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The DVD Wrapup: Trip to Spain, Lucky Goat, Viceroy House, Victoria & Abdul, Manolo and more

Friday, December 15th, 2017

The Trip to Spain: Blu-ray
I wonder how much, if at all, estimable Brit director Michael Winterbottom was influenced by Louis Malle’s indie sensation My Dinner With Andre – or, for that matter, Andy Kaufman in My Breakfast with Blassie – before embarking on the first BBC mini-series, The Trip. In Malle’s film, quintessential New York City raconteurs Wallace Shawn and Andre Gregory meet for dinner at a fancy restaurant to reconnect after one of them disappeared for a few years. The don’t particularly like each other, but they manage to share two hours in each other’s company, engaged in the lively art of conversation. Dinner was so convincing that many, many viewers assumed that their conversation played out in real time and was wholly improvised. In fact, it was scripted, rehearsed and shot in a chilly Virginia restaurant that was closed for the winter. It still holds up to scrutiny, however. In The Trip (2010), British actors Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon (Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story) are asked by the Observer to tour the finest restaurants in the Lake District and document the experience. Their goofy exchanges, impersonations and kvetching only occasionally detract from the magnificent scenery. It would inspire a pair of sequels, The Trip to Italy (2014) and, now, The Trip to Spain, both of which follow the same format and conceits. Each time, Winterbottom whittled the roughly 180 minutes of television content to standalone features of about 110 minutes, for foreign consumption.

Typically, the lesser-known Brydon is invited to accompany Coogan only after the “I’m Alan Partridge” star’s girlfriend, Mischa (Margo Stilley), cancels at the last minute. Once on the road, they while away the time riffing on each other’s careers, romantic lives, families, hotel accommodations and the music being played on the car’s tape deck. Phone calls to their agents and loved ones back home reflect all the anxieties, despair and bravado one would expect from actors who are never quite sure what they’ll be doing in six months, let alone six years. The real fun comes when Coogan and Brydon compete over movie trivia, complemented by spot-on impressions of stars, ranging from Michael Caine and Sean Connery, to Woody Allen and Al Pacino. At times, they engage in these exercises at the expense of fellow diners. They’re easier to take from afar. Not so, the restaurants and scenery, which are better than advertised. While The Trip to Italy covered territory from the Piedmont region, down the western coast to Amalfi and Capri, paying special attention to the haunts of Percy Bysshe Shelley. This time around, the lads spend their time together in northern Spain, skirting the coastline and dipping south for a photography session at the windmills of Cervantes’ La Mancha. Once again, the dining and scenic beauty border on the indescribable. (My daughter and I just returned from a similar excursion and the movie brought back some tantalizing memories.) Coogan and Brydon have aged noticeably since their first trip and their concerns are those of middle-age family men. Even so, fans of the first two films will want to climb aboard for a third adventure.

Bad Lucky Goat
True Born African: The Story of Winston ‘Flames’ Jarrett
Although dozens of documentaries have been made about reggae, Rastafarianism and the ganja trade, only a handful of narrative features from Jamaica are worth the effort it would take to uncover. The best, by far, is Perry Henzell’s The Harder They Come (1972), which introduced the island’s music, economic disparity and dreadlocks culture to the world. Rockers (1978), Countryman (1982) and Dancehall Queen (1997) made some noise outside Jamaica, but not enough to turn the focus away from docs about Bob Marley and the roots of Rasta. I’ll go out on a limb here and say that Samir Oliveros’ Bad Lucky Goat is the best Jamaican movie since The Harder They Come. It contains all of the elements common to movies set on the island, including a bangin’ soundtrack, reefer, Rasta men and beautiful settings, but it’s what happens to the compelling characters that really counts here. It concerns a pair of incompatible teenage siblings, who, after colliding with an impressively horned and bearded goat on the coastal highway, are required to deal with life-and-death issues not normally associated with life in Port Paradise. After engaging in a nonsensical squabble over a mix tape, Corn and Rita borrow the truck used to transport tourists from the airport to the family’s hotel on the northern coast. Not being the island’s most conscientious driver, Rita isn’t paying attention when the black critter steps from the brush onto the road, seriously damaging the truck’s front bumper. Frightened that the poor beast might belong to someone who would blame them for the goat’s carelessness, they decide to weigh it down with stones and drop it into the sea.

They find a mechanic willing to replace the bumper that afternoon, but for a price just north of their ability to afford it. Figuring that the recently deceased animal had yet to begin decomposing, they pull its carcass out of the water and sell it to a local butcher, keeping the head as a souvenir. Riding past a roadside barbershop, with the head facing into traffic on the handlebar of their motorbike, a customer recognizes the disembodied creature as one of his own. It sets up a parallel chase, with Corn and Rita scratching to come up with the rest of the money needed to pay the mechanic, while the goat’s angry owner is hellbent on exacting justice on Corn, who’s riding the motorbike. Besides the stop at the butcher shop, the teens visit a Rastafari drum maker, a disreputable pawn-shop owner, a witch doctor and the local police headquarters. When Corn is finally grabbed by the thuggish farmer – who probably makes more money from selling ganja than selling goat-milk yogurt – Rita sets out to rescue him. Bad Lucky Goat probably could have been shot just as easily in any other part of the world, where a goat might cross a road unexpectedly, but Jamaica provides the perfect setting for a story that requires teenagers to embark on an odyssey of reconciliation and not have to rely on their parents to get them out of the fix. Oliveros also adds some magical realism as the movie nears its conclusion. The coastal locations are supplemented by scenes shot high in the Blue Mountains. It’s exotic without being completely foreign to viewers already familiar with reggae music, dreadlocks and other aspects of Jamaican culture. The DVD adds the short film, “Miss World.”

If, however, you haven’t tired of documentaries tracing the roots of reggae and Rastafarianism, there’s Nic Nakis’ True Born African: The Story of Winston “Flames” Jarrett, one of the true OG’s of the genre and religion. After moving to the impoverished Jones Town area of Kingston with his mother at the age of 5, Jarrett was taught to play guitar by Jimmy Cliff and Alton Ellis. He joined Ellis’s backing band, the Flames, in the early 1960s. After his mentor moved to the UK, Jarrett formed the Righteous Flames, which, in 1969, recorded for Lee “Scratch” Perry. In the 1970s, tired of recording for others without receiving adequate payment, Jarrett self-produced much of his output, releasing it on his own Attra, Human Rights and Humble labels. By this time, he had become an ardent Rastafarian. In “True Born African,” he recalls Haile Selassie’s 1966 visit to the island, where he was greeted as a living god. We travel to his old neighborhoods in Jamaica, a reggae festival in California and his new home in Seattle, sharing stories about the music and the philosophy that have kept him going for six decades. At 77, Jarrett is a spry old bird, with a ready smile and vibrant memory. Nakis adds plenty of concert footage, as well.

Viceroy’s House
Victoria & Abdul: Blu-ray
British filmmakers never appear to tire of reliving the tumultuous series of events surrounding India’s struggle for independence and their government’s role in the Partition, which claimed the lives of tens of thousands of Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs. Ever since the almost simultaneous release of Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi, HBO’s “The Far Pavilions,” ITV’s “The Jewel in the Crown” and David Lean’s A Passage to India, several more movies and mini-series have traced the parallel dilemmas faced by the colonialists, forced to abandon their exalted place in the British Raj, and the Indians who either served them or plotted their demise … sometimes both. The dramas introduced mixed-race and mixed-faith relationships, amid the Brits’ fears of sabotage, violence and being forced to relinquish the lush life they enjoyed (“Indian Summers”). The contrast in lifestyles was accentuated by examples of torture, racism, economic deprivation and other injustices, sometimes exacted on the families of men who served valiantly in the British military. In Viceroy’s House, director Gurinder Chadha (Bend It Like Beckham) brings to life a pivotal historical moment that re-shaped the world. Lord Louis Mountbatten (Hugh Bonneville) and his liberal-minded wife, Edwina (Gillian Anderson), have just arrived in Delhi, essentially to turn out the lights on the Raj and hand over the keys to the palace to whomever is chosen to govern the newly independent India. The palace’s five hundred employees are unified in their devotion to duty, but divided by their religions as to how the residence and country should be administered. Mountbatten is determined to maintain a united India, even as it becomes increasingly apparent that violence will force the Partition and not even Mohandas K. Gandhi can stop it. Meanwhile, in the staff quarters, a love story is reignited between Jeet (Manish Daya), a Hindu, and Aalia (Huma Qureshi) a Muslim beauty he met while comforting her imprisoned father (Om Puri). Alas, her hand has already been promised to another man. Besides Mountbatten, the separate interests are represented by General Lionel Hastings Ismay (Michael Gambon) and Cyril Radcliffe (Simon Callow); Gandhi (Neeraj Kabi); Jawaharlal Nehru (Tanveer Ghani); and Muhammad Ali Jinnah (Denzil Smith). As familiar as it is, Viceroy’s House is well-mounted and impressively acted.

Victoria & Abdul may be take place a half-century before the Partition, but it would be impossible not to recognize the seeds of discontent sown before and during the reign of Queen Victoria (Judi Dench). Based on a remarkable true story, Stephen Frears’ opulent historical drama describes the unlikely friendship that developed between Abdul Karim (Ali Fazal), a young Muslim clerk, who’s unexpectedly instructed to travel from India to England, to participate in the Queen’s Golden Jubilee ceremony. In a very real sense, “A&J” serves as a sequel to John Madden’s Mrs. Brown (1997), in which Dench delivered another splendid portrayal of a monarch who most of were taught to think of as a crusty old tyrant. Frears and writer Lee Hall were inspired by the book by Shrabani Basu, which, in turn, was based on volumes of Queen Victoria’s handwritten notebooks and journals, in Urdu, discovered in 2010. As soon as the queen began to demonstrate an interest in Indian culture – she had to be reminded that she was empress over all India, not just protector of British interests – her son, staff, aides and advisors turned on the newcomers as if he were a carrier of the plague. They even went so far as to threaten Victoria’s standing as Queen, if she went ahead with plans to beknight her Muslim “Munshi” (spiritual adviser and teacher). Their contempt and overt bigotry is palpable whenever the Queen is off-camera. They even despise Victoria’s willingness to find something inspirational in the culture of a subordinate nation. Eddie Izzard’s portrayal as Bertie, Prince of Wales, is so convincingly hateful that the future king might as well be Jack the Ripper. Michael Gambon and Simon Callow have meaty roles in both pictures. Dench was just nominated for a 12th Golden Globe and SAG award, which makes me think she’ll be a frontrunner for a second Oscar nomination as Queen Victoria. (Her sole Academy Award win came as Best Actress in a Supporting Role, playing Elizabeth I, in Shakespeare in Love. She claimed the first of her two Globes as Victoria, in Mrs. Brown.) Because Oscar loves the Brits, it’s also likely to give serious consideration to Frears, Hall, Izzard, costume designer Consolata Boyle and production designer Alan MacDonald, who died on August 30, at 61. The Blu-ray adds a pair of short making-of featurettes

The Unknown Girl
The Dardenne brothers have become such a force in international festivals and arthouses that it’s borderline shocking to learn how difficult it’s become for American cineastes to find each new film, while the buzz is still hot, at least. Only the pictures with real Oscar and BAFTA potential get picked up immediately and held until December for limited release, in anticipation of nominations and critics’ polls. A Palme d’Or nod, of which the Dardennes have several, is no guarantee of wider exposure. While The Unknown Girl, for example, debuted at the 2016 Cannes festival, the Palme d’Or candidate only now is being sent out on DVD by MPI Home Video. The Liege-set drama was released briefly here, but it would have required a special kind of GPS to locate the theater(s) at which it played. Maybe, just maybe, the word-of-mouth emanating from Cannes wasn’t loud enough to reach American ears. After the festival, the brothers had originally planned to make only some very minor changes. That changed after consultation with friends, critics and their editor, who urged more extensive cuts. They made an additional 32 new edits to the film, which is now 7 minutes shorter than its original version. The new one was unveiled at the Institute Lumiere, in Lyon, in June 2016, and subsequently played the Toronto and New York festivals. This time, however, early reviews were mixed.

Typically, the searing story of guilt and redemption is set in a working-class neighborhood in the Walloon city, whose migrant population has grown considerably in recent years. One evening, after work hours, a young doctor decides not to answer the door buzzer at the small clinic where she works. Too many of these late-night calls are based on complaints she considers to be frivolous, or illegal, and could be handled better in a hospital’s emergency room. This time, however, the person at the door was an unidentified African woman who’s found dead shortly after by the side of a river. After examining the building’s security tape, police suspect that she was seeking refuge, instead of medical treatment, and, in either case, she was under no obligation to respond. Even so, Jenny (Adèle Haenel) is consumed by the thought that she is to blame for the woman’s death. It’s the kind of crime that police would only pursue with diligence if the victim were white and, in fact, she’s buried in an unmarked grave even before they can determine her name or next of kin. Jenny embarks on an obsessive crusade to do just that. At first, she runs into a brick wall. Slowly, but surely, Jenny’s able to determine that the woman was turning tricks that night and one encounter turned ugly. Later, her car is stopped on the road by an angry African man, who, in no uncertain terms, warns against her pursuing her inquiries. The police and potential witnesses urge essentially the same thing. The Unknown Girl plays out like a procedural, with unexpected flashes of rage and threats of violence. The redemption comes in such an unexpected form that it almost slides right past our eyes. It reflects the Dardennes’ dedication to realistic depictions of life among people whose unspectacular circumstances rarely warrant coverage in newspapers or films.

Heartworn Highways/Heartworn Highways: Revisited
If one cared to trace the history of country music over the last 50 years, one of the touchstone points of reference would be James Szalapski’s Heartworn Highways, which, in 1976, anticipated the emergence of such singer-songwriters Steve Earle, Steve Young, Gamble Rogers, Rodney Crowell, Guy Clark, Charles Daniels, John Hiatt, David Allan Coe, Richard Dobson and Townes Van Zandt. They represented the next seismic shift after the Countrypolitan, Outlaw Country, Cosmic Country and California Country movements of the 1960s. They wore out the pavement between Nashville and Austin, hoping to capture the same lightning in a bottle that sparked Kris Kristofferson’s career, after Janis Joplin recorded “Me and McGee” and it became her biggest hit single (posthumously). The song had already been recorded 10 times, but Joplin’s version found the cross-genre niche sought by the everyone in town. (Emmy Lou Harris’ 1977 take on Van Zandt’s “Pancho and Lefty” had a similar effect.) Heartworn Highways captured a moment in time, when such singer-songwriters envisioned themselves to be troubadours, flying below the radar of mainstream record labels, radio and the Grand Ol’ Opry. Whenever possible, they sang, partied and traveled together. Szalapski visits a convivial Van Zandt at his trailer, in what is now downtown Austin, along with his girlfriend Cindy, his dog Geraldine, Rex “Wrecks” Bell and Uncle Seymour Washington (a.k.a., “The Walking Blacksmith”). He locates Daniels, playing before fans at a high school gymnasium, and Coe (a.k.a., “The Mysterious Rhinestone Cowboy”) performing at the same Tennessee prison that once served as his temporary home. The DVD, newly re-released by FilmRise, adds bonus songs and material from a Christmas party at Clark’s house.

But, that was then, and FilmRise’s Heartworn Highways: Revisited represents the now. Released 40 years after Szalapski’s film, it reunites Young, Coe and Clark (who died last year, at 74), while focusing on such new-generation troubadours as John McCauley, Jonny Fritz, Bobby Bare Jr., Josh Hedley, Justin Townes Earle, Shovels & Rope, Langhorne Slim, Robert Ellis, Andrew Combs, Shelly Colvin, Nikki Lane and Phil Hummer. They are at approximately the same age as those musicians shown in Heartworn Highways. If anything, Nashville and mainstream radio networks have become harder nuts to crack for emerging talent. Although Wayne Price’s doc doesn’t dwell on it, the saving grace for these artists has been the arrival of satellite and streaming networks dedicated to the Americana and roots subgenres, as well as Internet services that provide outlets for their music and videos. If they haven’t yet been invited to the Opry, there’s no reason to think they won’t ever be summoned. Although Szalapski died in 2000, Price followed his blueprint to a T. And, that’s a very good thing. The DVD features bonus interviews, sometimes accompanied by music. (And, yes, the testosterone level on both albums is pretty high. In the former, at least, it probably couldn’t have been avoided.)

Manolo: The Boy Who Made Shoes for Lizards
Michael Roberts’s wonderfully titled bio-doc derives from a comment made by legendary fashion designer Manolo Blahnik, when asked how he got his start in the business. Growing up in Santa Cruz de la Palma, in the Canary Islands, he made shoes out of candy wrappers for lizards that he caught in his family’s garden. Although his parents steered him in the direction of a diplomacy major, which bored him terrifically, he moved to Paris to study art at the École des Beaux-Arts and Stage Set Design at the Louvre Art School, all the while working at a vintage clothing shop. In 1968, he moved to Swinging London to work as a buyer at the  boutique Zapata and wrote for L’Uomo Vogue, an Italian men’s version of the magazine. His turning-point moment came in a meeting with Diana Vreeland, the editor-in-chief of U.S. Vogue, while he was travelling in New York. After presenting his portfolio of fashions and set designs, Blahnik recalls Vreeland looking him “straight in the eye” and saying, “Young man, make things, make accessories, make shoes.” The rest, of course, is fashion history. Manolo: The Boy Who Made Shoes for Lizards explains how an extraordinary dedication to the craft led to his name becoming synonymous with high-end women’s footwear – not so much for men’s shoes – and a legion of well-heeled fans. They include celebrities, stylists, industry icons, heiresses, trophy wives and their teenage children, and very accomplished prostitutes. References to his work in HBO’s “Sex and the City” probably sold as many shoes as Michael Jordan did, at approximately the same period of time. After opening his first store in London, in 1973, and coming of age in the world’s fashion capitals, Blahnik now has shops and department-store concessions in over 20 countries and retains full control of the business, still creating every style, even hand-carving the wooden forms himself. The film features a who’s-who of fashion and celebrity types, including Anna Wintour, Rihanna, Paloma Picasso, Iman, Naomi Campbell, Rupert Everett, Karlie Kloss, Isaac Mizrahi and André Leon Tally. Blahnik remains resolutely coy about his personal life throughout most of “Manolo,” so anyone looking for insight about his sexuality or the secrets of celebrity podiatry may come away disappointed, as some critics were. Those allergic to hyperbolic and fawning interviews could react negatively, as well. Most everyone else who’s ever subscribed to Vogue or Bazaar, and admired an imaginatively designed shoe on a red carpet or in a film, will be delighted.

Pulp: Special Edition: Blu-ray
A year after Michael Hodges delivered the quintessential British crime thriller, Get Carter (1971), he reunited with Michael Caine for his sophomore feature, Pulp. Although gangsters play a prominent role in it, Pulp is more of a comic sendup of noir and giallo tropes and clichés, especially the linkage between sex, death and beautiful women. As is the case in so many other noir classics, who-dun-it matters far less than what happens between the first and final murders. Caine plays Mickey King, author of such down-and-dirty paperback detective novels as “My Gun Is Long” and “The Organ Grinder,” and pseudonyms that include “S. Odomy.” And, no, he isn’t at all proud of his success. Out of the blue, King is offered an abnormally large sum to ghostwrite the autobiography of a mystery celebrity. The intrigue begins even before the writer boards the ferry to Malta, where he’ll meet the subject of the book. On the bus taking him to the embarcadero, a man named Miller (Al Lettieri) introduces himself as an English professor. He assumes Miller is the mysterious contact, until discovering him dead in his bathtub after a hotel room mix-up. (Any movie co-starring Lettieri is OK with me.) Once ensconced on the historic island, King begins to get the distinct feeling that someone doesn’t want him to hook up his subject, who turns out to be retired Hollywood movie star Preston Gilbert (Mickey Rooney). Gilbert, like George Raft and Frank Sinatra, is famous for portraying movie gangsters by day and hanging out with real-life mobsters at night. Gilbert may be dying from cancer, but it doesn’t prevent Rooney from stealing the show in every scene in which he appears. His improvisations may not have endeared Rooney with Powell, but the anarchic performance almost made up for his terribly offensive portrayal of Mr. Yunioshi in Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961).

It will take a while before the assassin(s) is/are revealed in the 95-minute picture, but, in the meantime, viewers are encouraged to enjoy Powell’s loving depiction of life on Malta, the many pretty boys and girls, and offbeat performances across-the-board. If the actress playing femme fatale, Princess Betty Cippola, looks familiar, it’s only because, two decades earlier, Lizabeth Scott was an A-list star mentioned in the same breath as Lauren Bacall, Rita Hayworth, Ann Sheridan, Ida Lupino, Lupe Vélez and Lana Turner. Her most previous film appearance came 15 years earlier, opposite Elvis Presley in Loving You. She had been slandered in the gossip press and decided to pursue a singing career, with the occasional guest-starring role in a TV series. Although she lived to the ripe old age of 92, she wouldn’t make another movie after Pulp. She’s joined by Nadia Casini (Starcrash), Lionel Stander (“Hart to Hart”), Leopoldo Trieste (Cinema Paradiso) and Luciano Pigozzi (Blood and Black Lace). The Arrow Video release benefits from a 2K restoration from original film elements, supervised and approved by director of photography Ousama Rawi; new interviews with Hodges, Rawi, assistant director John Glen and Tony Klinger, son of producer Michael Klinger; a reversible sleeve, featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Nathanael Marsh; and a collector’s booklet containing new writing by Alexandra Heller-Nicholas. BTW: if all one knows about Get Carter derives from suffering through Stephen Kay and David McKenna’s misconceived Americanization of the story, starring Sylvester Stallone, do yourself a favor and give the Powell/Caine version a try.

Houston Astros: 2017 World Series Collector’s Edition: Blu-ray
2017 World Series Champions: Houston Astros: Blu-ray
When Hurricane Harvey made landfall at Rockport, Texas, on August 26, 2017, the last thing on the minds of most people living in the Houston area was the Astros’ chances of reaching the playoffs, let alone the World Series. If the team did make it, fine … if not, the residents had bigger problems. In the immediate wake of the storm, the team’s three-game series against the Texas Rangers, scheduled for August 29-31, was relocated to St. Petersburg’s Tropicana Field. A couple of days later, at the waiver-trade deadline, GM Jeff Luhnow acquired veteran starting pitcher and Cy Young Award-winner Justin Verlander from Detroit to bolster the starting rotation. All he did was win each of his five regular-season starts, yielding only four runs over this stretch. The Astros finished 101-61, with a 21-game lead in the division. Verlander carried his success into the playoffs, posting a record of 4-1 in his six starts. As anyone who watched the post-season games can attest, the Astros’ pitching wasn’t the only reason they won their first World Series in franchise history. Jose Altuve, Carlos Correa, Alex Bregman, Marwin Gonzalez, Dallas Keuchel, Justin Verlander and George Springer had something to say about it, as well. As was the case a year earlier, when the Chicago Cubs captured their first crown in a century, the seven-game series lived up to the hype. On the day the Astros beat the Dodgers in the decisive seventh game, it could have rained all night and no one at Minute Maid Park would have cared. Although I probably wouldn’t recommend giving either of these Shout!Factory boxes to SoCal fans who bled Dodger blue that night, fans in eastern Texas, at least, should welcome “Houston Astros: 2017 World Series Collector’s Edition” and “2017 World Series Champions: Houston Astros.” The former includes “Regular Season Highlights,” “Clinching Moments,” “Postseason Highlights” and “World Series Parade,” while the “Collector’s Edition” adds a bonus disc of the pennant-clinching ALCS Game Seven; four audio options (the TV feed, Astros radio, Dodgers radio and Spanish-language radio); and a SleeveStats insert, with game trivia and official stats.

K-Shop
The Brits have a great word for the kind of people who no one seems to miss when they turn up missing in Dan Pringle’s debut feature, K-Shop. “Yob” is a slang term that denotes an aggressive and surly youth, whose loutish behavior only gets worse with each succeeding drink. Yobs and Yobbettes represent the country’s troubling “binge-drinking culture,” which is further identified by fights, beatdowns, uncontrolled vomiting, passing out in the streets around nightclubs and pubs, and the ever-popular terrorizing of immigrants. An offshoot of the soccer hooliganism that has plagued Europe for years, it is considered one of the greatest problems facing a society in which heavy drinking has always provided a temporary cure for joblessness and underemployment. K-Shop is set in and around Bournemouth, a resort town on the south coast of England, where Pringle captured images of yobbo behavior on film and incorporated them in the film. The other thing to know about the movie is that it borrows liberally from Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler’s “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street,” minus the singing. After his father is killed in an altercation with drunken thugs outside the family’s kebab shop, Salah’s world is plunged into darkness. Instead of finishing his studies and finding work that doesn’t require slicing meat off a vertical spit rotating over a gas flame, the young man is forced to work long hours doing just that. Things probably wouldn’t be so bad if a nightclub catering to intemperate drinkers hadn’t opened directly across the street from the shop, ensuring a steady stream of yobs and yobbettes whose stomachs have regurgitated early meals and need refilling. Knowing that Salah is of Middle Eastern or Pakistani background, they consider him to be fair game for their verbal abuse. One night, when a fight with an angry customer goes wrong, he finds himself with a dead body on his hands. Having no faith in the authorities, Salah disposes of the body in the one place he knows best: the kebabs. You can probably guess what transpires next. As befits a contemporary horror film, Pringle uses every trick in the book to convince us – viscerally, at least – that real actors are being sacrificed for the sake of his art. (Don’t watch K-Shop if your plans for the evening include late-night stops at your local gyros or shawarma stand.) Although no one truly gets away with their crimes here, it’s hard to escape the feeling that Salah’s actions are justifiable and we might do the same thing, if sufficiently provoked. If anything, the supporting actors may be a tad too credible in this regard.

All Saints
Anyone interested in seeing how good a faith-based, family-friendly movie can be when the proselytizing is kept to minimum and Christ’s message is able to cut through the gratuitous moralizing and evangelism. I’ve watched as many of these films as anyone not paid to do so and have noticed a decided improvement in overall production values and storytelling. Some genre specialists can’t help themselves, though, when it comes to churning out holier-than-thou entertainments for captive audiences. Steve Gomer and Steve Armour’s inspirational drama All Saints arrives at a time when the President, his chief advisers and Supreme Court have decided that the Statue of Liberty’s welcome is limited to Russian oligarchs, jet-set celebrities, models and movie stars. All others stay put. It also relates directly to the current situation in Myanmar, where Christian and Muslim minorities face daily persecution for their beliefs and the country’s leaders – including a Noble Peace Prize-winner – assume that no one else in the world is watching. All Saints counted be more topical and representative of traditional American and Christian values. It is based on the true story of salesman-turned-pastor Michael Spurlock (John Corbett) and the tiny Tennessee church he was assigned to shut down, before the arrival of a group of Karen refugees from Southeast Asia found relief under its eaves. Although few in number, the parishioners treat Spurlock as if he were the Grim Reaper, which, in a sense, he was. Neither were the Anglican-taught Karens welcomed with open arms. Back home, they were farmers and fighters. In Tennessee, they can only find work at a chicken-processing plant, while, at night, they tend a small garden on church property. One night, during a rainstorm, Spurlock receives a “message from God” to plant seeds for the salvation of His people. The only salvation both the parishioners and devout Karens could benefit from together would be a way to pay the mortgage on the church before it is foreclosed upon. One way to satisfy the parishioners, Karens and church elders, he decides, is to make full use of church property by opening it to planting and selling the produce to local markets and those catering to Asians in Nashville. Even his wife, Aimee (Cara Buono), and son, Atticus (Myles Moore), are skeptical of his plan. Most wary, though, is a cranky old geezer, Forrest (Barry Corbin), who’s tried farming and knows how difficult it has become to reap a profit. The Lord, as usual, works in mysterious ways. When it isn’t raining on the garden, it’s pouring buckets. All Saints is full of Christian messages, none of which are deeply hidden, and the ending will have some viewers praising God. Others can simply enjoy a good story, well told. The bonus features introduce us to the real people behind the characterizations and their personal testimonials.

The Rift: Dark Side of the Moon
Serbia isn’t the first country I’d expect to produce a sci-fi thriller with pretensions of existential and religious significance. Why not, though? Considering that it’s a Serbian/South Korean/Slovenian co-production – targeted at the English-speaking market – it’s no surprise that The Rift: Dark Side of the Moon has something of a cobbled-together look to it. The film follows a team of CIA and Serbian agents – led by Liz Waid (Katarina Cas) and John Smith (Ken Foree) – as they attempt to secure the remains of a satellite that crash-landed somewhere in the eastern part of the country. When the team finally reaches the crash site, they discover the satellite has vanished and the only clue is a trail leading to an abandoned silk factory nestled near the forest line. As they approach they approach the building, shots are fired at the team from locals guarding something hidden inside it. Upon further investigation, they find an astronaut’s suit on a table, presumably with something inside it. One of the team members, a former astronaut, recognizes the suit as belonging to another astronaut on the same aborted lunar mission. That man disappeared into thin air … very thin air. Turns out, villagers believe the newly arrived entity is the son of God – or, perhaps, a son of God — and that it has been sent there in anticipation of the Second Coming. Now that we’re in Stanley Kubrick territory, director Dejan Zecevic raises the ante by depicting the ill-fated moon mission and mysterious purple-rimmed hole in the time/space continuum that presented itself there. Back on Earth, things get even stranger as people already dismissed as dead come back to life as malevolent forces. This phenomenon extends to agent Waid’s terminally ill child, back in Belgrade. That’s a lot of metaphysical baggage to pack into a 90-minute vehicle, and it doesn’t all fit into the trunk. Even so, sci-fi buffs might find something here to enjoy. The horror is provided by the ax-wielding residents who go to great lengths to protect their own personal Jesus.

Valley of Bones
With some careful pruning of scenes shot inside a strip club, Valley of Bones might have made a dandy little thriller for the Syfy channel. While Dan Glaser’s film suffers from the same budgetary problems that limit the network’s feature-length movies, Valley of Bones benefits from not having to depend on the cheesy special effects that propel the action in such Syfy original movies as Sharknado, Magma: Volcanic Disaster and Mongolian Death Worm. The dinosaurs are long dead and are expected to stay that way. Neither is life on Earth imperiled by UFOs, global warming or plague-carrying teenagers. No, the suspense is provided here by humans. As it is, the R-rated Valley of Bones opened in 300 theaters over the Labor Day weekend, making a paltry $107,393.  The R-rating promises less than it delivers on DVD, as well. Still, it could have been a lot worse. Filmed largely on location in the badlands of North Dakota, it stars Autumn Reeser (“The O.C.”) as the passionate paleontologist, Anna, who served time in prison from digging up artifacts on federal land. She is about to lose her right to explore ranch land once open to her and her late husband, thanks to oil and natural-gas interests. When word reaches her of the discovery of T-Rex’s tooth on private land, she begs the owner to be given one last opportunity to restore her reputation and make a few bucks. The problem is that the tooth was found by a recovering meth addict with unpaid debts to a Mexican cartel, and he has no intention of being cut out of any deal. She reluctantly teams up with the bounder, McCoy (Steven Molony), who leads Anna, her late husband’s brother (Rhys Coiro) and her estranged son (Mason Mahay) to the place in the boonies where he found the tooth. Sure enough, they unearth a complete skeleton, which the meth head offers to the cartel leader (Mark Margolis) in exchange for his freedom from debt. The action picks up from there, with a fiery ending assured.

Cops and Robbers
In Scott Windhauser’s gimmicky and wholly unconvincing hostage drama, Cops and Robbers, a negotiator (Michael Jai White) and bank robber (Quinton “Rampage” Jackson) play cat-and-mouse with each other, while a dozen, or so, employees, customers and fellow crooks weigh the odds of making it out alive. They’ve already watched helplessly as a supervisor and police detective are pistol-whipped by Jackson’s unnamed character and the thug’s cohorts are dismayed by his refusal to get out while the getting is good. Then comes a string of surprises and coincidences so unlikely as to be almost laughable. They all lead to an ending that would be satisfying, if anything that came before it was logically presented. Straight-to-video hall-of-famer Tom Berenger plays a lead detective whose only reason for being cast probably was to have a recognizable actor play a dirty cop. Jackson is completely credible as the kind of crook who would kill someone for the simple pleasure of watching him die.

Architects of Denial
This documentary begins as another convincing argument against the Turkish government’s century-long denial of its role as the instigator of the Armenian genocide. By now, however, the only people who appear to agree with the Turks’ ridiculous stance are American politicians who are afraid of pissing off their strategic partners in Ankara. No matter how much new evidence is discovered and presented for the perusal of our so-called statesmen, they refuse to put “genocide” and “Turkey” in the same sentence. And, as long as lobbyists grease the palms of our representatives and our military presence is required in the Middle East, no Turkish government will be made to face the music. What is new and equally disturbing in David Lee George’s Architects of Denial are reports of the ongoing persecution of Armenians in oil-rich Azerbaijan and threats to invade neighboring Nagorno-Karabakh, which is largely populated by Christians. First-person accounts of the violent attacks on Armenians in Baku, among other cities in Azerbaijan, echo those of reports from the 1915 genocide and other attacks sanctioned by the Turkish government since World War I. Among those non-Armenians interviewed are Julian Assange, George Clooney and a former FBI agent with first-hand knowledge of both the atrocities in Azerbaijan and the seducing of American congressman and -women who sit on committees responsible for monitoring the situation there. When confronted with the evidence and asked for comments, the weasels have nothing to say in their defense and put their aides between them and the cameras, lights and microphones.

Wolf Warrior 2: Blu-ray
IMAX: Mysteries of China: Blu-ray, 4K UHD
As many Chinese action pictures as I’ve watched in the last 10 years, there hasn’t been one quite like Wolf Warrior 2. In its predecessor, Wolf Warrior, Wu Jing (a.k.a., Jacky Wu) played a Chinese special-forces soldier, blessed with extraordinary marksmanship, who’s confronted by a group of deadly foreign mercenaries hired by a vicious drug lord to assassinate him. Unlike most other exports, the martial artistry in “WW” plays second fiddle to the type of fighting featured in such American franchises as Sniper, S.W.A.T., The Marine and, yes, even Rambo. The mercenaries included former soldiers from western nations, not simply Asian fighters controlled by the isolated mafia boss or CIA operative. It made about $100 million in the global marketplace, which, considering that very few of those dollars came North America, wasn’t bad. “WW2,” which moves the action to the Horn of Africa, where the Chinese government is heavily invested with money and personnel, took in – get this – a nifty $867.6 million in foreign sales and another $2.7 million on only 53 U.S. screens. What distinguishes it in my mind, at least, is the presence of Chinese military forces – not many, but they’re good – in the rescue of sailors from Somalian pirates and, later, Chinese-run factories captured by guerrillas of the ISIS variety. I’m not all sure that such a situation has ever confronted the Beijing government, as it has American leaders, but the barbarity shown African and foreign workers is considerable. With the UN reluctant to commit to the rescue, it’s left to Feng Leng (Wu) to lead the assault against the guerrillas, directed by Frank Grillo, and mercenary thugs. In days gone by, American Green Berets, French Foreign Legionnaires, Rambo and John Shaft might have been called in to protect the fruits of western imperialism. Today, of course, it’s the Chinese imperialists who matter most in much of Africa. There’s no question as to who’s wearing the white hats in this particular fight, however. And the action continues non-stop throughout the movie. Chinese-American actress, model, singer/songwriter and martial artist Celina Jade (a.k.a., Celina Haron) provides the love interest here … when she isn’t kicking some ass herself, that is. The Blu-ray adds a behind-the-scenes featurette.

Folks who find a 4K UHD television monitor under their tree on Christmas morning should be cognizant of the fact that the dang thing will only work as advertised if it’s also accompanied by a compatible disc player, receiver and HDMI cables. Not to worry though, as this ancillary equipment is far more reasonably priced than the technology required of 3D Blu-ray units. There’s also a growing number of 4K UHD titles and premium services dedicated to the format. Shout!Factory is one of the distribution companies that has stuck its feet into the 4K waters, through its partnership with Giant Screen Films, a supplier of large-format movies to museums and other institutions. Mysteries of China joins previous releases, Journey to Space, Humpback Whales, Flight of the Butterflies, Rocky Mountain Express, Wonders of the Arctic and The Last Reef: Cities Beneath the Sea. Because the movies were originally shown in large-format 3D, they’re in the 40- to 50-minute range – easier on the eyes – and oriented toward viewing by school groups and families. To fully cover all the Mysteries of China (a.k.a., “Mysteries of Ancient China” and “China: The Rise of Empire”), the film would have had to be several hours longer than it is. Instead, it focuses on the amazing story behind the discovery of the terracotta army of Qin Shi Huang, the first emperor of a united China. In 1974, farmers in Shaanxi province came upon artifacts while digging a well less than a mile east of the Qin Emperor’s tomb mound at Mount Li. They reported the find to Chinese authorities, who carefully uncovered the vast collection of terracotta sculptures, depicting Qin’s armies, whose purpose was to protect the emperor in his afterlife. Later digs would locate funerary art of horses, chariots, acrobats, strongmen, musicians and politicians, as well as the skeletal remains of workers who took their secrets to a mass grave. The 4K UHD format reveals the vast size of the dig – three football fields – and intricacy of the pieces.  The film makes use of 8K footage shot specifically for this project, high resolution CGI models and new scans of stock footage from feature films, such as The First Emperor. If nothing else, Mysteries of China serves as an excellent starter kit for people new to the format. Bonus material adds a 10-minute behind-the-scenes featurette, with producer/director Keith Melton.

One of Us
The recent passing of Charles Manson, the capo di tutti capi of American cult leaders, led some observers to point out that there may still be as many as 3,000 such groups currently operating in the United States. I’m not sure that I would trust the government to parse the difference between a true cult and your run-of-the-mill post-hippie commune, but it’s an impressive number, nonetheless. One of Us appears to have been directed and written by folks — Blake Reigle, and Andrea Ajemian and Blaine Chiappetta — whose knowledge of cults comes from depictions in Lifetime movies. The leader is a well-groomed control freak, whose idea of mind control is forcing yoga lessons on his female followers and making them work in a coffee shop in the mountains above Riverside, California. Otherwise, the beautiful women wear togas and sheep masks for ceremonies. Naturally, the local cop is on the cultists’ payroll and those who choose to leave are threatened with torture or death. It’s hard to see what the leader might be concealing from view, however. When a friend goes missing, investigative reporter Mary (Christa B. Allen) springs into action by travelling to the San Jacinto Mountains town of Idyllwild, California. She has no trouble infiltrating the cult, led by Brent (Derek Smith), although the other followers aren’t anxious for the competition. When Mary’s sister (Ashley Wood) comes nosing around, the cultists smell a rat in their midst. (Investigative reporters usually don’t require the help of siblings.) Anyway, the scenery is nice and there isn’t much here that would corrupt a teenager. As usual, the DVD jacket promises more than it delivers.

Halloween Pussy Trap Kill! Kill!
In the last eight years, Jared Cohn has directed, written and acted in more than 25 films and videos, largely of the exploitation persuasion. Among the titles are Little Dead Rotting Hood, Bikini Spring BreakUnderground Lizard People and Hulk Blood Tapes, none of which have enjoyed much of a theatrical run, if any. I’m guessing that Halloween Pussy Trap Kill! Kill!’s title owes less to the Russian riot-grrrl group, Pussy Riot, than the Russ Meyer classic, Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! Even so, Cohn’s horror thriller features an all-grrrl band, Kill Pussy Kill, which makes Hole sound like the Supremes, and whose fashion sense is limited to thrift-shop rejects. For some reason, the movie opens in Islamabad, Pakistan, where an American special-forces team is ambushed by Islamic militants and a couple of them lose their heads in the process. (Don’t ask what they’re doing there, five years before 9/11, but a little bit of poetic license goes a long way here.) Flash forward a few years and the band is performing before a crowd of meth heads, one of whom decides to sexually assault a member, before being admonished by a wheelchair-bound man in a mask. On their way to a gig, the band decides to make a pit stop at a gas station that was already old when the Oakies made their way into California. Naturally, the van won’t start when they’re ready to pull out. Enter, Richard Greico, looking like Mickey Rourke’s younger brother, as the gas-station attendant. He offers the ladies – and I use that term advisedly – lodging in a shack tricked out for an adventure in torture porn, as conducted by an unseen “evil genius dead set on revenge” (voiced by Megadeth’s Dave Mustain).  For one of the women to survive, she’ll have to kill at least two of the others. The real freak show is going on outside the view of the captives, though. (A hand grenade is tossed at a group of trick-or-treaters.) I can understand how Greico might be willing to take any job that comes his way, but what former child star Margaret O’Brien is doing in a movie titled Halloween Pussy Trap Kill! Kill! is a mystery to me.

TV-to-DVD
CBS: Zoo: Season Three
PBS: NOVA: Secrets of the Shining Knight
PBS: Cook’s Country: Season 10
Nickelodeon: Tales of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: The Final Chapters
When I was sent the Season Three collection of episodes of “Zoo,” I wasn’t even aware the show even existed, let alone for three summers. Now that I’ve watched it, I wonder if might have done as well, or better, on Syfy … like the aforementioned Valley of Bones. Not that three seasons on CBS is anything to dismiss, even as a summer replacement. The blend of action, science-fiction nuttiness and attractive actors seems to be a perfect fit for a cable outlet, especially as it can appeal to those adolescents, teens and adults disinclined to watch PBS and the History Channel. As “Zoo” opened, animals around the world are attacking humans in troubling numbers. A multidiscipline team comprised of American zoologist Jackson Oz (James Wolk), Kenyan safari guide Abraham Kenyatta (Nonso Anozie), Los Angeles reporter Jamie Campbell (Kristen Connolly), quirky veterinary pathologist Mitch Morgan (Billy Burke) and a French intelligence agent Chloe Tousignant (Nora Arnezeder) has been recruited to keep the attacks from reaching pandemic proportions. By the end of the first 13-episode season, mutated animals have taken over the streets of cities everywhere. Later, in Patagonia, a special-forces team comes across a human who has mutated into a monster and kills almost everyone. (The pretty one is spared.) Oz’s team captures the mutant beast and returns it to Mitch’s lab for further study. By the time Season Three rolls around, another group of scientists, the Shepherds, has joined the narrative and managed to make the war between man and animals even worse. Time passes and zones have been designated for humans and hybrids, alike. Sadly, even larger, more ferocious and less easily controlled creatures are turning up, demonstrating that the Shepherds’ plans have backfired. CBS announced the cancellation on October 23, so theoretically there’s still time for another network to collect the assets and put it back in production. It happens all the time, now.

No trip to Chicago is complete without a visit to the Art Institute. And, no visit to the Art Institute is complete without a tour of the George F. Harding Collection of arms and armor. It features numerous examples of full- and half-armors, finely etched helmets, firearms with carved ivory stocks, back- and breastplates with gilded figures, chainmail and other exotic items. It’s as popular an exhibit as any in the museum, and that says a lot about its appeal. Producers for the “NOVA” presentation, “Secrets of the Shining Knight,” visited the Institute as part of their research. In it, viewers are given an opportunity to learn how armors – shining and otherwise – were crafted, as well as the significance of the various styles and how they evolved over time. Tests are conducted as to their ability to withstand penetration by knives, jousting sticks, arrows and bullets fired by very long muskets. “NOVA” challenged blacksmith Ric Furrer and master armorer Jeff Wasson to recreate parts of an elite armor that was originally manufactured in the Royal Workshop founded by King Henry VIII. We trace their successes and setbacks from start to finish, as they rediscover centuries-old metalworking secrets, then put their new armor to the ultimate test against a period musket.

While other foodie entertainments have begun to broaden their horizons by traveling around the world to find interesting cuisine and meet people who cook for a living, fun or to feed their families, the team behind “Cook’s Country” prefers to wait for the world’s great dishes and recipes to America’s Test Kitchen, in Rupert, Vermont. It also features the best regional home cooking in the country, relying on a practical, no-nonsense approach to food preparation. Family-oriented recipes are scientifically re-imagined for the modern home cook, while utensils and brands are also put to the test. In Season Ten, Bridget Lancaster and Julia Collin Davison are joined by new test cooks Ashley Moore, Bryan Roof and Christie Morrison. The titles of the episodes are almost as mouth-watering as the recipes: “Pork and Pierogi,” “Spicy and Sour for Supper,” “Smoky Barbecue Favorites,” “Smothered and Dowdied,” “BBQ Thighs and Fried Peach Pies,” “Ribs and Mashed Potatoes Revisited,” “Bourbon and Broccoli Hit the Grill,” “Straight From So-Cal,” “Southern Discoveries,” “Cast Iron Comforts,” “Plenty of Garlic and Parm,” “When Only Chocolate Will Do” and “The Italian-American Kitchen.”

Tales of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: The Final Chapters” encapsulates the show’s final hurrah on Nickelodeon, way back in 2012. Join the turtles as they battle an enormous army of monsters led by that time-traveling tyrant, Sevanti Romero. Then, rejoice at the return of their intergalactic Salamandrian friends — Mona Lisa and Sal Commander – only to be required to go to war with scourges of the universe, Newtralizer and Lord Vringath Dregg. But wait, there’s more. Our heroes are transported to an alternate universe, where they assist the rabbit ronin Miyamoto Usagi escort the holy child, Kintaro, to the Temple Castle of the Sky Buddha. We also fast-forward to the future, where the world is nothing more than a post-apocalyptic wasteland, and it’s every mutant for themselves. Lone-wolf warrior Raphael and the now-bionic Donatello are the only ones who have the guts to find the ever-elusive Oasis.

The DVD Wrapup: Letter From An Unknown Woman, Despicable Me 3, Crucifixion, Maurizio Cattelan, A New Leaf, Silent Night and more

Thursday, December 7th, 2017

Letter From an Unknown Woman: Blu-ray

Letter From an Unknown Woman is an old-fashioned Hollywood melodrama I might have watched for a few minutes on television long ago and abandoned in favor of a baseball game. Black-and-white films, no matter how opulent or romantic, never looked the way they were supposed to on television. Even when Laserdiscs and TCM came, analog sets couldn’t do justice to the director and cinematographer’s shared vision. Scratches were left in disrepair, just as fuzz and other artifacts clung to prints as if intended. The digital revolution made restoration miracles possible, transforming tired old movies into the classics they actually are. High-resolution screens made everything even better. Even so, I might not have accepted the challenge of watching Letter From an Unknown Woman – its title is as inviting as a warm beer or cold cup of coffee – if I hadn’t already seen the Criterion Collection editions of Max Ophüls’ La ronde, Le Plaisir, The Earrings of Madame de … and Lola Montès, all of which were made after he returned to Europe after World War II. After absorbing the lessons dispensed in the bonus features, it was easy to appreciate this widely admired film from his surprisingly unproductive Hollywood sojourn. Now, at least, I knew what to look for in the upgraded Olive Signature release. The first thing I noted was Joan Fontaine, whose unadorned beauty escaped me in other films, including Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca and Suspicion. The 30-year-old actress plays the same woman, Lisa, at three different stages in her life, looking radiant in all of them. Indeed, she reminded me very much of Laura Linney, who, at 53, still looks as if she could play recent graduates.

Ophüls directed Letter From an Unknown Woman from a screenplay by Howard Koch (Casablanca) and 1922 novella by Stefan Zweig. It opens with the famous concert pianist and world-class cad Stefan Brand (Louis Jourdan) offering ominous goodbyes to his servant, who’s just handed him a letter from Lisa, written on her death bed. It is intended to remind him not only of the unknown woman’s place in his life, but also the shit he’s put Lisa through without giving her a second thought. They had met three times previously, none of them fixed in his memory. During their second encounter, Lisa and Stefan fell in lust with each other, treating Vienna as their personal love nest. After lying to her about returning after a concert tour, Lisa delivers the son he won’t know exists until its too late to do either of them any good. The third time they meet, years later, their eyes meet across a concert hall, which she exits in near panic. Even though he’s enchanted by her, Stefan doesn’t recognize the mother of his child. Lisa is married to a wealthy older man, who accepts the boy as his adopted son, but her obsession with Stefan drives her into his uncaring arms for the last time. Now, however, his absence of feelings for Lisa backfires on him, leading years later to a duel with her husband. It’s here that the movie sharply deviates from Zweig’s book, but in a patently Hollywood sort of way. In 1992, Letter from an Unknown Woman was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress. The pristine 4K restoration of the black-and-white presentation makes it easy to identify Ophüls’ trademark touches, including a gliding camera, baroque imagery and lush atmospherics. The Blu-ray adds commentary by Ophüls expert Lutz Bacher; “A Deal Made in a Turkish Bath,” an interview with Oscar-winning documentarian Marcel Ophüls; “An Independent Woman: Changing Sensibilities in a Post-War Hollywood,” with Professor Dana Polan; “Ophülsesque: The Look of Letter From an Unknown Woman,” with cinematographers Ben Kasulke and Sean Price Williams; “Letter From an Unknown Woman: Passion’s Triumph,” a visual essay by film scholar Tag Gallagher; and an essay by critic Molly Haskell.

Despicable Me 3: Special Edition: Blu-ray
Howard Lovecraft and the Undersea Kingdom: Blu-ray
It isn’t difficult to see why Universal’s Despicable Me / Minions franchise continues to grow – globally, at least – while other animated series have begun to run out of juice. Besides the fact that youngsters relate easier to protagonists their own size, the Minions think, act and move like kids on a 90-minute sugar rush. Neither does the creative team at Illumination Entertainment force viewers to be overly concerned about the kinds of things that drive critics crazy: unwieldy plots, disjointed action sequences, annoying sound effects and cookie-cutter characters. It’s as if directors Kyle Balda, Pierre Coffin and Eric Guillon, alongside writers Cinco Paul and Ken Daurio, live across the street from public elementary schools and study the behavior of unruly children during recess and lunch breaks. By capturing that level of anarchic energy, they’ve been able to play directly to the munchkins in all of us. Throw in a dastardly villain, or two, and supporting characters whose only purpose is to take some weight off the Minions’ barely-there shoulders, and you have a movie that relates to audiences around the world. And, that’s kind of the point. Although the third installment performed better at the domestic box office than the 2010 original, it gave up $100 million from tally registered by the 2013 sequel. The thing is, though, the budgets for the four films in the franchise have remained within the $70 million to $80 million range, which is nothing compared to those allotted the Shrek and Cars sequels. Like Minions, Despicable Me 3 surpassed the billion-dollar barrier on the strength of foreign revenues of $823.4 million and $767.8 million, respectively. And, of course, those figures don’t take into account DVD/Blu-ray/VOD, toys, video games and theme-park attractions. Not that the story makes any conceivable difference, it’s worth noting that Felonious Gru (Steve Carell), who’s now an agent for the Anti-Villain League, is summoned by his long-lost twin brother, Dru (also Carell), to the land of Freedonia. (No, not that one.) Dru and Lucy (Kristen Wiig) have just foiled a plan by supervillain Balthazar Bratt (Trey Parker) to steal the world’s largest diamond. The former child star grew up to become obsessed with the character he played in the ’80s and is hell-bent on world domination. Dru and Lucy’s failure to seize the diamond and neutralize Bratt prompts their ouster from the AVL and the subsequent loss of most of their Minions, when they refuse to return to the dark side. Dru will help Gru deal with Bratt and the diamond, but for reasons that are substantially less than honorable. Suffice it to say that Bratt is a far more formidable foe than they imagined, but not infallible. The denouement leaves the door open for Despicable Me 4 and Minions 2. Besides the reference to Duck Soup, the triquel pays homage to the Pink Panther series. The Blu-ray adds a deleted scene, introduced by Dana Gaier (Edith Gru); the Mini-Movie, “The Secret Life of Kyle”; several background and making-of featurettes; a sing-along and music video; and visitors guide to Freedonia.

It would be difficult to imagine a less likely candidate to be the subject of an animated feature than a character based on the boy who grew up to be H.P. Lovecraft, but that’s exactly what Canadian comic-book writer Sean Patrick O’Reilly has given us in Howard Lovecraft and the Frozen Kingdom and Howard Lovecraft and the Undersea Kingdom. They represent two-thirds of the graphic-novel series created by Bruce Brown and Dwight L. MacPherson, and inspired by the author’s Necronomicon. The volume is a fictional grimoire – a textbook of magic – that appears in Lovecraft’s stories, as well as the books and movies of his followers. In 1897, young Howard (Kiefer O’Reilly) is taken by his mother to see his father, Winfield (Tyler Nicol), who is locked away in an asylum. (This representation is based on fact.) His doctors say Winfield is too deranged to meet with them, but Howard wanders off, anyway, to find his cell. Mixed into his father’s ravings are instructions as to where to find his copy of the Necronomicon and reasons why it must be destroyed. After going against his father’s wishes by reading it, Howard slips through a portal leading to another dimension. The journey to the Frozen Kingdom of R’yleh is fraught with danger, in the form of monsters and other threats to his safety. Fortunately, Howard befriends a hideous creature he names Spot, who helps him through the mess. A year after “Frozen Kingdom” concludes, with the defeat of the evil King Abdul Alhazred, the second part of the trilogy begins. In it, O’Reilly demands that Howard pass through the portal leading to “Undersea Kingdom” and conquer the demons that have captured his family and are holding them hostage. Additionally, Howard must take back the Necronomicon and prevent the impending wrath of Cthulhu. Lovecraft buffs will recognize these references, even if Winfield is a dead ringer for Edgar Allan Poe and Howard looks as if he stepped out of a cartoon by Charles Addams. Working against the movie is animation that wouldn’t pass muster in 1985, let alone 2017, and a family-friendly approach that’s meant to introduce young readers to Lovecraft, but effectively sucks the goosebumps out of his work. Somehow, O’Reilly was able to lure a voicing cast that includes Christopher Plummer (Go), Mark Hamill (Star Wars), Jeffrey Combs (Re-Animator), Ron Perlman (Hellboy) and Doug Bradley (Hellraiser) to supplement members of his family.

The Crucifixion Blu-ray
Although it wouldn’t be fair to say, “If you’ve seen one exorcism, you’ve seen them all,” the movies about demonic possession I’ve watched all bear an undeniable likeness to William Friedkin’s still frightening, The Exorcist (1973). Likewise, the documentaries describing the ancient rite and the Vatican’s role in preserving it. Fact is, all the world’s prominent religions have established procedures for expelling evil forces from a possessed person’s body, once the typical manifestations are recognized, and some priests have even been able to identify the specific fallen angel they’re attempting to extract from the poor soul’s corporeal body. Even today, people of extreme faith will blame Satan for such physical and mental deviations as hysteria, mania, psychosis, Tourette’s syndrome, epilepsy, schizophrenia and dissociative identity disorder. Novelist and screenwriter William Peter Blatty based The Exorcist on a widely reported case of suspected possession, which occurred in 1949. Because the Vatican has kept careful records of exorcisms authorized by the Church, and fans of The Exorcist have bought into the mythology, journalists and other skeptics have been unable to routinely dismiss reports of such cases. The coverage has given screenwriters a leg up while scratching for ideas for movies involving demonic possession, exorcisms and houses built over gateways to hell. Also based on an actual case, The Exorcism of Emily Rose (2005), kick-started the possession subgenre, just as The Amityville Horror (1979) and Poltergeist (1982) benefited from advances in special effects to raise the bar on haunted domiciles. Early buzz surrounding The Crucifixion could be traced to screenwriters’ Carey and Chad Hayes’ success with The Conjuring and The Conjuring 2, producer Peter Safran’s links to those films and the Annabelle series, and French director Xavier Gens’ previous genre hits, Frontière(s), Hitman and Divide.

The Crucifixion is closely based on the botched exorcism of Maricica Irina Cornici, a mentally ill nun at the Romanian Orthodox monastery of Tanacu, in Vaslui County, Romania. She was killed during a days-long exorcism conducted by 29-year-old priest Daniel Petre Corogeanu, who, with the help of four other nuns, chained her to a cross with her hands and feet bound, and her arms at a perpendicular angle to her body. They carried her into the church on the crucifix and prayed over her writhing body for three days. Finally, they stuffed a towel into Sister Maricica’s mouth to temper her outbursts. It killed her. An autopsy determined that she died of dehydration, exhaustion and a lack of oxygen. The case was widely publicized in the Romanian media and, following a lengthy trial, the perpetrators were convicted of her murder. To this fact-based foundation, The Crucifixion adds an overly enthusiastic American reporter, Nicole (Sophie Cookson), who somehow convinces her editor that readers of the New York Sentinel will welcome an investigation into the faraway case. The Hayes’ script calls for Nicole to be an atheist, in addition to a dedicated seeker of the truth. Because viewers won’t have any trouble predicting what happens to her during the course of the narrative, The Crucifixion suffers from predictability and a heavy reliance on jump-scares to maintain the drama. On the plus side, the decision to shoot the movie on location in Romania’s picturesque countryside pays real dividends. Appropriately, then, Cookson is the only actor who looks out of place in the rustic setting and an easy target for the demons’ wrath and curses of local Gypsies, who, of course, are feared and reviled by the locals.

Of Horses and Men
When it comes to movies from Iceland, it’s best not to take the summaries found on the back covers literally. That’s because it’s nearly impossible to capture in words the twists and turns the story is likely to take or the quirky personalities of the characters you’re about to meet. The common elements in all the Icelandic movies I’ve seen is a keen attention to the island’s diverse scenic beauty, the mortifying effects of chronic alcoholism and the toll taken by having to cope with too many hours of sunlight and darkness every six months. While Baltasar Kormákur (101 Reykjavík) is probably the best known and most representative of the country’s filmmakers, relative newcomers Guðmundur Arnar Guðmundsson (Heartstone), Erlingur Thoroddsen (Rift), Grímur Hákonarson (Rams), Dagur Kári (Noi the Albino), Óskar Jónasson (Reykjavik-Rotterdam/Contraband) and Hafsteinn Gunnar Sigurdsson (Paris of the North) have followed nimbly in his footsteps. Written and directed by Benedikt Erlingsson, Of Horse and Men focuses on the symbiotic relationship between humans and animals in an Icelandic farming village, miles away from the nearest convenience mart. Along the way, a few Swedes, Spaniards, Germans and Russians are introduced to interact with the locals. Of Horses and Men opens with a vignette so replete with dark humor and conflicting emotions that you’d think it would overwhelm everything that follows it. Horse lovers from near and far await the appearance of erudite Kolbeinn (Ingvar E. Sigurdsson) as he rides his splendid white mare to a local inn, employing the “flying pace” gait unique to native Icelandic steeds. Not realizing the mare’s in heat, their journey home is interrupted by a black stallion so randy that it can’t be contained by a mere gate in the fence. When it catches up to Kolbeinn’s horse, which is patiently awaiting the coupling, all he can do is hang on for dear life while they do what comes naturally. This takes place in full view of the startled innkeepers – one of whom appears to be jealous of the mounted mare – and binocular-bearing tourists. What happens next is totally unexpected, heart-breaking and a necessary element of the continuing narrative. It’s followed by several interrelated segments that seemingly unspool from the point-of-view of the horses, although their demeanor is largely ambivalent. In a very real sense, it mirrors the disregard shown the characters by the surrounding ocean, mountains and pastures. Of Horses and Men was Iceland’s official submission to the Oscars’ 2014 Best Foreign Language Film category. It didn’t make the cut. Bergsteinn Björgúlfsson’s amazing cinematography, which was able to capture the intimacy of life in the hamlet, without compromising the majesty of the setting, is nothing short of brilliant.

M.F.A.: Blu-ray
Now that celebrity rape has supplanted date rape as a hot-button topic for debate and trigger for activism, there’s the temptation to treat the events portrayed in M.F.A. as old news, instead of unfinished business. It’s the likely position of director Natalia Leite (Bare) and writer/co-star Leah McKendrick (“Makeup Call”) that the rich and famous bozos being accused of sexual abuse are no different than the frat boys and jocks who’ve never been taught that “no means no.” Because M.F.A. debuted last march at SXSW, it would be a stretch to draw more parallels between the movie and L’affaire Weinstein. It’s now possible that what started as a feminist exploitation flick – femploitation, if you will – might benefit from the continuing parade of headline-grabbing revelations. As far as I can tell, though, M.F.A. only played a few festivals before going into the VOD, Internet and DVD/Blu-ray marketplace. Although she cut her teeth on movies starring and/or directed by her parents — Clint Eastwood (True Crime) and Frances Fisher (The Stars Fell on Henrietta) — 24-year-old Francesca Eastwood only began climbing the Hollywood ladder for real in 2015, with a supporting role in Final Girl … that is, unless one counts gigs on the short-lived reality show “Mrs. Eastwood & Company” and being chosen Miss Golden Globes, in 2013, by the HFPA. Even so, Eastwood is arguably the most recognizable actor in Leite and McKendrick’s revenge/vigilante thriller. In it, she plays a graduate student in the art department of a small SoCal college. Timid and only a middling artist, Noelle accepts an invitation from a fellow student to attend a party. Even before her first beer loses its bubbles, she’s given a quick tour of his bedroom and thrown to the bed, turned on tummy and viciously raped. I’m not sure if a male director could have caught the same degree of anguish and embarrassment on Noelle’s face as the jerk quickly pulls up his trousers, leaves the room and she’s forced to perform the “walk of shame” ritual before the party guests. When Noelle confides in her neighbor, Skye (McKendrick), and the school’s social worker, she’s basically told to suck it up and try to forget about the incident. Police had ignored Skye when she complained about being raped in the same way, as did another woman who was attacked at a frat party by three football players. A group of campus women meet on the scourge of date rape, without offering Noelle any solace or advice, except to use nail polish that can distinguish when a drink has been spiked. Without giving anything away, Noelle then embarks on a mission to avenge her rape and those of the other women. With each ensuing murder, Noelle grows stronger as an independent woman and artist. As such, M.F.A. feels a lot like a cross between Death Wish and Ms .45, but without the same sustained bite. There’s also a palpable absence of the kind of tension that accompanies the best vigilante thrillers, including Francesca’s father Clint’s Dirty Harry. Still, it isn’t like we’ve seen the last of the Ms. Eastwood, if only genre flicks. The Blu-ray adds a making-of featurette and interviews.

Docs-to-DVD
Maurizio Cattelan: Be Right Back
Angry Inuk
Karl Marx City
The War Show
Gun Runners
In no artistic discipline is it more difficult to separate the charlatans from the visionaries than the one associated with cheese-and-wine gallery openings, tony auctions and hyperbolic coverage in the Sunday New York Times. Learned men and women have probably debated the question of what makes a painting, sketch or sculpture “art” since the first Homo sapiens began decorating the walls of caves with naturalistic renditions of bison, aurochs and deer, instead of handprints and graffiti left by their former tenants, the Neanderthals. And, while every succeeding artistic movement since the Renaissance has been met with doubt and derision, it wasn’t until the Dadaists, Abstractionists and Pop Artists that collectors and curators raised the ante in this high-stakes game of chicken. Maura Axelrod’s provocative documentary, Maurizio Cattelan: Be Right Back, leaves the question of what is and isn’t art to the eyes of the beholder, while seeming to argue that any manmade creation that raises the pulse and/or ire of those same beholders should be considered artistic, at least. And, once the price tag for such works enters the five-figure range – and more — it doesn’t matter what they’re called. Italian hyperrealist Maurizio Cattelon has been delighting and confounding observers of his work, ever since 1989, when he hung a sign reading, “Torno subito” — “Be back soon” – on the door of the gallery hosting his first solo exhibition, citing an absence of ideas for the show. If politicians were as candid about their own lack of substantive thoughts, the world would be a better and more peaceful.

The art world, though, abhors such vacuums, so, when, a few years later, Cattelan declared himself open for business, it beat a path to his door. If the artist was happy to finally be recognized, it wasn’t always visible in his alternately disruptive, disrespectful and self-deprecating work. Unlike the site-specific public art of Christo (“Wrapped Reichstag”), topiary and stainless-steel art of Jeff Koons (“Puppy”), monumental sculptures of Richard Serra (“Tilted Arc”) and architecture of Frank Gehry (Walt Disney Concert Hall), which are easy on the eyes, at least, Cattelon’s most notorious pieces thumb their noses at art establishment. Axelrod’s film offers more than the usual number of specimens for our perusal, as well as allowing for contrasting opinions of curators, critics, peers, ex-girlfriends and passersby. Among the most controversial are his sculpture of Pope John Paul II, struck down by a meteorite; a rendering of Adolf Hitler, in the scale of a young boy, kneeling in a pose of supplication; an effigy of a serene and barefoot John F. Kennedy, lying in state; sculptures created from taxidermized horses; Pinocchio floating facedown in a fountain on the rotunda of the Guggenheim/New York; and a functioning 18-karat-gold toilet that some might compare to Marcel Duchamp’s porcelain urinal, “Fountain.” (Or, the plumbing in the Presidential Suite of the Four Seasons Hotel Riyadh, for that matter.) Everything in the film is pointed toward Cattelan’s eye-popping 2011 retrospective at the Guggenhein, which filled the entirely of its atrium. Fans of Banksy’s Exit Through the Gift Shop are the target audience for “Be Right Back,” but anyone who’s ever pondered the question, “What is art?” – especially teens and art students – will find something of value here.

Those of us who routinely fall asleep in front of our televisions are consciously or subliminally exposed to hundreds of infomercials and PSAs pleading for donations to one cause or another, using distressed animals or starving children as bait for their emotional appeals. No effort is made to present the downside of such generosity, if any, or demonstrate how donations might not make it to those who need the money most. It takes dogged reporting and incorruptible accountant to determine if donors and victims are being ripped … not the television station on which the PSAs appear. Among the more memorable of these tear-jerking commercials is the one depicting the annual seat hunts in southeastern Canada, during which impossibly cute baby harp seals – “whitecoats,” if you will – are clubbed to death and stripped of their pelts. Only a monster could be left unmoved by the sight of the trails of red blood left on the white snow after the individual beatings. All it took for viewers to donate money was the face of a baby seal staring back at them and predictions of when its pelt might be headed. Thanks to commercials, the Newfoundland “hunts” are far more stringently monitored and controlled by the Canadian government. Moreover, sales of clothing and other byproducts made from the seal have been prohibited in many western countries. Alethea Arnaquq-Baril’s provocative documentary Angry Inuk begins where those infomercials left off by demonstrating how the boycotts and embargoes continue to impact Canada’s Inuit population – not the club-wielding white men — which traditionally has relied on the seal hunt for food, clothing, commerce and rites of passage. The people we meet here don’t participate in the harp-seal culling, which takes place hundreds of miles from their homes. Even so, the boycotts and sanctions directly impacted what they could command for the skins of ring seals, oils and other by-products. Sales also plummeted in reaction to a reduced demand for coats, boots and gloves made from the skin. It got to the point where the money a hunter received didn’t even cover gas for his snow mobile, let alone food, fuel, clothing and other household necessities not provided by the hunts. With no other source of income, residents have been forced to move to villages and cities, where, at best, they could make a subsistence living or be closer to government safety nets. Arnaquq-Baril describes how a new generation of Inuit, conversant with social media and armed with a burning desire to protect their families and threatened customs, are directly challenging what they believe is a disingenuous campaign by anti-sealing groups. Among others things the activists stress that the northern Inuit don’t slaughter the harp seals and, even if they did join the hunt, the animals have never been designated an endangered species. We follow a group of students to meetings of the European Union, which initiated bans on skins and other products after being confronted by delegates from Greenpeace, PETA and other well-financed groups. They handed out fliers and pamphlets, while their opponents provided delegates with dolls and trinkets before each debate/ The larger question, however, pertains to how much abuse should governments be allowed to inflict on Inuit and other First Nation communities, who already are suffering from the effects of unchecked global warming, limitations on whaling, the proliferation of oil rigs, effects of pollution on fish and wildlife, and, now, plans for humongous storage bladders to contain oil before it can be piped south or loaded onto tankers. They can’t afford to hire lobbyists to cajole or bribe politicians, let alone compete with images of fuzzy baby seals on televisions around the world.

Another new documentary from Film Movement/Bond360 echoes issues raised in The Tower and other films and mini-series set in East Germany before the re-unification. In Michael Tucker and Petra Epperlein’s truly chilling Karl Marx City, disturbing facts about everyday life in the “workers’ paradise” are related like contemporary versions of Grimm’s Fairy Tales. Epperlein grew up in the titular city, renamed after World War II for the author of “The Communist Manifesto” and “Das Kapital.” The Socialist Unity Party of Germany (a.k.a., Communist Party) conceived Karl-Marx-Stadt as a showcase of productivity, prosperity and the supremacy of the East German proletariat. Almost immediately after the Wall began to crumble, the name was changed back to Chemnitz and statues demolished. Epperlein grew up there, but moved to the U.S. when the ban against traveling to the west was lifted. In 1999, her father mailed her a cryptic farewell note, burned all his photos and letters, then hanged himself from a tree behind the old family home. He was 57. Karl Marx City not only is a personal investigation into a family tragedy, but also into a regime that mistook repression and paranoia for equality and freedom. Soon after the GDR collapsed, Epperlein’s father received a series of anonymous letters that threated to expose him as a former undercover Stasi agent. Dismissed by the family at the time, the accusations would serve as a starting point for her search for the truth, whatever it turned out to be. The film, which resembles a black-and-white espionage thriller from the early 1960s, features interviews with her mother and twin brothers, plus visits to the Stasi archives in Berlin and Chemnitz. She meets historians, scholars, former spies and informers, and experts on suicide. Even though Stasi headquarters was looted, she was given access to dossiers, films and recordings pertaining to her father and life in her neighborhood, growing up. They’re simply the tip of a very large and dangerous iceberg.

Until it became too dangerous for most western journalists to cover the war in Syria from the front lines, the escalation of hostilities was laid out in clearly defined chapters. At first, it was taken for granted that the cruel and corrupt Assad regime would fall in line with other governments overturned in the Arab Spring of 2011. Westerners long accepted Bashar al-Assad’s role as a despot, agent for state-sponsored terrorism and protector of war criminals, without fully appreciating his ability to leverage the support of the Syrian middle- and upper-classes, Iran’s Shia state and Russia’s expansionist agenda to his advantage. The longer the Americans and European nations waited to develop a plan either to eliminate Assad or support the resistance, the easier it became for Assad’s military to contain the uprising to urban centers outside Damascus. Knowing that Vladimir Putin would ignore the vicious barrages of rebel-held centers and starvation of trapped citizens, Assad was able to consolidate his hold on war-weary Syrians and imprison anyone suspected of opposing it. Frustration caused resistance groups to splinter and fight amongst each other, leaving a vacuum easily filled by ISIS and other Sunni fanatics. The crisis caused by the large number of refugees seeking shelter in Europe, was far easier for the media to cover. What will happen now that ISIS has been displaced remains to be seen. Obadiah Zytoon and Andreas Dalsgaard’s shattering documentary, The War Show, closely follows that outline of events in Syria, but from a point-of-view unlike that of other films about the Arab Spring. Like so many other Syrians, Zytoon embraced the calls for democracy and felt confident they would spread like wildfire in Syria. As a radio host in Damascus, she was surrounded by young people caught up in the sudden ability to protest, with and without masks or shawls. I doubt that Zytoon took videos of her close-knit group of friends, thinking beyond the fall of Assad and their reactions to newfound freedom. Instead, the college-age youths serve as our eyes and ears on the ground in The War Show, which begins with such hope and ends in tragedy and despair. In between, the friends move from Damascus to Zytoon’s hometown of Zabadani and Homs, the latter practically levelled in rocket barrages and airstrikes by Syrian and Russian warplanes. They even make time to spend a day or two at a secluded beach, their pets in tow. The film’s emotional turning point comes when the abandoned puppy they adopted is killed after straying on a busy road, and Zytoon sees it as an omen of bad things to come. The War Show pays special attention to the role of women in the movement and fear of cameras exhibited by soldiers and militants, alike. Early on, the director asks a young girl why she shows her face: “I’m not demonstrating to be suffocated. I’m demonstrating to breathe,” she replies. The film divides the ensuing events into seven sections (“Revolution,” “Suppression,” “Resistance,” “Siege,” “Memories,” “Frontlines” and “Extremism”), one more depressing than the chapter before it.

The fifth new doc from Film Movement/Bond360 also adds fresh perspective to a familiar story. Ever since the mid-1960s, when Kenyan men began to dominate foot races from 800 meters to marathons, the sports media have descended on the Great Rift Valley – otherwise, noted for international arms trading – to uncover their secrets. (In 2008, Pamela Jelimo became the first Kenyan woman to win a gold medal at the Olympics.) Before establishing formal training facilities and dietary regimens, it was a commonly held belief that living at a relatively high altitude and running to school or work every day was the prime factor. Anjali Nayar’s inciteful film, Gun Runners, goes a bit further than most of ABC Sports’ trademark up-close-and-personal features might, focusing on a pair of world-class marathon runners, whose stories include time spent among the bands of warriors that terrorize the North Kenyan countryside, stealing cattle, raiding villages and running from the police. As part of a government-sponsored program to disarm combatants in conflicted regions, boyhood friends and Julius Arile and Robert Matanda agreed to trade their AK-47s for running shoes they didn’t have. Taking time away from their families and crops proved to be a sacrifice not only for the runners, but for the villagers whose dreams included sharing the riches from Arile and Matanda’s accomplishments. When they didn’t come, the men allowed themselves to be exploited by politicians, whose promises were as empty as their pockets. Nayar’s camera is able to follow Arile’s progress on the comeback trail from injury and competition at the regional, national and international level. Joan Poggio’s cinematography contributes greatly to Gun Runners’ success.

On Wings of Eagles
Too often, stories of true-life courage and sacrifice leave viewers with only a few lines of information as to what finally happened to the protagonists, or their cause, in advance of the final credits. Although I can remember how Chariots of Fire ended, I can’t recall if viewers were told how British Olympians Eric Liddell and Harold Abrahams filled the rest of their years, away from the track. A year after the 1924 Paris Games, Abraham broke a leg while long jumping, effectively ending his competitive career. It led him to return to his studies as a lawyer, but, for the rest of his life, he would remain involved in sports and Jewish causes. In the 36 years since Chariots of Fire was nominated for seven Academy Awards, winning four, I’m amazed that no one attempted to chronicle Liddell’s post-Olympics life. I say that because, for all its flaws, Stephen Shin and Michael Parker’s On Wings of Eagles (a.k.a., “The Last Race”) inspired me to learn more about this truly amazing man and his inspirational story. Without Chinese financing, Liddell’s story probably would have remained more of a question mark than hero, and the movie would still be stuck on Square One. Although he represented the UK at the Games, the “Flying Scotsman” was born in China to Scottish missionary parents, and died there 43 years later. In some circles, this qualified him as China’s first Olympics champion and someone well worth memorializing. After his moment of glory, Liddell returned to the city of his birth, Tianjin, to follow in his parents’ footsteps as a teacher, coach, Sunday School superintendent and ordained minister. In 1941, life in northern China had become so dangerous for foreigners that the British government advised its nationals to leave. Florence Liddell, who was pregnant, would leave for Canada with their two daughters to wait out the war, while her husband and physician brother-in-law returned to positions at a rural mission station in Xiaozhang.

As fighting between the Chinese army and invading Japanese forces reached Xiaozhang, the Japanese took over the mission station and Liddell (Joseph Fiennes) returned to Tianjin. Two years later, Liddell and members of the mission were sent to an internment camp in the city now known as Weifang. The Japanese called it Courtyard of the Happy Way” (or, in Chinese, Campus of Loving Truth), As portrayed in On Wings of Eagles, it was anything but “happy” or “loving.” Even so, Liddell became a leader and organizer at the camp, where food, medicine and other supplies would become increasingly scarce for everyone. If he had been Roman Catholic priest, instead of a Protestant minister, the Vatican might have financed the production and used it as testimony for Liddell’s legitimate shot at sainthood. By all accounts, he was just that kind of man: always sacrificing his food and comfort for others and never losing track of his Christian beliefs and principles. He agreed to compete in foot races against the camp’s boss, even though he was desperately undernourished, having given the allotments of food he received from the Chinese to his fellow prisoners. Criticism I’ve read argues that the Chinese financial backing ensured that the religious angles would be played down, in favor of a portrayal that demonstrated his willingness to stand up to the brutal Japanese officials and sacrifice to save the lives of local children. Liddell succumbed to a brain tumor, just months before the camp was liberated. A monument still stands at the former Weihsien Internment Camp. If the proselytizing is kept to a minimum here, there’s no doubt that Liddell was a man of God and devout Christian. I can’t imagine that the Japanese camp supervisors were anything but monsters, who worshipped the emperor as a living God who sanctioned anything done in his name, even torture, rape and murder. The bigger problem, especially for admirers of Chariots of Fire, is the production, itself, which relies on a weak script, too many composite characters and events, and some not-ready-for-prime-time acting. It’s possible that Hollywood producers were scared off by Liddell’s staunch Christian beliefs – he refused to participate in Olympics races scheduled for Sunday, if you recall – and the potential for controversies based on the number of times Jesus Christ’s name did or did not pop up.

A New Leaf: Blu-ray
Five years after her former partner in comedy, Mike Nichols, stunned Hollywood with his adaptation of Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? – and, a year later, The Graduate – Elaine May was handed the reins of a dark comedy based on Jack Ritchie’s short story “The Green Heart.” Critics also heaped praise on A New Leaf, but, in doing so, felt it only fair to point out to their readers that they didn’t know how much of the credit belonged to the star/screenwriter/director and how much should go to editors who re-cut her original three-hour film to 102 minutes. Not only was Paramount head of production Robert Evans unhappy over the cut’s length, but also May’s seeming disregard for her budget and the studio’s deadline. Reportedly, neither the director’s cut of the film nor the original shooting script have ever been made publicly available. While the same thing has happened to other fledging filmmakers, most have accepted the kudos without exposing the ruse. May was given a couple of other opportunities to redeem herself in the eyes of studio bigshots. Like A New Leaf, The Heartbreak Kid (1972) received high praise from critics and still is considered one of the top 100 comedies of all times, depending on who’s doing the polling. It also did better at the box office. Shot in 1973, but not released until 1976, May’s talky buddy drama Micky and Nicky – starring John Cassavetes and Peter Falk – suffered an almost identical fate to A New Leaf, creatively and commercially. A full decade would pass before she was once again allowed to go to the plate as writer/director. Plagued with similarly crippling budgetary and deadline problems, Ishtar laid a very expensive egg for Columbia. It took a long time for the dust to clear, but, upon further review lots of folks, including stars Warren Beatty, Dustin Hoffman and Charles Grodin, have found positive things to say about the high-profile adventure/comedy. Although she wouldn’t get another directing job until the 2016 “American Masters” salute to her former partner, Nichols did ask her to adapt screenplays for The Birdcage (1996) and Primary Colors (1998).

In A New Leaf, a never-better Walter Matthau plays Henry Graham, a playboy from a wealthy patrician family, who has run through his entire inheritance and is completely unequipped to provide for himself. His childhood guardian, Uncle Harry (James Coco), refuses to give him a dime. Henry considers suicide, but, instead, takes the advice of his valet, who suggests he immediately marry into wealth. With a $50,000 loan from Uncle Harry to tide him over, Henry has just six weeks to find a rich bride and repay the money, otherwise he must forfeit all his property to his uncle. May is wonderful as the painfully shy and beyond-klutzy botanist, Henrietta Lowell, who agrees to marry him, just days before the deadline. The other half of Henry’s plan is to eliminate his new problem – Henrietta – and inherit her wealth. Not surprisingly, Henry’s strategy doesn’t play out as he envisioned it would. If Paramount had left well enough alone, A New Leaf would have been significantly darker and the ending less quasi-romantic. As it is, however, it’s a terrific entertainment. Olive Films previously released A New Leaf on DVD/Blu-ray in 2012, sans bonus features. The new Olive Signature edition features a fresh restoration from a 4K scan of original camera negative; audio commentary by film scholar Maya Montanez Smukler; featurettes, “The Cutting Room Floor: Editing A New Leaf,” with assistant editor Angelo Corrao, and “Women in Hollywood: A Tragedy of Comic Proportions,” with director Amy Heckerling; an essay by critic, editor and film programmer Alexandra Heller-Nicholas; and Ritchie’s “The Green Heart.”

 

Silent Night, Deadly Night: Collector’s Edition: Blu-ray
Once Upon a Time at Christmas
Rarely has a hit-and-run genre flick generated as much controversy and outright contempt than master showman Charles E. Sellier Jr.’s Silent Night, Deadly Night did, upon its 1984 release on the same weekend as A Nightmare on Elm Street. If the splatter classic wasn’t the first horror movie to exploit the holiday connection – that honor probably belongs to Bob Clark’s influential Black Christmas – its marketing campaign likely was the first to draw the collective ire of parents, the PTA, Siskel and Ebert. If the poster and commercials didn’t include an ax-wielding Santa, however, it existence might have come, gone and been forgotten in the wake of Wes Craven’s far superior blood bath. Once the furor broke out and a parents’ group organized a boycott and picketing, TriStar Pictures pulled its ads and attendance dropped significantly. A year later, “SN/DN” would be re-released by a different distributor, sparking a franchise consisting of six feature films, action figures, clothing, stockings, Christmas ornaments and numerous re-releases on home video. The latest is a Blu-ray “collector’s edition,” restored from the original vaulted film negative.by Scream Factory, with new bonus material and a limited edition, with an action figure and a poster. For the record, “SN/DN” relates the story of Billy Chapman (Robert Brian Wilson), who, at 5, was cautioned by his seemingly catatonic grandfather about St. Nick’s propensity for punishing naughty little boys. On the drive home, his parents will be brutally murdered by a desperate criminal in a Santa suit. Billy and his brother are sent to an orphanage run by a sadistic nun. One Christmas morning, he’s horrified by the unexpected appearance of Santa. After being dragged to see the bearded geezer, Billy punches him and escapes to a corner of his room. Years after surviving that nightmare, Billy finds work in a toy store. His transformation to serial killer is sparked by having to don a costume to play Santa for a party. It’s his cue to “punish the naughty,” in various unsavory ways. Scream Queen Linnea Quigley delivers an unforgettable portrayal of one of Billy’s victims. The set adds more bonus features than you can shake an ax handle at, including an extended unrated version of the film; interviews with writer Michael Hickey, co-executive producers Scott J. Schneid and Dennis Whitehead, editor/second-unit director Michael Spence, composer Perry Botkin and actor Robert Brian Wilson; a new interview with the great scream queen Linnea Quigley; “Christmas in July,” in which locations used in the movie are revisited; new and vintage commentaries; “Santa’s Stocking of Outrage”; and classic marketing material.

In Once Upon a Time at Christmas (2017), British writer/director/producer Paul Tanter (White Collar Hooligan) delivers a Santa and Mrs. Claus in the form of a one-eyed lunatic (Simon Phillips) and a curvy, bat-swinging blond (Sayla de Goede). This serial-killing couple is splattering blood all over the holidays in a small town in upstate New York, staging one gruesome rampage per night. Though the victims seem random — a mall Santa, a smooching couple, a quiet family — high-schooler Jennifer (Laurel Brady) and clever cop Sam (Jeff Ellenberger) begin to unravel the sinister pattern behind the slayings.

Shattered
“The Shattered Faberge Egg,” the novel upon which Natasha Kermani’s debut feature is based, is set in beautiful and historic Asheville, North Carolina. Nestled at the gateway to the Blue Ridge Mountains, it could never be mistaken for Clarksdale, Mississippi, a town that’s flat as a board and noteworthy today primarily for being home to the Delta Blues Museum. It’s where screenwriters Paul Leach and Nicholas Celozzi set Shattered, a movie that hinges on prejudices, deep-seated fears and dark secrets peculiar to prominent families in the Deep South. Unfortunately, the film suffers from not being shot in a location south of the Mason-Dixon Line, where you can cut the humidity with a knife and kudzu grows on anything that stands still for more than five minutes. According to producer Marie Pizano, the team had 18 days to make Shattered and it was easier and less expensive for it to be made in California. As such, it looks like every other underbudgeted movie shot within a 40-radius of Hollywood & Highland. The only concessions to the Delta are some brief establishing shots of cotton fields and ramshackle homes, and a blues band whose leader looks like Joseph Buttafuoco. (Apparently, all the African-American musicians were busy that day.) No one breaks a sweat, even when they’re playing tennis in trousers and long-sleeved shirts, and a Southern accent isn’t heard. In it, Kate Stenson (Molly Burnett) dreams of an enviable life as the quintessential Southern bride. She marries Ken Burnett (Tom Malloy), the son of the town’s powerful mayor (Ray Wise) — a controlling father who will do anything to protect his reputation. Kate has two children with Ken — a biological daughter, and an adopted son, Logan — but Kate’s seemingly perfect existence begins to fray when she discovers that Logan suffers from severe mental-health issues. Just as Shattered begins to look as if it might turn into a demon-seed thriller, something terrible happens to the boy and the entire flow of the movie changes direction. Kate’s journey to uncover the true story of Logan’s genetic line reveals dark secrets that can destroy the entire Burnett legacy. But wait, there’s more. Once all of the cats are out of their respective bags, Shattered takes another abrupt turn, taking us into Lifetime movie territory. Some viewers will argue that the uplifting ending justifies the mistakes made getting there – including the mixed-race Logan, who looks as white as the Burnetts’ biological daughter, Emma – but others, who only judge a DVD by its cover, are likely to feel cheated.

All Male, All Nude
Body Electric
On Showtime’s few-holds-barred series “Shameless,” characters played by Steve Howey and Cameron Monaghan dance for tips at a rowdy gay nightclub in Chicago. Although all the dancers have their own reasons for doing so, the common denominator is money. Unlike the dancers in Magic Mike, whose primary audience is comprised of women who get off on the highly choreographed routines and fantasy of making it with a beefy cowboy, firefighter or Top Gun pilot, the strippers in Gerald McCullouch’s documentary, All Male, All Nude, forgo rip-away pants for jeans and jock straps that don’t stay on for very long. It’s The Full Monty for real. Four decades after the Village People introduced gay-nightclub iconography to Middle America, with the crowd-pleasing “Y.M.C.A.,” the only time people dress in such costumes to dance is on Halloween … or in movies like Magic Mike. All Male, All Nude reminds me of Jerome Gary’s 1985 documentary, Stripper, which introduced viewers to exotic dancers who owed less to Gypsy Rose Lee and Blaze Starr than to Jane Fonda’s “Workout” and Flashdance. (Eight years earlier, Gary produced Pumping Iron, which Stripper and All Male, All Nude also resemble.) The women’s routines combined acrobatics, ballet, contortionism and rock music, all designed to extract dollar bills from the stacks of money in front of men sitting around the proscenium stage. Graduates of the Vancouver School of Stripping then added pole, lap and table dancing to their resumes, effectively eliminating the “tease” from “striptease” and removing the traditional burlesque stage show. Today, pole-dancing is taught in aerobics and yoga classes. Not so much, lap dancing.

