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The DVD Wrapup: Not A Witch, Jonathan, The Captain, Speed Kills, Room 304, Hippocrates, The Dark, Crimson Peak, Tea With Dames, Forbidden Photos, Addiction … More

Thursday, January 17th, 2019

I Am Not a Witch
In 1980, Jamie Uys’ The Gods Must Be Crazy became the most commercially successful release in the history of South Africa’s film industry … possibly in the history of sub-Saharan Africa. The movie generated extensive word-of-mouth success in Europe, Japan and North America, with the movie rights initially being sold to 45 countries. Funny, unexpected and exotic, The Gods Must Be Crazy became a huge arthouse hit here. Set in Botswana, it follows the story of Xi, a Saan of the Kalahari Desert — played by Namibian Saan farmer Nǃxau ǂToma — whose tribe has no knowledge of the world beyond its villages. After a Coca-Cola bottle is discarded from a plane flying over the Kalahari Desert, it’s found, intact, by a bushman, who has no idea what it is, what purpose it serves or from whence it came. When Xi brings it to his village, the bottle causes such consternation that tribal officials order the bushman to return it to the gods, who must have sent it in the first place. His journey describes the stark differences between the “primitive” culture of the aboriginal, Xhosa-speaking Saan and the technologically advanced culture of the modern world. By becoming an international sensation, The Gods Must Be Crazy also opened the door for criticism by anti-apartheid activists, who were quick to point out the things Uys omitted from the comedy to assure a government subsidy and release. They included the economic, judicial and cultural realities for tribes under apartheid – the star, Nǃxau initially earned less than $2,000 for his starring role – self-censorship of political issues raised and any mention of restrictions prohibiting blacks from making movies and watching them in theaters, outside of crudely produced genre films made in the 1980s by white producers and featuring  actors of color, for the enjoyment of township audiences. (Some of them are now available through IndiePix Films’ Retro Afrika series.) The Gods Must Be Crazy and its inferior sequel were released on DVD in 2004, but not since in Blu-ray.

I was reminded of Nǃxau while watching I Am Not a Witch, an offbeat dramedy by the Zambian-born, British-raised writer/director Rungano Nyoni. It depicts the ways women convicted of being witches in rural Zambia cope with ignorance, prejudice and forced labor. That cold reality is offset by the comic buffoonery and outright hypocrisy of rural officials, who are swayed by legal statutes, superstition and fear of the unknown when dealing with women accused of being witches. Here, 9-year-old Shula (Maggie Mulubwa) is exiled to a mobile witch camp after being accused of crimes that wouldn’t even stand up in a kangaroo court.  To prevent the women from “flying away,” they’re required to wear long white ribbons, which connect to spools affixed to rods on a flatbed truck. She’s warned by a corrupt government agent, Mr. Banda (Henry B.J. Phiri), that any attempt to escape could result in her being transformed into a white goat. Before Shula’s actually convicted of witchcraft and given a ribbon to wear, Banda confers with the local tribe’s witch doctor, whose judgements are dictated by what he gleans from the final death throes of beheaded chickens. If Shula doesn’t offer much in the way of a defense, it’s only because the older women are kind to her and benefit from regular meals, shelter and the occasional bottle of gin. It only takes Banda a few hours to figure out how to profit from Shula’s gift, as it were, and use it to maintain his comparatively lavish western lifestyle and the continued adoration of his wife – a pretty woman he rescued from the camp — who believes that she’s protected from bigotry by the ring on her finger. Banda courts celebrityhood by bringing Shula into the nearest city and sitting alongside her while she’s interviewed by a talk-show host. He goes out on a limb by promising the audience that Shula will come up with a way to end the region’s crippling drought. That’s a lot of pressure to put on a little girl, but Banda has more to lose than she does, as her worst-case scenario begins and ends with being turned into a goat, able to roam freely and eat what it wants. Nyoni enhances the story with a few dollops of magical realism and her ability to remain as objective as possible under the circumstances. Special features include two of Nyoni’s award-winning shorts and an interview.

If the witch doctor in I Am Not a Witch is less sinister than Banda, the ones to whom we’re exposed in In the Shadow of the Sun (2012), Africa Investigates: Spell of the Albino (2011), White Shadow (2013) and Albino Africa (2014), are nothing less than demonic. These and other recent documentaries, docudramas and dramas describe how albinos in Tanzania – a country considered progressive by African standards – are hunted, maimed and murdered for body parts used by witch doctors in their rituals. While some people believe they bring bad luck and are somehow immortal, witch doctors have convinced bounty hunters that their bones can cure diseases or be used as charms to bring wealth. In Swahili, albinos are called “zeru zeru,” which means “ghosts.” In a country with a high rate of poverty, the prices put on their body parts have encouraged a recent wave of violent crimes against albinos. In Tanzania, the percentage of people born without melanin is said to be eight times higher than anywhere else in the world. There is no scientific explanation for this anomaly and the locals rarely talk about it. To combat the extraordinary cruelty and superstitions, government and relief agencies have created boarding schools and shelters to protect potential victims.

Jonathan
In his directorial debut, Bill Oliver puts a “Twilight Zone” spin on questions raised by Robert Louis Stevenson’s “Strange Case of Dr  Jeckyl and Mr Hyde” and subsequent examinations of the duality of human nature and inner struggle between good and evil. Typically, filmmakers use identical-twin characters as easily recognizable entry points to narratives on schizophrenia and the “evil twin” phenomenon. If viewers are lucky, directors will provide a visual hint to distinguish between the twins. If not, we’re required to guess which of the characters are worthy of our support or empathy. Jonathan bears more than a passing resemblance to David Cronenberg’s simultaneously scary, disturbing and kinky Dead Ringers (1988). Clearly, Oliver hasn’t reached the point in his career where he’s capable of going toe-to-toe on the subject with Cronenberg, Brian De Palma (Sisters), Krzysztof Kieslowski (The Double Life of Véronique) or François Ozon (Double Lover). It’s a good start, however.

In it, Ansel Elgort (Baby Driver) plays two brothers, Jonathan/John, living separate lives inside the same body. While they’ve been cognizant of their otherness for some time, it’s been ascribed it to schizophrenia or some other mental condition that’s more perplexing than overtly painful or dangerous. Their therapist, Dr. Mina Nariman (Patricia Clarkson), made the controversial twin-within-a-twin diagnosis and convinced the brothers to agree on a schedule that allows for each of them to divide their 12-hour days into shifts: sleep, work and free time. Neither of them is aware of the other’s activities while he’s off-the-clock, as it were. Jonathan is rigid, precise and fussy, and takes his work home with him. John has more of a laid-back personality and invested his free time in more leisurely pursuits. Until lately, they’ve lived by a strict set of rules, limiting their exposure to outsiders and avoiding romantic and social entanglements. To make sure they’re on the same wavelength after each of their shifts – inwardly and outwardly – each brother leaves the other a video, describing every detail of their conscious periods, which run from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., and vice versa. The men will squabble over who’s forgotten to clean up their apartment or neglected other chores, but they know that cooperation is the only option open to them.

It takes a while for Jonathan, an aspiring architect, to notice a change in their respective routines. It presents itself as a lack of sleep or a bruise that wasn’t there when they last exchanged videos. It almost goes without saying that John, who works as a temp at a law firm and is something of a party animal, will eventually breaks the rules by falling in love with  Elena (Suki Waterhouse), a pretty blond who’s unaware of the brothers’ situation. When Jonathan alerts Dr. Nariman to John’s misbehavior, she immediately senses that such risky behavior could affect both of them simultaneously and unfairly impact Elena. She demands that John tell Elena about his double life or, preferably, cut things off completely. Jonathan is so unnerved that he hires a P.I. to dig up the goods on Elena and uses the information to stalk Elena on her daily rounds. He doesn’t ask John’s permission to do so, however. When John decides to break off their relationship, it causes him to fall into a depressive state and become belligerent with strangers. (Johnathan will find the bruises in the morning.) Ironically, the decision also serves to drive Elena into Jonathan’s arms, which isn’t particularly healthy, either. Because Jonathan, the movie, doesn’t quite know what it wants to be – sci-fi, romance, drama, suspense – it has trouble sticking the landing. As the title suggests, the story suffers from an unbalanced presentation of points-of-view, leaving us wondering what going on in John’s half of their brain. The same applies to Elena. It might have been interesting to see what would happen if John and Elena had decided to get married or take a trip to Mexico, without informing Jonathan. He’d wake up the next morning in Cancun, with a ring on his finger and reservations for scuba lessons. Then, what?

The Captain: Blu-ray
Memoir of War
If, going into it, all one knew about the harrowing German wartime drama, The Captain, is that its writer/director previously made Flightplan (2005), The Time Traveler’s Wife (2009), RED (2010), R.I.P.D. (2013), Insurgent (2015) and Allegiant (2016), the safe assumption would be that it will be a typical Hollywood entertainment, with a couple of marquee actors and lots of CGI-enhanced action. Oh, yeah, the same director is also scheduled to direct a G.I. Joe spin-off, featuring the character Snake Eyes, for release in 2020. That guess would be wrong. Instead, Stuttgart-born writer/director Robert Schwentke — a 1992 graduate of Columbia College Hollywood – has crafted the kind of story that takes risks most studios avoid, unless Steven Spielberg or George Lucas is attached to the project. Although it did well at several international film festivals and received excellent reviews, The Captain was released in only a handful of niche theaters, in advance of what deserves to be a lucrative run on DVD. Schwentke based the movie on the true story of Willi Herold – a.k.a., the Executioner of Emsland – which appears to have only been a footnote in the recorded annals of World War II. As far as I can tell, The Captain grossed $109,226 here and another $191,873 overseas. As Schwentke mentions in an interview included in the bonus package, he wanted to remind viewers – including his fellow countrymen – that some of the atrocities that were committed during the war were caused by everyday soldiers and officers, without any direct link to Adolph Hitler, the Gestapo or death-camp commandoes. The perpetrators weren’t following orders and their victims weren’t always Jews, enemy combatants or POWs protected by the Geneva Conventions.

Most of what happens during the first half of The Captain would naturally lead viewers to believe that it will be as darkly comedic as Catch 22 (1970) or The Good Soldier Schweik (1960). In September 1943, Herold (Max Hubacher), then 18, was called up for military service and fought in battles at Nettuno and Monte Cassino. He was awarded the Iron Cross First Class and promoted to corporal after destroying two British tanks at Salerno. After being relocated to Germany in early April 1945, Herold became separated from his unit near Bad Bentheim and swallowed up in the chaos of the retreating German army. The Captain opens with Herold wandering through the countryside, scratching for food and behaving strangely in the company of deserters in makeshift shelters. In time, Willie comes across an abandoned limousine, containing the luggage and papers of a Luftwaffe captain. After he puts on the officer’s uniform, Herold metamorphosizes into something he never was and is ill-prepared to be: a leader of men. Hoping simply to find food and the quickest route back to Berlin, he forms a platoon of raggedy soldiers, deserters and escaped criminals, who don’t look any more out of place than the other soldiers they encounter. At first, Willie’s uniform, papers and posturing protect him from possible questions about his actual status and youthful demeanor. He looks the part and effectively mimics the extreme behavior of a SS official. The closer Herold comes to a place where he can ride out the end of the war, however, the more likely it becomes that Wehrmacht officers will demand that he prove his leadership skills. Herold volunteers to shoot anyone acting out of line, while ordering his troops to perform odious tasks. Not surprisingly, perhaps, the power goes to his head. At a loosely run prison camp for Nazi riff-raff, he orders guards to execute prisoners for breaking the rules or for simply getting in his way. A comedy presentation and sing-along turn violent and it triggers in him a mad desire to execute dozens of prisoners herded into a trench. When the Allies bomb the camp, Herold decides to get while the gettin’s good, escaping into the forest. He’s arrested and escapes one more time before returning home, where he pursues a career as a chimney sweep. In the epilogue, we learn that Herold was eventually arrested by the Royal Navy for the theft of a loaf of bread, and rightly punished for being a war criminal. Schwentke took some liberties with the details of the case, but not many. Even then, it’s difficult to discern whether Willi’s madness can be written off as the “banality of evil” or was the result of crossed circuitry in the brain of a 19-year-old sociopath unworthy of wearing anyone’s uniform.The Blu-ray adds commentary and a festival Q&A with Schwentke; making-of featurettes; interviews; and deleted scenes.

Also, from Music Box this month, comes a second atypical World War II drama, Memoir of War, from France. Both films are set during the waning months of World War II, albeit from radically different points of view. In Emmanuel Finkiel’s adaptation of Marguerite Duras’ semi-autobiographical novel, “The War” (1985)  – ostensibly inspired by diaries discovered decades after VE Day — Mélanie Thierry (The Dancer) delivers a haunting portrayal of the author in extremis. Duras’ communist husband, Robert Antelme (Emmanuel Bourdieu), has been captured by French police and deported to a series of German concentration camps. Somehow, other members of their cell have avoided arrest. Naturally, they question Marguerite’s decision to play along with the intelligence officer, Pierre Rabier (Benoît Magim), who nabbed him. He wants to squeeze Duras, whose books he admires, for leads to other Resistance members and an opportunity to exchange information on her husband for sexual favors. Pierre is quite a bit more suave and intellectual than what we’ve come to expect from collaborators in other wartime movies, so Duras doesn’t seem to mind being in his company, as long as the flow of information about Robert continues. Neither gets what they want, even though an awkward friendship develops between them. (It’s difficult to tell what the cell members have accomplished, but, if nothing else, they serve as our conduit to information on the Allied advances and liberation of death camps.) Marguerite’s emotional state is in a steady decline throughout the movie, even when Robert returns home, nearly dead from beatings and malnutrition. Finkiel and his DP, Alexis Kavyrchine (Back to Burgundy), employ all sorts of visual gimmicks to reflect the extremes in Duras’ condition, as described in her diaries. While an affair with their oily friend and comrade, Dionys Mascolo (Benjamin Biolay), is handled with delicacy, viewers are left wondering as to who is taking advantage of whom and why their tryst couldn’t wait a couple more months to begin. Maybe it’s a French thing. The scenes I admire most in Memoir of War derive from Finkiel’s atypical depiction of the Occupation. Usually, the Nazis and Vichy police are shown beating and killing people, almost at random, and SS officers strut around town like malevolent peacocks. Signs of Nazi propaganda and oppression are everywhere, but, apart from the lines of people outside police headquarters, very little appears to be out of the ordinary … everything else considered.  Scenes depicting the return of relieved soldiers, weary POWs and rail-thing camp survivors pack quite a punch. They’re certainly a change of pace from the images we usually see of cheering, flag-waving crowds and pretty girls kissing American soldiers. The DVD adds deleted scenes and making-of featurettes.

Room 304
Released in 2011, but only now finding its way to the U.S., Birgitte Stærmose and writer Kim Fupz Aakesonn’s Room 304 borrows a familiar conceit and updates it to mirror contemporary issues and personnel dilemmas. The ensemble drama is set in a small, but classy Copenhagen hotel, where disparate lives intersect by chance or fate. Among the people we meet are a stewardess (Ariadna Gil) desperate for intimacy; an immigrant (Luan Jaha) from a war-torn country, obsessed with revenge; a hotel manager (Magnus Krepper) lost in despair; a wife (Trine Dyrholm) abandoned by her husband; and a receptionist (David Dencik) with blood on his hands … literally. Liberated by the feigned intimacy of hotel rooms, secrets are revealed and unexpected events merge into a dramatic tale of love and longing. One of the best things about Room 304 is the multicultural cast, which reflects the diversity of life – ethnically and economically – in central Europe, along with the upstairs/downstairs intermingling of characters.

Speed Kills: Blu-ray
Nominations for the 39th Golden Raspberry Awards won’t be announced until January 21, but, unless I’m very wrong, John Travolta (Gotti) is a mortal lock for being chosen as a Worst Actor finalist for the first time since 2010. That was the year he lost the Worst Actor of the Decade Razzie to Eddie Murphy and the Worst Actor prize (Old Dogs) to all three of the Jonas Brothers for The 3D Concert Experience. If it was any consolation to him, Battlefield Earth – adapted from L. Ron Hubbard’s eponymous sci-fi novel — was awarded the prize for Worst Picture of the Decade. For his contributions to Roger Christian’s homage to Scientology mythos, Travolta was named Worst Actor at the 2001 ceremony. In between Old Dogs and Gotti, Travolta appeared in eight movies that were elevated – if not very high – by his presence. The highlight, though, was his award-winning portrayal of sleazy “dream team” lawyer Robert Shapiro, in FX Network’s “The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story” (2016). Whoever convinced the two-time Oscar nominee to follow that masterwork with Gotti and Speed Kills (2018) deserves to lose his talent-agent’s license and donate his or her fee to the Jett Travolta Foundation. In both films, Travolta plays men involved in organized crime: John Gotti was a king, while Ben Aronoff is portrayed as a pawn whose luck ran out in a Miami parking lot, in 1987. In fact, first-time director Jodi Scurfield and a team of screenwriters based Aronoff on Donald Joel Aronow, who, hardly a pawn, was known far and wide as a world-class racer and manufacturer of some of the fastest and most expensive boats ever made. His Rolodex included the names and numbers of kings, shahs, politicians, mobsters and poseurs, including then-Vice President George Bush, who was to Aronow what Richard Nixon was to Bebe Rebozo. That connection is alluded to in Speed Kills, but only during an almost comical boat ride, in which Travolta and Matthew Modine, as Aranoff and Bush, tool around Biscayne Bay. The ride is shown to have inspired Bush, already the proud owner of a Cigarette boat, to invest taxpayer dollars into a small fleet of Blue Thunder catamarans, at $150,000 apiece.

Until the cats were proven to be unequal to the task, they were assigned to the U.S. Customs Service, as substitutes for Cigarettes seized from drug dealers to catch traffickers. Because both the catamarans and Cigarettes were designed and manufactured by Aronow, President Reagan’s point man in the drug war was effectively pimping for a BFF who not only serviced his favorite maritime toy, but who also was selling boats to drug traffickers and laundering money for the Gambino crime family. It’s represented here by Meyer Lansky’s psychotic nephew, Robbie Reemer (Kellan Lutz). In fact, Reemer is based on the mafia accountant’s great-nephew, Ben Kramer, another champion racer, who, in 1989, would be sentenced to life imprisonment without parole for having imported a half-million pounds of marijuana. (A year later, father Jack and son Ben would be found guilty of 23 and 28 counts of federal money-laundering charges. In 1996, Ben Kramer pled guilty to manslaughter charges for ordering Aronow’s death over a business dispute.) As was the case in Gotti, in which the mob chieftain’s paternal qualities are emphasized, Speed Kills is less concerned with Aronow and the mob’s relationship with Bush and other world leaders than his willingness to puff out his chest and stand up to Lansky and his henchmen … until he became a liability, anyway. As such, Speed Kills isn’t nearly as interesting as the average episode of “Miami Vice,” which frequently served as an unofficial marketing wing for Aronow’s boat-manufacturing concerns. There was a better story to be told about Aronow and his dealings – sketchy, as they are, even today – but asking Travolta to reprise his makeup-intensive Gotti performance distracts from the truth. (Somehow, Scurfield  even manages to make Jennifer Esposito, playing Aronoff’s first wife, Katherine/Shirley Goldin, look frumpy.) If Speed Kills opened theatrically, no one told the ticket counters at Box Office Mojo. That’s what happens, though, when you have three dozen exec-producers on a project, three producers and a freshman director. The real story gets lost in the fog of myth-making. I wonder if they’ll all show up for the Razzies, if their baby is nominated.

The Dark
After Darkness
As much as I tried, I couldn’t find any linkage between these two thrillers, except for the similarity in the titles. Any port in a storm, right? The better movie, The Dark, debuted on the festival circuit, before being made available on streaming outlets. The deeply flawed After Darkness, as far as I can tell, went straight to VOD, before also landing on DVD. And, despite the presence of such recognizable actors as Tim and Sam Daly (“Madam Secretary”), Kyra Sedgwick (“The Closer”), John Patrick Amedori (“Dear White People”), Valerie Curry (“The Following”) and Natalia Dyer (“Stranger Things”), I couldn’t find any reviews for the latter picture. The opposite is the case for The Dark. Let’s start there.

Essentially, The Dark is a don’t-go-into-the-woods drama, with splatter, slasher and buddy elements thrown in for kicks. Viewers should brace themselves for 95 minutes of jump-scares from the minute a convenience-store operator warns a stranger about visiting a mysterious tract of wilderness, known far and wide as Devil’s Den. He describes it as a place where many outsiders have entered, but none has left. When the proprietor notices a photo of the stranger in that day’s newspaper, identifying him as a suspect in a terrible crime, he’s shot and killed by the man asking directions. Naturally, Josef (Karl Markovics) heads immediately for Devil’s Den, thinking it might be the last place anyone dares to look for him. (Turns out, it’s the first place local lawmen go.), Shortly after his car’s tires are destroyed by a spike strip laid across a dirt road leading deeper into the woods, the fugitive makes his way to a decaying house that appears to be abandoned, but we instinctively know is inhabited by a demon of some as-yet-unknown variety. Sure enough, he’s set upon by the creature, who moves too quickly to describe. Even without knowing who or what is responsible for the terrible deed, the killing serves writer/director Justin P. Lange’s purpose of convincing viewers not to get too comfortable in their seats. Just as surprisingly, a grotesquely disfigured boy, Alex, pops his head up from the back of the station wagon, wondering where Josef went. It captures the attention of the certifiably undead killer, Mina (Nadia Alexander), who didn’t know what to expect when she inspected the vehicle. Although we fear that Alex will become Mina’s dessert, nothing of the sort happens. In short order, we learn that the teenage girl is, indeed, the notorious monster of Devil’s Den and, more to the point, an undead reminder of a crime that happened long ago in the same house. Alex not only was blinded by Josef, after an indeterminate amount of time in confinement, but he also acquired Stockholm Syndrome. Perhaps sensing the blind boy’s predicament, Mina takes pity on the boy and allows him to tag along on her bloody treks in search of food. Their co-dependency will be sorely tested when a sheriff’s begins looking for Josef, unaware of what else awaits them in the woods. For some reason, the coupling reminded of the scene in Frankenstein (1931), when the Monster (a.k.a., ?) first met Little Maria at the lake and they briefly enjoyed playing a game together. Eventually, Lange paints himself into a narrative corner, with nowhere to logically conclude The Dark. What’s lingers, though, is satisfying enough for a recommendation.

Thematically, at least, After Darkness reminded me of Mike Cahill’s pre-apocalypse rom-dram Another Earth (2011) and Lars von Trier’s chilling sci-fi drama, Melancholia (2011). That’s because all three pictures depict how small groups of endangered humans might deal with impending doom from above. In the first two, humanity is threatened by runaway planets on a collision course with Earth. In After Darkness, Batan Silva’s characters are threatened by our own Sun, which, like a lightbulb on the blink, has begun to show signs of going dark, leaving the world in darkness. Normally, that would be a prospect too horrifying to contemplate. What I found too horrible to imagine was the prospect of spending more than 98 minutes in the company of Tim Daly’s patriarchal brute, Raymond Beaty, a man so irredeemably abusive and selfish that it’s impossible to imagine why his wife and children have agreed to spend their last moments of life in his company. Raymond professes to have discovered a secret location, within a day’s drive, where the Beatys might survive the absence of natural light, for a short while, at least. From the moment the first family members begin to gather, however, the father criticizes their every movement and decision. He demands they remain in the house, at all hours, and obey other rules that make no logical sense in advance of the world’s end. Apparently, though, he’s always been a tyrant and his wife, Georgina, has demonstrated a reluctance to challenge him. So, why not spend their last hours with someone likeable? Maybe, because one of the siblings is hours away from delivering Raymond and Georgina their first grandchild and what better way to welcome it into what’s left of the  solar system’s life span. A couple of outside threats serve to pull the disparate family members together, but they’re no more unnerving than the Beatys’ family dinners. Blessedly, Sedgwick and the younger actors keep hope alive for a miracle that doesn’t include Daly’s character.

Tea With the Dames
In a different era, the title of this delightful chat-umentary would suggest a fish-out-of-water comedy starring Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin, or  musical comedy inspred by the showstopping song from South Pacific, “There Is Nothin’ Like a Dame.” In the UK, however, viewers would know exactly what to expect from Tea With the Dames: nearly 90 minutes of light-hearted banter with Dame Maggie Smith, Dame Judi Dench, Dame Eileen Atkins and Dame Joan Plowright. Already familiar to lovers of prestige theater, film and television presentations around the world, these formidable actresses have been honored by the Queen of England for their contributions to drama, although she might have included comedy and romance for good measure. The honorific title of dame is the feminine equivalent of knight and comparable form of address to “sir.” In addition to their many Oscars, Tonys, Emmys and BAFTAs, the longtime friends have logged four lifetimes worth of memories, anecdotes, observations, triumphs and regrets unique to only a handful of other actors, male or female. Before the Oscars, such publications as Variety, the Hollywood Reporter, Vogue and the New York Times routinely stage roundtable discussions with nominees and former winners to gain some insight into their careers. None that I’ve read has been as delightfully rendered as Tea With the Dames or produced such candid disclosures. Director Roger Michell (Hyde Park on Hudson) benefits mightily from the congenial setting — the country home Plowright shared with her late husband, Laurence Olivier – and many circumstances they have in common. In addition to the chat, Michell provides viewers with clips of their work from the beginning of their careers to as late as “Downton Abbey,” which senior  cast member Dame Smith admits not to have seen. Especially poignant are the images captured when the women were “younger than springtime” – to borrow another lyric from “South Pacific” – and enjoyed the spoils of capturing the attention of Swinging London. At 84, dames Dench, Smith and Atkins still look glamorous and remain active in their careers. In 2014, when she was 84, Plowright officially announced her retirement from acting, because she had become completely blind. That doesn’t prevent her from sharing tea, chocolate, champagne and candid memories with her friends here, however. Tea With the Dames is one of those films you wish could last another 90 minutes and, perhaps, be a tad more catty or contemporary, with references to #MeToo and their thoughts on today’s A-list actresses. It’s likely, though, that time-honored discretion would prevent them from sharing their thoughts on such subjects with the camera.

 
A Quest for Meaning
A lot of people make a lot sense in Nathanaël Coste and Marc De La Ménardière’s inspirational documentary, A Quest for Meaning. Unfortunately, none of them are in positions to dictate the kinds of changes we’ll need to save the planet, before the forces of greed, conspicuous consumption and opportunism lose their arguments against the reality of global warming. When, in 2009, French documentarian Nathanael Coste reconnected in New York with his childhood friend, Marc de la Menardiere, the latter was a marketing executive for an international agribusiness conglomerate. A freak accident cleared some time for Marc to watch Nathanael’s cautionary films about environmental issues. They caused him to reflect on a frequently misquoted observation, attributed to Black Panthers leader Eldridge Cleaver, “There is no more neutrality in the world. You either have to be part of the solution or you’re going to be part of the problem.” The accident coincided, as well, with the rapidly expanding global financial crisis, which had taken the wind out of the sails of his generation’s hedonistic juggernaut. Their combined resources allowed the two men the freedom to find and film deep-thinkers who already had decided where they stood on Cleaver’s proposition. They also were introduced to farmers and communards, who are practicing what Mahatma Gandhi preached on questions about post-colonial agrarian reforms. Among other things, Gandhi believed that land, air, water, sunlight and sky are God’s gifts and, under no circumstances, should come under the control of any person, business or industrial group, or any centralized form of power. He didn’t have anymore luck achieving that goal than the hippie farmers in Easy Rider. Today, of course, proponents of organic agriculture and healthy eating have found support among customers of farmers’ markets, high-end restaurants and grocers. At the same time, genetically modified seeds have been pushed on farmers in developing countries, where information on their negative effects on humans and livestock is scarce and consumers aren’t alerted to their presence in food staples.  The things that differentiate A Quest for Meaning from dozens of other, more academic and polemical documentaries on our abuse of the planet are interviews with astrophysicists, clinical psychologists and developmental biologists and spiritualists. Conveniently, the filmmakers’ “quest” took them to splendorous corners of France, the Himalayas, Mexico, Guatemala and the United States. The conversations may be overly familiar to most viewers in the target demographic, but there’s no reason it couldn’t be shown to high school students or 4-H clubs. It’s their world, too, after all.

Hippocrates: Diary of a  French Doctor
Although thousands of medical doctors have served the movie and television industries as consultants, writers and inspirations, the number who’ve taken the next step, by becoming directors, can be counted on one hand. George Miller (Mad Max) is the most prominent exception to the rule, and Michael Crichton (Westworld) dropped out of medical school when his books became best-sellers. British comedian, author, television presenter, filmmaker and former doctor Harry Hill (“TV Burp”) probably wouldn’t be recognized outside the UK. Then, too, there’s French multihyphenate Thomas Lilti, a family doctor who’s written and directed three mainstream films featuring doctors, nurses and patients, as well as co-authoring Gauguin: Voyage to Tahiti (2017). Lilti began making short movies at the same time he was studying medicine. Hippocrates: Diary of a French Doctor (2014) and the spinoff series, “Hippocrates” (2018), are informed by his experiences as an intern, while Irreplaceable (2016) describes a changing of the guard at a country hospital and The Freshman explores friendships made during the first year of medical school. Irreplaceable, which starred François Cluzet and Marianne Denicourt, was released on DVD here last spring. Like that picture, the newly available Hippocrates: Diary of a French Doctor did well at the French box office. It looks at the daily life of a hospital through the eyes of a newly minted intern, Benjamin (Vincent Lacoste), whose father (Jacques Gamblin) just so happens to be the facility’s chief administrator. He’s cocky, but not because he thinks his dad will grease any skids for him. As an intern, Benjamin is assigned one of the least-desirable jobs, caring for terminally ill patients, of which there are many. Without going into detail, corners are cut in the treatment of some of the more needy patients, if only because the hospital’s budget doesn’t allow for reliable equipment. Innocently made mistakes are covered up, to protect the interns and hospital, alike. Benjamin benefits from one of the coverups, but he’s haunted by others. His relationship with his father eventually gets too close for the comfort of fellow staff ministers and administrators. As is usually the case with movies about interns at busy hospitals, we assume that Benjamin will someday become a good, possibly great doctor … but, only if he can survive the long hours, disappointments, politics and, being a French film, beaucoup cigarettes. And, that’s far from a gimme. It’s easy to see how Lilti’s experience and expertise kept the overstuffed narrative from going off the rails and no more than 102 minutes long. Hippocrates: Diary of a French Doctor also benefits from non-stereotypical characters and a set that approximates a facility that’s out of date, out of space and running on empty. I’ve yet to see Canal Plus’ “Hippocrates,” which Lilti also directs and co-wrote, so I can’t say if it swings closer to “ER,” “St. Elsewhere” or “Grey’s Anatomy.” I’m guessing it’s not the latter.

The Forbidden Photos of a Lady Above Suspicion: Blu-ray
The parade of exquisitely restored gialli from Arrow Video continues apace with Luciano Ercoli’s genre debut, The Forbidden Photos of a Lady Above Suspicion. It opened only a few months after Dario Argento’s The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970) and Mario Bava’s Hatchet for the Honeymoon (1970) and immediately preceded his own Death Walks on High Heels and Death Walks at Midnight. Although giallo can be traced a bit further back, to the mid-1960s, these were the titles that captured the attention of European audiences and critics looking for something new and valid. Some historians consider “Forbidden Photos” to be closer to melodrama than giallo, while allowing for its importance as a female-drive story that would “define Ercoli’s style” and feature the recurring theme of “the nightmare of being threatened by one’s own sexual partner.” As sexually charged and borderline kinky as it is, however, the lack of nudity might not sit well with genre buffs. In Ercoli’s triangle of love, sex and, perhaps, murder, Minou (Dagmar Lassander) is newly married to Peter (Pier Paolo Capponi), a businessman who’s gone into debt as he struggles to bring a new product to market. They met through Dominique (Nieves Navarro), Minou’s sexually voracious best friend and Peter’s former lover. While strolling on the beach one night, Minou  is accosted by a leather-clad stranger (Simón Andreu) on a motorcycle. He informs her that Peter has murdered a business associate and may be involved in other crimes. If certain demands aren’t met, the creep threatens to take his evidence to police. Driven by misplaced loyalty to Peter, Minou ends up in bed with the blackmailer, who, naturally, takes photos of their tryst and uses them to escalate the terms of their arrangement. Curiously, Minou accidently discovers pornographic photos of the blackmailer with Dominque, which have made their way from Denmark to Barcelona. WTF, right? When Minou finally approaches the police, they lead her to believe that she’s imagining things and may need a different kind of help. That is pretty much the long and short of screenwriters Ernesto Gastaldi and Mahnahén Velasco’s story. “Forbidden Photos” will be of interest primarily to completists and admirers of Ennio Morricone bossa nova-tinged score and cinematography by Alejandro Ulloa. It further benefits from Arrow’s 2K restoration from the original camera negative; new commentary by Kat Ellinger, author and editor-in-chief of Diabolique magazine; “Private Pictures,” a freshly edited documentary featuring archival interviews with Navarro and Ercoli, and new material with writer Ernesto Gastaldi; “The Forbidden Soundtrack of the Big Three,” an appreciation of the music of 1970s cult cinema by musician and soundtrack collector Lovely Jon; a Q&A with Lassander at the 2016 Festival of Fantastic Films; an image gallery; reversible sleeve, featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Twins of Evil; and a limited-edition booklet, with new writing on the film by author and critic Michael Mackenzie.

Crimson Peak: Blu-ray
It’s been less than four years since Crimson Peak opened in theaters around the world and almost three years since Universal’s Blu-ray edition was released. The short window made me wonder why Arrow Video went to the trouble and expense to create a limited-edition set for a high-end genre film that was a box-office disappointment. The package isnn’t being promoted as an uncut, unrated director’s-cut version of the picture or a new, improved edition of the Universal release. Technically, they’re very much the same product, if not identical. Given all the attention paid to Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water (2017), which made more money and cost less to produce, it’s possible that Arrow wanted to re-market Crimson Peak as a prestige Blu-ray, with a lavishly book-like package and a few new bonus features included in it. As a fan of 4K UHD, I also wondered why it wasn’t  sent out with the latest format upgrade attached. (It’s likely that Uni wanted to save that prestigious event for its own customers.) Even though del Toro admits to being influenced by The Innocents (1961), The Haunting (1963), The Exorcist (1973), The Omen (1976) and The Shining (1980) – as well as Mario Bava’s Technicolor conceits – he emphasizes in the bonus material that he envisioned Crimson Peak primarily as a “Gothic romance,” staged within a decrepit mansion populated by ghosts. Actresses Mia Wasikowska and Jessica Chastain have also said that their portrayals were shaped by those of Winona Ryder and Sadie  Frost in Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992). You’d think that would be enough to sell a more than a few tickets to a superbly conceived period thriller. Wasikowska plays Edith Cushing, an aspiring novelist haunted by frightening visions that bear an ominous warning about a place called Crimson Peak. She’s the daughter of a wealthy industrialist (Jim Beaver), who rudely turns down a proposal by a young English entrepreneur, Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston), pitching an invention he hopes will facilitate mining red clay. Not only does Sharpe’s sales pitch fall on deaf ears, but his budding romance with Edith is cut short after her father hires a P.I. to dig into his past. Soon thereafter, Edith’s father is murdered. Bereft, but unhappy to learn of her father’s effort to bribe her boyfriend, Edith agrees to marry Sharpe and move with him to a decaying Victorian estate, sitting on a mountain of red clay. The catch comes in having to share their life with Sharpe’s freaky sister, Lucille (Chastain), and endure a nightmare that would intimate both sets of Ghostbusters. The Arrow package ports over the bonus material created for the Uni Blu-ray. It adds the featurettes “The House Is Alive: Constructing Crimson Peak” (50 minutes); “An Interview With Guillermo del Toro” (8:36); “Crimson Peak and the Tradition of Gothic Romance” (7:37), with an assessment of the “genre” proclivities of del Toro; “Violence and Beauty in Guillermo del Toro’s Gothic Fairy Tale Films” (23:37), a visual essay by Kat Ellinger; marketing material; and an image gallery.

The Plague of the Zombies: Blu-ray
Last month, a pair of newly remastered Hammer Films “classics” — Horror of Dracula (1958) and Dracula: Prince of Darkness (1966) – were re-released into Blu-ray. The parade continues in the new year with the restoration and release of The Plague of the Zombies (1966), which, absent Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing, could get lost in the recent flurry of Hammer products from Scream Factory and Warner Archives. In effect, the period horror anticipated George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968), which gave the long-dormant, if undead subgenre a contemporary, distinctly American tenor. Even without Lee and Cushing, John Gilling (Blood Beast from Outer Space) and writer Peter Bryan (Trog) deserve to share some of the credit, with Romero, for shaping the ongoing Zombie Apocalypse. Shot back-to-back with Gilling’s The Reptile (1966), Hammer saved money by reusing many of the same sets, most noticeably the main village on the backlot at Bray Studios. Somehow, though, The Plague of the Zombies looks none the worse for the wear. In a remote 19th Century Cornish village, an evil presence lurks within the darkness of the witching hour. A mysterious plague relentlessly consumes lives at an unstoppable rate. Unable to find the cause, Dr. Peter Tompson (Brook Williams) enlists the help of his mentor, Sir James Forbes (André Morell). Desperate to find an antidote, they instead encounter inexplicable horror: empty coffins with the diseased corpses missing. Following a series of strange and frightening clues, they discover a deserted tin mine, where they discover a world of black magic and a doomed legion of slaves. The importation of slaves from Africa and the Caribbean was already banned by law, but it came too late to halt the flow of voodoo rituals from the colonies. Without drawing much, if any undue attention to itself, The Plague of the Zombies, remains terrifically entertaining and as good as any Hammer production of the 1960s. Diane Clare and Jacqueline Pearce were even allowed to keep their clothes on for the full 90 minutes, while being pursued by grabby zombies. The supplemental features include an original theatrical trailer; making-of featurette; restoration comparison; and “Mummies, Werewolves and the Living Dead,” an episode of the “World of Hammer.”

TV-to-DVD
PBS: NOVA: Addiction
PBS: NOVA: Volatile Earth: Volcano on Fire/Volcano on the Brink
PBS: Secrets of Britain’s Great Cathedrals
PBS: NOVA: Flying Supersonic
PBS: Masterpiece: Victoria: The Complete First Season: Blu-ray
PBS Kids: Nature Cat: Nature Cat and Mr. Hide
Nickelodeon: Paw Patrol: Pups Save Puplantis
In the “NOVA” presentation, “Addiction,” viewers can hear first-hand accounts from individuals struggling with addiction and follow the cutting-edge work of doctors and scientists, striving to find cures, treatments and ways to curtail the epidemic. At the same time, the show’s producers investigate the stigma attached to addiction by people who’ve yet to feel the effects of the scourge in their lives. They also ask why such drugs and prescription medications as heroin, fentanyl and OxyContin are as readily available and affordable as they’ve ever been, especially in areas of the country where unemployment is high and hope for a meaningful future is non-existent. While scientists are revealing how addiction affects the brain, other professionals are gathering evidence about how we should address our drug problem, from embracing evidence-based treatments, to rethinking public policies. Forcing our legislators to reign in Big Pharma and its lobbyists would be a place to start, but that would mean refusing to take money from the companies that manufacture the poisons, without following the money back to the sources.

In the two-part “NOVA” presentation, “Volatile Earth: Volcano on Fire” and “Volatile Earth: Volcano on the Brink,” an intrepid team of volcanologists embarks on an expedition to explore the Virunga Mountains in east Africa. It’s where two of the world’s most dangerous, spectacular and least understood volcanoes can be found. Viewers are also invited to join a team of scientists exploring another one of the world’s most active and mysterious volcanoes, Nyamuragira, in central Africa. What learn what feeds its frequent eruptions and what it portends for the tens of millions of people living on or near the Pacific Rim’s Ring of Fire.

For those fans of “Downton Abbey” who’ve already toured the great estates and mansions once inhabited by Britain’s upper crust, PBS now offers “Secrets of Britain’s Great Cathedrals.” The three-disc set explores the ancient cathedrals and abbeys that have dominated the landscape for centuries and reflect the nation’s turbulent history through their architectural grandeur. The 432-minute mini-series features interviews with historians, architects and clergy, as well as footage showing their legendary facades and soaring interior spaces. Among other things, the producers go back to ancient blueprints and manuscripts, while using drones to capture images only available to birds and angels.

How many viewers remember a time when supersonic aircraft – military and commercial – flew across the country, scaring unsuspecting citizens with thunderous “sonic booms.” They became such a nuisance that Congress outlawed such flights over populated areas on the mainland and from landing and taking off from airports in the interior. It effectively killed an industry that catered to the rich and impatient and relied on frequent flights between far-flung countries. “NOVA: Flying Supersonic” recalls the historic international race to develop the first supersonic airliner, Concorde, and the choreographed effort to design and build it in two countries simultaneously. It also interviews pilots and flight crews. Then, it invites us to follow Concorde’s legacy to a new generation of innovators, hoping to revive the dream of supersonic passenger travel.

Now that the third season of PBS’ Victoria has begun airing, the network’s home-video wing is re-releasing “Masterpiece: Victoria: The Complete First Season,” in Blu-ray, at the original British-TV length.

From PBS Kids arrives “Nature Cat: Nature Cat and Mr. Hide,” in which the title character and his pals take on their nemesis, Ronald, in four exciting adventures. To win the neighborhood Hide ’N’ Seek Championship of the World, the challengers will have to learn how to master the art of camouflage from wild animals.

Nickelodeon’s “Paw Patrol: Pups Save Puplantis” is comprised of six underwater adventures, featuring Marshall, Chase, Zuma, Skye, Rubble and Rocky. Together, they save Puplantis, rescue a wiggly whale and save the Sea Patroller from pirates.

The DVD Wrapup: Mid90s, Oath, Obamaland, Bad Reputation, Hell Fest, Time Freak, Kusama, Oddsockeaters, Bent, Harry/Sally, Nemesis, Frontline, Cats … More

Thursday, January 10th, 2019

Mid90s: Blu-ray
Olympics purists may be saddened to learn that skateboarding will debut as an officially recognized event at the 2020 Summer Olympics, in Tokyo, alongside surfing, climbing, baseball/softball, karate and the 28 permanent sports. Others, not so much. The world didn’t end when bowling, roller hockey and water skiing became demonstration sports. In proposing the inclusion of the five temporary activities, representing 18 separate events and 474 male and female competitors, IOC President Thomas Bach said, “We want to take sport to the youth. With the many options that young people have, we cannot expect anymore that they will come automatically to us. … Taken together, the five sports are an innovative combination of established and emerging, youth-focused events that are popular in Japan and will add to the legacy of the Tokyo Games.” What Bach probably meant to say was, “We want to take the Olympics to the youth,” in the same way that organizers of the Winter Olympics have profited from the recognition of events popularized by the widely televised X Games. In addition to a boost in ticket revenues, the exposure could produce a boom in equipment sales in the host country.

Jonah Hill’s endearing dramedy, Mid90s, is only the latest entry in a long list of movies in which skateboarding plays a key role in the social development of borderline characters looking for a reason to wake up in the morning. For his directorial debut, Hill decided to stick with a subject near and dear to his heart. In the DVD/Blu-ray’s lively commentary track, the Crossroads School graduate and two-time Academy Award nominee – Moneyball (2012), The Wolf of Wall Street (2016) – reminisces about his own boarding experiences as a youth growing up on mean streets of Cheviot Hills, on L.A.’s West Side, and working at Hot Rod Skateboard Shop, on Westwood Boulevard. It’s where he met several of the kids, from diverse backgrounds, who influenced characters in Mid90s. Although Hill doesn’t profess to be an expert skater or ambassador for the sport, the film’s 13-year-old protagonist, Stevie (Sunny Suljic), didn’t fall very far from the tree. Although, at first glance, Stevie doesn’t look much like the kind of kid who would be physically and verbally abused at home by his older brother and alienated from his single mother. He more closely resembles a puppy in the window of a pet shop, begging for a loving family to claim him. That’s pretty much what happens when he begins to hang out at skate shop, where a group of older slackers kill time by smoking cigarettes, riffing on each other with homophobic slurs and bragging about their sexual exploits. After inadvertently becoming the brunt of one of their word games, he’s adopted into the gang as a sidekick. He graduates after attempting a dangerous jump and nearly killing himself in the process.

In addition to providing an outlet for fun, away from home, the older boys serve as surrogate fathers and inadvertent role models. As such, they not only help him to grow as a skater, but mature as a social being, willing to risk the perils of getting high, smoking cigarettes, guzzling booze, dropping pills and being embarrassed during his first encounter with a sexually aggressive girl. As is usually the case in such coming-of-age flicks, Stevie will be required to experience a come-to-Jesus moment as the 85-minute Mid90s nears its conclusion. Hill handles the situation with compassion, as well as concern for his audience’s feelings. Suljic, who’s already appeared in The Killing of a Sacred Deer (2017) and The Unspoken (2015), fulfills the role of Hill’s alter ego here, even if he looks completely out of place as a gang member. Katherine Waterston and Lucas Hedges are fine in roles that are largely overshadowed the wasted wastrels. They’re played by Na-kel Smith, Olan Prenatt,  Gio Galicia and Ryder McLaughlin, all of whom look as if they might have been cast from a lineup at a local skate park. The music, too, reflects an eclectic mix of 1990s’ sounds, ranging from punk and funk, to hard-core hip-hop, grunge and a delightful take on The Mamas & the Papas’ “Dedicated to the One I Love.”

It’s interesting that Hill decided to position Mid90s midway between the Venice Beach scene depicted in Dogtown and Z-Boys (2001) and Lords of Dogtown (2005), and the IOC’s overdue decision to exploit boarding’s popularity in the 2020 Gamers. The boys who hang out at the shop aren’t nearly as talented as the skaters introduced to us by Stacy Peralta in those films and The Search for Animal Chin (1987) and Bones Brigade: An Autobiography (2012). Hill acknowledges being influenced more by Kids (1995), This Is England (2006), Ratcatcher (1999) and The Sandlot (1993), in which awkward kids find surrogate families away from home. In 1978, “Law & Order” creator Dick Wolf broke into the business as co-writer/producer of Skateboard, which introduced Tony Hawk and Tony Alva to non-skating audiences. It would be followed by such theatrical releases as Thrashin’ (1986), Gleaming the Cube (1989), Grind (2003), Paranoid Park (2007) and Skate Kitchen (2018). Enlightening documentaries have included the cautionary Helen Stickler’s Stoked: The Rise and Fall of Gator (2002), Fruit of the Vine (2002), Who Cares?: The Duane Peters Story (2005), Rising Son: The Legend of Skateboarder Christian Hosoi (2006), D.O.P.E., a.k.a. Fallen Idols (2008), All This Mayhem (2014) and Minding the Gap (2018). Mike Hill’s The Man Who Souled the World (2007) was also set during the halcyon days of the 1990s. The international contingent is represented by Skateistan: Four Wheels and a Board in Kabul (Afghanistan, 2011), Wasted Youth (Greece, 2011), This Ain’t California (Germany, 2012), Cruzando el sentido (Spain, 2015), Deckument: od rolke do skejta (Slovenia, 2015) and Nightsession (Germany, 2015). There are several others, of course, ranging from celebratory shorts to the family comedy, Sk8 Dawg (2018). The DVD/Blu-ray of Mid90s adds Hills commentary, with cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt, and deleted scenes.

The Oath
Obamaland
Twenty, even 10 years ago, the premise behind Ike Barinholtz’ “social thriller, The Oath, would be less credible than those informing most zombie flicks. At a time when NFL owners have refused to hire Colin Kaepernick to replace their broken-down quarterbacks, simply because they fear incurring President Trump’s wrath, anything is possible, however. The President’s own hometown team, the Washington Redskins, might have walked into the playoffs if they’d given the former 49ers’ star a chance. The same can be said about two or three other teams. Instead, the owners cheated their fans, players and employees by ensuring early on that the playoffs would have to wait until next year, if then. Although the U.S. Constitution was ratified well before the “The Star-Spangled Banner,” “God Bless America” and “Pledge of Allegiance,” many lock-step patriots felt as if they were honor-bound to condemn Kaepernick for exercising his right to protest police brutality and racial oppression.

Ike Barinholtz’ The Oath takes place at a time in contemporary American history when the government has announced plans for enforcing “The Patriot’s Oath,” a document that encourages, but doesn’t require U.S. citizens to endorse. Those who do agree to sign on, however, are offered tax incentives and other privileges not accorded to those who refuse. Because the deadline falls on Black Friday, the decision weighs heavily on families gathered for Thanksgiving. They include the one invited to spend the holiday weekend at the home of Chris and Kai (Barinholtz, Tiffany Haddish), a mixed-race couple who have agreed not to sign the pledge. Chris’ father and mother (Chris Ellis, Nora Dunn) are don’t-rock-the-boat types, who prefer to ignore what’s going on around them. His sister and brother-in-law (Carrie Brownstein, Jay Duplass) are liberals, if not nearly as unwaveringly doctrinaire as Chris, while his right-wing brother and sister-in-law (Jon Barinholtz, Meredith Hagner) accept anything they hear on conservative news outlets as the gospel. Even though they all agree not to bring up politics over the dinner table, news of riots in major cities can’t be ignored by Chris or his polar-opposite sister-in-law, Abbie. As unpleasant as they are, however, their arguments are trifling compared to the unexpected arrival of Peter and Mason (John Cho, Billy Magnussen), agents of the Citizens Protection Unit, which ostensibly targets Chris for preventing someone from signing the oath. Barinholtz’ script remains murky as to the nature of the crime, since no one is obligated to sign the document, or who informed on him. One of the agents meets Chris’ protests with heavy-handed brutality, prompting viewers to foresee a home-invasion drama in which the violence overpowers the dark humor. Instead, The Oath bounces back and forth between the agents holding the stronger hand and the increasingly disturbed family members coming together to defend themselves against the unpredictable enforcer. Even then, however, it’s difficult to empathize with the characters, who are either too strident in their views or aren’t as clearly drawn as Chris and Abbie. Barinholtz (“The Mindy Project”) is too good a comedian to blow all the opportunities for laughs and the veterans actors make the best of everything handed them. As ruined-Thanksgiving movies go, I prefer  Jodie Foster’s raucous family dramedy, Home for the Holidays (1995). Alan Arkin and Jules Feiffer’s offbeat study of urban paranoia, Little Murders (1971), remains relevant, as well.

Greg Bergman’s scattershot political satire, Obamaland (a.k.a., “Obamaland Part 1: Rise of the Trumpublikans”), takes an even more dubious premise and finds laughs in the possibility of near-term anarchy. If Bergman appears to take political sides, it’s only in defense of a story that could appeal to fanatics on either side of the current political divide … not that many of them go to the movies. The story opens in 2017, after the fictional death of newly elected President Trump in a mysterious fall from Trump Tower, taking VP Mike Pence and Speaker of the House Paul Ryan with him. (A newscaster describes it as one of the “worst luncheon-related tragedies” in history.) Exploiting the political vacuum, Barack Obama declares himself President-for-Life. Flashing forward, to 2040, a godless, gunless America has been renamed Obamaland and divided into curiously drawn states, dictated by political and geographic imperatives. Obama not only has acknowledged his Kenyan roots, but also his commitment to socialism and everything his opponents accused him of being during his first eight years as president. Now that he’s grown too old and goofy to hold together his Rainbow House coalition, a handful of diehard Trump loyalists have decided to overthrow the government from such chain-restaurant outposts as Applecheez, Chilibees, Cracker Garden and Olive Barrel. PBS, which has somehow morphed into the Patriot Broadcasting Service, now serves as the official voice of the rebel factions. Frankly, it’s impossible to fairly describe what happens in Obamaland, without risking misinterpreting Bergman’s intentions. That said, I found plenty of his ideas and gags to be quite funny, especially the ones that pushed the envelope on good taste. The DVD adds deleted scenes.

Time Freak: Blu-ray
Sixteen years ago, multihyphenate filmmaker Andrew Bowler released his first feature, The Descent of Walter McFea, into the purgatory of PPV, VOD and other Internet sources. Such streaming services were still in their infancy and no one could predict how well straight-to-video genre pictures would perform on the new medium. Even if it didn’t generate a lot of waves in the early-aughts, “Walter McFea” still exists on the fringes of the www. He had better luck with his next cinematic venture, “Time Freak,” a 2011 short that did very well on the festival circuit and occasionally is shown on the wonderful ShortsTV network. Shorts, especially those that have done well on the festival circuit, have lately served as calling cards and launching pads for many of today’s youngest and brightest filmmakers and actors. Neither are they routinely dismissed as excess baggage on the Academy Awards broadcast. Indeed, the nominees now are shown before the ceremony in theaters, making it easier for fans to fill out their Oscar pools. Like so many other nominees, Time Freak would be developed into a feature-length film. Both versions of Bronson’s concept are included on the new DVD/Blu-ray from Lionsgate. As far as I can tell, Time Freak would be released theatrically in one or two theaters in the U.S., before hitting the ancillary markets, and a half-dozen foreign countries. (It still has February playdates scheduled in Belgium and the Netherlands.) While it only made $10,000 here, Time Freak recouped $150,000 elsewhere. Those numbers may not sound impressive, but any theatrical exposure helps DVD and PPV sales. If the time-travel conceit sounds as if it’s equal parts Groundhog Day, Back to the Future and (500) Days of Summer, it bears repeating that Time Freak is based mostly on Bowler’s original 10-minute creation and, in any case, Mark Twain’s 1889 novel, “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court” and H.G. Wells’ 1895 “The Time Machine” set the standard before motion pictures captured the nation’s fancy. Here, a teenage math/physics wizard has formulated an algorithm that allows him to travel back in time, using his cellphone. Instead of going back to opening day at Disneyland or the invention of the telephone, Stillman (Asa Butterfield) elects to correct mistakes made during his relationship with a blond bartender/musician, Debbie (Sophie Turner). I probably would have opted to crash Elizabeth Taylor or Natalie Wood’s Sweet 16 parties, instead.

Being something of an egotistical nerd, Stillman continues to repeat mistakes similar to the ones that initiated their breakup a year earlier. A time machine may be able to do a lot of things, but correcting social faux pas isn’t one of them. His many blunders required Bowler to add 94 minutes to the length of the Time Freak short, as well as a separate romantic throughline involving a buddy. Evan (Skyler Gisondo), who accompanies Stillman on his excellent adventure, if you will, falls for a vivacious young woman (Aubrey Reynolds) he meets on one of their trips back in time. Even with the movie’s extra padding, however, Stillman continues to pull dick moves. For example, just as Evan is about to score with his hard-to-get girlfriend, Stillman cock-blocks his digitally linked companion, forcing him to return to the future immediately. (Theoretically, eliminating any opportunity for them to meet again in real time.) As such, I think that Time Freak plays better to teen and YA audiences, looking for an offbeat romance, than to anyone else. The actors should be familiar to them from The Space Between Us (Butterfield), Game of Thrones and X:Men: Apocalypse (Turner), Vacation (Gisondo) and The Outcasts (Will Peltz). The special features include commentary tracks, interviews and the source short.

Bad Reputation
Kusama: Infinity
Symbiotic Earth: How Lynn Margulis Rocked the Boat and Started a Scientific Revolution
Three years after Joan Jett was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Kevin Kerslake’s revelatory rockumentary, Bad Reputation, explains why the honor was so criminally late in coming. In 2014, Krist Novoselic had used the occasion of Nirvana’s induction to decry the historically myopic association’s lack of recognition for the woman alternately credited as the “godmother of punk,” “queen of noise” and “role model for the Riot Grrrl movement.” Jett then joined Novoselic and Dave Grohl in a hard-core rendition of “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” A year later, when Jett’s turn finally arrived, Miley Cyrus cracked up the crowd by admitting, “I’m going to start off this induction with the first time I wanted to have sex with Joan Jett. … She’s been the first to do many things and not just as a woman, but as a badass babe on the planet.” That classic rock-’n’-roll moment was followed by a kickin’ collaboration on the 1968 Tommy James and the Shondells’ hit, “Crimson and Clover,” which Jett covered in 1982. The academy has famously ignored punk, garage and fringe artists, while celebrating the commercial success of singers who broke little or no new ground. In addition to delivering three albums that have been certified Platinum or Gold, Jett and her various bandmates recorded such anthemic singles as “Cherry Bomb,” “I Love Rock ’n’ Roll,” “I Hate Myself for Loving You” and “Dirty Deeds.” More than anything else, perhaps, she’s faced and survived four decades’ worth of de facto sexism in the music-recording industry and misogynistic practices of label executives, managers, promoters, club owners and fans. That’s in addition to the garden-variety corruption and thievery attendant to the business. Bad Reputation is far less solemn an exercise than that makes it sound, however. The 90-minute documentary is also funny, inspirational and informed by good music. It chronicles Jett’s roller-coaster life and career, from the rise and collapse of the Runaways; her do-it-yourself rebound; her traumatic attempt to achieve mainstream success on a major label; a near fatal crash-and-burn as a punk rocker; waning popularity in the 1980s; resurgence via early Warped Tour appearances; political and social activism; and attaining rock-icon status as the industry struggled to keep up with technology and indies. Among the people interviewed are Cyrus, Debbie Harry, Chris Stein, Adam Horovitz, Kathleen Hanna (Bikini Kill), Michael J. Fox, Kristen Stewart, Billie Joe Armstrong, Iggy Pop, producer Carianne Brinkman (The Runaways), and several other contemporaries. Adding no small amount of humor and insight, however, is Jett’s longtime producer, manager, confidant, “schlepper” and fellow Blackheart, Kenny Laguna, who receives nearly as much face time as Jett. The bonus features include extended interviews and performance footage.

In the music business, at least, women could make a name for themselves as singers, writers or instrumentalists. In the art world, women are even less visible than background singers in a Las Vegas showroom. Visit any major museum and count the names of female artists who are represented on their walls and galleries. It won’t take long. Things have improved in the last 20-30 years, but, as Heather Lenz’ terrific bio-doc, Kusama: Infinity argues, it’s primarily because feminists forcefully demanded seats at the table inside one the world’s most rigidly segregated boys’ clubs. This was especially true, when, in the mid-1950s, avant-garde sculptor and installation artist Yayoi Kusama chose to exit the close-minded art establishment in Japan and try here luck in the United States, beginning in Seattle. Before arriving in New York, a year later, Kusama contacted Georgia O’Keeffe, who had broken the mold created for women in the American art establishment and, for decades, served as the exception that proved the rule. Kusama’s brilliantly colored and fanciful deployments of polka dots, nets and flowers would complement the work of pop artists ranging from Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg, to Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein. Her series of Mirror/Infinity rooms also struck a chord, alongside embellishments of everyday items with white phallic protrusions. The counterculture movement of the late 1960s allowed her to expand her vision to include “happenings,” which frequently involved nudity, body painting, music and political activism. In 1966, Kusama participated in her first Venice Biennale, for which she created a Narcissus Garden comprised of hundreds of mirrored spheres. She infuriated organizers by installing her “kinetic carpet” on a lawn outside the Italian pavilion and selling individual orbs for about $2 a piece. It was her way of protesting the commercialization of popular art and artists – not that a few more sales of her own work would have killed Kusama – and willingness of key players to endorse celebrity over content. Kusama: Infinity follows the artist, who was in poor health, back to Japan, where she decided to experiment with writing shockingly visceral and surrealistic novels, short stories and poetry. In 1977, after her attempt to broker art, Kusama checked herself into the Seiwa Hospital for the Mentally Ill, where she eventually took up permanent residence. She has been living at the hospital since then, by choice, and is allowed daily visits to a nearby studio, where she continues to churn out pieces in a variety of mediums. Today, it’s safe to say that her sculptures, paintings and installations are more popular than ever. They enchant schoolchildren drawn to the toy-like creations in museums in Tokyo and her hometown of Matsumoto, as much as adults who’ve followed her work to the Hirshhorn Museum, in Washington, and the Whitney Museum of American Art, in New York. At 89, Kusama still accepts commissions and remains an outspoken observer of the international art scene. Kusama: Infinity may only be 76 minutes long, but Lenz fills them with wonderfully whimsical visuals and the kind of biographical and critical insight that should have been available to art lovers decades ago.

And, while we’re discussing deeply entrenched sexism in male-dominated institutions, it would be short-sighted of me to ignore the scientific community. Over the span of 144 densely constructed minutes, John Feldman’s Symbiotic Earth: How Lynn Margulis Rocked the Boat and Started a Scientific Revolution explores the life and ideas of a largely unheralded woman, who challenged long-held theories on Darwinism, biology, evolutionary theory and symbiosis, while facing derision, ridicule and staunch opposition from her male peers. Not all of them, of course, just the ones who stood to lose their grants, reputations and federally funded facilities if her theories were confirmed. Margulis’ research transformed current understanding of the evolution of cells, with nuclei, by arguing it was the result of symbiotic mergers of bacteria. Eminent German biologist Ernst Mayr called it “perhaps the most important and dramatic event in the history of life.” I’ll have to take his word for it, because most of what’s discussed in Symbiotic Earth went so far above my head that it might as well be in Earth orbit. Later, in the mid-1970s, she collaborated with British chemist James Lovelock on the Gaia Theory, which proposed that all life in the “biosphere” is interconnected and interdependent. It wasn’t until Margulis turned 60, in 1998, that she was elected Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and awarded a National Medal of Science, by President Clinton. Ironically, these honors were bestowed only after she was elected Fellow of the World Academy of Art and Science and the Russian Academy of Natural Sciences. Outside of scientific circles, Margulis probably was probably known best for her seven-year marriage to astronomer Carl Sagan (1957-64) than anything else. Later in life, her reputation for being a maverick sometimes got the best of her, especially when she was accused of being an “AIDS denialist” and a “9/11 truther.” That part of her life isn’t covered here, however. There’s plenty of high-grade beef to savor in Symbiotic Earth. How much of it lay viewers will be able to digest, however, is debatable.

Hell Fest: Blu-ray/4K UHD
I grew up in a neighborhood where the most daring thing we did on Halloween involved visiting our city’s many working-class taverns to beg the boozehounds for loose change and the occasional pickled egg. The haunted-house phenomenon didn’t erupt for another couple of decades, with theme parks raising the ante for cheap thrills. I don’t know how much money is spent on such seasonal attractions at Universal City, Knott’s Berry Farm, Six Flags and Disneyland each year, but’s possible that the price tags exceed the $5.5 million set aside the budget for Hell Fest, which takes place in just such a place. There’s been no shortage of movies that have been set in fantasy haunted houses. Like Gregory Plotkin’s sophomore feature, these gore-fests usually involve a psycho killer preying on participants who pay to be scared witless, if not actually murdered. Because the killers so closely resemble the costumed characters played by civilians or actors, they tend to blend into the woodwork. The victims, too, look as if they were disemboweled or decapitated solely for the amusement of customers. Naturally, when one of the victims’ friends goes missing and alerts security here, the rent-a-cops chalk it up to being part of the Halloween-night experience. I’ve only seen a few of these movies — Hell House LLC (2015), The Funhouse Massacre (2015), The Devil’s Carnival (2012), among them – but I can’t remember any of them being as elaborately designed or with more background activity.

We learn early on that Stephen Conroy’s psycho-killer, known simply as the Other, has struck before and favors a mask and outerwear favored by any number of monsters from 1980s’ slasher films. While all six of the college-age kids that form the nucleus of Hell Fest’s central cast of characters are young, attractive and horny, the Other marks Natalie (Amy Forsyth) as his primary target. Some of her friends will stumble into harm’s way, but their horrible deaths are shown primarily as testimony to the Other’s cruelty. Not surprisingly, the loathing reserved for Hell Fest by mainstream critics was balanced by the favorable reactions shared by everyday viewers. It probably made a little bit of money for Lionsgate, but not enough to assure a sequel, despite its open-ended conclusion. It’s worth mentioning, perhaps, that Plotkin’s list of recent credits includes editing Get Out (2017) and Happy Death Day (2017) and directing Paranormal Activity: The Ghost Dimension (2015). In October, Michael Perry’s production design was replicated at select Six Flags locations, as a cross-promotion between the movie and the theme park’s Halloween activities. The Blu-ray adds “Thrills and Kills: Making Hell Fest,” which includes 16-minutes’ worth of backstage material, including cellphone video of the cast goofing off. The 4K UHD presentation works wonders with the predominantly dark and shadowy interiors, brightly lit exteriors and creepy costumes and makeup.

The Great Battle: Blu-ray
The easiest way to summarize the Korean historical-action drama, The Great Battle, is to compare it to Hollywood epics based on the siege of the Alamo, with the good guys winning … depending on whether the viewer is Korean or Chinese. Critics have also compared Kim Kwang-sik’s war picture to Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers or mega-assaults in “Game of Thrones.” The Great Battle relates the story of the Siege of the Ansi Fortress, where 150,000 Goguryeo forces held back 500,000 invading Tang soldiers and laborers, in a battle that raged for 88 days, from June 20 and September 18, in 645 A.D. (Goguryeo was one of the three kingdoms of Korea, located in the northern and central parts of the peninsula and the southern and central parts of Manchuria.) The siege was part of first campaign in the Goguryeo-Tang War. In 645, Tang dynasty Emperor Taizong led a military campaign against Goguryeo to protect his allies in the kingdom of Silla and punish Generalissimo Yeon Gaesomun (Yu Oh-seong) for killing King Yeongnyu. Goguryeo commander Yang Man-chun (Jo In-sung) committed his officers and troops to keeping the invaders from pushing toward Silla, even against a superior force and such siege weapons as catapults, battering rams and assault towers. Even if some of the details don’t square with historical theory, the 136-minute movie, at its core, is one long battle, enhanced by tens of thousands of CGI warriors and cavalry; hundreds of archers; and carefully constructed fortifications. The hand-to-hand swordplay is thrilling, as well. The Blu-ray adds a couple of short EPK items, with interviews.

The Oddsockeaters
Pegasus: Pony With a Broken Wing
Based on the best-selling books by Czech writer and translator Pavel Srut, The Oddsockeaters is an animated yarn that can be enjoyed by anyone who’s ever wondered why their socks disappear, one at a time, and can’t be found when a full pair is needed. Because this includes kids, parents and grandparents, Galina Miklínová’s fantasy – winner of the Children’s Jury Prize for Best Animated Feature at the 2018 Chicago Children’s Film Festival – practically defines what cross-generational family viewing should be. And, no one will notice the dubbing into English. In it, we’re introduced to the lives of the Oddsockeaters, small bandits who are largely invisible to humans. After the protagonist, Hugo (Krystof Hadek), loses his grandfather, he moves to the house belonging to his uncle, “Big Boss,” and his two nutty cousins. It’s here that he encounters Professor René Kaderábek (Josef Somr), who’s devoted his life to revealing the existence of the elusive creatures to the world. Hugo’s also called upon to rescue one of his cousins from a rival gang. The action is fun to watch and, for those seeking a redemptive lesson, Hugo learns about the limits of greed and true meaning of loyalty.

In Giorgio Serafini’s Dove-approved live-action adventure, Pegasus: Pony With a Broken Wing, a wounded white stallion makes an emergency pitstop on Earth. Fortuitously, the winged steed lands at a horse-rescue ranch in need of some divine financial intervention. Newcomer Eliza Jarrett plays Sydney, a teenager whose family’s business is being threatened by a greedy developer (Tom Arnold, naturally). With time running out, Sydney discovers the not-so-mythical horse, limping around in the forest. His presence prompts the girl’s family to attempt a desperate plan to bail out the ranch. As they do their best to care for the horse, the family comes together to carry out a daring plan to save Pegasus and the ranch. Jonathan Silverman, Charisma Carpenter, Johnny Sinclair and Jennifer Griffin play family members, while Jordan Elsass lends his hunky presence as the teen heartthrob.

Bent: Blu-ray
Adonis
In 1979, when Martin Sherman’s play, “Bent,”  debuted in London, very little was known about Nazi Germany’s persecution of homosexuals. Even less was known about the German Penal Code of 1871’s Paragraph 175, which made homosexual acts between males a crime and effectively allowed Adolph Hitler to incarcerate suspects in concentration camps , where they were identified by a pink triangle. It wasn’t until 1994, however, that the statute was stricken from the legal code. On May 17, 2002, two years after the release of Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman’s shocking documentary, Paragraph 175, that Nazi-era convictions of homosexuals were annulled, as were those of deserters from the Wehrmacht. Remarkably, it wasn’t until 2016 that the German Federal Minister of Justice announced it was investigating the possibility of pardoning and compensating all gay men convicted under Paragraph 175. In June 2017, the law was passed in the Bundestag by an overwhelming majority in all parties. In total, around 140,000 men were convicted under the law, including 50,000 from 1946-69. Only an estimated 10,000 of those imprisoned survived the camps. (More than 12,000 women and men deemed to be asocial — prostitutes, nonconformists and lesbians, among them – were sentenced to hard labor in camps and required to wear an inverted black triangle. An estimated 6,000 of these prisoners would die there. ) “Bent” has been credited with taking this footnote in Holocaust history and giving it a chapter of its own in WWII and LGBTQ studies. The release of Sherman’s 1997 film adaptation and Paragraph 175 would trigger future investigations, legal action and reforms. Until then, it’s likely that audiences outside Germany, at least, were unaware of the statute’s continued existence.

Although Bent, the movie, lost much of its emotional impact in its belated translation to film, it remains a powerfully heart-wrenching drama. Set in the aftermath of the murder of SA leader Ernst Röhm, on the Night of the Long Knives, Bent opens at an open-air bacchanal that picks up where Cabaret’s divine decadence left off. (Mick Jagger entertains the patrons as the transvestite, Greta, while sitting on a swing hanging from a beam in the no-longer-intact building.) One of the men attracted to party-animal Max – Clive Owen, in a role initiated on the West End by Ian McKellen and Richard Gere, on Broadway – is a uniformed Nazi soldier, who’s being followed by Gestapo spies. Before the Night of the Long Knives is over, the soldier will have his throat slit by stormtroopers, while Max and his live-in lover, Rudy (Brian Webber), manage to escape into a largely abandoned factory district. It’s where Greta provides them with men’s clothes he uses to pass, when he’s not singing. After turning down an offer for exit papers from his Uncle Freddie (McKellen), Max elects to hide in a forest with Rudy until his closeted relation can scrape up a second set of papers. In short order, Max and Rudy are captured by police, escorted to a train destined for Dachau and ordered into a box car, already occupied by men and women deemed undesirable. On the way to the camp, Max is forced to complete the torture of his doomed lover, already begun by a masochistic SS officer. It’s here that Max also meets Horst (Lothaire Bluteau), who’s being transported to his second camp and, by now, knows the ropes of confinement. Cocky to the end, Max refuses to believe that he can’t survive the ordeal using his wits. He chooses to wear the yellow triangle, designating him as Jewish, instead of the pink triangle reserved for homosexuals, who are accorded even lower status on the camp’s pecking order. Both men will be assigned chores designed to drive them insane – or make a futile attempt to escape the camp – while also fomenting an illicit romantic relationship in their imaginations, if nowhere else. By the end of the story, Max will be forced to decide whether his love for Horst – a character who’s since emerged as an early martyr in the annals of the gay-liberation movement — is superseded by his natural tendency to survive at all costs, by denying his homosexuality. That he’s likely to die, anyway, as a Jew, is beside the point. Bonus features include cast and crew interviews, a Mick/Greta music video, making-of footage and a new essay, by Steven Alan Carr, author of “Hollywood and Anti-Semitism.”

While the emergence of a thriving LGBTQ cinema is a welcome addition to the menu of choices available to mainstream and arthouse audiences, it’s still difficult to find examples outside the international festival circuit, independent distributors of DVD/Blu-ray titles, and Netflix, Hulu and Amazon. Because even the most deserving of these titles tend to land outside the niche marketplace, however, it’s difficult to accommodate them in theaters. (Dedicated streaming services Dekkoo and Revry have emerged recently as competitors to mainstream outlets.) GLAAD identifies Wolfe Releasing, Strand Releasing, IFC Films and Sundance Selects, Film Movement, Gravitas Ventures, Magnolia Pictures, Open Road Films, Starz Distribution and Breaking Glass Pictures as reliably consistent distributors of LGBTQ films.

This month’s selection from Breaking Glass is noteworthy for Adonis, the seventh feature by writer/director/producer Scud (a.k.a., Danny Cheng Wan-cheung), whose previous titles include Voyage, Utopians, City Without Baseball, Permanent Residence, Amphetamine and Love Actually… Sucks! To paraphrase a time-honored critics’ dodge, “they’re not for everyone.” Because Scud has refused to dilute the more overtly homoerotic imagery in his films, they exist in the nether region separating sensuality and soft-core porn. His latest, Adonis, revolves around Adonis Yang Ke (Adonis He Fei), an actor at the Beijing Opera, who, desperate for money to care for his ailing mother, enters the world of high-end prostitution. For his own selfish reasons, Adonis’ milquetoast manager (Justin Lim) steers him in the direction of extreme modeling, voyeurism, bondage, S&M, body sushi, mass orgies and group sex. He also takes on the occasional well-heeled female client. Within that realm, Adonis finds friends and comradery, while also confronting hypocrisy and avarice. In addition to the frequently poignant character study, Scud provides a visual tour of the haunts of rich and privileged perverts, with stops in Hong Kong’s Sheung Wan and Stanley districts; the gambling mecca, Macau; Thailand; Taiwan; and Indonesia’s lush Riau Islands. All are beautifully rendered by cinematographer Nathan Wong (Chasing the Dragon). If some of the sexual material is rough to watch, there’s no doubt that Scud didn’t have to go too far to find source material and gorgeous young men willing to use their bodies to get a leg up in the world. The bonus material includes “Interviewing the 30s,” a making-of featurette and interview session with nude cast members and a primly clothed reporter.

Also, from Breaking Glass comes “Male Shorts: International V2,” the second volume of an international collection of five short films focusing on men, including “Free Fall,” “Enter,” “Sr. Raposo,” “Ocaso,” and “Twice.” The films are presented in their original language (Spanish, French, Portuguese, Italian) with English subtitles; and Simon Chung’s I Miss You When I See You, in which a pair of high school  friends’ emotional attachment is interrupted when one them moves to Australia with his mother. The reunite a dozen years later, in Australia, where Jamie and Kevin are reminded of what they saw in each other, in the first place. Inevitably, Jamie must decide between society’s expectations, by marrying his girlfriend, or following his heart back to Hong Kong.

Nemesis: Collector’s Edition: Blu-ray
Albert Pyun’s cyberpunk action thriller, Nemesis, straddles the line dividing cult classics and guilty pleasures. Advancing ideas introduced in Blade Runner, the 1992 release is set in Los Angeles, 2027, when illegal androids and cyber-terrorists have become commonplace and human criminals enhance themselves with mechanical components, making them “more than human.” Alex Raine (Olivier Gruner) is a disillusioned LAPD bounty hunter, who, during a routine mission, is attacked by a group of cyborg freedom fighters, the Red Army Hammerheads. After undergoing months of cybernetic reconstruction, Alex tracks down his female nemesis (Jennifer Gatti) and kills her. Now identified as an out-of-control maverick, he’s hunted by his android handlers on the LAPD, one whom is an ex-lover, Jared (Marjorie Monaghan), reporting to Commissioner Farnsworth (Tim Thomerson). When Jared goes rogue, the commissioner calls in Alex to prevent her from collaborating with the Hammerheads. After 15 minutes of this back-and-forth, I stopped trying to figure what was happening, focusing, instead, on such veteran  hard guys as Thomerson (Trancers), Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa (Rising Sun), Yuji Don Okumoto (The Karate Kid Part II), Brion Howard James (Blade Runner), Jackie Earle Haley (The Bad News Bears) and newcomer, Thomas Jane (“Hung”), as well as such heavenly bodies as Gatti (“Vice Principals), Monaghan (“Babylon 5”), Deborah Shelton (Body Double), Marjean Holden (“BeastMaster”) and the petite bombshell, Merle Kennedy (Bubble Boy). After a while, the foot chases, stunt work and half-assed special effects reframed the picture for me. Even so, it’s difficult to understand why the folks at the increasingly aggressive MVD Rewind Collection invested so much energy into this special collection. It includes four separate feature-length versions of the movie – one in sparkling hi-def, another in Japanese – new interviews, commentary, making-of material, introductions, after-words, a mini-poster, photo gallery and the valuable “Kill-Count” featurette.

Obsession: Collector’s Edition: Blu-ray
8mm: Blu-ray
Shout and Scream Factories continue to release titles from yesteryear that, in most cases, look better today than they did upon their release. That isn’t to suggest that the critics were wrong when they gave the films mediocre reviews, or worse, just that some vintage studio products stand up to comparison better today than anyone could have expected they would. At the time of Obsession’s release, in 1976, Hollywood was still feeling its way around Brian De Palma and his obsession with Alfred Hitchcock. If the well-received Sisters (1973) reminded everyone who saw it of Rear Window, Obsession would elicit comparisons to Vertigo, even from a none-too-pleased Hitchcock. Today, we’re able to watch the films without trying to figure out if De Palma was a one-trick pony or simply a film-school graduate with delusions of grandeur. Turns out, he was neither. Co-written with Paul Schrader (Taxi Driver), Obsession opens as New Orleans property developer Michael Courtland (Cliff Robertson) and his wife, Elizabeth (Geneviève Bujold), are about to celebrate their 10th wedding anniversary with a gala party. The next day, Elizabeth and their 9-year-old daughter, Amy, are abducted and held for ransom. The plot begins to thicken as soon as the kidnappers realize that the briefcase delivered to them by Cortland contains stacks of blank paper, instead of money. Just as the police are about to storm the hideout, the kidnapers escape, with Elizabeth and Amy, in a car destined to collide with a tanker carrying gasoline. It explodes into flames, leaving no doubt of the victims’ fates. Courtland’s mourning period lasts for 16 miserable years, during which time his business partner, Robert (John Lithgow), loses several deals due to Michael’s inattention to duty. The two men decide to combine a little business with pleasure on a trip to Florence, where, dig this, Cortland becomes infatuated with a fresco restorer, Sandra Portinari (also Bujold), who not only is the same age his daughter would have been had she survived the crash, but also is a dead-ringer for Elizabeth. There’s no way that I’m going to reveal anything more about Obsession, because everything that follows their meeting qualifies as a spoiler. Suffice it to say, that De Palma and cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond’s makes great use of the Florence and New Orleans’ locations, while Bernard Herrmann’s score is an instant reminder of his work with Hitchcock (Vertigo). Fortunately, De Palma and Schrader’s conceits don’t get in the way of the intrigue – too often, anyway – and Obsession can be enjoyed on its own merits. Leave time for the new and vintage featurettes and commentary, with Douglas Keesey, author of “Brian De Palma’s Split-Screen: A Life in Film”; “Producing Obsession,” an interview with producer George Litto; “Editing Obsession,” with editor Paul Hirsh; and “Obsession Revised,” an older piece, featuring interviews with De Palma, Robertson and Bujold.

Joel Schumacher’s 8mm (1999) is a tad more problematic, if only because its snuff-film throughline too readily recalls Paul Schrader’s Hardcore (1979), De Palma’s Body Double (1984) and John Frankenheimer’s 52 Pick-Up (1986), which already had mined similar territory. Neither were 8mm’s chances for success enhanced by Schumacher’s willingness to dig deeper into the porn underground than any of those three pictures. The sleaze is sleazier; the characters are grubbier; and the violence is more graphic. Nicolas Cage delivers an atypically measured portrayal of a private detective, whose obsessive search for the truth surrounding a six-year-old crime involves a wealthy family and teenage runaway. By following a path paved with the deceased patriarch’s cancelled checks, Cage’s Tom Welles invariably winds up in the lowest circles of Dante’s Inferno. His Virgil surrogate, Max California (Joaquin Phoenix), escorts him through the S&M dungeons, basement studios and peep-show palaces of L.A. and New York’s porn underground. It’s where Welles finds an 8mm film that appears to confirm his worst fears, but also produces a sliver of a lead toward to the fiend who produced it. By the time his investigation is put to bed and the blood starts to dry, Welles discovers yet another circle of hell … the one inside his head. Because Schumacher didn’t pull any punches in his literal interpretation of the screenplay by Andrew Kevin Walker (Se7en), 8mm ran the risk of being tagged with the NC-17 rating it probably deserved. Even so, Sony found it difficult to market the film, without appearing to exploit its sex and violence. It’s all explained in a lively new interview with Schumacher, as well as an archived commentary with the producer. Part of the fun here derives from checking out supporting performances by Phoenix (Walk the Line), James Gandolfini (“The Sopranos”), Peter Stormare (Fargo), Anthony Heald (The Silence of the Lambs), Amy Morton (Up in the Air), Catherine Keener (Being John Malkovich) and Chris Bauer (“The Deuce”).

When Harry Met Sally: 30th Anniversary Edition: Blu-ray
I’m going to go out on a very short and wobbly limb by assuming that everyone who’s likely to check out Shout’s commemorative edition of  When Harry Met Sally probably has already watched it several times, albeit with less-than-optimum visuals. It’s one of those comedies that diehard fans check out whenever it’s on cable, even if they own it on VHS and DVD, and some women can quote verbatim … just like guys who’ve memorized every line of The Godfather, Scarface and Joe Pesci’s rants in Goodfellas. Who knows how many otherwise normal couples have visited Katz’s Deli, on New York’s Houston Street, to find the table at which the orgasm scene was filmed and attempt to repeat Sally Albright’s ecstatic soliloquy. (The table now has a plaque on it that reads, “Where Harry met Sally … hope you have what she had!”) Fact is, after 30 years, When Harry Met Sally holds up very well as a romantic comedy for the ages … not simply as a date-night confection, either. Billy Crystal may have been 40 years old when he shared a ride to New York with Meg Ryan, then 27, but he ages well throughout the movie. Director Rob Reiner was still at the top of his game, as was the late Nora Ephron, who practically created the template for such entertainments. Likewise, Carrie Fisher, Bruno Kirby and Estelle Reiner, all of whom look fabulous, here, but are no longer with us. Their deaths are the only thing that lends an air of sadness to the newly recorded “Scenes From a Friendship” gabfest between Reiner and Crystal. If they repeat anecdotes and memories previously recorded for commentaries on earlier Blu-ray editions, chalk it up to old age and going over the same material for the millionth time. Also included are deleted scenes, a Harry Connick video and a trio of archived featurettes.

Willie Dynamite: Special Edition: Blu-ray
Unlike some blaxploitation classics released into Blu-ray recently, Willie Dynamite holds up today as an example of what can be accomplished on a miniscule budget and with a lot of imagination. As we’re told in Sergio Mims’ informed commentary, it was one of last films of its kind made before the studios lost interest in black audiences. Unfortunately, Michael Campus’ pimpin’ classic, The Mack, had been released only a few months earlier, reducing any pent-up interest in the subgenre. Production partners Zanuck/Brown and Universal Pictures were pre-occupied with such lucrative joint ventures as The Sting (1973), Jaws (1975) and The Sugarland Express (1974). The inattention forced director Gilbert Moses (The Fish That Saved Pittsburgh) and his design team to improvise. In doing so, they set the standards for the next 40 years of pimps-and-hoes-ball fashions and transportation. (We can only hope the furs were of the faux persuasion.) When we meet the title character, he’s the flashiest pimp in New York, with a stable of working girls who service only the most desirable clients. He drives a personalized purple-and-gold Cadillac and carries a derringer in a holster that droops to within an inch of his johnson. Somewhere along the way, Willie managed to piss off the cops to the point where they’ve launched an all-out assault on his business and bankroll. Jealous of his access to ready cash and beautiful women, the cops act the way they always  do in blaxploitation pictures. While he’s down, the pimp brotherhood does its best to keep him there. The rest of Willie Dynamite unspools like a morality play designed to discourage youngsters from following him into the game. Beyond that, some lively dialogue, flamboyant acting and vocals by Martha Reeves & the Sweet Things compensate for the lack of nudity and realistic violence. (The lingerie anticipated Victoria’s Secret by several years, though.) Now, here’s the kicker: Willy is played by Roscoe Orman, known for his work on The Adventures of Elmo in Grouchland (1999) and Follow That Bird (1985). Besides the commentary tracks, the Arrow Video package adds a reversible sleeve, featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Sean Phillips, and an illustrated collector’s booklet, with writing on the film by Cullen Gallagher.

TV-to-DVD
PBS: Frontline: The Pension Gamble
PBS: Frontline: The Facebook Dilemma
PBS: Nature: Super Cats
PBS: A Chef’s Life
Garfield: 20 Stories
American states and municipalities are facing so many different financial crises, it’s become impossible for politicians to know which one to take on next. With the disappearance of solid investigative reporting by local newspapers, radio and television stations, most citizens are unaware of impending problems, until it’s too late to fix them. One of the most ominous is the growing inability of states to fill the $4-trillion hole they’ve dug while borrowing from Peter to pay Paul. For many years, major cities, like Chicago, avoided strikes by public workers by promising them retirement benefits that have since become unsustainable. Aftershocks from the 2008 recession have practically ensured that the worst is yet to come. “Frontline: The Pension Gamble” investigates the consequences for teachers, police, firefighters and other public servants in Kentucky, a historically solvent state whose leaders kept the citizenry in the dark about the mismanagement of the futures. In 2000, a series of Kentucky politicians, reluctant to raise taxes, began to divert pension savings to pay their bills and fund other projects.
“The pension was used basically as a piggy bank,” journalist John Cheves tells “Frontline” producers, also comparing it to “a slow-motion car crash.” After the 2008 financial crisis, the geniuses managing Kentucky’s public pensions decided that in order to dig out from under, they would sample some of Wall Street’s more exotic and risky investment vehicles, like hedge funds. Wall Street was only too happy to provide the cars the states would drive over the nearest cliff.

“Frontline” also tackled “The Facebook Dilemma,” which no one knew existed until the Russians used the social-media giant to steal the 2016 election for their good friend, Donald Trump. Depending on where one is sitting on the deck of the Titanic, the election debacle was either the tip or unseen bottom of the iceberg. What began as a matchmaking service for Ivy League horndogs has grown into an amoral beast that sells data gleaned from subscribers to anyone able to afford it. How it’s used is anyone’s guess. Maybe, there’s a market for selfies of subscribers and their babies, cats and vacation destinations. “Frontline” investigates a series of warnings from insiders and outsiders that went unattended by Facebook, as the company grew from Mark Zuckerberg’s Harvard dorm-room project to a global juggernaut. The promise of Facebook was to create a more open and connected world, but the company’s failure to protect millions of users’ data led to the proliferation of “fake news” and disinformation that Zuckerberg can barely acknowledge, let alone prevent. The two-part report features original interviews and rare footage.

You don’t have to be a cat person to enjoy PBS’ “Nature: Super Cats,” but, if you are, it will provide 160 minutes of memorable entertainment.  Cats of one variety, or another, prowl almost every continent and come in all sizes and personality types. The three-part mini-series was filmed over 600 days, in 14 countries, and features 31 species of cat. It introduces behaviors captured on film for the first time, using the latest camera technology and scientific research. While we expect to see the elusive Himalayan snow tiger in its natural habitat, we’re surprised by scenes featuring the swamp tiger of South Asia; a half-blind California bobcat; a tiny black-footed cat that hunts more in one night than a leopard does in six months;  a mother Pallas’ cat and her kittens; a puma, preying on Magellanic penguins; and a leopard capturing a sea turtle.

After five seasons on PBS affiliates, “A Chef’s Life” served its last hungry diner on October 22, 2018. Vivian Howard hosts “The Final Harvest,” a farewell feast for the ages. The show’s most popular personalities share their favorite moments, along with a series-worth of memorable flashbacks. It’s a fitting sign-off to a series that served as a veritable to eastern North Carolina. The series won a Peabody Award in 2013, “for its refreshingly unsensational depiction of life and work in a modern restaurant, with generous sides of Southern folkways and food lore.”

The animated episodes of “Garfield and Friends” represented in Public Media Distribution’s “Garfield: 20 Stories” have been previously released, recycled and repackaged under different titles, so, as usual, caveat emptor. They first appeared in the show’s Saturday-morning timeslot on CBS, in the season before the network decided the series was too expensive to produce and gave it the old heave-ho. Twenty-five years later, they remain as delightful as they were when Jim Davis’ creation was the fattest of all fat orange cats on television and video, in newspaper funny pages, video games, comics anthologies and all manner of tie-in products. Garfield’s since found homes in features films and the Internet. The 20 stories collected here allow viewers to tag along with the lasagna-loving feline and friends, as they re-imagine his favorite fairy tales, bring history to life and solve crimes big and small. Children can follow Garfield on a tour of a movie museum and learn about famous show-business cats in films. The DVD has a running time of 142 minutes.

The DVD Wrapup: 2018’s Most Memorable Titles, Hobbyhorses, Martyr, CMA Live, Tailspin Tommy, Gilda, Miracle Worker … More

Friday, December 28th, 2018

Last year’s list of best DVD/Blu-rays was headed by Criterion Collection’s “100 Years of Olympic Films.” The company  topped itself in 2018 with the cineaste’s dream compilation “Ingmar Bergman’s Cinema,” which spans six decades of the maestro’s work – 39 films – and includes 11 introductions, 6 commentaries, a pair of rarely seen documentary shorts, more than 5 hours of interviews with Bergman and many of his key collaborators, several featurettes and a lavishly illustrated 248-page retrospective book. Criterion’s other must-own collection is “Dietrich & Von Sternberg in Hollywood, 1930-1935,” which focuses on Morocco, Dishonored, Shanghai Express, Blonde Venus, The Scarlet Empress, The Devil Is a Woman and other related topics. I’ve tried to group the other top titles by genre.

Action & Adventure
Black Panther: Blu-ray/4K UHD, will Wakanda be represented at Oscars?
Mission:Impossible: Fallout: Blu-ray/4K UHD, Tom Cruise goes to extremes, again.

Animation & Fantasy
The Incredibles 2: Blu-ray/4K UHD, a worthy sequel that only gets better in ultra-high definition.
Coco: Blu-ray/4K, the dancing dead look and sound great in any format.
The Monkey King 3: Blu-ray, the final installment in an ancient trilogy.
Once Upon a Time: Blu-ray; Detective Dee: The Four Heavenly Kings: Blu-ray; and Along With the Gods: The Last 49 Days: Blu-ray, exotic blends of Chinese history, mythology and martial arts.

Comedy
The Big Lebowski: 20th Anniversary Limited Edition: 4K UHD, the Dude bowls us over, again.
Sorry to Bother You: Blu-ray, telemarketers from hell and back.
Robin Williams: Comic Genius, 100-plus performances on 22 DVDs.

Crime
American Animals: Blu-ray, a hare-brained scheme to steal Audubon’s “Birds of America.”
68 Kill: Blu-ray, how many ways can a perfect plan go haywire?
Bad Day for the Cut: Blu-ray, a profoundly Irish tale of revenge.
Small Town Crime: Blu-ray, the smaller the town, the bigger the crime.
You Were Never Really Here: Blu-ray, Lynne Ramsey’s assassin with a heart.
The Third Murder: Blu-ray, Hirokazu Kore-eda’s legal prelude to Shoplifters.
In Her Name, in France, justice delayed is (almost) justice denied.
Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song: Blu-ray, the first blaxploitation gem.

Documentary
Chavela, a great Mexican artist recalled in words and song.
Whitney: Blu-ray, the only documentary on the singer’s life that matters.

Drama
The Insult: Blu-ray, an escalation of words into violence in Beirut.
Novitiate: Blu-ray, a girl struggles with issues of faith, the changing church and sexuality.
Loveless: Blu-ray, feuding parents lose track of their son in Moscow.
In the Fade: Blu-ray, in wake of tragedy, a German woman seeks revenge.
First Reformed: Blu-ray, Ethan Hawke’s performance makes him awards front-runner.
A Prayer Before Dawn: Blu-ray, fighter faces heavy odds in Thai prison.
The Suffering of Ninko: Blu-ray, a monk confronts his irresistible sexual appeal.

Giallo
Suspiria: Special Edition: Blu-ray, the original, less-messy version of Argento’s masterpiece.
Dario Argento’s Opera: Blu-ray, never trust a psycho-fan.
The Bird with the Crystal Plumage: Special Edition: Blu-ray, Dario’s directorial debut.
The Cat O’ Nine Tails: Special Edition: Blu-ray, Malden and James Franciscus, Italian Style.

Horror & Suspense
The ToyBox: Blu-ray, haunted RV turns on its new owners.
A Quiet Place: Blu-ray/4K UHD, Krasinski and Blunt find a quiet place to die.
Hereditary: Blu-ray/4K UHD, can Toni spring an Oscar surprise?
Annihilation: Blu-ray/4K UHD, horror meets sci-fi in dystopian future.

Indie
Skate Kitchen: Blu-ray, coming of age on a skateboard built for one.
Blindspotting: Blu-ray, Oakland gangstas confront gentrification.
Eighth Grade: Blu-ray, 13-year-old finds solution to growing up on social media.

Science-Fiction
2001: A Space Odyssey: 4K UHD, Kubrick’s visionary film looks better than ever on UHD.
The Wild Boys: Blu-ray, ‘Lord of the Flies’ reinvented for a different generation of kids.

TV-to-DVD
Acorn:  Picnic at Hanging Rock: Blu-ray, Aussie mini-series adds intrigue to mystery.
Acorn: Detectorists: Complete Collection: Box Set, off-beat British  comedy finds motherlode.
Ernie Kovacs: The Centennial Edition, more from the man who shaped comedy on TV.
Paramount: Yellowstone: Blu-ray, taking ‘Dallas’ to Big Sky country.

Westerns
Woman Walks Ahead: Blu-ray, finally a feminist, revisionist Western.
The Rider: Blu-ray, injured rodeo star faces life-or-death dilemma.
Lean on Pete: Blu-ray, boy rescues horse, horse rescues boy.
The Hired Hand: Blu-ray, Peter Fonda and Warren Oates’ great Western bromance.
Mohawk: Blu-ray, revenge never goes out of fashion in Old West.
The Ballad of Lefty Brown, a traditional Western for revisionist times.
Hostiles: Blu-ray/4K UHD, a rugged return home for legendary Cheyenne war chief.
Damsel, Mia Wasikowska may be a damsel, but she’s hardly in distress.
Dances With Wolves, Steelbook Edition: Blu-ray, Costner’s extended epic looks gorgeous in Blu-ray.

Books on Film
Stuntwomen: The Untold Hollywood Story (Screen Classics), the women who’ve taken bruises for stars.
Native Americans on Film (University of Kentucky), can Hollywood put stereotypes behind it?
Jarmila Novotná: My Life in Song (University of Kentucky), crossing over from opera to the movies.
Buster Keaton in His Own Time (McFarland), what the responses of 1920s critics reveal.

