MCN Columnists
Gary Dretzka

By Gary Dretzka Dretzka@moviecitynews.com

DVD Wrapup: Vazante, Early Man, Elis, Swung, Death Smiles, Of Unknown Origin, Swamp Thing 2, Little Women, MST3K Singles and more

Vazante: Blu-ray
For a while, slavery was Hollywood’s subject du jour, with four excellent movies dealing with our country’s Original Sin and resistance by abolitionists and insurgents: Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave, Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained, Gary Ross’ Free State of Jones and Nate Parker’s The Birth of a Nation. While the barrage of racial slurs and depictions of torture, beatings and lynching tested viewers’ ability to absorb hateful stimuli, there was no question as to quality of the direction, writing and acting on display, or the films’ enduring relevance. I don’t know if the institution of slavery is a common theme in the cinema of Brazil, the last country in the western world to abolish it, in 1888. If not, Daniela Thomas’ searing period drama, Vazante, effectively opens the door to a broad discussion of the subject … historically and as still practiced today. In American movies about the Civil War and slavery, certain things are taken for granted, beyond the inhumanity of its practitioners. Plantation owners are typically depicted as wealthy and their primary cash crop is cotton. Their families’ genteel manners, adherence to so-called Christian values and posh lifestyles stand in direct conflict to the reality of life among their human chattel. Rarely are the individual backgrounds of the slaves, prior to being captured in Africa, examined. (Just as slave owners separated husbands and wives, they also avoided collecting men and boys who spoke the same language.) Without being at all academic or polemical, Vazante demonstrates just how different the lives of slaves and their owners could be in Brazil, where plantations were carved out of jungle and the country’s variety of resources dictated the terms of labor.

Instead of having to rely on cotton, tobacco or hemp, as was the case in the American South, the Brazilian economy evolved from being sugar-driven, from 1600 to 1650, to relying on gold and diamonds, from 1690 to the second half of the 18th Century, followed by ranching, agriculture, coffee and the mining of non-precious metals. When Portuguese colonists, most notably Jesuit aldeias (missions), exhausted the supply of indigenous labor, midway through the 16th Century, they invested heavily in the African slave trade. (See below …) The country’s proximity to Africa allowed for the collection of slaves from different parts of the continent than those destined for the Caribbean and U.S. They represent a greater number of tribes, languages and native religions. Once purchased, the captives’ duties would include building the roads to the farms, ranches and mines in which they would continue to labor. Each planter was allowed to import 120 slaves per year from Africa, and there was a law that stipulated 50 as the maximum number of lashes that a slave could take a day. Brazil’s immensity contributed to its emergence as the world’s largest importer of men, women and children from Africa. There is plenty of evidence to suggest that as many as 50,000 people are still being forced to work in Brazil’s meat and poultry sectors.

Vazante takes its title from a municipality in a lushly forested section of the state of Minas Gerais, in the north of southeastern Brazil. (It also translates as “surge” or “receding movement of the tide.”) Set in the 1820s, it opens with Antonio (Adriano Carvalho) leading a procession of slaves along a muddy path through the jungle, while his wife is experiencing the difficult delivery of their child at home. Upon his return, he learns that she’s died in labor and his plans for a family have been dashed. Confined to a decaying property in the company of his aging mother-in-law and numerous slaves, Antonio decides to carve a pasture, where he can redirect the farm’s resources to cattle ranching and milk production. Because of his frequent trips to collect cattle and supplies, he’s entrusted the day-to-day operation to a freed black man, Jeremias (Fabrício Boliveira), that he’s come to trust implicitly. It’s possible that Jeremias was born into slavery in Brazil, because the hierarchy within the plantation doesn’t favor new arrivals. The only work the new group has been trained to perform is diamond mining, and farming is as foreign to them as it would be to a lumberjack or accountant. A small rebellion brews when an uncooperative individual, whose language no one on the plantation understands, attempts to lead a mutiny. It’s quickly and forcibly put down by the overseer. Because of the scarcity of available white women in the mountainous region, Antonio decides to marry his wife’s niece, Beatriz (Luana Nastas), who’s yet to reach puberty. Although she understands what’s expected of her in marriage, Beatriz isn’t yet ready to relinquish her friendships with the black children. They include a handsome boy (Vinicius Dos Anjos) she’s known all her life. He’s the son of Antonio’s mistress (Jai Baptista) and, while technically a man, is too young to know when he’s playing with fire.

While Thomas has co-directed several film and television productions with Walter Salles, Vazante is her first entirely solo venture. Because historical fidelity was vital to her vision, she employed a team of historians and tribal experts to reproduce the lifestyles and clothing of the era. This included a group of non-actors who are descendants of the region’s former slaves. Thomas’ commitment to a slow-burn narrative wouldn’t have worked if it weren’t for Inti Briones’s gorgeous monochromatic cinematography, whose every frame demands to be savored. The explosive final scene anticipates Brazil’s pluralistic society to come, even as it demonstrates how difficult it might be to achieve. The interviews included in the DVD package add a great deal of information that otherwise might have been lost in translation.

