MCN Columnists
Gary Dretzka

By Gary Dretzka Dretzka@moviecitynews.com

The DVD Wrapup: Survivalist, Vampyr, Lure, Giallo, Dreamgirls and More

The Survivalist: Blu-ray
At a time when dystopian dramas are a dime a dozen, it bears noting when something out of the ordinary emerges. Filmed entirely in a lush forest, near Antrim, Northern Ireland, The Survivalist is just such a picture. After appearing at prominent festivals to rave reviews, Stephen Fingleton’s directorial debut was accorded only a tentative release before being sent to the video after-marketplace. It isn’t difficult to guess why. Set in an indeterminate time and place, after an unexplained energy-related catastrophe, The Survivalist chronicles one unnamed man’s struggle to survive in an environment devastated by famine, overpopulation and desperation. The survivalist (Martin McCann) appears to have prepared for all possible threats to his security, short of nuclear war. He lives in a ramshackle cottage that’s stocked with tools, seeds, repurposed junk, an indoor shower and not much else. His subsistence garden is tricked out with snares and tin-can alarms, and he gets his waters from a nearby river. Instead of allowing his protagonist a make-believe friend, pet or anthropomorphic toy – a la Swiss Army Man, A Boy and His Dog and Cast Away – Fingleton decided to keep things simple. A largely ambient soundtrack substitutes for dialogue, adding no small degree of tension to the man’s enforced solitude. He never leaves the cabin without a shotgun, pistol or knife, so, when something out of the ordinary does occur, it’s dealt with swiftly and with few wasted movements.

About halfway through The Survivalist, a woman (Olwen Fouere) and her teenage daughter (Mia Goth) cautiously approach the garden, hoping they’ll be offered some scraps, at least. They aren’t. Instead, the pragmatic, white-haired Kathryn (Olwen Fouere) guesses correctly that the man might be open to trading the sexual companionship of her daughter, Milja, for food and shelter. Fingleton seals the deal with appropriate dignity and respect for the characters’ plight. Even so, it will be quite a while before the survivalist is comfortable enough in his guests’ company to put down his weapons, even temporarily, and, by then, his own situation has changed drastically. There are, after all, more than three desperate humans left in this little corner of the world. Revealing anything more of the deceptively simple story wouldn’t be fair to potential viewers, so let’s leave it at that. McCann (“Titanic: Blood and Steel”) delivers the kind of penetratingly austere performance that normally would deserve awards consideration. Based on her performance here and elsewhere, the 23-year-old Goth (Nymphomaniac: Vol. II) shouldn’t have to wait very long between gigs, either. The Survivalist was adapted from Fingleton’s similarly disturbing short, “Magpie,” which is included in the Shout Factory/IFC Films package with two other shorts, and making-of material. It probably should be noted that life is rarely tidy in the post-apocalyptic world, and viewers should brace themselves for scenes containing extreme violence and disturbingly amateur medical procedures.

Vampyr: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
Unlike F.W. Murnau Nosferatu and Tod Browning’s Dracula, whose narrative roots extended back to Bram Stoker’s 1897 Gothic novel, Carl Theodor Dreyer’s take on vampire mythology found inspiration in Irish writer Sheridan Le Fanu’s 1871 novella “Carmilla” and other stories from “In a Glass Darkly.” Among other key differences was the introduction of lesbian vampires. Tod Browning’s interpretation of “Dracula” benefitted from all sorts of things that Dreyer lacked in the creation of Vampyr, including studio support, state-of-the-art makeup effects, elaborate sets, wide distribution and an iconic performance by Bela Lugosi. Dreyer might have resorted to shooting on location and casting amateurs, anyway, but there wasn’t much he could do about a miniscule budget and lack of enthusiasm in the European film community. He would rely on in-camera effects and editing-room gimmicks to create an aura of dread and keep audiences on the edge of their seats. He also was forced to entrust the role of “student of the occult” Allan Gray to his financier, Baron Nicolas “Niki” de Gunzburg, known more for being a fashion-plate aristocrat than as an actor. In his first talkie, the great Danish filmmaker also was required to deal with multiple language concerns and state censors. Even so, like Nostferatu and Dracula, Vampyr is still considered to be one of the landmark achievements in the international cinema.

The story is set in Courtempierre, a village outside Paris, where Gray has found shelter in a local inn. He is awakened from a deep sleep by an elderly gentleman, who enters the locked room to leave a packet on the table. The only hint at what it contains is the notation, “To be opened upon my death.” Now fully awake, Gray grabs the package and walks outside, where shadows guide him to a castle inhabited by an elderly woman, Marguerite Chopin (Henriette Gerard); the courier and his family; and a weird doctor with an Albert Einstein hairdo. It doesn’t take Gray long to realize that Chopin’s at least partially responsible for the town’s recent series of murders and his arrival there is anything but coincidental. In fact, he’ll be called upon to rescue the Lord of the Manner’s daughters, Léone and Gisèle (Sybille Schmitz, Rena Mandel), who will become the undead fiend’s latest victims if he fails to drive a stake in her heart before the next day’s sunset. Dreyer’s spare approach to the material contrasts vividly with the elaborately staged encounters between Count Dracula and Van Helsing, in Browning’s movie. Neither do his demons much resemble Max Schreck’s Graf Orlok or Lugosi’s Count Dracula. No one was better able to create something out of next-to-nothing than Dreyer, though, and he would employ techniques mastered in previous films, especially The Passion of Joan of Arc, to ratchet up the tension.