Martyr
In Beirut, a city nearly destroyed by mindless partisan violence and unceasing bloodshed, unexpected deaths once were as common an occurrence as the delivery of milk and bread to the corner market. Although things have calmed down – at least, in comparison to Syria and Iran – the possibility of a young man being gunned down on his way to school or worship still exists. What isn’t expected, though, is the accidental death of a son, friend or lover while participating in an activity typically associated with fun and sport. In Martyr, Hassane (Hamza Mekdad) is one of countless young Lebanese men for whom a college degree is no more useful than a medal earned in a long-ago war. The jobs he’s managed to land have been menial and unfulfilling and his parents have begun to question his desire to put his diploma to work. They’re especially unhappy by his daily trips to Beirut’s rocky shoreline, where a group of friends gather to kill times, get some exercise and, one suspects, flirt. One this particular day, Hassane decides to show off by taking a running leap off a guard rail, into a watery space cluttered with submerged rocks and cement blocks. Although it’s likely that Hassane’s head hit a rock and knocked him unconscious, all writer/director Mazen Khaled wants us to see his body floating in the murky water unable to swim. By the time his friends get to the body, it’s already too late to resuscitate the young man. Because there’s only a trickle of blood on his forehead, we keep waiting for a miracle to happen. When it doesn’t, though, all we can do is stare at Hassane’s nearly pristine body and, like his friends, wonder why his god chose this day for him to die. The only thing left for them to do is rush his body to his parents’ home for prayers and ritual absolution.

His parents and sister are beside themselves with grief, of course. Hassane’s father asks the friends stay for the cleansing of the body, so they can witness for themselves the fragility of life and finality of death. Before that can happen, however, the father and uncle debate the question as to whether Hassane died a martyr and if the mullah will recognize it as such. It’s important because one of the Islamic sects doesn’t consider death outside of war to be worthy of Allah’s mercy, while another defines martyrdom in less absolute terms. It’s complicated. What matters most to the friends is that the ritual is performed with as much sensitivity and precision as possible. Khaled transforms the funeral into a contemplative appreciation of the young     man’s life; the beauty and sensuality of corpse; and youth, friendship, and love, in general. Moreover, he shapes the mourning sequences into modern dance, underwater ballet and tableaux vivant. It’s beautiful, without also being morbid or melodramatic. Knowing that Martyr was nominated for the Queer Art Award and Queer Lion awards at festivals in Lisbon and Venice, it’s natural to wonder if the film’s specifically targeted at the LGBTQ community or its appeal is universal. In this case, it’s the latter. If it weren’t the four shirtless men on the Breaking Glass DVD’s cover, the question may not have arisen. While Martyr certainly can be interpreted as a movie of special interest gay audiences, it also should resonate with Muslim viewers and anyone whose interests aren’t limited to events in their own backyard. The DVD adds Khaled’s well-regarded 2012 short film, “A Very Dangerous Man.”

Hobbyhorse Revolution: Blu-ray
Six years ago, Laurent Malaquais’s Bronies: The Extremely Unexpected Adult Fans of My Little Pony (2012) shone a light on a subculture almost no one existed and, once exposed, few could even begin to comprehend. It explored the resurgence of interest in “My Little Pony,” when, in 2010, the “Friendship is Magic” reboot caught fire among girls, their moms and, way behind the scene, a group of adult and teen males known as bronies (“bro” + “pony”). Many of the men interviewed cited the show’s celebration of friendship development in young viewers — from first impressions to true connections – and how the characters accept each other’s differences and work out their small troubles through peaceful means. It’s a swell message and the bronies didn’t seem to care who delivers it. For detractors, however, there was something perverse about men and teenage boys embracing a hobby designed to entertain 5-year-old girls and sell toys and accessories, no matter the ecumenical philosophy. Many adults will find Selma Vilhunen’s Hobbyhorse Revolution off-putting – at first, at least – for similar reasons. Hobby horses have long been associated with equine characters in certain traditional seasonal customs — May Day, Mummers’ plays and the Morris dance in England — and similar processions and observances around the world. The ones in Vilhunen’s documentary refer to the toys made of a broom stick with a small horse’s head (of wood or stuffed fabric) and, perhaps, reins, attached to one end.

Historically, the word, “hobby,” can be traced to the 14th Century Middle English and Old French terms, hobin or haubby, which characterize a “small or middle-sized horse … an ambling or pacing horse … a pony.” According to Scottish author George MacDonald Fraser (“Flashman”), border horses, called hobblers or hobbies, were small and active, and trained to cross the most difficult and boggy country, “and to get over where our footmen could scarce dare to follow.” Here, the use of “hobby” refers more to activities or pastimes that consume the spare time of practitioners, young and old. The film follows three pubescent Finnish girls — Aisku, Elsa and Alisa — whose lives have been transformed by their new obsession: the design, creation, “training” and riding of hobbyhorses in competition. Thanks to the social media, the girls know they aren’t alone in this unlikely hobby, which ostensibly could set them apart from the cool kids and bullies their age. It’s possible, as well, to discern a certain something missing in their lives, whose absence is filled by personalizing the old-fashioned stick toys, making them beautiful and training them to excel in competition. Beats Barbie, anyway.

In addition to designing and producing horses’ heads for themselves, some of the girls make money doing it for other girls, who will add names, personalities and backstories to them … not unlike Cabbage Patch Kids and American Girls dolls. The difference is that many of these horses are deployed in Olympics-style equestrian events, such as dressage and show jumping, where their riders will be judged for poise, execution, precision and presentation. Afterwards, groups of girls will conduct group and drill-team events, on their own. It’s said that the phenomenon now has over 10,000 devotees in Finland, alone, with interest growing in the United States, after it was featured in the Wall Street Journal, ESPN and on “The Ellen DeGeneres Show.” Like other obsessions attributed to so-called nerds, geeks and loners, hobby-horsing is described as an instrument of self-expression and female empowerment. Even so, watching a roomful of girls – as giddy as they are determined to win – jumping, cantering and galloping on a makeshift course, while straddling their show horse, can strain credulity, as if it were an activity invented for a mockumentary. That feeling dissipates after watching the most troubled of the girls – a mixed-race Finn, facing detention in youth facility — finally take charge of her life, by becoming a coach for younger competitors. Her reactions to her girls’ performances wouldn’t be out of place in any “kiss and cry” space reserved for ice-skaters and their coaches in competition. For the first time, perhaps, she can anticipate a meaningful future.

Tailspin Tommy in the Great Air Mystery
I haven’t spent as much time watching vintage serials as some folks, so all I can say with any certainty about Universal’s “Tailspin Tommy in the Great Air Mystery” is how much it appealed to me as a layman. First, the set up. In the second series of episodes featuring ace airman-for-hire Tailspin Tommy Tompkins (Clark Williams, replacing Maurice Murphy) and his comic wingman, Skeeter Milligan (Noah Beery Jr.), are enlisted by Ned Curtis (Bryant Washburn) to do a survey for an oil pipeline across the mountains of Nazil. Curtis is the wealthy uncle of the lovely and adventurous Betty Lou Barnes (Jean Rogers, replacing Patricia Farr) and Nazil is an imaginary island located somewhere off the coast of California, Mexico or Central America. Arriving late, they miss the departure of the dirigible carrying Curtis, Betty Lou and her friend, Inez Casmetto (Delphine Drew), daughter of Curtis’ partner, Don Alvarado Casmetto (Harry Worth). The dirigible is torn apart in an intense storm, but Tommy and Skeeter are still able to assist the rescue of crew and passengers. They eventually get to Nazil, where Don Alvarado’s no-good brother Manuel (Herbert Heywood) and associate Horace Raymore (Matthew Betz) are plotting to take over the oil fields that would supply the pipeline. For the time being, Tommy and Skeeter hold the advantage over the conspirators. They’re also aided by a mystery flyer (Pat J. O’Brien), known as “El Condor,” who tends to arrive out of nowhere in the nick of time and vanish in a cloud of exhaust smoke. When El Condor is duped into landing his eagle-motif plane to rescue a downed airman, Manuel captures the flier and puts one of his own men – duplicitous Garcia (Paul Ellis) — in the pilot’s seat. In between all the yack-yack-yack and strategizing, there’s plenty of exciting of aerial action, with dogfights, bombing raids and loop-the-loops. Ray Taylor and a half-dozen writers make it stretch for 12 reasonably entertaining episodes, all except one ending in a cliffhanger. The serials were based on the adventure comic strip “Tailspin Tommy,” which was syndicated to newspapers from 1928 to 1942. It was the first aviation-related strip to appear after Charles Lindbergh’s historic solo trans-Atlantic flight in 1927. If Skeeter looks familiar, it’s because Beery would go on to play Rocky, in “The Rockford Files.”

Love, Gilda
Lisa D’Apolito’s heart-wrenching bio-doc, Love, Gilda, is a frequently hilarious love letter to the late Gilda Radner, a gifted actor and comedian who died far too prematurely, at 42, in 1989. Although the indefatigable Detroit native may be best remembered today as the first founding member of SNL’s Not Ready for Prime-Time Players, her tenure on the show lasted 99 episodes in five seasons. Radner was a terrific physical comedian, mimic and inventor of unforgettable characters, some drawn from her personal life. She was a natural. After dropping out of the University of Michigan and moving to Toronto, where she made her stage debut in “Godspell.” It starred a rotating group of comic actors who would follow each other to Toronto’s Second City and, then, to “National Lampoon Radio Hour.” Some would try their luck on television, either on “SNL” or the similarly groundbreaking “SCTV.” Gilda became famous for her boundless energy, fearless physicality and a smile that wouldn’t quit. Even so, she battled bulimia while working on “Saturday Night Live.” Before leaving the show with the other original cast members, in 1980, Radner realized a personal dream by starring in a one-woman show on Broadway, which allowed her the freedom to stretch out a bit. In 1982, she met and fell in love with Gene Wilder, with whom she would act in three Hollywood movies. In 1986, Radner began her three-year battle with ovarian cancer. Love, Gilda is filled with video clips from her shows, of course, while the personal elements are informed by diaries; her autobiography, “It’s Always Something,” written during a period of remission; home movies; and the recollections of friends and cohorts. In an especially nice touch, cast members from future “SNL” seasons read passages from her autobiography. Finally, we’re reminded of Radner’s posthumous legacy, which includes her standing up to her killer with a sense of humor, courage and grace that inspired countless other cancer patients, and Gilda’s Clubs, a network of affiliate clubhouses, co-founded by Wilder, where people living with cancer, their friends and families can meet to learn how to live with the disease. While extremely poignant, Love, Gilda isn’t nearly as sad or depressing as it could have been, thanks mostly to Radner’s gigantic smile, unruly curls and magnetic personality. The DVD adds more interviews, home movies and a gallery.

Abrazos: Tango in Buenos Aires
With all the attention currently being paid to competitive dancing by television networks, Facets Media has chosen the right moment to resurrect Daniel Rivas’ 2003 documentary, Abrazos: Tango in Buenos Aires. Set during the fifth Buenos Aires Tango Festival, the film celebrates a populist art form that originated here in the 1880s, when natives mixed with slave and European immigrant populations to create something all their own. It’s survived the edicts of Argentine dictators, economic travail and whims of popular culture, while also being embraced by dancers in Europe, the United States and Japan, all of which were represented in the multi-faceted nine-day competition. The musicians and singers we meet are renowned within the borders of Argentina, and sometimes beyond, as they maintain a working-class legacy not unlike that of American blues, Spanish flamenco, Portuguese fado, French bal-musette and Greek rebetiko. (Greek composer Manos Hatzidakis summarized the key elements of rebetiko as love, joy and sorrow, all of which apply to the tango, as well.) Like the singers, dancers in groups and pairs are accompanied at various times by full acoustic orchestras or soloists on bandoneon, a cousin of the concertina. The dancers are judged as much by their appearance – men in formal wear; women in strikingly colorful, form-fitting and sleek dresses, some split up to here — and how they move “as one” with the music. At 85 minutes, however, it’s the dances themselves that give way to the meeting and greeting of competitors from around the world, rehearsals and fine-tuning, and brief profiles of the participants. Another 20 minutes of competitive dancing would have gone a long way. The tango has hardly been a stranger to movies and documentaries. Others that come to mind are, Fernando E. Solanas’ Tangos, the Exile of Gardel (1985), Sally Potter’s The Tango Lesson, German Kral’s Our Last Tango (2015), Lorena Muñoz and Sergio Wolf’s I Don’t Know What Your Eyes Have Done to Me (1997), Robert Duvall’s Assassination Tango (2002) and Carlos Saura’s Argentina (2015).

Becoming Iconic: Jonathan Baker
On August 31, 2017, I opened my review of Jonathan Baker’s debut feature, Inconceivable, with, “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.” Inconceivable may have opened in a couple of theaters, but it failed to grab the attention of anyone at Box Office Mojo or more than a handful of critics at Rotten Tomatoes, where it scored 31 percent. The production was “troubled” from Day One and I doubted that Baker deserved all the blame. Well … little did I know at the time that I’d be asked to review a documentary, “Becoming Iconic: Jonathan Baker,” in which the director/actor describes the movie’s conception as something bordering on immaculate. Having broken into the business in 1987 as exec producer of the video hit, “Dorf on Golf,” Baker’s since become a fixture in reality shows that range from “The Amazing Race” and “Celebrity Poker Showdown,” to “Dr. Phil,” “The Girls Next Door” and “Kendra.” (On the Amazing Race Wiki, he’s described as “annoying, loud, abusive and quite possibly the most hated contestant ever.”) A native New Yorker of indeterminate age, Baker’s a handsome devil, who’s enjoyed success in businesses associated with personal lifestyles and health care. Naturally, all Baker’s really wanted to do is direct.  Mission accomplished.

Although Neal Thibedeau is credited as director of “Becoming Iconic: Jonathan Baker,” it’s a vanity project from start to finish. Divided roughly into two separate parts, the first chronicles directorial advice he’s received in taped interviews with Jodie Foster, John Badham, Taylor Hackford, Adrian Lynne and presumed BFF Warren Beatty, whose name is dropped at least two dozen times, but is never actually seen, except in photos. (Baker and his wife, Victoria, purchased Beatty’s first house.) The advice is sound and agreeably presented. The second half appears to have been intended as a warts-and-all making-of doc, minus most of the warts associated with Inconceivable. It also goes long on Baker’s youthful obsession with movies and his ability to navigate the mean streets of Manhattan without much parental guidance. He recalls on-set conversations with Nicolas Cage, Gina Gershon and Faye Dunaway, as well as battles with studio executives, who, we’re led to believe, know less about making a low-budget picture than a first-time director and frequent realty-show contestant. In his own defense, however, Bishop has made one more movie than 99.9 percent of everyone else on the planet and has his calls returned by Warren Beatty. He also has a personalized headstone already waiting for him in a Westwood cemetery. How many of us can say that? If nothing else, “Becoming Iconic” would make a great double-feature with The Disaster Artist.

CMA Awards Live: Greatest Moments 1968-2015
Time Life continues to take the lead in compilations made from awards shows, including the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, Academy of Country Music and Country Music Association, and various television specials. “CMA Awards Live: Greatest Moments: 1968-2015” is a three-disc set, taken from the more comprehensive 10-disc compilation of the same title, costing $100 more and containing a 44-page booklet. Both offer five decades’ worth of performances, highlights and memories from country music’s more legitimate awards ceremony. It includes songs performed by Glen Campbell, Johnny Cash, Loretta Lynn, Alan Jackson, Brad Paisley, Kenny Rogers, Taylor Swift, Carrie Underwood, Keith Urban, Carrie Underwood, Little Big Town, Luke Bryan and Chris Stapleton, plus newly produced interviews and featurettes. Then, too, there are collaborations between Miranda Lambert, Sheryl Crow and Loretta Lynn on “Coal Miner’s Daughter”; George Strait and Alan Jackson, singing “He Stopped Loving Her Today”; Vince Gill, Patty Loveless, Mark Knopf and Ricky Skaggs, performing “Go Rest High on That Mountain”; and Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton on “Islands in the Stream.”

TV-to-DVD
NBC: The Miracle Worker: Blu-ray
PBS: Secrets of the Dead: Woman in the Iron Coffin
PBS: NOVA: Transplanting Hope
Smithsonian: The Real Story: Master and Commander
The Dick Cavett Show: And That’s the Way It Is
The Dick Cavett Show: Inside the Mind Of …
Typically, stunt casting is employed to generate publicity for a project that needs a little bit more attention paid to it. In Bryan Singer’s Superman Returns (2006), for example, the casting of Jack Larson and Noel Neill in noticeable cameos effectively reminded older viewers of their characters, Jimmy Olsen and Lois Lane, in the original TV series. When, in 1979, NBC decided to re-adapt William Gibson’s Tony Award-winning play, “The Miracle Worker,” for television, Melissa Gilbert, a franchise player on the network’s “Little House on the Prairie,” was a lock to play Helen Keller. There was, however, no shortage of actors available to play Anne Sullivan. At 48, Anne Bancroft was too old to reprise her Tony- and Academy Award-winning portrayal of Keller’s 20-year-old instructor and governess. In a stroke of casting genius, the role went to Patty Duke, who played Keller on Broadway, and, like Bancroft, won an Oscar for Arthur Penn’s film adaptation, in 1962. It would result in her third Primetime Emmy and Gilbert’s first nomination. (Gibson wrote the play, screenplay and teleplay.) Because the play is one of the most frequently revived theatrical works in the English language, it would be difficult to find anyone unfamiliar with Keller and Sullivan’s mutual struggle to communicate in the only way available to them. Often frustrated and desperate, Helen would fly into uncontrollable rages and tantrums that terrified her hopeless family and, initially, Sullivan. Their “Eureka!” moment, at the water pump, retains its power to tug at the heartstrings of audiences. Newcomers might appreciate seeing the TV version over the original, if only because it’s in color. Both filmed adaptations, available on Blu-ray, are worth the viewers’ time.

PBS’ fascinating “Secrets of the Dead: Woman in the Iron Coffin”  describes the arduous task of determining how the title character came to be discovered, in 2011, by construction workers in an abandoned lot in Queens, New York. The show follows forensic archaeologist Scott Warnasch and a team of historians and scientists as they investigate the woman’s story, revealing a vivid picture of what life was like for free African-American women and men in the North, before the Civil War. Even without too much help, it shouldn’t be difficult for followers of the series to speculate correctly on how the woman’s body found its way into an iron casket. Everything else surrounding that central question, however, shines a light on how Americans lived then and how such mysteries are solved on today’s cutting edge of science and technology.

And speaking of being on the cutting edge, PBS’ “NOVA: Transplanting Hope” takes viewers inside the operating room to witness organ-transplant teams transferring organs from donors to recipients.  We’re also introduced to families navigating both sides of a transplant, and researchers working to end the organ shortage. Their efforts to understand organ rejection, discover ways to keep organs alive outside the body, and even grow artificial organs with stem cells, could save countless lives.

Smithsonian Channel’s “The Real Story” not only serves the valuable purpose of sorting out the baloney from the facts in movies “inspired by actual events,” but it also adds context sometimes neglected by the filmmakers constrained by time and money. The latest DVD installment of the series examines Peter Weir’s exciting 2003 historical drama, Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World. Based on the first three novels in the Aubrey-Maturin series by Patrick O’Brien, the $150-million film changed several key elements that inspired the action in the books. O’Brien’s story was set in April 1805, during the Royal Navy’s campaign against French warships during the Napoleonic Wars. In it, the H.M.S. Surprise, a British frigate under the command of Captain Jack Aubrey (Russell Crowe), is on a mission to track and capture or destroy the French privateer, Acheron. The formidable French war vessel was operating in seas around South America and the Galapagos Islands when confronted by Aubrey. In the Hollywood version, the H.M.S. Surprise was given a fighting chance over the faster, fictional Acheron by modeling it after the USS Constitution, a wooden-hulled, three-masted heavy frigate of the United States Navy. Most noted for her actions during the War of 1812 against the United Kingdom, Old Ironsides captured numerous merchant ships and defeated five British warships. Weir describes how the Surprise was re-imagined to make it as formidable as the Constitution – which is still a commissioned ship and is usually berthed in Boston — primarily by using live-oak planks on its hull, in addition to less-dense white oak. Tests reveal just how much difference live oak makes by firing a cannon round at it. Production designers share their ideas for the movie, with facts presented naval historians and wood workers.

Unlike most of television’s current late-night hosts, whose humor targets a relatively narrow demographic range, Dick Cavett didn’t tailor his interview technique or choice of guests for audiences that cut their teeth on MTV and comic-book movies. He was smart and funny, and he didn’t underestimate his audience’s interest in people he thought they should know, no matter the flavor-of-the-month celebrity. Cavett’s biggest chink, I think, was a tendency to banter as if he were the invited guest, instead of the host, and the audience was there for his amusement.  Some of that self-reverence is on display in the latest releases from S’more Entertainment’s series of themed shows from his golden years.

The title of the two-disc set, “The Dick Cavett Show: And That’s the Way It Is,” derives from Walter Cronkite’s trademark signoff on the “CBS Evening News.” There are two Cronkite shows, from 1974 and 1982, one in Cavett’s ABC studio and another from the veteran newscaster’s New England summer home. Interviews with Mike Wallace, Dan Rather, Barbara Walters, Tom Brokaw and Diane Sawyer, range from 1970 to 1991, and were first shown on ABC, PBS or CNBC.  If Cavett’s in his element with the adult newscasters, he’s frequently overwhelmed by the childish antics and schtick of the comedians represented on “The Dick Cavett Show: Inside the Mind of …,” especially Bobcat Goldthwait and Gilbert Gottfried. The former standup comedian and writer for Jack Paar and Johnny Carson had better luck with Richard Lewis and Robin Williams. None of them were particularly interested in answering the questions put to them, however, causing Cavett to improvise. Even so, it’s fun to watch comedians at a time in their careers when they’d yet to achieve headliner status.

The DVD Wrapup & Gift Guide III: Venom 4K, The Super, Snowflake, Marie Curie, Gamechangers, Who We Are Now, 40 Guns, De Palma-De Niro,, Starman and more

Thursday, December 20th, 2018

Venom: Blu-ray/4K UHD
There are a couple of different ways to watch superhero movies. One is to approach them with only a basic knowledge of the character and its various alias and origin stories. For example, it’s enough to know that Peter Parker/Spider-Man is the one who wears the red costume, including a full-face mask, and is distinguished by his ability to cling to surfaces, shoot spider-webs from wrist-mounted devices and detect danger with his “spider-sense.” It’s also useful, but not essential to know that Spider-Man inherited his moral and ethical code — “With great power, there must also come great responsibility” – from his guardian, the late Uncle Ben. The other way is to approach every new movie with the passion and curiosity of someone who arranges his/her vacation schedule around the annual San Diego Comic and possesses an encyclopedic knowledge of one or more characters and storylines, from inception to screen. For anyone over, say, 15, to fully appreciate Ruben Fleischer’s Venom,  it’s necessary to possess a working knowledge of Eddie Brock/Venom’s origin story and those of several other key characters. If not, it’s just another vehicle to show off cool CGI effects, in the service of a disposal story makes little narrative sense. My ass-backwards approach to Venom’s pleasures only derived from an hour, or so, spent researching what I’d just seen.

As portrayed by the ever-watchable Tom Hardy, Brock is a disgraced San Francisco journalist, who lost his job and fiancé (Michelle Williams) in a scandal involving the evil Life  Foundation CEO Carlton Drake (Riz Ahmed). In his weakened state, Brock provides a perfect host for an alien symbiote. Wait, what the hell is a symbiote? It’s probably enough to know that these alien creatures attach themselves to humans in a manner possibly inspired by William Castle’s The Tingler and uses the host’s oxygen to merge into a single predatory entity, through which it’s able to attack its enemies. Conveniently, Venom and Brock share the same goal. Comic-book geeks can trace Venom’s lineage to a cameo in Web of Spider-Man #18 (September 1986) and a more complete reveal in The Amazing Spider-Man #300 (May 1988). The symbiote, and a few others who arrived with it, have served at various times, as supervillains and antiheros, depending on their various hosts. If the original Spider-Man connection is played down in the movie, fans already know how Venom, Riot, Blue and Carnage related to Peter Parker and other vulnerable hosts in their subsequent comic-book and TV iterations. And, while they might not understand why this Marvel Entertainment product ended up at Sony, instead of Disney or Paramount, they probably assume, correctly, that it’s a subject best left to Wikipedia nerds, like moi.

Although Venom didn’t crack the magic billion-dollar barrier, it broke a couple of box-office records and did well enough to ensure franchise status. In the U.S., where critics were far less than kind, Venom surprised observers by grossing $80.2 million on its opening weekend. A month later, in China, it pulled in the equivalent of $111 million on the opening weekend. But, dig this, Sony’s official Chinese social media marketing campaign portrayed Venom as “a loving and caring boyfriend.” An article on Vox.com on November 26 described an early fan-made meme, facetiously depicting Venom as a socialist hero who just wants everyone to join the Chinese Communist Party. Even though it was a “sardonic take on American movies that make a point to cater to Chinese audiences,” it went viral. The PRC debut ranks ahead of the $75.8 million opening for Ant-Man and the Wasp earlier this year and just behind the $84.4 million opening for Solo: A Star Wars Story. Even though a scene shot in San Francisco’s Chinatown was deemed merely coincidental to Sony’s campaign, it shouldn’t surprise anyone to see more Asian-American or Asian-based actors show up in prominent roles in subsequent action epics. By contrast, however, Warners’ “An Unexpected Tale of Picking Gold” (a.k.a., Crazy Rich Asians) tanked miserably at the Chinese box office and with critics, one of whom referred to it as a “Panda Express of Chinese culture.” (It also may have had to do with the focus on materialism; the Mandarin accents; and audiences’ expectations of seeing Chinese actors in more traditional fare.) Audience surveys set Venom’s demographic appeal at 59 percent male and 64 percent under 25 years of age. Those numbers aren’t  necessarily consistent with those registered by other action hits.

Hardy adds welcome sparks of humor to human half of his character, and the CGI half doesn’t disappointment, either. Of the supporting cast, only Woody Harrelson/Carnage stands out, in a performance that mimics Hannibal Lector’s confinement to a cage in The Silence of the Lambs. SPHE’s impressive 4K UHD edition of Venom should be considered by families looking for a stocking stuffer in advance of Santa’s delivery of an ultra-high-definition playback unit. It’s enhanced by Dolby Vision  HDR and a Dolby Atmos audio track. It can be played in Venom Mode,” which allows viewers to engage pop-ups throughout the film to provide insight on the movie’s relationship to the comics and other hidden references. Bonus features include deleted and extended scenes; the featurettes, “Ride to Hospital,” “Car Alarm,” “San Quentin,” “From Symbiote to Screen,” “The Lethal Protector in Action,” “Designing Venom” and “Symbiote Secrets”; pre-visualization sequences; “Venom” music video, by Eminem, and “Sunflower,” by Post Malone and Swae Lee; and a sneak preview of “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse.”

The Super: Blu-ray
In New York City, at least, building superintendents hold an exalted position among other blue-collar workers. Although they sometimes look as if they might have just finished shoveling coal into the boiler – in movies and television shows, at least – some of them control aspects of their tenants’ lives that border on godlike … or demonic. In the hands of German director Stephan Rick (The Dark Side of the Moon) and John J. McLaughlin (Hitchcock), the haunted-tenement thriller, The Super, makes the man holding the job a little of both. In it, former cop Phil Lodge (Patrick John Flueger) takes a job as a superintendent in a Manhattan apartment building. Joining him are his troubled teenage daughter, Violet (Taylor Richardson), and her younger sibling, Rose (Mattea Marie Conforti), who are forced to bunk together in a storage room. When a teenager goes missing, along with several other tenants, Lodge suspects a sadistic murderer may be roaming the shadowy corridors and that his daughters’ lives are in danger. As bad, the building’s master key has gone missing and everyone is vulnerable to attack. Phil has two colleagues: Julio (Yul Vazquez) and Walter (Val Kilmer), who, when he isn’t fixing things, conjures black-magic spells and wanders through the building looking guilty as hell. (His gaunt demeanor and raspy voice can be attributed to Kilmer’s two-year battle with throat cancer.) As is usual in shows created by producer Dick Wolf (“Law & Order”), identifying the guilty party isn’t as simple as picking out the most-likely suspects and prosecuting them in court. In fact, unless they’re that episode’s guest star, the first suspects are typically the first to be cleared of suspicion. Observant viewers should, however, be able to identify the scent of something fishy emanating from the bowels of the building and predict one or more of the final twists. They may not satisfy thrill-seekers, but they’re unexpected, nonetheless. The Blu-ray adds the featurette, “He Has Your Keys: Making The Super.”

Snowflake: Blu-ray
It’s been a while since I’ve watched a movie that justified comparisons to the early work of Quentin Tarantino, Guy Ritchie and the Coen Brothers. So many offbeat crime thrillers in the late-1990s and early-’00s were directly influenced by the holy trinity, I simply assumed that a generation of film-school graduates were more influenced by Tarantino, Ritchie and the Coens than by Alfred Hitchcock, Claude Chabrol and Donald Siegel. Even so, publicity blurbs on posters and DVD covers needlessly continue to point out the obvious the similarities in new releases. Lately, however, I’ve noticed that an incoming class of first-time writers and directors are just as likely to emulate genre specialists in Korea, Hong Kong and Japan. In Snowflake, a completely off-the-wall crime thriller from Germany, the debt to Tarantino, Ritchie and the Coens is simply too obvious to ignore. It’s also one of the things that make it easy to recommend.

Virtual newcomers Adolfo J. Kolmerer and “guest director” William James, working from a screenplay by Arend Remmers, have set Snowflake in a dystopian Berlin, where chaos reigns, but residents go about their business as usual. It opens with a couple of young guys debating the quality of the kebab sandwiches served in a restaurant whose floor is littered with fresh corpses. Guns in hand, Javid (Reza Brojerdi) and Tan (Erkin Acar) stroll out of the joint as if nothing untoward has happened, stealing a car to make their getaway. The next morning, they notice a screenplay in the backseat of their makeshift bedroom and are astonished by the script’s word-for-word duplication of their conversation in the restaurant. Moreover, the stage directions and setting also match the bloodbath there. The further they get into the screenplay, the more they recognize their own words, even as they’re being spoken. They trace the name of the screenwriter to a dentist’s office somewhere in Berlin, where the man holding the drill is an aspiring screenwriter. After some light, but effective torture is applied, Arend (Alexander Schubert), admits to writing the screenplay. What he can’t explain is how he’s been able to anticipate their every move and utterance. Javid and Tan assume he’s a soothsayer, however, and demand that he keeps writing the script. They expect a happy ending –for them, anyway – but don’t understand that Arend’s scenarios are divinely inspired. They take a copy of it along with them in their pursuit of a right-wing prophet they blame for the murders of family members. If nothing else, the screenplay allows them to stay one or two steps ahead of teenage assassin Eliana (Xenia Assenza), whose parents were among the innocent bystanders, killed in the restaurant shootout at the restaurant. She’s seeking revenge, too, but only learns about the fascist connection later.

Along with her friend and bodyguard, Carson (David Masterson), Eli contacts a former cult leader, Caleb (David Grant), who appears to be certifiably crazy, but refers her to several increasingly dangerous bounty hunters. Somewhere along the way, she’s joined by superhero vigilante Hyper Electro Man (Mathis Landwehr), who possesses a powerful gift, but isn’t infallible. Caleb also points Eli in the direction of the dangerous right-wing tele-kook, who resembles Adolf Hitler and has assembled a bunker full of stormtroopers. Before finding the hideout, Eli and the bounty hunters converge on a cabaret, where a winged angel in white is entertaining the audience. Schneeflöckchen (Judith Hoersch), has, like a snowflake, descended from the rafters, as if she were an extra in Wim Wenders’ Berlin-set masterpiece, Wings of Desire. By the end of her performance, her wings will be tainted red with blood. By this point in the narrative, it’s become difficult to say if Snowflake is playing out as dictated by the dentist’s imagination or everyone’s heading in the same direction on their own volition. For anyone who’s gotten this far, however, it doesn’t really matter. One of the ways Snowflake resembles Pulp Fiction, Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels and Fargo is how quickly and unpredictably violence erupts in otherwise quiet settings. Viewers are as surprised by the escalation into violence as the victims. Considering how many years it took to make Snowflake, and on such a miniscule budget, it will be interesting to see what the filmmakers come up with next. The Blu-ray adds a lengthy making-of featurette.

Marie Curie
Scarred Hearts
MGM and Mervyn Leroy’s 1943 biopic, Madame Curie, merged science and romance in the service of melodrama that covered only half of her remarkable career and fudged elements of her life deemed controversial. It starred box-office favorites Greer Garson and Walter Pidgeon, who would be finalists in two of the seven Oscar categories in which it was nominated, including Best Picture. (I love the fact that Aldous Huxley and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s work on the script was rejected.) Several other biographies have followed Madam Curie, including the bio-comedy, Les palmes de M. Schutz (1997), in which Isabelle Huppert played the Polish/French scientist. Marie Noëlle’s Marie Curie: The Courage of Knowledge (2016) adds much to a layperson’s understanding of her Nobel Prize-winning accomplishments, as well as those of her husband, Pierre (Charles Berling), who preceded her in death; her married lover, Paul Langevin (Arieh Worthalter); and Marie and Pierre’s similarly gifted daughters. The movie deftly depicts, as well, a European community blessed with great wealth and scientific curiosity, but divided by radical and traditional political notions, ethnocentrism, male chauvinism and anti-Semitism, all of which affected Marie Skłodowska-Curie (Karolina Gruszka). Although she wasn’t Jewish, or particularly religious, any foreigner who rocked the status quo in France faced accusations of being Jewish or agitators. Marie was born in Warsaw, in 1867, when the Kingdom of Poland was part of the Russian Empire, and she was a staunch advocate of a separate Polish state. Even after winning the first of her two Nobel Prizes, Skłodowska-Curie was treated by the scientific establishment as a mere participant in Pierre’s accomplishments and  was denied recognition, access to adequate facilities and prestigious positions in the academies. The headline-making scandal that followed Pierre’s death shown a spotlight on Marie that wouldn’t have been directed at her male peers in the same context. Several years older than Langevin, she was imprecisely tarred as a Jewish adulterer and homewrecker.

Marie’s feminist credentials are cemented in a speech she delivered in 1911, while accepting her history-making second Nobel Prize, an honor delayed by the scandal: “We should be less curious to know people, and more curious to know their thoughts.” Nevertheless, it’s interesting to see how overtly Noëlle and cinematographer Michal Englert depict her sexual re-awakening after Pierre’s death in a carriage accident. It  includes several semi-nude sequences, that are posed and shot in a gauzy light that recalls the photography in early issues of Penthouse magazine, although there’s nothing remotely pornographic about them. One of the scenes that didn’t require a gauzy haze takes place in 1922, as members of the League of Nations’ newly created International Committee on Intellectual Cooperation – including Curie and Albert Einstein – stroll along a sun-lit beach. When he praises her as the leading female scientist of their time, she chides him for not including male scientists, as well. Gruszka’s performance, alternately stoic and vulnerable, should serve as a reminder that portrayals of women in the sciences need not be reserved for actresses who moonlight as models for cosmetics companies. Their characters can be every bit as deep, complex and alluring as any male filmmaker’s clichéd notion of how a perfect woman should act. (Having just re-watched Paul Verhoeven’s Hollow Man, with microbiologists played by Elizabeth Shue, Kim Dickens and Mary Randle, I think it’s a valid observation.) The production design nicely captures the look of the period — from shadowy laboratories, to the gilded hallways of academia – in exacting detail, as well.

Also, from Big World Pictures, comes Radu Jude’s Scarred Hearts, an absorbing, if grueling drama based on the writings of Max Blecher (a.k.a., M. Blecher), a Romanian Jewish writer who died of bone tuberculosis in 1938. Lucian Teodor Rus plays Emanuel, a patient suffering from the same crippling ailment, also called Pott’s disease, who’s confined to a seaside sanitarium in Berck-sur-Mer, France, where he faces torturous therapy and years of confinement in bed. Although he’s sometimes imprisoned in a full- or half-cast, Emanuel’s mind is free to wander where it will, sometimes in the darkness, but largely in places that lift the human spirit. Title cards, with subtitled passages from Blecher’s meditative writing, separate the scenes and anticipate what’s going on his mind, on- and off-screen. Emanuel’s also adept at reciting lines from his poetry, and by others (Kierkegaard), by memory. As horrifying as the disease is, patients celebrate the absence of doctors, nurses and orderlies by partying, debating the political upheaval in Germany and making love, as best they can. Viewers are encouraged to find their own metaphors for the wave of fascism that’s about to imprison Europe. Also very good are Ivana Mladenović, as a self-assured former patient, and Ilinca Harnut, as a similarly incapacitated woman from a nearby room. Their awkward attempts at shifting from bed-to-bed and making love like armadillos – I’m guessing — offer some comic relief, but, even when they fail, you have to hand it to them for trying. While the 141-minute running time, largely static camera, 1.85:1 academy flat aspect ratio and obscure literary references may not  contribute to a seamless viewing experience, anyone who found inspiration in The Sessions (2012), Rust and Bone (2012) and The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (2007) should find something in Scarred Hearts to enjoy.

Gamechangers: Dreams of Blizzcon
This somewhat troubling documentary may not be targeted directly at parents of children who spend their every waking moment in front of a video screen — playing loud games and cursing when they’re interrupted — but it could save them from a world of trouble down the road. John Keating’s Gamechangers: Dreams of Blizzcon enters the largely unexplored realm of professional ”eSports,” as told through the eyes of two of the world’s best “StarCraft 2: Wings of Liberty” players. Anyone who found “Dungeons & Dragons” to be a disturbing alternative to tagging and shoplifting, back in the day, may see something even more unnerving in the new eSports craze. Unlike graffiti, however, an addiction to eSports could pay off down the road. Introduced a 1998, the real-time-strategy game, “StarCraft,” went on to become the foundation of eSports and the force behind the on-line streaming medium, Twitch. The global phenomenon began in modest South Korean Internet cafés, as PC bangs, and exploded from there. “Gamechangers” follows two of the world’s top professional gamers, “MC” and “MMA,” neither of whom look as if they’ve begun to shave yet but have helped lift their families out of poverty on the way to becoming niche celebrities.

BlizzCon, then, is to eGamers what ComicCon long has been to comic books and cosplay freaks. It’s an annual gaming convention held by Blizzard Entertainment to promote its major franchises: “Warcraft,” “StarCraft,” “Diablo,” “Hearthstone,” “Heroes of the Storm” and “Overwatch.” The first BlizzCon was held in October 2005 and since then all the standing-room-only conventions have been staged at the Anaheim Convention Center, near the company’s corporate headquarters in Irvine. Although Koreans dominate the 2014 championships, shown here, it’s worth knowing that, for the first time in competition history, an outsider — Joona “Serral” Sotala, a soft-spoken Zerg player from Finland — broke through the logjam, by winning the WCS Global Finals. The 20-year-old took home $280,000 from that contest, alone. The documentary probably will remind some older viewers of the World Series of Poker craze, except with better visuals and even more sloppily dressed competitors. It covers the matches, eight months’ worth of preparation and contests, and interviews with parents, who probably hope their sons – no women in sight, except in the crowd and handing out trophies – will consider using their earnings for college.

We, The Marines: Blu-ray/4K UHD
Thanks to the miracle of 4K UHD and large-format theaters, it’s safe to say that MacGillivray Freeman’s We, The Marines is the best-looking recruitment film since Top Gun. Originally created to be shown on the Giant Screen-certified Medal of Honor Theater at the Marine Corps Heritage Foundation’s museum, in Quantico, Virginia, it is now available for home viewing. At 38-minutes, any movie recalling the history of any branch of the military would suffer from extreme brevity and subjective editing and that’s the case here. We, The Marines is short on combat footage and long on the ordeal men and women recruits face when they decide to join the corps. If it omits the dehumanizing profanities, occasional physical abuse and politically incorrect characterizations dished out by Lee Ermey’s Gunnery Sergeant Hartman, in Full Metal Jacket (1987) – and, for that matter, Louis Gossett Jr.’s Sergeant Emil Foley in An Officer and a Gentleman (1982) — We, the Marines goes quite a bit further into the intense training all leathernecks undergo at book camps in South Carolina and southern California. As narrated by 88-year-old Gene Hackman, a former Marine who came out of retirement for this assignment, the movie then takes viewers to training facilities in the desert, swamps and mountains that simulate conditions Marines may face in combat, no matter the season or cause.

The most exhilarating 4K footage, perhaps, comes in the air, as already well-conditioned Marines take their first jumps from the rear end of a troop transport. Or, maybe, it’s underwater footage of a large submersible in which they’re taught to evacuate a sinking vehicle, after it flips over and descends into murky water. While not coming out and saying as much, We, the Marines also makes it clear that any debate over unjustified wars and politically motivated missions – the flag-raising at Iwo Jima is rightfully highlighted, while the so-called “victory” at Khe Sanh is ignored — is superseded by the Marines’ do-or-die approach to their jobs and burning desire to make sure everyone comes back alive … which, of course, they don’t. It also shows the pride in the faces of newly minted Marines, as well as those of parents and family members – along  with sighs of relief — when they arrive home safe and sound. The package includes extended interviews and footage.

Who We Are Now: Special Edition: Blu-ray
I’m not sure how the voters for Independent Spirit awards overlooked Julianne Nicholson’s performance in Who We Are Now. Sure, Matthew Newton’s ensemble drama was only accorded a brief release in a handful of theaters in the first weeks of summer. Typically, though, the Indies can sniff out great acting in small movies from any distance and, to qualify, they only need to be shown at a festival, or two, or an abandoned drive-in Texas to qualify. For what it’s worth, critics at the 2017 TIFF were unanimous in their praise and gave good marks to the film, as well. AMPAS voters don’t concern themselves with movies that barely register a blip on the radar screen, so no surprise there. The key characters in Who We Are Now are at a place in their lives where shit happens on a fairly regular basis and there isn’t a thing they can do about it. Recently released from prison, Beth (Nicholson) is working with her public defender, Carl (Jimmy Smits), to get her son back from her sister, who was awarded legal custody while Beth was sent away for 10 years on a manslaughter beef. Gabby (Jess Weixler) and her husband, Sam (Scott Cohen), decided not to tell the boy about his birth mother, however, referring to Beth as an aunt and finally take out a restraining order to prevent her from dropping in unexpectedly. It’s been a year since Beth was released and she’s begun to think that Gabby and Sam will make the order permanent.  She’s working at a nail salon and experiences a #MeToo moment with the manager of a restaurant manager (Jason Biggs) who has no intention of hiring a felon. Carl’s idealistic young protégé, Jess (Emma Roberts), is nearly as much an emotional basket case as Beth, but for very different reasons. When Carl announces his intention to take a job in Washington and give her his job, Jess’ insecurities rise to the surface. After a tough case unexpectedly goes sideways, she’s ready to cash in her chips and go home. It doesn’t help, either, that her mother (Lea Thompson) is a demanding bitch. By the time she crosses paths with Beth, Jess is well on her way to becoming a semi-functional alcoholic. Other plotlines intersect, but Beth and Jess’ stories are the most compelling. Nicholson and Roberts keep viewers on the edge of their seats, waiting for their characters to implode. Who We Are Now may not be a barrel of laughs, but as a showcase for great acting, it’s tough to beat.

Forty Guns: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
Panique: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
A Dry White Season: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
Topping off a typically eclectic month of new releases from Criterion Collection is a Western unlike any I’ve ever seen. Watch Sam Fuller’s Forty Guns (1957) alongside Marlon Brando’s One-Eyed Jacks – a 2018 addition to the National Film Registry – and you’ll understand how the revisionist subgenre evolved from such early classics as Nicolaus Ray’s Johnny Guitar (1954), George Stevens’ Shane (1953), Fred Zinnemann and Carl Foreman’s High Noon (1952), and Delmer Daves’ 3:10 to Yuma (1957). A decade later, the elimination of the Production Code and influence of spaghetti Westerns eliminated any needed to work around earlier taboos. Sergio Leone’s A Fistful of Dollars (1964) opened the door for such bold statements as Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch (1969), Arthur Penn’s Little Big Man (1970), Peter Fonda’s The Hired Hand (1971), Robert Altman’s McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971), George Roy Hill’s Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969) and Alejandro Jodorowsky’s El Topo (1970). Forty Guns wasn’t an attempt to reinvent the Western, just personalize it according to Fuller’s own beliefs, ethics and vision. If he wasn’t given much time or money to make it, he was allowed the luxury of CinemaScope, cranes and unusually long tracking shots. Because it’s set in Cochise County, Arizona, it’s possible to see in the Bonnell brothers (Barry Sullivan, Gene Barry, Robert Dix) references to Earp brothers, while Barbara Stanwyck’s Jessica Drummond is said to represent Ike Clanton, who, unlike his brother, Billy, survived Tombstone’s fabled Gunfight at the O.K. Corral. At a mere 5-foot-5, Stanwyck’s character stands toe-to-toe with Sullivan’s 6-foot-2 Griff Bonell, a former gunfighter now serving warrants on criminals, one of whom serves in Drummond’s personal dragoon regiment.

The protagonist and antagonist nearly collide in the famous opening scene in which the Bonnells are nearing town in a buckboard wagon and the dragoons are riding  hell-bent-for-leather in the opposite direction. They’re led by the domineering, corrupt, matriarchal cattle queen, who’s dressed in black and riding a white stallion. Impressive, by any cowgirl standards. No need to spoil anything further, except to say Forty Guns – previously titled, “Woman With a Whip” — tweaks such tropes and clichés as the singing cowboy (Jidge Carroll), western hygiene and, of course, the role of women in the Old West. In addition to Drummond, the town’s leading gunsmith is played by Ziva Rodann, who kind of resembles Sandra Dee, and I didn’t see any prostitutes. (In Johnny Guitar, Joan Crawford played a saloon keeper, who also had imperious ambitions.) If American critics failed to embrace Fuller and Ray’s pictures, they would influence several critics-turned-auteurs in the French New Wave. Even today, however, Forty Guns does take some getting used to. Criterion’s pristine 4K restoration is supplemented by new interviews with Fuller’s widow, Christa Lang-Fuller, and daughter, Samantha Fuller, and critic/author Imogen Sara Smith; the feature-length documentary, A Fuller Life (2013), by Samantha Fuller, featuring admirers of her father’s work and collaborators Wim Wenders, William Friedkin, Mark Hamill, James Franco, Monte Hellman, Jennifer Beals, Bill Duke and Constance Towers; a stills gallery; a vintage commentary by Fuller; and an essay by film scholar Lisa Dombrowski and excerpts from Fuller’s 2002 autobiography, “A Third Face: My Tale of Writing, Fighting, and Filmmaking.”

Fans of Belgian writer Georges Simenon and his beloved literary creation, the French police detective Jules Maigret, may not be familiar with the protagonist of his 1933 novel, “Les Fiançailles de M. Hire,” from which Panique (1946) was adapted … in French (twice), Spanish and Portuguese. Unlike Maigret, Monsieur Hire’s an unmarried loner, Jewish, a bit of a slob, and a voyeur. He carries a camera, just in case something unusual occurs. That’s exactly what happens when one of Hire’s neighbors is found dead near the town square. He doesn’t let on that he knows who the killer is until a plot to frame him is revealed and his affection for Alice (Viviane Romance), a gorgeous ex-con he spies in a rooming house across the street, turns his mind to mush. By the time he realizes that Alice is in cahoots with the slick conman for whom she took a three-year fall in prison, she’s planted evidence on Hire and Albert (Paul Bernard) has whipped the crowd into a frenzy of hatred toward “the outsider.”  The truth will emerge, but too late to do him any good. Hence, the lack of a sequel or prequel to Julien Duvivier’s heart-breaking post-war drama, other than Patrice Leconte’s fine 1989 remake, Monsieur Hire. Panique was the first movie Duvivier made in France after returning to Europe from a self-imposed wartime hiatus in the United States. Before the war, he developed an international reputation with such award-winning films as Christine (1937), Pépé le Moko (1937), The Great Waltz (1938) and La fin du jour (1939). Like other French filmmakers who spent the war years in the United States, Duvivier was greeted with suspicion and animosity by people who endured the Occupation. He was well-aware of the likelihood that some of them had collaborated with the Nazis and informed on their Jewish neighbors. Duvivier allows viewers a brief respite in the narrative when Hire and Alice appear to come to an arrangement on Albert’s deceit and guilt. It’s short-lived, however, because, well, as they say on the noir blogs, cherchez le femme. And, speaking of noir, Duvivier must have learned something during his time in Hollywood, because Panique is as good an example of the subgenre as has been released in recent months. Simon, who delivered unforgettable performances in Marcel Carné Port of Shadows (1938), Jean Vigo’s L’Atalante (1934) and Jean Renoir’s Boudu Saved From Drowning (1932) is in top form here. The revelation, though, is Valentine, a radiant actress whose smile could lead any man down the wrong — or right — path. The 2K restoration is enhanced by “The Art of Subtitling,” an interesting short doc by Bruce Goldstein, founder and copresident of Rialto Pictures; an interview with author Pierre Simenon, the son of novelist Georges Simenon; a 2015 conversation between critics Guillemette Odicino and Eric Libiot about Duvivier and the film’s production history; and essays by Duvivier expert Lenny Borger and film scholar James Quandt.

Set in 1976, when apartheid in South Africa showed no signs of easing, Euzhan Palcy’s A Dry White Season was released in 1989, a long year before Nelson Mandela was released from prison. As the United States was celebrating its bicentennial, however, the outcry against apartheid, outside South Africa, was still largely limited to college campuses and left-leaning activist groups. It wouldn’t be until 1986, 14 years after U.S. Rep. Ron Dellums first initiated action on the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act, that American legislators formally agreed to impose sanctions on the South African government and international industries that continued to do business there. Hollywood movies that dealt with apartheid in South Africa – as was the case with films about the battle against segregation in the American South – typically found a white actor to serve as co-protagonist. Here, Donald Sutherland plays Johannesburg schoolteacher Ben Du Toit, who, like everyone else in his orbit, believes what he’s told about allegations of atrocities against blacks by the government: that only terrorists and communists are being targeted in the State of Emergency. It isn’t until his black gardener, Gordon (Winston Ntshona) informs Du Toit of beatings inflicted on his son, with whom the teacher’s own boy plays, that he begins to investigate such claims himself. Willing, at first, to believe the lies told him by local authorities, Du Toit doesn’t become convinced of the brutality until he witnesses the effects on the corpse of someone he’s met.

As his involvement grows, so, too, does his estrangement from family members, friends and associates. Although Palcy (Sugar Cane Alley) insisted on using South African actors to play black characters, she knew that money would be scarce, unless prominent American and European actors also committed to the project. Besides Sutherland, she was able to recruit German star Jürgen Prochnow (Das Boot) to play a vicious cop; Susan Sarandon, as an anti-apartheid activist; Gerard Thoolen, from the Netherlands; Michael Gambon, from Ireland; Brits Susannah Harker, Richard Wilson, Paul Brooke, Ronald Pickup; and South African ex-pat Janet Suzman. It wasn’t until Palcy convinced Marlon Brando to join the the party that the deal was sealed. It required him to emerged from nine years of retirement and work for scale, but he respected the anti-apartheid cause. His portrayal of a civil-rights lawyer, grilling corrupt cops and doctors at an inquest into a black man’s death by torture, is something to behold. Palcy and Colin Welland (Chariots of Fire) adapted A Dry White Season from a novel by André Brink and the director’s own surreptitious research. If it feels a bit dated, well, that’s a small price to pay for freedom. Criterion’s 4K restoration adds a fresh Palcy, conducted by film critic Scott Foundas; a vintage “Today” interview with Sutherland; a 1995 interview Palcy conducted with Nelson Mandela; “Five Scenes,” a new program featuring Palcy’s work; and an essay by filmmaker and scholar Jyoti Mistry (Impunity).

The other December release from Criterion is Sawdust and Tinsel (1953), another a la carte offering from the company’s must-have “Ingmar Bergman’s Cinema.”

The Advocates
Lest we forget the true meaning of Christmas and Christianity, Rémi Kessler’s debut documentary, The Advocates, reminds us of the many homeless people in Los Angeles who aren’t likely to find any room at the inn or, for that matter, anywhere else on Christmas Eve. It also introduces us to advocates with three different relief agencies, whose job is to find homes for the homeless, but not before they commit to remaining sober and being cleared by mental-health authorities. While  they occasionally are warmed by the thanks of the people who benefit from their tireless efforts, they’re too often frustrated by the backsliding, bureaucratic regulations and by politicians unwilling to back their promises up with money. The immensity of the job is spelled out in statistics: of the half-million homeless men and women in the U.S., 25 percent of them are in California. In Los Angeles, alone, nearly 54,000 people are missing a roof over their heads on any given night. They live in abandoned cars, under viaducts and on Skid Row sidewalks. The Advocates traces the problem back to Reagan-era cost-cutting and well-meaning human-rights activists, who bought the lies told by legislators who said they’d provide housing and meals for the patients who’d lose their rooms in mental-health facilities. Instead, they were put on buses and given one-way tickets to downtown L.A., San Francisco or San Diego. Since then, however, they’ve been joined by people who lost their jobs and no longer can afford the astronomical rents or get by on minimum-wage gigs. The doc features advocates Claudia Perez, Rudy Salinas and Mel Tillekeratne, and the organizational work of LA on Cloud9, which benefits the homeless and their pets; and Monday Night Mission, which provides food and clothing to residents of Skid Row.

Bloodlines: The Art and Life of Vincent Castiglia
In the 1946 book, “Confessions of a Story Writer,” Paul Gallico wrote: “It is only when you open your veins and bleed onto the page a little that you establish contact with your reader.” Three years later, when Pulitzer Prize-winning sportswriter Red Smith reportedly was asked if turning out a daily column was a chore, he replied, “Why, no, you simply sit down at the typewriter, open your veins, and bleed.” Although the likelihood of artist Vincent Castiglia having been inspired by either quote is slim, the methodology is the same. The 36-year-old Brooklyn native uses his own blood to create hauntingly surreal images of human bodies in abstract form. Inspired by years of extreme childhood abuse and drug addiction, there are probably a few drops of sweat and tears mixed into the blood, as well. From darkness, however, came light and, eventually, sobriety. The easiest way to characterize Castiglia’s work is to compare it to that of H.R. Giger, whose biomechanical imagery inspired the creatures in Alien, Species and Prometheus. Giger, who also used art as therapy, is well represented in John Borowski’s Bloodlines: The Art and Life of Vincent Castiglia. Although they appear to have channeled each other’s nightmares, Castiglia’s paintings are distinguished by a biological precision that matches that of an anatomical draftsman. Margaret Cho, who commissioned the artist to paint her portrait in her own blood, is interviewed in the film, alongside the late Gregg Allman, Damien Echols, Kerry King and Gary Holt of the heavy metal band Slayer, and record executive Michael Alago.

Stocking stuffers
 
De Palma & De Niro: The Early Films: Blu-ray
Typically, when people consider the careers of Brian De Palma and Robert De Niro, the lists begin with their first big hits or critically lauded indies. De Palma’s big break came with the deliberately Hitchcockian Sisters, which succeeded on its own artistic merits and remains a staple of the evil-twin subgenre. It led directly to Phantom of the Paradise (1974), Obsession (1976) and Carrie (1976). Before De Niro became known for his collaborations with Martin Scorsese (Mean Streets) and Francis Ford Coppola (The Godfather: Part II), he turned heads in the baseball-drama, Bang the Drum Slowly (1973) and The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight (1971). The rest might have been left to history, as they say, if it weren’t for the reminders of formative work displayed in Arrow Video’s “De Palma & De Niro: The Early Films.” Nearly two decades before they worked together on The Untouchables (1987), their earliest professional work was seen by a relative handful of viewers in the three films showcased here: The Wedding Party (1969), Greetings (1968) and Hi, Mom! (1970). More interesting as predictors of things to come than fully formed entertainments, all three are easy to watch and present a view of 1960s New York that’s more Midnight Cowboy (1969) than “Hair: The American Tribal Love-Rock Musical.” More to the point, they demonstrate how much each man progressed, artistically, in a short period of time. Greetings, which De Palma co-wrote with Charles Hirsch, is an episodic Godardian dramedy, by way of Richard Lester (A Hard Day’s Night), that focuses on a trio of twentysomething male  friends: a conspiracy theorist, a struggling soft-core filmmaker and a chatty voyeur (De Niro). They’ve either dodged the draft or are being coached to avoid it. Once that occurs, they get involved with various  other schemes to make money and/or get laid. For reasons I still don’t completely understand, Greetings was the first American film to receive an X certificate in the new ratings system.

De Palma co-wrote and co-directed The Wedding Party with Wilford Leach and Cynthia Munroe. Shot five years before Greetings was released, it finally made it to the big screen in 1969. It concerns a young man (Charles Pfluger), who proposes to his girlfriend (Jill Clayburgh) before he’s considered all the ramifications of such a decision. Because it’s set in on the weekend of the marriage, in a pleasant rural location, The Wedding Party recalls such movies as A Wedding (1978), Cousins (1989) and Margot at the Wedding (2007). Less experimental than Greetings and Hi, Mom, The Wedding Party offers little more to contemporary viewers than early glimpses of Clayburgh and De Niro, neither of whom appear to have completely shed their baby fat. In fact, with his modified flat-top haircut, De Niro is a dead ringer for Billy Gray, of “Father Knows Best.” More familiar is his Jon Rubin, in Hi, Mom! While he’s an extension of his character in Greetings, De Niro appears to be channeling Johnny Boy, in Mean Streets (1973). Here, the just-returned Vietnam veteran rents a Greenwich Village apartment that could charitably described as a slum-within-a-slum. (The landlord is played by an almost unrecognizable Charles Durning.) It’s only advantage, besides a roof, is the clear view it provides of the apartment building across the street, whose tenants aren’t familiar with the concept of curtains. He talks the pornographer he met in Greetings (Allan Garfield) into fronting him the money to buy a camera and, in due time, delivering a hard-core version of Rear Window. While surveying an apartment in which three young women seem  to spend their every waking hour changing their clothes, he notices that one of them (Jennifer Salt) is out of step with her friends. He’s inspired to set up a sexual encounter with her, which he’ll film on automatic pilot from his apartment, using  the ruse of a misdirected computer date. The scheme fails, miserably, but in a way that showcases both actors’ ability to rise above the material and take command of a situation that unexpectedly blossoms into something.

The botched attempt at hard-core porn causes Rubin to change mediums. He joins a confrontational off-off-off-Broadway theater company that specializes in making white, liberal audiences as uncomfortable as possible. I’ve seen my share of these sorts of things and “Be Black, Baby” made me squirm, as well. Viewers should know that “Hi, Mom!” and “Greetings” both reflect the late-1960s’ absence of borders when it came to sexist, racist and homophobic dialogue and insult-trading. The profane dialogue sounds so foreign today that you begin to wonder if that’s the way everyone conversed in the radicalized era. Many did, but not for long. Also, there’s an extremely discomfiting rape that probably wouldn’t get past the ratings board, today. The Arrow package benefits from 2K restorations of all three films; a pair of informative interviews with writer/producer Hirsch; commentary on Greetings by Glenn Kenny, author of “Robert De Niro: Anatomy of an Actor”; an appreciation of De Palma and De Niro’s collaborations by critic and filmmaker Howard S. Berger; interviews with actors Gerrit Graham and Peter Maloney; newly commissioned artwork by Matthew Griffin; and fresh writing on the films by Brad Stevens, Chris Dumas and Christina Newland, plus an archived interview with Palma and Hirsch.

2018 World Series: Boston Red Sox: Collector’s Edition: Blu-ray
World Series Champions 2018: Boston Red Sox: Blu-ray
One of the more recent holiday rituals to emerge on DVD/Blu-ray has been the release of recapitulations of the annual Fall Classic. They used to arrive in time for the next baseball season, but, by then, most fans’ thoughts were already on their favorite team’s chance in the coming year. From the point of view of Shout!Factory, the distributor of “2018 World Series: Boston Red Sox: Collector’s Edition” and “World Series Champions 2018: Boston Red Sox,” the preference probably would have been for the Los Angeles Dodgers to upset the highly formidable BoSox. Nothing against the New England faithful, but, when it comes to market share, the only better pairing would have been a Yankees/Dodgers series that went seven games and included a couple of no-hitters. Second choice would have been a Dodgers’ victory over the reigning champs, the Houston Astros, the team that beat them a year earlier. As things went, the series’ highlight was the historic 18-inning Game 3, which ended with a L.A. victory and a record number of East Coast viewers who either dozed off before it ended or skipped work or school the next morning. The “World Series Collector’s Edition” includes all five games of the World Series; the Bosox’s pennant-clinching ALCS Game 5 and a bonus disc of the ALDS-clinching Game 4, versus the Yankees; optional audio feeds, including the national-television feed, home radio, away radio and the Spanish-language broadcast; and a Sleevestats insert, with game trivia and official stats. “World Series Champions 2018” focuses specifically on the final series. Previous year’s editions included full coverage of the playoff series, seasonal highlight and, if memory serves, victory parades.

Dracula: Prince of Darkness: Collector’s Edition: Blu-Ray
Despite Scream Factory’s swell 4K restoration of Dracula: Prince of Darkness (1966), the movie remains essential only to genre buffs and Christopher Lee and Hammer Horror completists. Among other things, the vampire makes his first appearance – or, if you will, resurrection – 40 minutes into the narrative and Lee is silent throughout the picture. That said, however, his minute-long manifestation is a thing of pre-CGI beauty. After blood is poured on Dracula’s ashes, a series of 12 locked-down dissolves take him from dust to a fully formed vampire, whose bony hand is the first thing that emerges from the sarcophagus. Dracula: Prince of Darkness takes place in 1895, eight years after the count’s demise in Horror of Dracula (1958). Four English tourists are stranded in the mysterious village of Karlsbad, a sinister and remote place with a deadly, dark legend. Against the advice of Father Sandor (Andrew Keir), they hop into a driverless coach that takes them directly to the not-quite-abandoned castle, where shit happens. The Blu-ray edition includes both the UK and shorter U.S. versions of the film; new commentaries with author Troy Howarth and filmmaker Constantine Nasr and writer/producer Steve Haberman, as well as ported-over commentary with cast members Suzan Farmer, Francis Matthews, Barbara Shelley and Lee; a “World of Hammer” episode, “Dracula and the Undead”; “Back to Black: The Making of Dracula: Prince of Darkness”; a stills gallery; and Super 8 behind-the-scenes footage.

Bloody Birthday: Special Edition: Blu-ray
In 1981, parents groups and critics raised a stink over splatter flicks featuring psycho killers dressed in Santa costumes.  At the same time, the R-rated killer-kid thriller, Bloody Birthday (1981), opened and closed without much controversy attached to it. In an interview included in the bonus features attached to this Arrow Video release, film journalist Chris Alexander accurately describes the antagonists as “the Little Rascals from hell.” In my opinion, exploitation films in which children kill children, as well as parents, cops and neighbors, trump evil Santas every day of the week. I can’t imagine a kindergarten teacher or expectant parent watching Bloody Birthday – not many did, apparently – and not re-considering their decision to expand the minds of impressionable youngsters and bringing a potential psychopath into the world. Yeah, yeah … I know it’s only movie, but, 37 years later, it still has the capacity to creep out adult viewers. Who knows what makes a kid turn bad … bad genes, abusive parents, an addiction to airplane glue, born under a bad sign? In Bloody Birthday, three children are born almost simultaneously in the same hospital, at the same time as a solar eclipse is occurring outside. Flash-forward 10 years and a pair of teenagers is murdered while making out in an empty grave in the local graveyard. We don’t see the killers, but it doesn’t take long for Hunt to reveal the fact that they’ve yet to reach puberty. At first, the same three kids from the hospital stage murders to look like accidents or the acts of sick adults. It doesn’t take long before they skip the formalities and kill with only the slightest concern for being caught. Even when a friend of the sociopathic trio turns on them, no one over 18 believes him.

Perhaps, you can guess what happens as the movie unspools. It would be difficult, however, to foresee just how devilishly inventive the kids are when it comes to murder. Otherwise, though, Bloody Birthday follows the same slasher blueprint – sex/death/exposition, in 10-minute intervals — popularized by John Carpenter (Halloween) and Bob Clark (Black Christmas). Viewers already were conditioned to fear off-kilter kids from such thrillers as The Bad Seed (1956), Village of the Damned (1960), The Omen (1976) and Halloween (1978), which was Hunt’s primary influence. It probably would be the last time Hunt and Carpenter’s name would be mentioned in the same discussion. Even so, Bloody Birthday managed to hit every beat as written. Much of the credit goes as well to the actors who played parents, siblings, teachers — Lori Lethin, Julie Brown, Joe Penny, Susan Strasberg – and the kids, K.C. Martel, Elizabeth Hoy, Billy Jayne and Andrew Freeman. Arrow accorded Bloody Birthday the kind of sendoff it usually reserves for arthouse classics, with a 2K restoration from original film elements; new commentary tracks with Hunt and the Hysteria Continues; fresh interviews with Lethin and Alexander; an archival interview with producer Max Rosenberg; reversible sleeve, featuring newly commissioned artwork by Timothy Pittides; and a booklet, with new writing by Lee Gambin.

Starman: Collector’s Edition: Blu-ray
Considering that John Carpenter’s first big splash in Hollywood came as co-writer/director of the brilliant pre-Star Wars parody, Dark Star (1974), making the leap from horror, back to sci-fi, in Starman (1984), probably wasn’t all that imposing a proposition. Getting the movie from concept to screen would prove to be an infinitely more difficult undertaking. The original Starman  script, by Bruce A. Evans and Raynold Gideon, was purchased by Columbia shortly before it optioned Steven Spielberg’s “Night Skies,” soon to be known worldwide as E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial. The studio wasn’t interested in making two movies featuring visitors from outer space and took a pass on the one they thought would appeal mostly to children. History reminds us that Universal’s “E.T.” not only beat Columbia’s project to the megaplexes, but it also destroyed the market for mega-budget alien-visitation movies for years. It’s just as well, because Starman was already caught in a thicket, referred to in the business as “development hell.” It meant that the project was tossed around Columbia’s executive offices like a potato made of plutonium. Before it found its way to Carpenter’s lap, ace script doctor Dean Riesner had been rewritten it seven times for six different potential directors. All of them had reasons of their own for turning the project down, including not wanting to be seen as competing with the “E.T.” juggernaut or, for that matter, Nicolas Roeg’s The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976). One of them simply didn’t see eye-to-eye with executive producer Michael Douglas. Finally, Riesner was told to leave well enough alone, but, at Carpenter’s request, eliminate its “heavy political implications.” For all his work, the WGA wouldn’t allow Riesner to share the writers’ credit with Evans and Gideon (Stand by Me).

The deceptively simple story begins in northern Wisconsin, where an alien probe vehicle, crash lands in a forest. The pilot, who’s literally a small bundle of energy, is on a mission from the mother ship to acknowledge that his civilization had received transmissions from the gold phonographic disk, carried on Voyager 2, and wanted to contact NASA scientists about the digital entreaty for peaceful relations. As could be predicted by any child with a Luke Skywalker action figure, however, Air Force pilots were instructed to shoot it down, instead. Welcome to Earth, sucker. Starman’s first stop is a nearby cabin, where he/she/it assumes the identity of the owner’s husband, who closely resembles Jeff Bridges. Starman is as clueless about the ways of earthlings as Chauncey Gardiner was of political machinations in Being There. The alien has salvaged seven small silver spheres from the ruined probe. He uses the first to send a message to his cohorts alerting them to the hostility displayed by earthlings. He arranges to rendezvous with them in three days’ time at Meteor Crater, just east of Winslow, Arizona. Carpenter, who was eager to shed his image as a maker of exploitative thrillers, decided to emphasize the cross-country rapport that evolves between Starman and Jenny (Karen Allen), over special effects. (Think, a sci-fi version It Happened One Night.) Their journey takes them from the Land of Cheese, through Tennessee, into American Southwest. To solve a problem caused by Jenny’s missing purse, Carpenter adds an unplanned stop in Las Vegas, where the alien plays the slots like a golden fiddle. Finally, there’s a race to get to the crater before a fleet of U.S. Army helicopters. The climax is both appropriate and heart-wrenching. Bridges, who studied the behavior of birds to prepare for his role, received a Best Actor nomination from AMPAS. The Shout!Factory Blu-ray includes the new featurette, “They Came from Hollywood: Re-Visiting Starman,” with Carpenter, Bridges, Charles Martin Smith and script supervisor Sandy King-Carpenter; an older commentary track with Carpenter and Bridges; and a vintage featurette. Because of a brief scene of sexuality, I think Starman almost certainly would be certified PG-13 today, instead of the PG it’s carried since 1984. There’s no real violence or gore, despite an army officer’s desire to obliterate the alien and Jenny before they reach Meteor Crater.

Sleepover: Special Edition: Blu-ray
One of the things that made mainstream movie reviewers want to slit their wrists in the Golden Age of Criticism was being told by their editors that they had to review films for and about teenagers, starring teenage actors, and made on budgets that ensured fair-to-middlin results, at best. The late, great Roger Ebert, eulogized as being “without question the nation’s most prominent and influential film critic,” was 62 when he reviewed Sleepover, a 2004 comedy for and about 14-year-old girls, one of whom would experience a Cinderella moment before the night was over. Another would find a boyfriend who liked her, even though she was overweight, and the popular clique would take it on the chin after a winner-take-all scavenger hunt with a group of girls only slightly less attractive than they are. Roger didn’t have to allot Sleepover, which he would dismiss with a single star, seven thoughtfully rendered paragraphs of opinion, but he did. Maybe, it was because the movie co-starred Jane Lynch, Jeff Garlin and Steve Carell in substantially longer than cameo roles. Stephen Holden, of the august New York Times, was 63 when he gave Sleepover a similarly negative seven-paragraph review. The only favorable review I found was from the Los Angeles Times, by Kevin Thomas, then 68. The Philadelphia Inquirer’s Carrie Rickey, who, in 2004 was one of only a few women writing about movies full-time, didn’t think much of it, either.

I’m not trying to say that Sleepover was a great teen comedy – like, say, Clueless (1995) – or even a good one — like Valley Girl (1983) – or that director Joe Nussbaum and writer Elisa Bell were making points that went over the heads of critics old enough to be the characters’ grandparents. It wasn’t. The point I’m trying to make, if any, is that assigning heavyweight critics to review lightweight movies was, and continues to be, a waste of everyone’s time and brain cells. (For the record, I don’t consider myself to be a heavyweight anything.)The criticism added nothing to their own serious discourse on those movies of the same period that demanded to be taken seriously by teens and adults: Thirteen (2003), Juno (2007), Mean Girls (2004), Hard Candy (2005), Brick (2006) and Easy A (2010). In 2018, Sleepover clone probably would open a cable network, as did Disney Channel’s “High School Musical,” or gone straight-to-DVD/Blu-ray. And, it probably would find its target audience of pubescent and prepubescent girls, who identified with the bright and youthful characters, and some boys intrigued by the whole sleepover mythos, and they probably would have enjoyed it. If anyone cared to analyze it, the reviews would have contextualized the product and probably given it a passing grade. One of the things about the movie I did find noteworthy was the how far the actors have come in 14 years. In 2004, most of the girls played their age — a rarity in teen movies – and looked like high school freshmen. When they wanted to ditch the sleepover and play grownup, one or two of girls would borrow their mom’s makeup and dress the way Mickey Mouse Club graduates do when they go clubbing in Las Vegas. Today, the no-longer-teenage actors are seasoned veterans, approaching 30. (In 2004, some of them already were veterans of sitcoms and made-for-TV movies.) Brie Larson went on to win an Academy Award for Room (2016); Alexa PenaVega won an ALMA for From Prada to Nada (2011); Mika Boorem recently wrote, directed and starred in Hollywood.com; Sara Paxton plays a pivotal role in The Front Runner (2018); Scout Taylor-Compton has six films in post-production; Summer Glau was honored for her work in “Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles”; and Eileen April Boylan was a featured player on “Greek” and “South of Nowhere.” Some have even earned their own pages on Mr. Skin. The young men have done pretty well, too. The Blu-ray adds commentary with Nussbaum and several of the girls; a making-of featurette; ”A Guide to the Perfect Sleepover”; actress profiles; “Sleepover Confessions”; a gag reel; wrap-party reel; and behind-the-scenes photo gallery.

The Jerk: 40th Anniversary Edition: Blu-ray
This well-respected 1979 comedy eased Steve Martin’s transition from standup comedy to big-budget movies. The Jerk may not have cost a fortune to produce, but its success opened doors in Hollywood most people didn’t know existed. Martin’s “happy idiot” Navin Johnson combines elements of  Voltaire’s “Candide” with characters created from his off-the-wall standup routines. Here, it’s the bit in which he plays the adopted son of dirt-poor African-American sharecroppers, who grows up blissfully unaware of the fact that his birth parents were dead, and his skin wouldn’t darken when he turned 18.. The dead giveaway was that Navin wasn’t born with a natural sense of rhythm and only learned how to snap his fingers and tap his feet to a song he hears on the radio, Roger Wolfe Kahn Orchestra’s “Crazy Rhythm.” (How far would that gag play today?) Martin’s offbeat sense of humor was an easy match for the comic timing and sensibility brought to the project by director Carl Reiner and writers Carl Gottlieb and Michael Elias. The idea was for the screenplay to include one big laugh per page, at least, and, of course, some worked better than others. Navin’s relationship with Bernadette Peters’ non-judgmental beauty, Marie, was informed by their own off-screen relationship, which allowed for some funny extemporaneous moments and unforced romantic interludes. I remember my son loving The Jerk on cassette when he was much younger and I have no reason to believe that, apart from some crude language, it couldn’t be enjoyed by families, today. (Feel free to ignore the absurdly prudish R-rating still attached to the movie.) The remastered Blu-ray adds new conversations with Martin and Reiner, and Elias and Gottlieb; a featurette on learning to play “Tonight You Belong to Me” on ukulele; and a funny outtake, “The Lost Film Strips of Father Carlos Las Vegas de Cordova.”

Pick of the Litter
If there’s one thing that dogs have over cats, it’s their willingness to serve as guides and support-animals for humans with impaired vision and separation anxiety. Although I’ve known a few felines that could be described as supportive, the thought of turning a tabby into a guide cat is worthy of an “SNL” sketch. In Pick of the Litter, we’re introduced to Patriot, Potomac, Primrose, Poppet and Phil, five spirited puppies, who, from the moment they’re born, begin a strenuous journey to become guide dogs for the blind. A rigorous two-year process takes the pups from the care of selfless foster volunteers, to specialized trainers and, if they make the cut, a lifelong human companion. At every step of the way, the puppies are tested, challenged, and evaluated.

Charlie Steel
Revenge
The Comedians
The second batch of digitally-remastered movies from Indiepix Films’ “Retro Afrika” series couldn’t possibly be more different than A Dry White Season, which was of the same period and, of course, banned from exhibition in South Africa. Their release on DVD, nearly 30 years after they were pulled from circulation, speaks volumes about one of the lesser tolls of apartheid. In the 1970-80s, black African audiences had little or no access to movie theaters. With the approval of the government, a white construction executive began churning out dozens of genre films, starring Zulu actors and shown in the townships, ostensibly to pacify the masses. The ones I’ve seen resemble serials shown in American theaters in the 1930-40s, except without cliffhanger endings. Everything about them spelled c-h-e-a-p, but, given the lack of alternatives, audiences made the most of what they were given. And, of course, they provided jobs for native African actors and crews, when there were none available anywhere else. I doubt that the audiences were offended by them, either.

In Charlie Steel (1984), Sol Rachilo’s renowned P.I. is called upon to rescue a friend’s daughter (Sonto Mazibuko), who’s kidnapped by a gang demanding a stiff ransom. Charlie infiltrates the gang, but he is betrayed before he can complete his mission. The musical score suggests that Rachilo was familiar with American blaxploitation flicks. (For some reason, the dialogue is in English with English subtitles. The next two titles are in Zulu, with English subtitles.) Coenie Dippenaar’s old-fashioned Western, Revenge, follows a gentle homesteader, whose wife is raped and killed by a gang of desperadoes, while he’s away tending his crop. Their son is injured attempting to protect his mother. The aggrieved husband calls on a retired gunfighter, living nearby, to teach him how to exact revenge and come out standing. The action couldn’t be any more phony – and there’s virtually no bloodshed – but Revenge has a recognizable plot and a satisfying ending. In Japie van der Merwe’s The Comedians a slick-talking conman “borrows” a friend’s magic ring with the intention of using it to become wealthy and impress his wife. The plan works, for a few hours, anyway, but goes astray when the gods who control such things get wind of his greedy desires. The comedy is extremely broad, but the music makes up for bad acting.

Forever My Love: Holiday Classic Edition
Romy Schneider made cinematic history in her career-defining role as Elisabeth Amalie Eugenie, the Bavarian-born princess, who, at 16, married Emperor Franz Joseph I and was immediately thrust into a role for which she wasn’t prepared and didn’t particularly enjoy. Neither was Sissi, as she was casually known, prepared for her domineering mother-in-law, Archduchess Sophie, who would assume the task of raising their children and treat her as an unwanted guest in her own home. As she grew into the role of Empress Elisabeth of Austria (and other principalities), though, Sissi led the kind of life that would fill three movies, released a year apart, nearly a century later. Ernst Marischka’s  trilogy was a hit in theaters and became a popular Christmas presentation on television in German-speaking countries. In 1962, the 5½-hour series — Sissi (1955), Sissi: The Young Empress (1956) and Sissi: Fateful Years of an Empress (1957) — was condensed into a single147-minute, English-language release, Forever My Love. If the that sounds familiar, it’s also the title of Burt Bacharach’s original theme song for the movie. Bonus material includes, “From Romy to Sissi,” a 20-minute making-of featurette and rare footage of Sissi’s great-grandson at the movies, in an excerpt from the documentary Elisabeth: Enigma of an Empress.

TV-to-DVD
Comedy Central: Nathan for You: The Complete Series
Perry Como’s Olde English Christmas
Mantovani: The King of Strings
In the frequently hilarious, often informative and sometimes unnerving docu-reality series, “Nathan for You,” Canadian writer and comedian Nathan Fielder uses his business-school education to help owners of struggling businesses find creative ways to turn a profit. They don’t always work, but nothing ventured, nothing gained … right? One of the show’s long-running story arcs concerns Fielder and his social awkwardness, which bears comparison to Woody Allen’s early schtick. The thing is, though, he never breaks character from his deadpan demeanor and rarely seems terribly concerned about embarrassing his guinea pigs for the sake of the show. “Nathan for You” lasted four years on Comedy Central and probably would have been extended, if Fielder didn’t want to move on to other projects. The episodes look extremely labor-intensive and, for them to work, he had to work with the business owners until the schemes panned out or flopped. That’s expensive. Among the highlights of the nine-disc set are his “infamous” gas-rebate excursion, the grand opening of a Dumb Starbucks franchise and the feature-length series finale, “Finding Frances.” In the cringe-inducing episode, Fielder attempts to help Bill Gates impersonator William Heath reunite with his high school sweetheart, who he ditched to try his luck in Hollywood and has, ever since, regretted losing. Their mission required booking thousands of miles of air travel and weeks spent sharing motel rooms. The deeper they get into the search – using social media, yearbooks and, even, setting up a fake reunion — the less trustworthy and likeable Heath became. At the same time, after Fielder hires an escort simply to be nice to the guy, he begins to fall for her friendly, outgoing approach and underplayed Southern charm. Fielder wasn’t accustomed to such a no-frills, if expensive dating system. Being as inept in his pursuit of companionship as the escort is comfortable in her work, the love connection was never a sure thing. The questions left unanswered include why she agreed to out herself as an escort on television and whether they continued to see each on a non-professional basis. The bonus material adds a deleted scene from “Finding Frances” and commentaries on select episodes.

The names, Perry Como and Mantovani, may not mean much to post-Baby Boomers, but, for an older generation of music lovers, they’re still as familiar as yesterday’s news. In a career that spanned more than a half-century, Como sold millions of records – “Hot Diggety,” “Round and Round,” “Catch a Falling Star,” among them — and pioneered a weekly musical/variety show – “Perry Como’s Kraft Music Hall” (1946-’67) — which became one of the most successful in television history. Likely many such hosts, Mr. C stepped back from the spotlight to allow his guests to shine, getting the biggest laughs and joining him in duets. His smooth, easy-listening, general-audience, slow-flame ballads characterized popular music in the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s. After his show left the air, he’d regularly return to TV in seasonal specials that attracted mainstream audiences, not necessarily interested in whoever’s on “The Sonny & Cher Show” or “Laugh-In.” “Perry Como’s Olde English Christmas” represents his 1977 winter showcase. Among the guests are singers Petula Clark and Leo Sayer, Olympic figure skater John Curry and Irish actress Gemma Craven. Naturally, it’s filled with traditional carols and pop-oriented songs. The DVD adds footage from his television appearances, spanning the 1950s through 1980s.

Annunzio Paolo Mantovani was an Anglo-Italian conductor, composer and arranger of light-orchestra music with an emphasis on “cascading strings.” The reference guide, British Hit Singles & Albums, described Mantovani – single name, please — as “Britain’s most successful album act before the Beatles … the first to sell over a million stereo albums and [have] six albums simultaneously in the U.S. Top 30 in 1959.” From the 1950s to the 1970s, alone, he sold 70 million records. This unexpected documentary, Mantovani: The King of Strings, tells the story of the man and his music.

 

 

The DVD Wrapup: Peppermint, Wild Boys, Un Traductor, Await Instructions, Lizzie, Coby, Afghan Love Story, Elizabeth Harvest, Brutal, Holiday Horror, Sound & Fury … More

Friday, December 14th, 2018

Peppermint: Blu-ray
This isn’t Jennifer Garner’s first rodeo, playing an action heroine. Judging from the meager box-office returns for Peppermint, however, the 46-year-old mother of three might not be too anxious to play another one anytime soon. In Pierre Morel’s paint-by-numbers vigilante thriller, Garner plays Riley North, whose husband and young daughter are gunned down in front of her, on the orders of a drug-cartel boss, because he refused to participate in a transaction. After spending time in a drug-induced coma, Riley agrees to testify against the assailants, who she identified from a lineup. Before the case even reaches a jury, the gunmen are inexplicably cleared by the judge. After laying low for several years, preparing to exact her own justice on the people who killed her family, Riley returns to town a trained killer and martial-arts expert. At 5-foot-8, Garner is no less credible a vigilante than Liam Neeson, at 6-4. In no time at all, Riley mows her way through the underbrush of cartel, legal and judicial flunkies she blames for allowing the guilty punks to walk free. A bit more planning will be necessary to eliminate the gang’s top dogs and an unspecified police detective aligned with them. According to the people who keep track of such trivia, Riley kills 43 people in Peppermint, including five more off-screen. Although Morel (Taken) and writer Chad St. John (London Has Fallen) devised some entertaining assassinations for Riley to execute, such over-the-top violence no longer shocks action-genre audiences. The final confrontation is even less surprising. J.J. Abrams, creator of “Alias” (2001), made far better use of Garner’s physical gifts and dance background. Riley also is far less interesting than the neurotic character she plays in the offbeat HBO comedy, “Camping.” I would pay good money, however, to watch the former Mrs. Affleck channel her character in Peppermint and kick the crap out of the paparazzi who constantly dog her family. The Blu-ray adds the featurette, “Justice,” and commentary by Morel.

The Wild Boys
Bertrand Mandico’s debut feature, The Wild Boys, is the kind of movie that causes a sensation at film festivals – fantasy, underground, LGBTQ – but doesn’t have a prayer of finding distribution beyond the most adventurous of arthouse theaters. Maybe in the late-’60s and early-’70s, but not since then, really. As marketing budgets began to approach those of production costs, the risks required of exhibitors to find audiences for niche titles became prohibitive. Worse, in the ’00s, when newspapers and magazines began laying off serious critics, space once reserved for coverage of indie, foreign and documentary titles disappeared, as well. Today, the good news comes in knowing that the vacuum is being filled by independent distributors and streaming services that have figured out how to sate the appetite of arthouse audiences and not go broke trying … not that several haven’t. The Wild Boys found its way into my mailbox without any fanfare, whatsoever. I knew nothing of Mandico’s previous work and, in any case, I try not to read reviews before I slide a DVD into the slot. I thought I was ready for anything, but I wasn’t prepared for The Wild Boys.

It opens with a flash-forward, on a beach, where a group of debauched sailors attack the first person they see – an androgynous blond boy, who appears to have a single female breast and penis – ravishing him as if he were a piece of meat and they were a pack of feral dogs. The story then takes a step backward in time to an open-air classroom, where five adolescent boys are reciting lines from “Macbeth,” under the watchful eye of their teacher. Curiously, they’re wearing masks reminiscent of those worn by cannibals in Borneo, while attacking a rival tribe. When the boys tire of the exercise, they turn on the teacher (Nathalie Richard), ripping off her expensive clothes and raping her. Finally, they tie her naked body to the back of a white horse and let it wander away. As it turns out, these wild, unrepentant boys are all from good families and acting, they believed, as agents of the deity of chaos, TREVOR, who came to them in the form of a bejeweled skull. They told the court that their teacher had gotten them drunk and enticed them with her beauty, which, of course, is a lie. Nonetheless, they are turned over to the brutal Le Capitaine (Sam Louwyck), skipper of a 19th Century schooner, Cold World. He’s widely known for an ability to pacify disobedient youths and for setting them on the straight-and-narrow path. It’s better for their  parents not to ask too many questions about how he accomplishes it. Their destination is a tropical Arcadia – the coordinates are tattooed on his penis — that, normally, would fit most people’s concept of an island paradise. (It was filmed on Reunion Island.) As the captain leads the boys through the lush, overgrown jungle, past cascading waterfalls and steep cliffs created by volcanic eruptions, it only appears as if their ordeal is ending. The foliage is either distinctly phallic – discharging a milky ambrosia that nourishes and sedates – or it approximates the spread legs of a woman with engorged vulva. Le Capitaine encourages his captives to take advantage of the flora’s properties, while they can. The island’s sensory peculiarities and erotic pleasures disguise the fact that their ordeal is only just beginning.

While the other boys sleep and dream, Hubert (Diane Rouxel) follows Le Capitaine on one of his strolls to a small pond, where he’s greeted by a mysterious scientist, Séverine (Elina Löwensohn), to whom he delivers candidates for her research. When Hubert is caught spying on their violent coupling, he runs into the adhesive webbing of a large plant, not unlike a Venus flytrap, from which he can’t pry himself loose. Séverine explains to Hubert that the island is like a giant oyster, whose reproductive organs contain both eggs and sperm, and she’s the pearl. She will take him under her wing, while the other boys head for the boat for the transformative voyage home. Although they aren’t completely aware of the changes, the boys (all of whom are played by young actress with short hair) are developing breasts and losing their manhood … literally and figuratively. Shortly after leaving the island, a storm nearly causes the ship to capsize. In the turmoil, the boys expend what’s left of their virility to mutiny. Instead of home, however, the storm carries them back to the island, where the truth finally hits them. In the case of Tanguy (Anaël Snoek), the boy on the beach in the opening scene, the metamorphosis is only halfway successful. All along, Mandico and DP Pacale Granel’s palette alternates between black-and-white and color imagery, although I don’t exactly know why one is chosen over the other. The writer/director (“Prehistoric Cabaret”) admits to being an avid student of Polish surrealist Walerian Borowczyk (Goto, Island of Love), which makes sense, and thanks William Burroughs and Jules Verne in the end credits. Mandico’s in-camera effects in b&w will remind cinephiles of Jean Cocteau, while he probably also owes a debt to Alejandro Jodorowsky, Luis Buñuel, André Breton, Guy Maddin, Jean Genet and, of course, William Golding (“Lord of the Flies”). The Wild Boys is decidedly not for everyone, but what is, anymore? The DVD includes a behind-the-scenes featurette, deleted scenes, fold-out-poster insert and reversible artwork.

Un Traductor
It isn’t often that American audiences are exposed to the everyday lives of middle-class Cubans and issues affecting them, beyond the struggle to find enough decent food to buy in stores and find safe ways to exit the island. Much of what happens in Rodrigo and Sebastián Barriuso’s directorial debut, Un Traductor, from a script by Lindsay Gossling, takes place in a neighborhood that resembles a suburb in the U.S. or Europe. You know it’s Cuba by the ancient American automobiles, held together by duct tapes and dozens of coats of paint. In the wake of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, Malin (Rodrigo Santoro), a Russian literature professor at the University of Havana, is sent to a respected local hospital to translate between Cuban doctors and children sent from the USSR for medical treatment. Torn from the abstract world of academia and forced into the relentlessly real world of medicine, Malin becomes increasingly depressed. The hours don’t correspond to those when if wife and son are at home, and many of the children suffering from radiation poisoning will die, thousands of miles from home, some without their parents at their side. The hospital, we’re told, is one of the best facilities in the world for such patients to be treated, but the extent of the damage is obvious on their bodies and in their eyes. When Malin’s wife, Isona (Yoandra Suárez), becomes pregnant, against his wishes, a rift between them grows to the breaking point.

It is at about this point in the narrative when Malin discovers something redemptive in his work that benefits himself and the patients, if not Isona directly. By encouraging the kids to record their thoughts and observations in words and art, he’s able to utilize his skills and bring them a modicum of happiness. By this time, however, Isona and their son have moved out of the house. Coincidentally, in eastern Europe, the Iron Curtain is being demolished by proponents of freedom and democracy. This causes a panic in Cuba, whose economy was, for decades, propped up by the Soviet Union. With the Cold War over, it isn’t likely that Moscow will continue its expensive investment in the blockaded isle. Malin uses the lessons he learns at the hospital, working with the children and their parents, to attempt to repair the wounds suffered by his wife and son. It allows for a happy ending. The full story doesn’t end there, however. In the epilogue, viewers are informed of the Barriusos’ familial bonds to Malin and Isona and what happened to them in the years that followed. Also good here is Maricel Álvarez, who plays the Argentine nurse to whom Malin is assigned and sometimes finds it necessary to keep him from wallowing in self-pity. The short subject included on the DVD is Rodrigo Barriuso’s award-winning “For Dorian,” in which a father fearfully anticipates the sexual awakening of his son, a teenager living with Down syndrome, and struggles with the notion of letting him grow up on his own terms.

Await Further Instructions
For as long as television audiences have been required to install a set-top box to receive programming from cable, satellite and streaming services, conspiracy theorists have warned that someday they will be able to spy on us. This, in addition to collecting the usual data gathered for Nielsen ratings and viewer demographics. Theoretically, set-top boxes could just as easily control what channels and commercials we watch, and decide the shows recorded on our VCRs. As far as I know, this dire scenario has yet to materialize, at least to the extent that Facebook and other social-media networks have learned to exploit data-gathering technology. Johnny Kevorkian (The Disappeared), working from a script by freshman screenwriter Gavin Williams, expands the conspiracy theory to lengths explored previously by David Cronenberg in Videodrome. When the software installed in Big Brother’s delivery system decides to take over the lives of unsuspecting consumers, there will be nothing we can do about it. That’s the basic premise behind Await Further Instructions, but the truly scary stuff doesn’t begin until almost 75 minutes into its 91-minute length. Until then, the characters are required to endure a different, if no less disturbing kind of horror.

With Christmas and Boxing Day right around the corner, Nick Milgram (Sam Gittins) agrees to spend the two-day holiday with his family, for the first time in three years. His Anglo-Indian girlfriend, Annji (Neerja Naik), wants to meet his North Yorkshire family and, against his better judgment, he acquiesces. Nick’s father, grandfather, sister and brother are garden-variety British racists and blame immigrants for all the country’s recent ills. His mom’s just happy her son is home and welcomes Annji to their home. Grandpa (David Bradley) is disgustingly upfront with his prejudices. Sister Kate (Holly Weston), who’s pregnant, isn’t at all reluctant to diss foreign-born doctors and nurses, including those who might help deliver her baby in two weeks. Annji explains that she’s a doctor and as much a British citizen as Kate is, but logic never trumps bigotry. While playing Scrabble, Kate goes so far as to challenge Annji’s choice of words she doesn’t recognize. She considers them to be foreign and against the rules. In both instances, she’s wrong. When Nick asks Kate to stop badgering Annji, things go from bad to worse. Early the next morning, when they attempt to escape the madhouse, they’re blocked by an impenetrable barrier that, they’ll learn, covers every window and door. Before long, notices appear on the television advising viewers not to panic and follow subsequent instructions to the letter. This includes injecting themselves with a substance that arrives in previously used syringes and quarantining anyone who refuses to obey. Being a doctor, Annji advises against using the unsanitary needles to inject an unspecified “vaccine” into the arms.

Nick’s martinet father and doofus brother-in-law (Grant Masters, Kris Saddler) demand that everyone in the family obey the orders, no matter that Grandpa gets sick and dies after being injected. They also blame Annji for entering the house with a slight cold and possibly contaminating the family. She begrudgingly agrees to be quarantined, even though she’s the only one there with  medical training. There will be several more instructions to come. Because everything in Await Further Instructions takes place under one roof, it’s impossible for them to know if anyone else in the neighborhood is being affected in the same way or they’re the only ones. In no time, the tension caused by the claustrophobic surroundings becomes almost unbearable. It’s at this point, that Kevorkian unleashes his nightmare scenario and pulls viewers into  it. You’ll never look at your television in the same way, again. The DVD adds interviews and background material.

An Afghan Love Story
Throughout much of the first half of Barmak Akram’s gripping, anti-romantic drama, An Afghan Love Story (a.k.a., “Wajma”), viewers are given reason to hope that the movie’s central dilemma won’t end tragically or thwarted by morality police assigned to enforce Sharia-law dictates. We watch as 20-year-old student, Wajma, cautiously opens her heart to a gregarious waiter, Mustafa, knowing that even a shared kiss in public is forbidden by law. Wajma wears a headscarf or shayla, at all times, but not a burka, niqab or chador as the Taliban would have insisted during their time in power. She travels around the city by herself and attends social functions without  a male escort. Wajma and Mustafa are happy in each other’s company and, eventually, risk cuddling in the apartment he shares with his brothers and mother. They couldn’t have done this at Wajma’s modest home, where her mother and grandmother are mostly housebound, by choice, and fearful of her newfound freedom. It isn’t until later, when the hummus hits the fan, that we learn just how strict her father (Haji Gul Aser) can be when it comes to adhering to Islamic tenets, which include dominating women in his family. It comes as a surprise for us to learn that at some point, off-screen, Wajma gave in to Mustafa’s incessant pleading and had intercourse with him. We learn the truth after reading the look on her face when she submits to a blood test and learns that she’s pregnant. When the news reaches her father, who’s supervising mine-clearing operations outside Kabul, we’re also given a sliver of hope that he’ll adopt a modern position on the situation and spare Wajma the punishments Sharia law dictate for such infractions. Instead, for the crime of disgracing his good name, he whips her with his belt, threatens to kill her and locks her in a shed. He also berates his wife, for permitting their daughter the freedom to go out at night, alone, and their son, for not guarding her against such temptations.

