MCN Columnists
Gary Dretzka

By Gary Dretzka Dretzka@moviecitynews.com

The DVD Wrapup: Queen of the Desert, POTC 5, DeMille’s Lost City, Otherworld, Patsy Cline, Wanda and more

Queen of the Desert: Bluray
Churchill: Blu-ray
Writer=director Werner Herzog’s first theatrical feature in more than five years took a drubbing from critics, in its delayed and limited release after its Berlin International and AFI Fest debuts in 2015. Still, while Queen of the Desert could have benefitted from a more tightly focused narrative, anything by the German master of fiction and nonfiction filmmaking is going to be better than most of stuff that finds distribution today. It chronicles the amazing life of Gertrude Bell, a traveler, writer, archaeologist, explorer, cartographer and political attaché for the British Empire at the dawn of the 20th Century. It’s valid to compare Bell’s exploits to those of fellow Oxford graduate, T.E. Lawrence, without limiting her accomplishments to actions of war. According to Nicole Kidman, who plays Bell in Queen of the Desert: “She’s the female Lawrence of Arabia. She was English, and basically defined the borders between Iraq and Jordan that exist today, borders that she negotiated between Churchill and different Arab leaders. She went out to the desert with the Bedouin and all the different tribes that were feuding at the turn of the 20th Century.” Herzog also allows time for coverage of her love affairs, which either were ill-advised or crushed by her domineering parents. But as fascinating a character as Bell is, the director’s longtime fans won’t find anything in Bell that recalls Klaus Kinski’s eccentric behavior in Aguirre, the Wrath of God and Fitzcarraldo, or, for that matter, Nicolas Cage, in Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans. Maybe, critics were hoping for a bit more craziness in Kidman’s portrayal of such an independent and driven soul as Bell. There’s nothing at all wrong with Peter Zeitlinger’s cinematography, which nicely captures the desert scenery and extremes of Jordan and Morocco. Among the male cast members are James Franco, as frustrated lover Henry Cadogan; Robert Pattinson, as T.E. Lawrence; Damien Lewis, as the already married Major Charles Doughty-Wylie; and Christopher Fulford, as up-and-coming MP Winston Churchill.

And, speaking of Mr. Churchill, Cohen Media Group’s Blu-ray release of Jonathan Teplitzky’s Churchill is yet another well-acted depiction of England’s wartime PM. If he had looked more like John Major, instead of a cigar-chomping English bulldog, filmmakers might not have been able to find room for Churchill in the nearly 200 movies and television shows in which he’s been included since 1943. FDR isn’t even close, at least in the lists of credits found on IMDB.com. In the last two or three years, alone, he’s been played by John Lithgow (“The Crown”), Gary Oldman (Darkest Hour), Louis Anderson (“Drunk History”), Michael Gambon (“Churchill’s Secret”), Richard McCabe (“Peaky Blinders”) and, here, Brian Cox. In it, the Allied Forces stand on the brink of the greatest invasion of history: D-Day. Even as close to a million Allied soldiers are secretly assembled on the south coast of England, preparing to invade Nazi-occupied Europe, Churchill struggles with the decision to embark on the operation. He fears repeating the mass slaughter of more than 500,000 soldiers during World War I’s Battle of Gallipoli, which happened on his watch. As D-Day approaches, Churchill finds himself at odds with his fellow Allied military leaders and potential political opponents, including U.S. General Dwight D. Eisenhower (John Slattery) and British Field Marshal Bernard Law Montgomery (Julian Wadham). Meeting with Churchill in the days preceding the planned invasion, the two grow increasingly frustrated by the fearful and fatigued Churchill’s reluctance to invade and attempts to stop the operation. It is Churchill’s brilliant and unflappable wife Clementine Churchill (Miranda Richardson) who keeps him strong during those dark and possibly dire days. No slacker, herself, Clemmie’s been played by the likes of Janet McTeer, Kristin Scott Thomas, Harriet Walter and Vanessa Redgrave. The disc adds “Churchill: Behind the Scenes.”

Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales: Blu-ray, 4K UHD
It might be worth recalling that the first iteration of Disney’s “POTC” franchise, 2003’s “The Curse of the Black Pearl,” was hardly considered to be a sure thing. Hollywood soothsayers were quick to point out that Pirate movies appeared to be stuck in a negative groove, extending back to Swashbuckler (1976), and including The Pirate Movie (1982); The Pirates of Penzance, Savage Islands and Yellowbeard (1983); Roman Polanski’s Pirates (1986); and Waterworld and Cutthroat Island (1995). Neither could Johnny Depp, Keira Knightley and Orlando Bloom be expected to open a major picture, with a then-extravagant $140 million budget. And, yet, thanks to the brand recognition of the beloved Disneyland attraction, it became a worldwide hit, returning $305.4 million at the domestic box office and another $347.8 million overseas … when that was still an impressive total. Reviews were generally favorable and the ripple effect caused theme park execs to rethink some of the ride’s less progressive tableaux. The franchise’s $230-million fifth installment, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales, did very well at the foreign box off, hitting $622.1 million, but staggered domestically, with a $172.6 return. As was the case with Transformers: The Last Knight and other big summer franchises, it’s time to raise the question of how much money should be designated for marketing the next sequels – already announced – to U.S. audiences, when the real action is in China and other emerging markets. It’s possible that such inexhaustible franchises could make as much money here, without wasting cash on publicity junkets, expensive network and newspaper advertising, and premiere blowouts at Cannes. There are so many free celebrity-obsessed outlets – “ET,” EW, the talk-show circuit – available to the studios, why bother? Neither does Rotten Tomatoes carry much weight outside the U.S.

For the record, Depp’s swashbuckling anti-hero Jack Sparrow returned in Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales, alongside Geoffrey Rush, Bloom and Knightley … but minus Sparrow’s muse, Keith Richards. (Look for Paul McCartney, as Uncle Jack).  Captain Jack was feeling the winds of ill-fortune blowing strongly in his face, even before the ghost sailors – now, led by Captain Salazar (Javier Bardem) — escaped from the Devil’s Triangle, bent on killing every pirate at sea. Jack’s only hope of survival lies in the elusive Trident of Poseidon, but to find it he must forge an uneasy alliance with Carina Smyth (Kaya Scodelario), a brilliant and beautiful astronomer, and Henry (Brenton Thwaites), a headstrong young sailor in the Royal Navy. Kids should enjoy the Blu-ray, even if it fails to advance the story much. The bonus features, found on a separate disc from the UHD version, include the seven-part “Dead Men Tell No Tales: The Making of a New Adventure”; “Bloopers of the Caribbean”; “Jerry Bruckheimer’s Photo Diary,” a quick collection of still photos the producer captured on-set; and three minutes of deleted scenes. The 3D iteration has yet to be released.

The Lost City of Cecil B. DeMille
Although things change quickly in Los Angeles, there’s rarely a shortage of opportunities for buffs to relive parts of their favorite movies by visiting homes, buildings and countless other locations, through guided or self-directed tours. My son recently gifted me with one of Esotouric’s “Bus Adventures Into the Secret Heart of Los Angles” — this one focused on sites of adaptations of James M. Cain novels – and it was an unexpected pleasure. Tourists attracted to the revitalized intersection of Hollywood Boulevard and Highland Avenue marvel at the archway standing in the Babylon Court of the complex, which, like the mighty elephant statues, is copied from designs from Intolerance. An overnight stay in the Owens Valley town of Lone Pine offers plenty of opportunities to see where hundreds of Westerns and genre flicks – High Sierra, Gunga Din and “Wagon Train,” among them – were shot. Far less accessible is the location described in Peter Brosnan’s terrific documentary, The Lost City of Cecil B. DeMille. In 1982, Brosnan heard a story about DeMille’s “City of the Pharaoh,” built on the sandy southern end of the Guadalupe-Nipomo Dunes, for the 1923 version of The Ten Commandments. Designed by Paul Iribe, the oceanside location encompassed a phalanx of sphinxes and four 35-ton statues of Ramses, embedded in a gigantic wall. While it was reasonably easy to find shards and chunks of plaster barely covered by the shifting sands, it’s taken all of the last 35 years for Brosnan’s film to be completed. And, therein lies a tale of archeological excavation, historical perseverance and a possibly corrupt local bureaucracy. Every time Brosnan came close to begin digging for larger pieces of the long-buried set’s artifacts – DeMille chose to bury, rather than remove the plaster remnants, as stipulated by law – someone in a state or county agency threw a monkey wrench into the project. When, finally, the final hurdle was cleared, it became a race against time to find and, at least, partially restore the pieces for presentation in this film. That part wasn’t easy, either. The film is informed by clips, archival photographs, newspaper clippings, interviews and legal details.