Vampyr was greeted by mixed-to-negative reviews and meager box-office returns. Years later, of course, critics and peers would recognize the film’s greatness – likewise, the work of cinematographer Rudolph Maté and composer Wolfgang Zeller – and its impact on succeeding generations of genre, mainstream and arthouse filmmakers. It would take more than 60 years for restoration efforts to catch up with Vampyr’s reputation, however. In the meantime, its public-domain status assured that carelessly edited prints would dominate the market. Criterion’s new Blu-ray special edition features a high-definition digital transfer of the original German version of the film, from the 1998 restoration by Martin Koerber and the Cineteca di Bologna, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack. It adds an alternate version, with English text; commentary by film scholar Tony Rayns; Jorgen Roos’s 1966 documentary, “Carl Th. Dreyer”; a video essay by scholar Casper Tybjerg, on Dreyer’s influences in creating Vampyr; a 1958 radio broadcast, with Dreyer reading an essay about filmmaking; a booklet with essays by critics Mark Le Fanu and Kim Newman, a piece by Koerber on the restoration, and a 1964 interview with producer and actor Nicolas de Gunzburg; and a 214-page book, featuring Dreyer and Christen Jul’s original screenplay and Le Fanu’s source material, “Carmilla.”

The Lure: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
From Criterion Collection – and Poland — comes Agnieszka Smoczyńska’s exceedingly unusual 2015 freak show, The Lure (a.k.a., “The Daughters of Dance Party”). While it defies easy classification, The Lure may best be described as a mashup of various rock opera, horror and fairytale conceits, all in the service of a distinctly Eastern European re-interpretation of Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Little Mermaid.” As such, it has far more in common with Dušan Makavejev’s outrageously dark 1981 comedy, Montenegro, and the nightclub scenes in various David Lynch films, than the Disney version, except for the ability of the mermaids in both pictures to sing … wonderfully.  I’ve never seen anything quite like it. Here, sibling mermaids are lured ashore by a troupe of musicians frolicking in the moonlight. They obviously share the same tastes in music, so, after revealing their ability to absorb their eel-like tails, agree to join them at the local nightclub. Minus their tails, Golden and Silver take on the appearance of anatomically incorrect Barbie dolls, not shy in the least about exposing their pert little breasts and sealed genitalia. (Their vaginas, clitoris and labia are located near the tips of their tails, when fully extended.) The club’s owner immediately senses the value of such a novelty act and invites them to join the band in their cheesy Socialist-era song-and-dance routines. After winning over the audiences as topless oddities and peerless backup singers, the mermaids are given top billing. The nightly revelation of their tails, while lounging in an oversized martini glass, brings the crowds to their feet.

The unraveling of the fairy tale begins when Silver falls in love with the bassist, Mietek, but he sees her as an amphibious sex object, not a woman. Uninterested in common notions of love, Golden appeases her bloodlust by hooking up with nightclub patrons and devouring them with her hideously spiked teeth. It doesn’t take long for police to put out a bulletin on the freakish murders, which usually occur near the river. Golden then meets Triton, a fellow sea creature and singer in a punk band, who tells her that mermaids can be reduced to sea foam if they pursue love affairs with humans. In her pursuit of the handsome blond guitar player, Silver has already decided to have her tail amputated. When Miatek announces his intention to marry a musician he meets in a recording session, Golden demands that Silver cannibalize him before the couple consummates the marriage. How she’ll deal with her broken heart remains questionable until the closing minute of The Lure. The fairy tale is informed by a catchy synth-fueled soundtrack, sleazy set pieces and décors that stretch the limits of glamour in a post-Stalinist society. Marta Mazurek and Michalina Olszańska are absolutely delightful in the takes on the mermaid sisters. In an interview, Smoczynska says that the story echoes her own youth, hanging out in her mother’s nightclub, where she had her “first shot of vodka, first cigarette, first sexual disappointment and first important feeling for a boy.” Screenwriter Robert Bolesto based parts of the story on two friends who frequented nightclubs like the one here. A fascinating making-of featurette includes Smoczynska, actors Mazurek and Olszanska, writer Bolesto, cinematographer Jakub Kijowski, composers Barbara and Zuzanna Wronski, sound designer Marcin Lenarczyk and choreographer Kaya Kolodziejczyk. The Blu-ray adds deleted scenes; an essay by writer Angela Lovell; and Smoczynska’s short films, “Aria Diva” (2007) and “Viva Maria!” (2010).