Movies in which strippers and strip clubs play key roles in the narrative not only became a staple of Cinemax and other early premium-cable services, but in such mainstream dramas and comedies as Dressed to Kill, Erotica, Showgirls, Striptease and Dancing at the Blue Iguana. All Male, All Nude, takes us to Atlanta’s Swinging Richards, purportedly the country’s only all-male, all-nude, gay strip club … not that women aren’t welcome, as well. The format isn’t all that different than that employed in a half-dozen episodes of HBO’s “Real Sex,” “Blue Iguana” and Strippers, which split their time between the bar area, backstage and the alley, where it’s quiet enough to smoke cigarettes and be interviewed. The club resembles the one depicted in “Shameless,” where the dancing also provides a showcase for the men’s muscular bodies and extraordinary penises. We’re introduced to a half-dozen dancers – gay, straight and bi- — who discuss their motivations, work conditions and customers. Some are married with children, while others are saving money for an advanced degree in college or a cool new car … just like exotic dancers the world over. Once again, the only common denominator is a willingness by all parties to accept or spend money to be entertained. Unlike “Shameless,” the dancers in McCullouch’s film don’t sneak into the shadows to service customers with the occasional blow job … just cigarettes. While Atlanta allows full-frontal nudity, it closely regulates the interaction between dancers and customers, right down to where tips can be placed (elastic garters above the bicep, only). The dancers all pay a straight fee for the right to dance at the club, with money deducted for special V.I.P. services and tips for the deejay and bouncers. I don’t know if celebrity dancers – typically porn stars – are imported to boost admissions and booze sales, as is common in gentlemen’s clubs. The downside of the job is represented, as well. At 57 minutes, All Male, All Nude doesn’t overstay its welcome or overstate its mission. And, no, the men’s naughty bits aren’t digitally disguised or edited by camera angles. The DVD adds several background featurettes and music videos.

While Marcelo Caetano’s debut feature, Body Electric, steers well clear of being a comedy, the overall mood is celebratory and carefree. That isn’t the usual vibe associated with films in the LGBTQ genre, where one form of conflict or another not only is expected, it also reflects the realities of life within a contentious society. The lack of conflict, while welcome, finally leaves us slightly off-balance. At 23, Elias (Kelner Macêdo) is an openly gay man who works as an assistant designer and supervisor at a small textile workshop, and, in his free time, enjoys exploring his sexuality and intimate friendships. Even so, Elias is limited by his circumstances at work, where he’s been asked to maintain a distance between labor and management.  He wants to have as much fun as possible, but can’t do it if he can’t hang out with the cool kids. Something will have to give, somewhere, but, at 23, those kinds of choices are too difficult to make in swinging São Paolo. Caetano describes Body Electric as “a poem that celebrates the diversity of bodies and the beauty that exists in every action of the body […] that sings the encounter of the bodies and the value of community.” In a sense, it pays homage the diversity of beauty, race and sexuality present within Brazil’s largest city. In another twist, Caetano doesn’t limit the associations made by Elias during the course of the narrative, crossing all of the boundaries of typical L-G-B-T-Q typecasting. Straight and lesbian women share screen time with characters who are gay, transvestites, transgenders and questioning, as Elias apparently is. Once the management/labor hurdle is cleared, everyone is playing on the same level field. The doesn’t necessarily make for great drama, but it will leave most viewers with a smile.

Trumping Democracy
If, like several my closest friends and relatives, you spend an inordinate number of hours watching MSNBC and have eliminated Fox News from your programming guide, Thomas Huchon’s Trumping Democracy is a documentary that not only will get your juices flowing, but also put you off your feed for days to come. In a nutshell, it describes how multi-billionaire Robert Mercer, a major shareholder in Breitbart News, took control of then-candidate Donald Trump’s loosey-goosey campaign and molded it into a lean, mean war machine against Hillary Clinton and other Democratic candidates. The secretive computer scientist and AI pioneer inserted Breitbart editor Steve Bannon into the campaign as its manager – paying his salary, so Trump didn’t have to put it on his books – and the unctuous Kellyanne Conway as a key adviser and current counselor to the President. A polling company attached to Mercer’s operation first identified the constituency willing to pull Britain from the European Union and found parallels to the large number of American voters becoming alienated from both political parties and mainstream candidates. By exploiting their inability to distinguish Trump’s natural hyperbole from outright lies, Mercer’s minions effectively flooded social media with fake news – a term they would usurp and turn on the Democratic opposition – and right-wing PACs with cash. Anyone who doesn’t already believe someone like Mercer isn’t the puppet master controlling the President’s strings – and those attached to Bannon — probably would avoid Trumping Democracy like the plague. Political junkies should, however, find Mercer’s methodology as instructive as it is frightening. His ability to corrupt Facebook, through “dark posts” and other fabrications, is either the work of genius or fascism, depending on which side of the fence one stands. “In the darkness of the web, democracy was ‘trumped’ by data,” the doc successfully argues. Experts include psychometric scientist Dr. Michal Kosinski, PhD Psychology (University of Cambridge); David Carroll, associate professor of media design at the School of Art, Media and Technology at Parsons the New School for Design; Rosie Gray, Whitehouse Correspondent, The Atlantic; and Brendan Fischer, director, Federal & FEC Reform at the Campaign Legal Center, a Washington, D.C.-based non-partisan nonprofit. In November, Mercer announced he would step down from Renaissance Technologies and sell his stake in Breitbart News, which either means he has terminal cancer or is resting up for the 2018 midterm elections. Bannon has returned to Breitbart News, where he can manipulate Trump without being called to task for his crypto-Nazi beliefs.

Digimon Adventure Tri.: Confession: Blu-ray
In this, the third in a series of six feature length movies in the Digimon Adventure Tri series, infected Digimons continue to threaten both the human world and digital world. There is also a new threat when a mysterious message appears one night over all electrical devices stating that “the Digimon will be released again,” which creates mass panic. There is one possible solution: triggering a “reboot” which would reset the Digital World. But the reset comes at a high price, as the Digimons would lose all memories of their human companions. Special features include the English-premiere panel at Anime Expo 2017.

DVD Gift Guide II: Red Skelton, Bob Hope, Der Bingle, Hitchcock, Homicide, Agatha Christie, Jean Rouch, MST3K, Curtiz, Logan Lucky, Animal Factory, Woodshock and more

Thursday, November 30th, 2017

The Red Skelton Hour: In Color: Deluxe Collection
Thanks for the Memories: The Bob Hope Collection: Deluxe Box Set
Bob Hope: The Ultimate Movie Collection
Holiday Inn: 75th Anniversary Edition: Blu-ray
Because our grandparents and great-grandparents already seem to have everything they need, they get shorted when gifts are being handed out around the Christmas tree. The challenge of picking out presents grows greater every year, it seems. After all, how many sweaters, robes and slippers can a person possibly own? Why not give the gift that never gets older that it already is: nostalgia. No matter how many channels there are, the ones dedicated to shows seniors might recall with fondness are limited to TCM, PBS and niche services on premium networks. While it’s possible that they already enjoy watching reruns of “Seinfeld” and “The Simpsons” as much as their boomer and millennial offspring, I’d be surprised if they wouldn’t cherish the opportunity to revisit variety shows from the 1950-60s, hosted by and featuring entertainers they haven’t seen perform in decades. Shows dedicated to singing, dancing, comedy and holiday cheer disappeared from network television at about the same time that talk-show guests stopped wearing tuxedos and cocktail dresses and network execs figured out that it was more profitable to pull Charlie Brown, Rudolph and Frosty out of hibernation, than stage a gala attraction. A perusal of the timelife.com website offers a plethora of suggested titles, in boxed mega-sets and more affordable themed packages, featuring the stars of yesteryear. There was a time when Boomers would no sooner agree to spend an evening at home watching Bob Hope or Red Skelton than they would consider inviting mom and dad to a Grateful Dead concert. Now, the tables have turned. Watching the shows included in “The Red Skelton Hour: In Color: Deluxe Collection” and “Thanks for the Memories: The Bob Hope Collection: Deluxe Box Set,” I was surprised by how much I enjoyed the bits I once dismissed as being hopelessly square, over-scripted or oppressively wholesome. While I enjoy a good dick joke as much as anyone, I haven’t met an old-timer who feels comfortable watching comedians who pepper their material with language they once attributed to sailors, or can handle the decibel range of the bands booked alongside flavor-of-the-month celebrities only their grandchildren might recognize.

Like most of the big stars of television in the 1950s, Red Skelton and Bob Hope hadn’t reached puberty before they started busking for loose change on street corners. Skelton was only 10 when he parlayed his comedic and pantomime skills into jobs on a traveling medicine show and showboat, before joining the burlesque and vaudeville circuits. From age 12, Hope earned pocket money by entertaining passersby with his singing, dancing, jokes and impressions. Hope and his partner Lloyd Durbin were discovered in 1925 by Fatty Arbuckle, who found them work with a touring troupe called Hurley’s Jolly Follies. The skills honed on the streets of Vincennes and Cleveland laid the foundation for jobs on the stage, in radio, the movies, nightclubs and television. “The Red Skelton Hour” wasn’t originally shown in color, largely because CBS didn’t want to invest money in the still-nascent technology. It didn’t take long for consumers to begin clamoring for programming that justified their investment in color sets. Time Life’s “Deluxe Edition” is twice as large as the basic 11-disc package, leaving room for 65 hours of comedy, singing, dance and sketches with Red’s beloved characters. It includes the best of his early years on TV, featuring appearances by Jackie Gleason, Johnny Carson and John Wayne; 31 never-before-released color episodes, featuring Milton Berle, Martha Raye and Mickey Rooney; the complete final season, with Jerry Lewis, Jill St. John and Phyllis Diller; a full-length biography with rare home movies and interviews; his farewell specials, including a Christmas show; and a memory book, providing a closer look at how his characters came to life.

Hope not only is represented this year with “Thanks for the Memories,” with 38 hours of specials on 19 discs, including his historic shows entertaining the troops around the globe, but also Universal Studios’ “Bob Hope: The Ultimate Movie Collection,” which features 21 of his funniest films. The titles range from debut features The Big Broadcast of 1938, College Swing, Give Me a Sailor and Thanks for the Memory (1938), to Where There’s Life (1947), The Paleface (1948) and Sorrowful Jones (1949). Among his co-stars were Lucille Ball, W.C. Fields, Dorothy Lamour, George Burns, Gracie Allen, Martha Raye, Betty Grable, Paulette Goddard, Jane Russell and, of course, Bing Crosby. The set adds the PBS documentary, “American Masters: This is Bob Hope,” and several newsreels from the 1940s.

Universal has also dusted off the cold-weather chestnut, Holiday Inn, in a 75th-anniversary Blu-ray edition. If the film is known today primarily for introducing the Academy Award-winning “White Christmas” and providing a brand name for a chain of motels, it was originally designed as a showcase for holiday-themed songs by Irving Berlin and the singing/dancing prowess of Crosby and Fred Astaire. The inclusion of “White Christmas,” which was written with an entirely different movie in mind, was almost an afterthought, as was “Easter Parade,” published first in 1933. In the film, Crosby sings “White Christmas” as a duet with actress Marjorie Reynolds, though her voice was dubbed by Martha Mears. In the script as originally conceived, Reynolds, not Crosby, would sing the song. Both fabulously successful, “White Christmas” and “Easter Parade” would inspire movies under the same titles, in 1954 and 1948, respectively. The Blu-ray adds commentary by film historian Ken Barnes, with the taped material from Astaire, Crosby and music arranger John Scott Trotter; the featurettes, “A Couple of Song and Dance Men,” “All-Singing All-Dancing” and “Coloring a Classic”; and “Irving Berlin’s Holiday Inn: The Broadway Musical.”

Alfred Hitchcock: The Ultimate Collection: Blu-ray
Universal Studios Home Entertainment has released so many collections of movies by Alfred Hitchcock that it’s running out of superlatives to describe them. “Alfred Hitchcock: The Ultimate Collection” was preceded by “The Masterpiece Collection” and “The Essentials Collection,” as well as packages from Diamond Entertainment and Warner Bros. Some of the movies and featurettes are repeated, so consumers are urged to carefully study the list of contents before making a purchase. Otherwise, it’s difficult to go wrong with anything by or about the Master of Suspense. “Ultimate” includes digitally restored versions of Saboteur, Shadow of a Doubt, Rope, Rear Window, The Trouble with Harry, The Man Who Knew Too Much, Vertigo, North by Northwest, Psycho, The Birds, Marnie, Torn Curtain, Topaz, Frenzy and Family Plot. Not all were created equally, but even a flawed Hitchcock is better than a thriller by almost anyone else. Among the stars are James Stewart, Cary Grant, Grace Kelly, Paul Newman, Janet Leigh, Anthony Perkins, Tippi Hedren, Sean Connery and Kim Novak. The set contains more than 15 hours of insightful bonus features, an exclusive collectible book, 10 episodes of Hitch’s television anthologies and the six-minute-plus trailer for Psycho.

Homicide: Life on the Street: The Complete Series
Ever since the general acceptance of streaming, binge viewing has become the spectator sport of choice for couch potatoes and fans of quality television. Weekly series aren’t likely to disappear any time soon, but the opportunity to watch an entire season of a hot show, such as “Orange Is the New Black,” or every episode of an old favorite, like “Cheers,” in what amounts to a single sitting, can be too tempting to resist. Of all the packages released this year, Shout!Factory’s “Homicide: Life on the Street: Homicide: Life on the Street” is the can’t-miss title of 2017. Not only was it one of the most influential crime dramas in the history of series television, but it also provided David Simon with a launching pad for “The Corner,” “The Wire,” “Generation Kill,” “Treme,” “Show Me a Hero” and “The Deuce,” none of which resembled any series before them. “Homicide” broke the mold by offering viewers no-nonsense, procedural-type glimpses into the lives of a squad of inner-city detectives, giving full weight to minorities and women in roles not limited to heroin kingpins and prostitutes. Paul Attanasio (Quiz Show) based the series on then-reporter Simon’s book, “Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets.” Another thing that differentiated the series from other crime shows was the producers’ willingness to adjust stylistic conceits when viewers reacted negatively to hand-held camerawork, jump-cut editing and the repetition of the shots in key scenes. In addition to all 122 episodes from the original series, the set includes commentaries on select episodes; interviews with members of the creative team, an hour-long documentary about the making of “The Subway”; a panel discussion with exec-producers Tom Fontana and Barry Levinson, supervising producer James Yoshimura and Simon; “Law & Order” crossover episodes; and the 2000 finale, “Homicide: The Movie.”

Agatha Christie’s Poirot: Murder on the Orient Express
The Best of Agatha Christie: Volumes 1, 2
When in doubt, studio executives in England and the U.S. tend to go with the tested and true over the experimental and offbeat. It explains why Agatha Christie’s chestnut mysteries continue to be reheated with such regularity and with few concessions to modernity over previous interpretations. Kenneth Branagh’s recent re-adaptation of Murder on the Orient Express may not have set box offices on fire or impressed critics, but international audiences pushed receipts to $162.3 million, against a production budget of $55 million. That isn’t too bad. It even prompted Fox to announce a sequel, based on the 1937 novel, “Death on the Nile,” re-teaming writer Michael Green (Blade Runner 2049) and director/actor Branagh, the 15th man to play detective Hercule Poirot in a direct adaptation. (Why not Helen Mirren for a change?) Just in time for holiday gift-giving, Acorn Media has released “Agatha Christie’s Poirot: Murder on the Orient Express” and samplers of other Christie favorites originally shown on Britain’s ITV and PBS. The 2010 iteration of “Orient Express” starred David Suchet, who played the suave Belgian detective 70 times between 1989 and 2013, as well as Inspector Japp in “Thirteen at Dinner” (1985). Suchet was renowned for extensively researching the personality and character of each role he plays. To prepare for the role of Hercule Poirot on “Agatha Christie’s Poirot” (1989), he carefully read every description Christie ever wrote about the character, and adopted a soft French accent. In “Orient Express,” Poirot investigates the murder of a shady American businessman stabbed in his compartment on the famous train while it is blocked by a blizzard in Croatia. Suchet was joined by Sam Crane, Toby Jones, David Morrissey, Jessica Chastain, Eileen Atkins, Susanne Lothar, Barbara Hershey and Hugh Bonneville.

The Best of Agatha Christie: Volume One” is comprised of “And Then There Were None” (2015), in which 10 strangers are invited to an isolated island, only to be picked off one-by-one; “Five Little Pigs” (2003), in which Poirot is asked to clear the name of a woman, executed 14 years earlier, in the murder of her husband; and “Death on the Nile” (2004), in which a wealthy British heiress, honeymooning on a Nile cruise ship, is stalked by a former friend, whose boyfriend she had stolen before making him her new husband. Cast members include Charles Dance, Aidan Turner, Sam Neill, Miranda Richardson, Emily Blunt, J.J. Feild, Judy Parfitt, Rachael Stirling, Toby Stephens and Aidan Gillen. “The Best of Agatha Christie: Volume Two” (2016) is highlighted by “The Witness for the Prosecution,” about a young man attempting to clear his name in the death of his lover. In “Three Act Tragedy” (2011), when guests at successive dinner parties mysteriously drop dead, Poirot teams up with an old friend to find the killer. In “Hallowe’en Party” (2011), Poirot is asked by a crime novelist to investigate the macabre murder of a young girl at a children’s costume party. Here, besides Suchet, the stars include Zoë Wanamaker, Timothy West, Martin Shaw, Kim Cattrall, Billy Howle, Toby Jones and Andrea Riseborough. Bonus features on “Witness” add “From Page to Screen,” with Sarah Phelps explaining what inspired her adaptation of the 1925 story and subsequent play; “Post War Fashion,” in which costume designer, Claire Anderson, and cast members discuss the historical inspiration for the costumes; “Anatomy of a Murder,” in which lead makeup artist Samantha Marshall shares about creating a murder scene for the screen; “What Makes Christie Resonate Today,” with cast and crew members; and share about what makes Agatha Christie popular across the globe, and “Filming on the Front: When the Somme Came to Liverpool.”

Eight Films by Jean Rouch
Film Movement Film Club
Even if film buffs on your lists are unaware of French documentarian Jean Rouch’s work, they’re likely to appreciate an introduction through Icarus’ terrific retrospective, “Eight Films by Jean Rouch.” From 1946, when he made his first film in Niger, until his death in 2004, the Paris-born explorer, civil engineer, ethnologist and film director made more than 100 movies, most on African subjects, including six of the seven newly restored titles that are the focus of this boxed set. (One is a biodoc and the other a vérité walkabout through Paris.) Beginning in 1955, with his most controversial film The Mad Masters, through 1969’s darkly comic, Little by Little, they represent the most sustained flourishing of Rouch’s practice of “shared anthropology” – perhaps, inspired by Robert Flaherty’s partially staged docs — a process of collaboration with his subjects. They’re nothing like the documentaries and newsreels that emerged from colonial and post-colonial Africa in the period. For one thing, the white faces of the colonialists are in the distinct minority and the violence that came with liberation is secondary to images of social change and individuals caught up in the upheavals. He also made documentaries and feature films about France, including Chronicle of a Summer (1960), with the sociologist Edgar Morin, and Paris Vu Par … (1965), made with several New Wave directors, including Jean-Luc Godard, Claude Chabrol and Eric Rohmer. There are sections of Moi, Un Noir (“I, a Negro”) that could have provided a template for films made by writer/director Ousmane Sembène — the “father of African film” – and, perhaps, the characters in Perry Henzell’s The Harder They Come. The other titles are Mammy Water, The Human Pyramid, Jaguar, The Punishment, Jean Rouch: The Adventurous Filmmaker and The Lion Hunters, which follows a tribe on its ritual hunts over the course of seven years. It makes Donald Trump Jr.’s big-game expeditions look even worse than they already do.

Several years ago, when the Film Movement Film Club was still in its infancy, I gave a gift subscription to my father. Every month, he received an award-winning movie from one festival or another, usually months earlier than they were offered for public consumption. I can’t remember if I gave the service much of chance for survival – the movies were relatively obscure – but it did, and the selections have improved in quality and quantity. The service can now be streamed or delivered in the mail. Among the movies I’ve watched and admired in the past few months are Afterimage, Harmonium, Moka, Glory and After the Storm. There have been dozens of others, including some that competed for Oscars. Gift boxes are also available, divided by language, themes and festivals.

Mystery Science Theater 3000: Volume XXXIX
The Violent Years: Blu-ray
Bat Pussy: Blu-ray
MST3K’s XXXIXth entry not only marks the end of an era for the show, but also for lovers of the kinds of movies lampooned by the crew of the Satellite of Love. In addition to a pair of typically schlocky movies — Girls Town and The Amazing Transparent Man – the package adds the show’s final episode, featuring Mario Bava’s 1968 spy film Diabolik (a.k.a., “Danger: Diabolik”), which starred John Phillip Law, Marisa Mell, Terry-Thomas, Michel Piccoli and Adolfo Celi. Even with the editing of naughty bits, it may have been the best of the bad movies shown on MST3K. More significant, however, is the featurette,“Showdown in Eden Prairie: Their Final Experiment,” which looks back on the making of the final episode. Mike and the bots finally get their chance to escape Pearl Forrester’s clutches, after she buys a joystick from Radio Shack and uses it to send the orbiting screening room into a dive and make its inhabitants nauseous. When the joystick breaks, the ship goes into a death spiral toward Earth. “The Last Dance” adds 76 minutes of behind-the-scenes footage from the production’s final days. The fourth disc, “Satellite Dishes,” includes the host segments from 11 episodes whose rights remain elusive to Shout!Factory. “Behind the Scenes: Daniel Griffith on Ballyhoo” is an 18-minute interview with the guy who created many of the featurettes on MST3K sets. Otherwise, Girl Town (1959) is noteworthy for a cast that includes Mel Torme, Mamie Van Doren, Charlie Chaplin Jr., Harold Lloyd Jr., Paul Anka and Robert Mitchum’s son, James. Mamie plays a girl framed for murder and sent to a reform school run by nuns. There isn’t anything positive to say about The Amazing Transparent Man, a sci-fi flick in which a mad scientist devises a way to make an escaped convict invisible, so he can steal radioactive materials he needs to conduct more experiments. Instead, he robs a bank. As is the show’s wont, a short film on railroad safety has been included on the disc.

Even if the pre-Netflix editions’ of MST3K were to disappear – a fate I doubt will be realized – it probably would take a hundred years to exhaust the supply of cheeseball flicks that are being discovered by companies devoted to saving and restoring them for posterity. AGFA (American Genre Film Archive) and Something Weird have combined efforts to provide the world with a Blu-ray edition of The Violent Years (1956), William Morgan and Edward D. Wood Jr.’s 65-minute commentary on juvenile delinquency of the female variety and parental indifference to their daughters’ unladylike behavior. Playboy model Jean Moorhead plays Paula Parkins, a spoiled-rotten blond bombshell who leads her degenerate teenage hellcats down a path of gas-station hijackings, coed pajama-party orgies and cold-blooded murder. Unfortunately, too much time is wasted in the pronouncements of a self-righteous judge (I. Stanford Jolley), whose advice to the defendant is to get right with God. While behind bars, Paula manages to get pregnant without having sex with a male character. Her response to both is, “So, what?” It’s a mess, but far from unwatchable. And, yes, there’s a cameo by Wood in drag. The Blu-ray benefits from a new 4K scan from the original 35mm camera negative; the amusing commentary of Frank Henenlotter (Basket Case) and Wood biographer Rudolph Grey; trailers of sexy European imports from the 1950s from the Something Weird vault; and a bonus movie, Anatomy of a Psycho, from a new 2K scan of an original 35mm theatrical print. It describes what happens when the brother of a condemned hoodlum vows to punish everyone he considers to be responsible for the perceived injustice. One of the co-stars is Ronnie Burns, the handsome adopted son of George Burns and Gracie Allen. Also from AGFA/Something Weird is a movie once described as the worst porno parody ever made and a bona-fide “boner-killer.” After its initial 1973 release, Bat Pussy disappeared until the mid-1990s, when the sole known print was found by chance in the stockroom of an adult bookshop in Memphis. That no one noticed it was gone speaks volumes about its quality. Apparently, the citizens of Gothum City are under attack by smut peddlers and only one hero can help: Bat Pussy. As played by Dora Dildo – probably not her real name – the superheroine hangs out in her secret headquarters, until her “twat begins to twitch,” warning her of imminent crime. She then jumped onto her Hoppity-Hop balloon to foil the grotesque sex schemes of unhappily married hillbillies, Buddy and Sam. The new 2K scan is from the only surviving 16mm theatrical print. It adds a commentary track with Lisa Petrucci and Tim Lewis of Something Weird; crime-smut trailers and shorts from the Something Weird vault; liner notes by Lisa Petrucci and Mike McCarthy, the savior of Bat Pussy; the bonus movie, Robot Love Slaves, scanned in 2K from an original theatrical print; and double-sided cover art with illustrations by Johnny Ryan.

Go, Johnny, Go!
Free to Rock: How Rock & Roll Brought Down the Wall
When rock ’n’ roll was in its infancy and still learning to duck walk, Hollywood didn’t waste any time in exploiting what was then considered by many to be a fleeting craze. What doubters expected to replace it with was never revealed, because it never went away or fell out of favor with teenagers. Blackboard Jungle (1955) has been cited as the movie that first put Hollywood in the rock-’n’-roll business, even if Bill Haley was heard, but not seen. Unless one counts an appearance in the rarely, if ever shown 1955 documentary, The Pied Piper of Cleveland: A Day in the Life of a Famous Disc Jockey, Elvis Presley’s debut would come a year later in Love Me Tender. Other idols of Top 40 radio appeared as performers or actors in such enticing titles as Rock Around the Clock, Don’t Knock the Rock, Rock Rock Rock!, The Girl Can’t Help It, Mister Rock and RollCarnival Rock, Jamboree!, Shake, Rattle & Rock!, The Big Beat and High School Confidential! Even if the guitars weren’t plugged in and lyrics were lip-synched, it was fun to watch the musicians in action, as they are in Go, Johnny, Go! (1959). Produced by and starring legendary deejay Alan Freed, who soon would fall from grace in the payola scandal, it tells the story of a disc jockey who creates a teen idol (Jimmy Clanton), practically out of thin air. The story isn’t nearly as noteworthy as the contributions of Chuck Berry, Ritchie Valens, the Cadillacs, the Flamingos, The Cadillacs, Jackie Wilson, Eddie Cochran, Sandy Stewart, Jo Ann Campbell, Harvey Fuqua and Jimmy Cavalio and the House Rockers. Like most, maybe all the aforementioned movies, the lineup is thoroughly and naturally integrated. In something of surprise, Berry sings and acts. The Sprocket Vault restoration — from the original negative — is pristine. Commentary is provided by Richard M. Roberts, Randy Skretvedt and Brent Walker.

While Republicans continue to insist that Ronald Reagan single-handedly brought down Berlin Wall and evil Soviet empire, he had plenty of help. Pope John Paul II certainly had more influence on working-class Catholics in Poland and other Iron Curtain countries than the American president, as did the executives of media companies whose networks tantalized the citizens of imprisoned nations with rock music and reruns of “Dallas.” If there was anything that scared the crap out of the communist leaders of East Germany and the USSR, it was the threat presented by rock-’n’-roll and how it affected the fashions, hairstyles and attitude of western youths, who appeared to be under the music’s spell. As Emmy-winning documentarian Jim Brown points out in Free to Rock: How Rock & Roll Brought Down the Wall, Soviet leaders were so wary of the impact of rock music on its young people that they believed Elvis Presley was stationed in West Berlin to corrupt them. Not a bad idea, really, but it’s difficult to imagine anyone in Eisenhower’s Pentagon hip enough to come up with such a uniquely subversive idea. Brown traces the evolution of Russian rock from its banishment in the 1950-60s, through the end of the Cold War and on to the jailing of Pussy Riot members. Such bands as Flowers, Kino and Plastic People of the Universe sparked a revolutionary youth movement that openly defied the communist government, survived the KGB crackdowns and fueled a desire for freedom. Interviews with Jimmy Carter, Mikhail Gorbachev, Latvian President Vike-Freiberga, KGB General Oleg Kalugin and NATO Deputy Secretary General Alexander Vershbow attest to the impact of music on disaffected youth. They’re interspersed with images from concerts finally allowed by Soviet authorities and interviews with musicians from the west and east. The 10-year production benefitted from the funding and support of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the National Endowment for the Arts, the Grammy Museum Foundation, and the Stas Namin Centre, in Moscow.

Saving Christmas
Actor-turned-filmmaker Tom DeNucci has followed an unusual career path since going behind the camera on the 2013 thriller, Self Storage. None has enjoyed a theatrical release – here, at least – but direct-to-DVD and VOD releases no longer carry the same stigma they once did. After three hardcore genre pieces, DeNucci somehow found his way into the lucrative children’s arena with last year’s Arlo the Burping Pig and 2017’s Saving Christmas and The Santa Files, both starring 88-year-old Ed Asner. He also co-starred in Christmas All Over Again (2016), alongside an adorable mutt. DeNucci’s upcoming heist picture indicates that he hasn’t entirely abandoned the genre game, but anyone who’s shown a talent for churning out family and holiday-theme movies is going to find work in the lucrative market segment. Here, middle-schooler Danny (Jack Brunault) is a tech wizard, who, as the picture opens, still believes in Santa Claus. This will be his family’s first Christmas without their dad, which makes Danny determined to cheer up his little sister, Jennifer (Lindsay Blanchard), who, still grieving, has become a doubter. Bullied by a popular boy from school because of his “childish” belief, Danny vows to use his scientific know-how to prove the existence of the holiday icon. It won’t be easy, even after he discovers that his community’s toy company may be an outpost of Santa’s North Pole empire.

Books & other stuff
Michael Curtiz: A Life in Film
Barbara La Marr: The Girl Who Was Too Beautiful for Hollywood
You Ain’t Heard Nothin’ Yet: Interviews With Stars From Hollywood’s Golden Era
Owned: Property, Privacy, and the New Digital Serfdom
The Screen Classics division of the University Press of Kentucky has emerged as reliable publisher of books on film intended for scholars and general readers, alike. The series includes critical biographies, film histories and analytical studies, focusing on neglected filmmakers and important screen artists and subjects. That covers just about everything, I suppose. In the wake of a well-received biography of Gene Kelly come “Michael Curtiz: A Life in Film,” “Barbara La Marr: The Girl Who Was Too Beautiful for Hollywood” and “You Ain’t Heard Nothin’ Yet: Interviews With Stars From Hollywood’s Golden Era,” two are long-overdue biographies and the other a series of casual interviews intended for consumption by newspaper readers.  Born in Hungary in 1888, the 38-year-old Curtiz had already directed 64 films in Europe when he was invited to Hollywood by Warner Bros. He directed 102 films during his Hollywood career, mostly at Warners, where he directed 10 actors to Oscar nominations. Curtiz’ first Hollywood credit was a gangster melodrama, The Third Degree, which received a positive review in the New York Times. His final few films included King Creole, one of Elvis Presley’s best movies, and The Comancheros, with John Wayne, who took over the director’s seat when Curtiz became too ill to continue. In between, he directed such entertainments as The Charge of the Light Brigade (1936), The Sea Hawk (1940), Casablanca (1942), Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942), Mildred Pierce (1945) and White Christmas (1954). Before leaving WB, he tackled swashbuckling adventures, westerns, musicals, war epics, romances, historical dramas, horror films, tearjerkers, melodramas, comedies and film noir masterpieces. Writer and film scholar Alan K. Rode is the author of “Charles McGraw: Film Noir Tough Guy,” host and producer of the Arthur Lyons Film Noir Festival in Palm Springs, and director-treasurer of the Film Noir Foundation.

If anyone under the age of 50 were to be asked to look at publicity photographs of three silent-screen stars seductresses, they might be able to identify Clara Bow and Theda Bara, although not without some hesitation. It’s likely that the picture of Barbara La Marr would remain unidentified, even though she starred in such movies as The Picture of Zenda, The Eternal City and Thy Name Is Woman, and made headlines for her tempestuous lifestyle. In “Barbara La Marr: The Girl Who Was Too Beautiful for Hollywood,” Sherri Snyder not only explains why La Marr’s practically unknown today, but also the genesis of the book’s intriguing title. Hint: when she was 17, a year after being kidnapped by her older half-sister and a companion, a Los Angeles judge declared her “too beautiful to be alone in a big city” and ordered her to return home. (She reportedly was arrested at 14 for underage burlesque dancing.) When La Marr returned to L.A., she was ready to take the city by storm, as a dancer, party girl, serial bride, adulteress, scenario writer, actress and drug addict. She died at 29, three years after her final screen credit, a victim of tuberculosis, pain-killer abuse and exhaustion. (The Yakima native once said that life was too short to waste any of it by sleeping.) Cool, huh? Writer/actress/model Snyder portrays La Marr in a one-woman performance piece. “A Walk Through Time: Channeling Hollywood.”

In “You Ain’t Heard Nothin’ Yet,” James Bawden and Ron Miller return with a new collection of interviews with elite Hollywood stars, including Henry Fonda, Jimmy Stewart, Esther Williams, Buster Keaton, Maureen O’Sullivan, Bette Davis, Janet Leigh, Walter Pidgeon, Lon Chaney Jr., Boris Karloff and Vincent Price. Although the interviews first appeared under their bylines in various mainstream publications, we’re assured that the pieces have been updated and revised for more in-depth coverage. Many were written before press agents began to dictate terms for interviews and profiles, and parcel out favors to prominent publications. As such, readers are accorded up-close-and-personal reflections, often in the comfort of a star’s home. The authors previously collaborated on “Conversations With Classic Film Stars: Interviews From Hollywood’s Golden Era,” which has just been released in paperback by the same publisher.

Owned: Property, Privacy and the New Digital Serfdom” isn’t so much filled with holiday cheer than timely information on the changing nature of intellectual property, now that President Trump’s FCC is about to hand over the reins to the Internet to our country’s richest, greediest and least trustworthy media conglomerates. “Owned” explains how the increasing implementation of smart technology has given these corporations new opportunities to claim ownership over things we took for granted belonged to consumers. As one of the cover blurbs argues, “’Property in the digital age is getting strange. You can own things you can’t see or touch, like Bitcoins. But your ownership of things you can, like your car and your phone, has never been less secure. ‘Owned’ is an essential guide to how not to get owned by the things you think you own.” What better time and place to consider such dire warnings than Christmas morning, after the presents are opened. The author, Joshua A.T. Fairfield, is a professor of law at Washington and Lee University, where he is an internationally recognized law and technology scholar of digital property, electronic contract, big data privacy and virtual communities.

Master Models: ‘Star Wars’ Scenes
Master Models: ‘Star Wars’ R2-D2
With the hype machine in overdrive, promoting Star Wars: The Last Jedi ahead of its December 15 opening, it might be a good time to get ahead of the parade of merchandise that fans and parents will be asked to consider ahead of the holidays. Disney rarely leaves a stone unturned in its marketing campaigns, so, I suspect, the deluge has only just begun. Occasionally, though, material not specifically authorized by the Mouse House slips through, and some of it is well worth checking out. Becker & Mayer Books, for example, has already published Master Models kits that allow fans to learn the secrets behind the effects and innovations in three action-packed scenes: Obi-Wan Kenobi and Darth Vader’s duel on the smoldering mining planet of Mustafar, in Revenge of the Sith; the trench run on the Death Star, in A New Hope; and Kylo Ren and Rey’s lightsaber fight in the forest of Starkiller Base, in The Force Awakens. They can be re-created in papercraft dioramas, including one with LED lighting. The easy, step-by-step instructions help turn the included punch-out pieces into keepsake replicas. Master Models’ R2-D2 kit helps buffs relive the character’s heroic adventures and build a foot-tall paper model of the wee droid. It includes die-cut pieces, with metallic-ink printing, push-button lights, a paperback book, a sound chip and detailed instructions. They complement the recently re-published “Star Wars: The Blueprints,” by J.W. Rinzler, an intricately detailed coffee-table book that we discussed here a couple months ago.

New arrivals

Logan Lucky: Blu-ray
When news of a daring midrace robbery at the Charlotte Motor Speedway finally breaks on a North Carolina television station, the anchorman cleverly labels the caper, “Ocean’s 7-Eleven.” Although Danny Ocean probably wouldn’t be caught dead at a NASCAR event or convenience store, the reference not only pinpoints where the getaway truck is discovered in Steven Soderberg’s irresistible Logan Lucky, but also his connection to the popular series of heist films, the last three of which he directed. (He’s currently producing “Ocean’s Eight,” featuring a cast of A-list actresses, for release next June.) Any further comparison between Ocean’s hand-picked crew of world-class thieves and the motley crew of Southern reprobates assembled by the notoriously unlucky Jimmy (Channing Tatum) and Clyde Logan (Adam Driver) simply wouldn’t hold water. The insanely complicated heist, which takes place during the running of the Coca-Cola 600, is, however, choreographed with the same precision, fragility and comic timing as any of the jobs planned by Frank Sinatra or George Clooney. It also bears an uncanny resemblance to Stanley Kubrick’s 1956 adaptation of the Jim Thompson novel, The Killing. The Logans are unlucky in different ways. Clyde had his hand blown off in the war, while Jimmy’s bum leg kept him from pursuing an NFL career and, later, caused him to be fired from his job on a construction site underneath the surface of the speedway’s 1.5-mile track. Before he’s handed his walking papers, though, Jimmy discovers a system of pneumatic tubes that deliver currency from concession stands to a counting room and impenetrable underground safe. He’s already overheard the code number of a locked door that separates the construction from the track’s circulatory system, but needs help with other aspects of the plan. For that, Jimmy turns to Joe Bang (Daniel Craig), a bulked-up safecracker currently doing time in a West Virginia prison, and his dim-witted brothers, Fish (Jack Quaid) and Sam (Brian Gleeson). Riley Keough and Katie Holmes must have studied reruns of “Hee-Haw” to play Jimmy’s sister and ex-wife, respectively, while little Farrah Mackenzie steals the show as the crook’s pageant-obsessed daughter. If that makes Logan Lucky sound as if it’s just another indictment of Southern culture on the skids, you should know that it stops well short of being a parody based solely on tired cracker stereotypes. The screenplay is attributed to Rebecca Blunt, believed to be a pseudonym for an unidentified writer or, perhaps, Soderbergh. The ever-inventive filmmaker decided to cut out the middle man, by creating a new company, Fingerprint Releasing, to serve as a distribution “conduit” that aims to connect filmmakers and exhibitors. He raised the money he needed to make the picture through selling off foreign distribution rights and post-theatrical rights to premium-cable outlets and other ancillary interests to cover prints and marketing. With nearly everything prepaid, and no hefty distributor fees coming off the top, even a modest $15-million opening would be a win. While the critics were overwhelmingly positive, Logan Lucky’s primary competition, The Hitman’s Bodyguard, attracted the larger share of its target demographic over an atypically slow August weekend. The only bonus feature is a pair of deleted scenes, one of which features a tabletop tap dance by legendary hillbilly outlaw, Jesco White.

False Confessions
After Love
Whenever a major movie star accepts a role on the Broadway stage, ticket sales tend to go through the roof. If the play is any good and reviews were positive, producers may be able to survive the absence of the A-lister by adding another familiar name to the marquee. With less surefire properties, though, the added expense usually isn’t worth the risk. The lines outside Paris’ Odeon Theater, where Isabelle Huppert was starring in Marivaux’s “Les fausses confidences,” probably were similar to those at New York’s TKTS Discount Tickets Booth, in Times Square, over the Christmas holiday. Considering her recent run of superb performances in Elle, Things to Come, Valley of Love and Louder Than Bombs, I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that more than a few of Huppert’s American fans made the trip to Paris, just to watch her light a fire under the 280-year-old drama. As is so often the case, some astute television executive took advantage of the occasion by recording False Confessions for posterity, as well as the enjoyment of contemporary viewers. Instead of merely placing cameras and microphones in strategic locations and recording what’s taking place on stage, however, director Luc Bondy shot the TV presentation during the day, using the same actors and Odeon Theater settings that were being employed at night for the plays. (He died in mid-production and was replaced by his wife, Marie-Louise Bischofberger.) The only concession to film comes when the interactions take place on a balcony overlooking a Paris street and in the Luxembourg Gardens. The costumes and hair styles also were updated. A DVD was released only a few days before it aired on French television. Huppert commands the screen as Araminte, the wealthy widow who unwittingly hires a secretary (Louis Garrel), pre-approved by her trusted servant (Yves Jacques) as someone able to weasel his way into her heart and check book. Manon Combes plays Araminte’s friend and confidante, who falls hard for the imposter. Bulle Ogier delivers a memorable turn as Araminte’s cranky mother, who suspects the young man’s intentions and wants to push her daughter into the arms of an elderly count (Jean-Pierre Malo). Apart from some Shakespearian twists and turns, False Confessions probably would require too much work on the part of American viewers to fully enjoy. But, Huppert makes the effort pay off.

John Cassavetes proved that arthouse audiences would happily endure a couple of hours watching a husband and wife yelling at each other and nearly coming to blows, before suddenly remembering the pleasure that comes with makeup sex. It helped, of course, that he could count on the services of a Gena Rowlands, Peter Falk, Ben Gazzara, Seymour Cassel or John Marley to deliver the goods. The Cassavetes touch is exactly what’s missing in Belgian filmmaker Joachim Lafosse’s After Love, a story about a once happily married couple, no longer willing to make the compromises necessary to stay together, even for the sake of their two charming daughters. The problem boils down to Boris’ inability to find work as an architect and Marie’s increasing weariness over covering the mortgage, bills and groceries. They agree to split, but Boris is too broke to afford a place of his own to crash and, for some reason, Marie won’t allow him to accept a job rehabbing her wealthy mother’s home. Instead, they argue in front of the girls and sleep in separate rooms. After an hour of bickering, we begin to feel as frustrated and angry as the kids caught in the middle of this turmoil. Bérénice Bejo and Cédric Kahn are credible as combatants, but aren’t supported by a script that adds depth to their characters. It’s always nice to see Marthe Keller – co-star of Marathon Man, Black Sunday and Bobby Deerfield, in 1976-77 — who is still radiant at 72.

Woodshock: Blu-ray
Like too many other first features by artists who’ve made a reputation in other creative disciplines, Woodshock suffers from being too ambitious. Co-writer/directors Kate and Laura Mulleavy, known primarily for their distinctively ethereal fashion line, Rodarte, have followed designer Tom Ford (A Single Man) and Agnès B (My Name Is Hmmm …) by creating a movie that takes cues from their dreamy non-cinematic concepts and memories of growing up among the redwoods on California’s central coast. As such, Woodshock contains scenes in which the gigantic trees of upstate Eureka could double for backgrounds in a glossy magazine fashion spread. The characters, however, lack the kind of personal information that wouldn’t be missed in a Vogue spread, but are essential in a narrative feature. Kirsten Dunst’s deeply troubled protagonist, Theresa, sometimes appears to be channeling Justine, the palpably depressed bride she played in Lars von Trier’s Melancholia. Married to a logger who’s conflicted by the demands of his job, Justine works at a medical marijuana dispensary that appears to double as a clearing house for terminal cases seeking the means for euthanasia. She recently assisted her cancer-ridden mother commit suicide by concocting a mixture of pot and an unidentified toxic liquid. She spends the rest of the movie wandering around her mother’s house in a haze, occasionally tripping through the redwoods and being scolded by her boss, Keith (Pilou Asbæk), for being tardy or inattentive. As her depression worsens, Justine appears to play Russian Roulette with her stash of spiked joints, as well as playing God with friends who either want to get high or die. We know why the terminally ill characters are in contact with Justine and Keith, but not what makes the principles tick. Credit for the alternately meditative and spacy cinematography goes to Peter Flinckenberg (Concrete Night). Woodshock adds an EPK-like making-of featurette, with interviews. FYI: The Mulleavys designed some of the ballet costumes, at least, in Black Swan.

Rememory: Blu-ray
Not so long ago, the premise behind Rememory would be deemed sufficiently far-fetched to relegate it to the sci-fi ghetto on Netflix or Amazon. A closer examination would argue for Mark Palansky’s promising sophomore feature to be given a duel listing, with the accent on police procedural. Given recent scientific advancements, how difficult would it be to imagine a time in the not-too-distant future when our brains were able to record and store memories in the same way that VCRs and DVRs capture television programming? Those recollections could then be transferred verbatim to a computer disc or some other kind of interpretive gizmo. Here, Martin Donovan plays Gordon Dunn, a visionary scientist whose lifeless body is found in his office, shortly after unveiling just such a device. After a patient’s thoughts are downloaded onto a computer, they can be transferred to a glass plate, not unlike the slides used in high school chemistry cl asses. Besides the killer, several people have a vested interest in discovering what Dunn might have seen before his death and recorded into the machine, which is missing. They include investors and a human guinea pig (Anton Yelchin), whose memories could reveal criminal activity related or unrelated to the crime, itself. Dunn’s wife, Carolyn (Julia Ormond), retreats into her rural house and cuts off contact with the outside world, until a mysterious man played by Peter Dinklage shows up with a bottle of vintage whiskey. He’s an architectural model builder, who, years earlier, survived a wreck that killed his rock-star brother (Matt Ellis). Still plagued with guilt, he’s especially sorry that he can’t remember the final words his brother mumbled as he died. Although Palansky sometimes has trouble holding things together, Rememory features another sterling performance by Dinklage and bears some resemblance, at least, to Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004) and Brainstorm (1983). The package adds commentary with Palansky and Dinklage, and the 32-minute backgrounder, “The Memories We Keep.”

Deathdream: Blu-ray
Bob Clark, who was killed in an accident caused by a drunk driver in 2007, is the rare director of exploitation fare whose more dubious achievements – Black Christmas, Porky’s II: The Next Day, Rhinestone — were redeemed by a movie universally considered to be one of the great holiday films of all time, A Christmas Story. Based on material from Jean Shepherd’s collection of short stories, “In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash,” A Christmas Story took a while to find its audience – unlike Clark’s passable coming-of-age comedy, the original Porky’s, which was a huge hit – but, once it did, the nostalgic family comedy bypassed cult status to become a legitimate classic. (In December, Fox will broadcast a live rendition of the Broadway production, “A Christmas Story: The Musical.”) I only mention this to remind readers of Clark’s contributions to U.S. and Canadian culture, beyond the newly re-released Deathdream, one of many entertainments inspired by the W.W. Jacobs short story, “The Monkey’s Paw.” Although it was made in Florida, Deathdream (a.k.a., “Dead of Night,” “The Night Walk” and “The Night Andy Came Home”) is considered to be, at once, an early example of Canuxploitation and indictment of the effects of PTSD on Vietnam vets. According to the authoritative Canuxploitation.com website, it was made after Toronto-based Quadrant films had success distributing Clark and writer Alan Ormsby’s debut, Children Shouldn’t Play With Dead Things (1972), to drive-ins throughout the Great White North. Deathdream opens in a Floridian facsimile of Vietnam, where Andy Brooks (Richard Backus) is shot and killed in a firefight. His mother, Christine (Lynn Carlin), refuses to believe he’s dead, even after an Army chaplain arrives at their home to deliver the bad news. Sure enough, hours later, Andy is seen catching a ride home with a patriotic truck driver, whose body will be found the next day drained of blood. Still, everyone’s happy to see him when he walks through the door of the family home. Not surprisingly, Andy’s not the same good-natured young man who left home to serve his country months earlier. In fact, he’s a dangerous cross between a vampire and a zombie. As long as he’s able to acquire fresh transfusions of blood, Andy will be able to pass for human. If not, he’ll begin decomposing before our eyes, thanks to the early gore effects of Tom Savini (Dawn of the Dead). Blue Underground has restored the film in 2K, from the 35mm negative in its most complete version to date. It adds separate commentaries with Clark and Ormsby; a recollection with co-star Anya Liffey and Ormsby, her former husband; interviews with Backus, Savini, composer Carl Zittrer and production manager John Bud Cardos; alternate opening titles; still galleries; a student film by Ormsby; and collectable booklet, with new essay by critic Travis Crawford.

No Gods, No Masters
The last thing most Americans would choose to watch in their spare time is a three-part, 180-minute documentary on the tumultuous history of anarchy and the international body of men and women who devoted themselves to making it a reality. While no governments ever fully collapsed behind anarchic and libertarian uprisings, alone, I was surprised to learn how close these movements came to loosening the stifling grip of the ruling class, oligarchs, totalitarians and bourgeoisie on the necks of workers and peasants around the world. Besides the assassinations and bombings that changed the course of history in the late-19th and early-20th centuries, fear of a greater spread of violence probably eased the acceptance of unions in the U.S. and Europe by industrialists. They also pushed steadily for equality of the sexes, unfettered love, civil rights and the suffrage movement. Lenin and Stalin were no more anxious to see a rise in anarchism than were Calvin Coolidge, FDR and Franco. Lately, self-proclaimed anarchists took advantage of the growing disparity in wealth and growth of an underclass to stage violent protests wherever members of the World Trade Organization and International Monetary Fund gathered. Their anger only increased when the Obama administration refused to punish Wall Street interests for their role in the 2008 economic collapse and end a war in the Middle East that brought death and destruction to combatants and civilians, alike. With President Trump rushing to overturn every piece of progressive legislation enacted since the Carter administration, the time may once again be ripe for radical action. If so, the investment in time watching the first English translation of Daniel Gurin’s No Gods, No Masters: An Anthology of Anarchism could be considered three hours well spent. The series is broken into chapters, “The Passion for Destruction (1840-1906),” which explores how anarchism emerged from the horrendous social conditions facing workers at a time when industrialization was, paradoxically, providing better hygiene and social standards for the upper class; “Land and Freedom (1907-1921),” on the differing strains within the anarchist movement during the peak of its popularity; and “In Memory of the Vanquished (1922-1945),” which traces the appropriation of anarchism by communists and of anarchist symbolism by European fascists. It offers a vast array of unpublished documents, letters, debates, manifestos, reports, impassioned calls-to-arms and reasoned analysis of the history, organization and practice of the movement, as well as writings by Emma Goldman, Kropotkin, Berkman, Bakunin, Proudhon, and Malatesta.

Death Laid an Egg: Blu-ray
Released in 1968, on the eve of the golden age of giallo, Giulio Questi and writer Franco Arcalli’s wildly idiosyncratic Death Laid an Egg set a high bar for the emerging genre. Boiled down to its essentials, the bright, erotic and experimental thriller stages a traditional battle of the sexes against the background of a socio-political satire. A love triangle develops between three people who run a high-tech chicken farm: Marco (Jean-Louis Trintignant), his wealthy wife Anna (Gina Lollobrigida) and their secretary, Gabrielle (Ewa Aulin). Having sacked the workers and gone fully automated, the business now produces record profits. Beneath the glossy surface, though, run parallel streams of criminality, perversity and horror. Marco spends his weekends playing kinky games with prostitutes, before murdering them. He hopes to eliminate Anna and make off with her money, as well, but is required to compete with the company’s publicist (Jean Sobieski) for Gabrielle’s hand. A freak accident at the lab produces a mutant strain of headless, wingless chickens – this was before Buffalo wings — that Anna and the company’s stockholders see as a lucrative new profit center. Marco, the murderer, is repulsed by the new development and plots to subvert the process. Death Laid an Egg advances several giallo conceits, including the killer’s black gloves, a jazzy opening montage and disorienting score by Bruno Maderna. Questi had set the table for the movie’s inventive style with the bizarro Western, Django Kill … If You Live, Shoot! (1967). Arcalli would go on to share credits on 1900, Once Upon a Time in America and Last Tango in Paris. The Cult Epics Blu-ray adds a lobby-cards gallery and Maderna’s isolated score.

Animal Factory: Special Edition: Blu-ray
If Edward Bunker hadn’t existed, it’s unlikely that any Hollywood screenwriter could have invented a character quite like him. (The same could be said about Danny Trejo, I suppose.) A career criminal who once held the dubious distinction of being the youngest-ever inmate in San Quentin State Prison, Bunker was inspired by Caryl Chessman (“Cell 2455 Death Row”) to begin writing stories about his experiences and observations. The advice didn’t begin to pay dividends until the early 1970s, when his first novel, “No Beast So Fierce,” was published and rights to it were optioned by Dustin Hoffman, for the movie Straight Time (1978). Two years after being paroled, in 1975, Bunker’s second novel, “Animal Factory,” was published to favorable reviews. It would take another 23 years for the book to be adapted to film, this time by co-producer/director Steve Buscemi and co-writer John Steppling. In the meantime, he appeared in a couple dozen pictures – Reservoir Dogs, Tango & Cash, Best of the Best – co-wrote the screenplay for Runaway Train and served as a consultant on Heat and other genre flicks. He befriended Trejo in California’s Folsom Prison in the late 1970s and they since worked together on Runaway Train, Heat and Animal Factory. Despite a terrific performance by Hoffman, Straight Time, failed to attract the audience it deserved. Animal Factory, which was shot in a decommissioned prison in Pennsylvania and received excellent reviews, didn’t do any better. It stars Edward Furlong as Ron Decker, a troubled youth who’s sentenced to a five-year bit in a maximum-security prison on a marijuana-dealing beef. (It would subsequently be doubled for bad behavior.) Standing a sliver under 5-foot-6 and possessing the kind of hangdog look that would make him a prime target for sexual predators, Decker is taken under the wing of Earl Copen (Willem Dafoe), an experienced con who’s conversant with the ins and outs of prison life and has the respect of the various gangs. After surviving several close calls, their father/son relationship is severely tested by Ron’s increasingly cocky behavior. What separates Animal Factory from a dozen other very good prison pictures is its authentic dialogue, raw look and the tombstone eyes of the prisoners, many of whom were convicts recruited from other facilities. The professional actors did their homework, as well. Mickey Rourke is nearly unrecognizable as a prison-weary drag queen; Tom Arnold is frightening as a would-be rapist; Mark Boone Junior and Chris Bauer look as if they had been one of the guys discovered at an open call in a prison yard; Trejo is Trejo; Bunker looks as if he never left the joint; and Seymour Cassel and Buscemi might as well have been on the payroll as a guard and bureaucrat. The Arrow Video release adds an interview with critic and noir historian Barry Forshaw, covering Eddie Bunker’s varied career; vintage commentary by Bunker and Trejo; a reversible sleeve, featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Jacob Phillips; and a collector’s booklet containing new writing on the film by Glenn Kenny.

Misery: Collector’s Edition: Blu Ray
No stranger to Blu-ray, Rob Reiner and William Goldman’s nifty adaptation of the Stephen King novel, “Misery,” really needs no further introduction in its Scream Factory incarnation. Annie Wilkes (Kathy Bates) remains as scary as ever, while the stranded novelist Paul Sheldon (James Caan) is every bit as vulnerable as in Misery’s various other VHS, DVD and Blu-ray editions. The difference here is that it’s been given a fresh 4K scrub from the original film elements and new interviews with Reiner and special-makeup-effects artist Greg Nicotero. Previous bonus material includes commentaries with Reiner and Goldman; “Misery Loves Company,” featuring interviews with Reiner, Kathy Bates, James Caan and Frances Sternhagen; and the featurettes “Marc Shaiman’s Musical Misery Tour,” “Diagnosing Annie Wilkes,” “Advice for the Stalked,” “Profile of a Stalker,” “Celebrity Stalkers,” “Anti-Stalking Laws.”

Operation Petticoat: Limited Edition: Blu-ray
Father Goose: Limited Edition: Blu-ray
After a brief delay, due to a technical glitch, Olive Films has released the wartime comedies, Father Goose and Operation Petticoat, as part of its limited-edition Signature Series. Unlike Blu-rays of vintage titles typically released by the company, Signature titles includes bonus featurettes, interviews, commentaries, newsreels and critical essays. The pressings are limited to 3,500 copies. Besides the period and military settings, Father Goose (1964) and Operation Petticoat (1959) share the presence of Cary Grant, who, in 1966, at 62, would retire from acting. In Blake Edwards’ Operation Petticoat, Grant plays the commander of the U.S. submarine Sea Tiger, which was commissioned and nearly destroyed after the attack on Pearl Harbor and declaration of war. After being sunk by a Japanese plane, the sub is raised, given a partial two-week overhaul and sent to a repair station, 400 miles away, limping out on one bad engine. Besides the crew, five American nurses are brought along for the ride. Just before New Year’s Day, the Sea Tiger is docked in Australia for retrofitting. Due to a shortage of traditional Navy gray paint, the primer is created by combining existing supplies of red and white paint. Temporarily, at least, the entire craft is a bright pink, with a topcoat of gray scheduled for application shortly thereafter. Tony Curtis plays a procurement officer, whose skill for acquiring requisitions will remind viewers of Milo Minderbinder, who would appear two years later in Joseph Heller’s “Catch-22.” Joan O’Brien and Dina Merrill play Edwards-ian nurses engaged in a comedic tug of war with the officers. The Blu-ray is enhanced by a new high-definition digital restoration; commentary by critic Adrian Martin; “That’s What Everybody Says About Me,” with Jennifer Edwards and actress Lesley Ann Warren; “The Brave Crew of the Petticoat,” with actors Gavin MacLeod and Marion Ross; “The Captain and His Double: Cary Grant’s Struggle of the Self,” – with Marc Eliot, author of “Cary Grant: A Biography”; Universal Newsreel footage of Grant and the movie’s premiere at the Radio City Music Hall; archival footage of the submarine USS Balao, which doubled as the USS Sea Tiger in Operation Petticoat; and an essay by critic Chris Fujiwara.

In what would be his second-to-last film appearance, Grant plays a boozy beachcomber on an idyllic island hideaway, coerced into service as a lookout for the Allies during World War II. He will soon be joined by seven mischievous schoolgirls and their prim and proper teacher (Leslie Caron), left stranded on a nearby island following an enemy attack. Trevor Howard plays the Navy commander Frank Houghton, who becomes the proverbial thorn in Grant’s side. Some observers believe that the scene in which Grant teaches Caron how to fish with her bare hands qualifies as big screen’s first “wet T-shirt” moment, although far less revealing than Jacqueline Bisset’s famous scene in The Deep, a dozen years later. Father Goose won an Academy Award for Best Writing, Story and Screenplay Written Directly for the Screen. The limited edition adds a 4K scan of original camera negative; commentary by film historian David Del Valle; “Unfinished Business: Cary Grant’s Search for Fatherhood and His Oscar,” with Marc Eliot, author of “Cary Grant: A Biography”; “My Father,” in which Internet pioneer Ted Nelson discusses director Ralph Nelson; Universal Newsreel footage featuring Caron; and an essay by critic Bilge Ebiri.

TV-to-DVD
Lifetime: Girl in the Box
PBS: Masterpiece: Poldark: The Complete Third Season: Blu-ray
PBS: The Gene Doctors
PBS: Craft in America: Borders and Neighbors
PBS: POV: Swim Team
PBS: Vermeer, Beyond Time
Based on a frightening true story, Lifetime’s “Girl in the Box” is based on the 1977 kidnapping of 20-year-old Colleen Stan by Cameron and Janice Hooker, as she was hitchhiking from Eugene, Oregon, to a friend’s house in northern California. For the next seven years, the young married couple kept Colleen locked in a coffin-sized box, hidden beneath their bed, for up to 23 hours a day. When not imprisoned, Colleen was forced into becoming a live-in slave, child-minder and victim of Cameron’s perverted sexual inclinations. First-time writer/producer/director Stephen Kemp’s re-creation the young woman’s ordeal comes as close to “torture porn” as one could expect for a Lifetime movie, even one produced originally for Canadian television. The case received plenty of attention around the world and has inspired scenarios for numerous network crime series, books and movies. Coming so soon after the kidnapping and conversion to radical politics of Patty Hearst, Colleen’s predicament prompted media experts to describe it as another example of Stockholm syndrome, which causes abductees to empathize and sympathize with their captors. Eight months after she was kidnaped, Colleen signed a contract agreeing to serve as the Camp’s slave for life. To prevent her from attempting to escape, they also brainwashed her into believing that activities in the house were being monitored by a large, powerful organization called “The Company,” which would torture her and harm her family if she tried to flee captivity. Colleen eventually was allowed to leave the house without supervision and even visit her parents. “Girl in the Box” is enhanced by convincing performances by Addison Timlin (“Californication”), Zane Holtz (“From Dusk Till Dawn: The Series”) and Zelda Williams (“Dead of Summer”). The latter is the daughter of Robin and Marsha Garces Williams, who named her after Princess Zelda from the “Legend of Zelda” video-game series.

Season Three of the “Masterpiece” mini-series, “Poldark,” opens by tying up loose ends from the violent conclusion to Season Two and unraveling more strands holding together the ongoing BBC/PBS soap opera. Being 1794, war and the revolution in France hang like dark storm clouds over the Cornwall coast. Despite Ross’ declaration of love after the beating Demelza endured at the hands of George Warleggan’s thugs, their marriage is as fragile as it ever was. Also, hanging over the early episodes are questions about the paternity of Elizabeth Warleggan’s son, Valentine; the intentions of her newly arrived cousin, Morwenna (Ellise Chappell); and motivations of Demelza’s brothers Drake and Sam (Harry Richardson, Tom York). When the ships carrying Captain Blamey and Dr. Enys are reported missing, Ross leads a small raiding party to France to rescue Enys. George will test fate by using his stockpile of grain as a weapon against starving miners and farmers and Demelza gives birth to a baby girl. And, that’s just for starters. At the conclusion of the third-season finale, it was announced that Poldark will return for a fourth year. The Blu-ray adds 30-plus minutes of behind-the-scenes coverage.

PBS’ “The Gene Doctors” delivers reasons for optimism to parents of the estimated million-plus babies born annually with a hereditary disease, which are often fatal. Until lately, doctors could only treat the symptoms of these ailments. Now a pioneering cadre of gene doctors, is starting to target root causes. Through intimate stories of families whose lives are being transformed, “The Gene Doctors” takes viewers to the frontlines of a medical revolution.

In “Boarders and Neighbors,” this season’s theme for PBS’ Peabody Award-winning documentary series, “Craft in America,” the relationships and influences that Mexican and American craft artists exert on each other’s work and their cultures are explored. Visits with more than 25 weavers, ceramic artists, papermakers, jewelers, muralists and altar makers, reveal just how porous the borders separating these cultures are.

In the “POV” presentation, “Swim Team,” we’re introduced to the parents of a boy on the autism spectrum who take matters into their own hands, forming a competitive swim team, recruiting other teens on the spectrum and training them with high expectations and zero pity. Watch the extraordinary rise of the Jersey Hammerheads, capturing a moving quest for inclusion, independence and a winning life.

Images from Johannes Vermeer’s paintings have become permanent part of our collective imagination and are instantly recognizable as masterpieces. In French filmmaker Jean-Pierre Cottet’s splendid bio-doc, “Vermeer, Beyond Time,” we learn that this wasn’t always the case. Vermeer died in 1675, at 43, overwhelmed by poverty, physically weakened and humiliated. Soon afterward, his paintings were sold to cover his debts. It took another 200 years for his work to be appreciated for its sensitivity, unique light and interpretive genius. The film explores Vermeer’s family life, including his conversion to Catholicism, his artistic contemporaries and the wider world of the short-lived Dutch Golden Age of the 17th Century.

The DVD Wrapup: Good Time, Hitman’s Bodyguard, Tavernier’s Journey, Valerion, Lemon, Jabberwocky, Mick Ronson, Harmonium and more

Wednesday, November 22nd, 2017

IMG_0174Good Time: Blu-ray
It’s been eight years since critics predicted great things from Josh and Benny Safdie’s semi-autobiographical dramedy, Daddy Longlegs (a.k.a., “Go Get Some Rosemary”) impressed audiences at Cannes and, two years later, was nominated for three Indie Spirit Awards, taking home the prestigious John Cassavetes Award. Audiences weren’t given much access to it, except in DVD. Between then and now, the Safdies focused their energy on several festival-favorite shorts (“The Black Balloon”) and documentaries (“Lenny Cooke”), and Heaven Knows What, a harrowing feature that revisited the same territory assayed in Panic in Needle Park (1971). Released in 2014, it once again impressed festival judges and critics, without making a dent at the box office. Their race-against-the-clock crime thriller, Good Time, followed the same route to theaters, but, this time, was able to parlay the presence of Robert Pattison into a decent run at a few hundred theaters here and abroad. The actor has come a long way from his tenure as Edward Cullen, in the “Twilight” series. Like Kristen Stewart, his co-star and love interest in “Twilight,” Pattison’s taken on several challenging roles — The Childhood of a Leader, Cosmopolis, Maps to the Stars, The Lost City of Z – at least partially intended to challenge the public’s impressions of what he’s capable of accomplishing on screen. Good Times may be his most impressive transformation to date. Tuesday, Pattison’s performance was honored with a Indie Spirit nomination, his first, along with nods for Best Editing (Ronald Bronstein, Benny Safdie), Best Supporting Actor (Bennie Safdie), Best Supporting Actress (Taliah Lennice Webster), Best Director (Benny and Josh Safdie).

Pattinson stars as Connie Nikas, a bonehead hoodlum from Queens, who embarks on a one-night odyssey through New York’s criminal underworld in a desperate attempt to rescue his mentally retarded brother, Nick (Benny Safdie), from a heavily guarded ward in hospital. After extracting Nick from a court-ordered therapy session earlier in the day, Connie brings him along on a bank robbery that the dimwitted young man is singularly ill-prepared to handle. They get away with a duffle bag full of money, without anticipating that the teller might have spiked the bills with dye packs. When one explodes in their getaway car, Nick completely freaks out. One blunder leads to another and he is arrested and sent to Riker’s Inland, where the other inmates aren’t nearly as compassionate towards his limitations as Connie has been. A fight ensues, leaving Nick in a Manhattan hospital and a $25,000 bond hanging over his head. Brotherly love dictates that Connie raise the bail money or, failing that, bust him out of the hospital. Instead, he mistakes an alcoholic parolee for Nick, escaping with him into the New York night once again to come up with the money to cover the bail. This time, though, finds shelter with a 16-year-old waif, Crystal (Taliah Webster), who hooks him up with a manufacturer of LSD and aspires to nothing greater than being a gangster’s moll. In some ways, the brothers in Good Time remind me of George and Lenny, in “Of Mice and Men.” Apparently, the original screenplay – co-written by Josh Safdie and frequent collaborator Ronald Bronstein – was written more as a buddy comedy than a dark and scary thriller, whose urgency is magnified by a pulsating score by Cannes-winner Daniel Lopatin (The Bling Ring). In an interview with Charlie Rose, Benny Safdie said that he and Pattinson prepared for their roles by working in-character at a car wash in Queens. That rings true, as well. The disc adds the featurette, ”The Pure and the Damned”; a music video; and commentary with the Safdies, producer Sebastian Bear McClard, and actors Taliah Webster and Buddy Duress.

The Hitman’s Bodyguard: Blu-ray
Capping what was designated by Box Office Mojo as the worst August in two decades and worst summer in more than 10 years, the all-action buddy flick The Hitman’s Bodyguard brought smiles to faces at Lionsgate with three No. 1 postings in a row. The $30-million investment returned $75.5 million at the domestic box office and another $101.2 million in foreign sales. Shot on multiple locations in the Netherlands, England and Bulgaria, Patrick Hughes and Tom O’Connor’s extensively re-conceptualized story – from dramatic thriller, to comedy/romance — looks as if it might have cost twice that much to make. It stars such international favorites as Ryan Reynolds, Samuel L. Jackson, Gary Oldman, Salma Hayek, Elodie Yung and Joaquim de Almeida and features car/boat chases galore. Neither Jackson nor Reynolds is required to stretch very far from their well-established personae, the former clocking 122 expletives in 118 minutes and the latter struggling to maintain his cool in the face of his client’s life-threatening antics. As their constantly tested love interests, Hayek and Yung aren’t asked to do much more than look good – OK, great – while waiting for their boyfriends to grow up and occasionally beating up bad guys. Ryan plays the titular bodyguard, whose reputation took a substantial hit when a high-profile client was assassinated by a gunman, situated at a distance so far away from the target that he could have escaped to Brazil before anyone located the shell casings. Jackson is the world-class hitman whose testimony at the International Criminal Court, at The Hague, is necessary to convict a notorious Eastern European leader of war crimes. Part of the deal involves the freeing of his girlfriend (Hayek) from prison in return for his cooperation. The ongoing gag involves Jackson’s Darius Kincaid continually attempting to out-maneuver Reynold’s by-the-book Michael Bryce in their danger-fraud trip from Manchester to The Hague. If there’s one thing that Kincaid enjoys doing more than showing up his former rival, it’s offering advice to him about his tenuous relationship with the Interpol agent (Yung) who hired him. The Hitman’s Bodyguard reportedly was made from a script included on the 2011 Black List of unproduced screenplays. Originally intended as a drama, it underwent a “frantic” two-week rewrite when the decision was made, at the last minute, to turn it into an action comedy. The Blu-ray adds several short making-of featurettes, outtakes and deleted/extended/alternate scenes.

My Journey Through French Cinema: Blu-ray
The Film Critic
Bertrand Tavernier’s My Journey Through French Cinema is a documentary for film buffs who miss sitting in a café or bar, discussing the movie they’ve just seen with friends who aren’t shy about sharing their opinions or having opinions worth sharing. Although the introduction of wine and snack bars to arthouses multiplexes has provided a comfortable place to extend the cinematic experience, it’s gotten far too easy watch the movies we want to see on high-definition monitors, at home, and try to stay awake before the screen goes dark. Given that most Hollywood movies defy further analysis and most post-mortems are limited to, “So, what did you think?,” it’s nice to hear smart people talk about movies as if they still matter … because, they do … somewhere. Tavernier’s life in film began when he was a boy and his family moved from Lyon, where they provided a refuge and a salon for the anti-Vichy intelligentsia, to post-war Paris. With the Nazis gone, Tavernier was able to haunt re-opened theaters and devour movies by such American directors as William Wellman, Henry Hathaway and John Ford. He almost made it through law school, but invested too much of his time at the Cinémathèque to succeed at the bar. Instead, he located the first step on the ladder to a film career and climbed every rung, until he convinced himself that he was qualified to make the leap from crusading critic and press agent for important artists, to co-writer/director of The Clockmaker of St. Paul, an adaptation of a Georges Simenon novel that won prestigious prizes at the 1974 Berlin International Film Festival. Of all his titles, the one most likely to strike a chord with American audiences is ‘Round Midnight (1986), for which jazz great Dexter Gordon received a Best Actor nomination. At a none-too-brisk 200 minutes, “My Journey” overflows with recollections, opinions, observations, conversations and criticism, not just about the French cinema, but its various influences and inspirations. It’s also loaded with clips chosen to amplify his points. Naturally, Francophiles and graduate students will find “My Journey” infinitely more provocative than most viewers, even those capable of picking Jean Gabin, Jean-Paul Belmondo, Lino Ventura and Eddie Constantine from a police lineup in a B-movie. The Cohen Media Blu-ray adds a tentative preview of a follow-up series for French television.

It’s been said of movie critics that they spend so much time in darkened screening rooms or at a lonely desk, staring into a computer screen, that they have no real conception of how life plays out in the real world. While that may sound a tad harsh, ask your friendly local critic how much time they have to themselves between the start of awards season and the day their lists of 10-best and 10-worst films are due. The movie-reviewers’ dodge has changed considerably since the mainstream media started jettisoning scholarly types as if they were so much ballast on a hot-air balloon. Outside of New York and Los Angeles, screening rooms, themselves, are giving way to streaming codes, discs and the instant analysis of tweets and texts. Only a relatively few writers actually get paid for their thoughts, devaluing their opinions, no matter how astute or entertaining. Even so, there’s no denying the hard work and passion that go into the countless reviews that pop up on the Internet each week, even if the elimination of copy editors sometimes makes it difficult for readers to get through them. It’s for that reason that Argentine filmmaker Hernán Gerschuny’s uneven debut feature, The Film Critic, feels so anachronistic. It follows Victor Tellez (Rafael Spregelburd), a world-weary Buenos Aires critic who’s grown weary of being disappointed by every new release and writing negative reviews to justify his pitiful existence. (Or, being tortured by his editor for not cutting a popcorn movie an occasional break.) Because he prefers to think in French, instead of his native Spanish, he self-diagnoses himself as suffering from ennui and maladie du cinema. And, yes, in plain English he’s, a bit of a pill. In a decent twist that doesn’t really find its grip until halfway through the movie, Tellez falls for a woman, Sofia (Dolores Fonzi), who’s his polar opposite in almost every way possible. More Sandra Bullock than Catherine Deneuve, she might as well be a refugee from an old-fashioned Lifetime rom-com. If it were possible for Tellez to simply live in the moment, he might enjoy the ride. Instead, he agonizes over his good fortune as if he’s just seen the latest head-scratcher by Terence Malick and he only has 20 minutes to write his review.

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets: Blu-ray, 4K UHD
Once again, I’m at a loss to explain what’s right or wrong with a movie – in this case, Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets — that’s based on a long-running comic-book series I’ve never seen and, in any case, was published in French, before being translated into several other languages I don’t understand. Neither was I aware of the animated French-Japanese television series, “Time Jam: Valerian & Laureline,” likewise based on Pierre Christin and Jean-Claude Mézières’ comic strip, “Valérian and Laureline,” which ran from 1967 to 2010 and spawned several graphic novels. The TV series first aired in France in 2007, racking up 40 episodes before disappearing into the wild blue yonder. Nor can I recall much of Luc Besson’s Fifth Element (1997), parts of which were inspired by key elements in the comic strip. The only thing I know for sure about Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is that it cost a shitload of money to make and market – at $200-plus million, the most expensive French film to date – and only returned $40 million at the U.S. box office. It did better overseas, but not well enough to cover the total nut. It was recorded in English to avoid just such a debacle. The one positive thing I’m willing to say with any certainty is that the money spent on special effects and CGI technology was well spent. Brilliantly colorful backgrounds, sparkling pearls, azure skies and neon-lit marketplaces compete for our attention with purposefully drab steampunk machinery, while the 200 different alien species resemble a Who’s Who of fanciful characters from franchises ranging from Star Wars, Star Trek and Guardians of the Galaxy, to Barbarella, Cowboys & Aliens and Avatar. They all really pop in 4K UHD. Prior to the date production began, Besson wrote a 600-page book describing each of the characters. He insisted that cast members read it, so they could adjust their performances to the alien character with which they were interacting. Unfortunately, viewers unfamiliar with the mythology aren’t nearly as well-equipped to handle the on-screen traffic jam and convoluted throughlines. In the 28th Century, special operatives Valerian (Dane DeHaan) and Laureline (Cara Delevingne) are charged with maintaining order throughout the human territories. Under assignment from the Minister of Defense (Herbie Hancock), they embark on a mission to Alpha, an ever-expanding metropolis where species from all over the universe have converged over centuries to share knowledge, intelligence and cultures in a peaceful and collegial manner. A dark force inside Alpha’s core threatens the peaceful existence of the City of a Thousand Planets, and Valerian and Laureline must race to identify the marauding menace and safeguard not just Alpha, but the future of the universe. That’s all. Some of the fun derives from watching Ethan Hawke, Clive Owen, Rihanna, Rutger Hauer and Benoît Jacquot deliver their lines in silly costumes and industrial-strength makeup. No amount of makeup could hide the beauty of Pearl royalty, as played by model/actors Aymeline Valade and Sasha Luss. Frankly, though, I suggest to newcomers to the story that they check out episodes of “Time Jam: Valerian & Laureline” or chapters of the comic strip available on the Internet, before attempting the movie. The Blu-ray and UHD packages include the hour-long “Citizens of Imagination: Creating the Universe of Valerian,” 14 separate enhancement pods and a photo gallery.

Lemon
Co-writer/director Janicza Bravo describes her first feature, Lemon, as a dark, absurdist comedy about failure. (Although her name sounds as if she might be from Eastern Europe, Bravo is a black native of Panama, who currently lives in Brooklyn.) Her husband/collaborator, Brett Gelman, plays an acting coach, Isaac Lachmann, who, like a continually malfunctioning automobile, is a lemon waiting to be recalled by the factory for a complete overhaul. It’s the kind of role Steve Martin played at the start of his career – The Lonely Guy, Pennies From Heaven, The Jerk – but, in doing so, didn’t make audiences so uncomfortable that they might consider leaving the theater in tears. While it’s not difficult to sympathize with Isaac’s growing inability to connect with his blind, unfaithful girlfriend of 10 years (Judy Greer) or having to endure Passover Seder with his oppressively stereotypical family, it doesn’t take long for him to remind us of his less-empathetic qualities. They include berating acting students, as if his paying jobs weren’t limited to public-service-announcements for terrible diseases, and imposing himself on people totally unprepared for his complete lack of social graces. When Isaac begins dating a black woman of Caribbean background (Nia Long), Bravo introduces us to a family that’s the Jamaican equivalent of her protagonist’s dysfunctional clan. We’re no more comfortable in their company than we were watching Isaac react to his family’s atonal sing-along to “A Million Matzoh Balls.” Clearly, Lemon isn’t for everyone. It should appeal, however, to anyone who’s aspired to be an actor and taken classes from someone who thinks he’s Stanislavski, but begrudges the good fortune of students who find work in the movies or television. In such offbeat television series as “Married,” “Another Period” and “Blunt Talk,” Gelman has played variations of the same character so often that it’s possible to wonder how close to the bone his portrayal of Isaac might be. The excellent supporting cast includes Michael Cera, Gillian Jacobs, Jeff Garlin, Shiri Appleby, Megan Mullally, Rhea Perlman, Fred Melamed, David Paymer and Conrad Roberts. The bonus material includes deleted/extended scenes and interviews with Bravo and Gelman.

Jabberwocky: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
Released in the direct wake of Monty Python and the Holy Grail and the final season of “Monty Python’s Flying Circus,” Jabberwocky suffered in the media from comparisons to those ground-breaking entertainments and a generally held misconception that Terry Gilliam’s directorial feature debut was an extension of the Python empire. Although it starred Michael Palin and featured appearances by Gilliam, Terry Jones and Neil Innes (“The Seventh Python”) – alongside a veritable Who’s Who of post-war British comedy – the humor in Jabberwocky wasn’t intended to be savored in segments, as was the case in the series and “Holy Grail.” However outlandish it could be, the 105-minute film had an easily recognizable beginning, middle and end. Described as a “giddy romp through blood and excrement,” Jabberwocky was inspired by Lewis Carroll’s nonsense poem of the same title, which was included in his 1871 novel, “Through the Looking-Glass.” Although the verse defies translation, Gilliam and co-writer Charles Alverson (Brazil) imagined a scenario in which an impoverished barrelmaker’s apprentice, Dennis Cooper (Palin) commits himself to making himself worthy of the less-than-lovely Griselda Fishfinger (Annette Badland). He leaves for the city, but not before his elusive beloved throws a potato at him, which he keeps as a cherished memento. The residents are paralyzed with fear over the appearance of a monstrous creature, the Jabberwock, that Gilliam says was inspired by Godzilla and chickens, in equal measure. Unable to find work, Dennis stumbles into the chambers of King Bruno the Questionable’s beautiful, if stupid daughter (Deborah Fallender). She mistakes him for the winner of a jousting contest called to determine the knight most qualified to battle the Jabberwock. Instead, the Princess decides to dress him in the guise of a nun and send him out to the countryside, where the peasants mistake him for Satan. It’s only by accident that he’s able to slay the beast.

The king delivers on his promise, but, in doing so, forces Dennis to decide between the Princess and a substantial dowry, or going home to live an uneventful life with an obese peasant girl who might end up rejecting him, anyway. In an interview included in the Criterion set, Gilliam says he perceived the kingdom to be the anti-Camelot, with a king who’s an oafish lout; a Princess whose beauty can’t disguise her unsuitability as royalty; a castle that’s on the verge of collapsing; a hero who wants nothing valuable in return for his courageous act; merchants and clerics who take pride in being greedy and corrupt; wretched peasants who don’t look as if they were culled from crowd scenes in Sleeping Beauty or Cinderella; and tournaments in which losers’ blood drenches the spectators, independent of their rank in society. Although Jabberwocky failed to find a ready audience in its theatrical run, it succeeded as a cult favorite on video. Made on an impossibly tight $500,000 budget, it finally began making the kind of money it deserved. The director-approved Blu-Ray edition features a 4K digital transfer from a restoration by the BFI National Archive and the Film Foundation; a 5.1 surround mix, supervised by Gilliam and presented in DTS-HD Master Audio; vintage commentary with Gilliam and  Palin; a new documentary on the making of the film, featuring Gilliam, Palin, Badland and producer Sandy Lieberson; an interview with Valerie Charlton, designer of the Jabberwock, featuring her collection of rare behind-the-scenes photographs; a selection of Gilliam’s storyboards and sketches; and an essay by critic Scott Tobias.

Beside Bowie: The Mick Ronson Story: Blu-ray
It’s been nearly two years since David Bowie left this mortal coil for points unknown and the vacuum left behind still sucks, in all sorts of ways. Less noticed has been the 24-year absence of guitar virtuoso and original Spider From Mars, Mick Ronson. Jon Brewer and Scott Rowley’s extremely compelling rockumentary, Beside Bowie: The Mick Ronson Story, goes a long way toward establishing his place in the pantheon of unsung collaborators and extraordinary sidemen. But don’t take my word for it, listen to Bowie’s narration in this celebration of the Kingston-Upon-Hull native’s life and art. Like so many such partnerships, the Bowie/Ronson connection was as much an accident as anything else. After failing to make a name for himself in London, Ronson returned to Hull, where a former mate found him marking out a rugby pitch as part of his duties as a Parks Department gardener. The musician was scouting talent for an early version of Bowie’s touring band and an electric guitar was needed for a gig on John Peel’s national BBC Radio 1 show. It didn’t take long for Bowie to recognize Ronson’s ability to play guitar, piano, violin, arrange and eventually score music that helped propel Bowie into the stratosphere, with “The Man Who Sold the World,” “Hunky Dory,” “The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars” and ended with the infamous “Farewell Concert,” in 1973. It would take the Spiders’ breakup for fellow rockers, critics and audiences to understand what Ronson meant to Bowie’s early success. Business relations within the Spiders were abysmal, as was top-down communication. While attempting to spark a solo career, Ronson collaborated with such established artists as Bob Dylan, Ian Hunter, Lulu, Lou Reed, David Cassidy, Roger Daltry, John Mellencamp, T-Bone Burnett and Morrissey. It didn’t translate into much money, but the hardest blow was still to come. During a short visit to his sister in London, Ronson was diagnosed with inoperable liver cancer. He survived the original prognosis by a year, long enough for a final high-profile performance at the Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert, in 1992, where he played on “All the Young Dudes,” with Bowie and Hunter, and “Heroes” with Bowie. “Beside Bowie” gives credit where it’s due, through archival backstage footage, Mick Rock’s photography and substantial interviews with Hunter, Reed, Lisa & Maggi Ronson, Angie Bowie, Rick Wakeman, Glen Matlock, Cherry Vanilla, Earl Slick and David Stopps. Bowie fans are encouraged to give their albums another spin, this time to savor Ronson’s contributions. The disc adds several extended interviews.

Harmonium
Kôji Fukada’s complex family drama, Harmonium, is intended as a companion piece to his 2010 dark comedy, Hospitalite, which could only be seen at a handful of festivals or on a Film Movement DVD. Irony fairly drips from the titles. Harmonium came about only after Fukada determined that “Fuchi ni tatsu” — literally, “Standing on the edge” — didn’t carry the same nuance when translated. Harmony is a favored trait of Japanese families and a harmonium plays a key role in both the narrative and household of the protagonist. It’s the discordance that’s generated by the truth that drives Harmonium, however. Outside of the fact that the husband, Toshio (Kanji Furutachi), and his wife, Akié (Mariko Tsutsui), don’t seem to have much in common anymore — most obviously, religion – their life revolves around their daughter, who’s kept busy rehearsing for a recital. Things begin to change, almost imperceptibly, when an old friend of Toshio’s appears out of the blue and not only is given a job at the machine shop in the garage, but also a room in the house. At first, Yasaka (Tadanobu Asano), is as quiet as the proverbial church mouse. We know that he’s spend the last several years in prison, but not the reason. Yasaka makes headway by mentoring the girl on the harmonium, then providing an ear for Akié’s religious views. His attentiveness serves as an aphrodisiac, even if she’s reluctant to give in to her desire. Again, out of the blue, something happens to drastically change the course of the drama. Even when the story is advanced by seven years, or so, and Yasaka is physically removed from the surroundings, his memory shrouds the second half like a raincloud. Fukuda keeps a firm hand on the wheel throughout this emotionally draining transition. By allowing some sunshine to sneak past the cloud’s dark edges, the audience is always kept guessing at where we’re being taken. The package adds an interview with Furutachi and Fukada’s short, “Birds.”

The Villainess: Blu-ray
I don’t know how the Korean producers of Jung Byung-gil’s hyperviolent thriller, The Villainess, were able to avoid crediting Luc Besson and La Femme Nikita as the inspiration, at least, for their story. The script also appears to borrow plot points from Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill, without acknowledging its influence. The possibility of an imprisoned woman being turned into a killing machine to serve the whims of a government agency or criminal organization might be considered too generic a concept to warrant attribution. No matter, because once the protagonist begins kicking serious ass – in a scene straight out of a first-person p.o.v. shooting game — The Villainess doesn’t leave much time for idle conjecture. Kim Ok-bin (Thirst) easily holds her own against the martial-arts chops of Anne Parillaud, Bridget Fonda, Uma Thurman, Maggie Q and Peta Wilson, all of whom have played what essentially is the same character. The biggest difference might be Kim’s ability to wield a hatchet with the same skill as a bushido blade or high-powered rifle. As the story goes, after Sook-hee (Kim) witnessed her father’s murder, as a child, she was raised by gangsters to be a skilled fighter and a ruthless killer. Then, days after her marriage to her boss and mentor, he’s also murdered. Her desire for revenge leads to that exciting opening, when Sook-hee storms into the rival gang’s headquarters and, corridor after corridor, wipes out several dozen men in identical dark suits. The slaughter only gets her into the inner sanctum, where the rival boss’ bodyguards offer a more formidable defense. After all is said and done, she emerges with three tiny scratches and in police custody.

The government agents who’ve eavesdropped on Sook-hee’s rampage sense an opportunity to get at the gang, using its own secret weapon. She is taken to a government training facility, where the sexy Chief Kwon (Kim Seo-hyung) offers her a deal she can’t refuse: if she works for the KIA for 10 years, they’ll let her go free to live her life. The other contributing factor is she’s pregnant and wants to be able to raise the child in peace. If The Villainess too frequently strains credulity and logic, there’s enough balls-to-the-wall action around every corner to satisfy any action geek. There are times when the wire work borders on the miraculous. The Blu-ray adds only a pair of short making-of featurettes.

Time to Die
How this terrific Mexican Western managed to avoid detection on the radar screens of genre buffs for the better part of a half-century is a mystery to me. My first guess would be that American distributors, audiences and critics simply didn’t take movies from south of the Rio Grande seriously, unless they were made by Luis Bunuel in his period of exile from Spain. Hundreds of Hollywood Westerns, many very good, have been set partially or in whole in Mexico. Many others have been made in Durango and other rugged locations. Until recently, it was easier to rely on the same kind of moronic I-don’t-have-to-show-you-any-stinking-badges stereotypes designed to make gringos feel better about stealing so much of Mexico from the Mexicans and minimize the country’s culture. It continues today, of course, but more superb Mexican movies and filmmakers are finding their way north than ever. Even so, how is it possible that a Western scripted by Nobel Prize-winner Gabriel García Marquez and novelist Carlos Fuentes could be ignored? Four years after serving as AD to Bunuel on The Exterminating Angel, Arturo Ripstein made his solo directing debut on Time to Die, which was produced by his father, Alfredo (El crimen del padre Amaro). As good a movie as it is, Ripstein didn’t consider it to be a landmark work. In an interview contained in the bonus features, Alex Cox (Repo Man) suggests that the director may have felt there were too many obvious homages to classic Westerns and directors identified with the genre, or that he didn’t want to place too much weight on his first film.