After scanning her cellphone records, the father learns where to find Wajma’s lover. True to his weaselly nature, Mustafa defends himself by pointing out that she wasn’t a virgin when they met each other and, moreover, she can’t prove that he was the only man with whom she had sex during their time together. Typically, women are held responsible for tempting a man to stray, even when it comes to rape. In any case, Mustafa refuses to marry Wajma and that’s that. Instead of beating the wimp into agreeing to marriage, the father takes his complaint to a prosecutor. Although, under certain circumstance, the law would permit him to kill his daughter for committing adultery and dishonoring him, he could jailed and prosecuted for killing the guitar-playing waiter, without eye-witness evidence of them having sex. At this point in An Afghan Love Story, viewers don’t know whether it will end tragically, as we saw in The Stoning of Soraya M. (2008), or sadly, as in such films as A Separation (2011) and Persepolis (2007). We know that abortion is illegal in Afghanistan, but wonder if a compromise, however unsatisfying, might save Wajma from further harm. By this time, viewers will have taken her dilemma to heart and begun to pray that the movie’s absentee God will return in time to save her. Spoiler alert: the prayers and tears with share with Wajma, as the movies comes to a close, won’t necessarily be those triggered great sadness, except as it pertains to the state of the world in 2018.

Elizabeth Harvest: Blu-ray
It’s a conceit that’s stood the test of time, but never feels old: a wealthy gentleman returns to his mansion from somewhere faraway, with his much younger bride in tow. After she bathes and enjoys a lavish meal, he takes her on a tour of her new home. She marvels at the luxurious quarters and such unexpected pleasures as a swimming pool, spa and magnificent views. Approaching a locked door, the man cautions his precocious wife to mind one order: although she’s been given keys to every door, drawer and safe, the woman must never, ever use them to attempt to gain access to this particular room. She’s given no reason for the edict or hint of the room’s contents, but the husband couldn’t sound more adamant. Given that much information, viewers know exactly what’s going to happen as soon as he leaves town on business and the servants have been sent home. In Sebastian Gutierrez’ sumptuous thriller, Elizabeth Harvest, the title character is a tall, willowy redhead, Elizabeth (Abbey Lee), who look like a fashion model who’s just reached the age of consent. Her husband, Henry, a brilliant scientist husband played ominously by Ciarán Hinds – where could they possibly have met? — displays the practiced manners of Count Dracula. The house staff, portrayed by Carla Gugino and Matthew Beard, appear to reserve their opinions of the child bride, as if they’ve witnessed the exact same scenario unfold in the past … which, of course, they have. It should come as no surprise to learn that the forbidden room is where Henry conducts his scientific experiments and there’s a very good reason for wanting to keep them secret from the outside world.

Not only has a security system registered the unlocking of the door, but she’s also left behind evidence of the breach. The twist comes soon thereafter, with the revelation that another young bride, and, perhaps, more than one, opened the same door and paid a steep price for doing so. Why Henry hasn’t devised a better way to secure the room is a question that goes unanswered, except to suggest that the supremely aloof scientist is a sadist with unlimited access to beautiful young redheads. Bingo. Gutierrez and Gugino have collaborated previously on Hotel Noir (2012), Girl Walks into a Bar (2011), Elektra Luxx (2010), Women in Trouble (2009), Rise: Blood Hunter (2007), Judas Kiss (1998) and an episode of “Karen Sisco.” She’s the rare Hollywood actress who alternates between roles in which her characters are sexy, maternal, subservient, heroic, fully clothed throughout and occasionally naked. In Elizabeth Harvest, Gutierrez has reserved most of the scenes requiring graphic nudity and slinky lingerie to Lee, who’s demonstrated her ability to act naked and clothed in Welcome the Stranger (2018) and Neon Demon (2016), and as a road warrior in Mad Max: Fury Road (2015). As a vehicle for sci-fi suspense and concrete-and-glass architecture, Elizabeth Harvest reminds me of Ex Machina (2015). Gutierrez has said that he was inspired by the French folktale, “Bluebeard.” The Blu-ray add a making-of featurette.

I Still See You: Blu-ray
Although she’s only recently reached the ripe old age of 21, Bella Thorne already has more than 80 credits listed on the IMDB.com website, dating back to 2003 and not counting the dozens of appearances she’s made as herself in various entertainments. Like so many other graduates of the Disney Channel factory —  she was CeCe Jones on “Shake It Up” – Thorne could hardly wait until she was 18 to cast off her G-rated personae and show off her boobs, piercings, tattoos and lingerie to anyone with an Internet browser. Thorne came out as bisexual in 2015 and, last year, revealed that she was in a relationship with Internet personality Tana Mongeau. Tres, tres naughty. Although she’s blessed with  long red hair, Thorne went Goth in Scott Speer’s supernatural thriller, I Still See You, sporting a spooky black wig, and clothes that are best described as fashionably drab. Adapted from Daniel Waters’ novel “Break My Heart One Thousand Times,” by screenwriter Jason Fuchs (Ice Age: Continental Drift), I Can Still See You is a ghost story for the YA audience, in which the spirits of people killed in an explosive chemical disaster, 10 years earlier, co-mingle with the living and don’t worry much about being seen by more than one human at a time. Some of the non-sentient “remnants” reappear at specific times each day, repeating patterns engrained in them before they died. Early on, high school student Veronica Calder (Thorne) asks her mother why they don’t acknowledge her dead father’s daily presence at their breakfast table reading the newspaper and minding his own business. Another remnant, Brian (Thomas Elms), takes the liberty of making himself known to Veronica while she’s taking a shower at home. After Thorne befriends local bad boy Kirk (Richard Harmon), they set out to solve a mystery involving the murder of Pastor Greer’s daughter, Mary, for which Brian has long been blamed. The evidence: he’s weird and was found dead, apparently of suicide, on the same day as the girl was killed. Case closed. The teen sleuths enlist Brian’s assistance in figuring out what really happened to Mary and other girls who’ve gone missing. It takes them into a netherworld, between heaven and earth, inhabited by ghosts who’ve yet to come to grips with their own demise. It’s a promising premise, but I think Speer wrestled with staying true to the novel and its many interrelated storylines and it impacted negatively on the sustainability of tension. Because I Still See You lasted little more than a heartbeat in theaters – doing better in foreign markets – it begs the question as to whether the less-than-than dynamic Thorne can open a picture, or she should stick to making music videos, such as “Bella Thorne: Pussy Mine” “Bella Thorne: GOAT” and “Bitch I’m Bella Thorne.” Co-stars also include Dermot Mulroney, Amy Price-Francis and Hugh Dillon. The Blu-ray adds commentary with Speer and Thorne; deleted scenes, with Speer’s optional commentary; and the featurettes, “Remnants: Manifesting I Still See You” and “Break My Heart 1,000 Times: Novel to Screen.”

The Sound and the Fury
Although his artistic ambitious aren’t always rewarded with critical praise, no one should criticize James Franco for going where most Hollywood filmmakers and studio executives fear to tread. No one throws great sums of money at him, or twists his arm, to faithfully adapt novels that most people agree are unfilmable or dramatize the trials and tribulations of poets, such as Hart Crane, Alan Ginsberg and Charles Bukowski. Made in 2014 and only now released on DVD here, Franco’s take on William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury followed directly in the wake of his As I Lay Dying, with 15 other films, TV shows and shorts falling in between them on his resume. Yet to come are performances in “A Rose for Emily” and “Mississippi Requiem,” a collection of four short films based on Faulkner stories. The Sound and the Fury is set in Jefferson, a town in Yoknapatawpha County, Mississippi. It centers on the Compsons, former Southern aristocrats, struggling to deal with the dissolution of their wealth and family, their tarnished reputation and once-expansive property. The novel and movie reveal the secrets and betrayals that have diminished the family name and continue to haunt the Compson children. Franco plays Benjy, the mentally impaired brother of Jason IV (Scott Haze) and Quentin Compson (Jacob Loeb). No one in the family is particularly normal – unless one considers the family’s longtime servant, Dilsey (Loretta Devine) – and Benjy’s facial deformities and barely existent IQ have must him a pariah within his own family. He has no friends, except for Dilsey’s son, who enjoys taunting and scaring Benjy when he’s unable to follow directions. The story is loosely told from four different points of view, with occasional visits paid by characters played by Tim Blake Nelson, Ahna O’Reilly,  Joey King , Janet Jones, Dwight Henry, Danny McBride and Seth Rogen. The critics weren’t terribly impressed by either adaptation, but most gave Franco for trying, anyway.

Lizzie: Blu-ray
The events leading up to the ax murders of Andrew and Abby Borden, on August 4, 1892, inside the house at 92 Second Street, in Fall River, Massachusetts, have been dramatized and analyzed so often that it hardly seems possible to find anything new there. And, while Craig William Macneill’s historical drama, Lizzie, from a screenplay by Bryce Kass, doesn’t shed much new light on one of this country’s most notorious crimes, it offers plenty to recommend it. In the same way that “Masterpiece” uses superior staging and first-class acting to breathe new life into period dramas, Lizzie benefits most from the performances of Chloë Sevigny and Kristen Stewart, as the presumed killer, Lizzie, and the family’s Irish maid, Bridget Sullivan, respectively. Jamey Sheridan plays the verbally and sexually abusive Andrew Borden, whose wealth can be attributed, in part, to his notoriously extreme thriftiness and greed. Lizzie’s dowdy stepmother, Abby, is played by the formidable Irish actress Fiona Shaw, and her largely absentee sister, Emma, is portrayed by Kim Dickens. Adding to the intrigue is her devious and possibly culpable Uncle John, played by Denis O’Hare. At the narrative’s core is the growing love between Lizzie and Bridget, whose only real connection is their loathing for Andrew. When they’re together, however, sparks fly. One would vouch for the other in court and, according to the epilogue, at least, remain lovers for a short time afterwards. It’s the most theoretical aspect to the story.

New Wave: Dare to Be Different
There was a time, not so long ago, when AM radio ruled the airwaves and FM radio was reserved for pay-for-play shows catering to  ethnic communities, who used it as a combination jukebox and community bulletin board. After the first British Invasion, handfuls of rock-’n’-roll obsessives took over the FM bandwidths to play the music they wanted to hear, without commercial interruptions or concern for the length of an individual cut. It flourished to the point where radio manufacturers found it necessary to add an FM band to the AM stations that once dominated air play. By the mid-1970s, however, corporate interests took control of free-form radio stations and turned them into imitations of the overly formatted AM stations young people rejected a decade earlier. Today, of course, streaming services and Internet stations answer the demands of radio listeners, who turned to tape decks and satellite radio to meet their demands. Ellen Goldfarb’s nostalgia-inducing New Wave: Dare to Be Different documents the rise and fall of one of the most groundbreaking stations of the FM era. In spring of 1970, a couple of aspiring rock deejays on Long Island decided to take a page from Radio Luxembourg and England’s offshore stations, which broke the BBC’s cultural blockade on pop music years earlier. At the time, WLIR-FM served a small audience of classical-music buffs and Broadway-musical lovers. Its range was miniscule by AM standards, but its audience was demographically correct. Throughout the decade, it found an audience playing album-oriented and progressive rock, with laid-back disc jockeys, and live concerts. As the station’s popularity grew, its focus shifted to punk rock and new-wave genres, but it lost talent to larger stations in the metro area.

In August 1982, program director Denis McNamara advanced another format shift, this one conforming to WLIR’s Dare to Be Different campaign. Its flexible playlist added new wave, synthpop, post-punk, early alternative rock acts and novelty records. Once again, the jocks would do an end run around the mega-stations in New York City, their inflexible programmers and label weasels, who released cuts from foreign and regional sensations on their own timetables. It out-hustled the biggies by having records from emerging acts in England flown into the U.S. and picked up at local airports, almost immediately after they broke across the pond. It put LI listeners on the same page as their counterparts in Europe. As WLIR’s profits grew, so did interest in a long-simmering battle with the FCC over its 15-year “temporary” license. In 1987, it became a victim of its own success. Although the story doesn’t end there, New Wave: Dare to Be Different does. Goldfarb rounded up program director Denis McNamara, the ’LIR crew and prominent artists of the period to tell the story of how they battled the FCC, record labels, corporate-radio and all the conventional rules to create a musical movement that brought New Music to Long Island. Among the artists represented in New Wave: Dare to Be Different are Joan Jett and the Blackhearts, U2, Talking Heads, Depeche Mode, Blondie, Duran Duran, Tears for Fears, The Clash and The Cure. The DVD adds extended interviews with musicians, deejays and executives. The problem is that Goldfarb pretty much ignores the station’s decade-earlier success and similar strategies employed by Los Angles’ KROQ and other alternative stations already promoting British groups. It’s not their story, however. In 2009, Richard Curtis’s Pirate Radio dramatized the offshore revolution by British deejays, who, in the 1960s, broadcast from derelict ships in the English Channel and North Sea and forced the BBC to recognize rock music and its fans.

Deadman Standing
If, Heaven forfend, CBS Entertainment ever decides to reboot its “Gunsmoke” franchise, it would have to do so without James Arness and Amanda Blake in tow. The producers of Deadman Standing, which arrived on DVD this week, inadvertently pose a solution to that dilemma.  Based on the actual Gunfight at Hyde Park, in 1871, in Newton, Kansas, the straight-to-DVD movie describes a massacre that produced one of the highest casualty counts of any gunfight in the Old West. Newton isn’t all that far from Dodge City, after all, and it’s conceivable that Viva Bianca’s red-haired brothel-owner, Rosie, could be the love child of Marshall Dillon and Miss Kitty. Luke Arnold’s staunch lawman, Mike McCluskie (Luke Arnold)   and his tubercular deputy, James Riley (Quinn Lord), who reportedly registered the highest body count, wouldn’t be around to fill Marshall Dillon’s shoes, either. Perhaps, though, a stepchild or nephew could be invented to wear the star and be Rosie’s confidante and secret lover. As it is, however, Deadman Standing presents a reasonably entertaining re-construction of the events that led to the shootout. In it, the burnt-out McCluskie is forced to protect his town as the deepening divide between railroad workers and Texas cattlemen terrorizing the citizens of Hyde Park grows to crisis proportions. McCluskie calls on the support of Rosie and terminally ill Riley, to encourage citizens to rally against the gun-crazy Anderson family, who’ve used the railroad tracks to divide the city in half and can’t stand being told what to do. When one of the sons is humiliated in a standoff and incarcerated, the old man swears to take it out on anyone who stands in his way. Hence, the shootout. As has become the norm in contemporary Westerns, all the male characters look as if they haven’t visited their local barber since they reached puberty or, for that matter, only take baths and change clothes when Rosie’s unusually gorgeous prostitutes insist on it. While it adds an air of verisimilitude to the movie, the characters’ intensely shaggy visages make one feel sorry for the whores, one of whom (Aly Mang) is sliced up by one of the Andersons. One thing leads to another and the sickly deputy – who’s fallen in love with the defiled prostitute – is the last man standing.

Coby
A Moment in the Reeds
My Best Friend
Once again, this week, releases of interest to the LGBTQ community have arrived in DVD, thanks to the efforts of foreign-based filmmakers and niche distributors here. French-based Christian Sonderegger’s Coby chronicles his American half-brother’s transition from Suzanna Hunt to Coby Hunt. It combines excerpts from Coby’s ongoing Internet diary with candid, heartfelt interviews from his closest friends, co-workers and family members. Although Suzanna/Coby’s parents admit to resisting their child’s decision early, their attitudes had changed substantially by the time Sonderegger’s imported production team arrived in Chagrin Falls, Ohio. They still, at first glance, occasionally see the girl in Coby, before they recognize the man he’s become, but, then, so does he. The most surprising moments come when Coby’s girlfriend tells him that any thoughts of their bringing a child into the world would be fulfilled if he agreed to use his still-viable ovaries to carry it, a proposition that he explores. Apart from the divisive debate that our President has injected into the debate, Coby provides a refreshingly intimate and sensitive look at the timely subject. When Coby finally is recognized formally as male, and he’s required to register for the draft, it’s difficult not to see the irony in President Trump’s bigoted decision to reverse past gains in that area. While trans-men and trans-women seemingly are obligated to register for the draft, they could be forbidden from serving if it’s ever re-instituted. The Film Movement DVD includes deleted scenes.

In writer/director Mikko Makela’s feature debut, A Moment in the Reeds, Leevi (Janne Puustinen) takes a break from his Paris studies to help his estranged father renovate the family’s lake house in Savitaipale, Finland. The tension between them is palpable, if understated on Leevi’s part. The largely affectless old man, however, can’t resist taunting his son over his lack of skills, when it comes to carpentry and other manly pursuits. Jouko (Mika Melender) blames Leevi’s inadequacies for having to hire an immigrant Syrian handyman – trained as an architect – to expedite the work. Jouko immediately doubts that Tareq (Boodi Kabbani) is up for the task, simply because of the color of his skin. That opinion will change when Tareq readily agrees to Jouko’s demands for long hours – this far north in the hemisphere, the summer sun tends to linger in the sky —  and meets his specifications for precise measures and carpentry. It will come as no surprise to viewers, when, after Jouko leaves to attend to business in the city, the blond-haired, ivory-skinned Leevi becomes closer-than-close friends with the handsome young handyman. Their graduation into a sexual relationship comes after sharing a sauna, bathing in the lake and listen to Jouko’s old 78s. They discuss what it’s like to be gay in a country whose laws are dedicated by Islamic principles and having fundamentalist parents. No matter how cold it gets in Finland, Tareq is afforded the freedom to live on his terms. He wonders what it’s like to live in Paris, where racism is far less an issue than it is Scandinavia. Jouka’s appreciation of Tareq’s work supersedes his suspicions over their growing friendship and sleeping provisions. When, however, he returns from the city early and notices that some scheduled painting hadn’t been done, the racist and homophobic garbage rises to the surface. Some viewers might attribute Jouko’s slow burn to Finnish cultural norms, and Makela probably would agree that he fits certain stereotypes. That includes firing Tareq on the spot and refusing to pay him for work done and providing him with a reference. Leevi’s reaction to the rant also is predictably sad, as a growing friendship was nipped in the bud and his estrangement from Jouko probably will now be permanent. Whether Tareq will ever be accepted as a hard-working immigrant in his adopted country, or as a homosexual by his family, when and if they survive the refugees’ flight from Syria to Finland, is left open to question. The pastoral setting for romance and drama could hardly be lovelier in this Wild Beast DVD/Blu-ray.

In Martín Deus and Breaking Glass’ My Best Friend, Lorenzo (Angelo Mutti Spinetta) is a quiet teenager living with his family in Argentinian Patagonia, which, while incredibly beautiful, exists at the edge of the known world. One day, Lorenzo’s father announces that a friend’s son, Caíto (Lautaro Rodríguez), will be arriving soon from the north and move in with them while his parents sort out a tricky situation back home. It’s rocky going at first and the boys don’t have much in common, but Lorenzo makes excuses for Caito when his parents try and fail to maintain a curfew and other house rules. As the macho guest lowers his emotional barriers, Lorenzo learns the real reason Caito was forced to leave home and will have a difficult time returning to Buenos Aires. Meanwhile, Caito’s predicament forces Lorenzo’s parents to reopen a dark chapter of their past, which they would rather not remember.

Along With the Gods: The Last 49 Days: Blu-ray
As fans of Pacific Rim fantasy epics might already know, Along With the Gods: The Last 49 Days is Kim Yong-hwa’s sequel to his hugely popular holiday feature, Along With the Gods: The Two Worlds (2017), which, itself, was adapted from the well-known Korean webtoon, “Along With the Gods.” Being shot back-to-back allowed a quick and profitable turnaround for the follow-up. In the original, firefighter Kim Ja-hong (Cha Tae-Hyun) died heroically while saving a child in a great blaze. After being taken to the afterlife by three guardians, Kim’s still required to pass seven trials necessary to prove he lived a noble life and will he be allowed to reincarnate. Along With the Gods: The Last 49 Days picks up where “The Two Worlds” left off, with several trials still awaiting completion. In doing so, Kim and the guardians come face to face with the buried truth of their tragic time on Earth, a thousand years ago, culminating in a final battle with a rogue deity. We learn more about the past lives of the guardians, while being introduced the new gods, including Ma Dong-seok’s Kitchen God. For the record, the seven trials required of Kim take place in (in order):Hell of Murder, where judges determine if your past actions influenced someone’s death; Hell of Indolence, where judges determine if the noble life given to the subject was wasted; Hell of Deceit, where lies told in one’s life are measured; Hell of Injustice, which investigates a candidate’s refusal to help those in need, especially for selfish gains; Hell of Betrayal, for the cold-hearted souls, who betrayed another’s faith or trust; Hell of Violence, where physical attacks on others are judged; and Hell of Filial Impiety, which determines if the candidate  dishonored or disrespected parents, elders and ancestors. Both films feature extravagant special effects and CGI. Bother are available in DVD/Blu-ray from Well Go USA. The bonus material adds character introductions and a production documentary.

Call of the Undead
Brutal: Blu-ray
Freshman filmmaker Joe Chen’s Call of the Undead, from the always dependable Wild Eye Releasing (Jurassic Shark, Mrs. Claus), easily transcends the so-bad-it’s-good distinction, by being so bad, it’s hysterical … an instant classic. It’s good/bad in the same way that Woody Allen’s What’s Up, Tiger Lily? (1966) was good/bad. For those who only know him from allegations of child abuse and other reported indiscretions, Allen made his directorial debut by taking the Japanese action film, Key of Keys (1965), and re-dubbing it to make the plot revolve around a secret egg-salad recipe. I don’t know what Chen had in mind when he made Call of the Undead, but the translation into English provides only half the hilarity. The rest comes in a Zombie Apocalypse non-thriller whose plot required a bevy of hot topless ghouls, a drug-dealing fatso cut from the mold of Gary Oldman’s, Drexl Spivey, in True Romance (1993), and a gigantic SOS formation created from dead bodies. And, that’s only for starters. A virus breaks out in a cartel-controlled city, either in Japan or Taiwan (it’s hard to tell which one), turning its residents into violent, bloodthirsty maniacs. The military teams dispatched to evacuate residents quickly become trapped between the violent criminals and an army of undead. When the obese leader of the cartel, surrounded by cocaine-snorting, barely dressed women, realizes that he can’t stave off the zombies, alone, he offers to lend his soldiers to the army to fight their way through the city before the infected can stop them. If that weren’t enough, several of the heavily armed female soldiers are dressed in uniforms that could double for go-go outfits. The dubbed dialogue is every bit as ludicrous. It’s impossible to say with any certainty whether what’s being said in English mirrors that of what Chinese or Japanese audiences heard in its original state, but I doubt if a different script would have made things that much more coherent. In any case, it’s perfect the way it is.

Far less amusing, but every bit as outrageous is Takashi Hirose’s Brutal, which combines torture-porn aesthetics with grindhouse visuals to create a story that’s shocking, if not terribly disturbing, unless one cares about the future of the horror genre. Gallons of fake blood are spilled in a story about a seriously overweight and antisocial serial killer who toys with the women he captures before bludgeoning and stabbing them to death. Rape isn’t part of the punishment, for reasons that will become obvious later in the 83-minute bloodbath. On the other side of town, a beautiful young woman is doing the same things for disturbingly similar reasons. Naturally, the psychopaths find each other and attempt to work out their problems in the only way they know how. Alas, that’s all Brutal has to offer viewers. Some might think that the big reveal is worth the effort it takes to get there, but … well, I wouldn’t want to share the same Uber with them on the way home. The DVD adds a somewhat useful behind-the-scenes featurette and three music videos.

Silent Night, Deadly Night, Part 2: Collector’s Edition: Blu-ray
Maniac: 3-Disc Limited Edition: Blu-ray
Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation: Collector’s Edition: Blu-ray
The Mangler: Blu-ray
Death House
Evil Dead 2: Blu-ray/4K UHD
Christmas may not be the season for movies that are soaked in blood, gore and horror, but that hasn’t stopped distributors of restored classics — I use the word advisedly – from running them up the flag pole and seeing who salutes them. Bored Internet bloggers have even begun sending out their lists of the 10, 17 or 25 Best Christmas Horror Movies, some stretching the premise to include Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut, The Gingerdead Man, Die Hard and How the Grinch Stole Christmas. Among the titles mentioned most often is Silent Night, Deadly Night, Part 2 (1987), which basically recaps the events of the original and adds hardly anything new of its own. Silent Night, Bloody Night (1972) and Black Christmas (1974) are generally credited with inventing the seasonal horror/slasher subgenre, with Halloween (1978), following in their wake. It wasn’t until Silent Night, Deadly Night (1984) inspired parents’ groups and feminists to picket theaters showing the film and spark boycotts that a new holiday tradition was born. Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert, who’d previously condemned I Spit on Your Grave, went as far as to read names of the film’s production team on their show. You can’t buy that kind of publicity, at least when it comes to a film’s afterlife in VHS, DVD, Laserdisc and, even today, in Blu-ray and 4K UHD (Halloween). Silent Night, Deadly Night, Part 2 arrived three years after the original caused such a clamor that all the film’s TV ads and trailers, showing Santa Claus carrying an ax, were pulled off the networks. “SN/DN” was yanked from theaters only after it turned a profit in its limited release. The fracas didn’t preclude the producers from turning “SN/DN” into a successful direct-to-video franchise, especially in VHS.

Lee Harry’s Silent Night, Deadly Night, Part 2 was produced for significantly less money than the original and wasn’t even able to recoup its meager nut. That’s probably because opening-night viewers warned friends that “SN/DN2” largely relied on recapping the events depicted in “SN/DN,” recycling entire scenes in the process. The sequel is told through the eyes of the first killer’s brother, Ricky (Eric Freeman), who, after being released from a mental hospital, vows to avenge Billy’s death by settling scores with Mother Superior. Even the sight of someone in a Santa Claus costume is enough to trigger Ricky’s murderous impulses. The new Scream Factory edition, which sports a 2K remaster from an archival theatrical print, adds new commentary with Harry, actors Freeman and James Newman; “Slay Bells Ring Again: The Story of Silent Night, Deadly Night 2,” featuring interviews with cast and crew members; “Garbage Days Are Here Again,” a look at the film’s locations and most quotable line; “Ricky Today,” a short film, featuring a 2018 interview with Freeman; “I Don’t Sleep,” an extended interview with makeup-effects-artist Christopher Biggs; as well as some vintage material.

William Lustig’s ultraviolent, Maniac (1980), caused an even greater disturbance than “SN/DN,” with women’s rights advocates, Siskel and Ebert joining the  protests and calls for boycotts, due to its mass slaughter and scalping of female characters. And, yes, it’s every bit that vile. None of it completely detracted from Joe Spinell’s bravura portrayal of Frank Zito, a deeply disturbed man, haunted by the traumas of unspeakable childhood abuse. When these horrific memories begin to scream inside his mind, Frank prowls the seedy streets of New York City to stalk and slaughter innocent young women. Things begin looking up for Zito, when he hooks up with a beautiful fashion photographer (Caroline Munro), but, as usual, he blows it. There’s no understating the gruesome nature of the atrocities here, even if the protests didn’t prevent Lustig from directing such splatter flicks as Vigilante and a trio of Maniac Cop movies. Blue Underground presents Maniac in a brand-new 4K Restoration, from its recently discovered 16mm original camera negative; an original musical soundtrack CD, with a score by Jay Chattaway; commentaries with Lustig and co-producer Andrew W. Garroni, and Lustig, with special makeup-effects artist Tom Savini, editor Lorenzo Marinelli, and Spinell’s assistant Luke Walter; outtakes; “Returning to the Scene of the Crime,” with Lustig; “Anna and the Killer” interview with Munro; a Maniac 2 promo reel; 49-minute featurette, “The Joe Spinell Story”; a collectable booklet, with a new essay by author Michael Gingold; vintage interviews for TV and radio; and 41-minute, “Maniac Controversay.”

Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation: Collector’s Edition” returns in an 87-minute theatrical cut and 93-minute director’s cut. I missed it the first time around, in 1994, and wasn’t prepared for Matthew McConaughey’s wild portrayal of Vilmer, the crippled psychopath, and Renée Zellweger’s turn as the mousy victim of the demented family.  Like the 1974 original, a shortage of nudity is compensated for by a surfeit of gore and violence, which is rendered in nearly comedic fashion. It adds fresh commentary with writer/director Kim Henkel, on the director’s cut; “The Buzz Is Back,” an interview with DP Levie Isaacks; “Marked for Death,” an interview with actor Tyler Shea Cone; “If Looks Could Kill: The Return of a Chainsaw Massacre,” an interview with special makeup-effects artist J.M. Logan and production designer Deborah Pastor; and a stills gallery.

Tobe Hooper and Anant Singh’s adaptation of a yet-another Stephen King short story, The Mangler, may qualify as the horror genre’s first steampunk thriller, as it largely takes place in an ancient laundry facility, where linens are steamed, pressed and folded by a machine possessed by the devil. A dogged cop (Ted Levine) begins investigating the owner (Robert Englund) after the contraption begins to take hold and mangle the women working on it and everyone else who gets near its gears. The movie’s 106-minute length stretches the conceit way past its ability to maintain viewers’ willingness to sustain disbelief – it laid an egg at the box office – and was widely panned by critics. It definitely plays better on DVD/Blu-ray, but not by much. Scream Factory adds a 4K scan of the original camera negative of the uncut version; fresh commentary with co-writer Stephen David Brooks; “Hell’s Bells,” a comprehensive interview with Englund; and behind-the-scenes footage.

Harrison Smith’s one-trick-pony, Death House, features appearances by such genre stalwarts as Dee Wallace (Critters), Barbara Crampton (Re-Animator), Kane Hodder (Hatchet), Sid Haig (The Devil’s Rejects), Adrienne Barbeau (Swamp Thing), Michael Berryman (The Hills Have Eyes), Camille Keaton (I Spit on Your Grave), Bill Moseley (“TTCM2”), Tony Todd (Candyman), Vernon Wells (100,000 Zombie Heads), Debbie Rochon (Slime City Massacre), Felissa Rose (Sleepaway Camp), Tiffany Shepis (Victor Crowley), Troma poohbah Lloyd Kaufman and a dozen other lesser lights. Somewhere along the way to release, however, Smith must have run out of money to fully utilize such talent, because the story substitutes nudity and gore for anything resembling a coherent plot. Billed, early on, an “Expendables of horror,” Death House describes what happens when a power breakdown inside a top-secret, maximum security prison triggers chaos and mayhem throughout the facility. It forces a pair of federal agents (Cody Longo, Cortney Palm) to wend their way through a labyrinth of horrors, while being pursued by a ruthless army of roaming inmates. As they fight to escape, the agents push toward the lowest depths, where a group of supernatural  beings may be their only chance for survival. Smith took over the project from the late Gunnar Hansen (Reykjavik Whale Watching Massacre), reportedly as possible extension of the Saw franchise.

Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead 2 has been recycled so many times that it begs the question as to what’s new in the handsomely repackaged Blu-ray/4K UHD package from Lionsgate. Besides the much-appreciated audio/video format upgrade — Dolby Vision HDR and DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix — not much, besides the French-made featurette, “Bloody and Groovy, Baby: A Tribute to Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead 2,” which features such talking heads as Guillermo del Toro and Roger Corman. The Blu-ray and its bonus features harken back to 2011’s “25th Anniversary Edition,” which were plentiful, but left as is. Anyone who’s come to franchise based on their enjoyment of Starz’ “Ash vs. Evil” should find to “ED2: Dead by Dawn” to be a fitting sequel to the original, which was shot on 16mm and benefitted from the grain. “ED2” received excellent reviews in the mainstream reviews, primarily for its dark sense of humor and gonzo graphics.

Sgt. Stubby: An American Hero
Sk8 Dawg
Pet Shop: Blu-ray
Precocious pups are featured in two of the three children’s pictures available this week. Fun Academy’s Sgt. Stubby: An American Hero is the rare computer-animated feature that is based on real historical material and a non-human protagonist that doesn’t necessarily qualify as anthropomorphic. It tells the story of a mixed-breed terrier, Sergeant Stubby, who became the official mascot of the 102nd Infantry Regiment, assigned to the 26th Infantry Division (United_States), 26th (Yankee) Division, in World War I. He served for 18 months and participated in 17 battles on the Western Front. He saved his regiment from surprise mustard-gas attacks, found and comforted the wounded, and once caught a German soldier by the seat of his pants, holding him there until American soldiers found him. Stubby has been called the most decorated war dog of World War I, and the only dog to be nominated for rank and then promoted to sergeant through combat. As the movie opens, a U.S. Army doughboy, Robert Conroy (voiced by Logan Lerman), has his life forever changed when the little terrier wanders into camp, just as the men of the 102nd Infantry Regiment are training on the parade grounds of Yale University. Conroy gives his new friend a name, a family and a chance to embark on the adventure that would define a century. Sgt. Stubby: An American Hero also features the voices of Helena Bonham Carter and Gérard Depardieu and the featurettes, “The Making of a Hero,” “Real to Reel,” “Animating History” and “The Art of Sgt. Stubby,” with a historical-image gallery.

In Lionsgate and Ari Novak’s live-action feature, Sk8 Dawg, features a skate-boarding mutt that comes to the rescue of his adopted family, when a major investment firm threatens to pull the plug on their business, Modern Skate. Fourteen-year-old Tommy Schooner isn’t nearly as gifted – or competitive – as his sister, who’s become the public face of the company. While practicing skating with his dog, Buddy, Tommy accidentally runs into a 17-year-old skater and town bully, who accepts the boy’s ill-advised challenge to a competition, five days down the road. It gives them plenty of time to devise a plan to save Tommy’s butt and keep the company from going broke, at the same time. It helps, of course, that Buddy’s a world-class skater, with impeccable timing.

In the mid-1990s, father/son producers Albert and Charles Band created the Moonbeam Entertainment subsidiary to churn out low-budget horror and sci-fi features for undiscerning children. They reserved their Empire and Full Moon Productions labels for higher-profile series, including Ghoulies, Trancers and Puppetmaster. Typically undernourished, Pet Shop (1994) describes what happens when of a pair of alien creatures, disguised as a drugstore cowboy and cowgirl, who touch down in the Arizona desert town of Cactus Flats and buy a struggling pet store. In doing so, they lure local children to the shop with promises of cuddly companions that, likewise, are aliens in disguise. They’re hungry and have developed a taste for Earth kids. Their schemes are no match for 14-year-old Dena (Leigh Ann Orsi), whose family has moved to town as part of the government’s Witness Protection Program. It not only makes Cactus Flats a destination for famished aliens, but also hapless mob hitmen. Pet Shop is being presented for the first time on DVD and Bluray. Bonus features includes a Moon Beam Videozone behind-the-scenes featurette.

The DVD Wrapup: Support the Girls, M:I Fallout, Gosford Park, Serpent’s Egg. True Stories, School Daze, Candyman, Hanging Rock, Yellowstone … More

Friday, December 7th, 2018

Support the Girls: Blu-ray
There are a couple of things to know about Support the Girls before heading to your favorite streaming service and paying to see it, based solely on the nearly universal acclaim it’s received from critics. The first is that critics don’t frequent sports bars, especially not those that promote their waitress’ physical assets over the food. And, while it has several funny moments, Support the Girls is a dramedy with the accent on drama, meaning that folks expecting a workplace comedy, like “Cheers” or “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” probably will want their money back. Sports bars habitués might not understand what writer/director Andrew Bujalski was attempting to say about people, like them, who pay good money for the right to eat and drink in the company of attractive waitresses … and tip accordingly. On Rotten Tomatoes, the Tomatometer has awarded the film a 92 percent rating, based on 86 “fresh” reviews and only 7 “rotten” ones. By contrast, the Audience Score registers only 56 percent. Already this month, Regina Hall (Girls Trip) has been nominated for Independent Spirit and Gotham awards, and is the first black woman to win Best Actress in the New York Film Critics Circle’s 83-year history. The praise is based on her inarguably outstanding portrayal of the beleaguered manager of Double Whammies, yes, “a sports bar with curves” (a.k.a., breastaurant). Lisa combines all the attributes of a mother hen, den mother and sympathetic boss, while catering to a “mainstream” family clientele and enforcing a “zero tolerance” policy on sexual harassment. In her late 40s, Lisa knows that her first obligation is to the owner’s bank account, but her heart is divided between her wait staff and loyal customers. As balancing acts go, it’s a doozy. While sexy, the waitresses’ outfits are about as provocative as the uniforms worn by Hooters’ servers, minus the mandatory pantyhose and white socks. Double Whammies’ servers aren’t exactly encouraged to flirt, but it’s no secret that being extra nice to male customers likely will result in a bigger tip. Lisa does, however, enforce certain limits.

After a biker commits the sin of calling one of the waitresses “fat” – he claims it was in jest – Lisa risks her own well-being by unceremoniously booting the bozo out of the restaurant. Fortunately, a couple of cops are already in the restaurant, investigating an unrelated break-in, and the biker goes quietly … more or less. It’s not funny. The break-in involves a guy who gets stuck in the ventilation system, while either attempting to loot the safe or sneak peeks into the ladies’ changing room. He’s still there when Lisa’s shift begins. It sets the tone for the next 24 hours in her life. In the course of rescuing the intruder, a cable leading to the restaurant’s big-screen televisions is severed. It threatens to disrupt plans for that night’s boxing showcase. The club’s humorless owner, Cubby (James Le Gros), is angry at Lisa, not only for failing to alert him to the break-in, but also for using the parking lot for a benefit car wash to raise money for a troubled employee, Shaina (Jana Kramer), who was arrested after running over the foot of her abusive boyfriend. While dealing with these issues, and, not incidentally, discovering that her husband has packed his suitcase and left home, Lisa’s wait staff does its best to keep customers from shifting their allegiances to the new sports bar, ManCave, just down the road. Bujalski’s “mumblecore” roots are visible in the easy, naturalistic way Lisa and her employees share their joys and pain during their time together, inside and outside the bar. The high point comes when one of the waitresses feels it necessary to perform a Parisian can-can — on the bar — to keep the patrons from rushing over to the ManCave to watch the fight. The low point, for me, comes when Lisa has to discipline a white server for having the visage of NBA superstar Stephen Curry tattooed on an uncovered space on her torso. The waitress suspects that she could have gotten away the offense if the player’s face was white and, therefore, unlikely to offend racially sensitive guests.  (Hooters Girls aren’t allowed any visible tattoos.) The excellent supporting cast includes Haley Lu Richardson (The Edge of Seventeen), Dylan Gelula (“Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt”), AJ Michalka (“The Goldbergs”), Jana Kramer (“One Tree Hill”), Shayna “Junglepussy” McHayle and a typically butch Lea DeLaria (“Orange Is the New Black”), who also frequents the bar for the curves.

Mission:Impossible: Fallout: Blu-ray/4K UHD HDR
Tom Cruise may rub a lot of people the wrong way, when it comes to his cheerleading for Scientology and occasionally over-exuberant self-promotion, but he’s one of the few movie stars extant who always gives his fans their money’s worth. It can be argued that he doesn’t get the credit he deserves from his peers, even though his paychecks don’t exactly suck. Cruise has only been nominated for three Academy Awards — Born on the Fourth of July (1989), Jerry Maguire (1996), Magnolia (1999) – that he could have just as easily won. He’s been a finalist for seven Golden Globes – winning three, for the same titles — as well as a single BAFTA, nine MTV and five Razzie awards. Considering how much money Cruise continues to make for Hollywood studios, increasingly from foreign audiences, his best shot for an Oscar might come when AMPAS decides it’s time to accord him one of those ceremonial trophies it reserves for people who deserve something more lasting than a nomination. And, yes, I realize that it’s “an honor simply to be nominated.” There’s nothing much I can add to what’s already been written about Mission:Impossible: Fallout, which did extremely well critically and commercially. Indeed, even at the exhaustive length of 147 minutes, it’s become the highest grossing episode in the franchise’s 22-year history … here and abroad. According to repeat-director Christopher McQuarrie, “Tom is first and foremost an entertainer. Everything he’s doing in the (“M:I”) movies is to take you to places you’ve never been, to show you things you’ve never seen, and to put you in the experience right there with him.” That includes performing stunts no sane actor would agree to do and, even if they did, most insurance companies would agree to underwrite.

In Mission:Impossible: Fallout, Cruise was injured while filming a stunt that required him to jump from one building to another in a chase scene. Although a harness allowed him to grab onto the other building, his ankle fractured upon impact. Even so, Cruise got up and attempted to run off the pain, which was what the scene called for, before reason prevailed and someone yelled, “Cut!” Even though the injury delayed production for eight weeks, footage of the stunt found its way into the finished product and trailers.

The important thing for viewers to know about “Fallout” is that it’s the first legitimate sequel in the series. That’s because it relies on plot devices, characters and antagonists introduced first in Mission:Impossible: Rogue Nation (2015). Additionally, McQuarrie and Cruise insisted upon the White Widow (Vanessa Kirby) and her brother, Zola (Frederick Schmidt), being identified as the children of Vanessa Redgrave’s international arms dealer, Max, from Mission: Impossible (1996). As the story goes, Ethan Hunt (Cruise) is attempting to recover a suitcase containing stolen plutonium orbs, when he’s ambushed and forced to decide between saving the mission or saving his teammates (Simon Pegg, Ving Rhames). Choosing the latter meant putting the plutonium cores into the wind and available to the highest bidder. Hunt’s detractors at the CIA consider his decision to have been unconscionable. They suspect that operatives loyal to the White Widow are in possession of the suitcase and plan to sell it to supervillain John Lark during a charity event in Paris. The problem is that no one knows with any certainty what Lark looks like or whether he’ll come to the event in cognito. Theoretically, at least, he could take a page from the IMF playbook and don a latex mask to make him resemble Ethan. Neither are we supposed to know ahead of time whether the White Widow is a force for good or evil. To this end, the CIA insists that Ethan be accompanied by super-agent August Walker (Henry Cavill), who may or may not have his back. Any further summarization would qualify as a spoiler.

The always enthralling set pieces are highlighted by a H.A.L.O skydiving sequence, for which Cruise invested a year’s training. There’s also a helmet-free motorcycle chase through Paris; an extended foot chase across London rooftops; a cliff-hanging scene; and a low-altitude helicopter chase in which Cruise does most of the piloting. The fight scenes are also exquisitely choreographed. Anyone with enough time and technology to compare the Blu-ray and UHD versions probably will find that the 4K holds up better in the faster-paced scenes, thanks to the Dolby Vision HDR presentation, and Dolby Atmos soundtrack remixed specifically for the home-viewing experience. A separate disc holds most of the special features, including a 53-minute “Behind the Fallout” featurette; a deleted-scenes montage, with optional commentary by McQuarrie and editor Eddie Hamilton; a “Foot Chase Musical Breakdown”; “The Ultimate Mission,” in which Cruise discusses his love for the franchise and benefits of practical stunt work; storyboards; commentaries with McQuarrie and Cruise, McQuarrie and Hamilton, and composer Lorne Balfe; and an isolated score track.

The House That Never Dies: Reawakening
Among the things frowned upon by Chinese censors are films they believe promote “cults and superstitions,” specifically phenomena that can’t be explained away as dreams or hallucinations. Although ghosts have historically played key roles in Chinese mythology and folklore, newly conjured apparitions usually don’t make the cut. Somehow, though, Disney/Pixar’s ghost-heavy Coco managed to slip through the filters, while Paul Feig’s reboot of Ghostbusters (2016) was denied a pass, even though Sony agreed to rename it, “Super Power Dare-to-Die Team.” Makes one wonder how much clout the Mouse House has in Beijing. Ironically, the lack of an official ratings system might yet cause one to be instituted, after all. Joe Chien’s The House That Never Dies: Reawakening is a sequel to Raymond Yip’s The House That Never Dies (2014), a 3D ghost story that reportedly caused younger viewers to cry out loud during scary scenes. The screams not only bothered older audience members, but they made exhibitors feel guilty about subjecting kids to terrifying images. It prompted some of them to impose a ratings code of their own, inspired by the MPAA’s system. The fact that Yip’s thriller did extremely well at the domestic box office suggests that Chinese audiences no longer want to be coddled by government officials. Even so, some Asian critics suspect that the sequel’s somewhat disjointed script was affected by fears of what censors might have done to it. Both films are set inside “Beijing’s most celebrated haunted house,” which stands at Chaonei No. 81. It’s a three-story French Baroque-style mansion, built in the 1800s by Qing officials. According to popular legend, the it became haunted at the end of the Communist Revolution, in 1949, when the wife of a Kuomintang official who once lived there committed suicide. It is believed that her spirit still haunts the house, turning it into something of an attraction for local tourists, ghost hunters and vagrants willing to put up with a few aggrieved spirits, in exchange for a roof that doesn’t leak.

The House That Never Dies: Reawakening takes liberties with the legend by digging several decades deeper into the house’s history and the mysterious murders of the entire Zhisheng family. In yet another attempt to restore and sell the place to an unsuspecting foreigner, cultural relic specialist Song Teng (Julian Cheung) begins to uncover strange items, left behind by previous tenants. They include skeletons of babies, weird carvings and other artifacts that suggest an intricate weaving of the past and present. Song suspects that a long-suffering spirit remains in the building, still seeking justice from the living world for past affronts. Song’s work has caused him to neglect his physician wife, He (Mei Ting). The couple has grown estranged following the stillbirth of their child five years earlier and her discovery of Song’s growing fondness for his assistant (Gillian Chung). To solidify their marriage, Dr. He agrees to move into the mansion with her husband. She’s soon plagued by visions and nightmares, which harken back to the beginning of the 20th Century. It’s when a general (Julian Cheung), who lived in the house, was forced to marry the daughter (Gillian Chung) of a warlord, to solidify an alliance and to ensure he would have an heir, after his first wife (Mei Ting) failed to produce one. Sadly, his new bride proved barren as well. If the back-and-forth gets confusing, at times, the story is rescued by special effects that probably represent the state-of-the-art in Chinese films. Watch for cameos by Vivian Wu, Joan Chen, Andrew Lin, Jack Kao and Lam Suet.

Viking Destiny: Blu-ray
Anyone looking for old-fashioned action picture that combines aspects of Thor: Ragnarok and “Game of Thrones,” with the History Channel series “Vikings” and the CW’s “Supergirl,” need look any further than David L.G. Hughes’ Viking Destiny. As far as I know, it also features western civilization’s first acknowledgement of a nomadic hippie clan, known as the Travelers. Everything centers around Helle (Anna Demetriou), a true Viking princess born to King Asmund and Queen Alva. Asmund isn’t present at the girl’s birth – a sign of bad luck — and Alva dies while he’s out saving the kingdom of Volsung … again. Because the king doesn’t believe his daughter will someday be qualified to rule the realm, he asks his brother, Prince Bard (Timo Nieminen), for permission to trade his son, Vern (Laurence O’Fuarain), for Helle. The scheming Bard understands how, down the road, this could serve his own interests. Although Vern’s a fine young man, he lacks the talent and taste for fighting that’s normally a prerequisite for sovereignty. Trained to be a warrior and leader, Helle is his opposite in this regard. Bard concocts a plan to kill off the young prince and princess, so, when his brother dies, the throne will be his. It’s at this point that the Norse deity, Odin (Terence Stamp), and the trickster Loki (Murray McArthur), make their presences known to Helle. She avoids assassination by taking to the forest and honing her fighting skills, eventually coming across the band of vegetarian nomads. Despite their tendency to avoid confrontations, the Travelers are perfectly capable of defending themselves – and Helle – when pressed. She also gains the support of a Viking band opposed to Prince Brad. The fighting and swordplay in Viking Destiny aren’t bad, and Demetriou, with her metallic red hair, is a force of nature.  The Northern Ireland locations will be familiar to anyone who’s seen Excalibur and “The Last Kingdom.” Oh, yeah, Hughes has also thrown a Kraken into the mix.

Operation Finale
The capture of Adolf Eichmann, the Nazi officer who masterminded the logistics that brought millions of Jews to their deaths in concentration camps, has been dramatized several times in the last 50 years. It has even been re-created in an episode of Comedy Central’s “Drunk History,” with a boozy Rachel Bloom narrating the story and Weird Al Yankovic playing Eichmann. It isn’t nearly as offensive as it sounds. Operation Finale follows the same basic structure as Operation Eichmann (1961), The House on Garibaldi Street (1979), The Hunt for Adolf Eichmann (1994), The Man Who Captured Eichmann (1996) and a play, “Captors.” Other films and documentaries have tackled Eichmann’s trial and the period between his conviction and execution. Because director Chris Weitz (The Twilight Saga: New Moon) and freshman screenwriter Matthew Orton relied on Peter Malkin’s “Eichmann in My Hands” for most of their source material, Operation Finale focuses primarily on the Israeli spy’s role in the capture and extraction from Argentina of one of the world’s most wanted men. Although Malkin (Oscar Isaac) wasn’t the leader of the operation, his ability to get Eichmann (Ben Kingsley) to sign a key document, while being held in a Buenos Aires safehouse, is the centerpiece of the drama. He also is credited with the physical capture of Eichmann, as he walked home from work. The rest, of course, is history. Even if Operation Finale covers well-trod ground, the movie serves as a reminder of one man’s essential role in the Holocaust, the “banality of evil” and why it was so important to bring him back to Israel alive and put him on trial. At the time, prosecuting individuals for genocide and other crimes against humanity – outside the borders of the losing country – wasn’t considered to be a legal alternative to extradition. That’s all changed.

Lesser known are the German dramas, The People vs. Fritz Bauer (2015) and Labyrinth of Lies (2014), which tell the stories of West German prosecutor-general Fritz Bauer and prosecutor Johann Radmann, who, while sniffing out ex-Nazis still in positions of authority in the 1950s, were the first to locate and identify Eichmann. Bauer decided against revealing his findings to German, American, Argentinian and Interpol authorities, knowing that Eichmann wasn’t likely to be convicted after being extradited to Germany. (Indeed, intelligence agencies were aware of Joseph Mengele’s occasional return visits home and did nothing.) Bauer’s findings led to where punishing Gestapo and SS functionaries no longer was a priority, Bauer felt as if the chances of any Nazi leader being convicted for crimes against humanity were better in Israel. (His research and persistence would lead to the groundbreaking Frankfurt Auschwitz trials, during which 22 individuals were charged under German criminal law for their roles in the Holocaust as mid- to lower-level officials in the Auschwitz-Birkenau complex.) Even after he passed along his information to the Mossad, however, Bauer was told that he had to come up with a second, more unimpeachable piece of evidence. If he hadn’t, it’s possible that Eichmann, like Mengele, might have dug a deeper hole, somewhere else in South America. Lucía Puenzo’s The German Doctor (2013) tells the true story of a Patagonian family that lived with Mengele without knowing his identity. They’re all good.

[Cargo]
The protagonist of James Dylan’s debut film [Cargo] was created as a showcase for veteran actor Ron Thompson, perhaps best known for his dual lead roles of Pete/Tony in Ralph Bakshi’s American Pop (1981) and as Detective Nopke, in the 1970s TV series “Baretta.” His IMDB.com resume only shows 15 credits between American Pop and [Cargo]. His first paying gig came in 1962, playing a junkie on “Armstrong Circle Theatre.” He would also play “Junkie” in American Me (1992) and “Crisis Center” (1997). Moreover, in 1973, Thompson won the Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle Award for his lead performance in the play, “Does a Tiger Wear a Necktie?,” which is set in a drug rehabilitation facility. Here, Thompson plays a corrupt business executive, Anthony Peterson, who awakens one morning to find himself alone, locked inside an empty cargo container. His only prop is a cellphone, through which he communicates with his captors and the people he hits up for $10 million in ransom money. Peterson has 24 hours to reach his goal, run out of juice for his phone or oxygen to breathe, whichever comes first. The exchanges, which run the emotional gamut from sarcastic to deadly serious, tell us everything we need to know about his character, much of which happens to be on the negative side of the ledger. Dylan says that he was inspired to make a trapped-man or enclosed-space thriller after watching such films as Locke, All Is Lost, Castaway, Buried, Brake, Phone Booth, Evil Dead 2 and The Omega Man, some of them more claustrophobic than others. Thompson is fun to watch, even if, at 80 minutes, [Cargo] seems long. Original music by Thorsten Quaeschning, a late addition to the German electronic-music band Tangerine Dream.

God Bless the Broken Road: Blu-ray
In his hit version of Steve Goodman and John Prine’s tongue-in-cheek ballad, “You Never Even Called Me by My Name,” David Allan Coe recalls Goodman saying, “it’s the perfect country and western song.” Coe’s reply: there’s no way it could be a successful country song, without any references to “mama, or trains, or trucks, or prison, or getting drunk.” Goodman dutifully came up another final verse, “Well, I was drunk the day my mom got out of prison/and I went to pick her up in the rain/but before I could get to the station in my pickup truck/she got runned over by a damned old train …” In Coe’s opinion, this made “You Never Even Called Me by My Name,” the perfect country-western song.

That’s a long way of getting to the point about Christian filmmaker Harold Cronk’s latest faith-based drama, God Bless the Broken Road, which follows in the wake of God’s Not Dead (2014) and God’s Not Dead 2 (2016). While the former made a whopping $64.6 million worldwide, on an estimated budget of $2 million, the latter grossed nearly $24.5 million, on a budget of $7 million. Even with the steep downward slide, those are the kinds of numbers that make Hollywood executives genuflect at the altar of commerce. By comparison, God Bless the Broken Road tanked, returning a mere $2.8 million in its domestic release. This, despite a story that combines God, the military, small-town life, country music, NASCAR and a troubled soul redeemed from despair. The title is a direct reference to the 2004 Rascal Flatts hit song, “God Bless the Broken Road,” which, itself, was adapted from the 1994 release, “Bless the Open Road,” by Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. Because of Cronk’s track record within the genre, the fact that he hit so many of the right buttons in a 111-minute span, should have led to much larger numbers.

Shot largely in Michigan, but clearly set in a Bible Belt town, the movie centers on a grieving military widow, Amber Hill – played convincingly by Lindsay Pulsipher (“True Blood”) — who’s struggling to make ends meet and stay connected to her daughter, Bree (Makenzie Moss). Because her husband’s benefits aren’t enough to cover Amber’s expenses, she’s in danger of losing her house and most valued possessions. Her mother-in-law (Kim Delaney) is breathing down her neck concerning Bridgette’s financial well-being and a perceived assumption that her daughter-in-law is losing touch with her son’s legacy. She isn’t, but that’s what mothers-in-law do in movies. Before her husband’s death, Amber was a God-fearing, church-going, choir-singing, small-town Christian wife and mother. And, while Bridgette continues to attend church and Sunday school, Amber has lost her faith. Fortunately, she’s surrounded by friends who’ve never given up on her ability to walk the broken path back to the lord. Now, in real life, her friends and pastor might have launched a GoFundMe campaign to help her clear the hurdles in her life or chained themselves to the doors of the local VA headquarters. Instead, Amber’s helping hand arrives in the form of a cocky, if self-destructive NASCAR driver, Cody Jackson (Andrew W. Walker), who’s in need of some small-town redemption himself. In the purest of all possible ways, Cody and Amber make a love connection, which, itself, is tested by circumstances. Cronk throws in the kitchen sink by adding a crippled war veteran, whose life was saved by Amber’s husband in combat and a divinely inspired go-cart race for kids in the Sunday school. You might be able to guess the rest. God Bless the Broken Road may not insult its audience by saving money on production values, but it probably recouped some of it expenditures with annoying product placements. Also among the admirably diverse cast members are former NFL star LaDainian Tomlinson, actress Robin Givens, prototypical Southerner Gary Grubbs and “American Idol”-winner Jordin Sparks. Bonus features include featurettes, “Delivering God’s Message: Casting God Bless the Broken Road,” “Restoring Faith: Mending the Broken Road” and “Pedals and Prayers: Racing Alongside God.”

Gosford Park: Special Edition: Blu-ray
The Serpent’s Egg: Special Edition: Blu-ray
Arrow Academy has outdone itself this month with impeccably restored “special editions” of Robert Altman’s period murder-mystery, Gosford Park (2001) and Ingmar Bergman’s curious pre-Nazi drama, The Serpent’s Egg (1977). Lovers of shows adapted from Agatha Christie’s novels, “Upstairs, Downstairs,” “Downton Abbey” and “The Grand” may not be aware of Altman’s unexpected foray into the world of post-Victorian aristocracy and the final vestiges of polite society. They definitely should check out this splendidly restored edition, however.  If it immediately reminds Anglophiles of a certain fabulously successful “Masterpiece” series, it’s because Gosford Park was written by Julian Fellowes, the creator of “Downton Abbey,” from a concept by Altman and actor Bob Balaban. In fact, “Downton Abbey” was originally planned as a spin-off of the film, but, instead, was developed as a stand-alone property and re-set to begin decades earlier. It also might have had something to do with the rather shabby greeting the movie received from British critics, even before its release. American critics loved Gosford Park, though, and, even without a prominent Hollywood star, would become one of Altman’s most commercially successful pictures in the U.S. It takes place over the course of a weekend, inside and on the grounds of a lavish country estate, where a couple of dozen upper-crust twits have gathered for a so-called “shooting party.” Of equal interest to Altman are the assorted maids, butlers, cooks and dressers who slavishly cater to the whims of the guests. When, nearly halfway through the movie, the master of the McCordle household (Michael Gambon) is found dead, with a knife stuck in his chest – uselessly, because he’d already been poisoned – an inept police Inspector Thompson (Stephen Fry) discovers that almost everyone under the house’s several roofs and ceilings should be considered a possible suspect. Among them are characters played by Alan Bates, Kristin Scott Thomas, Jeremy Northam, Bob Balaban, Richard E. Grant, Helen Mirren, Clive Owen, Maggie Smith, Emily Watson, Eileen Atkins, Kelly Macdonald and Ryan Phillippe. Altman was smart enough to know how much he needed to learn about the characters and period, and he did extensive research prior to committing film to camera. On set, he also listened to the advice of people who were “born into service” and can remember every misplaced fork and mislaid cufflink. The set includes new commentary with Geoff Andrew and David Thompson, as well as two previous tracks by Altman, production designer Stephen Altman and producer David Levy, and writer-producer Julian Fellowes; fresh interviews with executive producer Jane Barclay and actress Natasha Wightman, who played Lavinia Meredith; deleted scenes, with optional commentary; and archival background and making-of featurettes.

For those who’ve yet to save enough money to afford Criterion Collection’s essential “Ingmar Bergman’s Cinema,” it’s worth knowing that one of the maestro’s most atypical works, The Serpent’s Egg, already is available a la carte from Arrow Academy. In 1977, Bergman teamed with Italian producer Dino De Laurentiis (La strada) for the director’s first and only Hollywood-financed feature. It is set in Berlin, 1923, at the height of the country’s post-WWI economic crisis and the dawn of fascism. Out-of-work circus performer Abel Rosenberg (David Carradine) is living in poverty and drowning himself in booze. When his brother commits suicide, he moves into the apartment of his sister-in-law, Manuela (Liv Ullmann), who sings in a cabaret that makes the Kit Kat Klub, in Cabaret, look like a Catskills resort. Abel will soon become embroiled in a murder mystery that requires his presence in the local morgue to identify the bodies of people who’ve died in Manuela’s neighborhood. He assumes that he’s suspected in their deaths because he’s a Jew and, therefore, an easy target for police persecution. Adolph Hitler’s about to be sent to prison for the failed Beer Hall Putsch, and it will give him the time to write “Mein Kampf.” Meanwhile, Abel manages to land a job working as a clerk in a hospital, assisting with the archiving of patient cards, while Manuela finds work in another part of the hospital clinic. One night, in another foreshadowing of the Holocaust, Abel is alerted to files containing detailed reports of graphic and inhumane experiments conducted on patients there in the past few years. Things go further downhill for the Rosenbergs from there.

It’s entirely possible that The Serpent’s Egg would have been easier to embrace if Bergman hadn’t gone into self-imposed exile from Sweden over tax-evasion charges and suffered a nervous breakdown from the humiliation. The charges didn’t amount to anything, but the damage was done. The Serpent’s Egg was filmed on location in West Berlin, in English, with only one performer who had worked with him previously, Ullmann, and cinematographer Sven Nykvist. He was overwhelmed by the size of the crew and his inability to maintain logistical control. It’s palpable in the finished product, which was roundly derided by many of the same critics who had previously worshipped nearly everything he’d touched. As is often the case with such perceived failures, The Serpent’s Egg is far more interesting in hindsight than it was in 1977. The city’s Kafkaesque aura of dread is palpable, thanks to the atmospheric production design, and Ullmann is always fun to watch. Carradine was riding high at the time, as well. The Blu-ray adds commentary by Carradine; “Bergman’s Egg,” a newly filmed appreciation by critic and author Barry Forshaw; “Away From Home,” an archival featurette, including interviews with Carradine and Ullmann; “German Expressionism,” an archival interview with author Marc Gervais; a stills gallery; a reversible sleeve, featuring two artwork choices; and an illustrated collector’s booklet, with new writing on the film by author Geoffrey Macnab.

True Stories: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
When word got out that David Byrne was making his feature-directing debut with a musical ode to the “extraordinariness of ordinary American life,” most of artsy-fartsy fans probably expected something that could make them feel superior to the folks in flyover country. Byrne has described the film as “a project with songs based on true stories from tabloid newspapers. It’s like ‘60 Minutes’ on acid.” If that was the intention, the LSD must have been cut with something sweet and endearing, because the residents of Virgil, Texas, to whom we’re introduced in True Stories (1986), are only slightly more unusual than the people most of us knew growing up in Anywhere, USA. Not surprisingly, too, the stories Byrne collected from the tabloids were far less exploitative than their headlines would lead readers to believe. Byrne sports a huge 10-gallon hat and rodeo-ready shirt to guide viewers through Virgil, which, like everywhere else in the state, is preparing to celebrate the 150th anniversary of Texas’ independence from Mexico. He approaches the city’s Celebration of Specialness and everyone he meets there with a straight face and abundance of curiosity. Even when John “The Bachelor Cowboy” Goodman begins his showcase song with the lyrics, written by Byrne, “People like us (Who answer the telephone)/People like us (Growing big as a house)/People like us (Gonna make it because)/We don’t want freedom/We don’t want justice/We just want someone to love,” there’s no implied sense of irony or derision. His tabloid-worthy trait derived from his openly soliciting for a wife, through television commercials and newspaper ads. Today, of course, Goodman’s Louis Fyne would be only one of several million other people looking for “someone to love” on the Internet.

Other characters based on tabloid headlines include Swoosie Kurtz, who plays a perfectly healthy woman who hasn’t left her bed in years, preferring to watch the world go by on television. Spalding Gray and Annie McEnroe are a married couple, who, for years, have only communicated with each other through their children. Jo Harvey Allen is “The Lying Woman,” who never tells the same lie twice – or the truth, for that matter — about her personal background. When Pops Staples isn’t taking care of the bed-ridden Miss Rollings, he practices Santeria at an altar in a room no larger than a closet. A parade features local groups that seem fictional – Shriners in miniature Mustangs, dozens of babies in strollers, an accordion marching band – but probably aren’t. A fashion show at the local mall mirrored any of the catwalk shows put on by John Galliano, Alexander McQueen, Louis Vuitton and Dolce & Gabbana in Paris, with suits constructed from sod and Astroturf and towering ornamental headwear. As shot by cinematographer Ed Lachman, Texas becomes a hyper-realistic landscape of endless vistas, shopping malls and prefab metal buildings. It’s pre-Trumpian in every way possible. True Stories didn’t do well at the box office during its initial release, but it achieved cult status in VHS and DVD. The Talking Heads music holds up wonderfully well, whether it’s the band’s version of the songs or one of the characters is singing. It’s also fun to watch Goodman, Kurtz and Gray, especially, in early performances. The restored 4K digital transfer arrives with a new documentary about the film’s production history; a new program about designer Tibor Kalman; deleted scenes; a separate soundtrack CD; and a “tabloid” booklet, featuring new writings on the film and archival material.

School Daze: 30th Anniversary: Blu-ray
Looking back at the reviews that accompanied the release, 30 years ago, of Spike Lee’s sophomore feature, I was struck by how negative so many of them were. Several compared School Daze unfavorably to Animal House (1978) and Revenge of the Nerds, which, likewise, were set on college campuses and relied on their characters’ antisocial behavior for laughs. While there was no shortage of misbehaving in School Daze, Lee had other things on his mind, as well, something most white critics missed. In the late-1980s, historically black colleges and universities were on the decline and thought, by some, to provide an inferior education to other public and private schools, which benefitted from greater diversity, larger endowments and easier access to graduate schools. Lee enrolled in Morehouse College, where he made his first student film, “Last Hustle in Brooklyn” (1979), and took film courses at Clark Atlanta University, before graduating with a BA in mass communication from Morehouse. Four years later, he submitted “Joe’s Bed-Stuy Barbershop: We Cut Heads” as his master’s thesis at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts. (Classmates Ang Lee and Ernest R. Dickerson worked on the film as assistant director and cinematographer, respectively.) In 1985, Lee began work on his first feature film, She’s Gotta Have It, with a budget of $175,000. When the film was released in 1986, it grossed over $7 million at the domestic box office. As usual, that number raised eyebrows in Hollywood. He would need substantially more money to finance the kinds of movies he wanted to make in the future. He’d have to settle for an estimated $6.5 million for School Daze and Do the Right Thing.

School Daze takes place over Homecoming Weekend at historically black Mission College. It’s a big deal for administrators who hope to relieve of returning alumni of money made, in part, because of their college diplomas. It’s an inopportune time for Vaughn “Dap” Dunlap (Laurence Fishburne) to initiate anti-apartheid demonstrations, encouraging students to boycott classes until the school divests itself from investments in South African companies. It’s an even worse time for fraternities and sororities to rachet up their rivalries to levels that threaten violence and simultaneously confront the anti-apartheid protesters for stealing their thunder. By pledging the absurdly macho Gamma Phi Gamma, Half-Pint (Lee) finds himself in the middle of a feud led by his older cousin, Dap, and Julian Eaves (Giancarlo Esposito), the Dean Big Brother Almighty of Gamma Phi Gamma Fraternity, Incorporated. Additionally, the Gammas’ “women’s auxiliary” — the Gamma Rays – is at war with the non-Greek women over the perceived correctness of their skin tones, body shape, hair and financial backgrounds. Some of the Rays will stop at nothing to meet a Gamma man’s demands, including agreeing to take Half-Point’s virginity at a house party. If nothing else, School Daze demonstrates how students at historically black colleges could be as petty, prejudiced and cruel as their counterparts at historically white school. It also shows how Mission College provided a safe haven for students who might feel overshadowed and lost at larger, more impersonal institutions. That’s one of key points brought up in panel discussions, Q&As and interviews included in the Sony Blu-ray package, which goes deep on Bill Lee’s musical score, individual songs (“Da Butt”) and Otis Sallid’s choreography, all of which are terrific. Besides Fishburne and Esposito, the cast and crew included Ossie Davis, Kadeem Harrison, Branford Marsalis, Tisha Campbell-Martin, Bill Nunn, Roger Guenveur Smith, Jasmine Guy, Kasi Lemmons, Samuel L. Jackson, casting director Robi Reed, costume designers Jennifer Ingram and Willi Smith, and musician Terence Blanchard, most whom got their first major exposure on School Daze.

Lucio Fulci’s Zombie: Limited Special Edition: Blu-ray
No Zombie Apocalypse completist should consider their mission complete, without at least one screening of Lucio Fulci’s Zombie (1979), which also has been released under the titles “Zombie Flesh Eaters” and “Zombie 2.” (In Italy, it’s considered the “unofficial sequel” to George A. Romero’s 1978 thriller, Dawn of the Dead, which was shown there as “Zombi.”) It has its detractors, but, considering what’s available today, Zombie benefits from some truly disgusting special-makeup effects, a memorable Fabio Frizzi musical track and an underwater confrontation between a zombie, a topless scuba diver (Auretta Gay) and a tiger shark. Now, that’s entertainment. The picture opens with a ghost ship arriving at the New York harbor, with no one aboard except a hidden undead passenger. A Harbor Patrol officer is killed by the zombie, which, after being shot by another officer, falls overboard and disappears. At the morgue, the cop’s corpse re-animates itself. When public-health authorities find the boat-owner’s daughter, Anne Bowles (Tisa Farrow), the only information she can provide is that he’s probably in the Caribbean and she hasn’t been in contact with him in months. On the deserted boat, Anne meets a snooping journalist, Peter West (Ian McCulloch), who suggests they travel to the island of Matul and confront her physician father. To get there, they’re required to hitch a ride on a boat manned by Brian Hull (Al Cliver) and Susan Barrett (Gay), whose holiday sail will take an unexpected turn when they reach Matul. Once there, Anne discovers that her father, Dr. David Menard (Richard Johnson), has been running a hospital and researching voodoo rites. Naturally, as the death toll rises, so, too, does the population of reanimated corpses. Not even the doctor’s wife, Paola (Olga Karlatos), is exempt from the carnage. By the time the 91-minute movie ends, the Zombie Apocalypse is virtually assured, as are several sequels. The three-disc Blue Underground package benefits from a fresh 4K restoration, from the original uncut and uncensored camera negative; a CD of the original motion-picture soundtrack; commentaries with Troy Howarth, author of “Splintered Visions: Lucio Fulci and His Films,” and McCulloch and Diabolik magazine editor Jason J. Slater; an introduction by filmmaker Guillermo del Toro, who also supplies an appreciation; dozens of interviews; a collectable booklet, with a new essay by author Stephen Thrower; a poster; and a stills gallery.

The Critters Collection: Blu-ray
Some old movie franchises never die … they fade away for a while, before returning a quarter-century later on cable TV and DVD/Blu-ray packages. Such is the case for the Critters series, which, in addition to being cleaned up and accessorized for Shout!Factory’s The Critters Collection, is springing back to life. On October 22, it was announced that SyFy was in talks to acquire the licensing rights to the Critters franchise, as well as the horror-comedy, Killer Klowns from Outer Space, in order to produce new sequels to both properties. Meanwhile, an animated Internet series, “Critters: A New Binge,” wrapped production in Vancouver during the summer and reportedly will serve as a reboot. First, a recap: the series follows a group of malevolent carnivorous aliens from outer space, Krites, that roll into balls, like hedgehogs, and cause mayhem as they roam the landscape. The small, spiky animals have large mouths and sharp teeth. The spikes on their backs can be launched as projectiles, rendering the victim unconscious. Between the first and second installments, the little boogers lost their ability to grow to a much larger size.

In Critters (1986), the terrified Brown family is trapped in a deadly nightmare and must fight for their lives against a litter of extraterrestrial, bloodthirsty monsters. It appears to be a losing battle, until two intergalactic bounty hunters arrive, determined to eliminate the creatures from Earth. In Critters 2: The Main Course (1988), it turns out that some eggs have survived the purge and are popping open, bringing about another crisis. Brad Brown (Scott Grimes) is required to return to Earth to fight the slightly different looking aliens, along with three bounty hunters. In Critters 3 (1991), 16-year-old Leonardo DiCaprio makes his feature debut as a beleaguered Los Angeles apartment dweller, called upon to lead the fight against an invading force of Krites. (Let’s see if they can afford the rent.) In the final film, Critters 4 (1992), a super strain of genetically engineered monsters is designed to take over the universe from space. This time, Brad Dourif and Angela Bassett must battle the bloodthirsty hairballs. The package comes stuffed with commentaries, feature-length making-of pieces, behind-the-scenes footage, deleted scenes, alternative endings and stills galleries.

Urban Legend: Collector’s Edition: Blu-ray
Urban Legends: The Final Cut: Blu-ray
Candyman: Collector’s Edition: Blu-ray
Shout Factory has gotten into the urban-myth business in a big way by re-packaging and restoring the two theatrical releases in the Urban Legends series: Urban Legend (1998) and Urban Legends: The Final Cut (2000). (The 2005 straight-to-video triquel, Urban Legends: Bloody Mary, is only available through streaming outlets.) In the original, a New England college student, Natalie (Alicia Witt) finds herself at the center of a series of sadistic murders, staged to resemble time-honored legends. She resolves to find the truth about her school’s own legend: a 25-year-old story of a student massacre at the hands of an abnormal psych professor. As the school’s fraternities prepare to celebrate the macabre anniversary, Natalie senses that she has become the not-so-mythical killer’s next victim. Other cast members include Jared Leto, Rebecca Gayheart, Michael Rosenbaum, Loretta Devine, Tara Reid, John Neville, Robert Englund, Danielle Harris and Natasha Gregson Wagner. In the sequel, Amy Mayfield (Jennifer Morrison), a film student at Alpine University, struggles to complete her thesis project on urban legends, but her crew members are falling prey to fatal “accidents.”  Amy is forced to unmask the killer before she, too, becomes a victim. She’s joined by Matthew Davis, Hart Bochner, Joey Lawrence, Anson Mount, Eva Mendes and Jacinda Barrett. In addition to vintage features, the sets add new commentary, a lengthy making-of documentary, extended interviews and behind-the-scenes material. “Final Cut” adds another making-of doc and interview with actress Jessica Cauffiel.

Bernard Rose’s Candyman (1992) is based on a different sort of urban legend. This one, however, impacted Hollywood’s occasionally lucrative urban demographic, which previously supported blaxploitation flicks. Despite the protagonist being is a white woman – Virginia Madsen, fresh off an incendiary performance in The Hot SpotCandyman was set largely in Chicago’s now-demolished Cabrini-Green Public Housing Projects. The interracial aspect exploited certain well-established clichés about black men and blond women, while establishing that the projects were an urban jungle, unsuitable for exploration by such fragile flowers of femininity. In fact, as the movie concludes, Chicago’s notoriously segregated projects were as hazardous for occupation by black single mothers as they were for anyone else. On the credit roll, at least, the basis for Candyman was Clive Barker’s short story, “The Forbidden,” which was set in Liverpool. In fact, Houston serial killer Dean Corll, a white man, already was dubbed Candy Man for giving sweets to his young victims … 28, in all. Atlanta serial killer Wayne Williams is black, as were his young and adult victims. As happens in the movie, an architecture flaw in the Chicago buildings allowed a real-life killer to enter adjacent apartments through medicine cabinet. The swarms of bees and hook came later. Candyman’s other link to urban legend is a game called “Bloody Mary,” in which the player turns off the lights, says the ghost’s name five times into a mirror, and waits to be murdered. Here, graduate student Helen Lyle (Virginia Madsen) is researching stories told about Candyman, a slave spirit with a hook on the stub that once had a hand attached to it. (Another urban legend posits that the production company paid off gang members, who also haunted the projects’ hallways, selling drugs and recruiting new hoodlums.) As in real life, Chicago police in the movie are portrayed as having better things to do than encourage the unscientific theories of an attractive student, although Madsen’s blond hair and unmistakably ample bosom get her through the door. They were as wary as anyone else when it came to answering calls at Cabrini-Green, where the gang-bangers held the high ground and carried more powerful weapons. It was safer and simpler for them to pin the death of the grad student’s black roommate on Lyle and leave it at that. The fact is, though, Candyman has retained its ability to unnerve viewers and Tony Todd’s portrayal of the ghostly killer is still capable of raising goosebumps. The theatrical cut is a 2K restoration, from a 4K scan of the original negative. It adds new commentaries with Rose and Todd, with authors Stephen Jones and Kim Newman. The second disc contains the similarly restored uncut version of the movie; new interviews with actors Todd, Madsen, Kasi Lemmons and DeJuan Guy, production designer Jane Ann Stewart and special makeup-effects artists Bob Keen, Gary J. Tunnicliffe and Mark Coulier; writer Douglas E. Winter’s take on Barker’s “The Forbidden”; and “Urban Legend: Unwrapping Candyman,” a critical analysis of the film with writers Tananarive Due and Steven Barnes. That’s a lot of stuff.

TV-to-DVD
Acorn:  Picnic at Hanging Rock: Blu-ray
Acorn: Jack Irish: Season 2: Blu-ray
Yellowstone: Season 1
Sometimes, a mystery novel will inspire the kind of passionate response from readers that gives characters and plot points lives of their own. A generation, or two, later, the fiction will have evolved into something resembling fact, or, as we’ve seen in Urban Legend and Candyman, an urban legend. Joan Lindsay’s 1967 historical novel, “Picnic at Hanging Rock,” followed just such a subliminal progression. A huge hit in Australia, where Hanging Rock is a real place, the novel was adapted eight years later by New Wave director Peter Weir. Picnic at Hanging Rock is considered the country’s first international sensation. Nicolas Roeg’s survival thriller, Walkabout (1971), had already whet the appetites of Up Over audiences for movies depicting Australia’s bicultural malaise and the haunting beauty of its Outback. After “Hanging Rock,” Weir’s similarly eerie The Last Wave (1977) solidified his reputation and opened the door for other Aussie filmmakers, including Fred Schepisi (The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith), Bruce Beresford (Breaker Morant), George Miller (Mad Max), Paul Cox (Man of Flowers), Phillip Noyce (Heatwave), Gillian Armstrong (My Brilliant Career) and Jane Campion (Sweetie). The government, in its lack of foresight, eventually pulled the plug on financing its leading cultural exports, leading to an exodus of actors and directors.

Both the movie and 2016 mini-series, “Picnic at Hanging Rock,” depict the mysterious disappearances of three schoolgirls and a teacher on Valentine’s Day, 1900. The complex, interwoven narratives chart the subsequent investigation and the event’s far-reaching impact on the students, families, and staff of Appleyard College and on the nearby township. At 115 tense and beautifully rendered minutes, Weir’s adaptation was limited to focusing on the event, investigation and some of the aftermath. Fremantle Australia’s twice as long, six-episode adaptation — available through Acorn Media — takes a much deeper look at the events that led to the fateful Valentine’s Day mystery, expanding, as well, on the individual students, teachers, police and the enigmatic Mrs. Hester Appleyard. Although English actress Natalie Dormer (“The Tudors”) looks a tad too young and pretty to play the headmistress and founder of an exclusive and very expensive Victorian finishing school, the extra time allows her to grow into the part. By and large, the pampered students are extremely smart, precocious and curious about their blossoming sexuality. Only a couple of them qualify as shrinking violets. Beatrix Christian and Alice Addison’s screenplay does nothing to dispel the viewers’ curiosity over the validity of the mystery. Neither does it allow for alternate explanations for the disappearances. It adopts Lindsay’s philosophy, as advanced in the forward to her novel: “Whether ‘Picnic at Hanging Rock’ is fact or fiction, my readers must decide for themselves. As the fateful picnic took place in the year nineteen hundred, and all the characters who appear in this book are long since dead, it hardly seems important.” It fooled me. Garry Phillips’ evocative cinematography was rewarded with a trophy from the Australian Academy of Cinema and Television Arts. Special features include 44 minutes of cast-and-crew interviews, and a 37-minute behind-the-scenes featurette.

Also from Australia and Acorn Media comes “Jack Irish: Season 2,” an excellent crime-investigation series adapted from detective novels by author Peter Temple. Guy Pearce (L.A. Confidential) plays the title character, a former criminal lawyer turned private investigator and debt collector. It began life as three feature-length made-for-TV movies, before being adapted into an ongoing series, of which two six-episode chunks thus far have been broadcast. Besides Pearce, the mini-series features regular appearances by such Aussie stalwarts as Marta Dusseldorp (“Janet King”), Aaron Pedersen (Goldstone), Shane Jacobson (Kenny), Deborah Mailman (“Mystery Road”) and Kiwi actor Roy Billing (“Underbelly: A Tale of Two Cities”). In the second season of the mini-series, Jack’s life has hit a rough patch: his beloved local pub may be sold; his journalist girlfriend, Linda (Dusseldorp), has found a more dependable partner; the horse-racing world is in turmoil; and the suspicious death of an international student, at a dubious Australian college, plunges Jack into a high-stakes investigation. To crack the case, he will need Linda’s help, along with assistance from a beautiful, if conflicted psychiatrist (Danielle Cormack). The package contains a recap of the first season; a behind-the-scenes piece, with the cast and crew, on shooting on location in India, the characters’ wardrobe and what resonates with audiences; tweet readings; and cast interviews.

Kevin Costner assumes the role of high-country J.R. Ewing, in Paramount Network’s prime-time soap, “Yellowstone.” The primary differences between it and the knock-offs that followed in the wake of “Dallas” are the lovely locations — Chief Joseph Ranch in Darby, Montana, and Park City, Utah – and the creative talents of Taylor Sheridan (Hell or High Water, Sicario). His writing gives the series its edge, while Costner adds his charisma. Unlike “Dallas,” however, “Yellowstone” also contains brief nudity from Kelly Reilly, Ambyr M. Reyes and Kelsey Asbille, and near-nudity of Barret Swatek, all of whom would give the Ewing gals a run for their money. John Dutton (Costner), who controls the largest contiguous ranch in the U.S., is under the constant threat of land developers, Indian-casino interests, bankers and oil speculators. I can’t recall if President Trump and his flunkies in the Interior Department are mentioned, but they’d almost certainly clear the way for developers, frackers, lumber interests and oil barons to exploit the pristine landscape … as long as they share their profits with Republican fat cats. Costner may be one of the few people with enough clout to stop them. The cast also includes Wes Bentley, Luke Grimes, Cole Hauser, Danny Huston, Gil Birmingham, Brecken Merrill, Jefferson White and David Annable. The set adds all sorts of bonus features, including interviews with the show’s stars, creators and designers and featurettes on the music and special effects.

Also new to Blu-ray

Bright Lights, Big City: Special Edition: Blu-ray
James Bridges’ 1988 adaptation of screenwriter Jay McInerney’s best-selling novel suffered from too much Hollywood studio meddling, including the hiring and firing of directors, actors and writers. Among the concerns were the frequent depictions of cocaine use by the clean-cut yuppie characters. To snare Tom Cruise, one rewrite of McInerney’s script eliminated the substance entirely and Michael J. Fox’s agent feared its use would tarnish his client’s squeaky-clean image. Removing cocaine from Bright Lights, Big City would be like substituting the booze in Days of Wine and Roses with Shirley Temples. Fox plays Jamie Conway, an aspiring writer who abandons the wheat fields of Kansas for the skyline of Manhattan and gets caught up in the city’s very high life. It’s an old story, but, in 1988, not yet overfamiliar. Still, the movie’s a hot mess. It co-stars Kiefer Sutherland, Phoebe Cates, Dianne Wiest, Swoosie Kurtz and Kelly Lynch. Donald Fagen’s musical soundtrack and Gordon Willis’ cinematography are almost worth the price of a rental, however. It adds commentaries with McInerney and cinematographer Gordon Willis; a photo gallery, mini-poster and featurettes, ”Jay McInerney’s The Light Within” and ”Big City Lights.”

Basic Instinct 2: Special Edition: Blu-ray
Michael Caton-Jones’s sequel to the steamy hot Basic Instinct suffered from one irrefutable fact. Too much of the original’s popularity, especially in DVD, derived from watching and re-watching Sharon Stone cross her panty-deprived legs to unnerve cops played by Wayne Knight and Michael Douglas. It was the ultimate tough act to follow. Still, the demand for a sequel by Hollywood producers far outweighed the public’s desire to see if Stone could top it, which she didn’t. In Basic Instinct 2, Scotland Yard appoints psychiatrist Dr. Michael Glass (David Morrissey) to evaluate Stone’s thriller-writing Catherine Tramell. A man in a car she was driving died when it plunged into a river, and she didn’t look the least bit remorseful. As with Detective Nick Curran in the first film, Glass becomes a victim of Tramell’s seductive games. The Blu-ray package contains both the 114-minute theatrical version and unrated 116-minute extended cut of the film, in its original 2.40:1 theatrical aspect ratio; Canton-Jones’ commentary on both editions; deleted scenes and an alternate ending, with optional director commentary; and the featurette, ”Between the Sheets: A Look Inside Basic Instinct 2.” Plans for a second sequel died at the box office.

Memories of Me: Blu-ray
In Henry Winkler’s feature debut as a director, Memories of Me (1988), comics Billy Crystal and Alan King pile up the schmaltz to a height even a Sherpa would have a difficult time scaling. After a heart attack, Abbie Polin (Crystal), a New York heart surgeon – ironic, huh? — goes to Los Angeles to reconnect with his estranged father, Abe (King), who’s known in Hollywood as the “king of the extras.” Abbie’s girlfriend, Lisa (JoBeth Williams), comes along for the ride. Soon enough, Abe begins experiencing memory loss and eventually is diagnosed with a brain aneurysm. Can father and son patch their wounds before it’s too late? Duh. The Blu-ray adds a behind-the-scenes featurette.

Streets of Fire: 35th Anniversary Edition: Steelbook: Blu-ray
Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey: Steelbook Edition: Blu-ray
Steelbook collectors will be happy to learn that Streets of Fire (1984) and Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey (1991) have arrived on Blu-ray, in their preferred packaging option. The only thing that separates the new Streets of Fire edition from last year’s “Collector’s Edition” is a new DTS-HD Master Audio 4.1 soundtrack, created from the 70mm six-track magnetic audio. It enhances the original presentation, which featured original songs written by Jim Steinman, Stevie Nicks, Tom Petty and Ry Cooder and performed by the Blasters and the Fixx. The PG-rated Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey follows its predecessor into steelbook by about six months and “Bill & Ted’s Most Excellent Collection,” in Blu-ray, by only two years. That edition added a pair of new commentaries and a fresh featurette. As usual, superfans should check the details before investing.

The DVD Wrapup: Gauguin, Blindspotting, Skate Kitchen, Wobble Palace, Third Murder, Outrage Coda, Nelly, Luciferina, MDMA, Heavy Trip, Agony, Family I Had … More

Thursday, November 29th, 2018

Gauguin: Voyage to Tahiti: Blu-ray
Once again, I caution students considering an advanced degree in Art History against using biopics as study tools when preparing theses and dissertations. Typically, they contain more dubious historical information than your average Hollywood Western, while promoting starving-artist clichés and the allure of figure models. Nonetheless, they also can be tremendously inspirational and entertaining. Any movie that encourages people to visit their local art museum – or library – is OK with me. Edouard Deluc’s Gauguin: Voyage to Tahiti may not be 100 percent accurate – the only voyage in the movie is the one the artist takes to learn how to fish like a native – it’s certainly capable of encouraging viewers to find the nearest Gauguin exhibition or book a trip to French Polynesia. The wonderful French actor, Vincent Cassel (Black Swan), joins a short list of actors who’ve played the post-Impressionist painter and sculptor at various times in his life. Anthony Quinn won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his brash portrayal in Lust for Life (1956); Donald and Kiefer Sutherland both played Gauguin, in Oviri (1986) and Paradise Found (2003); Wladimir Yordanoff followed him to Arles, in Vincent & Theo (1990); and in The Moon and Sixpence (1942), George Sanders played a British composite. None of the them spent much, if any, time in the South Pacific, or captured the artist’s fragile physical and emotional condition as well as Cassel, who spent time in Tahiti’s mountainous backcountry prepping for the portrayal. It’s there that Gauguin discovers Tehura (Tuheï Adams), the beautiful young native girl who would become his wife-away-from home and muse.

The movie sidesteps Gauguin’s assertion in his memoir, “Noa Noa,” that Tehura was 13 years old, not 17, when she was offered to him in marriage. In her first appearance in a movie, Adams isn’t asked to do much more than look exotic, pose well and provide companionship, all of which she does very well. Once again, the screenplay plays fast and loose with the facts of their relationship and demise. Still, she bears an uncanny resemblance to the woman whose likeness hangs in museums around the world and the paintings included in the final credits. The movie opens in Paris, prior to Gauguin’s first trip to Tahiti. He’s grown weary of buttoned-down European culture and its crowded, noisy and uncaring cities. He’s desperately in need of a genuine experience in a remote corner of the planet. (He’d spent time in Peru as a boy, living with relatives.) We’re also introduced to his beleaguered Danish wife, Mette (Pernille Bergendorff), and five children, who expected to travel with him to paradise, but, at the last moment, decided against it. The Blu-ray benefits from the beauty of the island’s remote locations and representations of island life – much of which Gauguin was too sick or broke to enjoy — and featurettes, including “Illustrations,” with behind-the-scenes footage; “Vincent Cassel Is Gauguin,” a brief piece focusing on the character and the actor portraying him; “Life and Painting of Gauguin,” a five-minute piece that offers an overview of the project, including its genesis in the “Noa Noa” diary of the artist; and “Tahiti,” a short study of the island’s exotic locales.

Blindspotting: Blu-ray
Sorry to Bother You: Blu-ray
As coincidences go, the ones linking Carlos López Estrada’s Blindspotting to Boots Riley’s Sorry to Bother You, which I caught on Netflix, are doozies. Both are set in Oakland and were shot there simultaneously in 2017; both debuted last January at Sundance, and did well in limited release, in July; like the city, itself, their casts are extremely diverse; they’re first features for the writers and directors; both received glowing reviews; and they’ll be represented at next year’s Independent Spirits Awards ceremony. It goes without saying, as well, that the filmmakers take risks that pay off in unexpected ways and make the stories that much more entertaining. Sorry to Bother You describes all the bad things that can happen when a young African-American slacker finally lands a job in the only field that’s hiring people desperate for work these days: telemarketing. Unable to connect with customers, at first, Cassius (Lakeith Stanfield) is encouraged to use his “white voice” on cold-calls. When the strategy pays off, he’s elevated to the status of “power caller.” It elevates him above his striking co-workers, who are engaged in a work stoppage he helped organize. It also gives Cassius access to the company’s penthouse offices and the boss’ perverse plans for conquering the world. It co-stars Tessa Thompson, Danny Glover, Jermaine Fowler, Danny Glover and Armie Hammer.

In Blindspotting, which I received through the usual channels, co-writer Daveed Diggs plays Collin, a young Oakland resident, who we meet as he’s entering his final three days of probation. He’s been living in a halfway house, where, if it weren’t for a lenient supervisor, he’d be sent back to prison for breaking curfew. Collin welcomes this shot at a new beginning in life, but the next 72 hours will provide his toughest test. Collin and his longtime best friend, Miles (Rafael Casal), work as a salt-and-pepper team of movers. Miles acts, talks and dresses as if he were as black as Collin, his girlfriend and most of their neighbors. He even affects a gangsta’-approved silver “grill” on his teeth. Unfortunately, his rage issues threaten to derail Collin’s ambition to go straight. Their anger kicks in whenever they’re in the company of the yuppies, Gen-Xers and millennials who are rapidly gentrifying Oakland. The invasion has caused housing prices to skyrocket and threatened to turn their seedy, if cozy neighborhood into the Bay Area’s newest outpost for bourgeois values and trendy tastes. With Miles unable to control his impulses, Collin is forced to reconsider their relationship, which mirrors the real-life friendship between Diggs and Casal. I don’t think I’m pushing my luck by suggesting that it also mirrors Charlie and Johnny Boy’s relationship in Mean Streets. The Blu-ray adds separate commentaries with Estrada, and Diggs and Casal; and featurettes “Straight From the Town: Making Blindspotting” and “Blindspotting: Director’s Diary”; and deleted scenes.

Skate Kitchen: Blu-ray
Crystal Moselle’s spunky girls-will-be-grrrls drama shares many of the same attributes that link Blindspotting and Sorry to Bother You, including their Sundance debut; young and diverse casts; urban settings; limited release; positive reviews; and festival awards. (I can’t imagine how the Indie Spirits voters missed it.) The primary difference is their location, which, in Skate Kitchen’s case is Lower Manhattan and Long Island. After Moselle completed her award-winning documentary, The Wolfpack (2015), she was approached by Miu Miu to direct a short for their “Women’s Tales” series, with the only stipulation being that it incorporates the company’s clothing. Moselle, who had already been collaborating with female skateboarders she’d met in a New York park, decided to add them to the short, “That One Day.” It premiered at the 73rd Venice International Film Festival. For Skate Kitchen, she recruited many of the same actor/skaters from the short. If nothing else, Mosell wouldn’t have to hire stunt doubles for the skaters. In the short, Rachelle (Rachelle Vinberg) is a newbie skateboarder, who heads to a skate park, where she feels intimidated by the more experienced boys and their bullying. Things change when she’s defended by a group of teenage girls, who don’t take any shit from the boys. In Skate Kitchen, Rachel is already an experienced skater, whose biggest problem is convincing her mother (Elizabeth Rodriguez) that her daredevil style won’t result in a second dangerous wipeout. When that fails, Rachel does an end run around her mom by hooking up with the Skate Kitchen, a group of girls she discovers on the Internet, who meet regularly in a Chinatown skate park. First, though, she must prove to them that she’s worthy. It helps that Rachel’s reputation has preceded her, in the form of videos she’s shared on social media. As part of the Skate Kitchen crew, Rachel has little to fear from the rude boys and their macho posturing. After her mom embarrasses her by paying an unannounced visit to the park, Rachel finds comfort and camaraderie with her hip new friends and, eventually, the stoner boys in their orbit. The coming-of-age scenes include sexual encounters with girls and boys, alike, as well as dealing with disagreements about territorial rights that don’t come into play in the suburbs. The set adds behind-the-scenes featurettes on the skate Shoots; deleted scenes; and a photo gallery

Wobble Palace
The Boy Downstairs: Special Edition: Blu-ray
For several hours after I watched Eugene Kotlyarenko’s Wobble Palace, I tried to come up with the name of the indie writer/director/actor, who, way back in the mid-1990s, created as offensively narcissistic a character as the film’s protagonist, also named Eugene. My digital head-scratching finally led me to Eric Schaeffer, a New York-based multihyphenate (My Life’s in Turnaround) whose early career was briefly on the same trajectory as that of Edward Burns (The Brothers McMullen). Most of Schaeffer’s screenplays recalled his nine-year stint as a cab driver and aspiring screenwriter. The way he told his own story, Schaeffer occasionally was able to convince passengers – attractive women, mostly — that he was on the brink of stardom and worthy of their attention. Apparently, his captive audience included Sarah Jessica Parker, who bought the pitch and agreed to co-star with Schaeffer, alongside Elle MacPherson and Ben Stiller, in If Lucy Fell. Like Woody Allen, he often surrounded his alter-ego characters with tall models and other young women, who pretended, at least, not to mind his stubbly beard and Elmer Fudd hat. After a while, Schaeffer’s conceits simply ran out of gas.

Instead of pre-recession New York, Kotlyarenko’s characters inhabit the hipster haunts on the eastern end of L.A.’s famed Sunset Boulevard, where young people can still find affordable housing. Wobble Palace takes place just days before Halloween and Election Day, 2016. Eugene (Kotlyarenko) and Jane (Dasha Nekrasova) have decided that this might be a good time to attempt a trial separation, if only for the weekend. It involves splitting up their tragically hip residence, which, I think is located somewhere near Old Chinatown, with one day reserved for each of their dalliances. Eugene, whose hairdo makes him look like Ted Nugent after a shower, immediately begins surfing social-media sites for women who might be willing to consider a tryst with a perfect stranger. They pretty much run the gamut of millennial types, from a photographer who splits after taking nude photos of Eugene and posting them on the Internet, to a sexually insatiable urban cowgirl. While Jane is every bit as sexually aggressive as Eugene, she’s also more picky. The guy she identifies as a likely candidate for her intentions bursts her bubble by not pulling out at the appropriate time and declaring his intention to vote for Donald Trump. To Jane’s horror, he uses the morning-after pill as an alternative form of contraception. (His defense of the Republican candidate just as chilling to her.) Kotlyarenko and co-writer Nekrasova clearly have created characters – their own, especially – who represent the self-centered behavior of millennials, who, in L.A., have reached critical mass in some neighborhoods, professions and colleges. With his “floating toupee,” however, Eugene is almost too annoying to watch for more than 15 minutes. Like other directors attempting to encapsulate the millennial moments cinematically, Kotlyarenko relies on the clever use of hand-held vérité footage and social-media inserts. Who knows how many viewers are keeping one eye on their smartphones and the other on the movie playing on their TV monitor? The DVD adds a director’s commentary and deleted scenes, preceded by Kotlyarenko’s introduction. Like Schaeffer, he already has four features – however obscure — under his belt.