(Hollywood filmmakers have treaded lightly on the Catholic Church’s role in facilitating slavery in the Americas, perhaps assuming Southern Baptists warrant most of the blame for defending it. I think there might be a good fact-based movie to be made on the clergy’s complicity with the practice and not just in Brazil or Mexico.

(In fact, the Catholic Church didn’t outlaw slavery from its missions in the Americas until 1843. At the time, Jesuits of Brazil were expelled from the country by Spanish and Portuguese emissaries because their priests were protecting Native Indians from slave-hunters’ raids and undermining the slave-based economy. Prior to the expulsion, the practice was justified by the priests’ insistence that their indentured laborers – black and aboriginal — be baptized and, therefore, closer the white man’s God.

(American Jesuits also treated conversions as compensation for the servitude of African laborers. Baptism, itself, was considered a reward beyond money. Even so, after the Vatican’s dictate, some priests profited from the sale of their slaves to Southern planters. The newly sainted Franciscan, Junipero Serra, justified his treatment of California’s aboriginal population they same way. The only movie I could find about him was The Story of Father Juniper Serra [1954], in which the Spanish padre was played Robert Warwick and Lyle Talbot portrayed another one. In the debate over Serra’s canonization, Pope Francis balanced his ability to convert countless “pagans” to Catholicism against his use of slave labor to build and sustain the territory’s missions.

(Native American activists argue that the Franciscans’ push northward from Mexico helped eradicate native culture from the region. It did so by relocating tribes from their native land and conscripting Indians into forced labor on the 17 missions stretching from San Diego to San Francisco. Those who voluntarily converted were spared some, but not all of the harsh treatment directed at those who refused. Disease, starvation, overwork and torture would lead to the decrease in California’s native population from more than 200,000 in the early-19th Century to some 15,000 at its end, mostly from disease. You’d think there was a movie in there somewhere … “Django Goes West,” perhaps.

(Is it possible that Pope Francis confused Serra’s legacy with that of Eusebio Francisco Kino, an Italian Jesuit, who established two dozen missions in northern Mexico and southern Arizona, between 1683 and 1711? He pissed off Spanish authorities and fellow missionaries by opposing slavery and compulsory hard labor in the silver mines. His story was told in Father Kino, Padre on Horseback (1977), with Richard Egan playing the saintly cleric. It’s probably worth noting, as well, that Roland Joffé’s 1986 period drama, The Mission, dealt directly with the enslavement of native Indians in Paraguay, Argentina and Brazil, while Jesuit missionaries also figure in Martin Scorsese’s Silence, and Bruce Beresford’s Black Robe, albeit ones stationed in Japan and Quebec.)

 

Early Man: Blu-ray
The latest edition of the FIFA World Cup is just around the corner and the collective lack of enthusiasm shown by average American sports fans is palpable. For the first time since 1986, the United States side won’t be represented, leaving Fox Sports holding the bag for an expensive live-broadcast commitment and more than half of its potential audience lost before the opening ceremonies even begin. To cut its losses, the company has decided to call the games from its Los Angeles headquarters, using its B-team of announcers. Spanish-speaking fans probably would have monitored the games over Telemundo, anyway, so the strategic move can be justified as a bottom-line decision. The exclusive Spanish-language home of the World Cup in the U.S. will have all its commentators on the ground in Russia, with the biggest matches to be called, as usual, by four-time Emmy Award winner, Andres Cantor. “I just don’t know how else you would do it,” said Telemundo Deportes president Ray Warren. “Smelling the grass, the hot dogs, hearing the fans, three dimensions, weather … all of those things. And the full view and the full immersion in those moments. To me, that’s what sports is all about. So, we’re going to do that in as many places as is humanly possible.” If Fox attempted to shortchange its NFL fans by calling all its games in the studio, the decision would be reversed after the first exhibition games. Typically, though, serious American soccer enthusiasts, especially those with foreign roots and allegiances, will flock to sports bars and restaurants. It all begins on June 14, with the Russia-vs.-Saudi Arabia match.

I wonder how much of that lack of excitement diminished any pent-up anticipation over the release of Lionsgate/Aardman’s delightful animated history of British soccer, Early Man. Debuting against the Black Panther juggernaut didn’t help its box-office chances, which were already dampened by lack of World Cup buzz. It opened below mid-single-digit expectations, falling short of Shaun the Sheep‘s $4 million debut, back in August 2015. But, guess what? While its final domestic gross was just short of $8.3 million, Early Man’s non-U.S. tally was a crisp $41.1 million. Anyone looking for a terrifically entertaining way to kill a couple of hours waiting for Cantor’s first, “GOOOOAAAALLLLLL!!!,” could do a lot worse than gathering the family around the telly and popping Early Man into the DVD/Blu-ray box.

In typical Aardman stop-action fashion, it tells the fanciful story of how Dug (Eddie Redmayne), along with his boar sidekick Hognob (Nick Park), unite their Stone Age tribe against a mighty Bronze Age enemy. In this cross-epochal showdown, Lord Nooth (Tom Hiddleston) intends to use to all resources available to it claim his rivals’ home. At the time, “footie” was barely a game, let alone a sport. Unlike the Bronze team, the Stone Age players had yet to devise a way to keep score and there were almost no established rules. The team’s uniforms resembled hand-me-downs purchased at a Viking or Visigoth thrift store and the balls were short of round. Somehow, though, the citizenry was able to afford the construction of stadiums and broadcast technology. In another familiar Aardman touch, the adorably weird animal characters range from woolly mammoths and other prehistoric critters, to a T-Rex-sized duck and Lord Nooth’s colorful message bird (Rob Brydon), who dutifully takes dictation, parroting back even the most inappropriate of messages.