Don’t Torture a Duckling: Special Edition: Blu-ray
The Suspicious Death of a Minor: Special Edition: Blu-ray
Children of the Corn: Special Edition: Blu-ray
Arrow Video comes through, again, with several classic titles of special interest to lovers of Italian giallo and American horror. Don’t Torture a Duckling (1972) is Lucio Fulci’s direct follow-up to A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin (1971) and companion piece to Dario Argento’s eye-popping debuts, The Bird With the Crystal Plumage (1970), The Cat o’ Nine Tails (1971) and Four Flies on Grey Velvet (1971). Unlike most gialli and procedurals of the time, Don’t Torture a Duckling was set in the rural south of Italy, where outsiders are viewed with suspicion; superstition is rampant; and vigilante justice can be as swift as it is frequently misguided. Accidents aren’t accidental, unless a family member is involved, and priests are revered … until they’re not. Here, when the sleepy village of Accendura is rocked by a series of murders of young boys, the superstitious residents are quick to apportion blame.  The local suspects include the local Gypsy witch, Maciara (Florinda Bolkan); an elderly man who crafts voodoo dolls for her; and a simple-minded peeping Tom. The outsiders are represented by a big-city journalist, Andrea (Tomas Milian), and spoiled rich girl, Patrizia (Barbara Bouchet), who, when she isn’t seducing pubescent boys, teams up with the reporter to follow leads the locals choose to ignore. If the crimes are exceedingly unpleasant to explore, Fulci offers viewers a full plate of red herrings to savor. And, while “Duckling” was a critical success, the shocking presentation of the crimes and insinuations of hypocrisy within the Church effectively caused censors to blackball it in Italy, much of Europe and the U.S. It wasn’t released here or the U.K. for several decades. The controversy rocked Fulci to the core, relegating his output to television adventures and exploitation fare for theatrical release. The Blu-ray package adds new commentary by Troy Howarth, author of “So Deadly, So Perverse: 50 Years of Italian Giallo Films”; “The Blood of Innocents,” a new video discussion with Mikel J. Koven, author of “La Dolce Morte: Vernacular Cinema and the Italian Giallo Film”; “Every (Wo)man Their Own Hell,” a new video essay by critic Kat Ellinger; interviews with Fulci, actor Bolkan, cinematographer Sergio D Offizi, assistant editor Bruno Micheli and assistant makeup artist Maurizio Trani; a reversible sleeve, featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Timothy Pittides; and a collector’s booklet with new writing on the film by Barry Forshaw and Howard Hughes.

Released in 1975, Sergio Martino’s The Suspicious Death of a Minor Too Young to Die straddles the thin line that sometimes separated gialli and poliziotteschi. While the lurid sexuality and graphic killings argued for it to be pigeonholed as a giallo, the systematic police work pushed the film in the direction of a procedural. The addition of comic sidekicks on both sides of the law not only added some relief to narratives, but also the confusion that comes with not knowing if the director has a firm grip on the material. Claudio Cassinelli (The Devil Is a Woman) stars as Paolo Germi, a creepy undercover cop, on the trail of a Milanese criminal enterprise suspected in the brutal murder of an underage prostitute. Meanwhile, another hitman is bumping off witnesses before they have a chance to talk to police. “Suspicious Death” also stars Mel Ferrer (Nightmare City), Barbara Magnolfi (Suspiria) and Jenny Tamburi (The Psychic), and features a script by veteran giallo writer Ernesto Gastaldi (Death Walks at Midnight). The revealing glimpses into Milan’s underclass is quite compelling, as well. The 2K restoration of the film, from the original camera negative, was produced by Arrow Video exclusively for this release, with original mono Italian and English soundtrack. There’s new commentary by Troy Howarth, author of “So Deadly, So Perverse: 50 Years of Italian Giallo Films”; interviews with director Sergio Martino and cinematographer Giancarlo Ferrando; a reversible sleeve, featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Chris Malbon; and illustrated collector’s booklet, featuring new writing by Barry Forshaw.

Arrow has also accorded Fritz Kiersch’s hugely influential adaptation of Stephen King’s short story, Children of the Corn, with a crisp new look, based on a 2K restoration from the original camera negative … or, depending on which press release one believes, a 4K restoration. By 1984, King was well on his way to becoming a marquee attraction, whose every published word would be scrutinized for how they might translate to the large or small screen. “Children of the Corn” first appeared as a short story in the March 1977, issue of Penthouse, alongside articles “The Breaking of a President,” by Nicholas von Hoffman, and “Power Brokers,” by Charles B. Lipsen; an explicit soft-focus pictorial with Polish model Jolanta Von Zmuda; and an interview with Denis Smith. Readers with an aversion to gynecological portraiture could find the short story a year later, in King’s first collection, “Night Shift.” Set in the fictitious rural town of Gatlin, Nebraska, the movie tells the story of a malevolent entity referred to as “He Who Walks Behind the Rows,” which entices the town’s children to ritually murder all the adults and a couple driving across country, to ensure a successful corn harvest. It stars Linda Hamilton (The Terminator) and Peter Horton (“thirtysomething”), as the unfortunate couple, and John Franklin and Courtney Gains, as the adolescent preachers.

