MCN Columnists
Gary Dretzka

By Gary Dretzka Dretzka@moviecitynews.com

DVD Wrapup: Commuter, Oscar, A Taxi Driver, Humor Me, Prince, Doris Day, Shakespeare Wallah, Pomegranates and more

The Commuter: Blu-ray, 4K UHD
As high-concept pitches go, “Liam Neeson on a train” is right up there with “snakes on a plane” and “MTV cops.” What else would any screenwriter need to know to fill the blanks? Nothing that it should take three separate screenwriters to formulate, probably. To make Neeson’s latest actioner, The Commuter, as needlessly complicated as it became, however, three was plenty. In a scenario that frequently recalls Jaume Collet-Serra’s 2014 thriller, Non-Stop – a.k.a., “Liam Neeson on a plane” — The Commuter finds the 65-year-old onetime Oscar-nominatee (Schindler’s List) playing a former cop, whose tortuous day at the office only gets worse on the ride home, when he’s forced to do battle with terrorists/extortionists/gangsters … take your pick. Since leaving the force, Michael MacCauley has been taking the same train to and from work in Manhattan, as an insurance salesman, every day for 10 years. On the same day that MacCauley is unceremoniously laid off, however, he’s approached by a mysterious fellow commuter, Joanna (Vera Farmiga), who inexplicably offers him $100,000 to locate someone on the train and put a tracking device in his or her bag. To convince him to cooperate, Joanna offers proof that his family is being held as collateral. Before disappearing from the train, she tells MacCauley that he should look for someone named “Prynne,” who may or may not have a connection with Hester Prynne, in “The Scarlet Letter.” Soon enough, dead bodies begin to turn up in unlikely places and MacCauley narrows his search to faces he doesn’t recognize for his 10 years of commuting. Alfred Hitchcock would have handled the same situation – innocent man in extraordinary circumstances — differently, but, with Neeson on board, action takes precedence over intrigue. The Commuter marks Collet-Serra’s fourth collaboration with Neeson — including Unknown, Non-Stop and Run All Night — so the action, while sufficiently convincing, might have been too familiar to ticket-buyers in a competitive post-holiday lineup. Ironically, last fall, the actor told a gaggle of critics gathered in Toronto that he had reached the age where action stars lose their credibility and would turn to less exciting kinds of films. He’s since recanted that pledge and suggested that he would be happy to reprise the character, Qui-Gon Jinn, in any new Obi-Wan spin-off film. The Commuter looks fine in Blu-ray and 4K UHD, even if the effects don’t demand too much of the format. There are a pair of making-of featurettes of the EPK variety.

A Taxi Driver: Blu-ray
At the risk of implying that I can’t tell the difference between two of Asia’s most popular actors, I approached Jang Hoon’s A Taxi Driver as if it were a comedy starring Jackie Chan. The broadly smiling face of the cabbie leaning out from the window of his light-green taxi, belongs to Song Kang-ho, but, at first glance, he sure looked like Chan. I should have recognized Song from Memories of Murder (2003), The Host (2006) and Snowpiercer (2013), among other South Korean hits. And A Taxi Driver does open with several scenes that would suggest it’s aiming for broad laughs. Based on an incident that occurred during the political upheaval that followed the assassination of President Park Chung-hee, on October 26, 1979, it describes the relationship that develops between a down-on-his-luck taxi driver, Kim Man-seob, and the German journalist who hires him on a secret mission. Part of the early comedy derives from their inability to communicate with each other and Kim’s desperate need for a larger-then-normal fare. It continues after the cab is blocked from approaching the city of Gwangju by soldiers. Kim finds a detour that would be better suited for a Jeep than a compact car, and it will need some repairs to get back Seoul. What the journalist, Peter (Thomas Kretschmann), neglected to tell Kim when he promised him 100,000 won, now becomes obvious, and it’s anything but funny.

Peter’s going there to cover confrontations between students and police over the power grab by Chun Doo-hwan, chief of the Defense Security Command. Even though Kim cautions Peter of the seriousness of the situation, he doesn’t want to lose the fare home, either. Together, they seek safe locations to film the riots and locate students to translate their conversations. They also interview students and residents who fear the truth of what will soon became known as the Gwangju Uprising might be buried by authorities, if the sole western reporter is prevented from collecting evidence. This is very serious stuff, indeed, and Song uses archival newsreel footage to convey the savagery of the soldiers and police against mostly defenseless protesters. When officials become aware of Peter’s assignment, they target him and Kim as much as the students. Finally, their escape from Gwangju, aided by a flotilla of little green cabs, adds a bit more humor. Somehow, Jang manages to maintain an uneasy balance between the film’s light and dark moments, including Peter’s ability to get the footage out of the country. Without the revelations and a return to a true democracy, South Korea might still be a dictatorship. Ironically, despite the movie’s commercial appeal, Chinese censors have banned A Taxi Driver, just in case viewers in Beijing see parallels between Gwangju and Tiananmen Square.