To fully appreciate the gags, it helps to have a working knowledge of British football. An original title was “Early Man-United,” for example, which certainly would have been changed by the time the movie arrived here. It is a reference to the mighty Manchester United squad. Maisie Williams voices Goona, a tomboyish vendor and football enthusiast in the Bronze City, whom Dug befriends. Goona’s name is a play on “gooner,” a slang term for fans of Arsenal, Manchester’s chief rival. She’s unhappy because her favorite team excludes women, while the Stoners are open to anyone who can tell the difference between a ball and an egg. The deciding game may play out like most other David-vs.-Goliath contests in the movies, but everything else is unpredictably wacky fun. Early Man marks the first feature film that Nick Park will have directed by himself. On Chicken Run (2000) and The Curse of the Were-Rabbit (2005), he directed alongside Peter Lord and Steve Box, respectively. One critic noted that “the result is a welcome return to a form of stop-motion that takes pride in the technique’s inevitable imperfections (such as thumbprints in the modeling clay), while putting extra care into the underlying script, with its daffy humor and slightly-off characters.”  Other voices are provided by Richard Ayoade, Timothy Spall, Miriam Margolyes and Johnny Vegas. The beautifully rendered Blu-ray package adds nearly 40 minutes of making-of featurettes.

Elis
Anyone whose knowledge of Brazilian sounds is limited to a few passages from “The Girl From Ipanema,” the score to Black Orpheus and some of the songs on Paul Simon’s “The Rhythm of the Saints,” should find Hugo Prata’s Elis to be an exhilarating entrée to the world-music genre. It’s also will introduce them to the compelling life story of Elis Regina Carvalho Costa, who some consider to be the greatest Brazilian singer of all time. Besides a dynamic portrayal of the artist by Andréia Horta (“Alice”) the biopic pulsates with invigorating Brazilian rhythms and energetic stage performances. Although Elis Regina, as she was popularly known, didn’t share the same difficult rise to fame as Edith Piaf, say, Elie compares favorably in spirit to Olivier Dahan’s La Vie en Rose (2007). The singer was born in 1945, in Porto Alegre, where she began her career at age 11 on a children’s radio show. In 1959, she was invited to Rio de Janeiro, where she recorded her first LP, “Viva a Brotolândia” (“Long Live Teenage Land”), and her second LP, “Poema,” employing a variety of popular musical styles, including samba and the bossa nova. In 1965, after being advised to refine her stage presence, Elis captured her first festival song contest, singing “Arrastão” (“Pull The Trawling Net”), by Edu Lobo and Vinícius de Moraes. When it was released as a single, it made her the biggest-selling Brazilian recording artist since Carmen Miranda. The second album, with Jair Rodrigues, “Dois na Bossa,” set a national sales record and became the first Brazilian LP to sell over 1 million copies. Most of her early history has been compacted here to bring the narrative to the point where Elis’ life becomes complicated by the men in her life and her fevered drive to divahood. No surprise there.

Here, her triumph at the TV Excelsior song contest, only comes after Elis has honed her interpretive skills and stage presence in smoky underground jazz clubs around Rio de Janeiro. Her first husband/manager was a notorious playboy, known for bedding his clients and looking out for No. 1. After shifting her representation to someone familiar with the boxing world, Elis increased her exposure at home, while finding an audience in Europe. At a time when the popularity of bossa nova was on the wane, Elis reluctantly agree to shift from traditional Brazilian instrumentation to a more electrified style that would become known as MPB (Brazilian Popular Music). She would also join the Tropicália movement, advanced by Gal Costa, Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gilis. She recorded songs by Antonio Carlos Jobim, Milton Nascimento, João Bosco, Aldir Blanc, Chico Buarque, Guinga, Jorge Ben, Baden Powell and Rita Lee. Elis’ career reached a crossroads while in Europe, when, in response to a reporter’s question about Brazil’s right-wing government, she said that her country was being run by “gorillas.” This did not sit well with the ruling military junta back home, which made gorillas look like pussy cats. Her popularity kept her out of jail, but she was eventually blackmailed by the authorities into singing the Brazilian national anthem in a stadium show, and this drew the ire of leftists and anyone with relatives who’d been jailed and tortured for their opposition to the junta.

Caught between a rock and a hard place, Elis’ began to feel — incorrectly, it turns out — that she’d been completely abandoned by everyone from her husbands and management, to her core audience. She began recording songs that called for reform and denounced oppression. By this time, however, Elis was an emotional, self-destructive wreck. She died at the age of 36 in 1982, from an accidental overdose of cocaine, alcohol, and temazepam. More than 15,000 friends, relatives and fans held her wake at Teatro Bandeirantes, in São Paulo, with large groups of people singing her songs inside and outside the venue. More than 100,000 mourners followed her funeral procession to Cemitério do Morumbi. None of this would matter much to American audiences if it weren’t for an explosive portrayal of Elis’ life and career by Horta, a splendid actress whose works can sometimes be found on such HBO Latin America series as “Alice” and “Empire.” It prompted me to check out performances by Elis Regina, readily available on YouTube. They demonstrate just how well Horta nailed her character’s exuberant style, ready smile and audience-pleasing style. Otavio de Moraes is credited as composer, but the singing is pure Elis.

