MCN Columnists
Gary Dretzka

By Gary Dretzka Dretzka@moviecitynews.com

The DVD Wrapup: Damsel, Hired Hand, Siberia, Toybox, Guardians, Cold Water, Lost Child, Rock HofF, Pyjama Girl, Miniaturist … More

Damsel
There’s no way to accurately categorize David and Nathan Zellner’s beyond-revisionist Western, Damsel, without also considering such descriptive terms as offbeat, dark, absurdist, feminist, slapstick and surrealistic. Its bloodline may lead back to Blazing Saddles (1974), but the story probably owes as much to Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man (1995) and the Coen Brothers’ version of True Grit (2010). Damsel opens at a lonely stagecoach stop in southeastern Utah’s desolate Goblin Valley, where two guys straight out of “Waiting for Godot” are waiting for stages going in opposite directions. One is a completely defeated preacher (Robert Forster), who utterly failed in his mission to convert the native population to Christianity. Relieved to being going home, he patiently answers questions about the Old West from the younger drifter, before taking off his clothes, handing him his tattered bible and disappearing into the distance. (God knows how they got here, in the first place.) Just as mysteriously, we’re taken to a saloon in a more populated city. An affluent easterner, Samuel Alabaster (Robert Pattison), is engaging in some serious square dancing with the lovely Penelope (Mia Wasikowska), who’s given him a locket with her portrait inside it. Samuel takes this as a commitment to marriage. Another unexpected transition brings us to a beach on the rugged Oregon coast, where Samuel lifts a large box off a rowboat. It contains a miniature horse, Butterscotch, that he plans to give to Penelope as a wedding gift. (Substitute a piano for the horse and the scene recalls Jane Campion’s The Piano.) First, though, he’ll have to rescue Penelope from the men who, in his mind, have kidnapped her. Samuel is so convinced that she’s a damsel in distress that he’s arranged, in advance, for a local minister to marry them, as soon as possible. Some viewers will recognize the alcoholic Parson Henry (David Zellner), as the drifter who would assume the identity of the mad preacher at the stagecoach stop in the desert.

When they finally connect, in a town seeming populated by escapees from a mental institution, Samuel’s first job is to get Henry clean and sober. Then, they load provisions – including a small cage, containing a live chicken — on Butterscotch’s back for their trek into the Oregon wilderness. Without giving anything else away, the odd couple’s once-simple mission quickly turns treacherous, with the lines separating heroes, victims and villains completely blurred. Anyone who’s seen the Zellners’ Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter (2014) won’t be shocked by any of the things that happen to Samuel, Penelope, Henry and Butterscotch in the next hour, or so. Based on a true story, embellished to the point that’s become an urban legend, “Kumiko” imagines what really happened to a young Japanese woman, Takako Konishi, who, in 2001, was found dead in a field outside Detroit Lakes, Minnesota. The media insinuated that Takako had grown increasingly frustrated by searching for the ransom money buried in the snow, near the end of Fargo (1996), and committed suicide. Apparently, the battered VHS cassette, upon which the trouble young woman watched and re-watched the movie, hadn’t made it sufficiently clear to her that Fargo, itself, was based on an urban legend and there was no money to fine. Even before “Kumiko,” it’s said that the Austin-based brothers’ films required the patience of a festival fanatic to completely embrace. All the principle actors in Damsel are excellent – especially Wasikowska, as the fiercely independent frontierswoman — as are the cinematography by Adam Stone (Mud) and the evocative score, by the Octopus Project.

The Hired Hand: Blu-ray
More than 45 years before the release of Damsel, the term “revisionist” had only infrequently been attached to American Westerns, the way “Spaghetti” and “Euro” had become synonymous with look-alikes shot in the badlands of Spain and featuring anti-heroic protagonists. The loosening of the Production Code may have prompted a reconsideration of guidelines applied to Westerns for most of the last 50 years, but the differences between good and evil hardly changed. It took John Wayne’s against-type turns in True Grit (1969), The Cowboys (1972) and The Shootist (1975) for Americans to fully embrace the characters Clint Eastwood would play in High Plains Drifter (1973) and The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976). Elsewhere in town, the times had begun to change even more dramatically, with the emergence of young, independent filmmakers – mavericks, free-thinkers — who were being given opportunities to put up or shut up with studio money behind them. Their pictures wouldn’t be easy to market, but, at least, the ice was finally beginning to crack. In the wake of Easy Rider’s great success, Universal decided to give Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper another chance to catch lightning in a bottle. Both jumped at the prospect of reconceptualizing the American Western, without obvious ties to John Ford, Howard Hawks or, for that matter, Sergio Leone, and independence from studio meddling. If their films were going to succeed at the box office, they’d have to attract younger viewers, less concerned with cattle drives and the color of a cowboy’s hat, than the poetry found in western sunsets and wide-open vistas, honest depictions of death and dying, the de-villainization of Native Americans and Mexicans, and finding a place for women to rise or fall on their own terms. young-adult audiences without studio interference. For Hopper’s The Last Movie, the interference came as soon as it hit Lew Wasserman’s desk at Universal and he demanded a complete re-cut, even after it won a prestigious prize at the Venice International Film Festival. Hopper refused to comply, and the movie disappeared into the fog of Hollywood history. At first glance, Fonda’s The Hired Hand more closely resembled a traditional Western. His willingness to allow the personalities of Alan Sharp’s exquisitely drawn characters’ to evolve slowly, over the course of the movie, made it a horse of a very different color, though. The same applied to Fonda’s organic integration of Bruce Langhorne’s evocative, non-traditional score; Vilmos Zsigmond’s brilliantly conceived lighting and cinematography; Frank Mazzola’s arthouse editing techniques; and Lawrence G. Paull’s naturalistic set and production designs.

