, audio commentary, deleted and alternate scenes, and in-depth journeys into the music, film, story, animals and stage show.

The flip side of The Lion King release this week is the delightful “Disneynature” feature Born in China, a live-action affirmation of the diversity of wildlife in the world’s most populous country. We’ve become so accustomed to images of China’s teeming cities, overstuffed trains and toxic smog that it’s nearly impossible to think that are huge tracts of land that can still be described as unspoiled wilderness. Apart from the unique array of native animals captured by the strategically stationed cameras, the depictions of the natural beauty of their habitats is nothing short of spectacular. The “Disneynature” series is the modern extension of “Walt Disney’s True-Life Adventures,” a collection of 14 full-length and short-subject documentary films produced between the years 1948 and 1960. Each was informed by a narrator who not only expanded on what was happening before our eyes, but also attributed human qualities, names and personalities to the animals. Criticized in some circles for being inauthentic, the “circle of life” approach appealed to children, who, after five minutes, might otherwise have preferred to be taken to the local zoo. The same season-to-season, multi-generational narrative informs Born in China, which follows the adventures of three famously elusive animal families: giant pandas, golden snub-nosed monkeys and snow leopards. Antelope and red-crowned cranes appear in supporting roles. Also emphasized in John Krasinski’s pleasant voiceover is the essential relationship between parents and their offspring, something we’ve taken for granted for too long. The only humans appear in the closing credits and featurettes, explaining how the images were captured and how the ruggedness of the terrain worked against them. Also added are the music video to “Everything Everything,” performed during the end credits, and the conservation-minded “Disneynature: Get Inspired, Get Involved.”

Mouton
Heal the Living
In French, Mouton means sheep, an animal that the protagonist resembles enough to be known as Mouton throughout the film. If 17-year-old Aurélien Bouvier objects to it, you can’t tell by looking at him. It’s difficult to say what, if anything, is the boy’s mental condition. His alcoholic mother was forced to give up parental rights before Mouton was sent to Courseulles-sur-Mer, on the Normandy coast, to work in an upscale restaurant. He appears to be a quick study, doing odd jobs in the kitchen and putting the final decorative touches on entrees. Even so, we can’t help but be disturbed by the sight of local teenagers spitting on Mouton’s face, while he brays with laughter. It could be an initiation rite of some sort, because it isn’t repeated and, even as an outsider, he seems to have been accepted as part of the crowd. After a startling accident that occurs at the annual Sainte-Anne festival, midway through the picture, Mouton is forced to leave town and live with an uncle. It leaves a void that’s palpable in the hearts of the townsfolk and in our minds. If you’ve ever wondered what happens to the people who live and work in a resort town when the tourists leave and the bad weather arrives, co-writer/directors Marianne Pistone and Gilles Deroo paint a fairly raw portrait of life in suspended animation. It’s definitely an art film, and a French one at that. If there isn’t anything resembling action in Mouton – outside of the one disturbing sequence – our growing familiarity with the common folk keeps our eyes glued to the screen. It’s quite a trick. The filmmakers were awarded trophies as Best First Feature and a Special Jury Prize at the 2013 Locarno International Film Festival.

Katell Quillévéré’s Heal the Living is another slow-burner from France. Adapted from Maylis de Kerangal’s prize-winning novel and stage play, “Mend the Living,” it follows three seemingly unrelated stories that come together in two separate operating rooms. On its surface, Heal the Living focuses on issues commonly dealt with in medical dramas on prime-time TV. In addition to the usual tick-tock suspense that accompanies stories about finding organ donors and matching them the suitable patients, Quillévéré paints vivid portraits of everyone involved in the process. She also takes us inside the operating theater in as close an approximation of actual surgery as we’re likely to see. The triptych opens with a group of French teenagers enjoying some reckless fun at night, in the streets of Le Havre, and, in the morning, surfing at a nearby beach. On their way back home, a serious accident occurs, leaving 19-year-old Simon (Gabin Verdet) lying in a hospital bed, brain-dead. Naturally, his parents (Emmanuelle Seigner, Kool Shen) are beside themselves with grief and hesitant to make the final decision to donate his organs. As time winds down, we meet a single mother with grown sons, Claire (Anne Dorval), in another town, who learns that her weak heart is beginning to fail, and action must be taken immediately. For her own reasons, she’s reluctant to accept the gift of life. In a third storyline, two teams of doctors and medical experts struggle through their day-to-day attempts to save lives, finally kicking into high gear when the OK is given by Simon’s parents and Claire finds a reason or two to accept their gift. In 103 minutes, Quillévéré philosophically, spiritually and literally plumbs the depths of the human heart, our’s included. It arrives with thoughtful interviews and making-of material.