 

Swung
Who knew Glaswegians could be so kinky? That’s the question I came away with from Swung, a relationship melodrama that invites ridicule, but largely succeeds in translating Ewan Morrison’s 2007 novel of the same title. I say “ridicule” only because some critics have compared it unfavorably to the Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy, movies that not only invite ridicule, but demand it. In Colin Kennedy’s debut feature, David (Owen McDonnell) and Alice (Elena Anya) are a thirtyish Irish/Spanish couple, who’ve been living a reasonably happy life in Glasgow since David left his wife. Storm clouds arrive on the horizon when he loses his job and Alice is forced by her editor to come up with a story idea to save her magazine from ruin. At the same time as he’s struggling to find work, he’s also begun to obsess over his inability to maintain an erection. Alice is patient and sympathizes with David’s problem, which isn’t all that unusual these days. Mostly, she can hardly wait for him to complete his divorce proceedings. Then, she can be introduced to his daughter, without having to worry about saying or doing the wrong thing in her presence and incurring the wrath of David’s wife. They also might be able to realize her dream of moving to the country, where they can carrots … or is that just a euphemism for overcoming impotence? See what I mean about begging ridicule.

It’s at the exact point where David’s problems intersect with Alice’s search for an assignment that things get interesting. After she discovers his habit of making late-night strolls through his favorite porn sites, a lightbulb goes off over Alice’s head. Her idea involves the proliferation and validity of sites promoting swinging and polyamory. It doesn’t take much convincing for David to agree to join Alice on a couple of exploratory “dates.” When it comes time for them to swap partners, however, he gets cold … whatever. Her investigation leads Alice to the seen-it-all Madam Dolly (Elizabeth McGovern), who offers several inventive suggestions as to fixing David’s ED. And, they almost work. When Alice decides to up the ante by participating at an orgy at Dolly’s hotel, his jealousy threatens to ruin everything. The best thing about Swung is how well Kennedy handles the erotic scenes and sexual discussions, without making them seem prurient or gratuitous. Unlike the S&M in “50 Shades,” the characters are allowed to show all their naughty bits and sweat when they participate in group gropes. If the ending is a bit too pat, at least it doesn’t come out of left field.

Negative
I wonder if director Joshua Caldwell and writer Adam Gaines got together one night to watch Blow-Up, before putting the final touches on the screenplay for Negative. Not to put too fine a point on it, but the central mystery in the Antonioni classic appears to have influenced the central mystery here. Beyond that, however, there’s no comparison. In Negative, Katia Winter plays Natalie, a former spook who wouldn’t have been out of place in Atomic Blonde. We’re introduced to her in non-descript Chinese restaurant, where, off-camera, she kicks the crap out of a pair of greaseballs who’ve come out of nowhere to kill her. The next day, she’s hanging out in a Los Angeles park, where a struggling photographer, Hollis (Simon Quarterman), takes a picture of her from afar. Like Vanessa Redgrave in Blow-Up, Natalie follows Hollis to his apartment, where he’s already developed the photo – revealing absolutely nothing remarkable – and she demands the negative. (He’s the only shooter in L.A. who hasn’t upgraded to digital.) Before Hollis can pull a switcheroo with the film cannister and ask why she wants it, two more slicked-back thugs break into his darkroom to tear up the joint. By now, though, Natalie has grabbed the photographer’s hand and led him down the fire escape to temporary freedom. With a little bit of time to spare, they split for Phoenix – making an out-of-the-way pitstop at a shithole motel in Nowhere, Nevada — where her old MI-5 contact might be able to intercede in their situation. Instead, a drug cartel has put a price on her head and intends for one of its gun slingers to collect. It’s still difficult to tell what Natalie did to piss off the cartel or how the assassins manage to find here – nope, they don’t plant a GPS device on her car — but, by now, who cares? Somewhere between L.A. and Phoenix, Hollis grows a pair and actually is able to help Natalie avoid imminent doom. Even if Negative is too full of holes to add up to anything substantial, it’s fun to watch Winter kick ass. For once, the Swedish bombshell even gets to keep her clothes on while she’s doing it.