The Otherworld: Blu-ray
If the name Richard Stanley rings a bell with Americans, it’s mostly as the creator of the cult sci-fi flick, Hardware (1990), and the writer and, very briefly, director of the 1996 horror fiasco, Island of Dr. Moreau. After working on the project for four years, he was fired in less than four days, thanks to the machinations of Val Kilmer and/or Marlon Brando. The great-grandson of the explorer Henry M. Stanley and native South African would continue to write genre scripts, while directing documentaries for the BBC. Four of the best have been collected by Severin Films in its limited edition of The Otherworld, about an area in the French Pyrenees known as “The Zone.” It’s where a convergence of ancient occult legacies may have formed a portal to other dimensions. Stanley explores this shadow-land of unexplained phenomena via chilling history, disturbing interviews and unnerving footage of his own supernatural transmutation. It’s plenty weird, alright. Also included are Voice of the Moon (1990), an experimental documentary on the Russian invasion of Afghanistan; The White Darkness (2002), on the practice of Voodoo in modern-day Haiti; and The Secret Glory (2001), on the story of SS officer Otto Rahn and his search for the Holy Grail. In all of them, Stanley takes amazing risks in pursuit of either the truth or a good story. The director’s cut of The Otherworld features cinematography by Karim Hussein (We Are Still Here) and an original score by Simon Boswell (Santa Sangre). The package adds “The Making of The Otherworld”; deleted scenes; and new intros and commentary.

When Patsy Cline Was … Crazy: Blu-ray
If any singer deserves to be remembered by the frequently misused label of “icon,” it’s Patsy Cline. As a brilliant interpreter of songs written by other people – including Willie Nelson, Don Gibson, Bob Wills, Harlan Howard and Hank Cochran – and as woman in a business dominated by good ol’ boys, she was nonpareil. She overcame poverty, an unsuccessful marriage, a devastating automobile accident and significant professional obstacles, and has been cited as an inspiration by three generations of artists. The term, “countrypolitan,” was invented to describe her sophisticated singing style and use of lush string arrangements with a real orchestra. This, in addition to her Grand Ol’ Opry bona fides. “When Patsy Cline Was … Crazy” originally aired as the PBS documentary, “Patsy Cline: American Masters,” but the updated DVD version includes additional material, including vintage performances, access to which was provided by the Cline estate. Narrated by Rosanne Cash, “Crazy” features interviews with Reba McEntire, Wanda Jackson, LeeAnn Rimes, Kacey Musgraves, Beverly D’Angelo, Bill Anderson, Rhiannon Giddens, Callie Khouri, Mickey Guyton and Terri Clark, and extended bonus material.

Tokyo Idols
I don’t know if Kyoko Miyake (My Atomic Aunt) set out to make a documentary about Japanese pop stars that she knew would freak out western audiences, but that’s exactly what Tokyo Idols is capable of doing. In Japanese pop culture, “idol” is a term typically used to refer to teenage “personalities,” pre-fabricated to be admired for being cute, holding a tune, dancing a bit and maintaining a proper public image. The phenomenon isn’t terribly different than the formula Walt Disney employed in the creation of several generations of Mouseketeers. Annette Funicello, Darlene Gillespie, Cubby O’Brien, Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera, Justin Timberlake, Ryan Gosling and JC Chasez all had their admirers among straight and gay teens. (OK, Annette attracted more than her fair share of horny men.) The difference comes in the mass marketing to star-struck teens and socially inept adult males, who wish all women behaved like idolsn Japan, girl bands and bubble-gum music permeate pop culture. Competitions staged to create the latest teen idols are hugely popular, although the appeal in these mass events is to appropriately younger audiences. Tokyo Idols digs quite a bit deeper, however, to the pervy heart of a phenomenon driven by an obsession with adolescent female sexuality and its widespread commercial exploitation, in everything from product endorsements and music, to meet-and-greets and gift exchanges with fans. (Security prevents direct contact with fans.) The “idols” we meet here are adept at teasing their admirers – not unlike a hybrid of Hello Kity and Betty Boop – while maintaining their younger base on tours and appearances. Miyake presents the material in an even-handed fashion, without being cruel to the young girls being exploited or the older men, for whom their “idol” is the closest they’ll come to a real girlfriend.

Suffer, Little Children
Jackals: Blu-ray
The backstory of Alan Briggs’ supernatural gorefest, Suffer, Little Children, is every bit as good as anything in the 1983 movie, probably better. Amateurishly made, it describes what happens when a mute little girl is admitted into a home for troubled kids and, after being given a crucifix by a handsome visitor, begins to turn them into vessels for evil. It begins as one of the worst examples of DIY filmmaking in the early 1980s, but builds steam as the girl’s power over the other kids’ cutlery reaches its peak, in an orgy of blasphemy and bloodletting. As the legend goes, British drama teacher Meg Shanks encouraged her students, who ranged in age from about 9 to 30, to make a movie. Horror was the easiest and most convenient, especially for kids nurtured on Carrie, The Exorcist and other 1970s’ fare, whose influence is acknowledged in the credits. It found an audience only after the British tabloid press called for it to be banned in the furor of the Video Nasties witch hunts. The censors refused it a rating in its uncut form. Later, many of the children involved in its production were said to have disappeared. The restored InterVision edition is now available uncut and uncensored. Special features include “School of Shock,” a fresh and funny interview with Briggs; and “Seducing the Gullible,” an interview “Nasty” era critic John Martin.