Arrow’s Children of the Corn represents the high point of the nine-feature series – most going straight-to-video — which is still commercially viable, even if the new entries bear little or no resemblance to the source material. Neither did George Goldsmith’s screenplay for the first movie, after King’s script was rejected. The package adds commentaries with horror journalist Justin Beahm and Children of the Corn historian John Sullivan, and director Kiersch, producer Terrence Kirby and actors Franklin and Gains; the vintage featurette, “Harvesting Horror: The Making of Children of the Corn”; separate interviews with actors Julie Maddalena and John Philbin, producer Donald Borchers, production designer Craig Stearns, composer Jonathan Elias co-star Linda Hamilton, and writers Goldsmith and King; “Return to Gatlin,” which revisits the film’s original Iowa shooting locations; “Cut from the Cornfield,” a piece on the “infamous” lost “Blue Man” scene; “Disciples of the Crow,” a 1983 short film adaptation of King’s story; a storyboard gallery; a reversible sleeve, featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Gary Pullin; and an illustrated collector’s booklet, featuring new writing on the film by John Sullivan and Lee Gambin.

The Game Changer: Blu-ray
Legend of Bruce Lee: Volume Three
You’d think that the looming Japanese invasion of Shanghai, in the early 1930s, would have prevented rival gangsters from killing each other in the city’s streets, nightclubs, banquets and other places of illicit business. The bunds, as the gangs were known, had already been battling for control of the city’s underworld since the fall of dynastic rule, more than a decade earlier. The sight of heavily armed thugs in fashionably cut suits and leather trench coats, heading for the next massacre, might have caused residents to wonder whether the bunds or Japanese represented the lesser of two evils. In Xixi Gao’s explosive, if occasionally perplexing criminal melodrama, The Game Changer, Peter Ho plays Li Zihao, a member of an underground student organization, the Blue Shirts, who have been publicly protesting against the presence of Japanese diplomats and using violence in a futile attempt to delay the invasion. With the help of local mob boss, Tang Hexuan (Wang Xueqi), the Japanese struck back by forcing Shanghai police to break up the protests and either imprison or execute the ringleaders. In a flashback, we see Zihao’s girlfriend, Lan Ruoyun (Ja-Hyun Choo), being hauled off to face execution. When he isn’t being tortured to extract names of student activists, Zihao hones his skills as a killing machine. In a show of biblical strength, he manages to destroy the chamber in which he’s being grilled and escape. He does so in the company of the baby-faced gangster, Fang Jie (Huang Zitao), who is the adoptive son of Tang Hexuan and the fiancé of his daughter, Qianqian (Coulee Nazha).

After Zihao saves Qianqian from an assassination attempt, Tang offers him a job. Zihao has recognized Tang as the man who organized the slaughter of his comrades and senses an opportunity to exact his revenge. To his great surprise, he discovers that Lan is not only still alive, but also Tang’s concubine. It leads him to wonder if she might blow the whistle on him or, perhaps, still has feeling for him. Luckily for action fans, the whole point of this exercise is to kill a lot of people and blow up a lot of cars. In this way, The Game Changer resembles an early gangster melodrama from Warner Bros. What Western viewers won’t know about The Game Changer is that the same story has already adapted several times for television and features. First came the 1980 television series, “The Bund,” which helped to elevate Chow Yun Fat to the ranks of stardom, and inspired two sequels. “Once Upon a Time in Shanghai” (“New Bund”) emerged from the same cauldron 16 years later, as did the feature film, Shanghai Grand, which covered much the same territory. Another TV series, “Shanghai Bund,” came out in 2007, reintroducing some of the same characters and storylines as the original television outing. (There are at least four “Once Upon a Time in Shanghai” entries on IMDB.com.)

The never-ending saga of martial-arts trailblazer Bruce Lee continues apace, with “Legend of Bruce Lee: Volume Three.” Danny Chan returns in the final 10 of 50 episodes from the Chinese television series, which chronicled the life, loves and career of the man formerly known as Lee Jun Fan. If the technical values are what one might expect from the product of an incipient television industry, Chan is the real deal. He played Lee in IP Man 3; Brother Sum, in Kung Fu Hustle; and Lightning Hands, in Shaolin Soccer. The lasted DVD compilation picks up at the point where he catches the eye of a Hollywood producer, George (Hazen MacIntyre), who sees great potential in the skilled young master and wants to make him a movie star. Lee discovers that discrimination in the industry runs deep, and he’ll have to fight to achieve his dreams of becoming the first Chinese martial-arts star to achieve worldwide fame.

Demonic
Fallen
Wish Upon: Blu-ray
The Poughkeepsie Tapes: Blu-ray
The blurb above the title of Demonic wants potential DVD viewers to know that what’s contained therein is “From producer James Wan, director of The Conjuring.” In England, the wording was far less precise: “James Wan’s Demonic” and “From producer James Wan, director of The Conjuring, Saw and Insidious.” In fact, Wan shared production duties with several other executives on Demonic, while Will Canon (Brotherhood) sat in the director’s chair and co-wrote the frequently effective paranormal-investigation thriller with first-timer Max La Bella and Doug Simon (Brotherhood). That said, it isn’t likely that Demonic will ever be confused with Wan’s previous work. The protagonist of the film is an old house, believed to be haunted by the victims of a locally infamous crime. Years later, a group of amateur ghost-hunters enters the house to test for paranormal phenomena. Their tortured bodies are found by police detective Mark Lewis (Frank Grillo), whose first instinct is to alert psychologist Dr. Elizabeth Klein (Maria Bello) to the discovery of a single survivor. Together, they will employ found footage and digital implements to re-create the murders and see if ghosts or humans killed the students. Suckers for jump-scares and grainy footage should enjoy it more than other viewers.