The October Flowers
I have a feeling that more money and thought were invested in poster and cover art for The October Flowers than anything else in the picture. While the one-sheets for the theatrical release range from serviceable to intriguing – yes, there’s more than one – the DVD cover convinced me that the movie inside was either a supernatural Japanese thriller or a sexy ghost story. Imagine my disappointment when The October Flowers turned out to be just another micro-budgeted idea-gone-to-waste. At 74 minutes, though, it isn’t very painful to watch. Newcomer Aiyana Irwin plays a young woman, Danielle, who inherits a non-descript suburban house from her grandmother. The part grannie left out of her last will and testament, however, is any mention of the ghosts with whom Danielle will be required to share the residence. Moffat wastes no time introducing Danielle to the many noisy, self-absorbed apparitions and poltergeists who wander through the house, at will, and relate to her the stories of how they died. The yarns tend to overlap each other, as do the ghosts. None of them is particularly scary, even if the spooks still wear their wounds like metals of honor. The only advice Danielle is given by her grandma’s loyal gardener is not to cut the flowers growing under the house’s eaves. To the surprise of absolutely no one, there will come a point in the next 70 minutes that Danielle will be tempted to do just that. Some of the interaction isn’t bad, but it suffers from dull deliveries and production values that do nothing to enhance the narrative.

Night Zero
Here’s another undernourished horror/thriller that, at 81 minutes, could have used an infusion of fresh ideas and scary moments. As Night Zero opens, an unidentified object from outer space crashes somewhere on the outskirts of Pittsburgh, causing an explosion that certainly will have something to do with the story. Before that can happen, however, viewers are required to suffer through 20 minutes of small talk and whining at a party being held to celebrate the departure of Sophie (Dawnelle Jewell) and Eric (Vincent Bombara) from George A. Romero’s adoptive hometown, to a new life in Boston. It isn’t until a cop in Hazmat gear bursts into the house that the couples realize that their personal problems don’t amount to a hill of beans when everyone else in town – descendants of the antagonists in Night of the Living Dead, possibly — has suddenly been reduced to eating flesh and sucking human blood. When the claustrophobia grows too great, the couples resort to taking matters into their own hands. Well before that happens, though, the continued bickering between them will make some viewers want to run into the street and take their chances with the undead.

Of Unknown Origin: Blu-ray
When it comes to movies about killer rats, two titles come immediately to mind: Willard (1971) and Ben (1971). Vermin have always played key roles in the horror genre, but, “The Pied Piper of Hamelin” notwithstanding, rats have been deployed mostly to telegraph the approach of more ominous forces or as elements of torture. The unexpected success of Willard and Ben triggered a plague of killer-critter flicks that lasted until the slasher/stalker/splatter subgenre took hold. Released rather late in the game, a decade later, Of Unknown Origin suffered from thematic familiarity and a title that suggested sci-fi over horror. Now available in an upgraded edition from Shout Factory, George P. Cosmatos’ underappreciated thriller may be the best in the lot.

Instead of threatening mankind with a hoard of demonic creatures, Of Unknown Origin features a mano a mano, winner-takes-all battle between a yuppie and rat that’s determined to destroy his newly rehabbed townhouse. If there’s no good reason why the rat should so brazenly declare war against a harmless homeowner, it comes down to a series of challenges in which one “king of his castle” uses every means available to him to defeat an enemy who believes that the townhouse belongs to him. To succeed, the homeowner must abandon all sense of honor and humanity and accept the terms of war established by his formidable enemy. Peter Weller is perfectly cast as successful New York advertising executive Bart Hughes. Overworked, but ambitious, Hughes has been assigned the task of wooing a lucrative new client. With his wife (Shannon Tweed) and children away on vacation, he’s assured of a couple weeks alone, absent distractions. It doesn’t take long for the unusually large and matted rat to make its presence known. Instead of relying on the usual tricks associated with a rodent hungry for a piece of cheese, this rat’s tactics have as much to do with tormenting Hughes as ransacking his cupboards. At first, they include chewing through wires and cables; sabotaging the dishwasher; and knocking over picture frames and tchotchkes. Hughes does what any besieged homeowner would do, by consulting a handyman and placing spring-loaded traps in strategic locations. He even brings in a neighborhood cat.

They only serve to irritate the rat, who, we will soon discover, is protecting a nest of newborns in the basement. The more Hughes learns about his enemy, the more willing he is to destroy his castle in order to save it. (A Vietnam reference from the director of Rambo: First Blood Part II, perhaps?) Meanwhile, of course, Hughes has lost all interest in completing his tasks at work, content, instead, to bore his associates with trivia on rat infestations. Finally, he’s reduced to hand-to-paw combat with the unstoppable foe. When it isn’t scaring the crap out of you, Of Unknown Origin is genuinely entertaining. Based on Chauncey G. Parker III’s novel, “The Visitor,” its primary drawback at the U.S. box office may have been its Canadian financial and production roots, and its Montreal setting. A slightly snarky review on Canuxploitation.com suggests, “Of Unknown Origin is not a bad little timewaster at all, and probably represents the absolute pinnacle of Canadian giant rodent cinema.” I think today’s viewers will put aside their anti-Canadian prejudices long enough to savor a long-ignored gem. The Blu-ray adds commentary with Weller and Cosmatos; interviews with screenwriter Brian Taggart, producer Pierre David and co-star Louis Del Grande, whose primary claim to fame may be his iconic turn in Scanners, playing the guy whose head explodes. And, yes, Newfoundland native, Playboy model and future queen of Skinemax fare, Shannon Tweed, is radiant in her brief theatrical debut.