Humor Me: Blu-ray
Fans of “Flight of the Conchords” who simply can’t wait for the Kiwi duo’s upcoming hourlong comedy special on HBO to air – a concert tour was canceled last month after Bret McKenzie broke some bones in a fall – can fill half of the void with Humor Me. In it, the ever-hangdog Jemaine Clement somehow manages to lose, nearly simultaneously, his job as a playwright, his wife and son, and apartment. His Nate Kroll is trapped within a writer’s block so thick he would need a chisel and laser to cut through it. As a last resort, Nate begrudgingly moves in with his widowed father, Bob (Elliott Gould), in his New Jersey retirement community. Always quick with a joke, Bob uses humor to deal with all of life’s challenges, even if it requires him to fake the occasional heart attack. He arranges for his son to take a job with the property’s handyman, Ellis (Willie Carpenter), who needs Nate’s help like he needs a stone in his shoe. While at work, Nate stumbles on a group of senior citizens rehearsing a production of “The Mikado.” The ladies welcome the professional help, no matter how grudgingly it comes. One crisis leads to another, of course, pushing Nate and Bob’s relationship to breaking point. Naturally, fate intrudes at the last minute to ensure a happy ending. Humor Me benefits from the presence of such veteran entertainers as Gould, Annie Potts, Bebe Neuwirth and Ingrid Michaelson, a thirtysomething singer/songwriter who’s every bit as restless in the retirement community as Nate. Marking his directorial debut, Sam Hoffman (“Old Jews Telling Jokes”) has crafted an endearing father-son tale with the right mixture of laughs and melodrama to satisfy viewers in the same age bracket as the characters.

Elvis: The Beginning
Prince: The Only Ones Who Care
Heartworn Highways/Revisited
You’d think that after watching HBO’s four-hour documentary on the life and music of Elvis Presley, “The Searcher,” there wouldn’t be anything more to learn. You’d be wrong. Narrated by Jack Perkins, “Elvis: The Beginning” takes an up-close-and-personal approach to the first multistate tour taken by Elvis, Scotty Moore and Bill Black. It followed a 4,500-mile loop, starting in Memphis and stopping for more than 200 one-night stands. At 19, Elvis was the baby of the group, still requiring the written approval of his parents to perform. In addition to appearing on the “Louisiana Hayride,” the band played drugstore openings, church halls, honky-tonks, high-school gyms and benefits for wounded GIs. Along the way, Elvis paid visits to local deejays and record stores, all the while impressing locals with his impeccable manners and good-ol’-boy charm. The screaming fans would come later. We meet an old girlfriend, or two, and people who connected with the young entertainers in one way or another on their musical journey. “The Beginning” fills in the blanks with dramatizations and material taped at the source. A later interview with Moore is also included. Judging from how youthful Perkins looks, I imagine that the show was created for a television show, possibly “Biography,” in the early 2000s. Even so, it provides a solid 82 minutes of fun.

Prince: The Only Ones Who Care” is a music-only celebration of one of the greatest rock stars of all time. It features more than 90 minutes of live performances, recorded from TV broadcasts throughout his career, and ranging from solo acoustic sets to full-band rave-ups, with dancers, backup singers and amazing costumes. He’s in great form. The performances appear to have been recorded on a VCR from such shows as “Saturday Night Live,” “The Arsenio Hall Show,” BET and “Today.” How the producers got the rights to the material is anyone’s guess, as it doesn’t look like public-domain or music-video clips. More recent live material is readily available on YouTube, including his spectacular sets at Coachella, Super Bowl and Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Ceremony.