In most ways, Time to Die is a simple drama, based on classic themes, which just so happens to take place in a part of the country not all that dissimilar to parts of the American Southwest once owned by Mexico. In it, legendary horseman and gunslinger Juan Sagayo (Jorge Martínez de Hoyos) returns to his home town, by foot, after spending 18 years in prison for killing a man, Trueb, who deserved the punishment, instead. When Trueb’s son, Julian (Alfredo Leal), hears Sagayo has returned to town, he demands they face each other in a duel to avenge his father’s death. Julian’s younger brother, Pedro (Enrique Rocha), begins to doubt Sagayo is an honorless killer after meeting and spending time with him. Then, Pedro hears from his fiance’s father that Trueb had provoked Sagayo, until he was forced to preserve his honor as a man. Furthermore, he points out that Julian inherited most of his father’s worst traits, which he’s now using against Sagayo. The events that play out in the final reel are unpredictable and smack of a fatalism not common in American Westerns or, for that matter, gangster films. Film Movement’s 2K restoration of Alex Phillips’ evocative black-and-white cinematography expertly brings out the loneliness and frustration in a man who only desires peace and to be reunited with his former lover. He didn’t deserve to be sent to prison for 18 minutes, let alone 18 years, and shouldn’t have to pay a debt that he doesn’t owe to his tormenter’s sons. In addition to Cox’s introduction, the disc offers commentary by Ripstein and Rocha.

Candy Apple
Made for $100,000 in 2015, Dean Dempsey’s 79-minute debut feature, Candy Apple, is as hard-core as indie pictures get these days. Transgressive would be one way to describe it, but so would rambunctious, audacious, off-putting and spellbinding. It’s one of the very few movies whose trailers demand to be seen before any commitment to a rental or download. Candy Apple is set in a Lower Manhattan hellhole that is quickly being gentrified out of existence, and the characters might have been inspired by Hubert Selby Jr. and Lou Reed. The lead character, played by the heavily tattooed double-amputee, Terry “Texas Trash – played by Dempsey’s real-life father, of the same name — makes Charles Bukowski and Ratso Rizzo look like Donnie Osmond. Sound appealing, so far? Having burned his bridges out west, Trash moves in with his adult son, Bobby (Dempsey), in his small apartment on the Lower East Side. Bobby is reluctant, but committed to helping the former junkie, while trying to stay focused on his own creative pursuits. Both men harbor dark secrets about themselves and support their decrepit lifestyles through illegal means. Ultimately, they’re required to balance desire with responsibility – such as it is – in a darkly comedic fashion. The thing to know about Hard Candy is that Dempsey elected to cast the picture with amateurs playing themselves in a narrative that sometimes parallels their own lives. “The only one who has done any acting is the guy who eats cereal off my character.” Despite having an arm and leg amputated after a collision with a train, the fledgling actor Trash fronts the band, Texas Trash and the Trainwrecks. (The FB page is hilarious.)  The cast also includes transvestite actor Neon Music (Scumbag), Cory “Whorse” Kimbrow-Dana (Werewolf Bitches from Outer Space), Sophia Lamar (Violet Tendencies), and performance artist Kembra Pfahler and the Voluptuous Horror of Karen Black. Anyone who’s gotten this far here probably will enjoy the hell out of Candy Apple.

Satan’s Cheerleaders: Blu-ray
The Thingy: Confessions of a Teenage Placenta: Blu-ray
There really isn’t much to recommend these cross-generational examples of irredeemably bad exploitation flicks … except, in the case of Satan’s Cheerleaders, at least, the dubious joy that comes with recognizing familiar actors in movies they may once have considered to be beneath them. If that sounds as if I’m being cruel to Yvonne De Carlo, John Carradine, Sydney Chaplin, Jack Kruschen and John Ireland, well, I assume their paychecks didn’t bounce. The picture opens with a group of cheerleaders, who might have gotten lost on the way to auditions for Debbie Does Dallas, inexplicably practicing their routines for the big game on a beach in Malibu. While there, they attract the attention of the star football player (Lane Caudell), his pissed-off coach (Joseph Carlo), their delightfully clueless adviser (Jacqulin Cole) and a gang of rival cheerleaders. They threaten the other girls with TP’ing their high school campus, which only serves to perturb the pervy janitor and Captain Kangaroo look-alike (Kruschen), who provides the link to a satanic cult recruiting virgins. Before that happens, though, he sneaks a peak at the girls while they’re taking a shower. It could have inspired a similar scene, three years later, in Porky’s, although I can’t imagine Bob Clark admitting to the theft. After the girls have vacated the locker room, the janitor sneaks in to put a curse on the blond cheerleader’s clothes. He also sabotages the car carrying the squad to the game, arriving just minutes after it breaks down. Instead of fulfilling his promise to get them there on time, he drops them off at the home of the local sheriff and wife, who have a direct line to Satan. None of the girls qualifies as a virgin, so the blond (Kerry Sherman) has an edge over the sheriff’s cabal, by having already been introduced to the dark side with the janitor’s curse. Or, something like that. When the cheerleaders escape the clutches of Ireland and De Carlo, they make the mistake of confiding in their cronies, played by Carrandine, Chaplin and other poor souls. Schlockmeister writer/director Greydon Clark pulls the kind of ending out of his ass that has to be seen to be believed. If that sounds like fun, be sure to save room for Clark’s commentary and a photo gallery.

Trying to find a redeeming quality in a Troma pickup like The Thingy: Confessions of a Teenage Placenta (a.k.a., “The Miracle of Life”) is like searching for a fully functioning conscience in the White House. Even if such a thing exists, you’d have to sift through too many layers of dirt to find it. In his introductions to such fare, Lloyd Kaufman provides all the caveats most potential viewers would need to separate the merely curious from the truly depraved. That candor, of course, is also what’s separated Troma from its competitors and imitators for most of the last 35 years. Made in Belgium by newcomers Joël Rabijns and Yves Sondermeier, “The Thing” concerns a muscle-bound blond (Pascal Maetens) who suffers a miscarriage, but decides to raise the afterbirth as a normal human being. Like a miniature version of the Blob, the placenta, Luke, slithers through a world of hurt, buoyed by his intelligence, faith and sensitivity. As he struggles for his place in a world of drunks, junkies, whores, bodybuilders and bullies, viewers will begin to see the humanity in Luke and lack thereof in everyone else in the picture. Eventually, he comes to a crossroads, where he’s required to choose between holding on to his gentle ideals or becoming the merciless soldier his mother always wanted him to be. Anyone able to sit through the first 24 minutes without relinquishing their half-digested popcorn should be able to go the distance … should, being the operative term. The Blu-ray adds deleted scenes, the featurettes “Am I Really That Ugly?” and “Ham,” and typically outrageous Troma marketing material.

TV-to-DVD
Lifetime: High School Lover
The Tower
Atheist America

At the ripe old age of 39, James Franco already has logged 146 acting credits – 13 still waiting for completion – and dozens more as a writer and director. Granted, many of them are for shorts and documentaries, but they require time and dedication some professional would otherwise dedicate to hobbies, traveling and family. He already was an accomplished actor when he returned to school for his BFA in English from UCLA, and then received two MFA degrees — both in writing — from Columbia and Brooklyn College, and a third MFA, in film, from New York University. He’s taught acting and enjoys painting. Among the 18 credits he accumulated in 2017, Franco played brothers Vincent and Frankie Martino, in the HBO mini-series “The Deuce”; directed and starred in the star-studded comedy about acting, The Disaster Artist; and made his second appearance in a Lifetime movie in as many years, “High School Lover.” If someone told me that he’s been slated to replace 77-year-old Alex Trebek, as host of “Jeopardy!” upon his retirement, I wouldn’t be shocked. Neither was I particularly surprised to see him playing the father of a 17-year-old girl (Paulina Singer), who falls for a predatory actor (François Arnaud) that’s 10 years her senior. She does so against the advice of everyone except her star-struck friends, who bask in her reflected glory. Her father tries to intervene before the relationship turns into a dangerous obsession for everyone involved, but that logic doesn’t apply in the movies or real life. At 39, it isn’t inconceivable that Franco would be credible as the character, especially considering he’s a director and a decade older than his current wife (Julia Jones). What is surprising is that the father-knows-best throughline could have been recycled from a dozen, or more, other Lifetime originals and his character normally would be have been filled by someone who hasn’t been nominated for an Oscar, Golden Globe, Emmy, Un Certain Regard, SAG, MTV Video, Razzie, and numerous critics’ awards … or, for that matter, already has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. In his previous Lifetime credit, “Mother, May I Sleep with Danger?,” Franco also played a director and served as executive producer.

It took a while after the re-unification of East and West Germany for screenwriters to begin making movies and mini-series about life in the hard-line communist state and how politics split family members who elected to survive within the system and those who quietly pursued democracy, if not necessarily capitalism. I’ve seen several such series, all of which resemble each other in their condemnation of party apparatchiks who wouldn’t recognize Karl Marx and Vladimir Lenin if they rose from the dead and grabbed their asses. Even so, like parents everywhere, those represented in Christian Schwochow’s “The Tower” caution their children against making their feelings known to the wrong people … of which, there were many. The two-part, 180-minute TV drama, made in 2012, was based on a novel by Uwe Tellkamp. It chronicles life and politics in Dresden between the dark days of 1982 and 1989, when demonstrations – and Soviet indifference – pushed Stasi-backed elements toward democracy and the tearing down of the wall. The key conflict here is between a hypocritical surgeon in a state-run hospital and his open-minded son, who strives to be respected for what he is and wants to be, not follow his parents’ shallow footsteps. The melodrama gets a bit thick at times, but not oppressively so. It’s the depiction of how the government maintained control over highly educated professionals and intellectuals – here, doctors and writers – that is especially effective. Similar titles include “Deutschland 83,” “Good Bye Lenin!,” “The Lives of Others” and “Barbara Weissensee.”

Once upon a time, atheist spokeswoman Madalyn Murray O’Hair regularly appeared on late-night talks shows to chat up her beliefs – or lack thereof — and represent the loose threads in the fabric of American life. This all changed when televangelists took over cable television and Ronald Reagan exploited their power to win re-election. By vilifying the non-believers and proving themselves to be as fallible as other sinners, the money-grubbing reverends opened the gates to atheists unafraid to challenge religious leaders at their own game. (Perverted Catholic priests share the blame for this.) “The Atheist Experience,” produced in Austin, reputedly is the only TV show dedicated to atheism in the United States. (Bill Maher might dispute that point.) It is delivered via public-access cable in a call-in format every Sunday afternoon. Two atheists debate religious callers for one hour, on camera, while most other Texans are working off hangovers, plotting against abortion providers or waiting for the Cowboys game to start. The debates between believers and skeptics can be funny, touching and shocking in turn, and they’re interspersed with footage of the very public religious displays common in Texas.

The DVD Wrapup: Wind River, Unlocked, In This Corner of the World, Funeral Parade of Roses, Zoology, Romero Redux, Indiscretion and more

Thursday, November 16th, 2017

Wind River: Blu-ray
Being an early favorite to be nominated for Best Picture is as far from a guarantee as there is in the prognostication game. Academy voters have a notoriously short memory and some awfully good filmmakers have had their hopes dashed only a few months after they were raised. Wind River may only be writer-director Taylor Sheridan’s second turn at the helm of a feature – his first, Vile, was released to little acclaim on DVD, in 2011 – but his spec scripts for Sicario and Hell or High Water were turned into popular entertainments by Denis Villeneuve and David Mackenzie, respectively. The latter was nominated as Best Screenplay by Oscar, BAFTA and Golden Glove voters, so, going into this awards season, he’s hardly an unknown factor in Hollywood. Earlier this year, at Cannes, Sheridan was handed an Un Certain Regard, as director, for Wind River, while the picture, itself, was nominated in two other categories. It’s that good. Set on Wyoming’s sprawling Wind River Indian Reservation, but shot in the mountains of Utah, the chilly thriller follows a rookie FBI agent, Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen), who teams up with a high-altitude game tracker, Cory Lambert (Jeremy Renner), to investigate the mysterious killing of a local girl in a remote corner of the rez. The badly-bruised victim wasn’t wearing clothes designed for the harsh weather when she was discovered by Lambert, who was tracking a rogue mountain lion preying on cattle. The nearest encampment is a drilling operation a couple of miles away and the men working there aren’t Native Americans. That’s only significant because tribal authorities wouldn’t be allowed to arrest or prosecute a non-Indian perpetrator. It explains why Banner has been assigned the task of investigating the crime, which she is ill-prepared to complete without the assistance of Lambert and the tribal police officer, Ben (Graham Greene). Normally, a pair of non-Indian cops would be personae non grata on the reservation, but, here, Lambert has personal ties within the Wind River community and has suffered a personal tragedy not unlike that felt by the dead girl’s family. Another death adds urgency to the investigation, but what makes Wind River compelling is how Sheridan integrates it into the depiction of life above the tree line both for humans and animals. (If Lambert hadn’t been in that part of the reservation that day, racing a storm, the girl’s body might not have been discovered until the spring thaw.) The contrast between the natural beauty of the mountains and harsh depiction of life on the reservation also is impossible to ignore.

Wind River’s summer release may not be the only negative impacting its awards’ chances. Although the DVD/Blu-ray release is being handled by Lionsgate, the domestic theatrical distribution was carried out under the now-disgraced banner of the Weinstein Company, with Harvey and his untainted brother Bob’s names attached as co-executive producers. When the stories about Harvey’s behavior towards women reached critical mass, Acacia Entertainment, a company owned by the Tunica-Biloxi tribes that largely funded the $10 million film, insisted that the Weinstein name be scrubbed from the movie in its home-video release. Neither will TWC participate in awards-season campaigns. Moreover, any future profits now will be directed to the National Indigenous Women’s Resource Center. (In it its theatrical release, Wind River returned $33.8 million at the domestic box office.) TWC president David Glasser agreed to the ultimatum. Along with performances by Renner, Olsen and Greene, consideration should be accorded Sheridan’s direction and script, Ben Richardson’s cinematography and music by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis. The package includes deleted scenes and a behind-the-scenes video gallery.

Unlocked: Blu-ray
It’s difficult to imagine how any picture starring Noomi Rapace, Michael Douglas, John Malkovich, Toni Collette and Orlando Bloom, and directed by Michael Apted (The World Is Not Enough), could fail to find a place on more than a small handful of American screens, at least for a weekend or two. That, however, is what happened to Unlocked, a spies-vs.-terrorists thriller that falls short in every almost category, except star power. Rapace delivers the goods as undercover CIA agent Alice Racine, who’s charged with preventing an upcoming bio-terror attack in London. No sooner does Racine extract key information from a courier for a notorious imam than she learns from her CIA/MI6 handlers (Malkovich, Collette) that she’s interrogating the right man, for the wrong agency. Within minutes, she’s attacked by a hit squad committed to stealing the intelligence and killing both Racine and the courier. She spends the rest of Unlocked being chased around London by gunmen and attempting to understand who she can trust. Once Racine thinks she’s figured it out – no need to spoil any of the plot twists – she discovers that someone has been planted in the agency to foil her investigation. If there were any doubts that Rapace could kick ass as well as Matt Damon and Jason Statham, she relieves of us them early in the loud and violent chases that follow. There are several points, however, when it becomes extremely difficult to parse the loyalties of the various hit squads and agency officials. Neither is it ever made clear which terrorist operation is planning the bio-attack. Screenwriter Peter O’Brien’s sole credits are for work he’s done on the “Halo” video-game series, where action always trumps logic. As convoluted and uninvolving as Unlocked can be, the screen lights up whenever Malkovich and Douglas pop up in the story. It doesn’t really matter what they’re required to say, either. Bloom and Collette aren’t bad, either. Take them out of the picture and it’s just another straight-to-video shoot-’em-up. The disc adds a making-of featurette.

Talon Falls
Amityville: The Awakening Blu-ray
I don’t know whose idea it was to shoot a horror film in an actual Halloween haunted house, but it worked well for writer/director Joshua Shreve, who didn’t even have to stretch for a title. Talon Falls could easily serve as a 75-minute infomercial for the Talon Falls Screampark, located in a forested patch of southwestern Kentucky. The attraction goes dark after Halloween, so there was probably plenty of time to take advantage of the buildings, monsters and implements of torture already installed there. Not surprisingly, a car full of teenagers stops at a dilapidated gas station, which appears to be abandoned but is inhabited by a fat hillbilly with a mysterious collection of VHS cassettes. After scaring the crap out of them, he directs the overamped quartet to the haunted house at Talon Falls. Sure enough, it’s every bit as scary as advertised … and far more realistic than any such scream park they’d previously experienced. Repulsed and thrilled in equal measures, they decide to investigate what’s happening behind the scenes. It doesn’t take long for them to realize that the “actors” aren’t mannequins or even really acting. They’re prisoners of a family of fiends, who wear hideous masks and wield fire axes and sledges hammers. The charred face of the character in the electric chair hasn’t been created by makeup-effects artists, either. By then, of course, it’s too late to escape the tormenters’ clutches. Spoiler: there’s a final girl. There’s also a making-of featurette.

And, speaking of haunted houses, the Big Kahuna of all such gateways to hell still can be found in Amityville, New York. Unfortunately, for Dimension/Weinstein interests, anyway, Amityville: The Awakening stumbled out of the gate and was only able to scare up $742 in gross revenues on its one-night-only release on the Saturday before Halloween. Considering that the umpteenth entry in the franchise – the first released theatrically since the 2005 remake of the original – had been scheduled for release into DVD/Blu-ray through Lionsgate so soon after the holiday, anyway, the “Hail Mary” strategy probably wasn’t a bad idea. Once again, Harvey Weinstein’s problems might have had something do with the meager distribution and marketing effort. It also debuted two weeks earlier on Google Play … for free. On the bright side, “Awakening,” has posted revenues of $7.4 million in the overseas marketplace. Not horrible, especially for a movie whose production and release have been postponed seven times in five years and was re-edited to fit the MPAA guidelines for a PG-13. “Awakening” is the first theatrically released “Amityville” film made from a completely original story. I use the term, “original,” advisedly. Here, Belle (Bella Thorne) and her siblings move into the famously demonic house, which was sold to her troubled mother, Joan (Jennifer Jason Leigh), for a song. Mom claims she needed a house that large to accommodate the unwieldy life-support equipment keeping her son, James (Cameron Monaghan), breathing. She’d recently lost her husband to cancer and wasn’t about to accept the opinions of strangers about her son’s condition. Neither has the youngest sister, Juliet (Mckenna Grace), given up hope. When James’ motor skills unexpectedly appear to kick into gear, what appears to be a miracle probably has more to do with Satanic meddling. “Awakening” delivers a few quick shocks to the system, but nothing terribly fresh. Completists might even enjoy it. It arrives with a making-of featurette.

In This Corner of the World: Blu-ray
Tam Cam: The Untold Story
It would be difficult to think of a less likely subject for an animated feature than life on the Japanese home front in the years leading up to the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. This isn’t because there weren’t compelling stories to be told about the civilians left behind by husbands, fathers and friends sent to war in name of Emperor Hirohito and ambitions of blood-thirsty nationalists. The characters we meet in In This Corner of the World, based on a manga by Fumiyo Kono, accept the rationale for war provided them by authorities and assume that victory is always somewhere in sight. We meet the protagonist, Suzu (Non), as a girl growing up in pastoral bliss, anticipating the same essential events in a woman’s life as were experienced by her mother, grandmother and others in their unexceptional lineage. In 1943, our newly-turned-18 protagonist leaves Ebi, a rural town in the Hiroshima prefecture, for an arranged marriage in Kure, a seaport about 14 miles from the doomed city. It’s been decided that her husband will be Shusaku Hojo (Yoshimasa Hosoya), the son of a naval engineer. While he’s a pretty good catch, his sisters aren’t nearly as kind to Suzu. Neither does the activity in the busy harbor betray the cold reality of Japan’s fortunes in the war and the family’s place in the country’s future. If shortages and rationing are only to be expected at such times, the deployment of women in factories and repurposing of kimonos as workplace attire come as a surprise. As the story progresses, the lighthearted tone established by co-writer/director Sunao Katabuchi (Mai Mai Miracle), changes to reflect the fear that comes from being bombed by an enemy that civilians assumed was decimated at Pearl Harbor. Still, Suzu strives for happiness, while anticipating the long-promised peace. When the atomic bomb is dropped on Hiroshima by the still-faceless enemy, the horror is depicted in ways that are subtle, but realistic. The carnage is like nothing anyone in the world has ever seen or would believe possible in a single blow. The charred bodies of the dead are strewn around the demolished city like fallen leaves in a forest on the brink of winter. Survivors can’t differentiate between a burn caused by radiation and a bruise they may have suffered in a fall during the blast. Viewers know far more about what hit them than they do. The other sad fact of life in the dead zones is that survivors have no more of an idea whether their loved ones will return home intact than the soldiers and sailors who’ve been told about the ferocity of the atomic bombs and have yet to learn the fate of their family and homes. It’s a roundabout way to deliver an anti-war message, but it will resonate from Tokyo to Tonopah. The beautiful hand-drawn illustrations are of a piece with other Japanese animation to which we’ve become accustomed from Studio Ghibli. (Katabuchi was assistant director to Hayao Miyazaki on Kiki’s Delivery Service.) At a time when Americans are being told that they might become the next victims of a nuclear attack, it’s important to understand what the results might look like to innocents and non-combatants. The Shout!Factory package adds interviews and featurettes on the artistic process.

Most fairy-tale romances conclude with a cheery, “and, they lived happily ever after,” leaving readers and viewers to imagine what might constitute happiness in a royal marriage not complicated by the ravages of war or burdened with the cruel task of collecting taxes from peasants. Based on a traditional Vietnamese folk tale, Tam Cam: The Untold Story doesn’t really take flight until the slippers – in this case, golden – are matched and “ever after” becomes “today, tomorrow and the foreseeable future.” Set in a lovely corner of Vietnam, the story turns nasty very quickly. In fact, the king’s new bride, Tam, disappears from physical view after she’s murdered by her wicked stepmother and replaced by stepsister Cam. From this point on, the story is dominated by fairies, witches, conjurers and battles enhanced by Hong Kong-style wire work. Reincarnations aren’t out of the question, either. The lush locations and palace sets add to the fun. “Tam Cam” was directed by Veronica Ngo, who plays the stepmother and wrote new, “untold chapters” into her script. She did so specifically to showcase in key roles members of the boy-band 365, which she manages. (Ngo can also be seen in the new “Star Wars” installment.) If the special effects don’t always hold up under close scrutiny, it’s easy to see how Ngo’s meager budget might have forced her to choose between grade-A visuals and the colorful costumes, wigs and backgrounds.

Slamma Jamma
Way back in Jurassic Age of college basketball, NCAA officials determined that UCLA phenom Lew Alcindor – later, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar – had too great an edge on players from other teams, primarily because he could “dunk” the basketball. Rather than celebrate Alcindor’s obvious superiority, the NCAA decided to nip it in the bud by forbidding dunking as an offensive weapon. The ban lasted from 1967 to 1976. It wasn’t a new move, by any means. Seven-foot-tall Oklahoma Aggie and two-time Olympian Bob Kurland is credited with introducing dunking to the game in the mid-1940s. At 6-foot-10, the brilliant DePaul center George Mikan was the only other player who could go toe-to-toe with Kurland. Their prowess convinced NCAA rules makers to widen “the lane” from 6 to 12 feet; outlaw defensive goaltending; enforce three-second violations; and introduce the 24-second clock to the NBA. With their fluidity and athleticism, Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain added a dimension to the center’s position that Kurland and Mikan lacked. Yes, they were white, but so were most players in the NBA and NCAA at mid-century. The ban, which many considered to be racially motivated, fell far short of crippling Alcindor’s game, which perfectly complemented the talents of John Wooden’s recruits to the Westwood campus. Similarly, the collegiate ban against “spiking” the football after a touchdown – a celebratory act, mimicking the slam dunk, attributed to Homer Jones of the New York Giants, in 1965 – was similarly greeted with skepticism by fans, who saw it as an attempt to contain the enthusiasm of black players. When the NFL attempted to eliminate all end-zone demonstrations, in 2016, it only took a year for the competition committee to recognize the blunder. It’s against this historical background that I considered the faith-based sports drama, Slamma Jamma, written and directed by Timothy A. Chey (The Epic Journey). The filmmaker may not have been born when sportswriter Thomas Bonk nicknamed the University of Houston’s men’s basketball squad, Phi Slama Jama, and it stuck a chord among fans Along with Louisville’s “doctors of dunk,” the “tallest fraternity in Texas” popularized the daredevil “above the rim” style of play that pervades college basketball to the present day and helped launch the rabid brand-name popularity of March Madness. In the professional ranks, the annual Slam Dunk Contest was inaugurated by the old American Basketball Association, at its All-Star Game, in 1976, the same year that the ABA and NBA merged. It wasn’t until 1984 that the reconstituted league reintroduced what has become a highlight of the All-Star Weekend. By extension, then, it’s possible to see how Slamma Jamma, owes its title, at least, to Hakeem Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler, et al.

It tells the story of a former college basketball star and slam-dunk champion, Michael Diggs (Chris Staples), whose pursuit of NBA glory was thwarted when he inadvertently became an accessory to the robbery of a gun merchant, in which a murder was committed. Instead of cutting some slack for the mostly innocent young man, who stood to become an instant millionaire in the draft, the judge decided to make an example of him. After spending six years in prison, during which time he found religion, Diggs returns home here in search of redemption. He would settle for a job that paid enough money to provide his seriously ill mother with proper medical care, but that’s not as easy to come by for ex-cons. In the interim, Diggs’ brother has turned to crime to make money, and his former girlfriend is coupled with an old rival. The only people willing to look beyond his soiled reputation are the playlot ballers, who require him earn their respect on the court. Knowing that a minimum-wage job will only take a convicted felon so far in L.A., a local priest offers him an opportunity to rehab a neighborhood church in his spare time. Ultimately, Diggs will test himself, once again, in an international slam-dunk contest that’s conveniently being staged in Santa Monica. Made on a budget reported to be $1 million, it wouldn’t be logical to think that Slamma Jamma would resemble a studio production. It cuts all sorts of corners to reach an ending that could be foreseen 10 minutes into the narrative. The acting is only as good as it has to be. As is the case with so many other faith-based pictures, Chey knows that his target audience will forgive the movie’s flaws, in return for a strong spiritual message and credible Christian characters. In that respect, Slamma Jamma delivers the goods. I could have very easily lived without a cameo by Jose Canseco, however.

Funeral Parade of Roses: Blu-ray
Desert Hearts: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
If Toshio Matsumoto’s Funeral Parade of Roses isn’t always listed alongside the films of Kenneth Anger as seminal influences on the New Queer Cinema, it’s only because the kaleidoscopic study of life in Tokyo’s gay demi-monde quickly disappeared from view after its limited American release in 1970. Pigeonholed among other experimental works of the late-1960s, it was, in fact, an accomplished work of New Wave cinema influenced by Jean-Luc Godard, Alain Resnais and Pier Paolo Pasolini and as confidently rendered as any indie film made in the U.S. at the time. Stanley Kubrick would cite the film as a direct influence on A Clockwork Orange. After being restored in 4K from its original black-and-white negative and sound elements, the Cinelicious Pics release looks as if it might be relating a contemporary story, instead of one that is of historic significance to the LGBT community. Funeral Parade of Roses follows Edie Sedgwick look-alike Eddie (Shinnosuke Ikehata), a hostess at Tokyo’s Bar Genet, in her day-to-day ramblings and a violent love-triangle with reigning drag queen, Leda (Osamu Ogasawara), for the attention of club owner Gonda (Yoshio Tsuchiya). Best known for his experimental and documentary short films, Matsumoto bends and distorts time, as in Resnais’ Last Year at Marienbad, while freely mixing interviews, Brechtian film-within-a-film asides, Oedipal premonitions of disaster, his own avant-garde shorts, and on-screen cartoon balloons, enhanced by fuzz bass and performance art. Whether she’s laughing with drunken businessmen, eating ice cream with her girlfriends or fighting in the streets with a local girl gang, Ikehata’s ravishing Eddie is something to behold. “She has bad manners, all she knows is coquetry,” complains her rival Leda. In fact, Eddie is an indefatigable force throughout Matsumoto’s drama. The Blu-ray package includes eight newly remastered avant-garde short films by the director; audio commentary by Chris D; original marketing material; and a new essay by Hirofumi Sakamoto, director of the Postwar Japan Moving Image Archive.

Also enhanced by a fresh 4K digital transfer, Desert Hearts (1985) has long been regarded as one of the most influential and widely seen LGBT films of all time. While its explicit depiction of lesbian sexuality is the film’s centerpiece, the honest portrayal of a soon-to-be-divorced woman’s coming out in Reno, 1959, is what allowed Donna Deitch’s debut feature to excel on the arthouse circuit. Natalie Cooper’s screenplay is based on Jane Rule’s 1964 novel, “Desert of the Heart,” itself a landmark work. Straitlaced east-coast professor Vivian Bell (Helen Shaver) arrives in Reno to file for divorce and wait out the residency requirement, at a dude ranch established for just such occasions. She quickly winds up catching the eye of the significantly younger and infinitely more free-spirited Cay (Patricia Charbonneau). It touches off a slow seduction that unfolds against a breathtaking desert landscape, vividly captured by cinematographer Robert Elswit (There Will Be Blood). No one should be surprised to learn that Desert Hearts was an entirely independent production, made on a self-financed shoestring budget, or that casting directors predicted that the careers of the lead actors would be severely damaged by participating in it. While it hardly registered as a speed bump for Shaver, Charbonneau’s resume mostly contains supporting roles in films and guest-star bits in television series, through the 1990s and early oughts. (Neither did Marielle Hemingway’s honest depiction of a bisexual athlete, in Robert Towne’s excellent 1982 drama Personal Best, interfere with her blossoming career.) The chemistry between the lead characters – and, by extension, the actresses – remains palpable. The Criterion Collection set adds vintage commentary with director Donna Deitch; new conversations between Deitch and actor Jane Lynch, and Deitch, Elswit and production designer Jeannine Oppewall; fresh interviews with Shaver and Charbonneau; an excerpt from “Fiction and Other Truths: A Film About Jane Rule,” a 1995 documentary about the author of “Desert of the Heart”; and an essay by critic B. Ruby Rich, who’s been credited with coining the term, New Queer Cinema.

Zoology: Blu-ray
How does a rising writer-director create a non-exploitative drama about a woman, who, at a certain age,, develops a distinctive physical deformity, without demeaning the character or turning his film into a freak show or dark comedy? Unfortunately, the nature of the lead character’s malady prevents me from answering that question, without posting an easily ignored spoiler alert. Indeed, in his sophomore feature, Russian writer/director Ivan I. Tverdovskiy waits until the second or third reel to reveal the movie’s crucial element. Instead, he builds to the moment by fleshing out the character of Natasha (Natalya Pavlenkova), a lonely, middle-aged woman, who’s overweight and almost intentionally unattractive. She holds an administrative position at a Crimean zoo – thus, the title, Zoology — where her co-workers delight in taunting her and she spends her off-hours sharing food with her only friends, the animals. Natasha lives with her God-fearing mother and leads a dull existence without prospects. The bizarre change in her appearance is greeted more with apprehension than shock, perhaps because it isn’t immediately visible to others, and it’s only one more thing for her to mourn. Nonetheless, she chooses to visit a handsome, young radiologist, Peter (Dmitriy Groshev), to see what can be done about it. The X-rays don’t immediately pan out, but it doesn’t prevent doctor and patient from crushing on each other. Even as the relationship appears to blossom, however, Natasha makes it difficult for Peter to give in to love. While the strangely affecting Zoology can stand on its own merits, it may remind viewers of genre-bending films by David Cronenberg and Aki Kaurismäki. The Blu-ray adds interviews with Tverdovskiy and Groshev, critical analysis and an illustrated booklet featuring new writing by Michael Brooke.

J.D.’s Revenge: Special Edition:  Blu-ray
This late-period blaxploitation flick was given short-shrift by AIP executives upon its release in 1976, mainly because they insisted on seeing an early print of the work-in-progress, in black-and-white, and it made no sense to them. That’s because the supernatural thriller, J.D.’s Revenge, involved flashbacks and flash-forwards that were shot out of order and characters whose appearance necessarily changed over time. Thanks to the archivists at Arrow Video, their loss was our gain. After a dinner date, a mild-mannered New Orleans law student, Ike (Glynn Turman), indulges his girlfriend’s whim by participating in a hypnotism show at a Bourbon Street bistro. While audience members enjoy the silly antics of the other participants, Ike suffers mysterious impressions that smack of déjà vu. In fact, he’s channeling the spirit of an old-school gangster, J.D. Walker (David McKnight), who was accused of a heinous crime he didn’t commit. J.D. was framed for killing his sister, Betty Jo (Alice Jubert), who was married to his archenemy Elija Bliss (Louis Gossett Jr.). Elija discovers J.D. standing over Betty Jo’s body and has him shot on the spot by the actual assailant (Fred Pinkard). When he isn’t studying for the law boards or driving a cab, Ike assumes the characteristics of the razor-toting, zoot-suit-wearing J.D., whose violent nature manifests itself in a frightening incident with the elderly passenger in his cab, an attack on the jealous husband of a one-night stand and attempted rape of his girlfriend, Christella (Joan Pringle). At the time, Turman was just coming off a breakthrough performance in Cooley High, while perennial television guest star Gossett was a year away from his standout portrayals of the dangerous Haitian drug dealer Henry Cloche, in The Deep, and Fiddler, in “Roots.” In a neat gag, director Arthur Marks (Friday Foster) even required Turman and Pinkard to wear conk wigs. After 40 years, J.D.’s Revenge holds up as well as, or better than, most other blaxploitation titles. The Blu-ray features a new 2K restoration from original film elements; fresh interviews with producer/director Marks, Turman, Pinkard and Jaison Starkes (The Fish That Saved Pittsburgh); trailers from such Marksian exploitation efforts as The Monkey Hu$tle, Friday Foster, Bucktown, A Woman for All Men and Bonnie’s Kids; a reversible sleeve, featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Sean Phillips; and a booklet containing new writing by Kim Newman, author of “Nightmare Movies.”

George A. Romero: Between Night and Dawn: Blu-ray
In the wake of George A. Romero’s death, last July, at 77, distributors with access to his work have rushed to turn out Blu-rays that represent both his zombie epics and early obscurities. As the title of this Arrow Video set suggests, the trio of films included here were released between Night of the Living Dead (1968) and Dawn of the Dead (1978). Those of you keeping score at home might already know that There’s Always Vanilla (a.k.a., “The Affair”), Season of the Witch (a.k.a., “Jack’s Wife,” “Hungry Wives”) and The Crazies, were sandwiched between “Living Dead” and Romero’s sports documentary, “O.J. Simpson: Juice on the Loose.” The rest is horror history. Although none holds up to scrutiny today, each title bears one of Romero’s fingerprints, at least.  If nothing else, they share Pittsburgh locations with most of his other pictures. There’s Always Vanilla, which suffered from being written by someone other than the master, was an exercise in post-hippie angst. A footloose young man (Raymond Lane) returns to his hometown and, after showing no great interest in finding a job, moves in with an aspiring actress (Judith Ridley), who provides him with emotional and financial support. Before long, Lynn tires of Chris’ lack of ambition and he stops listening to her complaints about doing commercials for toilet cleansers. Made in 1971, two years before Rowe v. Wade was decided, Lynn’s pregnancy pushes the relationship to its breaking point. Chris re-establishes ties to a boy who may or may not be his son, while Lynn decides to have a back-alley abortion, rather than tell her lover. The chemistry between the lead actors and their characters can’t be denied, even if everyone else involved in the picture disowns it in a bonus featurette.

Season of the Witch is a far more interesting movie, positioned to take advantage of the nascent feminist movement and its slow advance into Suburban America. Joan Mitchell (Jan White) is a Pittsburgh housewife – as homebound women were identified, back in the day — whose dissatisfaction with her humdrum life and frequently absent husband causes her to seek solace in the occult, which has become a topic of discussion in her canasta circle. After visiting local herbs merchant Marion Hamilton — a tarot reader and leader of a secret black-arts coven — she comes to believe that she possesses wiccan powers. She begins slowly, by conjuring a visit from a local lothario for the purposes of satisfying her pent-up sexual desires. Even though the guy probably would have paid Joan a visit, anyway, after hearing that her husband was out of town, it helps convince her that she’s on the right track. Afterwards, she withdraws into a fantasy world of witchcraft and other hocus-pocus, sinking increasingly deeper into her new lifestyle. Finally, the line between fantasy and reality becomes blurred and tragedy results. White, the rare professional actor in an early Romero film, carries Season of the Witch with her entirely credible impression of a hot and sexy MILF. Released in 1973, The Crazies is a straight-forward cautionary tale from the Cold War period. After a plane crashes into a nearby stream, residents of small rural town in west Pennsylvania start behaving like murderous loonies. What the federal troops and medical personnel know that the populace doesn’t is that the plane carried a vial, or two, of a weapons-grade virus. Dressed in white Hazmat uniforms and masks, the troops might as well be aliens from a belligerent culture on another planet. They don’t answer questions or refrain from pointing their weapons at anyone who tries to leave the quarantine zones. Finally, the enraged citizens take matters into their own hands. Even on a budget reported to be in the neighborhood of $270,000, for Romero The Crazies reflects a quantum leap forward in production and creative values.

Romero buffs likely will be as excited by the bonus features as the films, which mostly qualify as curiosities. Each newly restored disc adds fresh and vintage commentaries and featurettes; interviews with cast and crew members; galleries; commemorative booklets; marketing material; and newly-commissioned artwork. The best added feature is “When Romero Met Del Toro,” in which kindred filmmaker Guillermo Del Toro chats with George Romero in a comfy living-room setting.

Evil in the Time of Heroes
Island of the Burning Damned
In last month’s review of Shout!Factory’s Land of the Dead re-release, we noted the bonus featurette, “Sean Meets George,” in which Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright paid a set visit to George A. Romero and briefly ended up playing zombies in a wild scene. Among other things, it demonstrated Romero’s willingness to embrace the creators of the Dawn of the Dead parody, Sean of the Dead, but also their acknowledgement of the Master of the Undead’s influence beyond traditional genre lines. As noted in the review of Season of the Witch (above), the delightful conversation, “When Romero Met Del Toro,” reveals just how great an impression Night of the Living Dead left on aspiring filmmakers upon their first viewing, years earlier. “Sean” opened the door to an international buffet of parodies and homages, specific to the countries of original: Juan of the Dead (Cuba), Cockneys vs. Zombies and Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (England), Seoul Station and Train to Busan (Korea), La Horde (France), Kill Zombie! (Holland), Berlin Undead (Germany), Schoolgirl Apocalypse (Japan), Zombio 2: Chimarrão Zombies (Brazil), Zombiehagen (Denmark), Dead Snow (Norway), Warm Bodies, Fido and, of course, MILFS vs. Zombies (USA). I’m sure that I’m missing a few hundred other Romero-inspired titles, but you get the picture. Greece hasn’t been immune to the zombie apocalypse, either. Giorgos Nousias’ Evil (2005) was an Athens-based variant on 28 Days Later, with a fast-spreading virus turning bitten humans into fast-moving, cannibalistic monsters. While his 2009 follow-up, Evil in the Time of Heroes – newly available in DVD, from Doppelganger Releasing – picks up where that gorefest left off, it also traces the affliction to ancient Greece, where it was planted in the Athenian soil like a time-release plague. Conveniently, a mysterious cloaked hero, Prophitis (Billy Zane), is sent by the gods to rescue the uninfected humans. Flash ahead a few millennia and survivors Melitis, Marina, Jenny and Vakirtzis are still on the run from the endless onslaught of zombies that threatened Greece in the original. Apparently, the outbreak has been checked at Greece’s boundaries with its northern neighbors, because the United Nations has decided to bomb the Cradle of Democracy back to the Stone Age to end the threat to mankind. It has given survivors a few days to escape, but it won’t be easy. Fortuitously, the gods have re-enlisted Prophitis for duty in modern Athens. Horror buffs should know that Evil in the Time of Heroes is only slightly less amusing than it is gory, which is to say that it’s lots of fun … even in the native tongue. Zane may be a founding member of the Straight-to-Video Hall of Fame, but he still sells DVDs off his performances in Titanic, Zoolander and the ongoing Sniper series. The Chicago native also speaks fluent Greek. If the special makeup effects don’t measure up to the carnage inflicted on the characters in other zombie epics – the actors and extras volunteered their time – the cheesiness quickly is integrated into the comedy.

Fans of Hammer Horror can safely ignore the presence of such studio stalwarts as director Terence Fisher and actors Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing in the half-baked sci-fi misfire, Island of the Burning Damned (a.k.a., “Night of the Big Heat,” “Island of the Burning Doomed”). The trio had worked together on such Hammer classics as Horror of Dracula and The Mummy, but briefly left home for Planet Film Productions, which produced all of five mid-1960s genre specimens, none of which are memorable. While mainland Britain shivers in deepest winter, the Scottish island of Fara bakes, with temps in the 90s … and the mercury is rising. The only ones who appear to know what’s happening are the sodden blokes at the local pub, the Swan. Although no one has actually seen any aliens and global warming had yet to be invented, it stood to reason that invaders from outer space were responsible. If nothing else, the influx of visitors, combined with the unusual heat wave, the Swan’s proprietor sold a lot of ale. Adding to the rise in temperatures is the unwelcome arrival of steamy hot Jane Merrow, who plays the former lover of a decidedly married local author (Patrick Allen). Lee and Cushing play scientists looking for the source of the heat wave, but, like everyone else on the island and audience, wind up spending most of their time in the pub. For most of the movie the romantic entanglement supersedes anything else in the story, which is just as well, because the aliens are none too impressive. The distributor, Cheezy Movies, doesn’t pretend otherwise.

Julian Schnabel: A Private Portrait: Blu-ray
Julian Schnabel’s stature as one of our greatest living artists and a remarkably intuitive filmmaker – Basquiat, Before Night Falls, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly — is never in doubt in Pappi Corsicato’s gushing biodoc, Julian Schnabel: A Private Portrait. The fact that his genius has been challenged in the past is mentioned, but left to hang in midair, like an untethered question mark. I took me a while to notice that the artist is also listed as an executive producer, but it explains why the film feels more like a testimonial than the critical retrospective some viewers might have expected. In addition to chronicling the Brooklyn-born Schnabel’s formative years in Brownsville, Texas, and beginning of his professional career in New York City in the late 1970s, the “Portrait” traces his rise to superstar status in Manhattan’s art scene and international acclaim as a leading figure in the Neo-Expressionism movement. Time is spent on the set of his movies, inside studios large enough to accommodate his outsized canvases and homes in Montauk, Long Island, and Manhattan’s West Village. We also spend time with him and family members on vacations in seaside villas that would be the envy of the gods. The problem is that Schnabel’s ego, posturing and ostentatious lifestyle effectively distance the subject from merely mortal viewers. Neither does the fawning commentary from friends, family, actors and artists, including Al Pacino, Mary Boone, Jeff Koons, Bono and Laurie Anderson, offer much insight into the subject at hand. Even his contributions to a memorial to the late Lou Reed, while admirable, reflect more on Schnabel than the musician. Even so, anyone looking for a starting point in their approach to the man and his work could do worse than this extended edition of “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous.”

Finding Joseph I: The HR From Bad Brains: Documentary
Whose Streets?
In the 70 years since Little Richard, Bo Diddley and Chuck Berry put their permanent imprints on rock-’n’-roll, distinguishing it from R&B and rockabilly, the number of African-American rock groups could be counted on the fingers of two hands. A straight line can be drawn from the founding fathers through Jimi Hendrix, Arthur Lee, Sly & the Family Stone and the Chambers Brothers, to Mandrill, Living Colour, Fishbone and the BusBoys, and on to Prince, James Blood Ulmer and Lenny Kravitz. If listeners tended not to differentiate rock from the R&B of Ike &Tina Turner, the reggae of Bob Marley & the Wailers, Latino rock of Cyprus Hill and War, the funk of James Brown and Funkadelic, soul of Stevie Wonder, blues of John Lee Hooker and Taj Mahal, hip-hop of Public Enemy and N.W.A. and gumbo soul of the Neville Brothers, but radio stations and record labels sure did. Bad Brains stood out for being in the forefront of the early-1980s hardcore punk scene, but also for embracing reggae, funk, heavy metal, hip hop and soul. James Lathos’ Finding Joseph I: The HR From Bad Brains chronicles the eccentric life and musical inclinations of the band’s frontman, Paul “H.R.” Hudson. (The initials stand for Human Rights.) The band began its life in 1976 as Mind Power, a jazz-fusion ensemble composed of musicians from Washington, D.C. A year later, it took an abrupt left turn into the city’s burgeoning hardcore-punk movement, which incorporated elements of heavy metal and reggae. The band moved to New York in 1979, after being the subject of an unofficial ban among Washington, D.C., area clubs and performance venues. The documentary describes H.R.’s battles with schizophrenia – along with SUNCT, a rare neurological disorder that causes occasional excruciating headaches – and their negative effects on the band. Rastafarianism plays a key role in the story of the band, which has experienced many changes in the 40 years of its sporadic existence. As is the case with many schizophrenics, H.R. is alternately lucid and incomprehensible. The doc probably will be of interest exclusively to people who already are aware of Bad Brains’ contributions to rock and reggae. There isn’t enough music included to form opinions on its worth, one way or the other. For that, Lathos has called upon friends, peers and collaborators, who recall the highs and lows, while sharing their happiness that H.R. is still among the living.

When I reviewed In His Own Home last week, I wasn’t aware of Sabaah Folayan and Damon Davis’ Whose Streets? The former describes what happened when trigger-happy campus police shot and nearly killed a Ghanaian graduate student for the crime of disturbing a neighbor. It went on to discuss the propensity of police around the country to militarize their departments, thus making it even easier for such deviations from protocol to happen. That film appeared to suffer from lack of funds that might have allowed Malini Schueller to broaden the investigation. Whose Streets? is a far more polished film about a case that received international attention and inspired the Black Lives Matter movement. The tight focus here is on the reaction of African-American residents of Ferguson, Missouri, when unarmed teenager Michael Brown was killed by police and left lying in the street for hours. The story is told by the activists, relatives and participants in the uprising that followed the boy’s death, one of several such incidents that occurred in 2014-15. Once again, the police reacted to the initial protests as if they were in Afghanistan, surrounded by Taliban forces, by calling in National Guard reinforcements and further limiting the movements of the citizenry. If the film isn’t as even-handed as some documentarians would prefer, I suspect that police weren’t allowed to respond, possibly due to ongoing litigation.

The Lost Worlds of Gerry Anderson
Although British puppeteer Gerry Anderson’s sci-fi creations look primitive today, it’s interesting to note that “Supercar,” “Fireball XL5,” “Thunderbirds” and “Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons” were introduced only a few years before or concurrently with “2001: A Space Odyssey.” The stories about space exploration, espionage and other Cold War intrigues integrated pint-sized marionettes into live-action scenarios, not unlike Hollywood genre fare. Because the Supermarionation process limited the puppets’ movements to upper-torso and facial features, leaving the characters’ legs looking paralyzed, the effect bordered on the comical … unless, of course, you were a kid and possessed an ability to suspend disbelief long enough to enjoy the storylines. Blu-ray and DVD compilations of episodes from Anderson’s shows have already been released, but “The Lost Worlds of Gerry Anderson” serves as a DVD debut for his rarely seen films, ranging from “Here Comes Kandy” (1955) to the final segment of the stop-motion animated comedy series, “Dick Spanner, P.I.” (1987). Also included are Anderson’s pilot films, “The Investigator” — the last Supermarionation project from the original key crew; “The Day After Tomorrow,” an obscure telemovie concept that spanned the production of “Space: 1999” (1975-77), which starred Martin Landau and Barbara Bain; and “Space Police,” a sci-fi adventure that served as the template for “Space Precinct.” There’s also a commemorative postcard signed by Anderson’s son and head of Anderson Entertainment.

TV-to-DVD
Lifetime: Indiscretion
PBS: NOVA: Eclipse Over America
D.C. Follies: The Complete Series
Mussolini: Untold Story
Nickelodeon: Albert: A Small Tree with a Big Dream
Nickelodeon: Regal Academy: Rose Cinderella in Fairy Tale Land
If the wife of a political candidate is smart enough to be a practicing psychiatrist and possesses Mira Sorvino’s looks, why, in God’s name, would she risk everything, including her life and marriage, by having an affair with a heavily tattooed artist being treated by another psychiatrist, with whom she’s friendly. Sorvino, who, at 50, has never looked more radiant, plays the shrink, who falls for a hulking bohemian type most people would guess was dangerously off his rocker, if only by the sculptures on display in his gallery exhibit. It’s where Dr. Veronica Simon meets Victor, played by Sorvino’s real-life husband, Christopher Backus, who’s 14 years younger than the Oscar-winning actress. So, that much at least makes sense in the Lifetime Original Movie, Indiscretion. Plus, the story is set in New Orleans, a city where appearances of normalcy are never to be trusted. While Veronica’s husband is out of town courting backers, she decides to sample the delights of Bourbon Street with her new friend, after which they play hide-and-seek in a warehouse full of krewe paraphernalia for Mardi Gras. After one weekend of adulterous bliss, Veronica has decided to bid adieu to her lover and swear allegiance to her husband (Cary Elwes), who’s believed to have had an affair of his own. As could have been anticipated by anyone who’s seen Unfaithful, or a dozen other such passion plays, Victor has decided that Veronica is the love of his life and nothing she says can dissuade him from acting on it. When she refuses to return his obsessive affections, he devises a way to squeeze her, using her daughter as leverage and befriending her husband by chatting up their mutual hunting skills. I’m pleased, if not completely shocked to report that Indiscretion has followed in the footsteps of Lifetime movies that go beyond the usual stereotypes and don’t require a box of tissues to sit through. John Stewart Muller’s direction may have its shortcomings, but they aren’t of the paint-by-number variety. Neither should husbands or boyfriends dismiss it as just another Lifetime weeper. The DVD also appears to have unfiltered some of the naughty language removed from the original presentation.

Now that President Trump has bravely demonstrated that concern about being blinded by staring directly at the sun during an eclipse – brain damage was never an issue, apparently — it’s worth checking out some of the other things eclipse-science researchers learned. Apparently, a lot. In what is being described as the fastest “NOVA” turnaround film to date, producers for “Eclipse Over America” followed teams working on the forefront of solar science and solar-storm detection. In doing so, they employ user-generated content, NASA footage and immersive CGI animation to reveal the sun’s secret mechanisms and integrate stunning sequences of the eclipse itself, including scenes filmed at familiar locations along the path of the eclipse. At its apex, the eclipse left a lunar shadow that was 73 miles wide, across a path that stretched from Oregon to South Carolina, allowing continuous observation for 90 minutes. Anyone with enough money could lease a plane to follow the eclipse across the country, without leaving the shadow.

Shout! Factory’s release of Sid and Marty Krofft’s syndicated comedy series, “D.C. Follies,” recalls a period in American history when compromise wasn’t a dirty work and Republicans and Democrats could find common ground for laughs, instead of a mutual fear that World War III is just around the corner. The show’s use of puppets that mimicked pop culture and political figures was similar to the British series, “Spitting Image,” and the nearly life-size cast of characters wasn’t limited to familiar inside-the-Beltway faces. They ranged from Moscow, London and the Vatican, to New York, Hollywood and the Bible Belt, often in the same scene. Although the bartender-in-chief of “D.C. Follies” is the ever-delightful Fred Willard, he left the ventriloquism to the Kroffts. Celebrities would join Willard and the puppets in skits staged in the well-stocked tavern, just down the street from the White House. Although the series ran from 1987-89, the gags and references will be extremely familiar to anyone born before the Clintons took office. Many of the characters are still making headlines, as well as movies and TV shows. I was surprised at how well the humor, most of which was topical, holds up after 30 years. The set includes all 44 episodes.

For most of the last 20 years of George C. Scott’s life, his acting was limited to only a handful of movies, with television mini-series and made-for-TV movies filling his dance card, along with stage appearances. He wasn’t the easiest person to work alongside, but no one questioned his talent or dedication to his craft. In the 1980s, Scott suffered a series of heart attacks that might have limited his ability to find decent roles. Scott probably is the only American actor who’s played two very different generals — George S. Patton Jr. (twice) and “Buck” Turgidson, in “Dr. Strangelove” – as well as a German colonel, Franz Ritter (The Hindenburg); Shylock; Ebenezer Scrooge; Fagin; Beast (“Beauty and the Beast”); and Fascist dictator, Benito Mussolini. MVD Visual has released “Mussolini: The Untold Story,” a seven-hour NBC mini-series that was based on the memories of Vittorio Mussolini, the oldest son of ”Il Duce.” It opens in 1922, as Mussolini gathers power through his Black Shirt militia. Promoting himself as Caesar reincarnate, he provoked a nationalist fervor that peaked after the Italian invasion of Abyssinia (Ethiopia), in 1935. In 1938, Mussolini attempted to convince Hitler not to invade other European countries until 1943, but that fell on deaf ears. Foreseeing a German/Italian takeover of the continent and northern Africa, Mussolini decided to support the Axis effort, extending his reach into Albania and Greece, before being turned back in an embarrassing defeat. Then, when the Allies defeated Axis forces in the desert war, Italy’s backdoor was open to invasion by the good guys. Scott is impressive as Il Duce, but seven hours of the dictator’s trademark posturing can be a long haul. Any resemblance to the current resident of the White House probably isn’t coincidental.

From Nickelodeon comes the original holiday movie, “Albert: A Small Tree with a Big Dream,” which tells the story of Albert, a tiny Douglas fir who dreams of becoming Empire City’s most famous Christmas tree. Along with his friends Maisie and Gene – a persistently positive palm tree and blisteringly honest weed, respectively — he begins the trip of a lifetime to prove his worth to the selection committee. On their journey, they encounter the villainous and prickly Cactus Pete and a horde of hungry rabbits. Along the way, of course, they discover the true meaning of friendship and team work, while saving Christmas along the way. The voicing cast for Max Lang’s delightfully drawn picture includes Judah Friedlander, Bobby Moynihan, Rob Riggle and Mary Pat Gleason.

Also from Nickelodeon, “Regal Academy: Rose Cinderella in Fairy Tale” is comprised of the first three episodes of the network’s “Regal Academy” series for little girls who dream of becoming princesses when they grow up. (OK, boys can have the same ambitions.) Rose Cinderella (Jessica Paquet) thinks she is a regular teenager, but things change when she finds a magic key unlocking a world where fairy tales come to life. While there, she discovers that Cinderella is not only her grandmother but also the headmistress of Regal Academy, a school where fairytale families teach the next generation how to become heroes. The 73-minute set includes “A School for Fairy Tales” “The Great Dragon Race” “The Swan in Swamp Lake.”

The DVD Wrapup: King George, Cars 3, Overdrive, Afterimage, Glass Castle, Whisky Galore, The Journey, Into the Night, Sissi, Stay Hungry and more

Thursday, November 9th, 2017

The Madness of King George: Blu-ray
Even if Olive Films weren’t presenting its Blu-ray release of The Madness of King George as a cautionary tale, it would be difficult for any American – Republicans included – not to draw parallels to our current political predicament. Nicholas Hytner and writer Alan Bennett’s meditation on power, and a state’s ability to overcome serious damage by a monarch’s mental illness, is based on the periods of dementia experienced by England’s George III (Nigel Hawthorne). The movie also describes his relationship with his eldest son, the Prince of Wales (Rupert Everett), particularly focusing on the period around the Regency Crisis of 1788–89, when Charles James Fox (Jim Carter) led the opposition and William Pitt the Younger (Julian Wadham) supported the king as PM. Upon its release in 1994, references to “King Lear” competed with reports of Richard Nixon’s oddball behavior in the final years of his presidency, as reported by Henry Kissinger. The British monarch, at least, had an excuse. It’s believed that he was a victim of acute intermittent porphyria, a blood disorder that affects the brain, but losing the American colonies surely had an impact on his sanity. Hawthorne, Helen Mirren and Bennett were nominated for Academy Awards, while the set direction and art design of Ken Adam and Carolyn Scott were honored with an Oscar. Today, of course, detractors of the current occupant of our White House wonder out loud if Donald Trump might be showing signs of dementia or megalomania. If, like Trump, George III had been able to share his thoughts on Parliament every morning, before dawn, they might sound a lot like his ravings in Bennett’s play and screenplay. If Trump were to be declared mad or impeached for incompetency, the debate in Congress as to his successor probably would resemble the movie’s depiction of Pitt’s power struggle with Fox and the king’s eldest son. By the time Parliament was ready to decide the fate of the Regency bill, the king’s madness appeared to disappear. (If Mike Pence, Jared Kushner or Paul Ryan begin wearing powdered wigs to work, look out!) This isn’t to say that The Madness of King George can’t simply be enjoyed as a brilliantly conceived historical dramedy or for its acting, because it can. Thank goodness, modern medicine relies on symptoms more reliable than daily examinations of stool samples and applying caustic poultices to draw out “evil humors.” (The most telling sign of porphyria, the blue tint of the king’s urine, was ignored.) The Blu-ray arrives without bonus features.

Cars 3: Blu-ray, 4K UHD
Critics have been far less enamored of Disney/Pixar’s high-octane franchise, Cars, than the kids and parents who’ve turned it into a full-blown franchise, with sequels, big- and small-screen spinoffs, records, books, toys, video games and Cars Land, a replica of Radiator Springs at Disney California Adventure Park. Released in 2011 to less-than-stellar reviews, Cars 2 succeeded in expanding the series’ international base by reversing the ratio of box-office revenues flowing into the Mouse House from domestic and worldwide sales. I doubt it had much to do with animation czar John Lasseter’s decision to turn Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson) and Mater (Larry the Cable Guy) into international machines of mystery. From my point of view, at least, the espionage conceits and 007 references overshadowed the characters’ pursuit of glory on the World Grand Prix circuit. In response to the overamped sequel, perhaps, the far better Cars 3 sputtered noticeably at the box office, both here and abroad. In the hands of first-time co-writer/director Brian Fee, the triquel adopts a back-to-the-future approach to advancing the mythology. In a scene almost too reminiscent of fiery crashes in actual NASCAR races, McQueen’s legacy is threatened by high-tech newcomer Jackson Storm (Armie Hammer). His future will be determined not solely by heart and TLC, but by recognizing that cars must join the digital world or accept also-ran status.

Four months later, while recovering in Radiator Springs, McQueen isolates himself from his friends, spending his idle hours watching footage of his late mentor, Doc Hudson. (The old-school racer has been reanimated, through unused recordings of Paul Newman from the first film.) He also reunites with girlfriend Sally Carrera (Bonnie Hunt), who fears he’ll be forced into retirement, like Doc. Much to his chagrin, team owners Dusty and Rusty (Ray and the late Tom Magliozzi) send him to a new state-of-the-art racing center, run by auto-parts magnate Sterling (Nathan Fillion). After failing one mechanical test, he orders McQueen to work with trainer Cruz Ramirez (Cristela Alonzo). He takes her on a trip down Memory Lane, with stops at a demolition derby, beach races and a meeting with Doc’s former mechanic and crew chief, Smokey (Chris Cooper). After Cruz explains her lifelong desire to compete at the highest level, McQueen begins to see her in a much different light. By lending their voices to racing analyst Natalie Certain and Louise “Barnstormer” Nash, Kerry Washington and Margo Martindale add even more feminist touches to the generally boy-friendly proceedings. If Lee and his writing team don’t break much other new ground here, Cars 3 does benefit from a return to the basics of racing, teamwork and trust. The special features include commentary; the new Mini-Movie, “Miss Fritter’s Racing Skoool”; the theatrical short, “Lou,” a short film about grade-school recess and lost-and-found items coming to life; “Ready for the Race,” with race-car driver William Byron; “Cruz Ramirez: The Yellow Car That Could,” a closer look at designing and voicing the film’s key new character; a five-part making-of featurette; “fly through” looks at some of the movie’s key locales; deleted scenes; and “My First Car,” with cast and crew recall members.

Overdrive: Blu-ray
And, while we’re on the subject of automobiles, Antonio Negret’s Overdrive is a fast-paced thriller that can be enjoyed by classic-car aficionados and action freaks in equal measure. The only thing it lacks is a story that advances the chase subgenre beyond well-established conventions and tropes. The omission surprised me because the screenplay was written by Michael Brandt and Derek Haas, whose credits include 2 Fast 2 Furious, 3:10 to Yuma, Wanted, The Double and the creation of TV shows “Chicago Med,” “Chicago Fire,” Chicago Justice” and “Chicago P.D.” Set in the south of France, Overdrive features international car thieves Andrew Foster (Scott Eastwood) and his half-brother, Garrett (Freddie Thorp), whose victims include some archetypically drawn miscreants who probably wouldn’t notice the disappearance of a brand new Cadillac or Lincoln. The loss of a vintage Bugatti Type 57, Ferrari GTO, Maserati Quattroporte, Alfa 6C and Porsche 911 GT3 RS … yes, they’ll miss. The brazen young dudes steal the Bugatti, for example, while it’s in transit from an auction house, to the garage of Marseille crime boss Jacomo Morier (Simon Abkarian). After tracking down the Foster boys, Morier trades their lives for a promise they’ll steal a rare Ferrari from his rival, the ruthless Max Klemp (Clemens Schick). No band of Hollywood car thieves would be complete without the inclusion of a pair of world-class beauties, here, in the persons of Ana de Armas and Gaia Weiss. Providing nothing more than an extra body to kill, Morier adds his cousin, Laurent (Abraham Belaga), to the group, to make sure that everything runs smoothly. The double- and triple-crosses to come are launched when Klemp figures out the original plan and exacts his own form of justice from the Fosters. Finally, though, the 93-minute story fails to accommodate all of the disparate characters and subplots, accentuating, instead, the splendid countryside and magnificent automobiles. The Blu-ray adds three rather abrupt featurettes, “The Caper,” “The Crew” and, all too briefly, “The Cars.”

Afterimage: Blu-ray
True horror takes many forms, as do the monsters who provoke it. In Polish director Andrzej Wajda’s final feature, Afterimage, the perpetrator of great evil, Joseph Stalin, lives hundreds of miles from Lodz, where avant-garde artist Wladyslaw Strzeminski (Boguslaw Linda), succumbed to the Soviet dictator’s madness. Stalin may never have spent more than a few seconds looking at Strzeminski’s work, but his disregard for art that didn’t fall within the general heading of “socialist realism” was heeded by Communist Party flunkies throughout the Eastern Bloc. Stalin’s condemnation of paintings and sculptures that didn’t glorify proletarian ideals dovetailed with Adolph Hitler’s abhorrence of so-called degenerate art, which he associated with leftists, Jews and internationalists. Unlike Stalin’s minions, however, Nazis weren’t at all averse to making a big show of their contempt, even going so far as to stage exhibitions to incite the public’s wrath. While Americans were made acutely aware of Hitler’s plans to eradicate artists, writers and filmmakers he didn’t like, it wasn’t until the collapse of the Iron Curtain that we learned that full extent of censorship there. Despite losing his right thigh and left forearm in World War I, Strzeminski gained an international reputation as an avant-garde painter, theorist and educator. Although some of his writings and sculptures were destroyed after the German invasion of Poland, he survived the war. For the next four years, he remained active as a painter, organizer and backer of educational institutions.

Afterimage opens in January 1950, when Minister of Culture Wlodzimien Sokorski orders Strzeminski’s dismissal from the State Higher School of Art. Practically overnight, he becomes a non-person in the eyes of the Polish government and those indebted to it. He can’t teach or mount exhibitions, and the jobs he does land don’t last very long. Without a job, he loses his access to food rations and finally is hospitalized with tuberculosis. Wajda’s depiction of the artist’s struggle merely to survive is horrifying from both an emotional and visual perspective. All the color is drained from Strzeminski’s surroundings and the persecution even extends to former students committed to committing his theories and observations to paper, on stolen typewriters. While Afterimage isn’t an easy movie to watch, it serves as a reminder of what happened to our creative community during the Red Scare and what could happen again, if religious fundamentalists in Congress were allowed to dictate taste and cut funds intended for the arts. Poland has blossomed since the return of democracy, but Wajda demands that freedom never be taken for granted. The package adds the comprehensive feature-length documentary, Wajda by Wajda.

The Glass Castle Blu-ray
For a pothead, Woody Harrelson is a remarkably prolific actor. In the last two years, alone, he’s starred in a dozen movies, played characters who range from cynical and neurotic (The Edge of Seventeen, Wilson), to militaristic and presidential (War for the Planet of the Apes, LBJ). The one constant in his performances, spanning Natural Born Killers and The Glass Castle, is the likelihood that he’ll slide off the deep end at one point or another, into uncharted waters. In Destin Daniel Cretton’s The Glass Castle, he plays the kind of domineering father we first encountered in Peter Weir’s The Mosquito Coast (1986) … a man so alienated from society that he’ll drag his brood to the ends of the Earth to avoid contact with his personal demons. In a different story, Rex might be categorized as just another unrepentant hippie or non-conformist. Because The Glass Castle is based on a memoir by former journalist and best-selling author Jeannette Walls, however, we’re constantly required to distinguish between eccentricity and madness in a character we’re predisposed to cut some slack. Like Harrison Ford, in The Mosquito Coast, Harrelson’s Rex is an inventor in pursuit of some sort of utopian idyll.

Rex’s problems, however, begin with growing up in a family of dysfunctional hillbillies and continue through self-destructive bouts with alcoholism and failure to complete any of his projects. He can be kind, funny, supportive and wildly imaginative, but usually Rex is portrayed as being a mercurial lout. In this, he’s supported by his wife, Rose Mary (Naomi Watts), a talented artist who doesn’t appear to have been allowed an unfiltered thought since the 1960s. Jeanette is well played by Brie Larson, as an adult, Ella Anderson, as an adolescent. Like her siblings, Jeanette somehow emerged from a childhood of enforced poverty with a semblance of a traditional education and desire to succeed on her own terms. Even so, her success as a gossip columnist in New York can’t keep her from living in fear of the day when Rex and Rose Mary will show up in the city to shatter her dreams for a peaceful life. When they do, we can’t help but wish for them to be hit by a bus. Still, Cretton finds the humanity at the core of Wells’ memoir and leaves room for Harrelson to pull off a positive resolution.  We’re introduced to the writer in the featurettes and she doesn’t seem any worse for the wear. Her childhood, though, isn’t something you’d wish on your worst enemy’s daughter.

Darkness Rising: Blu-ray
Killing Ground: Blu-ray
The Tormenting
For years, Madison (Tara Holt) has been tormented by memories of the murder of her younger sister at the hands of their mother. Joined by her fiancé (Bryce Johnson) and cousin (Katrina Law), Madison returns to her childhood home just before it’s slated to be demolished. Instead of finding closure and collecting a few souvenirs — the home’s contents are nearly intact — they find themselves pursued by the same malevolent, supernatural presence that drove Madison’s mother to unthinkable violence. The demonic device deployed in Darkness Rising by director Austin Reading (“Death Valley”) and writer Vikram Weet (Devil’s Pass) is Madison’s obsession with the tally symbol for the number five. Naturally, the trio should have considered the possibility that they were prying open the gates to hell when the broke into the house, but what fun would that be?

Also from Scream Factory and IFC Films comes a nasty bit of business from Australia, Killing Ground. In Damien Power’s feature debut, a couple’s weekend camping trip becomes a desperate fight for survival, when everything that could go wrong, does. In need of a break from the pressures of city life, Sam (Harriet Dyer) and Ian (Ian Meadows) head to a remote beach in New South Wales. They ignore the first sign of impending doom, in the form of a menacing gas-station attendant right out of Central Casting. After pitching their tent, the couple notices another campsite not far away. The next thing they discover is a traumatized child, seemingly left behind or lost on a path through the forest. It doesn’t take much of a stretch of the imagination to surmise that the crying child and hulking sociopath have something in common: the disposition of the missing campers. Upon further investigation, Sam and Ian find themselves within the crosshairs of two sadistic locals (Aaron Glenane, Aaron Pedersen). If there isn’t much in Killing Ground we haven’t already seen, Power capably orchestrates the frighteningly real dangers of camping in unknown territory.

The Tormenting isn’t a title that carries much weight as a purveyor of horror. If all that evil spirits and monsters did was torment their victims, an entire genre would disappear. The original title of Jaspreet Kaur’s debut feature was “Poignant,” which doesn’t convey a sense of dread, either. Amy (Laura Mitchell) is a medical researcher with ambitions to open her own health-care facility. After visiting a property for sale, she begins to experience visions of a young girl who was raped and murdered there. As the visions evolve, Amy feels less tormented than empowered with the responsibility of pursuing justice for the girl’s death and bringing peace to her soul. The problem is, of course, convincing someone in the police department to take her requests seriously. Kaur does a nice job of establishing chemistry between Amy and the girl’s spirit, and convincing us that something scary really is happening.

Gun Shy: Blu-ray
The Show: Blu-ray
If the folks who bestow Golden Raspberry honors are soliciting nominations for the recently added Barry L. Bumstead Award, they need look no further than Gun Shy. Typically, the prize goes to a film that costs a lot and makes very little money in its extremely limited release. The first two winners were United Passions, a soccer drama that starred Tim Roth, Gérard Depardieu and Sam Neill, and Misconduct, with Josh Duhamel, Alice Eve, Malin Åkerman, Julia Stiles, Al Pacino and Anthony Hopkins. In Gun Shy, Antonio Banderas plays a famously besotted rock star, who appears to be a composite of Steven Tyler, Ozzie Osbourne and Keith Richards. Newly retired, Turk Henry is wasting away in a Margaritaville of his own creation. His supermodel wife, Sheila (Olga Kurylenko), convinces him to take her on vacation in Chile, which, being in the southern hemisphere, is in its off-season for tourism. The chilly weather doesn’t prevent Turk from grabbing a lounge chair and recruiting a local boy to deliver beer to him. Sheila decides to do some sightseeing, during which time she and a few other visitors are taken hostage by a band of stereotypical guerrillas. As inept as the rebels might be, they’re able to recognize Sheila as a valuable possession. Turns out, however, that they’re big fans of her husband’s album, “Metal Assassin,” and treat her like royalty. Turk doesn’t mind paying the ransom, but is forbidden from doing so by some State Department types. Nothing else in the remaining hour, or so, makes any sense whatsoever. Curiously, Gun Shy was directed by Simon West, whose resume includes such legitimate entertainments as Con Air, The Expendables 2 and Lara Croft: Tomb Raider. On the plus side, Gun Shy takes full advantage of the Chilean locations. The Blu-ray adds interviews and a music montage.

Another candidate for the Bumstead Award could be Giancarlo Esposito’s The Show, which attempts to make a statement about reality shows that put their participants in harm’s way, simply to milk ratings points from jaded viewers. Josh Duhamel plays Adam Rogers, a reality-show host who’s front and center when a spurned contestant shoots the man who rejected her and then kills herself. At first, everyone involved is appalled by what happened on live television. At second glance, however, the ratings for the episode inspire network executive Ilana Katz (Famke Janssen) to order Rogers to host a new show, “This Is Your Death,” in which suicidal viewers are encouraged to kill themselves while the cameras are rolling. Disgusted, Rogers turns the tables on his boss by embracing the blood-thirsty aspects of the production and pushing them to their extremes. Caitlin FitzGerald (“Masters of Sex”) plays the rare reality-show producer with scruples, while Esposito portrays a kind-hearted janitor, who volunteers to participate to help his struggling family survive at any cost. The Show goes completely off the rails when Rogers’ seriously depressed sister (Sarah Wayne Callies), a nurse, throws her hat into the program’s ring. If writers Noah Pink and Kenny Yakkel had done their homework, they would have recognized the futility in trying to mimic themes addressed 40 years ago, in Network, and, later, in Running Man and Series 7: The Contenders. I don’t know who’s advising Duhamel on career choices, but whoever it is isn’t doing the actor (“Las Vegas”) any favors. Losing Fergie probably didn’t help him make better decisions, either. The Blu-ray adds a making-of featurette and interviews.

Whisky Galore!: Blu-ray
Not having seen the original adaptation of Compton Mackenzie’s 1947 novel, “Whisky Galore,” it’s impossible for me to accurately compare the 1949 Ealing Studios comedy with the new version, starring Eddie Izzard, Gregor Fisher, Sean Biggerstaff, James Cosmo, Ellie Kendrick, Kevin Guthrie and Naomi Battrick. All three were inspired by the true story of the cargo ship SS Politician, which ran aground off the coast of Eriskay, an island and community of the Outer Hebrides in northern Scotland, in 1941. Among other things, the ship was carrying 50,000 cases of whiskey, much of which local islanders claimed for their own purposes before it sank. The movie advances the timeline a couple of years, to 1943, when the legal consignment of the “water of life” has run dry and residents are beginning to panic. What the islanders consider to be a godsend is treated as a loss of revenue by government authorities, who send Customs officials to retrieve the untaxed booze. In addition to the amusing game of cat-and-mouse the locals play with the interlopers, the movie adds a romantic angle featuring the fetching daughters of the local shopkeeper. Without the whisky, any plans for a traditional wedding celebration would have to be postponed until after the war. Critics who’ve seen both iterations of Whisky Galore! cite a palpable shortage of “mischief” in the remake. Perhaps, but I found it entertaining enough to recommend for anglophiles and fans of old-fashioned comedies. The Blu-ray includes interviews with the stars and director Gillies MacKinnon (Hideous Kinky).

The Journey
The Settlers
In His Own Home
For most of the second half of the last century, Americans couldn’t help but be perplexed by news of the “troubles” in Northern Ireland and the undeclared war between Israelis and Palestinians. Bombings routinely killed civilians and combatants, alike, in both countries, while men wearing balaclavas destroyed any hope for a lasting peace. Even as the Iron Curtain collapsed and apartheid in South Africa disappeared, practically overnight, those conflicts continued to smolder. Then, in 2006, something miraculous happened. In a move almost as unexpected as President Nixon traveling to Red China, as it was then known, sworn enemies in Northern Ireland sat together long enough to find common grounds for disarming their soldiers and declaring peace. The Journey describes what might have happened when diehard British loyalist Ian Paisley (Timothy Spall) shared a limousine with former IRA leader Martin McGuinness (Colm Meaney), during a break in their stalled negotiations in Scotland. It wasn’t their idea, but the ploy worked. So did the clandestine effort by Prime Minister Tony Blair and his MI-5 staff to monitor what transpired during their hourlong ride to the airport, which was interrupted by a strategic detour in the Scottish countryside. Nick Hamm and writer Colin Bateman probably weren’t made privy to what was said in the limo, but in the hands of Spall and Meaney, it doesn’t really matter. They nail the two men’s distinctive mannerisms and speech patterns, without tipping off the happy ending. Also impressive are Freddie Highmore, Toby Stephens, Catherine McCormack and John Hurt, a great actor who died earlier this year, at 77.

It would be nice to report that Shimon Dotan’s insightful and comprehensive documentary, The Settlers, offered even an iota of hope for a break in the stalemate in the Middle East. It doesn’t. Instead, it measures the depth of the divide separating the Israelis and Palestinians, thanks, in large part, to the proliferation of settlements in the occupied territories of the West Bank since the 1967 Six-Day War. It provides a seemingly impartial historical overview and geopolitical study of the most daunting challenges facing Israel and the international community, as well as introducing viewers to at least two generations of settlers. The film doesn’t discuss Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s contributions to this sad state of affairs or belabor the complaints of Palestinians, which have remained consistent ever since Israel was granted statehood. What’s most pronounced here is the hatred, intolerance and implacability in the voices of the newest settlers, whose enemies include “leftists” in the peace movement and foreign nations pressuring Israeli leaders on making compromises. Also telling is a discussion of the separate, but unequal highway system, which allows settlers to make the journey from their homes to Jerusalem in minutes, while the roads reserved for Palestinians are little more than glorified goat paths. If that doesn’t define apartheid, I don’t know what would.

The United States, of course, hasn’t been immune to such dilemmas. In some ways, we wrote the book on them. Our racial divide continues to widen, and its manifestations have only become that much more apparent with the proliferation of cameras on cellphones, police cars and uniforms. In the 25 years since the Rodney King beating was recorded and fed to an L.A. television station, inescapable evidence of police brutality and cover-ups have mounted exponentially. The terrible event described in Malini Schueller’s In My Own House might have been glossed over successfully by University of Florida police, if it weren’t for videotape and 911-recording evidence. It took persistent cajoling on the part of community activists to push the apologists into the media spotlight, however. After a complaint of a disruption in an apartment complex, heavily armed campus police broke into the apartment of disabled and unarmed Ghanaian doctoral student Kofi Adu-Brempong. Within a minute of entry, he was shot in the face. The officer who shot him, who had previously been caught cruising through town, throwing eggs at residents of a black neighborhood, was neither suspended nor fired for excessive use of force. Instead, an elaborate cover-up – contradicted by the recordings – was concocted by the department, which recently had militarized its approach to law enforcement. The case has since been resolved in the favor of Adu-Brempong, with the family agreeing not to disclose terms of a settlement. As such, In My Own House tells only about three-quarters of the story. It should have widened its scope and added more examples of dangers posed by over-militarized and undertrained police units, when dealing with students and teachers from many different countries and racial backgrounds. As it stands, the doc merely adds fuel to the fire was ignited by the ensuing Black Lives Matter movement.

Into the Night: Collector’s Edition: Blu-ray
It’s too bad that Susan Seidelman Desperately Seeking Susan, Martin Scorsese’s After Hours and John Landis’ Into the Night, all released in 1985, aren’t the property of the same distributor. Besides the coincidence of a common birth year, all three of the stranger-in-a-strange-land dramedies showcased stellar casts and an offbeat approach to introducing their square protagonists – Rosanna Arquette, Griffin Dunne and Jeff Goldblum, respectively – to a bracingly dangerous nocturnal world they had no idea existed. The first two titles took advantage of unconventional locations in Soho, Chelsea and Greenwich Village, while Into the Night made stops at such disparate Los Angeles landmarks as LAX, Frederick’s of Hollywood, the Marina, Randy’s Donuts, Regent Beverly Wilshire Hotel, Tommy’s Burgers and Tiffany & Co. Of the three movies, only Seidelman’s resonated with audiences, especially teenage girls attracted by Madonna and fashion designer Santo Loquasto’s hip thrift-shop costumes. In retrospect, Into the Night can enjoyed far more today for its gimmicks and Landis-ian conceits than as an early example of L.A. noir. In fact, the plot can be reduced to a couple of sentences: an aerospace worker suffering from insomnia (Goldblum) has just learned that his wife has been cheating on him. He escapes into the L.A. night, finding shelter in a parking lot at the airport, where he agrees to help a devious prostitute (Michelle Peiffer) escape a group of Iranian gangsters, who believe she’s in possession of gems stolen from the shah’s wife. He chauffeurs her around town in a Cadillac convertible that belongs to her Elvis-impersonator brother. Mayhem ensues.

The best part, though, comes in keeping track of the cameos by 17 directors, including David Cronenberg, Roger Vadim, Daniel Petrie, Jonathan Demme, Richard Franklin, Amy Heckerling, Jim Henson, Frank Oz, Colin Higgins, Lawrence Kasdan, Paul Mazursky, Paul Bartel and Don Siegel; cinematographer Robert Paynter; writer Waldo Salt; FX maestro Rick Baker; seven vintage Playboy Playmates; rockers David Bowie and Carl Perkins; actors Clu Gulager, Irene Papas, Richard Farnsworth, Kathryn Harrold, Bruce McGill and Michelle’s sister, Dedee; and car dealer Cal Worthington. If Into the Night is every bit as messy as it sounds, it also remains entirely watchable. The Shout!Factory remaster features lengthy new interviews with Landis and Goldblum, and an upgraded edition of the award-winning documentary, “B.B. King into the Night,” with concert-like performances from the movie.

The Sissi Collection: Blu-ray
I have a feeling that a lot of old-timers, especially those who still speak a little German at home, will be happy to learn that Film Movement Classics has put a fresh new polish on Ernst Marischka’s “Sissi Trilogy,” which, after their initial release in the 1950s, would become a staple of holiday viewing on Austrian, German, Dutch and French television. At a time when Europe was still reeling from the aftershocks of World War II, Sissi, Sissi: The Young Empress and Sissi: Fateful Years of an Empress, gave those who looked back with fondness on the glamorous trappings and relative calm of the Austro-Hungarian Empire something to anticipate as Christmas approached. Like Marie Antoinette, the former Elisabeth of Bavaria would become a larger-than-life figure, frequently overshadowing the accomplishments and policies of her husband, Emperor Franz Joseph I. In Sissi, Romy Schneider does wonderful job portraying the future empress as a carefree teenager, who wasn’t expected to do much besides having fun, looking grand at formal gatherings and marrying well. The fix was in for her older sister, Helene (“Néné”), to marry Franz Joseph and produce male heirs for the Habsburg ruler. Instead, as often happens, the young emperor and free-spirited Elizabeth became smitten with each other, overruling the demands of his domineering mother, Princess Sophie. The animosity between the two women continues throughout all three chapters of the trilogy, impacting negatively on the emperor’s state of mind. When Sophie arbitrarily decides to take control of her granddaughter’s upbringing and education – even naming the baby after herself – Sissi threatens to abdicate her crown and move back to her dad’s castle. He ordered his mother to back off his wife, but it was an empty threat. The clash would only be the first of many conflicts that occur in the highly romanticized trilogy. Later, Sissi would also emerge as a respected diplomat in tension-filled relations between Austria and the less couth tribes of Hungary. A more accurate portrayal would have taken into account Sissi’s increasingly bizarre behavior, the traumatic deaths of her children, assassination attempts and the cooling of their once passionate marriage. That, however, would have required another chapter, which Schneider refused to do. The trilogy is beloved, however, for its grandeur and nostalgic portrayal of courtly life before the world wars. The package also contains the 1962 English-language condensation of the trilogy, Forever My Love, to which a theme song by Burt Bacharach was added. Other Blu Ray assets include “From Romy to Sissi,” a 20-minute making-of featurette; rare footage of Sissi’s great-grandson at the movies, taken from the documentary, “Elisabeth: Enigma of an Empress”; and a 20-page commemorative booklet, with a new essay by film critic Farran Smith Nehme.

Stay Hungry: Blu-ray
Miracle Worker: Blu-ray
Rock-A-Doodle: Blu-ray
Return of the Ape Man: Blu-ray
Vampire’s Ghost: Blu-ray
S.O.S. Tidal Wave: Blu-ray
Flipper: Season Three: Blu-ray
In addition to the aforementioned The Madness of King George, the folks at Olive Films have stayed busy shipping out nicely restored versions of classics, near-classics and curiosities. If I were to guess, I’d say that Stay Hungry is a movie that indie buffs easily recall for being a distinctly quirky product of the mid-1970s, but few paid to see. A lot of people confuse it with Pumping Iron, a documentary about body builders that arrived a year later, in 1977, and likewise featured a compelling performance by Arnold Schwarzenegger. Others remember it as the movie that convinced casting directors that Sally Field could hold her own in feature films and put Gidget and Sister Bertrille behind her. It also cemented Jeff Bridges’ growing reputation as a potential leading man, whose versatility and unforced charisma were unique among actors his age. Co-writer/director Bob Rafelson was coming off a big commercial and critical success, Five Easy Pieces, and a high-profile bust, The King of Marvin Gardens. Adapted from a novel and screenplay by Charles Gaines, Stay Hungry is centered around a small gym in Birmingham, Alabama, which has the distinction of being a mecca for competitive body builders. It also is the only business preventing a corrupt syndicate from completing a shady, if highly lucrative real-estate deal. Bridges plays a wealthy good ol’ boy, who’s brought on board to grease the skids, but falls hard for the gym’s receptionist, played by Field. Schwarzenegger wouldn’t normally be required to stretch very far to play Joe Santo, the reigning Mr. Austria, who’s in Alabama preparing for the Mr. Universe championships. Here, he’s also asked to play a mean bluegrass fiddle in a backwoods combo and share Bridge’s feelings for the receptionist. Rafelson keeps things interesting by continually adding colorful characters to the mix; choreographing a truly frightening fight in the gym, fueled by ’roid rage and poppers; and, while that’s going on, staging a pose-off in the streets of downtown Birmingham. In my opinion, Staying Hungry was among the best films of a decade known for great stuff and it holds up surprisingly well.

Once one of the most frequently produced plays by high-school drama departments, The Miracle Worker also is a movie that lingers in the mind of Boomers and their parents. So do performances by Patty Duke, as the blind, deaf and mute Helen Keller, and Anne Bancroft as the half-blind teacher who broke through her many walls and became her mentor. I don’t know how many of today’s students are aware of Keller’s remarkable story, which has been retold in a couple of made-for-TV movies. In 1957, when William Gibson’s original teleplay was produced by “Playhouse 90,” Keller was still alive and widely recognized as an author, humanitarian and inspiration for people dealing with debilitating afflictions. (She also was an avowed socialist and anti-war activist.) Two years later, Gibson would revise his teleplay for the Broadway stage. The 1962 film reunited Gibson, Bancroft, Duke and director Arthur Penn. The two men would be nominated for the Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay, while Bancroft and Duke won Oscars for Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress, respectively. (In Bancroft’s absence, Joan Crawford famously accepted her statuette, primarily to piss off Bette Davis, who was nominated in the same category.) The black-and-white presentation may require an adjustment by younger viewers, but Olive’s audio/visual freshening makes the experience easy to take.

Released in 1991, just as Disney was beginning to get its animation mojo back, Rock-a-Doodle is a story within a story about a rooster named Chanticleer who’s conned by the Grand Duke of Owls into believing that he isn’t responsible for the rising of the sun each day. Ridiculed by the other barnyard animals, Chanticleer (Glenn Campbell) escapes to the anonymity of big-city life. Meanwhile, the Grand Duke (Christopher Plummer) has succeeded in his plan to bring perpetual darkness and rain to the farmlands. He’s also devised a way for the rooster to enjoy some success as an Elvis impersonator. If he’s to return to the barnyard to save his friends, Chanticleer may have to put his career on permanent hold. Former Disney animator Don Bluth co-directed and co-wrote Rock-a-Doodle.

There has to be an interesting story behind Olive’s decision to send out cleaned up versions of Return of the Ape Man (1944), Vampire’s Ghost (1945) and S.O.S. Tidal Wave (1939), none of whose virtues can trump their many cheeseball flaws. They’re fun to watch as guilty pleasures, but, like I said, there must be a solid reason for spending good money on reclamation projects of dubious worth to anyone besides fans of Poverty Row products. In the hourlong “Ape Man,” Bela Lugosi and John Carradine play mad scientists who hope to reanimate a primitive man they find frozen in a glacier, using an experimental treatment and long needle. Rather than attempting to teach the humanoid to communicate, Lugosi decides to save time by doing a partial brain transplant from an unwilling human subject. It works, but not in any way that’s particularly interesting.