Inconceivable: Blu-ray
Halfway through the crazy-nanny thriller Inconceivable, I got a funny feeling that I’d seen it before, at least once. A bit later, I remembered Curtis Hanson’s The Hand That Rocks the Cradle, which is memorable in ways that Jonathan Baker’s picture never will be. In fact, the only thing that’s really stayed with me is watching Nicolas Cage play the rock of stability between two hysterical women: the sinister surrogate and babysitter played by Nicky Whelan; and the middle-class suburban mom, desperate to have a second child, portrayed by Gina Gershon. They’re both fine actors, but nowhere near as malevolent as Rebecca De Mornay or as vulnerable as Annabella Sciorra in the two key roles. Whalen plays a seriously depraved woman, Katie – we’ve already seen her in action – who moves to a new town with her young daughter and befriends Angela, Brian and 4-year-old Cora. There are no coincidences in these kinds of thrillers, so it’s only a matter of time before the bad craziness rears its ugly head. Ahead of that, however, Katie agrees to carry the couple’s fetus to term. Maybe, you can guess the rest. There are a couple of twists toward the end, but, again, nothing a faithful viewer of Lifetime movies hasn’t seen. To be far, Inconceivable has been a notoriously troubled project from the get-go. It was unveiled during the 2014 Sundance Film Festival by Lindsay Lohan, who said she would both produce and star in it. That would have been interesting. In September 2016, first-time director Baker tweeted that, while Cage, Whelan, Gershon and Faye Dunaway had agreed to join the production, the studio had nixed Lohan. Booo… Dunaway broke her leg a few days before filming began, but Baker refused to recast the role of Brian’s mother, Donna, who senses danger only slightly after than we do. By the time of Inconceivable’s planned initial release, it had yet to clear the pre-production stages. Then came the disastrous early reviews. Even so, Cage and Dunaway completists probably won’t be as hard on the movie as they were. The Blu-ray adds director’s commentary; “Behind the Scenes of Inconceivable”; a deleted scene, with a bit more of Dunaway; and cast/crew interviews with Cage, Gershon, Whelan, co-star Natalie Eva Marie, Baker and DP Brandon Cox.

The Slayer: Special Edition: Blu-ray
Snapshot: Blu-ray
Released in 1982, The Slayer (a.k.a., “Nightmare Island”) is only now being re-introduced here in DVD and Blu-ray. It’s difficult to say why, exactly, as, apart from a rather spectacular monster, it’s nothing special. Essentially, it’s a DIY affair, not unlike a slasher interpretation of Agatha Christie’s “And Then There Were None.” Most of the principals were first-timers, and only a couple of them would enjoy much of a career in the movie dodge. Co-writer/director J.S. Cardone (The Covenant) is one of them. In it, two couples set off to a secluded island for what promises to be a restful retreat. When the plane carrying them departs, not to return for a week, any genre buff worth their salt will safely assume it is destined to crash somewhere over the horizon or the pilot won’t find anyone alive on the return trip.  It doesn’t take long before one of the women conjures visions from a nightmarish painting she’s been working on back home. As if on schedule, a local fisherman is clubbed with an oar by an unseen fiend and a giant storm causes one of the men to seek the source of various noises emanating from outside the cottage. Not smart. The Slayer’s greatest asset is the Tybee Island setting, just off the coast of Georgia. Covered with marshes and woods, it seems very lonely, indeed. Today, the same beach is lined with condominiums. The monster arrives rather late in the game, but, when it does, one can’t help but be impressed. Its bad behavior prompted British censors to add the movie to the list of Video Nasties, before letting it be distributed with naughty bits removed. This “special edition” has been dutifully restored and contains fresh interviews with cast and crew; a return visit to Tybee Island, with a recent screening for the locals; a reversible sleeve, featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Justin Osbourn; a collector’s booklet, with new liner notes by writer Lee Gambin.