Last fall, when FilmRise re-released the original Heartworn Highways alongside Heartworn Highways Revisited, the only hitch came from knowing they’d be manufactured on demand, using DVD-R recordable media. If it wasn’t the optimum situation, it was quite a bit better than nothing. Now, the company has decided to send them out in standard delivery formats. For those unfamiliar with the documentaries, Heartworn Highways was made in 1976, before the “outlaw country” movement had grown to include such Austin- and Nashville-based singer-songwriters as Guy Clark, Townes Van Zandt, David Allan Coe, Steve Earle, Rodney Crowell and John Hiatt. By the time it was released theatrically, in 1981, James Szalapski’s eye-opening film was regarded as an underground classic. Forty years later, “Revisited” lured Clark, Young and Coe to reprise their appearances, but, this time, in the company of such next-generation “outlaws” as John McCauley, Jonny Fritz, Josh Hedley, Justin Townes Earle, Shovels & Rope, Langhorne Slim, Robert Ellis, Andrew Combs, Shelly Colvin and Phil Hummer.

Doris Day: A Sentimental Journey
Some people will be surprised to learn that Doris Day, who hasn’t made a movie or starred in a television series since 1973, is still alive and presumably kicking in Carmel Valley, California, where she’s lived for nearly a half-century. In 1985, Day hosted “Doris Day’s Best Friends,” a show on the Christian Broadcast Network about celebrities and their pets, but it only lasted a season. She continues to spend most of her time caring for her pets and strays that find their way to her estate, as well as an advocate for animal-welfare groups around the world. At the time of her retirement, we learn in “Doris Day: A Sentimental Journey,” she was still one of the top box-office attractions in Hollywood. When her third husband, Martin Melcher, died on April 20, 1968, Day was shocked to learn that he and his business partner had squandered her earnings, leaving her deeply in debt. Moreover, he already committed her to various projects, including a CBS sitcom, about which she wasn’t keen. Clearly, it left a bitter taste in her mouth. For a woman who was frequently described as “America’s virgin” and a representative of all that’s chaste and holy in the pictures, Day led an uncommonly difficult life. Her career trajectory was altered as a teenager by a terrible accident, causing her to substitute singing for dancing. Her first marriage, to an abusive trombone player, took her off the road for a year, before she could dump him, return to Les Brown’s band and make her way to Hollywood. She doted on her son from that marriage, Terry, a record producter, who, some might recall, ran afoul of Charlie Manson. “Doris Day: A Sentimental Journey” was broadcast on PBS stations in 1991, with Roger Ebert serving as a narrator, and appearances by Kirstie Alley, Clint Eastwood, Rosemary Clooney Molly Haskell, Tony Randall, Kay Ballard, John Updike, Betty White and her biographer, A.E. Hotchner. The set also includes a surprisingly personal visit to Merv Griffin’s talk show, in 1975; an episode of “The Doris Day Show,” from 1968; and a collection of trailers, teasers and other publicity material from her heyday.

Shakespeare Wallah: Blu-ray
Among other attributes, Shakespeare Wallah represents the second collaboration of principals behind a long line of Merchant Ivory Productions. The first, The Householder (1963), combined the producing talents of Ismail Merchant, direction of James Ivory and writing of Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, from whose novel it was adapted. “It is a strange marriage we have at Merchant Ivory,” Merchant once observed. “I am an Indian Muslim, Ruth is a German Jew and Jim is a Protestant American. Someone once described us as a three-headed god. Maybe they should have called us a three-headed monster.” Their 23 movies together, including Howard’s End, The Remains of the Day, A Room with a View and Heat and Dust and were far more heavenly than monstrous. Merchant and Jhabvala are no longer with us, but the production company has continued apace, with Call Me by Your Name, which was adapted by Ivory from the 2007 novel by André Aciman. His Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay made Ivory the oldest-ever winner in any competitive category. Released around the globe in the mid- to late-1960s, Shakespeare Wallah is based on the diaries of actor/manager Geoffrey Kendal, describing his family’s travelling Shakespeareana Company in post-colonial India. (Kendal became known there as Shakespearewallah, or Shakespeare-expert or Shakespeare-salesman.) In fact, the Kendals play loosely drawn versions of themselves in the movie … wonderfully.

Here, Tony Buckingham (Kendal) and his wife, Carla (Laura Liddell), oversee the troupe, which also includes their coming-of-age daughter, Lizzie (Felicity Kendal), as she falls in love with Indian playboy Sanju (Shashi Kapoor). Sanju’s affections are shared by Manjula (Madhur Jaffrey), a star in the increasing dominant Bollywood film empire. In real life, MIP-regular Kapoor married Felicity’s older sister, Jennifer Kendal. (They would make important contributions to the Indian film industry until her death, in 1984.) Until then, the Kendals made a reasonably decent living performing selections from the Bard’s canon — in traditional costume and in the king’s English – before prep-school and collegiate audiences, makeshift theaters in the boonies and for wealthy patrons of arts. Watching the duplicitous Sanju juggle his affection for the coquettish Lizzie and Bollywood diva, Manjula, frequently elevates the always delightful Shakespeare Walla to laugh-out-loud funny. The Cohen Film Collection release accords the black-and-white presentation a pristine 2K restoration, while adding lengthy conversations with Merchant, Ivory, Kapoor and Felicity Kendal, and with Ivory and Madhur Jaffrey, conducted by Mallika Rao from the Village Voice.