From Shout!Factory comes a new thriller, Jackals, which is set in 1980s and probably would have felt a lot scarier if released back then, as well. It opens with the restaging of a home invasion in John Carpenter’s Halloween, but quickly gets to the real point of the exercise. A young man, Justin Powell (Ben Sullivan), is ambushed while driving on a rural highway and is taken by masked strangers to a cottage in the forest. His family hired the kidnapers to bring him home for a deprogramming session, to be conducted by an ex-Marine (Stephen Dorff). The young man denounces his family members, however, swearing his allegiance to a different, totally demonic family. Somehow, they figure out where he’s being hidden and begin laying siege to the cabin as the first futile session is winding down. The cultists’ gimmick is revealed in the title. They wear masks made to resemble giant jackals, especially when backlit by headlights. Director Kevin Greutert’s film looks good, anyway. The ensuing tests of wills challenges familial loyalties, as much as it does our patience. Jackals also stars Deborah Kara Unger, Johnathon Schaech, Nick Roux and Alyssa Julya Smith. The Blu-ray adds commentary with Greutert and writer Jared Rivet, as well as interviews with the cast and crew members.

A Fish Called Wanda: Special Edition: Blu-ray
For my money, which admittedly isn’t much, Charles Crichton (The Lavender Hill Mob) and former Python John Cleese’s 1988 farce, A Fish Called Wanda, is one of the funniest comedies of the last 30 years … maybe more. Don’t ask me to boil the plot down to a couple of sentences, though. In fact, the best thing about the thrice-Oscar-nominated movie is not knowing from which direction the next laugh will be coming. At the time, Cleese had not only moved on from “Monty Python,” but also “Fawlty Towers,” on which he played the inept, short-tempered hotel owner, Basil Fawlty. “Wanda” would be the final credit for veteran Ealing Comedy director, Crichton, who hadn’t made a theatrical feature in more than 20 years. In it, Cleese plays Archie Leach, a weak-willed barrister who finds himself embroiled with a quartet of ill-matched jewel thieves: two American con artists, played by Jamie Lee Curtis and Kevin Kline; fellow ex-Python Michael Palin’s animal-loving hitman; and jailed London gangster Tom Georgeson (“Bleak House”). There’s plenty of hilarious in-fighting, as the crooks try to figure out the location of the stolen diamonds. There’s also some embarrassing nudity and the unfortunate demise of some innocent pooches. Kline won an Academy Award for his crazy supporting turn as the psychopathic, Otto, while Curtis proved she was capable of doing more than scream. And, yes, A Fish Called Wanda is still hilarious. The 4K restoration from the original negative, was produced by Arrow Films. It adds commentary by writer, star and uncredited director Cleese; a new appreciation by Vic Pratt, of the BFI National Archive; interviews with composer John Du Prez, production designer Roger Murray-Leach, executive producer Steve Abbott and makeup supervisor Paul Engelen; a 1988 making-of documentary; “Something Fishy,” a 15th anniversary retrospective documentary; “Fish You Were Here,” a documentary on the film’s locations, hosted by Robert Powell; 24 deleted/alternative scenes, with introductions by Cleese; his tongue-in-cheek introduction, recorded for the film’s original release; a gallery; trivia track; and limited-edition booklet, featuring writing on the film by Sophie Monks Kaufman.

Home for the Holidays: Blu-ray
Between the widely admired Little Man Tate (1991) and virtually unseen Mel Gibson vehicle, The Beaver (2011), Jodie Foster directed one of my favorite holiday-horror comedies, 1995’s underappreciated Home for the Holidays. In it, Holly Hunter is at her hyper best as a woman who’s just lost her job and faces the Thanksgiving reunion weekend with the same dread as that usually reserved for root canals. And, sure enough, W.D. Richter’s only slightly exaggerated screenplay finds room for nearly a dozen different characters with personality disorders that range from amusing to diabolical. The top-shelf cast includes Robert Downey Jr. (Chaplin), Anne Bancroft (The Graduate), Charles Durning (Tootsie), Dylan McDermott (Steel Magnolias), Steve Guttenberg (Short Circuit), Geraldine Chaplin (Chaplin), Cynthia Stevenson (The Player) and Claire Danes (“Homeland”). Secrets are revealed, hearts broken, tears shed, laughs shared and food flung. It adds Foster’s commentary.