Released in 1979, Snapshot is a nasty little thriller that easily qualifies for any list of Ozploitation favorites. For no good reason at all, it’s also been retitled “The Day After Halloween” and “One More Minute.” In it, Angela (Sigrid Thornton) is a young hair-dresser having a hard time making ends meet. She’s been thrown out of her Melbourne home by her puritanical mother and, on the advice of a fashionable customer, agrees to test her luck as a model. The photographer coaxes her into removing her blouse, while strolling along the beach. She’s a natural, of course, and the photographer uses the photo in an advertisement for all to see. Angela then senses that someone has begun to follow her, in the most menacing of ways. There are several suspects, including a deranged ice cream truck driver, a predatory lesbian party girl, the photographer’s assistant and a sadistic ex-boyfriend … or any combination of the four. If the chills don’t last very long, at least there are a few surprises along the way. Simon Wincer would go on to direct such popular entertainments as Phar Lap, Free Willy and Quigley Down Under. The photography by Vincent Monton (Newsfront) and a pounding soundtrack from Brian May (Mad Max) add some Aussie spirit to the mix. The Vinegar Syndrome package benefits from a 2K upgrade from the 35mm camera negative; commentary with producer Tony Ginnane, Wincer, Thornton and Monton; an alternate feature-length Australian cut; “Producing Snapshot,” with Ginnane; extended interviews for the Ozploitation documentary, “Not Quite Hollywood”; a stills gallery; original cover artwork, by Speed Blur; and reversible cover artwork.

New Battles Without Honor & Humanity: Limited Edition: Blu-ray
New Battles Without Honor and Humanity: The Boss’s Head/Last Days of the Boss: Blu-ray
In the early 1970s, Kinji Fukasaku’s Battles Without Honor and Humanity pentalogy was a massive hit in Japan, kicking off a boom in realistic, modern yakuza films based on true stories. Although Fukasaku had intended to end the series, Toei Studio convinced him to return to the director’s chair for a follow-up trilogy, New Battles Without Honor & Humanity. While telling separate stories about the yakuza in different locations in Japan, the connecting tissue is provided by leading man Bunta Sugawara, who could play a cop or criminal with equal credibility. In the first film, he plays Miyoshi, a low-level assassin of the Yamamori gang, who is sent to jail after a bungled hit. While incarcerated, family member Aoki (Tomisaburo Wakayama) attempts to seize power from the boss, and Miyoshi finds himself stuck between the two factions with no honorable way out. In the second entry, The Boss’s Head, Sugawara is Kuroda, an itinerant gambler, who steps in when a hit by his drug-addicted brother-in-law, Kusunoki (Tsutomu Yamazaki), goes awry, and takes the fall on behalf of the Owada crime family. When the gang fails to honor financial promises to him, Kuroda targets the family bosses with a ruthless vengeance. In Last Days of the Boss, Sugawara plays Nozaki, a laborer who swears allegiance to a sympathetic crime lord, only to find himself elected his successor after the boss is murdered. Restrained by a gang alliance that forbids retributions against high-level members, Nozaki forms a plot to exact revenge on his rivals. Inconveniently, a suspicious relationship with his own sister (Chieko Matsubara) taints his relationship with fellow gang members. “NBWH&H” may not measure up to The Godfather Trilogy, but, as genre concepts go, it is as good as any currently available. There’s no shortage of gratuitous violence or geishas, and, as these things go, the narratives are reasonably coherent. The actors look as if they stepped out of a sepia-tinged photograph of a yakuza banquet, taken by an undercover cop, during the glory days of post-war organized crime in Japan. The films are making their English-language home-video debut in this limited edition set from Arrow Video. They feature high-definition digital transfers and original uncompressed mono audio; the featurettes, “Beyond the Films: New Battles Without Honor and Humanity,” a new video appreciation by Fukasaku biographer Sadao Yamanenew, and “New Stories, New Battles and Closing Stories,” two new interviews with screenwriter Koji Takada; original theatrical trailers; newly commissioned artwork, by Reinhard Kleist; and an illustrated collector’s book featuring new writing on the films, the yakuza genre and Fukasaku’s career, by Stephen Sarrazin, Tom Mes, Hayley Scanlon, Chris D. and Marc Walkow.