The Color of Pomegranates: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
Watching Criterion Collection’s new, fully restored edition Sergei Parajanov’s 1968 masterwork, The Color of Pomegranates, made me wonder if anyone alive today will see the day when dreams can be recorded and played back on a video monitor, with the ability to rewind and pause images for psychiatric appraisal. It seems impossible today, but, in the 1960s, who could imagine owning a movie as amazing as The Color of Pomegranates and being able to watch it at home – let alone, a phone — whenever one wanted, without the scratches, splice marks and artifacts that attended 16mm film? “Pomegranates” plays out in a series of tableaux that blend the tactile with the abstract, reviving the splendors and hardships of Armenian culture through the story of the 18th Century poet-troubador, priest and martyr Sayat-Nova. Parajanov introduced the film as a poetic fantasy, an artistic form he knew would run counter to government-approved socialist realism. It employs iconographic compositions, rather than traditional narrative — some lasting no more than a few seconds – to chart Sayat-Nova’s intellectual, artistic and spiritual growth.

Soviet censors, unwilling to spend the time it would have taken to fully evaluate Parajanov’s vision, decided to ban the film, re-edit it and send the director to a prison camp. They even changed the title from “Sayat-Nova” to The Color of Pomegranates. This edition has been cobbled together from long ignored and hidden prints and restored to capture the brilliant color and audio scheme. Because everything about “Pomegranates” is noteworthy, viewers should make time for the supplemental package, which includes Mikhail Vartanov’s long-suppressed “Paradjanov: The Color of Armenian Land” (1969) and Martiros Vartanov’s “The Last Film” (2014); a new commentary, featuring critic Tony Rayns; a video essay on the film’s symbols and references, featuring scholar James Steffen; documentaries “Sergei Parajanov: The Rebel” (2003) and “The Life of Sayat-Nova” (1977); and an essay by film scholar Ian Christie.

Aloha, Bobby and Rose: Blu-ray
Made at a time when road pictures and buddy films defined what it meant to be a young person in a post-Vietnam and post-hippie America, Floyd Mutrux’s Aloha, Bobby and Rose successfully merged elements of Breathless, American Graffiti and Bonnie and Clyde into a drive-in tragedy. As the advertising blurb asserts, “Bobby has a ’68 Camaro. Rose has a five-year-old kid. On their first date, they become lovers and fugitives.” Paul Le Mat plays Bobby, an L.A. grease monkey who’s only a shade removed from hot-rodder John Milner, in American Graffiti. He talks one of his garage’s customers, Rose (Dianne Hull) – a single mother, who doesn’t get out much, anymore – into a night on the town in his totally cherry Camaro. After stopping at a liquor store for some liquid courage, Bobby thinks it might be fun to pretend to rob the cashier with the screwdriver he carries in his pockets. The store’s owner can’t see the screwdriver, however, and he mistakenly shoots and kills the cashier. Immediately sensing that their happy days are over, they gather a few things and head for Mexico.

In between, they run into the kinds of characters they might never have met back home in L.A., but who represent elements of Old West lawlessness. Anyone who’s seen Jean-Luc Godard or Jim McBride’s version of Breathless will know what to except when Bobby and Rose go on the lam. No reason to spoil the ending for anyone else, however. Although mainstream critics weren’t kind to “AB&R” on its release, in 1975, it turned a nifty profit for Columbia Pictures, based on a $600,000 budget. Today, it looks as if it might have been made for Roger Corman, instead of a major studio, and can be enjoyed accordingly. It features strategically spotted songs by Elton John, Bob Dylan, Emerson, Lake and Palmer, Jr. Walker and the All-Stars, and The Temptations, and early appearances by Robert Carradine, Tim McIntire and Edward James Olmos. The Blu-ray adds fresh interviews with Multrux, LeMat and Carradine.