Fonda considered it to be a “counter-Western.” Critics praised and dismissed it in equal measure, some referring to it as a “hippie Western.” After being deemed a commercial failure, Universal sold The Hired Hand to NBC-TV, where it was butchered to conform with established genre norms. This, even after Fonda edited 20 minutes of footage to make it fit a 90-minute package. Arrow Academy’s pristine Blu-ray presentation not only restores Fonda’s original vision, but it confirms The Hired Hand’s importance in the advance of the “revisionist Western.” Fonda not only directed the movie – a decision his father, Henry, advised against – but he also starred as Harry Collings, a settler who deserted his wife, Hannah (Verna Bloom), and child for seven years to explore the American Southwest with his best friend, Archie (Warren Oates). After a murderous act of revenge in a two-bit town, Collings abruptly decides not to follow Archie to the gold fields of California, as originally planned. Instead, they return to Collings’ New Mexico homestead, where, instead of being welcomed back with open arms, Collings has been consigned to hired-hand status … without benefits. While this is OK with the easy-going and hard-working Archie, Collings is infuriated by gossip that Hannah routinely slept with previous hired hands. She not only confirms the rumors, but emphatically rips her no-longer-dead spouse a new one for challenging her right to satisfy her sexual urges. (This is one of the sequences trimmed in the NBC version.) Collings has no alternative to accepting her decision and toiling hard enough to convince his wife that he’s back for good and should be freed from the dog house. That matter settled, Archie decides to take another shot at reaching the beaches and gold fields of California. The past comes back to haunt Collings when he learns that Archie has been kidnapped by an old nemesis (Severn Darden), who has a score to settle with both men. To save his friend’s life, Collings elects to break his vow to Hannah, by risking his life and the family’s livelihood. I wouldn’t go so far as to compare the men’s bromance to the forbidden relationship in Brokeback Mountain, but there are similarities in their verbal-and non-verbal interactions. It almost goes without saying that things won’t work out as Collings expects they will, ensuring an ending that probably would have been frowned upon by enforcers of the Production Code and studio heads. It easily qualifies as being “revisionist,” in the same way as were the climaxes of Robert Altman’s far more widely recognized McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971) – also shot by Zsigmond — and Sam Peckinpah’s tortured Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973).

The Arrow release also contains commentary by Fonda; “The Return of The Hired Hand,” a 2003 documentary containing interviews with Fonda, Zsigmond, Langhorne and Bloom; deleted scenes; “The Odd Man,” Charles Gormley and Bill Forsyth’s 1978 documentary portrait of Scottish screenwriters, including Sharp; a short introduction by Martin Scorsese; a 1971 audio recording, with Oates and Fonda at London’s National Film Theatre; a stills gallery; artwork by Sean Phillips; and an illustrated collector’s booklet, featuring new writing on the film by Kim Morgan. In a rare instance of cinematic synchronicity, The Hired Hand and The Last Movie were fully restored and given a high-gloss finish almost simultaneously. Hopper’s film is being given a limited theatrical release, before its arrival on Blu-ray later in the fall.

Siberia: Blu-ray
Observing Keanu Reeves’ hard-ass pose on the cover of Siberia, I assumed that the new thriller would be an extension of his action-packed “John Wick” franchise or the martial-arts actioners — 47 Ronin, Man of Tai Chi — that preceded it. The first indication that Siberia was something different came when his character, diamond trader Lucas Hill, gets the crap kicked out of him by the overserved Russian bozos he’d berated for dropping trou to impress their waitress, Katya (Ana Ularu). Instead of kicking their asses inside the restaurant, Hill allows himself to be ambushed by the two large men, who render him unconscious in the parking lot. If Katya’s shift hadn’t ended soon thereafter, Hill’s fashionable coat and shoes wouldn’t have prevented him from freezing to death. While the scene may confuse and disappoint Reeves’ diehard fans, it sets up the potential for an adulterous romance with the sex-starved waitress, while his wife, Gabby (Molly Ringwald), must satisfy her longing by Skype. Hill is in Siberia to look for his business partner, Pyotr, who, he suspects, has stolen the valuable blue diamonds he’s promised to a Russian gangster and replaced with counterfeits only an expert could detect. A couple of other guys are interested in the gems, besides the archetypal Boris (Pasha D. Lychnikoff), but I can’t say with any certainty how they fit within the overall scheme of things. Unable to locate Pyotr, Hill’s presence in St. Petersburg is demanded by Boris, who believes that he will deliver the goods. In a very silly scene, the two men perform the blood-brother ritual made popular in countless Hollywood Westerns.