Sophie Brooks’ debut feature The Boy Downstairs provides more than ample proof that millennials in Brooklyn can be every bit as boring and annoying as they are in Los Angeles. That’s coming from an old fogey – me — whose children were part of an earlier, seemingly less self-absorbed “generation.” The biggest difference between the characters in The Boy Downstairs and Wobble Palace is the New Yorkers’ ability to go through life without paying constant attention to their handheld devices and social media contacts. The protagonists, Diana and Ben, are convincingly played by Zosia Mamet (“Girls”) and Matthew Shear (“The Alienist”). Once again, viewers are constantly required to guess whether the movie is in flashback mode or unspooling in the present tense. It’s a narrative contrivance that has been beaten to death in rom/com/drams, but refuses to be refined or simply go away. Too often, the characters’ emotional growth is expressed in their clothing, eyeglasses and hair styles, instead of any intellectual progression. Diana and Ben’s romance was interrupted by her decision to study and work in London. Four years later, she returns to New York to start anew. Somehow, she locates a perfectly adorable apartment in the same brownstone in which Ben is living with his new girlfriend (Sarah Ramos). How she can afford such a posh pad is anyone’s guess. Despite the fact it was Diana who initiated the original breakup, and Ben wouldn’t be most people’s idea of a prize catch, the proximity to him completely unnerves her. Brooks provides her with an ideal fallback position, in that Diana is an aspiring novelist, who, when her writer’s block dissolves, may be able to profit from her experiences. Among the women to whom Diana pours out her emotions are Deirdre O’Connell (“The Affair”) and Diana Irvine (“Manson’s Lost Girls”), who get their fair share of funny lines. Ben’s mostly on his own. Although Mamet is a perfect fit for the role, I wouldn’t say that playing Diana required all that much of a stretch for her. After all, Shoshanna Shapiro, Mamet’s character in “Girls,” tore herself away from Hanna, Marnie and Jessa long enough to get a head start on a less-neurotic future. The DVD adds a photo gallery.

The Third Murder: Blu-ray
Outrage Coda: Blu-ray
Orgies of Edo Special Edition: Blu-ray
Lovers of Japanese cinema can thank Film Movement for releasing a pair of 2017 films into DVD/Blu-ray that were only accorded limited exposure here, if that. The timing of Hirokazu Koreeda’s twisty legal drama, The Third Murder, coincides with the limited release of the writer/director’s Palme d’Or-winning Shoplifters, which opened in a handful of theaters over the Thanksgiving weekend. It also is a likely candidate for Best Foreign Language Film honors at the 91st Academy Awards. The Third Murder deviates from Koreeda’s more familiar stories about families under various degrees of societal pressure. In it, a prominent Tokyo lawyer, Shigemori (Masaharu Fukuyama), takes on the defense of murder/robbery/mutilation suspect Misumi (Kôji Yakusho), who’s already served prison time for an earlier murder, 30 years ago, and has confessed to the new charges. No sooner does Shigemori accept what he expects to be a cut-and-dry case than his client begins to change his story for police, the legal team and reporters. This baffles Shigemori, who only anticipated a courtroom battle over the imposition of the death penalty. Relatives of the defendant, the lawyer and the victim – a factory boss, who had just fired Misumi – play important roles in The Third Murder, but Koreeda had other issues in mind. In an interview with Comingsoon.net, the 56-year-old Tokyo native said he was inspired to write a courtroom thriller after conversing with a lawyer friend about the gap between the Japanese public’s perception of the court as a place where people aim for the truth and what happens when lawyers and judges “make adjustments” that serve their own interests. The question then became, “what would happen if a lawyer really started wanting to know the truth?” In a sense, that’s what happens every night in prime-time legal dramas on American television. Viewers don’t have much confidence that the truth will emerge in courtroom settings, unless Perry Mason or one of his direct descendants is on the case. As Shigemori responds to every new claim by Misumi, the distance between them closes to a point where The Third Murder begins to resemble Ingmar Bergman’s Persona (1966). The shifting points of view demand of viewers that they pay close attention to all 124 minutes of the film’s length. Bonus features include a making-of featurette and messages from the cast; an excerpt from an interview with Koreeda and a short film.

Although Outrage Coda may not be the best place for newcomers to enter Takeshi “Beat” Kitano’s trilogy on modern yakuza families, fans of the series will be ecstatic to learn that it’s finally reached our shores, albeit on DVD/Blu-ray. As usual, it’s hard enough to keep track of who’s getting killed by whom in Part III, without also having to figure out what inspired the carnage in the first place. Of the dozens of gangsters we meet in the opening minutes of “Coda,” only a small fraction will survive to see the closing credits. Outrage (2010) described a struggle for power among Tokyo’s yakuza clans, which, at the time, were just as likely to be playing the stock market as shaking down pachinko parlors. The chairman of the dominant Sanmo-kai clan is unhappy to learn that his chief henchman, Ikemoto, has entered into an alliance with the drug-dealing Murase family. When Kato, underboss of Sanno-kai, orders Ikemoto to bring the unassociated Murase-gumi gang in line, he passes the task on to his subordinate Otomo (Takeshi), who runs his own crew. Ultimately, Otomo will pay the price for his successful completion of the assignment by being sent to prison, where he’s shanked by one of the survivors of the Murase clan’s slaughter. Beyond Outrage (2012) opens with Otomo still in prison and police officials anxious to use his release as a catalyst for another round of infighting between the yakuza gangs. In the power shift, Otama is able to settle old scores with those who tried to eliminate him. Now, five years after surviving the all-out war between the Sanno and Hanabishi crime families, Otomo works in South Korea for Mr. Chang, a renowned fixer whose influence extends into Japan. A relatively minor incident causes tensions to rise between Chang Enterprises and the faraway powerful Hanabishi. When Chang’s life is endangered, Otomo returns to Japan to put an end to infighting, once and for all. That summary makes what happens in Outrage Coda sound deceptively orderly and logical, which, of course, it’s not. Kitano takes the double-crossing, back-stabbing and score-settling to an entirely new level and you can’t tell the players without a scorecard. Kitano’s intention, all along, has been to fine-tune the violence and make every incredible shootout as technically viable as possible. The production values are, as usual, impeccable. He also wanted to eliminate any possibility that studio executives might demand a fourth installment. Special features include a feature-length making-of documentary and gallery of ‘Beat’ Takeshi trailers.

Arrow Video’s Orgies of Edo (1969) recalls a period in the Japanese cinema, during which filmmakers and studios turned toward exploitation to counter the impact of television on ticket sales. The shelf life for the individual genres was limited to the whims of a public with a growing number of entertainment options. After the sci-fi/monster boom of the 1950-60s petered out, the studios turned to B-movies featuring gangsters, revenge, juvenile delinquents, star-driven idol eiga and pinku eiga, which combined violence and sex. This didn’t preclude such masters as Akira Kurosawa, Masaki Kobayashi, Hiroshi Inagaki, Kenji Mizoguchi and, until 1963, Yasujirō Ozu from holding up the high end of the cinematic art and appealing to western critics and arthouse audiences, but, then and now, festival favorites didn’t pay the bills. Neither did it prevent an exciting New Wave from emerging. Pink flicks (a.k.a., “eroduction” and “pinky violence”) succeeded even in the face of censorship that forced filmmakers from fogging genitalia and pubic hair. (To avoid censorship, Nagisa Oshima was forced to send undeveloped footage of the sexually explicit In the Realm of the Senses to France and present it as a French entity.) These restrictions forced the more creative filmmakers to use sleight-of-hand to maintain quality and remain commercial. In Toei Company’s Orgies of Edo, Ishii tells three stories of “moral sickness,” set during Japan s prosperous Genroku era. It followed in the direct wake of his landmark “erotic grotesque” classic, Shogun’s Joy of Torture, by building moral lessons around tragic heroines caught up in violence, sadomasochism, incest and torture.

Told in anthology style by an impassive physician (Teruo Yoshida), the first story follows Oito (Masumi Tachibana), an innocent young girl deceived by a handsome yakuza and sold into prostitution and eventual ruin. The tale of Ochise (Mitsuko Aoi) features a rich merchant’s daughter, whose “insatiable appetite for filth and perversion” draws her deeper into violence, darkness and betrayal. Finally, the story of Omitsu (Miki Obana) follows a sadistic lord (Asao Koike), whose eye is caught one day by a beautiful, if secretive member of his harem who shares his strange taste for pain and blood. Ishii s erotic films grew increasingly shocking, violent and strange, with Orgies of Edo combining period detail with “carnivalesque grotesquerie” to create his own particular vision of love and sex. The exquisitely upgraded Arrow Blu-ray adds “The Orgies of Ishii,” a newly filmed interview with author Patrick Maccias; a reversible sleeve, featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Matt Griffin; and an illustrated collector’s booklet, with new writing on the film by Tom Mes.

Fireworks: Blu-ray
Within only a few decades of the exploitation period, Japanese animators would set a new standard for excellence outside Burbank, while also churning out easily translatable anime series for kids. Studio Ghibli led the way to international recognition, but other productions have begun to fill the gap left by the temporary retirement of Hayao Miyazaki, in 2013. Fireworks was animated by Studio Shaft, directed by Akiyuki Shinbo and Nobuyuki Takeuchi, from a screenplay written by Hitoshi Ohne. Last year, the unusually complex rom-dram was nominated for Best Animation Film at the Japanese Academy Awards. Based on Shunji Iwai’s live-action film, Fireworks, Should We See It from the Side or the Bottom? (1993), Fireworks tells the story of a schoolgirl, Nazuna, who’s about to be uprooted by her thrice-married mother and wants to escape her countryside town before that can happen. She’s admired by two post-pubescent boys, Norimichi and Yusuke, who’ve only recently begun to pay attention to their classmates’ feminine curves. Together, the trio also is obsessed with discovering whether fireworks, when exploded in the sky, are flat or round. On the day she plans to skip town with one of the boys, Nazuna finds a mysterious orb – not unlike a large cat’s-eye marble – that, when thrown, creates flashbacks to previous events. Each new reset results in complications that take them farther from reality. Fireworks probably requires a bit more concentration than viewers usually invest in animated features, but the music and voice actors make the 90-minute fantasy easier to digest. Special features include an interview with the director; a behind-the-scenes pieces with the English cast, including Brooklyn Nelson, Aaron Dalla Villa and Ryan Shanahan; and optional English and Japanese audio tracks.

Nelly
Anne Émond’s smart and sexy bio-drama, Nelly, is based on the semi-autobiographical novels of French-Canadian sex worker, Nelly Arcan. “Putain,” which became an international best-seller in 2001, contains similarities between the protagonist, Cynthia, and Arcan’s own experiences as a prostitute and professional escort. Besides achieving critical and commercial success, “Putain” (“Whore”) was a finalist for both the Prix Médicis and the Prix Fémina, two of France’s most prestigious literary awards. Arcan was found dead in her Montreal apartment on September 24, 2009. She hanged herself after completing her fourth and last book, “Paradis, Clef en main,” whose narrator is left handicapped after a suicide attempt. Émond (Nuit #1) appears to have followed the blueprint laid out in Arcan’s book faithfully and frequently quotes from the text. In Mylène Mackay (“L’Âge adulte”), Émond found an actress, who, when called upon, can look glamorous and sophisticated, intensely sexy, plain, troubled, totally in control, frightened, younger and older. The production values are fine, and, at 100 minutes, it doesn’t overstay its welcome. The problem is, of course, that there’s nothing particularly new here. There might have been if Nelly had been released before Steven Soderbergh’s The Girlfriend Experience (2009) or Lodge Kerrigan and Amy Seimetz’s guilty-pleasure adaptation, for Starz! HBO’s “The Deuce” covers some of the same territory, as well, if only from a street-level point-of-view. Ditto, Christian Molina’s Diary of a Nymphomaniac (2008) and Showtime’s “Secret Diary of a Call Girl,” which also was based on the published memoirs of a onetime British prostitute and research scientist, Dr. Brooke Magnanti. I could go on. That said, Nelly should interest genre completists and those few people here who’ve seen Nuit #1. And, while some of scenes are undeniably hot, there probably isn’t enough skin revealed to attract fans of even soft-core porn. Arcan’s books have been translated into English and are available on Amazon.

Luciferina: Blu-ray
Apart from its intriguing title, Luciferina benefits from being shot in what we’re told is an abandoned convent, deep within an Argentinean jungle. As it turns out, however, the church and convent are inhabited by shamans, long-forgotten nuns and all manner of demonic spirits. The possibility that a divine presence could also be lingering in the shadows also exists, but it seems unlikely. While Gonzalo Calzada has dabbled with supernatural phenomena in previous features, in Luciferina he located Satan’s kitchen sink and threw it into the mix, just to make sure he didn’t miss anything. And, that appears to include references to Kenneth Russell’s less saintly efforts and the “Star Child” in 2001: A Space Odyssey. The picture opens in a more traditional convent, where a 19-year-old novice, Natalia (Sofía Del Tuffo), has just been informed of the death of her mother and worsening condition of her father, who’s been made up to resemble Boris Karloff in The Mummy. No matter how you slice it, Natalia’s family is out there where the buses don’t run at night. In Natalia’s absence, her sister was abused by her father and has lost faith in anything spiritual. Along with a couple of other friends, the sisters agree to take a boat to the overgrown church and convent, in search of a shaman conversant in the rites associated with the ayahuasca vine, which induces hallucinations and near-death experiences. That’s just the beginning of Natalia’s ordeal, however. Once the satanic presence slams the doors on the church, the battle royal for her soul begins for real. She assisted by the ancient nuns, who look as if they’ve been performing exorcisms and delivering hideously deformed babies for hundreds of years. The other thing to know is that Natalia’s salvation is complicated by the fact that she was never baptized and has been waiting for Jesus to return to take her virginity. As we approach the 110-minute mark, even that seems possible. Calzada creates an atmosphere of dread early in the proceedings and allows it to build to a crescendo when the shit gets real.

High Voltage: Blu-ray
Alex Keledjian’s been around the business long enough to have created “Project Greenlight,” which made some noise in 2001 for giving aspiring filmmakers a shot at making a real movie and being co-executive produced by Ben Affleck and Matt Damon. I don’t know how long the idea for High Voltage has been gestating inside his brain, but it could be as many years as he’s been listening to rock ’n’ roll. The industry hasn’t evolved that much in the last 50 years, or so, and the possibility that a musician might be possessed by the demon goes back to Robert Johnson. As the picture opens, a completely dissipated band manager, Jimmy Kleen (David Arquette), is celebrating his 50th birthday – for the third time, he says – when he stumbles upon two artists who could help resurrect his career. Scott (Ryan Donowho) is an ambitious songwriter and guitarist from the Dave Matthews school of rock, while Rachel (Allie Gonino) is a promising young singer, afflicted with stage fright. Kleen attempts to interest record executive Rick Roland (Luke Wilson) in the band, Hollow Body, but he’s too high-and-mighty to help a friend. After blowing their first gig, due to Rachel’s phobia, lightning strikes a car carrying the singer and her mother (Perry Reeves). Both seemingly are lying dead in the local morgue, when Rachel is revived by what either is divine or diabolical intervention. Not only does the shock therapy cure her stage fright, but it also adds a range of emotion to her voice that rivals Tina Turner. Moreover, Rachel begins to act like a rock star, wearing hot little outfits and teasing her hair to the sky. Whenever a man attempts to kiss her, though, she zaps them with a charge of electricity that sucks the life out of them. If Keledjian isn’t quite able to use special electrical effects to scare viewers, at least the devil’s music, if you will, is pretty entertaining.

MDMA: Blu-ray
At the same time as crack cocaine was beginning to ravage cities around the United States, a far different kind of drug, ecstasy, was being mass-produced by semi-pro chemists in Europe for the enjoyment of ravers and 24-hour-party people. Both substances were illegally manufactured and distributed, then, and still are. The crack-cocaine epidemic crushed the souls of a generation of impoverished youths and adults, most of them of color, while devastating the economies of cities already crippled by Reaganomics. MDMA wasn’t without its addictive properties and, yes, some users were harmed by misusing what was generally perceived to be strictly a recreational drug, whose desired effects include altered sensations, increased energy, empathy and sensory pleasure. As rave parties and electronic dance music caught on here, so did the demand for E, which had originally been synthesized in 1912 and gained popularity in the 1960s, as MDA. At the time, it was considered a mellower alternative to LSD and amphetamines, and easier to find and afford than psilocybin mushrooms. Like most other drugs in 1970s, it was overshadowed by the widespread use and availability of powdered cocaine. That’s all anyone needs to know before inserting or streaming Angie Wang’s semi-autobiographical debut drama, MDMA (a.k.a., “Cardinal X”), into their home-theater system.

Set in 1984, MDMA describes the rise and inevitable fall of one of the most successful, if unlikely drug queenpins on the west coast. Angie (Annie Q) is a first-generation Chinese-American from a tough urban background, who was raised by her father (Ron Yuan) after her mother split, taking her brother with her. Blessed with a talent for chemistry, Angie is accepted at a prestigious university and awarded financial aid. Her party-hardy roommate, Jeanine (Francesca Eastwood) not only introduces Angie to the school’s social scene, but she also inspires her to exploit the campus’ growing desire for Ecstasy. With the assistance of a fellow Asian-American chemistry nerd (Scott Keiji Takeda) – who has a crush on her – she creates a market and distribution system for the expertly made substance among the Greek-letter set. At the same time, she volunteers as a Big Sister for a local girl, whose mother and brother are abusers of heavier drugs and alcohol. While the experience helps Angie locate her place on the food chain of enablers and profiteers, she rationalizes it as a means to help the girl’s family out financially. Her first cruel awakening comes when she realizes that any money she gives the girl will be stolen by her mother and brother. The second comes when a larger-scale dealer demands that Angie supply him with the MDMA, so that he can control supply-and-demand and gouge her frat and sorority patrons. The third comes when … well, see for yourself. An interview with Wang amplifies on her own involvement in the by-now familiar cautionary tale – not unlike the story told in “Breaking Bad” – as well as her subsequent evolution as a business woman, social activist and filmmaker. As writer/director/actor/producer here, Wang probably bit off more than she could have chewed and digested, but, as a first feature, MDMA neatly fits within the drug-drama subgenre and further increases the visibility of Asian-American actors and filmmakers.

Heavy Trip
In one were able to meld Aki Kaurismäki’s Leningrad Cowboys Go America and Christopher Guest’s Spinal Tap, the result would probably look and sound very much like Juuso Laatio and Jukka Vidgren’s Heavy Trip. Those unfamiliar with Kaurismaki’s award-winning work aren’t able to fully appreciate how much it reflects traits associated with Finnish life and culture. The minimalistic approach allows for long spaces between words and actions, as well as a quiet inner strength – not to be confused with self-confidence — that has allowed the citizenry to endure periods of hardship and adversity … not to mention the annual absence of sunlight. Their humor has been described as dark, dry and subtle, with plenty of sarcasm thrown in for kicks. Heavy Trip follows the rise from anonymity to obscurity of a death-metal band, Impaled Rektum, based in the small Arctic Circle town of Taivalkoski. Turo (Johannes Holopainen) and his bandmates don’t look or dress any different from metal-heads anywhere else on the planet, but, like everyone else in Finland, they favor beer and aquavit over most other mind-altering substances. While a similar ensemble in the U.S. or England might wait until they’ve mastered two or three songs before trying their luck on the nightclub circuit, Impaled Rektum has practiced for 12 years without playing a single gig. The band’s lack of progress has led to Turo becoming the brunt of jokes for people his age and being reticent around women to whom he’s attracted, including the local gendarme’s daughter, Miia (Minka Kuustonen).

Turo’s paying gig is as an orderly at a local mental-health facility, where he cleans up messes and impresses the patients with his ability to use a broom as a make-believe mic stand. The band’s biggest hang-up is an inability to come up with a recognizable sound of its own, which normally wouldn’t be a problem for an aspiring rock group. Every time guitarist Lotvonen (Samuli Jaski) proposes a riff, it reminds bassist, Pasi (Max Ovaska), of a song popularized by another band and is vetoed. Working at his dad’s reindeer-processing business, drummer Jynnky identifies the band’s ultimate sound when a carcass gets stuck in a machine and the grinding reminds him of an industrial-metal motif. The other musicians agree that it could translate into a riff uniquely suited to Impaled Rektum. Soon thereafter, the band is approached by an English-speaking gent – they somehow confuse him for a government meat inspector – who’s promoting a headbanger festival in Norway. Not only does this sudden, unexpected recognition buoy the musicians’ career hopes, but it also makes them heroes in their small town. Suffice it say that nothing, from this point forward, will go precisely as planned for the boys, especially when a local pop star conspires with Miia’s dad to prevent the band from reaching Norway. Heavy Trip hits nearly all the right notes on the way to a (nearly) fairy-tale ending.

Agony
On the 3rd of October (the year doesn’t matter), unfortunate residents of Vienna are shocked to discover body parts belonging to a young woman turning up in dumpsters around the city. Police have no ID on the victim, whose head is missing, let alone suspects or a motive for the murder. Even if the pieces of the puzzle don’t quite fit, viewers have a much better handle on what’s going on than the police. What we don’t know is why David Clay Diaz is describing two men’s malfunctions, side by side, instead of those pertaining to the obvious killer. Maybe he’s setting the stage for something far bloodier and several times more villainous. Or, maybe not. Diaz’ feature debut, Agony, doesn’t fit neatly within usual genre classifications: drama, thriller, slasher, psychodrama. In July 2016, before it pretty much disappeared, Agony screened at Montreal’s genre-heavy Fantasia International Film Festival. Diaz’ split-narrative character study, comparing two millennials from opposite backgrounds, leads us to believe that their stories overlap. The biggest hints come in the way both men the deal with the women in their lives. The 24-year-old law student (Samuel Schneider) is a handsome fellow, who would appear to have everything going for him, except in the sack. That’s where we discover that normal sexual activity provides no thrill for him, at all. For the time being, anyway, his girlfriend willingly plays along with his increasingly kinky fetishes, which began with a slap and now include duct tape and bondage. His boxer/rapper counterpart (Alexander Srtschin) is from the other side of town, where life is hard-scrabble and machismo is enforced by parents and peers. Still, he’s grown tired of being bullied by his father, who calls him a pansy and demands to see his muscles. Neither will his former girlfriend cut him any slack. More telling, his best friend and sparring partner is making advances toward him sexually and he doesn’t quite know how to respond, except with violence. Both of these 24-year-olds are ticking time bombs, but only one is the killer. I wouldn’t have minded another 10 minutes of exposition.

Learning to See: The World of Insects: Blu-ray
Planetary
There are numerous ways to convince reasonably intelligent human beings of the dangers of global warming and its relationship to carbon-based fuels. One is to show them images of melting glaciers and ice packs, blackened skies and starving polar bears. Another is simply to make documentaries about the wondrous creatures – great and small – with whom we share the Earth and are likely to disappear in our children’s lifetimes. It can be presented as a nature film, without emphasizing the threats posed by shrinking habitats and pollutants. Unless the person to whom you’re addressing is a greedy business executive, a Republican politician or base-conscious president of the United States, a brief mention usually will suffice. Jake Oelman’s brilliantly photographed Learning to See: The World of Insects describes his father’s transformational journey from being a Boston psychologist who cared too much about his patients’ pain and his inability to cure all their ills, to someone unafraid to relocate to Colombia and reassess his future as a citizen of the world. Encouraged by something Robert read in Gabriel García Márquez’ “Love in the Time of Cholera,” Oelman the celebrated novel by Colombian Nobel Laureate. He bought a plot of land in the mountains, just outside of drug-ravaged Cali, and restored a finca there. As a born-again artist, Oelman began photographing the life on his land, starting small and getting smaller. He began with the almost impossible task of capturing hummingbirds in midflight and, then, turned to insects, some of them so well-camouflaged that he needed a guide to find them. From the mountains, Oelman journeyed to the Amazon basin, where an entirely new population of critters presented themselves to him. In an area that’s become increasingly dependent of revenues of oil drilling, it wasn’t difficult to see how its inhabitants might be endangered. The Blu-ray includes deleted scenes and making-of material.

Planetary (2015) employs a well-known image of the Earth, shot from the Space Shuttle, to demonstrate how everything on the planet is connected and how easy it is to see how much damage has been done to it since space travel began. It’s a powerful photograph, but no less impressive than the first color image of Earth that was used as the cover image of Whole Earth Catalog’s first edition, in 1968. For some reason, editor Stewart Brand had to repeatedly petition the government for use of a whole-earth photograph, like the composite of images taken in 1967 by the ATS-3 satellite. Neither was Davis Guggenheim’s Academy Award-winning documentary An Inconvenient Truth (2006) – based on Vice President Al Gore’s campaign to educate people about global warming – the first shot fired in the war to save the planet. After all, the first Earth Day was celebrated on April 22, 1970, and an enhanced photograph of the planet, taken from Apollo 17, was incorporated into John McConnell’s Earth Day flag. Even so, Guy Reid and Steve Watts Kennedy’s Planetary is a welcome addition to the catalogue of documentaries based on the premise that there’s still time to save the planet. It does so by interweaving imagery from NASA Apollo missions with visions of the Milky Way, Buddhist monasteries in the Himalayas, and the cacophonous sounds of downtown Tokyo and Manhattan, with intimate interviews from renowned experts including astronauts Ron Garan and Mae Jemison, environmentalist Bill McKibben, National Book Award winner Barry Lopez, anthropologist Wade Davis, National Geographic Explorer Elizabeth Lindsey and head of the Tibetan Buddhist Kagyu school, the 17th Karmapa. It adds an abridged edition of the film, for television, and other making-of material.

My Big Gay Italian Wedding
It’s too bad Nia Vardalos can’t demand royalties on movies that paraphrase her title, My Big Fat Greek Wedding. If she could, perhaps, we’d finally see the last of them. By the time Alessandro Genovesi’s entertaining matrimonial comedy, Puoi baciare lo sposo (“You May Kiss the Groom”) found its way to America, it had exhausted the alternative titles, “Matrimonio italiano” and “My Big Crazy Italian Wedding.” Its newest title, My Big Gay Italian Wedding, corresponds with Anthony J. Wilkinson’s play, which included original music and lyrics written by David James Boyd and premiered off-Broadway on November 14, 2003, and has been re-mounted in various cities and venues ever since then. In it, Antonio (Cristiano Caccamo) and Paolo (Salvatore Esposito) live happily together in Berlin and are finally making plans to get married in Antonio’s lovely hometown, Civita di Bagnoregio. Before than can happen, however, Paolo insists that Antonio come out to his family. Antonio’s mother (Monica Guerritore), who’s never doubted he was gay, has demands of her own: that they hire a famous reality-show wedding planner to make it as grand as possible; that Antonio’s homophobic father (Diego Abatantuono), the town’s image-conscious mayor, officiate; and that Paolo forces his similarly homophobic mother to be there, too. That might be the toughest one to pull off, as they’ve been estranged for the past three years. Ironically, the town’s priest is one of the first to give them his blessing. Optimistic that they can pull it off, Antonio and Paolo head south with flatmates – loudmouth Bernadetta (Diana Del Bufalo) and crossdressing Donato (Dino Abbrescia) — in tow. The screwball silliness doesn’t end there, as one of Antonio’s final one-night-stands (Beatrice Arnera) demands that he admit he’s straight and give her another chance. With all that nonsense to digest in one 90-minute setting, it’s almost a miracle that My Big Gay Italian Wedding turned out as consistently upbeat and enjoyable as it is. Even the Italian cultural clichés work. It helps that, with same-sex marriages already a fait accompli, Genovesi didn’t feel obligated to lard the narrative with any political sidebars, and that the physically mismatched grooms don’t look as if they just fell off the top of a wedding cake.

The Marine 6: Close Quarters: Blu-ray
Last week, I commented on how much influence Sylvester Stallone’s Rambo had on subsequent series fronted by Bruce Willis, Mel Gibson, Steven Seagal and Arnold Schwarzenegger. The same can be said about the WWE superstars who populate The Marine franchise, many of whose characters’ backgrounds match that of the former Green Beret, who the government turned into a killer and, then, abandoned … until it needed him, again. In his first theatrical picture, John Cena introduced the series in 2006, as a former Marine who used his training to thwart stateside crimes. (Opening footage of the enemy base in the Middle East reportedly was repurposed from Rambo III.) Even factoring in worldwide grosses, The Marine barely broke even on paper. Ted DiBiase Jr. replaced Cena in the lead role of The Marine 2 (2009), which wisely went straight-to-DVD/Blu-ray. In The Marine 3: Homefront (2013), Mike “The Miz” Mizanin began his four-picture run as former Sgt. Jake Carter. The latest installment, The Marine 6: Close Quarters, pairs Carter with another retired jarhead, Luke Trapper (Shawn Michaels), who owes his life to his friend and fellow EMT. (Or, maybe, it’s the other way around.) They’re asked by the VA to extract a homeless veteran from an abandoned brewery. He’s dug in pretty securely, however, and is in no mood to be saved. As luck would have it, Luke and Jake overhear the screams of a teenager, Sarah (Louisa Connolly-Burnham), who’s been kidnapped and is being held for ransom there by a gang of heavily armed thugs led by Maddy Hayes (SmackDown Women’s Champion Becky Lynch). She has told the girl’s father that she will be killed if he doesn’t force a mistrial in her father’s trial, on which he’s a jury member. Long story short, when the EMTs separate the hostage from her captors, a long, loud and messy chase ensues. It covers the entire length, breadth and depth of brewery, as well as a grain chute and tunnels leading to the river. As these things go, the ridiculously gratuitous violence is enhanced by the claustrophobic quarters and absence of electricity. If fans of the series are looking for surprises, they’ll have to wait until very close to the ending. It will be worth the wait. I have no idea if these films make money or they’re loss leaders for the WWE brand, which just expanded into Saudi Arabia. I suspect there will be at least one more entry. The Blu-ray adds the featurettes “Making Maddy & The Marines” and “The Breakdown: Epic Fights.”

TV-to-DVD
Discovery ID: The Family I Had: Special Edition: Blu-ray
PBS: Frontline: Left Behind America
PBS: Breaking Big
With all the true-crime shows clogging up the TV dial, you’d think that all the good murder mysteries would have been exhausted, by now. Sadly, in a country where gun lobbyists literally call the shots, new ones come along every day. The case upon which Katie Green and Carlye Rubin based The Family I Had has already been given several once-overs in the media and Internet and the guilt of the killer isn’t in doubt.   The documentary does, however, ask viewers to address questions that weren’t at issue during the trial and would be impossible to answer on film. The biggest among them: what’s the culpability of parents and guardians in a murder that might have been avoided if they’d acted like responsible adults and hadn’t ignored the obvious signs of a teenager’s danger to society? On Superbowl Sunday, Charity Lee was working at a restaurant in Abilene, Texas, when she was informed by police that her 4-year-old daughter, Ella, had been butchered by her 13-year-old half-brother, Paris Bennett. In a call to the 911 operator, he had admitted to “accidentally” killing the girl – who, he said, was possessed by the devil — and asked her what to do next. After pretending to perform CPR, all that was left for Paris to do was await arrest, sentencing and jail. Under Texas law, psychiatrists may have been limited in their ability to diagnose an underage suspect’s mental condition. Paris’ sociopathic tendencies were noted, however. Now 24, he could be eligible for parole in another nine years. It isn’t likely that he would be released, but, in Texas, stranger things happen every day. Other details laid out in The Family I Had make us wonder about what could happen when, and if, Paris is released. For all anyone knows, he could harbor the same grudges held when Charity left for work that day in 2007 and he convinced Ella’s babysitter to leave early. Or, she fears, Paris might decide to punish her further by harming the half-sibling who was born after he was incarcerated. We aren’t told what kind of meds, if any, he’s taking and what could happen if decided not to take them. Moreover, the documentary presents circumstantial evidence that he might have been pre-conditioned to commit such a heinous crime simply by growing up among parental figures who never should have been allowed to raise gerbils, let alone children.

When Charity was only 6, Paris’ rich, vain and oft-married grandmother was charged with hiring a hitman to murder her husband, using a powerful handgun. Although Kyla was acquitted, she admits here to flirting with jury members. Charity was clearly scarred by her father’s death, the effects of the trial and the cruel gossip of people in their hometown. It probably led, in part, at least, to Charity becoming addicted as a teenager to hard drugs and bad boyfriends. She cleaned up, but, after several years of sobriety, relapsed on cocaine when Ella was a toddler. She suspects that Paris, who registered IQ of 141, blamed her for not having a father figure in his life – or Ella’s — and forcing them to move in with Kyla when she relapsed. In the doc, all sorts of people say they began recognizing warning signs in Paris after Ella was born and he was forced to share his mother and grandmother’s attention. Interviews with Paris in prison add to our confusion over whether he’s still unbalanced, sincerely remorseful, getting the right psychiatric treatment and is genuinely thankful for his mother’s continued presence in his life. (As a teenager, he had joined Kyla in a suit requesting that Charity be removed as his legal guardian.) Charity has since moved to Georgia and established a foundation to support and advocate for people impacted by violence. She says that she’s forgiven Paris and visits him regularly in prison. Even so, she fears what might happen if he’s released without receiving the proper treatment. Multiple accounts allow for conflicting points of view, leaving viewers questioning where the ultimate truth and accountability lie. There’s also the whole nature-vs.-nurture debate. The DVD includes deleted scenes.

Over on PBS, the “Frontline” presentation, “Left Behind America,” chronicles how situations beyond the residents’ control conspired to reverse one Rust Belt city’s status, from a showcase to a municipality on the brink of collapse. Well into the country’s post-WWII economic boom, Dayton maintained a balance between white- and blue-collar jobs, decent housing for most people and the promise of upward mobility for people with union jobs, at least. When the American Dream of home ownership in comfortable surroundings drove white families to the suburbs, it became clear to blacks and Hispanics that they weren’t welcome to share in it. Even if good jobs were still available, businesses followed the money to the suburbs. When rising gas prices in the 1970s threatened the county’s once-thriving auto industry – second only to Detroit — it triggered a ripple effect throughout the region’s industrial base. Reaganomics came, but never left. President Clinton’s NAFTA program and China’s 2001 entry into the World Trade Organization greased the skids for American businesses to look elsewhere for cheap labor and fewer regulations, with Wall Street’s blessing. Crack cocaine and opiates filled the void left by jobs no longer there. With a recent influx of refugees from Turkey and other countries, Dayton has shown signs of rebirth. The newcomers identified exploitable niches in the economy and built businesses from the ground up. Some people returned to work, but with substantially lower wages and benefits – or none, at all — that barely lifted families above the poverty level. It’s a fascinating, if depressing documentary, with clearly identified villains and victims.

In the PBS series, “Breaking Big,” some of the world’s most influential artists, innovators, athletes and leaders explain how they’ve pushed, prodded and cajoled the big breaks that would make them successful, frequently against steep odds. The 30-minute episodes feature such interesting and inspirational success stories as those provided by Trevor Noah, Eddie Huang, Danai Gurira, Jason Aldean, Ruth Zukerman, Christian Siriano, Roxane Gay, Michael Strahan, Senator Kristen Gillibrand, Lee Daniels, Gretchen Carlson and Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz.

DVD Gift Guide II: Bergman@100, 2001 4K, Rambo 4K, Dances With Wolves, Robin Williams, Ernie Kovacs, Detectorists, Frosty, Elf … More

Wednesday, November 21st, 2018

Ingmar Bergman’s Cinema: The Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
I don’t know how Big Kahuna translates into Swedish – in Star Wars’ Galactic Empire, it’s Grand Moff – but, as far as holiday gift-giving goes, it’s “Ingmar Bergman’s Cinema: The Criterion Collection.” I will only mention it in passing here, because the boxed set only landed on my doorstep on Tuesday, with a discernible “thud,” and it will require a month’s worth of binging to get a grip on it. In the interest of taking advantage of Black Friday savings, I’d be remiss not to give movie lovers a heads-up here. I’ll simply pass along Criterion’s description and return later with my own thoughts: “In honor of Ingmar Bergman’s 100th birthday, the Criterion Collection is proud to present the most comprehensive collection of his films ever released on home video. … Arranged as a curated film festival, with ‘opening’ and ‘closing’ nights bookending double features and ‘centerpiece’ programs, this selection spans six decades and thirty-nine films — including such celebrated classics as The Seventh Seal, Persona and Fanny and Alexander, alongside previously unavailable works, like Dreams, The Rite and Brink of Life.” And, before you ask, copyright issues, presumably, caused a small handful of titles — It Rains on Our Love, Music in Darkness, Prison, This Can’t Happen Here, Face to Face, The Blessed Ones and In the Presence of Clowns – to be MIA. I can’t wait to dig into the bonus features, including a 248-page retrospective book, but that will have to wait until I’ve fully digested Thanksgiving dinner.

2001: A Space Odyssey: Blu-ray/4K UHD HDR
Kids aren’t alone in wanting to play with their presents on Christmas morning. If I received a box containing a spanking new 4K UHD player/receiver and already had a fully compatible television or video monitor – and cables, don’t forget the High-Definition Multimedia Interface (HDMI) cables – I’d probably want to take it out for a spin. The only way to do that is to link the platform and monitor, using the HDMI cables and designated inputs, usually sold separately, and insert a 4K UHD disc. Most 4K movies come with a separate Blu-ray copy of the movie, as well as a digital link. And, while all Blu-rays and DVDs can be played through a 4K UHD platform, 4K UHD discs won’t work on dedicated Blu-ray/DVD playback units. Some companies add high-dynamic-range capability, as well. In a nutshell, HDR improves the contrast between the darker and brighter parts of a scene. Theoretically, anyway, the more you pay for a TV, the better the viewing experience will be. After three years in the marketplace, however, the price-tags on top- and mid-shelf equipment have become extremely affordable, which is more than can be said for 3D HDTV, with or without 4K UHD recognition.

The first movie I would suggest buying to complete the package would be 2001: A Space Odyssey, which is newly available on 4K UHD, with HDR. It’s worth remembering, perhaps, that Stanley Kubrick’s visionary masterpiece arrived in theaters around the world a full year before the Apollo 11 mission landed on the lunar surface on July 20, 1969. Although it’s hailed today as one of the greatest visual experiences in cinematic history, it failed to impress all mainstream critics upon its release, and audiences generally took their word for it. It wasn’t until a couple weeks later, when buzz reached more spaced-out audiences, that 2001: A Space Odyssey really began selling popcorn. In an interview, it’s recalled how MGM execs were so concerned about ticket sales that they considered pulling the film from theaters. It wasn’t until small groups of hippies began to show up, taking seats as close to the screen as possible, that light bulbs began going off over the heads of theater owners. Some of the repeat patrons would arrive moments before the “Star Gate” sequence, so as not to lose their high. (It became a rite of passage for stoners.) Co-writer/author Arthur C. Clarke once reportedly said about confusion over certain aspects of the film, “If you understand ‘2001’ completely, we failed. We wanted to raise far more questions than we answered.” And, they did. So, why invest in a 4K edition? Anyone who’s only experienced “2001” on cassette or early DVD can’t say that they’ve truly watched it as Kubrick might have intended, if he had lived long enough to supervise the remaster. (It was shot in Cinerama, Todd AO and Super Panavision 70.) Now, it’s almost possible to read the small-print instructions on the zero-gravity toilet. Newcomers may also enjoy seeing how many of the brand-name companies referenced in the lunar-commuter sequence are still around: Pan Am, Bell System, no; Howard Johnson’s and Parker pens, not really; Hilton Hotels and GM, yes. The colors are sharper. The dialogue is crisper. The depth is deeper. The original bonus features have been “ported over,” as well. RIP: Douglas Rain, who voiced the HAL 9000 computer, died last week, at 90.

Stallone: First Blood: Blu-ray/4K UHD
Rambo: First Blood: Part II: Blu-ray/4K UHD
Rambo III: Blu-ray/4K UHD
If your tastes run more toward blood-and-guts action, the folks at Lionsgate have repackaged the first three entries in the saga of Vietnam veteran John Rambo and sent them out in 4K UHD. Initially, in Stallone: First Blood, the former Green Beret was driven to use his combat and survival training to avoid by being pushed around and tortured by a group of redneck sheriffs, who get their kicks out of tormenting hitchhikers and vagrants. In David Morrell’s 1972 novel, Rambo suffers from an extreme case of PTSD, which triggers flashbacks to the time he spent during the war, as an NVA prisoner. After returning to the U.S. and being treated shabbily by “anti-war hippies” and other civilians who’d lost their enthusiasm for the war, Rambo attempts to avoid confrontations by turning his back on civilization. (In my experience, there weren’t many real hippies who would confront anyone in uniform, let alone one as muscular as Sylvester Stallone, and the number of protesters who got close enough to a soldier to spit at them was greatly exaggerated the right-wing media.) By the time “First Blood” made the transition from page to screen, a lot of Rambo’s backstory was compacted and pushed to the end of the movie in a dramatically rendered monologue by the unbeaten, but clearly damaged protagonist. It made sense to lead with the explosive action that followed his escape from the police station in which he’s been beaten, hosed down and almost given a haircut. Embarrassed, the prototypically drawn sheriff (Brian Dennehy) vows to re-capture his prisoner, by any means necessary. In turn, Rambo employs all his skills and experience to avoid the police posse, a helicopter-borne sniper, National Guard troops and an unsuspecting deer hunter, who stumbles into the chase. At a crisp 93-minutes, director Ted Kotcheff didn’t have a lot of time for exposition and contemplation. Instead, Rambo achieved icon status, by looking tres, tres cool, in his wife-beater shirt, bandana and cradling an M-60 machine gun in his arms. Posters carrying this image have been found in the homes of terrorists, freedom fighters, insurgents and vigilantes around the globe, no matter the cause. While it’s easy to consider the sheriff and his deputies to be cut from Hollywood cardboard, at the time of the movie’s release, there were still plenty of reported cases of police harassment of hitchhikers and long-haired Vietnam vets who just wanted to be left alone. I don’t know if the producers foresaw the creation of a franchise series, but it’s true that they shot two endings. In the first one, all the primary characters die. The second option deviates from the book, by leaving the door open for a sequel. It didn’t take long for Rambo to become one of the most recognizable movie characters in the world, as a well a model for action characters played by Bruce Willis, Mel Gibson and Vin Diesel.

The other sequels – discounting the 2008 reboot and a fourth addition, in 2019 – have also been released in 4K UHD.  In Rambo: First Blood Part II (1985), Colonel Samuel Troutman (Richard Crenna) gets Rambo released from prison, so he can go back to Vietnam to find, photograph and take it upon himself to bring back POW’s still held there. In Rambo III (1988), Our Hero mounts a one-man mission to rescue Trautman from the clutches of Soviet forces in Afghanistan. That’s how old the series is. The packages include archived bonus material, including commentaries, interviews, deleted scenes, making-of and background featurettes. The only new featurette is a three-part retrospective, “Rambo Takes the ’80s,” which is spread across the three titles. Look for them on the included Blu-ray editions.

Dances With Wolves: Limited Edition: Blu-ray
It would have been nice to report that Kevin Costner’s Dances With Wolves was being made available in 4K UHD, but, alas, it’s not. For reasons that are probably too complicated to summarize here, Shout!Factory is releasing the epic Western in a limited-edition “Steelbook Collector’s Edition,” which contains Blu-ray editions of the 181-minute theatrical edition (1990) – apparently for the first time – and nearly four-hour-long extended edition, which was released theatrically after the success of the shorter version. (Some critics have never forgiven “Dances” for defeating Goodfellas, as Best Picture, and Costner for outpolling Scorsese in the director’s race.) Costner has said that he considers both versions to be director’s cuts and, when asked, he prefers the theatrical one. (Another extended version, minus some violence and possibly objectionable scenes, has been shown on network television.) Unlike extended versions of most other films, the additional material here doesn’t merely consist of snippets of footage swept off the cutting-room floor and stored in a desk drawer, somewhere. Much of it truly does amplify the story, which isn’t to say that its inclusion in the theatrical version would have improved it. It’s fun to watch, however, and doesn’t change the ending or character profiles. (Compare them at www.movie-censorship.com/report.php?ID=1186797.)

Both Blu-ray iterations look great on my set, especially the outdoor scenes shot in South Dakota’s Badlands, Black Hills and Fort Pierre. I didn’t know there was that much unspoiled open range left in the United States. For the record, Costner stars as Civil War hero Lieutenant John Dunbar, who befriends a tribe of Lakota Sioux while stationed at a desolate outpost on the frontier. It takes a while for Dunbar to go native, but, when he does, the transformation is handled with attention to cultural detail and respect for the Lakota language, which comprises 25 percent of the dialogue. The romance that blossoms between Dunbar and Stands With a Fist (Mary McDonnell) – a white girl taken captive as a girl by an Indian war party – doesn’t feel forced or fake. In a movie that pays close attention to native clothing and hair styles, however, it’s strange how gnarly and windblown McDonnell’s always is. A separate disc contains the bonus material.

Robin Williams: Comic Genius Deluxe Set
No holiday season would be complete without at least one gotta-have-it collection of comedy or music from Time Life. Its recently released Robin Williams: Comic Genius easily qualifies a boxed set that will keep viewers and listeners entertained until New Year’s Day, if one chooses to binge their week off school or work watching TV. Williams, who died four years ago, at 63, was the kind of nonpareil talent who rarely, if ever disappointed his fans, whether he was appearing as a guest on a late-night talk show, in an HBO standup special, in comedy clubs or USO tours. The adjectives generally attached to any description of Williams’ public face were “indefatigable,” “manic” and “unpredictable.” It seemed as if his brain was operating at speeds that caused his words and thoughts to emerge without a filter, brakes or even a moment’s hesitation. The 22-DVD set features more than 100 performances, including, together for the first time, all five HBO specials, “Off the Wall (1978), “An Evening With Robin Williams” (1983), “An Evening at the MET” (1986), “Live on Broadway” (2002) and “Weapons of Self Destruction” (2009); Robin’s full MGM Grand Garden performance, from 2007, and the Montreal stop on his final tour, in 2012; an on-stage conversation between Williams and comedian David Steinberg.

Unforgettable appearances on “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson,” “The Tonight Show With Jay Leno,” “The Oprah Winfrey Show,” “The Graham Norton Show” and “Saturday Night Live” appear, along with new interviews with close friends and family, including Billy Crystal, Steve Martin, Jay Leno, Eric Idle, David Steinberg, Lewis Black and Zak Williams; 11 episodes of “Mork & Mindy,” including the two-part pilot; James Lipton’s Emmy-nominated interview with Robin on “Inside the Actors Studio,” plus deleted scenes; a comprehensive collection of his USO shows; hours of bonus features, including behind-the-scenes footage, local highlights from tour stops and promos; featurettes “The Early Years,” “San Francisco: Where It All Started,” “Comic Genius” and “TV’s Best Guest”; the 2018 HBO documentary, “Robin Williams: Come Inside My Mind, from Marina Zenovich and Alex Gibney: and “Robin Williams: Uncensored,” a 24-page, full-color memory book featuring rare, archival photos from award-winning photographer Arthur Grace, reminiscences from friends and colleagues and Robin’s personal tour notes.

Ernie Kovacs: The Centennial Edition
There’s been no late-night host or sketch-comedy troupe – including Johnny Carson, “SNL” and “Monty Python” — that doesn’t owe a serious debt of gratitude to Ernie Kovacs. Along with Steve Allen, the Trenton-born author/actor/comedian/ composer/producer/artist not only proved to network executives that Americans from all walks of life would put off going to sleep to be entertained, but he also cut the template for gags still making people laugh today. In anticipation of what would have been his 100th birthday, on January 23, 1919, Shout!Factory has released “Ernie Kovacs: The Centennial Edition.” The new collection combines previously released volumes of charmingly silly comedy by Ernie Kovacs and his co-conspirators. It includes more than 22 hours of offbeat entertainment that couldn’t break any molds, because they didn’t exist in 1950s. The set features episodes from his local and national morning shows; episodes from his NBC prime-time show; “Kovacs on Music”; five ABC specials; the color version of his legendary silent show, “Eugene”; his award-winning commercials for Dutch Masters cigars; short films and tributes; 18 bonus sketches, featuring many of his beloved characters; three episodes of his game show, “Take a Good Look”; “A Pony for Chris”; his rare TV pilot for “Medicine Man,” co-starring Buster Keaton; “The Lively Arts,” featuring the only existing filmed solo interview; and the 2011 American Cinematheque panel discussion. Also available to deep-pocketed fans is the “Ernie Kovacs Limited Edition Set of Ten Lithographs” (framed). These “Illustrated Profuselies” were improvisational sketches that allowed Kovacs to still be himself without worrying about the next day’s scripts for radio or television. The full set goes for $1,000.

TV-on-DVD
The Sound of Music: Live: Blu-ray
Not having watched NBC’s live broadcast of “The Sound of Music,” which attracted an estimated 18 million viewers to the Peacock, in 2013, it’s impossible for me to compare it to the ITV version that aired almost exactly two years later in England and is now available on Blu-ray. It’s release is billed as a commemoration of the 60th anniversary of the Broadway debut of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s classic musical. The math isn’t precise, if you consider that the 2015 broadcast marked a difference of 57 years … but who’s counting. In the NBC version, country-music diva Carrie Underwood and sexy vampire Stephen Moyer (“True Blood”) might not have been the ideal choices to play Maria Rainer and Captain von Trapp, but they were better-known commodities than Tony Award-winning co-stars Laura Benanti, Christian Borle and Audra McDonald. The stars of Coky Giedroyc’s “The Sound of Music: Live” will be familiar, if at all, to fans of imported British television shows: Kara Tointon (“Mr. Selfridge”), Julian Ovenden (“Downton Abbey”), Katherine Kelly (“Mr. Selfridge), Alexander Armstrong (“Danger Mouse”) and Maria Friedman (“EastEnders”). They’re all very good, as are the supporting nuns, children and Nazis. As the comprehensive featurette points out, the show enjoyed a budget of £2 million, while employing more than 400 cast and crew members, and filling 177 individual costumes. It was recorded at Three Mills Studios, on sets built over three different sound stages. Because the cast had to rush between the different sets between scenes, a heavy rain storm might spoiled everything. Beyond that, it’s the same show that’s charmed audiences for 60 years. The Blu-ray also includes a commentary track with Tointon and Ovenden.

Acorn: Detectorists: Complete Collection: Box Set
Acorn: Murdoch Mysteries: Christmas Cases Collection
Acorn: No Offence: Series 2
Acorn Media is no stranger to this column. Along with the newly launched Britbox, Acorn TV is a subscription streaming service that has been making Anglophiles of the American persuasion happy, under various banners, since 2011. Acorn DVD has been around for quite a bit longer. They offer television programming from the United Kingdom, as well as Ireland, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, on DVD compilations and via such streaming devices as Amazon Fire TV, Apple TV and Roku. Subscriptions make highly affordable and easy-to-connect gifts. Several of the binge-worthy shows, including “Murdoch Mysteries,” will already be familiar to PBS, Ovation and Netflix customers, while others may come as a delightful surprise. BBC Four’s disarming comedy series, “The Detectorists,” easily qualifies as a gift from the TV gods. In it, urban-archeologist Andy (Mackenzie Crook) and forklift-driver Lance (Toby Jones) while away their free time scouring a large Essex field for buried treasures – some dubious, at best – whose metallic properties can be sensed on metal detectors. As solitary pastimes go, it’s almost laughably tranquil, especially considering that the two friends usually return home with antique pop-tops from beer and soda-pop cans, and the odd button. As members of the Danebury Metal Detecting Club, all discoveries are catalogued and occasionally put on display. In the series’ three-season run, the lads continue to search for what they believe to be a buried Saxon warship and “horde” of gold coins. Instead, they’re forced to negotiate with the loony farmer, who owns the field and possibly buried his murdered wife there; combat rival detectorists, “Simon” and “Garfunkel”; keep their wives and girlfriends from throwing their metal detectors into a dumpster; prevent an energy company from tearing up the field and turning it into a solar farm. There’s also a mischievous magpie that’s always a step ahead of them.  Much of the humor, which would barely register on an American sitcom’s Richter scale, derives from Andy and Lance’s fondness for pop-culture trivia and the “University Challenge” quiz program. The BAFTA-winning series was created by Cook, who fans of the original British version of “The Office” will recognize as the sycophantic paper salesman, Gareth Keenan. Jones has played Alfred Hitchcock, in “The Girl”; Truman Capote, in “Infamous”; and Swifty Lazar, in Frost/Nixon. Rachael Stirling and Diana Rigg, as Andy’s wife and mother-in-law, respectively, are mother and daughter in real life. The set adds interviews and a making-of featurette.

The Ontario-set “Murdoch Mysteries: Christmas Cases Collection” arrives in a ready-for-gifting package that contains three feature-length holiday specials, “A Merry Murdoch Christmas,” “Once Upon a Murdoch Christmas” and “Home for the Holidays.” The series takes place in Toronto, starting in 1895, and follows Detective William Murdoch (Yannick Bisson) of the Toronto Constabulary, who solves many of his cases using methods of detection that were unusual at the time. Although it frequently feels atypically prim and old-fashioned, by today’s standards, anyway, “Murdoch Mysteries,” involves crimes that are anything but tame. In “A Merry Murdoch Christmas,” for example, participants in a charity gala are stunned to find the host dead from a broken neck, and Inspector Brackenreid (Thomas Craig) suspects the culprit is the legendary Christmas monster, Krampus. In “Once Upon a Murdoch Christmas,” Murdoch investigates a daring robbery, in which the culprit seems to possess the same superhuman abilities as the protagonist in a graphic novel created by Constable Crabtree (Jonny Harris). In “Home for the Holidays,” Murdoch and Dr. Julia Ogden (Helene Joy) travel to British Columbia to visit Murdoch’s brother (Dylan Neal), but, instead of a family holiday, they end up investigating a murder at a First Nations archaeological site.

No Offence” is an extremely gritty Channel 4 procedural drama, created by Paul Abbott (“Shameless”), that follows a predominantly female team of detectives from the Friday Street police station, a division of the fictional Manchester Metropolitan Police. In “Series 2,” the precariously overweight DI Vivienne Deering (Joanna Scanlan) – it doesn’t prevent her from being a tenacious and no-nonsense investigator — returns to work from bereavement leave after her husband’s death. In a carryover from Season 1, Viv’s still reeling from revelations about the creep of which only her impulsive subordinate, DC Dinah Kowalska (Elaine Cassidy), is aware. On her first week back, a bomb blast at a funeral plunges Deering and her team headfirst into a gang war inflamed by a crime-family matriarch (Rakie Ayola), who’s as cocky as she is dangerous. The investigation involves several unsavory characters, who take the team – including a tentative DS Joy Freers (Alexandra Roach), fearless PC Tegan Thompson (Saira Choudhry) and officious DCI Christine Lickberg (Sarah Solemani) — into some of Manchester’s darkest corners. Blessedly, “No Offense” isn’t short on dark humor and precarious romance.

PBS: Masterpiece: Victoria: Seasons 1 & 2 DVD Set: Blu-ray
PBS: Masterpiece: Little Women: Blu-ray
We’re Going on a Bear Hunt
The folks at PBS would like me to remind you that all sorts of DVD/Blu-ray combo packages are available for popular mini-series that aired early in 2018 and 2017. With Season Three of “Victoria” just around the corner, at least on Britain’s ITV channel, it’s time for “Masterpiece” loyalists to begin getting excited … again. DVD/Blu-ray compilations of the first two seasons, at the UK length, have been available for some time. Now, they can be purchased on the PBS website in combos that include the hard-cover companion book,
“Victoria: The Heart and Mind of a Young Queen,” which was written by “Victoria” historical consultant, Helen Rappaport, and includes a foreword by novelist/scriptwriter Daisy Goodwin. It details the history behind the show. “Victoria & Albert: A Royal Love Affair” completes the picture … unless you’re looking for some Queen Victoria two-stone stud earrings or Queen Victoria collet earrings. From Focus Films, Stephen Frears’ wonderfully entertaining Victoria & Abdul (2017) stars Judi Dench and Ali Fazal in the title roles.

To the basic “Little Women” Blu-ray, gifters can add the companion novel from Penguin Classics. Other permutations include “Little Women”/“American Masters: Louisa May Alcott: The Woman Behind Little Women”; Harriet Reisen’s soft-cover biography, “Louisa May Alcott: The Woman Behind Little Women”; the BBC’s “Little Women” (1970) on DVD; another companion DVD, “Orchard House: Home of Little Women”; and, of course, “Little Women” book totes, “Little Women” infinity book scarves and “Little Women” sticky flags. “The Durrells in Corfu” Blu-ray can be combined with the source book, Gerald Durrell’s “My Family and Other Animals.”

Also available at shop.pbs.org/ is “We’re Going on a Bear Hunt,” a clever DVD, based on the best-selling children’s book by Michael Rosen and Helen Oxenbury. It follows siblings Stan, Katie, Rosie and Max, the baby, and Rufus the dog, who decide one day to go on an adventure through whirling snowstorms, oozing mud and dark forests in search of bears. Naturally, when Rosie and Rufus become separated from the rest of the family, it looks like bear hunting might not be quite as fun, after all.

Nickelodeon: Hey Arnold!: The Ultimate Collection
Nickelodeon: Rocko’s Modern Life: The Complete Series
Fans of the original Nickelodeon series, most of whom will be approaching or past their mid-20s, by now, will want to know that the differences between Shout!Factory’s “Hey Arnold! The Complete Series” (2014) and Paramount’s “Hey Arnold! The Ultimate Collection” (2018) amount to the inclusion of the show’s two spinoff features — Hey Arnold! The Movie (2002) and Hey Arnold! The Jungle Movie (2017) – and several bonus elements. If my old-school math hasn’t failed me, they amount to 286 more minutes of fun. Blu-ray would have been too much to expect, I suppose. The boxed set contains all 99 “stories” from the show’s five-season run – 100, if one counts the episode that was divided into two separate halves – and “Hey Arnold! The Pilot”; the original Claymation short, “Arnold Escapes From Church”; “Drawing Arnold”; “The Jungle Movie: Table Read”; and “Unboxing the Original Jungle Movie Development Art.” It doesn’t mention the poster art included in the Amazon-delivered “Complete Series,” four years ago.

I don’t know why Nickelodeon didn’t bestow “Ultimate Collection” status on “Rocko’s Modern Life: The Complete Series.” After all, in the four-plus years that separate the boxed sets, the eight-disc collection has added nearly two hours more material and a new cover. According to the marketing blurb, “For the first time ever, every single episode of one of Nickelodeon’s best animated series is all in one place.” I wouldn’t know. The special features include, the original pilot of “Trash-O-Madness” and four “Behind the Characters” sketches with Joe Murray, co-creator of the series with Mr. Lawrence, of “SpongeBob SquarePants” fame.

Original Christmas Specials Collection: Deluxe Edition: Blu-ray
Blaze and the Monster Machines: Blaze Saves Christmas
What makes one holiday movie a classic and others merely … at best, fondly recalled additions to the genre. Timing, of course, and a mysterious ability to hold up under repeat viewings. The presence of time-honored actors, too. Memorable music, of course, and the ability to enchant kids and adults, alike. The saturation bombing of Christmas-themed cartoons and movies didn’t really begin until the virtual elimination of elaborately staged variety shows on television. Sitcoms and popular dramas, like “The Waltons” and “ER,” picked up the slack, but, too often, the special episodes would be repeated for years to come. In the mid-1960s, Rankin/Bass Productions introduced its highly stylized stop-action animation process, with characters recognizable by their doll-like appearance, spheroid body parts and weirdly static backgrounds. Traditionally drawn snowflakes would be projected over the choppy movements of the characters and animals. No one doubted that the animation was outsourced to Japanese companies, but they succeeded, anyway. Like A Charlie Brown Christmas (1965), which featured a recognizable story and more fluid animation – as well as that jazzy Vince Guaraldi score – the R/B films that comprise Universal’s “The Original Christmas Specials Collection,” caught on with networks and in syndication. The deluxe Blu-ray edition includes Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (1964), Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town (1970) and The Little Drummer Boy (1968), which feature “Animagic” stop-motion animation, and Frosty the Snowman (1969) and Cricket on the Hearth (1967). The addition of such voice actors as Fred Astaire, Jimmy Durante, Mickey Rooney, Danny Thomas, Burl Ives and other long-dead stars has had a soothing effect on viewers through last 50 years.

Ironically, television executives didn’t have much hope for A Charlie Brown Christmas. They probably felt the same about R/B’s early work. Unlike the Peanuts creations, the stories that informed the R/B titles were traditional or in the public domain and, therefore, far more economical for networks and independents. The R/B Blu-ray adds a host of bonus features, including commentaries and restoration info. One valid caveat, however, comes in an email to Amazon by historian/biographer Rick Goldschmidt, who offers several pointed complaints about his behind-the-scenes experiences with the production company and decisions affecting the final content. Nonetheless, the animation looks fine in hi-def and kids won’t notice the shortcuts taken. Buffs and collectors use different criteria to judge historic content.

In the world of holiday animation for kids, it would be difficult to find much real progress in the 50 years between the Rankin/Bass quintet, “Charlie Brown” and Blaze and Nickelodeon’s “Monster Machines: Blaze Saves Christmas,” which is a compilation of winter-related episodes. “Monster Machine Christmas” is the only one strictly dedicated to the holiday. In it, Crusher sends Santa’s magic bag of presents flying and must team up with Blaze and AJ to deliver all the presents by Christmas morning; in “Breaking the Ice,” Robot Blaze climbs, grinds and ziplines his way to save a little bunny trapped on top of a melting glacier; “Catch That Cake!” repeats the scenario in “Monster Machine Christmas,” except with Darington’s birthday cake; and in “Ninja Blaze,” martial-arts master Blackbelt is training Blaze and AJ to become powerful ninjas when Crusher and Pickle accidentally launch themselves onto an icy mountain, and require rescuing.

Elf: Buddy’s Sing & Cheer Along Edition: Blu-ray
The many lists of Best Christmas Movies I’ve perused agree on two things, at least: It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) is numero uno and Christ is absent at his own birthday party. Otherwise, every spot between 2 and 50 is up for grabs. Comedy, romance and drama have been staples for most of the last 100 years. Sci-fi and Westerns, not so much. I was surprised by the number of hard-core horror flicks that have found a consensus: Black Christmas (1974), Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale (2010), Christmas Evil (1980), Krampus (2015) and Silent Night, Deadly Night (1984), among them. In my opinion, the biggest ringers were Tangerine (2015), Carol (2015), Tokyo Godfathers (2003) and The Whole Hog: Making Terry Pratchett’s Hogfather (2006). The aforementioned A Charlie Brown Christmas and Frosty the Snowman did fine, as well. The movie in question here, Jon Favreau’s Elf (2003), held firm in the upper-middle of the lists, alongside Bad Santa (2003, National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation (1989) and The Santa Claus (1994). Merely being popular doth not a classic make, however.

Elf made more than $173 million domestically and another $47 million overseas. Judging simply from the reissues, repackagings and combos it’s been accorded, Elf probably went on to sell a lot of DVDs and Blu-rays. The latest permutation, I think, is Elf: Buddy’s Sing & Cheer Along Edition, which, on a separate disc, adds lyrics, popups, factoids and gag alerts to the on-screen images. The gimmicks are right out of a music video on MTV in the late-1980s, when the network was trying anything to gain teenage eyes. As these things go, it’s not bad, especially considering that the age of the average viewer is approaching puberty, from the opposite direction. In it, a baby on Santa’s delivery route accidentally crawls into his nearly empty bag of toys and is taken to the North Pole. Buddy (Will Ferrell) is raised by a family of elves, until they break the news to him that he is really a human. With the blessing of Papa Elf (Bob Newhart) and Santa (Ed Asner), the holly-jolly young man heads for New York to find his real family and spread the true meaning of Christmas … whatever that meant, in 2003. James Caan plays his publishing executive father, who is completely dismayed by Buddy’s Pollyannish behavior. He falls for Jovie (Zooey Deschanel), who works at Gimbels as a department-store-Santa’s assistant, for which she dresses as an elf. You can guess the rest. After all these years, I wonder why no one at Warners has taken advantage of Deschanel’s increased visibility in the ensuing 16 years, thanks in large part to her starring role in Fox’s “New Girl,” and added her name to the front of the jacket, alongside that of James Caan. I’m sure it’s due to some arcane contractual arrangement, but she earns it.

Pat Boone & Family: Christmas & Thanksgiving
If moviemakers have decided not to acknowledge the baby Jesus in their Christmas stories, there are a few dependable places on the cable dial to find the newborn king. One sure place to stop is anywhere 1950s pop creation Pat Boone is spreading his family-friendly message. “Pat Boone & Family: Christmas & Thanksgiving” was taped at a time when daughter, Debby, was a hotter commodity on the Contemporary Christian charts and concert circuit than he’d been in years. In addition to a successful singing career, Boone dipped his toes in the waters of Hollywood filmdom. He also became the youngest performer to host his own television variety show (“Pat Boone’s Chevy Showroom,”1957-60) and, in 1978, brought his four singing daughters Debby, Cherry, Lindy and Laurie, along with wife, Shirley, to ABC-TV for a series of seasonal specials. “Pat Boone & Family Christmas Special” presents a celebration of favorite holiday songs (“White Christmas,” “Silver Bells,” “The Christmas Waltz,” “Joy to the World,” “O Come All Ye Faithful”), with the Hudson Brothers and an array of ABC-TV stars: Norman Fell and Audra Lindley (“Three’s Company”), Tom Bosley (“Happy Days”) and Gavin McLeod (“The Love Boat”), as well as appearances by Dinah Shore and Rosemary Clooney. “Pat Boone & Family Thanksgiving Special,” opens with a visit from Bob Hope and the return of the Hudson , who join the Boone Girls for a disco showcase. Really. There aren’t many Thanksgiving songs, so the Boones settled for “Can’t Smile Without You,” “You Needed Me,” “Bless This House” and “Love in a Home.” Bonus features include a Pat Boone interview, “The Boone Family: Christmas in Bethlehem,” Christmas carols from Boone’s Chevy showroom, “Jingle Bells” and “Boone Family Lullaby.”

The Ladybug
It’s practically been a lifetime since young viewers were introduced to the world below their feet in A Bug’s Life (1998), Antz (1998) and Honey, I Shrunk the Kids (1989). Straight-to-DVD animation has advanced a great deal in the meantime, especially in foreign studios affiliated with distributors around the globe. The winning tickets limit the dialogue and hire a few recognizable B-listers to translate it into the local language. If the backgrounds are bright and colorful and the characters are cute and expressive, it’s possible to keep kids interested for 90 minutes. Shi Ding’s The Ladybug has been awarded the Dove Seal of Approval for all ages, In this delightful family adventure, YouTube star Lisa Schwartz plays a plucky ladybug named Ruby. Longing for the beauty and freedom of Golden Canyon, she escapes her laboratory cage and joins forces with Master Dan, a crafty dragonfly. With help from a hungry frog king, an artistic earwig, and a stinky dung beetle, they make their way to this magical land. The featurette, “Giving the Characters a Voice,” finds Schwartz, Jon Heder, Haylie Duf and Norm MacDonald” at the studio.

Detective Dee Trilogy: Three Movie Collection
A couple of weeks ago, I reviewed the third installment in Tsui Hark’s Detective Trilogy, Detective Dee: The Four Heavenly Kings. It is the second prequel in a series that began with Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame (2010) and flashed backwards to Young Detective Dee: Rise of the Sea Dragon (2013). What I forgot to mention is that all three titles are newly available in the aptly titled, “Detective Dee Trilogy: Three Movie Collection,” exclusively at Walmart.

The DVD Wrapup: Owl’s Legacy, Good Manners, Childrens Act, Juliet Naked, Unnamable, Little Italy, Gas Food Lodging, SWF, Detective Dee, Windtalkers … More

Friday, November 16th, 2018

The Owl’s Legacy
In the continuing march of time, empires have come and gone with some regularity. To quote Tears for Fears, “Everybody wants to rule the world.” No one has come close to owning it. Some empires have left their marks behind in architecture and statuary, while others are recalled by unnatural borders, the bastardization of languages and appropriation of cuisine, clothing or music. If it weren’t for DNA testing, we might not be able to recognize the debt we owe a long-forgotten culture, even if it’s limited to the shape of one’s nose or a shared propensity for certain hereditary diseases. When Europeans colonized the New World, Africa and Southeast Asia, they assumed that the differently colored inhabitants had nothing to offer them but gold and silver, rubber, tobacco, cocoa, tea and other commodities. In return, the natives would be given a new language to learn, fabrics to cover their breasts and genitals, foreign diseases and a religion that promised a better life after death than the one they were given at the occasion of their birth. Heaven must have especially appealed to those native peoples who were already enslaved, impoverished, exploited and left with no hope, whatsoever. Chris Marker’s epic 13-episode documentary mini-series, The Owl’s Legacy (1989) was supported by the Onassis Foundation and aired on French public television. When it failed to deliver the expected conclusions about the ancient Athenians’ influence on modern Greece — owls are symbolic of Athens and wisdom — it was shelved and left to gather dust for nearly 30 years. What it did produce was something far more compelling than a testimonial to the current government’s commitment to democracy. It was, after all, a gift from their ancestors, who would have been appalled by the occasional impositions of totalitarian, nationalism and fascist rule that corrupted Athenian democracy in the 150 years since the country’s independence from the Ottoman Empire.

Here, Marker employs a casual approach to an otherwise scholarly discussion about the impact of Ancient Greece on modern thinking and European identity. He invited a couple dozen academics, artists and intellectuals to gather around the tables in Paris, Tbilisi, Athens and Berkeley, drink wine and feast on appetizers, while doing so … mostly in French, but in Greek and English, too. To fill in some gaps in the tableside discussions, taped interviews with individual scholars and ex-pat celebrities — including filmmaker Elia Kazan — are sprinkled throughout the series, as are clips from such movies as Costa-Gavras’ Z, which dramatized events that took place early in the junta’s rule. The despotic military cabal had taken “democracy” and ground the word under its heels, until it was rendered meaningless … for the time being, anyway. Although the nearly decade-long nightmare is only discussed at length in a few of the 13 chapters, it hangs like a storm cloud over the entire series, which finds other reasons to hail the Athenian legacy. And, while Alexander the Great and the Trojan wars are mentioned, the emphasis is on other gifts Greeks brought to the world, in addition to democracy, tragedy and philosophy.

Marker’s brain trust also discusses how Greece’s democratic reawakening — after winning its independence from the Turks in the 1820s – was thwarted in the bud by Europe’s Central Powers, who feared that its revolution and an earlier one in Serbia could trigger other uprisings. Instead, Greeks were required to accept a Roman Catholic Bavarian prince as the country’s first modern king. He would be deposed in 1862, but Germans would return 80 years later to complete the conquest Italian forces couldn’t accomplish. After the liberation, Greece once again became a pawn in a much larger game of chess. With the government’s army backed by the United States and United Kingdom, and the Democratic Army of Greece supported by communist Yugoslavia, Albania and Bulgaria, the Greek Civil War became the first proxy war of the post-WWII period. The United States would side with the Greek military junta of 1967–1974, as well. If issues pertaining to the ongoing economic dilemma and influx of refugees cause the current democracy to teeter, the neo-fascist Golden Dawn is waiting in the wings to take control.

The Owl’s Legacy’s true message comes into focus in “Episode 6: Mathematics, or the Realm of Signs” and “Episode 7: Logomachy, or the Roots of Words,” and the introduction of Pythagoras of Samos (570-495 BCE). A Renaissance man a couple of millennia removed from the Renaissance, it’s possible that Pythagoras contributed more to our civilization than any other human not named Jesus, Moses or Muhammad. His interests included philosophy, mathematics, ethics, metaphysics, music, mysticism, politics and religion. He traveled widely and learned from scholars in Egypt, Crete and Persia. Pythagoras would influence Herodotus of Halicarnassus, Socrates and Aristotle, as well as Nicolaus Copernicus, Johannes Keple and Isaac Newton, among others. Pythagoras believed in a “harmony of the spheres,” which maintained that the planets and stars move according to mathematical equations, which correspond to musical notes and thus produce an inaudible symphony. The Pythagorean theorem, which may have been borrowed from the Babylonians and Indians, allowed Greek mathematicians to construct the first “proof.” There’s plenty more, of course, including a demonstration of how Pythagoras’ ideas were incorporated into the creation of modern computers and, by inference, the Internet. That’s one hell of a legacy for modern Greeks to claim.

So, maybe, restaurateur Gus Portokalos wasn’t too far off base, when, in My Big Fat Greek Wedding (2002), he told everyone who would listen to him for more than five minutes: “Give me a word, any word, and I’ll show you that the root of that word is Greek.” Not all his examples held up to scrutiny, but he was on the right path. In Portokalos had seen The Owl’s Legacy, his Hellenic chauvinism would have driven everyone around him crazy, Further chapters add “Music, or the Inner Space,” “Cosmogony, or the Use of the World,” “Mythology, or the Truth of Lies,” “Misogyny, or Desire’s Traps,” “Tragedy, or the Illusion of Death,” “Philosophy, or the Owl’s Triumph.” Literary critic George Steiner, who condemns mankind’s environmental recklessness, argues at one point that modern Greece bears no relation to the glory of Ancient Greece. Apparently, such observations were met with displeasure by the Onassis Foundation, which had funded Marker’s film and wanted to deliver a far different message. As a result, The Owl’s Legacy was long kept out of circulation in video and left unseen on Greek television. The Owl’s Legacy won’t be for everyone, but anyone fascinated by the machinations of world history will welcome the opportunity to finally see it.

Good Manners
In recent weeks, movies I’ve referenced such off-brand monsters as werecats (Stephen King’s Sleepwalkers) and, maras, wraith-like creatures that strangle people in their sleep. Marco Dutra and Juliana Rojas’ Good Manners is a terrifically bizarre, if overlong thriller from Brazil about the consequences of a human giving birth to a werewolf baby and, after the mother dies, its guardian inviting it to join her non-lycanthropic family. It further ponders the question of whether such a potentially monstrous child can be domesticated and saved from its worst physiological and supernatural instincts. Isabel Zuaa plays Clara, an emotionally fragile nurse from the outskirts Sao Paulo, who’s hired by Ana (Marjorie Estiano) to be the nanny of her soon-to-be-born child. Ana’s a bit of a wild card, in that she’s wealthy, modern and inclined to unexpected behavior. Her refrigerator is stocked with bloody raw meat and she’s a somnambulist. Despite their cultural differences, Clara and Ana develop a strong bond, emotionally and sexually. After Ana dies in childbirth, Clara whisks the hirsute infant away from the hospital and gives it a home, with her family, in the favela. Fast-forward seven years, at least, and Joel (Miguel Lobo) has grown into a seemingly normal boy, who attends school and associates with other kids. Clara has raised Joel as a vegetarian, who, when there’s a full moon, is chained to a wall in the basement. When Clara’s back is turned, however, a well-meaning relative decides that a good rare steak would help bring some color to Joel’s cheeks. What it really brings to his cheeks, though, is something significantly more sinister. I’ll leave it at that. Dutra and Rojas use Good Manners’ 136-minute length to explore the imbalance of life in the “financial capital of Brazil,” but not in any way that interferes with the story. The filmmakers admit to an early fondness for the scarier moments in Walt Disney’s animated features, while referencing An American Werewolf in London. I would imagine, as well, that they’ve been influenced by Guillermo del Toro and other European horrormeisters, whose works have found homes in American arthouses. Rui Poças’ impressionistic cinematography frequently conjures the beauty and sensuality inherent in the best horror pictures.

The Children Act
In this heart-wrenching drama by Richard Eyre (Notes on a Scandal), adapted from a novel and screenplay by Ian McEwan (Atonement), Emma Thompson delivers a powerhouse portrayal of a Children’s Court judge whose strict adherence to protocol nearly destroys her. The breaking point arrives during one of those cases in which a judge is, in fact, asked to play God, by determining whether a teenager should be forced to adhere to his parents’ religious beliefs and die, or be given a chance to live a healthy life with a blood transfusion. Newcomer Fionn Whitehead (Dunkirk) portrays 17-year-old Adam, who was raised by parents who devoutly accept the principles of the Jehovah’s Witnesses. Accordingly, he believes that it’s God who will decide whether he’ll live or die, not his well-meaning doctors or a judge he’s never met. Before Judge Fiona Maye (Thompson) renders her decision, however, she makes the unorthodox decision to visit Adam in his hospital room and get his unforced opinion. Although he corroborates his parents’ wishes, Adam asks “my lady” to stay long enough to hear him play a tune on his guitar. Turns out, Fiona is aware of the song and begins to sing along to its life-affirming lyrics by William Butler Yeats. (She also gently corrects one of the boy’s chord changes.) After Fiona renders her decision, allowing the doctors to transfuse Adam’s blood, he recovers. At home, however, Fiona’s marriage to Jack, a professor played by Stanley Tucci, is crumbling.

For as long as he cares to remember, Jack has been required to play along with his wife’s devotion to duty: long hours, weekends on call, endless homework and fatigue that’s led to a distinct lack of interest in sex. When Jack tells Fiona that he wants to enter into a purely sexual affair with another woman, her response is icy and matter-of-fact. Within hours of his leaving home – temporarily – she changes the locks to the door of their apartment and refuses to speak with him, again, ever. Meanwhile, Adam has decided to pursue an unwelcome relationship with Fiona, based on her life-saving advice andtheir mutual admiration of poetry. Not surprisingly, the judge in her decides this isn’t a good idea and she refuses to return his letters. This leads to Adam stalking Fiona and almost breaking through her icy exterior. Almost. Ditto, Jack. Although viewers will have already drawn their own conclusions on Fiona’s behavior, there’s still plenty of time left in The Children Act for things to come to a fork, or two, in the road. Parents effectively played by Ben Chaplin and Eileen Walsh aren’t treated as villains for their beliefs, even though Jehovah Witnesses tend not to come off well in courtroom dramas. As usual, Tucci is excellent in a role that could be considered in a negative light, as well. It’s Thompson’s movie to carry, though, and her performance deserves to be considered when Best Actress nominations are revealed. Given that The Children Act only played in, at most, 73 theaters here, it will take an active screener campaign for it to be seen in the right households, I’m afraid. It arrives with commentary by Eyre and McEwan.

Juliet, Naked: Blu-ray
As much as I try to avoid generalizations when it comes to characterizing the kinds of people who might enjoy a movie arriving on DVD – those not associated with specific genres, anyway – sometimes there’s simply no way to avoid it. Shorthand references to “chick flicks,” “bromances,” “tweeners” and, even, “arthouse,” simplify things for everyone. The same thing applies to ads for Juliet, Naked, which make it abundantly clear that it’s “from the author of About a Boy and High Fidelity.” It could have further narrowed the appeal by adding, “directed by former Lemonhead and ‘Girls’ helmer Jesse Peretz.” If Hugh Grant had accepted a cameo role, the ad could add, “featuring the star off Love Actually and Four Weddings and a Funeral,” which would have even more precisely nailed the intended audience for Juliet, Naked. In fact, author Nick Hornby is only responsible for supplying the source material from which Peretz’ rom-com, the Weitz Brothers’ About a Boy and Steven Frears’ High Fidelity were adapted. Typically, adaptations bear little resemblance to the books upon which they’re based. In Hornby’s case, however, the screenwriters – here, they’re Evgenia Peretz, Jim Taylor and Tamara Jenkins – aren’t required to do much more than tweak a few plot points. His books are that cinematic. Like John Cusack’s character in High Fidelity, Chris O’Dowd’s podcaster Duncan Thomson is obsessed with rock music. More to the point, Duncan’s spent most of his adult life analyzing the lyrics written by Tucker Crowe (Ethan Hawke), an enigmatic singer/songwriter who disappeared from the face of the Earth two decades earlier, in mid-concert. When he isn’t teaching at a local college, Duncan shares his fanboy musings with countless other rock obsessives on his podcasts. Unbeknownst to him, Crowe is one his followers.

Because Duncan is convinced that Crowe’s final studio album, “Juliet,” is as important as anything from Van Morrison, Jackson Browne and Morrisey, Crowe has sent him a CD of acoustic outtakes from the session. His longtime girlfriend, Annie (Rose Byrne), isn’t thrilled with Duncan’s hobby, but she tolerates it. When the envelope containing “Juliet, Naked” arrives, Annie can’t resist the temptation to open it and listen to the CD. When Duncan discovers her faux pas, he feels as violated as anyone who’s had their home broken into and underwear drawer ransacked. Worse still, Duncan is horrified to learn that Annie posted an extremely negative review on his website, under a transparent pseudonym. He’s so unnerved that he engages in an affair with a co-worker. It leads to their breakup and Duncan’s banishment from the home they share. To her astonishment, Ann receives an email – or text, I can never tell the difference – from Crowe, agreeing with her opinion of the album. It triggers an exchange of missives that leads to a rendezvous in London, where he’ll be visiting one of his five children from four different women. He’s only recently learned that his daughter, Carly (Lily Newmark), is pregnant and, naturally, her boyfriend is a musician.

The road-trip is a real change of pace for Crowe, who, for the last several years, has been laying low in Pennsylvania, occupying a garage owned by the mother of his youngest son (Azhy Robertson) and basically doing nothing. Jackson is the only sibling who isn’t estranged from Tucker in one way or another. In fact, they’re best buddies. Before Crowe can connect with Carly or Annie, however, he suffers a heart attack in the lobby of the hospital. Annie learns of his hospitalization on the ride back to her coastal hometown and catches the next train back to London. She gets back in time to join an uncomfortable gathering of half-siblings, who’ve never met each other, and a couple of ex-wives who mistakenly thought he was on his death bed. Long story short: Annie invites Tucker to recuperate, with Jackson, in Broadstairs, where Duncan will inevitably be introduced to his idol and not believe it’s him. Neither does Crowe agree with Duncan’s assessment of his music and its relevance in the overall scheme of things. His presence does, however, make him reevaluate his position on Annie, who will have decisions of her own to make. If Juliet, Naked isn’t nearly as endearing as High Fidelity or About a Boy, it’s an easy way to kill 97 minutes of time, and the evocative musical soundtrack contains songs written by Conor Oberst, Robyn Hitchcock, Ryan Adams and Nathan Larson. The Blu-ray adds a 10-minute making-of featurette.

The Unnamable, Special Edition: Blu-ray
Nearly 30 years after the author’s untimely death, at 46, the first of many stories by H.P. Lovecraft was turned into a movie by – you guessed it – Roger Corman. Ironically, Lovecraft shared the writing credit on The Haunted Palace (1963) with Edgar Allan Poe, a mainstay in Corman’s stable of writers … living and dead. He called upon Charles Beaumont, who made his bones on TV anthology series in the 1950s, to marry eight lines from Poe’s eponymous 1839 poem and Lovecraft’s novella, “The Case of Charles Dexter Ward.” The deluge of Lovecraft-sourced movies wouldn’t begin in earnest until Stuart Gordon’s loose adaptation of “Herbert West: Re-Animator,” in 1985. Three years later, freshman writer/director/producer Jean-Paul Ouellette based his low-budget indie, The Unnamable, on Lovecraft’s 1925 story of the same title. The movie takes some liberties with the source material, but Lovecraft lovers shouldn’t have any trouble recognizing it. The film opens in the early 18th Century, outside the secluded mansion belonging to Joshua Winthrop. Inside the house, some kind of an unseen monster is making a terrible ruckus. When Winthrop unlocks a large door in the attic, the creature reaches out to the old man’s chest and rips his heart out. Three hundred years later, a couple of wiseass college boys decide to test the legend’s veracity by arranging a weekend sleepover – girlfriends in tow — in the ancient mansion. Anyone who’s seen more than three or four modern horror films already knows what happens next: after the couples settle in, and one of the women sheds her blouse, the monster makes her presence known.

The rest of The Unnamable requires the actors to race around the house, trying to avoid be picked apart by the truly bizarre-looking creature, now recognized as Alyda Winthrop.  And, yes, “The Necronomicon” does play a role in the resolution of the exceedingly gory flick. Sounds good, but Lovecraft left enough holes in the original story for future viewers to wonder what exactly is Alyda’s story and how the mansion has managed to remain intact over the last three centuries. Ouellette probably had enough trouble coming up with the money it would take to keep The Unnamable from looking like “Amateur Night in Dixie” to worry much about unanswerable questions. The big reveal doesn’t take place until late into 87-minute movie and, while the monster is a masterwork of cobbled-together effects, the costume doesn’t look very sturdy. The Unnamable is just goofy enough to pass for cult status, which is how Unearthed Films treats the straight-to-VHS title, making its first foray into Blu-ray. In addition to the high-definition restoration from a 4K scan, with color correction, of the original camera negative, the package includes commentary with actors Charles Klausmeyer, Mark Stephenson, Laura Albert and Eben Ham, and makeup-effects artists Camille Calvet and R. Christopher Biggs, as well as separate interviews with the same people. In her portion, Albert allows the interviewer to inquire at length about her semi-topless scene, which was comparatively tame and, according to the actress, no big deal to her. Even so, it’s an area of inquiry not many actresses discuss in such interviews and Albert handles it well. A limited edition of 2,000 units arrives with a slip-sleeve cover for the Blu-ray. It’s too bad that Unearthed was unable to package it with a Blu-ray edition of Ouellette’s hard-to-find 2004 DVD of The Unnamable II: The Statement of Randolph Carter.

Little Italy: Blu-ray
At the ripe old age of 27, Emma Roberts already has accumulated 51acting credits on IMDB.com, beginning with Blow (2001), playing Johnny Depp’s daughter. She spent her 2017 hiatus from “American Horror Story” stretching out in four features, including the ill-fated Billionaire Boys Club, that debuted on VOD or received stealth releases. Little Italy debuted on the same day on VOD and in limited release, registering nearly a million bucks in 133 theaters. Journeyman director Donald Petrie came to the notice of studios in 1988 with the indie hit, Mystic Pizza, which featured early appearances by Annabeth Gish, Vincent D’Onofrio, Matt Damon, Lili Taylor and Emma’s aunt, Julia Roberts. Petrie would find success, again, with Grumpy Old Men (1993), Miss Congeniality (2000) and How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days (2003), while also working in television. His career hit a pothole with the high-profile flop, Welcome to Mooseport (2004), and, thanks to a handful of dreadful reviews, Little Italy probably isn’t going to do much to restore luster to his career. A frequently cloying screenplay by Steve Galluccio (Mambo Italiano) and Vinay Virmani mostly will remind viewers of earlier performances by Hayden Christensen, Danny Aiello, Andrea Martin, Adam Ferrara (“Rescue Me”), Gary Basaraba (“Mad Men”), Alyssa Milano and Jane Seymour.  As Nikki and Leo, Roberts and Christensen carry most of the load in a romcom that merges “Romeo & Juliet” with tonal elements from “My Big Fat Greek Wedding.” (Martin plays funny aunts in both pictures.)

The Shakespearian throughline emerges when Roberts and Christensen’s fathers, Vince and Sal, engage in a boisterous feud over which of their pizzerias has the best pie in their ethnic neighborhood. Once best friends, all they exchange now are insults. After growing up as close to each other as their families’ adjacent restaurants, Nikki goes to London to attend a culinary college, while Leo stays behind to help his dad. The various mothers, uncles and aunts may only pay lip service to Vince and Sal’s feud, but it’s enough to keep the pre-destined lovers from consummating their friendship. Things will come to a head when Nikki returns from London for a brief vacation and Leo can’t resist the temptation to rekindle the flame. Because neither of them wants to offend their dad, the inevitable solution – this is a comedy, not a tragedy – has to wait for nearly all of Little Italy’s 102-minute length. Blessedly, while viewers are required to sit back and wait for this to happen, Aiello and Martin’s characters – Carlo and Franco – decide not to adhere to the Capulet/Montague mandate and begin to see each other behind their brothers’ backs. For SCTV mainstay Martin still works pretty steadily, but it’s been a while since we’ve seen Aiello – who was nominated for an Oscar, as the pizzeria owner in Do the Right Thing (1989) – in such a substantial role. The Blu-ray adds a behind-the-scenes featurette.

Detective Dee: The Four Heavenly Kings: Blu-ray
For those western viewers already familiar with Tsui Hark’s wonderfully inventive and action-filled Detective Dee wuxia series, all that will be required of me here is to inform them of the release on Blu-ray of The Four Heavenly Kings. They’ll want to see it asap, even if’s not available in the IMAX 3D format in which it was presented in China. For newcomers to the fantasy franchise, however, some amplification is in order. The Four Heavenly Kings is the second prequel to Detective Dee: Mystery of the Phantom Flame (2010) and, therefore, not a great entry point. That’s because, the 132-minute tale picks up where Young Detective Dee: Rise of the Sea Dragon (2013) left off. It’s roughly 465 CE when Empress Consort Wu Zetian begins the process of eclipsing her husband, Emperor Gaozong (a.k.a., Li Zhi), who’s indebted to Dee for saving his kingdom from extinction. Based on an actual historical figure, Gaozong was the ninth son of the powerful second leader of the Tang Dynasty, Emperor Taizong (598-649 CE). Even so, he’s no match for his father’s former concubine, Wu (Carina Lau), who’s also based on a real person, as is the title character. Dee’s heroics reflect cases handled in the service of the Tang and Zhou courts by Di Renjie (630-700 CE), an important county magistrate and statesman, said to have judged as many as 17,000 cases a year. In the 18th Century, an anonymous Chinese author turned the magistrate into a gong’an crimefighter. During World War II, Dutch diplomat Robert van Gulik translated those stories into English, as “Celebrated Cases of Judge Dee.” His investigations into crimes more closely resemble those of Sherlock Holmes than the exploits of Hark’s rootin’-tootin’ superhero, who’s been portrayed by Andy Lau and Mark Chao.

Following the events of Rise of the Sea Dragon, during which the fictional Dee labored alongside his sworn enemy, Yuchi Zhenjin (Shaofeng Feng), he is appointed to head the Department of Justice and conferred the prestigious Dragon Taming Mace (forged from “stardust steel”) by the emperor. This doesn’t sit well with the empress, who knows that Dee is smart enough to see through her power grab. Wu assigns Yuchi to join forces with the mysterious Mystic Clan to steal the mace from Dee. (Her Zhou dynasty would interrupt the Tang reign, from 684–705). Meanwhile, a different group of conjurers is conspiring to exact revenge on the Tang Empire for earlier crimes and destroy the imperial capital. What does this mean for new arrivals to the series? A lot, really, because, in Hark’s hands, Dee and Yuchi are insanely gifted practitioners of the martial arts and deploy weapons that appear to have minds of their own. The fights are wonderfully plotted and choreographed by action director Lin Feng and photographed by Choi Sung-Fai. The conjurers also unleash a veritable menagerie of albino apes, gigantic koi, flying dragons and some creatures too bizarre to describe adequately here. At the same time, the evolving participation of Dee’s Watson, Shatuo Zhong (Lin Gengxin), and the female assassin Moon Water (Ma Sichun), frees the primary characters to take a breather on the sidelines. It’s convenient to say that Hark has given viewers more than they can possibly chew, let alone digest, even in a two-hour-plus movie. The fact is, though, the Detective Dee films are made for popular consumption by audiences of all ages in theaters large enough to accommodate large-format productions. The fights and fantasy aspects of The Four Heavenly Kings and other such entertainments are what sells popcorn, not orderly narrative and history lessons.

Gas, Food Lodging: Special Edition: Blu-ray
Allison Anders made her presence in the indie world known in 1987, with the low-budget, black-and-white feature, Border Radio. Co-written and directed with fellow UCLA film-school graduates Dean Lent and Kurt Voss, it tells the story of an L.A. underground rocker, who steals some money owed to him by a local club owner and heads for his trailer in Ensenada. The musician’s wife attempts to track him down, as do several other interested parties. The film’s musical soundtrack attracted as much attention as the story. Anders’ first solo project Gas, Food Lodging – she says she couldn’t afford a second comma – reflected her own experiences growing up with a single mother. It also signaled her intention to make movies about strong women forced to fend for themselves in an unfair world. Her next films, Mi Vida Loca, Grace of My Heart, Sugar Town and Things Behind the Sun suffered from the public’s seeming lack of interest in subjects about which she cared deeply. Most of her work since then has been on television. Thanks to an Arrow Academy facelift, Gas, Food Lodging looks and feels as fresh today as it did in 1992. It helps that the towns in which the was shot haven’t changed all that much in the last 25 years, or the 25 years before it was made.

Abandoned by her husband, Nora (Brooke Adams) waitresses to keep her head above water, while raising two teenagers in a cruddy trailer park in a tiny New Mexico town. If anything exciting happens in Laramie, it generally involves guns, alcohol, drugs and unprotected sex.  Trudi (Ione Skye) quits school without telling her mom, mostly to stay up late with her loser boyfriends. Her younger sister, Shade (Fairuza Balk), is far less cruel to Nora, but still bursting at the seams with post-pubescent ambition. Again, the pickings are slim for a smart, attractive girl in a hurry to grow up. The same applies for Nora, who’s practically given up finding a man who’s worth a damn. Things will change dramatically for all three women, but in ways that aren’t easy to predict. Anders and cinematographer Dean Lent really nail the desolate tenor of life in the flatlands of southern New Mexico. You can practically taste the dust and desperation in the air. The Arrow package adds an excellent interview with Anders and writer Josh Olson; an archival documentary examining the challenges women face in the film industry, with Anders, Kathryn Bigelow, Jane Campion, Penny Marshall, Gale Anne Hurd and Sherry Lansing; a reversible sleeve, featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Matthew Griffin; and an illustrated collector’s booklet, with new writing on the film.

Single White Female: Blu-ray
When it comes to horror, there’s nothing scarier than watching realistically drawn characters deal with life-and-death situations they can’t comprehend or control. The prospect of someone we know being attacked by a flesh-eating zombie is outlandish from the get-go, so viewers are required to find other reasons to dread what’s going to happen in the next 90 minutes of a genre flick. Jump scares can do the trick, in a pinch, but only if they’re used sparingly and are intricately timed. Building and controlling tension is another sure way for a skilled director to manipulate viewers who’ve paid good money to have the shit scared out of them. Barbet Schroeder doesn’t make a lot of movies, but the challenges he does elect to accept – Barfly, Reversal of Fortune, Our Lady of the Assassins, Amnesia — are usually worth the wait. Released in 1992, behind a roommate-from-hell marketing campaign, Single White Female looked very much like the kind of movie that would fulfill the expectations of genre buffs and couples looking for some nasty thrills. After recognizing Schroeder’s name on the posters, arthouse dwellers might have decided to give it shot, as well. Solid word-of-mouth helped “SWF” turn a tidy profit, before making the move to VHS. The subgenre found a little bit of traction in coming years, but, without a strong hand at the wheel, such copy-cats as Single White Female 2: The Psycho (2005) and The Roommate (2011) simply demonstrated how difficult it is to match Schroeder’s recipe. The mad-obsession category, which flourished after Fatal Attraction (1987), proved to be a lot more expansive.