Enigma Rosso Blu-ray
I don’t know enough about Agatha Christie’s mysteries to draw parallels between Alberto Negrin’s giallo whodunit, Enigma Rosso (a.k.a., “Rings of Fear”), and characters featured in “A Caribbean Mystery” and “Nemesis.” Any linkage between Miss Marple and a movie as salacious as Enigma Rosso and Massimo Dallamano’s What Have You Done to Solange?, which it resembles, should be considered advisedly, though. I think it would be much easier to make a giallo out of a British cozy than for a writer of popular British mysteries to write a screenplay for Dario Argento or Mario Bava … which, of course, is neither here nor there. Here, when the brutally violated body of a young woman is found wrapped in plastic, Inspector Gianni Di Salvo (Fabio Testi) is drawn to dark deeds at an exclusive girls’ school, where the beautiful members of a group called the Inseparables are being targeted with sinister letters and attempts on their lives. Following a clue in the dead girl’s diary, he soon discovers a web of sordid sex and homicide. The culprit should come as a surprise to most viewers. The film also stars Christine Kaufmann, Ivan Desny, Jack Taylor and Helga Liné. The Blu-ray adds commentary with historian Nathaniel Thompson.

Sleeping Dogs: Special Edition: Blu-ray
Made in 1977, before New Zealand could boast of anything resembling a film industry, Sleeping Dogs became the first Kiwi export to make a splash in North American theaters. It marked director Roger Donaldson’s transition from television to films and Sam Neill’s introduction to the world at large as a future star. Sleeping Dogs is a paranoid political thriller based on “Smith’s Dream,” by C. K. Stead. The novel was inspired by the author’s involvement in the anti-Vietnam War protest movement in the early 1970s. According to Stead, “It brought the war home to New Zealanders by putting a Vietnam-type situation in a local setting.” In the movie, a dictatorial prime minister uses the pretext of a severe oil crisis to crack down on homegrown dissidents. The head of the secret police orchestrates a shooting of military personnel called in to quell a protest. The uproar allows him to impose martial law and use force against his opponents, who hardly represent a great threat to the nation’s democracy. For some reason, the authorities have pinned some of the blame, at least, on Neill’s character, Smith, an apolitical loner homesteading on a deserted island owned by the Maori. He’s arrested for a crime he had no idea had even taken place. It will take viewers a while to figure out that Smith has been set up by both sides. After his escape, police chase him from one end of the topographically diverse island to the other. An unexpected treat arrives in the person of Warren Oates, the great American character actor, who plays a U.S. Army veteran enlisted to play the obnoxiously macho adviser to a special anti-insurgency unit. The Arrow Films package adds commentary with Donaldson, Neill and Ian Mune; the featurettes “The Making of Sleeping Dogs (1977)” and “The Making of Sleeping Dogs (2004)”; and a nicely appointed insert booklet, which contains writing by Neil Mitchell and a reproduction of the film’s original press book.

Seijun Suzuki: The Early Years, Vol. 2: Blu-ray
The complete title for this, the third collection of films by Seijun Suzuki released by Arrow in less than a year, is “Seijun Suzuki: The Early Years, Vol. 2 — Border Crossings: The Crime and Action Movies (1957-1961).” It arrives two months after the similarly precise, “Seijun Suzuki: The Early Years, Vol. 1 — Seijun Rising: The Youth Movies (1958-1965)” and, by another six months, “Seijun Suzuki’s The Taisho Trilogy (1980-1991).” It represents a remarkable cross-section of pictures from one of Japan’s most important directors of genre flicks and studio-financed B-movies. They complement the titles released by Criterion Collection from the same period. Unlike the more action-oriented crime thrillers in “The Early Years” collections, “The Taisho Trilogy” entries are more reflective and overtly arty. Available for home-viewing for the very first time outside of Japan, “Volume 2” is less interested with the Yakuza and teen gangs shown in “Volume 1,” than with crimes related to vice – drugs, prostitution, gambling smuggling — and international intrigue. At the time, Japan is being buffeted by waves of great social change and they’re reflected in the genre pictures, just as American movies captured the tumult and contradictions of the Roaring Twenties, Prohibition and Great Depression.

The Sleeping Beast Within (1960) is a gripping crime thriller in which a newspaper reporter’s search for his girlfriend’s missing father leads him into the heart of the criminal underworld of Yokohama’s Chinatown. Its companion piece, Smashing the 0-Line (1960), follows the descent of two competing reporters into a scabrous demimonde of drug and human trafficking. In Eight Hours of Terror (1957), a bus making its precarious way across a winding mountain road picks up some unwelcome passengers. In Tokyo Knights (1961), a college student takes over the family business in the field of organized crime. The Man With a Shotgun (1961) marks Suzuki s first entry into the territory of the “borderless” Japanese Western, which combines traditional cowboy tropes with those of modern Yakuza films. It’s easily one of the strangest movies I’ve ever seen. The “Limited Edition” (1,500 copies) adds audio commentary by critic and author Jasper Sharp; the always entertaining and informative Tony Rayns on the background to the “Crime and Action Movies”; a stills gallery; reversible sleeves, featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Graham Humphreys; and a 60-page illustrated collector’s book, with new writing by Sharp.