The Return of Swamp Thing: Special Edition: Blu-ray
What do you get when you combine the central conceits of Swamp Thing and The Island of Dr. Moreau, with or without Marlon Brando and Val Kilmore? The Return of Swamp Thing, that’s what. It took seven years for Lightyear Entertainment to commit to a sequel to the surprise 1982 hit. In it, a half-man/half-plant mutation (Dick Durock) commits himself to stopping an evil scientist, Antone Arcane (Louis Jourdan), from using his lab’s research to create bioengineered weaponry, instead of a cure for world hunger, as intended. The title character was generated after scientist Alec Holland tripped and was set on fire, attempting to escape Arcane with a beaker of the formula. Adrienne Barbeau plays a government worker sent to Holland’s Louisiana lab to monitor the project’s progress. As a witness to Arcane’s treachery, she automatically becomes the mad scientist’s enemy and an ally to the revenge-minded humanoid. The movie, its sequel, a live-action television series and five-part animated series, all were based on a popular comic-book series from the DC universe. (A new live-action series is expected to debut in 2019 on the DC Universe streaming service.)

While Jim Wynorski’s 1989 sequel features repeat performances by Durock and Jourdan, the accent is on kooky comedy and PG-13 entertainment. Conspicuously missing are writer/director Wes Craven and Barbeau, whose topless swamp-bath scene made the original a must-see rental for teenage boys everywhere. Arcane somehow escaped death at the end of the first movie and has returned to the bayous to create creatures that are human/animal hybrids. When his estranged stepdaughter, Abby (Heather Locklear), arrives unexpectedly to interrogate Arcane about her mother’s mysterious death, he seizes on the opportunity to use her DNA in an anti-aging experiment with the “Un-Men.” When she escapes into the swamp, Abby is accosted by a creature that resembles an upright elephant. Naturally, Swamp Thing arrives just in time to prevent the pretty young blond from being raped by the monster. They form an alliance designed to put Arcane out of business for good and prevent the Un-Men from escaping into the bayous. The good news is that the special-makeup-effects used to create the hybrid creatures are surprisingly effective. The bad news is that Locklear, while cute as a button, couldn’t hold Barbeau’s bra as the Swamp Thing’s love interest. Her co-star, Sarah Douglas (Conan the Barbarian), would have filled in admirably in this regard, instead.

Genre specialist Wynorski does what he can with Neil Cuthbert and Grant Morris’ anemic script and what must have been a miniscule budget. (The rights to CCR’s “Born on the Bayou” might have broke the bank.) While the sequel tanked at the box office, I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that it made some money in VHS/DVD. The MVD Rewind Blu-ray benefits from a 2K high-def transfer; original 2.0 and 5.1 stereo audio; new commentary with Wynorski, Cirino, Rosenthal and Lightyear Entertainment executive Arnie Holland; a pair of vintage Greenpeace public-service announcements featuring Swamp Thing; original marketing material; a photo gallery; reversible artwork; and a collectible mini-poster.

Death Smiles on a Murderer: Special Edition: Blu-ray
Anyone unfamiliar with the work of the hyper-prolific Italian multi-hyphenate, Aristide Massaccesi – or Joe D’Amato, foremost among his many aliases – might consider watching the featurette “Smiling on the Taboo: Sex, Death and Transgression in the Horror Films of Joe D’Amato,” before tackling Death Smiles on a Murderer. Also recommended is “D’Amato Smiles on Death,” an interview conducted before his untimely demise at 63, in 1990. In a career that spanned just 30 years, Massaccesi is credited with directing 169 films of varying quality and serving as cinematographer on 167 titles, some of them quite respectable. There isn’t a genre upon which Massaccesi’s fingerprints don’t appear, ranging from giallo, pasta-delic Westerns and horror, to soft- and hard-core sex. No matter the name he chose to work under, it wasn’t difficult to detect Massaccesi’s influence somewhere in the movie. (He used the aliases as a smoke screen to discourage studios and producers from pigeonholing his work and denying him opportunities to pursue his more serious whims.) One of at least eight films he shot or directed for release in 1973, Death Smiles on a Murderer represents his first shot at gothic horror, although it also could be listed in the giallo column. Set in Austria, in the early 1900s, it stars the sexy Swedish import Ewa Aulin, (Candy) as Greta von Holstein, a beautiful young woman abused by her brother, Franz (Luciano Rossi), and left to die alone, in the delivery room, by her illicit lover, the aristocrat Dr. Von Ravensbrück (Giacomo Rossi).  Bereft with grief and guilt, Franz reanimates his dead sister using a formula engraved on an ancient Incan medallion. Greta then returns as an undead avenging angel, who focuses her wrath on several generations of Ravensbrück family members, as well as her manically possessive brother.

Because “Death” isn’t told in a linear fashion, it’s tough, at first, to get a handle on why someone who looks exactly like Greta turns up before one of her nemeses is about to die or be interred. Once the conceit is revealed, it isn’t difficult to follow. Of special interest here is the presence of Klaus Kinski, playing a spooky doctor, who, in a flashback, recognizes Greta’s pendant as something that supersedes science and medicine. As such, it will take more than a stake in the heart to put an end to the Von Ravensbrück curse. Arrow’s 2K restoration, the original camera negative, is excellent. The Blu-ray adds original Italian and English soundtracks; newly translated English subtitles for the Italian soundtrack; commentary by writer and critic Tim Lucas; a third featurette, “All About Ewa,” a newly-filmed, career-spanning interview with the Swedish star; a stills and poster collections gallery; and a limited-edition booklet, with new writing on the film by critic Stephen Thrower and film historian Roberto Curti.