After six long years in development hell and 11 months after it opened in Malaysia, Singapore and the Philippines, the first adaptation of a novel in Lauren Kate’s four-book Fallen series has found its way to American screens. After a tentative release last month in an unknown number of theaters here – not enough to register on Box Office Mojo — it has been sent out on DVD. (It’s been available on Blu-ray in China since January). Fallen’s been described as a YA/fantasy/paranormal romance, in which the primary characters are either reincarnated souls or fallen angels, with a few clueless humans on the fringes of the narrative. The setting is Sword & Cross, a reform school for atypically attractive juvenile delinquents. Instead of studying foreign languages or learning a trade, the students, none of whom look like teenagers, attend classes on religion, taught by Joely Richardson. Lucinda “Luce” Price (Addison Timlin) has been sent to S&C after being blamed for a fire in which a boyfriend was accidentally killed. She’s haunted by distant memories of things she can’t seem to place and a feeling of undeniable longing for a past lover. No sooner does Luce arrive at the school than she’s involved in a bewildering love triangle between Daniel (Jeremy Irvine) and Cam (Harrison Gilbertson). Any comparisons to the “Twilight” series would be fatuous. Oscar-winner Scott Hicks (Shine) directed Fallen. A sequel is said to already be in the pre-production process, but there’s no good reason to believe the third and fourth installments will ever see the light of day. The DVD adds three featurettes.

One thing that Wish Upon has over Fallen is Joey King, a terrific young actress who not only looks her age, but that of the character she plays in it. At the ripe old age of 18, King’s already earned 54 credits on IMDB.com, including “Fargo” and “Bent.” Here, she plays the teenage protagonist, Clare, whose age is somewhere between 16 and 18. Not all of the other actors disclose their ages on their resumes, but they all look reasonably young … by Hollywood standards, anyway. Wish Upon has been accurately described as a cross between “The Monkey’s Paw” and “Mean Girls.” Clare has become an easy target for bullies at school, especially the Alpha blond (Josephine Langford). She’s embarrassed by her dad (Ryan Phillippe), who makes extra dough by dumpster diving for discarded treasures. One day, he brings home a dirty Chinese music box and gives it to Clare. It grants her several wishes. Naturally, the first ones turn out fine. Inevitably, though, the wishes turn into curses. If you think that the ending will be obvious, think again. It’s pretty good.

After nearly a decade sitting on the shelves at MGM, with only a brief 2014 VOD release, The Poughkeepsie Tapes, has finally arrived on Blu-ray/DVD from Scream Factory. This, despite the film having been completed and its theatrical trailer attached to several widely-released horror films in 2007. In the interim, John Erick and Drew Dowdle raised their genre profile as the team behind Quarantine (an American remake of Rec) and As Above, So Below. It’s possible that this prime example of torture porn was too spot-on to release into a world freaked out by real-life serial killers. Maybe, The Poughkeepsie Tapes was deemed unmarketable. That would have been my call. In it, the Dowdles merge found-footage conceits with the kind of real-crime documentaries that had, by 2007, become a staple of cable and broadcast networks. The Poughkeepsie Tapes looked just real enough to be dangerous. It purports to chronicle investigations into the torture, rape and murders of dozens of men, women and children attributed to the so-called Waterstreet Butcher, who documented his crimes on hundreds on cassette tapes. They were found in the Hudson River Valley home he abandoned just ahead of the cops. In fact, the Dowdles based their serial killer a number of different such criminals, including one from the titular town, Poughkeepsie. Among the selling points here is the casting of actors who look like normal folks doing their jobs or innocent bystanders. The violence depicted derives from the dozens of grainy VHS cassettes seized by authorities. The Blu-ray adds interviews with the Dowdles and actress Stacy Chbosky, who plays a victim of ritual torture; a making-of featurette; and background material.

Dreamgirls: Director’s Extended Edition: Blu-ray
More than a decade after Dreamgirls’ debut on Blu-ray, Paramount has re-released Bill Condon’s acclaimed musical/drama on the same format. It looks and sounds great, but why not a 4K edition? The enhancements include a new DTS:X Master Audio soundtrack, Digibook packaging and a director’s cut that adds about eight more minutes of material. While the 1080p image has not been remastered, it has been tweaked with a more efficient MPEG-4 encode. New bonus material is limited to footage from Jennifer Hudson’s auditions and screen test. A DVD copy of the film and a voucher for a UV/iTunes digital copy are included with purchase. (Apparently, the exclusive Target release adds vintage featurettes that weren’t ported over to the generally-available extended edition.) Fans of old-school R&B will appreciate the upgrades, as the audio/visual presentation really pops. And, yes, Eddie Murphy still has a legitimate case for feeling ripped off by the academy’s decision to give its Best Supporting Actor Oscar to Alan Arkin, in the mostly forgotten Little Miss Sunshine.