I Am Somebody: Three films by Madeline Anderson
Among the many distinct images to emerge from the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950-60s are those of heavily armed and helmeted police and soldiers, many of the leading dogs, riding on horses and pointing fire hoses at unarmed African-Americans protesting for rights, wages and benefits that today are largely taken for granted. The troops aren’t there because they enjoy busting heads, although some of the racist cops clearly do. They were there to enforce laws instituted by the white establishment to prevent blacks, Hispanics and poor whites from attaining an equal station in life as their own. I was reminded of this a couple of weeks ago, watching the PBS documentary “Delores,” in which police automatically were enlisted in the service of corporate farmers and agribusiness interests interested in maintaining a status quo of substandard wages, intolerable working conditions and segregation. The strikers and activists didn’t carry weapons and their demands have since proven workable and legitimate. The documentary triptych “I Am Somebody: Three Films by Madeline Anderson” is another documentary that combines horror with triumph. To get to the uplifting moments, viewers must endure lasting images of man’s inhumanity to man. And, in various forms, it’s still happening today. Too many people are making too little money – or living in hellish conditions – and too many obstacles stand in the way of reform, including armed police and soldiers sent to “Make America Great Again.”

The Icarus package is comprised of Anderson’s I Am Somebody (1970), which chronicled a strike by 400 black women, employed a Charleston hospital, who desired union recognition and a wage increase. They were met by National Guard troops, with bayoneted rifles and police. The strike and economic boycott were supported by Andrew Young, Charles Abernathy and Martin Luther King’s widow, Coretta Scott King. Integration Report 1 (1960) examines the struggle for black equality in Alabama, Brooklyn and Washington, D.C., incorporating footage by Albert Maysles and Ricky Leacock, protest songs by Maya Angelou, and a speech by Martin Luther King Jr. A Tribute to Malcolm X includes an interview with Malcolm X’s widow Dr. Betty Shabazz, shortly after his 1965 assassination. The extras include a “Smithsonian Oral History Interview” (2017), between Rhea L. Combs and Madeline Anderson, and “Celebrate Moe!” (2002), a film about Moe Foner for the Service Employees International Union. After completing “I Am Somebody,” Anderson found it difficult to find financing for topical documentaries. She returned to television to work for the Children’s Television Workshop, where she was an in-house producer/director for “Sesame Street” and “The Electric Company.”

Honor Up: Blu-ray
Ostensibly a treatise on the challenges of maintaining a strict code of honor and loyalty among thieves, Honor Up is so full of gratuitous violence and ’90s-gangsta clichés that it feels as if it’s been locked in a vault for the last 25 years. It’s been compared to Paris Barclay’s 1996 spoof, “Don’t Be a Menace to South Central While Drinking Your Juice in the Hood,” but completely absent the laughs, satire and irony in the Wayans brothers’ script. Honor Up follows the exploits of a Harlem street hustler, OG — played by hip-hop entrepreneur Damon Dash – a strict adherent to the code and someone who remains loyal to the man who brought him into the game. He expects the same from his crew. Of course, the worst crime a gang member can commit is snitching on a comrade in arms to cover his ass. It marks that person as a rat and puts a target on his back.

Apparently, though, snitching can be as contagious as any other communicable disease, because, once it starts, it causes the foundation of the gang to crumble. Sensing their weaknesses, a dogged police detective, played by Nicholas Turturro, borrows into the gang’s infrastructure like a termite. When the OG smells a rat in his midst, the punishment is dramatized in slow motion, backed by operatic music. Co-writer/director Dash surrounds OG with characters played by rappers Cam’ron, Smoke DZA and Murda Mook, and a girl gang with Stacey Dash and Eishia Brightwell. If Honor Up was going to find any traction theatrically, which it didn’t, it would have been on the back of executive producer and merchandise maestro Kanye West. The only publicity the movie received, however, derived from a visit paid by Kanye and a post-partum Kim to a top-secret screening. The Blu-ray adds commentary with Dash and producer/actress Raquel M. Horn.