Savannah Smiles: Collector’s Edition: Blu-ray
Bridgette Andersen, the star of this surprisingly entertaining family comedy, began modeling and doing television commercials by the time she was 3 and, less than four years later, made the transition to small- and big-screen movies. Bridgette is said to have had a remarkably high I.Q., a penchant for memorization and was a freakishly quick study when it came to dance and acting. After playing the precocious title character caught up in a doomed-to-fail kidnap drama in Savannah Smiles, Andersen worked steadily for another six years, or so, in episodic- and made-for-television movies and feature films. Then, for the next nine years, nada. If you’ve already guessed that this is one of those child-actor stories that ends badly – not all of them do – you’d be right. And, for the same reasons as other such tragedies in the 1990s. According to Bridgette’s mom in a lengthy interview included here, she filled the lull in her career by running around with a Deadhead and becoming addicted to heroin. The Malibu resident stayed clean for a while, but she succumbed to an accidental overdose on November 17, 1996. I only mention this because, at some point in Savannah Smiles, viewers will all ask the same question: what happened to that cute little girl? Now, you know.

In it, Andersen plays the 6-year-old daughter of a politician too consumed by his re-election campaign to pay her much attention. After Savannah decides to run away from home – a note to her parents slides off her bed — she sneaks into a car used in a jailbreak. Its owner, Boots (Donovan Scott), could have found work as a stand-in for Curly in the Three Stooges, while the escaped con, Alvie (Mark Miller), was scheduled for parole the next week. Their collective I.Q. wouldn’t have come close to equaling that of the little girl. After some close calls, the crooks take shelter in an abandoned house, where you’d expect a “Ransom of Red Chief” scenario to be introduced. It’s to the credit of writer/co-star/producer Miller that Savannah finds another way to endear her to us. While waiting for word of a ransom agreement, an unexpected bond grows among Savannah, Alvie and Boots, creating an approximation of family life the men have never known and she’s always desired. Their relationship is tested as the police dragnet closes in on them and a trigger-happy sheriff treats them like Public Enemies No. 1 and 2. There’s no reason to spoil the ending, except to say that it’s cleverly designed and works. The rugged Utah setting adds a Western feel to the story and the leads get ample support from Pat Morita, Michael Parks, John Fiedler, Fran Ryan and Peter Graves. The MVD Rewind release benefits from an imperfect high-definition transfer from a 35mm print provided by the Library of Congress; “The Making of Savannah Smiles,” featuring Miller, Scott, Teresa Andersen (mother of Bridgette) and composer Ken Sutherland; ”Memories of Bridgette Andersen,” with new interviews with Teresa Andersen, Miller and Scott; ”The Songs and Music of Savannah Smiles,” featuring an interview with Sutherland; and a collectible mini-poster.

TV-to-DVD
PBS: Masterpiece: Little Women
Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Singles Collection
Nickelodeon: The Loud House: It Gets Louder: Season 1, Volume 2
Nickelodeon: Sunny Day
I don’t know enough about Louisa May Alcott or her classic novel, “Little Women,” to say with any certainty if the “Masterpiece” adaptation is an accurate representation of the book or it could have been improved. I do know that I enjoyed all 180 minutes of the mini-series, produced by a largely female cast and crew, and I can easily recommend it to parents whose daughters – its charm would be lost on most boys – have found time to read books, in between texting and taking selfies. Alcott’s books once were considered must-reading for girls facing the challenges of puberty and possibilities of womanhood. Loosely based on Alcott and her own three sisters, “Little Women” was published in two volumes in 1868 and 1869. An immediate sensation, it spawned two direct sequels – “Little Men” (1871) and “Jo’s Boys” (1886) – neither of which, I’m told, featured vampires or sorcerers. The novel addressed three major themes of the times, “domesticity, work and true love,” all of which were crucial elements in a girl’s identity. Devotion to family, of course, also is an important aspect of the story, but, at the time, this might have been a given quality in well-established families. As the mini-series opens, four teenage sisters and their mother, Marmee – superbly played by Emily Watson – are living in a neighborhood loosely based on Concord, Massachusetts. Although their situation doesn’t look all that dire, it’s said that they’re living in “genteel poverty,” due to a financial setback experienced by the father, Robert March (Dylan Baker), who, before joining the Union Army and contacting pneumonia, was a scholar and a minister. The women are facing their first Christmas without him. Besides working to support the family, the older girls are beginning to deal with affairs of the heart and the potential for careers. As the story progresses, boyfriends and other men in the neighborhood will play larger roles in the story. Director Vanessa Caswill (“Thirteen”) and credited co-writers (with Alcott) Heidi Thomas and Rainer Stolle encourage viewers to pick favorites, cheer along with their triumphs and share their tears and laughter. The characters are so precisely drawn that it’s easy take sides. It helps, as well, that the young actors (Maya Hawke, Kathryn Newton, Willa Fitzgerald, Annes Elwy, Julian Morris, Jonah Hauer-King) aren’t as familiar to us as the adults, played by Watson, Baker, Michael Gambon Angela Lansbury. The Blu-ray adds a visit to Louisa May Alcott’s Orchard House and Museum.