At first, second and third glance, Vampire’s Ghost appears to be a rip-off of the Jacques Tourneur/Val Lewton thriller, I Walked With a Zombie, which debuted two years earlier. The primary differences between them are the settings – a Caribbean Island vs. an African port city – and nature of the antagonist’s curse. Here, instead of a zombie, the villain is a vampire suffering from a severe case of ennui. Based on an original story by Leigh Brackett (The Big Sleep) everything leads to a showdown between humans and the undead in a temple hidden in the jungle, to which the vampire/bartender has lured a virginal white woman. Arlyn Roberts performs a seductive dance that wouldn’t have been out of place in Gilda.

S.O.S. Tidal Wave was released a year after Orson Welles demonstrated how effective fake news can be in freaking out the American citizenry, in “War of the Worlds.” Here, instead of a radio broadcast, news of a killer tsunami heading for New York is delivered by a television reporter. The medium was in its infancy in 1939, so it’s conceivable that a few electronics stores had TVs in their windows, I suppose. That’s only half the story, though. The movie opens with the reporter taking on the boss of a corrupt political machine. When he refuses to be deterred by bribes or threats, the villains promise dire consequences for his wife and son. The fake-news footage of Manhattan being destroyed by the tsunami – perhaps, the first of its kind – was borrowed from the 1933 fantasy feature, Deluge.

Also available from Olive is the third and final season of “Flipper,” a show that ran from 1964 to 1967 and was dubbed an “aquatic Lassie.” The series follows a Bottlenose Dolphin named Flipper, who is the wild pet of Porter Ricks, a park warden, and his sons Sandy (15) and Bud (10). Flipper lives in a lagoon near Ricks’ cottage at Coral Key Park and Marine Preserve. With the Ricks family, Flipper helps protect the park and preserve its wild inhabitants. He is also instrumental in apprehending criminals and thugs. For an aquatic mammal, Flipper is one smart cookie.

TV-to-DVD
PBS: L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables: The Good Stars
In the second installment of Breakthrough Entertainment’s series of made-for-TV movies adapted from L.M. Montgomery’s “Anne of Green Gables,” Anne Shirley (Ella Ballentine) turns 13, facing a host of new milestones. They include first sleepovers, culinary misadventures and shifting relationships with her BFF, Diana (Julia Lalonde), and academic rival, Gilbert Blythe (Drew Haytaoglu). Through all this, Anne strives to strike a balance between becoming an upstanding, sensible young woman, and embracing her inquisitive and free-spirited nature. Life in Avonlea is never simple. “The Good Stars” was shown on Canadian television earlier this year, with an airing on PBS affiliates here scheduled for Thanksgiving.

The DVD Wrapup and Gift Guide I: Fellini, Ernie Kovacs, Green Acres, Carol Burnett, Person-to-Person and more

Thursday, November 2nd, 2017

Now that Halloween’s in the rear-view mirror, we can focus on giftable movies and boxed sets of interest to buffs, collectors and geeks. In the weeks leading up to the holidays, we’ll offer a few suggestions on DVDs, Blu-rays and books that bear special consideration.

The Voice of the Moon: Special Edition: Blu-ray
It’s difficult to imagine discovering a movie by Federico Fellini that lovers of foreign films haven’t seen at least once. In the case of Arrow Academy’s “The Voice of the Moon: Special Edition” Blu-ray, “discovery” might not be the right term. The Maestro’s final feature has been sitting around in plain sight for more than a quarter-century, just waiting for some distributor to give it a whirl. Better late than never. Based on a novel and screenplay by Ermanno Cavazzoni, “La voce della luna” debuted in Italy in January 1991, but failed to find distribution in the English-speaking world after its screening, out of competition, at that year’s Cannes festival. Two years later, Fellini would be dead and his last few releases all but forgotten. If critics were justifiably underwhelmed by The Voice of the Moon then, there are plenty of good reasons to check it out today. It would be a shame to miss this quintessentially Fellini-esque entertainment, which has been reintroduced in Arrow’s lovely 2K restoration from original film elements. It stars Roberto Benigni, who, a few months later would play a manic Roman cabbie in Jim Jarmusch’s Night on Earth, and, in 1997, go on to win a Best Actor Oscar for Life Is Beautiful. He plays Ivo Salvini, a free spirit, who, after being released from an asylum, continues to be guided by voices coming from the wells he regularly inspects. He’s even more obsessed with the moon, which becomes an inescapable force in his life. He sees it in the puddles of waters that collect in the streets after a rain and in the face of his would-be lover, Aldini (Nadia Ottaviani).

Ivo and his motley crew of misfits are lunatics, in the classic definition of the word. On full-moon nights, their eccentricities become even more pronounced than usual. The narrative, such as it is, follows Ivo’s pursuit of Aldini through a fantastical landscape that combines poetry, dreams and ordinary madness. If Benigni is the star of the show, Fellini demands that he share the spotlight with Paolo Villagio, who plays Gonnella, a paranoid old man prone to conspiracy theories. It probably isn’t a coincidence that he resembles Fellini here. The Voice of the Moon may not stand up to comparison with his classic titles, but it contains several genuinely magical tableaux his admirers should find absolutely fascinating. The Blu-ray package includes “Towards the Moon With Fellini,” a rarely seen hour-long documentary on the film’s production, featuring interviews with Fellini, Benigni and Villagio; a “Felliniana Archive Gallery,” with images from the collection of Don Young; a reversible sleeve, with original and newly commissioned artwork by Peter Strain; and an illustrated collector’s booklet, with new writing on the film by Pasquale Iannone.

Ernie Kovacs: Take a Good Look: The Definitive Collection
Several generations of television viewers have grown up without an appreciation of Ernie Kovacs’ contributions to the medium and how they still influence improvisational comedians and late-night talk-show hosts, today, 55 years after his untimely death in an automobile accident, at 42. This isn’t to say, however, that we haven’t enjoyed watching ideas advanced by Kovacs in his TV shows and commercials. They’ve influenced Dave Garroway, Johnny Carson, David Letterman, Conan O’Brien, Jimmy Kimmel, Jim Henson, “Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In,” “Saturday Night Live,” “Monty Python’s Flying Circus,” “Captain Kangaroo,” “Sesame Street,” “The Electric Company” and “SCTV.” Most have acknowledged the debt they owe the Trenton-born entertainer. Others may not realize who and what inspired their routines. Shout!Factory has already done a terrific job compiling Kovacs’ work for television – not all of which aired during his lifetime – and introducing the uninitiated to recurring characters like besotted poet Percy Dovetonsils, Teutonic DJ Wolfgang von Sauerbraten and the ill-tempered Miklos Molnar, as well as his wife, frequent guest star and collaborator Edie Adams. For the first time, “Ernie Kovacs: Take a Good Look: The Definitive Collection,” offers all 49 existing episodes of his truly offbeat ABC game show, which ran from October 22, 1959, to February 9, 1961. If it aired today, it would still be considered innovative. The show combined the basic elements of “What’s My Line” with the improvisational challenges of “Whose Line Is It Anyway?” Kovacs gives his celebrity panel hints about a secret guest’s identity, frequently in the form of surreal sight gags, blackouts and sketches. The clues don’t always make sense to anyone, except Kovacs, who also created the show’s commercials for Dutch Masters cigars. Appearing regularly throughout the run were Edie Adams, Cesar Romero, Hans Conried and Ben Alexander, with infrequent guest panelists Carl Reiner, Zsa Zsa Gabor, Jane Wyatt, Mort Sahl, Jack Carson, Tony Randall, Janet Leigh and Jim Backus. Frankly, though, “Take a Good Look” represents only a small fraction of Kovac’s genius.

Green Acres: The Complete Series
Also from the archivists at Shout!Factory comes “Green Acres: The Complete Series,” which, for the first time, compiles all 170 episodes of the “Petticoat Junction” spinoff and country cousin to CBS’ monster hit, “The Beverly Hillbillies.” All would be purged in 1971, along with such heartland mainstays as “Hee-Haw,” “Mayberry R.F.D.,” “Lassie” and “The Jim Nabors Hour” — as part of the network’s strategy to attract younger, more affluent audiences. There’s no question that the gambit succeeded in upgrading CBS’ demographic appeal to advertisers, even if it would open itself to attacks by conservative politicians for abandoning “family friendly” fare. Ironically, in fall 1972, CBS half-heartedly scheduled a rural drama it expected to fail. The success of “The Waltons” would launch a trend for family dramedies: “Little House on the Prairie,” “Apple’s Way,” “Family” and “Eight is Enough.” “Green Acres,” which ran for six seasons, turned “The Beverly Hillbillies” concept inside-out by transplanting sophisticated city-slickers Oliver Wendell and Lisa Douglas (Eddie Albert, Eva Gabor) into the fertile soil of Grant Wood’s “American Gothic.” Among the running gags are Oliver’s inability to demonstrate the patience he would need to survive his agrarian idyll and his glamorous wife’s ability to adjust to country ways. And, while the producers made no attempt to reinvent the network sitcom, they had plenty of fun tweaking genre tropes. The show also featured some cross-over appearances by characters in “The Beverly Hillbillies” and “Petticoat Junction.” The box adds the pilot episode, with commentary by pop-culture historian Russell Dyball; interviews with Albert from “The Dick Cavett Show” (audio only) and “The Danny Kaye Show”; and select material from the radio show, “Granby’s Green Acres,” which inspired the TV series.

Richard Simmons: Sweatin’ to the Oldies: The Complete Collection: 30th Anniversary Edition
In the nearly 40 years that exercise gadfly Richard Simmons has been in the public eye, he’s been admired as an advocate for healthy living and ridiculed as the clown prince of pop culture. As a frequent guest on talk shows, the 69-year-old New Orleans native has shed countless tears over the abuse suffered by severely overweight Americans and pranced around stages as if to acknowledge his calling as the media’s favorite twink. He played a version of himself on “General Hospital,” when it was the hottest soap on TV, and occupied the center seat on “Hollywood Squares.” Two years after Simmons disappeared from public view, in 2014, the entertainment media went into feeding frenzy, speculating on what he was doing instead of appearing on TV and minding to his newly closed health club. Some feared he was being held hostage by his housekeepers, while others guessed that he was undergoing gender reassignment. (Last month, his suit against the National Enquirer, Radar Online and American Media Inc., for libel and false claims, was dismissed and he was ordered to pay legal fees for the defendants.) It is against this background that Time Warner and Amazon.com has been licensed to release “Sweatin’ to the Oldies: 30th Anniversary Edition,” which followed Jane Fonda’s celebrity-workout tapes to the top of the VHS charts. The energetic six-disc set includes the complete collection of Simmons’ platinum-selling “Sweatin’ to the Oldies” workout programs that paired lively classics from the 1950-60s with low-impact routines and the host’s banter, encouragement and trademark tank tops. The package also contains “Love Yourself and Win: Six Steps to Self-Esteem & Permanent Weight Loss” and 100 minutes of bonus material, featuring an exclusive interview with Simmons; testimonials and success stories from his students; and a 20-page album of personally selected personal photos and memories.

Planes, Trains & Automobiles: 30th Anniversary Edition: Blu-ray
Although the holiday celebration that John Candy and Steve Martin are desperately attempting to make throughout Planes, Trains & Automobiles is Thanksgiving – now known as Black Friday Eve — their ordeal could apply to any weather-impacted event, from weddings or baptisms, to Christmas or Passover. It’s one movie that fits all holidays. To summarize: advertising executive Neal Page (Martin) and curtain-ring salesman Del Griffith (Candy) are forced by circumstances join forces to find another way to get to their Chicago homes, after learning that all flights from New York have been grounded. The title only gives away half of the madness in the mission. One look at the cover art tells you everything else all you’ll need to know about how difficult their collaboration will be. Compared to Neal and Del, Felix Ungar and Oscar Madison are identical twins. The conceit wasn’t all that new, even then – think Laurel and Hardy, Mutt & Jeff, Abbott and Costello — and it’s been repeated several times since 1987. Hughes’ inspiration, fully realized by Martin and Candy, derived from a flight he hoped to take from Chicago to New York, but would be diverted backwards to Kansas. “TP&A” would mark Hughes first departure from directing teen-oriented comedies. The antiquated “R” rating accorded the film by the MPAA owes to a minute-long tirade, during which Neal drops 18 F-bombs on an attendant at a car-rental kiosk … nothing else. In fact, Candy’s character was originally conceived as a vampire, until Hughes wisely decided to drop the horror and build “PT&A” on a foundation of reconstructed odd-couple, road-trip and buddy gags. The writer/director was coming off Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, while Martin and Candy were at the top of their game. Paramount’s “Those Aren’t Pillows! Edition” adds an in-depth retrospective on Hughes’ career, featuring interviews with those who worked with him; “Getting There Is Half the Fun: The Story of Planes, Trains & Automobiles”; the featurettes, “John Hughes for Adults” and “A Tribute to John Candy”; and a deleted scene. This is an obvious gift for anyone who hasn’t yet seen the movie.

Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas: Deluxe Edition: Blu-ray, 4K UHD
Dr. Seuss’ beloved holiday classic is no stranger to DVD and Blu-ray, but aficionados will be happy to learn that its latest Blu-ray iteration has been built around the 2015 “Grinchmas” edition, which provided a necessary visual correction to the lambasted 2009 version. Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas: Deluxe Edition loses only a couple bonus features from the 2009 combo pack, but nothing substantial. It arrives in a plush green cover jacket and optional 4K UHD iteration. (Higher-def technology could be a hot item under the tree this year.) It also features High Dynamic Range (HDR) for brighter, deeper, more lifelike color; commentary with director Ron Howard; deleted scenes and outtakes; the Faith Hill music video, “Where Are You Christmas?”; and a half-dozen vintage featurettes.

The Carol Burnett Show: Carol’s Lost Christmas
This special presentation from Time Life/WEA — “The Carol Burnett Show: Carol’s Lost Christmas” — contains three uncut episodes from the first four seasons of “The Carol Burnett Show,” which ran from 1967 to 1978. In the first show, look for a dancing Santa, Christmas carols, yuletide poetry and a visit to a boozing Kris Kringle at the North Pole. The set also brings together classic sketches, “The Old Folks,“ “Carol and Sis,” “V.I.P” and “The Charwoman”; the classic “Mrs. Peter Piper” courtroom sketch, written by Neil Simon; an “Early Early Show” movie parody; old lovebirds Bert and Molly (Harvey and Carol) exchange a few choice words while they slowly rock themselves into the New Year; Carol and Vicki join the Bob Mitchell Singing Boys for a touching performance of “Do You Know How Christmas Trees Are Grown?”; pitchmen Garry Moore and Durward Kirby reach out and touch the pocketbooks of parents with an array of ridiculous toys for kids; Jonathan Winters plays St. Nick, as he decides who’s been naughty or nice; Carol and her regular cast of Harvey Korman, Vicki Lawrence and Lyle Waggoner are supplemented, as well, by Barbara Eden and Steve Lawrence.

A Puppy for Christmas
Just because a movie contains the word “Christmas” in its title there’s no reason to think they’re all created equal. For every White Christmas, Christmas Vacation or The Nightmare Before Christmas, there are a dozen or more holiday pictures that appear to have been shaped by the same cookie cutter and sweetened with the same generous quantities of saccharine. Like new releases A Puppy for Christmas, Christmas With the Andersons and Married by Christmas, they debut on obscure cable channels and are promoted as family-family entertainment. No matter how naughty or nice the characters may be, they’ll be required to overcome a crisis before embracing the true meaning of the holiday, with or without any mention of the Baby Jesus. In the former, a young woman’s life and career are upended after she gifts herself with a puppy. Turns out, her boyfriend is allergic to doggy dander and Noelle (Cindy Busby) adopted Buster knowing the risk it carried to their relationship. She decides to accept a co-worker’s offer to spend the holidays on his family’s farm, where Buster can be as mischievous as he wants to be and, of course, a romance develops between Noelle and her unrefined friend, Liam (Greyston Holt). Naturally, too, when her old boyfriend comes to the farm, begging for forgiveness, she’s required to make another decision that carries some risk with it.  If that doesn’t sound much like a holiday movie, it’s worth noting that Liam’s family grows Christmas trees on their farm. Co-director Justin G. Dyck has also helmed Christmas Wedding Planner, 48 Christmas Wishes, A Very Country Christmas, Operation Christmas List and My Dad Is Scrooge.

In Christmas With the Andersons, Mike and Caroline Anderson (George Stults, Christy Carlson Romano) suffer the kind of economic setback that threatens their reputation for throwing their neighborhood’s grandest holiday parties and lavishing their 10-year-old twins, Brendan and Julia, with great gifts. It isn’t until wacky Aunt Katieam (Julie Brown) pays a visit that Mike comes up with way to salvage Christmas and establish a new set of priorities for family celebrations. Co-writer/director/producer Michael Feifer is also responsible for such holiday-themed movies as Merry Kissmas, A Star for Christmas, The Dog Who Saved the Holidays, A Christmas Wedding TailMy Dog’s Christmas Miracle, The Dog Who Saved Christmas and A Christmas Proposal, as well as profiles of notorious serial killers like Ed Gein, Richard Speck, Ted Bundy, the B.T.K. killer, Albert De Salvo and Henry Lee Jackson.

Like Christmas trees, most seasonal romances are evergreens. Letia Clouston’s made-for-UpTV Married by Christmas (a.k.a., The Engagement Clause”) is no exception. Due to an antiquated clause in her grandmother’s will, an ambitious young executive, Carrie Tate (Jes Macallan), faces the prospect of losing her gourmet food-distribution business to her restaurateur sister, Katie (April Bowlby), if she doesn’t beat her to the altar on Christmas Eve. The problem, of course, is that Katie has a fiancé and Carrie doesn’t. Finding a potential husband without conflicting interests proves to be a problem. Clouston has previously given us A Dogwalker’s Christmas Tale. And, you thought Santa’s elves were busy.

Other new releases:

Person to Person
Quirky doesn’t begin to describe Dustin Guy Defa’s Person to Person, an old-fashioned indie seriocomedy about a dozen, or so, characters we wouldn’t notice if we passed them on the street during a stroll through any one of New York’s boroughs. While the same probably could apply to the people in ensemble pieces by Robert Altman or Alan Rudolph, we’re given more than one reason to care about their characters over the next two hours of screen time. Here, not so much. Defa’s characters are interesting only to the extent that they manage to break the wall of anonymity that blocks strangers from noticing each other in everyday meanderings. To this end, Defa’s decision to mix a few known faces with those of amateurs and underemployed pros also maintains our curiosity. Bene Coopersmith, a record-shop owner in Red Hook, reprises his role of the vinyl collector in Defa’s 2014 short film of the same title. We can’t help but be disappointed when sets out to buy a rare Charlie Parker album, only to discover that he’s become the victim of a scam. If it weren’t for the atypically colorful shirt he’s begun to regret wearing, Bene would be as devoid of personality as the sleeves used to protect records from dust and scratches. He wins us over during a humorously conceived bicycle chase through the streets of Brooklyn. More familiar are Michael Cera (“Arrested Development”), Abbi Jacobson (“Broad City”), Philip Baker Hall (“The Loop”) and Michaela Watkins (“Casual”), whose storyline involves an unlikely investigation into a suspicious death that hinges on the placement of the hands of a broken watch. George Sample III plays Bene’s best friend, who’s stuck in a deep depression after misjudging the power of the Internet to exact revenge on his girlfriend. Waifish Tavi Gevinson (“Style Rookie”) plays a high school student, who, after skipping classes with her best friend (Olivia Luccardi), is left more conflicted about her emerging sexuality than before the day started.

Kidnap: Blu-ray
In the 2013 kidnapping thriller, The Call, Hallie Berry played a 911 operator who takes it in her hands to rescue a teen, stuck, for most of the film, in the trunk of her abductor’s automobile, armed only with a cellphone. It made some money, thanks mostly to Berry’s tightly controlled performance and charisma. Not long afterwards, Berry was hired to play a divorced mother whose cute-as-a-button son is kidnaped by someone whose motives are unclear … but not for long. Berry’s Karla Dyson is the quintessential mother who will go to the end of the Earth to rescue her son, before she’ll entrust the task to the local police. In this case, however, we understand how contacting the cops might be a problem. While chasing the kidnaper through the park, Karla drops her cellphone. Having made a visual identification of the woman who grabbed Frankie (Sage Correa), she hops in her minivan and chases the beat-up Mustang across southern Louisiana for most of the next 95 minutes. That isn’t an exaggeration. The pursuit is alternately exciting and ridiculous, as it would be given the location and number of vehicles that get in her way. The ridiculous part comes in watching innocent people get mowed down as if they were well-worn bowling pins. But, that’s OK, because in director Luis Prieto and writer Knate Lee’s story, the end justifies the means. The real stars, after all, are the stuntmen and stuntwomen who risked their lives for a movie whose release would postponed for nearly two years – five times, in all — and given a lukewarm sendoff when it finally did make the theatrical circuit. (According to producer Joey Tufaro, the production crashed 85 vehicles, including seven versions of the minivan driven by Berry in the film.) Chase fans won’t be disappointed. The Blu-ray adds a making-of featurette.

Age of Kill
In this far-fetched, if well-choreographed tick-tock thriller from England, a former black-ops sniper, Sam Blake (Martin Kemp), is blackmailed by a masked terrorist into killing six unrelated people in six hours… but there is more to the victims than meets the eye. The terrorist is holding Blake’s daughter (Dani Dyer) as collateral, while he’s also playing another assassin, Lexi (April Pearson), against his enemies. The police are represented by D.I. Hannah Siddiq (Anouska Mond), who makes DCI Jane Tennison look like something the cat dragged into the local nick. Her youthful good looks cause government intelligence agents assigned to the case not to take her seriously. This is only their first big mistake. As if Neil Jones and writer Simon Cluett’s story weren’t sufficiently topical, there’s also a subplot involving a closeted right-wing politician organizing violent protests against immigrants. It’s a bit of a mess, but watchable, nonetheless.

L7: Pretend We’re Dead: Blu-ray
If Andy Warhol were still among the living, he might be tempted to update the observation he made in 1968, “In the future, everybody will be world famous for fifteen minutes,” to “In the future, everybody will be overexposed for fifteen minutes.” God knows what he might have to say about Facebook, selfies, Twitter and the Kardashians. Warhol deferred credit for popularizing the term “superstar,” crediting a “friend of mine from New Jersey (who) called herself Ingrid Superstar. … The more parties we went to, the more they wrote her name in the papers, Ingrid Superstar, and ‘superstar’ was starting its media run.” By now, the term “superstar” has become so commonplace that’s completely lost its relevance, even as a marketing tool. What’s 15 minutes of fame, when an Internet page is eternal? Every week, it seems, someone sends me a documentary that chronicles the rise and inevitable fall of a rock band that allowed itself to be filmed in and out of concert, ad nauseum, possibly to remind the members’ grandchildren of their 15 minutes in the spotlight. These rockumentaries also describe microtrends with pop genres – death metal, industrial rock, hard-core — or a city’s contribution to rock’s DNA. While almost all the filmmakers take their subjects way too seriously, some strike a balance between adulation and reality. Sarah Price’s L7: Pretend We’re Dead is such a film.

Culled from more than 100 hours of vintage home movies taken by the band, never-before-seen performance footage and candid interviews with band members and peers in the punk/grunge movements. In its 16 years of existence, L7 couldn’t avoid being pigeonholed as a “girl group” or standard bearer for the “riot grrrl” movement. Price (Summer Camp!) makes it clear from the get-go that L7’s bona fides were every bit as legitimate as any band in Los Angeles’ punk scene of the 1980s or Seattle’s 1990s’ grunge firmament. Donita Sparks, Suzi Gardner, Jennifer Finch and Dee Plakas walked the walk politically, forming Rock for Choice, an advocacy group supported by Pearl Jam, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Nirvana and Rage Against the Machine, while also thrilling the same audiences. Alas, no matter how popular the band was in concert, the rock establishment made it difficult for it to be heard on radio and at festivals, where promoters sometimes treated L7 like a novelty act. L7: Pretend We’re Dead follows the band to the point, in 2001, where it couldn’t justify staying together as a commercial entity, finally disappearing for another 15 years. (It reunited in 2015, playing festivals in the U.S. and Europe.) The home-movie material in the film reminded me a bit of the esprit de corps and slapsticky humor that distinguished the Beatles’ movies and Bob Rafelson’s take on the Monkees’ craze, Head. Also included in the package are outtakes and Krist Novoselic’s 1997 documentary, “L7 The Beauty Process.”

Halo: The Complete Video Collection: Blu-ray
One of the most venerable of all video games, “Halo” has thrived for more than 15 years, even surviving the demise of Sega’s Dreamcast console. It’s spawned four direct sequels and a bunch of spin-off games, as well as novels, toys, live-action shows and animated series and films. “Halo: The Complete Video Collection” includes Blu-ray editions of the previously released “Halo Legends,” “Halo 4: Forward Unto Dawn,” “Halo Nightfall” and “Halo: The Fall of Reach,” and the bonus features they carried. It adds two discs with video-based extras and four all-new commentary tracks for the four programs included in the set. The voices are provided by Frank O’Connor, Kevin Grace, Bonnie Ross, Kiki Wolfkill, Corrinne Robinson and Jeremy Patenaude.

The DVD Wrapup: Inconvenient Sequel, Good Catholic, Midwife, Old Dark House, Dawn of Dead, and more

Thursday, October 26th, 2017

An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power: Blu-ray
It’s worth remembering that the first Earth Day was celebrated on April 22, 1970, fully 19 years before then-Senator Albert Gore questioned the first Bush administration’s commitment to environmental protection. It was on the NPR program “First Mention” that Gore accused the government of tampering with testimony on global warming from a leading scientist. Like the nitwits spouting the same nonsense today in Washington, Bush administration officials defended themselves by saying there was no consensus on the science of global warming. Before he became consumed with avenging the terrorist attacks on 9/11/2001, George W. Bush announced that the U.S. would not implement the Kyoto Protocol, an international treaty signed in 1997 that would require nations to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions. In 2007, it not only was revealed that the Bush White House had pressured American scientists to suppress discussion of global warming, but had worked to undermine state efforts to mitigate it. Specifically targeted were California’s first-in-the-nation limits on greenhouse gases from cars and trucks. A year earlier, Davis Guggenheim’s An Inconvenient Truth had been released to wide acclaim and $41.6 million in box-office revenues, worldwide, not counting the informational screenings held to promote the film’s message. (Some 50,000 copies were given away to teachers in the United States, via the participate.net website.) Gore, the subject of Guggenheim’s “first carbon-neutral documentary,” would share the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. An Inconvenient Truth won two Oscars – one for Guggenheim and the other for Melissa Etheridge’s original song – and a pair of Humanitas prizes.

In an early indication of Ivanka Trump’s inability to reason with her father, the First Daughter arranged a meeting between Gore and the President-elect to discuss what was said to be one of her signature issues. Gore called the conversation “interesting,” but it clearly had little or no impact on Trump, who once called global warming a “Chinese hoax.” A month later, Bonni Cohen and Jon Shenk’s An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power debuted at Sundance, in advance of a screening at Cannes and worldwide release, beginning in August. It received largely favorable reviews, if not the same commercial response. No one could accuse climate-change activists of having forgotten the importance of proselytizing the issue or writing off Gore’s mission as quixotic. Despite Trump’s backwards stance on the subject – supporting the coal industry, over solar and wind-generated sources – governments and corporate entities around the world have picked up the cudgel of progress and run with it. (For example, motorists driving from L.A. to Las Vegas can’t miss the the giant Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System, just south of Primm.) An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power delivers a wide-ranging, visually appealing exploration of where, exactly, the planet is now. Gore serves as a scientist, preacher and tour guide through everything from increasingly dramatic weather patterns – even before the current rash of hurricanes, fires and floods — to the changing attitudes among world leaders and the value of photographing the Earth from space. As such, Sequel delivers a slightly more positive and optimistic message. The Blu-ray arrives in “environmentally friendly” packaging, with a list of “10 ways to act on behalf of the climate” printed inside it. Other extras include the backgrounder, “Effecting Change: Speaking Truth to Power”; the Lyric Video, “Truth to Power,” by OneRepublic; and “Truth in Ten,” from Gore’s family farm in Tennessee.

The Good Catholic: Blu-ray
At a time when the title, The Good Catholic, could have a dozen different connotations, it’s comforting to learn that the good Catholic in question is an idealistic priest suffering from nothing more than an old-fashioned crisis in confidence in his ability to perform the tasks assigned him. In his first feature, Zachary Spicer (“All My Children”) is a perfect fit for the part of the young cleric, Daniel, who, at first, is only caught between two different approaches to the same faith. His mentors at the Bloomington, Indiana, church he serves are Father Victor (Danny Glover), a no-nonsense traditionalist, and Father Ollie (John C. McGinley), a chain-smoking, carb-addicted Franciscan, who wears an IU jersey over his friar’s garb on game days. The differences can’t mask their passion for their calling. Then, along comes the gorgeous, if suicidal redhead, Jane (Wrenn Schmidt), whose late-night confessions pluck Daniel’s heartstrings. She’s a musician, who lays out her feelings in song at a local coffeehouse that the priest begins to frequent, absent his collar. At the same time, Victor and Ollie use Daniel’s qualms as learning tool. Wither the young priest will goest is always in question.

The Midwife
If I had received the screener of Martin Provost’s The Midwife two weeks ago, I could have added it to my review of Moka.  It’s not that they simply share a country of origin – France – but for a pairing of great actresses that borders on thrilling. In Moka, Nathalie Baye and Emmanuelle Devos vied for our absolute attention. In The Midwife, it’s Catherine Frot and Catherine Deneuve. How did we get so lucky? Frot, who also starred in Provost’s 2006 biopic Séraphine, plays a Parisian midwife, Claire, who, one day, out of the blue, is asked by her late father’s former mistress, Béatrice, to reconnect. Claire is as tightly wound and reserved as Deneuve’s character is free-spirited and self-destructive. Their reunion is anything but warm. Too many loose ends were left untied when Béatrice split from her father and Claire suspects her motives for the meeting. Turns out, Béatrice has been diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor and is alone in the world. Claire convinces her to seek a second opinion, which leads to the surgery she should have had months or years earlier. As was probably inevitable, the two women will find some common ground, even as Béatrice’s symptoms begin to return. Claire finds some relief in her garden outside the city, where she strikes up an uneasy relationship with the earthy fellow working the plot next-door. If she can get the flowers in her garden to blossom, maybe the same thing will happen with her new truck-driver friend (Olivier Gourmet) and her father’s former lover. Nothing’s a sure bet, however. Provost appears to be in his element here, working with exceptional actresses playing exceptional women. The Music Box DVD adds an interview with Provost and film festival Q&A with Provost, Deneuve and Frot.

Heartstone
Baby Steps
At 129 subtitled minutes, Guðmundur Arnar Guðmundsson’s debut feature, Heartstone, risks losing its audience – temporarily, at least – in the splendid scenery surrounding a remote fishing village in eastern Iceland. The tendency to wander has nothing to do with the emotionally charged narrative or excellent ensemble cast, however. Coming-of-age stories involving LGBT youth not only have become commonplace, but the quality of such genre-pushing pictures has also raised the bar on entertainment value. As diverting as the topographical grandeur beyond the borders of Reykjavik is, however, it provides the perfect backdrop for the protagonists’ lonely struggle to come to grips with adolescent sexuality and its place in the isolated community. In this way, at least, Heartstone resembles Brokeback Mountain. Thor and Christian are longtime best friends, whose dreams have yet to be crushed by the alcoholism that’s a byproduct of six months of darkness and everyday Nordic fatalism. Under this summer’s Midnight Sun, however, it’s become obvious to the local teenagers that the innocence and comradery they’ve shared for most of their lives has mysteriously changed. While Thor (Baldur Einarsson) tries to win the heart of Beta (Diljá Valsdóttir), who’s a bit more emotionally centered than either of the boys, Christian decides that it’s time to make his closest friend aware of his love for him. Guðmundsson doesn’t rush or force the issue, relying instead on subtle hints and less-than-overt contact between them. Complicating their situation, though, is the homophobia handed down from adults to their children and Thor’s predicament of having to acknowledge Christian’s feelings, without doing permanent harm to their friendship. It can be argued that Guðmundsson’s decision to push the narrative into the realm of near-tragedy only serves to add length to an already compelling drama. Still, it will only feel gratuitous to viewers of reading subtitles.

A few weeks ago, Olive Films re-released Ang Lee’s 1993 The Wedding Banquet, which describes what happens when the parents of an accomplished Chinese immigrant arrive in New York to arrange a marriage for their son and accelerate the process of adding of a male heir to the family. Barney Cheng’s 2015 rom/dram/com Baby Steps appears to have been built from the same template as that groundbreaking film, right down to the appearance of a Taiwanese mom (Grace Guei, a.k.a., Ya-Lei Kuei), who travels to Los Angeles when she hears that her son, Danny (Cheng), intends to become a father through surrogacy. She knows he’s gay, but isn’t aware of his desire to share the chores of parenthood with his non-Chinese partner, Tate (Michael Adam Hamilton). Once in L.A., mom takes over the process of screening potential candidates for motherhood, rejecting most for trivial reasons … or approving a few Danny doesn’t like. It comes as no surprise, then, when her interference begins to have a negative impact on Danny’s relationship with Tate and he must lay down the law with her. Apparently, Baby Steps’ release had a direct impact on the concurrent debate being waged in Taiwan over same-sex marriage. Producer Li-Kong Hsu also collaborated on The Wedding Banquet, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Eat Drink Man Woman.

The Old Dark House: Blu-ray
The parade of pre-Halloween thrillers and horror flicks continues apace, with some terrific releases of restored classics, genre oddities and other blasts from the past. As far as I’m concerned, the pick of this week’s litter is James Whale’s 1932 chamber piece, The Old Dark House. In addition to a chilling performance by Boris Karloff, the Universal picture featured Melvyn Douglas, Charles Laughton, Lilian Bond, Ernest Thesiger, Eva Moore, Raymond Massey, Gloria Stuart and Elspeth Dudgeon, none of whom were household names yet in Hollywood. Neither was Karloff particularly well known here, even though he had appeared in dozens of films by the time Frankenstein was released in 1931, and, there, he simply was credited as “?” Recognizing these fine actors in early roles is only part of the fun in The Old Dark House. Based on the 1927 novel “Benighted,” by J. B. Priestley, it opens in a way that would become familiar to audiences very soon: a car full of big-city swells risks catastrophe by driving through the Welsh mountains in a fierce rainstorm. When the roads become impassable, they seek shelter in a spooky, unlit mansion not far the highway. After banging on the door for a while, they are “greeted” by Morgan (Karloff), the Femm family’s badly scarred and menacing butler. Horace Femm (Thesiger) is receptive to the Waverton party spending the night, even if his deaf sister, Rebecca (Eva Moore), is dead set against it. Before long, the arrival of the overbearing Sir William Porterhouse (Laughton) and his companion, Gladys Perkins (Bond), make it impossible for Rebecca to refuse them the comfort of a warm fire, at least. The Femm mansion may not be haunted in the traditional sense, but, in Whale’s hands, its mysteries and secrets serve the same purpose. Morgan’s monstrous behavior, when drunk, is the perfect capper. The Old Dark House was withdrawn from circulation when William Castle Productions’ was released, in 1963. This film was considered lost until director Curtis Harrington discovered a printable negative in the Universal vaults, in 1968. The Cohen Film Collection’s 4K restoration has ported over previous commentaries by Stuart and Whale biographer James Curtis, and an interview with Harrington on the rediscovery of the film. A new interview with Karloff’s daughter, Sara, has been added.

Dawn of the Dead: Collector’s Edition: Blu-ray
Land of the Dead: Collector’s Edition: Blu-ray
In the annals of unnecessary remakes, Gus Van Sant’s Psycho (1998) will always be listed among the most redundant of all time. Michael Haneke’s 2007 duplication of his terrifying 1997 Funny Games could be justified for translating the dialogue into English and adding actors familiar to fickle American audiences. Zack Snyder’s 1998 remounting of George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead wasn’t particularly necessary, either, but, at least, it made good use of the larger budget and made some money for Universal. Neither picture was required to spend much money on screenwriter fees – why tinker with perfection, after all? – but whatever James Gunn (Guardians of the Galaxy) added to or subtracted from Romero’s 1978 screenplay could hardly be noticed. More apparent was the relocation from Pittsburgh to Ontario and the Universal backlot, both of which stood in for Wisconsin. For Snyder, it opened the door to the effects-heavy 300, Watchmen, Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole and Man of Steel. There was nothing wrong with the casting, either. New faces included Ving Rhames, Sarah Polley, Jake Weber, Mekhi Phifer, Michael Kelly, Matt Frewer and Ty Burrell. The Blu-ray adds several new features to the original package, including interviews with Burrell, Gunn and Weber, as well as “Killing Time at the Mall: The Special Effects of Dawn of the Dead,” with special makeup effects artists David Anderson and Heather Langenkamp Anderson.

Romero’s Land of the Dead (2005) wasn’t shot in Pittsburgh, either, but for reasons that probably made more sense to the producers than anyone else. The zombie population here was such that it would have been difficult to tell the difference, anyway. The screenplay was partly based on the original, much longer script for Day of the Dead (1985). It takes place in a contemporary world, in which the walking dead roam a vast uninhabited wasteland and the living try to lead “normal” lives behind the walls of a fortified city. Society is divided between the opportunists who reside in the towers of a skyscraper and the regular folks who eke out a hard life on the streets below. With the survival of the city at stake, a group of mercenaries is called into action to protect the living from the evolving army of the dead, waiting outside the city walls. The cast includes Dennis Hopper, Simon Baker, Asia Argento, Robert Joy, Pedro Miguel Arce and John Leguizamo. In addition to previously available bonus material, the Blu-ray adds new interviews with Leguizamo, Joy, Pedro Miguel Arce and actors Eugene Clark, Jennifer Baxter, Boyd Banks and Jasmin Geljo. One of the returning featurettes, “When Shaun Met George,” describes what happened when Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright paid Romero a visit on the set.

The Lift: Limited Edition Blu-ray
Down: Collector’s Edition: Blu-ray
Like Michael Haneke, Dutch genre specialist Dick Maas was entrusted with the 2001 English-language remake of his killer-elevator epic, The Lift (1983). He needn’t have bothered, because neither Down nor The Lift received a theatrical release here and no one paid much attention to the video iterations. Remarkably, Blue Underground has elected to re-release them in special Blu-ray editions, with a bunch of special features added for good measure. Killer-elevator pictures represent a subgenre of the technology-runs-amok and splatter subgenres, all of which fall under the general heading of horror or sci-fi. Buffs might also consider them to be comedic, but that’s another story. In both pictures, a repairman investigates the faulty elevators in what’s become a high-rise deathtrap. Upon further reflection, he determines that something other than malfunctioning machinery is to blame. Some dark, distorted power – possibly developed by the military — has gained control of the elevator for its own evil design. For some reason, the only other person interested in pursuing the investigation is a nosy journalist. The stars of The Lift included Huub Stapel (Amsterdamned) and Willeke van Ammelrooy (Antonia’s Line), while the U.S. remake features what today amounts to an all-star cast: James Marshall (“Twin Peaks”), a pre- Mulholland Drive Naomi Watts, Edward Herrmann (“The Good Wife”), Michael Ironside (“Transformers Prime”), Dan Hedaya (Blood Simple), Eric Thal (The Puppet Masters) and Ron Perlman (“Sons of Anarchy”). The Blu-ray extras include commentaries with Maas; his short film, “Long Distance”; making-of featurettes; and collectible booklets, with essays.

The Corpse Grinders: Blu-ray
Woman’s Torment: Blu-ray
Prime Evil/Lurkers Blu-ray
Demon Wind: Blu-ray
Blood Beat: Blu-ray
Vinegar Syndrome, which specializes in the restoration and distribution of genre and erotic films from the latter half of the 20th Century, has once again lived up to its mission statement by sending out a half-dozen Halloween-ready titles, ranging from obscure to really obscure. The company puts a lot of time, money and effort into restoring its selections, frequently more than was invested in the original production. VS isn’t the only distribution company involved in such seemingly thankless work – except to buffs and collectors – but the new versions are infinitely better than previous iterations released on VHS from screen captures and crappy negatives.

Of the titles released this week, the most recognizable is The Corpse Grinders, whose reputation is several times greater than the amount of money it pulled in at the box office. The premise is pretty simple, really.  The financially troubled Lotus Cat Food Company is on the verge of closing. To prevent bankruptcy, it’s owner decides to forgo paying for top-quality horse meat or tuna scraps – or whatever it is they put in the tins – and pay grave robbers to provide them with freshly buried cadavers. Cemeteries are never in danger of running out of customers, so where’s the harm? In fact, like their more predatory relatives in the feline family, housecats can become as addicted to human flesh as lions and tigers. Once that happens, they never settle for decaying meat, when fresh alternatives are close at hand, er, paw. It doesn’t go unnoticed by friends of the local humane society. It would be nice to be able to recommend Corpse Grinders on its merits, but director Ted V. Mikels is such a notorious hack that it can only be viewed with an uncritical eye. What’s more interesting is the fact that it was co-written by Bryan Cranston’s father, Joseph – also responsible for Go, Johnny, Go! (1959), Erotica (1961) and The Crawling Hand (1963) – and Arch Hall Sr., known for EEGAH and Wild Guitar. Apparently, audiences were ordered to sign waivers before they entered the theater, asserting they were sane and wouldn’t hold the theater owners liable for brain damage. (They affidavits were hardly necessary.) It also was released in the U.S. as the main attraction in a triple-feature package with The Embalmer (1965) and The Undertaker and His Pals (1966). The drive-in mainstay has been freshly restored in 2k, from recently discovered negative elements. It adds a commentary track with Mikels and grindhouse specialist Elijah Drenner; a video featurette, with Mikels; a stills gallery; and reversible cover artwork.

Another exploitation legend, Roberta Findlay, is represented by three pictures that blend blood, gore, horror and nudity, in various measures. They’re all on full display in A Woman’s Torment (1977), which she wrote and directed as Robert W. Norman and she cites as the first “hard-core horror film.” Also included in the VS package is a soft-core alternative, which I can’t imagine would be of value to anyone except scholars at religious institutions. In it, Don (Jeffrey Hurst) and his wife, Frances (Crystal Sync), are finding it difficult to keep their marriage healthy, while also taking care of Frances’s mentally ill sister, Karen (Tara Chung). When Karen overhears them discussing having her committed to an asylum, she runs away, taking refuge in an empty house on a remote beach. In her twisted mind, everyone who crosses paths with her there is either a potential lover or predator, worthy of being murdered. Findlay is said to have been influenced by Roman Polanski’s Repulsion, a conceit that someone relatively new to the exploitation game could admit. Considering that it was released before the so-called Golden Age of porn, A Woman’s Torment is pretty good.

Findlay’s other two contribution here are from the very end of her career, when she’d stopped during porn and focused on drive-in and straight-to-video exploitation. The nudity has become more or less perfunctory, while the gore and special-makeup effects are put in the forefront. Prime Evil (1988) takes place largely in a Manhattan monastery, which is home to a group of devil-worshipping monks, whose lineage can be traced to the medieval plague years. The monks, some of whom appear to be ageless, are on the lookout for attractive women who could stand making a confession. Once in the monks’ confidence, the women are putty in the hands of Satan’s earthly agents. Also set in the streets of New York is Lurkers (1988), which Findlay shot and directed, as well. When Cathy (Christine Moore) was a girl, she narrowly escaped with her life after witnessing her deranged mother murder her father. Haunted by memories of her macabre childhood, her nightmares turn into a terrifying reality when she’s lured back to her childhood home, only to be transformed into a “lurker.” They are members of the vengeful dead, who seek to terrorize those who wronged them. Both films have been scanned and restored in 2k from the 35mm original camera negative, and include a commentary track with Findlay, marketing material, isolated soundtracks and reversible cover artwork.

Viewers can sleep through the first half of Demon Wind (1990), without missing anything more than what’s already been summarized on the cover. The expository material is so tedious and poorly rendered that you’ll be tempted to write the whole thing off as a harmless waste of time. Once the ghosts, goblins and zombies are introduced, however, it’s almost as if another director stepped in for Charles Philip Moore and found a way to jump-start the picture. The story is set somewhere in the Midwest farm country, where, several decades earlier, something terrible happened to the owners of the property. For most of his life, Cory (Eric Larson) has been tormented by speculation about what happened to his grandparents. Along with a group of friends from college, he returns to the desolate region where they lived, to try and uncover the mystery. Ignoring warnings from the locals that the area is cursed, Cory and his friends soon realize that the legend is true, as the Demon Wind, possesses and destroys them, one by one. Never released on DVD, the film comes to Blu-ray from Vinegar Syndrome in a brand new 2k restoration of its 35mm camera negative. It adds interviews with executive producer Sandy Horowitz, actor Sherry Bendorf Leigh and cinematographer Thomas L. Callaway.

The oddly titled Blood Beat (1983) is another VS release that starts in one direction, before veering off into a completely different genre. The characters all appear to be possessed by one sort of demon or another, but for no reason or purpose that will be apparent to most viewers. Fabrice Zaphiratos’ overreaching thriller is set in rural Wisconsin, where deer hunting season is worshiped like Holy Week in Rome. Not everyone in the farmhouse is comfortable with the ritual, however. Mom is more interested in her paintings than entertaining her guests, who include a young woman who can’t control her orgasms. Out of nowhere comes a mysterious figure, garbed in an elaborate Samurai outfit, a wielding a sword that might have been stolen from a fallen warrior and now carries his DNA. Who knows? I don’t. Any state capable of producing Ed Gein, Arthur Bremer and Jeffrey Dahmer is capable of anything. The Blu-ray package adds a commentary and interview with Zaphiratos, and an interview with cinematographer Vladimir Van Maule.

Blood Feast/Scum of the Earth: Special Edition: Blu-ray
Nothing says exploitation like a Herschell Gordon Lewis movie … or two. Arrow Video presents one of his earliest gore-fests in a package that almost puts Criterion Collection to shame. Released in 1964, Blood Feast gave Lewis a brief respite between his early “nudie-cutie” and “nudist camp” successes. To save money, he not only wrote and directed the picture, he also composed the musical score. The special effects may have been primitive, but, in color, the blood and gore were almost too much to stomach. The nudity served the plot … not that anyone was keeping score. Blood Feast made a lot of money for Lewis and longtime partner David F. Friedman. As for the story, well, Dorothy Fremont (Lyn Bolton) wants to throw a party unlike any other, so she hires sinister Fuad Ramses to cater the event. Promising to provide her guests with an authentic Egyptian feast, Ramses (Mal Arnold) sets about acquiring the necessary ingredients: the body parts of nubile young women. Scum of the Earth (1963) plays like an expose of the “body modeling” industry, in which pretty girls are lured by the promise of easy money and, then, trapped into revealing more of their bodies than they intended. It’s Lewis’ last black-and-white film. The package adds “Blood Perspectives: Filmmakers Nicholas McCarthy and Rodney Ascher on Blood Feast”; “Herschell’s History,” an archival interview, in which Lewis discusses his entry into the film industry; “How Herschell Found his Niche,” a new interview with Lewis discussing his early work; a lively archival interview with Lewis and Friedman; “Carving Magic,” a vintage 1959 short film, featuring Blood Feast actor Bill Kerwin; outtakes; alternate ”clean” scenes from Scum of the Earth; a promo gallery; commentary featuring Lewis and David F. Friedman, moderated by Mike Grady; reversible sleeve, featuring original and newly-commissioned artwork by Twins of Evil.

Slaughter High: Collector’s Edition: Blu-ray
Although Slaughter High (1986) is a standard-issue revenge flick, with a few interesting kills and thrills, its backstory is wacky enough to make it stand out from the crowd. For one thing, it took three grown-ups — George Dugdale, Mark Ezra and Peter Mackenzie Litten – to write and direct the 90-minute splatter thriller. It also is the rare American high school picture shot entirely in England, with British actors adopting American accents and some students from back home thrown in for seasoning. Pin-up model and actress Caroline Munro was 35 when hired to play the snooty prom queen. The original title, “April Fool’s Day,” was changed to Slaughter High to avoid clashing with a Paramount project. Otherwise, it’s a revenge-of-the-class-nerd story that plays out at a 5-year reunion. The Lionsgate/Vestron package adds commentary with co-writers/directors George Dugdale and Peter Litten; an interview with composer Harry Manfredini, featuring isolated music and SFX Selections; ”Going to Pieces” featurette, with co-writer/director Mark Ezra; ”My Days at Doddsville,” with Munro; an alternate title sequence; and stills gallery.

Mind Blown
In this Syfy original, a team of telekinetics — code-named Project Mind Blown — has been assembled in a top-secret facility. It was conceived of as a deterrence to Soviet experiments in ESP and mild control. When Cold War ended, the geniuses at the Pentagon decided to retain the program and keep the team handy, just in case it’s needed. The psychics’ may have the power to shake the earth or bring rain to drought-starved areas, but they’ve been assured their abilities will be used to do good for humanity. What fun would that be, though? One day, in Los Angeles, a panic is caused when earthquakes topple buildings and tornadoes fill the sky. When the Special Ops crew flies in to view the damage, it’s as if nothing has happened. Buildings still stand, the ground is whole, but dead bodies litter the streets. It’s like a neutron bomb was dropped. Telekinetic Jennifer Gaines (Jessica Uberuaga) concludes, instead, that a sinister force has stolen the technology and is preparing for an even more cataclysmic event. Like most Syfy movies, Mind Blown is safe viewing for most kids.

Where’s the Money
The University of Southern California is located within a few blocks in any direction from what are purported to be some of Los Angeles’ meanest streets. The campus is buffered somewhat by the Coliseum and several fine museums – as well as the car dealerships and fast-food spots on Figueroa Street – but, every so often, students make the mistake of thinking the area’s safe enough to allow a late-night stroll. News of the sometimes-fatal muggings resonate from USC’s student union and frat row, to the capitals of Asia from which many victims hail. Black-on-black crime in the same neighborhood rarely merits comment in the L.A. Times or TV  news. It isn’t the kind of setting one would normally expect for a comedy, even of the urban persuasion. That didn’t prevent co-writer/director Scott Zabielski (“Tosh.0”) from crafting his debut feature from the juxtaposition of academia and realities of ghetto life. In Where’s the Money, Andrew Bachelor (a.k.a., King Bach) plays a young man from South Central, ordered by his imprisoned father (Method Man) to find the stolen cash he and his brother (Terry Crews) stashed within the walls of what’s now an all-white USC frat house. The only way for Del to accomplish such a feat is to convince the frat boys that they are in dire need of a token black face and he’s the right guy for the task. What he doesn’t expect are the belittling hazing rituals he’s required to undergo to earn their trust. He’s also surprised by the frightening appearance of his thuggish uncle, who demands that Del find the money and turn it over to him, at gunpoint. If that doesn’t sound funny – or remotely plausible – it’s only because it isn’t. The very-decent cast includes Logan Paul (“Foursome”), Kat Graham (“The Vampire Diaries”), Josh Brener (“Silicon Valley”), Allen Maldonado (“Black-ish”), Retta (“Girlfriends’ Guide to Divorce”) and Devon Werkheiser (“Greek”). If it’s possible for a comedy to be too stupid to be racist, it’s Where’s the Money.

Warrior: Blu-ray, 4K UHD
At the time of Warrior’s release into Blu-ray, I wondered why Lionsgate spent $25 million on a movie set in the world of MMA and UFC fighters, even if the principals were represented by Joel Edgerton, Tom Hardy and Nick Nolte. Typically, such fighting-genre films were made for a fraction of that amount and went straight to DVD, sometimes bypassing Blu-ray altogether. There was nothing wrong with Gavin O’Connor’s merger of unbridled action and family melodrama, but, by then, Nolte had played an alcoholic so often that the novelty had worn off. (O’Connor would go on to make The Accountant.) Edgerton and Hardy play the estranged sons destined to meet in the octagonal ring to settle scores and earn the money they think is due them. Lionsgate has tended, lately, to release 4K editions of movies that wouldn’t seem to warrant such an effort. All of the bonus features from the 2011 Blu-ray appear to have been ported over to the 4K, including commentary, a documentary, deleted scenes, a gag reel, featurettes and “Full Contact: Enhanced Viewing Mode.”

TV-to-DVD
PBS: American Masters: Edgar Allan Poe: Buried Alive
PBS: Masterpiece: The Durrells in Corfu: The Complete Second Season UK Edition
PBS: Farewell Ferris Wheel
PBS: SAS: Rogue Warriors
PBS: Tolkien & Lewis: Myth, Imagination & the Quest for Meaning
Smithsonian: The Real Story: Pirates of the Caribbean/Saving Private Ryan/Platoon
PBS Kids: Super Why: Sleeping Beauty & Other Fairytale Adventures
Nickelodeon: PAW Patrol: The Great Snow Rescue
Would Halloween be the same if Edgar Allan Poe never existed? Unlikely. His stories, poetry, art and mystique are so engrained in the American psyche that we’d have to rely on tales of witches, goblins and other leftovers from repressed Puritan superstition. As an editor, author and critic was able to see beyond witch hunts and religious hocus-pocus, to a country frightened over things a satanic messenger couldn’t have imagined. These included overt sexuality, premature death, inexplicable diseases, strained family relations and the many guises of madness. The “American Masters” presentation “Edgar Allan Poe: Buried Alive” begins its examination of Poe by looking back at his tortured childhood and exploring some of the myths surrounding his literary pursuits, Did he live the kind of life he attributed to others in his books? Was he, in fact, mad … an alcoholic? Perhaps. We do know that, throughout his young life, Poe was surrounded by death and the accoutrements of burial. It was a time when epidemics were commonplace and cemeteries were being reimagined as necropolises … the perfect habitats for ghosts and those souls condemned to walk the Earth forever.  By the time he was heavily in debt. He was expelled from West Point. He admired the work of Lord Byron. In “Buried Alive,” Tony Award-winning actor Denis O’Hare impersonates the author, while historians and literary scholars separate the legends from reality. He shares the reading duties with Chris Sarandon. A making-of featurette and readings are included.

In Season Two of the wonderfully eccentric “Masterpiece” presentation, “The Durrells in Corfu,” sparky English widow Louisa Durrell and her brood continue to put down roots in their dilapidated rented house, alongside an ever-increasing menagerie of animals brought home by youngest son Gerry. Based on Gerald Durrell’s trilogy of Corfu novels, the popular ITV mini-series chronicles the family’s struggle to settle into the community of Greek islanders and pay their aggressive new landlady, Vasilia (Errika Bigiou), who sees Louisa (Keeley Hawes) as a love rival for charming playboy, Hugh (Daniel Lapaine). The Durrells resort to selling typical British produce at the market, but accidentally poisoning the locals isn’t the best way to start a new business. Gerry comes up with a plan to breed otters. Leslie decides to launch his own business after hearing how Pavlos makes his own liquor. Larry leaves home when his novel is published in England. The UK-version includes making-of material and a Series One recap.

Filmed over the span of six years, “Farewell, Ferris Wheel” follows a carnival owner, a labor-recruiter and workers from a small town in Mexico, who join the carnival legally on seasonal visas. It is an honest on-the-ground portrait of the financial, emotional and physical challenges they all face. Increased regulations are compromising this longstanding connection, putting both the industry and its workers in jeopardy.

Journalist and author Ben Macintyre uses the archives of the Special Air Service to examine the history of the famed British Army special forces unit. He combines documents, unseen footage and interviews to tell its story, which began in North Africa, in 1941, when an eccentric young British Army officer had a vision for a new kind of war. “SAS: Rogue Warriors” concludes in 1943, when the service left the deserts of North Africa for mainland Europe, entering a darker and more complex theater of war.

PBS’ “Tolkien & Lewis: Myth, Imagination & the Quest for Meaning” describes a dreary September evening in 1931, when C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien and their friend and fellow scholar, Hugo Dyson, met for dinner and debate in Lewis’s Magdalen College dormitory in Oxford, England. Lewis’s transformation from atheist to theist to Christian was based on the insights of Tolkien and Dyson, as they engaged in deep conversation about mythology, reality, ritual, imagination and faith. The one-hour documentary explores the fundamental characteristics of myth in a global context, with an emphasis on how it impacts our lives: what traits are common among various cultures and faiths? how does myth inspire the imagination, especially the imaginative process of Tolkien and Lewis? in what ways does faith play into the fantasy and fictional works of Lewis and Tolkien?

PBS has begun distributing select episodes from Smithsonian Channel’s limited series, “The Real Story,” which performs the valuable service of separating fact from fiction in movies “based on true stories.” I say “valuable service” knowing full well that a good many viewers couldn’t care less if what they’re seeing is true or embellished (a.k.a., “poetic license”). The next batch includes
the first Pirates of the Caribbean, Saving Private Ryan and Platoon.

In “PBS Kids: Super Why: Sleeping Beauty & Other Fairytale Adventures,” Sleeping Beauty has decided to lay around and be bored in peace. Super Why and the gang use their literacy powers to encourage her to try new things. Then, the Super Readers help a princess and a frog learn how to compromise and play together. Super Why and his friends also discover the secrets of the “Twelve Dancing Princesses” Nickelodeon’s “PAW Patrol: The Great Snow Rescue” follows the gang as it braves snow in an all-new DVD collection. It features seven action-packed adventures.

The DVD Wrapup: Lady Macbeth, Girls Trip, Moka, Chicago, American Gods and more

Friday, October 20th, 2017

Lady Macbeth
If the title of William Oldroyd’s evocative debut feature suggests something Shakespearian, potential viewers should know that the literary inspiration derives from a different corner of Europe entirely, Czarist Russia. Nikolai Leskov’s remarkably durable 1865 novel, “Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District,” was introduced in Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s magazine, Epoch. In addition to Oldroyd’s variation on the same theme, the book has inspired a “dark and deadly” opera by Dmitri Shostakovich; the ballet, “Katarina Izmailova,” by Yugoslav composer Rudolf Brucci; Polish director Andrzej Wajda’s 1962 film, Siberian Lady Macbeth; Mikhail Shapiro’s 1967 musical drama, Katerina Izmailova; several stage productions recorded for television; and, in 2016, Oldroyd’s “Victorian noir,” Lady Macbeth. I’d be surprised if Leskov’s novel didn’t inspire some Hollywood screenwriters to borrow some of the story’s proto-feminist themes, as well. In 1865, women from poor families in rural Britain could be sold to landholders to make good their fathers’ debts. They, then, would be held responsible for maintaining the household staff and budgets, making sure chores are completed in proper manner and, of course, producing male heirs. Such was the case of Lady Katherine (Florence Pugh), who had the bad luck of being sold to a brutal colliery magnate, Boris (Christopher Fairbank), who forces her to marry his emotionally challenged son, Alexander (Paul Hilton). Nonetheless, Katherine seems perfectly willing to honor her commitment, even if her new husband is in no mood to consummate the marriage. Father and son both treat her like chattel, constantly reminding her of the debt still owed by her father.

Alexander soon begins taking extended trips outside County Durham, leaving the young and frisky Katherine bored to tears, increasingly bitter and desperate. When the men are away on separate business trips, Katherine embarks on an affair with a handsome groomsman, Sebastian (Cosmo Jarvis), that not only triggers a volcanic desire in her for unbridled sex, but also a willingness to risk a flogging for later displays of insubordination to Boris the staff loyal to him. It’s as if a sympathetic visitor had left a copy of Gustave Flaubert’s recently published “Madame Bovary” within her reach, hoping it would spark Katherine’s desire for something more substantial than practicing her needlepoint and making sure the surfaces are being dusted. When their relationship becomes the subject of village gossip, Katherine concocts plans that would leave her the true head of the estate. Viewers may not be able to precisely identify the peril that looms just over the horizon, but we know it can’t possibly bode well for the weak-willed Sebastian. In an interesting decision, Oldroyd and screenwriter Alice Birch elected to make three key characters of African descent. The story practically ignores their race, leaving the audience to make of the casting what it will. Anyone who’s seen Amma Asante’s Belle, which directly addressed the question of mixed-race children among the landed gentry, will appreciate the conceit. The other surprises to come are best left unspoiled. Although all the actors are good, it’s Florence Pugh – now 21 – who shines brightest. Fans of “Masterpiece” are the target demographic for Lady Macbeth, even if the set design is a tad more austere and the sexuality isn’t shrouded to protect the sensibilities of PBS affiliates here. A making-of featurette is atypically informative.

Girls Trip: Unrated: Blu-ray
These are questions that will keep future generations of film scholars awake at night: if a direct thematic line can be drawn between Neal Israel’s uproarious Bachelor Party (1984) and Todd Phillips’ anarchic blockbuster The Hangover (2009), could a similar connection be made linking Forest Whitaker’s groundbreaking rom/dram/com, Waiting to Exhale (1995) and Malcolm D. Lee’s raunchy girls-gone-wild comedy, Girls Trip, and, if so, did the success of Whittaker’s ensemble take on Terry McMillan’s confessional novel also influence such disparate entertainments as Set It Off (1996), The Best Man (1999), Sex in the City (2008), Bachelorette (2012) and Rough Night (2017)?; and is there an equivalent word for “bromance” to encompass movies about the bonds that connect women? Such questions may sound petty, but they’re no more inconsequential than hundreds of other treatises and dissertations that clog the pipelines of academia. While decidedly different in tone, Girls Trip and Waiting to Exhale both feature ensemble casts of actors popular with so-called urban audiences. Even so, box-office returns suggest they appeal to women across the demographic spectrum. They even found a bit more support overseas than that accorded most other movies with African-American casts.

Girls Trip reportedly is the first film produced, written, directed by and starring African-Americans to cross the $100 million mark. In it, four lifelong friends and sorority sisters (Regina Hall, Tiffany Haddish, Jada Pinkett Smith and Queen Latifah) travel to New Orleans for the annual Essence Festival, where one of them will deliver the keynote speech. Problems arise when photos of her husband/partner (Mike Colter), making out with a self-promoting “Instagram skank” (Deborah Ayorinde), surface just hours before a major deal with a corporate entity is to be announced. In the meantime, the ladies hope to take her mind off the dilemma by partying hardy in the French Quarter, which was Las Vegas hundreds of years before Nevada was granted statehood. Fueled on Hurricanes, 200-year-old absinthe and a mutual desire to get laid, they succeed in doing just that. The formula wouldn’t be complete, though, if the raucous set pieces didn’t set up dramatic conflicts and crowd-pleasing displays of empowerment, self-worth and sisterhood later. Even when the gags fizzle, the chemistry between the characters is palpable throughout. The Blu-ray arrives in a theatrical and extended unrated cut, with Lee’s commentary, deleted and extended scenes, outtakes, background and making-of featurettes; a music video; and an extended performance of “Because of You,” by Ne-Yo.

Moka
The primary attraction in this slow-burn thriller from France and Switzerland is being able to watch two truly great actresses — Emmanuelle Devos and Nathalie Baye – navigate the twists and turns in a mystery as carefully constructed as a French soufflé. Devos is typically convincing as Diane, a woman consumed with grief and a rage over the loss of her teenage son, who was killed in a hit-and-run accident. Baye, who’s just turned the corner on 69, plays Marlène, the owner of a cosmetics shop in the Swiss spa town of Évian, across Lake Geneva from Diane’s residence. Based on imprecise evidence, she tracks down Marlène and quickly concludes her Mercedes struck her son, causing his death. With the intention of avenging the teenager’s death, she even goes so far as to purchase a gun from a handsome young hoodlum she meets on the ferry from Lausanne to Évian. Once she meets Marlène face-to-face and even allows her the intimacy of applying rehabilitative makeup to her sad face, however, Diane decides to let her investigation take its course. Even as Diane cements her belief in Marlene’s culpability, viewers will begin to sense that something is wrong with her theory. (Watch enough episodes of “Law & Order” and you’ll never approach a movie mystery in the same way.) It’s a joy watching Devos and Baye, who are separated in age by about 16 years, construct their very different characters and milk every bit of suspense from Antonin Martin-Hilbert and Mermoud’s adaptation of Tatiana De Rosnay’s best-selling novel. Francophiles and mystery lovers shouldn’t put off ordering a copy or download of Moka (the color of the hit-and-run vehicle). The Film Movement release adds a revealing interview with Mermoud and, as usual, a fine short, “Le créneau,” also by Mermoud and starring Devos and Hippolyte Girardot.

 

Shot Caller: Blu-ray
It’s difficult to say how close to reality writer/director Ric Roman Waugh comes in his harrowing prison drama, Shot Caller. In researching the picture, he worked inside a facility very much like the one seen here – the former New Mexico State Prison, outside Santa Fe – and he hired ex-cons for the crowd and riot scenes. So, it looks like the real deal. The head-to-toe tattoos, ever-present shades and slicked-back haircuts favored by the baddest of the bad-asses are pretty scary, too. What bothered me is the characterization of the protagonist, Jacob Harlon (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau), as a onetime Pasadena financial whiz, who had one or two drinks too many at dinner and ended up killing another motorist in a terrible collision. His record was clear, otherwise, and there’s no indication he’s an alcoholic with previous DUI violations. Instead of being sentence to a minimum-security prison with a no-nonsense rehab program and, of course, losing his driver’s license, he’s sent to a gang-infested facility where the concept of rehabilitation went out with rubber bullets and teargas. To survive, Harlan must prove that he can hang with the hard guys. After standing up to a black convict who challenges him, he’s recruited into a whites-only gang whose members are festooned with Nazi symbols tattooed on every bulging muscle of their bodies. (Still, the casting makes it hard to tell the difference between them and the Hispanic homies.)

His baptism by fire comes when ordered to shiv a snitch outside his cell. His subsequent elevation within the gang hierarchy – and accommodations to prison-movie conventions — seem accelerated to fit the film’s parallel storyline, which plays out after he’s paroled. No sooner is Harlon let go than he’s nearly killed in a drive-by shooting and ordered to participate in the transfer of stolen weapons to a Mexican gang. After the attack on his welcome-home party, he drives around L.A. in a borrowed pickup, as if probation comes with a shiny new driver’s license. A brief reunion with his wife (Lake Bell) and teenage son, during which he orders them to forget he ever existed, further tests our empathy. I don’t know if Harlon was modeled after a similarly corrupted convict in real life, but it seems unlikely. Everything else said and done in Shot Caller, however, feels frighteningly real. The causes of recidivism are laid out accurately, as are the reasons some prisoners should never again be allowed to taste freedom. Benjamin Bratt and Omari Hardwick play parole officers who know Harlon is going to wind up back in prison, even before he does. Fans of prison movies should be able to suspend their disbelief long enough to enjoy Shot Caller, which comes with commentary and a decent backgrounder. How it stacks up against S. Craig Zahler’s well-received Brawl in Cell Block 99, I couldn’t say, but comparisons are inevitable.

8 Assassins
Although hundreds of movies have been made in the Kingdom of Morocco, it’s the rare film that features homegrown talent in front of and behind the camera. Audiences around the world are familiar, then, with the country’s topographical diversity, sophisticated resorts, exotic markets and remote villages, but mostly as stopping-off points for actors from different cultures. Morocco’s biggest movie studio is located in Ouarzazate, a longtime crossroads town that sits on a plateau just south of the rugged Atlas Mountains, a frequent stand-in for similar locations in biblical Egypt, Judea and Palestine. Marrakesh native Said C. Naciri, writer/director of 8 Assassins (a.k.a., “KanYaMakan” or “Once Upon a Time”), left Morocco years ago to study at the Los Angeles Film School. He returned to take advantage of the same resources exploited by European and American filmmakers for decades. Naciri describes his sophomore feature as “a mixture of El Mariachi, Indiana Jones and Once Upon a Time in the West,” adding “My film is a bit like a UFO in the Moroccan cinematic universe. … Our goal is to offer an irreverent twist to clichéd views of Moroccan culture and landmarks. It is a mixture of a fable and an action-adventure film, whose primary goal is to entertain.” With a meager $2-million budget, the 100-minute-long production was going to be required to make sacrifices somewhere. The biggest holes I could find were in the narrative, which made me wonder if there was something wrong with my DVD player and it was repeating key scenes over and over, again. I’m not even sure that there were eight, or any, assassins.

8 Assassins tells the story of a bank robbery gone wrong. Amir (Mohamed Elachi) steals the loot from his accomplices and, after a nifty chase through the Kasbah, goes into hiding in a village in the desert. After his requests for refuge are laughingly rejected by the locals, Amir falls into the hands of the tyrannical Sharkan (Affif Ben Badra), who immediately sends him to the jail. It’s here that he meets Shahin (Mohamen Mehdi Ouazanni) — head of the oldest and most prestigious local tribe — a wise and cunning man, who may or may not be able to lead Amir to what will be his destiny. After Amir does manage to escape and link up with Shahin’s men – as well as, the gorgeous and chase Aida (Sarah Kazemy) – Shahin bides his time in stir. Can the habitual crook redeem himself and win the hand of the fair maiden? Stay tuned. At the point of Amir’s escape and the introduction of a couple of new characters – possibly for comic relief — the story became unfathomable to me. Fortunately, Vitor Rebelo’s cinematography and Rachid Taha’s music compensate for the lapses. I don’t know if 8 Assassins made a cent outside northern Africa – it debuted at festivals in Tangier and Marrakech – but, all things being equal, its value to the Moroccan film industry might turn out to be immeasurable.

God of War: Blu-ray
In this nearly out of control historical epic, Chinese forces led by General Yu Dayou (Sammo Hung) are up to their ears in Japanese samurai pirates and Chinese smugglers. That’s right … samurai pirates. Too bad, the geniuses at Disney didn’t acquire the North American rights for the premise for their latest “POTC” installment, “Dead Men Tell No Tales,” which could have used some samurai pirates. The events depicted in Gordan Chan’s God of War actually do have some historical validity. Hung’s character was a respected Chinese general and martial artist during the 16th Century reign of the Jiajing Emperor. He’s best known for countering the wokou pirates along China’s southeastern coast Here, though, the aging Yu has failed for months to defeat the pirates and smugglers, who attack in waves, seemingly out of nowhere. He humbly turns over the reins to the much younger General Qi Jiguang (Vincent Zhao Wenzhuo), who’s something of a tactical genius. The lovely and dangerous Lady Qi (Regina Wan) also contributes to the war effort. Like I said, the action is fast, furious and practically non-stop … even when you wish it would slow down a bit.

Wes Craven’s Summer of Fear: Blu-ray
Red Christmas: Blu-ray
The Atoning: Blu-ray
Lilith’s Hell
Escape Room
Flesh of My Flesh: Limited Collectors Edition
House by the Lake
It’s beginning to look a lot like Halloween, everywhere you go. It explains the lumping together in today’s column of the dozen, or so, horror pictures released this week. “Wes Craven’s Summer of Fear” was made for television here and theaters overseas. Craven was fresh off The Hills Have Eyes and Linda Blair (The Exorcist) was still considered to be a major draw. Based on a book by Lois Duncan, “Summer of Fear” didn’t steer very far from the formula, which required commercial breaks and only permitted modest scares.  Blair plays Rachel, a teenager whose recently orphaned cousin, Julia (Lee Purcell), comes to live with her family. It doesn’t take long before crazy things begin happening to Linda, her horse and people around her. At the same time, Julia gloms unto Rachel’s dad (Jeremy Slate), who doesn’t mind her flirtatious behavior. Rachel comes to suspect that her cousin may be a witch, because she finds some burnt horse’s hair in her cousin’s drawer, a tooth, a photograph with red blotches painted on her face, and a voodoo charm. Of course, Rachel’s fears mostly are ignored. As made-for-TV thrillers go, especially those from the late-1970s, “Summer of Fear” is about as good as it could be. Also on hand are Carol Lawrence, Macdonald Carey and 21-year-old Fran Drescher. As Craven explains in the commentary, he was happy to get the gig, because it elevated him from the depths of indie genre fare and allowed him to join the Directors Guild. It also includes a new interview with Blair, a poster and stills gallery

According to an article published on Slate in January 2014, approximately 515 movies and television shows referenced abortion in their narratives, between 1916 (Where Are My Children?) and 2014 (Wild, among several others). Not surprisingly, the majority of them were released after Roe v. Wade, in 1973. In the decade leading up to that ruling, such notable titles as Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960), The Cardinal (1963), Darling (1965), Alfie, Persona and Masculin Féminin (1966), In the Heat of the Night and Valley of the Dolls (1967), They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? (1969), Cabaret (1972) and “Maude” in one way or another featured female characters dealing with an unwanted or unplanned pregnancy. As reporter Roxanne Khamsi also pointed out, of the 310 movies and TV episodes that featured abortion as a major plotline or an abortion provider as a main character, “a striking 9 percent portrayed the death of a woman after having — or even deciding on — an abortion.” It’s a number, she argues, is way out of whack with real-world statistics. Still, it’s consistent with the Hays Office’s stated view that death – either through suicide or a pre-existing medical condition – was a preferable option to a woman surviving an abortion … of the back-alley variety or performed by a skilled surgeon. All that said, I’ve never seen the subject addressed in quite the same way as it is in the 2016 Ozploitation thriller, Red Christmas. Dee Wallace plays Diane, a woman determined to reunite her feuding family for the holidays. She couldn’t have anticipated the arrival on her doorstep of the hooded figure who claims to be the child she believes was aborted 20 years earlier. Diane had already delivered a baby with Down’s syndrome and didn’t think she could accommodate another one. During the procedure, after she had been sedated, a bomb was detonated at the clinic by an anti-abortion activist, who somehow managed to rescue and raise the seriously deformed child. When Diane refuses to immediately acknowledge Cletus as her child, he turns into an ax-wielding monster obsessed with avenging her denial. If that qualifies as a spoiler, so be it. I wouldn’t want anyone to rent or stream Red Christmas, expecting to see the Dee Wallace they know from E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, Cujo, 10 or, especially, “The New Lassie.” Writer/director Craig Anderson specializes in inky black humor and satire, some of which is on full display here, in addition to his ability to choreograph gore, suspense and mayhem. The Artsploitation Blu-ray adds commentary; a fresh and funny interview with Wallace, a deleted scene; and bloopers. BTW: at 68, Wallace still looks great, playing a character at least 20 years her junior.

In his sophomore feature, The Atoning, multihyphenate Michael Williams (OzLand) scores points for originality, maintaining a spooky aura and keeping us guessing until the end as to what’s really happening to his characters. At first glance, Vera, Ray and Sam appear to be a perfectly normal family experiencing the kinds of problems other perfectly normal families face from time to time: a seriously bored child, bickering parents, defective plumbing and a house that sometimes seems to have a mind of its own. As the story progresses, however, it becomes clear that these concerns are anything but normal: no one seems able to leave the house and no one comes to visit; the boy, Sam (Cannon Bosarge), isn’t allowed to partake in outside activities; the father, Ray (Michael LaCour), is at wit’s end about something; Vera (Virginia Newcomb) considers the leaking faucet to be a sign that her marriage has sprung a leak; and the house is either haunted or some kind of bridge to a parallel universe that mirrors their own existence. Once the ghosts begin to manifest themselves, viewers are encouraged to draw conclusions of their own. By the time Williams is required to come up with answers to our questions, however, he decides to take an altogether different tack, merging subgenres likes cars on an on-ramp to the horror highway. If the shift doesn’t entirely spoil the fun, the new arrivals to the party come from way out in left field.

In the found-footage, movie-within-movie thriller Lilith’s Hell, a pair of filmmakers meet in Rome to solicit the wisdom of the legendary exploitation maven, Ruggero Deodato, as they set out to make movie to rival his magnum opus, Cannibal Holocaust. Fat chance of that happening in real life, but it isn’t the worst conceit I’ve heard lately. After taking over one of their producers’ country home and inviting a couple of pasta-fed bimbos to spend the night, they discover to their horror that they didn’t have to work very hard to come up with a gimmick. The house already was haunted beyond their wildest dreams, so, all they had to do, was set up a wall of security cameras and hit the record button. The evil alluded to in the title refers to the curse imposed on Adam’s demonic first wife by God for refusing to submit to him … or be forced to copulate in the missionary position, depending on which version of Genesis one believes. And, once summoned, she a true bitch from hell. Director Vincenzo Petrarolo and writer Davide Chiara have positioned Lilith’s Hell as a mockumentary, but parsing the difference between farce and satire in the subgenre is next to impossible. The DVD adds interviews with the filmmakers and Deodato.

I always have been led to believe that there are people in Hollywood whose job it is to make sure that no two movies carry the exact same title simultaneously. Viewers have a hard enough time trying to keep track of films with Roman numerals in their names, let alone two movies with the same titles, destined for straight-to-video releases in the same season. For the record, the Escape Room being reviewed here is not the one with Sean Young and Skeet Ulrich. In this one, Christen (Elisabeth Hower) gives her turning-30 boyfriend, Tyler (Evan Williams), six tickets for admission to a club tricked out with individual rooms that can only be entered or exited by solving intricate puzzles. It’s a clever idea, even if the owners don’t provide the guests with cocktails. The endgame involves freeing Christen from a cage, in which she’s been locked — naked and alone — in another room. The activities are being monitored by an anonymous fiend, via an elaborate camera network. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that someone could be killed here. The DVD adds commentary, interviews, bloopers and deleted scenes.

There also are two movies called Flesh of My Flesh. One’s apocalyptic and has zombies. The other isn’t dystopian and probably doesn’t feature the undead. This Flesh of My Flesh is described as a psychotropic thriller “set at the tail end of humanity’s last great war of existence.” A helicopter is sent to rescue survivors in far-flung locations and bring them to a makeshift medical facility, where bizarre experiments involving humanoid tapeworms have taken place. Turns out, the rescue team discovers a strain of zombies who are smarter than the average bear and hunt for their food, rather than wait for it to come to them. Writer/director Edward Martin III employs all sorts of video tricks that conceivably became obsolete in the 1970s, when acid trips were supposed to resemble messy video overlaps, jagged edits and audio/visual static. The ghouls are far more straight-forward in their approach to the end times. The signed and numbered collector’s edition contains a 40-minute making-of featurette; official Zombie Hunter ID card; a bonus card for the Hacked Off card game; four bonus short movies: “Animo Korvoj,” “Come to Us,” “Blood” and “Con of the Dead”; commentary tracks; and a music-only track.

The trouble with Adam Gierasch and writer Josh Burnell’s House by the Lake is that the troubled little girl at the center of the mystery is so annoying that we quickly stop caring if she’s carried away by the boogiemen who live in her brain or lured to the home of the nut-job child molester, who lives in a nearby cottage. Even knowing that wee Emma (Amiah Miller) is probably autistic and suffers from night terrors can’t compensate for her unpredictable behavior and blood-curdling screams when touched. Her mother (Anne Dudek) is a control freak, her nanny (Natasha Bassett) is useless, and father (James Callis) is ineffectual. When the shit really comes down, it’s too late to care.

Sex Murder Art: The Films of Jorg Buttgereit
ReelGore Collection: Blu-ray
The movies in “Sex Murder Art: The Films of Jorg Buttgereit” aren’t to be entered into lightly or without a good idea of what to expect. They’re as hardcore as anything in the horror genre and his signature titles, Nekromantik and Nekromantik 2, practically define what it means to be “transgressive.” John Waters proclaimed the former, “the first ever erotic film for necrophiliacs.” German film scholar Kris Vander Lugt describes Nekromantik (1987) as “a mix of elements from several genres: splatter, ‘schlock,’ black comedy, exploitation and softcore pornography. The title itself implies a mix of death and romance. It serves as both an ode to necrophilia and an attack on the perceptions of morality of the bourgeoisie.” The collection also includes the suicide anthology Der Todesking: The Death King (1990) and reality-inspired Schramm: Into the Mind of a Serial Killer (1993). Anyone willing to sort through the nastier material should have no trouble finding the artistry in Buttgereit’s work. The movies’ cult status was assured as soon as they were banned by several European countries. The nifty Cult Epics package adds a bonus disc, with the “grindhouse version” of Nekromantik; several short films, including “Hot Love” (1983), “Horror Heaven” (1984) and “A Moment of Silence at the Grave of Ed Gein” (2012); interviews and Q&A’s; soundtracks; music videos; commentaries; photo galleries; the documentary, “Corpse Fucking Art” and other goodies. The first 500 copies sold will add an exclusive 40-page booklet.

Cult Epics is also responsible for the “ReelGore Collection,” which is comprised of four recent genre specimens that, while not definitively transgressive, overflow with blood, gore, anti-social behavior, fiendish killers, sharp tools, women in jeopardy and other giallo– and J-horror inspired characters and situations. None of the titles received much, if any distribution in the U.S. and reviews are limited to the genre press. The title of Luigi Pastore’s entry, Violent Shit (2015), pretty much sums up what buffs can expect here. That is, if one doesn’t consider “shit” to be a pejorative term. It is set in Rome and features the heinous serial killer, Karl the Butcher. Andreas Marschall’s Masks (2011) appears to have borrowed some elements of torture from Takashi Miike’s spine-tingler, Audition. It’s set at an acting school that gives new meaning to the Method discipline. Marc Rohnstock’s The Curse of Doctor Wolffenstein (2015) has a more traditional format, in that the titular monster comes back to life after being killed by townsfolks and spending the last 80 years in his grave. Five teenagers on their way to an out-of-town rave are stranded in the same village, just as the decaying Dr. Wolffenstein wakes up from his long slumber. Matt Farnsworth’s The Orphan Killer (2011) is less easy to pin down thematically, but no less violent. A serial murderer is hellbent on teaching his estranged sister what it means to have family loyalty. Throughout her brutal torture, it becomes clear that she’s inherited some of the same violent tendencies as her brother. Each of the entries adds featurettes and/or interviews with cast and crew.

Three O’Clock High: Collector’s Edition: Blu-ray
Phil Joanou, who’s practically made a career churning out music videos for U2, was encouraged to make his feature debut by no less a Hollywood god than executive producer Steven Spielberg, for whom he’d directed a couple of episodes of “Amazing Stories.” If that idea hadn’t worked, Spielberg probably could have turned to DP and “lighting consultant” Barry Sonnenfield, who’d yet to helm his first feature. Three O’Clock High, which borrowed its plot from High Noon, also features other well-known names: executive producer Aaron Spelling, composers Tangerine Dream and adviser Robert Zemeckis. Despite the respective pedigrees, the movie flopped. John Hughes’ films were all the rage in Hollywood and the nod to Fred Zinnemann’s classic Western probably sailed over the heads of its intended audience. Three O’Clock High recently was picked up by the master archivists at Shout!Factory, who worked their magic on the Blu-ray and added fresh bonus features. In it, the school’s new kid, Buddy Revell (Richard Tyson), looks as if he just got of the army and is rumored to have a violent history to match. Reporter Jerry Mitchell (Casey Siemaszko) has been tasked with getting to the bottom of it for the school paper. Instead, he accidentally angers Buddy, who demands relief at exactly 3 p.m., in the school’s parking lot. Jerry spends most of the day wondering if he’ll be alive after the sun sets. The disc arrives with Joanou’s commentary; interviews with the director, screenwriters Richard Christian Matheson and Tom Szollosi (“The A-Team”), and costume designer Jane Ruhm; and a stills gallery.

Meat: Blu-ray
With a population of slightly more than 4.8 million people, and a land mass of approximately 103,483 widely scattered square miles, New Zealand is a country whose economy depends on the food products it exports to countries that can’t sate the appetites of its own consumers. In 2014, agricultural products made up 55 percent of the value of all the country’s exports, with lumber a distant second at 7 percent. The numbers help explain why David White’s informative Meat can’t be viewed in the same light as documentaries made here, rightly condemning the inhumane practices allowed corporate farmers, crowded feed lots and rapid-fire meat packers and processors. In 1906, Upton Sinclair’s muck-raking novel, “The Jungle,” exposed exploitative labor and unsanitary conditions in the U.S. meat-packing industry. It caused a public uproar that contributed, in part, to the passage of the 1906 Pure Food and Drug Act and the Meat Inspection Act. As the population migrated from rural America to industrial-based metropolitan areas, those laws and enforcement of consumer-protection legislation was allowed to slide. A spate of films, released in the early-2000s, including Fast Food Nation, Super Size Me, Food Inc., King Corn, Food Matters, Frankensteer and “Peter Jennings Reporting: How to Get Fat Without Really Trying,” demanded of Americans that they rethink the way they eat. Restaurants made sure diners knew that the chickens on their menus had once enjoyed free-range status – Chipotle offered burritos made of free-range pigs – and the fish caught for their enjoyment were of the sustainable variety. Vegans weren’t buying any of it, of course, vowing never to order anything with a face.

I mention this because Meat is a documentary about a handful of people who supply meat for consumers around the world and a hunter who only eats what he kills. It isn’t meant to counter any of the arguments made in the aforementioned films or make a case for New Zealand exports. If anything, it serves as a reminder of a time when family farms provided everything Americans needed to eat; wildlife wasn’t hunted to the point of extinction; and fishing vessels weren’t large enough to process, freeze and store the fish caught using deep-sea trawls and gill nets. The chicken, pig and sheep farmers we meet don’t rely on volume sales and growth-enhancement devices to make a living, and look the animals in their faces before they’re led to slaughter. As such, Meat reminds me of the school trips that those of us who grew up in the Midwest would make to farms, when cows were milked by hand and chickens weren’t raised in cages. The solitary hunter, who believes everyone needs to be educated about their food, is YouTube and social-media personality Josh James (a.k.a., the Kiwi Bushman). Even if Meat doesn’t sway a single vegan, it’s served its purpose.

Mr. Gaga
It might have been a good idea for Icarus Films, the North American distributors of Mr. Gaga, to consider changing the title of its intriguing documentary, which has nothing to do with Lady Gaga or Queen’s hit song, “Radio Ga Ga.” The closest I could come to a connection between Ohad Naharin, artistic director of Batsheva Dance Company, and the silly-sounding word is an Israeli variation on dodgeball, called ga-ga, which is played in a “pit” shaped like an octagon or hexagon. The title derives from a movement language and pedagogy developed by Naharin, during his time with the company. It has defined Batsheva’s training and continues to characterize Israeli contemporary dance. While nearly impossible to define, gaga is as identified with Bathsheba as any visual conceit attributed to Merce Cunningham, Twyla Tharp, Bob Fosse or Pilobolus, for that matter. In a 2007 New York Times article, Naharin’s signature style was described as being “distinguished by stunningly flexible limbs and spines, deeply grounded movement, explosive bursts and a vitality that grabs a viewer by the collar.” It can inspire dance that is alternately dramatic, comic, inspirational and patriotic. In Israel, where religious fundamentalists stick their noses into everyone’s business, Naharin’s decisions have also proven to be controversial. Filmed over a period of eight years, Tomer Heymann’s documentary mixes home movies and archival material, with intimate rehearsal footage and concert footage. As pretentious as “gaga” may sound, the dancing itself is accessible to all audiences. The DVD adds extended interviews and scenes.