TV-to-DVD
AMC: The Son: The Complete First Season
Hallmark: When Calls the Heart: The Television Movie Collection: Year Four
Time Life/WEA: The Best of The Carol Burnett Show
PBS: Friar Alessandro: The Voice from Assisi
AMC’s 10-part adaptation of Philipp Meyer’s epic family history, “The Son,” stars Pierce Brosnan as Eli McCullough, a Texas cattle baron and oil speculator, whose descendants conceivably could have included Jock and J.R. Ewing. The story begins in 1849, when young Eli (Jacob Lofland) survives the slaughter of his family at the hands of Comanche raiders, and is taken hostage by Toshaway (Zahn McClarnon) and raised as his son. In the story’s first flash-ahead, to 1914, Eli and his son Pete (Henry Garrett) are shown preparing for the old man’s birthday party, while contending with cattle thieves and saboteurs of their burgeoning oil business. Ultimately, the sweeping family saga will span 150 years and three generations of the McCullough family, with Pete’s daughter, Jeannie (Sydney Lucas), becoming a key figure in the family business. Although a tad unwieldy, the series effectively traces the story of Eli’s transformation from good-natured farm boy and Comanche slave, to ruthless land owner and power broker. “The Son” is one of those revisionist Westerns, in which none of the settlers and cowboys remain consistently good or evil; the Indians and Mexicans come in shades of gray; the womenfolk are genuinely multidimensional; and the violence, racism and quest for dominance in our collective makeup are treated like the flaws they are. Verisimilitude in costumes, locations and set designs appears to have been a primary goal, as well. If it’s strange to watch older Eli lying in bed with his mistress, smoking opium and speaking Comanche in his hallucinatory dreams, I suspect it was a conceit borrowed from the book. It has been renewed for a second season.

At approximately the same time as Eli was carving his initials into a cottonwood tree on the Rio Grande, the rural Canadian town of Hope Valley was evolving in a decidedly more PG-rated manner. That’s because the Canadian-American co-production, “When Calls the Heart,” was inspired by Janette Oke’s “Canadian West” series of inspirational books, centered on strong women characters in a less savage environment. It was developed by Michael Landon Jr., whose middle name could be “Wholesome.” The new six-disc package, “When Calls the Heart: The Television Movie Collection: Year Four,” extends the story of strong-willed schoolteacher Elizabeth (Erin Krakow), her beloved Constable Jack Thornton (Daniel Lissing), the fiercely independent Abigail Stanton (Lori Loughlin), and all the citizenry of Hope Valley, “as they face the challenges of the frontier with courage, grace and heart.” The season opens with baseball being introduced to the town’s youngsters and continues as tensions at the school rise. Production of a fifth season has already begun, on a farm near Vancouver.

The latest abridged set of classic episodes from Time Life/WEA’s vastly larger and more expensive “The Best of The Carol Burnett Show” is comprised of six discs, representing more than 800 minutes of entertainment. It includes the first episode with Jim Nabors and the emotional, double- length series finale, as well as such popular sketches as “Mrs. Wiggins,” “Carol and Sis,” “The Oldest Man,” “The Family,” “As the Stomach Turns” and guest stars Ella Fitzgerald, Bernadette Peters, Liza Minnelli, Steve Lawrence, Rock Hudson, Burt Reynolds, Jimmy Stewart, Rita Hayworth and Carl Reiner.

Baby boomers have found it difficult to erase the memory of the hysteria surrounding Sister Luc-Gabrielle – a.k.a., the Singing Nun – and the insipid, if catchy French-language song, “Dominique,” which topped the Billboard charts for a few weeks in 1963. In 1966, Debbie Reynolds portrayed her in a semi-biographical movie, which often was confused with Sally Fields’ “The Flying Nun” series. In reality, Sister Smile’s story was far more complex and disturbing. Not so, with PBS’s “Friar Alessandro: The Voice from Assisi,” which takes us to the Porziuncola, the original friary founded by Saint Francis of Assisi. Alessandro Brustenghi started playing music when he was 9, wanting to become a percussionist. He started learning to play the piano and organ at 14. He also took part in choirs, but never as a lead singer. At 21, he joined the Franciscan order and sang in the order at the Basilica of Santa Maria degli Angeli at Assisi, Italy, where he worked as a joiner-carpenter. The friars first noticed his beautiful tenor voice when he had to pass a vocal exam to enter the ministry. His landmark album, a collection of religious songs, required him to travel in a plane for the first time, to London. Having taken a personal vow of poverty, any money from sales of the album and DVD go directly to his religious order.

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