I’m not at all sure how difficult it’s been to find copies of the episodes collected in Shout! Factory’s “Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Singles Collection.” The press material says that they were among the first to be released on DVD, but only on an individual basis, not in the 39 compilations the company started sending out in September 1, 2015. I also know that, as collectibles, they cost a small fortune. The new grouping of cheeseball non-classics includes The Crawling Hand (#106), The Hellcats (#209), Santa Claus Conquers the Martians (#321), Eegah (#506), I Accuse My Parents (#507) and “Shorts, Volume 3.” Among the bonus features new episode introductions by series creator Joel Hodgson; “Man on Poverty Row: The Films of Sam Newfield”; “Don’t Knock the Strock,” a portrait of the director of The Crawling Hand; and “MST Hour Wraps.” All five episodes are from the Joel Hodgson era, which means they were originally issued by Rhino and have been out-of-print until now. “Shorts Volume 3″ was a promotional disc, only available on mail order from Rhino. I found the commentaries provided by Joel Robinson and crewmates Tom Servo, Gypsy and Crow – as well as interstitials with Dr. Clayton Deborah Susan Forrester and TV’s Frank — to be as fresh, witty and entertaining as any I’ve seen recently in the compilations.

Gen-Xers, Millennials and Oughts may not find any correlation between Nickelodeon’s hit animated series, “The Loud House,” and a landmark show of the early-1970s, “An American Family,” but Boomer parents and grandparents will wonder if there’s a connection between them. The groundbreaking documentary, considered by many to be TV’s first reality series, recorded the daily life of the Louds, an upper-middle-class family living in Santa Barbara. Ultimately, it chronicled the break-up of the dysfunctional family via the separation and subsequent divorce of parents Bill and Pat Loud. Their son, Lance, is credited as being the first openly gay continuing character on television. The show produced several knockoffs, including Albert Brooks’ 1979 mockumentary, Real Life. The short answer is: probably not. “The Loud House” was created by animator and comic illustrator Chris Savino, who is said to have based it on his experiences growing up in a large family in Royal Oak, Michigan. Lincoln Loud is the only boy and middle child in a family of 11 children, 10 of whom are girls. They all display different characteristics, personalities and interests. The faces of parents Rita and Lynn Sr. aren’t shown until the show’s second season. The introduction of Howard and Harold McBride, the adoptive parents of Lincoln’s best friend, Clyde, have been lauded for being a positive representation of a married same-sex couple, the first to be featured in a Nicktoon. Despite the elimination of Savino from the show’s production team – he fell victim to charges of sexual harassment – “The Loud Family” has been renewed for a fourth season. Plans for a film based on the series have been put on hold. The second volume of first-season shows on DVD, “The Loud House: It Gets Louder: Season 1, Volume 2,” is comprised of 13 double-episodes.

Also from Nickelodeon comes a collection of four episodes from the first season of “Sunny Day,” which follow 10-year-old hairstylist and entrepreneur, Sunny. Along with the help of her best friends Blair and Rox, and her loyal and lovable puppy Doodle, Sunny takes on any challenge thrown her way. The characters in the series celebrate individuality and self-expression, while the show’s social-emotional curriculum highlights leadership, innovative thinking and teamwork. Each episode of “Sunny Day” features an array of content, from original music to the “Style Files,” a live-action tutorial based on Sunny’s creative hairstyles from the show.

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“Ten years ago at Telluride, I said on a panel that theatrical distribution was dying. It seemed obvious to me. I was surprised how many in the audience violently objected: ‘People will always want to go to the movies!’ That’s true, but it’s also true that theatrical cinema as we once knew it has died. Theatrical cinema is now Event Cinema, just as theatrical plays and musical performances are Events. No one just goes to a movie. It’s a planned occasion. Four types of Event Cinema remain.
1. Spectacle (IMAX-style blockbusters)
2. Family (cartoon like features)
3. Horror (teen-driven), and
4. Film Club (formerly arthouse but now anything serious).

There are isolated pockets like black cinema, romcom, girl’s-night-out, seniors, teen gross-outs, but it’s primarily those four. Everything else is TV. Now I have to go back to episode five of ‘Looming Tower.'”
~ Paul Schrader

“Because of my relative candor on Twitter regarding why I quit my day job, my DMs have overflowed with similar stories from colleagues around the globe. These peeks behind the curtains of film festivals, venues, distributors and funding bodies weren’t pretty. Certain dismal patterns recurred (and resonated): Boards who don’t engage with or even understand their organization’s artistic mission and are insensitive to the diverse neighborhood in which their organization’s venue is located; incompetent founders and/or presidents who create only obstacles, never solutions; unduly empowered, Trumpian bean counters who chip away at the taste and experiences that make organizations’ cultural offerings special; expensive PR teams that don’t bring to the table a bare-minimum familiarity with the rich subcultural art form they’re half-heartedly peddling as “product”; nonprofit arts organizations for whom art now ranks as a distant-second goal behind profit.”
~ Eric Allen Hatch