“SWF” still works on the premise that no one can be absolutely sure of finding a perfect match, simply by checking out references on a resume, curriculum vitae, lease application, dating app or Airbnb form. A lie-detector test might be able to ferret out the ringers, but, alas, is too expensive for the average landlord to afford. Hiring a PI to check a potential roommate’s background isn’t practical, either. Schroeder and screenwriter Don Roos (The Opposite of Sex) — working from John Lutz’ novel – set everything up in the opening scenes. After discovering that her fiancé, Sam (Steven Weber), had slept with his ex-wife that afternoon, Allison Jones (Bridget Fonda) swiftly kicks him out of her Manhattan apartment, necessitating the search for a roommate. A typically unsuccessful screening of candidates adds a humorous touch, while demonstrating the difficulty of her task … and why people looking for tenants have turned to leasing agencies to check out applications. Then, very soon after Hedra Carlson (Jennifer Jason Leigh) moves in, Allison discovers a container with prescription drugs in her purse. It’s at this point that the audience knows more about what’s about to happen to the protagonist than she does. It then became incumbent on Schroeder to ratchet up the tension in a way that forces the audience to empathize with the unsuspecting Allison, while gradually dispensing hints at Heddy’s psychosis and keeping Sam in the near background. We also learn that the shy and needy roommate is a twin and someone who envies Allison’s success.

As their friendship grows, Heddy takes it upon herself to protect Allison from potential threats – emotional, professional and sexual – while also usurping her identity, hairdo, fashion sense and love interest. The chemistry that binds Leigh and Fonda’s characters throughout the first half of “SWF” reverses itself in the buildup to a terrifying climax, as Heddy’s attempt to assume Allison’s identity begins to disintegrate. Schroeder wraps it up without relying on genre tropes, clichés or shortcuts. Anyone familiar with the Iranian-born filmmaker’s previous work will recognize the director’s ability to inject tactical measures of kinky sex, nudity, sociopathic behavior and graphic violence into a thriller, without holding back to preserve a rating. In an interview included in the bonus package, though, Schroeder admits to toning things down in response to the reactions of test audiences. It doesn’t show. The Shout!Factory package also adds new commentary with Schroeder, editor Lee Percy and associate producer Susan Hoffman, as well as fresh interviews with Weber, Roos and Peter Friedman, who played Allison’s sympathetic, if doomed-from-the-start neighbor.

Windtalkers: Ultimate Edition: Blu-ray
When Windtalkers was released in 2002, it took a critical and commercial drubbing that, in some instances, seemed excessive to me. I’d met several of the Navajo code-talkers prior to the release of John Woo’s movie – a friend represented the tribe in legal matters – and was made aware of its rough journey to full production mode. I also learned what Hollywood’s delayed recognition of the code-talkers’ heroism meant to Navajos specifically and Native Americans, in general, as Indians from other tribes served in Europe and North Africa during both world wars. (Comanche soldiers participated in the D-Day invasion of Normandy.) Because Pentagon and Canadian military officials had kept their mission a secret until early in the Vietnam War, the code-talkers weren’t allowed to discuss their experiences with friends, relatives and historians. The mere fact that Native Americans were being cast to play Native Americans was considered highly unusual, as well.  Thank goodness, I was only writing about movies at the time, not reviewing them. Part of the criticism was aimed at MGM’s choice of Hong Kong action specialist Woo as director of what they considered to be an American war picture. Others thought that the Native American experience played second-fiddle to the exploits and personal anguish of a white man, Marine Sgt. Joe Enders (Nicolas Cage), who was entrusted with guarding Private Ben Yahzee (Adam Beach) with his life. Still others complained that the stylized violence and constant artillery fire detracted from the story, which involved demonstrating the limits of comradery under fire and the high cost of following orders to the letter. Obviously, the critics’ reviews were based on what made it to the screen, not the 19 minutes of footage restored in the “Director’s Cut” or Woo’s commentary on the DVD/Blu-ray. It probably wouldn’t have changed their opinions drastically, but that’s where DVD/Blu-ray owners have it over theatergoers … not that the majority of supplemental packages are worth a damn. Too many consist of canned EPKs, self-serving interviews, lame gag reels and unenlightening commentary tracks. For the record, the 19 minutes added to the 134-minute theatrical cut mostly represent graphic violence trimmed to get Windtalkers an R-rating. That, and some atmospheric touches cut for length. The “Ultimate Edition” includes both cuts of the picture, in high-def; separate commentaries with Woo and producer Terence Chang, Christian Slater and Nicolas Cage, and actor Roger Willie and real-life Navajo code-talker and consultant Albert Smith; deleted scenes; extensive featurettes, ”The Code Talkers: A Secret Code of Honor,” ”American Heroes: A Tribute to Navajo Code Talkers,” ”The Music of Windtalkers” and ”Actors Boot Camp”; four “Fly-on-the-Set” scene diaries; behind-the-scenes photo gallery; and original marketing material.

Topper Returns: Blu-ray
Long in the public domain, Roy Del Ruth’s contribution to the original “Topper” series, Topper Returns (1941), benefits from a nice hi-def polish that restores some of the luster it lost in previous video iterations and duplications. It rests on the same gag that made the 1937 comedy such a hit, minus almost all its previous cast members. Essential ingredients Roland Young and Billie Burke return for the third and final time, as Mr. and Mrs. Cosmo Topper, a banker with the inconvenient power to see and hear ghosts. In the first installment, the apparitions were played by Cary Grant and Constance Bennett. Bennett reprised her role in Topper Takes a Trip (1938), during which Marion Kerby is told that the only way she’ll get past the pearly gates is to chalk up another good deed. She decides to prevent the Toppers from divorcing. In Topper Returns, the ghost of a beautiful murdered blond (Joan Blondell) enlists Cosmo to try and find her killer in the Dark Old House next door. The fun-loving victim, Gail Richards, was killed by a shadowy intruder as she slept in the bed belonging to the mistress of the house and, one can assume, the intended victim. Topper had picked her up, along with a wealthy friend, Ann Carrington (Carole Landis), while hitchhiking to the Carrington estate. The car in which they were riding blew a tire and nearly flew off a cliff. After being picked up by Cosmo’s chauffeur, played very broadly by Eddie “Rochester” Anderson, she ended up sitting on Topper’s lap. This did nothing to endear either of them to Clara Topper. The movie remains a trifle, but it’s diverting enough. Anderson gets off the best line, when, flabbergasted by one thing or another, he opines, “Doors closing by themselves. People talkin’ to nuthin’ and gettin’ answers. I’m going back,” to which Mrs. Topper responds, “Back where?” Referring to his boss in a famous radio show, “To Mr. Benny. Ain’t nuthin’ like this ever happened there.” The Blu-ray adds trailers from the first Topper. VCI Entertainment will release Topper Takes a Trip in December.

Glastonbury Fayre: 1971: The True Spirit of Glastonbury: Blu-ray
This long out-of-circulation rockumentary is a relic from a long-ago period of Anglo-American history, when hippies roamed the Earth, gathering occasionally in large groups to listen to music, take drugs and take off their clothes. That may sound like an egregious exaggeration, but just try watching Nicolas Roeg, Peter Neal and David Puttnam’s Glastonbury Fayre: 1971: The True Spirit of Glastonbury without thinking something similar. Today, the Glastonbury Festival is a five-day event that features contemporary music, dance, comedy, theater, circus, cabaret and other performing arts on separate stages. It attracts upwards of 150,000 unrepentant hippies, naturists and music lovers to a wide-open patch of greenery near Pilton, Somerset, England. Each year’s collection of performers is taped and packaged for airing on MTV and outlets. In 1971, when the trademark pyramid stage – a one-tenth replica of the Great Pyramid of Giza – was introduced, there was plenty of room for dancing, mud flopping, chanting, building campfires, raising tents and sneaking out for a quickie. Only 12,000 people bothered to attend, despite a bill that promised performances by David Bowie, Traffic, Fairport Convention, Hawkwind, Tonto’s Expanding Head Band, Arthur Brown, Terry Reid, Family, Melanie and, of course, the Worthy Farm Windfuckers. Seven years earlier, the Beatles, alone, drew 55,000 screaming teenyboppers to Shea Stadium. Nobody really knows how many people were at Woodstock and Altamont. Glastonbury Fayre: 1971: The True Spirit of Glastonbury holds up remarkably well after nearly 50 years, technically and as a cultural artifact. Roeg had already directed and shot Performance and Walkabout, while Neal had directed Be Glad for the Song Has No Ending, a companion film to the Incredible String Band’s eighth album. In short order, Puttnam would go on to produce Lisztomania, The Duellists, Midnight Express, Bugsy Malone and Oscar-winner Chariots of Fire. It adds commentary with Roeg and a making-of featurette.

TV-to-DVD
Snowmance
PBS: Ancient Invisible Cities
Smithsonian: Arlington: Call to Honor
Visit Hallmark Channel’s website and, I guarantee, you’ll be stunned to see how many Christmas-themed romcoms are available to subscribers via its store and “Countdown to Christmas” programming. Among the 2018 premieres are “Christmas at Graceland,” “Christmas at the Palace,” “Pride, Prejudice and Mistletoe” and “Mingle All the Way.” None approach the status of being considered classic or specifically target kids. The casts appear to have been chosen with a nod, at least, toward diversity and the stars are all young, attractive and toothy. I couldn’t find MarVista Entertainment’s “Snowmance” among the holiday titles on Hallmark, where it would seem to belong, but it’s available on PPV and streaming services. It probably isn’t because attentive viewers can see the payoff coming from the North Pole, because that appears to be a common trait in holiday romcoms.  For what it’s worth, Sarah (Ashley Newbrough) and her BFF, Nick (Adam Hurtig), have carried on a Christmas tradition of building a Snow Beau snowman, which corresponds to Sarah’s idea of the perfect boyfriend and, she hopes, will attract such a guy to her Manitoba home. After a couple of decades of fruitless snowball rolling, she borrows a scarf belonging to an older gentleman, who thinks it might bring her some luck. Abracadabra, the next day, a handsome dude named Cole (Jesse Hutch) knocks on her door, holding the scarf and inviting her to dinner. On a later day, they make snow angels and skate on a frozen river. Oblivious to Nick’s obvious feelings for her, Sarah showers Cole with all the attention he wishes was directed at him. Observant viewers will notice that the new guy is uncomfortable around campfires, turns up his nose at cooked carrots and is constantly on the move from one cold destination to another. How clueless can one woman be? In holiday specials destined for cable and VOD outlets, nongender-specific cluelessness comes with the territory and tends to last for 80 of the movie’s 90-minute length. Even so, “Snowmance” is targeted at a specific audience and it presses all the right buttons, without insulting anyone.

In PBS’s fascinating documentary mini-series, “Ancient Invisible Cities,” archeologist/educator Darius Arya explores the hidden secrets of three of the most fascinating cities of the ancient world: Athens, Cairo and Istanbul. The latest 3D imaging technology allows us to view the architectural jewels of these cities as they’ve rarely been seen.  From the buildings on the Acropolis to the silver mines and quarries beyond, Arya investigates the story of Athens, the city that gave the world democracy (see above review of “The Owl’s Legacy”). He also uses the latest scanning technology to reveal the historical secrets of Cairo and Ancient Egypt and explore the Great Pyramid of Giza. Later, Darius takes us on an journey through the treasures of Istanbul, many of which are concealed or underground.

The Smithsonian Channel’s “Arlington: Call to Honor” arrives during a week dedicated to honoring men and women who died in the service of their respective countries. President Trump might not have had the courage to brave some rain to mark Armistice Day in France – what happened to the First Umbrella? – but that shouldn’t discourage more patriotic Americans from touring Arlington National Cemetery on DVD. It has provided a final resting place for veterans of conflagrations, from the Revolutionary War to the current struggle in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan. Its size accommodates the 27 burials that take place every day and attracts visitors simply there to observe the ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and eternal flame at JFK’s gravesite.

 

The DVD Wrapup: Incredibles 2, Superman, Midaq Alley, La Boyita, 7th Day, Longing, Breaking Brooklyn, Mara, Capra Goes to War, Sleepwalkers, The Circus, Native America … More

Thursday, November 8th, 2018

Incredibles 2: Blu-ray/4K UHD
Superman: The Movie: Blu-ray/4K UHD
It isn’t difficult to find a direct link from Superman to Mr. Incredible – or, if you prefer, from Clark Kent to Bob Parr – and it extends well beyond their trademark uniforms and insignias. If Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster’s creation hadn’t leapt from the pages of Action Comics #1—first published on April 18, 1938 – and captured the fancy of Americans of all ages, it isn’t likely that Superman: The Movie would have been released, 40 years later, and the family of superheroes in The Incredibles might look more like Batman than Kal-L, from Krypton. And, even that presupposes that Bob Kane and Bill Finger’s creation – alternately known as the Bat-Man, Caped Crusader, Dark Knight and World’s Greatest Detective – found an audience worth pursuing. Just as Superman and Batman found everlasting life in mediums other than ink and paper, so, too, have the Incredibles made the leap from one-off feature to potential franchise. Writer/director Brad Bird was in no hurry to make a sequel to his Oscar- and Annie-winning blockbuster and international sensation. In an interview included in Disney/Pixar’s outstanding Incredibles 2 Blu-ray/4K UHD package, Bird explains why he waited a studio-record 14 years to agree to a sequel. (It would have been 15 years, but Disney decided to push the release up to June 2018.) Without citing other superhero franchises that sagged creatively after being rushed into a sequel or prequel, Bird said he would only do a follow-up if he could come up with a story that was just as good as, or better than, its predecessor. Pixar had already advanced the narratives in Cars/Car2, Monsters, Inc/Monsters University and Finding Nemo/Finding Dory by switching protagonists, so the risk/reward ratio wasn’t worrisome from the creative point-of-view. Perhaps, Bird was inspired by a repeat viewing of Mr. Mom on a cable network, because that’s pretty much the conceit in Incredibles 2.

The Incredibles ended with the Parr family and other superheroes forced to adhere to certain restrictions, dictated by the Superhero Relocation Program. No matter how much good the characters did in the battle against supervillains, the collateral damage to the community’s infrastructure caused the citizenry to demand reforms. Banished to a place where conformity is the norm, Bon and Helen (a.k.a., Elastigirl) raise their growing brood in relative peace. Underminer, introduced late in the original story, returns early in the sequel with a plan to steal all the money from the Metroville Bank. Coincidentally, the Parrs are in town and illegally rush to foil Underminer’s destructive plot. While the crook gets away with the money, the Parrs and Lucius Best (a.k.a., Frozone) are able keep the city from being destroyed by his out-of-control mechanical mole. Even so, the government shuts down the relocation program, forcing superheroes to fend for themselves financially. Enter Winston Deavor (Bob Odenkirk), owner of the DevTech telecommunications corporation, and his sister, Evelyn (Catherine Keener), who admire superheroes and want to get their banishment lifted. They propose a publicity stunt to regain the public’s trust, featuring the charismatic Elastigirl. Bob agrees to stay home and mind teenage Violet (Sarah Vowell), Dashiell (Huckleberry Milner) and baby Jack-Jack (Eli Fucile). “How tough can it be,” wonders Bob, who soon will require the help of Lucius (Samuel L Jackson). As Jack-Jack’s superpowers reveal themselves, the men find themselves completely at wit’s end. Meanwhile, Helen discovers that one of the Deavors, at least, is exploiting her good intentions, while conspiring with other villains to neutralize the Incredibles and other superheroes. The extended family, including Jack-Jack, fight back with ferocity and plenty of trademark Pixar humor. The PG-rated Incredibles 2 made a ton of money – make that, several tons – and set box-office records for animated features around the planet. Now, here’s the rub. At 118 minutes, Incredibles 2 is not only the longest Pixar movie to date, but it’s also the longest computer-animated movie feature, beating Cars‘ record as longest Pixar film, 157 minutes. Box-office returns argue against the length being an obstacle to most viewers’ enjoyment of the picture. The home-viewing experience is less immersive than in theaters, however, so time may not fly at the same velocity.

Meanwhile, there’s almost nothing new to be said about Richard Donner’s Superman: The Movie, except that it holds up remarkably well after 40 years of repeat viewings. The late Christopher Reeve remains terrific in the title role, as are the spot-on performances by Gene Hackman, Marlon Brando, Margot Kidder, Valerie Perrine, Glenn Ford and Jackie Cooper. John Williams’ score is amazing and John Barry’s set design is still a delight. If, at times, the special effects look seriously outmoded, by contemporary standards, they’re never a distraction. I can’t imagine a better double-feature for family viewing. The Dolby Vision HDR presentation freshens the overall look of the 40-year-old film, while the Dolby Atmos audio track makes it sound noticeably better than ever. Anyone who’s purchased the extended-cut and director’s-cut versions should know that the new volume contains only the theatrical versions of Superman. The bonus features have been ported over, as well. Watching Brando in the excellent making-of featurette is fun, as are the 58-minute Superman and the Mole-Men and Bugs Bunny spoofs.

The bonus features on Incredible 2 can be found on a separate Blu-ray disc. They include a new “Auntie Edna” mini-movie, in which Bob visits designer Edna Mode (Bird), hoping that a superhero suit might harness some of Jack-Jack’s energy; 10 deleted scenes, with introductions; several very good making-of and background featurettes, with interviews and demonstrations; “Strong Coffee,” a lesson in animation with Bird; “SuperBaby,” a hip-hop music video and documentary hosted by Frankie and Paige from Disney Channel’s “Bizaardvark”; commentary, with several different creators; the theatrical short, “Bao,” about an aging Chinese mom, suffering from empty-nest syndrome, gets another chance at motherhood when one of her dumplings springs to life as a lively, giggly dumpling boy; outtakes; and behind-the-scenes stories.

Midaq Alley: Blu-ray
There are two equally convenient ways to convince American viewers to take a chance on Jorge Fons and Vicente Leñero’s tightly woven urban drama, Midaq Alley (1994). The first derives from the fact that it was adapted from a novel by the Egyptian Nobel Prize-winner, Najeeb Mahfouz. Screenwriter Leñero (The Crime of Padre Amaro) transferred the narrative from the teeming back streets of Cairo, to the poor, working-class neighborhood, El Callejón de los Milagros (The Alley of Miracles), in downtown Mexico City. The second reason is the presence of 29-year-old Salma Hayek, who was about to make the cross-border leap from appearing in Mexican telenovelas, to starring in American indies. In another year, she’d be able use an incendiary performance in Robert Rodriguez’ Desperado as her calling card. Here, Hayek plays the neighborhood enchantress, Alma, daughter of a tarot reader, whose one true love, Abel (Juan Manuel Bernal), decides to try his luck in the United States before committing to marriage. She pledges to wait for him, while Abel promises to return home with his pockets bulging with dollar bills.

Instead, Alma is seduced by a debonair older man, who charts her ruin from the moment he lays his eyes on her. Abel’s traveling companion is Chava (Juan Manuel Bernal), whose cantina-owner father has just traded the affections of his longtime wife for a “platonic” love affair with a much younger man. Outraged, Chava attacks the man in a shower room, thus risking permanent estrangement from his father. He’ll return home with a wife and baby, who the grandmother embraces, but is snubbed by the old man. A third storyline involves Susanita (Margarita Sanz), a genuinely unattractive landlady so desperate for love that she’s willing to give her body and wealth to the first man who appears to confirm a prophesy revealed in a tarot reading. Before and after Midaq Alley, Fons’ career was largely focused on long-running telenovelas. At a none-too-brisk 140 minutes, the film sometimes feels as if it would have made a better mini-series than stand-alone feature. What’s there is just fine, though. Bonus features include a behind-the-scenes featurette; an introduction from Hayek and Fons; and a new essay by Cinema Tropical founder Carlos A Gutiérrez.

La Boyita
While American filmmakers have only recently begun to feel more comfortable addressing LGBTQ issues in mainstream movies, there are subjects that most still step gingerly around. This is especially true when it comes to children and the ambiguity of gender in their own lives and the people around them. Fortunately, the same reluctance hasn’t prevented the occasional foreign indie from looking at tough subjects through eyes of kids who haven’t the vaguest idea of what the letters in L-G-B-T-Q represent. Ma Vie en Rose (1997), Beautiful Boxer (2004), XXY (2007), 52 Tuesdays (2013) and La Boyita (2009) – then known as “The Last Summer of La Boyita” – are titles that made the rounds of festivals and occasionally found a booking in an arthouse. Even though Julia Solomonoff’s La Boyita has already been released in some markets, it remained on the festival circuit until 2016 and is now available on DVD here, through Film Movement. In it, a pre-pubescent girl, Jorgelina (Guadalupe Alonso), decides not to vacation on the Argentine coast with her mother and older sister, instead electing to go to her father’s ranch in the country. Not only wasn’t Jorgelina anxious to be ignored by her boy-crazy sister, but she also anticipated spending time with her old friend, Mario (Nicolás Treise), the son of farmhands. Solomonoff (Hermanas) teases viewers with hints that Mario is hiding a secret from Jorgelina and other kids her age. Even so, Mario also is in training to compete in an upcoming horse race and is a tenacious worker in the fields.

It isn’t until Jorgelina notices that her friend has bled on a fleece saddle blanket that she asks her father, a doctor, to check on Mario’s
“stomach aches.” He’s more interested in getting back in the saddle and going back to work, however. When the doctor asks Mario’s mother if the boy’s pediatrician had discussed the probability the he was an intersex child, she only looks out a window at her husband. I don’t want to spoil what comes next, but, by now, it’s pretty obvious. Not having enough money to meet with specialists, Mario’s mother decided that any decision could wait for a more opportune time, which never came. Her husband was left in the dark, as was Mario. His father takes the doctor’s news badly, practically blaming his son for his own condition. What won’t be spoiled here is how Mario and Jorgelina deal with the revelation, except to say that Solomonoff handles it with the appropriate degree of sensitivity and an awareness of her viewers’ investment in the story.

The 7th Day: Blu-ray
By 2004, when The 7th Day was released in Spain, 72-year-old Carlos Saura had almost completely committed his output to dramas, documentaries and performance films that unite music, dance and imagery. It was sandwiched between Salomé (2002) – which follows preparations for a flamenco adaptation of the biblical story — and Iberia (2005), a series of dances inspired by composer Isaac Albéniz’ suite of the same title. Among the many accolades Saura received at festivals and in year-end polls, his Mama Turns 100 (1979), Carmen (1983) and Tango (1998) were nominated for Academy Awards in the Best Foreign Language Film category. The 7th Day took many fans and pundits by surprise for its lack of cultural themes. It is set in an isolated village, Extremadura, where the Jiménez and Fuentes families have a violent history of land disputes, jealousy, envy and violence. The hatred between the two families surfaces in the 1960s, when Amadeo Jiménez (Juan Diego) abruptly backs out on his commitment to marry Luciana Fuentes (Victoria Abril). Feeling betrayed, Luciana expresses a vengeful wish on Amadeo within earshot of her madly devoted brother. Jerónimo (Ramón Fontseré) interprets his sister’s wish literally, resulting in the young man’s murder in an open field. Although Jerónimo is easily captured and sentenced to 30 years in prison, the bad blood results in the Fuentes’ home being torched, with the family matriarch still inside. The perpetrator isn’t apprehended. Even so, the remaining Fuentes siblings decide to move to another town.

Twenty years later, when Jerónimo is released on parole, he avenges his mother’s death by heading straight to Extremadura, where he attacks Amadeo’s brother, Jose (José Garcia), and is sent back to prison. When he dies, his brothers and sisters plot yet another act of revenge. That, however, is only half of the story, as conceived by screenwriter Ray Loriga (Live Flesh) and narrated by Jose’s eldest daughter, Isabel (Yohana Cobo), who experiences an excruciating love story of her own. When Jose’s wounds heal, his wife tries to convince him to move far away from the town and leave the vendetta behind him, before it’s too late. Likewise, Isabella can’t wait to relocate to a much bigger city, where she can realize her dreams and enjoy a more culturally vital environment. Whether Jose can tear himself away from the place where his family’s blood has been so violently spilled is always in doubt. Fate will once again push the question to the front burner, in an act of extreme violence and inexplicable cowardice. It mirrors some of the tragedies Saura has depicted on screen and the stage. Finally, The 7th Day comes down to yet another tale of star-crossed families: one haunted by uneasy ghosts, and the other looking toward an unknown future for relief. The ending reflects the tragic consequences of not being able to let go to the past and settle for an emotional stalemate. Sadly, vendettas based on blood oaths and squabbles over property and perceived slights have stifled peace and progress in rural Spain and other European countries show little sign of abating.

Longing
This bittersweet and completely unexpected Israeli dramedy reveals its surprises slowly, in an evenly paced manner that defies viewers to determine, early on, where the dram pauses and the edy begins. Writer/director Savi Gabizon returned to the big screen, 14 years after his previous string of popular films – Nina’s Tragedies, Lovesick on Nana Street, Shuroo – with festival-favorite, Longing. In it, Ariel (Shai Avivi), a gloomy factory owner, is told by a former lover, Ronit (Asi Levi), that he fathered a son, 20 years earlier. More perplexed than hurt or angry, the confirmed bachelor then learns that their son, Adam (Adam Gabay), was killed only a few days earlier, in a traffic accident. Ronit admits that she resisted the urge to tell him about her pregnancy, figuring correctly that he would have insisted on an abortion. At first, Ariel only agrees to attend the interment ceremony at a cemetery near the family’s hometown. Alone, due to unforeseen complications, he begins a conversation with a man who’s tending the grave of his teenage daughter, who committed suicide.

During their chat, Ariel begins to feel the first stirrings of fatherhood and it grows when the mortician asks him to stand in for his son’s mother and stepfather. After agreeing to stick around a few days, Ariel commits himself to learning as much about Adam as he can. The more he discovers, the murkier becomes his impression of how the boy lived his life and what he might become. The surprises include his expulsion from his school for stalking a teacher, Yael (Neta Riskin), and scribbling obscene poetry inspired by her on nearby wall; his considerable talent as a pianist; his participation in a failed drug deal; and his sexual relationship with an underage girl (Ella Armony), at whose home he once stayed. While stunned by the revelations, Ariel becomes curiously paternal, making excuses for Adam and examining the root causes of his behavior. Stranger, still, after listening to a story told by the other mourning father at the graveyard, Ariel agrees to a “ghost wedding” between the children – yes, such things exist — so they can be happily united in the afterlife. Selling that seemingly preposterous notion to families that have known Adam and the girl for as long as they were alive proves difficult, if not impossible, however. Gabizon’s deadpan approach to such a curious resolution may not result in big laughs, but the humor is deeply felt and endearing.

Breaking Brooklyn
Whenever I come across a DVD whose jacket features an image of a boy or girl striking a pose or popping a move, I can’t help but prejudge the movie contained therein. The “let’s-put-on-show,” “gotta-dance” subgenres extend at least as far back as Busby Berkeley’s Babes in Arms (1939), with Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland, and Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly’s Singin’ in the Rain (1952). For nearly 30 years, now, break-dancing and hip-hop have dominated the category. Even as the dancing became more daring and exciting, however, everything else in these movies became predictable and dull … for old-timers like me, at least. So, I didn’t expect much of anything new from Paul Becker’s Breaking Brooklyn, whose cover boy is 12-year-old Colin Critchley, who is white and demonstrably flexible. The thing that separates Paul Becker’s dance-filled drama from the pack is the estimable presence of Louis Gossett Jr. and Vondi Curtis-Hall, as veteran hoofers who’ve become estranged since their style of dance almost became extinct. Gossett plays Miles Bryant, a dance teacher and former performer struggling to keep his family-owned theater alive. Into his life comes Aaron (Critchley), a self-taught tapper, who also happens to be homeless, as is his older brother, Albee (Nathan Kress). Their father (Brian Tarantina) is a ne’er-do-well, who thinks dancing is for sissies. The let’s-put-on-a-show moment arrives when the theater is about to go under and the boys collaborate on a benefit to save it. For this to happen, they’ll have to convince Curtis-Hall to mend fences with Gossett’s character. Even if you can see Breaking Brooklyn’s ending from Queens and the Bronx, Becker finds fresh ways to make it work.  Madeleine Mantock, Liza Colón-Zayas, Kalani Hillike and Laura Weissbecker also contribute. The presence of the two old lions raises Breaking Brooklyn above the rest of the dancer crop.

Mara: Blu-ray
Final Score: Blu-ray
Although all aspiring screenwriters enter the profession with the kind of confidence that borders on arrogance, only a handful realize the dream of seeing their name at the end of a credit roll … even on movies that bypass theaters. In a neat coincidence, Jonathan Frank’s name appears on a pair of thrillers arriving within a week of each other on DVD/Blu-ray. The first, Mara, follows forensic psychologist Dr. Kate Fuller (Olga Kurylenko) as she investigates the deaths of people who were suffering from sleep paralysis before being terrorized by the eponymous demon. And, no, the nightmare-inducing monster isn’t related to Rooney or Kate Mara. In fact, maras are associated with wraith-like creatures in Germanic and Scandinavian folklore … a female demon who torments people in their sleep by crouching on their chests or stomachs, or by causing terrifying visions. In 2013, a Swedish film of the same title tackled the same legend, albeit with copious nudity and 21 fewer minutes in length. In Frank’s screenplay – directed and co-written by newcomer Clive Tonge – the badly contorted “sleep demon” here is played 6-foot-6¾ string bean, Javier Botet, who’s also appeared in Slender Man, It, The Mummy and The Conjuring 2. (He has a genetic disorder, Marfan Syndrome, which affects his body’s connective tissue and makes him attractive to the casting directors of horror films.) Fuller is assigned to the murder of a man who has been strangled in his sleep by his wife (Rosie Fellner) and the only witness is their 8-year-old daughter, Sophie (Mackenzie Imsand). The police, of course, are too lazy to connect the dots between the legend and the spate of killings in their district, so Fuller does the work for them, at great personal risk. Mara may own the record for the number of jump scares and explosive musical cues in a 98-minute movie. Instead of being used selectively, they punctuate nearly every scene, thus losing their punch after a half-hour, or so. The Blu-ray adds a making-of featurette, which doesn’t mention the Swedish movie.

Frank’s name is also attached to Scott Mann’s terrorist-abduction drama, Final Score, which is far less beholding to special-effects tricks for its thrills … not of the audio variety, at least. In a series of coincidences that only make sense in straight-to-video flicks starring former WWE superstars – or, 20 years ago, in a Bruce Willis vehicle – a group of Russian-separatist terrorists takes control of a soccer match in a crowded, soon-to-be-demolished British stadium. A former soldier, played by Dave “The Animal” Bautista, just happens to be attending the same contest with his niece, whose father was killed in Afghanistan under his command. Racked with guilt, but alert to his duties as a citizen, he attempts to prevent a powerful bomb from killing scores of spectators, while also saving the girl (Lara Peake). The whole one-man-army approach is ridiculous, of course, but Mann (Heist) does a nice job choreographing the tick-tock action, and Frank’s script – co-written with David and Keith Lynch – adds enough unexpected humor to complete the Die Hard-wannabe loop. The packed-stadium setting adds to the tension, while Ray Stevenson (Thor), Pierce Brosnan (The World Is Not Enough) and Stella Paris add to the fun.

Girls vs Gangsters
The Hangover wasn’t the first comedy that milked belly laughs from over-the-top bachelor parties – it was preceded by the early Tom Hanks vehicle, Bachelor Party (1984) — and China’s Girls vs Gangsters won’t be the last rip-off of Todd Phillips outrageous romp to fail. While only infrequently funny, Barbara Wong Chun-chun’s bachelorette-party comedy is inarguably risible. This isn’t to suggest that “GvG” is so bad it’s good, only that it sometimes resembles the car wreck you can’t resist watching. It’s fair to ask why I’m not comparing “GvG” to such bachelorette-party comedies as Rough Night and Bridesmaids, which attempted to out-raunchy the boys. Well, first and foremost is the presence of Mike Tyson and a tiger, although probably not the one that stole the show in The Hangover. The other reason is that it’s entirely possible that The Hangover was never shown in mainland China, because it didn’t meet the standards of PRC censors. Maybe it was available on bootleg DVDs, or in Hong Kong, but Chinese audiences are largely drawn to big-budget action, sci-fi and comic-book pictures, not comedies. So, almost no one in the audience would recognize the resemblance, anyway. In fact, viewers would more likely consider “GvG” to be a sequel to Wong’s extremely popular rom-com, Girls (2014).  After becoming engaged, Xiwen (Ivy Chen) is persuaded by her friend Kimmy (Fiona Sit) to hop on a plane heading for Vietnam, where another friend is planning the bachelorette party to end all such parties. Fellow BFFs Jialan (Ning Chang) and Jingjing (Wang Shuilin) agree to join them.

As was the case in The Hangover, a disastrous first night sets the tone for the rest of the weekend. After spending the evening in the company of a wealthy Vietnamese gangster, who also fancies himself as a pop star, three of the women wake up on a beach, virtually naked, and chained to a locked metal box. One has a tattoo of Elvis on her neck that wasn’t there when she passed through customs. They have no memory of how they got to the beach, let alone what happened to their clothes. They soon find themselves in a beachside cabin belonging to Dragon (Tyson), a half-Korean/half-black bodybuilder, who lounges around in boxing gear and offers to find someone to break the chains on their wrists. Instant of finding cute outfits befitting their bubbling personalities and western tastes, Dragon picks out some colorful trunks, which fit their petite bodies perfectly … from bust to mid-thigh. First, however, they’re scared out of their wits by his pet tiger, lounging the house’s walk-in closet. The rest of Girls vs. Gangsters involves the ladies’ quest to recover their memory and find their missing friend, who has problems of her own. While the actresses are almost impossibly cute and game, amid the slapstick, whining and scatological gags, the dialogue is hopelessly lame and, dare I say, condescending to their characters, who appear to belong to the PRC’s bourgeoise upper-crust. And, while I don’t think “GvG” will necessarily appeal to audiences drawn to Crazy Rich Asians (2018), I wouldn’t be surprised if the movie was being marketed in that direction. On the plus side, too, is Pakie Chan’s cinematography, which nicely captures the sensual appeal of post-war Ho Chi Minh City (a.k.a., Saigon), which is a bustling urban center. The DVD adds an interview with the director and an English track. (The feature’s dialogue bounces between Chinese, Vietnamese, Korean and English.)

Mr. Capra Goes to War: Blu-ray
Shortly after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Academy Award-winning director Frank Capra joined tens of thousands of Americans in enlisting for duty in the U.S. Army. At 44, Capra was past the age of conscription and already was an extremely successful filmmaker — It Happened One Night, You Can’t Take It with You, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, It’s a Wonderful Life — and president of the Screen Directors Guild. Although the Sicilian-born Capra probably would have proudly served his adopted country in any capacity, he received a commission as a major in the U.S. Army Signal Corps. For the next four years, his job involved heading a special section on morale to explain to soldiers “why the hell they’re in uniform.” (The Japanese sneak attack effectively ended America’s flirtation with isolationism.) The seven documentaries in the Why We Fight series weren’t intended to be perceived as propaganda. That description was reserved for films made for German and Japanese audiences, who may not have been aware of their governments’ official rationale for war. Before jumping feet-first into his assignment, Capra studied Leni Riefenstahl’s “terrifying” Triumph of the Will, even then considered to a masterpiece of propaganda. Capra knew he was facing a daunting task and, although he successfully recruited Hollywood specialists to his team, his budgets and resources were limited to what the government was willing to provide.

His strategy was to “let the enemy prove to our soldiers the enormity of his cause … and the justness of ours.” The films were informed by enemy speeches, films, newsreels, newspaper articles and lists of hostile actions by Axis powers. “I thought of the bible. There was one sentence in it that always gave me goose pimples: ‘Ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.’” As author/historian James McBride notes in his 35-minute precede and introductions to the individual titles in Olive Films’ Mr. Capra Goes to War, the director would be required to bend the truth, according to the winds blowing from the White House and Pentagon. While depicting the unquestioned heroism of Soviet soldiers and citizens, he wasn’t allowed to explain how Stalin’s fascism differed from Hitler’s fascism, if at all. (Not much, but he was on our side.) In “The Negro Soldier,” Capra and his associates were forced to overlook slavery, Jim Crow racism and lynching. Nonetheless, most of what the Allied soldiers saw in the Why We Fight films was based on verifiable facts and known military strategies by Axis powers. Depicting the ravages of combat, as well as the lives of soldiers on the front lines and the home front, five of the films in which Capra was involved are represented in this special hi-def edition, presenteds in cooperation with the National Archives: Tunisian Victory, Prelude to War, The Battle of Russia, The Negro Soldier and Your Job in Germany, which was written by Theodor S. Geisel (a.k.a., Dr. Seuss).

Art School Confidential: Blu-ray
PBS: Art 21: Art in the 21st Century, Season 9
To fully appreciate Terry Zwigoff and Daniel Clowes’ niche-noir drama, Art School Confidential, it helps to understand the difference between students whose only commitment is to their chosen artistic discipline, not to a broader understanding of the humanities or sciences. While it’s possible to study things other than art, music, dance and writing, the emphasis is on mastering the creative process and using it to further one’s own goals. The fictional university portrayed in Art School Confidential is based on the Pratt Institute, which Clowes attended and served as the inspiration for the satirical comic of the same title. It includes such cynical advice as, “If you must go to art school, for God’s sake, make the most of it. … Seldom, if ever again in life, will you be afforded the chance to scrutinize such an array of losers in an environment that actually encourages their most pretentious inclinations,” and “”Remember, the only piece of paper less valuable than one of your paintings is a B.F.A. degree.” Clowes’ drawings also form the basis for Zwigoff’s depictions of students, instructors, administrators, gallery owners and dissipated graduates. Early in the narrative, a sophomore studies the faces of a fresh crop of students in a basic drawing class, overseen by John Malkovich, an actor who’s played more pretentious characters than almost anyone else in Hollywood.

After the young man rattles off his impressions – based solely on stereotypes and clichés – the film’s protagonist, Jerome Platz (Max Minghella), asks where he fits into the picture. The answer to that question will reveal itself in due course, both to Jerome and viewers. Jerome believes that the tiny East Coast college, Strathmore, can accommodate his stated ambition to become the world’s greatest artist, like his hero, Picasso. Unfortunately, Jerome’s portraiture isn’t admired by his fellow freshman as he highly as he thinks it deserves to be. Neither does he hesitate to pass harsh judgments on his classmates’ work, some of which is applauded by the instructor. The one thing he does come away with from the class is a dangerous obsession with a beautiful nude model, Audrey (Sophia Myles), who’s the daughter of a successful artist Jerome admires. It’s difficult to tell if Audrey’s a breath of fresh air in a stuffy environment or just another art-gallery groupie. Although she allows Jerome a peek into her world, he’s mortified to learn that Audrey is hooking up with a fellow student, Jonah (Matt Keeslar), whose work he despises and who looks as if he should be attending Notre Dame on an athletic scholarship. To set her straight, Jerome devises a scheme that may or may not have something to do with a serial strangler who’s terrorizing the campus. Desperate, he concocts a risky plan to make a name for himself and win her back. Anyone unfamiliar with Zwigoff’s previous work – Louie Bluie, Crumb, Ghost World, Bad Santa – may not get the overriding joke, but supporting performances by Jim Broadbent, Angelica Huston and Adam Scott add a silver lining to Zwigoff’s typically dark clouds. The Blu-ray adds deleted scenes, a blooper reel and a Sundance featurette.

Some of the people making a living – meager, though it may be – in the world of art have been the subject of profiles in the PBS series “Art 21: Art in the 21st Century.” The Peabody Award-winning biennial program allows viewers to observe the artists at work, watch as they transform inspiration into art, and hear how they struggle with both the physical and visual challenges of achieving their visions. The documentary series provides a window into contemporary art that is ordinarily hidden from public view. Continuing the thematic focus introduced two years ago, Season Nine draws upon artists’ relationships with the places in which they work: Berlin, Johannesburg and the San Francisco Bay area. Eleven artists and one nonprofit art center make art, talk about it and wrestle with complicated histories, conceptions of gender and the implications of technology, migration and other issues not discussed in Art School Confidential.

Stephen King’s Sleepwalkers: Blu-ray
Every time a vintage horror film is re-released on DVD/Blu-ray, I check out the reviews that greeted it upon the time of its release. With certain notable exceptions, the movies adapted from Stephen King novels and stories generally have received unenthusiastic reviews, as well as the occasional failing mark. As is so often the case with remakes, even the titles that were severely attacked look better in hindsight than the movies that have washed ashore in the flood of straight-to-video/DVD titles. Sleepwalkers (1990), based on an original Stephen King screenplay, may fall well short of greatness, but it can be viewed today without the burden of asking the quality-vs.-quantity question that’s dogged the author throughout most of his career. Sleepwalkers is based on a legend, carried over from the Old Country, about nomadic, shapeshifting “energy vampires,” who feed off the lifeforce of virgin women. Though they normally maintain human shape, they can transform into their natural form — human-sized bipedal werecats — at will. They are more resilient than humans and have powers of both telekinesis and illusion.

In this small Indiana town, a newly arrived mother and son, Mary and Charles Brady (Alice Krige, Brian Krause), stalk a beautiful teenage virgin, Tanya Robertson (Mädchen Amick). Tanya values her chastity and Charles reveals his hand too soon, shifting his shape into that of a large cat, while attempting to seduce her during a picnic in a cemetery. Knowing that her son may have lost his best opportunity at stealing her life force and extending the ancient vampire lineage, Mary orders him to try again, this time without the courting ritual. It results in a rampage that can only be stopped by the intervention of a small army of pet-sized cats able to sense the presence of evil and attack when threatened. If Streetwalkers owes a debt of gratitude for the basic conceit to Jacques Tourneur and Paul Schrader’s Cat People, the special werecat makeup is right out of “Michael Jackson’s Thriller.”  This was director Mick Garris’ first of seven adaptations of King stories. Despite the negative reviews, Sleepwalkers made some money at the box office and in VHS. The Scream Factory package adds new commentary with Garris, Amick and Krause; “Feline Trouble,” an interview with Garris; “When Charles Met Tanya,” a conversation with Amick and Krause; “Family Values,” a chat with Krige; “Feline Trouble: The FX of Stephen King,” with special make-up-effects creator Tony Gardner and prosthetics designer Mike Smithson; and a ported-over behind-the-scenes featurette and still gallery.

Law Abiding Citizen: Blu-ray/4K UHD
Like every other revenge film made in the long wake of the original Death Wish (1974), Law Abiding Citizen encourages viewers to side with the vigilante as he terminates the people who killed his loved ones. We sympathize with his belief that the courts are more interested in protecting the rights of criminals and defendants than keeping innocent civilians safe. In the nearly concurrent Dirty Harry series, a vigilante cop stood in for a citizenry enraged by a judiciary too shorthanded to contest plea bargains and stand up to bleeding-hear liberals. For many years, the ACLU, overly aggressive defense lawyers and namby-pamby judges were considered to be more responsible for America’s rising crime rate than poverty, the proliferation of handguns, understaffed police forces, underpaid prosecutors, drugs and good old-fashioned greed. Presidential candidate George H.W. Bush’s use of a racist attack ad in the 1988 campaign – falsely blaming his opponent, Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis, for furloughing convicted felon Willie Horton – fanned the fears of white voters already willing to condemn liberals for crime in the streets. (Thirty years later, President Trump used the same gambit in portraying Central Americans seeking asylum in the U.S. as criminals, terrorists and children who will leach off the country’s welfare system.)

In the twisty revenge thriller, Law Abiding Citizen (2009), F. Gary Gray (Straight Outta Compton) and writer Kurt Wimmer (Ultraviolet) adopted the basic plot device that propelled Death Wish, while adding attacks that could only be pulled off by a criminal genius. Viewers are kept in the dark about the CIA background of Gerard Butler’s Clyde Shelton, who, in the film’s opening moments, is bound, gagged and forced to watch the rape of his wife and off-screen murder of their daughter. That Shelton is allowed to live is either the ultimate act of torture or a major blunder on the part of the two men, who, after being arrested, were found guilty of the crime. What horrifies Shelton is having to watch prosecutors cut a deal with the man most likely to have committed the murders, in exchange for turning on his partner. One is given a sentence that allows him to walk away from prison after only a few years in stir, while the other dies in a mysteriously botched execution. Most viewers, I suspect, weren’t all that upset that the least guilty of the two home invaders was given a lethal injection, even if the chemicals that did the trick were switched to inflict maximum pain and agony. Neither were audiences – then and, presumably, now – terribly unhappy with the punishment Clyde inflicts on the greater fiend, Clarence Darby (Christian Stolte), after he walks out of prison a free man. It’s when Shelton decides to eliminate everyone who he believes is responsible for Darby’s plea deal and release that we’re asked to take a stand against killing tangentially involved prosecutors, defense attorneys, judges and bystanders … innocent and otherwise. Normally, that would be a no-brainer, but we’re impressed by Shelton’s genius in coordinating a devastating killing spree from solitary confinement.

Jamie Fox plays the prosecutor Shelton blames most for the injustice, even though he didn’t want to present the plea bargain in the first place, wasn’t in favor of Darby’s early release and isn’t unhappy when he’s found dismembered in a warehouse owned by Shelton. Still, he was photographed alongside the killer on the courtroom steps after he’s released, and that’s enough to get the vigilante’s blood boiling. Now, viewers are left in the quandary created by our admiration for Clyde’s ingenuity and our positive feelings for Fox, his family and one or two of the other targets, including characters played by Colm Meaney, Leslie Bibb, Viola Davis, Bruce McGill and Michael Irby. It isn’t fair … but that’s Hollywood. Butler’s good, even when we’re distracted by his resemblance to fellow countryman Mel Gibson. The Blu-ray/UHD package includes archival featurettes, “The Justice of Law Abiding Citizen,” “Law in Black and White: Behind the Scenes,” “Preliminary Arguments: The Visual Effects of Law Abiding Citizen,” “The Verdict: Winning Trailer Mash-Up”; and an audio commentary with producers Lucas Foster and Alan Siegel. I’m not sure the 4K UHD upgrade adds enough to recommend it to fans who already own previous hi-def editions.

King Cohen: Blu-ray
Documentaries about the men and women who make movies for a living are beginning to pile up like movies about undead humanoids who devour the brains of living beings. Also beginning to pile up like the bodies left behind in the Zombie Apocalypse are documentaries about the people who make such horror flicks. King Cohen introduces viewers too young to remember such exploitation classics as Black Caesar, It’s Alive, Q: The Winged Serpent and The Stuff to the man who made them, as well as dozens of other drive-in faves, And, while it’s never wise to look too closely into the production of hot dogs, bologna and B-movies, chatting with an unabashed master of exploitation films can be enlightening and entertaining. King Cohen features all sorts of interviews with filmmakers and actors who helped Larry Cohen fulfill his visions. They include Martin Scorsese, Joe Dante, J.J. Abrams, John Landis, Michael Moriarty, Fred Williamson, Yaphet Kotto, Rick Baker, Barbara Carrera and Mick Garris. Cohen chimes in with personal insights into the work, process and legacy of an auteur, with a resume that spans 50 years.

TV-to-DVD
PBS: American Experience: The Circus
PBS: Frontline: Our Man in Tehran
PBS: Native America
PBS: Masterpiece: Poldark: The Complete Fourth Season: Blu-ray
PBS: Shakespeare Uncovered: Series 3
Discovery: Dating Game Killer
Smithsonian: The Obama Years: The Power of Words
PBS: Sesame Street: The Magical Wand Chase
Despite its European roots, there’s been nothing quite so American as the circus, and its red, white and blue roots extend all the way back to earliest years of the union. Today, the traditional circus is approaching endangered-species status, with no safety net underneath it. The recent four-hour “American Experience” presentation, “The Circus,” demonstrates how the entertainment institution’s rise paralleled that of the nation, as it enjoyed immediate acceptance by the public, expanded its reach to the edges of the frontier, made lots of money, subsumed its competition, imported talent from around the world and was an early-adopter of advanced technology. The larger-than-life ambitions of the impresarios matched the appetite of its audiences for thrills, chills, laughs and surprises. Then, the circus found itself in a jam, as competition for the eyes of paying customers was split between movies, organized sports and television. Ironically, the greatest obstacle to year-after-year growth was the same thing that attracted return audiences: the annual struggle to come up with new, different and promotable acts. The PBS mini-series explores the colorful history of the circus, from the first one-ring equestrian show at the end of the 18th Century, to 1956, when the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey big top was pulled down for the last time. It does so through the intertwined stories of several of the most innovative and influential show-business minds of the late 19th Century, stopping short of the Feld family’s purchase of the business and short-term burst in popularity and high-quality acts. Operations closed in May 2017, a year after its trademark elephant act was retired. Old-timers who can still remember circus parades, tent raisings and midways will find “The Circus” to be wonderfully nostalgic, while younger family members probably will be full of questions about what they’ve just seen and what they’re missing.

The timely four-hour “Frontline” presentation, “Our Man in Tehran,” chronicles journalist Thomas Erdbrink’s 17-year stint in Iran. Now chief correspondent and Tehran bureau chief for the New York Times, he is one of the last western journalists living in the country. Over the course of four years, beginning in 2014, Erdbrink was given permission to travel with a crew from Dutch television around the country, meeting people and hearing stories about their lives and hopes and fears, in one of the most isolated, belligerent and misunderstood countries in the world. Fluent in Farsi and married to an Iranian photojournalist, Erdbrink visits Iranians from all walks of life to reveal the intricacies of their private worlds and the challenges of living under theocratic leaders. During the same period of time, optimism over the nuclear pact with the Obama administration and the lifting of sanctions was dampened by President Trump’s politically motivated re-imposition of sanctions and threats of war from Islamic leaders. One of the most interesting revelations comes in discussions with “Mr. Big Mouth,” one of the most impassioned spouters of anti-American and anti-Israeli rhetoric during rallies and marches. An unlikely friendship develops as he slowly adopts western ways and even allows his wife to get a driver’s license.

In 1995, CBS presented the six-hour-plus documentary mini-series, “500 Nations,” which charted the history of hundreds of Indian tribes, beginning in pre-Columbian times and ending with the Battle of Wounded Knee, in 1890. Co-produced by Kevin Costner (Dances With Wolves), it was one of the first productions to present an all-encompassing and objective history of tribes that were almost completely eradicated by genocidal policies designed to ease the expansion west of European settlers and businesses driven by greed and gold fever. PBS’ “Native America” takes a very different tack in chronicling the scientific, spiritual and astronomical history of first-nation people. The series reaches back 15,000 years to reveal massive cities aligned to the fluctuations of the sun, stars and planets. An estimated100 million people were connected by social networks spanning two continents. Made with the active participation of Native American communities and filmed in some of the most spectacular locations in the hemisphere, “Native America” reveals an ancient and still thriving culture whose splendor and ingenuity is only now beginning to be fully understood and appreciated. The producers were given access to several of tribes’ most sacred shrines, ceremonies and petroglyphs not easily accessible to the public. It uses 21st Century tools, including multispectral imaging and DNA analysis, to uncover incredible narratives of America’s past, venturing into Amazonian caves containing the Americas’ earliest art and interactive solar calendar, exploring a massive tunnel beneath a pyramid at the center of one of ancient America’s largest cities and mapping the heavens in celestially aligned cities.

The fourth season of PBS’ highly popular “Masterpiece” mini-series, “Poldark,” opens in 1796, when mine owner Ross Poldark (Aidan Turner) is forced to enter politics to defend Cornwall and those he loves from an empowered MP George Warleggan (Jack Farthing). It takes him to the nation’s capital and into new perils. As Hugh Armitage (Josh Whitehouse) prepares to capture Warleggan’s seat as Truro’s MP, Ross fears that Hugh is challenging his marriage. Demelza (Eleanor Tomlinson) remains caught in the middle, even as she’s required to play peacemaker elsewhere. Meanwhile, the rising price of grain is a recipe for riot. Like any good prime-time soap, there’s plenty of loss, love, shifting alliances, illness and the continuing cycle of life. The Cornwall scenery doesn’t disappoint, either.

PBS’ “Shakespeare Uncovered” may not be for beginners – or dummies, either – but neither does it require an MFA or PhD to enjoy it. A familiarity with the plays and curiosity about what you might have missed the first or second time through them is enough. “Series 3” adds six chapters with new hosts, who weave their personal passions with history and analysis to tell the stories behind the stories in Shakespeare’s famous works. They include “Much Ado About Nothing,” with Helen Hunt; “The Merchant of Venice,” with F. Murray Abraham; “Measure for Measure,” with Romola Garai; “Julius Caesar,” with Brian Cox; “The Winter’s Tale,” with Simon Russell Beale; and Antony Sher, on “Richard III.” In addition to the expected array of historical backgrounders and academic analysis, “Shakespeare Uncovered” goes on location to the bard’s haunts and the settings for the works, while revisiting performances from stage performances and movie adaptations.

The thing that’s always bothered me about the dating shows that keep popping up in syndication is the likelihood that the screening process leaves something to be desired. Just as games shows don’t reveal the amount of taxes that lucky contestants will be required to pay on their winnings, relationship shows rarely update viewers on the dates that ended in visits to psychiatrists or police precincts. The ones that ended so badly they were funny were useful to producers – especially in DVD compilations of “uncensored” dates — while the ones that ended so badly that they were disastrous never did. The September 13, 1978, taping of “The Dating Game” provided an excellent case in point. What bachelorette Cheryl Bradshaw didn’t know about bachelor No. 1, Rodney Alcala, was that he had committed at least four prior murders and would add several dozen more to that total before he was arrested. If it weren’t for a healthy jolt of women’s intuition, Bradshaw’s dream date could have ended up on the police blotter. After chatting with the winning sociopath backstage, she decided to take a pass. A closer screening of contestants might have eliminated Alcala from consideration … but, maybe not. Discovery’s “Dating Game Killer” doesn’t dwell on the potential for such a horror occurring, but it makes for a dandy title. Even without it, Alcala’s story would be interesting to fans of real-crime series. The case revealed holes in the judicial system that allowed Alcala and other canny criminals to slip through safety nets already in place. With it, however, the dramatizations are extremely compelling. Guillermo Díaz (“Scandal”) plays the killer; Tanya van Graan (24 Hours to Live) plays the extremely fortunate bachelorette; and the always wonderful Carrie Preston (“Claws”), plays the mother of one of Alcala’s victims.

After Barack Obama was replaced in the Oval Office, it took nearly a year for him to speak out on what he felt were the injustices forwarded by President Trump, whose mission it’s been to remove all evidence that the previous administration existed. A few months before the midterm elections, however, he felt it necessary to step forward to counter Trump’s offensive. Obama’s speeches and commentary reminded Democrats of what launched him into our national consciousness, at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, and what’s been missing since January 2017. The Smithsonian Channel’s “The Obama Years: The Power of Words” delves into the former-POTUS’ rhetorical gift and why it still matters. Interviews with historians and key figures in his writing process give rare insights into these iconic speeches, as well as the Obama presidency and the man himself.

Sesame Street’s 48th season began with the all-new primetime special, “The Magical Wand Chase,” filmed on location in three vibrant New York City neighborhoods. While taking her friends on a hot-air-balloon ride, Abby Cadabby, loses her wand to a curious bird, voiced by Elizabeth Banks. Without Abby’s wand, they can’t get back to Sesame Street. Pursuing the bird in their hot-air balloon, Abby and the gang visit new neighborhoods and discover new foods, music and languages. “The Magical Wand Chase” is deeply connected to the season’s respect-and-understanding curriculum, using the tapestry of the city to show kids that kindness is universal and new friends can be found anywhere. (It also marks the first time the show has shot a feature-length special on location since 1994.)

The DVD Wrapup: Spy Who Dumped Me, Elena Ferrante, Sun at Midnight, Elephant’s Journey, Retro Afrika, Never Goin’ Back, Believer, Dragnet, Valley Girl, Black Sails … More

Thursday, November 1st, 2018

The Spy Who Dumped Me: Blu-ray
Contrary to what the title might suggest, Susanna Fogel’s late-summer comedy is neither a spoof of the James Bond franchise nor a gender-reversal twist on Austin Powers, even though it features a pair of former “SNL” standouts. (Blessedly, despite the welcome presence of Jane Curtin, as Kate McKinnon’s mom, Lorne Michaels doesn’t appear to have had anything to do with The Spy Who Dumped Me.) Audrey (Mila Kunis) and Morgan (McKinnon) play a pair of 30-year-old BFF’s, who are thrust unexpectedly into an international conspiracy, thanks to a hunky ex-boyfriend. Audrey’s ex-, Drew (Justin Theroux), recently broke up with her via an out-of-the-blue text message. As she and Morgan are preparing to burn what’s left of the clothes Drew left behind him, he bursts into her apartment with a dozen guys wielding automatic weapons on his tail. In the kind of unexpected twist that keeps The Spy Who Dumped Me from being a non-stop comedy, the title character is killed in the shootout … or is he? Before Drew takes his last breath, he asks Audrey to fly to Vienna, from L.A., and give a sports trophy to someone named Verne, at a popular restaurant. Unfortunately, Drew dies before he can tell Audrey anything more about Verne or the significance of the trophy. Naturally, Audrey and Morgan’s rendezvous is the worst-kept secret in Central Europe. Another noisy shootout transpires when Audrey attempts to pass the trophy to the person she assumes is Verne – Sebastian, played by Sam Heughan, the handsome “Highlander” dude — and the girls are off on a merry romp are the continent, with stops in Budapest, Amsterdam, Prague and Berlin.

As the body count mounts, the search for clues hidden on Drew’s missing thumb drive becomes both extremely twisty and consistently entertaining. Credit for keeping viewers from sweating the improbable details largely belongs to McKinnon’s inspired riffing and improvisation, along with Fogel and co-writer David Iserson’s clever plotting and location-hopping. Production designer Marc Homes and cinematographer Barry Peterson also contribute mightily to the fun. Gillian Anderson and Paul Reiser also pop up at opportune times in the story. The Blu-ray adds the featurettes, “Covert Operations: The Making of The Spy Who Dumped Me”; “Gary Powell: The Action Behind the Film; “Makin’ Friends With Hasan Minhaj,” which should appeal to fans of the former “Daily Show” correspondent; deleted scenes and outtakes; and “Off Script,” which features a six minutes’ worth of ad libs. “Spy” opened on a weekend that Box Office Mojo described as having “the worst grosses for the eighth month of the year in 20 years.” It deserves a better shot on the small screen.

Elena Ferrante on Film: Blu-ray
Just because a successful author writes under a pseudonym and goes to great lengths to preserve their anonymity doesn’t mean that literary detectives won’t attempt to put a face to the name and a history to the face. If an aspiring author fails to capture the imagination of critics and public, the writer could call himself/herself Tarzan and no one would bother to investigate the ruse. Neither does an air of mystery, in and of itself, ensure sales of an unreadable tome. Seems obvious, but such mysteries have kept people guessing for centuries. More recently, the conceit has tweaked the interest of forensic book critics, who’ve tried to guess the real identity of “Elena Ferrante,” author of the Italian best-seller, “L’amore molesto” (1992). It took 14 years for the book to be translated into English and another decade for Mario Martone’s excellent adaptation, Troubling Love, to be released here on DVD, with Roberto Faenza’s The Days of Abandonment (2005). In the meantime, three more Ferrante books were published in Italy and the debate took on a life of its own. Her most widely known work is “The Neapolitan Novels,” a four-part series that began in 2012, with “My Brilliant Friend,” and was followed by “The Story of a New Name” (2013), “Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay” (2014) and “The Story of the Lost Child” (2015). The series follows the lives of two bright Neapolitan girls, Elena and Raffaella, from childhood to adulthood and old age, as they try to create lives for themselves in a poor and violent neighborhood on the outskirts of Naples. An HBO adaptation of the first book – and subsequent 2017 play, by April de Angelis — is scheduled to begin here on November 18. Coincidental to the opening of the play was the publication of journalist Claudio Gatti’s presumed unmasking in the New York Review of Books.

Not that it matters outside the realm of literary salons, a handful of blogs and libraries, but Gatti surmised that Ferrante was, in fact, a Rome-based translator named Anita Raja. A year ago, team of scholars, computer scientists, philologists and linguists at the University of Padua analyzed 150 novels written in Italian by 40 different authors, including 7 books by Ferrante. They concluded that Raja’s husband — author and journalist Domenico Starnone — is the probable author of the Ferrante novels. “Ferrante” has repeatedly dismissed suggestions that she is a man, telling Vanity Fair in 2015 that questions about her gender are rooted in a presumed “weakness” of female writers and, of course, the inherent sexism of male critics, publishers and their camp followers. Again, no matter. In an article published in March 2017 on elenaferrante.com, Lauren Strain argued, “That a woman’s word is neither believed nor respected is hardly a surprise. But what’s been particularly nauseating about Gatti’s and other journalists’ efforts to ‘out’ Ferrante is that, if you’re even slightly familiar with her work, you’ll know that her whole output is an examination of the lives of women who are denied their right to self-determination.” Ferrante has also said, “books, once they are written, have no need of their authors” – a theory that might disturb publicists more than readers – and that anonymity is a precondition for her work. It didn’t prevent Time magazine from calling Ferrante one of the 100 most influential people of 2016, or the New York Times putting “The Story of the Lost Child” on its list of 10 best books of 2015. The controversy is discussed, at length, in a featurette contained in Film Movement’s long-awaited, “Elena Ferrante on Film,” featuring The Days of Abandonment and Troubling Love, now available for the first time in North America.

For the sake of brevity, both films can be lumped together in a subgenre reserved for women-on-the-brink dramas. The Days of Abandonment stars the estimable Italian actress, Margherita Buy (Mia madre), as the woman scorned. In a scenario that recalls Paul Mazursky’s An Unmarried Woman (1978), Buy plays Olga, the 38-year-old mother of two, whose life is shattered when her husband splits. It prompts her to fall into a period of self-degradation, self-destructive behaviors and uncharacteristic violence. Her husband, Mario (Luca Zingaretti), has fallen for a much younger woman, Carla (Gaia Bermani Amaral), who served as his intern and exists as a living indictment of Olga’s inevitable slip into middle age. It isn’t a pretty sight, especially when friends attempt to lure her into places where she might meet a man willing to exploit her desperation, or, if nothing else, have a good time. Just before she reaches the end of her tether, Olga attempts to force herself on a downstairs neighbor, Damian (Goran Bregovic), who resembles Roberto Benigni, and plays a cello. If the incident ends in shame, it also opens the door for a surprising and entirely satisfying climax.

Troubling Love features another heart-wrenching lead performance, this time by Anna Bonaiuto (Il Postino). Delia is an artist living in Bologna, a northern Italian city that is extremely different than Naples, where she grew up. When we meet her, Delia is expecting – dreading? – a visit by her estranged mother, Amalia (Angela Luce). Instead, she’s notified of Amalia’s death by drowning. The official determination is suicide, but Delia isn’t convinced. She believes that Amalia was too full of life – as southerners define it – to end it in such a peculiar way: washing ashore, wearing only a lacy red bra. Delia decides to travel to Naples for the funeral and, while she’s there, reconstruct for herself the last few days and weeks of her mother’s life. (When she pays a visit to the lingerie boutique that sells the bra, Delia’s given a rude welcome.) Not surprisingly, perhaps, the investigation opens windows into her own past, especially incidents that she’d sublimated or completely forgotten, including her role in her parents’ breakup. The more people she meets, the less recognizable her mother becomes. At the same time, Delia gets phone calls from someone who wants to make her life even more difficult. Martone succeeds in drawing distinctions between Naples and Bologna, textually and in the southern city’s far more chaotic atmosphere. And, although Troubling Love is now 23 years old, the Blu-ray restoration makes it look as fresh and vital as “Abandonment.” The two-disc set adds a 32-page booklet, containing Elena Ferrante’s letters and script notes about the films (excerpted from “Frantumaglia: A Writer’s Journey,” published by Europa Editions); interviews with Martone, Bonaiuto and producer Andrea Occhipinti; interviews with “Abandonment” personnel; and the featurette, “Elena and the Books.”

The Sun at Midnight
Kirsten Carthew’s debut feature succeeds on so many different levels that it begs the question as to why it wasn’t accorded a meaningful theatrical run and the kind of media attention it deserves. Instead, after a tour of niche festivals, The Sun at Midnight (2016) is finally being made available to general audiences on direct-to-DVD outlets and streaming services. Filmed in Canada’s Northwest Territories, at the Arctic Circle, The Sun at Midnight describes an unexpected friendship between a 16-year-old girl and a Native hunter, who’s obsessed with finding a caribou herd that’s late to arrive on its annual migration. It’s where Lia (Devery Jacobs) has been sent by her father, in the wake of her mother’s death. He needs to leave Montreal for a mining job and the only place for his punky daughter to spend the summer is with her Gwich’in grandmother, in Fort McPherson. Lia isn’t welcomed with open arms by the girls her age in the largely aboriginal community. Frustrated, she hijacks a motor boat, which breaks down well before she reaches the nearest big city, Dawson, in the Yukon. Unprepared for a stay of more than a few hours on a nearby range of tundra and mountains that remain capped with snow, even during the long days of summer. Fortunately, she’s met on the shore by Alfred (Duane Howard), who hopes to hand her off to the men at a nearby hunters’ camp, which is equipped with a two-way radio. Instead, one of them attempts to accost the spunky teen, who hits him with a paddle and takes off to find Alfred, who knows that bears and wolves aren’t the only predatory animals on the range.

Because Alfred is familiar with Lia’s mother and grandmother, most of the walls that would normally separate them are already gone. He teaches her how to survive in the wilderness, by trapping rabbits and using a rifle to scare off four-legged hunters. Most of what he imparts to Lia on the history of her ancestors is limited to practical knowledge and anecdotal evidence of the Gwich’ins’ relationship to their harsh, yet beautiful environment. Soon enough, she will be tested on what’s she learned. As such, The Sun at Midnight overlaps three enduring subgenres: survival, coming-of-age and embracing one’s roots. None of it is forced or pedantic. Moreover, Carthew’s screenplay feels as organic as the surprisingly colorful terrain, nicely captured by cinematographer Ian MacDougall (Wrecker). Most of the dialogue is in English, but the discussions between relatives in Fort McPherson are conducted in an Athabaskan dialect. There’s a nod, as well, to the problems caused by climate change, including threats to the caribou migration that’s an essential part of Native culture. Although The Sun at Midnight isn’t rated, it easily qualifies as family fare.

Never Goin’ Back
With the terrifically inventive and entertaining BFFs-gone-wild comedy, Never Goin’ Back, native Texan Augustine Frizzell makes the leap from “indie actress” (Ain’t Them Bodies Saints) to writer/director, whose “lone star” is suddenly on the rise. If the name sounds familiar, it’s because she’s the granddaughter of Lefty Frizzell, one of the most influential singer-songwriters in the history of country music, whose roots run deeper in Texas soil than all the Bushes combined. Augustine may be married to director David Lowery (The Old Man & the Gun), in whose films she’s frequently appeared, but Never Goin’ Back belongs to her. The escapades attributed to teen waitresses Jessie (Camila Morrone) and Angela (Maia Mitchell) are drawn from Frizzell’s memories of her own debauched youth and the kinds of friendships that live forever. “I was 15 when all this stuff was happening … but I was also living on my own, with my best friend and some roommates,” Frizzell recalled, in an interview published in the Observer. “We worked at IHOP, which is comparatively as shitty as the restaurant in the movie. We did a lot of drugs, we robbed a store, our house got robbed, all of it.” Then, at 18, she had her first child. Through it all, she had the support of her best friend and family, which explains why Never Goin’ Back is a comedy, instead of just another story about kids having to hit rock bottom, before either bouncing back into something resembling the mainstream or perishing in the flames of their misspent youths. Indeed, the film has routinely been described as “raunchy” and a gender-reversed version of Superbad (2006). It’s a comparison with which Frizzell doesn’t disagree. By the time we meet them, roomies Jessie and Angela have dropped out school in the Dallas/Fort Worth Metroplex and are sharing a house with some garden-variety slackers, who support themselves by selling drugs … or, at least, trying to sell drugs. The house is about to get robbed, their rent’s due and their plan to work multiple back-to-back shifts is foiled by an inopportune bust. They weren’t planning on using the money to pay the rent, but to go to Galveston for a week and eat doughnuts. Despite the fact that Frizzell survived her own teenage years and is now beginning to profit from her experiences, Never Goin’ Back was never intended to appeal to parents who might need some reassurance about their own kids’ trajectories. It has more in common with fellow A24 titles, Spring Breakers, The Bling Ring, Laggies, Lady Bird and American Honey, which suggest that expectant moms and dads shouldn’t anticipate an easy ride through parenthood. Sarah Jaffe’s musical soundtrack reflects the girls’ tastes and the filmmaker’s sense of irony, with a couple of ditties by Barry Manilow and Michael Bolton. The other interesting thing about Never Goin’ Back is its unwillingness to go into any depth on whether Jessie and Angela are lesbians, bi- or, simply, BFFs with benefits. Declaring one way or the other would force viewers to base their opinions of their behavior on information Frizzell clearly doesn’t think is any of our business. And, of course, it isn’t. The DVD adds a deleted scene; commentary with Frizzell, Mitchell, Morrone and producers Liz Cardenas and Toby Halbrooks; the featurette, “Art Imitates Life: Never Goin’ Back”; and a blooper reel.

An Elephant’s Journey
That a well-produced family film about an important subject — featuring recognizable stars and a gorgeous setting – could only find a home on DVD speaks volumes about the state of distribution today. (See previous review.) As far as I can tell, An Elephant’s Journey’s only exposure in theaters came in one-night stands intended to attract Christian audiences. This strategy has proven to be an effective way to get faith-based pictures in front of ticket-buying audiences, given to non-offensive material. In the case of Richard Boddington’s inspirational adventure, however, the faith-based message is subordinate to a story that deals with the elephant-poaching crisis in Africa and how a troubled boy can make the difference between life and death for an endangered friend. Rising Canadian star Sam Ashe Arnold plays Phoenix Wilder, a 15-year-old who recently lost his parents in an accident and is sent to South Africa to live with his Aunt Sarah (Elizabeth Hurley) and Uncle Jack (Tertius Meintjes). They live on a South African preserve, which is populated with animals Phoenix can only remember seeing in a zoo. One day, he accompanies his uncle and several other guides on a safari, where he eventually disappears into the bush. By the time Jack realizes that Phoenix is missing, the group has already returned home, where Sarah is fuming. Although Phoenix is justifiably frightened, he’s able to travel a considerable distance on foot. He comes upon an adult male elephant, caught in a net left behind by poachers hired by Blake von Stein (Louis Minnaar), a mercenary who trafficks in ivory and animals on consignment. After the boy frees the elephant from the net, they become fast friends. The rest of An Elephant’s Journey concerns both the rescue of Phoenix from the bush and the struggle to protect the elephant, his mate and their child from the poachers. Boddington’s story keeps Phoenix front and center in both narrative streams. In doing so, he matures before our eyes. The movie benefits greatly from the natural South African setting and non-condescending approach to the material. The poaching dilemma is real, and Boddington doesn’t sugarcoat it for family audiences. Hurley’s sincere presence doesn’t hurt, either. The production could have used a larger budget, but who knows if it would have helped secure greater theatrical reach.  The bonus material goes into a bit more detail on international efforts to prevent poaching.

Distant Voices, Still Lives: Special Edition: Blu-ray
12 Monkeys: Collector’s different Edition: Blu-ray
This month’s selection from Arrow Academy and Arrow Films includes two films that could hardly be more different from each other: Terence Davies’ Distant Voices, Still Lives (1988) and Terry Gilliam’s 12 Monkeys (1995). Both are brilliant entertainments, but not in ways that might appeal to mainstream audiences. Of the two, Davies’ memory musical may be the more challenging, at least to American eyes and ears, while 12 Monkeys warrants repeat viewings, like most of the ex-Python’s other films, especially with the passage of time and experience. The primary reason that Distant Voices, Still Lives might seem foreign to Yanks is its depiction of how blue-collar families evolved in post-war England. At the same time that American workers were beginning to migrate from neighborhoods in the shadow of the factories in which they toiled, into single-family homes in the suburbs, hard-scrabble Brits were still waiting for their “economic miracle” to arrive. Many were forced to live on top of each other in terraced row houses – the architectural equivalent of sardine cans — walk to work and dull their existential pain at the local pub. When tightly knit families gathered to celebrate births, marriages and funerals – or, simply, whenever they felt like it — Davies recalls them breaking into song, without worrying about who’s watching.  The tunes, performed a cappella or accompanied by the family piano, had either been passed from one generation to the next or had helped get them through two wars. The songs recalled by Davies aren’t there to advance the narrative or embellish the dialogue. They are the narrative. The songs are colored by the 72-year-old writer/director’s childhood memories of, yes, “distant voices.” The film’s separate segments were shot two years apart, but with the same cast and crew. The first, “Distant Voices,” chronicles Davies’ earliest memories, as the youngest of 10 siblings in a working-class Catholic family, living under a domineering and occasionally violent father. The second, “Still Lives,” finds the children grown up and emerging into a brighter 1950s Britain. Distant Voices, Still Lives must have been an extremely nostalgic experience for British audiences. It’s interesting to think that, in another 10 years, members of these same families would be responsible for giving the world the Beatles, Rolling Stones, mini-skirts, geometric hairdos and the first stirrings of Monty Python’s Flying Circus. The Blu-ray boasts a new 4K restoration, carried out by the British Film Institute; commentary and an interview with Davies; an interview with art director Miki van Zwanenberg; period documentaries; a reversible sleeve, featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Jennifer Dionisio; and an illustrated collector’s booklet, featuring new writing on the film by critic Christina Newland and archived essays.

And, now for something completely different. In August, Arrow released Terry Gilliam’s largely incomprehensible and critically trashed Tideland (2005), in an edition that helped explain what went wrong and why, a dozen years later, it’s worth a first, second or third look. By the time 12 Monkeys was released, he’d recorded a string of hits and misses that, while demonstrating his artistic brilliance and vivid imagination, were too off-the-wall for mainstream audiences. His previous movie, The Fisher King, benefitted commercially from the presence of Robin Williams and Jeff Bridges, as well as a flock of positive reviews. The decent grosses helped convince Universal to take a shot on David and Janet Peoples’ adaptation of Chris Marker’s sci-fi short, “La Jetée” (1962). The studio limited Gilliam’s budget to $29 million and required him to hire an A-lister, or two. He got Bruce Willis, Brad Pitt and Madeleine Stowe, who are terrific here. Willis plays James Cole, a prisoner of the state in the year 2035, who’s told that he can earn parole if he agrees to travel back in time and thwart a devastating plague. The virus has wiped out most of the Earth’s population and the remainder live underground because the air is poisonous. Mistakenly transported to 1990, six years before the start of the plague, Cole is imprisoned in a psychiatric facility. There, he meets a scientist named Dr. Kathryn Railly (Stowe) and Goines (Pitt), the mad son of an eminent virologist (Christopher Plummer). After Cole is returned to 2035, he’s transported to the proper year and setting. (Faces repeat themselves, as well.) He discovers the graffiti of animal rights group, the Army of the 12 Monkeys, but as he delves into the mystery, he hears voices, loses his bearings, and doubts his own sanity. He must figure out if Goines, who appears to be mad as a hatter, holds the key to the puzzle. The flashbacks and flash-forwards could give viewers whiplash, so it pays to maintain a tight focus on Willis’ time-traveler. Despite mixed reviews, 12 Monkeys collected a tidy $57 million at the domestic box office and another $111.6 million in foreign sales.  The special edition sports a new restoration from a 4K scan of the original negative, approved by Gilliam; commentary by Gilliam and producer Charles Roven; “The Hamster Factor and Other Tales of 12 Monkeys,” a feature-length making-of documentary by Keith Fulton and Louis Pepe (Lost in La Mancha); an image gallery; reversible sleeve, featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Gary Pullin; and an illustrated collector s booklet, featuring new writing on the film by Nathan Rabin and archive materials.

Retro Afrika Collection: Gone Crazy/Fishy Stones/Umbango
At first glance, Gone Crazy, Fishy Stones and Umbango – from South Africa’s apartheid-era B-Scheme period — could easily be confused with the “race” films produced in the United States between 1915 and the early 1950s, for the consumption of black audiences. They were made by African-American filmmakers and featured minority actors, some of whom would crossover into Hollywood films after that de facto color line was broken. Oscar Micheaux, who was born in Metropolis, Illinois, in 1884 – you thought Clark Kent was the town’s only favorite son? – was the best known African-American writer/director/producer of his time, and his career spanned the nearly 45-year period. It would take another 40 years for his contributions to the medium to be acknowledged with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and posthumous awards from the DGA and PGA. South Africa has never been known for its movie output, except for providing locations for filmmakers from other countries. For many years, the only South African film that made a dent in the international box office was Jamie Uys’ comic allegory, The Gods Must Be Crazy (1980), in which a bushman encounters technology for the first time, in the shape of a Coca-Cola bottle. Due to an embargo against South African products, the film was released as Botswanan, despite having a South African director and being financed with South African government funds.  Compared to “Gods,” the newly released DVDs from IndiePix Films — in a distribution partnership with Retro Afrika Bioscope — might as well have been made at the dawn of “race” movies in the U.S. Nonetheless, there’s a good origins story behind Gone Crazy (1980s), Umbango (1986) and Fishy Stones (1990).

South Africa’s B-Scheme allowed for a government-subsidized production system for movies made in an African language, with an African cast, intended for African audiences. The movies avoided topical subjects and overt references to apartheid. Mostly, they paid homage to Hollywood B-movie titles, with plenty of action, broad comedy and melodramatic dialogue. A white, South African director, writer and construction executive, Tonie van der Merwe, was almost single-handedly responsible for an entire film movement. As he showed Hollywood genre and blaxploitation pictures to his 200 black workers on Saturday nights, he saw a business opportunity. The government had subsidized films for white South Africans since the 1950s under a so-called A-scheme, but there were no domestic movies for the black majority. Using his own money, as well as his own car, tractors and airplane as production props, he made Joe Bullet, an action movie about corruption in a soccer league. A cross between John Shaft and James Bond, the protagonist (Ken Gampu) fights evil with his brains, guns and karate chops. He wins the heart of a nightclub singer, Beauty (Abigail Kubeka), with his suave personality and cool demeanor. While the movie only lasted two nights in a theater, before the censors banned it, Van der Merwe would go on to collect some 400 credits during the B-scheme period.

Of the three films, Umbango is probably most noteworthy for being the first South African Western – Van der Merwe’s crews built the set in KwaZulu-Natal – with an almost all-black cast (there’s a shady white character, named Gringo) and in a native language. The film’s “white hats” are an ace horseman and gunfighter, Jack, and his buddy, Owen, who dream of staking a claim to some prime real estate nearby and building their own ranch. The men are accused of murder by a ruthless businessman, bent on avenging his dead brother. KK strong-arms the local sheriff into forming a posse of thugs to aid in his vendetta. It leads to a nifty gunfight. In Gone Crazy, a psychopath seeking revenge on a small-town mayor steals a bomb from a local research facility, planning to blow up the dam and drown the town. Two police inspectors, each working different angles of the case, team up to rescue a kidnapped professor and stop the madman before the bomb – a few sticks of dynamite, a blasting cap and clock, held together with a few strands of twine — can do its worst. In Fishy Stones, two amateur robbers rob a jewelry store. After a chase through the countryside, the men stash their loot in a clump of bushes, before they’re apprehended and thrown in jail. Two teenage friends will discover the cache of diamonds while on a camping expedition. Before they can realize their fortune, the boys are confronted by the crooks, who’ve escaped from the jail. All three pictures have been digitally remastered and re-released for the amusement and scholarly consideration of a new generation of African filmmakers and audiences.

God Knows Where I Am
Jedd and Todd Wider’s extremely sad and thought-provoking documentary, God Knows Where I Am, not only makes us care about a woman whose death wouldn’t otherwise have mattered to us, but it also considers what society owes people destined to self-destruct. It is the story of Linda Bishop, a well-educated New Hampshire mother, who suffered from severe bipolar disorder with psychosis, and died alone in an unheated New Hampshire farmhouse, in winter, alongside her diary. Without beating viewers over the head with actuarial data and psychiatric double-speak, God Knows Where I Am paints a detailed portrait of Bishop, through the memories of those who knew her, and tortured excerpts from the diaries. They are read by actress/co-producer Lori Singer in a voiceover performance that tears at the heart, while evoking the spirit of a woman determined to live or die on her own terms. Bishop wasn’t abandoned by relatives and friends who observed her slide into the depths of schizophrenia and were thwarted in their efforts to help her survive. She was intermittently incarcerated and homeless, inevitably being committed for three years to a state psychiatric facility. Patients’ rights legislation allowed Bishop to successfully fight her sister’s protective attempts to be named her legal guardian. She was free to refuse treatment and medication, and procure an early, unconditional release, despite the lack of post-release planning. Upon her release, Bishop wandered 10 miles down the road from the hospital, broke into an abandoned farmhouse and lived off rainwater and apples picked from a nearby orchard for the next four months. She was incapable of leaving the house or signal for help. Her body was discovered several months after she starved to death, with the diary she kept until the end. God Knows Where I Am is at once compelling and deeply disturbing. The question with which we’re left comes down to how someone whose mental illness keeps her imprisoned inside her own body is able to truly exercise free will when allowed to evaluate her own condition and dictate treatment?

Believer: Blu-ray
The first thing to know about Lee Hae-yeong’s non-stop thriller, Believer, is that it’s a Korean remake of Johnnie To’s exciting Hong Kong actioner, Drug War (2012), only 15 minutes longer. The other thing to know is that, for once, virtually nothing is lost in the translation. Both versions are worth a rental. Here, police detective Won-ho (Cho Jin-Woong) is determined to bring down a mysterious druglord, Mr. Lee, who uses many different associates to impersonate him in business transactions. The ruse keeps authorities from focusing on his real identity and tracking him down the right path. He catches a break when a factory is blown up and one of the two survivors – the other is a badly injured dog – agrees to work undercover to topple the man he blames for killing his mother. Rak (Ryu Jun-yeol) may be a low-level guy, but the explosion has left some room for the advancement of underlings within the ranks. Even so, Rak has to prove himself to all sorts of slightly demented and totally dangerous people, claiming to be relatives of Lee or reasonable facsimiles, thereof. All the while, his movements are monitored by drug-enforcement officers, who have plans A, B and C in place, in case an opportunity presents itself. The settings for these transactions – a new super-drug’s being introduced into the marketplace – may be luxurious, but Rak and Won-ho know that they’re basically dealing with greedy forms of pond scum. Once all of this is established, of course, senior police officials can’t help but get in the way of any further progress. Fortunately, several terrific set pieces have been built into the narrative, ensuring that viewers will stick with it to the enigmatic ending. It’s always worth mentioning that Korean action directors have become every bit as adept at churning out full-blown thrillers as anyone else, including American filmmakers, who still rely on tropes and clichés that exhausted themselves years ago.

Spontaneous Combustion: Blu-ray
By the time Spontaneous Combustion was released, in 1990, Tobe Hooper was struggling to regain the momentum he’d squandered from the success of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) and Poltergeist (1982). His protagonist in the sci-fi thriller would be played by Brad Dourif, who was 15 years removed from his Oscar-nominated performance, as momma’s-boy Billy Bibbit in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975). He also was terrific as a mad preacher in John Huston’s adaptation of Flannery O’Connor’s Southern gothic, Wise Blood (1979), a great picture that almost no one saw. He isn’t bad here, but, at 40, Dourif was nearly 20 years too old to convincingly portray Sam Kramer, the victim of a military experiment gone wrong. Many of his best years were yet to come, however, and he’s become a legitimate horror icon. The title condition results from his parents being placed in a capsule on the Nevada testing ground where the hydrogen bomb is being tested. Although his mother, who’s pregnant, passes the radiation test, she bursts into flame after delivering the boy. She had just passed Sam off to a nurse, who keeps him out of harm’s way. The same couldn’t be said of his father. Flash forward 20 years, or so, and the weird birthmark on Sam’s hand is transforming into something frightful. Meanwhile, people in his immediate orbit are combusting spontaneously all around him. When Sam checks himself into a hospital, some of the same people who monitored his birth are in place to make sure his pyrokinesis doesn’t become known to the general populace. Good luck, on that score. Upon its release, Spontaneous Combustion was rated “R,” primarily for some grisly images of crispy critters. Today, I can’t imagine it being scored worse than PG-13. Critically, unflattering comparisons were made to Firestarter, a 1984 Stephen King adaptation that received better reviews and made exponentially more money.

I Am Vengeance: Blu-ray
Former WWE superstar Stu Bennett is the latest pro grappler to take his act from the ring to the screen. Although he holds a degree in marine biology from the University of Liverpool, the 6-foot-5¼ behemoth instinctively knew that he was more suited to wrestling and bare-knuckle boxing than in studying the mating habits of North Sea mollusks. Even after watching Bennett “act” in I Am Vengeance, it’s clear that he probably made the right decision. In the role of an ex-Special Forces soldier turned mercenary, all he’s really expected to do is kick ass until there’s no one left to stand up to him. When his character, John Gold, learns of the murders of his best friend and his parents, he immediately heads for the pastoral town of Devotion, where a group of fellow Afghan vets has built a factory to manufacture powerful drugs, as well as a network through which to distribute them. Gold’s buddy was working with the former soldiers, until he discovered something about them that caused him to threaten their operation. When he gets to Devotion, Gold doesn’t even bother to fake his identity or disguise his mission. He simply calls out the assassins and begins to annihilate them. Along the way, Gold picks up a gorgeous junkie, Sandra (Anna Shaffer), who knows the layout of the factory, and Barnes (Fleur Keith), a local cutie whose restaurant is in danger of going out of business due to the town’s bad vibes. That’s about it, really. Veteran hard guy Gary Daniels makes a formidable foe for Gold and writer/director Ross Boyask (Warrioress) knew enough to point his musclebound gladiators in the right direction and get out of the way. Ample room is left for a sequel. The Blu-ray adds deleted and extended scenes.

A Happening of Monumental Proportions
In movies, as in life, everybody’s got to start somewhere. Some beginners hit the bulls-eye right away. Others aren’t so lucky. Freshman director Judy Greer and first-time writer Gary Lundy decided to break their behind-the-camera cherries on a dark ensemble comedy, A Happening of Monumental Proportions. In it, characters played by no fewer than a dozen recognizable stars cross paths for 81 minutes. Sadly, there’s only about 45 minutes’ worth of viable material in a story that almost demands to be judged by the challenge built into its title and the stars’ photos on the DVD’s cover. In a career that’s spanned 21 years and an amazing 130 acting and voicing credits, Greer probably was able to collect enough IOUs to cast A Happening of Monumental Proportions, twice-over again. As it is, she was able to recruit Common (Selma) to play the single father of a teenage girl, portrayed by Storm Reid (A Wrinkle in Time), both of whom are about to endure very humbling experiences. On the same day that Common’s Daniel is fired for something he couldn’t control, he’s expected to represent Patricia at her school’s Career Day. Little does he know that his boss (Bradley Whitford) has been asked by his son (Marcus Eckert) to participate, as well. The boy, Darius, doesn’t appreciate his father’s tendency to pull up their roots every year, or so, causing him to be bullied on an annual basis. Not surprisingly, perhaps, Patricia takes Darius under her wing, before he proves to be too clingy.

Everybody’s day starts out poorly, however, when the body of a maintenance worker is found lying on the pavement and is discovered by the school’s already uptight co-principals (Allison Janney, Rob Riggle), who want to hide the corpse from the kids. They contact paramedics (Katie Holmes, Nat Faxon), but are told that such problems don’t fall under their purview. Also experiencing personal problems are the school’s underappreciated music teacher (Anders Holm), who commiserates with Darius on the school’s roof, and Daniel’s flakey assistant (Jennifer Garner), with whom he shared a fateful moment of intimacy. John Cho plays a shop teacher named Ramirez, whose bleak observations on life make the music teacher and Darius even more depressed than they were. And last, but not least, Keanu Reeves appears out of nowhere to offer a typically Reevesian summation on what’s occurred over the past 81 minutes. A Happening of Monumental Proportions bites off quite a bit more than its audience can chew. The actors do what they can in the limited amount of time they’re given, but only a couple of the throughlines carry enough meat on them to keep things interesting. It will be interesting to see if Greer and Lundy try their hands at something a tad less challenging, the next time around, or they stick to acting.

Out of Time: Special Edition: Blu-ray
If the sweaty sexual couplings in Out of Time remind viewers of Body Heat (1981), the plot will be familiar to fans of the similarly moist Against All Odds (1984) and The Last Seduction (1994). As they say in the noirs, “Cherchez la femme.” In Carl Franklin’s twisty, if slightly overheated crime drama from 2003, Denzel Washington plays the chief of police on a two-bit Florida key, where everyone’s been corrupted by promise of easy money, whether its from the occasional bale of marijuana floating ashore or more traditional crimes, like extortion, fraud and murder. Although chief Matt Lee Whitlock thinks he knows what’s happening in his community, he makes the mistake of hooking up with a married woman, Ann Merai (Sanaa Lathan), who’s several times more devious than he is. He also blunders by attempting to steal money confiscated in a federal sting, under the even more watchful eyes of his soon-to-be ex-wife and strait-laced fellow cop, Alex (Eva Mendes), and a medical examiner (John Billingsley), who’s also set his sights on the confiscated loot. When a no-nonsense FBI agent demands the return of the money, it causes chaos among the Banyan Key irregulars, who’ve lost track of where it is, precisely. Meanwhile, Ann Merai and her ex-QB husband (Dean Cain) are found burned to a crisp in their home, with Matt named as beneficiary on a life-insurance policy that his lover took out when she was diagnosed with cancer. It makes him a prime suspect in Alex’s eyes. Washington is the only actor here who doesn’t seem to break a sweat in the heat. Unfortunately, his presence doesn’t leave much room for guessing who’s going to survive the worst of the bad craziness, either. Still, not a bad time-killer. The Blu-ray adds Franklin’s commentary; an ”Out of Time: Crime Scene” featurette; character profiles; outtakes; screen tests, with Lathan and Cain; and a photo gallery.

Dragnet: Collector’s Edition: Blu-ray
While I can’t imagine anyone who hasn’t watched the original “Dragnet” taking much away from Tom Mankiewicz’ feature-length parody, it still is capable of amusing those Boomers who got a kick out of the protagonist’s wooden mannerisms. For those who couldn’t pick Jack Webb out of a lineup that also included Tom Waits, O.J. Simpson, Billy Barty, Jerry Brown and Judge Judy, the highly prolific writer/producer/actor introduced an early version of Sgt. Joe Friday in the noir procedural, He Walked by Night (1948). A year later, “Dragnet” debuted on NBC, with the full cooperation of LAPD chief William H. Parker. In the interim, Friday moved from medical examiner to detective. In the 1987 Dragnet, Dan Ackroyd plays Friday’s similarly by-the-book, just-the-facts-ma’am nephew. Also named Friday, he’s an anachronism, even in the beat-them/ask-questions-later LAPD, which, in the 1980s, resembled an arm of the Marine Corps. He’s teamed with Tom Hanks’ Pep Streebek, an unkempt, wise-cracking undercover cop, who’s Friday’s polar opposite. The story finds Friday and Streebek on the trail of a motorcycle gang threatening the publishing empire of a sleazy playboy (Dabney Coleman), under the direction of anti-porn crusader/Satanist, Whirley (Christopher Plummer). After rescuing “the virgin, Connie Swail” (Alexandra Paul) from a sacrificial demise – her purity becomes a running gag — Friday makes the uncharacteristic mistake of calling out the hypocritical reverend in a restaurant frequented by city officials (Elizabeth Ashley, Bruce Gray) who are in cahoots with Whirley. It costs Friday his badge, but not his obsession with the case and preserving Connie’s virginity. Aykroyd’s nearly perfect as the squarest human being in Los Angeles, while Hanks’ schtick is still fresh and funny. Harry Morgan makes a welcome appearance as Joe Friday’s former partner, Gannon, which, of course, is the role he played in the TV series, from 1967-70. The Blu-ray adds “A Quiet Evening in the Company of Connie Swail,” a new interview with Alexandra Paul; fresh commentary with pop culture historian Russell Dyball; “Just the Facts!,” a promotional look at “Dragnet,” with Aykroyd and Hanks; and original marketing material.

Valley Girl: Collector’s Edition: Blu-Ray
Martha Coolidge’s endearing take on the Valley Girl aesthetic, arrived in the summer of 1983, hot on the heels of Frank and Moon Zappa’s satiric ode to L.A.’s Galleria Girls and Amy Heckerling’s fabulously successful teen comedy, Fast Times at Ridgemont High. As played by Sean Penn, Jeff Spicoli is an important link in the chain connecting Valley and surf cultures, largely because Val-speak was an extension of surf slang, designed to separate the real dudes from the ho-daddies. The Zappas’ hit song came about when, at a loss for lyrics, daddy Frank woke up Moon in the middle of the night and asked her to record snippets of conversations she had with friends at school and on shopping excursions. An age-appropriate Nicolas Cage played a fast-food worker in “Fast Times,” but his big break came a few months later, when he wowed Coolidge at an audition for Valley Girl. In it, he plays the punky, borderline hoodlum, Randy, who lives on the other side of the Hollywood Hills from female protagonist Julie Richman (Deborah Foreman). Their unlikely relationship provides the movie’s culture-clash throughline. Julie may be one of the more opened-minded young women in her clique, but her romance with the uninhibited Randy causes her friends’ tongues to wag and her jock boyfriend to turn into a territorial ape. Coolidge is best when she’s locating the haunts of her characters and inserting them organically into the story. The making-of featurettes are interesting for what they reveal about creating low-budget indies in the early 1980s. Besides having to scramble for money and the things it affords, certain other realities had to be considered.