The blood-letting represents the point in the story when Siberia turns from benignly boring to downright offensive, as Katya is forced to perform oral sex on Boris, while Hill’s getting serviced – involuntarily, at least — by his blood brother’s girlfriend. It not only drives a wedge between the two lovers, but it also demonstrates how much control Boris has over Hill. The scene will shift one more time to Siberia, where the gangsters will exact their vengeance on Pyotr, Hill and anyone else who gets in their way. The confrontation provides the only real action in the picture and comes 100 minutes into it. It’s also where several loose threads are left to be tied … but aren’t. In an interview included in the bonus package, Reeves says that Siberia has long been a pet project for him and, as producer, he hand-picked director Matthew Ross (Frank & Lola) and screenwriter Scott B. Smith (A Simple Plan) to craft the idea into something exciting and exotic, neither of which Siberia is. While some of the exterior shots of St. Petersburg are compelling, the scenes supposedly set in Russia’s Outback look as if they could have been staged anywhere with lots of trees. Manitoba may be a nice place to visit in the summer, but, here, it falls short of resembling the Siberia described in anti-communist wet dreams and PBS nature programming. Knowing that the release of Wick 3: Parabellum is only about nine months away, Reeves’ fans probably will be able to find something in Siberia to satisfy their appetite … perhaps his make-out scenes with Ularu, who could easily pass for a Bond Girl.

The Toybox: Blu-ray
If watching 40 years’ worth of movies based on novels, short stories and screenplays by Stephen King has taught us anything, it’s that houses and cemeteries aren’t the only inanimate objects that can be possessed by evil spirits. As difficult as it is to believe that Christine and Maximum Overdrive might have been inspired by a nightmare King suffered after watching Disney’s 1968 hit family comedy The Love Bug, how else to explain the coincidence of thrillers featuring cars and trucks “with minds of their own”? Likewise, if those pictures hadn’t attracted an audience, we might have had to wait another 30 years for Tom Nagel’s anthropomorphic-RV thriller, The Toybox, and that would have been a shame. What’s next, a movie about a malevolent craft-services truck capable of poisoning the food served to actors on location? I hope so. In The Toybox, which has only been accorded the most tentative of theatrical releases, recent widower Charles (Greg Violand) has purchased a vintage motor home, without checking out its pedigree. He thinks that a road trip might help repair the fissures that have separated him from family members since he left home, years earlier. It also would fulfill a promise he made to his wife after they reconciled, just before her death. Charles’ oldest son, Steve (Jeff Denton), his wife, Jennifer (Denise Richards), their daughter and family dog, are excited about the excursion. His youngest son, Jay (Brian Nagel), is less than enthusiastic, falsely blaming his dad for every calamity in his life. Even before the family sets sail, viewers will have witnessed the RV’s evil spirit in action, as it gobbled up a little boy lured to its door only hours earlier. Most of its menace is being held in reserve for later, however, when Charles picks up Samantha (Mischa Barton) and her brother, whose car broke down on the side of the highway.

Charles agrees to take the stranded motorists to the nearest gas station, but not before he makes a detour to see some cliff drawings. Things begin to get creepy when Samantha discovers human hair clogging the bathroom drain and rotted food in the refrigerator. (Hard to imagine the old man missing the stench in the fridge or neglecting to load it with water and other provisions.) It isn’t until the truck speeds off into the desert on its own volition – ending up stuck in a ditch — that the poop really hits the fan belt. The passengers begin to be picked off individually, in the most gruesome ways … and, no, the child and dog aren’t spared the RV’s wrath. Apparently, its previous owner was a serial killer, who used the van as his personal torture chamber. Once that’s established, the only question that remains is which of the film’s two stars, Barton or Richards, will be the “final girl.” I doubt if Nagel had a lot of money to spend on the production. The desert setting and beat-up truck couldn’t have cost much, and the lead actors probably didn’t demand much money for a shoot that wouldn’t require much of their time. Likewise, the screenplay, directorial and producing duties were shared by the Nagels, Denton and producing partner Jeff Miller (The Burning Dead). Even so, The Toybox is one of those low-budget pictures whose execution trumps the limitations posed by budget constraints and over-familiarity with genre tropes. Tension builds with every new killing and it doesn’t dissipate when the extremely convincing evil force reveals itself. The Blu-ray adds a behind-the-scenes featurette.