Erik the Conqueror: Special Edition: Blu-ray
In the late-1950s, after establishing himself as cinematographer and special-effects director of substance, the great Italian stylist Mario Bava was given the reins of a trio of genre films — Lust of the Vampire, Caltiki, the Immortal Monster, The Giant of Marathon – to complete, when the assigned directors pulled out of the projects. His reward was the opportunity to make the gothic chiller, Black Sunday. Purportedly based on Nikolay Gogol’s short story, “Viy,” it was a big international hit. Before he could establish his reputation as a master of suspense, horror and giallo, though, Bava was required to pay more dues in three period pieces, including a historical romance alongside Raoul Walsh, and the Viking actioner, Erik the Conqueror. It followed by three years the success of Richard Fleischer’s The Vikings, with Cameron Mitchell standing in for Kirk Douglas. (Mitchell got to keep both eyes, however.) While not a direct lift, Bava’s version would borrow and reinterpret several ideas from Fleischer. He also demonstrated how to make the most of a limited budget, shooting primarily in Rome’s Titanus Appia Studios, using props and sets from a Hercules movie, and on a beach near Anzio. (The Vikings could afford locations in France, Germany, Croatia and Norway.) Bava compensated with colorful imagery, imaginative sets, clever cinematography and, historians would point out, a less than strict attention to historical accuracy. Among other things, Viking vessels were constructed from pasta.

It opens in 786 A.D., when the invading Viking forces are repelled from the shores of Scotland, leaving behind a young boy, Erik, son of the slain Viking king. Years later, Erik (George Ardisson), raised by the English queen as her own, becomes Duke of Helford, while across the sea, his brother Eron (Mitchell) assumes leadership of the Viking horde and sets his sights on conquering England. It puts the two estranged brothers on a collision course that will determine the fates of their respective kingdoms. That’s about it, really. That, and the famously sexy Kessler twins, of Germany, and a musical score by Roberto Nicolisi (Black Sabbath). Given that it’s a rarely seen Bava title, completists and fans of Italian exploitation epics will want to check it out. It’s bloody, but no more than any other mid-century Viking film. The Arrow release features a new 2K restoration of from the original camera negative; commentary by Tim Lucas, author of “Mario Bava: All the Colors of the Dark”; “Gli imitatori,” a comparison between Erik the Conqueror and its unacknowledged source, The Vikings; the long-lost original ending; a reversible sleeve, featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Graham Humphreys’ and, first pressing only, a collector s booklet, with new writing on the film by critic Kat Ellinger.