For example, Coolidge was required by the film’s producers to show female breasts at least four times. They felt it would make the movie more appealing to younger males. On any other teen comedy, they might have been proven right. After the opening weekend, however, Valley Girl turned out to be less a date movie than a chick flick. It captured a moment in time when teenage girls were rejecting the anti-materialism of their hippie parents — represented here by Colleen Camp and Frederic Forrest – and using their overly generous allowances to create a counter-culture of their own, dictated by the women they saw in Tiger Beat and videos on MTV. Elizabeth Daily, Heidi Holicker and Michelle Meyrink provide the Greek chorus for Julie, while Cameron Dye does a nice job as Randy’s best bro. The Blu-ray is enhanced by a 4K remaster from the original camera negative; the retention of music from the original soundtrack; “Valley Girl in Conversation,” with Coolidge, Daily and Holicker; “Greetings From the Valley,” a short history of the San Fernando Valley, hosted by Tommy Gelinas of the Valley Relics Museum; extended interviews from 2003, with Cage, Dye, Forrest, Daily, Holicker, Camp, co-star Lee Purcell, producers Andrew Lane and Wayne Crawford, Peter Case of the Plimsouls, singer Josie Cotton and deejay Richard Blade; storyboard-to-film comparisons; archival commentary with Coolidge; original music videos from Modern English and the Plimsouls; “Valley Girl: 20 Totally Tubular Years Later”;  “In Conversation With Martha Coolidge and Nicolas Cage”; “The Music of Valley Girl”; making-of featurettes; and interviews with cast and crew.

Yessongs: 40th Anniversary Edition: Blu-ray
Melanie: For One Night Only
Here are a couple of vintage in-concert performance features from artists who sold a lot of tickets and albums, way back in the Neolithic period of 20th Century rock-’n’-roll. Yessongs: 40th Anniversary Edition is a re-release of the feature-length concert film, captured during the progressive rockers’ 1973 Close to the Edge tour. (Prog-rock was a new genre in the post-psychedelic 1970s.) Yes drew its inspiration from music that traversed the spectrum from symphonic to improvisational and classic rock. It has sold more than 30 million albums worldwide. The film features their new line-up of the time: Jon Anderson, Chris Squire, Steve Howe, Rick Wakeman and Alan White. Despite the band’s commercial success, it wasn’t until 2017 that Yes was recognized by induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, as “the most enduring, ambitious and virtuosic progressive band in rock history.” Among the selections are “I’ve Seen All Good People,” “Roundabout,” “Close to the Edge” and excerpts from Wakeman’s “The Six Wives of Henry VIII.”

That singer/songwriter Melanie isn’t in the Hall of Fame shouldn’t be taken as an indication of her talent, perseverance, ability to sell out concert halls and move albums. All it means is that she’s in good company. Melanie (a.k.a., Melanie Safka) was one of only three women soloists who performed at Woodstock. Soon thereafter, she appeared on “The Ed Sullivan Show” and at such festivals as Glastonbury, the Isle of Wight and Strawberry Fields. She was the first solo pop/rock artist ever to appear at Carnegie Hall, the Metropolitan Opera House and the Sydney Opera House. Today, she’s probably more popular in Europe than in her native U.S. Melanie: For One Night Only came about after the artist was invited by Jarvis Cocker to perform at the Meltdown Festival at the Royal Festival Hall, in London, accompanied by her musical children. The DVD of that concert was released in October 2007. Its highlights include “Brand New Key,” “Beautiful People,” “Peace Will Come,” “Hush A Bye,” “Ruby Tuesday” and “Alexander Beetle.”

TV-to-DVD
Starz: Black Sails: The Complete Collection: Blu-ray
PBS: No Passport Required
Smithsonian: The Real Story: The Da Vinci Code
The great thing about movies and television series based on the Golden Age of Piracy is how well they’ve held up since D.W. Griffith’s The Pirates Gold was released in 1908. The one-reeler lasted only 16 minutes, but Griffith stuffed enough drama – and irony – into it to fill a feature-length film. Disney could do a lot worse than borrowing the plot for the already announced sixth installment of its Pirates of the Caribbean franchise. Last year’s POTC: Dead Men Tell No Tales failed to make back its nut in domestic sales, while critics delivered a broadside assault designed, one suspects, to sink the series. Pirates have provided fodder for hundreds of other titles, ranging from swashbucklers and historical dramas, to “Veggie Tales” spinoffs and high-budget porn. For four seasons, the producers of Starz’ “Black Sails” took advantage of the freedoms offered by premium-cable networks to deliver the nudity, sex, profanity, extreme violence, gore and substance abuse that Hollywood’s Captain Blood and Jack Sparrow could only dream of unleashing on their audiences. And, they were rendered in ways cable subscribers considered to be artistic, tasteful and worth the added expense to their cable bill. It can argued, of course, that 18th Century prostitutes weren’t nearly as alluring as the ones we meet in “Black Sails: The Complete Collection,” but, then, neither were the pirates and soldiers. And, personal hygiene wasn’t a priority, either. The Blu-ray compilation includes all four seasons of the show, which wrapped up production in South Africa last year. “Black Sails” is set roughly two decades before the events described by Robert Louis Stevenson in “Treasure Island.” The writers took plenty of creative license with known historical events, while basing their key characters on actual men and women known to have sailed under the skull and crossbones. They include Anne Bonny, Benjamin Hornigold, Jack Rackham, Charles Vane, Ned Low, Israel Hands and Blackbeard. The sea battles were enhanced by CGI and the sword fights required stunt coordinators, but you knew that already. The thoroughly binge-worthy boxed set adds more than 20 making-of and behind-the-scenes featurettes, covering all four seasons.

It isn’t likely that anyone will fill the shoes left behind by Anthony Bourdain, any more than Julia Child’s been eclipsed by the current crop of screamers, shopping-network hustlers and celebrity chefs. That’s because Bourdain wasn’t afraid to leave the comfort of the studio and visit places where food’s primary purpose is to sustain life and mirror cultural imperatives, not impress the shit out of paying customers and freeloading peers. He wasn’t afraid to share his opinions on things other than food or make enemies of chefs he didn’t respect. Until I received the seasonal compilation of “No Passport Required” episodes, I wasn’t aware of chef Marcus Samuelsson, who once accompanied Bourdain to his home country, Ethiopia, and whose own show is cut from the same template as “No Reservations” and “Parts Unknown.” After being separated from their family in the Ethiopian Civil War, Samuelsson and his sister were adopted by Ann Marie and Lennart Samuelsson, a homemaker and a geologist, who lived in Gothenburg, Sweden. After becoming interested in cooking through his maternal grandmother, Samuelsson studied at the city’s Culinary Institute. He apprenticed in Switzerland and Austria, then came to the United States in 1994 as an apprentice at Restaurant Aquavit. He is the head chef of Red Rooster in Harlem. “No Passport Required” focuses on diverse immigrant communities and cuisines in cities across the U.S. In each hour, Marcus will travel to a different city and dive into a new food culture. At a time when President Trump wants to eclipse the American Dream for outsiders of color, Samuelsson explains how immigrants of all races and backgrounds contribute to the American mosaic, using culinary traditions to open doors and shape the way we eat today.

I couldn’t possibly tell you how much new information is proffered in Smithsonian Channel’s “The Real Story: The Da Vinci Code.” It seems to me to be a recap of information already presented in the buildup to the three movies based on Dan Brown’s best-selling novels. The same questions are asked and, if not answered, at least recapped and put under different microscope: did Da Vinci leave hidden clues to the whereabouts of the Holy Grail in his paintings; is there, indeed, a secret society protecting the bloodline of Christ and Mary Magdalene; have documents been hidden within the pillars of a famous French church; and did Da Vinci invent lock boxes that rival the Rubik’s Cube in mechanical complexity? The show’s producers have rounded up real-life code breakers, Renaissance scholars and professors of religion and linguistics to help put the pieces of the puzzle together.

 

 

The DVD Gift Guide I: Uni Monsters, Body Snatchers, Twilight 4K, Evil Dead, Trauma, Creepshow, Haunted Hill, Dude 4K, Saved by Bell, 3 Stooges … More

Thursday, October 25th, 2018

Now that Halloween, All Saints Day, All Souls Day and the Day of the Dead have merged into a three-day holiday for adults, and trick-or-treating has been reduced to an authorized after-school activity for kids, I think it qualifies for gift-guide status. Stores began stocking up for Halloween sales as soon as the last embers of Labor Day barbeques turned into ash. In a nod to the proper order of end-of-year holidays, I’ll try to limit my first Holiday Gift Guide to DVD/Blu-ray/4K packages related to Halloween themes. Most are safe for children and family viewing, none causes cavities.

Universal Classic Monsters: Complete 30-Film Collection: Blu-ray
Boris Karloff Collection
Movies based on comic-book superheroes have become so prevalent that the viewers who comprise their core audience may not be aware of the pictures that got the ball rolling, way back in 1931. Unlike the comic books that inspired the Superman, Batman and Captain Marvel serials, movies and TV shows, the Universal monsters were based on characters introduced in classic works of literature. Based on evidence presented in pristine Blu-ray editions of the 30 movies collected in “Universal Classic Monsters” — from Frankenstein and Dracula and their spinoffs, to Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954), Abbott and Costello Meet the Mummy (1955) and The Creature Walks Among Us (1956) — the characters hold up extremely well in the waning days of 2018. The 24-disc boxed set adds a 48-page collectible book, with behind-the-scenes stories and rare production photographs, and is accompanied by an array of bonus material, including documentaries, the 1931 Spanish version of Dracula, experiments in 3D, featurettes on Bela Lugosi, Boris Karloff, Lon Chaney Jr. and makeup artist Jack Pierce, 13 commentaries, archival footage and theatrical trailers. The Blu-ray upgrade substantially raises the entertainment value for collectors, who already own Uni’s “Legacy Collection” sets, as well as newcomers accustomed to crystal-clear images and soundtracks.

Even more than Lon Chaney, Bela Lugosi, Vincent Price and Christopher Lee, Boris Karloff became the public face of cinematic horror from the dawn of the talkies, through the drive-in era and into television’s anthology period. Karloff was already in his mid-40s when he attained stardom as Doctor Frankenstein’s creature and, all appearances aside, his monstrous stature was achieved through makeup effects and costume wizardry. In reality, the Surrey native stood a mere 5-feet-11. Karloff distinctive voice carried him from the Canadian stage, to Hollywood, and, finally, into the realm of television commercial and animated features. While his most memorable performances are showcased in the “Universal Classic Monsters” set, Karloff adopted numerous other personae and worked for several other studios. Before being “discovered” by James Whale and cast in Frankenstein, he acted in 80 movies, among them, The Criminal Code, Five Star Final and Scarface. He would appear in another 120-plus movies and television shows, often as a dignified guest star or ominous-sounding host. The titles compiled in VCI Entertainment’s “Boris Karloff Collection represent four of Karloff’s final five appearances on film: Alien Terror (“The Incredible Invasion”), Cult of the Dead (a.k.a., “Isle of the Snake People”), Dance of Death (a.k.a., “House of Evil”) and Torture Zone (a.k.a., “Fear Chamber”). They were made as part of a package deal with Mexican producer Luis Enrique Vergara. Nearly confined to a wheelchair, Karloff’s scenes were directed by Jack Hill (Switchblade Sisters) and shot back-to-back in Los Angeles in the spring of 1968. The films were then completed in Mexico. All four were released posthumously, with the last, Alien Terror, not released until 1971, two years after Karloff’s death. More a curiosity than anything else, the DVDs aren’t in nearly as good of a shape as those in the Universal package, but that’s only to be expected.

Invasion of the Body Snatchers: Blu-ray
For almost 20 years, I lived in the town that provided many of exterior locations for Don Siegel’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers, one of the most influential and effective sci-fi/horror films of all time. Although it was shot there in 1955, Sierra Madre hasn’t changed all that much over the course of 60 years. The town square, where the truck drivers collected the pods for delivery to towns throughout the then-agricultural San Gabriel Valley, still attracts genre-obsessed tourists. The shops that surround the square are virtually intact, as well. Sierra Madre is the rare Los Angeles County town that looks as if it might belong anywhere else but Southern California. Its trees turn colors in season, snow falls in the mountains that form the town’s northern border and parking meters are non-existent. In 1910, D.W. Griffith began producing movies there, using townspeople as extras. Alfred Hitchcock filmed segments of Family Plot (1976) in Sierra Madre’s Pioneer Cemetery, as did John Carpenter, for Halloween (1978), and David Lynch, for “Twin Peaks.” In Olive Signature’s terrific Blu-ray restoration of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, the featurette, “Return to Santa Mira,” not only explores the Sierra Madre locations, but other L.A. spots used in the picture. Other bonus material focuses on the debate over how Siegel and screenwriter Daniel Mainwaring wanted viewers to interpret the pod people’s mysterious appearance in an average American town during the Cold War era. Commentaries are provided by film historian Richard Harland Smith, as well as actors Kevin McCarthy and Dana Wynter, and filmmaker Joe Dante. “The Stranger in Your Lover’s Eyes” is a two-part visual essay, with actor and son of director Don Siegel, Kristoffer Tabori, reading from his father’s book, “A Siegel Film”; “The Fear is Real,” with filmmakers Larry Cohen and Dante on the film’s cultural significance; “I No Longer Belong: The Rise and Fall of Walter Wanger,” in which film scholar and author Matthew Bernstein discusses the life and career of the film’s producer; “Sleep No More: Invasion of the Body Snatchers Revisited,” a new appreciation, featuring Kevin McCarthy and Dana Wynter, along with comments from film directors and fans, John Landis, Mick Garris and Stuart Gordon; “The Fear and the Fiction: The Body Snatchers Phenomenon,” new interviews with McCarthy and Wynter, and directors Landis, Garris and Gordon, in which they discuss the making of the film, its place in history and its meaning; an archival interview with McCarthy, hosted by Tom Hatten; “What’s in a Name?,” on the film’s title; a gallery of rare documents detailing aspects of the film’s production, including the never-produced opening narration to have been read by Orson Welles; an essay by author and film programmer Kier-La Janisse; and an original theatrical trailer. In a survey of the 50 best scary movies to watch this Halloween, released this week in Newsweek, the 1956 version of “Body Snatchers” was ranked No. 8, while Philip Kaufman’s also compelling 1978 remake came in at No. 40.

The Twilight Saga: The Complete Collection: 10th Anniversary: Blu-ray/4K UHD
It’s been 10 years since Catherine Hardwicke’s Twilight and HBO’s “True Blood” redefined what it means to be an American vampire in America, as opposed to, say, an American vampire in London or a European vampire in New Orleans. While the HBO series crossed most demographic lines – propelled by copious amounts of forbidden romance, abs and nudity – the movie “saga,” adapted from Stephenie Meyer’s best-selling series of YA novels, attracted teenage girls, young women and, for the first installment, at least, their male dates. Produced on an estimated budget of $37 million, Twilight grossed $393.6 million worldwide. Four years later, when The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part 2 capped the franchise, the worldwide tally would hit $829.7 million, on a budget of $120 million. Domestic ticket sales were dwarfed by grosses overseas. (“True Blood” would enjoy a seven-season run.) Besides the suspense generated by Belle and Edward’s will-they/won’t-they romance, audiences were drawn to the Cullen siblings eternally youthful appearance, their vegetarian diet (washed down by animal blood), their willingness to risk their lives to save Belle from a clan of nomadic vampires and Edward’s uncommon chivalry. Neither did speculation on Kristen Stewart and Robert Pattinson’s off-screen relationship dampen ticket sales. To mark the anniversary, Lionsgate Home Entertainment and Summit Entertainment are releasing Twilight in a 4K UHD/Blu-ray/digital edition, with a new “Twilight Tour … 10 Years Later” featurette and other archived goodies. Extended editions of The Twilight Saga: New Moon, Eclipse and Breaking Dawn, Parts 1 and 2, are being re-released in Blu-ray. All five films feature Digital 4K UHD, with Dolby Vision HDR and Dolby Atmos audio. All he supplemental material has been ported over from previous versions. They are available in a combo pack or a la carte.

The Evil Dead: Blu-ray/4K UHD
Ash vs. Evil Dead: The Complete Collection: Blu-ray
Does this storyline sound familiar? All hell breaks loose when five college students rent an isolated cabin in the woods and inadvertently summon the devil’s legions. It should, because it’s been borrowed by dozens of writers and directors of low-budget, high-gore horror flicks since 1981, when Sam Raimi captured lightning in a bottle with The Evil Dead. The film’s distinguishing conceit involves the discovery of the Naturan Demanto, a Sumerian version of the Egyptian Book of the Dead, along with a tape recorder belonging to the archaeologist who inhabited the cabin. When it’s played, the archaeologist’s voice recites a series of incantations, resurrecting a mysterious, demonic entity. In the ensuing mayhem, only one of the students, Ash (Bruce Campbell), survives to tell the tale in the series’ two direct sequels, Evil Dead II (1987), Army of Darkness (1992); an indirect sequel, My Name Is Bruce (2008); a 2013 reboot, Evil Dead; a cable-television series, “Ash vs. Evil Dead,”; a half-dozen video games; several comic books; an off-Broadway musical; and references in a dozen rock songs and videos. Not bad for a movie that was rescued from purgatory by an endorsement by Stephen King and buzz campaign led by Fangoria magazine. There was some concern that the new 4K UHD version of The Evil Dead would offer too much resolution to a picture that was shot on 16mm and already blown up to 35mm. It isn’t a problem for my untrained eyes, anyway. The only extra is commentary ported over from a previous Blu-ray edition.

On Halloween night of 2015, the Starz network launched the comedy/horror mini-series, “Ash vs Evil Dead,” which advanced the franchise’s timeline approximately 30 years from the original three Evil Dead films. Developed for the premium-cable channel by Sam Raimi, Ivan Raimi, and Tom Spezialy, it brought back Bruce Campbell to reprise his career-shaping role, as Ash Williams, the only survivor of the cabin massacre. Today, he works at the local Value Stop as a stock boy. Also working at the store is his friend Pablo (Ray Santiago) and the object of Pablo’s affections, Kelly (Dana DeLorenzo). Ash has been cooling his heels since returning from 1300 AD, at the end of Army of Darkness. At the start of Season One, he’s living in a trailer with his pet lizard, Eli, and is reduced to drinking alone in bars. In due time, however, Ash will be required to save world from the Evil Dead, who return to the present through the pages of the Necronomicon. (It is a fictional textbook of magic and the occult, invented by H.P. Lovecraft and borrowed by his followers.) Lucy Lawless plays Ruby, a mysterious believer who’s convinced that Ash is responsible for the recent outbreak of evil. Season Two opens with Ash, Pablo and Kelly’s return to Ash’s hometown in Elk Grove, Michigan, where they meet up with his father, Brock (Lee Majors), who criticizes him for running away after the events that transpired three decades ago.

Ruby claims she’s have hidden the Necronomicon inside a corpse at the town morgue. No sooner is the book retrieved by Ash and his pals than it winds up in the hands of two teenage car thieves. From this point onward, “AvED” becomes almost impossible to follow, let alone summarize. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, though. The battle for control of the book is joined by time-travelers, shape-shifters, Deadites, clones and an ancient prince of hell, Baal. In Season Three, Ash reunites with an old stripper acquaintance, Candace Barr (Katrina Hobbs), who, nine months after a drunken tryst, delivered his appropriately named daughter, Brandy. Needless to say, Brandy’s existence comes as news to Ash. When Ruby and her demon horde learn her identity, they attempt recruit her to their side of the battle. Ash’s weapon of choice is a chain saw that he attaches to the stump at the end of right arm and wields with deadly accuracy. Although nudity isn’t a prominent fixture in the series, gratuitous violence breaks out around every corner. And, while it isn’t for viewers with weak stomachs, it is imaginatively rendered. A wide range of commentaries and behind-the-scenes featurettes accompanies the seasonal discs.

Trauma: Blu-ray
Any DVD that promotes itself with a pull quote from ScreenAnarchy.com, arguing that the movie contained therein is, “The most controversial extreme horror offering in recent memory,” better deliver on the promise, or face the wrath of genre trolls on the Internet. That’s because anyone likely to take Trauma up on its implied dare probably has already watched such prime examples of transgressive horror as Cannibal Holocaust, A Serbian Film, Martyrs, The Human Centipede, Eden Lake, I Spit on Your Grave, Saw, Audition, Guinea Pig: Flower of Flesh and Blood, American Guinea Pig and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, as well as their sequels, prequels and spin-offs. With Trauma, rising genre superstar Lucio A. Rojas (Zombie Dawn) not only holds his own against such august company, but also adds a few new twists of his own. Born in 1978, while the ruthless General Augusto Pinochet was still in power, the Chilean filmmaker is well aware of the horrors perpetrated by the junta’s embrace of Operation Condor. In the 1970s, several South American dictatorships set new standards when it came to torture and inhumane behavior toward people perceived to be their enemies, potential enemies and the children of their enemies. The Tower of London had nothing on the torture chambers overseen by the military leaders of Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay and Chile, all of whose atrocities were sanctioned by Henry Kissinger and American CIA operatives. Tossing your political opponents and dissidents out of cargo planes, 40 miles from the nearest shore, is a tough act to follow, but it was only one tactic used by the governments. Trauma opens with a flashback to that horrific period in Chilean history – 1978, to be exact – as an agent of the Pinochet regime, forces his son to participate in the interrogation, torture and rape of a female political prisoner.

Nearly 40 years later, the boy (Daniel Antivilo), Juan, has grown into a full-blown sadist, terrorizing residents of his rural village and visiting the sins of his father on his own son, Mario (Felipe Rios). Together, they’ve run roughshod over the mountainous region, where the locals look at them with the same level of fear as that once reserved for Frankenstein’s monster. They’re too intimidated, even, to warn unsuspecting tourists of their crimes. That’s exactly what happens when an outwardly cosmopolitan group of young women – possibly of the lesbian persuasion – make their presence known in the village, by seeking directions to a relative’s country villa. While the locals know what’s lying in wait for them, they resist the urge to involve themselves in it … another political reference. And, sure enough, just as the women are beginning to kick up their heels, dancing provocatively in front of an open window, Juan and Mario break into the house demanding they perform for their amusement. The men look as if they’re perfectly capable of inflicting the kind of damage on the women as Juan had witnessed as a boy. Even when one of them manages to grab his gun, viewers know that it’s likely to backfire or be out of bullets. Police arrive the next day, but, except for one cop, are no match for Juan and Mario’s madness. Juan loses interest in the older women after he kidnaps a little neighborhood girl, who is taken to his personal dungeon. Instead of heading for the hills asap, the survivors risk their lives, again, to rescue the girl. The aura of dread that pervades nearly every second of Trauma is tough to take. Not only do we identify with the women, but we’re also convinced that manmade monsters, like Juan, exist in real life. The Artsploitation release looks even more sinister in Blu-ray.

Patient Zero
Austrian filmmaker Stefan Ruzowitzky came to attention of American audiences when his World War II drama, The Counterfeiters, won the 2008 Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. It describes an actual plan, devised by the Nazis, to use Jewish prisoners skilled in engraving and forgery to produce enormous amounts of authentic-looking British and American currency. They intended to dump the impeccably forged dollars and pound notes into the revenue streams of Allied countries to undermine their economies. Ruzowitzky’s next three theatrical features – two thrillers and a family adventure – couldn’t have been more different from The Counterfeiters if they starred talking cartoon animals. They didn’t find much traction here, however. Mike Le’s screenplay for Patient Zero was featured in the 2013 Hollywood Blacklist of “most liked” unmade scripts of the year. I’m not sure what Ruzowitzky saw in the story that hadn’t been accomplished in such Zombie Apocalypse thrillers as 28 Days Later …, Day of the Dead and a dozen other movies in which survivors of a deadly pandemic attempt to save humanity, while hidden in an underground bunker. The variation in Patient Zero is the nature of the epidemic, which is a viral super-strain of rabies that turns human beings into, well, zombie-like creatures with an appetite for flesh and blood.

Uninfected soldiers hunt packs of the adrenaline-fueled creatures, searching for the first person to have contacted and spread the virus. Researchers have narrowed the first incidence down to a Halloween night in Saint Paul, Minnesota, a moment that the two of the captured victims, at least, seem to share. We know this because, after being bitten, medical investigator Morgan (Matt Smith) realizes he is asymptomatic and can communicate with the infected prisoners. Unlike zombies, rabies sufferers retain the ability to speak – when they aren’t grunting and flailing about – and recall key dates in their lives. An infected prisoner played by Stanley Tucci, of all people, can do better than that, however. As a former professor, he’s able to challenge Morgan on scientific points and debate something resembling ethics. Natalie Dormer, who remains uncharacteristically clothed throughout Patient Zero, play the obligatory British scientist, Dr. Gina Rose. She’s willing to stand up to crazed American soldiers anxious to torture the infected prisoners when they fight back and refuse to cooperate with Morgan. Zombie Apocalypse completists should find something to enjoy in Patient Zero, even if it’s only the rarely applied rabies gambit.

House on Haunted Hill: Collector’s Edition: Blu-ray
Creepshow: Collector’s Edition: Blu-ray
Trick ‘r Treat: Collector’s Edition: Blu-ray
From the aptly branded Scream Factory comes a triple-feature of golden oldies – or, if one prefers, moldy oldies – suited for Halloween viewing. They may not be as welcome in a trick-or-treater’s bag of goodies as a handful of mini-Almond Joys, but they sure beat a few kernels of candy corn.

The 1999 re-boot of William Castle’s House on Haunted Hill received a satchel full of negative reviews from mainstream critics old enough to have seen the 1959 original at a kiddie matinee. I doubt, however, that they were the film’s intended audience … then, or today. Some old-timers might recall that master showman William Castle, his own self, introduced “the Amazing New Wonder EMERGO: The Thrills Fly Right Into the Audience!” and promised “The 13 Greatest SHOCKS Ever Seen!” If the on-screen thrills weren’t sufficiently terrifying, EMERGO caused a plastic skeleton to float over the audience’s heads during a pivotal part of the movie. The best the marketing team for William Malone’s update could come up with is “Evil loves to party” and “It’s going to be a long night.” It’s interesting to note that the premise of the 1959 version called for an eccentric millionaire, played by Vincent Price, to offer five strangers $10,000 each to stay the night in a spooky old mansion. Inflation being what it was in the intervening 40 years, the ante was raised to $1 million apiece. Here, Geoffrey Rush sits in for Vincent Price, as the twisted theme-park mogul, Stephen Price. He’s hosting a birthday bash for his wife (Famke Janssen) at an abandoned institute for the criminally insane. Among the guests are characters played by Taye Diggs, Ali Larter, Bridgette Wilson, Peter Gallagher and Chris Kattan. The odds against any of them collecting the money are pretty slim. The Blu-ray benefits from a 2K scan from the original film elements; new interviews with William Malone, composer Don Davis and visual-effects supervisor Robert Skotak; previously unseen storyboards, concept art and behind-the-scenes photos, courtesy of visual-effects producer Paul Taglianetti; commentary with Malone; deleted scenes; and vintage featurettes, “A Tale of Two Houses” and “Behind the Visual FX.”

Directed by horror maestro George A. Romero and scripted by Stephen King – whose screenwriting credits were then limited to Carrie, Salem’s Lot and The ShiningCreepshow was substantially more successful than House on Haunted Hill or Trick ’r Treat with audiences and critics. (King even starred in one of the segments.) The comic-book-themed anthology was comprised of five “tales of terror.” The first, “Father’s Day,” deals with a demented old man (Jon Lormer) returning from the grave to get the cake his murdering daughter (Viveca Lindfors) never gave him. (Ed Harris and Carrie Nye also appear.) “The Lonesome Death of Jordy Verrill” is about a not-too-bright farmer (King) discovering a meteor that turns everything into plant-life, including himself. In “Something to Tide You Over,” a vengeful husband (Leslie Nielsen) buries his wife (Gaylen Ross) and her lover (Ted Danson) up to their necks on the beach. Hal Holbrook, Adrienne Barbeau and Fritz Weaver star in “The Crate,” about a creature that resides in a large box under the steps of a college. “They’re Creeping Up on You” stars the distinguished actor, E.G. Marshall, as an ultra-rich businessman who gets his comeuppance, via unusually large, imported cockroaches. The brilliantly illustrated 4K remaster, was sourced from the original camera negative, with color correction supervised and approved by director of photography Michael Gornick. It also features new commentaries with Gornick and composer/first assistant director John Harrison and construction co-ordinator Ed Fountain; a fresh roundtable discussion on the making of Creepshow with John Amplas, Tom Atkins, Tom Savini and Marty Schiff; interviews with costume designer Barbara Anderson, animator Rick Catizone, sound re-recordist Chris Jenkins and Gornick; a look at Mondo Macabre’s posters for the movie, with co-founder Rob Jones and gallery-events planner Josh Curry; a look at some of the original props and collectibles, with collector Dave Burian; a vintage commentary with Romero and special-makeup-effects creator Tom Savini; behind-the-scenes footage; deleted scenes; still galleries; and a return visit to locations used, in “Horror’s Hallowed Grounds.”

By the time Trick ’r Treat was released onto DVD, in 2009, it had already spent two years on the festival circuit and the anthology trend had exhausted itself. Even so, it won several awards in genre competition and stands up reasonably well, today. As the title suggests, all five of the interrelated segments take place in the same neighborhood on Halloween night. Writer-director Michael Dougherty (Krampus) didn’t spare any fake blood or pre-fab gore in the R-rated thriller. It kicks off with a segment in which a high school principal (Dylan Baker) moonlights as a masked serial killer. Anna Paquin plays a college-age virgin, whose search for a lover takes a gruesome turn. A couple learns what can happen when a jack o’ lantern is blown out before midnight. A group of teens carries out a cruel prank with disastrous consequences, while a cantankerous hermit (Brian Cox) battles a mischievous trick-or-treating demon. The Scream Factory upgrade features a 2K scan of the original film elements supervised by Dougherty; a half-dozen new making-of and background featurettes; interviews; a fresh 2K scan of the original 16mm elements of Dougherty’s short, “Season’s Greetings”; art and photo galleries; “Monster Mash,” a story from the “Trick ’r Treat” graphic novel; FEARnet.com shorts; vintage commentary with Dougherty; a piece on holiday legends; deleted and alternate scenes; and a school-bus scene FX comparison.

Torso: Collector’s Edition: Blu-ray
Blood and Black Lace: Special Edition: Blu-ray
Deadbeat at Dawn: Collector’s Edition: Blu-ray
For those with more continental tastes, it’s tough to beat a good giallo for suspense, violence and sexual situations … the genre’s holy trinity. Upon its wide American release, in 1974, Torso was compared unfavorably to Sergio Martino’s previous thrillers, The Case of the Scorpion’s Tail and Your Vice is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key. This probably had as much to do with the ham-handed editing done to the movie by American censors as Martini’s execution of grindhouse violence against women and prevalence of soft-core sex and nudity. The newly released Arrow Blu-ray edition re-stores the movie – a.k.a., “The Bodies Bear Traces of Carnal Violence” – to its original giallo sheen and texture. After setting up a series of murders involving female students, prostitutes and their customers, in Perugia, Martini follows a group of college-age women to a villa overlooking the college town, where they can study for final exams in peace, as well as sunbathe in the nude and test each other’s sexual proclivities. Somehow, the killer discovers their hiding place and follows them there. After unceremoniously slaughtering three of the four young women, the killer initiates a suspenseful game of cat-and-mouse with the “final girl,” Jane (Suzy Kendall). Although she doesn’t look a minute under 35 – the actress’ proper age – Jane is an American exchange student, who finds herself trapped inside the mansion with a severely sprained ankle, three hacked-up corpses and the mysterious black-clad killer, who favors red-and-black ascots as his weapon of choice. If, at 92 minutes, Torso’s climax arrives a bit too abruptly, at least the killer is accorded a psychological excuse for his pathology. Torso has been given a fresh high-def transfer from the original negative and is presented in both its uncensored English and full-length Italian director’s-cut version. The set adds the featurettes, “Murders in Perugia,” an interview with co-writer/director Martino; a poster and still gallery; and an introduction by Eli Roth.

Giallo fans might find it a tad unusual to find a new Blu-ray edition of Mario Bava’s landmark 1964 thriller, Blood and Black Lace, released so soon after Arrow’s excellent 2016 restoration. Apparently, though, hard-core buffs complained about the aspect ratio, which didn’t conform with Bava’s original vision. VCI Entertainment has come back with an edition in the wider aspect and a different bonus package, highlighted by separate commentary tracks from Kat Ellinger – who avoids repeating observations made in the 2016 edition – and David Del Valle and C. Courtney Joyner. The 27½-minute featurette, “American Cut vs. European Uncut,” goes step-by-step through the more graphic sequences of the film, offering the censored American version followed by the bloodier European version. Also included are a photo gallery and seven minutes taken from composer Carlo Rustichelli’s score. In a nutshell, the story follows a vicious killer, who stalks and murders the elegant models of the popular Christian Haute Couture fashion house, in Rome. The owner of the house, the affluent widow Contessa Cristina Como (Eva Bartok), attempts to maintain order, but after the body of the first victim, Isabella (Francesca Ungaro), is discovered, everyone panics. The experienced Inspector Silvester (Thomas Reiner) begins sniffing around and realizes that, in addition to selling designer clothes, the house may have provided a distribution point for drugs. Among the suspects are the Contessa’s lover and business partner, Max (Cameron Mitchell), and Isabella’s roommates, Peggy (Mary Arden) and Nicole (Arianna Gorini).

Although pioneered by John Waters, Kenneth Anger and Andy Warhol, DIY filmmaking didn’t blossom into full flower until the introduction of camcorders, Apple and Avid editing technology, and straight-to-video distribution streams. The results weren’t always pretty, or terribly cinematic, but some of the movies showed promise for the future of the medium and filmmakers. If anything, DIY movies are easier and less expensive to make than they were in the 1980s and there’s very little problem getting them shown on YouTube and other streaming operations. What they’ve never been, however, is polished. It’s part of their charm. I’m not at all sure what prompted Arrow to pick up writer/director/actor Jim Van Bebber’s micro-budgeted indie, Deadbeat at Dawn, which combines elements of every juvenile-delinquent, kung fu and doomed-romance movie ever made, from West Side Story and Rebel Without a Cause, to The Wanderers and Rumble Fish. Van Bebber finished Deadbeat at Dawn in 1988, after he dropped out of film school and used the leftover money to purchase film stock. By that time, however, he’d made numerous amateur films, usually of the action variety and featuring his friends, relatives and classmates. An excellent prep wrestler, the Ohio native also became proficient in the martial arts, which would come in handy when he made Deadbeat at Dawn. Today, gang wars are fought with automatic weapons, usually from the cowardly shelter of a moving car. The hoodlums in Deadbeat at Dawn engage in old-fashioned knife fights and mano-a-mano combat with fists, kicks and karate chops.

Van Bebber plays Goose, the leader of the Ravens, who are mortal enemies of the Spiders. (The film was shot in Dayton, but it could have been set in any Rust Belt city.) After a rumble in a cemetery that leaves the gangs’ leaders with serious knife wounds, Goose’s girlfriend convinces him to go straight. Almost immediately, however, Goose’s rival assigns two of his nearly braindead thugs to take him out. Instead, they viciously murder his girlfriend, a senseless act that triggers another cycle of violence … this one disguised as a truce. After merging to pull off an armored-car heist, the Spiders ambush the Ravens, with the intention of wiping them out. Goose susses out the betrayal, but not before most of his comrades are wiped out. This leads to a battle royal that spreads into a railroad yard. It’s pretty entertaining, if not particularly convincing … no worse, certainly, than most fight scenes shot for television and genre flicks in the 1960s. The 2K restoration enhances the quality of the 16mm original beyond anything Van Bebber could have dreamed, 30 years ago. The bonus package adds commentary with Van Bebber, actor Paul Harper, actor/artist Cody Lee Hardin and filmmaker Victor Bonacore; a retrospective documentary on Van Bebber and the “Deadbeat” legacy, by Bonacore; a 1986 behind-the-scenes documentary on a failed “Deadbeat” shoot; Outtakes; four newly restored short films; Van Bebber’s music-video collection; an image gallery; reversible sleeve, featuring newly commissioned artwork by Peter Strain; and a booklet, featuring new writing by Scott Gabbey and Graham Rae.

Prehysteria: Special Edition: Blu-ray
One year, our son wore a homemade dinosaur costume for his school’s party and trick-or-treating, which wasn’t easy in a neighborhood populated with yuppies in multi-unit apartments. It was a dandy. I was reminded of this by the Blu-ray release of Albert and Charles Band’s Prehysteria! Released on video only three weeks after Jurassic Park (1993) stormed the world’s box offices – and a month after Roger Corman’s R-rated Carnosaur beat Spielberg to the finishing line — the PG-rated fantasy/adventure served as the debut for the Bands’ subsidiary Moonbeam label, which was established to provide direct-to-video releases for children. In it, a sleazy museum curator, Rico (Stephen Lee), steals dinosaur eggs from tribe living in a rain forest, and brings them back to California. Frank (Brett Cullen) is an archeologist and single parent, who ekes out a living by growing grapes and selling fossils from his farm to the museum. In a mix-up, his kids, 12-year-old Jerry Taylor (Austin O’Brien) and his teenage sister, Monica (Samantha Mills), bring home the eggs and hatch several miniature dinosaurs, which they name after their favorite rock stars. As the tiny creatures grow into miniature dinosaurs, it becomes apparent to everyone involved that they’re neither house-trained nor particularly friendly. This works in their favor when Rico gets wind of the kids’ new pets, but it causes problems in Frank’s relationship with the curator’s assistant (Colleen Morris).  If the dinosaurs aren’t terribly realistic, kids in the target age group get by with less believable toys every day.

Snake Outta Compton
Schlock: Collector’s Edition, Special Edition: Blu-ray
Although Hank Braxtan’s outlandish parody, Snake Outta Compton, falls well short of being as risible as Sharknado, Birdemic and Showgirls, it straddles the lines separating movies that are so bad they’re funny and movies that are simply bad. The obvious nod here is to Snakes on a Plane (2006), a film whose most memorable moment comes when Samuel L. Jackson tells his fellow passengers, “Enough is enough. … I have had it with these motherf…ing snakes on this motherf…ing plane!” The craziness begins when a snake drops from a passing jetliner and lands on the windshield of police car carrying a salt-and-pepper pair of cops, straight out of Training Day. While the female snake doesn’t survive the collision, one of the eggs she’s carrying does. It’s picked up by a brilliant teenage scientist, Vurkel (Donte Essien), who’s a dead-ringer for Stephen Urkel, the kid from “Family Matters.” After the baby snake emerges from its egg, Vurkel zaps it with an enlarging ray he’s invented to boost the size of private parts. Naturally, the experiment works, turning a finger-length creature into a monster, able to climb tall buildings and devour humans with a snap of its jaws. The snake escapes from its tank during a scuffle involving Vurkel’s hip-hop roommates:Pinball (Motown Maurice), Beez Neez (Tarkan Dospil), Neon (Aurelia Michael) and Cam (Ricky Flowers Jr.). Somehow, the musicians get it into their collective noggins that they can score a record deal, if they can rid Compton of the beast. Towards the end, as the snake wraps itself around the city’s tallest building in pursuit of a redheaded gangsta wannabe (Arielle Brachfeld), fighter jets are called in to destroy it. Not possessing King Kong’s giant mitts, the snake is unable to protect itself. Snake Outta Compton might appeal to stoners, but, as it’s rated “R,” the kids who might be inspired to make creature features of their own won’t be able to watch it. Of course, they won’t.

A few months ago, I reviewed a limited-edition release of John Landis’ Schlock, which somehow found its way from Germany to L.A. Virtually the same package is now available through normal channels, via Arrow Video. While it easily qualifies as a movie that’s so bad it’s funny, Schlock occasionally hints at the potential for greatness of its writer/director John Landis, whose next four directorial credits would be The Kentucky Fried Movie, Animal House, The Blues Brothers and Trading Places. In it, the mighty prehistoric ape, Schlocktropus, has emerged from hiding to embark on a full-scale rampage across a quiet southern Californian suburb. The police are baffled … the army is powerless … the body count is rising. But when Schlocktropus encounters a kindly blind woman (Eliza Garrett), who sees beyond his grotesque visage – perhaps in a homage to Frankenstein — the homicidal ape is presented with a chance at redemption. Shot over 12 days on a barely-there budget, Schlock not only launched Landis’ career, but also that of legendary makeup-effects artist Rick Baker. The Arrow package boasts a 4K restoration from the original camera negative; commentary by Landis and Baker; a new video interview with author and critic Kim Newman; “Birth of a Schlock,” a 2017 interview with Landis; an archival interview with cinematographer Bob Collins; a reversible sleeve, featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Graham Humphreys; and an illustrated collector s booklet, with new writing on the film by Joe Bob Briggs.

Time Life: The Best of the Three Stooges
It being Halloween-planning season, I wonder how many parents of triplets have ever considered dressing their little trick-or-treaters as Larry, Moe and Curly. Or, in the event of quintuplets, Shemp and Curly Joe, as well. None, perhaps, but it’s still a cool idea. Back in the day, however, if any Stooges-obsessed dad had proposed such a thing, no mom in her right mind would go along with it. For more than a half-century, how one felt about the antics of Larry Fine, Moe Howard, Curly Howard and Shemp Howard pinpointed the differences between how men and women defined comedy. And, to answer your question before it’s asked, Joe Besser and Curly Joe DeRita’s contributions, while appreciated, are still largely discounted by purists. The same parents’ groups that lobbied against violence in comic books and the spread of rock ’n’ roll among white, Christian youths, tried mightily to temper the Stooges’ use of poking, smacking, slapping and bonking to prove their points. By this time, of course, the syndicated shorts had become staples of television stations in need of a quick, inexpensive ratings boost, and millions of kids savored every “nyuk, nyuk, nyuk.” Obviously, the aggrieved parents hadn’t taken into account the educational value of the “Swinging the Alphabet” segment, from “Violent Is the Word for Curly” (1938). It remains an unforgettable teaching aid. The latest collection of shorts from Time Life, “The Best of the Three Stooges,” includes all 87 of the Columbia Pictures two-reelers produced between 1934 and 1945, as well as 28 shorts featuring the independent work of Shemp, Joe Besser and Curly Joe DeRita, three feature films, a 2000 biopic (exec-produced by Mel Gibson), animated cartoons; a memory book and two DVDs featuring the nine-part “Hey Moe! Hey Dad!” documentary series, with rarely seen footage, home movies and photos.

The Big Lebowski: 20th Anniversary Edition: Blu-ray/4K UHD
Get Shorty: Collector’s Edition: Blu-ray
Neither of these wonderful comedies suffer from underexposure on DVD or Blu-ray. In fact, the only difference most previous owners and renters will notice from earlier editions will be the improved visual quality of Get Shorty – it’s been remastered from a new 4K transfer — and The Big Lebowski’s 4K UHD/HDR visual presentation and audio boost to DTS:X and DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1. Both movies look and sound better than they ever have, a fact that will only be relevant to fans with the appropriate playback units. The excellent bonus packages – on “Big Lebowski,” it’s on the enclosed Blu-ray disc – have been ported over from special editions released in 2011. Personally, I don’t think there’s much more to say about either film – including the worthwhile bonus material — except to note the improved technical values. And, in case any newcomers are wondering, I can vouch for the fact that Get Shorty and The Big Lebowski both hold up well after repeated viewings. The first season of Epic’s spinoff TV series, “Get Shorty,” was released on DVD in August.

Saved by the Bell: The Complete Collection
When it comes to boxed sets of television series, it always pays to read the fine print on the package, as well as the fan blogs. Such descriptives as “complete,” “ultimate,” “best” and “rare” are thrown around so carelessly that they become meaningless. The same applies for collections of songs and the work of individual artists, which tend to be divided by labels, studios and partnerships. The beloved teen sitcom, “Saved by the Bell,” went through so many permutations in its 11-year tenure, including “Good Morning, Miss Bliss,” “The College Years” and “The New Class” – that the new Shout!Factory compilation, “Saved by the Bell: The Complete Collection,” must be considered alongside the 2013 “Complete Collection,” released by Lionsgate. At the time, purists complained that it was a tad short of “complete.” Technically, the Shout compilation is missing “The New Class” spinoff, which ran for seven seasons and 143 episodes, from 1993 to 2000. Image Entertainment released all seven seasons of the show, in 2005, but they’ve since been discontinued and are out of print. “Saved by the Bell: The Complete Collection” includes 118 episodes from “Good Morning, Miss Bliss,” “Saved by the Bell” and “Saved by the Bell: The College Years”; both feature films; new documentaries, “Past Times at Bayside High: Making ‘Saved by the Bell’” and “Bayside’s Greatest Hits: The Music of ‘Saved by the Bell’”; vintage featurettes, “Saturday Morning: From Toons to Teens,” “It’s Alright: Back to the Bell” and “The First of Its Class: From Sit-Com to Icon”; audio commentaries; photo galleries; and a16-page episode guide. For now, it will have to do.

The DVD Wrap: Ant-Man/Wasp, Whitney, Boundaries, BuyBust, Down a Dark Hall, Reprisal, Gen Wealth, 8 Hours Don’t Make a Day … More

Thursday, October 18th, 2018

Ant-Man and the Wasp: Blu-ray/4K UHD
With the elevation of Hope van Dyne to the superhero status once accorded her mother and her uneasy teaming with the newly domesticated Scott Lang, Ant-Man and the Wasp, can be enjoyed as both a screwball fantasy and palate-cleanser between weightier MCU episodes. That’s because the strong-willed Hope (Evangeline Lilly) has been asked by her father, Dr. Hank Pym/Ant-Man (Michael Douglas), to put aside her differences with the former thief (Paul Rudd) to rescue Janet (Michelle Pfeiffer) from the quantum realm, the microverse into which she disappeared 30 years earlier. To accomplish this seemingly impossible task, they’ll be required to don the suits developed by Pym that transform them from mere mortals into shape-shifting superheroes. Hope has little use for Lang, who’s been cooling his heels in house arrest for his role in skirmishes between the Avengers and Team Captain America, in Captain America: Civil War (2016). (In Marvel mythology, Lang stole Pym’s Ant-Man gear to save his daughter, Cassandra, from a heart condition.) When he isn’t wearing the suit, Scott is a regular dad, with goofball tendencies, especially suit to Rudd’s schtick. While confined to house arrest, he’s torn between the responsibilities he’s assumed as both a superhero and a father. Mere days before his sentence is due to expire, Scott receives a message from the sub-atomic quantum realm that leads him to believe Janet is alive, but living on borrowed time. This comes as very good news to Pym and Hope, who, once estranged, are living in self-imposed exile. Got that? You can’t tell the players in the MCU without a scorecard.

Long story, short: Pym asks Scott and Hope to don the uniforms and risk their lives in the perilous rescue mission. Before that can happen, however, they must acquire a part needed to reactivate the “quantum tunnel” from black-market dealer Sonny Burch (Walton Goggins). Burch, who’s come to understand the financial value of Pym’s research, double-crosses them. Even then, they’re required to overcome the efforts of Ava Starr/Ghost (Hannah John-Kamen), a molecularly unstable force  zapping Janet of her remaining energy, while convincing Pym’s former partner (Laurence Fishburne) to lead them to their lab, which Ghost miniaturized. Once this is accomplished, Ant-Man and the Wasp begins to resemble a delightfully conceived homage to Fantastic Voyage (1966), TRON and Innerspace (1987), with all the bells and whistles available to director Peyton Reed’s team of CGI technicians. Ant-Man and Wasp’s relationship also evolves into something fans of The Thin Man and Mr. & Mrs. Smith might recognize, with dialogue inspired, as well, by Elmore Leonard. This aspect, alone, increases the appeal of Ant-Man and the Wasp for adults. Naturally, room is left for a second sequel or prequel, as a stand-alone or an extension of The Avengers.  Depending on the store from which you’re likely to purchase the DVD/Blu-ray/4K/digital edition, Ant-Man and the Wasp is available in volumes that vary primarily in the elaborateness of their packaging and collectability. The digital and Blu-ray releases include several worthwhile behind-the-scenes featurettes; an introduction from Reed; deleted scenes, outtakes and a blooper reel. The digital release also features a look at the role concept art plays in bringing the various MCU films to life and a faux commercial for Online Close-Up Magic University. The excellent 4K UHD version is enhanced by a bone-crunching 7.1 Dolby Digital Plus audio track.

Whitney: Blu-ray
Although the tabloid press exploited Whitney Houston’s well-known troubles with the same relish it typically reserves for the Clintons, UFOs and OJ, the details revealed in Kevin Macdonald’s exhaustive bio-doc, Whitney, carry an unexpected punch. Comparison to the tragedy of Michael Jackson are inevitable, right down to the roles played by fathers and other family members, who leeched off her fame and enabled her addictions. Like Jackson, Houston’s demise can be traced to problems that began in childhood and were exacerbated by adults who recognized her God-given talent and were quick to take advantage of it. They encompassed race, class, religion and sexuality, as well as greed, predatory capitalism, a bad marriage and deep insecurity. While her mother, Cissy, and aunts, Dionne and Dee Dee Warwick, were show-biz veterans, Whitney was allowed to make the same mistakes that have claimed the lives and careers of countless other gifted performers. In surprisingly candid interviews, Houston’s brothers admit to introducing her to marijuana and cocaine and, then, while entrusted with protecting her from outsiders, abdicating their responsibility to contain the damage. Her husband, Bobby Brown, is also interviewed here. While admitting to certain obvious mistakes, he refuses to discuss the addiction to drugs and alcohol that made her so desperate for help.

Neither is the fickleness of her fan base ignored. After propelling her almost instant rise to superstardom, they allowed themselves to be swayed by self-serving accusations that she’d sold out to commercial (white) interests. Just as quickly, they jumped back on her bandwagon. Whitney doesn’t neglect the gifts of music and personality that made her an international sensation. They’re obvious in every video clip. Macdonald was accorded exceptional access to home movies, news clips and other archival material in which her voice is showcased on pop, R&B and gospel material. The list of people interviewed also includes Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds, Clive Davis,  L.A. Reid, Debra Martin Chase and Kevin Costner, her co-star in The Bodyguard (1992). The saddest section of the film, perhaps, is reserved for Houston and Brown’s daughter, Bobbi Kristina, who probably should have been taken away from the couple when it became apparent that they were incapable of raising a child who wasn’t destined to follow in their footprints. Like her mother, who died on February 11, 2012, at 48, Bobbi Kristina would be found face-down in a bathtub at her Georgia home, on January 31, 2015. Six months later, the 22-year-old reality-show personality and singer died after being taken off life support. The disc adds commentary with producer Simon Chinn and Macdonald, as well as a Motion Photo Gallery, featuring images courtesy of Houston’s estate.

Boundaries
In what may be the most demographically incorrect comedy of the year, veteran geezers Christopher Plummer, Christopher Lloyd and Peter Fonda continually steal the spotlight from such talented co-stars as Vera Farmiga, Bobby Cannavale, Kristen Schaal and 15-year-old Scottish newcomer Lewis MacDougall. The only white-bearded old-timer missing is Donald Sutherland. This isn’t to say that the youngsters aren’t up to the challenge, however. These guys have been stealing scenes for 40 years, now, and any movie in which there’s generational conflict between old hippies, new agers and precocious teens is going to favor the characters who look the most comfortable in their roles. Farmiga plays Laura, a determinedly quirky single mother, who’s never met a stray animal she hasn’t tried to rescue and rehabilitate. Sadly, she can’t see beyond daddy issues so severe that she married a ne’er-do-well (Cannavale) cut from the same cloth as her reprobate father, Jack (Plummer). Not only has her son, Harry, been expelled from his Seattle public school for being completely out of step with the rest of the student body, but Jack is being kicked out of his retirement home for such “side issues” as growing killer marijuana on the facility’s grounds. There are private schools that cater to Henry’s idiosyncrasies, but they’re out of Laura’s price range.

Desperate, she agrees to rescue her father, who claims to be dying of cancer, in exchange for the tuition money. The rub is that Jack insists on being driven from L.A. to the Pacific Northwest, in a car whose trunk contains $200,000 in pre-packaged pot he intends to sell to customers – including laid-back codgers played by Lloyd and Fonda — on the trip north. Although Henry reluctantly agrees to run interference for his grandfather, Laura is kept in the dark until it’s too late to change direction. If an aura of overfamiliarity hangs over the narrative throughout most of the journey, the actors keep it from drifting into cliché. In a bonus making-of featurette, writer/director Shana Feste (Country Strong) acknowledges that Boundaries was inspired by people she’s known in her life and traumas she’s endured. That she was able to wring as much humor from her memories as she does here is admirable. Like Sutherland and Helen Mirren’s not dissimilar road-trip dramedy, The Leisure Seeker (2017), Boundaries works as well on the small screen, as it would have in theaters … if anyone had given them a shot beyond a limited release.

BuyBust: Blu-ray
Apart from the occasional natural disaster, the biggest news emanating from the Philippines in the last few years has been President Rodrigo Duterte’s declaration of an all-out war against drug pushers and virtual elimination of penalties for vigilantism. Since the policy was announced, on June 30, 2016, estimates on the death toll range from government’s 4,200 (April 30, 2018), to 12,000 by news organizations and activist groups, to 20,000 by opposition politicians. Included are dozens of children, untold numbers of innocent bystanders, and victims of everyday police brutality and vendettas. Apparently, the public has begun to rethink its enthusiasm for the slaughter, but it’s far easier to elect a tyrant than to remove him from office. It’s impossible to watch co-writer/director Erik Matti’s absolutely riveting thriller, BuyBust, without at least considering the ramifications of the draconian policy. If Matti had set his movie in any other Southeast Asian country than the Philippines, it would have been greeted as a genre picture that supplanted the usual clichés with non-stop, hard-core action. By the halfway point of the 127-minute shoot-’em-up, Matti’s subtext begins to reveal itself. Politics aside, however, Buybust can be enjoyed by action junkies and fans of Hong Kong-style cop thrillers. Manila is second to none when it comes to ideal settings for mindless violence and poverty-driven crime.

The petite Australian/Filipino superstar Anne Curtis (In Your Eyes) plays against type as the no-nonsense anti-narcotics operative Nina Manigan, whose entire squad was sacrificed in a drug raid compromised by dirty cops. Anxious to avenge the loss, Nina joins another group of specialists about to raid a cartel stronghold in the middle of a teeming Manila slum. She isn’t reluctant about airing her belief that one of the group’s leaders may be a traitor, but, as an outsider, she’s ignored. Sure enough, the intricately choreographed raid goes haywire in the most violent way possible. When the cartel’s elusive kingpin escapes, the firefight spreads through the barrio, where, inevitably, locals get caught in the crossfire. When a popular resident is killed, the citizens decide that they’re tired of being victimized by politicians and criminals. The rebellion forces the agents to fight their way out of the maze … or die trying. By confining the action to a claustrophobic staging area — at night, with carnival lights providing most of the illumination and shadows — Matti rachets up the kind of suspense that comes with not knowing from which direction the next bullet, blade or grenade is likely to come. And that includes viewers, as much as the on-screen combatants. The thing is, too, that the violence never feels gratuitous, unnecessary or forced, any more than it did in The Wild Bunch. Bonus features include a making-of featurette and panel discussion from the 2018 ComicCon.

Down a Dark Hall: Blu-ray
Blackwood Boarding School, the setting for Rodrigo Cortés’ modern Gothic thriller, Down a Dark Hall, exists in the same scholastic universe as the Xavier Institute for Higher Learning and Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. It’s the school of last resort for five teenage girls, who’ve worn out their welcomes both at home and their previous high schools. To her surprise, Katherine “Kit” Gordy (AnnaSophia Robb) is wooed by a Blackwood teacher, Dr. Heather Sinclair (Jodhi May), as if she were a star athlete being recruited by Notre Dame or Stanford. Kit has no idea why anyone would want her to attend their school, but it’s far enough away from home to pique her interest. She’s greeted there by the compassionate teacher, Sinclair, and the school’s spooky disciplinarian, Mrs. Olonsky (Rebecca Front), and shown to her room. The next day, Kit meets the school’s dean, Madame Duret — Uma Thurman, in Morticia Addams drag — and the other four girls who comprise the student body. At first, the girls resemble dozens of other juvenile delinquents we’ve met in movies about troubled youths. Gradually, though, Cortés not only reveals each of the students’ well-hidden talents, but why they were chosen to attend such an elite institution, in the first place.

Madame Duret expects their individual strengths, as nurtured by the school’s similarly off-putting teachers, to compensate for any headaches they cause in the classrooms. And, indeed, they’re a handful. It isn’t until several not completely unexpected appearances by apparitions – yes, down a dark hallway – that Kit is prompted to explore the nooks and crannies of the mansion. Among the things she discovers is an uncanny similarity between the works of art being executed by her classmates and paintings already hanging on the school’s walls and music echoing through the hallways. Down a Dark Hall is based on Lois Duncan’s 1974 YA novel of the same title. Its PG-13 rating feels appropriate to the material, whose scares aren’t likely to raise goosebumps on anyone older than 17. That said, the Galicia-born Cortés has demonstrated his horror chops on Buried (2010), Red Lights (2012) and The Contestant (2007), and does a nice job here building the tension and allowing the young actors — Isabelle Fuhrman, Victoria Moroles, Taylor Russell, Rosie Day – to push the limits of their characters. The Blu-ray adds “Welcome to Blackwood: Venturing Down a Dark Hall” and a deleted scene.

Reprisal: Blu-ray
Don’t you hate it when you’ve just enjoyed watching a movie, only to discover that nearly every review on Metacritic.com is red-flagged as being a piece of cinematic crap? I do. That, however, is why such concepts as “guilty pleasures” and “redeeming qualities” have found traction among viewers whose opinions aren’t always in synch with egghead critics. In the 11 films in which Bruce Willis has appeared since Sin City: A Dame to Kill For (2014), the only one green-lit on Metacritic has been M. Night Shyamalan’s Split, in which he made an uncredited role. The other 10 received scores that were consistently on the red end of the spectrum. I suspect that the critics polled were as disappointed with the former A-lister’s choice of projects as his performances in them. That, and a feeling of acute been-there/seen-it. Willis isn’t the only actor whose name has become associated with hit-and-performances in genre films destined for straight-to-DVD purgatory, but he may be the one who’s fallen the greatest distance. If, however, his name on a cover or poster helps a young filmmaker catch a break in the marketplace, well, that falls well short of being a crime.

Even if Willis doesn’t appear to exert much more than normal effort in Reprisal, an urban heist thriller that, in any case, belongs to Frank Grillo, I had no trouble staying with the Cincinnati-set flick. Some of the credit for that goes to Willis, who doesn’t look out of place as a retired cop who’s still addicted to crime-solving. In Brian A. Miller’s third collaboration with Willis, Grillo plays a bank manager – something he could never pass for one in real life – who’s haunted by a robbery in which a co-worker was killed by a curiously well-prepared lone gunman (Johnathon Schaech). Fortuitously, his neighbor, James, takes an interest in the crime and volunteers to help Jacob overcome his guilt and the suspicions of investigating officers. Together, they pin down the location of the gunman, whose pattern somehow manages to stymie the police and feds. If it weren’t for the inclusion of the thief’s seriously ill father and Jacob’s diabetic daughter, you could guess the rest. What elevates Reprisal over Willis’ previous collaborations with Miller — The Prince (2014) and Vice (2015) – are two exciting shootouts, which take up lots of time and offer some unexpected twists. Miller also makes good use of Cincinnati, a city that looks great from above and offers all the advantages of, say, Atlanta, Memphis and Toronto. Playing a homemaker, ex-Miss USA Olivia Cuspo seems a tad too glamorous to settle for living in Midwestern city known primarily for it baseball team and chili. The Blu-ray adds interviews and making-of material.

Generation Wealth
In one way or another, all of Lauren Greenfield’s documentaries have dealt with excessive behavior that’s as American as apple pie, unchecked materialism and gluttony. The titles say it all: Thin (2006), Kids + Money (2008), Fashion Show (2010), The Queen of Versailles (2012), Bling Dynasty (2016) and, her latest, Generation Wealth, which is virtual summation of her life’s work. It complements Greenfield’s 504-page monograph of the same title, which was published last year by Phaidon Press. (Her other photo collections include “Girl Culture” and “Fast Forward: Growing Up in the Shadow of Hollywood.”) For those of us who grew up without the financial privileges – and demands – of the Kardashians, Trumps, Hiltons and Kennedys, the images shared in Generation Wealth are nearly as freakish as anything by Diane Arbus: wealthy Chinese women being taught how to slice and eat a banana in polite company; 6-year-old beauty queens; a former porn star, who filmed her own a suicide attempt after money failed to buy her happiness; a former Harvard classmate who did buy happiness, but forgot to pay taxes on it; women addicted to shopping for expensive accessories; and the whims of Russian plutocrats.

Greenfield also reveals a major disclaimer along the way: one of the reasons that she’s been able chronicle the pathologies of the rich and famous is her own family’s proximity to America’s ruling class. She comes from wealth and continues to enjoy the benefits of a great education and access to many of the things savored by her subjects, and it informs her work. Moreover, the filmmaker doesn’t appear willing to deny her family members the same hideous lifestyle as the more fortunate students in “Fast Forward: Growing Up in the Shadow of Hollywood.” Her sons, for example, followed in her privileged footsteps by attending Santa Monica’s famed Crossroads High School, whose student body is largely comprised of the sons and daughters of Los Angeles’ artistic, political and business elite. Nepotism is a hardly foreign concept for its graduates, no matter their GPA.  If Generation Wealth doesn’t cut nearly as deep as The Queen of Versailles – which demonstrates the power of hubris to level the playing field, even among the filthy rich – it does provide plenty of escapist envy that comes with watching rich people acting stupid.

Dust 2 Glory: Blu-ray
With his wild-and-woolly 2005 documentary Dust to Glory, Dana Brown took a break from his genetically encoded pursuit of perfect waves and endless summers, with a detour into the world of off-road racing, another pastime Californians hold near and dear to their hearts. His instincts led him to the annual Baja 1000 which, since 1968, has been run from Ensenada to La Paz, and is considered the Indy 500 and Le Mans of dirt racing. Even so, the event wasn’t all that well-known outside of Mexico and the American Southwest, where such outdoor motorsports can be practiced 52 weeks a year. That changed when ABC’s “Wide World of Sports” sent Jim McKay to cover the 1968 event – as well as Figure 8 stock-car racing and demolition derbies — and it began attracting such well-known gearheads as Mickey Thompson, Indy 500-winner Parnelli Jones, actors James Garner and Steve McQueen and drag-racer Don “The Snake” Prodhumme. At the time, dirt racing attracted roughly the same amount of attention outside California as surfing, before Dana’s dad, Bruce, introduced the sport to people outside Hawaii and SoCal in his breakthrough 1966 doc, The Endless Summer (1966). (OK, the Beach Boys helped, too.) In 1971, Bruce took a detour of his own, with On Any Sunday, which focused on the rough-and-tumble world of motorcycle racing. (It was financed by McQueen.)

The Baja 1000 doesn’t discriminate against motorcycles and dirt bikes, any more than it refuses entrance to converted dune buggies, ATVs, trophy-trucks and VW Beetles, which have proven surprisingly adept at finishing the course. In Dust to Glory, Dana Brown followed his father’s folksy approach by focusing on the courage, spunk and dubious sanity of men and women – young, old and in-between – who would challenge a dusty and boulder-strewn course that burros would avoid, especially in summer. In 2014, Dana also updated his dad’s motorcycle doc with On Any Sunday: The Next Chapter. The difference between these movies and Dana’s Dust 2 Glory is that the latter was made in association with off-road racing’s sanctioning body, SCORE International, and the BCII production company, which is developing shows on dirt racing for the fledgling El Rey Network. Unless there’s something sinister going on behind the scenes that isn’t mentioned in Dust 2 Glory, it doesn’t look as if Brown veered more than a few degrees off the path established by his father. The people we meet are interesting and open about their passion, without being extraordinary in ways that don’t involve building cars and racing. The cinematography, as usual, is outstanding. And, the rugged Baja 1000 course is as compelling a character as any in movies about sports. The Blu-ray adds interviews with Dana Brown and his father, who passed away last December, at 80.

City Slickers: Collector’s Edition: Blu-ray
Billy Crystal was riding pretty high in the saddle when he starred in Ron Underwood’s charming fish-out-of-water comedy, City Slickers (1991), alongside Bruno Kirby, Daniel Stern and, of course, Jack Palance. He was coming off When Harry Met Sally (1989), Throw Momma From the Train (1987) and The Princess Bride (1987), and had co-hosted Comic Relief, hosted two Academy Awards ceremonies and risked overexposure as a frequent guest on late-night talk shows. If the rest of the 1990s weren’t all that kind to him, movie-wise, he would bounce back in 1999, with Analyze This, playing an insecure mob boss’ psychiatrist. (Last year’s Funny or Die video short, City Slickers in Westworld, is better than almost everything in City Slickers II: The Legend of Curly’s Gold.) Putting comedians in unlikely situations and making their lives miserable, at least until the path is laid to a happy ending, had been a Hollywood staple since The Gold Rush (1925), when Charlie Chaplin’s Little Tramp found himself out of food and out of luck in the Klondike. In City Slickers, three longtime friends come to the collective realization that they’re not getting any younger and had better do something quick to recharge their batteries or be miserable for the rest of their lives. They decide to try their luck at a working dude ranch that turns disgruntled middle-aged dudes – and a woman (Helen Slater), who’s been stood up by her boyfriend – into reasonable facsimiles of cowboys.

Writers Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel don’t waste any time testing the collective chutzpah of Mitch (Crystal), Ed (Kirby) and Phil (Stern), by putting them on horses and shoving them into the middle of a cattle drive. The seen-it-all trail boss, Curly (Palance), looks as if he might have taught Rowdy Yates how to ride and rope and shoot, before retiring to the ranch. As befits a deeply chiseled old-timer in movies in need of adult supervision, Curly exudes instantly identifiable smarts and love for a way of life that no longer exists. After scaring the city slickers with his austere presence, he singles out Mitch to impart his wisdom. In addition to having to put up with the bullying of a couple of ranch hands young enough to be their sons, the wet-behind-their-ears wannabes are required to accustom themselves to sleeping under the stars, eating beans from a can and drinking coffee unenhanced by whipped cream and steamed milk. The other guests are a mixed bag of out-of-shape professionals and city folk, like themselves. Slater’s Bonnie Rayburn provides the boys excuses to act chivalrous and stupid, in equal measure. The big test comes when the weather turns bad, the rivers swell and the cows spook. Crystal’s highpoint arrives when Curly demands he help deliver a calf and, when its mother dies giving birth, serve as its surrogate nurturer. City Slickers was largely shot in northern New Mexico, which hasn’t changed much in the last 200 years, and is made very easy on the eyes via a new 4K remaster. Among the bonus features are commentary with Underwood, Crystal and Stern; deleted scenes; and featurettes “Back in the Saddle: City Slickers Revisited,” “Bringing in the Script: Writing City Slickers,” “A Star Is Born: An Ode to Norman” and “The Real City Slickers.” I would have enjoyed seeing Palance doing one-armed pushups, again, while accepting his Oscar for Best Supporting Actor. Maybe I missed it.

My Little Pony: The Movie: 35th Anniversary Edition: Blu-ray
I’m not at all sure how the packagers of “My Little Pony: The Movie: 35th Anniversary Edition” came up with 35 as the number to celebrate on the cover of this two-movie combo pack. It’s only been three years – and change – since “My Little Pony: The Movie: 30th Anniversary Edition” was released into DVD, ahead of the 2017 launch of Lionsgate’s animated musical/fantasy film, also titled My Little Pony: The Movie, which was based on the 2010 relaunch series, “My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic.” The 1986 original featured such voicing luminaries as Tony Randall, Danny DeVito, Rhea Perlman, Madeline Kahn, Rhea Perlman and Cloris Leachman, while the sequel’s guest stars included Emily Blunt, Michael Peña, Liev Schreiber, Taye Diggs, Zoe Saldana, Kristin Chenoweth, Uzo Aduba and Sia. The series’ principal voice cast — Tara Strong, Ashleigh Ball, Andrea Libman, Tabitha St. Germain, Nicole Oliver and Cathy Weseluck – also contribute their talents. The first picture opens at Dream Castle, where the Little Ponies are preparing a festival to celebrate the first day of spring. From the Volcano of Gloom, the evil witch Hydia watches the event via her cauldron and, disgusted by the frivolity, tells her daughters that they must ruin it. Hydia’s daughters, Draggle and Reeka, are inexperienced at causing mischief and fail utterly at ruining the festival. The girls return to the Volcano of Gloom in disgrace. Desperate to please Hydia, they conjure a pool of sentient purple lava that gleefully buries Ponyland.

The sequel adds several new characters to the same basic conspiracy, in addition to songs. Just for the historical record: in the early 1980s, hoping to attract little girls to its line of toys, Hasbro borrowed from the toys-to-movies formula initiated by Transformers and Masters of the Universe, featuring He-Man and Skeletor. Its first girl-friendly action figure was My Pretty Pony, which was introduced to no great acclaim in 1981. The next year, the brand was changed to My Little Pony. In addition to the movie, the line of toys spawned two animated television series and merchandise. By 1992, the fad had petered out in the U.S., and Hasbro put My Little Pony on hiatus until 1997. It would be discontinued, again, in 1999, only to be revived successfully in 2003. It remains a big-seller here and around the world. Even so, in 2018, the number, 35, feels a bit arbitrary. No matter. The new four-disc package includes the original 1986 movie — on Blu-ray for the first time — and the 2017 sequel. It adds a deleted scene, an “Equestria Girls” short; the featurettes, “Baking With Pinkie Pie,” “Making Magic with the Mane 6 and Their New Friends,” “The Journey Beyond Equestria” and “Hanazuki: Full of Treasures”; and the music video, “I’m the Friend You Need.”

TV-to-DVD
Eight Hours Don’t Make a Day: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
During his hyper-productive, if sadly abbreviated 16-year creative career, Rainer Werner Fassbinder developed a reputation for being the enfant terrible of the New German Cinema. Outside Germany, his famously unruly personality and controversial pronouncements frequently overshadowed his contributions to the cinema, theater and television, as a writer, director, actor and provocateur. Before Fassbinder died of an overdose of cocaine and barbiturates, in 1982, the 37-year-old multi-hyphenate made 44 films and TV dramas and directed 15 plays. There were more credits, but who’s counting? The director to whom his work was most compared was Douglas Sirk, whose melodramas explored post-war American attitudes toward race, sex, sexual orientation, politics and class. Apart from any of his stand-alone films, Fassbinder’s work on German television has already stood the test of time. His 1980 masterpiece, “Berlin Alexanderplatz,” is a 14-part, 15½-hours-long West German television miniseries, adapted from the Alfred Döblin novel of the same title. It remains highly respected by filmmakers and critics, inside and outside Germany, even though, at first, it was difficult to find in clean, binge-ready editions. Fassbinder adapted novels by Daniel F. Galouye and Oskar Maria Graf for two-part television presentations: World on a Wire (1973) and The Stationmaster’s Wife (1977). But, in 1971, as his reputation was solidifying, a left-leaning German public-television network commissioned Fassbinder to make a working-class family drama, based on the lives of a group of skilled toolmakers and their families in Mönchengladbach and Cologne. Early in the series, the workers are arbitrarily denied a promised performance bonus. Following the death of their foreman, the productive assistant foreman, Franz (Wolfgang Schenck), applies to take over his position, but it’s given to an outsider.

The decisions, which the workers take as a slap to the face, will trigger two parallel storylines and impact all the characters introduced in the first of five episodes. Among them, are the resourceful worker, Jochen (Gottfried John), and his secretary girlfriend, Marion (Hanna Schygulla), who want to marry, but can’t see beyond their limited financial situation and the bad advice of friends and family. Jochem’s sister, Monika (Renate Roland), is unhappily married to the strict disciplinarian Harald (Kurt Raab), who we’ll witness slapping their daughter for laughing at the dinner table. Jochen and Monika’s father is retiree, who takes out his anger on everyone within earshot, even though its wasted on his kids, grandchild and wife, who patiently absorbs his outbursts, knowing they’re part of the burden of being a German housewife. When the series begins, the wonderfully drawn Grandma Krüger (Luise Ullrich) is living with her family, but, out of the blue, finds a happily compliant boyfriend, Gregor (Werner Finck), and move in together. Together, they turn an abandoned storefront into neighborhood kindergarten – unauthorized, though it is – for neighborhood kids forced to play in the streets. Marion’s elitist co-worker, Fräulein Erlkönig (Irm Hermann), chides her for falling in love with a “worker” – a word she spits out like a curse – but ultimately will fall under the sway of Jochen’s pal, Rolf. Another co-worker falls for Monika, and wants to rescue her from Harald, but doesn’t know how to pull the trigger. The workers’ supervisor is portrayed as a bureaucrat, who despises his employees, while his boss is far more pragmatic when it comes to finding new avenues for revenues.

Whatever it was that network executives expected of “Eight Hours” – probably a “kitchen sink drama,” in which proletarian ideals are continually trampled by the bourgeoisie – it wasn’t what Fassbinder delivered. Instead, the mini-series dodged expectations by depicting social realities in West Germany with an open mind and compassion for characters who find false hope in schnapps, but come to understand that their real strength lies in the bonds formed by family … at home, at work and those of their friends. Fassbinder’s evenly paced, non-exploitative approach didn’t sit well with the channel’s white-collar executives, one of whom decided that “the series wasn’t realistic enough.” Neither were right-wing pundits pleased with his humanistic treatment of workers, who saw strength in numbers when it came to negotiating issues at work. In an interview published in 1973, Fassbinder explained, “What distinguishes Jochen und Marion and Grandma and Gregor and a few of the others from what people imagine workers to be like — and from the image sold on TV and elsewhere — is the fact that these characters have still not been beaten down.” Despite the large number of viewers drawn to the mini-series, the network decided to cut the number of episodes from eight to five and discontinue production. In doing so, it denied Fassbinder the opportunity to further clarify his views on German society in the early 1970s and how compromise and utopian visions have shelf lives of their own. Even so, “Eight Hours” was awarded West German television’s Adolf Grimme Prize for its concept. The Criterion Collection edition represents the Rainer Werner Fassbinder Foundation’s terrific 2K digital restoration of the 470-minute, five-part series. Special features include a 2017 documentary directed by Juliane Maria Lorenz, featuring interviews with actors Hanna Schygulla, Irm Hermann, Wolfgang Schenck and Hans Hirschmüller; a new interview with film scholar Jane Shattuc; a fresh English subtitle translation; and an essay by scholar Moira Weigel.

Lifetime: Harry & Meghan: A Royal Romance
Lifetime: Her Stolen Past
Acorn: East West 101: Series 3
Acorn: Sando: Series 1
Throughout her lifetime and well beyond the grave, Princess Diana has proved a godsend for the mass media, which continue to feast on her popularity, tragedies and legacy.  She’s been featured on the cover of People magazine 57 times … more than any other person in history. The editors wouldn’t commit such prized real estate to a single person unless it made financial sense to do so. Given the numbers attracted to the magazine’s coverage of Diana, it made sense for other publications to follow suit. The publications and networks were doubly blessed when her sons came of age, however, and they no longer had to rely on recycled photos, gossip and tiresome slaps at Charles and Camilla. When the princes started making headlines of their own – misbehaving, dating, flying helicopters, serving in Afghanistan and generally looking royal – the floodgates opened once again. Prince William’s marriage to Kate Middleton was covered with such intensity that the press even conspired to make the Duchess of Cambridge’s maid-of-honor, Pippa Middleton, a celebrity worth of blanket exposure in her own right. She just delivered a baby boy, don’t you know. This month, the media also made a star out of an obscure royal – Princess Eugenie – who would have to survive a nuclear attack on England to ascend to the throne. The even more recent news that Meghan Markle, Prince Harry’s bride, is pregnant has thrown the celebrity press into overdrive. Truth be told, however, the former American television actress has a backstory that differs markedly from the rest of the twits who bounce between weddings, baptisms, funerals, charity events and sporting events for the benefit of people who collect tea cups, lace doilies and commemorative magazines. Menhaj Huda’s “Harry & Meghan: A Royal Romance” is far from the worst of the royal biopics that have landed in my mailbox, if only because part of the charm of the subjects’ relationship is the difference in their backgrounds and the prince’s willingness to be tamed by the older, African-American divorcée. Fresh faces Murray Fraser (“The Loch”) and Parisa Fitz-Henley (“Jessica”) do a nice job approximating the couple in the various stages of their off-and-on relationship and handling the media’s despicable coverage of their courtship period. Sure, it’s schmaltzy, but nothing beyond what one might expect from such a commercial undertaking. Even Prince Charles and Camilla are treated fairly. Personally, I prefer the snarky cutting-edge approach adopted by the E! Network dramedy series, “The Royals,” which also features two male heirs to the throne, while adding a cougar queen and her conniving brother-in-law (who couldn’t be more gay if wore a rainbow-colored toupee), a desperately horny princess, trashy options for the princes’ attention and various other deviants. Sort of sounds like the Kardashians.

I ran out of fingers and toes trying to count the number of suspense/romance/inspirational novels Lynette Eason has written for various Harlequin lines, including the Love Inspired Romance and Family Reunion series. I quit at 47. Neither do I know why her name isn’t attached to the made-for-cable potboiler, “Her Stolen Past,” whose Amazon Prime Video summary is practically identical to the one on the Amazon Books site. Since the 2014 book seems as if it were tailor-made for Lifetime, I wonder how many other Eason properties have been adapted without credit. (None shows up on IMDB.com.) The plot is pretty straight-forward, really. After her mother is murdered in a parking-lot mugging, her daughter, Sonya (Shanice Banton), discovers a mysterious birth certificate hidden among her records. An Internet search reveals that the name on the certificate matches that of a baby kidnaped years earlier from a church event. Sonya hires private detective Brandon Hayes – young and handsome, of course — to help her investigate any possible connection her mother may have had to the still-missing girl and if it might tie into her murder. The answer to both questions is: duh. After meeting the victim’s parents and brother, who are surprisingly antagonistic toward them, Sonya and Brandon become targets for the presumable killer. The woman who arranged Sonya’s adoption also turns up dead. Despite some rather pedestrian acting and staging, “Her Stolen Past” offers enough satisfying twists to satisfy fans of Lifetime and Harlequin. Judging from the images on the book covers, the protagonist of “Her Stolen Past” wasn’t written as African-American, but the substitution of mostly black characters isn’t an issue here.

Acorn’s “East West 101: Series 3” reprises the final season of a terrific Australian police drama, which ran from 2007 to 2011. Dozens of such cops-and-crime shows are released on video every month, some of the best arriving from foreign shores via streaming services and on DVD. Unlike American producers, who still haven’t figured out how to develop shows in which Muslims are portrayed without fear or favor. The only one that I can recall, HBO’s “The Night Of,” did an excellent job of depicting the kinds of issues facing Muslim Americans every day, while describing how difficult it sometimes is for law-enforcement officials to do their jobs, while protecting the civil rights of citizens whose customs, culture and religion are foreign to them. Even though “The Night Of” won a bunch of Primetime Emmy Awards and other honors, HBO has yet to commit to a second season. Not surprisingly, perhaps, the show was adapted from a British series, “Criminal Justice” (2008). “East West 101,” which doesn’t feel at all dated, was set around the Major Crime Squad in metropolitan Sydney. The title refers both to the clash of cultures between the western and eastern worlds, and the fact that Sydney’s eastern suburbs are affluent and Anglo-Saxon, while the western suburbs are of a lower socio-economic status and have large Middle Eastern populations. The same divide exists within the MCS, which is comprised of several male detectives who served in Afghanistan and Iraq and carry substantial chips on their shoulders. As Season Three opens, crack Muslim Detective Zane Malik (Don Hany) is determined to hand in his resignation and start a new, danger-free life with his family. That plan is upended when his wife and son are involved in a hit-and-run accident and Malik becomes obsessed with finding the car’s driver. Evidence connects the crash to the sophisticated robbery of an armored vehicle, which occurred a short time earlier and left four dead. As the police, led by Superintendent Patricia Wright (Susie Porter), investigate the robbery, Malik clashes with former army officer Neil Travis (Matt Nable). Travis is quick to blame the attack on Muslim extremists, but Malik suspects there is more to the case … and, of course, he’s right. Corruption and greed aren’t limited to one race, either. The binge-worthy series adds deleted scenes and an intricate behind-the-scenes look at the central heist scene and shootout.

Also, from Down Under, comes Acorn’s “Sando: Series 1,” a traditional sitcom with plenty of unconventional characters. The central figure is Australia’s discount-furniture queen, Victoria “Sando” Sandringham, whose boisterous commercials for Sando’s Warehouse can’t be avoided by anyone with a television. They feature members of her wildly eccentric family and the lame jingles of her soon-to-be-ex-husband. The series opens with a flashback to the wedding of her daughter, who, just as the priest is about to read the vows, learns that Victoria had an affair with her fiancé and she’s pregnant with his child. Almost simultaneously, Victoria loses the support of her cost-conscious board of directors, who freeze her assets. Ten years later, Victoria’s poised to get her revenge, but needs the help of her estranged family members, who miss being in the spotlight, if for only 60 seconds at a time. Laughter ensues when Victoria moves back into the family estate, with her illegitimate, mixed-race 10-year-son in tow, to keep the business from collapsing. (The boy is far brighter than his dimwitted adult half-brother, who aspires to be a standup comedian or magician.) “Sando” is cut from the same cloth as “Kath & Kim,” a completely off-the-wall mother/daughter comedy that was adapted for American audiences with Molly Shannon and Selma Blair in the lead roles.

Also, newly available from the Anglo-centric Acorn Media are the PBS/Channel 4 adaptation of Leo Tolstoy’s “Anna Karenina” (2000) and “800 Words: Season 3, Part 1,” an Australian/New Zealand co-production about a Sydney journalist who moves with his family to a remote community in New Zealand. The series, which airs here on PBS, has yet to be accorded a fourth season.

The DVD Wrapup: Prayer Before Dawn, Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far, Angels Wear White, Rodin, Schiele, Witch Files, 3rd Night, Official Story, Iron Mask … More

Thursday, October 11th, 2018

A Prayer Before Dawn: Blu-ray
At a time when anyone with a cellphone can make a movie and distribute it on the Internet for the world to see, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to discover something truly new and different. Thousands of movies about boxing and wrestling have been made by Hollywood studios, alone. Typically, the fighters are in pursuit of fame, financial independence or personal redemption for past sins. The best of them compete at the highest levels of the industry for awards and box-office glory. The rest of them have found audiences, simply by conforming to clichés, convention and tropes. Today, of course, boxing and wrestling aren’t the only games in town. Women no longer are a novelty in the ring/octogon and martial-arts aren’t limited to kung fu and other Asian-based pastimes. Not to be left out of the action, WWE Studios continues to churn out genre pictures that mix well-known commercial actors with wrestlers from the company’s stable of “superstars” and “divas.” It often does so in collaborations with existing production and distribution companies. By sticking to the same routines and storylines that dictate the results of Smackdowns and other televised matches, audiences aren’t required to invest much sweat equity into the outcomes of straight-to-DVD flicks and animated features starring such actor/athletes as John Cena, Shawn Michaels The Miz, Randy Orton, Kane, Maryse Ouellet, Naomi. The distance between these movies and such classics as Raging Bull, Rocky, Million Dollar Baby, Requiem for A Heavyweight, The Wrestler and Fat City is roughly the same as the gap separating most of the comedies starring “Saturday Night Live” alums and those created by Woody Allen, Mel Brooks, Harold Ramis and John Hughes.

The only reason I mention this is because of the release on DVD/Blu-ray of Jean-Stéphane Sauvaire’s A Prayer Before Dawn, an unapologetically brutal and emotionally taxing drama about survival within the confines of a Thai prison. It reminds me of Nicolas Winding Refn’s Bronson (2008), in which a prisoner played by Tom Hardy turned a seven-year sentence for bank robbery into a 34-year bit, spent mostly in solitary confinement. Hardy also played an MMA fighter, who’s pitted against his estranged brother (Joel Edgerton) and their alcoholic father (Nick Nolte), in Gavin O’Connor’s Warrior (2011). I’d hate to see A Prayer Before Dawn get lost in the everyday shuffle of DVD/Blu-rays whose covers only promise more of the same old thing. Like Bronson, the protagonist here is based on an actual person, Billy Moore, and his book, “A Prayer Before Dawn: My Nightmare in Thailand’s Prisons.” The excellent British actor Joe Cole (“Peaky Blinders”) plays Moore, a troubled British national who travels to Thailand to find steady work and a comfortable lifestyle. After finding work as a Muay Thai boxer and stuntman, he becomes addicted to yaba (a.k.a., the “madness drug” and “Nazi speed”) and is convicted of possessing stolen goods and a firearm. The prison to which he’s sent is entirely populated – or, so it seems – by hard-core Thai criminals, who prey on the weak and trade in contraband, including cigarettes, drugs and sexual favors. Many, if not most of the inmates are adorned with elaborate tattoos that cover them from head to foot.

As evidenced in previous Thai prison movies, in which western tourists are jailed for attempting to transport drugs at the behest of people they meet in Bangkok or Phuket, the Chiang Mai facility in A Prayer Before Dawn is accurately described as a “hellhole.” The prisoners sleep on the floor, as if they’re sardines in a can. Privacy doesn’t exist, and corruption not only is accepted, but it’s enforced by gang leaders, guards, black-marketeers and administrators. It takes time for the seriously addicted and routinely beaten Moore – who can only guess at what he’s being told by fellow prisoners and guards — to convince the prison’s boxing coach to give him a shot to prove himself in the ring. If he succeeds, he’ll be allowed to room with the other fighters, at least, and eat a higher quality of what passes for food there. He also finds something resembling love in the person of his black-market contact, an attractive “lady boy.” Anyone who can remember Brad Davis in Midnight Express (1982), will see a lot of Billy Hayes in Moore, although the former’s only hope for survival was to escape the Turkish prison. In A Prayer Before Dawn, Moore would be lucky to survive long enough to be released in due time, but only if he makes the kick-boxing team and his battered body can withstand the punishment … something the prison doctor doesn’t think is possible. Adding to the verisimilitude is Sauvaire’s decision to cast men who had served time in Thai prisons; put Cole through months of extensive training; and have him spend time with the real Billy Moore and his family in Liverpool before shooting started. The climatic fight was filmed in the Cebu Provincial Detention and Rehabilitation Center in the Philippines. Because few, if any punches are pulled, A Prayer Before Dawn isn’t a movie that can be enjoyed, exactly … certainly not by anyone who winces at cuts and bruises in traditional boxing movies. It is, however, a powerfully effective drama about survival under the most extreme circumstances. The Blu-ray adds featurettes, “Locked Inside the Walls: Making A Prayer Before Dawn” and “Billy Moore: In His Own Words.”

Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot: Blu-ray
The title of Gus van Sant’s sometimes difficult, but always compelling portrait of quadriplegic artist John Callahan is taken from one of his cartoons, in which a mounted posse surrounds an empty wheelchair, left in the middle of a desert. The sheriff says, “Don’t worry, he won’t get far on foot.” It also provided the title for his first autobiography, published in 1990. The biopic might have just as easily been, “Will the Real John Callahan Please Stand Up?,” after his second “quasi-memoir,” released in 1998. Seven years later, Dutch filmmaker Simone de Vries made a documentary on Callahan, Touch Me Where I Can Feel. Van Sant’s Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot opens before the 1972 accident that severed his spine and nearly killed him. He was 21 when it happened and already addicted to alcohol for nine years. Callahan (Joaquin Phoenix) wasn’t driving his Volkswagen Bug the night it crashed into a utility pole, going somewhere in the neighborhood of 90 miles per hour. His designated driver (Jack Black) had been drinking all day, as well, and wound up with little more than a scratch. The Portland native, who could never get over the fact that he was adopted as an infant, was left paralyzed from the diaphragm down and lost the use of many of his upper-body muscles. Fortuitously, he could extend his fingers and eventually, after much therapy, hold a pen in his right hand. To draw, he guided his right hand slowly across a page with his left, producing rudimentary, even childlike images. As he gained more control of his hands, Callahan’s sketches began to reflect his jaundiced view of how people in the mainstream population reacted to men and women with severe handicaps and vice versa.

When he finally found outlets for the cartoons – including Portland’s alternative Willamette Weekly – their inky black humor disturbed able-bodied readers more than those with disabilities. It gave him a reputation for being politically incorrect and a butcher of sacred cows. They were compared to the work of such irreverent cartoonists as Charles Addams, Gahan Wilson, Charles Rodrigues and Gary Larson. “My only compass for whether I’ve gone too far is the reaction I get from people in wheelchairs, or with hooks for hands,” Callahan said in a 2010 interview in the New York Times. “Like me, they are fed up with people who presume to speak for the disabled. All the pity and the patronizing. That’s what is truly detestable.” Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot focuses on the turbulent years between the accident and his first real tastes of success. Because the accident did nothing to quell Callahan’s thirst for destructive quantities of booze, the film also concentrates on his reluctant embrace of Alcoholic Anonymous, its 12-step program and the people in his weekly small-group meetings. As powerful as Phoenix’s portrayal is here, it’s Jonah Hill’s depiction of group leader, Donny, that many viewers will find to be the most nuanced and moving. Donny, who bears a resemblance to the Beach Boys’ Dennis Wilson, operates outside the usual parameters of AA, opening his opulent home up to addicts and people with terminal illnesses, including Udo Kier. Once Callahan finally commits to following the 12-step approach, Donny’s unorthodox prodding keeps him from backsliding. I hope Hill and Phoenix are remembered at awards time. Rooney Mara is also very good as the woman who teaches Callahan that love is still an option for him. The Amazon Studios release was accorded limited distribution and consideration by critics. In addition to his memoirs and cartoon collections, two animated cartoon series have been based on Callahan’s cartoons: “Pelswick, a children’s show on Nickelodeon” and “Quads,” a Canadian-Australian co-production. The Blu-ray adds the featurettes “Inside the Accident” and “Inside the Hospital.”

Angels Wear White
This involving crime drama appears to have eluded the usual efforts of Chinese censors, whose job it is to prevent citizens and foreigners from seeing the blemishes in a society tightly controlled by Communist Party officials. Typically, movies that depict corruption, decay and overt sexuality are banned from exhibition in the PRC, and the better-known filmmakers don’t even bother to submit them to the board. They’re required to find traction on the international festival circuit before being accorded exposure in arthouses outside China. It’s remarkable that Vivian Qu’s Angels Wear White, which could be read as an indictment of pervasive social injustice, collusion between police and politicians, male entitlement and the sexual abuse of young girls, was chosen to represent the country at the 2017 Venice Film Festival and 2019 Academy Awards. Qu’s roots in Chinese independent cinema may have suggested to censors that the film’s avoidance of lurid and sensationalistic depictions of crimes, along with a decidedly arty approach to the acting and visuals, guaranteed that the action-driven masses would avoid it like the plague … just as audiences around the world tend to do. Moreover, Angels Wear White demands patience and a willingness on the part of viewers to accept the deliberately paced narrative and characters’ reluctance to do the right thing. A little understanding of the location’s history doesn’t hurt, either. The film’s protagonist, Xiaomi (Wen Qi) cleans rooms in an upscale “love motel,” located in a provincial seaside town, near Hainan. The island, one of several in the far southeastern province, is being groomed as major destination for adult tourists – not just Chinese — attracted to the tropical climate, beaches, water sports, golf and other activities, as well as as an escape from the teeming, polluted urban centers.

Angels Wear White looks as if it were shot in the monsoon season, when tourism is down and the tawdry beach attractions – including a giant statue of Marilyn Monroe, her skirts swept up, as they were in The Seven Year Itch– are being repaired or removed. On the one night she subs for co-worker Lili (Peng Jing) at the front desk, Xiaomi observes a high-ranking district commissioner, with two pre-teen girls in tow, checking into the motel. Through surveillance monitors, Xiaomi sees him force himself into their room. Instinctively, she records everything with her iPhone. For fear of losing her job, however, she says nothing. Meanwhile, 12-year-old Wen (Zhou Meijun), one of the victims, becomes increasingly despondent and unruly at school. Concerned for her mental health, Wen’s parents are given reason to believe that she might have been raped, while drinking, at a party. A medical exam confirms their worst fear. On “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit,” Olivia Benson would have cut through the bureaucratic bullshit like a fork through Jello. Here, though, everyone from the bribe-paying hotel owner, to the doctors and parents’ female lawyer (Shi Ke), knows that the game is fixed. Xiaomi is culpable for watching the wrong monitor at the wrong time; Wen’s mother instinctively blames the girl for being in the wrong room with the wrong person at the wrong time; and the lawyer is powerless in a system where easily corrupted men make the rules. (And, yes, Chairman Mao and his last wife, Jiang Qing, probably are spinning in their graves right now, over the direction the revolution is heading.) Again, Qu succeeds in delivering her message on how women and children have been marginalized in today’s PRC, without resorting to polemics or blanketly tarring all men. As Qu, whose Black Coal, Thin Ice won the Golden Bear Award at the 2014 Berlin International Film Festival, told a reporter for Singapore’s Strait Times, “When everything is up for sale, how can a young girl find the right answer for herself and move forward? This has all gotten a lot more complicated.” This is not to say, however, that such incidents are non-existent outside China. Just ask Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, who was punished by  Republican lawmakers for coming forward about her rape.

Rodin: Blu-ray
Egon Schiele: Death and the Maiden
The cavalcade of movies about the lives of painters and sculptors continues apace this week, with eponymous biopics of Belle Époque artists Auguste Rodin and Egon Schiele. In recent years, we’ve seen noteworthy biopics and documentaries on Paul Gauguin, Vincent van Gogh, JMW Turner, Amedeo Modigliani, Pablo Picasso, Paula Modersohn-Becker, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Eva Hesse, Maud Lewis, Séraphine de Senlis, Paul Cézanne, Johannes Vermeer and the above-mentioned John Callahan. French sculptor Rodin’s most productive period overlapped with the emergence of Schiele, the Austrian painter who died in in the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918, his career only beginning to take shape. Rodin was wealthy and his work was work well-recognized during his lifetime, while Schiele’s paintings only began to sell in the year he died. Jacques Doillon’s Rodin and Dieter Berner’s Egon Schiele: Death and the Maiden both reflect the men’s very different personalities and that of their cities. If you already appreciate their work, both films should appeal to your sense of curiosity, at least. Otherwise, they might come off as dry as an untouched canvas. On the plus side, for some viewers, anyway, the models spend most of their time on screen posing in the nude or changing their period clothing … in the interest of art, of course.

Anyone who’s seen Isabelle Adjani in Camille Claudel (1988) or Juliet Binoche in Camille Claudel 1915 (2013) will already know a lot about what goes on in Rodin. The film opens in Paris, 1880, when the 40-year-old sculptor (Vincent Lindon) finally receives his first state commission, “The Gates of Hell,” which will include “The Kiss” and “The Thinker.” Constantly working, he splits his time with his lifelong partner, Rose (Séverine Caneele), and his gifted student and mistress, Camille Claudel (Izïa Higelin), who will become his creative assistant, muse and a talented sculptor in her own right. Things turn ugly when they begin to compete for credit, patrons and even models, and Auguste brings the demanding Rose into their household. Claudel’s tragic fall isn’t part of Doillon’s story, as it is in “1915.” What’s most entertaining is the time Rodin spends outside the studio, with such high-profile personalities as Victor Hugo, Rainer Maria Rilke, Paul Cézanne, Octave Mirbeau, Claude Monet and Adèle Abruzzesi, one of his favorite models. The Cohen Media Blu-ray adds the half-hour, “Sculpting Rodin,” which offers interesting interviews with Doillon and author Véronique Mattiussi.