Now More Than Ever: The History of Chicago: Special Edition
Say what you will about the band Chicago, but the truth remains: it’s sold more singles and albums than almost any group in history and has remained viable as a commercial and creative entity for 50 years. The self-described “rock-and-roll band with horns” began as a cover act, before being allowed to perform its own blend of rock, R&B and blue-eyed soul, as Chicago Transit Authority. After moving to L.A., it performed on a regular basis at the Whisky a Go Go and became the opening act for Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix. Its first release, a double album, went platinum, spinning off several enduring hits, and the group was nominated for a Grammy, as 1969 Best New Artist of the Year. So, what in God’s holy name prevented Chicago – the name was changed, so as not to be sued by the city’s archaic mass-transit system – from being voted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame until 2016? There really is no good answer to that question, except to point to other essential bands, singers and musicians who’ve been snubbed by the industry goons who control such things. FilmRise’s nearly two-hours-long retrospective, “Now More Than Ever: The History of Chicago: Special Edition,” spends most of its time describing – through interviews and concert footage – the group’s incredible rise to the top of the charts and emergence as a stadium attraction. Soon enough, the narrative inevitably turns its view to the band’s Rocky Mountain High period, clash of egos, loss of personnel and inspiration, emergence as a classic-rock staple, and changes in management. The roller-coaster ride wouldn’t end for another 30 years, with the induction ceremony. In all that time, Chicago never stopped selling records and filling venues. It’s all here.

TV-to-DVD
Starz: American Gods: Season 1 Blu-ray
NBC: The Good Place: The Complete First Season
PBS/Amazon: Masterpiece: The Collection: Blu-ray
History: America: Promised Land Blu-ray
History: Ancient Aliens: Season 10, Volume 1
Comedy Central: Lewis Black: Black to the Future
At first, second and, even, third glance, Neil Gaiman’s award-winning novel “American Gods” would appear to be as easy to adapt into a mini-series as “Finnegan’s Wake,” “Gravity’s Rainbow” and “Absalom, Absalom!” In 2011, a decade after the book was first published in the U.S., by William Morrow, the author was given an opportunity to tweak the original, with a supplementary “author’s preferred text.” It added an additional 12,000 words.  Six years later, the London-based Folio Society published a special collector’s edition of “American Gods,” with corrections to the author’s preferred text version. Morrow published a coloring-book version, to coincide with the launch of the Starz mini-series and, next year, Dark Horse plans to publish a three-part graphic-novel adaptation. No wonder it’s taken so long for the 500-plus-page novel – or, at least, the beginning chapters — to be adapted for the small screen. Even Gaiman was unable to decide how the final version should read … or look. It explains why he gave executive producers Bryan Fuller (“Star Trek: Voyager”) and Michael Green (Blade Runner 2049) plenty of latitude to translate “American Gods” into an eight-part mini-series. To take the easy way out and describe it as Lynchian simplifies what Gaiman, Fuller and Green have accomplished in this exceedingly ambitious and undeniably trippy entertainment. (I don’t, however, recommend dropping a hit of acid before checking it out.)

The most succinct summarization I’ve read, describes it thusly: “‘American Gods’ is a place where gods—old and new, good and evil—walk among humans; where magic can revive the dead; and where a storm is brewing … one that threatens to bring about a war for the very soul of America.” Close enough. Each episode opens with a flashback to the period in history when the gods of Europe, Africa and the Middle East – the Queen of Sheba, a leprechaun, Odin, Chernobog, Anubis, Jinn, Jesus — first made their way to North America, in the rucksacks carried by several generations of immigrants. The new gods carry such names as Media, Mr. World, Technical Boy and a updated version of Vulcan. Navigating both the netherworld that separates the gods and material world of contemporary America are the con artist, Mr. Wednesday (Ian McShane); former convict and Mr. Wednesday’s bodyguard, Shadow Moon (Ricky Whittle); Shadow’s dead wife and revenant, Laura Moon (Emily Browning); and Mad Sweeney (Pablo Schreiber), a leprechaun who loses his powers when Laura ingests his lucky charm. McShane is, as usual, deliciously evil. Here, though, he graciously shares the spotlight with such world-class actors – some appearing in multiple roles — as Gillian Anderson, Crispin Glover, Bruce Langley, Corbin Bernsen, Cloris Leachman, Peter Stormare, Orlando Jones, Dane Cook, Fionnula Flanagan, Kristin Chenoweth and Jeremy Davies. The production values are outstanding, as well. The Blu-ray adds several audio commentaries and short making-of pieces, as well as a third disc dedicated to far longer featurettes on the project’s genesis, production and characters. While it’s not for everyone, adventurous viewers should thoroughly enjoy and savor “American Gods.”  The series has been renewed for a second season.

One of the questions raised in “American Gods” is “What happens when we die?” It’s the same query addressed in the NBC sitcom fantasy, “The Good Place,” starring Kristen Bell and Ted Danson. By comparison to most network comedies, the series is overpopulated with oddball characters and complicated storylines. Bell plays Eleanor Shellstrop, a perky blond saleswoman from Arizona, who’s killed in a bizarre accident involving shopping carts and a truck. A case of mistaken identity finds her in an exclusive afterlife utopia, the Good Place, which is replete with yogurt shops, weird looking houses and people who, in life, earned admission to the paradisiacal suburb of heaven by being good and doing better. The show was created by Michael Schur, executive producer of “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” and “Parks and Recreation.” Danson is well-cast as Michael, the architect of the Good Place and arbiter of taste and behavior among the citizenry. The DVD adds commentaries, a table read and background material. “The Good Place” already has launched its second-season run.

The “Masterpiece” presentation, “The Collection,” is the rare PBS mini-series that doesn’t encourage binging. (It’s a co-production of Amazon Prime Instant Video and BBC Worldwide.) Boiled to its essence, the eight-part mini-series is a family drama, set in a post-war Paris fashion house still trying to recover from the country’s post-WWII economic doldrums. The business is spearheaded by clashing members of the Sabine family – played by Brit actors Tom Riley (“Da Vinci’s Demons”), Richard Coyle (“Coupling”), Frances de la Tour (“Vicious”) and American, Mamie Gummer (Cake) – whose nationalities tend to dilute the Parisian setting, which worked pretty well for two recent films about Coco Chanel. Thrown in as diversions are a murder, a missing infant and saboteur. The fashions represent little more than window dressing. Still, fans of prime-time soaps should find the proceeding sufficiently sinister to keep them interested. And, being a British production, viewers should expect to see some nudity — not all of it female – deemed inappropriate for PBS affiliates.

The history of immigration in the United States extends back tens of thousands of years, to when isolated groups of hunter-gatherers tracked herds of large herbivores from Eurasia to Alaska, over a land and/or ice bridge across the Bering Strait. The Paleo-Indians’ pursuit of tolerable weather and a year-long supply of food eventually led them south, past the receding Ice Age glaciers, into what today is known as the Pacific Northwest. Some of the immigrants would travel further south, all the way to Patagonia, while others sought the American Dream in other directions. History Channel’s comprehensive treatise on immigration, “America: Promised Land,” begins with these Native American explorers and ends with the current flow of Asians and Mexicans across our borders. If I were King of the United States, I’d insist that the three-hour documentary become part of the curriculum of all public and private schools. Anyone running for office not only would be required to watch it, but also tested on its lessons.

A lot of time would pass before the next wave of immigrants arrived from Spain and England, in pursuit of religious freedom, gold, fertile fields and forests, peace and, of course, safe places to raise their children. Contrary to what President Trump would have us believe, nothing has changed in that regard since the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock. (Unless one throws the Fountain of Youth into the mix.) “America: Promised Land” approaches the subject in chronological order, through enhanced maps and graphics and interviews with the descendants of immigrants who chronicled their experiences in letters. Indeed, in one fascinating section, the producers make the point that the introduction of the adhesive postage stamp, in the 1850s, and creation an international postal network, were as crucial to promoting immigration trends as famines, natural disasters and the discovery of gold. While emphasizing the contributions to their new homes made by immigrants, the producers couldn’t help but explore such deterrents as racism, xenophobia and fear mongering. The Statue of Liberty notwithstanding, the only times that the “huddled masses” were truly welcome here was when we needed them to work our fields and factories, or fight our wars. The families of Chinese laborers who risked their lives for the completion of the transcontinental railroad, were made to feel especially unwelcome afterwards. If the truth sometimes hurts, it also can comfort, invigorate and inspire Americans to recall what brought their ancestors here, in the first place.

On this half-season collection, “Ancient Aliens: Season 10, Volume 1,” the venerable show’s producers expose viewers to even more evidence of extraterrestrial intervention on Earth … as if the takeover of the White House by a giant, carrot-topped mutant weren’t sufficient proof. As near as I can figure, however, the episodes represent the output from the first half of Season 12, which ran from April 27, 2017, to June 16, 2017. Maybe, they’re counting on the fingers of Martians. Among the oddities are an aluminum object that resembles the foot of a lunar lander, but inexplicably dates to over 40,000 years ago; a 1,000-year-old mask, discovered in India, that looks identical to the face of a grey alien; and newly uncovered records, from Russia, that indicate an ancient rocket was discovered in Kiev … in 1948. (Feel free to add your own exclamation points.)

I never tire watching Lewis Black work himself into a frenzy of righteous indignation and outright rage against the political machine. Maybe, that’s because I share the same antagonism toward elected officials intent on maintaining the status quo, while accepting every penny thrown their way by the NRA and other lobbyists, and breaking every promise made in their campaigns. A good tongue-lashing is the least they deserve. “Lewis Black: Black to the Future” was taped for airing on Comedy Central at a time when the presidential primaries were still a target-rich environment for killer commentary and rants. I can only imagine what he has to say about President Trump now that he’s been in office for 10 months. Also included on the DVD is a 50- minute bonus program, “The Rant Is Due: Live From Napa.” In it, Black answers questions from the audiences, as relayed by his friend and fellow comic Kathleen Madigan. The format allows him to relax a bit, while fielding queries about a variety of subjects, not just politics.

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

Thursday, October 12th, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, October 6th, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The DVD Wrapup: Transformers, Lynch’s Art, Piano Teacher, Ruby, Sarno, Jesús, Devil’s Candy and more

Friday, September 29th, 2017

Transformers: The Last Knight: Blu-ray, 4K UHD
For a movie that cost an estimated $217 million to make and God knows how much more to market, Transformers: The Last Knight shouldn’t have had to rely on the overseas marketplace to save to save its ass. That’s what happened, however. The worse news is that, when all the tickets were counted, the fourth sequel earned almost a half-billion fewer dollars than 2014’s Transformers: Age of Extinction. That’s based on a nearly equal proportional split of roughly 22 percent domestic to 78 percent foreign revenues. I may not know how those numbers relate to profits, but, clearly, any prospects for a fifth sequel will depend on the number of first-class screens that have come on line overseas in the interim and how little money the distributors can get away with not spending on marketing on next Christmas’ “Transformers Universe: Bumblebee.”

All I can say with any certainty about the plot of “The Last Knight” is that it begins in 484 A.D., with King Arthur’s forces engaged against the Saxons. When it looks as if the enemy is about to turn the Arthur’s Round Table into kindling, Merlin summons the Knights of Iacon, a group of 12 Transformers left hidden on Earth sometime in the past. They hand Merlin an alien staff and transform – as is their wont — into a huge dragon to help Arthur save the day. Possession of the staff brings with it the promise of even greater strife, however. Flash forward a millennium, or two, and the no longer viable Cybertron — ravaged by the Autobot/Decepticon war – has been put on collision course with Earth by the mad sorceress Quintessa. With the aid of Megatron, she intends to recover the staff and suck the lifeforce from our planet. Optimus Prime (a.k.a., Nemesis Prime) isn’t buying any of it. He hopes to defeat Quintessa and Megatron, leaving the door open for the Autobots’ return from their hiding places across the universe. Did I mention that the Third Reich and Stonehenge play roles in the story? Like its predecessors, “The Last Knight” is directed by Michael Bay, perhaps the only man alive who can make sense of this mishigas. It features Mark Wahlberg, returning from “Age of Extinction,” with Josh Duhamel, John Turturro and Glenn Morshower all reprising their roles from earlier chapters. Brits Laura Haddock and Anthony Hopkins join forces with Cade Yeager (Wahlberg) and Bumblebee in the battle to save Earth. Bay appears to have been accorded carte blanche to stage car chases and other action sequences throughout London, Oxford, the Bourne Woods, Blenheim Palace, Bamburgh and Alnwick castles and other U.K. landmarks, including 10 Downing Street and Royal Navy Submarine Museum. As welcome as these diversions are, however, their use as backdrops for comic-book set pieces and car chases negate their historical value. “The Last Knight” wouldn’t be the place for newcomers to jump into the Transformers saga.

That said, it’s available in Blu-ray, UHD, and Blu-ray 3D, with an excellent Dolby Atmos soundtrack. Techies won’t be disappointed, anyway. The bonus package, contained on the second Blu-ray disc, includes “Merging Mythologies,” which describes how the Transformer legend intersects with Arthurian myth and World War II; “Climbing the Ranks,” which examines the military characters and their preparations alongside real Navy SEALs; “The Royal Treatment: Transformers in the UK,” a 27-minute look at shooting key scenes in and around English landmarks; “Motors and Magic” takes a close look at several key characters: Optimus Prime, Bumblebee, Hot Rod, Hound, Crosshairs, Drift, Cogman, Sqweeks, Day Trader, Megatron, Barricade and Mohawk; “Alien Landscape: Cybertron,” on how Quintessa and the Transformers’ home plays in the film; and “One More Giant Effin’ Movie,” on the “Bayhem” behind the scenes. I know that’s a lot of semicolons for one paragraphs, but that’s a good thing.

David Lynch: The Art Life: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
The Piano Teacher: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
Several years ago, I was given the opportunity to interview David Lynch at his home in the Hollywood Hills. On the way downstairs to his glass-walled studio, he noticed the lifeless body of a small bird that didn’t survive a head-on collision with a window. Lynch nonchalantly picked it up, with the intention of using it in a painting. Although I wasn’t at all sure how that might be accomplished, if anyone could make the dead come to life as object d’art, it would be the creator of “Twin Falls.” Lo and behold, about halfway through Jon Nguyen, Rick Barnes and Olivia Neergaard-Holm’s fascinating documentary portrait, David Lynch: The Art Life, the maestro was shown prepping other unfortunate avian souls for inclusion in a painting. It’s the closest I’ve ever come to watching a genius at work. Anyone having trouble deciphering Lynch’s hugely enigmatic body of work on film is hereby advised to pick up “The Art Life” on DVD/Blu-ray. If there’s one constant in his life, it’s the satisfaction that comes with the act of applying paint to canvas. Lynch reminisces here about his seemingly idyllic, if splintered boyhood in Montana, Idaho, Washington, North Carolina and Virginia, and how an earlier flirtation with juvenile delinquency was diverted into a love for sketching and painting. Although he wasn’t keen on school, he was able to attend Boston’s School of the Museum of Fine Arts, which he didn’t float his boat, either, and the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. Philadelphia, itself, reminded him of hell of Earth, but it was there that he began to mix animation and live-action, in short films. In the early 1970s, Lynch moved to Los Angeles with his wife, Peggy, and baby daughter, Jennifer. He had received an AFI grant and found shelter in an abandoned stable, where Eraserhead would take shape. While “The Art Life” doesn’t dwell on Lynch’s movies, it isn’t difficult to see how his art and films bear the same fingerprints. Much of what we learn about him derives from soliloquies captured by a vintage microphone in a corner of his studios. He chain-smokes cigarettes to the nub, while bearing his soul. The words are amplified by a steady stream of painting, sketches, animations and tchotchkes found on tables and shelves. Plenty of time is reserved, as well, for images of his children from various marriages. “The Art Life” may not be for everyone, but fans should really get a kick out of it. It adds an interview with co-director Nguyen, who began the process five years earlier, and an essay by Dennis Lim.

Also from the good folks at Criterion comes Austrian director Michael Haneke’s The Piano Teacher, based on Elfriede Jelinek 1983 semi-autobiographical novel. (She would go on to win the 2004 Nobel Prize for Literature.) Released after the first of two identical exercises in bourgeois terror, Funny Games, The Piano Teacher is every bit as transgressive. Isabelle Huppert is nothing short of brilliant as Erika Kohut, a sexually repressed professor at a prestigious Viennese conservatory. Outside the rarefied confines of academia, she lives the proscribed life of a spinster aunt under the watchful eye of her stern, soon-to-be-widowed Mother (Annie Girardot). When life at the conservatory becomes too stifling, Erika breaks completely out of character by frequenting sex shops, sniffing leftover Kleenex in peepshow booths, and sneaking up on people having sex at drive-in movies. She’s also a cutter. After a recital in a friend of her mother’s apartment, Erika is introduced to a cocky young pianist, Walter (Benoît Magimel), who wants to be accepted into her master class. First, though, he needs to pass an audition. We sense that she’s taken by Walter’s musicianship, even as she plays hard to impress … passive masochism, if you will. It takes a while before Erika finally succumbs to her student’s infatuation, but, once she does, more than two decades of repressed sexuality explodes in a volcanic display of unbridled lust. Although Walter appears to be holding all the cards, Erika demands that he follow a long list of humiliating rules before she allows herself to be conquered. As impetuous as he is, Walter tortures himself by playing her game. The humiliation cuts both ways, however. Finally, it’s difficult to tell if Erika has dragged her handsome and cultured young man – who, when he isn’t making music, is playing ice hockey – into the gutter of depraved sexuality with her or she’s found the limits of her own pathology. The Piano Teacher is not a movie to rent or purchase, without knowing what to expect. Huppert’s magnificent, but scary as hell. She was the unanimous choice for Best Actress at the 2001 Cannes Film Festival, while Magimel and Haneke also were awarded top prizes. Girardot would win a César as Best Supporting Actor. The newly restored 2K digital transfer was supervised by director Haneke, with 5.1 surround DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack. It adds excellent interviews with Haneke and Huppert; a selected-scene commentary from 2002, featuring Huppert; behind-the-scenes footage of a post-sync session, featuring Haneke and Huppert; and an essay by scholar Moira Weigel

In Country
After watching 18 hours of “The Vietnam War,” the last thing I wanted to do was sit through a documentary on a bunch of yahoos whose idea of a weekend well spent is to re-enact skirmishes inspired by the same conflict. Americans have enjoyed donning authentic-looking uniforms and hoisting replicated weapons for conflagrations ranging from Medieval times, to the American Revolutionary War, Civil War, storming of San Juan Hill and World War II. The Civil War is most popular with Southerners still anxious to declare victory. I’m pretty sure that “M*A*S*H” is the closest anyone’s come to re-enacting the Korean War, but I could be wrong. Mike Attie and Meghan O’Hara’s In Country is the first I’ve heard about anyone trying to find anything worth re-creating from a war we’ve all been trying to forget. Because I didn’t know what to expect, I kept my finger near the stop button on my DVR’s remote control. As bizarre as the exercise seems to be, the men shown in In Country demonstrate something that transcends cheap nostalgia and kneejerk patriotism. Neither is it an opportunity for men who wished they’d gone to Vietnam to pretend they know what it’s like to trip a claymore mine or light a hooch on fire with a Zippo. The re-enactment takes place on a spacious and well-tended farm near Salem, Oregon, where the high grass, thick forests and plowed fields provide a reasonable facsimile of the Vietnamese countryside. The re-enactors include a brewery manager from Portland; a high school student, who’s already enlisted in the Marines; a former medic during the Iraq War; another Iraq War vet, who’s reupped for a tour; a Vietnam War veteran who’s haunted by his memories; and Vinh Nguyen, a South Vietnamese Army veteran, who’s proud of his record in the war and says, “This group has helped me to have the will to think about my homeland.” Everything is staged to meet a high degree of accuracy, from the weapons and uniforms, to assaults and casualties. To follow the men into battle, Addie and O’Hara were required to dress in the same garb as reporters Morley Safer and Michael Herr might have worn on assignment. To keep things in context, the filmmakers frequently interrupt the re-enactment with actual footage from the war. The DVD adds extended interviews and making-of material.

Ruby: Blu-ray
Immediately remindful of Carrie and The Exorcist, Curtis Harrington’s guilty pleasure, Ruby, features Piper Laurie as another crazy old lady in a troubled relationship with her nearly grown daughter. The movie opens in 1935, as Laurie’s Ruby Clair — the very pregnant hostess of a Florida gambling house — watches in horror while her gangster boyfriend, Nikki (Sal Vecchio), is gunned down by a firing squad of hoodlums. Her water breaks at approximately the same moment as Nikki’s body disappears into a nearby swamp. Soon, Ruby delivers a now-fatherless baby girl. Flashing ahead to 1951, Ruby (Laurie) now owns a drive-in movie operated by a crew of ex-convicts, some whom were among the gangsters who offed Nikki. Her 16-year-old daughter, Leslie (Janit Baldwin) hasn’t uttered a sound since she was born, but that’s about to change. Things begin to get strange when drive-in employees are slain in symbolically grotesque ways. Ruby gets her right-hand man, Vince Kemper (Stuart Whitman), to get rid of the corpses – one headless – before the police get involved. After a while, it becomes obvious that some kind of anniversary is approaching and Ruby’s typically strange existence is about to get even stranger. Among other things, Leslie begins crab-walking, as if she were auditioning for “The Exorcist II,” and the mysterious wheelchair-ridden guy in Ruby’s bedroom is about to lose his eyeballs. Nikki, too, will make a reappearance, but not in the usual way. Ruby’s significance has less to do with anything in the movie than the man who made it. Over the years, Harrington has developed a cult status for such immortal titles as Night Tide, Queen of Blood, Voyage to the Prehistoric Planet, Games, What’s the Matter With Helen? Whoever Slew Auntie Roo? and The Killing Kind. He frequently worked with Roger Corman, when exploitation was king. The Blu-ray package includes a commentary with genre specialist David Del Valle and Nathaniel Bell; another commentary with Harrington and Laurie; the original trailer; and three archival discussions between Del Valle and Harrington. Sharp eyes will notice that the movie showing at the drive-in when the blood starts flowing is Attack of the 50 Foot Woman, released seven years after the 1951 setting for the film.

Margo
Matthew Packman’s debut feature, Margo, is a dystopian survival thriller with a twist. Three of its four characters are women and their foremost individual challenge is to avoid going mad from lack of companionship. It doesn’t start out that way, because teen survivors Libby (Lauren Schaubert) and Grant (Brady Suedmeyer) are united in love and the need to survive in a forest where the threats are mostly invisible. When they stumble upon a seemingly abandoned house and discover some needed supplies, their joy is quickly overcome by the realization their trespassing may not be appreciated. When their idyll is suddenly shattered, Libby is forced to confront her fears, alone, through injuries and heartache. The difference between Margo and most other post-apocalyptic dramas is that Packman pays attention to the details of everyday life – hygiene, included – without having to worry about zombies, vampires and rabid thugs. The enemy presents herself, instead, in the form of a feral being, Margo (Abbey Hickey), who mistrusts everyone and everything. As much as Libby wants to connect with her adversary on a human level, she also appreciates the necessity to stay alive. Through extreme close-ups and quiet interludes, Packman maintains a mood that’s both impressionistic and open to personal interpretation. The songs that inform Libby’s dilemma reminded me tonally of Cat Power’s “Crossbones Style.” Even at a far too long 145 minutes, Margo left me with questions I wanted to have answered.

L.O.R.D: Legend of Ravaging Dynasties
Repackaged to remind English-speaking audiences of the Lord of the Rings, Guo Jingming’s epic fantasy, L.O.R.D: Legend of Ravaging Dynasties, is based on the 34-year-old writer/director’s best-selling series of YA novels, published in 2010. Although the big-budget movie features some of the country’s top box-office attractions, their presence is slightly muted by the CG animation and motion-capture process. A big hit back home, “L.O.R.D.” is reputed to be the first fully CG-animated film to come from China. The look won’t come as a surprise to American viewers, who’ve already experienced it in movies by James Cameron and Robert Zemeckis. Nonetheless, the fantasy adventure is targeted at younger audiences, whose sense of awe can still be triggered by flying lions, giant owls and the possibility that a commoner can realize his true self in the company of Noble Lords. It opens in a small village in the Asland Empire, one of four countries in the Odin Mainland. Lowly busboy Qi Ling (Cheney Chen) is serving tea to a party of magicians hunting a dangerous Soul Beast, when his eye is attracted by the bewitching Shen Yin (Yang Mi). Soon, a cold wave overtakes the restaurant, freezing everyone except Qi Ling and Shen Yin. Outside, even more danger lurks. It’s at this point that western viewers might find themselves bogged down in the numerous Soul Masters, Soul Beasts, priests, dukes and disciples of a half-dozen different degrees and supernatural powers. Turns out, Qi Ling wasn’t always mortal and, under certain circumstances, his powers could be restored. The goal of dynastic unification is to stop a war that is ravaging the land and threatening the order of the universe. That’s all. The list of stars includes Fan Bingbing, Kris Wu, Lin Yun, Amber Kuo and Aarid Rahman.

The Devil’s Candy: Blu-ray
Hype!: Collector’s Edition: Blu-ray
The New York Hardcore Chronicles
A Tribute to Les Paul: Live From Universal Studios Hollywood
Typically, I try not to mix theatrical features and documentaries, unless they display a credibly symbiotic relationship. Occasionally, though, it’s just as easy to link specific titles with their natural audiences. Here, the horror in The Devil’s Candy is so intricately linked to heavy-metal music that one can’t exist without the other. And, for once, headbangers aren’t blamed directly for everything that’s evil in the world. OK one metalhead can be accused of reading too much into the lyrics of songs with a Satanic message, but he’s completely out of his mind. Tasmanian writer-director Sean Byrne takes a fresh approach to the haunted-house subgenre, which, otherwise, couldn’t be more stale. Ethan Embry plays Jesse, an artist whose transgressive style has been modified to accommodate the tastes of mainstream benefactors. He moves with his wife, Astrid (Shiri Appleby), and daughter, Zooey (Kiara Glasco), to a town in rural Texas, where it doesn’t cost an arm and a leg to own property spacious enough to accommodate large-format paintings. On the way to their new digs, the radio is turned full blast and all three Hellmans bang their heads to the metal beat. Zooey, especially, is consumed with the music. Turns out, their new house was the scene of a terrible crime, likely perpetrated by the very large and scary dude who shows up on their doorstep one day, demanding to be let into his house. Because Ray Smilie (Pruitt Taylor Vince) shares a tattoo of a Gibson Flying V guitar with Zooey, we’re led to believe that his evil might be tamed if given enough space to work out his demons, without disturbing the neighbors or his late parents. It’s way too late for that to happen, though. At the same time, whatever demons exist within the house are having an adverse effect on Jesse’s paintings and ability to perform easy chores, like picking up Zooey at school. His paintings have begun to feature the faces of children being tortured, presumably in hell, and he can’t pull himself away from the canvas. For his part, Ray’s problem stems from a belief that Satan has ordered him to kidnap children and serve them up to him as if they were candy. The movie’s soundtrack, which must have cost a pretty penny to license, includes music by Metallica, Slayer, Pantera, Sunn O))), Wanton Bishop, Spiderbait, PK Harvey, Ghost, Slayer and Machine Head. And, yes, an electronic guitar is deployed in an effort to save the local children from ruin.

Twenty years after Hype!’s debut at Sundance, Doug Pray’s incisive documentary on Grunge music and its impact on the Seattle demi-monde has been released in a special Collector’s Edition. Kurt Cobain’s suicide, almost three years earlier, had already reversed the trajectory of the movement, as had the ramifications of sudden, unbridled commercialization. By comparison to other pop-music trends, Drudge had remained relatively pure. It’s discovery by the media swarm and fashionistas, however, could hardly be ignored. Hype! follows the music from local bands playing for and with their friends, to Sub Pop Record’s packaging of the Seattle Sound and to Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” topping the charts. Pray captures the humor, loss, and epic irony that accompanied oversaturation. It features live performances by Soundgarden, Mudhoney, Fastbacks, Pearl Jam and other representative acts, several of whom are still grinding it out in concert tours. It has been enhanced by a new transfer from the 35mm interpositive; fresh interviews with members of Mudhoney, Soundgarden and the Fastbacks, record producers Jack Endino and Steve Fisk, manager Susan Silver and photographer Charles Peterson; updated commentary by Pray; interviews, commentary and performances ported over from the original video and DVD; and Peter Bagge’s animated short, “Hate.”

Director Drew Stone’s The New York Hardcore Chronicles Film isn’t the first documentary to chronicle the history of a subgenre known for its loud post-punk, pre-Grudge sound, transgressive lyrics and ability to inspire young men to pretend to beat each other up on the dance floor. There’s more to hardcore than that, I suppose, but why split hairs? Depending on whom one asks, hardcore either began in makeshift clubs in Washington, D.C., or Orange County, California, before moving up the Eastern Seaboard to Boston and New York. Like punk and metal, hardcore still can be in heard in certain venues, but the accompanying culture has largely been usurped by newer trends and the loss of turf to gentrification. That’s the case, at least, in New York, where Yuppies now stroll the streets once populated by young men, women and kiddies who lived in abandoned buildings and survived on cigarettes, drugs, dumpster diving and handouts. The dynamism of the music served as an alternative to hunger. The most amusing thing about “Chronicles” is listening to musicians, fans and hangers-on describe the scene in a form of English peculiar to a handful of New York precincts and the comedy routines of Andrew “Dice” Clay. The braggadocio is endemic to the same few zip codes. Shot in an episodic format, the film contains more than 60 interviews, never before seen footage, photos and a pulsating soundtrack. Among the witnesses called are Roger Miret and Vinnie Stigma (Agnostic Front), Lou Koller and Craig Setari (Sick of It All), Ray Cappo (Youth of Today), Billy Graziadei (Biohazard), Billy Milano (S.O.D./M.O.D.) and Mike Judge (Judge). According to Miret, “We started using the term ‘hardcore’ because we wanted to separate ourselves from the druggy or artsy punk scene that was happening in New York at the time. … We were rougher kids living in the streets. It had a rougher edge.”

Mention Les Paul to a parent or grandparent and they might reminisce about seeing the brilliant guitarist and his wife, Mary Ford, in concert or on television, performing such top-10 hits as “How High the Moon” and “Vaya Con Dios.” Mention his name to any professional or aspiring guitar virtuoso, born in time to catch the rock-’n’-roll wave and they’ll remember him as the builder of guitars still used by some of the world’s greatest artists and inventor of multitrack recording techniques and other amazing harmonic effects. “A Tribute to Les Paul: Live From Universal Studios Hollywood” was recorded by HDNet Films in 2007, two years before Paul’s death at 94. It has since been shown on regular rotation on HDNet’s successor, AXS TV network. The 90-minute show features such guitar heroes Slash, Edgar Winter, Steve Lukather, Joe Perry, Buddy Guy, Joe Satriani, Kenny Wayne Shepherd and Neil Schon. Play it loud.

All the Sins of Sodom/Vibrations: Blu-ray
This is another vintage example of soft-core sexploitation that viewers of HBO’s “The Deuce” might recognize from the series’ storylines. Released in 1968, All the Sins of Sodom and Vibrations share basic themes, sexual activities and European-influenced cinematography. Even though Blow-Up and Seconds had tested the limits of Hollywood’s willingness to show pubic hair and full-frontal male nudity, Joseph W. Sarno knew that the New York police would use any excuse to shut down a theater in which a titillating movie was being shown to the great unwashed of Times Square. Nonetheless, the sparkling black-and-white photography, allusions to Ingmar Bergman’s Persona and recognizable narratives elevated All the Sins of Sodom and Vibrations above the usual sexploitation fare, notwithstanding the absence of genitalia. In the former, a David Hemmings-like fashion photographer has more than enough work – and models – to keep him busy. His goal, however, is to complete a book of photographs about a seductress whose sexuality meets Old Testament standards. Encouraged by his agent (Peggy Steffans), Henning begins the project with his model/lover Leslie (Maria Lease), who isn’t quite as hot as she needs to be. Out of the blue, an aspiring model with no obvious skills shows up at Henning’s studio, looking for work but willing to accept a crash pad in a closet. She sticks around long enough to become indispensable to the photographer, as well as a real-life vamp to the women who come to the studio when the boss is away. When Henning encourages her to seduce Leslie, he finally gets the images he wants … and a big problem, to boot.

Vibrations features several of the same actors and a cramped Midtown setting. As the title implies, it’s story is founded on the joys of mechanical sex. Aspiring poet Barbara (Marianne Prevost) moves to Manhattan to jump-start her career and sex life, only to be kept awake by to the sounds of her neighbors’ vibrator and orgasms. When her extroverted sister, Julie (Maria Lease), comes to town, Barbara is forced to confront her repressed sexual desires. The vibrator gets passed around like a joint at a Grateful Dead concert. The actor who plays the photographer in “Sodom” returns for a foursome, for which the vibrator serves as the plus-one invitee. Like “Sodom,” Vibrations is fun, in a nostalgic sort of way, and everyone appears to be enjoying themselves. The bonus package adds a vintage interview with Sarno; commentary on both films by Peggy Steffans-Sarno; additional commentary by film historian Tim Lucas; and a booklet, featuring liner notes by Tim Lucas.

It Stains the Sands Red: Blu-ray
The Dead Next Door: Blu-ray
The Zombie Apocalypse comes in an array of sizes, shapes and degrees of silliness. Co-writer/director Colin Minihan’s It Stains the Sands Red is a zombie movie for people who don’t particularly like zombie movies … and those who don’t treat them as if they were sacred texts. The movie opens with a drone’s-eye view of Las Vegas, where the apocalypse has begun in earnest. A former stripper is in the process of escaping into the desert with her boyfriend, who manages to get their car stuck in a ditch alongside the highway leaving town. To no one in the audience’s surprise, a lone zombie appears out of nowhere to threaten the couple. After firing several shots into harmless parts of the intruder’s body, he’s caught and eaten by the creature, who once went by the name of Smalls (Juan Riedinger). Because Molly (Brittany Allen) is on her period, she’s able to keep Smalls’ appetite sated long enough to get a headstart. The used tampon was no longer of use to her, anyway. It allows her to get out ahead of the zombie on a slow-speed chase through the desert, which is too hot to allow running. This goes on for quite a while … too long, for some critics’ taste. She’s able to sleep by climbing atop rock formations too steep for Smalls to reach. During the chase, Molly develops a certain affection for her pursuer, especially when he scares off a pair of rape-minded prison escapees and he’s seriously wounded by smug National Guard trooper. The fun, if not Molly’s ordeal, mostly ends here. She still must return to Las Vegas to collect her son, who she’s instructed to hide under a bed back home. Only time will tell if they’ll escape the Zombie Apocalypse.

Only a diehard horror nerd would be able to wring enough zombie minutia from J.R. Bookwalter’s The Dead Next Door to make it seem like anything more than an B-minus project from a high school AV class. It’s the minutia, though, that will endear the Super 8 oddity to buffs. This time, the Zombie Apocalypse has erupted in Akron, Ohio, not far from the site of George A. Romero’s “Living Dead Trilogy,” to which The Dead Next Door owes a huge debt of gratitude. Apparently, it was produced with the help of many of the “Evil Dead” crew. Financial backer Sam Raimi is credited as Master Cylinder and appears as zombie-killer cop. Characters are named after Tom Savini, John Carpenter, Stephen King, Romero and Raimi. “Evil Dead” co-writer Scott Spiegel plays a role and some character voices are dubbed by Bruce Campbell. The story centers on members of the “Zombie Squad” — an assault team trained in the hunting and extermination of the living dead — and their mission to track down the scientists who developed a zombie-making virus, as well as the rumored antidote. Of the many lethal obstacles in their path, the deadliest comes in the form of a religious cult whose leader, the Reverend Jones – as in Peoples Temple leader Jim Jones — sees the zombie epidemic as a precursor of Armageddon and hopes to expedite it. Reportedly, more than 1,500 Northeast Ohio residents portrayed the multitudes of bloodthirsty ghouls. There’s plenty of gore here to keep cultists happy, although the blood looks even more fake than usual in hi-res. The Tempe Digital Blu-ray/DVD adds more bonus featurettes than a Criterion Collection classic, including interviews, commentary, making-of and restoration material, and deleted scenes. There’s more, but not all of the earlier pieces have been ported over to the new discs.

Lycan: Blu-ray
When six college kids in a sleepy Georgia town are assigned a group project to rediscover a moment in history, they choose the legend of Emily Burt, dubbed the Talbot County werewolf. It was that or researching a case in which a black man was falsely convicted of murder, which anyone could do. Co-writer/director Bev Land’s Lycan is set in 1986, but the lycanthropy fable began a hundred years earlier. It opens with a flashback scene cribbed from dozens of vintage slasher pictures. A gross redneck oaf is shtupping an uncharacteristically beautiful young thing, when their reverie is interrupted by a creature who strolls into house with evil intent. We know this because we’re measuring the killer’s progress from its point of view. Flash forward and the students decide to do something any horror buff could tell them is exactly the wrong way to proceed in a film about werewolves. They borrow some horses and head for the forest primeval for a weekend of fun and studying. The location, of course, makes them easy pickings for anyone or anything determined to do them harm. If it’s nothing we haven’t seen before, at least the mysterious protagonist – the director’s gorgeous wife, Dania Ramirez (“Once Upon a Time”) – offers a good reason to stick around for a while. The cast also includes Jake Lockett, Parker Croft, Rebekah Graf, Craig Tate, Kalia Prescott, Gail O’Grady (the crazy cat lady) and former supermodel, Vanessa Angel, as the sexy professor. The Blu-ray adds interviews and making-of material.

2:22: Blu-ray
While watching Paul Currie’s supernatural thriller/romance, 2:22, I began to wonder why a movie theoretically set in and around Manhattan, largely inside Grand Central Station, features so many actors from Australia and England. Not even the actor credited as John Waters is the same one who grew up in Baltimore and has become famous for his impolite films. It’s not that I have anything against films from Down Under, just that a certain lack of grittiness was missing from this one’s texture. In it, Dylan Branson (Michiel Huisman) is an air traffic controller based in New York. One day, at precisely 2:22 p.m., he’s struck by a blinding flash of light that paralyzes him for a few crucial seconds. In the interim, his inability to focus nearly causes a collision between two jetliners full of passengers. Suspended from his job, Dylan begins to notice an increasingly ominous repetition of sounds and events in his life, occurring at exactly the same time every day. Now, here’s the fantasy rub: fate leads Dylan to hook up with an incredibly beautiful and talented woman, Sarah (Teresa Palmer), who’d been a passenger on one of the planes he nearly caused to collide. She flew to the Apple to coordinate an art installation involving real-time activities at Grand Central Station. In Dylan’s nightmares, he’s unable to prevent a tragedy that took place decades earlier in the same space shown in the installation. Spooky, huh. Let’s just say that the answers lie in the stars and leave it at that. It’s not a bad movie, just extremely far-fetched. My guess is that the same audience attracted to films adapted from books by Nicholas Sparks will find something here to embrace. Special features add interviews with the actors and director, and a featurette on re-creating New York and Grand Central in Australia.

Heritage Falls
When did David Keith get old enough to play grandfathers? Judging from his photo on the IMDB.com website: not yet. In reality, though, he’s 63 and, therefore, eligible for all sorts of geezer roles. Heritage Falls describes what happens during a rural retreat arranged by Charlie Fitzpatrick, a newly retired high school basketball coach, who’s harboring a deep, dark secret. Invited are his estranged “bookworm” son, Evan (Coby Ryan McLaughlin), and grandson, Markie (Markie Fitzpatrick), who has just announced he’s dropping out of college to tour with a band. Will the weekend result in a full-blown male-bonding experience or lead to further estrangement? One guess. The womenfolk aren’t ignored, but they’re not feuding. The best things about Shea Sizemore’s debut feature are the Georgia locations, which include Toccoa Falls in the northeastern corner of the state.

Sign Painters: Director’s Edition
Documented
Bite Size
Among the many things we, as a society, have come to take for granted is sign painting, whether it’s on the side of buildings, windows, doors, cars, carnival attractions, placards or on billboards. According to the professionals interviewed for their 2014 documentary, Sign Painters, by co-directors Faythe Levine and Sam Macon, the discipline began 150 years ago, possibly in Chicago, and has grown into a form of art that merges calligraphy, typography and commerce. Painters aren’t always asked to use their imaginations in the creation of a sign, but, when they are, the results can be wonderful. Or delightfully mundane, as was the case in the series of roadside signs that promoted Burma Shave through rhyming poems broken into individual stanzas over a distance of about 100 yards. It was the perfect marriage of America’s love of the open road and the necessity of companies to advertise their products. Cross-country motorists never really knew where the next one would turn up. As recently as the 1980s, storefronts, murals, banners, barn signs, billboards and even street signs were all hand-lettered with brush and paint … unless they were neon, of course. As is too often the case today, however, the industry is increasingly threatened by the proliferation of computer-designed, die-cut vinyl lettering, inkjet printers and, of course, the oversized copying machines at Kinkos and Office Depot. The demand for signs that look as if they might be seen from space has taken hold on Los Angeles’ Sunset Strip and the Las Vegas Strip, where neon once ruled. Granted, Sign Painters doesn’t address a particularly dire societal problem. Like most other things overlooked by the American public, though, we don’t miss them until they’re gone. The DVD adds more than 30 minutes of bonus material..

Also from Film Movement/Bond360, Documented could hardly be more topical. At a time when President Trump has gone full circle and back again on legislation protecting undocumented immigrants temporarily covered by the DACA and Dreamers program, it’s an apropos time to meet a few of the 800,000-plus men and women whose talents would be sacrificed for a hare-brained political promise. Previously released onto the festival circuit in 2014, Documented was co-directed by Ann Raffaela Lupo and Jose Antonio Vargas, whose story this is. You might recall an essay published in the New York Times Magazine, in 2011, titled “My Life as an Undocumented Immigrant.” In it, the Pulitizer Prize-winning journalist outed himself as one of 11 million undocumented immigrants living, working and/or studying here, the vast majority of whom wouldn’t be protected by President Obama’s edicts. The article and subsequent attention drawn to Vargas – including an arrest and release in a Texas border town – set the stage for this film, in which he travels around the country, lending his voice to the cause of immigration reform and dealing with the media backlash of being “out” in America. At the time, some reviews criticized it for not being a by-the-book documentary. It is even more timely and interesting today, just as it is.

Another Bond360 film, Corbin Billings’ Bite Size takes on the pressing issue of childhood obesity. It’s estimated that one in three American children are overweight, too many of them seriously so. And, even with an increased awareness of positive nutritional programs, things are getting worse. Despite the odds, Bite Size showcases the stories of four inspiring kids who are fighting for their futures one day at a time. Sadly, the doc received only limited exposure upon its 2014 release.

Jesús
Cinema Novo
3 Idiotas
Every so often, a film from Chile will come along that knocks the socks off arthouse audiences and critics, alike. Sebastián Silva became a hot commodity after The Maid (2006), coming back in 2013 with the very different Crystal Fairy and Magic Magic, both starring Michael Cera. Andrés Wood’s Machuca (2004) described the leadup to the coup that ousted Salvador Allende through the eyes of an 11-year-old student. Patricio Guzmán’s documentary triptych, The Battle for Chile could only be completed and released while the filmmaker was in Paris, where he sought refuge from fascism. His Chile, Obstinate Memory (1996) looks back on that terrible period, but after the Pinochet government collapsed. The easing of restrictions on filmmakers allowed for Boris Quercia’s 2003 comedy Sexo con Amor (“Sex with Love”). In 2012, Pablo Larraín’s historical drama, No, became the first Chilean film nominated for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar. Pablo Larraín’s The Club (2015) described the lengths to which the Vatican was willing to go to hide its bad apples. His 2016 biographical drama, Neruda, was nominated for a Golden Globe. For a country whose film industry was nearly decimated by right-wing demagoguery and censorship, that’s not a bad record. Fernando Guzzoni’s Jesús is a cross-generational drama that’s been compared to the works of Larry Clark. The 18-year-old protagonist, Jesús (Nicolas Duran), is trapped in a dead-end cycle of drugs, sex, apathy and an obsession with violence. He lives with his widower father, Héctor (Alejandro Goic), but, having come of age under completely different circumstances, they barely communicate with each other. One night, the combination of drugs, booze and boredom result in the brutal death of a gay teenager. The media blame it on neo-Nazi youths, but Jesús and his friends don’t appear to have any coherent political leanings. He seeks the help of his father, who, at first, agrees to hide the boy from the spotlight. Once the severity of the crime hits home, however, Héctor becomes increasingly perplexed by the depth of the gulf that separates them. The DVD adds a pair of post-screening discussions with Guzzoni and Duran.

Although Brazil has endured its share of political turmoil, its cinema has found ways to adapt to adverse circumstances and excel in the international marketplace. Cinema Novo is a film essay that poetically investigates the eponymous film movement, through the analysis of its primary practitioners. In the early 1960s and 1970s, the Cinema Novo movement reinvented Italian Neo-Realism for its Portuguese-speaking audiences, in that the films were shot largely on location, often with natural light, and strove to break down the barriers between public and private, rich and poor, fiction and documentary. The stories weren’t limited by region or ethnicity. I don’t recognize any of the titles, but Eryk Rocha’s film makes a strong case for Cinema Novo’s importance. Not long afterward, the Brazilian cinema would find a ready audience here for such entertainments as Bruno Barreto’s Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands and Carlos Diegues’ Bye Bye Brazil. Hector Babenco’s far more socially relevant Lucio Flavio (1977), Pixote (1980) and Kiss of the Spider Woman probably were influenced by Cinema Novo, but enjoyed a longer reach into the mainstream. If Rocha’s doc sometimes comes off as graduate level course in international film history, that’s OK, too.

From Mexico comes Carlos Bolado’s 3 Idiotas, a very broad Spanish-language comedy that found a bit of traction north of the border on about 350 screens. Like Lionsgate’s How to Be a Latin Lover and Instructions Not Included, it features a female lead, Martha Higareda, who should be familiar to viewers of Mexican and American television shows, including “Royal Pains” and “Las Juanas.” Although the pixie-ish Higareda has just turned 34, the hot Tabasco chili pepper has no trouble here playing the college student, Marianna. It is a remake of the Bollywood movie 3 Idiots (2009), by Rajkumar Hirani, which was inspired from Chetan Bhagat’s 2004 novel “Five Point Someone.” Alfonso Dosal, Christian Vázquez and Germán Valdés III play the title characters, who, while not complete imbeciles, are socially awkward and easily distracted in the classroom. They’re studying engineering under a professor, Mariana’s father, who’s almost impossibly stern and has no tolerance for knuckleheads. It becomes a problem for the inseparable trio, when one of the lads, Pancho, falls for Mariana and there’s no way her father would approve of him as a son-in-law. It becomes a moot point after Pancho disappears at a crucial point in their relationship. The search for their lost friend unwinds alongside the run-up to graduation day. Admittedly, any comedy that relies as heavily on fart gags as 3 Idiotas does isn’t going to be my cup of tea. I did love the ending, however, for its ability to boil down the slapstick into something meaningful in the real world.

The Legend of the Holy Drinker: Special Edition: Blu-ray
As wonderful a title as The Legend of the Holy Drinker is, I couldn’t help but be reminded of the late, great Lord Richard Buckley’s swinging monologue, “God’s Own Drunk,” popularized by Jimmy Buffet. In it, a recovering alcoholic is asked by his hillbilly brother-in-law to keep a watchful eye on his still, while he’s away on business. Eventually, the drunk gives in to temptation and begins sampling the product. Along comes a bear – varying in height from 16 to 18 feet – who gladly accepts the man’s offer of some free moonshine. After drinking the night away, the drunk wakes up to find both the bear and still gone. It could have been worse: the bear might have been hungry, instead of thirsty. The story sounded better when told by the man Bob Dylan called, “the hipster bebop preacher who defied all labels.” The Legend of the Holy Drinker was adapted from Joseph Roth’s 1939 novella by Ermanno Olmi, whose Il posto and The Tree of Wooden Clogs enjoyed far wider distribution. I’m pretty sure it didn’t find a screen in the U.S. It is the story of Andreas Kartack (Ruger Hauer), a homeless man living under the bridges of Paris. Lent 200 francs by an anonymous stranger, he is determined to pay back his debt, but circumstances – and his alcoholism – continue to intervene. Through flashbacks and encounters with old friends, we know that Kartack enjoyed some semblance of prosperity back in the day. He isn’t a bad or belligerent drunk, but his liver is flashing signals that it’s about to surrender to disease. While staggering around his bed of newspapers, he’s given the money by the Distinguished Gentleman (Anthony Quayle), who appears to have more money than he knows what to do with. His only request is for Andreas to return the money to the shrine dedicated to Saint Thérèse of Lisieux in the church across the street from his favorite bar. In his delirium, Andreas even imagines being reminded of his obligation by the Little Flower of Jesus, herself. For a few days, at least, Kartack can do no wrong. Francs appear out of nowhere. An old school chum lavishes him with money, clothes and food. He enjoys two wild nights with a cabaret dancer (Sandrine Dumas) and is tested by another old friend (Dominique Pinon), a drunken sot who coaxes Andreas into blowing off the loan. He runs into a woman who might have been his wife. And, he’s finally able to cover his bar tab. When the miracles run out, it’s as if we’re losing a close friend. In an interview included in the Arrow Films bonus package, co-writer Tullio Kezich recalls Robert De Niro turning down the lead role, because he couldn’t understand the story behind the movie. Olmi, whose films don’t follow established patterns, had no such problem, and neither did Hauer, who turned in the performance of a lifetime. If one were required to categorize The Legend of the Holy Drinker, the easiest way to describe it might be to call it a fable, parable or allegory. Whatever it is, Olmi was awarded the Golden Lion and OCIC awards at the 1988 Venice Film Festival. The package also includes a fresh interview with Hauer and new writing on the film by Helen Chambers, author of “Joseph Roth in Retrospect: Co-existent Contradictions.”

TV-to-DVD
Ned And Stacey: The Complete Series
NBC: Taken: Season One: Blu-ray
PBS: Frontline: Life on Parole
The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson: The Vault Series, Volumes 1-6: Collector’s Edition
The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson. Johnny and Friends: The Complete Collection
Sitcoms come and go, but, with any luck, our favorite actors will continue to play musical chairs for the rest of their careers. Because the stigma once attached to working on television no longer exists, it’s possible for actors to move from a sitcom – in this case, Fox’s short-lived “Ned and Stacey” – to the movies and back, again, no worse for the wear. Thomas Hayden Church and Deborah Messing played a pair of mismatched yuppies, who marry for reasons that only make sense on sitcoms. Ned is an ad exec who needs a wife, pronto, to maintain his progress on the corporate ladder. Stacey is a neurotic freelance writer in need of an apartment, which he has. It’s a marriage of convenience, allowing for all sorts of wacky romantic dalliances and good-natured squabbling. Eventually, the writers created a space in which love could bloom. In all sitcoms, it’s also important for the lead characters to gel with the actors in supporting roles. Here, they’re represented by the pre-“Ally McBeal” Greg Germann and perennial sidekick Nadia Dajani (“Girlfriends’ Guide to Divorce”). There were older characters, as well, but Fox demographics demanded a steadier rotation of attractive guest stars, all of whom looked hot in little black dresses and tuxedos. Created by Michael J. Weithorn (“The King of Queens”), the show featured the kind of snappy dialogue that doesn’t feel processed the second it leaves the actors’ mouths. Even so, “N&S” lasted less than a season and a half on the air. The Shout!Factory box contains 47 episodes, including 25 from the first season; 11 in the abbreviated second season; and 11 unaired shows. Only Season One has been represented on DVD. The six-disc box adds commentary on the pilot episode, with Weithorn, and a 20-minute retrospective, with Messing and Church. Messing can be seen this fall in the reboot of NBC’s groundbreaking “Will & Grace,” while Church will reprise his role in HBO’s “Divorce,” opposite Sarah Jessica Parker.

On NBC this fall for a second go-round, “Taken” represents the prequel to the big-screen action franchise of the same title. Clive Standen (”Vikings”) plays the younger version of the former CIA agent Bryan Mills made famous by Liam Neeson. (He just announced that his days of playing kick-ass characters are over.)  Here, Mills is a former Green Beret who gets swept up in a quest for vengeance after he fails to protect one of those closest to him. Recruited by Jennifer Beal to join a group of CIA operatives, Mills spends the early episodes honing his skillset and learning to control his explosive temper. Beals’ operative allows him to he dive headfirst into dangerous missions, while monitoring his strengths and deficiencies. The Blu-ray set includes an “On Set” featurette with creator and exec-producer Luc Besson. It’s already been revealed that “Taken” will get a facelift for Season Two, including the elimination of several prominent supporting characters.

By now, followers of cops-vs.-criminals shows on television know that being granted parole isn’t the same as being handed a Get Out of Jail card in Monopoly. If a parolee slips up, even once, he or she can be returned to jail so fast their head won’t have time to spin. Unless … they were imprisoned in a state such as Connecticut, where one or two mistakes no longer necessarily mean one’s freedom is kaput. Neither does it mean that those infractions are forgotten. The “Frontline” presentation, “Life on Parole,” follows several former prisoners through the challenges of their first year on parole. With unique access, the documentary goes inside the effort to change the way parole works in Connecticut and reduce the number of people returning to prison. The report is a co-production with the New York Times.

There’s another pair of boxed sets from TimeLife’s “Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson” collection, representing odd-lot permutations of the original direct-sale megabox. The shows aren’t limited to the guest stars promoted on the covers. They also contain Johnny’s monologue, “bits,” commercials and chats with lesser luminaries, some of whom who went on to become marquee attractions. Here, the six-disc “Vault Collection” features a dozen of the best shows, complete and unedited, selected from over three decades and 4,000 shows. (Unbelievably, the geniuses at NBC decided to make space on their shelves by dumping tapes of the 1960s’ show into the East River.) Among them are Carson’s 10th and 11th anniversary shows; birthday episodes; and vintage appearances by, among others, Dean Martin, Jack Benny, Jerry Lewis, Dom DeLuise, John Denver, Peter Fonda, Michael Caine, Charlton Heston, Michael Landon, Billy Crystal, Paul McCartney, Orson Welles and Muhammad Ali. The 10-disc “Johnny and Friends” series includes appearances by Robin Williams, Steve Martin, Bob Hope, Don Rickles, Dolly Parton and others.  It adds a 28-page Memory Book, with snapshots and stories about Johnny and his friends, as well as two hours of bonus features. It will be interesting to see if, 20 years from now, anyone decides to package the “best” of Jimmy Fallon, Jimmy Kimmel, Stephen Colbert and Conan O’Brien.

The DVD Wrapup: ET, Vietnam, Big Sick, Glory, Certain Women, The Hero, Hana-Bi, By the Time It Gets Dark, The Prison, The Flesh, Moderns … More

Thursday, September 21st, 2017

E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial: 35th Anniversary Limited Edition: Blu-ray, 4K UHD
Close Encounters of the Third Kind: 40th Anniversary Edition: Blu-ray, 4K UHD
Smithsonian: The Real Story: Close Encounters of the Third Kind
Star Wars: The Blueprints
Starship Troopers: Traitor of Mars/Starship Troopers: Blu-ray, 4K UHD
I wonder how many kids and young adults have only watched E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial and Close Encounters of the Third Kind on screens smaller than a Mini or Fiat. There probably have been plenty of opportunities to catch a special screening at a plus-size theater with state-of-the-art visuals and sonics, but the temptation to watch something with less mileage probably outweighed the advantages of seeing these masterpieces the way Steven Spielberg intended. While you could say the same thing about dozens of other classic films now being re-released on 4K UHD, the arrival of E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial and Close Encounters of the Third Kind within seven days of each other raises all sorts of nagging questions. Foremost among them: With Disney finally having joined the 4K parade, how long will it take for skeptics to hop on the band wagon? The investment wouldn’t be as great as adapting to 3D, which, so far, has proven prohibitive. Still, it’s hardly a drop in the proverbial bucket. While both sci-fi fantasies feature visitors from another solar system, most of what happens is rooted in terra firma and there’s nothing post-apocalyptic or dystopian about them. I can’t remember any ammunition being wasted, either. And, yes, both still legitimately carry a PG rating. (The PG-13 modification was introduced in July 1984.) The “Limited Edition” of “ET” may not represent a huge technical advance on the first-class 2012 Blu-ray edition, but the 4K upgrade is noticeable. And, while the extensive bonus package has been ported over, it adds premium packaging, a re-mastered CD soundtrack and a collector’s booklet, with behind-the-scenes stories and rare images from the archives. The “Close Encounters” gift set features illuminated packaging, which plays the iconic five-tone motif, and an expanded booklet with rare archival photos.  New bonus content includes never-before-seen home movies and gags from the set, as well as the featurette, “Three Kinds of Close Encounters,” with fresh interviews with Spielberg, J.J. Abrams (Star Wars: The Force Awakens) and Denis Villeneuve (Arrival) on the legacy of the film.

At the time of its release, most fans of Close Encounters assumed it was a work of enlightened science-fiction, informed by the 1947 Roswell UFO Incident and reports of alien abductions credited to crackpots and fantasists. After the movie became a huge hit, the mainstream media decided to take a cue from the National Enquirer and at least consider the possibility that thousands of UFO sightings couldn’t all be blamed on swamp gas and LSD. One thing we learned was that the U.S. Air Force had begun to take the reports as seriously as sci-fi novelists and screenplay writers had for decades. “Smithsonian: The Real Story: Close Encounters of the Third Kind” introduces us to J. Arthur Hynek, an American astronomer, professor, and ufologist, who acted as scientific advisor to the Air Force on Project Sign (1947-49), Project Grudge (1949-52) and Project Blue Book (1952-69). At first, Hynek served as an apologist for government nay-sayers and a paid denier of theories based on eye-witness reports. Eventually, though, he began to change his tune. In addition to developing the close-encounter classification system, he would become a consultant to Columbia Pictures and Steven Spielberg. He can be briefly be seen after the aliens disembark from the “mother ship,” bearded and with a pipe in his mouth, stepping forward to view the spectacle. Michio Kaku, a professor of theoretical physics at the City College of New York and CUNY Graduate Center, adds his intelligence to the informative 45-minute documentary.

I originally planned on saving the monumental coffee-table book, “Star Wars: The Blueprints,” for a holiday gift-guide selection. Since we’re discussing intergalactic space travel, however, what better time to bring out the big guns than now? It was originally published on September 15, 2011, in a limited edition that weighed 35 pounds and contained 240 blueprints, 500 photographs and large-format illustrations, and 10 gatefolds. Most of the drawings of spaceships, buildings and robots had never been outside the Lucasfilm archives. Only 5,000 copies were produced by Epic Ink and individually numbered. The first 125 were signed by Academy Award-winning art directors Norman Reynolds, Les Dilley and Roger Christian, and carried a price tag of $1,000, while the remaining editions went for $500. (Try bidding that amount on Ebay today and see how far you get.) On April 2, 2013, “Star Wars: The Blueprints” was re-released at a more affordable price — $70, if memory serves – and with new cover art. They went out-of-print not long after they were published, assuring a ready market at online bidding and resale sites. Earlier this month, Epic re-released the 2013 edition of “Blueprints,” at the full list price of $79.99. Combined with Rinzler’s insightful commentary, the collection maps in precise, vivid and intricate detail the genesis of one of the most enduring and beloved series in movie history. The meticulously researched text gives voice to the groundbreaking engineers, designers and artists who created the most imaginative machinery and iconic locales. They include the rebel blockade runner, the Millennium Falcon, the bridge of General Grievous’ flagship and Jabba the Hutt’s throne room.

Without Star Wars and its sequel/prequels, it’s safe to say that the 20-year-old “Starship Troopers” franchise – not counting the 1988 Japanese adaptation of Robert Heinlein’s landmark novel, published in 1959 – probably wouldn’t have flourished to the point where a fourth sequel, Starship Troopers: Traitor of Mars, would be released just days after the Cassini orbiter bit the dust of Saturn. All the sequels to Paul Veohoeven’s marginally successful, if considerably more challenging live-action release, Starship Troopers, have taken the direct-to-DVD path to the marketplace. Fans will be happy to learn that the computer-animated Japanese-American production, Traitor of Mars, marks the reunion of original characters Johnny Rico and Dizzy Flores (Casper Van Dien, Dina Meyer) for the first time since the original. The Federation’s enemy here is a mighty army of bugs – escapees from the Arachnid Quarantine Zone – that were introduced in Heinlein’s novel as communal beings from the planet of Klendathu. They’re among the few things that have survived from the best-selling book, which was first published as a two-part serial in the Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, as “Starship Soldier.” At the time, Heinlein stated that he used the novel to clarify his complex views on militarism, politics and his opposition to the discontinuation of nuclear testing. Traitor of Mars was co-directed by Shinji Aramaki and Masaru Matsumoto, from a script by Edward Neumeier. The Blu-ray and UHD bonus packages add “A Look Inside Bugs and Powered Suits,” “A Look Inside Story and Characters,” “Expanding the Universe,” a deleted scene and photo gallery. Sony Pictures Home Entertainment will celebrate the 20th anniversary of Verhoeven’s Starship Troopers, as well, with a new 4K Blu-ray edition. It contains vintage special features, including director and cast commentary, deleted scenes, 19 featurettes and screen tests.

The Vietnam War: A Film by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick: Blu-ray
The most disturbing thing about Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s almost tortuously comprehensive “The Vietnam War” is learning how easy it would have been to avoid the whole bloody mess in the first place. That the number of bombs dropped on North Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos mirrored the many lies told the American public emanating from Washington to justify our presence in South Vietnam. Pentagon personnel and elected officials, congressmen, journalists and presidents, from Harry S Truman to Gerald Ford, all contributed to the barrage of bullshit. And, most of the lies were told to protect the American public from the learning the true nature of the despotic regimes we would back in the wake of our triumph over fascism in Europe and the Pacific. Our parents weren’t told, for example, that Ho Chi Minh – an important World War II ally — asked Truman to allow his countrymen the same opportunity to pursue liberty as that accorded Americans in 1776. Instead, the “leader of the free world” chose to back France in its doomed effort to maintain control of its longtime colony. What isn’t widely known is how that definitively anti-democratic decision drove the Viet Minh into the parallel orbits of the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China, and how fear of losing France to the post-war communism convinced American leaders to back the wrong team. In 1956, we allowed South Vietnam’s hugely corrupt Diem brothers to block the election ordered in the Geneva Accords to ensure the re-unification of Vietnam. It would take the self-immolation of Buddhist monks in the streets of Saigon to convince strategists within the Kennedy administration to quietly support a coup by disaffected military leaders there. The regime would be replaced by generals every bit as greedy, intractable and bigoted as the Diems. If the media could no longer ignore Vietnam, they didn’t work very hard to dispute the lies fed them about our growing role there. After LBJ ascended to the presidency, he ignored his own skepticism about the chances for a U.S. victory in Vietnam by maintaining his predecessor’s policies. In the run-up to the 1964 elections, Johnson ordered his team to keep his constituents in the dark as to the degree to which our advisers to the South Vietnamese Army had become involved in the insurrection in the countryside. The Tonkin Gulf Resolution, enacted on August 10, 1964, gave the president authorization, without a formal declaration of war by Congress, for the use of conventional military force in Southeast Asia. Its passage, too, was based on fabricated reports from the region. The failure of the Operation Rolling Thunder bombing campaign to dissuade Ho Chi Minh and his increasingly militant aides from supporting the uprising in the south also was kept secret. It led to the increased deployment of American troops and the beginning of anti-war protests back home. The American people bought the lies, if for no other reason than patriotism demanded as much from us. We perceived ourselves as the cowboys who wore the white hats and had God on our side in every gunfight. Anyone who disagreed with that conceit – including college students and historians – was loudly denounced as being an agent of Moscow, Beijing and Hanoi. Young volunteers and draftees faithfully agreed to follow their fathers and grandfathers into battle, at least until comrades and relatives began coming home in flag-draped caskets or, on leave, perfectly willing to correct the record.

And, that scenario only takes viewers to Episode Six of “The Vietnam War,” covering the first half of 1968, a period as fateful as any since the Civil War. By the time Burns and Novick get to the Tet Offensive, the weight of 20 years of lies, combined with the horror of watching corpses and grotesquely wounded soldiers being carried off the battlefields is almost too much to bear. The French fought to maintain their right to profit from Vietnam’s material bounty, at least. By 1968, the sole goal of our fighting men was to avoid being killed or maimed, not stop international communism. So, why stay with “The Vietnam War” for another 10 hours? For the first time, we hear the voices of North and South Vietnamese who suffered even more than Americans in the war and witness exactly how much damage was inflicted on the North Vietnamese infrastructure, with no direct impact on the resolution of the war. The producers have collected documents, archival photos and film footage never made public here. American voices from both sides of the debate are heard, as well as those of dozens of remarkably unembittered Vietnamese men and women, but those stories, recollections and testimony are more familiar to us … if no less penetrating. The release of the Pentagon Papers, testimony of Vietnam Veterans Against the War and coverage of the My Lai Massacre left no excuses for Americans to continue to believe the lies. Still, enough voters bought Nixon’s baloney about Vietnamization and pledges to never to turn our backs on South Vietnam to ensure his re-election, in 1972. Nixon and Henry Kissinger both knew that U.S. resolve would end with the return of the POW’s, but still found excuses to bomb the North Vietnamese to near oblivion, anyway. It not only turned the world against the country once admired as a beacon of liberty, but it also produced dozens more captured airmen.

It should be pointed out that, while Burns, Novick and writer Geoffrey C. Ward frequently criticize the decisions made by American commanders and presidents, without ignoring the evolution of dissension among the troops and citizenry, they never question the bravery, dedication and heroism of the men and women who fought and died in Vietnam under our flag. That includes many of the ARVN soldiers who fought alongside them, but never were given credit for their resolve and successes. Neither do they demean the anti-war protesters or their occasionally self-serving reasons for avoiding induction. They do, however, leave room for regrets on the parts of the soldiers, dissidents and political operatives. (Jane Fonda’s ill-considered visit to Hanoi being the rare exception.) Reports of dissent within Ho Chi Minh and General Võ Nguyên Giap’s inner circle came as a surprise, as did the testimony of NVA, Viet Cong and ARVN veterans … men, women and children who’d witnessed the carnage. It made wonder how the Vietnam War is being taught in high schools, today, and if the students are being warned about the lies that fuel all wars. The invasion of Iraq, which inevitably led to the rise of ISIS, was based completely on officially sanctioned falsehoods, some of which were disseminated through the “liberal” press. We’ve been at war in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan and Syria for several years longer than we were in Southeast Asia, and have repeated many of the same mistakes. Dissenters have been branded as anti-American and enablers of Islamic terrorists. If protests within the ranks isn’t as great, it’s only because the single most important lesson our leaders learned from Vietnam was to maintain an all-volunteer fighting force or entrust mercenaries to do the dirty work for them. Unlike Burns’ groundbreaking “The Civil War,” which challenged our way of thinking about that terrible conflagration, I suspect that reactions to “The Vietnam War” will be far more visceral. Watching the veterans describe their experiences in combat, based on the insane orders of their superiors – all the way up the chain of command — is nothing short of heartbreaking. The final chapter’s post-mortem is as sad as anything else in the series. The final irony, of course, is that Vietnam has adopted a “reformist economy,” complete with high-end resorts, world-class dining, casinos and talk of legalizing prostitution in tourist areas. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. The Blu-ray adds a making-of featurette and two sets of deleted and expanded scenes and interviews.

The Big Sick: Blu-ray
Instead of pulling a quote from the many favorable reviews or promoting the contributions of The Big Sick’s excellent cast and creative team, the first blurb one notices on the cover of the DVD/Blu-ray extolls the participation of Judd Apatow,
“producer of Bridesmaids and Trainwreck.” The reasoning, of course, is to grab the attention of the same women who turned those uproarious R-rated comedies into big commercial hits, by dragging their boyfriends along for the ride. Hence, the quote below the title, “The funniest date movie of the year,” alongside the Rotten Tomatoes’ “Certified Fresh” seal of approval. Conspicuously missing are any references to director Michael Showalter and the awards-caliber writing of Kumail Nanjiani and Emily Gordon, whose “awkward true story” it is… if loosely. (A photo of Karachi-born actor-writer-comic, Nanjiani, does appear on the jacket, along his co-stars.) Obviously, Lionsgate wanted to accentuate The Big Sick’s appeal to men and women – together or separately – and potential for an enjoyable night of cross-cultural laughs. That’s understandable, if more than a little bit misleading, in that the pathos written into the screenplay adds a bittersweet quality to a story that constantly teeters on the edge of tragedy and intolerance. Anyone who’s seen Showalter’s previous features, The Baxter and Hello, My Name Is Doris, would already know to expect something that combines comedy and drama in precise measures, while also capturing Nanjiani and Gardner’s unique personalities. Nanjiani plays Kumail, a Chicago standup comedian, who drives for Uber and performs at night. His traditional Pakistani Muslim parents continually set their son up with Pakistani women, whose parents are looking for Pakistani sons-in-law. Kumail goes along with it to please them, but is too busy with his career to consider marriage, traditional or otherwise. During a show, Kumail is gently heckled by Emily (Zoe Kazan), a decidedly non-Muslim woman in the audience. After the show he approaches her, and what begins as a one-night-stand soon blossoms into that “awkward” relationship. The first sign of trouble comes when Kumail learns that Emily’s been hiding a first marriage from him and the bruises have yet to heal. Then, Emily discovers a cigar box full of photos of women his mother wants him to consider as a potential wife.

Kumail takes them less seriously than Emily, who correctly understands that it’s Kumail’s way of hanging on to his traditional upbringing. Moreover, despite their love and compatibility, that she’ll never be accepted as a daughter-in-law and he’ll never sever his ties with his family to make it so. Not long after she breaks up with him, Emily develops a lung infection and must be taken to a hospital. Upon learning of her ailment, Kumail rushes to her side, a place she doesn’t want him to be. At a crisis point, a nurse mistakes him for next-of-kin and demands he make a life-or-death decision as to whether she should be placed in a medically induced coma with tracheal intubation. When Emily’s parents arrive, they thank him for making the right decision, but, like their daughter, dismiss him. Instead, he sticks around, imposing himself on them. Boisterous and demanding, the parents played by Holly Hunter and Ray Romano are polar opposites of those portrayed by Anupam Kher and Zenobia Shroff. In fact, they’re opposite sides of the same coin. Showalter sets up the rest of the movie with a series of questions: what will happen if Emily dies?; what happens if she suddenly comes out of the coma and survives?; will Kumail’s parents ever cut him some slack?; will he ever stand up to them?; will anyone pay good money to watch Kumail’s one-man-show? Unless viewers already are aware of Nanjiani and Gardner’s personnel odyssey, the answers are left hanging until the very last minute. What might seem inevitable, isn’t always so. It’s what makes The Big Sick such a satisfying investment of two hours’ time. Don’t be surprised if two or more acting-award nominations are accorded the movie. The Blu-ray package adds commentary with producer Barry Mendel, Showalter and the writers; a backgrounder with producer Apatow and cast members; a funny featurette on “The Real Story”; a panel discussion from the 2017 SXSW Film Festival Panel; deleted scenes; and outtakes.

The Hero: Blu-ray
Forced to choose between his mustache and voice, I’d have to say that Sam Elliott’s most distinguishing feature is the latter. In the 40-plus years since his breakthrough performance in The Lifeguard – OK, maybe, that came in The Mask – Elliott has only been seen fully shorn in a small handful of roles: including in We Were Soldiers, The Contender and FX’s “Justified.” The absence caused much consternation on websites dedicated to facial enhancements, where the 73-year-old Sacramento native’s appendage is genuinely iconic. Still, a great mustache neither helps nor hinders one’s ability deliver voiceovers or commercial boilerplate, Elliott has one of the most distinctive deliveries in the business. In The Hero, a movie that sometimes feels too much like a valedictory, Elliott plays a longtime cowboy star who supplements his royalties with studio and commercial work behind a microphone. Listeners can only assume his character, Lee Hayden, hasn’t shaved off the bushy appendage, which, since his last paid gig, has turned completely gray and shaggy. Hayden lives in the apartment above his dope-dealing friend, Jeremy, played by Nick Offerman (“Parks and Recreation”). In a neat coincidence, Offerman’s mustaches and beards have frequently been displayed alongside those of Elliott, Tom Selleck and Hulk Hogan. While sharing a joint, Hayden is introduced to one of Jeremy’s drop-in customers, Charlotte (Laura Pepron), who’s struggling to make a living as a standup comedian. In a textbook example of marijuana-induced kismet, Charlotte takes an immediate shine to the actor. Lee doesn’t accept it as such until a chance meeting at a canteen truck, where he invites her to be his guest at a Hall of Fame induction that might otherwise be a complete drag for him. I don’t want to spoil any of the fun, but the event takes on a completely new light after she slips him an Ecstasy mickey, causing his acceptance speech to go off the rails in a most delightful way. The impromptu performance quickly become an Internet meme, with more hits than the city’s casting directors can ignore. It isn’t that co-writer/director Brett Haley (I’ll See You in My Dreams) is a spoil-sport, but, without a couple of complications, Charlotte and Lee’s June/November romance would make for a very short movie. Here, one of the primary characters is given a life-threatening ailment and an estranged daughter, Lucy (Krysten Ritter), makes things uncomfortable for Hayden, as well. Elliott’s real-world wife, Katharine Ross (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid), plays his former wife and Lucy’s mother. (It’s her first film role in a decade.) Despite some decent reviews, The Hero was accorded a release date unfavorable for melodramas aimed at the AARP crowd. It deserves a better shot in DVD/Blu-ray/VOD. The disk adds commentary with Haley and Elliott, as well as a photo gallery.

Certain Women: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
I’m not sure how Kelly Reichardt’s new film ended up with Criterion Collection, a company known more distributing restored editions of foreign movies, documentaries and classics than recent arthouse fare with modest commercial expectations. Consider it a blessing that the company picked up Certain Women, adding a 2K digital transfer with 5.1 surround DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack; interviews with Reichardt, author Maile Meloy and executive producer Todd Haynes; and an essay by critic Ella Taylor. It isn’t often that a movie that’s returned slightly more than a million dollars – her first of six feature releases to do so – is accorded such first-class treatment. Here, Reichardt shifts locations from her usual stomping grounds – the wilds of Oregon — to the high-lonesome ranchlands surrounding Livingston, Montana. Not exactly a thriving metropolis, even by Montana standards, it’s the kind of place writers and artists go for splendid isolation and locals find difficult to leave. It’s not far from the capital, Helena, where Meloy was born and raised, or the settings of her short stories, “Travis B.,” “Native Sandstone” and “Tome.” The self-contained, but interlocking episodes of Reichardt’s gorgeously photographed tryptic explore the shifts in personal desire and social expectation that affect the circumscribed lives of its primary characters. Laura Dern plays a lawyer forced to subdue a troubled client, while navigating the rocky shoals of an affair with a married man (James Le Gros). His wife (Michelle Williams) plans to construct her dream home out of sandstone rocks taken from demolished landmarks. Kristen Stewart plays a Livingston lawyer, who consuls teachers in a distant town and forms a tenuous bond with a lonely ranch hand (Lily Gladstone). With unassuming craft, Reichardt captures the rhythms of daily life in small-town Montana through fine-grained portraits of women trapped within the landscape’s wide-open spaces. In this way, Certain Women would make an ideal double-feature with Criterion’s Paris, Texas, in which the late, great Harry Dean Stanton plays a traumatized man who’s spent four years wandering in the deserts of the American Southwest, accompanied by his tortured memories and broken dreams.

Glory
The Treasure
Even without hearing a word of dialogue, there’s no mistaking the fact that both of these offbeat movies are set in countries formerly locked behind the Iron Curtain, where the line separating drama and comedy is often indiscernible. It’s been 25 years since Bulgaria and Romania freed themselves from the chains of communist rule, but not much appears to have changed in the interim … or, maybe, it’s the bad haircuts, tired eyes, downcast faces and clunky cars. Although Bulgaria isn’t particularly well known for its cinematic exports, such post- Ceaușescu Romanian films as The Death of Mr. Lazarescu, 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, Police, Adjective and 12:08 East of Bucharest have been released to universal acclaim. If the ironic humor isn’t always easy to discern, it’s only because we don’t always know where to look for it.

In Corneliu Porumboiu’s subtle comedy, The Treasure, a man who likes to read the tales of Robin Hood to his 6-year-old son at bedtime is given an opportunity to become a hero in real life, if not in the usual way. Costi (Toma Cuzin) is a Bucharest bureaucrat, barely making a living, but, for the time being, assured a job. One night, out of the blue, a neighbor asks him to consider investing in a scheme he insists will make them a fortune. The unemployed printer, Adrian (Adrian Purcarescu), needs money to hire a metal-detecting expert capable of locating a treasure his great-grandfather told him is buried in the backyard of their old home in a nearby village. He suspects that the valuables were buried to avoid being found by post-World War II communists confiscating everything of value from prosperous citizens. Costi manages to come up with the money to afford the skills and equipment of Cornel (Corneliu Cozmei), a lumpen fellow who grows impatient with Adrian’s anger over not being able to immediately pinpoint a likely location in the spacious garden. Speculation over the contents of the hidden cache runs from ancient Roman coins to great-grandma’s jewelry. Sometimes, though, the dialogue between the three men resembles that of Three Stooges in surgical garb. What none of them want to have happen is to discover a fortune in something the government would consider to be of national interest and then see it confiscated or taxed. Long story unspoiled, Adrian and Costi begin digging at a location indicated by the metal detector and, well into the night, locate a metal box. All I will say is that viewers won’t be able to predict what they find, let alone the reception they receive from village police and the specifics of a very happy ending. They might also learn a bit about Romanian history.

The lesson to be gleaned in Kristina Grozeva and Petar Valchanov’s follow-up to The Lesson can be boiled down to an observation attributed to Oscar Wilde, “No good deed goes unpunished.” That’s especially true in the muddled Bulgarian bureaucracy described in Glory, the country’s official entry in this year’s Best Foreign Language Film competition.

Tsanko Petrov (Stefan Denolyubov) is a railroad worker assigned the task of walking from section to section, tightening the bolts holding the rail to the crosstie. One day, Tsanko discovers a substantial pile of loose bills on the side of the tracks. Instead of pocketing the small fortune, he alerts the proper authorities and hands it over to them. Because such good deeds are rare occurrences in Bulgaria – anywhere, really – the public-relation czarina for the transportation department arranges a show-and-tell event for the local media, at which Tsanko will be introduced to the minister and given a reward. The problem for Julia (Margita Gosheva) is that Tzanko looks more like a hobo than the kind of guy who should be allowed to shake hands with such an esteemed bureaucrat. He also has a speech impediment that makes it difficult for him to make his feelings known. Instead of just saying “thanks” and going home, Tsanko informs the minister of the routine theft of diesel fuel in his section, as well as his ability to name names. The pompous official brushes him off. Julia also makes the mistake of taking Tsanko’s old watch off his wrist to make room for a snazzy new one. When he tries to get it back from her – the windup timepiece was a gift from his father — Julia blames her staff for losing it and arranges for a cheap replacement. Not only does Tsanko not appreciate the subterfuge, but he also finds a reporter willing to listen to his story about the theft of fuel. Now, Julia really is in a fix. Her boss is about to be exposed in the press as someone who won’t listen to a whistleblower and allows his subordinates to steal a prized watch. It’s at this point that Tsanko discovers that he’s being used by both sides for their own gain and worse, perhaps, his mates at the local pub think he’s a) a fool for turning in the money, and b) a rat for exposing their racket. Viewers will have to decide for themselves if Julia – who can’t put down her cellphone, even during a consultation with her fertility doctor – deserves to be punished for knocking down the first domino, or if she’s merely a symbol of what’s wrong with the country’s revival. The Film Movement package includes Anders Walter and Kim Magnusson’s heart-warming Oscar-winning short “Helium” (2013) and a directors’ statement.

Hana-Bi: Blu-ray
If there’s anyone in the cinematic universe who, without reservations, comes the closest to being a Renaissance man, it’s Japanese hyphenate, Takeshi Kitano, who acts under the name, Beat Takeshi. On Hana-Bi (a.k.a., “Fireworks”), alone, his credits include lead actor, director, writer, editor and the artist responsible for the brilliantly colorful and imaginative paintings that punctuate the narrative. After being thrown out of engineering school for rebellious behavior, he worked as an elevator operator at the Asakusa France-za striptease club, where became an apprentice of comedian Senzaburo Fukami and emcee. With a friend, “Beat” Kiyoshi Kaneko, he formed the comic duo, “The Two Beat,” which would become one of Japan’s most popular variety acts. After shows, Kitano has said that he sometimes would be invited to drink with yakuza, whose wild stories about crime bosses would come in handy when he turned to writing and directing genre fare. In his first major film role, Nagisa Oshima’s Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence (1983), he played a tough POW camp sergeant, opposite Tom Conti, Ryuichi Sakamoto and David Bowie. (The deadly serious portrayal confused his fans, who were expecting a comedy.) In 1986, Kitano became the first celebrity to work on a video game, Takeshi no Chōsenjō, as a consultant and partial designer. Two years later, he published a memoir, “Asakusa Kid,” which would be followed by novels and other non-fiction titles. In 1989, he replaced Kinji Fukasaku as director of Violent Cop, which he changed from comedy to drama and played the title role. His next efforts in the crime genre, Boiling Point, Sonantine and Kids Return, brought him to the attention of festival audiences around the world. It wasn’t until he was involved in a serious motorbike accident, in 1994, that he took up painting, another discipline in which he excelled.

That much is clear in Hana-Bi, an alternately contemplative and explosively violent drama that won the Golden Lion award at the 54th Venice International Film Festival and Grand Prix of the Belgian Syndicate of Cinema Critics. Those awards not only cemented his reputation abroad, but also forced Japanese audiences to take him seriously as a director. In it, Kitano plays a world-weary police detective forced to retire after a pursuit goes haywire, leaving one cop dead and two others severely injured. He blames himself for the tragedy, even if it’s unclear how things went so wrong, so fast. If retirement doesn’t sit well with Nishi, at least it gives him time to spend with his terminally ill wife, who’s also suffering from depression over the recent loss of their child. To pay off a loan from the yakuza and compensate for his friends’ losses, he devises a scheme to rob a bank. He also wants to help the dead cop’s widow and take one last holiday trip throughout Japan with his wife. If there ever were a genre picture one could characterize as minimalistic, it would be Hana-Bi. Long passages without dialogue or movement are interrupted by volcanic action. There are comic moments, but they’re introduced in such a deadpan manner that it takes a second or two for the gag to register. Unless the viewer is aware of Kitano’s own accident, it would be difficult to fully appreciate the kindness shown to the partially paralyzed cop by Nishi. After Horibe loses his family and will to live, he confides to Nishi that his only regret is not learning how to paint. With his ill-gotten gains, Nishi purchases a box full of artist’s tools, including a beret. The necessarily pointillist works, painted by Kitano, make cameos throughout Hana-Bi. The climax couldn’t be more touching. In real life, Kitano would return to hard-core action in Brother, The Blind Swordsman: Zatoichi and the Outrage series. He also co-starred in Battle Royale and its sequel, for which he supplied a class portrait of the student competitors. The Blu-ray adds commentary by David Fear, of Rolling Stone magazine; a making-of featurette; and illustrated booklet, featuring an essay by film writer Jasper Sharp.

By the Time It Gets Dark
Thailand has selected Anocha Suwichakornpong’s second feature, By the Time It Gets Dark, as its national representative in the Academy Awards’ current race for foreign-language honors. She previously directed Mundane History and was a producer on the excellent gay drama, How to Win at Checkers Every Time. Inspired in part by the 1976 Thamassat University student massacre – condoned by government officials and perpetrated by right-wing paramilitary forces — By the Time It Gets Dark melds composite and repeat characters with a broader sense of recent Thai history. In it, a young director, Ann, attempts to make a film about the massacre, aided by her muse, a student activist in the mid-1970s. Other stories, which loosely connect, involve a waitress who is forever changing jobs, an actor and an actress. The settings shift from city to country; deserted houses, to hi-rise condos; teeming streets to serene nights on the river. All are vividly captured by Ming Kai Leung’s camera. Anocha’s protagonists sometimes change identities in scenes that play out in different ways with different actors. Finally, a flurry of confounding images overwhelms the director and audience.

While the Thai cinema produces more than its fair share of gaudy action pictures and crowd-pleasing comedies for domestic consumption, its indie and arthouse wing has attracted the attention of festival audiences around the world. Since 2002, Apichatpong Weerasethakul has been a perennial presence at Cannes, with Un Certain Regard-winner Blissfully Yours, Jury Prize-winner Tropical Malady, Palme d’Or-winner Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives and special showings of Mekong Hotel and Cemetery of Splendour. Other indie directors include Aditya Assarat (Wonderful Town), Pimpaka Towira (One Night Husband), Thunska Pansittivorakul (Voodoo Girls), Sivaroj Kongsakul (Eternity), Wichanon Somumjarn (In April the Following Year, There Was a Fire) and Nawapol Thamrongrattanarit (36). Not widely screened at the home, they share poetic narratives, spectacularly shot landscapes, ghosts and demons, monks and monsters, modern media overload, imprecise memories, and a palpable awareness of the country’s social ills and hypocritical mores. Gay-themed movies, with explicit sex, are almost commonplace.

The Prison: Blu-ray
Although most of Na Hyeon’s directorial debut will feel overly familiar to prison-movie completists, it has atmosphere to burn and enough punishing action to satisfy most buffs. The Prison may seem borrow from such gritty arthouse pictures as Jacques Audiard’s A Prophet (2009) and the Filipino hitman thriller, On the Job (2013), but my guess is that writer/director Na and his backers would be satisfied with commercial success in mainstream theaters. You’ve got to start somewhere. After a fatal hit-and-run accident, former police inspector Yu-gon Song (Kim Rae-won) is sentenced to hard time in a jail populated with gang members he helped arrest. It doesn’t take long for Yu-gon to learn what it takes to stay alive in stir and he’s tough enough to attract the attention of Jung Ik-ho (Han Suk-Kyu), the inmate who runs the joint from his penthouse digs. Moreover, he’s in control of the corrupt warden and his aides, who look the other way when Ik-ho’s team sneaks out to commit crimes under the cover of the perfect alibi. After Yu-gon proves his worth to Ik-ho, viewers should be able to see what’s coming from a mile away. The stylish editing allows it to avoid clichés, however. Na and cinematographer Hong Jae-sik do manage to keep things interesting for most of The Prison’s exhausting two-hour length.

The Flesh: Blu-ray
At first glance, the illustration on the sleeve covering Marco Ferreri’s little-seen 1991 satire, The Flesh (a.k.a., “La Carne”), suggests that what’s inside is a vintage example of Italian sexploitation. It shows a voluptuous woman, whose barely clothed body has been divided into sections, as if to resemble a chart on the wall of a butcher’s shop. The photo on the Blu-ray’s actual dust jacket features lead actors peering from the door of a doghouse, with Francesca Dellera and Sergio Castellitto entwined in a way that can only be described as … wait for it … yes, doggy-style. Missing from it is the original tagline, in Italian, “Una storia che vorresti capitasse anche a te,” which translates to, “A story you’d like to happen to you.” While enticing, neither illustration accurately describes the curiously bittersweet romance contained therein. In fact, it tells the story of a piano player (Castellitto) in a smoky cabaret, who falls in lust with a woman (Dellera) so spectacularly beautiful that he’s left with a permanent erection, a condition that is less amusing than it sounds. Paolo’s recovering from a recent divorce, which left their children in the custody of his crazy ex-wife, while Francesca remains unnerved by a recent abortion. By the time that Paolo realizes that his condition can only be relieved by satisfying Francesca’s insatiable carnal urges, they’re already comfortably ensconced in a cozy seaside cottage, seemingly designed for round-the-clock couplings. While he doesn’t particularly object to serving as a sex slave, it can be exhausting. Just when he becomes addicted to the orgasmic rushes, Francesca decides that she’s bored with the arrangement. Her decision to leave the cottage doesn’t sit well with Paolo, who has determined that he can’t live without her curative powers. In a very late twist, Francesca witnesses something resembling a miracle – a flock of storks is involved – and it causes her to rethink leaving Paolo. Is it too late to save the relationship? This summary may make The Flesh sound like the kind of non-stop sexual romp favored by Tinto Brass or Jesús Franco, dripping with innuendo and dick jokes. Instead, The Flesh is surprisingly romantic and not at all reliant on graphic nudity. Dellera would drive most men and women so inclined to distraction, even if her character was required to wear parka in the sex scenes. Then, as now, Castellitto was seen as a serious actor, with a gift for comedy. (He’s probably best known here for The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian and Mostly Martha.) And, while Ferreri is famous for provocative fare as La Grande BouffeTales of Ordinary Madness and The Ape Woman, he takes full advantage of the seaside location for lovely sunsets and warm interludes. The Cult Epics package adds a funny behind-the-scenes featurette; archival interviews with Ferreri and the actors; original lobby cards; and footage from the 1991 Cannes Film Festival, where The Flesh was nominated for a Palme d’Or.