Kick-Ass: Blu-ray/4K UHD
Released in 2010, Kick-Ass inspired a series of independently produced and moderately budgeted action comedies that put a revisionist twist on the studios’ mega-budget superhero fare. Reviews were mostly favorable; it did well at the worldwide box office; and emerged as a cult favorite on DVD/Blu-ray. The sequel didn’t do nearly as well. Matthew Vaughn’s irresistible original has been resubmitted in 4K UHD, enhancing an already very good audio-visual presentation with brighter optics and a Dolby Atmos mix. For the record, Aaron Taylor-Johnson plays Dave Lizewski, a comic-book fanboy, who decides to take his obsession as inspiration to become a real-life superhero: Kick-Ass. He assembles a suit and mask to wear while fighting crime, ignoring the fact he has no superpowers. His life is forever changed as he inspires a subculture of copy cats and is hunted by assorted violent and unreasonable characters, including an 11-year-old sword-wielding dynamo, Hit Girl (Chloë Grace Moretz) and her father, Big Daddy (Nicolas Cage). The biggest knock on the movie is the intensity of the comic-book violence, much of which is committed by the girl. It’s a legitimate argument.

Dudes: Collector’s Edition: Bluray
With his shaved head and a more than a few extra pounds, 52-year-old Jon Cryer looks more like a bad-boy rock-’n’-roller than he did 30 years ago, while playing “Duckie,” in Pretty in Pink, and fish-out-of-water, Grant, in Penelope Spheeris and Randall Jahnson’s ill-fated “punk-rock Western,” Dudes. Spheeris had just completed a string of edgy theatrical films and docs — The Decline of Western Civilization, Suburbia, The Boys Next Door and Hollywood Vice Squad – and clearly knew her way around the edges of the hard-rock scene. In a few more years, she would go on to make Wayne’s World and The Beverly Hillbillies, so comedy shouldn’t have been problem, either. In Dudes, Cryer, Daniel Roebuck and Flea play a trio of New York City punkers making their way to California to ride out the apocalypse in warmth and comfort. Before they can make it through Arizona, though, the boys cross paths with a vicious biker gang and their psycho leader (Lee Ving). Coming to their rescue are a pistol-packin’ mama (Catherine Mary Stewart) and a daredevil Elvis Presley impersonator (Pete Willcox). A Western-style showdown, complete with costumes, ensues. Dudes might have been an appropriate vehicle for the comedic and musical talents of the Monkees, but, promoted as a street-wise dramedy, the stars and director were out of their element. Today, Dudes exists more as a curiosity than a fulfilling entertainment. There’s nothing wrong with Robert Richardson’s cinematography, which takes full advantage of Arizona’s scenic grandeur, and a metal-heavy soundtrack. The Shout!Factory collector’s edition includes a surprisingly generous bonus package, as well: lengthy interviews with Cryer, Flea, Roebuck, Stewart, Jahnson and producer Miguel Tejada-Flores, some conducted by the director; a vintage featurette, “Making of Dudes”; and a stills gallery.

Sex in the Comix
Longtime fans of underground comix and graphic novels aren’t likely to learn anything new in Joëlle Oosterlinck’s 2012 documentary, Sex in the Comix. At 52 minutes in length, however, the subject matter keeps things moving in a brisk, forwardly direction – thanks, in large part, to artist Molly Crabapple’s cheerful narration – and, of course, any film that features interviews with cartoonists Robert Crumb and Aline Kominsky is going to be worth a look. The couple has lived in France for more than 25 years and probably didn’t have to travel too far for their enjoyable session. His grossly distorted caricatures of women of all ethnic backgrounds have always been a thorn in the side of feminists. Here, he once again explains that he’s always been attracted to women with pronounced breasts and booties and simply can’t help but feel certain sexual urges when in their company. Fortuitously, Aline confides, she fits his definition of the perfect woman. Artist and historian Bernard Joubert fills in the details Crabapple sometimes misses. The funny thing is, where Crumb’s women are drawn to accommodate the fantasies of only a small percentage of male readers, the other artists represented appeal directly to fetishists of both genders, with more generically erotic characters.

Open Water 3: Cage Dive: Blu-ray
Now that Shark Week is a recognized holiday in the United States, South Africa and Australia – what, it isn’t? – it’s become increasingly difficult for filmmakers to find new ways to frighten jaded viewers. Employing the now-tiresome found-footage gimmick doesn’t help much, either. In Open Water 3: Cage Dive, three knuckleheads from California head to Australia coast for a cage-dive encounter with deadly great whites. After attracting a swarm of vicious sharks, their tour boat is destroyed by a massive rogue wave. (The titular cage makes only a brief appearance.) As clouds gather and darkness descends, the three friends – a whiny blond and the two guys she’s stringing along — find themselves alone and defenseless, afloat in the chilly ocean as the toothy beasts begin to circle. They will, of course, become their own worst enemies. Who’s handling the camera duties is anyone’s guess. The Blue-ray adds commentary with co-writer/director Gerald Rascionato and actors Joel Hogan and Josh Potthoff; a behind-the-scenes featurette; deleted scenes; and outtakes.