Brian Wilson: The Second Wave: After the Surf
In 1980, when Brian Wilson’s physical and mental condition was at its most fragile, anyone who picked his name in the office dead pool must have thought they had the closest thing to a sure thing. Who would have guessed, at the time, that the Beach Boys’ resident genius not only would outlast his brothers, Dennis and Carl, but, 37 years later, be one of the hottest tickets on the international concert circuit. And, unlike the Beach Boys’ current touring formation, Brian’s “Pet Sounds 50th Anniversary World Tour” can’t be written off as an exercise in nostalgia. Although he still considers himself to be a member of the Beach Boys, he doesn’t tour with the current iteration. In 2014, several years after two solid documentaries examined his life and career, they were dramatized in the biopic “Love & Mercy,” starring John Cusack as Brian during the 1980s and Paul Dano as Brian during the 1960s. The “Pet Sounds” tour began in April 2016, and has been extended through next May. An autobiography, “I Am Brian Wilson,” co-written by ghostwriter Ben Greenman, was published last October. “No Pier Pressure,” his 11th solo studio album, was released in 2015, with a “Soundstage” concert CD/DVD performance package a year later. Not bad for a Hall of Fame musician who was written off by critics and fans during the period covered in Sexy Intellectual’s “Brian Wilson: Songwriter: 1969-1982,” the follow-up to the label’s “Brian Wilson: Songwriter: 1962-1969.” It is included in the two-DVD package from MVD, “Brian Wilson: The Second Wave: After the Surf,” alongside I.V. Media’s “Coming on Strong,” a new DVD. (“Songwriter” was previously released in 2012.) “Songwriter” spans the Beach Boys’ most adventurous period, artistically, and the group’s virtual break from Brian, due to his medical and psychological problems, label demands and his desire not to tour. It’s informed by snippets of public-domain music and the reflections of critics, producers, collaborators and historians. “Coming on Strong” features interviews recorded with Brian and the Beach Boys, collected from every period in their development. They include appearances on network talk shows, local news shows, radio broadcasts and other sources. As inarticulate as Brian appeared to be in mid-career, his responses here are surprisingly candid and perceptive about his personal issues, including drugs, alcoholism and their effect on the creative process. He’s never been less than sharp when it comes to music, his own and that of his peers and influences. Longtime fans and newcomers to Wilson’s music will find plenty of stuff here they’ll consider to be essential.

Spirits of the Somme
This DVD is for anyone whose idea of a good time is visiting Civil War battlefields and memorials – OK, I’ve toured Gettysburg and Vicksburg’s National Cemetery – and is interested in surveying other scenes of past carnage. It was made to commemorate the centennial of the Battle of the Somme, which began on July 1, 2016, and remains the blackest day in the history of the British army. More than 57,000 British casualties were logged on that one assault alone, compared to 2,000 French soldiers and untold Germans. In Spirits of the Somme, author/filmmaker Bob Carruthers returns to the battlefield to retrace the events that unfolded on the first day of the allied offensive. Drawing extensively on rare film and photographs from both British and German sources, Carruthers retraces the movements of the opposing armies, through the still-visible trenches, over and under the blood-soaked killing fields, and to the edge of a monstrous crater left by an explosive devise planted under the German lines. Artifacts from the campaign, including shrapnel and unexploded shells, still can be found in the no man’s land, once divided by barbed-wire barriers, mines and holes left by artillery shells. Memorials mark the places where bodies are buried and occasionally resurface from their long rests. It serves as a companion piece to Heroes of the Somme, reviewed a few weeks ago, that focused on the disproportionate number of sacrifices made by units from Ulster and Belfast.

Pitching Tents
Set in working-class Oil City, Pennsylvania, in post-Porky’s 1984, Jacob Cooney’s retro-raunchy Pitching Tents is a coming-of-age comedy that feels 30 years out of date. A high school senior’s desire to chart his future creates a tug-of-war between his no-nonsense father (Eric Allan Kramer) and his crackpot guidance counselor (Jim Norton), until an encounter with a teen goddess helps him uncover his true destiny. Even before the ink has dried on his diploma, Danny (Michael Grant) has been handed a union card by his dad, who demands that he start work immediately. Meanwhile, the guidance counselor hopes to parley scholarships to Slippery Rock University – it’s a real place – into some job security for himself. An aspiring artist, Danny isn’t thrilled with either option. Instead, he takes the advice of the model-quality girl (Samantha Basalari) he meets while tracking down a mythical spot on the river, where beautiful teens are said to wade topless in the water. Yup, this kind of stuff happens every day in Oil City, Pa. If Pitching Tents had been several degrees raunchier and a lot more daring – the title’s racier than anything in the movie – it might have gone somewhere. Outside of a few amusing quips by Norton, however, the movie’s pretty much a non-starter.