Oscar
Killjoy 2: Deliverance From Evil
Like anything else that feels exhilarating before it gets too expensive to afford, making films can be addictive. At least, that’s what happens in Fernandel Almonor’s microbudget comedy about a guy, suspiciously named Oscar Micheaux III, who gets in trouble after spending his fiancé’s nest egg on his film. More precisely, the money was borrowed from his future father-in-law, who, if he knew the truth, would have allowed the loan shark, Little Idi (Tony Tambi), to cut off Oscar’s fingers. Before he can get back behind the camera, however, Oscar (David Haley) is required to work off the loan at his father-in-law’s Front Page Jamaican Grille, and to attend a 12-step program. The laughs in Oscar derive from some extremely broad insider gags – the program’s moderator is named Alan Smithee (Arthur Roberts) – and some agreeably Third World slapschtick. Some of the testimony offered at the Filmmakers Anonymous meeting certainly will ring true in the low-rent districts of greater Hollywood. Comparison to I’m Gonna Git You Sucka (1988) and Hollywood Shuffle (1987) may be a stretch, but only in execution, not in spirit. The cast also benefits from enthusiastic performances by Michelle Grant, Alvaro Orlando and Mykel Shannon Jenkins.

Despite reviews for Killjoy that redefined the term, scathing, the folks at Charles Band’s Full Moon Features decided to try their luck with urban horror, again, two years later, with Killjoy 2: Deliverance From Evil (2002). The series would go on to include five titles, over 16 years, not all of them interested in pursuing an African-American tradition. As before, the antagonist is a killer clown who can be summoned through voodoo incantations to rid the world of miscreants of color. This time, a group of juvenile delinquents – none of whom look a day younger than 30 – are required to serve their time working in a shelter in a dense forest, a place as foreign to them as Manhattan would be to a Hopi snake dancer. After one of them is shot by a local, the survivors seek refuge in the home of a voodoo sorceress, where they mistakenly summon the legendary clown-faced demon, Killjoy – yes, he has an unkempt Afro wig — who begins hunting them down one by one. Apart from some funny fish-out-of-water gags, Killjoy 2: Deliverance From Evil is largely devoid of laughs or thrills. The only actors whose careers survived their encounter with Killjoy are scream queen Debbie Rochon, Nicole Pulliam (“Fashion House”), Choice Skinner (“Black Lightning”) and Trent Haaga, who’s made a career out of playing the killer clown.

47 Below
When it comes to exploring and challenging the elements, the worst thing that can happen – short of death – is creating the impression that anyone proficient at Pilates or completing a 10K run is also capable of climbing the world’s tallest mountain or sailing around the world solo. Just because something has been made to look easy on TV doesn’t mean it is. Enticing photos of the human traffic jam leading to the summit of Mount Everest probably were as much to blame for the great disasters in 1996 and 2014 as changing weather conditions. In 47 Below, we join Australian doctor Geoff Wilson in his attempt to complete a coast-to-pole crossing of Antarctica, to honor a friend’s fight with breast cancer. In doing so, he transformed one of his equipment carriers into a “boob sled,” painted pink and designed to resemble a pair of, yes, breasts. Where Robert Scott, Douglas Mawson and Roald Amundsen were able to make the trek with the assistance of dog teams and other explorers, Wilson decided to do it alone, accompanied by a selfie camera and a kite that he attached to his body and the sled, allowing him to travel as fast as the wind took him … when it was blowing in the right direction, anyway. To survive, he had to battle ferocious blizzards, with winds exceeding 100 kilometers per hour, frostbite, deadly crevasses, loss of food and key equipment, and Antarctica’s terrifying isolation. Dogs would have provided some warmth and companionship, at least. If nothing else, the expedition raised $250,000 for breast-cancer research.

Hell’s Kitty
Rave Party Massacre
It isn’t often that stories that begin as YouTube webisodes are interesting enough to warrant a larger home on screens intended for feature films. After five minutes, or so, the seams begin to show, and the narratives run out of steam. Hell’s Kitty is an exception, if only for people who believe a pet can be possessed by the devil and make dating a hellish experience for its owner. Such is the case with aspiring screenwriter Nick Tana, whose obsession with his cat blinds him to the fact that friends, lovers and acquaintances are dying in its company. When relatives of the victims come to him asking questions, Nick scrambles to defend his pet. Typically, Hell’s Kitty would be a one-gag-per-episode experience, if it weren’t for some nifty editing. In the 98-minute feature cobbled together from the segments, it succeeds through the large number of cameos by familiar actors and lots of jokes only a dog lover would fully grasp. By the time Nick is convinced to have a kitty exorcism, most viewers will be sold on the picture, I think. Among the actors who pop up more than once are Nina Hartley, Michael Berryman, Adrienne Barbeau, Bill Oberst Jr., Doug Jones, Creep Creepersin and Lynn Lowry. It’s difficult to imagine they could be paid much, if anything for their contributions. Perhaps, they were compensated in cat nip.