Armed Response: Blu-ray
Sniper: Ultimate Kill: Blu-ray
Actor-turned-genre-director John Singleton (Blue Crush) has delivered a supernatural thriller that appears to make a statement about how a badly conceived war corrupts everyone involved in its execution. That would be a good thing. Unfortunately, Armed Response’s first hour begs questions like, “When are the zombies going to show up?” and “When is Stephen Seagal going to show up?” The answer to both is, “never.” Could there be a more generic title for an action picture than “Armed Response”? I think, not. In it, a team of uniformed first-responders – including Ann Heche, Wesley Snipes and Dave Annable – becomes trapped inside an isolated military compound, whose artificial-intelligence technology has gone haywire. For a while, they appear to be playing hide-and-seek with a resident population of ghosts. The ante is raised when they discover the mutilated bodies of security personnel. There are ghosts in Singleton’s supernatural thriller, but not of the variety one would expect in such a dire situation. By the time they get there, however, viewers might be forgiven for not giving a hoot. Here’s one surprise I can spoil, though. The familiar-looking prisoner being interrogated early in the movie is no ordinary grumpy bald geezer. It’s Gene Simmons, minus the KISS makeup and looking all of his 68 years old. I didn’t place the face until he introduced himself in a featurette contained in the bonus package. Turns out, Simmons and WWE Studios partnered on Armed Response under the new Erebus Pictures banner. It’s the first in a three-movie deal. Snipes’ Maandi Films is also attached.

Approaching its 25th anniversary as a genre franchise – six of the seven entries, launching on video, DVD or Blu-ray — Sniper shows no signs of slowing down. Although Billy Zane and Tom Berenger have appeared together or separately in all seven installments, it’s easy to see how the time has come for them to step back from the limelight and let fresh blood, including that of Chad Michael Collins, carry the load. In Sniper: Ultimate Kill, Collins returns for a fourth tour of duty as Brandon Beckett, the Marine Corps’ top gun in operations involving terrorists and drug cartels. He plays the son of Berenger’s Master Gunnery Sergeant Thomas Beckett, who’s coordinating strategies with myriad other agencies from Washington to Bogota. Zane’s Major Richard Miller thought it might be fun to reunite the Becketts in another mission that, even if successful, likely wouldn’t stem the flow of drugs to the U.S. or convince a gringo yuppie from sniffing another line. Still, our government persists in trying to do just that. As do countless cocaine-snorting studio executives. This time around, Colombian drug kingpin Jesús Morales pays for the services of a sniper nicknamed “The Devil” to take out his enemies and competitors. He also appears to be testing Beckett the Younger, with a new laser-guided projectile. Oh, yeah, there’s also plenty of female flesh on display, not including that hidden under the combat fatigues of dogged DEA operative Kate Estrada (Danay Garcia). As formulaic as it is, Claudio Fäh’s follow-up to Sniper: Reloaded (2011) is reasonably entertaining.

Deep
SpongeBob SquarePants: The Complete Ninth Season
Julio Soto Gurpide’s animated undersea adventure, Deep, adds a sci-fi twist to the usual shenanigans attendant to such entertainments. In 2100, when humanity has abandoned the planet, a colony of extravagant aquatic creatures still thrives in the deepest abyss of the ocean. I guess they didn’t get the memo about only cockroaches and debt collectors surviving the apocalypse. The title character, Deep, is the last remaining Dumbo octopus. He lives in the deepest recesses of the ocean with his two unconditional friends: Evo, a nerdy and clumsy angler fish, and Alice, a neurotic deep-sea shrimp. When an accident destroys their subterranean home, the guardian of the abyss, Kraken, sends them on a perilous journey to find new digs. After teaming up with Maura, a voracious moray eel, they visit the submerged city of New York, the Titanic and the Arctic, facing all sorts of challenges along the way. Throughout the adventure, Deep and his buddies maintain their cool by laughing, singing and bonding in other diverting ways. Clearly, Deep didn’t benefit from the kinds of budgets afforded the makers of The Little Mermaid and Finding Nemo, so it would be a mistake to expect the same results. The PG rating was the result of “some mild rude humor and action/peril,” but, I suspect, some parents might be more uncomfortable discussing with their tykes the notion of the world coming to an end. The DVD adds the karaoke sing-along, ”When Love Shakes You Out of Your Shell.”

I don’t know how the folks at Nickelodeon calculate time, so can’t explain why Season Nine of “SpongeBob SquarePants” ran from July 21, 2012, to February 20, 2017, or 4½ years. It was so long that part of the season was filmed in the original screen aspect, while the rest benefitted from HD-Widescreen. Apparently, production on the show was halted halfway through the season, due to work on The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge Out of Water. Among the celebrities adding their voices to the 26 shows are Johnny Knoxville, Ernest Borgnine, Tim Conway, Michael McKean, Biz Markie, Frank Ferrante, Bob Barker, Jeff Bennett, Betty White, Aubrey Plaza, Henry Winkler, Jon Hamm and David Lander. Five “Goodbye, Krabby Patty” shorts are included, as well.