Berner’s aptly titled Egon Schiele: Death and the Maiden opens in 1907 or 1908, when Schiele was beginning to assert himself outside the shadow of his mentor, Gustav Klimt, and he began to explore the human form and human sexuality. Some of his work merged Klimt’s decorative eroticism with figurative distortions that included elongations, deformities and graphic sexuality. Schiele’s self-portraits and nudes also heightened his profile. Here, the artist’s private life frequently takes precedent over his painting, with depictions of Schiele’s sordid relationship with his sister, Gerti (Maresi Riegner); fascination with the exotic dancer, Moa Mandu (Larissa Breidbach); longtime affair with Klimt’s former model Wally Neuzil (Valerie Pachner); and marriage of economic convenience to Edith Harms (Marie Jung). In 1912, Schiele and Wally move to a studio outside Vienna, where his life is further complicated by his questionable arrest – at least, in Berner’s eyes — for seducing a girl below the age of consent and sketches of her deemed pornographic. Even though he avoids prison, he can’t avoid being drafted into the war or having his breakout year interrupted by the Spanish flu. Newcomer Noah Saavedra’s portrayal of the playboy painter is more convincing than the story’s timeline, which feels squished, even within the 110-minute framework.

The Witch Files
The cover of this surprisingly enjoyable addition to the teen-witch subgenre carries a sticker that advises, “Rated Tween.” It doesn’t quite substitute for an actual MPAA rating, but it’s difficult to see how The Witch Files would qualify as anything higher or lower than PG-13. I’d probably dial it down to PG, but I don’t get a vote. Broken down to its individual parts, it’s easy to see how writer/director Kyle Rankin (Night of the Living Deb) was influenced by such teen faves as The Craft, “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” Mean Girls, “Bewitched,” The Blair Witch Project and The Breakfast Club. This isn’t to say that it’s transparently derivative or exploitative, however. If anything, The Witch Files reminds me of a pilot for a television series on the CW, Paramount Network, Disney Channel or MTV. While spending a dull detention period together, an unlikely gathering of teenage girls discovers one of their cohorts may or may not possess supernatural powers. Intrigued, they follow her into the local woods, where she harnesses the energy of witches who were persecuted by villagers hundreds of years ago. Realizing they’re now able to make every desire a reality, the girls form a coven. Before long, they not only have the entire school under their control, but they’re able to shoplift and walk out on lunch tabs under the eyes of the proprietors. They’re even able to convince a salesman at a local dealership that he signed off on a contract for an expensive sports car, without collecting a penny. Naturally, the girls abuse their gift by using it to harm the students who picked on them and do other things that attract the attention of local police, one of whom (Padgett Brewster) has a personal interest in witchcraft. Holly Taylor (“The Americans”) assumes the lead role, as a reporter for the school newspaper that’s assigned her to capture footage of the coven’s activities. At 20, Taylor easily passes for a high school senior, whose nerdy glasses and willingness to stick her nose into other kids’ affairs might cause problems with the ruling clique. Britt Flatmo (Super 8), Tara Robinson (“Criminal Minds”), Tayla Fernandez (“The King of the Sun”), Autumn Read and Adrienne Rose White (“Quirky Female Protagonist”) represent a cross-section of the school’s female population, while Valerie Mahaffey (“Young Sheldon”) and Stephanie Atkinson (“Island Zero”) play typically befuddled moms. The movie’s male cast members play key supporting roles, but they are overmatched by the effervescence of the girls. Oh, yeah, one of the girls is even shown riding a broomstick.

3rd Night
In his debut as writer/director/producer/editor, Aussie filmmaker Adam Graveley could be excused for throwing into 3rd Night everything he learned in college, studying advertising and design, and making films for business clients in Perth. If a kitchen sink had been available, he might have been forgiven for throwing it into the production, as well. At 72 minutes, however, there wasn’t much room in 3rd Night for frills or extraneous exposition. It helps, then, that Gravely based his thriller on themes that are as familiar to viewers as a Bugs Bunny cartoon. In it, an attractive young couple decides to escape the turmoil of city life and buy a home in the middle of an orchard, on the fringe of the Western Australian bush. It only takes a few hours for Megan (Jesse McGinn) and Jonathan (Robert Hartburn) to sense that someone or something is watching them. (No one in this type of film appears to have heard of curtains or shades.) Neither does it take much time for their cat, Nook, to go missing in the orchard. Unbeknownst to the couple, a father and son team of poachers, participating in a “rabbit cull,” have taken up residence in the orchard and are living off the land. While it’s easy to suspect the hunters of mistaking Nook for one of Bugs’ far-flung relatives and having the cat for dinner, it doesn’t square with the opening scene, in which a girl is dragged into the trees and presumably murdered by someone or something lurking in the orchard. Neither would it explain the hunters’ own suspicion that they’re being watched or how a series of warning letters is being left inside the house. And, that’s a good thing, because, otherwise, Megan and Jonathan continue to do the same dumb things everyone in their situation does in movies such as 3rd Night, like jogging alone through the orchard, taking showers with the windows open and wandering around the property, unarmed, looking for clues. As the story approaches the 60-minute mark, though, Graveley rachets up the atmosphere of dread to the point where he’s able to pull a rather large rabbit out of his hat. The loose ends aren’t long enough to spoil the ending, which should surprise and satisfy most genre buffs.

The Official Story: Blu-ray
It could be argued that the re-release of Luis Puenzo’s still frightening political drama, The Official Story (1985) – co-written with fellow Argentine Aída Bortnik — was timed to coincide with the rise of right-wing and nationalist governments around the world and growing fear that the widespread repression of human rights, prevalent in the 1970s, could return without warning. It is one of several movies made in the wake of South America’s “dirty wars” that recounted the atrocities still fresh in minds of people who lost sons and daughters to the juntas’ executioners, were interrogated and tortured by CIA-trained police, discovered that their grandchildren were adopted by friends of government officials and learned the names of informers still living among them. It was preceded by Costa-Gavras’ State of Siege (1972) and Missing (1982), which described aspects of the dirty wars conducted in Uruguay and Chile, and was followed by  Héctor Olivera’s Night of the Pencils (1986), Jeanine Meerapfel’s The Girlfriend (1988), Roman Polanski’s Death and the Maiden (1994), Marcelo Piñeyro’s Kamchatka (2002), Gastón Biraben’s Captive (2003) and Juan José Campanella’s The Secret in Their Eyes (2009). In Brazil, post-junta reaction to Operation Condor and its own dirty war was reflected in Héctor Babenco’s Kiss of the Spider Woman (1985), Bruno Barreto’s Four Days in September (1997) and Cao Hamburger’s The Year My Parents Went on Vacation (2006). Operation Condor was nominally intended to eradicate communist or Soviet influence in South America, and to suppress active or potential opposition movements against the U.S.-supported governments. Henry Kissinger’s “green light” opened the door for the arrests, torturing and disappearances of students, liberals, progressives, intellectuals, union leaders, as well as outright Marxists, left-wing activists and insurgents. Because so many bodies were dumped from planes over the ocean, or buried in mass graves, the final death toll may never be known.

The Official Story is set in Buenos Aires during the final year of Argentina’s military dictatorship. Some people who fled the country felt comfortable enough with recent moves toward democracy to return home, even knowing that their opinions could still land them in jail. Héctor Alterio and Norma Aleandro play Roberto and Alicia, a bourgeois couple for whom Operation Condor may as well have never occurred. He’s a successful businessman, who’s comfortable with current government policies, while she’s a history teacher who’s blissfully unaware of the bad things that happened in the last 10 years. Her latest class of students has committed itself to ignoring the usual curriculum and demanding a more honest discussion of the abuses in the dirty war. For whatever reason, Alicia has elected to accept “the official story,” which doesn’t include torture, rape and los desaparecidos (the missing). It isn’t until one of her closest friends, who’s spent the last several years in Spain, describes what happened to her while detained, that Alicia begins to question her opinions. On her way home from work one day, she passes by a demonstration by the Madres de la Plaza de Mayo, which has become a weekly event in Buenos Aires, since 1977. The mothers and grandmothers of people who’ve vanished want to force the government to tell them where their loved ones have been taken and if they’re still alive. Because the government doesn’t want to bring any additional attention to the demonstrations – or spark more sympathy for their cause – it allowed the women to gather and wave placards, so long as they don’t stop moving. (Government leaders, already being pressed on economic stagnation and calls for elections, launched an invasion of the Falklands Islands, if for no other reason than to stir the patriotism of the Argentine public. It had the opposite effect.)

Prompted by her students’ forceful demands, Alicia investigates their charges at the offices set up by the dissidents. After much soul-searching, Alicia is persuaded by one of the marchers to look into the possibility that her 5-year-old adopted daughter, Gaby (Analia Castro), might have been taken from her birth parents before they were killed and awarded to Roberto for his loyalty to the junta. He vehemently and, at one point, violently denies the accusation. The closer Alicia gets to the truth, the closer Roberto comes to being reprimanded by his superiors. He also fears that they might lose their daughter to the grandmother or vengeful officials. Alicia doesn’t want that to happen, of course, but becomes concerned that any further action on her part might prove her husband right. And, as if to prove his point, Roberto begins to receive calls at home from people who refuse to tell him their names. Apparently, this was a common tactic used by police to warn people they didn’t trust against continuing whatever it is the government doesn’t want them to do. Even after the junta had officially relinquished control, anonymous threats continued. According to Puenzo, Analia’s mother was forcefully encouraged to pull her from the production … or else. The threat was taken seriously enough for the producers to announce through the press that production had been completed and only some mop-up work remained. In fact, production continued in secret until 1985. The Cohen/SPHE release adds an exhaustive set of interviews with the filmmakers and a featurette on the restoration process.

The Mother the Son and the Grandmother
This obscure first feature from Chilean multi-hyphenate Benjamin Brunet describes how a 27-year-old photographer returns to his hometown, to record its demise, but discovers a surrogate family of diehard stragglers. Cristóbal travels to Chaitén, on the southern coast of Chile, after it’s been destroyed by a volcanic eruption and subsequent flooding, caused by a mudslide. Searching for his childhood home, amid the ruins, he meets Ana, a strong-willed whose sick elderly mother, María, refuses to leave town to seek treatment. After Ana observes Cristóbal wandering around the devastated mining town, she asks María’s permission to provide him with food and shelter, however meager. In return, he volunteers to watch the elderly woman, freeing Ana to take care of business of her own. Although dangerously ill, María is still pretty spry. They take walks and discuss what happened to the town and the people who used to live there. Together, the trio form a tight, if temporary family. Brunet renders the relationship with great sensitivity and more than a little humor and reflection on his birth family. On the film’s website, The Mother the Son and the Grandmother is described as “docu-fiction.” (Chaitén is a real town, on the Gulf of Corcovado in southern Chile. In 2008, the Chaitén volcano erupted for the first time since around 1640. The residents were evacuated ahead of the ashfall and monstrous lahar that caused the Blanco River to overflow its banks and excavate a new course through the town. A few hundred people were able to return and eke out a living from the land.)

The Man in the Iron Mask: 20th Anniversary Edition: Blu-ray
As near as I can tell, Leonardo di Caprio has spent most of the last six years – apart from the time he spent making The Revenant – chasing supermodels around the planet, promoting environmental issues and producing … if producing qualifies as work. Never fear, because Di Caprio’s near-term dance card includes two projects with Martin Scorsese, another with Quentin Tarantino and an adaptation of Stephan Talty’s book, “The Black Hand.” While his fans anxiously await the release of these movies, they can sate their appetite with a golden oldie, The Man in the Iron Mask, based on characters from Alexandre Dumas’s “D’Artagnan Romances” and plot elements of “The Vicomte de Bragelonne.” Among the characters are the Four Musketeers: Athos (John Malkovich), Artemis (Jeremy Irons), Porthos (Gerard Depardieu) and D’Artagnan (Gabriel Byrne), all of whom are reaching their expiration date. Fresh off Titanic, DiCaprio handles the twin roles of the cruel, selfish King Louis XIV and his imprisoned twin brother, Phillippe, who’s spent the last 10 years inside the Bastille, with his head encased in an iron mask. Because of the king’s uncaring attitude toward his starving subjects, the natives have gotten restless. The Musketeers think it might be possible for Phillippe to replace his brother on the throne and put France back on the right track. First, however, they must convince D’Artagnan to quit his cushy job protecting the king and Queen Anne (Anne Parillaud), who’s fallen under his spell. While it sounds like fun, the reins were handed to veteran writer, first-time director Randall Wallace (Braveheart), who should have focused his energies on the screenplay, which bears almost no resemblance to period history or the book on which its based. Despite reviews that were mixed, at best, Leo’s young, female fans flocked to see The Man in the Iron Mask, which did much better in foreign markets than at home. The new Blu-ray edition benefits from a 4K scan of the original camera negative; fresh interviews with producer Paul Hitchcock and production designer Anthony Pratt; commentary with Wallace; and featurettes, “Myth and the Musketeers,” “Director’s Take,” behind-the-scenes material and alternate mask prototypes.

Starchaser: The Legend of Orin: Blu-ray
Heavily promoted at the time of its release as the first animated feature made in 3D, Starchaser: The Legend of Orin (1985) will look downright primitive to anyone whose first exposure to feature-length 3D was Robert Zemeckis’ large-format The Polar Express (2004). That film is credited as the first animated film to use motion-capture technology and the first feature-length film to be released in both 35mm and IMAX 3D. I’m not sure why “Starchaser” wasn’t released on Blu-ray 3D, as well as standard 2D. The only thing multi-dimensional here is the lenticular slip case, which is a far cry from the real thing. Upon its release, critics were quick to point out the story’s resemblance to Star Wars and characters who aped Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia and Darth Vader. Even so, they had kind things to say about the animation and certain story elements. “Starchaser” takes place on the planet Trinia, where human slaves are kept in the vast Mine-World at the center of the planet. The humans are herded by robot slaves and forced to dig crystals for the robot god, Zygon. When a slave boy, Orin, unearths a sword hilt, an elderly man appears, telling him that his people belong on the surface and that he can lead them away from servitude to robots. Orin escapes to the surface, where he befriends the smuggler Dagg Debrini and is thrown into a series of intergalactic adventures as he fights to bring down Zygon. And, so it goes.

TV-to-DVD
PBS: POV: Dark Money
PBS: Frontline: Separated: Children at the Border
I Married Joan: Classic TV Collection #4
In deciding Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, the U.S. Supreme Court held that corporations, unions and other organizations enjoy the same rights as individual citizens to contribute money to advocate for or against political candidates. In doing so, it opened the floodgates for anonymous donors to special-interest groups to spend as much money as they desired to sway elections, referendums and legislation. While “Super PACs” would be required to reveal individual donors and limit its contributions to campaign committees, regulated by the FEC, non-profit “dark money” groups are only required to file reports to the IRS, and not in any timely manner. And, while PAC money is limited to political action, expenditures by dark-money groups “must not have politics as their primary purpose.” Such a loophole allows a single individual or group to create both types of entities, combining their powers and making it difficult to trace the original source of funds. Given the current makeup of the Supreme Court, it isn’t likely that such rulings – obviously favoring conservative politicians beholding to obscenely wealthy individuals – will change anytime soon. PBS’ essential documentary presentation, “POV: Dark Money,” explains how “we the people” are impacted by the influence of untraceable corporate money on our elections and elected officials. It does so by taking viewers to Montana – a “frontline in the fight to preserve fair elections nationwide” — to follow an intrepid local journalist who’s working to expose the real-life impacts of the court’s Citizens United decision.

Although the situation along the border separating the U.S. and Mexico remains fluid, and ICE continues to devise new strategies to warehouse children separated from their parents, lessons can still be learned from the “Frontline” presentation “Separated: Children at the Border,” which aired at the end of July. Co-producer Marcela Gaviria has been investigating the treatment of minors at the border for more than a year. With on-the-ground reporting in Central America and at the border, the film explores how the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” policy – Barak Obama’s failed ideas, too — has played out. Among the children we meet is 6-year-old Meybelin, whose father fled El Salvador with her to escape violence. After crossing into America and turning themselves in to the Border Patrol, they were separated, with her father, Arnovis, deported, and Meybelin held in an Arizona shelter for 33 days before being sent back to him in El Salvador, where gang violence continues unabated.

There aren’t many people around anymore able to remember early-1950s shows like “I Married Joan,” one of several vintage titles in VCI Entertainment’s “Classic TV Collection.” There was nothing coincidental about the similarities between NBC’s “I Married Joan” and CBS’ “I Love Lucy,” which competed against each other from 1952 to 1955. (“I Love Lucy” had already begun its historic six-season run.) The show centers on Joan, a “scatterbrained” housewife, and her husband, Bradley Stevens, who was a staid and settled domestic court judge. The characters, played by Joan Davis and Jim Backus, differed from Lucy and Ricky in three obvious ways: 1) Davis was blond and Lucy, a redhead, 2) the Stevens lived in a single-story house, while, at the time, the Ricardos occupied an apartment in New York, and 3) unlike Ricky Ricardo, Brad’s dialogue was delivered in unaccented English … although it might have been fun to hear how Backus’ alter ego, J. Quincy Magoo, might have handled the same lines. Otherwise, Davis and Ball both were gifted comediennes – as women comics were once called – who’d already proven themselves in other mediums. The “scatterbrained” image didn’t prevent their characters from routinely outfoxing their husbands and coming out on top in most situations. While talented supporting characters helped advance the plots, none of them were as essential to the show as Fred and Ethel Mertz. The VCI Entertainment collection is comprised on 10 episodes from all three seasons. (The series was canceled in the spring of 1955, when Davis began experiencing heart trouble. It was one of the first shows to take advantage of off-network syndication for repeat airings. On May 22, 1961, the 48-year-old Davis died of a heart attack at her home in Palm Springs.)

The DVD Wrapup: Eighth Grade, No. 1 Fan, Jeannette, Moe Berg, 12th Man, La Familia, Molly, Sarno, Making a Killing, All Styles … More

Thursday, October 4th, 2018

Eighth Grade
For some teenagers, middle school and high school are a breeze. Socializing isn’t a problem and there are never enough clubs, teams and activities to join. For others, they’re torture. The ordeal feels as if it’s never going to end and even the promise of a stint in the wartime military comes as a relief to the bullying, cliques, zits and dateless weekends. The cruelest irony comes later, though, when the more fortunate ones have found work in jobs they think will last for a lifetime, only to discover that adult life is just like high school and all the same rules apply. All the personality types that made high school so unpleasant are found in business offices, politics, factories and, probably, at the Pentagon. And, in the current economic climate, the options are few and none … rebels without a cause need not apply. Unemployment is a bitch. Watching Bo Burnham’s hyper-perceptive dramedy, Eighth Grade, is like experiencing every awkward moment all over, again. In fact, it’s difficult to say if Burnham’s debut is targeted at kids, who will see themselves in the various characters and situations, or adults, who will cringe with embarrassment at memories of who they once were. In this regard, Eighth Grade could be a documentary.

Because today’s middle-school students have never known a world without the Internet, social media and texting, they’ve been catapulted into an arena once reserved for college students and adults. The kids we meet here willingly share their ideas, joys, struggles, anxieties and depression electronically with friends and strangers, alike. Not all the feedback is reliable, helpful or wise, of course. In an environment in which nearly every student has a cellphone and is glued to it like a permanent appendage, some Boomer parents may recall the scenes in Bye Bye Birdie in which all gossip is transmitted by rotary telephones, and they’re hard-wired to the wall. Texting is limited to Western Union telegrams and video screens are only be found in living rooms. (Remember when Paul Lynde asked the musical question, “Kids … what’s the matter with kids today?”) In Eighth Grade, Burnham doesn’t rely on embellishments, exaggerations or stereotyping to make his story work. Everyday reality provides all the drama the story needs. Neither did he feel the need the need to add a Jeff Spicoli surrogate for comic relief.

Burnham’s protagonist is, by all appearances, a perfectly normal 13-year-old in her final week of 8th Grade at a suburban middle school in New York. Unlike most movies about kids in their teens, the actress playing Kayla (Elsie Fisher) was the same age as her character during the film’s production. The cringe-worthy moments in Eighth Grade were still fresh in her mind and those of the supporting-cast members. In public, Kayla is so shy and withdrawn that she’s voted “Most Quiet Girl” in year-end “honors.” Her single father, Mark (Josh Hamilton), worries that her sullenness and negativity can be traced to something other than the age-specific orneriness girls usually reserve for their moms. In private, on her YouTube vlogs and Instagram page, however, Kayla is the complete opposite: chatty, self-assured and wise beyond her years. (Her acne seems to disappear, as well.) She dispenses advice to kids her age, as if she’s experienced all the hard knocks personally and lived to share them. During the week, Kayla attends a “shadow program” at a local high school, during which she experiences unconditional acceptance for the first time and gets a sneak peek at some of the things that excite, depress and appall kids at the next level. It’s worth noting that the 28-year-old Burnham began his own performance career on YouTube in March 2006, and his videos have been viewed more 234 million times. (How is this even possible?) He’s since appeared in three specials on Comedy Central and co-created and starred in the MTV television series, “Zach Stone Is Gonna Be Famous.” The Blu-ray adds commentary with Burnham and Fisher; the featurette, “You’re Not Alone: Life in Eighth Grade”; a music video; and deleted scenes. I’m not sure that Eighth Grade qualifies as family entertainment – teens hate to share embarrassing moments and potential talking points with adults – but it’s a film that demands to be seen by kids and parents, together or separately.

Number One Fan
The reliably terrific French actress Sandrine Kiberlain (Mademoiselle Chambon) plays the title character in this fresh and twisty crime drama about a middle-age fangirl, who experiences a dark and totally unpredictable relationship with the object of her obsession. For the past two decades, Muriel has followed the handsome crooner Vincent Lacroix (Laurent Lafitte) on his tours around Europe, but mostly crushes on him from afar. A beautician in a waxing salon, the tall and frightfully thin blond is notorious for making up tall tales and spending every waking moment catching up on Lacroix’s career. One night, out of the blue, the singer appears at her door to ask a favor. Lacroix has accidentally killed his girlfriend during one of their regular arguments and he needs her help to dispose of the body. He knows that her loyalty will preclude her from questioning his role in the woman’s death and alerting the police. Lacroix asks her to drive her car from Paris to Switzerland, but not to look at the rolled-up rug he’s put in its trunk. Once over the border, she is to go to his sister’s and hand over instructions. What could go wrong? Well, just about everything, if not in ways that could be expected from the moment the singer shows up at the divorced mother of two’s door. The first thing that runs counter to Lacroix’s plan is the immediate doubt expressed by two police detectives – a pair of feuding lovers – about his claim that his girlfriend simply disappeared. I won’t spoil anyone’s enjoyment of Number One Fan by explaining how the cops are able to link Muriel to Lacroix or how circumstances conspire to keep them one step ahead of them, without expending much energy. First-time writer/director Jeanne Herry is the daughter of actor Miou-Miou and the singer Julien Clerc, so she probably brought some first-hand insight to the project. (SPOILER ALERT follows …) Number One Fan likely was informed, as well, by the real-life story of Bertrand Cantat, the frontman of French band Noir Désir. In 2004, he was jailed after the death of his girlfriend, the actor Marie Trintignant. She was filming in Lithuania in 2003 and, while there, the pair had an argument. The blows he inflicted resulted in her death five days later. That may be too close a coincidence for the comfort of some viewers.

Jeannette: The Childhood of Joan of Arc
Way back in the Pleistocene Age, when the Catholic Church wasn’t mired in scandal and lawsuits, Sunday school and parochial students were frequently asked to watch short films and slide shows about the lives of the saints. (And, no, Pier Paolo Pasolini’s The Gospel According to St. Matthew wasn’t one of them.) This was years before “Jesus Christ Superstar,” “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat” and, for that matter, the songs “Spirit in the Sky” and “Jesus Is Just Alright,” turned the Lord’s only begotten son into a rock idol. The full, original version of Carl Theodor Dreyer’s brilliant 1928 silent film, The Passion of Joan of Arc, wouldn’t be re-discovered in a janitor’s closet at a Oslo mental institution until 1982. Based on the actual record of the 19-year-old heroine’s one-sided trial, Dreyer’s spare depiction forever elevated the future saint’s story of extreme faith and voluntary martyrdom from the realm of historical fantasy and French Catholic dogma. Bruno Dumont’s disarmingly unconventional musical, Jeannette: The Childhood of Joan of Arc, opens in northeast France,

in 1425, at the height of the Hundred Years War. Eight-year-old Jeannette (Lise Leplat Prudhomme) is looking after her sheep in a pristine riverside meadow outside her village. One day, she tells her friend, Hauviette (Lucile Gauthier), that she cannot bear to see the suffering caused during the English occupation. Neither can she comprehend what individual acts of charity accomplish, since suffering never diminishes. She also wonders if Jesus has died in vain. A Franciscan nun, Madame Gervaise, urges Jeannette to abandon her concerns to divine Providence and nonviolent acceptance of suffering and evil. Jeannette will receive visions of the Archangel Michael (Anaïs Rivière), Saint Margaret (Aline Charles) and Saint Catherine of Alexandria (Elise Charles), instructing her to take up arms in support of Charles VII and recover France from English domination.

As Jeannette grows into the teenage Jeanne, the girls’ roles are assumed by Jeanne Voisin and Victoria Lefebvre. Now about 15, she wrestles with her inaction after receiving her heavenly call. Jeannette concludes as the 17-year-old Jeanne mounts up for the fateful journey that would lead to the lifting of the siege of Orléans. What makes Jeannette: The Childhood of Joan of Arc unique is Dumont’s decision to use songs to advance the narrative and amplify Joan’s commitment to the cause. The girls’ prayers and ponderings are adapted from the dramatic lyricism of Charles Péguy’s meditations, “The Mystery of the Charity” (1910) and “Jeanne d’Arc” (1897). They also accompany the joyous dances, playful gymnastics and romps in a stream that runs through the meadow. The eclectic musical backing blends electronica, Baroque themes and guitar-shredding hard rock. It takes some time to get comfortable with the conceit – some viewers won’t buy it, at all – but the actors are nothing less than convincing. If details in Dumont’s script could spark debate among historians and theologians, “Jeanette” is exactly the kind of unabashedly innovative interpretation of religious history that could encourage young people to embrace the Church or make them think twice before fleeing the scandals and hypocrisy. The DVD adds an informative Q&A with Dumont and deleted scenes.

The Catcher Was a Spy
The title character in Ben Lewin’s compelling period biopic is Moe Berg, a journeyman baseball player whose modest stats are dwarfed by his service to Allied cause in World War II. Although he played 15 seasons in the major leagues, almost entirely for four American League teams, Berg was used primarily as a backup catcher. Within the game, itself, he was known for being “the brainiest guy in baseball,” although legendary manager Casey Stengel once described Berg as “the strangest man ever to play baseball.” Both sides of the Harlem native’s personality are on full display in the movie based on Nicholas Dawidoff’s 1994 biography, “The Catcher Was a Spy: The Mysterious Life of Moe Berg.” Indeed, Berg’s baseball card is the only one display at the headquarters of the Central Intelligence Agency. Here, Berg is played by the ever-reliable Paul Rudd, who’s surrounded by an all-star cast that includes Mark Strong, Sienna Miller, Jeff Daniels, Tom Wilkinson, Giancarlo Giannini, Hiroyuki Sanada, Guy Pearce and Paul Giamatti (son of the former baseball commissioner, A. Bartlett Giamatti). Berg’s first unofficial foray into the spy game came on a good-will tour to Japan, prior to the attack on Pearl Harbor. After learning that war was imminent, he used the 16-mm Bell & Howell camera he carried with him — borrowed from MovietoneNews – to surveil Tokyo’s unusually busy harbor from the top of Saint Luke’s Hospital, in nearby Tsujiki. After the declaration of war, Berg surprised State Department officials with the amateur footage. A graduate of Princeton University and Columbia Law School, Berg spoke several languages and regularly read 10 newspapers a day. This, alone, made him an ideal candidate for the OSS. Also crucial was his ability to keep a secret, a skill alluded to in The Catcher Was a Spy by his refusal to acknowledge speculation of his sexuality … except when a rookie makes the mistake of calling him a “faggot.”

The question is deemed irrelevant in the execution of his primary mission: sneaking into Europe to meet and interview Axis scientist, to determine their progress in building an atomic bomb. Although Berg was instructed to kill a leading physicist if he refused to cooperate, he succeeded in creating a post-war path for defectors and scientists willing to provide crucial intelligence on the location of hidden laboratories, storage facilities and factories. As if to confirm Stengel’s assessment, Berg’s next nearly 30 years on Earth would be shrouded in mystery, seclusion and difficult relations with his siblings. Berg turned down the Medal of Freedom that he was rewarded after his retirement from the OSS. It was awarded posthumously, with his sister accepting on his behalf. More interesting than riveting, The Catcher Was a Spy is competently directed by Ben Lewin (The Sessions) and adapted by Robert Rodat (Saving Private Ryan). The Prague locations add credibility to the wartime settings.  Even so, the production only skims the surface of Berg’s story. I doubt that there was much money left for frills or further exploration of Berg’s heroism after the actors were paid. (Berg may not have been a practicing Jew, but it didn’t mean that anti-Semitism didn’t play a role in his isolation from the crowd. Hall of Famer Hank Greenberg’s nearly unmatched talent made him a larger target for bigots.) Considering what Steven Spielberg was able to accomplish in Bridge of Spies (2015), I can’t help but wonder what he might have been able to do with Dawidoff’s book, given a similarly excellent cast, a lot more money and another half-hour of screen time. The DVD adds several deleted scenes.

The 12th Man: Blu-ray
If we wait long enough, there’s a very good chance we’ll be able to watch movies about all the heroes of World War II, not just those from the United States. Just as The Catcher Was a Spy re-introduces Moe Berg to a generation of Americans for whom WWII must seem like ancient history, Harald Zwart’s The 12th Man relates the remarkable story of a Norwegian commando hardly known outside Scandinavia. In 1940, after the Nazi invasion of Norway, Jan Baalsrud (Thomas Gullestad) slipped into neutral Sweden, where he was convicted of espionage and expelled from the country. After having travelled through the Soviet Union, Africa and the U.S., he arrived in the UK, where he joined the Norwegian Company Linge. The unit’s most celebrated actions involved raids on the Vemork Hydroelectric Plant, which produced the heavy water necessary for German scientists to continue work on the atomic bomb (also referenced in The Catcher Was a Spy), and the attacks on the Thamshavn Line railroad that carried pyrites being extracted at the mine at Løkken Verk. In 1943, after a failed sabotage mission leaves 11 of his comrades dead or captured on an island in the far-northern Tromsøysundet strait, Baalsruud commits all his strength to delivering important documents to resistance fighters in Sweden. Having been swept overboard into the frigid waters off Tromsa, Baalsrud’s escape is further hindered by having his toe shoot off by a German pursuer. With other soldiers nipping at his heels, he risks turning into an ice cube by swimming 300 meters to Rebbenesøya island.

Wehrmacht troopers argue against braving the same elements, by pursuing the bleeding man any further. Their request is vetoed by SS officer Kurt Stage (Jonathan Rhys Meyers), who refuses to believe the 12th invader is dead and fears that Baalsrud’s escape to Sweden could ruin his career. (It didn’t, but, after testifying at Nuremburg, he was hung by Yugoslav authorities.) Throughout Baalsrud’s 40-day ordeal, he has nothing to protect him from the elements, beyond the kindness of strangers. Even then, he is forced to contend with frost bite, gangrene, snow blindness and malnutrition. A maker of technical instruments, by trade, he wasn’t prepared for the ordeal. Who would be? There’s no reason to spoil Zwart’s depiction of Baalsrud harrowing journey, except to say that The 12th Man also testifies to the heroism of the Norwegian patriots who risked their lives to protect a stranger and get him to his destination. The film’s spectacular Arctic Circle locations mirror the terrain traversed by Baalsrud. (The route has become something of tourist attraction.) One of The 12th Man’s most astonishing scenes takes place near the borders of Norway, Finland and Sweden, where his Sami protectors use a huge herd of reindeer to help him sneak past a German watchtower. The strategy doesn’t work as planned, but the scramble to improvise is exciting to watch. The only previous dramatization of Baalsrud’s journey came in 1957, with Arne Skouen’s Nine Lives, which was nominated for an Oscar and voted Norway’s best film of all time.

La Familia
For as long as most people can remember, the news out of Venezuela has been bleak. Tens of thousands of mostly poor people have fled the country, seeking refuge in neighboring countries, and the humanitarian crisis threatens to cause turmoil throughout South America. (President Trump has already discussed a military incursion.) Without beating anyone over the head with polemics, Gustavo Rondón Córdova has crafted a film, La Familia, that allows viewers to draw their own conclusions. Set and shot in one of Caracas’ worst barrios, it opens with a group of boys in their early teens – if that – playing the kind of games that typically end in someone getting hurt. They should be in school, of course, but receive no encouragement or incentives to do so. All they have to do is look around them to understand that even a vocational- or trade-school education no longer guarantees a job and a living wage. The drama begins when an older gang member introduces a handgun into the mix. It destroys the balance among equals and results in a serious, perhaps fatal accident when one of the boys uses it to intimidate 12-year-old Pedro (Reggie Reyes), who has no intention of being robbed or pushed around. Because the instigator has been seriously wounded in the altercation, Pedro understands instinctively that his fate is now sealed. So, does his father, Andres (Giovanni García).

In a dog-eat-dog culture that demands eye-for-an-eye justice, they know that the boy’s older brothers will target him for retribution, and, if Pedro somehow manages to escape their wrath, unethical police routinely settle such matters by acting as judge, jury and executioner. Andres’ future within the community is doomed, as well. The hard-working laborer decides immediately to leave their home behind, if only to relocate to a place in the municipality of 7 million souls where he can work and protect Pedro anonymously. That’s easier said than done, of course. Besides scrambling for low-paying work at construction sites or private homes, Andres waits tables at night. If nothing else, it provides him with bottles of booze to sell in the underground marketplace. At first, Pedro bristles at his father’s demand that he tags along one his jobs. All he wants to do is defy Andres by sneaking back into the barrio to discover if his best friend is OK, which he isn’t. Then, something borderline miraculous happens. Pedro begins the redemption process by taking an interest in his father’s work and putting some sweat equity into his future. That doesn’t mean that Pedro won’t screw things up by returning to the scene of the crime, however. At 82 minutes, Córdova probably knew that La Familia couldn’t provide answers for his country’s core problems or assure viewers that everything will turn out OK for his protagonists. Instead, he decided to focus on closing the distance between a rebellious boy and the father who worked too many hours to make a positive impression on his son. Even if audiences are left wondering what will happen to them – and, by extension, their country — it’s a start. As usual, the Film Movement package includes a short film, “Les Miserables,” about a trio of corrupt cops, who are caught in the act of beating a suspect by a group of kids with a camera attached to their drone.

Molly: Blu-ray
Death Race: Beyond Anarchy: Blu-ray
Post-apocalyptic and dystopian-based movies have come and gone with increasing regularity over the last 50 years. That’s when Planet of the Apes (1968) – co-written by “Twilight Zone” creator, Rod Serling – raised the ante on the sci-fi worlds created by H.G. Welles and Jules Verne, as if in anticipation of the Hollywood fantasy factory. Ironically, it was Woody Allen’s futuristic romp, Sleeper (1973), that kept the subgenre going in advance of such now-classic titles as A Boy and His Dog (1975), Death Race 2000 (1975), Dawn of the Dead (1978), Deathsport (1978) and Mad Max (1979), none of which was dependent on space aliens for the threatened demise of civilization. Tank Girl (1995) not only took place in a post-apocalyptic environment, but it’s the rare sci-fi flick in which the story revolves around a female character (Lori Petty), with punk, riot grrrl, feminist and lesbian characteristics. In a world that allows time-shifting, Petty’s Tank Girl could easily have been the mother or grandmother of Chloë Grace Moretz’ Mindy Macready/Hit-Girl, in Kick-Ass (2010), and the protagonist in the newly released actioner from the Netherlands, Molly (2017). At first glance, red-haired Molly (Julia Batelaan) resembles the geek goddess of every high school computer nerd’s favorite wet dream. Molly wears unfashionable glasses and knee pads, has unruly hair and wears clothes she might have salvaged from a dumpster. More to the point, however, Molly’s tool belt is festooned with knives, swords and spiky things. Her backpack contains a hacksaw-like gizmo with a razor-sharp blade and she also wields a bow and arrow. And, while she’s proficient in all forms of post-apocalyptic cutlery and martial arts, her secret weapon is of a more sonic variety. When the evil showman and bookie, Deacon (Joost Bolt), hears rumors of a girl with superpowers, roaming the beach near his fort, he sends his Mad Maxian thugs out to capture her. Meanwhile, Molly has discovered a young child, living alone in a cabin in the wasteland, waiting for the unlikely return of her parents. Molly now must protect the child and fight off the marauders at the same time. When the girl is kidnapped, Molly reveals herself to the mad showman and risks her life to save her. The hand-to-hand combat reportedly was captured by co-directors Colinda Bongers and Thijs Meuwese in a single-take scene that lasts nearly a half-hour. Made on what must have been a miniscule budget, Molly makes full use of every penny invested in it. I doubt if a larger budget would have added much to the fun. The Artsploitation Films’ Blu-ray adds an extensive making-of featurette and deleted scenes.

The Death Race franchise, which began in 1975 under the watchful eyes of producer Roger Corman, exists in a post-apocalyptic universe all its own. The installments have arrived in the form of sequels, prequels, remakes, an unrelated (if curiously similar) video game, feature films and direct-to-DVD originals. Death Race: Beyond Anarchy is the fourth edition to be released under the direct imprimatur of Paul W.S. Anderson, as producer and some combination of writer and/or director. Corman is credited as producer and/or executive producer of four of the seven films – including the ill-fated 1978 sequel, Deathsport (a.k.a., “Death Race 2050”) — while his wife, Julie, is listed as exec producer of the 2017 Death Race 2050. Got that? “Death Race: Beyond Anarchy: Unrated and Unhinged” was supposed to have been released last January, along with three other Anderson-related titles, but was pushed all the way back to October 2. I have no idea why. The version submitted to the MPAA was “rated R for strong violence and language throughout, nudity and sexual content.” What the “unrated/unhinged” version adds is anyone’s guess, because both weigh in at 111 minutes and feature oodles of T&A, gore and violence. Just for the record, Danny Trejo returns as the ruthless bookie, Goldberg. After a failed attack on inmate and legendary driver, Frankenstein, Black Ops specialist Connor Gibson (Zach McGowan) infiltrates a super-maximum federal prison with one goal: enter the immoral and illegal Death Race and take Frankenstein down. Connor enlists the help of Baltimore Bob (Danny Glover) and Lists (Fred Koehler), and unexpectedly falls in love with bartending beauty, Jane (Christine Marzano). There are no guards, no rules, no track and no room for fear. Shot in Bulgaria, under the direction of Don Michael Paul (Sniper: Legacy), it’s reasonably well made and devotees of this sort of thing should find it exhilarating. The Blu-ray includes featurettes, “Inside the Anarchy,” “Time Served: Lists & Goldberg” and “On the Streets of Death Race: Beyond Anarchy” and commentary with Paul and McGowan.

Feral: Blu-ray
Afraid
When are characters in indie horror flicks going to realize that creatures who live in the woods – four- and two-legged — aren’t all warm and fuzzy, domesticated or there for the convenience of nature photographers. Ramshackle cabins remain abandoned for good reasons. And that it pays to listen to the locals, who know that some of the legends are true and cellphone signals fade once you’ve left the highway. I don’t know how many movies about things that go bump in the woods have been made since Deliverance (1972) kind of, sort of kick-started the subgenre – evil hillbillies, helpless city slickers – but it clearly didn’t begin with Creature from Black Lake (1976), Rituals (1977), Don’t Go in the Woods (1981), The Evil Dead (1981) and The Forest (1982), and it most assuredly didn’t end with Cabin Fever (2002) or, even, Travis Z’s 2016 remake. Newly released into DVD/Blu-ray/VOD is Mark H. Young’s Feral, in which a diseased creature lies in wait for six medical students on a weekend holiday in the woods. One by one, they become infected with a “feral disease,” turning them into rabid, bloodthirsty being, and they begin to turn on each other. The group is comprised of nice-guy Matt (George Finn) and the sweet-natured Brie (Renee Olstead); her best friend, Alice (Scout Taylor-Compton), and Alice’s new lover, Jules (Olivia Luccardi); and alpha-male Jesse (Brock Kelly), who has brought along his own new girlfriend, Gina (Landry Allbright). A cabin in the woods is inhabited by a hermit (Lew Temple), who alerts the students to the danger facing them, but isn’t taken seriously. The only slight variation on the theme comes when the Final Girl(s) turn out to be lesbians. The special effects are appropriately grisly.

While Jason Goldberg (“Punk’d”) and Nick Kreiss’ cabin-in-the-woods thriller, Afraid, doesn’t involve zombies, it does borrow from other hoary subgenres: hidden cameras, found-footage, a fiendish voyeur. In it, a couple (Alanna Masterson, George Bryne) goes on what they hope to be a romantic weekend getaway. It turns into a nightmare when they discover they are constantly being watched. Viewers already know that, though, because Afraid is entirely shown from the point of view of surveillance camera footage. There’s a subplot involving a wireless connection that’s monitored, as well. It isn’t enough to save the movie, but completists shouldn’t be overly disappointed.

Pin Cushion
Judging solely by the evidence presented in British writer/director Deborah Haywood’s debut film, Pin Cushion, growing up weird in a small Midlands town is no picnic. In an interview with the Midland Movies blog, Haywood described it as “emotionally biographical” and “a dark fairytale love story between an oddball mother (Joanna Scanlan) and daughter (Lily Newmark) and how their moving to a new town affects their relationship.” The films that inspired Pin Cushion include Jane Campion’s Sweetie, Brian de Palma’s Carrie, Peter Jackson Heavenly Creatures and Todd Solondz’ Welcome to the Doll’s House. And, yes, Newmark’s Iona looks very much like Sissy Spacek in Carrie. Scanlan is extremely convincing as Iona’s mother and best friend, Lyn, whose eccentricities may be related to mental illness. Newmark’s transition from target to acceptance among the school’s ruling elite – are they friends or frenemies? — does nothing to improve Lyn’s ability to cope with short-term separation anxiety. The problem is that Pin Cushion, while quirky, isn’t particularly endearing. Haywood’s somewhat unusual decision to shoot parts of the film inside the same Midlands school at which she was bullied shows that she isn’t lacking in chutzpah and the same goes for Pin Cushion.

Making a Killing
It’s always fun to see what happens when actors known for performances in supporting and character roles get an opportunity to shine in lead parts or as equal partners in an ensemble cast. In Devin Hume’s contemporary noir, Making a Killing – based on a true crime — the instantly recognizable Mike Starr (“Mr. Mercedes”) plays Arthur Herring, the mayor, priest and mortician in a small town nestled in the mountains of New Mexico. A year ago, Arthur and his brother, Vincent (Jude Moran), agreed to safeguard a fellow mortician’s rare-coin collection, while he served time in prison on a molestation beef. When the greedy old coot is released and demands that his coins be returned, the brothers hatch an elaborate scheme to keep his treasure for themselves. Although the ex-con isn’t in Making a Killing all that long, Christopher Lloyd (Back to the Future) makes his time on screen memorable. Things get complicated for the brothers when a cocky African-American investigator from the state capital (Michael Jai White) arrives in the quaint little town to check out a murder that no one, including the police, is particularly interested in solving. Meanwhile, Arthur doesn’t want to raise suspicions by immediately fulfilling a promise to his brother to use the money to move to Alaska. Naturally, this causes a rift between them wide enough for the investigator to exploit to his advantage. Adding to the intrigue is a cunning waitress, Connie (Aida Turturro), who also hopes to get between the brothers. Sally Kirkland, who, in 1988, was nominated for an Oscar for Best Actress (Anna), plays the ex-con’s devoted and possibly larcenous secretary. Considering that Making a Killing was set and shot in New Mexico, it’s nice to see that Hume found room in the story for Native American actors         David Midthunder and Brian McGill in visible roles. There are a few times when the modest budget makes its presence known, but, as modern attempts at noir go these days, Making a Killing isn’t bad. Be sure to stay tuned for the epilogue.

Saving Faith
It seems odd that Beijing Hualu Baina Film & TV would be listed among the distributors of Saving Faith, alongside such familiar names as Grindstone Entertainment Group and Lionsgate Home Entertainment. Presumably, movies made for Christian audiences in the United States would be banned outright or censored to the point where the family-friendly message is leeched from the narrative. I wouldn’t know. Saving Faith seems as if it’s harmless enough to pass muster, even in officially atheist China. Still, there’s nothing the Communist Party fears more than an insurrection by Christians, especially those in the far-flung provinces, where hundreds of thousands of Muslims recently were rounded up and sent to re-education camps. BHBF&T is a major company in the region and wouldn’t shell out a lot of money for a movie that’s lost its heart and teeth. One of the movie’s stars is Knoxville-born comedian Henry Cho, who is of Korean descent and a professed Christian. (Within the industry, his nickname is Mr. Clean.) So, maybe, the company is distributing Saving Grace in the southern half of the divided country. The story revolves around the efforts of Tennesseans Faith Scott (Jenn Gotzon Chandler) and her Uncle Donny (Donny Richmond) to save Clinton’s struggling Ritz Theater. Faith is a good-ol’-Southern-gal, while Uncle Donny is a former country singer who tired of being a road warrior. Forty years after the death of Elvis Presley, Uncle Donny maintains the same haircut worn by the King in his fat-and-sweaty period. To keep the property out of the clutches of a greedy local businessman, they commit themselves to putting on a big Christmas show, for which they hope to sell lots of tickets. To this end, Uncle Donny contacts his old pals Vince Gill and his wife, Amy Grant, “The Queen of Christian Pop.” The businessman will stop at nothing to prevent this from happening, however, so what’s needed is another Festivus, er, Christmas miracle. Victoria Jackson, Michael W. Smith, Jim E. Chandler, Jay DeMarcus and, of all people, skater Scott Hamilton all contribute to the inspirational, if highly predictable film.

Confessions of a Young American Housewife/Sin in the Suburbs: Blu-ray
Two years ago, Film Movement unveiled its acquisition of “classic titles” by the notorious sexploitation and erotica filmmaker, Joe Sarno. The relationship had already begun in 2014, when the New York-based company released A Life in Dirty Movies, a captivating documentary about Sarno and his wife, Peggy, and their attempt to make one last film, in Sweden, before his death in 2010. It must have sold well, because Film Movement and Film Media have since partnered to restore and release Vampire Ecstasy (1973) and Sin You Sinners (1963). The second installment included All the Sins of Sodom (1968) and Vibrations (1968). The newly restored and repackaged triple-feature, Confessions of a Young American Housewife (1974), Sin in the Suburbs (1964) and Warm Nights & Hot Pleasures (1964) is now available for the titillation of old fans and edification of those of us interested in the evolution of sexploitation and pornography in the 1960-70s. To this end, Sin in the Suburbs may be of the most interest to buffs. It was made at the dawn of the sexual revolution, when movies and television shows based on such novels as “Peyton Place” and “Valley of the Dolls” were gaining traction among mainstream audiences, and Russ Meyer and Radley Metzger were finding acceptance outside the underground. For Sin in the Suburbs, Sarno went so far as to research reports of wife-swapping, group gropes, secret sex clubs, key parties and rampant adultery in parts of America previously considered to be square and conformist. The film, which is largely devoid of T&A, depicts alternative sexual behavior with candor, while also telling a recognizable, somewhat moralistic story.  The slightly more graphic Warm Nights & Hot Pleasures follows three ambitious college graduates (a.k.a., coeds) – Hugh Hefner would have characterized them as prototypical “girls next-door” — eager to split the boonies and make their mark on Broadway. After renting a room from a model for men’s magazines, they’re immersed in a lurid world of wild parties, risqué men’s clubs and tattered casting couches. Soon, each woman must decide how far she is willing to go for some semblance of stardom. Because everything takes places 50 years before the #MeToo movement, the film’s prescience is worth noting. The men are appropriately sleazy and the women in dire need of a gift certificate for Frederick’s of Hollywood. (The lingerie looks as if it was ordered from a Sears catalogue.) Sin in the Suburbs includes commentaries by historian Tim Lucas, and with Joe and Peggy Sarno, producer and documentarian Michael Vraney (That’s Sexploitation!) and Frank Henenlotter (Frankenhooker).

Confessions of a Young American Housewife is noteworthy for a couple of different reasons. Released two years after the hard-core classics, Deep Throat and Behind the Green Door, made headlines, and a year after The Devil in Miss Jones, “Confessions” risked irrelevance by being decidedly soft-core (the absence of penetration of any orifice) and telling a story that demanded one’s attention. Unlike the other films in this package, “Confessions” was shot in color, as well. Already a genre star, Jennifer Welles plays recent widow Jennifer Robinson – Mrs. Robinson, if you will – who pays a visit on her daughter, Carole (Mary Mendum), who lives in a Manhattan apartment building with her husband, Eddie (David Hausman), and their swinger neighbors, Anna (Chris Jordan) and Pete (Eric Edwards). Initially, Carole fears that her vivacious 37-year-old mother will spoil the party, but she proves to be increasingly permissive. In fact, as hard as she tries, Jennifer is incapable of turning down the sexual overtures of her daughter’s friends. She even initiates a hookup with a grocery-delivery guy, whose wife just left him for another man. Normally, this would be more than enough drama to fill in the blanks between sex scenes in a hard-core movie. At 105 minutes, “Confessions” is 44 minutes longer than “Throat” and a half-hour longer than “Green Door.” The sex scenes are undeniably hot, if tame compared to the action in other “Golden Age” adult films. Somehow, Sarno gets enough from his actors – most of them already tested in XXX films and loops — to keep the reasonably compelling narrative moving in a forwardly direction. If I’m not mistaken, it would set a standard for other filmmakers in the Boogie Nights era. The Film Movement package adds a “mini-commentary” by Sarno; full commentary by Tim Lucas; and deleted and alternative scenes.

A Swingers Weekend
I don’t know if polyamory exists outside the R-rated borders of the premium-cable universe or if it’s simply a fancy word for swinging. One of things that differentiate swingers from the couples introduced in Showtime’s “Polyamory: Married & Dating” is that swingers consider their seemingly random sexual hookups — as practiced within groups of like-minded men and women — to be a lifestyle choice, while polyamorous families (a.k.a., pods) maintain monogamous relationships with more than one “spouse.” Wife-swapping, previously mapped in Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice (1969), is something else entirely. Don’t quote me on any of that, because I only know what I hear on talk- and reality-based shows. Writer/director Jon E. Cohen’s debut feature, A Swingers Weekend – with fellow freshman co-writer Nicola Sammeroff – appears not to have a firm hold on either concept. The story opens at a posh lakeside house owned or leased by Lisa and Dan (Erin Karpluk, Randal Edwards), who’ve invited fellow yuppies TeeJay and Skai (Michael Xavier, Erin Agostina) for a weekend of mutually sanctioned wife-swapping. Their plans are upended when a third, previously invited couple, Geoffrey and Fiona (Jonas Chernick, Mia Kirshner), shows up unexpectedly. By not honoring the RSVP ritual, the intruders have messed with Lisa’s math. After an uneasy dinner, the guests pair for their first night of extra-marital bliss … not.  None of them seems particularly comfortable in their own skin – or pajamas – let alone in a bed with someone whose genitalia are unfamiliar to them. Predictably, each of the couplings turn out differently, with each of the men and women interpreting the results according to their own emotional needs. Of the six individuals, three of them enjoy the sex enough to wake up with a smile, and one finds it revelatory. The other two profit from other aspects of the arrangement. In due course, however, a full range of human emotions come into play, threatening to ruin everyone’s marriage. A Swingers Weekend’s greatest flaw, besides the misleading title and lack of nudity, is the discrepancy between the talent of the seasoned actors and the weaknesses built into the screenplay by inexperienced filmmakers. By the afternoon of the second day, genuine interpersonal dynamics are trumped by safe and predictable clichés and under-the-covers foreplay. Richard Pell’s music, the attractive ensemble cast – four out of six of them, anyway — and the lovely setting make A Swinger’s Weekend a better fit for the small- screen streaming and rentals.

TV-to-DVD
Showtime: All Styles
Power Rangers: Choujin Sentai Jetman: The Complete Series
PBS: Mister Rogers: It’s You I Like
Sesame Street: Elmo’s World: Elmo Explores
Nick Jr.: Top Wing
Nick Jr: Snow Awesome
Angela Tucker’s debut feature, All Styles, is a dance drama about a young hip-hop artist, Brandon (Dushaunt Fik-Shun Stegall), who is rejected by his old crew for heading off to college before a major competition. Dissed from afar, Brandon assembles a ragtag crew of amateurs to face off against his former friends, all of whom have professional ambitions. A prize of $50,000 is at stake. Stegall is a veteran of “So You Think You Can Dance,” as are Hokuto “Hok” Konishi and Emilio Dosal. Heather Morris appeared in 95 episodes of “Glee” and was a back-up dancer for Beyoncé. It goes without saying that the dancing is quite a bit more entertaining than any mystery surrounding the outcome of the contest.

What I know about the “Power Rangers” universe wouldn’t fill a thimble and, judging from the Wikipedia page devoted to “Choujin Sentai Jetman,” I’d need another entire childhood to master the details. What I do know is that Shout!Factory has released the entire 51-episode series, which aired on Japan’s TV Asahi from February 15, 1991, to February 14, 1992. It is the last “Sentai” series, until “Ressha Sentai ToQger,” to not get adapted into a “Power Rangers” series. The boxed set, “Power Rangers: Choujin Sentai Jetman: The Complete Series,” is the first pre-“Mighty Morphin Sentai” series to be released in North America on DVD. The Japanese tokusatsu is the 15th entry in the long running “Super Sentai” series. Apparently, it was intended to be one of the first entries into what would become known as “Mighty Morphin Power Rangers,” but the heavy drama and adult-oriented content proved difficult to adapt to western tastes. Neither, reportedly, was Fox keen on a show about teenagers with avian powers.

PBS’ celebration of the 50th anniversary of “Mr. Rogers Neighborhood” kicked off last March with “Mister Rogers: It’s You I Like.” The hourlong documentary – plus 30 minutes of bonus material added to the DVD — pays tribute to the beloved Fred Rogers and the nearly 900 episodes of his landmark children’s television program. The retrospective, hosted by Michael Keaton, takes viewers on memorable visits to Koko the Gorilla and to the Crayola crayon factory. Loving testimony is provided by Judd Apatow, Joyce DiDonato, Whoopi Goldberg, Chris Kratt, John Lithgow, Nicholas Ma, Yo-Yo Ma, Itzhak Perlman, Sarah Silverman, Esperanza Spalding and Caroll Spinney.

From PBS’ “Sesame Street” collection, “Elmo’s World: Elmo Explores” provides a bright and lively update of the venerable series. Here, Elmo tackles 13 topics with his new friend, Smartie the Smartphone, and his old pal, Mr. Noodle. Pre-schoolers will enjoy learning along with Elmo about painting, cooking, homes, habitats, Father’s Day, skin, camouflage, recycling, instruments, books, seasons, siblings and colors, with two episodes of “The Furchester Hotel” and three classic “Elmo’s World” episodes: “Music,” “Pets” and “Drawing.”

Nick Jr.’s “Top Wing” introduces best friends and cadets-in-training at Top Wing Academy — Swift, Penny, Rod and Brody — where they learn what it takes to gain their wings and become rescue birds on Big Swirl Island. Swift is a blue jay and the fastest pilot at the academy; Penny, the only female in the group, is a penguin; Brody is a puffin, who takes a more grounded approach; and Rod, a rooster who’s is ready to fly around the island in his all-terrain vehicle. The four friends are joined by their mentor, Speedy, who helps the cadets on their different missions. “Top Wing” focuses on the importance of teamwork and the ability to successfully solve problems. The DVD is comprised of seven Season One episodes, “Time to Earn Our Wings,” “Race Through Danger Canyon,” “Rod’s Big Jump,” “Treasure Map Mission,” “Goose on the Loose,” “Shirley Squirrely Flies Away” and “Lunch Box Rescue.”

Also from Nick Jr, “Snow Awesome” takes pre-schoolers on winter adventures culled from the channel’s popular preschool series “Nella the Princess Knight,” “Sunny Day” and “Shimmer and Shine.”

The DVD Wrapup: Solo, Izzy, Mountain, Uncle Drew, Gotti, The Row, Sumer Nights, Seagull, Mountain, American Psycho, Day of Jackal, The Baby, Freaky Friday, Human Body … More

Thursday, September 27th, 2018

Solo: A Star Wars Story: Blu-ray/4K UHD
Normally, any picture that records worldwide revenues of $393 million would be considered a success. Only in the Disney/Lucasfilms universe would such a number disappoint studio executives and provide pundits an opportunity to dismiss Solo: A Star Wars Story as a flop, with losses of more than $50 million. Apparently, with an estimated production budget of $275 million, the film would have needed to gross at least $500 million worldwide to have a chance at breaking even. By contrast, last December’s Star Wars: The Last Jedi performed extremely well, returning $1.33 billion in global revenues. According to the folks at Rotten Tomatoes, critics liked both movies more than audiences, whose responses were lukewarm. In July, Lucasfilm Animation released on DVD the fourth and final season of “Star Wars Rebels,” which ran on Disney XD. This, in addition to four years’ worth of novels, comics, video games and other downloadable content. Suddenly concerned that overfamiliarity with the “Star Wars” brand caused “Solo” to underperform at the box office, Disney CEO Bob Iger said in an interview last week that he takes complete blame for pushing the products “a little too much, too fast.” Looking ahead to next year’s release of J.J. Abrams’ “Episode IX,” he added, “I think we’re gonna be a little bit more careful about volume and timing. And the buck stops here on that.” Solo: A Star Wars Story’s problems probably began, however, with the much-publicized firing of the film’s original directors, Phil Lord and Christopher Miller (The Lego Movie), and hiring of Academy Award-winner, Ron Howard (A Beautiful Mind). Working alongside screenwriters Jonathan and Lawrence Kasdan, it’s likely that Howard re-shot more than eighty percent of the movie, which describes how Han Solo befriended his future co-pilot, Chewbacca, and formed a lasting relationship. It’s also likely that audiences failed to respond to the little-known actor, Alden Ehrenreich (The Yellow Birds), chosen to play the swaggering airman.

As the film opens, young Han is an orphan desperate to escape – along with his girlfriend, Qi’ra (Emilia Clarke) – corruption, brutality and forced labor on the planet Corellia. In exchange for passage on an outgoing transport, they bribe an Imperial officer with a stolen sample of coaxium, a powerful hyperspace fuel. Qi’ra is caught by stormtroopers before she can board the ship. Han vows to return for her after he joins the Imperial Navy as a flight cadet. Three years later, Han’s insubordination has caused him to be expelled from the academy and ordered to serve as an infantryman. During a battle, he encounters a gang of criminals posing as Imperial soldiers, led by Tobias Beckett (Woody Harrelson) and Val (Thandie Newtown). He tries to blackmail them into taking him with them on a mission to steal a shipment of coaxium from a speeding train. Instead, Beckett has him arrested for desertion and thrown into a pit to be fed to a beast – the Wookiee, Chewbacca – who, instead, is impressed by Han’s ability to speak his language. Together, they persuade Beckett to work together to escape their confinement. Beckett works for Dryden Vos (Paul Bettany), a high-ranking crime boss in the Crimson Dawn syndicate. To Han’s delight, Vos’ top lieutenant turns out to be Qi’ra, who leads them to the accomplished smuggler, Lando Calrissian (Donald Glover). Han challenges Lando to a game of cards, with the wager amounting to possession of Lando’s ship, the Millennium Falcon. Han’s navigational skills are on full display on the hazardous journey to Kessel, where they hope to steal the coaxium and sell it to Vos. Before that can happen, though, Han and Qi’ra encounter rebels committed to preventing the syndicates and the Galactic Empire from gaining greater domination over the galaxy. Han will play another fateful game of sabacc, once again for full possession of the Falcon. The ending leaves plenty of room for a sequel, or two, if Iger decides the risk is worth the effort.

Although Solo: A Star Wars Story overflows with action – chases, shootouts, combat – the movie’s greatest appeal is to Star Wars obsessives, who will enjoy identifying the dozens of references and homages to previous installments in the saga. The Kasdans’ screenplay also adds humorous elements to the narrative, which occasionally gets bogged down in myth building. The 4K UHD package arrives with a separate Blu-ray copy and disc containing bonus features. The 4K presentation handles the frequently dark and shadowy color palette quite well, and the audio gets a boost from the Dolby Atmos track. (The Blu-ray features a DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 lossless soundtrack.) The supplemental package includes deleted scenes and featurettes, “Solo: The Director & Cast Roundtable,” “Kasdan on Kasdan,” “Remaking the Millennium Falcon,” “Escape From Corellia,” “The Train Heist,” “Team Chewie,” “Becoming a Droid: L3-37,” “Scoundrels, Droids, Creatures and Cards: Welcome To Fort Ypso” and “Into the Maelstrom: The Kessel Run.” Howard likely ran out of time in post-production to create a commentary track.

Izzy Gets the F… Across Town
Christian Papierniak, known primarily for directing the video-game series “NBA 2K,” makes his feature debut with Izzy Gets the Fuck Across Town, which is a road picture in the same way that “Ulysses” was a road novel … in miniature. His stand-in for Stephen Dedalus here is the tall, blond, accident-waiting-to-happen, Izzy (Mackenzie Davis), who, like so many other overeducated Gen-Xers, followed their bliss to L.A., where it got lost in the smog. A musician by inclination and a caterer’s assistant out of necessity, Izzy currently is wearing out her welcome as a house guest of a pregnant friend (producer Meghan Lennox) and waiting for her car to be fixed by SoCal’s laziest mechanic. On the day in question here, Izzy wakes up in the Santa Monica apartment of a stranger, George (Lakeith Stanfield), who can’t recall how she got there, either. Confused and more than a little bit embarrassed, she can’t wait to return to her friend’s home, where’s she’s asked to find another couch to occupy. Desperately searching for a sign, as well as some sort of direction in life, Izzy naturally touches base with her Facebook account. To her great consternation, she learns that her ex-boyfriend, Roger (Alex Russell), and ex-BFF, Whitney (Sarah Goldberg), about to announce their engagement at a swank party across town. (In L.A., that’s a highly relative, quasi-metaphysical distance.)

Izzy has four hours and no easy way to get from Santa Monica to Los Feliz, which she mispronounces. She refuses to take the bus – not unusual for a West Sider — and appears to be unaware of the Metro Rail system, which would have gotten her there in 90 minutes, tops. That limits her choices to a bicycle, scooter, hitching rides and less-dignified modes of transportation. (Ironically, Izzy’s temporary lover, George, is a helicopter pilot, who could have cut the journey to five minutes, if she had bothered to take his number.) Along the way, she touches base with a half-dozen old friends and acquaintances, all of whom contribute a piece to the puzzle that is Izzy. Davis, who was so terrific as the punk techie in “Halt and Catch Fire,” is nothing short of riveting in the lead role. Brilliant supporting performances are turned in, as well, by Carrie Coon, Haley Joel Osment, Alia Shawkat, Annie Potts and Lakeith Stanfield. As the title might argue, Izzy Gets the Fuck Across Town isn’t a picture that will appeal to viewers who aren’t drawn to festival and indie fare. Izzy’s personality, which corresponds to the Riot Grrrl soundtrack, might grate on them, as well. I dug it … sue me. The bonus features include an informative, nearly feature-length making-of featurette; commentary; and deleted scenes.

Gotti: Blu-ray
If pundits wasted the same amount of time speculating on nominees for Razzie Awards as they do pondering Oscar, Globe and Emmy finalists, they wouldn’t have to look much further than Gotti. I suspect that, in addition to Worst Picture, nominations will include Worst Actor (John Travolta), Worst Supporting Actor (Spencer Rocco Lofranco), Worst Director (Kevin Connolly), Worst Screenplay (Leo Rossi, Lem Dobbs), Worst Screen Combo (Travolta and his real-life wife, Kelly Preston) and, in a longshot bid, the Rotten Tomatoes Award: Razzie Nominee So Bad You Loved It! This isn’t to say, of course, that Gotti is as bad movies that suffered from anemic budgets, rushed deadlines, inexperienced actors and directors, and were released into a handful of theaters, before being sent out on VOD and Blu-ray. Razzies are weighted toward movies with adequate budgets, at least; the profiles of their actors, directors and writers; and anticipations of commercial success. Gotti qualifies on all counts … including being so bad that some viewers loved it. It isn’t completely unwatchable, but, at 112 minutes, Gotti is tough sledding.

Travolta appears to be giving it his all in his depiction of the Teflon Don … warts, rage issues and all. It’s a perfectly credible performance. For whatever reasons, though, the filmmakers continually contrast Travolta’s John Gotti Sr. with images of the real mafioso, not just in the closing credits, as would be expected. If it weren’t for some dead-on casting decisions – the actors look as if they’ve spent time in prison – Gotti could easily pass for a reality-based crime show on cable TV. The difference between this biopic and others we’ve all seen is the emphasis on the father-son relationship between John Sr. and John Jr., especially as depicted in a final one-to-one meeting in prison. The reason those scenes are tainted is the cooperation between the filmmakers and Gotti’s children, Victoria and John Gotti Jr., who reportedly were on set during most of the shoot as consultants and supplied family movies to “help with accuracy of their father’s portrayal.” Travolta was awarded the title role after the family personally asked for him. (An offer he couldn’t refuse?) The A&E documentary mini-series, “Gotti: Godfather and Son,” not only opened in the same week as Gotti, but it also received John Jr.’s support and cooperation. That includes segments from a 90-minute video of the last visit between a dying John Sr. and his son at the United States Medical Center for Federal Prisoners in Springfield, Mo., which is depicted in the feature film. For that reason and a dozen others, Gotti deserves all the Razzie nominations it’s likely to receive.

Uncle Drew: Blu-ray/4K UHD
When Cannes Film Festival organizers banned films without theatrical distribution in France from competing in its annual sop to esteemed cinema and celebrity worship, they inadvertently provided other high-profile festivals with all off the bargaining chips they’d need to attract top-shelf titles and filmmakers. Among the films that looked elsewhere for recognition were Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma, Jeremy Saulnier’s Hold the Dark, Paul Greengrass’ 22 July and two Orson Welles–related offerings: The Other Side of the Wind and Morgan Neville’s documentary They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead. What would the Cannes poohbahs make of the credentials presented by Charles Stone III and Jay Longino’s Uncle Drew … not that they would have gotten that far? The entertaining hoops comedy was accorded a theatrical release – and did quite well, thank you – it is an extension of a successful five-year webisode campaign, featuring a character from Pepsi Max advertisements. Celtics star Kyrie Irving plays the title character, with additional contributions by such former NBA players as Shaquille O’Neal, Chris Webber, Reggie Miller and Nate Robinson; former WNBA player, Lisa Leslie; and comedic actors Lil Rel Howery, Erica Ash, J.B. Smoove, Mike Epps, Tiffany Haddish and Nick Kroll. Also making cameo appearances as themselves are Sal Masekela, John Calipari, Jon Hammond, Scoop Jackson, Pee Wee Kirkland, Earl Monroe, Chris Mullin, Bill Walton, George Gervin, Steve Nash, David Robinson, Jerry West, Dikembe Mutombo, NeNe Leakes, Rick Barry, Rick Ross and Ben Nethongkome.

Irving’s Uncle Drew is a former playground-basketball legend, whose reputation would have been sealed if, back in the day, his team hadn’t disbanded before the prestigious Rucker Classic, in New York. Years later, he’s recruited by Dax (Howery), a streetball-team manager, who has a score to settle with a rival, Mookie (Kroll), and his gold-digging girlfriend, Jess (Haddish). In ways far too complicated to summarize, Drew and Dax are somehow able to round up the old, gray-haired ballers – a blind man, a man in a wheelchair, a married pastor and his wife, and a retiree taught in the ways of kung-fu — and compete against Mookie’s team in the finals. If Uncle Drew is every bit as silly and illogical as it sounds, there’s no discounting its entertainment value. Stone’s previous hits have included Mr. 3000 (2004) and Drumline (2002), while Longino contributed the story and screenplay to Skiptrace (2016). The DVD/Blu-ray/4K UHD adds a “Dear Drew” animated short; seven deleted scenes; featurettes “Who is Uncle Drew? The Making of a Basketball Icon,” “Youngbloods of Comedy” and “Bucket Seats & Boom Boom Rooms: Uncle Drew’s Van”; and commentary with Stone.

The Row: Blu-ray
The cover of Matty Beckerman’s sophomore follow-up to Alien Abduction (2014) suggests that The Row will trod in the bloody footprints of such Golden Age slasher classics as Black Christmas (1974), The House on Sorority Row (1983), The Initiation (1984) and Sorority House Massacre (1986). Instead of beaucoup coed nudity, the R-rating has been attached to it for “bloody violence, language, drug and alcohol abuse, and some sexual content,” which is limited to bras and panties, during the sorority’s initiation ritual. The killings are grisly, but they’re held to splatter shots and the killer’s habitual staging of victims to look like dolls. In addition to the names and images of the actors playing vulnerable sorority sisters — Lana Kent, Mia Frampton, Sarah McDaniel, Tanya Mityushina – there’s “and Randy Couture,” a UFC hall-of-famer who normally is afforded higher billing. If there’s one thing that’s hard to buy about the role played by the heavily muscled and lantern-chinned action star here, it’s that he could be the father of the delicate freshman beauty, Riley (Kent), who plays a central role in the vengeful killer’s plans. While Riley is smart enough to understand the limitations of Greek life on campus, she’s easily led astray by the promise of endless parties, bottomless kegs of beers and handsome frat boys. What she doesn’t know about her mother’s history with the sorority she’s chosen to pledge could very well lead to her death, however. Normally, Couture’s Detective Cole would be monitoring Riley’s every move, but he’s got his hands full with a case that left a cop dead and several important questions unanswered. And, anyway, how much trouble could a potential All-America party girl get into in less than a week? That’s rhetorical … plenty. By attempting to squeeze two opposing narratives into an 85-minute movie – a father/daughter heart-tugger and investigation into a heinous crime — screenwriter Sarah Scougal (Albion: The Enchanted Stallion) ends up shortchanging both storylines. Not surprisingly, however, the party scenes and hazing rituals are afforded plenty of time to titillate male viewers. The Blu-ray adds director’s commentary and a making-of featurette.

Hot Summer Nights
Filmed several months before Timothée Chalamet assured his future as the Oscar-nominated star of Call Me By Your Name (2017), Hot Summer Nights would provide the 21-year-old New Yorker the kind of showcase for which most other young actors would kill. As it turns out, however, he wouldn’t need it. With high-profile appearances in Lady Bird, Miss Stevens and Love the Coopers already on the books, Chalamet’s ticket already was punched before Hot Summer Nights snuck in and out of release in July. In fact, freshman writer/director Elijah Bynum probably thought that the stylish coming-of-age story would serve as stepping board for his own career. Unfortunately, the genre is so oversubscribed with boys-to-men dramas that it’s tougher for a filmmaker to prove there’s more than one bullet in his gun. Here, Chalamet plays a troubled teenager, still mourning the untimely death of his father. Frustrated by his inclination to mope around the house and start fires, Daniel’s mother decides to send him away to live with his aunt on Cape Cod. Neither a “summer bird” nor a local, Dan easily maintains a low profile in the summer mecca for well-heeled tourists and their kids, whose idea of a good time doesn’t necessarily include spending every waking hour laying on a blanket in the sun or trying to catch a glimpse of a Kennedy. Hot Summer Nights takes place in the 1980s, well before the legalization of marijuana and on the cusp of the cocaine and AIDS epidemics. Things change when Dan hooks up with

Hunter Strawberry (Alex Roe), a charismatic drug dealer with a certain resemblance to James Dean … at least, in Dan’s voice-over narration. The boy turns out to be a natural salesman. His heightened self-esteem not only attracts the attention of the island’s hottest babe, McKayla (Maika Monroe), but also local hoodlums interested in maintaining their market share. Once that happens, Bynum makes sure we know that a storm is a’brewing, by adding the threat of Hurricane Bob to the mix. The climax may come off as being a tad elegiac, but it isn’t out of context. The disc adds commentary and a making-of featurette.

Scarlet Diva: Blu-ray
After re-watching Asia Argento’s semi-autobiographical Scarlet Diva — released in the U.S. 16 years ago to decidedly mixed reviews – I was interested in checking out what critics had to say about it, divorced from the writer/director/star’s widely publicized accusations against producer Harvey Weinstein. (And, of course, a charge made against her by a then-teenage lover.) In his review in the August 9, 2002, issue of the New York Times, A.O. Scott pretty much nailed mainstream pundits’ frustrations with the 2002 film, which struck a chord that wouldn’t be heard until 2018. “(Scarlet Diva) is, by conventional standards, a fairly terrible movie — crudely shot on digital video, indifferently acted (in three languages) and chaotically written (by Ms. Argento) — but it is also weirdly fascinating, a ready-made Eurotrash cult object. It is also, at times, curiously moving.” Scott concludes by observing, “So, if there is something comically self-indulgent in Ms. Argento’s direction, and in her performance, there is also evident bravery. The thesis of Scarlet Diva — that the cinema’s icons of young, female sex appeal are subject to constant abuse and exploitation and that they find both pleasure and anguish in such attention — is hard to dispute. Ms. Argento’s response, at once earnest and thoroughly calculated, is to take revenge by exploiting herself more thoroughly than anyone else could, turning sado-masochism, which is customarily played as a duet, into a solo performance.”

If an alarm wasn’t sounded, then, about the mistreatment of actresses by men hoping to use their power as an aphrodisiac, it’s because, 1) such complaints were routinely ignored and/or denied in the media, 2) actresses as flakey as Argento were rarely taken seriously, and 3) virtually no one saw the movie. Today, Scarlet Diva looks like a documentary. In it, Argento plays 24-year-old Italian actress Anna Battista, who’s emerged from the long shadow of her filmmaker father and become a legitimate star. Unwilling to avoid the obvious pitfalls of celebrity, Anna abuses drugs and booze, while associating with addicts, dealers and rock stars. For a while, anyway, it looks like fun. Like Argento, Anna faces her come-to-Jesus moment of truth in a posh hotel in Cannes, where she’s assaulted by a producer who promises her gigs with Robert DeNiro and Gus Van Sant, but only in exchange for a massage and sex. She’ll be ambushed by him, again, in Los Angeles. While I have to assume that industry insiders easily recognized Weinstein in the absurdly drawn producer, Paar (Joe Coleman), he wielded the kind of clout that easily trumped Argento’s innuendos. In Film Movement Classics’ Blu-ray edition, Argento delivers a pair of commentaries, vintage and up-to-date. In the latter, she not only implicates the former Miramax boss by name, but she also repeatedly refers to him as a “pig.” Neither does she spare old boyfriends, self-serving publicists and agents, and her drug-buddies. Newly restored in high-def, Scarlet Diva includes an interview with the filmmaker; a making-of featurette and “Looking into the Eye of the Cyclops,” with Joe Coleman; a 2018 theatrical trailer; and original release promos.

The Seagull
Mention Anton Chekhov or any other Russian playwright, for that matter, to the average filmgoer and their eyes will glaze over before you have time to change the subject. The fact is, though, Chekhov’s plays and stories translate easily into languages other than Russian and the strengths and foibles of his characters are shared by men and women everywhere. He lowered the boundaries separating drama and comedy, and allowed his characters to resolve their own dilemmas, without resorting to heroes and villains to do it for them. Even better, perhaps, all his exceptional works are in the public domain, so studios could even do away with screenwriters, if they so choose. It explains why 487 writing credits have been accorded Chekhov at IMDB.com. Working from a screenplay by Stephen Karam (Speech & Debate), Tony Award-winner Michael Mayer (“Spring Awakening”) has Americanized the dialogue, but, otherwise, maintained the Russian period setting of The Seagull. One summer, at a lakeside Russian estate, friends and family gather for a weekend in the countryside. While everyone is caught up in passionately loving someone who loves somebody else, a tragicomedy unfolds about art, fame, human folly and the eternal desire to live a purposeful life. The film’s greatest selling point is a sterling cast that includes Annette Bening, as the aging diva, Irina; Saoirse Ronan, as Nina, an aspiring actress and competitor for the attentions of her lover, Boris (Corey Stoll); Brian Dennehy, as Irina’s extremely ill brother; Billy Howle, as the maligned experimental playwright, Konstantin; and, in key supporting roles, Elisabeth Moss, Mare Winningham and Jon Tenney. The Seagull was filmed in Upstate New York in 2005, but only debuted this spring in Russian and the Tribeca Film Festival. The DVD adds a pair of group interviews and post-screening Q&As, as well as a making-of featurette.

Mountain: Blu-ray
In 1923, when mountaineer George Mallory was asked why he was so determined to climb Everest, he said, “Because it’s there.” Few people recall the words that followed that pithy rationale, “Everest is the highest mountain in the world, and no man has reached its summit. Its existence is a challenge. The answer is instinctive, a part, I suppose, of man’s desire to conquer the universe.” Today, of course, people with more dollars than sense cue up in long lines to reach a summit that’s already been conquered, but, in an instant, can turn on them. As far as we know, Mallory never accomplished his goal. In fact, his frozen body wasn’t found until 1999, where it was discovered by climbers on the mountain’s north ridge. We’re introduced to some of the world’s most accomplished and driven athletes in Jennifer Peedom’s Mountain, a breathtaking meditation on climbing and the magnetic attraction of risking one’s life for no apparent reason than “because it’s there.” Employing drones, Go-Pro cameras and helicopters, Peedom captured 2,000 hours of footage in 22 countries, including Antarctica, Australia, Canada, Italy, Tibet, New Zealand, South Africa and the United States. Chamber music accompanies Willem Dafoe’s narration — drawn from Robert Macfarlane’s philosophical tome “Mountains of the Mind” – as German-born cinematographer Renan Ozturk captures spellbinding views of mountains whose craggy peaks, vertical faces and icy ridges make Everest look like a walk in the park. Sometimes, too, climbing to the top of a mountain isn’t sufficiently challenging. Mountain captures climbers tight-rope walking across organ-pipe peaks in Monument Valley; riding bikes and skiing off steep cliffs; BASE jumping; and using “wingsuits” to fly from mountain tops, through canyons and, with luck, land feet-first in valleys far below. The pristine Blu-ray adds interviews with the filmmakers and a making-of featurette.

Occupation: Blu-ray
Except for the ridiculously stringent R-rating, the alien-apocalypse thriller, Occupation, would fit neatly alongside the better movies that find their way to the Syfy channel. The thing American audiences might have more difficulty accepting is the aliens’ decision to invade a rural village in New South Wales, instead of heading directly to Las Vegas, Washington, D.C., or Manhattan, as is usually the case. The same basic conceit was applied to District 9 (2009), which was set in Johannesburg, South Africa, and involved giant hovering spacecrafts. Luke Sparke’s picture isn’t quite as accomplished as Neill Blomkamp’s impressive debut feature, but it’s probably because of budget constraints that even forced him to rely on unpaid extras and volunteers from greater Murwillumbah, NSW. It’s so Aussie-specific, in fact, that the central event is a game of Australian Rules Football, with an announcer who couldn’t be mistaken for American if he tried. The “alien” crop being cultivated by enslaved locals is an East Asian fruit called the fingered citron (a.k.a., Buddha’s Hand). And, while the Australian military holds its own against the invaders, it’s the plucky locals who standup to the standard-issue aliens and easily detect their weaknesses. Occupation has been compared to a micro-budget version of Independence Day, and there’s nothing wrong with that.

Our Daily Bread: Blu-ray
We reviewed Nikolaus Geyrhalter’s amazing dissection of industrial food production when it was released on DVD, in 2009, and, again, as part of Icarus’ “Six Films by Nikolaus Geyrhalter,” on Blu-ray. I consider Our Daily Bread to be an important enough documentary to mention once again, without further elaboration. Without adding dialogue or narration, Geyrhalter lays out exactly how high-tech, 21st Century food production and agriculture looks, at a time when quantity is valued over home-grown tastes, and uniformity trumps artisanal peculiarities. Neither is Our Daily Bread an indictment of GMOs and other crimes of corporate agriculture. Instead, it captures the rhythms and routines, sights and sounds of conveyor belts, machines and conveniences invented for the sole purpose of making it easier and more affordable to feed the masses, mostly in Europe. Geyrhalter pays as much attention to the raising and butchering of animals, birds and fish, as it does to the seeds-to-harvest production of fruits and vegetables. The film’s honest approach to mass production will shock and disturb carnivores and vegans, alike, but not without purpose. If we are what we eat, it’s important to know what makes us tick and how it got there. Then, the decisions we make will come easy.

Full Circle: The Birth, Death & Rebirth of Circle of Dust
Records Collecting Dust II
James Rhodes’ loud and occasionally disruptive documentary uses the story of the genre-defying ’90s industrial project, Circle of Dust, to explore the places rock musicians go when almost no one’s paying attention, no one expects to get rich and entry into the Hall of Fame is as unlikely as a No. 1 hit. Full Circle: The Birth, Death & Rebirth of Circle of Dust traces the career of visionary artist, composer, technician and producer Klayton — who would gain some modicum of recognition for his category transcending project, Celldweller — through 30 interviews and dozens of hours of VHS footage from his personal archive. At one point, Circle of Dust was more popular in “Christian alternative-metal” circles than in other genres, but it also shared an audience with mainstream industrial audiences, who were less interested in religion than in hard-core noise. The documentary then goes into the problems faced by Klayton as a pioneer and the collapse and reinvention of subgenres and bands. Full Circle: The Birth, Death & Rebirth of Circle of Dust isn’t for everyone who’s ever put a quarter in a juke box. It’s as niche-y as these things get and that, after all, what rock music is all about.

Records Collecting Dust II is, not surprisingly, the sequel to San Diego-based musician and filmmaker Jason Blackmore’s obscure rock-doc, Records Collecting Dust (2015). In the original, Blackmore visited the homes and studios of such underground-music cohorts as Jello Biafra, Chuck Dukowski, Keith Morris and John Reis to discuss their vinyl-record collections, personal influences and “holy grails of alternative music icons.” While that doc focused on the genre’s west-coast contingent, “RCDII” concentrates on hardcore heroes from the east coast, including Ian MacKaye, of Minor Threat and Fugazi; John Joseph, of Cro-Mags; Roger Miret, of Agnostic Front; Dave Smalley, of DYS and Dag Nasty; Amy Pickering, of Fire Party and Dischord Records; and a couple of other rockers. Their first inspirations are frequently surprising.

American Psycho: Blu-ray/4K UHD
I’d forgotten the controversy that accompanied the publication of Bret Easton Ellis’ “American Psycho,” in 1991. At the same time as academics and critics raved about its “transgressive and postmodern qualities,” feminists condemned it as misogynistic and a veritable handbook for the rape and murder of career women and prostitutes. Some booksellers reportedly wrapped their copies of the novel in anticipation of protesters drenching them with blood. Although co-writer/director Mary Harron and writer Guinevere Turner’s adaptation tempered the more grisly aspects of the book, women’s advocacy groups anticipated a picture that would elevate gratuitous violence over razor-sharp social commentary. Once the dust cleared, American Psycho turned out to be equal parts horror, social commentary and inky black comedy. The misogyny is built into the DNA of the super-slick protagonist. Patrick Bateman (Christian Bale) and other male characters – comically egomaniacal Wall Street yuppies – who measure their penises by the handiwork of their business cards and ability to score reservations at New York’s trendiest restaurants. Women are viewed as sexual objects and status symbols. (They’re also homophobic, racist and elitist.) Only the sociopathic, narcissistic and petty Bateman hates women to the extent that he is driven to harm and humiliate them. Harron delivers the horror in the broadest possible strokes. Typically, his worst instincts are trigged by some perceived slight at work or over drinks – he isn’t shown on the trading floor – and he doesn’t reserve his outbursts exclusively for women. Neither does the script save its arrows for the obvious targets. It also takes shots at Reagan-era consumerism, greed and dismissal of all social responsibility. Finally, Bateman is so removed from the non-material world world that he can’t separate fantasy from reality, innocence from guilt … and, in a huge twist, neither can we. The 4K UHD edition of American Psycho benefits from a new Dolby Atmos track, which is separate from the Blu-ray version, and the addition of DolbyVision/HDR. In addition to the vintage supplements ported over to the 4K disc, there’s new commentary by Harran and an excellent, 48-minute-long recap of the period and its excesses by scenesters and crew members.

The Day of the Jackal: Special Edition: Blu-ray
In 1971, Frederick Forsyth shot to best-seller status with his debut novel, “The Day of the Jackal,” which was taut, utterly plausible and almost documentarian in its realism and attention to detail. Two years later, director Fred Zinnemann (High Noon) turned that gripping novel into a nail-biting cinematic experience. The tick-tock procedural recalled an actual attempt on the life of French President Charles de Gaulle, authorized by the far-right paramilitary organization, the OAS. The string of events, as depicted in the movie, differed from the 1962 plot, which ended in failure. Anyone who’s read a history book in the last 50 years won’t consider that to be a spoiler, however. Demoralized by the recent loss of Algeria and a botched assassination attempt, OAS leaders meet in secret to plan their next move. In a last desperate attempt to eliminate de Gaulle, they opt to employ the services of a hired assassin from outside the fold. The Jackal (Edward Fox) is charismatic, calculating and cold as ice. It takes exacting police work, international cooperation and not a small degree of luck to locate the elusive suspect before a Liberation Day parade, which the president insists on attending. I’ve watched The Day of the Jackal several times and it hasn’t lost its ability to keep me glued to the screen. The Arrow Video edition only adds more fun to the experience. It includes a new interview with Neil Sinyard, author of “Fred Zinnemann: Films of Character and Conscience”; two rare archival clips from the film set, and an interview with the director; an original screenplay, by Kenneth Ross (BD-ROM); a reversible sleeve, featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Peter Strain; and a collector’s booklet, with new writing by critic Mark Cunliffe and film historian Sheldon Hall.

 
The Baby: Special Edition: Blu-ray
When it comes to horror, there’s nothing more disturbing than the exploitation of children for the sake of some cheap thrills and/or uneasy laughs. The exploitation of special-needs children is exponentially worse, as is the debasement of adults so developmentally challenged that they’re treated like infants. In The Baby (1973), the title character is a 21-year-old man who sleeps in a crib, eats in a high-chair, crawls, bawls and wears diapers. Naturally, the audience’s mission is to decide for themselves whether Baby (David Mooney) is faking his deficiencies, and will strike back when sufficiently provoked, or if he will be the subject of indescribable torture. In fact, as conceived by director Ted Post (Hang ’Em High) and writer Abe Polsky (Brute Corps), it’s quite a bit more clever than the obvious scenarios would suggest. In it, Anjanette Comer (The Loved One) plays Ann Gentry, an idealistic Los Angeles County social worker investigating the case of Mrs. Wadsworth (Ruth Roman), her deceitful daughters, Germaine and Alba (Marianna Hill, Susanne Zenor), and, of course, Baby. After some initial observation, Ann comes to believe that the man-child’s problems can be traced more to neglect and abuse than to mental illness. Because the family’s life revolves around Baby’s care, and they are dependent upon his disability payments, the women attempt to end Ann’s meddling in the most expeditious way possible.

When she manages to escape the Wadsworths’ clutches, with Baby in town, the movie changes direction in a most unexpected fashion. Creepy and overflowing with dread, The Baby is, by every stretch of the definition, a cult movie. Its appeal is greatly enhanced by Post’s direction, however. In one of the featurettes, and interviews, we learn that the action director — his other credits include Beneath the Planet of the Apes, Go Tell the Spartans and Magnum Force – he practically had to be dragged kicking and screaming to the production. He came recommended by Clint Eastwood and, perhaps, after a year’s pleading, he surrendered to the possibility of making some easy money in genre work. The Arrow Video set adds new commentary by film historian Travis Crawford; a retrospective with film professor Rebekah McKendry; interviews with Post, Marianna Hill, David Mooney and painting creator Stanley Dyrector; a reversible sleeve, featuring newly commissioned artwork by the Twins of Evil; and a collector s booklet, featuring new writing by Kat Ellinger.

Exorcist II: The Heretic: Collector’s Edition: Blu-ray
Absurd/Anthropophagous: Blu-ray
The [*REC] Collection: Blu-ray
The Bride: Blu-ray
It’s another good week for fans of vintage horror films in shiny new hi-def packages. Only a couple of them need much in the way of introduction. Widely reviled by fans and critics upon its 1977 release — people at an early screening hurled objects at the screen — Exorcist II: The Heretic is one of the most notorious stinkers of all time. The only people who wanted to make a sequel to William Friedkin and William Peter Blatty’s masterpiece were studio executives who wouldn’t listen to reason. Among those whose talents were wasted are director John Boorman, Richard Burton, Louise Fletcher, Max von Sydow, Paul Henreid, James Earl Jones and Linda Blair. Only the special effects and production were accorded a modicum of praise. The Scream Factory re-release contains both a 118- and 102-minute version of the film, new 2K scans from original film elements; new commentaries with Boorman, consultant Scott Bosco, Blair, editor Tom Priestley and Mike White; and still galleries, with rare color and B&W stills, behind-the-scenes and deleted-scene photos, posters and lobby cards.

In the early 1980s, when director Joe D’Amato and writer/actor George Eastman weren’t churning out soft-core cannibal epics, they put their heads together on less-infamous entertainments, Antropophagus and Absurd. Both tested the patience of critics and censors averse to intensely grisly murders and actors who were less interesting than the severed heads, disgorged innards and shiny axes. Neither did they offer much in the way of nudity, which was one of the filmmakers’ calling cards. Still, they’re not without their cultish appeal. In the former, a group of tourists – including Mia Farrow’s sister, Tisa — become stranded on an uninhabited Greek island, where they are stalked by an insane killer, who’s slaughtered the town’s former residents. Designed as a follow-up to that delightful attraction, Absurd (a.k.a., “Horrible”) features Eastman as Karamanlis, a man with a rare blood disease that causes his wounds to heal quickly and prevents him from dying. He escapes from a laboratory in Greece, where a priest has taken care of him, and somehow manages to board a plane to America where he then proceeds to raise hell, ripping to shreds anyone who crosses his path. Once here, he becomes more demented with each new killing. The priest is now tasked with killing the thing he helped bring to life. Absurd’s notoriety stems primarily from being named one of the UK’s original 74 “video nasties,” which kept them from public view. In addition to typically entertaining interviews with Italian exploitation specialists, Absurd contains a bonus CD soundtrack.

Scream Factory is also responsible for bringing back Franc Roddam’s revisionist adaptation of Bride of Frankenstein (1935), this time with actors who look as if they were inspired by the editors of Vogue, instead of Mary Shelley. In The Bride (1985), Sting plays the cunning scientist and Jennifer Beals – fresh off her triumph in Flashdance – assumes the spousal role immortalized by Elsa Lanchester. Clancy Brown plays her intended mate, Viktor, who will recoil from her gothic feminism. The package contains commentary and an interview with Roddam, as well as an interview with Brown.

Likewise, Scream Factory’s The [*REC] Collection arrives in plenty of time for holiday gifting … take your pick of the most appropriate one. It contains all four installments of the found-footage thriller from writers/directors Jaume Balagueró and Paco Plaza. The first film, [*REC], which is quite good, centers on a reporter and her cameraman covering a firefighter intervention in an apartment building in Barcelona. As the situation escalates after some of the building’s occupants show animalistic and murderous behavior and they find themselves confined inside the perilous building. REC 2, REC 3: Genesis and REC 4: Apocalypse are variations on the same theme. Plenty of bonus features are included. (The films here were directly adapted by John Erick Dowdle for the English-language Quarantine series.)

The Punisher/Punisher: War Zone: Blu-ray/4K UHD
Comic-book vigilante, the Punisher – a.k.a., Frank Castle – doesn’t come immediately to mind in discussions about the Marvel/Disney’s hugely successful universe of superheroes. It’s not for lack of trying, however. The character’s been featured in several stand-alone comic-book franchises and has appeared in series written for other Marvel superheroes. He’s also appeared in animated television series. His luck on the big screen has been substantially less noteworthy, however.  There’s nothing cute, cuddly or traditionally heroic about Frank Castle, an ex-cop whose family was murdered by mobsters. Now legally declared dead, he strikes back from beyond the grave, killing mobsters wherever he can find them … 125 in five years, all told. In 1989, the character was played by Dolph Lundgren. The movie was shown in several foreign markets, but it went straight-to-video here. The Punisher (2004), which starred Thomas Jane as the title character, didn’t do nearly as well as Lionsgate expected, leaving plans for a sequel on the drawing boards. Nonetheless, it’s being re-released on 4K UHD, along with the Lionsgate 2008 re-boot, Punisher: War Zone, starring Ray Stevenson, which bombed. As directed by former martial-arts champion and stuntwoman Lexi Alexander (Green Street Hooligans), it overflows with highly stylized violence that could easily be categorized as mindless. Castle has dedicated his life to eradicating the kind of gangsters who murdered his family, for witnessing a mob hit. But when he unknowingly kills an undercover FBI agent, Castle falls into a crisis of conscience and decides to lay down his guns. Unfortunately, one of the last gangsters he thought he’d killed survived – albeit, so horribly disfigured he’s nicknamed Jigsaw — and seeks revenge on the wife and daughter of the slain FBI agent. The bloodletting may be unrelenting, but action junkies and sadists shouldn’t be disappointed. I can’t recall another woman director so adept at choreographing extreme violence, as Alexander, but it hasn’t amounted to much on her resume, unfortunately. Both 4K UHD releases contain plenty of bonus features that weren’t available in the original Blu-ray releases.

TV-to-DVD
Disney: Freaky Friday
PBS: The Amazing Human Body
PBS: The Mayo Clinic: Faith, Hope, Science
PBS: American Masters: Basquiat: Rage to Riches
CBS: The Carol Burnett Show: 50th Anniversary Special
Acorn/PBS: Midsomer Murders: Series 20
If the title, “Freaky Friday,” rings a bell, it’s probably because it’s been as much a part of the Disney empire as any of the rides at Disneyland. In fact, I’m surprised Mary Rodgers’ 1972 source novel hasn’t been adapted for exploitation as a theme park attraction, where moms and dads can swap bodies, personalities and positions of authority – or, lack thereof — with their children for a few hours. Wouldn’t that be fun? The property’s worked wonders for two generations of fans, at least, with the fourth iteration arriving this week on DVD. This “Freaky Friday” is unusual only in that it contains eight songs from the stage musical by Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey, along with one new song to close the show and an introductory number, written by Cozi Zuehlsdorff, who plays teenage Ellie. The stage version’s Heidi Blickenstaff returns to star in the Disney Channel version as Ellie’s mom, Katherine. Although the musical didn’t really take off commercially, the blame can’t be laid at the feet of its stars. They are as good as Barbara Harris and Jodie Foster (1976), Shelley Long and Gaby Hoffmann (1995) and Jamie Lee Curtis and Lindsay Lohan, who were only required to act. Disney trivia buffs may recall another adaptation, “Summer Switch” (1984), starring Robert Klein and Scott Schwartz, which aired as part of the “ABC Afterschool Special” series. In it, brother Ben and father Bill inadvertently switch bodies as both are leaving for the summer, leaving the boy to negotiate Hollywood and Dad to attend summer camp. Here, though, a confrontation arises when Katherine won’t allow Ellie to join “The Hunt,” an all-night scavenger quest, with her friends. Upon wishing the other would change their ways, they magically swap bodies through the power of an hourglass. Laughter ensues. As is typically the case in Disney Channel musicals, the songs and choreography are first-rate. The disc adds a blooper reel; an audition tape; and a bonus track, “Not Myself Today,” one of two deleted songs.