The Guardians
Rarely have the effects of war on the home front been depicted with such clear-eyed objectivity and empathy for the women and children left behind than in Xavier Beauvois’ The Guardians. Inspired by prize-winning French author Ernest Pérochon’s 1924 novel, the epic drama opens in 1915 in France, far enough away from the front lines that the soldiers could safely take trains home while on leave. (I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised that European combatants were allowed time away from the front lines to keep their affairs in order.) Because so many families still lived on farms, the men would return to situations that sometimes had changed drastically over the course of four years. Economic deprivation impacted rural life in different ways, as did the daily casualty reports. Just as the war became increasingly mechanized – horses and mules replaced by trucks and tanks – so, too, did agriculture. Here, it’s the women of the Paridier farm, led by matriarch Hortense Sondrail and her adult daughter, Solange – played by real-life mother and daughter, Nathalie Baye and Laura Smet – who are called upon to keep everything going. Solange’s husband, Clovis (Olivier Rabourdin), has also left her in charge of his diminutive, if practically useless daughter from his first marriage, Marguerite (Mathilde Viseux-Ely). During his first return home, Hortense’s oldest son, Constant (Nicholas Giraud), a reflective former schoolteacher, encourages his mother to hire one of the seasonal workers, a hard-working 20-year-old orphan, Francine (Iris Bry).

Through no fault of her own, Francine’s security as a valued employee will eventually be jeopardized by an ill-advised affair with Hortense’s second son, Georges (Cyril Descours). Hortense intends for Georges to save himself for Marguerite, a plan complicated by the young man’s lust for Francine, his sense of entitlement and misplaced jealousy over the antics of some American soldiers, who purchase produce, milk and moonshine from the farm. Clovis will be captured by the Germans and sent to a POW camp, while Georges experiences PTSD after being wounded. Yes, The Guardians is an epic soap opera, as well as an epic drama, which continues for another two years after the Armistice. Once again, Baye distinguishes herself as one of the great actors of her generation. Beauvois’ greatest achievement here, besides keeping all the balls he’s juggling in midair, is the depiction of pre-mechanization harvests, with tableaux borrowed from Jean-François Millet’s 1857 painting, “The Gleaners,” and colors from Van Gogh’s “Wheat Stacks with Reaper” and “Noon: Rest from Work.” Caroline Champetier’s cinematography – the film was shot in France’s Haute-Vienne distinct — is little short of breathtaking. The package adds useful interviews, a Q&A and audition footage,

Cold Water: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
Early in his career, French filmmaker Olivier Assayas was asked to participate in a series of films that reflected their creators’ experiences as teenagers coming of age during the tumultuous 1970s. Although the project didn’t work out as planned, Cold Water was one of the films to emerge from it. Long unavailable outside festival screenings here, it draws from Assayas’ own youthful experiences, growing up outside Paris. Cold Water tells the story of star-crossed lovers Gilles (Cyprien Fouquet) and Christine (Virginie Ledoyen), for whom life with their authoritarian parents has become intolerable. Their form of rebellion takes the form of committing petty crimes, disrespecting their teachers, smoking hashish and partying until the cows come home. After Christine is arrested for shoplifting record albums with Gilles, who escapes, she’s sent to a rehabilitation facility for girls. Gilles is expelled from school for attempting to sell the albums in class. Completely alienated from society and her parents’ flirtation with Scientology, the teens reunite at raucous party in an abandoned villa. After doing their part to destroy the house, they agree to hitchhike to a place in the country, where some old-school hippies have established a commune. Without money, warm clothes or provisions, they spend their last fateful night together in a ruined roadside building, next to a swiftly flowing river. If Cold Water lacks a bit of narrative structure, the compensation comes in the vividly realized party scene and a palpable undercurrent of nihilism that, a couple of years later, would inform the international punk movement. In the early 1970s, however, French intellectuals, radicals and workers were still recoiling from the false promise of the 1968 rebellion. Teenagers were left with virtually nothing with which to identify, except American and British rock-’n’-roll and rejecting their parents’ hypocrisy. Not all of them, however, could handle the burden of their own demands for freedom. The Criterion package adds new interviews with Assayas and cinematographer Denis Lenoir; an excerpt from a 1994 French television program, featuring Assayas, Ledoyen and Fouquet; and an essay by critic Girish Shambu.