TV-to-DVD
PBS: Ireland’s Wild Coast Blu-ray
PBS: Visions: The Great Cities of Europe
BBC/PBS Kids: Room on the Broom
Disney XD: Star Wars Rebels: The Complete Season Three: Blu-ray
Starz: Black Sails: The Complete Fourth Season: Blu-ray
Not all travel/nature/adventure documentaries are created equal. With due regard to the Travel Channel and National Geographic, many of the best still wind up on public television. In all fairness, PBS’s advantage can be traced to alliances with services in the UK, Ireland and Australia, which take their programming as seriously as Rick Burns takes his. “Ireland’s Wild Coast” is right up there with the best nature docs I’ve ever seen. Anyone who wonders what could possibly surprise them about the well-covered Emerald Isle will be stunned by the Ireland on display here. Emmy-winning wildlife cameraman Colin Stafford-Johnson (“Broken Tail: A Tiger’s Last Journey”) takes viewers on an odyssey along Ireland’s road less traveled: the rugged Atlantic coast, once considered to be the end of the known world. It’s the place he’s choosen to make his home after 30 years spent shooting some of the world’s most celebrated wildlife films. Much of the journey is accomplished by rowboat, which allows him to stop in nooks and crannies populated with mammals, birds and fish, for whom fear of human predators no longer exists. The abundance of marine life is captured through underwater cameras, although the porpoises and whales aren’t shy about making cameos above the surface. Every so often, Stafford-Johnson will get off the boat long enough to survey the Atlantic Coast’s woodlands, cliffs, beaches and ruins of long-departed civilizations, including the early Christian monks who sought solace on offshore islands 1,500 years agoa. At 120 minutes, the Blu-ray edition of “Ireland’s Wild Coast” probably contains material edited from pledge-month airings on PBS.

Now, all that said, PBS affiliates aren’t immune from producing, picking up or distributing less-than-inspired travel and cooking shows, painting primers, economic tutorials and other non-fiction programming to fill time on the weekends, between their acclaimed children’s and exceptional prime-time lineups. (If President Trump’s resident Philistines have their way, even “Downton Abbey” and other great British mini-series might soon be too expensive for public television’s depleted coffers.) Produced by New York’s WLIW21, “Visions: The Great Cities of Europe” is part of an easy-on-the-eyes travelogue series, comprised of 20 titles, distinguished by hi-def aerial photography and Steadicam strolls along major boulevards and tourist haunts. The episodes feature straightforward voiceover narration and peppy regional music. The conceit behind “Great Cities” is its Grand Tour approach to touring Europe. Before Thomas Cook made tourism available to the hoi-polloi, it was limited to European men and women of sufficient means, as a coming-of-age ritual. Today, anyone with a backpack and part-time job can accomplish the same thing. The route taken here shouldn’t be attempted by anyone on a budget, however, as it zigzags from one corner of the continent to another, without much rhyme or reason. It can be recommended to anyone contemplating an extended vacation in Europe, but still hasn’t made up their minds as to where they’ll stop on the journey.

Nominated for an Oscar in the category of Best Animated Short Film, Room on the Broom could serve as a starter kit for kids who want to go Trick or Treating with their older siblings, but may not be ready to face the various boogiemen and hobgoblins who also make their presence known on Halloween. Based on a best-selling children’s book, it tells the story of an inquisitive, polka dot-adorned witch (voiced by Gillian Anderson) and her feline partner (Rob Brydon), who are asked to share their flying broom with critters they meet in the forest: a dog (Martin Clunes), a bird (Sally Hawkins) and a frog (David Walliams). On their journey, they encounter a dragon (Timothy Spall) and a wall of cliffs that might be too climb with the extra weight. Narrated by Simon Pegg, Room on the Broom was made by several of the same folks who collaborated on The Gruffalo, another Oscar nominee from England. It includes a reading by the author, performances for children and interviews.