TV-to-DVD
Drawn Together: The Complete Collection
PBS: Richard M. Sherman: Songs of a Lifetime
PBS Kids: Wild Kratts: Wild Winter Creatures!
Lifetime: Michael Jackson: Searching for Neverland
By the time Comedy Central launched its animated parody of reality shows, “Drawn Together,” on October 27, 2004, many industry observers believed the genre had reached critical mass and was on its last legs. If only … Little did we know that the plague years of the Kardashians, “Real Housewives,” “Shahs of Sunset,” “American Pickers” and “Celebrity Rehab” were still ahead of us. By the time “Drawn Together” played itself out, on November 14, 2007, the genre had become a parody of itself. Created by Dave Jeser and Matt Silverstein, it purported to tell the “true” story of eight archetypal cartoon characters, picked to live together  in a house to see how they would react to certain absurd situations and sitcom crises. Like “Big Brother,” it was presented as a prime-time staple. The housemates include: Captain Hero, a flawed do-gooder, reminiscent of the Saturday-morning TV superheroes of the 1970s; Princess Clara, a religious and bigoted fairytale princess; Toot Braunstein, a pudgy black-and-white heartthrob from the 1920s; “Foxxy Love,” a sexy mystery-solving musician; “Spanky Ham,” a foul-mouthed Internet download pig; Wooldoor Jebediah Sockbat, drawn in the mold of SpongeBob SquarePants; Xandir P. Wifflebottom, a hypersensitive homosexual from the video-game realm, and “Ling-Ling,” an adorable Asian trading card. The show has cameo appearances by famous characters – or reasonable facsimiles thereof — from across the animated spectrum. The plots and humor of “Drawn Together” are adult-oriented, satirical and full of shock comedy. The new set, “Drawn Together: The Complete Collection,” offers the ribald material uncensored. It adds deleted scenes, audio commentary, karaoke sing-a-longs and interviews.

As important to Walt Disney as any of his company’s animators were songwriters Richard and Robert Sherman. If you’ve watched a Disney movie since the release of The Absent-Minded Professor (1961), you’ve no doubt heard a Sherman Brothers composition. If you’ve visited Fantasyland and listened to “It’s a Small World (After All)” – once or a thousand times – you’ll have experienced the “most performed song of all time.” This Emmy Award-nominated PBS special showcases a landmark solo performance by Sherman – his brother passed away in 2012 – and others performed by a brilliant cast of musicians. They include the star of Broadway’s “Mary Poppins,” Ashley Brown, as well as Juliana Hansen, Wesley Alfvin and the Dapper Dans of Disneyland.

In some parts of the country, it’s never too early to prepare for winter. From the popular PBS Kids’ series “Wild Kratts” comes “Wild Winter Creatures.” It invites kids to join Martin and Chris Kratt as they embark on four adventures designed to remind them of what they’ve been missing since the vernal equinox. When Chris loses his creature souvenir collection in the Arctic, will he be able to get his creature treasures back before the evil Zach Varmitech finds them? Chris and Martin confront Varmitech again, when he kidnaps a polar bear cub and a walrus calf, and when he threatens to use an entire walrus herd to mine precious pearls for Donita Donata’s fashion line.

Based on the best-selling book, “Remember the Time: Protecting Michael Jackson in His Final Days,” the Lifetime Original Movie “Michael Jackson: Searching for Neverland” is told through the eyes of the King of Pop’s bodyguards, Bill Whitfield and Javon Beard. Here, Jackson is played by the single-named tribute artist, Navi, who sometimes served as MJ’s body-double. Chad L. Coleman (“The Walking Dead”) and Sam Adegoke (“Dynasty”) stand in for the bodyguards. The story begins in 2006, with Jackson and his children returning to the U.S. from Bahrain, where they’d been staying following his acquittal from child-molestation charges. They moved to Las Vegas in anticipation of landing a concert residency at a Strip casino, but, when that didn’t materialize, his financial team pushed for a more ambitious tour. In fact, even as MJ was going on shopping sprees for the kids, he didn’t have enough available cash to pay his bodyguards. Perhaps, they intended to recoup the money from advances from the book and movie. Both stop short of dealing with Jackson’s final days, preferring to focus on his family life and attempts to recover from his legal troubles. As such, Dianne Houston and Elizabeth Hunter’s “Searching for Neverland” is of a piece with other recent Lifetime biopics.

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“I never accepted the term contrarian. I think that’s offensive, frankly. And my response to that is: if I’m a contrarian, what are other reviewers? What I strive to do is be a good critic, not somebody who simply accepts the product put in front of me. I guess it scares people to think that they don’t have any originality; that they don’t have the capacity to think for themselves.

“There’s a line a lot of reviewers use that I don’t like at all. They say ‘accept the film on its own terms.’ What that really means is, ‘accept the film as it is advertised.’ That’s got nothing to do with criticism. Nothing to do with having a response as a film watcher. A thinking person has to analyze what’s on screen, not simply rubber-stamp it or kowtow to marketing.”m

“To me, everything does have a political component and I think it’s an interesting way to look at art. It’s one way that makes film reviewing, I think, a politically relevant form of journalism. We do live in a political world, and we bring our political sense to the movies with us – unless you’re the kind of person who goes to the movies and shuts off the outside world. I’m not that kind of person.”
~ Armond White to Luke Buckmaster

“One of comedy’s defining pathologies, alongside literal pathologies like narcissism and self-loathing, is its swaggering certainty that it is part of the political vanguard, while upholding one of the most rigidly patriarchal hierarchies of any art form.”
~ Lindy West