Lost Child
After 15 years away from home and suffering from PTSD, U.S Army veteran Janella “Fern” Stearns (Leven Rambin) returns to the Ozark Mountains’ home she left to escape the horrors of life with an alcoholic mother, abusive father and crushing poverty. She had no intentions of sticking around after attending her father’s funeral, but she hopes to prevent her younger brother from succumbing to drug addiction and crime. First, however, Fern must find him and, having already checked the local jail, she’s at a loss as to where to look nextq. Suffice it to say that he really, really doesn’t want her to find him. After moving into her family’s cabin in the woods, Fern comes face-to-face with some of the backwoods’ spookiest boogeymen. Among the things that go bump in the night outside her cabin are an arsonist hoping to burn it down to recover recyclable metals; a couple of hermits; a boy who appears out of nowhere and whose memory bank appears to have been wiped clean by some disastrous occurrence. After squeezing a name out of him, Fern discovers that the boy’s polite, adept around the house and skittish as a colt. She hopes to find a home for Cecil (Landon Edwards) through a social-services agency manned by an old boyfriend. It’s at this point, however, that she discovers a local legend about a malevolent life-draining spirit that arrives in the form of a child, known as the Tatterdemalion. Although guilty of nothing, the child’s terrible power only manifests itself when he enters a house not already marked by a triangle of nails over the door. Fern’s already experiencing symptoms of the curse – not dissimilar to those associated with her PTSD — and Cecil demonstrates traits associated with the legend. Could the explanation be that obvious, however? Well, yes and no. There’s really no reason to summarize the plot any further, except to say that Fern’s search for answers produces some horrifying results, as well as a bit of hope for a cure of her own. Lost Child bears easy comparison with Debra Granik’s Winter’s Bone (2010), which also was set in the Ozarks, among folks whose hard-scrabble lives are defined by folklore, clannish behavior and lies. The disc contains behind-the-scenes material and interviews with cast and crew.

Watch the Sky
In his first theatrical feature, documentarian Alexander Murillo appears to have bitten off quite a bit more than he was able to chew. Watch the Sky is an alien-dread thriller for kids in their early teens, some of whom might wonder why the filmmaker didn’t stick with the movie’s one solid theme and throw out the Spielbergian stuff designed to appeal to their parents., Shawn Neary (Miles Muir) and his older brother, Michael (Karson Kern), recently lost their mother and are struggling to adjust to life with their father, Steve (Luke Albright), a cop, and stepmother, Shannon (Renee O’Connor). Obsessed with space and the possibility of extraterrestrial life, Shawn has convinced his girl-crazy brother to help him launch a weather balloon, with a camera attached to a space-shuttle model, into the heavens. After a significant amount of time passes, Shawn’s radio receiver begins to register signals from thousands of feet away. It doesn’t come as a great surprise to the boys, because they’ve been monitoring the unusually busy night sky and are ready for something miraculous to happen. Meanwhile, their father has been busy investigating the mysterious disappearance of an elderly man, whose wife witnessed him getting covered in slime and rapidly dragged through a cornfield, as well as the bloodless slaughter of dozens of cows in the region. It coincides with the arrival of a convoy of military trucks to a local facility, where Steve’s request for answers is emphatically ignored. Much time is wasted as outraged farmers search their orchards for clues and a roiling CGI cloud is observed passing over the local high school. By the time we return to Shawn and Michael, they’ve not only found the deflated balloon and shuttle camera, but they’ve also encountered space creatures attracted to its signals. Again, no one should be surprised to learn that they resemble classic drawings of the Roswell alien. Then, Watch the Sky just sort of ends. The DVD adds a gallery of behind-the-scenes photos.

Horrors of Malformed Men: Special Edition: Blu-ray
The Pyjama Girl Case: Special Edition: Blu-ray
Arrow Video has quickly become one of the go-to places for genre and subgenre movies that received virtually no distribution in the United States, but still enjoy cult status in Europe, Japan and among adventurous buffs. Even though I have sampled most of the company’s releases, however, I wasn’t prepared for Teruo Ishii’s Horrors of Malformed Men, which gives new meaning to the word, “unhinged.” Not only does the controversial 1969 release continue to defy easy encapsulation, but it represents aspects of early J-horror that are familiar only to genre scholars. Drawn from the “fevered imagination” of Edogawa Rampo, Japan’s pioneer in ofero-guro literature – loosely defined as “erotic, grotesque nonsense” — Horrors of Malformed Men asks western viewers to consider how Ken Russell, Jesus Franco and Alejandro Jodorowsky might have adapted “The Island of Doctor Moreau” for the screen. Although it was banned in Japan for nearly four decades, supposedly for being insensitive to the handicapped, Horrors of Malformed Men may have offended censors as much for its ability to exploit semi-nudity, sadism, madness, misogyny and vivisection simultaneously, in a package that looks neither cheap nor tawdry. In it, medical student Hirosuke Hitomi (Teruo Yoshida) slips out of the asylum in which he has been wrongfully confined – alongside dozens of topless loonies — and immediately is drawn to a lullaby being sung by a mysterious young woman who just happens to be in the neighborhood. While the woman, a performer in a traveling circus, doesn’t recall the origin of the song, she’s able to narrow it down to a seaside community in northern Japan. Hitomi is vaguely familiar with the location, but he doesn’t know why. Inexplicably, the woman is murdered before she’s able to remember anything else.