The Prince and the Nature Girl
Convoy of Girls
Cannibal Cop
In Douglas Martin’s obituary of 90-year-old Doris Wishman, which was published in the New York Times on August 19, 2002, he called her “a prolific independent director of truly tasteless movies … from nudist-camp romps to the cult classic, Bad Girls Go to Hell.” Truly tasteless? It’s a bit like basing an assessment of John Waters’ career on Pink Flamingos, Female Trouble and Mondo Trasho. Those pictures were intentionally tastelessly, but not indicative of his later output. If anything, Wishman’s movies were guilty of being truly goofy, titillating and sexploitative. They also helped open the door for the mainstream acceptance of soft- and hard-core pornography, the earliest stages of which are being chronicled on HBO’s “The Deuce.” Emboldened by a 1957 New York Appeals Court ruling, which allowed films depicting nudism to be exhibited in movie theaters in New York State, Wishman borrowed $10,000 from her sister to produce Hideout in the Sun, in which sibling bank robbers find refuge in a members-only nudist camp. Her next film, Nude on the Moon, didn’t fare nearly as well, legally. According to state’s censorship board, films featuring nudity in a nudist colony were legally permissible, but nudity in a fantasy film, merely set in a “nudist colony on the moon,” was not. While it sounds laughable, today, the 1961 ruling formalized a distinction that would be tested in various forms for the next 20 years. Wishman produced eight nudist films in total between 1958 and 1964, including Blaze Starr Goes Nudist (1962), perhaps, the first celebrity nudie, and the newly re-released on DVD, The Prince and the Nature Girl. At 53 minutes, Pop Cinema’s reissue of the latter could never be confused as a great example of sexploitation. It barely qualifies as entertainment. It looks like a 16mm movie, alternately shot in a refurbished warehouse and Florida nudist colony. The paid and amateur actors, neither of whom seem to mind the extra exposure, were carefully coached as to how to pose without revealing their pubic hair. In it, a successful businessman named Prince – no relation to the Purple One — takes an interest in the blond half of a pair of newly hired identical twins. The girls, Eve and Sue, are opposites: Eve, the blond, is lazy and uninhibited, while Sue, the brunette, is hardworking and demure. Captivated by Eve, Prince is thrilled to run into her at his favorite nudist camp. A light flirtation ensues, with neither realizing that stay-at-home Sue is helplessly in love with the same man. When Eve leaves to attend a friend’s wedding, Sue embarks upon a deception that will change their lives forever. Yup, it’s practically Shakespearian. Sourced from the only known 35mm print, this first-ever DVD transfer includes a brand-new English dialogue track, commentary with Doris Wishman biographer Michael Bowen and filmmakers Michael Raso (The Seduction of Misty Mundae) and John Fedele (Play-Mate of the Apes); Bowen’s essay and liner notes; vintage trailers; and short films, “About Nudism,” “The Nature Girl” and segments from Atomic TV.

Cheezy Movies usually can be depended upon to deliver the goods when it comes to “truly tasteless movies.” Pierre Chevalier and Jesús Franco, both under aliases, are responsible for Convoy of Girls, which began its life in 1978 as “East of Berlin.” Although both men’s sleazeball credentials are impeccable, it’s a WWII movie that promises Ilsa: She Wolf of the SS, but delivers something closer to “Barbie and Ken Join the Wehrmacht.” Jean-Marie Lemaire plays Aryan dreamboat Erich von Strässer, who turns against the Third Reich out of love for his high school sweetheart, Renata (Brigitte Parmentier). After the blond beauty and her father are caught sheltering a Jewish girl in their Berlin home, Renata’s forced to work in a brothel, while her father is sent to a concentration camp. Von Strässer uses his influence as a decorated Nazi officer to save her, but it’s too late to prevent her from being put on a convoy train to eastern front. There’s a bit of nudity and simulated sex, but nothing you couldn’t find on premium cable. The dramatic aspects are actually pretty well rendered, as well. Genre buffs might recognize footage cribbed from Fraulein Devil and Oasis of the Zombies.

The most “truly tasteless” of the movies cited here, hands down, is Srs Cinema’s Cannibal Cop. Shot on a microbudget in Nashville and New Orleans, the 75-minute bloodbath is the brainchild of Donald Farmer, who’s been churning out such subgenre fare as Shark Exorcist, Chainsaw Cheerleaders and Red Lips: Eat the Living since 1987. Here, a bad cop named Warbeck is caught beating a suspect by an iPhone-toting civilian, who turns to a voodoo queen to exact justice on him. The sorceress casts a spell on one of the cop’s dead victims, causing the zombie to attack Warbeck and turn him into a cannibal. In some ways, it only makes him more dangerous. Besides the prolific Jason Crowe, as Warbeck, Farmer’s repertory company includes Channing Dodson and Roni Jonah (Shark Exorcist), Kasper Meltedhair and Alaine Huntington (Hooker With a Hacksaw), and Shawn C. Phillips (MILFs vs. Zombies). The DVD adds Farmer’s commentary and a retrospective of his greatest hits. In its own way, it’s pretty hilarious.

Mamaboy
Aaron Leong and writer Rick Kuebler’s debut feature appears to merge Joan Rivers’ ill-fated 1978 comedy, Rabbit Test, and Back to the Future. Like Billy Crystal, in the former, a boy becomes pregnant through the machinations of a mad scientist, not unlike Christopher Lloyd, in the latter. In Mamaboy, BMOC Kelly Hankins (Sean O’Donnell) has a forbidden summer liaison with Lisa (Alexandria DeBerry), the worldly blond daughter of Reverend Weld. Naturally, a few weeks later, Lisa informs Kelly of their impending parenthood. Because he respects Lisa and knows she’s intent on maintaining the grades she’ll need to go to college, Kelly searches possible solutions that don’t include abortion. It comes while visiting an eccentric uncle who’s recently transferred an embryo into the chest cavity of a male monkey. He offers to do the same thing for the embryo being carried by Lisa, who reluctantly accepts the challenge. Sure enough, Kelly’s pregnancy reveals itself in all the usual ways, including a bulging tummy and morning sickness. It does not, however, prevent him from being bullied and ostracized by the school’s jocks. If I’m not mistaken, Leong and Kuebler’s intention wasn’t to make a comedy, like Rabbit Test, but to demonstrate to young male viewers what women go through during pregnancy … so, wear your rubbers. From a distance, the nine-month ordeal looks as uncomplicated as raising tropical fish. That, of course, isn’t the case. I don’t know where the money came from to afford a sterling cast of actors who pass for teenagers in various television series and movies. They also managed to cast Gary Busey as, what else, a coach named Dombrowski, and the talented character actor Stephen Tobolowsky (“Californication,” “Silicon Valley”). The acting makes up for whatever limitations came from a tight budget. The DVD includes a “Hollywood Red Carpet” behind-the-scenes featurette.

Cartels: Blu-ray
I’ve probably mentioned this before, but action star Steven Seagal and writer/director/producer Keoni Waxman have collaborated, in one way or another, on 9 straight-to-DVD movies and 13 episodes of the reality-based crime show, “True Justice,” in seven years. This would represent a career’s worth of co-productions for most Hollywood teams, if not an actual marriage, but, in Seagal and Waxman’s case, the alliance has a more mechanical feel. The last five were shot in Romania and share certain themes, crimes and templates. The biggest difference between their third 2016 release, Cartels, and most of the earlier thrillers is the star’s level of participation in the fight scenes. In fact, only one of the showdowns stands out in my memory, and that’s because it looked so uncomfortable for him … as if he were battling arthritis. This doesn’t mean Cartels is short on action – quite the opposite – only that the big dog is content to remain in a supporting position for most of its 95 minutes. An elite team of DEA agents – is there any other kind? – is assigned the task of protecting a dangerous drug lord, Joseph “El Tiburon” Salazar (Florin Piersic Jr.), who’s cut a deal with the feds and faked his own death. The task force leaders believe they staged the raid in such a way no one could doubt its veracity. No sooner is Salazar is lifted from his coffin and taken to a seemingly secure location – a high-rise hotel, in an Eastern European city – than it’s invaded by a small army of heavily armed men and women, several of whom are proficient in the martial arts. How did they know Salazar had turned rat and was playing possum? If it doesn’t take much guesswork on the viewers’ part, it’s also beside the point, which is the non-stop fighting that breaks out from the parking garage to the roof, where employees smoke dope. And, get this, Salazar owns the hotel chosen by the feds for shelter and designed it in anticipation of such assaults. Cartels also stars Luke Goss, as a maverick U.S. marshal; UFC fighter Georges St. Pierre, as the cartel underboss; Darren E. Scott, as a trustworthy agent; and Martine Argent, Sharlene Royer and Adina Galupa, who are as beautiful as they are deadly.

The Moderns: Collector’s Edition: Blu-ray
It’s funny how much better some movies made 30 or 40 years ago look today, newly released on DVD and Blu-ray. Typically, films we loved back in the day – The Godfather, Chinatown, McCabe & Mrs. Miller – remain every bit as enjoyable in their Blu-ray incarnations, as they were the first few hundred times we watched them, in theaters, on VHS or Beta, on television, laserdisc and DVD. Others, though, sneak right back up on you. I don’t think that I’ve watched Alan Rudolph’s The Moderns since 1988, when it first came out. It isn’t that I don’t like the writer/director’s work, because I do. His quirks have tended to sync with mine, as has his Altman-esque approach to ensemble filmmaking. He hasn’t made a movie since 2002’s The Secret Lives of Dentists and, no, it doesn’t surprise me that his latest project, “Ray Meets Helen,” stars, among other formidable actors, Keith Carradine. I don’t know if Carradine could be considered Rudolph’s muse or just a lucky charm, but they’ve collaborated on five previous films, not counting Robert Altman’s Buffalo Bill and the Indians and Sitting Bull’s History Lesson and Nashville. In The Moderns, which is set in 1926 Paris, Carradine plays the sketch artist, forger and loverboy around whom almost every dish in the moveable feast revolves. Paris was the place to be for artists, writers, journalists and collectors on the verge of changing the world with their creativity and opinions. Among the non-fictional, non-composite characters we meet are Gertrude Stein (Elsa Raven), Alice B. Toklas (Ali Giron) and Ernest Hemingway (Kevin J. O’Connor). Geraldine Chaplin, Linda Fiorentino, Genevieve Bujold, Wallace Shawn and John Lone play other key roles. Things don’t begin to coalesce until a feud develops between Carrandine’s Nick Hart and Lone’s egomaniacal industrialist and art collector, who, coincidentally, is married to Hart’s ex-wife (Fiorentino). Sensing the chemistry that still exists between the former couple, the industrialist begins to taunt Hart, eventually challenging him to a boxing match. At the same time, Chaplin’s wealthy art patron urges him to use his well-honed artistic skills to forge three of her original paintings to sell to his nemesis. It leads to a confrontation that adds relatable mystery to sale of the art, while tying up the loose ends on two or three of Nick’s affairs and the suicide of a busybody gossip columnist. It took Rudolph and co-writer Jon Bradshaw 12 years to bring the project to fruition and, when they did, they lacked the money to shoot in Paris. Montreal fills in very well. Mark Isham’s music once again expands upon Rudolph’s vision, as does Toyomichi Kurita’s cinematography, which really shines in the 2K scan from the interpositive. The Shout!Factory Classic package adds new interviews with Rudolph, Carradine and producer Carolyn Pfeiffer.

TV-to-DVD
Smithsonian: The Real Story: Scream
Nickelodeon: Blaze and the Monster Machines: Wild Wheels Escape to Animal Island
PBS Kids: Odd Squad: Villains: Best of the Worst
PBS: Happy Holidays Garfield
Mouse and Mole at Christmas Time
Just as the Smithsonian Channel’s “The Real Story” found a new way to piggyback on the enduring success of the aforementioned Close Encounters of the Third Kind, the series found a different angle on the story behind Wes Craven’s Scream. When it was released in 1996, Scream’s success was credited for revitalizing horror on the big screen. The genre was nearly declared extinct following an influx of direct-to-video titles and numerous sequels to established horror franchises of the 1970s and 1980s. Its cast of already-established and successful actors – Neve Campbell, Courteney Cox, Rose McGowan, David Arquette, Henry Winkler — helped it find a wider audience, including significant female viewership. While scary as hell, Kevin Williamson’s screenplay poked fun at overfamiliar slasher clichés. There was nothing ironic or funny about the series of murders that inspired the then-aspiring screenwriter. After watching a true-crime show about a series of grisly murders by the so-called Gainesville Ripper, Williamson became concerned about an open window in the house in which he was staying. It inspired him to draft an 18-page script treatment about a young woman, alone in a house, who is taunted over the phone and then attacked by a masked killer. It mirrored the actual methodology of the serial killer. “The Real Story: Scream” focuses on the manhunt by FBI and Gainesville police officials, as well as the widespread fear of college-age women and the community.

Nickelodeon’s “Blaze and the Monster Machines: Wild Wheels Escape to Animal Island” wins the award for longest title of the week. Blaze and his friends find themselves on Animal Island, transforming into high-speed animal trucks to save the day. Kids can join the gang as they thwart Lazard the Lizard Truck’s evil plan; help their new friend, Tooks the Toucan Truck, travel to Insect City; and cheer on Blaze in the Super Sky Race. As always, Blaze, AJ and the monster machines go on wild rides, while using their S.T.E.M skills to solve the problems around them.

In PBS Kids’ “Odd Squad Villians: Best of the Worst,” the agents of Odd Squad use their math and problem-solving skills to defeat criminals and set things right. When the Puppet Master turns a group of friends, including Otto and Olive, into puppets, the Odd Squad agents may be forced to turn themselves back into humans. The other stories find the Odd Squad team attempting to stop Odd Todd from turning townspeople and agents invisible; preventing villain Fladam from destroying the city’s cubes; and recovering Ms. O’s briefcase from the Shape Shifter.

It’s beginning to look a lot like … the fourth week of September. Even so, some companies can’t resist the urge to roll out the evergreen holiday packages. This week’s lot includes, “A Garfield Christmas,” circa 1987, in which Jon takes Garfield and Odie home to the farm for Christmas and Garfield wants to find grandma the perfect gift. Also included is “Garfield’s Thanksgiving” (1989), in which Jon invites Garfield’s veterinarian Liz over for Thanksgiving dinner. Like everyone else, Garfield wants to eat as much as possible, but Jon puts him on a diet.

This week’s other chestnut is “Mouse and Mole at Christmas Time,” a beautifully animated story from the U.K., about two friends who live together in a cottage in the country. Mouse is practical and cheerful, while Mole always gets himself into trouble and needs looking after. The DVD also includes 10 bonus tales, described as “wise, witty and filled with timeless charm.”

The DVD Wrapup: Beatriz at Dinner, The Mummy, Soul on a String, The Resurrected, Spider, The Apology, Glen Campbell and more

Thursday, September 14th, 2017

Beatriz at Dinner
Although Miguel Arteta and Mike White have proven perfectly capable of creating edgy dramedies of their own — HBO’s “Enlightened,” The Good Girl, Chuck and Buck – I can’t help but see Neil LaBute’s darkly comic influence in their latest collaboration. The confrontational, emotionally claustrophobic and occasionally cruel Beatriz at Dinner stars Salma Hayek as a legal Mexican immigrant, who has built a career in Los Angeles as a spiritual health practitioner and massage therapist. Although she reveals her rural roots by maintaining a small collection of farm animal at her East Side home, Beatriz’ has begun to make professional inroads among the ladies who lunch on the other side of the city. They include Kathy (Connie Britton), whose daughter Beatriz helped during her treatment for cancer. The Malibu doyenne repays her by scheduling massage treatments at her palatial estate overlooking the ocean. When her car breaks down in Kathy’s driveway, her developer husband invites Beatriz to stay for dinner, which, tonight, will be shared by two other fashionable couples. The guest of honor is Doug Strutt (John Lithgow), an ethically challenged real-estate developer who would make a perfect fit in President Trump’s Cabinet. Strutt’s true colors come out early in Beatriz at Dinner, when he asks the casually dressed masseuse to freshen his drink, as if she were a hired hand. He apologizes for the mistake, but can’t help but continue his racist barrage at the dinner table, by asking her where she crossed the border and if she was legally employed. It gets worse. When Strutt begins pulling out photos from his big-game hunt in Africa and describing the rush he felt before killing the wild beasts, Beatriz counterpunches by throwing his cellphone at his head. While this embarrasses her hosts, it emboldens Strutt. After being advised to take a break from the proceedings, Beatriz uses the daughter’s computer to Google Strutt’s name and learn just how he’s managed to become a tycoon. It causes her to believe that his company may have been responsible for razing her pristine hometown and replacing it with condos and a golf course. He wasn’t, but, in Beatriz’ eyes, he might as well have dug the first shovelful of dirt himself. By the time the tow truck arrives to pull the car from the driveway, things have already gotten way out of hand. Arteta delivers White’s dialogue with the same fearful intensity as a boxer with a grudge against his opponent. The laughs arrive in shades usually reserved for plums and bruises. The other members of the dinner party are Jay Duplass, Amy Landecker, Chloë Sevigny and David Warshofsky. If they aren’t afforded the juiciest lines, their reactions to the swirling storm are perfect.

The Mummy: Blu-ray, 4K UHD
Studio executives can whine all they want about the Curse of the Rotten Tomatoes, which supposedly accords critics the power to kill must-see pictures before they can prove themselves at the box office, but, in doing so, they negate previous theories about movies that succeed with or without the support of critics … once referred to as critic-proof? Moreover, such complaints also minimize the ability of niche websites, including onetime lapdog Ain’t It Cool News, to rescue a potential blockbuster from the steely grip of mainstream critics. In fact, Harry Knowles said of The Mummy, “Ultimately this is totally my kind of fun film, it sets up a playground for monsters that I find irresistible.” The review ran on June 8, a full day before the $125-million movie opened here on 4,035 U.S. screens, leaving plenty of time for his loyal readers to flock to their local megaplex. Knowles opened his review by acknowledging his predisposition not to like The Mummy, based largely on preview trailers that left him less than “giddy.” I suspect that he wasn’t alone in this regard. Instead of blaming Rotten Tomatoes or Metacritic for underperforming movies, the unnamed executives in a recent New York Times article might have studied the efficacy of trailers and teasers that sometimes are shown a year prior to a movie’s release – in theaters and during major TV events – and are updated to the point where potential viewers know exactly how it’s going to unspool … or, worse, assume they’ve already seen all the good stuff.

Is it worth pointing out, as well, that MPAA ratings designed to warn parents of objectional material also alert older teens and adults of the likelihood of an absence of nudity and hard-core violence? In The Mummy, Annabelle Wallis and Sofia Boutella were cast as much for their world-class beauty as their ability to make Tom Cruise long younger in their company. The PG-13 rating certification, when combined with the parents’ guide published on IMDB.com, tells viewers as much, if not always more, about what to expect from a movie than a trailer, commercial or review on Rotten Tomatoes. If a studio is going to insist on delivery of a movie certain to receive a PG-13, it must live with the consequences. It explains why, long ago, distributors of DVD and Blu-ray products began pushing “director’s cut” or unrated editions of movies, giving viewers the benefit of a doubt, at least, when it comes to weighing their value to them. More often than not, the “unrated” versions are every bit as sanitized as the PG-13 original.

But, I digress. Apart from the very noticeable fact that Cruise doesn’t look anything like an ancient Egyptian boogeyman or a tomb raider – in this regard, neither does Wallis – The Mummy can be enjoyed as an old-fashioned matinee attraction. There’s plenty of action and some scary makeup effects, but nothing that would frighten a 13-year-old. The idea of an evil princess being allowed to return to life as a monster on a mission from hell isn’t bad, either. Maybe, if director Alex Kurtzman had insisted on make Boutella look less like Cleopatra and more like a female version of Boris Karloff, Princess Ahmanet might have been a tad more credible. In another missed opportunity, the long-entombed Knights Templar might as well be re-animated chess pieces. Neither does the casting of Russell Crowe, as Dr. Henry Jekyll, make much sense … financially or otherwise. But, like I said, as weekend-matinee or drive-in fare, the entertainment value of The Mummy is easily defensible. As long as foreign audiences compensate for the perceived lack of interest here with outpourings of pounds, pesos, francs and yen, Universal isn’t likely to sour on plans for its Dark Universe franchise, of which The Mummy represents the first reboot. The prospect for strong overseas revenues bodes well for Bill Condon’s “Bride of Frankenstein,” starring Javier Bardem as Victor Frankenstein’s monster; Johnny Depp’s take on “The Invisible Man”; and retreads of “Dracula,” “The Wolf Man,” “Creature From the Black Lagoon,” “The Hunchback of Notre Dame and “The Phantom of the Opera,” all of which are as familiar to American audiences as reruns of “Seinfeld” and “M*A*S*H.” Apart from that, the splendidly mounted Blu-ray and 4K UHD editions won’t disappoint home-theater enthusiasts. They include a few deleted and extended scenes; “Cruise & Kurtzman: A Conversation,” in which the actor and director (People Like Us) pat each other’s backs for 21 minutes; the featurettes, “Rooted in Reality,” “Life in Zero-G: Creating the Plane Crash,” “Meet Ahmanet” (a.k.a., Sofia Boutella), “Cruise in Action,” “Becoming Jekyll and Hyde,” “Choreographed Chaos” and “Nick Morton: In Search of a Soul,” a deeper look at Cruise’s character; “Ahmanet Reborn,” an animated graphic novel; and commentary with Kurtzman, Boutella, Wallis and Jake Johnson.

Soul on a String
I can only imagine how John Ford or Akira Kurosawa might have exploited the visually spectacular deserts, mountains, rivers, lakes and forests of northwestern China and Tibet, which offer landscapes and horizons that make Monument Valley look cramped. (Terrence Malick, of course, still could.) The sparsely populated regions benefit from not being over-utilized by filmmakers, the best of whom have only recently been accorded the kinds of budgets and equipment capable of capturing the grandeur. Ruins and other historical markers date back to the Silk Road and great wars before the country’s dynastic unification. Zhang Yimou’s epic fantasy/adventure The Great Wall (2016) — it bombed here, but did OK elsewhere – might have been able to introduce western audiences to historical China, but producers were denied the use of the wall, itself, and barbarian monsters were a hard sell to jaded viewers outside the PRC. The director’s terrific re-imagining of the Coen brothers’ Blood SimpleA Woman, a Gun and a Noodle Shop – makes far better use of the rugged terrain in northwestern China’s Gansu Province. Soul on a String, Zhang Yang’s story of one bedraggled loner’s epic spiritual journey, is greatly enhanced by Tibet’s wildly diverse topography and the hard-scrabble peasants’ ability to adapt to the taxing environs. Beyond the movie’s Buddhist underpinnings, however, lie classic Western conceits that rival those of any director of genre fare, including Sergio Leone. In this sense, Soul on a String is very much an eastern oater. Yang’s protagonist is Tabei, a slightly slow-witted Tibetan hunter and degenerate gambler, who, after tracking and killing a deer, discovers a sacred stone stuck in its mouth. While raising the gem over his head, Tabei is struck by lightning. A wandering lama pulls him back from Bardo – the Buddhist equivalent of purgatory – and assigns him an important task. Tabei is to carry the stone to the holy snow-capped mountains of Kelong, far above the tree line, and a patch of forbidding terrain known as Buddha’s Handprint. It should remind viewers of Zabriskie Point. Before he can get there, however, Tabei will be tested by the vengeful sons of a man he killed in a disagreement over money, and contend with robbers on horseback who know what the stone could bring in the black market.

At the Gansu equivalent of a riverside cantina, Tabei is joined by an uninhibited young herder, Chung, who simply wants some company in life, and, perhaps, the opportunity to bear his child. A mute little boy, Pu, also tags along. In addition to playing a single song on a stringed instrument, Pu appears to have some degree of second sight. It will serve the trio well as they wander into blind canyons and arrive at junctions that require making 50/50 choices between going left or right. In lieu of six-shooters, showdowns are decided by swords and knives. Beyond the natural scenery, Yang also sets the action in ruins of ancient civilizations and a series of caves populated individually by monks who depend on the generosity of the odd passing stranger for items of sustenance. The juxtaposition of explosive human behavior and the eternal serenity of Tibet’s countryside will be familiar to fans of Ford’s Westerns, especially, or Sydney Pollack’s saga of a hunted mountain man, Jerimiah Johnson. The same viewers would enjoy Jiang Wen’s Let the Bullets Fly, He Ping’s Warriors of Heaven and Earth and Tsui Hark’s Seven Swords. Clearly, Zhang Yang isn’t a filmmaker who wants to be associated with a single genre. His previous film, Paths of the Soul, is a docu-drama that follows the journey of a group of Tibetans on a pilgrimage to Lasa, the holy capital of Tibet. They cover 1,200 kilometers on foot, in a continuous repetition of prostrating themselves on the ground. Like Soul on a String, it’s a departure from earlier urban-based comedies and dramas – Shower, Quitting, Spicy Love Soup, Sunflower, Quitting – that brought him to the attention of international audiences. The Film Movement package adds the short film “The Rifle, the Jackal, the Wolf and the Boy,” which was shortlisted for the 2017 Academy Award nominations. It was shot in Baskinta, a lofty village in the mountains northeast of Beirut.

The Resurrected: Blu-ray
The Hatred: Blu-ray
Phantasm: 5 Movie DVD Collection
One of the most revered names in the annals of sci-fi and horror is Dan O’Bannon, whose 2009 death was attributed to a 30-year battle with Crohn’s disease. His directorial credits are limited to an early short, The Return of the Living Dead (1985) and The Resurrected (1991), which has been given a dandy Blu-ray facelift by Scream Factory. It’s as the writer or co-writer of such genre faves as Dark Star, Alien, Phobia, Blue Thunder, Lifeforce, Invaders from Mars, Total Recall and Screamers that O’Bannon made his mark. Not all the titles benefitted from the kinds of budgets provided by studio backing or hands-off treatment accorded filmmakers with similar credits. The Resurrected (a.k.a., “Shatterbrain”) is a perfect example of a movie denied a theatrical release by intrusive and underfinanced producers. The story, like that of Roger Corman’s The Haunted Palace (1963), is based on H.P. Lovecraft’s “The Case of Charles Dexter Ward.” (Edgar Allan Poe also is credited in the AIP release.) Brent V. Friedman, who penned the screenplay for the Lovecraft-inspired anthology film, Necronomicon: Book of the Dead, helped O’Bannon update the narrative to the present time. The movie opens in the cheaply appointed office of archetypal 1940s-era P.I. John March (John Terry), where the sultry Claire Ward (Jane Sibbett), is seeking his help in the emotional absence of her husband, a chemical engineer. Here, the hard-bitten dialogue recalls any number of movies inspired by the novels of Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett. The exchanges are cute — for a while, at least — but don’t outwear their welcome. For various reasons, Mrs. Ward is worried that Charles (Chris Sarandon) has become so obsessed with his latest experiment that he’s moved out of their rural home and taken up residence in a cabin with a mysterious Asian assistant. Neighbors have complained to police about a putrid smell surrounding the building, possibly related to the amount of raw meat being delivered there in trucks. Once he’s able to survey the interior, March, Mrs. Ward and his investigator, Lonnie (Robert Romanus) discover a network of caverns, catacombs and laboratories that date back to colonial times. They’re also greeted by a host of creepy-crawly beings that resemble – no exaggeration — the photos of aborted fetuses that pro-life advocates enjoy shoving in the faces of pregnant women entering clinics. They truly are among the most grotesque and frightening monsters created for the purposes of a low-budget chiller. Genre buffs have cited The Resurrection for its attention to Lovecraftian detail and story-telling acumen. The film, which benefits from a 2K upgrade from the vaulted inter-positive element, has never looked or sounded better. The generous bonus package adds commentary with producers Mark Borde and Kenneth Raich, screenwriter Friedman, Romanus and make-up effects artist Todd Masters; individual interviews with Sibbett, Sarandon, Friedman, Masters, composer Richard Band, production designer Brent Thomas and S.T. Joshi, author of “I Am Providence: The Life and Times of H.P. Lovecraft”; deleted and extended scenes from the workprint; a photo gallery; and trailers for the original home-video and Japanese release.

A perusal of writer/director Michael G. Kehoe’s IMDB.com resume suggests that the quickest way to Hollywood’s heart may be through its collective stomach. Apart from some early work as a PA (Rocky IV), a bunch of shorts and a couple of forgettable features from the 1990s, his primary claim to fame is as a veteran provider of meals, snacks and beverages to people making films on sets or location. Craft services isn’t a typical route to the big leagues, but what better way to make connections and, between servings, study how movies are made?  In 2015, his horror short, “Hush,” was shown at several film festivals, winning or being nominated for awards at many of them. It caught the attention of producer Malek Akkad (Halloween), who elected to back the feature it inspired, The Hatred. At its core, The Hatred is a sorority-house slaughter flick, relocated to a farmhouse in the boonies, once inhabited by the family of a former Nazi commandant. He either escaped capture by Allied authorities and assumed a false identity or, God forbid, was accorded citizenship for his cooperation with American intelligence agencies. It’s unclear. Sam Sears (Andrew Divoff) treats his wife and daughter as if they’reprisoners in their own home, as well as potential traitors. One day, a package containing a letter, photograph and wartime artifact is delivered to the house. In the photo, Sears is standing alongside Der Fuhrer, who’s looking over some sort of document. The cross-shaped amulet sent to him, stolen from a French church, is said to feed the hatred and fear of anyone in its possession. In short order, the fiend is inspired to kill his daughter and attempt to murder his wife, who beats him to the punch. It happens early in the narrative, so no spoiler alert is necessary. Flash ahead a couple of decades, at least, and the house has, with a couple of prominent exceptions, been renovated by a college professor. He allows four female students to spend the weekend there, in return for babysitting his daughter. Do I have to point out that the unsettled spirits of two ghosts have decided to make the girls’ getaway a living hell? If The Hatred telegraphs most of its jump-scares, Kehoe has added a couple of narrative devices to keep viewers guessing as to the identity of “final girl” and what’s eating the spirits. The attractive cast of potential victims includes Sarah Davenport, Darby Walker, Gabrielle Bourne, Bayley Corman, Alisha Wainwright and Shae Smolik. The DVD adds a behind-the-scenes featurette and commentary with Akkad and Kehoe.

As near as I can tell, Well Go USA’s “Phantasm: 5 Movie DVD Collection” is a stripped-down, but significantly less expensive version of the distribution company’s “The Phantasm Collection,” which offered Blu-ray versions of all five Phantasm volumes and quite a few more bonus features. If that sounds odd, consider that the hi-def package, which, last April, sold for around $80, now is fetching as much as $199.95, new, at Amazon. The DVD compilation lists at $29.98, but can easily be found with a smaller price tag. The five-part series began, in 1979, almost as a DIY lark. Made at an estimated cost of $300,000, Phantasm returned $12 million in its initial go-round. The credit for that largely belongs to the malevolent undertaker, Tall Man (Angus Scrimm), his posse of dwarf zombies and an arsenal of lethal silver orbs, which can be psychically directed at his tormenters. Tall Man is opposed by a young boy, Mike (A. Michael Baldwin), who tries to convince his older brother Jody (Bill Thornbury) and family friend Reggie (Reggie Bannister) of the threat. Much of the film takes place in a surrealistic dream world, in which characters pass through portals of time and space. Remarkably, almost all the primary actors reprised their characters throughout the franchise’s 36-year arc. Bonus material include commentaries on all five editions; deleted and extended scenes; interviews; and making-of featurettes.

Spider: Blu-ray
The Fox With a Velvet Tail: Blu-ray
Mondo Macabro, a distribution company whose catalogue is almost unimaginably eclectic, deserves kudos for locating and releasing Vasili Mass and Vladimir Kaijaks’ psycho-sexual drama, Spider (“Zirneklis”), as surreal a cinematic experience as I’ve ever encountered. I say that knowing full well that “surreal” is one of the most misused words in the critical and popular lexicon. The Latvian-shot, Russian-language film was produced in the post-Glasnost years of the former Soviet Union, when the barriers were down and previously unacceptable material was being explored for the first time. Spider is one of the very few horror films to come out of that period and still stands today as a daring and unique production, packed with astonishing visual sequences. Eighteen-year-old Aurelija Anuzhite plays Vita, a vivacious young woman who’s asked by her priest to pose as the Virgin Mary for a lascivious painter. On her first visit to his studio, Vita finds herself swept up in the bizarre world of the artist and his bohemian friends. Through her eyes, we watch the paintings come to life, with the characters writhing on quasi-religious objects. Soon, the model comes to believe she’s being pursued by strange shadowy figures, including a giant tarantula that haunts her dreams. In the morning, she’ll find bite marks on her body. Her mother, thinking that a change in scenery is in order, sends Vita off to stay with relatives in the countryside, where such legends and superstitions come with the territory. Considering the impoverished state of the Latvian and post-Soviet cinema, Spider qualifies as an amazing achievement. The Mondo Macabro edition represents its first U.S. release, as well as the world premiere of the Blu-ray presentation. In addition to an essential interview with Mass, the set includes rare on-set footage and cover art from Belgian illustrator Gilles Vranckx.

By comparison, the 1971 Italian/Spanish giallo, The Fox With a Velvet Tail, might as well be a Spanish-language episode of “Columbo.” The most obvious difference between the two crime stories is the setting, with Peter Falk having full run of Los Angeles and environs, and José María Forqué’s mystery, which was largely shot inside and around a villa on the sunny Côte d’Azur. Based on a story by the prolific novelist and screenwriter Rafael Azcona (“Belle Epoque”), The Fox With a Velvet Tail describes what happens when one of the players in a love quadrangle loses the brakes on his sports car on the windy road to town and it tips the balance of power with it. Argentine export Analía Gadé plays the wealthy and beautiful owner of the villa, Ruth – all women in giallos are gorgeous – who’s had enough of her husband (Tony Kendall) and has begun an affair with an opportunistic lover (Jean Sorel). Unbeknownst to Ruth, both men are being manipulated by a tarty dame, Danielle (Rosanna Yanni), with designs on the splendid seaside estate of her own. If Ruth dies before her time, the scheme could work. None of the players is aware of the presence of a fifth party (Maurizio Bonuglia), who, in time, will act as Ruth’s guardian angel. The plot sounds more complicated than it is. In a bit of a departure for giallo, The Fox With a Velvet Tail the criminality is understated and, while sexy, there isn’t much nudity. Oh, well, you can’t have everything. The Mondo Macabro Blu-ray features a new 4k transfer from the negative; fully restored commentary by giallo historian Troy Howarth; the documentary, “So Sweet”; alternate scenes; and new artwork from Justin Coffee. As is the case with all Mondo Macabro titles, be sure to stay tuned for the coming attractions, which take up the better part of 45 minutes and promote many of the company’s more lurid DVD/Blu-rays. They truly are a hoot.

The Apology
Tiffany Hsiung’s heartbreaking documentary, The Apology, follows the personal journeys of three former “comfort women,” who were among the 200,000 girls and young women from several occupied countries – estimates range from 20,000 to 400,000 — who were kidnapped and forced into sexual slavery by the Imperial Japanese Army, before and during World War II. The few survivors of the mass atrocity, now in their 80s and 90s, are still waiting for their apology from current leaders of the Japan, along with compensation they not only deserve, but also were promised in earlier negotiations on the subject. Some historians believe that as many as half the comfort women committed suicide after the end of the war, while others developed serious health and psychological problems from the beatings and rapes administered by their captors. Coincidentally, in China, director Guo Ke’s documentary on the same subject, 22, was recently released there, to great public support. It takes its title from the number of former Chinese comfort women still alive in 2014. (It’s since been reduced to 8.) Hsiung’s film follows her subjects to speaking engagements around the Asian Rim countries, where awareness campaigns are being held on an almost weekly basis, and on to the United Nations. (Even on Wikipedia, the term, “comfort women,” is used synonymously with “prostitute women for soldiers.”) Among the roadblocks facing the survivors is a belief on the part of many Japanese leaders, historians and citizens that the comfort women already were prostitutes and volunteered for the job. The military allegedly recruited the women to keep the soldiers from raping local women, catching or spreading VD, and pacifying their sexual urges. This likely was the case before the recognized start of World War II and Japanese military officials ran out of women willing to service the growing number of occupying forces in Korea and China for food or money. When the war spread beyond those countries, however, tens of thousands of women and girls – some who’d yet to have their first period – were kidnaped, enslaved, beaten and routinely raped for the remainder of the conflict. The so-called Islamic fundamentalists in ISIS are doing the same thing in Syria and Iraq. Among the bonus features included in the package is a tour of existing “comfort station” sites, from Japan to the Philippines.

Citizen Jane: Battle for the City
As late as the mid-1960s, the heartbeat of most American cities could be traced to their then-thriving centers — downtowns, if you will — where the transit lines converged and shopping, commerce and entertainment venues attracted pedestrians at all hours of the day. By the 1980s, those same boulevards, theaters and office buildings had emptied. Criminals moved in and shopping malls served as a magnet for moviegoers, shoppers and idle teens. That, too, would begin to change in the new century, with financially lucrative revitalization projects prompting baby boomers, especially, to rediscover the joys of city life. Oversimplistic? To be sure, but well in keeping with the portrait of mid-century New York City activism in Matt Tyranuer’s Citizen Jane: Battle for the City. For more than 40 years, urban planner Robert Moses was as powerful as any elected official, when it came to finding money and pushing through civic projects that forever changed the look, feel and spirit of the city and its boroughs. Many of his greatest achievements still stand, as do the memories of his failures. Again, oversimplistic, but not by much. Like the transportation moguls who killed L.A.’s Red Car trolley system, in Robert Zemeckis’ fact-based Who Framed Roger Rabbit – and in real life — Moses believed that the future of New York was in automobiles, and neighborhoods would be the sacrificial lambs of progress. No better example of the lack of foresight in Moses’ plans was the hugely destructive and incalculably expensive Cross Bronx Expressway, which tore through a vibrant community, leaving slums, crime and displaced families in its wake. Even before it was completed, Moses advanced plans to build a Lower Manhattan Expressway, which would have tore through Greenwich Village and what is now SoHo. It was here that urban activist Jane Jacobs, author of “The Death and Life of Great American Cities,” drew her line in the sand, rallying like-minded citizens around her flag and convincing sheepish politicians to follow the lead of their constituencies. “Citizen Jane” remains timely, if only as a reminder of what can happen when engaged citizens fight the power for the sake of a better world … or, whatever. If Tyranuer’s delineation of Moses’ monopolistic, racist and antisocial instincts were intended to remind us of our current President, it’s worth remembering that “Citizen Jane” was introduced at last year’s TIFF and thoroughly researched at a time when the White House was merely a glint in Donald Trump’s eyes. Now that we’ve seen his Cabinet choices and heard the grandiose plans for a subdivided America, however, “Citizen Jane” should be considered essential viewing for Americans in harm’s way.

The Ghoul: Special Edition: Blu-ray
Writer/director Gareth Tunley may not be a known quantity outside of England, but anyone’s who’s followed the ascendency of Ben Wheatley, through such edgy entertainments as Down Terrace, Sightseers, Kill List and Free Fire, might recognize him as an actor. Wheatley’s stamp of approval as executive producer of The Ghoul probably caught the attention of festival planners on its way to a limited release in England. A dandy psychological thriller, The Ghoul probably will remind indie buffs of early works by Nicolas Roeg and Donald Cammell (Performance), David Lynch (Lost Highway) and Christopher Nolan (Following). Samuel Fuller’s Shock Corrider also may have influenced Tunley. In other words, pay as close attention to what happens in the opening scenes as the climax. A second viewing may be in order.  London homicide detective, Chris (Tom Meeten), has been called to a crime scene where two gunshot victims evidently kept walking toward their assailant, even after they had been fatally shot. At the scene, there’s a clue that points to someone named Coulson (Rufus Jones), who is bi-polar and undergoing psychotherapy with Fisher (Niamh Cusack), who seems to be somehow linked to the case. To track the suspect down, Chris decides to go undercover as a patient, and he’s very convincing. After a convenient emergency, Fisher transfers Chris to the care of a curiously outgoing colleague, Morland (Geoffrey McGivern), whose office is stuffed with arcane objects and symbols of the occult. Morland shows him a Mobius strip, a Klein bottle and drawing of an ourobouros (a serpent eating its own tail), all things where the inside becomes the outside until they come full circle. Could they provide clues to the mystery or are they presented to Chris as brain-teasers, capable of leading him to obsessive behavior and, possibly, true madness? Stay tuned. The Arrow Video package contains commentary, interviews, Tunley’s short film, “The Baron,” and a booklet featuring writing on the film by Adam Scovell, author of “Folk Horror: Hours Dreadful and Things Strange.”

Glen Campbell: Live Anthology, 1972-2001
When Glen Campbell finally succumbed to the ravages of Alzheimer’s disease, on August 8, 2017, the 81-year-old entertainer had already said goodbye to his peers, at the 2012 Grammy Awards ceremony and during a “Goodbye Tour,” with three of his children joining him in the backup band. After that, Campbell entered a Nashville studio to record what would be his last album, “Adiós,” which would not be released for another five years. A final song, “I’m Not Gonna Miss You,” which is featured in the 2014 documentary, Glen Campbell: I’ll Be Me, was released on September 30, 2014, with a limited release of the film following on October 24. Tim McGraw performed “I’m Not Gonna Miss You” at the 87th Academy Awards, where it was nominated for Best Original Song. On February 15, 2016, at the 58th Grammy Awards, the soundtrack was honored as Best Compilation Soundtrack for Visual Media. By then, the onetime Arkansas farm boy had logged 50 years in the music business, releasing more than 70 studio albums and selling 45 million records worldwide. He accumulated 12 gold albums, 4 platinum albums and a double-platinum album. Oh, and by the way, Campbell also was nominated for Golden Globes as Most Promising Newcomer (Male), for his performance in True Grit, and Best TV Actor, Comedy or Musical, for “The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour.” Not bad, for a sharecropper’s son. From Cleopatra Entertainment comes “Glen Campbell: Live Anthology, 1972-2001,” an extensive DVD/CD anthology of live recordings capturing the Rhinestone Cowboy at the height of his popularity. The 70-minute concert compilation features performances of the major hits – “Rhinestone Cowboy,” “Wichita Lineman,” “Galveston,” “Gentle on My Mind,” “By the Time I Get to Phoenix” – and then some. The singles all made Top 40 radio – country, pop, easy-listening — sound good. There are special duet appearances by Wayne Newton, Jimmy Webb, Anne Murray, Seals & Croft and Helen Reddy, medleys and instrumentals. The visual quality is what you might expect from the pre-digital era, but the vocals are strong.

Drone Wars
If I were to guess, I’d say that the producers of Drone Wars were hoping for a pick-up by the Syfy Channel, which is known for showing pre- and post-apocalyptic movies for non-discerning genre fans, in between series and mini-series into which more care, thought and money has been invested. Seemingly, Jack Perez’ Drone Wars didn’t even meet those standards. Once again, mankind is threatened by outer-space boogeymen, whose battlewagons hover over major cities promising instant annihilation to any survivors who dare poke their heads out from their shelters. The killing is done by easily maneuverable drones, which can peer into nooks and crannies invisible to the larger craft. The survivors represent a motley collection of medical professionals, soldiers, scientists and street thugs. Needless to say, there’s nothing new or unusual here. The weaponry on display is laughable and the characters are half-baked. The best that can be said for Drone Wars is that the action is pretty much non-stop and adolescents might like it. Among the director’s credits are Mega Shark vs. Giant Octopus (as Ace Hannah), Destruction: Las Vegas and Unauthorized: The Mary Kay Letourneau Story. According to the movie’s IMDB.com page, no one has come forth to take credit for the screenplay. I don’t blame them. For the record, its stars Corin Nemec, Whitney Moore and Nathin Butler.

TV-to-DVD
Lifetime: Scary Movie Set
PBS: Abacus: Small Enough to Jail
Rare: Creatures of the Photo Ark
Nickelodeon: Tales of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Wanted: Bebop & Rocksteady
PBS Kids: It’s Potty Time
God knows, Lifetime takes more than its fair share of abuse from wiseass critics, myself included, for original movies easily compartmentalized as chick flicks, disease-of-the-week weepers, lurid mysteries and celebrity biographies. Because there are so many of them, it’s easy to overlook the ones that transcend the Lifetime-movie sub-genre and can stand on their own as legitimate entertainments. The four titles included in the “Lifetime Scary Movie Set” may not be nail-biters in the traditional sense of the term, but they all managed to hold my interest and keep me guessing. Mikael Salomon’s adaptation of the Stephen King story, “Big Driver” (2014), stars Maria Bello as an author of mystery “cozies,” who’s forced to deal with mixed feelings about how to exact revenge on a hulking rapist; Leslie Libman’s “Manson’s Lost Girls” (2016) is a surprisingly involving and reasonably non-exploitative imagining of how Linda Kasabian fell under Charles Manson’s spell, but ultimately turned state’s evidence against fellow Family members; Holly Dale’s truly creepy “Hush Little Baby”   (2007) features Victoria Pratt as a mother who comes to believe her newborn son is punishing her for the death of her first child; and Farhad Mann’s “Devil’s Diary” (2007), in which a pair of outcast teens discover a book that gives them supernatural power over the cool kids who bully them … temporarily, at least. Several cast members come from famous families. Besides Olympia Dukasis, Eden Brolin is the daughter of Josh Brolin and the granddaughter of James Brolin; Christian Madsen is the son of Michael Madsen and the nephew of Virginia Madsen; and Greer Grammer is the daughter of Kelsey Grammer.

Check out Ray Pride’s review of Steve James’ penetrating documentary, “Abacus: Small Enough to Jail,” which is still making the rounds of PBS affiliates. It describes how the investigators looking into the white-collars criminals whose greed and hubris caused the 2008 Depression managed to net only one small fish in the shark-infested waters of Wall Street. The prosecutors still managed to lose the case, but not before ruining the reputation of the Chinese immigrant Sung family. The five-year legal battle appeared to be tethered to a belief that the accusations, combined with legal fees, would cause the Sungs to wilt, before the case even reached a courtroom. That, and a reluctance by immigrant Chinese to avoid controversy and “save face,” rather than be grilled in public. The feds didn’t count on the patriarch’s belief in the American Dream and the crazy notion that honesty will prevail. Racism seeps from every frame in the film.

Yi Chun-Wei’s “Rare: Creatures of the Photo Ark” follows National Geographic photographer Joel Sartore on his quest to photograph at-risk and rare species from around the world. The only qualification is that each of them could be become extinct within the next 20 or 30 years. In fact, the odds are that most of them will be gone. The critters Sartore couldn’t track down in the wild, he found in zoos and in nature preserves. His creative conceit involved getting them to pose against a stark white or black background – or, at least, sit still for a moment – so they can be captured in portrait form. This includes high-definition shots that capture every hair, scale and feather in amazing detail. The eyes, which generally are staring into Sartore’s lens, practically demand of viewers that they be allowed to exist as long as cockroaches and rats … the ultimate survivors. The three-part series explores his extremely ambitious Photo Ark initiative, focusing on the search for species and their frequently amusing unwillingness to cooperate. And, of course, it’s perfect for family viewing.

Nickelodeon’s latest compilation of “Tales of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” episodes includes the still-to-air “Wanted: Bebop & Rocksteady,” “The Foot Walk Again!” and “The Big Blow Out,” and last month’s “Lone Rat and Cubs.” In the title episode, the 1987 Shredder and Krang recruit the 2012 Bebop and Rocksteady, finding them better than their own incompetent counterparts.

Yes, PBS Kids goes there. “It’s Potty Time!” is a DVD compilation designed to help parents and kids tackle potty training with some of the programming block’s favorite friends. Let me put it a different way: “Come along as Daniel Tiger’s friend Prince Wednesday learns how important it is to stop and go potty right away, Peg and Cat show Big Mouth the six steps of going potty, and Buddy and Tiny discover that all creatures poop, even really.” As crazy as it may sound, the chapters might help parents take some of the mystery out of one of their kids’ early giants steps.

The DVD Wrapup: Band Aid, First Kill, Iron Protector, All Eyez, Wedding Plan, Maurice, Big Knife, Narcos 2 and more

Thursday, September 7th, 2017

Band Aid: Blu-ray
In her directorial debut, Zoe Lister-Jones walks the razor-thin line separating relationship dramedy and millennial mockumentary. The 35-year-old Brooklyn native maintains her balance throughout Band Aid, while continually switching the hats typically worn by writers, actors, producers and lyricists. It demonstrates how well she’s paid attention to her environs – not to mention, dues — on the long road to prominence in a cutthroat business. Lister-Jones isn’t there quite yet, but her face should be familiar to viewers of such sitcoms as “Life in Pieces,” “Whitney,” “New Girl” and “Friends with Better Lives.” She also co-wrote and played BFF to Gerta Gerwig, in Lola Versus, and co-wrote and starred in the Breaking Upwards (2009) and Consumed (2015). All three of these films, and the short, “Let’s Get Digital,” were directed by and co-written with Daryl Wein, her husband and fellow graduate of NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts. It’s safe to assume that some of their work together, at least, reflects events in their own relationship. Band Aid, whose tagline is “Misery loves accompaniment,” describes the nearly terminal marriage of Anna (Lister-Jones) and Ben (Adam Pally), a L.A.-based writer and artist, respectively, whose mutual lack of commercial success has suffocated what must once have been a promising marriage of equals. Then, too, an earlier tragedy has turned their sex life into a minefield. The only thing that keeps them from constantly arguing – a complaint about dirty dishes evolves into a shouting match about Holocaust survivors – is their affinity for marijuana and cockeyed perspectives on life among the yuppie elite. It helps them make it through conversations with other married friends, whose obsession with their spoiled post-millennial kids has begun to grate on the childless couple. If this setup makes you think the marriage chronicled in Band Aid is beyond repair, you’ll be in the same company as their frustrated therapist (Retta), who’s exhausted her professional patience for their flashpoint arguments and encourages them to work through their grievances unconventionally.

The dreary mood shifts markedly at a birthday party overflowing with beaming parents and spoiled toddlers – gatherings that now substitute for nights out on the town with friends — during which Anna and Ben smoke a joint and amuse themselves by playing the kids’ toy instruments and making up sarcastic lyrics to silly tunes. The exercise in social self-preservation not only wins the approval of the kids in the sandbox, but prompts the couple to consider taking their therapist’s advice by turning their disagreements into songs. With the help of their cloying neighbor, Dave (Fred Armisen), they start a garage band … literally. The songs, written by Lister-Jones and Kyle Forester (Crystal Stilts), bear such titles as “Love Is Lying,” “We Find the Fight,” “Mood” and “I Don’t Wanna Fuck You.” One of them especially resonates with image-phobic women at an open-mike night performance, allowing them to think the band, Dirty Dishes, could score a record deal. For reasons that are too complex to explain here, however, Dave decides that the songs are so spot-on, they’re affecting his hilariously bizarre relationship with “best friends” Cassandra Diabla (Jamie Chung) and Crystal Vichycoisse (Erinn Hayes). A proficient drummer, Dave’s coaching the ex-strippers through their problems with sex addiction. Susie Essman, as Ben’s mother, is also called upon to patch a tear in Anna and Ben’s marriage. As she does in “Broad City,” Essman convincingly plays the role of an atypical Jewish mother. Band-Aid may shift gears a few too many times to maintain narrative flow, especially when it introduces Anna’s side job as an Uber driver and some insufferable passengers, but the lapses are easily forgiven. The 91-minute dramedy rarely lags, finally making us care more for the troubled couple than we would have thought possible in Band Aid’s first half-hour. Brooklyn Decker, Jamie Chung and Colin Hanks also provide Lister-Jones with capable support in smaller roles.  The Blu-ray adds a music video, deleted scenes and outtakes.

First Kill: Blu-ray
For the first time in a long time, Bruce Willis turns in a performance here that he couldn’t just as easily phoned in from Malibu or Sun Valley. His small-town sheriff, Howell, is only a supporting character in First Kill, but, without him as the antagonist, there would have been little reason for anyone to invest money into an action flick destined to go straight-to-video. The fact is, though, Steven C. Miller’s third collaboration with Willis hasn’t opened yet in key foreign markets, and that’s where his name carries more weight than it does here, except, perhaps, on late-night talk shows. (The same applies for Miller’s last film, Arsenal, with Nicolas Cage, and his current project, Escape Plan 2: Hades, with Sylvester Stallone.) Ostensibly, First Kill belongs to Hayden Christenson, a once-promising actor whose career peaked in 2005, after reprising his portrayal of Anakin Skywalker, in Star Wars: Episode III, and plagiarist Stephen Glass, in Shattered Glass. He plays Will, the stockbroker father of an adolescent boy, Danny (Ty Shelton), who’s being tormented unmercifully at school. Typically, a movie dad would give his son boxing lessons and the bully would get a bloody nose he wouldn’t soon forget. Here, though, because Will spent his summers in the woods, where his dad and grandpa practiced the manly art of hunting, he feels that Danny might find the shortcut to manliness in a warm gun. It’s a dubious premise, at best, but if it helped Will become a better stock broker, why not give it a try?

The first person they run into in the small rural town is Howell, who worked with Wills’ dad and, of course, isn’t in the movie to direct traffic. Howell advises the trio of city slickers – completed by Megan Leonard, as wife and mother, Laura – to be on the alert for a gang of bank robbers, still likely to be hiding out in the mountains. And, sure enough, Will and Danny do run into the criminals, as one of them is in the process of shooting the other. When the gunman discovers them lurking in the shadows, father and son become potential witnesses and, as such, targets. Acting in self-defense, Will kills the shooter, only to discover that the victim is wearing a badge. Not only that, but the first victim is still breathing. Courtesy dictates that the robber be delivered to Laura, a surgeon, leaving Will time to figure out how to explain to Howell why he’d just killed one of his deputies. Miraculously, the wounded man, a local loser named Levi (Gethin Anthony), manages to grab the rifle, kidnap Danny and force Will to recover a bag full of purloined money. Things get even more complicated when Will tries to protect the boy by withholding the details of the first shooting from Howell. The best and most surprisingly part of First Kill comes when Levi begins to bond with Danny, who absorbs the man’s wisdom on things his dad has been too busy to explain. (Turns out, Levi’s mother-in-law has cancer and he needs the dough to afford her treatments … or Obamacare, one.) Let’s leave it at that. Although we’re supposed to think that the film is set in the mountains within a few hours’ drive from Wall Street, it was shot in central Ohio. Somehow, the location scouts found ways to make it work. If Miller and writer Nick Gordon (Girl House) had more money and time — the whole movie took only 13 days to film – they might have found a way to expand Danny’s shifting father-son alliances and reduced Willis’ prominence, which, of course, would have been financial suicide. The Blu-ray includes Miller’s commentary; an 11-minute making-of featurette; deleted scenes; and cast/crew interviews.

Iron Protector: Blu-ray
In only his second feature, multihyphenate Yue Song (The King of the Streets) serves as director, writer, editor and star of the alternately silly and exciting martial-arts drama, Iron Protector (a.k.a., “Super Bodyguard,” “The Bodyguard”), which borrows as much from Jackie Chan and Jean-Claude Van Damme, as Bruce Lee or Sammo Hung. He plays Wu Lin, a rough-hewn martial arts protégé from a rural village, who, after the death of his master, moves to the city of Lengcheng to look for his friend and fellow student, Jiang Li (Xing Yu). Unbeknownst to Wu, Jiang left the school out of jealousy for not being taught the ancient “Way of the 108 Kicks” technique. Among other things, the discipline requires of Wu that he wear 25-pound steel boots. It doesn’t take him long to make an impression in Lengcheng, either. Wu deftly punishes a gang of thugs for knocking an ice-cream cone from the hands of a young boy, who’s been admiring his splits technique, and saving the life of the wealthy businessman, Jia-Shan Li. In a bit too much of a coincidence, Jiang, who’s now running a bodyguard service, assigns his former friend the task of protecting Li’s spoiled daughter, Fei-Fei (Li Yufei)). Jiang knows that a small army of kung-fu fighters plans abduct Fei-Fei and extort a fortune from Li. He fully expects that Wu will succumb to their sheer numbers. Instead, the uncouth-looking bodyguard manages to reverse Fei-Fei’s first opinion of him by freeing her from the kidnapers’ first assault. While the action remains ferocious throughout Iron Protector, Fei-Fei’s admiration for her protector turns to thoughts of romance. The only question is: will Wu be forced to remove his 25-pound shoes to save her from the second wave of kidnappers. The Blu-ray contains a series of making-of featurettes.

All Eyez on Me:  Blu-ray
Having watched the recent documentaries, Murder Rap: Inside the Biggie and Tupac Murders, Tupac: Assassination II: Reckoning and Assassination: Battle for Compton – all exhaustively researched and informed by interviews and other first-person testimony, however dubious – I wasn’t looking forward to a dramatization that purports to “tell the true and untold story of prolific rapper, actor, poet and activist Tupac Shakur.” Considering that no one was arrested after the release of those three docs, or, for that matter, George Tillman Jr.’s Notorious, it seemed unlikely that Benny Boom’s All Eyez on Me would finally lay bare the facts of the still unsolved case. It would be unfair of me, however, to judge a biopic’s value on the strength of a marketing slogan. As far as I can tell, Boom was less interested in solving the case than surveying the path that inexorably led to Tupac’s date with hip-hop destiny. His intention, as stated in the interviews included in the bonus package, was to tell the story from Tupac’s “perceived point-of-view,” not that of anyone else involved in the investigation. As such, certain details necessarily would fall to the wayside. Moreover, Boom’s statement appears to acknowledge the widely reported criticisms of his movie from, among others, close friend Jada Pinkett Smith, as well as accusations that he whitewashed Tupac’s incarceration for first-degree sexual abuse of a young woman who kissed and told … or, if you will, kissed and lied.

You’d also think that the very public life of a 25-year-old artist, however influential, could be told in fewer than 2 hours and 20 minutes. Hill Harper is misused as a reporter conducting a prison-yard interview, which serves as an awkward lead-in to depictions of central events in Tupac’s formative years, up to an attempted assassination in the yard. What can’t be denied, though, is Demetrius Shipp Jr.’s dead-on impersonation of Shakur, as well as the intensity of his portrayal. Danai Gurira’s take on his mother, Afeni, goes a long way toward explaining how her Black Panther politics and drug addiction, combined with his personal observations of police brutality, impacted his music. It no doubt also contributed to his fiery temper. Dominic L. Santana’s take on Suge Knight, another key player in the drama, could hardly be more frightening. Anyone looking for something more substantial on the fatal attack on the Las Vegas Strip should begin, instead, with the documentaries mentioned above. The music-filled Blu-ray adds “Legends Never Die: The Making of All Eyez on Me”; 11 deleted scenes; “Conversations,” a set of roundtable discussions, featuring cast and crew members discussing Tupac’s art, influence and legacy; “Becoming Tupac,” which documents Shipp’s journey with the iconic role; and Shipp’s audition.

The Wedding Plan
In her big screen debut, Israeli actress Noa Koler plays Michal, a 32-year-old woman who gets blindsided by her fiancé on her way to the huppah. When she senses something is bothering him, the cad reluctantly admits to not being in love with her. In a community that believes a single woman past 30 must be damaged goods, Michal might have considered a loveless marriage to be better than none at all. In The Wedding Plan, however, she’s given no choice. Instead of postponing the ceremony, which already was booked for the final day of Hanukah, the devoutly Orthodox woman decides to put her faith in God, who, she believes, will arrange the proper marriage for her. Given that the deity has only 30 days to pull off such a feat, the odds against such a blessed union happening are prohibitive. It isn’t that she’s unattractive, really. Micah may be on the pudgy side, operate a mobile petting zoo and dress as if she’s attending a Mennonite prom, but she’s genuinely friendly, has as offbeat sense of humor and a pleasant face. By contrast, the men to whom she’s been introduced are sullen, only marginally handsome and reluctant to look a woman in the eye. Another is completely blind and still not interested. Her efforts include visiting a woman capable of eliminating the effects of an evil eye and traveling to the tomb of Rebbe Nachman, in the Ukraine, where her anguished prayers seemingly are answered in an encounter with a handsome rock star (Oz Zehavi). Although she judges him too good to be true, viewers are given hope he might be the white knight who ultimately saves the day. Micah’s faith in God isn’t shared by her mother, sister and friends, who are afraid of what might happen to her if the ceremony is a bust. They have reasons of their own to be skeptical.

In only her second feature, American-Israeli director Rama Burshtein does a wonderful job keeping everyone guessing. Burshtein’s debut, Fill the Void, also was set within the confines of Tel Aviv’s ultra-Orthodox community. In it, a young woman, Shira, who’s already engaged, is asked to sacrifice her dreams by marrying her recently widowed brother-in-law. Shira’s mother can’t bear the thought that he might leave Israel with her only grandchild and such an arrangement might prevent that from happening. At the time, Fill the Void was hailed as the first feature film directed by an Orthodox Israeli woman, and one of a small handful of modern movies to depict religious devotion from within. If The Wedding Plan sounds a tad too foreign for mainstream tastes, I suggest thinking of it as an Israeli variation of Muriel’s Wedding, the bittersweet Australian dramedy that established Toni Collette and Rachel Griffiths as rising international stars. Koler and Amos Tamam, the handsome owner of the wedding hall here, already were well-known in Israel for playing ex-spouses in the popular Israeli TV show “Srugim.” Their chemistry is palpable.

The Last Face: Blu-ray
Monsieur Le President
When he isn’t acting in or directing movies, Sean Penn occasionally is photographed in the company of notorious dictators or helping victims of natural disasters, such as Hurricane Katrina and the 2010 Haitian earthquake.  More recently, he raised eyebrows by secretly interviewing Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán, just prior to the 2016 capture of the Mexican drug trafficker, in his home state of Sinaloa. Government officials speculated that Penn was interested in making a movie about Guzmán’s escape from prison, a year earlier. When The Last Face debuted at last year’s Cannes festival, it surprised no one to learn that the intense drama involved international relief workers struggling to save wounded refugees in western African warzones. Fans of the NBC drama “ER” would recognize the dilemmas faced by doctors Luka Kovač and Mark Greene, who met in the Doctors Without Borders program, as being nearly identical to those experienced here by doctors played by Charlize Theron, Javier Bardem, Adèle Exarchopoulos, Jean Reno, Jared Harris, Denise Newman and Oscar Best. The Last Face had been a passion project for Robin Wright, who tried to get it made in 2004. After funding fell through, Wright abandoned the project. Penn resurrected the film after he and Wright divorced, deciding to take on directing duties, and casting his then-girlfriend, Theron, in the role Wright had wanted to play. If that ain’t bad mojo, I don’t know what is. What bothered audiences and critics at Cannes and ultimately led to a straight-to-Netflix release in the U.S. was a love story that clashed emotionally with the good work being done by doctors and aid workers, and distracted viewers from the plight of the refugees and victims of raids by insurgents. The obsessive relationship between Theron’s Wren, daughter of Doctors of the World’s late founder, and Bardem’s Dr. Miguel Leon, went off the tracks when they argued over the validity of each other’s commitment to the program. It intensified when he stalked her to Geneva, demanding she read a letter explaining his motivations and take him back as her lover. Unfortunately, the horndog physician had also been sharing a cot with another relief worker, Wren’s cousin (Exarchopoulos), who blew the whistle on him. Compared to the horrors visited on the Africans, Wren and Miguel’s troubles don’t amount to a hill of beans, really, especially after Penn lays bare the horror of the conflict and terrifying wounds inflicted on men, women and children. While there’s no questioning the sincerity of Penn and writer Erin Dignam (Loved), the romance stuck out like a broken bone from torn skin. It explains The Last Face’s two-hour-plus length feels even longer. The Blu-ray adds a making-of featurette.

The Last Face and Monsieur Le President don’t share a lot of elements in common, besides being set in Third World hellholes in which white-skinned volunteers do their best to alleviate the suffering of dark-skinned victims of great disasters. One is a work of fiction, in which the horrors are the product of man’s inhumanity to man, while the other describes how people in one poverty-stricken Haitian neighborhood are still attempting to cope with the devastation of the 2010 earthquake. Penn, who directed The Last Face, also spent considerable time in Haiti, helping in the recovery effort. While there, he might even have run into American filmmaker Victoria Campbell, whose Monsieur le Président follows the three years of absorption in the relief efforts. Campbell had to sneak into Haiti just days after the 7.0 earthquake, dressed as a nun, with a camera and small valise of medical supplies. Her commitment would include arranging for the distribution of medical and hygienic supplies to a free clinic on the teeming Christ-Roi section of Port-au-Prince. To this end, she collaborates with Gaston Jean Edy, a beloved voodoo priest, who, with nothing but hustle and hope, revives a defunct neighborhood clinic, staffing it with a doctor and nurses, and finding ways to fill the shelves. If he were applying for sainthood, Gaston’s credentials would be impeccable. As their friendship grows, however, the story takes an unexpectedly sinister turn. His disappearance and theft of funds, leaves Campbell completely bewildered, a feeling she shares with the clinic’s benefactors, medical staff and Gaston’s voodoo followers. It’s possible that her great disappointment upended her designs for the closing scenes in Monsieur le Président, as well. Like Campbell, we’re left to wonder if we should feel duped by all of the good things he accomplished or happy something positive might have emerged from the tragedy, in the nucleus of nurses, doctors and aid workers.

Maurice: Blu-ray
In 1987, when Maurice was released into theaters, the English-language cinema was awash in adaptations of works and novels by E.M. Forster. The films included A Passage to India (1984), A Room With a View (1985), Maurice (1987), Billy Budd (1988), Where Angels Fear to Tread (1991), and Howards End (1992). They shared elegant settings and locations, superb acting and the kind of attention to proper English dialogue that American viewers admire. Of these, Merchant Ivory Productions was responsible for A Room With a View, Howards End and Maurice, newly available in Blu-ray from Cohen Media Group. Although Hugh Grant’s visage graces its cover, the title role is carried by a different, less enduring actor, James Wilby. Because the novel dealt with the prevalence and unstated acceptance of homosexuality in British public schools, Forster asked that it only be published after his death, which came in 1971, almost 60 years after it was written. (Revisions would be made in 1932 and 1959-60.) At Cambridge, Maurice Hall finds himself attracted to the aristocratic Lord Risley (Mark Tandy) and the rich and handsome Clive Durham (Grant), with the latter responding with the most passion. Neither of the young men is a complete stranger to “the unspeakable vice of the Greeks,” as one English tutor puts it, but they would keep their feelings on the down-low to avoid the well-known fate of Oscar Wilde. Before and after Maurice’s expulsion from school, he spends a great deal of time at Durham’s posh estate, Pendersleigh, where he’s given reason to believe that his friend’s love would grow into something beyond platonic affection. Instead, after Risley is caught in a compromising state outside a London pub, and sent to jail, Durham leaves Maurice, now a stockbroker, for a decidedly shallow, if loyal heiress (Phoebe Nicholls).

Struggling with his identity and self-confidence, Maurice seeks the help of a dismissive older doctor (Denholm Elliott) and perceptive hypnotist (Ben Kingsley) to rid himself of his undeniable urges. It’s during other visits to Pendersleigh that Maurice finds himself attracted to the estate’s fawning gamekeeper and servant and servant Alec Scudder (Rupert Graves), who he mistrusts and lusts after in equal measure. What was then considered to be too happy ending to his dilemma handc frowned upon by Forster’s publishers for most of his life – homosexual acts between consenting 21-year-old males, in private, only were decriminalized in 1967 – and the movie industry was similarly timid on the subject. James Ivory’s adaptation, from a screenplay by Kit Hesketh-Harvey, was released at the height of the panic surrounding the AIDS epidemic, which may have impacted box-office results and marketing efforts. Nonetheless, Ivory recalls receiving many letters from admirers, crediting the film for helping them make the decision to exit the closet. The CMG Blu-ray package contains a second disc for the bonus material, which includes an enjoyable sit-down with the director and cinematographer Pierre Lhomme; a new on-stage Q&A with Ivory and Lhomme, moderated by Nicholas Elliott, of Cahiers du Cinema; “The Story of Maurice,” offering interviews with everyone from Hesketh-Harvey to co-stars Wilby and Grant; an archival conversation Ivory, the late producer Ismael Merchant and composer Richard Robbins; “A Director’s Perspective,” a conversation between Ivory and Tom McCarthy, the director of Spotlight; original and re-release trailers; deleted scenes and alternate takes, with Ivory’s optional commentary.

Mr. Mom: Collector’s Edition: Blu-ray
In the early 1980s, when John Hughes began writing Mr. Mom, the trickle-down effect of President Reagan’s economic policies had a more positive impact on stock brokers, arbitrage traders and cocaine dealers than anyone else in the country. Executives whose bonuses were tied to the whims of Wall Street felt free to shed workers without consideration for seniority, experience or loyalty, and replace them, if it all, with employees who would never accrue retirement benefits or expect raises that matched increases in the cost of living. If women benefitted more than men, it was only because equal pay for equal work was an idea whose time had yet to come and the glass ceiling remained firmly in place. Ever alert to potentially catastrophic trends that could be turned into comedy, Hollywood responded with movies in which men and women reversed traditional roles to make ends meet. Mr. Mom was the first in a mini-cycle of role-reversal comedies that included the made-for-TV ”He’s Fired, She’s Hired” (1985), Baby Boom (1987) and 3 Men and a Baby (1987). If one were so inclined, he could trace the trend all the way back to the now-lost comedy short, “Hubby Does the Washing,” in which Billy Quirk’s accepts his wife’s challenge to do the laundry, if he thinks it’s so easy. In the Stan Dragoti-directed Mr. Mom, Caroline Butler (Teri Garr) re-enters the workforce after her husband, Jack (Michael Keaton), loses his lucrative position in the automotive industry. Naturally, he thinks that taking care of their three kids and handling the household chores will be a breeze and, of course, it isn’t. Practically from her first day of work, Caroline impresses her boss at the Detroit advertising agency, Ron Richardson (Martin Mull), with her common-sense advice for campaigns her male companions can’t seem to handle.

Richardson’s interest in his new star employee will extend beyond the office, potentially causing problems at home with Jack. Meanwhile, the neighborhood women glom onto Jack, as if he’s a widower, instead of just another unemployed engineer in Motown. You can imagine what happens next. Hughes had yet to begin directing his own scripts. That would come two years later, with Sixteen Candles. He had experienced a similar role-reversal problem at home and wrote a script that impressed producer Lauren Schuler. When Hughes refused to move from Chicago to make Mr. Mom, the geniuses at Universal removed him from the project. After the script was rewritten, Schuler argued that Hughes’ original was better and put him back to work. On the advice of an agent, she also agreed to study Keaton’s manic performance in Night Shift, which sold her on him. After Mr. Mom struck paydirt, Universal would reconsider its feelings toward Hughes, giving a three-picture deal that allowed him to make movies in Chicago whenever he wanted. Shout!Factory’s “Collector’s Edition” includes the new documentary, “A Look Back At Mr. Mom,” featuring interviews with Lauren Shuler Donner, Ann Jillian, Miriam Flynn, Frederick Koehler and Taliesin Jaffe.

The Big Knife: Special Edition: Blu-ray
There’s never been a shortage of movies in which Hollywood, itself, is portrayed as the Great Satan and everyone who accepts the checks signed by his accountants plays the victim. A couple of years ago, Vanity Fair compiled a list of
“The 25 Best Movies About Hollywood,” which includes comedies, farces, dramas, romances, musicals and documentaries. The stories run the gamut from passive-aggressive to downright vicious. If the editors decided to add another 10-15 titles, there still might not be enough room for Robert Aldrich’s The Big Knife, an Bel-Aire-based obscurity that falls into the going-for-the-jugular category. All anyone under the age of say, 50, may know about Aldrich is that he made The Dirty Dozen and was a key character in FX’s bitchy mini-series, “Feud.” In it, he mostly served as a buffer between Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, during the production of What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? When he wasn’t serving as a punching bag, Aldrich drank to excess, cheated on his wife and kissed Jack Warner’s ass. Hardly mentioned were such well-received entertainments as Apache, Vera Cruz, Kiss Me Deadly, Ten Seconds to Hell, Sodom and Gomorrah and, sticking to the point here, The Big Knife. Adapted from a screenplay by James Poe (Around the World in 80 Days), based on the 1949 play by Clifford Odets, The Big Knife is the kind of movie a pissed-off filmmaker makes before committing career hara-kiri. It stars Jack Palance as Charlie Castle, a handsome lug, who’s sitting on top of the A-list when he’s handed another crowd-pleasing script by Rod Steiger’s crass studio boss, Stanley Shriner Hoff. Sporting black-rimmed shades and bleached hair, Hoff is a composite of Steiger’s mob functionary, Charley “the Gent” Malloy, in On the Waterfront, and the town’s then-reigning studio moguls. Charlie is being encouraged by his soon-to-be ex-wife, Marion (Ida Lupino), to refuse to extend his contract by seven years and only accept projects that serve humanity.

The problem is that Hoff and his circle of flunkies — Wendell Corey, Everett Sloane, Paul Langton, Shelley Winters – are perfectly willing to hand over to Hollywood’s prominent gossip columnist (Ilke Chase) the details of a long-buried criminal case involving Castle. Because most of the film is set in the living room and patio of the actor’s modern home, with a brief interlude at a party next-door, The Big Knife could hardly be more stagebound. The claustrophobic atmosphere is enhanced by Ernest Laszlo’s angular black-and-white cinematography and long, tightly framed takes. Another drawback comes in watching these otherwise smart and successful people risk cirrhosis of the liver, by consuming massive quantities of liquor; lung cancer, by smoking way too many cigarettes; and VD, by sleeping with everyone else’s spouses.  In other words, it’s almost impossible to find anyone to root for here. On the plus side, however, the acting is top-shelf and it’s fun to speculate on the studio bosses — Louis B. Mayer, Harry Cohn and Louella Parsons, among them — who directly inspired the characters. The scandalous cover-up depicted in the film is said to have been based on a real-life incident involving a young John Huston. Not surprisingly, then, The Big Knife was blackballed by everyone in town, except United Artists. Even so, it won a Silver Lion at the 1955 Venice Film Festival, cementing Aldrich’s reputation in Europe, where he’d soon need to find refuge. Arrow Video’s 2K restoration enhances the noir undertones and Laszlo’s innovative approach to shooting in tight spaces. It adds informative and sometimes amusing commentary by critics Glenn Kenny and Nick Pinkerton; the 1972 documentary, “Bass on Titles”; and an illustrated collector’s booklet, featuring new writing on the film by Nathalie Morris.

A Dark Song: Blu-ray
Until recently, horror films from Ireland rarely found their way to America’s screens. With the commercial acceptance of video-on-demand platforms, though, distribution companies have begun to scour horror and fantasy festivals for movies that sell themselves through trailers and Internet word-of-mouth, saving a bundle on marketing costs. Some are accorded a limited theatrical, if only to promote the fact that they received one. IFC Midnight has become a dependable purveyor of all sorts of genre fare, much of which wouldn’t have a prayer of finding an audience before the streaming revolution. The company’s found a gem in the Irish export, A Dark Song, a supernatural thriller that builds slowly, but pays big dividends after the creepy mood takes hold. Dublin native Catherine Walker (Patrick’s Day) plays Sophia, a single mother who’s never recovered from the loss of her young son to kidnapers. She suspects that an occult cult had something to do with it and won’t be satisfied until she can connect with the boy in the afterlife. To this end, Sophia signs a yearlong lease on a spacious old home in the country. It doesn’t look particularly haunted, but who knows? Her next step is hiring a live-in medium, Joseph (Steve Oram), who insists that he can pass through spiritual portals and summon the boy. As slovenly as he is dictatorial, Joseph demands that Sophia follows his instructions to the letter, while maintaining a dietary regimen and not expecting instant results. Neither is she allowed to leave the house. The process involves locating likely contact points and marking them with symbols, grids and numerical codes. Joseph remains optimistic, while Sophia begins to doubt his powers. If the setup isn’t particularly scary, viewers, at least, trust that something momentous is going to happen before long. And, slowly, but surely, it does. There’s no need to spoil the surprises, except to point out that A Dark Song has received highly favorable reviews in both the mainstream and genre press. In his debut feature, writer/director Liam Gavin has demonstrated the kind of chops that get noticed by indie producers here. The DVD adds a making-of featurette.

TV-to-DVD
Just Shoot Me!: The Complete Series
Netflix: Narcos: Season Two: Blu-ray
PBS Kids: Masterpiece Mystery!: Endeavour: The Complete Fourth Season
Nickelodeon: PAW Patrol: The Great Pirate Rescue!
PBS Kids: Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood: King Daniel for the Day
Fans of the NBC sitcom, “Just Shoot Me!,” have waited a long time for all seven seasons’ worth of episodes to be released on DVD. In 2004, Sony released the first and second seasons, with some bonus features. Then, in 2009, Sony sent out “The Complete Third Season.” Five years later, Mill Creek repackaged Sony’s Season One and Season Two compilations, without featurettes. As far as I can tell, the complete series hasn’t been released to streaming services, either. That left 1,970 minutes of entertainment in DVD limbo. Typically, a distribution company won’t interrupt the flow of seasonal releases, unless they’re underperforming. Shout!Factory knows how to market distressed properties, however, and, based on the show’s longevity – 148 episodes — should be able to find a ready audience for the “Just Shoot Me!: The Complete Series.” The series ran from March 4, 1997, to August 16, 2003. While popular, it failed to gain much momentum, due to NBC’s constant time- and day-shifting. It left fans wondering when and where to find it, from one week to the other. The network did the same thing with other once-promising shows, effectively short-circuiting any chance for success. An occasionally raunchy workplace comedy, “Just Shoot Me!” was set in the offices of the high-fashion magazine, Blush. The setup gave David Spade, as wise-guy secretary Dennis Finch, ample opportunity to hit on the hot models, as they waited to be shot by the philandering photographer, Elliot DiMauro (Enrico Colantoni). Wendy Malick played former supermodel, Nina Van Horn, whose constant partying almost killed her. The owner and publisher of Blush is Jack Gallo (George Segal), a workaholic attempting to make up for lost time with his daughter, Maya (Laura San Giacomo). Her “feminist” views frequently clashed with the magazine’s mission, which was to sell overpriced cosmetics and unwearable clothes to women who can’t afford either one. The bonus package, which has been ported over from the 2004 discs, adds commentaries on four episodes; “Always in Fashion,” a conversation with creator Steven Levitan and cast members; and a gallery of Blush covers.

Some viewers have wondered how Netflix could justify green-lighting a third season of “Narcos,” after the show’s central character, drug lord Pablo Escobar (Wagner Moura), was killed by Colombian police at the end of the second season. As the “Season Two” package amply demonstrates, however, the events that followed Escobar’s escape from prison occasionally served as a sideshow for the takeover of the cocaine trade by his enemies in the Cali Cartel. Both came to fruition as DEA agents Javier Peña (Pedro Pascal) and Steve Murphy (Boyd Holbrook) tightened the noose around him. At midseason, CIA operatives recruited the sibling founders of a ruthless paramilitary organization, Los Pepes, to terrorize Escobar’s Medellin network of spies, gunmen and traffickers. The story’s moral, so far, is that everybody cheats – even the supposed good guys – to achieve their goals. Meanwhile, despite all the killing, neither the supply of cocaine, nor the demand, ever diminished. That point is made even clearer in Season Three, through which I’ve already binged. It only takes an episode or two to see that Escobar, despite his personal zoo and gold toilet seat, was part of a much larger whole and certainly not the only game in Colombia. The Blu-ray adds “Unredacted: Declassifying ‘Narcos’ Season Two,” an excellent overview with Moura and some of the creative staff, detailing how they sought to bring this chaotic set of events into focus; “Al Fin Cayó!,” commentary with director Andrés Baiz, executive producer Eric Newman and Moura; and deleted scenes.

The dramatic finale of Season Three of PBS’ addictive “Masterpiece Mystery!: Endeavour” continues to haunt DC Endeavour Morse (Shaun Evans), DI Fred Thursday (Roger Allam) and his wife, Win (Caroline O’Neill), throughout the entirety of the fourth stanza. Following the deadly bank heist, Joan Thursday (Sara Vickers) took a powder from Oxford, leaving all three with broken hearts and no way to contact her. Meanwhile, though, there’s forensic evidence to be examined, clues to follow and serial killers to nab, as if nothing untoward had happened in the bank. For his part, Morse also has become obsessed with passing the sergeant’s exam, a feat someone in the department goes to great lengths to stymie. The bonus package includes an interview with Shaun Evans, in which he discusses Morse; and a piece on the challenges of shooting in Oxford. For some folks, though, the biggest bonus comes in knowing that the Blu-ray extends the episodes to the normal U.K. length, uninterrupted by Pledge Month chatter.

From Nickelodeon/Paramount, “PAW Patrol: The Great Pirate Rescue!” contains six swash-buckling adventures, featuring the network’s hugely popular canine crusaders. Young fans can join Ryder, Chase and the rest of the gang as they discover a secret pirate cave, confront a ghostly sea captain, embark on a treasure hunt, rescue whales, raise a misplaced statue from the bay, fix the pipes at water park and fill in for absentee circus animals at Adventure Bay.

The PBS Kids’ DVD, “Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood: King Daniel for the Day,” features a full-length episode, in which Daniel Tiger is allowed to satisfy his curiosity about what it’s like to reign over neighborhood affairs, like Fred Rogers’ venerable King Friday. As “King for the Day,” Daniel discovers that the most important part of being king is being kind to his neighbors. King Friday sends him on a royal mission to Baker Aker’s bakery and Music Man Stan’s shop. He also helps celebrate Prince Wednesday’s birthday, shares a book at the library with O the Owl and takes care of the class pet.

The DVD Wrapup: Ronin, Wedding Banquet, The Stranger, Baywatch, Bring It On, Dean, Born in China and more

Thursday, August 31st, 2017

Ronin: Special Edition: Blu-ray
I’ll admit it: all these years, I’ve confused John Frankenheimer and Robert DeNiro’s 1998 heist thriller, Ronin, with Ridley Scott and Michael Douglas’ strangers-in-a-strange-land policier, Black Rain. My excuse: the former’s title refers to a samurai, who, for various reasons, no longer serves a daimyo, or feudal lord. To survive, he is required to freelance his services to another master or, failing that, commit seppuku. In Ronin, which, it turns out, I hadn’t seen, De Niro and his fellow thieves sharpened their skills while working in the military or for intelligence services, but now use them in the service of gangsters, private armies or their own numbered bank accounts. Other than that, the movie has nothing to do with Japan. Black Rain, which was released in 1989 and I caught at the time, involves two New York City cops (Douglas, Andy Garcia), who, after arresting a yakuza member, must escort him to Japan. When the prisoner escapes, in Tokyo, they’re required to adapt to Japanese culture, criminology and idiosyncrasies. The black rain of the title refers to fallout from the atomic bombs that hit Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but has only a peripheral relation to the movie. Otherwise, both pictures are packed with gunplay, suspense and action, much of it of the vehicular variety, as would be expected from two such seasoned practitioners. At least, I didn’t confuse Ronin with Philip Kaufman and Sean Connery’s 1993 crime drama, Rising Sun. Heck, I was only off by a decade and a few thousand miles. I’m glad that I decided to watch Ronin, instead of reviewing Black Rain from memory … not that that ever happens. All three pictures provide a heck of a ride.

On a rain-swept night in Paris, an international crack team of professional thieves, weapons buffs and a computer geek assembles in an old-fashioned neighborhood bistro, summoned by a shady crime syndicate fronted by the enigmatic Deirdre (Natascha McElhone). None of the crooks appear to know each other or the special skills they’re bringing to the table. They will be handsomely paid to steal an aluminum briefcase, handcuffed to the arm of their mark, who’s guarded by several armed men – presumably, ronin, themselves, — and safely make the transfer to Deirdre’s employers. It serves as Ronin’s McGuffin. No matter what the briefcase contains, its theft will inspire two unquestionably great car chases, one through the narrow streets of Nice, the other in Paris; a shootout in and around the centuries-old Arles Amphitheatre and Café Van Gogh; and a sniper attack inside a Paris skating rink. (East German figure-skating champion Katarina Witt plays a Russian figure-skating champion, in cahoots with a Russian Mafia goon.) If it sounds confusing, it’s only because viewers aren’t supposed to be able to separate the white hats from the black hats until the final reel. Besides De Niro and McElhone, who are in top form here, the cast includes Jean Reno, Stellan Skarsgård, Sean Bean, Skipp Sudduth, Michael Lonsdale and Jonathan Pryce, none of whose characters would trust the other as far as they could throw him. It all works marvelously. Arrow Video is presenting Ronin in a new, cinematographer-approved 4K restoration, from the original camera negative; vintage audio commentary with Frankenheimer; a new interview with DP Robert Fraisse; Quentin Tarantino’s video essay on Robert De Niro; archival featurettes, “Ronin: Filming in the Fast Lane,” “Through the Lens,” “The Driving of Ronin,” “Natascha McElhone: An Actor s Process,” “Composing the Ronin Score” and “In the Ronin Cutting Room,” along with Venice Film Festival interviews with De Niro, Reno and McElhone, an alternate ending, new sleeve artwork and a collector’s booklet illustrated by Chris Malbon, featuring new writing on the film by critic Travis Crawford.

The Wedding Banquet: Blu-ray
The Stranger: Blu-ray
Hell Up in Harlem: Blu-ray
The latest batch of vintage Blu-ray releases from Olive Films contains some real treasures. Ang Lee’s The Wedding Banquet was released in 1993, two years before Sense and Sensibility made him a household name in some Hollywood zip codes and 12 years before Brokeback Mountain confirmed everyone’s suspicions about how cowboys and shepherds make it through the night, when on cattle drives or protecting sheep from wolves. It also arrived a year after B. Ruby Rich coined the term “New Queer Cinema,” in an essay for Sight & Sound. Although The Wedding Banquet bares a thematic resemblance to La Cage aux Folles (1978), it’s inspired by a true story and its queer credentials weren’t limited to words on a screenplay. Made for about $1 million, the bedroom dramedy returned $23 million at the international and domestic box office, prompting Variety to designate it the most profitable movie, dollar-for-dollar, of 1993. (By contrast, top-grossing Jurassic Park earned a ratio of 13.8 percent, based on its $914-million rake and $60-million production budget.) That, alone, should have opened the eyes of studio executives to the potential audience for gay and lesbian-themed pictures. Moreover, The Wedding Banquet was nominated for a Best Foreign Language Picture award by the Motion Picture Academy and at the Berlin Film Festival. Instead, the genre practically was forced into the indie underground, where it contended with miniscule budgets, poor distribution and casting prejudices. In it, Taiwan native Wei-Tong Gao (Winston Chao) is a successful, if harried, New York property developer, enjoying a thriving relationship with his live-in lover, Simon (Mitchell Lichtenstein), who’s a great cook and speaks passable Chinese.