The scariest thing about Rave Party Massacre (a.k.a., “Dead Thirsty”) is having to endure President George H. W. Bush’s proclamation of a New World Order before the United Nations on September 11,1990. Two years later, such talk would be greeted with derision and outright revolt, but it almost sounded reasonable before the first war with Iraq. In any case, it’s annoying.  On the eve of an abandoned hospital’s demolition, a large group of party-hardy yuppies gathers in its empty surgical theaters and waiting rooms to dance to EDM delivered at a pulsating 150-beats-per-minute. It’s 1992 and the president is about to be swept out of office by Bill Clinton. When Rachel (Sara Bess), Branson (Jared Sullivan) and other ravers are ushered into the illegal party, they are handed a hallucinogenic drug that inspires nightmarish visions and leaves them open to torture by malevolent forces. The party, itself, consumes only about 20 minutes of time, while the rest is chewed up in chases through empty hallways and listening to Rachel scream on a morgue platter. As for a massacre, well, it’s pretty much limited to a small handful of unfortunate revelers. The ending brings a decently conceived and reasonable plot twist, but it’s a bit late in the game for logic. The bonus package adds a director’s commentary, behind-the-scenes footage, set- design sketches and on-set interviews with cast & crew.

Mystery Science Theater 3000: Season 11: Blu-ray
I’ll leave it to the fanatics, who financed the 11th season of “Mystery Science Theater 3000” through a successful Kickstarter campaign, to decide if the effort was worth it. I suspect that they would reply in the affirmative, but not without some debate over the relative merits of the individual components. This time around, hapless Jonah Heston (Jonah Ray) is trapped on the dark side of the moon and forced to watch cheesy movies by the evil, profit-obsessed mad scientist Kinga Forrester (Felicia Day) and her fawning henchman Max (Patton Oswalt). Jonah shares his thoughts on Satellite of Love’s movie menu with his wisecracking robot pals, Tom Servo (Baron Vaughn), Crow (Hampton Yount) and Gypsy (Rebecca Hanson). Also on board are guest stars Mark Hamill, Neil Patrick Harris, Joel McHale and Jerry Seinfeld. There’s no debate as to quality – or lack thereof – of the playlist of classically crummy B-movies, however: Starcrash, At the Earth’s Core, Reptilicus, Cry Wilderness, The Beast of Hollow Mountain, Avalanche, The Land Time Forgot, The Loves of Hercules, Yongary, Wizards of the Lost Kingdom I/II, Carnival Magic and The Christmas That Almost Wasn’t. Featurettes include “Special Features and Technical Specs” and “We Brought Back MST3K Documentary.”

One Response to “DVD Wrapup: Commuter, Oscar, A Taxi Driver, Humor Me, Prince, Doris Day, Shakespeare Wallah, Pomegranates and more”

  1. Roy Atkinson says:

    Thanks for letting us know about the Doris Day DVD. There is a great updated and funky version of Sentimental Journey from the 1970s online via a simple Google search.I wish I knew why the 1957 Day musical “The Pajama Game” never shows up on Turner Classic Movies. I gather some weird legal dispute is keeping it off television.

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“There are different signs that this is not stopping. I don’t think that anger and frustration and those feelings can go away. I hope they don’t. The attention and support for the victims needs to be continued, more than people worried about these abusers and what’s next for them, how are they going to move on — shut up. You know what? If any of these people come back, I would say, “I can’t wait to see who is actually going to support them.” That is going to be the glaring horror. Who is going to be, like, “This is a pressing issue, and we need to get them back?” If a janitor was so great at cleaning the building but also tended to masturbate in front of people, would the people at that building be like, “Yes, he masturbated, but I’ve never seen anyone clean so thoroughly, and I was just wondering when he’s going to get his job back, he’s so good at it.” No, it would be, “That’s not acceptable.” It’s fame and power that people are blinded by.”
~ Tig Notaro in the New York Times

“It’s never been easy. I’ve always been one of the scavenger dogs of film financing, picking up money here and there. I’ve been doing that all my life. This was one was relatively easy because certain costs have gone down so much. I made this film in 20 days whereas 30 years ago, it would have been made in 42.”
~ Paul Schrader