If there’s one thing in our lives that we all take for granted – until something goes wrong, at least – it’s our bodies. The three-part PBS series, “The Amazing Human Body,” reminds us that the human body is the most sophisticated organism on earth and much about it remains a mystery, even to doctors and scientists. It uses cutting-edge graphics to reveal the surprisingly beautiful biological processes that keep us alive and ticking. It also shows us the ingenious ways the body develops, adapts and endures the abuses we heap on it. It should be considered family viewing.

In a virtual double-feature, Ken Burns’ “The Mayo Clinic: Faith, Hope, Science” demonstrates how one institution has dealt with imperfections of the human body since its founding, nearly 150 years ago. The hospital has stood as a beacon of hope for people from all walks of life and income brackets, when they need it most. Its commitment to citizens of Minnesota began in 1883, when a deadly tornado tore through the then-small community of Rochester and William Worrall Mayo and his sons took charge of recovery efforts, enlisting the help of the nearby Sisters of Saint Francis to care for patients. Afterwards, Mother Alfred Moes, the leader of the convent, told Dr. Mayo she had a vision from God that instructed her to build a hospital, with him as its director. She believed it would become “world renowned for its medical arts.” The two-hour film features the voices of Tom Hanks, Sam Waterston, Blythe Danner and Josh Lucas, as well as interviews with such former patients as John McCain and the Dalai Lama.

PBS’ “Basquiat: Rage to Riches” follows “Wyeth” onto DVD, as a segment of the “American Masters” mini-series, “Artists Flight.” Basquiat was a graffiti artist, posing as a rock star, in the early ’80s New York art scene. It took less than a decade for the accountant’s son from Brooklyn to go from an anonymous tagger, known as SAMO, to one of the most widely recognized artists of his generation. Today, his work resides in the top tier of the international art market, along with Picasso, de Kooning and Francis Bacon. 2018 marks the 30th anniversary of Basquiat’s untimely death from a heroin overdose. “Basquiat: Rage to Riches” features exclusive interviews with the artists’ sisters, Lisane and Jeanine, who previously haven’t spoken about their brother and his art for a television documentary. With striking candor, art world colleagues, including dealers Bruno Bischofberger, Larry Gagosian and Mary Boone, and Basquiat’s most intimate friends, lovers and fellow artists, draw a portrait of a handsome, charismatic and fragile personality. It also divulges the cash, drugs and pernicious racism that he encountered. The main weapon Basquiat used to fight prejudice was his art.

One of the sad facts of life in the television industry is that nothing goes on forever. Very few of the shows and series continue, let alone thrive, after being canceled, losing a star or switching networks. Viewer loyalty only extends so far and, after a certain point, endless reruns on cable only remind us of what we’re missing. The good news is that television is as good as it’s ever been and may be getting better. The willingness on the part of premium networks and streaming services to pay top dollar for talent and products has been a godsend to everyone involved. So, what’s missing? Variety shows, like the ones hosted by Ed Sullivan, Dinah Shore, Garry Moore, Perry Como, Jackie Gleason and Carol Burnett. For a while, the gap was filled by Johnny Carson, Merv Griffin and other late-night hosts. That changed when producers decided to cater to publicists handling commercial movies and TV shows, flavor-of-the-month stars, top-40 acts and only the occasional comedian. The days when a standup comic’s future was assured by an invitation to sit alongside Johnny are long gone, except on Showtime’s “I’m Dying Up Here.” “The Carol Burnett Show: 50th Anniversary Special,” newly released on DVD, also reminds me that entertainers also benefitted from being asked to join Burnett, Vicki Lawrence, Lyle Waggoner, Tim Conway and Harvey Korman in sketches that ranged from silly to inspired and played to the widest possible television market, not just select demographic groups. “The Carol Burnett Show: 50th Anniversary Special,” which aired December 3, 2017, attracted an audience of 15.4 million viewers. The two-hour special built on its lead in from “60 Minutes” and pulled within a million viewers of “Sunday Night Football” in the Eastern and Midwest time zones. The one-night event, which was filmed at the series’ original soundstage at CBS Television City, in Los Angeles, features Burnett, Lawrence, Waggoner and costume designer Bob Mackie. Special guests include Jon Batiste, Beth Behrs, Jim Carrey, Kristin Chenoweth, Stephen Colbert, Harry Connick Jr., Kaley Cuoco, Bill Hader, Steve Lawrence, Jay Leno, Jane Lynch, Steve Martin, Bernadette Peters, Amy Poehler, Tracee Ellis Ross, Maya Rudolph and Martin Short. The Time Life/WEA package adds red-carpet footage, backstage interviews, anniversary wishes from Carol’s friends and fans, and a tribute booklet with production photos, notes from her guests and a special message from the host.

The beloved ITV series, “Midsomer Murders,” returned to American television last May, for a 20th season, via the Acorn streaming service. The six new feature-length episodes are set in England’s most murderous county. Detective Chief Inspector John Barnaby (Neil Dudgeon) and Detective Sergeant Jamie Winter (Nick Hendrix) investigate mysteries involving homicides, blackmail, greed and betrayal in and around the cozy villages and behind the well-trimmed hedges of Midsomer County. The titles include “The Ghost of Causton Abbey,” “Death of the Small Coppers,” “Drawing Dead,” “’Til Death Do Us Part” and “Send in the Clowns.” A new pathologist, Dr. Fleur Perkins, is played by Annette Badland (“Eastenders”).

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

Thursday, September 20th, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The DVD Wrapup: Goldstone, Westwood, That Summer, Irish Surf, Wyeth, Barbershop, Jess Franco, Mambo Cool, Watcher, Rolling Stone at 50 … More

Thursday, September 13th, 2018

Goldstone: Blu-ray
When a movie is set in the Australian Outback, it tends to take on the characteristics of an American Western. It doesn’t matter if there isn’t a horse or steer in sight, because the usual laws don’t apply in a land where kangaroos outnumber human beings and, it’s said, everything else wants to kill you. That includes a terrain as austere, unforgiving and treacherous as Death Valley or, if one knows where to look, as serene and majestic as Monument Valley. The contrasts were cogently observed in the recent PBS documentary series, “Outback,” which surveyed North West Australia’s sparsely populated Kimberley region. It includes pristine beaches, where the saltwater crocodiles roam; rugged ranges, where cowboys herd cattle by helicopter; thundering waterfalls; hidden gorges; dazzling sunrises and sunsets; and, of course, vast expanses of sand, dirt and rock. If John Ford were still alive, he might have found Australia the ideal location for his epic Westerns, although European invaders used far different methods to control the indigenous population than those he depicted in Cheyenne Autumn and The Searchers. Among the revisionist dramas in which the divergent Australian terrain is employed as a character, with its own personality and demands, are Ned Kelly (1970) The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith (1978) Quigley Down Under (1990) Rabbit-Proof Fence (2002) The Proposition (2005) Mystery Road (2013), Strangerland (2015), Sweet Country (2017) and, newly released on DVD/Blu-ray, Goldstone (2015).

In Ivan Sen’s follow-up to the award-winning thriller, Mystery Road, aboriginal police detective Jay Swan (Aaron Pedersen) arrives in the frontier town of Goldstone on a missing-person inquiry. What seems like a simple investigation opens a web of crime, corruption, trampling of indigenous people’s land rights and human trafficking. Apparently, everything that happens in the flyspeck town is monitored by the boss (David Wenham) of the monstrous open-pit mining operation, whose fences were built to keep secrets in, as much as to keep trespassers out. As was the case in the Old West, the men who owned the biggest ranch or mine controlled everything that went on in town, and everyone who did business there. Typically, it took the arrival of an incorruptible outsider to change the balance of power. It doesn’t take long for Swan to figure out that young women from Southeast Asia are being flown to an airstrip on the mine’s property and driven to a tavern/brothel just outside its barbed-wire perimeter. The girls cooperate because they owe money to their madam, Mrs. Leo (Cheng Pei-Pei), and must pay her back, before she’ll return their passports. The brothel is located so far away from what passes for civilization that the intense heat, lack of cover, poisonous critters and, of course, lack of water make escape nearly impossible.

The missing girl’s connection to the brothel and, by extension, the mining operation, is so obvious that no one in town is much interested in helping Swann. And, yes, that includes the district’s wet-behind-the-ears constable, Josh Waters (Alex Russell); the town’s self-serving mayor, Maureen (Jackie Weaver); and the most influential member of the aboriginal community (Tommy Lewis). The latter is important because the mine owner hopes to expand into tribal territory. Naturally, the tribe’s spiritual leader, Jimmy (David Gulpilil), doesn’t want to see any more of his ancestors’ legacy despoiled and voices his displeasure with the plan. It isn’t until Jimmy takes Swann on a bit of a walkabout to a hidden ancestral holy place – a “row-about” would be more accurate – that the detective understands what’s at stake here and why he’s been called to Goldstone. The next day, Jimmy is found hanged. If Swann doesn’t get Josh to change sides and convince one of the working girls, Mei (Michelle Lim Davidson), to talk, he won’t last much longer, either. Not only was Sen responsible for writing and directing Goldstone, but he also is single-credited as cinematographer, editor and composer. The Blu-ray adds way-too-short interviews with cast and crew members.

Westwood: Punk, Icon, Activist
Like too many other creative people, Dame Vivienne Westwood will forever be known for things she accomplished when she was a mere sapling, looking for attention. Obituary writers will be quick to point out that as a British fashion designer and boutique owner, she was largely responsible for dressing such rabble as the Sex Pistols and, with the band’s manager, Malcolm McClaren, bringing punk and new-wave fashions into the mainstream. In effect, Westwood picked up the torch carried, 10 years earlier, by Mary Quant. Instead of mini-skirts and hot pants, though, Westwood became famous for turning an everyday object, used by the musicians to keep their clothes from falling off their scrawny bodies, into a fashion statement. If the safety pins, studs, spikes, tears and graffiti gave her designs an improvisational look, her creations were anything but accidental. Before long, modified versions of the punks’ loudly ridiculed attire found its way into the closets of socialites, celebrities and wannabes. Twenty years later, Gianni Versace would famously reinvent the look for Elizabeth Hurley, whose red-carpet gown literally was held together by large, golden and presumably expensive safety pins. It might have been the only thing, besides British citizenship, she’d ever share with Johnny Rotten.

Lorna Tucker’s debut documentary, Westwood: Punk, Icon, Activist, does a nice job describing how Vivienne met Malcom and collaborated on a series of Kings Road boutiques that set the tone for bands hoping to create brands for themselves. It goes on to show what Westwood’s been up to since their partnership broke up, in the early-1980s. In addition to being awarded an OBE – sans knickers — Westwood, then 50, met and married her third husband, Andreas Kronthaler, an Austrian who is 25 years her junior. Their creative partnership is fully documented in Westwood: Punk, Icon, Activist. In the 2006 New Year’s Honors List, Westwood advanced from OBE to DOE, “for services to fashion,” and has twice earned the award for British Designer of the Year. Much of the film is dedicated, as well, to the designer’s commitment to social and environmentalist causes, to which she’s contributed large sums of money, countless hours of time and publicity material. If, at times, it bogs down in the ephemera of fashion-industry nonsense, “Westwood” benefits from her firebrand personality, still-vibrant fashion sense and abhorrence of things that bore her, including sitting for interviews.

That Summer
In 1972, photographer Peter Beard and former First Sister-in-Law Lee Radziwill came up with the idea of making a documentary about the “rapid vulgarization” of East Hampton, Long Island. This was before the Hamptons became the summer-spot-to-be for free-spending New York scenesters, their nannies and dogs. Gridlock on the two-lane Montauk Highway had yet to become a weekly predicament for visitors and locals, alike, and middle-class beachgoers still could afford an occasional trip to the beach. Göran Hugo Olsson’s That Summer opens four decades later with Beard and Radziwill recalling that season in the sun, largely spent at far eastern tip of Long Island in a retreat owned by that renowned outdoorsman, Andy Warhol. The photographs capture the leisure-time activities of a motley crew of celebrities, including Warhol and the Factory crew, Mick and Bianca Jagger, Truman Capote and other luminaries. The scene shifts to Grey Gardens, where Radziwill hoped to get her Aunt Edith “Big Edie” Bouvier Beale and cousin Edith “Little Edie” Bouvier Beale to provide memories of Lee and Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis’s father, John Bouvier III. A successful Wall Street financier and notorious playboy, “Black Jack ” treated East Hampton as his personal playground for many years. The Beales weren’t terribly interested in talking about anyone except themselves, however, even if the cameras were manned by Beard, Albert and David Maysles (Salesman) and Jonas Mekas (The Brig). Apart from its occupants no one had been inside the 28-room house for five years and even the garbage collectors refused to brave the overgrown shrubbery and ruined furniture. Once Radziwill convinced them that no harm would come to them, Big Edie and Little Edie utilized their on-camera time squabbling, exchanging bon mots, performing impromptu musical numbers, gushing over their cats and resident raccoons, and complaining about the legal actions being taken by county health and housing officials to have the estate condemned. Aristotle Onassis had already poured money into refurbishing the mansion, but it’s difficult to see where the it went.

Long story short, Radziwill and Beard abandoned the project shortly thereafter, with the 16mm film being lost until only recently. (It’s believed that Radziwill confiscated it.) In 1975, the Maysles, Ellen Hovde and Muffie Meyer returned to East Hampton to expand on their previous visits with the Beales, this time without any intention of focusing on how the various Bouviers spent the summers of their youths. Grey Gardens was greeted by extremely positive reviews, but very little exposure. It was seen by many as a freak show, in which two women with borderline personalities were encouraged to show off their eccentricities as a symbol of upper-crust rot or simply to amuse viewers. (Today, of course, anyone with the same royal lineage would host their own reality show, staged on the rotting veranda of their ocean-view home.) Perceptions began to change, however, when, in 2006, a full-length musical adaptation of Grey Gardens opened on Broadway, winning several Tony awards. In 2009, an HBO film starring Jessica Lange and Drew Barrymore used flashbacks to recall Little Edie’s life as a young woman of promise and describe the actual filming/premiere of the 1975 documentary. In 2006, the Maysles made available previously unreleased footage for a special two-disc edition of Grey Gardens for the Criterion Collection, which included a new feature, The Beales of Grey Gardens. The Beales have ben referenced, as well, in dozens of television shows (“RuPaul’s Drag Race,” “Sex and the City”), fashion spreads, record albums (Rufus Wainwright’s “Poses”) and, even, “The Comedy Central Roast of Joan Rivers,” which featured a joke by comic Mario Cantone about Joan and her daughter, Melissa, starring together in a TV-movie version of “Grey Gardens.” That would have been a hoot.

Between Land & Sea
If Brian Wilson and Mike Love sat down today to update the Beach Boys’ breakout single, “Surfin’ Safari,” they would have to consider revising the lyrics to include a few spots unknown to surfers in 1962. Portugal’s Nazaré break, Tahiti’s Teahupo’o, Tasmania’s Shipstern’s Bluff, the mid-ocean Cortes Bank, Half Moon Bay’s Mavericks and Maui’s Jaws have replaced Huntington, Malibu, Rincon, Laguna, Cerro Azul and Doheny as meccas for world-class surfers looking for waves less ridden. Bruce Brown’s seminal documentary, Endless Summer (1966), introduced the sport to barneys, bennys and hodads around the world, causing traffic jams on waves immortalized in “Surfin’ Safari.” Brown revisited many of the same spots in The Endless Summer II (1994) and other 16mm docs . Extreme surfing didn’t enter the sports lexicon until the release of Dana Brown’s Step Into Liquid (2003) and Stacy Peralta’s Riding Giants (2004), both of which added tow-in surfing to the mix. They were followed by Sunny Abberton’s quasi-sociological, Bra Boys (2007); and Rory Kennedy’s Take Every Wave: The Life of Laird Hamilton (2017). In the recent tradition of Half Life Scotland (2008) and North of the Sun (2014), Ross Whitaker’s intriguing year-in-the-life documentary, Between Land and Sea, takes viewers to a place where wet suits are tested by conditions that will make viewers’ teeth chatter.

Whitaker’s film was shot in and around Lahinch, in County Clare, near the spectacular Cliffs of Moher, on Ireland’s rugged western coast. It explains how such an unlikely spot evolved into a prime surfing destination and how the sport has revived the sleepy beach town’s economy and spirits of inhabitants. It’s possible that some of the same Irish children we met in Step Into Liquid, being taught to ride by a three American brothers, grew up to become the big-wave surfers, teachers and entrepreneurs to whom we’re introduced in Between Land and Sea. Surfing in Ireland no longer qualifies as a novelty. The big waves attract pros from around the world and the locals are as dedicated to surfing as anyone else on the planet. The film also takes into account what happens to surfers as they raise families and approach middle age as citizens of a larger community. Kennedy’s profile of top pro Laird Hamilton does much the same thing, focusing, as well, on his twisty business affairs and the toll that unprecedented success has taken on a former beach bum. Here, the surfers interviewed have side jobs that include farming and selling paraphernalia to tourists. Besides some terrific wave-level cinematography, Between Land and Sea benefits from the lovely countryside and openness of the Lahinch residents.

Revolution: New Art for a New World
PBS: American Masters: Wyeth
Artists, filmmakers, musicians and other creative types have historically considered themselves to be in the vanguard of revolutionary movements and campaigns for social change. Unfortunately, once they’ve exhausted their usefulness to the new regimes and begun to demand freedoms promised them, they’re among the first to be harnessed, harassed and purged. Tyrants on both sides of the political fence are as guilty of repressing artists as the leaders they deposed. No better example of this hypocrisy can be found than in the rise of 20th Century communist dictatorships in Russia, China, North Korea and Cuba. Adolph Hitler, who fancied himself to be a painter of substance, didn’t worry much about offending his critics in the arts. He simply labeled their work “degenerate” and had it stolen, destroyed or hidden from view. He and Stalin shared many of the same tastes in art that glorified the state, while condemning anything that portrayed their political views in a negative light. Directed by Margy Kinmonth (Hermitage Revealed), the feature-length documentary, Revolution: New Art for a New World, encapsulates a momentous period in the history of the fledgling USSR and the Russian Avant-Garde, beginning with the Bolshevik uprising of 1917. Drawing on the collections of major Russian institutions, contributions from contemporary artists, curators, performers and personal testimony from the descendants of those involved, the film brings the artists of the Russian Avant-Garde to life. The film discusses all aspects of visual art, including photography, painting, propaganda posters, graphic design, sculpture, cinema, dance and theater, while covering artists as diverse as Kazimir Malevich, Wassily Kandinsky, Alexander Rodchenko, Dziga Vertov, Pavel Filonov, Petrov Vodkin, Marc Chagall, Varvar Stepanova, and Gustav Kluzis. Kinmonth describes how these artists contributed to the utopian vision of the revolutionaries, but soon would be ordered to conform with the one-party state and Lenin’s belief that art should conform to “monumental propaganda.” After Stalin rose to power, artists who didn’t buy into the party’s bias toward Socialist Realism either were given a one-way ticket to Gulag labor camps or chose to leave the country. “Revolution” also describes how curators risked their careers by hiding works of art that offended Stalin and now can be viewed in Russian museums. Bonus features includes more than 20 minutes of additional bonus footage and deleted scenes.

In the so-called free world, we know that censorship, condemnation and authorization take different forms, most of them dictated by the whims of the marketplace. Those whims include the opinions of critics, the appeal to celebrities and socialites, and flavor-of-the-month trends. One day, a painting might only be worth the price of a meal or carafe of wine. A few years later, the same work of art – and everything else in the artist’s studio – would bring a small fortune, with lines forming outside museums and galleries to see those pieces not in private hands. As we learn in PBS’ provocative bio-doc, Wyeth, the process sometimes reverses itself. This happens when an artist’s work is deemed “too popular” and some of the same critics and trend-setters who brought it to the attention of the masses turn on the artists and their collectors. That in a very small nutshell describes the public fate of painter/illustrator Andrew Wyeth, one of four subjects in the “American Masters” series for PBS, “Artists Flight.” (The others are sculptor-painter Eva Hesse, painter Elizabeth Murray and painter-illustrator Jean-Michel Basquiat.) Unlike most other artists, Wyeth was encouraged to join the family business – creating art – by his father, N.C. Wyeth. According to his grandson, Jamie Wyeth, himself a successful artist, “N.C. [was] an illustrator who was sort of the flagship of illustration back in the mid-century.” His father’s favorite subjects were the land and people around him, both in his hometown of Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania, and at his summer home in Cushing, Maine. “I paint my life,” he was fond of saying. One of the best-known images in 20th Century American art is his painting “Christina’s World” (1948), which depicts a woman lying on the ground in a treeless field, looking up at a gray farm house on the horizon. When it was purchased by the Museum of Modern Art, Wyeth was only 31 years old. The model’s enigmatic presence prompted critics to describe it as an example of “magical realism,” a characterization markedly hipper than ordinary “realism.” This and other well-publicized sales served to sour his reputation among his peers and patrons of the arts. Abstractionisms was in vogue in the 1950s and there was no room left for “illustrators,” “regionalist” and mere realists. Having one’s work compared to that of Norman Rockwell, I supposed, was the ultimate insult. The documentary also covers the other great controversy in his life: the “Helga Pictures,” a series of more than 240 paintings and drawings of German model/muse/neighbor Helga Testorf, created between 1971 and 1985. The voyeuristic portraits supposedly were kept secret from their spouses, friends and curators, and Testort was promised her nude body wouldn’t be put on public display. That pledge didn’t last long. Still spry, Testorf is interviewed in “Wyeth,” which takes full advantage of the beautiful places that inspired the artist and his family.

Cholesterol: The Great Bluff
The other documentary on this week’s list of new releases represents a sub-genre of non-fiction films, in which everything we’ve been led to believe about advances in medicine, nutrition and science is fair game for members of the denial community. It’s nothing new, certainly, but the media’s demand for controversial content – however, unreliable and untested – has overwhelmed the ability of the scientific community to keep up with it. The most prominent example, of course, is the debate over global warming. Anti-vaccine campaigners have also stated their cases to parents afraid that their child will beat the odds by being damaged by active agents in the immunization process. By relying on the testimony of celebrities and anecdotal evidence, anti-vaxxers have scared enough parents to cause headaches for school and public-health administrators. The result has been outbreaks of measles, whooping cough and polio, diseases once assumed to be under control. It would be a lot easier to write off the activists if the government, pharmaceutical, medical and insurance establishment didn’t make it easy for them to flourish. “60 Minutes” wouldn’t have five years, let alone 50, if all it presented were celebrity puff pieces and author interviews. Its bread and butter derive from investigative pieces that betray the greed of corporate executives and willingness of government officials to accept money from lobbyists whose ethical restraints are non-existent.

Cholesterol: The Great Bluff is one of those documentaries whose arguments sound valid, but whose veracity is questionable, based on most journalistic standards. Anne Georget’s film argues that the widely accepted link between cholesterol and heart disease is tenuous and that its persistence results from a mix of bad science, entrenched interests and pharmaceutical profits. If the film hasn’t found much traction apart from an airing on Canadian television, and the reaction to it has been minimal, the same can’t be said about the debate over the demonization of saturated fats, the rise and fall of hydrogenated oils, and the introduction of several generations of miracle drugs, not all of which have panned out as expected. Who to believe? The best place to start, of course, is by asking your family doctor and pharmacist about the questions you’ve heard about prescription drugs. The problem here is the willingness of doctors, researchers and med-school administrators to accept money from industry reps to support research, or to participate in expenses-paid junkets to gatherings at luxury resorts, in return for listening to sales pitches. (Just like time-share hustlers.) There’s plenty of reliable – and suspect – information on the Internet to survey, as well. I take statins and other pharmaceuticals to reduce my blood pressure, and they appear to work. I’m not ready, yet, to go against my doctor’s advice simply because the makers of a documentary encourage me to do so.

The Seventh Sign: Blu-ray
It’s been a while since the only thing standing between mankind and the Apocalypse – the real one, not the zombie version – was the determination of Demi Moore to bring a child into the world. Whether the baby is the demon-seed of Satan or the re-arrival of Jesus Christ remains open to question throughout most of The Seventh Sign’s 97-minute runtime. The 1988 thriller might have been better served if it had been titled “The Seventh Seal,” but someone in an executive office probably thought audiences would confuse it with Ingmar Bergman’s 1957 drama, starring a medieval knight played by Max von Sydow and Death, portrayed by Bengt Ekerot. While both movies are informed by passages from the Book of Revelation, they are otherwise quite different from each other. (I’m trying to imagine Moore engaged in a fateful chess match against the pale, black-cowled personification of Death.) Carl Schultz’ film opens with manifestations of the plagues some theologians believe will precede the Second Coming. A mass death of fish and crustaceans occurs in the waters off Haiti; a freak freeze devastates an ancient village in the Middle East; and earthquakes are felt around the globe. At each location, a mysterious traveler, David Bannon (Jürgen Prochnow) appears, carrying a sealed envelope.

The Vatican tasks Father Lucci (Peter Friedman) with investigating these events, though he’s cautioned that they are all either hoaxes or have other explanations. Meanwhile, Moore’s Abby Quinn is eight months pregnant and afraid of experiencing another miscarriage. Her husband, Russell (Michael Biehn), is the defense lawyer representing Jimmy Szaragosa (John Taylor), a mentally handicapped man dubbed the “Word of God Killer,” after claiming he killed his incestuous parents because they disobeyed God’s law. His scheduled execution would coincide with the birth of Abby’s baby … so, you figure it out. In another case of incredible timing, Bannon arrives in California during the final weeks of her pregnancy, moving into a spare room at the Quinn’s abode. Abby, who can’t help but stick her nose into her tenant’s belongings, becomes suspicious when she comes across some ancient Hebrew writing and one of the seals. Her curiosity leads her to a local rabbi, whose son not only can translate the text, but also is game for some adventure. The rest I can safely leave to your imaginations. Moore, who, at the time, was a rising superstar in Hollywood, may be completely unsuited for the role of Mother of God/Satan, but she’s the only actor who stands out here as someone worth our time. Otherwise, The Seventh Sign is crumbly around the edges of Clifford and Ellen Green’s flaky narrative and Schultz’ paint-by-numbers direction. The Scream!Factory Blu-ray includes fresh interviews with actors Biehn, Friedman and Taylor, Schultz and the Greens.

Barbershop: Blu-ray
Barbershop 2: Back in Business: Blu-ray
Beauty Shop: Blu-ray
MVD adds three irresistible titles to its recently launched Marquee Collection, with Blu-ray editions of Barbershop, Barbershop 2 and Beauty Shop, all produced by Chicagoans Robert Teitel and George Tillman Jr. Even with the success of Soul Food behind them, Teitel and Tillman found it difficult to court studio money for Barbershop, which, in hindsight, seems like the ultimate no-brainer. In 2002, studios were reluctant to finance pictures targeted at primarily African-American audiences, with predominantly male actors and minority production teams. Despite the success of Waiting to Exhale (1995), Set It Off (1996), How Stella Got Her Groove Back (1998), The Wood (1999) and The Brothers (2000), Hollywood economics argued against expecting big returns, even on budgets that rarely crossed the $10-million barrier. While limited to $7.5 million (Soul Food) and $12 million (Barbershop), the pictures returned $43.5 million and $75.8 million, respectively. Unlike today, the foreign box-office was written off before anyone bothered to try selling it overseas. Perseverance paid off for Teitel and Tillman in the form of a legitimate franchise comprised of three Barbershop films, Beauty Shop and a television series … two, if you include Showtime’s “Soul Food,” which ran from 2000-2004.

In the original, Calvin (Ice Cube) decides to sell the Chicago barbershop he inherited from his father. He and his friends spend the rest of the movie trying to raise the money to buy it back. In the sequel, Cube, Cedric the Entertainer, Sean Patrick Thomas, Eve, Troy Garity, Michael Ealy and Leonard Earl Howze are joined by Queen Latifah, a stylist at the beauty shop next door. In Beauty Shop, Latifah’s Gina Norris has moved to Atlanta, where she hopes to sell cutting-edge hairstyles to Southerners with conservative tastes. When her egotistical boss (Kevin Bacon) delivers one criticism too many, Gina leaves his salon to open a shop of her own, taking the shampoo girl (Alicia Silverstone) and a few key clients (Andie MacDowell, Mena Suvari) with her. Gina buys a rundown salon and inherits an opinionated group of headstrong stylists (including Alfre Woodard), a colorful clientele and a sexy upstairs neighbor (Djimon Hounsou). The individual Blu-rays add several featurettes, deleted scenes, commentaries, outtakes, bloopers and vintage marketing material.

Diamonds of Kilimandjaro: Blu-ray
Golden Temple Amazons: Blu-ray
In the nearly 60 years that Jesús “Jess” Franco wrote and directed movies, it’s unlikely that he allowed his name to be attached to two pictures more ineptly conceived and produced than Diamonds of Kilimandjaro and Golden Temple Amazons, although it remains unclear where his contributions began and ended. Both pictures are set in dense jungles, where Amazonian and native African warriors, compete with European plunderers for gold, diamonds and the soul of a topless orphan girl, who swings from vine to vine, but can barely muster a passable imitation of Tarzan’s yell. In fact, most of the women featured in the film – white and black – perform without the benefit of pectoral support, even when riding into action on horses. Clearly, this was vintage Franco … even if everything was suspect. This includes the stock shots of elephants and hippos, and a monkey named Rocky who couldn’t act if its supply of bananas depended on it. Both movies argue that they were made in the mid-’60s by college freshmen who couldn’t see beyond the parade of breasts and occasional glimpse of female pubic hair. Their official release dates were in the mid-’80s, when more was expected of exploitation flicks. That said, Diamonds of Kilimandjaro and Golden Temple Amazons can be enjoyed by people whose search for the ultimate Movie So Bad It’s Good never ends. Both appear on Blu-ray for the first time.

Mambo Cool
There’s nothing remotely glamorous, cool or intriguing about the drug addicts we meet in Chris Gude’s morbidly fascinating Mambo Cool. Over the course of 62 minutes, he introduces viewers to lumpen junkies and small-time crooks living in prisons of their own making. It’s set in the back alleys of Medellin, where some of them once dealt the drugs whose residue they now scrape from the floor and keep their minds occupied with new ways to trap rats that are smarter than they’ll ever be, again. The only time the lead characters come to life is when they’re allowed to partake in their other drug of choice: the mambo, which is provided by Cuban musician David Oquendo. Jose Ignacio Pardo and Felipe Loaiza’s artistically dark and forbidding cinematography disguises the likelihood of Mambo Cool having originally played out on the cramped, compartmentalized stage of a theater. The interaction between the addicts – or, lack thereof – reminded me of the junkie jazz musicians waiting listlessly for their man, Cowboy, in Shirley Clarke’s The Connection (1962). It’s difficult to recommend either movie to mainstream audiences, but anyone looking for a walk on the wild side might want to check them out.

TV-to-DVD
Lifetime: Watcher in the Woods
HBO: Rolling Stone: Stories From the Edge: Blu-ray
BBC/PBS: The Great British Baking Show, Season 5 UK Season 3
PBS: NOVA: Animal Mummies
PBS: NOVA: Rise of the Superstorms
Nickelodeon: SpongeBob SquarePants: The Legend of Boo-Kini Bottom
Nickelodeon: PAW Patrol: Halloween Heroes/Mighty Pups
Melissa Joan Hart’s re-adaptation of Florence Engel Randall’s 1976 novel, “The Watcher in the Woods” – previously filmed, by Disney, in 1980 – appears, at first glance, to be a curious choice for Lifetime, unless one considers that the former star of “Sabrina, the Teenage Witch” and her mother, Paula,  had already directed/produced the holiday-themed “Santa Con” for the network and Anjelica Huston would fill in for Bette Davis as the creepy Mrs. Aylwood. The story involves a family moving into a large country home, lorded over by a woman harboring a deep, dark decades-old secret. Although suspense is built into the narrative, Hart fails to take advantage of it. Reportedly, the Harts ran out of money before the scary stuff could be souped-up on CGI, allowing the “watcher” to deliver the goods. Instead, the special-effects are less effective than the first-love through-line involving Tallulah Evans (Son of Rambow) and Nicholas Galitzine (The Beat Beneath My Feet), who plays the son of the house’s caretaker. The production benefits from its Welsh location and a home in which Agatha Christie once penned her mysteries. As tame as it might be for hard-core fans of Halloween fare, “The Watcher in the Woods” could very well appeal to younger teens, whose taste in horror isn’t set in stone.

I’d feel better about HBO’s eight-part documentary series, “Rolling Stone: Stories From the Edge,” if it hadn’t been commissioned, in part, by magazine founder Jann Wenner as a 50th-anniversary present to himself. To one degree or another, Rolling Stone has been a fixture in the lives of Boomers, Boomlets, Gen X’ers and millennials, ever since it committed its resources not only to coverage of rock-’n’-roll, but also politics, race and sex. “Stories From the Edge,” which was directed by Oscar-winner Alex Gibney (Taxi to the Dark Side) and Emmy-winner Blair Foster (“George Harrison: Living in the Material World”), combines a plethora of archival photos, film and graphics, with the recollections of past and current journalists. They include Ralph J. Gleason, Baron Wolman, Annie Liebovitz, Jon Landau, Ben Fong-Torres, Tom Wolfe, Hunter S. Thompson, Greil Marcus, William Greider, P.J. O’Rourke and Cameron Crowe, all of whom provide entertaining anecdotes and much-needed context. It goes deep on Howard Kohn and David Weir’s exclusive inside report on the Patty Hearst’s kidnapping; Hunter S. Thompson and Ralph Steadman’s coverage of 1970s politics and personalities; Michael Hastings’ brutally candid profile of “Runaway General” Stanley McChrystal; and the magazine’s tentative embrace of punk, boy bands, rap and hip-hop. Like Wenner, the film is obsessed with such gods and goddesses of midcentury rock as John Lennon, the Grateful Dead, Bob Dylan, Janis Joplin and Rolling Stones. The final chapter discusses the negative impact of Sabrina Rubin Erdely’s discredited article on a gang rape at the University of Virginia that never happened. In the canonization process, Gibney and Foster make excuses for or completely ignore Wenner’s transition from San Francisco-based scene-maker to New York media mogul; his willingness to kill negative reviews of his friends’ albums; the disappearance of his wife and business partner, Jane, after the first two chapters; the dramatic drop in circulation and cheesy strategies for regaining teen readers; later plans to sell the magazine; a marketing campaign that denigrated the magazine’s bedrock audience; and his divorce and coming-out as gay in 1995. Still, there’s enough solid material here to keep cross-generational audiences interested during most of the doc’s four hours. Boomer parents and grandparents probably will dose off occasionally, however.

After “The Great British Baking Show” (a.k.a., “The Great British Bake Off”) developed a cult following in the United States, it became necessary for distributors of DVD compilations to square what exactly constitutes a season on British television and a season here. It explains why the new Season Five collection, carries the caveat of representing Season Three (U.S.) I once tried to explain the math, but got lost in the different configurations of episodes, spin-offs, contestants and judges. This time around, 12 amateur bakers head for the competition tent in the British countryside, hoping to be named the best by judges Mary Berry and Paul Hollywood, alongside hosts Mel Giedroyc and Sue Perkins. Each episode has a Signature Bake, to test creativity and baking ability; a Technical Challenge, to make basic recipes with minimal instruction; and the Showstopper Bake, to display depth of skill and talent. It’s possible that the season’s final episode didn’t make it into the DVD package – and, no, I don’t know why – so fans of the show might want to check out the streaming versions, if they think they’ve missed something.

Anyone who thinks that people only recently began traveling on public transportation with “comfort animals” owes it to themselves to watch the “NOVA” presentation, “Animal Mummies.” It describes how ancient Egyptians prepared for their journeys to the afterlife by having their pets and other animals mummified and placed next to them in their tombs. Hi-tech imaging is now revealing what’s inside the bundles that archeologists previously believed contained the remains of children who died at birth. In addition to the usual arrays of dogs and cats, they’ve discovered mummies of baboons, bulls, crocodiles and cows, in the tens of thousands, buried in Egyptian catacombs.

With Hurricane Florence lurking off the North Carolina coast, there’s hardly a better time to check out the “NOVA” report, “Rise of the Superstorms.” It revisits summer 2017, when three monster hurricanes swept in from the Atlantic, one after another, shattering storm records and killing hundreds of people. The shows dives into the devastation wrought by Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria. How can scientists better predict the severity of such storms, and what does the 2017 season tell us about the likelihood of similar storms in the future?

Last Halloween, Nickelodeon offered fans of “SpongeBob SquarePants” something a bit different from the usual undersea fun. “The Legend of Boo-Kini Bottom” adopted the stop-musician visual style of such classic Rankin/Bass TV specials as “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” (1964) and “The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus” (1985). I don’t know why the company decided on a such a seemingly primitive technique, but it probably was something new to the show’s pre-teen audience. In it, the infamous Flying Dutchman (Brian Doyle Murray) returns to town, bent on scaring the square-pants of its residents. This includes SpongeBob, who thinks scary things are funny. The Flying Dutchman, named after the ghost ship of the same name, is a green-glowing spook who haunts the seven seas, ostensibly because his unburied corpse was used as a window display. The special finds Bikini Bottom decked out for Halloween: Sandy’s tree dome is a mad scientist’s lab, with a giant remotely operated Acorn Monster; Mr. Krabs’ restaurant is “The Horrors of the Chum Bucket,” displaying scenes of Plankton torturing food; and Plankton’s restaurant is “The Horrors of the Krusty Krab.” It only takes 23 minutes to find out how many souls the Flying Dutchman can deliver to Davy Jones’ Locker. I would have expected something a bit longer.

Nickelodeon’s “PAW Patrol: Halloween Heroes” is comprised of seven vintage episodes, all based on a holiday or seasonal theme: “Pups and the Ghost Pirate,” “Pups Save a Ghost,” “Pups and the Ghost Cabin,” “Pups Save a Bat,” “Pups Fall Festival,” “Pups Save the Corn Roast” and “Pups Save a Show.” The animated children’s series follows the PAW Patrol, a group of hero pups who go around solving the problems that the people of Adventure Bay face daily. “Mighty Pups” previews an upcoming 44-minute special episode of “PAW Patrol,” now in its fifth stanza. For the time being, it’s only available at Walmart stores, otherwise the release date is October 4. The pups gain superpowers after a meteor lands in Adventure Bay. When Mayor Humdinger and his nephew attempt to steal the meteor and gain control over the city, the pups use their new powers to save the day.

The DVD Wrapup: Hereditary, Ghost Stories, Found Footage 3D, Beast, Venus, This Is Our Land, The Big Take, Brothers, Bloody Spear at Mount Fuji, Sid Caesar, Good Karma Hospital … More

Thursday, September 6th, 2018

Hereditary: Blu-ray/4K UHD
Ghost Stories: Blu-ray
Found Footage 3D: Blu-ray
Truth or Dare
With another new awards season always around the corner, it will be interesting to see if Avi Aster’s widely acclaimed debut thriller, Hereditary, gets the same respect accorded Jordan Peele’s freshman flick, Get Out, in last year’s campaigns. Both films merge suspense with family drama, relying much less on jump scares than the horror of thoroughly dysfunctional human relations. Get Out caught the attention of Oscar voters with its hyperextension of race-related preconceptions and prejudices – guess who’s coming to dinner, indeed – and boffo box-office results. Hereditary would have to get by solely on the usual attributes: wonderful acting, a terrific story, genuine scares, excellent production values and highly positive reviews. It also made some money. In AFI graduate Ari Aster’s slow-burn debut as writer/director, a seemingly normal family falls under the curse of its recently deceased matriarch, who, unbeknownst to them, was the leader of a demonic backyard cabal. Sounds far-fetched, sure, but the patiently rendered drama benefits from not having to rely on jump scares and grotesque visual effects. In an extreme example of either creative or coincidental casting, Toni Collette plays Annie, the daughter of a woman who suffered from the same dissociative-identity disorder as her character in Showtime’s “United States of Tara.” Her son, Peter (Alex Wolff), and daughter, Charlie (Milly Shapiro), will be affected by mysterious life-threatening occurrences, as well. Meanwhile, Annie’s husband, Steve (Gabriel Byrne), is forced to put himself in harm’s way by serving as a buffer between his increasingly unpredictable wife and the children. One of the ways Annie’s madness manifests itself here is in her inability to focus on her art, creating miniature replications of her home and other sites. The first indication that something is wrong is when characters in the models appear to take on a life of their own. The tension rises exponentially as the fragments of her mother’s cursed legacy begin to fall into place. While it isn’t easy watching children suffer for things they can’t possibly understand or control, it forces us to share the pain. Hereditary has been characterized as a merger of “arthouse horror” (The Witch, The Babadook), classic psychological horror (Rosemary’s Baby, Don’t Look Now) and intense family drama (Ordinary People, In the Bedroom), while also eliciting edge-of-your-seat thrills. The 4K UHD presentation dials up the excitement by adding another layer of audio/visual thrills, via 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio and Dolby Vision HDR, as well as deleted scenes, the featurette, “Cursed: The True Nature of Hereditary,” and a photo gallery.

Jeremy Dyson and Andy Nyman’s similarly effective Ghost Stories began its life on London’s West End, where it must have looked extremely different than the movie version. Nyman plays Professor Philip Goodman, a lecturer, TV celebrity and paranormal debunker, as well as an atheist and rationalist, driven to expose hoaxes and frauds. His motivation, in part, stems from his father’s fundamentalist religious beliefs, which were used as implements of psychological torture. The film’s basic conceit was spelled out, literally, in the UK marketing campaign, where the title of the film contained a curious typo: “Ghost Storeis.” The tagline, “The brain sees what it wants to see,” was added for readers whose built-in auto-correct function caused them to rejigger the letters. One day, out of the blue, Goodman receives a letter from a famous debunker – long believed dead – inviting him to his caravan. Even though the old man doesn’t have many good things to say about Goodman’s work, he asks him to investigate three cases that have perplexed him for years. The first involves a night watchman (Paul Whitehouse) at a facility that once served as a facility for mentally ill women and now actually appears to be infested with their malevolent spirits. In the second, a young man (Alex Lawther), who survived a terrible vehicular accident, lives in what can easily be described as a haunted house, complete with waxen facsimiles of his parents. He then travels to a seaside estate to meet a filthy rich banker (Martin Freeman) plagued by encounters a poltergeist, which he identifies as the spirit of his unborn child. Upon his return to the old man’s caravan, Goodman is visibly shaken by what he’s witnessed and how it might relate to his own life. One last surprise is left in reserve.

Over the course of the last 30 years, more than a dozen English-language horror films – alone – have carried the title, Truth or Dare, in one form or another, including Madonna: Truth or Dare (1991), which was pretty scary in its own right. Nick Simon’s newly released made-for-Syfy Truth or Dare (2017), preceded Jeff Wadlow’s theatrical feature of the same title by only a few months. They all share the same basic premise: a group of young people comes together over dinner, at a party, on a weekend retreat, in a house or cabin disguising dark secrets; they are required to answer deeply personal questions or accept potentially lethal challenges; and, of course, terrible things happen to good people. In Simon’s movie, the college-age men and women agree to spend the weekend inside a large home, where, years earlier, a game of T-or-D resulted in several grotesque deaths. In way too short a time, they begin responding to challenges that appear to be inspired by a malignant paranormal force within the walls of the house. As the dares become less personal in nature, and more cruel, Truth or Dare devolves rather quickly into the realm of torture porn.

Found-footage movies ran their course when The Blair Witch Project (1999) regurgitated itself as Blair Witch (2016) and was greeted with the same enthusiasm as yet another sequel to Godzilla. In the self-descriptive Found Footage 3D, an aspiring filmmaker is hired to document the creation of the ultralow-budget “Spectre of Death.” Its backers are promoting the project as “the first 3D found-footage horror film,” knowing full well that audiences have become jaded and won’t be fooled by such schlock again. The production is taking place in a remote cabin not far from Austin, which is the stomping ground of Lone Star horror-meisters Tobe Hooper and Kim Henkel (The Texas Chainsaw Massacre), who’s also one of this film’s producers. Inevitably, the fictional specter from “Spectre of Death” reveals itself in the behind-the-scenes footage. If the filmmakers can’t isolate the dark spirit, it could find its way into the real world. Or, so we’re asked to believe. The good news is that the 3D process employed here doesn’t require an expensive television or special lenses to work, just the enclosed cardboard-and-cellophane glasses that have always worked and cost pennies to manufacture, if that. The bonus package adds a pair of commentaries, interviews, making-of material, outtakes, deleted and extended scenes. A Blu-ray 2D version is enclosed, as well, but what would be the point?

(In an exchange of responses, multi-hyphenate filmmaker Steven DeGennaro insists that a scene I commented upon in a previous edition of this review —“I lost patience with “FF3D” when the fictional director thought it would be a good idea to punish his leading lady’s insubordination by punching her out in front of the others. It was a shade too real for my taste.” — actually was in the deleted/extended/outtakes section of the package. Although, I stand by my memory, I’ll give him the benefit of a doubt by deleting the comment. I will say, however, that the offending scene was so disturbing that it altered my impression of the movie … deleted or not. As writer/director/sound editor/producer/editor, it’s possible that he was too wedded to the sequence to realize how the inclusion
of the scene in the bonus features might be perceived in the #metoo climate by viewers. There’s no law that requires a director to include all deleted scenes in the bonus package, even to show viewers how politically correct he was to eliminate it. And, no, I didn’t review a pirated or early edition. I reviewed what I saw.)

Beast
The British island of Jersey, just off the Normandy coast, serves both as home and prison for Beast’s troubled protagonist, Moll, played by the wonderfully talented Irish redhead, Jessie Buckley. As a teenager, Moll made the mistake of embarrassing her patrician mother, Hilary (Geraldine James), within the insulated community of wealthy Brits. As punishment, she’s condemned to earning money as a tour guide and bearing the brunt of Hilary’s tyranny. Even when her mother throws a gala birthday party for Moll, she uses it as an occasion to announce that her other daughter is pregnant with twins. To add insult to injury, the birthday girl is asked to fetch champagne from the cellar to celebrate the news. In a fit of pique, Moll crushes broken glass in her hand, flees the party, gets drunk at the local disco and leaves the club with a guy who almost certainly will force himself on her. Before that can happen, though, the island’s other black sheep – this one with flaxen hair – threatens the ruffian at rifle point. Pascal (Johnny Flynn) explains the gun by pointing out the pail full of poached rabbits in the back of his Jeep. Moll not only buys the excuse, but she also allows herself to be used as an alibi witness when police question the boy about a missing girl. Pascal becomes the prime suspect when she’s found dead some time later. By then, however, he manages to alienate Hilary and her son, who took it upon himself to investigate his sister’s boyfriend. (Being a native Norman, of “noble birth,” he fails to endear himself with Hilary when, after getting mud on her rugs, he declares that her family is living on his land.)

For all of Pascal’s deep-seated menace and mysteries, he’s a likable guy and someone we’d like to see as Moll’s savior. For that to happen, though, he must avoid being lynched by the bigoted locals; stop telling lies to Moll; and convince us of his innocence. Beast thrives as much on the uncertainty as it does on the island’s beauty, which masks an ugly core of intolerance and greed. Writer/director Michael Pearce grew up on Jersey and based the story on a series of crimes that occurred during his youth. Buckley, who’s spent much of her early career in stage musicals, exudes a feral quality here that goes away when she washes and combs her curly red mane. Neither Buckley (“War and Peace”) nor Flynn (Clouds of Sils Maria) should have any difficulty landing key roles in projects demanding fresh young talent.

Venus
Until Americans put aside their fear of and prejudices against members of the LGBTQ community and its perceived agenda, audiences will have to rely on Canada and Europe for movies that deal realistically with issues affecting everyone. Caitlyn Jenner and RuPaul have contributed more to the mainstreaming of transgender and queer culture than activists who’ve led the good fight since the Stonewall riots, only to be ostracized by politicians, condemned by religious leaders and ignored in the media. Even so, film festivals overflow with movies that no longer are fixated on such fundamental themes as accepting sexual identity, surviving AIDS/HIV and dealing with exclusionary treatment by families, religious leaders and government entities. Wolfe Releasing, Broken Glass Pictures, Strand Releasing and IFC/Sundance are among a handful of distributors that skim the cream from the festivals and make the titles available to DVD/Blu-ray and VOD audiences here. Montreal-based Eisha Marjara’s Venus crosses so many genre boundaries that the fact that its protagonist is a transgender woman is almost immaterial to its appeal. Every bit as important to the narrative are the dynamics within Sid’s Punjabi family and how they react, first, to their son’s transition – hint: not well – and, second, to the news that they have a grandson … hint: much better. In fact, Sid (Debargo Sanyal) is, at first, less willing to accept the reality of his fatherhood than they are. Several years after Sid decided to leave home and live his life a woman, she discovers that she’s being stalked by a kid on a skateboard. One day, the 14-year-old shows up at her door to announce that Sid is her birth father.

Ralph (Jamie Mayers) discovered this biographical tidbit while reading his mother’s well-hidden journal, which pointed to a short, but fruitful liaison with Sid in high school. In fact, Sid was more interested in her brother, but he was unable to admit it. She kept Ralph’s parentage secret for all this time. Once Sid accepts this reality, he asks Ralph to maintain his mother’s secrecy, until such time as Kirsten (Amber Goldfarb) can resolve her own feelings about shared parenthood. In a twist that could easily backfire on him, he decides to tell Mamaji (Zena Darawalla) and Papaji (Gordon Warnecke) about their new half-Indian grandson, whose maturity and tolerance are enhanced by a natural curiosity about new things in his life. Instead, they’re thrilled, especially when the light-skinned Ralph enthuses over Mamaji’s cooking and shows a desire to learn more about his Asian heritage. Meanwhile, Sid has her hands full with her handsome boyfriend, Daniel (Pierre-Yves Cardinal), who’s reluctant to leave the closet, but anxious for Ralph’s mother to learn about the boy’s almost daily visits.

When Daniel accidentally encounters Ralph’s stepfather and the boy acknowledges both men, without spilling the beans, he realizes how tenuous Sid’s legal standing might be. In a rarity, Sid’s sexual identity isn’t used as a narrative battering ram or a device to demean any of the characters. With the grandparents’ acceptance of Ralph, they are forced to come to grips with the reality of having a daughter. If anything, the boy is more conflicted by having to share his birthparents with the other men in his life. The humor and drama flow naturally from these complications, minus the sturm und drang that usually accompany such films. Neither are gratuitous displays of nudity added, simply to appeal to the prurient interest of some viewers. In the interviews included in the bonus package, Sanyal describes how excited he was to learn that Papaji would be played by Warnecke, who, a million years ago, it seems, debuted in Stephen Frears and Hanif Kureishi’s My Beautiful Laundrette, playing Daniel Day Lewis’ business partner and lover.

This Is Our Land
Lucas Belvaux’s taut political drama is a thinly veiled dramatization of the machinations that contributed to Marine Le Pen’s ascendency within France’s far-right-wing National Front and in head-to-head battles with future presidents Nicolas Sarkozy, François Hollande and Emmanuel Macron. If This Is Our Land doesn’t completely unravel the complexities of French elections for us, at least it demonstrates how far name recognition will carry a candidate whose extreme politics resemble those espoused by her more famous father and a certain orange-haired blowhard currently residing in our White House. This Is Our Land is most relevant to American viewers for depicting the rise of a movement based on exploiting latent nationalism, cultural identity, unbridled immigration, crime, unemployment and economic woes. Indeed, it’s possible to argue that Le Pen was one more deadly terrorist attack away from victory. Marine followed in the rather large footsteps of her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, who founded the Front National and ran in the French presidential elections in 1974, 1988, 1995, 2002 and 2007. Her stand-in here is Agnès Dorgelle, played by multiple César Award nominee, Catherine Jacob. This Is Our Land doesn’t spend a lot of time on Dorgelle, however. Instead, it tells the story of an apolitical nurse, Pauline Duhez (Émilie Dequenne), living in northern France, who is talked into joining Dorgelle’s Patriotic Bloc party and running for mayor by a Machiavellian doctor, Philippe Berthier (André Dussollier), who wants nothing more than to hold on to the office in the absence of his candidate. No, I didn’t get it, either.

Even after a tight vetting process, party operatives manage to overlook Pauline’s romantic relationship with an old boyfriend — extreme right-wing militant, Stéphane Stankowiak (Guillaume Gouix) – who coaches her sons’ soccer team. A single mother, she’s far less interested in his politics than his kindness toward her children. Stanko, as he’s known, is quite well known to Berthier, who had earlier recruited his merry gang of thugs for some dirty work. The doctor recognizes how Pauline’s links to a person who kidnaps immigrants, beats them with a hose and photographs them in a cage might damage her mayoral campaign and, by extension, tar Dorgelle. Stanko convinces Pauline of his innocence in the more beastly crimes and vows to lay low for a while. Still, Berthier demands she break up with him and puts party operatives on Stanko’s tail to prevent him from hurting the campaign. His past comes back to haunt him, however, in a way that no one could have predicted. This Is Our Land turns out to be an extremely well-acted cautionary tale that describes how badly things can go for a naif who underestimates the ruthlessness of political animals and their fanatical puppets. The film might confound American viewers, but, in France, supporters of Le Pen’s National Front argued the film’s release was timed to influence the first round of the 2017 presidential elections and that Jacob was cast because of her resemblance to Marine Le Pen.

The Big Take
Anyone who enjoyed such twisty, Hollywood-based crime dramedies as Get Shorty and The Player – and, who didn’t? – might want to take a chance on Justin Daly’s The Big Take, which slipped into release this week without any fanfare whatsoever. An introduction by one of the lead characters practically tells the whole story, “Some people in Hollywood would kill to have their movie made. I just did.” The rest of the picture plays out in one long flashback. It opens with the nifty execution of a blackmail plot against a slightly over-the-hill movie star, Douglas Brown (James McCaffrey), who’s slipped a mickey during a meeting with his agent at a loud Tinseltown nightclub. Out cold, Brown is rushed out of the club by the same lummox, Vic Venitos (Slate Holmgren), who pitched him a screenplay in the elevator, but, in return, received only a rude rejection. The next morning, Brown’s awakened by a nearly naked German-speaking blond, whose face he can’t place. She hands him a large envelope, left at the foot of the driveway, containing a note demanding $200,000 in return for hard drives containing evidence of an incident that takes place while he was unconscious. Because Brown fears the footage could ruin his career, he turns to the agent, Jack Girardi (Bill Sage), for advice. Naturally, after checking with the nightclub owner, they think it’s wise to bypass the police and call in an amoral P.I., Frank Manascalpo (Dan Hedaya), who, for a large fee, promises him positive results.

Meanwhile, Vic has interrupted his “partner” with the happy news that Brown has agreed to pay $200,000 – not saying how, or why – to begin production on the script. The screenwriter, Max O’Leary (Ebon Moss-Bachrach), is being entertained by his Russian girlfriend, Oxana (Oksana Lada), a stripper with bad taste in clothes, but fierce loyalty to him. It takes Frank almost no time to trace the blackmailer’s letter to a typewriter belonging to O’Leary, to whose bungalow he immediately pays a visit. It’s at this point that everything that could possibly go horribly, hilariously wrong with the various schemes begins happens. It starts with Brown, Girardi, Manascalpo, O’Leary and a seen-it-all cop, Detective Aborn (Robert Forster), completely misreading the letter’s intent and failing to associate it with the lummox, who only wants to see the screenplay turned into a movie with his name listed as producer.  Manascalpo breaks into O’Leary’s home, only to be told that he isn’t aware of a blackmail plot – he isn’t – and leaving himself open to being attacked by Oxana. Throw in two of the P.I.’s best female operatives (Zoe Bell, Tara Westwood), who can’t understand why O’Leary is dodging responsibility, either, and the plot thickens to the point where the initial scheme is dwarfed by the magnitude of the aftershocks. The only viewers able to accurately predict the ending, I suspect, will be those who recall O’Leary’s introduction.

Brothers
You shouldn’t have to turn to an encyclopedia – or Google, for that matter – to figure out why things happened the way they did in the movie you just saw. With the number of historically-based pictures coming from China lately, however, it behooves viewers to keep a reference tool handy. Considering how little we were taught about the recent history of China in our schools, it’s a wonder anyone watching Kiefer Liu’s Brothers could tell the difference between the Kuomintang and the Red Army, or the precise dates of the Chinese Civil War the movie depicts. I was off by 20 years. Then, again, Brothers wasn’t made for the enjoyment of DVD/Blu-ray enthusiasts in the west, as are some of the historical epics about long-ago wars in dynasties past. Brothers is set in 1936, during the first half of the Chinese Civil War, which began in 1927 and ended in 1937, then picked up again in 1946, finally concluding in 1950. It was interrupted by the Second Sino-Japanese War, which is more commonly known as World War II, but lasted slightly longer when the Soviets came to the party. The film adopts the adage about civil wars pitting brother against brother and builds this sometime bewildering drama around it. It opens with the homeless Bingsheng Wang (Peter Ho) being sent to jail for shooting a gangster who’s bothering his younger brother, Tiejin Chen (Ethan Li). A decade later he’s released, hardly recognizable to his brother as a flesh-and-blood fighting machine. No sooner do they finish a reunion dinner and down a line of shots than they’re arrested for beating the crap out of an antagonist in the alley behind the restaurant. Instead of being sent to jail, the police hand them over to the Kuomintang authorities, who give them uniforms, load them onto a truck and send them to the front.

On the way, however, Bingsheng literally kicks Tiejin off the back of the vehicle, so that he can escape into the forest and mountains. The next time they meet, a few years later, the brothers are accomplished warriors, fighting on opposite sides of the war. A tragedy is averted when Bingsheng stops pounding on Tiejin long enough to recognize him as his “little brother,” who’s no longer so little. It’s at this point that Kuomingtan soldiers become indistinguishable from Red Army forces — except for their helmets – and political considerations are replaced by innate survival instinct. Liu considers his audience by adding a small red flag to the handle of Tiejin’s sword and scary-looking scars to his brother’s face and lots of tattoos everywhere else. Tiejin is escorting a group of female musicians across a war zone infested with enemy troops, all of whom are anxious to rape anything that even closely resembles a woman. The ones who escape being ravaged become targets for artillery shells and snipers. Strangely enough, both armies appear to be populated by barbarians and criminals in military drag. Our ability to keep things straight is hindered, as well, by Liu’s decision to shoot everything in the studio, using green-screen backgrounds, and filtering the visuals through a comic-book filter, a la Sin City and 300. Still, it’s pretty entertaining … in a video-game sort of way, anyway. A making-of featurette explains the process in a way almost anyone can understand.

Bloody Spear at Mount Fuji: Blu-ray
Released in 1955, this samurai adventure represented director Tomu Uchida’s return to the Japanese studio system, after spending more than a decade working in Manchuria. In 1943, he joined the Japanese-run Manchukuo Film Association, which was established to produce films for Chinese audiences. After the invasion of northeast China by Soviet troops, the company’s assets – including Uchida – were handed over to Communist Party of China and its Northeast Film Studio. By the time Uchida was able to return home, his past successes had been forgotten. He had to call in favors with one-time contemporaries Yasujiro Ozu and Hiroshi Shimizu, who agreed to act as production advisors on Bloody Spear at Mount Fuji. Although the tragicomic yarn was lauded by Japanese film critics, and such peers as Ozu and Akira Kurosawa, the Edo-period drama found little traction outside the country. This can be blamed on the blossoming of the national cinema, as represented on the international festival circuit by Ozu (Tokyo Story), Kurosawa (Rashomon, Seven Samurai), Masaki Kobayashi (Black River), Teinosuke Kinugasa (Gate of Hell), Hiroshi Inagaki (The Burmese Harp) and Kenji Mizoguchi (Ugetsu) … and, lest we forget, Ishirō Honda’s Godzilla. All these filmmakers dealt with contemporary issues, historical fiction and horror in ways that resonated throughout post-Occupation Japan.

By comparison, Bloody Spear at Mount Fuji could be lumped together with more commercial genre fare. Today, however, movies that once were designated as entertainment for the masses are lauded for their storytelling, visuals, action sequences and humanistic attitudes. Beyond that, however, “Bloody Spear” is a terrifically entertaining picture. It follows samurai Sakawa Kojūrō (Teruo Shimada) as he makes his way to his lord’s palace, in Edo, with his two servants, Genta (Daisuke Katō) and Genpachi (Chiezō Kataoka). Kojūrō is a kindly master, but his character totally changes when he consumes alcohol. Genpachi is a lancer, while Genta serves as the more conventional manservant. Both are under strict orders to keep Kojūrō away from the sake. Because the master desires company when he drinks, this isn’t an easy task. Along the way to Eto, the trio encounters a policeman in pursuit of a thief; a precocious child, who mimics the spear carrier; and a woman who is to be sold into prostitution. One critic described the assemblage as being “weirdly reminiscent of ‘The Canterbury Tales,’ as Kojūrō and his servants re-encounter many of the same travelers at every inn along their route.” The most exciting fight scene takes place when the master takes umbrage at comments made by other samurai towards his drinking buddies. It ends with Genpachi demonstrating how effectively a lance can be against overconfident swordsmen. The nicely restored Arrow Academy Blu-ray – in B&W – adds new commentary by Japanese cinema expert Jasper Sharp, who points out that U.S. censors forbade filmmakers from using Mount Fuji as a background device, because it could be construed as a symbol of Japanese nationalism; a reversible sleeve, featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Corey Brickley; and an illustrated collector’s booklet, with new writing on the film by critic and filmmaker James Oliver.

TV-to-DVD
Sid Caesar: The Works
Acorn: The Good Karma Hospital: Series 2
While it might be a tad early for holiday gift-guide suggestions, I can’t
think of a better one right now than Shout!Factory’s brilliantly packaged, “Sid Caesar: The Works.” For much of the last 50 years, critics and historians have relied on a relative handful of examples of the comedian’s work from “Your Show of Shows” and “Caesar’s Hour” to make the case for bestowing genius status on him. Like Ernie Kovacs, Caesar invented fresh news ways to turn television into medium for sketch comedy, satire and sight gags. Otherwise, TV comedy was pretty much limited to adding a visual element to popular radio shows. This truly was something completely different from what became known as situation comedies. Caesar didn’t work his magic alone, however. His writing team included such enduring talents as Mel Brooks, Carl Reiner, Larry Gelbart, Neil and Danny Simon, Woody Allen, Mel Tolkin, Aaron Ruben, Sheldon Keller, and Gary Belkin, whose ideas he turned into magic. His company of comic actors included Broadway veterans Imogene Coca, Nanette Fabray, Howard Morris (“Uncle Goopy”), Bill Hayes, Reiner and singer Judy Johnson. Sketch parodies of popular movies and TV shows would set the standard for Mad magazine, Mad TV, Second f, the Groundlings, National Lampoon, “Saturday Night Live” and the gang responsible for The Kentucky Fried Movie. “Sid Caesar: The Works” is a comprehensive collection of the best work of Caesar and his teams, beginning with and featuring many interviews and extras, including the 2014 Paley Center For Media tribute, with Brooks, Reiner and Billy Crystal; the feature film, “Ten From ‘Your Show of Shows’” (1973), with “The Bavarian Clock,” a spoof of From Here to Eternity and an uproarious takeoff on “This Is Your Life”; the 1967 reunion special; excerpts from the documentary, “Caesar’s Writers”; “The Chevy Show, Featuring Sid Caesar”; “Mel Brooks: In The Beginning: The Caesar Years”; and the 1983 episode of “Nightcap,” with Caesar, Brooks, Reiner and hosts Studs Terkel and Calvin Trillin. Even the stuff that isn’t necessarily supposed to be funny here is hilarious.

The blurb on the cover of “Good Karma Hospital” anticipates the show’s demographic, describing it as, “The prime-time love child of ‘Call the Midwife” and Best Exotic Marigold Hotel.” I might have added “St. Elsewhere,” but, then, how many people under 40 would get the reference? The focus of the ITV medical soap is an idealistic young doctor, Ruby Walker (Amrita Acharia), who becomes disillusioned with her life and a broken relationship, and she decides to leave the UK. Seeing an advertisement for a hospital job in south India, she travels there hoping to make a fresh start. She lands at the Good Karma Hospital, an under-resourced and overworked cottage hospital, run by an eccentric English ex-pat, Dr. Lydia Fonseca (Amanda Redman). Other principle players are Lydia’s boyfriend, bar owner Greg (Neil Morrissey); the newly widowed and still depressed, Paul (Philip Jackson); Ruby’s standoffish colleague and potential love interest, Dr. Gabriel Varma (James Krishna Floyd); uptight hospital administrator, Dr. Ram Nair (Darshan Jariwala); his downtrodden son, A.J. (Sagar Radia); and compassionate nurse, Mari (Nimmi Harasgama). The mini-series, which has been renewed for a third season, is shot on location in a gorgeous beachside community in Sri Lanka’s Southern Province, where’s there’s a ready supply of impoverished residents, sunbaked ex-pats and clumsy tourists. One of the highlights of Season Two is an uneasy reunion between Ruby and her father, owner of a tea plantation, who abandoned her mother when she was still a baby. As soapy as it gets sometimes, “Good Karma Hospital” is a lot of fun.

The DVD Wrapup: American Animals, Book Club, Woman Walks Ahead, Bound, Mind Game, Shadowbuilder, Poetic Trilogy, Boss N-word, Crazy Six, My Life With James Dean … More

Thursday, August 30th, 2018

American Animals: Blu-ray
Not all art thieves are as cool as Steve McQueen in the Thomas Crown Affair; as endearing as George Clooney, Brad Pitt and Matt Damon in Ocean’s 12; as slick as Roger Duchesne, in Bob le Flambeur; as delightfully hapless as Peter Ustinov, in Topkapi; or, even, as misguided as the lovestruck glazier in The Theft of the Mona Lisa. Most aren’t the least bit sympathetic. Typically, the stolen paintings, jewel-encrusted daggers and ancient artifacts wind up in safes or on shelves in the homes of unscrupulous collectors. Art lovers and museum-goers are the innocent bystanders in thefts perpetrated by gangsters, tomb raiders and grave robbers. Even so, the intricacies of such crimes make them perfect for exploitation by screenwriters. Unlike movies about zombies and superheroes, any plot that details the purloining of valuable objects requires a modicum of research and imagination, after all. As entertaining a film as American Animals is, it’s simply impossible to find anything remotely positive to say about characters who conspire to steal something as close to the hearts of Americans as original editions of John James Audubon’s extraordinary “Birds of America.” The best that can be said is that the ineptness of the doofuses involved in the theft inspired writer/director Bart Layton (The Imposter) to make a crime drama as compelling – and frequently outlandish– as American Animals. If, however, the Southern-fried bozos damaged any of the treasures during their ill-conceived caper, had accidentally killed the librarian they tazed, or had managed to hand them off to a fence who could profit from making them disappear, the movie would be more depressing than entertaining. (I suppose that the same can be said of most crime-based pictures, though.) Among the books and manuscripts stolen on December 17, 2004 from the Special Collections Library at Transylvania University, in Lexington, Kentucky, were an 1859 first edition of Charles Darwin’s “On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection”; an illuminated manuscript from 1425; a two-volume set of the 15th Century horticultural masterpiece, “Hortus Sanitatis”; 20 original Audubon pencil drawings; and “A Synopsis of the Birds of North America.”

Because the narrative frequently jumps between interviews with the amateur thieves portrayed in the movie and staged depictions of their crime, there’s hardly any need for a spoiler alert in reviews of American Animals. They pulled it off; no one was killed; the art wasn’t damaged; and they paid the price for their ill-considered act. In 2003, Lexington high-school buddies Spencer Reinhard (Barry Keoghan) and Warren Lipka (Evan Peters) were bored students, looking for something to jump-start their young lives. After visiting the Transylvania library, a lightbulb – however dim – went off over their heads. Upon closer inspection, it was determined that the primary deterrent would be librarian Jean “B.J.” Gooch (Ann Dowd). Most of their preparation apparently involved watching such Hollywood heist flicks as Reservoir Dogs, from which they borrowed their aliases, Ocean’s 11 and Snatch. Now a quartet, they gang also wore costumes that might have been inspired by1955 version of The Ladykillers. It isn’t clear if, as depicted, one of the young men went to Amsterdam to meet with a fence (Udo Kier), prior to the crime, or if he merely pocketed the money set aside for expenses. Clearly, though, their decision to research the value of their haul at a New Year auction house raised the red flag that led to their ultimate demise. As Layton points out, none of the thieves was inspired by poverty or a tendency toward felonious behavior. They were simply disenchanted with pursuing a college degree, saw an opportunity for what they perceived to be an easy payday and took it. While the story had already been outlined in a 2015 Vanity Fair article, Layton was able to take advantage of the release of the thieves from prison to get their perspective on the incident. He borrowed a few tricks from his excellent 2012 documentary, The Imposter, which centered on the mystery surrounding a young Spanish man’s claim of being a Texas teen, who’d disappeared three years earlier. The American Animals Blu-ray arrives with commentary by Layton and cast members; a deleted scene; production featurettes; and a stills gallery. The fate of the men who committed the crime isn’t revealed until the closing credits.

Book Club: Blu-ray
Oprah Winfrey may not have invented book clubs, but her commendable desire to spark a discussion about noteworthy titles sparked a new interest in reading among her viewers, many of whom had previously limited their consumption of novels to potboilers and bodice-rippers. Launched in 1996, its impact was immediately felt on best-seller lists, library rentals and used-books stores. The media bowed to her genius and, once again, proclaimed her Queen of the World. The idea wasn’t particularly new, however. In her short story, “Xingu,” published in 1916, Edith Wharton satirized the Lunch Club in her fictional Hillbridge, which, she observed, was comprised of “indomitable huntresses of erudition,” who gathered monthly “to pursue Culture in banks.” Instead of contenting themselves with discussing literature, though, the ladies’ time together was consumed by petty disputes and adhering to the social graces of the time. In Bill Holderman’s 2018 directorial debut, Book Club — co-written with freshman scripter Erin Simms and possibly inspired by Helen Hooven Santmyer’s 1982 best-seller, “…And Ladies of the Club” – we’re introduced to four women who’ve have participated in a monthly book club for 30 years. Santmyer’s soapy novel spanned the years 1868-1932. Book Club describes what happens when characters played by Diane Keaton, Jane Fonda, Candice Bergen and Mary Steenburgen agree to read and discuss E.L. James’ steamy exposition of an S&M courtship, “50 Shades of Grey” (2011). Not having read the book that triggered the print and film trilogies, I can’t say why four highly educated, successful and attractive women would get so hot and bothered by a story that, at least in the 2015 film adaptation, barely warranted the R-rating the prudes at the MPAA ratings board bestowed on it.

After feigning their shock at the idea of being handcuffed to a bedpost, the women begin to weigh the current state of their current relationships and sex lives. Only Fonda’s character, a prominent hotelier, appears to be enjoying any semblance of the latter, although it consists primarily of hit-and-run trysts with younger men. The pursuit of a judicial career has weighed heavily on Bergen’s character, while the children of Keaton’s newly widowed character (Alicia Silverstone, Katie Aselton) have begun to treat her as if she’s ready to be deposited in a nursing home. Steenburgen’s problem has more to do with the lack of emotional interest shown to her by her newly retired husband (Craig T. Nelson). At this point, it’s worth noting that none of the women looks anything less than gorgeous and easily would qualify as a GILF, as defined in the Urban Dictionary. After introducing the women’s crises, Holderman pretty much jettisons the “50 Shades” plot device to concentrate on the women’s frequently funny efforts to get their grooves back. This also allows room for Andy Garcia, Don Johnson, Ed Begley Jr., Wallace Shawn and Richard Dreyfuss to enter the picture as suitors and potential lovers … not that anything comes easy for them in this regard. With a powerhouse lineup of stars and exemplary production values – the cosmetics budget for both the female and male actors must have been astronomical – it would have been difficult for women viewers, especially, not to find reasons to endorse the movie. As much as I hate to say it, though, Book Club probably would have been in better hands if Nancy Meyers (Something’s Gotta Give) had stepped in, either to doctor the script or add some muscle to the narrative as director.

Still, there’s no arguing with success at the box office. Even going up against juggernauts Deadpool 2 and Avengers: Infinity War, Book Club performed ahead of expectations, thanks to a loyal audience base that was 80 percent women, 88 percent over 35, and 60 percent over the age of 50. The domestic take was just north of $68.5 million, against a budget estimated to be about $10 million. (Did the stars work for scale?) Consider this, too: its cast includes four Oscar winners (Keaton, Fonda, Steenburgen, Dreyfuss) and two Oscar nominees (Bergen, Garcia). Moreover, Keaton, Fonda and Bergen have each dated Warren Beatty at some point in their lives, as has Johnson’s ex-wife Melanie Griffith. Johnson and Griffith’s daughter, Dakota Johnson, starred as Anastasia Steele in the “Fifty Shades” trilogy. Even as we cheer for 72-year-old Keaton and 62-year-old Garcia to hook up, it’s worth recalling that they played nephew and aunt in The Godfather: Part III. I’d be remiss, however, if I didn’t mention the many infuriating examples overly conspicuous product placement, which include plugs for the two later chapters in the “Grey” trilogy and cameos by the author and her husband.

Woman Walks Ahead: Blu-ray
While it wouldn’t be wise for a student to take the facts as presented in Woman Walks Ahead as gospel, its heart is the right place and the tragedy of the Plains Indians is depicted with the reverence it warrants. Unlike most of the Westerns made in the last 100 years, the facts-to-errors ratio in Susanna White’s gorgeously shot film – New Mexico for South Dakota – is within an acceptable range. Steven Knight’s story is based on Brooklyn portrait artist Catherine Weldon (Jessica Chastain), who, in the late 1880s, journeyed to the Standing Rock Indian Reservation, in Dakota Territory. Here, her sole goal is to paint portraits of Sitting Bull (Michael Greyeyes), the leader of the Hunkpapa Lakota. In real life, Weldon was already a strong advocate of Native American rights and the portraits were incidental to her work with the spiritual leader of the Sioux Nation. Even so, in Woman Walks Ahead, she’s portrayed as something of an innocent abroad. While feisty and unimpressed by the racist diatribes of Indian Agent James McLaughlin (Ciarán Hinds) and U.S. Army Colonel Silas Grove (Sam Rockwell), she’s looks as out of place on the reservation as any refined Easterner would be in the still very Wild West. Unlike Weldon in real life, Chastain’s character gradually learns of the threat to the Plains Indians posed by the Dawes Act of 1887, which was created to grease the expropriation of vast portions of the Great Sioux Reservation. It would open the land to white settlers and ensure statehood for North Dakota and South Dakota. The Indian population would be squeezed even tighter into reservations devoid of game, arable land and schools.

In Woman Walks Ahead, Weldon’s activism not only sparked by the miserable treatment of Indians by military and government officials, but also her ability to see through their lies when tribal leaders are invited to vote on provisions of the Dawes Act. Until she convinces Sitting Bull to intervene, the results of the election are a foregone conclusion. Because Greyeyes is substantially younger and more handsome than Sitting Bull was at the time, the movie leaves open the possibility of a love connection being made between the protagonists. When they aren’t squabbling over the ground rules for the paintings, they flirt tentatively, then openly, soon becoming close friends and allies. This doesn’t go unnoticed at the fort, where the non-Native Americans consider Weldon to be Sitting Bull’s “whore” and their enemy. Chastain and Greyeyes make a terrific team. Her characterization grows more credible with every new test of her character and resolve. The only possible glitch in Greyeyes’ portrayal comes in his youthful appearance – at 59, Sitting Bull looked like a man who’d spent most of his life outside, in harsh conditions – although Chastain doesn’t much resemble photographs of Weldon, either. Sitting Bull already was 13 years removed from the Battle of the Little Bighorn and had toured with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. Weldon’s arrival coincides with the rise of the Ghost Dance Movement and McLaughlin’s decision to arrest Sitting Bull, largely to prevent him from leaving the reservation for Wounded Knee Creek, where the dancers were gathering and would be slaughtered. The movie implicates an Indian marksman, acting on McLaughlin’s orders, in the assassination of the chief. In real life, he was shot at much closer range and under the cover of a disturbance created by his own people. Either way, it’s a tragedy that wouldn’t be fully rectified for another 100 years. If Woman Walks Ahead is enhanced by fine acting all around and Mike Eley’s evocative cinematography, its graphic depictions of genocidal practices and racist slurs are practically unbearable to watch. Learning about Weldon – another woman largely ignored by historians – is a big plus, though. The Blu-ray adds commentary and a making-of featurette with White, as well as deleted scenes.

Bound: Blu-ray
I can’t remember if my first exposure to Bound was in a theater, screening room or on VHS. It got a bit lost among the many neo-noir crime dramas released in the 1990s and the Wachowski “brothers” were were barely known outside of a couple of Hollywood zip codes and members of the gaming and comics communities. They were only a couple of years removed from running a house painting and construction business in Chicago, while also writing for Marvel Comics. Immediately before writing and directing Bound, they’d collaborated on a screenplay for Assassins, which, to their dismay, was rewritten by director Richard Donner and Brian Helgeland. The experience led to their decision to always direct what they wrote, which is exactly how Bound was born. Today, of course, the Wachowskis are widely known and admired for creating the Matrix trilogy and other challenging sci-fi/fantasy fare, but also for transitioning from Larry and Andy to Lana and Lilly. That part of their personal story wouldn’t be known outside the rumor mill for several more years. One person interviewed on a featurette in Bound’s Blu-ray package insists that their attention to detail in Jennifer Tilly and Gina Gershon’s incendiary sex scenes was influenced by their evolving attitudes toward LGBT issues. If so, it flew right over my head. Twenty years later, Bound is full of indications that Wachowskis had more on their minds than a contemporized homage to Hollywood’s noir tradition. In a 1998 interview, they said that the film is about “the boxes people make of their lives,” and that it is not only gay people who “live in closets.” The highly memorable sex scenes were choreographed by feminist writer and sex educator Susie Bright, who also appears on the commentary track.

The Wachowskis were fans of Bright and sent her a copy of the script with a letter asking her to be an extra in the film. She was especially impressed by the fact that it was about women enjoying having sex and not apologizing for it. Bright recalls an early screening in San Francisco, at which a lesbian-heavy audience loudly reacted with approval to cues and symbolic motifs that went over the heads of people like me. Tilly’s hypersexual Violet shares an upscale Chicago apartment building with her mafioso boyfriend, Caesar (Joe Pantoliano). Violet meets Gershon’s Corky, an equally hot ex-con in plumber’s drag, who’s entering the door to the apartment next-door to fix the pipes. Violet sets up a rendezvous by dropping an earring into the drain of her kitchen sink. Corky is more than happy to extract it from the elbow joint, for free. Just as they’re about to get cozy, Caesar arrives home early. He buys their story and insists on paying for the work. Not long afterwards, Corky and Violet get it on for real. They also cook up a scheme to steal $2 million in laundered mob money that’s sitting in a safe in Violet’s apartment. It won’t be easy to pull off – Caesar’s bosses already mistrust him, for good reason — but the women are motivated by their desire to break out of their boxes and leave Caesar in their wake. Bound is as violent as it is sexy. Both aspects are enhanced by the Olive Films Blu-ray upgrade and several minutes of additional material in the director’s-cut version. If you’ve already watched Bound in a previous iteration, I recommend watching the featurettes ahead of a second viewing or listening to the vintage commentary track, with the Wachowskis, Tilly, Gershon, Pantoliano, Bright and editor Zach Staenberg. Also good are featurettes “Modern Noir: The Sights & Sounds of Bound,” with director of photography Bill Pope, editor Zach Staenberg and composer Don Davis; “Femme Fatales,” with Gershon and Tilly; “Here’s Johnny!,” with Christopher Meloni; “The Difference Between You and Me,” with professors B. Ruby Rich and Jennifer Moorman; “Part and Parcel,” with titles designer Patti Podesta; and an eight-page illustrated booklet, featuring an essay by critic Guinevere Turner.

Mind Game: Blu-ray
Masaaki Yuasa and Kôji Morimoto’s wondrously eclectic Mind Game is a must-see for anyone who assumes that the past, present and future of Japanimation can be traced to the drawing boards at Studio Ghibli and artists hoping to fill the vacuum left behind by the (temporary) retirement of Hayao Miyazaki. Based on a manga by Robin Nishi (“Soul Flower Train”), the genre-scrambling anime debuted here briefly at the 2005 New York Asian Film Festival, then pretty much disappeared until a sighting at the 2016 Nashville Japanese Film Festival. In between, Mind Game was screened at various international gatherings of animation buffs and, apparently, on Netflix. At the time of its release, western viewers and critics were discovering the wonders of anime in such delights as Princess Mononoke (1997), Spirited Away (2001), Howl’s Moving Castle (2004) and Ponyo (2008), thanks, in large part, to distribution deals with Disney and GKIDS. I suspect that the reason Mind Game wasn’t accorded the same exposure as Miyazaki’s features is its distinctly non-Ghibli look and characters. Neither is it a film that will appeal to family audiences. Its messages aren’t delivered by princesses, anthropomorphic creatures or fairies; the language can be coarse; the female protagonist’s unusually prominent breasts are a subject of much discussion; fetishes are explored; the pacing is frenetic; and characters die or are murdered. In fact, death is an essential part of the film’s narrative.

The movie’s protagonist, Nishi, is inspired by the author of the underground comic upon which Mind Game was based and some elements of the story are said to be autobiographical. If so, he’s led a roller-coaster life. Cutting to the chase, the story hinges on Nishi’s death at the hands of Yakuza thugs – one of them, “the Maradona of Osaka” –into whose path he stumbles after reuniting with Myon, the girl he fell in love with in second grade and, years later, continues to carry a torch. She’s being chased through the subway by mob enforcers demanding money owed to loan sharks by her scoundrel father. After the violent encounter in the coffee shop, Nishi’s path through the afterlife is diverted by a return visit to the restaurant, this time with a very different outcome. After dispatching with the gunman, Nishi grabs Myon and her sister and escapes in his muscle car. During a high-speed chase through city streets, right out of The Fast and the Furious, the car careens off a bridge, finally landing in the belly of a whale. They’re greeted there by a hermit, living in an undigested shipwreck, surrounded by sex toys and memorabilia from his boyhood. He treats his guests to a meal inspired by the fare at a “New York sushi bar.” Given a second chance at life, Nishi reminisces about “things that I regret leaving behind in the outside world.” Among them are the porn tapes he didn’t have time to hide from his mother and the neighborhood animals that will go unfed in his absence. The rest of Mind Game passes by in a virtual dream state, combining inky, hand-drawn animation with flashes of live-action imagery and flyovers of Japanese villages and great cities, from Paris to Osaka.

The question that hangs over the nearly 103-minute adventure is whether Nishi will be able to leave the whale’s belly and find another portal to heaven, or he’ll be allowed to return to Earth with Myon and Yan a changed man. No longer a “loser,” he’ll be driven to live each moment to the fullest. The artists help viewers keep the wildly disparate elements straight by frequently changing the color palette to denote shifts in time, tone and cinematic influences, from Hollywood blockbusters, to Ghibli’s and Antoine de Saint-Exupéry delicate watercolors, and bargain-basement anime . One artist makes a cameo in the guise of a cigarette-smoking fish. The film’s music, produced by Shinichiro Watanabe and Seiichi Yamamoto, spans the globe, as well, opening with a Brazilian samba and including storms of percussive noise. I hesitate to consign Mind Game to the list of animated features lumped together as psychedelia, but I was reminded a bit of Yellow Submarine and some of Ralph Bakshi’s more colorful fantasies. It’s very much its own creature, though. To fully appreciate the filmmakers’ intentions and influences, repeat viewings are advised, as is a perusal of bonus features that include commentary on individual scenes.

Mohsen Makhmalbaf: The Poetic Trilogy, 1996-2012: Blu-ray
Naming a series of films, The Poetic Trilogy, practically dares viewers to find something in them that justifies the conceit, whether it’s a lyricism that retains the ethereal form of a poem or spontaneity based on sudden impulses … like jazz. While a narrative poem, such as Alfred Noyes’ “The Highwayman,” easily translates into prose, a folk ballad or film, most others simply deliver sensory prompts useful in setting a scene, creating a character or suggesting dialogue. Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman’s Howl (2010) used animated sequences to interpret parts of Allen Ginsberg’s eponymous  poem, while employing actors to depict events in his early life, including the now-celebrated Six Gallery reading of the poem, the blossoming of the San Francisco Renaissance and Beat Generation, and the 1957 obscenity trial. Animation often provides a useful shortcut when interpreting poetic images. That, however, is not what Iranian filmmaker Mohsen Makhmalbaf had in mind when he envisioned The Poetic Trilogy. As difficult as it is to translate poetry into film, it’s just that difficult to describe how Makhmalbaf managed to turn cinematic images into poetry, as light and ethereal as a sonnet. The Arrow Academy release features the deceptively folkloric dramas, Gabbeh (1996) and The Silence (1998), and an interpretive documentary, The Gardener (2012), none of which have been easy to find here, even in arthouses.

Gabbeh opens with an intricately woven Persian rug “floating” down a swiftly flowing stream. It belongs to an elderly couple, who stopped to wash the ceremonial gabbeh (rug in Farsi), which depicts a heart-rending story of love and loss. We know this because, while the couple argues over who will put on the boots used to get the rug clean, a radiantly veiled woman suddenly appears to narrate the tale, in which she plays an intricate role. The interpretation provided by Gabbeh (Shaghayeh Djodat), describes a seemingly unconsummated romance with a handsome horseman, also replicated on the carpet. Makhmalbaf not only connects Gabbeh to her dashing would-be lover, but also to the elderly couple’s personal history. In addition to being extremely lyrical, the story provides the filmmaker with several opportunities to expand upon sensory impulses that recall paintings by René Magritte. At one point, an old man literally grabs colors from nature and uses them to amplify his own story. Imbued with Sufi subtext, The Silence features a blind Tajik boy, Khorshid (Tahmineh Normatova), who earns rent money for his mother (Goibibi Ziadolahyeva) by tuning instruments and running errands for a man who turns blocks of wood and metallic string into music. Because his grandmother once led him to believe that the Koran forbids listening to music not specifically designed to glorify Islam, the boy puts cotton in his ears as he wanders past shops and coffeehouses. His acute sense of hearing cuts through the buffers, though, causing his daily walks to school and work to be delayed by the sonorous music of a musician wearing an ornamental sheepskin Cossack hat. Desperate to prevent their landlord from evicting his family, Khorshid summons the courage to ask the musician for money. Instead, the man offers the services of his band to convince the tightwad to cut the boy’s mother some slack. Finally, while strolling through a bazaar filled with drummers, the boy’s innate sense of rhythm conjures an atonal version of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 that’s nothing short of magical.

The Gardener is an imaginative documentary-within-a-documentary, in which Makhmalbaf, and his son, Maysam, travel to the Bahá’í World Centre on Mount Carmel, in Haifa, to ponder questions related to the role world religions play in the contemporary world. The Bahá’í Faith, which originated in Iran 170 years ago, is a borderless religion with 7 million followers. It is, however, banned in many Islamic countries and, in Iran, its members have been tormented and persecuted for many decades. This, despite the fact it teaches the essential worth of all religions, as well as the unity and equality of all people. The film is staged among the shrine’s spectacularly beautiful, immaculately tended and artistically conceived Monument Gardens. They provide unique backdrops for Makhmalbaf and Maysam’s spirited discussions on their own beliefs and the possibility that God has given up on humanity. As he witnesses the blissful looks on the faces of refugees from war-torn nations, the father listens closely to the advice of a gardener, who sees God’s glory and wisdom manifested most profoundly in flowers, fruit trees and other greenery. Meanwhile, the son visits the three most significant religious sites in Jerusalem … and, not incidentally, the catalysts for much violence and suffering. One of the devices the gardener uses to reflect on the garden’s beauty is a medium-sized, borderless mirror. It creates a parallel universe comprised exclusively of brilliantly colored and harmonically arranged blossoms. Makhamlbaf invites the gardener to bring the mirror with him to Haifa’s seashore to view the waves from the same perspective. As simple as it is, the mirror provides profound visual experiences … and, yes, poetry in motion. The Silence and Gabbeh benefit from 2K restorations, from the original camera negatives, as well as 1080p) presentations of all three films and original Persian soundtracks, with uncompressed LPCM audio. The package adds commentary on Gabbeh by critic Godfrey Cheshire; “Poetry in Motion,” an in-depth conversation between Makhmalbaf and critic Jonathan Romney; “Mohsen With Closed Eyes,” an imaginatively conceived interview with Makhmalbaf on The Silence; stills and a collections gallery; a reversible sleeve, featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Scott Saslow; and an illustrated booklet, featuring new writing by film academic Negar Mottahedeh and Mohsen Makhmalbaf.

Boss: Blu-ray
Anyone born after the trial of O.J. Simpson might be stunned to learn that an American movie released in 1975 not only was originally titled, Boss Nigger (a.k.a., “The Black Bounty Killer”), but also was marketed and advertised as such. Critics referred to the title freely in their reviews, some of which were extremely positive. The N-word, as it’s now known, is used repeatedly in the blaxploitation vehicle – more often than in Blazing Saddles (1974) and any of Quentin Tarantino’s films – which was directed by a white filmmaker, Jack Arnold (Creature From the Black Lagoon), and written and co-produced by former football star Fred Williamson, a black man, who also starred in it. It wasn’t the first or last movie that used the word in its title. Williamson also starred in The Legend of Nigger Charley (1972) and The Soul of Nigger Charley (1973), and The Six Thousand Dollar Nigger (1978), follow suit. Four early one-reelers also used the word in their titles. In almost all these cases, the titles of the video and television versions were necessarily neutralized. Like Cleavon Little’s Sheriff Bart in the Mel Brooks satire, Williamson’s eponymous character follows a circuitous path to assuming the position of sheriff in a western town without one. As a bounty hunter, Boss already had a license to “hunt white folks for a change.” When he and his comic sidekick, Amos (D’Urville Martin), ride into the town of San Miguel, they infuriate the locals by imposing a $20 fine each time they use the n-word in their presence. The first to be penalized is the town’s banker, while the next is the mayor. Neither does Boss endear himself to the constituency by hooking up with the town’s white schoolteacher (Barbara Leigh), a former Southern belle who can’t resist his charms. Despite being continually insulted and denigrated, Boss and Amos defend the town and its womenfolk against a vicious outlaw gang led by Jed Clayton (William Smith) and his notorious gang, who blackmail the town for supplies to be safe. Boss is very much a product of its time. The trailers promoted its “Get whitey” theme, while also promising plenty of action. A scene in which an outlaw threatens to trample a boy, who’s gotten in the way of his horse, is downright harrowing (and explained in a making-of featurette). The climatic showdown between Williamson and Smith also holds up. The Blu-ray package adds an informal “Conversation with Fred ‘The Hammer’ Williamson,” which is as much about football as his acting; “A Boss Memory,” with producer Myrl Schrelbman; and “Jack Arnold Tribute,” by producer Myrl Schrelbman.

Crazy Six: Blu-ray
Blast: Blu-ray
Autumn in New York: Blu-ray
Bram Stoker’s Shadowbuilder: Special Edition: Blu-ray
The MVD Rewind Collection has enjoyed a busy summer, launching two new labels – the MVD Marquee Collection and MVD Classics – designed to differentiate its lines and bring out more cult and independent films on Blu-ray. Titles in the Marquee grouping, a release says, “might be a little too new to be considered ‘cult,’ but old enough to be ‘catalogue,’” Some will be new to Blu-ray and others will be re-releases of titles that have gone out of print and are being brought back. MVD Classics collection will consist of titles that “kinda fall in between the MVD Rewind Collection and the MVD Marquee Collection and might be a little too obscure for those labels.” Not all the latter will be released on Blu-ray.

Released in 1997 and filmed in Bratislava, Slovakia, Marquee’s Crazy Six exploits the fact that the promise of democracy in former Eastern Bloc countries had begun to fade and criminals have begun to take advantage of corrupt leaders and easy money. The families we meet here are vying for control of the lucrative underground weapons and technology trade. Crazy Six (Rob Lowe) and Dirty Mao (Mario Van Peebles) are the unlikely leaders of two rival mob families, which form an uneasy alliance to overthrow Raul (Ice-T), the head of one of the largest crime cartels in Europe. But when the mission goes awry, Crimeland turns into a deadly battleground, with prominent gangsters all going for the jugular. Standing between the criminals and anarchy is the cowboy-hatted lawman, Dakota (Burt Reynolds), and an ex-junkie European chanteuse, Anna (Ivana Milicevic), whose sultry presence dilutes some of the film’s wackier conceits. While genre specialist Albert Pyun only manages to make Lowe look wildly out of place as a crack-smoking gangster – his career would rebound soon enough – he elicits compelling performances from Reynolds and Milicevic.

Also from Marquee comes Pyun’s 1997 terrorist thriller, Blast, which purports to depict a terrorist attack planned to disrupt the 1996 Summer Games, in Atlanta, but was quietly thwarted by FBI agents, lifeguards and a janitor. While police and other security forces are paying attention elsewhere, a well-oiled team of heavily armed terrorists led by the brutal Omodo (Andrew Divoff) breaks into a swimming venue, taking the American women’s team hostage. Omodo is perfectly willing to sacrifice the pretty young swimmers one-by-one – they’re conveniently left shivering in their suits – to advance his nebulous cause. (Sharp eyes might detect a pre-American Pie Shannon Elizabeth among the hostages.) What he doesn’t take into consideration is the facility’s janitor, a former Tae Kwon Do champion, who knows its layout better than anyone. Totally unprepared for an assault of this magnitude, a desperate President orders the F.B.I. to enlist the services of Interpol counter-terrorism expert, Leo (Rutger Hauer), who coordinates rescue efforts via video monitors with the trapped janitor. The only thing missing is a cameo by Bruce Willis. Blast’s biggest problem comes in the viewers’ awareness of a domestic terrorist’s successful attack on a crowd gathered at Centennial Olympic Park in 1996. The bombing killed a spectator, wounded 111 others and caused the death of a bystander by a heart attack. More interesting than anything in Blast was the subseque