A monkeywrench is tossed into their life together when Wei-Tong’s parents decide to visit the city, where they can pester their son about getting married and giving them a cherished grandson. Rather than reveal their deep, dark secret, Simon suggests that Wei-Tung marry one of his tenants, Wei-Wei (May Chin), a penniless artist from mainland China in need of a green card. Once the Gaos return to Taiwan and the bride scores her green card, the sham marriage can be dissolved and life can go on, as before the interruption. Nothing could go run with this scheme, could it? After Wei-Tung disappoints his parents by having the marriage formalized in a civil ceremony at City Hall, Simon treats the family to dinner at one of New York’s top Chinese restaurants. While there, Mr. Gao is recognized by the owner, who served as his driver during the Chinese Civil War and credits him with saving his life. In an effort to minimalize the Gaos’ shame, he demands of Wei-Tung that he be allowed to host a proper banquet and invite several dozen guests, including other Chinese immigrants who owe their lives and current success to the general. Many other things happen to the Gaos, Wei-Wei and Simon – funny, sad and bittersweet – in the next 45 minutes of screen time, but we’ll leave it at that. Even at this early stage of development in Lee’s career, he not only makes us care deeply for the characters and their shared dilemmas, but he and writing partners Neil Peng and James Schamus also deftly avoid clichés and cop-outs usually associated with such fare. The Blu-ray adds the featurette, “A Forbidden Passion.”

It’s said that Orson Welles didn’t care much for The Stranger, his third credited feature, for reasons pertaining to commercial expectations and having the final product taken from his hands … again. Released in 1946, he might still have been reeling from the public’s lack of support for Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons. Because he wanted to prove that he could deliver a picture on time and on budget, Welles agreed to a disadvantageous contract and limited creative control. Even so, he couldn’t have been pleased when, in 1973, the film’s copyright was allowed to lapse, giving anyone with the right equipment free rein to re-edit, duplicate and distribute the picture without concern for the customers’ ability to enjoy it. Forty years later, an archival restoration — mastered from a 35mm print at the Library of Congress — was released on DVD and Blu-ray disc by Kino Classics. Although far from pristine, it was a big step in the right direction. It also contained some excellent bonus material. The new Olive Films edition, adds more clarity, new commentary and another featurette. I suspect that Blu-ray audiences will enjoy The Stranger considerably more than Welles did.

Primarily, that’s because of the glorious visual presentation, which incorporates camera angles and perspectives favored by the director and chiaroscuro lighting techniques that anticipate those employed by Carol Reed in The Third Man. Moreover, Welles and the studio’s original directorial choice, John Huston, contributed dialogue that, even without being credited to them, added to the suspense. Welles plays Franz Kindler, a Nazi war criminal who managed to expunge his records before escaping to a quiet New England town, where, as Charles Rankin, he’s somehow landed a teaching job at the local college. In fact, he’s blended into the community to the point where he’s about to marry Mary Longstreet (Loretta Young), the terribly naive daughter of a Supreme Court justice. Kindler’s past is about to catch up to him, in the unexpected appearance of a Nazi death-camp functionary, who’s being tailed by Mr. Wilson (Edward G.  Robinson) of the United Nations War Crimes Commission. Kinzler’s hobby of fixing clocks, large and small, adds a Hitchcockian dimension to the story. Welles’ bold decision to incorporate footage taken after the liberation of the concentration camps delivers a jolt he felt was necessary to awaken Americans, who had yet to be fully apprised of Nazi atrocities. Through Kinzler, the point is made that Nazism and fascism could, under the right conditions, be still adopted by such unaware Americans … and, of course, that belief is being realized today. It makes The Stranger even that much more timely.

Released in 1973, at the height of the blaxploitation phenomenon, Black Caesar and its almost immediate sequel, Hell Up in Harlem, featured genre superstar and former Kansas City Chiefs defender, Fred “The Hammer” Williamson. (Before Super Bowl I, Williamson bragged that he would use karate chops to immobilize Green Bay Packers receivers. Instead, he ended up being carried off the field, when his head met the knee of running back Donny Anderson.) He would find considerably more success on the big screen, beginning with a supporting role in Robert Altman’s M*A*S*H. AIP boss Samuel Z. Arkoff was so impressed by the Black Caesar’s early grosses that he ordered writer/director Larry Cohen and Williamson to begin working on the sequel, even while they were making It’s Alive and That Man Bolt, respectively. In fact, in New York, both of Williamson’s pictures opened simultaneously. Because Cohen had so little time to prepare for Hell Up in Harlem, it lacks the coherency and polish of the original. The body count makes up for those lapses, however. Here, protagonist Tommy Gibbs, who was believed to have been killed in Black Caesar, is targeted by Gotham’s corrupt district attorney (Gerald Gordon) after he steals a ledger with the names of every policeman and city official on the mob’s payroll. After his baby-momma (Gloria Hendry) rats him out to sthe D.A., ostensibly to protect him from being murdered by dirty cops, Gibbs is gunned down in the street outside Tiffany & Co. Seriously wounded, he will require the assistance of his OG father, Papa Gibbs (Julius W. Harris), and an army of street thugs to straighten things out. The audiences, of course, relished stickin’ it to the man … on screen, at least. The Blu-ray contains new audio commentary with Cohen, moderated by Steve Mitchell, director of the upcoming documentary, “King Cohen: The Wild World of Filmmaker Larry Cohen.” Other Palm Films Blu-ray releases this month are “‘Flipper’: Seasons One and Two,” Don Taylor’s “The Island of Dr. Moreau,” Nick Millard’s “Dracula in Vegas” and, on DVD, Spirits of the Somme (reviewed below).

Baywatch: Extended Cut: Blu-ray
I don’t think that I’ve ever watched more than 10 minutes of any episode of “Baywatch,” in its original television iteration, or any of its spinoffs and direct-to-video movies. I did catch a few episodes of FX’s parody series, “Son of a Beach,” exec-produced by Howard Stern, but can’t remember much about it, either. I waited to catch the long-delayed sequel on Blu-ray – Baywatch: Extended Cut – guessing that very little would be lost in the transition from the big screen to home theater and there was nothing in the movie that wasn’t already revealed in the trailers and commercials. I was right, on both counts. The critics have already savaged Seth Gordon’s creation and I see no point in piling on, here. It underperformed at the domestic box office, but may have recovered some money overseas, where, I’m guessing, bodacious lifeguards in form-fitting one-piece suits are still something of a novelty. Several points are worth noting for folks – teenage boys and their dads, in particular – who may have waited for the DVD/Blu-ray/VOD version of Baywatch to arrive for home ogling. First and foremost, they should know the MPAA awarded it a “R” rating for “language throughout, crude sexual content and graphic nudity.” The “graphic nudity” is of the male variety, as is much of the “crude sexual content.” There are a few pairs of protruding nipples and jiggling breasts, but nothing you couldn’t have seen on television in its initial 11-season run. It’s as if Internet porn and Skinemax hadn’t existed in the interim. Then, too, the producers decided to turn the 45-minute action/drama series, sans commercials, into an interminably long action/comedy/drama … accent on comedy. (The theatrical cut ran 1:56:27 and, here, the extended version adds five minutes.) Finally, not that it makes much difference, the story has been relocated from Los Angeles and Hawaii, to Florida.

That said, Dwayne Johnson and Kelly Rohrbach were good choices to play lifeguards Mitch Buchannon and C.J. Parker. Johnson, whose mother is Samoan, played football at the University of Miami, before gaining fame as “The Rock.” Rohrbach, who played golf in college, actually looks as if she might not be afraid to appear in public – let alone, the ocean — without makeup and hairspray. Priyanka Chopra and Alexandra Daddario provide the jiggle, while 5-foot-11 villainess Ilfenesh Hadera would make a great Bond Girl. Buff Zac Efron and out-of-shape Jon Bass play polar-opposite candidates for the Baywatch team. The drama concerns the mysterious arrival, by boat, of a dangerous synthetic drug, apparently in oil drums that also threaten to pollute the water of Emerald Bay. Too much of the investigation takes place at night, either as a homage to “Baywatch Nights” or simply to show off the actress’ physiques in evening apparel. I suspect, the latter. The Blu-ray and 4K UHD editions add fan-bait featurettes, “Meet the Lifeguards,” “Continuing the Legacy” and “Stunts & Training,” as well as deleted and extended scenes.

Bring It On: Worldwide #Cheersmack: Blu-ray
The hashtag in the title of the sixth entry in this surprisingly venerable franchise, Bring It On: Worldwide #Cheersmack, isn’t a typographical error. Anyone who needs me to clarify why it’s there is too old to get much out of the movie, anyway. Hashtags are to the social media, what area codes are to telephones and zip codes are to the postal service. Once known primarily to signify numbers or weight, the hashtag is a way to label something, typically a Tweet or Facebook post. Beyond that, I can’t help you. Bring It On: Worldwide #Cheersmack’s visual presentation overflows with images of hashtags and Internet-delivered messages, limited to 140 characters or less, or via Skype. I haven’t seen another movie that has so accurately nailed the way teenage girls communicate with each other these days. And, unlike so many other movies that attempt to capture the teen zeitgeist, they are integral to the story. I wonder if screenwriter Alyson Fouse had the “Telephone Hour” number from Bye Bye Birdie in mind when she envisioned some of the cellphone and notebook conversations in the movie. Unfortunately, for anyone over the age of say, 16, that’s about all that feels remotely real and organic in “Worldwide #Cheersmack.” When the “Bring It On” series launched, in 2000, with the hit theatrical film of the same title, competitive cheerleading was maturing as a spectator sport, for lack of more precise term. ESPN first broadcast the National High School Cheerleading Competition nationwide, in 1983, and, 14 years later, the network added international coverage.

By this time, traditional uniforms were supplanted by Spandex tights and tops, with bare midriffs. The guys also were encouraged to show off their six-packs and guns. Some of the routines became so dangerous that cheer organizations insisted on safety training for participants and coaches, as well as the elimination of certain stunts. By now, competitive cheer squads appear to exist independently of any actual team sport or event. The choreography owes more to Beyonce and Madonna, than to the Dallas Cowboy or UCLA cheerleaders, who couldn’t exist without teams that benefit from their enthusiasm. The crisis in “Worldwide #Cheersmack” involves Destiny (Cristine Prosperi), captain of three-time national champions, the Rebels, who’s become something of a dictator. She bristles at the thought of sharing power with other girls or varying the routines that have proven successful. Out of the blue, a new team, the Truth, hacks into their social-media network, denouncing Destiny and showing off some fresh and edgy new material. Thoroughly perplexed, Destiny calls upon Cheer Goddess (Vivica A. Fox), the internet’s most popular “Cheer-lebrity.” She organizes a virtual battle for squads from around the world, via Skype, or something quite like it. If the competition holds nothing in the way of surprises, there’s no denying the athleticism, skills and world-class choreography on display. The Blu-ray adds featurettes “Around the World: Building the Squads,” “A New Routine” and “The Look of Bring It On: Worldwide,” as well as a gag reel.

Dean
Even if the only thing one knew about Demetri Martin, going into his debut feature, Dean, is that he’s a new-school comedian and artist, it would be possible to guess that his principle influences are deadpan comic Stephen Wright and cartoonist Gary Larson, creator of “The Far Side.” When Martin’s Brooklyn-based character, Dean, suffers through a visit to California – or, most of it, anyway – you’d swear that he’d also committed to memory the scenes in Annie Hall, in which Alvy Singer followed the aspiring starlet to L.A. In Dean, which is informed by tragic events in his own life, Martin plays a character who looks two decades younger than his 44 years of age. Stung by the recent death of his mother, Dean has become estranged from his father, Robert (Kevin Kline), who believes that it’s time for him to sell their longtime home in the suburbs and slowly get on with his life. Dean is dragging his feet on the sale of the house, which he believes hold all the memories of his mother he’s ever likely to have. One of the reasons he goes to Los Angeles is to avoid having a conversation with his father about the sale. That, and to pitch his drawings to a potential client. Although the owners of the company like his work, their laid-back attitudes and SoCal idiosyncrasies cause him to abandon all hope of working for them. Invited to a party by an old girlfriend, Dean makes a fool of himself by upending an unsupported serving tray and misjudging the guests’ tolerance of droll humor. On the plus side, he befriends a young woman, Nicky (Gillian Jacobs), who’s amused by his clumsiness and odd jokes. Less enthusiastic is Jill (Ginger Gonzaga), who seems curiously overprotective of her friend. Once home, Dean not only must deal with his father’s plans, but accept that he might be dating his Realtor (Mary Steenburgen). There’s no reason to spoil the resolution to the story, except to say that it pulls everything together nicely and allows Dean to finally come of emotional age. Dean clearly isn’t for everyone, but fans of Martin and other offbeat comedians should check it out. It arrives with “This Is a Movie: Making Dean,” “Drawing on Film: Stories About Dean” and “Dean: Q&A With Demetri Martin and (co-star) Rory Scovel.”

The Lion King: The Circle of Life Edition: Blu-ray
Born In China: Disneynature: Blu-ray
News that The Lion King is being re-released this week as part of the exclusive Walt Disney Signature Collection, joining Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Beauty and the Beast, Pinocchio and Bambi, has been overshadowed a bit by reports from the Mouse House on other issues relevant to home-theater enthusiasts. When it was announced that Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2, and Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man Tell No Tales would become the studio’s first foray into 4K UHD, early adapters naturally hoped classic animated titles would soon follow. Not only is The Lion King being released only in Blu-ray, DVD and digital, but the list of featurettes includes only one fresh item, a “Brand New Sing-Along Version.” The other material is a mix-and-match collection of previously issued featurettes, although several weren’t included on the previous “Silver Edition.” It’s also become next to impossible to pre-order titles from Amazon, due to a stalemate on business issues. The other news refers to Disney’s decision to end its streaming relationship with Netflix in two years, opting to begin its own service. Let’s hope the mishigas gets sorted out before the arrival of the live-action reboot of the animated classic. This film is scheduled to be released on July 19, 2019, the 25th anniversary of The Lion King. It’s shaping up as a doozy. For the record: among the featurettes included here are commentary with producer Don Hahn and co-directors Roger Allers and Rob Minkoff; “Visualizing a Villain,” set against a backdrop of live dancers and the animated “Be Prepared” sequence; “The Recording Sessions,” with footage of the actors recording their roles, matched with the final animation; “Inside the Story Room,” in which the co-directors present archival footage of five original story pitches; “Circle of Life,” on how color creates emotion and meaning in the film’s iconic opening; story meetings; “Hakuna Matata” and Rafiki and Reflecting Pool,” in which Allers and Minkoff sing, act and dance their pitches; galleries and storyboards; and, on digital only, hours of bonus material from previous editions, including bloopers, audio commentary, deleted and alternate scenes, and in-depth journeys into the music, film, story, animals and stage show.

The flip side of The Lion King release this week is the delightful “Disneynature” feature Born in China, a live-action affirmation of the diversity of wildlife in the world’s most populous country. We’ve become so accustomed to images of China’s teeming cities, overstuffed trains and toxic smog that it’s nearly impossible to think that are huge tracts of land that can still be described as unspoiled wilderness. Apart from the unique array of native animals captured by the strategically stationed cameras, the depictions of the natural beauty of their habitats is nothing short of spectacular. The “Disneynature” series is the modern extension of “Walt Disney’s True-Life Adventures,” a collection of 14 full-length and short-subject documentary films produced between the years 1948 and 1960. Each was informed by a narrator who not only expanded on what was happening before our eyes, but also attributed human qualities, names and personalities to the animals. Criticized in some circles for being inauthentic, the “circle of life” approach appealed to children, who, after five minutes, might otherwise have preferred to be taken to the local zoo. The same season-to-season, multi-generational narrative informs Born in China, which follows the adventures of three famously elusive animal families: giant pandas, golden snub-nosed monkeys and snow leopards. Antelope and red-crowned cranes appear in supporting roles. Also emphasized in John Krasinski’s pleasant voiceover is the essential relationship between parents and their offspring, something we’ve taken for granted for too long. The only humans appear in the closing credits and featurettes, explaining how the images were captured and how the ruggedness of the terrain worked against them. Also added are the music video to “Everything Everything,” performed during the end credits, and the conservation-minded “Disneynature: Get Inspired, Get Involved.”

Mouton
Heal the Living
In French, Mouton means sheep, an animal that the protagonist resembles enough to be known as Mouton throughout the film. If 17-year-old Aurélien Bouvier objects to it, you can’t tell by looking at him. It’s difficult to say what, if anything, is the boy’s mental condition. His alcoholic mother was forced to give up parental rights before Mouton was sent to Courseulles-sur-Mer, on the Normandy coast, to work in an upscale restaurant. He appears to be a quick study, doing odd jobs in the kitchen and putting the final decorative touches on entrees. Even so, we can’t help but be disturbed by the sight of local teenagers spitting on Mouton’s face, while he brays with laughter. It could be an initiation rite of some sort, because it isn’t repeated and, even as an outsider, he seems to have been accepted as part of the crowd. After a startling accident that occurs at the annual Sainte-Anne festival, midway through the picture, Mouton is forced to leave town and live with an uncle. It leaves a void that’s palpable in the hearts of the townsfolk and in our minds. If you’ve ever wondered what happens to the people who live and work in a resort town when the tourists leave and the bad weather arrives, co-writer/directors Marianne Pistone and Gilles Deroo paint a fairly raw portrait of life in suspended animation. It’s definitely an art film, and a French one at that. If there isn’t anything resembling action in Mouton – outside of the one disturbing sequence – our growing familiarity with the common folk keeps our eyes glued to the screen. It’s quite a trick. The filmmakers were awarded trophies as Best First Feature and a Special Jury Prize at the 2013 Locarno International Film Festival.

Katell Quillévéré’s Heal the Living is another slow-burner from France. Adapted from Maylis de Kerangal’s prize-winning novel and stage play, “Mend the Living,” it follows three seemingly unrelated stories that come together in two separate operating rooms. On its surface, Heal the Living focuses on issues commonly dealt with in medical dramas on prime-time TV. In addition to the usual tick-tock suspense that accompanies stories about finding organ donors and matching them the suitable patients, Quillévéré paints vivid portraits of everyone involved in the process. She also takes us inside the operating theater in as close an approximation of actual surgery as we’re likely to see. The triptych opens with a group of French teenagers enjoying some reckless fun at night, in the streets of Le Havre, and, in the morning, surfing at a nearby beach. On their way back home, a serious accident occurs, leaving 19-year-old Simon (Gabin Verdet) lying in a hospital bed, brain-dead. Naturally, his parents (Emmanuelle Seigner, Kool Shen) are beside themselves with grief and hesitant to make the final decision to donate his organs. As time winds down, we meet a single mother with grown sons, Claire (Anne Dorval), in another town, who learns that her weak heart is beginning to fail, and action must be taken immediately. For her own reasons, she’s reluctant to accept the gift of life. In a third storyline, two teams of doctors and medical experts struggle through their day-to-day attempts to save lives, finally kicking into high gear when the OK is given by Simon’s parents and Claire finds a reason or two to accept their gift. In 103 minutes, Quillévéré philosophically, spiritually and literally plumbs the depths of the human heart, our’s included. It arrives with thoughtful interviews and making-of material.

Inconceivable: Blu-ray
Halfway through the crazy-nanny thriller Inconceivable, I got a funny feeling that I’d seen it before, at least once. A bit later, I remembered Curtis Hanson’s The Hand That Rocks the Cradle, which is memorable in ways that Jonathan Baker’s picture never will be. In fact, the only thing that’s really stayed with me is watching Nicolas Cage play the rock of stability between two hysterical women: the sinister surrogate and babysitter played by Nicky Whelan; and the middle-class suburban mom, desperate to have a second child, portrayed by Gina Gershon. They’re both fine actors, but nowhere near as malevolent as Rebecca De Mornay or as vulnerable as Annabella Sciorra in the two key roles. Whalen plays a seriously depraved woman, Katie – we’ve already seen her in action – who moves to a new town with her young daughter and befriends Angela, Brian and 4-year-old Cora. There are no coincidences in these kinds of thrillers, so it’s only a matter of time before the bad craziness rears its ugly head. Ahead of that, however, Katie agrees to carry the couple’s fetus to term. Maybe, you can guess the rest. There are a couple of twists toward the end, but, again, nothing a faithful viewer of Lifetime movies hasn’t seen. To be far, Inconceivable has been a notoriously troubled project from the get-go. It was unveiled during the 2014 Sundance Film Festival by Lindsay Lohan, who said she would both produce and star in it. That would have been interesting. In September 2016, first-time director Baker tweeted that, while Cage, Whelan, Gershon and Faye Dunaway had agreed to join the production, the studio had nixed Lohan. Booo… Dunaway broke her leg a few days before filming began, but Baker refused to recast the role of Brian’s mother, Donna, who senses danger only slightly after than we do. By the time of Inconceivable’s planned initial release, it had yet to clear the pre-production stages. Then came the disastrous early reviews. Even so, Cage and Dunaway completists probably won’t be as hard on the movie as they were. The Blu-ray adds director’s commentary; “Behind the Scenes of Inconceivable”; a deleted scene, with a bit more of Dunaway; and cast/crew interviews with Cage, Gershon, Whelan, co-star Natalie Eva Marie, Baker and DP Brandon Cox.

The Slayer: Special Edition: Blu-ray
Snapshot: Blu-ray
Released in 1982, The Slayer (a.k.a., “Nightmare Island”) is only now being re-introduced here in DVD and Blu-ray. It’s difficult to say why, exactly, as, apart from a rather spectacular monster, it’s nothing special. Essentially, it’s a DIY affair, not unlike a slasher interpretation of Agatha Christie’s “And Then There Were None.” Most of the principals were first-timers, and only a couple of them would enjoy much of a career in the movie dodge. Co-writer/director J.S. Cardone (The Covenant) is one of them. In it, two couples set off to a secluded island for what promises to be a restful retreat. When the plane carrying them departs, not to return for a week, any genre buff worth their salt will safely assume it is destined to crash somewhere over the horizon or the pilot won’t find anyone alive on the return trip.  It doesn’t take long before one of the women conjures visions from a nightmarish painting she’s been working on back home. As if on schedule, a local fisherman is clubbed with an oar by an unseen fiend and a giant storm causes one of the men to seek the source of various noises emanating from outside the cottage. Not smart. The Slayer’s greatest asset is the Tybee Island setting, just off the coast of Georgia. Covered with marshes and woods, it seems very lonely, indeed. Today, the same beach is lined with condominiums. The monster arrives rather late in the game, but, when it does, one can’t help but be impressed. Its bad behavior prompted British censors to add the movie to the list of Video Nasties, before letting it be distributed with naughty bits removed. This “special edition” has been dutifully restored and contains fresh interviews with cast and crew; a return visit to Tybee Island, with a recent screening for the locals; a reversible sleeve, featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Justin Osbourn; a collector’s booklet, with new liner notes by writer Lee Gambin.

Released in 1979, Snapshot is a nasty little thriller that easily qualifies for any list of Ozploitation favorites. For no good reason at all, it’s also been retitled “The Day After Halloween” and “One More Minute.” In it, Angela (Sigrid Thornton) is a young hair-dresser having a hard time making ends meet. She’s been thrown out of her Melbourne home by her puritanical mother and, on the advice of a fashionable customer, agrees to test her luck as a model. The photographer coaxes her into removing her blouse, while strolling along the beach. She’s a natural, of course, and the photographer uses the photo in an advertisement for all to see. Angela then senses that someone has begun to follow her, in the most menacing of ways. There are several suspects, including a deranged ice cream truck driver, a predatory lesbian party girl, the photographer’s assistant and a sadistic ex-boyfriend … or any combination of the four. If the chills don’t last very long, at least there are a few surprises along the way. Simon Wincer would go on to direct such popular entertainments as Phar Lap, Free Willy and Quigley Down Under. The photography by Vincent Monton (Newsfront) and a pounding soundtrack from Brian May (Mad Max) add some Aussie spirit to the mix. The Vinegar Syndrome package benefits from a 2K upgrade from the 35mm camera negative; commentary with producer Tony Ginnane, Wincer, Thornton and Monton; an alternate feature-length Australian cut; “Producing Snapshot,” with Ginnane; extended interviews for the Ozploitation documentary, “Not Quite Hollywood”; a stills gallery; original cover artwork, by Speed Blur; and reversible cover artwork.

New Battles Without Honor & Humanity: Limited Edition: Blu-ray
New Battles Without Honor and Humanity: The Boss’s Head/Last Days of the Boss: Blu-ray
In the early 1970s, Kinji Fukasaku’s Battles Without Honor and Humanity pentalogy was a massive hit in Japan, kicking off a boom in realistic, modern yakuza films based on true stories. Although Fukasaku had intended to end the series, Toei Studio convinced him to return to the director’s chair for a follow-up trilogy, New Battles Without Honor & Humanity. While telling separate stories about the yakuza in different locations in Japan, the connecting tissue is provided by leading man Bunta Sugawara, who could play a cop or criminal with equal credibility. In the first film, he plays Miyoshi, a low-level assassin of the Yamamori gang, who is sent to jail after a bungled hit. While incarcerated, family member Aoki (Tomisaburo Wakayama) attempts to seize power from the boss, and Miyoshi finds himself stuck between the two factions with no honorable way out. In the second entry, The Boss’s Head, Sugawara is Kuroda, an itinerant gambler, who steps in when a hit by his drug-addicted brother-in-law, Kusunoki (Tsutomu Yamazaki), goes awry, and takes the fall on behalf of the Owada crime family. When the gang fails to honor financial promises to him, Kuroda targets the family bosses with a ruthless vengeance. In Last Days of the Boss, Sugawara plays Nozaki, a laborer who swears allegiance to a sympathetic crime lord, only to find himself elected his successor after the boss is murdered. Restrained by a gang alliance that forbids retributions against high-level members, Nozaki forms a plot to exact revenge on his rivals. Inconveniently, a suspicious relationship with his own sister (Chieko Matsubara) taints his relationship with fellow gang members. “NBWH&H” may not measure up to The Godfather Trilogy, but, as genre concepts go, it is as good as any currently available. There’s no shortage of gratuitous violence or geishas, and, as these things go, the narratives are reasonably coherent. The actors look as if they stepped out of a sepia-tinged photograph of a yakuza banquet, taken by an undercover cop, during the glory days of post-war organized crime in Japan. The films are making their English-language home-video debut in this limited edition set from Arrow Video. They feature high-definition digital transfers and original uncompressed mono audio; the featurettes, “Beyond the Films: New Battles Without Honor and Humanity,” a new video appreciation by Fukasaku biographer Sadao Yamanenew, and “New Stories, New Battles and Closing Stories,” two new interviews with screenwriter Koji Takada; original theatrical trailers; newly commissioned artwork, by Reinhard Kleist; and an illustrated collector’s book featuring new writing on the films, the yakuza genre and Fukasaku’s career, by Stephen Sarrazin, Tom Mes, Hayley Scanlon, Chris D. and Marc Walkow.

Erik the Conqueror: Special Edition: Blu-ray
In the late-1950s, after establishing himself as cinematographer and special-effects director of substance, the great Italian stylist Mario Bava was given the reins of a trio of genre films — Lust of the Vampire, Caltiki, the Immortal Monster, The Giant of Marathon – to complete, when the assigned directors pulled out of the projects. His reward was the opportunity to make the gothic chiller, Black Sunday. Purportedly based on Nikolay Gogol’s short story, “Viy,” it was a big international hit. Before he could establish his reputation as a master of suspense, horror and giallo, though, Bava was required to pay more dues in three period pieces, including a historical romance alongside Raoul Walsh, and the Viking actioner, Erik the Conqueror. It followed by three years the success of Richard Fleischer’s The Vikings, with Cameron Mitchell standing in for Kirk Douglas. (Mitchell got to keep both eyes, however.) While not a direct lift, Bava’s version would borrow and reinterpret several ideas from Fleischer. He also demonstrated how to make the most of a limited budget, shooting primarily in Rome’s Titanus Appia Studios, using props and sets from a Hercules movie, and on a beach near Anzio. (The Vikings could afford locations in France, Germany, Croatia and Norway.) Bava compensated with colorful imagery, imaginative sets, clever cinematography and, historians would point out, a less than strict attention to historical accuracy. Among other things, Viking vessels were constructed from pasta.

It opens in 786 A.D., when the invading Viking forces are repelled from the shores of Scotland, leaving behind a young boy, Erik, son of the slain Viking king. Years later, Erik (George Ardisson), raised by the English queen as her own, becomes Duke of Helford, while across the sea, his brother Eron (Mitchell) assumes leadership of the Viking horde and sets his sights on conquering England. It puts the two estranged brothers on a collision course that will determine the fates of their respective kingdoms. That’s about it, really. That, and the famously sexy Kessler twins, of Germany, and a musical score by Roberto Nicolisi (Black Sabbath). Given that it’s a rarely seen Bava title, completists and fans of Italian exploitation epics will want to check it out. It’s bloody, but no more than any other mid-century Viking film. The Arrow release features a new 2K restoration of from the original camera negative; commentary by Tim Lucas, author of “Mario Bava: All the Colors of the Dark”; “Gli imitatori,” a comparison between Erik the Conqueror and its unacknowledged source, The Vikings; the long-lost original ending; a reversible sleeve, featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Graham Humphreys’ and, first pressing only, a collector s booklet, with new writing on the film by critic Kat Ellinger.

Brian Wilson: The Second Wave: After the Surf
In 1980, when Brian Wilson’s physical and mental condition was at its most fragile, anyone who picked his name in the office dead pool must have thought they had the closest thing to a sure thing. Who would have guessed, at the time, that the Beach Boys’ resident genius not only would outlast his brothers, Dennis and Carl, but, 37 years later, be one of the hottest tickets on the international concert circuit. And, unlike the Beach Boys’ current touring formation, Brian’s “Pet Sounds 50th Anniversary World Tour” can’t be written off as an exercise in nostalgia. Although he still considers himself to be a member of the Beach Boys, he doesn’t tour with the current iteration. In 2014, several years after two solid documentaries examined his life and career, they were dramatized in the biopic “Love & Mercy,” starring John Cusack as Brian during the 1980s and Paul Dano as Brian during the 1960s. The “Pet Sounds” tour began in April 2016, and has been extended through next May. An autobiography, “I Am Brian Wilson,” co-written by ghostwriter Ben Greenman, was published last October. “No Pier Pressure,” his 11th solo studio album, was released in 2015, with a “Soundstage” concert CD/DVD performance package a year later. Not bad for a Hall of Fame musician who was written off by critics and fans during the period covered in Sexy Intellectual’s “Brian Wilson: Songwriter: 1969-1982,” the follow-up to the label’s “Brian Wilson: Songwriter: 1962-1969.” It is included in the two-DVD package from MVD, “Brian Wilson: The Second Wave: After the Surf,” alongside I.V. Media’s “Coming on Strong,” a new DVD. (“Songwriter” was previously released in 2012.) “Songwriter” spans the Beach Boys’ most adventurous period, artistically, and the group’s virtual break from Brian, due to his medical and psychological problems, label demands and his desire not to tour. It’s informed by snippets of public-domain music and the reflections of critics, producers, collaborators and historians. “Coming on Strong” features interviews recorded with Brian and the Beach Boys, collected from every period in their development. They include appearances on network talk shows, local news shows, radio broadcasts and other sources. As inarticulate as Brian appeared to be in mid-career, his responses here are surprisingly candid and perceptive about his personal issues, including drugs, alcoholism and their effect on the creative process. He’s never been less than sharp when it comes to music, his own and that of his peers and influences. Longtime fans and newcomers to Wilson’s music will find plenty of stuff here they’ll consider to be essential.

Spirits of the Somme
This DVD is for anyone whose idea of a good time is visiting Civil War battlefields and memorials – OK, I’ve toured Gettysburg and Vicksburg’s National Cemetery – and is interested in surveying other scenes of past carnage. It was made to commemorate the centennial of the Battle of the Somme, which began on July 1, 2016, and remains the blackest day in the history of the British army. More than 57,000 British casualties were logged on that one assault alone, compared to 2,000 French soldiers and untold Germans. In Spirits of the Somme, author/filmmaker Bob Carruthers returns to the battlefield to retrace the events that unfolded on the first day of the allied offensive. Drawing extensively on rare film and photographs from both British and German sources, Carruthers retraces the movements of the opposing armies, through the still-visible trenches, over and under the blood-soaked killing fields, and to the edge of a monstrous crater left by an explosive devise planted under the German lines. Artifacts from the campaign, including shrapnel and unexploded shells, still can be found in the no man’s land, once divided by barbed-wire barriers, mines and holes left by artillery shells. Memorials mark the places where bodies are buried and occasionally resurface from their long rests. It serves as a companion piece to Heroes of the Somme, reviewed a few weeks ago, that focused on the disproportionate number of sacrifices made by units from Ulster and Belfast.

Pitching Tents
Set in working-class Oil City, Pennsylvania, in post-Porky’s 1984, Jacob Cooney’s retro-raunchy Pitching Tents is a coming-of-age comedy that feels 30 years out of date. A high school senior’s desire to chart his future creates a tug-of-war between his no-nonsense father (Eric Allan Kramer) and his crackpot guidance counselor (Jim Norton), until an encounter with a teen goddess helps him uncover his true destiny. Even before the ink has dried on his diploma, Danny (Michael Grant) has been handed a union card by his dad, who demands that he start work immediately. Meanwhile, the guidance counselor hopes to parley scholarships to Slippery Rock University – it’s a real place – into some job security for himself. An aspiring artist, Danny isn’t thrilled with either option. Instead, he takes the advice of the model-quality girl (Samantha Basalari) he meets while tracking down a mythical spot on the river, where beautiful teens are said to wade topless in the water. Yup, this kind of stuff happens every day in Oil City, Pa. If Pitching Tents had been several degrees raunchier and a lot more daring – the title’s racier than anything in the movie – it might have gone somewhere. Outside of a few amusing quips by Norton, however, the movie’s pretty much a non-starter.

TV-to-DVD
PBS: Ireland’s Wild Coast Blu-ray
PBS: Visions: The Great Cities of Europe
BBC/PBS Kids: Room on the Broom
Disney XD: Star Wars Rebels: The Complete Season Three: Blu-ray
Starz: Black Sails: The Complete Fourth Season: Blu-ray
Not all travel/nature/adventure documentaries are created equal. With due regard to the Travel Channel and National Geographic, many of the best still wind up on public television. In all fairness, PBS’s advantage can be traced to alliances with services in the UK, Ireland and Australia, which take their programming as seriously as Rick Burns takes his. “Ireland’s Wild Coast” is right up there with the best nature docs I’ve ever seen. Anyone who wonders what could possibly surprise them about the well-covered Emerald Isle will be stunned by the Ireland on display here. Emmy-winning wildlife cameraman Colin Stafford-Johnson (“Broken Tail: A Tiger’s Last Journey”) takes viewers on an odyssey along Ireland’s road less traveled: the rugged Atlantic coast, once considered to be the end of the known world. It’s the place he’s choosen to make his home after 30 years spent shooting some of the world’s most celebrated wildlife films. Much of the journey is accomplished by rowboat, which allows him to stop in nooks and crannies populated with mammals, birds and fish, for whom fear of human predators no longer exists. The abundance of marine life is captured through underwater cameras, although the porpoises and whales aren’t shy about making cameos above the surface. Every so often, Stafford-Johnson will get off the boat long enough to survey the Atlantic Coast’s woodlands, cliffs, beaches and ruins of long-departed civilizations, including the early Christian monks who sought solace on offshore islands 1,500 years agoa. At 120 minutes, the Blu-ray edition of “Ireland’s Wild Coast” probably contains material edited from pledge-month airings on PBS.

Now, all that said, PBS affiliates aren’t immune from producing, picking up or distributing less-than-inspired travel and cooking shows, painting primers, economic tutorials and other non-fiction programming to fill time on the weekends, between their acclaimed children’s and exceptional prime-time lineups. (If President Trump’s resident Philistines have their way, even “Downton Abbey” and other great British mini-series might soon be too expensive for public television’s depleted coffers.) Produced by New York’s WLIW21, “Visions: The Great Cities of Europe” is part of an easy-on-the-eyes travelogue series, comprised of 20 titles, distinguished by hi-def aerial photography and Steadicam strolls along major boulevards and tourist haunts. The episodes feature straightforward voiceover narration and peppy regional music. The conceit behind “Great Cities” is its Grand Tour approach to touring Europe. Before Thomas Cook made tourism available to the hoi-polloi, it was limited to European men and women of sufficient means, as a coming-of-age ritual. Today, anyone with a backpack and part-time job can accomplish the same thing. The route taken here shouldn’t be attempted by anyone on a budget, however, as it zigzags from one corner of the continent to another, without much rhyme or reason. It can be recommended to anyone contemplating an extended vacation in Europe, but still hasn’t made up their minds as to where they’ll stop on the journey.

Nominated for an Oscar in the category of Best Animated Short Film, Room on the Broom could serve as a starter kit for kids who want to go Trick or Treating with their older siblings, but may not be ready to face the various boogiemen and hobgoblins who also make their presence known on Halloween. Based on a best-selling children’s book, it tells the story of an inquisitive, polka dot-adorned witch (voiced by Gillian Anderson) and her feline partner (Rob Brydon), who are asked to share their flying broom with critters they meet in the forest: a dog (Martin Clunes), a bird (Sally Hawkins) and a frog (David Walliams). On their journey, they encounter a dragon (Timothy Spall) and a wall of cliffs that might be too climb with the extra weight. Narrated by Simon Pegg, Room on the Broom was made by several of the same folks who collaborated on The Gruffalo, another Oscar nominee from England. It includes a reading by the author, performances for children and interviews.

Every time I begin to wonder if the folks at Lucasfilm are spreading themselves too thin, something new from the “Star Wars” universe comes along to keep fans happy until the release of the next feature-length chapter in the ongoing saga. “Star Wars Rebels: Complete Season Three” collects all 22 action-packed episodes of the animated series, which, I suspect, isn’t the easiest title to find on the cable grid. The show’s original premise places the action 14 years after the fall of the Galactic Republic and the Jedi Order, dramatized in Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith, and the rise of the Galactic Empire. A motley group of rebels unite aboard a freighter starship called the Ghost and conduct covert operations against the Imperial garrison on and around the planet Lothal and on others in the galaxy. In Season Three, the Ghost crew, now led by a more powerful Ezra, strengthens the Rebel fleet by acquiring new resources and recruits eager to stand against the Empire. The Imperial forces are now being led by the coldly analytical Grand Admiral Thrawn, whose strategic, tactical and cultural insights make him a threat unlike any they have faced in the past. Ezra and Sabine must take on new roles and challenges as the rebels prepare for their biggest mission yet, a direct assault on the Empire. It’s been announced that the upcoming fourth stanza will be the series’ last stand, with only 15 new episodes. There are plenty of special features, including “Return to Mandalore,” “Thrawn: A Legend Reborn,” “Apprentices to Outcasts: Kenobi And Maul,” “The Original Rebel: Saw Gerrera Returns” and five commentaries.

The bad news from New Providence Island is that the episodes represented in “Black Sails: The Complete Fourth Season” will complete the Starz network’s saga, which was distinguished by wild confrontations between pirates and British sailors, as well as some very hot and powerful wenches. The action takes place 20 years prior to the publication of Robert Louis Stevenson’s “Treasure Island,” where much of the action in the show’s final season leads. Otherwise, it’s war in the West Indies, and the shores of New Providence Island have never been bloodier. While Eleanor Guthrie (Hannah New) and Woodes Rogers (Luke Roberts) hold Nassau, Captain Flint (Toby Stephens) sails to strike the final blow, and from the interior, an insurgency builds, fueled by the legend of Long John Silver (Luke Arnold). But the closer civilization comes to defeat, the more desperately, and destructively, it will fight back. “Black Sails” looks and sounds great on Blu-ray, which arrives with the too-brief featurettes “Creating the World,” “Roundtable: Women in Piracy,” “Roundtable: The Legends of Treasure Island” and
“Roundtable: Fearless Fans”; the 18-minute, “Inside the World of ‘Black Sails’”; and brief episode-by-episode story recaps.

The DVD Wrapup: Guardians II, Never Let Go, La Poison, Love of a Woman, Kiki, Whale Rider and more

Thursday, August 24th, 2017

Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2: 4K UHD/Blu-ray
Last May, a couple of weeks before Hollywood’s lineup of big-budget bombs began to roll into megaplexes around the planet, Disney-Marvel gave everyone reason for optimism with a boffo launch for Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2. Not only did the sequel outperform the 2014 original on its opening weekend, but it also confirmed that such a motley crew of comic-book superheroes – the Guardians first appeared in 2008, in the sixth edition of Marvel’s “Annihilation: Conquest” – could hang with such established superheroes as Thor, Captain America and Iron Man. No fluke, it’s become the 10th franchise in the “Marvel Cinematic Universe.” Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2 also demonstrated that Hollywood’s “Rotten Tomatoes is evil” theory doesn’t hold water, by doing extremely well there and in Metacritic, with scores only a hair or two below those recorded by the original. Not that the plot would matter much to opening-weekend audiences, but, for the record, the story begins with the Guardians on the run from Rocket’s botched theft of batteries from the Sovereign, who attacks their ship with a fleet of drones. After the drones are destroyed by a mysterious figure, the Guardians crash-land on a nearby planet, where the figure reveals himself to be Quill’s father, an ancient Celestial named Ego (Kurt Russell). He invites Quill (Chris Pratt), Gamora (Zoe Saldana) and Drax the Destroyer (Dave Bautista) to his home planet, while Rocket (Bradley Cooper) and Groot (Vin Diesel) remain behind to repair the ship and guard Nebula (Karen Gillan). Sovereign High Priestess Ayesha (Elizabeth Debicki) hires Yondu Udonta (Michael Rooker) and his crew, who have been exiled from the greater Ravager community for child trafficking, to recapture the Guardians. They capture Rocket, but when Yondu hesitates to turn over Quill, whom he raised, his lieutenant Taserface (Chris Sullivan) leads a mutiny with help from Nebula. Beyond all that, “Volume 2” is a brilliantly conceived free-for-all, accompanied by classic-rock selections and entertaining as hell.

It isn’t necessary for newcomers to be conversant with Marvel mythology to enjoy “Volume 2,” but a second view of “Volume 1,” at least, is advised. For diehard fans of superhero movies, the spectacular visual presentation might even trigger the same psychedelic revelations as those experienced by their parents and grandparents during the “Star Child” sequence in 2001: A Space Odyssey. Even the opening credits, featuring Baby Groot, are worth the price of a rental. The bonus package includes, “The Making of Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, a four-part, behind-the-scenes look at the making of the film, done in the style of classic-rock album liner notes; “Visionary Intro,” in which Gunn provides context on how he expands the storylines of the beloved “GotG2” characters; “Guardians Inferno Music Video,” with David Hasselhoff and special guests at retro dance party; a gag reel; four deleted and expanded scenes; and commentary, with Gunn guiding fans through an inside look at the making of the movie. Home-theater aficionados will be thrilled to learn that Disney has finally joined the rest of the Big Six studios in agreeing to release select titles in 4K UHD, as well as Blu-ray, DVD and digital formats. Apparently, writer/director James Gunn’s pleading found the right ears at the Mouse House, which, for its own reasons, was dragging its heels. It really makes a difference. Last week, Disney announced that Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales will also be released in 4K UHD, Blu-ray, DVD and digital.

Never Let Go
I don’t know if anyone asked high-kickin’ Brit actress Angela Dixon to audition for Wonder Woman, but, as she proves in the child-abduction thriller, Never Let Go, she might have given Gal Gadot a run for her money. What she lacks in name recognition here, Dixon more than makes up for in high-octane fighting skills in this surprise direct-to-DVD/VOD success. The cover blurbs compare Howard J. Ford’s actioner to Taken, but, to my mind, it bears as close a resemblance to Not Without My Daughter (1991), in which Sally Field plays an American woman, trapped in Iran by her brutish husband, and her determination to escape the country with her daughter in tow. The difference between Never Let Go and those two Hollywood features is a budget that’s short on details and long on non-stop action. As things turned out, the financial pinch might have worked in the movie’s favor, by forcing it to be mean and lean. The movie opens with the kidnapping of a baby from its crib, while mom and dad are in the living room looking at brochures. Flash forward a couple of years and Dixon’s Lisa Brennan arrives in a Middle Eastern country (a.k.a., Morocco) with a child in her arms and no apparent reason for being there. She smells a rat when her nosy cab driver takes a detour into the Casbah, before dropping her off at her hotel. A stroll to the beach turns into a nightmare when Lisa’s attention is diverted for a few seconds and Baby Sophie is grabbed by a couple of swarthy mooks. She chases them through the narrow streets, eventually catching up with one of the men, who’s carrying an athletic bag.

In an instant, Never Let Go goes from woman-in-jeopardy picture to one in which the criminals ultimately will become the underdogs. Not only does Lisa kick the crap out of the suspect, but she also throws the poor schmuck in front of a van that can’t help but run over his still writhing body. When she looks inside the bag, it contains a melon. Undaunted, Lisa picks up the scent of the dead guy’s partners, who’ve absconded with Sophie in a different van. Running at full speed, she manages to catch up to it. Once again, Lisa takes one of the kidnappers out, before his partner splits the scene. The next thing she knows, she’s surrounded by police and, after knocking one of them out, another chase ensues … through the city’s streets, over rooftops, in and out of shops, and into the desert. The plot thickens when Lisa contacts a friend in the CIA, who’s able to trace the cellphone she tossed in the back of the vehicle carrying the baby. And, no, I’m not spoiling anything, because most of the aforementioned action takes place in the movie’s first half-hour. By now, we suspect that Lisa’s a former spook – like Liam Neeson, in Taken – and quite capable of taking matters into her own lethal hands. But, wait, there’s more. What happened to Lisa and Sophie in the Casbah is related to something happening in Washington. Like I said, the details are murky, but not completely out of the realm of plausibility. I hope Dixon is able to use her work here as a catapult to bigger and better things.

La Poison: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
The Love of a Woman: Special Edition: Blu-ray
One of the limitations of a liberal-arts education is not being given the opportunity delve deeply into any one discipline, until, perhaps, graduate school. An early exposure to film history – in my day, anyway – would have included such texts as Arthur Knight’s “The Liveliest Art: A Panoramic History of Movies” and the collected criticism of James Agee or Stanley Kauffmann, as well as screenings of the acknowledged classics, using ancient 16mm projectors from the school’s AV department. The methodology may have been far from perfect, but even a single showing of Citizen Kane or Casablanca could spark a lifelong passion for film. Maybe, even, a career. When the subject of French cinema was broached, there was barely enough time left in the semester to get past The Rules of the Game, La Grande Illusion, Zero for Conduct or Beauty and the Beast, before skipping ahead to La Nouvelle Vague. Today, of course, anyone sufficiently interested in the international cinema to own a subscription to Netflix or FilmStruck, a decent video monitor and Blu-ray player, can give themselves the equivalent of a Master’s degree in film history, without leaving home. This week’s release schedule offers glimpses of the French cinema from the years not generally covered in overview classes. If the “release info” provided on IMDB.com is to be believed, La Poison and The Love of a Woman weren’t accorded distribution in the U.S. Now, thanks to Criterion and Arrow, there’s no excuse for skipping over them and other unacknowledged classics.

Sacha Guitry’s inky black comedy, La poison (1951), marked the first collaboration between the celebrated writer/actor/director and the incomparably expressive actor Michel Simon, who, two decades earlier, had starred in Jean Vigo’s L’Atalante and Renoir’s Boudu Saved from Drowning. In Guitry’s sinister profile of a marriage grown sour, Simon plays a village gardener, Paul Louis Victor Braconnier, who, one day, decides to murder his wife of 30 years (Germaine Reuver), before the wino kills him. (She’s already purchased enough rat poison to pull it off.) Although the disheveled geezer doesn’t look fit enough to tie his own shoes, he’s able to pull himself together for a visit to the region’s most acclaimed defense attorney, who’d just been interviewed on radio for scoring another tough acquittal. By playing to the lawyer’s vanity, Braconnier tricks him into describing how he might escape conviction for a crime he admits to already committing. He hasn’t, but the advice allows Braconnier to strike first when his wife decides to spike his drink with the la poison. Is it a case of premeditated murder or self-defense? After admitting his culpability at trial, the old sot sidesteps his attorney long enough to plead his own case. La poison was inspired by Guitry’s own post-World War II tangle with the law — a wrongful charge of collaborationism – turning near tragedy into a blithely caustic broadside against the French legal system and a society all too eager to capitalize on others’ misfortunes. Even after more than 60 years, the comedy feels fresh and relevant. The supplemental features include Dominique Maillet’s 2010 documentary “On Life On-Screen: Miseries and Splendor of a Monarch,” on the Guidry/Simon collaboration; a new interview with director Olivier Assayas (Irma Vep), on the filmmaker’s influence on French cinema; an episode of “Cineaste de notre temps”; and illustrated booklet featuring professor Ginette Vincendeau’s essay, “La poison — or, How to Kill Your Wife,” Francois Truffaut’s 1957 appreciation, “The Mischievous Sacha Guitry.”

The Love of a Woman was the final feature of the highly regarded French filmmaker Jean Grémillon, concluding a string of classics that included Remorques, Lumiere d’ete and Pattes blanches. The Sirkian melodrama follows a young doctor, Marie (Micheline Presle), who arrives on the island of Ushant to replace its retiring physician. While attempting to overcome suspicion and sexism in the cloistered Breton fishing village, Marie finds love in the form of Italian engineer André Lorenzi (Massimo Girotti). As long as Andre’s job keeps him on the island, their life together is wonderfully romantic. Marie agrees to join him in marriage, even if it means leaving the island, where she’s become something of a hero. It isn’t until Andre reveals his true feelings about a woman’s place in such a partnership that Marie begins to reconsider her commitment to him. He insists that she stay at home and play happy little homeworker, forsaking her medical degree and vocation. Although she refuses to agree to such an ultimatum, Marie remains deeply in love with Andre. Gremillon gives her one further opportunity to back out and, ostensibly, break the hearts of women who would have killed to spend the rest of their lives with Girotti. In 1953, there was no guarantee a pre-feminist instinct would be allowed to triumph over tradition in a commercial film. The Love of a Woman benefits greatly from the Île d’Ouessant, Finistère, locations, as well as the terrific performances. The restored disc adds “In Search of Jean Gremillon,” a feature-length documentary on the filmmaker from 1969, containing interviews with, among others, director Rene Clair, archivist Henri Langlois, actors Micheline Presle and Pierre Brasseur. The reversible sleeve features original and newly commissioned artwork by Jennifer Dionisio and, on the first pressing, an illustrated collector’s booklet, with new writing on the film by critic Ginette Vincendeau.

Kiki
It’s been 25 years since Paris Is Burning introduced the art of voguing to the world outside Harlem’s drag and ballroom scene, and Madonna glommed onto it for a concert tour and music video — directed by David Fincher – targeted at a generation of white suburbanites unlikely to ever set foot on 125th Street. If anything, New York’s contemporary “kiki” culture is even less recognized outside New York’s underground dance community than voguing was in 1990. Sara Jordenö’s documentary, Kiki, revisits the city’s still-thriving underground scene, this time for Swedish television audiences similarly unlikely to risk a Harlem sojourn. In doing so, she also was able to chronicle something that speaks as much to the tumult of our times as the evolution of a unique dance craze. Where voguing involved striking a series of poses, inspired by models in Vogue magazine, kiki choreography allows for hyperkinetic motion, broadly expressive gestures, flamboyant costumes and free-style interpretations of dynamic hip-hop songs. A quarter-century ago, when voguing rose from the then-LGT subculture – the initialism has since grown to LGBTTQQIAAP, in some quarters – the best posers competed at balls for money and trophies. Outwardly, at least, the Roaring ’80s and ’90s were more accommodating to drag and transsexual artists, as exemplified by the rise of RuPaul, than the Oughts and 2010s have been for youths of color, whose gender identification is less fixed. The kiki community is subdivided into “houses,” not unlike the krewes of Mardi Gras, that provide safe havens for at-risk teens in desperate need of acceptance, support, friendship and structure. Among the houses here are Juicy Couture, Unbothered Cartier and Pink Lady, which are run by “house mothers” and “fathers,” such as co-writer Twiggy Pucci Garcon. They also strive to refine their sons’ and daughters’ creative expression, through dance, fashion and cosmetics. Jordenö goes beyond the glamour of the balls to highlight the serious personal challenges facing queer black and Latino young people, some of whom are homeless, jobless and targets of physical abuse from bullies, police and tricks. She also finds a few genuine success stories among the people we meet.

Whale Rider: 15th Anniversary Edition: Blu-ray
It feels as if more than 15 years have passed since Whale Rider, Niki Caro’s wonderful story of female empowerment, was released. Even at second glance, in Blu-ray, it remains every bit as entertaining and endearing as ever. In 2002, New Zealand seemed to be an extremely remote country, whose many physical attributes would only become known to folks north of the equator in the public-relations campaign that accompanied Peter Jackson’s first Lord of the Rings chapter. Lee Tamahori’s unforgiving drama, Once Were Warriors (1994), exposed arthouse audiences to Maori customs and the societal problems faced by those living in Auckland. If American viewers took one thing away from from Tamahori’s film it probably was the the head-to-toe tā moko – not tattoos, exactly, but close enough – that adorned the young men. For all we knew, the designs were nothing more than exaggerated facsimiles of the tattoos acquired by American and Russian convicts in prison. In fact, they represented a resurgence in cultural pride on the part of Maori youth. Equally fascinating was the haka dance performed by one gang member, while incarcerated in a detention center. We’d see the tradition repeated and expanded upon in Whale Rider, which is set entirely on Maori land and only briefly introduces a gangsta’ element. The haka is a traditional ancestral war cry, dance or challenge directed at an enemy, as a way of intimidating them. It features grotesque facial gestures, vigorous movements and stamping of the feet, with rhythmically shouted accompaniment. The dramatic body and facial inkings completed the ferocious package. Since then, the haka has been adopted by athletes, including by the All-Blacks rugby squad and football teams representing the universities of Hawaii and Arizona. It’s found its way to presentations before visiting royalty and high school heritage programs.

In Whale Rider, which is based on Witi Ihimaera’s 1987 novel, one of the ways a precocious 12-year-old girl demonstrates her independence from hidebound tradition is by leading the boys in her community in a haka. Her grandfather, Koro (Rawiri Paratene), the leader of the village, takes her presumption as a personal insult to him, his ancestors and the Maori gods. He tries to keep Paikea in her place, but she’s far too stubborn to remain there. In her debut performance, Oscar-nominated Keisha Castle-Hughes plays the rebellious girl, whose twin brother was supposed to have inherited their grandfather’s mantel as village leader, but died, along with their mother, in childbirth. Koro blames Paikea and her father, Porourangi (Cliff Curtis), for the boy’s death and failure to produce a future village elder in his line. With remarkable grace and courage, Pai spends the next 12 years of her life summoning the strength to both challenge and embrace a thousand years of tradition, which, she believes, entitles her to a leadership position in the tribe. (Koro is said to be descended from the first Maori arrival, Paikea, who, after falling from a large ocean-going waka canoe, was carried from Hawaiki, in eastern Polynesia, to Aotearoa, on the back of a whale. Only the first-born grandson of a direct descendant of Paikea can ascend to chief, in what’s now New Zealand.)

Even though she’s a quick study and Koro eventually warms to her, he refuses to consider her credentials. Instead, the girl decides that her fate rests in fins of the native whale population, themselves descended from the Tohora that delivered the original settler to the village, on its back. It’s only after Pai decides she’ll risk further alienating Koro, by not joining her artist father in self-imposed German exile, that things take a turn toward the supernatural. Because so much of Maori tradition is based on myths and legends, the twist doesn’t feel at all forced or gratuitous. Neither does the subtle interplay between Pai and the tightknit group of women in the village – it was shot on location in Whangara, in the northeast of New Zealand’s North Island — whose primary responsibility appears to be feeding the males, but clearly use their apron strings to keep a tight hold on them. If you haven’t already guessed, Whale Rider is an ideal movie for family viewing. Disney’s animated feature, Moana, articulates similar themes, and would make a dandy double-feature. For this Blu-ray anniversary edition, Shout!Factory has ported over six supplements from the Columbia Tristar/Sony “Special Edition” DVD of Whale Rider and also included the Keisha Castle-Hughes screen tests that appeared on the European editions. A still gallery varies from the pictures displayed previously, as well. It also includes “Riding the Wave: The Whale Rider Story,” Caro’s commentary and deleted scenes.

Kill Switch: Blu-ray
One of the gimmicks currently in vogue with creators of indie sci-fi features is to deliver the action from the perspective of a shooter’s point-of-view in a video game. Hardcore Henry was exhilarating and ridiculous in equal measure, while the CG-animated Resident Evil: Vendetta only occasionally deployed the first-person perspective. The conceit first was used in director/star Robert Montgomery’s Lady in the Lake (1947), when the camera stood in for P.I. Philip Marlowe as our guide through the mystery. It was only when Marlowe briefly glanced at a mirror, twice, that Montgomery was revealed in the reflection. Thanks to Raymond Chandler’s plot twists and hard-boiled dialogue, Lady in the Lake did OK at the box office for MGM. In Kill Switch, the novelty wears off rather quickly. Video games have become so sophisticated, the creative boundaries that once separated movies and games have largely disappeared. A gamer can stay riveted to a screen for hours at a time, thanks to imaginatively drawn characters and ever-changing scenarios. Imagine looking over the shoulder of a gamer for more than 10 or 15 minutes and you’ll get an idea of Kill Switch’s dilemma. Even so, if all a sci-fi buff is looking for is 91 minutes of diverting, hands-free entertainment, it might do the trick. The dystopian throughline isn’t strong enough to carry the load on its own merits. VFX specialist Tim Smit’s feature debut was adapted from his YouTube short, “What’s in the Box?,” and that probably was its ideal length.

It could have benefitted, as well, from remaining in first-person mode through the film, instead of slipping into the more traditional third-person narrative stance in flashbacks. The transitions could be jarring. As for the story: sometime in the future, when the energy crisis has reached a critical juncture, a company’s bold experiment to harness unlimited quantum energy from an unlikely source goes terribly wrong. Alterplex’s idea involved create a mirror image of Earth – the Echo world — that could serve as a surrogate host for the planet’s energy requirements. Power would be transmitted through huge towers that suck energy from the Echo world and send it to generators below. No, I didn’t get it, either. When it becomes clear that something’s going haywire, and Alterplex’s strategy is in jeopardy, it recruits physicist/pilot Will Porter (Dan Stevens) to retrieve a box that could prevent disaster. Meanwhile, the world is imploding and Will becomes concerned that his family needs to be saved, first. Before he can get to them, however, he has to contend with killer drones and other distractions. Charity Wakefield (“Wolf Hall”) and Bérénice Marlohe (Skyfall) add some welcome eye candy to the mix. The Blu-ray includes “The Visual Effect: Inside the Director’s Process” and Smit’s commentary.

A Blast
Although Greeks have been making feature-length films for the better part of the last 100 years, the flow of their output has been interrupted for several long periods of time by civil wars, occupying forces, fascist governments and economic turmoil. Until a recent spurt of activity, the list of internationally prominent filmmakers has pretty much been limited to Michael Cacoyannis (Zorba the Greek), Melina Mercouri/Jules Dassin (Never on Sunday), Theo Angelopoulos (Ulysses’ Gaze), George Tzavellas (Antigone), Costa-Gavras (Z) and Vasilis Georgiadis (Blood on the Land). The New Wave, also referred to as the Greek Weird Wave, is represented by such adventurous practitioners as, among others, Yorgos Lanthimos (Dogtooth), Athina Rachel Tsangar (Attenberg), Tassos Boulmetis (A Touch of Spice), Argyris Papadimitropoulos (Suntan), Alexandros Avranas (Miss Violence), Panos H. Koutras’s (Strella), Yannis Economides’s (Knifer) and Christopher Papakaliatis (Worlds Apart). The common denominator among the newer titles is the giant shadow cast by Greece’s well-publicized financial woes, which have threatened the country with bankruptcy and more belt-tightening than anyone could have possibly anticipated. As if that weren’t enough of a cross to bear, Greece has also been on the front lines of the refugee crisis and a revival of radical nationalism. For a country that’s always valued its ability to maintain a distinctly Greek culture, apart from its European neighbors, the shock of the new has been devastating. Syllas Tzoumerkas’ A Blast describes how the foundations of one woman’s life shifted over the course of a decade, leaving her off-balance and without hope that things will improve anytime soon. Her personal descent into madness reminded me of Thelma & Louise and A Woman Under the Influence, in equal measure.

Angeliki Papoulia (Dogtooth) delivers an emotionally charged performance as Maria, a middle-class Athenian who was well on her way to law school when she fell in lust with a handsome Greek sailor, Yannis (Vassilis Doganis), and promptly became the mother of three small children. Her sister, Gogo, helps with the kids, but only when she’s able to pry herself away from her lazy, neo-Fascist husband, Costas, who Maria suspects of being a pedophile. Her wheelchair-bound mother hasn’t paid the taxes on her family-run convenience store for a decade – in Greece, withholding taxes is almost as popular a pastime as soccer – and her father is largely unresponsive to the storm swirling around him. Yannis, now a pilot of oil tankers, is rarely home. When he is, however, there’s no way he can satisfy her mad sexual cravings, perhaps because of the time he’s spent with his male lover and various bargain-basement prostitutes. Forced to scramble to meet a tax deadline, Maria races around Athens collecting her parents’ pension benefits, concocting far-out schemes and gradually reaching her boiling point. If there were any doubt, Tzoumerkas adds a couple of bizarre set pieces that confirm her decline. They involve a none-too-private search for pornography in a public library and a therapy session in which Maria tells the other participants that she has lived a “ridiculous life.” Everything leads to an abandonment of her family, a wild car chase with police and a finale that reeks of desperation and madness. Tzoumerkas is able to maintain a frantic pace – flashbacks and all – throughout all 83 minutes of A Blast.

Effects: Blu-ray
If nothing else, the re-release of Effects on Blu-ray proves that you can’t keep a good exploitation film down. Made in the late 1970s, by friends and associates of the late, great George A. Romero, it was only shown at a few festivals before being put on the shelf for 25 years. Synapse Films resurrected Effects in 2005, on DVD, adding a couple of supplements that have been ported over to this AGFA Blu-ray. While far from perfect, Dusty Nelson’s DIY thriller should please genre fans in search of a true artifact from the dawn of the slasher era. Not surprisingly, given the Romero link, Effects was shot on location in the hills and forests outside Pittsburgh. A film crew has gathered in remote cabin to make a slasher film that appears to be morphing into a grindhouse quickie, “Duped: The Snuff Movie.” That’s because accidents that aren’t really accidents begin to occur, nearly as soon as the first line of cocaine is cut. The laid-back director (Nelson) appears to be unfazed by the seemingly unrelated blunders, however, for reasons that will become apparent when he screens footage of a woman in lingerie getting hacked apart in a truly lifelike setting. When the FX specialist smells something fishy, he becomes the bait in a lethal game of cat-and-mouse. If it’s possible for viewers to discount the cheesy production values, the 84-minute Effects can be as entertaining as any of the low-budget genre flicks sent out on DVD/VOD platforms today. Cast members Tom Savini, Joe Pilato and John Harrison might be recognizable from such pictures as Day of the Dead, Dawn of the Dead, Tales From the Crypt and Tales From the Darkside: The Movie. Despite the movie’s obscurity, it carries a surprising number of bonus material, including “After Effects,” an hourlong retrospective by Michael Felsher and his Red Shirt Productions team; Felsher’s commentary; “Ubu,” a short film by Harrison; “Beastie,” a short film by Nelson; and an archival commentary track featuring Harrison, Nelson and Pasquale Buba. Lots of nice things are said about Romero in Felsher documentary.

Dead Story
Despite a couple of well-executed twists, Suneel Tripuraneni’s first feature, Dead Story, resembles too many other debut films to be considered fresh or terribly compelling in a crowded genre. It reportedly found some traction on YouTube before hitting the DVD marketplace, and that’s as it should be. A young couple, Ann and Harold (Kelsey Deanne, Chase Austin), decide that it’s time for them to commit to a home outside the city limits that’s large enough to raise a family. Too bad, they didn’t wait to inquire about local legends, including the one concerning the murder that took place there, years earlier. It’s revealed during a housewarming meal with friends, who probably should have held back on the chilling information. Sure enough, even before the mailman can make his first delivery, the ghostly spirit of the killer appears, wielding a knife and long-held grudge. Of course, the phantom only makes herself known to Ann, causing Harold to doubt his wife’s sanity, which only makes her act that much nuttier. It’s even causing trouble at work, which is an hour’s drive from home. He thinks he’s doing Ann a favor by inviting his mother to babysit her while he’s away. Despite appearances, Mommy Dearest hates her daughter-in-law and uses her fear of the none-to-welcoming ghost to torment her. In Dead Story’s single surprisingly development, Ann finally comes to her senses long enough to turn the table on the specter by taking the offensive. Much of the spooking takes place outside the rural Texas house, which is another plus.

We the Parents
Even if solutions are elusive, most Americans agree that public schools in this country are a mess. Unfortunately, the vast majority of parents and guardians aren’t able to afford the small fortunes needed to send the kiddies to private or parochial schools. In 2010, Parent Revolution, a new nonprofit lobbying organization headed by executive director Ben Austin and funded by such high-profile organizations as the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, launched a campaign in the California legislature for a law allowing parents to transform troubled schools. The proposed parent-trigger bill specified that such reforms might include replacing principals and staff, turning the institution into a charter school, or shuttering it entirely. If passed, it would require a majority of parents sign a petition to get things moving, and that’s never easy to pull off. James and Jennifer Welsh Takata’s We the Parents is a feature-length documentary that follows a courageous group of parents in impoverished, gang-ridden Compton, California, who lead the first-ever attempt to take over their failing public elementary school. It’s only a small part of a much larger problem in the politically corrupt suburb of Los Angeles. The film also demonstrates how such a movement might take root in other districts. (Similar laws have been adopted subsequently by Louisiana, Mississippi, Connecticut, Texas, Indiana and Ohio.) We the Parents attempts to provide an honest and balanced depiction of events through a combination of verité footage and interviews, while using animation to explain complex concepts in an entertaining way. Educators, parents, organizers, journalists, administrators and politicians provide key insights and lessons learned from the first implementation of the law.

TV-to-DVD
PBS: The Great British Baking Show, Season 4
Nickelodeon: Shimmer and Shine: Magical Pets of Zahramay Falls
Unlike certain members of my family, who will remain anonymous for the purposes of this item, I have yet to become to become addicted to the show known here as “The Great British Baking Show,” but elsewhere as “The Great British Bake Off.” Apparently, Pillsbury owns the rights to the “bake off” concept in the U.S. and doesn’t want others appropriating it for their own use. By either name, it’s become a not-so-guilty pleasure for folks on both sides of the pond, who prefer their reality shows to be as realistic, clever and personable as possible. The great recipes are, well, gravy. British audiences have enjoyed seven seasons of the BBC show, as compared to the four which have aired here, on PBS, in a reversed broadcast order. Last September, midway through Season Seven, its producers announced that the series would move to rival broadcaster Channel 4. The day after the announcement, co-presenters and comedy partners Mel Giedroyc and Sue Perkins said they would not follow suit, as did judge Mary Berry a bit later. Professional baker and co-judge Paul Hollywood decided to stick with “Bake Off,” newly accompanied by presenters Sandi Toksvig and Noel Fielding, and judge Prue Leith. Early reviews suggest that the transition appears to have gone smoothly, even if viewers will have to get used to commercial intervals. Three seasons of “Baking Show” are available on Netflix, which will acquire the Channel 4 episodes. After seven seasons, the show has become a significant part of British culture – and a hit on PBS — and is credited with reinvigorating interest in baking throughout the United Kingdom. Many of its participants, including winners, have gone on to start a career based on baking. Unlike most other such competition shows, there’s plenty of room left here for trademark British humor and attitude, as well as the occasional mistake or accident.

The first season of Nickelodeon’s “Simmer and Shine” took place in the human world and focused on a young girl named Leah, who is friends with a pair of twin genies-in-training named Shimmer and Shine. Leah’s genies grant her three wishes every day, but they often don’t work out as planned. In Season Two, the many different characters are transported to Zahramay Falls, Shimmer and Shine’s magical homeland. Leah reveals her genies’ existence to her neighbor and best friend, Zac, who is given a genie of his own, Kaz. The season adds the sovereign of the land, Princess Samira; Samira’s pet peacock, Roya; Zeta, a villainous sorceress; and Zeta’s dragon, Nazboo. The eight episodes included in “Shimmer and Shine: Magical Pets of Zahramay Falls” are “Untamed Talent,” “Pet Bedroom,” “Zany Zaffilon,” “Now You See Her,” “Dragon Pox,” “Bungle in the Jungle,” “Potion Control” and “Boom Zahra-mom.”

The DVD Wrapup: Latin Lover, After the Storm, Bluebeard, Meantime, Hickok and more

Thursday, August 17th, 2017

How to Be a Latin Lover: Blu-ray
Salma Hayek and Eugenio Derbez both launched their careers in Mexico, in sitcoms and telenovelas, before finding success north of the border and, many years later, appearing together in How to Be a Latin Lover. Among many other honors, Hayek has been nominated for an Academy Award, for her portrayal of artist Frida Kahlo, in Frida, and an Emmy for “Ugly Betty,” which she also executive-produced. In 2014, Derbez was recognized by Variety as the most influential Hispanic male in the entertainment industry. The Mexican dramedy Instructions Not Included, which the 55-year-old Mexico City native had just directed, co-wrote and starred in, became the most successful Spanish-language film ever in the U.S., coming within a whisker of the $100-million barrier worldwide. I don’t know if that’s what qualified him for a star on the Walk of Fame, but, there it is, at 7013 Hollywood Boulevard.Hayek, who certainly deserves one, has either declined to participate in the nominating process or isn’t blessed with a sponsor willing to cough up the estimated $40,000 to grease the selection committee. Half-Bolivian Raquel Welch, their co-star in Ken Marino’s fluffy How to Be a Latin Lover, was accorded a star on the Walk of Fame in 1993. The bilingual comedy marks the first time in more than a decade that the 76-year-old bombshell has appeared on the big screen. Just for the record, she still looks great. With dialogue in Spanish and English, How to Be a Latin Lover recovered a respectable $32.1 million at the domestic box and another $30 million overseas. It would be nice to think that those numbers mark a trend and exhibitors are paying attention to Spanish-speaking audiences. Lionsgate has testied the DVD waters with such titles as Everybody Loves Somebody, Un Padre No Tan Padre, 600 Miles, The Legend of Chupacabras and Sundown. It’s doing so in a “synergistic partnership” with Hollywood-based Pantelion Films and Mexican conglomerate, Grupo Televisa.

In How to Be a Latin Lover, Derbez plays aging Mexican gigolo Maximo, whose childhood dream was to come to the U.S. and make a fortune doing as little as possible. While working in the kinds of resorts that attract rich, lonely American widows, Maximo saw an opportunity and grabbed one… Peggy, played in her dotage by 84-year-old Renée Taylor. No longer a spring rooster, himself, Maximo is caught by surprise when he’s aced out of her affections by a baby-faced car salesman (Michael Cera). It leaves the graying lothario down and out in Beverly Hills, in desperate need of a new sponsor. In a nice twist, Rob Lowe plays a friend and fellow gigolo, who’s shacked up with a kinky old broad (Linda Lavin), who may be even richer than Peg. Desperate, Maximo reaches out to his estranged sister, Sara (Hayek), a single mother living in far more meager quarters across tow. After begging Sara to take him in, Maximo promises to take care of her young son, Hugo, while she’s at work. Conveniently, the boy has earned a scholarship to a posh prep school, which Maximo senses is a target-rich zone for rich old dames he still might be able to seduce. Conveniently, Hugo has a crush on the cute blond granddaughter of Welsh’s spinster character, who’s even wealthier than Peggy and Millicent. If you’ve already guessed that Maximo will mentor Hugo in the delicate art of being a Latin lover, and play wingmen for each other in pursuit of their mutual goals, go to the head of the class. Derbez is an excellent comic actor, who isn’t reluctant to look stupid when a gag needs to be pushed beyond its natural limits.Hayek does a nice job as his foil. Also funny are veteran L.A. improv comics Kristen Bell (Frozen), Rob Corddry (“Ballers”), Rob Riggle (“Angie Tribeca”), Rob Huebel (“Transparent”), Mather Zickel (“Masters of Sex”), Ben Schwartz (“House of Lies”), Michaela Watkins (“Transparent”) and Alfred “Weird Al” Yankovic (“Comedy Bang! Bang!”). Special features include deleted and extended scenes; the featurettes, ”Show Me Your Sexy! Learning How to Be a Latin Lover” and ”A Little Help From My Friends”; and commentary with director Ken Marino (“Party Down”), producer Ben Odell, and editor John Daigle.

After the Storm: Blu-ray
It would be easy to categorize the people we meet in After the Storm, Hirokazu Koreeda’s latest intricately sketched portrait of a troubled Japanese family, as dysfunctional and leave it at that. Two of the characters, siblings played by Hiroshi Abe and Satomi Kobayashi, fit that description and could be recognized as damaged goods anywhere the world. Everyone else pays the price for their dysfunction, in various ways. The recent death of the family’s patriarch, a Willy Loman type, whose promises of a better life always went unfulfilled, forced his elderly wife and children to come to grips with his legacy of unmet expectations. At the center of the drama is Ryota, a prize-winning novelist who’s been resting on his laurels for the past 15 years. He no longer is able to pay alimony and child support, and his ex-wife has started seeing a man he fears will fill the gap as father figure to his teenage son. Ryota has convinced the people around him that he’s working at a private-detective agency to accumulate material for a book. Lately, though, he’s begun extorting money from the guilty spouses he photographs entering “love hotels.” He’ll piss away it away at the local racetrack. Even so, we pull for him to hit the lottery jackpot. Like his similarly devious sister, Ryota depends on the kindness and generosity of their mother to afford such luxuries as baseball equipment for his son and ice-skating lessons for her daughter. When mom’s monthly benefits dry up, the siblings sneak behind her back to find family heirlooms to pawn. Even then, the items are rarely as valuable as the old man claimed. Sometimes, too, their mother will have already pawned the items, making up excuses to explain their absence. The title, After the Storm, refers to the near-constant threat of typhoons in Japan and the promise of serenity when they pass. The most cathartic scene occurs as a storm passes over the mother’s housing project and the whole family comes together, either to get more money from mother or learn, once and for all, if there’s anything left to salvage from Ryota’s failed marriage and shared custody. Because Koreeda is in no hurry to solve any of his character’s problem or deflate their balloons, the narrative rests on his ability to make us care about subsidiary characters and mine the gold in the time father and son are together. When Ryota is allowed some quality time with the boy, some of it is spent picking out lottery tickets … as if to imply that the sins of the father and grandfather will be visited on him, as well. By the time the typhoon passes, we care about this family almost as much we care about our own. Bonus features include an excellent 73-minute making-of featurette and short film, “The Last Dream.”

Bluebeard: Blu-ray
It’s been a long time between features for Korean writer/director Lee Soo-youn, whose 2003 ghost story, The Uninvited, received a lot of attention on genre websites. Based on what happens in the first 20 minutes of his proctological thriller, Bluebeard, it’s possible he attended medical school in the interim. I can’t recall seeing another movie whose plot revolved around information inadvertently shared with a doctor during a colonoscopy. And, if that weren’t sufficiently bizarre, the doctor is monitoring a computer screen showing the interior of the man’s lower intestine when his patient admits to being a serial killer. It’s visible to viewers, as well. Having undergone a couple such procedures, myself, I can attest to the mostly pleasant side effects of Demerol on a semi-alert patient during the procedure. While the old man is describing in excruciating detail how he disposed of the bodies, a woman in the next station imagines she’s experiencing anal sex for the first time, deeming it not half bad. Turns out, the man undergoing the procedure is Dr. Seung-hoon’s landlord, who, with his son, own a butcher shop underneath his apartment. Thus, it’s well within the bounds of possibility that they could be the fiends responsible for the hideous string of murders and dismemberments that have plagued the city for years. When a bag containing what the doctor fears is a severed head arrives at his apartment, it causes the doctor to suspect that his downstairs neighbors are aware of the drug-induced confession and might be trying to frame him. An unexpected visit from a dogged police investigator triggers a severe case of paranoia in the doctor, complete with hallucinations and self-destructive behavior. Eventually, Lee adds a few too many plot twists to the narrative, causing viewers to wonder if they might have missed something along the way. Still, it’s a novel addition to a genre that tends to repeat the same old clichés, without advancing it. It should go without saying, by now, as well, that Bluebeard isn’t for the squeamish. Being able to handle gallons of fake blood is one thing, getting a front-row seat to a colonoscopy is quite another.

Chuck: Blu-ray
There was a time, not so long ago, when heavyweight boxers ruled the world of sports. In Las Vegas, nothing compared to the atmosphere surrounding a heavyweight championship bout. It attracted high-rollers from around the world and action at the tables improved from one end of the Strip to the other. Not to take anything away from today’s hottest tickets – Floyd Mayweather Jr., Manny Pacquiao, Conor McGregor – but weighing in at 150 pounds and standing 5-foot-7 is no match for cherished memories of Muhammad Ali, at 6-3, 210 pounds, opposite Sonny Liston, at 6-foot-1 and 218 pounds. Even the weigh-ins generated intense anticipation and excitement. When the government denied Ali’s right to abstain from fighting in a war he considered to be against his religious value, and deprived him of his boxing license for three years, the vacuum was palpable. When, in 1975, Ali agreed to fight a largely unknown brawler named Chuck Wepner, he was 10 pounds heavier and a bit less nimble than he was in 1964. Most people predicted that Ali would dance the challenger dizzy or, worst case, pull the rope-a-dope out of his bag of tricks and let the pug punch himself to exhaustion. Then and only then, Ali would connect with a bewildering series of jabs, knocking the Bayonne Bleeder out cold. As Philippe Falardeau recalls in his affectionate portrait of a lovable loser, Chuck, Wepner inexplicably lasted nearly all 12 rounds against the man many observers still consider to be the greatest fighter of them all, losing by a TKO with 20 seconds to go.

If neither fighter could claim total victory, Wepner, at least, beat the odds. A year later, Sylvester Stallone would use him as the model for Rocky Balboa, apparently without his permission or financial compensation. That was OK with Wepner, who was still enjoying the afterglow of his 15 minutes of fame. (Is it still too late for “Dancing With the Stars”?) He would meet Stallone and audition for a part in Rocky II (1979). After being introduced to cocaine, things would go downhill for Chuck. He did, however, learn an important lesson from being sent to prison, emerging from the experience happier and healthier than ever. He was able to replace one good wife (Elizabeth Moss) with another (Naomi Watts) and regain some of the luster that comes with being a lovable loser. He’s still recruited for the occasional sports documentary. At 6-3, Liev Schreiber not only looks the part of a perennial punching bag, but he also does a credible job portraying the flat-footed fighter in the ring. Old pros Ron Perlman, Michael Rapaport and Jim Gaffigan add character to the production, as does a gritty script co-written by Jeff Feuerzeig (The Devil and Daniel Johnston), Jerry Stahl (Permanent Midnight) and Michael Cristofer (Original Sin). Sadly, Chuck was only accorded an extremely limited release. It deserves to do better in DVD/Blu-ray.

Hickok: 4K UHD/Blu-ray
In the Pantheon of Wild West heroes and villains, James Butler “Wild Bill” Hickok holds a sacred place at the juncture of myth and reality. In the media, the Illinois-born gunfighter, scout, gambler and occasional lawman is most frequently portrayed as a protector of settlers on the edge of the frontier and enemy of drunken cowboys out to make a name for themselves by shooting such a legendary figure. The first movie to feature Hickok and, for that matter, Wyatt Earp, was released in 1923, with William S. Hart in the lead role and Bert Lindley playing the still very much alive former lawman. Wild Bill Hickok set a precedent, which Hollywood continues to honor, for playing fast and loose with the facts. It’s nice to report that Hickok, Cinedigm’s modestly budgeted oater, is best when it sticks closest to the known facts. Timothy Woodward Jr. and Michael Lanahan’s story covers a very specific period in Wild Bill’s life – no more than a year, total – with an obvious regard for a semblance of the truth, at least. Some of the things that happen, including the diagnosis of his glaucoma (a.k.a., moon blindness), while accurate, happened elsewhere and at a different time in his life. They are folded into the narrative in ways only historians would notice. After an unnecessarily violent incident in a previous posting, Wild Bill (Luke Hemsworth) moves to the railhead town of Abilene, Kansas. After standing up to the mean-spirited owner of the local saloon/brothel (Trace Adkins), the mayor (Kris Kristofferson) talks him into accepting the vacant post of town marshal. He’s able to talk the mayor into making it unlawful for anyone, except lawmen, to carry firearms within the borders of the town. Somehow, this negatively impacts business at the saloon, causing the proprietor to enlist the services of the equally notorious gunslinger, John Wesley Hardin (Kaiwi Lyman), who was in Abilene after a cattle drive and refuses to comply to the new statute. Instead of settling the matter in a drawdown on Main Street, Hickok manages to convince Hardin to wear the star of deputy marshal, which allows him to carry weapons and have Wild Bill’s back. Together, they’ll be required to take on a small army of cowboys, attracted by a $500 bounty, hoping to eliminate Hickok. The filmmakers also conceive a love triangle, by adding luscious Cameron Richardson to the mix. (Bruce Dern plays Doc Rivers O’Roark, who, when he isn’t hitting the hard stuff, pulls stray bullets out of unfortunate civilians.) Nothing looks cheap or undernourished in Hickok, which pretty much stays within the borders of Abilene and sticks to the basics of a Western morality play. There’s even room for a good prequel or sequel.

Meantime: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
The terms “living on the dole” and “being on unemployment” mean roughly same thing, here and in England. Perceptions about people forced to make ends meet, while jobless, however, are quite different. When it comes to the institutional image, favored by conservative politicians and people with steady jobs, the British dole is synonymous to being on welfare, here. Among other things, unemployment benefits provide only temporary relief to laid-off workers – usually 26 weeks – and range from $235 per week, in Mississippi, and as much as $1,019, in Massachusetts. A person who loses their job Florida can only count on $275 for 12 weeks. The British government has attempted to reframe engrained notions of the dole being unending charity, by changing the official name to Job Seekers Allowance, which also includes subsidies for housing and other day-to-day items. Made in 1984, at the height of the country’s economic doldrums, Mike Leigh’s made-for-the-BBC film, Meantime, described the demeaning state of unemployment in Margaret Thatcher’s England. It was a time when blue-collar workers were forced to sacrifice in the transition from industrial jobs to those in tech, service and other white-collar industries, while Tories partied like it was 1999. In the darkly funny, but undeniably troubling Meantime, unemployment is especially rampant in London’s working-class East End, where a middle-aged couple, Frank and Mavis Pollock (Jeff Robert, Pam Ferris) live with their sons, Mark and Colin (Phil Daniels, Tim Roth), in a claustrophobic public housing flat. The men in the family make the bi-weekly trek to the unemployment office to stand in long lines with neighbors in the same predicament as they are. With precious few jobs available, even those considered menial, there’s almost no chance the poor sots will be forced to choose between accepting work and staying on the dole. Even if the money doesn’t stretch very far, there always seems to be a bit left over for cigarettes and a few pints at the local pub.

Otherwise, the Pollocks’ days are mostly spent sniping at each other, hanging out with their mates and trying to find ways to manipulate the system. The bitterness and sense of hopelessness on display make the dreariness of Britain’s kitchen-sink cinema and angry-young-man period – two decades earlier — look like American sitcoms of the same time. Because Colin is slow and withdrawn, he takes the brunt of the curiously good-natured abuse dished out by his brother and his hooligan posse, which includes a droogy skinhead, Coxy, played by then-newcomer Gary Oldman. Peripheral characters include a neighborhood girl, Hayley (Tilly Vosburgh), who finds a way to connect with Colin, and Mavis’ sister and brother-in-law, Barbara and John (Marion Bailey, Alfred Molina), who live a deceptively idyllic existence in the suburbs of Chigwell. They’re as miserable in their way as the Pollocks, but for very different reasons. Things really come to a head when Barbara asks Colin to paint a room in her house and everyone, especially Mark, interprets the kindness in different ways. Meantime marked Leigh’s transition from television to film, and remains a piece of work for which he has fond memories. In the ensuing 30 years, Leigh’s never lost track of the kinds of people he introduced in High Hopes, Life Is Sweet, Naked and Career Girls. That it was shown on television, after being introduced at the London Film Festival, put it in the same company as such Channel 4 products as The Biko Inquest, Traffik, My Beautiful Laundrette, Letter to Brezhnev and Sammy and Rosie Get Laid. The Criterion Collection Blu-ray features a 2K digital transfer, supervised by cinematographer Roger Pratt and Leigh; interesting conversations between Leigh and musician Jarvis Cocker, and actor Marion Bailey and critic Amy Raphael; and an essay by film scholar Sean O’Sullivan.

Broken Mile: Blu-ray
Nod if you’ve heard this one before: after a night spent drugging or drinking, a seriously addicted man or woman wakes up with a world-class hangover, unable to remember the identity of the person next to them or, upon closer inspection, when that person stopped breathing. In Sidney Lumet’s 1986 thriller, The Morning After, Jane Fonda played the memory-challenged alcoholic, who isn’t terribly surprised to see a man, whose name she can’t recall, lying in the sane bed. The image that finally cuts through her fog is the knife sticking out of his chest. For most of the next 90 minutes, Fonda’s faded actress and an ex-cop (Jeff Bridges) team up to solve a mystery she couldn’t entrust to the expertise of LAPD detectives. It wasn’t the most original setup then and, 30 years later, isn’t much fresher. It took everything Fonda, Bridges, Lumet and the late, great Raul Julia brought to James Cresson’s chestnut to make it work. Even 30 years later, there was no way that Justin McConnell’s similarly plotted indie, Broken Mile, could afford the same level of talent on either side of the camera. So, he came up with something relatively different. After drug addict Shaun (Francesco Filice) awakens in a bathtub, covered in his own vomit, he discovers the girlfriend of his best buddy lying unconscious on her living-room couch, presumably from an overdose. In a state of panic, he practically runs over his pal, Kenny (Patrick McFaddenwh), as he escapes the scene of the inexplicable occurrence. Instead of calling the paramedics, police or a lawyer, Shaun makes a beeline for the apartment of his ex-girlfriend, Amy (Caleigh Le Grand), who’s reluctant to cooperate, but sympathetic. Before long, Sarah’s boyfriend arrives at Amy’s pad, packing heat and demanding to know the location of Shaun and what she may know about his relationship to the dead girl. Shaun and Amy spend the rest of the 82-minute racing around Toronto, attempting to avoid Kenny, who successfully anticipates their every move. The story plays out in real time in a single, unbroken take, with scene changes accommodated by conveniently placed walls, bodies or shadows. Frankly, I wasn’t aware of McConnell’s gag, until I read the publicity material. To the extent that it works, Broken Mile is best when its neo-noir conceits turn the city into a credible setting for spontaneous violence and deceit. Still, it deserves an “E” for effort, at least. The Blu-ray includes director’s and actor’s commentary; a behind-the-scenes featurette; Q&A at Canadian Film Fest 2017; a rehearsal take; an early sales trailer; and a photo gallery.