On the train north, Hirosuke reads a newspaper article about the funeral of a recently deceased nobleman, with whom he bears an uncanny resemblance. After digging up the man’s body and confirming a mark carved onto the soles of both men’s feet, Hirosuke easily convinces family members that he’s the resurrected heir to the Hitomi fortune. The family members are comforted by the reappearance, because the only other living heir is the certifiably insane patriarch, who’s living on an island off the coast and, as we’ll soon learn, is creating a fantasy kingdom of “malformed” men and women.” He’s also able to convince the nobleman’s wife and mistress of his false identity. That’s because the amnesiac medical student was, in fact, separated from his twin brother soon after his birth and handed over to an uncle who runs a circus. Although the lullaby prompted him to return to his rightful home, Hirosuke won’t be able to uncover the greater truth until he’s able to confront his father on the island, which is where the film’s madness truly lies. Digging any deeper into the depravity that awaits Hirosuke there would only spoil the fun for everyone else, so I’ll close my summary here. I will say, however, that anyone who makes it to the end of Horrors of Malformed Men will want to add the works of Rampo Edogawa to their library, alongside those of H.P. Lovecraft, Algernon Blackwood, Edgar Allen Poe and Stephen King. The Blu-ray set adds commentaries by Tom Mes and Mark Schilling, from the previous Synapse DVD release; the featurettes, “Masahiro Kakefuda: Malformed Movies,” “Malformed Memories” and “Ishii in Italia”; an image gallery; and booklet.

Also from Arrow Video, The Pyjama Girl Case serves as a reminder that, while giallo was a product of Italy, its tropes and conventions knew very few borders. As far as anyone knows, Flavio Mogherini’s stylish crime thriller is the only giallo made largely in Australia. Not much is lost in the change of venue, though. This film was inspired by a sensational real-life murder case, which happened in Australia in 1934, but updated to take advantage of the sexually provocative fashions worn by the actresses, including Dalila Di Lazzaro (Flesh for Frankenstein). The picture opens with the discovery of a young woman in an abandoned car on the beach. She was shot in the head, partially burned to hide her identity, and dressed in distinctive yellow sleepwear. The Sydney police are stumped to the point that the body is put on public display, to help them identify the victim. As was frequently the case in gialli intended for wide distribution, a recognizable non-Italian actor – in this case, Ray Milland (Dial M for Murder) – was hired to fill one of the prominent roles. Here, the police agree to consult retired Inspector Timpson, an old-school cop who will remind viewers of Peter Falk’s Lieutenant Columbo or William Conrad’s roly-poly P.I. Frank Cannon. Unbound by standard procedural restrictions, Timpson pieces together the sad story of Dutch immigrant Glenda Blythe. He won’t make it to the end of the movie, but his contributions open the door for parallel investigations. The primary differences between The Pyjama Girl Case and previous gialli are the absence of multiple killings and the culprit’s direct point of view. This doesn’t make the movie any less interesting, though. The Blu-ray package includes new audio commentary by Troy Howarth, author of “So Deadly, So Perverse: 50 Years of Italian Giallo Films”; new interviews with author and critic Michael Mackenzie, actor Howard Ross and editor Alberto Tagliavia; an archival interview with composer Riz Ortolani; a reversible sleeve, featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Chris Malbon; and a collector’s booklet, featuring new writing by Alexandra Heller-Nicholas.

Scream for Help: Blu-ray
Normally, I try to find one or two positive things to say about the movies that get reviewed in this space. That’s because no one sets out to work on a movie that’s going to be trashed or nitpicked to death, and budget constraints and studio meddling can wreak havoc on any filmmaker’s dream project. That said, however, I’m still scrambling for the words to adequately describe how disappointing an experience it was to sit through Scream for Help, director Michael Winner and writer Tom Holland’s attempt to exploit the demand for slasher, splatter and T&A in mid-’80s genre fare. In it, 17-year old Christie Cromwell (Rachael Kelly) uncovers her stepfather’s half-baked plot to murder her wealthy mother (David Allen Brooks, Marie Masters) and marry his slutty mistress (Lolita Lorre). What her stepfather fails to grasp, however, is that his lover and her greaseball boyfriend (Rocco Sisto) are planning to kill him once the woman’s estate is finalized. Considering that Winner had already made such salvageable entertainments as Death Wish, The Sentinel and The Big Sleep, and Holland would go on to write and direct Fright Night, Child’s Play and The Langoliers, I can’t understand why they decided to take the Amateur Night in Dixie approach to Scream for Help. Every aspect of the production – from its Dear Diary narration, to Christie’s attempts to save her mom and lose her virginity, to the temp-sounding score and misogynistic violence – comes off as a feature-length audition tape for everyone concerned. To be fair, I suppose, it’s worth noting that Holland uses the featurette, “Cruel Intentions,” to explain how Winner – who died in 2013 and isn’t around to defend himself – mishandled his script, eliminating all the dialogue that would have put everything that goes wrong in Scream for Help into some kind of meaningful context. He reminds us that Joseph Ruben’s The Stepfather, released three years later, would borrow the same concept and do well enough at the box office to warrant two sequels and a 2009 remake. Ironically, Brian Garfield, who wrote the book upon which Winner’s Death Wish was based, was also accorded a story credit for The Stepfather, along with one-timer Carolyn Lefcourt and the Edgar Award-winning novelist Donald E. Westlake, who penned the screenplay. The Blu-ray package adds a second newly recorded interview, this one with Brooks, and a commentary track with Justin Kerswell (“The Slasher Movie Book”) and Amanda Reyes (“Are You in the House Alone? A TV Movie Compendium”), that took its time kicking into gear on my screener. Another caveat: the opening credit roll lists Led Zeppelin keyboardist John Paul Jones as composer, then amends that to “musician: solo synthesizer” in the closing credits. Every other musical cue in the movie sounds generic.