Every time I begin to wonder if the folks at Lucasfilm are spreading themselves too thin, something new from the “Star Wars” universe comes along to keep fans happy until the release of the next feature-length chapter in the ongoing saga. “Star Wars Rebels: Complete Season Three” collects all 22 action-packed episodes of the animated series, which, I suspect, isn’t the easiest title to find on the cable grid. The show’s original premise places the action 14 years after the fall of the Galactic Republic and the Jedi Order, dramatized in Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith, and the rise of the Galactic Empire. A motley group of rebels unite aboard a freighter starship called the Ghost and conduct covert operations against the Imperial garrison on and around the planet Lothal and on others in the galaxy. In Season Three, the Ghost crew, now led by a more powerful Ezra, strengthens the Rebel fleet by acquiring new resources and recruits eager to stand against the Empire. The Imperial forces are now being led by the coldly analytical Grand Admiral Thrawn, whose strategic, tactical and cultural insights make him a threat unlike any they have faced in the past. Ezra and Sabine must take on new roles and challenges as the rebels prepare for their biggest mission yet, a direct assault on the Empire. It’s been announced that the upcoming fourth stanza will be the series’ last stand, with only 15 new episodes. There are plenty of special features, including “Return to Mandalore,” “Thrawn: A Legend Reborn,” “Apprentices to Outcasts: Kenobi And Maul,” “The Original Rebel: Saw Gerrera Returns” and five commentaries.

The bad news from New Providence Island is that the episodes represented in “Black Sails: The Complete Fourth Season” will complete the Starz network’s saga, which was distinguished by wild confrontations between pirates and British sailors, as well as some very hot and powerful wenches. The action takes place 20 years prior to the publication of Robert Louis Stevenson’s “Treasure Island,” where much of the action in the show’s final season leads. Otherwise, it’s war in the West Indies, and the shores of New Providence Island have never been bloodier. While Eleanor Guthrie (Hannah New) and Woodes Rogers (Luke Roberts) hold Nassau, Captain Flint (Toby Stephens) sails to strike the final blow, and from the interior, an insurgency builds, fueled by the legend of Long John Silver (Luke Arnold). But the closer civilization comes to defeat, the more desperately, and destructively, it will fight back. “Black Sails” looks and sounds great on Blu-ray, which arrives with the too-brief featurettes “Creating the World,” “Roundtable: Women in Piracy,” “Roundtable: The Legends of Treasure Island” and
“Roundtable: Fearless Fans”; the 18-minute, “Inside the World of ‘Black Sails’”; and brief episode-by-episode story recaps.

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“TIFF doesn’t make attendance numbers for its Lightbox screenings publicly available, so it’s difficult to gauge exactly how many filmgoers the Lightbox is attracting (or how much money it’s bringing in). But the King Street West venue hasn’t become a significant draw for film enthusiasts. The Lightbox’s attendance has plunged – 49,000 fewer visitors last year, a drop of 27 per cent, according to figures recently reported in the Toronto Star. Its gallery space – designed to showcase the visions of cinema’s most iconic filmmakers – saw most of its exhibitions staff quietly axed this past fall. And its marketing barely escapes the Lightbox’s walls. Unless you are a TIFF member or one of the city’s most avid filmgoers, you could walk by the Lightbox and remain blissfully unaware of a single thing that goes on inside. TIFF “still has a world-class brand,” said Barry Avrich, a filmmaker and former board member, “but it’s going to take some fresh vision from retail, consumer programming and marketing experts, given how the lines have become intensely blurred when it comes to how people watch film. They will have to experiment with programming to find the right blend of function and relevance.”
~ Globe & Mail Epic On State of Toronto Int’l (paywalled)

“I’m 87 years old… I only eat so I can smoke and stay alive… The only fear I have is how long consciousness is gonna hang on after my body goes. I just hope there’s nothing. Like there was before I was born. I’m not really into religion, they’re all macrocosms of the ego. When man began to think he was a separate person with a separate soul, it created a violent situation.

“The void, the concept of nothingness, is terrifying to most people on the planet. And I get anxiety attacks myself. I know the fear of that void. You have to learn to die before you die. You give up, surrender to the void, to nothingness.

“Anybody else you’ve interviewed bring these things up? Hang on, I gotta take this call… Hey, brother. That’s great, man. Yeah, I’m being interviewed… We’re talking about nothing. I’ve got him well-steeped in nothing right now. He’s stopped asking questions.”
~ Harry Dean Stanton