FACE 2 FACE
The Lonely Italian
The Bad Mother
Perhaps, the biggest differences between movies distributed by the major studios and purveyors of independent films is the amount of money spent on promotion, advertising and marketing. Of the hundreds of movies shown on the festival circuit, only a handful attract the kind of heat that attracts substantial distribution deals and awards campaigns. Things have gotten better for the also-rans, now that video-on-demand services have supplemented the opportunities provided by Blu-ray and DVD. Even so, word-of-mouth, cover art and favorable critical notices – any critical notices – are essential for rentals and purchases. Relatively new to the game, Candy Factory and Random Media don’t rely on genre fare for sales. The selections are extremely eclectic, as evidenced by August’s titles.

FACE 2 FACE is a message film clothed in an Internet-savvy rom-com. It follows the rekindling of a childhood friendship, via long-distance social media, between Teel (Daniel Amerman) and Madison (Daniela Bobadilla). Both are coping with the usual problems of adolescent life, although the bubbly Madison is faring quite a bit better than Teel, whose personal issues have made him a social outcast. When Madison falls for the hyper-sensitive Teel, he’s forced to confess the hidden cause of the bullying he faces at school. It sets off a sequence of events that ultimately motivates Madison to expose her own devastating secret. The solution to both their dilemmas isn’t is as far-fetched as it would have seemed even 10 years ago. With his new best friend in trouble and no other options, Teel steals his grandmother’s car and, without a driver’s license, makes a courageous cross-country trip to rescue Madison in her hour of need. It adds credence to a timely and important message. Bobadilla (“Anger Management”) pretty much steals the show. Only 24, however, she’ll be playing teenagers until she’s 30.

Domenico Nesci is a 5-foot-3 Italian radio and TV host, who pretty much exhausted his 15 minutes of fame in America, when, in 2008, MTV cancelled “That’s Amore!,” a spinoff of “A Shot at Love With Tila Tequila.” How he managed to keep his Green Card after breaking up with his dating-show sweetheart, Megan Mirilovich, is anyone’s guess. In The Lonely Italian, Nesci comes to the conclusion that he’s been single for too long a time and should give Internet matchmaking a try. The dates could hardly be more unpleasant … for the women. Nesci’s nebbishy persona is equal parts Borat, Roberto Benigni and Topo Gigio. Although we’re led to believe that the dates are real, it goes unmentioned that the women appear to be aspiring actors, with credits on various reality and dating shows. Several are veterans of Chicago and L.A. improv troupes. The Lonely Italian reminded me a lot of Myles Berkowitz’ 1998 faux documentary, 20 Dates, which inspired several of the analog era’s dating shows.

In The Bad Mother, a homebound mom who gave up a career to raise her family decides that she’s miserable and blows off steam by listing her complaints in an email she doesn’t intend to send. When her 6-year-old accidentally hits the “send” button, the message finds its way to a sympathetic television host, who puts Tara (Sarah Kapoor) on her show. Her desire to attain more from her life strikes a chord with tens of thousands of viewers. Sudden fame is fun for a while, but it also has a steep downside. It knocks her for loop. The Bad Mother takes too long to figure out what it wants to be and who Tara really is. With the help of her Indian mother and boring husband, she manages to right her own ship, but it’s too late to save the movie.

In Dan Glaser and writer Timothy J. Meyer’s Oxenfree, set for an August 29 release, three foster brothers reunite at their old lake cabin following the death of their father. The now-estranged adults relive a shared childhood by uncovering the ruins of their make-believe kingdom, “Oxenfree,”and face down the monster living within it.

First Daughter and the Black Snake
When the media finally decided that it was time to begin covering the protests over the Dakota Access Pipeline – maybe it was the colorful Native Americans on horseback – summer had passed and the brutality of the North Dakota winter had become reality. Some places in America looks spectacular in winter, but North Dakota isn’t one of them. Despite the freezing temperatures and howling winds, activists of all stripe remained on the site of the proposed pipeline until their futility was acknowledged. Donald Trump had elected and all hope of stopping the fracked oil from flowing so close to vital waterways, wetlands and porous sandy soil was lost. His choice of Scott Pruitt, who opposes the EPA, to head said agency, ensured that clean air and water provisions would be at risk for, at least, the next four years. Keri Pickett’s documentary, First Daughter and the Black Snake, alerts us to what was at stake in Minnesota, when another energy company decided to take a shortcut through sovereign Native American land, linking North Dakota fracking fields and Lake Superior ports. Enbridge’s proposed Sandpiper route would cut through territory as beautiful and bountiful as any in the North Woods. Not only are the lakes popular for fishing and summer tourism, but, residents of the White Earth Ojibway reservation use them to produce marketable crops of wild rice, as well as provide habitats for game fish and endangered species.

Pickett puts a tight focus on Winona LaDuke, executive director of Honor the Earth and two-time running mate of Ralph Nader, on the Green Party ticket. Last year, she became the first Native American woman to receive an electoral vote for vice president when Robert Satiacum Jr., a “faithless elector” from Washington, cast his votes for Yankton Sioux activist Faith Spotted Eagle, as President, and LaDuke, as VP, even if neither one of them was running for office. The second half of the title, First Daughter and the Black Snake, refers to the black snake predicted in indigenous prophecy to bring about Earth’s destruction. It also stipulates that a horse can kill a snake, and LaDuke’s supporters ride them. To the surprise of the filmmakers, I suspect, Enbridge Energy notified the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission that the company would not pursue the regulatory approvals needed for the $2.6 billion Sandpiper pipeline. The company’s president told reporters that “unprecedented regulatory delays had plagued the project,” some, no doubt, demanded by Honor the Earth activists. It reserved the right to try again later, but had already blown a small fortune in defeat. The pipeline will, instead, follow the Bakken Pipeline to Texas.  Not surprisingly, perhaps, an Enbridge spokesperson either wasn’t asked or declined to comment on the project. The film’s still interesting, but I would have liked to see what progressive Minnesota Sen. Al Franken, a likely presidential hopeful, had to say about it, as well.

Digimon Adventure tri.: Determination: Bluray
Celebrating the 15th anniversary of Akiyoshi Hongo’s Digimon franchise, the six-part “Digimon Adventure tri” is a direct sequel to the first two television series, “Digimon Adventure” and “Digimon Adventure 02,” which aired at the turn of the ’00s. “Determination” represents the second installment in the third series. The films take place three years after the events of “DA2” and focuses on the original eight DigiDestined and Digimon characters. Beyond that, “Determination” is so complicated as to be incomprehensible to anyone over the age of 12, although it debuted at last month’s Anime Expo and San Diego Comic-Con, where, presumably, the age of the average geek is somewhere north of 18. Here, time has passed since Alphamon appeared and restoration began in Odaiba. When another infected Digimon (an Ogremon) appears there, Mimi and Palmon spring into action. But in their haste to show the world that there are good Digimon, their battle brings about unforeseen consequences.

TV-to-DVD
PBS: Last Days of Jesus
PBS: Frontline: Bannon’s War
PBS: Anne Morrow Lindbergh: You’ll Have the Sky
Lifetime: Britney Ever After
For 2000 years, the New Testament interpretation of the Passion has largely been accepted as, forgive me, the gospel on what happened between the time Jesus entered Jerusalem in triumph and, seven days later, was crucified for our sins. It’s as if the events of Holy Week unspooled in anticipation of epic Hollywood depictions, directed by such ambitious men as D.W. Griffith, Cecil B. DeMille, William Wyler, Mel Gibson and Martin Scorsese. Why question such perfection? The scholars interviewed in the PBS docudrama “Last Days of Jesus” have come to believe that the Passion couldn’t have happened within the accepted timeframe and the cut-and-dried narratives provided by the interpretors of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. While their conclusions won’t rock the foundations of Christianity, by any means, they do shine a new light on how factors other than the whims of the Jewish populace condemned Jesus. The case is made that political machinations in Rome and Jerusalem determined his fate far more than a popularity contest between Our Savior and Barabbas. It’s based on interpretations of recently discovered tracts and other evidence, suggesting that a primary player in the events leading to the crucifixion has been missing from the discussion for 2000 years, because he was considered to be a traitor to Rome and, by law, erased from historical records after his brutal execution and disposal in the Tiber. They also argue against using too strict a timeline, because of the likelihood, in their opinion, that Jesus may have been incarcerated for much longer than a few hours on Maundy Thursday. It’s an undeniably interesting theory, if not particularly earth-shaking outside the halls of academia. For the sake of Christianity, Jesus would have had to die on the cross, regardless.

The current guessing game in Washington involves the length of time Trump advisor Stephen Bannon has left in his current position. He’s been accused of pulling the President’s string to the extreme right – if such a thing is even possible – while alienating everyone else in the administration, including the President’s daughter and son-in-law. “Bannon’s War” was reported and produced by Michael Kirk and the team responsible for “The Choice 2016″ and “Divided States of America.” It’s informed by nearly 30 in-depth interviews with political insiders, Bannon’s former associates at Breitbart, authors and journalists.

Anne Morrow Lindbergh: You’ll Have the Sky” brings one of the 20th Century’s best-loved writers out from the shadow of her often-controversial husband, aviator Charles Lindbergh. This film is an evocative portrait of a woman whose work continues to speak to readers today, and whose life is a key to understanding the changing worlds of aviation, women and celebrity. Narrated by Tony Award-winning actress Judith Light, it contains excerpts from “Gift From the Sea” and other writings, read by Lily Rabe. Lindbergh appears in rare interviews with Eric Sevareid and David McCullough, in such locations as Captiva Island, North Haven and Long Barn, the English estate to which Anne and Charles escaped after the sensational trial for the kidnapping and murder of their first-born child.

Because Lifetime Original Movies – the biopics, at least – are unauthorized by their subjects, the writers are pretty much required to stick with common knowledge, media reports and rumors filtered through the lens of MTV spin doctors and press agents. They’re also intended to be seen by fans, who prefer to give the celebrity in question the benefit of a doubt when the shit hits the fan. The salacious stuff works better on HBO and Showtime. “Britney Ever After” doesn’t deviate from the formula, even Ms. Spears’ bad behavior is as legendary as that of Michael Jackson, Whitney Houston, Mylie Cyrus and other Mickey Mouse Club veterans. It’s noted, mostly through the testimony of talking heads, but dramatized without prejudice. The story picks up following her first tour with *NSYNC and continues through her relationship with Justin Timberlake, marriages to both Jason Alexander and Kevin Federline, and finally concluding with her well-publicized breakdown in 2008. What’s missing, I suppose, is her return to respectability, including a regular series of concerts in Las Vegas, with tickets ranging from $110 to $5,141, on New Year’s Eve. Natasha Bassett does a pretty good job in the lead role, although she frequently appears to be channeling Miley, instead of Britney. The less said about the portrayals of Justin Timberlake and Kevin Federline, by Nathan Keyes and, Clayton Chitty, the better. No original songs are played or sung during the movie, although the famous white and yellow python makes a cameo.

Treasure Hounds
Among the staples of the direct-to-DVD industry are movies in which animals capable of thinking out loud save the day for humans who barely know what’s going on behind their backs. Occasionally, though, the canine hero will find ways to communicate with a boy or girl with enough imagination and sense to follow its lead. The Dove-approved Treasure Hounds is backed by the expertise of director/producer Tim Brown and voice actor Norm McDonald, who formerly collaborated on Vampire Dog. (Brown has also used the voicing talents of former “SNL” players Jon Lovitz and Rob Schneider.) Here, when a fatherless family inherits the home of an eccentric old coot, part of the deal also includes his pet dog, Skipper (MacDonald). The sassy pooch leads Jack (Valin Shinyei) and his friends to a treasure that will save the town from evil outsiders. The DVD includes a behind-the-scenes featurette and limited-edition specialty packaging.

The DVD Wrapup: Kung Fu Yoga, Breaking Point, Wolves, In Shadow of Women, Stand, Taisho Trilogy, Re-Animator and more

Thursday, August 10th, 2017

Kung Fu Yoga: Blu-ray
At a time when saber rattlers in China and India have begun squabbling over a road along their shared border, it’s easy to forgive this Sino-Indian co-production for underachieving as the action-adventure it might have been, if only box-office returns weren’t an object (which they always are). Make movies, not war. Kung Fu Yoga is a sequel to Stanley Tong’s big-budget epic The Myth (2004), in which Jackie Chan played a tomb-raiding archeologist, Jack, whose reoccurring dreams of a past life are realized when he’s transformed into the great Qin Era General Meng Yi. The general is sworn to protect Ok-soo, a Korean concubine he’s charged with protecting. Meanwhile, back to the future, Jack is raiding Indian tombs, in search of a gravity-defying artifact. It’s here that Jack runs across an old portrait of Ok-soo, convincing him that the dreams he’s been having of Meng-Yi are in fact flashbacks to a previous incarnation. Flashing ahead a dozen more years, Tong’s Kung Fu Yoga finds the reformed tomb raider in academia, preaching ethics to a class full of star-struck students. A ravishing Indian professor, Ashmita (Disha Patani) approaches Jack after class with an ancient map, showing the possible location of a Magadhan treasure lost while being transported from the subcontinent to China, maybe along the same disputed road. After compiling a team of attractive young teaching assistants and another talented archeologist —  Jones (Aarif Rahman), a tomb raider, sorely in need of reform — Jack and Ashmita magically discover the treasure in a Tibetan ice cave, protected by an army of skeletons.

Not surprisingly, perhaps, the academics are followed to the cave by a collection of mercenary thugs. While Jack neutralizes the bad guys, Jones gets away with a diamond centerpiece. The next time it’s seen is at an auction in Dubai, where the fabulously wealthy descendent of a rebel army leader, decides that the jewel is his birthright and will do anything to own it. The next stop is an underground Indian temple, where the multi-faceted gemstone holds the key to an unimaginably greater treasure. Along the way, Chan and company are involved in a series of exciting car chases and fantastical set pieces that pushed the movie’s budget into the $65-million range. Although the fast-paced adventure barely made a dent at the U.S. box office in its limited release – the many lame Indiana Jones references didn’t help — Kung Fu Yoga returned $253 million in worldwide sales.  (The title refers to the marriage of physical disciplines favored by Chan and the extremely limber Indian actresses.) The final scene features an elaborately conceived and, no doubt, crowd-pleasing Bollywood song-and-dance number. While entertaining, it argues for Chan to stick to what he does best. The Blu-ray adds “Best of Both Worlds,” on the film’s cross-cultural influences; “The Dynamic Duo,” a brief dual profile of Stanley Tong and Jackie Chan; the 22-minute “The Making of Kung Fu Yoga”; a featurette dedicated to the Bollywood dance number; bloopers; and another brief piece on Chan.

The Breaking Point: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
In one of those only-in-Hollywood scenarios, who could have imagined that Ernest Hemingway’s 1937 novel, “To Have and Have Not” would prove sufficiently flexible to be adapted three times in 15 years – twice, by the same studio, on the same backlot — and set in three different locations? As the story goes, Howard Hawks bet Papa that he could make a good film out of Hemingway’s worst novel, which he considered to be the Depression Era “To Have and Have Not.” Among other changes, Hawks changed the settings from Key West and Cuba, to Martinique, during the Vichy regime. Five years later, Michael Curtiz’ far more faithful, The Breaking Point, would move the smuggling operation from Mexico to southern California. In 1958, Don Siegel’s The Gun Runners presaged the Cuban revolution by restaging the story in Hemingway’s original locations and reshaping the book’s political overtones. Then, in 1987, Iranian filmmaker Naser Taghvai re-located the story to southern Iran and the Persian Gulf and called it Captain Khorshid. It would be interesting to see if Taghavi retained Lauren Bacall’s scintillating entrance – “You know how to whistle, don’t you, Steve? You just put your lips together and … blow” – which overshadowed everything else to come. (The famous double-entendre wasn’t in Hemingway’s novel.) Criterion Collection has done us all a big favor with its 2K digital restoration of The Breaking Point, which nicely recaptures the look of Curtiz and cinematographer Ted McCord’s “daytime noir.” This time, John Garfield plays the honest, if financially destitute charter-boat captain, Harry Morgan, who, after being stiffed by a client in Mexico, is hired by a shady lawyer, Duncan (Wallace Ford), to smuggle Chinese immigrants into the U.S. No sooner does he pack the boat with the illegal cargo than the immigrants’ handler attempts to short change Harry out of his agreed-upon fee. It causes the former PT-boat captain to abort the mission, but not before he gets into a physical altercation he’ll soon regret.

It opens him up to being blackmailed by Duncan, who’s been newly commissioned to supply an escape route for the robbers of a Los Angeles race track. Naturally, he turns to his pal, Harry, whose boat has been confiscated by the Coast Guard, while the incident is being investigated. Lacking the money to make the payments on the boat while it’s unavailable for fishing junkets, Morgan reluctantly accepts Duncan’s offer. If nothing else, the fixer’s connections in the Coast Guard will put the kibosh on the investigation. In doing so, Harry once again tests the patience of his increasingly frustrated wife, Lucy (Phyllis Thaxter), who wants him to sell the boat and move someplace where he won’t be tempted to break the law. Too proud to admit defeat, Harry begins to hang out at a local watering hole, where a femme fatale only one or two degrees less hot than Bacall is singing. The flirtatious blond beauty, Leona Charles (Patricia Neal), had hitched a ride back to Newport with Harry after she, too, was left high and dry in Mexico, and by the same cad. In 1950, the Production Code prevented Curtiz from revealing the details of Leona’s chosen profession, even if Neal’s come-ons make it clear that she gets by on the comfort of strangers. She’s terrific, as is Garfield, who somehow manages to keep things platonic. The Blu-ray package adds an interview with Curtiz biographer and film historian Alan K. Rode; a new piece, featuring actor and acting instructor Julie Garfield speaking about her father; a video essay by filmmakers Tony Zhou and Taylor Ramos, analyzing Curtiz’ directorial techniques; excerpts from a 1962 episode of the “Today” show, showing contents of the Ernest Hemingway House in Key West, including items related to “To Have and Have Not”; and an essay by critic Stephanie Zacharek.

Wolves
The presence of Michael Shannon and Carla Gugino in any movie, even one that debuts on VOD platforms, would be reason enough to recommend it to fans of independent films. Shannon can be counted on for delivering the kinds of performances whose intensity can be measured on a Richter scale. At 45, Gugino defines what it means to be a MILF. Moreover, she’s the rare actress who’s as comfortable on television (“Roadies,” “Entourage”) as she is in movies that run the gamut from G and PG (The Mighty MacsSpy Kids), to R and unrated (Sin City, The Center of the World), playing everything from moms and nuns, to hookers and killers. She literally defies being typecast. In Wolves, writer/director Bart Freundlich (The Myth of Fingerprints) has created an ideal vehicle for both fine actors, as well as relative newcomer, Taylor John Smith (You Get Me). He plays a talented high school basketball player, Anthony, whose dream of attending Cornell on a full scholarship is well within his reach. (Yes, he’s white, but stay with me.)  He’s a sharpshooter at the three-point line, team captain and generous, to a fault. At one point, he insists that the coach insert a bench-warmer into the game, then, instead of shooting the game-winner himself, passes to the unproven player. It’s the kind of decision that not only loses games, but turns off recruiters only interested in closers, to borrow a Mametism.

Ultimately, though, Anthony’s greatest opponent turns out to be his father, Lee (Shannon), a novelist and professor at a Manhattan college. He’s also a degenerate gambler and ex-jock, who pushes the boy to be more physically aggressive. Anthony’s most avid allies are his mother, Jenny (Gugino), and African-American girlfriend, Victoria (Zazie Beetz), who’s been cautioned against having sex in the week before a big game. You know how that works. Without spoiling the story’s trajectory, all I will say is that Freundlich succumbs to the temptation of throwing the kitchen sink at Anthony’s chances for success. In addition to the inherent drama of a championship campaign, the writer/director lards the storyline with Lee’s addiction to sports betting, ruthless bookies, a needless sexual dalliance and pregnancy, the possible loss of a scholarship, the introduction of an unlikely, if entirely welcome mentor, and an all-too-convenient injury. By comparison, Wolves makes Hoop Dreams and Hoosiers look like magic-carpet rides. Jenny’s also unfairly penalized by her husband’s bad decisions. A final twist puts everything up for grabs. If one can forgive Freundlich his excesses, Wolves is an extremely compelling entertainment. The basketball action is credible and the gritty New York milieu is a big plus.

In the Shadow of Women
Chantal Akerman by Chantal Akerman
If the French auteur Philippe Garrel is known for anything in the U.S., it’s probably for his 10-year professional and personal relationship with Nico … yes, that one. Among the things he shared with the onetime member of the Velvet Underground is an addiction to heroin. It factored into his films of the 1970s, several of which featured the tall, blond German. He kicked the habit – Nico, too – in 1979. Even in Europe, Garrel’s deeply personal and consciously artistic films play better at festivals than in general release. Although he was born too late to be a member of the French New Wave, his work reflected a willingness to experiment with the same methods of expression, existential themes and realistic settings as those favored by its standard-bearers. It can be seen, as well, in In the Shadow of Women, which, while released in 2015, sometimes looks as if it were made in 1968. The atmospheric black-and-white cinematography and natural interaction between the male and female characters recalls Truffaut and Godard. At 73 minutes, it feels more like a short story or modern fable than a full-blown romantic drama. The title is a bit misleading, too, in that the self-centered male character, Pierre (Stanislas Merhar), appears to be in control of the narrative flow throughout most of In the Shadow of Women … until, all of a sudden, he isn’t. Pierre is married to Manon (Clotilde Courau), who contributes to his documentaries, but makes money doing odd jobs. His latest project is a portrait of an elderly resistance fighter (Jean Pommier), who tells stories while his wife dutifully serves the tea. Because of his seeming indifference to Manon, we’re not terribly surprised to learn that he’s involved romantically with a trainee, Elisabeth (Lena Paugam), who he treats like a sex toy. Unbeknownst to Pierre, Manon is enjoying a dalliance of her own … really enjoying it. When Elisabeth stumbles upon the affair, she hesitates to tell Pierre, knowing his male ego might not be able to handle the deception. She decides to use the disclosure as a weapon during one of their fights. His reaction helps explain the title, as does the final twist. The Icarus release will reward Francophiles who make the effort to find it.

When asked to nominate a potential candidate for inclusion in the French television series “Cinema, of Our Time” – revived from the original 1960-70s interview series — Chantal Akerman jokingly suggested herself as subject matter. She envisioned a film consisting solely of excerpts from her films, but, when pressed by the producers to include footage of herself, Akerman grudgingly agreed to divide Chantal Akerman by Chantal Akerman into two parts. The first part opens with Akerman in her apartment, reading from a text directly to the camera, describing the problems she encountered making this film. It’s personal, sometimes funny and occasionally hostile, I think. In the second half, Akerman lets her films – 40 years’ worth of them — speak for themselves and her. In doing so, she creates an entirely new movie, comprised of clips from her extensive filmography that have been linked without specific identification into a separate, equally personal narrative.

The Glamour & the Squalor
Cautionary tales about the rock-’n’-roll lifestyle have been circulating ever since there was a lifestyle that required caution. Despite the many warnings, however, every newly minted rock god has succumbed to the temptations that come with overnight fame and wealth. Who wouldn’t? There are so few opportunities to tempt fate in such exhilarating ways. The title of Marq Evans’ compelling documentary, The Glamour & the Squalor, could apply to any number of cautionary tales … past, present and to come. Legendary West Coast disc jockey Marco Collins came of age at a time when the person spinning the platters was nearly as essential to a teenager’s identity as the musicians on the records being spun. Listeners trusted DJs to introduce them to the songs that not only would provide the soundtrack of their young lives, but sometimes also change them forever. Playlists mixed songs by new acts and established stars, without regard for color, gender or genre. That came to a crushing halt in the 1980s, when consultants and other corporate weasels homogenized the playlists, shortened the rotation of hit songs, discouraged innovation and practically eliminated racial diversity. The same thing happened to MTV. By the time, Collins hit his stride, the freedom to play the kind of music that mattered was reserved for college radio stations and a handful of commercial outlets, such as KYSR 98.7, in Los Angeles; KCR and XTRA-FM (91X), in San Diego; KPIG, in Santa Cruz; KITS (Live 105), in San Francisco; KNDD in Seattle; and KWOD in Sacramento. Their range was limited, but listeners remained loyal. Walkmans opened one door to personal choice and CDs opened another one. MP3 players and iPods allowed anyone with the time, patience and access to music libraries to become their own deejay. Today, the barriers separating artists and listeners have been flattened and access to music videos no longer is dictated by a bunch of cable staffers in Manhattan or Santa Monica.

After Collins broke his cherry on a college radio station in San Diego, he moved across town to 91X and, for a time, worked in radio promotions at Relativity Records. He accepted a challenge at Seattle’s “107.7: The End,” at a time when mainstream radio was actively ignoring the city’s thriving underground music scene and emergence of grunge. Collins is credited with helping break such artists as Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Beck and Weezer, and for debuting tracks by Garbage, Death Cab for Cutie, Sunny Day Real Estate and Everclear. He was wooed by bands, labels, struggling stations and cable stations, alike. His integrity and passion were considered unimpeachable. In The Glamour & the Squalor, Evans chronicles Marco’s unexpected rise, spectacular success and inevitable demise. A mad addiction to drugs could have been predicted from the issuance of his first adult paycheck. It came with the territory. Collins’ desire to get clean caused him to leave the business, while at an exalted position in New York. The film also describes how difficult it was to be a gay public figure in the 1990s. It was tough enough to gain the acceptance of his father, a former cop, without also having to deal with the prejudices of musicians, who professed liberality, but harbored the same prejudices and intolerance of their fans. After coming out, Collins actively supported efforts in Washington to legalize same-sex marriage and combat violence against the LGBTQ community. He would return to radio and deejaying. In 2010, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame honored him with an exhibit, marking his contributions to the rise of Seattle’s grunge scene.

Apostle of Dracula
If movies about vampires are a dime-a-dozen right now, it doesn’t mean anyone is going to stop adding to the glut by exploring new variations on the theme. Apostle of Dracula doesn’t offer much of anything fresh, either, except for the exotic presence of Nathalie Legosles, as Lucy Westenra, the Count’s first victim. But, then, the women selected to play Lucy have always tended to be spectacularly sexy, so that isn’t terribly fresh, either. What makes Emilio Schargorodsky’s film worth a shot by Dracula completists, at least, is a presentation that combines interesting visuals with a mesmerizing score, all delivered on the cheap by some passionate beginners. Here, Lucy engages in a hot and bloody affair with Dracula (Javier Caffarena). Many years later, after nine eclipses, she begins to recover from a strange amnesia. It allows Lucy to realize her true identity as a creature with a desperate thirst for blood. Van Helsing (Paul Lapidus) tries to save her from the clutches of the vampire, but her dark dream of living eternally with Dracula may be too difficult to overcome. Apostle of Dracula (a.k.a., “Dracula 0.9”) not only is based on the Bram Stoker classic, but the works of Edgar Allan Poe and Spanish genre hero, Jess Franco, who, by the way, supplies an interesting interview as a bonus feature. There’s also a featurette on Javier Caffarena’s score and orchestration.

Diamond Cartel
Ever wonder how an action/thriller directed and co-written by Borat Sagdiyev (a.k.a., Sacha Baron Cohen) might look? No, me either. If he had, though, it would probably resemble Salamat Mukhammed-Ali’s Diamond Cartel (a.k.a., “The Whole World at Our Feet”), in that it features an international cast of well-known actors he might have met in his travels, it’s completely over the top and nothing about the movie makes any sense. And, of course, it was made in his Kazakhstan homeland, with $7 million worth of Kazak tenges. Armand Assante plays Mussa, a casino magnate who’s determined to purchase the Star of East diamond from the Hong-Kong triad boss, Mr. Lo. He sends his girlfriend to Hong Kong with $30 million to purchase the gem, but, of course, things don’t work out as planned. Instead, the next 90 minutes, or so, overflow with insane conspiracies, stabbed backs, booby traps, shootouts and schemes so complex they could only be explained in the native tongue, instead of English. The cast includes Armand Assante, Olivier Gruner, Tommy “Tiny” Lister, Michael Madsen, Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa, Don “The Dragon” Wilson, Bolo Yeung and Peter O’Toole. Yes, the same Peter O’Toole who passed from this mortal coil more than three years ago. That’s how long Diamond Cartel has been in one stage of production, or another. The only Kazak actor of note is Karlygash Mukhamedzhanova, a skilled assassin whose name is longer than she is tall. There’s a lot of crazy stuff happening here, but it’s hard to say if anyone outside Astana is likely to care.

Charlotte
Movies involving scary dolls tend to fall into three categories: ventriloquist dummies, possessed toys and voodoo. Charlotte isn’t likely to be mistaken for Annabelle, Child’s Play or, even, Dolly Dearest. In Patrick Rea’s horror anthology, a doll with a cracked face draws the attention of a little boy’s babysitter. When his mother calls to check in, the sitter asks her about the curious-looking doll staring at her from the bookshelf. Her answer is, of course, “Doll … what doll? We don’t have a doll.” The sitter then finds herself tied to a bed, in front of a television playing a series of horror shorts, controlled by the doll who isn’t supposed to be there. Like most such anthologies, the ability of the stories to induce nightmares ranges from zero to maybe.

The Hunter’s Prayer: Bluray
Shot in Yorkshire and Hungary, action auteur Jonathan Mostow’s The Hunter’s Prayer is so packed with car chases, shootouts and brawls that it’s easy to forget the reason everyone’s acting as crazy as they are. Not that it matters, really. Sam Worthington plays Lucas, an expert assassin marked for death after his conscience prevents him from killing the daughter of a previously murdered couple. Instead, he decides to protect the coltish teenager, Elle (Odeya Rush), from the killers who are contracted by a corrupt and greedy lawyer, Richard (Allen Leech), and are headed for her Swiss boarding school to kill both of them. Ella doesn’t know Lucas from the man in the moon, so she’s rightfully skeptical when he pulls her and her boyfriend from the dancefloor of a local disco. After Lucas finally wins her trust – not easy after she watches him shoot up — a turncoat FBI agent (Amy Landecker) attempts to lure Ella into a different sort of trap. The chase across Europe isn’t bad, even if the relationship between Elle and Lucas isn’t as well-crafted as the ones in Léon: The Professional, Gloria and Blood Father. The mystery of who killed Elle’s parents remains until the movie’s end. The Blu-ray adds “The Cost of Killing: Making The Hunter’s Prayer”; “The World of the Hunter,” which takes a look at some of the locations, including the gorgeous estate that serves as Addison’s mansion; and “Creating the Driving Force,” which documents one of the car chases and how digital grading affected it.

Cinematic Titanic: The Complete Collection
The recent revival of “MST3K” on Netflix was marketed in some quarters as the second coming of one of television’s most cherished assets. And, in a very real sense, it was. The primary difference between this “MST3K” and previous editions is a cast of newcomers, comprised of Jonah Ray as the new human test subject, along with Felicia Day and Patton Oswalt. In fact, it’s merely the latest incarnation of a franchise too tough to die. Or, maybe, too flexible. Either way, reports of its demise were greatly exaggerated. One such iteration, “Cinematic Titanic,” represents an ambitious side-project launched, in 2007, by five of the original cast members and writers, Joel Hodgson, Trace Beaulieu, J. Elvis Weinstein, Mary Jo Pehl and Frank Conniff. The live show was performed before tens of thousands of “MST’ies” in traditional venues across the country. It wasn’t the only such show extant, either, just the most authentic. Sadly, as any musician or comedian can attest, there’s a huge gap between performing before a television camera and in front of a live audience. Among other things, material that feels fresh or improvised on TV usually has been rehearsed and polished until it gleams. Working without a net puts everything at risk, including an artist’s pride and reputation. The setup is virtually the same here. The cast members sit with their backs to the audience in front of large screen, upon which a typically lousy genre film – unprotected by copyright – is eviscerated by former passengers on the Satellite of Love. While still funny, the ratio of laughs to gags is significantly less impressive on stage. “Cinematic Titanic: The Complete Collection” collects all 12 movies riffed on by the troupe, including their live shows and direct-to-video releases. The titles include: The Oozing Skull, Doomsday Machine, The Wasp Woman, Legacy of Blood, Santa Claus Conquers the Martians, Frankenstein’s Castle of Freaks, Blood of the Vampires, East Meets Watts, The Alien Factor, Danger on Tiki Island, War of the Insects and Rattlers.

Stand
Even before the movie opens, Cosmos Kiindarius and co-writer Spence Griffeth make a serious point about the hazards of land mines left behind from wars long in the past. Tens of thousands of civilians are killed or maimed each year by explosive devices intended for soldiers trained to watch their every step when marching through a potential minefield. Set in Vietnam, 40 years after the war’s end, Stand takes the data and uses it as the foundation for a story about estranged brothers and unresolved hostilities. Bob Marcus (Louis Carazo) has arrived in Ho Chi Minh City to reconnect with his brother, Luke (Alexander Marcus III), a physician who disappointed their father by using his medical degree to treat peasants. While traveling through the countryside, they stop to take advantage of some street cuisine. Before they know it, a local boy has snatched a piece of property that causes the Marcuses to chase him into the jungle. In a troubling accident, the boy chased is blown to smithereens by an anti-personnel device left behind either by the Americans, North Vietnamese being, Viet Cong or South Vietnamese Army. It no longer matters what side is responsible, because no one outside the International Campaign to Ban Landmines really cares about dead non-combatants. (Citing the potential for war in Korea, the U.S. has yet to join the 162 other state entities that have ratified the Ottawa Treaty outlawing land mines. Neither have Russia and China.) Stand’s central conceit requires Bob and Luke to step on what they believe to be a landmine at precisely the same time. If they take their weight off the device, it’s possible that, like the boy, they’ll become victims of a long-ago conflict. Because of their location in the forest, it’s unlikely anyone will hear their cries for help. It’s more likely they’ll encounter a tiger, fire ants or a sudden case of the trots. It also gives them plenty of time to argue about who was loved more by their parents and why they came to resent each other’s achievements. Apart from being overwrought, the discussion seems to be an overly cynical use of a serious issue to settle a personal score.

Mount Joy
Any movie whose male protagonist is a boy named Sue should either be based on the hit song by Johnny Cash or have a strong LGBTQ point of view. Mount Joy doesn’t qualify on either count. Instead, Jack Lewars and M. Angelo Mena’s film is a modern melodrama in which Sue’s name could just as easily been Frank. Sue sings and plays guitar in a band from rural Pennsylvania, the Living Daylights, which appears to have been heavily influenced by Bruce Springsteen and John Mellencamp. On the eve of their first national tour, its manager, Alex (Katie Hyde), splits town without a reason, leaving her boyfriend, Sue, and her two brothers high and dry. After the band cancels its first couple of engagements, it becomes clear that Sue is in no shape to continue. Then, almost as suddenly, Alex returns to town, ostensibly to sell the house she and the boys inherited when their parents died. As befits any house inhabited by musicians, slackers and their girlfriends, it’s a mess. But, that isn’t really the point. As much as we want her to hook back up with Sue, she continues to harbor a deep dark secret. When it’s finally revealed, Mount Joy becomes something quite different. Suffice it to say that, 60 years ago, Susan Hayward would have been the logical actress to play Alex. Mount Joy has all the same problems as most indie features written and directed by freshman filmmakers, who also happen to be broke. The music is pretty good, though, and Katie Hyde’s performance is downright infectious.

Female Fight Squad
By now, finding a movie in which beautiful young women kick the shit out of each other for fun and profit is about as difficult as locating a Western with a bar fight. It may still represent a subset of the larger martial-arts/MMA/boxing genre, but, apparently, there’s a ready audience for such things. I seriously doubt if movies such as Female Fight Squad (a.k.a., Female Fight Club”) would hold the same appeal if the combatants more closely resembled Melissa McCarthy – at her heaviest, anyway – than your average NBA cheerleader. Miguel A. Ferrer and co-writer Anastazja Davis’ debut feature isn’t hampered by stereotypical portrayals of woman fighters, though. Not only are the actresses hot, but they look as if they could hold their own against the gladiators in Netflix’s “GLOW.” Veteran stuntwoman and rising action-film star Amy Johnston plays Rebecca, a former underground fighter who left the game – and town — to avoid being implicated in the killing of the man who raped her sister. Their father, Holt (Dolph Lundgren), takes the fall in the case, and is cooling his heels in prison. When the sister, Kate (Cortney Palm), requires more help, Rebecca reluctantly agrees to return to Las Vegas to prepare her fighting club for an encounter with the team sponsored by a crooked promoter. Eventually, of course, Rebecca will be spurred into getting back into the “pit” to take on the bad gals. There’s enough action here to satisfy the demands of most MMA fans, including a convincing scene in which Lundgren takes on three thugs who don’t know any better than to pick on musclebound Swedes. There’s nothing here, however, that will make anyone forget Fight Club.

The First Great Escape
Heroes of the Somme
It’s safe to say that most Americans share a woefully inadequate appreciation for the price by paid by our European allies in World War I. We got into the fray pretty late in the game, avoiding most of the carnage incurred in the trenches. It means that the American public also missed out on many of the stories of heroism that marked the bitter fighting and political struggles to put an end to it. The made-for-TV documentary “The First Great Escape” – the title refers to John Sturges’ World War II drama, set in a German POW camp – tells the remarkable story of a partly successful escape from one of the Kaiser’s most formidable prisons. Holzminden was declared escape-proof by Camp Commandant Karl Niemeyer, a vindictive and arrogant man who had an appalling reputation for mistreatment of POWs. To prove him wrong, 29 British officers spent 10 months constructing a narrow tunnel under the noses of their German captors. Only 10 would complete the journey to neutral Holland and return home as heroes. The logistics, alone, are fascinating.

Made initially for audiences in Northern Ireland, “Heroes of the Somme” tells the harrowing story of how home-grown troops helped break the months-long stalemate along the trench line in northern France. More than 3 million men fought in this battle — one of the bloodiest in human history — with a third being listed as wounded, missing or dead. Several different national forces joined France and Britain in the 1916 offensive. Original archives from the Western Front are used to uncover the stories of seven of the Irish soldiers whose remarkable bravery in 1916 was rewarded with the Victoria Cross, Britain’s most prized military medal. Not all of them lived to receive it in person. All except one has been accorded hero status in Northern Ireland. The other, who lived just south of the border with the republic, was treated as if he wasn’t there. Interviews with descendants and historians reveal the personal stories of each medal winner, exploring the differing fortunes they experienced and the variety of reasons for which they fought. Both films are enhanced by dramatic re-enactments and archival film footage.

Kept Boy
Based on a 1996 novel by Chicago writer Robert Rodi (“Fag Hag”), Kept Boy is described as a dark comedy about interior designer and reality-show star Fairleigh Knock (Thure Riefenstein), who enjoys collecting and keeping beautiful things. They include a young and attractive boy toy Dennis (Jon Paul Phillips). On the occasion of his 30th birthday, Dennis is given an ultimatum by Fairleigh to clear out or get a job. His TV show has hit a ratings’ doldrums and he’s been advised to contain his spending. To his dismay, Dennis is replaced in all regards by the pool boy, Jasper (Greg Audino), who, we’ll learn, isn’t as dense as he pretends to be. Although Dennis can’t find meaningful work, he does manage to remain within Farleigh’s orbit. A trip to visit Jasper’s relatives in Cartagena adds a bit of mystery to a comedy that isn’t very dark or funny. I suspect many viewers will find Kept Boy to be reasonably sexy, though. Not having read the book, I can’t say if the many contradictory story elements were built into the narrative or simply ended up there to expedite the competition between Dennis and Jasper. The movie’s best scenes come in Colombia, where director George Bamber takes full advantage of the exotic locations.

I Am Battle Comic
In his 2010 documentary, I Am Comic, Jordan Brady collected the wisdom of dozens of standup comedians to share with audiences the art and occupational hazards of their craft. It was, at once, entertaining and illuminating. His follow-up doc, I Am Battle Comic, is, at once, funny and inspirational. It’s informed by interviews and performances by George Lopez, Tammy Pescatelli, Dave Attell, Wayne Federman George Wallace, Murray Valeriano, Jennifer Rawlings, Shawn Halpin, Slade Ham, Bob Kubota, Don Barnhart and Dick Capri, all of whom are veterans of USO tours in the Middle East. The performances are as different from those showcased annually by Bob Hope, on NBC, as night is to day. Among other things, the tours can best be described as no-frills affairs, with most shows taking place in venues no larger than a dining hall and forward operating base within a long mortar’s shot of the enemy. There aren’t any orchestras, Miss America contestants, all-star athletes or movie stars. Sometimes, the camps to which the comics are ferried by helicopter hold fewer than a dozen soldiers. All are treated as if they’re sitting in the audience at “The Tonight Show.” The doc probably could have benefitted from being a bit more far reaching and forthcoming about the limits put on them by government censors, but that’s just me. One of the strongest points made pertains to the ability of comics who are against the war to put aside their political opinions to raise the spirits of soldiers who would prefer being anywhere else but where they’re currently stationed.

The Taisho Trilogy: Three films by Seijun Suzuki: Limited Edition: Blu-ray
If all one knew about Japanese director Seijun Suzuki were the titles of such pulpy fare as Take Aim at the Police Van, Fighting Delinquents, The Man with the Hollow-Tip Bullets, Million Dollar Smash-and-Grab, Branded to Kill, Stories of Bastards: Born Under a Bad Star and Tattooed Life, it would be impossible to imagine the same man being capable of something as hypnotically beautiful and intellectually stimulating as the “The Taisho Trilogy.” It’s as if Sam Fuller had emerged from his decade-long hiatus in 1980 to make Koyaanisqatsi, instead of The Big Red One. After churning out four or five B-movies a year for Nikkatsu, Suzuki was asked at the last minute to rescue a yakuza project. Rather than follow the usual approach to such material, he incorporated several offbeat techniques and non-conventional influences. It also mocked genre conventions and studio values, and contained nudity. The result, Branded to Kill, underperformed at the box office, causing studio head Kyūsaku Hori to set the wheels in motion for Suzuki’s dismissal. When the director challenged the studio’s action in court, he was effectively blacklisted by Nikkatsu and other Japanese studios. Branded to Kill and other Suzuki favorites have since found appreciative audiences in Japan and achieved cult status in the west. “The Taisho Trilogy” is comprised of the multiple Japanese Academy Award-winner, Zigeunerweisen, Kageroza and Yumeji. They bear comparison to other works that confuse reality and dreams, by such masters as Federico Fellini, Alejandro Jodorowsky, Jacques Rivette, Alain Resnais, David Lynch and Akira Kurosawa, in Dreams.

All three of the films in the Arrow collection are set between 1912 and 1926, the period coinciding with the reign of the Emperor Taishō. It was considered the time of the liberal movement known as the “Taishō democracy,” when Japan experienced unprecedented prosperity and a gradual acceptance of western cultural values, fashions and technology. As a long-isolated civilization in transition, however, its people maintained a hold on gender and economic divisions, as well as a willingness to be swayed by supernatural forces. Released in 1980, Zigeunerweisen follows former colleagues from the military academy, who reunite years later under very different circumstances, in a rural brothel. One teaches German at the university, while the other has dropped out of polite society to live like a wandering ronin. They will share the affections of the same geisha and engage in risky sexual games with wives. Denied proper distribution, Suzuki elected to exhibit the film inside an inflatable dome on the roof of a department store. It became a surprise hit. A year later came Kagerô-za (a.k.a., “Heat-Haze Theatre”), in which a 1920s playwright meets a mysterious and beautiful woman, Shinako, who may be the ghost of his shotgun-toting patron’s deceased wife. The playwright also finds himself enchanted by his patron’s current wife, a geisha who resembles Shinako, except for her habit of turning blond and blue-eyed with the moonlight. Released in 1991, Yumeji is a ghost story built around real-life painter/poet Takehisa Yumeji’s encounter with a ravishing widow with a dark past. The chronic philanderer and dreamer is played by former rock star Kenji Sawada. All three of the films, which look spectacular on Blu-ray, are expertly introduced by critic Tony Rayns. There’s also a lengthy interview with Suzuki, analysis of the trilogy by Rayns and a shorter making-of piece. The first pressing contains a booklet, featuring writing on the films by critic Jasper Sharp and others.

Re-Animator: Limited Edition: Blu-ray
Although Stuart Gordon’s game-changing 1985 gore-fest, Re-Animator, is hardly underrepresented in Blu-ray, any reconsideration by Arrow Video is worthy of our attention. Based on H.P. Lovecraft’s serialized tale of terror, “Herbert West: Reanimator” (1921-22), and featuring a standout performance from Jeffrey Combs as the deranged scientist, it merged familiar sci-fi/horror tropes with darkly comic takeoffs on then-current slasher/splatter fare. Critics also recognized the method in the Gordon and producer Brian Yuzna’s madness. With his actress/wife Carolyn Purdy-Gordon, he founded the Chicago Organic Theater Company, which became widely known for presenting such adventurous fare as “The Warp Trilogy,” David Mamet’s “Sexual Perversity in Chicago,” “Bleacher Bums” and “E-R.” Re-Animator was originally devised by Gordon as a stage production and, when the board balked at a horror show, a half-hour television pilot. That script was revised to become a feature film, with an estimated budget of $900,000. It received an X rating, but was edited to gain an “R” for distribution through video-rental stores. (It’s closer to NC-17.) It would return to theaters as a cult classic, perfectly suited for midnight screenings. The difference between Re-Animator and, say, “Andy Warhol’s Frankenstein” and “Blood for Dracula,” is that Paul Morrissey’s approach was campy, almost mocking the genre, while Gordon’s inky black sensibilities recalled the Grand-Guignol tradition.

In it, Professor Herbert West (Jeffrey Combs) is a scientist who has discovered a formula that brings the dead back to life by reanimating their tissue. After an experiment in Switzerland goes awry, he moves to a college in New England to continue his experiments. There, he’s confronted by Dr. Carl Hill (David Gale), about the accuracy of his theory on when death occurs. Soon thereafter, all hell breaks loose in the laboratory, where headless bodies and bodiless heads compete with reanimated zombies to freak everyone out, including viewers. Megan Halsey (Barbara Crampton), the daughter of the college dean, gets the shock of her life when she awakens from unconsciousness, strapped to a gurney, naked, being molested by a disembodied colleague. It’s one of the most celebrated sequences on Mr. Skin.

The two-disc limited edition features 4K restorations of the unrated and integral versions of the film, in Digipak packaging, featuring newly commissioned artwork by Justin Erickson; a collector’s booklet, with new writing by Michael Gingold; and the original 1991 comic book adaptation, reprinted in its entirety. In addition, there’s commentaries with Gordon, Yuzna, and actors Jeffrey Combs, Barbara Crampton, Bruce Abbott and Robert Sampson; “Re-Animator Resurrectus,” a documentary on the making of the film; interviews with Gordon and Yuzna, writer Dennis Paoli, composers Richard Band and composer Richard Band, Fangoria editor Tony Timponem, and Barbara Crampton; deleted and extended scenes; and “A Guide to Lovecraftian Cinema,” a featurette looking at the many various cinematic incarnations of writer H.P. Lovecraft’s work.

Don’t Look in the Basement/Don’t Look in the Basement 2: Blu-ray
Like nuns and ventriloquists’ dummies, the mentally ill have always have always been considered fair game for exploitation in horror flicks. You would have to be nuts to commit such hideous crimes, right? Even abandoned asylums are haunted by the misdeeds of former patients. Released in 1973, hot on the heels of Wes Craven’s The Last House on the Left, the crudely made Don’t Look in the Basement (a.k.a., “The Forgotten,” “Death Ward #13”) became a favorite of drive-in audiences. (They shared the tagline, “To avoid fainting, keep repeating to yourself: ‘It’s only a movie … it’s only a movie … it’s only a movie.’”) In Texas auteur S.F. Brownrigg’s debut, a young psychiatric nurse goes to work at a lonesome asylum following a murder. There, she experiences varying degrees of torment from the patients, who’ve been encouraged to act out their psychoses, including using an ax to commit murder, necrophilia and, of course, nymphomania. Eventually, the inmates actually do take control of the asylum. Don’t Look in the Basement is a lose reimagining of the Edgar Allan Poe story, “The System of Doctor Tarr and Professor Fether.” Under any title, it’s a bloody mess, though not without its camp value. As Nurse Charlotte, 1972 Playboy cover girl Rosie Holotik (Horror High) joined a long list of former Bunnies who would became footnotes in genre history as scream queens. Alas, Claudia Jennings she’s wasn’t. Included on the disc is Tony Brownrigg’s 2015 sequel, Don’t Look in the Basement 2, which picks up the story 40 years after the events described in his dad’s opus. This time, the only known survivor returns to the asylum to find the ghosts of the past have not been resting in peace. This time around, a sense of humor relieves the madness. The Brinkvision set includes commentary by Tony Brownrigg; a limited-edition slipcase cover with newly commissioned artwork; a silly featurette; and booklet, featuring articles by writers of Evilspeak Magazine, Legless Corpse Magazine and Ultra Violent Magazine.

Teen Wolf: Collector’s Edition: Blu-ray
Teen Wolf Too: Collector’s Edition: Blu-ray
In the early- to mid-1980s, werewolves were as prevalent in movies as zombies are, today. Besides Teen Wolf, Teen Wolf Too and an animated adaptation for television, all of which arrived towards the end of the cycle, there were Wolfen (1981), The Howling (1981), Howling II: … Your Sister Is a Werewolf (1985), The Marsupials: The Howling III (1987), The Company of Wolves (1984), Silver Bullet (1985) and An American Werewolf in London, which, in 1981, won the inaugural Academy Award for Best Makeup. Like Rod Daniel’s highly successful Teen Wolf, Larry Cohen’s Full Moon High (1981) may not have come to pass if it weren’t for Michael Landon’s unforgettable turn in I Was a Teenage Werewolf (1957). After three years of playing Alex P. Keaton on “Family Ties,” Michael J. Fox’s movie career was about to explode. Because Teen Wolf was released only a month after the debut of Back to the Future, a big opening weekend was practically assured. If only a handful of critics embraced the genre comedy, audiences found it to their liking. Fox would disappoint its producers by choosing to appear in sequels to Bob Zemeckis’ budding franchise, rather than endure the arduous makeup process required of him in Teen Wolf Too. Apparently, too, he wasn’t a fan of the original, in which Scott Howard’s newfound powers not only turned him into respected basketball star, but also allowed him to bond with his lycan father.

The sequel, also sent out by Scream Factory as a Collector’s Edition, would provide Jason Bateman with a launching pad for a movie career, which only recently began to peak. He plays Todd Howard, Scott’s similarly hirsute cousin, who wants nothing more from college than to train for a career as a veterinarian. Instead, the school’s boxing coach hopes to take advantage of the family secret by recruiting him for the team. Once again, his superhuman abilities make him a BMOC. Todd seeks guidance from his professor (Kim Darby), who has a secret of her own, and is the perfect position to teach him an important lesson. This time around, audiences agreed with critics, by not showing up in droves. A second sequel, with a female protagonist, was shelved. MTV has found success with a live-action “Teen Wolf” series, starring Tyler Posey, which will be reprised in 2019.

As usual, there’s a bevy of new bonus features on both discs. They include “Never. Say. Die. The Story of Teen Wolf,” a 143-minute documentary about the making and legacy of the film, with interviews with writers Jeph Loeb and Matthew Weisman; producers Mark Levinson and Scott Rosenfelt; stars Susan Ursitti-Sheinberg, Jerry Levine, Matt Adler, Jim MacKrell and Troy Evans; basketball double Jeff Glosser; casting director Paul Ventura; production designer Chester Kaczenski; special effects make-up artist Jeff Dawn; and editor Lois Freeman-Fox. “Too” adds interviews with director Christopher Leitch, co-stars Kim Darby, Stuart Fratkin and Estee Chandler; and “A Wolf in ’80s Clothing,” with costume designer Heidi Kaczenski.

TV-to-DVD
MHz Choice: The Bridge: Season 3
IFC: Portlandia: Season Seven
Disney Junior: Kate & Mim-Mim: Super Kate
A few weeks ago, I noted the release on DVD of the second season of the French/English co-production of “The Tunnel,” a spinoff of the superlative Danish/Swedish thriller, “The Bridge.” The folks at MHz Networks were kind enough to send me a copy of the third season of series, which was released on DVD in April. It stars Sofia Helin, as the intrepid Swedish detective, Saga. Like her French and American counterparts – played by Clémence Poésy and Diane Kruger – Saga is noticeably awkward in social situations. Series creator Hans Rosenfeld has said that he avoided briefing the show’s cast members on the cause of her “odd behavior,” so as “to prevent the actors from rushing off and learning a textbook approach to Asperger’s syndrome or autism from the same source material. … I hoped that each individual cast and crew member would have a more personal reaction to Saga’s character traits and research accordingly.” In this way, I think, her character resembles Vincent D’Onofrio’s obsessively brilliant Robert Goren, in “Law & Order: Criminal Intent.” The third season opens with the truly grisly murder of a prominent gender activist and owner of Copenhagen’s first gender-neutral children’s nursery. Saga is assigned to the case, together with a new Danish colleague, Henrik (Thure Lindhardt). The ritualistic killing is only the first in a series of shocking crimes that may or may not be linked to Saga and Henrik’s own pasts. To call “Season Three” binge-worthy is only to state the obvious.

The good news from Oregon is that IFC’s “Portlandia” will return in 2018 for an eighth season. The bad? It’s likely to be the Peabody-, WGA- and Emmy Award-winning show’s final go-round. It’s difficult to imagine many other American cities sufficiently quirky to sustain eight seasons’ worth of offbeat comedy and spot-on spoofs of their residents’ idiosyncrasies. Season 7 guest stars included Kumail Nanjiani (“Silicon Valley”), Natasha Lyonne (American Pie), Steve Buscemi (Reservior Dogs), Laurie Metclak (“The Big Bang Theory”), Rachel Dratch (“SNL”) and Run the Jewels. After all this time, the show hasn’t lost any of its ability make the city’s pompous hipsters, politically correct activists and anti-Californication nuts look delightfully silly.

Kate & Mim-Mim” focuses on the friendship and adventures of a 5-year-old girl, Kate, and her favorite toy, a plush bunny named Mim-Mim. Here, Kate, Mim-Mim and their friends spend four fun-filled adventures in Mimiloo. In the story “Super Kate,” Tack zaps everyone with his supercharger invention, giving them super powers. Kate gets super jumping power and Mim-Mim super hearing power. Boomer gets into a bouncy predicament because of his super speed.

The DVD Wrapup: Circle, Amnesia, Lovers, I Am the Blues, Wakefield, Opening Night, 1944, Slither and more

Wednesday, August 2nd, 2017

The Circle: Blu-ray
James Ponsoldt worked his way up the ladder by directing and/or co-writing such delicate indie entertainments as The Spectacular Now, The End of the Tour and Off the Black. Although the focus of his adaptation of Dave Eggers’ best-selling novel, The Circle, is on Emma Watson’s mousy office worker, Mae Holland, any movie in which Tom Hanks shares the marquee is going to be dominated by a screen persona the equal of Jimmy Stewart and Henry Fonda. In Ponsoldt’s up-to-date paranoid thriller, the 5-foot-5 Brit not only remains in Hanks’ lengthy shadow for most of the film, but she also is dwarfed by the magnitude of the swindle being perpetrated by her employers. As soon as Mae walks onto the Circle’s sprawling corporate campus, she’s greeted with the same blind obeisance to its mission as that once associated with followers of Unification Church founder Sun Myung Moon. At first, she’s impressed by the in-your-face friendliness of co-workers, as well as the enthusiasm and loyalty generated by Hank’s charismatic Eamon Baily at weekly employee gatherings, where new products and sales goals are introduced. The pep-rally atmosphere also surrounded Steve Jobs and Bill Gates, whenever Apple and Microsoft called a gathering of the tribes. Instead of immediately buying into the corporate culture and relishing the social benefits attached to employment at Circle, however, Mae becomes wary of the perversely collegial atmosphere. Instead of releasing the skeptical employee after a probationary period, her supervisors invite Mae to meet directly with the silver-tongued Baily and his oily associate Stenton (Patton Oswalt). After promising to cover medical expenses for her seriously ill father, they invite her to join a special marketing team enlisted to push an all-invasive product designed to encourage customers to participate in broadly conceived interactive programs. In fact, the company’s most promising product is a mini-camera that allows customers to monitor every move, thought and utterance of a subject or, even, the minute changes in a familiar setting or neighborhood. (Baily choses his favorite surfing beach.) The visuals and data are transmitted via satellite to corporate headquarters, where they’re analyzed and stored in a cloud.

Mae’s contribution to the concept is to suggest that mandatory use of the interactive device could help customers become better citizens and neighbors. They wouldn’t have to leave home to vote and participation would be mandatory. Likewise, responding to surveys and polls no longer would be voluntary. The answers and choices would be monitored and counted by Circle computers, analyzed by Circle employees and fed to election boards and corporate sponsors anywhere and everywhere. The taxpayers benefit from eliminating part of the bureaucratic structure of voting, while companies benefit from instant answers to marketing questions and reducing the dependence on middlemen. A cynic might have pointed out to Mae that a central Cloud – let’s call it the Putin 2016 citizen-bypass calculator – could be engineered to conform to the opinions of its owner or sponsor. Circle could have the final say on any issue or elected official. Far-fetched? Not since Julian Assange and Edward Snowden became household names and Russian hackers interfered with U.S. and French elections. If anything, the sting of Ponsoldt’s cautionary tale was blunted by these revelations. Mae’s enthusiasm for the concept completely evaporated when Bailey’s team overplayed its hand by demonstrating to employees how any criminal – or average citizen, like her friend Mercer (Ellar Coltrane) – could be tracked down, anywhere in the world, and arrested or harassed. Not nice. Any character played by Tom Hanks is going to be a pretty tough nut to crack, however, it will take all the magic left in the former Hermione Granger to save us from corporate tyranny. Again, a bit too obvious.

When compared to Watson and Hanks’ most recent successes – Sully and Beauty and the BeastThe Circle failed to live up to expectations. On the other hand, weighed against Regression and A Hologram for the King, its $20-million take doesn’t look so bad. And, it probably will do OK in DVD/Blu-ray/VOD, where marquee names have a distinct advantage. In a sad coincidence, the actors who play Mae’s parents — Bill Paxton and Glenne Headley – both died before the film’s release. It’s impossible to watch The Circle without paying extra close attention to their performances, which, while smallish, provide necessary diversions to the narrative. The affectionate featurette, “A True Original: Remembering Bill Paxton,” was completed in time to be added to the DVD. Headly’s passing, on June 8, due to complications from pulmonary embolism, left too little time for an appreciation here. Both actors, whose deaths were unexpected, were in their early 60s. The Blu-ray adds the four-part, 31-minute “No More Secrets: Completing The Circle” (1080p; 30:56) and “The Future Won’t Wait: Design and Technology,” on the film’s production design.

Amnesia
Apart from directing an episode of “Mad Men,” Oscar- and Palme d’Or-nominated filmmaker Barbet Schroeder (Reversal of Fortune, Barfly) hasn’t notched a significant credit since Our Lady of the Assassins (2000). He’s been an arthouse fixture since 1975, when Maîtresse, starring Gérard Depardieu and his current wife, Bulle Ogier, introduced S&M to the cineaste crowd. (Not the Shades of Grey or 9½ Weeks pabulum, either.) He even enjoyed some mainstream success here with Reversal of Fortune (1990) and Single White Female (1992). Amnesia won’t make anyone forget his best work, including Koko: A Talking Gorilla and General Idi Amin Dada. He returns to the indie arena with Amnesia, a personal story that should resonate with anyone whose parents harbored secrets that tested their familial bonds. Set in the 1990s, it explores the friendship between an elderly, if still-vital German woman, Martha Sagell (Marthe Keller), living as an expatriate in Ibiza, and a much younger German man, Jo Gellert (Max Riemelt), hoping to make a name for himself as a deejay in the tech-music capital of Europe. Their tidy white-washed homes are located close enough to each other that they can hear each other’s stereo systems on their patios, a hill away. It takes a while before Jo asks Martha why she doesn’t play her piano or speak German with him. She relates a story about losing her musician lover to the Nazis in World War II and how using the language would only bring back horrible memories. Jo doesn’t completely understand the depth of her resentment until he’s paid a visit by his mother (Corinna Kirchhoff) and grandfather (Bruno Ganz), who, as civilians, survived the war and economic troubles that followed. Over a pleasant sun-drenched lunch, they inquire about Martha’s wartime choices, causing her to ask Jo’s grandfather’s role how he avoided conscription. Serious hearing problems kept from the fronts, but not in a position of authority over children destined for the death camps. His mother became a physician, partially in response to her country’s complicity in the Holocausts. It’s allowed both of them to compartmentalize their guilt. While neither is a war criminal, by any means, their memories conflict with what Jo had been taught about that period. Schroeder handles the material with sensitivity and respect for his characters, possibly because he was inspired by the memory of his own mother. In fact, the principal Sant Antoni de Portmany location in Amnesia was acquired by Schroeder’s mother in 1951 and, in 1969, was used during the filming of More. The Film Movement package adds the short, “Your Mother and I,” and statement by the director and company.

The Lovers: Blu-ray
Unlike England and France, where Isabelle Huppert, Charlotte Rampling, Helen Mirren, Judi Dench, Catherine Deneuve and Maggie Smith are still finding rewarding work on the big screen, the most interesting work being offered American actresses above a certain age is on television. Glenn Close and Meryl Streep would appear to be exceptions to the rule, but aren’t nearly as visible outside awards seasons as the European stars. Susan Sarandon remains active, but arguably her best work in years came in FX Networks’ “Feud,” opposite Jessica Lange and Judy Davis. Likewise, Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin struck gold in Netflix’s “Grace and Frankie.” The photo on the copy of The Lovers I received caused me to wonder when I last saw Debra Winger in as prominent a role in a feature. Apart from nice supporting performances in Lola Versus (2012) and Rachel Getting Married (2008), she’s stayed active recently in HBO’s “In Treatment,” Lifetime’s “The Red Tent” and in 30 episodes of Netflix’s “The Ranch.” In Azazel Jacobs’ very grownup dramedy, Winger plays the unhappily married Mary, who’s probably 10 years younger than her own 62 years of age. Her similarly miserable husband, Michael, is played by 52-year-old Tracy Letts (“Homeland”). You can’t tell the difference. Although Mary and Michael sleep in the same bed and are civil to each other at home, both are engaged in affairs with people who can’t wait for their sham marriage to end. They’ve told their lovers that this will occur after their son, Joel (Tyler Ross), returns home to introduce them to his girlfriend, Erin (Jessica Sula). She’s been told to anticipate the homecoming from hell. That’s probably how it would have played out, too, if it weren’t for the impatience of Mary and Michael’s lovers. Lucy (Melora Walters) and Robert (Aidan Gillen) display the kind of rash behavior that makes unhappily married couples reconsider their indiscretions. By the time Joel and Erin arrive, Mary and Michael are acting like newlyweds. Things will happen to shatter the rapprochement, but it isn’t their fault. Their son’s bitterness makes lemons look sweet. Winger and Letts keep us guessing as to how things will turn out with their suddenly likeable characters. That isn’t an easy thing to do when everyone’s misbehaving.

I Am the Blues
Roaring Abyss
Sonny Rollins: Saxophone Colossus: Blu-ray
Ever since the 1992 release of Robert Palmer and Robert Mugge’s Deep Blues, musicians, historians and documentary makers have scoured the Mississippi Delta in search of what remains of America’s blues traditions. Peter Meyer’s Can’t You Hear the Wind Howl? The Life & Music of Robert Johnson focused its attention on a legendary bluesman, whose impact on rock ’n’ roll was as great as Chuck Berry and Little Richard. The mystery surrounding his death didn’t hurt, either. In Delta Rising: A Blues Documentary (2008), actor and club owner Morgan Freeman helped co-directors Michael Afendakis and Laura Bernieri pinpoint Clarksdale as the still-beating heart of Delta blues. Before that, PBS’ exhaustive seven-part documentary series, “The Blues” (2003), traced the origins and history of the genre from Africa to Mississippi, to Chicago, London and around the world. If Daniel Cross’ I Am the Blues doesn’t break much new ground, it is distinguished by the esteemed presence of octogenarian Bobby Rush. He is one the few active musicians who followed Muddy Waters, Howling Wolf, Elmore James and Jimmy Reed to Chicago, in the 1950s, when the blues went electric. Rush serves here as our guide to the Mississippi Delta’s Chitlin’ Circuit, the state’s northern Hill Country and Louisiana bayous, where guitar and harmonica players his age still perform in juke joints for peanuts and tips. I Am the Blues is far less interested in “rediscovering” artists who weren’t all that famous in the first place – as was the case at the Newport Folk Festivals of the 1960s – than simply enjoying their company and sharing some songs. Among those represented are Barbara Lynn, Little Freddie King, Lazy Lester, Henry Gray, Carol Fran, Bilbo Walker, Jimmy “Duck” Holmes, R.L. Boyce, L.C. Ulmer, Lil’ Buck Sinegal and New Orleans maestro Allen Toussaint.

IndiePix’s music-filled Roaring Abyss serves as an ideal companion DVD to Mali Blues, released last week by Icarus Films. Both describe the contemporary music scene in their respective countries, Ethiopia and Mali, on opposite sides of the African continent, facing different obstacles to economic and artistic survival. The musicians we met in Mali Blues were forbidden by Islamic militants from playing any music, while the artists we meet in Roaring Abyss are struggling to maintain traditions, while adopting contemporary trends. Quino Piñero’s journey took him across Ethiopia’s mountains, deserts and forests, where more than 80 ethnic groups and cultures can be differentiated, as well as the teeming bars and musical venues in Addis Ababa. It’s exciting to watch musicians playing such traditional instruments as the Krar (a five- or six-stringed lyre), Washint (a type of flute), Masenqo (single-stringed bowed lute) and Kebero (double-headed membranophone), interact with electronic keyboards and vibrant high-octave singers. The sad thing is knowing that none of the musicians is likely to enjoy a fraction of the success as the worst boy band or Britney Spears wannabe in the U.S.

Movies about jazz musicians can’t help but leave viewers with the blues, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Beyond the battles with drugs, booze, cops and mobsters, there’s always the music, where the blues are a good thing. Hollywood only occasionally gets it right, especially when white actors or composers are asked to fill roles that, by all right, should have gone to African-Americans. As much as that tendency has been reversed, there’s still room for the occasional La La Land and Whiplash, in which the spotlight stays mostly on the white protagonists and music by the same white composer. Even so, it can’t be said that Damien Chazelle and Justin Hurwitz’ hearts weren’t in the right place. In 1986, Robert Mugge’s Saxophone Colossus and Bertrand Tavernier’s ‘Round Midnight put the spotlight where it belonged, on saxophones played Sonny Rollins and Dexter Gordon’s. Two years later, Clint Eastwood’s Bird focused on the third saxophone colossus, Charlie Parker. In 2015, trumpeters Miles Davis and Chet Baker got their due in Miles Ahead and Born to Be Blue, respectively. Although he’s been plagued with respiratory problem, Rollins not only has survived almost all of his contemporaries, but he also continues to receive honorary degrees and prestigious accolades. Check out Rollins’ IMDB.com resume and you’ll discover that his foray into cinema began in 1966, with Alfie. It captured the flawed character of Michael Caine’s playboy protagonist and a slice of Swingin’ London not owned by the Beatles and Rolling Stones. The centerpiece of Mugge’s film comes when a small crew accompanies Sonny and Lucille Rollins to Tokyo, where the Yomiuri Nippon Symphony Orchestra premiered his Concerto for Tenor Saxophone and Orchestra. They also captured the studio-phobic musician and his ensemble performing at the sculpted rock quarry, Opus 40, in Saugerties, New York. Among those interviewed are jazz critics Ira Gitler, Gary Giddins and Francis Davis. MVD Visual’s new release has been given a 4K remastering and an updated commentary by Mugge.

Wakefield: Blu-ray
Writer/director Robin Swicord (The Jane Austen Book Club) based Wakefield on a New Yorker story by E.L. Doctorow, who, in turn, borrowed the idea from a Nathaniel Hawthorne story of the same title in the 1837 collection, “Twice-Told Tales.” There are portions of Wakefield, the movie, that feel just the old and tired. If it weren’t for Bryan Cranston’s fittingly tragicomic performance in the lead role, it might not have enjoyed an afterlife outside the festival circuit. He plays successful New York business executive Howard Wakefield, who, one day, after his daily train ride home, arrives at the conclusion that he no longer wants to participate in his own life. Neither does Howard want to participate in the life of his family, which includes a lovely wife (Jennifer Garner) and twin teenage daughters. He will, however, observe their every move from the middle distance provided by the attic of detached garage. He does so from summer through spring, leaving his habitat to scrounge for food or sneak into the house for a shower. While technically not homeless, Howard might as well be sleeping on park benches and diving into dumpsters for hidden treasures. Diana makes it easy for Howard to eavesdrop on the family by habitually refusing the close the house’s shades and curtain. He used to demand that she do so while dressing, but the nightly show is a poor man’s television. When it comes to securing his daily bread and warm clothing, Howard competes with a local homeless man; Russian immigrants, who descend on the neighborhood an hour or two after garbage canisters are rolled to the street; and a crafty raccoon, whom he comes to resemble. He also benefits from the kindness and generosity of an unlikely set of neighborhood kids. Cranston does a fine job selling his character, but loses his credibility when Howard nearly freezes to death in the attic, instead of, say, hitching a ride to San Diego or Key West.

The Hippopotamus
One of the reasons Americans – some of us, anyway – seek out the adaptations of British literary gems thrown our way by the BBC and ITV is to hear our shared language spoken correctly. That, and the lovely estates that are the natural habitat of ruling-class twits. John Jencks’ adaptation of “The Hippopotamus,” a novel by actor/comedian/writer Stephen Fry (Bright Young Things), qualifies on both fronts. Anglophiles will love the actors’ smart and correct English diction, while cherishing the grandeur of West Wycombe House, in Buckinghamshire. It also recalls Evelyn Waugh, which is a plus. There are too many times, however, when the aristocratic trappings of The Hippopotamus fail to make the leap from page to screen. Roger Allam (“Endeavor”) is almost too credible as the blocked, alcoholic poet, Ted Wallace, whose intolerance for mediocrity recently cost him his job as a theater critic for a major newspaper. The title refers to the character’s obesity, which causes him to feel most comfortable wallowing in a bathtub with drink in hand. After being fired, Wallace’s terminally ill adult godchild, Jane Swann (Emily Berrington), asks him to investigate a series of bizarre occurrences at the mansion, some of which qualify as being miraculous. While incredible, Wallace will discover that they don’t qualify as acts of God. Reaching that conclusion, however, almost pushes him past the point of maintaining a stiff upper lip. Patient viewers will be rewarded with a happy ending. Matthew Modine and Fiona Shaw do a nice a job portraying Lord and Lady Logan, who can afford to hover just above the fray.

Opening Night
Conceived in the same irreverent spirit as “Broadway Babylon,” “Noises Off” and Showgirls, Isaac Rentz’ backstage farce, Opening Night, benefits from energized performances by a familiar cast of second-tier actors, who, conceivably, have endured the same indignities as their characters. Freshmen writers Gerry De Leon and Greg Lisi mine whatever paydirt can be found in being a highly visible flash in the pan in an industry that abhors a sophomore slump. Stage manager Nick (Topher Grace) has the odds stacked against him on opening night of the new Broadway production, “One Hit Wonderland,” a musical starring former NSYNC member, J.C. Chasez. The musical score is comprised of actual songs that reached the top of the charts, before their creators disappeared into a cloud of obscurity. While audience members are dancing in their seats, things could hardly be more dischordant backstage. Among other things, Nick’s talented ex-girlfriend, Chloe (Alona Tal), is about to escape understudy hell, when leading lady Brooke (Anne Heche) experiences the same calamity as Gina Gershon in the aforementioned Showgirls. Once Chloe shows what she can do, she becomes a target for J.C.’s none too subtle come-ons. Meanwhile, a prima donna back-up dancer (Taye Diggs) enters into a competition with a bodaciously busty chorus girl (Carly Anderson) for rights to the new chorus boy. (She’s too dimwitted to realize that he, like all the other chorus boys, is gay.) Temperamental producer (Rob Riggle) blames Nick for every misstep and blunder, except for Chloe’s breakthrough performance, for which he’s perfectly willing to take credit. Like any farce worth its salt, Opening Night gets crazier as it nears the 90-minute barrier. The sheer likeability of the one-hit-wonder songs compensates for most of the story’s lapses.

Bender
First-time writer/director John Alexander cut his workload in half by choosing to tell the true story of Kansas’ Bloody Benders, believed to be America’s first known family of serial killers. All he was required to do was add some Little Slaughter House on the Prairie atmospherics and voila, the festival-ready thriller, Bender. The killings of at least 11 men, women and children began after a family of German immigrants – Trump alert! – moved into a wooden cabin just outside Independence. The Benders converted half of the building to a modest general store, separated from the living quarters by a canvas wagon-cover. In addition to the groceries, strangers were attracted to the store by the promise of a psychic reading by creepy 23-year-old daughter, Kate Bender (Nicole Jellen). If the visitor stayed for dinner, Pa or Ma Bender would sneak behind the canvas, smash his skull with a hammer and slice his throat with a razor. They would bury the body in the garden behind the house, barely covered by dirt. Alexander opens Bender with an actual photo of the house, showing one of the holes dug by deputies, looking for corpses. All that stood between the Benders and the Rockies was prairie. He maintains the desolate tone throughout the length of the 80-minute movie. Sadly, just as viewers have committed their focus to the story … it’s over. Even a quick perusal of the Wikipedia page devoted to the murders would argue for another half-hour’s worth of story, most of which would describe the police chase that covered most of the Midwest. Instead, Bender ends all too abruptly with an ambiguous postscript. Also appearing are Bruce Davison, Linda Purl, James Karen and Jon Monastero, who plays the doctor who died investigating the disappearance of a different family, and his twin brother, a lawman.

1944
In the unusually philosophical World War II drama, 1944, Estonian filmmaker and theater director Elmo Nüganen picks up where his debut movie, Names Engraved in Marble, left off in 2002 … sort of. It chronicled the Estonian War of Independence, which occurred between 1918 and 1920, after German occupation forces went home and Bolshevik soldiers attempted to fill the vacuum. Their defeat led to Estonian independence, if only for 22 years. Names Engraved in Marble, which I haven’t seen, deals specifically with the students caught in an ideological split between those espousing Estonian nationalism and Marxist dogma. The fate of Estonia in the Second World War was decided by the German–Soviet Non-Aggression Pact and its Secret Additional Protocol of August 1939. They ensured that Estonia would be split once again by outside forces and opposing ideologies. Men would be forcibly conscripted by whichever power held sway when the treaties were broken by Hitler. Estonians, who were given no choice in the matter, had every reason to distrust both sides, even as they were forced to don foreign uniforms and pick up arms against their brothers. Estonia ended up with more than 50,000 men of combat age conscripted to fight for the Red Army and over 70,000 for the German military. The events depicted in 1944 take place between July’s battle of the Tannenberg Line and the Red Army’s occupation of the Sorve peninsula, five months later. Although many of the soldiers feared what might happen if their side lost, they also knew that they could end up in Berlin or Siberia, along with family members. Either way, it meant almost certain death. Some Estonians fighting for the Germans simply took the uniforms off the enemy dead and joined the Soviets.

Lacking even this much historical background, it took a while for me to figure out who was who and what was what in 1944. Even more perplexing was the emotional gridlock precipitated by not knowing which side to support. The Estonians conscripted into the Waffen SS – the Wehrmacht only accepted Germans – were, in effect, serving as the handmaidens of Satan incarnate. Neither is it easy to cheer for the success of the Red Army troops, whose officers swore allegiance to a different monster, Stalin, and vowed to kill anyone who didn’t strictly adhere to Soviet principles, prejudices and thuggery. Deaths attributed to the war and back-to-back-to-back occupations have been estimated at 90,000, including those suffered in the Soviet deportations of 1941, the subsequent German deportations and Holocaust victims killed in locally established concentration camps. Instead, Nüganen encourages viewers to focus on individual soldiers and their struggle to stay alive and unsoiled by war crimes. He adds a romantic angle that further complicates our feelings, while also demonstrating how civilians persevered at the crossroads of war. As much as American audiences will want to hold their enthusiasm for the re-establishment of independence in the Baltic states, we know that it wouldn’t occur, again, until 1991. Who knows what could happen if Vladimir Putin wakes up on the wrong side of the bed one morning and decides to annex Estonia, as he did Crimea. The only thing I didn’t care much for is the English dubbing, which lacks emotion.

Nocturne
The Black Room: Blu-ray
Just in case anyone needed to be reminded about the perils of teenagers mixing booze, drugs and Ouija boards, along comes Stephen Shimek’s nifty little horror flick, Nocturne, to add a few new wrinkles. When Isaac and Vi’s plan to throw a grand graduation party peter out, due to scarcity of invited guests, the half-dozen teens who do show up decide to pull out a Ouija board and see what the spirits have to say about their collective future. Instead of making up a lie about better times ahead, the malevolent spirit decides to play a game of its own. It patiently waits inside the house for the kids to wear themselves out before striking. When it does, however, it’s like a nightmare come to life. Part of the attraction here is Shimek’s creative deployment of assets, starting with the limited amount of space for the spirit to hide and opportunities for partygoers to reveal their deep, dark secrets and hidden desires … such as they might be for people their age. The makeup effects are quite decent, as well, again considering the extremely limited budget.

It seems like only yesterday when I was warning readers off Last Day of School, an extremely lazy and completely vapid exploitation flick written by the hyper-prolific Rolfe Kanefsky. Little did I know that two weeks later another Kanefsky vehicle would be heading my way. This time, the Hampshire College alumnus doubled down by serving as writer and director of the haunted-house thriller, The Black Room. It wouldn’t be difficult for any movie to be exponentially better than the Vegas-set Last Day of School, so merely pointing out that The Black Room is a better film could be construed as damning with faint praise. But, it is. The house in question has claimed one set of owners, at least, before Paul and Jennifer Hemdale (Lukas Hassel, Natasha Henstridge) claim it as their dream home. It’s tough to say how many evil spirits inhabit the place, because they/it are invisible (at first, anyway) and capable of bringing Paul and Jennifer to orgasm simultaneously, without them knowing whose fingers are pulling the strings. The next thing they know, a repairman disappears in the basement … behind the black door they failed to open during the inspection. When the demon takes possession of Paul’s body, it’s free to roam around the house and take advantage of all pleasures of the flesh, including that attached to the wee skeleton of Jennifer’s goth sister, Karen (Augie Duke, who currently has more than 15 projects in the production cycle). Can they remedy the problem or will it be passed along to the next buyer? If the gag isn’t particularly original, the supernatural sex scenes take up the slack.

Slither: Collector’s Edition: Blu-ray
Judging solely from the cover art, Slither could be anything from a sui generis creature feature to a Troma-like parody of such grisly entertainments. And, yes, the Toxic Avenger does make a cameo performance here. It is James Gunn’s first directorial foray away from Lloyd Kaufman’s plantation, where his name was attached to “The Tromaville Café,” “Hamster” and “Sgt. Kabukiman” PSAs and “Troma’s Edge TV.” Eight years later, Gunn would stun Hollywood with the international hit, Guardians of the Galaxy, which cost 155 million more dollars to make than Slither. Typically, it opens with a meteor crash-landing in a forest, somewhere in redneck country. Turns out, this isn’t just any meteor. Contained within its rocky exterior are thousands of slug-like creatures drawn, like vampires, to human blood. In addition to sucking the nutrients out of its host – the first one being a wealthy doofus, Grant Grant, played by Michael Rooker – the victims begin wandering around town like zombies. His wife, Starla Grant (Elizabeth Banks), sees the humanity in her husband, even as he starts to resemble a beached sperm whale, with tentacles. The only person she can trust is an old boyfriend, who’s now the local sheriff Bill Pardy (Nathan Fillion). What differentiates Slither from dozens of other meteor-borne disaster movies are the many verbal and visual homages to classic horror flicks and state-of-the-art makeup effects. The Scream Factory “Collector’s Edition” adds a new acommentary track, with Gunn, Rooker and Nathan Fillion; a lengthy interview with Gunn; a chat with Gregg Henry, who plays Mayor Jack MacReady; vintage commentary with Gunn and Fillion; deleted and extended scenes, with optional commentary; a “slithery” set tour; a half-dozen making-of featurettes; Lloyd Kaufman’s “Video Diary”; and a gag reel.

TV-to-DVD
BBC/PBS: Remember Me
Audience/DirecTV: Kingdom: Seasons One and Two
Amazon: Fortitude: The Complete Second Season
PBS: America’s Test Kitchen: Season 17
TimeLife: The Best of Harvey Korman
Michael Palin’s performance in BBC/PBS’ “Remember Me” isn’t the only good reason to watch the three-part mini-series, but, for “Monty Python” faithful, anyway, it’s as good an entry point as any. Among the other things worth mentioning are sterling performances by Mark Addy and Jody Comer; the hauntingly gray Yorkshire setting; and a ghost story Stephen King might wish he’d written. Palin plays Tom Parfitt, a forlorn gent who looks 70, but could be well into his hundreds. In fact, Parfitt probably stopped counting birthdays a full lifetime ago, when his Indian bride, Isha, died just after their honeymoon. Since then, he’s convinced himself that her spirit’s never left his side and doesn’t want him to stray from home. Finally, though, Parfitt decides to fake an injury sufficiently severe to have him placed in a nursing home. No sooner does he lay down his suitcase than the social worker who accompanies him is thrown from the seemingly impenetrable fourth floor window of his room. One by one, strange things begin happening to those in contact with Tom, including a teenage caregiver, Hannah (Comer), and a skeptical copper, Rob Fairholme (Addy). They include leaky ceilings, soggy carpets and untimely appearances by sari-wearing apparitions. Meanwhile, the clouds that fill the skies over Yorkshire grow heavier and infinitely more foreboding. On the eve of World War I, in a rush to return to India, Isha stowed away on a ship doomed never to arrive at its destination. Although her drowned body washed ashore, it went unidentified. When the next Mrs. Parfitt died, as well, only hours after their honeymoon, Tom blamed Isha for the accident. From that point on, he became a recluse. All of the clues to what happened, and might happen to Hannah and her 10-year-old brother, can be found in the lyrics to the different versions of “Scarborough Fair” cluttering Tom’s home. The mini-series’ creator, Gwyneth Hughes, has spent most of the last 10 years writing such shows as “The Girl,” “The Mystery of Edwin Drood,” “Under the Skin,” “Five Days” and “Miss Austen Regrets.” This one is genuinely scary.

As if to prove that a prime-time soap can be molded from any contemporary workplace or family situation, Audience Network and DirecTV’s “Kingdom” has built a rather decent serial drama around a motley collection of MMA fighters, ex-cons, steroid abusers, alcoholics, junkies, whores and soft-hearted molls. And, of course, it’s set in Venice, California, where people like that can be found at the local Ralph’s, 12-step meetings and PTA gatherings. Showrunner Byron Balasco almost dares viewers to form an emotional attachment with any of the characters, including Frank Grillo’s Alvey Kulina, who owns the Navy Street Gym and whose two sons (Nick Jonas, Jonathan Tucker) are MMA fighters. The women, Lisa Prince (Kiele Sanchez), Natalie Martinez (Alicia Mendez) and the matriarch, Christina Kulina (Joanna Going), as usual, provide emotional, financial and sexual healing for their rowdy laddies. (Rocky’s Talia Shire makes an appearance at the end of the third and final season.) Another compelling storyline involves Matt Lauria (“Parenthood”), an overly amped-up former champion, trying to make his way back up the ladder after a few years in prison. The person responsible for the actors’ tattoos probably deserves consideration for an Emmy. As befits the times, there’s even an LGBTQ throughline. The nine-disc DVD set includes all 30 episodes from the first two seasons.

For as long as anyone can remember, the remote northern Norwegian outpost, Fortitude, has been one of the safest towns on Earth. Until the launch of Season One of the Amazon Studios’ series not a single violent crime was reported there. By the midpoint of “Fortitude: The Complete Second Season,” at least a half-dozen bodies are found, beheaded, sliced open and their tongues removed. If that weren’t sufficiently ominous, there’s the occasional carnivorous reindeer, crazed polar bear and poisonous wasp. Showrunner Simon Donald (“The Deep,” “Low Winter Sun”) turns that rather simple setup into a frequently frightening mashup of The Thing and “Twin Peaks.” The international cast includes Richard Dormer, Björn Hlynur Haraldsson, Sofie Gråbøl, Sienna Guillory, Mia Jexen, Verónica Echegui, Ken Stott, Michelle Fairley, Michael Obiora, Parminder Nagra, Luke Treadaway and Dennis Quaid, who look as if he’s in his element here … the here, being scenic Reyðafjörður, Iceland, as Fortitude. Amazon has yet to decide if the show – which, by the way, is extremely gory – will be accorded a third stanza.

From the kitchens of PBS comes “America’s Test Kitchen: Season 17,” a show targeted at people who love to eat the food they buy and prepare, hate to be called “foodies,” don’t worship at the altar of celebrity chefs or care who wins “Iron Chef.” The formula is tried and true: “develop, refine and test recipes, again and again, until they arrive at the very best versions … discover the best ingredients, gadgets and kitchen equipment for the money.” The new volume is comprised of 26 episodes on four discs, featuring dishes from all corners of the globe, ranging from breakfast through dessert, with room for takeout.

As the story goes, the producers of “The Carol Burnett Show” wanted a “Harvey Korman-type” to be Burnett’s “second banana,” but didn’t bother to ask him if he was interested in the job, because he was already a regular on “The Danny Kaye Show.” Unbeknownst to her, Kaye’s show was about to get the axe after a four-year run, so, when she confronted Korman in a CBS parking lot, he cheerfully accepted her offer. His tenure as television’s top second banana lasted 10 years, during which time he won four Primetime Emmys and a Grammy. Guest stars on “The Best of Harvey Korman” include Sid Caesar, Diahann Carroll, Tim Conway, Ella Fitzgerald, Bernadette Peters and Nancy Wilson, along with classic long-running sketches, “V.I.P.,” “Carol and Sis” and “The Old Folks.”  Like the Tim Conway collection before it, the best of Korman could hardly be contained on a single disc, but price isn’t bad.