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame: In Concert: Encore 2
Depending on how one feels about long-winded speeches made by rich and successful rock musicians for the benefit of similarly rich and successful artists and label executives, “The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame: In Concert” can be enjoyed for the a la carte introductions, acceptance speeches, tribute performances and/or climactic jam sessions. Take your pick and leave the controversies over who’s been snubbed at the door. This two-disc Blu-ray set features 44 unabridged performances from the 2010, 2011, 2012 and 2013 induction ceremonies. Among the highlights are Canadian power trio Rush, performing fiery classics “Tom Sawyer” and “The Spirit of Radio”; Red Hot Chili Peppers leading a searing all-star jam session of “Higher Ground,” anchored by Slash and Ron Wood; Heart going “Crazy on You,” before being joined onstage by fellow members of Seattle rock royalty from Pearl Jam and Alice in Chains; Alice Cooper ripping into ferocious versions of  “Eighteen” and “Under My Wheels,” before closing the set with Rob Zombie on “School’s Out”; Neil Young inducting Tom Waits; Donovan is joined onstage by John Mellencamp for “Season of the Witch”; and moving post-humous tributes to bluesmen Freddy King and Albert King.

TV-to-DVD
PBS: Masterpiece: The Miniaturist
Television’s Lost Classics: Volume One: Blu-ray
Acorn: Murdoch Mysteries: Home for the Holidays
PBS: L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables: Two Movie Collection
ID: An American Murder Mystery
PBS: Frontline: UN Sex Abuse Scandal
PBS Kids: Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood: Family Fun Collection
Set in 1686 Holland, PBS’ “The Miniaturist” chronicles the marriage of country girl Petronella Oortman (Anya Taylor-Joy) to rich, powerful and handsome Amsterdam merchant Johannes Brandt (Alex Hassell) to pay off her family’s debts. Not only has the young woman never met her future husband, but he’s also nowhere to be found when she crosses the threshold of her cavernous new home. Before he arrives, Nella is made to feel obligated to her cold and pious sister-in-law, Marin (Romola Garai). The sumptuous home holds many secrets, some intended to stay within its walls and others crying out to be exposed by Amsterdam’s elite. This early exchange probably won’t mean much to viewers, as they’re watching it, but it presages almost everything that transpires over the next three hours: after Marin shows Petronella to her bedroom, which overlooks a bustling thoroughfare along a canal, she says, “This used to be my room, but it had the better view, so he gave it to you”; when Nella protests, Marin replies, “You misunderstand. The view is of you. Amsterdam must see that Johannes Brandt has a new wife.” The title is explained after Johannes buys his bride a large dollhouse as a wedding gift. It is almost an exact replica of her new home. After Nella orders some miniatures to fill the rooms, she continues to receive lovely packages, containing tiny representations of life within its nine rooms and its mysteries. As the mini-series continues, the gifts are as predictive as they are beautifully rendered. Based on the popular novel by Jessie Burton, “The Miniaturist” features exceptional acting and period-perfect set, costume, hair and furniture design. All of it is explained in the bonus features and interviews with Burton, director Guillem Morales, his actors and production staff.

VCI Entertainment’s “Television’s Lost Classics” series begins with nicely restored volumes of dramatic teleplays starring John Cassavetes. The first, “Crime in the Streets,” is from “The Elgin Hour,” which was broadcast live on ABC on March 8, 1955. It was written by Reginald Rose (12 Angry Men), directed by Sidney Lumet (Network) and co-starred Robert Preston, Mark Rydell, Glenda Farrell and Van Dyke Parks … yes, that one. “No Right to Kill,” with Cassavetes, Terry Moore and Robert H. Harris was part of CBS’ “Climax!” series and was presented by Chrysler on Aug. 9, 1956. It is based on Dostoyevsky’s “Crime and Punishment.” Original commercial messages are included, as well as a delightful bonus blooper reel from the “Defenders” and “The Nurses” series. “Television’s Lost Classics: Volume Two” is comprised of rarely seen pilot episodes, including “Case of the Sure Thing,” which starred Reed Hadley, Louise Currie and Milburn Stone, and introduced the series “Racket Squad” (1951); “Cool and Lam” (1958), directed by Jacques Tourneur as a light-hearted, detective yarn, featuring characters first created by Erle Stanley Gardner; “The Life of Riley” (1948), featuring Lon Chaney Jr., Rosemary DeCamp and John Brown; and “Nero Wolfe” (1959), starring Kurt Kasznar, William Shatner and Alexander Scourby. A bonus blooper reel is hosted by James Arness.

The CBC series “Murdoch Mysteries” has begun to grow on me. It’s either a sure sign that I’m getting old and soft, or the charming juxtaposition of unabashedly square characters and gruesome crimes.  “Home for the Holidays” interweaves stories about how the various characters spend a Christmas holiday. Dashing detective William Murdoch (Yannick Bisson) and his wife Dr. Julia Ogden (Hélène Joy) travel to British Columbia to spend time with his eccentric brother and stodgy wife. Instead of a relaxing holiday, they end up investigating a murder at an aboriginal archaeological site. Back in Toronto, constables Crabtree (Jonny Harris) and Higgins (Lachlan Murdoch) attempt to impress their sweethearts before a skiing outing. Inspector Brackenreid (Thomas Craig) and his wife invest in a money-making scheme run by a charming fellow named Ponzi. Guest stars include Kate Hewlett, Jake Epstein and Megan Follows.

Also arriving from the Great White North in time for the holidays are the three movies in PBS’ recent re-adaptation of L.M. Montgomery’s beloved 1908 novel, “Anne of Green Gables.” The first two made-for-TV films – “Anne of Green Gables” and “The Good Stars” – are paired in a single package from PBS Distribution, while the third, “Fire and Dew,” comes separately. The trilogy concludes with Anne Shirley (Ella Ballentine) earning a spot at Queen’s College, in Charlottetown, on the south shore of Prince Edward Island. When Anne departs, however, adoptive guardians Matthew (Martin Sheen) and Marilla Cuthbert (Sara Botsford), who live at Green Gables farm, feel a sudden emptiness in their lives. Meanwhile, in Charlottetown, Anne is overwhelmed by loneliness, the bustle of city life and the pressure of intense competition, especially from Gilbert Blythe (Drew Haytaoglu). Is Anne finally ready for adulthood. Stay tuned.

What would the television industry do without mass murderers, serial killers, sociopathic predators, war criminals, gangsters and, by extension, their victims? The sensational nature of their cases supplies cable and broadcast networks with a rich bounty of source material, most of which has already been vetted by police investigators, PI’s, prosecutors, defense attorneys, journalists, witnesses, neighbors, co-workers and just about anyone willing to stand in front of a camera and offer their two cents worth of frequently worthless testimony. Even without an arrest, conviction or acquittal, the stories behind the crimes are at least as compelling as those invented for prime-time television or courtroom shows. The ID network’s “An American Murder Mystery” is representative of shows lumped together under the umbrella of fact-based and reality. In the titillating three-disc collection, its producers reopen the files of seven cases that continue to rivet TV viewers to their screens. They include the mysteries of Casey Anthony, Scott Peterson, Jon Benet Ramsey, Drew Peterson, Jodi Arias, Chandra Levy and Natalie Wood. (The common denominator being the whiteness of the suspects and/or victims.) The pursuit of justice may be an endlessly fascinating subject, but, as these episodes reveal, botched investigations and human error are endlessly frustrating.

As if war and other forms of human suffering weren’t sufficiently horrifying, the misery is compounded by reports of re-victimization, this time perpetrated by the people assigned to protect the defenseless innocents and helpless bystanders. PBS’ “Frontline” takes on the worst of the worst in “UN Sex Abuse Scandal.” Over the past 15 years, the United Nations has recorded more than 1,700 allegations of sexual abuse by its peacekeepers in conflict zones around the world, from the Democratic Republic of Congo to Kosovo, and from East Timor to Haiti. The episode investigates how and why the problem of sexual abuse and exploitation by peacekeepers has persisted, despite the UN’s efforts to stamp it out, and why the UN has a record of only 53 convictions. The report is based on firsthand accounts from survivors, witnesses and officials.

PBS Kids’ “Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood” is the first TV series inspired by characters introduced in “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.” It stars 4-year-old Daniel Tiger, who invites young viewers into his world, combining songs and life lessons. “Family Fun Collection” is comprised of eight episodes, in which Daniel and his dad work together to build a playhouse and take a walk through the neighborhood to admire the colors of the autumn leaves along the way. Next, the entire Tiger Family heads out on a road trip to Grandpere’s house. Finally, Daniel, Dad, Prince Wednesday and Prince Tuesday go sledding on a big hill, and Daniel tries ice skating for the first time.

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The DVD Wrapup: Damsel, Hired Hand, Siberia, Toybox, Guardians, Cold Water, Lost Child, Rock HofF, Pyjama Girl, Miniaturist … More

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Quote Unquotesee all »

“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